THE night was sultry. The oppressive tropical heat had worn on Azariah over the last few days. The rest of the party seemed unaffected, but due to his choice attire he got the brunt of the meteorological mugging. He’s not one for sleep usually, but the sticky atmosphere and brutal day of investigative adventuring had made him long for the quiet comfort his non-elven friends derived from the activity. The whole process was foreign for him; he’d never attempted it to be frank. Slowly, as if an audience was watching, he unlatched the golden clasp and let his cloak float to the floor. His dark accomplice stirred from his perch upon his shoulder, then rose his serpentine neck to question Azariah.
“I’m going to try to sleep tonight, it’ll be novel. You can stay next to me.”
His head tilted, confused. After a second, an exasperated squeak came from the snake. Ligotti slid from his arm to the bedside table (which, upon further examination, was just an apple crate on it’s side).
“That’s a good boy.” Azariah smiled at his little friend. He then stiffened his back, squinted his eyes, and slowly dropped trou. It felt awkward and unnecessary, but he knew it would be a requirement in this heat. Soon he stood in only his undergarments. The candle was put out by two pinching fingers. He pulled back the coarse covers and lay down into the thin and stiff bed. His head settled into the soft pillow. Probably full of cassowary feathers, he thought, they’d seen at least seven of them in town and he heard of a farm a day’s travel north of the port town. It was surprisingly soft. Maybe he’d look into getting some of these feathers for himself. He hadn’t seen them before. They were colorful. Strange birds. Can’t fly. The thoughts slowed, then peacefully stopped. He was asleep.
Suddenly the pillow wasn’t soft at all. It felt like a bundle of dried driftwood wrapped in a coarse sack. He sleepily turned his head, and the rough-hewn wood dug into his skull sharply. He lifted his head, and patted the pillow. It felt soft as a cloud to his touch. With half-opened eyes he dropped his head back to the cushion, which greeted him with sharp pointed pain. Azariah shot up, involuntarily crying out in pain. His voice dramatically echoed through the darkness. The room didn’t seem acoustically sound enough for echoes. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, more and more confused by the second.
He placed his bare feet on the rough hewn wood floor, but they met ankle-high grass, crunchy with a wintry frost. His hands stopped mid eye-rub. He paused for a second, not sure what the best next move is. He pulled his hands away and opened his eyes. He was no longer in the ramshackle inn, he found himself sitting on a bed, in a lush and dense taiga.
He stood, cautiously. Azariah had enjoyed his fair share of supernatural encounters, but something here made him uneasy. The bare trunks loomed in front of him, in a complicated smattering which blocked his few much more than 20 feet in front of him. Far above, the canopy interlocked, throwing a sinister shade over the frozen forest.
A cold breeze caught him, and he shivered. Warmth, he needed warmth. Spinning on his bare heel, he reached for the bedsheet to wrap around himself. A large shape twitched beneath the sheet and rolled over. In the bed he had occupied not a moment earlier, a tiger lay. The massive beast’s chest rose and fell in a slow comfortable rhythm. Azariah’ breath quickened, he stumbled backwards and into one of the many trees. It shook and rang like a church bell. The others trees joined in chorus, rattling as one and creating a shrill echo across the vast taiga. The tiger awoke.
It stood with utter ease, its body loose and relaxed. The beast’s head shook, rattling the sleep from its skull. The fearsome feline’s neck swiveled, scouting the surroundings. Its eyes trailed past him, then zoomed on Azariah. It had spotted him. He tried to stand, but he had become frozen with fear. The tiger tensed, and then moved with incredible speed and bewitching grace directly towards him.
Tiger’s breath, it turned out, smells like death. Not the same scent that you would prescribe to a dog, or a man who ate too much garlic, but the death that clogs that man’s arteries, that tugs warriors from battle and parents from children. It smells like everything you’ve feared since you were young, like the exact phenomena which had entranced Azariah for so long. He had craved it, he had cultivated it, ever since peering into the interminable depth with the A-team he had wanted nothing more, and now he was so close to perfect, serrated, ivory-white tools of the trade. The majesty and efficiency of the cat entranced him. His mind raced and his face broke out into an unwitting grin. Of all the ways to go, this was a choice exit.
