Limits@Infinity

5.00 avg. rating (97% score) - 3 votes
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 


The powers of the Chosen are growing, but so too grows the power of the Void. It is, and has ever been, unstoppable – even for the Maker. And now, the Void is more powerful than ever.
Only by uniting do the Chosen stand a chance against it. The powers of good and evil, light and darkness must come together as one. Divided, they all will die.
But first, they must reach the besieged city of Lock Core, where the Dark Army is spilling into their world. And during their journeys, they must learn that there are many paths to the city, but only one path will lead them to victory.
To follow the Maker’s path . . . it is the only way. 
Though the path was paved for them ages ago, they must find it soon, else the Void reclaims all of creation.
 

Tags:Fiction Fantasy Horror Short Stories Dark Fantasy

 

Author J.C. Bell
Edition Feedbooks
ISBN 9781310601767
Pages 24
Publication Date Oct. 15, 2015
Publisher Smashwords, LLC.
Series The Limits, Book 2
BCRS Rating  CA-13
CA-13  BCRS ratings?Learn more

JC Bell

JC Bell

J.C. Bell began writing at a young age. His first short story, Peter and Poon, was a disgusting, offensive, pornographic piece of filth. Unfortunately, his English teacher had no knowledge of its content and read it (thankfully, only the first paragraph) in front of J.C. Bell’s sixth grade English class. Peter and Poon gained immediate attention from the Middle School Principle, various faculty members, and of course, J.C. Bell’s parents. Despite J.C.’s growing popularity among his fellow students, Peter and Poon was a disaster.
Remarkably, J.C. Bell’s English teacher managed to set his anger and humiliation aside. And through the ordeal, he somehow taught J.C. to respect reading and writing. After finishing the first two books of his required after school reading, that respect became love.
Hundreds of novels later, and that love continues to grow.
Some would even argue that, since Peter and Poon, J.C. Bell's writing has somewhat improved.
JC Bell

Latest posts by JC Bell (see all)


    ∞Limits@Infinity∞

A LIMITS @ INFINITY SHORT STORY

BY J.C. BELL

© 2013, J.C. Bell

* * * * *

All rights reserved

Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form, with the exception of quotes used in reviews.

Your support and respect for the property of this author is appreciated.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

Attention Readers:

Limits @ Infinity

Quick note on Limits @ Infinity —

If you haven’t read my first book – Infinite Limits, then be warned the following contains spoilers.

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy.

J.C. Bell http://infinitelimitstheboo.wix.com/jcbell

 


Limits@Infinity


 

— End of the Age of Death, The Seventh World

The One Elf never truly slept. Even when his eyes were closed, and his mind was lost in dreams, a primal part of his mind would be forever alert, conscious of its surroundings and the threat of danger. Those that found the courage to near him, assumed he was asleep – or possibly dead – so still was the man as he leaned on his gnarled staff. None dared to draw close enough to see if he yet breathed. But his breath was so slow and measured, that even up close, it would be unperceivable. And if they thought to investigate further, to touch him … the primal mind would be unleashed — instincts born from ages of war.

On this night, there was one who did dare to come near. A being half real, half dream approached him in both worlds.

Hands brushed his face. So soft and comforting, even the primal mind was put at ease. Lost in a dream, his unconscious mind waited for an alarm, a call to action, but there was none. The only sound was a gentle whisper in his ear, ‘I knew one

way or another I’d get you to fight, Shal’in Ome.’

She seemed so real in the dream – his one true child. But when he awoke, there was nothing —nothing but the hate in his heart. Of the young elf, only her blades remained, safely tucked against his hips.

Shal’in Ome no longer, Nathalia,” he replied to the emptiness around him.

For many years, his singular desire had been to end his suffering – but no more. Before he found peace in death, he needed one thing first – revenge. For him, the journey from the charred ruins of Shattered Rock didn’t end at Lock Core.

He would enter the Black Door and then … home. Those who would dare to stop him shall fall, whether they are living or the dead. One way or another he would make it back, back to the

Dead Tree for one final chance at redemption.

Hate, it was all he had left, and he would carry it with him, from this world to the next, to the end of all time.

As his battle with the Plague began, so too would it end – on his home-world Ki’minsyllessil …


Introduction


The Seventh World

First War of Lock Core, Post Exodus 565–

What are you thinking, Dertois? Nicola wondered, watching as the Keeper stared down at the Rift.

If only she could penetrate his mind. There was so much she wished to know – so much she feared to know as well.

She sensed his thoughts, but as ever, they were deeply buried under layers upon layers of powerful shields. As long as she had known him he had always kept his thoughts well hidden, but they were even more so now – and for good reason.

After all, the fate of their world was in his hands.

Dertois stood alone on the balcony, his hands clenched as they gripped the iron railing. Mage-fire and lighting flared in the distance, while the driving rain hammered against his shield of blue flames. The screams of the dead and the dying became one with the wind as it howled through the chamber. With every powerful gust, the room was flooded with the putrid stench of death.

The scent followed them everywhere. It clung to them — and not solely in their blood-soaked clothing. Death seemed inescapable now; the scent, the sight and the sad acceptance that it was coming to claim them, one and all. After three days, Nicola still fought the fear and the hopelessness of it all — as she still fought the urge to gag on her every breath.

Death was coming, and they were unable to stop it. Even now, death was spilling into the city; a throng of Plague infected monstrosities.

Don’t give up on us, Dertois …

With every burst of lightning Nicola’s blue eyes glowed. Her head of light brown locks writhed in the wind.

Don’t let this be the end.

He meant so much to her … to the entire Seventh World. For the city, Dertois was the symbol of their courage and strength. To the Order of Magi, as their highest ranking member, he was the pinnacle of what one could achieve with the blood-born gift of the Singularity. For Nicola … he meant something else, something he would likely never know. Something she should have shared with him a long time ago.

If Dertois gave up, if his strength faltered and he fell sway to fear and hopelessness, all others would follow suit. The Order would dissolve, the Triad of Races would scatter, and Nicola would die alongside a broken man.

If he gave up, it would be the final sign, the final confirmation that all was lost.

Below them, the Great Red Wall shook. It was slowly, but surely, crumbling. The Dark Army was relentless, and seemingly endless. By the hundreds they poured from the Rift, more powerful and hideous creatures emerging by the minute. The defenders had fought well, killing legions of the dead, but despite their best efforts the wall was being overrun. Next to fall would be the city, and then shortly thereafter, the entire Seventh World.

Fully aware of their impending doom, the surviving leaders of the Seventh World had gathered in the Northern Tower of Lock Core. They all knew the end was near, but they had to determine how near, and if possible, figure out a way to postpone it. They already sounded the Death Bell for a full seven tolls, thus signifying to the entire city that Lock Core was lost. To stay was to die. Anyone who wished to survive the day was to immediately leave the city. The rest were knowingly giving their lives to buy the rest of the world time to flee. They hoped that by combining their knowledge and skills, they could establish a new perimeter before the Dark Army tore through the entire city of Lock Core.

It all came down to Dertois’ final command … They knew the man had no grand scheme to drive the Dark Army into the Rift. The best they could achieve was to see a glimmer of hope in the face of their Keeper.

So far they had seen none.

As they waited, water trickled through the ceiling of rotten wood, the droplets occasionally falling on the gathering of defenders.

Including Dertois, there were seven of them — every one of which had more than proven themselves in the last three days. Their deeds had been beyond heroic, more akin to miracles. They were all powerful in their own right, but when those powers combined, they had made certain the Dark Army suffered dearly to take their wall.

The largest member of the group was the mighty Boulder Dwarf, Drau’d, eldest son of Brodin. Brown tufts of hair covered his legs, arms and chest; as thick as that found on a human head. With every breath, his gaping nostrils seemed to drain the chamber of air. Drau’d was twice Nicola’s height, and as wide as she was tall. To reach the sentry chamber, he virtually crammed himself up the rusty iron stairway. During his climb, Nicola was certain the ancient structure would collapse. Thankfully, the stairway flexed and bent, but it held – she just hoped the structure had enough integrity to safely deliver him back down. Nicola would be certain to keep her mage-fire ready during his descent, just in case the Boulder Dwarf started crashing down the seven flights of iron stairs. Considering what Drau’d had been through in the last three days, it would be a travesty for him to suddenly die a senseless death – not to mention a significant loss to the overall strength of their army. Drau’d was an extremely valuable warrior, and an essential element in the defense of the Red Wall. In fact, every Boulder Dwarf was a priceless soldier in the Triad’s army. The powerful giants left countless Plague infected beings to rot along the wall. Just earlier that day, with only a small force of two hundred, they had fought through miles of infested rampart in order to reinforce the Northern Garrison before it was overrun. In their charge, they lost a dozen of their kind, yet obliterated thousands of the undead.

Their bravery bought the city time, but they couldn’t take all the credit for that small victory. The garrison had many staunch defenders who managed to stave off their defeat with one brilliant maneuver after another. One man in particular, a rich merchant-trader of some renown, was mainly responsible for rallying the garrison. Because of him, the wall was held far longer than should have been possible, allowing the thunderous charge of the Boulder Dwarves to reach them.

And, of course, the garrison had Solo Ki and his army of elves. The immortals. Each a legendary warrior even long before the coming of the Plague. The quick, highly-skilled elves proved an equal match to the greatest horrors spawned by the Rift. They were faster and far more experienced than the common soldier, but their greatest strength was their immunity. Whereas other fallen soldiers arose to fight alongside the Dark Army, the elves could not be enslaved by the Plague.

But they could be killed.

Sadly, even many of these great immortal warriors fell to the forces of the Plague.

Nicola stood next to their leader, Solo Ki, perhaps the most ancient elf of all. He loomed over her, a thin, skeletal figure with a dirty cape draped over his shoulders. His hood was up. Beneath it she saw a face of sunken shadows, and a pair of bright, glowing eyes of grey and white.

Nicola knew little of him, other than the many legends that surrounded the man. But they were only legends, myths to be more accurate. In actuality, the truth of his past was somewhat of a mystery. With his head of grey hair, and pale, worn features, he was certainly a relic of an age long past – possibly a time prior to even the great Exodus. But strangely, his name was absent from the historical records of that time. The first mention of ‘Solo Ki’ appeared at the beginning of the second era, coinciding with the end of the Gatekeepers, and the death of the High Mage Andrillin.

No matter his true origins, Nicola was certain of one thing, there was pain in his cold, dead eyes. Far more pain than even this world could possibly offer.

Solo Ki was a mystery, and a living legend. Having witnessed his abilities first-hand, there was no doubt in Nicola’s mind that he fully lived up to his reputation. In the thick of battle Nicola had seen his power and his prowess. She watched as his twisted staff of black wood sucked the very life from his enemies. The Graelic, the legendary staff of Adros.

The one weapon the Plague feared. When wielded in the hands of Solo Ki, the wisest members of the Plague fled … the rest met their permanent end.

But even so, as powerful as Drau’d and Solo Ki were, there was another among them who had proven himself to be far more powerful than Nicola had ever thought possible.

LeCynic.

His name alone filled her with venom.

And the things she had seen him do with the Oneness … simply shouldn’t be possible.

LeCynic was advisor to the Keeper. But he was more than that – much more. Nicola was fairly certain LeCynic was a god.

If he wasn’t such an arrogant bastard, she would have given him a shred of respect. But he showed respect to no others, not even his Keeper.

Even now, on the verge of defeat, LeCynic calmly leaned against the chamber wall; his arms crossed, a smirk on his face. Remarkably, his robe was still sparkling white, while the clothing of all the others was filthy and worn. His tan features glowed and his dark brown hair danced in the wind. All in all, the young man appeared to have come straight from a refreshing trip to the bathing chambers and not a bloody and hopeless battle.

A stark contrast to LeCynic, and by far the bloodiest and most battered among them was Ebboron, Lord of the Rock Dwarves; his beard yet dripping with the blood of his enemies. Ebboron wore a breastplate of the precious dwarven ore known as ‘blue-steel’. But now the typical bluish tinge to the metal was hidden under a crust of dried up black blood. Even the mountain insignia and runes blazoned on his chest were indistinguishable, marred by deep gashes and heavily dented. What the Rock Dwarves lacked in size, they made up for in ferocity. They showed no fear in the face of the Dark Army, but charged headlong into the fray, their hammers and axes inflicting a deadly toll.

The last member of their council was also the newest; Hitt’rille, the recently elevated Lady Protector and commander of Lock Core’s northern garrison. Being the lone survivor of her squadron, she justly earned her title. Perhaps not as skilled a fighter as the elven warriors, she was a clever young woman who was also blessed by the gods with a great deal of luck. Just a week ago, Hitt’rille had been utterly untried in war – hadn’t they all? But she had proven herself to be a quickthinking commander after the passing of her superior, the venerable (and extremely vulgar) Bortimere.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was the leader of their world, Dertois.

Of those she considered companions, his name was not only at the top of the list; it stood alone on a blank sheet of parchment. In this world, Dertois was her one true friend … and yet, Nicola had always longed for more – more than she could ever dare to ask of him. Many times she was on the verge of revealing her true feelings, yet faltered, for Nicola knew Dertois well. She knew where his heart of hearts truly lay.

Traditionally, the role of Keeper was reserved for the one most blessed of the Oneness. Dertois, however, was raised to Keeper because of his wisdom. His greatest strength – and the trait she most admired – was his ability to keep his emotions in check, and base his decisions on his intellect. Some found him to be cold and calculating man, but Nicola knew the truth of him; Dertois was a just ruler, one who set aside his own desires and held the needs of his followers to be greater than his own.

He loved every last citizen of Lock Core equally – Nicola included. Because of this, Nicola knew she would never hold a special place in his heart – just a place among all the others.

Over the years, she cherished that small piece of him that was her own, all the while suffering when that piece failed to grow.

But none of that mattered any more. Very soon, Dertois would sacrifice every last bit of himself in defense of his world.

This would be their end. The end of them all.

Slowly, Dertois turned, his brown hair draped just past his ears and was plastered to his face. Much like her own, his white robe was stained in the blood of both the living and the undead.

He stepped into the chamber, water pooling around his feet on the floor of red stones.

Dertois let his gaze wash over those gathered in the chamber.

“Amass our forces along the northern wall,” he said, his face filled with determination. “Reinforce it with our forces from the east and western fronts, leaving only a contingent army upon those walls. Should the undead attempt to overrun our

flanks, have our southern forces ready to rush to their aid.”

Nodding at his words, the Lady Protector Hitt’rille spun to relay the orders to her officers waiting in the room below. Draped over her shoulders was an olive green mantle which signified her rank. Having recently pulled it from the corpse of Bortimere, the garment appeared scarlet being saturated with the man’s blood. Hitt’rille quickly descended the ladder and could be heard by the rest of the Council barking orders to those below.

Dertois’ body faintly glowed while slivers of light began crawling from his flesh, like worms creeping from moistened earth.

He turned to Nicola, his voice harsh and unforgiving, “Gather all the mages, it is time we rejoin the battlefront.”

She found herself unable to return his gaze. Nicola lowered her sparkling blue eyes to the floor and she softly replied, “Aye, my lord.”

“Aaarrr … ” Drau’d wobbled forward, his voice shaking the room. “So that all may live!”

Her heart sank to see the battle lust filling the eyes of the normally gentle giant.

“Aye, so that all may live … ” Dertois replied, his fists transformed into balls of fire hanging at his sides. “… we shall fight, from this world to the next.”

Outside, the rain and the undead army continued to pound the wall of Lock Core.

Solo Ki approached Dertois and whispered into his ear.

Nicola drew closer to the pair, knowing they had a rich past together and eager to hear the exchange. But she failed to catch the elf’s words. As for Dertois’ reply … she would never know, for Dertois opened his mouth to respond, but his words were lost. The darkness came, and the sound of the earth

screaming tore his voice away …

… It began on the Northern Wall; a rapidly expanding globe of pure black. At first, the soldiers on the wall watched it arise in awe and confusion. Then it overcame them … it consumed them. They saw the bodies of their companions scatter in a blast of ash and then they tried to run. They failed. The globe expanded too quickly, catching many before they could even take a step. Others collapsed into the blackness along with the mighty Red Wall, which crumpled like a sandcastle caught in the waves of a high tide. Unable to escape as the wall disintegrated below their feet, the soldiers tried to scream … they failed in that as well — dying without a sound as they were swallowed by the darkness.

It also took the forces of the Plague; equally confused, and equally unable to avoid their destruction.

Their ‘immortality’ meant nothing to the dark power as they too were swept away in a tidal wave of black ash. Realizing their millennium of life was at stake, the throng of undead reversed direction and surged back to the pulsating Rift, trampling their own forces in their frenzy to escape. Meanwhile, unaware of the calamity, whatever godless leader dwelt on the other side of the Rift continued to order his forces into the Seventh World. The newcomers arrived into the Seventh World to find their allies stampeding in their direction, spurred on by the giant ball of death rising up behind them. The new arrivals collided with those seeking refuge in the Black Door. At the base of the Rift, the army of the Plague became a frantic mound of rotting flesh as they clawed and crawled over one another in their attempt to reach the Rift. They too failed … the darkness came and claimed them all.

Throughout the Northern Wall, nothing was spared. All that the darkness touched, it destroyed. But the surge of annihilation wasn’t done yet. The globe continued to expand, and was soon to devour the Northern Tower.

“It’s magnificent.”

Nicola was so fascinated and horrified by sight she didn’t realize LeCynic had joined them – and he was smiling! The army of the Triad was being destroyed and he was smiling.

“Get back!” Dertois commanded. His body tensed, his shield flared then swelled to encompass the entire gathering.

Nicola obeyed, and sent her power out as well, her own blue flames merging with Dertois’ and strengthening his shield. LeCynic however, continued out onto the balcony, not a lick of energy anywhere near his body.

‘Get back, you fool.’

She tried to call out to him telepathically, knowing her words would be lost in the chaos, but like the arrogant fool he was, he ignored her. The darkness washed over them and LeCynic vanished from her sight.

It slammed against their shields, driving Nicola to her knees. Her shield compressed, barely large enough to keep the darkness from touching her flesh. She felt the Singularity drain from her body as if siphoned by the dark power. In front of her eyes, her barrier of flames flickered and wavered. In the initial contact alone, her shield thinned to a hair’s breadth. And still the darkness came, a tempest of death broiling around them. At her side, Dertois fared little better. He was on his feet, but gritting his teeth as he struggled to maintain his own thin barrier. Wisps of darkness leeched through, singeing his face.

Solo Ki stood beside them, raising his staff against the onslaught. For a brief time, the power of the Graelic held, absorbing the oncoming darkness. But as it did so, the blood red tip ignited in flames of black. Solo Ki’s skeletal hands blackened as well, burning as he struggled to maintain his grip. He fought to remain standing, but was unable to bear the pain. He too dropped to his knees, his legendary staff, the Graelic slipped from his charred hands, fully engulfed in black flames. Whatever aid the staff was providing was no more, and

Nicola felt the loss keenly.

