And here we are. Be warned, while I think I avoided the most severe of imagery, there is violence and not necessarily pleasant imagery ahead. This is an introductory piece for the origin of my Tiefling warlock, Demaia, for an upcoming Dungeons and Dragons campaign – a woman who in blind vengeance forges a pact for freedom with creatures of the Far Realm.
Timbers creaked faintly in the old house as the hunched-over figure knelt before the dying embers of the hearth. Soft ticking from the clock added a monotonous rhythm to the sounds; for outside there was only darkness and silence. Shafts of muted moonlight snaked through holes in the oiled rag draped about the window frame, casting long and intermittent shadows across the floor like slumbering snakes, encroaching ever more on her as the light of the fire died away. At last she was started from her stupor by the dull strike of a soft mallet against the metal in the clock – just a single strike that shook her almost to the bone.
Slowly she rose from the battered chair, standing tall; and even in the dying light from the hearth cast a silhouette that scared aside the phantom snakes that the moon had spawned; the two small horns sweeping back from her head were cast as stark daggers in the room and the sweeping tail swerved in her movement, summoning a far greater serpentine shade as she made her way across the floor gradually and deliberately. Upon reaching the stairs the faint orange glow of an oil lantern illuminated her reddened skin and she squinted, murmuring something incoherent to herself before lifting herself onto the steps.
In a sudden moment, there came a sharp thump from behind her and she spun around abruptly, setting her darkness-veiled gaze upon the door. Another thump followed it, and beyond that came a strained voice.
“Demaia,” came the insistent tone, “Demaia, open up, quickly!”
Though recognition settled in the Tiefling’s mind it took her a long moment to allow herself to walk to the door and open it cautiously, letting only half of her face peek around its edge with her nose rested against the wood. In the one eye, whose amethyst colour was vaguely perceptible in the searchlight of the moon funnelled down narrow streets, gleamed a profound wariness, even as she spoke quietly.
“What is it?” she asked with a surreptitious low tone, glancing over his shoulder searchingly; he was a short man, and while she tended to be slightly taller than those around her, this particular one was a full head below, draped in rags that so thoroughly concealed his form and face from view that it was only his voice she had come to recognise with any reliability.
“I need yar help,” came his reply, laced with an undertone of regret and an inflection of fear, “Please.”
Demaia’s brow sunk into a weak frown and her grip on the door tightened. A voice in the back of her mind protested vehemently, pulling her back into the room of shadows and snakes – safety, even if not comfort, lay within after all. It was not to be, however, as she could not prevent the softening of her expression as emotion eked its way to the fore. Though a diminutive, self-interested street rat, the man in rags had been the one to find her a home away from the doubtful eyes of those whom looked down on her kind, to live and work in relative peace. She sighed in resignation and lowered her gaze back down to him.
“… What’s happened?”
His movements were rapid and awkward, and his calloused hands rapidly shifted over each other as the mass of rags that represented his head looked this way and that. In a ragged voice he spoke in a manner that sounded uncharacteristically calculated.
“There was… A accident, at th’ docks,” he explained cryptically with a gesture of his hand, “Law’s all o’er it, an’ they’re peekin’ for me, like they think…” his explanation was accompanied by more urgent and completely random gestures with both shaking hands.
The Tiefling gritted her teeth and pushed the door open properly without needing to hear more, moving off to sweep a battered leather coat from a rusty hook on the wall, “Get in here and hide,” she snapped, “Wait for me to get back. Where?”
“The schooner den, the north warehouse – you kna’ the one?”
“Yes,” she nodded in the midst of pulling the coat over her shoulders, “Stay out of sight.”
He nodded his head rapidly, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Dem.”
The city of Quege. A prosperous place of merchantmen, traders and seafarers. But Demaia’s home was a long way from those clean streets and bustling market squares; this was Backwater. Pathways denoted more by sodden trails of refuse than by stone, formed in vague and incoherent sprawling patterns by the construction of the ramshackle houses themselves. The stench of hundreds of low-borne, outcasts and criminals mixed liberally with salt-laden air that blew in from the docks to the south made for a truly dreadful air to step out into; and yet, it was home enough. Here at least she could live in peace, without every glance conveying a gavel of judgement or a dagger of suspicion.
