“You are now entering the realm of Bavandersloth: Master of the Council and Lich King of the Earth.”
Cody stared at the sign for a while. Was this real? Was it another hallucination? It had to be one. Gborin’gargoth had just said he was going to show Cody what the world would be like when Bavandersloth won. It had to be a hallucination then. If that was the case, that meant there was a way back home. Gborin’gargoth would only have bothered with a hallucination if he wanted Cody to act differently than he otherwise would because of what he saw.
So how would Cody find the way out? Gborin’gargoth said he needed to see what the world would be like under Bavandersloth’s rule, so doing that would probably get him back. The best way to learn that would be to explore.
Cody took his human form and started walking. He followed the road he was on, heading toward the sign, into Bavandersloth’s territory.
It wasn’t long before he gave up on using his human form and moved to covering more ground in his true form. He’d initially been concerned about what would happen if someone saw him, but that gave way to his concern that he might never get anywhere at the speed his human form restricted him to.
As he walked, he encountered large fields of various crops. He saw orchards first: thick forests full of apple and peach trees. Several miles later, he came across wheat and corn fields. Past that, he found fields of carrots and potatoes.
He re-took his human form when he saw a group of buildings just on the horizon. He was finally getting close to a town. It was about half an hour before he arrived near the limits of the town. As he approached, he saw a tall, steel wall. In the center of the side he was facing, there was a large gate. Cody saw guards on top of the wall.
Cody thought. He probably wanted to get inside. That should be easy enough. If this was a world run by liches, he ought to be able to ask for entrance and be granted it.
Cody took his true form and, uncloaked, approached the gate. “Guards,” he shouted. The guards’ eyes widened. They looked down at him. They kneeled, closed their eyes and bowed their heads.
“Lord, why do you honor us with your presence.”
Cody smiled. This was going well. “Unpleasant reports have come in about this area. The gravity of these reports demands that a lich come in person to investigate. Bavandersloth asked me to go into your city and do so.”
The guards gasped. “What accusations have been made, Lord?” one said.
“It might be better if I do not say. Simply arrange that I am allowed to enter the facility and navigate it freely without human interference.”
“Of course, Lord.” The guards pressed a button and opened the gate. Cody went inside.
Cody looked around. There were various sheds lining the inside face of the wall. They were clustered in groups. Cody entered one of the sheds. He found bales of wheat inside. He left that shed and looked at the next one. He found the same thing. Cody checked more. All of the sheds were used for storage. Many of them stored food. Others stored parts for various machines.
As Cody neared the center of the city, he saw a series of tall towers. He raised an eyebrow. Those were by far the largest buildings he’d seen here so far. He walked closer. There were guards on the inside of the door. He negotiated his way past them, and was given a key-card he could use to access locked rooms.
The lobby of the building was empty, for the most part. Its most prominent feature was an elevator. Cody ignored it for now. He looked around the bottom floor. He was able to find an office.
He went inside. There was no one there just now. He saw something on the desk. His best guess was that it was a computer. He was able to find the button that turned it on.
The computer operated on a touch screen interface. After poking around for several minutes, Cody was able to find a database of humans in the facility. He touched the first name on the list.
“Given Name: ‘Hana’
“Occupation: Breeding Stock, Mechanic
“Chronic Illnesses: None
“Needed Treatments: None”
It went on to describe her height, weight, and various other statistics about her. At the bottom, there was a description of her personality.
“Human is somber, yet obedient. Her weary and somber demeanor usually renders her complacent and cooperative around guards and liches. She is visibly uncomfortable around assigned mates.
“Notable Incidents: Incident 050021E6: Human was charged repairing a hydraulic pump. When given assignment, human protested that an injury she’d received rendered her unable to perform task without significant pain. Despite being assured that this was irrelevant, she continued to request reassignment to a less laborious task. After several minutes of continued defiance, she was taken to floor 2E for procedure 041018. Afterwards, she complied.”
Cody took a deep breath. He looked down and closed his eyes. Visions of his family and friends flashed into his mind. He looked back up at the screen and scrolled down. He read several more profiles. There were significantly more women than men in this facility. The men were assigned various jobs, but all of the women’s occupations were listed as breeding stock, followed by something else. Cody didn’t see any female guards or farmers. All of the serial numbers began with “00000E008,” but varied thereafter.
