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Personal Demon

by Brad McGrath

Prologue – Good Morning[]

It was only when he awoke that the nightmare started.

Awareness crept only slowly into Will’s mind; he felt the bed beneath his back, his eyes peeling apart and seeing the small inn room around him, steadily lighted with the sunrise. For a few heartbeats or so, he knew nothing else; his mind was clear, empty, even vaguely, distantly hopeful with dawn’s promise. Today, he could be anyone, go anywhere, do anything.

Anything, that is, except leave the bed.

Oh, Will knew he needed to get up, get out, and flee the room before it came. But his body wouldn’t shift one bloody muscle toward the edge of the bed. With weakly yearning effort, he strained and urged his arms and legs to move, to rise, to just get out. But his limbs felt heavy, limp and leaden. All he could do was lay as unmoving as a corpse, waiting and dreading its arrival. Maybe he could just go back to sleep, Will bargained, just close his eyes again and pretend he already was, and maybe this would be the morning it would pass him by. But he couldn’t shut out the light, and the thoughts, and then he couldn’t even shut his eyes.

Finally, he felt it shift inside him, felt it creep beneath his skin. Then squeeze painfully around his spine. As if pulled from within, he rolled onto his back—oh, for this he could move—with his arms and legs splayed outward. Blinking, he watched, with a tired and expectant horror, as hooked and filthy claws erupted from his bare chest, from where his heart used to be. Long, gnarled fingers followed, reaching out and scraping those claws across pale skin, reopening old wounds as they sought purchase with which to haul the rest of its form out of his hollow-feeling ribcage. First came grasping hands and bony, lanky limbs wrapped in a bristly hide as grey and dusty as decay. The hands pushed down on his chest, crushingly hard until he strained to breath, and the rest of it climbed out of him, achingly slow and far larger than the human frame from which it emerged. Next was a torso, inhumanly long, painfully gaunt with protruding ribs and concave stomach. From its back sprouted wings, bat-like and so thin and tattered it seemed as if they’d never fly, even if they could support its weight; Will never had seen it fly, in any case. Lastly, the legs lifted out, twisting around and kicking back at impossible angles, and finally straddling his own immobilized hips; they were curved like a goat’s and ended in black cloven hooves.

Bastellus 3e

And, finally, the head, and that terrible face, jutting forward on a thin neck and looming close above Will’s own. Every part of it was repulsive to behold and Will jerked his head back into the pillow to gain just one more inch of distance from it and its fetid breath. A stretched-back distended dome of a head, bald but for a few bristles and two stubby horns that marked it for the fiend it was. A wide lantern jaw with a gaping, never-closing mouth, ringed with a thousand needle-like fangs. It was hideous enough, but, more disturbing than anything else about it, it just seemed so awfully sad somehow, with downcast and sunken eyes under a deeply furrowed brow. In one glance, it displayed utter despair; in another, the depths of depression; the next, tragic grief; then abject suffering; and finally dreadful fear, while its whole corpse-like form was the very image of death. It was a face that demanded sympathy and invited sorrow. Yet, as Will recognized the upturned sneer of its fanged mouth and his own anguished face reflected back at him in the ink-black orbs of its eyes, he understood what an absolute twisted mockery it was of all that he felt.

Good morning, the demon said with false cheer, delivering its greeting with a sickly leer. Its voice was a whisper, both heard hissing between those fangs and felt deep in the back of his mind. It sat back, squatting heavily on his body, and though Will struggled to raise himself and shake it off, it pinned his shoulders with an iron grip such that he could hardly separate himself from the bed. Uh-uh. Don’t try to move. You’ll only hurt yourself.

“Please,” Will tried, wishing his voice didn’t sound so feeble, “Not today. Let me have just one day.”

Hmm. The demon made a show of thinking about this as it tapped a claw against a fang. Then, the inevitable. No. You know this day won’t be any different, not after last night. Oh, come on, you know me better than that. It patted a long hand against the side of his head in a comforting gesture, a gentle caress.

But Will recoiled, wincing and turning his head away, grinding one side of his face into the pillow, but exposing the other even more. The demon’s hide was so dry and rough it made his skin crawl. “Stop! Why?” he pleaded as he felt sharp pinpricks tease along his cheek; one caught in his eyelid and pulled it apart so he was forced to see the demon loom over him, blotting out the light. “Why do you have to do this to me?”

Bastellus

Abruptly, the demon removed its claw, and he heard it sigh as if in defeat. You know why, it whispered tiredly explaining as it had a thousand times before, I do all of this for you, you know that. I protect you, don’t I? I keep you safe, I keep you from getting hurt, it sniggered, Worse. Now, you’re getting too defiant. Let’s fix that. I think I shall take... your courage. What’s left of it, anyway. Its hand descended onto his head once more. And, whatever his refusals, whatever his pleas and protests and bargains, Will could not stop those claws from sinking into his skull. There was a cold churning sensation, making him dizzy and sick from his head to his heart. He closed his eyes, tight as a wince, on the edge of tears that no longer came. At last, he felt some small piece of himself come loose, fade away, and be gone, like all the others. He couldn’t even feel its absence after that, he could hardly remember ever having it. Every day, he watched his feelings die away, piece by piece, and was unable to do anything more than mourn their loss.

Left numb and weary, he didn’t defy the demon anymore. Lying in an unprotesting, unresisting stupor, he watched as it went to work on him, heaping chains from out of his torso over his limbs, binding manacles around his wrists and ankles, waist and neck, all of pitted, rusted dark iron. All that metal made for a fair suit of armor and a familiar, heavy burden. What did you expect? the demon asked as it snapped one manacle roughly into place. That things would ever change? You know they never do. We’ll have to do something about that silly hope next time. Its task done, it yanked on the chains, forcing him to sit almost upright, though Will had to push himself to stay that way before the weight of the iron links dragged him back down to the bed. The demon crawled over him, grabbing and kicking, until it clung to his back, claws on his shoulders, hooves jabbing his sides. Go on, don’t mind me.

With a surprising sense of release, he found he could move himself now, but didn’t, not yet. He needed to catch his breath, regain his wits, and work out how to disentangle the chains from his limbs and climb out of the bed. Then, with jerking motions, Will threw one leg off the side, then the other, groaning at the effort it involved. Slow down, what’s the hurry? You’re not going anywhere. He ignored the demon’s teasing and stood, but felt as if he’d launched himself too hard and too fast. With sudden weariness and under the weight of the chains, he was in danger of falling back onto the bed. Maybe he could just go back to sleep. But he didn’t, and he never could. First one tentative step, then the other, and Will was walking again. A struggle he waged every morning. Look at you, shuffling and shambling about like a zombie! the demon laughed. Almost an improvement.

After that, the demon fell silent, a brooding weight upon his back and brain as he went about his morning ablutions and routine with the rote, automatic action of a golem. He skipped shaving, again. A bit of stubble never seemed worth the effort, although this crop was becoming a proper beard again. Next time, maybe. Then he dressed, breeches and shirt and boots fitting easily over his chains and manacles like they weren’t even there. Now, Will felt almost human again. Now, Will could almost forget the demon.

Don’t forget your mask. For some reason, Will had to put his on himself, but the blank, smooth-faced iron façade fit easily over his features, hiding the emptiness and ruin. The demon even thoughtfully scratched a slight smile on it for him. There we go! it finished, Now you’ll pass for a normal person.

Chapter 1 – Welcome to the Yawning Portal[]

Ylraphon

Will and the demon had come to the Yawning Portal the previous night.

It was an impulsive decision, for Will, the kind he could still force himself into sometimes, albeit only after several minutes of indecision and arguing with the demon or managing to evade it for a time. He must have looked like a madman, he supposed, standing in the gutter on Rainrun Street, muttering distractedly as if to himself, walking a few paces up to the inn door and then retreating again. He’d given up and departed, then come back, more than once. He was certainly too shy for Mother Salinka’s House of Pleasure and it was getting too late in the evening to go anywhere else. But then, at last, amidst such chaotic meanderings, with a sudden motion neither he nor the demon could control, Will walked right up to the door, and pushed through...

And, once inside, he hesitated again, lingering in the doorway and staring across the dimly lit, raucously noisy, and smoky-aired taproom crowded with strange and dangerous-looking folk with weapons at their belts, his senses overwhelmed and the demon stealing the memory of whatever he’d meant to do next. Eventually, though, another patron had to walk past him to get to the door, so he sidled out of his path, looking away so as not to meet the other’s eyes. Will claimed the just-vacated table—Are you sure? Someone else might want that, the demon warned—dropping into the chair with relief at getting off his feet and easing the burden of the chains. Maybe you’d be better off over by the wall, out of everyone’s way? He stashed his satchel under the table, and resumed looking around the taproom like he was in a whole new world. And it was, for him.

The Yawning Portal! One of the most infamous inns in Faerûn, named and renowned for the passage that led down into the deadly dungeons and endless tunnels of Undermountain, the Mad Mage’s maze beneath the streets and sewers of Waterdeep, into which countless adventurers climbed in search of riches and secrets. Hundreds of legends had started here, as fortunate explorers found treasure and fame in the halls below. Thousands more had ended here, had never even begun here, as the unlucky and unwary instead met their dooms down below. Either way, all in all, the Yawning Portal was renowned across the Realms as a place of heroes, a place of hope, a—

Louella Bonecracker

A place of fools, the demon sneered from its perch on his back. It sniffed. What a dump. Will was forced to agree, literally; it was, he realized, a bit of a disappointment. Just a crowded and noisy, quite ordinary taproom in a dark and dingy inn, its walls shrouded by blue curtains, perhaps to hide some damage or shoddy construction. The table at which he sat had a worn wooden surface scarred by knives and dents after decades, maybe a century, of misuse. He spotted bugs scuttling across the floor. Across the room, he glimpsed a low stone wall, like some indoor garden feature lacking the garden. People stood around it, drinks in hand, talking to one another but paying no attention to the supposed death-trap a few feet away. Was that it, the Yawning Portal itself? It was hardly the howling magical gateway with glowing runes he’d envisioned when he’d first heard of this place. He’d never lose a demon down that.

There, you’ve seen it. Can we go now? the demon whined, bored already and slapping his back for attention.

Will tried to ignore it, while he tried to sort out his chains and sort out what he should do next. But he knew he needed to be here, he needed to wait it out. “No. I want to stay.” Just that tiny act of defiance gave him a small sense of victory.

Sighing, the demon wrapped its slender arm around his torso, tender as an embrace, then thrust its claws under his ribs, digging inside until it gripped his heart tight. With a series of quick squeezes, it set Will’s heart beating faster and faster, thumping against his ribcage like a frightened beast about to burst out. Wincing at the pain, Will was left clutching the edge of the table, fingernails digging into the splintered grooves. Worn and shabby as it seemed, it was the only solid, stable thing he had to hang on to. The demon withdrew its bloody claws and smugly brushed them clean. How about now?

“No.” Will managed weakly through gritted teeth as he tried to endure his too-rapid heartbeat and keep himself sitting upright. He could do this, he could tough this out again.

Ugh, I thought if anything would get you moving... Well, what about this? And the demon summoned hellfire, right inside his skull. Heat flooded from his head, down through his body, and out along his limbs. Soon, his skin flushed red and sweat welled from his pores, all over, while his head spun in a daze. The air in here was already too warm, too dense and hanging oppressively upon him, too thick with smoke that stung his eyes, and too noisy to hear even his own tortured thoughts before they were clouded by the heat haze. Will gasped, a whispered “No!” But barely able to bear it all, he glanced over his hunched shoulder and back toward the door, toward escape. Even for the streets of Waterdeep, the night air outside promised to be cooler and fresher than this, a welcome relief. He started to turn...

“Can I get you anything, goodman?”

As startled as a rabbit, he looked back and up at the rich voice intruding on his torment with easy charm: a waitress, tapping a stylus against a wax tablet to take his order. She was beautiful, black haired, her arms intricately tattooed, the designs disappearing under an apron with little more than breeches beneath it. Too easily distracted, his tired eyes tried to process the complex patterns, and completely failed. This woman seemed as strange and dangerous as any of the armed adventurers in this place. Stop, you’re staring! the demon hissed urgently in his ear. Blinking to clear his sight, Will tried to answer her, but the fire was still burning away his thoughts, and the demon now had its claw around his throat to force his head to turn back and forth, stopping breath from getting in and words from getting out. Eventually, though, Will coughed out on a tongue as dry as the Anauroch desert, feeling like a dying traveler on those sands, “Uh, water, please.”

