Lir, First Rotation, 5099
rating: +9+x

Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Lir, First Rotation, 5099

Anyone who has traveled the Ways for as long as I have is bound to meet a god at one point or another.1 Whenever this eventuality crosses my path, I remember the words of theologian Viai Somn, who was blessed by his gods with the knowledge of their nature:

"Praying to the gods is a waste of breath, for gaining the favor of divinity requires an offering far more valuable than faith."2

If there is anything that I have learned from eons of travelling Yggdrasil, it is that Somn’s assessment of deities is rarely erred. Gods, as described by his works, are the strangest, most capricious beings one could ever hope to meet in the Multiverse. Thousands upon thousands of their kind I have met and interviewed, and few have ever shown anything but contempt at the idea that they somehow need faith to survive. The gods demand prayer and sacrifice, indeed, but never out of necessity; the only reason they have ever needed puny mortals is to feed their ever-growing ego: this is the true purpose of all temples and shrines, of all altars and effigies. What, then, is a single prayer to the likes of Ashur and Osiris when entire empires have been built in their names?3

Thus, one may ask what then constitutes a proper offering to earn a god's favor. To this question I have long known the answer, for time and time again it has been taught to me by the gods themselves.

In previous travels, I was invited by the trickster god Huēhuecoyōtl4 to witness the fate of Pedro de Alvarado, right-hand man of Hernán Cortés and conqueror of Guatemala. The experience left me shuddering for the rest of my journey, and not without reason.

Alvarado had been a villain amongst the Spanish conquerors, a man as cruel as he was greedy. In his avarice, he massacred the unarmed Mexica nobles who celebrated the Feast of Toxcatl, the first in a series of vile acts that bordered on genocide. His death, delivered at the hooves of his own horse, would be the slightest of the punishments he would suffer thereafter.

Once Alvarado reached the afterlife, the gods of Tenochtitlán unleashed their wrath on the conquistador's soul, each one inflicting upon him the most gruesome tortures ever conceived.5 The worst one came from the god whose festival Alvarado had defiled, from the one they call the Smoking Mirror: Tezcatlipoca. By the time Huēhuecoyōtl guided me into Mictlan, nothing remained of Alvarado. That is, nothing but a colossal obsidian mirror in whose reflection suffered the soul of the conquistador, trapped in a ceaseless repetition of the tortures enacted by the other gods.

Alvarado's fate, though nightmarish, was only the last in a series of experiences that convinced me about what makes a good offering unto the rulers of the Cosmos: as many have proposed over the ages, mortals are not the only ones who enjoy the taste of vengeance. Today's events at the Obsidian Cathedral have, if nothing else, further convinced me about this, for once more I have witnessed the gods trade favors in exchange for divine retribution.

I arrived at the Obsidian Cathedral at the agreed time, intent on enjoying the sight of its façade as I had done many times before during my visits to the Imperial capital. Shining in the gentle light of dawn, the Cathedral is, like the Academy of Higher Arcana, surrounded by a thin mist which adds to the building’s somber appearance. Waking up early has always gifted me astounding sights, and the Cathedral is but one of them.

Incrusted in the otherwise white and silver cityscape of Idhai, the Obsidian Cathedral's shape is that of a massive black ziggurat, a smooth, polished piece of obsidian gleaming under the light of Vok. Impossibly tall, the spires and towers jutting from the main fortress reach towards the heavens, black daggers against the morning sun.

All this, however, is but a façade. In truth, the Cathedral is the main entrance to the great necropolis which extends far and wide under the planet’s surface. It is a genuine city of the dead, an immense gallery of catacombs, shrines and small temples dedicated to the death gods of the innumerable peoples of the Immortal Empire. It is said that there are even enchanted gates that lead to cemeteries and mausoleums located on different planets, thus connecting all places of interment in a galaxy-spanning necropolis. Death is truly universal.

The Cathedral's front door, an immense archway lined with grotesque imagery of death and decay, remains forever open like the maw of Tartarus himself. On top of this grim entrance, an enchanted phrase, written in the Imperial Common Language, declares with its strong, thick letters: “Here lies the empire of Death.” Like damned souls at the mouth of Avernus, a multitude of vague silhouettes continously enters and exits the black fortress, a mixed group of undertakers, morticians, necromancers and mourners.

