Author's Note: Well, here it is. The newest incarnation of what I have dubbed The Fanfic That Wouldn't Die. I've written and re-written Act One of this thing about six times since I started it when I was twelve years old. I'm seventeen now. I haven't cracked open this particular tome in ages because the feelings that spawned it just aren't there anymore: To summarize without getting maudlin, I ate my sour grapes, forgot about her, and found someone better. I've been focusing on original fiction, and I think that most of what I've written is damn good; there's a link to my Fictionpress profile on this profile, if you're interested.
BUT! this is the story that really started it all. This was the first thing I ever wrote that wasn't complete crap, even if I never could get it past Act One. This story has always been there; I thought it was dead, but it seems it was only sleeping, because as the Bard says, "That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die." It's been waiting somewhere deep in my subconscious, waiting—like Pennywise the Dancing Clown—for the Cycle to start anew, and all the silver dollars and Rituals of Chüd in the world aren't going to get rid of this particular beastie anytime soon.
I'm going to give it one more go. Just bare with me, here, and try to enjoy the ride. Reviews, as always, are dearly appreciated, often reciprocated.
Chapter One—A Touch of Destiny
"The ether was wearing off. The acid was long gone. But the mescaline was running strong. Good mescaline comes on slow. The first hour is all waiting. Then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you because nothing is happening. And then—ZANG!"—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
" . . . the Old Gods pissed over the desert and made mescaline."—Stephen King, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
It had taken Isaiah a couple of days to find the cactus.
It didn't grow in these parts, except in a few very isolated spots; there was too much rain, and the evil destroying the land was spreading too quickly. But he had managed to find a few ripe ones in the Dark Wood, beneath a tree that had—somehow—managed to withstand the corruption raging around it. It projected a powerful circle, an almost paladanic aura, that kept the surrounding monsters at bay for the time being. Garm, Isaiah's dog, sat by his side, and Morgan, his raven, was perched in one of the tree's branches. The tree's guardian, a terrifying man-beast that under normal circumstances would've been a good friend of any druid, paced angrily around the tree, not daring to break the circle.
Isaiah held in his hands a bowl made from the top half a snapping turtle's shell; the bowl contained a strong-smelling brown liquid, the rendered essence of one of the cacti. He held the shell to his lips and drank deeply of the brown, bitter liquid.
Under normal circumstances, it would've taken a while for the chemicals to kick in, but over the past two weeks Isaiah had consumed nothing more substantial than a handful of juniper berries and a few skinfulls of sassafras tea; there was nothing in his system to denature the intoxicant. The world before his eyes began to warp, to become abundantly clearer in an exaggerated, funhouse-mirror sort of way. A great big crack seemed to open in the fabric of reality, and the druid slipped silently into it unnoticed.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crawling chaos—and in fact the very fabric of time and space itself—seemed to roll back like so much bedspread, and Isaiah could feel it. He couldn't see it, they were too far away for that, but he could feel it. Two heroes, each with a touch of destiny, had just crossed paths and were about to take up the mantle that fate had cast before them. Under normal circumstances, even to a sensitive soul like Isaiah, this grand moment would've passed by without consequence like a fart in the wind, but in this elevated state it felt as if the earth and sky had been rolled away and the poor druid was standing in sole audience before a great clash of Heaven and Hell.
In what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity, it occurred to Isaiah that he was probably going to starve to death before they had time to come and rescue him.
Dolos was shitfaced.
Dolos was a young man, not quite twenty years old, only just over five feet tall, with a two-day growth of stubble about his countenance and the scrawny but muscular body structure of a day-laborer. He staggered back against the cave wall in a comical fashion, reminiscent of a village drunkard from an early Irish novel. He ran a hand through his long iron-grey hair, blinked a few times, and stood to face the approaching foe, rapier at the ready.
The tiny red demon stepped cautiously foreward, brandishing a short spear in its right hand. Dolos, moving with surprising quickness for the state he was in, grabbed the beast by the throat and held it at eye level.
It dropped its spear, squirmed, uttered a few curses in its squeaky, unholy language. Dolos laughed at its helplessness.
It bit him.
The tiny red demon sank its fangs into his hand, piercing the tough cowhide of his glove; venom from glands in its gums, as well as virulent detritus from the unspeakable things it had been eating, were pumped into his bloodstream. He staggered backwards again, striking his head hard on the cave wall. He started to drop to his knees.
The demon was knocked from his grip by an expertly-placed arrow, and two more whizzed by his ear as he fell, out cold, to the cave floor.
Dolos sat, naked, at the roll-top desk in his room at Ogden's inn, a tallow candle burning next to him; he was attempting to compose a letter to his paramour, a lovely young student lass back in Rathma, but he was very drunk and it was difficult to hold the crowquill properly. At the celebration following Diablo's defeat, there had been a rake of good whiskey passed around, and Dolos hadn't thought twice about partaking. Gillian the barmaid lay half-asleep and wholly unsatisfied on his bed. He glanced at her, and at the half-empty demijohn sitting on the desk, and he thought: Two firsts in one night. He contemplated taking one of her garters as proof so that he gloat about his conquest to Wirt, but he'd also need to find some way to keep the boy from telling Blood Raven, would need to find some way to keep Gillian from telling Blood Raven, because even though the Rogue was two years his senior, and even though he already had an engagement with one of his own people in the East, he found that he dearly loved her.
There was a great din outside, something like an explosion, and the sound of men rushing about excitedly. Dolos got up and stumbled to the window to see what was going on.
He woke up on the great stone slab in Akara's tent in the Rogue Encampment. A thick white bandage was wrapped around his wounded hand. He had a terrible splitting headache. The old Rogue priestess was not there to preside over her patient, but watching him from a chair in the corner of the tent was a woman, exceedingly tall, blonde, buxom, and muscular—a bit large, but without an ounce of superfluous flesh on her body. She wore an expertly-crafted leather corset with thick bronze rings sewn into it, and a skirt of tough metal mesh that hung down to just below her knees. A massive recurve bow of yew heartwood strung with demon's sinew was slung over her shoulder, and a cruel-looking kukri knife hung from her belt. She had stormy grey eyes; Dolos recalled reading somewhere that grey eyes had the sharpest sight.
"You're awake," she said flatly.
Dolos agreed with this observation and tried to remember where on his person he'd put his flask, which was full of white lightning.
"I guess you're not going to thank me, then," she said flatly, "for saving your life."
He blinked a couple of times. "Dolos."
She smiled. "That's more like it. I'm Alexa."
"I'm sure you are. Say, Alexa, have you seen a whiskey flask lying around, about yay big?"
She stammered, obviously not used to being disrespected. Regaining her composure, she said to him, "I saved your life, y'know."
He slipped a hand into one of his pockets, took out a small bronze flask, uncorked it, and gulped down its contents. He slid off of the table and sauntered out of the tent. Alexa felt a powerful presence enter the tent. She turned and saw Akara standing next to her.
"Try not to let him get to you, dear," the old Rogue said. "He has . . . problems."
Alexa nodded. "I should say he does."