Cody left behind the files and looked up “protocol.” He noticed he could have them sorted by category. He did. He looked up the category for human behavior.
“060010001: All humans are to listen to a recording of Bavandersloth’s Commands three (3) times daily.
“060010002: Humans are not permitted to exit their site of residence except while complying with authorized evacuation procedures.*
“060010003: Humans are not permitted to physically assault each other.*
“060010004: Humans are not permitted to tamper with equipment of any kind.*”
Cody peeked down at the footnote.
“*Regulation is not applicable to humans with some occupations. To find exceptions, consult the regulations for those occupations.”
Cody read through the last of the regulations. Near the end, punishments were prescribed.
“6001010E: Humans in violation of the rules given to them are to be taken to Floor 2E for appropriate discipline. See set 06081 for guidelines.”
Next, Cody looked at the regulations for “Agricultural Laborer.” He took note of one of the rules.
“60E0095: Agricultural Laborers are permitted to leave site grounds in exception to general regulations only to enter assigned fields to perform assigned duties.”
Cody spent a few more hours looking through the database.
When Cody was done with the lowest floor, he moved to the elevator. Inside, he saw the elevator buttons were notated strangely. There were evidently thirty-six floors. They were labeled “00, 01, 02, 03, 04 etc… 09, 0X, 0E, 10, 11etc… 1X, 1E, 20 etc…” It was base twelve, Cody realized. The serial numbers on the computer had been the same way.
Cody pressed the button to go to the top floor, ‘2E.’ The computer had said this was where discipline took place. After the elevator brought him there, he exited. He was on the roof. His eyes widened as he looked around.
The most obvious feature on the roof was the row of five tables lined up in its center. Each table was covered in straps. Next to each one was a rack containing a whip, what looked like a large pizza cutter, several metal spikes, a meat cleaver, and a device Cody didn’t recognize. All of the devices looked clean.
Cody wanted to turn around, but forced himself to look further. There was another obvious feature of the roof. It was surrounded on all sides by a small fence. The stretch of fence on the side opposite him had a latch on one side and two hinges on the other. Cody shuddered, but was able to make himself approach the latch. After he made a padlock decay away, was able to swing the gate right open.
Cody looked down. His eyes widened. He saw a metal pad below. No, it wasn’t a pad. Cody saw a track next to it. It was a cover for something underneath it.
Cody looked around. He found a button. He gulped and approached it. He pressed it.
He looked down at the pad as it opened to reveal a pit. When he saw inside, he stepped back from the roof and covered his mouth. The pit was full of corpses.
Cody looked down. He tried to cry.
A moment later, Cody heard a voice behind him. “I trust they are decomposing in a manner compliant with protocol?” Cody turned around. His eyes widened. It was Bavandersloth.
“I got an interesting call from one of my guards at this facility, something about an inspection I never requested. Naturally, I was curious about how this mistake came about, so I called you. I’m sure you remember. You told me that you had no idea what I was talking about, and that you were in your palace having dinner. Just to be sure, though, I came myself, and look what I found.”
Bavandersloth approached Cody. Cody backed away.
“I wouldn’t back up too far. A form isn’t of much use once it has fallen from a rooftop.”
Cody took a deep breath.
“What’s the matter? This is hardly the first time you’ve seen a facility for execution by impact.”
Cody backed up another few paces. He found himself on the edge of the roof. He couldn’t go any farther back.
Bavandersloth raised an eyebrow. “That wasn’t you I called earlier, was it?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“Cody? You’ve not answered to Cody in a while.” Bavandersloth paused. He took a few steps closer to Cody. “Take your human form,” he said.
“Take your human form.”
Cody took a few breaths. Bavandersloth held out his arm. “Do it now, or I’ll blast you off the edge.”
Cody’s eyes widened. He took his human form. Bavandersloth gasped and took a step backward. “Well, well,” he said. “That’s… interesting.” Bavandersloth put his hand down. “Do you mind coming with me? I’m sure we can get this sorted out.”
Cody stepped to the side, toward the hinge which connected the section of fence on the right side of the roof to the section he’d unlatched.
“Come now, Odelarch. It’s Bavandersloth. Even at that age, I seem to recall us being on the same side.”
