Two undead dragons, furious at my exorcism of their kin, bellowed in rage. Ancalagon shook the air of Malebolge with a roar that caused the closest cliffs and stalactites to shatter from the sudden pressure. Somehow, through the racket, I heard Smaug’s accusations, “THIEF! YOU HAVE TAKEN WHAT IS NOT YOURS! A BEHOLDER HAS NO RIGHT TO A DRAGON’S SOUL!”
Telepathically, I thought back a response to the firedrake while Ancalagon’s deafening bellows continued to ruin the surroundings. “Fear not, flame from the north, I will not break down this mighty soul for currency or exchange it like such. I won’t use it for any other sort of base means, either. As we speak, the mechanism within my spirit, an aspect I twisted in myself for this very purpose, is merging my soul with Glaurung’s. Though the felled Father of Dragons shall never return, in body or mind, for my mightier soul shall dominate his and amalgamate it into my being, so that I will become more than a beholder. More than a hybrid fiend. I will become closer to a being of more complete existence than any other. A being closer to divinity.”
At this, Ancalagon stopped his shouting and leaned over Drakeblood Ossuary closely and whispered a violent gust of dracolich hissing, “Necromancy and soul manipulation are not enough, you seek to blaspheme greater than all before! As once a servant of a Dark Lord, I shall not preach of the purity of one’s goals, but I will state that you, Baron of Beholders, will meet your end long before you attain whatever perverse divinity you seek.”
“One doesn’t know until they try,” I mentally retorted. “This has been fun, but I have other souls to acquire, so if you’ll excuse me…” I continued as I rose via gravity-defying magic.
The dragons both scowled at me before Smaug launched themself from their perch in rage, “DIE AND REMAIN AMONG US. YOUR SOUL, NOW PART DRAGON, SHALL REMAIN AMONG DRAGONS!”
At the same time, Ancalagon swung one of their colossal skeletal arms at me from the opposite direction. Swiftly, I shot upward and avoided both attacks. Anacalagon’s arm slammed into the rocky wall just outside of the ossuary. Due to the weakening dealt by the great dragon’s roaring, the huge slam shattered the cliff face, raining down tremendous boulders in a titanic rockslide.
Despite my three-meter diameter, my beholder form was nimble and observant enough to dodge all the falling rocks with ease, though Smaug was not so lucky. The cascade of boulders crashed into the drake and pinned his huge form to the ground of the cemetery. In the chaos, I rose higher and higher, since the shower of stones obscured me from a furious and frustrated Ancalagon.
Soon I was above the wreckage and dragons, free from pursuit thanks to a clever escape. I was tempted to test the new power of my soul’s novel amalgamation of draconic origin, especially against those of the same nature, but I did not wish to risk my goals of conquest on bloodthirsty whims. It was also possible that other dragons would flock to the scene, possibly drawn by the psychic need of their kin or Ancalagon’s immense bellowing. Regardless of what strength Glaurung’s soul added to mine, there was no way that I would be able to overpower a potentially infinite stream of dragons; the most powerful of which can be found in this very Circle of Hell in their dark, cavernous dens of deaths.
However, my journey led me upward, to the Seventh Circle, where I planned to acquire another mighty soul. One near the top of the Seventh, by the rocky shores of a burning lake of blood. Phlegethon would be my guide and was already showing me the way as I ascended. Boiling, steaming, torrents of crimson blood were gushing down in vibrant, red waterfalls. I was approaching the entrance into the lowest tier of the Circle above, where my search for the Third Soul of my plan would begin in earnest.
As I reached the top of the boiling blood waterfall, my form breached into the vastly different atmosphere of the Seventh Circle. I dared not to rise too high, however, for the burning snow of the lowest rung of this layer of Hell was unpleasant upon the flesh. I floated away from the chasm I had just ascended and found myself in the Burning Dunes. The areas all around me were hills and valleys of golden grains; heated dust that caused the air just above to waver in constant mirages that fooled many. But not I.
The sky of this Circle was constantly aflame, for from above drifted down embers of varying sizes. The burgundy stretch above the xanthic piles of scorching sediment was so flecked with fire that I did not relish traveling in my beholder form. It was a mighty body, and was relatively resilient to physical attacks due to its partially ethereal nature. However, the singeing snow of the element fire would stick to my darkmatter slightly, yet frequently, as well as scald my eyes and tendrils.
