I, Faust
rating: +11+x

It was a day like any other in Troll Market, deep below the surface of the Earth. Its labyrinthic net of tunnels and caverns boiled with activity, lit only by the glow of colossal crystal formations that protruded from the Market's floor, walls and ceiling. Colorful stands and locales, which covered every available space, hosted millions of beings that ceaselessly shopped, sold and traded. The Market's wares, merchandise so varied and exotic that it defied imagination, changed hands at an accelerated pace as the fuzz over fresh raw materials, luxurious jewelry and other goods reached its peak.

All that was about to change.

Troll Market had seen it all. Excavated into the planet's primordial bedrock, portals to it could be found under bridges all over the British Isles, Scandinavia and New York City. Over ten millennia, it had seen every manner of creature from every corner of the Earth and from across the stars come and go. It had been the site of revolts and conspiracies, heists and frauds, deals of a lifetime and million-coin losses. Yes, Troll Market had seen it all, but some events are just much more memorable than others.

A murmur made itself heard through the shifting crowd, its message spreading like wildfire. Merchants and buyers turned their heads, ears changing their attention from the price of basilisk eggs and flying carpets to whatever was coming their way. Soon, the murmurs turned into excited chatter as the merchants occupying the Market's highest ledges confirmed the rumors: Lord Mortis was coming their way.

Lord Mortis, Imperial Archmage, paced through Troll Market's congested caverns and tunnels with astounding ease, his mere presence parting the crowd like a prophet passing between the waves of the Red Sea. His imposing stature, gaunt and somber, was overshadowed only by the quartet of guards that flanked his person, all armed with sharp swords and heavy plasma cannons. Behind them, two colossal mountain trolls, large even for their kind, carried a large square box covered by a thick blanket. Though firmly held by the trolls, the box rattled every now and then, garnering curious murmurs from the surrounding multitude, though none dared impede the Archmage's path to take a peek at it.

The Archmage's visage contrasted sharply against Troll Market's colorful landscape. Lit only by the Market's dim light, Lord Mortis almost looked like he was made of the underground's own darkness, a living silhouette come from the depths of the Underworld. His clothes, from his gloves to his boots, were pitch black, his robes beautifully embroidered with silver thread. A long, heavy cloak lay upon his shoulders, trailing behind him like a mass of shadows. His face was covered by an exquisitely crafted silver mask, concealing the Archmage's features from the citizens of the Empire. Only his eyes were visible: two fiery emerald embers that blazed with dark, ancient power.

It was none of these things that garnered such attention, however. Rather, it was the novelty of the Archmage's visit: few in Troll Market could remember when Lord Mortis had last visited the place. In fact, very few in the entire Empire recalled when he had last been spotted in public. Long past were the days when he had ruled as Emperor Mortis, and even before abdicating the throne (supposedly to fully focus on his research) he had been a notoriously reclusive individual, his decisions as Emperor communicated to the Universe by his android servants. In the current age, sightings of him were still rare, as he almost never left his quarters at the Obsidian Cathedral, far away on the Empire's capital world.

With his grim visage and the mystery surrounding him, none would have been surprised if Troll Market fell silent with dread, as if the Archmage's visit were to be considered a bad omen. Many, however, would be astonished that the exact opposite was happening.

The crowd cheered loudly.

Every troll, human and fey cheered as Lord Mortis advanced through the Market's main corridor, joyfully hailing his gaunt shape. Some people even followed behind him, careful not to incur the guards' suspicion, lest they be quickly mowed down by their weapons.

Lord Mortis turned his eyes towards the multitude, lifting his right hand to salute them. The crowd roared excitedly.

"Hail Lord Mortis!" yelled a scrawny goblin, lifting a jug of ale to the former Emperor.

"May he live a thousand eons!" hissed a naga sorcerer, a silent prayer to Brahma on his lips.

"Hail the Emperor! Hail Emperor Mortis!" exclaimed a burly yeti at the top of his lungs. His words became a rallying cry as more and more people joined in and roared, "Hail Emperor Mortis! Long live Emperor Mortis!"

