The Black Rose
Elise shivered as cold fingers of rain trickled across her body. Her feet knew every bruising cobblestone, and the gossamer gown she had donned to entice business was drenched, leaving nothing to the imagination. Only nature’s cold fury deterred the townswomen from stopping to throw stones as they had yesterday. Today they merely jeered as they hurried by with their shawls or cloaks clutched tightly about them. Elise paced the refuse strewn street in search of a customer. The bitter wind caressed every inch of her slender frame, but she scarcely noticed it, nor the wracking hunger that had gnawed her stomach since she had stumbled into town three days ago. She was beyond numb- her mind elsewhere, even as she nodded to a pair of necromancers who stumbled out of the town’s most raucous tavern, blinking their eyes against the rain as they paused to look her over. The shorter of the two approached and ran his hand through her sopping hair and then he turned her chin left and right, inspecting her.
His eyes wandered over her triangular face. “Like a delicate jewel,” he muttered under his breath, then looked into her lavender eyes and spoke aloud, “You’ll do nicely.” He dropped 5 gold into her palm and motioned for her to follow him.
Elise hadn’t known what to expect, and not being a thief, she obeyed. As her unshod feet plodded through puddles and muck following the necromancer, she dared to hope that afterwards he might share the scraps of his noon meal. If so, she could offer the gold and her favors for a caravan ride to Lut Gholein, where her beloved’s last message had come from. As the black cloaked mage led her into a narrow alleyway lined with ramshackle houses, she wondered yet again whether death was worse than the shame she would bring upon herself and her betrothed. She clutched at the silver pendant Ibrahim had given her, and hot tears joined the cold rain on her spattered face. If only he would return to save her, she thought as the necromancer stopped at one doorway and produced a long key from his cloak. If Ibrahim still lived- Elise’s heart shuddered, and then the necromancer was beckoning her through an iron bound door warded with glyphs and sigils against demons. She wished she could so ward her own soul.
With cracked lips and swollen tongue , Ibrahim trudged through the burning sands that silently stretched to the horizon in every direction. Not a breeze or shadow defied the scorching sun as it waited vulture like at the zenith. Soon, Ibrahim would lie dead, cooked in the iron coffin meant to shield him from demons. Then the fierce sun would descend from the sky to claim his body, as it long ago claimed every twig and leaf of this desolate hell. Emblazoned with elaborate geometric patterns in gold leaf, the young Paladin’s plate armor was a flashing beacon despite the film of dust that covered him from helm to solleret. Ibrahim thought to see a flicker of movement, but as he raised a gauntlet to shield his eyes from the glare, he found nothing but his imagination. He pushed on, slogging through the soft sand, and concentrating on the locket of Elise’s hair that bumped against his heart with every step through this desolate dunescape.
Would she ever forgive him for his accusations against her purity? If only he had known that the man he had found sleeping next to her on that straw pallet was her brother. Her father’s words against him had been even harsher than hers, and Ibrahim fled the village in shame on a quest to bring back a holy relic that might purify his soul and prove his worth to ask for Elise’s hand once more.
The dune ahead of him quivered momentarily. Ibrahim slipped the Adamantine broadsword from its scabbard and stepped back. The sand seethed as if alive, then erupted with pointed legs and chitinous bodies. A freshly hatched brood of sand maggots scurried hungrily toward the flesh meal approaching them.
The scripture of Daniel in the Lion’s Den came unbidden to Ibrahim’s mind, and his body became as defiant as his spirit. He would not allow demon spawn to impregnate his blood with their deadly spores. The first wave of sand maggots clamped their mandibles around his legs, immobilizing him. The second surrounded him like wolves sharing a kill. Some tore at his greaves, while others climbed his armor. Ibrahim brought the broadsword’s sacred blade down again and again, slashing the husks of these dreadful insects, and occasionally cleaving one in half when his blade caught it between segments. It wasn’t enough. The demonspawn replaced their numbers faster than he could kill them, and his defiance against their poisons wouldn’t last much longer.
