Despite Ul’vade’s invitation, Lorcan did not sleep well. He turned from side to side all night in the small bed Ul’vade had lent him, fearful of the morning and what it would bring. He had heard rumors of Haute, the demon of the upper woods, and he was not eager to meet him. Not a great deal was known of Haute, but all knew that he offered pacts and favors of power to those that sought him, but neglected to mention the terrible consequences to follow them.
Lorcan had studied demons a great deal. As a priest, he had felt it his responsibility to be knowledgeable on the supernatural and unholy. He realized now that even so, he was woefully unprepared. He knew enough to know, however, that he would be quite literally entering the belly of the beast in the morning. He had never faced anything like Haute before, and he was terrified of what could happen. But what choice did he have? No human would ever accept him for what he was. All his friends would shun and disown him, all men would revile him and make sport of him. Who would see him as anything but this foul goblin that he had become? No, Haute was the only option.
Thoughts such as these, accompanied by uneasy sleep and frightening dreams, occupied the whole of Lorcan’s night. It was almost with relief that he woke in the morning, for just the idea that he would be able to act, rather than fret in suspense. Small rays of light seeped through the cracks in the wall, resting upon Lorcan, who opened his eyes, and sat up groggily. He stretched his arms and legs for a moment, groaning as he did so, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He looked down at his hands, illuminated by the rising sun, and grimaced. The dark green tone of his skin seemed more apparent in the daylight, setting his surroundings in contrast. He had just slid out of bed and put his boots on when Ul’vade pushed the door open, looking grim.
“It’s time to go Lorcan, are you ready?” Ul’vade had a large pack on his shoulders, and carried another in his hand, which he offered to Lorcan. “We don’t have to do this, if you’re having second thoughts.”
Lorcan could sense the concern in his friend’s voice. He didn’t seem to fear Haute himself, rather, what the demon would do to Lorcan. He had certainly had second thoughts about this whole affair, but he could see no other way. “No, I know I have to go. I’m ready.”
Ul’vade nodded in resignation. He gave Lorcan the bag of supplies, shouldered his own, and said, “Alright then, let’s get moving. We want to go before many of the townspeople are up and about.”
Lorcan stood, breathed deeply, and followed Ul’vade out of the house, shouldering his pack as he went. However, the moment sunlight shone on Lorcan, hooded though he was, he cried out in pain and covered his eyes. “The light! It hurts my eyes!” he cried, as he stumbled into the wall of Ul’vade’s house.
The Norseman reacted quickly. He pulled from the depth of his pockets, a long strip of dark cloth. He turned to face Lorcan, pried his hands away from his face, and wrapped the cloth several times around Lorcan’s head, covering his eyes. Lorcan stood up straight again, wiped tears of pain from his face, and looked at Ul’vade. “I…I can see through the cloth. Why can’t I see in the light? Why does sunlight hurt me?”
Ul’vade shrugged. “I figured that with your eyes as they are, you’re more sensitive to light. You’re likely able to see in the dark, but daylight will be too harsh for you. I packed that cloth for you just in case that happened.”
Lorcan opened his mouth slightly, then closed it. Of course Ul’vade had predicted that. That’s why he was a chirurgeon. He felt a little more confident about seeing Haute, now that his friend was with him. Heaven knew that he was prepared at least. Lorcan nodded, and they set off again. It didn’t take long to leave town, as they moved briskly, and few were in the streets. They walked a distance into the upper woods, leaving all traces of civilization behind them. After about a half-hours’ walk, Ul’vade turned to Lorcan, and stopped.
“Lorcan,” he began tentatively, “I know that you want this curse over with right now, but there’s some things you need to understand about Haute. There is a reason Haute is feared here. Some people have a fascination with him, others would even say they have an alliance or friendship with him. Let me be clear; no one is Haute’s friend, and he helps noone but himself. He’ll be friendly, he’ll do you a favor, he’ll make it look like he’s putting himself in danger for you, but it’s all to his own ends. He doesn’t care about you, and if he helps you, it always comes at a price. Do not trust him, do not promise him anything unless you are absolutely sure you can do it. Do you understand?”
Lorcan gulped, and took a moment to stammer out, “I…I understand. Don’t trust him.”
Ul’vade eyed Lorcan carefully, as if scanning for sign’s of weakness. Finally, he turned back around, and resumed walking. As they ventured deeper into the forest, the foliage overhead became denser, blocking out more and more light. The trees became more gnarled and menacing, the sounds of birds and insects stopped, and Lorcan got the horrible feeling that something watching him. They arrived at a particularly dark section of the forest, with large boulders strewn about. There was a clearing in front of them; a large one, where all the grass, bushes, and weeds were all dead and shriveled. The clearing was an unnaturally perfect circle, and in the center, a large cave jutted out of the ground like the maw of some large, hungry beast.