Emperor Mortis, thought the Archmage as he continued waving his hand at the ecstatic multitude, his expression hidden beneath his silver mask. A sense of contentment quickly set down in his chest. Three centuries had passed since he abdicated the throne, three centuries since he had tired of politics and decided to fully commit himself to his scientific work, yet the citizens of the Empire remembered him fondly enough to still call him "Emperor."

And how could they not? Who if not Mortis had defended the Empire from the Krolovar Incursion? Who but him had expanded the Empire a thousand-fold? What era but his had seen such great advancements in science, magic and culture? Even though he had been an extremely reclusive Emperor, Mortis had always vied for the good of the people, and the people loved him for it.

All around him, the citizens of the Empire tried to get closer to their former Emperor. Children of all ages ran after him, happily reciting rhymes and songs about the Archmage that their parents had taught them. Some of the most adventurous merchants offered him their wares, which Lord Mortis accepted gracefully.

Suddenly, a young elf girl, her dark skin and white hair the unmistakable traits of a drow, stepped out of the crowd and into Mortis' path, disregarding the Archmage's guards. A shy, innocent smile floated on her face, her eyes two golden jewels that shined with excitement. In her arms she held a basket of pomegranates so ripe that they would make Persephone blush. Timidly, she offered them to the Archmage.

Lord Mortis knelt down on one knee and reached forward with his long, skeletal fingers. He chose the pomegranate he felt was best, and it disappeared in the darkness of his cloak. He then kindly pressed the child's cheek and, to the crowd's raucous excitement, lifted her on his shoulders, basket and all.

Thus the procession continued, their joyful voices echoing through Troll Market's tunnels, eager to follow the man to whom they owed their newly found utopia. From the Market's highest ledges, flower petals rained down from the hands of fair maidens. Warriors drank to the Archmage's health and holy men thanked their gods for his wellbeing. Even pickpockets and petty thieves stopped their activities to salute the former Emperor, though they resumed them as soon as he was out of sight.

It went on for nearly half an hour, as the crowd danced and sang and celebrated. It almost made them forget about the large box carried by the mountain trolls which, during the entire event, had not ceased to rattle. However, most people would later confer that the box the trolls carried made them feel uneasy, as if something ominous lurked beneath the thick curtain that hid it from sight. Those who had walked closest to it would even swear that, at times, they had heard the box moan.

None of those present could tell exactly when it was that Lord Mortis and his companions vanished. Despite being completely surrounded, they had somehow eluded the crowd and vanished into thin air. All anyone could assure was that, at the turn of a dark corner, the Archmage, his guards and the mysterious box had all disappeared, leaving behind nothing but the giggling child, her basket empty and a bag full of gold coins in her hand.

Lord Mortis emerged from the shadows nearly three kilometers below the Market's main corridors, his senses alert for any unwanted presence. He had used his shadow-step powers to spirit himself and his companions away from the crowd, and he was already feeling weary from transporting so many beings through the darkness. Shame, he thought, for the time of joy and celebration had come to an end. Now was the time for action.

The tunnels where Lord Mortis and his companions stood were even darker than the ones above, fit to be inhabited solely by the most reclusive dwellers of the magic world. Vampires and wraiths and orcs and cockatrices were the only creatures that ventured this deep underground, and not without reason. Only such beings, the ones most attuned to the darkness, could tolerate the structure that stood at the end of the tunnel.

A small shop, utterly nondescript and seemingly out of place in those dark corridors, stood alone in the darkness. It was illuminated by several small crystals placed in a circle around it, their red glow casting ominous shadows over the simple stone façade. Above the solid wooden door was a large sign on which a name was elegantly written in a dark red font: Desiderata. The name only added to the feeling of unease that surrounded the shop: under the crystals’ light, it almost looked like it was bleeding.

The door opened, seemingly on its own, as Lord Mortis approached the circle of crystals, as if anticipating his visit. The guards and the trolls, still carrying their cargo, followed the Archmage into the circle. The guards stood still, flanking the door as the trolls and the sorcerer crossed the umbral into the shop and disappeared. The door snapped shut, and the echo of its closing traveled far through the dark tunnels, an omen of things to come.

