The Flames of Hatred
Gerron Lighthander's eyes shot open. It came to him as he lay resting on the pallet of skins he used as a bed. A scream echoed through the caves around him, from a voice he knew but couldn't believe. He leapt up, grabbing his spear and dashing out of the hole he'd called home for nearly two centuries, and in the darkness before him saw the nightmare.
Afina, his daughter, full-grown and garbed as a K'Thir ranger, faced off against half a dozen demons, their bodies made of moving shadows and vile intent. Valiantly, she swung at one but her sword-arm was grabbed instead, and as one the creatures leapt upon her. Her scream chilled him to his very core as he struggled to reach her, to tear the monsters off of her, even as she cried out "Father! Save me!"
His eyes saw nothing but blood as he threw himself in against the vile creatures. They turned on him without a second thought, and in an instant, all Gerron saw was darkness.
Gerron cursed despite himself. It was a beginner's mistake that got him caught. Got too close, should have known it was a trap; there was no way she could actually be there... But all the self-damning in the world wouldn't fix that fact that he'd been captured after decades of freedom -- or whatever it was that passed for freedom in the accursed underworld he was trapped in.
The former ranger didn't know why they blindfolded him -- there was barely any light for him to see, what purpose did it serve? But he felt his eyes revolt when the blindfold was torn away and a fell red light assaulted his vision. Had they brought him to the surface? No, impossible... the stench of the earth around him was still too strong for him to taste fresh air.
His eyes slowly acclimated, and before him stretched a river of fire and molten rock -- a sick parody, he felt, of the gentle brooks of his forgotten homeland of K'Thir. Gerron struggled against the iron clapped around his wrists, content to run back to the cold darkness of his cave in order to escape the memories of his youth, or even their imitation.
"You are the last. Stubborn as the rest, but soon you too will submit."
The voice sounded like a cave-in, tinged with venom. Gerron turned to face its source, and recoiled despite himself. Skin the colour of blood, clothed briefly in blackened scale, stood majestically before a throne of obsidian bones. Dangling from the being's hand was a goblin, a barbaric creature of the depths that were slaves to the larger denizens of the Underdepths. Despite the gibbering goblin in his hand, the attentions of the being were fixed on Gerron, and the elf could only look back. Gerron felt his eyes drawn to the two great horns, stained with so much evil that 'white' did not describe their hue. Yellow eyes glowed at him from a face that never knew kindness, and the elf felt a part of himself shrivel and die simply from the gaze that settled on him.
"Do not struggle so, elf. Do you not wish for freedom from this prison?"
"There's no freedom to be had if it's through you, monster!"
The demon smiled wicked teeth at Gerron, and with a resounding crack, his hand closed around the twitching goblin's throat, crushing it completely. The wretched being went limp, and carelessly the demon tossed the body aside, towards the molten river. Gerron watched as its green skin puckered and blackened from the searing heat of the flowing earth, but the demon's voice brought his attention back.
"There is certainly freedom in death, but there are alternatives to that. I can assure that you may choose death at any time, and it shall be a very long experience for you. My servant Gibir enjoys taking his time."
Gerron was silent, but if he struggled any less against his bonds, it was because it would break his hands to continue. He steeled himself and matched the monster's gaze.
"Good." The demon shook the blood of the goblin from his hand and settled down into his throne. "I am called Maxxarek. I have ascended to this ring from She'ol, the Realm of Fire, just as your people descended from the Overworld in search of power. We have reached an agreement, your people and I -- we shall pool our knowledge, so that we may attain our goals together, and all shall reap the rewards."
"My people..." Gerron whispered the words to himself again and again, until he shook away the thought and shouted back at the demon: "You have never seen my people! I am Gerron Lighthander, ranger of K'Thir! My people are the Guardians of the Wood, the Eternal Circle! A wicked creature like you could not know my people!"
Maxxarek set a hand to his chest, and his face took on the greatest mockery of sincerity Gerron ever witnessed, "Forgive my error. I thought the many others who descended here with you were, in fact, your people. You share the same ears, eyes, skin color -- the light of the Sky Orb which you call the �sun' is suffused within your very beings. A terrible mistake to think you are one with the Nefari."
Gerron cursed under his breath.
"I have learned much in a short time, you see. The Nefari -- who are certainly not your people, yes, I see that now -- told me of your Eternal Circle, the elves of K'Thir who look after the great wood that stretches across the surface. They told me of the growing crisis that made the elves of this wood seek new sources of Nora, the world's lifeblood. The Nefari committed themselves to exploring the depths of the earth in search of this Nora, despite disagreements with the Eternal Circle. And when a great catastrophe occurred in the Overworld that closed the pathways that once led there, the Nefari -- and you, I suppose -- were trapped."
Gerron remembered the day, as it was the last time he'd seen the sunlight. He infiltrated the Nefari enclave as a spy for the Eternal Circle, and while he agreed with some of their philosophies, he believed them too radical for the majority of K'thir's people to accept outright. When the caves collapsed, most of them escaped deeper into the system, and as time passed they came together and tried to formulate a plan to escape. Over the months that followed, attempts were made to mine through the collapsed earth, but without the proper equipment, these attempts failed and cost lives. The only Nora they could draw was barely enough to illuminate the caves around them, and all their exploration turned up nothing in the upper levels. In the lower levels, they discovered strange creatures lurking about, impossible to see with the meager Nora-light, and clashes with these under-beasts often left explorers injured or dead.
