It started as any other day.
I got out of my bed, and my bodyguard passed me the wash basin. A quick wash and then I was out. On to the main part of my day.
"Come Araxas, we have work to do." I gestured to him to move faster as I happily went for the stairs.
"We always do, sir..."
"Hurry, hurry. Don't drag your feet!"
A good merchant did not waste time after all. I had already bathed yesterday night, and mornings were always especially busy in this city.
Not that it could be called much of a city yet. It was decently large of course, but the rather barren landscape around prevented it from becoming particularly profitable. It was more of a waste of money, and the people knew it. The population was far less than the size would suggest. Perhaps a few thousand at most.
The only reason it could even operate was the funds from the Kingdom. Why they bothered was as obvious to me as any other demon that knew some history. I didn't see the point though. There was no way that they could ever fix what had occurred.
They should have been glad that it was contained even. But no! They still wanted to mess with the place! Well, today at least, I would be out of here. Some junior from my company could manage the place now. I sure wasn't risking my neck out here any longer.
"You seem happy sir."
"Of course! We're finally leaving the damned place after all! Come, come. Just one more shift!"
There were some groaning noises downstairs as the heavy front door was opened. It had been expensive to install but it would hold out a good bit if anybody - or anything for that matter - tried to break it down.
I carefully went down the staircase. As should always be in places like this, it was efficient. Just a regular slope down to the first floor. None of that spiralling that I normally used. The shop was small enough as is without wasting space like that. It felt bigger with the light colors though; shades of white and yellow.
I had always enjoyed light colors. Far easier on the eyes than the harsh reds that I had to deal with on a daily basis.
"Light colors are nice aren't they?"
"I'm sure they are sir."
"Tsk tsk tsk. You don't understand interior design do you? You poor poor brute you."
"As you say..."
Ah well. I could bother him later as well.
Not to mention, I had found that with the Voidlands being a drab and depressing place anyway, some light colors added more to the store's appeal than the products.
Bright colors and light hurt the eyes after getting used to the constant darkness here, and dark colors were just depressing.
Yes indeed, white and yellow were pretty colors indeed. If there was one thing I could thank those crazy idiots in the North for, it was bringing these paints and dyes to my life.
The items inside the shop were boring and normal though. Clay bottles for potions and the like, and dull metallic colors for the weapons.
There was no cheer to speak of there. Nor from my employees.
Tall, brutish, and covered head-to-toe in dark steel armor.
Their smiles would likely be scarier than just staying expressionless.
"""Good morning master."""
"Good morning. Let's have a profitable last day, yes?"
No, what brought customers to me was brand name. The Arclight company was a big name after all. But if it was just general goods, even other companies were here for those. Like that one.
No, what I had to offer was specialty goods. Refined magic crystals were always bought from me. Nobody else had the same quantity. Or variety. The local stores could never compete. I could bring in things like Ice and Thunder crystals, but the local monsters were only of the void or pseudo-void, or death. None of those elements were particularly profitable as magic crystals.
I practically skipped through the aisles, heading for the storefront. The dry, cold air hit me like a wall as I reached it.
I looked out at the sun, the dim ball of light was still just rising. It would be a long day until I left...
I looked back once at my employees and did a quick stroll around the store; nitpicking with the items on display I moved them around until I heard the sound of footsteps.
Turning around, I bowed to the many customers already filing in, "Welcome dear customers!"
"Haha good morning sir. I'd like the usual again."
"Ah Bret. Nice to see you again," an employee passed him his crate of fire crystals, "you take it easy with that now. Take a break every now and then! Wouldn't want to have one of my regulars disappearing on me."
Bret chuckled as he paid, "No no, I wouldn't dare disappear on you sir. Ah, have a good day!"
His spot was filled as soon as he left. I didn't know these ones though.
A tall Rejuman at the lead and a small party of imps.
"May I help you?"
"Ah, some ice crystals."
Hardly surprised, I picked up a nearby crate and passed it, accepting the coins. "Have a good day."
Not very friendly. Ah well. Every day had a mix.
The sun was starting to fall back down. It was almost time to leave.
The preparations were already done. Three carriages with Corrupt Horses to pull them. Out of my employees, only ten were coming with me. The remaining thirteen would handle the store.
They would be fine. No, I was more worried about myself. I had heard many a story of the Voidlands. In its long history, many an army had been swallowed. Even the travellers died half the time crossing the place.
Hopefully, nothing would happen though. My own employees were strong, and we were travelling with Styx and his sidekick after all.