Lord Mortis looked around as if this were his first visit to the store. The walls were lined with strange books and trinkets, from bones and skulls to jewelry and small torture devices. Stone idols and incense burners filled the wall behind the counter, and ancient-looking artifacts awaited beneath protective glass. At first glance, the place was no different to any other mundane black magic shop, but Lord Mortis knew better.

Behind the counter stood a thin, tall man, clad completely in red. His elegant suit looked worn and neglected, but it still gave him an air of prestige. His red hair, on the other hand, blazed like it were made of hellfire, accentuating his sharp features and contrasting his pitiless yellow eyes.

"Lord Mortis, what a surprise!" exclaimed the man, his pearl-white teeth displayed in an exuberant smile. "It has been too long since you last visited my humble shop. How may I be of service to the most glorious Emperor we…"

"Enough of it, already," said Lord Mortis, though there was no sign of exasperation in his voice. "No need for appearances, old friend."

The smile on the man's lips disappeared instantly, his false enthusiasm replaced by a frown that made his eyes glisten with something inhuman. With a snap of his fingers, the glamour charm dropped, and the store and its owner changed.

It was like looking into Dante's worst nightmare. The walls seemed to melt and twist, lifting the cracked ceiling far away into the darkness. The shelves and cabinets were replaced with strange furniture that almost seemed like it was made of living flesh and bone. A thick, reddish substance began bubbling from the cracks on the stone floor, forming pools that emitted a putrid smell. Braziers full of dark fire hanged from the ceiling, held by chains decorated with twisted bones and decayed cartilage. In place of the counter was a heavy block of black stone, its surface inscribed with symbols so profane that looking at them would make any mortal's eyes bleed.

Behind the stone altar was the shop owner, deprived of his human guise.

The thing that looked back at Mortis with its yellow, catlike eyes stood nearly ten meters tall, its red, scaly skin glistening under the braziers' fire. Its feet were sharp, birdlike talons scraping the stone floor on which they stood. Its muscled arms ended in long, clawed fingers joined together by a black membrane to form wings, poised around its body like a cloak. Tense muscles shifted beneath the skin, as if trying to break out from their prison. Its ridged back ended in a tail that curled and twisted like a predator's when it anticipates its kill.

The head that crowned the creature's curved, swanlike neck was an abomination of its own: below the creature's eyes extended a ridged snout that contained a maw full of twisted, jagged teeth. Two flat sword-like horns emerged backwards from each side of the thing's skull. Above them, two pointy, leathery ears moved independently from each other. Together with the horns, they formed a sort of deformed crown that flanked the creature's narrow skull.

"Very well, then," said the thing, its voice a painful combination of thunder and scraping metal. "Have it your way."

Lord Mortis gazed at the thing in front of him, and a smile formed beneath his mask. It had been too long, indeed.

"He Who Makes Skulls Rattle, former Grand Marquis of Hell, Lord of Agony, Master of Chains, the Conqueror," said Lord Mortis, "it is always a pleasure to see you."

The demon lowered his head until it was eye to eye with Mortis. A long, black tongue licked its mouth's horrid fangs, as if anticipating a delightful treat.

"Is it, now?" hissed the demon's cruel voice. "You are late. How… uncharacteristic of you."

"What is time to us immortals?" said Lord Mortis. "I hope you will forgive me not informing you of my delay, but I am sure your little spies told you everything about the celebration above. Nasty little creatures, are they not?"

An unnerving, childlike laughter emerged from the shadows above the two immortals. Lord Mortis turned his eyes towards the ceiling, where, hanging from the braziers and chandeliers, a swarm of tiny imps jeered and made obscene gestures towards the Archmage.

"Besides," he quipped, ignoring the imps' provocations, "I was enjoying myself with the crowd. How odd for someone of your kind to think so little of vanity and pride. It is, after all, your cardinal sin."

"Our sin?" He Who Makes Skulls Rattle snarled. "What do you know about sin? Mine are a proud kind, the great Lords of Hell, feared even by the gods themselves! Sin is for weaker lifeforms. We are the original Hellspawn, the Children Beneath Tartarus. We do not sin, for we are beyond your puny sense of morality."

"I rest my case," grinned Lord Mortis.

