USURPERS 6. The Alchemist: Prayers to a Dark God
Added On: March 29, 2013 10:10 pm
Type: Prose
Community Series: MOTU Modern
USURPERS

Written by: M. Lawson Humble

6. The Alchemist: Prayers to a Dark God

“What is this?” shouted the witch as she burst into the throne room of the alchemist with murder on her mind. A foot of warm, salty water covered the stone floor. She splashed through it and called out, “Get off of him, frog!”

King Mer looked up and twisted his trident in the throat of his master. “Stay back!” he said, but the sounds he made were meaningless to the witch.

“Back away, I say,” growled Evelyn. “He’s mine.”

“Wait your turn,” said Kronis. “We were here before you.” His enormous cybernetic right arm was gleaming in the dim candlelight that reflected upon the supernatural waters that flooded the throne room. It was in the form of a serrated eight-foot long sword. “But it looks like the frog beat us all.”

“Trydor,” said the witch. “Has the frog killed him? Is he dead?”

The machinist nodded. “It appears so.”

The witch then began to cultivate hot, bitter tears then. Confusing tears. Not tears for the sadistic master of the Mountain of Snakes, though. Tears for Keldor. For her lover of old. “Move!” she shouted as she pushed King Mer aside.

The sea-king postured, but allowed Evelyn to access the body nonetheless. Mer had extracted his trident. The black fluid that covered the weapon immediately evaporated.

Trydor eyed the phenomenon through his cycling visor. His findings were far from reassuring. “Appearances can be deceiving,” he suddenly thought, and he tried to warn his fellow warriors, but he was too late.

The alchemist exploded like a bomb. When the stone dust settled, he was the only one standing. “You… Dare!” he screamed as he stomped his clawed feet, sending a shudder throughout the mountain. His mortal wound was gone. Only an illusion.

But King Mer was undaunted. He tackled the alchemist, and with arms covered in sharp, bony scales, he bound the skull-who-speaks in a punishing embrace.”

“Hey! He was dead!” observed Kronis as he rushed forward. “Not that it matters. I’ll soon take care of that!”

The madman swung his arm-sword down in a blazing arc, attempting to bisect both the alchemist and the frog. But his sword first struck thin air, then the floor. His head jarred and his pointed organic teeth rattled against his rusty, metal ones.

Thinking and acting quickly, the witch worked to neutralize her former lover’s invisible barrier. She succeeded. The barrier turned an opaque purple color for a fraction of a second before popping like a bubble.

The witch- Evelyn then thrust her small dagger into the heart of the alchemist. The alchemist deftly turned his body though, and with King Mer still holding him tight, binding his arms, the blade kissed the frog instead. But it broke on the sea king’s scales. The broken hilt fell to the submerged stones and the snapped blade followed soon after.

But the witch did not retreat. She climbed up the frog’s back and began to claw at the red embers in the hollows of the alchemist’s yellowing skull with her broken fingers. As soon as her fingers touched the embers that were his eyes, her hands caught fire. She screamed and threw herself face first into the shallow water.

The steam created by the extinguished flames rose up and temporarily blinded the alchemist. And that was when Trydor struck. Time and time again, he battered the deceiver with his emerald blade. And time and time again, using the frog as a shield, the deceiver deflected the blows. Unwilling and unable to take any more punishment, King Mer finally released his hold.

With his hands now free, the alchemist wasted no time in summoning his shadow-black sword. With a crimson puff of foul smelling smoke, it appeared in his hand. The frog and the madman then attacked as one. The alchemist fought them both off.

The witch stood and entered the fray once more. Due to the unbelievable heat encountered, her hands had completely melted. The blood-stained, charred bones of her fingers had fused together in macabre, lumpy masses, but she felt no pain. She pounded on the alchemist’s body with her magically strengthened stumps and screamed in his face. Now it was the master of the mountain’s turn to bleed. Triple waterfalls of thick black fluid- for it could no longer be named blood erupted from the volcanoes of his eye sockets and the hollow hole where his noble nose used to sit.

With one hand, the alchemist grabbed the witch’s throat. Her yellow face turned crimson as he squeezed. Raising his sword above his head, the man who was once Keldor then slammed the butt of his sword into her chest. She crumpled like a doll and once again fell. This time, upon her back.

Trydor came at the alchemist again. Kronis. Mer. They all struck at the same time.

The witch regained consciousness, and through nauseating dizziness, she began the magical process that would soon regrow her hands. Immediately after, she hastily cast a spell of binding around the alchemist’s legs. He fell to his knees. And then, like desert hyenas, his former servants swarmed over their master, eager for their pound of flesh.

He was losing. The alchemist was overwhelmed. But luck appeared to be on his side, for in their bloodlust, his warriors began to inadvertently strike one another. And in this confusion, the alchemist rolled away. He was grateful for the respite, but knew it would not last.

A moment though, was all he needed. “Kronis!” shouted the alchemist through fractured jaw. “Die!” He mentally activated the cybernetic madman’s kill switch. The warriors helped one another up and faced their former master. Kronis laughed. “What trickery…”

Kronis laughed again. “Doesn’t work, boss.”

“Huh,” stated Trydor coolly, leveling his sword at the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “His kill switch has been disabled. And… with your death, liar, my honor will soon be restored.”

“Trydor,” pleaded the alchemist. “Why have you betrayed me? We shared your mother’s milk. Together as boys, we cried and played and grew. Together. We are bound in brotherhood, Trydor. We are family.”

“Lies. All lies, Keldor. I now know the truth. And by my sword and by my love for Bronze-Master Jitsu whom you disrespected, and by my love for my father, Master Swordsman Bokken Ito, wielder of Invincible Frost Silver, who was taken from me by fate, but blocked from my memory by you, I will have you skull. As a trophy.”

The alchemist’s eyeless sockets seemed to grow larger in fear. “But…” he struggled. He looked at the witch. “You… Evelyn. If I die, you will still be bound to me. You will follow me into death. Into whatever hell awaits. You will never be free.”

Evelyn smiled. “No, Keldor. You are alone. That spell is broken.”

And he knew it was true.

“But… but… you, King Mer.” The alchemist was speaking in the sea king’s own language, using his mind and not his voice. “Your people will die… If I die. I have given the word, upon my death… The Liquid Lands will be choked by poison and will lay in waste for one hundred years.”

King Mer hesitated. He then walked over slowly to the alchemist. He extended a scaly hand. The alchemist accepted. And in the blink of an eye, King Mer bashed the ghoul who was once Keldor in the mouth with his spiny, hard fist. The alchemist flew backward and crashed into his throne, trailing liberated teeth the whole way. He then slumped over in the shallow water. King Mer walked over to him once again. “Liar. Desperate liar. I no longer fear you, Skull-Who-Speaks. I will fight you. Always. Forever, if I must. No matter the cost. For I am now fearless.”

“Please…” moaned the alchemist. “Why have you all turned on me?”

“Let’s end this,” said Kronis. “I’m tired of his whining.”

“As am I,” said the witch.

Trydor nodded.

King Mer did not understand the words of his fellow warriors, but he understood their intent. He stood tall in unity with them.

