Chapter Twelve: Fallen Hero
We hear the word hero, and we immediately imagine gallant lords or spirited ladies who after vanquishing some great evil, earn a reward known as a happy ending. That is what we know them for, the battles and the happy endings. There is an inherent problem in that. A happy ending assumes that a story has ended and if you make the mistake of buying into that belief, you are left unprepared for the next arc in the tale.
When I retired from the adventurer’s life as the warden so cleverly put it, I was determined to the make the most of it. I had a beautiful betrothed, a Sprite Lady with her own commune no less, and a place to call home. I could be among my own people, return to a time before the killing and constant battling. Everything seemed to finally be going my way.
The first few years were tense. I would draw looks for walking around with a sword constantly at my waist. I tried and somewhat succeeded in getting my fellow sprites to be more security conscious. The shadows I was used to seeing were absent but that only deepened my paranoia, forcing me to spend time and go out of my way in search of them. Thankfully, my lady wife and the others were understanding and accommodating. Even so, living with sprites again was an experience, I was ill-suited to. My affliction had rendered me incapable of resuming a normal life. I could not grow plants or tend to wildlife. Initially, it was difficult for me to fit in.
With time, I mellowed. Cursed Spindle, the sword that never left my side, was placed above my mantle, a relic of my past. In its place, I carried a hoe, a quill, a scroll, whatever it was my people needed. I had allowed myself to forget, to grow vulnerable. Worse still, it was not just me who was defenceless this time, it was my entire commune. It is a mistake I will never again repeat.
When the troll came, I remember standing there, frozen. My eyes could not look past the death and destruction to see the still rampaging figure. Mercifully, the faerie eating troll soon realised that mine was the most potent mana around and left the others to attack me. It was my first true battle in over a century, and I did it armed with nothing but my bare hands and a fang I ripped from the troll’s necklace when it tried to eat me. Truth be told, I am still surprised I won that one. Nevertheless, the cost of that victory was almost too great to bear.
Gravely injured, I was out of commission for nearly a month. It was more than enough time for the troll to run through the woods unmatched. Makas learned his lesson after that first fight. He avoided my home, choosing instead to pick off wildlings and fae from other settlements. When he did come, he was met by me, sword in hand, together with my army. I meant to put the damned troll into the dirt. I thought I was prepared. Little did I know that with each fae it ate, Makas grew stronger. The fae magic pumping through its mutated flesh only made it grow stronger and hungered for more.
In addition to the normal troll’s regeneration, the cursed thing also happened to be tireless and could replenish its stamina and mana with every faerie it consumed. It was not long before it grew to match me and eventually, it began to push past me. Only my skill and my curses kept it at bay. Ultimately, the surrounding woods were devoid of fae save my people and me. Makas would stalk us, striking whenever our guard was down to snatch whoever he could fit down his gullet only to disappear until the next opportunity presented itself.
We were forced to keep moving, never stopping, always hiding for fear of death. It was no way to live. Then one day, a scout discovered a new dungeon. This dungeon! The moment I heard of it, a plan began to form in my head. Pixies could do it, why not sprites too?
I marched in, delving into this newfound dungeon until I met the core and when I did, I asked for two things; A safe place for my people and my foe dead at my feet. In exchange, I sold my very soul and the servitude of my people. The dungeon core agreed and granted me the power and permissions to do what needed to be done.
The small party listened to Thorn’s story with equal parts awe and worry. The cause of the latter came from the dark fae’s tone. The stories always portrayed the faerie hero as either a mischevious fae who delighted in the destruction and confusion he wrought or a tragic figure burdened by a horrible curse. Today, they had confirmed for themselves that the second was true and more than that, they had seen for themselves that this tragic figure seemed to have made a resolution to turn his inner turmoil outward at the world.
“In a way, it is fitting you chose this chamber for your summoning. It is where Makas died, right there”, Thorn said, pointing behind them.
It was a small half-truth. Makas died in the next chamber, the one beyond the wall he was pointing at. However, they did not know that. He watched as the warden and his small party turned to stare where he pointed and knew he had them hooked. He could just about see the gears turn in their heads. That was exactly his purpose. The more they focused on him, the less they focused on the dungeon itself and its peculiarities. The dark fae could only imagine how news of a fully self-aware dungeon god would come across to the Imperial Guild’s. This approach gave it more time to grow. By the time they figured out the truth, it would be too late.
