After Diego, Sal, and I stopped screaming, we came to the realization that we were no longer in our front room. Nor were we on fire. We were outside, and it was dark. Standing up from the dirt and looking around, I saw that we were in some kind of small village with stone buildings, whose burning roofs lit up the night sky. The village looked familiar somehow, but I couldn't quite place the reason.
"Well, boys, we finally snapped. After inhaling too much fumigation gas, we hallucinated being attacked by plants and burned our house down." I sighed. "Welcome to hell, I guess."
Diego got up next, placed his hands behind his head, and began walking in a small circle around us, surveying the carnage. The look on his face definitely implied that he had no idea he would ever wind up here, and that he wasn't ready to accept the fact that he actually was. As soon as he finished the circle, he just dropped to his knees and began praying to the Goddess.
I kind of felt bad for the guy, but not as bad as I did for Sal, whose turn it was to rise and take stock of his surroundings. He actually looked scared, as he cast his eyes toward the sky.
"I take it back! That curse was something I only said in anger! I'm so sorry, James, I'll-"
"Jim," I interrupted, but he continued as though he didn't even hear me. Damn it. Even in hell I can't catch a break.
"-never do it again, I swear!" Sal began crying then, as he walked over to me and put his arms around my shoulders. I was too stunned to move or say anything, so I just let him get it out. He obviously needed it.
A few moments later, Sal pulled back from the hug, and looked me in the eye. "Do I still have to call you boss, or am I still obligated to call you that until I turn eighteen?"
I almost laughed. "Well, you'll never technically turn eighteen now, and besides, I think even demon lords want their houses to look better than each other's." The thought of the sort of preening that went on in our gated community being practiced by people with titles such as 'Defiler' or 'the Plaguebringer' made me laugh out loud.
"Hell's landscapers," laughed Sal. "Imagine making it back to Earth after that? Do you think we could use that as part of our marketing campaign?"
The both of us lost it then, doubling over in laughter. It was hysterical, but maybe we could do something else if we ever got back to the land of the living, as Diego and I were independently wealthy, which-wait, if we're dead, then once we get back, we'll have no access to our money. We'd have to start from scratch! I sighed.
"Holy shit! Jim, Diego, look over there! There are two people! Two...ladies! Who says hell will be so bad, eh? Ha ha!" He started walking over to them while Diego and I followed from a little ways back.
The whole situation felt strange to me. Mostly because I still had a pulse, but also because as we walked to the women, there was no heat coming off the flames. I even reached out to touch the fire, but my hand passed right through it, completely unburned. Either way, it was like I said: Strange.
Even the women themselves were odd. One, obviously younger than the other, stood proud and tall, golden hair braided. She held a long ash branch in one hand, and a main gauche in the other. Her golden armor hid her frame, but from what I could see, she looked slim. She had two swords hanging from her, one on her hip, and one on her back, with a large, round shield hanging over it all.
The older woman looked incredibly peaceful, but that was the second thing I noticed. The first thing was the fact that she was in some sort of primitive-looking wheelchair because she had no legs, save for maybe a quarter of her thighs, and that was being generous with the estimation. She was dressed in robes, and had no weapon with which to defend herself. I immediately wondered what it would be like to converse with her.
"Jim! Diego! They're not real! The women are illusions! This really is hell!" My thoughts were scattered to the wind.
"Sal, stop wailing, and stop occupying the same space as the beautiful woman. You're making me see non-Euclidean shapes. I may go mad and see into forever because of it."
"Cthulu reference? In hell?" Diego asked.
"I thought so, too." I opened my mouth to say more, but I was interrupted before I got a chance.
"You three really are the morons you come across as, aren't you?" Allendriel's voice sighed from behind us. We whirled around to see someone who didn't look entirely dissimilar to Mr. Marsailles with tiny horns, folded wings, and red skin that looked as though it had a sandy texture to it walking up to us. In a suit. We all screamed, and Sal even fainted, but Allendriel just sighed again.
