Baldric was suddenly standing in a crowd of soldiers. Not Imperial soldiers thankfully. These were more ragtag, wearing random bits of armor here and there. Some had swords and shields, though most had spears or clubs or long knives. One formidable-looking woman appeared to be wielding a frying pan. They were all hurrying away in some form of organized chaos, and once they cleared out Baldric had a look at his surroundings. He was back on the Teleportation Circle in the city, and the soldiers were all headed in the direction of the Imperial castle. It somehow loomed even larger than before and seemed to shroud the entire city in its shadow. Dark clouds circled its peak and thunder rumbled faintly. Baldric noticed a familiar voice nearby barking orders and ran over to see Cassandra.
“Baldric, thank the gods you’ve returned. There’s no time for explanations. We’re forcing our way to the castle, and we’ve got them outnumbered and on the run. And now with you here, victory is within our grasp. Imperial reinforcements from outside the city are surely on their way, so we must move with all haste. In the event our army can’t force its way into the castle, you and I will have to slip in and try to find the Door ourselves.”
Another batch of soldiers teleported onto the Circle. Cassandra gave a few directions to a nearby officer, and then led Baldric through the city streets at a run. He had to take care not to trip over all the corpses strewn about, rebels and Imperials alike.
Wheezing and cursing as he tried to match Cassandra’s pace, Baldric eventually arrived in the section of city just beyond the castle walls. Some minor skirmishes were still taking place, but it seemed the rebellion would have the area secured in short order. Rebels were taking up positions in buildings with views of the castle, fortifying positions and assembling siege weapons. Cassandra had her head together with several other rebel commanders. Baldric wanted a sandwich and a nap, but those could wait for the fall of the Empire.
Soon all grew quiet. The rebels were ready for the assault, tens of thousands of them surrounding the sprawling castle grounds. Those in the buildings and on roofs would provide cover for those who would be charging in. They had catapults and a battering ram prepared, and many ladders and grappling hooks if they still couldn’t get the gates open. Once the last of the skirmishes had subsided, it became quiet. Eerily so.
The double doors to a large fifth-story castle balcony opened, and out marched an ominous assortment of ornately armored individuals. The Board of Directors. And last out was an imposing masked figure clad in heavy red and black armor lounging on a throne that appeared to be walking on its own. A closer look revealed the throne to be composed entirely of living, breathing bodies, roped together into the likeness of a throne. Interns, Baldric suspected.
The space around this figure seemed to be leeched of its color. In fact, what little sunlight was able to break through the thickening clouds seemed to dim when he emerged. The aura he gave off was worse than death. Tedium. Obedience. There was no doubt about it, this was the Emperor.
Baldric saw the Emperor weave a quick spell, too fast for him to make out. Then he spoke in a deep commanding voice amplified many times louder than any normal one.
“Welcome my employees. I take it that you are upset with the way things have been managed. And I’ll admit that, were I in your position, I’d be upset too. You have to understand though that we simply don’t have the budget to satisfy everyone’s needs for food and sleep and meaningful social interaction. It was hoped that the free oxygen and ping pong tables would make up for these other deficits, but unfortunately things have come to a head and we are in the process of implementing some new management practices.”
The voice vaguely tickled something in the back of Baldric’s mind. To everyone’s surprise, the gates to the castle grounds began slowly creaking open.
The Emperor continued. “You see, we realized that providing employees with any recompense at all, no matter how inconsequential, would mean less for us. So the question was, how do we keep all the employees of the realm doing their work without giving them anything in return? Threats and force only work so well, as evidenced by the feedback you’ve provided thus far.”
The gates were now open by a crack, and Baldric could see movement beyond. He also could have sworn he saw something around the Emperor’s neck for a moment. Almost like a black band of some sort, there just for an instant. Maybe he was seeing things.
“So today marks the beginning of a new era. An era of pure, mindless, elemental obedience. Never again shall you think for yourself. Never again shall you want for more. Never again shall you feel badly about your state of affairs, or try to better yourselves or your community. For it is my greatest pleasure to introduce to you the new paradigm in Imperial management: Plan Z.”
