The Devil, The Secret Living Language, and the Super Wizard From Space stood upon a massive square of black stone half buried in blistering desert sands.
"This is it, end of the line," the Devil announced. "We're standing on top of the obsidian vault that has entombed the Super-Devil. Like all prisons, it's designed to keep people in, not to keep people out. Once we get inside, we can put an end to this gallivanting. We can all walk away happy."
The charcoal shape of the Living Language crossed its arms, the serpentine tendrils piled around mimicking her actions. "How will we effectuate this exertion? Only a arbalest aggrandized here in Quinto-Hell can fusillade this sepulture."
"We have one," said the Devil, shading his eyes to look up at the gigantic sun. "That is, if our phantasmal friend here is up to it."
The wizard was a barely-discernible silhouette with a tree-like nervous system and spinal cord branching throughout. His ghostly shape looked up at the sun and slouched his shoulders. Then the cosmic crown above his head flared with strings of pale-white electricity that entangled themselves within him and tugged him upright. "Be ready. This will happen fast," he warned them.
He raised his arms to the sun. The others could see his spinal cord overfill with a liquid gold that dripped out between the vertebrae. It clung to him, pouring upwards along his arms, becoming interwoven with his nerves; by the time it reached his hands, it was impossible to tell the difference between the golden power and the wizard's being.
The nerves in his fingers were of golden fusion that stretched up and plunged into the sun. The massive sun shrunk back, making a gasping shudder, as if someone had a grip on its heart.
The wizard pulled. The sun collapsed with a weak snap. A beating ball of fusion fell into his hands. He held it close to him, close to his breast, then compressed it between his hands and slammed it fiercely at the black stone.
The square cracked with thunder. Jagged chunks fell away.
All three tumbled into the vault. As they crumpled on the floor, the pieces of broken stone paused in mid-air, then slingshot back into place. Within moments, the vault's ceiling like new, trapping them inside.
"About damn time," said a brash voice from the darkness. Two rows of rotted teeth parted in a wide frown, and the Super-Devil spat pieces of molten lava into the corners to light the room. The only place that seemed immune to the dull, new light was the twisted black circlet of razor wire hovering over his cracked skull. "I thought you had left me here to rot."
"You know perfectly well that I had to come back," the Devil retorted as he got up onto his feet and straightened his clothes.
"You would have figured something," the Super-Devil mumbled.
The Super Wizard From Space was on his hands and knees. The crown rose, its golden strings trying to pull him up. He didn't have the strength. There wasn't enough left of him here. He crumpled onto his side.
"See? See?" the Super-Devil exclaimed, gesturing at the fallen wizard. "I told you the jerk would be trashed down here. He's got the characterization of a paper bag! I can end this Challenge with one freaking finger!" He wiggled his pinkie in hopeful demonstration.
"No! Not a chance," the Devil said. "You had your shot. You blew it. You screwed yourself. And you screwed the lot of us. This time, we do it my way."
The Super-Devil flipped them all off and slouched against the wall, dejected.
The Language didn't so pick itself up; the brittle charcoal clamoured upwards to make a standing shape. Jade fire gave everything a sickly tint. "And what explicitly is the contrivance you've engineered?" it asked.
"Ah ha," said the Devil, now smiling. He straightened his jacket and tugged his sleeves tight with broad showmanship. He took off his top hat and showed that it was completely empty. Then he reached inside, made a point of scratching around inside, and pulled out an old parchment folded into squares. "Me and my cousin here came to an arrangement. I agreed to exercise a loophole in our original legal quagmire and he agreed that he was a chowderhead."
"Hey!" said the Super Devil.
The Devil ignored the outburst. "I've drawn up a contract that will satisfy the Challenge, giving the Super Wizard From Space his victory by way of the cosmic crown. Sign this, the whole mess gets untangled. Bob's your uncle, we all go home." The Devil pulled a ballpoint pen from a pocket. He unfolded the contract, clicked the pen a couple times, and gave both to the Super-Devil. "You do still remember how to spell your own name, right?" he asked?
The Super-Devil snatched them. "This is worth it just so I don't have to listen to your smug I-told-you-so bullshit any more," he said, scribbling on the dotted line. When he finished, a lick of hell-flame lit up the edge of the paper as infernal powers turned the legal wording into physical reality.
