By the power of the Crown of Wishes, I, Desmond Moonstride, commission you.
The Crown of Wishes.
Legend had it that a glorious crown resided deep within the mountains. This crown contained numerous precious gems, and each gem held more power than that of the most renowned wizards. Those who wore the crown could have any wish that they could possibly imagine granted to them. Of course, such a legend did not come without warning, and it dictated that many had set out in search of this magnificent artefact only to fail, never to be seen again.
Desmond Moonstride was quite willing to accept that risk.
His appearance was enough to earn glances of fear and suspicion from any who first laid eyes on him. His shoulder-length, walnut-coloured hair was tied away from his face, making his stern jawline and elfin ears seem even sharper. His eyes were a scrutinizing red-brown that stood in contrast to his smooth, pale skin and soft mouth. Silver rings and studs punctured his face in multiple areas: the skin along his left cheekbone, his eyebrow, his earlobes, and his lower lip. Black robes adorned the entirety of his frame, just over six feet in height, and around his neck was a silver rope bearing a pendant: a skull with a chain woven through its eyes.
Anyone with a background in religion would recognize the charm for what it was. It was the holy symbol of the lord Zon-Kuthon, deity of envy, pain, and darkness. Anyone who had studied the deities more extensively would know that Zon-Kuthon was known for his macabre delight in inflicting excruciating pain on his subjects and raising the dead to be his playthings. Yet Desmond seemed fully comfortable in his faith, and beneath his robes, his skin bore many decorative scars: tributes to his god.
Zon-Kuthon had appeared to Desmond in a dream with the Crown. He burned the image of the mountains into his subject’s mind (Desmond could actually feel burning sensations in his dream) and the image of someone who possessed the knowledge to get there. As soon as Desmond roused, he set off, and within a week, he had purchased the necessary map to get to his objective.
As he travelled, he came across others headed the same direction. At first it seemed strangely coincidental to see others on the same goal – but he had heard that the Crown bore multiple wishes, and eventually decided that travelling with company ensured a greater chance of success. No one spoke of their intended wish, which worked quite well for Desmond.
He joined with three others in total. The first was a creature Desmond had not previously encountered in his life: a centaur. He had a brown horse’s body and brown hair much longer than Desmond’s and similarly tied back. Combat experience and stubbornness hardened the lines in his face and the glint in his dark eyes. His body was covered with scars and strange trophies: teeth, claws, and the like. He was Jaekah: a man with a great capacity for strength, power, and anger, and with little patience for reasoning or debate.
The second was a young human girl with a bubbly nature and a talent for the flute. Her hair was decorated with colour, braids, and feathers, and it was held back by what appeared to be a headband. She was quite pleased to have company to travel with (although Desmond noted that she looked at him with the same nervous glances as any other stranger would) and she always talked and played music, eager to keep everyone in high spirits. She was Abigail: or, as she preferred to be called, Abby.
The third was a Halfling, and she would have appeared completely unassuming if not for the weapons strapped to her back and hips. She was as subtle as a shadow; and, indeed, the party lost sight of her many times, only to have her suddenly appear not ten feet away. Her arms were lined with deep, crude scars, some old and some fresh, and Desmond learned while travelling with her that she worshipped the god Nysos, deity of blood, wine, and sweat. Desmond had studied the gods extensively for years: he had never heard of a Nysos, and the Halfling wore no holy symbol in show of her faith. Every so often, however, she would sacrifice a small animal, slitting its throat and hanging it upside down to let the blood pour out. She was Guinevere, or Guin, and sometimes when Desmond looked at her, he saw a strange sort of madness in her eyes, as if her mind was always somewhere else – somewhere, in all likelihood, far less pleasant than reality.
It was altogether a rather strange party, and likely not one the individuals would have chosen if given the chance pre-emptively. Nevertheless, Desmond enjoyed the company. He appreciated the simplicity with which Jaekah approached things – the answer was always obvious to the centaur, which saved a lot of debate. His rage grated slightly on Desmond’s nerves, but he accepted that as his way of dealing with difficult situations. In spite of Jaekah’s anger, he never seemed hostile towards the party. Guin was an enigma, one that was clearly frightening to the squeamish Abby – she always made herself scarce whenever Guin’s bloody rituals began. As for the bard herself… her lively personality and earthly appearance was discomforting to Desmond in its familiarity. She was a very agreeable person and accepting of her company, which was a boon, but her fluttery nature almost made her seem vulnerable, as if she needed protecting. All in all, in spite of the distinctions within the group and the secrecy of their wishes, they got on well and covered a great distance in good time. The X on the map was just over the next mountain…
Desmond hadn’t expected that.
They had finally reached the summit of the mountain, but rather than a path leading down, they were met by a wide expanse of flat ground.
Abby’s brow was furrowed in thought. “Hm…”
“Something the matter?” Jaekah asked in his usual blunt way.
“This plateau isn’t naturally formed,” the worldly bard explained. “See? It’s much too flat, and there are tool-marks over there. This is a man-made formation.”
Jaekah snorted. “Won’t slow me down.” He continued to trot, passing a stone pillar without a second glance as he moved toward the edge of the plateau.
Immediately Desmond chanted, seeking to find the source that had whisked his comrade away. A magical filter burned over his vision, nearly blinding him with bright light. The entire plateau seemed to be made of a number of different types of magic. Transmutation, Conjuration, Divination, and Illusion all seemed to be in the mix. Desmond couldn’t quite figure it out, and he quickly dismissed the spell before its magical residue gave him a headache.
Perhaps the pillar would be a good place to start. He approached it cautiously and recognized an inscription:
The Crown is close.
Just a few short steps to your desire.
Of course. Desmond had learned in his travels with Jaekah that the centaur had always lived on the fringes of civilization at best. As such, he did not follow standard customs, and he had never learned how to read.
Just a few short steps.
“Well. It seems that we’re getting close. Our friend Jaekah is probably even closer.” He glanced around to see Abby staring nervously at him. Guin was, as per usual, nowhere to be seen. It was impossible to tell if she had hidden herself or disappeared with Jaekah.
He perked an eyebrow at Abby and gave a mischievous grin. “Nothing for it,” he said with a wink, and walked forward to where Jaekah had been.
The last thing Desmond remembered was the feeling of magic pressing against him. He fought against it and tried to discern what it was, but a voice boomed in his head: DO NOT RESIST. Finally, Desmond succumbed, and the magic enveloped him and pulled him in.
He blinked and looked around. He appeared to be in a cavernous space filled with hydraulics, gears, and other such machinery. Yellow lines ran parallel along the floor, twenty feet apart and leading the way to a door in the distance.
Something flitted at the corner of Desmond’s eye. It looked shockingly familiar and caught him off-guard. He whipped his head around, trying to catch a glimpse of it; but it now flickered on his other side, looking more familiar than ever.
It can’t be…
He closed his eyes tight, and then opened them again. It was still there. He tried hard to keep his head still and resist trying to look for it. It was an illusion, nothing more…
Abby had appeared. Her nose crinkled as she sniffed the air, and she blinked several times as her eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness. Next up was Guin. Jaekah turned to look at the group, and as he looked to Guin, his eyes widened and he quickly turned away.
Curious, Desmond thought, blinking to try and get that damned illusion out of his eyes. He never seemed that surprised by her sudden appearances before.
“Well,” he began, surprised by the wavering edge in his voice. “Nowhere to go but forward, I suppose.”
Abby took a long leather whip from her waist and carefully uncoiled it. Taking aim, she cracked it expertly, the tip just crossing over the yellow line. It seemed to flare, and its fringes were slightly charred when Abby examined them.
“Yes, it seems we shouldn’t cross the yellow lines,” she said matter-of-factly, waving a quick spell over her whip to remove the singes.
