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The Dark Lord’s palm stood between master and student like an unfinished bridge.

Valdemar looked at the skeletal hand as if it were poisoned. He half-expected a soulstone or trap hidden between Lord Och’s fingers like a cruel joke, but he didn’t see any.

“Where?” Valdemar asked, utterly dumbfounded.

“To the Light, my dense apprentice,” Lord Och chuckled. “Come with me. The door will stabilize soon, but we will only have a short window of time to safely cross onto the other side.”

Flashes of energy erupted from the portal. The veil separating the material world from the higher realm of the Light had grown thinner. The flying Pleromian glyphs swirling above it moved so quickly that Valdemar’s eyes struggled to keep track of them.

“Do you understand what’s on the other side of this portal, Valdemar? Freedom. Knowledge. Power!” The flames in Lord Och’s eyes glowed brighter than the stars. “All the hidden truths of the universe, spells that transcend the Blood! The liberty to wander into the infinity and beyond!”

“How can you ask me to trust you after what you’ve done?" Valdemar glared at his teacher and spat venomous words. "You’ve manipulated me for months, put me through hell, beat my familiar half to death, and tortured me with lightning!”

“Please, as if Lord Bethor hadn’t done worse.” Lord Och waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, I understand how you might fear a trap of some kind. But then, why would I need to convince you to go along? You were at my mercy, my apprentice. If I needed you to cross this portal, I would have tossed your severed head through it. I offer you to join me because I believe you are worthy of the Light, my apprentice. Will you spit on my kindness?”

“Kindness?” Even if the lich’s offer was genuine, even if Valdemar ignored all the abuse he had personally suffered, there was one thing he simply couldn’t forgive. “You’ve murdered Marianne before my eyes!”

“You would deny paradise for a woman?” Lord Och’s calm tone rose with his anger. “Do you know how many of them there are on this Light-forsaken planet alone? At least half a billion, if not more.”

“That woman has a name.” The image of his lover falling dead on the floor would remain forever raw in Valdemar’s mind. “Marianne Reynard!”

“You only care because the human half of your biochemistry is altering your thinking,” Lord Och replied with disdain. “Attraction, lust, love, are drugs. You are high because this is your first time, but trust someone many centuries older than you. I have loved and forgotten more women than the years you’ve lived through.”

It would have been one thing if Lord Och faked sympathy, but the lich no longer felt the need to put on the charm. Marianne was right. If the Dark Lord ever had the ability to relate to someone else and his fellow humans, he had lost it long ago.

“What about your murder of Hermann?” Valdemar struggled to contain his anger. “Or what will happen to Iren and Liliane once this portal destroys Underland? What about my friends who you’re condemning to death? Do you expect me to abandon them to their doom?”

“Friends? People you’ve known for a scant few months? Do you hear yourself?” Lord Och took back his hand. His back was stiff like an iron rod, his fingers trembling with frustration. “You are an immortal being, a Stranger. You will live to see these small people all wither and die.”

“And that makes their lives without value?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are the height of hypocrisy, Lord Och!” Valdemar raised an accusing finger at his mad teacher. “You were not born immortal, you achieved eternal unlife through magic! Every single one of this Institute’s Masters did the same!”

“So what? They will languish forever in the darkness, trapped between Ialdabaoth below and the Whitemoon above. Wouldn’t it be more merciful to let them all rest?” A rattle of frustration came out of Lord Och’s mouth. “I do not understand why I’m wasting my time trying to open your eyes.”

“Me neither,” Valdemar replied, his eyes squinting at the lich. “Why do you want me to follow you so badly?”

“My poor Valdemar, is it truly so hard to believe that I care for your spiritual health?”

“You have only known me for months, scarcely longer than Hermann.” Valdemar frowned. He found it difficult to believe in the lich’s goodwill after so long. “By your own logic, my life should be worthless to you.”

Lord Och let out a brief laugh.

“Point taken,” he conceded.

Is he acting? The lich’s embarrassed reaction surprised Valdemar. He didn’t detect any hint of falsehood or fake charm in his old teacher. No… he sounds genuine.

