Two Nefari dragged the elf back to his holding cell and left him in the cold, dark place.
"I should take this blade to your throat. Cowards deserve a slow death," one Nefari brandished his blade and pressed it to the elf's neck. The other leaned into his ear and spoke in a soft voice.
"Next time, the Hook Demon will take a finger; perhaps, that one with the ring. Does that have any value?"
The elf was silent. He felt the blade slowly working into the skin, the sharp edge growling for his life. He said nothing.
"He asked you a question, traitor! Where did you get the ring?"
Geril, the elf, remained silent.
"I'll just keep it. Tomorrow, it won't have a finger to rest on."
Geril's hand shook, as he felt the ring slide from his finger. The skin grew cold, where the band once covered and warmed it. It was the ring given to him by Darius. The Nefari gazed over its surface, staring at Elvish inscriptions and mouthing the ancient scripture. The sword was raised from his neck and the Nefari shoved him beyond the steel gate. He could hear it closing, locking, footsteps walking away. He turned to see the soft-spoken Nefari, tossing the ring in the air and catching it in his hand.
"The tree, the insignia on its face; it's the Eternal Circle."
Geril reached to his throat, stroked the painful mark where the blade sat. He felt the stubble collecting on his chin, the gauntness of his neck; he grabbed at his jaw and felt the shape of the bone. How long had he spent in Sheoul? How long had they kept him captive?
"There's an inscription on the side, too," the Nefari spoke, indicating the grooves along the band with a finger, "What does it mean?"
How long had he endured? Was the time in weeks, months? When would he be amongst friends? Would he ever have that leisure again? Geril spoke.
"In this forest, we are united. All of K`thir joins this eternal circle."
The Nefari sneered, dropped the ring into his pocket, "And the Nefari, as well? Are we a part of your union?"
"I know nothing."
Of course, brother. Kinsman. You know nothing about sealing the Mouth of Sheoul."
"I am a lorekeeper. I was never told-"
"Anything? It's the same story. Tell me, what spell are they using? Are they collaborating with the dwarves? The Jakei?"
"The Hook Demon got nothing from me. You think I'd tell you?"
"No, of course. I'm just making conversation with a friend, a brother."
Geril rested against the stone wall, at the back of the cell. As he lowered himself to the floor, he felt a rumbling pain in his legs. Beneath the tattered robe, his body was bruised.
"A brother does not strike at his own blood."
"And a brother doesn't leave his own blood to rot in the earth."
The Nefari pressed his face to bars, his soft voice harsh, subdued, undercurrents of violence pulsing through each sound:
"Did you hear me? A brother doesn't leave his own blood in the ground, doesn't leave them to starve, doesn't leave them to be eaten alive by unspeakable horrors. A brother listens when his own blood is screaming."
The Nefari backed away, turned to walk, glancing back at Geril as he moved:
"You bring this suffering on yourself, brother."
He disappeared into the dark shadows of the cavern. Geril looked down at his bare fingers, looked back into the darkness, searched for the ring's glow, then returned to the hands. The ash was beneath his fingernails and in the crevices of his hands. He rubbed the black dust between his fingers. It was on his skin and in his hair, in his throat and on his tongue. A brother is not cruel, doe not hold true vitriol towards his brethren. A brother does not leave his kin locked away, does not leave him to die in a demon's den. It was not a plan to seal the opening, but a plan to invade it. M`alta and S`etra would lead a force inside, a company of Rangers and Furies. They would have dwarves with them, priests and priestesses. L`ilim would lead another force through Mount Belkairon, accompanied by another gathering of dwarves. It would be the first offensive on Nefari soil. But, when would it happen? When would they come? Had they forgotten Geril of the Eternal Circle? Waiting was the only option, but his patience would succumb soon. The Hook Demon would take his finger tomorrow, but then what? Would it be his hand next? His arm? When would they grow bored of him? When would he be left to feed K`lzik's brood? S`etra would find a mangled corpse, not the weary eyes of an old friend. And the alternative? Many corpses, one Geril and another S`etra, all wrapped in spider silk. He brushed his palms on his robe and then examined them; the soot had lifted. This would be his burden and he would carry it with clean hands.
"The elf tells them nothing," Grimlic said to Maxxarek, "Perhaps my servants would be better suited. They share a form he is accustomed to."
Erimalion rose from his throne and spoke, a voice of many voices, all of them dreadful: "Grimlic is out of line. My tortures are breaking the captive. My demons do better than anything his Deep-Elves could muster."
Grimlic turned to Erimalion, the writhing mess, stared into his many eyes.
"I do not question your methods. But, perhaps we go about this the wrong way."
Maxxarek smirked, the red lips giving way to teeth. His eyes were aglow, two pulsing orbs emerging from darkness.
"A friendship, Grimlic?"
"A creature, more pleasing to his eyes. Something to confide in."
The Demon Lord hissed, a gargling and heinous laughter. Grimlic grinned to him, continued.
"We can place another elf in with him, have this one act as a listener. He will speak his deepest fears into this creature."
Erimalion smashed his mace into the rock floor.
"Pathetic! Mind tricks will not break his spirit! Break his bones!"
Maxxarek raised a hand to Erimalion.
"No. Something else."
He rose from his throne of skulls and stepped towards the center of the chamber.
"Think of the world above us. Every nation has sworn an alliance to another. Protectorate and Wrath."
He paused; his wicked sneer caught the orange glow of the magma fonts.
"Think of our allies. They question their ties to each other, but they honor them. There is always a question of loyalty."
Maxxarek turned to Grimlic, then to Erimalion.
"It is universal. 'Are these my true allies?' Even as one shakes hands with another, there is that question in the back of one's mind."
Erimalion spoke, "I hold no ire against you."
"I am not questioning you. But the question exists, regardless of loyalty. Do you think Menalaus puts trust in Forglar? Does J`orea really trust her alliance with Rugolth?"
Grimlic approached, his face alight in the chamber's vermillion glow: "We take illusions into J`thir, posing as dwarves from Ironfist, and have them kill Jakei."
"And illusions to K`thir, disguised as Boghoppers. We could have them slaughter a hundred elves!" Erimalion spoke, a delight in his demon's voice.
Maxxarek paced for a moment. As he slowly moved from one part of the chamber to the other, a low and dreadful laughter built in his throat. Soon, it was echoing through the cavern and into the whole of Lower Sheoul. Bok stirred from their places, looked about at the monstrous voice and shook at its violence. Pitspawn joined in, trying to match its power, coming short. He ceased, but the voice still lingered in the dark crevices.
"No! There is no need for such unnecessary risk. Our allies can prove useful. Come, Grimlic. Waste no more time waiting for an attack on the Mouth. There is work to be done."
The Fragile Expanse was silent; it had been this way for nearly two weeks. On the one hand, it pleased Dirge. He could hunt at any time of day, without a second thought. However, the silence worried him. It was an altogether unsettling silence. Something had fallen ill. As he traveled through the Expanse, he would pause to take a handful of dirt. Then, he would watch it, look to the grains for signs of life; boar fur or strands from a Pit Wolf's mane, perhaps even an elven hair. He would hold the mound to his snout, snort at the mass; a boar's scent, anything with a distinct smell. All he could smell was smolder, the remnants of a burning log. In the pile, he found small specks that didn't belong. They were gray, unnatural things. They belonged to no animal he had ever seen. Dirge decided he would get the bottom of this illness. One morning, he took his axe and left his den for the edge of the Expanse. He would start there and work his way through to the other end. He would find the disease and root it out.
Beneath the Expanse, deep within the broken earth, something unraveled. Under dust and rock, laughter echoed through darkness.