“Unholy ground,” whispered Lorcan to himself. He had read about it in books on the study of the cult. It was rumored that where the dead had been raised, a demon summoned, or some other foul crime against nature had been committed, the space around it became cursed and dark. His foreboding increasing, and the feeling of being watched escalated into the sense that he was being hunted.
Ul’vade stopped and glanced fearfully at the cave. “That’s Haute’s Den,” he said, looking away from the cave. He looked at Lorcan, and put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t envy your position my friend. If you gave me all the gold in the world, I wouldn’t go in there. Now,” he looked determinedly into Lorcan’s face, “Haute is going to test you, to see if you’ll break easily. He’s going to appear in the form of what you hate and fear most. Stand your ground, don’t show any weakness, and he’ll speak with you. If it goes wrong, run. Or call for me, but it’s best to run.”
Lorcan shivered slightly with fear, and hoped it was too dark for Ul’vade to notice. He removed the cloth from his eyes, and placed it in his pocket. He held out his hand to Ul’vade. “Thank you Ul’vade, you’ve been a good friend to me.”
Ul’vade shook Lorcan’s hand firmly. “I just hope you’re right about this. Good luck.”
Lorcan turned in the direction of the cave, set his jaw, and stepped into the circle of dead grass. Immediately, the air became cold and dry, and all outside sound became entirely canceled, so Lorcan could hear his every breath and footstep as he walked. Everything about the air and the very feeling of the place was…wrong. Lorcan took a moment to steady his mind, then strode forward, feigning confidence, and entered the cave.
He had never experienced such darkness as he now did, as he advanced in an unknown direction. The best way to describe the permeating obscurity would be to say that it was alive. That is to say, that, figuratively, ordinary darkness just rests in the air, indifferent, dispassionate, and unmoving. The darkness of Haute’s den was cold, alive, and malevolent. It enveloped and embraced those that entered it as if wishing to smother the hapless wanderer, and fill them with hopelessness. Still, Lorcan moved forward. Even his newly developed eyes could not see through the cave, but he knew he could not show weakness.
Suddenly, a woman’s scream split the silence, echoing horribly throughout the passageway. Lorcan recoiled, and was assaulted on every side with the cries of men, women, and children, all begging for their lives, screaming, sobbing, crying for help that never came. Lorcan covered his ears, falling to his knees in despair. The screams tore him to the core, and filled him with regret and shame. He had heard cries like this before. The burning monastery, friends being slain before his eyes, with him being helpless to save them.
The screaming did not subside, but something seemed to take precedence before them, as a figure ran through the darkness at Lorcan. He knew not how he could see this man in darkness, nor how he could hear him over the screaming, but he could, and it only filled him with more fear. He knew the person running toward him, and it filled him with dread. It was Dorian, the first friend he’d ever had, who had been slain at the hand of Viking raiders the day they had destroyed the monastery. Dorian’s eyes held, fear, mourning, and urgency. He pulled Lorcan to his feet and cried, “Lorcan! Lorcan, we have to go! There’s nothing more we can do! Come on, let’s go!”
Lorcan knew those words all too well. It was the last thing his dear friend had ever said to him. He tried to protest, tried to warn Dorian of the danger ahead, but to no avail. Nothing comprehensible left his mouth, and Dorian continued to urge him on. He was reliving the last moments of his escape from the raiders, and he was powerless to stop what happened next. As Dorian made a move to start running, an arrow sprouted from his chest, and he went down without a noise. Lorcan cried out in grief, and kneeled next to Dorian, turning him over. Just like before, he was already dead, gone without warning.
Rage boiled in Lorcan’s chest, spreading throughout his entire body. He had been powerless to stop this once, and without meeting Haute, he hated everything about him for making him experience this again. As Lorcan looked up from Dorian’s face, he saw a burly viking warrior, bow in hand, laughing harshly at Lorcan, reaching for another arrow. Lorcan let loose an unearthly cry of grief and rage, which echoed throughout the cave, filling it with a strange, powerful reverberation. The images of the viking and Dorian shattered like glass, and dissolved into the darkness. The screams that had filled the cave were instantly silenced, and the very air seemed to tremble and dissipate, as if casting aside a curtain. Lorcan closed his mouth, and the darkness around him cleared. Torches sprung to life along the walls, illuminating the cavern.
Lorcan stood and looked around. he was in a large, circular chamber, with gold and jewels piled against the walls. Surely, there was enough here to purchase an entire kingdom, castle and all. Lorcan had hardly enough time to process his surroundings when a voice from behind called out, “Well hello handsome.”