“Between us, I cannot explain it myself.” The Dark Lord shook his head, his body language betraying his confusion. “I thought I emancipated myself from such feelings when I embraced undeath. Yet I feel a certain appreciation for your person, perhaps because I see much of myself in you. I suppose you could call it…”

Lord Och put a finger on his chin as he struggled to find the correct expression.

“Paternal fondness,” he finally said.

As if Valdemar’s real father wasn’t bad enough.

“You have an odd way of showing it.” Valdemar would never forget the pain of lightning coursing through his veins. “All you have done since we first met is play cruel tricks and mind games on me. You tried to convince me to sacrifice my friends to this portal, mocked me for believing in a better future…”

“I tried to cure you of your own foolishness and failed. Do you understand how difficult it was for me, you selfish brat?”

Valdemar choked in indignation. “For you?”

“Yes!” Lord Och snarled back. The walls of the vault shook around them as if echoing his cold anger. “You possess limitless potential, my apprentice, and yet you waste it on lunacy!”

The Dark Lord waved a hand at the shining portal. “The sun, the light you sought for, is right beyond this threshold! This is the crossroad that will let us reach Earth! So why won’t you step through it?”

Although the thought of using the Light to reach Earth at last was enticing, Valdemar held his ground. “I have sought the sun too, yes. That was my dream. But I never desired it for my own pleasure alone. I wanted to honor my grandfather and free our people from the ceiling of stone above our heads.”

What was worth the joy of watching an open sky, if nobody else could look at it with you?

“Is it lunacy to believe in altruism?” Valdemar asked his teacher. “In a better future?”

For the first time since the discussion began, Valdemar’s words seemed to land with his teacher. The Dark Lord didn’t immediately shoot down his apprentice’s argument. Instead, he considered it thoughtfully for long, agonizing seconds.

“Believe…”

Lord Och repeated the word with a long sigh.

“I stopped believing when Sophia the Unwise refused to answer my prayers for universal salvation. She had called herself the mother of the human spirit, but when the Whitemoon came, she chose to save the few and abandon the many to death and degradation. What kind of mother would leave her children to starve underground or perish in the snow?”

To Valdemar’s astonishment, it seemed as if Lord Och had undergone a drastic metamorphosis before his eyes. His shoulders crumbled; his eyes looked down at the ground below his feet; his stance was feebler, weaker.

“It was then that I understood the gods’ love was not unconditional.” Beneath the bitterness in Lord Och’s words hid crushing sorrow. “The Strangers, Sophia, the stars… none of them care. We humans are orphans left to wander a cold, pitiless universe. We live unloved and die unmourned. We are on our own.”

The Dark Lord’s image of power had collapsed to reveal the tired old man beneath.

“I stopped believing in men not long afterward,” Lord Och confessed. “When we used Sophia’s corpse to begin the exodus underground, the Derros, the Dokkars, and the Troglodytes fell upon us. When mankind most needed unity, the first Dark Lords started bickering among themselves. They fought over who controlled which cavern, whose language men should speak… Lesser men were no better. I’ve seen children slay their parents for table scraps.”

I’m seeing the real him, Valdemar realized. The mask Lord Och carried on himself at all times had fallen off. The sight of the face underneath filled his apprentice with an emotion he never thought he would feel for the lich.

Pity.

“People are not defined by their darkest moments, my teacher,” Valdemar argued.

“What about the best times then?” Lord Och asked with scorn. “Can you fathom how old I am, my apprentice? How fantastically ancient?”

Valdemar bit his lower lip. He could almost taste his teacher’s bitterness on the tip of his tongue. “I can only imagine.”

“The empire is but the latest society we have built after the Descent. I tried to create a paradise so many times… I abolished private property and made all men equal in all things. Another time I granted my subjects absolute freedom of trade, of speech, of thinking. Both experiments failed disastrously. People wanted the freedom to own more than others, or they wanted to be paid for doing nothing. They couldn’t make up their minds.”

“The fact you haven't discovered the perfect system yet doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.” Valdemar's argument sounded weak even to himself.

Lord Och laughed, but there was no joy to be found in his words. “Democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy… No system has managed to bring happiness to humans, because they will never be satisfied by anything. You have seen my colleagues. They mocked you… as others mocked me before.”

