Brightsong was deaf and dumb now, his mind whispering incantations and prayers that he could not speak and perhaps never would again. Only the dreadful pressure to check if that was the case told him that he had not yet failed his lady.
Either of them.
“I don’t understand.”
“How can a half-elven ranger hope to throw bolts of magical force?”
The half-elf pondered for a moment only before her mind, far more agile than her body even in this form, caught up.
The gnome hurled energy at the imp and blasted it to shreds. “A warlock needs neither bow nor arrow”, she half-exulted, half-mourned as her next blast caught another and hurled it across the sky.
None of these minor devils came within arms reach of the warlock who channelled the powers of hell with growing assurance and authority.
She grimaced. Despite the ease with which she had stopped the band of imps, she knew she was no match for more powerful devils. And if she ran as a ranger, she would be seen and slowed by the combat. What she really needed, was not to be noticed.
Concentrating now on stealth and not speed, she found herself lightening and becoming more refined. An eager, almost cruel light entered her eyes even as horns and a tail sprouted. Soon a Tiefling girl, perhaps the descendent of long ago cambions brought to the Hells by their parents, slipped into the shadows and began to work her way onwards.
It was not exactly quick but it was sure. Twice weariness forced the young Tiefling to find a nest and take a snatched and fearful rest. But she made it to the ruined castle and slipped in.
The portal was not, precisely, difficult to locate. A wide glowing purple circle of tangible light, seemingly unsupported by anything.
No the problem was, as her sponsor had so helpfully hinted, that it appeared to be in the favoured room of a vast devil. An arch devil in fact, if he had not been lying and looking at the beast, she did not think he had been.
She wished he had.
Senuchs was huge and repulsive but to the young rogue’s fear-widened eyes, an impregnable barrier. He lay, scaled and fat enshrouded muscle and bones rolling onto the floor, on a bed of skulls and bones mounded up like a dragon’s hoard. Every so often he threw a blast of corrosive magic at one of the huge pile of corpses lying around which scoured away stone and flesh but seemed to ignore bones. Soon after, the more complete
sets of bones would get up and join the serried ranks of skeletons that were everywhere. Other, more shattered ones continued to lie still, apparently unharmed by whatever magic the devil was using.
‘Great,” she thought to herself sardonically, “all I need to do is not have any skin or muscle.’ She paused in mid-mutter. ‘Or is it?’ She mused, serpentine eyes narrowing in thought.
“Don’t you want to know how your little protege is doing?” The thought was inesacapable but Brightsong did not answer it.
Unfortunately he did hear it and, as he had always known, that was enough. Because, of course, he did want to know and the word “yes” was in his mind.
The rogue darted from shadow to shadow, desperately hoping that her skills would be enough to keep her alive for long enough to reach her objective.
The arch devil watched with some amusement through slitted, serpentine eyes. Every so often he spat magic near enough to her for her to be nearly caught but was careful not to actually hit her. This promised to be amusing .
“You do? Then I had better go and check on her.”
Brightsong sagged wearily and looked at the empty summoning circle.
“I am sorry, My Lady, I tried.”
A comforting radiance fell upon him and his long nose shone in the moonlight as his Lady healed his mind and spirit and moved his body to where she needed it.
The rogue reached the shadow of the dragon’s skull she had seen and cowered within it, trying to pluck up the courage to make the final dash. The portal was only yards away but there was no more cover. She had to hope that the ancient bone would shelter her.
But there was no point in being a rogue now. Stealth and skill would be no help and with this thought, and growing confidence in her abilities, the frame of the young girl thickened and strengthened into that of a muscled half-orc who lifted the skull with a shrill bellow of exhilarated fear and anger and ran towards the glowing blue oval of the portal home.
The arch devil bellowed melodramatically and a huge glob of viscous slime soared towards Shadefire and spattered off the skull. With triumph, she realised that although drops had seeped through, spattering and paining her, she was still alive. Her improvised shield had held.
Another blast and another yard gained. There were only feet to go now, the huge and ancient skull seemed to be growing heavier by the second but she would make it.
Then as she tensed to jump, the skull crumbled violently into a spray of razor sharp, stinging fragments that cut and pained her and the half-orc found herself unable to move.
“Did you really think I only had one type of magic available to me?”
The arch devil’s voice was a deep rumble that vibrated unpleasantly in Shadefire’s head. But that was nothing compared to the despair she felt at how close she had been and how useless being mere inches was when a paralysis spell held her immobile.
The arch devil laughed in pleasure when he felt her despair and drank it in. It was a heady enough draught that he even look the effort to heave himself from his comfortable bed of bones and pat the little barbarian’s head. “It was a good attempt,” he said consolingly and laughed again at the wash of emotion this elicited.
