Molly was not liking the way people exited Isharnai's hut. The very air was thick with evil, and he felt like if he wandered too far off the path, he would wind up in the ground again, still alive. When the door opened and Fjord went in, a glimpse told him that he would absolutely not go in there unless forced. The smells alone from a quick whiff made him gag.
Fjord came out looking rather conflicted, but otherwise unharmed. “She’s a deal-maker. Seems to like misery—not existing, but new. I feel she wants us to offer up something terrible in order to break Nott’s curse. I offered to make us mercenaries for her. Deal for a deal, y'know? I figured she could operate like the Gentleman.”
“It was a decent thought,” Caleb muttered.
“She said it wasn't worth the trouble,” Fjord explained. “She wants misery for misery. Something that would be sacrificed from someone, make them worse off than Nott.”
Beau immediately walked in. She hadn’t even hesitated at the thought of ‘new misery.’ Molly was impressed by her bravery.
The rest of them sat there in silence for a moment, each probably thinking what they would sacrifice. Molly couldn't really see what he would give. He had mostly material possessions, his coat being the most special, but nothing would make him personally miserable should he lose it. Perhaps she would sway the fate of others? Fjord had tried to bargain all of the Nein and hadn't gotten a flat “only the offerer can sacrifice" answer.
Beau had looked absolutely spooked when she exited the Hag's hut. Molly had rarely seen her look so emotionally drained, and this had to be the most severe case. She muttered something, maybe something about her own standing in the Nein. Molly didn't catch it all, but from her actions it seemed the Hag hadn't refused the offer. Merely allowed her to go out and think about it.
Beau had ushered Nott quickly inside, though. The Goblin’s presence was apparently known, and considering how powerful hags were, Molly didn’t doubt she had known Nott had been with them the entire time.
Nott later seemed more troubled than when she entered, too. But Molly got the sense that she had offered something even greater. She whispered to Caleb (as if Molly and Caduceus weren’t literally next to them) that she'd offered to restart the war, offered the suffering of millions to end her own. In the end, she backed out on her own, and Caleb and Molly gave her pats of encouragement. She'd come a long way, indeed, from the little goblin that had tried to steal a letter from Fjord's bag in front of Molly all those months ago.
Yasha went next. She came out pretty fast, with a mix of anger and contentment on her face. Molly asked her exactly what she'd offered, and the barbarian explained that apparently she had no misery left to give. That she was at the bottom of the barrel and there was nothing she had that she could offer. Yasha had attempted to intimidate her by threatening to kill her, but that had failed, too.
Molly pursed his lips. On the one hand, it was a relief Yasha could not hurt herself further. On the other, it absolutely sucked that she was considered at her lowest, even after all the help the Nein had given her recently. Even after Molly had spent several nights alone with her after the incident with the Laughing Hand, holding her in a hug or just being there like she had been for him in their days at the circus.
Like she had when he'd…
Molly blinked. He looked out at the misty terrain of the woods. At the boggy ground nearby that had bald patches like fresh graves.
Apparently he did have something to offer. Something deeply personal that the rest of the Nein could not fathom. Nor match.
When the door opened to beckon someone else to attempt, Jester stepped forward cheerily. Molly caught her shoulder.
“Let me try,” he begged softly. “I might have something she'd like.”
Jester looked a little dubious, and even a little hurt that he'd cut in front of her, but she allowed him to go.
His initial suspicions of the hut's interior were wildly underestimated. He'd expected a bit of mess here and there, a more witchy version of Caleb's sense of chaotic order. What he got were piles of junk piled high on tables crammed against the walls of the hut, shelves decked out in various knick-knacks and creature parts, and a not-remotely-visible floor covered in dirt, mud, and the remains of what poor souls fell out of favor with the hag. Cages filled with animals—living and dead—hung from the ceiling, rattling eerily on their own like giant windchimes.
The smells that assaulted his nose were so awful Molly thought he might fall unconscious from the sheer force of them. As it was, he had to fight the reflex to gag upon hitting the Smell Wall. It was worse than if someone crop-dusted you. Worse than walking into a combined perfume and coffee shop. And he had a feeling a good chunk of the stink was emanating from the hag herself.
