“In other news,” Violet Fox said, “the last few weeks have seen the rise of a new quazi-religious movement centered mostly in Goldfalls, CA. While many of the people in Goldfalls have taken a positive view of our handful of Angels, few have taken it as far as this group. Dubbed ‘Angel worshipers,’ this mysterious cult seems to follow a religion based around them. Beyond that, very little is known about the group, including whether or not they do literally worship angels. Members of the cult rarely talk about their beliefs, insisting that in order to discover the truth, one must join their organization. Given their association with what is widely regarded as real supernatural activity, plenty of people are doing just that.”
Violet turned to her left. “Joining me today to discuss this issue I have an actual Angel, Orichalcum. Welcome back to the show.”
Valthakar grinned. “Thank you for having me back.”
“Orichalcum, first, a lot of people who have joined the cult have said that they’ve chosen to do so because the cult seems to revolve around genuine supernatural activity. Do you have anything to say about that?”
“Well, knowing as little about the cult as I do, I can only say so much to that. I will say that I’m not aware of any god associated with us, nor do we generally identify as gods. I’d also like to caution anyone who assumes that just because an organization has a genuine connection to the supernatural it must be something you want to be involved with. Just because they’re not making everything up doesn’t mean they’re good guys.”
“What sort of practices would you recommend for anyone wanting to get into touch with the supernatural?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure that that’s a very good question. There’s really no specific interaction with the supernatural a given person will definitely want to have. There are ways of interacting with us, but there’s nothing like a ‘true religion’ associated with us in the sense you’re talking about.”
“I see. What do you think of the people who are seeing this group in a more sinister light?”
“Well, I don’t blame them. For the record, the organization is under investigation by the community of Angels. If there is anything sinister going on, we’ll discover it.”
Valthakar’s soul entered the house as ordered. He looked around for its occupant. He found him in the bedroom. The man was white and seemed to be in his late twenties. He was a reasonably well-known member of the cult of lich worshipers. The soul flew downward to look at the man. He hovered.
About half an hour later, there was a ring at the door. The man stood up and walked to the door. The soul followed him. When the homeowner opened the door, the soul saw another man standing outside. He seemed about ten years younger.
The homeowner looked down at the other man. “Hey,” he said.
There was a pause. The younger man took a deep breath. “So, according to the website, this is--”
The homeowner nodded. “Yep. So you’re here to join?”
The boy nodded. “Yeah. The site said you’d...”
“Yep. I’ll take you there. I’ll have to blindfold you and take you in my car. I hope that’s alright. This is our most sacred site and—”
The boy nodded. “Yeah, I understand.”
The older man slapped the younger man’s back. “Don’t worry, man, it’ll be worth it.”
The younger man nodded. He followed the older man through the house and out to his car. The cultist put the blindfold on the new recruit and drove away. The soul followed the car out of the older man’s neighborhood, across town and into the Northwest District.
When it entered the district, the car drove to an abandoned factory. The soul raised an eyebrow. Humans didn’t normally go into the Northwest District for very long. It was supposed to be dangerous. The car parked outside the factory and the cultist led the new recruit in, still blindfolded. The two went together through the rusty building and down a flight of stairs. They entered a pitch black room. “Sir, I bring a new charge,” the cultist said.
Despite the darkness, the soul could see perfectly. He looked down. He saw a man at a throne at the far end of the room. The man on the throne looked right at the older man as he entered. The soul’s eyes widened. He flew behind the man on the throne. If that man could see in the dark, he might be a lich. The soul looked around. The room’s walls were covered in various artifacts. There were bronze shields, spears, and a few swords. The cultist brought the new recruit to the throne. “Leader,” he said, “I bring a new student who wishes to learn the right way.”
“I can see that,” the man on the throne said. “Young man, is this true?”
The recruit took a deep breath. A bead of sweat fell down his face. “Yes sir. I mean, you guys have the real magic so I figure if you have a religion, you probably have the true religion.”
The man on the throne nodded. “Indeed we do. However, before I initiate you, I must warn you. The truth is not always pleasant, and once you learn it, you will no longer be able to back out. There is a chance that your life will be greatly enhanced by the knowledge I have, but there is also a chance, a much greater chance, it will be made a great deal worse.”
The new recruit bowed his head. “I don’t care how my life turns out. I want the truth. Please, teach me.”
There was a pause. The man on the throne nodded. “Very well.” The man changed into his true form. He was a lich. The soul could see a bronze helmet on the top of his head, with the red hairy Mohawk thing ancient roman soldiers had.
The recruit reeled back at the smell.
“Stand before me,” the lich said. The recruit clinched his fist. He held his breath as he walked up to the lich. The lich put his hand on the recruit’s soldier. “Now, may you learn the ways of the wise men of the past, and may you see the virtue of living by them.” The two stayed in that position for a few minutes, the cultist from before watching from a ways back. A few minutes later, the lich took his hand off of the recruit’s shoulder. “It is done,” he said. He smiled as the boy stepped back. “How do you feel?”
The boy stood eyes and mouth wide. “I… I’m speechless. All this time, we, everyone, had it so wrong, but so long ago they had it right. What seemed… What seemed like progress was just… just everyone fooling themselves and someone else had really had the way all along.”
The lich chuckled. “I am glad you like it. So you see the value of places?”
The recruit nodded.
“Good then. Now it is time for us to learn yours. Come back over. I will assess your ancestry.”
The recruit nodded. He stepped forward. The lich put his hand on the recruit’s shoulder again. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a few seconds, he frowned, and then opened them. He took his hand away.
“What is my place?” the recruit asked.
The lich took a deep breath. “You, I fear, must play the necessary role of a servus.”
The recruit’s eyes widened. “What? Are you sure?”