With such a visage, only magic could hope to make the Obsidian Cathedral even more overtaking: Huge enchanted murals are carved on the walls of the Cathedral, depicting the journey of the soul to the afterlife in the many Imperial religions. The murals constantly shift to show the viewer a different afterlife. In truth, it is almost as if the building itself were alive, a dark, somber god of remembrance and oblivion.

As I observed the dark halls of Hades change into the sunny Iuhag6 underworld, I heard a voice behind me.

"Welcome, Ulak Un'Lij Nar."

The voice, soft and melodious, sharply contrasted with its owner. Standing behind me was a tall, feathered being, their voice emanating from a sharp beak that protruded from their hood. Their black plumage was covered in equally dark robes, silver amulets decorating their talons. I instantly recognized their attire as belonging to a death priest, and their species as Corvan.7

After we had both bowed to each other, as is customary when meeting a Corvan death priest, they introduced themself as Ghebara, born of Tuuarah. As we walked towards the Obsidian Cathedral, I could not help but asking them about my impending meeting with Lord Mortis and his protegé. The Archmage's help had come most unexpectedly, and a part of me wished to know what it involved before I met him again.

"You must forgive me, Drifter," said Ghebara, "but the Archmage has instructed us to remain silent in this matter. He wishes this… meeting of yours to remain as discreet as possible for the time being. Fear not: all will be revealed soon enough."

I nodded in agreement, and we silently entered the Obsidian Cathedral. A vague feeling of unrest had began setting in on my innards, and Ghebara’s words did little to alleviate it.

It had been at least a decade since I last visited the Obsidian Cathedral, let alone entered it. Despite this long absence, however, I was instantly flooded by memories as we stepped into the fortress’ main hall: just like the murals outside, the frescoes that embellished the walls and ceiling shifted constantly, a dreary yet beautiful depiction of the afterlives that awaited the Empire’s citizens. The circular room was lined with several dozen archways that led to the Cathedral’s different areas. Even at this early hour, hundreds of people waited in line to enter the catacombs and visit the shrines, ready to pay homage to their dearly departed.

Ghebara led me through the crowd and into one of the hallways, empty save for a few necromancers mounting guard. At the hallway’s end was a polished silver elevator inscribed with the Imperial Crest. Its doors opened as we approached, and we soon began our ascent towards the heavens.

At this, I was surprised: it is widely known that Archmage Mortis lives deep beneath the surface of the planet, his personal quarters located deeper than even the darkest catacombs on Idhai. Thus, I had expected to meet the Archmage at one of his private laboratories, but Lord Mortis seemed to have other plans.

A ringing sound ripped me from my thoughts as the elevator came to a stop. The doors opened to reveal a grey hall, its sterile atmosphere immediately striking me as a morgue. Its utter nudity, made even more evident by the bright white lights coming from the ceiling, greatly contrasted with the ornate decoration of the lower levels. Indeed, the only thing that broke the otherwise uniform greyness were a series of signs that guided visitors to the different sections of the morgue.

As we walked out of the elevator, we passed many doors and adjacent hallways, some closed, some wide open. I peeked at a large room whose walls were filled to the brim with square metallic doors: a storage unit, undoubtedly, the small square doors each containing a cryogenically preserved corpse. A pair of workers with white uniforms busied themselves by placing the remains of a species I could not identify on a stretcher, readying it for autopsy. I averted my sight, not wanting to disrespect the dead in this, their palace.

We found ourselves entering a chamber with a sign that read “Séance Hall H.” Beyond its metallic door, the only noticeable things were a large circle engraved at the center of the grey floor, a pair of small cushions and a small cabinet with bottles, candles and other materials.

Lord Mortis and Anibal Žalost awaited at the circle's periphery, both sitting cross-legged and reading outloud from a yellowed but otherwise perfectly preserved codex. I quickly recognized both the language and the glyphs on the book to be the Yucatecan variant of the ancient Mayan language.8 From the posture in which they sat and the tone of their voices, I surmised that they were either praying or reciting an incantation of some sort. The words that exited their mouths as Ghebara and I approached them quickly confirmed my theory.

