The Ashen Crown, the Lords of Madness, and the Queen of Death

The Death of Maltassar Boggs

Ahead you see a row of lights in the darkness. As you approach, you identify the lights as lanterns like your own, hanging from hooks in a wall of ice. Before you is a long, low block of ice that looks suspiciously like a bar table. There are stools of ice in front of it, extending off into the darkness in either direction. Cloaked figures rest on them, muttering darkly and sipping from ice tankards. It looks like there’s a free seat just ahead of you.

The bartender is Hesphera, a human woman you knew from a case that went bad long ago, back before you drank the way you do now. She’s pale as death, but as beautiful as you remember. “It’s been a long time Boggs,” Hesphera says. “Welcome to the River Styx. What can I get you?”

“I think I’m going to need something strong,” you say. “What do you have?”

“Our home-brews are oblivion and reality.”

“I’ll try reality.”

“One ice cold reality coming right up.”

Soon enough a tankard is placed on the bar-top in front of you. The liquid in the tankard is a muddy colour and frozen solid.

“Cheers!” cries the patron beside you and raises his glass. “To reality!” You recognize him as the changeling, Yog.

“You’re dead,” you ask in confusion.

“I’ve been dead a long time. Died in an Emerald Claw prison camp. Interrogated and tortured for months, then executed. Have I introduced you to my friend here?” He points to the warforged sitting next to him. “Killed by the Emerald Claw as well. I didn’t know that warforged have souls, did you?” The warforged, Bearing, nods at Bogs in silent recognition.

The old man sitting at your right speaks up, his voice weary and his Karrnathi accent thick. “Nature abhors a vacuum. Craft a vessel, a soul vill fill it. No further invocations are necessary.” He shakes his head and tips his tankard to his lips. A few pieces of ice slip down into his mouth and he crunches them noisily. “Bitter. I used to laugh ven dey called me a soulless monster. I stopped laughing ven I met one.”

“Met one?”

“A soulless monster. Regent Moranna had begun to suspect that I and the Order were verking for anudder, serving a different trone. She vas determined to get everything she could out of me. So she sent him. My interrogator. A changeling. He vould appear to me as friends, loved vuns, grandchildren. His impersonations ver perfect. But I vas never fooled. There vas alvays an emptiness in his eyes, a hunger, a void vaiting to be filled. In the end, it did not matter that I could see through his ruses. His hunger was greater than my cunning. He learned it all: my secrets, my life, every desire, every memory I had, all devoured by him. I have never before met a more pahverful telepat.”

“Soon after he disappeared. Vanished. Dey vondered vut I could have done to him to make him break. Moranna began to fear me even more and hastily ordered my execution. But I had done noting. He left because his hunger had finally been sated.”

Yog sips at his flagon of swirling black oblivion. “I knew he was a changeling,” he begins. “But he was so convincing, there were times when he made me believe he was Kessler. But I knew. I knew Kessler was long dead. But I suppose it didn’t matter. He was Kessler. His impersonations are so perfect, he can’t even tell that they are impersonations. He believed. And in the end, if you can’t tell the difference and no one else can tell the difference, who’s to say you aren’t the real thing?”

Kessler nods. “Nature abhors a vacuum. Just as a lost soul searches for a place to rest, an empty vessel hungers for souls to fill it.”

“Look,” begins Boggs, “as much fun as it is reminiscing with you two, I’ve got to get back…”

“You’re dead, Boggs,” says Yog. “What makes you think you can go back?”

Hesphera, behind the bar, clears her throat. “I might be able to get you back there Boggs. Among the living. But not for free. You’d owe one of the powers a favour.”

“Well,” considers Boggs, “what choice do I have?”

“If you want to live?” says Hesphera. “None at all.”

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