School of Hellfire, Cania, Baator, 1486 DR.
Familiar patterns, emerging from familiar passages of moldering tomes read decades previous. Perfectly recalled…however...
A new equation, a slight variation of the established formulae. Drastically improved results. Perhaps…
The Arcanaloth startled, blinking confusedly, and finally noticed its confidante staring with flat hostility. Likely, they had already called its name out several times.
“Innumerable pardons, Mal. What was your concern?”
They sighed, and Ash shrugged apologetically. It had developed more than sufficient reputation of being fully absorbed in its work.
“Are you certain that is the correct passage?” they asked it, motioning to the variation of dark, ancient prayers it had inscribed into the weathered strips of gauze over the last few hours; a component for the most powerful undead creation the Academia Morte had thus attempted.
“I have determined this to be a more effective channel.” Ash said, quite pleased, “It should retain the energies more efficiently, allowing for a more satisfactory yield.”
Studying the passage intently, Mal nodded, puzzled, “Interesting…I will present this to the overseer for verification. In the meantime, please revert to the agreed-upon arrangement.”
“Mal, we are Fiends…” Ash protested, “Not Devils. We were made for our boldness. Why allow ourselves to be so bogged down in the bureaucracy that we are afraid to innovate?”
Mal rolled its eyes, rolling the gauze around a spool to prepare it for transport, “When we are contracted by Devils, we are subject to their rules. You don’t want to be declared in Malefaction while we are still in Baator, do you?”
Ash sighed, acquiescing the point, “Yes, yes, you are right. I am simply eager to contribute to this project.”
That earned a look of begrudging approval, “Indeed. A Mummy Lord; a most potent thing, innately gifted with magic, and nearly invincible. The buyers will not find themselves regretting our contract, and the learning experience alone will justify the contract many times over.”
“The payment is not unwelcome either, however.”
An amused chortle, “Indeed. So, let us not be incautious. The ritual must be perfect. As we discussed.”
Motioning helplessly, Ash returned to its work, abiding for now. There was much yet to be done…
Its work finished and the wrappings that would cover the left kneecap of their Mummy Lord completed, the Arcanaloth studied in its personal chambers, situated on the thirty-seventh floor of the School of Hellfire. A ninety-nine storied spire in a deep chasm filled with poisonous vapors, it was not the most inspiring abode, true, but invaluable in both its educational resources and location. Its proximity to Mephistar, and all its wonders, could also not be overlooked.
Wistfully, Ash longed to return to the capital’s frozen gardens, flesh-sculpted corridors, and luxurious bathhouses. Perhaps when this contract was satisfied, and it could take a much-needed period of relaxation. As for the debauchery that occurred within its walls, particularly with captive Succubi, Brachina, and damned mortals, Ash could only shrug helplessly. Like few other Fiends, it was sexless and felt no drive for reproduction, incapable as it was in any case. In this case, also, it felt no real gratification in inflicting suffering, beyond the usefulness in crafting undead of higher caliber, as the more restless a Soul was, the more wrathful...
Puzzled by its odd reflection, Ash closed the book it had been considering; Incorporealus Mortis, a riveting taxonomy of fleshless undead and the processes for creation, and more importantly, binding thereof. Though it had forced a Shadow Demon into its service, scrambling the wretch’s identity away with a cast of the powerful Feeblemind Spell, it longed to bind a swarm of Will-O-The-Wisps, and thus to be able to summon a protective cloud of total Spell immunity.
Setting aside its spectacles, the Fiend took a moment to rub the tender bridge between its eyes and snout, then mentally transcribed the components it would need for such an undertaking, and the most ideal places to harvest the unbound undead. A necromancer, and one of considerable refute and bright promise, Ash loved to experiment with new forms of Magic, but the hazards therein had resulted in it perishing multiple times, forced to reform in the Grey Wastes anew to slink, mortified, back to its chambers here. Immunity to hostile magic would certainly mitigate the risks of its reckless experimentation, and prevent damage to its personal effects and clothing. The hem of its robe was still scorched from the last attempt to merge the properties of a Flameskull with a Bone Naga.
“Requires more stable components.” Ash decided, settling the matter, “Mal!”
