Mortis awoke slouched in his crib. He felt drained, but strangely elated; it's not often one gets to see the place of your true birth. He sat up and stretched his wings, filling almost half the width of the cabin.
Idjit lay on his stool, flopped back in a picture of serene laziness. He was snoring softly, a string of drool snaking out over his lips and almost down into one ear. Mortis smirked and gave the stool a gentle nudge with his foot.
"Wake up, you. You're the one who took me on that crazy trip; you shouldn't be allowed to sleep in."
Idjit made some soft grunts, rolled over on his side, and promptly fell off the stool. Mortis couldn't help but chuckle as the familiar bounced once off the wooden floor and came up in a stunned daze.
"Oooohhh…" the little demon moaned, holding his head. "Mana always give me such a head hurt."
"I agree. That was more information then all my teacher's lessons combined. But it has explained a great many things to me. The world of man seems clearer now… in fact, I think I better understand Hell as well."
Idjit, now standing groggily on his feet, had spotted the defrosted fish on the floor. He eagerly tottered over and dove into a post-mana meal.
"'Ish good," he sputtered through mouthfuls of gizzards. "Glad me can help."
"Yes…" Mortis mused. He crossed his legs and put his chin in his hand. So much to ponder in such a short amount of time. And one phrase in particular, something Idjit had said just before the end…
"Guard your knowledge well. Your role in this universe may as yet be unknown… but a higher purpose you will serve."
His role? What could Idjit, or the mana, have meant by that? To Mortis, the idea of being destined for anything other then survival and assassination had never even crossed his mind. The future seemed like a far away and mysterious prospect, lurking on the fringes of his thoughts, and he'd always preferred to live for the moment.
Idjit, gnawing on the now almost bare fish, eyed the bigger demon mulling over his existence. He wasn't afraid of being hurt anymore, but he'd already been betrayed once recently. Now Mortis had his knowledge, Idjit feared he might be discarded, like his previous master had been so quick to do.
"So… um… what doing now?"
Mortis's stony concentration broke for a second, and he focused on the familiar.
"Hmm? Oh, I have a new contract..." He got up and peered out of the porthole at the murky dawn light. They had almost arrived at Kurast; a dark line of land covered in a dense - and somewhat foreboding - jungle was gradually drawing closer. It wouldn't be long now.
"My employer should be here soon, actually. I'm not sure what he'd think of you, so perhaps you should -"
Before he could finish the sentence, there was a brisk knocking on the door. Mortis started, and then gestured in a 'speak of the devil' manner. Idjit's reaction was very different.
The small demon froze mid bite, his eyes wide and wings sticking almost straight out. His nose was quivering: Mortis couldn't tell whether it was with excitement or fear, but a second later it was blatantly obvious. Idjit dropped the fish and took off around the room, making a high pitched squealing noise.
"Idjit? Idjit, what in Hell are you doing?" Mortis hissed. There was another soft knock on the door, and a muffled voice drifted through.
("Mortis, it's Braca. We have to discuss you're new contract, open up.")
Mortis glanced at the door and then at the hysterical familiar. The little demon was still hurtling around the cabin, crashing into the walls and ceiling. He suddenly spotted the porthole and made for it.
The familiar bounced off the glass and back onto the floor, stunned. Mortis was there in an instant and unlatching the porthole. The glass had cracked badly from the impact, and was bent slightly out of shape in the middle.
"I don't know what's gotten into you," he hissed as he snatched the smaller demon up by the neck and shook him, "but if you can't control yourself, get out!"
He thrust his arm through the window and into the cool sea air, releasing the familiar outside. Idjit fell out of view, squealing all the way.
Mortis sighed. What on earth had caused that sudden change in the little creature? He had more questions to ask, dammit, why couldn't Braca have waited just a little longer? Another, louder knock, turned his attention to the door.
("Mortis! What's going on in there? You're wasting time; open this damn door")
Mortis gave a silent snarl and took a step towards the door way, just as a soft beating of wings returned to the open porthole behind him.
"He not who you think, he not who you think!" the chirping voice of Idjit called. Mortis looked over his shoulder and saw the familiar, still wide eyed, hovering just outside. He hurried back and stuck his head through the window.
"What do you mean?"
"Don't know, don't smell right. I can't be here, or he hurt me, I know it!" Idjit turned and began to fly towards dark jungle trees of the fast approaching Kurast.
"Find me again!" Mortis called. "We have more to talk about."