The tiger huffed, the stench of the grave vaporizing in the chill air. It raised one of its massive paws and laid it flat against Azariah’ chest. Its pads were scratchy from years of hard living, but it’s fur was soft and warm. With its paw on him, the cat began to lean into him, sliding his back down the tree and into a prone position, his face directly beneath the beautiful horror of the tiger’s maw. It licked its lips and Azariah whimpered. Piercing eyes pressed into his mind with a similar, if not greater, force than the paw on his chest. The claws extended, digging into his bare chest. The drow winced, but did not look away from the haunting orange eyes of the beast. The tiger let out a low growl, then spoke.
“You don’t deserve it.”
“Deserve?” Azariah only managed that, stammering slightly as his eyebrows furrowed. Before he could say another word, the tiger pushed on his chest with all it’s strength and the elf slipped beneath the ground, tumbling downwards into endless darkness.
Shapes whizzed about him, with sharp edges and geometric impossibilities skirting by him as he fell. The shapes were distinctly alive, they moved like a fish does, but a fish of unreality. One such being approached the falling man and deconstructed itself, unfolding and refolding itself into three sided squares and halved infinities. Suddenly it was his mother, then it was Julia, then it was his boss, Kilgoth. Kilgoth opened his mouth to speak, but thousands of tiny scorpions poured out instead, deflating the half-elf and flying away on the wind.
Another in the distance was spasming between what seemed like places. Azariah saw the Doomgate Inn, then a volcano, then a vast desert dotted with palm trees and camels. Then it was a larger Doomgate Inn, with more amenities and rooms, as if it had been given a makeover. Before long it melted away, pooling together in a perfect reflective sphere. Azariah reached for the sphere. As soon as his finger imperfected it’s globular arrangement, the fluid flowed up his arm, slowly encasing him in a foreign liquid which looked like mercury. He jerked his hand away, but the substance flexed with him and followed, beginning down his bare chest and downwards.
Soon he was entirely covered up to the neck in the stuff. It began to flow upwards, crossing his mouth. When he opened it, it filled with an unending gush of whatever it is. It tasted like dental equipment, cold and sterile. He couldn’t spit it out and he didn’t trust it enough to swallow. It continued up his face, closing off his nose. He smelt a familiar odor, that of Kiwi Beestinger. It lingered for just a moment, because once the mercurial liquid burned at his eyes, Azariah blinked, and was transported.
It looked, at least upon first glance, to be an average library. He looked left, right, then blinked. The library was no longer the same. Different shelves, a different table, a ladder now. He blinked again, a new section of some library. He blinked five times in rapid succession, returning to a unique section of the repository time after time. He strained his eyes and picked up a book, he couldn’t focus his eyes on the lettering, it all came out a blur to him. He scratched his beard thoughtfully. He shut and relaxed his eyes for awhile after dropping the book. Azariah made sure his eyes enjoyed this short respite, as when he teleported next, he planned on exploring.
Upon opening them, he was face-to-face with an elderly half-orc, inspecting a book with a magnifying glass. He was wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and had faint wispy gray hair, wrapped about the sides of his bald head, and never reaching the top. His half-moon glasses sat low and tiny on his hooked nose. He looked up, a warm smile coming across his face.
“And you must be Azariah Drow’b himself!” He pleasantly said, his loud cheery voice filling the quiet library.
“Hello… friend. I am that man, I suppose.” Azariah said, almost surprised at himself. “And who do I have the pleasure of meeting here? Wherever here is.” He hastily added.
“Let’s just say I’m an old tenured professor. And this is where I give lessons, to folks like you.” He smiles at himself, tucks the magnifying glass into a jacket pocket and gingerly places the book on the table. “Sorry about the blinking.” He waves his hand absentmindedly. “ It’s a safety precaution around here.”
“Get a lot of trouble?” Azariah’ eyes were watering, he wasn’t too great at staring contests.
“Just enough,” the professor said. He had a twinkle in his eye.
“What is this place?” A single tear rolled down the drow’s right cheek, and he quickly added.”Could I try winking, one at a time?”
“Sure you can! I’m not sure it’ll work, but why not try?” He chuckled heartily.”This is my library! It contains all knowledge, and is sort of a bucket list item for many people.” Azariah closed his right eye slowly. It seemed to have worked, he wasn’t transported anywhere. He slowly repeated the process, giving his left eye a respite as well.
“Why am I here?” Azariah questioned, as he fell into a peculiar rhythm of winks. The professor chuckled lightly.
“Do you want to die?” He questioned. Azariah smiled.
“You could say, that’s on my bucket list.”
“You have had a long, long life. But, even for a Drow, not the fullest. Certainly not the fullest I’ve ever seen!” The odd half-orc chuckled again. Azariah stopped his winking and stared, perplexed by this strange man.