A disappointed idealist lurked inside every cynic.

“You feel lonely, my teacher,” Valdemar realized to his own shock. The Dark Lord he had so feared had been nothing more than a protective shell. At some point, the face beneath the mask of cruelty and absolute power had grown to fit it; but the raw pain at the heart of his soul had never left.

In losing faith in others, Lord Och had cut himself off from them. Was his attempt to talk Valdemar into following him an expression of the desire to preserve a sliver of humanity with him into the Light? Or a last-ditch attempt to connect to someone, anyone?

“Mankind keeps letting us down, so what’s the point of trying to raise them up?” Lord Och argued. “The truth, Valdemar, is that most humans are aggressively mediocre. They want easy solutions to complex problems. They want to believe someone else will solve everything for them while they don’t have to lift a finger. They are a waste of our time.”

“So you would rather let them die? Or brainwash them into obedience as Blutgang did with the Derros?”

“Why not? The Derros have never been stronger than with ninety percent of their population lobotomized.” Lord Och let out a dismissive shrug. “You, me, Lord Bethor, Otto Blutgang… we are exceptional. We are imbued with superior vision, volition, and intellect. Which is why we have the right—the duty—to rule over our lessers. There are Masters, Scholars who can grow into Masters, and the rest. My Institute’s hierarchy reflects the world outside its walls. Only a fraction of humankind deserves salvation. The rest only exists to lift us up.”

“Spoken like Sophia the Unwise then,” Valdemar silently noted that his teacher didn’t include Empress Aratra in his list of worthy people, which spoke volumes about his true feelings towards her. “You have become the very thing you fought all those centuries ago.”

Lord Och’s teeth grit in anger. The remark had hit a nerve, or what could pass for one in a fleshless undead. “No, I have not. I will succeed where she failed. Her husk will be put out of its misery with this world, whereas I shall ascend higher than she could ever dream to.”

“You can disguise the truth with all the pretty words you can think of, my teacher, it won’t change it.” Valdemar gathered his breath. “You’ve given up.”

“You naïve fool.” Lord Och sneered with disdain. The lich straightened up and regained an ounce of his sinister majesty. “You, a halfbreed eldritch spawn born of rape, you would still carry the burden of faith in mankind after all you’ve been through? You think yourself capable of it?”

“Yes.” Valdemar had carried it for years. “I have stumbled many times, I will admit… but I have always gotten back to my feet. I will not relent.”

“Even knowing it is pointless?” Lord Och gave him a sharp look. “You are a poor scientist then, my apprentice. A hypothesis that cannot survive the test of experimentation should be discarded. Here is the truth: nothing can change human nature. Nothing can improve the mortal condition.”

“Then,” Valdemar pointed a finger at the Painted World floating above them, “how do you explain this?”

His and Hermann’s magnum opus had become the vibrant heart of a magical phenomenon. Its pigments danced on its surface as if alive, giving shape to a verdant new universe full of promises. Compared to the Light, a realm of eldritch beauty and alien glory, the Painted World looked plain in its simplicity.

But it was a vision of heaven all the same.

“This Painted World, this miracle, is the result of cooperation between a Stranger, a troglodyte, and my humble person,” Valdemar argued. “My brother let himself be caught inside because for a precious few seconds, you reminded him what it meant to be human.”

A pure tree had sprouted from a corrupted seed. If something born evil could become a force of good, why couldn’t men change their ways?

“You said someone would pay the price for my choices, my teacher,” Valdemar reminded his teacher. “That each day I delayed opening a portal to Earth, more of our kind’s souls would feed Ialdabaoth. Yet here we have created a new plane of existence and a potential afterlife for everyone. We have created a new option that didn’t exist before. One that invalidates the choice you tried to force upon me.”

That was what Marianne had taught him.

“If paradise does not exist yet,” Valdemar argued, “then we must build it.”

“How much time will last until human greed despoils it?” Lord Och raised his chin, his expression hard as stone. “I do not understand you, my apprentice.”

“On the contrary, I think you do.” By now, Valdemar understood the weight on his master’s heart. The gnawing root at the source of their endless debates and philosophical conflicts. “If you were truly confident in your own words, my position wouldn’t infuriate you so much. You would have nothing to prove to me or anyone else. Yet at every step of our association, you’ve tried to make me validate your misanthropy.”

