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The Pact

by Michael Mayr 6 months ago in Fantasy
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How far would you go for Eternal Life?

Part I: The Summoning of Xanzu

I wait until the stars are right and the portents most favorable. I lock myself within a chamber in my sanctum, one that I have dedicated to summonings – here I have called creatures from dark and distant realms, beings that are mind rendering horrible or heart numbingly beautiful. These are what common folks would refer to as ‘demons’ and ‘angels’. I assure you that these words are an oversimplification. Such beings cannot be encompassed by mere words. However, this time rather than just call something to our world, my overall plan is to travel to another. A dimension of chaos and rage. A place of horror. I will travel there to bargain for the answers that I seek.

I begin by consulting the ancient tomes, this one is bound in the pale white hide of a lesser angel, its pages covered in a serpentine script. Penned millennia ago by a forgotten mage of the dreaded serpent folk, the ancient enemies of my race, it is written in an archaic form of draconic and details he whom I seek to bargain with. I have devoured its contents many times. I devour them again once more.

The second book details the spell required to open the gate, as well as the rituals I will need to bind a demonic entity into my service before I attempt my sojourn – this is exceedingly important, as it will act as a guide as well as a guardian once I arrive at my intended destination. This second tome is at least as ancient as the first. I traced its origin to a legendary kingdom in a far off world. Ruled by wizard-kings of great power, their island-empire was destroyed and sank below the waves – it is but myth now, even in that distant place.

I make my final preparations. I gather my items of power and imprint some of my most potent spells and incantations into memory. With these preparations now complete. I go to my summoning circle and begin the calling ritual by laying out exotic toxins and expensive magical elixirs, these will act as my initial offerings. The subject of this ritual is a ranking captain in the armies of the one whose name I dare not utter even in thought.

I begin the ritual, the demon’s given name is Xanzu. Its true name – which I acquired at great expense from a cult calling itself the ‘demonancers’, a cabal of mages that is dedicated to the summoning and binding of the children of the Abyss – is over 100 characters long and is torturous for my throat to even pronounce. After 10 minutes something begins to take shape within the summoning circle – a presence forms from shadow and rapidly appears.

The demon is a dull, brownish-green color. It stands just over 10’ tall but gives the impression of being far larger. It has rippling muscles which hint at its horrendous strength and overall, it resembles a cross between a huge, powerful man and a bullfrog. It is not naked – which surprises me – it is clad in a kilt of a dull bronze colored metal and with golden bracers and matching anklets. Knowing demons as I do, I suspect that this is not mere modesty and using my power to detect magical auras I see that these ‘garments’ are indeed items of power. Its squat, frog-like face is split in two by a gigantic scowling maw full of large, sharp and powerful looking teeth, and its glowing red eyes gleam with malice as it regards me. Its stink is like a physical thing, a swampy plague pit stench which causes me to nearly gag even though I thought myself prepared for it.

After several seconds of staring hatred filled daggers at me my guest speaks: “Mortal fool! How dare you think to call me forth? Do you not know whom I am and whom I serve?” The demon’s voice was strong and croaking, filled with bombastic evil.

“Yes. You are Lord Xanzu. A ranking captain in the armies of General Bogromar, clone-son of the Sibilant Beast.” I casually replied.

“Yet you still dare to summon me? Worm thou art truly mad! Why else would you summon me forth and risk the wrath of my master?” The demon blusters.

“No. I assure you Lord Xanzu I am quite sound. I have summoned you – and I WILL bind you – to act as my guide. I seek an audience with your master’s lord. And I need you to guide me to said audience and act as a guardian.”

I see a flash of what is unmistakably fear cross the demon’s visage, then it returns to its previous bluster. “HA! You are not merely a fool, you are a suicidal fool! Do you even comprehend what you ask? I will not risk my position on your fool’s errand!”

“No demon you will do as I demand.” Expecting such a response I kept my countenance neutral.

“NO! I will not! And as for you little mage. You can go have carnal knowledge of your mother!” The demon roars at me.

I reach into the bowl at my side and grab a handful of powder – a concoction of cold iron shavings and the salt from the tears of Archons, angelic beings of the shining heavens that are diametrically opposed enemies of all demon-kind. “No frog! You will do as I say! For I know your true-name and I speak it now!” I utter the long phrase that was not meant for a mortal to speak. The mere act of speaking it causes me great discomfort, as if the world knows that these very syllables I utter are blasphemy. At the same time I throw a handful of powder into a blazing brazier. There is a flash of white light as the flames consume the powder and the demon screams in agony. I turn to gaze upon it and I see what could only be called silver lightning ravage across its frame. The demon falls upon its hands and knees and looks up at me with burning hatred in its eyes.

“So Lord Xanzu. Must I discipline you more or shall you acquiesce to my demands?” I ask the demon, adopting my previous calm demeanor.

The demon looks at me and through clenched teeth replies: “I misspoke earlier oh mighty magi. What I meant to say is penetrate your mother where she evacuates her bowels. As I am sure many of the basest mortal mongrels have done so over the years!”

I roll my eyes at the demon’s insults – as creative as they may be – and speak its true name once again as I throw more powder on the brazier. The results were as before and the demon roars in pain.

“Enough! Enough cruel wizard. Why must you torment me so?” says the demon. “I will do as you demand. Even though what you ask is your doom.”

Using a powerful conjuration spell I bring forth an item from the Astral plane, from the extradimensional ‘pocket’ where I secure such things. It is a leaf bladed spear, enchanted to strike true and filled with the anarchic essence of the Maelstrom, it is anathema to beings of Order. “Here Lord Xanzu. I give you this weapon of power in acknowledgement for your service. It bears the name Order’s Grief.” Using my telekinetic abilities I slowly send the weapon to the demon’s grasp. It is a spear to me, but barely a walking stick to one of Xanzu’s size. However as Xanzu catches it in his enormous left hand the spear actually grows to match the demon’s stature.

Despite his hatred of me the demon examines the weapon given to him with an appreciative eye. “This will do wizard, this will do…I have accepted your payment little mage. I must serve you for the task you beg of me. However, I did not lie to you. The task you contemplate is madness.”

“Look upon me Lord Xanzu. I am a mage of power. A scion of one of the greatest houses of Azl-“

“Of a nation of narcissistic fools!” The demon interrupts me. “You still do not comprehend the folly of what you suggest. You seek to travel to the kingdom of the Sibilant Beast! To what end? To have an ‘audience’? You seek to ask the Prince of Princes for a favor?!”

“You interrupted me, Lord Xanzu. Again look upon me. I mean REALLY look. I am not without resources.” I replied pointedly. The demon does as I bid him to do. And for once he is silent. His attention is not upon me per say, but to my left. It gazes intently upon an empty space.

“That…thing…at your side. What is it? I can see it is a spirit of great power. I can feel its rage, its pain, its sorrow. How did I not see it before? If you have THAT why do you need me?” The demon asked.

“As I said. I need a GUIDE. I do not need just a soldier. You can see I am protected.”

“Even that cannot save you from the Prince’s wrath. Why do you seek an audience with my master’s master? What benefit could you glean from it wizard?” The demon asked.

“Simple Lord Xanzu. I seek what all practitioners of my art seek. Living immortality. I wish to not merely extend my life – as I have done for centuries – but I seek life immortal. And the Sibilant Beast is said to possess such knowledge.”

Interlude: The Wrathful Brave

The Three-Fold Law. The Rule of Three. The Law of Threefold Return. And similar philosophies. Multiple interpretations of a simple concept. That energy ‘sent out’ can change the world. Vibes, feelings, positive thoughts…prayers. What are these but simply emotions? And yes strong emotions can influence the multiverse. How? No one knows. When? No one knows. Why? No one knows. But the bigger question should be: ‘why is it that negative emotions or trauma seem to influence the multiverse more than positive ones?’ After all, everyone has heard of a ‘haunted house’, a place where bad events have happened – but have you ever heard of a ‘haunted happy home’? Another question should be: ‘why do certain tragedies result in these ‘hauntings’ and others do not – even tragedies that are greater in scale?’ I have never found an answer to these questions.

But I digress. Now imagine a world dominated by man – and only man. This is a world at war – seemingly always at war. In such a world the massacre of innocents is a thing that is all too common. But this world of brutality is also a place of science, of industry and of ‘reason’. Most of its inhabitants know nothing of magic, in fact they do not believe it exists – but it does exist, hidden away in places of power.

It was late in the year and it was cold. Very cold, the kind of cold that ate into one’s bones. The soldiers in blue came to disarm the warriors. And as the soldiers in blue took their valuable rifles, the shaman of the warriors berated them until one young warrior refused to be disarmed – a scuffle ensued and this was the spark that started the flame. The first guns were fired, then the first innocents fell. There was a woman with a child in her arms who was killed as she almost escaped. Another mother was shot down while nursing her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead continued to nurse ... and more women fled with their babies as they were cut down, mothers and children dying together ... and after almost everyone had been slain a cry was made that all those who were still alive should come forth and they would be safe. A group of small boys crawled out of their places of refuge, and as soon as they came in sight a number of the soldiers in blue surrounded them and butchered them like lambs.

These soldiers in blue seemed to be consumed by bloodlust, they fired volley after volley and after what seemed to be only a few moments, there was not a living thing before them; warriors, women, children, ponies and even dogs ... had fallen before the storm of fire. Those that did escape fled into a ravine to take up defensive positions, the soldiers in blue hunted them down, though from here the warriors were able to return fire but the end was never in doubt. When the shooting stopped more than 300 men, women and children – along with 25 of the soldiers in blue – lay dead. The cold ground was slick with rapidly freezing blood.

The snow began to fall, it fell in a great blizzard that lasted three full days. Covering up the horror that happened here with a blanket that was clean and white. After the storm the commander of the soldiers in blue visited the scene of carnage and saw the 300 snow shrouded forms strewn over the countryside. He also discovered to his horror that helpless children and women with babies in their arms had been chased as far as two miles from the original scene of the massacre and were cut down without mercy by his soldiers...judging by the slaughter here it was suggested that the soldiers simply went berserk. For who could explain such a merciless disregard for life? The victims were buried in a mass grave on a hill. And that was when it really began…

The soldiers in blue had ‘sent much negative energy into the universe’ with their brutality. And unbeknownst to almost all, the hill which the dead were interred was a place of power. It amplified the fear, the pain, the grief and – most of all – the rage of the victims. This coalesced into a force of fury and despair. A creature of pure wrath. Could one call this being a ‘demon’? Perhaps. Oh not in the truest sense as it was not born of the Abyss or any other plane of woe. But it was more than a mere ghost. When it manifested it would take the shape of a great warrior. Clad in buckskin with a flowing headdress of eagle feathers. Its skin was as red as the blood of slaughtered innocents. Its eyes burned with the fires of hate. And its voice, well its voice was worst of all – it was the screams of murdered children, and weeping mothers, mixed with the mournful cries of the helpless and despairing fathers and just a touch of laughter, the laughter of the soldiers in blue. Yes, once you heard the Wrathful Brave’s war cry, you would never forget it…

I found it on the Realm of Shadows, that dark and dismal plane. I conjured it and bound it to me as a warrior-slave. It has served me well over the centuries. Usually it is both unseen and unformed. However, using the name of the shaman and that first warrior that refused to be disarmed I can command it to my side. The first time I used it in battle was on the red world of Akiton. The githyanki had established a redoubt on this neighboring planet with the intent to raid our world. Clearly this was a danger to my home world and our glorious empire.

At my Emperor’s command I led the warriors and battle-mages of my great house along with those of our vassal houses against them.

I unleashed the Wrathful Brave against the githyanki – it was a storm of fury and hate. Wielding a stone hand-axe in its right hand and a razor-sharp flint knife in its left. It tore through githyanki knights and soldiers like a whirlwind of death. This was no small feat as the githyanki are masters of war, magic and mentalism. But with the Wrathful Brave at our vanguard our victory was never in doubt. The githyanki gateway was destroyed, and their fortress brought low. The few remaining githyanki were driven out into the red sands and the githyanki threat was ended.