Timber walls had done nothing to prevent the sounds of the outside invading her home, so even as she made her way through barren streets lined with people who could just as easily have been dead than asleep, the rhythm was the same. Creaking planks. Ticking of rickety clocks. And beyond that, she was alone with the silence. Long had she trudged these streets, and even in the strangled light she recognised a few bundles of frayed wool that represented fleeting acquaintances and assorted mad fixtures of Backwater. But traces of civilisation crept in the closer to the dockyards she became.
Upon a sort of twisted wooden gateway stood a single armoured guard – the ‘waterman’, often considered to be one of the worst postings for the city guard in Quege – bearing a torch aloft and watching the long, straight street that led into the darker depths of Backwater.As Demaia approached, her coat concealed the more dramatically inhuman elements of her form; as such, the guardsman paid her no heed as she passed out of Backwater and toward the wooden decking of the docks. Groaning ships swayed in their moorings as the rough seas swept against the stout pillars holding the piers aloft, offering no illusion of peace.
Amongst the dockyards there were coughing and groaning men, either drunk or homeless, many far too distracted to bother noting the covered figure’s passing; but she could hear in the distance an ominous metallic thump, and the faintest hint of glow from further along the dock – a pair of watchmen, no doubt, from whom she concealed herself by ducking behind a veritable stack of barrelled fish, catching her breath in her throat as she waited for a long, agonising minute to no avail, for neither the thump of armoured boots nor the glow of the torch passed her hiding place. Cursing quietly, she pressed her back to the warehouse and crept along with ever-lighter step.
Cautiously, she poked her head around the corner of the structure; nary was there a sign of a watchman, and the doors to this warehouse itself were shut tight, bound as she could see by a moon-illuminated steel chain. The only visible obstacle was an unconscious man more or less buried in filled, half-filled or slowly decanting bottles, around whom she skirted with care before pressing back to the wall and gliding along, ears twitching to listen out for phantom threats; she had no time to worry about the disappearing watchmen if the urgent tone of the man in rags was anything to go by. Shaking her head she checked the next corner; another mercifully empty street that lay between her and the so-called Schooner den, a selection of roof-covered shelters for small fishermen’s ships backing onto a warehouse whose stench of market-ready fish was almost legendary.
Ducking across the narrow walkway as a lone shifting shadow, she took a deep breath and listened again; her heart had begun to thump in her ears, and the seas grew rougher and more volatile gradually, the sound of thrashing waves almost drowning out the sound in her chest. A glance around the corner of the den revealed another walkway laden with numerous barrels, some oddly overturned but understandably it was deserted. Shaking her head she hurried her pace across to the warehouse onto which the den had backed and carefully reached for the back door’s handle, pushing it inward. It jammed with a quiet ‘chack’, indicating it had been locked for the night and she frowned.
Knowing even that faint noise might have given her away, she made haste to the massive doors designed to allow carts in for loading, figuring there had to be one way open for the man in rags to have witnessed any accident here at all; and just so, one of the great sprawling doors was fractionally ajar, betraying only the pitch blackness within. With baited breath once again, she squeezed through the gap, coiling her tail around one leg to prevent as much noise as possible. As expected from the outward appearance, the inside was a picture of nothing in the lack of light, and only the sound of the seas thrashing the shore betrayed movement at all. With no small sense of foreboding, she stepped forward slowly and her foot cracked as it trod on a splinter of wood. She almost jumped, but as she looked down and her eyes finally adjusted, she followed the trail of debris.
A touch of what seemed to be grey – but might easily have been red – liquid was spread across the floor as if scattered by impact, and she traced it to the caved-in head of a man whose clothing clearly painted him a manual worker, and a broken bottle in his hand indicated he had gone down fighting. But as Demaia rested her hands on the corpse to move it, the deep sense of foreboding came crashing down on her in a wave of terror as all around her, torches alighted and bowstrings were pulled taut with a distinctive creaking sound, blinding her with light and forcing her to shieldr her eyes as plated watchmen advanced on her in droves.
“Looks like the tip was good,” stated the closest one approaching, through whose superfluous armour decorations she identified him as a superior officer, “You are under arrest on the charges of assault and battery, blackmail and common murder. Come quietly and do not resist.”
