Awareness found Nibar sitting upright on his bed. He'd been yanked awake by something--it was just out of the reach of his mind. He noticed that he was trembling; he imagined that if kobolds could sweat, he'd be drenched. It wasn't enough that the day's events--the appearance of the two angels, the fight with Hadriel, Seetha's apparent determination to die at his hands, the holy blade breaking--had kept him from sleep long into the night: now nightmares were stealing sleep at the other end.|
He blinked to clear the blurriness of sleep from his eyes. Blinked again. He was not, as best he could tell, in the wagon where he had fallen asleep. He sat within a small circle of light, offering up only a dim and watery illumination barely a foot beyond him. Beyond that waited shadows.
No, not shadows. Shadows gave outline, a hint of the whole. This was shadow and fog, or the shadow of fog, roiling and churning and making everything fuzzy and indistinct. Yet the figure grinning at him at the edge of the light was uncomfortably clear, and familiar.
Terror arced up his spine like frozen lightning as Baelphegaz's smug, oily voice reached out to him. He felt rooted to the spot, as though tied to an invisible stake.
"It's been awhile, hasn't it? I confess to being somewhat occupied lately."
The first part was true, insofar as it went, but it wasn't long enough for Nibar's taste. An eternity might, might have sufficed. When days without a meeting with the imp had turned into weeks, and those started piling up, Nibar had begun to hope that Baelphegaz had either grown bored with him or had realized the futility of trying to bargain with someone who was too afraid to speak any acceptance. Didn't he realize that Nibar was useless, one way and another, to his schemes? Couldn't Baelphegaz just leave him alone? It wasn't as though he didn't have other problems.
The imp's smile never faltered, mocking and welcoming Nibar with sly, too-knowing satisfaction. His tail lashed from side to side like a cat toying with its dinner. He took a half-step forward, but mid-stride Nibar's voice shot out at him, reedy and even higher-pitched than normal from his uncooperative mouth. "Why do you have to keep bothering me? What do you want?"
The imp's face shifted to an expression of shocked hurt, and his hands came up in gesture of supplication. Yet even his attempt to appear...what? Genuine? Contrite? couldn't remove the ghost of that smile from his thin red lips. "Bothering? I only thought to pay a visit to a friend and see how he was getting on, dear fellow. And I can see that you're getting on splendidly."
Nibar couldn't understand how anything recently could be construed as having gotten on splendidly, but he was given no time to ponder it. Baelphegaz moved, swifter than wind, to stand directly in front of him, and clapped his hands in devilish glee, the unnerving smile back on his face.
"Yes, you have made marvellous progress, haven't you, Nibar? Kiergard must have proved to be quite the crucible. I know, I can't hide the smile, but my weakness--my only one, mind you--," and he nodded and gave Nibar a wink that made the young kobold even more uncomfortable, "is that I simply adore being right. And Nibar, my dear fellow, you have surprised even me."
"Surprised you? What did I do?"
The grin grew even wider and the imp leaned in conspiratorially. "You survived against that...self-righteous person you met this afternoon, didn't you? Survived? Pah! You drove him off! And may I say, with exactly the wrong set of tools for it, too. That's very impressive, my dear fellow."
With his fear and his annoyance skittering around in his brain, he didn't stop to wonder how it was that Baelphegaz had this information. His brow wrinkled in confusion. "But what did I do? I didn't hurt him, he was protected against--"
Baelphegaz waved a hand dismissively, stopping Nibar mid-sentence. "Details, the most quibbling of details. You obscured and drew attention away from his target. You used your power to make your--," there was a brief pause, so short it almost went unnoticed, "--friends, better in combat. Every craftsman has tools, and the best craftsmen shape their tools to their particular style of work."
Nibar recoiled. Where terror immobilized him when the imp leaned toward him, his loyalty rebelled against the thought of treating his friends like things. Baelphegaz seemed not to notice; he only brought himself upright, and like a showman ready for the finale, spread his arms wide. "More importantly, Nibar, you said, 'No'. You stood your ground. That's good, my dear fellow, very very good."
His smile became positively wicked.
"You're going to need that kind of strength. I'm sure it's obvious to you that the self-righteous in the celestial realms won't be pleased by the drubbing of one of their own, nor by the breaking of an ancient holy symbol, no matter that the blame is not yours. Do you think they'll bother to give a moment's thought to who actually, really started it? Of course not."
Baelphegaz was a liar. Nibar knew this as surely as he knew that fire was hungry. But he also knew that lies often came built upon the truth. The only question for him, then, was: Where did the truth stop, and the infernal's deception begin?
That awful smile of pure, smug satisfaction faded back into the knowing, sly sneer he had begun with. "With that in mind, I think it's time you had a little help." The little infernal snapped his fingers. It was a hammy, cliche gesture that put Nibar strangely in mind of the street hucksters he'd seen on the main thoroughfares of Valkith, from time to time. A small gout of flame erupted, and Baelphegaz was holding a roll of parchments bound with a simple red ribbon. "A few extra tools to round out your workshop. Balance things out a bit."
Baelphegaz held out the roll of paper to Nibar, but barely an instant later twitched the sheaf back towards himself without even giving Nibar the chance to formulate a response. "I'll just leave these somewhere safe for you. A small warning, though: one of these spells can potentially prove...treacherous, to the weak of will. I'm sure it won't be a problem for you, but I just wanted you to be aware. It might be worth its minor risk to you, before long."
Again, giving Nibar no chance to respond, even to think, Baelphegaz turned and, with a nod of his head and a swish of his leathery tail, strode off into the swirling, misty darkness. "So long, Nibar. We'll be seeing each other again soon."
After a moment, Nibar found the composure to speak. He opened his mouth, ready to tell the hell-creature that he wanted nothing to do with him, that he knew there was some ulterior purpose to what the imp was doing and would not be party to it. But just as he was forming the word, he sat up. Again. He was in his tiny makeshift bunk in the wagon, and the darkness was real, fixed, bounded. He needed to get outside, to think and clear his head of that monster. He took care not to wake his companions as he dropped to the creaky wooden floor. He wondered if maybe the imp's plan wasn't to simply annoy and terrify him into insanity. He grabbed up Ambrosius, his staff, from its spot in the corner by the door. As he lifted it he heard some rustling where the staff's foot had rested. Rustling, as of paper.
He was never careless enough to leave paper just lying around. It was too valuable. He crouched down, shifted a rucksack out of the way. He could see the source of the sound, almost completely enveloped in shadow. He grabbed it, raised it into the little bit of moonlight that made its way into the wagon. It was a small roll of parchment. Tied with a plain red ribbon. Gingerly, with the care he might have used in sneaking past a sleeping giant, he untied the ribbon and unrolled the paper. His eyes, already wide open trying to take in as much light as they could, stretched to the size of crystal balls. The moonlight had washed out his gray skin, but as he read, it went two shades paler, giving it the look of fresh ash. His head snapped around, checking each filled sleeping space to see if his friends still slumbered. He stuffed the parchments into a pocket and scurried out the door.