And so they carried on together down the corridor and into the next room.
This room was much larger, with the same yellow lines marking a twenty foot walkway. This time, however, there was something beyond those lines other than empty space. Desmond’s eyes widened and he swallowed a lump that had suddenly manifested in his throat.
He had never seen so much money in his life.
Desmond hadn’t always been a man of wealth. He had only fully embraced the uses of making an income and treasure hunting in the past ten years, if that. Before that, he had been a nomad, living with a tribe of pacifists and travellers. His assimilation into society and the discovery of his religion, his magic, and the powers of wealth might never have happened if not for that one night. The night he lost everything.
Amongst the piles of gold and precious gems were stacks of tomes, each one probably full to the brim with spells and studies. Material components for spells were everywhere: silver, diamond dust, onyx stones… Desmond’s palms were cold with sweat. So much power lay beyond those unassuming lines…
He felt a hand rest on his upper back. He froze: his companions were in front of him.
“With this money and this research, you could find a way to me,” a voice whispered, inches away from his right ear. Desmond closed his eyes and gasped sharply. That voice. “The crown would be yours that much faster.” The hand pulled away.
“Do not lose sight of your objective.”
“My god, the stage!” Abby was staring from one spot in the room to the other, eyes shining. “Look at them! All of my favourite performers, and they’re asking me to come onstage! They want me to play for them!”
“It’s just an illusion,” Jaekah said through gritted teeth. Desmond had no idea what he was seeing, but it seemed just as difficult to resist.
“He’s right,” Desmond agreed shakily. “We must keep going. We can’t get distracted.”
He glanced back to see if the owner of that voice was still there and cursed sharply in the Infernal language.
Apparently, whatever Guin was seeing was too much to resist. She had run over the yellow lines, and the magic fire was beginning to burn through her clothes and into her skin.
Desmond acted fast, calling for the magic embedded in his soul and his holy symbol.
“Do not touch anything,” he ordered.
His voice was laden with compulsion magic, but the command didn’t seem to hold. Guin continued onward, unhindered by Desmond’s magic or the fire.
Jaekah charged forward, snatched up the Halfling with ease, and carried her back over the line as quickly as he had come. He set her down with trembling hands, and his brow was furrowed with concern and frustration.
“Do you need healing?” Abby offered.
Desmond glared at Guin as she shook her head. “That was a foolish thing to do,” he remarked. “We need to stick together if we are to have any hope of reaching the crown.”
Guin looked up defiantly at Desmond before reaching into her pouch, pulling out a handful of something, and eating it.
Do not lose sight of your objective.
Finally, they made it to the third room. This room was quite a bit darker, and the smell of rot was potent in the air. The reason for this was quickly revealed: the room was full of corpses.
Everyone seemed to react differently to the death. Guin did something that would make a Necromancer cringe and went from skeleton to skeleton, tasting the bones. Jaekah could only watch, dumbfounded. Abby was much more jittery. She lashed her whip at thin air and screeched that she was being attacked before pulling her headband down to cover her eyes. Now that it was down, Desmond could see that it fit perfectly over her forehead and nose; clearly, it was meant to be a mask before a headband.
Looking over the dozens of dead, Desmond felt giddy.
And then he saw her.
His heart pounded and his breath came short. He closed his eyes for several moments, trying to rein in his racing thoughts. No. It can’t be real. It’s the Crown. It’s trying to get to my head. I can’t lose sight of the goal. I can’t let my emotions get the better of me. Not here. Not yet.
Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes. He was all business as he moved from body to body. At each one, he rested a hand on the bones and chanted softly before placing a black stone in the jaw. Abby accompanied him, clinging to his robes and trusting him to guide her. She trembled as she walked and whimpered quietly whenever Desmond chanted in Infernal.
Desmond looked to Abby and rested two slender fingers on her knuckles, which were white from gripping his sleeve tightly.
“It’s alright,” he murmured, his voice barely audible. “I am in control here. Nothing will harm you. This room belongs to me.”
Finally, he had reached her body. This time, he did not place a black stone. Instead, he knelt down next to her and, with utmost care, placed a copper piece over each of her closed eyes and sprinkled a pinch of silver dust over her. Although he chanted while he did this, the words were of a much more soothing nature. He took her wrists – her body was still limp – and set them at the center of her chest. He couldn’t fight a moment of weakness as he ran his fingers gently through her long, brown hair. Finally, he joined his hands together, raised them to the sky, and said a prayer for the dead in the Infernal language.
Once all of that was done, Desmond lowered his hands and levered himself to his feet. Abby was standing next to him, shaking with terror and confusion. He touched her arm and she flinched away violently, scrambling for her whip.
“Abby, it’s me,” he said. “We should press on.”
Abby paused, pondered, and nodded. It was remarkable how similar the two could appear to be. She reached out for Desmond’s arm and grabbed his robes tightly once again. He patiently led her to the door at the end of the room, where Jaekah and Guin were waiting.
“Take a look at this.” Guin was referring to the door, which bore four handprint engravings. Each one was a different height and size. Guin set her hand in the smallest and lowest print; it fit perfectly. Jaekah, following suit, set his in the highest one; it too fit his hand exactly.
“Interesting,” Desmond muttered aloud. How could a door create such a thing? How could it have expected them and met them so perfectly?
It’s just like anything else in this damned dungeon. Everything has been made just for us.
He set his hand in the second-highest print; the one with the long, slender fingers. Abby still had her mask over her eyes. Gently, Desmond pried her hand from his arm and set it in the final print. It had even accounted for the flutist calluses on the tips of the bard’s fingers. Immediately he felt the magic seep into his body, and for a brief moment he tried to fight it and figure out what it was.
This time the magic took him over entirely, forcing his mouth open.
“Do not resist.”
He reeled briefly as the others stared at him.
“I… guess we shouldn’t resist,” he conceded, and gave himself once more to the magic. It pulled him into the wood, and after what seemed like a lifetime, he was ejected out to the other side.
“Well, that’s an unconventional way to get through a door—“
His words were sucked out of his mouth as he took in the room.
Of all the rooms they had encountered, this one was by far the strangest. The walls and ceiling were completely covered with fresh blood that dripped and ran with no apparent source or end. The floor was coated with a fine, white powder. That alone would have been easily manageable for Desmond, but there were two women walking toward them. One was a small human with flowing black hair and bright eyes. The other…
“No.” Desmond shook his head, unable to comprehend what was happening. “No! That’s impossible. You’re not… you’re not supposed to be… I put you to rest!”
Jaekah seemed similarly shocked to see their company. He muttered something – it sounded like “elegy” – and took several deep breaths.
“It’s not REAL.” A bit of rage seeped into his last word. He stamped with a hoof; his tail flicked in agitation.
The brunette smiled right at Desmond. “Hello, Desmond.”
“M-m…” The words caught in his throat. It was impossible.
Abby looked to Desmond with shining eyes. “Desmond? Do you know her?”
Suddenly, Guin charged for the women, weapon drawn and poised to strike. She seemed to be aiming for the one with black hair. She didn’t get halfway to her target, however, before Jaekah overtook her and grabbed her. Enraged, she twisted, slashing at Jaekah’s arms. A scuffle broke out between the two, and in his agitation, Jaekah dropped Guin. As soon as she hit the ground, she went invisible.
White-hot fury burned behind Desmond’s eyes. If she had gone for the other woman…
He took a breath and called upon the power of unlife in his holy symbol. Cold darkness swept through his body before bursting out in a thirty-foot radius. At the last second, he reached out with his magic to protect Abby and the two strangers from the chill. Only Jaekah and Guin took the full force of negative energy as it ate away at their life force.