Ibrahim didn’t fear death, but he would not bear the dishonor of failing. How could it be that the pride of the Order of Samaritans fell to a bunch of bugs? He felt a sharp sting as one of the sand maggots briefly pierced the mail under his pauldron, causing him to drop his broadsword. Ibrahim raised his shield high and asked for the angels to help him smite these demons. “Charity! Justice! Honor!” Ibrahim yelled out with a cracked voice as his great rune shield moved like a dragonfly’s wings, its iron boss puncturing the carapaces as it hurled them backwards into the dunes. In minutes all that was left were broken legs and shattered husks. Ibrahim drew ragged gasps of scalding air as he surveyed the debris of the battle. He headed towards a shiny glint that might be a flask, when he rapidly began to sink. The ground gave way, sucking him down into a funnel of swirling sand.
The iron door slammed shut behind her, and Elise found herself back in the pouring rain hastily donning her gown before someone passed by. At least she hadn’t been shamed. She would starve before she would agree to the depravities the necromancer had in mind. She would most certainly NOT perform any acts of consummation with the shambling things that the necromancer controlled, despite the bags of gold that he offered. Perhaps this “profession” was not as easy as it looked to the passerby, but how else was she to feed herself and Ibrahim’s unborn child?
Elise curled up under eaves that blocked most of the rain and and sobbed. It wasn’t enough that her family and their farm had perished in flames. It wasn’t enough that she had to see their charred and twisted skeletons, seeing how horrifically their end had come. It had to be worse. Instead of rampaging demons, she had learned that in their hatred of her budding sorcery, her own townsfolk had burned down the farm. Elise wished she had perished with them, instead of coming back from the market to discover the tragedy.
“I sense a soul in search of answers.”
Elise looked up towards the raspy voice, and despite the pounding rain, saw a dry woman in black dress, with a witches’ stripe running through her hair. “And who might you be?,” Elise asked, using her hand to shield the rain from her eyes as she stood up to meet the woman.
“Come with me child, and by the time you give birth, your powers will be strong enough for you to help your beloved battle the demons.”
“Can you tell me...” Elise started, but was cut short by a wave of the sorceress’ hand.
“The fate of your beloved and your child I cannot see. While the demon lords walk the earth, higher powers intervene, disrupting the normal flow of magic. Among other names, I am called Adria,” the strange woman spoke. She couldn’t possibly be as old as the wisdom in her eyes hinted at, could she? “It is Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred, that turned the townsfolk against your family, and if we do not use all our gifts- your child and every other born will be nothing more than holocausts for Bel-Shathor and her kind.” Adria extended her arms and a pale blue arch of light shimmered.
Elise took a deep breath and then she was ready. As she stepped dripping through the portal, she said a silent prayer for Ibrahim, wherever he might be.
As he choked the sand out of his lungs, Ibrahim rolled into a hard stone wall. Ibrahim let the dust and his mind settle for a moment, and then cast an aura of radiance, so that he could find his way. What was this hollow he had stumbled into? He saw none of the
elaborate hieroglyphs that usually marked the mastaba that the ancient engineers were so fond of building for their familial tombs, nor did the walls follow the catecomb like pattern the mastaba had. Could he be in that fabled necropolis the sages only spoke of in riddled verse? A hissing snarl interrupted his thoughts, and Ibrahim whirled to see a shadow flit past then vanish. Something in the shadowy gloom twitched back and forth, then leapt out of the darkness with long clawed paws aimed at his gorget. Ibrahim ducked and the Runeshield darted up and deflected the attack, sending the creature flying overhead. It let out a sibillant growl as it turned to face him and Ibrahim almost dropped his guard when he got his first look at the visage of the half panther half female demon. Noticing his gaze, the pantheress reared back on her hind legs to offer him a better view, even as she unclasped a faintly glowing bullwhip from her side and circled him warily.
Ibrahim knew her whip attack would wrap around his shield and he held the Adamantine blade out, hoping for a chance to cut it. The pantheress snapped the whip back and Ibrahim charged forward with his shield held high. He felt the crack as the whip struck the flat of his shield, causing one of the runes to faintly glow, and then Ibrahim was upon her, thrusting his blade into the pantheress. But she was no longer there! Ibrahim whirled to find her standing behind him, careless in her aplomb. Again the Adamantine sword swept out in a fierce arc, but she merely leaned back and let the blade whistle by inches from her. Ibrahim stepped back to consider new tactics and something struck and coiled about his sword arm. Ibrahim twisted the blade and the whip was cut, before his he sword could be wrenched from his grasp.
