May 1, 2020
Red opened his eyes. In his sleep, he had rolled over and was facing the window of Turtin’s cabin. Light came through the window, but only barely. He stood up and moved to the window. Strange, he thought. The sun was in the sky, but it was muted somehow. It was almost as if the sun was casting a shadow over the center of Noname. The edge of town and beyond appeared normal. Birds were in the trees at the entrance of the town, singing sweetly in the branches. But towards the jail house, the down was dark.
It was only a few moments of inspecting the darkness outside before Red finally noticed the sounds of laughter and the smell of cooked meat from within the cabin. The children were playing happily with Master Sable while some of the adults from Noname were cooking breakfast. Junior was looking uncomfortable in the corner of the room, constantly looking between Red and the door.
Red found Corlee and Alberich and went to speak to them. He informed them that he planned to visit the jail and see what was going on. While Corlee went to speak to Sable about the plans, Red spoke to Alberich alone.
“You can use magic?” he asked.
“How did you know that?” asked Alberich, surprised.
Red explained that he, too, could use magic and that one of his abilities was to detect its presence. Alberich told him his story. He used to be in a cleric school as per the desires of his parents. He learned a few spells, but through some of his more roguish actions, he left the school. Red asked him about his plans after they settled the problem with Noname and the jail. Alberich confessed that he really didn’t have a plan, so he asked if he could come along with Red and Corlee. When Red explained their mission to go to Missuk, Alberich’s face darkened. He had gone there with his father once, but he felt a strange fog in his mind. It was so bad that his father had turned them around back to Idil.
Red, Corlee, and Alberich left Turtin’s cabin and entered Noname. The town was noticeably darker than the region roundabout. Even the colors of the grass and the paint on the houses seemed to have lost their saturation. There was a dark presence in the air, more and more palpable as they came closer to the jailhouse.
At the door, Red reached for the knob to open it. A strange humming sound came from within. It was almost like music, but discordant and harsh. Remembering the events of the night before, Red put his hands to his ears immediately. Corlee did the same, but Alberich was caught off guard. He had been watching behind them for signs of trouble when his head rang with pain. He collapsed onto the ground, twitching and helplessly trying to cover his ears while they bled.
The music stopped after just a moment. Alberich was breathing heavily, still shaking. Red and Corlee helped him to his feet. Red gave him a nudge. “Go back to Turtin’s house,” he said. “Corlee and I can inspect the jail.”
After Alberich stumbled away back down the road, Red and Corlee prepared themselves. Each covering their ears, Corlee gave the door a swift kick and launched it open. The two of them entered and looked around. There was no one there, and it was completely silent.
They cautiously uncovered their ears. No sound was heard but for a muffled laugh from a jail cell down the stairs in the basement. The two stepped down the stairs as quiet as they could, but the source of the laugh had already known they were there.
“Hello, hello, hello!” said the jailed demon. “Welcome to my prison! Yes, welcome, welcome.”
The demon was a large, leathery-skinned creature with large fangs and eyes. It was hunched in the jail cell behind heavy steel bars, staring at Red and Corlee as they passed in. Its breath came in ragged bursts as if it were trying to either stop itself from screaming in rage or laughing into hysterics. As Red and Corlee approached, it shuffled itself forward and pressed its hideous face against the bars.
For a while, no one spoke. Finally, Red said, “You’re the one tormenting this town.”
“No, no, no, not me,” hissed the demon. “I am commanded, nothing more. But yes, I hurt. I hurt people. So many people. I sing. They die. They die, they die, they die…”
The demon began to mumble to itself. Red could not tell if it was happy or angry to be saying this. He placed his hand on the hilt of the borrowed longsword. At this, the demon rose up to its full height, towering over Red and Corlee. Its skin almost seemed to shift into a deeper red color at this.
“You would hurt me?” it said, pitifully or gleefully. “Do it! I can feel pain. You punish me for hurting people. Yes, yes, do it!”
Red turned to Corlee and gave her a quick nod. She pulled out a dart and flung it into the demon’s leg. She didn’t intend to hurt it badly, but understood that she and Red had to at least prove they could do so. The dart lodged into the demon’s thigh and it let out a shriek and then a laugh. It reached for the dart and, to Red’s surprise, stuck it deeper into its own skin.
“Good, good, yes,” it croaked.
“You’re commanded to be here?” asked Red. “By who?”
“Don’t know his name. He did not give it.”
