What had begun as a simple escape had turned into something much more dire. Initially thinking he had happened upon someone who had taken up a vendetta against him, Zhill thought less of the female elf that pursued him than of his receding lunacy. It was soon evident, however, that he was racing for his own life. And he was losing
With the elf and dwarf seemingly far behind, Zhill had eased himself into a much more casual pace south towards no particular destination until it became clear that he was no longer the hunter, but the prey. A pair of rangers had fired on him with their bows, not nearly coming close, before releasing their wolves to chase him down. When he had thrown them off with a false trail that was further obfuscated by his climbing a tall oak, Zhill found himself eye to eye with a large black crow that cawed repeatedly as if to mark his hiding spot. Wildly jumping to lower lying branches of nearby trees, he made his way to an edge of the forest that bordered a small lake, into which he dove hoping to escape by remaining submerged. Zhill watched as the shadows at the shoreline waled back and forth cluelessly, thinking he had escaped. Curious amazement took hold as he observed several magical bolts fired into the air overhead.
With a dull crack similar to the sound of a large boulder being hurled into the water, Zhill saw that the entire lake was being frozen from the center outwards by the magical bolts. Swimming frantically, Zhill managed to surface on the far side of the shore just as the water became a solid white mass, freezing his boot to the surface. Yanking his foot carelessly, Zhill left behind the dark leather shoe as he pulled at least one of his foot bones out of joint. Still he ran.
The chase went on for days. There were moments, times when the world would seem still, where Zhill was sure that it was over. But then some sound such as men shouting from horseback, or a wild animal gazing at him all too knowingly would set him fleeing again. What little strength he retained had been stretched to its limit and he knew he could not travel much further. He considered himself fortunate when he finally came to an expansive range of canyons in the southern desert. Casting himself headlong over the edge, Zhill tumbled through the air as the ground rushed towards him from hundreds of feet below. When his body struck the hard stone floor of the canyon, the sickening crack of his bones shattering echoed off the yellowed rocky walls. Wracked with intense pain, Zhill forced a crazed bloody smile at the shadows that leered at him from high above. They couldn’t jump down after him, their bodies were too frail. They would have to find another way down which would cost them precious time.
Zhill lay motionless, unable to even shoo away the flies that gathered at his open wounds as his body mended itself back together. Although it had taken hours, when he was finally able to stand, Zhill began hobbling further south, the sounds of limbs out of joint popping with each step. There was no way they could possibly catch up with him now. He had made it! He was finally free! A few more hours travel by night would put him in the Salt Flats.
Long ago, perhaps during the previous life he could barely remember, the whole area had been a large bay that had connected to the sea. Yet time had caused the waters to dry up leaving behind a wasteland. No one traveled through the Salt Flats due to the excessive temperatures, merciless winds, and complete lack of vegetation or water. Anything in the flats was already dead or soon would be. “And that makes it the perfect retreat for me,” Zhill thought to himself. When he had reached his desert paradise, he fell to the ground beside the whitened skull of some creature that had been dead for ages. “A moment’s rest, and then I will figure out what to do.”
Zhill awoke in the middle of the night feeling invigorated as though he had just risen from the grave. And instantly his mind turned to the warmly burning spark of memory that lingered. In a moment, understanding was birthed inside him. Zhill was nothing. Whatever soul that had occupied his body gave strength to his body and was part of him. What little of himself that emulated a person was an unnatural marriage of soul and dark magic. “Zhill” was nothing more than an animated cyst, drawing the lifeforce from the pitifully trapped soul within to fuel the dark magics that bound him. He realized that there was no hope for the life he now lived, as that life was merely stolen from another and could not be returned no matter how much he now wished it. Hope could only be found in his own demise.
Zhill shielded his eyes from the bright sun over head as he dug himself out of the shallow grave made by the sandy winds that had whipped around him through the night. With his senses returning to him, Zhill was surprised that the wind had suddenly stopped. Standing to his feet his eyes grew wide with shock. No fewer than 10 people in robes stood surrounding him. Off to one side was a group of others, a mix of warriors and rangers with their animal companions. Zhill spun to face the elf that had doggedly pursued him as she began speaking in low tones, waving her arms in some elaborate pattern. He charged violently at her, hoping to push past and flee. But before he was even within arm’s reach, he was thrust backwards by some invisible force.