So too did Dertois. Whatever power he had, he devoted to strengthening the shield at his back. To save his companions he let the darkness in … he let it take him. His shield evaporated. His flesh blistered and peeled.

‘I won’t let you die!’

His eyes melted from his head.

Somehow, Nicola found the strength to stand, and placed herself between Dertois and the darkness. Achieving heights of power she never dreamt of before, she raised a hand covered in blue flames and thrust it out against the oncoming wave of destruction.

For a brief second her power held, her love was safe … she felt pure annihilation at the tips of her fingers and she actually held it back. But the moment was brief, and the darkness was never-ending. The flames on her hand sputtered and then vanished. Her hand vanished as well; scattering into countless particles of dust. There was no pain, only shock as the rest of her arm vanish before her eyes.

As the darkness crept onward, melting her face like wax, she turned to Dertois. Through her one remaining eye she saw him collapse. Screaming, she fell to him, draping her body over his as the dark power swept over them. Nicola continued to scream, and she burned …

She was certain it was the end … after what seemed like an eternity of suffering she begged for it to come; an end to all her earthly pain … to die alongside the man she loved.

The end came. But the pain remained, unlike the thousands swept away in the darkness, Nicola was denied peace. She lived. So burnt and disfigured she appeared unhuman, she yet lived.

An eerie silence covered the land — a shield of crackling azure flames cover her and Dertois.

Her vision was filled with tears, her body filled with pain. Every breath was like inhaling fire as she struggled to suck in air through the drooping flap of skin that was her face.

The darkness was nowhere to be found, only its aftermath remained – a gaping black pit where a great red wall once stood.

The roof of the Northern Tower was gone, fully exposing the survivors to the down-pouring rain. Every drop that fell upon her was like a knife piercing her flesh. She screamed anew, louder than ever before.

The clouds parted. The rain became a drizzle. A dome of twinkling stars filled the heavens.

A giant, calloused hand wrapped around Dertois’ body, lifting him up and away from Nicola. Feebly, she sought to cling to him with her remaining hand. But she was no match for the power of the giant, and Dertois easily slipped from her grip. “My Lady, please. It’s over now,” a gruff voice called out to her, then a similar hand took her body with more care and tenderness than she would have ever thought possible.

… It’s over.

Then she saw Him, hovering in a shell of blue flames where the balcony used to be. His sparkling white robe was singed, his flesh was blistered — though healing by the moment. Otherwise he was unharmed … and the bastard was smiling. LeCynic was looking at the epicenter of the blast and he was smiling.

As weak and battered as she was, she would have arose and blasted him from the sky – but then she realized … LeCynic

saved her life. He just saved them all …

She had gone beyond the limits of her power and failed. Meanwhile, LeCynic stood against the darkness and he survived.

One final thought filled her mind as the pain washed her consciousness away; to survive such utter destruction, LeCynic must truly be a god …

… or the devil himself.


Chapter One: Alana

 


‘How do you know, Anon? To save them? What makes

one … what makes us worthy?’

‘Many are there who are Blood-Born. As much as we wish it were so, we cannot save them all. To do so would refute our purpose. Such power can be both wonderful and horrific. It all depends on who wields it. The Plague is nothing more than a product of the latter. Indeed, you are truly blessed, Alana. You are wonderful. Not only limitless in your ability with the Oneness, but with your capacity for love as well. Have no fear, when someone is worth saving, you will know.’

–The Age of Death, Edroth

Fear.

The High Court of Edroth was ripe with it. No matter how hard they tried to hide it, Alana sensed it in all those who were present. The Blood-Guard, Edroth’s elite soldiers, hid their fear behind glowing ‘halo’ shields, their shard-guns loaded with silver rounds. Her elder brother, the young Prince Gedron, covered his fear in the blue flames of Dreamfire, more than Alana had ever seen him hold before. So much of it that the very fabric of reality was beginning to tear around him; the stone splintering below his feet, the walls cracking when he drew near. Gedron and the Blood-Guard were the HighCourt’s last line of defense, and though they all faced the chamber door with determination in their eyes, Alana saw the fear in their hearts, and the knowledge in their minds of the impending doom that was sure to come.

In some, the fear was physically apparent – – her younger sister’s thin fingers trembled in her hand, her mother’s grip – almost painful, as she pulled Alana to her breast. For them, it was pointless to hide it. There was nothing left to them but love. Her mother was Bloodless – had never set eyes on the Dreamfire. Unfortunately, Alana’s sister Ezule inherited their mother’s deficiency, and no matter how hard Alana sought to draw the Dreamfire from her blood, it remained dormant. For them, the fight was all but over. Her mother knew the moment would soon come when, helpless, she would watch her children die. Ezule, too young to comprehend death, knew little more than tales of the Rift. Her young mind was coming to grips with the fact that her every fear was soon to be confirmed and confronted.

Alana felt it, the fear. Their deaths. She knew their end was at hand. Like most things associated with the Dreamfire she didn’t need to understand it or have it confirmed, she knew it just was.

“Father will stop them. He had but a hundred men when he took the Gallow’s Fort, only ten of which were Dreamers. With all of Edroth aligned at his side, even the Dark Horde with fall,” Gedron declared with all the confidence of a king – which he was soon to be, no matter how short-lived his reign.

He truly seemed certain of his own declaration, which made Alana wonder. Could he not see? Was he so focused on holding every last drop of Dreamfire that his mind was closed to the truth? Or had Alana not seen the truth of him until now, that she had greater power though she was but half his age?

She continued to study those in the room, while in her mind the battle unfolded …

Only a quarter-day into the battle and the army was routed, her father, the King, lay dying. Mortally wounded, dead hands fell upon him, enslaving him to the Dark Cause. For the first

time in her life, she couldn’t sense her father …

“Alana,” her mother cried. “Wake up. Please Gods, wake up, child.”

She found herself on the floor, blood pouring from her nose.

Her mother’s silver hair tickled her face as she bent over her.

“I’m so sorry, Mother.”

“What is it, child? What happened?” It was time.

“They’ve taken him … Father is gone. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save him, and I fear I can’t save you either, Mother. Or Ezule. Gedron … “

She wished death was his only fate.

Her mother’s wide Edrothian eyes were filled with tears and understanding. No matter her lineage, her mother was still a goddess in Alana’s mind — Intelligent and wise beyond any Seer or Dreamer. Alana’s Father may have imparted her with the Dreamfire, but surely her mother had enhanced it. Her mother always had her own innate understanding of things, an almost prescience. With the Dreamfire alongside that gift, Alana truly could see the shape of things, as they were, as they are, and as they shall be. A Oneness. A singularity of things separate space and time.

She sat up, hugged her mother for what she knew would be the last time. And Ezule … She held her even tighter, so fragile and small. So real in her arms, yet moments away from so horrible a fate. She saw it as truth, as unquestionable as her own existence. Could she alter their future? Did she dare try?

Perhaps that’s what it would take? Her life for theirs. What if she didn’t survive this day? Could such a sacrifice make the difference, alter her dream?

The chamber door was blown asunder. Silver shards, and Dreamfire flew towards it. She covered herself in Dreamfire — more than even her brother held – and turned to face the Dark Horde, not sure if she could change her fate, but determined to die trying.

The Blood Guard was left in bloody pieces. Gedron screamed in rage and pain as his veins blackened. Alana, her power spent, crawled to the crumpled forms of her mother and sister. Dark shadows reared up around her, cutting her off from her family. She knew not their words but sensed their emotions; fear, excitement, admiration. She had truly done her best to change the dream, but it came true all the same. She yet lived only to be converted, no matter how hard she fought and with such reckless abandon for her own life, they had let her live.

This was where her dream ended.

A hand, more shadow than flesh drew near her, pausing just inches from her opaque skin.

‘Not her.’

The room filled with light, pure and white.

The hand withdrew. The beings didn’t leave, but formed a tight circle around her instead.

‘She has been chosen.’

Between her captures’ legs she saw the speaker approach. A being of pure energy. Faceless, lacking any features to speak of. His body an average size humanoid shape, likewise unremarkable other than the white glow surrounding it.

More words came from her captors, guttural cries of rage. One dared to act upon his anger, and dove for the glowing being. Without any apparent effort, a hand of white energy found the attacker’s neck. The creature’s body began to crumble, its stony, alabaster flesh flaking into dust. It fell to the floor, headless. Seeing its demise, the other Dark Ones parted for the being, no longer regarding him with anger but with an understanding that bordered on reverence. They emanated awe. In their alien tongue one word was repeated among them – Anon.

Exhausted physically and mentally, Alana slumped to the floor, unable to comprehend her sudden rescue, and by so powerful of a being.

“It’s time to go, Alana.”

She looked up … found an altogether different being standing above her. He looked harmless, could not possibly be the god she just saw. Even with the Dreamfire filling her vision she could still not see past his illusion. He was short, and nearing his twilight years. The only hair that grew from his head sprouted from the sides, leaving the top of his head a sweat-slicked dome which reflected any light that fell upon it. The man seemed physically fit, yet a rotund potbelly protruded from his waist, clearly visible even through the thick folds of his green cape.

Who are you?

A pair of wide brown eyes looked down on her, full of sadness yet somehow hope as well. His lips were thin, like scars, and parted to speak.

“I am Anon. I am your Savior.”

–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Shattered Rock, Post Exodus 586–

The man’s flesh became waves of black flame.

Alana took it in. All of it. Enough of the dark power to tear this world apart. Her own flesh was nothing but tatters, pealing from her bones every time she took on one of the black threads. Her feet stood in a constantly growing pool of her own blood.

I will not fail.

In that moment of pain and horror she somehow knew she had been meant for this. Her failures, her imprisonment, it had all led her to this. To save this one world — to save the life of her love and the children she swore to protect — she had to take this darkness. Anon had known. Of that she was certain.

“Nathalia!” He screamed, naked and glaring at her with pure hate — pouring every last drop of pain and darkness in his soul into Alana.

There was too much of it. He was tearing her apart now. Her flesh no longer held meaning. Her mind was his to devour, and he did so, lustfully. The man screamed in pure rage – Alana in pain. One moment there was nothing left, the being known as Alana had all but ceased to exist, and then …

She fell to the blackened earth, her long fingers sinking into the blood drenched soil. The darkness was gone. She was whole once more. Of the pain, only a memory remained.

“You’re just like her,” the man said, his naked form drawing nearer — his own pain transparent in his voice. “Pouring all your hope into them. Even if you could save them what would it matter? I’ve seen it, felt it, let it into my soul. In the end there is nothing.”

He knelt down next to her, even rested his hand on her head of silvery white hair.

“Give it up. If you find him he’ll tell you the same, your Adros. Your love, he knows … ”

She never let him finish. Such power! It had to be contained.

Whatever energy she had left went into forming a cocoon around the man’s naked body. She covered him in enough layers of power to contain a dying star.

“You know nothing of my love,” she said, slow to rise and not daring to connect with his mind. “You have no right to even speak his name.”

Somewhere on this world her lover yet lived. She no longer had the power to sense Adros, but knew in her heart he remained, as did his pain. Could she go to him? Did she dare risk releasing this human for the sake of her love? Whoever he was, he was altogether worse than the Plague. Immortality. Life. Such things meant nothing to this man. He was nihilism incarnate. Surely a child of the Void itself. If he remained, he would end it all.

They shimmered, appearing in a haze at the circular stairway to this world’s Rift.

They weren’t alone.

Shock began to spread on the faces of the defenders arrayed around the Rift; giants, armed soldiers, and robed wizards. A female mage with a half melted face turned her one good eye towards Alana’s captive. The blue eye sparkled with sudden recognition. Through the slit in her face where her mouth should have been came the words; “Stop them!”

With a little effort, Alana silenced the woman and had her bound. The other mages summoned their fires but she stopped them with a thought. Only one had the strength to actually resist her, and could very well have bested her in her weakened state, but she sensed his lack of training and took his mind, left him numb to the world for enough time to reach the Door.

She faced the soldiers — steel turned to fire and dropped from their hands.

Lastly the giants. Though strong, they were slow. She enhanced her speed then maneuvered through. Foolishly she paused as one’s weapon caught her eye; a hammer glowing blue with the light of a star. But before the giant could bring the weapon to bear, she had traversed the stairs, her prisoner in tow.

The Rift hovered before her … an oval tempest of shadows.

She sent her power in. Lacking the strength for a deep trip she found something close — a dead planet which she hoped was abandoned.

Before the defenders could reassemble at her back, Alana and the Destroyer were swallowed by the Black Door.

“What in the Dead was that?” Drau’d thundered over the stunned defenders.

“A God,” the young mage Harple replied, rubbing his head. For the first time since Drau’d had known the man he was smiling. “Very impressive. I’ve so much to learn.”

Rian and his “Warkids” had regrouped, their weapons no longer blazing to the touch. Rian looked sullen and humiliated as he massaged the blisters on his hands, his otherwise unbelievable training and skill seemingly worthless at the moment.

“Don’t worry, Rian,” Drau’d said, trying to sooth the boy’s inadequacies, and his own. “We stood no chance against such a foe.”

“Do you know who that was?”

Drau’d turned to the speaker; Nicola’s scarred face twisted in anger.

“I’ve never seen, nor heard of such a being before, HighMage.”

“The man!” she hissed. “Don’t you realize what happened here?”

Still recovering from the strange battle, they all stared at her dumbly.

“She took him, the Destroyer. Our one true weapon against the Plague has been stolen from us.”

Even after she spoke, it still took a moment for the words to sink in. Blisters and humility were forgotten as Rian sent his men into formation.

Less precise and efficient, Drau’d took command of the rest of the soldiers. Raising Hell’s Bane in one meaty hand, he pointed it to the Rift.

“Everyone!” he thundered. “Guard that Gate.”

She was weak, insubstantial. He was there with her, unchained.

He seemed unconcerned with her corporeal state or his lack of bonds, but stood staring at the world’s sun — a hazy blue ball rapidly descending to the horizon.

She brought him here to die. Was disappointed that it hadn’t been immediately. A haze of acid filled the air, giving the world a greenish tinge.

He spoke to the endless red desert before him.

“I control it now, Red Mage. For what that’s worth.”

He lowered his head to the sand. The blue sun sank quickly, abandoning them to darkness.

“I know I killed her. There were so many that I killed.” She focused her thoughts, gave them form.

‘Your love and your world had already been claimed by the

Dead Gods. There was no saving them.’

He laughed, shattering the stillness of the night. “Don’t I know it.”

What do you know?

“I know about you, Alana — everything. You and the legendary, Solo Ki. Or should I say the even more legendary, Adros? Humph … It figures. I can see how he survived the

Rift. Honestly, I don’t even think I could kill that guy.” He turned to face her.

“So Alana, Is that why you left him, your Elf Prince? Had he too been claimed by these damned Dead Gods?” She found her real voice, a sweet airy tune.

“He left me.”

“But he yet lived,” the man countered.

“He lived only for hate. He required vengeance more than love. I was certain his path would lead to his death, for that is the only way such hate can be satisfied. To fight for vengeance and hate is not our way … so I was taught.”

“And the one who taught you, this Anon. I would very much like to me him someday. I’ve a feeling he’s the only one in the damned universe who can make sense of it all.”

How could Anon have been so wrong? How could I have been so wrong?

“And what about you, Alana? What do you require? Other than my death?”

There was a long period of silence, not because she didn’t have an answer, but because she wasn’t sure if she cared to share it with him. The man was dangerous beyond belief, against her will he had plunged the depths of her soul – something the Elders considered forbidden, akin to rape. Oddly, Alana felt unmolested by the intrusion. She was intrigued that something within her reminded him of his love. And it had to count for something that all of her secrets had been revealed and he had let her live. She knew nothing of the man other than his devastating power, but after he had seen her soul, was there really any point in hiding from him? Was it even possible?

“Adros did not fail, I did,” Alana said, drifting closer to the man. “I thought him dead, so I welcomed the punishment of the Elders. My banishment almost seemed a kindness considering what I had done. All I want is to go back. Back to him. Perhaps somehow I can make things right. I failed him once

before, but I will not do so again.”

The Destroyer seemed to be searching for something in the darkening desert.

“Then go! If you have a chance to make things right then take it. If anyone can give him a reason to live it’s you. Me, I never took that chance. I wasted mine trying to avoid the inevitable. Instead of pushing her away I should have held her close. If she was destined to die, at least she could have gone in my arms.”

She felt the darkness building in the man. Though she

feared incited him, she had to know …

“What will you do now?”

Alana, dreaded his answer. If he too chose to return, she would be forced to try and stop him. At her greatest, she was no match for the man. To face him now would be her death.

“Don’t worry, Alana. The Seventh World is the last place I want to be. There’s only one reason for my existence. I can’t deny that any longer. It’s time I play my part. It’s time for these Dead Gods to meet the Destroyer.”

It was growing again. The darkness seeped into the ground at his feet.

“Go, Alana. And when you find Adros tell him I’m sorry. I too failed him. After what he’s been through … killing him would have been a favor. What I did to Nathalia, his child, I can never make right.”

She wasn’t sure if she had recovered enough from her last trip, but when the ground began to disintegrate below her feet, she knew she had to go. She turned to the Rift and gave everything she had for a journey back to the Seventh World.

His hood was up, his face hidden in the brown folds. He sat at the base of the Rift with his legs and hands crossed. Nearby, Rian and Drau’d were engrossed in a discussion over defense tactics for the coming battle. Rian was incredibly young, yet showed remarkable aptitude for battle, both mentally and physically. He was a born leader. Not only would his Warkids gladly lay down their lives for him, but every soldier in Lock Core admired the young man and took his orders without question. Drau’d was a genius builder, his talents easily adapting to defensive construction of the battlefield. He had already regrouped the remaining construction crews to focus on building a series of barricades around the Rift. The massive stones that were to rebuild the gap in Lock Core’s northern wall were being positioned around the Rift instead. As for the hole in the wall, it was to remain open, for they meant to take the battle to the base of the Rift; engaging the enemy with a series of strategic withdrawals. The gap in the wall would be the only way to escape when the battle turned, and it would also be incorporated into their strategy – they meant to funnel the enemy to that point, and once there, they would hold the gap for as long as possible. After that … the battlefield would become the city of Lock Core; street by street, block by block, they would battle the dead until the last living souls were driven to the Outlands.

Unlike his companions, Harple had no mind for battle tactics, his talents lay elsewhere. He was certain that together, Drau’d and Rian would establish the best possible defense, considering their many limitations at the moment. Still though, Harple couldn’t help but wonder if anything could stop the Plague, other than the Destroyer. That’s where Harple decided to focus his thoughts, on the Destroyer and his strange abductor.

The goddess was remarkable; not only her power, but her physique as well. Her body was so thin and elongated, almost as if it was stretched. Yet she possessed an alien beauty; her features smooth and delicate lines, her movements graceful and fluid. And her hair; as shimmering and silver as any inlaid blade.