Isharnai was absolutely enormous, taking up at least half of the hut's width and was so tall she hunched under the ceiling. Before her was a single table, filthy and carved with various runes and symbols.
“Ah,” she exclaimed softly, rotten shark teeth shining in the dim light. “The Tiefling who defies death. So it is you who would attempt a trade next?”
Her voice was awful. Older than any he'd heard before, and it crackled like a dying fire on top of moving coals. Molly tried not to flinch.
“Yes,” he answered simply. “Nott is my friend and I'm more than willing to help her get rid of this curse.”
The hag chuckled. The lights flickered in time with her laughter. “And what would you have to trade for her curse? What would you…” She sized him up, licking her lips. “…sacrifice? Perhaps your own beauty? You are obviously the one with most…fashion sense.”
“While I appreciate the sentiment,” he said, voice way shakier than he would have liked. “I'm afraid my narcissism isn't quite that over-the-top. And even if you turned me into a bugbear, I would still make the best of it and still be me.”
“Perhaps you're right,” the hag conceded. “Then, what would you have in mind?”
Molly placed both his hands on the table, still standing. He looked the hag right in the eye. “Bring back my memories of being Lucien. Make me remember exactly what kind of asshole I used to be.”
Isharnai paused. Then, she laughed even harder than before. “My, that is quite the offer! It's certainly an interesting one, and it is worth far more than you realize.”
She leaned forward, her long, warty nose nearly touching his face. One of her gnarled fingers rose up to caress his cheek—no, his tattoo. A cold shiver shot down his spine, all the way to the tip of his tail.
“You certainly wouldn't know the ramifications of such a sacrifice—what that would mean for you. How could you, when you are nothing more than a babe?”
Molly went very stiff. His eyes narrowed, but he kept his gaze steadily on the hag. “What…what do you mean?”
“Oh, yes, such a sacrifice offers me so much suffering. Imagine, if you will, a body harboring two souls. Two completely individual souls trapped inside a vessel that should only hold one. Restoring Lucien's memories would mean allowing his soul to return to his runaway body.”
“But…no, I am Lucien!”
“Are you really?” The hag snickered, her teeth flashing again. A bit of saliva began to drip down her chin. “Because for your entire life you've done everything you could to prove you weren't him.”
True, Molly had told his friends he'd wanted nothing to do with whoever had been buried in the ground. He'd argued that they were different, and he would never be whoever that was. He never thought that would actually be true.
“So, all this time…I've truly been someone entirely different?”
“Perhaps if you had recalled Lucien’s memories early on in your body’s reanimation, he wouldn’t have lost his way…and Mollymauk would not exist at all.”
“So, if Lucien returned now…”
“…your souls would fight for dominance.” Isharnai grinned with all the ease of a predator staring down its prey. “And, I would imagine, it would send you into a chaotic split. A Jekyll and Hyde situation, to an outsider’s view. And, oh, what misery it would cause those around you when your young soul begins to weaken—for it is Lucien’s body by default, and you are merely a trespasser.”
Oh. Molly understood immediately what she was implying: Eventually his personality—his very soul—would lose the war. He’d be cast out of the body he’d fought so hard to make his own, and Lucien would be free to do whatever dirty shit he’d been doing before. Lucien would probably even leave the Nein the moment he got strong enough to knock Molly away, and that would definitely feed the hag’s misery requirement.
He was offering his own exile, just like Beau, but his version was much darker. And much worse for him in the long term.
“Should you find your young soul lost in the void,” the hag continued, “I would be glad to offer it a home. Your little spirit would be welcome here, where I would feed on your lonely misery freely…as your body’s true owner causes your friends their own tragedies…”
She waved a spindly hand, and a small glass bottle rose up from one of the shelves. It was empty, but with a flick of a finger, an illusion appeared. A sad little purple butterfly, with beautiful teal, green, and gold spots, sat perched on a tiny branch inside the jar. It glowed and seemed almost ethereal, like it was related more to a glow worm. The wings were far too large to allow it flight inside the small jar, and it seemed to accept this fact with its fuzzy and curled antennae cast down in sadness. Carved into the jar’s surface were a couple runes and the words Mollymauk Tealeaf.
