A Journey’s Sudden End

A lot of good stories start with a nice and detailed description of what someone sees when they first wake up, so I’ll try that with how my morning started. I woke up to blood. A lot of blood. That and two young women standing over me with their arms crossed and shaking their heads in shame. Apparently not knowing how you got into a barn yard and ate most of the livestock didn’t matter when the group’s savings went into paying the owner back for damages. It also didn’t help that it happened a lot more often than it should. I never asked to be a shapeshifter, especially one who had little control over what I called the other half of me. I also never asked for its opinion, but I got it anyway all of the time. My name is Henry, and contrary to what I said in the beginning, this is not a good story. This is the story of how I threw my chance at happiness away.

“Henry!”

Tallara was glaring at me over her shoulder as we walked. I could only shrug in response. I didn’t know what I’d done this time.

“Are you listening?” she asked sternly. Good, I hadn’t done anything except ignore her, so the usual in my book.

“No? The question you should ask is if I ever listen?”

She rolled her eyes and went back to focusing on the road ahead. Tallara was a very determined woman. She claimed to be some kind of alien being not from this world. She found it hard to believe that not many people were surprised by her blue skin, but considering that people came in all kinds of colors and shapes in this world it shouldn’t have been too tough to understand. I’d once met a guy with illuminated veins that traveled up the length of his left arm and threatened to spread and shorten his life, but that’s another story. Even her antennae weren’t that exotic, but her white hair was strange to me. Don’t most old people have hair like that? She was only in her thirties.

“You two stop fighting,” Phyra said dully from the front, “and besides, Henry’s going to do what he wants. We’ve never stopped him before.”

Phyra. Now there was an oddball, but she wasn’t that bad at all, really. The Under Elves of her kind weren’t usually seen mingling with society, but she’d gotten some practice as a former thief from a guild on the surface after she was abandoned by her kind. For someone who was supposed to specialize in silence, she voiced her opinions a lot. She had her cloak pulled tightly around her today, covering her bluish-purple skin and white hair. She couldn’t stand the sunlight, and since the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly, its rays brushing over everything it could touch, she was miserable. I always wondered what it was about her kind that hated the sun. Living underground, sure, but did her skin attribute to it in a way as well? It had me wondering if I could test the theory at some point, but she was quick with a blade when she needed to be. There was no experimenting on her. Between the two, I was always being watched by four very strict eyes that didn’t want me to drag them into trouble too. Too bad for them. It wasn’t my choice to go along. They had to be the nice ones and take me with them after I’d been kicked out of my hometown in the frozen tundras of the north, but that was an even longer story. I’m kind of full of those, if you haven’t gotten the point by now. The short version would be it involved a lot of murders and a very persuasive, sentient amulet. Granted, I was only responsible for three of those deaths, and those were intentional. On that note, I reached out and tugged on Phyra’s long hair through a tear in her cloak. That drew a very irritated look, but I didn’t care. It was fun to mess with the one who could kill me in my sleep without the other knowing. I always wondered who would win; creature of the night or creature inside of me?

“How much further?” I asked her.

“Henry, we don’t want to be out here either, but it’s the only lead we have on the Lethesar Four.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I still wasn’t happy they dragged me into this mess. Some long-dead asshole necromancer had a group of other assholes trying to bring about his rebirth, and these two were fixated on stopping him. I’d nearly died in our last encounter with one of them. The bastard had turned an entire fortified city into zombies, and we found ourselves trapped atop the roof of a castle fighting off the waves of the undead. It didn’t help that the jackass claimed to be related to me. My family was dead to me as far as I was concerned. I never met my mother, and my father was the asshole who made me what I am.

“The message said Dimshore was in dire need of help.”

“Yet Lanerscost only sent the three of us,” I whined, “Can the next place that needs help not be a week’s journey out?”

“Henry, you’re being a child,” Phyra jested.

I sighed and looked to the sky. “Ah, my childhood. I didn’t have much of one. Sadly, the clearest memory I have is of my father performing procedures on me, and then him leaving. He said he was going to buy tobacco from the place next to the inn, and…and.” I mockingly sobbed, which only angered the two more.

“Henry, stop lying,” Tallara spat.

“Your past is more convoluted than the history of this land together,” Phyra added.

“We have an alien as a friend,” I pointed out.

“And her story makes more sense than yours.”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. It was hard to call anything memories of the past when a third of it was just full of either blank spots or images of bodies. The obvious murder scenes didn’t bother me. The emptiness got to me. That was how I’d stumbled into a barn earlier and woke up with a full belly and sore limbs. The transformations always took a toll, and nothing short of devouring everything in the way seemed to stave the pain off.

“Do you have the map?” Tallara asked her friend. Phyra reached into her sack and pulled out a rolled parchment. The two examined it together as they walked, muttering to one another while I gazed out over the open field to our left. It was a beautiful afternoon, that was for sure. The mountain range to the west gave a nice backdrop to the rolling plains before it, all full of strange, massive animals the likes of which I’d had never seen in the north. I’m a basket-case, sure, but even I can see the little things in life sometimes. It was the same when I looked forward and placed my staff over my shoulders, arms draped over it as I walked. The two women in front of me were the best thing that had come into my life. I’d always believed that friends were an impossibility with my condition, but they put up with me, and had even put their lives on the line for me on several occasions. I couldn’t say the same, yet they still brought me along.

“We’re a long way from Ultria,” Tallara complained.

“I like that,” I replied honestly, “I’m wanted in at least two holds there.”

Tallara looked back at me in scorn. “Maybe if you didn’t pick fights with everyone.”

“Hey, the Duke of Lanerscost is a nineteen year-old wuss ruling over the capital of a country who needs someone to shape him into a man. He needs an adversary.”

“Adversaries don’t constantly hide vague threats in every sentence they say to someone and count the increasing number of guards each time they visit,” Phrya chided, “a bully does.”

“It’s those guards and you two that make him soft. He can’t keep relying on others to keep him safe. He’s a leader, yet he’s comfortable sitting behind walls of bodies while bad things transpire.”

“You were one of those bad things,” Tallara reminded me. She wasn’t wrong, but to be fair I only went on that rampage because that devilish being promised me he’d help me control my other half. How was I supposed to know it was a monkey’s palm deal that would actually make me more monstrous at the time? Okay, maybe it was more obvious than I gave it credit for…

“Fair enough.”

“You’ve got a knack for making things harder than they should be,” Tallara pressed on. I swear she loved to argue with me.

“Look, if this is about how I got into your house while you were gone, the locks and seals over the windows were too complicated, so I had to teleport inside. Maybe I messed up a bit and took a tree with me, but I didn’t mess up the security.”

Phyra giggled. “The tree went through her room.”

“It’s not funny, Phyra!”

“It’s kind of funny,” I said, trying as hard as I could not to laugh less Tallara whip out a six-shooter and leave me for the wolves. Then again, I got along with wolves…

“You still have to pay me back for the repairs,” Tallara griped.

“I told you I could fix it myself, but no, you don’t trust my magic even though I’ve put things back together before.”

Tallara shot me a look of disgust. “You put together body parts into flesh golems and attached metal to them to make war machines.”

“Hey, Theo got a good stab on me when I was done. I call that a success.”

Phyra suddenly grew solemn. Theo was an odd flesh golem, in that he actually had some cognitive thought. He had the mental capacity of a three year-old, but he was her friend. She took that loss hard, like it was her fault. I actually refrained from joking about that often, as I didn’t like to see her sad. It wasn’t natural on her face. Murderous intent, sure, but sorrow was unbecoming of her.

“The sun will be down soon,” she said quietly.

“Which takes me back to the question. How far?”

“Henry, be quiet,” Tallara pleaded.

“When I’m quiet all I hear is the other me, and he tells me to kill things.”

“Then explain to him why that’s wrong,” Tallara argued.

