Monday, March 30, 2015

Welcome to Dark Dale


The sign is broken. Parts lie on the ground splintered and splattered with blood. What remained of the rotting stomp in the ground was charred, and gnawed on; teethed on I corrected myself. There was still a tooth sticking out of the wood.

Marzrels went through several sets of teeth as babies, or larvae perhaps, they were carnivorous worms and I had never stopped to ask one what it called its young. Dinner maybe; but probably breakfast.

I flicked the tooth loose with my dagger and watched it arc through the arid air. I tossed the dagger after it. Marzrel teeth kept their venom for months, sometimes even, years after they had been shed. It was a good venom but useless unless you were a Marzrel, the toxins would poison the air they evaporated in and corroded metal at a record pace.

Just another joy of Dark Dale.

A shadow caught my eye, a small yellow scorpion no bigger than my thumb darting away from where the tooth had landed. As it came near I stepped on it. Those I occasionally call friends often laugh at my odd footwear. They have told me on numerous drunken occasions that I would do better to leave the iron out of my boots and run faster. I lifted my foot and used a second dagger to dig out the still wriggling arachnid. I killed it before I left the body to lie in the dust. One doesn’t survive the Dale by being kind and loving. Of course, I’ve never asked anyone about surviving the Dales, as far as I knew I was the only one who could make the claim.

I sauntered toward my destination, a nondescript rock of little intrinsic value. I slashed at bushes as I went and stabbed at shadows. The bushes burned and the sand crackled under the loving brush of my sword of fire. Most people like to collect mementos of their adventures. The average sword-for-hire collects gold, others take bones, teeth, ears, treasure, whatever catches their fancy. A fair number in this region collect skulls.

I collect swords.

The swords of slain heroes, and I’ve killed every one. I also keep daggers handy because I know the weapon I’m carrying already failed one protagonist and I’ve never been one to take undue risk.

At the rock I paused and growled in frustration, this was the part of visiting the Dale I didn’t like. “I am she that is summoned. I am she that answers,” I recited the chant from memory and watched with a bored expression as the rock steamed and smoked. The smoke coalesced and formed in to an ashen skinned demon with glowing silver eyes.

“Took you long enough didn’t it?” the creature demanded petulantly. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting?”

“Two days,” I guessed since I had only received the summons two days prior, in the middle of a barroom brawl no less, which had been most inconvenient. “You were here last time, make someone in the council mad did we?”

The demon sniffed. “You know not of what you speak mortal!”

“Of course I know of what I speak and don’t call me mortal unless you intend to prove the point.” My free hand wandered closer to the abyssal whip I had picked off the body of a half-eaten necromancer.

Some people will never learn to leave well enough alone. At least not in this life.

“You will die!” the demon cried. Demons do this sort of thing; it’s habit more than anything else and not something that had particularly bothered me once I realized they all did it. I was nearly eight when that happened. Some little girls play with dolls, or horses, or looms, or swords, but I was deprived and forced to play with demons because I lacked parental supervision and income.

“You’ll die too eventually,” I observed, “does that make you mortal?”

“Of course not.” The demon peered at me. “One of these days I’m going to make you flinch.”

“Don’t count on it,” I advised.

It shrugged. “Here.” He held out a miniature portrait and dropped it at my feet. “Kill this.”

I picked up the likeness of a brawny man. “Nicely painted, oils?”

“Oils?” the demon asked. “How should I know?”

“You didn’t paint this?” I looked at him suspiciously. Having a demon hire me was not unheard of, but if this demon was hiring me for its own personal reasons than there was no reason some other creature should have painted the likeness.

“It was given to me by the council.” The demon looked as apologetic as it could.

“This is a council assignment?” The answer was important, it affected pay.

I always charged the council more. It was spite, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t like the council. One of the idiots on it sired me, possibly mothered me, I wasn’t quite sure. But I was spawned by one of them and they had dropped me in the mortal realm with no more than a spell book and a handful of silver. That’s hardly decent parenting in my book. Gold is what loving parents give to their spawn, or offspring, depending on species.

The demon rubbed the bald space between its horns. “You won’t charge to much will you?”

“For a rush job on a brawny barbarian?” I tossed the miniature in the air and caught it thoughtfully. The demons silver eyes followed the jumping portrait. “Triple my usual rates for a rush job. Plus the weight of the hero in gold.”

“Outrageous! You worked for the liche in the summer valley for a quarter of that fee for the same sort of outlander!”

I tossed the portrait to the demon. “Then find another assassin,” I suggested. “If you can find one that will survive.”

That was my trump card every time. No one survived Dark Dale. Those that didn’t die outright were turned. Some were zombies, some liches, others hideous constructs of the Madness, souls ripped and torn beyond recognition. The lucky ones, or unlucky depending on your moral outlook, were turned into lesser demons, imps, succubae, incubi, and other half-mad things that did the bidding of the powerful. They would never be true demons, not with parts of their human souls intact, but they lived like demons.

“Double plus the weight,” the demon bargained.

“Triple plus the weight.” I stood firm. “You won’t be able to find anyone else.” The demon grumbled something foul under its breath. “Just tell yourself it comes out of the council's treasury not yours.”
The demon tossed its head in a nod. “Not my soul,” it muttered. “Find the hero. Kill the hero. And your pay will arrive as usual.”

“Good enough,” I agreed placidly. A funny thing most humans don’t know about demons is that they are actually bound by their words, unlike humans who can lie constantly without punishment.

No blood or vows are actually needed just a firmly worded agreement. The demons promise was contingent on my finding and killing the hero but since I would find and kill said hero there was no problem. “How many days ahead is this hero?”

“Three.” The demon held up three pointed talons. “He nears the east gate even now. Within two moonrises he will have reached the portal.”

“Are you not attacking him?” I asked with more suspicion than usual.

“We have thrown everything at him since he arrived.”

“The east gate is nearly impossible to reach unless you have a demon guide,” I noted. “Does he have a demon guide?”

“No.” The ashen demon squirmed.

“Tell me,” I ordered.

“He is impervious to magic. He nulls it. Nothing we do works.” The demon with its monstrous horns, bulging muscles, and venomed talons pouted.

I sheathed my sword of fire and pulled out a sharp iron spike. “Is he mortal or a demigod?”

“Mortal, most assuredly.” I gave the demon a pointed look. “Probably mortal,” it amended with an apologetic shrug. “No divine influence has been seen on him.”

“Well that at least is encouraging,” I traded my iron dagger for my favored offhand weapon, a sword breaker.

There are two kinds of sword breakers readily available for those who want to crush their enemies and deprive them of hope as you do so. The first is the traditional iron rod with no sharp edge. It’s heavy, sword length, and if you strike hard enough swords break. The second is a long dagger with a sharp edge on one side and a deep-set jagged edge on the other side. You catch your opponent's weapon in the deep-set serrations and twist.

Snap!

Such a lovely sound and so useful when you are forced into confrontation with berserkers, especially those who tie their souls to their blades. The look of panic as they realize their pride has killed them is priceless. Well, no, not priceless, I can put a price on anything.

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