"Grant us vengeance, Great Goddess Ixchel
Rain down your wrath against the enemies of Mayab9
Protect us like you protect your own children
Accept this, our sacrifice of blood,
and like the moon, guide our steps within the darkness."10

The words reached a violent climax as Anibal Žalost stretched his right hand towards the circle engraved on the floor and sliced his palm with a ritualistic obsidian knife. Blood dripped from the stone blade's glossy black edge into the circle. It trailed towards the center, where a small stone brazier burned with copal and other aromatic herbs: an offering the likes of which only the most devout make.

Lord Mortis stood and walked towards me, while Ghebara took Anibal's hand and bandaged it with great care. The twin green embers that were the Archmage's eyes burned with excitement as he welcomed me.

"Ah, you arrive just in time, Ulak the Drifter," said the Archmage. "Anibal and I have just finished preparing this room to hold our little séance."

"Thank you, Lord Mortis," I said, "though I must say that I have been to many séances and never have I seen one involving…"

"Ancient Maya rituals?" interrupted Archmage Mortis. "I do not blame you. Most mediums need only their own bodies as vessels to channel the words of the dead… that or a little bit of séance dust. As much as I consider such things to be a form of cheating, I would have made an exception for this single occation. After all, we are trying to get you to Amvat as quick as possible, are we not? Shame that the circumstances have forced us to take… an alternative path."

I nodded, and Lord Mortis handed me the codex he and Anibal had been reading. Despite my fear that it might crumble under my touch, the paper felt very strong for its age, and the glyphs on it were as readable as any newly printed book. The codex was titled Invocation of the Goddesses, and told of numerous spells and prayers to grant one at least a basic amount of protection against the influences of evil.

"Magnificent, is it not?" said Lord Mortis as I scanned the ancient pages. "One of the few surviving original codices, miraculously spared from the ignorance of the conquistadores and the Jesuits alike. Perhaps one day we will be able to reconstruct the entirety of the Mayan Empires' libraries,11 but until that day comes, this will have to do."

I returned the book to Lord Mortis, who handed it to Ghebara. The Archmage turned to Anibal, who still sat at the edge of the circle.

"Now, Anibal, I believe our friend must be wondering why on Idhai we are going through all this trouble for a measly séance. Would you be inclined to explain to him what we are working with?"

The young necromancer stood and approached us, eyes fixed on me. A strange expression covered his face, as if some unspoken intranquility roamed his mind. Both Lord Mortis and Ghebara remained silent, watching the necromancer as he imparted his knowledge on me.

"Of course, Archmage," he said rigidily, almost mechanically. "Know, Ulak the Drifter, that the man whose soul we are attempting to contact was known in life as Miguel Guerra, a smuggler in league with the Black Nebula. His ship crash-landed on Amvat a few years ago and, though he was rescued after a few weeks, his wounds went untreated for too long and he died soon after getting off-planet."

Lord Mortis took a holopad from somewhere in his cloak and handed it to me. It displayed the image of a bronze-skinned man, brown eyes gleaming under a strong, furrowed brow. The text underneath it read, "Subject: Miguel Guerra. Species: Human. Place of birth: Chetumal, Quintana Roo, México, Earth. Age: Forty-three Earth years at the time of death."

"I see," I responded, handing the holopad back to Archmage Mortis. "And this man's testimony is what will help us prepare for our journey, is it not? Forgive me, young Žalost, but I fail to understand why all these… preparatives are necessary. Can you not simply summon his spirit to this plane of existence?"

Žalost's face hardened ever so slightly, as if offended by the notion that he was unable to perform the task at hand. For the briefest of instants, his eyes seemed to glisten with a rage that quickly subsided under the weight of his own professionalism. His gaze darted from me to Ghebara to Lord Mortis, both of whom remained attentive to his every move.

"Of course, that I could do under normal circumstances, Drifter. In any other scenario, summoning Guerra's spirit for questioning would be an easy task, barely a challenge," continued the necromancer. "It is quite unfortunate that this time we are not just dealing with his summoning. You see, our man was a follower of the ancient Mayan religion, and since his life was anything but righteous, well… his soul is probably being tormented somewhere in Xibalbá."12

I felt my hearts sink to the bottom of my being, like a butterfly that devolves back into its chrysalis. Of all the possible scenarios we could face, this was one of the worst.