The waitress frowned; that request must be unusual in a place like this. “Are you sure? We’ve got Shadowdark ale, Black Sail, Elminster’s Choice...” she went on, blithe to his suffering. Of course, she couldn’t see the demon on his back, nor the way it was torturing and toying with him. She couldn’t see the iron chains that bound him, nor the ruin of his body and soul, nor even the mask that hid the terrible truth. No, she just saw some ordinary traveler, unshaven, past his prime if he was ever in it, grey-faced and forgettable. She thought you were boring, the demon clarified. Now she thinks you’re sweaty and creepy.

“Just water for now, please.” Will repeated softly, sure his voice was rasping and failing to hide his pleading. ‘Just water’, in a tavern like this? You are such a coward. Live a little.

“Right you are, darling!” she said brightly and spun away, a whirl of wild black hair and yet more tattoos on back and sides, before disappearing into the crowd.

Oh, you’re real smooth, the demon remarked, its tongue dripping sarcasm in his ear. I mean ‘pathetic’. She thinks you’re pathetic.

“I only wanted water.” Snorting in derision, the demon ignored him after that, so Will ignored it as best he could, given the occasional kick and lingering torments. He tried to stay calm to rein in his heartbeat and catch his breath and shrugged off his baggy traveler’s cloak in an effort to cool down until the hellfire diminished. For something to focus on, he examined the scratches on the table, finding many were in fact graffiti: names in different tongues, elder runes and holy symbols, declarations of love, scrawls both crude and rude. These were likely the parting messages of people who’d gone down the well, he realized. He wondered who Lorar the Slayer was and if he’d ever made it back alive. He wondered whose last mark upon the world had been the old dick-and-balls.

Arabellan cheddar-2e

Then it was covered by a mug of water, a fresh candle, and a plate with a wedge of spiced cheese and talyth crackers, as well as the pleasantly smiling face of the waitress with too many tattoos on show. “On the house, love. Ready to order now?”

“Oh, um,” Almost frantically, Will glanced around for a menu, before squinting at the blackboard above the bar. While he could well spend a half a bell deciding and arguing with the demon, he didn’t want to keep the waitress waiting, and so went for the ever reliable. “The fishfry?” This answer sounded like a question asked in hope.

“And the sauce? We’ve got seaturtle gravy, sour vinegar, hundur, blood sauce...”

What were those other options again? Too late. “Oh, uh, blood sauce?”

“And to drink?”

What had she said earlier? “Elminster’s Choice?” Even the demon was surprised. What? You don’t even like beer.

“You know, between you and me, it’s not actually his choice.” the waitress confided with a grin, tapping her nose. “Let me know if it’s yours. My name’s Luranla, by the by. I’ll have your meal in a song or two.”

“Thanks.” Luranla had left again before Will realized she must mean Elminster himself had come here. After he gulped his water to douse the flames, he gazed around the taproom again, but spied no Elminsters among the crowd, nor any other great mages. The burly bartender must be Durnan the Wanderer, he figured, but that old warrior scared him more than a little. There had to be others, there had to be some heroes here who could help him...

Oho, is that your plan? the demon crowed. To just wait here for someone to rescue you? He didn’t respond, for it was in fact quite true: he was hoping someone, anyone, would somehow spot the demon on his back and exorcise it or smite it or banish it or whatever one did with a possessing fiend. But now the demon said it aloud, it did sound so hrasted desperate and stupid. Gods below, is that the best you could come up with?! Guffawing, the demon drummed a beat on his back with its fist, making his body quiver.

“Not like you’ve left me any other options.” Will muttered stiffly, trying to restrain his anger and frustration. He had so little of either left, he needed to conserve them. For what, though, he did not know.

It has all been for your own good, the demon insisted. Someone’s got to protect you from yourself. It craned its head closer to his ear, to whisper a warning with its cold breath. Well, just remember: if you try to tell anyone about me, I will have to take your voice. And more.

He sighed, remembering. The demon took his voice every time he opened his mouth. “I know.”

The demon punched his back, suddenly friendly again. Oh, don’t be like that. We’re a team, remember? You need me. You can’t get rid of me that easily.

Idly, while he waited, Will wondered if he ought to put his cloak back on, even pull the hood over his face. He could look like the dark mysterious cloaked and cowled stranger sitting alone in the tavern, yeah, the kind that appeared in all the bards’ tales of high adventure. He’d be bound to attract an adventurer then, right? But he abandoned that idea before even the demon could laugh at him for it. As it was, though, he had three more chairs at his table in a crowded taproom, free for anyone to join him, even just to eat in silence or make small talk. These days, he’d be happy just to talk about the Waterdhavian weather, and would count that as a victory over the demon’s efforts to keep him alone. But no, he didn’t look like someone who wanted to talk. He looked like someone who wanted to be left alone. The demon had seen to that.

“Hey, is this seat taken?”

This time, it was a man in a studded leather vest, a sword and a jeweled dagger sheathed at his hip, gripping the back of a chair in two hands. By those weapons and his brawny build, he had to be warrior. By that gleaming grin and dashing glint in his eye, he had to be an adventurer too. Finally! “No, no.” Will answered too quickly, beginning to shift his cheese.

“Great!” And he took the chair away, making a ring of five around the neighboring table as the incoming adventuring party took their places.

Yawning Portal patrons Dr227

Ignoring the demon’s cackling laughter, Will adapted his action and scraped some cheese onto the talyth cracker. He heard coarse laughter from the next table, and the demon pulled his head up with a yank of the chain. The warrior, a stout dwarf, a sorceress, a half-orc barbarian, a knight in shining armor emblazoned with the scales and hammer of Tyr. They were all sharing some joke, but his ability to read people more precisely had been one of the first things the demon had stolen. With their empty-seeming faces, they might as well be demons themselves. Don’t worry about them, they’re only mocking you, the demon explained. Will returned his attention to his talyth and took a bite, but the demon was clawing insistently at the flesh between his shoulder blades. They just think you’re a sad loner, sitting here at an empty table. The spiced cheese was quite tasty. But hey, it could’ve been worse: they could’ve joined you and made you want to leave.

Suddenly, the demon jerked the chain again, forcing him to look back and to drop his talyth. Here we go! The knight was staring at him. The demon’s claws hit his nerves and a cold shiver shot down his spine and along his limbs. Those holy knights could sense evil, couldn’t they? Was this it? Had someone finally seen the demon possessing him? The paladin was staring right through him. Will stared back, frozen, hoping silent pleading appeared in his expressionless face. The paladin was... looking up at the menu.

Made you look! Flushed with embarrassment, he looked back down to his talyth; the cracker had broken and the cheese had landed on the table. The demon was still laughing, slapping his back until he shook as he tried to clean up the mess. Oh, come on. What did you expect? The demon clambered over his shoulder so it could thrust its downturned face close in his own. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Everyone can see. They just don’t care. A simple lie or a basic truth; he couldn’t tell which when the demon lit a spark of dark hellfire deep in his chest. Everyone else in your life was content to watch you decay and fade away, the demon went on, insistent whispering in his ears. So why would the greatest heroes in the land give a damn about you?

He closed his eyes, trying to blot out the inn, the demon, the hot quivering and the cold anguish that warred within him. Hopes raised and hopes dashed, he felt like a fool for ever getting them up in the first place. Stupid plan, anyway. With a heavy sigh, Will cleaned up the debris of his talyth and tossed them back on the little clay plate, his movements small, sharp, and hard.

But don’t worry, I will always be here for you, the demon promised with sickly kindness. Here, let me help you with that. That was it, he’d exposed his frustration to the demon and it wanted a piece. Before he could even try to protest, it thrust its claws into his mind until he felt the feeling of frustration magnify into a shaking fury, then loosen, and abruptly diminish, to well below what he’d ever felt before. “No.” he whispered too late, distantly grieving the loss of a little more of himself, one more feeling dying away. There, that’s better, isn’t it? Behind him, the demon forged another link for his chains. But what was he even so upset about anyway? A half-hearted plan he’d put no stock in, that cost him nothing and lost him nothing. Just a simple disappointment and he was all too good at dealing with disappointments. So, he ate the broken talyth and helped himself to another.

Ale-2e

Before long, Luranla had returned with a floating serving platter bearing his order. “Here you go, handsome.” she said cheerily, leaning over the table to lay out the plate of fried quipper and other veggies, a little pot of blood-red hot sauce, horn knife and fork, and a tankard of foaming dark beer, shining with condensation. He was no great beer drinker, but it looked blessedly cool and refreshing right now.

“Thank you very much.” Will said and passed over the coins he’d already collected from his purse.

“Ooh, pleases and thank yous, we have some high-class clientele in today.” Luranla laughed.

Luranla seemed nice, and she’d met Elminster, and had actually shared more than a half-dozen words with him. By Will’s standards, he’d practically made a friend. With sudden daring, Will said “Oh, ah, do you know any—” The demon’s claws curled around his neck. “Ah, I mean, who I can talk to about—” The demon began to crush; it was getting hard to breathe. “Uh, renting a room?” The demon released him, slowly.

Luranla’s ever-present smile flickered. “Sounds like you need that beer, darl. But if you need a room, just talk to Durnan, over at the bar.” She turned to gesture toward the burly bartender, then shifted her attention back to Will. She winked. “Or me at the end of the night.”

“Oh, alright, thanks.” Will returned gratefully, feeling it was obvious question anyway. Again, Luranla’s smile turned slightly, but he couldn’t tell into what. She slipped his coin into her apron pocket and stepped over to the table of five. Meanwhile, Will lifted his knife and fork, savoring the warm aromas of fry-up, fish, and spices, and was about to dig in when a half a question arose in his mind. Wait, was she...? To you? Of course not, the demon scoffed. Just had a lash in her eye. Yeah, that would be ridiculous. He risked a glance over his shoulder to the other table—he was fearful of being caught staring at the paladin again—where Luranla was all smiles and charm to the adventurers and even showing off some of her tattoos. See, she’s friendly to everyone, even you. She actually has charisma. He couldn’t imagine being able to get along so well with people, and so quickly; he admired how easy it was for some people. When she departed, Luranla left a chorus of laughter in her wake.

Trying to ignore how the demon had begun hungrily gnawing on his leg, Will focused on his own meal. The blood sauce (not actual blood, to his relief) was much spicier than expected, and he wasn’t sure if the extra heat would cover for him or make things worse the next time the demon decided to set him on fire. Either way, it was also cool and refreshing and went well with the fried quipper and vegetables. As for the Elminster’s Choice, well, he would defer to Elminster on that one. Whatever, just remember: I’m not letting you get drunk.

Then he heard a hush at the other table, one filled with a raised voice. “Alright, I’ve got one for you!” It was the sorceress, waving her hands for attention. “Let’s hear it then.” said the swordsman. It sounded like they were telling tales. Will tilted his head, trying to listen in, and hoping somehow they’d notice and invite him to join them...

Chapter 2 – Telling Tales[]

After Taggor shared the wild rumor that their tattooed waitress was far older than she appeared, having worked here in his father’s day and his grandfather’s day and not aged at a bit, and might in fact be a dragon in disguise, they all had a good laugh and started to share stories about the Yawning Portal, both ones they’d heard and ones they’d just made up, because no one could tell the difference. An establishment as famous as this, and as infamous as this, had obviously spawned more than a few legends and myths of its own, not just those of the dungeon and the adventurers who went down the well. They were scrupulously avoiding those stories, of course. No one wanted to be demoralized before they followed the same path.

“I heard that, in the old days, when this was a much rougher sort of place,” Elanae continued, leaning eagerly forward and lowering her voice to a stage-whisper, more for effect than for any fear of being overheard. “People would be found dead in their seats, with a knife or quarrel still in their bellies or a mug of poisoned ale still in their hands. And Durnan, if he didn’t want to trouble the Watch with it—or didn’t want to be troubled by them—would just drag the bodies to a trapdoor, right here in the taproom, and stuff them into a chute. And, fwoof, down they’d go. They say it led down to the cellar, or even into Undermountain.” She paused there, glancing around at her close-listening companions to be sure she still had their interest before she got to the juicy bit. “But he had to stop eventually, and hired more vigilant, Helm-sworn guards, not because the Watch were getting curious, but because there was a monster at the bottom of the chute... and the sound of it munching the flesh and crunching the bones was putting customers off their meals.”