"Look, you already had it figured out that I wasn't Edvard, and that I had otherworldly origins, so could you guys just grow a pair already? Jesus H. and all the saints, you people are fucking ridiculous."
"What, aren't we in hell?" Diego asked.
"You're not even dead, idiot."
"What about all the flames in the front room then?" I asked.
"Can't I have a tendency to be dramatic, or is that a purely human notion?"
"All right, all right," Diego put his hands up in a gesture of mock surrender, "we get it, you're here, and proud, or whatever. No need to get all catty with us."
"Look, I'm trying to show you something, so go to the other side of the street and shut up, or you might miss something." Diego and I picked up Sal by the arms and carried him over to where we would be watching whatever it is Allendriel wanted us to watch.
Like an announcer introducing a play, he whooshed in front of us, and began recapping his story thus far.
"Tandamum had completely devastated the planet. Fields and forests burned, water turned into poison. All creatures either worked for him or died. In cold blood, Tandamum had single-handedly eradicated almost all known life when he found Pacifi, a woman with the spark of creation opposed to his spark of destruction, and two young twin girls, Luma and Nox, the all-plane's first mages.
"Pacifi made the deal of her life when she offered a duel between the girls when they became of age, as she was physically incapable of fighting. Each spark-bearer would raise one of the girls, and whomever raised the more powerful warrior mage would become the victor, controlling the fate of the planet.
"When we were last updated on their situation, Luma and Pacifi had just arrived on the battlefield, and were awaiting their dark opposites. Here is where we pick up our story!" With that, he bowed low, and walked up next to us in a row of four theatre seats that had suddenly appeared, facing the two women we had seen upon arriving here.
"Sit, and enjoy the show, boys. It's going to be astounding." Allendriel wasn't even looking at us anymore as he spoke, keeping his eyes steadfast on the illusory women. Diego and I heaved Sal into a seat before plopping into two of our own on either side of him. I sat between him and Allendriel, just in case the bastard tried anything.
When the last of us was seated, buckets of popcorn, sodas, and snacks all appeared in our laps and cupholders in the space of a blink. I looked at Allendriel, and he was suddenly wearing those cheesy cardboard 3-D glasses with the red and blue cellophane. He put a finger over his lips and shushed me. In the space of another blink, I was wearing a pair of 3-D glasses of my own, and I turned to Sal and Diego, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was.
"Look!" whispered Diego, pointing ahead of us as I was staring at him and Sal. I turned to face where he was pointing in time to see the two women shimmer and become solid. I was shocked to discover that I could hear them breathing.
"Patience, Luma," said the woman in the wheelchair, whom I was now assuming to be Pacifi, "your sister will be here soon. Her abductor swore to me on this spot, sixteen years ago, that he would bring her here."
Her voice was so soothing. It had the sound of someone running their hand over a smooth stone, which is when I remembered that this was a story of people made of stone. I leaned forward in my chair.
"Oh, Pacifi, I don't even remember her over the flames. All I can remember from that day is the burning, burning, burning of the village." Luma looked pained.
"Easy, my child. Listen, I think I hear their approach! On your guard!" There was a whistling sound in the air. The source was out of their line of sight, but we could see it clearly over the tops of the buildings behind them. Coming straight at us was a glowing blue-green dot. As it grew closer, it arced over the rooftops and down, making a 90-degree turn, directly between Luma and Pacifi. As it struck the ground, it exploded in a giant ball of bluish-green fire that sent the student into and through the wall of the closest building, and the teacher into the ground, off her wheelchair, into the mud.
Burning, burning, burning, BURNING!
The overwhelming fear dissipated moments later, in time for me to witness something incredible. A man was slowly (in comparison to the fireball, anyway) descending to the ground. I couldn't believe how massive this guy was. He looked like he could do curls with our golf cart.
As he touched down, I didn't need my eyes to know where he was, as his aura was all-pervasive and...familiar....