It took years for Gerron to accept that the Circle was content to let him die, buried within the earth with the rest of the Nefari, rather than put forth the scant effort it would take to open the caves once again. But once that truth was clear to him, he was quick to write it off as meaningless -- it would do him no good to hate the Circle, as many of the Nefari did. All he could do was master these subterranean depths as he had mastered the woods above -- the beasts would be both his prey and his teachers, showing him all the secrets that could be found in the darkness.
"It intrigues me, Lighthander," and Gerron grit his teeth as Maxxarek's avalanche tone broke into his reverie, "that you do not count yourself as Nefari. Certainly you have become one of the strongest of those who descended -- we have seen your handiwork -- and it impresses us. You are imprisoned here, as they are. You have been abandoned here by those who wished to dispose of you and had not the strength to do it themselves, as the Nefari have. Indeed, you are nearly identical to them in every way."
"Your tongue wags quite a bit, monster. I wonder when you might say something of value."
Maxxarek's face broke into a cruel smile. "You would goad me into killing you out of spite? You would not be the first to attempt it, and would certainly not be the last to die by my hand. Yet I would take no pleasure in such a weak opponent."
Gerron gave a bitter laugh, but before he could hurl his next insult, a monstrous hand clamped around his neck like an iron trap, while the huge muscles behind the hand lifted him up from his knees into the air. His eyes could barely take in Maxxarek, who now loomed large in his vision. The demon was impossibly fast, and held him with the same effort Gerron would grasp a dead hare by the ears.
"You are strong, Lighthander," Maxxarek uttered, "but while the spider is powerful in comparison to the ant, it is nothing in comparison to the grundelwolf."
Gerron gasped for air and choked as he breathed in, as if Maxxarek was surrounded in a cloud of ash and dust. The demon released him simply by opening his mighty hand, and the ranger crumpled in a heap on the rough-hewn floor, desperately attempting to recover his breath. The demon knelt down, bringing his head close to where Gerron retched, and shouted, his voice crushing the air with its malice.
"You are the last, Lighthander! Join us! Avenge yourself upon K'Thir! We shall give you the power to crush them beneath your bootheel!"
"To what end?" Gerron shouted back, his throat a ruin from the ash-steeped air, "If you are so powerful, what do you want from K'Thir?"
Maxxarek grinned again, and drew himself back to his full height. "The Nefari and we are perhaps kindred in spirit. As they were cast out of the Overworld, so were we driven from Sheoul. We help the Nefari reclaim K'Thir, and we gain their services in our own ambitions. I am told that this is called a �marriage' of some kind amongst your people."
Gerron would have laughed at the absurdity of it if he weren't busy spitting blood from his mouth. The ash was killing him quickly, destroying his insides...
"Or if revenge is not what you want, there is certainly something that you desire more. I can see the truth played out in your blood. A woman, a she-elf... no, I understand it now."
Gerron's eyes went wide. Afina�The vision that was used to lure him before, the vision of his daughter being torn apart by the beasts of the Underdepths -- it flashed before his mind again, as Maxxarek's voice chortled.
"Yes, Lighthander -- join us and you will certainly see your daughter again. She shall not face that fate."
Gerron's eyes locked bitterly onto the demon's bemused gaze. Maxxarek had somehow arranged that vision in order to show Gerron what would happen if he didn't serve. The ranger knew there was no other choice: ff he chose to die now, it would only mean he had done nothing to preserve his daughter's life. While alive, he could work against them, perhaps find others amongst the Nefari who felt their new "allies" could not be trusted, all the while performing what menial tasks were delegated to him. There was hope yet left that good could be done...
"How can I serve?" Gerron said meekly, feigning the utter defeat of his solidarity.
Maxxarek's low laugh rumbled through him again as the demon strode back to his throne and stood before it. The ochre-coloured eyes looked past Gerron as the demon spoke: "Xuvari."
Gerron turned, his eyes wide. Before him stood Afina as she had stood in his vision, only a malicious smile was spread across her face, and the six Bok guardians flanked her instead of attacking her. "Oh, father, please," she said mockingly.
Before his eyes, Gerron watched the features of his daughter distort, as though a mirror with her image was suddenly shattered... and the image that replaced it was the voluptuous beauty of the Nefari's greatest zealot, Xuvari the Temptress. The smile on her violet-skinned face stayed the same, a playful curl of the lips.
"Blood tells the truth of all things, Lighthander," boomed Maxxarek's voice, "and in your blood I see the desire to betray our cause. But we have another use for you. Take him away!"
"Gerron, you fool," Xuvari said, "I hoped you would put up more of a fight." She tilted her head to Gerron as she crossed bare arms over her chest, and walked to where the demon lord stood.
Gerron realized his error too late. He growled like a beast as the Bok laid their clawed hands on him, and as he was carried off, Xuvari's lilting voice carried a mockery to him through the ashen air: "You were right, my lord: a taste of heaven is what will lure even the greatest to hell."
"You are an able student, my pet." Gerron struggled to look over his shoulder as he was dragged away, seeing the demon seat himself upon the bone throne once again, the claws of one hand idly toying with Xuvari's long white mane. Gerron screamed a stream of curses, until one of the Bok cracked a fist into his head and dropped him into darkness again.