When all appeared to be lost, as his warriors solemnly approached, as they prepared to execute him as one, the alchemist heard a low rumbling sound resonate from a high ledge that was shrouded by black shadows in a forgotten corner of the throne room.

The warriors looked up. Two enormous glowing green eyes, the size of pumpkins revealed themselves.

“Thank the dark gods…” whispered the alchemist. The creature landed soundlessly in the water. It padded over to the alchemist. He was saved. His beloved pet- his friend- his only remaining friend had finally come to his aid. The great sabre-tooth panther pressed its massive head against the leg of the alchemist. “Hello, girl,” he said wearily. The seven foot tall and twenty foot long panther pureed contentedly before turning to bear her sword-teeth at the usurpers. Her deep guttural growl was more terrifying that a wild yowl. It was the sound of distant thunder before the storm clouds break. “Kill. Fetch. Fetch me their guts.”

The panther pounced. All but Trydor retreated. He held his ground, but his bravery counted for nothing. The animal swatted him like an insect and he crumpled.

“On second thought,” said the alchemist in a quiet, painful exhale, “Just eat him, girl. My gift to you. What do I want with an Earthling’s innards?”

“No!” screamed Kronis. He blasted the sabre-tooth panther with his wondrously wicked weapon. But wherever his blasts landed, his prey was no longer there.

The horrifyingly swift beast was now after Kronis. He lost his footing and fell. The panther immediately appeared over him. And a moment before her sabre-teeth san into the soft organic tissue of the cybernetic madman’s body, the animal hesitated. She turned and padded back toward her master. Before the alchemist could demand an answer from his pet, she pounced on him and began to feast.

“Nooo!” screamed the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “How? Why? Nooo! It’s me! It’s… Don’t… …”

“What just happened?” asked Kronis, finding his feet once again.

“I don’t know,” answered Trydor, wiping blood from his nose and mouth.

“That smell…” said the witch.

A dull, animal laugh came from the entrance of the throne room. The beast had arrived.

Looming large in the large entrance, the beast was attended by his subjects. Hundreds of thousands of cave-dwelling creatures clung to his matted orange hair or sat perched upon his massive hunched shoulders. At his feet, the ground moved and shifted with the undulations of countless blind snakes, mindless worms, and squirming insects.

“You,” said Evelyn. “You… killed him.”

The beast man who was more beast than man snarled.

“Huh,” commented Trydor.

King Mer pushed his way past Kronis, his webbed feet slapping in the standing water. The beast. The murderer of his son. The beast would die by his hand.

“Whoa there,” said the cybernetic madman. “Ease up, froggy.”

Even if Mer could understand the language of the surface dwellers, he would not have listened.

Fear did not blossom in the beast’s fierce eyes, but he did retreat. And as he retreated, he ordered his creatures to advance.

Mer was soon hopelessly, helplessly outnumbered. And although his natural armor was strong, the smallest of the beast’s thralls quickly found their way to the sweet softness of his flesh underneath. In seconds, King Mer was poisoned- swollen, dizzy, and totally incapacitated.

“Call then off,” ordered Trydor.

The beast snarled and entered the throne room. “No. And shut your mouth before I send them after you.”

Several rabid wolf-bats then flew from their perch on the beast’s arm and buzzed the machinist’s head. Trydor lost his balance and slipped on the ancient submerged stones. He smashed his head on a sharp rock. Trydor cursed aloud due to the violent pain and then again as his artificial eyes went offline. The impact had severely damaged his visor. He was now blind.

Kronis shouted metallic with anger. His right hand had transformed into a bayonet. “Kill you!” he promised as he rushed.

The beast met the madman head on, and they wrestled for a time. The mountain seemed to shake. When they finally separated, both warriors were badly injured and exhausted, but that did not stop them from smiling.

They charged toward one another again. And they both cried out as their noses exploded red, for the beast and the madman had both smashed face first into an invisible barrier created by the witch. “Stop fighting, fools!” she yelled. “Stop it!”

Silence reigned. The only sounds were the wet sounds of tearing muscle and dry sounds of cracking bones that came from underneath the sabre-tooth panther.

“Try that again, witch,” growled Kronis as he applied pressure to his rotten nose, “and you won’t like what comes next.” The cyborg then reached down with his other hand and helped Trydor to his feet.

“What now?” said Trydor.

“What now?” the witch repeated. “I will ascend. I will rule in his place. That’s what. You’re all free to go if you please, but if you stay here, you must abide by my rules. Pledge loyalty to me and I will swear to treat you well. I will satisfy your hunger for conquest. Under my rule, you will all prosper. Even as the universe bleeds.”

The beast lowered his head and stepped forward, extending a long, heavy simian arm toward the witch. She recoiled. “Not you,” she sneered. “You’re not welcome here, ape. Go. And take your bugs and your snakes and your bats with you.”

“And my panther?” the beast added angrily. The colorful skin of his face brightened considerably. “She’s mine now, you know. I think before I leave, I will allow her to eat your head. How would you like that, witch? If I… If I can’t have you… no one can…”

“Very well, foul one,” laughed the witch. “Do it.”

“I… will,” he replied in agony, for he truly intended her no harm. But she would never love him. Better to kill her. “Yes,” he decided. “Better to kill.”

The witch- Evelyn shrugged. A mocking smile was written across her lovely face.

The beast groaned. “You leave me no choice then.” He closed his eyes, summoning the panther. Moments passed. Nothing happened.

Kronis laughed.

Still blind, Trydor asked the cyborg, “What’s happening?”

“Seems like the beast has lost his touch.”

The sabre-tooth panther’s body moved up and down in strange jerking motions, but she did not obey her new master.

“What—” began the beast.

And then, a bony hand pushed out from within the body of the huge panther, splitting the animal’s skin and glossy, deep-purple coat.

“What—” echoed Trydor.

Kronis retreated and pulled his blind friend back a step. “It’s the boss! Damn it! That’s twice he’s come back from the dead!”

The corpse of the panther swelled and split open with a messy, meaty pop. The alchemist emerged from the gore like a man reborn.

Evelyn, with raw, pink hands, now fully regrown, stepped forward. “Keldor? Is… that you?”

The alchemist wiped hunks of his beloved pet from his skeleton face. A long twitching tendon remained dangling from his fluid-saturated hood. “Unbelievable,” he whispered. “Unbelievable. It appears,” he said without humor, “that lessons are in order.”

The beast had heard enough. He attacked. But he never reached his prey. The alchemist snapped the unhappy beast’s wrists and shattered the large bones of his legs with no physical effort save a series of barely-muttered incantations. The beast collapsed in terrible agony. The master of the mountain did not relent. With a gesture, with his mind, he then sent a loose stone, weighing nearly five hundred pounds on a trajectory toward the beast’s head. It connected. The beast would not regain consciousness for several days.

The beast’s creatures began to run wild then. But the alchemist simply lifted his arm and touched his ring finger to his palm. His hand began to smoke and glow, and thousands suddenly fell. Thousands suddenly died. The surface of the shallow water in the throne room was now littered with the corpses of the thralls of the beast.

“You killed him,” started Trydor. “Didn’t you?”

The alchemist replied. “The beast? No, not yet. Not yet. I’d say he learned his lesson though, wouldn’t you?”

“Come on then, boss. I’m next. No kill switch here.”