And how could one not admire her power? How easily she had disarmed them all! If such godlike beings couldn’t stop the Plague, then what chance did they really have?

The encounter proved to Harple that he had so much to learn. Luckily, he was a quick student. He believed he had already found a solution to her mind paralysis attack, and that he could not only counter it, but reproduce the attack as well. But what else didn’t he know? He had been at the High Tower for only a brief period, having been quickly relocated by Nicola herself before Lord LeCynic even knew he existed. But who in the Seventh could teach him? Even Nicola was now beneath him — though he took no pride in that fact. Perhaps only the Keeper was his superior, but from what he heard, the only lessons that man had to offer were in suffering and death, considering he even yet lived.

What he needed was her, the pale Goddess who was able to overcome the Destroyer and every last defender of the Rift with ease. If he found her, then he would find the Destroyer as well. He was determined to find them in the Rift – go in after them if he must.

Thin blue filaments drifted from his body. He sent his Oneness into the Rift, and it was immediately swallowed by the dark abyss. His power went outward, searching in all possible directions.

He didn’t know if what he attempted was even possible – but it was definitely forbidden. Should anyone sense his trace, he would likely be imprisoned if not sentenced to death, but he doubted anyone present could sense such fine threads – so many, yet so thin they were almost invisible to even him. His tendrils plunged to the depths of the abyss, brushing against such evil beings the mere hint of their existence made him tremble. Wisely, he maintained his distance from such horrors, lest they follow the pathways of Singularity back to him.

He continued on, moving deeper into oblivion.

Time seemed to have no meaning in the Rift; it could have been hours, possibly even days. He felt lost. He worried that perhaps he’d gone too far, stretched his will to thin, and that his soul would be scattered, forever drifting through the Void.

But finally he found her. At first he doubted it himself; she was so weak her presence was practically non-existent. Oddly, the powerful goddess seemed trapped, drifting between worlds and unable to crossover on her own.

That he even found her was a miracle. Had he not practically stumbled into her, he would surely have wandered right past her. He didn’t even waste time pondering the odds of his chance encounter — most likely the numbers would be inconceivable anyway.

He thanked the gods instead, then immediately moved to save her.

He gathered his power, focusing it on her. Every blue thread darted in her direction. Harple took her. The thin filaments latched onto her presence and pulled, dragging her back into the Seventh World.

It took a moment for his senses to return, and when they did, he found the woman unconscious and stretched across his lap. The goddess, once so powerful, was now so helpless and frail

— her opaque skin seemingly fragile as an egg shell.

“What have you done?”

Harple recognized the voice, and in dread looked up. The High-Mage Nicola was glaring down at him with her single blue eye. All around him, the rest of the defenders had stopped what they were doing to gaze at him and the goddess in awe.

There was little he could say to defend himself. What was done was done. Harple knew what he did was necessary. He didn’t imagine he would have succeeded, but he knew he had to try. If he was to be imprisoned, it was worth it … the goddess was worth it.

“I did what I had to, High-Mage Nicola. You know we can’t win this battle alone. We need help. We need the goddess.”

He expected Nicola the lash out at him, but instead she merely nodded her scarred head.

“Then I hold you responsible for her; see to it that she causes no further harm.”

“Yes, High-Mage. It will be so.”

Weakened as she was, imprisoning her was simple. As for her telepathic attacks, this time, Harple would be paralyzing her mind.

Alana awoke. She immediately thought to summon her halo, but found the Oneness beyond her grasp. Likewise, even her body – though it was flesh once more – refused to move. She was trapped. Her mind was held by another, someone very powerful — possibly even an Elder God. Only her eyes could move, and in the chamber’s dim light she took in her surroundings; what was obviously a prison. There were four walls of red stone, so close together she had just enough room for her body to lay flat on a bed of straw. The only exit was a single steel door speckled with silver spikes. Four circular holes in the wall opposite the door were the only source of light, and at the moment, they provided but a glow; enough light to determine shapes, but little more. Even so, she was thankful for the light she had. Given her current lack of power, had it been night, she imagined she would be blind to her surroundings.

Quickly, she assessed the situation. The last thing she remembered was the man, and fleeing from his incredible power. She had entered the Rift, but couldn’t remember leaving it. Apparently someone had found, and captured her while she drifted helplessly in the Abyss. Alana had made plenty of enemies during her exile in the Dead Worlds; Dead Gods, Chosen, and even Elders were among them. If she had been too weak to escape the Rift, any one of them could have taken her.

Prisons came in many forms, and Alana had been in more than a few. Thus far, she had escaped them all. She planned on being long gone from this one before her captors ever made their intentions known.

She investigated the bond within her mind. At first glance, body and mind seemed completely severed. The Oneness was gone altogether, like it had never been a part of her. The one who crafted the bond was powerful indeed. Even with her power at its fullest, it would be impossible to break. But whoever held her bound, was also poorly trained, or simply not thorough. Cracks remained. Invisible to most, but Alana’s skill and training went beyond that of even the Elder Gods. Unbeknownst to them, her banishment had made her stronger than they could ever be. All those years in the Dead Worlds, she had been honing her skills – a blade being sharpened to a razors edge. Now, for Alana, even the invisible was plain to see.

She followed the cracks to her captor and found him. His presence was strong, incredibly so. He must be nearby. She felt that if she could move her arm, she would be able to reach out and touch him. She reasoned he most likely stood guard on the other side of the silver spiked door. If she did manage to escape his hold on her mind, she would have to move quickly if she hoped to disable him as well.

Alana continued to probe her mental bonds; all the while widening the cracks. Slowly, movement returned, her body was her own once more. Slower still, came the Oneness. She held little more than a thread, but that thread was enough to turn the cracks into a crevice. All at once her power returned, and with it awareness.

She understood her situation, and had no intention of leaving her prison – not that she could. The power outside that door suddenly grew tenfold. She knew who it was, and why she was able to escape her bond. The one who made it was indeed poorly trained, for he was just a child. But still, he was a god.

And now he was not alone.

Bless the Maker, Alana was exactly where she wanted to be.

She let her halo fall, and calmly sat on the straw mat, waiting. As she expected, she did not have to wait long for her captors to make their introduction.

With a wisp of the Oneness, the door was unlocked. A single, shimmering blue eye peeked in, then, reluctantly, a white robed figure came into the room. The figure pulled back its hood to reveal a half-melted face — more scars than skin. Her lips were bone.

The face was very unique, Alana had seen it once before, at the Rift of the so-called Seventh World. The woman had recognized the man who so nearly destroyed Alana (and this world) with his dark power. The woman had tried to stop Alana from taking him, and had failed.

Alana knew this woman – not personally – but she knew her type. She had met such women before, had probably become one herself — women hardened by war. For them, love was a fleeting dream, long since lost. The Plague had taken from them what was most dear, leaving them with but one thing – vengeance. Some would say they were cold, heartless women who could never be loved. But Alana knew the truth – these women knew love more keenly than any. And they would live the rest of their days devoted to avenging it.

The Elder, Don’Cora came to mind, though it had been ages since Alana had seen that woman. For the first time in a long, long while, Alana wondered what had become of her. Since her banishment, Alana’s only contact with the Elders had been through Anon, and even he had said little. He mostly smiled at her, as proud as ever, as though her failure had never occurred. Beaming with confidence, he simply gave her a new mission, one which he claimed she would not fail. She was to journey to this Seventh World, to save as many Chosen as she could. She had learned the Elders had invested heavily in this land, filling it with a vast amount of their progeny. Her success seemed of the utmost importance. But considering her one and only mission had been a disaster in the eyes of the Elders, she couldn’t help but wonder why she had been chosen as this world’s Savior. She would forever trust Anon, and would accept the mission on that alone. But what was he keeping from her? Why had the Elders birthed such an unprecedented amount of Chosen in this land? Whatever the answers, she knew it was more than a coincidence that her lost love,

Prince Adros, also dwelt in this world.

She studied the shrewd one-eyed woman before her — perhaps she could start her inquiries with her.

“Are you a God?” the scarred woman said, jump-starting the conversation before Alana had a chance.

“There are no gods,” Alana flatly replied. “Only mortals, same as you.”

That gave the woman pause. She was forced to rethink her line of questioning, unsure of how to continue.

It was time for Alana to take control of the conversation.

“I am Alana, heiress to the former royal house of the planet Edroth,” Alana said, tired of secrets and wasting time. “My planet is long since dead. Of my people, only I remain. I owe my life to those who would call themselves gods. Before my world was taken, one of them came and took me away. Now I

do the same. We are the Saviors of the Living Worlds.”

The speech left a bitter taste on her tongue, knowing the truth was that thus far, she had saved none.

“Saviors? Is that what you call yourselves? It seems such an ill-fitting title considering what you have done. And so, now we know why you’ve come. When the Plague arrives you take them. You take our greatest warriors from us, while the rest become food for the Plague. Like you did with him? Our true savior.”

True savior? That man was death incarnate. Even the Elder Gods would not dare to make one such as him.

“I did not come here for him. Whatever that man is, he is certainly no savior. I took him to save this world. Had I not, you would all be already dead. It was but a coincidence I encountered him when I did.”

Was it a coincidence, Anon?

“The Dark Army will come to this world. I have been commanded to save those I deem worthy, but for the rest there can be only death,” Alana continued. Never before had a Savior so bluntly laid out their mission to a non-Chosen, but as Alana had proven during her last mission; she was not an ordinary Savior.

“Then why bother saving us at all? Why not let the Destroyer have his way with us and be done with it?”

“Because … ”

I will not fail again.

“I have come to save the Children and I mean to do so, no matter what,” Alana replied, matching the woman’s one-eyed stare, unflinching.

“And to save them you must take them? Have you ever con-

sidered that the best way to save them is to stay? To fight?” Yes, but that was ages ago … another life.

“When the Dark Army comes, it will take everything from this world. It cannot be defeated. A lesson I once learned the hard way,” Alana replied.

“I do not doubt your power or experience, but I fear you are wrong on two counts, goddess. The Plague has been here once before, and it was defeated — by one man.” Alana was stunned — speechless.

Impossible …

“But unfortunately, you’ve taken him from this world.”

She couldn’t deny the possibility – the man’s power had been unlike anything she had ever seen – but could it possibly be true? Her attempt to match the white-robed woman’s stern demeanor was shattered; the image of this Destroyer unleashing his power against the Plague brought a smile to her face. But when the woman continued, it quickly faded.

“With him gone, the Plague once more seeks to enter our world. So far it merely ‘investigates’ our defenses. Even without the Destroyer, the Seventh World will prove a mighty foe. But eventually … You are correct about one thing, Alana. The Plague will kill us all. Even though we have many brave and powerful warriors yet in our world, we are all fully aware that it is only a matter of time before we are overrun. I have seen many of these children of which you speak. What they can achieve with the Oneness is beyond anything I believed possible. With them at our side, the Plague will pay dearly for victory. But who am I to keep them here to die? If truly you can save them, then by all means please take them from this world.”

Alana wasn’t surprised that the woman had decided to show a hint of her sensitive side, after all, she knew her type well – ulterior motives were part of her nature.

“But consider this, Goddess. Because of you, we are vulnerable to the Plague. You may have saved us from the Destroyer, but in doing so you have certainly sentenced us to death. Also, need I remind you that you were lost in the Rift – a concept that causes me to tremble. Your mission would have ended in

the Abyss if it had not been for our aid.”

Alana found both were good arguments. But there was another reason to stay, an even better one – and every moment, the Elf Prince drew nearer.

“I will stay for a time,” Alana replied. “But only to determine those who are worthy.”

The other woman’s skin twisted into a lipless smile. She too recognized an ulterior motive when she saw one.

Unlike Dona’Cora, Alana found she liked this tough, warhardened woman very much.

“And in the mean time … perhaps I can assess this world’s defenses. I won’t guarantee you a victory, but I promise you one thing; I will make sure that when the Plague comes, the

price to take this world will be high indeed.”


Chapter Two: LECYNIC


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Cliffmore, Post Exodus 555–

A chill wind came down from the north, rapidly gaining strength as it funneled its way into the canyon, buffeting the procession of traders stuck between the jagged walls. Most adapted to the biting cold by covering themselves in a haze of blue flames, leaving the icy wind all but ignored. Those lacking the Oneness, dug their winter gear from their packs and bundled themselves in thick layers of fur. Despite the cold, or because of it, they had to keep moving. The long caravan of people and supplies continued on, trudging through the small canyon town in a race to beat the winter wind southward, all the while the wind drove them on, howling at their backs.

Winter always came early in these lands north of the Gorian, but this year it threatened to bypass autumn all together. Many of the trees still had leaves of green. Quite possibly, they would miss their chance to change color this year, and the powerful northern winds would rip them from their branches as they were. Because of the abrupt change in the weather, the expedition had been forced to cut their trading short; else they find themselves stuck in these godless outlands for the entire winter. Or even worse, they could wind up buried in snow during their attempt at a southern crossing of the Gorian.

To Coba and the rest of the Magi, the weather was little more than a nuisance. The wind was unable to penetrate their blue shields, and snow melted as easily with blue flames as it did with red. The Magi would make the crossing either way. And if the bloodless fell along the way, what did Coba care? As for the goods they hauled, Coba would just as soon abandon his heavy burden – or squish the bloodless beneath it, for that matter. If he wasn’t paid so well to safely transport the load, he likely would have done so long ago.

Coba scowled at the bundle of goods floating in the air before him. A thread of blue flames extended from his hand to the bundle like a tether, wrapping the cargo in a blue shell. To his back and his front, other bundles levitated in the air, similarly tethered to the other Magi in the caravan. The packages were as varied as the mages supporting them. Those of the Second Order — the ones wearing yellow robes – held only small, though precious, items aloft; mostly containers of highly fragile artifacts. Such items sold well among Lock Core’s wealthy, and were highly prized for their foreign beauty and craftsmanship. Depending on how they sold at market, a single piece could pay for the entire expedition into the outlands. Because of their value, the weaker of the Order were perfectly suited to transport them. With their limited power, large sums of goods were beyond their ability to lift. But smaller bundles, could be easily lifted, and contained in a billowy layer of blue flame.

The bundle Coba held was likely past a ton in weight – no small load. But even his burden paled in comparison to what the Reds held; floating above each of their heads were giant slabs of multicolored marble. The three Reds seemed highly focused on keeping their cargo suspended, no doubt the threat of being crushed giving them ample incentive.

Partly out of jealousy, and partly because he found such use of great power to be a waste, Coba’s thoughts turned dark. To think, his kind were once gods. Look at them now … little better than slug mules. With the Oneness, he took hold of a nearby pebble and nearly flung it at the Reds – he would rather see them dead than lowered so – but he paused, as did the entire procession. One by one, the Mages let their cargo gently fall – the yellows more careful than the rest.

Coba was grateful for the unexpected rest — not because he was wearied, truth was, he could’ve held twice as much weight, but merely chose not to. He needed the respite to calm his mind. He knew he would not have harmed the Reds; to eliminate such a bloodline of power would have been a travesty. One day, the Order would rise again – to become worshipped as the gods they were meant to be. To achieve that destiny, the bloodline had to be maintained. As it stood now, the bloodline was diluted to near non-existence. Only four White Mages walked the Seventh World, and it had been ages since there had been a Black.

The High-Mage Andril’lin had been the last of them – so the rumors say.

Now, the Order was nothing more than laborers. Coba often wondered why he had joined them at all. The Oneness was truly a great gift, but what had it gained him? If anything, he was limited because of it. Meanwhile, the poor-blooded grew rich and powerful — nearly more so than even the Keeper.

Take his employer, for instance. The young explorer Dane Langlia had gained a title for himself, simply by trading in exotic goods. The man had acquired his mass of wealth so rapidly the Keeper had no choice but to grant him a parcel of Lock Core’s rich farmland. Had the Keeper not struck a deal with the trader, Langlia could have potentially bought Lock Core out from under him. The Keeper would have retained his title, but control of the city would have gone to Langlia, the true ruler of Lock Core.

Of course the Keeper would always have the Oneness; though a lot of good it would do him. If he lost possession of the city, the best he could hope to gain with his Oneness was a transporter position in Langlia’s trade organization. The Keeper knew this as well. He hadn’t been raised to the position by making foolish decisions, so wisely he struck a bargain with the man before he became Dane’s servant.

On the occasions Coba had been near Dane, he did sense a flicker of the Oneness within the man. But it was doubtful the man even knew it was there. Nor did it matter, for his power was in wealth, something this age seemed to prize far above the Oneness.

However, his wife, Lady Corel, seemed blessed in every manner possible. During Coba’s training at the High Tower, he had been able to admire her power and beauty on more than one occasion. Her red hair was only slightly less fiery than her swelling flames of mage-fire. But it was doubtful she ever acknowledged Coba’s existence. She walked another path than he. For her, High-Mage, or even Keeper was to be her destiny – her entire training at the High Tower was devoted towards such. No doubt the Keeper and the High-Mage had been grooming her since birth. Meanwhile, for all the years he had spent in training, Coba was to become a drudge.

If anyone could restore the Order to its former glory, Lady Corel could, Coba thought, resting his back against his bundle of goods.

He noticed smoke rising from the head of the procession, but even as it grew he continued to ignore it.

Should her husband meet an untimely death, the wealth and the power would be her own. With the right man to advise her … anything could be possible.

Coba continued to indulge himself in fantasies of ruling the Triad of Races alongside Lady Corel, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the Magi had departed toward the front of the procession, where the smoke-filled sky had now become fire.

The nearby village and whatever danger it was facing, only marginally registered with Coba’s thoughts. He mashed his brow together in disgust at the mere thought of helping the town. What was he supposed to do about it anyway? Save some bloodless from some sort of fire? That wasn’t what he was paid to do. He had a contract to haul Langlia’s goods. That was it. If his fellow Mages wanted to waste their power in the effort, then so be it. It was doubtful they would be rewarded – if even they were thanked.

What his brethren should be doing was demanding fealty from the town if they wished the Magi to save it. Then, if the townsfolk refused their bargain, let it burn. Damn the Gods! They should burn the place down themselves. Then demand their fealty!

Coba was delighting in the thought of the townsfolk scattering in fear of the Magi, when a sudden sensation flooded his mind.

Immediately he was on his feet, anticipating the appearance of a White Mage — possibly the Keeper himself. Instead, what he saw was a woman covered in a motley array of animal skins – half of which appeared to be a large breed of rat. Her hair was so gnarled and dirty; he half expected to see one of the creatures come scurrying out of it. The stench emanating from her cape of animal carcasses was nearly equal to the woman’s aura of power. But the strength of her Oneness was so great that Coba managed to ignore the woman’s smell.

“Meshe Magi. Meshe. Iso, LeCynic. Basa no suth LeCynic.”

Wild-eyed the woman came at him, her language a meaningless jumble of words. North of the Gorian, the people often had thick, incomprehensible accents, but only the tribal peoples from the distant uncharted lands were so far removed from civilization as to have adopted their own unique languages. Few people from Lock Core had ever visited such places. They were so far distant even Langlia found them unprofitable.

