Authors: Gary Gygax
“Get your ass moving, Spotty. We been here too long,” Alburt ordered as he stuffed the last of several small crystal flasks into a bag.
“You know it,” his associate said, heading for the place in the wall where a secret passage led to and from Wanno’s hideaway. “Nice of that spell-binder to set up his quarters so near the Thieves’ Way,” Slono observed as the two went along the narrow passage in the walls of the Citadel.
“Yep. His sort always stick themselves up in some high tower or down underground. Never does ’em any good, either way.” He fell silent after that. In a few minutes the pair left the known passage and went into the even more secret way beneath it, the adit built by Greyhawk’s vaunted Thieves’ Guild. None of the members of the latter group knew that it was now a regular route for the assassins. Silence was complete in the passage and in the rooms it led to.
It was not until days later that Wanno’s body was discovered, and the news caused a stir in the Citadel that lasted for days thereafter. Finally, the apprentice Halferd was held guilty of murder and flight to avoid paying for his crime. Word was posted that he was a wanted man, and the matter was all but forgotten.
The being whose name and title was Infestix stood as a misshapen pillar before the silent assemblage. If likened to a court on Oerth, this gathering would be an imperial parliament, or perhaps a council of royal sovereigns. The masters of the many planes of Gehenna, Hades, and Tarterus were ranked before Infestix. These terrible beings stood in a semicircle before that one’s dais, those to the left diabolic in appearance, those to the right demoniac, those in the middle resembling Infestix.
Other royal assemblages would show magnificence, splendid robes, glittering gems, bright gold. But the court of Infestix was the nadir of squalor and decay; where other courts would display beauty, grace, and life at its finest, this one showed instead ugliness, clumsiness, and the ever-present threat of death. This grand court existed in the deepest Gloom of Hades, lowest of the Lower Planes, evilest of evil realms. “Nightmare” would be far too pleasant a term to describe this place, considering both the gathering of creatures and their overlord, Infestix.
“Is there nothing more?” Infestix asked accusingly. His voice was hollow-sounding and sepulchral. Sickly yellow slime dripped from his lipless mouth as he spoke, and his tongue was a fat, gray worm.
A muted rasping and creaking issued forth in response, sibilant whispers mixing with harsh croakings. Here a figure shuffled, there another shifted. Ghastly heads bowed, clawlike hands clasped, but none of the Lords of Netherevil spoke in reply to their overlord’s query.
“What is forewritten can be altered.” This statement from Infestix, for all the self-assurance of its content, held a note of doubt, perhaps desperation.
A warty dreggal from the fuming pits of Gehenna drew itself up to its full height. “Who can oppose Infestix?” the monster shouted metallically.
“Better to ask who does,” a massive demodand crackled in retort.
The Masters of the Horde gabbled back and forth at that remark. Deviloids and dreggals screamed in rage while demodands and demonkin yowled their laughter at the caperings of hordlings and night hags.
“Stop.” The dead, toneless voice of Infestix somehow filled the vast chamber. The assembled horrors became instantly silent and still. Riot had been averted. “You, Haegresse. What became of those fools who were Our dupes?”
The queen of night hags made a terrible face, something between a smile and a moue. Perhaps she was being charming. “They have withdrawn, all of them, to their domains,” she simpered. “They will respond to no coaxing and are beyond ken.”
“What is the rede of the hells?” Infestix put this question to a huge fiend towering over the wart-covered dreggal who had begun the near-chaos.
The horned head of the great devil tilted slightly in perfunctory obeisance. “The writ has changed, fearful lord,” he replied with a sharp clashing of his tusks and fangs, “but there is still the last portion which is nebulous. We have increased the probabilities in our favor, but at the last there is still a small chance of risk a modicum of doubt…”
Infestix’s terrible visage grew even more awful to behold. “Why did the eight sons of… that one… withdraw, hag? They had already given over their brother into Our hand.”
“They are a suspicious lot at best,” Haegresse replied in her strange voice, “and much bent toward the weakness of weal. Suspicious the eight were from the first, and their part in the fratricide caused much argument amongst them. Usurpation of the right of lordship was no longer a sufficient prize. He of Lions demanded to see the whole of the prophecy. Of course I demurred, seeking the sympathy of the one representing the hot-tempered Ancient Tigers, but even that stupid lout was no help,” the queen of night hags said, spitting to emphasize her disgust.
“They know, then, that there was less than total success.” Infestix looked slowly, his gaze moving from left to right, over the group that stood before him. “It is our mission-more than that, our duty!-to reawaken the Greatest One, free Him, and assist in His triumph over all… You have failed me, though, and that will not be forgiven.” With that the Netherlord’s burning stare fell squarely upon the night hag. Haegresse’s form cringed under the gaze. She bowed her head in fear, expecting the worst, but Infestix looked away and spoke on.
