“Well done, Alphonse,” I congratulated my minion. He blinked at me loudly in acknowledgment before returning to whence he came. Into the shrouded blackness of my cloak he lumbered upon his singular, trunk-like leg; pupil relaxed and lids blinking, satisfied from a battle won.
I then looked at the few shreds of armour amidst a cloud of blood in the nearby, screaming waters of the frigid Lake Cocytus. The cold eels, as expected, had made quick work of the general’s body. The Great Duke Astaroth would not be pleased about the lack of payment for the Void Heart and the loss of a lieutenant, but losing a general as well would likely enrage him. With his might and various powers, he was not one to desire as an enemy, though contemplating a duel with him brought a wicked smile to my face. Though, I had little time to entertain the duke, as I had greater plans. Ones of conquest.
As if on some ethereal cue, a realm-vibrating moan came from the centre of the Ninth Circle, from deep within the quasi-frozen lake near whose shores my stone cottage resided. It was like the groan of a tectonic plate mixed with the scream of an angel and the most thunderous crack of lightning. A thin beam of light could then be seen from the same origin. The pressure and force of the shockwave was enough to ruffle my immensely heavy darkmatter cloak, even from such a great distance. The thought was alluring, yet horrible. That sound could only have come from Lucifer himself, the fallen angel and Lord of all the Nine Circles. Trapped as he was in the frozen heart of the underworld, imprisoned, he would sometimes get visitors. Angelic ones, who took it upon themselves to punish their fallen brother every so often for his many crimes against God and mankind.
I dwelled until the wind blew passed and my cloak stilled. Remembering my goal, I departed the scene. I collected my still unconscious experiment over one shoulder and gave Oz, my skeletal butler, instructions to lock up and set security to high, as Astaroth’s wrath was about to become directed solely at me. Leaving through a tear in reality I made with my cloak, I then travelled towards the next phase of my plan.
I now had one of both human and dragon blood in my possession. All throughout Hell, there are places where only ones of certain creeds can enter. Places of rest for all kinds, regardless who dies and enters the underworld. I was headed now to two such places, one then the other, situated above, in Malebolge: the Eighth Circle.
As I stepped into Malebolge, the Eighth Circle of Hell, I allowed my body time to adjust to the difference in gravity, temperature, and light. Feeling lighter, being one Circle higher, I hopped in place a few times with the human body of an experiment still on my shoulder, stretching my legs. It was also far warmer than the shores of the Cocytus below, I couldn’t even see my breath. Though, it was far darker. Without the abundant snow and ice reflecting the natural, although dim, light in Hell, the Eighth Circle was as dark as it could get without being pitch black; like the many crevices and canyons about the lower end of this Ring of the Underworld.
My eyes adjusted and I peered at my surroundings. I had transported myself near my destination, but not within it, for it was guarded by multiple mighty fiends who I dared not risk engaging while at the disadvantage of realm acclimatization.
Malebolge was divided into ten tiers, ten Bolgias, each descending further down until the last surrounded naught but a well of blackness leading to the Ninth Circle. These ten rings of land were like a well into the abyss, for that is what it was. Though, stretching and crisscrossing all about the realm of deep, dark greyness, were many causeways and bridges, which all those incapable of flight used to travel around this Circle. They were organized and built long ago in the shape of a massive wheel, which spanned the great darkness, though parts were shattered and sundered centuries ago from the Harrowing of Hell.
I gazed down at the Tenth Bolgia, left of my perch upon a cliff-situated ramp leading to a broken causeway on the Ninth, but I heard something to my right. I turned and in the distance saw a streak of silver and black racing across a causeway above, skirting along the rim of the Seventh Bolgia. I smiled to myself, easily recognizing a King of Darkness, even from so far away. Though, I had no business with him currently and turned my attention to the causeway opposite the broken ramp. It curved to my right and joined with one connecting to the Eighth Bolgia before angling sharply down to the Tenth. The downward path led to the high-walled cemetery that was my first destination: Drakeblood Ossuary.