Even as her eyes adjusted to the influx of fire light, her voice just died out in her throat as she was shoved to her knees and her hands were bound in manacles. Before she had a chance to think she was being dragged up to her feet again. Even as she was shoved off under the rough gauntlets of the guards in a few minutes that felt like they’d passed in seconds, her eyes flickered with anger. After all of that, she’d been set up. That man in rags, whom she’d dared to give her trust. Her teeth gritted, and she thrashed in half-involuntary rage against her bindings. Darkness as she was struck unconscious followed.
Vision of grey stone walls blurred in and out of focus as she strained to open her eyes, followed by a weighty feeling in her hands and legs. Dull thumping pain in her head followed and she gasped out in exasperation, drawing the attention of her cell’s guard, whose features were indistinct through the bars as he stared upon her with disdain. Her dry and cracking voice came out in protest.
“It… It wasn’t me, I was… I was set up.”
He sighed heavily and shook his helmeted head, “Heard it all before, lady. Head down, the courts will hear you tomorrow.”
In defeat she hung her head, glancing at the chains binding her limbs loosely to the wall and she gritted her teeth, hair hanging over her face as she gathered her strength and awareness. The guard turned his back to the cell once again and rested against the wall for a nap while she drew in air in thin, strangled streams through gritted teeth. And as her fury rose, she heard a voice. Distant, unclear, but unmistakable.
“My, my,” it mocked, “Aren’t we… Frustrated.”
She looked around the cell frantically for the source; but neither the walls nor the dozing guard yielded clues to the spectre’s voice and her fingers balled into fists.
“Don’t… Mock me,” she snarled.
Echoes of laughter proceeded, loud enough to wake the whole prison were it not an ephemeral creation, “But why not? Do you not thrash with anger when you cannot make anything of it?”
“If I… If I…” she stuttered, and spluttered, causing the dopey guard to tap on the bars.
“Quiet. Stop talking to yourself or I’ll have to gag you.”
Anger flourished in her like a star and her fingers dug into her palms so tightly as to draw blood. The taunting voice returned.
“What if,” it ventured so casually, “What if we… Helped you?”
Though she had nothing to focus her gaze upon, she looked up sharply and glared at the bars of her cell.
“What do you have to offer me?” she muttered under her breath, “They will judge me guilty unless you have a miracle to offer.”
“Ah, but my lady Demaia, we are miracles,” a breeze stirred in her cell, scattering dust. The moonlight that crept through the barred slit on the back wall intensified into a swirling mist and she stared at it incredulously, “And all we ask, is a little pact,” it whispered teasingly in her ear, so warm and enticing in her cold cell.
“Who are you?” she uttered in a somewhat fearful voice.
“Who are we not?” the voice responded cryptically, “You need not grasp who we are to have your freedom, Tiefling,” the breeze brushed against her skin and the chill that passed down her spine was wholly unnatural, but she felt a hint, just a hint, of the promise behind it that filled her with a sense of indomitability.
“… Name your price.”
“Your obedience,” came a surprisingly blunt reply, “Obey. We will free you from your chains and grant you victory over your captors. The opportunity to seek vengeance.”
“I pay your price,” she uttered quietly as a haze of hatred and anger overturned logic and reason, “Now fulfil your bargain!”
“I warned you,” sighed the prison guard, who had cared not for what she was saying, only that she was saying it too loud, “Back to the wall, prisoner.”
A rattle of a key preceded the opening of the door, and for a while Demaia felt nothing as he stuffed a dirty rag into her mouth. Then, all of a sudden, the bars swung and behind him the cell locked as she spat the gag out. Moonlight swarmed the cell as if liquid and pooled in the floor, creeping up the Tiefling and seeping into her skin. The guard crashed against the cell wall in terror as the violet eyes that had gazed so forlornly at the floor went sheet-white and she rose to her feet ominously. Steel kneaded helplessly before shafts of lancing, brilliant starlight and the chains simply melted away. Though she felt her will removed from her direct grasp, Demaia observed with vengeful approval as through a veil of restraint her hand affixed itself to the helmet of the guard and he began to tremble. The ethereal voice rippled through her.
“Tremble, mortal,” it intoned sinisterly, “And fear! Grasp eternity, see every star, every grain of sand!”
Blood leaked in streams from the guards eyes and ears and he slumped lifeless to the floor. In a snap, Demaia’s will returned to her and she staggered back against the wall, looking at her hands and balling them into fists again as she felt infused with unthinkable, unrecognisable power. She pushed the cell door open, drawing the attention of a number of other guards whom had already been roused by the rattling. Outstretching her hands to either side, a rippling black mist came over her vision again as her instinct for vengeful wrath was answered by her benefactors again. The voice reverberated as an echo of thunder in a great hall.
