This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.
The Lost City — Chapter Fourteen:
It was a fortress of spectacular horror and terrible beauty. Will felt the contradictions as he stood before the front gate for his second time. The other contradiction was that he was standing before this gate for his second time. He was a Magi. Only Zargonites were allowed here. Anyone else who entered was a sacrifice, slave, or intruder, and never came out again. William Byers was making history tonight.
He was the first guest of honor in the Temple of Zargon.
Black fire, protect me from the jaws of Hell.
Hell was an E-shaped structure made of obsidian rock. The gate was at the middle arm of the E, and as he stood waiting for the guards to open it, he looked up at the tower – the wide bastion called Zargon’s Rise. The Rise was also obsidian, studded with glittering crimson, and windows that blazed in the night with hypnotic torch fire.
It is beautiful. What happens inside is not. Within these walls, the priests of Zargon conducted rites no child should be aware of, let alone exposed to. Will was a child in size and age, but he’d lost the innocence of ages. He had the health of an invalid, the physical limitations of an old man, and the knowledge of a god. All courtesy of the Eye.
Four days ago he had come here with Kanadius and Pandora. They’d made history too; they’d left the temple alive. Risked having their hearts ripped out, for an audience with a sworn arch-enemy, and to make a pact with him that he was just as likely to break. If Will did anything to displease Hazor over the next twenty hours, there would be no pact.
It was a tall order. Even with his omniscience, Will wasn’t sure exactly what Hazor wanted from him tonight. He was supposed to attend the fifth-night ceremonies. To watch, query, and appreciate the most hideous rites of the week. To be in awe of Zargon the Devourer. All of this in a gesture of good will, for which in return, Hazor would marshal his forces against the Yshian invaders. The jihadists were due in seven days.
That was the deal: to honor the Zargonites and their inhumane practices. And it had to be Will, not Kanadius or Pandora. Hazor wanted to host the Eye child. Demetrius didn’t like it, but Will assured him of his protection. Anyone who tried to harm Will Byers got incinerated by black flame. The Eye did have its benefits.
It also had a temper that could ruin everything.
He wasn’t worried about the ceremonies upsetting him. Since receiving the Eye, he’d seen the torture that went on in this temple. But he did worry about being triggered. Hours of exposure to these inhumane rites might provoke the rage. The death scream. If that happened – if he let loose in this temple – then it was all over. The Yshians had won in advance.
The High Priest of Zargon was trigger material, being certifiably insane. Hazor brooded over imagined slights and exploded on a dime. Will would be walking on egg shells every second he was by the cleric’s side. That was unacceptable.
To this end, Will had procured from Demetrius a grade-4 sedative mushroom, the mushroom called fade. It was a hard sedative, but it kept the drug user wide awake with enhanced senses – calm and stoned, with no stress or anxiety, yet also fully alert. Moreover, his body would be rejuvenated as if sleeping while on the fade drug, even when he moved about or engaged in discussion.
It was a caffeine and sleeping pill rolled into one.
He had taken the fade before arriving at the temple. The effects took ten to forty minutes to kick in, and would last between six to fifteen hours. More than enough to get him through the evening ceremonies. It was five o’clock now. The rites started at six and went to one in the morning. Will would stay the night and depart the temple tomorrow after sharing breakfast with Hazor. His room had better be nice. Hazor had promised him the best suite in the Rise. There would be a late supper in between ceremonies at nine, but Will seriously doubted he’d have any appetite. He prayed that wouldn’t offend his host.
Green shroom, ward me from priestly wrath.
He hadn’t bothered mixing the drug to make a combo, because he was already an addict. He’d brought a supply of healing mushrooms, and he’d probably need to pop his evening one before the rites started. The pain in his head was already building claws.