Xibalbá, an afterlife whose name means "the Place of Fear."

As is detailed in the Popol Vuh, the realm of the cursed Maya dead is a dark pit of pain and lamentations home to many unpleasant denizens, ranging from murderers and rapists to traitors and blasphemers. Chief amongst its inhabitants in both power and perversion are its rulers, the Twelve Lords of Xibalbá, led by Hun-Camé and Vucub-Camé, two deities cruel and repellent even amongst their ilk. Woe is anyone fated for the Place of Fear, for only the cruelest tortures await those who enter its gaping maws.

My shock at this revelation must not have passed unnoticed, for the necromancer spoke again with a voice that dripped triumph. It was almost as if he were reasserting his expertise on the subject.

"Undoubtedly, you must have heard of this place, Ulak the Drifter… and of its rulers, the Twelve Gods of Death. It is with them that we must barter for the soul of Miguel Guerra, and for the information we seek. We must be ready for anything: the Lords of Xibalbá are known to be anything but generous in their dealings with mortals."

Indeed, of this I had also heard much. Unlike most other death gods, the Twelve Lords of Xibalbá are unspeakably cruel, malevolent and deceitful. As such, they have never been worshipped by the Maya peoples, both ancient and contemporary, and no offerings were made in their name.13 Winning their favor would be no easy task.

"And… and with what exactly will we be negotiating?" I asked, nearly gasping at the idea of meeting beings as foul as the Twelve Lords. "I suppose we have something the gods may want… something they would accept in exchange for letting us talk with Miguel Guerra's spirit."

"Of course," intervened Lord Mortis. "Ghebara here has acquired for us a certain… item that Anibal believes will be irresistible to the Lords of Xibalbá."

Ghebara nodded affirmatively and extracted a small crystal vial from their robes. Within floated a small speck of light, like a captive will-o'-the-wisp. Its faint glow captivated me: it was almost like staring at purity incarnate.

"What is–" I asked, but my words fell apart and wonder turned to horror when I suddenly realized exactly what that speck was.

Lord Mortis soon confirmed my fears.

"Why, a human soul!" said the Archmage. "The soul of bishop Diego de Landa, the Bookburner, the Zealot from Cifuentes, the Destroyer of Faith. One of the many enemies of culture and knowledge… and the man behind the destruction of the codices."

He pointed at the codex that Ghebara held under their arm. Ironic, I thought, that the death priest should hold both the victim and the offender in their hands.

"Archmage, forgive me asking, but how did you come across such an item?" I asked, my voice nearly quivering at the implications of the vial's contents.

"What was that your people used to say, Anibal?" said the Archmage, looking at his apprentice. "A magician never reveals all his secrets? Yes, that was it. Suffice to say that the Feathered Serpent owed us a favor after we oversaw the reconstruction of his temple on Tenochtitlán."14

Unease set in on my mind as Ghebara handed the phylactery to Anibal. The necromancer caressed it with his wounded hand before placing it just outside the summoning circle.

"Fear not, Drifter," said Žalost. "I am certain that the Lords of Xibalbá will be most welcoming of this… offering of ours. After all, what would a god not give for the privilege of punishing a man who has offended them? What god would pass on the opportunity of tormenting the one who oversaw the destruction of their temples and effigies? This is the most logical of bargains: a soul for a soul."

Though I dreaded to admit it, the necromancer's assessment was correct. I reminisced back to the punishments that Hades and Zeus inflicted over Sisyphus and Tantalus, to the torments suffered by Pizarro at the hands of Viracocha.15 If anything could convince the Lords of Xibalbá of giving us what we needed, it could only be the soul of a man they hated.

However, I was still concerned that the Lords of Xibalbá might try to lure us into their grasp, that they might attempt to deceive us and lead us to our doom. Lord Mortis seemed to understand my preoccupation, for he grasped my shoulder with his long, spindly fingers. His grasp was surprisingly strong, and I felt it more imposing than comforting.

"Besides, dear friend Ulak," said the Archmage, "we have taken precautions to make this all the less dangerous for your mortal souls. That circle should contain any and all magical influences, as long as Anibal does not lose his… focus. I do trust him for this task…"

Lord Mortis turned towards his protegé, eyes wide with expectation. I noticed a slight twitching at the corners of the necromancer's mouth, like a dent on his otherwise impenetrable armor.

