I assume in the telling of this tale that the reader is familiar with the niceties of teleportation and other such methods of magical travel. In this, always, I lecture my students to be precise! This, perhaps, shall serve as a warning to those that shirk their homework. You have all heard the story before of my “Thirty-Second Tour of Hell,” but I have never told of my journey home. Hereafter is an account of that misadventure, with some discoveries about the savage Trolls that may be illuminating to my peers at the Academy of Waitoshi.
My aforementioned escape from the scalding cubicles of Dis was effected by means of a wildly ill-considered arcane bridge opened between the worlds, and I had not prepared sufficiently for the casting: I was off by one decimal place in my calculations. The brutal acceleration of the jump to a faster-spinning world threw me like a child’s ragdoll, and I awoke face-down in sand. My senses returned slowly, and I waited in a daze for my organs to realign.
Amidst lengthening shadows, I lurched to my feet. After a moment’s consideration of the local flora it was clear that I had managed to return to Veldon, though I knew not where. As I gathered my thoughts, I looked around at my landing site – a long tongue of sand lolling out into the mouth of the glassy bay behind me. Its surface was broken only by the fast-dissipating swell of some bulky marine creature moving back into the ocean, the sea-wind blocked by the clasp of a rocky natural break-water encrusted in tropical creepers. Scrambling from the crater left by my arrival, I set out with some difficulty up the beach toward the thick mangroves that clad the rest of the shore. The curse I acquired in Dis had by this time begun to give me no small measure of trouble. My skin seethed, bubbled, and then hardened like candle wax, fusing into already tattered clothes and making progress difficult. As one might imagine, hardened skin was a nigh-unbearable impediment, and I was soon as weary as when I had first arrived. My very flesh felt like a suit of armor donned in a drunken dare.
The sand presently gave way to pale seagrass, and then to low forest just beyond the wall of seaward mangroves. I picked my way carefully through the sparsest vegetation. The ground sloped upward, much vexing me in my condition despite the modesty of the incline. I was struck often by the cloying silence of the place, without the braying of seabirds or the diverse small mammals common to such southerly climes. I was as cautious in my steps as I was able, recognizing the malignancy of a silence unexplained– but my best was not very good at all in my hobbled state, and I crashed clumsily through the undergrowth. Eventually I came to the top of the incline, and the forest opened before me.
A shallow depression stretched ahead some half-furlong’s distance to the base of a cliff face, a basaltic upheaval riddled with curious holes and deeply shadowed crevices. More curious still was the mean cluster of buildings that filled this declivity, a mixture of ruined stone huts crudely repaired and newer buildings rough-hewn from logs, all mixed together without order. The center of the village (if it were best named so) was filled with a vast midden fully a rod across, from which the strong smell of rot wafted when the wind chanced to blow in my direction. I could see several humanoid skulls, and knew that I ought to find my way to some more hospitable place to affect my escape from the island. It was here that I made my first mistake: I was perhaps somewhat dazed by my arrival, but I must admit that I am also too curious to leave such mysteries unplumbed. I crept carefully forward to see what manner of inhabitants this hamlet had contained. But for a few bold rats, I found it even quieter than the beach had been, and I guessed that the people of this foul place must be either abed or away. As I topped the ridge around the bowl, however, I espied a number of details that had not been immediately apparent, and which gave me great cause for alarm.
The ground between the buildings seemed to have been cleared by main force, with saplings and even stout young trees torn from the earth bodily. The flat was thus pocked with deep holes, some crudely filled with earth and others with ragged roots exposed. This flat was moreover filled with a great number of bones, all gnawed and many broken. Even more ominous, the village was ringed with intricately carved totems, crafted from whole logs and set deep into the earth. These looked out from the edge of the cleared space, in apparent warning to trespassers. Each depicted some monster, from the tentacled horrors of an antediluvian deep to arachnid beasts with demon faces. What made these poles truly unsettling, though, was the manner in which they were adorned: three were topped by crudely-severed humanoid heads, with foul long-nosed faces and grey skin. As I watched, they began to move despite their disembodiment, biting uselessly at leather straps that held them to their gore-slicked perches and licking at their own effluvia with wart-covered tongues. I was lucky that all faced away from me, but I knew immediately that I had fallen from the skillet into the brazier. These could not be anything but Trolls, the regenerating monsters that are so keenly studied by my biomancer colleagues at the Academy.