Before Kronis could advance, King Mer, who, although still incredibly sick from poison, attacked. But this time, even though his back was turned, the alchemist was ready. He caught the sea-king’s golden trident as it punched through the air, thirsting for his blood. Mer screamed as the trident melted in his hands. The molten gold dripped down, sizzled in the water, and quickly solidified, forming golden cuffs around King Mer’s legs. Mer tried to back away, but he fell.

The witch, the machinist, and the madman then decided to attack once more as one. And they were repelled once more as one.

The alchemist shouted so loud that his voice cracked. “Continue this farce, and I will kill you all! Look!” He pointed at the crippled, unconscious beast. Only the occasional, faint, and irregular rising and falling of his massive chest indicated that he still lived. “My spell over the beast had been broken. His full strength was returned to him. His! Full! Strength! And look at him now! Look!”

King Mer did not understand the skull-who-speaks’ words. But finally free of his golden bindings, he rushed the alchemist once again. With a disquieting shriek, the master of the Mountain of Snakes then raised his hands- his palms facing the sea-king. Mer stopped moving. He was frozen. And then, the armor that he wore cracked and fell from his chest in twisted, bronze hunks. Then the hard scales of his chest split open, revealing his two beating hearts. Mer stared down in shock and horror as his vital organs were laid bare.

“And you, my servant-king,” thought the alchemist to the sea-king in his own language.” “You no longer fear me. Fine. But you are still weak. You always will be. See how easily I can… remake you.”

King Mer screamed as one of his hearts exploded, spraying pints of highly-oxygenated blood into the face of the alchemist. The alchemist then magically closed King-Mer’s chest. The sea-king collapsed, gasping and spitting up blood and bile.

“You will remain strong on the surface, where I have need of you, slave, but now… now that you only have one heart, you can never again survive the great pressure of the depths of the deep sea. Your kingdom is now inaccessible to you. You are forever exiled. You are mine. Fear me. Don’t fear me. I care not. But you will respect my power. And you will not challenge me again.”

“Um,” whispered Kronis to Trydor. “What do we do now?”

The witch cleared her throat. She took many deep breaths to calm her nerves before speaking. “Keldor,” she said, “let me go.”

“No.”

She expected this answer. “Then you must kill me. Or I you.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, witch.” The alchemist slammed the palms of his own hands together before his face. The shockwave shook the witch’s teeth and electrified her tight muscles, but she remained standing.

“What… what did you do?”

“Strike me down. With your magic. Strike me down. I won’t stop you.”

She did. She tried. She failed.

The alchemist laughed. “Nothing? Now it is you who is impotent, my… dear.” He spat out that last word. “Leave my sight. And know now that from this day forth, I will allow you your powers only in service to me. I—”

A concussive blast of concentrated weaponized photons knocked the alchemist off of his black-clawed feet and onto his back. Kronis had heard enough. He cackled madly. And then, by result of a spell conjured by alchemist, the parts of the madman that were no longer organic evaporated with a misty puff. The smell of burning metal hung in the air for a moment. Kronis crumpled. He was now no more a threat to the master of the mountain than a baby. Or a kitten.

The alchemist found his feet and looked down upon the jawless, armless, legless, scarred lump of a creature. “And you see,” he said sarcastically, “how the lack of a kill switch has protected you.”

Kronis slobbered and moaned wordlessly in reply.

The alchemist looked toward the blind man. “Trydor,” he said in a brotherly tone. What has happened this day? And please don’t lie. You know I can see. Right. Through. You.”

Though the machinist struggled to resist, the words were ripped from his mouth nonetheless. “A voice,” he struggled not to say. “A voice spoke in my head. It… told me the truth.”

“Yes…” said the alchemist. “Galactic scientist Takeshi Ito. Takeshi Ito of the planet Earth. That is indeed who you once were. A voice,” pondered the master of the mountain of snakes. “Who?”

“Don’t… know. It sounded like rocks scraping together. Punctuated by horrifying… snuffing… snorting. Animal inhalations.”

The alchemist was puzzled, but his expression did not change or betray his true feelings.

“Who is doing this?” asked Trydor.

“I don’t know,” the alchemist replied truthfully.

The two former brothers who were never brothers stood in silence, surrounded by a sleeping beast, a weeping, powerless witch, and immobile, deformed madman, a stunned, exiled servant-king, and a dead panther.

Finally, Trydor spoke. “Come, Keldor.” He swung his emerald sword. The air split. We have a matter of honor to settle between us.”

The alchemist started. His mind was elsewhere. He had nearly forgotten the machinist. “Oh. I’m sorry, Trydor. Takeshi. Earthman. I was pondering the voice. Why did it urge you all to challenge me? To what end?”

“Keldor,” said the machinist again, leveling his blade in the direction where the thought the alchemist stood. “Summon your sword. The voice must forever remain a mystery to you. For today, you die. Now. Meet me in single combat. No tricks. No magic. The law of the blade. The law of honor.”

The master of the mountain shrugged. “Why not?” He laughed. “You do realize you’re blind, don’t you?”

With one hand, Trydor unhooked the many pipes, hoses, and artificial vessels that were attached to his visor. And though it was elegant in design, the visor was also cumbersome. A crutch. He let if fall. Underneath, two empty sockets where his eyes once lived absorbed the dancing light from the many candles. “Yes,” he said. “I am blind,” he swung his emerald sword slowly, passing it from hand to hand, slicing through the air again and loosening the tight muscles of his shoulders, “but that does not mean I cannot see.”

The alchemist summoned his sword. He tested the machinist’s claim. True to his word, Trydor easily deflected all blows. “Very good. It has been ages since we have played this game.”

“Has it, Keldor? Or were our early years together nothing but lies as well?” Trydor circled, listening to the beating of the alchemist’s black heart, probing for weakness, anticipating his movements. “Bronze-Lord-Jitsu. Was he, too a fabrication?”

“Ah, him,” said the alchemist. He thrust the tip of his shadow-black sword into the face of the machinist. Trydor parried the clumsy probing maneuver as well as the more skillful series of attacks that followed. “He was real enough. His teachings were real enough. And… I fear he and I will meet again someday… Oh. And Trydor?”

“Yes, Keldor?”

“Don’t call me ‘Keldor.’”

“Then don’t call me ‘Trydor.’”

They both shared a shadow of a smile and fought on. Sometimes the master of the mountain gained the upper hand, sometimes the machinist. Their skill was truly awe-inspiring. The witch, the frog and the madman ignored their own personal sadness and agony for a moment and marveled at the show. The beast slept on.

A day passed. But neither swordsman tired, nor any blows landed. Finally, the alchemist cursed aloud in frustration. They were too evenly matched. The contest could easily stretch into the next day. The next week. The next year. “But I am the master here,” he thought. “I am akin to a god. I have no time for this foolishness. I have indulged the Earthling for far too long. Time to put an end to it!” The alchemist pushed into Trydor. Sparks flew from their grinding swords. “Yield!”

“Never, Keldor! I can do this forever…”

“You… fight honorably,” grunted the alchemist. “You fight honorably, but… you are also an idiot,” Trydor suddenly dropped his sword. His blood was on fire. He could not move, “for you trusted in me to fight fair.”