With the Wrathful Brave at my side – as well as my own arcane might – I believed myself to be invincible – time has proven me a fool indeed …

Part II: Through the Gate to the Dark City of Howls: Enemy at the Gates

The summoning of Lord Xanzu behind me, I retrieved a scroll that I had prepared for this journey. Amongst the most potent of mortal magic, this spell can actually open a doorway between dimensions. This would allow me to arrive as close to my destination as possible. My plan is to arrive maybe a mile outside of the great abyssal metropolis of Lemoriax, the ‘capital’ of the abyssal layer of Gaping Maw. I had not visited this city – or this layer for that matter – but the various tomes that I had read described Lemoriax as a vast walled slum of wide, broken avenues and crumbling ziggurats inhabited by demons, half-breeds and other creatures that were even less savory…also from what I have read Lemoriax boasts the largest slave markets in the hellish planes. Markets that one could obtain demonic warrior-slaves, concubines, war-beasts and others for a variety of purposes. Undoubtedly these markets were a place of great despair.

From Lemoriax I plan to find passage to Abysm, the twin-towered fortress of the Sibilant Beast. This is why I need Xanzu, as a powerful and high ranking captain, I am hoping he can allow me safe passage to the Prince’s court and that I may obtain an audience to request that which I seek. Admittedly, my plan has its flaws – that is why I will bring the Prince of Princes a gift…hopefully I will be able to bribe the Prince of Demons to give me what I desire. But if I cannot, I will steal it if I must. I will allow none to keep me from my destiny.

I begin to read the scroll out loud, the words of power written in high draconic roll off of my tongue like music, each syllable gaining in power. A vertical line starts to form in midair, small at first but it grows steadily as I continue to recite the spell. By the time I finish the last word it rises from floor to ceiling and expands horizontally, with a wet ripping sound like the tearing of flesh it opens. The gate is a wound in the universe, a tear in the fabric of reality, a smell like stagnant water and mildew pours forth from it and all I can see through this wound is an ugly dirty yellow light which radiates from it in waves.

Lord Xanzu stands slightly ahead of me to my left. “Well mortal, after you – or shall I go first?” he gestures with his black clawed left hand and regards me with a smile that would frighten a shark.

I boldly stride through the gate and I am assaulted by the stink of jungle rot and a twisting vertigo momentarily overtakes me. At the end of the journey between realities I open my eyes…to a scene of chaos. I have indeed arrived where I intended: the abyssal realm of Gaping Maw where I look upon the great walls of the metropolis of Lemoriax. However parts of the wall here have collapsed and I see fires beyond that. I look around me and I am surrounded by black and bone armored figures, a force of warriors advancing upon the city! It is then that I notice that this is merely one force in a far larger horde. A massive army is attacking Lemoriax and our gate has opened within it.

I glance into the sky and see large winged demons, a hybrid of vulture and man, these creatures are called vrocks, and I watch as the rise from the city walls to engage waves of gargoyles and other flying monstrosities that form the aerial contingent of the invading horde. I also see the dirty yellow sun of this plane as it sets into the sea in the east – opposite of my own world – and I notice multiple moons begin to rise. It is Xanzu’s voice which snaps me back to the dire situation at hand: “Darakhul filth! It is an attack!” Darakhul – I had heard the word before, though I had never encountered them. The Darakhul or “high ghouls''are a race of highly advanced and evolved undead which answered my question: who. The Darakhul on the whole were devoted to the Prince of the Undead, arch-enemy of the Sibilant Beast.

However, the time for such idle speculation was over. Lord Xanzu and I are both surrounded by armored warriors. I look to the one closest to me. A brutal looking man armed with a broad-bladed sword and large iron shield. He is clad in a breastplate, greaves and open-faced helm of black iron with brass trim, the helm’s crest is a ruby-dyed horsehair Mohawk. Glowing, rust-colored eyes appraise me with a calculating stare of barely restrained rage and hunger. His face is a pasty-white color and he grins at me with a mouth of shark-like teeth. Mistaking me for a soft target, he comes at me with a diagonal chop of his blade. Unbeknownst to my undead attacker one of my defensive preparations is a phantasm which makes me appear several feet from my true location. The Darakhul warrior’s chop lands a full arm’s length to my left overbalancing the ghoul, I am not about to waste this opportunity. I reach out as I utter a quick arcane phrase in draconic and blast my would-be killer with a burst of telekinetic force, the damage to his body is apparent as his armor is dented as if by a great fist and blood flies from his mouth and nose. More importantly he is flung with bone crushing force away from me to crash into another black armored soldier. Neither rises from the ground.

Next to me, Xanzu kills with a surprisingly silent efficiency. Catching our foes flat-footed, his first strike is a ripping right claw, catching a black armored ghoul where his jawline and neck meet, Xanzu nearly tears the ghoul’s head from its shoulders as it falls to the stinking mud. Xanzu then brings his left fist straight down atop a second armored ghoul’s helm, crushing the skull and shattering the spine beneath. The ghoul utters a mournful yet short scream, almost a squeak, as it is hammered into the ground. A third warrior, quicker than his fellows stabs at Xanzu with his blade catching the demon twice in its abdomen, the first draws a small amount of bright yellow demonic ichor yet the second blow fails to cause any significant damage. Xanzu retaliates with a right fist, but this quick – and lucky – Darakhul warrior raises up his broad, round shield (which bears the horned-goat symbol of the Prince of the Undead) to block the blow. However Xanzu hits with the force of a charging bull, and the ghoul’s shield shatters, as I am sure does the arm beneath. Yet the force of the blow also drives the warrior back into his rapidly advancing fellows which spares him from further examples of Xanzu’s fury. A fourth warrior screaming a bestial war-cry filled with bloodlust, rage and hunger charges toward me, I see that his lamprey-like fangs and chin are covered in blood and his red-on-red eyes burn with insanity as he seemingly ignores the great hulking demon to his left flank. Xanzu repays this insult with a swift back hand from his left fist, ending the ghoul’s hunger filled cry as the blow literally knocks the head from its shoulders.

I take advantage of this momentary lull to pull a pouch from the many pocketed magical girdle at my waist. A bit of common dog fur, a crystal rod and a handful of small silver pins. These items are the foci to a battle spell I have used many times over the years. Though demonic life as a rule is immune to lightning, I knew that somehow this would come in handy as I assume that the Darakhul warriors share no such resistance. I intone the words of power as the foci generate a static charge, a blinding bolt of lightning flies from outstretched finger to a target I have chosen, a ghoul bearing a unit standard, a flag of undoubtedly humanoid hide with the words “death to life” stitched in golden thread under a ram-skull symbol interposed on a twisting, tilted x-like rune. The bolt strikes the standard bearer and arcs out to over a dozen and a half of his fellows. Despite the undead nature of my foes, their bodies still contain considerable moisture, moisture that the energy of my spell turns to steam in an instant, causing the Darakhul warriors to either explode like lightning struck trees or cook inside their black armor and mail.

Seeing more than two dozen of their comrades felled in mere moments gives the warriors pause, which buys Xanzu and me several moments of respite. At which time Xanzu, his ire and own bloodlust raised, steps forward and taunts the assembled ghouls: “What is wrong little dead things? Has your courage failed you already? Bah! You are no warriors! I have taken maidens who are more militant than you!”

Scanning around I see a horde of the Darakhul warriors as well other horrors – including giant beetles that seem to have rune-carved metal plates bolted to their chitin. I look upon them with my mage-sight and see that they are indeed undead and the runes carved upon the metal plates radiate magical auras, defensive auras to be more exact. In the distance there are what appears to be siege towers and flights of gargoyle-like creatures and flying demons fill the sky – this is no simple raid, but a major attack. “Lord Xanzu we are gravely outnumbered. Perhaps we should retreat to the city walls?”

Being a wrath-filled demon, I expect Xanzu to balk at this or at the very least insult my ‘cowardness’. Therefore I am shocked when he agrees. “Yes little mage. You seem to be correct. Pity, I looked forward to breaking more ghouls.”

Xanzu then raised his voice: “Do you hear me little dead things? I am Captain Xanzu and when we meet again it will be with my warriors at my back! You will taste death's bitter cup once more!” With that he grabs me with his left hand and hops – yes hops – over the heads of our foes to land well over a 100’ away! He makes four more hops of similar distance and we are to the city walls.

Part III: Through the Gate to the Dark City of Howls: City under Siege

We land near a breach in the city wall, dead demons and other horrors – including numerous destroyed darakhul – litter the ground here around the breach. The stink of death and blood is overpowering. I quickly deduce that the Darakhul breached the city walls here and the defenders repulsed the attack at great cost. As Xanzu and I approach the breach a group of warriors spills out through the shattered wall, many are reptilian or semi-reptilian humanoids. I recognize the creatures called troglodytes, dwellers of both dark jungles and damp subterranean warrens. I also see other reptilian beings – similar to the common lizard-men of my world but larger and more aggressive by the looks of them, undoubtedly not a breed native to Golarion. I spy uncounted mix breed creatures, humanoids of various races – both known and unknown to me – mixed with demonic blood. Many show the dubious blessing of mutation for such is favored by the Sibilant Beast. All are armed to the teeth. Most of the reptilian beings favor spears and javelins though I see several strange wooden clubs with shards of black stone embedded in their shafts. The others carry a variety of implements of death, both straight and curved swords, polearms of various description, flanged maces and others. Many bear crossbows which are pointed in our direction.

Xanzu strides forward: “I am Captain Xanzu of Lord-general Bogromar’s legion. Lower your weapons unless you wish to be my enemy…if you wish to be my enemy? Well, then the whores that birthed you shall mourn your loss, of course provided they can even still remember you – one more inbred bastard from the hordes of inbred bastards that have crawled from their putrid wombs? Bah! It is doubtful you will be missed.” Xanzu’s words had an immediate effect, as the gathered warriors lowered their weapons. We stepped through the breach over the corpses and debris.

A sudden movement to my right caught my attention, it was a trio of demons of the breed known as ‘babau’. Two appear as humanoid skeletons in skin-tight wet black leather suits. Both have a mouthful of twisted fangs and eight inch razor sharp claws. However, what is most distinct about each is the long black horn which extends from the back of their skulls and twists over their heads. I have summoned such creatures many times in the past for they excel as silent and swift killers, and well…well, suffice to say my hands and soul are far from clean. Also, more than once in my long life has a foe tried to eliminate me utilizing these abyssal assassins.

But it was the last one that stands out – where most babau are black and skeletally thin this one is red and leanly muscled…oh he is no brute like Xanzu, not this one, this demon has more of a dancer’s fluid muscle-tone. It also has the long razor-sharp claws and the black horn – in his case the horn is polished to a mirror-like sheen – but he also bears a weapon, a unique polearm: one end is a serrated glaive, its silvered blade gleaming in the firelight, while the opposite end resembles a large fish-hook. The shaft of the weapon is not merely wood – because wood could not bear the acidic touch of a babau – but is also forged steel. I regard the polearm with mage-sight and see the potent elemental powers – both cold and flame – bound within. The red babau, clearly the senior of the trio speaks in a surprisingly pleasant and melodic voice: “Captain Xanzu. It is good to see you again”.

Xanzu replies in an almost mirthful tone: “By a bearded devil’s dangling balls! Yemnon! I should have known you would be near the thick of the slaughter!” After this Xanzu breaks out in laughter. When he was finished he continued: “Tell me Yemnon. What is the situation?”