“It was indeed.” A silky voice agreed and if Shadefire had not been so terrified, she might have been amused by lurching fear of the arch devil as he swing round, power boiling around him as he looked for whoever had managed to enter his lair undetected.
It was not a difficult feat though; the Lord of Evil was not trying to conceal himself as he leaned against the pillar, his ruby rod held negligently in his hand.
“Lord Asmodeus.” The ancient devil gasped. “What…”
“What am I doing here?” The God of Evil inquired theatrically. “I am protecting my investment.”
“What?! She is yours? Lord, she does not bear your mark.”
The silvery voice spoke urgently. “Quickly child, take your first form.”
“Really?” Asmodeus’ beautiful voice sounded intrigued? “Did you look?”
“Of course!” Senuchs said defensively but his voice trailed away as the little gnome shook off his paralysis and he saw the unmistakable mark of a pact with Asmodeus himself upon her.
“She is my Warlock and I have plans for her.”
“Lord, I did not know.”
“Do you really think that is an acceptable excuse?” The Lord of Evil sounded amused. “None may lay a hand on what is mine withing the Hells. You know the law. Now feel the punishment.”
The rod moved slightly and hellfire leapt from it.
“No!!” A shield of corruption encompassed the fire and swept it back towards Asmodeus but powerful as he was, the ancient arch devil, who had been cast down once by The Lord of a Evil before that being had even been a god, was no match for the other.
The voice was like a scalpel, cutting through the webs of fear and despair that held the young gnome despite the removal of the magic binding her.
“Selune aid me!” She screamed and leapt for the glow of the portal. Light enveloped her and she stumbled into the ancient, undead ridden ruins of Harlanthoon Keep and the soothing arms of Brightsong.
When the two gnomes reached Silverymoon finally, Brightsong found a note within his summoning circle. In elegant calligraphyinscribed with elven blood on gnomish skin, it ran “Your protege is safe. Since you never set a price for this information, I’ll do so myself.”
The High Priest and Archmage looked at the note and shuddered, then set it aside, what mattered was that the Chosen of Selune was no longer in hell. Compared to that, all else was immaterial.
“She did what!?”
The Worshipful and Revered Brightsong, High Priest of Selune, Master Illusionist, Master Harper and many more titles to boot, was normally seen as a cherubic and kindly gnome whose affability was only barely exceeded by his vast power. At this moment, he did not look it and the teenage human shrank back despite being nearly a foot and a half taller than the diminutive high priest. “It wasn’t my fault!”
“Then whose was it?” The gnome growled dangerously. The boy’s mouth worked feebly and the gnome sighed in exasperation. “That doesn’t matter. What happened? Tell me again and use short words!”
Jimmy looked at him hopelessly and began to repeat the story. He only hoped that his mother would rescue him but judging by the set of her lips, she was more likely to suggest some horrendous punishment to the priest.
“So, we are agreed then? You will renounce Selune and be my warlock but in exchange I will help you leave here and not require any specific service from you although I am free to watch and come to you with later proposals?”
“No way! I never said I’d renounce my goddess.”
“But darling girl, of course you have to if you want to be my warlock. I can’t share you know.”
“No, you never said that.”
“Oh very well.” The devil said with annoyance. “No conversion necessary. But you must agree never to be anyone else’s warlock then!”
“Ok.” The young gnome said bravely. It wasn’t that she wanted to do this. But she did not really see any choice and she had already agreed that it was better than the alternatives.
“Lady, I have failed you and your chosen one. I pray for your forgiveness and the light of your knowledge. What has become of her and how may I recall her to us.”
As his divinations proceeded, Brightsong’s face went whiter than his hair.
The devil’s eyes flashed with cruel fire and suddenly the young gnome felt those flames catch her soul and brand it forever. It was not precisely agony, more a deep knowledge of spiritual degradation that was in its own way worse.
The gnome clung to the caveats that she had made, the hope that she would survive, the desperate prayer to her goddess for forgiveness but somehow she knew that it would not be enough, that she had made an irreversible step towards darkness that she would never be able to renege on without greater penalty.
Even as she struggled to recover her mental balance, the image of the devil tormenting her disappeared again and the hellcat that had been slinking around in fear of his presence leapt.
This time, however, the cat faced, not a wizard’s apprentice with no spells but a fully pledged and packed warlock who met the hellspawn’s charge with a scream of frustration and a dark bolt of dark fire, seemingly drawn from shadow as much as fire. The hellcat screamed and ran, its tail smouldering, pursued by more of the hellish blasts as the gnome poured her rage and hatred out at it.