"Alright, let us depart. Those staying, good luck. I entrust the store to you, and remember to teach your juniors well when thet arrive."
"""We will do our best master! Safe travels!"""
They certainly had the enthusiasm.
I walked out, into the narrow streets, and my team came with me.
"To the main gate."
Crowding around me, they made a buffer and pushed their way through the passerby.
This was one of the busier streets after all. There had been talks of reorganizing the streets to ease the congestion, but no one wanted to have their home or store demolished.
Actually, that was partially our fault, since our presence caused the place to become a marketplace.
There was not much to see, and no one talked as they quietly moved around each other on their business.
The ever-present black fog made it hard to see too far though, so no one rushed.
I didn't bother trying to navigate the labyrinthine city. Almost every building looked the same; grey blocks with doors in them. The streets too were just paths in between rows and columns of blocks; a cold, organized layout.
They were finely textured and even had bricks and everything, but they were too immaculate in design, looking instead like featureless cubes and floors.
Even my own store had looked thus until I had it renovated.
The carriages would be waiting down by the main gate, as would the Duke's son.
...I dislike the natural silence in this city. I really do. No animal noises. No loud sounds of conversation. No sounds of somebody opening their window to call out to a neighbour. None of that. The entire city was silent and business-like.
Ah, being back home would be nice...
"Sir, I'm moving the carriages over. We're blocking the road."
"Peh. Hardly much of a road."
I pinched my nose and waved off Araxas. "Do as you wish."
We'd made it to the main gate as expected but the boy was late.
An annoying matter.
However, soon, a shape became clear and I could see the Duke's son followed by the sidekick and...another one. Likely the weird friend I had been warned about.
It - for there was no way to tell if it had a gender, though I would bet it didn't - was a clumsily made, walking hunk of...something. It wasn't metal, whatever it was. Perhaps stone? Yet, it reminded me of hardened tree bark as well.
Not normal trees of course, but...it was definitely strange. Stranger still was that despite looking like a child's poor attempt at making a demon with clay, it walked quite smoothly. Slowly, but not jerkily.
The head was shaped poorly as well, but it seemed to be like a regular helmet, the kind that covered just the top of one's head, and yet it floated slightly above the torso section. Too low to look...normal. And too high to go unnoticed.
From the gap between the torso and helmet, two purplish...tears peeked out. They were roughly shaped, with tendrils branching out everywhere.
Slowly, they pulsated with a purple, sickly glow.
There also looked to be a mouth. A wider, horizontal tear with the corners just peeking out, and a club dragged along behind it.
Somehow, I felt like that thing was watching me, even if they eyes stayed focused straight ahead. It stopped where it was when the other two stopped walking, remaining slightly tilted away from me and a leg placed behind the other.
An awkward pose, but it seemed fine.
Maybe it was. After all, I couldn't imagine there being a proper body there, so bending like that must not have been uncomfortable to it.
What really stuck out though, were the red stains on the club, and small bits of bone that had dried onto it.
However, I couldn't show anything on my face. Not before a Duke's son. Composure was key. Even if the tag-along was struggling not to laugh behind him.
"Ah, nice to see you again Styx! These are the friends you mentioned?"
Smile. Bow slightly. But intimacy, just a bit, to ingratiate myself. It was no secret that the Duke's sons were already trying to detach themselves from him. His name, not his position, was best used here, and a good contact like him was hard to come by in such coincidental circumstances.
"Indeed, and so I presume we are ready to set off then? We have all our belongings with us of course."
Belongings? Just two bags it seemed. Those did not appear to be a lot; perhaps their weapons and a change of clothes or two looked to be all that could fit. And the Duke's son as carrying the tent too.
Well, the tag-along seemed to be the agile type. It was...understandable.
The...armor, did not have anything either. Wouldn't it have been the better choice for carrying luggage then?
"Of course, of course! I'll go ahead then."
It was time to go though. Bonding could wait until they set up camp somewhere. The trip would take a good week even if they travelled with the monster carriages.
First, I walked over to where the carriages were and called out to my employees.
"It's time to leave. Get the carriages moving."
That was all I needed to say. As soon as I finished, they were moving to follow my orders. Competence was something I could always appreciate.
I walked off and took a seat in my own carriage; my bodyguard following me in.
He passed me some chilly sweet called iced milk as we started moving.
"A snack, sir."
It was delightful, if annoying to preserve. It was a sign of wealth on its own though.
"Thank you Araxas."
This kind of milk was hard to acquire in my world. The only beasts that gave milk here were monsters with strange tasting milk.