With Idjit rapidly becoming a distant speck, Mortis strode surely to the door, unlocked it and swung it open. A somewhat annoyed and red faced Braca stood outside.
"About time," he growled, and stormed past the big demon. He began to pace the room, hands clasped behind his back. Mortis watched the odd man through squinted eyes, his own arms crossed firmly over his chest. Braca was attempting to make his wandering look casual, but it is hard to hide body language from an assassin at the best of times.
He was looking for something.
"Hmph," Braca snorted quietly. He stopped in the centre of the room and stared firmly at Mortis. "I heard noises. Was there someone else in here?"
Mortis's face changed to a lazy eyed look of surprise.
"Someone else? Like who? I doubt any of the sailors would be partial to a late night chat somehow. And besides, where would he go?" He gestured around the room. "Do you see anyone?"
Braca snorted again and turned to the window.
"Latch got stuck. It made me mad."
The man was quiet for some time, studying Mortis's features. Finally he scowled, clearly unsatisfied, and began to fish around in his suit pocket.
"Here's your damned contract," he snarled, pulling out a folded piece of paper and thrusting it in the demon's direction. Mortis reached out slowly and took it.
"I gather the payment is the same?"
"Half," Braca said abruptly. Mortis raised an eyebrow, but the man dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Read the contract; this one should be no challenge. You don't have to kill anyone, and therefore my employers deem it unnecessary to have such a high reward."
Mortis raised the contract and hooked a nail underneath the fold to break the seal. He was interested to see exactly what his task was this time… but something made him pause. Braca was still staring at him in that displeased and annoying way.
"Is there a problem here?" Mortis asked. To his surprise, Braca seemed to bristle.
"You know full well the conditions of your employment," he said, pointing an accusing finger. "If you have been consorting with outside sources regarding your contracts…"
Mortis had had enough of the small man's foul demeanour. He threw the paper forcefully onto the crib and stood at his full height, hands clawed at his sides.
"No one was in here. Why have you become so paranoid?"
"Because!" Braca bellowed. He strode, unfearing, towards Mortis until they were almost face to chest. "Because fraternisation with outside sources could jeopardise everything! Not only are you putting your own contracts at risk, you're putting myself and my employers in potential danger. We must not be discovered. Humans do not take kindly to groups that seek to interfere, even if that interference benefits them in the end."
"For the last time, I have not been -" Mortis paused. Humans?
The big demon had the man by the front of his suit and had pinned him against the wall, much like the second time they had met in the inn at midnight. He brought his face up close to Braca's and growled.
"What do you mean 'humans'?" he asked.
Braca was surprised, but showed no signs of fear.
"You said 'humans do not take kindly', as if you were not part of their race. What did mean by that?" Mortis heard Idjit's warning, chirping inside his head, and he narrowed his eyes. "What are you?"
The man scowled.
"Your delusions are getting pathetic, demon. If you value your work, I'd think twice before accusing me of -"
"You better come clean with me, Braca, or so help me I'll -"
It all happened so fast, Mortis never actualyl saw what happened next. Did Braca hit him? Was some kind of spell involved? All he knew was that one second he was pinning the man against the wall, the next it felt like a blast of energy had sent him flying across the room. He hit the opposite wall hard, cracking the wood, and slid down to the floor.
Mortis sat there, dazed and wondering why he could feel nothing in his right arm; somehow it had been paralysed from the shoulder down. The rest of his body, his head included, throbbed with a dull ache. There was static in the air, and the room seemed to hum.
Braca was straightening his suit and looking grim, his mouth twitch ticking away uncontrollably. He walked over and knelt down beside the groggy demon, staying just out of reach from any slashing claws.
"I'm sorry, Mortis, but I believe you've become too unstable for future work. I'll be discussing it with my employers, but this will be your final contract." He picked the folded paper off the crib and threw it on the demon's lap. "Complete it, and return to the docks for your payment. We will then go our separate ways. Goodbye."
Braca stood, dusted his shoulder, and walked out. Mortis remained where he was until he heard the click of the door closing, then his stomach gave a turn for the worst, and he fell on all fours to vomit.
Mortis cursed loudly as he stepped onto what appeared to be a firm tussock and sunk through up to his knee. It was hard to find environments he liked in this world; if it wasn't hot and dry, it was too damn wet and humid. He pulled his leg from the mud and trudged towards the river in order to clean it off.