“Tried that once. Didn’t help the body count.” I reflected on that group of bandits outside of my hometown of Menardi. “I really hope I killed them quickly. Their asshole archer shouldn’t have shot me to begin with, but I was trying to be nice.”

“It should be around the hill here,” Phyra commented, looking up from the map as they came around the bend. Sure enough, there was a village…what was left of it anyway.

“Well, shit,” was all I could think to say as looked at the scene. Some structures still stood, but they’d been badly damaged by something. Houses had entire walls torn out and roofs collapsed, and what looked like a church had a carriage impaled through the front door. Some of the ash piles of what were probably other buildings were still smoldering. Tallara approached a horse that had been eviscerated and knelt down.

“Oh my god…”

Phyra entered the nearest house, and I decided to stand where I was. I couldn’t be in trouble if I didn’t do anything. “I’m starting to see why the message was urgent.”

“Henry, check the church,” Tallara ordered, drawing her gun and approaching the front of what had to be a store judging from the goods strewed about out front.

“I don’t get along well with religion,” I said with a sigh, taking my staff and marching forward, “if it sets fire it was probably one of the gods angry with my presence.”

Something was off. All of this destruction, and no bodies in the streets? Then again, they could have hulled up in the buildings, so maybe I was just too curious. The door was out of the question since it was obstructed, so I just made an orb of pure force energy with my staff and blew a hole in the wall next to it. I hadn’t even stepped one foot inside when I could hear Phyra’s voice.

“Henry! What happened?!”

I sighed and turned back to her. “Tallara told me to check it! I assumed that meant get inside!”

Even from a distance I could tell she was defeated with a response, so she just stomped back into the house. I couldn’t do anything right. Whatever. I crept inside to find the place littered with debris from broken pews and shattered windows. Oddly enough, no bodies. Now I was curious. I couldn’t even smell blood. That was a unique benefit from my other half.

“Henry?” Tallara’s voice called out from my makeshift entrance.

“Look, you wanted me to check the place out. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“That’s not it,” she said, stepping into the chapel and taking in the mess, “I didn’t see anything in the store.”

“No bodies? No blood?” She shook her head. Maybe I was right to be curious. “I’m not a fan of mysteries…”

“Henry, this isn’t a game! People are missing!”

“Yeah, I can tell,” I uttered, catching the scents of many that still resided here among the seats. There must’ve been a lot of devotion to the deity in this town. I scoffed at the symbol over the altar. No god cares to interfere and save even their most loyal.

“Anything?” Tallara asked.

“No.”

“You’re no help,” she said in anger, storming off to check another room. Philosophical thoughts on the useless gods aside, I decided to check on Phyra’s findings. I stepped out into the town barely lit by the setting sun. I loved the night, but even I didn’t want to be here with no light. Someone grabbed my shoulder, and I spun around with fire wrapping around the end of my staff as it was pointed into Phyra’s face. She didn’t even flinch.

“I thought you could smell things sneaking up on you?” she asked innocently. I lowered the staff and sighed.

“I never take into account you.”

She beamed, but whatever was bothering her quickly erased that. “I didn’t find anyone in the house.”

“Seems like something I would do.”

Phyra cocked an eye. “Taking the bodies with you to turn into monsters?”

She understood me well. “Yeah, but they didn’t take bodies. Whatever happened here, no one was hurt. Not even a drop of blood…unless they cleaned well before they left.”

Phyra looked to the ruined buildings. “This couldn’t have happened too long ago.”

“Embers are still warm?” Phyra nodded. I didn’t come here to play detective, so this was just plain annoying.

“Guys?!” Tallara shouted from the church, “I found something!”

Phyra was already a blur. The rogue was faster than my senses. I always needed a reminder of how they’d beaten me when I was transformed and tearing through Lanerscost.

I was close behind, but not enough so that I could see what stole their attention before coming to a stop next to the pair in the chapel. A vortex of magical energy was spiraling into shape and growing near the altar. The black and red colors were between alluring and downright disturbing.

“I didn’t do that,” I said defensively. Phyra drew her daggers while Tallara aimed her gun. Guess they didn’t care. Whatever works? I pointed my staff at the anomaly and focused.

“What is it, Henry?” Tallara asked in alarm.

“Well, I’m getting a strong teleportation vibe, but that might be gas.”

“Henry, I will shoot you,” she warned.

“It’s alteration of the physical plane. A rift, so teleportation. Something is creating mass on this side.”

Phyra tilted her head to me. “Meaning?”

“Something is about to come through.”

I wasn’t wrong, unfortunately. The vortex stopped expanding, and a humanoid figure began to take shape inside of it. I began the incantation for a firestorm to sweep the area, but then the figure stepped through with a familiar looking staff. It was long and metallic, with a golden gleam to it that all came to an odd shape at the top that I hadn’t identified the last time I saw it. The figure itself was in a long black robe that covered its hands and face. Phyra and Tallara must’ve assumed the same thing, because Phyra was in denial.

“You’re dead.”

The figure raised its free hand and pulled back the hood. The bald head and absence of eyes identified the man immediately.

“Sam?” Tallara asked, disbelief evident in her tone.

“In the flesh, my failed disciples,” the man said in a very polite tone. It hit me. The smell was the same. This wasn’t a fake.

“You died!” I snarled. I wasn’t there, but I believed Phyra and Tallara. They’d captured him in the cathedral of Castle Altarwood back in Ultria, and he was brought back to Lanerscost and imprisoned. A few weeks later a group we now called the Lethesar Four broke into the prison and assassinated him in his cell.

“I did, honestly.” He began to pace back and forth along the front of the chapel. “However, it’s hard to destroy someone who had command over life and death.”

I wasn’t going to give him the benefit of a monologue. “Let’s see how exceptional to that you are.”

The firestorm erupted from my staff and engulfed the chapel in front of us. All was ablaze, and soon obscured by the flames. We made a run for the front and escaped through the hole I’d made as the church went up in the blaze. We backed away from the building, weapons still ready. That didn’t help when something struck Phyra from behind. She went down hard, and I spun to see Sam unscathed and actively conjuring up more spells next to a ravaged house.

“Shit! Tallara, get him!”

Tallara opened fire, emptying the revolver in a few seconds. They punctured Sam, and his visage shifted and dispersed.

“An image?! Fuck!”

Phyra shifted on the ground and faced me. “Henry!”

I didn’t react fast enough. The next thing I knew I was tumbling through the grass and dirt before I collided with the wall of a shack. The air was knocked out of me, but as I fought to fill my lungs I saw Tallara taking the chance to strike back. She’d discarded the revolver and had a pistol out. One concussive blast from that and Sam stumbled backwards before falling to a knee.

“Nice shot, Tallara,” I cheered, scurrying forward and snatching up my staff from the ground. Phyra was back up and had her daggers in a defensive stance. We were ready. Surely this wasn’t going to be that easy.

“You’ve all gotten better,” Sam said, his head low as he kept a hand to his chest, “but you’re still predictable.”

“We beat you before,” Phyra challenged.

“Because I saw it necessary. I gathered the souls I needed that day, and Lord Lethe will soon arise anew. I just needed the final pieces, and that’s where you two come in.”

I knew Phyra and Tallara were special in all of this, but not all of the details. Something about a failed sacrifice that tied them to this Lethe guy.

“How can you see us?” Tallara demanded. “You don’t have your special cloak this time!”

“My lord gives me sight, and power,” he replied, forcing himself on his feet and raising the staff.

“That staff was protected by the Brain Trust Seven of Minoldur,” Phyra said, taking a step closer, “how did you get it back?”

“Their defenses were beneath the Lethesar Four,” Sam answered, a wicked smile creeping across his lips, “and I have yet to fail my lord.”

“Did you hurt them?!” Tallara cried, her gun aimed right at him. Sam wagged a finger.

“I didn’t do anything. I’m sure they’re…incapacitated in some sense.”

Tallara fired again, and Sam recoiled from the impact. Still, he wouldn’t go down.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t go down fighting,” Sam said, growing excited.

