Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Angel of Death 1.28 Death Throes

            Zachary rushed away from the prison, pulling the sphere out of his pocket.  The Angel of Death had said some magic words right before Pink fell and started changing.  Could that have been a coincidence?  He’d never seen an Angel need to use nonsense words before. Everything they did, they just did.

            The Angel of Death had said this sphere was a good luck charm.  Maybe the opposite was the case.  Zachary tossed the sphere away from him, causing it to land on the grass a distance away from him.  He kept running.

*****

            Cody followed the fear trail Zachary left behind him.  His frightened scent grew more powerful as Cody drew near to its source, and before long, Zachary was in sight.  The human found a sudden burst of speed somewhere inside him as Cody approached, but it did him little good.

            Cody reached Zachary and tackled him to the ground.  The human’s fear was pungent in the air as Cody pinned him, but the scent faded away when Cody knocked Zachary unconscious.  Cody closed his eyes and scanned through his mental catalogue of the diseases he had to tag.  He started with the most serious ones which were not immediately life-threatening.  He tried to strategize his transfers to move as many illnesses as he could.  He went through the pettier illnesses, and then the most dangerous ones.

            Finally, Cody moved over a group of life-threatening injuries in a single burst before snatching up and eating Zachary’s soul before the human could die.  When he’d done that, he lay back for a moment, and then stood up to go back to the prison.  Explaining this to Larngulal would be easier if fewer Selechii goons survived this affair, and in a few days, Cody would be in a position to scrub the organization from the face of the earth.  With both their leader and Zach working for him, he’d be able to find all of their hide-outs, track down every one of them and either kill them or send them to the police.  He just needed to wait for Valthakar to find Bavandersloth and he’d be golden.  He smiled.  He really was going to win.  Perhaps Cherie wouldn’t have to wait until next Valentine’s Day for another night as special as their last.

*****

            Cherie sat down in the training academy the next day with her work on her desk.  Some of the other trainees talked amongst themselves as they waited for the instructor.  Cherie looked over her work.  It still seemed satisfactory to her.

            A few moments before class was set to start, the instructor walked in.  “Good morning,” he said.

            “Good morning,” half of the class repeated.

            “Alright, everyone, you should all have completed the sheets I gave you last Friday over the weekend.  Today, we’re going to go through them.  For each of the scenarios, you were asked to write down questions you would want to ask to help you identify the kind of monster which had attacked the place in the text.  Today, I’m going to answer them.  Now, let’s read back over the first scenario.”

            The instructor got out a sheet of paper and read aloud from it.  “You are in the field when your squad meets with you to give you information.  They tell you that the rural Ethiopian village in question has faced three disappearances.  Each one has been a woman who went out to collect water and did not return.  The ground near the bank of the river is muddy, but there have been no unusual footprints found.”  The instructor looked up at the trainees.  “You were asked to list two questions you would ask to help you figure the answer out.  Would any of you like to ask one of your questions to me now?”  One of the other trainees raised their hand.  “Church,” the instructor called.

            “The question said no unusual footprints were found, but was anything else unusual found in the area?  Not just on the bank, but anywhere on the path these women would take to get there?”

            “That’s a good question, but not in this case, no.”  The instructor looked away from him and back to the class as a whole.  “He was doing something right when he thought of that, though.  Outside the box thinking is critical in this job.  One shouldn’t let themselves be led to assume that the bank is where these women are being snatched from.  That’s possible, but it also might not be the case.”  The instructor turned to another student whose hand was up.  “Yes, Ackerman?”

            “About it being possible for them to have disappeared from the bank, I think I spotted something that might rule that out.  If these women went there to collect a day’s supply of water in the morning, wouldn’t they have been seen by other women?”

            The instructor smiled.  “Now that is a very good point.  Your colleagues press the women’s families further on that point, and discover that all of them had gone out at night.  There’d been a disease epidemic in the area, its symptoms are all naturalistic, and these women had each gone out to get extra water for family members dehydrated by the illness.”  The trainee who had given that answer grinned.  Cherie decided now was the time to put up her hand.  However, the man behind her was called on first.  “Williams?”

            “Yes, I was wondering if any of the women’s buckets were found, especially near the river bank.”

            “Interesting question.  Why do you ask?”

            “According to the book, auhizotl will call out to their victims in a way that imitates the voices of their loved ones.  I reason that if one of these women heard such a call and went after it, they’d have left their bucket behind.”

            “I see,” the instructor said.  “Upon searching the area, your group finds an empty water vase.  With further questioning, you discover it to have belonged to one of your victims.  Also, out of curiosity, how many of you narrowed in on an auhizotl as one of your guesses?”

            Looking around, Cherie saw several students with their hands up, other than her and Williams.  “Hmm, I see,” the instructor said.  “Lambert, what’s your question?”

            Cherie looked at the instructor.  “The scenario said that there were no unusual footprints found on the river banks.  What kinds of footprints were found?  I ask because it might be that the monster responsible left footprints, just ones we didn’t recognize as unusual.”

            The instructor smiled at Cherie.  “Ah, another good question.  There were snake tracks in the area, along with those of a mud turtle, and those of a wolf.”

            “Would wolf prints be consistent with an auhizotl?”

            “They would.  It’d take close inspection to tell the difference.  The absence of any blood or evidence of a struggle near the bank had caused both you and the villagers to rule out a wolf attack, or indeed, any wild animal attack.”

            “Are there any prints around for us to do that inspection on?”

            “Yes.  You do the inspection, and you discover that the prints are indeed those of an auhizotl.”

            Cherie smiled.  Yes, she thought.

            “Now then, onto question two.”

*****

            Bavandersloth felt a voracious hunger as his consciousness returned.  He’d felt this same hunger before.  Quickly, he recalled what had happened at his mansion.  Kandrinarkora had told him Odelarch and Tkoralkiarch were working with Gborin’gargoth to betray him.

            Bavandersloth stood up.  He was in a dirty cave.  He could see no light nearby which might indicate an entrance.  However, sniffing the air, he smelled a pungent fear.  It was distant, but intense.  Bavandersloth salivated as he rushed through the cave, following the scent to what he presumed would be a fresh soul for him to devour.

            As he ran, he thought.  His phylactery had been hidden in the Rocky Mountains, so it could be presumed that that was where he was.  It’d been thirty days since Bavandersloth’s last memories, or else an entirely new form would not have been built for him.  He didn’t remember how his form had been destroyed.  He hadn’t felt, seen or heard anything unusual, except of course Kandrinarkora’s voice.  That was probably the trigger, indirectly.  Gborin’gargoth had destroyed his form to prevent him from alerting the community to what Odelarch and Tkoralkiarch had done.

            Bavandersloth reached the mouth of the cave, and stepped out into a dawn-lit snowy valley, surrounded by trees and with looming mountains to his left and right.  Bavandersloth followed the scent across a creek and up one of the mountains.

            If his form had been destroyed by Gborin’gargoth, his absence would have to be explained.  Not knowing how Gborin’gargoth had done it, it was difficult for Bavandersloth to guess whether Odelarch would have been able to explain the whole affair away.  If Gborin’gargoth had been clever, he’d have made sure to destroy his form in a way which would seem impossible for his collaborators to achieve.  Depending on what that was, any number of persons may be blamed for what happened.

            Bavandersloth run up the mountain a ways, and then turned to walk around its face.  The smell was coming from a nearby hill.  Bavandersloth could tell that much.  He made the mountain subtly smooth itself as he walked on it, to keep the terrain from slowing him down.

            It was unfortunate that Bavandersloth would have to punish Odelarch and Tkoralkiarch, the latter especially.  Bavandersloth had grown to like the boy.  Perhaps Bavandersloth could use a binding spell as Tkoralkiarch’s punishment.  Yes, that was exactly what he would do.  His phylactery collecting ability was too useful to waste.

            Bavandersloth would be less merciful to Odelarch.  He’d been a troublesome boy from the beginning.  Bavandersloth has seen promise in him, but any possibility of him being an ally in the future was offset by the fact that he had made himself Bavandersloth’s enemy now.  He should be dealt with cruelly and without hesitation.

            Bavandersloth felt a blade of grass crunch beneath his foot as he smelled the fear, closer, but only on account of Bavandersloth’s motion.  The fearful human didn’t seem to be moving at all.  Perhaps they were stuck where they were, maybe pinned by a rock.

            It was a difficult problem, Bavandersloth realized, working out how to exact his retribution on the boys.  As much as he’d love to gain Tkoralkiarch as a bound servant, getting his phylactery would be obscenely difficult.  He could call it back to himself at any time, and if he did, getting it back would require entering the range from which he could retrieve Bavandersloth’s phylactery.

            Wait, no.  Kandrinarkora had blocked Tkoralkiarch’s retrieval ability once.  There was no doubt he could do it again.  Yes, that would work.  As for Odelarch, Bavandersloth would acquire his phylactery once he had Tkoralkiarch serving him.  He’d bind him, make him lead Bavandersloth to his friends and family, (if Gborin’gargoth was communicating with the boy, there was no doubt he’d hidden them away), kill them in front of him, and then kill the boy himself.

