Eve of the Winter Solstice
My comrade in arms of many years and battles, Zhora the All-Seer, has given me this journal and instructed me to log my journey into the underworld in its pages. Bound in nephilim-leather and inked in beholder eyeball juice, she tells me it is enchanted to mirror my words in its sibling, stored safely within the endless stacks of the Celestial Library beneath Godshead Peak.
Zhora is true to her title, and indeed sees all. She will not tell me how my journey ends, only that I will not return. By choice, she says. That is more chilling to my blood than being simply bisected by the fell scythe-axe of a devilhulk. With a devilhulk scythe-axe bisection, you know exactly what to expect. I cannot fathom why I would choose to stay in the underworld. What will befall me, and who will it drive me to become?
Such thoughts must be set aside for now. These last few hours before the solstice will, it seems, be my last in a warm bed of soft furs, surrounded by allies, sheltered from the elements.
The mad monk's notes were accurate. The portal was insultingly simple to find, and the ritual to open it insultingly easy to perform. The underworld is exactly as the hushed tales describe.
For nineteen hours I trekked through the ashen dunes, stopping periodically at a gore slurry oasis to refill my canteen. Its filtration enchantment still holds, but every shovelful of oozing blood-flesh soup only contains a few drops of potable moisture.
I have reached the edge of the Forest of Suffering, and built a campfire from gathered branches fallen from the eversobbing trees. The light and warmth drew what appeared to be an anachronistically-dressed orphan, but my Elvensun Amulet revealed its true form, and it scuttled away on countless misshapen limbs, ranting and raving about "that fucking elf bullshit again."
At some point in the preceding hours, the Forest of Suffering became the Forest of Illusion. I know not exactly when, but when I walked into my childhood village and saw myself hiding behind the well, I knew it was showing me sad memories to break my resolve.
My father called for me, his voice full of suppressed terror. In my shame at accidentally breaking the vase he brought back from the Verdant Warrens, how could I know his fear was not anger? How could I have predicted then the comfort of his forgiving embrace, and his relief that I was not myself broken? I hid until nightfall, and returned to find my mother reassuring him I was likely lost but alive. "He's a strong boy, and he'll find his way back." And I did.
I can hear now, in the distance, the shouting match that nearly broke my friendship with Zhora. In a few moments I will douse the campfire and shift my direction to go the long way around that manifestation. It is too much to bear that seeing her again will be at both of our worst moments.
Day 5, or 6?
My parting gift from the Forest of Illusion, before it gave way to the Forsaken Plains, was a magma canal disguised as a cool and refreshing stream. I knew it was a deception, but I expected blood, pitch, or ichor. (Ichor has more moisture than even pure water, if you can filter it.) The magma burned my hands badly and destroyed my adamantium bracers. Worse, it has melted open the canteen. Its enchantment is broken, and I will die of thirst if I do not find an alternative source of clean water.
When the sulfur clouds darken the Plains enough, I believe I can see a flickering light in the distance, as though from another campfire.
I grow weak. My mouth is as dry as a sunbleached bone. The other campfire may be a cruel illusion, for it moves away from me, some nights not appearing at all. I hear whispers as I try to fall asleep, and see movement in my peripheral vision. I am afraid my capture is imminent. Will these demons torture me until I am someone else? Someone who abandons my quest for vengeance and "chooses" to stay in this horrid place, believing it my new home? Perhaps I will simply fail, and remaining here will be my penance.
Woke up in a dark room. I can see a triangle of firelight outside. There is a candle here beside me, on a bed of soft furs. Before I was fully awake I saw a bowl of crystal clear water mere inches from my face and devoured every drop. I don't know what's happening. I'm afraid to stand and face whatever it is, and my body is too malnourished to take the initiative either.
I drift in and out of consciousness. More out than in. In the room and bed again now. I remember being draped over the back of some sort of winged creature. I was unbound, and watched the glowing channels of liquid fire pass by below. There was a man whose back was against me, sitting in the saddle, holding the creature's reins. He looked back at me and I saw kind eyes and the sort of beard a man grows to hide his own face. The triangle of firelight is a square now. There is always a bowl of clean water and a few strips of jerky beside me when I awaken. This is not the underworld I steeled myself for.
The First Day
Today I sat up in the bed of furs, without thinking too hard. My strength is coming back. I found the courage to walk through the square of firelight.
This place is some sort of citadel, a small fortress of rough-hewn obsidian bricks nestled between two flaming mountain peaks. I walked across a well-kept courtyard, following the sound of a human voice. Inside a sparse library, a wiry old crone in obsessively-embroidered robes was scolding the kind-eyed man. He met my gaze and his beard could not entirely hide his smile of relief.