He Who Makes Skulls Rattle's people were one of the first breed of demons to ever come into existence in the deepest layer of Hell, a race of fiends whose reign preceded the fall of the Morning Star. Long had they waged war against the gods and had ultimately been pushed back to the depths beyond Tartarus. The Lord of Agony had taken one of the worst blows.

"You are quite proud for an exile," continued the Archmage. "Word in Pandemonium is that you have conquered a hundred worlds and now rule them from Earth. Quite the lie you have woven. Even Emperor Gorgrog seems to believe it. What would your fellows say if they found out the truth about…?"

The demon Marquis gave Lord Mortis a gaze that could have petrified a gorgon. A wave of magical fear surged from his form, though Mortis was unfazed. The trolls behind him, however, quivered with discomfort. Had Lord Mortis not inscribed them with protection glyphs, they would have surely been paralyzed with horror.

"Have you come here to mock me, Mortis?" He Who Makes Skulls Rattle's nostrils fumed with toxic vapors. "Have you come here to further humiliate me? I was a king once, feared and respected by Hell's most powerful demons. I sat at the Demon Emperor's side, I whispered in his ear. He trusted me more than his own sons. I commanded a hundred legions, laid waste to a dozen worlds and now…"

"And now you have nothing," said Lord Mortis. "Nothing but this little store of yours, waiting for some unfortunate fool to entice into selling you their soul. A bit cliché if you think about it, but I must say you have done a masterful work with the decoration."

Mortis knew well of the disgrace that befell the Master of Chains. Challenged for his position and domains by Beelzebub himself, he had been utterly bested in combat by the Lord of Flies. He was exiled in shame by his Emperor, his titles rescinded, and his domains parted between the victor and his allies. He had taken to terrorize the realms of Midgard, raging for a decade before being sealed beneath Troll Market. Still quite the feat, thought Lord Mortis, as the demon's binding had required the combined efforts of Hades, Bes and Sun Wukong. Not bad for an exiled noble.

"Do forgive my frankness," continued Lord Mortis. "You know I am not as adept at lying as your people are. I can barely keep up this façade of moral perfection with my subjects."

He Who Makes Skulls Rattle stared at him with mixed emotion. For a moment, tension reigned, interrupted only by the chittering noises of the imps above.

"You are getting better at it," He Who Makes Skulls Rattle conceded at last. "The part with the drow girl was a nice detail if you ask me."

"People love children, for the most part. I cannot say that I did not appreciate the opportunity. I have done everything I can to help my Empire and its people. I do like some gratitude every now and then."

"You asked how Hell would react to my predicament. I wonder how your Empire would react to your actions, Archmage. What would your precious Empire think of your dealings with the devil?"

Lord Mortis shrugged, his silver mask as expressionless as ever.

"Everything I have ever done has been for their own good. Every hard decision, every little unsavory action. All in the name of peace and prosperity for the Empire. What are my sins compared to the greater good of the people? I am a pragmatist first, a dreamer second. Why do you think I have bargained with you for the better part of this century? I am a benevolent man, even if my means are anything but."

"Impressive," said He Who Makes Skulls Rattle, a grotesque smile forming on his jaws. "Keep telling yourself that, and one day you just might believe it."

He leaned in closer to Mortis, his eyes perforating the Archmage to his very core. When he spoke again, his voice dripped with venom.

"I sense guilt within you, Lord Mortis. You are trying to push it down, to suppress your feelings. Yours is a strong mind, unlike any other I have met, but not even you can hide your truth from yourself. You cannot hide from your shame, just like I cannot hide from mine. Is that why you have taken to wearing masks? I recognize the craftsmanship on this one…"

"It was a gift from the Flamels, my dear demon… and you know better than anyone that I do not wear it out of guilt," said the Archmage.

"This I know, yes," said the demon. "So take it off, then, or have you become as the Masked Lords of Alagadda, all mask and no substance? No need for appearances here, old friend."

The Archmage sighed with resignation. He knew when the argument had turned against him. The least he could do was to be gracious in defeat.

With great caution, as if he feared damaging the mask, he removed it from his face, revealing what laid beneath its silver surface. A discomforting, frigid atmosphere took hold as the mask left its owner's face. The trolls began trembling and the box they carried shook intensely.