The Devil then took the contract to the Secret Living Language. "You're the witness. Your signature makes this binding."
The Language took the pen, and looked at the Devil with a questioning expression.
The Devil sighed. "Yes, I remember. You signing this is your end of our bargain." He shook the parchment, "Cooperation, yes?"
A wash of hungry green embers flashed in the Language's charcoal eyes. The burning desire of space-greed intermixed with insatiable hunger. It took the pen and signed. The contract's edge gained another lick of infernal fire.
The Devil then walked over to the Super Wizard From Space. He knelt by him. He placed the contract on the floor. He handed him the pen.
It just passed through, clattered against the stone. "Hm. Thought this might be a problem. A fanciful material thing like you isn't even real enough to even grasp a simple idea like a pen. Well, no matter," he picked up the pen himself, and held it at the bottom of the contract. "You can whisper me your name and I'll write it down for you. It'll hold up, don't worry."
The wizard tilted up his head, staring at the Devil. The dawning realization could actually be seen. "This was it. This was the point," he said.
"What do you mean?" the Devil asked. He was angrier than he meant to be. But it felt good. "Do you mean me helping a friend? A friend that turned around and killed me when he found out about a past I was trying to account for? Executed and banished for Double-Hell. Without even asking a question. Without any regard for everything we did together. All the good we did.
"Or do you mean putting you in a spot where you have to tell me your name? Your secret name, where me knowing it makes me invulnerable to all your damn power?
"And the worst thing, the thing that just gets to me? It wasn't you killing me or all the time I spent under the thumb of my cousin. It was that you never felt regret over it. Not once. I think that must screw a person up, not being able to feel sorry about anything. I'm the Devil, for crying out loud, and even I feel sorry about... um, some of the things I've done."
The wizard laid his head back down. "You planned this. From the beginning."
The Devil frowned. "Do you know what the first crime ever committed was? Betrayal. And its the one with the longest-lasting consequences." He clicked the pen a couple times. "So here's where we are now. You pick. Whisper me your name and get everything you need. Or don't, and the Super-Devil will just take your cosmic crown; without its power holding you together, you'll cease to exist."
The Super Wizard From Space didn't have an expression. He didn't have a face. The Devil couldn't tell what he was thinking. But he was pretty sure what the choice would be. He could see right through him.
The wizard whispered a word to the Devil and the Devil wrote it on the contract. The last of the edges caught fire. The agreement was sealed.
The obsidian vault split apart in pentagonal shapes, the pieces flinging away at the speed of sound. The desert was blasted away from them as if a gigantic hurricane had picked it up and threw it away. Upper levels of space were shredded, dimensions tumbled away, and everyone had the stomach-turning experience of falling upwards.
As they crashed higher and higher, they could see other black cubes exploded open. The alternate devils were released, tossed out of Quinto-Hell and back to their own realms. The Hyper-Devil found a twisting corridor into his infinite maze. The Jumbo-Devil found a muddy path to his terror swamps. The Super-Devil broke through massive gates into his fortress city.
The rest of them saw a ceiling of dirty ice above them. They fell up at it, out of control, and crashed through. Gravity suddenly rolled back where it was supposed to be as they entered Hell, and they were dropped onto the massive glacier plain of Cocytus.
The Devil leapt to his feet and patted his chest, incredulously. Then a smile cracked across his red face as he realized they had succeeded. He was back. He was free. He whooped and hollered like a maniac.
The Super Wizard From Space stood up uneasily. He felt better than he had in a long time. He could see his hands. He could see his arms. "I'm normal again," he said, more to convince himself than anyone else. He flexed his hands into fists, feeling his fingers in his palms, his muscles tensing, and solar energy pumping in his veins.
"Normal, yes! Or close to it," the Devil reassured, clamping him on the shoulder. "And here! This is yours. Now that you can hold it yourself." He handed over the contract.
The wizard held the contract with one hand. The fire didn't hurt. The writing was illegible. The paper was ancient and fresh at the same time. But there was a shape in the words he recognized. A roundness that sang to him. He reached into the legalese and grasped it. When he lifted it out, the shape became a circle, and the circle became black and sharp and jagged.