“You came back to life just to die again?” I asked. “Sadist.”

“I came back to bring my promise of a new hope for the masses!” Sam announced proudly. “The humans that plague this planet are unlike the other races that have long existed here! Those in this town have been taken to his realm for the cleansing!” He pointed the staff at me. “You were not originally from here, and you killed off the greatest race in your fear of the unknown! Now, you will all pay the price through the plan orchestrated by my lord for two thousand years!”

I really hated church. Sermons counted. “Aren’t you a human, dumbass?”

Sam pointed his staff at me, and I could feel my muscles tense and lock up. “Not anymore! As all are born from dust, my body was recreated from the dust of the planet and my soul given a new vessel to will Lethe’s will!”

Phyra rushed forward and went to drive her daggers into his chest, but Sam sidestepped her attack and tripped her. Tallara had finished reloading and fired another shot, but it something illuminated in front of him and stopped the impact. I knew a barrier when I saw one. I still couldn’t move. Time for drastic measures.

“Other me, come out and play, please…”

Phyra was back up and swiping in a whirlwind of steel, but Sam was moving in the most fluid ways possible to dodge each blade. Tallara had drawn a rifle from her back and was charging forward with the bayonet aimed at the necromancer. I couldn’t let them fight him alone. Granted, I always ended up hurt somehow, but watching Phyra get dropped by a blow to the head pushed my selfish thoughts aside for a moment.

“Just die!” Tallara screamed, plunging the bayonet into Sam’s back Phyra sprung up and ran a dagger through his chest, but Sam uttered something and the duo was blown back. His staff was pointed at Phyra. I don’t know what hurt worse; my bones were cracking, bending and reforming in rapid succession, but Phyra wasn’t moving fast enough to escape whatever Sam was about to do. The ground beneath her turned into a dark ichor, but I didn’t get to see what was happening. My other half definitely showed itself as I closed the distance to Sam and wrenched his left hand off in a bloody mess. I still had control, but things tended to be more violent when I was like this. I now towered over the necromancer, the monster my father had made me. It was hard to vocalize anything other than snarls like this, but words came out in a guttural growl.

“Now for the other one.”

Sam struck me with the staff and I was forced back, my feet digging into the ground to keep me upright. Apparently he didn’t expect that, because he was already working on another spell to hit me with. Tallara fired a bullet that went clean through him, and that threw off his counter as I pounced forward and took him to the ground. I readied my claws and drove them deep into his ribs and beyond on both sides. It filled me with joy to hear him scream.

“We aren’t brothers,” I snarled, “you’re too weak!”

Something wrapped around my neck and left arm and tore me away from the necromancer. The blackened ground before had sprouted tendrils that were now struggling to hold me in the air. Phyra was on the move and attacking Sam before he could rise, but I couldn’t get out of this trap. I howled and raked at the tendrils, but for everyone I sliced through more took hold. In my struggle I saw Phyra and Tallara fighting Sam. They just couldn’t beat him, and they were doing everything they could. Tallara had ditched her rifle and was striking with a katana that kicked up gusts of wind with each swipe. Phyra was hurt. I could smell the blood. Still, she kept attacking relentlessly as Sam summoned forth spectral entities to defend himself. Not like this. I had one more thing to try, but it was way too risky. Coming from me that meant something. The last time I’d let myself be taken by the binding spells placed upon me to keep the evolution in check, Phyra and Tallara had stopped me with help. They’d be too weak after this fight, and I wasn’t sure I could come back on my own. I promised Phyra I’d have it purged from me, but I was too me to listen at the time. Still, I didn’t want to see them die. I couldn’t afford to not try. Even in my monstrous form, I forced myself to relax and focus on the incantation in my head. The glyphs shined a crimson red, spreading from my chest to my limbs. This was going to hurt like hell. I could feel my consciousness fading fast as my arms and expanded in mass. I grabbed a handful of tendrils and roared a demonic tone as I tried them from the abyss below. Others sprouted and tried to restrain me, but with an air-shattering roar they dissolved into nothingness. My power was now that of something beyond a monster. I was a god compared to the necromancer. The last thing I saw was Sam’s face snickering as he readied himself for my assault. At least I wasn’t going to be the only one enjoying this bloodshed.

 

It was dark. I was on my side on what smelled like burnt wood, aching in every bone. It took some coaxing, but I managed to sit up and look around. I was in the church…or what was left of it. Smoldering ruins rested around me, and the floor beneath me was blackened and bloodstained. Two nights in a row. Not good. Then it hit me.

“Phyra?! Tallara?!”

No response. I shakily got to my feet and began to wander back to the area I’d last seen them. They weren’t there, but the ground was torn up in a lot of places. Craters now existed sporadically, and I could see spots where extreme heat had scorched the ground. What the hell had happened? I stumbled about for ten minutes, my head pounding. I was starving. Blood. I could smell blood leading to a ruined house. I found my way inside to see Tallara sitting on a chair next to a smashed table. When she saw me, her brows furrowed.

“Tallara, what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Phyra.”

“She’s resting,” she said grumpily. That was cold.

“What about Sam? Where’s Sam?”

“Gone,” she said sharply. “He escaped.”

“Fuck…is Phyra okay?”

“She’s resting,” she repeated sternly. I didn’t understand.

“Is she hurt? I smell blood.”

“Henry, enough!” She stood up and approached me, the look on her face making me wonder if I was about to get slapped. I was naked from the transformation, but she was too angry to care.

“What’s wrong?”

“You promised her you wouldn’t do that again,” she fired off, “that you wouldn’t become that horrible thing! You’re still obsessed with power! When Sam fled through his portal you started to harass her. At first we thought it was because you had control and were worried, but you wouldn’t leave her alone and tried to attack her!”

That stung. I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t risk letting them get killed. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I…you know how I…I’d never-”

“Henry, she tried to help you. You stayed with us because she trusted you. You broke that tonight.”

“I didn’t!” I argued. This was pointless. “Let me speak to her.”

“She obviously doesn’t want to talk to you.”

That hurt more than the time Theo nearly gutted me. ”

“She was trying to help you!” Tallara yelled. “All you had to do was accept that! Instead you stuck to your instinct! You always think you’re doing right, but you’re not! She was your friend!”

I was already beating myself up, and I didn’t need this. I walked over to a wall and snatched a knitted blanket that was hung up, dropping it over myself. My staff was resting against the wall nearby. I guess they felt I’d need it. Defeated, I tapped the floor with it and uttered the words necessary to open a gate home to Menardi. Facing my trial there for crimes would be easier than facing the fact that I’d hurt Phyra. These two were my friends, and she…it didn’t matter anymore. I approached the portal and stopped just before entering, turning back to Tallara. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the past year, and I’m sorry I’ve hurt you and your friend. I warned you a long time ago that I’m not a good person, and I guess I’ve proven that. You two made a dark life nice again, and I can’t repay that. You came to me at a rough time, and I’ll miss the good ones we made.”

Tallara kept her glare fixed on me. Not another word. I sighed. “If you ever forgive me, we still have to stop Lethe. I know you two will go it alone, but I’ll be where I can be reached if needed. Tallara…she’s…I…”

Tallara returned to her seat, and I brushed a tear away with the blanket as I stepped through the portal.

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Where Angels Dare to Tread

This short story was actually based off of an RPG my friends and I never got to finish. It needed a conclusion, so I made one. This is my first true attempt at fantasy, so I was a bit nervous of the undertaking. Enjoy!