FouledLine

The companions snorted and sniggered, not just because it sounded so absurd, but because it sounded so disturbingly plausible too. And why not, when the floor show was adventurers heading down into a dungeon to fight monsters? This seemed like it simply shortcut the process. But Elanae had more, and went on with a wicked glint in her eye and a chilling edge to her voice. “The trapdoor’s been sealed and hidden, of course. But the chute is still there—and so is the monster. And on evenings when the minstrels play, and folk are dancing across the floor, if you dance just the right jig in just the right spot... Fwoof! Down you go, to dance with the monster instead!” With a satisfied air, Elanae sat back and watched as her friends groaned and laughed aloud, and Taggor slapped the table.

“That’s not true, you know.” It was Luranla, returning to the table and passing out their drinks from her hovering platter and collecting their coin.

Elanae pouted, a little put out to have her horror story dismissed so soon after its telling. “Oh, how so?” she inquired as she received her ale.

The tattooed waitress gave her a wicked grin. “It’s two monsters.” Winking, she took her coin and platter and spun away, giving the laughing adventurers a parting, backward wave. “Enjoy!”

“Does anyone notice?” Marcon asked once they quieted, frowning and casting his eyes warily over the nearby floorboards.

Elanae paused, her tankard halfway to her lips. “What?”

“Surely people see their dance partners dropping down a trapdoor.” he pointed out levelly. “They’d raise alarums or attempt a rescue.”

“Well, not if the candles are dimmed for the dance, I suppose, or the floor is very crowded, or the dancers are whirling around a lot or alone, or, or... Don’t make me over-explain the story!” Elanae squealed accusingly, jabbing his armor and only bruising her knuckles.

The Tyrran paladin spread his hands placatingly. “A hazard like that should be locked or rebuilt, to avoid such mishaps. It’s a serious violation of safety laws.”

Looking up from his drink, Raese slapped Marcon amiably on the shoulder. “It’s a story, my friend! It’s meant to be funny and scary, not to follow the law.”

“Health and safety are no laughing matter.” Marcon declared solemnly, but his serious visage cracked with a slight smile of his own.

“Tell that to the Mad Mage!” Elanae cackled.

‘Speaking of...” Raese cocked his head toward the bar. “You see Durnan over there? How old do you think he is?” While they pondered that, he unsheathed his beloved enchanted dagger and began idly scratching the dirt out from under his fingernails.

With a tongue on his tusk, Taggor appraised the man, warrior to warrior. “Over forty winters, and hard winters at that.”

“Would you believe that, like our waitress, he’s more than twice that?”

“No!” Elanae breathed in surprise, almost spluttering her beer.

Marcon wondered, “Is he a dragon too?”

“Worse.” With that lead-in, Raese took a swig and launched into his tale. “Last century, the wise rulers of Waterdeep would condemn criminals to Undermountain. Just lowered them down that well on a rope, to take their chances with the monsters and the traps and the Mad Mage. They called it “justice”. If they survived, then it was the will of gods, I guess. Can’t say if any did, but none of them were seen in Waterdeep again, that’s for sure. And yeah, maybe they stayed out of sight and left the city, if they still had a death sentence hanging over their heads.” he conceded. As he spoke, Raese toyed idly with his dagger, spinning it on its point and practicing his knife tricks, his eyes focused on its flashing blade. “Or maybe they did all get killed. Because a few others went down the well of their own free will, some to explore, some to test themselves, some to end it all. And none of them were seen again either.”

“Then, one day in the Year of the Broken Helm, Durnan the Wanderer and Mirt the Merciless climbed out of the well, the first ever to explore Undermountain and return to tell the tale—”

‘Everyone knows this story, lad!” Hewer grumbled into his beard.

The blade stopped, and Raese held it point-down on the table as he looked challengingly at the dwarf. “Yes, but think: how did two men survive, when no one else did? How did they bring back a fortune in gold and gems and old magic, and do it six more times before building this inn?”

“Time.” Hewer declared. “Eventually enough adventurers and convicts and madmen have slain enough monsters, have set off enough traps, and opened enough doors that someone’s bound to win through eventually. It’s inevitable, like water wearing down a boulder or dwarves hollowing out a mountain. Those two succeeded on the hard work and hard luck of those what have come before, plucked the low-hanging fruit of already-opened treasure vaults, and returned to everyone thinking they’re heroes. It’s always the one that does it first that earns the fame.”

Elanae tried frantically to shush him. “Gods, don’t let Durnan hear you!”

“You’re a cynic.” Raese accused, chuckling and spinning his dagger again. He shook his head. “Uh, uh, it’s not that simple. You’re forgetting how they’ve hardly aged since then, how they always seem to be the most important and influential men in the city, how—”

“Come on, stop bashing about the boulder and crack into it.”

“Alright. Durnan and Mirt did win through Undermountain, there’s no denying that. Maybe it was prowess with swords and trap-craft, maybe it was luck, or maybe it was everyone dying before them.” He paused, sipping his ale to wet his tongue before he went on to the main part of his tale. “Or maybe they delved too deep into the dungeon, deeper than anyone had ever been before, and they found what truly lay buried at the bottom. Not the Mad Mage, he’s just a servant to the true ruler of Undermountain: a demon lord or a dark god, or something so much worse, imprisoned in ancient times by the gods of good in the biggest dungeon in the world.”

Maybe this was too much, for now they all sat chilled and quietly attentive, even the man at the next table, Raese noted. Regardless, he pressed on with his tale; it was too late to stop telling it now. “The two heroes faced the master of the dungeon, who controlled the monsters, the traps, and the very walls around them. They could not slay it, they could not escape it. So... they made a pact with it.”

“Oh gods...” Taggor whispered, already seeing where this was going.

‘In exchange for their lives and their freedom, for riches and longevity, they would return to the surface and build a tavern, or an inn, right over the well and draw people from all around. And to save the whole city from falling into the dungeon, they would send a steady stream of adventurers down the well, just as the old lords of Waterdeep did with their convicts, just as the warlords and barbarian chiefs did with their enemies and captives before that: all of them as regular sacrifices to the dark power of Undermountain.”

“By the great mystery...” Elanae whispered, horrified. “That’s not true! Is it?”

By way of answer, Raese only shrugged, a wry grin on his face.

Haularake, lad, you’re not supposed to terrify us out of going.” Hewer complained, quaffing his tankard and wiping the foam from his beard. He needed a stiff drink after that.

“Give us a better story then.”

Hewer thought, then grimaced. “I can’t.”

Raese chuckled, feeling victorious, and began etching his initials into the table with his dagger.

“But I can tell you lot a few things about this inn most folk don’t know. My great uncle Gower was an Undermountain guide, after his retirement from adventuring: he’d take rich tourists and adventurers in need of handholding around the halls and the caves hereabouts for enough coin or their equivalent in mugs of ale. He told me a fair few things about the dungeon too, things I’ll tell you when we get down there.” he assured the others. “He also told me yonder great well’s not the only way down. For one, there’s a second well.”

“Really?” Raese asked curiously, looking up from his handiwork with the table.

“Aye. Durnan maintains a few personal backdoors into his dungeon, it seems. More than once in his exploring, Uncle Gower found a tunnel or shaft leading straight back toward this inn. He followed one, one day, and came up in the inn’s water well, banging on the lid and asking to be let in. Durnan did so, eventually, and let Gower keep on using it, on the condition that he not go sniffing around the others. That man does have secrets.” he agreed with a discomforted glance at Raese.

“Told you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe not those secrets. But there’s secret doors, in any case, somewhere in this building. Anyway, he’ll let folks down the water well by special arrangement, for exploring the caverns under Mount Waterdeep. Gower said there’s connections all over: to a different part of Undermountain, down to Skullport, even into Waterdeep’s sewers.”

Elanae pulled a face. “Eww.”

Remembering what lay in those caverns, Hewer realized maybe he did have a story to tell after all. “Actually, that’s how old Uncle Gower helped to save the world.” Pleased with their surprised and expectant faces, Hewer launched into his own story. “It was during the Godswar, when the gods walked the Realms raising havoc. Well, one day near the end, none other than Elminster the Sage, Khelben the Blackstaff, and Kelemvor themselves all walked into the Yawing Portal, looking to hire Uncle Gower to take them through the caverns.”

“Your uncle met Kelemvor? Marcon exclaimed despite himself. “The Lord of the Dead?”

“He wasn’t any god of death then. He was just a man, alive and hale and not much to look at, reckoned Gower. Anyway, a lady mage friend of theirs, by name of Midnight, had somehow gotten herself stuck in the Realm of the Dead, though she was very much alive too. They wanted to bring her back to the Realm of the Living, and knew of only one way close at hand of reaching the Realm of the Dead. You see, in a great cavern deep beneath Mount Waterdeep, there’s yet another well, this one called the Pool of Loss.”

Bairemuth

“I know this!” It was Taggor, slamming down his tankard in his eagerness. “Long ago, the tribes that settled these lands placed the bodies of their great chiefs in its waters, so their spirits might serve their people in death as they had in life. They marked the path with the elder rune Bairemuth—Death.” Taggor murmured solemnly.

“Ending.” Elanae clarified. “It’s the rune of ending, of sleep and rest, of the grave, of undeath and, yes, death. An arch between four lines, so it represents a doorway or passage too.”

“Aye. The Pool of Loss is a passage to the Realm of the Dead. So, Gower named his price—twenty mugs of ale, on account of him feeling charitable—and he and Durnan took Khelben, Elmo, and Kelemvor down the water well, through the tunnels, along a shortcut, and right up to the Pool of Loss.” Hewer took a swig since all this talking was making him parched, and he felt as if he needed to name his uncle’s price for this tale. “Well, when they got there, the cavern was whirling with the spirits of the dead, waiting to pass through. This Midnight was on the other side, she’d sealed the pool with a rainbow bubble, of all things, to stop the Lord of the Dead Myrkul’s armies from marching through.” Hewer shook his head slowly. “I don’t really ken what was going on back then, and neither did Uncle Gower. But they rescued Midnight and her stone tablet, defeated Myrkul and his undead, and got all the gods back to where they belong.”

Raese pursed his lips, looking puzzled as he thought he spotted the hole in Hewer’s story. “But that doesn’t mean your uncle helped save all Abeir-Toril. He just helped those who helped those who did. And it sounds like it was all sorted when he got there.”

“And there were still armies of undead rampaging through Waterdeep’s streets.” Taggor added.

Hewer folded his arms and, with a challenging glare, said firmly “Still counts.”

Unwilling to go against a dwarf on matters of clan pride, Raese flashed a smile and raised his tankard. “A toast to Uncle Gower then!” They all cheered and took swigs from their tankards for their fellow adventurer, his importance in the grand scheme of things be damned.

“Where’s your story, Marcon? You haven’t told one yet.” Raese prompted after their lowered their tankards.

Taggor chipped in “Yeah, follow that law!”

The paladin gave him a faintly irritated look. “That’s not even a custom. But if you wish.” Marcon straightened his back and cleared his throat, then intoned grandly “There is a curse hanging over this inn.”

They waited, and Taggor cracked first. “Is that it?”

“A terrible curse laid long ago by a warrior who went into Undermountain and there lost his sword and his coin purse to a rust monster.”

“A rust monster? Is that all?” Elanae began, sounding a trifle disappointed.

Hewer sighed. “Alright, lass, let him finish, or we’ll never get to go down.”

“Thank you. Now, this warrior returned to the Well of Entry and called to be hoisted back up. Durnan lowered the payment bucket, but having lost his coin, this warrior lacked the gold lion for the fare.”

“They’re gold dragons here, in Waterdeep.” Raese reminded.

“A gold piece, in any case. With no coin for the bucket, this warrior could not be let back up. With no sword, this warrior could not go back and win another. So, he shouted back to Durnan, he argued and he bargained and he threatened, for a full bell, but the Wanderer was immovable. Finally, the warrior made many dark oaths and laid a foul curse, then went off, unarmed, to find another way out. He nearly died in the effort. Or maybe he did die. But find a way out he did.”

Taggor frowned, a lip curling over his tusks; something was missing. “Wait, what did he put the curse on?”

Marcon leaned closer for the revelation. “On the bucket.”

“The bucket?!” Elanae exclaimed in disbelief.

“And what of the curse?” Raese inquired, leading his friend on to the end of his tale.

“It is said that, whosoever places their foot in the cursed pail in order to be lowered into or raised out of the well,” Marcon pronounced, “They shall, inevitably... kick the bucket.”

They stared. They blinked. They burst into uproarious laughter, thumping the table and rocking back in their chairs. “Oh, gods, you ought to tell funny tales more often, paladin.” Taggor cheered, slapping him on the back.

“I do!”