When he left Hell, the jungles of Kehjistan had been his arrival point, and consequently the place on Sanctuary where he'd learned to hunt and survive. Yet he still found it a difficult land to travel in. The heavy canopies of the ancient trees hung low and thick, meaning flight beneath them was extremely difficult. Flight from above was even more pointless; an endless green sea obscured all the secrets beneath.
Even though the city of Kurast would be easier to find from sky, Mortis had chosen to walk. There were eyes in that place he did not want to fall upon him: Mephisto, the oldest brother of the Three, lurked somewhere in his prison beneath the Tower of the Zakarum, and Mortis could still feel presence. The last thing he wanted was to alert an entire city of the Hell Lords zealots to his arrival.
He finished washing his leg in the fast flowing water and stooped to collect a handful to drink. It probably wasn't the safest in the world, but he still recovering from his shock on the boat and needed the energy. Mortis snarled to himself, feeling the tingling in his right arm where Braca had done… whatever it was he had done.
He couldn't recall having ever been assaulted by something so powerful… at least not in Sanctuary. Even Brent's holy fire hadn't affected him so badly. There were no doubts in his mind now: Braca was not human. Idjit knew it, and now Mortis had witnessed it firsthand. That, however, brought up new questions. If he wasn't human, what was he? And what of these mysterious employers of his? Were they human? Was their meddling really in the peoples 'best interests', or did they have some other agenda?
It didn't matter, Mortis had decided. As Braca had said, this was his last assignment. Once it was over, he could forget all about the strange man and his mysterious masters, and get as far away as he could. Disappear somewhere even they wouldn't be able to track him, off the maps. He'd had enough of humans and shady organisations; he just wanted to be away from it all.
Mortis sighed and leaned against a fallen tree, listening to the sound of the trickling river and chirping insects. Peaceful. It may have been a slimy, bug infested cesspit, but it wasn't without its charms. He held out his hand and called in the final contract.
'One more read,' he thought to himself. He was in no hurry to get to Kurast, after all, and he wanted to be sure he made no mistakes. The rough paper unfolded easily in his hands, revealing Braca's bold print for the last time.
"Contract 3 - Mage of the Old Blade As you know, Mephisto corrupted the once glorious city of Kurast long ago, starting with the Council guarding his prison tower. With them twisted around his bony fingers, his influence spread, working its way from the Tower's Travincal and into the lower areas of the city. The people were slowly driven insane with hate, lusting for nothing but death and the blood of human sacrifice. Yet, despite this grim threat, resistance still exists. The Bazaar's of Kurast, a small section of the cities furthest outskirts, heralds the home of the last remaining unspoilt citizens. They cling to the ruins of their past while their mages and priests work on a way to reverse the Hell Lord's influence, but their hope pales further with each passing day. Their only form of protection is a ward spell, created by an ancient and sacred relic, which keeps the rest of the evil in the city at bay. The "Blade of the Old Religion" or "Gidbinnin" is an object of incredible power, but very few people know how to unlock its full potential. At this point in time, only two have such capabilities: two High Mages by the names of Sorum and Ormus. As their anagrammatic names might suggest, they are brothers. Together, they guard the blade and keep the ward spell active, for if it were to ever break, the bazaar would be overrun in a second by the zealots of Mephisto. Though they are brothers, their abilities differ somewhat, and here is where your task begins. Sorum considers himself the main guardian, and therefore channels most of the blades energy. However, his power is waning. My employers have monitored the ward spell for some time now, and witnessed a steady decline in its protection qualities. It is only arrogant pride that keeps Sorum from passing the task to his brother, and he is putting the lives of everyone he defends at risk by doing so. You are required to seek out the brothers in their temple, and 'persuade' Sorum into stepping down. Assassination is not necessary here; we have reason to believe he will be convinced relatively easily. But, of course, if it comes down to it… what must be done, must be done. Our information suggests that the priests are imperatively close to finding a cure for Mephisto's hatred, so by instating Ormus you will be providing them with the time they need in order to complete it, and perhaps once again restore their city. It may seem like an easier assignment then your previous ones, but we ask that you take the upmost care with its execution. The citizens may know of you here, but nothing like the Lut Gholeinians: if they see you threatening either of the brothers, they will not hesitate to attack. Gain entry to the bazaar, seek out the High Mage brothers, and persuade Sorum to step down. The last bastion of Kurasts hope depends on you. Once again: do not fail. Braca."
Mortis saw no reason to suspect this contract, and it almost pleased him that there would be no killing. Or at least, that's what he hoped. He never was the most charasmatic of beings.
