There is darkness, and there is blood. There are screams of pain, howls of rage. Sand scrapes under boots and hooves, leather and brass creaks against flesh long dead but yet now possessed with a malign intelligence.
Sharp, ugly shadows dance on the walls of the buildings around the fountain square, and time seems to slow enough for an observer to see all the things that are happening at once. A hobbit slyly reaches up to steal a book but, despite being small, stealthy and invisible, he is seen. “loQ nIHwI’!” (little thief!), said a harsh, guttural voice, like stones cracking in the heat of a fire. A ray of intense light, brighter than any sun, pealed from the devil’s hand and knocked the hobbit backwards. He dived behind the stone rim of the fountain, his hair scorched away, his skin blistered. No one saw this but the hobbit himself and the devil who’d done it. It is akin to some horrible shared secret, like the weal of a burn in an unseen place, and while the hobbit tried desperately to restart the lungs that searing pain had locked, the devil’s’s tusks turned slightly upward in an sick approximation of a smile.
The observer turns a quarter turn and there is Snapper, the earthy priest of an earthier god, parrying strike after strike from the Gebite warriors that had deftly surrounded him. Snapper was no soldier, and he weaved around his antagonists as was able, knocking away their scimitars as he could, yelling “Iffwrdd!” and triggering great spheres of raw power as he scavenged for himself each increasingly rare moment of breath. The words of power pushed the creatures back – bits of them, skin and hair and less savory elements, would come away from their bodies in a strange horizontal rain of corrupt flesh. They’d stagger, emit a hiss, then return to expertly flank the priest and press their attacks even harder. And the strange shuffling dance would begin again, as Snapper’s breath became more labored, and the blood on his arms and cheeks became more plentiful. Snapper’s heart helplessly betrayed him with every beat, struggling faster and faster against a tireless and deft affront, pushing blood from him, blood that grew thinner and paler with each shortened inhalation.
Nearer, the devil returned to his fight, against two warriors that could not be more different. In front of him crouched what the devil thought of as “the soldier.” Even a creature of the Hells understood (and at a certain level, appreciated) the cold, lethal economy of a professional soldier. Bjorn, to the uninitiated, might seem a ponderous, queerly-armed and iron-shelled turtle. He moved with a strange, almost mathematical precision, like an incredibly dangerous clock, but the glowing ranseur of the utlending devil careened off his shield, was turned aside by a perfectly placed and sufficiently armored elbow or knee, over and over again. The Northman’s sword, as utilitarian and capably functional as the rest of his kit, slithered in and out of the devil’s defenses, drawing rivulets of black slime from it’s veins and bison-like bellows of anger from it’s maw.
The second warrior could not be more unlike the first. Eleven feet tall, armored in leather and a cuirass of etched steel, this Orcish giantess pirouetted like a dervish and scream-sang bloody threats and horrifying hymns at her otherworldly foe with equal abandon. Her hand-a’half sword, nearly nine feet long and etched with characters similar to those on her breastplate, whirled and scored and carved away at the hellborn. “Halj meg szart!” she yelled. “Die, you shit!” But the devil would not so easily comply. Having less success with the armored ankylo in front of him, the devil turned his ranseur on the orcish berserker, blunting her attacks with appalling wounds that didn’t bleed but sealed themselves with coal-black scabs on their own accord, a parting insult delivered by the ruddy heat of the devil’s blade. Lama paid no mind and her murderous gambol continued uninterrupted, and she laid about her with her straight-sword as angrily as before.
Below the berserker, a man passed nimbly by. He was fast and agile, but he paused as he passed underneath the whirling fury of the Enlarged woman, gliding a hand across her leg and infusing her with healing energy to soothe the deep, aching but bloodless wounds she accumulated like myriad shiny coins. But his eyes, and the casual backhand of his spell, told a story: a story of fate, and doom, and resignation. He carried a spear, that most pragmatic of weapons, and his footsteps traced a pattern that was both elegant and effective. Weaving his way around the warriors, he fell into a space by the fountain and fixed his spear in the ground. In this, his intentions were known. Nolan’s eyes, however, looked not at the devil that fought with rabid energy; instead, they looked inward. at a man for whom questions, and the answers he was able to give, took a far greater toll than any weapon. The darkness of this pocket dimension, the abruptly silent screams of the devil’s victims, reverberated inside Nolan. The idea that they were trapped here – that *he* was trapped here – in this odd little half-copy of the real world, blossomed within his mind as a shot of whiskey blooms in man’s gut. The possibility haunted him like a poltergeist, frolicking here and there in his thoughts, gleefully beating a tattoo upon that thalassophobic portion of his brain that suffocated at the very idea of being trapped here in this place forever. His thin lips offered vague but comprehensive promises to his deity; but his eyes showed the rheumy dedication of a man who has seen death and knows that it is his fate, like a sailor off a sunken boat, a thousand leagues from shore.