“Fortunately for all of you fools, I have personally brought forces to bear on this affair. I have discovered what you could not: Others have learned of what we plan. They dare to interfere. It is their power, their meddling, which caused you to bungle.”
At those words, Haegresse dared to look up again. She saw a bony finger pointed straight at her, and the leering visage of the terrible daemon looking along the digit’s path. The night hag opened her mouth to protest, but a pale ray of putrescent green hue struck her full in the face before she could utter a sound.
The leathery flesh of her face bubbled and ran as if it were wax. In seconds Haegresse was nothing more than a vile-smelling puddle on the black basalt flags of Infestix’s court.
The others looked warily at the Netherlord. “She it was who gave our enemies the clue. Her stupid mouth is now silenced forever in nothingness,” Infestix informed the assembled horrors. “Bunglers cannot be tolerated.”
Those on the side of chaos shuffled and leered at what had just occurred, enjoying the spectacle, while the more ordered sovereigns of Gehenna merely stood taller and gave slight indications of approval. After a few seconds, the ambassador of the Nine Hells spoke up. “Lord Infestix, does this mean that my master will be called upon to play his proper role in this?”
“All of the Dukes Infernal will be… welcomed,” the overlord of daemons replied in his chill, hollow voice.
“Of course. Overlord of Gloom, the great Asmodeus will be chief-”
“That is between your master and I!” Infestix’s glare was sufficient to silence the pit fiend, and the devil bowed his head in recognition of the daemon’s power. “No mere mortal, regardless of potential change, can stand before the united might of the nether planes. Haskruble,” Infestix said, fixing the demon of that name with his icy gaze, “you must bring the rulers of the Abyss to us now.”
The steel-blue scales of the demon rippled as Haskruble shrugged. “No one can do that, mighty Overlord of Hades-not even Orcus, my own lord. The monarchs of the Abyss do as they choose.”
Although the daemon knew full well the truth of that statement, he trembled with rage at its utterance all the same. The demon emissary’s voice had borne an unmistakable tinge of sarcasm when he had spoken in reply. This was not missed by the other beings in assembly, and they awaited the results of this breach with varying degrees of anticipation.
No retribution came. The overlord of the nether planes swallowed his umbrage. The demon hordes of the Abyss, their many and puissant rulers, were needed. “Leave now, servant, and tell Orcus and the others that the time has come for all to rally to the Everdark Banner of Tharizdun. He alone can overthrow all Good and bring Evil to a place of supremacy for eternity!” There was disappointment plainly written on many of the vile countenances at so meek a rebuke, so straightforward a command. The demon Haskruble, needless to say, was not among the disappointed ones. He knew all too well the situation.
“I shall inform Prince Orcus,” he said loudly, and without formality spun on his scaly heels and strode toward the chamber’s exit with a swagger. Then Haskruble howled in agony as an ulcerous growth sprang from his head, sprouting upward in corrupt nodes. The demon spun to face Infestix, a mixture of indignation and terror on his visage.
“That will remind you, niggling, to pay homage to all above your station-and to Me, Infestix, in particular. Your master can remove it or not, as is his whim. It won’t destroy you, only turn you into a gibbering mound of boneless flesh in due course. You have hours, so there is no need for you to hasten your departure.”
Haskruble disappeared with a shriek, gating himself from the chamber instantly. There was a chorus of yammering, barking, yowling approval at the Netherlord’s justice-one in which even the diabolical monsters of the lower regions joined in, for Infestix’s punishment had been swift and masterful. Here was strength and power that could not be mocked!
“Strugne, return to the Infernal Regions and inform the dukes of Our decision. You others are also dismissed,” the daemon added, “save for you, Utmodoch, and you, Weyzeneal.” The master of demodands and the king of dreggals bowed to their emperor and stood still. The rest of the attendants slithered or strode, flopped or flew from the massive chamber after paying homage appropriately. None cared to test the power of Infestix again.
After all had departed, the daemon motioned the two remaining beings to join him upon the dais, and when they had complied the whole vanished from sight, leaving only a bubbling pool of nauseating filth where the platform had stood but an instant before. By whatever means, the trio of monstrous denizens of the nether regions were now elsewhere. Their abode was a circular room suspended in nothingness, a chamber with no entrance or exit. It was an otherworldly place, but it was not strange to them.
“Thank you for the honor, overlord,” the demodand Utmodoch boomed.
Not to-be outdone, the sovereign of Gehenna, Weyzeneal, also hastened to murmur his appreciation. “My emperor shows much wisdom by his generosity.”
