The city of splendors lay open before the four strangers in all its majestic glory. The jewel of the north, the home to more souls than any other city throughout the realms. Some would say it was larger than some of the countries that could be found. The noise and smells that made Waterdeep unique wrapped around them like an invisible blanket. Voices from thousands was carried on the wind, flitting from ear to ear like playful sprites, teasing with snippets of conversation but never revealing what was being said.
And then there was the smell. Cooked food, baking, and the smells of thousands upon thousands of inhabitants all co-existing with the scent of salt wafting off the water. It was tantalizing but revolting at the same instance as there was always the underlying stench of waste and decay, which could not be helped with a city the size of the one they in.
"Daddy?" The Tiefling girl Cheonsa asked in a quiet voice. There was a hint of fear in the youngsters voice, fear that the Elf who had adopted her and shown her so much love over the past several months was about to return her to the orphanage she had come from.
"What is it, Cheonsa?" Ronnath asked as he looked down at the tiny girl. Her true heritage was hidden beneath a cloak that she wore over her head, hiding the prominent horns, and she had carefully tucked her long tail around her slender waist to keep it hidden.
"Where are we going?"
He paused for only a moment before answering. They were in the city against their will, and they were on the run. Days before they had been captured by a Red Wizard and brought to a hidden laboratory, deep beneath the streets of the bustling metropolis. There they had undergone extensive questioning and torture. Eventually through a combination of wits and luck, they had escaped.
The problem was that the wizard was able to track them through magic, and they were currently trying to figure out a way to reverse the arcane practitioner's magic and either use it against him, or somehow find a way to track him down and kill him. After all, the man was powerful, far more than the three of them combined.
It was disgusting how the Red Wizard was currently toying with them, allowing them to wander the streets unmolested but always looking over their shoulders for signs of pursuit or danger.
Of course it was the twisted mage's way of testing them, or he was being sadistic and plying on their paranoia. The latter more than likely being the actual case here.
"We're going to find an inn and get some food, cleaned up and then a good night's rest," Ronnath told his adoptive daughter. He kept his voice low and steady and free of the apprehension he felt. The bastard mage had threatened the little girl and that kindled the rage inside his heart and soul. Every time he closed his eyes he could see the faces of the hundreds he had slaughtered and he used that as a focal point, a way to ensure that he would do anything in his power to protect the girl he had come to love so fiercely.
She pondered the statement and finally nodded. "Okay daddy, but I'm getting really hungry."
He chuckled lightly and squeezed her shoulder. "Alright we'll find a place to get something to eat. Is there anything you want?"
Cheonsa chewed on her lower lip before answering, stealing a glance at her father's two companions, both elves like him, but so utterly different in so many ways. Both dabbled in the arcane arts, although one tended to open his mouth and speak before he thought about what he was saying. The other she really did not understand. From overhearing snippets of conversation, she thought that he had been a human once, but then came back as an Elf. Neither man spoke, they just watched the crowded streets, always on the lookout for the mage that had abducted them. "Sweetbread and fish," she finally answered.
"Sweetbread and fish it is, sweetheart," he suddenly scooped the child up into his arms, causing her to squeal at first in fright which changed to delight as he put her on his broad shoulders. She settled in and continued to look around as they walked. A few people stared at the small group, more curious than anything, and thankfully due to the hood the child wore, no one could tell with a casual glance that blood of demons flowed through her veins.
Soon enough they found a small district that catered to the hungry. There were stalls set up all over the place, some selling a variety of food, others specializing in a specific type or delicacy. It did not take long for him to find a bakery and with a nod to his companions Thorn and Xavier, he took Cheonsa off his shoulders and they entered, hand in hand.
The scent of the bakery sent his mouth to watering and his stomach grumbled in protest, eliciting a giggle from the little girl. It was a mixture of fresh bread and other pastries, and he had no idea just how hungry he really was. He smiled as he approached the counter. A man in his mid to late forties stood there, wearing a flour covered smock and he was currently placing a tray of straight-from-the-oven bread on the counter. He looked up and smiled at the two newcomers, a welcoming, friendly smile. "Well met gentlefolk, what can I get for you?"
"Sweetbread!" Cheonsa burbled happily.
"Aye," Ronnath echoed. "And I'll be buyin' some of that fresh bread as well," he pointed at the tray. "Any chance you might be knowin' a place to get some fresh fish?"
The man rubbed at his chin and grinned. "Aye - four doors to the east, they always have fresh fish from the harbor, and the prices be reasonable."
Ronnath took out several gold coins an placed them on the counter. "Thank you," he said and waited as the man eyed the currency, seeing that it was far more than what his order required. He shrugged and scooped them up, the coins disappearing beneath the apron and he ducked behind the counter and came up with small bundle that smelled delicious, and then proceeded to wrap up several still-hot loaves of bread. He handed the bundle of sweetbread Cheonsa and she grabbed it eagerly, ripping the wrapping off and taking the first bun she saw. She stuffed it into her mouth and began to chew noisily.
This brought a smile to the baker's face and he nodded his approval. "Ye be liking it then little one?"
She nodded so vigorously that her hood slipped off her head, revealing her backward-curving horns and the tint of her flesh. The baker gasped and took an involuntary step backwards before he caught himself.
Ronnath's eyes narrowed at the man's reaction, but when he smiled and shook his head, the Elf relaxed slightly. The baker swallowed hard and looked as if he was about to say something, but he wisely kept his thoughts to himself. He clearly knew exactly what a Tiefling was but he managed to stay civil.
With a nod, Ronnath led Cheonsa out of the structure after taking a moment to replace the hood. She had asked him why she had to keep her head covered and he did not sugar-coat it for the girl, he told her that many people would dislike her and possibly even try to harm her due to the way she looked.
Cheonsa accepted what he said at face value, as she was used to it from her time in the orphanage. The woman who ran the facility was always kind to her and the other children, but many of the kids, especially the older ones, shunned her or were cruel. The only ones who never harmed her or were mean were the Half-Orcs that lived there. It might have had something to do with their ancestry, she did not really understand. Someday she would, and she found that she was missing them, despite the life she had been given.
When they left the bakery, Thorn and Xavier were still waiting for them, both men scanning the crowds looking wary. The pedestrians and bystanders barely paid the small group any heed as they went about their business as Ronnath handed the bundle of freshly baked bread to Xavier. The Elf nodded his thanks, took out a loaf and then passed it to Thorn.