My main eye, the only open one, traced the boiling blood that was rushing down the chasm near me and I visually followed it up bloody banks leading to the central rung of the Seventh Circle. From here I could see hints of the crooked and cursed trees where suicidal souls were imprisoned in bodies of cracking bark and tormented by hideous harpies. The soul I intended to collect and amalgamate was up in the highest rung of this circle, through this forest, therefore my path was decided.
Teleportation was out of the question, for with so much burning debris in the air I would have ended up with embers inside me upon arriving at my destination. It would scorch me from within. A prospect I decided to avoid and travel the old fashioned way. By levitating at approximately human-walking speed. I briefly thought about my human form, created from a particularly handsome fresh corpse, still recuperating in a safe pocket dimension permanently adjacent to my soul. One only I could access with a combination of a mental key as well as an ocular one. It was about halfway repaired from the damage done by my transformation into my beholder form; my true form. Without it, I would have no vessel capable of traveling the human realms unnoticed. At least, for a while. I blinked away the minute moment of reflection and continued on my journey.
Using my tendrils to form an umbrella, I proceeded uphill along the bloody banks that were steaming aggressively as the scorching sanguine river flowed endlessly. Peering up at my destination, I allowed my gaze to rest on the source of the perilous precipitation high above the treeline: the deep red ceiling that leaked with lava housed by the next Circle up. The Sixth Circle would be my next destination after this, and it would be a nostalgic step in my journey, for it was my home Circle and the layer of Hell that was the natural habitat of my kin, the beholders. My mind wandered to the burning landscape dedicated to punishing the sin of heresy, though my thoughts were snapped back to my present reality as a shadow appeared in the sky above me.
A serpentine shape hissed into view, winged and peering back at me. They circled thrice above me as I progressed up the sandy shores of the Phlegethon. Shortly, however, they dove down to intercept my path. Swiftly they approached, clearly with sinister intent, though not initially hostile. As the great snake landed before me I recognized them as Sagatana, Astaroth’s brigadier general.
Sagatana was a five-meter, long thinly-built snake of half-a-meter girth with the triangular head of a viper. Their head and body were deep yellow and brown, with a chaotic, crossing pattern of white along his back. Wide, wicked eyes glared at me like emeralds. Each with a massive crack running down the center. He had no iris, but only a vividly green sclera that held the slit-like pupils. His wings he beat a few times with leathery gusts before he folded them along his flanks, for his back was occupied by extended vertebrae. Each spike from the base of his skull that ran downwards toward his tail was shaped like a key. The base of each extended spine was round, with a hole, and up from there rose jagged teeth in all manner of directions, though all still looked like functional keys despite their oddness. One of Sagatana’s greater skills was in unlocking nearly anything that could be shut and sealed. This, along with his flight and battle prowess, are some of what made him a suitable choice for Astraroth’s left-hand demon. Only the Great Duke’s right-hand, his field marshal and inspector general Nebiros, outranked him.
“Baron Rahaman, you have greatly angered Lord Astaroth. No amount of souls will fulfill the debt you have dug after killing general Ignita. She was far too useful to my lord to let you live. As you have bested one of our mightiest generals, the Great Duke has left the task of ending your life and collecting your main eye as proof to me.” As Sagatana ended his address, he let his mouth unhinge to reveal two fangs like sabers unfolding from the roof of his mouth. He flexed his jaws and caustic, green liquid dripped forth menacingly into the hot sand.
“Your necromantic venom does not scare me, brigadier general. I am no pathetic soul to be corroded and bent to your will. It is not I who will perish here, though I will at least do you the honour of ending your miserable servitude to the disgusting Astaroth and his horde of malformed, brain-dead peons. In fact, I will do you the GREAT honour of slaying you as one of your kind; with a new form of mine. One forged from a soul I have only just acquired,” I responded, undaunted. Sagatana was indeed a mighty foe, but I was mightier.