“For the sake of your intellectual enlightenment,” Lord Och replied, his voice soft as velvet.

“For the sake of soothing your guilty conscience.”

Lord Och did not answer. His shadow lengthened as the doorway to the Light shone brighter.

“You could have severed my limbs and dragged me screaming into the Light,” Valdemar pointed out. “You did not, because you want me to come with you out of my own free will. It matters to you. Even after centuries of gloom and darkness, a part of you is still afraid of being wrong.”

“You know not what you speak of," Lord Och snorted and adjusted his tattered robes.

“Deep down a small sliver of humanity wants me to talk you out of this madness.” Valdemar gazed at the Light, at the vast abyss of the cosmos. A realm that offered unlimited power at the cost of one’s humanity. “It’s why you’ve tried to crush my hopes each step of the way. You wanted to silence the best part of yourself.”

“Do you mean to pity me, Valdemar?”

To his own astonishment, Valdemar did pity the Dark Lord.

Before him stood a creature miserable enough to take pleasure in others’ pain and failures. Disappointment fueled Lord Och’s cruelty. Bitterness nursed his disdain and arrogance. In his attempt to put a shield between himself and the awfulness of the world, the lich had given up on everything good in it.

Valdemar would never forgive Lord Och for his crimes… but as they faced each other with the entire world’s fate hanging in the balance, the summoner realized he couldn’t bring himself to hate the ancient Dark Lord.

Valdemar wanted to despise Lord Och the same way he had tried to find the strength to hate his grandfather, because it would have made it easier. But even if he tried his best to appear as one, the lich was no monster. He was no vicious madman like Ialdaboath’s cultists, no cruel invader from another world like the Qlippoths, not even an unfeeling machine like Otto Blutgang.

In the end, Lord Och was only human.

“My teacher, it’s not too late.”

Now it was Valdemar’s turn to extend a hand to Lord Och. The ancient archmage glanced at his student’s palm without a word. He made no move to take it.

“Stay with me. Help me make this world a better place instead of turning your back on it.” Valdemar cleared his throat. “Lord Och, you possess extraordinary knowledge, willpower, and wisdom. You command incredible resources and powerful magic. Harsh years have torn you up inside, but you are not alone in this fight anymore. I am with you.”

Even after all Lord Och had done, it wasn’t too late for him to get a second chance.

We can’t wait much longer. The portal had become so bright that its steel had turned black as coal in comparison. The whole place will collapse on us.

Yet Valdemar waited. He said nothing as Lord Och observed him, judged him, appraised him. The ancient lich’s ghoulish skull briefly betrayed a hint of doubt. His fiery eyes glanced at Valdemar’s hand with uncertainty.

For a moment, the Dark Lord truly considered Valdemar’s offer.

“No, my apprentice.”

But although a crack had appeared in this millennium-old ice, it refused to melt away.

“I have gone too far, sacrificed too much, to stop here.” The Dark Lord’s voice turned deeper, more sinister. “I will not turn back while I stand at the very altar of enlightenment. Not for anything. Not even for you.”

Valdemar lowered his hand, his fists clenched with resolve. “Then the time for words is over.”

“It is.” An earthquake shook the vault. Cracks spread in the stone ceiling, threatening to collapse it. “The portal has almost stabilized. We must cross it soon or perish with this planet, Valdemar.”

“I reject these options.” Valdemar shifted his posture and prepared to lunge at his master, his teacher… his twisted mirror. “I will close this cursed door before the unthinkable happens.”

Valdemar had spent the whole discussion analyzing the situation. The phenomenon came from the portal using the Painted World as a conduit to create a resonance with the Light’s realm. If Valdemar could disable the portal and safely disperse its energies, he would preserve the Painted World. He would save his brother and Hermann’s legacy.

But to do that, Valdemar needed to achieve the impossible.

He would have to get past Lord Och.

“I won’t let you destroy this world.” Blood particles floated around Valdemar, ready to fuel his spells. “I will stop you here… as you once stopped your own master.”