Cody tried to shed another tear as he stepped closer to the gate until he was on the corner of the roof near the hinge. Bavandersloth approached him. Cody put his hand on the gate. He felt it swing in the wind as he touched it. He heard its hinge squeak. Bavandersloth took another step. Cody held tightly onto the gate as he jumped off the roof. He let go with one hand and climbed onto the gate’s opposite side. He looked over at the next lower floor. He saw a window. He swung over, jumping from the gate to the window. He punched the glass and climbed inside.
He found another office. He ran out into the corridor. At its end, he found the door to a room labeled “Nursery.” He opened the door. There were rows of babies inside, each in a medical pod of some sort. There were tags near each of their tables. About two thirds of them read “2E” in large letters. Cody gulped. He thought about his family again. He ran out the room’s other door and to the elevator. When he reached it, it opened. Bavandersloth was inside. He stepped out. Cody turned around and ran. Bavandersloth reached out and fired a magical beam at Cody, causing Cody to fall over. Bavandersloth ran up to him and grabbed him.
Bavandersloth forced Cody’s hands together with one arm and put the other around his neck as he stood Cody up. Cody fired backward, but Bavandersloth kept Cody’s palms pointed away from him. Cody struggled, but Bavandersloth was able to keep his grip. “Calm down, Cody,” Bavandersloth said. “We can…” Cody continued struggling. “Do you know what? Fine. Be like that.” Cody felt a pressure against his back. He blacked out.
Cody awoke in a concrete cell. He stumbled to his feet and looked around. The floor and three walls were made of cement. In front of him was a row of rusty bars. Bavandersloth sat on the other side. He looked at Cody and smiled. “Ah, good to see you awake.”
Cody glared at Bavandersloth. “Where am I?”
“My palace. There’s a special dungeon designed specifically to contain liches. It’s a maze, actually. You’re at the back of it, and I have a specter making sure it’s impossible for you to see your way around. If you try to leave, I’ll know long before you have any chance of navigating it blind.”
“So these bars aren’t real?”
Cody looked down and took a deep breath. He sat down on a cot in the corner of the room. Bavandersloth scooted forward. “Look,” he said, “I want to help you. I know you must be a great deal more confused than I am. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.”
Cody looked up at Bavandersloth. He clenched his fist. “Okay. The last thing I remember is leaving Joy’s Coast after the incident with the specters. Tell me everything that’s happened since then.”
Bavandersloth smiled. “Alright then.” He scooted forward, closer to Cody. “I believe by then I’d already started to use my powers over television?”
Cody nodded. “Yeah, for about three weeks.”
“Well, I did it more. At first I only used it to keep suspicion off of me and keep my public image as positive as possible. After a while, though, I started to use it a little more actively. First thing, I got my own show. I was able to get a prime time slot on a major network. That was the point of going public. I was trying to keep the world’s interest high. On that show… well, I did a lot of things, but the most important one was that I used the power to make them keep coming back. I grew my audience. I told them all that they had to get their friends to come watch, and when their friends watched, I told them the same thing. I arranged for the show to be played in waiting rooms and in hospitals. As time went on, I became more accepted, and could be bolder. I created sound files that had the same effect. I spread them everywhere. I put them in ads at first. Eventually I started having my souls drive trucks down streets, playing those sounds out of loudspeakers. It took a while, but I was eventually able to grow my audience to the point where I could make my boldest move.”
Cody raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Bavandersloth smiled. “I told them that I was their master. I told them that it was their obligation to do everything I say.” Bavandersloth sat back. “Of course, that’s not quite the same thing as controlling their minds and forcing them to do it, but it’s still near enough that it worked. The people who hadn’t seen the show didn’t realize what was going on in time to react, and after a short war and a long period of clean-up, every human was under my thrall.
“From there, I set out to build a society for our kind. I gave the book to eight-thousand humans to increase our numbers and the council divided the world into ten-thousand slices and gave one to each lich. Most of the territories, called realms, operate in basically the same way, including mine. There are a few outliers, but the city you saw was typical.”
“Why the infanticide?”
“A few reasons. Firstly, I received help in conquering the world from Kandrinarkora, and one of his conditions was that I ensure the creation of as many souls as possible. Many of the humans created are useless except for that purpose. All they need is to exist, and only for a moment.”
“Does Kandrinarkora rule the underworld now?”
“Yes. The other part of the deal was that I help him take it back over.”
So that was why Gborin’gargoth cared so much about keeping Bavandersloth from taking over. It was a threat to his rule of the underworld.
“How did you help?”