The recruit’s jaw opened. “No. No. No, that can’t be. I…” The recruit looked down, clinched his fists, and took a deep breath. He looked back up. “No. You’re right. If that’s my role, I ought to be grateful that I can fulfill it.”
The lich put his hand on the recruit’s shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Remember that it is the natural way of things. What you are doing is neither an unjust hardship nor a noble sacrifice; merely a necessary place, a cog in the wheel of society.”
The recruit nodded. The lich waved them away. “Auction him off at today’s meeting,” the lich said. “Or is there time to get it set up by then?” The older man nodded. “Ah, good.” The cultist walked away with the recruit, whose head was down.
Valthakar sat in the mansion’s Great Room reading On the Underworld as Justin watched TV.
“We’ll be right back to KoolKidz TV’s Christmaspectacular Christmas Special Marathon right after these messages.”
Justin turned and looked up at Valthakar as he grabbed the remote. “Hey, so, Christmas is coming up.”
Valthakar looked away from his book and down at Justin. “So it is.”
Justin sat. “Well, are you going to give me a present?”
“Bavandersloth already did.”
Justin tilted his head. “Really? That early?”
Valthakar closed his book. “Bavandersloth went into what he did planning for his form to be destroyed, Justin. The idea was to make DIAPP look trigger happy and irrational by having them destroy a beloved figure.”
Justin looked at Valthakar. He squinted. “But wait, aren’t they?”
Valthakar opened his book back up. “Yes, but the public didn’t know that.”
A soul flew in to speak to Valthakar. “Master,” it said, “I return with information.”
Valthakar put his book down. He looked up at the soul. “Yes?”
“I followed the cultist as you instructed and watched him initiate a new member. He took him to a factory in the Northwest District and brought him before a lich.”
“Which lich? What did he look like?”
“All I saw of his true form was the back of his head. He had on an Ancient Roman helmet. The wall was lined with stuff which I think was from Ancient Rome too.”
“Ntullnarlth, then. Alright, you were saying?”
“He got the human to agree to receive ‘the truth’ and put his hand on his shoulder. When he was done, well, whatever the human was told, he bought it. Then the lich put his hand on the human’s shoulder again and ‘assessed his ancestry’ to see what his ‘place’ would be. Long story short, he got slave, and he was like, okay with it. I mean, he looked a little disappointed, but that’s all, and he went along with it.”
Valthakar lay back. “I see. Anything else of note to report?”
“Well, no. That basically just happened. I came right back. I figured that was your answer as to whether they were violating the conventions.”
Valthakar took a deep breath and stood up. “I see. Well, it certainly warrants a talk with Ntullnarlth. I’ll go do that now. Lead the way.”
The soul nodded. Valthakar put his book down and turned toward Justin. “I’m going to leave you alone here now, then. Be good.”
Justin nodded. “Okay.” He turned back to the TV. Valthakar took his true form, cloaked himself, turned to the door and ran off, following the soul.
Valthakar retained his invisibility as the soul led him to the Northwest District, then to a factory. Valthakar looked around. He saw several cars parked outside. The soul led him to the factory door. Valthakar looked around and sent the soul inside. The soul peeked into the room then came back outside. “There are people right inside,” the soul said. “There’s no way to open the door without them noticing.” Valthakar thought for a moment. He smiled. He walked over to one of the cars outside. He pulled his arm back and slammed his fist into it. Its alarm sounded.
Valthakar stood by the door and waited. A cultist came walking out, opening the door. Valthakar slipped inside as the cultist turned around to close the door behind him.
Upon entering, Valthakar heard shouting. He looked around. He saw a crowd in front of him, seemingly composed of a few dozen people. They were all looking up at a young man, or perhaps boy, standing on a chair naked with his hands bound. The young man looked down at the ground.
“Two-hundred dollars,” someone in the crowd shouted.
“I heard two-hundred. Do I hear two-twenty-five?”
“Two-twenty-five,” someone else in the crowd shouted.
“That’s two-twenty-five going once, going twice,”
“Two-thirty, that’s two-thirty going once, going twice, sold for two-thirty.”
The winner walked up to and claimed the young man. The boy put his head down as he stepped off the chair. The winner put his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Hey,” he said, “don’t feel so bad.” The boy looked up at his new owner. “Most people end up with the same rank as you when they get their ancestry checked. It’s nothing to feel bad about.” The man took a deep breath then smiled. “Now c’mon. Let’s go get you dressed so I can take you home.” The young man looked down, but followed his new master.
Valthakar crept through the room, staying close to the wall, as the crowd disbanded. His soul flew down to him, and motioned for him to go downstairs. Valthakar did. He stepped down. When he reached the bottom step, he looked around. Ancient Roman artifacts lined the walls, and Ntullnarlth sat on a throne at the end of the room. Valthakar walked forward until he was standing right in front of Ntullnarlth, then uncloaked himself.
Ntullnarlth flinched. “What the… oh. Valthakar?” He squinted. “What are you doing here?”
“Investigating your organization. And from what I’ve seen upstairs, you seem to be violating the eighth convention.”
Ntullnarlth smiled. “Oh, I assure you I am in no such thing. The humans who have been sold as slaves to my cultists consented with the utmost freeness to the interaction.”
“Yes, after you brainwashed them. Believe me, I wish I could do that too, but we can’t.”
“I did not brainwash them. I enlightened them. I showed them the truth.”
“The fact that you believe it doesn’t make it not brainwashing.”
“How about the fact that they asked for it? The humans that come in here ask to be enlightened, and I give them what they ask for. The fact that they may superficially seem to be harmed by the role that leads them to accept of their own free will does not matter. I show them the truth and they choose to act on it.”