The eyes on the Archmage's face looked alive, but they were the only thing that gave away that he was not, in fact, dead. Beneath the mask was only a tarnished, deteriorated skull, its teeth fixed in a perpetual smile. Old patches of decomposed flesh and skin still clung to the face they had once covered completely, a reminder of Lord Mortis' former mortality. A black glyph was inscribed in the middle of the forehead, the mark of an attempt at immortality gone horribly right.

"Satisfied?" said Lord Mortis, admiring his reflection on his silver mask. His voice was neither warm nor cold, harsh nor kind, deep nor high-pitched. It was simply ancient, as ancient as the Empire, as ancient as Midgard itself. It was ancient… and infinitely dreadful. "Good. Now that we've both shed our disguises, I would rather like we attend to the business at hand."

The demon smiled with satisfaction, a cruel, toothy expression that seemed to require every muscle on his face. He huffed over the stone altar, and a red smoke began to coalesce from its surface, slowly taking shape and substance. Soon, it had taken the form of a book, a tiny, featureless red grimoire.

"As promised. The Book of Idolaters, author unknown," the demon said.

"Wonderful," said the Archmage, admiring the minuscule book. "I do hope you did not go through much trouble to find it. Finding a book in a Multiverse so big can be quite challenging for someone in your predicament."

"Finding it was not easy, acquiring it less so," conceded the demon. "What is it with you and these trinkets? First the painting, next the journal, then the bones… now this. Is your thirst for knowledge so great that you will sacrifice your own integrity to quench it?"

"You always were a warrior, my dear friend, never a scholar," said the Archmage. "I would not expect someone whose sole purpose in life has been destruction to comprehend the bigger picture. Sometimes, my friend, the finest sculptor must tear down the world to build his masterpiece."

Something that almost sounded like laughter exited the demon's fanged mouth.

"You would have made a good demon, Mortis. I have always liked your ilk. Always searching, rarely finding… willfully sacrificing. I do hope this book is enough to satisfy you for a while. The things I did to get it will forever stain your soul…"

"I appreciate your kindness. Although I will admit to you… I thought it would be bigger," said an unimpressed Lord Mortis, reaching forward with his gloved hands.

He was cut off by the snapping of He Who Makes Skulls Rattle's jaws. His nostrils again blew greenish steam.

"Not yet. First, my payment."

"I was hoping to take a look at it first," said the Archmage. "Just to make sure it is worth my…"

He Who Makes Skulls Rattle hissed angrily.

"You said you wanted any piece of the puzzle, any clue, any information, no matter how vague or small! These are the laws of magic! I will have my payment, or you won't know your prize!"

Lord Mortis stared at He Who Makes Skulls Rattle intently, his eyes literal orbs of green fire. He then shrugged and signaled the trolls.

"Of course. Such are the laws of magic."

At that moment, the box began thrashing with great force, a low moaning rising from beneath the blanket. The two trolls lifted it effortlessly and, with surprising delicateness, placed it upon the stone altar. Lord Mortis approached the thrashing cube and, without a second thought, removed the blanket in a single movement.

Beneath the blanket was a cage large enough to fit an adult human, which was exactly what pried from between the bars of the metal enclosure. Naked and covered in blood and ash, an emaciated man writhed and thrashed and beat himself and the cage, a twisted dance of pure agony and fear. His skin was covered with glyphs and symbols carved by a cruel blade; some of them still bled. A large tattoo in the shape of a star, with an eye inscribed at its center, decorated his forehead. The man made no sound, but his eyes expressed a wild, primal fear.

He Who Makes Skulls Rattle's eyes opened wide with surprise, barely containing his own violent impulses. He licked his teeth and leaned closer to the altar.

"Is he…?"

"Indeed he is," said Lord Mortis. "Your little imps have kept you up to date, I see. Fresh from the Imperial Palace's dungeons, prepared to your exact liking. A worthy sacrifice, I believe. I carved his skin myself, after all. I would also suggest you consume him before the Earthshaker comes knocking at your door. Even the Titans will be after him after what he tried to pull off in Sounion. I had a pair of Martians implant his mind with the rawest fears they could come up with, so I do hope you will find his terror… delectable."