Three more of the pantheress demons emerged from of the shadows, one of them glowing as if her fur were strands of pure gold. “Welcome to my realm mortal. I am Soul Bait,” the golden one purred. As the first pantheress moved in once again, Soul Bait hissed. The pantheress hesitated, then reluctantly dropped back. “Please excuse the rudeness of my Hex Kittens. They don’t share my tastes for human flesh,” Soul Bait stepped into his light and regarded him carefully with her sea green eyes.
Ibrahim tried to quell his desires, but it was hard to do while staring at such a sumptuous figure, and he couldn’t afford to look away for even a moment. Her face rivaled Nefertiti’s and her taut sinews and lithe curves screamed out to Ibrahim’s baser instincts.
“I hunger for you,” Soul Bait whispered, her tail lashing back and forth in anticipation. “Come,” she beckoned, “Serve me.”
Ibrahim crossed himself as he readied the aura of holy shield for the inevitable battle.
Soul Bait strutted just beyond the reach of his blade, turning so that her stunning golden profile would impress itself on his memory. “How much pleasure can a paladin endure before he loses his grace?”
“I would never betray my beloved!” Ibrahim shuffled towards an immense sandstone pillar, hoping to protect part of his flank.
“I will have you,” Soul Bait arched a painted eyebrow at him and let her hands wander over herself suggestively. “Care for some Cat Nip?” she asked as lifted her bounteous charms and thrust them towards Ibrahim. “Or would you prefer an undying bane?” Her languid hand indicated something shuffling towards them from the distant gloom.
Ibrahim had heard of the undead paladins, but the giant bandaged demon that came lumbering into the light looked more like a jackal skulled reaper than the human it might once have been.
Soul Bait stroked herself again, “You can enjoy purrfection, or you can hunger for death as they do. Either way you will serve me.”
Ibrahim got a better look at the mummified paladin as the horror now moved into his light radius, and he could now see where the sickle like arm of the demon had once been its holy sword.
Soul Bait nodded and the Hex Kittens moved to flank Ibrahim. She drew a threshing flail with long fluted rods from her belt-thong and blew Ibrahim a kiss. “I am your Mistress now!”
Except for the ram like horns, cloven feet, and leathern wings, the hawk sized man hovering in front of Elise was perfect in every detail. Overwhelmingly perfect in some details, she thought as she averted her eyes.
“Come, come child!,” Adria hissed, “The transference of power can only be accomplished one way. The deed must be done. The Incubus must be satisfied!”
Though Elise’s eyes held defiance, her shoulders slumped as she accepted one more harsh reality. The incubus licked his lips as Elise began unfastening the high laced collar of her houppelande. He reeked of a musk that made Elise’s heart pound and her body tremble, even as her mind loathed him.
“Enough!” Adria held her palm up, as the tip of Elise’s bodice began to show.
The demon scowled, and flew next to Elise.
Adria nodded to the demon.
Elise’s face convoluted as the Incubus whispered foul suggestions in her ear, then grasped her shoulders and began to suckle on her neck. Adria had explained that Elise’s pregnancy kept the incubus from demanding more, but Elise still felt violated as the Incubus used its tongue and lips on her neck in a way that gave her feverish pleasure. She kept expecting the sharp pain of the demon’s teeth penetrating her neck, but the demon only seemed to tease her. It was only after several minutes, that she realized the incubus was drawing her crimson life force through her unbroken skin. As she traded warmth and life with the demon, it repaid her with a surge of cold that started in her neck and seeped into every nook and cranny of her soul.
Elise forced her thoughts to drift, and it was as if a new part of her mind had arisen. The shapeless molten lava of hate and desire was now being formed into cold hard steel. Elise now understood that only relentless study and practice would give her mind the sharp edge necessary to do battle. Elise’s thoughts suddenly snapped back to her immediate surroundings, and she noticed with disgust that the incubus was grinding himself against her chest. She throttled his neck, pulled him away from her, and then hurled him away.