Lorcan wheeled around to find the voice, and stepped back, startled, as he got his first look at Haute. It was himself. It was insane, but Lorcan was staring back at himself, but without the curse. But, no, something was wrong about him. He was more muscular, well-groomed, elegantly dressed in black, gold, and purple, and carried an ornate rapier at his side. His face was handsome, confident, yet cold and uncaring. His wide smile was false and dangerous, and his eyes flickered dangerously, changing between red and blue.
Haute laughed at the confusion on Lorcan’s face. “Weren’t expecting yourself, were you boy? I must say though, I think I’m a better Lorcan than you are, especially considering the circumstances,” he said, smiling cheerfully. “Now now, didn’t your little friend tell you I’d show myself in the form of what you feared and hated most? Well,” he bowed, flourishing his cloak, “here I am, the representation of yourself. I’ll say, despising yourself, especially an improved version of yourself, is interesting. A little too storybook for me, but to each his own I suppose. I’m Haute by the way. Hi!” He said the last word in a singsong voice, and waggled his fingers flirtatiously at Lorcan.
This was an insult. Lorcan snarled, “I know who you are, filth. I’m not here to play your twisted games. What were those visions about? What was the screaming?”
Haute shrugged, “Just a little fun really. The screaming was just a little spell called Wails of the Damned. It’s a simple spell, but entertaining. As for the little visions,” he looked at Lorcan as if curious, “I just wanted to see what you’d do. I’ll hand it to you, you surprised me with that shout of yours. How long have you been doing that exactly?”
Lorcan looked angrily into Haute’s/his face. There was something broken behind those red eyes. Something mad, and cruel, and unsettling. It was as if he could have passed for an everyday person, but there was something truly evil, and despicable. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know why I insisted on coming here, you clearly can’t help me.”
He turned to leave when Haute called out, “If you think that anyone else can remove that lovely green skin of yours, you’re quite mistaken. I can easily cure you.”
Lorcan didn’t trust Haute at all, but the demon’s words had the desired effect. He turned back around, and strode right up to Haute, getting right up in his face. “Did you curse me? How do you lift it?” he said dangerously.
Haute hesitated for a fraction of a second, then replied with a grin, “Of course I cursed you! I…how else would I have gotten your attention? I wanted to cause you some grief, as the prodigal son returned. And,” he said, a new glint in his eye, “I needed you for something.”
Lorcan had noticed Haute’s hesitation, but didn’t know of any other explanation than the one that had been given. There was nobody else he could go to. Haute had cursed him on a whim, and he was going to force him to do something to change him back. He hated being a pawn. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t…fair. He swore to himself that if he ever got the opportunity, he was going to repay Haute with the most exquisite revenge. “What do you want then?” he growled. “What’s your price?”
Haute clapped his hands gleefully. “Oh, I just knew you’d help me. That’s what I love about you do-gooders. You’re always so willing to help a demon in distress. Now, I’m going to explain myself very simply so you’re mortal mind can comprehend. About prices, when you want to buy a bit of food, you pay with money. When you want a service done, you pay with another service. When you want your best friend disemboweled because you want his wife,” Haute’s smile turned into a malevolent, fanged maw, “you pay with your soul. You want a magical cure, so, I want you to retrieve something magical for me, understand?”
Lorcan’s skin crawled. He hardened his face in resignation. “What do you want?”
Haute looked into Lorcan’s eyes seriously. “In the North, there lies a spot sacred to the Norse. At the base of Yggdrasil, what men call the World Tree, there lies a well. In ancient times, this well was guarded by a giant called Mimir. A draught of this well is said to give you incredible wisdom, knowledge, and power. Find this well, bring back a bottle of this water, and I’ll make you as good as new. And, I’ll throw in some magical artifact for you as payment for your trouble. Do we have a deal?”
Lorcan had no idea of what Haute was talking about. He didn’t have the slightest clue of where to find this well, or how he could possibly get to the North and back. But, he had no choice. He reached out his arm and shook Haute’s outstretched hand. “Deal.”
Haute smiled widely, licking his lips eagerly. “I knew we would reach an agreement. Now, I know you have no idea what you’re doing, so I’ll help a little. Can’t have you getting lost, now can we? Go get your friend, that Ul’vade fellow, he’ll know what to do. Come back in the cave, and I’ll help you on your way. Now, go, go get him.” Haute made a shooing motion with his hand.
Lorcan glared at Haute one last time, and rushed back out the way he came. There was no turning back now. He feared that he had made a bargain he couldn’t fulfill. What had he done?