She continued her unintelligible rant, when, to Coba’s surprise, she lifted her thick coat of skins revealing a wiry little boy beneath it. The boy seemed in a daze, his dilated pupils consuming his brown irises.

“Magi … ”

The woman continued to spout her gibberish. Hoping to gain some sort of understanding, Coba entered her mind.

He slipped in easily. It was the first indication that she was not the source of power. Even if Coba had failed to take note of it, what he saw in her mind made it abundantly clear. Her mind was a jumble of images, all of them centered around the boy child. And all of them filled with scenes of carnage and destruction.

No. This woman had no power. What he had sensed was the boy.

LeCynic …

A word the woman repeated over and over.

‘Fear not, woman. I’ll take great care of this child,’ Coba said, hoping she would get a sense of his words if he sent them telepathically.

She backed away while pushing the boy toward him.

“LeCynic,” the woman said one final time before turning and fleeing.

“Well met, boy,” Coba said to the child, staring down into his dark brown eyes, which were slowly beginning to show signs of life.

He smiled down at the boy, basking in his potential.

“Well met indeed, LeCynic.”

Coba believed it to be the child’s name, but he had no knowledge of her language or her people. Had he known the word’s true meaning, would he still have taken the child?

Given the child’s power and potential, most likely yes, but perhaps with a tad less enthusiasm.

She was one of the ‘Children of the Lost Sun’. When humanity arrived on the Seventh World, most stayed at Lock Core, staking their destinies in a final battle with the Plague. Others fled the Rift, hoping to live peacefully in the Outlands until the day the Plague returned once more. There were others still, a handful of people who entered the Seventh World and never looked back. They walked the Seventh World for as long, and as far as they could. Only when the Plague and the Rift became a memory did they finally stop moving, settling in the deepest and most inhospitable parts of the Seventh World.

For the ‘Children of the Lost Sun’, the Plague, the Rift and the final battle were nothing more than a legend. But to the woman, the legends had become far too real. She had birthed a Sira’coll, a fire-wielder. It was half a star before she knew it was so, and over a full star before her secret was revealed. She should have immediately given him to the Frozen Lord, to forever be a babe, and sleep eternal. But she so dearly cherished the boy; and refused to let him go. It wasn’t until the Great Father came to take him from her that she realized her error. As the warriors ripped him from her arms his flesh became fire. The warriors melted at his touch. Along with the Great Father, they thought to flee, but the boy’s fire was alive. As though hungry to feed, the flames engulfed them all, leaving not but ash. By the time his fire was sated, their village was a charred ruin.

Homeless, she took her son and fled. At first, she thought to enter the land of the Frozen Lord with the boy in her arms, but the child anticipated her thoughts. To head in the direction of the open water gave her such headaches she fell to her knees, blood pouring from every orifice of her head. As soon as she changed her mind, and direction, she was restored, healthier than before.

For several stars they traveled the southern lands, but every village they came upon they were met with hostility — and the hostility was met with madness and death. Her path lead ever southward, any other direction meant pain. Until one day they came upon a great village. And within it was a blue-robed man who took great interest in her son. He knew bits and pieces of her language, and was able to communicate that a gathering of fire-wielders dwelt in a great tower in the south. These Magi would gladly take her son, and give him a home within their High-Tower.

He even offered to take her there, but before making good on his offer, the woman and her child were recognized and once more trouble began. Afterwards, even the blue-robed firewielder couldn’t escape her son’s wrath, his flesh melting as easily as the rest.

Despite his death, the words of the fire-wielder offered her hope. And for once, the will of the child matched her own. Thus, with thoughts of this ‘great tower’ at the forefront of her mind, she continued on, heading southward … always southward.

Finally, her prayers to the Frozen Lord were answered. She found no tower. But surely the gathering of Magi she beheld contained every last member of their order. Clutching her son’s hand in fear and excitement, she watched as the multicolored procession of robed figures filled the canyon below.

She had only recently found shelter in the town of Cliffmore. The townsfolk were warm and kind, and had no knowledge of her son or his prior atrocities. They took pity on her and her young son. They gave her food and water, and to help her survive the coming winter, the kindly townsfolk even provided her with accommodations in one of their many, cave-like chambers carved in the canyon wall. Half cave, half rotting wood, the room was still welcome shelter for the woman and her son — having spent the prior months on the road.

From her perch atop the cavern chamber, she watched in awe as the caravan approached, wondering how so many firewielders could exist in the entire world. And what power! Massive packs of goods floated before them as though weightless. Slabs of stone that seemed impossible to lift by a thousand hands, moved to the will of but one man. She had witnessed the failure of one of their kind to control her son. But surely, with so many of them together, his evil could be contained.

It wasn’t.

The rotting timbers of the city’s structures burned first … its stone walls took flame soon after.

As always, her son shielded only her from death. All others fell to the flames, including many of the Magi.

Once more she fled — a city in flames at her back.

It wasn’t until she stumbled into the grey-magi that she felt her son’s evil go silent. It seemed his search had ended, for her will suddenly became her own – gladly she thrust her son at the man, and equally glad, he took him as his own.

At long last, she was free of her son … ‘the demon’.

She tried desperately to warn the man of what her son was. But little did she know, the man had thought she spoke his name. And that he fittingly named the boy ‘the demon’. For that was what ‘LeCynic’ meant in her tongue. And that was most certainly what the child was.

–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Shattered Rock, Post Exodus 586–

“Betrayer!”

LeCynic couldn’t help but smile at the man. The Red Mage raised his arms, gathering his remaining power for a final blow.

The Grey Mage, Coba was well on his way to joining LeCynic’s army, so he let the man fall. He knew that when next they met, Coba would be thanking him. Of all people, Coba would understand what a gift the Plague truly was. After all, this was to be as Coba dreamed – they would be like gods once more, and together, they would make the Seventh World bow before them.

“You’ve killed us all, LeCynic!” the Red Mage screamed, his face constantly shifting from a mask of scars and burnt flesh to flawless, smooth skin.

The man was clueless. Very soon he would see the light … or in this case, the darkness.

“Fool, mage. Haven’t you learned?” LeCynic replied, practically laughing in the man’s face. “You were already dead.” The Red Mage struck him.

His attack was feeble, and it was certainly his last. The Red Mage plummeted to the earth.

LeCynic chose not to damage that one, but rather, he let the man drain himself dry of the Oneness, savoring his every last pitiful attempt to stop the Black Mage. The Red Mage had been the last of them, the last of their so-called defense of Shattered Rock. Despite his less than impressive use of the Oneness, he had to give the man a little credit; he did somehow manage to get a city of murders, chopa addicts, thieves and beggars to join together in defense of the city. Truthfully, LeCynic hadn’t expected that. He had hoped the fall of the city would have been simpler, less costly. But it would fall, nonetheless. With the mages no more, the skies would be his, and soon the city would be as well.

Up next, Lock Core. Then, he will rule them all …

… ‘Kill them all.’

He felt the vein throbbing on his neck, pumping him full of the tainted blood. It was larger than ever, and had been growing at an accelerated pace. He longed to rip it from his flesh, but knew his life would vanish with it. It was deeply entrenched in his body now, despite his efforts to stop its continued growth. He feared it would soon take his mind, and rightly so. He had seen what had become of his men. For now, they fought as allies. But LeCynic knew they were no longer his to control. Evil, LeCynic may be, but something far more corrupt than he possessed them. It drove them towards but one purpose – utter annihilation. If the evil force had its way, there would be nothing left. Where was the pleasure in that? What was the point of ruling over nothingness? The evil being’s motive was beyond comprehension. Power, pleasure, wealth … it was meaningless to the being. It understood only chaos and death, and sought to reduce all that existed into such.

It had to be stopped. His battle with the being began within his own flesh. LeCynic wasn’t about to relinquish his body, his power, and his greatness without a fight. He will rule this world. Not as a soulless puppet, but as a god.

He had to maintain control for just a while longer. He was certain his undead servant, Hollabrand was nearing his objective. The power of the Destroyer could free him. He had to have it. Without it, he was doomed to become a slave.

But for now, what he needed was an army.

Summoning those he had already turned, he drifted down to where the Red Mage had fallen. He would enjoy this moment; transforming the city’s greatest defender into his greatest soldier. He directed his army to gather where the man had fallen. When the Red Mage arose, he would have the honor of leading them in the final assault.

Wait …

Someone (or something) else was down there. A presence

LeCynic knew all too well.

Just when he thought his day couldn’t get any better … It appears you will be mine once more, Destroyer.

He already had a list of experimental procedures ready for them man. This time, he would hold nothing back.

They were together, the Red Mage and the Destroyer.

The man held the Red Mage and wept.

Save your tears, Destroyer. You will have need to shed them soon.

“Well, well. Haven’t you strayed far from the flock,” LeCynic said to the man, gathering the full brunt of his power in case the man tried to live up to his name.

But LeCynic feared no man.

He approached him, even dared to bend over and inspect him.

And they called this man Destroyer? LeCynic laughed at the ragged looking wretch. Soon I’ll claim that title as well.

“Finally … I have you back once more,” LeCynic continued, unafraid of the pathetic looking man. “Now I will have your power.”

“Yes.”

The man’s voice was everywhere. It was everything.

His voice alone nearly tore him asunder.

Oh shi …

Then, his true power was unleashed, and LeCynic got a firsthand demonstration of exactly how the man earned the name,

‘Destroyer’.

Coba almost died – it would have been his second death in a single day. He had a feeling his latest brush with death would have been a more permanent state than his first. LeCynic replaced his life with the Plague, but the Destroyer nearly erased his entire existence. Luckily, Coba found himself on the fringe of the man’s devastating blast. Even so, had he been but a man – even a Grey Mage – he would have been washed away in the tide of dark power. But Coba wasn’t a mortal any more.

The Black Mage had changed him.

LeCynic … he always knew he had the potential to be a Black Mage. But he had become even more. To say he was any sort of Mage belittled the man. Now, LeCynic was a god … and

Coba’s master. Finally he had found one worthy of his fealty.

At first, he hesitated to embrace the gift. Coba awoke to his new life weak from hunger. He no longer felt the Oneness – only a hole remained where the source of his power had once been. He fought the desire to engorge himself on the life of others, but the hunger was unbearable, and every moment he fought it served to amplify the pain. He sensed his Maker in the distance but feared to join the man, knowing that once he did, he would be fully committed to serving the Dark Army.

Unsure of his destination or purpose, Coba wandered the battlefield. Unbeknownst to him, his new senses had taken him on a path toward living flesh. The scent, the sensation … it was all so new to him that he didn’t even recognize it until he stumbled into it. They were a group of soldiers fleeing from Shattered Rock. Once they saw what he was – what he had become – they immediately attacked. Even weakened, they were no match for Coba. During his battle with the men, he realized the Plague was a gift. It was true power. His prior dabbling with the Oneness paled in comparison to the power he now held. The Plague made him more powerful than any mortal could hope to be. And the more he fed, the stronger he became. By the time he was through with the soldiers, he was powerful indeed.

Soldiers … Coba still scoffed at that notion. The men he fed upon were thieves and murderers, if they had been anything. Now what they were, were his – the beginning of his own Dark Army. Unfortunately, not all of them withstood the Destroyer’s rage. But Coba knew all too well how quickly the Plague could spread. His army would grow. And in time, the bloodless would bow before him. But for that to happen, he needed his master, LeCynic. Coba was powerful, but not nearly strong enough to conquer the Seventh World on his own. Some White Mages remained who could pose a potential roadblock to his destiny. The High-Bitch Nicola was one such obstacle. But against LeCynic, Nicola would be easily trampled to dust.

But what had become of the Black-Mage? Following the Destroyer’s recent rampage, Coba’s link to LeCynic was severed. For a time, he couldn’t sense him at all. Fearing he perished, Coba and his men went to investigate the blast zone. As they neared the wreckage of Shattered Rock, he felt something. It was incredibly faint, and vastly different than what he sensed before the blast. Nevertheless, Coba was certain it was

LeCynic.

Once more the man had changed, but into what?

Following the dim sensation, Coba moved to join his master.

He just hoped the Destroyer hadn’t ruined the man completely, and that together, they may still achieve the greatness of which Coba always dreamed.

His hopes drained when he found the pile of black sludge that was the remnant of his master.

It contained some sort of life, whatever it was. Slowly, it crept toward Coba and his men.

“Master?” Coba asked, attempting to communicate with the black mass.

… feed …

Coba laughed. Apparently it would take more than even the Destroyer to put an end to LeCynic. His chances of conquering this world had just increased ten-fold.

“Return to the city. Find any stragglers and bring them to me,” he ordered his men.

… no … these shall do …

Before his men could move to obey, strings of black fire shot out from the sludge, burrowing into Coba’s undead followers. Coba moved back to avoid a similar fate. But he was ignored. The dark fire became an inferno, each soldier a pyre. In moments, they were blackened husks.

Coba watched in awe as the pile of sludge rose up before him. It continued to rise, until it towered over him. Then, it became a man – a man of black flames, his eyes blue fire.

It was the greatest thing Coba had ever seen. He knew he was insignificant to the awesome being. All he could do was bow before it, and hope he was spared.

“Arise,” the being commanded.

Coba stood up, daring to look the being in its fiery eyes.

“I am free now,” LeCynic said, his voice restored to its typical, cold baritone. Except for his flaming blue eyes, his body transformed to a humanoid shape – the handsome, dark-haired youth Coba so fondly remembered.

Coba didn’t understand what he meant by being ‘free’, but he did not dare to question the being.

“It is time now … join me, Coba. It is time for me to return to Lock Core and claim my army … and then, my vengeance will begin.”

Coba smiled. Finally, his dreams will be fulfilled.


Chapter Three: Emily

 


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Havenwood, Post Exodus 575–

Every step he took jolted the various crystal vials, hollowed out gourds, and metal canisters dangling from his waist with a thick leather cord. The jarring symphony created silence in the fields around him; the sheep stopped bleating, and the crickets ceased chirping as the stooped figure drew near.

He was noisy enough to wake the dead. But Adel was old, and he no longer feared the dead … or death for that matter. He had seen more than enough of both in his life, and was well aware that his time was soon to come.

Adel continued down the rough country road, a lantern held before him, its weight nearly too much for his frail arms to support. His hands were once so steady and precise he could sew torn blood vessels and flesh as easily as any fabric. Now, the lantern shook so uncontrollably in his grip, the gravel road was lost in the flickering light. Truth be told, lately even in the best light, Adel couldn’t see clearly for more than ten feet in front of him. His eyes had seen the Midnight Sun cross the sky just over eighty times – a feat few humans could claim. Adel had lived so long that even his skills as a Healer were beginning to prove inadequate protection against the ravages of time. He knew of but one ‘cure’ for that. But all would agree, the Plague was more curse, than cure. Adel was well aware that his time would come … no matter what he did to stop it.

It was always so.

If his long career as a Healer had taught him anything, it was that.

Over how many deathbeds had he stood vigil in his career? And no matter the affliction, or the ‘cures’ he applied, the end found them, one and all.

Long ago, he had learned that when it was time for one to pass, his job as Healer was best served by consoling the terminally ill – easing their way into the afterlife. His advice to them was, and had always been, for them to find peace and acceptance with what little time they had left. They should find peace in the fact that death is the natural order of things, and is meant to be a permanent state; anything else was an abomination – much like the Plague.

Death. Despite his years of fighting it, he knew nothing of it. As far as he knew, none had ever returned to tell their tale of the ‘great beyond’. Many claimed knowledge of it, but their theories were at best guesswork – ungrounded in knowledge, unlike Adel’s own healing science.

As his own death drew ever nearer, Adel often found himself wondering if he would heed his own advice, and graciously embrace his own inevitable end. It had been a long life – and a difficult one – and in all honesty, he was a little more than eager to see it pass. After so many suns, eternal peace seemed such a pleasant concept.

But so few find acceptance in the end. So many wish to live, if even for another day – another hour. Even those in the greatest pain always fight like mad to have but one more moment of life.

The struggle to live often made Adel wonder if there truly was peace in death? Or near the end do the dying see the truth; that death is an unimaginable horror? And to escape it, they would do anything – even embrace the Plague.

His job was indeed a difficult one — the difficulties only compounded with the coming of the Plague. In his life he had acquired more than one bad memory he wished to be freed of.

One such moment nagged at his mind as he made his way to the small farming village of Havenwood.

It was shortly after the War of Lock Core, when the newly raised Keeper, LeCynic, had commanded Adel to study the infection. Eager to test his skills against this horrendous disease, Adel agreed to do so. His eagerness, however, was short lived, for it quickly became apparent to Adel that the Plague was far beyond his abilities — to even tamper with it was a risk he did not dare to take. He felt that all samples of the active infection should be destroyed, not studied, lest they give rise to another full scale Plague.

The Keeper strongly disagreed.

He was furious at Adel’s suggestion, and deemed him a failure. He sent in other, less respected Healers to continue the project, and ordered Adel banished from the city and stripped of his official title as Master Healer.

Adel had been humiliated.

Thankfully, his work among the citizens of the Seventh World was remembered, and he was still respected. Since then he has been able to make a decent living in the Outlands, doing what he can to heal the people beyond Lock Core, or — failing to heal them – at least offer them peace during their final moments.

Still though, Adel often wondered about the Keeper and his experiments with the Plague. The man was so obsessed with finding a cure that Adel knew the man would stop at nothing to find one. He shuddered to think what horrors the man could potentially unleash on the Seventh World. Through the years, Adel kept hoping the rest of the Seventh World would see through the man’s madness, and LeCynic would end up being the one banished from Lock Core. But thus far, it had been a long wait, and Adel’s hope was dwindling with his lifespan. He imagined by the time justice was done, his hope and life would be no more.

Now, he journeyed to the town of Havenwood, where a man lay dying from a grievous injury suffered during the fall harvest. From what he heard of the severity of the man’s injuries, he imagined his mission was more about easing physical and emotional suffering than it was about ‘actual’ healing.

He came around a bend in the road, then saw a distant haze of light coming from the valley down below. With his poor eyesight, he couldn’t discern details, but he had walked this path before and knew the glowing light signified the village Havenwood. He made his way down, wondering if the injured farmer would even be alive by the time he arrived.

Halfway down the path, he was greeted by several of the villagers, the eldest of which did the majority of the talking. He had met and befriended the man on his prior visits, and knew him to be Jorge Hamthist, the Mayor of Havenwood.

“Thank you for coming, Adel. And at such a late hour,” the Mayor said, moving to take Adel’s lantern and guiding him forward by the arm.

“I heard of the injuries, and knew haste would be required,” Adel replied, wearied from his travels and not hesitating to accept the Mayor’s aid. “Please, Jorge, tell me, am I too late?”

The Mayor exchanged a worried look with his companions before replying.

“Surprisingly no, Adel. Admittedly, I am all but untrained in the healing arts, yet to the best of my knowledge, this man should not be alive. He lost an arm in the threshing, and though his legs remain … I dare say they are horribly mangled. Surely, the amount of blood this man lost cannot have come from but a single man.”