The colossal hallway leading towards the entrance to the dungeon appeared just as dark and menacing as when they had first entered the dominion of perpetual atrocity merely an hour before. Blue flames from the torches connected to each pillar that lined both sides of their walkway gave the passage just enough light to see, but it was still eerie enough to have everyone constantly scanning their surroundings. Considering the difficulty the party had just faced and triumphed over, there wasn’t much light to be seen at the end of the passageway in spite of the fact that most had made it out with their lives. There was one casualty; Jaeger, the fallen immortal, was lost to the tyrant in the depths below. Even a fallen angel could meet death once more in such a place. The vicious behemoth of a serpent had squeezed his body in its clutches until his bones shattered, and there was nothing his partner could do to save him, despite all of her witchery. Engel was a powerful fey mage, but even her arsenal of healing spells weren’t sufficient to keep her loved one alive. She was still silently mourning his loss at the tail end of the rest of the group, trailing behind and staring at the marble floor beneath her feet as she stumbled along with an air of misery. She may have survived, but her spirit was broken and gone with Jaeger. Kanye was the only member of the group with any sense of satisfaction still evident as they departed from the hell they had traversed. The greedy little thief had nabbed himself quite the load of treasure to pawn off once they were back in New Vale while everyone strived to leave with their lives. An opportunist such as himself didn’t need to waste the chance to obtain treasures by aiding in what had inevitably become a treacherous battle with a monster that was in the depths of the crust for a reason; a reason it made clear by nearly killing everyone but the thief himself. Mar, the half-serpent, kept to the side close to the columns they passed by, refusing to make any comments about the botched descent into what was obviously dangerous and unknown territory. He kept his mind occupied tending to the wound on his right hand as he slithered on, just happy to be alive after the encounter. In truth, he felt no sympathy for Jaeger; the once divine being knew what it was getting into when it tried to face off with the gargantuan snake alone. Mar had no pity for foolishness.

The only sounds that were noticeable in the somber silence were the heavy footsteps of the crystal golem, Idgaf, and the tapping of the staff belonging to the twisted but somewhat neutral being shrouded in rags that only answered to the name Lethe. Lethe carried on ahead of the group, unfazed by the death of one of their own. There was that sinister aura about the entity that struck the rest of the group as odd, but no one wanted to speak up against the vile being that had set fire to a tavern only days before with people still trapped inside, and blew up a family of dwarves right before their child’s eyes not long prior. Menacing as it was, the group needed the awful individual’s aid, as any was more useful than not, though in truth, Lethe only saw the party as a means to an end.

Kanye, never afraid to get anyone riled up, decided that the absence of conversation had lingered too long, “You know, bag of bones, you could’ve just unrobed yourself in front of that thing. Your black bones might’ve actually scared that damned thing long enough for me to sneak atop it and run a blade through its eye. That or the fact that you’re a genderless abomination to nature.  Might’ve saved Jaeger the trouble of getting himself killed.”

Lethe stopped, and the rest of the party followed suit. It wasn’t entirely a secret to most in the party that Lethe wasn’t human…at least not anymore. Underneath the robes it donned were literally dark bones that framed the body of the being. It turned to face the short thief and made an audible hissing noise under its hood before speaking. That raspy voice always sent chills up everyone’s spine, no matter how brave they tried to appear.

“Says the ruffian who sought treasure in objects rather than a sentient being during the strife. You dare to question my concerns? If you’re trying to blame me for the fool’s death, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to discover that I simply don’t care. He tried to be a hero, and he failed. It’s not really my problem if we lose a person or two once in a while. As long as we accomplish the goal, I don’t see the issues presented by you as crippling. We have to make sacrifices. If I should perish, others will be sent in my place to ensure all I’ve worked for will not be in vain.”

Zack couldn’t believe his ears. He practically snarled at Lethe as he stomped towards the being, teeth bared and eyes glowing their yellow tint. Lethe watched his every movement. It may have been a powerful necromancer, but it was hard to keep a beast man down when it was pissed, and Zack was a useful ally for what it believed awaited ahead.

“What the hell are you talking about?! You keep mentioning this ‘goal,’ these ‘others.’ Who the hell do you think you are?!” Zack demanded, “You claim that the thief values objects, yet you yourself see us as expendable! We’re not pawns for you! Someone just lost a life, and in turn, someone else lost someone dear to them! I’d ask if you have a soul, but according to you, you have many! Aren’t any of them registering some form of sympathy for someone who’s been with us since the beginning?”

Lethe knew it wasn’t trusted amongst all of the party, but it understood human emotion, even if it couldn’t necessarily channel and radiate any one in particular. Things like being an emotional character weren’t really easy when you were comprised of countless souls that were all competing for control in your shell. Underneath its robe was a stirring of fabric, and out popped the tiny, purple book imp that served as the creature’s trusted servant.

“Pipe down, wretched dog!” It spoke in its squeaky voice, “If you truly understood the forces at play, you’d know he will be spared from the hell to come!”

Zack emitted a low growl before speaking, “Foul darklings such as yourself had best keep to the shadows, least you find yourself devoured by a larger, more menacing creature of the night.”

The imp began to rant off in a demonic tongue, but Lethe cut it off as it spoke calmly in the same language. The imp surrendered the fight and disappeared back into the necromancer’s robes. Lethe then directed its attention to the near-animalistic Zack once more.

“If I said I sympathize with the woman, I’d be lying. Is that the answer you seek?”

Zack could feel his change coming on, which in turn led to Lethe raising its staff, but Mar was quick to interfere with the quarrel between the two. The poison tipped tail of the serpent man was right at the beast man’s throat, and its dagger pointed in the direction of the dark one. Zack was too surprised by the apathetic member of the group’s apparent interest in someone else’s affairs for once to focus on the argument. Idgaf was uneasy about the threat against its master, and stepped forward as the corridor shook underneath its weight.

“I don’t care if you two rip each other apart by spell or claw,” Mar spoke, “but if you’re going to do it, wait until we’re back in town. At least then you’ll put on a good show while we all have a drink to Jaeger’s memory.”

Lethe said no more as it lowered its staff and turned away to continue the march out of the dungeon, but something stopped it from getting too far away. In front of the party was the lone figure of Jaeger, standing whole and alive before them. Lethe stood its ground as Zack and Mar cautiously approached, perplexed by the sight.

“J-Jaeger? Is that you?” Zack asked. The figure tilted its head as if it only heard him, but didn’t understand what he was saying.

“Hey, bones,” Mar asked over his shoulder, “This some of your mess?”

Lethe made a sound of disgust underneath its hood, “You insinuate that just because I’m a necromancer that I’m responsible?”

“Let me reiterate,” Mar protested, “You blew up a dwarf and reanimated him for his daughter. Then you blew him up again anyway just for the laughs, and let me tell you, there were none.”

Lethe couldn’t argue that one. It knew its reputation amongst the others was…well, its presence was baneful to them. Still, it wanted to understand why the dead angel was standing before them as if nothing had transpired. Lethe tried to get a feel for any arcane energy in the surrounding area, but there was none other than its own and a faint hint of Engel’s. There was nothing binding the soul before them to this world other than natural life. That was saying a lot for a person who had been crushed and devoured by the biggest cobra in the known world just a short while before. Lethe was going through the conjoined thoughts of every soul in its melded mind to seek an answer as to how Jaeger was before them, and only one made any sense. Engel was already approaching him with sheer joy expressed openly as she extended her arms for him. Lethe decided that losing her to test a hypothesis wasn’t an option, as she was too valuable, even if she did know spells to down him in an instant. As much as he hated to admit it, her role as the deterrent in the party was one of the things that kept the others from turning against him.

“Fool!” Lethe snapped, “He’s a doppelgänger!”

Though Engel knew Lethe to be of a minor threat to her, it was still a terrifying presence to be reckoned with, and that voice was downright bloodcurdling. She stopped in her tracks as Jaeger seemed to express disappointment. Mar and Zack looked to Lethe.

“How can you tell?” Zack asked. Lethe mulled the thought over as it examined the man before them.

“You may call it a hunch, but even you saw the fool die before your own eyes, did you not?”

Zack actually agreed with the dark one for once. He looked to Jaeger and began to smell the air. It hit him, “His scent isn’t right. It’s definitely not him.”

