Calling the Shadows by DezoPenguin

The throne room of the King of Algo was dark, illuminated only by four dimly-glowing light cells affixed to the corners. The bank of lights set into the ceiling, which were bright enough to turn night into day, remained unlit. When alone, King Lassic liked it that way. It reminded him of a castle from the planet Palma's feudal period. Towering stone walls, crenelated battlements manned by knights and espers—that was what a king's throne was. Any child of five knew that from storybooks. The most powerful man in the Algo Solar System, though, did not have a castle. He reigned from the Camineet Government Building, a sterile creation of technology which towered over the dome-shaped houses and shops currently in architectural vogue.

I've always wanted to be king, Lassic admitted to himself. Yet if not for that fool Ossale, I might never have known. The death of King Marek Landale had catapulted Chancellor Lassic into the position of Regent, but he might never have risen higher had it not been for General Alex Ossale and the old Esper, Soothsayer Damor.

What did they see in me? the king wondered as he had wondered hundreds of times before. Had it been the naked ambition the then-Regent hadn't himself known that he harbored? Or something else? Or had they only been serving their own political ends?

Whatever their reasons, Ossale and Damor had stolen the heir to the throne, King Marek's baby daughter Alis. Ossale had boldly claimed to have done it to "protect" her—to protect the queen-to-be from her appointed Regent! But then, the general had been on trial then, his inflammatory rhetoric perhaps designed to stir up a wave of popular support. The soothsayer had been wiser; he had fled, was missing still, and the girl was gone as well. There were no Landale heirs left to assume the throne.

So, due to the actions of the very ones who had sought to deny him the crown, Regent Lassic had risen to take the crown as the new King of Algo and founder of a new dynasty. He had achieved a status that most people could only dream of, and yet just three years into his reign, Lassic was discontent.

"'Tis because you are naught but a figurehead."

The king sat bolt upright in his throne, eyes slashing the darkness for the source of the voice that had answered his very thoughts.

"Who? Who's there?"

Lassic had meant it to sound bold and commanding, but it came out not as a king's demand but the plea of an old man.

From the shadows to his left a form took shape, hunched but manlike in a tattered maroon cape, a three-foot wand clutched in its right hand. A curious mask covered its face, a flexible tube extending from the mouth as if part of some breathing apparatus. On the other side of the room a second figure advanced, identical to the first except that its hooded cloak was green.

Lassic may have been old, but he was by no means defenseless. His mind began to channel the mystic power needed for a fire spell; he could feel the power build and wait, ready to be released at a word. His right hand slid towards the arm of his throne, ready to touch the alarm that would bring a dozen Palman and robot guards racing to his defense.

"Despise us not for speaking the truth," the green-robed stranger said. His mask distorted his voice, lending it a curious, sibilant quality.

"A king should rule, not be ruled," chanted his companion.

"Who are you?" Lassic demanded again, this time with steel in his voice.

"We are servants."

"I am aware of that," Lassic said, his lip curling in a sneer. "Whom do you serve? What is his business with me?"

"Our master can make thee a true king," the green-robed intruder declared.

"A king's birthright is power," crooned the other.

"I will not be mocked!" boomed Lassic. "I am the King of Algo!"

"Not now, but perhaps soon," sang the stranger in red.

"You will be silent! Flaeli!"

Lassic's command released power from within him; he felt the rush through his body as if it were blood racing in his veins. From his outstretched hand two bursts of flame slashed across the room, burning two gaping holes in the maroon-robed intruder's torso. The corpse struck the floor heavily, but with an unnatural sound, like an overripe melon bursting when dropped from a height.

The green-robed stranger raised his staff and leveled its tip at Lassic, chanting, "Bindwa." At once the king found himself helpless, paralyzed and bound by his opponent's spell.

"You act to exterminate folly. 'Tis good that you do. My companion was, however, but an apprentice. I am a master. It is within you to be one as well, but as yet that is beyond you. Therefore, you will listen."

Lassic did not respond. He recognized the vulnerability of his position and would make no sudden moves until he felt ready to do so. Instead, he tested the magical bindings, attempting to determine if the green-robed spellcaster was truly the more powerful, or if he or she had just managed a lucky cast.

"In you, there is potential. Our master has seen it. Through him, that potential will be developed. You will be able to set aside these petty restrictions placed upon you by law. A true king is the law; 'tis not for others to make it into a yoke for you."

The rope spell was perfect and powerful, Lassic realized. His arms and legs were frozen fast, unable to move at all, though his heart and lungs still functioned and he retained the power of speech. The magician was a powerful foe, and that in turn spoke for the strength of his or her unnamed master.

"Why would your master wish to aid me?"

"He seeks the worship of those he deems worthy. 'Tis the man who knows of the use of power our master seeks. The ones who will not shirk from the opportunities life presents. Those who understand that rewards are not given, but that they must be seized."

"You said...worship. Your master claims to be God?"

The stranger's masked face somehow communicated a dreadful intensity to Lassic as he responded to that question.

"To us, he is a god. He is our guiding hand, our source of power. To those who serve faithfully and well, there is eternal life."

