It was their first day out at sea and there, in the distance, was an island. An island, the Captain Mildred Fairweather was saying to the group of squabbling rogues and outcasts that made up their small mercenary band, that appeared on no chart. It was a great concern, of course. What wonders would await? What treasures could be uncovered? What were the chances of their good smuggler Captain marooning them at the slightest opportunity?
Delphie had stretched all three feet of her lithe little self out along the decks of the forecastle, enjoying the midday sun and the steady wind. She had but to turn her head slightly to look out over the sea to the dot of land off to port, her view only slightly hindered by the gunwale. As the wind tousled her mop of raven black hair, she breathed a sigh of grattitude that she was no longer shut up in the small room that had been apportioned for them belowdecks. It had smelled of sweat, old straw and dried bile, and they had been packed in so tightly that even the few short hours within had been unbearable.
The crew scurried around her, muttering crude remarks beneath their breath, but she turned a deaf ear to all of them. In truth, she wished that she could turn a deaf ear to the whole situation. Certainly, there was a hint of treasure, glimmering green across that short span of sea, but they had a bounty…a bounty she might easily purloin for herself if the opportunity arose when this journey was over…why risk it for an uncertain gain at best?
The boat began to swing around, and her view of the isle was lost. They were heading towards it. She sighed, pillowed her cloak up beneath her head, and took the opportunity to catch a nap before their arrival.
The jolly boat set in on shore with a solid thump and the hiss of wood hull over sand. Together Delphi and her fellows slipped over the side into the water and brought the boat further onto land. Fairweather’s crew members – here ostensibly to collect food and water – landed moments after, and were soon peering suspiciously into the tropical forest beyond the glimmering white sands of the beach. Delphi and her companions soon decided that there was little point in remaining near the boats, and proceeded to set off boldly into the thick vegetation, making for the top of the long hill that composed the island’s interior.
There was soon evidence of human habitation. They came across several old tracks – well pressed paths in the forest floor – that led off in various directions, but it wasn’t until they were approaching the steeper section of the hill that they found an actual road – built of ancient, broken, and weed-choked cobblestones.
Keeping a wary eye on their surroundings, the group followed the road up the hill. The two half-orc toughs held naked steel in their hands – one flitting shadow to shadow alongside the path. Their self-appointed leader Ulysses seemed to have things well in hand, his bow at the ready, and with their mysterious magician peering actively about, Delphi felt at ease enough to feed her cat tidbits of pocketed dried meat from the ship as they made their gradual way up the hill.
The island, though swathed in thick vegetation, was relatively small, and it wasn’t long before they reached the high point of the hillside. Picking their way carefully over the cobbles, they soon noticed that upon its height was what appeared to be an enormous dome of utter blackness. Indeed, as they approached it, it was as if a line had been cut directly into the path: on one side, day shone brightly upon the forest floor and the stones of the road, on the other, darkest night, impenetrable.
Well, not entirely impenetrable. As Delphi looked into the darkness she began making out twisted shapes, warped as if seen beneath the water, or through distorted glass.
As the party peered at this unusual setpiece, one of the orcs stuck his head in experimentally, reporting that he couldn’t see a thing. This struck Delphi as odd. The longer she looked, the more she could see beyond the dome of darkness. She was about to indicate this, when there was sudden activity from the forest further down the road. Unfamiliar shapes were flitting through the trees.
The group immediately scattered, finding stones and trees to hide behind. Only Delphi darted into the shadows.
It was warm here. Not the overbearing steamy heat of the noonday sun upon a tropical island, but rather a silky, plying warmth – the all too comfortable body heat that is retained in thick blankets on a cold morning, and tempts you to stay in bed and never leave it. Delphi’s cat strolled around, peering into the darkness with lantern eyes, seemingly at home. The halfling herself was none too certain. It was eerie, here in the dark. The sun was cut out entirely, and yet the ghostly forms of trees and stone loomed in greys and bone whites. The sound from beyond the veil of shadow was muffled, as if heard through thick curtains. She could tell her companions were conversing with someone, but their words were almost unintelligible.
The halfling stopped. Turned about. Someone had spoken, very softly, and yet so clearly it might as well have been in her ear. Dephi found herself turning towards the path, and looking further up it. After a moment, she began to make sense of a large structure straddling the trail further ahead.
