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.”
“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.”
“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.