The Incubus flapped hard and just avoided colliding with the wall. “Foolish slut!” the incubus snarled. “In a few more moments, I would have finished, and your powers would be replete with all the possibilities.” The enraged and engorged demon flapped directly in front of her. “Now, you are only half made. Never will you be intimate with the casting of Stone Curse, Golem, or Mana Shield!”
“Than I will invent even more powerful spells to wage war against you and your wretched kind!” Elise shook her fist at the demon.
The incubus’ tilted his horns, and Adria barked out harsh syllables as her hands moved in an intricate flurry. The demon’s horns barely pricked Elise’s neck when Adria’s spell dissolved it into a swirl of fiery motes, which arose upwards and dimmed into nothingness. “You will regret this moment the rest of your days!” the incubus’ fading voice cried out.
Elise clutched her laced collar closed, and felt a great coldness grip her.
“I’m afraid the demon is correct,” Adria gazed off into some unknown distance. Somehow she had to tell this budding sorceress that since she had broken the pact, the demon had also, and in its anger taken her child. Adria knew what demons did to unborn children and turned to hide her tears from Elise.
A spray of golden sparks punctuated the darkness as the sickle like arm of the undead paladin was deflected by the edge of the runeshield. Ibrahim’s throbbing arm, lifted the shield high against another overhead attack, and the fierce blow resonated through him, despite the holy shield aura that cut the demon’s attack power. An ordinary attacker would be slowed as if underwater, but the dark gauze enshrouded paladin was barely affected. Ibrahim had battled mummies before, and like others of their ilk, the undead paladin he faced was immune to blows to the heart, or other vitals, since those were protected somewhere else in a canopic jar. Inexperienced mages often attacked the bandaged beings with fire, but whatever substance blackened the linen gauze also made the mummies immune to flame. The only way to kill a mummy was to dismember it and then destroy the pieces by acid or divine spark. Most mummies could be slain with a half dozen strikes of the holy bolt alone, but the power of the undead demon above him was greater than any mummy or other undead he had ever faced.
The undying paladin opened its jackal like jaws and began to choke. Ibrahim scurried backwards to avoid the virulent scarlet cloud. A whiff of that red death caused the blood to spray from the victim’s orifice’s like a fountain in minutes. Using the lingering cloud as camouflage, the demon quickly struck at Ibrahim’s right side, catching the guard of the Adamantine broadsword and twisting it from his grasp. The dark paladin lunged for a mortal strike, its blackened and dried eye sockets sparkling like dying coals as it chuckled in some long dead language.
Ibrahim was spun around, and his arm wrenched up as the Runeshield sought to meet and parry the scythe like claw. Once again, the sandstone chamber was filled by the shower of golden sparks and a deafening clang. With each attack the Runeshield absorbed part of the damage, and with the latest blow, the twelve stylized runes depicting the stations of the cross glowed white hot once again. Ibrahim released the shield’s power, and three ring like waves of blue-white energy swept out like tsunamis as the rune shield and the holy shield resonated with sacred energy. The dark paladin howled and tumbled backwards while the pantheress demons were lifted and flung by the waves of telekinetic energy. As they burst against distant walls in a splatter of bone, fur and entrails, Ibrahim recovered the Adamantine broadsword and with two swift chops severed the dark paladin’s leg below the knee. As it struggled Ibrahim’s sacred blade hacked twice, sending an elbow and forearm spinning off into the darkness. The demon staggered, and Ibrahim’s flurry of attacks took out large chunks of ribs and spine, until the dark paladin’s skull came tumbling down. Ibrahim used the boss of the runeshield to pulverize the skull and a single bolt of holy spark to make sure the deed stayed done.
Ibrahim found an opened sarcophagi to guard his back, and risked a minute’s respite and a sip of healing elixir. Soul Bait had escaped, and Ibrahim was not looking forward to dealing with her or the minions she was probably summoning even now. In the scurry of battle, he had seen an obelisk with the ring of five standing stones denoting transport, but who knew what danger that would fling him into? He thought to hear shuffling sounds, and partially lifted his helm to be sure. Ibrahim cast an aura of radiance upon the wall closest to the sound and nearly jumped out of his armor when he the aura illuminated a dozen strong horde of dark paladins shambling towards him with their deathless jackal grin. Ibrahim clamped his helm down and hoped he could reach the obelisk before the greater mummies could.