Trydor cursed, then spat out a mouthful of blood as the alchemist’s sword slid into his neck and bisected his jugular vein. The sword remained in place. The alchemist’s hand remained steady.

“Trydor. My fool. My pretend brother. If I move my sword, you will die.” “Then kill me.”

“No. I have need of you.”

“Why would I serve you? Why should I serve you? Knowing now what I now know?”

The alchemist laughed and twisted his sword ever so slightly. A river of blood gushed out of the wound, and Trydor’s head swam. The alchemist twisted his sword again, and the bleeding stopped. “Because, Trydor. Takeshi… No, now that I think about it, I actually prefer the name I have given to you. Trydor. Listen. Trydor. Yield to me. Swear upon your sword and upon your honor to serve me until death, and I will leave she whom you loved- whom you must still love, though you only now remember her, in peace.”

The other defeated warriors strained to hear the words of the alchemist and the machinist, but were unsuccessful.

Trydor felt sick. “But… but why have you made no attempt on her life before this day?”

“Although her husband is my enemy, although the entire line of Miro is my enemy, the queen- Queen Marlena- Captain Glenn- or… simply Marlena to you, has never been a target. I was… saving her should this day ever come.”

“What will you… If I disobey, what will you do to her?”

“She will die,” promised the master of the mountain of snakes.” His tone was deadly serious. “And slowly. And painfully. Of course that…exquisite death will come after her reign as my queen ends. After she is… used up.” Silence hung between them like a wall. “Not enough for you? Not enough to sway you?” Trydor kept his own council. “Very well. Think of your son.”

Trydor’s body tensed and his face reddened with rage. “What… do you know of my son, Keldor?”

“Not much, truthfully. And I have little reason to believe that he still lives. But Marlena does. She believes. So that must count for something, to be sure. I am not a mother, Trydor. I’m not even a father, in fact.” The alchemist sighed. “But I am inclined to trust in the instincts of parents. Especially mothers. What do you believe, Trydor? Does your son still live?”

The machinist- the Earthman did not hesitate in his reply. “Yes. Yes he does. And he will be the one to kill you. When he grows older.”

The alchemist laughed. “Oh, I highly doubt that. And besides, if you don’t swear to serve me, I will find him. I will kill him. Unless of course he has already been devoured by one of the many fierce creatures that inhabit the dark corners of Eternia. He was but an infant when he crashed in the forest, you know. Alone. Abandoned. Unwanted.”

“You… dare…”

“Spare me, Trydor. You’re in no position to speak to me in that tone. I’ll ask you one more time: Pledge servitude to me, and the reward is life. Life for you and your forgotten family. Now answer. Life or death? Service or sorrow?”

There could be no other answer. “By my sword, by my honor,” said Takeshi Ito sadly, “by the honor of my family, I choose servitude.”

The alchemist smiled. And with a snap of his bony fingers, the wound in the machinist’s neck immediately healed as his midnight-black sword was extracted.

“Now go, slave,” said the master of the mountain. “Clear this festering filth from my throne room. Clear it all away. Except… for my pet. I will tend to her… remains.” The alchemist coughed and continued. “Drain this water. Dispose of the bugs and the snakes and the bats. Escort the servant-king to his new permanent quarters. Move the beast from my sight. He smells. And don’t fear. He should not wake for many days. But if he does, you will be safe. He is once again bound by a spell. And make sure the witch knows her place.” The alchemist spared not even a glance for Evelyn. He continued. “Fix Kronis. Remember to install a new kill switch. And Trydor?”

“Yes…”

“Yes?” asked the alchemist, projecting false outrage.

“Yes… Master?”

The alchemist nodded his approval. “Good. Very good. Build yourself some more eyes, Trydor. It sickens me to look upon your ruined face.”

Several hours later, the throne room was cleared. Nothing remained but the master of the mountain and his grim throne of bones. The beast was gone. The madman was gone. The witch was gone. The servant-king and the machinist were gone. All gone to live out the remainder of their miserable days in bondage. In sorrow. Until death.

The remains of the sabre-tooth panther had been disposed of by the hands that had killed her. The hands of the alchemist. But he vowed that her memory would remain with him always. She had been his confidant. His only friend. They had been inseparable for more years that he cared to remember. Though he displayed no outward emotion, his grief was unbearable. A hole yawned in what was left of his soul. That hole, he thought, would never be refilled. He would soon be proven wrong.

“Genesis,” groaned the alchemist aloud to himself after a time of silence. “What was the genesis of these betrayals? What… who turned my warriors into would-be usurpers? Trydor spoke of a voice. Who? Who? How could—”

An excruciating sound- not actually a sound in fact, but the sudden absence of sound assaulted the master of the Mountain of Snakes like a sledgehammer to the head, cutting his monologue short.

A shimmering doorway, as brilliant as a butterfly’s wing, with hypnotic allure, blossomed and grew suddenly before his eyes. And then, as hearing retuned, and as his pain receded, he found that some invisible irresistible force pushed him off of his throne and onto the moist, hard stones of the floor. He couldn’t rise. And there, on his knees, the mighty alchemist beheld the woman in violet and magenta as she entered his small world.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Silence,” the woman ordered in a harsh, hateful voice.

The woman was stunning. She was statuesque and shapely. Her long dress clung to her perfect hips like an embrace. But the alchemist could not discern her features, for her head was covered with a hood. Her glowing, yellow eyes peered out suspiciously. She stood aside and kneeled.

Another woman, a woman with impossibly high, angular cheekbones walked with feline grace through the portal. She had the eyes of a cat. In fact, she appeared to be more cat than humanoid. She cocked her head, made a sour face, and hissed as she tasted the foul air in the throne room with her vomeronasal organ. She too stood aside and kneeled.

And then came the monster. He ducked as he came into Eternia. He was covered in thick, black fur and loomed menacingly with massive, broad shoulders hunched and with blunt teeth bared. With great difficulty, the twelve foot tall bear-man took his place opposite the two women, and growled low as he kneeled. Once settled, he leveled his oaken crossbow, hewn from the trunk of an ancient and mighty tree, toward the alchemist and trained its sights upon their unwilling host’s heart.

The disgusting, slobbering leech-man shuffled in next. Though small in stature, he was easily the most repulsive and fearsome of them all, due in no small part to his oversized, gaping mouth, and the tens of thousands of needle-thin, razor-sharp teeth that lived within. He smacked his swollen, fleshy lips as he breathed noisily. He kneeled next to the ursine warrior.

The master of the Mountain of Snakes continued to watch against his will as another unwelcome freakish monstrosity imposed its awful presence upon him. The eyes of this one came first. They were the eyes of a snail, stretched out impossibly far on independently moving sinewy stalks, and they seemed to glow a sickly yellow of their own accord. The bizarre creature’s bio-luminescent eyes scanned the throne room warily before it fully exited the portal. It walked with a strange rhythm on its four insectoid legs, and kneeling, took its place with the others. One eye was trained upon the shimmering portal, and the other upon the alchemist.