The gate finally opened and a pair of guards came out. They wore gold horned masks, with tentacles coming out the sides and from under the chins. Will removed his silver mask of the cherub, so they could see who he was. They nodded and waved him through, and then began closing the gate. He hobbled like an old man into the wide room carved in smooth curves, with a vaulted ceiling more than twenty-five feet overhead. This was where Hazor had received them four days ago. The high priest had turned the room into a temporary audience hall – the first time an audience had ever been granted in this temple. Will, Kanadius, and Pandora had gone no farther than this room. Will would be going much farther this evening.
At the other side he came to a set of double doors inscribed with the face of Zargon. A face of oozing wounds and gross tumors, with a long horn protruding from his head, and a singular eye that bulged like that of a Cyclops. That eye made Will feel unnervingly at home, as if he were some lost cousin of the Cthulhu-like deity.
Do I knock? Or just open them? He looked over his shoulder back at the two guards. They stood by the gate ignoring him, and he knew better than to ask them for help.
He was about to probe the door with his omniscience, when the face spoke, demanding his name. A magic mouth spell.
“Will Byers,” he answered.
“Whom do you serve?” The voice was guttural and wet, as if spoken through a wall of mud.
Will braced himself. “Usamigaras.”
The face threw up an obscene laugh. “Filthy sneak.” The doors parted and swung slowly inwards.
Then, with his Eye, he saw it: if the door hadn’t identified him as the honored guest, the mouth would have drenched him with a stream of acid. As if designed by Mike himself. The D&D module hadn’t provided any details for the Temple of Zargon. But so far, the real thing was a dungeon purely out of Mike Wheeler’s sick imagination.
He walked through the open doorway, and in the next chamber gasped when he looked around. The walls were painted with scenes so lurid they looked like pornographic photographs from his home world. Sacrifice, rape, sacrifice, torture, sacrifice, bloodbaths. He stopped in the middle of the room and stared, turning himself slowly around to take in the full horror. He felt strangely tranquil at the sight of these barbarisms, and realized the fade drug was kicking in. He turned some more, savoring the sedation while also feeling sharply aware. Yes. He might just get through tonight without vomiting or going crazy.
“Does it eat at you?”
He turned around. A priest stood by an archway opposite the double doors. It was Hazor. The high priest. He was unmasked and staring down at Will intently.
“What?” asked Will, tearing his gaze from the obscene wall imagery. “Oh. Not really. I’m sort of used to this art by now.” Which was a lie. Nothing he had seen in any area of the pyramid or the underground city approached the level of depravity splashed across these walls.
“I meant the Eye.” The priest had an oily smile. “Your Eye, underneath that mask. Which you may remove, if you wish. I imagine it takes its toll on the body. The Eye, that is.”
“Oh,” said Will, taking off his mask reluctantly, and putting it inside his robe. He was self-conscious about his monstrous look. “My Eye… it reminds me of Zargon’s eye. But Zargon’s power is in his horn.”
“Hmm. Do you know everything about the Devourer?”
“Not everything,” said Will evasively.
“He devours everyone and all,” said Hazor.
“Even his worshipers?” asked Will.
“Especially his worshipers,” said Hazor. “In the Centennial Feed of 449 AC, Zargon feasted in the streets on scores of citizens. He saved his high priest for last; a scrumptious desert. In the Feed of 655, he devoured almost twenty of his priests. In the Feed of 952, he turned a dozen of his priests into Whelps.”
Thanks to his omniscience, Will already knew what Whelps were. Anyone unfortunate to be spat on or bitten by Zargon underwent a hideous transformation process that turned them into puddles of ooze that became mindless killing monsters. These Whelps then spread the same transforming disease with their own saliva and bites.
But Will didn’t know about the particular centennial feedings that Hazor was talking about. He looked into the past with his Eye and saw that all of that was true. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would a god kill his own priests – especially his highest priest?”
“How can we preach that lives don’t matter unless we lead by example?” asked Hazor.
“So if I want to kill you now, you’ll let me?” asked Will, feeling empowered by the fade drug. He gauged the question wasn’t too provocative, given the context of their discussion. His Eye was also telling him that Hazor actually liked him. And Hazor hated everyone, including himself.