Adel was intrigued … and worried. Was he about to be reacquainted with the Plague?

“Perhaps you should have sent for the Death Guard instead?”

Adel said.

“Aye, one would come to such a conclusion, is true. But the man doesn’t appear to be infected, only injured … and forever at the verge of death.”

Adel was more curious than ever. His curiosity in human anatomy was what brought him to the Healers. Over the years he had come to learn the human body had many wondrous traits. And the more he learned, the more mysterious and miraculous the body became. To learn something new, especially at his age, would be a miracle unto itself.

The Mayor guided him into the village of thatched roofed cottages. Even with Adel’s limited vision, it was clear to see where his patient was to be found, for a group of villagers surrounded one of the cottages. The Mayor quietly ushered the people aside as he neared, then led Adel into the timber-walled structure.

It all made sense the moment he stepped through the door. “The child … ” Adel whispered.

“Yes, poor thing. She refuses to let him go,” the Mayor responded.

In front of him, a curly haired child sat, and wept. Her small fingers clung to her father’s remaining hand. There was blood everywhere … and blue fire. More of both than Adel had seen in a long, long time. Somehow, the scene was vaguely familiar to him. He had only witnessed such a great display of the Singularity once before. Like the child, Merrick too had refused to let go … and it had cost him his life. This child was far younger than Merrick, but held equal – if not greater – power. Her father’s injuries were clearly mortal; it didn’t take a Healer’s expertise to determine that. How the child had managed to keep the man alive for as long as she had seemed a miracle.

Adel doubted even Merrick could have done as much.

Adel’s role in all of this was obvious; he had to convince the child to let him go. If she didn’t, they both would die.

“Take me to her,” Adel requested, unable to do so himself, for suddenly he felt his age more keenly than ever.

“Yes, Adel,” the Mayor said, practically carrying Adel to her. “Child, this is the great Healer, Adel. We have brought him here to help your father. To … ”

Adel knew what the Mayor wanted to say; that he had brought Adel to help ease the man’s passage to the afterlife. For that was truly what the Mayor desired; an end to the man’s suffering and the circus that accompanied it. Adel wanted as much as well.

“ … To heal him,” the Mayor finished.

Adel saw what his friend Jorge could not, the girl had great power, and she could easily see through his lies, if not read his thoughts outright. There would be no point in pretending, he would have to speak truthfully with the girl.

“I’m sorry. I cannot save him, child. Sometimes, all we can offer them is freedom from their pain. We are not immortals.

The end must come to us, one and all.” Her tears came faster.

“I don’t want him to leave me,” the child said as she wept.

“He says he’s ready … but I don’t want to let him go.” “It’s all right.”

Adel bent down, risked penetrating her aura of flames to lay his hand upon her.

“He will have peace, and one day you will find it too. It will not be easy, but through the sadness and fear you will one day find your peace. This I promise.”

If she was reading his mind, she would know it was not a lie.

“But where will he go?”

Adel faltered, searching for an answer. But even with all his knowledge and years of experience, he still didn’t have one.

He didn’t need one. She was, in fact, reading his mind. To the child, his mind was a library of information on life and death. Of particular interest was his knowledge of the Plague, a thing both ‘life’ and ‘death’. She saw it through his eyes as an atrocity. It was meant to make immortals, but instead it created monsters.

She turned her wide brown eyes on her father – saw the limbless monstrosity that he had become, and she let him go.

Two suns later, Adel still searched for an answer to the child’s question, “Where will he go?” He knew he would go there himself soon enough and have the answer firsthand. But he felt he still owed the girl some sort of an explanation.

His quest took him deeper into the Outlands than ever before. Being as decrepit as he was, it was an arduous journey indeed. But every sage with supposed knowledge of the afterlife had to be met, their lessons learned. For the most part, they spoke of the same belief, but in variations. They all agreed there was something, but what that something was, was tensely debated. He wanted to return to the girl, but wanted to give her more than “There’s definitely something, I just don’t know what?”

Then he heard of a Red Mage. A man who spoke freely, openly, and often to any and all who would hear him. This man claimed to have knowledge of the Gods themselves. He even suffered his own sort of banishment from Lock Core, which would have drawn Adel to him if for no other reason.

And so it went … Adel followed him by way of his stories, until one day theirs paths met. How the man smiled as they talked. And when at last Adel left him, he was unable to stop his own face from grinning. It all made so much sense now … not just the girl child, but Merrick as well. There was a plan for them all. Their lives guided by a power greater than any mortal.

And the girl child … he finally had her answer. It was in the form of a man, his name was Brice Langlia. He told him where to find her.

And that her name was Emily, from the city of Havenwood.

–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Outlands, Post Exodus 586–

All around them the earth was black; a grim reminder of the Destroyer’s apocalyptic power. They had walked the entire day, but to escape it, they marched well into the night. The Elder Moon, Harbos, rose above them and then fell, sinking into the charred land. As Harbos vanished on the horizon, his dying light fell on the ragged group of travelers, stretching their shadows into oblivion. The moon Minos eventually followed suit, briefly sharing the night sky with his Brother Moon. And for a time, the Brother Moons illuminated the Seventh World, giving the weary travelers a vision of life in the distance – a forest of tall pines, and fields of ripened wheat. They all breathed a sigh of relief at the sight, for in the back of their minds was the fear that perhaps the Destroyer had put an end to it all, that his tidal wave of death had encompassed the entire Seventh World. At last, their feet stepped upon soft grass, confirming the vision of life was no mirage. Even so, they continued on, for the stench of death still clung to them, even beyond the Destroyer’s circle of ruin. But it wasn’t merely the stench of death they hoped to outrun; it was the memory of it as well. The Archenon could still be seen in the distance, a now solitary and stark black pillar. Behind it, the orange remnant of Harbos sent the tower’s shadow across the land, chasing the travelers.

As they fled from it, many succumbed to exhaustion, stumbled and fell. Yet they refused to stop, and always managed to return to their feet. Many relied on canes or crutches for support. For them, every step forward was a miracle and a testament to the horrors they had witnessed in the town of Shattered Rock. Many were just children. Now orphans, one and all. Their families and their city were gone. They had nothing left, and nowhere to go. But onward they trudged, their tiny forms empowered by a dim spark of hope. They believed a new life could be found in Lock Core, and that Emily would be the one to guide them to it.

Hope … they saw it in her smile, and soft brown eyes. Despite all they had suffered and lost, they truly believed that under Emily’s care, there could yet be hope.

More exhausted than them all, Emily moved along the line of travelers. Her blue flames always there to lift the fallen, and strengthen the weak, while her smile and her kindness lifted their spirits and strengthened their hearts. She wouldn’t stop, nor would she let them stop. Not until death had left them, and the Archenon was nothing but a memory.

“You have to rest, Emily. You’re safe now,” a gentle voice whispered in her ear.

Emily understood the speaker’s concern; her power had long since dried up, forcing her to draw on her own life-force to heal the weakened refugees. In a day, she seemed to have aged a year. The soft layer of baby-fat that recently covered her bones had become pale, gaunt skin. Her bouncing black curls were a dirty mat plastered to her head.

She knew the speaker feared for her safety – still sought to protect her – but she couldn’t stop. They weren’t safe – may never be safe again.

And death was all around them.

It wasn’t just the Destroyer, or the remnants of Shattered Rock. It was something far worse, even more horrifying than what they had faced thus far. A new evil had awoken in the land, an infection in the heart of the Seventh World itself. To cleanse it, she had to get to Lock Core.

“Enough, child! Even you have your limits. Stop, or I’ll make you stop.”

She didn’t doubt the speaker’s ability to accomplish the threat, but knew the being would never follow through with it. Undead though she may be, Emily knew she would never harm her. Regardless, she couldn’t deny that she was right. Emily couldn’t prop these people up forever. If she continued this pace much longer, their deaths could very well be at her hand.

And she dared not discount the other undead member of the party … If she was to face him once more, she would need her power to be at its utmost.

So far, he kept his distance and remained out of sight from the rest of the travelers. But Emily clearly sensed him, and knew he sensed her too, and that he was out there in the darkness watching her. She was still uncertain of his intentions. If he had wanted to feed, she figured he would have already made an attempt. Maybe he was waiting for something? Waiting for her … But Emily wasn’t about to go out to him again. She had learned her lesson the first time. She knew he couldn’t infect her, but she now had others to protect. And weakened as she was, she doubted she could do much to save them.

If he did decide to attack, there were few in the party who could fight him. Of Rafe’s soldiers, only one chose to join them. The few that survived the Destroyer’s attack, immediately scattered, never giving a second thought to the safety of the orphans or the elderly. As for their leader, Rafe, after the battle he was nowhere to be found. Likely, the man had taken what treasure he had left and sought to bury it, and himself, in the most distant and secluded corner of the Seventh World.

The only one of Rafe’s men to join them was the giant Boulder Dwarf, Gunt – his body now a maze of scars, even after Emily’s best efforts to heal him. She wasn’t sure why he decided to join them, but she was glad he came. Not just for his protection, but surprisingly, for his companionship as well. The giant greatly changed since the battle. The cruelty had left him. Gruffness remained, but only to mask his kindness. Emily was also grateful for the help he provided. The youngest of the children took turns resting on his massive shoulders, or in his hands. Often, he even took pity on the elderly, scooping them up in his arms until they were able to continue on once more.

She had seen him fight, and knew he was a great warrior. But how much protection could one warrior truly provide? She could count on him to fight, of that she was certain, but what of the other “warriors” in the party?

She wondered if Tetloan sensed their undead stalker too. But it seemed he noticed little – other than his missing arm. She often glanced back at him and found him rubbing the stump, a look of pain and anger on his freckled face. Since the battle at the Archenon, he had withdrawn into himself. He hadn’t said a single word to another living soul, and his mind was impenetrable even for Emily. Clearly, what once was contempt for people had become hatred. His anger at the world was now rage. He never neared the rest of the party, but kept his distance at the end of the procession, glowering at anyone who neared him.

He was tremendously powerful. But Emily often worried that he would rather use his power to harm them than protect them.

Ironically, the imp Galimoto was now bound to the boy, though Emily swore he was still unable to even see the creature. Galimoto had become more like an extension of his will – much like the Oneness. Emily feared their new bond had resulted in Galimoto transforming from fiendish, to just plain evil. For the most part, Galimoto hovered around him, matching the boy scowl for scowl. She used to think the being had a soft spot for her, but now he only had dirty looks.

There was another warrior in their party – perhaps the greatest one ever. But there was no more fight left in him. No more fight and very little life. She thought to warn Solo Ki of their undead follower, but then thought better of it. She knew he wouldn’t care. He probably wouldn’t care if the creature came out of the darkness and ripped out his heart. For all practical purposes, Solo Ki was already dead. After what had happened at Shattered Rock, Emily couldn’t blame him.

But what of their other undead party member? He had a right to know. But would knowing make matters better, or worse? Thus far, the spirit revealed itself to only her, so maybe it wasn’t Emily’s decision to make. And when the time was right, she would make her presence known to Solo Ki as well.

For now, Emily decided to heed the being’s advice and make camp. She signaled for a halt to their march. The majority of their goods were strung to Gunt’s back, so she helped him unstrap the heavy burden, while he hoisted the children down off his back. They hadn’t brought a great deal of food with them – little was left in the Destroyer’s aftermath. Rations would have to be maintained if they were to make the two week journey to Lock Core. Normally, the trek could be made in a week, but even after marching into the night, the group moved incredibly slow.

Emily knew it would be a problem, but she refused to leave these people. The elderly wouldn’t stand a chance without her, and the children would have but a slim one. She heard that Lock Core had some sort of institution that took in orphans, and she planned on seeing those of Shattered Rock safely transported there. As for the elderly, she wasn’t sure yet what was to become of them. She couldn’t just leave them on the streets of Lock Core, though. She could only hope the city would take kindness on them, and care for them as well.

Because of their pace, the Death Guards had journeyed ahead of them – though it was difficult to convince Theodorous to leave his hero, Solo Ki. The tale of Shattered Rock had to be heard, and the sooner the better. Theodorous and Bri Lynn made haste to warn their order of the fall of the Outlands and the Archenon – and the possibility that Lock Core could be next.

“Gunt?”

A wisp of blue flames gently lifted the pack of supplies and settled it on the ground.

“Can you take some of the children to the forest and gather fire wood?”

The giant issued a deep grunt in reply.

“But be careful. Just because we’re out of the dead land,

doesn’t mean the dead aren’t still out there.” She knew for a fact, they were out there.

Nodding in agreement, the dwarf unslung his massive war pick from his back, and simply said, “No harm will come to them.” And then he ambled off, a flock of children running at his side.

Emily directed a couple of the elder children – some very near her own age – to help distribute meals and organize camp, then she went from one weary soul to another, making sure they had something to fill their bellies and a blanket to keep them warm.

She came upon an old blind man dressed in rags. Emily had taken note of him before – she sensed the Oneness in him, enough of it to indicate he was obviously a high-ranking member of the Order. Also, before the Death Guards left, they spent a great deal of time speaking with the man. And the way they regarded him, seemed to indicate he was their superior. But most unusual of all; back at the Archenon, the blind man consoled Solo Ki – even put a sympathetic hand on the One Elf’s shoulder. Solo Ki actually acknowledged the man, nodding his head in gratitude and respect. Those curious bits of knowledge combined to peak her interest in the man, clearly indicating that he was no ordinary refugee.

She draped a wool blanket on his back, and held a chunk of bread in front of him.

“Something to eat, sir?” she asked, his frail hand already going for the meal before she finished the question.

“Thanks, child,” he replied.

Though his eyes were gone, he somehow managed to grab the bread as if he knew its exact location.

No … This was no ordinary traveler.

“It has been so long since I’ve eaten a proper meal. I fear I’ve grown accustom to the hunger pangs, and often forget I

must eat, lest I wither away and die.”

“There will be soup as well … once our campfire is started,” Emily said, desperate to learn more about the man, but not certain how to proceed.

“I thank you, child. But your bread will suffice. It should be enough to keep me alive … for a while anyway. As for the pain … I’ve learned to live with all kinds of pain. Please, give my portion to one who cannot.”

“Forgive me for asking, but I couldn’t help but notice you seemed acquainted with Theodorous and Bri Lynn,” Emily said, deciding she needed to trust this man if he was to be a member of their party. And to do so, she had to unravel his mystery. “And your power … if you aren’t a Death Guard, you’re obvi-

ously a member of the Order.”

“Once upon a time, I was both.”

‘I was Keeper of the Wall, the day the Plague stormed Lock Core. After the Destroyer sent them into the Rift, I began the Death Guard.’

Emily was so taken aback by his blunt response she nearly dropped her basket of bread.

‘You can trust me, Emily. Just as I trust you with my secret. I know you can feel it … the death of this land. The world itself is dying. I know you don’t want to hear it, but many of these people are already dead. You need to save your strength, Emily. No matter what you do you cannot save them all. But

perhaps with your power you can save their world.’

He tore his bread in half and handed a piece to Emily.

“You take my share, child. I wouldn’t want you to end up like this old man, forgetting your own need to eat. You need your strength more than us all. Besides, you’re far too young to be growing accustomed to pain.”

Emily stared in shock at the man. She didn’t even realize she had taken his bread. Nor had she realized how great her own hunger had been. She truly was spent. Tears hung at the corners of her wide brown eyes. She knew the man spoke the truth. She had given all to see these people free of Shattered Rock and the Destroyer’s swath of destruction. But now they had to stand on their own, for something greater was at stake. No longer could she waste her power healing a few, when she needed every last bit of it to heal the world.

She shed her tears for those who wouldn’t make the trek to

Lock Core, then she stuffed the bread into her mouth.


Chapter Four: Tetloan


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Argor, Post Exodus 584–

Argor. It was the second largest city in all of the charted Outlands – its defenses surpassed only by the great Red Wall itself. Like Lock Core, it too was carved from the Gorian, though this far west of the Capitol, the stone was all white. Rarely could even a thin vein of red granite be found. In the winter months – which were incredibly long so high up the Gorian — the city was unreachable. In the spring thaw, the roads were treacherous. In the fall, they were risky. Only during the summer was trade and travel feasible. For the most part, the inhabitants of the white-walled city of Argor lived in isolation from the rest of the ‘civilized’ Seventh World. Such was the wish of its founder; to create a city even the dead couldn’t reach. Lock Core may have its giant red wall, but Argor had the elements themselves to keep it safe. And there were miles of narrow passes as well, and a million opportunities to trap the dead within them. If one day the dead truly did seek the city, it would cost them dearly to reach it. And if they did reach it, they would face Argor’s own wall, and the hearty people born to defend it.

Unlike Lock Core, the people of Argor never forgot the sacrifice of their ancestors and what the Seventh World meant in the struggle to maintain life. When the Plague came to Lock Core, they didn’t join in its defense, but awaited it upon their own wall. It never came. The Destroyer sent it back into the

Black Door … or so they all thought.

But there remained one who was infected. He raised his own army — but not in Lock Core. Town by town, city by city, LeCynic took over the Outlands. Eventually, even Argor fell as easily as the rest — infected from within. Its walls and weather meant nothing.

So it goes with the Plague …

But there was one Argorian who did escape, just days before the coming of the Plague; a boy of great power — given to him by the Gods themselves.

His name was Tetloan of Argor.

And had LeCynic encountered the boy, and faced his power and rage, even the undead Keeper might have thought twice about taking the city.

Tetloan stood on the balcony of white stone, scowling at those down below. His orange head of hair appeared to catch fire as the sun rose over the Gorian. He wore a rich burgundy cloak, fastened at the front with clasps of silver. In the sandy courtyard beneath him, the Master-at-Arms took a group of children through various offensive stances, the students’ wooden blades rapping against one another as though they were keeping rhythm to a fast-paced song.

The boy crossed his arms, sneering at them.

“I’m not going down there,” he stated, continuing to regard the other children with contempt.

“I don’t give a dead, lad. By the Gods, true and false, I command you to go. Everyone must train, Tetloan. Since the days of the Exodus, such has been the way of the Argor,” his father said, waddling onto the balcony.

Had the balcony not been made of stone, and of dwarven craftsmanship, the cantilevered structure might have collapsed under the man’s weight of well over four hundred pounds.

Gemstone rings set in gold were nearly enveloped by his meaty fingers. Despite the late season and cool mountain air, the man wore a loose tunic, deeply cut, exposing a wiry mass of grey hairs on his chest.

“I have been far too soft on you, lad. You’re to be a man soon, and should begin to act as such. Part of that means acquiring the ability to protect yourself, and perhaps one day your family as well.”

“Protect them from what?” the boy asked, continuing to glare into the courtyard. “If you ask me, it’s a waste of time. All of it.”

“Well, I ain’t asking you. If you had lived during the War, you would not be speaking so. When the dead come to our

wall, we must stand against it, one and all. Besides … ”

He tried to settle his flabby hand on the boy’s shoulder, but Tetloan shrugged it away.

