The other patrons of the inn had long gone to sleep, but my companion and I continued our conversation late into the night.
I made some off-hand remark about monsters – I don't recall what exactly – but it was evidently something rather foolish, for the old mage wagged his beard and smiled. "And just where do you think monsters come from, my boy?"
I scratched my chin, for I had no idea of an answer.
"Have you ever seen a pregnant female goblin? Little baby trolls?" He chuckled. "Monsters aren't like you and me, lad."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
The wizard leaned back, and took a puff from his clay pipe. He stared into the fireplace and, as he began to speak, I felt the shadows in the room deepen.
"You've never heard of nightwisps?"
I shook my head.
"The nightwisp is an entity of primordial chaos. In appearance, in its natural state, it is simply a floating patch of blackness, ranging in size from one inch in diameter, to several feet. The things are nearly impossible to see, as they sleep in deep shadows by day, and lurk freely only at night, or in underground places where they are virtually invisible."
"The nightwisp is a parasite that feeds off fear, pain and death. As it is incorporeal, the worst it can do is cause minor anxiety, perhaps a bad dream, barely enough to sustain itself. Therefore it seeks to acquire a more solid, physical existence by inhabiting a recently deceased host – generally human, demi-human or animal, sometimes even plants – reanimating the host. All chaotic monsters are formed in this way."
This theory of monsters surprised me. But I said nothing and let him continue.
"Nightwisps generally cannot inhabit a living body – though there have been some rare reported cases – as most living beings simply aren't willing to let go control of themselves."
"Now if a newly acquired host has not been long dead, it returns to life, transforming into some corrupted, chaotic monster form – a man might become an orc; a crocodile might become a dragon – with the wisp residing in its brain. If the host has been dead too long, it will take some undead form. In either case the specifics depend on the exact type of wisp, and the nature of its host."
"Go on," I said.
"For the most part, nightwisps and their corrupted hosts make their lairs underground. They emerge at night, killing to take whatever nourishment they need to keep the host alive, and to inflict fear and pain on their victims in order to feed themselves."
"They often collect some token of the victims, over time amassing lesser or greater hoards of wealth. They don't need the wealth itself, obviously. But the mere memory of fear and pain triggered by these souvenirs can help sustain a nightwisp for extended periods when victims aren't to be had. As for the host? Well, the will of the wisp keeps it going in times of famine."
At this poor pun, I began to wonder if the mage wasn't simply pulling my leg. But if he was attempting a joke, he gave no sign of it.
"If the host is slain, the nightwisp evacuates the broken body, and goes off in search of a new one. They generally seek bodies of people or animals who died of natural causes. Bodies of those killed in combat or by violent accidents are too damaged to support possession and transformation by a nightwisp."
"Then they go out once more into the world, traveling by night, hiding in shadows by day, until they find a suitable fresh corpse. Once they do, a new monster is born."
He looked at me. My eyes must have betrayed some measure of disbelief.
"Believe me or not," he said. "But that's where they come from."
He tapped out his pipe on the hearth. "Well lad, it's been fine talking to you, but I've got an early journey. I'm off to bed."