            Of course, it was possible that Larngulal or Kgobauru had already seen to their punishments.  Bavandersloth hoped she’d not secured them by doing something rash.  At one of their earlier council meetings, she had advocated a large-scale attack on a major city to draw attention.  It was one of the rare times Bavandersloth had been united with Ntullnarlth against her.  Such an attack would inspire too much fear and panic.  The right amount of those things would bring in the audience Bavandersloth needed for his final broadcast.  Too much of them, and fuck knew what would happen.  Suspicion would brew.  Riots would rage.  Just about anything would be liable to occur in such an atmosphere.

            Bavandersloth finally reached the source of the scent; a little girl, sitting on the mountain, crying.  Bavandersloth was invisible, so she couldn’t see him.  He rushed toward her and buried his scythe in her stomach, killing her.  Immediately after that, he raised his shield.

            Sure enough, his shield was immediately struck by a giant glowing blast of magic, shattering in an instant.  Bavandersloth’s eyes widened.  There was only one lich who could have created a blast that large.

            Bavandersloth jumped back into the valley, dodging another incoming blast.  He looked to see where it’d come from.  He reasoned out a direction, but was unable to figure out his attacker’s location from that.

            Bavandersloth hurried back into the wilderness.  That blast had come from Valthakar.  He’d scared that little girl, and then used her to lure him to that specific spot.  He’d know Bavandersloth was there when he saw her die, and that’s when he fired.  That meant Valthakar was no longer under Bavandersloth’s control.

            That was bad.  That was very, very bad.  But who could have freed him?  It must have been one of the traitors, but neither one was powerful enough to reverse a binding spell.  Could they have powered themselves up?  No, that was absurd.  They’d have had to kill hundreds, something neither of them would ever consider.

            Or… perhaps, would they?  Cody had become rather ruthless as of late, it was true.  By all accounts, his killing of Ntullnarlth had been quite cold.  Still… it seemed unlikely.  The far more likely option was that they’d gotten some third person to assist them.  If that was the case, the culprit was likely a fellow do-gooder.  How many others were there?

            Off the top of his head, Bavandersloth could name three.  Vargrilog, who, when Bavandersloth last knew, was in Abuja, Nigeria, promoting civil rights as he fought crime.  He had become a lich around three-hundred years ago, originally to fight the North Atlantic Slave Trade, of which he had been a victim.  It was a shared background over which he and Bavandersloth had bonded, and his judgement was normally good enough for him to be more than worthy of governing that area, but Bavandersloth knew his loyalty to the community would be more than tested by this plan.

            There was also Ngulakoro, in Warsaw, Poland.  Now that Kaburlduth was gone, she was the last remnant of the storm of lich creation that was World War II.  Her original intent had been to leave Poland with her family during the invasion.  Later, she returned to actively fight the Nazis.

            Finally, there was Kagzuwehl, the Oldest Living Do-gooder.  Just a smidge too young to bind Valthakar himself after freeing him.  He was a product of the crusades, one of the smaller ones.  He’d turned to magic to repel the crusaders who invaded his lands.  He was in Jerusalem at the moment, if Bavandersloth recalled correctly.

            Bavandersloth thought.  Any of these three would have been able to release Valthakar from him.  Which one had, however?  The book could easily have informed Odelarch about any or all of them, though contacting them might have been difficult.

            Bavandersloth wracked his brain as he sniffed for more fear.  He could smell a few faint whiffs in the distance.  He licked his lips.  Perhaps they were from a settlement.

*****

            Valthakar cursed.  His blasts had hit nothing but the snow.  Bavandersloth had sensed his trap.

            Valthakar jumped to the far side of the mountain from the one he’d hit, the location where Bavandersloth was less likely to be, all things considered.  He waited a few moments, and then took his human form.  He grabbed his cell phone and then took his true form again as soon as he could.  He dialed Cody’s number.

            “Hello,” the boy said before the first ring ended.  Valthakar stood up and ran toward the nearest town as he spoke.

            “I didn’t get him,” Valthakar said.

            “I see,” he said.

            “He’s probably going to the closest town, Palisade.  You should call your friends at DIAPP, their special ink would be very helpful to us, and when you’re done with that, you should take the first flight here, perhaps on one of their helicopters.  Bring Justin, and the dog if you can.”

            “I don’t think Sparky would do well on a helicopter ride,” Cody said, “but Justin and I will head over as soon as we can.”

            “Get here as soon as possible.  Try to do it while Bavandersloth is still frenzying if you can.  His compulsion to feed will be advantageous to us.”

            “Of course.”

            “Alright then.  I’m out.”  Valthakar hung up.  He took a deep breath and zoomed off at his top speed, kicking up a white, snowy mist.

*****

            Cody put the phone down.  He lay back and waited a moment for Agent Lambert to call.

            The phone rang.  Cody answered it.  “Yes?”

            “The DIAPP office in Grand Junction, the closest one to Palisade, has already been alerted, and the whole area is being evacuated on the pretense of an incoming tornado.  As for you being transported there by helicopter, it’d take too long.  We do have a plane that could get you there in less than an hour and a half.  I’ll have it prepared at the Goldfalls Municipal Airport.”

            Cody smiled.  “Thank you.  Justin and I will be there in about twenty minutes.”

            “Alright.  We’ll prepare the jet as quickly as we can.  Oh, and there’s one other thing.”

            “What?”

            “We can loan you some of the sonar goggles our exterminators use.  They’ll allow you to see Bavandersloth while he’s invisible.”

            Cody’s eyes widened.  “Wow.  Really?  That’d be great.  Thanks.”

            “You’re welcome.”  Mr. Lambert hung up.

            Cody put the phone in his pocket.  He turned to Justin, whose eyes were on a brightly glowing cell phone.  “Hey, Justin.”

            Justin turned around and looked at Cody.  “What?”

            “We’re going to Colorado to help Valthakar fight Bavandersloth.”  Justin’s eyes widened, but Cody continued.  “Mr. Lambert is preparing a plane for us now.”

            Justin sat up, and then looked down at the floor.  He took a deep breath, and took his true form.  “Alright,” he said.

*****

            Valthakar slid down one last cliff and ran into Palisade before Bavandersloth had a chance to.  Tornado sirens blared in his ears as soon as he approached the small community.  An evacuation order was being issued over loudspeaker.  Odds were this was a ploy by DIAPP to empty the city.  Looking around as he walked through the small farming neighborhood around him, it seemed to have worked.

            Valthakar thought.  DIAPP helicopters were already in the sky; their pitch black metal skins blending into the midnight above.  Valthakar should seek some kind of shelter, he realized.  Bavandersloth was much slower than him and wouldn’t be here for a while, so there was no point in him being out in the open.  Hopefully, DIAPP’s sonar would detect and ink Bavandersloth as soon as he entered the little town.

            Valthakar looked up.  One of the helicopters was approaching him.  His eyes widened and dashed around.  He ran into the nearest empty house.  He waited.  The helicopter hovered over him for a few minutes before touching down; perhaps realizing a rampaging Bavandersloth wouldn’t sit and wait like he was.  He decided to de-cloak, though he put his shield up at the same time as an exterminator jumped out of the helicopter and approached him.  The woman stayed a good distance away and with her flamethrowers pointed at him.  Valthakar stayed where he was as the woman eyed him, her fear detectable to him, though foolishly mild.  Valthakar didn’t pay her much mind as she had a rather confused conversation through her earpiece, presumably about him.  He just sat, waiting for Bavandersloth.

*****

            Jeremy sat in the helicopter, his guns primed at where Bavandersloth was expected to arrive.  Of all of the military operations he had been involved in, this was by far the most sophisticated and important ever to involve paintballs.  Not ordinary paintballs, true enough, but paintballs nonetheless.  They were certainly the purplest thing which had ever been fired from a chain gun.

            Jeremy pressed his lips together.  A small part of him was impatient for the lich to arrive, but the much larger part that remained knew better than that.  He listened for the woman at the radar to shout out that they had detected something.  She didn’t of cour—

            “Hold on!  I just caught a blip on the sonar.  It’s the right size and speed, but it’s headed for Grand Junction!”

            Jeremy’s eyes widened.  His full attention snapped toward his gun, sparing the little bit he used to listen to the conversation happening behind him.

            “Straight for Grand Junction?  He must have figured we’d be here.  All helicopters pursue.  Goggles on.  Fire on sight.  Disregard all collateral damage.”

            “Yes, sir!” Jeremy shouted, along with those in the helicopter with him, including the other gunner behind him who held the actual weapons.  Jeremy took a deep breath as the helicopter moved.