Hazor looked disappointed. “If that’s your idea of scoring a zinger, don’t become a philosopher.”
Will accepted the rebuke. “What would you like me to do this evening?”
“As we agreed upon, when you were here with the coot and the slut.”
“You want me to attend the ceremonies with you.” To watch, query, and appreciate.
“The fifth-night ceremonies. Yes. The most important rites of the week.”
Meaning the most obscene rites of the week. “Am I expected to do anything special? I told you before, I won’t hurt or kill anyone.”
“You won’t have to get your hands dirty,” said Hazor contemptuously. “Only your mind. But on that level I expect your full participation. Anything less, and you and your slugs are on your own against the Yshians.”
Lovely. But he’d committed himself to this course of action. The old cults needed the Zargonites.
The fighting force that Hazor could muster wasn’t enough to match the Yshian thousand, but it was enough to give the Lost City a chance, supplemented by a certain drug. The city had a total of about 1200 citizens: 1000 adults and 200 youths below age 18. Of the 1000 adults, 25 were priests and 36 were warriors from the Temple of Zargon. From the citizenry, 385 males and 46 females were able-bodied and would be drafted to fight against the jihadists. There were also a total of 60 goblins and 56 hobgoblins who could be called on from the caves. That brought the total Zargonite fighting force to 608.
The old cults hardly added much to add to this number – a total of 68. That meant a total of 676 Cynidiceans against 1000 invading jihadists. But it wasn’t even that good. The citizens being drafted (the 385 males and 46 females) were inexperienced fighters, not to mention mushroom addicts. They would be cut down in no time at all – if not for another drug that Hazor would be giving them: the berserker mushrooms. The Zargonite temple warriors would be taking berserker shrooms as well. That would give them all a fighting chance.
Also, what the Yshians had in numbers, the Cynidiceans would make up for in spell power. All the cults had priests and the Usamigarans had mages. Then too there was the element of entrapment: the Yshians didn’t know the Cynidiceans would be prepared for them. They knew nothing of the Eye of Gaius and how Will knew their invasion was coming. All things considered, it would probably be about an even match.
For the city’s survival, Will would choke down this night and call it righteous. He’d stroke a priest’s ego and applaud the show. Fade and pain killers – and a shrewd omniscience – would get him through rites and sights that would scar any other kid for life.
“Very well, Hazor,” he said. “You have my attention. Lead the way.”
By midnight he was ready to turn in. There was still another hour, but he was past his bedtime – and way past his tolerance for death and torture. Hazor would understand. And to hell with him if he doesn’t.
They sat next to each other up on the chancel. The high host and his magi guest. Below them, the worship hall was the pit of Hell itself: a vast eighty by sixty foot area where the priests of Zargon tortured and killed people, and the temple warriors came in shifts to revel in the agony. Up on the chancel, the sacrificial altar was stained with blood going back centuries. Fresh blood was splashed everywhere, on the block and floor. If Will hadn’t already lost his innocence, he would have killed himself hours ago from the things he’d been made to watch. And from Hazor’s fits of giggling.
They were the only two in the hall not wearing masks. The six priests performing the sacrifices wore the Zargonite standard: gold with the horn protruding from the head, and tentacles coming out the sides and below the chins. Will had requested to sit through the rites maskless, and Hazor had accommodated him by doing likewise.
He’d sit through one more. One more, and that was it. He was running out of questions to ask anyway. There were only so many ways to feign philosophical interest over how this body was broken, how this blood was shed, or how this woman’s rape differed from that man’s or this child’s before all their lives were snuffed out.
Next to him, Hazor clapped his hand.
Down below, the next round began. The priests had finished dragging away the corpses of two women who had been made to carve each other to pieces on the altar (with false promises of freedom for the one who didn’t pass out first), and now returned with a naked elderly man. They carried him up the stairs of the chancel and strapped him on his back to the altar; then they clamped him in with restraints. The man begged for mercy in a shrine of deaf ears and thirsty eyes. Temple warriors filled the hall below, relishing the victim’s terror.