Revel-at-evensong-tower

Raese tossed a heavy coin purse on the table; it landed with a clinking thud. “Well, I have a plan for that, so we don’t get caught out the same way. I’ve arranged a bit extra from our patron. Once we’re down there, we’ll stash this somewhere nearby. Even if we come back empty-handed, or worse, we’ll still be able to pay Durnan’s price. And we’ll come back with our lives and stories of our own to tell.” He sat up straight and slapped his thighs for action. “So, are we doing this or are we going to sit here all night talking about it?”

“We’re doing this!” Taggor declared, thumping the table.

“Aye!”

“Yeah!”

“A toast, to us, the Company of the Talking Goat!”

“Huzzah!” And they all tipped back their tankards to empty their last drinks and knocked them back on the table. With squeaks and bumps, they rose from their chairs and trooped excitedly toward the great well. Raese signaled the innkeeper, yelling “Goodman Durnan! We’re going down!” And the whole taproom erupted into whooping cheers and applause. It was time for a show!

Chapter 3 – Going Down[]

“Can I join you?” Just four words, short and simple, ordinary and inoffensive. People said it all the time, didn’t they? Or maybe a polite “May I listen in?” or a supportive “Good luck down there!” And he didn’t even need to say anything, he could just quietly shift his chair closer, a finger-length at a time, if that wasn’t too much like creeping. The adventurers at the other table seemed fun and friendly enough; they were hardly likely to object. Where was the risk, what was the harm? There was none, Will told himself, no chance at all that they’d refuse, that they’d mock him or insult him.

Oh, no, hardly any at all, the demon chuckled sardonically, promise gleaming in its black eyes. It had climbed down off his back and taken a seat opposite him. While he could no longer feel its weight, he could still feel its gaze bore into him, and it was never far from the chains.

And yet, when Will opened his mouth, the demon stole his breath from his throat. When he attempted to wave an arm in greeting or shift a leg in their direction, the demon wrenched his chains back, tutting at him in refusal. Then, with renewed and yearning effort, Will strained to form and force out the words, so hard he almost choked on them instead. And still he was silent, still the demon was irresistible. Tired by the exertion and rubbing his aching neck under his iron collar, Will wondered in exasperation “Why? I just want to listen.”

No, you want to join them, the demon countered, leaning across the table with an interrogating eye. You don’t need people like that. Trust me. They’re dangerous. They’re going to get themselves killed. So sad.

Even with their weapons, he didn’t think they looked dangerous, except maybe to monsters and marauders. They looked heroic. But, if they were going down into Undermountain, then he couldn’t disagree with the demon’s pronouncement. Those bright, boisterous adventurers were taking a great and terrible risk. Would they win fame and fortune, or would they die down there and become just another name on the table like Lorar the Slayer? “Are you going to let me talk to someone safer then?” Will asked wearily, but he already knew the answer.

The demon gave it anyway, sniggering No, probably not.

“Please, let me talk to someone. Anyone. About anything. The weather, the cheese, the bugs on the floor.” Will pleaded, trying to muster his strength for another struggle, trying not to sound like he was whining. “What harm would it do, to me or to you? It’s not like this can get any worse.”

Ah, but it can, much worse, the demon assured him. You couldn’t bear another rejection. How much more pain can I take?

Fearing the answer to that, finding little energy left to struggle, he surrendered. The demon had won this round, just as it did every round. It fell silent and Will was left to eat his quipper and chips by himself and to listen mutely to the next table, wanting to be a part of such camaraderie and knowing he never could be. Conversation, friendship, love: such things were not for him. The demon had made sure of that.

And yet... Maybe he could try again; move fast enough and he might take the demon by surprise. Will turned, opened his mouth, “I—”

“A toast, to us, the Company of the Talking Goat!” “Huzzah!”

Rolling his eyes at his lamentable timing, Will returned to his plate and the remains of his meal, but quickly looked back when the swordsman made his grand announcement. So that was it, they were going down the well! “Good luck!” Will gasped suddenly since he was already primed, surprising himself and especially the demon.

“Hey, thanks!” the swordsman acknowledged with a quick nod before moving on.

Skeleton

“You know they were actually fiends?” the paladin remarked to his companions on the way past.

“Who?”

“Rampaging through the streets of Waterdeep. Myrkul’s minions are technically fiends, not undead.”

The sorceress chimed in. “Mm-hmm. His realm is in Hades, one of the lower planes.”

“Uncle Gower saw undead.” the dwarf insisted, daring any to doubt him. “Skeleton warriors on skeleton horses. What else would they be?”

The conversation carried on into the roaring crowd, leaving Will alone with the demon. I suppose you think you’re proud of yourself, it said peevishly.

The demon had taken his pride some time ago, but he did, in fact, feel some small amount of relish. “I’ll take my victories where I can get them.”

It only took you all evening, the demon reminded, still sour about being cheated whilst it was distracted.

A few times, he had seen the demon, normally so fixated on him, turn its attention to the other table, to the adventurers it claimed to scorn. It seemed curious even, not in their companionship and banter, no, but in their talk of demon lords and dark gods, portals and curses, undead and fiends, and death. Maybe it was just the morbid subject matter, a case of like calling to like, and such things were not unusual conversation in a taproom full of adventurers built above a dungeon. But maybe there were some things more than others that had drawn the demon’s eyes and ears. “You’re interested,” Will probed it, because who else could he talk to? It grunted in assent. Both of them were looking ahead to where the adventurers assembled around the great well and dealt with Durnan, with the glint of gold coins changing hands amidst much chatter and preparation. “Why?”

Why not? It’s juicy stuff, the demon deflected, scraping its claws together in anticipation. You mortals love your horror. And so do us fiends, of course.

Will glanced from the demon to his chains. “Not me.”

And yet, here I am.

“These fiends, the demon lord... Any relation?” Will tried nonchalantly, but the demon had always been evasive on its nature.

As it was again now. The demon spread a long-fingered hand in an empty gesture, contriving to look innocent and unknowing, and completely failing. Who knows, maybe I have my own great uncle down there?

Abandoning that line of inquiry, Will watched in amazement as the Company of the Talking Goat were lowered down the well, one by one. First was the half-orc barbarian, a booted foot in the hook, one arm wrapped around the thick rope, the other holding his axe out and ready, his eyes peering intently into the depths, before he disappeared beneath the stone wall. Nearby, Durnan was turning the winch with powerful rolling motions. The whole inn had hushed with the suspense, but for the regular metallic squeaks of the mechanism and the furtive whispers of the spectators and patrons. One down, the demon said. After a minute or so, the rope came back up, empty, only for the dwarf to take his place. Those with the best darksight were going first, Will supposed. It seemed practical, or tactical, in case of immediate ambush. But it was eerie to see such lively folk going gladly into their likely doom. Two down.

Again, an empty rope returned, and this time the swordsman who’d spoken to him climbed onto the rope. Indefatigable, Durnan set to work on the winch once more, lowering the man out of sight. Three down.

Will couldn’t believe it, he couldn’t watch any more. He looked down and drank his ale to settle the sick feeling in his stomach and the cold creeping of his skin. “What a waste.” he muttered. He could no longer see the action at the well, but couldn’t help hearing the relentless deathly screeches of the winch and the rattling and creaking pulleys. Those sounds scraped at his nerves as much as the demon’s claws ever could. Its occasional count served only to punctuate the noise.

And here I thought you’d be a fan, the demon disparaged. All those adventure tales. Isn’t that why you brought us here?

“I guess the reality is different.” he admitted. “They could die down there. And they know it.” Will grimaced, discomforted and disturbed by that realization. It was rare, though, for him to feel something so intensely that wasn’t forced on him, or stolen from him, by the demon. It was almost refreshing, to know he could still feel something.

The demon snorted. Those fools think they’ll star in one of those stories.

“The stories are about those who succeed and survive. Not those who fail and die.”

Looking the other way, Will cast his gaze around the taproom and the other patrons; he seemed to be the only one with eyes not fixed on the well and it made him feel even more lonely. Eventually, his eyes settled on the table formerly occupied by the Company of the Talking Goat, now only by empty tankards and a guttering candle. And a dagger, its inset jewel gleaming in the flicking light. The swordsman had left it behind, beside his carved initials.

Will rose and waved and called out. “Uh, hey, wait!” But no one could see and no one was paying enough attention to hear, and he couldn’t raise his voice loud enough anyway, not with the demon lunging over the table to strangle him. With a thoughtless swing, Will threw it off and grabbed the dagger by the hilt, then strode toward the well, weaving between the people and the tables. He’d left the demon behind, but he was dragging his heavy chains at every step. Yet, despite it all, he had to help. “Stop, they forgot...” Suddenly, he was at the stone wall, leaning over and looking dizzyingly down into a wide stone-walled shaft and a dark void, from which rose an empty rope, stained brown with old blood. He held out his hand to drop the dagger—

Yawning Portal EtU

“Hey!” a deep voice scolded, from a big slab of man rounding on him. It was Durnan the Wanderer, the brawny battle-scarred old warrior turned innkeeper and master of the well. All those grim stories crackled though Will’s mind. “Don’t drop a blade on them unawares. It could hit someone.”

He wilted under that stern gaze and admonishment, and then the demon caught up to him and lit fresh hellfire behind his eyes. Yeah, you fool! it cackled. He proffered the dagger to Durnan like an offering for forgiveness. “They left this behind.”

Durnan’s eyes dipped, but he didn’t take it, only folding his thick arms across a broad chest and well-worn and wine-stained worker’s jerkin. “Then that’s their mistake to fix. Tymora grant they notice its loss sooner rather than later, for their sakes.”

All around the well, spectators were laughing and shouting into the shaft: calls, warnings, jeers. Will added his voice to the chorus, calling them to come back, but couldn’t raise it loud enough to cut through the others, and it all became a useless cacophony. Durnan peered down the shaft, and at last declared “Seems they’ve got moving already. Wise. Looks like you’ve got yourself a free dagger. A fine piece too, probably enchanted.”

Will glanced down at the weapon he didn’t want. He swallowed, “I’ll wait, in case they come back for it.”

Durnan didn’t seem optimistic, but nodded and returned to the bar. The show over, the spectators dispersed and conversation shifted. Will heard one seedy merchant cry “Left their fine weapon behind, did they, by Beshaba! Four golden dragons on the fighter not making it back alive!” The merchant approached a gnome seated at a nearby table, surrounded by neatly stacked coins and loosely spread parchments, who was rattling off numbers to a crowd of clamoring gamblers. Some seemed upset that a sure bet made earlier was not so sure now.

One pointed at Will; “Hey, you there! You were with them, goodman. How did they appear to you? Were they drinking overmuch? Was anyone carrying an injury that might slow them down?”

Disturbed by the callous display, Will mutely shook his head and turned away. He walked around the great well, anything to put some distance behind him; the other side of that black abyss seemed far enough. From wanting to be with people, now he only wanted to get far away.

Mornbryn's Shield fog

Finding a clear spot to stand beside the well, he contemplated the dagger, the way the blade shone and the polished jewel in the pommel caught the torchlight, the way the shagreen-wrapped hilt fit comfortably in his hand. He’d never before held something so valuable. He couldn’t tell if it was enchanted or not, but holding it gave him an unaccustomed sense of power, of prowess. Like he could face anything in a fight. So, when the demon came wandering along the top of the wall after him, Will stabbed it.

I’m hurt, the demon said, as the blade slid harmlessly in and out of its gaunt chest.

“So much for that.” Will sighed disappointedly, leaning against the wall and turning the dagger over in his hands. He thought about tossing it down the well anyway, in case the Company of the Talking Goat came back later, but Durnan’s warning still rung in his hotly burning ears, sparking more doubts than answers. What if it did hit someone waiting down there? Or what if they didn’t find it in the dark? And what if it broke on impact? The trouble was not something he could stand. So what was he to do with it?

You could go down there and give it back to him, if you’re so worried about it, the demon suggested slyly as it sat on the edge of the well, its clawed feet dangling over the pit. After all, it is your fault.

“What?” He couldn’t believe it, he shouldn’t believe it, yet the demon’s words had always held a ring of dark truth about them. “How do you figure that?”

Quickly, the demon turned black accusing eyes on him, forcing him to shrink back. You distracted him with your pointless little “good luck” back there, so he forgot to pick it up. Now they’re going to get into a fight, he’s going to reach for a dagger that isn’t there, and they’re all going to die.

“That’s ridiculous. He was playing with it, carving his initials into the table. That’s why he forgot it. And he’s still got his sword.” Even as he said them, though, he knew his reasoned denials sounded like feeble excuses to the demon’s ears; they always did.