Thorn was right, the council could practically see the events unfold before them. A desperate sprite lord trying to save his people. A newly formed variant dungeon, powerful but naive. An eternal pact forged in the gloom of a cavern much like this one. It was a scene straight from the stories, something completely fitting with Thorn’s tragic life story.
Gauwyn imagined the scene as one where the sprite embraced his cursed power as well as the dungeon’s own, transforming into the figure that stood before them before cutting down the offending troll that consumed his people. It was an event that would irrevocably change any man let alone a fae, creatures known for their changing nature. It was no wonder that Thorn Clearwing was now a dark fae. Still, the fact remained that for such an individual to be the guide of what was perhaps the most powerful dungeon in the empire was terrifying to think about.
Gauwyn stared at Thorn, thoughts running through his mind like horses in the plains. He could already see the connections. Thorn Clearwing’s hexes were the stuff of folktales. All he required was a single touch of his mana or sword to set off. Was it any wonder that the first boss of the dungeon he lived in was a nest of wasps with similar capabilities. Same went for the second boss. Armoured bears were rampant in these parts. Even the third-floor final monsters, the wisps, were time-honoured faerie companions.
Thorn Clearwing was clearly the designer of this dangerous dungeon. The power of a dungeon with variant divinity combined with the skill and experience of an expert like Thorn was sure to be deadly beyond compared. The scariest part was that the dark fae did not look like he was finished. He was making it clear that his resolve to protect his people come what may had not gone away. Given that they were dungeon monsters now, that set him against the guild. Gauwyn realised that he had to tread very lightly here. He did not want to present the guild as enemies.
“Are the other fae like you?” he asked. If there was a dungeon full of dark fae with Thorn’s capabilities, the guild needed to know and fast.
“The fae in this dungeon?” his hero asked.
The warden nodded.
“No! There are a few special individuals, my grandson for one. However, most remain simple sprites. They have changed, transforming into dungeon sprites, but they still act like sprites and do sprite things; tend to plants and animals, keep nature tranquil, cleanse mana, that sort of thing. The only real difference is that they are part of a dungeon now and not a forest or plain. Don’t be surprised if you see them tending to a trap or injured monster. It is what they do now.”
“And the one that lured the adventurers over?”
Thorn shot him a look, one that reminded him that he had already asked his three questions. Still, he answered the question. “She is one of my scouts. I had her monitoring the forest so we would know if the folk deeper in came to check on us. She was also of the mind that they could carry a message, but I disagreed.”
“You cannot contact the fae deeper in?” Gauwyn asked with genuine curiosity.
“Here’s a little known fact about fae communes”, Thorn said. “We’re generally isolated. Our long lives make day to day communications unnecessary and annoying. The only way we keep in contact is through the wild fae who move from place to place or special couriers who carry news and goods from one place to another. The courier around these parts was a dryad who kept the Duke’s court and the area apprised of general news and situations. Sadly, she was one of the first to be eaten when Makas appeared. Without sending word, it could be years before someone deeper in remembers to ask about us.”
That explained why the guild’s faerie contacts were unable to send word and why no one knew about the dearth of fae in the area or the dungeon. The folk in Duke Galronde’s court were utterly unaware of what was going on.
“I’d like to propose a further trade. More questions for offerings”, Gauwyn told Thorn.
The dark fae smiled, an action that put his fangs on display. “No!”
“You heard right”, Thorn confirmed. “You called, I answered. You paid, I talked. Now, it’s your turn to make this worth my while, and all I need is a guild official to carry a message.”
With a wave of his hand, he had two scrolls appear in his hand. Tossing them to the astonished warden, he continued. “One is for the guild. The second is for whichever faelord is sent to your little town. They encapsulate all terms we believe necessary for an initial exchange. Talk to your leaders, come up with a counteroffer. Then, we can trade.”
Snatching the scrolls out of the air, Gauwyn opened the one marked for the guild tentatively. Reading through quickly, he looked back up at the former adventurer.
“I think I can do that!”