Several hours had passed, and the creature which had just come into existence when Kathy Potts' soul came into contact with wyldfire residue now ran for its life. Nothing had happened at first; the taomen had been nothing one moment, and the next moment it simply was. There had been specters nearby, which the taomen destroyed just to be safe.
The first goblins had arrived an hour and a half later, telling her to come with them. The taomen had reacted as was its nature, which was to say, violently. It hurled fireballs like a batting cage pitching machine, scattering the cretins to the four winds.
But their master had come along not long after, a lizard-man composed of shadows and darkness, inky black mist swirling around its body. The taomen knew it was no reptile faerie, but rather a manifestation of physical being brought about by its energies' will. The taomen had been birthed knowing how to identify a shade. At first she had tried to throw wild, unrefined magical strikes at the shade, but it deftly dodged or batted aside her efforts.
Running away had been its only logical recourse. Now, though, lost in a dense wooded area, it kept seeing the shade appearing like an apparition every ten yards or so, leering lasciviously as it sat on logs, stood in bushes, and in one case, stepped into her path.
Finally, a fierce blast of concentrated wind took out her legs, and she tumbled to the ground, hard. The shade loomed over her, and as it reached down one hand of swirling darkness, the taomen passed out.
It was almost dawn when she awoke, bound like a pig at a rodeo.
Luga watched the taomen sleep on the floor of his multichambered command tent, situated with the rest of his encampment in the boggy wetlands in Amermidst's northeastern reaches. He had plans for this one, oh yes. Taomen were so rare, and this one was fresh, unmolded.
He used shadow magic to strip her of her clothes, simple garments that looked very human. With a twitch of effort, he used a gust of wind to buffet her face, bringing her awake as he knelt next to her.
"Hello, taomen," Luga said, his voice thin and reedy. "I am the shade named Luga. What shall I name you?" The taomen looked up at him with a confused expression. The wavering form before her rubbed its scaley chin, then snapped its fingers. "Casey! I'll call you Casey, yes. If I undo your bindings, do you promise to behave?" She nodded consent. "Excellent." He twitched the fingers of his left hand, removing the shadow bindings. He then took her hands and helped her stand. Curvy and voluptuous, Casey stood in a neutral pose, arms at her sides, either unaware of her nudity or apathetic about it.
"Where am I," the taomen asked in a pleasantly breathy voice.
"You are in my command tent. I suspect you're hungry and thirsty. That is well. Follow me," he said, guiding her though a set of flaps into a section of his tent reserved for meals. He had laid on a round card table several bowls of fruit and plates of meat and cheeses, joined by a tall pitcher of graf, strong apple beer that the goblins excelled in making. Luga indicated she should help herself, and the taomen did.
While she ate, he retrieved for her spare clothes from one of his gear trunks at the rear of the canvas chamber. "Your power is impressive, Casey, but it's raw, unfocused. I aim to change that. Would you like to learn how to wield your power against all foes," he asked, returning to her side with a bundle of clothing.
"I would," she said, looking up at him. "You will teach me?"
"And the cost?"
"Your loyalty." Six days had passed since then, days spent training the taomen in the most destructive and devastating forms of each school of magic, except for life magic. Such powers seemed, for now, impossible for her to use.
Now the shade sat in the central chamber of his command tent, across a long oak table from his chief lieutenant, a chess board between them. The lieutenant, a massive, gray-skinned troll named Foruk, was a unique figure among his race. He was a vindicator, a member of a non-magcal race who was not only able to use magic, but did so with great skill. Trolls, flinds, arachs and lizardmen were just a few of the Ether Plane's non-wielder races. Each had a few vindicators, except for trolls. He was the only one.
Towering at eight feet in height, with a slab-like gut and frame as wide as a car, to say Foruk was physically imposing was an understatement worthy of laughter. His beige trousers ever strained against his heavily-muscled legs, and a long iron mace with spiked head hung on a strap on his left hip, ever ready to be drawn out.