The sight caused tears to spring forth. Molly was blinded by them so quickly that he couldn’t even attempt to hide them.
The hag’s tongue lolled out and before Molly could do anything, she slid the slimy appendage up his cheek. She eagerly lapped up every tear that fell, and the more he tried to deny them, the more they flowed forth.
“Young souls always offer the most misery,” she noted with a satisfied lick of her lips. “And they always do so because they never know what it really is that they’re offering.”
Isharnai sat back, elbows resting on the table and her chin brushing the back of her linked hands. “So, to clarify: You would exchange your very soul—and give up this body you have stolen—for the curse on your Goblin friend to be broken. That is a bargain I find extremely acceptable.”
Molly’s eyes were glued to the butterfly in the jar. He was shaking so violently he thought he might collapse here and now. He might have done so already if his tail wasn’t wrapped so tightly around one of his legs, choking it into a locked position. He already felt trapped. Trapped like he was back in a grave. Or...in a jar.
“Do we…have a deal?”
Jester huffed impatiently on the porch. The rest of the Nein were huddled together, Caduceus and Caleb just behind Jester and ready to have their own interviews with Isharnai. Jester didn’t plan on letting them, though. One way or another, she was going to be the last person to interact with the hag. She just hoped that Molly didn’t make any deal before she had a chance to talk. It would really suck.
Without warning, the door burst open and Molly rushed out. He ran straight to Yasha, who immediately pulled him out of reach of the rest of the group. Caduceus abandoned his spot in line to check up on Molly. Yasha glared at him, but the firbolg calmly stood his ground and examined Molly.
The lavender Tiefling was crying. His legs had buckled, and he’d collapsed fully into Yasha’s arms. His tail was wrapped so tightly around her that Jester could have mistaken it for a belt. Jester had never seen Molly so raw, and neither had anyone else in the Nein aside from Yasha. This was extremely concerning.
Jester gulped. Had Molly sacrificed his own happiness—his ability to make anyone smile ever again?
“I couldn’t do it,” he managed to choke out. “I’m sorry Nott…I just…I couldn’t do it…”
The Goblin walked over and placed a hand on Molly’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Molly.”
“What did you offer?” Beau asked, still looking shaken. “Your coat? The circus people’s happiness?”
Molly’s shoulders shook with held in sobs. He hunched over and clutched his stomach with a strangled cry. Yasha and Caduceus held him steady, and Nott looked ready to cry herself.
After about a minute, Molly uncurled a little and turned his head to face the rest of the group. “…my soul,” he whimpered. “Essentially…I offered my soul…”
“Molly!” Nott cried. “That’s even worse than Beau!”
Yasha rubbed Molly’s back. “You didn’t do it, though. It’s okay…You’re okay.”
Nott dropped the admonishment and hugged Molly. “I’m glad you didn’t do it. I don’t think any of us would have let her have it—least of all me.”
“We would have killed that witch before she could even touch your soul,” Yasha growled, her eyes glowing dangerously.
“And I love that you would do that,” Molly agreed. “But it wasn’t that straightforward. I just…” His own eyes teared up. He scrubbed them away quickly. “I don’t want to talk about it yet. But…But I will need everyone’s help. I…I’m…”
His tail curled tighter around Yasha as he fell silent. Jester could tell that everyone knew the meaning: Mollymauk Tealeaf was afraid.
That was the straw that broke the unicorn hamster’s back. Jester put on her best smile, turned around, and skipped into the hut.
Isharnai had cursed Nott.
Isharnai had made Beau nearly have another emotional breakdown.
Isharnai had made Molly cry.
“Hello~!” Jester greeted with sickening enthusiasm.
She would make this fucking hag pay.