"We've heard aught else," the dwarf said, restlessly. "'Tis a pity we have no imp travelling in this caravan to regale us with an impish tale."
"Heavens forbid," the elven lass laughed. "Do imps even tell stories? I think they lack the sophistication."
The human shook his head. "Oh, they tell tales. I heard many a frightful yarn back during my mercenary days. We fought alongside an impish brigade near the Ulaine Deep and camped together in the nights. But they don't tell pleasant stories; it's a rarity to hear one with a happy ending."
The djinn, who had been silent the whole night through save for the telling of his own tale, did not look up from the volume spread out before him but spoke just the same. "Captain, I would assume from your use of the word 'rarity', that you have heard at least one such story that did conclude in a happy manner?"
The man looked a bit startled, then sat in thought. "Aye, now that you mention it. I'd all but forgotten. There was one tale they told that had a happy ending, at least as far as the misbegotten things thought of it." He glanced at the elf. "It's still not fit for a lady's ears, though."
Calissa laughed. "Fear not for my long ears, Kadille. I'm sure that they've endured worse."
Du Kalim spoke once more. "If there are no objections in this matter, Captain Kadille, I would like you to recite this particular anecdote for us. Your description hints at aspects of the impish psychology of which I am currently unaware."
Gunt chortled, his dark beard shaking. "Well, there you are. 'Tis a rarity indeed when a djinn's curiosity is piqued by a human. He'll not let you part 'til he's heard this tale of yours, I'm sure."
Captain Kadille took a sip from his mug, warming his hands around it. "Well, put that way, I suppose I must. Let me see what I can recall." He sat in silence for a long time, searching through his memories. Then, finally, he began to speak.
"Now the imp who told this tale was the master of all the others. It's a curious thing about the mages of Abomination. They promote their minions based on much the same virtues as anyone else, strange as that might sound. You'd think that imps would win promotion through their viciousness, or by developing some new kind of torture, but this fellow had been promoted because he'd kept his word to a subordinate.
"I've never heard tell of a mage of Abomination breaking his given oath. I think it's a point of pride with them, that there's no agreement so tightly worded that they can't twist it to mean something else entirely without actually breaking it at all. This fellow, a critter by the name of Tearskin, was showing off, I think. He had listened to the other stories all evening, all short little tales about folks that they'd tortured or killed or folks who had been tortured and killed... and Tearskin wanted to show the others up, and remind them why he had been made the boss, and why they were still just rabble.
"So he made them all sit down and shut up and made it clear that the first one to interrupt him would be breakfast tomorrow. It was an eerie silence, really after all of the commotion and ruckus that the imps had been making all night. Now Tearskin didn't have any authority over us, and we knew that we didn't have to obey him, but after his little speech not even any of the humans felt like talking. None of us cared to see if he had meant us, too.
"So he waited a bit to make sure that everyone had gotten the message, and then... when it was perfectly silent and the crickets had started their little chorus up again, he started whispering his story."
THE IMP'S TALE
In the kingdom of Beauty, under Good King Just, the elfin folk lived and thrived. King Just was a tall and lordly elf-lord and he had ruled over them for many, many years and the people were happy. But they weren't as happy as King Just himself, because he had the most beautiful daughter in all the land.
Young Princess Pretty was her name and she had the most adorable pearly cheeks and her hair was a fountain of golden curls. When she smiled even the most dour keeper would smile and when she laughed, the whole castle chuckled happily, just because it felt so good to hear her being happy. And the kingdom of Beauty was a happier and more joyful place because of her, and whenever she went out into the streets the townsfolk would cast rose petals at her feet, so that she wouldn't have to walk on hard stone.
Many years passed, and King Just grew prouder and prouder of his daughter as she grew into a beautiful young elf-woman. The elf-folk of the kingdom started to wonder when she would wed, and more importantly, who. They could not think of any elf in the kingdom worthy of such a bride, but surely there was some worthy noble in some distant elf-kingdom who would make a proper match for her. Many noble suitors came from distant lands just to see her. None of them were great enough to merit her attentions, but they carried news of her beauty back to their homelands and their kings and princes listened in wonder.