“What’s your name, then?”
“Don’t have my name. Not anymore. Not since my master took it from me.”
Red was confused. “Your master took your name?”
The demon nodded. “Foolish it was of me to tell him. Now he owns it. I have no name. No name, no name.”
“So this master of yours, whose name you do not know, left you here to hurt this town? Why?”
“Not my business to know why,” replied the demon, angrily. “I hate him. I hate him so! He bound me to this jail, left me to rot here and kill the people of the town with no name. The demon with no name, killing the town with no name. How silly!” It erupted into a fit of laughter again.
“We’re getting nowhere,” Red said to Corlee. “Do you think we can kill a demon?”
Corlee just shuddered. The demon with no name saw this and hissed at them. “Kill me? No, you are not strong enough to kill me, little master. But I would be most pleased to leave this place if I was to be freed.”
Oh great, though Red. He had heard tales of deals with demons. They always ended up in the demon’s favor. But then, there was something very wrong in Noname. What if he could make a deal with the demon and get it to leave?
While Red pondered this, the demon took in a sudden deep breath. “I feel it. I can feel it on you. You have one, don’t you, little master? A blood ruby! I can sense it in that pocket of your coat.”
“Go upstairs and outside,” commanded Red to Corlee, drawing his sword and pointing it at the jail. Corlee ran upstairs and away. When Red heard the door shut, he produced the blood ruby from his pocket and spoke. “How did you know I had this?”
The demon giggled and reached its arms out of the jail cell, grasping at Red. Red stepped back, well enough out of reach. “It is full of great magic, oh yes. Blood rubies are made by cutting people willing to sacrifice their blood. They contain the essence of a soul, but only a small fragment.” It stopped grasping and pressed its face against the bars again. “I want it.”
“You want it?” asked Red, angrily. “And why should I give this to you?”
“A deal!” replied the demon. “We can make a deal. A good one in your favor, small master! Give me that blood ruby and I will leave the town with no name, never to return.”
“And how exactly could I trust you?”
The demon frowned. “So many questions, he asks me. Yes, yes, you are right to ask. But I give you my word.”
Red turned to leave. As his foot hit the first step, a new voice came from him from behind. “Please, don’t leave.” The voice was soft and suave, dignified yet pleading. Red turned back to the jail. The demon was gone. In its place was the figure of a tall, fair-skinned man, clad in clothing that resembled the demon’s own skin.
“Perhaps this form is more suited for making a deal,” said the demon. “I am truly sorry for startling you. You sound very impatient, and I understand that very much. But I think I have a way to sweeten the deal for you, sir.”
Red was listening. For some reason, he found himself content to speak to the demon in this form. For whatever reason, it was a calming presence, as opposed to the demon’s true form.
“I believe you’re here in the town with no name to save the people from me,” said the demon.
“That’s right,” said Red. “I want you gone.”
“Well, what if I were to tell you that there are four cultists, eager to create a gate to the realm of the gods, in this town right now?”
The demon’s eyes glistened and turned a shade of yellow. “Yes, they are here. They intend to use blood rubies like the one you have. They wish to open a gate to bring Phibea into this world, and then bind him with magic. Their reasons are their own, but you must know how poorly this will go for the realm of mortals.”
Red thought about this for a moment. “So, if I give you the blood ruby, you’ll tell me where they are? And you’ll leave Noname?”
The demon bowed deeply. “I can tell you are close to making a deal. Consider these two things. First, I will not ask for your name. Do not give it to me. Names, you see, have much more power than mortals assume they do. With your name, I could command you. Own you. How delightful for me, but how wretched for you!”
“I will give you information on my master, the one who owns my name,” he replied. His face darkened at this. “His true name is not known to me, but his followers call him Voss. He, like the cultists in the town with no name, seek to bind Phibea. You can certainly find him by finding those that serve him. And if you find him, it is my wish to assist you in destroying him. I want my name more than I want anything in this realm.
“Free me from this prison. Give me the blood ruby and I will use its power to escape. I will tell you where the cultists are. Then, perhaps in the future, you and I may assist each other and stop the binding of Phibea together. That is the deal I ask, weighed heavily in your favor because I am at your mercy.”
Red stepped forward, knowingly within arms reach of the demon. He passed the blood ruby to the demon. It immediately seized it and transformed back into its gruesome form. It cackled and shrieked with delight, holding the blood ruby up to the light from the window.