The Dark Lord’s sinister laughter echoed in the vault. The man inside the lich had put on his mask of inhumanity. The Lord Och that stood before Valdemar was no longer doubtful. He had become the cold-hearted, cruel archwizard that cowed his apprentice into obedience the first time they met.

“Foolish disciple.” An electrical spark flared to life in Lord Och’s palm. “I taught you well, but you still have so much left to learn.”

“Then consider today my graduation.”

Master and student began their battle with the Light as their only witness.

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Here we go, into the final battle.

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Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending all his time writing tales and forbidden scrolls.

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TenThousandSuns ago

Well this went downhill fast. I'll never understand why writers insist on going for the cynicism vs optimism philosophical fight when they haven't actually got a resolution or the skill to handle it. This is a Wheel Of Time level ending letdown.

K5P26 ago

Is the light one of the colored worlds, the one that Geist sees as heaven?

Fuchsia ago

Despite everything, I find myself wishing the best for Lord Och. 😵

While his methods and morals are undoubtedly savage, I find the lich's obsession and selfish grind to be quite appealing. Perhaps this is just my tendency to align with morally corrupt characters and villains, but man.. I really want him to step through the light and experience the other side with Valdemar, world-be-damned. He's worked so hard for it. Of course, it's easy to say these things as a reader, and not a helpless little peasant in-world.

I'm not a psychopath, I promise.

    LOTSK ago

    Nah. I feel you. It genuinely feels like a waiste if Valdemar ices him right before the finish line becuase of the damage that *might* happen.

    Anon8 ago

    You are not the only one. I have detested Valdemar so much these past few chapters. Always with the "We WiLl FiNd AnOtHeR WaY". The Valdemar of chapter 1 was willing to sacrifice a Knight to summon his grandfather. Dude has been pussified so much he cant even bear to sacrifice an insect for his goals. For someone who lives in such a terrible world, together with his harsh upbringing, he is incredibly naive and a too much of a do gooder. Shameful part is he's probably going to get his way with next to no sacrifice and squeaky clean hands.

    I find myself supporting Lord Och because he's more realistic and his actions make a lot of sense

TREEDEVOTEE ago

lord och go to the light u can do it!

ArrogantGodKing ago

A consistent issue and personally the most vexing aspect of this story to me is Och’s desire to make Valdemar into himself so quickly. As it’s been noted many times, Och is centuries old. He’s had the time to try and fail hundreds or thousands of times when it comes to fulfilling his dreams. I’m sure after the first century of failure he kept trucking on trying to reach his goal. So it astonishes me how he consistently tries to turn Valdemar into him when they’ve only be master and disciple for months. Och should know that that wouldn’t be enough time for Valdemar to fully grasp his points because he hasn’t experienced the world like he has and Och should know this considering how intelligent and insightful he is. Idk if I should blame it on the character or the author but this aspect of the story is incredibly hollow for me because of this context. It’s a stupid argument to have because Valdemar can’t understand it yet. Like telling children that their most valuable thing is time, sure they hear the words but they don’t truly understand.

    Fuchsia ago

    Agree.

    With all of Valdemar's relationships and dreams, it should be a no-brainer that he would be opposed to becoming like Och and entering the light.

    Perhaps in time, with enough life experiences, hardship and cynicism. As it stands? Yeah, no chance.

    One would think that a wise, ancient lich like Och would understand this. He has certainly displayed the ability to understand the value of relationships, or at the very least, how much others, including Valdemar, value relationships. If he truly wished to mold Valdemar into someone like him, surely it would have been best to keep the boys connections to others, and attachments to the world, to a minimum. As it stands, Och allowed him to run wild and form all these relationships and connections, and the lich is surprised when Valdemar doesn't want to abandon them all for something he's never expressed a desire for? Fat chance mate.

    Anon8 ago

    Except Valdemar has had a harsh life, and the world he lives in is even harsher. Valdemar of chapter 1 was callous and focused, not batting an eye when his summon was about to kill a knight. How did he turn into this dollar store MC who cannot bear to get his hands dirty and believes in friendship and love? Lord Och icing this fool will bring a smile to my face but its probably not going to happen. He'll win and then get the girl, and then find a way to save everyone while keeping his hands squeaky clean because that is the way these stories go

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