I wake up, and try to move. Moving brings white-hot pain to my arms and legs, so I open my eyes. I’m chained to the altar, and the hooks are buried deep into my wrists and ankles. A peri priestess is standing over me, holding a sacrificial dagger and praying loudly. I turn my head to the side, and see Tanithil staring back at me from one of the cages. I try to look where Lyari fell, but I can’t twist my neck that far around.
What happened? How did I end up here? The priestess finishes her prayer, and I realize that I don’t have time to think about it right now. She raises the dagger high above her head with both of her hands, and brings it crashing down.
Lyari taught me one final trick, though. Useful for situations just like this. In the time it takes the dagger to descend, I still my mind and reach out into the shadows of the cavern, becoming one with them. I disappear in a cloud of black smoke, and reappear instantly near Lyari’s corpse. The priestess’ dagger slams into the stone altar behind me.
For the briefest moment, the cavern is deathly silent. I reach into Lyari’s pouch, and pull out the blessed water she always carried with her. A parting gift from her elven queen, she told me once.
I can’t help myself. As I take the vial, I lean over and kiss her lips. They’re still warm…
Oh, Lyari. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.
I take her form. In a way, she will be the one who wins this fight for us.
The cavern has erupted into shouts and movement, and several peri are approaching me quickly. I run towards them, as if I intend to engage them, but at the last moment, I teleport through the shadows, back to the altar. In the blink of an eye, I’m standing on top of it. I open the vial, and pour the holy liquid onto the altar. The priestess screams in horror, but there’s nothing she can do.
The water hisses when it hits the altar, and starts glowing with a white light. The altar starts cracking along the glowing lines of light, and a deep rumbling fills the cavern. The white liquid light flows into the pool, and there is the smallest, tiniest moment of silence.
With a deafening roar, the altar explodes, as does the head of the high priestess. The other peri double over in pain, clutching their heads and falling to their knees.
The explosion of the altar throws me backwards, and I land in a heap next to the cage holding Tanithil. I pick myself up and unlock the cage. I teleport to another, and unlock it. Tanithil unlocks the rest of the cages, and soon all of the captives are free. We don’t have any problem killing the remaining peri, who are in so much agony they can’t even fight back.
The village elders create a magic portal. A few of the villagers wrap Lyari’s body in ceremonial robes, and then everyone starts passing through the portal. Tanithil asks me to come with him, back to his village.
“I can’t,” I say.
“I still have business here. I must face Ahriman, if I am to ever find my way back to my home.”
“Our home could be your home,” he says.
“Maybe someday…but not yet. I don’t know why, but I have unfinished business…both here in hell and back home. There are people who need me, and a destiny I must fulfill. I don’t know how I know any of this, but I know it to be true. I…feel it.”
“I understand, and I accept. When your destiny is done, come find me. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“It might be a very long time,” I say.
“What is time for elves? Nothing but a paper dragon, easily slayed.”
“I will find you, Tanithil.”
“Until then, take this.” He hands me his reaper blade. I have seen him fight with the double-bladed scimitar a few times, but he has never let me touch it before, let alone fight with it. He said it was the sacred weapon of his people, and it was not permitted to be used by outisders.
“Your reaper blade? I cannot take this…I’m not…”
“Take it. You have saved our people. You have earned it.”
“I cannot fight with this.”
Tanithil laughs. “Learn! It’s not so difficult!”
I kiss him, and it’s the most beautiful feeling I have ever felt.
Without saying another word, Tanithil turns, and walks through the last open portal, which closes behind him. I am alone in the deepest pit of hell.
But not for long.
I hear a loud pop, and suddenly Ahriman is standing right next to me.
I try to attack him, but I cannot move. I am frozen in place, paralyzed by a thin sheet of ice that completely covers me. I try to teleport, but cannot. Ahriman regards me with a smirk on his face.
“You wish to fight me. That is understandable, but not very practical. I have no wish to harm you, my champion. Even if I wished to fight you, it would be a fight you couldn’t possibly win. I am a god, and you are nothing. And, just in case you have forgotten, you pledged your loyalty to me. I own you. The laws of hell prevent you from attacking me or harming me in any way. What? You wish to speak? Very well…”
He gestures with his hand, and a small circle of ice around my mouth thaws. “L..let mmm…me gu…gu..go,” I stammer.
“Let you go? Why? I have come to offer you a place by my side. You have proven yourself to be a worthy champion, and you have done me a truly vast favor. By destroying that altar, you have prevented me from suffering a humiliating defeat…one that might have easily cost me my position as Archduke of Hell. If Kivutar had managed to come through that portal…the War of Souls could very well have been lost. But you stopped that, and you have saved me. I am in your debt. Ask for anything, and you shall have it. I will increase your power tenfold, if you will but lead my armies.”
“I wish nothing more than to be free of you, and this place. Release me from my servitude to you, and allow me to leave.”
“Disappointing. I was hoping you would rule hell by my side.”
“No. Freedom. I want freedom. I will never be a slave again.”
“Very well. Go. You are free. I release you from your service.”
I feel his mark on my forehead disappear. Ahriman snaps his fingers, and my vision goes blurry. When it clears, I am free from the ice, and I am standing on the banks of the river again. I collapse on the banks of the river, and feel frozen tears streaming down my cheeks. I can’t stop shivering, and I don’t think I’ll ever truly feel warm again. There is a boat nearby, much like the one I remember from my visions. I board it, and leave hell behind.