Luga had first discovered Foruk when the troll was an adolescent, outcast from his village in the far-off kingdom of Chenwa. Labeled a freak by the other trolls in the homogenous village of Memnok, he had settled down in a cave not three miles away. Luga had been gathering allies at the time in order to conduct a series of ambush slaughters of Amermidst Kingdom Rangers for sport when he came upon the cave.
Foruk, having never seen a shade, had been fascinated instead of afraid. He had approached Luga with open hands, a show of peace, though Luga could feel the aura of barely held violence in the young troll. Violence, and magic, a rare thing indeed in his race. Luga had offered him tutelage and a purpose. All Foruk had asked in return was help destroying the people who had shunned him.
Revenge was ever a good place for such alliances to be forged.
Luga himself had been around for close to six-thousand years, spawned in the very bog he claimed as his territory. Foruk had only been with him for eight-hundred or so of those years, but Luga felt that the troll vindicator was the closest thing he'd ever had to a friend. Despite his thuggish behavior and mode of speech, Foruk was far smarter than Luga's other allies and minions. He possessed a cunning that far outstripped even the meanest-natured goblin, which also made him invaluable to Luga's plots and exploits over the years.
Yet this evening the troll radiated a tension that could be tasted, and its flavour fell bitter on the tongue. Luga took Foruk's second knight with a bishop. "You've been quiet since yesterday morning," Luga observed aloud.
"Hmm?" Foruk moved a pawn to protect his queen.
"Something troubles you, old friend," Luga whispered, leaning over the board. "Tell me what."
"I have had no more word from my spy in the capital," Foruk groused, his voice low, gravelly. "His last message was simply to inform me that the human woman had been seen out after her audience with king Ovin, for the king dismissed all but his wife, Sir Daggeuro, and Baron Dimanche afterwards."
"You believe the king is up to something clever?"
"He knows we're after the fragments," said Foruk. "There were several parts of the audience in which my spy was called away to tend to duties within the manor as well, parts that could have been vital."
"Not to worry," said Luga with a wicked grin. "We have Casey. She'll be drawn to the fragments now that she's held one."
"I don't trust the taomen," Foruk said plainly. "She has made the men question your designs, and has killed seven of our goblins while using them as target practice. She is unpredictable. Check." Luga quickly castled, which put Foruk on the defensive.
"She is a bit wild, yes, but I have that in hand. All will come together, my friend. For so long, I have acted on impulse, a thorn in Ovin's side, but never more than that." Luga reached under the table and pulled out a bottle of air freshener, snatched by one of the goblins he sent to the Mortal Plane now and again for select items. He sprayed the area, the scent of mangos tinging the air pleasantly. "With the Great Door, I will be much more thorough in my endeavors."
"I trust in you, master. Checkmate," the troll said, moving his remaining rook into position. Luga took a long look at the table, then, with a wispy, nigh-skeletal finger, toppled his king. "A fair match, master," said Foruk, rising from the iron chair Luga had commissioned for him.
"Indeed," said Luga, offering his hand. The two men shook, and the troll left Luga's tent afterwards. Alone with his thoughts for company, the shade found himself thinking about the evening's business. He had Casey to utilize in his efforts, but he didn't want to risk having her put at risk during this campaign. He needed more manpower, but had not the time for another recruitment tour.
Already he had two fragments of the Great Door, enough to tap into a sliver of its power. Casey would be required for the ritual, or at least several drops of her blood would be. The whole affair could yield him nothing, but he had to try something. Ovin's forces were vast, and he would need every possible advantage leading up to and including laying siege to the capital .
"Yes," he said, holding up his fallen king, speaking at it. "Let us reach out, and see who reaches back."