The man and I got to know each other, exchanging our tales on a bench in the courtyard over mugs of that same pure and clear water. He spoke nothing of his life before the underworld except that he perished in a burning tavern, hiding behind the bar from the marauders ransacking his city district. There are, it seems, many souls here in the underworld who have escaped the bondage of the demon lords and formed communities. This citadel is his mentor's, and we flew here because his community did not trust me and he refused to leave me to die.
His community... the campfire was the nightly settlement of a nomadic village called Penitence. They ran from me and I chased them. I do not blame them for their distrust. The underworld is cruel and deceptive. Survival is paramount. Souls who perish again here go somewhere else, it's said. Others say the souls simply cease to exist. Both possibilities are worth fearing.
I told him of my purpose, which I suppose in my single-minded drive I have not recounted in these pages either. It's a tired, trite story. A demon lord, on an excursion into the living realm, slaughtered the villagers I'd made a home with, and I vowed to find him in the underworld and slay him in return.
The kind-eyed man did not recognize the demon lord by description, but said with a weary sigh that you cannot throw a rock in the underworld without "doing an unintentional bank shot off a few dozen unique demon lords." This turn of phrase brought me the first small shred of joy since I've arrived in this place.
The crone took me aside after he retired to bed, and told me she would curse me with the vilest sorcery ever conceived if I betrayed him. I once caught my mother saying similar to a wizardry student I brought home in my adolescence.
The Third Day
My strength returns quickly. The kind-eyed man cooks me nourishing meals of beast meat and bloodfruit, and the crone has helped me identify the demon lord's lair and plot the safest of many dangerous routes. She uses a combination of sorcerous invocations and handmade props of twine and parchment to create elaborate training simulations to prepare me for the demon lord's tricks and traps.
I will leave on the morning of the fifth day, and I will complete my quest. Whatever choices I might make after slaying the demon lord are irrelevant for now.
The Fourth Day
The kind-eyed man has cooked a spectacular feast for me tonight, but his eyes are sad tonight as well, and his tales and quips are sparse and halfhearted. The crone does not notice, but I do. After she passes out on her eighteenth goblet of ichorwine, I confront him.
He begs me to give up on seeking vengeance and return to Penitence with him. He says my talents as a warrior would help protect the community, which is true. He also turns a phrase again that drives deep into my breast like a vorpal spear. I remember each word as clearly as if it was written across the sky in a constellation.
"It's not just your skills. It's your drive. The fire in your heart burns so brightly it rekindled mine. I've never been as sure of anything in my life as you are of every breath you draw. We need someone like that."
Of course he paused at the last portion. I don't believe it to be wishful thinking that he wanted to say "I" and not "we." I wish otherwise, because that would be simpler. We embraced, and I retired to the simple safety of the bed of furs behind the square of firelight. I will leave in the morning as planned.
The Fifth Day
When I awoke the kind-eyed man had already departed for his community. The crone was still sleeping off the ichorwine, but had roused at some point in the night for long enough to leave me a belt of regenerative potion vials and a new canteen. There was a blank parchment next to the belt, and perched on her belly, rising and falling in time with her snores, was an ink pen. I allow myself to speculate what her note would have said during my trek through the Caverns of Agony.
Zhora, you and I debated for hours on countless nights whether your visions could be wrong, or misleading. If they could be avoided. What they meant for free will. The vaultgate to the demon lord's labyrinthine home lies ahead. Whatever happens next, I want you to remember the Ralgnar who debated philosophy with you. I want you to remember the Ralgnar who brainstormed theories about what happened after the end of the play we'd just watched until the tavernkeeper yelled at us to let him close up. I want you to remember the Ralgnar of those quiet, safe moments as much as you remember the Ralgnar who fought by your side in battle. That Ralgnar is just as real, just as much myself, and deserves to be remembered too.
The Sixth Day
Last night, in the moment before the demon lord would have bested me, a volley of arrows, their crystalline heads leaving trails of the most beautiful blue light, soared across his throne room and made their homes in his softest, least-armored places. The kind-eyed man dashed ahead of his comrades on swifter legs than I've ever seen in my life and carried me away from the spot where the demon lord's bloated corpse crashed down, like an angel carrying me to the celestial resthalls. But I am very much alive.
The raucous celebrations have faded now. The bonfire is slowly dying and most of the residents of Penitence have retired to their tents. The kind-eyed man's arm is around my shoulder, and his snores are like chamber music to me.
You were right, Zhora. As always. This will be the first of many days to come, in a warm bed of soft furs, surrounded by allies, sheltered from the elements. Penitence is a strange name for this place, suggesting guilt that hasn't been warranted in a long time. These people are strong, and loyal, and care for each other deeply. Whatever name they've chosen, I now call it home.