Once it was out of sight, the young and pretty gnome looked at her hands, devoid of any trace of the energy they had just channeled and wept bitter tears.
It is not easy fora priest of a goddess of light and goodness to contact the lower planes. Not that Brightsong was using clerical magic. Instead, he was weaving arcane ritual magic and hoping it would not go wrong.
It wasn’t that he was a poor ritualist. In fact he was probably a more powerful wizard than he was a cleric. But he specialised in illusions and devils, unfortunately, were notoriously hard to fool with these.
So conjuration it was. Lady Selune had blessed him with every protective spell he had asked for and these warded him now, shimmering fields of glowing moonlight that would protect him from every energy and attacking spell he could think of.
Still, he feared what he was about to do. For the one that he proposed to summon was as much a God as his own lady was and that was not something any sane person would do.
“So, you seem better prepared to face the world now.”
The gnome looked up from her spot blackened hands and scowled.
“You promised to let me out.”
“No, my dear girl, I promised to help you.” He purred. “And I shall. There is an exit from here that will take you straight back to that dreary little plane you call home. It is about a hundred miles north of here. You cannot miss it, it lies in a ruined fort where the archdevil Senuchs lives.” He smiled with cruel mirth. “There, isn’t that helpful.”
Even as the gnome opened her lips to retort, arcane chains of bright blue limned in silver moonlight enveloped the gloating devil. His eyes opened wide but before he could say anything, the bonds flashed and he and they were gone.
The Gnome looked at the space wide-eyed. Then silver tones rang in her head, “Quickly child. You must get to the portal before Brightsong loses control of him.”
“Lady?” She gasped.
“Yes but hurry. I cannot do much to assist you here without causing all kinds of trouble. Enhancing slightly the gifts you already have for the duration is about it. Run, child.”
Run she did, not thinking of the hundred miles that she had to cover, just responding to the urgency in the Goddess’ voice. So focused was she that she barely noticed when the change came upon her and her limbs lengthened into a half-elven form, lithe, dexterous and enduring.
Still it was not exactly something she could completely ignore, but despite her urgent questions there was no further answer from Selune.
Brightsong was faltering. Sweat ran down his balding forehead and beaded in his beard, which was no longer well-groomed. He had blinded himself, deafened himself, distracted himself in every way he could imagine but the temptation to pay attention to the god in the summoning circle was overwhelming.
He knew it would be a mistake, that the only thing allowing him to maintain the spells he had woven was his refusal to acknowledge what he had done.
The trouble was, it was like not thinking of pink elephants. Not concentrating on something was something, not noticing it was harder.
Still, he was a master illusionist and a high priest of Selune and he would not fail her. From somewhere the venerable gnome found a reserve of strength. He might not succeed but he would hold to the promise he had made his Lady and do his best to give his poor, misplaced apprentice the chance to escape.
He only hoped it would be enough.
She was still a half-elven ranger, running flat out through the sulfurous fumes of hell when she saw them, terrifying demons floating on bat-like wings through the turbulent skies.
Instinctively she crouched down and tried to hide, skills at stealth she had never before had coming to the forefront of her mind. In the shelter of a sharp-edged stone pillar, she cowered, fearing to move and wishing she had a weapon.
“You must move, child.”
She shook in miserable terror. “But, they will see me.”
“Trust in yourself. You have the capacity to do this.”
The half-elf shivered and moved; slowly, tentatively, stealthily. Sheltering in shadows and fogs, she slipped onwards but to no avail. One of the imps saw her and swooped with a scream of glee.
She ducked, grabbing a sharp stone and throwing it hard and accurately at the base of the imp’s spine. It equalled and fell but there were more of them coming and stones would not be enough. She wished for a bow and vowed never to fail to have one by her again.
Then she cursed to herself, how could she have forgotten the pact she had sworn. She concentrated on summoning the hellish energy se had wielded so devastatingly before. It was not there. She could not feel the pact that had seared its mark so conclusively on her soul.
“Silly child,” spoke the voice, breaking into her amazement, “it was a different you that swore that oath.”
The gnome who wanted to be Brightfire coughed frantically to clear her throat of the choking smoke that had enveloped her and waved her hands in passes that she really wished were mystic enough to summon wind.
Then she sat up in bed screaming until her mind cleared: she was not Brightfire. She never would be.
Lying back against the pillows, she allowed a single tear to trickle down her cheek as she remembered.
She had coughed frantically on the smoke, her eyes tearing over and her lungs wracked by caustic fumes. As a result, when she could finally see again, her startlement to find herself looking at cracked, rough basalt rather than cobbles.