"Eternal life?" the king mocked. He knew the words to be a lie, and yet they still pulled at him, fascinatingly, alluringly. He was an aged man, a man for whom there were perhaps a dozen years left, and the promise of more time would always tempt. Yet, he had the proof there in front of him. "You speak of eternal life when your companion lies dead before us?"

The magician did not speak, but went to the fallen stranger's side and raised his staff over the body. A circle formed on the floor beneath the corpse, a circle of putrid radiance, of mystic symbols set out in a sickly yellow glow. Brighter and brighter it shone, until Lassic could feel his skin crawl as the light played over his body. Even the king could sense the terrible wrongness at work, and yet there was no escaping the truth—there was power here, immense power on a scale Lassic had never before touched.

The tip of the magician's wand snapped down. A single word was spoken to invoke the spell. The corpse jerked, its muscles spasming, and then, incredibly, it drew itself upright.

"All praise to our master," the red-cloaked stranger chanted.

"He has accepted the word of the Master, and can be brought back again and again, though his foes strike him down. Nor will he submit to the ravages of time. 'Tis so for me as well. It can be so for you."

"What would your god get in return for this power you offer?"

The green-robed magician laughed, a strange and unnatural sound behind its mask, high-pitched and rasping.

"Surely you understand. Our master has few followers. By his hand you shall make yourself the one true ruler of all Algo, now and forever. Through this, the way will be laid open for him to seek converts."

The stranger raised his hand and gestured sharply. The restraints on Lassic fell away.

"An alliance, then," the king mused. "Each of us gets what we want."

Lassic surveyed the two priests. In their masks and frayed robes they seemed like alien creatures, neither Palman nor Motavian nor Dezorian. What sort of world were they from? Did they wear their masks because Palma's air itself was incompatible with their bodies, like a fish trying to breathe on land? Then there was the way the maroon-cloaked one had fallen. It hadn't sounded right, not like a person at all, more like a rotten fruit bursting against the floor. These people weren't natural.

They were, however, powerful. Very powerful. And they offered something more valuable than they knew. Lassic had no wife, no children, no family to warm his last years. His studies of magic had long since reached the limit he was capable of attaining alone. All he had left to look forward to were dry, empty years of a reign spent trying to keep from being bullied by the Royal Council, Palma's popularly elected legislature. Afraid or not, he had nothing to lose by accepting the strangers' offer.

Any last pleas of caution his mind tried to send out were drowned in a wave of ambition and greed.

"Very well," Lassic declared. "If your god can make good on his promises, then an alliance between us is acceptable to me."

"Then step forward and receive his power!"

Lassic rose from his throne and approached the cloaked priests. They stood to either side of him, lifting their wands. A mystic circle like the one used in the resurrection spell took shape beneath him. The light didn't just look wrong, this time, it felt wrong; its radiance made Lassic's skin prickle and creep, his breath catch in his throat. An overripe, corrupt taste filled his mouth, bearing the sickly-sweet stench of decay.

The shadows deepened, and from their essence a form took shape, huge, towering over him. Its torso was heavily muscled, its clawed hands gigantic at the end of disproportionately long arms, while below the waist it appeared slight and withered, ultimately fading into the shadows rather than ending in legs. The head was monstrous, with burning, sunken eyes and a snarling, fanged mouth. This was only an image, not the being itself, and yet it exuded an aura of such pure, unadulterated evil that it had a tangible presence. Lassic's body trembled; the animal part of his hindbrain screamed at him to run, to cower, to hide from this thing, but he ignored it. The king's skin burned with the force of corruption, but he stood fast.

"I know you," he declared. "I've read of you in arcane legends. You are the One Who Comes with the Millennium. You are the bringer of destruction. You are the dark force who consumes all life."

Dark Force laughed, a booming sound that filled the chamber yet, Lassic somehow knew, did not penetrate beyond the walls of the throne room.

"I am he who will give you power such as you have never dreamed of, Lassic. You will rule all Algo with an iron hand, and bend it to my will. No mortal magic will be able to withstand your power."

Dark Force, it seemed, knew his man well.

"Yes!" Lassic snarled. "I accept your gift!"

"Then become mine!"

The image opened its maw and spewed forth a wave of utter blackness. The ebon force surged into Lassic's body, twisting and purging his flesh of life. Cells decayed, blood ceased to flow, his skin became withered and twisted. The pain was excruciating; the very essence of his being writhed in agony as he was purged of the basic energies of life. Yet still Lassic lived, or at least existed. He was filled with the dark power that had been breathed into him, and this power animated his body, made it move as his mind bade. More than that, it seemed to crackle through his nerves, urging, no, demanding to be used.

The screams of his soul were a small, puny thing indeed next to that sensation.

"Now you are mine, King of Algo," Dark Force exulted. "You are my creature. You live only to carry out my will. With my power you will grind the puny worms who infest this solar system under your heel, and so bring about in the end its complete destruction!"

"Yes, my Master," Lassic agreed wholeheartedly, the song of Dark Force's corrupt power burning in his mind.

"Then from this moment on you will bear a new name to symbolize your devotion. To the foolish masses outside you will still be King Lassic, but I and mine will always know you by your true self."

In the silence of his heart, the king felt it. No longer Lassic, he was, now and forever, Dark Force's creation.