*****

            Valthakar raised an eyebrow as he saw the exterminator near him react to a radio message and the helicopter above him land.  The exterminator turned toward him and said something, but Valthakar couldn’t hear it through his shield.  He sighed and lowered the thing.

            “Bavandersloth has been spotted heading straight for the next town over,” she said.  Valthakar’s eyes widened.

*****

            Justin looked down at his feet as he sat on the plane, thinking.  He’d have to kill Bavandersloth soon.  He remembered how eager, how excited he’d been to avenge his parents when he’d thought it’d been Valthakar who killed them, but for some reason, he felt different about it this time.

            He tried to settle back in his seat.  His seat was hard and lumpy, unlike Bavandersloth’s jet.  All the same, Justin never wanted this plane ride to end.  He wished he could just sit here forever.

*****

            Justin sat on the velvet couch, tears in his eyes, staring downward at the brown hardwood mansion floor underneath him.  He closed his eyes as drops of water fell onto that floor.  He recalled his mother’s warm embrace, how she used to cheer him up.  How she’d held his hand during his first flu shot.  He’d not believed her when she said it wouldn’t be that bad, but with her there, it really hadn’t been.

            Justin felt a hand on his shoulder as he cried.  He turned around and opened his eyes.  Bavandersloth was there, smiling down at him.  His smile was warm, soft, comforting, kind.  Justin looked up at him as he walked around the velvet couch and sat next to him, not saying a word.  Looking up at him, Justin thought.  This man had saved his life.  The Angel of Dea—no, the thing impersonating him, it would have taken him too if this man hadn’t been there to save him.

            Justin felt the seat below him depress as the man sat beside him.  Justin looked down, before embracing the man in a hug, head leaned over his shoulder.  Bavandersloth squeezed him just tightly enough as Justin cried over the man’s shoulder.

*****

            Justin squeezed the armrest as he heard the plane’s engines whirr around him.  The whole time, it’d been Bavandersloth.  He’d stolen his parents’ souls.

            They would be freed after Bavandersloth was dead, Justin remembered, a thought which quieted his tears a bit.  He looked up at Cody, whose attention was focused on the copy of On Soulless Ones which was spread across his lap.

            Tears still trickling down his face, Justin turned over his hand and placed it in front of Cody, who looked at him, at first quizzically, but then with a faint smile as he took the hand and squeezed it.  Justin leaned over and rested his head on Cody’s shoulder as he read, closing his eyes, squeezing the last few tears out.

*****

            Bavandersloth rushed across the sand toward the second nearest settlement.  Valthakar no doubt lurked at the nearest.  He’d get more food at the larger cluster of humans to its west.  He could smell more fear from there than he might have expected.  Why would that be?  The odor wasn’t enough for it to be Valthakar in devourer’s garb, or in any form.  Perhaps DIAPP was faking a disaster to have the town evacuated?  Yes, that would explain it.  It would also imply that Valthakar had told DIAPP what he was doing and they had listened.  The alliance that would imply had been made was more than unfortunate.

            Then again, it could also be a real natural disaster.  That would be quite the coincidence, however.

            In any case, any likely cause of a fear of that strength made it doubly pointless to go for the nearest town.  No doubt it would soon be evacuated.

            Bavandersloth continued toward his destination as he heard helicopters fly up behind him.  His eyes widened.  He turned around.  There were several of them in the distance, and they were zooming toward him.

            Bavandersloth looked ahead as he dashed for the city, but kept watch on the helicopters over his shoulder.  It was only a minute or so before they caught up with him, and then slowed down to keep pace.  He aimed his hand up at the helicopter nearest to him, but in the time he did that, five helicopters had him in their sights.  They pelted him with paintballs.  Bavandersloth seethed as he saw his once-invisible form become covered in neon purple ink.

            The lich ran ahead nonetheless.  If DIAPP was after him, Valthakar was as well.  Bavandersloth raised his shield.  It was soon covered in ink, ink that would fall on him as soon as he lowered his shield.  The shield was still faint from Valthakar’s destruction of it a while ago.  Bavandersloth seethed. It was vital that he avoid another encounter with Valthakar, but he wasn’t sure how he would avoid it.

            Bavandersloth ran to the side as the helicopters repositioned themselves in front of him, but to no avail, as they pelted the front of his shield with ink just as they had the back and sides until he was finally blind.

            Being blinded did not stop Bavandersloth from sprinting forward with all the strength he could muster.  However, as he did, he felt his shield pop at the hands of a magical beam.

            He turned around, even as the ink spilled on him, covering himself in a devourer’s cloud.  He saw another shot, a magical blast, come toward him.  He jumped to avoid it, but felt the shock of it hit him like a million tons as it hit the road, a shockwave tearing off his legs and throwing him a large distance.

            Bavandersloth felt himself, his back flat against the ground.  He lifted his head up to look in front of him, when he saw the magical beams which sliced off his arms.  He grumbled as Valthakar walked toward him.  “Wait!” he shouted.

            Valthakar uncloaked in front of him and grinned.  “I won’t be doing that.”

            “I ate out some of the ski lodges!  I got my fill already.  If you blow me up, you’ll just have to search for my phylactery again, and the monsters will be just as dedicated to keeping you from finding it.”

            Valthakar stopped.  He turned around, shouting up at the helicopters behind him.  “Do any of you have any contact with someone with a copy of the book?”

            One of the agents nodded.  “The head of every base has one.”

            “Find out if what he just said is true.”

            Bavandersloth lay back.

            The agent spoke again about a minute later.  “It is,” the human said.  Bavandersloth grinned.

            Valthakar turned around.  He walked the rest of the way and kneeled down next to the prone Bavandersloth.  He matched Bavandersloth’s smirk.  “Well, congratulations, you get to live an extra few hours.”  Valthakar stood up.  “Tkoralkiarch will be here inside the hour, however, so I wouldn’t get too comfortable.”

            Bavandersloth took a deep breath.

            “I wish you could understand how wonderful it is to see you just as upset about your own death as any common mortal,” Valthakar said.  “You think you’re some lord of amorality, but you’re as obsessed with preservation as Odelarch is.  The only difference is what you want to preserve.  Thinking you can live forever--”

            “I don’t think I can live forever.”  Bavandersloth looked up at Valthakar.  “I knew when I became a lich that my phylactery would eventually be destroyed.”

            “I’m not talking about that kind of knowledge, Bav.  No one is so consciously delusional that they believe they’ll live forever.  But at the same time, you feel like you can live forever, don’t you?  How often do you really think of your life in terms of a finite span of time?  At any point in your eight-hundred years, did you ever really realize that you would die someday?”

            Bavandersloth sneered, but as he tried to think of a response, he struggled.  “Perhaps not often, I’ll admit, but yes.  I have.”

            “I see.”  Valthakar sat down, clearly intending this to be a long conversation.  Perhaps inflicting himself on Bavandersloth was the only way he could pass the time until Tkoralkiarch arrived.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d admire your honesty.  I’m still greater than you in this respect, however.  I always think of it that way.”

            Bavandersloth turned his head and looked Valthakar in the eye.  “Really?  Always?  I imagine that’s exhausting.”

            Valthakar nodded.  “It is.”

            Bavandersloth tilted his head.  He looked back up at the sky.  A starry night swirled around above him.  He recognized every constellation by heart from the days when you had to sail on a boat to really get anywhere.

            “The alternative, however, is delusional.”

            Bavandersloth looked back at Valthakar.  He chuckled.  “Delusional?”

            “Look at you.  You have all of your big plans.  Tell me, were you thinking about how long you would rule the world?  I mean really, truly thinking about it?  No.  You acted as I would expect someone to if some part of them thought they were going to be in charge forever, because some part of you did.”

            Bavandersloth scoffed.  “At least I’m after something.  You scream and cry about how finite your time is, but you insist on doing nothing of value with it.”

            “There is nothing of real value to do.”

            Bavandersloth smiled.  “Really?  You’re that much of a fool?  ‘Oh, dear, I won’t be able to do things forever, therefore there’s no point in doing anything at all!’  Grow up.”

            “Says the eight-hundred year old man to the twelve-thousand.”

            Bavandersloth chuckled.  “Yes, says me to you.  Even Odelarch’s worldview is more adult.  At least when he doesn’t get his way, he doesn’t wail like an infant about it for over ten millennia.”

            “I’ve not wailed about Atlantis since about a month after it sank.  I don’t care about it anymore.”

            “And yet you spend so much time looking for it.”

            “Curiosity,” Valthakar said, “if it could even be called that.  I have to pass the time somehow.  Looking for Atlantis is as good a way as--”

            Bavandersloth’s laughter grew louder.  “Are you lying or are you honestly that deluded.”

            Valthakar glared.  “Your youth denies you perspective,” he said.  “Perhaps when you’re my age, you’ll understand.  Oh, wait, I forgot,” he grinned, “you’re going to die in a moment, aren’t you?”

            That managed to silence Bavandersloth.  A subtle grimace flashed on his face, but was gone before Valthakar would have been likely to notice.  Bavandersloth lay back, closing his eyes.