It was as much as I could do to get away quickly and quietly from that noisome village, and I secreted myself under the thickest undergrowth that I could find as the sky darkened behind the cliff. Great waxy plates of dead skin sloughed from my limbs as I sat, though this caused me less pain than it did discomfort. Despite my heartiest efforts to keep a watch, the trials of my journey overcame me and I fell into a deep sleep.
I awoke to violent motion, borne aloft by rough hands. My captors spoke in guttural grunts, punctuating their trade-tongue pidgin with slaps and kicks: they tossed me easily from hand to hand as they guffawed. Skin growths and warped limbs gave the creatures fearsome caricatured silhouettes in the pre-dawn gloaming. Certainly I had been found by Trolls from the ruins, and I feared that my journeying had come to a most unpleasant end. Why they had not torn me to ribbons I could not fathom – I could only surmise that my fate would be somehow worse than being eaten alive, and steeled myself as best I was able. Despite a great jostling, though, I was borne swiftly and securely back to the village I had seen during the day. The smell was worse by far therein, and I choked on the reeking air. I had fallen asleep in a crouch, and found myself now immobilized by my diabolic affliction. They set my back against the wall inside one of the timber-built huts, and forced a foul cordial between my lips. This was perhaps the worst thing that I have ever tasted, including my failed attempt in Alchemy to create hangover-free rum (another infamous and technically successful project, and the antidote was a popular aperitif for some time). I fairly shivered in revulsion. After some time, though, I found that despite a fuzzy head and burning gut I was able to move. Without books and materials my options were limited, but while they left me – apparently to recover – on my own, I did what little I could to ameliorate the worst of my condition. My skin remained disfigured, and this is what I now think had saved me – with my deformity and the lingering stench of Dis, the brutes had mistaken me for one of their own.
Already my immobility had given me enough time for a thorough examination of the Trolls, and I was surprised by much of their industry and apparent civility. All wore woven grass cowls or capes with long grass skirts, clearly self-made. Too, the clearing and rebuilding had obviously been done by their powerful hands. Woven mats formed a thick covering on the inside of the hut’s walls, sealing out all but a glimpse of moonlight, and the darkest corner contained a delicately carved wooden image of some savage tentacled beast – an artifact that would have almost belonged in a collection of antiquities if not for its heavy coating of dried blood. One of the larger specimens in the party that had found me even bore rough black brands, a practice among Trolls of which I had only ever read in books. I recalled dimly from my days in the libraries of home that the most southerly groups of Trolls lived in loose-knit tribes called “Tikkis”, and concluded that I must be somewhere in the Bo’Pha archipelago of the south – a thousand leagues from home. This was truly a fascinating experience for me: the Trolls of the North are invariably lone predators, nearly mindless with hunger and without any of the crafts of civilization.
I had not long to wait before the creatures returned, this time with the flesh of some unidentifiable scaly sea creature. The Troll that brought it threw it into my arms with some force, clearly expecting me to consume as much as I was able. I knew that if I evinced the desire to cook my food I must be immediately discovered, and so ate the raw meat as best I could. I found it not disagreeable. As I cracked the marrow from the largest bone, the biggest of all the Trolls loomed in the doorway – the largest specimen that I had ever seen, fully twelve feet tall. His skin was studded with jagged stone set into the flesh like armor spikes, and he wore woven grass clothes of surprising quality. Shrunken heads dangled from his belt, more by far than on any of his subordinates. At his side he bore what looked to be a severed Troll arm, writhing slowly like a beheaded eel. Worse still, a second head and one arm grew from his belly, perhaps the beginning of a new Troll. He fed this parasite absentmindedly from scraps that he bore in a greasy hide sack. I made obeisances as I could, having observed the reactions of the lesser Trolls upon his arrival. Perhaps my poor attempt to communicate was excused by my condition: Trolls, I knew, were oft rendered immobile by overexposure to sunlight. He came close to sniff me archly. It was all I could do not to withdraw when his fleshy nose touched my arm. Appearing satisfied, he turned to leave, and I saw on his back grown-in slabs of black chitin, carapace fragments from giant arthropods.