Only requiring a fragment of their true name, their fellow Arcanaloth heard the call, no matter the distance, and would arrive shortly. Ash, or rather, Ash’Relle, felt amusement as it considered that only Malusent, the contract holder, and whichever Night Hag had penned its name into the Book of Keeping knew its true name. The same was true for Malusent, as the two of them had spawned nearly simultaneously and formed an instant camaraderie, deigning to each offer the other this precious knowledge as a bond of trust.
Names carried power…and for beings of the lower planes, this was especially true. With a true name, one could summon the other into a binding circle, and exact forced contracts. So, it was best to be careful not to reveal such a name.
“You requested my presence?” they asked, appearing instantly to the side thanks to their mutual race’s inherent ability to teleport.
“Indeed.” Ash clarified, then, “What are your thoughts on the upcoming diversion?”
Rolling its eyes, Mal sighed once more at its clear intentions, “You refer to the excavation in Kintyre? I made it quite clear that it was your turn to attend, and that I would not voluntarily take your place.”
“Come now; you will have an opportunity to reinforce earlier lessons. There is always a need for basic undead workers…and no small supply of materials to work with.”
“I…suppose…” Ash said, despondent, “So many frozen zombies, though. It is such a bore. Were they to let me attempt something more advanced…?”
“I fail to see how an Allip or a Wight might improve the efficiency of an archaeological operation, Ash…”
“And you are such an impediment to creativity, Mal.”
“Indeed, lest you’d have been destroyed by your own boundless enthusiasm, friend, time and time again. Oh wait…”
Acquiescing to their wisdom, as was always the case, Ash leaned back into their cot, not needing sleep but preferring to lounge in its restful time, “When this contact is completed, do you think we should remain here? I understand that Mordenkainen has arrived in Avernus to do business.”
“Ugh…a mortal, Ash? What can a Human Wizard, even an Archmage, offer us that we cannot attain here?”
“Exotic magics from the far realms? Magic Items recovered from vaults of demigods? Contacts with mortals, potentially to be made into warlocks to vie for our favor with precious trinkets and services? By the Blood Rift, Mal, you’re so unadventurous.”
“He also has a habit of eradicating devilish beings that so much as speak without being spoken to. However…”
They paused, thoughtful, “Perhaps you are not wrong that it would offer a particular opportunity. Would you pact warlocks?”
“Perhaps. I’m not terribly adventurous, and prefer my studies…however…Spell components are expensive…”
Mal scratched its chin, again intrigued by the suggestion, “Mortals…oh! I nearly forgot. A gift.”
They held out a small black gem, and Ash leaned up from the cot, surprised, “Truly! Most unexpected!”
Ash held out its paw, and the moment the gem contacted its bristly white fur, a sensation akin to internal screaming impressed upon it, no doubt emitted by the entity within the gem.
“A phylactery?! Truly, you shame me with such a gift.”
Pleased with the praise, Mal gestured at the gem, “You are the more skilled with necromancy than I. Where I failed to cow the spirit within, perhaps you will find better fortune. Should you succeed, I would be most pleased if you were to share your findings. I believe the Soul to be that of a mortal Spellcaster, but I was unable to determine the extent of their knowledge.”
“Oh course. With pleasure.”
Focusing on the spirit and silencing its mental cries, Ash set the gem inside of one of the many component pouches at its belt. Indeed, Mal was more adept in crafting items of power, and relied on enchantments as much as Ash relied on Spells to achieve necromantic effects. A simple matter of pragmatism, integral to any fiend, brought them to one more capable for the promise of mutual gain.
“Here. And for my part.” Ash replied, hastily approaching a bookshelf and selecting the tomes for a previously agreed-upon exchange; Bodaks, Nightwalkers, etc.: A Study on the effect of Negative Plane Corruption, Transmundane Transmutations, and a series of weathered scrolls awaiting translation that nonetheless exuded arcane residue, betraying defunct Spell scrolls thankfully only mostly destroyed by the disaster of the Spellplauge.
They turned to leave, and a peculiar impulse struck the Fiend, but it carefully resisted the temptation to ask them to stay. Business was pressing, to them if not to it. The better to relax on its own, and mentally prepare for the drudgery of Kintyre; another bland slice of largely pointless torment and domination amid the endless frozen wastes of Cania.