“Fate bends to our command!”
Trembling guardsmen drew blades, but against all of the odds their hands fumbled. Blades clattered to the floor and invisible moonlit oil sent them slipping and tumbling to the floor. Rattling feebly against the flagstone, they began to gibber; but their gibbering would yield them no reprieve.
“Grasp the beyond, beneath frozen emerald seas of Thuban!”
Dozens of glimmering green tendrils leapt forth from the ceiling that had been enveloped in a void not unlike the starry night above, and they crept into the plates of the guards’ armour as heat drained from their very bodies, leaving them pictures of frozen terror as ice formed across their bodies. With another crack of thunder, she slumped back against the wall with her will returned to her.
“What’s all this racket?” came a familiar voice, before it was replaced with a quivering one as the view of his decorated armour accompanied his own realisation of the frozen corpses of his guardsmen, “You!”
Fury rose, and the haze returned. Her hands outstretched. She felt a hissing voice, her own hissing voice, spit spitefully.
“We choose! And the slave obeys!”
As if struck by the single dreadful word she uttered thereafter in a deep and guttural language, his sword dropped from his hand, slumping down onto his knees, trembling and blabbering unmistakably alien words, shaking his head as if pleading for mercy. The distant voice of worlds beyond returned with the unmistakable cackling hint of sadism.
“Behold the baleful visage of Zhudan, and dread!”
Though he collapsed unconscious from his unnatural fear, Demaia felt in her very soul that it was anything but a restful reprieve as threads of infinite dreadfulness wracked his mind. And while he might live through it, he would never grasp what happened, nor indeed truly remember it. Perhaps for that, he ought to be eternally grateful, but quietly she wished such terrible agony upon him as she ascended the stairs from the holding cells. But just short of coming into sight of any more guards, the space around her warped, and a chuckling dreadful voice she didn’t recognise explained.
“Do not try to grasp it,” it spoke through rattling tones, “See your world bend to our will.”
An armoury lay before her. She heard the snoring of a sleeping man beyond its door, but she swiped a simple steel dagger, and without a chance to think she was outside the door with the dagger plunged into the sleeping man’s neck, blood flowing in a free river down to the ground and over her hand. Staggering away, she was once again out in the darkness of the night but shrouded in an unnatural cloak of shadows. Unopposed she simply moved through a door that must have been a leatherworker’s abode, for she was cladding herself in black leather armour from within that, against all odds of fate, fit her just precisely fine.
As she simply blinked and tried to reach for threads of conscious understanding, she slumped to her knees and fell over into the mud. Straining, she pushed herself up onto all fours and shook bodily as she remembered. Mere echoes of the very essence of incomprehensibility pulsed at the peripheries of her mind, and the memory of blood oozing from eyes, of creatures of dreadful legend emerging from voids in the air, with her hands being their commanding guide – and though the very essence and power of infinity had been at her fingers’ tips, her expression fell as sensations not meant for her mortal mind piled upon her and she grasped a single thread of unfathomable eternity.
Disgusted and horrified by what she had seen, what she had done, she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the ground violently. Even as she staggered onto her feet and bade herself to flee the gates of Quege that she perceived as vague shapes in the distance, trembling spread through her. That power that had flowed through her in veritable rapids and seas had now drained away and left only the faintest trace, a dribbling stream that teased at boundless oceans beyond. And she was not awed or lustful to grasp it, but terrified. And the fear drove her from the gates ever faster, desperately slumping against the first steadying thing she could find.
“’ey lady,” came a comfortingly normal voice, “Y’all right?”
Demaia turned her head slightly, enough to show him the curve of one horn and tearful eyes shrouded in fear, and he lifted his hands in surprise, “Woah! You need’a lift? You look like y’ve seen a spectre!”
Slowly, she straightened her back and though she continued to shake with cold, she managed to speak clearly.
“I don’t… Need your pity,” she started off down the road, without an aim as to where to go. Gradually the terrible memories blurred into indistinct and barely remembered dreams that she increasingly denied to associate with reality, but as the loneliness of the long trek to nowhere set in, she heard that baleful voice one last time.
“We choose,” it sneered on the howling wind, “And a slave obeys.”