A massive axe materialized in the Emperor’s outstretched hand, and the blade glowed a deep crimson red.
Bodies streamed through the gates. They looked like fellow employees, aside from some missing flesh or limbs or chunks of head here and there. What they all had in common though was one or two glowing red eyes. Like water breaking through a dam they took off at a dead run toward rebel positions. Zombies, and fast ones too. Screams broke out from inside the nearby buildings, and Baldric heard sounds of battle from their rear flank.
The Emperor was still speaking as if nothing had happened. “You see, zombies are far more cost-effective than living people, requiring neither salary nor benefits, and all those savings go right back to us, the job creators, so we can create even more jobs. It’s a win-win-win. And when we demolish the non-essentials such as your homes and hospitals and so on, not to mention your offices, and remodel this city into one sprawling open office, just imagine the productivity! The free flow of ideas! Row after endless row of soulless, obedient automatons, all tirelessly executing on tedious clerical busy work in extremely close quarters. Busyness is Progress indeed! And don’t worry, zombified employees are just as happy as living ones. Well, we haven’t received any complaints at least. So please, what do you say we all get on the same page? Simply throw down your arms and let the full glory of Plan Z carry you into the future of this great Empire!”
As the zombies were closing in a battery of spells erupted from the rebels, mangling the oncoming zombified horde with elemental destruction. But the zombies were too many and too fast, and soon the rebels were fighting in close quarters with the undead.
Baldric was stunned at the turn of events, but shook himself out of it, reminding himself that this was never going to be easy. A crowd of zombies scrambled over a nearby barricade and sprinted at him. While he was preparing a blast of flame, ice formed under the zombies’ feet, sending them tumbling over each over. As they tried to scramble back to their feet, icicles impaled each of them squarely between the eyes.
“It appears our brute force strategy is out. Time for Plan B,” said Cassandra. Shouting to the officers in earshot, she said, “Infiltration teams, execute Plan B. Everyone else, provide cover until we’re in. Then fall back to the Circle and teleport to safety if you must.”
Baldric followed Cassandra down a street to where a team of rebels were climbing down a manhole. Baldric sighed, “Looks like I’m taking the scenic route again.”
The sewers were eerily quiet after the carnage aboveground. About a hundred or so rebels were with Baldric and Cassandra, many of them exceedingly powerful Magic users. There were a few other similarly sized teams, each with one or two Logic users, weak compared to Baldric, but the best the rebels had. These teams would be infiltrating the castle at other places and, with any luck, would catch the Imperials by surprise and have a fighting chance at opening the Door.
Cassandra addressed the group as they hurried along. “Now remember, the Emperor keenly aware of all Magical usage in the city. It’s possible that all the other activity would keep us from being noticed, but we don’t want to risk being discovered if we don’t have to.”
Before long they arrived at their entrance to the castle. With a quick hand motion from Cassandra one of the rebels slowly opened the hatch, which Cassandra had thought to unlock before events had gotten out of hand. The area was clear, and everyone filed up into the wine cellar, then out into a grand obsidian hall, the stained glass likenesses of leaders of old watching as they hurried along. Cassandra led them through corridor after corridor, stairwell after stairwell, climbing ever higher. After a time, a frown grew on Cassandra’s face.
“Cassandra, everything alright?”
“No, something is amiss. I’ve traversed these halls many times, and they just seem…off. Sometimes there are more doors than I remember, or fewer windows. I feel for a moment as if I’m in a part of the castle I’ve never seen, when suddenly I’ll recognize the next room, never expecting to have encountered it on our path. It doesn’t matter, we just need to keep going up.”
Eventually the windows disappeared entirely, substituted with sparsely-placed torches. Baldric thought the shadows from the dancing flames looked odd. They didn’t quite move how he expected them to.
Someone screamed behind Baldric. He looked back to see someone being pulled into the shadows. Black flickering arms were grabbing at the fellow, pulling him into the wall. Several others rushed to pull him back, though most of his body had already disappeared into the blackness. The rebels suddenly tumbled backwards, and found themselves holding their comrade’s severed limbs. Seeing this, everyone else began showering the walls of the corridor in flame. The shadows seemed to dance around the Magic, and arm after shadowy arm shot out grasping for the rebels. One warrior was grabbed from both sides of the hallway, and with a sickening snap an arm was pulled clean off before both halves of him were yanked into the darkness.