Oh, sure. Blame the dead man. Go on, you can tell yourself that. You might even believe it, the demon persisted, seizing his arm so its claws pierced beneath his skin. But what do you feel? I’ve left you with more than enough guilt for that. You interrupted the swordsman, you didn’t see the dagger sooner, you didn’t cross the taproom and get Durnan’s attention in time. Too slow, too quiet, too needy, too late. Too much of a failure. You even almost dropped a dagger on their heads.

With a wordless rebuke, Will shoved the demon into the well and out of his sight. But it changed nothing of what he knew and what he felt now, as if the demon still clawed and churned his insides. And it reappeared only heartbeats later, casually retaking its seat with a flutter. Wings, remember? You know I’ll always come back to you. Although, come to think of it... the demon began to muse, a filthy claw tapping a sharp fang. This Pool of Loss, a passage to the lower planes: now that holds promise. I could go back, it said, sounding wistful as it gazed into the blackness of the pit.

It could go back, Will echoed, incredulous at the idea. This was the first time the demon had hinted at such a thing in all the years he’d been burdened with it. At last, here was a way for him to be rid of the demon, and all it required was a terrifying, deadly journey into Undermountain, to something that might not exist, in a place he could never find. It was, he supposed, hardly surprising. There were never any easy answers or fixes, were there? Nor even reasonably hard ones. Not for him, anyway. Only the long, slow impossible quest of an entire lifetime. A trek through the Underdark almost paled in comparison.

Yet, as he gazed into the well, into the dark abyss, Will couldn’t imagine going down there himself. He had no skills for dungeon delving, no equipment, no combat training, no weapons other than a borrowed dagger. He would die horribly to the first trap, the first roving band of dark elves, the first tentacled monster, or whatever. He was no adventurer or hero, with all their magic and might, who could face those things, win fortune, and save the day. They all went down there seeking death or glory. But he didn’t want glory.

After a while, as the taproom settled down again, Will became aware of a certain sound under that of the murmuring conversation, rattling utensils and tankards, and bustling feet. It was a dull and distant howling, or a hollow roaring, and it seemed to be centered on the well itself. So that was why they called it the Yawning Portal, he supposed, for the sound of the wind through the shaft. It was too weak for him to say which way it went, whether it blew out of the dungeon or was sucked in from the inn, or if it went back and forth regularly. Listening to it, though, Will was put in mind of the inhalations and exhalations of some immense beast like a dragon, or the swordsman’s dark god or demon lord, slumbering in the depths of the dungeon. Or maybe it was even the dungeon itself, like some vast and hungry living thing of stone lurking beneath the city, devouring all those who went gladly down its gullet.

And he stood at the lip of its open yawning maw, staring into its dark and endless depths, wondering whether he could follow. You can, the demon whispered. But how far down was it, and how hard would it be? Just how certain was the end? It's enough. And there were still the dangers, the monsters and the traps. The risk of falling and lying broken at the bottom of the shaft, injured but alive, of suffering some much worse fate than that which he already endured. It’s fine. It was the fear of failure that held him back from the edge, and worse, the fear of success. Don’t worry.

But he worried, he dreaded, he shook with chill fear. Do it. The well was vertiginously deep, making his head whirl as if he was falling into it already and he grew ever more dizzy as he was pulled in one direction after another by the demon and the pit and himself, torn always between turning back, holding still, and going on. Go on. And he was so utterly tired after fighting and trying and struggling and standing for so long, he could just fall down, fall asleep, fall into black oblivion. Just rest. The void at the bottom had an irresistible draw to it, inviting him into its cold embrace, making him want to give into the urge of his own body, to just let go at long last. Let go. It would be so easy, really, to just go, right now, and get it all over with. Go now.

Tolgar Anuvien

“Thinking of going down the well?” Abruptly, the bustling taproom behind him burst back into Will’s awareness, with the gruff voice cutting through his thoughts and the demon’s whispers both. Still dazed and dizzy, Will turned to see a gray-haired old man in the blue-and-silver vestments of a priest of Tymora. He’d heard clerics of the goddess of luck were stationed in the Yawning Portal day and night to treat those adventurers who returned wounded from Undermountain with their healing magic. Judging by how his silver-coin holy symbol hung above his well-rounded belly, this one spent his spare time working his way down the menu. “Luckbringer Orbrin Baerent, well met.” he introduced himself.

“Will. Well met. And, oh, uh, no. I was just waiting to see if they come back.” Will said hastily, a denial to hide his shame and the fear that he might have been caught. The demon glared hatefully at the priest for the interruption, then hopped back up onto Will’s back, making him slump under its weight. Watch out, he’ll preach at you.

Orbrin looked overlong at Will, an inquiring light in his experienced eyes. It was almost as if he saw through him to the demon behind, but after the paladin he’d given up hoping for that possibility and the priest was soon onto more important things. “Ah, so you’re the one who found the missing dagger.” he remarked, gesturing to the jeweled blade left resting atop the wall.

“Yeah. Bad luck for them.” Will supplied helplessly; it seemed the appropriate thing to say to a priest of Lady Luck.

Yet Orbrin scoffed at that and leaned against the wall beside him. “It’s a shame, is what it is. But whether bad or good luck, well, that’s up to them.” At Will’s puzzled expression, for he’d expected him to say it was the work of Beshaba, the Maid of Misfortune, or something, Orbrin went on wearily. “I’ll let you in on a secret, Will; call it a higher mystery, call it heresy: there’s no such thing as luck. It’s all blind chance, happenstance, accident, or inevitability. We can’t help all that happens to us, and there’s always a risk, but whether we see it as an opportunity or a curse is what makes luck good or bad. Those merry fools down there may rail at the loss of a needed weapon and be distracted and doomed for it, or they may accept it, adapt their plans, mayhaps find a ready replacement, an enchanted blade, or a treasure. Or just be better prepared next time. That would not be the goddess’s doing, but their own, for they have power over their own fate. Some, at least.”

“Oh.” said Will, not sure he really understood and not sure what else the demon would let him say. When someone spoke to him like this, or when he had need to speak to another, the demon let him have his voice, but made it clear it would choke him or worse if he got beyond basic conversation. It didn’t leave him many options, however. Make him go away. Before he makes you go away. “I just don’t know why they’d even go down there.”

“Why?” Orbrin gestured grandly into the well. “Why not? Undermountain is the ultimate test. They place themselves in the hands of fate and trust to their luck, to their own abilities. It’s only when you risk losing it all that you know what you’re really capable of, what power you actually wield.” He turned, putting his back to the dark well and faced the many and varied patrons of the taproom: adventurers, merchants, laborers, sailors, travelers, and more. He spoke, his voice cynical with old wisdom. “Most people don’t know what power they have. They fear and distrust change too much to take the chances they ought to and they’d rather stay in a bad situation than risk a worse situation or brave a better one. And so they go, around and around, never changing, never escaping.”

But this seemed unfair to Will, and he frowned and said carefully so the demon couldn’t stop him, “Not everyone can take a chance like that.” Watch it, the demon warned, warming its hellfire and raking claws across the nerves in his back, making him tremble.

The priest shrugged his heavy frame. “Anyone can take a chance.”

“What if—?” Will began, but the demon got its claws around his neck, so the remaining words died unsaid in his throat. But, straining to answer, Will managed hoarsely “How?”

At that, Orbrin regarded Will with a fresh light in his world-weary eyes. Here, perhaps, was someone truly seeking change. “Well, Tymora asks only that we set our own goals, for ourselves and for the world. A plan, a dream, a quest, whatever, so long as it is yours. Pursue it, keep it always in mind and follow it like the luspeel needle of a compass, and when the opportunity comes you may seize it without even thinking about it, and find better fortune. Those with no such direction are soon waylaid by Beshaba with misfortune instead.”

“Hmm.” was all Will could say, between the demon’s interference and his own thoughtful distraction.

“Anyhow, I must be off, smells like my dinner’s ready.” The old priest slapped Will heavily on the back. “And don’t wait too long, yeah?”

“Yeah, thanks. Farewell.”

Once Orbrin had lumbered away, the demon sneered into Will’s ear. What a load of nonsense. You already tried all that, and it failed, over and over. You have no direction, no control over your fate, no chance of escaping it.

But he did, Will thought. He had one now. Only one.

Will had resolved to wait as long as he could for the Company of the Talking Goat to return, but it was becoming clear they would not be, not in the next song or so, not even in the next bell, and maybe not in the next day or more. And maybe not ever. Durnan and Orbrin had made it clear he should not concern himself too much with it. Yet he lingered by the well another song more, just in case, until he was ready to move on, though the demon hammered impatiently at his shoulder blades. He would finish his meal and take a room here at the Yawning Portal.

And he took the dagger with him.

Chapter 4 – Grist in the Mill[]

It was only when he went to sleep that the nightmare ended.

But Will had a harder time than usual getting there, being in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, with all the strange noises of ever-active Waterdeep going on outside his window until moondark, reminding him of a nightlife he was not a part of. And the dagger was enchanted, he found: the damn thing glowed faintly, which had not been apparent in the torchlit taproom earlier, but which, once he blew out the candle, illuminated the room with an eerie blue light, revealed the demon in all its disturbing detail, and made it impossible to keep his eyes shut. Will had no idea what magic word or gesture would dispel it, and spent far too long trying to find one, until at last he wrapped it in clothes and shoved it under the bed to blot it out.

More than the light and the noise and the other distractions, though, what kept him awake was the demon whispering doubts and dreads into his ears, until its words mingled with his own second thoughts and waking dreams. Erratic images and chaotic accounts flashed through his mind of an undeserved dagger, of a doomed adventuring company, of a dark and yawning hole in the earth, and of himself, standing at its precipice. He couldn’t roll over far enough or often enough to escape it, and when he felt like he was finally falling asleep, feeling like he was actually falling, the demon kicked him in the ribs, jerking him back to full wakefulness. You were falling asleep, it said helpfully. It hated him going to sleep as much as it hated him waking up, it seemed. But eventually the darkness between these moments lengthened and drew him into welcome oblivion.

Until, of course, he woke up.

Will could not say when the demon had first come to him, nor how or why, only that it had. But it had started, he supposed, with a few too many failures, a few too many losses, a few too many rejections and missed opportunities. A few too many hard words from his father, and a few too many worries from his mother. Maybe it had just been life grinding down his soul like grist in a mill, leaving him raw and exposed, vulnerable to the demon. Or maybe it had always been within him, even as a shy and quiet boy, working subtly and secretly at first as it gained in strength, biding its time before it struck.

Either way, eventually, he had heard the whispers, in a too-familiar voice, scratching at the back of his skull. They were warnings, cautions, and advice to avoid more pain and loss, seeming sensible at first until they were not. Then things he could feel one day would be gone the next, with his interests fading, his joys lessening, his ambitions reducing to no more than the next day, his horizons shrinking to no further than his front door. They’d slipped away so slowly and so subtly he’d not even noticed, until he remembered and looked back and wondered what happened, why he was left with only regrets and weariness. At last, seeking the source of the whispers and the whereabouts of his feelings, he had looked too deeply inside himself, and found the demon looking back. Then, on one bad day, it climbed out of him, put on the chains, and made itself known. You know me. And there it stayed, with him from the moment he dragged himself awake to when he passed mercifully into sleep, day after day and tenday after tenday and moon after moon and season after season and year after year after bloody long year of eternal torment by the demon.

He just wanted it to stop.

Feeling like sleep had been a wasted effort as usual, and still exhausted by the experience of getting out of bed, Will made his way downstairs again. The taproom seemed different in the morning: brighter, more open, less crowded and busy, with new staff and a different priest in attendance. Oh good, no one knows you. But with so little sleep to divide them, the new day felt more like a continuation of the old day; the world had changed and refreshed, but he had not. Otherwise, the great well was still there, still just as deep and dark, and still just as ominous. Will stood beside it for a while, staring into its depths, telling himself and others who asked that he was waiting for the Company of the Talking Goat but really contemplating his own passage down. He tried asking around about the adventurers, but no one on duty now had any knowledge of them, let alone word of their return. It felt grimly as if they’d been forgotten already.

After a morningfeast of Turmishan gruel that was quite filling and surprisingly flavourful, followed by strong kaeth to really wake himself up, Will headed out into the city to return to his real reason for visiting Waterdeep: job hunting. He liked Triboar, but the town held little work and less purpose for him outside the caravan trade, and no hope of ridding himself of the demon. Thus, Will had come to the big city, in one last desperate attempt to escape, though it had taken much struggling with the demon and several false starts before he could actually get away. For Will, it was a rare chance to have freedom and a change. Or pretend you have, you mean.