While it is true that demons are dark creatures of chaos many mistakenly assume that they are unable to form meaningful hierarchies or chains-of-command. But demons are intelligent, very intelligent. They are also at war…constantly. They make war against the angelic and archon armies of the shining heavens, the ordered devils of the pits of hell and other forces throughout the multiverse. But mostly demons are at war with each other. As Xanzu was a ranking captain in the armies of Gaping Maw he is more than just the warrior I had seen him to be. He is also a leader. A leader with a strong grip of military tactics and strategy, plus the experience of millennia of warfare behind him. The demons, mutants and assorted scum around us knew this and they both respected and feared him.

“Captain, the situation is grim. The first gate opened west of the city and a strong force of tiefling warriors and undead heavily supported by cambions and nabassu assaulted the walls there. However, Lord Arendagrost was unleashed upon them and now that front is secure.” At the mention of ‘Arendagrost’ even Xanzu paled. That was a name that I had read in the snake-mage’s angel-skin bound tome. Arendagrost, also called the ‘Maw of the Abyss’, is rumored to be the spawn of the Sibilant Beast and the Queen of Succubae. It is said to vaguely resemble an immense wingless dragon of gargantuan size. Instead of legs, it moves upon a sea of tentacles. And in place of scales, it is covered in coarse black fur and has three heads that resemble monstrous horned demons. Arendagrost is a living weapon that the Sibilant Beast has unleashed on hapless foes across the multiverse. More than once the Maw of the Abyss has been slain, only to return at some later date, this would lead one to believe that the Sibilant Beast cared enough about its monstrous offspring to return it to life.

Yemnon continued his report: “These scum have emerged from a gate to the southwest near the Screaming Jungle. So far they seem to be mostly this ghoul filth though there are massive numbers of them. The first wave mounted on their war-beetles attacked swiftly and were able to breach the walls here. Until we were able to repel them. Also Lord there have been reports of another series of gateways opening to the northwest and on the beaches to the northeast.”

“More ghouls or undead puppets from that bloated pig’s armies and slaves?” Xanzu remarks almost derisively referring to the Prince of the Undead.

“No lord-captain, if the reports are true, it is fey creatures from the faerie realms. Eladrin knights and their footmen. As well as massive war-herds of gruffs.” Replies Yemnon. This seems to take Xanzu by surprise – as I must admit, it does me as well – legends speak of grave insults given to Morwel the Queen of the Eladrin by the Sibilant Beast including, but not limited to, the imprisonment and torture of her champion and herald Gwynharwyf. However, the fact that the Queen of Ghaeles would unite with the Demon-Prince of the Undead to strike at the Sibilant Beast? That was a surprise indeed.

“Truly?” Came Xanzu’s stunned response. “And the disposition of our forces? Where is General Bogromar?!” Xanzu’s deep croaking voice rose an octave as his wrath again began to rise.

“Lord-general Bogromar commands the defense of the city from the great tower. The legion mans the walls. However, the biggest issue we have is that our Prince has sent Lord-general Tetradarian and his legions off plane prior to this attack. Therefore we cannot expect major reinforcements soon.” Yemnon reports grimly.

“That is grave news, grave news indeed. For if forces arrive from Abysm to reinforce us that will leave Abysm vulnerable in truth this may be our enemy’s goal to begin with. We cannot allow this. I must commune with my master Lord-General Bogromar”.

At that Xanzu turns to go. I moved forward to stop him. “Wait Lord Xanzu! Have you forgotten our business so soon?” I say with authority. Xanzu turns on me suddenly – which I must admit I expected, but what surprises me is how coldly calculating he is. “No little magi. Even if I could forget your binding I have not. But though you are a fool human you are not a stupid one. You seek an audience with my master’s master. To ask a mere favor. Tell me? Do you believe that if his kingdom falls to his enemies you will be granted this audience?” He stares at me intently as he waits for my response. I must admit, it is odd to be made to feel foolish by a giant, over-muscled, bipedal talking bullfrog.

“No.” I replied sheepishly. “I suppose I will not. However, am I supposed to remain here in an abyssal city besieged by armies of undead, demons and fey-creatures whilst you go to your war conference?”

At that Xanzu grins at me. “When you voice it like that little mage, it does sound rather exciting. No. You will be coming with me.” Xanzu states in a matter of fact tone as he reaches out with his left claw and touches me. The next instant we are somewhere else. I mastered the first spells of teleportation many centuries ago. And I know that this is an innate power that many powerful demons and others deemed as outsiders may do at will to travel throughout their respective planes of existence. However I believed that such beings could only teleport themselves, I did not know that they could teleport others – until now. But before I can ask Xanzu about this revelation I take stock of our new location. A crumbling tower that overlooks the abyssal metropolis and the vast jungles to the west and the endless seas to the east. Even in my homeland of Azlant or any other nation in my world have I seen a tower of such height, it is obvious to me that such a thing is kept aloft with potent magic indeed. However, as I stare out from the towers peak like an awestruck yokel, I catch Xanzu in my peripheral vision kneeling to one knee, as I turn around all thoughts of impossibly high towers and abyssal vistas are banished from my mind.

I have seen many awe-inspiring sights. As I have said before, I have summoned and dealt with beings of mind-rending horror as well those of heart-numbing beauty. I have traveled to distant worlds and alternate realities and have beheld wondrous and terrible events. But few are as wondrously terrible as what I gaze upon now.

Standing nearly 20’ tall is a bipedal being, it is a cross between a reptile, an octopod and an ape. Its head is that of a vicious, snarling mandrill with an electric blue nose ridge and bright red nostrils. Its eyes are a glowing golden yellow and filled with rage, intelligence and malevolence in equal measure. The head tops a long serpentine neck which goes down to a bipedal body. The upper part of this body has the same dark olive-colored fur as the mandrill head which then leads into reptilian scales of a slightly browner shade then the fur. The lower body reminds me of the great saurian hunters of the jungles of my own world (many of which were used as war beasts by the serpent folk). However, it is the arms which are the most striking, for the simple fact they are not arms at all, but tentacles like those of some monstrous octopus. The figure is arrayed for war, clad in mithril helm, breastplate and greaves. I can see with my mage’s sight that these are items that fairly vibrate with defensive powers. This is Lord-General Bogromar, Clone-son of the Prince of Demons and he is a thing to be feared. A nightmare in the flesh.

I am so overwhelmed by Bogromar’s presence that at first I fail to realize that he is not alone. At his right side there is a monstrous glabrezu, dog faced, heavily muscled and russet red, this demon has four arms, two – the larger – are pincer tipped and the other two – which grow from his chest – are more mundane. This demon has actual brass plates hammered into its flesh as a form of armor. The plates are covered in blasphemous runes which to my mage sight show the abjurations woven into the metal as well as the profane power it invokes. At Bogromar’s left there is another demon. This fiend is a beautiful woman from the waist up, buxom with long flaming red hair, eyes of green, and milk white skin. However, her demonic nature is apparent from her six arms and green scaled serpentine lower half. Each arm has identical golden bracers from wrist to forearm, I can see the bracers are heavily enchanted with conjuration magic. She is of the demonic breed known as Marilith, high ranking members of the demonic hierarchy who commonly serve as commanders in the armies of the abyss. The last member of Bogromar’s entourage is not a demon at all, but a hulking battle-scarred black dragon. Its massive frame shadows the entire scene as it is perched on a ledge like a common bird.

Xanzu kneels on one knee with his arms out, palms up at both sides. “I have heard your call, great one. What is your bidding my master?”

“Oh Xanzu, mighty Xanzu. You who are amongst the most beloved of my slaves. You have been bound. Bound by a mortal wizard. Who is he? This mortal wizard? And why does he believe he can lay claim over that which is mine?” Bogromar speaks in a voice that is sharp and quick, like the sound of razors through flesh.

“He is a fool, my master. He seeks an audience with your most puissant father. He is as I said, a fool, but a mighty wizard nonetheless.”

My mind nearly reeled from this exchange – is Xanzu actually speaking my virtues to his master? But why? Demons are a vengeful and wrathful lot. He would have every reason to hate me and wish me dead. But I believe he is actually speaking up for me.

Bogromar regards me with his glaring eyes. “Yes. A fool indeed. And an arrogant one at that. Tell me mortal worm, what would you, a mere talking monkey want with my father the Prince of Demons, beloved by all?” Bogromar’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Oh do not answer gasping little worm. For I know what you would say: power. That is what all mortals crave, is it not? Normally mortal worm I would rend you for your arrogant presumption. You have dared to bind one of my most beloved servants. But today is your lucky day. For you have been watched and not found wanting. Today you will join my dear Xanzu on a little errand. And who knows? Mayhaps you may yet enter my father’s court after all?”

I stay here kneeling on one knee, with my face down. Bogromar has called me arrogant, yes arrogant I may be and Xanzu has called me a fool, yes a fool I may be. But I am not stupid. I kneel and hold my tongue. Because I realize that if I offer protest or objection that I would face the wrath of the most powerful beings I have ever encountered and along with his assembled servants and this is a fight that I don’t believe even with the Wrathful Brave at my command that I could win.

I also wonder at Bogromar’s words, that ‘I have been watched and not found wanting’. Watched by whom? From when I entered the gate? Or before? Though Bogromar’s comments seemed to be casual, I sense a deeper meaning there. However I dismissed this from my thoughts as Bogromar began to speak once again.

“Mighty Xanzu, surely you know of our current troubles? While it is true that the first gate has been neutralized by my most brutal brother Arendagrost, the enemy besets us on two fronts. My ‘twin’ Tetradarian is away leading his legion in battle against a diabolic host. Therefore we must make due for now with our own resources. As long as the south gate is open we will face strong forces of undead and possibly our foe’s demonic legions, if we are able to neutralize the gate I believe I can in time deal with both the darakhul army and the fey hordes.”

“How may I serve you my master?” Xanzu answers humbly.

Bogromar laid out his plan: “War bands from the Screaming Jungle have been harrying our foes and have located the southern gate to Thanatos. I command you to travel there with a totem of negation, link up with one such war band lead by the shaman Vallex. A large force could not break through to reach the gate. Therefore this is a quick strike. Destroy the guards on the gate and use the totem of negation, and defend it from the inevitable counter attack. Once I determine the gate is destroyed I will sally forth to deal with the rest of the darakhul forces. Then when they are gone, I will turn my attention to the fey. Take your most able murderers. Oh, and do take your pet wizard. Or are you his pet? For that has yet to be determined. But if he is as mighty as you say, he will be an asset.” Bogromar’s gaze went to me as he said this last part as I sat there listening to his plan until with a start I realize my part in it. This was going to be quite a day…

Part IV: Sojourn into the Jungle of Screams

I am smarting as I realize how easily Bogromar has turned the tables upon me. I have come here seeking immortality. Now I am involved in a covert assault upon a gateway connecting what I assume is one layer of the abyss to the other. A gateway undoubtedly protected by gods-know what horrors. I am apprehensive, but in a perverse way I am looking forward to this…and more importantly if we are successful this could be the opening for me to gain the prize I seek.

After the orders are given Bogromar turns to other matters. Obviously we are dismissed. Before we depart the beautiful Marilith demon comes forward and with a smile that would melt a heart of ice hands me a bag. I notice that the bag is stitched from several flayed faces – I believe that they are elves – and that it weighs more than I expect. I go to open it and Xanzu lays an urgent hand upon my arm. “No Little Mage. Leave it be, that is a specialized extra-dimensional space that contains the totem of negation. It could cause you undue distress if you release it”. With that he turns upon the Marilith: “Get you gone silly and insipid bitch! Even now at this dire hour you play your games? You rancid whore.”

The Marilith laughs as she slowly returns to where she came.

“Fate is funny, little mage.” Xanzu muses.

“How so Lord Xanzu?” I responded.

“Because, even demonic women are all bitches”.

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Xanzu and I walked in silence to the edge of the tower. “What now?” I asked.

“Now? Now we collect Yemnon. Not only is he my lieutenant, but he is the most talented of killers. Then we make our way to meet with this shaman and destroy that damned Thanatos gate.”

“Yes, but how do we get there?” I insisted.

