OF THE DEMON
PASSAGE TO DANGER
rgoth, stared with enchantment at the monolith spires of Hol’ mangar, as they seemed to hug each other in their roughness. The city’s main attraction was its large spires, situated near the heart of the Heath of Longin. Unlike most of the cities of the land of Caael’ heroth, Hol’ mangar was a large bustling inland town with a rough edge to its population. Little trade took place here. Instead, most of the trading establishments were supported by local clientele, which kept the economy at more or less an even keel. Even though commerce was maintained levelly, it placed a heavy burden on the local merchants who quickly became disillusioned with the high taxes because it only seemed to furnish the governing coffers.
The city itself was surrounded by plush forestry and vegetation, with small patches of rocky plateaus. Many taverns and inns had been built in and around its borders but most people spent their time at the Blue Swarm Inn near town. A local watering hole made popular by the frequent travellers and its continuous excitement could be found there. Not that Hol’ mangar wasn’t exciting, because almost every night you could count on someone regaling you with a secret treasure or a tall tale. Regardless of the manifested talk though, most folk were ignorant of the outside land preferring a more quiet atmosphere to the sparsely huddled pathways of Hol’mangar’s winding boulevards or the many tenements and dwellings depicting a different scene and its varied tapestry relating to the various types of living quarters found there. A plentiful mixture of rich and poor made life grand, however, the scales were tipped in a more impoverished way. Old-fashioned lamp candles looking like little tiny beacons of hope, stood at the ends of every street corner illuminating them with their soft filtering light. The frigid waters of the Ice Sea fed all the small tributaries that ran in and around the town. To the northeast loomed up the Oshen Mountains, almost threatening in their majesty, while even further sprouted the Caael Mountains, no less majestic. At this time of year and with winter approaching, merchants were in a mad rush of selling and trading before the roads closed down for the spring. Ergoth had never been to a city before outside of Norgath, so he found it all rather amazing.
Finding the inn was not difficult. It was surrounded with plenty of insidious-looking hostelries with the exact same logo emblazoned on each door. They all said ‘ROOMS FOR RENT’, as if in some competition. He approached a rustic old tenement with a sign out front that said ‘THE BLUE SWARM INN’. ‘This must be it,’ he thought, with an unpleasant grin. It was meant to be a swarm of blue bees, but the rains and age had fused it together so that now the only thing that showed was a blotch of blue paint.
When he entered, he realized its cheapness. The time worn walls appeared to lack sufficient colour, and the main beams of rotting wood were almost indistinguishable in the shadowy light. Ergoth was rather taken aback that a popular place would be so insipid. The patrons who frequented it every day sat around the tables, cuddling their flagons of ale. They were all embracing the love of life, which was actually another reason to drink. At one table stood a woman, presumably the barmaid bickering with a knot of soldiers. A single braid of hair hung down from her face, deeply riddled with grey. She was not a young woman, but her age had managed to stand the test of time. “Give us a kiss,” cooed one of the soldiers. “And while you’re at it, fill me up,” he added with a lascivious grin, his hand glancing with an unwelcome gesture along her hip. The soldiers were all wearing red uniforms, and carried heavy looking truncheons in plain view. They were all well liquored up, but were behaving quite well.
It was still the morning time, the time when the brothels and gambling houses started their business for the day. The owners and workers were constantly coming and going, trying to look discrete. In the far corner of the room sat a man, whose face was partially covered by a dark hood. It appeared as though his one ear was ripped from its skin, adorned by a ragged bandage. Beside him sat a woman, with blonde coloured hair and one lip puffed out from the rest. She appeared to be in her early years, but was much older. Both of the strangers eyed Ergoth with intensity.
The innkeeper, whose fading looks had seen better days, was snoring loudly on a stool as he neared. Ergoth cleared the mustiness from his lungs, and tapped the man on the shoulder. Upon waking from the midst of a fictitious dream, the man was startled by business since business was so uncommon.
"May I be of service?” he said, blinking back the sleep that hovered in his eyes?
"A room please," replied Ergoth.
"It just so happens, that we have one vacancy left," said the man. Needless to say all the rooms were vacant with the exception of one and that was rented by a woman named Maria Delanie.
As he made his way down the long corridor that stretched the length of the hotel, Ergoth could hear his breath beating against the plastered lining of the walls. His boots made a thumping sound, and the sound of the boisterous customers echoed off the wooden floor like hollow wood. His room was nothing more than a pigsty, and the bed was the only piece of real furniture in the room. It sagged in the middle, like a mocking smile. The other item of furniture, if it could be called that, was an antiquated old chair showing its noticeable signs of past usage. The solitary window was blanketed on the outside, with blackened sludge. The walls of the room kept true to form, and were a mixture of broken plaster and empty holes. The rug was so darkly soiled; it seemed to give the room a cryptic quality. A desperate expression showed on Ergoth’s face, but it seemed there was no real chance to get any better accommodation.