Adria stood slack jawed at the smoldering craters. When Elise had miscast the fireball spell, nothing happened immediately, and then the terror from the skies began. Adria shook her head, “Without speaking the runes, show me what you did again.”
Elise’s ears burned with embarrassment, but she repeated the gesticulations that Adria had taught her.
“No, no no!” Adria held her face in her hands. Would this youngster ever learn? “The left hand must be moved thusly to propel the fireball through the air,” Adria remonstrated the proper methods. “What you did was more like a demon summoning, except that yours was directed to the heavens instead of the hells.”
“I’m not sure I want to know a fireball spell if it’s more powerful than that,” Elise
unclasped the silk cape from her neck, and hung it on the branch of a tree that had survived her errant assault. Perhaps this career was also unsuitable for her.
“No fireball has ever been that powerful,” Adria hobbled over to the cape, and plucked the gem clasp from it. “At least wear this as a neckbroach. It will help focus your powers, and focus is what you need most.” Adria sat down on what remained of a stone fence. “Anyone can mutter words, wave their arms around and wreak terrible havoc. What you want to do is destroy enemies without harming your allies.”
A flicker of hope crossed Elise’s face. “If that spell variant could be mastered, it would be a great tool!”
“Perhaps someday when you are well versed in the thaumaturgic arts,” Adria sighed. To be honest, she wasn’t sure that day would ever come. Though Elise picked up the verbal and somatic essences of spell casting at a dizzying rate, she seemed to juxtapose them in a manner that could only bring failure. For the first time in a long life, Adria was looking into uncharted waters.
“While I delay, my beloved Ibrahim is in great peril!” Elise protested.
“If he is as noble and capable as you speak of him, he will surely be fine for a few more days without your help,” Adria stood up and waved Elise to follow her back to what was left of her house.
Elise protested, “He placed a great quest upon himself. In his last letter, he said something about finding the Canopic Jewel and redeeming his honor,” Elise followed Adria back to the smoking shambles.
Adria suddenly whirled to face her. “He is as good as dead then!” Adria’s face seemed bitter and hateful. “Divinations by mages far greater than I show that the gem is well guarded in the inner sanctum of Bel-Shathor.”
“Is he dangerous?” Elise knew the answer even as she asked.
“She. Bel-Shathor may not be one of the Prime Evils but her power is tremendous and she controls legions of Viper Demons that would make stalwart veterans turn to jelly,” Adria replied. “Child, this is something beyond his or your ability to fight. Hell, even with Deckard Cain at my back, I wouldn’t go venturing into that serpent’s nest.”
“But I have to help him!,” Elise squinted hard, and somehow kept back the tears. “What of the Jester’s Cap you spoke of? Surely, I can learn to cast spells more easily with that equipped.”
“As fine as Ibrahim may be, you should forget about that young man, or any other,” Adria steadied herself with a stave that had belonged to the Horadrim Rymael before his downfall.
“What are you saying?,” It was only through a hope for revenge and rescue that Elise could live through the news of her child, now Adria had more dread in store for her?
Adria looked directly into Elise’s eyes, “You are a Black Rose now.”
“Just, what do you mean by that?,” Elise felt her legs growing weak.
“When the incubus’ horns penetrated your skin, he not only stole the life force of your child, he also poisoned yours,” Adria struggled with a good way to explain the details. “You are a taint to all men.”
Elise’s eyebrows furrowed and she gave Adria a quizzical look.
“Your kiss brings death,” Adria flinched as she said it. “Any man you love will grow ill, then whither and die as if a dozen centuries old, whilst you will scarcely age.”
Elise choked back a sob, then looked at Adria with a new perspective, “You, you are also a Black Rose?”
Adria nodded, and rivers seemed to flow down her cheeks. She tried to speak, but the words only came as hoarse choking sounds.
“Sssh, Ssssh” Elise held Adria until she stopped shuddering.
Adria sputtered a few times, then managed to speak again, “Once, I foolishly let myself believe that I had thwarted the curse, and I let myself fall in love.”
“What happened?” Elise felt her own throat drawing tight as she tried to keep her mind away from thoughts of Ibrahim.
