Deep within the bowels of the Caster Swamp, a cave pulses with putrid, green light. The area around the cave reeks of death with silenced frogs floating belly-up in the bubbling water. Blackened willows twist in unnatural shapes to shield the entrance of the cave from wandering eyes. Swarms of maggots squirm on the bodies of creatures that were unfortunate enough to wander too close to the twisted trees. The corpses of animals and men seem to writhe and breathe as the larvae feast on them. Several of the deceased show signs of a violent death with black arrows embedded in their chest or throat. The only other living creature in the area is a red-eyed crow perched above the cave entrance. Its hellfire eyes scan the area for anything that can bleed and scream.
“It is almost time for our plans to continue,” whispers a voice from deep within the cave. The shaky voice resembles a serpent’s hiss being carried on a strong wind. “Are you there, servant?”
The crow gently glides to the ground before transforming into an armored warrior. Jagged ears sticking out of a mass of black and red-streaked hair bring attention to the cold face of this creature. The green hue to its skin stands in contrast to the black armor that covers most of its muscular frame. It is a thick gothic plate that covers everything except for the head and hands of this monster. Its shoulder plates are covered in four-inch spikes that appear to subtly twist in place. A quiver of ebony arrows is strapped to its belt while an elegant longbow of red-stained bone crosses over a serrated sword on its back. Only the creature’s crimson eyes remain the same from when this demon masqueraded as a crow.
“How dare you stand!” the voice hollers as the transformation finishes.
The creature slowly drops to one knee and bows its head. “I am sorry, master. I await your orders.”
“Of course, you do,” continues the Lich, who remains hidden in the bright light. “These past three months we have been forced to heal while that boy lives on in victory. This has been more than unacceptable.”
“I am sorry, master,” growls the demon.
“Enough with your apologizing!” the necrocaster exclaims. “You are a disgrace to your kin. A Hellfire Elf is supposed to kill. Not be defeated by a youth!”
“I make no excuses. He is stronger than we thought,” the demon says, the taste of rage on its lips. “I did not see you have any more luck against him than I did, especially since you had him alone while I battled him when he had allies. While you are my master, I will not take such words from a formless caster who claims to be stronger than I.”
“You dare speak against me! I should send you back to the Chaos Void in pieces for such talk. My plan was brilliant. I had no idea that the boy would subject himself to so much pain for a simple victory. His reckless insanity undid my plan along with that wretched drite,” the Lich says, his voice beginning to weaken. “A simple trap and that boy’s mediocre skills defeated you. It does not matter that his friends were there because they did nothing to you. They did not even raise a weapon at you. The boy caused all of your injuries. Now, he is better trained and more disciplined. It will be harder for you to run with your tail down during the next encounter.”
“You insult me too much, master,” the demon warns him, patting his sword threateningly.
The Lich’s laugh cuts through the breeze. “You are a cowardly failure.”
The demon roars before unleashing a savage punch that powders a pile of rocks near the monster’s feet. The Hellfire Elf slowly rises from his knee before walking toward the cave entrance. It draws its sword as it trudges into the green maw of stone, but it is suddenly hurled back by an invisible barrier. The demon lands on a rotting elk carcass before jumping back to its feet and howling at the cave. It is a noise that echoes throughout the entire Caster Swamp and lasts for minutes.
The pulse of green light starts to dim as silence fills the cave and the surrounding swampland. The Hellfire Elf continues to quiver with rage as it dwells on its defeat at the blades of an inexperienced youth. It can’t help but get angrier when it looks at its left shoulder. A blunt stump among the spikes is a burning reminder of the battle. The demon is about to howl again when an eerie sigh drifts from the cavern.
“This bickering does nothing,” the Lich begrudgingly admits. “I will not apologize, but I will no longer obsess over those failures. You know what you must do. Luke Callindor and Kellia Solomon must not make it out of Visindor Forest alive.”
“I swear that I will defeat him during our next encounter,” the Hellfire Elf responds with a wide grin. “If I fail then it will be by my destruction in battle. I swear on the tongues of the Demon Lords.”