“We’re here, Master,” came an awful, high-pitched, grating voice. The speaker was soon revealed. He was a baby. A grotesque and mutilated baby. The product of amoral experimentation. His skin was a bruise. A dark, cold, deathly blue. Sprouting from his lumpy back were the wings of a wolf-bat pup. And the unsettling expression written across his smirking face was conveyed by the mismatched features of a humanoid, the aforementioned wolf-bat, and perhaps a fetal pig. The nauseating abomination was perched upon the shoulder of he who was presumably the leader of this fearsome retinue.

“Indeed, my pet,” said the leader in a voice of crumbling rocks as he stepped over the threshold from his dark dimension into war-torn Eternia.

The alchemist struggled to stand upright from his forced position of prostration. His body, however, was no longer his own. It no longer obeyed his commands. “Leave… my… home,” he exhaled in a strangled voice. Chilly, gelatinous blood began to ooze through the broken teeth of his open mouth.

The hooded woman in violet and magenta commanded, “Speak not to the dark lord of Despondos!” She stood and gestured toward the alchemist with a thin, ghostly, powder-blue hand.

The alchemist’s rotten blood began to boil within his ruined body. He screamed. The woman relented after a few moments.

“Stand!” shouted the bat-pig-baby. “All of you!”

They all obeyed, even the master of the Mountain of Snakes. “Who are you?” he demanded.

The hooded woman stepped forward. “I am known as the Weaver of Shadows, high priestess of the Dark God. And from now on, you will hold your tongue!”

Against his will, the alchemist reached into his own mouth with bony fingers and grabbed his own tongue. He began to pull. The horrible monsters all laughed with horrible voices.

The lord of the monsters smiled. “Enough,” he said with a cruel snort. “Your warriors have betrayed you, have they not?”

“They… have,” admitted the alchemist.

“Very good. The seeds have borne fruit. The seeds I planted. Though the feelings of your warriors are genuine- they all hate you…” The monsters laughed again. “But the timing. The… nudges were all my doing.”

“Why?” hissed the alchemist. He summoned his midnight-black blade.

“Drop your sword,” said the dark lord of Despondos in a bored voice. The alchemist had no choice but to obey. Once again, his body was no longer his own. He dropped the sword. As the echo of the clattering sword resonated and then suddenly died, the dark lord calmly stroked the furry head of his disgusting familiar. Eying his sword, the alchemist asked again, “Why?”

“That can wait. You will understand soon enough. Or at least I hope you will. Patience, my son. Patience.”

“Son?” spat the alchemist. “How dare you speak to me thus? Who—”

“Enough.” The dark lord passed off his pet to a less-than-thrilled attendant. The feline-woman took the squirming creature with a look of revulsion frozen on her strangely beautiful hybrid face. “Do you know who I am, alchemist? No? You should, for you have prayed to me many times in your life. And I have heard your prayers. Every one. I have even answered them from time to time.”

“Who—”

“Your master. Your creator. Your unholy God.”

“Never! I—”

With inconceivable speed, the dark god’s metal-gloved hand shot out. He closed his fingers around the alchemist’s neck and squeezed. He then flung him away as if he weighed no more than a child’s doll. The alchemist slammed into his own throne- the throne of the bones of dead heroes, and it shattered, crumbling to dust. Moans escaped as the powdered bones settled. “Shut up, little Keldor.”

“I—”

“Shut! Up!” The alchemist quailed and the monsters laughed. “You know me, Keldor. Though we have never before met, you know me. Gur’rull! Come here! Open his mind, if you would be so kind.”

A savage, hour-long beating then followed. The only sounds in the throne room were the sounds of the alchemist’s pitiful, pleading moans.

“Enough,” ordered the dark got to the ursine giant. The bear-man obeyed and found his appointed place once again. Foul-smelling, sticky fluids soaked his long, matted black fur. The dark god turned toward the broken master of the Mountain of Snakes. “Well? Have you begun to see?”

Pushing up from all fours, the alchemist then pressed the cold palms of his skeletal hands against his cracked, leaking skull. As he struggled to remain conscious, his vision strayed to the figure of the priestess. “A spell,” he said to himself. His mind was hazy and his thoughts were slow. “She’s weaving a spell around me.”

Vibrant images then exploded in the alchemist’s mind’s eye. He cried out, but the images only sharpened in clarity. They were so sharp that he was nearly unable to bear the sickening revelation. But after a time, the alchemist ceased to fight. The images washed over him. He bore witness as his childhood was laid bare.

.....................

The once proud and unassailable Gar Empire was in its twilight. The citizens of the empire watched, as brick by brick and stone by stone, the great monuments dedicated to their own greatness crumbled as they themselves attempted to conduct business as usual in their dwindling shadows. The books and scrolls in their libraries now sat, tucked in and forgotten, under blankets of ancient dust. The great arenas sat in disuse, attracting wild, feral animals. The sad, starving creatures dug for the bones of forgotten champions in the hard-packed, blood-enriched dirt.

It was here, in these tumultuous times that the Last Emperor called his generals to him for what would prove to be the final Council of the Mighty before the darkness totally descended upon the Empire. Before the light of culture and wisdom was extinguished forever.

The emperor surveyed his generals. Lesser men than their fathers who were in turn lesser than their fathers and grandfathers before. And so on. Back through the ages. The emperor sighed. These men were his tools. Rusty, broken, and unfit they may be, they were all he had. He must use them. Use them to defend the Empire. The Empire of gathering sands and blossoming ignorance. He sighed again.

As always, the Empress sat at her husband’s right hand. They both appeared as gods to their people. Their untainted blue skin shone in the low candlelight of the war-room with stunning brilliance, and their penetrating eyes blazed like fire.

The dull generals began to speak their cowardly words, shifting blame and hiding from their responsibilities. The Empress squeezed her Emperor’s hand. The end was near. They both knew it. There was no hope. No new dawn for the Gar Empire. No rebirth. The barbarians were at their gates. And what was worse, they were finally massing. The barbarians were forming alliances with one another. Uniting under one so-called king.

“Miro the Lion is no king,” thought the emperor. He is a blood-thirsty, unwashed savage. But… savage or no, fool or no, his coming will finally undo centuries of culture. Of enlightenment. Of peace. Such as it is… As it was…”

“If only we had conceived a stronger son,” thought the empress. “Then perhaps our people could forestall this doom. But then again, perhaps not. Perhaps it is time for the Gar Empire to sink into the sea and into the sand. To be remembered only in barbarian-song. To be uncovered in time by archaeologists not yet born.”

The pointless, wearisome council dragged on. But the son of the emperor and empress- the son of the living gods of the Gar watched on, eagerly absorbing all that was said. He was weak. He knew this. He was lame, malformed. But his mind was strong. And one day the Empire would be his. He would himself ascend to godhood. His people would worship him. He would lead them from the brink and into a new golden age. Or so he thought. So he dreamed. Even though his own parents did not believe in him.

The council ended. The foolish, preening, vain generals exited the Imperial War-Chambers. And he who would be emperor followed them out into the gray day. He passed by many citizens, though none recognized him. He was clever with disguises. He even stopped to talk with a boy- a house slave, nearly the same age as he, but the boy never realized to whom he spoke. After a time though, the slave’s master pulled the boy away by his long, black hair.