“And what truth is that?”
Ntullnarlth stood up. He took his true form, which wore the uniform of a high-ranking Roman Soldier. He walked a few steps away from his throne. “Let me explain a simple fact to you,” he said. “Every society, every last one, no matter its pretentions to the contrary, functions on the backs of rabble of some sort.” He turned around. “In my time, we built society on the backs of slaves. In the middle ages, that changed to serfs. After the enlightenment, or so it was called, it became slaves again. In today’s age, the entire globe is one society, and the slaves are those in Africa or China who work tirelessly to make civilization function.” Ntullnarlth took a step toward Valthakar. “Closer to home, we have immigrants, then the poor. No matter what name they go by, every society has them. My goal, with my faith, is to create, or rather recreate, something beautiful.” He looked at Valthakar. “Do you know when Rome fell?”
“Not off the top of my head.”
Ntullnarlth smiled. “The Roman Empire, in all its wondrous and glorious majesty, fell no later than February the Seventeenth, 380 CE.” Ntullnarlth looked down. He seethed. “That was the cursed day the Edict of Thessalonica was issued, declaring Christianity the state religion of Rome.” Ntullnarlth stood up. “The problem wasn’t so much Christianity itself. As a faith, its theology is unremarkable and its iconography, save for the cross, is rather boring. Its stories are an assorted collection of tales, varying more or less randomly in quality and insight.” Ntullnarlth clinched his fist. “Its values, though, are another matter.” Ntullnarlth took a deep breath. “These ideas were not born from Christianity, but it was under its rule that they were first encouraged by a state. Regardless of the imperfection of this in its early years, that cursed superstition contained the seed of an idea that has poisoned most of modern society.”
“Let me guess, love? Charity maybe? Equality? Something else that it’d be stupid for you to say?”
Ntullnarlth grimaced. “Joke all you want. What I speak of is the rejection of hierarchy. Christianity spread by appealing to the lowly, and to the rabble. It grabbed at their hearts, assuring them not only of some grand heaven to look forward to after they die, but the idea that they are, in some invisible and,” Ntullnarlth held his hands up and wiggled his fingers, “mystical way, really the same as those they serve.” Ntulnarlth seethed, and punched the wall, denting it. “That idea is poisonous. What is the very premise of all of society if not that the low serve the high, or at least that a low serve something? What else have all societies had in common? Not all civilizations have had technology. Not all of them have had trade. Not all of them have had money. The one single thing every single society throughout history has had is slaves.” Ntullnatlth looked up. “No matter the society’s name, form, or belief, they have all had slaves. The enlightenment made it worse, for it reckoned that this one fundamental basis of society should be abandoned altogether. In its foolishness, it sought to deny the rabble their rabbleness, and then it thought us immoral?”
“Is this speech going to end any time soon? I’d like to just take your phylactery and kill you for breaking the rules. You’re very annoying.”
Ntullnarlth turned to and glared at Valthakar. “Ah, but I have broken no rules my dear. I have received consent from these mortals to enlighten them, and then again their consent to live by the truth. You are free to watch a recruit being initiated if you doubt that.”
“The eighth convention isn’t about right and wrong. You’re missing the point. Do you think the public would approve of this if they were to discover it?”
“They can’t discover it. I have played my cards in a way that ensures that.”
“The Blue Butterfly said the same thing. He’s dead now.”
“Oh, but he was wrong.” Ntullnarlth smiled. “What do you have to say about it anyway? I am a councilor, in case you don’t recall, the same thing Bavandersloth was. I know all about Bavandersloth’s plan. I voted for it. I--”
Valthakar grabbed Ntullnarlth’s neck. “Look here. You and I both know that you are in violation of the rules.”
Ntullnarlth chuckled. “And we both know that you have no right to do anything. You do remember that there’s a seventh condition right before the eight one that you adore so much? That’s the one that says that you need the approval of the community at large to take action against me.”
Valthakar gritted his teeth. He threw Ntullnarlth down. “I can get approval.”
Ntullnarlth stood up, laughing. “Oh, I doubt you can.”
Valthakar smiled. “We’ll see.” He walked off.
“What do you mean I can’t do anything?”
“We’re sorry, Valthakar, we really are, but…” Kgobauru began.
“If, as even you concede,” Larngulal, another councilor said, “he has retrieved consent for every step of this process, we do not see anything objectionable about his behavior.”
Valthakar slammed his fists against a desk. “This is outrageous. You wouldn’t tolerate this behavior from a younger lich.”
“Are you accusing us of favoritism?” Kgobauru asked.
“I don’t think I stuttered, did I?”
Kgobauru leaned toward his camera, making his face appear large on Valthakar’s computer screen. “Now see here. Slave to Bavandersloth or not, you are, in the eyes of the community, nothing more than a common criminal. To hear you…” Valthakar sighed and left the chat. He sat back in his chair. He had to shut this down. His master would want that. He just needed to figure out a way. Valthakar thought.
Cody answered his phone. “Hello?”
“We have a problem,” Valthakar said. “Come to the mansion tonight.”
Cody knocked on the mansion’s door. A few minutes later, Valthakar opened it. “Ah, hello,” he said. “Please come in.” Valthakar walked to the great room. Cody followed. Valthakar gestured for him to sit down and he did so. There was a glass of water on Valthakar’s side of the table. “Thank you for coming, Cody. I imagine you have a guess as to why I’ve called you here.”
“It’s about that cult, right?”
Valthakar nodded. “I investigated it, and I’m afraid it’s worse than I thought. It’s run by one Ntullnarlth, a prominent member of the community, much like Bavandersloth and Kgobauru. The cult is composed of people he’s brainwashed.” Cody’s eyes widened. “He recruits them, takes them to a spot in the Northwest District, uses a mind control spell to force them to adopt the cult’s ideology, then assigns them to one of several castes, including a slave caste.”