It was twelve past midnight when he first heard it. He dragged his eyelids partially up from a dreamlike slumber. Someone was inserting a key. There were some muffled whispers, the door softly opened and closed and he drifted back off and knew nothing more, except the soft sounds of falling rain. He awoke again, a short while later, and felt a coldness coming through the window. Thinking Samandra had changed her mind and returned, he rose and closed the window. ‘Dammit!’ he thought, turning and looking back into the room’s darkness as he spoke.
“ Samandra… is that you?” he whispered.
“She won’t hear you,” spoke a voice, out of gloom of the darkened room.
Ergoth repelled back in fear, trying to get a better look, but in so doing, backed up against the window and blocked out the moonlight. He frantically gazed about into the vacant darkness.
“Who is it?” he yelled, terror creeping into his mind, when suddenly he was hit by an icy stench of death. Desperately searching the darkness for any glimmer of movement, he saw nothing but the emptiness of his room. Jumping from his bed, his frustration grew each time he flitted from shadow to shadow, and his grasp would only uncover incorporeal air. Gripped by a chilling fear he sought refuge in his subconscious, but that like his room too was deserted. Through the reality of his eyes, clouded by the darkness, he could barely make out the filigree membranes of blackened wings, and the empty shell of what once was a man. That frustration turned into excitement, as his flailing hands found a solid form. And clawing at it, sought out it’s neck with his arms. And then long bony fingers still dripping with blood, his blood, disappeared into his chest, ripping his dreams away. With one final scream of pain he blacked out. He awoke a moment later in a cold sweat and when he lay back to sleep again, he hoped it was just a bad dream.
At about midmorning he raised his eyelids, still slightly unsettled by his nightmare. He shrugged the drowsiness from his subconscious, which hovered between his numbing joints and sore limbs. It was becoming more apparent that the trek had been a long one and had taken its toll, and for a moment he glanced around hoping to see Samandra. The trip had taken five days, and every ache was a reminder of each step. The first thing he heard was milling and screaming coming from the outside. Sheepishly he moved to the window, and peered out. Most of the townsfolk were bustling about, ready for the day, except for a lone woman in a bluish frock who apparently was doing most of the screaming. She was screaming at another man who was dragging her into the livery stable, as bystanders looked on callously.
The blinding sunlight on the one side of the street was ruddled, while the looming spires cast their giant shadows over the other half. As he regained his composure he sniffed the tart odour of his room. Its lifeless scent seemed to hang in the air like a plague. He must leave he thought; he would not regret the money that he had already spent on the room, if it meant he could escape its squalidness. After a hearty breakfast, it was time to clear up some unfinished duties. Ergoth’s task was simple; he was to secure passage to Ithanpul. The light of the sun was just drifting behind some clouds as he came sauntering into the side street where the sea warden’s office was located. Hol’mangar, he thought, was without charm and with the exception of its grand spires was not very impressive. A few ornate churches, a handful of sparsely coloured flower gardens, and even the clothing of the townsfolk were colourless. Many of the poor along the streets and alleys brought to mind the starving children back home, with their skeleton like fingers waving aimlessly for more. He often wanted to give more, but he knew it was useless to try and satisfy the eternal yearning of their wasted faces.
The warm winds of the Oshen Mountains could be found sauntering through the rutted streets that had become many and deep. Port Harbor Street was quite expansive with more than its share of prostitutes and transients, eagerly awaiting the arrival of sailors from the ported ships. He knew he was close when a slight breeze of salt laden air came wafted at his nostrils, and the puddles of rainwater from the nights rain formed glistening mirrors over the potted avenue. The office was crammed between two smaller buildings, one specializing in magic and the other in armor. The seawarden was in his late forties and his name was Dare Longer, but despite his age retained the firm muscular attraction that set him apart from the rest of Hol’mangar. He was born here, and would likely die here. He had a good life as a warden, and had even captained his own ship at one time. Back in his younger days, when he considered himself invincible. His father's name was Shanking Longer, who had worked as a ship engineer for eleven cycles and Dare had one day hoped to have the same position, but work had claimed to much of his time. His father eventually married an inn barmaid by the name of Gwendolyn Bowknife. Shanking Longer had one son, and two daughters. One daughter died in childhood when she was accidentally scratched on the side of the head with a poisoned arrow. The other daughter married a peasant farmer, and had three children, leaving Shanking with an unwed son. Despite having numerous suitors and a long list of sweethearts, Dare Longer was still single and with the death of his mother just the past year, he would never be able to show her a wedding ring. The Sea warden greeted Ergoth with plenty of defensiveness. This demeanor was awarded to all the strangers to Hol’ mangar. But he wanted no trouble when he walked in, so he paid little heed. The boots of the warden rested on the desk, with his fingers locked behind his head.
