When we left our heroes they were leaving the dubious safety of the village’s largest house, on a reckless mission to close the hell hole. The villagers watched them fade into the darkness beyond the dim glow from the shuttered windows, and the demons circled cautiously in the darkness, grunting and hissing but temporarily cowed enough to restrain themselves from attacking. The party carried lanterns, and a small marsh light sauntered ahead of them under Thyvalt’s control, the pool of light soon lost from view in the deep blackness of this demon-infested night.
As they moved away from the village, the group drew together, their lanterns seeming to dim in the inky darkness, strange sounds disturbing the usual bucolic peace of farms and forests. No frogs croaked; no foxes bayed; no fireflies drew up from the pools and streams of the rice paddies to their left as they walked. Where once Thyvalt had known to expect an ageing, wizened toad to croak resonant grunts at his passing there was only silence. The nightingale in the hedges beyond Linus’s bean fields was obstinately silent, and the owls beyond the carp pool dared not stir. They had entered a liminal space, somewhere between two worlds, and soon they were lost in it, all sight of the village obscured in the mist and the impenetrable shadows. The only sound in this cloistered emptiness was the grunt and hiss of the demons circling beyond the light of their brave lanterns; the only movement the gentle swishing and sighing of the trees, and occasional shapes stirring in the mist – shapes that were darker than night, except where flaming red eyes pierced the gloom. The only reminder of the gentle farming community they had left behind them were the post-markers by the road, which loomed slowly on their left side as they walked, even the comforting fenceposts rendered eery and unnatural in the glow of the witch light and mist.
Cog soon noticed a lull in the hissing and groaning of the lurking demons, and guessed an ambush was coming. He directed the little cluster of mortals off the trail, gesturing for silence and care, and brought them straight on top of a nest of imps lurking near the road. Battle was joined before anyone had a chance to draw breath, and soon over. Lithvard threw a lantern amongst the imps, blinding them in a flare of burning oil and splintered glass, while Cog 11 disappeared into the shadows and Thyvalt drew a useless curse screaming from the netherworld. The imps spread out to attack or spit, and six lumbering dretches dragged themselves out of the shadows to their death. These dretches did not come by choice, but were driven by a giant red flame demon, whipping them with a spiked chain. Ayn called forth the Spirits of the Righteous, and four pillars of fire greeted her entreaties, consuming a dretch and terrifying the others, while Cog 11 appeared from the shadows to gut four of the imps in a sliding, diving whirlwind of wicked knives and mist. Where Ayn’s pillars of fire guttered out they left a huge gap in the mist, and into this gap charged a red-skinned, dog-haired demon, that barked and whumfed its way to its own doom. Lithvard hurled a fire spear at the big demon and Thyvalt yelled imprecations of pain and terror in a desperate voice, hoping to scare away the beasts before they could be surrounded; but to no avail, for these creatures were devoid of fear or mercy. It was then that Syrion hurled himself into the line, singing battle songs in a brave and clear voice, sword singing, drawing all the drenches to him to tear uselessly at his armour. Ayn and Lithvard joined back to back, hurling contrasting bolts of magical energy – one brilliant white and apocalyptic, the other burning with wrathful fire – until all five dretches were thoroughly consumed, their corpses steaming and wreathes of foul-smelling demon-wrack drifting through the mist. Syrion and Thyvalt entered close combat with the giant red demon, but seeing all its minions scattered it turned to flee, taking the dog demon with it. Seeing it injured and terrified the party decided discretion might be the better part of valour, and quickly halted pursuit. They stood on the edge of the road, panting and gasping in the lantern light, Syrion cursing a myriad cuts and small burns and Cog 11 leaning against a fence post, staring into the mist with wide dark eyes.
They moved on. The hell-hole beckoned, a green glow in the mist ahead.
Closer to the hell hole the mist was burnt away, revealing the creek bed limned in green light from the hell hole, over which loomed a scraggly willow tree. The willow tree and nearby bushes were cast into stark relief against the distant fog by the green light of the hole, which scintillated and purred in the shadows of the far creek bank, ominous and impure. As they approached a demon slunk out of the hole and into the mist, reality shimmering disturbingly as it hauled itself through the dimensions and into reality.