But as I began to walk the path to the ossuary, I was confronted by a winged demon soaring down from above. Their dark blue skin and hideous face did not declare their identity, but when they blocked my path and began speaking, I knew they had to be one of the Malebranche, an infamous gang of demons who enjoyed causing grief to all for their own pleasure. “Well, well, well, what do we have here?” They sneered.
The winged demon before me then was humanoid in shape and roughly my height, though that’s where the similarities ended. “There’s a toll for this ramp, pal. Per body, as well! Five hundred souls, each,” they said as they landed a few metres away, holding out their grimy blue hand expectantly. Their dark grey patchwork leather pants were matched by their jacket, which hung open, revealing a variety of glowing red runes tattooed on his chest. He grinned with a predatory smile of jagged teeth, matching his sharp, angular face and features, though the most striking was his long, pointed, goblin-like nose.
“I’m not giving you a single soul, cretin,” I said, rejecting his demand for payment. “Furthermore, I’m getting sick and tired of lesser demons demanding money from me. I’m not even going to kill you in a cool or interesting way, for you are no more than a pebble upon MY path.” Without waiting for a response, I dashed forward before leaping into a jump kick so swiftly that I even surprised myself. Without the immense gravity of the deepest Circle of Hell to check my might, which also made my shouldered luggage lighter, my left foot rocketed forth and connected with a shattering impact against the fiend’s face. With a surprised grunt of agony, the winged one was sent flying backward at a tremendous speed until they collided with a broken highway running across the Ninth Bolgia. Stunned from the severe stop, he then fell, unable to utilize his wings without coherent thought. I followed their form with my gaze, over the edge of the path leading downwards, and saw that they landed in the worst possible place.
With a distant thud, they careened into the shoulder of chained Ephialtes: felled titan turned guard of the Ninth Circle. Angrily, the giant picked up the demon in one hand and glared at the lesser one before bellowing at a horrid volume, “NO ENTRY TO LESSER DEMONS! NOW, BEGONE!”. Furiously, the massive being threw the smaller fiend upwards, which slammed them against the same broken highway as before, though this time their battered body ricocheted in my direction and landed at my feet.
He wasn’t breathing, but that didn’t stop me from poking fun at his misfortune, “I guess I lied,” a chuckle broke forth from my lips before I continued, “that was a FAR more interesting demise than I thought it would be.”
Striding around the corpse I only made it halfway down the causeway leading to my destination before I was interrupted again. More members of the Malebranche descended then to confront me.
Swooping down upon the upper part of the ramp behind me then were a few more members of the Malebranche. I could tell from their similar appearance of patchwork grey leather pants and jackets accompanied by glowing red runic tattoos. Though, they were not identical to the felled one. In fury, one of the fallen fiend’s friend’s stepped forward to address me, “You think you can show up on OUR turf without permission, kill Farfello, and then stride along as if it was nothing?!” Her face was contorted in rage as she screamed. Her lips and around her eyes were piercingly pink, like some sort of otherworldly harlequin.
“I didn’t actually kill goblin-face, that was the work of a chained giant below,” I replied while shrugging nonchalantly. Scratching my chin, I then elaborated thoughtfully, “though I would have without question had he become a further nuisance. Which… makes me wonder...” I turned to face the Malebranche fully and dropped my cargo to the ground, lightening myself. “What are the Malebranche even doing this far down? As I recall, your place is on the Fifth Bolgia. What happened? Did you all get bored of dunking unfortunate plebeians in boiling tar?”
“What’s it to you?” Spoke up another, who began to approach. His long, curly beard was oily and black as if it was coated with the aforementioned tar. “Fret not, Alichino,” he spoke to the bright-lipped demon beside him, “this bastard clearly wandered into the wrong part of Hell and got a lucky shot on our dear departed Farfello. We’ll make him pay!” The bearded one then stretched his wings and lashed his thin, spade-tipped tail before launching himself into the air. “DIE!!” He shouted as he rushed at me from above.
