Farrel’s head was tucked between his arms as he curled in on himself. I could see his body was coiled and taut, quivering on a minute level. His hands were pink and bleeding at the fingertips, and they dug into his scalp. His blond hair sprouted from between his fingers, the bright strands stained from his blood. My eyes took in the sight of him, and my alarm was beyond measure. My mouth fell open and my shoulders hunched about me as I extended one hand to his side. As soon as my touch graced him, he sprang up like a snapped trap, and scuttled away on all fours, scraping his knee on the concrete so that a glaring scratch appeared there. His wisterian gaze met me, and I could see spittle clinging to the bristles of his unshaven face.
Then an eerie smile spread across his lips. “Nyx,” he grunted. His eyes were swollen and red. His pupils were wide and dark.
“Yes,” I replied. I didn’t take my eyes off him, but spoke to the spirit, who still loomed behind me. “Volo, what did you…do to him?”
“Nothing,” the spirit said. “Or, at least, nothing that wasn’t done to him already.” I finally broke eye contact with the halfling to look up at the spirit. Volo gave a twitch of a shrug. More of his skin sheddings snowed down to the floor around him. “He was that way when I found him,” he grumbled sullenly. I couldn’t tell if he felt annoyed that I was implying things were his fault, or if he was disappointed that things weren’t his fault.
“What way?” I pressed, a whine coming into my voice.
“Nyx!” Farrel cried, laughing tightly. I looked at him and choked. He had stood up, arms spread apart, his light gaze fixed on me with hunger. For a traveling merchant, he was quite fit. He may have lost weight here, too. His diamond shaped face seemed gaunter. “M’so glad ya came! This place is horrendous fer company!” He put a strong affectation on the last word. The halfling was sporting a full erection.
I rose to my feet and checked to make sure I was covering myself fully. I should’ve asked Tristi for his coat. “Farrel, don’t do anything rash!” I hated how breathless I sounded. It was the fear, the feeling of being like a piece of meat in front of a hungry animal.
The man chuckled. “Kitten! Lyub, allon!” He gave a little bounce–to which other parts of himself gave a bounce–and I started to feel sick from this turn of events. “I’ve risen, an’ I’m hungry fer somethin’ exotic…” he smacked his lips, and approached with wide steps, his hips thrust forward like his penis were leading him. “C’mon…was fratricide the only thin’ they pegged ya for, or did’ja have somethin’ tucked in that list o’ sins? Here,” he gave another little bounce, “I’ve the pen to add another!”
My mind did another one of those strange turns at critical moments, and I envisioned Elmiryn laughing hysterically at Farrel’s bawdy lines. I may have found it amusing myself, in a sardonic sort of way, if I wasn’t currently facing the threat of possible molestation…or worse.
I gave an emphatic shake of my head. “No! You were an honorable man! You were–”
“Denied my freedom.” He jabbed a finger into his breast and sneered at me. He pointed up at Volo. “I was chained until I met this spirit!”
I looked at Volo in incredulity. He was not exactly the picture of deliverance.
The spirit gave another twitch of a shrug. “As I said, he came that way. Seemed to be missing his moral compass. So you see, I wasn’t keeping him hostage. He was staying because he wanted to.”
When I turned to look at Farrel again, I jumped, for he had closed the distance between us. The halfling didn’t let me back away. He grabbed my arm–painfully–and pulled me to him, his penis poking me in the stomach, his hand reaching down to grab my buttock–and that was about as far as he got. I panicked and kicked him, as hard as I could, between the legs, then shoved at him. The halfling let go of me immediately, his face turning pink, then purple. I backed off, practically hyperventilating. Just in time, too, because he vomited onto the spot I’d just been standing. I’d never been touched that way before, never came in contact with–that, before. My knees grew weak and I plopped onto the ground, clutching my stomach, as it’d started to hurt. Farrel had fallen to the ground as well, his forehead pressed to the concrete, curses muttered under his breath.
Volo tsked over us. “Poor halfling. Having your delicates smashed does not go well with your smoke, I see.”
I glanced at the spirit sharply. “Smoke?”