As you know, Mephisto corrupted the once glorious city of Kurast long ago, starting with the Council guarding his prison tower. With them twisted around his bony fingers, his influence spread, working its way from the Tower's Travincal and into the lower areas of the city. The people were slowly driven insane with hate, lusting for nothing but death and the blood of human sacrifice.
Yet, despite this grim threat, resistance still exists. The Bazaar's of Kurast, a small section of the cities furthest outskirts, heralds the home of the last remaining unspoilt citizens. They cling to the ruins of their past while their mages and priests work on a way to reverse the Hell Lord's influence, but their hope pales further with each passing day. Their only form of protection is a ward spell, created by an ancient and sacred relic, which keeps the rest of the evil in the city at bay.
The "Blade of the Old Religion" or "Gidbinnin" is an object of incredible power, but very few people know how to unlock its full potential. At this point in time, only two have such capabilities: two High Mages by the names of Sorum and Ormus. As their anagrammatic names might suggest, they are brothers. Together, they guard the blade and keep the ward spell active, for if it were to ever break, the bazaar would be overrun in a second by the zealots of Mephisto.
Though they are brothers, their abilities differ somewhat, and here is where your task begins. Sorum considers himself the main guardian, and therefore channels most of the blades energy. However, his power is waning. My employers have monitored the ward spell for some time now, and witnessed a steady decline in its protection qualities. It is only arrogant pride that keeps Sorum from passing the task to his brother, and he is putting the lives of everyone he defends at risk by doing so.
You are required to seek out the brothers in their temple, and 'persuade' Sorum into stepping down. Assassination is not necessary here; we have reason to believe he will be convinced relatively easily. But, of course, if it comes down to it… what must be done, must be done.
Our information suggests that the priests are imperatively close to finding a cure for Mephisto's hatred, so by instating Ormus you will be providing them with the time they need in order to complete it, and perhaps once again restore their city. It may seem like an easier assignment then your previous ones, but we ask that you take the upmost care with its execution. The citizens may know of you here, but nothing like the Lut Gholeinians: if they see you threatening either of the brothers, they will not hesitate to attack.
Gain entry to the bazaar, seek out the High Mage brothers, and persuade Sorum to step down. The last bastion of Kurasts hope depends on you. Once again: do not fail.
A strange bird call suddenly brought his attention back to the jungle, and he instinctively crouched, wings spread. Kurast was not the safest place to be caught unawares in. Thinking it best to keep moving, Mortis vanished the contract and pushed away from the fallen tree. There wasn't far to walk now, and if he could avoid stepping in any more bogs, he'd be happy. The gates to the city were just up ahead.
Had Mortis turned around at that point, he may have spotted the small, masked face, peeking out at him from behind a bush. But as it was, he didn't turn, and the mask snickered with relief. It quickly ducked down and began to stalk the big demon again, being careful to stay well out of view this time. This little creature had a task of his own.
'First: follow the demon, follow the demon, follow the demon,' he repeated to himself, over and over. He didn't want to, but that's what he had been told to do. Apparently he had a 'notoriously short attention span', and 'must repeat each step constantly in order to remain focused'.
It would have helped if the small masked midget knew what those words meant, but he wasn't about to ask; he got the general idea. That man had been very scary with his big words and strange clothing. And he'd had shaken the midget until his teeth rattled inside his mask when he said he didn't want to do what the man asked. If he messed up, the midget knew he would not be left alive.
But then he smiled and thought about the offered reward. Mmmm… food, and lots of it. Bountiful food, running for its life through the jungle. It'd be fun just to hunt it down! Oh, he couldn't wait. Saliva was beginning to drip down from underneath his mask at the mere thought of it.
The midget scurried behind another tree and peeked around, watching the demon move further up the rivers edge. This wouldn't be too hard after all.
'First: follow the demon, follow the demon, follow the demon…'
-BANG BANG BANG-
Mortis pounded heavily on the great wooden gates of the bazaar. The stone archway that held them barely stood; cracked with age and crumbling in various places. If it wasn't for the ward spell, he would have simply flown over the gates and landed on the other side. But there was no chance of that.
The ward was incredibly strong, and Mortis felt a resistance just standing near entrance. It had allowed him to touch the gates, but he knew he wouldn't have been able to break through. He waited impatiently now for a response, swatting aside an insect that seemed far too big for his liking, and tried to think of what he would say when someone did at last answer.
