A Dark Lord's Penance

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Chapter 2: The Intruder

"Why did the boss have to send me out on this job, especially alone…?” thinks the intruder as he skillfully, methodically begins to pick the lock of the door before him. “I know I’m technically one of the lowest ranking, so it’s understandable that I get most of the shit jobs, but sending me to the creepy-ass house that appeared out of nowhere? He must be using me as a guinea pig…” he relents, sighing.

He deftly maneuvers his wrench and pick, easily locating the correct pin and setting the rest, disengaging the lock with a quick turn. Happy with the silence and efficiency of his work, he starts to stow away his tools into his pockets, still ignorant of the plot unfolding around him.

"No…” she thinks, as she steps out of bed. “Perhaps death is far too lenient… I think I’ll bestow a curse upon them, but what would an appropriate one be…? A-ha!” she thinks, formulating what she believes is an appropriate punishment for her uninvited guest.

Reaching the stairwell, she becomes close enough to sense the soul of the burglar – a latent ability of hers – discerning much about the thief from it. He’s a young male human, approximately 5′11" with painfully average ability, except for his dexterity, which appears to be a bit better than average. He seems to be about 20 or so. He doesn’t appear to harbor any particularly malicious intent, most likely doing this to make some quick coin off stolen goods. Interestingly, she can feel both twinges of frustration and fear in his soul.

“Ah… I guess it would be creepy for a house to just appear out of nowhere where you live. Ha! I suppose I should make my home live up to his haunted expectations,” she thinks, turning invisible with an invocation.

Apprehensively, the thief steps into the house, quickly scanning the immediate interior to ensure no one is hiding in the darkness. Seeing no one, he begins to quietly inspect the interior, looking for items of apparent value. Smelling the aftermath of a recently cooked meal and noticing signs of fresh activity, he increases his guard and keeps a hand on his sword, worried that he may not be alone.

"I really don’t want to have to hurt anyone if I can help it… Then again, with the way this place just up and appeared, maybe it’s me who needs to worry about getting hurt,” he worries as he makes his way into the kitchen.

Other than some decent cutlery and china as well as some good-looking foodstuffs scattered about the room, he doesn’t find anything of particular note. Pondering whether to eat a slice of the bread on the windowsill, he suddenly feels a strong chill in the air around him.

"Why’d it suddenly get so cold? It’s fucking summer,” he asks himself, pulling his arms into himself for warmth.

Giving up on the bread, he turns his attention to the living room, where he finds well-made furniture and decorations as well as some ornate suits of armor fully clad in shields and weapons. Not interested in anything he can’t easily carry, he searches by the fireplace, where he finds an assortment of beautiful rings, bubbling potions, pristine figurines and finely-cut gems, seemingly being used for mere decoration, below the mantle. As he starts to pocket them, he hears what sounds like a child giggling behind him. Flinching, he slowly turns his head to find no one there.

"You’re hearing things, Ralph. You’re just hearing things,” he thinks, trying to convince himself.

After pocketing the small items, he approaches a door on the north end of the living room. As he opens it, he hears the backdoor he had left open in case a hasty retreat was required slowly creak shut. Refusing to give in to superstition, he continues into the new room, which appears to be either a lounge or a meeting room. Uninterested in the fancy furniture, he darts toward a door on the west wall. Upon reaching the door and for the door handle, it suddenly swings open. Startled, Ralph deftly steps back and draws his blade, a scimitar. When no one appears, he sighs and continues onward, and as he enters the next room, which appears to be a guest bedroom, he believes he hears someone running out of the lounge behind him and the same childish giggling echoing through the house. This “paranormal” activity is slowly yet noticeably starting to eat away at him.

"Stay calm, Ralph… stay calm. Even if it is a ghost, it hasn’t done anything to hurt you. In fact, it’s definitely not going to hurt you!” he confidently thinks, slightly reassured by the spirit’s merely mischievous behavior.