“Lord General Bogromar spoke with me telepathically as well as verbally. He placed the location of this Vallex within my mind. I will teleport us there.”

“Yes. About that. I know that many of your ilk have the power to teleport at will, as do many other denizens of the planes. But I have never known one that could take others on these jaunts.” I inquire.

“Your knowledge is indeed correct little mage, most of my kindred cannot bring others with them. However, the Mother Abyss has seen fit to give me this gift. Though its use does tend to drain me.” Admits Xanzu.

His very frankness surprises me. I have dealt with demons a multitude of times and they are a dishonest lot – second only to the devils of the nine pits, or maybe the denizens of Abaddon in their treachery. However, I believe Xanzu to be truthful. It occurs to me yet again: Xanzu is not a typical demon.

As I open my mouth to continue speaking, Xanzu interrupts me: “Now is not the time for your ceaseless chatter little mage. Now is the time to go.”

And with that he again touches me on the arm and we are then next to Yemnon and his two retainers.

“My captain.” Yemnon places his hand on his chest and bows slightly as a greeting or salute to Xanzu as the other babau stood at attention – again this behavior surprises me.

“Yemnon! You who are my favorite murderer. Come we have much to ponder.” Spoke Xanzu. Yemnon and his two babau companions approach Xanzu, what was discussed I can only imagine as it is a telepathic conversation that only lasts moments. After this quick council they returned to my location. I regarded Yemnon and the other two babau in turn, and if it were possible for a demon to look apprehensive, then they certainly had that look.

“We are ready, little mage. Hopefully your spells and tricks can give us the edge we need. If not, well, then I will never have the pleasure of ripping you limb from limb. And I would honestly miss that! Gather round!” Xanzu ordered. We did so and again Xanzu used his ‘special gift’ to teleport both he and I as his minions followed using their own innate gifts.

An instant later we are standing in a small clearing surrounded by a vast thick jungle. The first thing I see are several reptilian beasts, feathered bipedal reptiles each with a mouth filled with an apex predators rending fangs and an elongated disemboweling claw on each foot. In my distant youth I had served my house as a battlemage in the wars against the serpent folk kingdoms. Wars that had cost the lives of my eldest brother and several other kinsmen. I had encountered such creatures as this used as battle beasts by the horrid snakemen many times before. However, what set these apart from them were the weapons and armor each one bore! These obviously were not mere animals and I pulled a killing wand from my wrist bracer.

“Easy little mage, now is not the time to spill blood.” Spoke Xanzu as he placed his massive right paw on my shoulder. “Odd, isn’t it? I am a demon, and I am telling you, a human to stay your hand. The multiverse is filled with such little jokes.” Xanzu regarded me with a smile before stepping forward.

“I am High-Captain Xanzu of the great legion of Lord-General Bogromar. I seek the shaman Vallex, who undoubtedly commands this gathering of bar-lguras and saurian bastards!” He announces in a booming voice.

At the mention of bar-lguras I look at the trees, and in a moment I see them: savage, ape-like demons covered in red fur, some – undoubtedly the eldest – have twisted horns, others are more bestial with nearly dog-like muzzles filled with vicious fangs. Almost all are sporting armbands and a variety of body piercings. These are bar-lguras, a lesser demonic breed found through almost all abyssal layers. Considered brutish and violent by even demonic standards they make exceptional shock troops.

In front of us a knot of saurian warriors parts to both the left and right, and in walks two large armored bipeds I at first take to be ogres, though I quickly realize I am mistaken – for each is a large hulking ape. The apes are clad in spike-covered green lacquered plate armor, complete with open-faced helms. Each bears a massive polearm – equal parts axe and spear – at the ready. Using my mage sight I can see the powerful protective magics woven within their plate and the deadly dweomers bound to their weapons. The musculature of these two simians rivals even that of Xanzu and their eyes hold an intelligence that is far beyond that of a mere animal. Having seen these two as well as the raptor warriors, I quickly came to an opinion: I have read about the ‘nature priests’ known as ‘druids’, though I never personally encountered one. Apparently the more powerful of these druids can actually awaken sentience in animals and even plants. This Vallex must be a powerful druid or at least someone of their ilk, and has been able to create a small army of awakened raptors and powerful apes – I am impressed, very impressed.

I turn my attention back to the apes, as they part I see a man sized figure step in between them. The figure is obviously reptilian – not one of the hated snakemen, or a lizard-folk, it is closer to a troglodyte, yet it is also disturbingly…human. It moves with a cat-like sinuous grace, and is clad in strange, intricate armor crafted of chitin or perhaps shell? The armor is a drab olive green, which contrasts with the bright green slightly scaled flesh that I can see in the armor’s gaps. The figure wields an unusual weapon in its right hand, similar to the obsidian studded clubs I saw the other cruder troglodytes wielding in Lemoriax, however where those were crude, this is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, a long “paddle” of intricately carved hardwood lined on both sides with volcanic black glass “teeth”. The weapon literally glows with magical power. However, what is most remarkable about this figure is its eyes, piercing golden orbs that radiate intelligence and power.

I quickly scan the reptilian figure with my mage sight and see it is literally covered in layers of dweomers and magics of various sorts. As I begin to study my subject I make the startling realization that I in turn am being studied…by it. The figure regards me with a slightly disturbing smile and for whatever reason I feel my face flush.

The figure turns its head from me to regard Xanzu. It then speaks in the rich melodic voice of a woman. “Greetings Lord-Captain Xanzu. I am the shaman Vallex, humble servant to his demonic majesty Ahmon-Ibor.” She uses an ancient name for the Sibilant Beast. After this brief introduction Vallex turns her golden orbs back upon me and regards me with a smile upon her face. Again I feel flush. It is then that I notice a strong pleasant smell that covers the all-pervasive jungle rot and mildew reek that saturates the area. I cannot place the smell, but it is almost intoxicating and I breathe it in deep…

“Stop it Vallex! We do not have time for such games! You mortals, there is blood to spill and ghouls to be crushed, and what do you concern yourself with?! Rutting like pox-riddled goats in a lust driven frenzy!” Xanzu’s loud croaking voice pulls me from my reverie. I shake my head to clear it. “And as for you little mage! I thought a mind as sharp of yours would be made of sterner stuff? Yet here you are as addle-pated as a young pup catching the scent of his first bitch in heat! Bah!”

It is with his stinging rebuke that I realize what Vallex is. Within the serpent mage’s angel-skin bound tome there is mentioned their ancient enemies, the myth-shrouded elder troglodytes. A highly advanced race of hermaphrodites that zealously worshipped the Prince of Demons and other fell demonic lords (though the tome inferred the elder troglodytes were created by even more ancient and malignant beings). The elder troglodytes were destroyed in a series of genocidal wars fought in ages past. Wars fought in retaliation because the elder troglodytes were insidious conquerors, for their means of conquest was not war or magic but breeding. Apparently their hermaphroditic nature allowed them to breed with nearly any creature and any traits of the non-troglodyte parent were subsumed. Meaning the child was a troglodyte. What was worse was the elder troglodytes were capable of releasing a lust inducing musk – well that part at least was true as I just experienced it!

Almost immediately I come back to my senses and I stare shocked at Vallex who actually winks at me as she turns her gaze back to Xanzu. “As you wish Lord-Captain.”

“Tell me about the gateway Vallex. Its location, its defenses, I assume you have scouted it prior to our arrival?” Xanzu stated matter of factly.

“Of course Lord-Captain. The gateway is in a clearing not far from here. There is a large force of ghouls and other undead guarding it. More ghouls and smaller groups of demons are pouring forth from it – but not constantly.” Vallex replies with a slight bow.

“Why? Why are there no armies of demons? Surely the Prince of the Undead controls vast hordes of demons as well. Maybe not to the scale of the Sibilant Beast. But surely demons. Why just the darakhul?” I interrupt.

Xanzu and Vallex trade looks before Xanzu answers “I don’t know little mage, but I must admit this is troubling to me too. Finish your report Vallex.”

“My scouts have reported the forces are commanded by an unknown skull-lord. A woman, a drow. She is attended at all times by an extremely large vrolikai.” Continued Vallex. This last part seemed to peak Xanzu’s interest more than anything else.

“What is a ‘skull lord’? A type of undead?” I asked.

“A skull lord is a title my handsome friend. The high clergy of the Order of the Horned-Goat. Some are indeed undead: darakhul, vampires, and possibly even a lich. However from all reports this particular one is mortal and maybe even more beautiful than you.” Vallex answers me with a lustful glint in her golden reptilian eyes.

For his part Xanzu ignores our exchange as he seems to be lost in thought. Suddenly he speaks: “Vallex, prepare your forces. We need to attack as soon as possible. How many bar-lgura are at your command?”

“Nearly 400 lord-captain. And 50 saurians.” Came her reply.

“Excellent! Lead with the bar-lgura. Keep your awakened dinosaurs in reserve. I will need you to strike with great fury. I want the enemy engaged enough to allow my team to sneak in and place the totem of negation. Once the gate comes down, I will need you to send your saurians, undoubtedly the ghouls will counter attack the gate to reopen it. We cannot let that happen. Do you have any questions?” Xanzu stared at her pointedly.

To her credit Vallex did not wilt under that stare. “No lord-captain we will do our part”. She replied with a slight bow of her head.

“Good. Then let us begin” Xanzu said.

Part V: Assault on the Freezing Gate:

The bar-lgura assault was brutal and straight forward, catching a marching column of darakhul in the left flank as they made their way north through a cleared path in the jungle. The demons were not alone, as they had several captured reptilian creatures that they drove into the ghoul’s column first – large three-horned quadrupeds that caused chaos in the darakhul lines as they crushed many hapless ghouls under their great feet. Following quickly on their heels came the ape-like demons in a wave out of the trees. While the bar-lgura were chaotic and frenzied berserkers the darakhul had not yet had time to organize a line of defense after the stampede of the reptilian behemoths. The first ape-demon – a massive, heavily muscled brute with two great bull-like horns and armed with a two-handed battle maul landed behind a darakhul officer using the momentum of his fall to bring his maul down on the hapless ghoul. He missed the undead warrior’s head but caught him where his neck and right shoulder met, crushing spine, collar bone and ribs. This would have slain any mortal warrior, but being undead the darakhul was made of sterner stuff, however the burst of flame that accompanied this powerful blow was more than enough to end the darakhul’s cursed existence. Before the stunned darakhul warriors could react the massive ape-demon brought its flaming maul into the face of another ghoul pulverizing skull and brain beyond. More ape-demons dropped from the trees and tore into the warriors, most were armed with just the vicious claws on their six fingered paws, though a few others had various weapons, mostly large two-handed axes and great spike-headed maces. One enterprising young bar-lgura stooped down to snatch the iron shield of a fallen ghoul and began to bash his foes with it, catching a darakhul in the left knee. The wounded ghoul toppled and the ape-demon leapt upon it, using the shield's edge to crush the undead skull with three ferocious blows.

This carnage continued almost unopposed for nearly a minute, until a darakhul commander began to rally his warriors. A mighty warrior in life, his prowess only increased after the fever had taken him. Hefting an enchanted spear in his right hand, he gave a loud shout, the shield wielding bar-lgura turned to confront this new challenge and the darakhul commander obliged him with a mighty throw which caught the demon through its open snarling mouth and pinned it to a tree beyond. The darakhul then gave another cry as it charged into battle hefting its shield and pulling a highly ornate short stabbing sword as he ran. This inspired many of the ghouls who gave cries of blood lust and followed their commander into the melee.

We will wait until we get the word from Vallex that the ape-demons have engaged a large darakhul force and then we will move to our target. There are the five of us: Xanzu, Yemnon, the two quiet and stealthy babau and myself. Never in my wildest imaginings did I ever see myself joining a demonic commando squad…I doubt if I will survive this. But as I have said before, I will risk anything to attain my goal.