Seeing the great warrior’s gruesome alterations, I suspected that this Tikki might worship the fearsome Spider Queen Khabissol, and this superior individual was likely their ruling “Kahuna”: my situation was worse than I had feared, for when I was discovered I should certainly be sacrificed to that horrible being! I had read of Khabissol from my studies of the Outer Systems, far reaches of space rife with strange horrors like the circle of Hell from whence I had just come. The Spider Queen’s empire spans three of Burning Gahenna’s dark moons, but stretches to dozens of planets- though no sage of Veldon has ever seen her ilk outside of far-flung travels to the stars. The mistress of a myriad of lurking arachnoid hunters, skittering living war machines, and rapacious daemon hordes, Khabissol’s worship could be nothing but a gruesome and gory practice. I knew that I had to discover a way out of the village, and soon, if I wished to escape with my skin.
Fortune had favored me thus far. My captors left, many astride dark shapes that emerged from the base of the cliff. These new creatures loomed against the midnight sky, bigger than oxen, and strode by in eerie quiet on many legs. Once all were gone, I ventured into the village proper and made an examination of the buildings. My initial impression had been correct: this Tikki had moved into the ruins of a village for the shelter from evening sunlight that the cliff shadow afforded them, likely after slaying its inhabitants themselves. They reconstructed the ruins with their own savage industry, and left their mounts to live in the caves that pocked the basalt above. I dared not poke through the filthy huts in which the Trolls lived. I had no desire to see the offal-stained refuse that they considered treasures, and even less to leave my scent thereupon to give their keen senses any clue of my wanderings. I also had no desire to go any nearer to the darkness of the great cave in the cliff face, hearing unnerving chittering from below even in daylight- but I knew that I must see all that there was to see if I wanted to have the best chance of successful flight.
I etched a skull with light-catching runes and took the stairs down into quiet darkness, risking only the barest light necessary to avoid a spill. I stepped out after a long descent into a broad cavern of rough-hewn black stone, closed on the far end by a great stone door. This portal was carved with numerous motifs of the same style as the totems above, but in a more refined hand – it seemed older, perhaps, or done by other sculptors than the wooden images in the village. I could see without my light now by merit of gently glowing fungus on the domed ceiling, the pallid radiance of which threw the carvings into sharp relief. Webs crowded one corner, as if spilling out from the chamber beyond. Most startling, though, was the manner in which the door was bound: the only metal I had yet seen, heavy chain, anchored an emaciated Troll by all of its misshapen limbs to the lintels of the door. This sorry creature was terribly starved, and despite the staunch healing powers of that species was much the worse for wear: it bore numerous scars on every limb, as if each had been sundered scores of times. Abortive new limbs branched from many of these old truncations in varying degrees of development. More gruesome still, its jaw and eyes were ripped entirely away, and its tongue lolled grossly below broken teeth. I could only guess that its long duress had suppressed the beast’s healing powers.
Seeing little to be gained on this path, I threw my guttering skull-lamp into the depths of the midden and retired to the hut in which I had been left. I spent the time until moonset regaining what spells I could. My mind seemed as wracked as my body, and I failed to attain the requisite focus to open even the least arcane gate – I could not get myself off of the island with magic. I took some of the partly-woven grass strewn about and fashioned crude clothing in imitation of my ferocious hosts’, in the hopes that it would complement their lucky misapprehension. When the falling moon cast the whole of the village into shadow, the Troll warriors returned amidst a raucous shouting and clashing of weapons that I could only guess to be savage merriment. I could barely make out quiet whimpering under their guttural voices, which was gone when they resurfaced from an hour-long descent into the ominous chamber that I had earlier discovered.