"After all," said Lord Mortis without taking his sight off him, "this is his final test. Should anything go awry, well, that would be most… disappointing, would it not, Anibal?"

Žalost's expression remained stern, but his eyes betrayed a certain unease. I now shared his surprise and puzzlement. A test? Why would Lord Mortis choose to test him now, when the stakes were so high, when our entire journey could be jeopardized if he failed? Something told me that, despite all his posturing, Lord Mortis doubted his protegé's skills.

If this was the case, Archmage Mortis said no more. He paced towards the hall's exit, his cloak waving behind him like a shadow.

"I shall leave you to complete your test, my dear boy," said the Archmage. "Ulak's presence should be enough to remind you of what is at stake, so do try to keep things… under control."

"Are you not staying, Archmage?" I asked, trying not to give the impression that I shared Lord Mortis' worries.

"Oh, no. I am afraid that my presence is required elsewhere," he answered. "Ghebara will be staying to watch and evaluate my protegé's performance… and to intervene should anything go wrong. I expect his evaluation to be on my desk by tomorrow morning. Best of luck, friends… and try not to upset the gods too much."

Without another word, the Archmage left, the hall's door closing behind him. Ghebara sat crosslegged on a cushion and beckoned me to do the same. From their robes, the death priest extracted a scroll, a quill and flask of ink, readying themself to take notes on Žalost's performance.

"Were you aware of this test?" I asked, though I believed the answered seemed quite obvious.

"Not at all, though this is hardly unusual," said Ghebara. "Lord Mortis believes in testing his apprentices at unexpected moments, to… prepare them for the hazardships and randomness of life and magic."

I nodded, but said nothing. Part of me wished the Archmage had chosen some other test, rather than one that could compromise my journey. Perhaps, I thought dreamily, this was the only way of getting the information we needed. Perhaps no other options were available.

Nonsense! I then thought, staring at the still glowing phylactery that contained the soul of bishop de Landa. If Lord Mortis had managed to acquire the soul of a man long gone from this world, then surely he could have procured us an easier ghost to commune with. The only reasonable answer was that all this was part of his machinations, a form of reminding us that he still held control over the fate of our journey.

My self-deluding thoughts were interrupted as Anibal Žalost began the first stages of the ritual. Ghebara nodded as if telling me to ask any questions I might have, and I forced myself to stop thinking about the consequences of failure.

"Tell me, young Žalost," I asked, the words nearly choking me, "is it not customary to do this sort of… séance with something that belonged to the deceased? A piece of cloth, a personal trinket…"

"Or the cadaver itself," said the necromancer, taking a small object from the cabinet. "Worry not. He's right here with us."

The necromancer placed the small item next to the summoning circle and I realized what it was: a funeral urn, filled to the brim with the ashes of Miguel Guerra. Žalost opened it and, taking a deep breath, scattered a handful of the grey dust within the circle.

Next, he took from the cabinet a small bottle whose contents he promptly swallowed: a thick red liquid that was undoubtedly human blood. Žalost wiped the corners of his mouth and sat down before shedding his robes like a snake sheds its skin, revealing a long, black array of arcane symbols meticulously tattooed on his spine. As he grabbed the phylactery containing the soul of Diego de Landa, the glyphs and sigils glowed with a cold bluish light, as if channeling the bishop's very essence.

"Now, we are ready," said the necromancer.

From Žalost's throat, a low, grumbling sound began emanating: a chant meant to summon the presence of the gods whose favor we sought. It rose and fell and rose again, the light from his tattoos' flaring and fading accordingly.

"Grant us audience, Cursed Lords of Xibalbá
In your dark halls hear our words
Come forward, Hun-Camé and Vucub-Camé
Xiquiripat and Chuchumaquic
Ahalpuh and Ahalcaná
Chamiabac and Chamiaholom
Quicxic and Patán
Quicré and Quicrixcac
Accept this, our sacrifice of soul,
and grant to us this, our desire."16

At that moment, the brazier burning at the center of the circle began spewing long, wild flames, as if trying to escape the circle's interior. The room's lights flickered and failed, leaving the brazier our only source of light. Despite the fiery spectacle taking place before us, I suddenly felt as if we were in the bowels of a deep, damp cavern, the blazing bonfire our only guide in the shadows.