“What… Where… How…” She exclaimed feebly, looking up finally as she came back to her knees.
A low chuckle was all that answered her. When she saw its owner, the gnomes eyes went wide.
He was a handsome devil, she would give him that. Almost like a gnome except for the red wings, the small horns and the eyes that had little flames dancing in them. He lounged on a rocky spur, the flames of hell his back drop and toyed with a foot long sceptre that appeared carved from a single ruby.
He also wore a simple crown made of gold, rubies and fire. She noted abstractedly.
But mostly what she noted was the fact that he was a devil. And that the backdrop wasn’t a quiet residential street but a curtain of steam, smoke and lava.
In short, she was in hell. Or a reasonable facsimile of it.
The devil’s chuckle turned into a broad grin that split his handsome face with predatory fangs.
“I’ll give you one answer for free.” He noted dryly. “But that was three questions and the other two will cost you. Do you really want that?”
Young as she was, the Gnome was not stupid and she shook her head quickly.
The devil sighed theatrically, “In that case, which do you want answered.”
Her mind raced. “How can I get home?”
He chuckled again. “I don’t think that was the question you were asking.”
“It might have been,” she replied pertly despite her fear. “It starts right.”
“So it does. Very well. You can get home with my help.”
“I meant safely.” She snapped.
“Manners, manners.” He chided gently, waving a puff of scalding smoke over her. “Besides, surely my old friend taught you to be clear when bargaining with fiends.”
“Your old friend?”
“Your former master, a certain Brightsong.”
“That’s a lie. Master Brightsong would never deal with beings like you.”
“Oh? Then why are you here?” He asked mildly. The little gnome set her lips firmly and he laughed again. “Well no matter. But to return to what your previous comment. I can transport you back perfectly safely so even if you had taken sensible precautions the answer would be the same.”
“So, you had your freebie. What now?”
“Nothing,” she said stoutly. “I’m perfectly fine here. I have no intention of selling you my soul.”
“Darling girl, I have no desire for your soul. I am sure it would be nauseatingly sweet and horribly difficult to hold on to.”
He sounded sincere, horribly so and she was tempted to believe him. But while her master had not wasted much time in instruction in the wiles of fiends, he had been clear that they should never be believed. She shook her head.
“Well, then I don’t have much to offer you do I. So you might as well leave me alone and let me be.”
“Really?” The chuckle was back in his tone and then he was gone. She peered around cautiously and with rather more than a little terror. All was silent, which made her feel not the slightest bit better.
Finally, she remembered to rise fully and planted her legs sturdily behind her. Not that she saw any hope beyond her master rescuing her before she died. If even he were capable of that.
A blur of motion to the side caught her attention and she spun, catching her foot and stumbling again. Her clumsiness was lucky for her though as the claws of the spined, flame shrouded, leonine thing that had pounced on her, caught and shredded her dress not her flesh.
She screamed, already off balance and knew that she was dead. Then He was there again, catching the thing by the tail and throwing it twenty feet into a stone pillar where it twitched once and was still.
“Are you sure you want me to leave you alone?” He inquired wryly. She could only sob, trying to still her racing heart and cursing her reaction.
Still, when he made as if to disappear again, the word “Stop!” was dragged from her. He paused with raised eyebrow. “Why did you save me?” She asked with what composure she could muster.
“I said I did not want your soul. I never said there was nothing I wanted that you had.” He responded with a grin.
She blinked at him and found herself near to responding before she kicked herself mentally. He was handsome true, and just the right height her worser self insisted on reminding her, but she was fairly sure that flirting with a devil was a bad idea. Even if her lessons had never actually covered that one. Still, that rogue part of her mind noted, it had been a very long time since she had had anyone noticing her. Silverymoon had a fairly large Gnomish population all things considered, but her studies had not exactly been conducive to social events and all the othe acolytes and apprentices in the temple were of human or elven origins.
As a result, her “no” was nearly as gruff as it was curt, busy as she was stamping on this inexplicable attraction. He seemed to pay no mind.
He laughed again, “You misunderstand. If you want me in your bed then it will be for you to ask not the other way round.” Her eyes went round with outrage but, before her indignant protests could find vent, he had continued. “No, what I had in mind was simply an exchange of favours. I send you back and, in exchange, when I want something you can do for me, you will do it.”
“Really?” She asked disdainfully, her indignation subsumed by his apparent assumption of her stupidity, “so you do me one favour that is clearly defined and easy for you to do and in exchange you get an open ended ability to ask me to do something. I think not.”
“What would you suggest then?” He asked affably.