Upon their return, the two Trolls that laired in my adopted hut offered meat of very questionable origin: when I declined through grunt and gesture, they happily glutted upon my share and bent themselves to the task of repairing their much-worn weapons. One tore out several of its own teeth to replace those that formed the edge of its strange sword-club, while the other chipped stone from the edge of its shorter paddle-like weapon with a piece of chert to give it new sharpness. Both spent some hours at this task while I feigned sleep and learned some of their surprisingly complex gesticulatory pidgin-tongue. Before I could detect even a trace of light in the gloom, they looked up and covered themselves thoroughly with grass mats to sleep: despite their earlier assistance I was now left to my own devices, and made do with a pile of half-finished mats from the corner of the room. When full dawn showed in pinpricks on the wall of the hovel and my roommates slept deeply, I crept again from the shelter- taking one of their savage weapons with me to explore the black caverns. The great pains these Trolls took to shield themselves from the sun inspired no small measure of curiosity in me: were the stories I had been told as a child about Trolls turning to true stone in the sun more accurate than I had realized? Was there some religious motivation to their caution? It almost had the look of ritual, but whatever alerted them was so far beyond my senses that I cannot say. I carefully retrieved my skull-light from the midden, and breathed it back to life as I approached the cliff.
The cave entrance loomed three times my height, and the sunlight seemed to penetrate but little therein. I crept into the dark, again daring only the smallest light. A few minutes’ walk in, the floor was slick with slime that I did not wish to identify, and scraps of shed chitin littered the floor along with shreds of strangely etched bone – barely identifiable as such without thorough inspection. The sound of my footsteps was amplified by the subtle slopping of slime and the clatter of refuse, but still died without echo in what seemed a very large cavern. Though the Trolls’ foul mounts slept, I caught the occasional chittering call in the dark, and the rasp of carapace on stone.
As I neared the back wall, far below where I had started, the subtly curving slope gave way to a steeper grade, culminating in a pit. I caught myself only at the last moment from a perilous slide, and was glad that I had done so – red mage-light glinted on the iridescent black shell of a creature far larger than the others I had seen. The beast’s slumber was untroubled by the few bone shards that my fumbling had dislodged, but even the slow movements of its sleep caused a scraping like a master’s nails on an Academy chalkboard as its chitinous claws etched the stone. With palms slicked by slime and panic-evoked sweat, I crawled on hands and knees away from that hungry hole, scrambling to my feet as soon as the grade permitted and hastening to the mouth of the cavern, where I decided that it might inform me to investigate the strange door below the cliff once more. A calmer descent brought me again to the portal with its living lock, and I saw that the unfortunate Troll chained to the wall had several fresh scars. The buds of new limbs sprouted where its right arm and leg had been savagely hacked away and rejoined. This time I approached closer to examine the curious carvings on the door: they had indeed been made by finer hands than the Trolls’, and older ones. A monstrous, infernal arachnid-humanoid creature dominated the relief, confirming my earlier trepidation. These brutes were indeed worshippers of the Spider Queen- and beyond this portal, no doubt, was their unholy altar.
As this certainty dawned upon me, the mutilated Troll on the door seemed finally to smell my flesh. Perhaps sensitized by the deprivation of its other faculties, it immediately knew me for food – or perhaps it was so desperate that even a fellow Troll was irresistible – and let forth a revolting, ululating gurgle as it lunged in its restraints. The chains held fast, but its skin did not. The scar-knotted hide around the manacles leaked viscous blood as the frenzied creature tried to attack, finally tearing away its own hand in its rage. The glistening bones of its arm were exposed, flicking blood around the chamber. As it tore off its other hand, I fled back up the stairs to the terrible sound of splintered bone scraping against cold basalt.