“Aye. He’s had witch’s smoke. Seemed to be the only way he could let loose with me.”
I felt a shiver of revulsion. It was of course to be expected, but the thought of Farrel being trespassed by this disgusting creature was more than I’d care to think about…especially since I’d nearly suffered the same fate.
…But if Farrel needed witch’s smoke to welcome Volo’s twisted sense of ‘hospitality’, then that meant he wasn’t entirely here of his own volition. His decisions were impaired, his movements feverish, his eyes affected. Did losing your moral compass mean you lost your morals entirely? Or just the ability to distinguish right from wrong? I heard Lacertli in my head, hissing. “Upon entering here, each of your companions were separated, and in kind, each of you were divided, losing something that was inherent to you.”
I had to believe that there was still something to save in Farrel. It was perhaps a selfish motive, for I didn’t want all that I had suffered in my search for him to come to nothing. I needed a noble excuse to mute the shame I felt for letting Volo so close to me. I needed Farrel to be an ideal. But logic wasn’t far from my hastened thoughts. Despite Volo’s supposed innocence in Farrel’s impairment, and the halfling’s apparent willingness to be in such company, I sensed something greater hidden beneath it all. For wasn’t Tristi and I willing enough to enter Volo’s domain? Why the lack of interest in us? Or even concern? Whatever the intention, I had left myself open to the spirit, and he had refrained, despite his claim that he could, “Crush me like a bug.” What was he hiding? What did Farrel have, that we didn’t?
…And why was Volo giving him up so easy now?
“Volo…” I started in a slow voice. “Why did you let Farrel stay here?”
The spirit looked at me. “I was waiting for the Aesutian Festival,” he said simply.
The noise overhead had turned the company quiet, and the warrior was getting bored. Elmiryn was very glad when they’d arrived at their destination.
Her old neighborhood (strange to use it in that possessive way–her neighborhood? She’d hardly spent a year there) was the liveliest they’d come across. Sparklers dazzled overhead, as garishly dressed nobles and commoners alike, danced to powerful drums. Elmiryn’s home (again, something she felt strange thinking) was a tall concrete construction–finely detailed and pleasant to the eye. The walls were clean, free of creeping vines, bird droppings, mold, and dirty snail paths. Her chest swelled a bit as Quincy and Sedwick looked up at the dentils just below the cornices, the large clean paneled windows, the rosebushes flowering beneath them, the clean steps that led up to the bright red door, enshrined by slim white pilasters, and the rectangular stained window over it, which displayed a rose.
“Elegant,” Quincy said, her eyebrow quirking.
Sedwick gave a slow nod. “It’s a beautiful building.”
The warrior bounded up the steps, and once at the door, she hopped up and took the long silver key she knew to be sitting at the top of the pilaster. With a cheeky grin over her shoulder, she inserted the key and unlocked the door. When she opened it, she let out a sigh. The redhead stepped into the foyer, and placed her hands on her hips. “It’s nice to be back,” she said to no one in particular. Before her was the staircase leading to the second floor. To her right, the small dining area. To her left, the parlor. She could hear no bustling off in the back where the small servants quarter was, and didn’t expect there to be, but when she stayed here, she usually had an attendant to cook and clean.
Inside, the home was dark, but the warrior could still make out the carved and gilded sofa chair with gold and red floral cushions. She used to sit there and stare out the window after a long night of fun, or just after a disagreement with her family, or–as was the last occasion–before she was to report to the royal castle for her new security position with the princess. It took some time to make her eyes shift elsewhere, but she managed to take in the rest of the room.
There was the fireplace, cool and gated. The mantelpiece overhead, draped in a tasseled runner. On it, a silver figurine of a soldier, a fragment from a cannon that had exploded and nearly killed her, silver candle holders lacking candles. Over the mantelpiece, a large family portrait, placed there by the insistence of her mother, (“Mother, with all due respect–” “I can hear the cheek in your voice already,” “–We never posed for this picture. It’s a lie.” “But isn’t it a nice one?”) There was the ornate rug over the dark hardwood floor, imported from Santos, the Fiamman lamps in each corner, with vine-like details on the poles. There was the lowboy at the end of the high back sofa, and at the center of the parlor was a low table where a mixed arrangement of fresh flowers sat in a porcelain vase. The idea was that this was to be cleared on the occasion of guests and tea, but Elmiryn never had guests of that sort, so the tea set remained untouched in the dining room cabinet. The writing desk, off in the far corner, was made of stained cherry wood with brass handles, bracket feet, and had many letter cabinets. They were empty, and always had been…
“Are you going to invite us in?” Sedwick asked outside.