“Hey!” Mar shouted to Engel, “Get back here, you idiot!”

Engel had started to walk toward him again, but no one anticipated the wicked smile that tore over Jaeger’s normally composed face. The fey had no time to react as his right hand suddenly morphed into a long blade that he plunged through her chest. It erupted from her back in a mist of blood that collected on the marble behind her in spray and droplets. Everyone watched in horror as Jaeger ripped the blade back out of her in a violent fashion that tossed her behind him towards the entrance. Lethe raised its staff to him and bellowed in a dark voice, “Wretched monster! You had best bow before I make you! I need that creature alive!”

Jaeger smiled and pointed the bloodied blade at the new challenger. Zack and Mar flanked him on both sides while Lethe began to channel energy. It hated a challenge, but wasn’t against killing something that had probably just cost him a powerful ally. If anyone was going to kill the fey, it would, but only after she had outlived her usefulness.

“Hey, Jaeger!” Kanye called out from the sideline, “We all want a piece of the bastard, but why the hell did you do that?! That was Engel!”

“It’s not him, you imbecile!” Zack snapped.

“If you worms don’t stop arguing,” Lethe muttered as it continued to manifest magic into its staff, “I’m going to make you all kill yourselves when this is over.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Zack argued back as it looked to the crystal golem, “Idgaf! Restrain the one that looks like Jaeger!”

The nine-foot tall golem looked to Zack, but nothing more. It was hard to make a golem with the mental capacity of a seven year-old do anything without dumbing down steps.

“Grab Jaeger!” Zack demanded. Idgaf understood that one. The crystallized automaton stomped its way to the mimic Jaeger and reached out for him like a clumsy child, when Jaeger suddenly leapt from the ground up to the golem’s head and brought his left hand across his chest. The hand took on the form of a mallet-looking instrument before Jaeger whipped his arm out and beheaded the golem with a mighty strike. Idgaf’s severed head crashed through a pillar and brought a small portion of the ceiling down next to Kanye, who was quick to evade. The rest of Idgaf collapsed to the floor before Jaeger even descended from the assault. He landed perched atop the golem’s back and took a fighting stance as the party dealt with the disbelief that the mighty golem had been felled by a single blow.

“Bastard!” Zack snarled mid-transformation, “You’ll pay for that!”

His bones began to break apart and reform in an audible manner, causing Mar to twitch at the sounds. Fully formed once more, the hairy, monstrous wolf form of Zack howled with an intensity that surely reached every corridor of the dungeon. Kanye was actually interested to see how this would play out. He and the beast man may not have gotten along all that well, but it was always a sight to watch him tear his opponents limb from limb. Zack crouched low to the ground, and then pounced on Jaeger. The doppelgänger braced himself, but stopping a living anger machine wasn’t something anyone was really capable of. The duo went through a pillar and into the wall behind it. Zack had buried the mimic into the foundation, and was striking it repeatedly with blow after blow. It was too dark to make out anything other than the sounds, but everyone felt safe in assuming that Zack was winning the fight. Zack backed off into the light and howled, making Kanye back off. He was more interested in living, so he only hesitated for a few seconds from the terrible sounds before bolting up the hallway. Lethe could see into the low-light area, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Jaeger had been beaten into a bloody mess, but his face was still intact, and the smile was unnerving. Lethe pointed the staff and waited, but he couldn’t get a clear shot past Zack. The beast rushed forward and began tearing into the mangled bits of flesh stuck into the wall, ripping away all kinds of anatomical parts. There were no cries of pain, and no howls of agony. There was only the smug face of the man who was dying a death far worse than even Prometheus. Lethe couldn’t wait any longer. With its left hand, it waved, and a great force struck the beast aside with a yelp to allow the impatient necromancer a direct line of fire. Some of the souls within Lethe’s life force were laughing at the idea as Lethe finished his incantation. Fire erupted from the tip of its staff and swooned over the area directly in front of it. It raged on as it engulfed the mimic and continued to blaze away for a full minute. The extreme heat was felt by everyone in the vicinity, but no one wanted to look away from the mortifying sight of the robes around Lethe flailing about and revealing its skeletal frame. Its hood was blown back, and the flames protruding from its eye sockets were fierce as it gazed upon the hungry inferno. When the fires finally subsided, the wall was left blackened and misshapen along with the pillars. One gave way and crumbled, bringing down yet another part of the ceiling above. The sound of rocks hitting the floor echoed down the hallway continuously as everyone waited for any signs of life from the pit in the wall. Lethe’s eyes could see into the darkness, and nothing was about to emerge from it. The necromancer shook its head and looked to Zack, who had reverted to his human form. He was barely clothed, but fully conscious.

“Damn shame,” he spoke, “you could’ve left some part of him for me to claim for my necklace.”

Lethe made a grunting sound and pulled its hood back over its skull. The battle was over, and the doppelgänger gone.

“So,” Mar said finally, having been astounded by the action, “is that freak of nature dead?”

“Yes,” Lethe spoke in a dull tone, “It’s gone. Damned things aren’t that powerful.”

“No, I meant you,” Mar corrected, pointing to Lethe, “I was asking Zack. Seriously, what the hell are you?!”

Lethe’s true form had been unveiled in the bout, and it neglected the thought of the half-serpent not knowing the truth. Mar was the newest member of the party, after all.

“So, are you going to tell me, or…” Mar’s voice trailed off.

“Or what?” Zack asked. Mar had fallen silent. It took a moment for Zack to realize that something was protruding from his chest. Blood began to trickle down the front of the serpent man from where the object was implanted.

“Mar! What the hell-”

Mar tried to speak, but blood came out instead of words. His body fell forward to reveal the figure of Jaeger standing behind him, clutching the serpent man’s tail. Zack’s eyes followed the tail, and he realized that the pointed tip was what had been driven through Mar’s chest. Zack prepared to retaliate, but an odd sound drew his attention to Lethe. A round orb burst from its staff and covered the distance between it and Jaeger in a second. Jaeger tried to avoid it, but his right arm was severed by the impact. Jaeger took a knee and lowered his head. Lethe felt a bit of satisfaction as it watched its enemy finally take a position it saw fit, but the doppelgänger raised his head. He simply spat blood onto the ground and then sneered as the arm began to regenerate, paralyzing Zack with trepidation. The cocky wolf man had finally been silenced by a sight that even his brain managed to process as fearsome. The fiend stood up from his place on the ground. Lethe backed away and readied itself. Every soul in its composition knew that this thing was a major threat to its mission. Anything that could reform after a concentrated ray of fire and an impact strong enough to sever limbs was not to be underestimated. Lethe just wanted the smug freak gone. It wanted to erase the monstrous humanoid from existence, and the next attack it had ready would surely get the job done. Suicide wasn’t really enjoyable for Lethe to watch, as it basked in the destruction of its foes by its own doing, but forcing a fiend such as this to kill itself against its own will would be just as rewarding if it could compel the bastard to experience fear as it ended its own life. Lethe prepared to take over the creature’s mind and raised its staff at the being as it began to chant, but the outcome wasn’t what it expected.

“Can you hear me, spawn of Styx?”

Lethe was petrified. The creature was in its head.

“That’s right. I know what you are. I wonder if a vessel such as yourself is capable of experiencing fear?”

Lethe said nothing. It was too busy regretting the decision to use the staff’s power to try and enter the mind of the being. Now it had an advantage if it could see all of Lethe’s abilities.

“Interesting. I believe you are already experiencing it. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Fear is such a powerful tool. It keeps those smart enough to respect it alive, while killing those foolish enough to attempt to overcome it. Tell me, soul-filled bone house of the damned, which would you prefer? Living, or dying the death of countless souls, all at once? I’m sure that will be a sound worth hearing. Silencing every single one in an instant. Probably deafening. That’s actually a challenge I’d like to partake upon.”