"The black circlet. The Super-Devil's cosmic crown," the Devil confirmed.
The air went sickly as the Secret Living Language exploded out of its coal and embers figure. It was a breezy thin thought that reeked of wet mold and angry wants. "A deal's a deal. I did my part. I want your part. Give me what's yours!"
The Devil scratched the back of his head and shrugged. "Off you go, then. All of my Hell is open to you."
The Language drenched the area with malevolent excitement. "I'll take it all! All of it. I'll take it and make it mine!" It spread out thinly, transversing impossible distances. Within seconds it was gone, off to the far edges of an infinite space.
"What did you do?" the wizard asked when they were alone.
"Hm?" The Devil feigned ignorance.
The wizard narrowed his eyes. "It spoke one-syllable words, and I understood all one of them. You did something to it."
"Well... yeah. Yes, of course I did," the Devil said. He took the contract and folded it along the worn lines. Rather than the original square shape, it bent and clipped wrong. It was origami that didn't change the parchment so much as it changed the world around it. When he was done, it was in three pointed forms and was violently pregnant with incredible power. "Voila!" the Devil said proudly, presenting the result to the wizard. "The folded triangles. The Secret Living Language's cosmic crown."
"You tricked it," the wizard said in realization.
"I beat it with small print," the Devil agreed.
"And what of the Secret Living Language?"
"Well, not so secret any more," the Devil said smugly. "It can try to monkey around, if it likes. I doubt it'll cause any more trouble. Down here or anywhere it manages to squirrel away to. It was a poisoned philosophy that overcame entire civilizations, but without its crown, it has to stand on its own merits. And bad ideas rarely have staying power on their own."
The Devil clapped his hands and from sky fell his iron pitchfork. He caught it nonchalantly, twirled it like a cane, and jabbed it into empty air. A simple crackling came from the weapon. and a pentagram-shaped hole tore open. On the other side lay the cobblestone road that led to the ruined university.
"Goodbye, old friend. You many not survive you coming trials, but you'll be better for it either way."
The Super Wizard From Space nodded and returned to his own universe.
That wraps up this hell-arc. It took longer than I originally intended. If I were to go back and clean this arc up, I would reduce the trip through Double-, Triple-, and Tetra-hell into half the number of issues.
This arc allowed me to examine the Super Wizard character. I've been getting by, up until now, by focusing more on the rest of the cast than on the title character. Though I may continue to do so, I realize the Super Wizard himself is going to have to gain some depth if I want to continue writing his adventures past the cosmic-crown challenges. I'm laying down some groundwork for an evolution; I'll see if I can find enough of interest there, or if I'll move onto something else.
The Secret Living Language was a neat idea that I felt wasn't executed as well as it could be. It turned out more as a generic monster than an insidious menace. The Devil doesn't believe it has any staying power as a character, anywhere it manages to get to. I'll let someone else find out...
NAME: The Secret Living Language
APPEARANCES: The Super Wizard From Space #2, #12-13, #25-33
DESCRIPTION: Crafted by bio-philosophers in a far-off galaxy, it was an self-describing concept that gained a hungry sentience. It has no physical form or shape, being a living idea, though some types sensitive can make out an abstraction.
ABILITIES: As an idea, it has no physical form. It can't be killed, hurt, hit, stabbed, shot, etc. It can move in and out of people's minds as easily as any other idea, stealing everything within or altering thoughts/opinions. At its worst, it can either suck dry all knowledge/culture/art from entire civilizations.
WEAKNESSES: It is infected by "space-greed", which makes it ravenously hungry. It always wants more. Of everything. It rarely lets that greed manipulate it into make poor decisions, but when it does indulge, it can act irrationally and instinctively, to its detriment.
PERSONALITY: Slippery, slimy, insidious. Like a snake, patiently getting into position, then acting suddenly and brutally. It enjoys using its advantages to set things up before striking, like seeing how big a house of cards one can make before knocking it all down. Its at its most dangerous when flip-flopping between this sadistic nature and the impulses of that infectious greed.
STATUS: Free for anyone to use.