While Kathy Potts was approaching the Phoenix Inn hundreds of miles to the southwest, Luga the shade and Casey, the taomen, stood in the center of his command tent. He had just conjured throbbing purple energy to his hands and pressed them together, then slowly pulled them apart. In the air a few feet away, a glowing rift in reality opened.
"What is it," Casey asked. Foruk strode from behind them, directly into the rift.
"A pocket realm," Luga said. "The more powerful faerie can create their own private little sanctuaries, spaces which both exist and don't exist. The laws governing a pocket realm are entirely at the whim of its creator. Come," he said brightly, taking her by the hand and leading her through.
The rift on the other side was represented by a pair of blackened oak double doors. Luga looked around with approval, the interior of his pocket realm holding the appearance of a dark cathedral, replete with pews, altar and pulpit. Foruk stood up front on the raised section of floor, the deep pile rug covering the stage area a bloody crimson.
Luga and Casey approached the altar, a long, squat stone table inlaid with various arcane sigils. Foruk had placed the skulls of several different faerie races at each corner, and arranged the goblet of wine and plate of rotted beef as Luga had instructed. The shade withdrew a knife from the folds of his shadow cloak, turned to Casey. "I need a few drops of your blood in a moment," he whispered to the taomen.
"Whatever you need," she replied. Luga signed to Foruk, who took from a bag on the floor by his feet two large chunks of glowing, rainbow-hued wood, setting them down reverently on the altar. "Are those...."
"Yes, the fragments of the Great Door in my possession," said Luga, taking one of Casey's hands and lifting it up. "Now listen closely, Casey. If I manage to make contact with something, I want whatever it is to feel it's being bargained with, not strongarmed. Having Foruk here is enough once I have added your blood. Do you understand?"
"Excellent." He quickly pricked her palm with the dagger, then smeared her blood on the blade. When he was finished, he took a step back from her and said, "Go now." She turned around and disappeared through the heavy double doors, out of his pocket realm and back into the Ether. He could feel the human essence on his dagger, though it would fade before too long. He half-ran to the altar, laying the blade down so that it touched both door fragments.
A gray miasma began rising from the center of the altar, power rushing out of the fragments. A small cyclone of force materialized over the dagger, smelling like dust and kerosene oil. Luga made several gestures with his hands, crafting sigils of green light that hung in the air. He pressed these sigils at the cyclone, which expanded and glowed.
"I , Luga, do cast into the beyond, into the unknown, in search of any who could lend aid to such as I! I seek warriors beyond my world, that I and mine might crush my foes, and gain my heart's desire! Hear me and give answer!" The cyclone pulsed again, causing Luga and Foruk to back away. A blinding ring of lime green force shot out from the altar, knocking both men flat with a whoosh of displaced air and power.
Luga tumbled all the way to the frontmost pew, while Foruk spilled halfway there. The shade and troll both sat up, looking at the altar. From the shadows of the slab, they saw movement. Just then, a black throne came sliding soundlessly from the shadow, a newcomer seated upon it.
The newcomer wore a black and white striped zoot suit over a black dress shirt and deep blue tie. On the tie was a kind of logo, four hooked claws joined along their rounded tops by a solid black line. Even though he was seated with one foot resting on the opposing knee, Luga could tell that this outsider was tall and lanky. His feet were a orangish-yellow set of talons, and his hands were covered in slick black feathers. The newcomer's head was that of a giant raven, its beak slightly open in a lurid cartoonish smile filled with sharp, tiny teeth. His eyes were quite human, adding to his disturbing overall appearance.
This bizarre creature held in its right hand a silver wireless microphone. It stood up with a whipping motion of its body, like a rampant marrionette, right hand raised with the mic to its mouth. It said in a booming gameshow host's exuberant voice, "Well hello, contestants! You call and I answer, and might I say, what a lovely and dismal little place you've got here!"