“Let that be a warning to you,” he boomed, his normally soft voice cutting through the room. “The next person who acts out will answer to the full force of my divine wrath.”
He moved up quickly to Jaekah, readying another spell in his hand. He touched Jaekah’s flank, and soothing magic washed over the centaur. He growled and twitched, and the magic flickered away before it could catch.
Desmond glared at Jaekah. “You should not have resisted that. Now is not the time to go into a rage. We need to be careful.”
`The black-haired girl looked to Jaekah with relief and gratitude. She walked forward, smiling, arms extended to embrace the centaur. “Thank you, Jae—“
A deep gouge slithered across her throat; blood poured from the fresh wound. Her face froze as she crumpled to the ground, still reaching for Jaekah. Guin, who had reappeared right beside her, flicked the blood off of her wakizashi.
“Nysos is appeased,” she whispered.
Jaekah screamed. It was a loud, long, horrible note that set the hair on Desmond’s arms on end. He had heard such a sound only once before in his life. Jaekah leaped forward, throwing Guin underneath his hooves and stamping repeatedly. Desmond could hear bones breaking as Guin coughed up blood; bruises and gashes accumulated on her body. Jaekah’s rage had completely overtaken him, and he was merciless in his attack.
You deserve it.
The other woman pried her hands away from her face. “Quickly, we should go.” She beckoned to the end of the hallway.
“And why should we follow you?” Abby’s voice was trembling and her face shone with fear-sweat. Desmond had never seen her more afraid, and yet she pressed on, her eyes locked on this stranger. “W-why should we believe that you’re something other than an, an illusion that’s trying to trick us?”
“Because Desmond trusts me.” She looked to Desmond and smiled warmly. “Don’t you, Desmond?”
That smile. That voice. It was killing Desmond, to see her like this. In the other rooms, she had been ghostly, barely there – and in the last room, she had been palpably real, but she had been dead. He had known, before any of this, that she was dead. Yet here she was, a conscious, breathing, flesh-and-blood human. She was alive, when not five minutes ago Desmond had performed a memorial service for her in the previous room.
“I… see no reason to trust you,” he stammered finally. “You have yet to prove to me that you aren’t an illusion, like everything else I’ve faced so far.” The image of her dead body was still weighing heavily on his mind.
She’s not alive. This isn’t her. This is your mind.
“Don’t you want your wish granted, Desmond?”
He closed his eyes, and those practiced words played through his head once more.
By the power of the Crown of Wishes, I, Desmond Moonstride, commission you.
He took a shaky breath and turned away from that woman, returning his attention to his friend. Jaekah had finished his assault and was now collapsed, pounding the ground with his fists as he struggled to regulate his breathing. Occasionally, he would let out a choked scream. Guin was almost beyond recognition from the pummelling she had received – indeed, it would only be a matter of time before she would bleed to death, and most of her body was broken or crushed.
How I would love to leave you like that. I don’t know what else you would have expected to come of crossing Jaekah. Nevertheless.
Desmond crossed briskly over to Guin, kneeling over her tiny figure. He set one hand firmly on her chest, and with the other, he drew his weapon: a long, thick chain with an impressive adamantine spike on the end. He pressed the tip of it to Guin’s windpipe and called up his magic. It slipped easily into Guin’s body to clot her wounds and replicate spilt blood, filling her with just enough life-force to pull her away from the brink of death. Her eyes opened and she coughed up several teeth – her nose was broken, rendering it impossible to breathe through.
Desmond leaned in and locked eyes with Guin. He wanted to make sure that she heard every word.
“Give me one good reason not to kill you and claim your body for my use.”
From anyone else’s lips, it would be perverse enough. Coming from a Necromancer like Desmond, the threat was deadly. He heard Abby whisper a few feet away: “Creepy.” Guin said nothing.
“You do not know what I can do to you,” Desmond went on. “You do not want to know what I can do to you, and what I will gladly do. You have experienced but a taste of my power. You think I am someone to be trifled with? When I am done with you, you will wish that I had left you to die to Jaekah’s rage. Give me one good reason not to inflict the full magnitude of my wrath upon you.”
Desmond’s rage was an entirely different flavour from Jaekah’s. If Jaekah was fire, Desmond was poison. Where the centaur would yell and lash and inflict his rage in blasts, the cleric would be cool and contained, but there was no mistaking the death that could be swiftly delivered from his fingertips. And Desmond was more than ready to deliver it. He had had enough of Guinevere. She had defied them at every turn, and she had just attacked someone clearly important to her ally without provocation or hesitation. Desmond never killed without reason, and the best reason he had ever seen was currently pressed under the tip of his weapon.
Mercy. The word flitted through Desmond’s mind briefly and he almost scoffed aloud. Yet the thought of giving a second chance persisted. Guin still refused to give an answer. Desmond leaned forward until they were inches apart. A bead of blood pooled out from under the tip of his spike as he pressed it deeper into Guin’s throat.
“Beg for your life.”
Desmond wanted to kill her; he longed to kill her. But it had only been a trick, after all. The black-haired girl’s body had even disappeared.
I can’t afford to let her get away with acts such as that, he scolded himself. If she keeps on like this, she will get everyone killed. It’s best just to kill her now. Once she dies, I can command her. She will do nothing that I will not order her to do.
“Beg for your life.”
It was Abby, her voice heavy with the weight of magic. Guin’s eyes flashed; a muscle twitched in her eyelid. She began to beg. A more convincing plea Desmond had not yet heard – not that he made it a habit to make people beg for their lives.
Very well. If Abby desires it, I will let her live.
He was not yet satisfied, though. He called on his magic once again, and negative energy filled in his arms and formed a black veil over his eyes. He could now see Guin from the inside. He targeted her muscles and tendons and released his magic there. It crept into her hands, her joints, her back, her feet, and sank in. He pulled his hand away and dismissed the veil.
“I have just taken your grace,” he said coolly. “Next, I take your eyes. Then, I take your life.”
Finally satisfied, he withdrew his chain. Although Guin wasn’t at risk of death, there was still no way that she could move or act. If she exerted herself in any way, she would risk dying.
“Now, I must heal you,” Desmond said matter-of-factly. “I have a way to do so, but I choose not to make it pleasant for you. You must not resist my touch. If you do, you bring yourself certain death.”
“You will not heal me,” Guin spat, her voice barely above a pained whisper. “You will curse me again.”
Desmond grinned wolfishly. “Have I given you reason yet to doubt my word?”
He rested a hand on Guin.
My lord Zon-Kuthon, grant Guinevere the temporary power of the undead.
His hand went ice-cold; the sensation leaked into Guin. Desmond extended his shielding power and faltered. He could only sense Abby and Jaekah. He turned: sure enough, the other woman was nowhere to be seen.
See? Just a trick to try to get to you. Nothing you can do about that now. You must not lose sight of the objective.
It’s best she doesn’t see you like this, anyway.
He turned back to Guin. Shielding the others, he channelled negative energy. Instead of eating at Guin, it fed her, reconstructing her bones, strengthening her flesh, and closing her wounds. In a flash of spite, Desmond decided to let her keep the broken nose. Within moments, the undeath faded, but the healing held. Guin got to her feet and stumbled as Desmond’s curse took hold. She righted herself clumsily.
Desmond turned to walk to the doorway and paused. Jaekah was already there, having separated himself from the group to regain his composure. Abby, however, was frozen in place, staring in terror at the bloodied walls and ceiling. Desmond approached her; she didn’t seem to notice. He placed a firm hand on the base of her neck and applied pressure, gently guiding her forward.
“Come on, then,” he said, voice oddly soothing. “No use just standing here.”
He maintained the pressure on the back of her neck until they passed through the door into the next room.
