by Robert Currer
Complete Story – 2000 Words
This story contains strong elements of body horror. Reader discretion is advised.
You look pale,” said the tavernkeeper. Her eyes squinted suspiciously from beneath the hard line of a greasy unibrow as she recoiled slightly at the sight of me. In her hand was the steaming bowl of chowder I had ordered. “You don’t carry plague to my bar?” I thought it was probably a question but with her meaty accent it could have been a command.
“N—no, Ma’am. I’m quite well,” I said, trying to control the chattering of my teeth. They felt loose in my gums. Fire raged in the round, central hearth painting the walls in eerie dancing shadows. If there was heat to accompany the glow, I had no sense of it. A chill had sunk deep into my bones on the ship, and I had yet to find the warmth to chase it out.
Her black eyes narrowed as her thick arm drew the chowder closer to her chest as if to shield it from my foulness.
A booming, feral laugh cut the tension like a cutlass as Jirko appeared at her elbow. “Not ta fret, Kala! Lad’s as hale and hearty as yer horse!” The one-eyed dwarf slapped the tavernkeeper on the back with such zeal that anyone else might have been knocked to the floor. Kala, however, remained stone still, scowling at him through the corners of her eyes.
“I don’t own horse,” she growled.
Jirko’s smile widened so that his golden tooth was visible and, in a more conspiratorial volume, said, “The boy’s just arrived through The Mists. That be enough ta make anyone pale.” His accent was an oddly blended brogue that I had never quite been able to place. There were many things about Jirko that mystified me, but he had not abandoned me to my illness. That was more than most.
Kala’s unibrow softened and she lay the creamy chowder in front of me. “You eat. Kala’s chowder will chase chill from bones like hounds chase hare.” She said this with a kind of iron fisted pride but, behind it, there was a glimmer of kindness that would not quite quit her black eyes. It may have been the last real kindness I ever saw.
Jirko sidled onto the bench next to me after Kala left. Following a furtive glance about the crowded room, he leaned in and asked, “Is it gettin’ worse, yer condition?”
It was. My bones felt brittle like glass. I couldn’t manage to get warm and yet my skin was perpetually coated in a film of grimy sweat. My joints were swollen to where I could feel each individual tendon and ligament. But worst of all was the throbbing, brain melting migraine that had blossomed in the center of my skull. The agony of it blurred my vision and churned my gut. Corroded by torment, my temper was beginning to fray.
I felt the other patrons around me like ants on my skin. Drinking their stinking ale. Griping about empty nets. Whispering lurid gossip. Parasites. What right did they have to comfort when I suffered so? Putrid insects, no more significant than dust motes on the wind, just waiting for a boot crunch their bones and—the migraine dulled slightly, and my wits returned all at once. Where did that come from? How could I think that about these beleaguered, desperate people?
“No,” I said hastily. “It’s actually a little better, I think.”
Jirko smiled without showing any teeth. “Good, good. Eat yer chowder. We’ll go to see the healer shortly.”
“Can’t we go now?” I hoped he could not hear the desperation in my voice.
“I’ve sent word ahead. He’ll just be ready for us by the time we arrive. Not ta fret.” He patted my pallid, boney hand with perfunctory reassurance. A bubble of searing rage popped inside me so that I could feel the rising rancor in my chest, thick and caustic like acid tar. With effort, I wrestled it back down. He said, “Eat yer chowder. You’ll need warmth back in yer bones.”
A short time passed which I spend in brooding silence, spooning thick lumps of clam and potato between my thin lips. Meanwhile, Jirko gave sway to his more gregarious nature bounding between the other tables. Yet, he never drifted too far and never let me out of sight. Behind his bravado, wariness hung in his eyes like a specter at the feast.
The night was thick with a chill fog that clung to the cobblestones when at last we took to the streets. Our boots echoed along the vacant avenues. The hollow clicking sounded weak and hunted in the gloaming. Sweat oozed down my forehead stinging my eyes and I gaped my shirt collar as to allow the cool air unhindered access to my chest. A heat had blossomed within me and built steam until I was a boiler to the touch. No place was hotter than the three long claw marks down my back, a secret shared only with Jirko.
He led the way at a brisk pace that my shuffling, weakened stride found difficult to match. Paltry wind wheezed in and out of my chest such that when paired with the pounding blood in my ears sounded to my fever addled mind like an orchestra tuning up for one final dirge. Through winding lanes and back alleys, we wove our way through the dingy harbor district until I could not have even told you which way to the water. All the while, each stumbling step was a marathon until finally my legs gave way and I tumbled to my hands and knees, coughing and retching until my ribs felt like they would crack.
Blood from my lips spattered across the damp stone, twining with the droplets into a sinister dew. The hacking was forcing something thick and slimy up my windpipe. A thing fleshy and slick with blood and mucus deposited itself in my mouth. A final gagging hawk forced it out to the ground where it struck with a heavy slop.