The grin is short-lived as a volley of metal spears erupts from the trees, impaling themselves into the ground to form a cage around the Hellfire Elf. Several cloaked forms silently appear around the cave with glinting crossbows trained on the monster. Another form materializes within arm’s reach of the demon and stares at it with a face covered in shadows. Three eyes of violet are all that the demon can see beneath this person’s deep cowl.
“Who dares to intrude upon my realm?” demands the Lich.
“Shut up, Lich. I have been ordered to give you and your pet some support,” says the cloaked figure, the voice unmistakably female. “I am also under orders to act as your hands until you regenerate new ones. A very sweet deal for me since it means any screw-ups will be placed entirely on your shoulders instead of mine. I’m tempted to make a mistake on purpose just to see what our master does to you. Though, he does love to torture both of us, so I should not push my luck.”
The figure removes the cloak to reveal a slender, elven frame covered in tight leather armor, which is obviously more for seduction and easy movement than protection. Her pristine, cobalt skin glimmers in the moonlight as she turns toward her men. The remaining cloaked figures pull back their hoods to reveal pointed ears and cobalt skin like their leader. All of these elves bow their heads in an act of respect for this stunning woman. She nods to each of them before she turns back to the demon. The third eye that had caught the demon assassin’s interest is nothing more than a violet gemstone embedded in her forehead. A graceful hand passes through her ebony hair as she silently walks past the Hellfire Elf. The chaos elf stops mere inches from the cave entrance and leans inside without hesitation.
“A good host should make the introductions,” she declares with an impish smile. “Especially when a lady is in their presence.”
“Very well, your highness,” the Lich venomously says. “May I introduce one of my colleagues, servant. This woman is none other than the High Queen of the chaos elves. Your power and cunning is much appreciated, Queen Trinity. I hope this means I am forgiven by our master.”
“Not in the least,” Trinity snaps with a pleasant giggle. “It means he does not trust you and would rather trust a person like me. As I said, my job is to be your hands since your body is still mending. I have very little independence on this job. I should mention that I do this under protest. I could always be tempted to avenge one of my people who you sacrificed for that demon. Garna was one of my most loyal spies and her only failure was in your service. The fact that you had the audacity to sacrifice her for a Hellfire Elf instead of sending her to me is grounds for me to turn on you at my earliest convenience.”
Trinity pauses to swallow her growing rage before speaking again. “That is if I was not under orders to work with you and leave dear Garna in the past. Our master wants us to work together due to your . . . current disability. I am not in any position to argue.”
“We do not need a woman,” the Hellfire Elf growls.
Trinity turns with a mischievous gleam in her eyes and aims her palms at the proud, caged demon. Just like her forehead, a violet gemstone is embedded in each of her palms. They glow brightly as a silent spell is cast. The Hellfire Elf’s face erupts in confusion and fury when it feels its body begin to transform. Without its permission, the demon turns into a red-streaked bunny.
Trinity swiftly grabs the bunny by the ears and turns it to her face. “I may be a woman, but that should make you even more cautious. My gender can be a lot crueler than you give us credit for, especially a female chaos elf. Please try to work with me, little demon. I would hate to waste more magic on you than I already have. Do we have an understanding or should I skin and cook you for my men?”
“My servant understands, your majesty,” the Lich answers for the demon.
She tosses the bunny into a murky pool before turning back to the cave. “Good. Now, what is your plan? Our master has ordered me to listen to you, so I refuse to do any planning unless you think it is best that I do things my way. I am also under orders to give you ten of my best men to work alongside your demon. They should be used in your main attack and not for anything less. It is your choice to ignore this request. After all, the blame still goes to you even if you try to put the plans into my slippery hands.”
“You’re enjoying my position, aren’t you?” the Lich angrily asks.
Trinity licks her lips and pretends to be in ecstasy. “Immensely.”
“We only have a few days before our targets start their voyage to Gods’ Voice. They must be destroyed before they can leave this area or we may never get another chance,” the Lich rants. A sudden movement from Trinity forces him to stop talking. “Why are you shaking your head?”
Trinity leans against the cave entrance and waves her hand through the green light. “You really are a fool. Selenia will still be a factor if you attack in this area. An army of monsters failed to kill that woman and her inexperienced students. You would be sending my men and your little demon to a pointless death. Feeble planning like this is exactly why you are no longer in favor with our master.”