The heir to the Empire walked on. Then a man on a mechanical horse careened toward him with reckless speed. His mount had malfunctioned, and he was trying desperately to steer the vehicle away from the citizens who packed the crowded, foul-smelling streets. But the man was unsuccessful in his efforts. He was headed straight for the son of the emperor and empress. The heir was too slow. His twisted legs did not respond, and his tattered cloak caught on one of the long, iron bolts that protruded from the robot-horse’s flank. And the heir, the last faint hope of the Gar Empire was then dragged through the capital city until he was dead. The godly lineage was broken that sad day. Even the small hope in a misshapen, lame deity faded completely.

And the young house slave, who was the last person to speak to the heir, looked over his shoulder at the spectacle until once again, his master grabbed a handful of his hair and led him away like a dog.

The slave thought no more of the dead boy. He was nothing to him. He did not know his true identity, nor if he did, he scarcely would have cared. The life of a house slave in the dying cities of the crumbling Gar Empire was a hard life. There existed no time for reflection. No time for anything save mindless work and the daily- hourly struggle to remain among the living.

He did see his mother occasionally though. There was some small comfort in that. They both toiled in the same house for the same master, but the boy’s many tasks kept him toiling outside, and his mother’s work kept her inside. On her back. In submissive service to their cruel, grotesque master. But they did meet in secret from time to time. He and his mother. They never spoke, however. They only held one another and wept silently, cursing their sad fate.

The news of the death of the heir travelled fast. In a handful of days, the united barbarian tribes began to swarm around the capital city of the Gar Empire like ravenous nanolocusts.

The master of the young slave’s house grew frightened as the ranks of the barbarian horde grew. His ordered world was ending. The old ways would soon cease to matter. His high birth would cease to matter. And he began to deal with his great fear in unthinkable ways. In passionless frenzy, he began to use up his bed slaves. They began to die. Their bodies began to litter the dark alleys behind the dark house. Mutilated. Unspeakably.

The young slave found the bodies day after day. He counted them, and he attempted to make out their features, which was not always an easy task, but his mother, thankfully, was not among their number. Yet.

Two days before the tarnished gates of the capital city burst, allowing the barbarians to explode into their lives like a rampant infection, the young slave decided to act. His mother would not last long, he knew. In their old world or in the new. He- they were on their own.

It was an easy thing to slit his master’s throat as the old man tossed in a nightmarish, drunken sleep. His fat wife was next. Then his evil children. They all expired with tired, haunted expressions writ upon their faces as they gazed out without hope at nothing with their dying eyes.

“Let them go swiftly to the land of the dead,” the boy prayed aloud. “Dark gods. Give to them the fates they deserve. Make them suffer. Make them scream. For eternity.”

And a dark god was indeed listening. And a dark god gladly granted him his grim wish.

This was the first time that he ever prayed. Throughout his life, he was aware of the existence of gods, both dark and light, but this is the first time that he had asked them for help. A spark of hope ignited in his scarred heart, and for once, he began to think of a future. The gods could be very useful for a boy who was now no longer a slave. For a boy who now had nothing to lose.

He soon found his mother. She was alive, but barely. She could not walk. Her time, he knew, was at an end. He pressed her wet face into his shoulder as he slid his knife into her breast. She cried out softly, and he once again prayed to the dark gods. He prayed for her soul to dissipate- to become one with the great, black nothingness that awaited all servants of the dark gods. And again, a dark god listened. A dark god granted him that for which he prayed.

And covered with the blood of his mother, as he once was when he entered the world eight years ago to the day, the slave who was no longer a slave was reborn. He pushed open the rotten doors of his old master’s house, and walked from his past life into the chaotic streets, a free citizen of a doomed Empire.

At first, the young boy struggled with the concept of freedom. But he managed. His family was of a caste of bondage for as far back as the records of the Empire reached. He had known no other life. Nor had his mother. Nor his mother’s mother. “My mother,” he thought sadly. “She is gone. I am truly alone.”

The boy had known no father. More likely than not, his cruel master- the dead man who was once his master was his father. It mattered not. If the boy had a name, he would have left it behind all the same.

For days, the boy with no name hid in the cellars and sewers, as above, the Empire choked out its death rattle. The god-emperor was executed. He was hanged first, then torn apart and eaten by the pets of Miro the Lion. The empress too. She was offered up alive as a sweet desert to the vicious cats of the barbarian-king.

And then, just like that, the great Empire of the Gar was no more. Miro ascended.

Eventually, the boy was found. Half-starved and feral, he was found.

“My King,” growled an unwashed soldier with a thick, wiry beard that almost entirely covered his round, red face. “We found this one hiding in a hole, gnawing the raw meat from the skull of a dead horse.”

“Hungry, is he?” laughed the newly-crowned king. “What’s your name, boy? The boy did not answer. The king shrugged. “Remain silent then. No matter. You’re mine now, you understand? So it lies to me to choose you a new name.” The king pondered a moment before declaring, “I name you after the rabid dog who is the oldest and most pitiful among those who sire the pups for my lions to eat!” The king laughed again. His enormous goblet of black ale sloshed out onto his sandaled feet. “Though the name is too good for you, gar, I name you ‘Keldor.’”

Keldor the mad dog soon died, but Keldor the boy endured. A slave once more, hopeless and helpless once again, he endured.

Years passed. Though severely abused by King Miro’s men for the sole crime of the color or his skin, he still managed to cultivate one meaningful relationship amidst the unending animosity.

The old barbarian was a wizard, they said. The Wizard of Gnarl he was named. King Miro’s soldiers avoided him as much as they shunned Keldor, but unlike the blue-skinned boy, they did not dare provoke the old man. And in the wizard’s presence, Keldor was safe from their cruel, hard hands. And no one dared complain if a camp slave went missing for one or two hours a day. At least not in front of the wizard.

“Many winters ago, the Wizard of Gnarl appeared in the camp the instant the suns set one cold sharp evening,” the soldiers told one another.

“In a dual eclipse, he came,” others said.

“Miro doesn’t trust him, but the old wizard has proved useful over the years,” they all agreed.

And some said, “No man knows his true name. Not even our king.”

The old wizard was astounded by the ease of which Keldor mastered all aspects of the secretly-taught sorcery. But Keldor particularly excelled in the study and practice of alchemy. The boy had a scientific mind. A methodical way about him. His serious manner and his brilliant mind served him well. Soon, he would surpass the old wizard.

One day, the company of King Miro found itself approaching the stinking lands where the Vile Marsh met the Dread Sea, beneath the long shadows of the Mystic Mountains.

The old wizard grew agitated. He called for his pupil- his slave. “Keldor,” he said in a raw, quavering voice. “The time for which I have prepared has come. The time has come for us to melt away into the night. The time has come for you to claim this world in the name of the Dark God to whom you pray.”

“I haven’t prayed in a long time, master,” said the boy.

“No, Keldor. No, you have not. And the Dark God is most displeased.”

“How… how do I make amends, master?”

The old wizard stroked his long beard. The beard was gray, streaked with lines of yellowish-green, and it reached down to his rusty belt buckle. For the first time, Keldor realized that his master had red eyes. “Pray now, son. Pray with me. For though you have forgotten him, he has remembered you. He sent me to you, in fact. To teach you. To help you to become who you were born to be.”

They prayed. And as always, the dark god listened.