“An impressively foolish decision,” I remarked without concern. Briefly, slightly, ever so quietly, I opened my mind’s eye. The short glimmer of focused energy shot forth from my mind like a white-hot bolt. The shutting of my mind’s eye caused a ripple, in reality, emanating from my forehead, which further sped the travel of the pale, blazing arrow. It pierced the bearded demon’s chest and exited through his back with nearly no lost momentum and shattered violently in an explosion of sparks upon the pavement of this descending causeway. Tangling with a gang of lesser demons, those who didn’t even hold realm-bestowed titles, was little more than tedious, but it had been a while since I flexed my presence in the Underworld properly. Putting a petulant gang in their place for reaching into territory beyond their own would send a sufficient message. A foreshadowing for later stages of my conquest. Following the bearded one’s falling, I engaged the rest with vigour, rushing forward in a swift counter-attack of unbridled violence.
As I pressed forward, up the ramp I was previously descending, I took note of my foes’ number. Smote upon the pavement behind me were goblin-nosed Farfello and bearded Barbariccia. Ahead, the nearest, bright lip and eyed Alichino stood before four other members of the demon gang. In terror at my instant felling of Barbariccia, they all used their flight-born mobility to retreat up the ramp, all the while cursing at me for killing another of their comrades. Needing a way to reach my foes in the air, I summoned a beholder minion through the darkmatter fabric of my dimension bridging cloak.
With a rapid response, Maurice III soared into the realm of Malebolge at my behest. Maurice III, a grandchild of my best scout, was of the species Celebritas vinum. Renowned for their speed, they made the perfect ally in airborne battles. Maurice III was a single-eye-bearing being roughly the size of my torso. His oscillating tentacles, and superior flight magic, were the most efficient means to take to the sky. Grabbing onto his back with my left hand as his fuchsia form whizzed by, we flew upwards. “Let’s deal with the one in clown make-up first,” I suggested, which caused my scout to angle us towards Alichino.
“Clown Make-up?!” She retorted, outraged. Closing the distance far quicker than she expected, I held out my right arm for a simple, yet brutal attack. Flying by at immense speed, I clotheslined the harlequin demon with the force of a comet, snapping her neck before anyone could so much as blink. Cowering now, the other four gangsters retreated further up, pausing briefly at the intersection with a causeway running along the Eighth Bolgia. Though, that was the worst possible place for them to be at that particular moment.
A black and silver meteor careened through the four lesser demons, scattering them across the sides of the road. The streak of violence casually skidded then to a halt, allowing their form to be seen properly. The mount was the chrome-plated skeleton of an elk with two spinning silver wheels, one between the hind legs and the other between the front ones. Astride, upon a seat formed from the elongated metallic spines of the shining beast, sat Ludovícus, Rex Tenebris. Lord of the Ten Isles, Grand Executioner of the same Dark Lord Council where I had a seat, and a master of dark magic. He rose from his steed and allowed his billowing trench coat of dark fog to flow about his eight-foot form. It was open in the front, revealing naught but void ringed with black chainmail about his torso and legs barely distinguishable from the dark fog surrounding it. As he removed his helmet, which was the skull of a taurus demon, his long locks of night-noir hair cascaded about, tresses slightly floating here and there from bizarre effects on gravity caused by his tremendous might. His face was mostly obscured, but what could be seen was a calm, stoic expression.
“A long way from the Ten Isles,” I commented as I landed a few meters away from Ludovícus.
“Just out for a ride,” he replied nonchalantly. “These flies need swatting, though. The roads here ain’t big enough to accommodate us all.” Following this conclusion, four more members of the Malebranche showed up, apparently having been following the black and silver rider, though arrived delayed because they could not keep up. “More bloody pests,” growled the king.
“What… what happened here?!” shouted a tusked member of the gang in dismay at seeing many of his comrades smote upon the causeway and nearby ramp. He then looked up and realization stuck his face like a slap as he understood that the two beings before him had caused this slaughter by themselves. “Who...what are you?” The demon asked, he and his three remaining brethren petrified.