Another night passed in much the same way as the first, though the Kahuna’s glance at sunset made me anxious of his suspicion. As the moon set again they returned: this time I sat outside examining bones in the midden, and could see as the Trolls passed that they bore several small figures between them. These were coastal Nixies in the garb of that people, and looked like children in the grasp of my monstrous captors. The poor wretches were much battered and bloodied. The Trolls tossed their victims back and forth as if it were some sort of game, throwing them high above the ground from the backs of their mounts. The Kahuna eyed me disdainfully as they passed, and I knew I must soon make my escape. The incredulous reader may be skeptical that I had managed the charade this long, but I can only credit the beneficence of gentle Chance. I do not know how they mistook me for one of their own for even a moment, despite the disguise afforded me by my affliction.
The warriors passed again into the depths to make supplications to their monstrous goddess, and were this time gone for several hours. I lingered at the mouth of the cave to listen, and heard much rhythmic stomping and grunting, as well as long-protracted screams in smaller voice that finally dwindled and were silent. The arachnoid mounts came close to investigate me, and I was finally obliged to repel them with a bright flash of magnesium-white light from a hastily-etched bone. Soon after, the Trolls again emerged, and bore what I knew to be the raw fruits of their most recent raid. My stomach turned in the knowledge of what could not but follow such a barbarous ritual. I knew, now, the source of their grisly decoration.
The Trolls fell upon their fresh meat with gusto, strewing scraps and gristle about the already littered yard. These bits and oddments were consumed apace by miniscule arachnids, no doubt the young of the creatures in the cave – hatchlings the width of my palm. This explained the lack of rot about the general environs, about which I had wondered much in light of my hosts’ eating habits. They cast bones haphazardly into the midden, where I would swear that I saw a tentacle. The two warriors of my hut, whom I could now identify by their particular shrunken heads and piercings, again forced a dose of the abominable cordial down my throat. It proved too much, and I was forced to retch.
As I looked up, the Kahuna made eye contact and stood. Taking up a portion of dripping leg, he approached me and towered above- double my ample height. In their crude pidgin, he bade me eat. Unable to bring myself to consume the flesh of another humanoid, I could only turn away, trying desperately to come up with some excuse that might spare me a violent retort. Finally he kicked me to the ground, and every warrior fell silent. I knew that the time of decision had come, and readied myself as best I could. As he freed the arm-weapon he bore from the woven grass straps that held it to his flank, I gathered my focus and unleashed as large a gout of arcane flame as I was able in my extremity, knocking him far backward and setting his grass clothes alight. The warriors fled from the fountain of fire into their huts, temporarily cowed by superstition, and as their leader rose again to his feet with bubbling flesh, I took up a dropped sword-club and fled– giving a turn of speed better than any in my life!
I ran out of the village toward the beach where I had first landed, but they remained hot on my heels in the straight, and so I was quickly forced to duck into the thickest of the forest where my pursuers’ long limbs disadvantaged them. For a time we played cat-and-mouse: I led them on a less-than-merry chase around the island, I can tell you! The effects of my curse were greatly diminished by whatever draught they had previously given me, and found moreover that I had far greater endurance than I expected. Finally pulling away from them on the northern portion of the island, I crossed the trammeled track that their hunting party had taken the two nights before, and was forcefully reminded of the captives that they had brought back. I could not leave such a terrible place without at least making sure that I had left no innocent soul behind: moreover, from my time in the hunting parties of certain peoples I knew that there were few more effective stratagems than to double back upon one’s path, so as to confuse the scent for a pursuer.
I slipped back along the edge of the cliff, approaching the village from the North in the same cautious manner that I had at first done. Several minutes of careful listening yielded naught, and I picked my way along the dusty black stone to the leeward side of the cliff’s igneous maw. Running down the precipitous steps in reckless haste, I came to the door, skidding nearly to it on the slime-slick stone. I took up my purloined weapon and gave vent to my wrath upon the wretch that blocked the way, severing each limb with great satisfaction. Finally I pushed the two slabs asunder and saw the altar of a true extraplanar evil.