Bavandersloth chuckled. “That’s a long story. I wasn’t done with your last question. There are two other reasons for the infanticide. First, desirability. We select for the traits we desire, both in general, like obedience, and for specific occupations. Guards should be aggressive. Farmers should be strong, etc. Those not well-suited to any task are tagged for re-evaluation and if no error was made they are killed. Second, the gender ratio. I presume you saw in the computer that most of the humans are women. That is, essentially, because a woman may be impregnated about once every two-hundred-eighty days, while a man may impregnate a woman once every two days. Hence, it is most efficient to have one male for every one-hundred-forty females as breeding stock. That is why we use almost every female for that purpose, and use only men for anything mutually exclusive with pregnancy. Still, we don’t need anywhere near one-hundred-thirty-nine males to do that work, so some of them are killed. If you’d stayed in the nursery longer, you would have noticed that almost all of the ones labeled for infanticide were male.”
“So you just throw them off a building?”
“It’s the mode of death that uses the fewest resources. You should be happy. We torture the ones we execute for disobedience before removing them, but for the babies and the old, death comes before there’s any opportunity for pain. The roof is too high up for there to be any risk of them surviving, even for a moment.”
“What happened to Lester, Cherie and my parents?”
“They’re brainwashed like the others. Legally speaking, they’re your live-in servants, though you treat them well. Their fate is certainly better than it would have been if you had resisted me.” Cody’s head hung down. Bavandersloth stood up and entered Cody’s cell, passing right through the bars. He put his hand on Cody’s shoulder. Cody swatted it away. Bavandersloth frowned and stepped back. “Look, I know what you’re going through--”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. I’ve seen you go through it before. I watched you, and helped you, as you adapted to this new world. It took a long time for you to cope with this state of affairs, but you managed it, and you can manage it again.”
Cody gulped. He took a deep breath and stood up. “Can I speak to my future self?”
Cody’s eyes widened. “What? Why not?”
“He specifically requested not to see you. He doesn’t want to be reminded of his past. He finds the memories too painful.”
Cody looked down. He tried to cry. He allowed himself to fall onto the floor so that he sat with his knees bent. He wrapped his arms around his legs. He looked up at Bavandersloth. “Are there any other liches I am allowed to see?”
“Oh, sure. Anyone but Tkoralkiarch is fine, really. You can talk to Rngwelokt, Kgobauru, Nglavingithu--”
“A student of mine. I’m sorry; it slipped my mind that you’d not met him yet. He helped you a lot the first time you adjusted. I was too busy managing things to be as big of a help to you as I wish I could have been. Building all of those facilities, managing the whole human population, all of that was a lot of work.”
Cody leaned back on the cot. He sighed. “I’ll think on it.”
Bavandersloth nodded. “You do that. If you don’t mind, I’ll go ahead and leave you alone now.”
Cody nodded. “Okay.”
Bavandersloth walked away. Cody sat, clenching his fists. He tried again to shed a tear. He still couldn’t in his true form. He waited until he was pretty sure Bavandersloth was farther away. He gritted his teeth and seethed. He shouted and punched the wall behind him, leaving a hole in it. He took his human form and fell to his knees, sobbing, his head down.
“You were right,” he whispered. “You were right, Gborin’gargoth. I am a coward.” Cody’s head sank lower. “No, I was. You can go ahead and take me back now. I’ll help you. My parents, my friends, they’re not worth this.”
Cody heard Gborin’s voice. “Not yet. There’s still more for you to see.”
“What more could there be?”
“Try to find your own way back to the past. You will discover it in the course of that path.”
Cody wiped a tear from his face. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m not exactly free to leave this dungeon.”
The voice took a second to respond. “True. I can help you with that.” There was a pause. “I’ve cast the specters away from you. That should make it possible for you to escape.”
“But he’ll still see me. He probably has souls watching me right now.”
“True. Let me take care of those.” There was another pause. “Alright then. They’re not a problem anymore. You can sneak out.”
Cody took a deep breath. He stood up and turned around. Sure enough, there were no bars. Cody took his true form and ran.
He came to a fork in the road. He could either go right or left. He went right. That led to another fork, where he could go straight or right. He went straight. That led him to a dead end. He turned back and went right at the fork. A few paths branched from there, but they were all dead ends. Cody turned back to the first fork and went from there.