Waterdeep streets WatN

So now he rode the public drays and trekked the streets each day, dragging his chains all the way, until his feet ached and his skin chafed under the manacles, as he checked out each of the employment notice boards and broadsheets and left his letters of introduction at some likely establishments. He had little luck and no success, however, just as he had in Triboar. Often, the demon decided for him, rejecting out of hand his qualifications, his experience, his achievements, his suitability and indeed likability for various occupations. He let it, too, because it saved time. That left only those which Will was completely perfect for, and still he had to argue his case with the demon. So it hurt all the more when he was rejected out of hand by these potential employers too: not at this time, already found someone, not suitable, promise to contact you later, and so on and so forth. The responses were all the same, or else they made no response at all. One even rejected him after saying he was perfect the previous year, refusing to even consider him a second time. It’s only because they don't like you. He wondered if they actually could see the demon clinging to his back, silently suggesting that they should shun this man or else repelling them by its very presence. He wondered what was the point of trying.

Eventually, as his prospects waned and his aspirations died yet again, he found himself reverting to old habits, distracting himself from the demon’s whispers with petty vices and afterward succumbing to the demon’s scolding and punishments. Well, that was a waste of a day, it tutted, All because you have no self-discipline. It’s why I need these chains. Will recalled the Tymoran priest’s talk of keeping a purpose always in mind and of seizing opportunities. And you immediately forgot to do even that, the demon was quick to remind him. How was he, he wondered, when the opportunities kept getting yanked away, when the demon kept taking his attention and his energy and his desire?

Plinth-Valerie Valusek-VgtW-104

With job hunting failing early this day but leaving him some time to spare, Will visited some of the city’s temples to pay his respects to the gods, as if they smile on him, at least. Triboar only had the ranger god Gwaeron Windstrom; supposedly he slept nearby, but there wasn’t even a public shrine in his honor, and harmony with nature, while admirable, didn’t seem too relevant to Will’s struggle with the demon. In Waterdeep, however, he had options. He could’ve gone to the Hospice of St. Laupsenn, but it sounded too much like a place of healing and the demon wouldn't let him go there. It was a place for sick people, after all. Instead, he went to the all-faiths temple known as the Plinth. It felt safely anonymous and non-specific, a place where he could venerate not only Ilmater, the Crying God, but also Shar, the Lady of Loss, privately and without shame, and most of all alone. From the Broken God, he pleaded for the strength to endure and a release from his torment, and from the Dark Goddess, he begged for solace from the constant loss of himself, as if that might appease her. But if the gods were listening or not, he had no way to know. Of course not, you sound ridiculous, talking to yourself like a crazy person. He felt hollow and strange, self-conscious under the demon’s mocking gaze. He had no idea what faith felt like, and wondered if the demon had already stolen that from him too.

As an afterthought, this day, Will also stopped by the Tower of Luck, the temple to Tymora. He still felt curious about what Luckbringer Orbrin had said last night by the well, but it seemed he wasn’t in much during the day, on account of his night shift at the Yawning Portal, and Will wasn’t able to talk to any other priest. Otherwise, the sermons on fortune, success, and being master of one’s own fate still seemed a far-off, impossible dream. So Will dropped a coin in the bowl and made a perfunctory prayer to the Smiling Lady and departed.

Finally, Will went to the library again, to bury himself in more books. They’d always been an escape to him, even before the demon, offering him respite from this life by stepping into another. He needed that distraction, that fantasy, and clung to it even as the demon stole it from him. But today, Will had some specific subjects in mind, so he headed to the Font of Knowledge, the grand temple of Oghma, and passed by the mighty green marble statue of the Lord of Knowledge to reach the renowned Great Library. If anywhere in the city had the information he sought, then it had to be there.

Library FRCS 1e

First, indulging some lingering curiosity from last night, he begged the guidance of a librarian-priest to locate some histories of Waterdeep and the Godswar, commonly called the Time of Troubles. Although he still wasn’t sure what had actually happened and why some deities were now supposed to be deceased and others had appeared out of nowhere—new gods for old, he guessed—those cataclysmic events were well-documented, especially here in the City of Splendors where they’d reached their conclusion. He found multiple accounts in agreement on the journey to and from the Pool of Loss, and it appeared to have been relatively short and hassle-free for the heroes, for a change: there and back in a single night, including the hours wasted tinkering with some kind of magic bubble, with no climbing or caving equipment required. And the Pool of Loss was real after all, known to be used in the days of Nimoar, Bloodhand, and before as a place of interment for their chiefs and to be a portal to the Realm of the Dead in Hades, the Gray Waste, the Barrens of Doom and Despair, whatever one called it, one of the lower planes.

Close enough, the demon whispered in anticipation, scraping its claws together. I could go back.

“And would you, if I took you there?” Will probed it carefully. “You would really leave me?” He could hardly wonder what his life would be like without the demon, he’d lived so long with it.

Have I ever lied to you? it answered in an oily whisper.

At this point, he couldn’t remember if it had or not. Either way, the Pool of Loss was one more possibility, an idle dream if nothing else. Actually going there was far beyond his means anyway.

Of course, it had probably been easier to access before the city built over all the traditional entrances. The actual route through the caves was trickier, without a dwarf guide with knowledge of secret shortcuts, but he found a map of the cave system in Mount Waterdeep and, with the Bairemuth runes to mark the way, it didn’t seem so hard. And it wasn’t the Underdark or Undermountain, just the natural cave system under the… And now he knew why Undermountain was called that. Anyway, at least it wasn’t the dungeons of the Mad Mage. Will copied the map with as many notes as he could think to make, though he told himself he had no plans to actually go there. He just needed to know where it was.

Next, the librarian-priest looked at him oddly when he asked about demons, but let him examine some of the more conventional, presumed-safe grimoires. More surprisingly, the demon let him too. Will flicked through page after dusty page of a supposed lesser Demonomicon, scanning depictions and descriptions of fiends, devils, demons, and daemons: actually all different types, he learned, and he wondered what was the difference between them all. Lawful or chaotic or neither, all were evil, weren’t they? His had displayed no apparent preference, but he’d always thought of it as a demon. Each had arcane names and classifications, as if putting a label and a definition on one could explain it, could pin down and control its abstract and nightmarish nature. Despite Will’s long and painful familiarity with his own demon, some of the fiends in the books were so disturbing and horrific they made his skin crawl. He supposed his possession could be worse, but it didn’t make him feel any better about it. It wasn’t a competition.

Yrsillar 3e

Then again, the succubus page with its suggestive woodcut seemed well-thumbed; maybe that was why the librarian was suspicious? Wait, he’d turned two pages. He leafed back to be sure, and then he saw it: the demon looking back at him. Those downturned black eyes, that mournful leer with all those fangs, recognizable even in a sketch by a shaking hand. He stilled, feeling a chill creep down his spine that for once was entirely his own. The demon was real after all. The knowledge of it made him shudder, made the demon feel even more powerful, even more heavy on his back. Sorrowsworn, he read, scanning the passage: a demon; feeds on feelings of grief and loss; provokes despair, fear, and failure. It all felt so familiar. And yet: preys on the bereaved; appears after battles and at places of death, loss, and sadness and temples to dead gods; first identified after the Tuigan Wars… That wasn’t right, was it? He’d seen no battle, he wasn’t mourning anyone, except himself. He wasn’t just sad, it was more than that. He supposed a basic description of an obscure demon wouldn’t have all the details, or maybe it was different for everyone. “Is this you?” he asked the demon. His demon.

Hmm? As if waking up, the demon peered lazily over his shoulder at the page. Pfft, looks nothing like me. The nose is all wrong for a start.

“You don’t have a nose.”

Exactly.

Still, it was close. It was a name, and a definition. It was something. Will felt a strange sense of relief and reassurance mingled with his dread. The demon was real, it wasn’t just something he was imagining out of some even worse madness, not something he was doing to himself. It was real, so it was something he could deal with, right? Maybe a label and a classification helped after all. The name was odd though: sorrowsworn. What did that mean? Will supposed it was a mistranslation or effort to be flowery, but who needed that with a demon? He worked back through the etymology. ‘Swearer of sorrow’ was more accurate, but swearing suggested the taking of a binding oath and he’d done no such thing. Who was bound by an oath here? If he had to define it, then, perhaps… ‘one who speaks and binds with sorrow’. Yes. That fit the whispers and the chains rather well.

Otherwise, it had a lot of strange magical powers, many of which he was well acquainted with, and others he could not understand. But he was disappointed to see it had no real weaknesses or easy ways to repel it; no herb, no silver, no god’s sign. That put him onto the next topic: possessions. By now, it was getting late in the afternoon, he was tired, and his last cup of kaeth had already worn off. Every now and then, he lost sight of the page, his vision and focus sliding away with his mind; the demon had been steadily shortening his attention span for years. Suddenly it slapped him, jerking him awake again. You’re getting tired. Maybe you should give it up. Frustrated, Will fought it off, but at least it got his mind back on his research. The demon could be almost helpful, in its way.

One book, simply titled Demonic Infestations, seemed the most direct, so he started there. Demonic possessions, different from devilish and other fiendish possessions, he presumed, turned out to be quite extensive and complex. First, the demon disembodied itself somehow and became an ethereal spirit that entered and possessed the victim’s body. He’d felt that, every morning. Thereafter, the demon could aid or hinder its victim, ride in silence or whisper in his mind, take control of his body or even transform it entirely into that of the demon, and so manifest in the mortal plane. Will’s demon was very much of the hindering, whispering, and controlling varieties, he believed. Please, I’ve always had your best interests in mind. Supposedly, the possessing demon could not use its magical powers, but Will was quite sure that was wrong; he’d suffered them, constantly. Moreover, it could read the victim’s thoughts and memories, he read dismally. So much for all his secret plans and deepest thoughts and desires; the demon could see them all and always had. And it’s been no fun for me seeing all that, believe me.

And to exorcise it required… potent spells of the arcane and the divine, beyond his understanding and most beyond the power of even many mages and priests, as far as he could tell. The demon tutted as Will took it in. Shame. Even if you could tell someone, there’s hardly any chance anyone could help you. Even the simplest was just a short-term solution, evicting but not shielding him from the demon. And you know I would just come back the next day. It would be just a temporary fix, winning him a day’s respite at best, a lifelong dependence on magic at worst. How was that any better? Besides, the mage or priest would probably ask for gold for the spell, which you can’t afford because you don’t have a good job. What a pity.

He bowed his head over the tome, closing his eyes against the text that read like so many rejection notices. There was a sharp pain behind his eyelids that he couldn’t say was due to staring overlong at the books, the demon inserting its claws into his sockets, or the dry absence of tears. This had all been a waste of time: coming to the library, coming to the Yawning Portal, coming to Waterdeep, all of his life. He had no solutions or ways of even easing his suffering, and he was no closer to finding one either. In fact, the more he knew, the worse it got, as he was teased with solutions he’d never have. This time, when the demon stole the last of his frustration, he didn’t resist or even notice its loss.

So, eventually, Will rose and returned the demon books to the still-suspicious librarian-priest. He was silently screaming at the man to notice the demon on his back and summon help to slay it, banish it, exorcise it, something, but of course not a sound slipped past the demon’s claw around his throat and not a sign of his torment appeared on the mask over his face. Instead, he walked out of the library, past the silent stone god who taunted him with knowledge of what he could never have, and out of the temple, on to a street busy with the end-of-day foot traffic.

WaterdeepLamplighter

He needed to get back to the Yawning Portal before sunset made the streets too dark; he wanted to just end this day as soon as he could. But every step seemed harder than the one before, his chains growing heavier and his pace getting slower. He was well used to their weight, it was like wading through water most days, but now it was like dragging his feet through thick mud or sludge, and then like pushing through a wall. The sucking hole in his chest cavity ached more than ever, while the opposing pressure inside his skull seemed set to make his head burst. What was the demon doing to him now? His vision and attention spun around him, a barrage of faces, places, sounds, and sights without meaning or connection. He was in a city full of people, he was surrounded by them, brushing and bumping into them and seated next to them on the dray, but he was a thousand miles away from all of them, yearning for just one person to take notice and dreading what would happen if one did. With every step he suffered the demon, with every breath he suffered the demon, and every day he would suffer the demon. Day after day and tenday after tenday and moon after moon and season after season and year after year after year after year after year he would always suffer the demon.