Ronnath walked down the street in the direction the baker had indicated and sure enough there was a small tavern that doubled as a store. He knew he had the right place even before he spotted the sign, as the scent of fish – both cooked and having been left out in the sun too long – was unmistakeable.
They pushed their way through the small crowd of men and women in front of the store, each haggling and bartering with the workers over the price of various types of fish, fresh from the ocean.
He did not really care all that much for fish, never having liked the taste of the flesh, finding it too odd, a strange texture and the little bones that were always such a pain to remove. It was what Cheonsa wanted and he was going to make sure that she got it. Was he spoiling the girl? He almost laughed out loud but managed to stifle it. He knew he was, but he also knew she had rarely been treated with kindness and love, so he wanted to show her what it was like. Maybe this would help the girl get past her heritage and grow into a fine, good woman.
Scholars and the learned often argued over nature versus nurture, and he wanted to prove that one could get past their blood and become something entirely different and he so wanted Cheonsa to be the proof that nurture would win out.
The tavern was packed with people, all of whom were enjoying various dishes, and the smell was overpowering – not a bad scent, but the succulent smells, the tantalizing odor of perfectly cooked and seasoned fish lay heavily in the air. They were lucky and found a table that had just been cleared and they sat. The three Elves made small-talk as they waited for a server to approach. She was a comely, albeit slightly plump young Human woman with eyes the shade of the sky and hair the color of corn. She stood just a few inches over five feet and it was clear that her greatest assets were the magnificent mounds of feminine flesh barely contained by her bodice. "What be ye havin'?" She asked.
Thankfully there were several boards scattered around the tavern, each listing the meals available and the prices. They all placed their orders and with the exception of the girl, ordered a tankard of locally brewed ale. Ronnath paid for his and Cheonsa's meal but did not bother with the others. They had more than enough gold to cover their meals for the next few years, let alone this, and he was tired of paying for them.
Thankfully neither complained as they paid and the buxom serving girl left with a smile on her pleasant face and a slight wiggle to her generous hips. "That wench be willing to bed one of us," Thorn commented with a slight grin.
Ronnath almost snapped at the other man, not wanting to have them speak in such a manner around his little girl, but he let it slide. She was too young to understand, and he knew that his companions were looking for some feminine companionship – and if he wanted to be completely honest with himself, so was he.
If Cheonsa had any idea what he was talking about, she gave no indication. She watched the crowds, never speaking or moving her hood, just content to be with her adoptive father as they waited for the meals to arrive.
"Aye," agreed Thorn. "A few more gold and she can warm my bed.
Ronnath raised one eyebrow and nodded ever so slightly to Cheonsa. Thorn caught the meaning instantly and he had the good graces to look slightly sheepish. Instead he got out of his seat and went after the woman and when he caught up to her, they spoke in slightly hushed tones. When she slapped him, it was like a fireball going off inside the tavern. Every head turned to look and despite himself, Ronnath burst out laughing.
"Daddy?" Cheonsa asked, looking up at him from where she was seated, a huge smile on her young face.
"What is it?" He asked, still smiling and shaking his head as he watched the serving girl turn away and stalk into the back of the building while Thorn came back to the table a red hand-print visible on his right cheek.
"You're smiling," her smile grew wider. "I like it."
And he was.
Smiling was something that had become increasingly rare over the past several weeks, although he tried as best he could to smile for the little girl. He was still aching deep in his soul, he still felt violated and he had no idea how he would ever make reparations for the deaths he had caused. "I'll try to do it more, I promise," he reached out and stroked her cheek, feeling the heat of her face against his fingers.
"I be guessin' ye didnae offer enough?" Xavier laughed.
Thorn shot him a disparaging look but then nodded. "Aye – what I offered was an insult, she said."
They sat in silence, each lost in his or her thoughts, all except Cheonsa. She had a small courier bag, which Ronnath had purchased for her, and it was filled with charcoal, sheets of parchment, inkwells, and quills. She had pulled out a piece of parchment and a chunk of charcoal and was busily drawing away, oblivious to the comings and goings around her.
Ronnath watched as the little girl began to draw a picture of the Red Wizard they had recently been guest of. He learned the child had a natural knack for artistry, and it never ceased to amaze him just how good she was. He was able to draw simple lines, and was fairly proficient at drawing rough maps, but the skill she possessed was far beyond her years.
She was about halfway through the drawing when the serving girl returned. She was laden with trays of food and placed them down on the table in front of the group. She studiously ignored Thorn but was pleasant as she served Xavier and Ronnath.
Then she caught sight of the picture Cheonsa was working on and she gasped. "Little one, that is amazin'," she said as she stared at the work. "Maybe ye will let me be lookn' closer?"
Cheonsa nodded and handed the parchment to the woman, who stood there clucking her tongue in pure admiration. "I be impressed little one!" She handed the parchment back to Cheonsa.
"Thank you," she said quietly and went back to work, adding more detail to the image.
"Who be yer poppa?"
"That's me," Ronnath said, watching her. If she made a move to remove the girl's hood, he was ready to intervene.
"Ye should be proud, skill like that, at her age too… ye best be encouraging her to be continuin'"
"I plan to," Ronnath replied. He looked at his two companions and noticed the sullen stare from Thorn, but a slight tip of the head from Xavier. Before anyone could stop her, the serving girl reached out and pulled the hood back from Cheonsa's head. She gasped upon seeing the horns and the red-tinted skin and took an involuntary step back. "Demon-spawn," she reached up and pulled a holy symbol from between her ample breasts.
Ronnath inwardly groaned, chiding himself for not having reacted more quickly. All around him the tavern had gone as silent as a tomb, and people openly stared at Cheonsa. The child's eyes began to fill with tears as she quickly covered her head with the hood and before he knew it, she had leapt off the chair and flung her tiny body into his arms. He instinctively hugged her and held her close, rubbing a hand up and down her back, trying to sooth her. "Easy my little angel, I be here," he glowered at the serving girl. "Put that away, she's just a babe and harmless."
The room was still and quiet as the patrons watched the unfolding drama. The serving girl glared fearfully at the Tiefling he held in his arms. "Ye brought a demon-spawn in here!" She cried.