“Cease this stupid pandering,” Infestix snapped. “We are all but pieces to be moved by He of Utter Evil… although our ranks do differ. You are here to supply me with information, not waste time on useless flattery. I know your black hearts and your festering brains too well for that!”
“The parents of the whelp were assuredly slain, overlord,” the pocked and waited dreggal said without being asked. He too had certain abilities, and a small show of strength could not harm his position. “Before we could take the corpses, though, someone or something intervened. The bodies vanished without a trace, and probing failed to discover the cause of the disappearance or where they went.”
“You, Utmodoch?” the daemon asked after nodding at Weyzeneal.
The gigantic demodand rumbled his response instantly. “My human servants on the material plane have sought in vain for some clue to the mystery which Weyzeneal just told of, emperor,” he said. “But not a trace of the whelp can be found, not an inkling from Greyhawk to a hundred leagues outward. It is as if that one no longer existed.”
“Kill your servants, you feces-headed vessel of dog vomit! Were the whelp not alive, the rede would not show uncertainty as to the success of My plan!”
“But one small child cannot-”
Infestix’s sneer silenced the dreggal, just as the daemon’s harsh rebuke had stilled the gaping maw of the master of demodands. “You dare to suggest that My understanding of this is flawed?”
“Never, great lord,” the pair muttered in unison.
“I will forgive you… this time. Think on this. Long and long have I worked and schemed to bring back the Evil of Evils. Centuries have passed since the time I commenced the plan, and now this! A miserable human threatens Our success. Unacceptable!”
“My agents will continue the hunt,” the demodand said with assurance. “It will not be long before his skinny soul whimpers in the nethermost depths.”
“His?” The word, drawn out by Infestix’s bubbling growl, spoke volumes. “Not even I know if the whelp is male or female! Speculation will prove your undoing, Utmodoch, if you persist in this.”
Weyzeneal grasped the opportunity to curry favor for the forces he controlled. “I will serve, emperor, without the use of idle statements. My dreggals and our human slaves too will keep at it until the cryptograms are broken, the cipher revealed, and the secrets known. Recall, it was Gehenna that discovered the arcanum of the Tripartite Artifact.”
“And the hells whose servants gained the Initial Key,” scoffed Utmodoch. “Tarterus alone can-”
“Enough, both of you,” Infestix admonished without force. The poxed creature was not growing soft; he was merely distracted by his own pondering of the problem. He had strived for an eon to locate the three parts of the artifact that kept Tharizdun slumbering, chained, and prisoned in somewhen, some nullity in dimensions. The wardings around the secret were of incredible potency, but with tenacity equal to the task Infestix had broken them, one by one. Then the information had somehow slipped out, and servants of the Infernal Dukes had managed to gain the Only known portion of the key that the forces of Good had fashioned to bind the Evil of Evils, Tharizdun. There was no help for that now. The rulers of the hells would have to be given appropriate merit when the Darkest One arose and again sat upon His throne. Perhaps their devils would be of some assistance now, the greatest of daemons mused.
The problem was actually a simple one. A prophecy had been scribed, and its rede was ominous. There was the inkling of failure in it. One chance in ten thousand-a seemingly insignificant factor. It had been one chance in a thousand but a short time before. Then Infestix had caused the netherlords to become active. The packs and the human hounds of Hades and its dependencies had gone out, and they had brought down their quarry as expected. No, that was incorrect. They had torn the throats from two, but a third had somehow escaped, and that third little one was the most important of all. Somehow that one was connected to the Final Key. The rede implied that Evil would gain the Middle Key soon enough, but also that the fates of the Final Key and the human would intersect. If they did indeed come together, then all would be lost.
Getting this far had not been simple, but the forces of darkness were accustomed to having to work hard for what they gained. By the use of treachery, beguilement, lies, deception, flattery, and all the other tools of the lower planes, the denizens of Evil had managed to discover the identities of those who threatened to defeat Infestix’s purposes. The instigator was the half-human offspring of a minor lord of the concordant existences. He and his woman had brought forth a child who might become a factor in the matter.
Now, father and mother had been betrayed and slain thanks to the cooperation of their siblings-the father’s siblings, more correctly. They were a jealous lot, that litter, and each was anxious to inherit the domain of his sire. The mere hint of one gaining an edge over the others was sufficient incentive to keep all of them working on behalf of Evil for a time, but then their realization of the enormity of their treachery had caused the eight dupes to withdraw from the cause-a major miscalculation on the part of the night hag to whom Infestix had entrusted the responsibility of success. Just as well, the daemon lord rationalized-Haegresse had grown too ambitious anyway. It was high time that the night hags had a new queen. Infestix would inform them of his choice later.