Finally, after what felt like all night but was still before early evening, Will arrived back at the Yawning Portal and disappeared unnoticed into his rented room. He stayed there, alone enough that he could let slip his mask and at least open his mouth when he roared voicelessly into the mirror, with something far less than rage or fear or pain but equally as intense, perhaps just pure despair, whilst the demon stabbed its claws into his neck, his back, his aching feet and lit hellfire in his head and chest. When would it would end? Would it ever end? He just wanted it all to end. But there would be no end, not for him, not ever.

He dared not go out again until he’d won back from the demon some measure of control over his body and his wits, but it was a hard-fought struggle to steady his breath and his racing heartbeat and to stop screaming under its torture. He found himself pacing a circle inside the small room, as Will ventured toward the door then was turned back by the demon, again and again. I can’t let you go out there in this state, it whispered with false concern. With a need to escape, he strode up to the door again. His hand reached for the handle, it hesitated, it shook, and then was snatched away. What would people think? Worse, what would people say? So, he was trapped; his whole world had shrunk to a room barely ten paces wide, the ten paces he took to the door and back. A banal little dungeon cell in which the demon would torture him as it desired. Was this his personal Abyss? At last, exhausted, he collapsed onto the bed, and lay there in a dull haze as the demon tormented him and tore away pieces of him. He didn't have the energy to fight any more today.

He never slept, but after a while he seemed to awake nevertheless, as the demon grew bored and the pains faded. This time, Will rose and shambled out of the room on his own power, then made his way back down to the taproom, where he ordered his meal—a hearty traveler’s stew he needed right now—from a stranger at the bar. He was trying to avoid Luranla and Orbrin; they were too friendly, too knowing, and he couldn’t bear the pain of that. After his eveningfeast, he found himself by the great well again, staring down into the darkness as had become his habit, listening helplessly to the demon’s urgings. That deep yawning void promised a strange kind of peace, an end to all pain. What would it be like to go down there? How hard would it be? Again, he felt as if he was being drawn into it, as if he was falling and leaving the world behind. He could just go at any time.

“They’re not back yet, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

Will started at the stern voice of the innkeeper Durnan, and at the sudden surge of guilt inside. He hadn’t thought of the Company of the Talking Goat all day, and feared he’d forgotten them too. You did! the demon accused. You stole their dagger, you even bought yourself a sheath for it. He’d left that up in his room, being too shy to wear a weapon in public like an adventurer or a braggart, much less one that wasn’t his and he had no idea how to fight with. He’d just wanted something to blot out the light. “Oh, thanks.” he answered vaguely.

The burly ex-adventurer leaned against the stone wall and crossed thick scarred arms across his chest. “Did you know them well?”

“No.” Will admitted, wilting under the veteran hero’s flinty gaze, feeling compelled to answer completely. “I mean, it felt like I did, for a few stories. But I didn’t get the chance to greet them. And I need to return their dagger.” Stop, you sound pathetic, worrying about people you don’t know. “It would be a shame if they…” he trailed off, not knowing what to say. Don’t make it back, you mean? “Didn’t succeed. How do you think they’ll fare?”

Durnan shrugged heavily, but answered Will’s real concern. “Trust to their capabilities, just as they have.”

Will didn’t know what to say to that, even if the demon would let him, and only hmm-ed. He cast a glance back into the well as it drew his attention away again.

But the master of the well noticed the distraction. “Are you thinking of going down too? I find it crosses most folks’ minds.”

“Uh-uh, no, I’m not an adventurer.” Will denied hastily.

“Nor are most folk. They still go down, though, and have a look around the upper level, the near chambers. They’re almost safe, usually. It’s just so they can say they were brave enough to try. There’s nothing like a little brush with death to make one appreciate life all the more.” And Durnan the Wanderer, the man who’d gone willingly into the world’s most notorious deathtrap and survived had to appreciate life an awful lot. Then again, he’d retired, built an inn on top, and charged for admission, so maybe he wasn’t quite the best man to ask.

“I heard there was another well. Leading to the caves?” Will asked suddenly, surprising himself, before the demon could stop him, if it had even tried.

Durnan gave him a long, narrow-eyed look. “How’d you hear that?”

He wilted again, “The dwarf’s stories. I, uh, read about the old barbarian burial practices there, at the Pool of Loss. I was wondering...”

“No one goes down that well.” The Wanderer’s word was firm, and final.

“But…” One word, and his daring fled him.

“That passage is only for trusted adventurers. Regular customers ride the rope.” Durnan pointed a thumb at the bloodstained rope dangling over the well into Undermountain. Then he slapped Will on the back; the weight behind that blow was enough to make him feel as if he’d pitch over the wall into the great well anyway. “One gold dragon to go down, another to come up again.” Then he stepped away as the priest Orbrin beckoned to him about something.

And Will, trembling down to his bones, was left staring at the rope and dark yawning well.

Chapter 5 – The Battle[]

Will went to bed early that evening, and the demon even let him get to sleep soon after, as if it had had its fill of tormenting him that day, or else he was simply too tired to put up with it for long. In any case, the demon had made sure to remind him that coming to Waterdeep had been a disappointing failure and a waste of time and coin and everything else. Tomorrow, he would have to return to Triboar and the life of drudgery and the demon he’d hoped to leave behind. He fell into a dreamless slumber, hoping he would get to sleep in late, hoping he might not awake at all.

Yet he did awake, and strangely it was still moondark. He heard cries and clatter; there was some kind of commotion, not outside his window in the finally sleeping city, but downstairs in the inn that never closed. He lay for a moment, listening, too curious to ignore it and doubting he could go back to sleep now. Quick to rise whilst the demon still slept, Will climbed out of bed and stumbled across the dark room, shins scraping painfully against the storage chest before he bumped into the side table. Groping blindly, he found and unsheathed the dagger, casting the room in sufficient light to see by. He was awake enough now to hear shouts coming from the taproom, not something he was used to. Was there a fight, or a fire, or raiding monsters or unleashed magic? Was another party going down the well, or was one returning? Was it the Company of the Talking Goat? If so, he’d be glad to return this damn dagger to them.

Will hurriedly dressed and snatched up his satchel; he’d already packed to depart in the morning and figured if he had to evacuate a burning inn, he might get an early start. He resheathed the dagger too, stuffing it in his satchel so as not to be seen with a ready blade. Then he headed out of his room and went downstairs, unburdened by the chains and the demon, which was still sleeping within his empty chest. The early wake-up and the disturbance downstairs notwithstanding, Will liked these rare, moondark moments, when the world was asleep, the demon was quiet, and his mind was clear and free. He wished they would last all night long and all day too.

Stirge-1e

With careful, quiet steps, Will ventured into the taproom—and came upon a scene of chaos. Armored adventurers were balancing on chairs and other furniture, slashing swords at red-hued bat-like creatures that whirled and hummed through the air, flapping four sets of wings and darting with long pointed proboscises. Stirges! Even Luranla was up there, wielding a mop with valor, her black hair flying with every swing. Across two pushed-together tables sprawled a pale elf, with one of the creatures piercing his neck, blood pouring thickly down his front. Beside him was Luckbringer Orbrin, frantically applying battlefield medicine and intoning prayers to the Luckmaiden to aid an adventurer whose luck was fast running out. A few late-night patrons and staff members were sheltering under tables, sniping and snarling about the situation. Beyond them, another adventurer clambered out of the well and joined the fray, whilst Durnan labored mightily at the screeching winch to haul up another reinforcement. “Remember, I’m charging you for any damage!” he bellowed. This was not the Company of the Talking Goat, Will saw, but another party returning from Undermountain, fleeing for their lives with a thirst of these bloodsucking monsters at their backs.

“Can I help?” he began. But Will wasn’t accustomed to raising his voice, with or without the demon, let alone over such a racket. His words sounded limp and wholly out of place. He tried again; “Need me to do—?”

Claws closed around his throat. The demon had awoken. Quiet. You’ll attract attention.

Will forced out “That’s the idea.”

From the stirges, the demon hissed. Sound advice, for once.

Strangely, Will wasn’t very alarmed; over time, the demon had slowed and dulled his reactions, making him a distant observer to most situations. In a crisis, though, it had its advantages. Thinking first, Will shut the door leading upstairs, to stop any stirges flying up and preying on sleeping patrons. Briefly, he considered drawing the magic dagger, but just as quickly abandoned the idea; he was no fighter and it was much too short to reach one of the flying stirges, not without its needle-like nose striking him in turn. Or maybe you’re just a coward. Even those swords weren’t much better, being too thin to intercept a small, swift-flying stirge. They needed something bigger. That gave Will an idea.

Carefully, his eyes on the stirges, he skirted around the taproom and behind the bar to reach the kitchen, closing other open doors as he went. At this time of night, the kitchen was empty and inactive but for a pot of perpetual stew simmering away on the stove as it had for years, and dimly lit by the low fire, so Will easily found what he sought: a wide frypan and a hefty saucepan hanging on their hooks, both of cast iron. Those ought to be big enough, he figured. Taking them down, he turned to hurry back, when he spotted another open door, evidently left open in the crisis. It led into a small alcove with a bucket of water on a rope, a hatch in the floor, and a deep dark hole. The other well. There it is, whispered the demon with anticipation.

Pan-ME

Ignoring it, Will rushed back into the taproom, and into the midst of the battle. “Here, use these!” he tried, proffering the pans, but everyone was too focused on more urgent matters to notice him. Well, of course, you’re talking too quietly and waving cookware around. You had no business getting involved anyway, the demon reproached, evidently back to sabotage. But then Will heard a whining hum, rising and rapidly approaching—he turned and whipped the frypan up in front of his face, just as a stirge slammed into its hard surface. The thing peeled limply off and plopped onto the floor. Will stared at it in shock: like a cross between a mosquito and a bat, the size of a small cat, with broken proboscis and shattered wings, and quite dead. Aww, you killed it. Immediately, another stirge descended to feed on its slain kin.

“By Gond, that worked?! Here!” From atop her chair, an adventurer reached down for a pan, switching her sword to her offhand. Speechless, Will offered up both pans, but she only took the saucepan and sprang up again. Whooping with glee, she set about stunning and scooping and skewering any stirge that came within her reach. Will backed away from the rain of blood and bodies, wondering how this could ever be fun.

His breath and heartbeat quickening—whether due to the demon or the rush of the fight he couldn’t tell—Will made a few wild swings at swooping stirges; he clipped one, but struggled to hit another. Still, he was getting excited, almost like he wasn’t half bad at this! Oh, you just got beginner's luck, the demon dismissed petulantly, But now you’re out of your depth. And thus the seeds of doubt were planted. Maybe if he climbed to higher ground like the others? Or would he be better off helping Luckbringer Orbrin?

Will was looking around to see where he was needed when something suddenly slapped onto his back and four wings buffeted his head, a loud hum piercing his ears. He froze. Ah, get it off me! the demon shrieked, Alright, have some fear back, just move! Before Will could wonder, it thrust a claw through his back, gripped his heart so tight it skipped a beat, then set it racing like a knight’s charger. A chill fear he’d never before known flashed through Will’s mind and down his spine, as if that sharp proboscis had stabbed between his shoulder blades already. He yelped and slammed the frypan over his shoulder, again and again, battering the stirge senseless and lifeless, wishing he was beating the demon the same way. Ugh, stop, you got it. Took you long enough though.

Shaking, his breathing hard and sharp, all his calm composure lost, Will began moving between the tables, not caring where so long as he was not an easy target. The demon sounded fearful, urging Look, just leave now! Run! Before you get us both killed. Both? But then Will found himself in front of Orbrin’s makeshift healer’s station. “Can I help?” he panted, his breathing ragged.

“Just keep those stirges off us!” the old cleric grunted, his focus on his patient. Nodding, Will stood beside the table, waving his frypan overhead like a shield to discourage other, curious stirges. As gruesome as the scene was, he couldn’t resist a glance behind him, seeing that Orbin had already killed the attached stirge by means of a carving knife through its tiny body. And the moon elf, wearing fine robes and a brace of scrolls, appeared to be a wizard. His skin was blue-white with blood loss and he seemed to be unconscious or in some kind of elven trance. “Damn thing’s tapped an artery and the venom makes the blood run thin. If I pull it out, he bleeds out. And he’s already lost so much.” Orbrin rubbed the back of his hand across his sweating brow, smearing blood there, then looked directly at Will. “So, I want you to pull it out.”