By now the owner of the tavern had come out from the back rooms to see what had caused such a disturbance. He was an old Human male, in his late sixties or older. The man was still strong and tall, and it was clear that he had seen years of hard labor over his long life. He had several visible scars on his muscular arms, and his hands were almost too large for his body. The hair on his head was pure white and he had a neatly trimmed beard, which was likewise pure white. "What is going on?" He bellowed and He saw his serving girl standing at the table, wielding a holy symbol before her as if she was an ordained cleric and capable of warding off evil.
"These Outlanders have brought evil into your home!" The serving wench cried, pointing at Ronnath and the girl he held in his arms.
He came over to the table and looked about, seeing only three Elves and a clearly upset child. "Are ye daft?" He turned on the serving girl. "Ye be tryin' to scare away me customers?"
"Look at her!" She insisted.
With a great sigh, he came around the table and stared down at Ronnath and the others. "What is she going on about?"
Ronnath did not want any trouble, but he had to put an end to the embarrassing display, and sooner rather than later. "My daughter is a Tiefling," he said, glaring defiantly up at the owner.
The old human visibly relaxed. "Then I don't see a problem," he said and turned back towards the serving girl. "Put away that damned symbol and you best be apologizing to our guests here," he said in a perfectly reasonable tone.
"No!" She screamed and then ripped her apron off, one handed and threw it on the floor. "I not be workin' no longer for a man that be consorting with demon-spawn!" With that, the woman turned and ran out of the tavern, the room filled with stunned silence in the passage of her wake.
The owner looked sheepish and shrugged. "Ye be havin' me apologies for her actions," he waved a hand at the door, which was still vibrating in its frame after she had slammed it. "And yer meals be free now."
Ronnath shook his head. "We'll pay."
Xavier looked shocked and Thorn kicked him in the leg from under the table, giving him a 'what are you thinking?' look.
The owner knelt so that he was looking at Cheonsa, who was crying silently into Ronnath's chest, her fists bunched up in his tunic. "Easy little one – not everyone things a pretty young lady like you is bad, and I be sorry for the way she be treatin' ya."
Cheonsa, her eyes brimming with tears as more streaked her cheeks, only stared at the owner.
"Thank you," Ronnath said quietly as he continued to stroke the girl's back, holding her tightly. "I knew most people would not accept her because of what she is and I'm doing what I can to protect her, but…" he trailed off.
The owner stood and nodded. "Not ye blood?"
Ronnath blinked and nodded. "Adopted."
He smiled. "Ye have a good heart then – most people would leave them to their fate, but not you. The old man looked about the room and then said in a very loud voice; "Be getting' back to ye meals, nothin' to be seein' here!"
As if that was the signal the people were waiting for, everyone returned to their conversations and enjoying their food. A few still cast furtive glances their way, but now that the drama had come to a conclusion, the strangers held little interest.
The owner offered his hand to Ronnath. "Malcom, I be at yer service."
Ronnath never hesitated, he took Malcom's hand and shook it, marvelling at the strength in the tavern owner's grip. It was clear from the look on Malcom's face that he too was surprised by how strong the Elf was. "Ronnath, and this is Cheonsa, and my companions are Xavier and Thorn."
Malcom shook each hand in turn and then slapped his palms together, "alright, as I be sayin' your meals are on the house. It is my way of apologizing for the actions of the girl. A real pity too – she was good at what she did," he said with a shrug and a wave of his hands.
Wiping her face free from tears, Ronnath kissed the little Tiefling on the forehead, between her curving horns. "Are you alright?" He asked as he ran his fingers through her locks, doing his best to straighten it into some semblance of order.
"Aye poppa," she sniffed and tried to smile, but it quickly turned into a soul-crushing look of pure sorrow. Cheonsa typically called him daddy when she was happy or concerned about him, and only used poppa when she was really upset.
He placed the palm of his right hand against her cheek. "I'll always be there to take care of you and no one will ever hurt you if I can help it, don't forget that."
She closed her eyes and sniffed again, still looking lost and hurt, but finally she looked at him and gave him the barest of smiles, which lit up her face like the sun at dawn. "Okay poppa, I believe you," she then let go and climbed back into her chair and began to eat.
They had just finished the meal, having washed down the fish and vegetables with tankards of ale when Ronnath finally felt relaxed enough to let some of his anger go. He watched the room, his eyes taking in the patrons and gauging them. Ronnath was quite certain that at the Red Wizard had agents on their tail, and he was doing his absolute best to try to figure out who was who.
And yet not a single person in the tavern seemed to fit the bill. Ronnath discovered he really did not care all that much at the moment, and he attributed it to the amount of ale he had imbued.
Cheonsa finished her drawing and carefully packed it and her charcoal away before she dug into her meal. As soon as the first morsel of fish touched her lips, her face lit up with a smile that could charm the dead. "This is so good, daddy!"
Seeing her go from one extreme to another was somewhat disconcerting, but from what he understood when it came to Tieflings, it was to be expected. "I'm glad," he grinned and took another sip of his ale.
They made small-talk until the meal was finally finished, Thorn and Xavier continuing to scan the crowds, trying to locate possible spies or agents, but not finding any. Only Ronnath did not seem to care – he only had eyes for his adopted child.
When they stood to leave, Malcom returned, bearing a basket, which was filled and quite heavy from the looks of it. "I wanted to give you something for your evenin' meal," he said, handing it to Ronnath. "Again I beg ye forgiveness for the actions of my serving girl."
"And again I say there is no need," Ronnath told him. "The food was excellent, some of the finest fish I ever had, and I typically hate fish," he laughed.
"Then you be welcome back at any time," Malcom assured him. "Especially you, little one," he patted Cheonsa on the shoulder, even though she shied away and clung to Ronnath.
Malcom and Ronnath's eyes met and they held gazes for several seconds, and in that briefest instant of time, the Elf realized that the old human held pain of his own, and he was sure it had something to do with a child, lover, or possibly a spouse.
"Thank you," Ronnath told him sincerely.
Once they were ready to leave, they entered the streets, wary for possible followers or men in the employee of the Red Wizard. The street was fairly crowded, as to be expected, but no one attempted to accost them, nor did anyone seem out of place.
"This is ridiculous," Thorn complained a short time later. "We be needin' a place to rest, somewhere we can make plans an' prepare for when the bastard comes for us again."
"Agreed," Xavier said as he scanned the street, looking for signs of an inn or something similar.
"If worst comes to worst, we can always shack up in the warehouse district. Plenty o' places are abandoned and would make good roosts," Ronnath told his companions. When Thorn shot him a look, he shrugged. "I wasn't always a man o' the forests," he said.