Among the buildings to the north, a strangely amusing tarantella had sprung up, without proper music and occasionally dashed with both red and black blood. Rindle and Beltran rained arrows and fire upon the single-minded Gebites. The skirted warriors’ tactics had grown familiar, and the pair made them pay dearly for their lack of flexibility. Arrows sprouted from the frustrated Gebites like porcupine spines, mysterious in their sudden appearance. Rindle, his skills different but his efforts similar, rolled thick balls of snapping orange fire down the alleyways below. The Gebites ran through the flames, heedless of their peril, but their ancient hair and cloth greaves sang a fragrant, scorching duet.
Behind them all, Sven danced desperate jigs around the Gebites that harried him. A seemingly endless supply of the long-dead warriors seemed to materialize from the very stones of this ur-Geb’s Rest. Sven fired arrow after arrow, at close range, but through ill luck or the strange perversity of objects in times of stress, his arrows buried themselves in the ground or ricocheted off the stone walls. Dead though they might be, the Gebites were canny fighters, and at every turn Sven found himself trying to avoid being surrounded. He leaped off stones, pushed Gebites out of the way, feinted with the end of his bow, zigged and zagged. So far, the Gebites still clambered after him, resolute if unsuccessful. But Sven knew he was slowing. Soon, very soon, he would make a simple mistake – a slip, if you will – and then they would swarm over him like locusts. Sven had begun to suspect that he’d die here, in this strange, half-made place that had no stars and no sun, only the dead and those waiting for that moment they’d join them.
Like hornets, the Gebites whirled, and burned, and stung.
Despite his escape, the devil had burned Fiat very badly. But Fiat had staggered off, still slipping past the corners of mortal sight. None knew it, but the doughty little hobbit was grievously injured. His hair was scorched and sloughing off in chunks, his skin unnaturally pink and covered with ripe blisters. But the hobbit held grimly on to two things: the freshly stolen book, and his consciousness. He plodded his way across the fountain square and into the relative safety of the the alleys to the north, his stricken body soldiering onward, his brain struggling against waves of black fog that tried to overwhelm and drag him toward the welcoming earth.
“Iffwrdd!” yelled an increasing desperate Snapper, blasting at the Gebites with serpentine coils of power that sprung from his hands and eyes. The Gebites howled back in mixed challenge and pain, as the energy roiling from the furious priest tore skin and hair from their bodies like a gale. “Iffffffffwrrrrrrrdd!” Snapper screamed again, snuffing out the febrile lifeforce from several ancient soldiers, and he watched them drop to the sand like marionettes with their strings cut.
Lama struggled mightily against the devil, whose ovine grin grew in response to his ranseur drawing thick weals against the half-orc’s flesh. Around her, two k’hashaaarnahhs, creatures of the wind, flitted about in desperate arcs around the devil, who ignored them. “Out of my way, you confounded cloud-things!” growled Lama. Her arms were growing sore and, worse, her sword could find no purchase against this creature of the pit. She meant to put an end to this grinning… thing, and these wind-beasts were impeding her, laudable though their motives might be. “Away with you—AAH!” Lama drew back as the devil’s heavy polearm slipped slipped through her defenses like a scorpion’s barb, leaving a blackened slash the oozed a noisome reddish pus, rather than proper blood.
It was then that Bjorn took his opportunity. To the uninitiated, he’d been slow to attack, letting Lama absorb the creature’s attention and his strikes. Which she had done with aplomb. But now, Bjorn moved to strike, Thedevil had, by degrees, exposed the side of his large, goatish head to the northman, and Bjorn needed no more opportunity than that. His longsword rose high then came down on the devil’s skull with a meaty *crack.* It staggered backward under Bjorn’s tender ministrations, struggling to stay on it’s feet under the strength of the blow. An ashy foam seemed to rise up into it’s black, soulless eyes, and it recoiled.
Now it was Lama’s turn to smile, and thin and mirthless thing. The wind-creatures had either fled or been dispatched, and she struck with the ferocity her people were known for. Before the devil could right himself and clear the rheum from his eyes, she flung herself at it with a tense “Qu’vatlh!” (Fuck you!) and hove into its ribs and shoulders with her sword. The strikes hit home and drew gouts of think, black blood from the creature, It landed on the sand and smoked dully, little pools of hell-liquor, combusting desultorily on the ground. “veqlargh quv DaH SoH,” Lama said grimly. You are mine now, devil.