Elmiryn glanced at him sharply. She slipped the key into her chest wrappings, along with the slip of paper she still kept from the dwarven colony, then turned and motioned for them to enter. “Come in, come in, sorry. Just got…I dunno, caught up.”
“It’s elegant,” Quincy repeated, eyes squinting in the dark. “But I’m sure I’d appreciate it more if I could see.”
“Here let me get the lamps and candles on.” Elmiryn set off to the dining room where she knew a set of matches were kept in the bottom drawer. Getting a chair from the table, she crossed the foyer into the parlor and went to the nearest lamp. She stood on the chair, and after checking to see if the magic still made the metal warm, she struck on a match and put it to the center of the curved bowl. The magic caught on, causing the fire to leap into life. It crackled merrily as she stepped down and repeated the process. Soon the first floor was entirely lit, and small details Elmiryn had forgotten came to light–like the wooden dormers that held up the shelf on the far wall, or the heart-shaped stain that had appeared on the ceiling as a result of her antics upstairs.
Quincy crossed her arms and appraised the room anew. “You didn’t decorate this,” she stated.
The warrior felt annoyed for some reason, but found she couldn’t lie. “No. This was my mother’s work.”
“She has good tastes,” Sedwick said with a nod. Quincy had a smirk on her face, and it annoyed Elmiryn further. The brunette’s eye turned to the portrait, and she froze, a look of delight coming over her face. “That’s…your family?” Her voice was tight with glee.
Elmiryn rubbed the back of her tensed neck. “You two want something to drink?” she asked instead.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Quincy replied. Sedwick thought about it, but also shook his head. “No, but that’s kind of you.”
The wizard went and took a seat in the sofa chair, her eyes still on the portrait.
That did it. “Don’t sit there,” Elmiryn snapped. Then, upon the looks she received, added with a stiff smile, “…Please.”
Quincy held up her hands, a full grin on her face as she stood to her feet. Sedwick seemed to beg for peace with his eyes as he stood off to the side, one hand over his mouth and the other across his chest.
The silence was almost palpable.
Elmiryn started to feel foolish, and she disliked this, for while she knew herself to be given to tomfoolery now and again, rare was it that she ever really felt it a reflection upon her worth as a person. Now, however, she wished she’d paid more attention in her lessons of etiquette, if only to wipe the insufferable look off of Quincy’s face at her finer fumblings. She’d never really entertained guests here. All the ‘entertaining’ had been up in her bedroom. “I’m going to get something for myself. My drinks are upstairs, so I’ll be back in a second.” She turned and went up the stairs–two at a time–and arrived at the small hallway. To her left was the guest room, which was used more like a storage room, though there was an extra bed should the need come. To her right was her bedroom door, left ajar.
What made her heartbeat quicken was that a light was coming from the latter.
Elmiryn crept towards her room, but not before pulling her sword out. Her brow knit together as she came closer and closer…
The warrior winced, cursing herself for not remembering that creaky floorboard was there.
A sharp voice floated to her. “Who’s there?”
Elmiryn’s eyes widened. She felt a coldness flush over her skin and slowly, she straightened. She went to the door and pushed it open, her sword down at her side.
Cerulean met gray.
“I’ve just decided. I don’t want him anymore,” Volo sighed, shuffling to go sit against the wall, away from the light. He scratched at the base of his horns, then around his crotch, and jerked his grotesque head back the way we came. “Take the fool and be off.”
My hands flexed at my sides, and I stared at the spirit.
Farrel moaned and his head flopped to the side to stare at me. Tears streamed from his eyes. “Nyx!” he whined. “Öctér! You hit me so hard!! Why’d you do that!?”