Cody followed the next fork. He didn’t do much better at first, but he was eventually able to find a door. It required a code to open it. Cody tried to make the wall next to it decay away. He got a few inches in before encountering a strange gelatin-like substance. It was beige and semi-transparent. Cody willed it to decay away. It didn’t. He raised an eyebrow. DIAPP had substances that liches couldn’t make decay. Maybe Bavandersloth had worked on developing that technology further. Cody punched the blob. His fist was buried into it, but nothing was accomplished. He thought. He made more of the wall decay away. He stood back and blasted the gelatin. He was able to make a hole in the blob. It took a few more blasts before he could get to the other side and make the opposite wall decay away. He did the same for the next wall.
By this method, he was able to find the exit in a few hours.
He peaked around the corner and up the stairs. There were guards there. Cody thought. He got an even better idea. He went a little ways back into the maze and tunneled downward. He was able to make the ground under him disappear and make sand appear around him, imitating the natural decay of rock by wind and rain. Before too long, though, he ran into more of the gelatin. He tunneled to the side. Cody tunneled for a while, but when he reached the edge of the maze, he encountered another sheet of the strange jelly.
“Like it?” Cody heard behind him. His eyes widened. He turned around. Bavandersloth stood behind him. “Our chemists created it. It’s a substance that doesn’t decay.”
Cody glared at Bavandersloth. He looked down and took a deep breath.
“Why bother escaping? What is there for you on the outside?”
Cody thought. Gborin’gargoth said to try to get back. Cody’s future self would be the one most likely to help him. Bavandersloth had probably lied about his future self not wanting to see him. If all of this happened, Cody would do anything for a second chance. Cody looked up at Bavandersloth. He looked down. He closed his eyes. “I need he--”
Suddenly, Cody was outside the palace. He looked around. He was in a farm. He didn’t see anyone around. He looked up. “Where am I?”
“That’s for you to figure out. I only help you when there is no other way for you to escape.”
“Then why didn’t you poof me out at the start?”
“Because you could have gotten out with the help I gave you. You just weren’t smart enough.”
“I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. Here’s a hint: The guards didn’t know what you looked like.”
Cody stood. He looked down and sighed. He needed to figure out where he was. He saw trees in the distance to his one side. The last farm had been ringed with apple trees. He was standing in a field of wheat. He remembered what the last city had looked like. According to the computer, the orchards were always the farthest fields from the city’s center so fleeing humans would be out in the open for as long as possible before being able to hide in the trees. That meant that if he went away from the trees, he’d approach the city’s center.
Cody did just that, and it worked. He walked through a few more fields and eventually neared the wall.
The sun was rising by the time Cody was close enough to the wall to see the guards standing on top of it. Their backs were to him. Cody heard music playing in the distance.
Cody moved along the wall, hoping to find a place where he might be able to enter the city. As he neared one corner, he heard the music get a little louder. A second later, he heard Bavandersloth’s voice speak over the music.
“All humans, great and small, rich and poor,” he began, “for seven months, as of this very day, I and my community of Angels,” there was a pause, “of liches, I may as well frankly admit, have served your interests. Through our heroism, we have reduced crime to a fraction of what it once was. We have stopped disasters. We have healed the sick and dying. We have brought villains to justice.
“However, at the very same time, you have seen the villains of the world fight back. Despite our vigilance, and the reduction of petty crime, countless lives have been lost in several recent tragedies at the hands of various criminal organizations. Governments that ought not to have fallen have fallen in recent months. Others have been tainted by scandal to a point where you, the people, rightly, do not trust them any longer.
“Because of these facts, I am forced to commit drastic action. This action saddens me for its desperation and difficulty, but also fills me with hope for the opportunity it represents. I am both afraid and delighted to announce that I believe it necessary for this planet to give over its governance to the community of liches.
“World leaders, you must submit your land and powers to our community. You must not resist my appropriation of your territories. Common folk, you must bend and not resist my coming reign. To all, you must bend to my will. You must accept me as humanity’s master. You must obey my every command as I will it, and you must do the same for any I should appoint to represent me in any capacity. You must never act in any way against my will, and you must never disbelieve anything I say. You must obey me as a perfect slave obeys its master.