Baldric remembered the Magic he had seen flow through Geofram’s hammer before he slew the HR Manager, and he tried to recreate it. He wove all five elements in a complex pattern which collapsed into an orb that illuminated the area around him in a nearly blinding white, pure light. The remaining rebels scurried into the light’s shelter. The surrounding darkness seemed to be pressing in on the light, not allowing it to extend as far as Baldric would have expected. But those arms stayed away.
Cassandra nodded at Baldric. “Alright, everyone stay calm. We’re not far now. Lead on Baldric.”
The remaining party, maybe half what they started with, cautiously advanced. The further they went, the more forcefully the darkness seemed to press against Baldric’s light. It was becoming a bit of a strain to maintain it. Baldric turned a corner and saw the corridor was coated in something. It looked almost…fleshy. It was soft and warm under his feet. Cassandra took a look and said, “There is great evil ahead. Prepare yourselves.”
They soon came to a set of double doors throbbing with the fleshy, veiny growth. A young human rebel stepped forward and wove a compact mix of Wind and Fire. Cassandra nodded, and the weave detonated, blowing the doors wide open. Rebels streamed into an expansive room, spells readied, and stopped in horror. The room, once a meeting hall or antechamber of some sort, was completely coated in the fleshy substance, and embedded in it throughout the room’s floor, walls, and ceiling were clusters of what could only be described as large egg sacs.
Baldric carefully approached one and could make out a face through the fluid within. It was the face of a halfling. He recognized that face: it was his supervisor, Kevin! But something was different about him. His features were sharper, his jaw more pronounced. His skin seemed to be red and almost scaly. His eyelids flashed open, revealing solid black eyes. His mouth curled in a smile, baring a forest of crooked black teeth. Baldric lost his concentration on the light he’d been holding and instinctively lashed out with a beam of molten fire. It incinerated the egg sac and crashed through the wall beyond, straight out into the open air. It seemed a window had been there behind the fleshy covering. His glimpsed the city for a moment and saw movement, but nothing that looked like rebels.
All at once the egg sacs began rupturing, and out crawled humanoids in varying states of demonic corruption. They all began channeling dark Magic, and in an instant the room was a maelstrom of Magical combat. Baldric was stunned when Cassandra flew through the air and kicked him with both legs straight in the chest. He flew backwards, propelled by an additional gust of wind, and found himself sliding on a path of ice, a moment later bursting through a pair of doors that had been at the far end of the room. He tumbled into an even larger, dome-ceilinged room in which he noticed two things. First, a massive throne composed of bones and gold. And second, beyond the throne, the Door he had seen in his dreams.
He ran to the Door and turned around to see the remaining twenty or so rebels including Cassandra retreat from the antechamber and weave a powerful Magical barrier across the doorway. He didn’t blame them. The room beyond was filled with monstrously disfigured Supervisors and Managers, screeching and howling as they tried to tear the barrier down.
Cassandra spoke up, her voice as cold and commanding as ever. “We are safe for the time being. Baldric, if you please, get that Door open.”
Baldric turned back to the Door and studied it. It was just as it had been in his dreams.
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He quickly became lost in thought, piecing together everything he had learned, everything that Cassandra and Doomboom and the Book of Magic had taught him. One of the rebels spoke up. “Look, they’re retreating!” It appeared the demons were scurrying away, having been unable to break through the barrier. “Wait a second, I see someone. Who is…” The explosion took out most of the wall along with the Magical barrier. The rebels were knocked off their feet, and the air was clouded with debris.
After a moment the dust began to settle, and Baldric could see a towering figure casually strolling into the room, the clink of its armor audible over the coughs and curses of the rebels. It was the Emperor, clad from head to toe in his demonically-fashioned armor, with his giant axe in hand glowing with a thirst for blood. Firebolts, ice shards, lightning, boulders, and more were all sent at the Emperor, a storm of Magical death streaming from the rebels. Many attacks he simply swatted away with inhuman speed, while others seemed to dart away from him and miss at the last instant. Baldric glimpsed it again, for sure this time, some kind of dark Magical collar around the Emperor’s neck, with a connecting leash that seemed to be coming from beyond the Door.