Zack had noticed the necromancer fall to its knees. If anything could bring down moral, it was watching one of the most fearsome entities he knew practically bowing to the monster’s might. Lethe wasn’t going down on its knees. It hissed and pointed its staff to the wolf man. Before Zack could react, he was stricken with agonizing pain that pulsated throughout his body. The sensation triggered his transformation, but something more was buried within. Zack hit the point of anatomical shape shifting, but his body mutated beyond the normal transformation. His features were more monstrous and bulbous in appearance. When the horrible grinding sounds of bones reconnecting stopped he resembled a horrendous wolf that had been possessed by something far more bloodthirsty than his animal spirit. Jaeger’s smile vanished as the monster stomped towards it with one marble-smashing step. The normal restrictions that kept the shape shifter in check with his humanity were no longer present, and only the murderous intent remained in the shell.

“You know, mimic,” Lethe spoke in a raspy voice, “You may resemble a monster in any form you take, but let me ask you; when you remove everything that keeps a wild beast’s instinct inhibited, who is the real monster?”

Zack snarled and began to crush the ground between himself and the doppelgänger. Jaeger prepared itself. The beast didn’t even take the time for a dramatic stare-down. One second it was throwing debris through the air with just its footsteps, and the next it had sent the doppelgänger airborne with a swipe. Jaeger smashed through yet another pillar with enough force to be embedded into the wall behind it. Before he could attempt to push himself out, the monstrous Zack snatched Jaeger from the rubble by the throat and was squeezing tight. Zack was forfeit to Lethe’s will, and its will was the utter destruction of the shape shifting demon in the monster’s deformed hand. Jaeger didn’t appear aghast. Lethe didn’t like that. There was no way Jaeger was still in control, so why was he so calm?

The abomination that was Zack raised its right hand and brought it down with a godly force, slicing clean through Jaeger’s torso. Blood splattered onto the floor beneath them, but Jaeger still stared absolute death in the face with no hint of fear. Lethe’s rage was beginning to boil over as thousands of voices filled its head at once, all trying to command the vessel. The staff was raised, and Zack tossed the cadaver in Lethe’s direction. The mimic hit the floor hard, and before he could get to his knees, Lethe commanded gravity to crush its foe into the marble, creating a crater where the being was suddenly hit with multiples of the planet’s gravitational pull that would have killed even Zack’s present form with ease. Lethe was forced to release the spell early as its power began to burn out. Endurance was not in its favor.

A hand emerged from the crater and grabbed ahold of the floor, hoisting up the figure of Jaeger from the depths.

Lethe snarled, “Wretched, relentless bastard. Zack! Break him!”

The monster roared and leapt over the pit, taking Jaeger to the ground as it began tearing into his chest with its barbed fangs. Lethe used the time to prepare another spell, and when the monster finally stood up to swallow the feast of flesh within its mouth Lethe pointed its staff to the ground next to it and summoned a spiraling black vortex. From its depths emerged a being of nightmares that only possessed one characteristic that wasn’t abnormal to its wriggling appearance; a gaping mouth lined with three rows of razor teeth. Tentacles lashed out in every direction from the being as it screeched its desire to fill its mouth with flesh. The horror that Lethe had deemed the Maw of the Void months before extended a tentacle and ensnared Jaeger’s legs before dragging him from the floor where Zack had left his mangled body. The maw raised him over its mouth and released the being. Just as the maw’s teeth began to contract and encircle Jaeger, he sprang to life and sank his feet into teeth on both sides of the maw’s mouth. Zack readied for a swipe, but Zack’s arm mutated into a muscular, malformed limb resembling the monster’s own, and grabbed Zack’s wrist. With a twist, the monster yelped and sank to a knee as Jaeger’s left arm took on a bladed form once again. He brought it up and down in a flash, severing the wolf-monster’s forearm. While the beast grasped its spraying wound, tentacles wrapped around Jaeger and attempted to force him into the mouth once again. Jaeger did something that finally put an idea of mortality into Lethe; he looked to it and smiled.

Lethe pointed to the death machine with its bony left hand and struck it with a green bolt of lightning that erupted from its fingertip. The skin on Jaeger’s body began to melt away, but he still managed to grow in size, taking on the shape of a deformed being that almost resembled…

“Impossible,” Lethe spat as it watched Jaeger take on Zack’s appearance. The mimic tore through the tentacles and began to rip the maw apart, sending writhing bits of black mass everywhere that quickly disintegrated into black smoke. Zack had managed to seal his wounds through his regenerative properties and was about to deliver a death blow when Jaeger spun around and turned the aggression on him. Both went tumbling into the darkness, but Lethe could still see the action. Both monsters dealt hellacious strikes to one another, but it was obvious to Lethe that the mimic was the imminent victor. Opposed to the impending outcome, Lethe readied another necrotic spell when a figure emerged from beyond the darkness and pounced on Jaeger’s back. Kanye had returned from his previous retreat and was on the attack. Swiping quickly, he made clean incisions all over the doppelgänger’s neck and tendons as the beast swiped immaculately, rendering it combat ineffective. Dropping to its chest, the monster was at the mercy of the three remaining members of the party.

“I applaud your work, thief,” Lethe praised, “but I’ll finish the nuisance.”

“Nope,” Kanye rebutted as he drew a short blade from the hilt behind his waist, “I’m calling this kill.”

“Aside!” Lethe barked as it smacked the thief aside with an invisible force. Kanye hit the far wall and was knocked unconscious. Lethe was free to finish the weakened animal that lay at its mercy. Lethe hissed laughter as it raised the staff for one final damning act. What a trivial concept for the being that had sold a soul or two to the devil. It wished it had the muscle and skin tissue around its mouth to form a smile.

It hit the monster with a spell that boiled the blood inside with intense pain as veins burst open from the sheer heat of the super-heated liquid inside. It could make out the sight in the darkness, and the joy that swept over as it watched the being shape shift uncontrollably under the pressure of the pain that it couldn’t even imagine the mimic must have been experiencing was immeasurable. Lethe didn’t care. It just wanted to bask in the moment of its enemy’s torment. The mimic’s features all converged in on itself, and the black mass swelled to a new shape. The featureless humanoid began to walk forward as it took on a new appearance. It was shorter than before, but when it finally emerged from the liquids coating its body as it transformed, Lethe began to step backwards. The persistent mimic had taken on the form of Engel, the fey that actually knew holy magic that could potentially harm Lethe. Desperate times called for a Hell-spawn. It commanded the demonic Zack to return to scrap with the fake fey, but Engel simply waved her right hand in his direction and a white light radiated from her, hitting the beast with a force that tore the mutated body away in a black silhouette that evaporated in the light and left Zack’s human form to fall on his face. Waving her hand, she caused the body to spontaneously combust. Zack perished without feeling anything. Engel then turned her attention to Lethe and winked at it, actually unnerving the necromancer.

“What dark magic is this, doppelgänger? I sense the fey’s arcane forces within you, yet you’re nothing more than a shape shifter. How can you possibly possess her powers?”

Engel threw her head back and cackled, something the necromancer wasn’t used to her doing. It was unnatural. It was wrong. She looked at the necromancer again with a ravenous stare, “You know not what I am, slave to the dark,” the doppelgänger spoke in her voice, “be gone from this world, and never return.”

With that, Engel lifted her left hand and the remains of Idgaf began to levitate feet off of the ground. Lethe braced itself, and Engel’s eyes squinted in concentration. She flicked her wrist forward and sent the crystallized body of rocks soaring towards the undead being. Lethe brought its left arm back and quickly threw it forward, raising a green aura in front of itself that the golem’s body smashed into, shattering into hundreds of pieces. The sounds of crumbling and rolling stones filled the corridor for the longest time before the remnants settled. Lethe dropped the barrier to save what stores of magic it had left, but the fake Engel took the opportunity to launch another attack, and with the flick of her left wrist she sent a frosty white ball through the air in its direction. Lethe couldn’t get the barrier back up in time, and the ball smashed into its center of mass and sent it to the floor. It looked down at the gaping hole in the robes it donned and saw the vapors from the ice coming out of the chasm in its body. Lethe forced itself off of the floor and managed to gain footing, but when it looked to Engel it knew something was wrong. Engel was smiling again. A few seconds later icy spikes exploded from within Lethe. The icicles were protruding from the center of its ribcage where the ball had embedded itself. A mortal would have died. Lethe didn’t know death. It had control over the state. The attempt was nothing more than an inconvenience, albeit a crippling one, as moving his arms around the spikes would prove a challenge.