I gawked at the morsel of gore dolloped on the cobblestones. That came from inside me. Mind and guts both wriggled like bloated worms. I coughed up part of me. It did not feel real, more like I was watching some other poor bastard fall to pieces. This could not be my life. What had I done to anyone? I didn’t deserve this! This couldn’t be happening! The lump of phlegmy flesh stared back as if to assert its own existence. The miasma of my reality began to suck me down into madness.
Rope callused fingers gripped me by the scruff and jerked me to my feet. “Don’t eyeball it, lad. All the more reason ta make haste.” Jirko pushed me into a teetering walk. My bones felt loose in their joints like a wobbling tower of children’s blocks and my head was throbbing again with that white-hot pain.
Jirko had hardly rung the bell when the door opened. A coughing spell had overtaken me and I was hunched over hacking bloody sputum into my palm when frigid spidery fingers took me by the elbow. They guided me into the foyer. Through my tearing eyes, I had a vague sense of surrounding opulence. My wet boots sunk pleasantly into a plush rug. The soft lamp light shone off polished mahogany and gleaming brass. Suddenly, like the flash of a powder bomb, the juxtaposition of fates sprayed my insides with a phosphorous rage. Why should I be so poorly off when this insect of a man lived in comfort? Why should I who had never hurt a soul be afflicted with such a fiendish condition while he enjoyed every luxury? It wasn’t fair! I growled a wrathful slur of unintelligible syllables, but the ineloquence of my vitriol only angered me further.
I reared back, my fist balled white-knuckle tight, to swing at this spider-fingered personage so that they might know something of my suffering. Jirko caught me by the wrist and wrestled my arm back as the long, sinuous finger held tighter.
“Oh my. We haven’t a moment to lose,” said a maddeningly placid voice. Bestial noises bellowed from my salivating lips as I thrashed against the two men. My rage went unrequited, weakened as I was, and they managed me handily to a room at the far end of the hall.
The door opened to a garish light that detonated in my head like an exploding star such that I went quite blind with the agony. Momentarily drained of all vitality, I was dragged to an examination table and strapped down with thick leather belts. My vision returned in swirling shades of white. The migraine was ringing in my ears as though my skull was the church bell clapper. Past my feet at the far end of the room by the door, Jirko was saying something to a tall, slender man dressed in clean, starched garments. The slender man extended his spidery hand and deposited a leather pouch, gravid with coin, into Jirko’s eager palm. The dwarf’s one good eye gleamed hungrily.
He looked at me, bound and sweating. A smile curled into his stubbled cheeks as he said, “Twas a pleasure ta make yer acquaintance.” Then, without so much as a look back, Jirko abandoned me to my fate.
The slender man leaned over the table and examined me with ocean blue eyes down a narrow hawkish nose. His hallow cheeks would have held water if he ever laid down in the rain. I raged against the leather restraints rattling the whole table with fury. The man did not even flinch. Indeed, the ghost of a smile manifested on his features. “Oh yes. You arrived in the nick of time,” he said and slipped from sight.
He returned with a squeaking, rattling thing that appeared a large, bowled mirror with an oil lantern suspended beneath a hole cut in the center to serve as a chimney. Another of these contraptions appeared at my other side. The face they reflected back to me was not my own. The eyes had grown red to match the tomato pallor of my cheeks. My head had widened and grown flatter at the top. A huge grin of sharp, grizzled teeth smeared across my now toad-like visage.
I stared into my own manic eyes and saw an infinite swirling void of carnage. I longed to bath in the wanton chaos I saw there, to feel the hot blood of these insects drawn with my own gleaming, black claws splash against my crimson, froggy flesh. There was no hate in the eyes I saw reflected back, only the divine lust of savagery.
The lamps lit, dousing me with painful, bleaching light that ripped me from my rapture. All my bones and joints ached as they stretched and contorted, finishing their transformation into something else. A scream born in my chest burst form my lips a mighty roar that rattled the mirrors. Slitted pupils constricted and acclimated to the light until they could again see their own magnificent reflection. The ruby red face the shone back stretched into a carnal, amphibian grin, all pain and weakness finally departed. I was slaadi now. I knew this as one of a kind instinctually recognizes another.
The slender man reappeared, a gleaming blade balanced in his delicate fingers. “Nearly done. Now to extract that pesky control gem. Do hold still.” His eyes were placid pools of blue. They grew to stormy lakes at the sound of the rending leather belts and white caps foamed in from their edges as my claws pierced his chest. Even after I festooned the clinic with his entrails and painted my warty flesh in streaks of blood, I never forgot the sublime surprise in those watery eyes.
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Chaos Embraced is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.