As the necromancer continued his invocation, the fires in the circle began changing from red and orange to a sickly, unnatural green. The flames coalesced into a singular pillar of fire, as tall and thick as a tree's trunk. The emerald inferno roared and twirled, like a whirlwind of fire and malevolent magic. It seemed to absorb light, rather than give it, for the room felt increasingly dark, so much that, though he was barely a meter in front of me, I could only see the necromancer’s silhouette contrasted against the blaze he had unleashed.

It was then that I heard it.

At first, it was like murmur, a lullaby whispered through the deafening blaze of the inferno. Slowly, almost deliberately so, it began rising, echoing through the darkened room like a song of oblivion. The lullaby became a shrill, screaming sound, like a wounded animal at the peak of its agony. It grew louder and louder, drowning both the necromancer's chanting and the inferno's roaring, until at last, it stopped and the thing stepped out of the brazier's flames and into sight.

The creature that stood before us snarled and emitted another high-pitched cry before throwing itself at us. I barely managed to gasp in fear before the entity crashed into some invisible barrier, a glowing glyph forming in the space outside the circle and then dissipating again:

Ixchel.svg

The thing within the circle got on its feet and gently felt the invisible force that kept it confined. A grisly wet voice resonated through our ears and souls as the thing scraped its magical prison with a long, sharp claw.

"A SUMMONING CIRCLE BLESSED BY IXCHEL. CLEVER LITTLE MORTALS, ARE YOU NOT?"

I observed the creature as it paced within its prison, trying in vain to find a way to escape it and tear us to shreds. Unlike Ghebara and the necromancer, its shape was made perfectly visible by the green inferno.

Standing upright, the entity would have been nearly three meters tall, though its crouched posture greatly decreased its height. Its arms were a pair of thick, leathery wings ending in cruel, clawed hands. The being's skin was covered by a thin coat of black fur, an ornate loincloth and a feathered headdress its only garments. Its face and ears were bat-like, a short, moist snout revealing a fearsome set of twin fangs and serrated teeth. The worst part were its eyes: two red, pupilless orbs that stared at us with a hunger the likes of which only demons know. It kept pacing and snarling, its fangs dripping with saliva, undoubtedly seeking its chance to drink every last drop of our blood.

"Camazotz, the Death-Bat, Emissary of Xibalbá," Anibal's voice challenged the creature's shrills and the brazier's roar. "You were not invited here. Where are your masters, the Lords of Xibalbá whose presence we have commanded?"

Camazotz, the Bat God, the Unclean One, pressed his misshappen face against the invisible barrier, against Ixchel's name. A thin red tongue licked its fangs, drooling over the summoning circle.

"COMMANDED?" mockingly asked the god. "MY LORDS ARE GODS, YOUNG FOOL. YOU MUST BE DELUSIONAL TO THINK THEY WOULD ANSWER TO YOUR CALL LIKE DOGS OBEYING THEIR MASTER."

"Thus, they have sent you in their place," quipped Žalost. The irony was not lost to any of us. "Why, Unclean One, have they denied us our request? And why have they sent you instead? Are you not also a go–?"

"I AM A GOD, YOUNG FOOL," shrilled Camazotz. "BUT EVEN WE MUST FULFILL OUR ROLES IN THE GRANDER SCHEME OF THINGS. I AM NOT HERE TO BARGAIN WITH YOU. THE TWELVE LORDS OF XIBALBÁ SENT ME TO HAVE YOU KILLED, AND BEFORE THIS SUMMONING IS OVER, YOUR BLOOD WILL FILL MY BELLY!"

My soul sank to the bottom of my being. Though the summoning circle's magic would keep the Bat God from carrying out his threats, I saw no scenario in which we would obtain the information we sought. The soul of Miguel Guerra would remain in Xibalbá, where it would never tell the secrets of his experience on Amvat.

"Camazotz," continued the necromancer, though I noticed a slight quivering of his voice, "forgive my insolence, but you are an emissary, a middleman for the Lords of Xibalbá. It is your task to tell them of the bargain we offer, of the… sacrifice we seek to make unto them."