“I had kissed him only once, secretly, before our betrothment and my bane as a Black Rose. In my case, the bane was the result of my teacher improperly scribing the protective circles when the incubus came. The curse was known, but as Sorceress’ were extremely rare, no one had really tried to break the curse. For six long years we used talismans, phylacteries, spells and glyphs to try to mitigate the curse and prepare for our wedding night.”
Elise felt the warm tears welling up, and could not bring herself to ask.
“He died the next morning,” Adria threw her hands up in the air, and went walking off wracked in great sobs.
Elise went numb. It was as if she was walking the streets again, only this time the rain would never stop. The demons would pay! Though she was probably better off dead, Elise would have her vengeance! She caught Adria by the shoulders and spun her around, “Show me where Ibrahim is now!”
Adria took a long breath and slowly let it out in ragged gasps. “I can’t.”
“You are a powerful Seeress. You must show me. Please!,” Elise felt more resolute than she ever had.
Adria wriggled free and marched grimly into her dilapidated house, and returned without a word a few minutes later bearing a large chest from which she produced five large black rune stones and a skellwood obelisk. She stood the stones around the obelisk and stood back. With a spark of firebolt, she set the obelisk ablaze. “It will only work once. Are you ready?”
Elise rushed to give Adria a tremendous hug.
“I have a few things you can take with you, but the most important of all is that you never forget or try to scamp your way around the curse, for he will surely die. Do you understand this?”
Elise nodded, and began equipping the items even as Adria was still explaining their usage in preparation for her journey.
A small flightless Tuftdarter chirped loudly in fear as it scrambled across Ibrahim’s path and into a clump of saw grass. Ibrahim heeded the warning, and crouched behind a shattered boulder and waited. He had given profuse exaltations to the Good Master when the standing stones and obelisk had transported him to a safe and empty plain, high atop this rose sandstone canyon. “I was lost and now am found” Ibrahim whispered once again as he hazarded a peek through the slit in the boulder. It was a miracle that the obelisk had taken him to the top of the cliff he had sought for five long days in the desert. Ibrahim neither saw nor heard anything to cause so much consternation in the tiny bird, but having been taught over and over that patience was a virtue, he waited. A faint breeze blew through the canyon, and Ibrahim reflected that it was only a few hours hike back to the top should the need present itself.
What had sounded like a faint breeze became a grinding roar, and a shadow fell over the canyon as an angry storm of reddish dust billowed up from the legions of Grakhaur warriors slithering by, their barbed tails held erect in perfect parade form. It took four of the seven foot high Grakhaurs in their azure ring mail, using a harness slung between them to hold aloft the giant lance, which appeared to Ibrahim’s eyes to be the spinal column of an extremely large and lengthy serpent. The banner had long since rotted from the standard, but the flickers of crimson lightning that coursed up and down its length, attested to the presence of powerful shaman somewhere in the countless thousands rushing by. The venom from their barbed tails could slay an ox faster than a cutpurse could lift a merchant’s savings, and even the spray from a near miss would cause the affected skin to rot off in a few weeks. Ibrahim held his breath as still as possible, and watched the horde of serpent men disappear into the winding defile known as Wadi Haya Famed for the beauty of its rose hued sandstone cliffs, and the magnificent city carved into those sheer walls, the valley was named after the serpent like demons that filled the city abundantly.
Cautiously, Ibrahim followed their path, letting his eye wander over the shifting play of colors in the curves and ridges of the rose hued rock. Occasionally, high above, he would spot a darker shadow, bounding effortlessly along the clefts and rifts, and he would hug the rock face until they had passed. The hoofed Gyrads he saw were more like goats than true centaurs, and they were as accurate with their crossbows as they were nimble on the cliffs. Even if he was beyond range, a single note from the horn dangling between their furry breasts could summon a pack of the boulder heaving Triclops. When the walls became too steep for even these sentries, Ibrahim relaxed his vigilance and let his gaze take in more subtle details around him. A long grooved channel had been cut into the stone along one side of the narrow path, and judging by the smoothness inside, it had once carried water down to the Necropolis in the center of the Valley of Snakes. Every hundred paces or so, a small niche or cluster of shrines would be cut into the wall, and though Ibrahim would not touch the heathen things, he knew of many adventurer who would risk their well being for the chance. Most of the shrines were empty, or perhaps littered with broken shards of the fine clay vessels that were worth their weight in gold if intact. Though simply shaped, the elaborate geometric carvings on the zir and amphorae was said to imbue potent benefits to liquids stored in them.
