Black plumes rose from a small corner of the forests in the northern wastes. The clouds were themselves helpless in their malleable forms, and followed amongst the dark throng. Laier sighed – there would be no rain this night. While elsewhere the world rested silent, around him roared encroaching flames that ate through timber, their meat succumbing to their own weight. A shrill cry joined the chorus as a man was thusly pinned.
His pale, shoulder-length hair became one with the snow as he crawled towards a small hill overlooking his home. In the distance, his hunting equipment along with the night’s catch lay abandoned, trailed by covered footsteps, and would never be found.
Hunched, horned silhouettes pranced and formed worse shadows as they pillaged the settlement. What few homes that hung from trees had their supports shattered and their meagre contents spilled, with women and children falling and adding to the thick piles. Laier’s eyes drew tears from the smoke. Though mixing with sweat, he thought it summoned by rage.
He drew his bow and made haste towards his home at the northern outskirts of the settlement. It was hardly convenient that this trip had brought him south towards the hunting grounds, almost a kilometre past the gate. He got careless – he was carried away by the thought of a humble dinner of boar meat to celebrate his son Lysandros’ tenth birthday. Now he had to contend with the possibility of loss. He would be to blame, too. He knew it would be his fault.
He slipped along the trees, firing once or twice, and then moving once again. He took out straggling targets – the one or two careless fools who would break away from formation to pursue a kill. He could not risk detection, at least not until he got what he came for.
When he came upon the last hill overlooking the settlement’s south gate, his anxiety bade him leap in haste, sending him crashing into a cloaked lookout. He muttered a curse as he saw too late that this was the enemy’s rear guard, and Black Cloaks, at that – the Zhentarim’s mages. He grabbed the lookout’s head as they both fell, smashing it against the ground with a satisfying crack.
For a moment, Laier thought of evading them, but his body acted on instinct. His hand drew an arrow as he twirled his composite longbow and whispered the spell to form it as a staff, parrying two dagger thrusts that came for his sides. He rolled forward and stabbed the arrow through one of the cloaked mage’s right knee, swinging his bowstaff upwards and breaking the man’s jaw. With the two dagger-wielders coming for him from behind, he rode the momentum of his strike and spun his staff backwards to keep them away. One of the rogues leapt towards him, while the other lunged low and to the side in a coordinated attack.
“I will not let you take it,” Laier promised. Time slowed down as he called for his god’s power to smite his foes. His eyes burned with blue fire in that instant, the image of the rogue in the air reflected on it. His soaring attacker’s dagger glinted with deathly intent as it crashed into him, but no blood was drawn. Believing in his god’s protection even before it was granted, he turned his attention to the rogue attempting to circle around him and shot an arrow point-blank into his eye.
The last rogue darted a step backwards in surprise as his attack unexpectedly failed. “You’re no mere ranger,” he said thoughtfully. Laier cared not for his words and drew another arrow to end the man’s life. “You are the paladin,” he exclaimed, as his heart was pierced.
The flames engulfing the forest were like madness, now. Laier ran for the south gate with little hope for the time he had lost, and it wavered at the memory of how the last Zhent was smiling as he expired.
Inside, Laier found the settlement consumed by the attack. His fellow hunters had taken to fleeing from the overwhelming force, clutching their dead as they ran. He heard sounds that he had never heard possible coming from their bloodied lips – it reached him as terror and despair. He tossed aside all care and simply just ran straight for his cottage, under the cover of burning houses and the chaos of battle.
When he reached his home he yelled for his son, nearly taking the door down as he rammed into it with his shoulder, bow at the ready. He couldn’t let them take it – his mind was blank save for that thought. Moving his bow along his sights he swept around the living room, knocking down the pans and dishes he had prepared for the night’s supposed feast.
“Father,” shouted his son, finally, the boy running out of his father’s chambers from the corner of the living room. Laier caught him with a hug and a kiss to the forehead. He checked the boy for injuries and deemed him unharmed, for now.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he told his son, “but we need to go.”
Laier took his son’s hand and started to lead him out through the back exit. Just as they reached it, he instinctively tossed the boy to the side. He did not know why, until a mere second later that an explosion obliterated the door. The blast was enough to send him hurtling over their dining table, breaking it in the middle. His bow fell between him and Lysandros, who was only just rising.
“Oh, missed,” said a Black Cloak as he stepped through the door with a cursory glance around, finding the paladin on the floor as if he had known he would be there. “How do you like your new home? Here’s a touch of hell to warm the soul.”
Laier tried to get up but felt pain shoot through his side, where a fork was lodged. He stifled a scream as he pulled out the three-fourths of the fork that was stuck just below his rib. Lysandros was a few feet behind and to the side of the Black Cloak, his hands over his mouth. Their eyes met.
The Black Cloak followed the paladin’s gaze and found the boy. He grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him to look him eye to eye, the boy rising at least six feet in the air. He observed the boy with some amusement as he struggled and yelped in pain. He grabbed Lysandros’ jaw and moved it side to side, as if looking for a necklace or marking.
“Hm, not this one,” the Black Cloak mused, “though just as important, eh, Paladin?”
“You won’t get it,” said Laier. “I’ll not let it fall into your hands.”
The Black Cloak furrowed his eyebrows, pondering the words. With the paladin paralyzed on the floor and with a helpless boy hanging under his fingers, he felt comfortable enough with his time. He turned the boy around and took him by the leg, letting the boy’s shirt fall to reveal any hidden artifacts on his person. Unsatisfied, he tossed the boy aside, sending Lysandros back into his father’s room.
“Leave him alone,” Laier exclaimed, ignoring his pain to finally grab his bow. He attempted to nock an arrow but he no longer had the strength to pull the string full backwards, causing him to fall to the floor in pain.
The Black Cloak laughed and took one step towards him, striding through a quarter of the room towards him in one move. He caught a glimpse of the man’s yellow, inhuman eyes as the Black Cloak moved over him. From under the cloak he felt himself swallowed by darkness, and for once he felt his fear begin to grow.
“Where is the Hand of Bane?” asked the Black Cloak. Laier felt the man’s grip closing around his neck as he realized that the Zhent he had killed at the south gate had somehow managed to communicate his arrival to this one. He gasped for air but did not struggle or scream, wanting to give no satisfaction to his enemy.
The Black Cloak, expecting no cooperation, lowered his hood to reveal a face marred by ritual scars. Laier was now certain – this man was possessed.
“You do know that resistance is futile,” said the demon, in his true voice. “I can sense the artefact, and I know that it is here. Did you truly believe that you could keep us away forever? I will kill you and your loved ones, and then send you all to hell.”
Laier spat on his face. “You’ll never get it,” he said.
The demon tore Laier’s chestguard in realization, his eyes glowing orange as he scanned for the artefact. Laier’s torso glowed orange from under his skin, and the paladin managed a smile.
“We… are one,” he said. “Kill me, and you lose the artefact.”
Laier was not running away from them – he was running away from everyone else. This much was clear to the demon now.
“You’ve kept the Hand of Bane in check with your own soul – a noble sacrifice, but a futile one. If I cannot kill you, then I will simply take you and wait until you succumb!”
Choking Laier to the brink of death, the demon powered a gate of flame with the man’s dwindling life. A pentagram inlaid with chaotic, flickering runes grew from beneath his cloak, nearly swallowing the whole room.
Lysandros saw his father fall into hell, but he would never forget the demon’s gaze as it left – it was not so much a taunt, but an invitation. It burrowed deep into his bones and dreamed as he dreamed.