“A deal is a-” began Red.
“I know, I know!” hissed the demon impatiently. “Look at its beauty! Can you feel the life essence inside of it? Such a precious thing.”
The demon stood up to its full height again. “As you say, we have made a deal. I am eager to serve and fulfill my end of our accord. The cultists you seek are below the saloon. The have a secret room down there, built for purposes I do not know or care. There are four of them. They have captives with them. Some are still alive, I wager.”
The door in the cellar! Red began to think of a plan when the demon suddenly slammed the blood gem into the floor at his feet. A magic circle of runes and symbols appeared. The demon laughed in delight as his form began to disappear into the ether.
As he was vanishing, the demon turned to Red. “I will do as we agreed. The town with no name shall always be behind me, unless my master commands me to return. I must obey the master, but will do what I can to never return here. Should we meet again, small master, I will be most pleased to help you kill Master Voss!”
Red met Corlee outside. She asked what happened and Red only told her that the demon was gone. The town would be safe from it now, but that there were more cultists in the cellar of the saloon that they had to deal with. They quickly moved back to Turtin’s house and found Alberich sitting in a chair, resting.
“Are you alright?” asked Corlee.
“No, I’m Alberich!” he joked. “Sable had a weird potion thing. I feel much better now. What happened at the jailhouse?”
Red explained to Alberich what he and Corlee had seen, but he left out the deal with the demon with no name. With Alberich feeling much better, the three moved towards the saloon.
The saloon was unchanged from the night before. They snuck into the cellar and lit a torch, giving them light until they reached the heavy metal door from the night before. Alberich fiddled with its mechanisms until he managed to unlatch and open it. They found themselves in a large room that resembled a reception hall for an inn. A dusty table and chair were in one corner, facing an old bookshelf on the opposite wall. A bedroll was on the floor.
“Wow, look at this!” said Alberich, pointing to some notes on the desk. “I think this was an old smuggling tunnel. Imagine that, right below the town’s saloon.”
“And look here,” replied Red, pointing to the door of the next chamber. “See the symbol on the hinges? That’s the blacksmith Junior’s craftsmanship. The door looks new.”
“Do you think he was working with the cultists?” asked Corlee.
Red paused. “There’s no evidence of that. Maybe someone just ordered the door from him. We can ask him when we’re done saving the people down here.”
They moved to the next room, a large storage area. From one side, they could see torch light glowing dimly around a corner. But on the other side, Red swore he could hear muffled cries. Corlee covered the lit corridor while he and Alberich investigated. They found three halflings, bound and gagged, lying in a secret room. Red recognized them immediately: the halfling merchants from the road!
The mother was still awake. She flinched when Red removed her gags. “It’s okay,” he said as soft as he could. “It’s me, Red. I met you on the road a few days ago. Corlee, the halfling monk, is with me. We’re going to get you out of here.”
Red, Alberich, and Corlee moved the mother, father, and the youngest son to the reception room. The mother was in tears. Her oldest son had been killed by their captors already. As Corlee was getting ready to lead the survivors up to Noname and Turtin’s cabin, the locked door behind them from the saloon opened. Junior stepped in.
Red immediately drew out the twig from his component pouch. It began to spark with lightning. Junior paused, apparently not expecting us. “Take a seat, Junior,” said Red. “Or I’ll blast you into next week.”
Junior sat down and Alberich tied him up. It was far too fishy that Junior, the man who had created the door in the smuggler’s den, was suddenly here. Especially when they had not even told Junior where they were going. Junior kept insisting that he overheard them talking about the saloon, but no one trusted him. Corlee took the halfling merchants up to Turtin’s house while Red and Alberich moved further in to find the corridors. They left Junior behind, tied to the chair.
There were bodies all over the place. The cultists had captured a good number of the residents of Noname and had sacrificed them to their cause. Blood was sprayed on the walls and the floor of the corridors leading to the torch light. Around a corner, Red and Alberich saw four men in black and white robes huddled over a makeshift altar. They each held bloody daggers and were chanting.
“What do you think?” whispered Red.
“We only need one alive to ask questions,” replied Alberich.
They each fired their weapons. Red’s bolt struck one cultist in the neck. He fell forward, hacking and bleeding. Alberich’s arrow got the leader in the back. He hunched forward and shouted to the others. They drew knives and charged.