They walked for nearly two hours before coming to a somewhat rundown and shabby-looking boarding house. There were a group of less than reputable men hanging out in front of the building and they eyed the small group with more than a little hostility. Ronnath clutched his staff a little tighter, but refrained from drawing his compound bow. Doing so would certainly incite violence with the group, although he was positive he could take out the street-thugs with little or no effort by himself. One well-placed spell from Thorn or Xavier would make short work of the thug wannabes as well.
Seeing they were clearly outclassed by the three Elves, the thugs parted and allowed them to pass unmolested. It was not exactly the most ideal location for them to stay, but at least the rooms should be inexpensive and more than likely have multiple exits.
Entering the building, there were more men and a few women lounging around the chamber. A single desk was set up in the rear of the room, and behind it sat a grotesquely fat Halfling, who was literally as wide as he was tall. The little ball of fat looked up at the newcomers with beady eyes and frowned. "What ye be wanting here?"
"Three rooms," Xavier stated flatly.
"I have one. Three gold per night."
That was an exorbitant fee for such a flop-house, and Ronnath knew the fat Halfling was testing the waters, trying to see how much he could wheedle out of the group. Xavier was far more diplomatic than he was, so he allowed his companion to deal with the negotiations.
"One gold for my companions and I," He countered.
"One for each and we be havin' a deal," the Halfling offered. He looked up and down the man and then shifted his eyes to the group. When he caught sight of the child, he kept his gaze upon her for several seconds.
Xavier rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. "That's the same price, half-man," he growled. "One gold for the room and for the four of us and you have a deal. Otherwise, we be walkin' out that door and you won't be seeing the color of my gold."
It was obvious the rotund Halfling wanted to argue, but it was equally obvious he wanted the gold more. Best to gain one gold rather than none at all. He grumbled and accepted the coin offered by Xavier and tossed the Elf a key. "Down the hall and to yer right," he half-snarled and then turned his attention back to the piece of meat he had been sampling, from the look of it, and the smell coming from the cooked flesh, it must have been pork, although it had an odd tinge to the odor.
A minute later they entered the room. Thorn took one look at the accommodations and shook his head. "I'd rather be back in the dungeon, enjoying the Red Wizards hospitality."
The room was small, barely large enough to contain the three beds and chairs. There was maybe a half foot of space between each bed, which looked as if it had not been cleaned in a century. Ronnath found himself agreeing with his companion and spoke up. "One or two nights, and then we be moving on. It's as good a place as any to formulate a plan."
He carefully laid his cloak over the bed and made sure that no part of it was exposed before he helped Cheonsa climb up. He figured that a good spell or two would be required to kill all the vermin that made the bed home would be in order, the problem was he did not possess such knowledge.
The little girl was asleep in no time at all, and he marvelled at the strange state – sleep. His own adoptive family needed it, but he did not. No Elf did, but they did need the time to rest their bodies, and they went into a meditative trance which was something akin to sleep, but not quite as debilitating as slumber was to most other sentient creatures.
For the next couple of hours they spoke in low tones, discussing the matter and what they might be able to do to defeat the wizard. For every idea they came up with, they debated the merits and flaws until it was rejected for something else. Before long, it was nearly the midnight hour and each was feeling fatigued. Ronnath agreed to keep the first watch, allowing the others to slip into their meditative trances.
He gently lifted Cheonsa, who wiggled and squeaked slightly before realizing who was holding her. He slipped onto the bed and settled her down beside him, as he leaned against the wall and listened to the steady breathing of his companions and closed his eyes. He had no intentions of meditating, and his hearing was far more acute than his sight, which was not bad at all.
He listened to the sounds of the inn – a couple arguing, several people snoring so loud that he could easily make it out even with the distance and walls separating them. There was the sound of someone eating loudly, and he figured it had to be the Halfling owner of the establishment and it brought a grimace to his face. How could such a creature exist, let alone be so disgusting!
And of course there were the sounds of two people in the throes of sex and he realized how long it had been since he had sampled the flesh of a woman. It was back just before he adopted the girl Cheonsa. It brought a smile to his lips, remembering how the woman had felt, wrapped around him, how she had tasted, the soft cries of pleasure she made, even if she was not being totally honest – she was a lady of the night, after all.
Then the thoughts vanished as a familiar and despised sensation crept through his mind, prodding fear and loathing from the recesses of his mind. Only the undead could entice such feelings from him, and his eyes snapped open, looking around the darkened room, expecting to see something wholly unnatural waiting for him. His hand reached for the hammer he had inherited from his long dead companion, the dwarf Dannis. The weapon was magically enhanced and worked exceptionally well against creatures from the netherworld, and he knew he would be needing it.
The room was empty except for his companions. He breathed a sigh of relief when the feeling faded and he was about to relax when he realized that Cheonsa was no longer at his side!
He stood suddenly and looked around the room, wondering how Cheonsa could have gotten out of the bed without alerting him? There was no sign of the little Tiefling girl, and he noticed her boots were gone as well. Panic threatened to overtake him, fearing that somehow the Red Wizard had found them and had taken her to torment him.
The vile mage had threatened her, after all, and he knew the reputation of the Thayians all too well. And then the thrill of dread tickled his senses, remembering the presence he felt. In some ways he would much rather have to deal with the Red Wizard – undead were incredibly dangerous, but he knew how to combat them readily enough. The presence was gone, that much he knew for certain.
Then he noticed that the door was slightly ajar, a tiny sliver of flickering light seeping in from the crack. Instead of rousing his two companions, he slipped on his own boots and opened the door as quietly as he could. The corridor was empty, with only a single torch to light the way.
He slipped into the corridor and moved down the hall, hoping that his little girl had only left to use the barely adequate facilities. He felt pressure in his bladder and figured he would relieve himself as well.
When he opened the door to the privy, he discovered it was empty. The torchlight coming from the hall made the chamber seem larger and far more sinister than it was. Where could she have gone? He wondered just as the presence he felt only moments before returned, this time so strong he whipped about, the hammer held in both hands at the ready. He would much rather have been using his bow, but in the confined spaces it would have been awkward.
There was Cheonsa standing in the hall about a half-dozen paces from him. Her cloak was down, revealing her red-tinged skin and her horns to anyone who might be looking. Even in the dim light of the hall, he could see huge tears streaking down her face and he rarely had ever seen such a look of pure anguish on the girl's face.
