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Chapter I - Unrest in the Netherworld

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Dis glided through fountains of magma on his way toward the Black River, which meandered between the Lava Plains and the Hills of Rain. His long legs carried him from one hexagonal island to the next, easily avoiding occasional bursts of molten stone in the narrow channels between solid ground. He knew the Guardians of the River wouldn’t ferry him across, but they’d better let him pass on his own, or he wouldn’t take responsibility for his subordinates.
For some reason, an entire legion of broga scouts had passed through two other realms and attacked the Guardians of the Rain. As a violation of an ancient pact, this transgression could bring the wrath of all the other princes upon Dis. Someone was to blame for this, someone who would suffer eternal torture as punishment.
Dis slowed his pace as he approached the Black River and stared into the morass of disembodied spirits and lost broga. Anyone powerful enough to separate the broga from the rest of the river would have enough loyal minions to rule the entire netherworld, but Dis wasn’t foolish enough to attempt such a feat. The result of failure would be a lifetime of imprisonment, devoid of all hope, in the black depths of the river. He shivered just thinking about such a dismal fate.
In the distance, the misty edge of the neighboring realm obscured his view. Why did his scouts violate the long-standing truce and attack the guardians? There was nothing to gain without control of the river, which was an unlikely proposition.
A robed ferryman stopped his boat several paces from the shoreline. His skeletal fingers clung to a stone pole as he turned to face Dis. A pair of yellow eyes glowed from within his dark hood. Several paces away, another boat drifted closer. The river guardians were clearly displeased with the recent events.
Dis could risk flying to the other side, but if the boatmen confronted him halfway across, they might drag him into the river’s murky depths. The river guardians were extremely protective of their right to decide who was allowed to travel through their realm, but they had to realize this was a special situation, one that had to be resolved quickly.
“I already know you won’t offer me a ride across,” said Dis, “but at least allow me to pass into the rain without incident. The longer it takes to determine what happened, the worse the outcome will be for everyone involved.”
The second boat stopped beside the first. Each ferryman held his stone pole in the water, anchoring the vessel against the slow yet powerful current. As more boats appeared, the river guardians remained silent yet effectively relayed their feelings. They obviously didn’t trust Dis, and he felt the same way about them.
He held up his arms and opened his clawed fists.
“I did not send any of my broga against the Realm of Rain,” he said. “And unless you care to start a new skirmish here on the riverbank, I suggest you let me pass. I could summon two score riders with a single wave. Even with my lieutenant gone, they’ll obey me without question.”
The ferrymen must have known he was innocent. He was far more intelligent than whoever had led this pointless foray. A dozen boats lined up, blocking Dis from an easy crossing. Did the boatmen think he was considering defying the ancient agreement between the princes? They knew how strong he was. Why else would they show up in such force? Besides, the river should have been part of his realm from the beginning.
As if they could sense his thoughts, two boats in front of him separated, allowing him passage to the other side. Although he preferred not to waste any of his energy, he summoned a strong wind below his body and carried himself a few inches above the black water. As he passed between the two boats, he ignored the ferrymen but still felt their gaze upon him. If they hadn’t been protected by his pact, he would have sunk them, even though the delay had only been a few moments. He kept his gaze on the horizon, never looking down, as he slipped into the adjacent realm.
The dreadful rain began as soon as he alit on the other side of the river, stinging his cracked skin wherever a drop touched his body. Thankfully, he’d brought protection.
“Wake up!” he said, smacking the lump of flesh clinging to his side. “Shield me from this torture.”
A small broga poked its head out from a set of rolled-up wings. Dis thought these creatures had been called gliders once, but it was too long ago to remember. Humans referred to every netherworld being as a demon, a despicable term, but he and this creature were as different as rocks to water. The little glider crawled up his body, digging its tiny talons into him with every step, and grabbed onto the pair of horns on atop Dis’s head.
“Go on,” he said. “Stop delaying or I won’t let you feed later.”