He'd only been back to Kurast a few times in the past, and that had been before Mephisto had taken hold. Mortis didn't know whether there was anyone left alive who would remember him, or even if any stories remained. It was going to be a gamble, and he hoped it wouldn't be a dangerous one.
Finally, a small hatch opened in the gates.
"What?" The nervous eyes of a guard peered out, scanning the jungle. They almost bludged out of his head when he saw the big demon in front of the gates. Mortis smiled and stepped forward.
"Don't close the hatch. I'm not one of the Zakarum. I'm here to help."
It was all he could think to say, and he wasn't sure if it was enough. The eyes didn't move, however, only continued to stare at him.
"You're… you're the Balrog?"
Mortis was stunned. Did they really remember him? They still referred to him by his species, rather then his name, which meant they probably still didn't trust him. Though the Kehjistan's had cautiously allowed him into their culture, many harboured an inherit mistrust of anything not of their world, and believed demons did not deserve names. He had always been "the Balrog" here, no matter what he did for them.
"Yes," Mortis said, somewhat reluctantly. "I am the Balrog."
The eyes narrowed, scrutinising him with an intensity that made him uncomfortable.
"What do you want?" the guard called.
"I've come to help in your fight against the evil of Mephisto," Mortis stated. "I have important information for the Guardians of the Blade. I come alone"
The hatch swung closed with a click, and Mortis was left in silence.
'Blast,' he thought. 'Wrong move.'
A sudden loud buzzing filled the air, and Mortis felt the resistance of the ward shift. The spell had parted, like curtains on a window, leaving the gates undefended. Moments later, one side of the gates started to open with a rusty and mournful groan, and Mortis waited with a tense anticipation. The guard poked his head out through the gap and looked around, making sure the demon really was alone, and then pushed it open further.
"Greetings, Balrog. We welcome you. Our priests have been waiting eagerly for your return for some time now."
Mortis smiled with relief. They remembered him. They trusted him. That was one problem overcome. He made to step through the gate, but the guard held up his hand.
"First, I've been told to ask some questions of any who enter. I apologise for the inconvenience; it's standard procedure."
In the bushes, Mortis's stalker watched the two talking with growing fear. They were standing in front of the gate. Right in front of it! How was he going to get in?
'Second: enter the city, enter the city, enter the city…'
But how? How? The midget was starting to panic, feeling the failure of his task and his own doom drawing near. He hopped from one foot to the other, his mask jiggling with each bounce. What to do, what to do?
Deciding it was worth the risk, the midget scurried closer, barely hidden behind a copse of reeds. So close. He could see now that there was a small - a very small - gap between the demon and the closed side of the gate. If he was fast, he might just be able to squeeze through. The human was focused on the demon's face, and the demon's back was to him. He had to try. After all, if the demon didn't kill him, the scary man would. And in much nastier ways, he suspected.
Taking a breath, the midget crept forward, trying to stay out of sight, and then made a dash for it.
"You may enter now," the guard smiled. He turned around and made room for the demon to pass. Mortis took a step forward eager to be inside.
Something brushed his leg. Just for as second, and it was so soft he barely registered it. He looked down in time to see something small scurry around the side of the gate and disappear.
"Wait," Mortis said, grabbing the guars shoulder. "Did you see that?"
"See what?" The guard enquired. Mortis lunged around the gate and peered about. There were some dense bushes spread along the wall, some small huts nearby, but that was it. Nothing. He sniffed and studied the ground. There were many footprints, but all were human. They were no good to him. And the only thing he could smell was a pile of unwashed garments in the nearby hut.
Mortis straightened and turned back to the guard.
"I'm sorry, I thought I saw something. An animal perhaps, but… I guess I was wrong."
The guard stared quizzingly at him, then shook his head.
"I didn't see anything, I'm sorry. Come, I will take you to the brothers."
The demon and the human walked past, and the midget held his breath. Had they seen him? Apparently so, but they hadn't come after him. The demon had sharp eyesight, but the midget had been quicker. Though… had he not chosen his hiding place so well, he probably still would have been caught, as the demon's nose was also well trained.
The midget waited until the two were further up the bazaar, and then burst from his hiding place under the smelly clothing. Blurk. Not the nicest place to hide, but it did the job. He kicked an undergarment off his ankle, and then looked to where the demon had gone. If he wasn't quick, he'd lose them! He made a dash for a nearby hut and pressed against the wall.
'Third: Follow again, follow again, follow again…'
He was very close now. So close. Mmmm… food.