If you missed part one be sure and go back and read it now.
The Death and Times of Halren of Durgol
©2009 Jason Penney
“Hey buddy. You thirsty?”
The speaker stood easily two heads taller than Halran. He wore a suit of black leather armor with a sword hanging from his belt so large Halren doubted he could lift it. The sheen of sweat on his bald head and tree-like arms gave off a faint blue glow. It could only be Rystus, the god of war.
The god again pushed the stein in his direction. “Hello? Anyone home in there?”
“Yes, hello. Sorry, sir.” Halren cringed. “Uhm, Your Highness? Your Holiness? Your… uhm.” He tried not to panic.
Rystus laughed and the room seemed to shake with him. The laugh, while not exactly good natured, contained no malice. “Lighten up, Halren. You’re among friends here. It’s all good.”
Halren just nodded. He had no idea what Rystus meant, but he knew better than to disagree with a god. He accepted the offered drink and sipped. Strong, but not bad. He gulped the rest down.
Rystus laughed. “There you go.” The god slapped Halren on the back, knocking him to his knees. Rystus took the empty stein and helped Halren up. He placed something else in Halren’s hand. “You’ll need this.”
Halren waved in thanks, fighting back tears.
“I’ll see you around.”
Halren examined the tarot Rystus had given him. It wasn’t a card he recognized. The face showed a detailed image of a smiling bard. Strong chin. Perfect hair. Intelligent gleam in the eyes. It could be Halren himself. Perhaps it was. It would take some time for his understanding of what was or was not possible to catch up with his new surroundings.
No one ever told him death would be like this. He entered Bolrinia proper and found it to be a great open space, teeming with people. He walked among them, watching them. Most sat around tables apparently betting on games of some kind. He recognized a few, but most he could not place. Many seemed to be based on chance, or perhaps supernatural abilities.
The landscape shifted and he found himself walking aisle after aisle of what appeared to be small magical shrines. People sat before them giving offerings of coin. The shrines would sing and sparkle while the petitioner prayed before them. He saw an elderly man’s prayer for great wealth answered. His shrine attempted to drown him in coins while he danced for joy.
Halren wanted to see it all, but he found himself lost more than once. He just couldn’t take in the sheer size of the place.
The enticing scent of cooked meat filled his nostrils and distracted him from the games. He had not noticed his hunger before, but now his stomach rumbled in anticipation. The smell seemed to be coming from a magical stairway descending through an opening in the floor.
Could it be a trick? He watched the endless supply of stairs form out of the floor and then walk down themselves. He could not see the bottom.
Halren stood aside to let a jolly looking woman step on the top stair. It carried her down into the darkness. He waited. When no screams of torment emerged he decided to risk it.
He lowered one foot onto one of the stairs and felt his legs pulled apart without warning. He clutched the railing, intending to step back onto solid ground, but it also pulled him forward. No use fighting it.
The stairs deposited him into some sort of eatery. All manner of foods sat out on display. People here just walked up and took what they wanted, filling plate after plate. Could he just stroll in and start eating? He stepped toward the table but a large man with the head of a dog blocked his path.
“Aha,” Halren said.
“I knew it. What happens now?”
“Sir, I just need two gold coins before I can let you enter the buffet” The dog-faced man scratched behind his left ear.
Buffet? “What does that get me exactly?”
“All you can eat, sir.”
“Oh… I don’t have any money on me.” He leaned in close and whispered, “I’m dead.”
“Imagine that. Did you arrive recently by any chance, sir?”
“Yes. I just–”
Dog-face waved for him to stop. “You should have some coin available to you via the Afterlife Tarot Mechanism.”
More gibberish. “The what?”
“Do you have your identity tarot on you, sir?”
“No, what’s…” Halren stopped and dug into his belt pouch. He pulled out the card he received from Rystus. “You mean this thing?”
“Yes. Just place it in the slot on that big wooden chest over there.” He pointed to a large worn chest near the entrance.
Halren walked over. The chest came up to his waist. He opened it and peered inside. Empty. He closed it and looked more closely. He slid the tarot card into a small slot just above the brass clasp. Something inside grabbed hold and pulled the card out of his grasp. Perfect. He peered into the slot hoping to see what type of creature lived inside, but it was too small and too dark. He opened the chest again.
Immediately he slammed it shut, keeping the latch from locking again with his thumb. He glanced over his shoulder at the dog-faced man.
“Everything all right, sir?”
Halren tried to smile. “Oh, yes. Just a moment.” Again Halren raised the lid. More coins than he could count glistened back at him. He reached in, grabbed a handful, and shoved them into his pouch. He let the lid fall shut and started back.
Dog-Face pointed at the chest. “Don’t forget your tarot, sir.”
Halren looked down and grabbed the card which was now sticking part-way out of the slot. He peeked into the chest again. Empty once more. Well, at least he had pocketed some extra.
He walked back to the dog-faced man and held out two coins. “Here you go.”
The man took them and then licked Halren’s outstretched hand. “Enjoy.”
Halren fought down the urge to wipe his hand on his sleeve and approached a long table covered with food. More food than he had seen in his too short lifetime. Total. He picked up a platter. Where to start?
“Don’t be shy.”
Halren looked up and fumbled the platter. The woman smiled at him and his heart melted. Halren immediately had the urge to write a song. An ode to this woman’s beauty. Her hair. Her eyes. Her smile. Her tiny little dress. The pale glow of her skin. A goddess! Not just any goddess. Valestra, goddess of love.
In his younger days Halren spent a good deal of time puzzling over the many images of Valestra. No two were the same. The color of her hair and eyes often differed, as did her build and height. Even with the differences, everyone knew they represented the same being. He never did find the common element that made it so obvious, but it was there.
Now here she stood, right before him, twirling her silky hair around her left index finger. Halren, aware he had been staring openly, turned back to the food.
“You know, you can have whatever you want here.” Valestra bit her lower lip. “See anything that appeals to you?”
Halren tried to respond but his mind refused. He could not remember the last time he felt nervous around a woman. Usually they seemed nervous around him. “Well, I uh… The food, you mean? I’ve never seen… I’m famished.” He grabbed a turkey leg and took a large bite.
Valestra gave a little pout and winked at Halren. “Well then, once you’ve had your fill here, come and find me.”
Halren nodded, chewing rapidly. His heart throbbed in his chest. Surely she heard it. “Oh. Yes.” He seemed to have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences. He managed to muster a “Good” before she pressed a finger to his lips.
“Enjoy your food.” She smiled and clasped his free hand. “I’ll be waiting.” She brushed up against him as she passed, sending a shiver up Halren’s spine. Halren watched the stairs carry her up until she disappeared from view.
He glanced down at his hand and saw another strange tarot card. This one with a turtle, and the symbols for forty and six. What was this for? He shrugged and stored it with the other card.
Tune in next week for another installment.