The creature spread its enormous wings, blocking every raindrop from reaching him. A constant chorus of squeaky moans meant the glider didn’t care for its new position, but Dis ignored its pleas as he hiked through the Realm of Rain. Although the sky remained a constant shade of light gray, the rain became heavier, the hills grew larger, and the shades appeared.
Spirits of many different creatures, mostly human, wandered aimlessly through the hills, unaware of where they were or why they were there. Occasionally, some of them ventured between realms, at which point Dis would recruit them into his armies, but for now, he avoided contact with them. They were useless to him while they were in such a confused state of mind.
Not far from the tallest of the hills, a wall of black spread across the horizon, separating this realm from the Realm of Darkness. In the distance, the sound of angry barks and sharp screeches rang out. Dis increased his pace until he reached the battle, where dozens of his advance scouts, huge frog-shaped broga, were attacking the Guardians of the Rain, each of which resembled oversized hounds. The frog broga had always been the most strong-willed of his legions, making them good candidates for scouting missions into enemy territory, but they were difficult to control. Frequently, he had to stop himself from killing them all, and this time wasn’t any different.
He dug his claws into his palms and marched to the center of the battle, trampling a few frog scouts along the way. If it weren’t more important to find the cause of this disobedience, he would have eliminated his own legion on the spot. Two creatures were about to tear at each other just ahead. Dis leaped forward, catching the guardian’s sharp teeth on one arm and grabbing the frog broga with the other. He threw them each back about twenty paces. The guardian, taller than him and at least ten times his weight, let out a rumbling growl that shook the ground.
“Enough,” Dis shouted as he faced his scouts. “Who commanded you to attack this realm?”
The disobedient broga hopped back to its feet and said, “You did, Sire. We were only following your orders.”
Unable to contain his rage, Dis tore out the scout’s tongue and tossed it aside. The creature’s harsh wail pierced the air before coming to a gurgling end. Dis wiped his hand on the underside of his glider’s wing, while the frog scout curled into a ball on the ground.
“Do not lie to me,” Dis thundered. “I said no such thing.”
The rest of the fighting stopped immediately when his angry gaze fell on the other combatants. In the past, his scouts had never lied about their actions, and it was unsettling that they’d begun now, so soon after his second in command had disappeared. Somehow, a group of humans had snuck into the netherworld and taken Obidicut, probably to be imprisoned in their world. They’d pay for their actions once Dis found a way to track them down.
“We’ll leave your realm in peace,” he said to the guardian hounds and sent them away with a wave of his hand. “I’ll return these troublemakers to the Lava Plains and punish them appropriately.”
As the hounds disappeared into the hills, the scouts gathered in a circle around him. Although they looked repentant, he knew they’d enjoyed this outing. He had to ensure no more incidents like this ever happened again. The other princes would never leave him alone if they thought he was unable to control his own subjects.
“You have one rev to deliver the instigator of this attack to me,” he told his scouts. “After that, I’ll throw you all into the Pit, starting with this one.”
He scooped the writhing broga into his arms and left the rest of them to complete their new mission.
“Do not let me find any of you outside of my realm or you’ll wish I only ripped out your tongues.”
Dis returned to his city in the middle of the Lava Plains after changing his mind about the tongueless scout. Instead of dumping the creature into the Pit, he jammed it into the bottom of the city gates, which were composed of hundreds of lost spirits and insubordinate broga. This way it could still serve some purpose. The mass of tormented flesh that formed a barrier between the inner city and the desolate plains was a stark warning against disobeying Dis’s command. His word was absolute law.
He’d built his namesake city on a set of ancient ruins, after a long war between the broga princes. Constructed from bones and volcanic stone, the buildings had sunk partially into the ground, causing each of them to rise at strange angles into the sky. A wall of bones surrounded the city, rising and falling as it curved around the oddly shaped buildings. An uncountable number of broga had perished in the fierce battles of the ancient war, but their remains were forever enshrined in the wall.