This room was mercifully bare of blood, powder, or other people. It was nearly eighty feet long and wide, made of dark stone walls and pumping machinery. In the center of the room were two huge, gelatinous oozes, each one deep brown in colour. They seemed to notice when everyone was in the room, as they slowly wobbled closer to them, expanding to take up more space.
For a moment Desmond just stared at them, his dark eyes analytical. Finally, he grinned.
Jaekah seemed equally delighted. He reared up and kicked out as he released a feral battle-cry.
“FINALLY. Something I can dig my hooves into!”
Abby, apparently recovered from her panic, had her flute out in an instant. She played three quick notes and flicked the instrument effortlessly. Desmond’s skin buzzed and his bones hummed – suddenly, he felt quicker. Abby began to play a quick, upbeat tune that seemed to pound in Desmond’s heart.
Jaekah pawed excitedly at the ground, muscles rippling in his horse body. Desmond quickly touched two fingers to his flank. Magic shot out and around Jaekah, forming a protective barrier around his skin.
Desmond had cast his spell just in time. Jaekah charged forward, unable to contain his bloodlust. He drew a huge adamantine great-axe as he charged, bringing it down deep into one of the oozes. The creature shuddered and writhed. Then, it closed in to seal the gash Jaekah had left in it. It began to move forward, slowly swallowing Jaekah’s axe and, eventually, his forearms. A loud hissing sound erupted as the ooze enveloped the barbarian’s arms. The second ooze had completely overtaken Guin – the Halfling was thrashing in its depths as acid ate away at her skin.
This seemed as good a time as any. Desmond brought his hands to either side of his holy symbol and began to chant.
Immediately his vision cut to blackness. Invisible hooks began to drag through his skin and burn at his scars. His eyes rolled up into his head and his knees wobbled as a gaunt figure formed in his lack of vision. His pale skin was accentuated by skin-tight leather clothing and multiple scars and open wounds that put Desmond’s and Guin’s tributes to shame. Piercings, hooks, and spikes twisted his face and pulled his scalp into a sunburst shape. Unseen but known of to Desmond, the back of the figure’s head was absent, his brain visible. It was Zon-Kuthon himself: Desmond’s target of worship.
The Midnight Lord fixed Desmond with a lifeless gaze – a pale crystal took the place of his left eye. He grinned with a mouth devoid of lips.
Desmond. The voice was rasping and high-pitched, and it ate at the cleric’s mind. You seek my power.
I wish to rally the undead to my cause. Desmond did not need to speak for Zon-Kuthon to hear.
The god laughed. For a moment, Desmond reeled with pain.
That is not all you wish for, is it? He taunted. You wish for things that are beyond my capacity. You wish for the glory of true resurrection. Do you think you’ll get it, Desmond?
Sweat rolled down Desmond’s temple, but he held his concentration. He couldn’t lose sight of the objective.
Very well, Zon-Kuthon conceded. Your desire to endure is enticing. I shall grant you the power you seek. The gift of pain is yours to give and receive. Do not disappoint me!
In an instant, Zon-Kuthon had disappeared and Desmond’s vision had returned. He stumbled back.
“Desmond? Are you alright?” Although Abby had stopped playing, her song seemed to echo through the room in spite of its end.
Desmond quickly regained his bearings. His spell was complete. It was only a matter of time.
“Yes. Keep playing!”
Without hesitating, Abby played a note and spun her flute in a circle. Desmond felt a rush of power course through him like adrenaline. Jaekah screamed; Guin leapt away from her adversary. Abby kept playing as if she had never stopped, adding further to the power she inspired.
Jaekah yanked with all his might; with a sucking noise, his axe pulled free of the ooze. He swung down, then up, and then back down, hacking the thing to pieces. He reared up and stamped on the remains, ripping out chunks with his hooves. When he was done, the ooze was nothing more than a shivering, pulped mess.
The second ooze was looking considerably better. It was trying to engulf Guin again to no avail. She dodged expertly and swiped here and there, but the gashes she made only closed in on themselves.
There was a knock on the door behind them.
Abby turned instantly. She didn’t stop playing, but she eyed the door warily. Jaekah didn’t seem to notice – his attention was focused on the other ooze. Desmond heard it as perfectly as he’d felt the approach in his mind. He grinned.
The reinforcements have arrived.
“I’ll get that,” he said with cheery nonchalance. Briskly, he walked up to the door and opened it. He stepped back to admit the fourteen skeletons that were waiting on the other side.
“Don’t worry,” he called to the party. “They’re with me.”
The undead that he’d spelled in the room of corpses filed in and spread out, exactly as Desmond demanded. He felt every presence in his mind and controlled them with acute precision. He waited until all of them were in the room before closing the door and turning to face the other ooze.
It was time to end this.
He shifted so that the ooze was the only one directly ahead of him. At his command, the skeletons parted, moving out of the way to give him a clear shot. He pointed and chanted, channelling the blackest of negative energy into his fingertip. When it was too much to contain, it shot out and stuck the ooze squarely. Holes began to open up in the ooze like it was cheese – it collapsed in on itself to fill the gaps. As it shrank, it glittered brightly, as if it had been covered by a glowing dust.
Desmond cocked an eyebrow. That didn’t usually happen when he cast Enervation.
Jaekah charged. Desmond closed the undead around the ooze, but he held off on them attacking. Somehow, he had the feeling that it wouldn’t be necessary.
His assumption turned out to be correct. Between Jaekah and Guin, the ooze was destroyed in a matter of seconds. As soon as it stopped moving, a section of the floor in the center of the room dropped down, spinning into a spiral staircase that seemed to go on forever. Surprisingly, the stairs seemed to be the perfect length and depth for a horse to walk down comfortably. The group looked at each other, unsure of what to do.
“Let me heal you before we go down,” Desmond offered to Jaekah. He laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder, and magic flowed out to close Jaekah’s wounds and smooth over his burns. Desmond looked to Guin.
“I can give you another shot of negative energy, if you like.” He smiled maliciously.
“No, thanks,” Guin sneered.
“Here, let me heal you.” As Abby magicked away Guin’s wounds, she said, “You know, Desmond, if we’re going to go down those stairs, maybe you should send some of your undead guys out in front of us.”
“Good idea,” Desmond agreed. “I’ll have some behind us, as well. That way, nothing can catch us off guard.”
“You don’t seem scared of them at all,” Jaekah remarked to Abby.
The bard looked at a cluster of hobbling skeletons and crinkled her nose. “They’re almost funny-looking, actually.”
“Sure, so you turn up your nose at them, but the sight of a little blood is enough to drive you into a panic?” Jaekah snorted.
Abby blushed. Desmond looked at her intently. His friend was right.
“Well, er…” Abby turned a beaded lock of hair around in her fingers. “That’s kind of why I’m here, actually. Can we walk and talk?”
Desmond wasted no time arranging his undead minions so that seven walked ten feet in front of the group and seven walked ten feet behind. They began to descend the staircase.
“See…” Abby began. “I have a little bit of a phobia that’s… rather crippling for me once a month.”
“I don’t get it,” Jaekah said as he sheathed his axe.
Desmond got it.
“I have a phobia of blood,” Abby explained. “The sight of blood is… is too much for me to handle. I’m looking for the crown so I can wish that fear out of my mind. I don’t want to be a slave to my fear anymore.”
Of course. That explained why she was so afraid when they were in the room of blood and powder. That explained why she stayed away from Guin when she made her sacrifices, and why she never looked at someone when she healed them.
“So there you have it,” Abby concluded quietly. “You know why I’m here now.”