Not only did it scare him, it broke his heart.
"Poppa," she wailed and raced towards him, leaping off the ground into his arms at the last second. "Oh poppa, she is so sad and alone and she's so scared!" She wailed into his chest.
"Who, sweetheart?" Ronnath asked. He could still feel the presence of the undead creature nearby, but it had yet to show itself.
"She never tol' me her name," she sobbed. "Poppa, you gotta help her!" The pleading in her voice was so powerful, so unlike anything he had ever sensed from the girl before, he wanted to help.
"Where is she?" Ronnath asked, "and is she young like you?"
She tried to speak but only hiccupped and shook in his arms. He waited, still holding her against his chest, but kept one hand free. She was so small and light he could easily carry her and still fight if need be, and he was certain that he would have to, as the presence of the undead creature never faded. He scanned the dim hallway, searching the shadows and the dim corners, looking for any sign of the creature.
Finally she managed to speak. "Not far, she showed me, and aye poppa, she be younger than me."
"What's her name?"
"She never told me."
It was at that moment that he noticed she was clutching something to her tiny chest. He could not see it properly, but it looked like it might have been a rag doll or something similar. "Where did you get that?"
She pulled away from his chest and looked at the item she clutched in her tiny fist. Now that he could see it clearly, it was a stuffed dragon, one made out of cloth and other material. It was poorly crafted, but had a well-loved look to it. "She gave it to me, told me to keep Mr. Smoke safe from the bad man."
"Can you show me where you met her?" Ronnath asked, gently placing Cheonsa on the floor. She grabbed his hand and held on tightly, the strength in her fingers shockingly strong for a child so small and young. Fear would do that, fear and desperation.
She pulled him down the corridor and they came to the end, facing a blank wall. "There poppa," she pointed at the blank wall.
The presence of the undead creature was so strong now that it was making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. What was so strange about it was he could not feel the malevolent presence that typically indicated the presence of one of the creatures from the nether realm, and that confused him even more.
He examined the wall, and after only a few seconds, could easily make out the nearly imperceptible crack along one edge. Even in the daylight it would be easily missed, but he knew the presence of a concealed door when he saw one. "Sweetheart, I have to let go of yer hand. I need to find the way to be openin' this door."
"I can show you, poppa," she sniffed and placed her palm against the side of the door and pushed. One part of the panel moved with the pressure she exerted and the next thing either of them knew the door opened on well-oiled hinges, revealing pitch blackness beyond.
Ronnath let go of her hand and dug into one of the pockets inside his tunic and removed a pair of magically enchanted glasses, which his donned. A second later, he could see clearly in the darkness as if it was daylight. There was a short and narrow hall, maybe ten feet in length that ended at a steps leading down.
He took Cheonsa's hand in his and she pulled him down the hall. As soon as they had passed through the hidden door, it closed silently behind them. Unlike the panel on the other side, this side had a clear handle mechanism, showing how easy it would be to open the door.
They had travelled only about half way when there was a sudden change in the temperature. It had to have dropped to below freezing in a matter of a single heartbeat. He felt the presence of the undead so strongly he lifted the hammer involuntarily and stared into the space between them and the stairs.
A small figure about the size of Cheonsa appeared. It had a vaguely human shape, and was dressed in rags – not actual clothing. It was completely translucent and where the head should have been was the unmistakable skull of a cat. There were other bones inside the shimmering outline, some human, some not. It lifted the one humanoid arm it possessed and beckoned for them to come forward.
He felt the cold touch of an alien presence in the back of his mind, but instead of the dread and hate he typically experienced when coming into contact with the undead, this one was so sad and so lonely he thought he was about to drown in the sorrow the creature radiated.
Without hesitation, Cheonsa walked up to the ghostly figure and stared at it. The creature lifted the one humanoid arm towards her as if to touch her, but it hesitated, as if it knew that coming into contact with the living would cause great harm, possibly even snuff out the life of the person. Cheonsa likewise did not attempt to touch the spirit, lifting her hand until it was only inches from the other.
Ronnath was still gripping his hammer, but he did not attack. Something was terribly amiss here, and unlike the undead he had permanently put to rest over his many years, this one was not dangerous, at least not yet. It needed help – that much he could sense, and he was suddenly determined to do whatever it took to put the restless soul to eternal peace.
He reached the girl and stared down at the pathetic spirit, and had the overwhelming urge to hug it and comfort it, but he refrained. The sadness and loneliness coming from the creature was nearly too much for him, so he vowed to stay strong and see this encounter to its end.
It turned away and began to float more than walk down the stairs just behind it. The creature radiated light, a ghostly, otherworld pale blue glow that illuminated the narrow stairwell. The stairs seemed to go on forever, coming to three different landings and then changing directions. Each landing had a hidden door with a handle, but Ronnath ignored them since the spirit likewise paid the doors no heed.
He guessed they had travelled deep beneath the building and into the catacombs beneath the streets, and it was then that he detected a foul, vile odor of rot and death. The further they went, the more pronounced the miasma became. It was so strong that Cheonsa covered her mouth and nose with her arm, and Ronnath felt as if he was about to vomit.
Finally the stairs opened into a large room, revealing the source of the horrible odor. It was a charnel house – tables of all sizes were scattered about the room, each with a barrel or trough located nearby. There were bones and offal scattered everywhere in the room, and along the far wall there were a number of cells, each only about five feet square. The cells were currently empty, but the room itself was not.
There was a man, if he could be called that, wielding a large butcher's knife, standing over a table. He was brining it down rhythmically, cutting at what Ronnath originally thought to be a pig or other similar animal – but he quickly realized with mounting terror and revulsion that it was not an animal. It had been a human, before the creature had started its work.
Sensing his presence, the man turned and glowered. The thing was not a man at all, but one of the hated undead, a ghoul. It was naked except for a foul stained apron, and when it saw the fresh meat standing in the entrance, it opened its mouth in a horrid grin and hissed.
Upon seeing the undead beast, Cheonsa screamed and cowered behind Ronnath's back, a shrill, trilling cry seeming to never cease coming from her tiny body. Ronnath hated the undead, especially the fiends like the one that was advancing towards him, but he also relished in battling the creatures and sending them back to the grave – permanently. A smile appeared on his face as he lifted the hammer, waving it before the advancing beast. It began to glow with a blue light, faint at first but increasing exponentially with each passing second.