“Alright then,” Cody said. “So he’s broken the rules. Punish him.”
“It’s not that simple. I’d need the community’s permission and I don’t have it.” Valthakar gritted his teeth. “They’re playing favorites with him, basically. Either that or they don’t like me. Either way, they’re no help.” Valthakar smiled. “Fortunately, I have one recourse.”
Cody raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Some of the humans he took were from your hunting grounds. Three of them, in fact, and two are in the slave caste. That means tha--”
“I’ll do it.”
Valthakar smiled. “That’s my boy.”
Ntullnarlth sat on his throne. “Master,” he heard one of his cultists say, “there are two angels here who demand to see you.”
Ntullnarlth sighed. “Send them down.” He rubbed his fingers against the armrests of his throne. He looked up. He saw two clouds of darkness. Ntullnarlth stood up and took his true form. “Please, my dears do go ahead and take down those clouds. There’s no need for privacy here.”
The liches obeyed. Ntullnarlth looked at Valthakar’s companion. “Ah, you must be this Odelarch I’ve heard so much about?” Odelarch nodded. Ntullnarlth turned to Valthakar. “By what means do you intend to annoy me today?”
“You’ve violated my territory by making use of my mortals as servitors and by subjecting them to illicit abuse,” Odelarch said. “I challenge you to a contest.”
Ntullnarlth looked at Odelarch. He laughed. “Pft. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. That’s a good one.”
“I know, and that’s what makes it so hilarious.” Ntullnarlth walked backward and set his hand on the armrest of his throne. He laughed for a few more seconds before looking up at Odelarch. “But do you know what? I think I accept your little challenge. It’ll be good for a laugh. After all,” Ntullnarlth took a few steps toward Cody, “I am two-thousand years old. But hey, I can see myself benefiting from this. In fact, from what I’ve heard, I think Bavandersloth benefits from it, too.” Ntullnarlth turned to Valthakar. “So perhaps you have served your master well after all.” Ntullnarlth turned back to Cody. “But anyways, sure, I’ll be happy to take part in this contest. As you’re opponent, I won’t be qualified to moderate it, but I’ll be happy to get Kgobauru down here for that.”
Odelarch smiled. “Alright then, it’s agreed.” Ntullnarlth saw Valthakar glaring at him. He smiled. The two liches turned around and walked away.
Ntullnarlth sat in an airport, waiting for Kgobauru to arrive. He looked up as he saw Kgobauru’s plane touch down outside. He sat back and read.
“There you are,” Kgobauru said a few minutes later.
Ntullnarlth looked up. He smiled and stood. “Indeed I am,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”
The two turned and walked toward the airport’s exit. “I’m happy to help with this,” Kgobauru said. He took a deep breath. “Odelarch is a nice kid, but sadly, his nature is such that he probably ought to go.”
“Who said anything about him going?”
Kgobauru turned to Ntullnarlth. He raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What do you plan to do with him?”
“Same treatment Bavandersloth gave Valthakar. It’s been a while since I’ve done that with one of my conquests. It didn’t work out so well last time, but I’ve become more experienced since then. I think I can handle a slave of my own.” Ntullnarlth smiled. “Of the lich variety I mean.” He looked up. “In fact, I think I’ll enjoy it immensely.”
Kgobauru chuckled. “I see.” He turned to Ntullnarlth. “I will warn you, though, don’t let your guard down. Remember, he was able to defeat Kaburlduth. The threat he poses is not negligible, and I won’t be any more on your side then on his.”
Ntullnarlth turned to Kgobauru. “You won’t?”
“I’m not willing to rig a contest for you.” Ntullnarlth looked down. Kgobauru raised a finger and smirked. “That said, though, there is one totally fair provision I’d like to suggest including in your initial proposal.”
Ntullnarlth raised an eyebrow.
Cody arrived at Bavandersloth’s mansion to negotiate the contest. He knocked on the door. Justin opened it. He looked up at Cody. He looked down. “Hey,” he said.
Cody tilted his head. “What’s wrong?”
Justin took a deep breath. He looked back up. “You’re about to get into a contest with a two-thousand year old lich. Are you sure you can beat him?”
“No,” Cody said. He looked down at Justin as he closed the door behind him. “I have to try, though.” Cody looked up. “I’ve done too many things to the human race not to protect them when I can.”
Cody walked into the Great Room. He saw Ntullnarlth sitting in the center of a couch and Kgobauru sitting on a chair. Valthakar sat in a chair opposite Kgobauru, and Cody took a seat on the couch opposite Ntullnarlth.
Ntullnarlth looked at Kgobauru. “Go ahead,” Kgobauru said.
Ntullnarlth looked at Cody. “I propose that we select a large space, it will probably have to be in the Northwest District, and that we assign, as far apart as possible, bases. In each of these bases, on a pedestal, is to be placed a ball light enough to be lifted by a zombie, but relatively difficult to destroy. Each of us shall be granted the use of sixteen souls, all of whom must possess complete, adult corpses.” Cody’s eyes widened. “With the help of these zombies, we shall each seek to acquire our opponent’s ball and transport it back to our base. The winner shall be whoever accomplishes this first. Should either of us destroy our own ball, we shall be disqualified.”
“I can’t use souls,” Cody said. “Last time I was in one of these, Bavandersloth said--”
“Bavandersloth isn’t here,” Kgobauru said. “You’re free to drop the challenge if you don’t like it.”
Cody looked at Ntullnarlth. He clinched his fist. “But--”
“Don’t waste your breath.”