I had enough of regular milk to be sick of it, but it sold well in other worlds. Such was trade though. Something I was sick of was a rare treat in another world. And their milk sold well here. Funny, really.
I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. If there was anything to see, Araxas could wake me.
Araxas had woken me, so naturally I expected something interesting. What I saw though was the armor brutally bashing a wolf even as it somehow dissolved. The other two looked to be in various stages of...disappearing.
"Araxas, are those corpses...melting? It certainly looks like they are..."
"Actually sir," Araxas pointed out at the dead ones, "if you look closer, it's not exactly melting. There's no...run-off. They're simply...not there."
I could tell I had guessed wrong when I looked closer at the other corpses. They weren't dissolving, but rather pieces of them were simply disappearing slowly. Like melting ice but without the water remaining.
It was only three though, so it was no feat of strength, but certainly interesting enough. My own men and the other two made quick work of the rest of the pack.
After that, though I kept an eye on it, it did nothing impressive. Aside from reacting to anything that moved too much. The rocks kicked around by everyone's feet as they walked or thrown by the carriage's wheels as they moved were all smashed with that club.
"What do you suppose it's doing?" I leaned back in my seat and turned towards him.
"I believe, sir, that it is simply hitting anything it assumes may be a threat. I do recall seeing the boy telling it something as we started moving." Araxas was still watching from the other window.
"That doesn't sound much like a demon would do..."
"It may be a golem sir."
It was indeed seeming more like a golem with that behaviour. Taking something so literally, was certainly not something any intelligent being would do. It could probably be ignored then, but the creator of it was another matter.
Whoever it was that made it, the ability to eat through the wolves so easily would be very useful against most monsters. Or demons for that matter. I wouldn't mind buying a couple of those myself...
"Hm. That was certainly interesting. Thank you." I inclined my head towards Araxas, who simply nodded silently.
Well, if that was all...back to sleep.
I woke the instant the carriage stopped moving. My sleeping habits were carried over from my previous career. And they had served me well as a merchant as well. Many skills seemed to carry over between careers I'd found.
Which was why my regular employees included plenty of former mercenaries and soldiers.
"Araxas? Were there any other incidents?"
"No sir. We just stopped now to set up camp. As you can see they're already on it."
The tents were unloaded and set up from the carriages and a gathering formed at the center.
It was safer that way.
Naturally, a couple men took places around the camp while the armor stopped where it was and looked backwards. It probably planned on staying there...
The Duke's son and his tag-along set up a tent as well.
One of them called out and three of my men walked away from the small line near the second carriage.
They were distributing the food. It was the meat harvested from the wolves.
There was no particular need to specially pack much food, since the monsters would come to you on their own, so like the rest of my men, I settled down to eat some wolf meat.
Araxas had went to the line for me, but they'd moved over to send him to the front. Ah, if only they would drop such formalities...
A quick heating with the fire mage's magic and that was it for preperation. No spices or salt, or side dishes. My men had been reluctant to let me eat with them like this other times as well, but they had given up quickly when I refused to dine seperately.
Some cold meat was many times better than an empty stomach, and I wanted all the space in the carriages for more of the good loot. The necromancer that had been killed recently had been looted by the tag-along and that officer, and I had bought most of it.
Especially the few personal diaries and experiment logs were quite valuable. As was his hoard of course. All those who had been killed by him had had their equipment taken too!
It was a bargain really. The only reason this place made any notable profit. The hermits and other invaders that were killed here always had some loot. Sometimes made up for in quantity instead of quality. Or ransom.
Like that one run away prince from the Egratlee Empire. He'd run away from an engagement but after being captured by the army while hiding out - through me - we'd sold him back for a good three million gold coins. A fair price. Though he'd probably be tormented for the rest of his life by his fiancé.
Well, if we didn't get them, the other monsters in the Voidlands did. The corrupted Guardians especially. If those weren't there, we could have retaken the place years ago.
Araxas brought me a piece of meat. We were only served with the bearest of cutlery. Regular copper plates. I ate silently.
Everyone was eating silently. It was boring, and frankly, a missed opportunity.
I had been waiting for one of them to take a stab at it, but it seemed it was too early for them. I would have to do it. A lively campfire gathering!
"The mood is excellent for some storytelling! Would anyone like to share a story?"
Yet, as soon as I said that, I felt a gaze on my back.
"Araxas. Serve us some wine."
Without showing I had noticed I casually stood up and gestured to Araxas. A glass or two for everybody would be sufficient. And he could check the presence I felt. Whatever it was had only shown up recently.