The Ghoul saw the hammer and it hesitated in its approach, something akin to a look of doubt mixed with the faintest amount of fear crossed its features, but then it seemed to steel itself and it continued to advance, raising the butchers blade above its head.
Ronnath likewise advanced towards the beast, and his grin never faltered. He did not bother raising the weapon the way the undead beast had, but instead laughed. This caused the beast to pause in mid-step. It had never heard a victim laugh before, and this brought it confusion.
"Bring forth light to cleanse the darkness," Ronnath stated and then the hammer glowed so brightly that it lit the entire chamber with a holy, purifying radiance. The Ghoul screamed as the light touched it and the flesh facing the pure positive energy began to blacken and bubble. Even though it threw up its hands to try and shield its undead eyes, the light had burned the orbs right out of the creature's skull, leaving smoking holes. It shrieked even louder, causing Cheonsa to scream louder in turn.
Ronnath came at the beast, swinging the hammer so quickly it was almost a blur. Every blow staggered the Ghoul backwards, and the wounds it inflicted were horrifying to witness. The pure energy radiating from the weapon seared the flesh right off the bone, leaving blackened holes that poured out a foul-smelling smoke. Each strike brought the horrid creature all that closer to true death, but Ronnath never let his guard down. He knew not to touch the creature with his bare flesh, or allow it to touch him, as the connection to the negative energy plane was so strong it would cause every fiber in his being to freeze. He would be incapable of moving, and would be a quick snack for the monster.
When the beast swiped at him with its taloned hand, he smashed it away with a contemptuous swing of the hammer. The flesh on the hand withered and flaked away, leaving behind bone and sinew, which continued to flex grotesquely. This caused the Ghoul to drop to its knees and it clutched at the smouldering appendage. The eyeless face turned up to stare sightlessly at Ronnath, the hate and pure malevolence a tangible force. It hissed in defiance even as Ronnath brought the hammer down right between the smoking, gaping sockets.
The monster shuddered once and then lay still, true death claiming it at last.
Cheonsa finally ceased wailing as he came over and knelt before the Tiefling child. He hugged her closely and felt her little body trembling with raw terror. He regretted bringing the little girl with him – he should have taken her back to the room before following the spirit. The sights she had just witnessed were something a child – even one with the blood of fiends running through her veins – should never see.
"Keep your eyes closed little one," he instructed as he called forth the cleansing light from the hammer several more times. Each time the room seemed all that much cleaner, the taint of the undead monster burning away. He glanced at the figure on the table and shuddered. It had to have been a child, or maybe a Halfling or Gnome, but he was certain it had at one time been a child.
Rage filled him at the thought of the youngster's life being snuffed out in such a horrible manner. The child had not even had a chance to experience life and all the joys that came with it. He hoped and prayed to his god of the hunt that the child's spirit had been whisked away to the afterlife, someplace pleasant and full of happiness and light.
He began to walk around the room, looking into each of the troughs and barrels. Each was filled with bones, all of them small. The gods above only knew how long the Ghoul had been down here, taking children and turning them into meals. The tears began to run down his cheeks, although he paid them no heed. All he knew for certain is that he wanted to get out of the charnel house an back to his companions, and then grab a bottle or ten of something very strong to lose himself in a drunken stupor.
Turning away, he wound his way through the chamber to the exit. He placed Cheonsa on the ground and took her hand and just as he was about to step through the archway, there came a loud grinding sound from the other side of the room. He quickly ducked into the shadows, pulling the young Tiefling girl with him and watched.
A hidden door opened in the rear of the room, meshed perfectly to match the bricks that comprised the walls. His heart skipped a beat when he saw a familiar figure appear, backlit by torches lining the walls of the steep stairs he had descended.
It was the grotesquely fat Halfling, the owner of the flophouse they were staying in. The fat Halfling stopped at the foot of the stairs and stood there, looking around the chamber. He seemed to be searching for something and then with a shrug, came all the way into the room. He was only a few feet inside when he came up short and it was then that Ronnath noticed the Halfling was holding a chain.
"Don't be makin' me come and carry ya," he growled and tugged harder. There was the unmistakable sound of whimpering and then a reply. "Please master, don't take me in there."
The Halfling laughed and looked around, his eyebrows knitted together in confusion. "Where be you hidin', ya filthy Ghoul…" He shrugged and continued to pull on the chain until he dragged a young boy, no more than six or seven, into the room. The boy was dressed in the rags one often associated with street-urchins and he was filthy. His hair was matted and it did not look like he had seen a bath in many a year.
Ronnath gripped the hammer even tighter as he watched the Halfling pull a ring of keys from a hidden pocket and then opened one of the cells.
The owner of the inn used the chain and forced the child into the cell before locking it once again. "Hey Ghoul, I brought you another offerin'," he shouted. "And I'll be wantin' me cut," he burst out laughing at his own morbid joke.
Rage continued to build in his heart and soul until Ronnath felt as if he was going to be consumed by it. When he went to stand and confront the Halfling, he suddenly felt the presence of the spirit. He looked to his side and could see the little ethereal creature standing there, one arm pointed at the fat Halfling, and then he made the unmistakable gesture of running a finger across his throat. Ronnath knew what the spirit wanted – it was what he too desired.
Stepping into the room, Ronnath smashed the hammer against the nearest table, shattering the thick wood with one tremendous blow. This caused Cheonsa, the captive child and the rotund Halfling to all scream in fright. The fat Halfling whirled around so fast that his jowls giggled and he nearly lost his footing. "Who… who be you?" He blurted and then recognition dawned in his eyes, remembering the Elf who had rented the room. "What be you doin' here?"
"Killing a piece of dung Halfling that be collaborating with a Ghoul," Ronnath snarled and took several more steps into the room. He hefted the hammer menacingly, showing the weapon to the Halfling-turned-monster.
"I don't think so," he laughed and then moved with shocking speed for someone so fat. The Halfling whipped about, his hands a blur as he pulled out and launched at least a half-dozen blades.
As fast as the Halfling was, Ronnath was all that much faster, and he had learned a few things over the past couple of months, especially after having been possessed by the demon and slaughtering so many innocents. On his right wrist there was a magical bracelet, one that could be activated with a thought. He did so, and a bubble of pure good sprang up around him. It would not prevent the daggers from homing in on him, but the protection might be just enough to deflect their trajectory.