Lord-captain Xanzu. Vallex sends a whispering magical message to our team. The bar-lgura have fully engaged the enemy. My divinations indicate that the majority of their forces have advanced to reinforce the ghouls.

“Very well Vallex. We will be off. Remember: once we activate the token of negation the enemy gate will fail. The remaining ghouls and others in this area will attempt to retake it. We will need your saurians and any other forces you can muster to hold it. If you fail to arrive they will retake the gate. DO. NOT. ALLOW. THAT. TO. HAPPEN.” Xanzu replied with all seriousness.

Understood lord-captain. May our lord and master turn his two faced gaze upon you.

Xanzu turns to me “Well little mage, shall we begin?”

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Skull-lord Dhenziira the Kinless was staring into the gateway to Thanatos. She stood in a hellish jungle realm staring into the frozen wasteland of the Prince of the Undead. The gate shimmers and fades for a second. “It is unstable” she speaks out loud in abyssal. “As if this very realm itself battles against it.” She mused. She was tall for a drow woman, almost five and a half feet in height. Tall, shapely and beautiful. Her snow white hair is long and tied back in a single braid. She wears an open-faced black adamantine helmet with the curling ram’s horns of the Order of the Horned Goat and is clad in fine chainmail armor common to her race, over which is draped a highly enchanted cloak. In her right hand is a ram-headed staff that actually trailed energy and black light. And unlike many of the Prince of the Undead’s non-demonic minions, Dhenziira was fully alive.

“Yessss…that is exactly what isss happening…too many darakhul have passsed through too quickly. We mussst wait until the portal ssstabilesss before we usssher more ghoulsss through…” her companion responds in a hoarse whisper. Dhenziira turns to look upon him. Fallivax appears as a 15’ tall, four-armed, emaciated gargoyle, his hide is a jet-black shade and his eyes are empty white holes in his face that shine with a dirty white light. The most disturbing thing about him however is the subtle ash-gray aura that could only be seen from one’s peripheral vision, for when one sees it, it fills their minds with thoughts of death and decay.

“The primary gate has stopped functioning, our forces there have been destroyed. There are rumors that it was a three-headed dragon. Do you have any insight on this Fallivax?” Dhenziira asks in a commanding tone.

“Yessss… that is the dreaded Arendagrost, it is the son of the one whom I will not name in the heart of hisss realm. Itsss mother isss reputed to be the Queen of Succubae. Arendagrost isss a destroyer of great power.” Fallivax croaks.

“That only leaves this gate and the fey gates. We must hold this gate open at least long enough for this team of so-called ‘heroes’ to make their move. I believe that theirs is a fool’s errand, but it is my duty to obey the Prince of Undead’s commands. Not question the plans of a bunch of insipid do-gooders.” Dhenziira remarks with an acidic tone.

Just then a darakhul warrior in highly polished ornate gold and black plate armor approaches the gate. He is helmless and baldheaded, like most darakhul he has copper-colored eyes and a mouth full of eel-like sharp teeth. He makes a fist with his right hand and crosses his arm across his chest to his heart in salute. “My Lady Skull Lord. I bring news”. His is a voice that was one part cultured aristocrat and one part predator.

“Approach and report lord-commander” Dhenziira responds.

“Our latest column enroute to the siege of Lemoriax has been ambushed. Apparently an overwhelming force of demons and other scum has struck them from both sides. They are heavily engaged and suffering significant losses. Runners have arrived and are asking for reinforcement.” The commander reports grimly.

Dhenziira rubs her chin with her left hand as she digests this information. “It is quite possible this is a mere diversion, meant to pull our forces from the gate. However, with the central gate destroyed our forces besieging Lemoriax will require reinforcement and we cannot use this gate again to bring more forces for several hours. Lord-Commander, leave a hundred warriors, take the remainder as well as the war-beetles to relieve the column. No. On second thought, leave two war-beetles.”

“Yes lady Skull-lord. However, will that leave this gate adequately protected?” The officer replied.

Dhenziira smiled a grim smile. “Yes lord-commander. I do think between Fallivax and our special friend that I and the gate will be well protected.” That is when the darakhul noticed a shadow over his left shoulder and turned to see a huge figure standing there. He was struck speechless. Before him was a heavily armored, gaunt giantess. She was fully the height of three darakhul warriors. She was bald and had pointed ears and dark ash gray skin. Her hands ended in sharp yellow claws and she carried a bearded axe of truly massive size. However what disturbed him the most was the thin fog of swirling vapor that pooled around her. Because the longer he stared into the fog the more he noticed them: faces. Tormented faces that were trapped in the swirling fog, silently screaming in terror and pain. The lord-commander had seen much horror. He is a ghoul after all, and he has been one for nearly a millennium. He had stripped the flesh off of living men, women and children thousands of times. In the cities of the White Kingdom he had toured the Gardens of Screaming Meat, warred against the drow and duergar kingdoms of the Darklands, and worshipped the Prince of the Undead in blood soaked rites and orgies of gluttony as well as encountered various fiends – both friend and foe alike. All that and more he has experienced in his long unlife, yet none of that was as horrific as the faces trapped in the swirling mist…for he knew the giantess before him was one of the near mythical death giants.

“Yes, my dear lord-commander. I believe we are adequately defended indeed”. Dhenziira says through her grim yet still beautiful smile.

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“I will teleport the little mage with me. Little mage, you will need to use your battle magic to destroy any darakhul troops. We will deal with any leaders or champions left to guard the gateway. Are you ready?” Xanzu asked me. Before I can respond Xanzu presses his massive hand upon my chest. I am whisked away with him and an instant later we both appeared in between a large force of approximately 100 darakhul warriors and a massive but obviously unstable gate. A second later Yemnon and the other two babau appeared at our side.

The gateway was maybe 50 yards from us and the troops slightly less. That was when Xanzu yelled: “Now!” in his strong booming croak.

I saw a group of maybe 25 ghoul warriors, before they could react to our presence I pulled a pouch from the many pocketed magical girdle at my waist. A bit of common dog fur, a crystal rod and a handful of small silver pins, and once again I invoked the spell of lightning that spreads through the darakhul ranks causing some ghouls to burst like over-ripe melons, some to cook in their plate and even a few to burst into flames. Fully 20 corpses lay smoldering on the clearing ground. The remaining few stand shocked and bewildered – except for one. This one quickly raises his crossbow and fires at me. I rely on my illusion of displacement to protect me from such attacks, so I am surprised to feel the sharp pain as his barbed quill rips through my right side just under the rib cage. “Damnation!” I scream as I pull a killing wand from my girdle. The ghoul starts to reload and the other four shake off their momentary shock and heft swords and spears. Before they can charge I aim my wand and shriek a command in draconic, this causes a purple pea-sized ball to streak toward them and in the flash of an eye, the first four are enveloped in a burst of flame, turning to ash even before they could scream. This only left the archer who fired a second shot at me. This time the bolt passed about three feet to my right. Seeing he had missed he began to hastily reload, however he dropped his bolt to the ground, cursing he grabbed another. However, I do not give him the luxury of time as I spit out the command word in draconic once more and incinerate him where he stands.

By this time other groups of darakhul had taken notice of the commotion at the gate and many began advancing on our position – including several mounted in two of the undead war-beetles. These creatures dwarfed the largest elephants. They had overdeveloped facial horns and their bodies looked to be hollowed out to allow troops to ride inside of them, making them a rather ingenious form of necromantic armored transport, I decided to file this away in my memory for further research – in the unlikely event I survived the next few minutes.

The moment I was awaiting quickly came: a large block of enemy soldiers bunched together on their desperate rush to reach the gate. I grinned – rather evilly I must admit – and unleashed my most potent evocation. Despite the pain I am in from the iron bolt piercing my side I pointed my right index finger and screamed the words in draconic: four 2’ diameter spheres raced from my outstretched finger each trailing sparks as they raced at great speed to their targets. Each beetle was struck by a sphere as were two of the outlying darakhul warriors – an instant later four simultaneous explosions ripped through the ‘kill box’ with the majority of those inside subject to all four. The effects were awe inspiring to behold and despite the vile nature of my targets I felt a moment of guilt. Where a moment ago there was a force of approximately 40 darakhul warriors and the two beetles, there was only one of the undead beetles which was on fire and lurching from side to side rather aimlessly as it slowly advanced forward. I doubted any of its ghoulish passengers had survived the blasts.

In less than half a minute I had eliminated the majority of the enemy troops as somewhere between 60 to 70 darakhul had been blasted from their cursed existence. However the survivors had learned from this and an officer shouted in abyssal to disperse, and they did so, putting at least a 10’ spread between each warrior. This would limit the power of my most potent area spells. As they advanced toward me with crossbows drawn and loaded, I pulled a potent healing draught from the magic pack on my back. I also chanced a glance behind me…

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“Now!” Xanzu shouts and points with his right hand as they arrived near the gate “Take out that drow bitch!” The trio of babau loped toward Dhenziira. Xanzu then looks upon the great gargoyle and his eyes flash with recognition “Fallivax! You angel’s whore!” Xanzu growls.

“Ah Xanzu, you bloated frog…oh my old enemy, I have missed you. Come toad let thisss be our final battle.” Fallivax taunts. And with those taunts a scythe of burning black flame appears in his upper pair of hands and a shimmering dagger of black flame appears in each lower hand. Xanzu roars like a dragon and launches himself through the air.

The two black hued babau charge toward the drow woman with their claws extended. However seemingly out of nowhere a massive figure appears, the bald, gray skinned giantess armored in rune-scribed plate and armed with a gigantic axe and surrounded by the bound, incorporeal souls that writhe and wail in silent torment. The giantess swings the massive axe in a downward arching strike and catches the left-most babau just under the rib-cage splitting it in twain, the axe continues toward the other babau, but seeing the death of its kindred it dodges to the right avoiding the great blade.

Yemnon a mere yard behind the others screams “NO!'' At his lieutenant’s sudden demise and changes his trajectory toward the giantess, taking a running jump Yemnon is able to latch upon the giantess’s armor and in a second is climbing and then swinging the glaive blade of his pole arm at her helmetless head. The blade slices deep, slicing her right ear completely in half. The giantess roars in pain, a horrid booming screech, and catches Yemnon with the back of her mailed right fist, Yemnon tries to roll with the punch but the blow connects, knocking the wind from him even though his demonic flesh is resistant to most of the damage. Twisting in the air expertly Yemnon is still able to land upon his feet.

The remaining black babau charges toward the drow female with its clawed hands opened as if requesting an embrace. The drow puts up her ram-headed staff to block the charge and the babau grabs the staff with both clawed hands and attempts to wrest it from her. The babau then tries to head butt the drow with the sharp horn growing from the back of its demonic skull. Aiming for the drow’s throat or face, the horn skids off of her ram horned black helm and slams into her under her left collar bone. The skull-lord’s mail holds turning a grievous piercing gore into a merely punishing bruising strike. Dhenziira snarls in pain and curses: “demon bastard!” And with surprising strength pulls the staff out from the babau’s hands, she then follows with a punishing strike of her own, fracturing the demon’s right cheek-bone. The stunned babau stumbles away grabbing its face. But instead of following and finishing off the demon, Dhenziira paused to send a telepathic pulse: Lord-commander! The gate is under assault! Return post haste! A second passes and Dhenziira receives his reply: Lady skull-lord. We are ready to reinforce the column and they are sorely pressed. Dhenziira annoyingly retorts: Immaterial lord-commander! If the gate falls this assault is over and the mortal fools may miss their chance to assassinate our master’s greatest enemy. Return NOW! Dhenziira nearly shouts this out loud. I will obey…but many of my kindred will fall because of your incompetence…came the ghoul’s cold, acidic and very surprising reply. Putting the rebellious ghoul lord out of her mind…for now, Dhenziira mutters in abyssal an incantation that invokes the divine power of the prince of the Undead which greatly increases her lethality in battle.