Syrion grunted and charged forward, his sword leaving a trail of sparks on the stones of the creek bed as he rushed in to guard the hole. Everyone else followed, trying to hold their fear at bay as they realised that the creek bed was now swarming with demons, materialising out of that hideous gap in space and time as the characters attacked. The two demons they had fought before came crashing through the brush of the far side of the creek to join the battle, as a hell hound and a green-skinned, spiky human-like thing popped out of the whole, stinking of sulphur and rot and snarling with anger. The green thing, the red winged monster and its dog-haired friend all attacked Syrion, determined this time to snuff him out; the hellhound struck at Thyvalt. Syrion, laying about him with his sword, yelled to Thyvalt and Ayn to begin the ritual, but they refused to leave him, and joined battle. Ayn called on her gods, who were apparently more terrified of demons than she, for they abandoned her and her flame pillars fizzled uselessly in the demonic mist. The great red thing took a vicious swipe at Lithvard, a blow so ferocious it would surely have killed the little druid, but Syrion stepped in at the last moment and took the brunt of it on one armoured shoulder, grunting as something important gave way inside his enormous chest. Somewhere a demon cast a spell, and Thyvalt began attacking Lithvard, useless in his confusion but a confusing threat nonetheless. While Lithvard struggled with Thyvalt to try and bring him back from darkness, the dog-haired demon turned on Syrion, halberd striking at shield and armour. Ayn continued to aid him, striking with her sword at any demon that came close enough, while Cog tried to ambush the big red thing and Syrion desperately fended off a cascade of monstrous blows. The demons were grinding them down, but somehow they fought them off. Syrion smashed the halberd-wielding dog-haired demon and Cog disembowelled the green-skinned thing, appearing out of the mist at its feet and gutting it from hip to hip. Thyvalt recovered from his confusion and he and Lithvard dispatched the others – just as a new beast, made entirely of mist and shadows, appeared from the deeps. Gasping with exhaustion, everyone turned on it and cut it to ribbons before it could even fully draw itself from the hole, and for a moment the creek bed was suffused with calm, a calm broken only by the gentle hissing, popping, groaning sound of dying demons dissolving and rotting and returning to their foul brood nests.
Time being suddenly on their side, Thyvalt and Ayn began the ritual. Thyvalt plunged his sword into the ground, and Ayn began chanting, clutching the sword and swaying from side to side, looking for all the world like a singing shade in her uniform of flowing black robes, dimly illuminated in the sickly green light of the hell-hole and swathed in mist. Lithvard noticed something about the tree and began to investigate it. While this was happening more demons started dragging themselves from the hole, and Syrion, Thyvalt and Cog set about the unpleasant business of slaughtering them as they came.
A grim and desperate battle followed, as new demons emerged from the hole only to be cut down by the three defenders, who began to suffer increasing damage from the claws and teeth of the fiends. Clouds gathered and mist began to swirl around the fixed point where the sword was embedded in the ground. The sword itself had begun to glow red hot, and Ayn was trembling and shaking in fear. Glowing glyphs appeared and hung in the air, shimmering in the mist, forming a tenuous pattern in the air around the sword. The ground began to rumble and the hell-hole grew gradually brighter, becoming so bright that the branches of the willow tree cast shadows on the overhanging clouds. As Syrion, Cog and Thyvalt fought on, Lithvard talked to the tree and Ayn chanted, and the glyphs began to pulse in unison. Ayn’s voice grew in strength, and she hurled an imprecation at the sky:
Thou shalt not envy the light, thou shalt not spread thy demonic blight.
Thou shalt not defile what is right
Thou shalt perish in the night
More demons began clambering from the hole, but now the mist and the overhanging clouds were beginning to be sucked into the hell-hole, stray tendrils at first and then larger, thicker strands of mist as the hell-hole began to swirl and groan. Syrion slew the last extant demon, and the demons crawling out of the whole began to waver, fighting now against some powerful force from below that gripped them and began to stretch them. They screamed and struggled, but to no avail – Ayn’s wrath had them now, and the sword was flaring up with purpose. The tree began to move under Lithvard’s guidance, its roots reaching out to curl around the whole and choke it off, entangling the emerging demons and drawing them back in, choking and breaking as it did so. Its branches grabbed arms and spines, tearing them off and beginning to seal up the hole. Demons screamed and the hole began to narrow, glowing brighter and roaring like the wind through doorway in winter. The tree roots tightened their grip, and horrible crunching sounds and screams resounded through the creek as the demons met their horrible end. Moments later, with an anti-climactic sigh and a blink, the whole was gone. Our heroes stood in an empty, darkened creek bed, blinking at the darkness and tripping over the roots of an old, hoary willow tree. The battle was over. They had prevailed!
Exhausted, they lowered their weapons. Syrion, covered in bruises and scratches, shoulder broken, battered beyond mortal endurance, sank down onto his shield and then, with a shudder, fell sideways, to lie on the dusty ground moaning and gasping. Ayn fell to her knees, shaking in terror at things only she had seen. Lithvard leaned against the tree, panting and muttering his thanks, while Thyvalt looked around in exhausted wonder. Cog 11 emerged from the mist, flicking demon ichor from his face and panting, though unhurt.
They had closed a hell-hole.
Somewhere far away, the hooded servant of a giant dragon approaches it, bows and speaks. “My lord, shall we execute the plan? All arrangements are in place.” The dragon moves its huge eye slowly, alien iris narrowing so that only the narrowest slit of black cut through the gold of the iris. “No,” it hissed, the very ground trembling at the restrained power of its mighty voice. “It is too late. The scent is gone.”
The characters knew nothing of these icons. They rested on the creek bed until some of them had regained a little strength, and then carried Syrion back to the village. They emerged into the village square with the first light of dawn, Syrion still unconscious on a makeshift litter, groaning in pain and exhaustion.
They had closed a hell-hole. They had prevailed against all the forces of hell. What next for them? They could feel it moving now – some fate had them in its grip. Where would it take them, and what would become of them? Only time, and many adventures, would tell…