“I will not lie to you; it is likely that this will be difficult at first. However, if there is one thing I know about humanity and my community, it’s that there is no challenge that our power and your resolve, when combined together, cannot face and conquer.” Cody heard a pause. “With this scythe in hand, I shall devour the souls of the unrighteous, as shall all my kind, and when they have left, we shall establish an ideal order: a society in excess of any other: One where our kind and yours shall live in glorious harmony for all eternity, and one where prosperity shall be present for all, and where peace shall reign as I do, forever.”
The humans inside the wall cheered. Cody thought. Seven months to the day. He needed to remember that. He repeated it a few times in his mind to commit it to memory. He heard a human speak. “And now, in the name of our Lord Odelarch and our God and King Bavandersloth, let the day begin.”
Cody’s eyes widened. He was in his realm.
Cody thought. He needed to learn where his palace was. His first instinct was to just show himself and get inside, but if Bavandersloth had put out a message of some sort, he might be apprehended. No, that was stupid. These were human guards. Let them try to apprehend him.
Then again, they might give away his location. Still, he’d be well clear by the time Bavandersloth found him, and Gborin’gargoth would bail him out if worst came to worst.
Cody approached the gate as two guards stood at it.
“Guards,” he said.
The guards turned around and looked down at him. They kneeled. “Lord Odelarch,” one said, “why have you honored us with your presence?”
“I’ve no need to explain it to you. Simply allow me inside.”
“We would be happy to, master, but…”
“But what? Did you not hear what Bavandersloth said? You must obey me.”
“Master,” one of them said, trembling, “we are honored by your visit, however, only half an hour ago, we learned that there is an imposter on the loose. By your own orders, we request that you show us your human form before we let you pass.”
Cody clenched his teeth. Drat. He thought. If he was caught, Gborin’gargoth would probably let him out again. Still, he would be back to square one. Perhaps there was an easier way to learn the location of his palace. These humans still respected him.
“Pop quiz,” Cody blurted, “which way’s my palace?”
“It’s to the northeas… wait, why did you--”
Cody was off.
Cody ran northeast for about three hours before he saw the boarder of his realm’s capital. The farms outside it were much smaller than the ones outside of both of the other cities he’d seen.
As Cody neared the wall, he thought. He needed to get inside the city, ideally without being noticed. Could he climb over the wall? Perhaps. Cody walked part of the way around the wall. It was made of steel. Cody got an idea and smiled.
He made sure there were no guards nearby, and then made a section of the wall decay away. Not too much of it; just a small hole. He used the hole to climb up the wall. He created several more holes, and used them to support himself.
At one point, Cody heard some guards coming. His eyes widened. He couldn’t get away in time not to raise any alarm. Cody rushed up the wall and climbed up the ledge onto the top, stepping right in front of the guards, intending to immobilize them before they could alert anyone to his position.
Before he could knock them out, both of the guards pressed buttons on their suits. An alarm sounded. Cody heard people screaming.
Cody jumped off the wall and landed in the city. He dashed toward the palace. He could see it in the center of the city, only a few minutes away.
Grass was flattened by Cody’s feet as he ran. He saw a guard coming from the left. He swerved to the right, forcing the guard to end up behind him. Cody was able to outrun the guard with ease. Another guard came at him from the right. Cody used the same maneuver. It took him a few minutes to get to the steps of the palace.
The whole place was built to accord with a lich’s idea of beauty. Fountains of blood, possibly fake blood, mixed with slimy dark brown goop flowed outside. The handrails on the palace’s sickly green steps were coated with rust. The columns which held up the disgusting brown roof were coated with something squishy and pink. Carrion flowers sat in gardens rimming the palace.
Cody dashed up the steps, feeling them smack against his feet. He approached the palace’s large doors and yanked them open.
Once inside, he looked around. There were indoor fountains similar to the outdoor ones Cody had seen. Hideous paintings covered the walls. More carrion flowers were potted and scattered around the hallway.
It took Cody about ten minutes to stumble on the throne room. He barged in.
Cody’s future self stood up when he saw Cody enter the room. His eyes were wide. Cody stopped.
The two stared at each other for a moment. The older lich’s guards pointed machine guns at Cody. The older lich waved his hand. “At ease,” he said. Cody smiled, but then his older self held out his own hand. He stepped forward from his throne. “Bavandersloth is concerned that you’re a threat to our order. Are you?”
Cody stepped back. It seemed like his older self’s voice had deepened a bit. He took a deep breath. “Are there souls in here to worry about?”
“There are,” the older Cody said. “However, we can go into my private chamber if you want. Bavandersloth’s souls are forbidden to follow us into there.”