“What? Me?” Will exclaimed but, after a last look around for stirges, turned and set his frypan down while trying to ignore how his muscles were quivering with cold dread. You shouldn’t be here. You should’ve stayed in bed. Now you’re going to mess this up, and this elf’s going to die. Such a shame. He swallowed down his fear, blocked out the demon’s words. “What do I do?

Tossing the last blood-soaked rag to the stirges, Orbrin placed a fresh wad of cloth over the elf’s neck wound. “Hold this here, press it firm. Take the stirge by the head, then, on my cue, pull it directly out, and quickly. There’re no barbs to worry about. I’ll cast a healing spell as you do.”

Feeling as much out of his depth as the demon was telling him, Will pressed the cloth over the elf’s neck. Too tight, or not tight enough? Then, grimacing at the touch of the bloody, fuzzy, limply dead and surprisingly delicate body, Will grasped the stirge’s head. He stood ready, full of unease but nodding at Orbrin. Are you sure you’re doing it right? What if you slip, what if you’re too slow, or too fast, or—

“Oh, Bright Smiling Lady, it’s time to return your favor!” Orbrin demanded grandly. Wait, was that the cue? He flashed a silver coin in front of Will’s face; on it, he saw the smiling face of Tymora. “Call it!”

“Heads?”

Chill-touch-2e

Orbrin flipped his holy coin high in the air and yelled “Now!” Startled into motion, Will pulled the needle-like proboscis out, sickeningly smoothly, and flung the dead stirge to its hungry kin. And in that same moment, the Luckbringer touched the elf’s throat and the blood welling out beneath the cloth was joined by silvery light. Then Orbrin snatched the still-falling coin out of the air and slapped it down in Will’s free hand. He saw the goddess smiling up at him. Heads. And the blood stopped flowing and a healthy pallor soon returned to the stricken elf’s face.

Speechless and staring, with a swelling feeling inside, Will found himself awed to witness not just the magic and miracles of the gods but also this saving of a life. This wasn’t a sensation the demon had had much cause to take from him before in his life. Yet the demon was quick to whisper in his ear now, Why did the gods save him and not you? With doubt and confusion setting in, Will asked “You… Tymora saved his life on the flip of a coin?”

“Look again.”

Will turned the coin over. On one side, the smiling face of the goddess. And on the other side, the same.

“Fate is meant to be cheated, son.” Orbrin took back his coin. “Now, let’s get cleaned up.”

Wait, what if you’d picked tails?

All around them, Will now realized, the battle was coming to an end. The last adventurer out of the well was a skilled archer who could shoot stirges out of the air, while the others had stopped relying on swords and taken to battering them with pots, pans, and even chairs instead. In short order, the thirst of stirges had been exterminated, with red, dead bodies littering the taproom floor. “Looks like baked stirge on toast is back on the menu!” someone crowed and others guffawed. The patrons sheltering under the tables crawled out and returned to their drinks with friendly, relieved chatter. It was as if it had all been a merry sport, an evening’s entertainment, as if people hadn’t almost died. He had to worry how common an occurrence this was.

Merry Mer-She

Yet Will was surprised as strangers, adventurers and patrons alike, started slapping him on the back and shaking his blood-smeared hand and thanking him for lending his aid, as if he was one of the adventurers, no matter how small a part he thought he’d played. The recovering elf wizard thanked him feebly but freely, and Orbrin acknowledged him more heartily if gruffly. Durnan tossed him an upward nod of respect that felt like the highest honor, and Luranla flashed him a dazzling smile that made his tired heart flutter. Even the cook promised him a free helping of the new morningfeast special, whilst grumbling good-naturedly about the extra washing up. It was often a small, casual thing and it all passed by in a bewildering blur, but still Will felt so… good to have helped, to have been part of the group, to be appreciated. It brought to his face a silly smile that was surprised to be there, one that lingered for some time. I suppose you think you’re happy, the demon whispered sourly at its defeat. Don’t get used to it. But he’d done so well, with this not-insignificant win over the demon. He didn’t want this feeling to end.

And yet it did.

Even after everything, Will had little luck talking to the people with whom he briefly enjoyed such camaraderie as, every time he sought to keep up a conversation longer than a couple of words in passing, the demon stole his voice as it always did. The usual small talk, a “Thank you” or “How are you?”, basic questions about helping to clean up, responses to direct questions, all the expected statements that would not raise suspicion and allowed him to function in the world: these things the demon allowed him. But the rest, questions about the adventurers, their mission, what they’d done and where they’d gone and who they’d met, anything that might let him get to know anybody and have them get to know him in turn: all evaporated unsaid before they ever reached his mouth, thanks to the ever-present claw around his throat. They’ve got better things to do than hear you pester them.

So, for his part, Will followed Orbrin’s directions in cleaning up, scrubbing the blood before it joined other suspicious brown stains on the tables and collecting up blood-soaked cloths. It was distasteful, of course, but Will’s sense of practicality won out, not to mention a shy desire to save Luranla the effort. Pathetic, really. Besides, he found the work relaxing in its way and it distracted him from dwelling on what had happened and gave him adequate cover for not sticking around to talk to others. The work took him in and out of the kitchen and to and from the well, where he drew several buckets of water up from that deep, dark shaft. The walls were smooth stone and he noticed iron handholds leading down; the climb didn’t look too hard. You could go down there any time.

Ignoring it, Will returned to the taproom to see how else he could help; he’d already scrubbed up the blood, others had picked up the stirges, and the adventurers had cleaned up after themselves. He felt as if he was falling into the role of unofficial, unpaid chamberjack of the inn, and found he didn’t mind so much, so long as he was helping and was appreciated and trusted. But by now the adventurers had retired to rest and recover, the late-night patrons had departed now that the excitement had worn off, Durnan and most other staff seemed to have gone back to their beds, and the Yawning Portal returned to whatever passed for normal at this time of night. Will seemed to have been forgotten; he was left on his own again. With only the demon for company.

Shrine of the Suffering

Finding nothing to do but reluctant to just walk away, Will turned and went back into the empty kitchen, figuring there must still be something for him to do there. Maybe he could wash those stirge-smeared pots and pans the cook was complaining about. But someone had beaten him to it; they were all freshly washed, back hanging on their hooks and still slightly glistening. He’d already wrung out the rags and taken them to the laundry. And there was certainly nothing he could do with the barrel of slain stirges in the cool room. Will sighed and yawned, all in one breath; it was late and he was tired, but he didn’t want to just stop and go back to bed, not while he could cling to this lingering sense of freedom and this moondark peace. So, he helped himself to a small bowl of stew from the perpetual pot and the last hunk of yesterday’s bread—he figured he was welcome to that much, at least—and sat at the kitchen bench with his late-night smallbite, opposite the open door to the water well. The warm stew awoke and refreshed him, but Will realized he was just stalling, wasting time when he should be sleeping. He was avoiding going to bed for fear of having to wake up in chains again, of going back to Triboar and home and the rest of his life.

And either way, whatever he’d tried, Will’s own reactions and emotions had gradually grown dulled and distant again. After the gratitude and camaraderie of others, the heavy duty of helping to save a life, the wonder of witnessing magic, and even the sharp terror of being swooped by stirges, this loss of feeling again was more noticeable now than it had been over years of it being whittled away. Maybe it was shock, maybe it was the demon, maybe it was the normal comedown from such excitements. Will never knew what, if anything, he was meant to be feeling anyway. Whatever the case, he didn’t want to lose these feelings too.

And yet he would.

After washing down the bread and stew with a mug of water, Will thoughtfully cleaned his dishes. Then, as if acting on golem-like habit, he found himself walking back to the well without any need to haul up water. No, he told himself. He closed the hatch and door, then walked away. And then he came back, opening the door once again to stare down at the well. Shaking his head, Will stepped back and shut the door, and this time he got only a few paces away before he turned back. It kept drawing his attention, this passage to the Pool of Loss that he had heard so much about and had read so much of. In which he might finally dispose of the demon. But he was no adventurer or dwarven explorer; he would never find it.

Outside, he could hear footsteps approaching, no doubt one of the moondark housejacks, coming to the kitchen for his own late-night smallbite before returning to his lonely watch.

Hide.

Automatically, Will stepped back into the alcove, pressing himself against the wall. Simply standing there, he was hardly trying to hide; he would surely be glimpsed in the corner of the man's eye and be in full view if he but turned toward the well. But, often in his life, Will had felt as if he’d gone unseen: overlooked, passed over, forgotten, even left alone in a room with the candles snuffed and door closed and locked as if he wasn’t there in the corner working quietly. Occasionally, people seemed surprised and annoyed to be reminded he was there. Sometimes, Will wondered if he was invisible, like some master thief who could fade into the shadows or the corner of a watcher’s eye or be erased from one’s mind, as if he had some magical or demon-granted power he had no control over. He wondered this now. It would explain why he couldn’t get a job, certainly. The benefits of being forgettable.

With a hastening heartbeat and tensing muscles, with a shallow but steady breath, Will waited patiently for the housejack to get his stew and go. It seemed to take much too long, with the man making too many stops to get a little salt, a little pepper, a piece of crusty bread, and, oh, forgetting his spoon. Will had half an excuse ready about why he was standing here, to be stammered out if he was noticed, but never got to use it nor find out how poor it was. Several times, Will’s heart skipped a beat as the man turned toward him and he felt sure he should’ve seen him, only for him to turn away again without any sign of noticing. Maybe he really was invisible? Or maybe he’s just ignoring you. Then, at last, the housejack left and didn’t come back, leaving Will relieved to be alone again.

Nail-ME

Feeling stupid for standing there all this time, Will moved to leave the alcove—then abruptly lurched, doubling over with piercing pains in immobilized feet. Shocked, he tried to lift his boots, but found them stuck fast. The demon had nailed his feet to the floor. “Why?!” he pleaded with the demon, confused and fearful at what fresh torment it was planning now. “Please, let me leave!”

The demon peered up at him from where it squatted on the floor, calmly snapping the manacles back around his ankles, a malicious glint in its black eyes and wicked grin curling its fang-filled mouth. Oh, come on, you didn’t come all this way just to turn back now, did you? The well is right here! The path to the Pool of Loss. Don’t you want to at least see it? it cajoled, gesturing with clawed hands at the dark hole.

With a grunt that was neither agreeing nor refusing, Will tried to lift his feet, first carefully and then with more force, but they were fixed tightly to the floorboards. But this could be your only opportunity. He tried again, harder and with a groan of effort and agony, but his feet only hurt more. Next, Will gripped the door frame and tried to pull himself loose, screaming silently through gritted teeth at the pain, but his feet might as well be made of stone and glued, nailed, and chained down, so rooted to the floor they were. He gasped at the dreadful realization; he couldn’t move an inch from this spot, not until the demon released him. And part of him, Will knew, didn’t want to leave either, didn’t want to go back to bed and to his old life, didn’t want to let go of the slim thread of courage he’d won, didn’t want to give up on this night’s victory and the vain hope that the well offered. And do you want to always be a coward, alone, forever, with me?

Trying to calm himself, he turned back toward the well, and his foot came loose. Surprised at the sudden freedom, Will quickly turned again and stumbled out the door, but the demon yanked his foot back by the chain and swiftly thrust the nail back through. He cried out in anguish and stood still for a long helpless moment, neither going on nor turning back when staying in place seemed safest. Eventually, sobbing, trembling, already knowing the inevitably outcome, Will turned slowly back toward the well and the waiting demon. And the nails vanished from his feet. “You bastard.” he whispered, knowing there was no other option, no bargaining, no escape. The demon wanted him to go down the well and wasn’t going to let him turn back now.

Hooded lantern-2e

For a while, Will stared at the well, trying to think and plan, searching for a better idea but not finding one, waiting for the housejack to return and stop him but knowing he would not. Stored in this alcove were coils of rope, torches, and tinderboxes, presumably in readiness for expeditions down the well. It made it too easy for him. With cold and trembling hands, moving like a puppet with the demon pulling the chains, Will slowly picked up one of each, hoping Durnan wouldn’t mind, at least not too much. The tinderbox went in his satchel, the torch through his belt, and the rope across his body. He attached the sheathed dagger to his belt, where he could draw it occasionally for light. Finally, he set down some coin in payment, including the gold piece for a trip down the well.

Then he sat down, dangling his feet into the hole. “I’m just going to go look.” he told himself, and the demon, firmly but without any confidence. “I just need to see. I need to know.”

Yes, of course you do.

Then, with a deep and shuddering breath, Will lowered himself into the hole and, with hands and feet on the pitted iron rungs, he began to climb down into the darkness.

To be continued...

This material is not available under the CC BY-SA license.

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