Before he could respond, I wrapped my tentacles of dark matter around myself, much like a cloak, and cocooned myself in a void shield. Enraged by my insults and insinuations, Sagatana spat his venom at me, though my nightly aegis let none of the corrupting fluid in. Seeing that his ranged attack would do nothing, he then held back his venom. Unlike many of the mindless minions who served Astaroth, however, he did not blindly strike but instead plotted nastily. Scattered around the region were the frail, crawling forms of withered, partially burning, bare-skinned souls still in human form. Their nearly-mummified bodies creeped, stumbled, or laid flat and roasting upon the Burning Dunes. It was these wretches that Sagatana targeted. To many of them, he went and bit and sprayed them with his necromantic venom. Their forms bubbled and overflowed from all orifices with lime-coloured ichor and their bodies then twisted into uneven hulks of greenish-black humanoid monstrosities that looked more like golems of tainted jade imitating humanity than actual human souls. “With my newest fell regiment I shall crack your shell, Baron, and then I shall feast on the soft meat within!” Sagatana threatened before he hissed a command to his newly created troops to try and bash through my black cocoon.
The malformed monstrosities lumbered forward, each warped and twisted in unique ways; some were leaden-legged and shuffled slowly through the sand while others were top-heavy with arms overgrown with boulder-like tumours coloured like corroded copper. They slammed and smashed at my tentacle cocoon, though they did not have nearly enough time to break through before I shifted into my next form: a new one of draconic identity.
While Sagatana corrupted more human souls into his pawns and plotted, I was changing within my charcoal chrysalis. My spherical form condensed and compressed; it thinned out and elongated. Serpentine I became; like a lengthy bolt of ethereal black satin. I stretched in a spiral to fill the container of my cocoon like a maelstrom of oil filling a vast flask. My central eye, which housed most of my mind, ascended my new body until it reached the neck and formed my new head. A great maroon eye with a golden iris and darkmatter pupil sat upon my front end until my body hissed of ancient energy. The jaws of a drake extended from my neck, teeth-first, from below and above my head-eye. The mandible pressed at the base, stabbing and forcing it upward while my new cranium descended onto it from above, crushing my eye. It became more and more painful until I could bear it no longer and exhaled essence in agony, which released the pressure and allowed my eye to dissipate before immediately flowing into the sockets of my new skull in a wine of blood, light, and darkness that fell into my new orbits as if they were the only place in existence. Consciousness now in place, a shockwave of cognizance emanated from my beholder brain and solidified my new body.
Firstly, my skull rapidly formed layers of obsidian scales which rippled down my body, coating me in the armour of a raging volcano’s stilled memories. A bony frill filled out just behind my skull, formed from bone, and appeared much like the one that once adorned Glaurung’s mane as a natural crown and neck guard: iconically draconic. Next, I felt hundreds of thick, dagger-like teeth grow into my mouth, giving me many novel, minute dirks and hooks in which to snare my soon to be prey. A thicker protrusion of similar nature grew from the end of my snout into a slightly recurved horn like a massive thorn as black as the rest of my body. I gazed with my two eyes, identical in appearance to my original great eye, through my chrysalis. Sagatana was still waiting and watching, though he could not see into my cocoon. His minions still pounded mindlessly, and I relished the thought of destroying them for their insolence before rending their master asunder. Lastly, with rage boiling within me, I felt a gossamer presence upon my right flank, about three meters down my nine-meter body. I looked down and spied a single, ghostly claw. This violet wisp of razor-sharp smoke was joined to my side by a multitude of lilac strings that seemed to be free from gravity’s oppression. I moved it about and found that I could manipulate it in any way I desired and felt every movement, despite the spectral nature of my newborn limb. Too eager to hold back any longer, I flexed my mind and body simultaneously to shatter my shell that was the husks of my former tendrils. My beholder form I could feel within my separate-dimension safe, but now was the time for battle in my new form. One of a great, darknessborne wyrm: a dragon without limbs, save for a single ghostly claw.
The void shell around me erupted, sending black shards like glass shattered at midnight out in an explosion of ripping, piercing, shrapnel. Many of the fell jade-like zombies were knocked to the ground, shredded to pieces. Their green ichor gushed out, hissing in the fire snow and sizzling upon the hot sand.