Another priest brought in a cage containing four rats. He ascended the chancel and placed the cage on top of the man’s abdomen, and slid out the false bottom so that the rats scampered within the cage over the man’s stomach. The man moaned in horror.
Hazor looked over at Will. “Can you guess what’s next?”
Thankfully the fade drug was still working. Nothing could break Will’s calm. Sheer fatigue was making him less alert though; more tired. “I’d guess the priest is going to lift up the cage, so the rats can… I don’t know, eat the man’s face?” No, that’s not right. The rats would just leap off the altar and run away. Unlike many of the other rites he’d sat through tonight, Will had never seen a rat ritual in his visions.
The high priest chuckled. “Watch closely.”
Three of the priests had tongs carrying red-hot burning coals. They applied the coals to the metal cage frame. Will frowned, still unclear as to the cage’s purpose. Then the cage became slowly heated; unbearably so for the rats. They panicked and scurried faster across the man’s stomach. The cage grew hotter. The rats turned desperate, and started burrowing through the only soft surface available: the man’s stomach.
Will’s own stomach contracted, despite himself. The sheer nastiness of this rite took him by surprise. Beside him, Hazor was giggling uncontrollably.
It wasn’t long before the victim was wailing in agony. With their claws and teeth, the rats were gnawing deep into his bowels, trying vainly to escape the heat of the cage. It went on for a long time – too long – until the rats were deep inside the man. Will watched as he quickly died from that point, and the priests got busy cleaning up the mess.
Hazor was enjoying himself long after it ended. “It’s possibly my favorite,” he said. “I always save it for the last hour.” He looked at Will. “Now, what are your questions?”
Will had frankly had it with this question-and-answer game, and treating torture like an analytical exercise. He’d been very gracious for the past six hours – sitting through sacrifice, rape, sacrifice, torture, sacrifice, bloodbaths – all the while plying his host with dutiful questions. He’d almost even convinced himself that Zargonite barbarisms served the cosmos in an oblique way; bettered it, somehow, through its purity of sadism; its honest nihilism. But this rat torture – this late in the game – rubbed him real wrong.
“I don’t have any more questions,” said Will. “That was disgusting and despicable.”
The high priest froze; didn’t move at all. He looked like a child whose favorite toy had been broken. Then his face twisted angrily.
Will cursed himself. Undo that, you fool, if you want to save this city.
“I’m sorry, Hazor,” he said. “I didn’t mean to offend. It wasn’t disgusting. It was… inspiring, like everything else I’ve seen tonight. But I can’t keep up anymore. I’m still a kid, even with the Eye… it’s late and I’m tired. Would you mind… could I go to bed now?” God, you sound lame. If the Eye didn’t protect you with black fire, rats would be eating into your bowels right now.
Hazor’s face was still purple with rage. On impulse, Will reached out and touched his shoulder, apologizing again. That seemed to reach the high priest. He simmered down and flashed his oily smile.
“Of course, Will. It is late, and you’ve been a fine guest. The Eye has done wonders for your enlightenment.” He put his hand on Will’s thigh. “You know, some of the legends say that Gaius served the Devourer. I take those legends seriously. Perhaps this temple is your real home.” He caressed Will’s thigh with his sweaty palm. Then he clutched Will’s groin.
Will reacted violently and leaped from his chair. He stepped away; out of Hazor’s reach. He was breathing heavily, even through the fade drug; angry at being touched like that. “Sorry,” he said, not sorry at all. “Can I… just go to bed now?”
Hazor’s eyes glinted with malevolence. “By all means. My acolyte will take you to your suite. It’s the best one in the Rise – aside from mine of course. Perhaps I’ll visit you later and join you in bed.” He laughed when he saw Will’s expression. “Then again, maybe not. Sleep well. You will rise early and we will have breakfast together, before you return to the pyramid.” He turned and snapped his fingers.