They continued their descent in silence. Not for the first time, Desmond wondered what the others had in mind for their wishes. He couldn’t wait for the moment when they would reach the Crown and this business would be over. He had a feeling that the two pudding oozes were the final guardians, and that the Crown was at the bottom of this staircase. Soon, his wish would be granted, and he could put this entire episode behind him.
Not soon enough. The staircase seemed to go on forever. Desmond lost track of time and direction as they walked. No one spoke as they continued downward. Everyone seemed to be mentally strained. At least here, in this seemingly never-ending staircase, they weren’t tormented by illusions or set upon by strange magic…
At long last, they had reached the bottom. They left the staircase to find themselves at the lip of a gaping chasm, probably 250 feet wide if not more. A narrow bridge spanned the chasm to a small dais on the other side that held the Crown. It was the most extravagant thing Desmond had ever seen, but that was not what held his gaze. The Crown housed only one glowing gem.
“Oh no…” the words fell out of the cleric’s mouth.
As if hearing him, a young woman stepped out from behind the dais. A woman with brown hair and a warm smile. She looked to Desmond and beckoned, calling out to him with that voice. Desmond shook.
“There’s only one.” Jaekah’s eyes were locked on the Crown, but Desmond noticed him shift his weight. He was preparing to bolt, or attack, or do something to that effect.
“Only one? Really?” Abby stepped forward to move in front of Jaekah. “Because I see two gems. What do you see, Desmond?”
“I-I…” He couldn’t even form words. There was no way he should have heard her from this distance, even with his elfin hearing, but he could. He could hear her perfectly.
Desmond. My darling. You’ve made it. The Crown is yours for the taking. Come. Make your wish, so I can be with you again.
He needed to get closer. He needed to see the Crown more closely. He couldn’t properly examine it from this far away.
“Look, it’s clear the Crown is playing with our minds.” Abby spoke remarkably quickly. “I mean, almost everything we’ve encountered has been an illusion. Who’s to say the Crown is any different? If there are two wishes, then we can work with that.”
“I only see one gem,” Jaekah said firmly.
“We need to get a better look at it. I only see one.” The voice came from Jaekah’s back. He twitched, and Guin came into view, perched on the centaur’s back. He turned to look at her…
And turned away, as if it was a normal thing for Guin to ride on him like a common horse. Desmond had known Jaekah long enough to know that he never suffered the indignity of anyone riding on his back.
He seemed to realize this as well. His entire body bristled; he twisted back, grabbed Guin, and threw her to the ground with all of his force.
“You are NOT HER!”
In all the moments that Jaekah had flashed his rage, Desmond had never heard him this angry. Guin scrambled up as if to make a run for the Crown, but Jaekah overtook her, planting his body in front of the walkway that the undead crowded on.
“Nobody is going anywhere until we talk this through!”
Too much was happening that Desmond didn’t know how to handle. Jaekah was on the verge of attacking his own comrades, and at any moment, Guin could disappear and backstab all of them. He had his undead, but he was vulnerable when he was this close to everyone. So, he took a deep breath…
And disappeared into the shadows.
He ignored her. He wasn’t going to come out until the matter had been resolved. If it wouldn’t resolve, he’d make it. He shifted the undead behind him and joined their ranks, using their bodies as an added shield.
Abby seemed to realize that somebody needed to take charge. “Listen, everyone! Maybe there’s a way we can combine our wishes. There’s got to be a way we can use however many wishes the Crown has to our advantage. You all know what I want. Guin, what would you wish for?”
“Pesh.” The answer was no more than a whisper.
“Pesh?” It clicked in Desmond’s mind. The room of blood and white powder. “The drug, pesh?”
Guin’s eyes lit up. There it was: that look of insanity that Desmond had seen so often.
“Pesh.” The way she said it was almost seductive. “It gives me a high unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It takes me over and fills me with absolute euphoria. It makes me feel stronger and more precise when I fight. But the pesh has its downsides as well. It gets into my mind and my blood and it eats at me. I don’t want that feeling. I only want the high.”
Abby shuddered. Jaekah stamped in disdain.
“So you just want to feed your drug addiction?” he taunted. “You want to use the one wish for your own selfish urges? You’re nothing like her.”
“Her?” Abby turned her attention to Jaekah. “Jaekah… what do you mean? Who are you talking about?”
Jaekah sighed. In that moment, Desmond saw a change come over his friend. There was no trace of rage in him, and he seemed… defeated. Sad. Desmond had never seen Jaekah sad like that before, and it stuck in his heart.
“There… was someone very important to me,” he began softly. Sadly. “Her name… was Elegy. I was a rampaging wild beast before she tamed me. She taught me how to think, to be calm, to speak intelligently. In payment, I kept her safe, I brought her food, I carried her when she was tired…”
As Jaekah spoke, Desmond felt his breath catch in his throat.
He loved her.
He didn’t have the same bond with her that you do with me, the woman – the damned figment – told him. There’s nothing he can do but let her rest. You need to save me. Please, Desmond. Save me.
“We founded a nation together. The two of us, and… and a friend. The one who ended up killing her. He desired the power she had then.”
“What was his name?” Abby asked.
“His name was Errol,” Jaekah replied. “I… I was out hunting, then. I had trusted her safety to him. I returned, and he was there, and she was…” Jaekah took a shaky breath and looked up to the ceiling, as if trying to find strength from up there. Tears sprang to Desmond’s eyes. They weren’t so different.
“I saw red. When I calmed, he was a bloody pulp at my hooves.”
Desmond remembered when Guin had attacked the girl in the other room. The girl who must have been Elegy. Jaekah had stopped her, Elegy had reached out to thank him, and then Guin slit her throat. In an overwhelming rage, Jaekah had thrown the Halfling underneath him and crushed her.
“I ran. And now, I miss her so terribly.” Jaekah looked over to Guin, who had been listening to his story with interest. “And in this dungeon with its damned illusions, she looks exactly like her! Guin, who is nothing like the Elegy I knew, looks exactly like her, and it’s so damned confusing and frustrating!”
“Gods…” Desmond breathed. It was worse than figments and illusions. Jaekah had been seeing Elegy, alive and real, since the first room. And Guin, who had no idea of this, was continuously acting in spite of everyone else’s wishes, endangering them while all the while looking like Jaekah’s love. Desmond remembered holding the chain to Guin’s throat, fighting the urge to drive it through her flesh. What if he had? Would Jaekah have unleashed his rage on his friend, too?
“What…” Abby stammered and took a calming breath. “What would you wish for, then, Jaekah?”
“All I want is for her soul to be at peace,” Jaekah confessed. “She… she didn’t deserve to die like she did. I just want her soul to be put to rest.”
Revelation cleared and sharpened Desmond’s mind, giving him an edge of desperation. He could do that. Jaekah didn’t need the Crown, and that would be one less wish they’d need to argue about.
“I can do that, Jaekah,” he whispered; his voice carried clearly in the space.
“Don’t lie to me, Desmond!” His rage had flared up again at the sound of the cleric’s voice.
“I’m not lying!” Desmond insisted. “I can put her soul to rest! All I need is her body. I give you my word that the only spell I will cast will be the one to set her soul free.”
“I don’t dare trust you to that.” Jaekah waved an arm at the small horde of skeletons in front of him. “I’ve seen what you do, Desmond. I won’t let you near her.”
“I may be cruel,” Desmond said, “and I may be a coward, but I am not, and never will be a liar. Your distrust hurts me, Jaekah. You don’t need to waste the Crown’s final wish when I can grant it for you.”
“You just want me to agree with you so that you can get the Crown!” Jaekah accused. “You haven’t told us your wish yet. Why not, Desmond? You just hope we’ll tear each other apart so that you’re the only one left, and then you’ll get the Crown.”