Examining the bedroom, he finds it to be quite bare, at least with respect to the other rooms. Few, if any, decorations grace its walls and cabinetry, and the bed is made with only the most basic of pillows and sheets.

"Heh. Must not have company too often…" he chuckles to himself, a nervous smile appearing on his face.

Approaching a door on the west wall, which he assumes leads to a guest bathroom, he hears a muffled sobbing coming from behind it. Unnerved but curious, he puts his ear on the door to listen, and as he does so, he hears a voice.

“Mommy is that you?” it tearfully asks, sounding like a young girl. “I think a bad man has broken into the house. Please don’t let him hurt me, Mommy!” Unsettled by this, Ralph doesn’t dare open the door. Instead, he turns and immediately goes back into the lounge.

His thoughts rewinding to the distant past, he remembers his own parents and the life he lived with them. It was by no means an easy life, as they were fairly poor, with his father being a laborer and mother a seamstress, but it was a happy life, their joys amplified and their pains reduced by each other’s company. Grinding his teeth in anguish, he recalls the night that his life changed forever, the night when his own parents were murdered by brigands who were robbing their home. They were enraged by the family’s lack of funds and took his parent’s lives as payment, leaving him alive out of some sick sense of pity.

"Have I really sunk this low…?” he asks himself, nauseous at the thought of being in the role of the brigands he hated so much. Attempting to collect himself, he sits down on one of the lounge couches and buries his head in his hands.

"You have to do this, Ralph, even if you don’t want to. The boss will kill you if you come back empty-handed, and he’ll find and kill you if you book it. Now, man up and finish the job. If the girl or the mother show up, just tie them up and be done with them until you’re finished,” he hypes himself.

Resolved to continue his pilfering, he rises from the couch and heads toward the door on the east wall. Opening the door reveals the next room to be a rather lavish lobby and parlor room as well as the front door on its northern wall. Unfortunately, this room, too, holds nothing carriable, nor does it have another door, much to Ralph’s chagrin. Disappointed and figuring he’ll move on to either the door in the kitchen, which he thinks might lead to a basement based on its construction, or the stairs in the living room leading to the second floor, he begins to make his way back to the exit. As he moves past the front door of the house, an eerily loud knock reverberates against it. Startled, he takes a small crossbow out of his satchel, pointing it at the door in case someone opens it. Again, an even louder knocking pounds against the door. Focused entirely on the door before him, the thief nearly jumps out of his skin when he hears a whisper directly in his ear.

"Aren’t you going to answer the door?" it questions in a gentle yet haunting voice, which lingers in Ralph’s ear.

Ralph nimbly spins around to catch the apparition tormenting him, but he finds nothing and no one. Frightened, he slowly backs away into the lounge and shuts the door in front of him. After doing this, he hears the faint sound of the front door opening, heavy footsteps stepping through the threshold and into the house. Now wanting to flee from the house with what little he was able to pilfer, he panickily performs an about-face and sneakily jots back to the living room. Entering the living room, he sees a small figure in his path. Rattled and worried for his life, he raises his crossbow to it.

“P-please don’t hurt me, m-mister…” a scared, stuttering voice pleads to him. Concentrating his eyes on the figure, he sees before him a noticeably terrified, teary-eyed little girl clad in cute pajamas, teddy bear in hand. “P-please just let me find my Mommy, mister. I just w-want my M-mommy…” she says as she begins to sob more heavily. Noticing that he’s still pointing his crossbow at her, he points it away in disgust of himself and quickly stows it away, fumbling a bit. Kneeling to be at eye level with her, he reassures her of his intentions.

“Please don’t cry, sweetie. Mister’s not gonna hurt anyone, alright? Mister’s gonna leave right now and everything’ll be just fine, ok?”

“You promise?” asks the girl, sniffling but seemingly comforted a bit by his words.