*****

            “You may exit,” Justin heard soon after the plane landed.  He stood up.  He’d been seated at the front of the plane, so Cody was the only one ahead of him as he walked out.

            Several exterminators got on motorcycles behind him, but Justin and Cody ran straight for the desert where Bavandersloth was stranded.  Regardless of any other respect in which he may be conflicted, Justin was quite uncomplicatedly relieved that he would not have to fight a battle.

            Justin sprinted forward inside his cloud of darkness, looking down.  He just had to grab the phylactery and snap it.  It would be that simple.  Cody had said Gborin’gargoth would stop Kandrinarkora from blocking him this time.  Justin didn’t even have to hear a word Bavandersloth said if he stayed inside his shield.  He’d just do it and his parents would be free.  All of the deceptive spells Bavandersloth had cast would be reversed.  Valthakar would then cast that anti-lich spell, and all of this would be over.

            Justin took a deep breath.  Over.  He’d felt like this would never be over, but it would be, at least where Bavandersloth was concerned.  The community of liches would be defeated.  No new liches would be created, so it would just be a matter of hunting down the ones that were left.  Justin would probably be a huge part of that, he realized.  He was the one who could get any phylactery he wanted.  There were so many different strategies liches had come up with to protect their phylacteries.  Some liches hid their phylacteries in secluded locations, from mountain ranges, to Antarctica, to lakes and rivers, even outer space.  There was one lich who’d found a way to get his phylactery onto the international space station.  There was another who’d somehow gotten it onto a space probe.

            None of that mattered where Justin was concerned, though.  He got it, Sparky burned it, that’s all there was to it.

            Justin looked up as he heard the DIAPP helicopter twirl above him.  He looked back at the road in front of him, and he saw Bavandersloth.  He clinched his fist and activated his shield.  He stepped forward.  Cody followed not far behind him, no expression of any kind on his face.  Justin took another step.  A tear fell down his cheek.  A moment later, Cody said something, and then tapped Justin’s shield, but Justin didn’t respond.  He did move again though, after a moment.

            Justin was alone with his thoughts inside the shield.  Why had the plane landed? he thought.  Why couldn’t the ride have lasted longer?  He moved perhaps five steps in the first minute of his approach, but soon discovered that by picturing his mother’s face, he was able to speed himself up.  Soon, he was close enough to Bavandersloth for the lich to look back at him.  His lips moved, but Justin did not lower his shield.  After a moment, he summoned courage to bring Bavandersloth’s phylactery to him.

*****

            Bavandersloth looked at the boy inside the shield.  It was true what they said, he discovered.  When you’re about to die, your entire life flashes before your eyes, though perhaps it only happened to some people.  His childhood flashed before him, the quiet farm on which he’d been born.  He still remembered his mother’s face, after all these years.

            As vivid were the memories of the chains he’d worn off of the farm, and the heat of the sun and ache of his muscles once he’d been moved to his new one.

            More clearly than any of that, though, he remembered her.  She was the reason he had become what he became.  He’d become a lich so he could save her, and he’d traded his soul so he could kill her.  She’d been a weakness by the end, a liability.  She knew too much of him, and her word and welfare held too much sway over his mind.  Now, he only wished he’d done it sooner.  He would have spared himself several unpleasant incidents.  Still, perhaps it would be the one good thing about the Underworld.  He might see her again.

            After Georgia’s face faded from his mind, he remembered the past few months, the most eventful in his life.  His plan had been so intricate, so well laid out, so wonderful.  It would have succeeded, but for the intervention of Gborin’gargoth.  Bavandersloth could see the smile on Odelarch’s face, as though the boy had just won their little game.  He’d not.  He was not a player.  He was a piece.  He was just a pawn in Gborin’gargoth’s game against Kandrinarkora.

            Bavandersloth lay back, closing his eyes as he felt a sudden pain in his gut.

*****

            Justin lowered his shield as he dropped Bavandersloth’s phylactery to the ground in two pieces.  Valthakar walked right over and picked it up, changing into his human form, pocketing it, and then taking his true form again.  “Good job,” he said.

            Justin nodded, his eyes downcast.  “Right,” he said.

*****

            Georgia sat at the table of plenty in the Underworld when a stone she was meant to keep with her vibrated.  She picked it up, activating its display.

            “Bavandersloth has died,” the alert said.  “Would you like to see him before he begins standard processing?”

            It’d been a while since she’d gotten such an alert.  Without a second thought, she touched the “no” option and resumed her meal.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Angel of Death 1.27 The Healing Angel

            Chris snarled as he held the phone to his ear.  “What did you just say?” he shouted through gritted teeth.

            “They stole our entire stock, sir,” the man on the other end of the phone repeated.

            Chris put the phone down and seethed.  Light-rook had assured him the odds of anything going wrong were minimal.  Chris had been sure they’d honor a deal orchestrated by an Angel.  How hard was it to allow one shipment through your territory?

            Chris sighed while Zachary looked at him, concerned.  He picked the phone back up.  “And how much did we waste on what we were giving them to let us through?”

            “About twenty-thousand, sir, on top of the cost of the shipment itself.”

            Chris gritted his teeth.  “Alright.  Is that the only news you have for me?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Very well then.  Goodbye.”  Chris hung up the phone.  He looked at Zachary.  “Oregon betrayed our trust” he said.  “We made a deal with them.  In exchange for letting us deliver a shipment through their turf to Canada, we gave them the tools they needed for one of Light-rook’s orders.  They took our tools, twenty-thousand dollars of them, and they took our shipment, fourty-four million more.  Go there and see to it that no one ever considers betraying us like that again.  I want your sister to make them wish they were in hell.  I want her to make the devil himself shake his head in disapproval.  Am I understood?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Good.  Go off and see to it.”

            Zachary nodded and left the room.  Chris sat back and put his feet up on the desk.  He’d never normally have risked this much, but Light-rook had assured him that it was a good idea.  It still had been, now that he thought about it.  Some of his advisors had said Oregon would never pass up that much meth no matter the risk, but what did they know about Oregon?  It had been a good and advisable plan.  It was by freak accident that it had gone awry.  It was a one in a billion chance for it to go wrong.  This had merely been that rare billionth time.  Yes.  That must have been the case.  Chris just knew Light-rook had told him the truth.

*****

            Valthakar punched a cavern wall as he left yet another cave in failure.  He seethed.  Nothing?  Still?  He’d been out here for a week!  How many caves were in the Rocky Mountains?

            Valthakar looked down.  There was clearly some kind of trickery going on here.  There was no way he could remember the location of the phylactery this badly.  It must have been moved.  By whom, though?  Could it have been Kgobauru?  No, it couldn’t have been any lich.  Without their souls, they’d not be able to find it except by random chance, an extremely unlikely event.  Could Kandrinarkora have messed with it somehow?  It seemed he must have.

            Valthakar sighed and sat down.  If that had happened, what should he do?  Well, he supposed the only thing he could do was open a portal to the underworld and find the thing there.  That’s where Kandrinarkora would have hidden it.

            Valthakar sighed.  How had the boy contacted Gborin’gargoth?  He’d bowed his head, like he was praying to him.  Hardly atypical of the boy, Valthakar supposed.  However, while Valthakar’s pride protested such an act, he’d have to swallow it.  He bowed his head just as he’d seen the boy do, willing himself to speak to Gborin’gargoth.

            “Hello?  Can you hear me?” he whispered.

            “Yes.  What do you need?”

            Valthakar’s eyes widened.  The voice was real and audible, though it didn’t seem to come from any one direction.  He stood up.  “I think Kandrinarkora has hidden Bavandersloth’s phylactery.”

            “I see… yes” the voice said.  “The Phylactery is in the Underworld.  I can sense it.  One of Kandrinarkora’s monsters must have taken it there.  I can sense where you are.  There’s a cave behind you.  I’ll open up a portal inside it, one that’ll lead right to where the phylactery is hidden.  I can keep Cerberus under control long enough for you to enter and leave.”

            Valthakar stood, taking a deep breath.  “Thank you,” he said.

            “No problem.”

            Valthakar turned around and entered the cave.

*****

            Cody’s eyes widened a bit.  “Where are you, then?”

            “On an assignment.  We were betrayed by another organization.  We have to take retribution.”

            Cody sighed.  “Can you not come back and then leave again to finish that?”  He wanted to kill Zachary before Bavandersloth died, and that could be any day now.  As soon as his phylactery was snapped, all of his mind control spells would be reversed.

            “Sorry.  Orders.”

            Cody gripped the cushion of the torn up old couch he was on.  “From who?”

            “The boss.  The one in charge of the Selechii Syndicate.”

            Cody closed his eyes.  His face tensed up before he took a deep breath.  He thought.  His eyes flashed open.  He came up with an idea.  “Could I meet with him, then?”

            “Hmm… I could contact him, I suppose.  Where would this be, and when?”