He doesn’t understand. He can’t possibly understand what you’ve been through, Desmond. You can’t give up this wish to a squeamish girl, a drug-addicted psychopath, or a careless barbarian. They can solve their problems by other means: you can’t. Please, Desmond.
“Desmond?” It was Abby.
“I can’t.” Desmond was trembling uncontrollably. The memories were pressing in on him now. Waking up just as the tent collapsed around him. Stabbing a human man in the eye – his first kill. Finding a skull in a clearing with a chain woven through its eyes. Seeing his god for the first time. Watching her die.
“Desmond…” Abby again – her voice was soothing. “If it’s too painful for you to say it… are you opposed to me reading your mind? Then, I can figure out what your wish is, and you won’t have to say it aloud.”
Desmond, please. I just want to see you again. Please set me free, so that we can be together again.
“I would not be opposed to that.”
The skeletons stepped aside, and Desmond moved silently through them up to Abby.
“Um… I’ll need you to come here, please,” she said.
Desmond shed his divine invisibility, materializing right in front of Abby. She squeaked.
“Eep. Er… well, that works.” She waved her fingers and muttered. Desmond took a deep breath…
Abby reeled and stiffened as if she had been hit. Her eyes glazed over and her arms dropped. Desmond blinked. He was pretty sure that wasn’t supposed to happen when someone tried to read a mind.
“What did you do to her?!” Jaekah demanded.
“I did nothing!”
Guin snorted in disbelief. That was the final straw for Desmond. He grabbed Abby by the shoulders.
“My Lord Zon-Kuthon,” he called, “I have hurt many in your name. Now, for once, let me heal.”
Rather than let the magic flow out of him, he actively pushed it out, pouring all of his healing energy into Abby. It washed over her but did not take hold. Desmond swore. The spell he had just cast had the ability to cure almost any affliction – the fact that it had done nothing for Abby was very troubling.
“This wasn’t my doing,” he said, turning back to Jaekah and Guin.
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Guin sneered. “You’re awfully protective of your wish, aren’t you? Won’t even let her read your mind.”
Desmond fought the urge to push Guin off of the cliff. “When have I ever given you reason to distrust me? When have I ever lied to you? Any of you?”
Guin pointed to Abby’s inert form. “How else can you explain that? If she tried to spell me and I agreed to it, my honour dictates that I mustn’t interfere.”
“Honour?!” Desmond exclaimed. He spat on the ground. “That is your honour.”
“Oh, and you’re any better?” Guin retorted. “You hide behind your pretentious faith, shaping yourself to be some sort of honest martyr. But I see right through you. You want true faith?” She grinned. “Spill some blood. Work up a sweat.”
Desmond spat again. “That is your faith. It suits your honour well.”
Guin raised an eyebrow and spread her scarred arms wide. “Keep spitting,” she said smugly. “You are making more offerings to Nysos.”
“Your god is as false as your conviction,” Desmond growled.
“Shut up, both of you!” Jaekah had lost his patience with their bickering. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then tell us your damn wish already! You’re not getting to the Crown anyway, and you won’t stand a chance of getting to it unless you spit it out. Do you want to make this harder than it has to be?”
Desmond, I need you. Please, Desmond. Pull me out of here. You don’t know what it’s like.
“Gods, be quiet!” he pleaded. Jaekah stamped, thinking the order was for him.
“No!” Desmond said hurriedly, shaking his head. He took a breath, fighting back tears. “Alright.”
Des. I miss you, Des. I just want to hold you.
“The woman… the other woman… in the room of blood and powder…” the words lumped in Desmond’s throat. He swallowed and hung his head.
“That was my mother.”
He had said it. He felt a burden lift as he watched Guin’s and Jaekah’s faces change. He felt a little bit freer.
He wanted to tell them everything. They deserved that much from him. He wanted to tell them of the night that bandits had swept through his tribe, stealing away all the women and children and killing the men. He was the only one they had bypassed. He wanted to tell them of the first time he met Zon-Kuthon. How the god had shown him an image of his mother as she plunged a knife into herself to escape her torment. Zon-Kuthon had told him that he had protected Desmond through the power of darkness. Desmond had worshipped him since that day. He wanted to tell them of his pursuit of the power for true resurrection, and how in all of his research, the Crown was very possibly his only option. His mother had been dead for over ten years, and Desmond had no idea where her body would be. Those two factors alone made the Crown his only hope to bring her back.
He was about to tell them all of this. His opportunity was cut off, however, as Abby suddenly jerked back into alertness.
“Whoa! Okay…” she looked around at the others, regaining her bearings. “Okay… we’re in trouble. Uh… yeah. Big trouble.”
“Abby?” Desmond shoved his pains and his mother’s voice further back into his mind. Abby was the priority here. “Are you alright? What happened? You tried to read my mind…”
“Yeah, I did,” Abby agreed. “But how the spell works is it picks up the thoughts of whatever’s closest to me. And… and believe me, your thoughts weren’t the closest. The thoughts I picked up… they were huge. They’re everywhere – I thought they were going to burst out of my mind.”
Desmond stared. “What are you talking about?”
“This!” Abby waved her arm around aimlessly. “All of this. You know how it’s like this… this place knows everything about us? How the rooms seem to be tailor-made for us, as if it can get into our minds? That’s because it is in our minds! It can hear all of our thoughts!”
“It…” Something dawned on Desmond. “What can read our thoughts?” He suddenly went cold.
“What are we inside right now?”
“We’re inside a golem.” Abby’s eyes were wide, “and that is its heart.” She pointed to the Crown. “Once that last wish is granted, nothing’s going to be holding it back anymore. It’ll be free.”
Jaekah shifted nervously. “Free to do what?”
Abby shook her head. “Have you seen the size of this thing? If it had to be restrained by such powerful magic in the first place, I can’t imagine that whatever it wants to do is going to be good.”
“So the wish…” Desmond trailed off.
Desmond, there’s no other way. If you don’t use the Crown, you won’t be able to bring me back. You’ve travelled so far, Des. Don’t give up now when you’re so close. Please.
“Maybe we can use the wish to stop the golem?” Abby suggested. “We could wish to turn it to gold, or something—“
The moment she made the suggestion, the room suddenly filled with a tremendous roar. The ground rumbled and collapsed underneath the bard. Nimbly she leaped into the air, pulling out what looked like a short steel rod. She swung it up and pressed a button on the end of the rod. It froze in place with Abby hanging from it, as if it had somehow found purchase in thin air.
“You said it could read our thoughts?” Guin said, almost smugly. “I don’t think he likes your thoughts right now. Besides, as tempting as it is to have a giant golem made of gold, it kind of nullifies our chances of getting out of here if we can do that.”
“I don’t think we’ll be getting out of here anyway,” said Jaekah. He was looking behind the others. “Not unless we make a wish.”
Desmond looked back. Where the stairway had once been was now smooth, solid wall. There was no way out.
Desmond, help me!!
Desmond turned. His mother was there, at the edge of the platform just before the bridge. Coming up behind her was Zon-Kuthon.
His blood went cold. This is an illusion. It’s my mind. It’s the golem.
Zon-Kuthon looked straight at him and grinned. You think this is an illusion?
White-hot pain flared through Desmond’s body, almost bringing him to his knees. Black spots swelled in his vision, rendering him half-blind.
I can’t make the wish. What’s the point of bringing my mother back if it releases this monster?
Desmond, please, his mother begged. You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what he’s like. He’s going to torture me, Desmond. He’s going to do horrible things to me. You have to save me!
I have to make a different wish. Desmond’s mind raced. How could he make a wish that would save him and his friends but incapacitate the golem?
The ground shook and crumbled beneath his feet. He stepped aside quickly as it dropped away, falling into an abyss with no bottom.