Come to me…
Slowly, she walked towards it. Plinths and columns, some cracked and strewn across the ground, all crooked with the odd distortion of this black world, lined the path. She walked between them warily, the structure ahead looming to ever greater proportions. She halted once again at the entrance. There were designs all across the lintel, as well as a great tympanum, depicting men and women, angels and demons in various poses. But all had a ghastly hue. Faces were twisted in despair. Bodies wracked with pain. The shadows that surrounded them seemed to dance and cast new and sinister countenances continuously.
Tentatively, the rogue passed through the portal and into what appeared to be a vast temple chamber. More artwork scrawled across the walls, and statuary sat upon plinths – each more twisted and gruesome than the last. Near the far end of the room sat a great altar, cracked in two, its sundered halves sunk to the floor, propped up by heavy chipped legs. But none of these things distracted for one moment from the great statue that stood just beyond. It was of a goddess whose hair was wrought of spun gold, held in a shimmering rose gold aureola that evoked a sunburst. The pure white marble of her delicate facial features and powerful robe-enshrouded femininity stood out in stark contrast from the goddess’ surroundings. Amidst her chest was set a pure white diamond, and she glowed with an inner radiance that seemed to pour out from the stone itself, filling the marble of the statue with a shimmering light which the darkness about it seemed to be constantly at pains to batter back. The goddess’ arms were raised before her, the hands oddly clutching at the free air, as if they had once held something – perhaps a staff or a long sceptre.
There was a sadness emanating from the statue. A deep longing, unfulfilled. Delphi approached the sundered altar and gazed up at the icon with wide eyes, mentally calculating the cost of gold and diamond and coming to a decidedly worthy figure. Just as she was beginning to formulate a plan to chip out the diamond, a low, lisping voice spoke behind her.
“So, the bitch has called another one in.”
Delphi spun on her heel as her cat hissed and darted away. There, feet away from her, stood one of the many statues she had passed on the way in. A crooked thing, a monster, truly, with misshapen head and horned, angular protrusions at asymmetrical intervals. Its skin was of grey-black granite to the naked eye, and it had wings – great ribbed things which would doubtlessly be multiple arm lengths long on either side of the being if it were to open them wide. At the moment, however, they were wrapped tightly around its body, which for all its odd twists stood a full seven feet tall. Intelligent black eyes looked down from the toothy face, locked in perpetual grin which no lips could ever hope to enshroud.
A moment passed as the halfling’s tongue dried up and her legs stiffened. Beyond the simple, intimidating fact of its presence, however, the Gargoyle did not seem to harbour any intent to harm her. At least, at this particular moment. He – for his voice had certainly seemed male – simply looked down, patiently, as if awaiting some answer. Delphi, realizing that she was holding her breath, forced herself to release it, meanwhile keeping careful control of her bowels.
“Y-yes. I…suppose so.”
The Gargoyle studied her for a moment longer, then, with a grace that belied his form, moved beyond her, and slowly circumvented the altar.
“Indeed. She is rather good at that. One need but pass near this place and she’ll whisper sweet nothings in their ear – begging, pleading for assistance like some common slattern who has spent the last of her coin on ale and song.” As he turned about the last corner of the altar, a long grey arm appeared between the folds of the being’s cloak-like wings, and one of its three great clawed digits reached down and scraped painfully against the bare stone, digging a long, thin track out of the marble as he went. He finally ended his journey directly before the goddess’ statue, and there gazed up at it, returning his hand to his wing’s embrace. “I know not how many times she has entreated even me, Crellix, her jailer. She will cozen any, this one, if it means freedom. The gods of darkness have far greater dignity. Far greater pride.” He swept about, turning to face Dephi once again, who had, gaping, followed his slow progress with the minimum of movement. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Delphi, left with few alternatives, shrugged and opened her hands helplessly as she responded, “Yes?”
“Of course,” he continued, appeased, “you could hardly be at odds with the gods of true power, since you can see in this place, where so many are night-blind, or worse. In fact, I daresay you are the first in some time who has been so blessed as to pass beyond the darkness to see the beauty of a lightless world. All too often, I must swiftly dispatch the fools that enter here, but you – you present an opportunity.”
He allowed his wings to slowly uncoil. Soon they were stretched out, high and wide, and where they shaded the light of the goddess behind him, an inky blackness, impenetrable, dwelled. The smooth, stone-like skin of the Gargoyle gleamed glassy in the unnatural light as his body became discernible. It had long, black arms with raking claws – pointed horns that jutted at odd angles all over, and a slim, powerful build.
“What say you?” Crellix slurred between his pointed teeth.