Araxas shook his head as he came back and passed a stack of simple metal cups out and poured a mouthful or two of strong wine for everyone. They could add water and such on their own.
Finally, I was brought a glass cup and served.
As I took a sip, I slowly turned to sideways. Whatever the thing was, it wasn't moving. Yes, with this, I would see...the armor?
It had turned around to stare at me. The eyes seemed to have shrank some, with more of those thin, fibrous looking cracks extending over the rest of its face.
It did nothing though. Simply stared. Why?
But seeing as it was with the Duke's son and wasn't moving, it was likely fine. Whatever it was, was of no threat...though I would ask after they had dispersed. Showing trust by inquiring privately was a simple, but effective tactic after all.
While I would have liked to have had a simple story telling, the moment the last one put down his glass, they all started looking at each other, expecting one to start. The armor had crept closer while I wasn't looking too.
It seemed they had noticed as well, as they turned to communicate with each other, but the tag-along shrugged and Styx nodded.
Whatever they had shared meant it was safe, right?
Ah, this may have been a bad idea. Nevertheless...a good story...I could start.
I strode confidently into the center as I spoke, attracting their attention. "Ahem. This a story back from my days as a mercenary. It's also what caused me to retire."
That had certainly grabbed their attention.
"We had just gotten a request to explore a mysterious ruins they had uncovered in Higliph." I took a small sip from my glass before continuing. The suspense was best when built slowly. Even if they already knew the end.
Oh, now they were looking interested. Especially the tag along.
"You mean the ones which became a political issue after?"
It seemed he'd heard of it as well.
"Yes, it was that place. Actually, it wasn't so much mysterious as it was old. Just old. Really old in fact. We weren't the only group hired, but we were the only ones sent in. The rest stayed outside. You know, there were lots of odd things about the place, especially looking back."
"Like what, sir?" The tag along looked to have his interest piqued. Not childish innocence though, no, it was the look of a curious researcher. I'd met many of his type. They could be scary when they wanted to be. More so when they didn't. Innocent smiles while experimenting on some poor fool. I would never forget the first time I saw it. I had made a point to be careful around such people after that. But, he was no threat. Right now, it was just a story he wanted.
"It was eerily silent. Clean too. No dust or webs. And, why were there no traps? Usually there were traps in ruins - more often than not they were broken or too old to work - but this place was bereft of them. And yet there were corpses. Old corpses, from the way they had become just bones. Young and old, big and small. But only one race was present. The main demon tribe."
The armor was almost right behind me now. It had snuck over to one of the carriages and was poking its head out the side to peek. Silently.
It didn't make much noise walking either. Or should I say, my own voice muffled it. This thing was scaring me more than the ruins ever did...
"What killed them though?" This time it was one of my own employees. Good, good! They were joining in now too! It seemed having the tag along - who was definitely not important like the Duke's son - take the initiative - and the wine - had loosened them up some.
"I'll tell you what killed them. In general of course. There wasn't only one culprit."
"You don't mean!" Ah, this time it was Garsel. An honorable, if naive soldier. Hard to understand how he even lasted that long as a soldier. But he seemed to have already guessed just what went on in those ruins, sealed away as they were.
"Yes, it's as you think. We found an old diary that was more or less preserved. It was clutched in the hands of one of the younger ones. From it, and the consistent evidence, we concluded it was a shelter of some sort. The ones inside likely starved to death, but started killing each other towards the end....That is, if the bite marks on the bones weren't from some other monster."
Some of the kinder ones among my employees set down their glasses. The boy and 'researcher' leaned in. Araxas was still watching the armor for me. Reassuring.
"The worst was yet to come though."
"Is this about what killed all those people?" The boy this time.
"Yeah, I heard it was a curse or something. That everyone that violated some taboo died." The 'researcher' was wrong. Dead wrong.
"I heard it was some undeground monster that made the ruins its home." The boy was also wrong.
"...I heard that most of the people were actually killed by the city to prevent some news from spreading." Lexar pitched in from his place on top of the third carriage. As an archer he was impressive, but his aim was off this time.
"What killed us was what lurked in those ruins. Hunting in the dark; silently, emotionlessly. And we delivered ourselves to it."
Scary it was. The armor that is.
Those eyes seemed to get smaller and less...collected the more interest it felt. Golem? No, that was definitely something alive. And what was happening with its shadow...? It was rippling and changing. The Duke's son brought strange company indeed...
Ah, but even I disliked remembering the next bit...what happened after was fitting for a horror story. Araxas would bring me the diary. A souvenir of that time. Plus, it wasn't nearly as good a story without it.
I cleared my throat, and continued.