He Who Makes Skulls Rattle smelled the frail, naked creature that still writhed within the metal cage. His eyes turned from yellow to black instantly, his nose having fully absorbed the smell of fear.

"The terms are accepted," growled the demon.

"Excellent. Now, if you excuse me, I will be taking that," said Lord Mortis, finally grasping the book in his hands. He then turned towards the demon and snapped his fingers, lifting the geas he had imposed over the man. "I bet you would like to hear him scream now."

The man's silence was broken instantly, as a violent scream exited his lungs. He screamed and cried and tore his throat apart with every desperate, agonizing cry, but he would just not stop screaming. He Who Makes Skulls Rattle did not wait much: his jaws closed upon the man's form and tore and ripped and shredded, while the man continued screaming, even as he was reduced to an unrecognizable mass of bloodied flesh. Far above him, the imps' laughter echoed through the cursed shop.

Lord Mortis inspected his prize, ignoring the screams. The book was old and moldy, damaged by years of exposure to the elements. Nonetheless, as soon as he began flipping through its decayed pages, he realized the treasure he now possessed. Finally, a new piece in the puzzle had reached his hands.

At last, the screams ceased, and He Who Makes Skulls Rattle licked whatever remains still covered the altar. He then uttered a word of power and exposed his chest. Surrounded by a metallic breastplate forged in the depths of Hell, a white, oval crystal protruded from the demon's chest. Within, uncountable faces writhed in agony, the many souls He Who Makes Skulls Rattle had devoured through the ages. His newest victim's soul rose from the bloodstained altar and joined them soon enough. The demon's due was finally paid.

Lord Mortis did not wait for it to finish. He turned to the door, and with a polite tip of his head, exited Desiderata, not without first putting his mask back on. The time for appearances had come once again. The trolls followed behind him, and the door snapped shut once more, locking the horrors within until the time they were needed once more.

At least that is over, thought Lord Mortis as his guards flanked him once again. A part of him wished to not be in need of the fiend's services in some time. It wasn't that he did not enjoy his little chats with the demon, nor that he found the creature to be morally revulsive. It was simply that, for a nobleman, He Who Makes Skulls Rattle had terrible table manners.

That very night, back in his quarters beneath the Obsidian Cathedral, Lord Mortis sat before the pieces of the puzzle he had been assembling ever since the vision had come to him three centuries ago. He looked at them, and felt despair grasp his heart.

There hanged that cursed painting, its canvas long vacated by its former occupant. There were the notes of the unlucky Pablo de Gomera, stained with the blood of their author. There were the bones of the imprudent Justine Grant, still infected by the poison that had eclipsed her. And now… here was this book, this newest piece of the puzzle.

Lord Mortis had renounced his title to become a humble servant of the Empire, and now his duty called. He had consulted with Hypnos and Morpheus, with the Oneiroi and the Nightmare King, with Kronos and the Oracle of Delphi. All had reached the same conclusion: something was amiss in the cosmic order.

His informants had heard rumors in the Court of Alagadda, murmurs of chaos and devastation, of ancient horrors uncovered and unleashed. Even the Masked Lords and the Ambassador were preoccupied, for not even they understood the full extent of what was happening. A dream of desolation was spreading like a plague amongst the greatest minds of Yggdrasil, the very same vision that had visited Lord Mortis in his sleep, and it was all tied to the contents of this morbid collection, to the words that filled the book he now held in his hands.

Much effort and sacrifice would be needed, terrible deeds would be done in the name of order and cruel fates would befall the innocent. But in the end, Lord Mortis hoped, it would not be for naught. The Empire would survive and recover, and its people would be spared. This he wanted to believe… this he needed to believe. He would not stop until the threat had passed, until he knew his people were safe from any harm. This he swore to himself, and to the gods.

The Archmage looked at the small grimoire, its covers open at the first page. Beyond it laid the secrets he had long searched for, the enigma for which he had sacrificed so much. Lord Mortis, former Emperor of the greatest civilization to ever spread through the stars, sat down and, with a heavy conscience, began to read.

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