            “Anywhere private, as soon as possible.”

            “I see.  I’ll tell you what, I’ll call him and see.”

            Cody took a deep breath.  “Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

            “It’s alright.”  Zachary hung up to make the other call.  The Selechii Syndicate’s leader would be the worst criminal he’d gotten rid of, and as much as he didn’t want to admit it, the most valuable soul he’d have gotten.  Cody closed his eyes, took a deep breath and lay back.  He looked up at the moldy ceiling above him, trying to admire it.

*****

            As Valthakar walked through the cave, he scanned for the portal he had been promised.  Finally, he bowed his head again.  “Where exactly in the cave is it?”

            “In the back.  You’re almost there.”

            Valthakar looked around.  He could see into the chamber at the end of the hall.  There was nothing beyond it.  “I can see the back of the cave.  It’s straight down the hall.  I don’t see a portal.”

            “Just go into the back chamber.  You can’t see from outside, but there’s a portal to the left.”

            Valthakar looked up.  He sighed.  He walked into the back room.  There was no portal.  He looked around.  Too late, he heard a snicker.

            He turned around and saw a cat-like creature standing erect.  His eyes widened.  He lunged toward the creature, but a rock slid and fell on him as he hurdled through the air, its weight knocking him to the floor and crushing him against his stomach.  The cat walked up to him and grinned.  “Whoops, did I do that?” it asked.  Valthakar snarled.  “Oh well, I’d better split,” the cat said.  “Oh, by the way, you picked the right cave on your third try.  Well, it used to be the right cave.  I’d never tell you which one is right now!  Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA.”  Valthakar’s eyes widened.  The cat ran away, emitting an unpleasant, nasally laugh.  “Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA.  Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA.”

            Valthakar seethed.  He closed his eyes and made the rocks pinning him decay away.  He bent upward and looked at his back.  Crushed, nearly half way up.  The flat part of his back may as well have been a layer of paint on the cave floor it was so flat.  Valthakar sighed.  He couldn’t feel anything from his legs, meaning the crushing must have been so severe that, for magical purposes, that section was severed from him.

            Valthakar groaned, raised his palm and finished severing that bit of him off with a magical beam.  With that done, he stood up on his hands.  He’d done that before, of course, though his speed would be reduced by quite a bit while he did it here.

            Valthakar growled and rushed after the cat on his hands.

*****

            Zachary called Cody back.  “I was able to arrange a meeting for you.”

            “Really?  Where?”

            “At the Waterside Resort, room 226, this Thursday at 9:15.”

            Cody tilted his head.  That was a few days away.  “Can he not meet me any sooner than that?”

            “He’s a busy man.  He’ll be there when he said he’ll be there, and stay for fifteen minutes if you don’t show up, or an hour if you do.”

            Cody sighed.  “Fine.”

            Cody lay back as he hung up the phone.  He turned to lay on his side and closed his eyes.  He made himself think about his night with Cherie, calling images of her to dance in his mind.  Her soft breath, the feel of her warm skin against his cold, dead flesh, not that he had taken his true form with her.

            Cody sat up.  He looked over at Justin, who he’d finally talked into reading one of the Starstreamer books.  He closed his eyes again and thought about Cherie.  “Next Valentine’s Day,” he whispered to himself.

*****

            Cherie thought about Cody’s smooth, soft skin as she gazed out the window.  “Next Valentine’s Day,” she thought.  She heard the door open and turned her head, snapping out of her daydream to see her instructor walk in.  She took a deep breath and looked at him.

            “Good morning, class,” her instructor said, shutting the door behind him.

            Cherie smiled at him.  “Good morning,” she said, along with a few other DIAPP trainees.  She was by far the youngest person there.  She was studying for the “monster identifier” job for now.  Being an ethicist would require a certain amount of experience working some other duty anyway.

            “Thank you,” the instructor said.  “Now, we’re here to learn about the identification of magical creatures and artifacts.”  The instructor held up a book.  It was forest green, with two yellow circles, one inside the other, on its front cover.  There was yellow text inside the smaller of the two circles.  “Now, first, before we do anything else, I’m going to introduce you to this.  I can see all of you brought your own as you were instructed to.  Go ahead and look at it.  If you’re going to identify monsters, you’ll rely on this book.  It’s called the Compendium of Paranormal Entities and Objects.  All of you should have edition 7.0.”

            Cherie looked down at her copy.  The book was tall, wide and thick.  Opening it up, she found it to be printed on very thin paper, with the print being tiny.  She saw that the pages were numbered at the top, so she flipped to the back of the book.  Landing on not quite the last page, she saw it was numbered 3,137.  She looked back up at her instructor.

            “The CPEO7 is a comprehensive compendium of every known magical artifact and monster.  The creatures are listed first in the book, alphabetically by name.  The items are listed second, in the same manner.  An object’s description will usually be about two pages long, but some of them run longer.  For example, flip to page 149.”

            Cherie did.  She saw the entry for ‘Light Dragon,’ alphabetized as ‘Dragon, Light.’  “You’ll probably not encounter this particular creature in the field.  However, notice the way the entry is structured.”

            Cherie studied the page.  The monster’s name was in the top-left corner, followed by an artist’s depiction of it, with a human for scale.  Below it were a series of listed bulled points under headers.

            “Abilities

            “* Oral emission of light, including high energy lasers capable of causing lethal injury and both large and small scale destruction of environment and property.

            “* Winged flight at speeds up to 300 Mph and averaging 225 Mph.

            “* High intelligence, including complex and deceptive tactical maneuvering.”

            Other abilities included speech, high lifting strength, and a powerful bite.  Below its abilities were listed its typical behavior, weaknesses, recommended tactics for fighting it, and a header for miscellaneous information.

            When the instructor finished his explanation of the format for a magical creature page, he moved to the magical item section.  This page was formatted in a very similar way, but with different headers.

            “Now,” the instructor said, “let’s consider the most important section of this book.  In the back, taking up a third of the CPEO7, is a large index.  In it, countless traits, signatures, behaviors and abilities are listed in alphabetical order.  There’s an entry for fire.  There’s an entry for necklaces.  There’s an entry for creatures which can fly.  There’s an entry for creatures with distinct tails.  There’s an entry for creatures which glow.  Etc, etc.”

            Cherie flipped toward the back of the book to see what he was talking about.

            “Below each of these traits is a list of creatures and objects associated with it, including their page numbers.  Mark the page in question with one of the strings attached to the book’s spine, and then either go through the entries it lists, or, if there are several entries under some trait or you know quite a bit about the creature or item in question, look for more than one trait and cross-check them.  A great effort has been made to ensure these listings are complete.  Now, I will note at this point that once you are assigned a team to work with, you will primarily use the electronic version of this book.  It is much more easily searchable, and has more complete information and more categories through which you can search.  However, it may not always be an option.  If you’re on the go, or if there’s a power failure, or if your base of operations is compromised and the database destroyed, and you’d be surprised how often that happens, you’ll have to rely on this book.  Because the two systems work the same way, we’ll usually be using the harder one in this class.  If you can use this more difficult system, you should be able to use the easier electronic one.

            “Now, let’s practice.  Say you’re working in the field, and your team of agents tells you that a rural village is being terrorized by an orange monster with wings and one eye.  It has pointed ears and visits people in the night.  It has yet to cause a death, but rather assaulted its victims, and in some gravely unsavory ways, if you catch my meaning.  Look through your book for the monster I’m talking about and mark its page once you’ve found it, but do not tell anyone what it is.  I’ll give you all several minutes to find it.”

            The instructor sat down at his desk and turned to his computer to do something.  Cherie looked down in the book.  She thought about his description.  She figured the most important traits for identifying a monster would be the rarest, so she began with the creature’s manner of assault.

            Under “Sexual,” she found only three page numbers: 341, 633, and 701.  She marked the page with one of the strings and then moved to page 341.  It pertained to fertility spirits, which didn’t match the rest of the instructor’s description.  Page 633 pertained to mermaids.  That also didn’t match the rest of the description.

            Page 701, however, had a perfect match.  The Popobawa was the monster described on this page.  It was a one-eyed pointy-eared thing with bat wings and the tendency to torture and not kill.  Cherie marked the page and closed her book.

            Several minutes later, the instructor turned to the class.  “Has everyone found it?”

            “Yes,” several students said.

            “Alright, so,” the instructor turned on the projector, which showed the same picture of the Popobawa from the book, “the monster I had in mind was this one, the Popobawa…” Cherie smiled a bit.

*****

            Cody went to the hospital at 5:30 PM.  This was the earliest he had ever gone, so the hospital’s inhabitants were surprised to see him.  When Cody entered, the hospital receptionist’s eyes widened.  She stood up from the desk and stared at him.  Cody smelled her anxiety.  The massacre at Central Square was fresh in her mind.  Cody’s greetings at hospitals had been colder ever since these people had realized that he could be a devourer in disguise.