“What do you want in return?” I asked Volo. A part of me was screaming to take Farrel and run…and yet another part of me was screaming to leave Farrel, and run. Either way, I wanted to flee. But there was still that greater part of me that was desperate for this to have a positive ending, and I knew that neither could come from just running away.
“I would be gifted with the sight of both your fleeing backs. Now begone, or I’ll have you suffer my newest whim,” the spirit snapped.
Farrel hiccuped. He’d started crying. The witch’s smoke really changed him into such a vile little ninny. “N-Nyx! It hurts!”
“Shush!” I snapped, my eyes still on Volo. “Spirit, I feel there is something amiss.”
Volo took a peeling of skin from his shoulder and ate it. His other hand still hadn’t left his crotch. It was over his sex now. “Vermagus, for the last time, leave.”
“Not until you undo whatever it is you’ve done to Farrel,” I shouted. The ferocity in my voice was just a mask, however. I was getting scared. Volo was looking at me in a way I didn’t like.
My emotion must have come through, no thanks to my bardic trait, for the spirit actually laughed at me. He started…stroking himself. My spine curled and I took a step away from him toward Farrel. Blindly, I gathered the halfling into my arms, and he kept sobbing over and over. “It hurts, it hurts, I just wanted to have some fun, oh why, oh why, you’re so mean–!”
“Every year, during the time of the festival, three great seekers awaken,” Volo said as he stood to his feet, body cracking and snapping as his crooked self straightened. Suddenly, he was pressed, with his shoulders digging into the domed ceiling, his body elongated to show his true height. He even started to fill out–the bones vanished beneath a sudden growth of fat and muscle. Biceps flexed as Volo started to press up at the ceiling, and giant drops of saliva fell from his mouth as he thundered down at us in a voice that was terribly more fearsome than he had previoulsy uttered, “These seekers are not of heaven, but are favored by the gods all the same, and so have been made stronger by their graces. They eat only those evil spirits that plague the living. There are many such beings in so licentious a kingdom, but truth be told, I am the worst, and so they shall seek me above all others upon the twelfth hour.”
Chunks of concrete began to rain down on us as Volo pushed up so hard that the ceiling began to crack and collapse. I screamed and dragged Farrel away, who seemed to sober up upon witnessing the danger we were in. He grabbed me by the waist and started to push toward the arched hallway, his voice shouting something, but my ears couldn’t hear him over the destruction and the sound of Volo booming out over us. “I have lain with the halfling, and have filled him with my essence like a newborn–and it was my plan to send him out into the world at just the right moment, so that the seekers would hunt him in my stead, so that I may slip their notice until the festival had passed, thus eluding that ultimate fate. But would it not be better to lay my seed in you as well, and see you torn asunder with the boy? It would double my chances of deceiving the seekers, and you would not plague me anymore.”
We made it to the cashmere floor, and it tripped us, and tripped us, and I realized with horror that it was grabbing us. I held onto Farrel and we fell through our shadows, him screaming at my side, and we were in the Umbralands–the world turned completely dark, for there was no true light here–and I wondered if it were safe to slip into the Real World, but I found that the shadows were like walls to me and denied me an exit. We sloughed through as fast as we could, and I wrestled with our surroundings, screaming and howling with Farrel holding onto me and gibbering, and I felt the darkness break like stones beneath my hands until finally–light broke through–and a new path was made, one that brought us respite from the livened floors and the traitorous shadows, and there we fled onward, all the while with Volo on our heels, shouting, “Yes, let me rape your sweet form, little one. Come now, vermagus. Let your voice scream out in agony and despair! I shall drink it all in, for nothing is as great as the hole in me! I have hungered since the dawn of time for fulfillment, and you will know my sorrow! Aye! You will echo for a millenia in my curs-ed heart!”
We came to the great hall, which we had first passed on our way to Farrel.
The lost souls that had lounged and hummed in complacence were now in a frenzy, and the shadows grew thicker, and I knew I could not break open a path anymore. “Damn!” I shouted, arms still encircled around Farrel as I begged for a way back into the Somnium. We fell through the ink, and into the colorful nightmare that was Volo’s domain. I missed the world’s sigh in my ear.