“This is hardly conduct befitting of Imperial employees. No, its performance reviews for all of you I’m afraid.” (cue battle music)
The Emperor channeled Magic Baldric had never seen, and the floor opened up beneath one employee, shadowy hands pulling him in. Distracted by the hellish spectacle, Baldric lost sight of the Emperor. He suddenly appeared beside another rebel and cleaved him clean in two. A storm of spells descended on his position, but he appeared to meld with the shadows, moving around the room like a bat in the night, slaying rebels wherever he appeared. His axe vanished, but with one hand he picked up a half-orc by the throat while also summoning a swirling shadowy vortex around him with the other. The vortex absorbed every spell the rebels sent at him, and they watched in horror as their friend flailed and gurgled in the Emperor’s grasp until he went limp. The same spells the rebels had cast then suddenly discharged out of the vortex back at their casters, mutilating all of the remaining rebels at once, apart from Baldric.
The Emperor walked over to the corpse of Cassandra, a large, jagged icicle sticking out of her chest. “Hehehe, oh my dearest Moryggan. I take it you’re finished playing rebel now?”
A puddle of water behind the Emperor grew and formed into Cassandra, and the corpse detonated in a burst of icy shrapnel. While the Emperor was off balance the floor and ceiling became coated in solid ice, and a furious stream of icicles descended on the Emperor from above, chasing him around the room. He just barely slipped on the ice, but it was enough for Cassandra’s attack to catch up to its mark. The Emperor raised his hand and wove a barrier to deflect the raging torrent of icy needles while the ice from the ground rose to encrust his feet and legs, working its way up to his torso. The ice was cracking with the Emperor’s attempt to break out, but it gave enough time for Cassandra’s final weave to complete, and a massive spike of ice shot diagonally from the floor straight into the Emperor’s chest and out his back. He stood still there for a moment in stunned silence.
“…Your performance review has concluded, Cassandra Winterheart. You are to be…Fired.” A meteor burst through the castle wall and roared toward Cassandra. She erected an immensely thick barrier of ice in an instant, but the explosive force blew it apart and sent her flying across the room and crashing into the wall. She didn’t get up.
The ice melted, and the hole in the Emperor’s armor was as if it had never been. His armor clinked as he casually approached Baldric. The dwarf was frantically putting all his mental energies towards blocking out the chaos behind him and focusing on the Door. He was making progress. It was starting to make sense. He had just finished the third section of the puzzle when the Emperor spoke up behind him.
“And now we turn to you, Baldric Hightower, Aspiring Wizard. A lowly clerk who bought into the lies of an Imperial traitor, became an accomplice in the murder of the HR Manager, emptied the HR complex, and helped lead the assault on this castle. I almost want to turn you into a demon like the rest of the Magic users, as I suspect you’d be quite useful. But no, that will not be your fate. Far more fitting for you to be zombified and returned to your original station in life, wouldn’t you say?”
Baldric thought with every cell of his brain, weaving Logic faster than he ever had, racking his mind for any flash of insight that could open this accursed door. But it was too late. He could sense the Emperor’s Magic and felt the life force draining from his body. His cells were dying, putrefying into the perfect Imperial employee. “At least I tried,” he thought to himself, resigning himself to his fate.
His vision was going dark when out of the corner of his eye Baldric saw something fly though the air before impacting the wall in a cloud of dust. His vitality returned to him and he inhaled life back into his lungs. Baldric looked over to see the Emperor picking himself up out of a crater in the wall. A whirling figure flew across the room and with a spinning kick almost too fast for Baldric’s eyes to follow sent the Emperor flying once again. It was Doomboom! The half-orc ran across the room and tackled the Emperor, pinning him against the wall.
“Quick Baldric, the Door!”
With grim determination and utter focus, Baldric turned to the Door once more.
IF YOU HAVE AN ANSWER TO THE PUZZLE, LEAVE A COMMENT IN THE PROLOGUE