Up ahead, the bridge tilted. The skeletons shuffled and clung to each other, trying desperately to stay on the shifting ground. It was almost comical to watch. Finally, the angle of the bridge was too steep, and the skeletons slid and fell to their demise. Desmond felt small snaps in his mind as his connection to each one broke abruptly. The ground behind them fell, swallowing up the rest of Desmond’s undead horde.
“Well, if we’re going to do something, we may as well do it,” Guin remarked. “Seems like the only thing to do is make a wish. If Jaekah would just step aside…”
“What makes you think I can trust you?” Jaekah demanded hotly. He shook, and an angry tear trailed down his cheek. How horrible it must have been to defy the one who looked exactly like his love. “There is no way I’m letting you go past! We can’t just make any wish! We need a plan!”
As he spoke, the bridge behind him warped and detached, coiling around itself like a snake. It unravelled and reconnected to their platform on the other side. Jaekah was no longer blocking the way to the bridge.
Guin’s eyes widened. She fumbled for her pouch, pulled out a handful of something, and shoved it in her mouth. She grimaced and stuck out her tongue – Desmond noted that it was covered in dissolving white powder.
“What do we do? We can’t stay here forever.” Abby swung herself and clicked the button, landing on solid ground with the rod in her hand.
“I’ll charge for the Crown,” Jaekah offered. “If we can get to it, then we can figure out what to wish for.”
Guin had beaten him to it. She ran to the bridge, and immediately, the section she was standing on detached. With no propulsion and no support, it carried her across the chasm to the Crown.
“NO!” Jaekah reared his fury.
This was bad. Desmond knew this was bad. Since when did Guin have the group’s best interests at heart? She was going to wish for Pesh, or the immunity to Pesh’s ill effects, and then the golem would be released and nations would be destroyed.
Desmond, no! Don’t let her make her wish! It’ll be wasted on her! This is your last chance to save me, Desmond! Please, hurry!
He had to get to the Crown first.
Desmond stepped up to the edge of the platform.
“Bring me to the Crown, that I may have my wish.” His voice was clear and well-projected.
He could feel the magic again as it tried to drill itself into the center of his mind and unravel his true motives. This time, however, he fought it with all of the willpower he possessed. The same command pounded through his thoughts: YOU MUST NOT RESIST. Resist he did, however, with all of his might. His ears rang; his nose started bleeding. No matter what, this time, he could not submit to the magic. He could not let the golem in.
Finally, a small platform, about twenty feet across, ferried itself over to him. He stepped on and immediately, Jaekah and Abby crowded on with him.
“Mind if we join you?” Jaekah’s tone was dangerous and his great-axe was drawn.
“I would rather enjoy the company,” Desmond replied evenly.
“Desmond? Do you have a plan?”
“Working on it.” He winked at Abby. “As long as I get there before Guin—”
Suddenly, as the platform departed, the segment holding Jaekah broke off. Jaekah leaped, landing just at the edge of the solid ground they had left. He scrambled desperately and dug his great-axe into the ground to provide leverage. The platform whisked Desmond and Abby away, leaving Jaekah to pull himself up.
Desmond blotted his nose on his sleeve as he thought, trying hard to ignore his mother’s calling or Abby’s confused stare. A wish that could save them but destroy the golem… he could pull it off if he had two wishes. As it was, he needed a way to make both parts feasible. If he had something to exchange for the safety of his friends…
Once again, the golem tried to force itself into Desmond’s mind, but Desmond forced it back. He had never endured something so forceful, including all of his painful communions with his deity. Yet never before had the stakes been so vital. And so he fought as hard as he could to keep his thoughts away from the golem.
It could not know his wish.
By the time Desmond and Abby reached the other side, Guin was already at the dais. The Crown was on her head, and the gem was glowing just a little bit brighter. Guin’s eyes flashed with madness. Desmond’s mother was nowhere to be found.
This was not good.
“Guin, give the Crown to me!” Desmond demanded.
Guin looked down at the cleric with disdain. “Why? To bring your mother back so the two of you can die together?”
Negative energy built up in Desmond; it was all he could do not to shoot it out at Guin and steal away her eyesight. “I need the Crown, Guin. You don’t understand. I can get you out of here. All of you.”
Guin laughed. “With your wish?”
“Then tell it to me and I’ll make it,” she challenged.
“I…” she thought she had found the loophole. The moment she had said it, however, Desmond knew it was not possible. He had to make the wish – no one else.
The Halfling scoffed and drew her wakizashi. “I knew I couldn’t trust you.”
“Give Desmond the Crown.” It was Abby. Magic sparkled around her face and weighed on her voice.
Guin’s eyes glazed over; her arm lowered. One hand reached up to touch the Crown. Her fingers twitched. Suddenly, she violently jerked her head, shaking off the stupor that Abby had put over her.
“Oh, no,” her voice was thick with rage. “You’re not pulling that one off on me again.”
The ground shook. Sensing what was about to happen next, Abby swung up her immoveable rod and clicked it into place. She wrapped her other arm around Desmond. Picking up her cue, he pulled her close to him and grabbed the rod with his other hand, just as the platform dropped out from under them.
He heard a scream. He looked to the other side of the cavern to see Jaekah pulled into a wall. It sealed off behind him, leaving no trace that it had changed or that the centaur was ever even there.
It didn’t matter now. If it had to be so, they could die. All that mattered was that Desmond had to get to that Crown. He needed to make the wish – otherwise, they were all doomed.
“Looks like you’re out of time,” Guin said – it was impossible to tell if she was sadistically gleeful or just pointing out the facts.
“Guin… please.” Desmond’s heart hammered as he released Abby and reached for Guin. Abby clung to him even tighter. “I need the Crown. I need to make the wish. If you want to save everyone, you have to give me the Crown. Please.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Guin muttered. Desmond was about ready to kill her, to unleash all of the negative energy that crackled under his skin and let all of it feed on her flesh and her soul. “We need more time…”
“We have no time left!” Desmond’s mother had reappeared behind Guin. Zon-Kuthon was on the Halfling’s other side. He pointed at Desmond and grinned. Abby’s grip on him was slipping. His arm was screaming with the strain of supporting both of them.
Guin closed her eyes. The jewel flared to life and glowed brightly.
The scream was cut off abruptly as Desmond found himself back at the lip of the chasm. Abby and Guin were there, and Jaekah was blocking the way to the narrow bridge that spanned the chasm to the other side, where a small dais held the Crown. The extravagant artefact housed only one glowing gem. Desmond’s mother stepped out from behind the dais with a smile, calling to him exactly as she had before.
They were back at the beginning.
Desmond blinked and looked around. The ground and the bridge were perfectly intact. Seven skeletons marched ten feet ahead of them and seven skeletons brought up the rear ten feet behind. He could feel his power over each one of them in his mind, as if his connection to them had never been severed in the first place. Jaekah and Abby looked similarly confused. Jaekah in particular looked as if he had just been brought back from the dead. The only one who showed no signs of confusion was Guin. She stared wide-eyed at the Crown, a smile barely playing on her lips.
“It worked,” she breathed. “I can’t believe it worked.”
“W-what worked?” Abby stammered. “What did you do?”
“We needed time.” The smile was there now. “So, I wished for time. We’ve gone back to the first moments in this room. The golem has no memory of what just happened, because it never happened. We’re the only ones who know.”
For a moment, Desmond, Abby, and Jaekah stared at Guin in shocked silence. Desmond’s eyes flickered over to the Crown.
Desmond. My darling. You’ve made it. The Crown is yours for the taking. Come. Make your wish, so I can be with you again.
She had really done it.
Abby followed Desmond’s gaze, her eyes resting on the Crown. “And it didn’t expend the wish...”