Cody thought. He nodded. “That sounds good.”
Odelarch turned to his guards. “Stay here.” They nodded. Cody and Odelarch walked down the hall. “I feel I should clarify,” Odelarch said to Cody, “that when I asked if you were a threat, I meant more along the lines of attacking our structures in this world. There’s no one who doesn’t know that you’d like to go back in time and change things.”
“Is that possible?”
“Bavandersloth has forbidden it for you. He wants you to be kept here where you cannot be a threat. Either he or Nglavingithu--or I, if I have a say in it--shall mentor you, and you will be given control of the next realm to lose its ruler.”
“What year is it?”
“2042 on your calendar.”
The two arrived at Odelarch’s private chamber. A middle-aged blond woman sat on the bed. Odelarch smiled at her. “Cherry,” he said. The woman looked at Odelarch, then at Cody. She moved back, her eyes wide. “I need you to leave the room for a moment, Cherry,” Odelarch said.
Cherie stood up. She nodded. She didn’t say a word as she left, but walked slowly past Cody. Once she was gone, Odelarch closed the door. The two sat down on the bed Cherie had been on.
“So how can I go back?” Cody asked.
“It does not matter.”
Cody’s eyes widened. “What? What do you mean it does--”
“Cody,” Odelarch said, “I remember the trip to the future you’re going through right now. I know exactly when you’ll go back.”
“Before this conversation is over.” Odelarch looked up. “At the time, I wasn’t sure it was real time travel, but I suppose the fact that I’m experiencing this now proves it.” Odelarch looked back down at Cody. “That proves nothing to you, of course.”
“So how do I go back?”
“Gborin’gargoth brought you here because he wanted you to learn about this future. He hoped it would inspire you to action. He failed, in my timeline, and since this trip has gone as I remember it, I suspect he fails in yours too.”
Cody’s eyes widened. “No! That can’t be true. There still has to be a way to change things.”
“Maybe, but probably not.”
“I can’t accept that. I have to try. Do you remember what happened before you were sent back? Can we recreate that?”
Odelarch nodded and took a deep breath. “We can do just that.” He put his hand on Cody’s shoulder. “Cody,” he said, “you must understand that I am wiser than you. In many ways, I am precisely a wiser version of you. With my wisdom has come understanding.” Odelarch looked down at Cody. “And with that understanding has come evolution. The truth Gborin’gargoth thinks you will find so horrible is how my thinking has evolved.”
Cody’s eyes widened. “Wait… You’re not saying…”
“I don’t want you to change the past or the present,” Odelarch said. “I like things just the way they are.”
Cody’s eyes widened. He trembled a bit. He stood up and backed away. Odelarch’s gaze followed him. “I remember how it felt,” Odelarch said. “Go ahead. Say it. I don’t mind.”
“You’re a monster.”
“Valthakar was right.”
“How could you say that? How could you cave?” Cody tried to shed a tear. “After all of the fighting I did, after all of the people I saved, how could you cave?”
“When a person casts their soul into an object they are not simply casting out a lump of spirit. They are dooming their soul, Cody. Notions of goodness, of even the vaguest sort, decay like all other things, most especially in us.”
“No.” Cody took another few steps back. He took his human form so he could sob. “Damn it Cody, you know better than that.”
“On the contrary, you know better than what you’re saying. Have you ever questioned what your ideals are grounded in, Cody? They’re a fiction. They’re a fiction created by evolution as an aid to the survival of a race to which you and I no longer belong. Throughout your entire life, they have only ever caused you pain and suffering. All your life, you’ve sacrificed your happiness to uphold them, and all your life you’ve plunged yourself into sadness when you could not. You can never live up to them in any form, and you know it. You’re a lich, Cody.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter?” Odelarch stood up. “Good God, Cody, listen to yourself. You devour human souls for sustenance. You spend your days helping a man take over the world. Do you think anything’s going to change after this? You love your friends and family far too much to let them die. That is your weakness. It’s my weakness too, and it’s a weakness I will have until their bodies grow too old and I have to devour them to keep them on this earth.” Cody took another step back. “You haven’t the power of will to suffer loss. Not even close. You’ve always been a slave to your emotions. They are the reason you have been good and they are the reason you shall be evil.”
Cody cried. “That’s not true.”
“Then why am I standing here?”