Sure enough, the power of good that surrounded him prevented the blades from finding their target. He ran towards the Halfling, holding the hammer in both hands. The little monster squealed in terror as his one trick, his one possible way to defeat the Elf had been so completely ineffective.
Ronnath brought the hammer down on the Halfling's right shoulder with such force that it drove the little monster to his knees. The sound of bone shattering was loud in the chamber, and he nearly winced, but when he saw the look of agony on the Halfling's face, he grinned. "That's one!" Without hesitating, he smashed the hammer on the Halfling's other shoulder, and found the task all that easier with the little fat man already on his knees. "An' that's two."
The pain was so intense, it caused the Halfling to pass out and he fell onto his back.
"Ye not be getting away that easy," Ronnath promised and grabbed the front of the Halfling's stained tunic. He was disgusted to touch the vile little man, and even more revolted when he realized that a lot of the stains were from the Halfling's diet of flesh.
The Halfling weighed as much as a human fully grown, but Ronnath easily hefted the little monster onto one of the tables. He noticed that there were straps attached, but knew he would not need them.
"Poppa, what are you doing?" Cheonsa asked. In his rage, he had all but forgotten about his little girl and some of the unrelenting fury seeped out at the sound of her voice.
"He's a very bad man," Ronnath explained. He straightened the Halfling's legs out and then eyed both appendages. "He is working with that monster I destroyed."
The spirit was there a moment later, standing on the table and looking down at the helpless Halfling. It was shaking, and for a second Ronnath did not understand what was happening, and then he realized that the spirit was laughing, even if he could not hear anything. It gesticulated towards the Halfling and then at one of the cages, pointed back at a nearby table and with the fluidity that only the ethereal possess, it floated across to the table an pointed down at the barrel. It indicated its stomach and then pointed at the barrel.
Ronnath realized the spirit was telling him a story. The spirit, when it was alive, had been brought here, just like the other child. It had been locked in a cage and then when the Ghoul was ready – or hungry – the undead beast had removed the helpless child from its cage, placed it on the table and butchered it, throwing some of its organs into the barrel and probably keeping the choicest pieces for itself.
Of course it had consumed the child, and from the way Ronnath understood it, had given a portion of the meat to the Halfling. "Oh you are so going to pay for what you did," Ronnath promised the Halfling. He pulled out one of several daggers he kept on his person and tested the edge on his thumb. It drew blood easily and painlessly and he stared at the monstrous Halfling with a smile that was truly terrifying to behold. "I'm going to start with your arms, carve away all that fat until I hit the bone," he said in a low hissing growl.
"Poppa don't!" Cheonsa pleaded as she reached up and grabbed the arm holding the dagger. Her eyes were wide with fright and horror, not at the chamber and its contents, but at what her adoptive father was about to do. "Please poppa, don't do that. Just kill him and be done with it!"
For a fraction of a second, Ronnath nearly lashed out at the girl with the back of his hand. The urge to slap the insolence out of her nearly overpowered him and he realized with his own mounting horror that this was not him. Looking down at the huge eyes of the little girl who had become his entire world, he wiped the hideous grin off his face, feeling the darkness recede. "I won't baby, I promise. I'll kill him quick, even though he doesn't deserve it."
By now the fat Halfling had regained consciousness and he was beginning to groan and mewl like a kitten. The fat little monster looked up at Ronnath and the dagger he was holding in one hand. His beady eyes flickered from the dagger to Ronnath's face, and then back to the weapon and suddenly the air around the table was filled with acrid stench of urine. "Please don't," the Halfling begged. "I've got gold, gems, magic, it's be all yours if you let me go!"
The spirit was still standing on the table and the skull it was wearing opened up and legt out an animalistic howl of pain, which sent shivers up and down Ronnath's spine. It reached down with the bony arms and began to slap the Halflings face, scraping and cutting the flesh. The Halfling screamed in terror, flecks of spittle flying everywhere.
Ronnath waited and watched as the spirit took out its rage upon the fat little monsters, and finally when it was done, the spirit turned and looked at him, pointed at the dagger and then at the Halfling. He glanced down at Cheonsa, who had been watching the entire time, tears streaking her cheeks, but a hauntingly old look of satisfaction on her young face.
Pleading for his life, the Halfling attempted to lift his arms to defend himself, but the damage wrought by the hammer made that impossible. Ronnath drove the dagger with all his considerable might into the Halfling's chest, right into the heart. It had to pierce the fat, muscle and bone beneath, and it did so admirably. The fat little monster shook and shuddered as blood fountained from the wound. He looked up at Ronnath with wide eyes and a strange smile on his face.
Looking down, Ronnath noticed the blood was thick and black, not like the blood oozing from the wounds inflicted by the spirit. There was something wrong and he could already feel the negative energy beginning to congeal at the entrance of the wound. As he watched, black tendrils of shadow crept up from beneath the table, reached out from the corners where the dim light did not reach, crawled and scurried across every surface.
And he could feel the presence of the undead beginning to grow.
He left the dagger still embedded in the quickly changing Halfling's body and brought up the hammer. The magical energy crackled beneath his palms as he systematically destroyed the fat monster, smashing it to pulp, so that there was nothing left for the shadows to animate, for the spirit he felt to inhabit.
It was not enough. The darkness continue to grow, pulling at the shattered and pulped flesh and bone of the Halfling. The magic inherent in the hammer had done some of its work, but he realized he needed more.
Searching through his tunic, he found what he had been hoping discover. A flask of oil, one used for lighting torches and fires was still hidden away, not kept with the rest of his gear up in the room. He lifted the vial to his mouth and pulled the stopper with his teeth, and then poured the liquid over the form of the Halfling.
He was about to search the room for a torch or something to kindle the oil into a cleansing flame, when Cheonsa handed him a torch. He smiled down at his little girl and accepted the offered gift.
Without speaking, he touched the torch to the oil-soaked corpse and it lit instantly. The air was filled with a stench unlike anything he had ever encountered, and there was a horrible screeching sound, which he realized was coming from the mouth of the Halfling. The shadows were being consumed by the flames, the light and purity of the most primal of elements burning away the creature of darkness, preventing it from inhabiting the body and continuing the cycle of undeath.
"Time for us to go back to the others," he told his little girl as the flames continued to consume the flesh, fat, muscles and organs of the Halfling. The little fat monster went up shockingly fast, the body consumed by the flames, turning into flakes of grey ash that floated inside the chamber like a bizarre underground snowfall. In less than a minute, there was nothing left except a huge pile of ash, the Halfling's skeleton, and a key-ring.