“I have spoken with your instructors, and they tell me of your difficulties with the other children, particularly some of the boys. You must learn to stand up to them, especially if you

wish to one day follow in my footsteps.”

“I hate them.”

His father answered with a hearty laugh.

“I never said you had to like them, lad. All you need to do is

teach them that you’re not a man to be trifled with.”

There was a time when they feared him and left him alone – called him cursed (but only behind his back).

How he longed for those days, but they were no more.

Lately, they’ve grown braver; spurred on by the Smithy’s brawny son, Gregor. Now, never a day goes by that Tetloan isn’t pushed around, or made fun of for his natural red hair … or his ‘curse’. On more than one occasion, he returned to the Keep with a bloody lip or bruised flesh. He was the Mayor’s son, yet they humiliated him, and made him feel insignificant. Even worse, they made him feel like there was something wrong with him, as if he were evil.

Was he evil?

As much as he hated to admit it, there were truth to the rumors – strange things did happen around him. For one, there were the fires. Objects happened to spontaneously combust when he was around, and he couldn’t deny that their frequency coincided with the level of his anger. Even the weather took on his mood. Once, when he was at his grumpiest, an actual raincloud appeared and seemed to follow him around. It wasn’t until his mood changed that it finally dissipated and drifted away.

Maybe they are right, he thought. Maybe I’m a freak, possibly even evil.

Whatever the case, he knew that he didn’t belong with them.

No … he absolutely did not want to go down there.

Not to mention, these children had all been born with a sword in their hands, while Tetloan was fourteen suns now and had never actually held one. He blamed that on his care-taker, who forbid it. It was her duty to ensure his safety, and things such as weapons generally came in conflict with that role.

Everyone else in Argor had been raised by their parents learning weapon skills as they learned to walk. Even before the Plague entered the Seventh World, such was the case. And so it remained, even though the Plague had been defeated by the Destroyer, the fear of its return had been passed on to

Tetloan’s generation.

But unlike the rest of his peers, Tetloan’s father was a busy man; and had no actual fighting skills to bestow his son. In truth, he was purely a diplomat who spent most of his time away from the city – especially during the winter, when he always had some excuse to visit the southern Outland cities. And if he wasn’t away from the city on official business, he was tied up dealing with the never-ending stream of grievances from the Panel of Elders.

Until today, Tetloan had been forced to endure the situation on his own. He had no friends, and the closest thing he had to a mother was the House Matron, Eneta. His true mother died during childbirth. Eneta had been the one to raise him – but she did so with little love. When she held him to stop his crying, it was because she couldn’t stand the noise; not because she actually cared how he felt. Tetloan had been born with the understanding that shedding tears received no sympathy, and that he had a better chance of finding it by spilling his sorrows to the white curtain wall than he did speaking with Eneta.

Now, he never cried – even when the other children were at their cruelest. He wasn’t entirely incapable of it; mainly he just didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. He knew they would love nothing more than to see him weep. Then their victory would be complete; the cursed Mayor’s son fully degraded and broken. No. He wouldn’t cry. Not for them. Not ever.

His father was right. They would never respect him until he had power – and to have power, he had to learn how to fight. Once he was able to defeat them, then they would know he was not a man to be trifled with.

With that thought in mind, he brushed past his father and headed to the courtyard. He was determined to master the sword – after all, if every commoner in Argor could do it, Tetloan believed he should be able to pick it up with relative ease.

Besides, he knew his father would be watching, and meant to make him proud.

The moment he stepped onto the sandy training grounds he knew he had made a mistake. Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at him. Whispers became chuckles. And then the Smithy’s son spoke, and the chuckles turned to outright laughter.

“Better hide your practice swords, or Little Red’s gonna use em as kindling,” Gregor said, shoving his way to the front of the crowd.

He was shy of his seventeenth sun, yet was larger than the average adult male. He stood a full six feet tall – every inch of which was packed with solid muscle. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the boy – which was visibly apparent, for he wore a sleeveless fur vest that revealed his sculpted chest and arms. Had his father been a baker, he still would have been unusually big and strong, but his years as a smith gave him unnatural strength; something one could only acquire after years of pounding steel into submission at the forge. And whatever free time he had, was spent swinging a giant two-handed sword (often with only one hand). He was a born warrior. Even without the existence of the Plague, Gregor would still seek out something, or someone to fight – someone like Tetloan.

“Oh, oh. Looks like his hair’s already caught fire,” Gregor continued, receiving further laughter, even though Tetloan and the rest of the inhabitants or Argor had heard a variation of the insult at least a hundred times before.

“Enough of this, Gregor. The boy’s come to train, and all are welcome to enter this ground in Argor.”

The speaker was Evan Groll; a thin, wisp of a man who was without a doubt the greatest swordsman in Argor. He was also the city’s Master-at-Arms, making it his duty to train Argor’s citizens to peak efficiency. Groll was nearing the twilight years – his short, once chestnut colored hair was now dark grey, while years of staring into the wind from atop the white walls had hardened his face into leather. But like a fine wine, Groll grew better with age. The rugged landscape and weather eventually wore most people down physically and mentally, but Groll was strengthened by it. It made him a stronger and tougher fighter than would have been possible had he lived in the soft, southern lands.

“Fine, then. I’ll let him use mine,” Gregor said, throwing his massive log of a training blade at Tetloan’s feet. “I’ll even partner with him … teach him how to use it,” he continued, picking up a standard sized sword – which seemed like a twig in his hands.

“Tetloan, are you fine with this?” Evan Groll asked, striding to him.

How could he say no? Tetloan wasn’t about to show weakness before his training had even begun. He nodded his head of red hair and picked up the weapon. He thought it could actually be a blessing in disguise. If he could hold his own, sparring with Gregor, then the rest of the children would come to respect him – maybe Gregor would as well.

Groll leaned down to Tetloan, who was fumbling with his grip on the massive wooden weapon.

“Don’t be intimidated by his size, child. Speed and grace

count for everything in battle.”

Despite the man’s reputation, his advice stank. Tetloan had neither speed, nor grace. And it was impossible not to be in awe of Gregor’s brutish strength – even with the smaller sword, a blow to the head could crush Tetloan’s skull. What he needed was real advice; like how to keep Gregor from killing him.

Groll seemed to see the doubt in Tetloan’s eyes and said, “Take it easy on him, Gregor. He hasn’t the skill for a true contest.”

Tetloan knew Groll meant to be helpful, but his words felt like an insult.

Gregor didn’t respond, merely cast a wicked grin Tetloan’s way … he wouldn’t be taking it easy — not on the cursed, spoiled son of the Mayor.

“Let’s revue some basics … ” Groll said for Tetloan’s sake, directing the students into formation.

The lesson began simple enough; Groll demonstrated some rudimentary footwork, stances, and the importance of maintaining balance – all of which Tetloan managed to replicate fairly well. When he failed to catch on, Groll’s training staff was there to whack him into place.

Then things got tougher. The students paired off for a light back and forth. However, the exchange between Tetloan and Gregor was neither light, nor back and forth. Gregor rained down blow after vicious blow, never giving Tetloan enough time to even think of mustering a counter attack. He must have thought Tetloan was an anvil the way he hammered down at him. The large training blade was tiring to wield and incredibly awkward in Tetloan’s unskilled hands, but somehow he managed to stand his ground. His arms grew numb from the shock of the strikes and the weight of the blade as Tetloan fought to keep the Smithy’s son from crushing him. Eventually, his luck, desperation, and strength wore out and Gregor’s sword began to ‘work’ Tetloan’s flesh.

Groll watched him closely; offering pointers on his stance and adjusting his footing with a rap of his stick. But mostly, Groll watched to make sure Tetloan was safe, that his many bumps and bruises didn’t become broken bones. Tetloan’s father watched closely as well. While picking himself up off the ground, he often looked up to see his father’s jowls wagging as he shook his head in disappointment.

Growing ever more battered and bruised, Tetloan never failed to get to his feet and face Gregor again.

“I’m not afraid of you, Little Red,” Gregor said, glaring at Tetloan who was struggling to get back to his feet after suffering a blow to his ribs that had left him momentarily breathless. “Argor is the safest place in the Seventh, but you

threaten that. You know what you are?” He wished he knew.

“Let me guess … a red-haired freak?” Tetloan managed to reply between breaths.

“You’re an infection. And I mean to cut you out.”

He’d been called many things: cursed, evil … red-haired freak. He had endured them all. Even learned to live with it, and accept it as part of his life. But somehow this was different. Being called infected didn’t make him feel sad or small, only … angry.

The anger gave him focus, clarity. He felt the world around him as though it was an extension of his will – a part of him, as tangible as his own flesh and blood. With a thought, he could control it, as easily as his own limbs.

He was too absorbed in the strange sensation, marveling at his sudden new-found power, that he failed to realize Gregor’s wooden sword was coming at him harder than ever, and that it fell squarely on top of his head. The blow should have killed him instantly, but it only dropped him to his knees. He was dazed and disoriented – but miraculously, he was not dead.

Blood spilled down his face – covered his eyes.

With his vision tinged red, he saw his father high up in the balcony. He didn’t look worried, or concerned … merely disappointed.

Gregor paused for an instant; stunned that Tetloan wasn’t flat on his back. The wooden blade was cracked in half so he picked his original two-handed weapon off the sand and raised the huge wooden blade for another attempt to see him laid out, or dead.

Groll moved to stop him, his own blade of silver and steel was unsheathed and moving impossibly fast to intercept

Gregor’s attack.

But it wouldn’t be fast enough. Infected …

Tetloan’s blood boiled … it turned to fire.

The air around him … the earth below him … he felt it all … even Gregor’s wooden sword.

The blade touched his hair and turned to flames.

He even felt the Smithy’s son. His flesh was his to control – he could transform it, or simply erase it. How easy it would be to turn him to flame. They wouldn’t laugh at him then.

How small Gregor seemed as he stumbled back. How weak, nursing his burnt hand.

Infected? Evil? They will know what he really is.

Tetloan became fire, a living inferno. The students all fell back, even Evan Groll joined them. Tetloan wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the man’s leathery face showed fear. Good. Tetloan wanted to show them all what he was … the flames rose higher, forty feet in the air. He faced his father, watched him waddle away in fear. All of Argor would know him now … what he truly was – pure power.

No. They would never trifle with him again.

In Argor, it was law that no less than ten mages stand the white walls at any one time. Within the walls, there should be no less than thirty. Though the High-Tower lost many Magi in the War (and even before then they had been in short supply), Argo still adhered to the law, and paid dearly to see it maintained.

And so it was, when Tetloan unleashed his power at the training grounds. Atop the white walls, ten mages saw a pillar of blue flames unlike anything they had ever seen before — which was saying a lot, for two of the mages had seen a great deal at the battle of Lock Core. No matter where the rest of the city’s Magi were, they too saw — or felt, the great eruption of Singularity.

It filled them with fear.

When they learned it had come from the Mayor’s son, they were even more troubled. They knew he had mage-blood, and had sensed the power in him before. Long ago, he had been tested. Though it was there, the boy lacked the ability to detect it. They thought if they were lucky, it would simply never manifest. But it had. They had seen him use the Oneness, even when he had not. They knew that what the others called a curse, was in fact the blessing of mage-blood. His use had been minimal, and thus hadn’t warranted containment. But now, his power was so great they feared nearing him. Like another Destroyer, the boy could at any moment obliterate them all.

He was beyond containment.

They sent to the High-Tower for help. In the meantime, like the rest of Argor, they either avoided him, or if unable to do so, they submitted to his every whim — lest his anger gives rise to their deaths.

They endured the passing of winter and spring, living in fear of the child. It wasn’t until summer’s end that they finally had a response from the High-Tower. And when it came, it was in the form of one man; a Red-Mage named Brice Langlia. He had two other children at his side, both of which held their own incredible amount of power. His arrival was met with great disappointment, for the man had a reputation as a fool, a man many thought had been outcast from the order altogether.

And indeed, he lived up to the reputation; smiling with joy at the sight of the child when he should have been trembling with fear. When it was time for the Red-Mage to claim the boy, many Magi hid. Those that stayed remained partly out of curiosity — they wondered how one Red-Mage could possibly contain such a child — and partly out of need to save the city should his anger arise.

The boy grew angry indeed; practically throwing a tantrum as his father the Mayor ordered him to accompany the Red-

Mage. His power manifested, greater than ever before.

When they saw his blue flames arise, the Magi didn’t move to help, but to flee, for surely they would all die. But instead of finding the white walls collapsing around them, nothing happened.

They turned back.

What they saw was a weave of blue flames more delicate and intricate than any silken tapestry. They were amazed that a mere Red-Mage had managed such a feat, for even with their powers combined, the Magi of Argor could not have created a shield so complex.

It covered the boy — who raged against it, even though he was utterly oblivious to its existence. The blue shield flexed and expanded. But in the end, it held and his power was depleted. Believing his magic was gone, and having no other option, the boy was forced to join the Red-Mage.

For days afterward (until the Plague took their city) the Magi spoke of the weave of flames; the most beautiful and elegant display of the Singularity they had ever seen. But most amazing of all was that it had been created, not by a White-Mage or a Keeper, but by a curly haired little girl.

After the Red-Mage left, his reputation as a fool was greatly diminished among the Argorian Magi. Unfortunately, none of them lived long enough to spread the tale to the rest of the Seventh World.

With Galimoto flapping in the air at his side, Tetloan stalked the outskirts of camp.

The bastard’s out here … I can feel him, Tetloan thought, rubbing the pinkish scar where his arm used to be.

Through blue-fire, he scanned the distant darkness; the field of charred earth that was once the city of Shattered Rock. Something had been following them ever since they left the city, but thus far, the being had eluded detection.

Show yourself, coward, Tetloan wanted to scream to the darkness. If the being attacked, he would be ready – more than ready. He longed for the encounter; a chance to avenge all the evil the Plague had done, not only to himself, but more so for her …

After his next encounter with the Plague he would leave the undead in piles of ash, same with the encounter after that. As long as he lived he would burn them all to ash.

He still couldn’t believe she was gone. And he hadn’t done a thing to save her. He had been wounded, his power nearly depleted. When the wave of darkness washed over them, it took everything he had left just to save himself.

He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

If he ever saw the Destroyer …

The flames around his body became and inferno. Even the imp, Galimoto had to distance itself.

“Do not think to rob Galimoto of the honor of killing the foul one,” the Imp said, reading his thoughts as he often did. The small, blood-red creature hovered in front of Tetloan, wagging a claw at his face.

Tetloan could see the imp now, unfortunately. Not only could he see him, but the fiend had somehow bonded itself to him. Even if he wanted to be rid of the pest, he doubted it was possible, for their bond felt almost physical – like the creature was a part of him now. He had lost and arm but gained an imp. The creature was wicked, crude, and annoying, but their mutual loss and their hatred for the Destroyer made the imp bearable. He was also Tetloan’s only ally, companion, and the closest thing to a friend he had ever known.

‘Don’t worry, Galimoto. I mean to make his suffering last, just like ours. There’ll be enough time for both of us to have our revenge.’

The imp grinned, revealing row after row of jagged little teeth.

‘But we need something first … ’

He turned his back on the darkness, and the mysterious undead follower, then headed into camp.

A pair of young ‘guards’ gave him a nervous greeting as he neared the camp’s perimeter. They held their silver etched swords awkwardly before them. The blades trembled in their hands, but didn’t lower as Tetloan came closer.

They feared him. And rightly so. Tetloan was a living weapon now. He didn’t give a dead about them. If they wished to give him trouble, he would return it tenfold. That applied to anyone else who tried to stand in his way. None of them mattered.

On second thought …

She matters, he decided, walking past the guards and turning to watch the curly haired girl, who was no longer content to just heal people, but was now pouring her power into a withering oak tree. He scowled at her, not because he bore her any ill will, it was quite the opposite. It angered him to no end, seeing her waste her power so. She would kill herself for these wretches, and for what? He didn’t want to see her die for nothing … like Nathalia. She had saved Tetloan’s life, her and Nathalia. In that sense, he supposed he owed her as much as he did Nathalia. She deserved better than this. She was too good of a person to be consumed with all this suffering and death. He wanted to wrap her in his power and take her far from this place. He would find a safe place somewhere in the Seventh World. And if he couldn’t, he would use his power to create one. Tetloan would face all the evil; she could have peace. He meant to do it, even if she refused him. But he had to do one thing first … find the Destroyer.

Did he love her?

He wasn’t sure. The only thing that was certain was that since the Archenon, his feelings for her had grown. But grown into what?

As foolish as she was, he couldn’t help but admire her. And even filthy and run-down she was still somehow adorable. Maybe it was her wide brown eyes, or plump red limps. Or maybe it was her caring nature he found charming. She was definitely an odd girl – who tries to heal a tree, for dead sake? But as inexplicable as her actions were to Tetloan; no one would dare deny Emily was a good person. And if they did,

Tetloan would burn them to dust.

He wanted to go over to her, to talk about Nathalia, and how empty he felt without her. He never had a real mother – or anyone that actually ever cared for him. His feelings for the elf woman were complex, to say the least. He definitely loved her, he just wasn’t sure how. Her beauty was undeniable. Perhaps one day, Tetloan could have matured to love her on a physical level. But he could never match her age, experience and wisdom. And one day he would grow old, while she would remain virtually unchanged.

But she had loved another.

What she ever saw in that loser boggled Tetloan’s mind. She was the most beautiful, talented, and loving woman in the entire Seventh World and she gave her heart to a drunkard. Tetloan would have treated her like the goddess that she was. She shouldn’t have died because of him. She shouldn’t have been anywhere near such a disgusting and thoughtless man to begin with.

In the end, her love for Alec cost Nathalia her life.

Tetloan vowed to avenge her … but he needed some things first – it seemed only fitting that her fight continue on, and that when the Destroyer finally receives justice, it will be at the end of her orchid blades.

Under Emily’s care, the tree was healthy and now blooming. She turned to Tetloan, the smile dying on her lips when she realized he was glaring at her. His remaining hand was clenched into a flaming fist. She opened her plump limps as though to speak, but before she got a word out, Tetloan stormed away.

He was too angry to speak with her now. He had to finish this. Maybe afterwards, he would take her to a place, absent of death, and tell her how he felt.

There was someone else he needed to find now. He searched the camp for the One Elf — he wasn’t hard to find. There was a large tree clear of refugees. Everyone avoided it and the being napping beneath it as though he was infected. The ‘great’ Solo Ki was a heap of soiled cloth and hair. His face was almost completely hidden beneath the filth. Whether it was his hood or his hair that covered his head, it was impossible to tell so filthy were both. His back was to the tree, his legs and hands were crossed in front of him. Leaning against the tree trunk was the legendary weapon, the Graelic, its tip a constant blood red hue. A worn leather scabbard could be seen at each of the elf’s hips, the leaf-shaped crossguards sparkled in the flicker of the camp fires.