"Tandamum!" screamed the woman in the dirt, as she pushed herself up into a sitting position. "Where is Nox? You swore on your life that you'd bring her to this meeting!" Tandamum just laughed in response.
At this time, the front door to the building blew out of the frame at a weird angle, straight toward the aggressor. Luma then calmly stepped out, back into the street, sheathing the main gauche.
"Show me my sister!" The last word was almost barked out, and it caused Tandamum's head to rock to the side away from Luma. He was holding on to the ear closest to her, his left, as he leveled his head again. Glaring at her, he pulled his hand away, and looked at it.
"First blood," he was speaking at an awkward volume, and favoring his right ear. Interesting. I didn't have time to process it, as Luma had decided not to wait for her sister to show. She was going to make the abductor regret ever taking Nox, by driving the butt of her staff into his sternum, then swinging it around to connect with the bleeding ear.
All the while, Tandamum just stood in the same spot, taking each attack. Even when Luma went for the groin, all he did was deflect the blow. Luma began darting around Tandamum like a superbly-trained acrobat, striking at different spots, and he would just absorb it, soaking up the damage.
"Pacifi, did you not know how it would end? All you did was buy yourself an extra sixteen years in which to quake and quiver. Now, your champion shall meet her match. After all, how powerful could she be? There was literally no one for her to spar against." Tandamum was, unfortunately for Luma, seemingly unaffected by each strike, if relying on his calm demeanor as he chatted with Pacifi, moving toward the woman on the ground.
"Tandamum, show us Nox Magi now, or the inherent power in the contract shall punish you!" Pacifi shouted, which actually caused the mountain in a man suit to stop walking.
"You truly want to see Nox?"
"Yes, of course!"
"Then you-" he paused as he reached out and grabbed Luma by the throat, stopping her in her tracks, "-need to hold still." Tandamum, based on Luma's reactions, began squeezing on her throat, cutting off the airway. I started to rise out of my seat, when Allendriel grabbed my wrist.
"Stay seated, as there is nothing to be done here. You are effectively watching a recording. This happened many millenia ago, James. Sit." I sat back down, furious that I couldn't help.
Meanwhile, Tandamum had grabbed both of Luma's ankles in his other hand, raised her over his head, and threw her into the sky with little to no effort. At the speed she was traveling, it would, relatively, be a while before we saw her again. I swallowed hard.
"I am showing you Nox, my dear Pacifi. I am strong, very strong, and powerful, very powerful, but I could not do all this on my own. I have consumed the child mage!"
"You ate her?"
"He ate her?" Pacifi, Diego and I exclaimed our respective versions of that statement at the same time, in the same pitch. When we looked at Allendriel, he just put one index finger over his lips, and pointed the other at Tandamum.
"In a sense, I did. Not literally, of course. It was a ritual she discovered. It fuses two beings into one, and the one with the stronger will is dominant. There could be no other choice, obviously. I now have Nox's arsenal, as well as my own, at my disposal! I would command you to kneel before me, Pacifi, but...hehah!"
As soon as the last bit of laughter escaped his lips, a giant shaft of light, about as big around as my arm, bolted down from the sky, and pierced Tandamum's shoulder, lancing out through his arm pit, and into the ground. He roared in pain, and reached to grab the shaft of light, but he could not touch it without burning himself.
Not even ten seconds after the shaft struck the ground, so did Luma, landing on her feet. Her leather boots, breeches, and shirt had signs of being on fire recently: gaping holes and crisp, darkened spots of what remained. Had she truly been thrown through the atmosphere? And where had her breast plate and swords gone?
No sooner did I think that did a red-hot lump of steel impact the ground in front of us, as well as two somewhat smaller and thinner rods of steel. Suddenly I wished I could help more than I ever had, but I didn't have to wait long before Luma was back in control, if only briefly.