From the shadow-drenched stone walls of the cathedral, Luga and Foruk heard phantom applause ad laughter. The raven-man held his arms up in adulation of this invisible audience, turning in a circle. When he faced Luga again, his smile had become less pronounced, his eyes half-lidded, lending him a sly visage. "Who might you be, friend? Introduce yourself to the audience." The voice was now hushed, intimate. "Don't make us guess."
Luga and Foruk picked themselves up off of the floor, at which point Luga realized with a start that he was fully materialized at the moment. He tried to semble into his shadow form, but could not. This creature, his aura traps me! He cleared his throat and said, "I am Luga, the shade. With me is Foruk, the troll vindicator. T'was I who called out for aid."
"Ah, yes, I see, I see," said the outsider. "Well friends, I, am Quoth," the raven-man said, taking a sweeping bow. When he stood to full height again, his eyes were the blackened orbs of a raven, instead of the disturbingly human variety. "Your request for helping hands was heard, you see, and I've been authorized by my master to deliver such." Luga and Foruk looked to one another, both excited. "Behold!"
With a flourish, the creature named Quoth pulled from inside his striped suit coat a pair of playing cards. As Luga blinked, he saw the creature snap his other hand outward, the microphone replaced in less than a second by a wide red satin sheet. He held the cards up, letting go of the first one. It hung perfectly still, supported by nothing in thin air. Quoth took a few steps to the left, repeating the process. He returned to the first card and brought the sheet high, blocking Luga and Foruk's view.
"Aaaaand, abracadabra," Quoth called out in his gameshow barker's voice, whipping the sheet away with a flutter. What stood now before Luga was a hovering tube of pink smoke with two slanted, glowing yellow eyes near the top. Around this tube hovered a dozen daggers, all rotating and pivoting independent of anything holding them. "This wraith I present to you, known as Thrasher! He slices, he dices," said Quoth, mic back in hand, sheet slung over his shoulder. He was there one moment, and behind Luga the next, feathered hands clasping his shoulders chummily as he propped his beak on Luga's shoulder, human-like eyes showing again, goggling widely at him. "He julianes fries, ha ha haaaa!"
Another blink, and Quoth was back beside Thrasher, a cordless earpiece/mic headset now on his head. Madness, Luga thought, dread mounting to heights he'd never known. This thing I've called forth is the embodiment of insanity! What have I done? The raven demon (for now Luga felt certain it could only be a demon of some kind) repeated its sheet trick with the other card, and what stood there now was a buzzing, thrashing swarm of black-and-gold colored insects and arachnids of various sorts, all unpleasant-looking.
"See The Swarm, a wraith I've known my master to take joy in using against his prey! These two wraiths are yours for the using, Luga, until such time as I'm sent to gather them back! So," Quoth said, eyes back to normal, smile spreading back past the beak along the sides of his head, "use them wisely."
"What are you," Luga rasped, his voice frail, quivering. Quoth's smile faded quickly then, as he approached the shade and troll on taloned feet.
"What am I? A curious inquiry, one I get a lot back where I like to play," he said, stepping up so that his beak was an inch away from the top of Luga's head. "I am the thing monsters like you have nightmares about. I am the twitching, writhing mass of bodies half-eaten by coyotes and revived to leer at you and invite you to a very happy unbirthday. I am the wisdom tooth poking through the gums in the mouth of madness, and I will chew your mind into pulp!"
Quoth spun away like a mad dervish, sliding to a kneeling position before the things he called wraiths, hands held up to display them. Luga couldn't believe that this maniac had managed to come through the worlds without destroying one or two along the way. Surely something of such raw, insane power and essence couldn't go where it would without at least leaving a mark.
"As for my master," Quoth said evenly, rising and returning to his shadow throne. "Well, if you think I'm bad, in terms of sanity or power, he's ten times worse. Count your blessings he didn't answer your call personally." The raven demon blew Luga and Foruk a kiss, and the throne and its occupant disappeared back into the shadows of the altar.
Luga felt his entire mind and body crying out in gratitude that the thing called Quoth was gone.