“Didn’t you say you had something to teach me?”
“Well I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise, now would I?”
“Let’s begin then. Shall we, friend?” Azariah was slightly frustrated by the professor’s demeanor, his default endearment coming out with a twinge of insincerity.
“I believe we’ll begin momentarily, friend.” The mystery man tapped his nose twice and smiled.
“Just tell me what’s going-” Azariah blinked then,”-on here…” His voice fell to a whisper as he was transported far from the library. Instead he sat on the crow’s nest of a schooner left adrift in a dark bay. The wood creaked dully in the chilled night air, the measured waves lapping against the bow, the calm dark periodically cut by a caw from circling gulls. Azariah scanned the dim horizon and saw no land, no anything. The ship was devoid of crew. Suddenly the craft lurched to starboard, tipping dangerously. Gravity stole his balance and Azariah slid from the floor of the crow’s nest, almost over the edge entirely, but he managed to grip the railing with white knuckles. The schooner was nearly horizontal, Azariah hung just feet from the ocean’s uneven blackness. Pale moonlight illuminated his horrifying predicament.
He moved to pull himself up, hoisting his chest onto the sideways railing. The elf shifted his shoulders to the right, to make room to raise his left leg upwards. As he lifted it, seawater coiled from below, snaking upwards towards him. It moved like an opposable appendage. The sentient liquid wrapped itself around the left leg and tugged, pulling Azariah back to his bare knuckle hang. The drow glanced down. He pulled his leg upwards, to test the foul flow. As soon as he felt resistance, he was tugged again. His hands slipped and he splashed down into the drink.
It was heavier than normal water, despite his scant attire he felt burdened by some invisible weight, beckoning him downwards into the growing darkness. The salt water stung his eyes, which upon opening did not see much. It seemed the only visible thing was tiny motes, probably plankton or other microscopic creatures, which lit up white in the moonlight. His lungs burned from abuse, his body cried out for air desperately.
He hated that orc. His mind was abuzz, ‘What sort of lesson is murder? How will my friends discover my death? How did this happen? Would my friends care about me once I was drowned? Does that matter? Didn’t you want to die? Why, now, do you care so much about what they thought of me?’ Azariah sunk, not putting up much of an effort. As he fell he gradually gained speed, particles whizzing by like missed magic missiles. After what felt like an eternity falling, he opened his lungs expecting a rush of cold water, expecting the end. It didn’t come.
The air was comfortably cool, refreshing even, The bits of aquatic miscellanea that flew by him looked more like snowflakes now. He looked down and saw, not the ocean floor, but a cozy little settlement nestled in familiar woods coated with a smooth blanket of snow. The snow looked incredibly comfortable, welcoming even. It would’ve been the perfect way to go. Would’ve been, of course, if Azariah had wanted to die. In this moment, his final moment, he wanted nothing more than to live.
A snowy bank, about twenty feet from a cottage with smoke billowing out of its chimney, grew near. Fifty feet from the ground. Tears began to roll off the elf’s face and fly away from him. Thirty feet from the ground. The acrid smoke from the woodfire filled his nostrils. Twenty feet from the ground. He heard a child’s muffled giggle from inside the walls of the cabin. Ten feet from the ground. He shut his eyes.
Then, he woke up. His breath, short and heavy. His eyes squinted, scrunched, shut, and opened again. He wiped the tears from his face. The sun was rising on the tropical colony, its light peeking through the shoddy blinds. He swung his feet from the bed and stood. Ligotti leapt from the apple crate to his arm as Azariah dressed himself. He rubbed his eyes again before heading to the common room to meet the party.
Julia sat in an overstuffed chair, the room empty except her and now, Azariah. He sat across from her, on a wooden table designed for merrymaking and gambling. He pursed his lips and shook his head slightly before rubbing his eyes again.
Without looking up from her map, Julia responded. “What’s wrong, Azariah?” She looked at him after giving a satisfactory underline to whatever she was working on.
“Do you sleep… every night?” He asked, ignoring her inquiry.
“Yes, why?” She looked at him closer.
“Just wondering.” He deflected with a half-smile. The younger, wiser woman studied his face, nodded slowly and picked up her quill. He stood slowly and began to leave.
“I’ll wake the others.” He said as he opened the common room door.
“Ok, hope you had a good night’s sleep!” She casually called after him. He paused, one hand on the doorframe, back to her, then smiled.
“I think…” He paused, “I think I did.”