Cody looked back at Kgobauru. He gulped and took a deep breath. He looked down and shed a tear. “Fine.”
Ntullnarlth smiled. “Good. So with that settled, do you have any other objections, Odelarch?”
Cody took a deep breath. “I don’t suppose I could say it’s unfair that I’d have to engage in a contest partially about open combat with a lich two-thousand years--”
“No,” Kgobauru said.
Cody sighed. He looked up. “Alright then. No objections.”
“Okay then,” Kgobauru said. “As for the location,” he turned to Ntullnarlth, “after you told me about this proposal at the airport, I took the liberty of doing a bit of research. I believe that Vergangen Asylum would be the best location. It’s symmetrical, at least to a large extent, and I know just where the two bases would be. Do either of you object?”
“Nope,” Ntullnarlth said.
“No,” Cody said.
Kgobauru smiled. “Very well, then.” Kgobauru looked at Ntullnarlth. “Is there anything else?”
Ntullnarlth looked at Kgobauru for a moment. He smiled. “Actually, yes, one more thing I’d like to do. I propose that along with our sixteen souls, we each summon one creature from the Underworld. We will each be allowed time to scour Bavandersloth’s copy of On the Underworld for a suitable creature. Kgobauru will summon it, and then give control of it to us.”
“Absolutely not,” Valthakar said.
“Oh come now,” Kgobauru said. “It’s not like Bavandersloth never loaned it.”
“Yes, very rarely, and when he was here to supervise things.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Cody said.
Ntullnarlth looked back at Valthakar. “See, even he thinks it’s a good idea.”
“I also think part of the prize should be the winner being allowed to keep theirs,” Cody said.
Kgobauru smiled. “I like the way you think.”
Valthakar glared at Cody. “What the hell are you thinking? You know this is just their ploy to get access to the book.”
Cody looked at Valthakar. “Of course I know that, but they’re not the only ones who have something to gain from accessing that book. For one thing, I’d like to look around in it. And for another, I might have use for a creature of the underworld if I could actually tame it long-term. Think of it this way, no matter who wins, the creature will go into service of your master’s big plan.”
Valthakar raised an eyebrow. “True,” he said. He turned back. “Alright then, but the book shall not leave this mansion at any point.”
Kgobauru smiled. “That’s fine.” He picked up a piece of paper from the table next to him. “So, I’ll just write down the formal terms.” Kgobauru wrote for a few minutes. “On December 24th 2013, both Ntullnarlth and Odelarch shall arrive at The Vergangen Asylum for the Mentally Ill by 10:45 PM. They will then be escorted to bases, which will have been set up prior to their arrival, and which shall consist of a platform, a pedestal, and a colored ball atop the pedestal. Odelarch’s shall be blue, and Ntullnarlth’s shall be red. They will each be permitted to use souls to animate sixteen provided corpses. No other souls may be used. They shall also each be permitted one creature from the Underworld that shall be made loyal to them through the use of a binding spell. This creature shall be selected by them and approved by me. Neither Odelarch nor Ntullnarlth may use any external method to attempt to discern what creature the other has selected. Invisibility shall not be used. Odelarch will be the victor if he, his zombies, or his selected creature are able to bring the red ball into physical contact with the pedestal in his base, or if Ntullnarlth deliberately destroys either ball. Ntullnarlth shall be the victor if he is able to bring the blue ball into physical contact with the pedestal in his base or if Odelarch deliberately destroys either ball.’ Are there any objections?”
“No,” Ntullnarlth said.
Cody took a deep breath. He shook his head.
“Good then.” Kgobauru looked at Valthakar. “Please retrieve the copy of On the Underworld.”
The next day, after Ntullnarlth had selected his creature, Cody was allowed to spend time looking through Bavandersloth’s copy of On the Underworld. He took it as Valthakar handed it to him.
“Be careful,” Valthakar said.
Valthakar sighed. He looked down. “Right.” Valthakar took a deep breath and walked off.
Cody looked at the book in his lap. He opened it to the Q&A section and picked up the quill. He took a deep breath.
“Could you give me a list of the most powerful creatures in the underworld that the binding spell I plan to use could be used on?”
“A Fish of Enormity. A galactic fish, his size is so great that he cannot safely enter the realm of mortals. He can easily swallow entire galaxies, and should a mortal see him, they would go insane.
“A serpent of enormity. A galactic serpent, his length is so great that if one were to stand in front of his head, the light from his tail would not pass them for many epochs. He cannot fit between the stars in galaxies.
“Beasts of atypical charges. Destructive Beasts, they take advantage of the most fundamental laws of the universe to create explosions rivaling none. With one breath, they can destroy an entire planet.”
“What are some of the most powerful creatures of the underworld that the binding spell I plan to use can be used on and whose size, composition, powers and personality lend themselves well to use first to help me with my contest with Ntullnarlth, then to assist me in future battles?”
“Beasts of Predation. Hunting beasts, they soar in the sky and haunt the ground looking to devour the enemies of the underworld. They are bored easily, and will destroy easy prey quickly so they may move on to challenges they consider worthy of their talent.
“Beasts of Pursuit. Persistent Beasts, legions of them shall track any soul who ever escapes the underworld. They are very hot, and leave a trail of blazing footprints anywhere they go.”
“Demons of Disaster. Malevolent demons, they have the power to cause untold destruction in any way they wish. Their shocking appearance brings terror to all who see them.
“Walls of shadow. Morphing walls, they block paths and roads to serve various ends of the underworld. One cannot go around them, as they will extend themselves until they circumnavigate the planet.”
Cody thought as he read several more entries. He needed to make his choice based on raw power. That was the primary strength Ntullnarlth had over him. Cody scratched his chin.