Crowds of the nearly mindless hulks advanced, though they were no match for me. I thrashed my serpentine body in deathly spirals. My tail lashed a few to pieces and my flanks slammed many into dust. The few unlucky enough to appear before my wicked maw felt my centurion teeth, dozens of piercing spears gouged into stony flesh as if they were clumps of dirt. Holding a malformed soul in my mouth, I glared with eyes burning with violent intent at Sagatana and then threw one of his minions at him.
The rival snake dodged swiftly, though with a hiss that commanded his new legion forth. “Coward!!” I roared at him in a voice much like the one I use in human form, though much deeper in pitch and with a guttural scraping like the sharpest of blades across the densest stones. “I will smash your pathetic horde and then eviscerate you in the wake of their hideous, corrupted bodies!” I promised as I began making good on my word immediately. None of Sagatana’s dull troops posed a threat, though it was clear that the brigadier general was using them to study my movements. However, I revealed nothing save destructive writhing that soon saw the demise of all the twisted human spirits until the entire area was filled with the glowing white orbs of souls without forms to house them. I inhaled them into my being and felt them swell within as they were consumed by my monstrous own core of energy that I had manipulated into a tool worthy of my goals. Unlike others who took souls into themselves, I did not any longer merely store them inside until I could spend them in trade. I had acquired the power to fuse other souls to my own via a tremendous amount of risky experiments I had conducted within my Cocytus bunker of a cottage.
“Your new form may by impressive…” began Sagatana as he peered about the area at the two dozen husks of green and grey, “...but it is that of a basal constrictor. Muscular and heavy, though pathetic in all other regards, it seems.” He then unhinged his jaws to reveal his saber-like fangs once more and sprayed his necromantic venom at me.
I let out a short “Ha!” of derision before shutting my golden eyes and black mouth before the torrent of vivid green fluid hit me with a lame splat. I shook the venom from my form by swinging my frontal portion from side to side. Opening my eyes, I saw Sagatana’s furious expression as his caustic concoction, which was renowned among Astaroth’s legions for its destructive potential, dripped from my obsidian scales onto the shimmering sands with sizzles, though left not even a streak upon my body. “Maybe you should retire from the Great Duke’s military and open a tavern, so that you can at least earn a living slinging your swill instead of wasting my time with it,” I mocked as I slithered forward slowly, menacingly.
At five meters long, Sagatana was greater in size than many, though was thin of body, much like other viper demons. My nine-meter form was near twice the length, and my girth was greater as well; nearly doubled that of his. My significantly greater muscle caused the general to begin backing away as I approached. “Like I’ll let some foolish wyrm overpower me!” Sagatana shouted as he unfurled his wings and took flight. “The aerial advantage is mine!” he spat as he circled above.
Strategically, despite the gap in physical power, he was correct in that he was at an advantage. I followed his swift form as it zipped about the area. I contemplated summoning a minion briefly to ground him, though that would have robbed me of the chance to test my new form properly. In addition, I had not yet learned how to open portals with this body, which would be a concern I would have to deal with later. As I stowed these thoughts, Sagatana began dive-bombing me. Sometimes with feints, other times with passing slashes of his saber fangs or whips from his bladed key-lined tail. However, none pierced even a single of my shade-coloured scales.
On his next pass, I attempted to grab one of his wings with my hungry maw, though his swiftness saved him. He was not deterred from striking and dove at me again; his final mistake, as my jaws exploded open to reveal my maroon throat in my quickest attack yet. I forced my many oral daggers into the general’s flank, which caused him to let out a loud hiss of agony. He attempted to bite me in return, though as he tried, his long fangs could not get a good angle to apply proper pressure. The result was two bone sabers getting caught up on the outer layer of my integument. Instead of hurling him away, like I did his minions not long ago, I forced his face towards my body at a perpendicular angle, which caused his long, trapped fangs to snap like twigs from the immense amount of weight shifting suddenly.
Deep crimson vomited forth from his mouth along with gasps of great pain. He squirmed helplessly in my toothy grip, to which I responded by increasing the pressure between my jaws. Like a bladed press, I bite down upon the general’s form, feeling his flesh give way to my cranial spears. I felt my teeth sink into his soft organs and relished the crunch of his ribs against my jawline. Despite still being alive, Sagatana went mostly limp, though continued to shiver in pure agony as I gnawed and bit and crunched his body until the faintest of whispers escaped his blood-gushing mouth, “Please… end it..”
