by Dan Swanson
Wizzo the Wizard reappeared in a lavishly furnished suite of rooms, surrounded by a half-dozen servants. He could definitely get used to this kind of service. Yet he knew it was an illusion, and he was trapped in it. And the emperor himself also seemed trapped.
He wondered why someone as powerful as Volthoom would allow himself to be imprisoned this way, when he seemed to be powerful enough to easily break free of this prison — for prison it was, regardless of all the trappings of luxury that surrounded him.
His own recent experience with prison suddenly jumped into his thoughts, and it seemed like the proverbial lightbulb being turned on in his head. “Why does this incredibly powerful being allow himself to be imprisoned, when he could clearly escape at any time he wished? Why, indeed? Why did I allow myself to remain in prison? Because I didn’t want to escape!”
This was a satisfying piece of logic, but as he thought it over again, it wasn’t quite right. He had only stayed in prison as long as it suited his purposes, but what could Volthoom’s purpose be in remaining imprisoned for seven-thousand years? He had another blinding insight — Volthoom didn’t even know he was imprisoned.
Volthoom didn’t know he was trapped in an illusion, and that everyone around him except Wizzo was also illusory. The illusion granted his every whim, fulfilled his every desire, and provided him with exactly the kind of life he wanted, that of the ruler of the world, the most powerful wizard in history. He was even provided with challenges to overcome, challenges that taxed him but never overwhelmed him — Volthoom the Invincible.
What an insidious trap. And the illusion protected itself as well. He, an outsider who could expose the trap to the emperor, was magically forced into some predetermined role in the illusion. Sooner or later, Volthoom would lose his temper and blast the intruder into nothingness, an action routine for Volthoom, but deadly for Wizzo.
Yet why such a complex prison for Volthoom? Why not either kill him, or put him in an empty cell? Either there was some reason his captors would not kill him, or they were unable to. Wizzo tended to believe that Volthoom had been too powerful for his enemies to kill, so they had found some other way to entrap him.
Volthoom was unbelievably dangerous, and Wizzo’s deductions confirmed that he was even more dangerous than Wizzo had originally perceived. The power needed to create and maintain these illusions was so far beyond his capability that he had sought to harness that power to rule the world. And yet Volthoom was so powerful that even the incredibly powerful magic of the illusions was only effective as long as the emperor was unaware of it.
And he, Wizzo, appeared to be trapped here for the rest of his life, which promised to be very short. Getting out of here was going to be incredibly dangerous, but remaining here would invariably be fatal. Wizzo preferred incredibly dangerous over invariably fatal every time.
The other question he had was why he was not constantly under control by the illusion. Surely those who planned this prison knew what a danger an outsider would be to their trap. Why let him in at all? Why not destroy him when he got too close? He pondered this question for almost an hour. His life might depend on the answer. Perhaps the illusion spell did not actively consider him a menace.
Or perhaps, yes, perhaps… The answer popped into his head. The illusion spell must be running out of power. Years ago, it had probably protected itself by vaporizing intruders, but it no longer had enough power, so it tricked Volthoom into doing so. Once again he remembered his time in prison, and the complex adaptive behavior of his own spell, of which he had been so proud. Compared to this, his spell had been like a spark compared to the sun.
This self-sustaining, self-protecting illusion must be the most complex and powerful spell ever cast in history, so complex it must actually be self-aware — in fact, almost alive. He realized that he would have to destroy this magnificent spell in order to escape, and part of him — the artist that must live in all mages — was saddened. But the practical part of his mind realized that this spell was his enemy, and it would kill him unless he killed it first. And his overriding megalomaniac ego was already making plans to capture some of this power for himself. If, he added in his own thoughts, I’m still alive when this is over!
He could certainly not destroy this spell himself. Only Volthoom had enough power to do that. He would have to trick the emperor. That probably wouldn’t be too hard; what might be difficult was living through the aftermath. A man with more of a social conscience might have wondered about the effects of unleashing Volthoom upon the world, but Wizzo never considered this. Let the future take care of itself; right now, he wanted out.