“Hello.” he said, without moving his boots from the top of the desk. “What can I do for you?”
“I would like to…” Ergoth stumbled. "I would like to secure passage to Havenship.” His manners were always an essential part of his speech. “Would you know when it leaves?”
“At three o’clock,” tossed back the Sea warden, not willing to waste time on idle chatter.
“Thank you, could I book a passage please?” Ergoth quipped.
“As sure as you can say Eyasha.”
He found this last comment odd, that he would mention the patron saint of innkeepers.
“Could I get a book a trip for today?” Ergoth said with pleading eyes.
“Passages won’t be easy to come by, there won’t be another ship going out until the end of the week.”
Ergoth’s crestfallen look did not go unnoticed by the warden. “A week…” he pleaded. He did not think pleasantly of having to spend another week in this forsaken town.
“Well, there is another way…”
And his hopes sprang to life, at its mention.
“If you were to indenture yourself to a kind giving captain, it is possible that you could work your way on board. There are many captains that are always on the lookout for extra help.”
“Well,” blurted out Ergoth in his excitement. “Where do I go?”
“Many sea captains spend their time at the Mariner’s Tavern. I’m sure one of them would be thankful for two extra hands.”
It was afternoon when he made his entrance back into the street. The sun was drifting behind one of the numerous graying clouds in the sky. It added to Hol’mangar’s sordid atmosphere, because it appeared to be on the verge of raining again, which only intensified his already bleak outlook of the city. At that moment a little girl swept by him in noticeable distress, wailing at the top of her lungs with tears streaming down her face. He stepped back in startled wonder. The girl was dressed in rags, and was thin enough to be considered poor. She wove a circular path down the street, screaming hysterically and loud enough so that the entire city would know. This was followed by another scream, presumably the child’s mother. He watched the two bodies fade into the atmosphere of the street, grinned and carried on. The sun drifted behind a cloud again, nearing the horizon this time, but it still left a corruption of faint colors on the city.
The Mariners Tavern was not hard to find, much like his room, it also had an unmistakable smell to it. Wails of laughter floated out, along with the trashy odor of stale ale and wine, and seated in a row at the bar sat the many sea captains. There were four of them, three of the men were already slumped down on the bar, but one stood out with more of an air of superiority about him. From a distance he could see an ugly scar snake across one of his brows, and his curly hair hung down like black tendrils soaked in oil. This was the one he chose, the only one he could choose. He cut a path to the bar, bumping in to many drunken sailors along the way. Some of them didn’t even know he was there and others in their drunken stupor didn’t know that they were either. As he neared the reek of stale ale was more noticeable made more prevalent by the sailors sitting near by. Ergoth looked him in the eyes and saw through his blood swell a clear blue that contrasted so well with his black irises, it almost seemed like he had little islands amidst tiny oceans. His dress was simple. A weather beaten jerkin and breeches, cleverly broached with various forms of jewelry, all of which he had no doubt collected at his many years at sea. Ergoth wasn’t crestfallen this time, but he didn’t look on with much optimism. Through his slurred English and fractured words, he found out the captains name was Raddly and his ship ‘The Wave Maiden’ had just put in port that day, but judging by his empty tankard and slurred speech, he was practically penniless again. So when he asked for more ale, the innkeeper refused, not wanting to get him any drunker then he already was.
It was late afternoon when Ergoth found his way onto the street again. The sun had just dipped behind the clouds, and cooled down the moistness of the air. The passion of the sun had dissipated, so the promenade of the city was quite empty. The streets were vacant too, so his walking was uninterrupted. The odd bird chirped out loud but it, like the wind, eventually became silent. The inn itself was already jumping with activity, and continued to rise with each passing hour. Many of the patrons were already savoring the wine and food, on display. He had just slipped in and was making himself comfortable at a vacant table nearby, when a hand slipped under his cloak and steered him toward a darkened corner. Three of the four corners of the room were empty, and the other two were occupied. Two people sat all alone, in the other corner. A blond haired woman and the other by a gaunt man whose brown cloak was doing a poor job of hiding a bandaged ear.
“My name is… or should I say my nickname is ‘Fingers’… my actual name is Rolan Housan. This here is Katherine Bodost,” said Fingers, pointing at Katherine.
“Do you want to know my… ” started Ergoth.
“We already know your name,” retorted Fingers, before he could finish the sentence. He continued on, “Your destiny is in your hands, and we are here to help you.”
‘Oh no! More riddles… Why is it no one, will ever give me a straight answer?’ he pleaded.
At that very moment a shout from a nearby table interrupted them. “Are you all ready to enter the halls of Queprur?” the voice bellowed. As if there was an importance in his words.
Ergoth always maddened by rude behavior, unhinged his arm and approached, stopping just short of the table. “And madmen, who is it you’re warning?”