Looking for the culprit, Zhill stood to his feet and saw that he was in the center of a circle that had been drawn in the sand. He instantly knew that it was some sort of magical ward from the intricate runes that covered the ground where he stood. Shuffling his feet quickly trying to undo the spell, his alarm grew as the symbols remained unaltered. Zhill jumped with fright as the woman continued chanting, causing the runes to glow with a pale blue light. When she had finished, the individuals to either side continued the chant seamlessly as the magical hue shifted towards the outer circle. He was suddeny struck with the realization that whatever was about to happen would take place as soon as the chant had been completed by all those that surrounded him.
“There shall be no pity for you,” the elf spoke up. “Just as you took your victims without remorse, so shall you suffer for eternity.” Charging the barrier again in panicked futility, Zhill bounced roughly back towards the ground as she continued. “The circle binds you. There is no way for you to escape its grasp. You will be banished to the underworld, where your soul will be tormented in darkness as you receive the anguish that you have brought upon the innocent souls you have destroyed.” Only four chants remained before the circle was complete. Rising to his feet again, Zhill’s mind was a flurry of thought. “There has to be some way of escape,” he silently reasoned. “Please let me out,” he pleaded sincerely. “I promise I won’t kill ever again!”
“Its too late for that,” she answered in a voice full of hate. Zhill charged again only to fall backwards just as he had before. “I told you that you can not escape you stupid wretch,” she said mockingly. “You must pay!”
The last chant came to a conclusion as she made her pronouncement. As an electrified hum radiated from the ground, Zhill stood indomitably, feeling the warm fire within himself pulse in harmony with his thoughts. Drawing his blade, he extended his arm out before him. Turning the knife towards his own heart, he took a final breath and spoke.
“I give my life to release this soul.”
Falling to his knees, Zhill watched as blood sprayed from his chest onto the ground out before him. Though he could feel his life fading, the warmth inside him continued to grow. Leaning forward, Zhill placed his palms on the sand as blood poured into the runes on the ground in thick rivulets. As he collapsed to the ground, what little sensation that had remained continuing to fade, the hum became a high pitched whine and the air within the circle became wildly turbulent.
“What is this,” the woman asked in disbelief. “What is happening?”
Zhill looked up from where he lay to see confusion and fear on the faces of those that had surrounded him, but now backed further away from the circle. The noise around him grew deafening as the air continued to churn and twist as though it were trying to tear itself apart. He knew something was wrong, and that the soul chained within him remained bound. All he had done, he concluded as his vision darkened, was make things much worse.
The violent storm that had erupted inside the circle suddenly came to an abrupt halt. For an instant Zhill thought, as the world seemed to take on a calm stillness, he would somehow make it through this. As he weakly lifted his head to see what had happened, it seemd that all of reality imploded upon him.
For time which seemed endless, Zhill could not discern whether the din in his ears was his own tortured screams, or the effect of the spell, or some warped mix of the two. His only thought was agony as it seemed that his very existence was being ripped to minuscule shreds and fused back together with searing fire each second. After suffering an eternity of pain, Zhill was surrounded by the sound of a dull crash as a new sensation enveloped him. Slowly falling as he continued to convulse in his affliction, he felt soft cool earth slowly rise to meet him as he landed sleepily. When he dared to take a breath, his body quickened to life as water rushed down his throat. Instinctively launching himself upward, Zhill flailed wildly as he reached the surface of the water and coughed deeply expelling the liquid he had swallowed. His chest throbbed with burning pain as blood poured into the water around him.
Reaching an arm outwards, he attempted to swim towards a small island with a single thick tree growing at its center. Zhill was filled with a fresh sensation of horror as he saw that his hand had nearly disintegrated. Kicking spasmodically, he could only watch as his skin continued to melt away, taking his body with it. Alarmed shouts in some strange language sounded from nearby, but Zhill willed himself on toward land. But soon he was sinking beneath the surface again as his body continued to deteriorate.
As he reached the island, Zhill used the only arm he had left to craw along the sand beneath the surface of the water, pulling himself towards an opening that glowed with a dull green light. Murkily he looked back to see what was left of his body, which now ended in a soggy mess at his intestines. His lone skeletal hand pulled him deeper into a subterranean cave past tree roots that cascaded around him like a woman’s hair. Stretching his arm out again, he watched with defeat as it dislodged from his shoulder and floated lazily towards a root thicker than his head that pulsed with a pale green light. “This is the end,” Zhill concluded to himself as his torso pitched forward slowly into a group of roots which tangled around him. Summoning the last of his will, he forced his mouth open as water poured into his lungs, allowing himself to sink into the darkness of death.