“Promise. Now, get a good night’s sleep, alright? Sleep well so you can forget all about Mister by tomorrow morning,” he says, with genuine concern, but hurried as he hears the footsteps from the parlor draw closer.

“Alright… Oh, but mister, if you’re actually not a bad guy, could you help me find my Mommy?” she asks, as much relief as tears in her eyes.

His eyes shoot open, shocked by her request. But, his fear of what’s making the footsteps overrides this feeling almost immediately.

“Oh, no, sweetie. Mister can’t help find your Mommy right now. Mister really shouldn’t be here anymore. I’ve scared you enough. And I’m sure that your Mommy’s here. She’s probably just upstairs,” he hurriedly relates to her, pointing at the staircase, and begins to slowly move toward the kitchen.

“I know, mister, but it’s so dark upstairs… I’m afraid of the dark,” she admits, blushing in slight embarrassment. “Please help me, mister, or are you really a bad guy after all…?” she questions, fear creeping back into her voice.

As she says this, Ralph hears the door in the lounge open and the footsteps enter the lounge, heading straight for the living room. Terrified, Ralph backs away more quickly until simply turning around and sprinting to the back door.

“I’m really sorry, sweetie!” he shouts. “But Mister really needs to leave, right now!”

Reaching the back door, he attempts to open it to no avail.

“You’ve gotta be shitting me!” he shouts angrily.

Violently, he tries to pry open the door, but nothing he does moves it even an inch. About to try to break and crawl out a window, he hears the girl scream in abject terror in the living room. Hearing this, his mind again goes back to that night of his parent’s death. The town guard had arrived shortly after the incident, and he remembers how he hated them, almost as much as the brigands, for not arriving sooner. If they had been there even five minutes sooner, his parents may have lived, and his life may not have gone to shambles. The memory of countless sleepless nights pondering over how he wished someone, anyone, had saved them that night floods his mind. With that powerful memory comes a torrent of rage, which brings him enough dumb courage to turn around and confront the terror assaulting the girl.

"I refuse to stand here, uselessly, trembling in my boots, while whatever, whoever, that is kills that girl! I’ve spent all my life resenting others for doing nothing, but I’m right here! I can be the hero for her that no one was for me! I’m right here!" he internally screams to himself.

"Leave her alone!" he shouts as he enters the living room, but as he enters and sees what he had been running from, all the rage and courage instantly leaves his body, his face turning a ghostly pale white. Standing in the threshold of the living room to the lounge was Ralph himself, crossbow in hand pointed directly at the girl. “What…? That’s… not possible…” he thinks to himself, flabbergasted and terrified.

"Aaahhh! A monster! Mister! Please save me, Mister! Mommy!" screams the girl in agonizing terror, beginning to run to Ralph. Paralyzed in confusion, Ralph watches, helplessly, as the him across the room raises the crossbow – exactly like the one in his satchel – to aim.

"No…” thinks Ralph. “I’m not a monster… I’m nothing like those pieces of trash…”

He watches as the other him steadies the crossbow, smilingly sickeningly as he readies to shoot, as if thoroughly enjoying the very thought of murdering the girl.

“No…” Ralph whispers inaudibly in opposition. “Don’t do it… Stop…”

Time seems to be moving in slow motion. The girl barely makes headway in her escape, and the air seems unnaturally still, yet the other him, as if both somehow free from the stagnation and hearing Ralph’s inaudible whispers of refusal, turns his head toward him and speaks in Ralph’s exact voice.

"Save her, then, Mr. Hero,” the double challenges as he shoots a bolt.

"No!" Ralph screams at the top of his lungs, launching himself to take the bolt for the girl. Hitting the floor hard, he desperately searches for the pain of a crossbow bolt, which he has unfortunately felt in the past, on his body but is immensely disappointed to find no such pain. Quickly, now enraged, he rises to attack his double, but the threshold to the lounge is now empty. Angered as he is at his doppelganger’s escape, his thoughts almost instantly return to the girl when he hears a low whimper from the floor below. Looking down, he finds the girl, a bolt piercing her heart, her clothes and face now painted crimson in her own blood.