Katherine whispered in his ear to be careful, and made a circular motion with her finger to around her temple, signifying the intruder’s possible questionable sanity.
Ergoth halted momentarily, but it was too late. There was a sudden flash and he found himself sailing through the air, landing with an undignified thump against the wall.
Laughing wildly, the madman grabbed Katherine. “Do not lose your virtue to them,” he roared.
At that, Fingers jumped on his back and with another flash, he too found himself unceremoniously sitting on the other side of the room beside Ergoth.
And then the quarrel was in full swing. The man ran into innocent townsfolk or anyone in his way, roaring all the time and spouting off something about a demon or a mephguóur. A group of king’s guards, who had just entered the inn, were curious about all the commotion. They quickly ganged up on him and tried to quell his drunken passion. He stood there wielding a heavy wooden club, as if tauntingly. A right hand punch from an eager young soldier was a mistake he probably wouldn’t make again. The madman side stepped it with ease and gripped his neck. With surprised shock the sailor gasped in awe as he was raised above the madman’s head and was sent sailing across the room to land beside Ergoth and Fingers. Another guard hacked in with his sword, its blade repelled back by the madman’s club. The rest of the soldiers jumped in swinging with their fists, and after a good pummeling, had him finally subdued. They steered him toward the door, and dumped him on the hard ground outside.
“And stay out, you drunk!” roared the innkeeper, with a final parting shot.
Exhausted for the night but glad he had made his point clear; the madman started hobbling down the road continually glancing backward at the townsfolk. Katherine and the troop of soldiers watched him slowly melt into the nighttime, not totally convinced of his madness. They had retired for the night in Fingers’ room. It wasn’t much more than a tiny alcove and like the rest of Hol’mangar, it stank. It was Fingers who spoke again, glancing at Katherine. “Don’t be afraid ,Ergoth, like I said before, your destiny is in your hands.”
“What destiny?” cried Ergoth in frustration. “So many people have said they wanted to help me, and yet I still know not why,” and he looked straight at Katherine who had remained strangely quiet the whole time.
“Is everyone just as mad as that drunk?” he quipped disarmingly.
And suddenly Katherine spoke, and when she spoke it was like a soft replete, he felt all his fears and frustrations melt away. She seemed calming and familiar, although he was positive he had never seen her before. Even when the inn torches highlighted her hair, it was her eyes that received most of his attention.
“Do you remember the warrior, near Hol’ mangar,” she stated calmly.
“Yes I do,” he replied intriguingly, remembering Samandra.
“She left a note… and we are here to help you… we don’t know what the message means… so don’t be mad when we can’t answer.”
Katherine began reciting the cryptic message.
“If you search the beginning, you will only find the end.
If you try to touch top, you will only touch bottom.
If you walk beneath the sun, you will cast no shadow.
And when you do all this, you will still be at the end..
“And that’s supposed to mean something?” protested Ergoth in wonderment. “Am I in some sort of danger or something?”
“You were never in danger Ergoth,” she said. “Now I suggest we get some rest. We have to travel to Islam, tomorrow.” She looked at Fingers, and with a bit of urgency in her voice asked him if he had secured passage.
“We leave tomorrow,” was his only reply.
“What do you mean… leave tomorrow… what passage?” shot back Ergoth. “I don’t even know you! And I’m not going anywhere until I get some answers,” he argued.
“It is your prerogative!” answered Katherine.
“Like I said before, we can’t answer your questions only that we are here to help you… Fingers here is willing to go,” quipped Katherine in an angry tone this time.
“Well of course he is, he’s probably in it with you.” Ergoth was about to protest more, when a pounding on the door interrupted them.
“Halt in there. In the name of the king!” roared the voice.
Nervously Fingers scanned the room, and spotting an escape hatch. “Quick,” he said. “It’s the guards of Hol’mangar, we’ll use this hatch to run.”
“Oh great . . . you’re wanted by the guards, and I suppose that’s another of the things you can’t answer? I don’t know what is going on, or who to believe. You two go on ahead, I’ll stay here. I have no desire to get arrested because of something I didn’t do.”
“Fine! Have it your way, remain here and tell the guards, you stood here and watched us escape,” retorted back Katherine and Fingers in unison, both seemingly fed up with his whining.
“Oh! No! You don’t! If you think, you can blackmail me you can forget it! I don’t intend to get any deeper into trouble. I’m stopping it now from getting worse.”
As the pounding on the door became louder and louder, he gave one last look at the slowly buckling door. Katherine and Fingers had just disappeared when he interjected.
“Maybe I was too quick to say anything…” He gave the door one last nervous look. A moment later he yelled, “Wait for me!” And a second after all three had vanished down the escape hatch, just when the guards of Hol’mangar burst into the room.
Story written by Winlok