In the darkness, Anibal's tattoos had began glowing blue once again. It seemed that he was grasping the phylactery containing Diego de Landa's soul, and was showing it to the Bat God.

"A HUMAN SOUL?" asked Camazotz, his voice barely changing in tone. "AND WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE THE LORDS GIVE YOU IN EXCHANGE FOR THIS… OFFERING?"

"Information," said the necromancer. "Information possessed by a man whose soul has been claimed by the Twelve Lords. His ashes are spread before you in the circle of summoning. Give us his knowledge, and you shall receive this soul in exchange. A fair bargain; a soul for a soul."

Camazotz let out a laugh that would have horrified even the followers of the Scarlet King. His eyes glowed redder and he pressed his shape even more against the magical barrier.

"LITTLE NECROMANCER FOOL," laughed Camazotz, "WHAT MAKES YOU BELIEVE THAT THE GODS OF XIBALBÁ WOULD RENOUNCE THAT WHICH IS THEIRS FOR A MEASLY OFFERING LIKE THIS? DO YOU THINK THEM FOOLS LIKE YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS? WE WOULD SOONER SEND PLAGUES AFTER YOU AND FEAST ON YOUR ROTTING CORPSES THAN LIBERATE ONE WHO HAS FORFEITED HIS SOUL TO US."

"Oh, but this is not just any soul, Death-Bat," said the necromancer. "This soul is one the Lords of Xibalbá will not want to miss the opportunity to… discipline."

He lifted the phylactery, which glowed so brightly it pierced through the unnatural darkness enveloping the room. The soul within spinned and writhed and crashed against its crystal prison, as if conscious of the horrible fate that awaited it.

"This, great Unclean One," continued Anibal, "is the soul of Diego de Landa, who in life…"

Camazotz did not let him finish. For the first time he stood upright, his massive form thrashing violently, sharp claws attempting to breach containment.

"GIVE IT TO US, ANIBAL ŽALOST!" screamed the Unclean One. His voice was distorted, a dissonant cacophony of sounds, like many voices trying to speak through the same mouth. "GIVE IT TO US OR WE WILL REND YOUR SOUL PIECE BY PIECE! GIVE US OUR VENGEANCE OR NOT EVEN THE GODS OF YOUR ANCESTORS WILL BE ABLE TO SAVE YOU!"

A bright flash of light briefly illuminated the room as Ixchel's protection glyph shone with all its might, small cracks forming on it. The wrath of the Twelve Lords and their herald was beginning to marr our only protection.

"I… I will not give it to you!" exclaimed the necromancer, though his voice was frail and quivering. The barrier's erosion, however small, had undoubtedly sowed fear in his heart. "I will not give you the soul you desire! Not until you have given us the information we seek!"

"GIVE IT TO US!" the Death-Bat's voice was agonizing to hear.

"N-no!" Anibal tried to keep control, even as his voice broke and his tattoos stopped glowing.

Camazotz's frenzied shrills turned to roaring, his claws still trying to breach his confinement. The god's mouth foamed as his fangs joined the fray, and for a moment I was sure he would break through. Anibal seemed frozen in place as one of the Bat God's fangs pierced the circle's limits, only to be pushed back once more. The necromancer was about to lose control.

"Great Camazotz!"

The room went silent save for the roar of the brazier, and I found myself standing up next to the necromancer. In my frenzy, I had lost sight of just how close I was to the summoning circle, and Camazotz's fangs glistened right before my eyes.

Whatever unexpected bravery or desperation had pushed me to intervene had yet to wane, so I took advantage of the god's attention. What a moment to be bold I had found.

"Great Camzotz," I continued, "please listen to our words. We would not dare deny you or your masters the rightful prize of punishing one who slaughtered your people and burned your culture. We are in desperate need of your help, thus we implore that you do not just take it and leave us. Please, great Camazotz, great Lords of Xibalbá. We are your humble supplicants, and we beg of you your kindness."

For a moment, no one spoke, nothing moved. Even the brazier's roar seemed to have been silenced. Then spoke the Twelve Lords of Xibalbá.

"WE ARE LISTENING, ULAK THE DRIFTER."