But one dark night a most terrible and dreadful thing occurred. All of the lights in the castle were snuffed out by some dark magic and terrible screams of pain and fear were heard. When the king and his valiant warriors were finally awakened, they were horrified to learn that the cries had been coming from the direction of Princess Pretty's apartments. They rushed to her aid, swords drawn, but found that they were too late. Some terrible creature had struck her tower in the night and the bodies of her handmaidens had been torn asunder and their entrails scattered about the floor. Blood soaked the walls and stained the elaborate patterns on the rugs.
King Just rushed forward into his daughter's rooms seeking her, but of Princess Pretty he could find no sign at all. The darkness had departed from the castle, but with it it had taken his daughter.
The king was utterly desolate. The knights of the king searched the kingdom of Beauty from one end to the other, but they could find no trace of the princess. They could not tell the king where she had gone, who had taken her, or even if she was still alive.
The king was gripped with sadness and despair. His knights left the kingdom then, travelling far and wide in search of the princess. They journeyed to many kingdoms and did many good deeds when they saw things that needed doing, but none returned with word of the princess. And over time, the various dangers of the world slowly wore their numbers down, until only a handful of valiant knights remained to serve Good King Just.
Songs were still sung and poetry still recited in the kingdom of Beauty, but they were sad songs now, and sadder poetry still. The roses wilted, and none collected their petals, for they reminded the folk of their missing angel. And over the years the kingdom of Beauty grew slowly sadder and more lonely, and folk began to refer to their king as Poor King Just, out of sympathy for his pain, which had to be so much greater than any of theirs.
But one day, a strange elf arrived in the kingdom of Beauty. He was Prince Stalwart, a tall and lordly faerie knight from a distant elf-kingdom and he had been travelling for many years. Courtiers in that distant land had whispered to him of the princess and her beauty, and Prince Stalwart had come at last to seek her out and see if he would be judged worthy to be her elf-groom.
But he came to a sad and blue kingdom, not the happy place of which he had been told. And when he went to see the king, they told him of the terrible fate that had befallen Princess Pretty and how of all the knights sent forth to find her, only six had ever returned and they had seen no sign of her.
Now Prince Stalwart was a noble and fearless warrior, so right then and there he swore to find and rescue the princess if she yet lived, or avenge her if she had perished. Good King Just blessed him for his valor, and the king's face lit up with the first hope that it had seen in many years. He commanded his knights to help Prince Stalwart in whatever manner they could.
So the prince, being a wise elf, almost as wise as a djinn, questioned the six knights about their journeys and all of the places that they had been. And he took out a great map of the surrounding kingdoms and he marked each spot that a knight had travelled to. And lo and behold, when they were done, there was one spot left unmarked, the mountainous crags of Forlorn.
He spoke then to each of the knights and asked them why they had not gone to the mountains of Forlorn, and he learned that each of them had seen a fellow knight going that way and so had searched elsewhere. But of those knights, not a one had returned. So Prince Stalwart resolved to journey to the crags of Forlorn himself and see for himself what danger lurked there.
The king's knights were needed in the kingdom of Beauty, for there were so very few of them left, but the king's armorers were ready. For noble Prince Stalwart they crafted a shimmering suit of filigreed armor, decorated with intricate woven roses made out of shining golden thread. This armor would turn any blade or arrow and would hold against both tooth or claw. And they made for him a great sword of righteousness, a shining blade that could pierce any armor and wound any beast. And the stablehands gave him their finest elf-steed, and the tailors their finest clothes and blankets. The bakers made for him their finest breads and the bards sang their finest tales to inspire him. And when Prince Stalwart finally rode forth, all the hopes of the kingdom of Beauty rode with him.
It was a long, hard journey to the crags of Forlorn, but Prince Stalwart never faltered in his quest. For many days and many nights he rode, until he reached the desolate land around the mountains. There scattered human refugees had built little farms among the hills and at night they hid inside their cabins with the doors barred against the night.