Across the square, a pair of new voices sang out. From the street unseen, came the unmistakable sound of Phineas’ lute, the sweet, pure strains of it filling the hearts of all who could hear it. “We’re leaving together | But still it’s farewell | And maybe we’ll come back | To earth, who can tell?” The lawyer’s singing voice was clear and filled with the tenor of home and hearth, and all who heard it remembered their flagging courage. At the same time, from above on the roof Beltan called upon his own words of power: “Daleko, mrtve stvari!” he yelled. “Daleko!” Sven watched two of his attackers fall to the ground, their eyes rolling up and up at the sound of the archer’s voice until there was no eye left at all.
Down one alley, Fiat clutched the book to his chest, wincing from the efforts. He staggered against a wall, righted himself, and walked straight into a k’hashaaarn, flying about like a tiny tornado. In response, it seemed to wrap around him, buffeting the halfling and causing him to fall backward. His head hit a corner of stone wall and the black fog he’d fought for so long came down on him like a hammer. He never felt himself being lifted into the air.
‘Flee, you fool,” came Phineas voice into the Devil’s mind. His song hadn’t stopped, but the rough syllables of Infernal materialized into the devil’s head. “Your end is at hand.”
“Your death will precede mine, Prime,” the creature replied. “I will eat you last, I think. Observe and experience enlightenment.” It viciously counterattacked against Lama, catching her aside an unguarded knee and eliciting an enraged yawp and rocking her backward.
Another bloom of coarse energy spilled from Snapper, hissing and slicing into the Gebites with increasing virulence. More fell face-first into the sand, and Snapper looked up exultantly as the ones closest to him came apart, flesh from sinew and gut from bone, Even as his eyes narrowed with satisfaction at destroying the Gebites, he couldn’t help but wonder: who were these men, ancient warriors of an even more ancient land? Centuries old, their minds destroyed by necromancy and their bodies enslaved to any creature with the proper spell, the right key to open their lock? Had they families once? Children? Perhaps they yet dreamed, deep in their putrescent brains, of homes long moldered to dust, of kin long dead in their graves, whose bones lay now indistinguishable from the ocher sand that ground under Snapper’s boots. To dust, they had returned… yet to these creatures, even those simple desires had been erased as easily and completely as footprints in an ebbing tide, leaving a smooth blank emptiness that begged only to be filled with purpose.
Snapper’s sense of victory slid abruptly toward pity. Many of the Gebites were fully dead now, their sluggish blood staining the sand black, their kit now mere litter scattered around them. The priest remembered the tiers of soldiers, standing unblinkingly, as Fiat and Rindle opened their throats and femorals until great clots of piceous fluid rained down like waterfalls of loose tar. Did they stand aghast, watching with those tear-less eyes the two killers who came for them? Did they feel fear? Did that woeful melancholy, the weight of things left undone, words unsaid, that crushing sense of last-times and never-agains, that accompanies the knowledge of unavoidable death, sink lead into their bones? No one living could, or would, ever know the truth, their truth.
Snapper’s eyes turned away from those blasted bodies, seemingly much smaller, almost desiccated now that whatever old dark magic that powered them had been snuffed. He saw Leinard land on a nearby roof, one of his wind-men nearby, examining something too small to see.
Atop that roof, Leinard struggled with in unseen foe. “Be still, hobbit!” the mage growled. “You’re going to be all right, just be still while I help.” Fiat, now returned to painful consciousness, groaned and writhed. His blistered skin had broken and suppurated freely now, and the raw flesh felt every breeze from the air elemental as if it were a scouring lavage. “Do you have the book, Fiat?”
Fiat gurgled. “Have you the book, friend? The book?” Leinard’s tone was insistent, probing. Fiat made a rough sound in his throat, then forcibly returned himself to sensibility. “I have it,” he croaked. “The fight, I need to return to the fight. Does the devil yet live?”
Leinard cocked one eyebrow at the place where Fiat lay (for the hobbit was still under the effects of the Invisibility potion, and could not be seen by mortal eyes, even an elf’s). Leinard smiled. “The fight? Let none ever say you lack courage, my good hobbit. Yes, the fight goes, but your part in it is over.”
” I have to help,” Fiat said. He struggled to pull himself to a sitting position but the elven mage placed a gentle but insistent hand in the center of his chest, against which Fiat had no strength. “How do I…?”