I swallowed hard, trying to keep my voice from breaking. I had the gods' attention, so I better put it to good use before they changed their minds.

"This soul," I said with every gram of courage in my body, "is rightfully yours, to do with as you please. But why stop with a single forsaken soul when many more can be yours?"

Camazotz's eyes flared with interest. The gods had taken the bait.

"GO ON," the Lords' voices beckoned me.

"If you concede to our desire, we will let it be known that the Lords of Xibalbá are honorable gods, trustworthy keepers of the dead. We will speak of how your wisdom and mercy allowed our quest to succeed, when otherwise we would have perished. I am sure that soon your names will resonate through not just the ancient Mayab, but through the entirety of the Immortal Empire. Imagine all the supplicants that will willfully come seeking you out, how many souls you will be able to collect. The halls of Xibalbá will be filled to the brim!"

Silence.

Camazotz's mouth remained open, toxic drool dripping from his fangs. It seemed the gods were considering my offer.

"AND WHAT GUARANTEE HAVE WE THAT YOU WILL KEEP YOUR PROMISE?"

"The same we do, great Lords," spoke then the necromancer. He slowly got on his feet, as if recuperating from his earlier shock. "Words sealed in magic are words to live by. I will speak to those who hold enough sway to spread your words. Then our end of the bargain will be fulfilled… and we shall all be free from service to each other."

I nodded as the necromancer held the phylactery aloft, his tattoos glowing once again. For one so small as he, it was truly brave to stand up to beings like Camazotz and his masters.

We stood silently for what felt like an eternity. All the while, Camazotz panted and snarled and stared at us with blank eyes, his consciousness evidently being held somewhere else. At last, the Lords of Xibalbá spoke through the mouth of their emissary.

"THE TERMS ARE ACCEPTED. YOU HAVE OUR WORD: YOU SHALL HAVE THAT WHICH YOU SEEK. FAIL TO HONOR YOUR PROMISE, AND NO POWER SHALL KEEP YOU FROM OUR WRATH."

"Thank you, great Lords," I said, bowing my head.

Camazotz spoke again, this time in his own voice.

"YOU HEARD THE LORDS OF XIBALBÁ, FOOL AND DRIFTER. YOUR PRAYERS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED. NOW GIVE US WHAT IS RIGHTFULLY OURS."

Anibal Žalost lifted the phylactery and, with a single movement, threw it into the summoning circle. Camazotz grabbed it midair, his sharp claws piercing the crystal. His eyes glowed with hunger, watching as the soul in the jar buzzed and writhed in fear.

With a shrill, bone-chilling laughter, Camazotz walked towards the green pillar of fire behind him and stepped inside, his form disappearing the same way he had come. His task completed, he and his masters would undoubtedly delight themselves in torturing their newly-acquired victim.

The fire pillar roared as the Lords of Xibalbá celebrated their triumph, burning hotter and more unnaturally than before, completely engulfing the inside of the summoning circle. It quickly collapsed on itself and went out, leaving behind nothing but the scorched brazier and Miguel Guerra's ashes. Light returned to the room as the portal to Xibalbá closed, and we were once again solely amongst mortals.

"Well," spoke then Ghebara, who had remained still and silent during the entire procedure, "that could have certainly gone worse."

The death priest's quill wrote furiously on the scroll, their evaluation of Žalost's performance evidently reaching its end. The necromancer's visage was terrible. His face spoke volumes, utter defeat at his slip, however tiny it might have been. I suddenly realized that, by intervening, I had compromised whatever results Ghebara would report to Lord Mortis.

"Your evaluation is complete, young Žalost," said Ghebara. "I will report your performance to the Archmage as soon as possible. And as for you, honored Ulak, I wish you safe travels. May the information you have just procured be worth the sacrifice."

And without another word, they stood and left us alone.

I was about to inquire Žalost on the information we had gained when, suddenly, my sight went black and my head light, and I felt my form falling towards the chamber's cold floor.

I now write these words from a bed in the Obsidian Cathedral, for the shock of the sudden vision left both me and the necromancer weak. At the Archmage's own suggestion, I have chosen to wait until tomorrow to relate what sights I experienced while possessed by the spirit of Miguel Guerra.

I must rest now, before–17

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