These void people were clawing at us, screaming. The floor seemed to sink with the weight of everyone piling over us, and before I knew it, the ground sucked away with a muted howl, and hot jets of air seared my skin as we fell. The wind picked up, the bodies swirled around us. I got an elbow in the stomach, a foot in my spine, an ass in my ear, everything confused, everything over and under and over and toppled and twisted and turned–Then the bodies began to spread, carried by powerful hot winds, and suddenly I saw that we were spinning, and spinning, and as the vortex’s center opened, I saw the leaping fires and surging molten rock down below. Was it hell? Or was it just Volo’s imagination? Several rough hands gripped us, and I cried as they pulled at my hair, my legs swinging free as we spun and spun. Farrel had lost his grip on me (though it was no small feat that he’d managed to hang on for so long) and was just a little ways below.
“Nyx!” He screamed, his bloodied face turned up to me. “What’s happening!?”
Overhead, at the vortex’s opening, Volo looked down at us. He reached down with his massive hand, a wicked smile on his face. “Come, vermagus. Your only other option is damnation!”
I looked up at him wildly. All around us, the empty souls howled at us, faces filled with hate, eyes as dark as Volo’s. My vision rippled with the heat. This was Volo’s dream, his nightmare, his torment. To live without fulfillment, to suffer in loneliness, to find himself further alienated every time he tried to find a connection. He was a being that sought to undo Harmony, and yet, he was still a part of the cycle. A thing that prevented Life from ever being complete, and in turn, Life prevented him from ever undoing existence. He feared the day he’d be sent to hell, for he still hadn’t seen his only wish come true. Looking up into those revolting eyes, I knew he never would. I hated the parallels between us.
I wanted desperately for my nature to be understood. I did not want to be alien. I did not want to be anathema.
But I decided I wasn’t afraid of endings.
…I decided, it’d be nice to have one at all.
So Volo was taken aback when I smiled up at him. He was flabbergasted when I kicked at the arms that held Farrel–then at Farrel himself when he tried to hold on to those that had let him go. “My gods, Nyx, what’re you–!?” The halfling screamed as he fell through the vortex and I watched as the fires consumed him. Volo seemed to catch on. He leaned down, poking his massive head into the whirling mass of bodies, and tried to grab at me.
“Nyx, you are MINE!” he thundered. His voice held rage and agony.
I bit at the arm that held my hair, my body twisting and writhing and kicking at anything that tried to hold me, and soon I had shaken off all restraints. Soon I was falling.
Soon, I was feeling the flames of Volo’s hell.
Elmiryn’s sword jumped back up and her face turned red.
“Warner…” she seethed. “What are you doing here?” She started trembling. She told her body to stop that, because she never trembled, and if he saw her trembling than he wouldn’t take her seriously. It was always just a fight to get him to take her seriously.
“Warner!” she bellowed. She advanced on him, all rage and fury. She overturned a chair in her path and kicked away the forest of wine bottles at her feet.
A haggard looking man, with an angular face and hard gray eyes blinked at her like he were trying to focus. In his gloved hand, he held a half-empty wine bottle. In his other a small pistol. He wore a soldier’s dress uniform, but it was in poor shape. The gray pants were no longer pleated and neat, the wool coat was stained and torn with some golden buttons missing. He only wore a white glove on one hand, the one with the bottle, and it was dingy. His shoes were unlaced and also needed a shine. His bright red hair was frizzy and flopped onto his lined forehead, and since she’d last seen him, more strands had turned a platinum blond. He didn’t have his blue cloak anymore. Also absent, she noticed, were the medals he once wore proudly on his breast.
The warrior pressed the sword tip beneath the man’s sagging chin. “Father–”
There was a bang.
The warrior gave a start and stumbled backward. She stared down at her stomach. Nothing. She looked at the wall opposite of her. A bullet hole smoked in the wall. Down below, she heard her companions cry out, and soon following came the sound of feet stomping up the stairs.
Warner gave a harrumph and took a long chug from the wine bottle. When he was finished, he wiped at his mouth with the back of his sleeve and muttered, “Was worth a try…”