            None the less, there were dozens of humans gathered in the room into which the doors led, and several of them walked to him and crowded around him as soon as he entered.  These were pilgrims.  They had come from all around with countless different illnesses hoping to experience Cody’s healing powers.

            The first one to reach Cody was a young woman, whose diabetes Cody could sense as soon as she touched him.  He tagged it.  She didn’t immediately know that of course, so he had to speak to her, even as the crowd gathered around him.  “I’ve done it already.  You may walk away now,” he said, looking at her.  He looked up from her face and around the room.  “There is no need to rush around each other.  Form a line.  I will get to you all.”

            They did.  Many of them had probably seen news reports of Cody doing this before, so they knew he was being truthful about the lack of a need to rush.  Cody had the various members of the crowd pass before him.  A little girl.  A man with his infant son.  A woman with her infant daughter.  They all passed in sequence, about forty of them.  Each one walked into the cloud when their turn came.  Cody laid his hands on them and tagged any illnesses he sensed, and then told them to move along.  Many wretched at his smell, but it ultimately did not hinder them.

            When he was done with the pilgrims in the waiting room, Cody walked up to the receptionist.  “Do you know who can guide me around the facility?” he asked.

            The receptionist stood frozen for a moment, and then nodded, getting an official, who guided him through the hospital, allowing him to work with the ill he came across in each room.  The emergency room was the first area he was directed to.  He caught a glare from a woman who was there as he passed through.  Though the influx of pilgrims had kept hospitals from going out of business (each one of them had been paying for their seat in that room) Cody’s work had still had a massive effect on the hospital industry, at least in Goldfalls.  The glaring woman’s grievance with him was probably the cost of this emergency room visit.  As Cody and Justin reduced the number of those with the need to stay in the hospital for any long period of time and cured chronic conditions which kept many of them returning perpetually, the hospitals had been forced to raise the prices of ambulance rides and hospital stays to make up for their losses.  In the hospitals in poorer areas of town, such glares were more common.  Once, a girl had spat at him for bankrupting her family.

            Still, no hospital had refused to admit Cody, as there were many people willing to pay the higher price for the chance of one of his miracles.  In addition, each criminal Cody ate could only be given so many illnesses, which kept him from healing everyone quickly, so the hospital stay was far from totally abolished.

            After making his way through the emergency room, Cody was guided through the other wings of the hospital over the course of the next four hours or so.

            At one point, his guide turned to him.  “If I may say,” the man began, “this is… earlier in the day than you usually come.”

            “I have my reasons,” Cody said.  “My schedule has become freer.”

            Shortly before 9:00, Cody finished tagging the whole of the hospital and left.  He had taken a bit longer than he’d expected to, and so he needed to get to the hotel soon.

*****

            The hotel’s beauty annoyed Cody as soon as he entered its lobby.  The walls were a soft beige, decorated by dark gold triangular bars which ran along them.  In the center of the hotel was a marble statue of the Roman god Vulcan.  Cody kept his head down and tried to see as little of the scenery as possible as he made his way to the elevator, which he rode up to the second floor.

            When the elevator opened and revealed the hallway to Cody, he took a deep breath and stepped out.  The hallway was much less ornately decorated, though it still made Cody a little nauseous.  Cody hurried through the halls, trying to find room 226.  It took him about five minutes before he was able to find it.

            When he finally did, he took a deep breath, looking down as he cleared a lump from his throat.  He knocked on the green hotel door.  A tall, white, balding man opened it.  He looked down at Cody.  “Yes?  How can I help you?”

            “I was told to come here,” Cody said.

            The man raised an eyebrow.  “Were you now?  Come in.”

            Cody entered.  The man closed the door.  “I will say, though, that it is my understanding that you were to come in about ten minutes ago.”

            “I am very sorry for my tardiness, sir.”

            The man smiled.  “I hope you are.”  He sat down at the table.  As Cody ventured into the room, he saw a large man in the room with them.  “However, you did arrive within the margin of error I accept.  Before we begin, though, I hope you wouldn’t mind proving your identity?”

            Cody nodded.  “Sure,” he said.  He took his true form, covering it with a black cloud as quickly as he could after revealing it, and then took his human form again.

            The man looked up at him with shocked eyes and an open mouth, but soon cleared his throat and regained his composure.  “Please, sit.  What was it you wanted to discuss?”

            Cody sat down.  “Well, I’m sure you’ve noticed that Light-rook has been indisposed of late?”

            “Indeed, similarly to how he was once before, I suppose?”

            Cody nodded.  “Yes, and he’ll be gone for as long.  I’m meant to manage things around here while he’s gone.”

            The old man tilted his head and grinned.  “Really?  You?  What of that other angel?”

            “He is running a long errand.  In any case, to avoid redundant conversation, how far into the future did you already have plans with Light-rook?”

            “He and I had operations planned for most of the next several weeks.  According to whatever hoax he is spinning, I will admit I have not followed his newscasts, our organization is meant to be supplying most of his weapons.  We are the premier source of such things in this area.”

            Cody nodded.  “Is there anything he had promised to do for you that I’ll need to do instead now that he’s gone?  I wasn’t in the know about the details of his arrangements with you.”

            “There was a thing or two he’d agreed to do for us in the next few weeks.  The man, or whatever he is, seems to have paranormal powers of persuasion along with everything else.  Some of the things he’s convinced organizations to do are unthinkable.  He’s brokered deals I’d have said impossible.”

            “I see.  Could I get some kind of proper list of things he promised to do?”

            “There’s a pad and paper over there,” the Syndicate leader said, pointing to a bedside table in the room.  “I’ll list them to you; you can write them down.”

            Cody nodded.  He stood up and walked over to the table on which the pen and paper sat.  He picked them up and walked back.

            “Alright then.  So there are three deals in question here.  His biggest favor, Light-rook was to convince the Russian Mafia to accept a deal to ship us one-thousand tons of meth in exchange for a single shipload of weapons, half of which were to be used to carry out one of Light-rook’s schemes.  He also promised to talk down a casino which we had been taking protection money from, the Sky Palace, and he was to secure us some territory in Las Vegas relevant to that.”

            Cody scribbled the information down as the leader repeated it to him.  “What weapons did they need for the attack on Russia?”  Cody wasn’t sure exactly how much half a shipload was, but it sounded like a lot.

            “Explosives,” the leader said.  “I don’t know where or how they’re meant to be used.”

            “I see.”  Cody sighed.  “One other question.  You’ve probably guessed that we need… people for something, with the kills we take.”

            The man nodded.

            “Do you know how we might go about buying some, to store them for rough times, perhaps?”

            The man’s lips curled up and he emitted an airy laugh.  “What do you need to buy that for?  Can’t you knock just anyone out?”

            “We can, but there are reasons to buy.  The person is already missing from the perspective of the law, for one thing, so it’s less noticeable.”

            The man laughed again.  “I think I like you more than I thought I would, boy.  That’s one market the syndicate doesn’t deal in.  The Armillo Family is where you’re going to want to go for that.  I can give you a number.”

            Cody nodded and handed the man the pad of paper.  “Please do.”

            The man wrote the number down and handed the pad back to Cody.  “They’ll pretend to be a laundromat until you say the passcode I wrote down there.”

            Cody looked down at the pad of paper and smiled.  “Right.  I think that’s everything I need from you.”  Cody took his true form and pressed his foot to the man’s ankle, looking for the bottom of his pants.  As he did, he held his hand out and shot a magical beam at the guard’s heart, killing him.

            The crime boss’ eyes widened and he stood up and bolted for the door, but Cody jumped up and dashed after him, catching him and pinning him to the ground.  He placed his hand on the man’s bare scalp and knocked him out before transferring to him a wide selection of the illnesses he had tagged at the hospital.  He had to make a few decisions about who to save, that was always hard, but he was done quickly enough.

            Cody prepared his scythe and then, with what was almost one motion, moved several mortal injuries over to the crime boss and scooped his soul before they could kill him.  He ate it, its rich, smoky flavor indicating the depth of this man’s sins over the course of his career.

            Cody destroyed the man’s body, and then that of his guard.  He took his human form and walked out of the hotel.  He balled his fist around the scrunched up piece of paper in his pocket.  The Armillo Family sounded like an interesting future project.

*****

            Cody called Zachary’s number as soon as he got back home from that night’s hunt.  Perhaps he should be hunting during the day too, he thought.  With Angels primarily hunting at night, more and more crime was moving to the daytime.  Now that his schedule was freer, he should go out more often.

            Cody put the phone to his ear as he waited for Zach to pick up.  After several rings, he finally did.

            “Hello?” Zach said.

            “Your boss didn’t show for the meeting,” Cody said.

            “That’s impossible.  The boss honors his arrangements.  Are you sure you went to the right room and right hotel at the right time?”

            “Absolutely positive.  And by the way, I’m not accusing him of lacking punctuality.  If he’s as trustworthy as you say--”

            “He is.”