Numerous side passages twisted off into unknown dangers, but the main path was ever downward. The width and slope of the path varied considerably, as did the quality of its dust laden surface. Breached here and there by dark granite paving stones, some meticulously carved, Ibrahim caught imaginary glimpses of the valley’s previous glory before the Grakhaur infested it. The defile narrowed until Ibrahim had to turn sideways to slip between the cliffs, and a great din beyond cautioned him to stealth. Creeping slowly and peeking around each bend, his eyes reeled at the multitude of sights.
Below him, the path dropped into an vast plaza swarming with Grakhaur and associated demons. Across the plaza, an imposing temple had been hewn into the rose colored cliff. The colonnade on either side soared fully five hundred feet upwards to support the elaborate frieze. The glyphs and sigils carved therein were beyond Ibrahim’s limited wisdom, but he recognized the three headed serpent that dominated otherwise plain cornice. Bel-Shathor, destroyer of cities and devourer or souls. The first of her six scaled arms held a giant mattock, the second a rune scythe, the third a bone stave bound in copper, the fourth a twisted black wand of ironroot encrusted with gems, the fifth a dismembered virgin, and the sixth held a half eaten baby.
Ibrahim felt the fury pounding in his eardrums. He clenched his fist around his sword and counted by threes and fives as the abbots had taught him. Slowly his anger and heartbeat subsided. Unlike his dervish father, Ibrahim had no desire to die in a mindless battle. The legion of Grakhaur he had followed was only a tiny patch of blue amongst the of myriad serpent demons who served the evil demoness depicted high above them.
Ibrahim worked his way closer to the seething mass and the horrors began to take discernible shapes. Like giraffes amongst sheep, the long emerald scaled necks of Psychevores towered above the ordinary Grakhaur that teemed about like a sea of scarlet and azure scales. Sir Audric once told him how the village idiot Drooltongue had been the mighty Horadrim Rymael before a Psychevore’s mind blast turned him into a quivering shamble of rags and fear that drug himself around by his hands and used his feet to scrawl crude characters in the dirt to communicate. As one of the emerald wyrms passed the near side of the plaza, Ibrahim noted the writhing clump of tendrils that hung under the beasts chin like bewitched sea moss. Each tendril was capped by a tiny eye, and Ibrahim felt his skin prickle as one of the eyes seemed to regard him for a moment.
A shadow caused the eye to dart upwards, and the Pyschevore hastily whipped itself out of harm’s way as the ochre belly of a sixty legged Ragnasaur passed above. The immense reptilian beast undulated from side to side like a river walking on legs the size of castle towers. Ibrahim doubted whether a trebuchet could make such a beast flinch. Bolts of lightning jumped between the tree sized spikes lining the ridges on its back. Twice, the Ragnasaur’s tail came slamming down, causing rings of nova to rip through the snake men like talons through dried corn husks. Ibrahim had to find another way in...
Stepping back into the shelter of the passage, Ibrahim wiped his brow. He carved the tetragrammaton into the rock as he prayed for an answer. Bel-Shathor’s chambers were purported to contain the Canopic Jewel, a gem which placed in a sword’s socket would allow the weapon to drain and store the essences of a demon’s heart to draw upon for healing whenever needed. It was exactly the kind of relic that might make him a powerful force and someday allow him to one day face his love with honor.
A great whirlwind of dust arose behind him, and Ibrahim brought the Adamantine blade up to deal with what he hoped was only a small juvenile Grakhaur. As the dust cleared, Ibrahim saw something tumble out at him. He saw that it was Elise, just in time to avoid skewering her with his sword.
“My love, can you forgive me?” Ibrahim had never seen a more beautiful sight than Elise’s willowy form in her exotic garments and elaborate accruements though many of them were strange to his eyes.
Elise moved to his side and smiled wanly. “All is as before that wretched day”
Ibrahim leaned forward to kiss Elise as they had never kissed before, but her she rebuffed him with an upraised palm.
“Later,” Elise lied. “Right now we have demons to kill, a gem to recover and a score to avenge!”