The full length of each wall at the sides was taken up by grotesquery that I at first mistook for statuary: spiked sockets with wicked barbs held fast a myriad of still-living troll arms, some at rest and some clutching bits of previous victims like some predatory jungle vine. Indeed, the walls resembled nothing so much as a hellish garden, akin to the terrors of flesh-filled Malebolge. The center of the broad chamber was filled by a strange pool, a black mere filled with some substance not unlike the crude oil that comes up from certain sands. The ichorous pool stank of burnt meat and ozone, and seemed to consume my spell-light without reflection, while throwing out the iridescence of other lights beyond the chamber or Veldon itself. I was well-satisfied that I had found an astral portal, and marveled anew at the industry of my erstwhile captors and their predecessors. At the far end perched a squat arachnoid idol, mercurial ichor pouring from its foul chitinous mouth.
Hearing some muffled sound, I edged around the pool and came at last upon the only survivor of the raid. His blue skin was faded to the color of a sickly sky, and I feared to free him violently lest he step through Death’s door. I cut him down from the grasp of the awful appendaged wall nevertheless, and sat him on the floor. My countenance gave him great fright, and I dearly wished that I had had occasion to learn the language of the Nix – always a man is better calmed by the sounds of his mother-tongue! In the speech of Wai’Toshi, I bade him be of good spirit at his rescue but warned that we must make haste: to my satisfaction, a gleam of understanding entered his gaze. As reason and truth are wont to do, my exhortation pierced the fog of his mind. His thoughts seemed to clear of fright, and he thanked me in halting Wai’Toshi.
After another moment of rest we rushed back up the narrow staircase, I supporting him. His injuries were not as dire as they had at first appeared, though he limped and was near-overmatched by the sheer size of the stairs themselves. Fortune failed to favor us as we crested the landing, however, and before we could exit the cave the sound of running Troll warriors drifted to us from my trail North of the village. Their grunts and howls put my new companion again into an unreasoning fright, and he began to bolt into the depths of the cave, whereupon I was forced to take hold of him bodily to prevent his further misadventure. Presently he ceased to struggle, and we ran as we could South from the village, attempting to follow the path that I had taken in my initial flight. It quickly became clear that with his shorter stride and lesser wind, we would not outpace our pursuers. To forestall our recapture we took to the crag that was the cliff’s backbone, and scrambled as we could up the sparsely-clad slope. Our climb was mostly silent, though we were oft nearly betrayed by stretches of treacherous talus. At last we reached the lip of the cliff, and as I did on my arrival secreted ourselves betwixt boulders convenient to that purpose, as leeward to the wind as we could. We had thus done as much as we were able to escape until the coming of dawn, and we settled in to await the mercy of the Sun.
An hour passed in this fashion, and the sounds of search below us gradually grew more desperate as the hours of night dwindled. Finally a great cry went up at the base of the cliff, where the creatures had finally found the freshest part of our much-muddled scent: having found a trail, the Trolls surged up the hill as one, with their great fresh-scarred Kahuna at their head. As they bounded toward our shelter I could think of no other recourse but to try one more spell, though I was exceedingly tired. I gathered my will to make one last use of the arcane arts, I threw my companion over my shoulder, and jumped from the cliff.
The Nix panicked before realizing that our descent had been arrested, and nearly wriggled from my grasp to be dashed on the ground below. As it was we barely reached the ground in time, for in the gentleness of our descent we were outpaced by our reckless regenerating tormentors. At the urging of their master the Troll warriors flung themselves from on high, landing alive on the stone below. They dragged themselves by arms alone while shattered legs and spines reformed, and we escaped their clutches by a hand’s-breadth as we alighted. With no other option, I dragged the Nix to the staircase from which we had come, and we plunged down together. The Kahuna healed faster than his brethren, and I heard his heavy step fast behind us. At the bottom, without any further trick by which to achieve respite, I gathered my new companion to my chest and jumped, eyes closed, into the ichorous pool ahead – trusting benevolent Chance to preserve me once again.