            “If that’s the case, it might be that something happened to him.”

            There was a pause on the other side of the phone.  “You’re right,” Zachary said.  “That could be the case.  I’ll look into it.”

            “Good.  In any case, I was never able to have the meeting with him I needed to have.  I still could stand to talk to you, though.  When will you be back here?”

            Zachary sighed.  “Not for a while, still: maybe around the beginning of March.”

            “Oh.”  Cody clenched his fist.  That was still about a week away.

            “Is there no one else in Selechii you could meet with?”

            Cody thought.  “No.  I suppose someone else could do if it was absolutely necessary, but I’d rather wait for you if it’s only going to be a week or so, unless of course you are able to get back into contact with your boss.”

            “I see.  In that case, I’ll call you when I get back to Goldfalls.  I’d invite you to meet up here, but I’m too busy to meet you right now, regardless of where.”

            “I understand.”

            “I will ask though, why me?”

            Cody smiled.  “Rank, mostly.”

            “Right.  Well, I’ll call you about a meeting when I’m done up here.”

            “Alright.  Thank you.”

            “No problem.”  Zachary hung up the phone.

            Cody took a deep breath and lay back.

*****

            Valthakar saw a blur in the distance, and his eyes widened.  He turned in its direction and scrambled straight toward it, as fast as his arms could carry him, his torso scraping against the ground.  The cat looked at him as he approached, a wide grin on its face.

            Valthakar sprung up with his hands to pounce on the bastard.  The cat leapt aside, escaping his grasp.  Valthakar fell flat on his stomach.  The cat looked at him while his face was flat against the rocky mountainside.  “Hey there,” it said.  Valthakar tried his best to ignore the cat as he stood up.  “Hey, hey there.  Wanna know a secret?  You wanna know it?  You wanna?”  Valthakar stood up on his palms and turned toward the cat.  As quickly as he could, he lifted his palm and fired another magical beam at it, but it rolled out of the way, landing right next to him.  “Alright,” the cat said.  “The secret is that you suck.  Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA.  Ha Ha Ha Ha HA HA.”  The cat ran away, Valthakar looking at it and seething.

*****

            Zachary put down the phone and sat on his hotel bed, looking over at his sister.  His sister, who sat at a table in the corner dipping a chicken nugget into ketchup, looked back at him.  “What did he say?” she asked.  “You said something was impossible.  What was impossible?”

            “He said the boss didn’t show up.”

            Pink’s eyes widened.  “What?  That really is impossible.  What do you think happened?”

            Zachary looked down.  “I don’t know.  I…” he looked up, “he could have gotten hung up on something.  We should assume that instead of something worse, at least for now, but I need to call him to see.”

            Zachary sighed and looked back at his phone.  He picked it up and dialed his boss’ number.  He put the phone to his ear and listened to the rings.  It rang once, and then twice, and then thrice, and again, and again, before going to voicemail.  He put the phone down, sighing.  He looked up at his sister.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

            She tilted her head, her eyes wide.  “Don’t worry?  How could I not worry?  He… missing a meeting is so unlike him.”

            Zach stood up and walked over to his sister.  He put his hand on her shoulder, causing her eyes to relax and her to smile.  “I’ll call someone still back in Goldfalls and have them look into it.  There’s no reason for us to be distracted from our mission.”

            Pink looked down at her plate of chicken nuggets.  “I guess,” she said.  Zach stood up and walked over to the bed.  He dialed another number.

*****

            A few days later, Valthakar lay on the side of a mountain, his legs half-regrown, though still not fit to use as transportation.  He’d been laying there most of the time for the past several days.  He’d go down to the town once a night to feed, but then he’d come right back to his spot on the mountain to sit.

            As Valthakar sat, he heard a chuckle.  He sighed and lay back, resisting the urge to look around.  He heard another chuckle, this time sounding closer.  He just slumped back and closed his eyes.  “Hey, hey stinkface,” he heard, in the high-pitched voice he knew belonged to the cat.  “Hey, hey, hey stupid, hey, hey, hey.  Hey, I’m talking to you maggot-face.  Hey.  Hey.  Hey, hey.”  Valthakar ignored the creature, even as he could hear it getting closer.  “Hey, hey,” the creature said.  “Hey, your mother was a stupid-head!  You’re a stupid-head too!  Hey!  Rot-breath, can you hear me!  Cat got your tongue?  It’s okay, I’ll give it back to you.  Hey!  Hey!”  Valthakar felt the cat step onto his stomach and walk up to his face.  “Hey!  Hey!  You smell like a dead skunk wearing gymsocks.  You look like a monster ate your face and the other monsters had to use ugly juice to repair it!”  The cat leaned down from his face and shouted in Valthakar’s ear.  “Hey!  Come on!  I stole the phylactery you need!  Hey!  Pay attention to me!  Hey!”

            Valthakar sat back.  The cat stopped shouting in his ear and looked directly at his face.  “Hey!  Hey!  Hey!”  Valthakar raised a shield.  The cat looked behind him.  Its eyes widened as Valthakar’s opened.  The cat turned around and looked at Valthakar.  “Hey, what are you doing?  You can’t do that!  That’s cheating!  I--”

            Valthakar leaned down and picked the cat up.  “Let go of me!” it shouted.  It started clawing at Valthakar’s chest, ripping his clothes, though they grew right back after each slash.  “Hey!  C’mon, put me down!  C’mon!”

            “You do realize I can’t feel that, right?”

            The cat seethed.  It looked up at Valthakar.  “What do you want?”

            “For you to tell me where you hid Bavandersloth’s phylactery.”

            The cat smirked.  “Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen!  I’m under orders, maggot-breath.  I can’t just go and help you!”

            “I see,” Valthakar said.  He sat down.

            The cat looked at him.  “Hey, what are you doing?”

            “I’m sitting here, with you.”

            “I can see that, puke-for-brains, but why?”

            “Because there’s no point in me getting up if you won’t tell me where you hid it.  If I was ever going to find it on my own, I’d have done so before I ever encountered you, and if I ever really came close to finding it, you’d just move it again.  I’d be stuck looking until the end of time.”

            “Hey… c’mon, man…”

            “Of course, you could tell me where it was, but I have no reason to trust you, so I’d have to keep you in here until I got to wherever you said it was, and if it wasn’t there, I’d have to sit back down again and, not let you out, and wait for another, hopefully true this time, answer.”

            “Hey!”  The cat’s eyes were wide and his mouth tilted down.  “You can’t do that!  C’mon, that’s not fair!”

            “Well, what’s fair and isn’t fair isn’t important now.”

            “What do you mean?  I… You… You’ll have to let this shield down if you ever want to eat, you know!”

            Valthakar lay down on the rocky plateau, and rested on his side.  “I suppose I would, but I’ve gone without souls for a few days before.”

            “I…” the cat looked down.  “I… I hid it in a valley.  I found some place near a river and buried it in a hole, inside its big box.”

            Valthakar smiled.  He looked at the cat.  “I see.  Thank you.”  He stood up.  “Can you lead me there?”

            The cat nodded.  “I can.”  Valthakar started walking down the mountain, the cat kept near him by his shield.  “You’ll want to take a right as soon as you get to the bottom of this mountain,” the cat said.

            Valthakar nodded.  “Thank you.  I will.”

*****

            As soon as the first of March came, Cody called Zachary.

            “What is it?” Zach asked.

            “This is the Angel of Death.  Have you discovered anything about your boss?”

            “No,” Zachary said.  “Nothing.  However, we are just now coming into Goldfalls.  Would you be willing to meet me at the Seal Bay correctional center, in, say, three hours?”

            Cody tilted his head.  “Why three hours?  That seems like a while.”

            “I have to report back to some colleagues of mine about my work, and find space to store a few things I got.”

            “Oh… of course.”  Cody was smiling a bit.  This was going as he’d planned.

            “Thank you for understanding.  Meet me in Cell Block B, that’s the visibly smaller one, at 9:00 tonight.  I’ll be near the entrance.”

            “Got it,” Cody said.  He hung up.

*****

            Cherie sat in her apartment, looking through the CPEO7, with homework in her lap.  She hadn’t expected her training her to feel so… schooly, but it did make sense when she thought about it.  Cherie wasn’t training to be a soldier, but a sort of field expert.  Physical training wasn’t a priority, though she had noticed some of it on her schedule.  It still wasn’t a tenth of what those exterminators must have.

            It was also much to Cherie’s relief that the test, and there would only be one test, would be open book.  Learning to use the book was, after all, the point.

            Cherie looked at the assignment.

            “Question 1: You are in the field when your squad meets with you to give you information.  They tell you that the rural Ethiopian village in question has faced three disappearances.  Each one has been a woman, who went out to collect water and did not return.  The ground near the bank of the river is muddy, but there have been no unusual footprints found.  List two questions you would want to ask to gleam more information, and two plausible suspects for the creature or object responsible.  Present your reasoning for both your questions and your guesses.”