But he needed to act now, while he was still “offstage.” He was apparently not expected to be in the emperor’s company late at night, so his actions were pretty much under his own control. Well, “soonest started, soonest done!” as his mother used to say. He hated it whenever he discovered she had been right about something.
Wizzo left his quarters and searched for the emperor. A servant directed him to the audience room. He followed a group of formally dressed men and women into the waiting room, and was shocked when he recognized their escort. It was Galdor, alive and well, and seemingly unfazed by his recent death. Well, this just added weight to Wizzo’s theory. Still, it was very unsettling to see a dead man walking.
Galdor escorted the group to the entrance to the audience room, and then turned to depart. His face lit up with a smile when he saw Wizzo. The Gate Guard commander greeted him with a handshake. “Ah, Milord heir! What brings you here at this hour?”
“That contingent that just entered the audience room — who are they?” Wizzo was improvising now. He quickly banished the thought that he should have made some plans first; he was sure he wouldn’t have enough time, and he couldn’t afford to be distracted by worries right now.
“Lady Valaraukar the Dark, regent of North Africa, along with her bodyguards and aides. She comes to beg for tax relief for her people. They say that the Sahara region is becoming a desert due to over-farming, and North Africa is having problems collecting their annual gift for the emperor.” He was about to say more, but Wizzo cut him off.
“We have to warn the emperor! She is here to kill him!” He pushed past the commander and through the door, and strode determinedly to the throne, pushing his way past confused and scandalized servants.
“Milord Volthoom!” he projected his voice with all the skill he had learned in his early career as a stage magician, and prayed to obscure gods and powers that he would not again lose control over his body. “This woman is here in an attempt to usurp your throne! Her agent approached me on the royal airship, offering me power if I assisted her in this cowardly act of treasonous betrayal. I agreed to go along in order to protect my life that I could warn you, Milord.”
Excited babble broke out throughout the room, but was quieted instantly by the command of the emperor. “Be silent!” Wizzo felt a spell flow throughout the room, and everyone instantly stopped talking. The emperor turned to Lady Valaraukar. “What sayest you, Lady?”
“I have never before seen nor heard of this cretin, Lord Emperor. I have always been and still remain your most loyal subject. He lies, clearly hoping to gain power by his false accusations! It is a trick by one of your enemies!”
Wizzo was relieved that he could still talk. “My Lord, you need not take my word for it! Examine her closely — use your magic, My Lord — she is not what she…” He was abruptly cut off. The illusion spell had recognized him as a danger and had retaken control of his body. He quickly dropped to his knees and laid his forehead upon the floor. “My Lord! I have been possessed, but I have fought my way free! As the Lady said, My Lord, it was a trick by one of your enemies. Dispose of me you must, but beware of Lord Osse.” He awaited his death. The body was calm, but Wizzo, trapped in his own head, could only pray again that Volthoom had heard enough.
Volthoom raised his staff. His anger filled the room, again his aura crackled with electricity that flowed endlessly into his staff. He seemed to grow larger — no, he was growing larger. Within instants, he was taller than the room — and yet he remained within the room. When he spoke again, it was in the unknown language.
“Nuhonn okaelv puzuog uhapad uelhyn yguhht upwkuu xuvalu!”
Everyone in the audience chamber stopped moving.
“Ghghky monnyn negyal gwkaph tygpol xuvalu!”
A glowing orange sphere formed around the head of his staff, detached, and floated over to engulf Wizzo. He fully expected to die; he never expected his clothes to vanish. He continued to kneel, forehead pressed to the cold marble floor. The only possession he still had was his staff.
“Our heir was cloaked in illusion!” thundered Volthoom. Still, none moved. “What else around us be illusion most treacherous?” He raised his staff high, and began a chant.
“Ghewku duonha puhtuh kehtok aelvpu xuvalu!”
With the last word of the chant, he slammed the butt end of the staff into the floor. A silver ripple flowed off of his body and away from him in all directions. After the ripple passed, everything was changed.