A string of profanity broke out to the left, and Lethe turned its head just in time to see a blur run past its field of vision, followed by a battle cry and thud. It was hard to keep up, but it looked as if Kanye had reentered the fight. Sure enough, the short thief had taken Engel by surprise and was going stab-happy on her. Her appendages constantly manifested into various weapons as she swung wildly at the swift little annoyance, but Kanye was too fast. Her left hand became an oversized flesh mallet, and he ran a blade through her wrist severing the nerves. Her other became a club barbed with bone spikes, and he drove a longer sword through her elbow to keep it from bending. Engel just couldn’t get a fix on him as he cut her down from one vital point to the next. Lethe was impressed; the pint-sized mortal was even deadlier than it had ever anticipated. It would have to remember that after the mimic was dealt with.

Kanye dashed away as the mimic Engel began to regenerate from the onslaught of blades. Lethe didn’t want to give the horrible thing time to recover, so it began to channel energy for a final death-dealing blow that would ensure the absolute destruction of the doppelgänger. The soul of a powerful wizard was trapped within the confines of the embodiment of damnation that was Lethe. His knowledge of powerful elemental magic would prove useful right now. Lethe prepared the spell, knowing full well that there was a great risk involved, but at the same time it was too curious as to just how much destruction it could really wreak. A combination fire and lighting spell, the wizard had deemed this one “Absolution.” Imagination from the wizard’s thoughts weren’t enough to satisfy Lethe’s desire. It had to use the spell that the wizard had killed itself with. “Damnation” seemed more fitting.

Several shuriken came spinning from the shadows and struck Engel, sending her stumbling backwards. Lethe pointed the staff and focused. A miniscule ball of fire with sparks around it appeared at the tip. It was taking a lot of will to keep it together, but Lethe had it, and it was all to kill the bastard that had set its plans back an unprecedented amount of time.

“Hey, bones!” Kanye shouted from beside one of the few remaining pillars to the right, “If you’re going to do something, do it fast! That bitch is pissed, and I’m out of weapons!”

Lethe wanted to scold the thief, but any stray thought would ruin the spell. It had to succeed where one of its former lives failed. Engel regained her footing and started to march towards the thief. Kanye would be collateral damage for this cause.

“Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!” A bolt of lightning was chased by flames from the staff. The bolt struck Engel and wrapped around her like a binding before the flames engulfed the doppelgänger once again, only this time the fires were living shapes that were peeling away the flesh. Limbs were ripped off as skin melted away. The mimic was trapped in a horrible fate that even Lethe thought fitting for someone trapped in the circles of Hell. Kanye was actually safe from the concentrated attack, which led Lethe to wonder how the wizard had died from such a marvelous display of power. When the fires finished literally devouring the mimic, the lightning darted in the direction of the thief. Lethe didn’t see it ensnare Kanye, but it watched the fires chase after the bolt. It understood; the flames actually fed. They were the souls of the damned, pulled from the depths of Hell much like itself. It was actual hellfire. Kanye cried out in despair as he died a brutal death far worse than what the others had suffered. When he was finished, the bolt of lightning made for Lethe. The necromancer was trapped by the electric bindings as the flames swept the distance to it. As they neared it, strange voices were audible over the roaring.

“I’m so hungry!”

“Maybe that one tastes better than them!”

“I’ll feast upon its bones if it’ll quell my appetite!”

Lethe understood the language. It eyed the approaching firestorm and bellowed, “Insubstantial souls! Would you dare attack one of your own?! I am composed of many things far greater than your useless lives now exist as! We are brethren, nonetheless! The enemy is not what you see before you! The enemy is that wretched wench that is rising now as I speak!”

The flames actually halted and seemed to change wind as a silhouette rose from the ashes where the imposter Engel had fallen. The flames jumped to the occasion and burned a path between Lethe and the figure that was taking shape, but stopped once again once the shape manifested into Lethe.

“Sorcery!” Lethe hissed, “Destroy the fraud!”

The impostor’s left hand came up from under the robes, covered in flesh. Lethe couldn’t connect the pieces in its mind fast enough as a blinding light tore through the flames and struck the necromancer with a force that destroyed the lightning bonds, shattered the icicles in its frame, and sent it far back into the corridor. That hurt.

Lethe understood holy magic. After all, it was one of the few nuisances that existed in the world that could harm it. The doppelgänger had used magic from Engel’s arsenal. It was only a matter of time now; Lethe couldn’t win. It rose to its feet, but grabbed its staff with both hands as it dropped to a knee. There wasn’t much more to be done. It had expended enough power for a day between the serpent and this fiend. Its tattered robes clung to its skeletal frame, which was cracked and damaged in multiple areas. Zack lay dead against the wall, body charred, and contorted from the ungodly possession that hadn’t worn off before his time came. Kanye’s ashes lay in a pile near the right wall. Engel was no longer visible in the darkness created from the bout, and Idgaf’s remains were now scattered in front of Lethe. Mar’s body was buried under rubble from the ceiling.

“Necromancer,” the entity spoke, “there is no hope here for you. Return to your world and dwell waywardly in the Styx once more.”

“What are you?” Lethe demanded. The mimic hissed laughter in Lethe’s voice.

“I am but a lonely mirror that has resided in this corridor for many, many years awaiting the arrival of new toys. You have all served well as means for my entertainment, but now I must bring the performance to its finale. As for what I am…well, that is a more complicated question. I am quite literally,” the mimic began to demonstrate features from everyone in the party, and its voice carried the presence of them all, “what you’ve all made me.”

The horrendous thing had the serpent body of Mar, crystal left arm of Idgaf, right arm of Engel, torso of Jaeger, and the head of Kanye. Lethe couldn’t fight any longer in its state, but it could make minions to fight the battle for it. Still on its knees, the necromancer raised the staff in both hands and slammed the bottom on the floor as it began chanting in the demonic tongue. The doppelgänger began to approach, features taking on the bulging appearance of the frenzied werewolf. Lethe had to concentrate. It failed to drag the creature to Hell, but it could still bring Hell to it.

The remains of the party began to emit an ominous green aura. Slowly, one by one they began to rise to their feet. The ashes of Kanye became whole and recreated Kanye’s appearance with the inclusion of bright green eyes that lacked pupils. Idgaf followed suit, then Zack, and even Mar. Finally, Engel’s body reappeared from farther down the corridor. Lethe’s newly formed army of the damned would prove the most formidable against the mimic. Immortal and incapable of feeling the petty emotions that dragged mortals behind the superior, Lethe finally found itself sided with adequate allies. Holy magic no longer posed a threat thanks to the mimic’s mistake of killing Engel. Now Lethe could utilize her powers to shield the party from the justified side of magic.

The mimic looked around in a circle as the undead surrounded it. They kept their distance, but only because of Lethe’s will.

“How ironic,” Lethe boasted, “you don’t need life to take it. I must thank you, creature. Your actions may have actually served a beneficial purpose, despite what I initially believed. Maybe I’m just being optimistic,” it finished with a hoarse chuckle.

“You do not value the lives of your comrades?” the mimic asked. Lethe laughed again. It felt a lot more in control of the situation than it did three minutes before.