            Cherie thought.  The obvious first step was to consult the index to find a list of aquatic monsters.  When she did that, she found an entry lasting several pages.  There must have been a hundred entries there.  She couldn’t reasonably go through them all.  She had to think of something else.

            No one going to a river for some water would wade into it, so whatever was dragging them away was most definitely coming out of the water, and therefore leaving footprints.  It must be, then, that its footprints were not unusual.  Cherie thought.  Her instructor had stressed the importance in class of knowing the area you served.  Knowing what typically dwelt in a place would help you learn what was and wasn’t unusual.  She wrote down as her first question.

                “What ‘usual’ footprints have been found?  Reasoning: As described, it does not seem likely that the creature did not leave footprints.  It must be, then, that its footprints were seen and mistaken for those of a local animal or person.”

            What else?  She looked through the scenario again.  It specifically specified a river.  She opened the Index to “river-dwelling.”  This included a much smaller number of entries, but still too many to search through.  She thought.  She marked the ‘river-dwelling’ page and moved to ‘disappearances.’  This was another large entry, but it wouldn’t contain monsters which would be likely to leave bodies behind, or who did not directly kill their victims at all.  As she cross-compared the two, the first intersection she noticed was the Kappa.  It was a Japanese monster, not African, but she knew that didn’t matter.  While some monsters were better suited to kinds of terrain which were common in one area or another, any monster could in principle appear anywhere.

            Still, it couldn’t be the Kappa.  Its webbed feet went against the statement that no unusual footprints had been found.  Webbed footprints large enough to belong to a Kappa would have been considered unusual anywhere.  There was no animal with feet like that.

            The next intersection she noticed was the Aztec monster Auhizotl.  It was more promising.  It had a dog-like body, and therefore dog-like feet.  She decided to make it her first guess.

            “Auhizotl: It is a river dweller who drags people into the water and drowns them.  Its footprints would have resembled those of a wolf or dog, and thus would have gone unnoticed.”

            Cherie looked through the book.  She threw out more intersections, before happening on another possibility.  Mermaids could have lured the victims into the water, thus not coming out on land to leave footprints.  That the victims were women didn’t matter.  Even if it was certain that they were all straight, Mermaids were shape shifters.  Their top halves could easily have been those of attractive men rather than women.

            “Mermaid: They could have lured the victims into the water without coming onto the bank to leave footprints.”

            Alright, so she just needed one more question.  If anyone had seen the monster, the question would have mentioned it, so there was no point asking for a physical description.  What about the victims?  The underworld always dispatched its monsters on some kind of mission.  Usually, if a monster was killing people, they had some kind of significance to it.  However, that train of thought wouldn’t give her the kind of question she needed.  She needed to identify the monster, not figure out why it’d been sent.

            She thought.  Perhaps she was thinking too inside-the-box.  A flying creature also wouldn’t have left any footprints.  That gave her another idea.

                “Are there any large mountains, caves, or forests in the area relatively nearby?  Reasoning: If it is a flying creature, and one large enough to lift a human, such a thing must be around for it to hide in, or it’d have been seen by now.”

            Cherie smiled and leaned over to the table to take a sip of her soda, then looked back at the book for the next question.

*****

            Cody walked into the prison about three hours later, like he’d said he would.  He’d been to the hospital and tagged a large number of new illnesses.  Tonight, he’d use some of them on Zachary.

            Under his dark cloud, Cody walked through the doorway into the rusty room into which the main door in the prison led.  There was some graffiti in the corner, though it was old and faded.

            Cody looked around.  He saw nothing he thought was of note.  Where were Pink and Zach?  “Hello?” Cody shouted.

            “Over here,” Zachary said.  The sound had come from one of the halls.  Cody looked down the hall in question, and saw Zachary motioning for him to come closer.  Pink was on the ground.  “She ran off down this hall,” Zach explained.  “She fell, and, I think, sprained her ankle.”

            Cody tilted his head.  “And you didn’t take her home?”

            “It happened just a second ago,” he said.

            Cody looked down the hall.  That struck him as unlikely, which made it likely that his plan had worked.  “I see.  Well, it was you I wanted to speak with.  Why don’t you come over here?”

            Zachary looked down at her, and then back up.  “Actually, I’ll tell you what.  Why don’t you help me carry her out to my car?  We could put her in the back, and then you and I could talk up front.”

            Cody looked at the cells on either side of Zachary.  After a moment, he smiled.  It had clearly gone as he intended.  Zachary had figured out that he’d killed the syndicate’s leader, as anyone would, and laid a trap for him.  Having a trap prepared for your enemy was smart, but made things all the worse for you when something went horribly wrong.  “Mollin Rath Olimachgor,” Cody said.

            Zachary tilted his head.  “What?”

            Pink started shaking on the ground.  Zachary looked down at her.  His eyes widened.  “Oh shit!  Oh shit!”  He looked up at Cody.  “How did you make that happen?”  Cody didn’t answer.  Zachary stood up and started running.  He looked at the cells to his left and right.  “Subdue her!” he shouted before running away.

            About a dozen Selechii goons spilled out of the prison cells, descending upon Anita.  As she woke up, rubbing her head, she looked around.  Her eyes widened.  Cody thought.  The most prudent thing to do might have been to leave, or to chase after Zachary.  However, he saw the fear in Anita’s eyes as she stood up, and smelled it wafting off of her.  He gritted his teeth.  He ran outside, hearing Anita shout.  “Wait,” she cried, “help me!”  Cody ran outside of the building and looked around for Zachary’s car.  He saw it, dashed over to it, and spent about fifteen seconds making it decay, leaving it a useless rust-covered ruin.

            Cody rushed back inside, seeing, as he expected, that Anita had been knocked unconscious.  He clenched his left fist, but extended his right palm to fire a magical blast into the nearest Selechii goon.

            The explosion ripped the woman he’d fired on apart, throwing her innards around.  The cluster of goons in front of her also fell over, the nearest ones dead, the farther away injured.

            The sound of the blast made the rest of the goons turn around, and then gasp, but then, several of them pointed large weapons at him.  Cody’s eyes widened and he raised his shield as a grenade flew toward him.  He dashed to the side, away from the entrance.  When the grenade went off, the doorway to the hall he’d been in collapsed.  Cody heard the crowd of Selechii goons rush away.

            Cody stood up, keeping his shield raised.  He’d intended for Zachary to figure out what he’d done and set some cowardly trap for revenge, but he’d not expected quite as many men as this to be available to fight him.

            Cody left the building through the door that he’d entered.  Looking around, he saw Zachary walk out of a door, and then walk back inside and close it as soon as he noticed Cody.  The scent of his fear was sweet.  Cody rushed toward the door and swung it open.  To his left, he saw two of the goons from before carrying Anita, and a third one behind them with a grenade launcher of some sort.

            Cody was able to raise his shield before the woman’s shot hit him.  He ran after her.  She fired another shot, which hit his shield, making it flicker.  Her mouth widened as he got closer, and she abandoned all attempts to fire at Cody and ran ahead of the two goons carrying Anita, who both shouted at her as she did.  Cody just ran forward.  The goons ran faster as they dashed away, but Cody was able to catch up to and tackle them.  He transferred several injuries and a case of blindness to one, with instantly fatal effect.  The other he kept pinned down.

            As Zachary scurried away, Cody looked at Anita.  He should have done this months ago, he thought, as he touched her, tagged her Disassociative Identity Disorder, as well as the head injury that was currently keeping her unconscious, and moved them over to the goon he had pinned, along with a batch of other illnesses, one of which killed him.

            Anita awoke from her state of being slumped on the ground.  She stood up.  She looked down at the dead goons, and then up at Cody.  “Did you see which way Zachary went?  I probably only have a few minutes before that demoness takes me over again.”

            “He ran down the hall behind you, but you are on no time limit.  Pink should be gone now.  I cured you of her.”

            Anita’s eyes widened.  “I…  You….  I…”  She looked at her hands, and then down at the floor.  She looked back up at him.  “I… Thank you.”

            Cody smiled.  “Don’t mention it.  I’m going to go look for him too, though I’ll go a different way than you.  If you encounter him, he’s likely to have a magic sphere on his person.  It’s a sort of bad luck charm.  Shout ‘Mollin Rath Olimachgor,’ when you see him, and you’ll activate it, causing something bad to happen to him.  Just what, I can’t say.  When I did it a minute ago, it made you emerge, forcing him to abandon his trap for me.”

            Anita nodded.  “Mollin Rath Olimachgor,” she repeated.  “I’ll make sure I remember it.”

            “Good.  His car is in no condition to be used, so he’s running around on foot somewhere.”


            “Got it.  Thank you again.”  Anita walked away, down the hall, Cody ran in the other direction.  He could smell pungent fears all around him, but only a few were far enough from the prison to be likely to be someone running away, and it happened that the strongest was also the farthest.  Cody dashed after it.