Red’s combat training kicked in. He stepped forward and raised his sword, deftly knocking back both the advancing cultists. The cultists were crazed and covered in blood. Whose blood was the question. But with a fast pair of strikes, the two cultists each took a hit to the chest and fell to the ground and bled out.
Alberich loaded another arrow into his bow and prepared to shoot the leader again when a knife appeared from behind, held against his neck. Junior was there, but something was strange about him. His skin seemed to shift and he seemed to be raging with anger.
“Drop it, kid,” he growled. Even his voice was different. It was almost a snarl. “I won’t be stopped!”
Red saw the knife to Alberich’s neck, but Junior was not positioned properly. The stance was wrong. Junior was angry; that much was evident. But he was more distressed than threatening. So Red raised his hand and shouted “Val en’Valtare!” A blast of magical energy struck Junior in the arm. He dropped the dagger and reeled back. Red was dismayed to see that the magic had not injured Junior as much as it had frustrated him.
“The rubies!” shouted the remaining cultist. He stood up and threw a blood ruby to Junior before he began chanting a spell. A magical knife appeared at Alberich and slashed at him. Alberich cried out and fell to the ground, bleeding.
Before Red could react, Junior advanced on him. He swung his knife wildly but Red cast another spell, creating a shield of energy around him. Junior stabbed a few times but failed to get past the magic.
“No, I won’t let you ruin this!” he snapped. He pressed the blood ruby to the ground at his feet, exactly the same as the demon from the jailhouse. Red stood aghast as Junior’s body began to evaporate and disappear. As he did, Red could see up close Junior’s form was fighting to stay together. Was he a demon, too? Or something else?
The injured cultist screamed as Junior disappeared. Red rounded on him and raised his weapon. But something snapped in the cultist’s eyes. Purpose was replaced with panic. Red could only watch as the cultist drew a knife and slashed his own throat.
Alberich was fine, but injured. “This was a bad morning,” he grunted. Red managed to stop the bleeding before helping him up to his feet. They looked around and saw no other cultists but the four dead at their feet. Junior was gone.
“How did he get out of his binds?” asked Alberich. “I thought I tied him up fairly well.”
“There’s something funny about him,” replied Red. “His face was all wrong. His whole demeanor was different. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Corlee met Red and Alberich up in the saloon. She had gotten the halflings safely to Turtin’s cabin and was returning with more of Sable’s healing potions. Everyone was fine now, except for the poor people who had perished in the cultist’s attack. The dark shadow over Noname was gone. Red and Corlee helped Alberich into Turtin’s cabin to rest.
“Red, can I speak with you?” said Sable, approaching Red.
Red and Sable went outside. For the first time, Red noticed that Noname was actually a very beautiful and quaint town. Without the demon’s shadow over it, Noname could be a peaceful place. Sable led Red over to the stream and pointed.
“I found Turtin Junior’s body over there a short while ago,” he began. “I think the Junior we know is an imposter.”
“I’m very much aware,” said Red. “He attacked us in the saloon’s smuggler den. But he disappeared. Used something called a blood ruby.”
Red found himself telling Sable everything. He told him of the demon and the deal they made. He told him of the cultists up north. The only thing he did not tell him was anything about the heartstone and the Heart of Valtare. Sable nodded and listened as he spoke. He suggested that Corlee continues with Red for a while as it would be good for her to find her own way.
“If I had any advice,” he said, “it would be to never travel alone. Corlee’s pilgrimage started that way and it led her to a lot of trouble. That was her choice, of course. I think that, as she grows stronger, the two of you will be able to do great things in Solsu, Idil, or wherever your path takes you. Watch your backs on the roads. The cultists’ leadership will certainly hear about how you freed Noname from their grips and they may seek retribution against you.”
“What about Noname?” asked Red. “If they come back-”
Sable laughed. “Worry not for Noname, friend! I will guard this place for a time. I have business here anyway. And now, that business includes keeping the town safe.”
Red nodded and returned to Turtin’s cabin. Sable had offered to break the news of his son’s death to Turtin, so Red just politely and quietly sat in the corner next to Alberich. Alberich had drank another healing potion and his head was swimming because of it. Corlee went outside to find Sable and train with him. The children and adults of Noname had gone outside now and were trying to gather themselves back in the town. Surely, the people who ran away from the town when the demon came would be returning soon, now that the shadow was gone.
Alberich grunted and laughed. “I think I need a drink.”Back to Hearts of Valdea