“Focus your desire into single narrow thought, and imagine it overcoming the potion,” Leinard said. “The line of desire becomes a disk, that wraps itself around the potions magic and extinguishes it.” Nothing happened, although Leinard heard Fiat grunt. “Calm, and focus, hobbit. The magic of the liquid can do nothing that you do not wish. Cast it aside.” And with an almost audible *pop*, Fiat appeared. Leinard was taken aback by the extent of his (now quite visible) injuries, but recovered his wits and pulled some clean stripes of muslin cloth from a pouch. as gently as he could, Leinard began wrapping Fiat’s exposed burns.
Below them, near the fountain, it was clear that both Bjorn and Lama were beginning to tire. Lama was crisscrossed with black-scabbed gashes, and her knee threaten to buckle and collapse with each step. Nolan shook with tension as he prodded his spear at the devil, only to have it swatted away with increasing irritation, like a peasant swatting away an insistent fly. “Continuing harrying him!” yelled Bjorn as Nolan began to pull backward. Nolan reversed and leaned forward, stabbing hither and yon but hitting nothing. But that was sufficient for Bjorn’s needs – the armored soldier feinted toward Nolan, spun and got inside the devil’s reach, as dangerous a position as he had ever been, but rather than jab with his sword (as the devil was accustomed to), he leaned even more forward, thrusting his shoulder forward to push the creature’s leg towards the fountain. The blow, magnified by it’s unexpected nature, forced the devil to stagger and focus his attention on Bjorn.
“Now, Lama!” Before the final syllable had left Bjorn’s throat, Lama came roaring in, sword held high and whirling like a dervish’s tulwar. Her first strike tore across it’s face; the second plunged deep into its torso, sliding between whatever passed for its ribs and piercing its hot insides. The stagger that had begun when Bjorn hit it grew, and it gouted steaming guts onto the side of the fountain.
“Alas, ye have prevailed,” the devil messaged to Phineas, who alone among them spoke the language of the Hells. “I know not if I shall return to my Avernusian demense, for I did not come here at the summons of a greater or more ignorant evil. But if I am to face a century’s binding, know that I shall send whatever killers I may find to end your miserable lives.” Inside Phineas’ head, he heard the pleurisy sound of lungs filling with fluid and throttling breath and voice. “Fie on thee, mortals.”
Bjorn, Nolan and Lama heard none of this. As they watched, the devil cough-vomited one large glurt of black blood rimed with whitish lymph, rolled his goatlike eyes once more so that the dark sclera was all that showed, collapsed against the fountain, and expired with a long, whistling sigh.
The townspeople of Geb’s Rest (for that is who was in the cages) were glad to be released, but they’d had a terrible trial. It had been three days, by their reckoning (such as it was) since they’d been spirited away, man woman and child, from their homes to this place. Beltran, Nolan and Snapper conjured what water they could, but food was scarce and after three days, all were hungry. There was no getting around it – they had to come up with a solution quickly, else a lot of people were going to start suffering the effects of incipient starvation. Already, some children and elderly had started to give indications that they were nearing collapse.
Leinard, Phineas, Rindle and Fiat pored over Rijanna’s last book (for that is indeed what it was), trying to learn what spell or incantation would take them (and everyone) out of this place and back to the Prime. The pages were stuffed with spells, so many that Leinard began to wonder if they might ever leave (although he kept these fears to himself). Unspoken among them, and tincturing dark their thoughts, was the knowledge that the devil had been attempting the same sort of dweomercraeft that they now needed, and had failed. Multiple times, considering the number of bodies that they’d earlier hidden in one of the empty buildings, to spare the townspeople the sight of their dead.
” I can’t help but think,” observed Leinard. “… that any incantation we assay would be better served in proximity – perhaps even in contact – with the stelae.”
“It’s a day’s walk,” observed Fiat. “Longer, with all these people.”
“I suppose leaving them here is out of the question?” Rindle garnered narrowed glares all around. “To return later and retrieve them, of course! That is what I meant.” He punched Phineas playfully in the arm.
“The language is unclear,” Phineas said. “Some of it is ancient Gebite, and to my eyes terribly written ancient Gebite at that. Some of it is obviously thaumaturgical. Some of it is middle-Kingdom Osirioni, some of it academic Qadiran…”
“… and some Chelaxian, unless I miss my guess,” said Fiat. His lips were thin and drawn.
“Aye, you’re exactly right – court Chelaxian,” Phineas agreed. He looked around the group. “No one writes spells this way.” He paused. “No one who wants their spells to work, that is.”
“Can we get everyone to the stelae” asked Leinard. “And by ‘can’ I mean, is it physically possible?”
“That’s a question for the healers,” Rindle said. “But I imagine that, if we say walk? They’ll walk.”