“Your demise,” the Grand Executioner answered as he split his mount in two. He grabbed each side of the handlebar antlers and pulled in opposite directions. The left side came away with most of the frontal frame and twisted rapidly before straightening into the position of an upright skeleton. The left antler handlebar met with the four hooves that rose up, legs pressed together, into the wide hips and ribs. Atop was crowned with the elk’s shining skull. The straight, rigid posture of these chrome bones formed a massive mace. The right side twisted and shifted as well, originating from the lower, back part of the frame and the two spiked, silver wheels. When it straightened, there was a shaft of metal leading up from the right antler handle that led to the engine flanked on either side by parallel wheels, in the shape of a great hammer.
Before the remaining gangsters could flee, I implored Maurice III to foil their escape. Acting quickly, my minion rushed to the four and wrapped a tentacle around each. With total apathy, the Malebranche were flung towards Ludovícus. In rapid succession, the Rex Tenebris swung twice with each of his weapons. Striking with the chrome elk mace he shattered two demons’ bodies into a bloody mess, splattering the railings of the highway. Slamming with the silver-spiked great hammer he flattened the other two into the pavement below, causing the whole region to tremble. “I don’t see their leader, but that should do for now,” Ludovícus stated before reforming his steed and seating himself, dawning his taurus skull helmet. With a curt nod, which I returned, he sped off, eager to continue his ride, likely already bored of the scene.
Pondering the same notion myself, I collected my cargo upon a shoulder and finally proceeded to my goal.
I dismissed Maurice III, who disappeared back into the portal fabric of my cloak. Where I was about to enter was dangerous to all save dragonkin and I did not want to put a valuable minion at risk.
The imposing gate of Drakeblood Ossuary towered over me as I reached the end of the sloping path. It was formed from colossal bones and teeth that were carved and interlocked together like cyclopean white bricks. The bars of the gate were a mesh of ossified tendons which yielded to none except those whom within the blood of dragons coursed. “Time to be useful, my tool,” I said to the draconic humanoid experiment slumped over my shoulder.
I threw the body, still unconscious, at the gate. When they made an impact, the gate reacted like a living creature: it shuddered and a growl rumbled the ground. The experiment fell in a heap, unharmed, before the calcified sinew retreated and allowed passage. “So far, so good,” I spoke as I scooped up my hybrid key once more and proceeded inward.
Crossing the threshold, I paused to gauge my surroundings. A huge field extended before me. It was littered with massive reptilian skeletons and impressively carved stone obelisks. Though it was not long before the stillness of the graveyard faded as the life of these dragons did long ago.
Swooping down on torn wings, a massive skeletal drake approached from the north. Its bones were reddened by the remnants of scales from a past life. Through its ribcage rested a black arrow so massive that it looked more like a spear, save the iron fletching on its rear. Smaug’s revenant belched fire and challenged, “Intruders… I DETEST intruders… Who dares enter this lair?”
Before I could respond, another draconic being appeared. From the opposite side, a wingless wyrm clawed out of a deep, open grave that was more like a cavern. Their bones were exposed as well, but from the tainted white clung huge, putrid chunks of flesh. Within the orbits of its bulbous, horned skull sat two ghostly grey eyes, like solid fog. From beyond the swirling mist that poured forth could be seen mesmerizing, dancing lights like inviting, intriguing will o’ wisps. Glaurung, Father of Dragons sinisterly challenged, “Indeed a fool to seek the resting place of those not their kind. Who comes?”
“The Baron of-” I started, but was unable to continue, for a shadow dwarfing the two dragons then rose up.
From an absurdly deep canyon beyond the cemetery’s furthest wall rose the upper body of a skeletal colossus. Wing bones like ivory spires arched around the entirety of Drakeblood Ossuary as a titanic skull leaned in and appraised my arrival more closely. I looked up at the draconic skull larger than some buildings and knew this dracolich by name as well, for there was no mistaking this mighty monster. Ancalagon the Black, greatest of the dragons both in might and size. Their mountainous form peered at me, yet spoke not. I took this opportunity and continued introducing myself, “I am Reyadh Rahaman, Baron of Beholders. I have come seeking aid for my… friend.”