He spent about an hour with the book before he made his choice. He called Kgobauru, who approved the decision and cast his binding spell. Soon, Cody’s creature jumped through a portal and appeared in the realm of mortals.
The next night, Cody got home from a Christmas Eve party at 9:00. His parents went to bed at 9:30. Cody waited until 10:00 to sneak out through his window. It took Cody about half an hour to reach the quiet streets of the northwest district. He ran down them, following instructions he’d been given to reach Vergangen Asylum. When he arrived, he was led by Valthakar to his base.
Cody sighed. Sixteen corpses lay on the ground. He shed a tear as he called sixteen of his souls to animate them. The zombies stumbled to their feet.
“An alarm will sound off in a few minutes indicating the challenge has begun,” Valthakar said. “Stay here until then.” Cody nodded. Valthakar walked away.
Cody thought. There were two basic strategies available to him. He could stay at his base, on defense, and send his zombies out to get Ntullnarlth’s ball, or he could go out to get the ball himself, and leave defense to his zombies and the creature he summoned.
What would Ntullnarlth be most likely to do? He’d probably come after Cody’s ball. He was powerful enough that Cody couldn’t do anything to stop him from just taking it.
Cody smiled. His creature might have something to say about that. In fact, his new friend would be the equalizer here. Its magical power would be the best way to combat Ntullnarlth. Cody’s force wouldn’t make much of a difference. Given that, it’d probably be best to go after Ntullnarlth’s ball and leave his creature to defend his.
Cody heard an alarm roar through the building. His eyes widened. He took a deep breath. Cody turned to his zombies. “Listen,” he said. They turned to him. “I need,” Cody pointed at two of them, “you two to come with me. Everyone else, you see the ball on that pedestal?” Cody pointed to the pedestal. “Take it off, go to the corner, and pile yourselves on top of it. Try to stay in a posture where you’ll be able to get up easily. If another lich or any other lich’s zombie comes, do not let them take it.
The zombies nodded and did as instructed. Next, Cody whistled. He heard growling behind him. He turned around and saw his creature. He smiled and knelt down. The creature sat. Cody petted it. “Hey, Sparky, I need you to stay here, okay? If another lich or another lich’s zombie comes around here, and specifically if they try to get the ball behind that pile of zombies,” Cody pointed to the pile, “I need you to stop them, okay? Do this if you got all of that.” Cody nodded.
Sparky nodded too.
Cody smiled. “Great.” He stood up and looked down the hallway. He motioned for his two zombies to come with him. They did, moaning. Cody shushed them. They quieted. Cody looked back down the hall and walked forward.
As Cody proceeded down the hall, he passed by several rooms. Many of their doors were open, and several had graffiti inside. All of them were dusty and covered in cobwebs. Cody heard nothing but his own footsteps, those of his zombies, and faint laughter.
Cody’s eyes widened. Laughter? He looked around. He didn’t see anything. Could it have been Ntullnarlth? Ntullnarlth’s creature perhaps? The laugh was coming from the path in front of Cody. Cody looked ahead. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. He walked. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foo-- Cody’s eyes widened. As he set his foot down, the environment around him changed. He was outside now. He looked around. It was daytime. He was in the middle of a field of some sort. No, not just of some sort, of wheat. He tried to take a step forward. He heard a buzzer.
“Warning, patient PRG-R35 is attempting to escape his bounds.”
Cody looked around. He didn’t see anyone nearby.
“It’s okay,” Cody heard from another voice. “He can’t move until it’s time. He needs to see something savage.” the voice chuckled.
“What the heck is going on?” Cody shouted. Cody pulled his feet upward for a few more seconds. He grumbled, unable to lift them. He looked around. He saw someone. He tried to run to them, but his feet wouldn’t move. He shouted. “Hey, you, over there. Could you come here?”
The person, a man, wore simple cloth garb. He looked over at Cody. He was holding a plough. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I don’t know how I got here. Could you come over? I can’t move?”
The man raised an eyebrow. He walked over.
“Hey, dude, are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Who are you?”
“Who am I? We met at the auction dude.”
Cody’s eyes widened. “Auction…”
“Yes. Do you not remember? Do you need to call one of the--”
“I… I don’t know.”
This had to be the work of Ntullnarlth’s creature, right?
Cody heard a loud crack as he saw a whip hit the man in he’d been speaking to. The man fell to the ground. Cody looked over his shoulder. He saw a man on horseback holding a whip.
“Back to work,” the man with the whip shouted.
The man Cody’d been talking too stood up. “Yes, sir,” he said. He ran back over to the plough and kept walking. Cody tried to move again.
Cody heard the second disembodied voice again. “Oh, look, he wants to move forward. Should we let him?”
“Well, he needs to see the rest.”
“Ha ha. True. Okay then, go ahead and walk.”
Cody looked up. He lifted his foot. The area blurred. He moved. The environment transitioned until his feet locked in place again. Cody fell forward, landing on his face.
He heard a voice above him. “Hey there, need help?” Cody looked up. He saw the slave from the last scene, but dressed differently. His face was dirty, covered in some kind of black, powdery substance. The man held out his hand. Cody took it. The man lifted him up. “Thanks,” Cody said.
The man nodded. “Don’t mention it.”
Cody looked around. There was a conveyer belt in front of him. The walls and floor of the large room were metal. There was a lever to Cody’s left. He looked at it. He heard the man’s voice behind him. “Better work,” he said.
Cody turned around. “Huh?”
“Hurry up with that lever. You don’t want the boss to get mad, do ya?”