Overcome with mirth, my jaws swung open to an eruption of laughter as I dropped the once-proud brigadier general onto the hot sand. “With pleasure,” I replied with a mouth full of demon blood that dripped crimson upon my scaly lips and maroon down my throat. I brought my head down so that my nose horn lined up with the underside of Sagatana’s lower jaw, which was pointed sideways. The demon snake was resting on his side, barely breathing and heavily bleeding. With a swift swing, I thrust forth my leading lance and pierced through my rival serpent’s head until the tip of my horn emerged from the top of his skull. A shudder followed by stillness told me that my foe was slain. Withdrawing my horn from the general’s body, I sighed with satisfaction as his soul, a thousand times the luminance of one of the meager human ones, flowed into my serpentine form and empowered me further.
The burning sands around me, now littered with the corpse of a once-powerful viper demon in addition to that of his worthless minions, began to change from their golden hue to one of disgusting green ichor and demonic scarlet blood. I licked my lips with my forked tongue, gulping down the last of Sagatana’s sanguine essence that remained in my mouth, and proceeded uphill once more. As I followed the banks of the burning Phlegethon towards the suicide forests, I contemplated what would come next in my rivalry with a fellow demon lord.
Astaroth was running out of servants powerful enough to take me on. The Great Duke was already feeling the stress from a lack of powerful demons to lead his legions, and now he had lost his brigadier general as well. The only powerful general that remained to him was Nebiros, his inspector general: the one who kept his forces organized and under control while the Great Duke himself plotted and indulged in the foul poisons that he enjoyed sipping like wine. No doubt, this is whom he would send next. And then, after that, he would come for me himself. Nebiros was mightier than Sagatana, though not by much, therefore I was certain that I would not have much more trouble with him. Astaroth himself, on the other hand, was one of the highest-ranking demons in Hell. A lord of lords, the only ones in the underworld who were known to match, or surpass, his power were some, though not many, of the other Dukes as well as the forces of overwhelming infernal power that were the Nine Kings of Hell.
I smiled a wicked smile to myself as I slithered up the hot sands beneath the scorching fire-snow that slid across my obsidian scales harmlessly. I had come very far, in terms of power, since Astraroth’s forces and mine raided the lair of the abyssal dragon whose heart I used to form that key to Drakeblood Ossuary. Experiment after experiment to twist my soul and the merging with that of countless lesser beings had empowered me to the point where I could face most threats in Hell without the aid of my minions. Though, that process itself was won through much hardship as well; isolation through decades of study, agonizing instruments repeatedly dug into my own flesh, and ostracization from my kin who were too foolish or cowardly to aid or acknowledge me. I laughed aloud a hissing, bitter laugh at the fools who now likely still resided above in the Sixth Circle among their many high walls and castles. Just then, a screeching broke me out of my reverie and I noticed that I had reached the apex of the slope that I was climbing and was upon the border of the suicide woods.
Above the treeline, not far where I was, I saw a harpy tormenting one of the trees, all of whom were sentient human souls trapped in twisted, gnarled bodies rooted into the dirt. The lichen-covered loam was made from sludge-like nearly-dried blood that leaked off from the Phlegethon and clumped the xanthic sand to form foul soil. The harpy was pulling at the tree’s highest twigs to cause them to hurt. The tree moaned in sorrow and pain, though was almost drowned out by the constant low groaning of the entire forest that was in perpetual woe. I closed my eyes and listened to the dirge of despair and found it comforting, though it did not hold a candle to the symphonic suffering that the souls trapped in Cocytus sang for me when I was upon its shores near my cottage.
Another sound, vastly different, then intruded upon my senses. The great roar of a panthera demon caused me to open my eyes quickly. My ocular orbs focused just in time to see a void tiger, like a bolt of black and violet, pounced from the forest floor to the tormenting harpy. As their muscular, feline form careened into their prey, the bird demon shrieked, though its ugly voice was cut short as the great cat of darkness sank their fangs into its throat. The tiger landed upon the highest branch of the oak that was being tortured and in a swift head movement, the tiger ripped open the thin neck of the harpy with such force that it was nearly decapitated. Satisfied with the kill, and seemingly not hungry, the void tiger dropped the harpy’s limp form, which fell to the forest floor with a pathetic thump. Now that they were motionless, I noticed that I knew this cat.