Odelarch took a step toward Cody. Cody moved backward. He stood up, took his true form, and turned around. He ran.
Before he got too far down the hall, he saw a portal up ahead. He sprinted for it. He could see the parking lot he’d been in before on the other side. Cody jumped through, landing on his stomach. Gborin was standing there outside, waiting for him. Cody thought he heard the portal close behind him.
Gborin looked down on Cody for a moment. “Are you willing?” he finally said.
Cody stood up. He looked up at Gborin. “My future self said he remembered you sending me there. Does that mean there’s nothing that can be done?”
Gborin’s head sank a bit. “That means it hasn’t been done yet.”
“Then what do I do?”
“You kill Bavandersloth.”
Cody nodded. “Okay.” Cody waited a moment. “Was all of that real time travel, or just a hallucination?”
“Neither.” Gborin took a step toward Cody. “It was a shadow.”
“The wills of mortals make exact prediction of the future difficult, but I’ve long known of a creature that, casts a shadow of what it calculates to be the most likely future.”
“So none of that suffering has happened yet?”
“No. The people you met were philosophical zombies.”
“Good.” Cody looked down. “So, will Bavandersloth kill my family?”
“Very possibly. I’ve blinded his and Valthakar’s souls, so no one can see us right now, but I can’t to anything to ensure he won’t figure out that you’re trying to stop him.”
“Why not kill him yourself? You had that opportunity when you took him, right?”
Gborin shook his head. “No. I didn’t have his phylactery.”
“Still, couldn’t you get it?”
“Not necessarily. Justin’s ability is not as easy to use as it appears, and I’m currently using a large portion of my power for something else.”
Cody tilted his head. “What?”
“I’m keeping Kandrinarkora from coming back.”
Cody’s eyes widened. “What?”
“The less I tell you, the better, but Kandrinarkora is trying to come back, and this planet is essential to his efforts. With me doing what I’m doing right now, he can’t release himself. Someone from the other side, though, could release him, and there are plenty of beings who’d volunteer. It’d be a long and complicated process, though, and the people of this world would want to try and stop him. That is, of course, unless Bavandersloth pacifies this planet. If that happens, he shall return.”
“Is that why he sent that dragon then?”
“Yes. His goal then was to end life on this planet. That way, his agents can run around here as they will and release him.”
“So, like, is he here or--”
Gborin shushed Cody. “The less I tell you, the better. All you need to know is this: If you lose, not only shall the whole of the human race face slavery at Bavandersloth’s hands, but his reign in the Underworld would resume. That would mean that this world would be far from the only one to look like the Spirit Farms of old. Worse still, he’d abolish the afterlife. Souls are at their most efficient when they’re deactivated.”
“When a soul is forced into a dormant state, consciousness ceases. Because it doesn’t have to do anything, even think, all of its magic is up for grabs.”
“And the underworld just wants magical energy?”
“Right. It was originally programmed to supply energy to the gods, but a glitch in their instructions caused it to stop them from taking its power. Now it simply collects magic to no end at all.”
“Okay then,” Cody said. He clenched his fist. “I think I can do this.”
“Good. I’ll be available for you to talk to any time you want. What little power I can spare, I’ll be happy to use, but the bulk of the responsibility here lies on you.”
“I already have a plan. We need to find a way to ensure Justin will believe me when I tell him the truth about Bavandersloth. If I just tell him now, it’ll be Bavandersloth’s word against mine, and Bavandersloth will probably be able to weasel out of that.”
“You need proof, then?”
“Think on that, then. I’ll think about it too. We’ll speak again soon. If you need me, just whisper my name. Bavandersloth’s souls won’t be able to hear you if you’re quiet enough. They’re not usually that close to you.”
“Okay,” Cody said.
“Oh, and that thing you do where you eat extra souls to try to keep them out of hell.”
“Stop that. I won’t say anymore, but it’s based on a misconception of how things work.”
Cody’s eyes widened. He looked down. “Oh, okay.”
“Don’t feel bad. You didn’t know any better.”
Cody sighed. “Alright.”
Cody turned back to the abandoned streets of the Northwest District. The sun was creeping up on the horizon. Odd, it’d felt like he’d spend longer in the future. Perhaps Gborin had compressed time for him. Was that possible? If he had, he hadn’t done it enough. Cody’d have to go without food tonight if he was going to get back home in time to be there when his parents woke up. Cody sprinted home.