‘I’m gonna need your help with this, Imp.’

Tetloan was well aware of the One Elf’s skill. He wasn’t certain even his flames would be a match for the elf if things went bad.

“Has the child gone completely insane?” the imp asked in his musical voice. “Steal from the One Elf? Galimoto would rather jump back into the Rift?”

‘Maybe later we’ll do exactly that,’ Tetloan replied, willing to go wherever he had to in order to find and kill the Destroyer. ‘But first I need her swords, Imp. It’s only fitting that his blood is spilt with them.’

Galimoto grew serious.

“The boy child is right. They would make a fitting end to the foul one.”

‘Good then. You know what to do.’

Their wills as one, the Imp flew off, his blood-red body blending with the shadows. The One Elf never stirred as the imp found a perch above him. Though Galimoto moved in utter silence, Tetloan held his breath, worried that even the most subtle shift in the wind from his beating wings would be enough to rouse the famous warrior. But the One Elf seemed oblivious to the intrusion.

Tetloan sent his power in – doing his best to imitate Emily’s subtle thin blue threads. He was getting better, though not as hair thin as hers, he still managed to avoid sending a blue fireball straight towards the One Elf. His small candle-sized flames slithered across the ground while Galimoto drifted down from his perch. The blue flames left only the faintest trail of black grass in their passing, only a slight curl of smoke to indicate they even existed to any other than those of the mage-blood. Galimoto was as sneaky, if not more so. Halfway to the ground he dug his claws into the trunk. Clinging there, his tail uncoiled. The forked barbs moving silently to the hilt of the weapon on the One Elf’s left hip. His tail was about to wrap around it, when at the same time Tetloan’s blue flames had also neared their destination and were preparing to hoist the other weapon free from its scabbard.

All the while the One Elf never moved, not even to draw breath.

But the One Elf never truly slept …

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Came a raspy voice from somewhere beneath the pile of filthy hair and cape. Suddenly the Graelic was in his hands.

At the sound of his voice, Galimoto vanished back into the treetop. Tetloan plowed ahead. He was afraid, but he needed those blades. He needed Nathalia’s blades! “I’m taking them, Solo Ki. And you can’t stop me.” His candle flames became bonfires.

But still, the One Elf never stirred.

“Is that so, thief?” the elf calmly replied. “And what would you do with them, if somehow you could take them from me?”

“Put them to more use than you ever will.”

Tetloan’s missing left arm regrew into blue flames and shot out at the One Elf in a flaming fist.

“In her name, I’ll turn them into a whirlwind of silver-fire. Until my last breath I’ll make the undead pay for what they’ve done. All of them.”

Solo Ki calmly raised the Graelic to intercept Tetloan’s attack. His flaming fist vanished; all that was left was a thin wisp of smoke curling out from the Graelic’s tip.

Tetloan’s failure only incited his anger. The earth trembled as he summoned more of his power; as much as he could possibly hold. His body was a pyre; the earth itself was cracking beneath his feet. Even the air around him ignited, becoming a churning sea of flaming de …

The Graelic slammed into his chest, flinging him backwards and draining every last drop of his power with one blow.

Tetloan was on his knees, gasping for breath. He tried to push himself to his feet, but like a fool, he had forgotten he was short one arm and fell face first into the earth. He was laying there, trying to figure out what happened – how he had been so easily defeated – when a pair of orchid blades fell to the ground but inches from his face.

“They’re yours. But if wish to last for even a second against the Plague, you have much to learn. I’ll let you keep the blades, but only if you let me teach you how to use them. If you falter or defy me even once, I take them. If you try me again with your mage-fire, I’ll kill you. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing your vengeance fulfilled.”

Tetloan made it to his knees and ever so delicately grabbed one of the weapons. He knew nothing of swords – their use or their crafting. But nevertheless, from the silver orchid inlay on its face, to the razor-sharp edge, he was amazed by the blade’s perfection.

“I won’t disappoint you,” Tetloan said, as he admired the blade.

It was perfect … just like her.

He held the weapon and wept.


Chapter Five: NATHALIA


–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

??????, Post Exodus 586–

Death … it was denied to her – as was life.

She was adrift …

Her flesh had become like a dream, ethereal. Only with focus was she able to take form, and even then she was but a silhouette of her former self — a memory … a memory of flowing golden hair and eyes of grey and white.

Reality remained, but to her it had become meaningless — nothing more than a blur; a collage of images warped by the stream of time. She watched it fall before her, all of it inexorably sinking into oblivion. She tried to follow it, longing to end it all and become one with the spiraling pit of light and darkness. But the closer she came to it, the stronger the forces worked to repel her – both energies; light and darkness working as one to keep her away.

She truly had nothing now, even the Void denied her.

Her friends, her family, her love; they were forbidden to her. Even if she could reach out to them through the current of time, what would they think of her? Would they condemn her as infected? Call her Shal’in Ome? Or would they see a monster — the result of their own monstrous act?

Love …

It had only been an unattainable dream. The moment she dared to believe it had finally been fulfilled, life itself was taken from her. And because of her death – because he was the cause of it — her lover had become such a dark stain on reality that, for the first time in her existence, she feared he could no longer be redeemed.

Since the day she had found him half dead in the High Tower, she had always believed in him — in his innocence, goodness, and strength — even when he had not. She had always believed he would one day prove himself a great man, and that only the infected would come to call him ‘Destroyer’.

And to the living, he would become a savior.

But now …

Her love for him would be consumed, along with the rest of reality. And in time, the dark stain would erase everything. Even the pit of coalescing light and darkness would be no

more. Only darkness would remain … … and Nathalia.

She was damned to watch her lover put an end to reality.

And of course the Destroyer would be there as well. In the end it would be just the two of them, together, but more alone than ever, forever drifting in the Void.

“Unnerving isn’t it, sister? To see reality this way,” a soft voice spoke, somehow breaking through the thunder and roar of reality’s death as it fell into the maelstrom of the Void. Nathalia would have said the voice spoke in her mind – but she no longer had one. It was more like the sound moved through her, vibrating her soul until it formed sound.

Soon after, the speaker materialized — a lithe, adolescent form. Her golden hair shimmered in and out of existence. Her white pupils locked on Nathalia’s own, and seemed filled with sadness and sympathy. She wore a dress, embroidered at the neck and sleeves with golden thorns. The dress was as white as her skin, and with every motion, fabric and flesh blurred into one. Where her feet should have been, there was only dress – trailing behind her like mist.

Her pointed ears, and white eyes made it plain she was an elf, cursed as was Nathalia. But unlike Nathalia, she would forever remain a child.

Imagined tears fell from Nathalia’s eyes. How could one so young know the sadness of Shal’in Ome… and to succumb to the welcome of death through suicide? It seemed unthinkable. Suddenly her own suffering was insignificant to what the child must have endured … both in life and death. To think, this child had a millennium of life before her, and she had willingly thrown it away. What a horror her life must have been. What the elf child must have lost.

“In the beginning we found it so as well. But in time we learned … ”

The being took a single step, yet somehow closed the distance between them – what seemed like twenty feet. She was over a head shorter than Nathalia, but drifted upwards so they were at eye level. Her white eyes appeared a mirror of Nathalia’s own.

“Who are you?” Nathalia asked, discovering with a bit of concentration she could cause vibrations in the air, recreating the sound of her own voice.

“I am Carillign … ”

The ghost-child hesitated, her body nearly vanishing altogether.

“… or so I once was known. Now, we are but Shal’in Ome.

And I am Carillign the Cursed.”

She solidified; her white flesh momentarily lifelike.

“Where am I, Carillign? What happened to us?”

As far as we know, this place has no name. In our time here, we have met few in this land, and even the most ancient of them knew but little. We know only that we exist outside of reality, and that we have been forsaken. The gift of Adros’ blood, which makes us immortal and immune to the Plague, becomes a curse when spilt by one’s own hands. Now, we are

death to the living, but ourselves unable to fully die.” “Like the infected,” Nathalia cursed.

No. Thank the Gods you are not like them. You still control your soul, sister. We can steal life, but we have no ‘hunger’ for it. We are not slaves to our need to feed, like the Soulless. Forsaken we may be, but it can even be said our new home grants us a unique perspective.”

She nodded her own golden curls at the vortex.

“Eventually you will learn to read the ‘stream’, and when you do, the path of those you left behind will become clear.” One such path was already all too plain to see.

“By looking in, we can see what the living, and even the

dead, cannot. We can see the end.”

Nearby, another elf child shimmered into existence, female as well, though shorter and thinner than the first. They were obviously sisters. Expect for their difference in size, the pair of girls could have passed for twins.

“For some time we watched it – the end,” the newcomer said. “Many souls came and went, came and went. Like a pattern that seemed to repeat itself for all time. No matter what occurred, the pattern remained the same – new life born, an-

other link in the chain, but the end … ”

“Was never the same,” another voice spoke, lighter than the others, yet so powerful Nathalia’s imagined body shook. “It … evolves.”

It took a great deal of her willpower to quiet her form, and try to focus her ‘vision’ on the latest elf child. Before she could compose herself, she felt something soft on her right hand; a touch so gentle and calming it instantly filled her with peace. Nathalia saw a delicate little hand gripping her own. It was milky white, and though it was soft, the hand seemed solid and real – not like her own ghostly flesh. The cherubic bald—headed elf was no taller than her hip, and had eyes so wide and white just to look upon them vibrated her soul.

“It was then we realized … the Void was alive,” the small, elf child continued. “And since the birth of time it has been changing … but changing into what, we did not know.”

“We watched as it continued evolve, wondering what it sought to become,” the middle child said. “We delved deeper

into the ‘stream’, and it became clear to us … ”

“It was becoming an abomination,” youngest child interjected. “Guided by the hand of chaos, it entered our reality.

Where it went, the barrier between life and death dissolved.” “The Plague … ,” Nathalia replied.

The sisters nodded as one.

“The ‘stream’ itself, was corrupted, reversing its flow.” Carillign said.

Nathalia saw it now. Not all of the darkness was consumed. Some made it out — black threads creeping back up the stream.

“Death should be objective; neither good nor bad, merely adaptable to completing its purpose: an end to the living,” the eldest child continued.

“But it adapted to the Plague,” the smallest child said. “Becoming more than it was ever meant to be – pure evil.”

Nathalia took the child’s hand and gripped it tightly; desperate to hold on to something real.

“We saw the coming of an end to it all … all of creation. We thought surely in the end reality would die,” the middle child said.

“We see far … ” the children said, their three voices echoing one another.

“But the end of time is farther still,” the smallest child said. “At some point, reality will cease to be. If we fail to stop the spread of chaos, that point in time will come soon. And it will be because of him.”

The child’s hand dissolved, slipping from Nathalia’s grip like smoke, then reformed, pointing to a section of the ‘stream’.

Nathalia dreaded to look, fearing the obvious conclusion – that Alec was now her enemy. But the child showed her a new enemy; one she would have feared to face even at her boldest moment of life. Wherever Alec went, reality crumbled. Wherever this being went, reality was infected. It didn’t just devour it, it possessed it.

“There is but one path,” the smallest child said. “We have seen that path, and the one who can stop the chaos … and the one who can heal it.”

It was as the elder child had said; she could read the stream now, and the path of those she loved became suddenly clear. The children were right; there was only one who could stop the spread of corruption that was the latest incarnation of the

Void.

Nathalia had been right too.

Alec dealt annihilation in droves, but only to the Dead Worlds.

Alec was a great man.

But if he was to become a savior, he would need help.

Nathalia could also see that his own destructive path was on a direct collision course with the avatar of the Void.

‘Looks like I’ll be saving your ass once more, Alec.’

Her thoughts turned to such a riotous laughter that two of the ghostly elf children appeared startled, and faded away. The littlest one stayed, giving Nathalia a smile that was every bit as honest and innocent as a true elf child.

“If he is to have a chance he will need the girl.”

“Emily … ”

She saw it … the one who could heal … and she knew what she had to do.

“You can return, but beware; you will be death to them,” the elf child said, as if reading her thoughts.

“Not to her.”

She saw Emily through her new ‘unique’ perspective. She had always known the girl was powerful, but could never have imagined her true potential.

“No,” the elf child said, looking at Emily’s lifeline with obvious admiration. “Not to her. Only the Abomination is death to her … if he cannot stop it.”

Nathalia grew somber, her body rigid and poised as if she once more faced a field of opponents – orchid blades in her hands. And for a moment they were, flickering with a silver light. But she quickly sent them away … she had other weapons now.

“I won’t fail,” Nathalia said, glaring at the timeline. “I died to save them once … no matter what hell I’m in, I would gladly do it again. If I have to give my soul to save them, then so be it.”

“So be it … ” the elf child said, still smiling as she faded away …

Nathalia became death, and she too faded away, her soul flowing back into the stream of reality.


Chapter Six: Brice


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Lock Core, Post Exodus 565–

Brice did his best to keep pace with his mother. But his mother was tall; her legs lean, strong and long. Only by clinging to her hand was he able to remain with her, though he was more or less dragged along the rich marble hallway. Servants and soldiers passed them by, many shoving or pushing Brice and his mother aside. They once devoted their lives to serving the Langlia household, but now such things as ‘rank’, and ‘position’ were forgotten and ignored in their own haste to abandon the manor.

All that they cherished, they abandoned. Unless it could be used as a weapon, it had to be left behind. Anything else would only hinder their escape, for even their greatest treasures would hold little value while fighting their way through the streets of Lock Core.

Brice’s mother on the other hand, had no need for weapons.

The only thing she took from the mansion was her son.

It all began two days ago, when, for the first time ever, the Death Bell was sounded. The hollow gong reverberated through the streets of Lock Core, filling its citizens with fear. Though they never heard it before, they all knew that the constant, deep clanging could mean only thing — the Black Door was open. And so it was, for soon after the echo of the Death

Bell faded, the Plague poured into the Seventh World.

Thus, the battle to save their world commenced, and for two full days the citizens of Lock Core waited in fear, hoping the forces of the Seventh World could do the impossible; stop the Plague. But today the word was spread: “Lock Core was doomed. The city was to be abandoned”.

All was lost. All must leave.

Everyone fled.

Since it began, Brice knew fear. But now, that fear had grown greater than he ever thought possible. He knew what awaited him in those dark streets. As much as his mother had struggled to shelter him from the truth of the last two days, he had heard the rumors. He had seen the flames rise above the sky, and the shadowed figures they revealed.

Without a doubt, Brice was worried about what his mother and he would soon face, but even more so, he was afraid for the fate of his father, Dane Langlia, who fought atop the fallen wall. Brice was well aware that his father was used to danger, but not even his great Outland adventures could prepare him for the horrors of the Plague.

It was typical for his father’s journeys into the uncharted lands to last for months at a time, but never once did Brice doubt that his father would return … until now. He had only been gone two days now, but Brice and his mother had lived every second of those days in dread.

Unlike the rest of the noble families of Lock Core, the moment the Death Bell tolled, Dane Langlia took the majority of his garrison and marched out to the great Red Wall. They were some of the first true soldiers to stand the wall. Though the soldiers of Lock Core’s garrison were trained to fight, they existed mostly for show. Few, if any, had actually fought a real battle. For the most part, they spent their service walking the Red Wall. If they ever lifted a weapon, it was to salute a tourist.

But Dane and his soldiers were hardened warriors, adventurers who spent most of their lives walking the wilds of the Seventh World, the specter of death always at their side. Over the years, they earned a great deal of fame and respect among the citizens of Lock Core. Because of their explorations, much of the “uncharted lands” were now thoroughly charted.

Likewise, the items they returned with brought great wealth to the city: sacks of priceless gems, gold and silver objects of every shape and size, artwork from distant foreign cultures. But, perhaps most impressive of all, they often found ancient artifacts, items many thought to be relics of the Exodus – perhaps even older, from a time before the days of the Plague.

As impressive as their treasures were, the stories they returned with were even more impressive. There wasn’t an Outland child who didn’t know the tale of ‘The Companions’ Curse’, or ‘The Blade of the Unholy’. To the citizens of Lock Core, the tales were legendary, and often retold. Dane and his soldiers had become a great source of pride for the city; heroes to the children, and celebrities to the general populous.

But Dane’s greatest fan of all was his son. One of Brice’s greatest joys in life was his father’s homecoming, and the plethora of new bedtime stories that were sure to accompany him.

The last two days had seen Dane’s fame and legend grow exponentially. Many new stories of his father’s exploits along the Red Wall filtered down to Brice.

It was said, that with only a handful of Magi and the soldiers of Lock Core, Dane and his men were able to hold the Dark Army back for the first day. Dane himself was credited with that small victory. His ability to coordinate a quick and effective defense kept the Plague at bay. Many even claimed it was a slaughter, that Dane’s cleverness turned the field of battle into a pit of ash and silver-fire. And for a moment, they even believed themselves victorious; the Plague seemed to fall back to the Rift …

… then the second wave came, and the third, the fourth …

Remarkably, the defense held. Dane continued to adapt to the efforts of the Dark Army, no matter what the Rift threw at him.

His efforts may have been responsible for repelling the initial wave of the Plague, but his greatest achievement was being an example for others; getting them to aid in the defense of the wall, thus allowing the fight to continue on.

When the Death Bell first rang, Dane never hesitated to do his duty to protect the city, nor did he cower in his manor – as did many other lords, and city officials. Dane’s bravery brought them all to the wall, rallying the city for a fighting chance. Had the rest of the nobles turned and fled, surely the battle would have ended after that first day. After the stories of his bravery spread, even soldiers from the Outlands poured in, and continued to come.

Until now …

But none of it was enough. And where was Brice’s father now? Was he still fighting atop the wall, or lying dead upon it?

Or was it even worse …

Brice had to know. He wouldn’t leave the city until he knew.

Squeezing his mother’s hand, he joined the exodus, realizing that to get closer to his father he first had to survive his flight from the keep.

His mother took the lead, effortlessly guiding them through the crowd.

Everywhere they stepped, his father’s artifacts, and his mother’s art, littered the floor.

Ancient tapestries were left to be torn and trampled upon. Stone statues toppled from their pedestals, scattering across the floor in broken chunks. The art his mother had once nurtured to life with only the magic of her imagination, and the many priceless objects his father risked life and limb to acquire, had turned to trash, becoming little more than obstacles for the fleeing mob to avoid.

Brice tripped on one such obstacle. He slipped from his mother’s grip, landing face-first into the floor. His mother’s white robe vanished in a press of servants. Even her flowing red locks, which normally towered over all others, began to fade from Brice’s sight. Brice struggled to his feet, but alone he was too small, and was jostled to the ground as the fleeing crowd surged on. They were as oblivious to his small body as they were to the many priceless tapestries strewn along the corridor floor.

Their heavy feet began to kick and trample him.

A boot landed on his back, stomping the air from his lungs as he sought to scream his mother’s name …

Though Dane may have taken his fiercest and most loyal troops to the wall, he didn’t leave his son unprotected. In fact, he left Brice with the greatest protector of all – his mother, Lady Corel.