With Tandamum unable to remove his leash and his left arm useless, the women definitely had the upper hand here. Light began emanating from Luma's hand until I could no longer see it. As she raised it level with her foe's chest, she spoke.
"Tandamum, you are a murderer. You have taken the only true family I had remaining, and you killed her! For that, I will tear you limb from limb! Have you any final words?" Her voice was firm, powerful, and she had everyone's attention. Too bad Sal was still passed out, as she had more holes in her shirt than she had actual shirt. Tandamum must have noticed this as well, as his tactic changed.
"I can relinquish control of your sister, Luma. If you truly wish our species to survive, you cannot kill me! You need my seed! I will release Nox in exchange for that!"
"You will give me my sister back, and you will die!" She pointed two fingers directly at his heart.
"You have until the count of ten, Tandamum! One...two...three...." He remained motionless until Luma got to seven, then he spit his black saliva on her face, which acted more like rubber cement than saliva in that it clung to her high cheekbones and slightly upturned nose. As she pulled to remove it, it would spread.
Soon, she couldn't open her mouth. Her eyes had gone wide, and whatever spell she had been preparing had dissipated. She had begun panicking. In a bid of desperation, she just ran up to her prisoner and began punching and kicking him as hard as she could, and just like when they first squared off, he took the abuse, unblinkingly.
That is, until he had apparently had enough of her teenage whining, and dropped his fist from a windmill spin directly on top of her head. Instantly, she crumpled. As she did, the shaft of light dissipated, and Pacifi began weeping, as her life was now over.
"Finally!" Tandamum roared. "The end is come!" He marched over to Luma's limp body and knelt down over her, turning to Pacifi.
"She is mine, spark of creation. What do you think I should do?"
"Let her go! Take me instead! Just...please! She is so young!"
"And she is still ripe, my counterpart." With that, he slid his hands beneath her body, and began chanting in the same heavily accented English I heard Allendriel speak in our front yard. After several minutes, Tandamum pressed his conquest to his chest, and she began to melt into him. I felt like vomiting.
"You monster! You will not survive this day!" Pacifi screamed. Tandamum turned to face her, licking his lips.
"She tasted delicious," he said as he walked toward the woman with no legs.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a second!" Diego exclaimed as the story paused. "How can this douchebag win? Is the moral of this story that evil really does win every once in a while?" I looked from him to Allendriel. It was a good question.
"Just watch, human," said our story teller, resuming his tale. Tandamum walked over to Pacifi, and picked her up incredibly gingerly. She wasn't fighting, and the dead look in her eyes made it look like she had completely given up fighting at all, hanging limply in his arms.
"It won't be that bad, I promise. Just relax, and it will all be over soon." This guy sounded like a rapist or something. What the fuck. I wanted to go over and beat the shit out of this guy, but apparently I couldn't have laid a glove on him, even if I had been there when this story was actually happening. Looking at Diego, I could tell he felt the same.
Tandamum held Pacifi to his chest, and began chanting again. When he was finished, and she began melting into him, something amazing happened: Pacifi fought back. She began her own brand of chanting. It hurt my ears, but it caused Tandamum to fall backwards onto the ground.
As Pacifi disappeared into his chest, her attacker began sprouting buds and grass and even flowers. It rippled up his chest and down his back. Whatever it was that was happening to him was clearly a one-time-use move. He opened his mouth to scream, but an ash tree sprouted out of it, breaking his neck.
It was ten minutes before anyone said anything at all, Allendriel included. We were all in shock. Well, Diego and I were, anyway. Sal was still out, and who knows how many times Allendriel had watched this. He looked more thoughtful than anything else.
"Before either of you says anything, there is one more piece to this story, the part you didn't see going on at the same time as this. Actually, it happened right here, but no one ever notices it until it's pointed out. You ready to see the final piece of the story?"
"Whoa, Allendriel," I began, "after the intensity involved in that, I think I need some time to comprehend it. Give me about a day, okay? Then we'll be ready."