Xanzu tears into the vrolikai with claw and fang and both demons roll across the ground, this made Fallivax’s scythe almost impossible to use, but Fallivax stabs at Xanzu with his black flaming daggers repeatedly as well biting and stinging at Xanzu’s scaled hide. The demonic flesh of both foes is mostly proof against the others' attacks – one of the reasons that the two foes had failed to vanquish the other throughout eternity. However, Fallivax’s black burning blades were beginning to leech vitality from Xanzu’s flesh. Xanzu knew he had to act and act quickly, so he bit into Fallivax’s right wing with his great frog-like jaws and latched onto the same wing with both black-taloned hands. He then tore down and to the left with all of his strength and the bat-like wing ripped from the creature’s back. Fallivax shrieks in agony and strikes out desperately with his scythe catching Xanzu fully across the chest in a vicious slash, drawing an arcing fountain of greenish-yellow demonic ichor.

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The lord-commander ground his eel-like teeth in frustration. Damn that drow bitch! Damn the order of the Horned Goat! And damn this attack! Why were his troops drawn from their world to battle on an abyssal battlefield against legions of demons? The flower of darakhul soldiery was being crushed in this meat grinder – and for what? So some mysterious squad of assassins or heroes or whatever, could strike at the Prince of Demons? NONSENSE! The White Kingdom will take decades to recover these losses. And now the damn drow bitch would have him abandon even more darakhul? BAH!

“Sub-commander.” A younger heavily armored younger warrior approached and saluted.

“Lord?” he replied with genuine fear and respect – which is how it should be, the lord-commander thought with a satisfied smirk.

“We have been ordered back to the gate. Our illustrious and oh so competent lady skull-lord is under siege and we must return. However, she did not say that ALL of our forces must return, so I will take two-thirds of our infantry and return at a forced march. You will take the remaining one-third as well as the hounds and remaining beetles except for my command beetle and link up with our brethren. Cover their withdrawal to the gate. If needed, sacrifice the hounds to cover your escape. I do not want a rout, but an orderly withdraw.” He explained.

“By your command lord-commander.” His subordinate responded as the lord-commander turned to go.

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Xanzu jumped back and hissed in pain. He cursed through clenched teeth: “You archon fucking molester of corpses!” The scythe had cut deep, very deep. Worse, like the burning daggers the scythe tore at Xanzu’s life force. Xanzu knew that this drain was most likely temporary, but at this rate he would be weakened and an easy target for his foes. He still held Fallivax’s wing in his hands. Before Fallivax could react Xanzu battered him with his own wing and screamed: “FUCKER!”

As this was happening Yemnon used his superior dexterity to try to confound the giantess, however she was more than a mere brute, this one. And while Yemnon was able to land several painful and deep strikes he spent most of his time avoiding the huge and deadly axe. Yemnon attempted to dodge behind the giantess but that was a move she had anticipated, she swung her great axe in a two-handed killing arc catching him in a bisecting blow. However Yemnon was able to move in the last instant losing only his right arm as the axe sheared it from his body midway through the bicep. Even more astonishing was his ability to follow through with his attack even one handed as he tore the supernaturally sharp glaive through the death giant’s calf and her black blood flowed freely.

Meanwhile the last black hued babau was losing his contest against the drow priestess – oh to be sure he had landed several telling blows with his acid drenched claws, but he was on the defensive. The babau executed a daring flip over the drow’s head and attempted to rake her from behind with its 8” long, acidic jelly dripping talons. However, even its iron hard claws failed to find purchase on her finely crafted and enchanted chain armor. Dhenziira turned and screamed a prayer to the Prince of the Undead in abyssal: “Oh great Demonic Prince of Unlife! Patron of liches and beloved of ghouls! Smite my foe with the powers of unlife, oh Lord of the Last Word!” and thrust her open left hand palm first into the demon’s chest. A great wave of necromantic energy washed into the babau and he screamed in utter agony as great bleeding rents formed throughout his flesh and he fell to his knees. He attempted to crawl away backward as Dhenziira advanced upon him, her ram’s headed and rune-carved staff trailing black energy. She paused when she heard the explosion off to her left and witnessed four massive overlapping balls of fire obliterate a block of the darakhul warriors and both beetles! She spied a handsome, dark-haired and bearded human man dressed in blue and green raiment. An arcanist of some sort, most likely a wizard, and from the looks of it dangerous as more than two-thirds of the darakhul troops were already destroyed.

This was what the maimed babau was waiting for as it used its powers of teleportation to flee for its life. The drow noticed this and swore: “cowardly son-of-a-bitch!” No matter, she thought, she had bigger spiders to squish. She shouted to the death giant: “finish that dancing bastard! We must destroy the hezrou and then that human!”

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I downed the healing draught, it stopped the worst of the bleeding and dulled the burning agony down to a mere sharp pain – I still had an iron bolt in me, and that had to come out.

Now to the task at hand, the remaining ghouls thought to save themselves from me did they? I retrieved a rune carved pearl from my girdle and used its power to recall one of the spells of lightning that I had used to such effect. I also grabbed a pouch of the needed components and targeted a ghoul that I take to be a leader or officer of some type. I shout the words in draconic and release the spell again, the bolt strikes the first warrior and arcs out causing over a dozen of the remaining ghouls to explode and cook. The surviving ghouls – those fortunate enough to be out of the lightning’s effect – scatter many of them in full retreat.

I now turn to assess the situation at the gate proper, I see one of the black babau cut into two halves, the other babau is gone…Yemnon is missing an arm yet fights on with his glaive against a grey skinned giantess in black plate armor armed with a massive axe. She is surrounded by a swirling fog – I look upon her with my mage sight and I am taken back! The vast amounts of necromantic energy surrounding the giant is incredible! And that is not fog that surrounds her but…souls…mortal souls! That is when I see a smaller black armored figure approaching her. This one is wearing a ram horned helmet and carries a similar adorned staff – this must be the drow, the ‘skull lord’ that Vallex had told us of. What was worse was she was obviously communicating with the giantess and gesturing to me! Then I noticed that Xanzu was engaged in a struggle against a great vrolikai demon. One of the vrolikai’s wings was laying on the ground and it had several other serious wounds, however it seemed to be gaining the upper hand, the vrolikai had a black burning scythe and two burning daggers that literally glowed with negative energy and I could see Xanzu weakening before my eyes as his blood and vitality oozed from numerous wounds and as I watch in horror as Xanzu sunk to one knee and the vrolikai demon raises the scythe for a killing strike! ‘XANZU!” I hear myself scream as I quickly intone the words to a divination that greatly improves my aim, normally the basest of spells, I have enhanced this spell to be cast far faster than normal. After this I strike out with another of my favorite spells: a 3” globe of blue magical force, this one I have enhanced to strike with maximum power. The orb streaks from my hand and strikes the great gargoyle-like fiend directly in its face. Shattering the demon’s upper and lower jaw and causing it to stumble backwards dropping its weapons – which promptly vanish – as the demon drops to both knees before it falls face forward apparently dead.

I then turn my head quickly as I heard another scream – this from the skull-lord as she begins to cast a spell of her own. I feel a sudden dread as I recognize another orb spell – this one made of solidified sound which streaks at me at great speed. Again my magical displacement fails me and I am struck with great force. I am knocked off my feet and as I land – hard – my body aching from head to toe, I realize two things as I lift myself upon my elbows. First, the skull lord is not merely a priestess or shaman, but also an arcanist of some kind, and second, my wounded side is bleeding freely again.

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Dhenziira saw the blue orb fly with killing force from that damnable wizard and strike Fallivax in the face nearly crushing his skull. “NNNNOOOO!!!” Dhenziira screamed in rage. Fallivax had been bound to her for centuries. The human bastard would pay! She would cut his balls and member off and insert into his screaming mouth before she killed him! Then she would raise his still warm corpse as undead so it could wonder for centuries with its own genitalia in his mouth! Dhenziira fired an arcane orb of her own at the human mage. This one made of sound instead of pure magical force pierced his defenses and the orb of sound struck true. Knocking the damned bastard from his feet.

Dhenziira then advanced upon the mage at a run, for even though he was down, Dhenziira had seen he was a potent adversary as the nearly hundred dead ghouls could confirm. She would bash the bastard’s head in.

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The lord-commander sat atop his undead war beetle and moved at a fast pace with hundreds of his darakhul warriors at his flanks and rear moving at a double time. As he approached the clearing several ghouls were running toward them seemingly at a panic pace. He stopped the force and leapt from his beetle grabbing the first one and him pulling down. “What has happened? Why do the warriors of the White Kingdom run so?” He growled.

His presence and his words had an immediate effect as they stopped and stood at attention.

“Lord-commander! We are undone!” The hapless warrior stammered.

“Undone? Explain yourself!” He nearly shouted.

“A great battle mage! He appeared from nowhere! And rained lightning and fire down upon us!” The ghoul nearly whined in fear.

The lord-commander knew that his troops had battled magi and clergy of various militant faiths many times, they did not panic easily. After all, the greatest foes of the White Kingdom were the drow and duergar. Both were known for their battle casters. “And your fellows?” He asked, anticipating the response.

“Most have fallen lord.” The warrior said solemnly.

The lord-commander growled deep in his throat, which evolved into a rage-filled snarling rasp “Damn that drow bitch! ‘Skull-lord’ or not, damn that bitch! Damn this stupid invasion! We will charge straight ahead! Send runners to the siege of Lemoriax. I want all troops to return here. A pox on those still living heroic fools and their move against the Prince of Demons. I will not lose any more warriors to provide cover for creatures that are mere cattle! We return to the White Kingdom!” He shouted as he climbed back upon his beetle.

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Xanzu fell to one knee and looked up into Fallivax’s grinning face. His foe smiles as he hefted his scythe for a killing blow, “Finally. Finally you muscled-headed croaking frog I will be rid of you. I will take your corpse and have my slavesss’ human livestock void their stench on you.” Fallivax sneered.

Suddenly a small blue object stuck Fallivax in the face – right where his nose and mouth would meet – the moment seemed to stretch out as Xanzu watched his foes’ face cave in from the massive impact. Fallivax dropped first to his knees and then face forward, obviously dead. Brain, bone and blood spread around from his ruined head.

“Well…how about that…” Xanzu giggled as he looked up. Xanzu then experienced two emotions that he never had felt before: gratitude – for it was obvious to him that it was the wizard’s spell that had saved his life – and fear. No, not fear for himself, nor fear of failure. But fear for the life of another, as he saw a fast moving ripple go from the drow and strike the mortal wizard…hard…”Little Mage!” Xanzu roared as he realized he was nearly helpless to intervene due to Fallivax’s damned draining scythe. He then did the only thing he could, he pulled the totem of negation from its prison and slammed it into the ground… the totem of negation exploded in a powerful blast of abjuration magic. All things not secured were tossed away with vast force, including creatures – both living and dead. The gateway actually shattered as if it were some vast floating mirror and its shards quickly dissipated into dust and the area was filled with a low hum.

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Yemnon faced off against the giantess ready to dodge her next attack. Just then a black figure appeared behind her – the remaining babau had returned! It was grievously injured and carried a short black iron spear. It wanted revenge for its twin’s death and stabbed the giantess’s right calf. Unfortunately she had noticed the babau and swung her axe behind her catching the demon before it could dodge. The awkward rearward swing split the babau from groin to sternum, ending it almost immediately. Yemnon saw a vapor escape from the other demon’s mouth and join the other silently shrieking souls! This only served to enrage him even further and as the giantess turned toward him he tumbled toward her and launched himself off her left knee striking one-handed with his glaive. The blow struck true and the blade went into her left eye, Yemnon’s momentum pushed the blade through the eye, the socket and then deep into the brain beyond. The giantess was dead before Yemnon landed on his feet.

Yemnon went to retrieve his weapon when it hit…an invisible explosion of force, which knocked him from feet and cast him away like a leaf in the wind. He hit the ground and lay there stunned and unmoving.