I slithered toward them, completely forgetting that they would not possibly be able to recognize me in my current form, and addressed them. “Hail, fellow Dark Lord, Felix of Panthera, Shadow Scribe!”
At this, the void tiger glared at me and growled in hostile response, “Who DARES address me in such a familiar manner?!” They tensed their powerful body and regarded me with the eyes of a predator, one who would suffer no insult on any occasion.
“It is I, Baron Rahaman, of the beholders and of the same Dark Lord Council to which you are Shadow Scribe.” I then recalled that I looked nothing like a beholder and could not use my human form, which Felix would recognize. I tried to shift into my beholder form but felt a spiritual straining; it seemed that my transformation into my wyrm body had taken a toll on my original corpus and it too needed to rest, meaning that I would have to use my words and wits to convince the void tiger before me of my identity, though before I got a chance to explain, my fellow dark lord leaped to an adjacent tree and leered down at me with a fiercer growl than before, which was now crescendoing menacingly.
“These are my woods. I have claimed these acres and will suffer NO trespassers. No hideous harpies nor any other kind of nuisance, but LEAST of all some wretched snake who hisses lies. You are not Baron Rahaman, and I shall make you suffer for besmirching his name,” the tiger ended as he pounced at me without warning.
I stayed still and allowed their feline form to land upon my face. They were roughly the size of my head, though the ratio of our bodies was not a proper metric in which to compare our power as it had been between myself and Sagatana, for Felix of Panthera’s power was both in his strong muscles as well as his keen mind and weight of words. His promise to make me suffer was a curse, the kind that only one who had a mastery of words, a Shadow Scribe, could inflict. And as such, I felt my insides begin to twist as the tiger upon my brow dug his claws beneath the scales of my snout and glared with his piercing yellow irises, immensely similar to my own, into mine and held my gaze as only a true predator could. I attempted to speak, but my tongue was contorted and wedged between many of my teeth; an effect of the Shadow Scribe’s curse.
I felt that I could still thrash if needed, and I tensed my ghostly, singular claw, which was unaffected by the curse that was causing my physical form to suffer. With these two factors, I knew that I could fight, though I had no desire to harm the tiger upon my cranium who had always proven to be a stalwart ally, a dear friend, and a brother. In fact, he was now assaulting me in an attempt to defend my honour against one whom he saw as a liar, invader, and threat to a place that he had decided to call his own.
There was only one thing I could do, and that was to perform ocular magic to communicate since my words could not come from my mouth at that moment. Remembering Glaurung’s wisp-like eyes of smoke and luminance, I induced a similar tactic. I unfocused my eyes and allowed my maroon sclera to bleed out into the air about the area in a dense cloud, forming an opaque screen, which caused Felix to tense apprehensively. My golden irises then each split into three small bulbs, numbering six disks of sunlight that began to spin about my spherical darkmatter pupils in patterns of my mental design. I shifted my pupils to look this way and that, testing, and I found that the lights of the hexforce of orb iris pieces were a decent source of continuous luminance, like golden will-o-wisps. I used my pupils to block the light as desired, and by moving all these ocular elements according to a grand design, I was able to spell out a message in the most simple written language I could think of: Primal Demonic. The majority of the denizens of Hell would not be able to interpret these single-letter words written by the archaic Archdemons during the construction of The Nine Circles. Though, the Shadow Scribe upon me, a master of words of all kinds, would be able to understand.
“Eyes...Speak...Souls...Meet,” was the most detail I could put into the letters of shadow. I internally cursed this form’s lack of telepathy, though Felix immediately saw the meaning of what I had said with my eyes.
“None but a beholder as renowned as Baron Rahaman could possibly communicate in such a manner. ‘Eyes speak’ indeed, brother, just as ‘souls meet’.” Felix of Panthera then released me from both his claws and his curse, which caused me to exhale in relief.
As he leaped to the ground gracefully, I felt my tongue unwind from my teeth and I allowed my eyes to return to their usual state before explaining the recent happenings of my journey to my little brother.