Ronnath nearly cursed aloud, but caught it just in time. Reached into the ashes and pulled out the key-ring. It was very hot to the touch, but for some reason it did not burn his fingers, in fact the heat felt good. Together they went over to the cage, where the young boy was curled up on the floor, staring wide-eyed but yet not seeing at all.
"Hey," Ronnath said in a gentle tone. "We be gettin' ye out of here," he went through the keys, trying each one until he found the correct key. In a moment, he had the door unlocked and opened, although the child did not move, he continued to lay in a fetal position. The Elf stifled a sigh and gently hefted the street urchin into his arms. He was shocked at how light the boy felt in his grip, and he could have sworn his quarterstaff weight more.
Even after being picked up, the boy did not make a sound, he did not so much as whimper, and even his breathing seemed shallow and quiet, as if he was trying to hide the fact he was alive.
When they approached the hidden door that led up to what Ronnath assumed was the flop-house, he felt the now familiar sensation of the spirit. He had not realized that the undead creature had disappeared, as he was so intent on making sure that the Halfling did not rise as one of the hungry dead. Then something he had not expected happened. A voice called out in the chamber, thin and reedy, as if being spoken from a great distance. "Please wait."
Both he and Cheonsa turned and they saw the spirit child standing at the threshold of the door. It was glowing brightly, a peaceful blue and white and as they watched the light grew brighter. The animal skull and bones fell away to reveal the cherubic face of a young girl, no older than Cheonsa. She had curly black hair and piercing blue eyes and had a face that was meant for laughter, never for tears.
"You freed me," she spoke, although her lips never moved. Ronnath could feel her presence inside his mind, but there was nothing evil or alien about the presence, not like when he had been possessed by the demon, or when he encountered the undead. This was one of peace and tranquility.
Cheonsa stepped towards the spirit, who had shed all the trappings that tied her soul to the mortal world. There was a pile of rags and bones on the floor, just beneath her hovering feet. Although the spirit was nude, she was bathed in light, which added modesty to her form. Cheonsa held out the stuffed dragon she had been carrying since Ronnath had found her. She held out the dragon to the spirit-girl. "You can keep Mr. Smoke," she smiled. "I can't take him where I'm goin', and I know you'll love him as much as I do."
"What's your name, little one?" Ronnath asked.
"Dell, my name was Dell."
"You died down here, didn't you?"
She nodded. "And it wasn't until you killed the monster and that really fat man that I was finally free to leave."
Ronnath felt a lump in his throat. "I'm sorry this happened to you."
Much to his surprise, the little spirit smiled at him. It was a beautiful smile, one filled with joy and wonder at what lay ahead of her. "It's okay," she laughed. "I'm going home to be with my mommy and daddy now, we will be a family. I don't have to stay here anymore, and I won't be alone no more."
"Rest well, Dell."
"Bye-bye, Dell, and thank you for lettin' me keep Mr. Smoke," Cheonsa waved.
"Mister?" The spirit named Dell said just as she was turning away.
"Take care of her," she pointed at Cheonsa. "An' be takin' care of yourself. I see what happen' to you, and I am really sorry. The bad man is still in you, and if you let him, he will try to make you do bad things again."
He felt a shiver of primal fear at the spirit-girls words, and when he tried to speak, nothing came out. Cheonsa came to his rescue. "I'll look out for my daddy. He loves me an' he is a really good man, just bad thing's happened to him. He hurts an' I can see it when he rests, but he will love me an' I'll love him. He will be okay."
With that, the spirit nodded and then turned, the light surrounding her fading with each step until they were once again alone in the charnel chamber. Cheonsa looked down at the raggedy dragon doll in her hands as tears flowed down her cheeks. "At least she be happy now," the little Tiefling whispered.
"Aye," Ronnath agreed. He looked around the room, imagining all the death and pain that took place over who knew how long until this fateful night brought him and his adoptive daughter here.
He walked around, leaving the girl at the entrance, until he found what he was looking for. There were lanterns and torches, most of them unlit, but he found a small cask, filled with oil to be used in the lanterns. Picking it up, he began to slosh the oil around the chamber, covering the tables and other wooden objects as best he could until the cask lay empty in his arms. He threw it against the nearest wall, where it exploded into shards of oil-infused splinters. "We need to cleanse this place," he told his daughter.
She looked up at him; Mr. Smoke still clutched tightly in her tiny hands and nodded. "We should, poppa."
It did not take the Elf long to kindle a small flame and he tossed it onto the nearest table. The oil coating it caught instantly and with shocking speed the flames danced and spread, crawling over every surface and growing with each passing second. The room seemed to howl in anguish as the flames fully engulfed it, forcing Ronnath and Cheonsa to retreat up the steps. He was not concerned that it would spread, as the stone – despite growing hot to the touch, remained unscathed.
And if the flames continued and did in fact engulf the flop-house, would that be such a bad thing? He would be sure to get everyone out, but the building was ready to be destroyed at any rate, so if his work hastened that, so be it.
They made their way up the stairs, tendrils of smoke curling up behind them, creeping slowly, as if afraid to pass the father and daughter. The stairs ended at plain wooden door with a latch embedded the right. It opened easily to his touch and they found they were in pantry. It was foul, dirt and mould covering the floor, and the stench of rotting meat was unmistakeable. Ronnath passed a piece of cloth to Cheonsa and instructed her to cover her mouth and nose as they traversed the room and entered the main reception area of the flop-house.
The room was empty, for which he was thankful, and when he glanced out the nearest window, he could see the sun's first light just beginning to turn the horizon a deep crimson. A new day was about to begin, and he had no idea how much time had passed as he dealt with the Ghoul and the monstrous Halfling.
When he reached the room they were sharing with Thorn and Xavier, both Elves were already up and getting dressed. Xavier turned in surprise and let out an audible sigh of relief when he saw the two of them. "We were just about to go looking for you," he said.
"Aye," Thorn agreed. "Where did ye run off to?"
Ronnath smiled tiredly. "Just followed a spirit, and made the city a little cleaner."
Xavier eyed him and shook his head. "There be a tale in there somewhere."
"Indeed, and I will share it with you later, but let's get out of here and find a better place to stay. This place left a real stain on my soul."