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I stood just in time for the charging drow to smash her staff into my left side and knock me back down. I felt several rips crack under her blow. Worse, the hit jarred my injured side even worse. “Bastard!” she screamed at me. “Gods-damned-bastard-son-of-an-eight-legged- bitch!” She shrieked. Despite the pain I was in I had to admire her vocabulary.

She readies to strike me once more but I was an instant faster. I reach out as I utter a quick arcane phrase in draconic and blast my would-be killer with a burst of telekinetic energy, she is flung with bone crushing force away from me. Then all of a sudden I feel rather than hear the rushing of a vast wave. I look back to the gateway and I am hit with a tsunami burst of arcane energy. As I fly through the air I absently mindedly note that the drow has been caught in it too. I hit the jungle floor and all goes black.

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The lord-commander’s troops charge into the clearing. More than 400 darakhul warriors. The gateway was gone and the area has been devastated. The lord-commander orders: “secure the area. If you find the skull-lord, bring her to me.” He commands darkly. “I am willing to bet that we can deactivate that device and possibly re-establish the gate again”. He mutters softly to himself. “That drow bitch will prove useful in determining and achieving that. And if she cannot? Well, it’s been too long since I dined on screaming drow meat”.

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I come to and stand up painfully. The gate is no more, undoubtedly the ‘explosion’ was the totem of negation. I look around and notice Yemnon, he has been gravely injured and is missing his right arm above the elbow. He limps toward me. Of his two lieutenants, there is not a sign. I scan to the left and I am relieved to see Xanzu, he is slowly rising from his hands and knees.

That is when I hear them and spin around, my side erupts with pain and I nearly swoon. Entering the clearing there are several hundred more darakhul, at least four times more than I slew before. I take a quick mental inventory: I still have many killing spells and defensive enchantments. I also have several items of power I could bring to bear. Oh, I can reap a fearsome harvest amongst these darakhul. A fearsome harvest indeed. However, every breath I take causes me pain. I am sure several ribs on my left side are at least cracked. There is an iron barb which pierces my right side. I am bleeding freely. Xanzu and Yemnon are likewise injured.

I come to the conclusion that even Vallex and her 50 saurian warriors could do little but delay the warriors advancing upon us – they begin to spread into irregular formations, so this commander is no fool. I must use my trump card, it is hard to control in the best of times, but as injured as I am now? Yet I see no alternative. I clear my mind and begin to chant the words of calling. “I call thee to me spirit of wrath and vengeance! Avenger of a murdered tribe, I demand ye come hence. In the name of Golden Bird and Black Coyote. Manifest to me now!” Brick red mist comes from nowhere and everywhere, it forms into a horrifying figure: fully eight feet tall with brick red skin, jet black hair and sharp features. It is clad in tanned animal hides and wears an elaborate headdress of white and brown feathers. Its face is painted with blue and black lines and runes. It slowly opens its mouth and I can hear the multiple screaming voices in the distance. Yet it’s the eyes, its eyes of burning hatred that is what causes me to shiver in fear. “I command you once again warrior. Look to the warriors in the distance. The eaters of the dead. They have destroyed countless innocents. Feel their horror. Be their avenger.”

At my last word it draws forth a stone knife and primitive hand axe. It then advances upon the ghouls with a speed that I can barely describe – all I see is a reddish blur. A second later the first darakhul is gutted, and then its skull is caved in. Before it falls to the ground the second ghoul’s head falls right behind it and the slaughter begins in earnest. The left flank of the advancing darakhul begins to falter as more and more ghouls are maimed and killed.

The situation then grows more desperate for the ghouls as Vallex’s saurian warriors strike the right flank. A moment later a great spinning wall of obsidian blades erupts in the darakhul ranks – that is when I realize that Vallex is also there and that she is indeed a potent weaver of divine magic.

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Dhenziira watched the bastard wizard rise and noticed the one armed red babau and the huge, heavily muscled hezrou walk toward him. Who was this bastard human? Did he control such powerful demons? This was no easy feat, Dhenziira knew. She was a practitioner of both the divine and the arcane arts and she was an accomplished binder of demons as well. No matter, she thought, he is a bastard and soon he would be a dead bastard. Dhenziira prepared to unleash a column of profane fire down upon her foes. But it was at that moment the bastard wizard summoned a spirit of power and rage – she had never seen the like and it filled her heart with dread.

Dhenziira pulled a small, metallic tuning fork from her pouch and prepared to shift back to the prime. She looked at the bastard wizard again and spoke aloud even though he could not hear her: “I am going to kill you. Oh not today, probably not tomorrow. But someday, you will pay for this humiliation.” With that she intoned the phrases in abyssal and returned back to her home world.

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The Wrathful Brave tore through the ghouls like wildfire, it moved with a speed akin to the fastest wind and left torn and bleeding bodies in its wake. The undead warriors, veterans of a thousand campaigns, could form no defense against the screaming avatar of death that bore down on them and the left flank began to crumble.

Growling in frustration the Lord-Commander hefted his flail, crafted from an alloy of various sky metals and enchanted with the elemental powers of fire and ice, the flails head seemed to leak a thick steam the moment he growled a command word in the blasphemous darakhul tongue. NOTHING had gone well on this campaign. He had spoken against it to the great ghoul-lords of the White Kingdom but the senior clergy of the Order of the Horned Goat had united against him and the ghoul-lords were swayed by their religious prattle. Involving his legions in this abyssal affair was a fool’s errand! Being placed under the command of that insipid drow bitch was an insult! Now some thing was destroying even more of his army. He advanced forward toward it to meet his destiny…

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As I said before, controlling the Wrathful Brave was draining even at the best of times – while injured as I was? I could barely keep my footing. I reached for another healing draught from my magical haversack but my hands shook so I could hardly bring it to my lips.

Xanzu saw this and actually seemed concerned. “Little Mage? You are grievously injured…”

I laughed as my knees buckled…concern? From a demon? This was my final thought as everything faded to black.

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Hefting his flail in his right hand, and with his shield, the legendary Morrdigan’s Bulwark, strapped upon his left arm, the Lord-Commander makes his way against the rushing flood of retreating warriors. He does not try to rally them, but continues forward with grim determination. It is this fatalistic rage mistaken for bravery by first one retreating ghoul, then a second, then a dozen that halts their mad rush. Almost silently they formed behind their general. The Lord-Commander says nothing, but the feeling of pride he feels is nearly enough to dispel his doom laden thoughts. He leads his warriors forward, and then he sees it – a tall, dark-red colored apparition of doom standing amongst scores of destroyed darakhul warriors. Their eyes meet and it gives a multi-voiced wail of despair and for the second time tonight the Lord-Commander knows horror…however, he steels his undead heart and charges screaming “FOR THE WHITE KINGDOM!” with dozens of his roaring kindred at his back.

He sensed rather then saw the creature as it charged toward him at a blur, and relying on instincts sharpened during more than a millennium of warfare he swung his flail in a great straight armed horizontal arch – and felt a burning agony as the right side of his face was shorn by a preternaturally sharp stone hand-axe in a downward chop as his flail tore through the creature. The horror screamed one last fading multi-voiced cry and melted like fog in the morning sun. The Lord-Commander nearly stumbles, overbalanced by the flail’s momentum and his warriors stop in a stunned silence. Once it registers that their foe has been slain the assembled ghouls break out in roaring cheers – all except the Lord-Commander, he examines the extent of his injuries: his right ear is ruined – most of it lays on the ground at his feet – and he has trouble seeing from his right eye. Also he is sure his right cheek is shattered. If he was still a mortal man he knows that his injuries would fill him with crippling agony.

The Lord-Commander turns to his closest subordinates: “Reinforce the right flank and cover their withdrawal. Let this scum have their victory. This is not our war and it never was. We will link back up to the rest of our forces and we will take the fey gates. If necessary we will force our erstwhile faerie allies to return us to the White Kingdom.”

Part VI: The Aftermath:

I awaken in a large, simple and yet comfortable bed. I am still very tired and my mouth is dry. I try to rise and my head swims. I lay back down. That is when I notice – my clothes and equipment are gone! Also that my numerous wounds are healed – the area on my right side where the iron bolt pierced me is only a small white puckered scar. My aches and pains are gone. Including the fractured ribs.

I hear movement and lift my head to see Vallex smiling down at me with her powerful golden eyes. She has shed her odd armor and is clad in black and red robes.

“So you are back from the land of the nearly dead.” This is a statement and not a question. And she smiles her alien smile at me. I think that is the smile a mouse must see as the serpent nears.

I try to speak but my voice is a mere croak “Where am..?”

“Where are you? My personal fortress. It was the best place to ensure you were comfortable. And before you ask, three days. You were near death when Xanzu brought you to me.” Vallex disappears from my side for a second and then returns with a chalice.

“Here drink this. It will help you regain your strength.” She informs me. I drink the offered liquid, it is green and tastes of mint. I notice that Vallex’s robes are open in the front and her smile is even more lustful than it was mere moments ago. Before I can object a strong pleasant smell washes over me. I cannot place the smell, but it is intoxicating and I breathe it in deep. A second later my mind and body are on fire.

“No pesky demons to save you this time, eh?” Vallex says with her golden orbs boring into me.

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“You could not control yourself, could you Little Mage?” I wake with a start to the fearsome sight of Xanzu standing above me. I have seen many strange things, but never a bull frog with a mirthful smirk on his face. “Does the shaman have scales on her gate? How did that feel? I assume it was rough on your battering ram?” Xanzu asks me, his lewd smile growing. I feel my cheeks redden. “Oh stop blushing! Get your clothing and gear. It was repaired and cleaned”. Xanzu laughs and leaves me to dress. I look around, Vallex is nowhere to be found. I am both angry and embarrassed at what has transpired. Vallex had no right to take such ‘liberties’. I inventory my gear, it is all here. I dress and use minor magics to make myself presentable. When I am finished, I enter the hallway. Xanzu is waiting for me.

“One last thing Little Mage Since the shaman is a hermaphrodite. Did you fuck her, or did she fuck you?” Xanzu’s grin widens.

I round on him: “Oh stop it! You know that Vallex used her ‘musk’ or ‘pheromones,’ or whatever on me! Why do you insist on chiding me?” I yell.

“Because. By a succubae’s teats, it’s damn well funny! Ha! That’s why.” He responds clapping his huge hands together once. “But enough mirth for now. I must take you again to see my master lord-general Bogromar.”

This certainly peeks my interest. Finally, I may get what I seek. As Xanzu reaches for me to take me along via his teleportation he states flatly: “I bet you fucked each other didn’t you?” Before I could respond we were whisked away.

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Dhenziira the Kinless arrived back on her Prime Material world. She then quickly teleported to her hidden sanctum. She was distraught, she had failed in command of the darakhul army given to her by the Prince of the Undead…and she knew the price of failure. It was then she realized that there was something else in her sanctum besides her undead guardians and herself. She turned to look at her right shoulder and it was there: a towering, jet-black giant with demonic features, including a huge pair of ram-like horns and four arms – the top set of arms ending in massive blades. A nightwalker! Dhenziira prepared a spell in her mind as she called out to her closest – and most powerful – undead bodyguard: “defend me!”

The nightwalker moved with blinding speed. In fact, Dhenziira wasn’t sure that it moved at all. Perhaps it just appeared closer to her with some form of teleportation magic as it gripped her by the throat with its lower left hand and effortlessly lifted her off the ground? The nightwalker pointed at the charging undead guardian and it stopped in its tracks – twitching in rage and frustration.

The nightwalker then spoke to her in a sepulchral voice that was as much in her mind as her ears: I would hate to dessstroy that one…I wasss alwaysss impressed by it… the figure he indicated was a heavily muscled humanoid well over 7’ tall and weighing at least 300 pounds. It was obviously stitched together from multiple corpses of powerfully built men. Many would assume that this was a mere flesh golem. However, the necromantic runes burned into its yellowing skin and the rune-scribed black ‘ice’ teeth which burned with a black light and released vents of black steam hinted at its power. The cadavers used to create this blasphemous creature were those of a holy knight and his warrior retainers. They were slain by her and Fallivax…

“Fallivax?! You still live?” Dhenziira said surprised.