“On the contrary, I value them without life. Now they’re so much easier to lead. They were merely pawns before, but now,” it shook its head as Zack began to transform to the right of the scene. Kanye grabbed a small dagger Mar tossed to it, and Engel’s hands began to glow white. Idgaf stood its ground, waiting for an order. Lethe backed away from the imminent warzone and stumbled to the ground, still weak, “Now, they’re mere puppets. Now watch, watch as I pull the strings!”

Kanye and the transformed Zack pounced. The quick duo began to tear into the creature at breakneck speeds, which many of the morbid souls within Lethe found humorous as the mimic spun around in circles trying to apprehend the aggressors. The hammer-hand made another appearance as the doppelgänger swung for Zack, the bigger of the two targets. Zack’s body was stricken in the head and sent flailing through the air as it tried to regain footing to continue the assault. Lethe smiled at its perfected zombie as it ordered Mar into the fray. It was time for him to redeem himself. The half-snake slithered to the mimic’s back and drove two daggers through the back of its deformed legs and through its knees. The mimic was brought down as Mar sank his tail into its back. The venom from the tip was injected, and if this thing was susceptible to damage of the central nervous system, it wouldn’t be long before the paralysis would set in. Lethe wasn’t relying on it too much, so having the golem hold it steady while the others beat it into a bloody smear on the golem’s chest would have to do. Idgaf stepped forward and picked the creature up off of the ground to give it the worst bear hug imaginable. The mimic took on Mar’s form and slipped out of the clutches of the golem before becoming the crystalized automaton. Its right arm became a heavy blade that it swung wide and bisected Kanye with. Idgaf grabbed the weaponized arm, but the mimic was already swinging at its head with the hammer tipped left arm again, only it was much larger than the one the mimic had used as Jaeger, and for the second time Idgaf was beheaded. Lethe sighed.

“A useless boulder with rocks for brains after all. Then again, I guess I’m your brains…oh well, it can’t be helped.”

Kanye’s upper body got up on its arms after placing the hilt of a blade in its mouth, and hurried along after the enemy. Idgaf’s body continued to swing at the mimic as the enemy took on Mar’s form and slithered around the blows that tore the marble apart. The intensity hit a climax when the zombified party attacked as a whole. Jaeger made precise slashes that the doppelgänger couldn’t avoid to the fullest extent. It took on Idgaf’s form and withstood the blows before the original golem’s headless body delivered a punch that sent it stumbling. It recovered and took on Jaeger’s shape, but Kanye’s upper body darted between its legs and slashed at the tendons that kept it standing. Kanye’s body then moved away as Engel’s hit the mimic with holy magic that set it afire. The flaming mass of constantly morphing tissue treaded onward in Lethe’s direction. A hand rose with a pale white light beginning to take form. A flash of a sword later and the hand hit the floor and disintegrated. Lethe’s zombies were too much for the creature. The fight had finally become completely one-sides in Lethe’s favor. It was time to end it.

“You’ve proven the most dangerous foe I’ve encountered, mimic, but I can’t fall to the likes of you before rising to power,” Lethe got to its feet and waved the staff grasped in its right hand, “Hell is indeed my home, but I’ll not return until I’m ready to claim the throne,” Lethe channeled what was left of its magic, “You are but another obstacle I’ve had to overcome, and a worthy one you have been. Perhaps I’ll find use for your abilities once I’ve studied your original body, but that’s assuming there’s something left. If your regenerative properties are anything like most creatures that possess such a trait, you won’t be able to keep it up forever. I’ll just hold you still while you’re ripped apart. Maybe then I’ll get an idea as to how you’ve persisted in this battle for so long.”

The burning being suddenly drew the flames within itself and emerged from the pyro a new being. Lethe was looking at itself.

“Do you really think you can copy me, you insignificant worm?” Lethe asked the reflection of itself. The copy simply raised the staff that had formed in its left hand. The zombified party that had been acting against the doppelgänger now turned their attention to Lethe. The necromancer looked from one of its servants to the next, dithering on what to do. It could feel the shift in magic, and knew the undead were no longer bound to its will.

“Tell me, necromancer,” the copy spoke, “when you delved into my mind, did it affect you?”

Lethe didn’t understand, “What are you driveling about, scum?”

“Name calling won’t get you out of here alive…or at least with any of your souls to inhabit that shell. Are you aware of what consequence fell upon you when you tried to take me? You found something you didn’t want to find.”

Lethe backed away as the zombies marched to him. Surviving against these odds would be a miracle, and Lethe didn’t believe in miracles, only deals offered by the gods that ruled over these mortals, much like the deal the countless souls within itself had made to return to the world.

“That’s right,” the copy continued, “you found fear, something you had long sought to rid yourself of. You silenced the weak-hearted souls within to keep yourself strong, but when you saw everything laid bare within my head, you were stricken with a feeling so powerful that those souls were awoken, am I right?” The mimic followed suit behind the zombies. Lethe pointed its staff at them and chanted something in the demonic tongue, but they refused to cease their advance. “You know what I am. You cannot win this fight, servant of the underworld. I’ve killed countless beings, holy, powerful, and naught alike. You are nothing different.”

Lethe was powerless over them. It was time to implement something risky. Lethe dropped the staff and pulled its hood back before grabbing at its robes, pulling them open to reveal the skeletal frame of its body concealed beneath. Its eyes burned a crimson red as the souls that encompassed the being began erupting from the green orb that was centered between its ribs. The souls took on ghostly apparitions of their former lives and swirled about the zombies, striking out and attacking the undead. In turn, the zombified party swung futilely at the violent spirits. Lethe collapsed to the marble floor from the loss of so much of itself at once. The thoughts rushing through the collective minds were all jumbled and abrupt. Using Lineage of Souls was drastic, but desperate actions were required. The spirits now had a handle on the zombies and were restraining them by gripping every part of their bodies, fastening them to the floor. A few spares dove for the mimic, but it simply waved a hand and blew them away with a blinding light. Lethe had grown tired of holy magic. The copy then summoned a series of ice spikes from the air above the path between itself and Lethe. The copy’s hand came down, and the spikes plunged to the floor one by one. Lethe attempted to summon a barrier as the path before it was impaled by the icy spikes, but when its hand swung before itself, nothing happened.

“Damn!”

The spike directly above it struck Lethe through the chest and pierced the marble beneath the necromancer. Lethe was pinned to the floor and helpless. A few of the lingering souls surrounded it to protect their vessel, but Engel’s corpse blasted them away with holy light once more. The mimic Lethe commanded the zombies that had managed to free themselves from their ghostly bondings to halt nonverbally, and then spoke to the pinned skeleton.

“You are powerful, necromancer, but you rely on that too much. You wish to overtake the hell below, but you cannot defeat the hell before you.”

Lethe struggled to break the ice, but its skeletal hand couldn’t damage the object stuck through its chest. It tilted it’s torso around it to lay eyes on the doppelgänger, “I am not finished yet, mimic.”

The fake Lethe cackled, “You are forfeit to my mercy, much like the innocent you have slain. Now, I will give you a fitting end. You wish to know what I am? I am no vigilante, not a hired killer. I am simply your unfortunate obstacle that you failed to overcome. I am a death machine to the likes of travelers such as you and your party,” the fake raised its staff and a glowing white orb emerged from the tip, “I am your premature ending to the quest you undertook.”

Lethe strained, but the ice wouldn’t budge. The undead menace had no magic left, and was weakened from the lack of souls to compose it. Lethe was about to finally know death as an immortal. It looked at what served as its death-angel reflection and the realization hit. It didn’t want to die.

“Be gone, monster,” its own voice spoke. Lethe covered its eye sockets as a blinding light hit it and tore the skeletal remains apart with a force that shattered the ice. The remaining souls of the ribcage were released and howled in agony as they were purged from the corridor and out of existence, and the final one that remained attempted to reestablish a connection between itself and the mortal world through Kanye’s body, but the effort was wasted. The wizard’s soul shrieked as it deteriorated and faded from reality, and was expunged from the world indefinitely. The party had fallen, and the quest was lost to one single entity that should never have existed.