From a corner of the hall stepped a masked acolyte. He must have been standing in the shadows for the past six hours. He beckoned Will to follow him. Will bowed low to Hazor, wanting to punch the man’s face, and then left the hall.
As he followed the acolyte to the Rise, he began burning with fury over being touched. The bird man swam into his vision. He hadn’t thought of the bird man in a long time. He began to sweat and feel sick. When the acolyte went up a flight of stairs, Will fell to his knees and vomited. He saw the bird man’s face, then Hazor’s. The two blended into one.
It would have been worse without the fade drug, but it was still a bad spell. Hazor had triggered him. Not the Eye – that would have been catastrophic. But Will didn’t need this right now. Get a hold of yourself, Byers. He closed his right eye and breathed deeply, down on all fours.
He heard tittering ahead. It was the acolyte. He’d come back for Will and was laughing at him. Waiting for him to get up. Will forced himself to stand and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He needed a glass of water. Some of his late supper was on the floor. He’d managed to eat more than he expected. He and Hazor had feasted on steak that the high priest revealed only afterwards was human: a teenager broken on the altar. Fade had kept it down. Trauma had just brought it back up.
“Is there a pitcher of water in my room?” he asked the acolyte.
The man laughed, spun a 180, and then went back up the flight of stairs.
Acid head. Like every other Cynidicean outside the old cults.
The stairwell took them up to Zargon’s Rise. Offensive imagery swirled around the walls: the usual fare of rape, sacrifice, and dismemberment. At the top the acolyte led him down a corridor to another stairwell that led to the floor of the priest suites. The special suite reserved for Will was at the end of a wide hall with black carpeting that muffled all sound. The entry to the suite was a set of double doors that slid apart, decorated with the image of a nude pregnant woman, staring wide-eyed. The acolyte stopped at the hallway turn and gestured for Will to go down into the suite.
“Thank you,” said Will. “Before you go, what if I need anything?” He wasn’t expecting a real answer.
The acolyte stared at Will through his mask. Then he reached inside Will’s robe and removed the cherub mask that Will had kept off throughout the night.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
The acolyte held up a finger to shush him, and then placed the silver mask gingerly on the floor. He pulled aside his robes and exposed himself, urinating on the mask. He pissed for a long time.
“For God’s sake,” said Will. “You know what, you get to keep that mask. It’s your tip for walking me here.” He left the acolyte and went down to his suite.
We’re relying on acid-head space-shots to defeat jihadists.
When he got to the double doors he gasped in horror. The image of the pregnant woman wasn’t an image, but real. She had been preserved somehow, embedded in the door panels – inside the surface along the split that divided the doors. Her corpse was in effect sealing the doors shut. To open them would mean sliding one right and one left, which would rip the body in half from head to groin. He probed the door with his omniscience, but the Eye wouldn’t penetrate this morbid contraption.
He looked back behind him. The acolyte was done relieving himself. He had left the cherub mask on the floor and was watching Will. The Eye showed the man’s facial expression under the mask. The man was elated; eager for Will to open the doors.
Will sighed in disgust, beyond caring at this point. After all the evil tonight he’d seen inflicted on the living, he wasn’t worried about desecrating the dead. He grabbed the door handles and slid them apart.
They opened with ease, and to Will’s great shock the woman came alive – if she had ever been dead. Her mouth began screaming as her body was torn asunder. She split into halves, and her unborn child was bisected inside her. The fetus wailed on both sides of the open doorway. Will was aghast, literally stunned out of his mind. He couldn’t fathom the depraved mind that had devised this door.
There was tittering behind him. He looked back and saw the acolyte giggling hysterically, just like Hazor. This was why he’d been invited here. To see the whole canvass of Zargonite sadism. To look on every bit of it and despair.
The woman screamed and begged to be killed. For her child to be killed. Will was getting angry again, despite the fade drug. He hurriedly grabbed both door panels and tried to slide them closed again, but they wouldn’t budge. He kept trying. The woman and her baby had been torn asunder but were still alive, feeling the prolonged pain of being ripped apart without dying from it. The doors still wouldn’t move. Will ran his hands over the surface, helplessly trying to reach the woman encased underneath.