Prince Stalwart asked among them about Princess Pretty but though they were awed by his noble features, not a one of them knew of her. But they all warned the brave prince not to go to the crags, for a terrible monster was said to haunt mount Forlorn.
But this only steeled Prince Stalwart's resolve. Surely the princess's captor was there. When the slopes grew too steep for his steed, Prince Stalwart set it free and continued to climb on his own. Though the rocky ground grew jagged and razor sharp, it could not pierce his fabulous armor and he climbed up the spiky ground like the sharp rocks were blades of grass. He climbed through a day and night before he finally saw the first sign of anything amiss.
On a narrow trail, he found the body of a human traveller, now horribly mutilated. The flesh had been torn asunder and the man's intestines had been strewn about the area like garlands of holly. Then Prince Stalwart gripped his sword more tightly, for the state of the man's body was the same as that of the handmaidens who had perished at Princess Pretty's side. He knew that the end of his quest lay near.
As he climbed towards the top of the mountain, his keen ears detected the soft rattle of pebbles above him, and he cast himself to one side at once. And thus he was saved as a hideous, scaly green creature leapt down from above, striking the very spot he had occupied a moment ago!
Prince Stalwart wheeled about, his blade drawn in an instant. The humanoid beast towered over him, hissing from its many mouths. "An Entrail Eater!" thought the prince, and a sudden thrill of fear filled him. For he was a well-educated elf, and he had read of their predations. But he had little time to think as the beast hurled itself towards him again. Long they fought, with Prince Stalwart's blade leaving gash after gash in the monstrosity's twisted hide. Its claws sought desperately for a gap in his armor through which to slay him, but the elven craftsmen had woven its golden threads too well.
At last, terribly wounded, the creature turned and bounded away. Prince Stalwart stood, panting, and watched as the thing climbed upon a nearby boulder and turned back to face him.
Then, before his astonished eyes, he saw its very wounds seal shut with astounding swiftness. In mere moments the beast's flesh was pristine once more, and its slavering mouths hissed a victory cry. With a single bound it reached him again, to resume the battle.
Prince Stalwart fought long and hard, and his armor protected him well, but the battle was running against him. Beneath his shining armor, he was battered and bruised and his great strength was slowly beginning to fail him. Thrice the foul creature attacked him, and thrice he drove it off, each time with a dozen wounds that should have been mortal. And each time it only retreated, briefly, whereupon its wounds healed with magical speed and it swiftly rejoined the fray.
Desperate now, Prince Stalwart cast his mind back to those ancient books, striving to remember whatever he could. He fully understood now, why the Entrail Eater is regarded as of little threat by squads of soldiers, who could flank it and bring the beast down, but a terrible, terrible danger to those who travel alone. He knew then that his only chance was to strike the foul beast a blow that even it could not heal.
His strength was failing. His golden armor was battered and even torn in places, so dreadful had been their struggle. He knew that it would not long protect him, but he prayed that its enchantment might withstand one more blow. And as the beast leapt towards him, Prince Stalwart gambled all and leapt towards it in turn.
He threw his weight against his shining blade, not caring that it cut into his own enchanted armor and behind that, his own flesh. No, he threw his every effort into that single blow and with the weight of his own body behind it and the force of the Entrail Eater's leap working with him, he cut the beast in twain entirely! The two of them, now three, fell to the ground with a clatter. A great gash had been torn in his golden armor and he could tell that its enchantment was failing, but the writhing halves around him showed that he had won.
Not trusting the unnatural creature to perish as it should, he forced his battered and weary body to rise and smote each part, over and over again, until every screaming mouth was silenced and every noisome eye struck off.
Prince Stalwart rested briefly then, and rose once more. A dreadful danger to the travellers of the crags was no more, but still his quest was not done. Staggering somewhat from his injuries, he climbed until he found the ledge from which the foul thing had launched its ambush. There he found its tracks, but more! Amongst the clawed scratches of the dreadful thing, his keen eyes detected the gentle footprints of a barefooted elf-girl, one of most slender weight and build.