“A friend?” Glaurung quoted, then stomped closer. The lights of his pupils danced hypnotically about his translucent smoke eyes as he glared at me. “What aid could your ‘friend’ seek from a cemetery? Unless they are dead, they have no place here,” he growled, with dripping malice. He was trying very hard to make eye contact, but I avoided his gaze.
“Yes, he needs a soul. A dragon soul; for his is damaged and he is in need of a new one,” I said while looking up at Smaug.
“And you think to replace it with one of OURS? This smells of sorcery. Of necromancy and other foul manipulation. Get out, beholder, regardless of how you entered or your companion’s needs, neither you nor your hybrid abomination belongs here,” the fire drake spat, scorching bile appearing about his bony jaws.
“Untrue…” whispered the mountainous dracolich. Although spoken in a hushed manner, the voice sent a mighty gust about the whole graveyard. “All dragonkin are welcome. Origin is no matter. Where will you find this soul for your friend?” Ancalagon asked, his tremendous form leaning now so close over the ossuary that he had become like a ceiling of ribs and wings. His words seemed innocent but I sensed their weight.
“There are few dragon souls remaining here, therefore I will take…” I trailed off as I turned to face the revenant nearest to me, “...yours.”
Glaurung threw his head back and let out a deep, bellowing laugh that blew like the fetid wind of a swamp. “I see you are indeed a fool, beholder shaped like a man carrying one stuffed with a crippled dragon soul. I have heard tales of the ocular might of your kind but have never had the pleasure to verify this… until now.”
“Then allow me to aid your verification,” I replied and then turned to meet the Father of Dragons’ misty stare with the eyes of my human vessel. I anticipated the coming ocular duel and began to slowly lift the lid of my mind’s eye. One of my true eyes.
Suddenly, Glaurung’s rotting maw hinged open abhorrently, as if it had gone slack from death, though the huge dragon’s frame did not falter. He spoke, however, this time with his mind and not his mouth, “Baron of beholders, I accept your challenge,” the wisp-like lights in his fog eyes began to rotate hypnotically as small tendrils of opaque grey vapour gasped out of his orbits occasionally before returning into the foul socket. “The first one to blink loses their soul,” the staring contest had begun.
Ancalagon and Smaug watched with interest, silent but alert. I was thankful that they all seemed to go along with my scheme, due to their pride. I then shed the outer shell of my being. The skin on my human vessel peeled back before the muscles. My sinews and tendons writhed before giving way to my skull, but I was still peering now with wholly uncovered eyes at Glaurung, who did not recoil from my grotesque transformation. Though, he observed with keen interest. Upon my exposed cranium then appeared a seam, which split open slowly and revealed my human vessel’s brain in the manner that lids would open before an eye. The brain peeked out before violent violet energy erupted outward amidst black smoke. The billowing shadows enveloped and consumed my human vessel, dropping the body of my key to the side, which was still in good condition. The cloud of dark matter wove into a small twister of ultraviolet before coalescing into my beholder form.
Nine dark matter tentacles, each nine meters long, undulated in a circle about the area. They caressed tombstones and bones as they weaved about small shrines and the corner of a grand sepulcher. These connected to my main body, a mass of blackened energy with an ultraviolet hue that cannot be seen by most organisms, though the dracolichs about me were likely exceptions to this ethereal light’s hidden nature. In the center of my body was a single huge eye that was three-meters in diameter. The sclera was a deep maroon like bloody wine spilled in shadows. Within this was an iris of dazzling gold; light emitting photons like the sun’s rays itself shone in a ring of glorious incandescence. And within this was a spherical void: a contained black hole for a pupil hungrily tugging at everything near to its one-meter diameter. I focused my eye ahead at my foe, to test my freshly formed body, and this sent out a shockwave that blew over the nearest headstones and pulverized close by bones to dust from the might of my will.