The green marble floor vanished as the ripple passed, and all the people disappeared silently. Suddenly, walls and a ceiling appeared, and the only two real people in all of Volthoom City — in fact, all of Atlantis — realized that they were both still alive in what seemed to be a small cave. Wizzo still kneeled on the rock floor, while Volthoom rested on an ornate bier, beautifully made of polished weed inlaid with gold, silver, and jewels in occult patterns. And it was freezing. Wizzo realized that he could once again cast spells, and he immediately cast a warmth spell. He looked over at Volthoom, lying on top of his bier, and was stunned at what he saw.
Instead of a powerful, vibrant, god-like figure in the prime of his life, he saw a shrunken, shriveled husk of a man, his hair long since fallen out, with gray patches covering his dry, translucent skin. As he watched, the man feebly waved his hands, and Wizzo suddenly felt his magic flowing out of him.
Volthoom grew perceptibly younger, but he was still ancient, still feeble. Wizzo resisted, and the flow of magic stopped. In his illusory world, Volthoom had been a supremely powerful wizard, but in the real world, he was too old and feeble to be a match for Wizzo. He was trying to speak, but could do no more than whisper. As he moved closer in order to hear what the decrepit wizard had to say, he realized that he was himself weak, tired, and very hungry.
“Only a dream… not real… but… what a dream! Sustained for so long… by the very spell that trapped me… and my own mighty will! I wonder, did they see the irony?” Wizzo heard anger in his whispery voice, and his anger seemed to be making him stronger. “I have lived thousands of normal lifetimes as ruler of the greatest empire in human history. My every whim, an iron law. Long after they died… those who imprisoned me. Had they but known, had they but waited…” He started to weaken again, but this time there was no attempt to draw power from Wizzo. Volthoom struggled to raise his staff from the bier on which he lay. Suddenly terrified, Wizzo jumped to stop him, but Volthoom began a chant, and Wizzo immediately stopped moving.
“Gghewwk uhoylp inywuy lsanvu lgrenn. Osywha wmafuk hatuft awkuuv. Ghewwk uduonh apuhtu hkehty lftanu. Ghewog yhatyp pimafu kgzuvu.”
Again he slammed his staff toward the ground, and chanted one more line.
“Gewog howwaw mafuky xuzapu xuvalu!”
Volthoom, his staff, and the bier disappeared. Wizzo found himself once again clothed in the garb of the emperor’s heir. Where the bier had been, a golden skull rested on the floor of the cave. It glowed with magical power, and Wizzo could sense within it the mind of the ancient emperor. He picked up his staff and used it to help pull himself upright. As soon as the butt end touched the ground, the golden skull levitated, floated through the air, and somehow magically attached itself to the head of the staff.
Wizzo heard a voice in his head, and he knew it came from the skull. “My time was long past, young wizard. Only the error of my enemies sustained me. They had no way of knowing that, even when I attained the height of my power, I was dying. And they ignored me, I had few years left to me. Yet, even dying, they were unable to conquer me. So they trapped me by giving me what I wanted! Yes, they were clever, but still they are dead.
“As a reward, and indeed as punishment, for freeing me from my oh-so-wonderful imprisonment, I gift you with this staff. In this staff, I have co-mingled your power with the small power that remains to me, your life force with what is left of mine. You now have a powerful weapon, young wizard, as well as a dangerous weakness. This staff will enable you to store and control much more powerful magic than you were ever capable of in the past, and yet, if you are parted from it for an extended time, your own life will fade as mine did when you destroyed my world. And you will always have my wisdom to draw upon.”
“But will you ever shut up?” Wizzo rhetorically asked of the skull. He quickly drew power from the staff to clothe himself, then concentrated briefly. There was a pop of displaced air, and Wizzo, still with staff in hand, disappeared from the cave in Greenland, reappearing instantly in his own cave outside Fawcett City.
Secure in his new appearance and his new power, he strode confidently into the day. The world had best beware, for Wizzo the Magnificent was about to make his appearance.
The rest, as we have already seen, was now history.