Scarcely daring to believe the evidence of his eyes, he rose once more with renewed strength. The trail was so faint as to have been invisible to the eyes of any other, but to Prince Stalwart it was marked as clearly as the setting sun. He raced along the rocky path it traced, not caring that his wounds still bled or that his body cried out for rest.
And in the end his struggles led him up near the very peak of mount Forlorn, where a dark cave marked the side of the mountain like an ancient wound. Gnawed bones were scattered about the cavern's mouth, but in the dust without it he saw more tracks from the Entrail Eater and the elf-girl, too. Its were old, but hers were fresh, so fresh that he knew mere minutes could have passed since she last walked this way.
But even in his triumph, Prince Stalwart was a canny warrior, and he approached the cave with his glowing sword raised. But no cry of rage or bestial fury greeted him.
Instead, it was the softest elf-girl voice he had ever heard, saying "Oh! What is this strange light I see?"
From the darkness emerged the most beautiful sight the noble prince had ever seen; a young elf-lass with golden hair and the face of an angel. Her clothes were simple peasant garb, and her feet were unshod, but to Prince Stalwart her garments might as well have been the finest silk.
He fell to his knees before her. "Princess Pretty! At last!" he cried.
"Do you know me, then, noble sir?" the princess replied, laying a hand over her breast. "You have not the look of one of my father's knights."
"Nay, good lady, but I have come far and faced terrible dangers to rescue you. From a distant land I sailed and from the kingdom of Beauty I rode, seeking you. I have scaled these treacherous crags and slain the monster of mount Forlorn, all in hopes that you might yet live."
"Then you have fought long and hard, noble sir," she said. "Please, sit here and let me tend to your wounds."
So Prince Stalwart set down his glowing sword and lay back against a boulder. His every muscle ached and a great lassitude was falling over him.
The princess brought back a small bucket of water and a sponge, and proceeded to wash his battered and dusty skin, while Prince Stalwart spoke long about his many adventures. He found it easy to talk to the princess, whose great beauty had already won his heart. He knew that he would never be willing to return to his own lands without her at his side.
Prince Stalwart's cheek had been torn by the flailing claws of his monstrous foe, and Princess Pretty gently kissed his wound. His noble face flushed at even this gentle demonstration of her approval.
The Princess smacked her lips and smiled ever more broadly. "It's been so long since any elfin-folk had come seeking me... I'd nearly forgotten how good they taste."
"What?" murmured Prince Stalwart, his heart lost in her eyes.
Princess Pretty giggled girlishly, her beautiful eyes sparkling with delight. "The Entrail Eater was just my pet. I am the monster of mount Forlorn."
But lovestruck Prince Stalwart hardly heard her words, mesmerized by the movements of her golden curls. He was astoundingly surprised when Princess Pretty struck out his eyes with her nails. He screamed and struggled to rise, but he was terribly weak and Princess Pretty threw him down and broke his arms. His golden armor was too badly damaged to protect him, and his glowing sword lay out of reach. With blade and nail, she slowly flayed him alive, and when his struggles ceased at last she chopped up the choicer meats for stew.
His bones she polished and tied with sinew to make a lovely chair, and the golden filigreed roses of his armor she pulled free and placed in her hair to offset her lovely curls. The enchanted sword she used to light her cavern home, while the Prince's intestines she scattered about the cliffside, in hopes of attracting a new pet to replace the one so rudely slain.
In this way, the noble Prince continued to serve his lady love, even after his untimely demise.
The speaker stopped then, and looked to his audience once more.
"Horrid!" cried the lady Calissa.
"And edited for our ears, I suspect," added Du Kalim, his face impassive.
"Well, aye," said Kadille, with a shrug of his shoulders. "It was much the same as I first heard it, save that Tearskin made Prince Stalwart's death a lot longer and more drawn out, and he always used an impish vulgarity I shant repeat in place of the word 'elf'."
"You call that a happy ending?" Calissa asked, her face still twisted with disgust.
"Ah!" Captain Kadille said suddenly, shaking his head. "Forgive me, I forgot the last line."
He drew a deep breath and paused, then intoned it with slow and solemn dignity, in imitation of its impish author.
"And Princess Pretty lived happily ever after."
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