“M-mister… w-why didn’t you save me, mister…?” she gurgles on the floor, blood beginning to fill her throat. “I’m afraid, mister… it’s getting so dark… I’m so afraid of the dark, mister… I want my Mommy, mister… Why didn’t you save me…? You were supposed to be my hero…”

Devastated, Ralph falls to his knees in utter defeat and despair, tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I’m so sorry. Please don’t die. Please stay with me,” he pleads, shaking, nauseous with grief, hands at his face.

“No… You killed me… you were the monster… you’re the reason I’m dead…” she accuses, her voice becoming more powerful, filling with hatred.

“No! I’m not a monster! I tried to save you, just like I always wanted someone to save me! That wasn’t me in the lounge!” Ralph yells, desperately trying to persuade the girl to the contrary as he starts to properly cry.

“Don’t lie to yourself, mister… you’re a monster who takes joy in breaking into others’ homes, killing others without remorse or compromise if they get in the way, aren’t you? You’re just like those brigands who killed your parents… and you’re just as useless as the town guard who couldn’t save them…” the little girl accuses as she is slowly wreathed in shadows, transforming into what appears to be some kind of demon. “Why didn’t you save me, mister? You were right there, weren’t you? What kind of excuse will you give me? You can’t blame the town guard now, can you, thief?!”

Breaking down at the mental strain of his own self-doubts and insecurities, the sight before him, and the painful words being said to him, Ralph curls up, face buried into his hands and pleads for the girl’s forgiveness.

“Please, forgive me... I couldn’t even save you when you were right there in front of me… I’m so useless… I’m so sorry… Please… forgive me, sweetie…” he pleads, looking down, tears cascading down his face, his mind overloaded with stimuli. Looking up once more, through the tears, he sees his double, smiling that same sickening smile, holding the corpses of both his parents and the demonic little girl in a cold embrace.

“Welcome home, Ralph…” it says, grinning wickedly as it tightens its hug.

Seeing this, his eyes roll back into his head, and he falls to the floor, knocked unconscious from shock.

After Ralph hits the floor, a familiar silhouette appears in the shadows and dispels both the illusions that had been plaguing Ralph and the magic used to detect his thoughts.

“Hmm… perhaps I went a bit overboard…” she says, worried about the mentally shattered young man slumped on the ground beneath her. Taking pity on the burglar, she picks him up and carries him to the guest bed. Once there, she strips him of his leather armor and other items she believes would be uncomfortable to sleep in and tucks him in the bed. Looking through his pockets and satchel, she finds and returns her belongings to their proper places and places his weapons and tools in the basement under lock and key. Returning to the guest room, she takes a good look at him and contemplates what she learned from his thoughts. His messy brown hair is ravaged from him running his hands through it in grief, and his subtly handsome face is drenched in his own tears from his hazel eyes.

"This poor guy… his boss really did him a disservice, sending him to rob my house of all places… but that doesn’t excuse him for trying. I’ll have to give his boss a little visit to express my gratitude as well…” she thinks, smiling evilly at the possibilities of petty revenge on the bandit’s boss. “After that performance, though, can I really still be considered good-aligned?” she jokes to herself.

Emptying the prospect from her mind for now, she turns to return to her chambers to finally rest for the night.

“Oh! I almost forgot…” she says, catching herself before she leaves. Returning to his bedside, she touches his face and bestows a high-level curse upon him.

“To you, thief, for disturbing my delicate private time and fond memory of my deceased wife, I bestow the curse of erectile dysfunction, which shall last for as long as I deem it humorous.”

The deed done, she finally departs from Ralph, ascending the stairs to her bedroom, where she again finds great comfort in her now “larger” bed and pillow and slowly drifts to a sound sleep, undisturbed by the mental strain she caused to the young man downstairs.

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