Cody tilted his head. He turned around. He put his hand on the lever. After a pause, he pulled it. He looked down. On the other side of the lever was a pile of red slush. Cody’s eyes widened. He looked at the conveyer belt. The lever was attached to a large smashing instrument. On the side that went into it were tiny cages full of little animals. In the next coming cage, there was a cow. In the next one, there was a chicken. In the next one, there was a pig. They were all the size of a mouse.
Cody heard the disembodied voice again. “Just a few more smashes.” Cody looked up. “C’mon. They’re not even real.”
Cody looked down. He looked at the tiny cow. He closed his eyes. He yanked the lever and heard a squeal. He did it a few more times.
“Alright then. You can move on,” the voice said. Cody looked up. He took a deep breath. He turned to his side and stepped forward. His surroundings blurred again. When they’d refocused, he was sitting behind the counter of a grocery store. Cody looked in front of him. He saw the man from before.
“Hello,” the man said.
Cody looked at him. “Sorry,” Cody said. Cody looked down. There were a few items below him. He sighed and passed them over a scanner. He looked back up at the man. He was wearing the same uniform Cody was. Was he on break? Cody finished his job with the man. He looked up. “Okay, I get it. There have been slaves in every generation. Every society blah blah forced labor blah blah lower class blah blah. I understand what you’re trying to say. Can this please end?”
The environment around Cody blurred again. When it came back together, Cody was laying back on a couch.
“Do you really?” a man said. Cody turned. He saw a man with a white beard next to him. The man wore a suit and tie. “Do you really understand? You say that, but what I still see here is a man who wants to change things, at least in one case. Why believe that something that has always existed can simply go away?”
Cody looked around. He was in an office. There was a plant in the corner, and a painting on the wall. It had a curly golden frame around it. It depicted a table. Several people sat around the table. One wore a clean, white toga. Another wore a black business suit. Another wore purple robes and a crown. Delicacies lay across the table. In the foreground, away from the table, two men, one dressed as an ancient roman soldier and another dressed as a U.S. Marine stood with whips. The roman soldier whipped a young white boy with a harp, while the marine whipped an even younger Asian boy who held a shoe.
The man with the white beard continued. “All of the things you’ve just seen were forced out of being by law or else may soon be, yet each time, the next one, which was functionally identical, came into being to replace it. What makes you think that if the current order is ever abolished, a new order won’t simply replace it? Slavery gave way to the factory. The factory gave way to the low minimum wage. Yet you propose that the low minimum wage will give way to the utopia those other things were meant to be the last step away from?”
Cody sat up. He looked outside. The area looked modern and urban. There were children playing in a playground outside, all being watched by a man on a bench. Cody squinted. Was that the man he’d seen in each of his hallucinations?
“It’s delusional,” the man with the white beard said. Cody looked back at him. “It is quite simply delusional.”
Cody looked at the man. “How do I get out of this?” he asked. “How do I return to the real world?”
The bearded man smiled. “This is the real world. It’s realer, at least, than the one you were in before. But nonetheless, all you need do to escape it is wait. Soon, Ntullnarlth will have your ball, the contest will end and you will be awoken to servitude.”
Cody’s eyes widened.
“Oh, relax,” the man said. “Look at your skin. Think of your class. Is it any different than when you were born?”
Cody ignored the man and stood up. He tried to leave the room, but the door was locked. He tried to jump out the window, but smacked into the open window as though it were painted on.
“What do you hope to accomplish?” the man asked. “There’s nothing out there. This is all in your mind. You’re really just running around in a hospital, and you have been this whole time.”
Cody looked down. His eyes widened. He looked back up. He turned to the doctor. “So when I walk around here, I actually walk through the hospital?”
The man nodded. “Yes, but that fact is of no use to you.”
Cody smiled. “I beg to differ.”
Cody turned to the window. He was sure he came from that way. Wait, no. When he’d been woken into this room, he’d been laying on the couch. That meant, if he was moving in real life, that he was on his side now, prone. No, it wouldn’t work that way. It would make more sense for it to be about the muscles moved than the changes in spacial position.
Cody grinned. He turned to the window and walked into the wall. The therapist laughed. “Did you not hear a word of what I just said?” Cody didn’t respond. He ran, touching the wall. He felt his feet slamming into it, but he ignored it. He’d not made any turns this entire time, so running this way for long enough should bring him back to his base. On his way back, he called out to his beast.
“Sparky,” he cried. “Here Sparky. I need help.”
Cody kept this up for about five minutes before he heard barking. He smiled. “Yes,” he said. He felt heat above him. He smiled. The scene around him blurred again, and when it snapped into focus, he found himself in a hallway with a hellhound standing over him. The creature was pitch black with large glowing orange speckles which moved and morphed like the wax in a lava lamp. It had pointed ears, glowing red eyes and a large snout. It barked and wagged its tail. Cody sat up. Hellhounds had the ability to force spirits to return to the Underworld. It must have been that some sort of spirit caused those hallucinations. Cody hugged the creature. “Who’s a good boy?” he said. Sparky wagged his tail. Cody stood up. He looked around. There was about thirty feet of hall ahead of him. He ran its length and looked at his base. His eyes widened. The pile of corpses was gone from the corner, and the ball was nowhere in sight.
Cody looked around. He clinched his fist and rushed back down the hall, calling for his hellhound to follow him.
Cody arrived back at Ntullnarlth’s base ahead of him. Ntullnarlth must not have been running. He looked around. He heard a moan. His gaze snapped to the sound’s source. There were several zombies around. Cody looked down at Sparky. “Sick ‘em, boy,” he said. Sparky barked and launched streams of fire from his mouth at the zombies. Cody held out his hand and shot magical blasts at some of them. It only took a minute for them to finish all of them off.
Cody looked. He saw the red ball. Should he grab it and run back? No. That’d probably just mean Cody wouldn’t be around when Ntullnarlth arrived. Cody ducked back into the hall.