As soon as he did that, the Eye showed everything. Whatever high-level magic protected the door from divination, physical touch dispelled it. And the truth was even worse than he thought. The pregnant woman hadn’t been put here recently. She’d been trapped inside this door for centuries – killed over and over again every time someone entered or left the suite. When the doors opened, they stayed open for fifteen minutes, and the woman (and her conscious fetus) felt the pain of being torn in half and dying for fifteen minutes. When the doors automatically closed after that duration, the woman and her baby magically came back to life, only to wait for the next time the doors were opened.
It was possibly the most unbearably cruel punishment a human being had ever been made to endure. The woman – Phael was her name – had been killed like this at least a thousand times. Her son Efrum was a fetus, but thanks to the Zargonite enchantments, he had the cognitive capacity and speaking skills of a five-year old. Will could only imagine what Phael had done to earn this hell, when the Eye showed that too. Three hundred years ago, she had affronted the high priest of Zargon: managed to get him in a compromising position, and then castrate him. This was her eternal reward.
Phael. I’m sorry. I want to help.
To Will’s astonishment, Phael responded telepathically. So did Efrum. They were still physically screaming – to the acolyte’s delight – but anyone who touched the door surface could read their thoughts too. Their desperate appeals reached him, for some reason. He felt a righteous anger he hadn’t known in a while.
Phael: Destroy this evil. Please.
Will: How? How do I do that?
Efrum: Mom, help me!
Phael: I don’t know. Please. Find a way.
Will: This is deep magic. Beyond my Magi powers.
Phael: Please. Help us. We die long and hard every day.
Will: I wish I could –
Efrum: Mom! It’s ripping me, tearing me! Mom!
Will: – I wish I knew how… Wait… Mom? Is that you?
Phael: What are you doing?
Will: Are you… really here?
Phael: No… stop touching us… stop touching us!
Ephrum: Mom! It’s hurting me! Hurting, Mom! It’s hurting –
The Eye flared horribly inside Will’s head, feeling twice its size. It pulsed – no – throbbed – no – pounded – no – pushing, pushing, pushing him toward that inexorable purpose it was made for…
He fought it. He really tried. But Efrum’s cries had opened a door that no amount of will could shut…
“MOM!” screamed Will.
His rage blew the doors apart. The panels exploded and the two halves of Phael and her fetus with them, showering Will with gore. Through the din of his death scream he heard faint echoes of their cries, as if their souls lingered, unable to acknowledge liberation or flee the place that had jailed them. Souls in need of comfort.
Will had none on hand. His face contorted like a demon’s. It was worse than the previous two times – on the Isle and in his chamber with Auriga – when he had retained at least a vestige of control. Now his wrath was indiscriminate; it wanted anyone and everything. Had Mike or Dustin been standing here, he would have torn them apart. Drug addiction had made him susceptible to the Eye’s worst.
He stood rigid, arms locked at his sides, hurling his fury through the blasted doorway. The suite that had been prepared for him became Hiroshima. The acolyte behind him had fled, disappearing around the corner. But Will didn’t need to see him; only to See him. His scream tore backwards down the corridor, and before the acolyte could reach the stairs, his head exploded. Helpless to the curse that throttled him, Will kept raging against an abomination done to a mother and her son.
The stairwells lurched. Cracks leaped through stone – in walls, floors, and ceilings. All around him, Zargon’s Rise began to crumble. With the Eye, Will saw priests and warriors throughout the tower. They had less than a minute for any final prayers.
When the Rise collapsed, Will fell with it, battered all the way down by rock and ruin. Black fire enveloped him, and he didn’t feel a thing.
And he didn’t stop screaming.
Next Chapter: Everything Unholy
(Previous Chapter: The Jihad of Sayid al-Naji)