Late the next night, by the light of the colorful spinning planets and the swirling, cloudy galaxies, the wizard and his pupil simply walked out of the camp and out of the service of King Miro the Lion. No one saw their passing.

“We must build a house, Keldor,” said the old man. “For this place- this Vile Marsh will be a home to me until I die, and it will be your home until you have learned from me all that there is to learn.”

They built a house. Amidst the giant mosquitoes, hungry leeches, and slithering, spitting, water-cobras, they toiled for a month. Felling trees. Making mud bricks. Bending the landscape to their will.

And as the days passed, the false appearance of the old man faded away. He sloughed off his glamor until one day, nothing was left but his true form. His true face.

“Master,” said Keldor as he kneeled.

“Rise, pupil,” said the creature who was once a man.

“Master. Now that I can see you as you are, please tell me your true name.”

“What have I taught you, Keldor?”

“That names have power, master.”

“So therefore, I will not give mine up easily.” Keldor lowered his head. “Look at me, boy!” Keldor obeyed. “I will not give you my name, so you must take it.”

Keldor smiled.

The master and his pupil battled for several days, until finally, Keldor had won his prize.

“Say it then,” groaned the old wizard through shattered jaw and broken teeth. You have earned your prize. Speak my name.”

“Uqquz’ Zekul-mshqx.”

And as soon as Keldor spoke his master’s true name, his own teeth began to creak in their sockets. His lips split. He vomited for hours. His master laughed.

“Be careful for what you wish, Keldor. Be careful for what you fight. Come. It appears that you require my teaching still.”

“Who are you? Really?” asked Keldor to his master weeks later. “From where do your kinsmen dwell?”

The wizard who once wore the skin of a man leaned back in his roughly-hewn wooden chair. He clacked his long, broken nails against one another as was his habit. His glowing green, sometimes translucent skin pulsed in time with his strong heart. “I have no kinsmen. I am alone. It is as I told you before,” he said. His long beard draped over his bare chest like a blanket. “I am a servant to the Dark God. No more. No less.”

“Are there other dark gods, master?” asked the boy.

“None that have taken an interest in you. None but my god- your god. And count yourself fortunate, for he is the most powerful of them all. He is absolute. The others are foolish, pale pretenders, naming themselves gods, worshipped by foolish pale men, naming themselves men.”

And so, the years passed in quiet study for Keldor. He would leave their home and his own private laboratory that was set back from the small house from time to time. To love. To live. To search out sources of power, but always, he returned.

One night, after an especially long affair with the dread witch of Zalesia, and after the corruption of an Earthling and the murder of the Snake King and the taking of his mountain, Keldor returned to the Vile Marsh. His master was awaiting his student’s arrival in his favorite chair, doused in candlelight. His master raised his head and smiled an odd smile. Something squirmed on his belly under his beard.

Keldor could not make out what he saw through the flickering shadows. And despite his training, he then knew fear. “Master,” he said quietly. “I am home.”

“Welcome, my pupil.”

“Is anything… amiss, Master? You have a strange look on your face.”

“Do I?” grinned the wizard like a broken-toothed fox.

Keldor stood in silence. His eyes scanned the room warily. “Master?” he ventured.

“What is today?”

“Today, Master?” Keldor had no answer.

The wizard with the once-secret name replied. “It is the night of your birth, my pupil. The night also of your rebirth. I… am happy for you.”

The wizard then reached under his beard and produced that which was the cause of the squirming. Keldor accepted the bundle as if it would explode.

“What—” began the young alchemist.

The bundle uncurled in his arms, and two green eyes stared at him from sleek, soft, midnight-purple fur. The bundle purred.

“Raise her well, Keldor,” said the wizard. Her mother fought for her. She fought and lost. Now you are her only family.

Keldor looked up, and for the first time, he noticed that his master’s face had been recently lacerated by what only could have been giant claws. His master’s white skull shone through the raw, vertical slashes upon his shredded, glowing, green skin.

“What will you name her?”

“What is she, Master?”

“A sabre-tooth panther.”

The kitten licked Keldor’s hand and closed its large eyes, sinking into her new guardians’ arms. Keldor smiled and stroked the kitten’s back.

“Names have power, you know, Master. And I will keep hers safe.”

The wizard then erupted in laughter. “Smart boy!” he exclaimed. “Smart boy! Oh!” he said. “I have one more gift for you.” The wizard’s tone suddenly shifted to the serious.

“Yes, Master?”

“Are you prepared for another rebirth, my able student? I have no more knowledge to give you. My mind is empty. Used up. Only my body remains.”

Keldor was confused. He said so.

“I know you are. But not for long. Keldor? Set aside the kitten. Set aside your familiar. Though now she is small, you will need her strength and her loyalty in the awful days to come.”

Keldor placed the housecat-sized sabre-tooth panther upon a stack of blankets that were piled in a corner. The pile rested on the hard-packed dirt floor. The kitten cried out, but did not move from where she was placed.

“What must happen now, Master?” Keldor asked with uncomfortable sadness as he was forced to ignore the pleas of his new pet.

The old green wizard stood. He towered above his pupil. His biceps were as thick as Keldor’s waist, and his head was like something out of a nightmare. But Keldor had grown accustomed to his master’s appearance. He did not flinch.

The wizard spoke. “What must happen? A death. Another death. Then a rebirth. Your second rebirth. Your third birth. Providing you have the strength. Providing you can be brave.”

“I can,” said Keldor with confidence. “I will be.”

“We shall see, my clever boy. We shall see.”

“What must I do?”

“Ah! That is a better question.” The old wizard paused and then sighed. “You must kill me. Remove my heart. Take my head.” He paused and then added, “In whatever order you choose.” Keldor did not speak. The wizard continued. “Are you still brave?” Keldor nodded. “Then allow me to tell you what you must do next: After my death, boil my skull. As the skin loosens in the steaming cauldron, then you must eat my heart. All of it. No part of it shall remain outside of your body. Can you do these things?”

“Yes, Master,” replied Keldor without hesitation. Is that all? What must I do next?”

The wizard placed a heavy hand on the alchemist’s shoulder. Volumes of unspoken words of pride and love were communicated in the simple gesture. From the corner of the room, the kitten mewed.

“Flay,” began the wizard. “Flay your own skin from your own skull. Throw the mask of Keldor into the cauldron. Our faces will melt together.”

“I… understand. And am I to drink the boiling broth, Master?”

“Yes. All of it. The broth will scour you from the inside out. It will cleanse you. You will become a shell. An empty vessel in which to store knowledge.”

“Master?” said Keldor. “Why are you doing this? Surely you have more to teach.”

“No, Keldor.” The wizard’s gray-green beard swayed, and the kitten was mesmerized. “My task is nearly complete. This was always to be my fate. And I am honored to play the part that the Dark Lord assigned.”

“The Dark Lord.”

“Yes, Keldor. Your god. I am his creature. I am a wizard, yes, but also I am a demon. A demon-man of Despondos. Now come. Kill me. Prove to me that I have taught you well.”

Keldor obeyed. An eruption of poisonous blood sprayed onto the young alchemist’s face and into his eyes as he opened his master’s throat, hacking and tearing with a stained, dull meat cleaver. Though the pain of the spraying blood was excruciating, Keldor did not cry out. The sabre-tooth panther kitten looked on with her luminous green eyes as the old wizard collapsed. Keldor spoke his master’s name as he beheaded the demon-man. He spoke the name with ease.