He waited several minutes before Ntullnarlth walked into the area, humming. He neared the pedestal. Cody looked down at Sparky. He clinched his fist. “Attack,” he whispered.
Sparky dashed out. Ntullnarlth turned his head. He squinted, and then rushed forward toward his podium. Sparky reached him, tackling him and pinning him to the ground, barking. Sparky opened his mouth and released a jet of flame, drenching Ntullnarlth in fire.
“Get the ball, Sparky,” Cody shouted. Sparky looked at him, then down at the blue ball. He took it in his mouth and carried it to Cody. Cody pointed at the podium. “Other one too, boy.” Ntullnarlth stumbled to his feet. He fired a magical blast at Sparky, but sparky dodged it and jumped into Ntullnarlth’s base, knocking over the podium and grabbing the red ball in his mouth.
Ntullnarlth stood and pointed his palm at the hellhound, but Cody fired on him. A chunk of Ntullnarlth’s side came out as sparky ran back. Cody pointed Sparky toward the base and rushed in that direction alongside him. Ntullnarlth ran behind them in the hall.
Cody turned around and fired a magical blast back at Ntullnarlth, but Ntullnarlth raised his shield. He ran. Ntullnarlth’s age made him faster. He gained on Cody and Sparky. Cody looked down at Sparky. “Can you go any faster? I don’t care if you leave me behind. Make the red ball touch my podium; the one we’re running toward.”
Sparky tilted his head and sped up. Cody stopped in his tracks, turning around and putting his shield up. Ntullnarlth crashed into him, breaking Cody’s shield. Cody’s eyes widened. Cody dashed to the side as Ntullnarlth lowered his shield and fired at him. Cody dodged and fired his own blast at Ntullnarlth, removing a chunk from his other side. Ntullnarlth flinched, and then panted. Cody ran, firing at Ntullnarlth, but Ntullnarlth raised his shield back up and Cody stopped firing. Ntullnarlth fell to his knees, panting inside his shield. Cody took a few steps back. Ntullnarlth looked up and held out his hand. Cody’s eyes widened. He turned around and rushed away. Ntullnarlth fired a magical blast that knocked Cody over and put a large hole in his stomach. Ntullnarlth walked toward Cody, smiling. He fired a thin magical beam, keeping Cody to the ground. When he reached Cody, he leaned down and took the blue ball out of his hand. He looked down at Cody.
“Oh, cheer up. You put up a good fight. That’s more than any of my souls can say. Now, I’ll be taking this and using it to earn your phylactery so I can cast a, well, the term Valthakar spell has become popular, on you.”
Cody’s eyes widened. He tried to get up as Ntullnarlth walked away, but Ntullnarlth kept the magical beam on him.
Sparky rushed forward. His master had ordered him to take this ball to the stick he’d been in front of. Sparky dashed forward, taking a few minutes to reach the podium. He rubbed the ball against it.
Cody heard the voice of one of a soul around him. “The Challenge has ended,” it said. “It is called in favor of the lich Odelarch.”
Ntullnarlth gasped. He turned around. Cody rolled over. “What?” Ntullnarlth asked. “No, that can’t be. How could…” Ntullnarlth looked down at Cody. “How could you win this? You’re just a boy. You’re just some random boy.”
Cody grunted as he got up. “Ya know, I used to think so too, but between this and Kaburlduth, I’m starting to reconsider.”
Ntullnarlth grumbled. He looked down. He took a deep breath. He looked up. He sighed. He looked at Odelarch. He bowed his head. “Very well. If I may say--”
“I’m going to kill you,” Cody said.
Ntullnarlth’s eyes widened. “What?”
“You were about to plead your case? Don’t bother. I’m more than happy to move you to the Underworld if it means freeing your souls. I did the math, and you have well over six-hundred-thousand of them.” Ntullnarlth’s mouth was wide. Cody turned around and walked. “I’m going to get Justin,” he said.
Ntullnarlth stood there. He watched the hellhound come back to Cody. His mouth was wide. He… that thing was going to kill him. Ntullnarlth looked down at the floor. He lay on the ground.
Cody took the Phylactery, a spearhead, out of Justin’s hands. “Thanks,” he said. He handed it to Sparky, who melted it.
Cody shed a tear as he looked down. Kgobauru came up behind him. Cody turned around. Kgobauru trembled a bit. Cody looked up. “Sorry about your friend,” Cody said.
Kgobauru took a deep breath. “It’s fine,” he said. He stretched out his hand. Cody took it and shook it.
“So I get to keep Sparky?” Cody said. He heard Sparky bark behind him.
“Well, whether or not Bavandersloth will let you have him is a matter yet to be known, but as far as I’m concerned, yes. I couldn’t deactivate the binding spell if I wanted to, though you’ll lose control of him when I die.”
Cody smiled. He turned around and put his hand on the hellhound. He looked up. “Will Ntullnarlth’s spell over those people break?”
Kgobauru nodded. “I plan to make Valthakar find a way to deal with that. We can’t let the things Ntullnarlth did get out to the public.”
Cody nodded. “Right.” He stood up, his hand still on Sparky.
Kgobauru took a deep breath.
Cody stood up. Justin, who’d stood off for a moment, approached him again. “That was awesome,” Justin said. The two walked away from Kgobauru.
“Yeah,” Cody said. “By the way, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep Sparky at my house. It might be best if he stays in the mansion.”
“That’d be awesome too,” Justin said. “So, anyways, what are you doing for Christmas? It’s tomorrow you know.”
Kgobauru frowned as the two walked away. He looked down at the pile of melted metal that remained of Ntullnarlth’s phylactery. He sighed. “Farewell, friend,” he said.