“If, and this is only hypothetical,” she added hastily, “IF I was to accept it, it would be only in exchange for a similarly well defined favour.”
“My darling girl, what on earth could you offer at this stage of life?”
“That’s not my problem, I’ve stated what I want.”
“You have to be reasonable though. Otherwise the fun goes out of this.”
She shivered as she perceived the threat behind the light words.
“Well, you can’t expect me to accept something so open-ended.”
“Some conditions might be reasonable.” He conceded.
“Oh, the favour cannot involve genocide or the destruction of the world. How would that suit?”
She gaped at him in sheer disbelief. “Well that would be a start but I’d have said no harm to anyone or anything.”
“Be serious. How could I possibly predict if there was going to be harm. That would be ludicrous.” He paused. “How about something totally different.”
He grinned at her tone; it was clear that she was hooked and had completely forgotten the theoretical nature of the discussion. “Well, perhaps an ongoing arrangement with this thrown in as a signing on bonus.”
“You have got to be kidding! What could possibly make me want an ongoing arrangement with you?”
The devil smiled cheerfully and settled down to bargaining.
For Daiera, a brief conversation with Jeraint is a catalyst. The next time she sees Eleiana, once the task that has brought them there is done, she simply asks her: “Ele? Do you have awhile?”
The shaman smiles. “Of course, my crops are growing and while there are plenty of people who want things, none is vital.”
Dai returns the smile. “Thank you. As the weather is fine… perhaps a walk in the sun?”
“Certainly.” Eleiana puts the small gem she had been carving back into her belt pouch and stands unhurriedly.
Dai begins to talk as they walk; the first parts of what she wants to discuss, at least, will cause no stir if overheard. “I’ve been having nightmares,” she begins, “ever since the Black Prince spoke about Azeroth’s danger. They aren’t new; they began when I first saw Hellfire with the expedition. My sleep has been troubled with images of Azeroth, destroyed, as was… well, you know.”
Eleiana winces. “Yes, I remember. My spirit’s host saw the original shattering. It has worried me too although I have not spoken to the dragon much.”
Dai sighs. “I don’t trust him, mind you. Not at all. But he has some good points, whatever his motives. And this war… I worry, too, that even without any further interference, the world is none too safe. Consider Theramore, for example.”
She winces. “And have you heard about Dalaran?”
Eleiana nods. “Some. It sounds messy.” She pauses. “And stupid, but unfortunately that is existence in an imperfect world. And I am not sure a perfect one would be better looking at supposedly perfect beings like Algalon.”
“Jeraint was there. You know I’ve been working with him, don’t you? I’m worried about him. Dalaran hurt him, and I… I’m not the right person to help; I’m not even the person to know who might. It doesn’t help that part of me is furious with him.” Sadly “Nor that I’ve dreamed of it ever since, except it’s my hands, my axe, slaughtering those who…” her voice trails off and she swallows.
Eleiana winces slightly in sympathy. “Would you like me to help with that? Your spirit seems overburdened at the moment.”
Daiera looks at her friend. “Yes, please, if you can. If I keep waking from nightmares like those, I worry I’ll hurt someone.”
The shaman bows her head briefly and then raises her hand. A flash of silvery light twinkles in it and Daiera feels her soul lighten. Eleiana frowns slightly. “You should take better care of yourself. I am not convinced all your problems were self-made, there was a very subtle but profound job of darkening your joy in life there.”
Daiera shakes her head. “This is the place for it, is it not?” More firmly, “I thank you. I will do what I can, especially if you have an idea how it happened.”
She is silent for a moment, not long enough for Eleiania to reply. “Have you any advice for how I might help my friend? He was… if not well, at least better before Dalaran. And it did not help, I think, when he was contacted by one of the Sin’dorei recently.”
“No, I can see that from what you have said.” She pauses, “I would happily speak with him if you would like.”
“I don’t know. I would dearly like you to; you’re wiser than I, and he is a good person; he does not deserve to hurt so. But I don’t know how he would react.”
“Well, I know what he looks like.” Eleiana says with a mischievous smile.
Daiera grins at her. “Eleiana, you’re a marvel.” Her expression darkens a little. “His visitor… I would be inclined to suspect a trap, had Jeraint himself not seemed convinced of his sincerity.” Ruefully, she adds, “As it is, I worry about the visitor, also.”
The other Draenai nods. “Well, as the Prophet says, the future takes care of itself but we can help it be a Lighter one. I’ll speak with Jeraint.”
Daiera turns to her friend and grins, “That saying, I like. I shall remember it! And thank you.” She chuckles “and it really was a nice day for a walk. I should do it more often.”