In a way yesss… Fallivax’s tone grew much more amused. The Prince of the Undead has ssseen fit to allow me to continue my ssservice to hisss glory.

“And your first service is to execute me?” Dhenziira said grimly.

Execute you? You misunderssstand me…oh dear Dhenziira. I am not here to execute you…

“But I failed. The assault was a failure! The darakhul horde undoubtedly was destroyed!” She protested.

Failed? And what makesss you think the Prince of the undead cared about thisss attack? The darakhul warriorssss were sssacrificed to prove the White Kingdomsss loyalty to the Prince. A loyalty which had been in doubt. The other forcesss committed by him were lessssser undead hordesss and several legionsss of half-breed ssscum.

“And the mortal assassins? These so called heroes?” Dhenziira asked.

The mortalsss had no chance of victory againssst the Prince of Demonsss. Our massstersss mossst hated foe isss a mossst potent being indeed. It wasss a foolsss hope at bessst. Now thossseee who launched thisss attack are in our Masterssss’ debt. No Dhenziira, I am not here to execute you. However, I am no longer your bonded ssservant either. No, I am here to mentor you. For the Prince of the undead expectsss great thingsss from you…

“Great things? What sort of things?” Dhenziira felt the worm of hope burrow inside of her heart – until she remembered the proverb that hope was merely the first step on the road to disappointment.

The human wizard, the one that slew me as I wasss ready to finissh off that great toad Xanzu…

“Yes. That bastard!” Dhenziira snarled with true venom.

Yesss he will create ripplesss in the currentsss of fate…sssuch ripplesss, and you will be there, to either oppossse him or maybe even asssissst him…only time will reveal that…

“Assist him!? That bastard! I do not understand…” Dhenziira said in a confused tone.

It isss not your place to undessstand Dhenziira, but to obey. But when it comes to underssstanding the whimsss of fate? Neither do I dear Dhenziira…neither do I…

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I expect to go back to the impossibly high tower, but we arrive in a vast darkened chamber. I quickly look around and then I notice that Xanzu is as surprised as I. “Lord Xanzu, where are we?”

“I do not know Little Mage. But prepare yourself. I think we may be in danger”. He replies.

That is when I notice them, two more Marilith demons, like the red haired beauty that gave us the totem of negation. However these were geared and clad for war. The first was a statuesque blonde haired woman with a red and black ringed serpent’s tail, she was clad in black plate and chain armor and was armed with a variety of axes and swords each was a masterpiece of the killer’s art. The second had jet black hair, shining and tied in a long braid. Her skin was pale white, and her eyes were black on black voids. She has a sandy brown serpent’s tail, with several diamond-like markings. She is also clad in black armor identical to her ‘sister’. Unlike her sister, she is wielding a great two-handed battle blade that burned with fire. In her middle set of hands she bears a matched pair of spiked maces and she has a wand in each bottom hand. I scan them both with my mage sight – and I am nearly overwhelmed. Both demons are covered in an overwhelming collage of magical auras. Some are from the weapons they bear, others from the armor. And others were from the spells that were intertwined upon them.

The light in the room slowly increased and then that is when the true scope of where we were was revealed. There were eight other heavily armed and armored Marilith demons as well as a massive, winged humanoid that burns with a blazing flame and is armed with a sword that glowed with the powers of chaos and darkness – which I could see even without my mage sight. A dreaded Balor! One of the demi-nobility of the abyss. However, all of this paled compared to the being that dominates this chamber. I had thought that nothing else could overcome me more than the sight of Bogromar – I was wrong…

If Xanzu was a candle in the darkness, and Bogromar was a torch…this was a raging inferno. The being that stood before me was definitely the sire of Bogromar. Fully twenty feet tall, a biped, it is a cross between a reptile, an octopod and an ape. It has twin heads, each is that of a vicious, snarling mandrill with an electric blue nose ridge and bright red nostrils. The eyes are glowing golden yellow orbs filled with rage, intelligence and malevolence in equal measure. These heads top long serpentine necks which lead down to the bipedal body. The upper part of this body has the same dark olive-colored fur as the mandrill heads which then leads into reptilian scales of a slightly browner shade then the fur. Each arm is an octopoid tentacle. However, I can merely describe the being’s physical presence. My words fail me – I cannot describe how being near it makes me feel. For this is the Prince of Demons, the Sibilant Beast, known as Ahmon-Ibor in ancient texts, and to the modern multiverse as Demogorgon.

Xanzu prostrates himself on the ground. “I praise you, for you are my master’s master!” Xanzu’s voice quivers – in fear, excitement, both?

The Prince of Demons, turns his left head to regard Xanzu. He then speaks in a voice like the blast of a volcano. “And you are our clone-son’s slave. Arise mighty Xanzu. You have served us well and may stand before us.” With that both heads turn their faces to regard me. It is something that I could not imagine, facing that twin gaze. “And you. You are the human mage, who would come before us and demand favors? To bargain as we were but common merchants?” The right head says to me. I stammer and cannot answer. Then something even more incredible happens. It is if time stands still, all around me the other beings are immobile as statues. Only the Prince of Demons and I exist in this eternity between the seconds.

Greetings mortal wizard, long we have foreseen this meeting. I hear twin voices booming within my mind. I thought my consciousness was shielded from unwanted mental contact…I was wrong. But how could the Prince have known all this would happen?

Yes. Your mortal magic is no proof against us. Not here at the heart of our sanctum, the seat of our power. But do not be surprised at the depths of our knowledge. Demons and dark forces have whispered to us about you. Indeed we have known of you before your grandfather’s birth. You possibly have a great destiny human. A great destiny indeed. And we have the power to give you that which you seek – eternal physical life. This is the beginning of your path mortal…to this end we have manipulated much to engineer this meeting. For it was we who ensured the serpent mage’s tome came into your possession. It was also we who gifted Xanzu’s true name to the demonancers, and it was we who modified Xanzu’s mind to feel those rarest of demonic qualities: friendship and loyalty for you.

I can only wonder what such a boon will cost me great lord? I know such things come at cost.

Indeed human, indeed. But before we discuss the price. Let us discuss the product. There are three methods to achieve that which you seek. The first is Undeath. The path of the lich. This is the lie that the fat, bloated slug Orcus would feed to you. The second is the shadow. The path of the Shade. This would allow the realm of shadows to flood your body…and your soul. Eventually you would no longer be yourself. The last is the path of the green stone elixir. In time the green stone will transform your body but your soul and mind would still be your own. We have foreseen probabilities where you have taken each of the paths – therefore the final one you choose is up to you. As to the price? In a time centuries from now – maybe even millennium – an enemy of ours will try to escape his prison. The glories of those who have imprisoned him have faded into the past. They will not be able to prevent this or to defeat him if he has escaped. We have foreseen that he will escape on your world and that it will be you directly or indirectly that will lead to his downfall. We cannot act against this enemy. Our attention would attract the attention of others and restart an ancient war that we wish to avoid. Destroy this once and future foe, or at least prevent his escape at that critical juncture – that and never act against our interests, either directly or indirectly. This is the price we ask of you.

And that is all? I cannot believe your price is so low, great lord.

The things we ask are not as trivial as you seem to think they are human. You see the unlikely alliance against us that you helped to foil? Fey and demon? There were other players involved that you knew nothing about. For while Lemoriax was besieged by land, my own towers Abysm were besieged by sea. And during all of this only the fey committed a sizable force against us at all. Like we said before, for us to act directly against our ancient foe could unite players on a cosmic scale – against us or against others. We do not wish to reignite the great war of Law against Chaos. As to anything else? Yes there is something else we require – if you find other ways to increase your power? You must take it…

Very well great lord. I accept your conditions. I choose the path of the green elixir.

With that time caught up with me, I notice that blood flows from my nose and trickles from my ears. I look up at the Prince of Demons. His twin headed stare still bores into me. It is then that I realize the knowledge I require is in my mind…

“Farewell human. You may leave our presence.” Demogorgon’s left head commands me.

Epilogue:

It has been close to 11,000 years since I made my pact. My beloved empire is no more, destroyed along with many others by mountains from the sky. Mountains called from the cosmos by my greatest enemies the aboleths more than 10,000 years ago. I am not the man I was – in fact I am no longer a ‘man’ at all. The green stone elixir has transformed me. In my true form I appear as a green metal statue. I have become a ‘player on a cosmic scale’. I am the solar warden of this star system – which is a story for another day. I protect these worlds from alien threats, extra-planar invasions and other horrors. I have bargained with demon lords, battled arch devils, allied with angelic warriors and befriended demigods…

Finally it comes, the time for me to honor my promise. A sending of great power from across the dimensions. I open a gate to a neutral location. I step through and wait. A few minutes later another gateway opens. A titanic being steps through followed by a smaller figure.

“By the Dark Prince’s pox riddled cock! Little Mage! It has been WAY too long!” It is Xanzu. He too has changed, he is still a dull, brownish-green in color, but stands over 20’ tall and has the rippling muscles of a titan. His hide is branded with glowing golden and red runes in abyssal and draconic – he also has massive bat-like wings.

“Lord-general Xanzu. It is good to see you again after so long.” That is when I notice the other figure. A graceful yet muscular red humanoid, like Xanzu he has multiple glowing black brands in abyssal and draconic. This figures right arm is crafted of a dark greyish metal, which I recognize as adamantine. It dawns on me who this is: “Yemnon! It is good to see you as well.” Yemnon bows to me. “Lord-wizard” is his simple reply.

“He is lord-captain Yemnon and my aide-de-camp. But unfortunately we are not here to trade stories or discuss old times. You know why we are here little mage.” Xanzu states gravely.

“Please tell me what you know lord-general.” I responded.

“The prognosticators have prophesied that the time is nigh for the return of Miska the Wolf-Spider. He is a pretender to the title of Prince of Demons. And his return would ignite the ancient conflict between Order and Chaos.”

“And the Wolf-Spider will escape to my world…undoubtedly this is because of the region once called the ‘Worldwound’. That area has thinned the planar boundaries.” I respond matter of factly.

“Yes and already his sons, the most powerful of the so-called ‘spyder-fiends’ are there seeking to free him. I take it you have a plan Little Mage?”

“Oh yes. I have just the agents in mind. Powerful, well versed in demonic lore and…well…if need be expendable. I have also, of course, lined up contingencies if they fail.”

“Of course! Ha! I have missed you Little Mage…and I will inform the Prince of Demons of your plans. Oh! And before I depart, your progeny is quite the mage from what I hear.” Xanzu said the last with a mirthful chuckle.

“Progeny?” I ask confused.

“Oh yes – your child with the shaman Vallex.” Xanzu replies.

“How long ago did we battle the ghoul horde?” I ask already expecting a surprising answer.

“I’d say, oh a little over a hundred years.”

“A hundred years?! It has been nearly 11,000 here on the Prime!” I exclaim.

Xanzu shrugged his shoulders “the Mother Abyss, she is a strange bitch Little Mage. You can never predict her – or understand her.”

“Indeed.” I reply thoughtfully.

“Goodbye Little Mage. I will give Vallex and your child – I believe she or is it he? Is named Vorilax – your love. The shaman commands a vast kingdom in the Screaming Jungle now.” Xanzu and Yemnon step back through the open gateway and it closes behind them.

I linger a moment longer – and not first the first time I think of the wonders and horrors I have seen in my long life. Has it been worth it? The power and the glory. But the cost and the…loneliness…

“Yes, goodbye Xanzu you old bullfrog.” I whisper softly to myself. Then brushing off my regrets, I too return to the demi-plane where my sanctum is located for I have much yet to do…there is always much yet to do.

Fantasy

About the author

Michael Mayr

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