“My fall from his favor is a temporary situation,” the Lich hisses, his voice becoming a higher pitch. “What do you suggest? I give you permission to voice your opinion in this matter.” The cave glows a brighter shade of green as his frustration becomes evident. A skeletal fist can be seen in the back of the cave before the light dims again.
“As I said, going anywhere near Selenia with your limited resources would be a tactical error,” Trinity explains, talking slowly and meticulously as if she is speaking to a child. “You have to send our small attack force to cut off Kellia and her protectors while they travel toward Gods’ Voice. They will be cut off from their powerful allies and you will have the advantage of surprise as long as you are patient. Also, our targets will take the quickest route to Gods’ Voice to lower the risk of an incident. This means they will have to take the L’dandrin River to Freedom, which requires a few stops that we can set traps in. I will gladly prepare various obstacles for them at these ports if you so desire. Of course, we should wait until they believe that they are safe from danger before we use our real attack. It will be a grueling physical and mental gauntlet that could, at the very least, claim half of these heroes before they reach Gods’ Voice.”
The Lich cannot help but cackle in appreciation. “That is a plan. I already have an agent in Vorgabog. I will send him a message to prepare for our enemies to arrive within two weeks. If I combine this agent with your plan then we shall definitely succeed. You are a skilled and cunning strategist, your highness.”
“That goes without saying,” she claims with a mock yawn. “Now, there is another surprise on our side, one that even I know nothing about.”
The Hellfire Elf finally shifts back into its true form. It cautiously moves between Trinity and the cave, glowering at the leather-clad woman. “What is this surprise?”
“A double-agent. All I know is that an ally of the Callindor is on our side,” Trinity says with an exaggerated shrug. “Our master was only willing to tell me that this agent will play an important role in this journey and that he or she is very powerful. It could be anyone that the Callindor has met or anyone that he will meet in the near future. For all I know, it is a disguised sailor on the ship that they will be traveling on. The only ally that I know it can’t be is that sun priest. I believe his name is Aedyn Karwyn. I did some research on him and found that he is legitimate.” She pulls a waterskin off her belt for a quick drink before the Hellfire Elf approaches her again.
“I do not care about such things. Subterfuge is useful in the hunt, but pointless in combat,” the demon bluntly claims. “I do not like having two masters. This is . . . frustrating.” It looks from the cave to Trinity with a feral, tooth-baring snarl.
Trinity gently strokes the demon’s cheek, her cool hand leaving a trace of frost on his skin. “Don’t worry, little demon. I know you did your best before now and I will reward your efforts. I place my men under your leadership. Of course, the Lich and I will give the real orders, but you will lead the charge. Is that acceptable?”
“Very well, I will discuss tactics with your men. Come, lessers!” the demon orders the chaos elves, turning to leave. The chaos elves look to their queen for assurance and get a nod of approval. They silently follow the demon into the swamp, but they stay at a distance and keep their crossbows ready.
“I do not appreciate your joy at my pain,” the Lich states.
“That makes the joy a thousand times sweeter,” Trinity says, licking her lips with her silver tongue. “Your demon is very passionate about his work. It will be fun to see him fight the Callindor with such passion. Now, I must be going.”
“And where are you off to?” the Lich asks suspiciously
Trinity laughs deliciously as she puts on her cloak. “My dear, decaying fool, you should realize that a gauntlet does not set itself. I have many towns and villages to visit and several traps to put in place. You will not see me again until this mission is over. I promise to keep you updated through your demon. Good luck regaining favor with our master. You will certainly need it.”
All three gemstones start to glow in the darkness of her cloak until their light covers Trinity entirely. With a puff of smoke and clap of sound, she vanishes from the Caster Swamp. Nobody is around to see a skeletal hand grip the edge of the cave entrance. Clothed in greasy rags and green light, the pathetic remains of the Lich stagger out of the cave for the first time in months. He can feel his body healing with every agonizing step. A murky pool acts as his mirror as he touches his skinless, broken face.
“Soon I will be whole again,” he whispers, a hint of longing in his voice. He mutters a spell and absorbs the life from the moss around him. With his skin healing even faster, the Lich returns to his cave in cackling ecstasy.