Belkar trotted calmly Mr Scruffy at his heels. If the cat had any sense of dramatic awareness, it would have refused to go any further, scratched and clawed at anyone who tried to make it. But what did a cat have to fear from illusions? They don't dream beyond the next meal. And even the most domesticated cat still acts as it wants.
At last he came to a room, totally empty of any furnishings, with a door at the far end. Somehow he knew that the dungeon itself had ended, and the maze that Girard had spent his life protecting lay beyond that door. He sighed in disappointment.
"Giant dungeon and there isn't one person to kill. Why would anyone…" His voice trailed of when he realized no one was watching. Suddenly, with no one to act tough in front of, he felt a lot less confident.
Wetting his lips he looked over his shoulder, at the ceiling, then finally pushed the door open with a violent thrust, trying to make up for his indecision.
Beyond was an emptiness so deep it pulled at him, drawing him into it's embrace. A cool wind blew across his face as he plummeted into the blackness.
A soft weight pressed against his side. Arms enclosed his chest, rising and falling with the rhythm of each breath. Belkar started, abruptly sitting bolt upright in the lavishly appointed room, hung with drapes and furs. He was naked, save for the silken sheets wrapped around him.
The bed was low, and wide enough to fit an entire extended family, surrounded by drapes to trap body heat. They also meant he couldn't see anything beyond them, except a tiny arc of light opposite the foot of the bed. All else was shadow.
There was a moan to his left as the woman rolled languidly onto her back. The faint light limed her chocolate skin, gleaming off a shoulder and single, perfect breast. Her hair fell in perfect tresses, a dark chocolate color, and her lips were a striking red, the exact color of fresh blood.
Belkar reeled from the sight, stumbling awkwardly from the bed and and landing naked on the hard, cold, slate floor. The icy shock of the cold tiles jarring his bones with the sudden impact brought everything into sharp focus.
He didn't know where he was. Not unusual, but never quite this much of a jump. He had no idea who the girl was. Again, hardly unusual, names were always hard and irrelevant. Any girl would be replaced soon by another one, and you'd move on or kill her, and then you'd spared the effort for nothing.
No. Wait. This had happened too him just two days ago, when the rest of the party tracked down the slavers with divinations and found his corpse picked clean. So. One of the illusions must have killed him or whatever, and the rest of the party had pulled it off, brought him back (suckers), then dumped him here and hired this girl as a consolation prize.
Glad that he'd come to a conclusion, if not a conclusion that anyone with a decent wisdom score would consider, he closed his eyes, making a mental note to be nice to them one day, then opened them with a wide grin.
His eye caught a hint of movement to his left, in the chambers shadowy corner. He looked around for a weapon and saw his daggers, draped across an expensive divan near the bed.
Evacuating a fluid roll he nimbly grabbed them, rasping icily from their sheaths as he launched himself towards the source of the movement. For a brief, fleeting instant he thought he saw a hooded figure, little more then a deeper shadow among the dark folds of the hanging drapes, but when he reached the corner there was no one there. He probed the heavy drapes with the points of his blades, but nothing lurked in their depths.
"Trick of the light." He muttered, a diplomacy check so unconvincing he couldn't even make himself believe it. He turned back to the bed, unable to shake the vague feeling of foreboding. He wasn't used to this. Normally he never had second thoughts, or anything more then sudden impulses that he obeyed to the letter. All this subtle nuances were disquieting, and he wished they'd go away.
Without thinking he crossed the room to a nearby table and plucked a goblet of wine from a silver tray. He'd set the wine just before bed, he could remember it clearly (though he could remember not remembering it. It hurt to think about, so Belkar didn't), so clearly it was as though he'd done it moments before, and yet the very act of touching it felt wrong somehow.
"Come back to bed, you scoundrel," the women said, her throaty voice sending a shiver down his spine. "I'm cold."
He could think of nothing more he wanted to do then to return to her side and breathe the scent of her chocolate skin - but even that had a undercurrent of foreboding he couldn't explain. Not used to uncertainty he hesitated, trying to figure out what was wrong with him, but equally unused to self-reflection made this a hopeless task.
Another face, identical but for a slightly wider mouth and darker eyes, peeped up above hers from behind. Ye gods. Twins. And yet…
He heard their bodies whispering against the sheets, and imagined the wrapped around his. Even that erotic thought was disquieting rather then tempting. He looked over to see his hand clutching the thick drapes in a white knuckled grip. Stark terror was washing over him, and through him in waves, even as another part reacted with irresistible lust, he took a step towards the bed, then another step, then turned an bolted, reaching for the ring set in the dark paneled door. Wrenching at it he pulled the door wide. She called for him, sending a stab of longing and wasted opportunity through his chest as he fell into the darkness's waiting arms.
He smelled blood and the stink of ruptured bodies, of ash and of smoke. It smelled glorious. It smelled like victory. He was still naked, a fact he wasn't going to examine, lying exhausted and satisfied atop a tremendous pile of broken bodies, in the center of a burning village, a fact that he was only to eager to examine.
They were all halflings. They were all dead. And he was home. He wanted to cheer. He wanted to bring one, any one, back to life so he could rub it in, then kill them again.
He had imagined more. A succession of elaborate, ironic and violent scenario's, each to make them pay for what they had done to him. He was going to rip of Bingo's arm and beat him to death with it, he was going to blind old Gosskar and kill his family, leaving him to wander their big house alone until he eventually starved. And as for Rosie, who had ignored his earnest attempts at courtship before during the Junior Prom in favor of Sam…
It just wasn't as good as he's thought it would be.
But it was good.