Although the war between the princes had occurred so far in the past that many didn’t remember it, jealousy and animosity still dominated the emotions of the elite. Dis had carved out a larger realm than his rivals and had held onto it for ages through a combination of battle skills and alliances. Now that Obidicut was gone, however, he was positive the other princes, especially his neighbor Mammon, would be eager to take advantage of his temporary weakness. Fortunately, it would require more than just ambition to topple his reign. He was the strongest and most resourceful of the broga princes. If it were possible, he might even turn the loss of his commander into an opportunity to strengthen his reign.
He summoned a pair of high-ranking riders to the top floor of his favorite tower. The meeting chamber was open to the sky and had a clear view from the Ice Mountains to the Black River. Most guests who joined him on the roof became disoriented, complaining that the landscape was constantly changing, but they had no idea what they were seeing. It was their own weak wills that allowed their surroundings to rule their lives, but Dis knew how to control his corner of the world. Nobody would ever steal that from him.
Only one of the riders appeared at first. He was taller and thinner than Dis, with a triangular head and gaunt body. His taut skin was wrapped so tightly around his torso that Dis could see every bone. It was clear this rider preferred to be on the ground atop his mount as he leaned heavily on a long spetum with every step.
Dis scowled at him. If the rider couldn’t control his own mind, how would he be able to command an entire legion of broga? The rider steadied himself and stood up straight, gaining another few inches. He remained motionless while awaiting his orders.
The second rider stepped through the door and collapsed before he took five paces onto the roof. Dis grabbed the newcomer’s polearm, speared it through his body, and heaved him over the side of the tower to the streets far below. This made his decision to appoint a new lieutenant much easier.
“You must have heard about the scouts,” he said to the first rider.
“Only rumors.” The rider peeked at the edge of the roof. “They disobeyed you and may be headed to the Pit.”
“They attacked the Guardians of the Rain, claiming that I gave them the order.”
“But that would have been a violation of—”
“I know,” growled Dis. “Did they think I’d forget giving them such an inane command?”
He struggled to keep his anger in check, taking a deep breath of the sulfurous air.
“I have enough trouble with the others eyeing my realm,” he said. “It’ll be a long time before I’m ready to expand my reach, although the river guardians could use a lesson.”
“Then perhaps it was Mammon,” said the rider. “I’ve heard you two are related.”
“I’m not Mammon, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Perhaps you’re just similar enough to confuse a bunch of simple-minded scouts.”
A huge eruption of lava spewed up from the plains outside the northern wall, sending a spray of hot ash onto the city. Dis strolled to the edge of the building and leaned over. The shades wandering the dark streets avoided the dust, while several types of broga rushed forward to bathe within it. Dis smiled. There was an endless supply of magma outside the city, but he’d convinced his citizens of the dangers beyond the wall. They moved only when he told them to move.
“It would only make sense if Mammon planned to attack me soon,” said Dis as he paced toward the other side of the roof. “Pull my forces away from here and pick them off one at a time, but he’s too weak to defeat me, and he knows I’d reinforce my troops if any were lost to the rain.”
The rider tilted his polearm, forcing Dis to come to halt.
“I heard another rumor,” whispered the rider while scanning the horizon, as if there were a spy watching them. “Mammon is going after the Pit. Do you have any idea what that means?”
“Geryon.” Dis’s initial laughter quieted down to a nervous chuckle. “He hopes to find Geryon.”
“A foolish prince who thought the Pit held the answer to ruling this entire world. Geryon voluntarily threw himself down, planning to return and conquer us all. Instead, he became lost forever in that abyss, and he’ll soon be joined by Mammon. If I had any worries before, they’re gone now.”
He wished he could believe that statement, but Mammon was too clever to sacrifice any of his lives. There had to be something more to this story. He gave the rider a nudge toward the staircase.
“Come, let’s gather the captains,” he said. “I’ve decided to promote you to first lieutenant during Obidicut’s absence.”
“Many thanks, Sire. You won’t be disappointed.”
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