“Yesss…” Glaurung’s mind whispered, fascinated. “I SEE you now, Reyadh Rahaman,” the ancient, mostly skeletal reptile then focused upon on my central eye and scoffed, “Only one eye? Should I close one of mine to make it even?”
“No, don’t trouble yourself,” my mind coursed back telepathically, for this form had no mouth. Though what my body lacked in mouths it made up for with other organs. “Let me even the odds…” I emitted while opening a small eye above my central one, which also had a maroon sclera, gold iris, and compact black hole pupil. “...And then tip them in my favour…” I trailed off ominously.
The amusement faded from Glaurung then. He was clearly displeased that I had rendered his quip illogical, though he recognized the potential of what I had revealed. He thought that my ocular might had one source, though in this he was gravely mistaken. The dragon scowled, tightening his focus, the lights in the back of his eyes began to dance chaotically and without a pattern, going berserk and glowing a sickening orange, like a fire born from a mad spark, burning corpses of elves and men. Glaurung’s mind then rang out in a fell litany, “Blink… Blink… Blink…” he encouraged as his tainted light began to set the smoke of his eyes on fire. “I have no eyelids, beholder, you have no chance at victory. You will inevitably shut your eyes first. The dead do not need to rest or protect their eyes.”
I did not respond in thought-words but instead began to levitate toward the old drake. He saw that I intended to increase the intensity of our bout and called my raise by stomping forward. Above, I heard Smaug hiss lowly and expectantly while Ancalagon sighed from holding a lungless breath, the wind picked up with enough force to clear the dust and low hanging clouds about the colossal cemetery.
Glaurung and I drew closer until we were near enough that neither of us could see the entire form of the other. My mismatched eyes met his berserk ones at point-blank range. It was at this moment that I began to open my other eyes. Now that Glaurung was so close that he could only focus upon my center, I had the advantage. Around my grand central eye, eight more of the maroon sclera, gold iris, and black hole pupil eyes opened to join the second. A ten-eye array upon my visage snared Glaurung’s two with a focus that merged and struck like a beam of invisible light. Ghost photons of unseen worlds pierced through the dragon’s fog eyes like harpoons through flesh. Once chained, Glaurung froze, never having before seen or felt such refined ocular magic. “Your hypnosis tricks are old and dull, Father of Dragons,” I declared.
“What sorcery is this?!” He mentally bellowed as he tried to shake his head but could not, anchored by my sight’s might. “I… my eyes… they are… disintegrating!” He telepathically roared in agony.
The gray fog within the orbits that were his eyes began to dissipate; the mad, dancing orange lights slowed and became pale yellow. “This is the vision of an All-Seeing beholder; a master of ocular magic. Since you cannot lose by traditional means of a staring contest, you have left me no choice but to accept your forfeit in a previously unseen manner.” I then turned my nine writhing tentacles inward and summoned to the surface uncountable blank white ovals, each identical. In a physical crescendo, I constricted the violent void pupils of my ten-eyed array until they were nothing more than atom-thick vertical slits. The compression sent a crawling of dark matter under my ultraviolet skin to each of the blank white eyes and filled them with the blackness of unknown abysses. As the black expanded and consumed the white, a vacuum appeared and pulled in all in the path of the newly formed pupils of unending starvation. The smoke of Glaurung’s eyes was pulled until the lights of his orbits danced nakedly like fireflies. Then, they too were sucked out and into my tentacles now laden with realm-drinking eyes of eternal night. Following the dragon’s eyes, I continued to feast by pulling the drake’s very soul out from the holes in his skull where his eyes had once been.
I drank deeply until nothing remained. Glaurung’s corpse fell to the consecrated soil of the graveyard in a slam that shook the ground. Smaug snarled and belched forth fire into the air above Drakeblood Ossuary in outrage as Ancalagon leaned back in surprise that caused a rushing wind to rise up, lifting debris into the air like a sudden storm squall.
Having acquired the soul of a dragon, the first stage in my plan to acquire the power for a solitary conquest was complete. The need to leave had arisen, though I found my way blocked yet again.