There were grumbles, but all understood that their escape from the pocket dimension depended on the elven wizard’s success, so the grumbling stopped quickly. The pace was slow, as expected, but the stronger townspeople helped the weaker, in some cases carrying the most beset on their shoulders. But Fiat was correct, – it took far longer to returned to the stelae, than it did to reach the ur-village. But they made it. The clerics distributed water to all, and
what food they could conjured to the most in need.
Leinard bade all clasp hands: “Make sure you’re
touching the person next to you!” he instructed, and when he was assured
that all were in contact, Leinard began the incantation. At once, the stelae
began to glow an unearthly purple, and a sound like a multitude of wasps
trapped in a clay jar filled the air. Those nearby saw the purplish energy pass
into Leinard, giving his eyes and fingertips a trenchant light. As Leinard
continued the spell, a wind began to twist around them. Some released the hand
of their neighbor to block the powerdery sand from getting in their eyes.
“Do not break the connection!” yelled Rindle over
the increasing volume of the wind. “Damn your eyes, but do not let go of
The smell of ozone descended upon the stelae like a ammoniac
cloud, but Leinard did not pause. In his hand, Rijanna’s book was shaking – not
from Leinard’s hands, but from some occult vibration that seemed to emanate
from the pages themselves.
And then suddenly, a blinding light surrounded all of them. The spell had stopped, for no one could hear Leinard anymore, and the smell of ozone was gone. Several dozen people broke the connection and fell to their knees, they hands over their eyes and bleats of pain emitting from their mouths. Others stood stock still and screwed their eyelids down tight, both to block the blinding light and in fear that the incantation was a failure.
Soon, however, the light seemed to diminish, and people began to blinkingly remove their hands from their eyes. The light that surrounded them was that of sun, a sun they hadn’t seen for days.
Leinard looked exhausted. “I think we may have returned,” said Rindle. and that was the question that passed from mouth to ear, from the halest to the youngest: had the spell worked? Were we home? Non could answer for sure, the the presence of the noonday sun, uncomfortable though it was, gave every indication that something had worked. The question in most minds was: if we are indeed back, when have we come back to? Calendar and date have always been a social construct – the lone Ulfen hunter in the wilderness neither knows nor cares if it’s Wotansday or Freyasday, if it’s an hour before midday or an hour after. The yeoman farmers of the Qadiran steppes know time, but they measure it in weeks, moons, and seasons. Time for them is not the hour upon the candle but the fullness of the moon and the ripeness of the barley. Each man’s circumstance determines by which count he measures his allotment of life, whether he has long to wait or must hurry, whether he shall dandle his son’s sons on his knee or have his short life summarized in a few salient scratches on a stone lodged in the earth.
All wanted to embark upon the road, in hopes of seeing the original Geb’s Rest at the end of it. But food was wanting, so Bjorn and Fiat (whose horse and pony, respectively, were tied to the wind-whipped tents that marked Rijanna’s camp, another positive sign that they’d successfully returned home) galloped off, promising to return as soon as they could with food and supplies. In the interim, a slow parade made it’s way down the road, broken flagstone and tumbledown pillars marking the way. They camped overnight on the road, three hundred people on their fifth night with minimal food. Children cried in the night, their bellies empty, but mother hushed them as best they could so all could gain a few hours of much needed rest.
The next morning, wonder of wonders, showed Bjorn and Fiat returned with a wagonload of food. The people of Geb’s Rest tore into this banquet, meager though it might be in light of the number of hungry mouths, and for the first time in days smiles could be seen. They reached Geb’s Rest en masse by noon, in time to meet a merchanting contingent from the south, who had entered the town but were bewildered that it was empty. “What day is it?” asked the townspeople as they made their way to their homes, to their businesses. “What year is it?” The southerners spoke; three weeks had passed since anyone had last heard from Geb’s rest. Three weeks… but to them, only five days, difficult though they may be, had elapsed.
They spent a couple of days in Geb’s Rest, reconciling themselves to the idea that they had, indeed, escaped the Gebite pocket dimension, and what’s more saved the bulk of the townspeople. Wine ran freely at night in the tavern, and all of them entertained extravagant meals and pliant companionship. Horses soon arrived from the south, however, and it was time to return to Master Bashir. But unlike previous missions, there was a silence on this road. Each person plumbed the depth of their own heart, on those sandy roads north. The desert, they say, has no memory; it’s shifting sands are in many ways like the sea, amorphous and ever-changing. But the people in Bashir’s employ now had memories they could never erase, from the death of Kazeer to the visceral smell of a devil bearing upon him the brimstone stink of the Hells. They were all prisoners, now – prisoners of the gaol of their own experience, bearing with them the bars and beatings of those events which, unknown to most, laid an painful filter through which every morsel of pleasure, every datum of wisdom, must by necessity be strained.