“Because the wish was never made,” Guin concluded proudly.
“And my spells were never cast.” Abby looked down at her hands, as if her magic was somehow manifested there. “I have some of my magic back.”
“Yes.” Guin looked over to Desmond. “You had a wish?”
“I-I…” This was it. He could no longer feel the golem exerting its pressure in its mind. It had no idea what his wish was. He could save them all. He had to. There was no other way.
He stepped up to Jaekah. “If I may?”
“Give me a moment.” Jaekah still looked like he hadn’t recovered from the shock. It was understandable – the last that Desmond saw of him was him being sucked into a wall. He didn’t even know if the barbarian had died or not.
Jaekah looked around, panic written all over his face. He pawed at the ground, one hand on his great-axe as he took deep breaths to calm himself.
“Take your time,” Desmond reassured him, “but I must pass.”
“What wish are you going to make?” Jaekah asked him.
“A wish that will get you out of here and protect everyone,” Desmond promised.
“Why can’t you tell us what it is?” Guin pressed. “Why didn’t you let me make the wish when I asked?”
“I have to make it,” Desmond said. “I can’t tell you because if I did, the golem would know. Trust me: the golem would not like this wish. But it’s locked in my mind, and it hasn’t been detected. I have to keep it hidden until I make the wish.”
“But how can we be sure it will benefit all of us?” Guin pointed out. “That’s pretty steep, even for the Crown. And there’s always the golem to worry about after the wish is granted.”
“I know,” Desmond said, “and I’ve taken that into consideration.”
“I don’t know…” Jaekah confessed.
“I have an idea,” Abby chimed. She turned to Desmond. “Desmond, would you be opposed to me placing a charm spell on you? It’ll compel you to see us in the most favourable way. If you made a promise to us under that spell, I would agree to your wish.”
Desmond smiled, and for the first time, his smile was genuinely warm, with no malice or sarcasm. “I already see you… all of you… quite favourably. Even you, Guin,” he looked to Guin, “for the wish that you made. You saved us all.” He turned back to Abby. “But I do not object to this magic.”
Abby waved her hands and chanted softly. An inexplicable happiness suddenly came over Desmond – the joy of being in his current company. He looked to Guin. Guin, who had saved their lives by buying them more time. Guin, who had defied them and hurt them at every opportunity, but in the end, had come through for them in the most meaningful way. He looked to Jaekah. Jaekah, who had endured so much pain, but who pressed on, ever loyal to his companions. He looked to Abby…
No. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t that kind of spell. He was pretty sure the spell wasn’t supposed to work this way. Yet his feelings were undeniable. Abby was beautiful. From beginning to end, she had been there for him – for all of them. She had tried to smooth over every conflict, healed them when they ached, and lifted their spirits with her music. For her, Desmond would do anything. He had to save her. Even though it was just the effects of the spell, even though his feelings ultimately didn’t matter, even though he was about to give up so much… he had no choice. For her, he had to make the wish.
“So, Desmond,” Abby began. “I want you to promise me this, as your new best friend.”
She was so much more than a new best friend to him. It’s just the spell, he tried to tell himself. It feels real, but it’s the effects of the spell. You’re under a compulsion. Don’t fight it.
“Will you promise that the wish you will make is in the best interests of all of us?”
Desmond smiled. He wanted to brush away her hair from her face. Her beaded, braided, beautiful hair… he kept his hands at his sides.
“I promise you, Abby.”
Suddenly, he was overcome with the desire to really prove his word. He reached for the chain-woven skull at his throat: his holy symbol of Zon-Kuthon. The source of his magic. He grasped it and pulled it up over his head. For a brief moment, his vision flickered to black and his bones ached. Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. His holy symbol was in his hand.
The undead all around them crumpled as the magic that bound them dissipated. Desmond felt a strange emptiness in his soul, and he knew exactly what it was. His magic was gone completely.
He held out the symbol to Abby.
“Here is my magic.”
I won’t need it anymore anyway.
Abby’s eyes widened. She took the holy symbol, holding it reverently in both hands and staring down at it.
Jaekah seemed similarly impressed by Desmond’s act. He stepped forward to clear the path for the cleric.
“That’s good enough for me.”
“May we…” Abby cleared her throat. “May we accompany you to the Crown?”
A lump formed in Desmond’s throat and tears prickled at his eyes. It was breaking his heart to have to do this to Abby. But he had to. If his feelings had any validation, he had to.
“Of course. I’d be grateful for the company.”
And so they walked forward, down the long, long bridge that led to the Crown. Somehow, everyone seemed to recognize how sombre the atmosphere had gotten. Nobody spoke as they reached the dais.
Desmond stepped forward. The Crown was right in front of him now. He picked it up in his hands – they seemed to tingle with the magic.
He looked to his friends. Guin. Jaekah. Abby. His hands trembled.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He lifted the Crown and set it down on his head. He turned away from them and closed his eyes as finally, he spoke the words he had practiced for so long.
“By the power of the Crown of Wishes, I, Desmond Moonstride, commission you.
“In exchange for the mercy, protection, and restoration of my friends Abby, Guin, and Jaekah, I offer my life, my dreams, and my god. My wish is thus: kill your host golem. Destroy it utterly, and render it forever a non-threat.”
“What?” Abby whispered.
Desmond smiled, and a single tear rolled down his cheek.
I’m coming, Mother. We’ll be together again.
Abby, Jaekah, and Guin were on top of a mountain – the same mountain they had climbed to reach their destination. The manufactured plateau was nowhere to be seen. They could see everywhere from their position, including the path that led down the mountain on the other side.
Desmond was not with them.
Abby looked down. The silver holy symbol was still in her cupped hands. A couple of droplets of blood were on the charm from Desmond’s nosebleed. She stared at the blood, touching it carefully and feeling its texture between her fingertips. The sight inspired absolutely no fear in her.
Her eyes brimmed with tears. He had granted her wish.
Guin fiddled with her pouch of Pesh, tossing it idly from one hand to the other. She was euphoric. She had never felt this blissful in her life, and she felt no weakness in her body. Her nose was healed, her curse was lifted, and she felt no negative effects from the Pesh.
Something touched Jaekah on the shoulder. He turned to see an ethereal form smiling up at him. She had black hair and bright eyes, and she was floating at eye level with Jaekah.
“Thank you, Jaekah,” Elegy whispered. “Goodbye.”
She kissed his cheek and faded away.
Jaekah fell to his knees and slammed his fists into the ground.
“Damn you, Desmond!” he choked out.
The Crown of Wishes.
Legend had it that a glorious crown resided deep within the mountains. This crown contained numerous precious gems, and each gem held more power than that of the most renowned wizards. Those who wore the crown could have any wish that they could possibly imagine granted to them. Of course, such a legend did not come without warning, and it dictated that many had set out in search of this magnificent artefact only to fail, never to be seen again.
The legends had left out that the Crown of Wishes had bound a colossal golem to an eternal slumber until the last wish had been expended. Once that would happen, the golem would be free to wreak havoc on the world. It could enter the minds of any who sought the Crown, and so it lured travellers to it in the hope that one day, all of the wishes would be expended and it would be free.
Desmond Moonstride did not know all of the risks. He sought out the Crown with the intention of resurrecting his mother so that they may be reunited. With his companions Abby, Jaekah, and Guin, he learned the true nature of the Crown and of the golem. He made a wish that saved his friends and destroyed the golem to protect the world against its rampage. In exchange, he gave up his own life. In that moment, however, Desmond was free. Free from the influence of his god, free from the sins he had committed, and free from the haunting memories of his mother, locked away in death.
And so it was that Desmond Moonstride had his wish granted.
Written by: Laena 'Chibiwrath' Anderson