When the vile swamp water in the cauldron that hung over the blazing hearth was finally at a rolling boil, Keldor threw the head in. The water hissed and turned a sickly color. The head cooked.

Keldor then feasted upon his master’s heart. It was surprisingly tasty. Rich, toothsome, and gamey. Somewhat sweet.

“Well, my pet,” said the young alchemist after his meal was complete. “Now for me.”

And without a moment’s pause, Keldor removed his own handsome face with a small boning knife and added it to the boiling broth. It melted immediately. Still, Keldor did not cry out. His wet, glistening skull reflected the light from the moons that bathed the little house, entering it from above, and in through the rough, cloudy windows. The kitten purred.

“Into the pot I go,” murmured Keldor. “Into the pot I go!”

He plunged his raw head into the steaming swamp water. The broth sizzled and the cauldron nearly boiled over. With his head still submerged, Keldor then began to drink. In desperate, agonizing swallows, he gorged himself.

After a day, the cauldron was empty, licked clean, save for the battered, notched skull of the old wizard- the demon-man of Despondos.

Keldor was reborn again. In reverence, he attempted to utter his master’s name one last time as he held aloft the old wizard’s skull, but his lipless mouth betrayed his intention. Another name escaped. His own true name. Like a key sliding into a hole, it fit. Keldor was no more. And he who was once Keldor then kneeled and prayed to the one true Dark God. His god.

The deep-purple kitten padded over and pressed her head against the alchemist’s side in love and understanding.

…………………

“All of these years,” said the alchemist. “My whole life, it was you who was guiding me to my destiny.”

“Do not presume to address your dark god directly, fool!” hissed the hooded priestess.

But the dark god simply raised his hand and the woman was silent. His grotesque pet laughed. The dark god approached the alchemist. “Get up,” he commanded.

Moved by legs that he no longer controlled, the alchemist instantly obeyed. The master of the Mountain of Snakes drank deeply of the awesome form of the god. With the severe face of a humanoid vampire bat, and with his many strange, alien cybernetic components enhancing his already impressive physique, the dark god loomed large and terrifying. But despite his horrible appearance, the dark god was quick to smile. And his smiles, it proved, were more frightening than his scowls.

The dark god then had words with his infant-bat-pig pet in an impossible language and they both laughed. Neither the laugh nor the smile on the face of the god was reassuring. The sharp teeth within his wet mouth glistened, red as rubies, for they had been stained with the blood of sacrificial victims.

The alchemist lowered his eyes. “I will play the subservient role,” he said to himself. “Then god or no, creator or no, I may survive to challenge him. This vain intruder…”

The dark god knew the alchemist’s mind.

“What is it, Master,” asked the small, flying monstrosity. “What do you hear, Master?”

“Unspoken words of betrayal, my pet.” The dark god snorted an inhalation. We have a usurper in our midst.” He then addressed his attendants. “My horde. A would-be usurper. He harbors thoughts of harming my divine personage.”

The towering ursine warrior stepped forward and kneeled. Through blunt, brown teeth, he rumbled low. “Master,” he said- he growled. “I will break him for his insolence if you command, My Lord.”

“No need,” smiled the dark god. He snorted again and clapped his hands together. The metal gauntlets that he wore created a shower of blinding sparks. The alchemist cried out in agony as his shin bones fractured in a hundred different places. He writhed on the cold, moist stone floor, begging for mercy. “That’s more like it,” laughed the dark lord of Despondos. “Now, I know you are wise enough to not test me further, creation. Simply worship me. Submit to my absolute will, and I promise to reward your loyalty. You will remain the master of the Mountain of Snakes. By my leave, you may continue to pursue the throne of Eternia, but now you will do so in my name. Do you submit? Or perhaps more… education is necessary?”

“I… submit,” lied the alchemist.

The dark god believed him. His pet and his horde did as well. “Good. Good. Now rise.”

Miraculously, the bones in the legs of the alchemist were immediately healed. He stood in astonishment. “My legs… I—”

“Why am I here?” interrupted the dark lord.

“Perhaps… Because… Today is the day of my birth… My God. The day of my rebirth. And my second rebirth.”

“To the hour,” agreed the dark god. “To the hour- minute.” He paused. “Second.”

The alchemist ventured a question. “Why, O Dark Lord, did you plant the seeds of betrayal in the minds of my warriors? Would you have me destroyed? Have I… displeased you?”

The dark god scoffed angrily. “Don’t make me regret my faith in you, slave. Perhaps you are not as clever as I had hoped?” The infant-pig-bat alighted on his master’s shoulder and laughed another unsettling laugh. “Prove me wrong. Why did I do such a thing?”

The answer was now clear to the alchemist. Clear and simple. “To make them fear me,” he replied with confidence. “For fear breeds order. To prove to them, without a doubt, that I am their superior.”

“Good. So you are not an idiot. Yes, my slave, yes. You will now find that things will go better for you in your claim for the throne of this insignificant world. Ideally, a ruler must be worshipped, as I am, but failing that, a ruler must be feared. The fear of pain- of punishment of death- of punishment after death is a powerful motivator. This, my little alchemist, is my gift to you. And consider this day your third rebirth. Rejoice, for you now know your place. Subservient to me- to your creator, but master of your own domain. And be content, slave. I will only warn you once. Be content. For my generosity can quickly turn to wrath.”

With thoughts more deeply hidden than before, the alchemist then decided what must be done. “This creature,” he thought. “This… alien’s power will be mine. Not a fraction. Not a sip. But all. All.” He said none of this aloud. Instead he said, “Yes, O Master.”

And again, the dark lord believed him.

“Come,” said the god to his worshippers as he turned his back upon the alchemist. “We have finished with this barbaric dimension. We must go home. Reports of my daughter’s new victories have reached my ears. She has brought me gifts. She has brought me more rebel prisoners for… experimentation.” The dark lord was nearly giddy with excitement. “A mosquito, an elephant… So much to do, so much to try,” he said under his breath. “Blood and metal. Metal and blood.”

The hooded priestess then reopened the shimmering portal. One by one the monsters entered and disappeared. The cat, the leech, the bear, the bug-eyed horror, and finally, the violet and magenta weaver of shadows.

“Master?” called out the god’s pet in a high-pitched baby’s voice.

The dark lord snorted and replied in distracted irritation as the portal began to close. “What is it, imp?”

“Your other gift, Master?”

“Oh! Yes, yes, yes! How could I forget? Come here, slave,” the dark god commanded to the master of the Mountain of Snakes. The alchemist obeyed. “Hurry! Faster, you fool.”

“Yes, my God. What is it, my Creator?”

“Here.”

And then, the god and his imp disappeared. The portal closed.

The alchemist was alone. No, not alone. Never alone again. He unwrapped the warm blanket that he received from the dark lord of Despondos.

The alchemist who was once named Keldor smiled a skeleton smile as his ember-red eyes met those of the newborn, velvet-furred, purple sabre-tooth panther kitten that nestled contentedly in his strong arms. The kitten purred. And for a time, at least, the alchemist was happy.



The End of: USURPERS

Or: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SKELETOR
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