"Oh please." He said softly but earnestly, still reclining atop the corpses like a sultan on a couch. "Please let this all be true."
"It is." a familiar voice that he couldn't place said behind him.
Belkar rolled his head to the side. That wasn't right…"This isn't really happening. I'm lost in the maze…"
"Time is an illusion. A series of moments and impressions, stretching on forever. And now, you are outside it. While you are navigating the maze, you are slitting your friends throats, squalling in your mothers arms and taking your last breath."
"No, no, I'm dreaming."
"You are wrong. Isn't this what you always wanted, deep down in the darkest places of your heart?"
The halfling staggered amongst the unsteady footing of the corpses."Yes." The word rumbling from deep in his chest. "Is this my destiny?"
"Why do you show me these things?"
"I? Not my doing. These are the truths the labyrinth is has revealed to you. What will be and may be, your own desires and wishes."
"And I suppose you are the guardian?"
Belkar sneered. "Oh, I'm so terrified. No wonder, after all these sweet visions of future success."
"Success?" The figure echoed. "Please. Do you really imagine, even for a second, that your tale ends in triumph?"
Belkar's sneer faded. Cold fear gnawed at his guts. "What do you mean?"
The figure seemed to grow. "You gibber and shudder lying in a pool of your own piss and blood, crying and begging pathetically, abandoned by everyone who ever knew you, and forgotten or scorned by those who bother to remember."
The shock of his fear hit him like a physical blow in the chest, and he realized how terrified he was of it ending, of his achievements being stripped and leaving him with nothing. He'd never considered his own death, he'd lived in the now and couldn't so much as imagine a world without him. The fear he felt - and the ferocity it leant him - was exhilarating in it's intensity.
He leapt upon the figure, knocking him down. The figure struggled, apparently stunned.
"You are wrong. I reject it. I refuse to accept it." He flipped his knife, and drove it down, until it was at the figure's throat. "You think I'm weak? Well what are you, 'cause I seem to be the one about to give you a red smile." He laughed wildly at the thought. The figure lay still, offering no resistance.
"That's what I thought. You're the weakling skulking in the shadows. Now, lets see what you really look like!"
The hooded man didn't move. This only made Belkar angrier. "Come on! Show ME! Show ME!" With a violent movement, he wrenched at the hood.
A wave of disorientation swept over him, then he was lying on the floor of the maze, his knife pressed against his own throat, a thin trickle of blood dripping down his neck. He'd nearly slit his own throat.
The hooded figure was regarding him impartially, his face hidden in shadow. Enraged, Belkar leapt up and pulled away the hood. He didn't know what to expect anymore, but screamed when it fell away.
"Stupid little halfling. Needs to remember it's place." Belial said with a wolfish smirk. Belial bit his lip as memories rushed through him, forcing his unaccounted for three days, the time he'd spent dead. Torture. Violation. pain. Misery. And a terrible empty feeling that mad him long for the pain, as that was all that had given him meaning.
"No… I won't…"
Belial smirked. “Little Halfling! I was burning worlds before your existence was a glimmer in Arneson’s eye! I was breaking people before your pathetic species genesis! I was fighting battles when your only struggle was to climb out of a womb! I was taking over the creation when your universe was a crib! Darkness? Little mortal…. I INVENTED Darkness! I am sin! I am perversion, hedonism and lust! I am the fire that burns in your veins and the passions that suffuse your heart!
Your gods are as nothing to me, specs infesting one pitiful world in creation! You think your sins are original, but I’ve seen it all before. Every time you tortured, every time you plied your pitiful craft over another, I was there. Every time you smiled as you weakened others, as you took advantage of innocence, as you perverted goodness you called to me. Every time you gave in to your own perversions and enjoyed the ecstasy, the hedonistic rush of killing, you were me.
You are me, little Halfling, but I am not you. You have spent your life in one blood drenched, silent prayer to me, but I have barely deigned to recognize your existence. You are a seconds diversion to a primal force of creation, soon to be cast aside and forgotten. I am sin itself. I am a pillar of creation, without me there would be no universe, no choice. I am fundamental, untouchable and eternal. But you, you are nothing, nothing at all.
Now…On. Your. Knees…Bitch.”
On the other side of the Labyrinth, Durkon was lost in Odin's single eye. "This maze, it wins by giving you what you want. Girard weakened reality, until people can lost in their own lives and desires. The only person who could make it through, is someone with nothing to lose and nothing to gain. And no one's like that. But worst, anything can reach it's way in here. Me. Devils. And other, worse things." Odin spake.
He didn't say the words, he spake them. It had been a meaningless verb until this point, but now Durkon understood it. It was an inflection for talking about great things, things beyond the ken of mortals.
"You don't have long." Odin observed. "So here are your choices. One. You ignore what I have to say. You lose the gate, and three of your party die, yourself included. You will be brought bach as a twisted mockery of everything you stood for, then lead an army and burn your homeland to the ground." He held up a finger. "Or: You accept me as your patron. You will lose three friends, but you can stop the lich here. You will never go home, but will live another decade, and you will be happy for a short time."
Durkon didn't answer for a while. At last he choked out "Tha' be yin helluva choice.'
"I will not tell yu what to do, it is your choice." Odin replied gruffly, gliding forward. What Durkon had taken to be a staff rearranged itself into a golder spear, decorated with engravings, fantastic whorls, swirls and curlicues, hinting at unguessable designs beneath. "But you must choose."
Durkon was biting his lip. "Who'll it be?"
Odin rumbled in a thick voice, heavy with time and wisdom "Wanderer, sprite and singer, or Champion, mage and prophet."