A wall of fast moving blue flames plowed toward Brice, flinging everyone it touched to the wall.

The onslaught of feet stopped.

Blood pouring from his nose, Brice looked up.

Engulfed in fire, his mother, Lady Corel was hovering over him.

“Enough!” She screamed, her voice amplified by the

Oneness.

“I know your fear. As I know too that I can no longer order you as Lady of the manor. But I beg you, please, stay calm. We may have lost this battle, but the least we can do is try not to kill each other before the dead have a chance to do so. I promise you, there will be time enough for us all to leave the keep. But to leave here safely, we must work together. However, once beyond these walls, we are all on our own. I know not what lays waiting in the streets, only that we each must face it on our own. I believe sometimes, it’s not our lives that are important, but how we face our deaths that matters; with bravery, or cowardice. Sometimes, the manner of our death is the only choice we have left. Please, in what may be our last moment, be brave.’

Many bowed, falling to one knee while they whispered, “Pardons, my Lady” or “Forgive me, Lady Corel”. Others lowered their heads; simply too ashamed to face their former mistress.

Her words brought their judgment back. They remembered why they served the house of Langlia; the pay was good, but they loved their masters.

The house began to empty single file.

Brice’s mother reached down to him with a slender hand covered in blue flames. She rested her palm on his forehead.

Licks of fire crept down his body, mending his bruised body.

“Come, Brice,” she said, helping him to his feet. “We must leave this place.”

‘The sooner the better. Despite what I said, haste is essential,’ his mother continued, relaying a more honest assessment of the situation through her powers of telepathy.

Brice nodded his head while smoothing out his ruffled silk coat. He took his mother’s hand and they continued on, joining the, now orderly, procession heading out of Langlia Manor.

All was well until they reached the foyer – the place where his mother’s most prized possessions were once displayed for all who entered Langlia Manor.

At the sight of the destruction, one would have thought the dead had already ravaged the place.

A sigh left his mother’s lips. Her eyes misted over. The works were scattered along the stairways, their frames broken beyond repair, and their canvases torn.

As tattered as they were, Brice recognized many of the paintings. The images filled his mind with memories of the hours spent at his mother’s side, watching as she transformed the blank canvases into rich images filled with color and life. She never once summoned the blue fire while she worked, yet to

Brice, her paintings seemed birthed of magic none-the-less.

They would be lost to her now. Even the few that remained unscathed could not be carried to safety. They would be left to rot along with the rest of the city.

She took a moment to glimpse them one last time – possibly trying to burn their images into her mind – then tightened her grip on Brice’s hand and continued on.

“Come,” she said, carefully guiding him down the grand central stairway.

Blood spills slicked the steps, a clear indication of the prior, hasty retreat. His mother side-stepped them with queen-like grace, her shimmering white robe never brushing the red pools.

Once at the bottom of the stairway, the great double doors leading to the courtyard loomed before them. Brice felt his mother’s urge to flee, but she buried it, and patiently waited for their turn to exit.

She spared no more final glances to her abandoned home, but kept her light blue eyes fixed on the doors before her.

The moment they crossed the threshold, everything changed.

In the courtyard, chaos reigned. The calming words of Lady Corel were forgotten. The sky poured rain, yet was on fire.

The heavens burned with lightning and blue fire, driving the mob into a deeper frenzy. As one, they bolted toward the eastern gate – the exit leading away from the great Red Wall.

The pounding rain, and feet, had turned the courtyard into a mud pool, causing many to lose their footing in their mad dash. Those who fell were trampled and ignored. The sight of the eastern gate – and the promise of safety beyond – again filled the servants of House Langlia with mad panic. And when they did reach the gate, the surge of bodies plugged the twenty foot wide opening, forcing them to claw and punch their way into to the city streets beyond.

Aghast at the sight, Brice followed his mother as she stepped outside — into the darkness and rain.

Instinctively, Brice moved to join the fleeing crowd, but was halted by his mother’s thin, but deceptively strong, arm.

“I know another way,” she said, guiding him away from the madness.

His boots filling with mud, he trudged through the courtyard. To avoid slipping, or having one of his boots swallowed in the muck, Brice had to keep his focus on the ground.

But his mother was ever vigilant on the path before them. There was a single misplaced shadow hidden in the rain, and the moment she saw it, she instantly ignited into blue flames.

Luckily for the newcomer, her flames illuminated his features. She recognized him just moments before burning him to dust. But even so, Brice could tell by her tense grip on his hand, and continuing swell of flames, that Lady Corel didn’t think the threat of danger had passed.

“Stand where you are, Mal’tavoy,” she called out, her voice booming with the Oneness.

An often friendly playmate and instructor, Mal’tavoy was the teenage son of Hansel, House Langlia’s master-at-arms, and garrison commander.

Brice recognized him, but barely. The young man looked haggard and half dead, not the lively youth so full of laughter and warm smiles that Brice was accustomed to. Also, his black cloak was shredded, and the plates of armor beneath were heavily dented. He was hunched over, and favored his right leg as he walked. His once sharp, pointed nose was smashed in, his upper lip swollen to twice its size. Blood poured down his face, washed away by the rain before it passed his chin.

“My Lady,” the young man said, limping forward and doing his best to accomplish a bow. To avoid collapsing in the mud, he had to prop himself up with his silver etched long sword. “I know what you fear, but on my father’s immortal soul, I promise you I am uninfected.”

Lady Corel didn’t hesitate to confirm his words for herself – her blue flames danced his way, and began delving into his flesh.

“Yes, uninfected … but not long for this world, Mal’tavoy.

Not without help,” Lady Corel said.

Mal’tavoy managed to stand without the aid of his blade as

Lady Corel’s flames began weaving in and out of his body.

“What’s happening out there, Mal’tavoy?” Lady Corel asked.

One look at his mother, and Brice could tell she was dreading the young man’s reply. His mother was normally so cool and collected, but now her fear for Dane was as visibly apparent as Brice’s own.

“My Lady, the city is lost … and I dare say the Seventh as well. The good Master, and those of us that lived, chose to stay for what would undoubtedly be the final assault. I saw it coming with my own eyes, and surely it would overwhelm the Wall. Master Dane wished only to buy the city time. Any thought of victory had long since been forgotten. He knew it was over, so he left me a message, and sent me to find you and the young master. The city is overrun, but I reached the manor through the sewage tunnels and hidden passways. They have yet to be infested, but for how long I cannot say. I only know

that to take the streets is certain death.”

“The message … ?” Lady Corel said, dropping Brice’s hand and striding toward Mal’tavoy, her indigo eyes filling with tears. “What of my husband … what of Dane?”

“My Lady, please,” the young man said, casting a nervous glance at Brice. “Master Dane wished his final words to re-

main in my mind, for only you to see.”

“I keep no secrets from my son, nor would Dane.”

“ ‘For Lady Corel only’, on this he insisted.”

Covered in swirling flames she went to him, silently probing his mind. The flames, and tears, surged as she found her husband’s message.

She spun around, scooping Brice up in her arms.

‘I love you, my son,’ she thought, consumed in grief.

Her wet, red hair draped over Brice.

There was another thought in her mind as well, one she sought to hide from Brice, but was so overwhelming it filled her mind.

‘Such horrors … greater than anything we could have imagined.’

Brice glimpsed the horrors as well – images of the battle at the Red Wall that his mother had viewed while probing Mal’tavoy’s mind. In all of his short life of seven sons, Brice never had a nightmare as terrifying as what he saw in his mother’s mind.

‘You must leave now,’ his mother commanded. ‘Mal’tavoy will lead you through the tunnels and out of the city. Once you are free of this place, do not stop. Never stop. Leave this city as far behind you as possible. This place has become death.’

Brice didn’t bother to ask why she was leaving him, or where she would go. Their fear of the evil spilling into Lock Core was mutual, as was their shared love for Dane Langlia. Even with the macabre visions of the fall of Lock Core at the forefront of his thoughts, Brice’s love for his father was the stronger force. And like his mother, he felt that force pulling him to the northern wall.

“Go now, Mal’tavoy,” Lady Corel said, gently setting Brice down on the mud. “Please Gods, see my son safely from this place.”

Despite her words, she still clung to Brice’s hand.

“On my life, my Lady,” Mal’tavoy said, grabbing Brice’s other hand and forcibly pulling him away from his mother. “We shall leave this hell far behind us.”

‘You know why I must go, Brice?’

Brice nodded, as ever his mind was as one with his mother,

Lady Corel.

Never forget us, my son. And remember how we fought so

that others could live. So that you could live.’

With that, his mother turned and left. She ignored the eastern gate — where a crowd of people continued to fight for a chance at freedom in the streets — but continued through the courtyard, running in the opposite direction of the fleeing mob. Lady Corel went instead to the western gate, and the road to the Red Wall …

… No more than twenty feet into the tunnels, Brice stopped. Silently, he watched as Mal’tavoy’s torch faded to a dim flicker … a distant glow … and then vanished in the darkness.

Before Mal’tavoy even realized he was missing, Brice was back in the courtyard heading for the western gate and the dark streets of Lock Core.

The flashes of lightning fell more sporadic, but the darkness and rain were as thick as ever. Even so, Brice could see it. The Red Wall loomed in the distance; a silent shadow. The bursts of Mage-fire illuminating the skyline were no more. Because of their absence, the wall appeared almost peaceful. But even Brice’s young mind knew what the silence meant. He knew the defenders had failed, and that the wall had fallen.

Even so, it was all the more reason to go there.

He had to get to the wall. He had to find out what became of his parents.

Disgusting, the creature thought, averting his large yellow eyes from the sight. As usual, he squeezed his wide nostrils together to fight off the stench of his ‘companions’; careful to keep the hooked claws of his thumb and forefinger from cutting his face.

Though he no longer looked, the wet slurping sound was enough to nearly make him wretch.

One would think, he thought. Galimoto should be used to this by now.

After countless standard years of servitude, he should have gotten used to such horrors, but thankfully he had not. Without-a-doubt there was a vein of wickedness within his own soul, but compared to what The Master had become, he seemed more a seraph than an imp. Yes, Galimoto was very thankful he was still repulsed by The Master and his appetite for brains.

The slurping sound continued, accompanied by an ecstatic moan from The Master.

Galimoto waited for the sound to subside before opening his eyes. The Master was hunched over a humanoid being with a hollowed out head. Fresh brain matter dripped from The

Master’s long, angular beard.

Please don’t eat that, Galimoto silently begged.

The Master wiped off the remaining chunks with a blood drenched hand, then licked his fingers clean, giving one final moan of pleasure.

Unlike the rest of the Rotten Ones, The Master maintained a strict diet of only brains. A diet The Master had begun the day he was infected by the new and viler version of the Plague. After the Dead Tree took root within his flesh, it was no longer just his body that rotted away, but his soul as well.

Despite his repulsion, Galimot had to admit that The Master was wise, and knowledgeable of many things. And he knew that what he did was essential to both of their existences. As implausible as it seemed, there were worse things … Galimoto knew it to be true.

The Master was a pureblood Makii, one so powerful he crafted life with the Oneness – of which Galimoto’s own existence was accredited. But unfortunately, that very same power played a part in the creation of the Plague as well.

The Virus … it was his last creation.

And afterwards, he brought only death.

When the tree took over the Dark Army, like the rest of his kind, The Master had no choice but to accept the new Plague.

Otherwise, the Void itself would or rise up and destroy him.

Even Galimoto wouldn’t stand for that.

So, in order to save his soul, The Master devised his diet. He discovered that by devouring the minds of others, he could maintain his own.

Before they came to this world, it had been so long since his last feeding that Galimoto feared The Master had left, and only the tree remained. The Master never spoke – rarely thought.

Galimoto often tried to spark a conversation, just to kill the boredom, but it was like talking to a tree – one that wasn’t possessed by the evil incarnation of the Void.

But after eating a few brains, The Master seemed well restored, nearly as good as ever.

At least he is happy now, Galimoto thought, noting the ecstatic look on his face – the way his soggy grey eyes rolled back in his head.

Galimoto would prefer it if The Master didn’t have to eat brains – or flesh, but an undead Master was better than none at all.

Galimoto knew that The Master liked his brain diet for another reason as well; those he ate stayed dead. He spared them his own fate, for The Master was one of a few Makii that had come to realize the creation of the Plague was a grievous error. There was a time when The Master was a peaceful giver of life. He devoted himself to unlocking the secrets of creation. To bring life from nothingness became his singular obsession. The Master believed the Virus would grant him such a power, and if it failed to do so, he would still have an eternity to discover a solution. But after he was infected, it soon became apparent that he was a slave to the Hunger, and the ‘feast’ had become his new singular obsession. Even in the midst of his lustful cravings, The Master still had enough sense to realize what that meant, and what he had lost. He knew he had become a monster. But the hunger drove him on. Despite how repulsive he viewed his own existence, all he wanted was to feed.

And so it went, for more days than Galimoto could possibly remember …

His latest meal complete, The Master stood up. Wasting no time, he began sniffing the air to catch the scent of his next meal.

Like a pack of wild animals, The Master’s other servants moved in, tearing into the poor humanoid’s flesh with their bony hands and rotten teeth. In moments, the being was picked clean. Then they moved on, continuing to hunt the streets, as hungry as ever.

The scene was repeated, over and over. After a while,

Galimoto lost count of how many they took.

All Galimoto could do was pray for it to end. Even the boredom of a living on a lifeless world, talking to a lifeless master, was preferable to the massacre he was now forced to witness. He didn’t bother trying to flee or hide, Galimoto knew all too well the depths of pain The Master could inflict when angered. He understood the nature of his existence, his position in the hierarchy of servitude, and that his life was tied to The Master. It was all quite simple really — the Hunger controlled The Master, and The Master controlled Galimoto.

In the beginning it was different – The Master was different. But The Master had become a demon. As for the demon he once created; Galimoto was the sole remaining testament to his goodness.

His wings of black leather beat hard to keep pace with the hunters as they tore through the city. With every feast, The Master and the other hunters grew stronger, killed quicker, and took on larger prey.

Foolishly, many actually thought to hunt them. But they had little time to contemplate their error before The Master and his minions were upon them. When it was over, they too became a feast.

Galimoto buried deep the hope that one of the planet’s defenders would prove a match to The Master. But it had been ages since Galimoto had seen his Master so strong. Few had ever stood against him — as a true threat. And those that did, ended up proving themselves inadequate to the task. Not to mention, The Master had a distinct advantage over those he faced – the magic of the imp, Galimoto.

Galimoto was pretty certain, The Master was invincible.

Still though, he enjoyed the hope it brought him when creatures did try to kill The Master.

The hunters found another, helpless victim. Galimoto felt The Master exerting his willpower to the utmost to hold the hunters at bay. The Master always wished to be the first to feed, saving the choice parts for himself – the brains, of course. It seemed to Galimoto, that The Master’s struggle to control his minions grew stronger with every passing day. They too were infected with the new Plague. It was only because of his Master’s strength that they obeyed his commands above the will of the Void. But like his wise Master, Galimoto realized that soon the day would come when they would be beyond even his Master’s power, brain diet or no.

Galimoto zipped through the air, barely able to keep up with the speed of his engorged Master. They found his skeletal minions surrounding their latest victim – a frightened, sandyhaired young boy. The boy cowered in the circle of undead, a meager aura of blue covering his skin. The child believed his barrier was the only thing keeping the hunters from tearing him apart, but unbeknownst to him, it was the will of Galimoto’s Master that kept him alive. Empowered as they were, the boy’s thin veil of Oneness would be torn asunder as easily as his flesh.

The undead parted as the Master approached. The boy’s fear visibly increased, along with his barrier of flames. But it would amount to not.

Galimoto closed his eyes and turned away, all too aware of what came next.

But instead of a wave of pleasure emanating from the

Master, he sensed shock – and perhaps even a hint of fear.

Galimoto opened his eyes, but had to immediately close them for he was nearly blinded by a sudden brilliant blue light.

As they adjusted, he squinted at the scene, taking note that a woman now stood over the child – her red hair alive and encased in blue flames. Galimoto couldn’t remember having seen a more beautiful creature. Her legs were so long, Galimoto wished nothing more than to climb them, perhaps make a nest amongst her ample bosom. He watched them heave with her every moistened breath, clearly so plump and round through her white, rain drenched robe.

She stood fierce, powerful, and unafraid before The Master.

Almost stronger than his desire to suckle her, Galimoto felt that sense of hope again – oh how he longed for this woman to kill The Master.

Perhaps the powerful beauty could become his new master?

Several of The Master’s hunters were headless, their bodies scattered across the street. Galimoto wondered how it was possible, until he saw several of them charge the woman, only to be lifted skyward – a noose of blue flames burning through their necks.

The Master seemed impressed, but also angry. His minions were precious to him; each one hand-picked from his many battles throughout the universe. Many had served him for a millennium. They were irreplaceable, especially in this age.

Galimoto was glad to see them go. Every headless body flying through the air left him with a wicked grin.

Then it was The Master’s turn.

A blur, he charged the woman. A dozen threads of light whipped out at him, hoping to snare him like his fallen minions. But The Master moved impossibly fast, and continued to charge right through. The woman barely had time to raise a blue shield before he bore down upon her. Wisps of black smoke rose from his alabaster fists as he hammered down upon the shield of flames. Galimoto had seen those fists crush stone with a single blow – and that was when The Master was at but half of his current strength.

Galimoto expected the shield to crumble, and feared that with every coming blow The Master’s fist would tear through it and her body.

Remarkably, her shield held. She even had enough excess energy to begin forming another attack.

But the Master was wise, and had fought and defeated many strong opponents through the ages. He sensed the coming attack, and redirected his own attacks on the boy — forcing the woman to increase the size of her shield.

They entered a stalemate. As long as The Master continued his attack, she was forced to defend. Perhaps The Master’s strength would prove superior in the long run, but he wasn’t going to wait that long to find out.

The Master’s summoned others of the Dark Army. He knew for certain, his strength would hold out long enough for aid to arrive, and then together they would tear her barrier asunder.

Galimoto also sensed that after her defeat, this brave flamehaired woman would get to keep her brain, but she would join the likes of Galimoto and become a servant of The Master.

“Attack her, Galimoto!” The Master commanded.

Galimoto didn’t want her to become a servant, her wanted her to become The Master.

“No,” Galimoto replied. “Galimoto is done fighting for The Master.”

The look The Master sent him assured Galimoto an eon of suffering, should the woman fall.

She was going to fall.

Many came to the Master’s call – Galimoto smelled them coming.

He thought to aid her, turn his magic against The Master. But his ability to be disobedient to The Master only went so far. If The Master wasn’t so focused on killing the woman Galimoto would have to do what he willed, whether he liked it or not.

An army of the dead filled the streets, swarming down upon the red haired woman. The woman must have been special indeed to illicit such a response from the Void, it seemed as if the entire Dark Army had been redirected to fight the woman.

Buried under a pile of rotten limbs, her shield glowed … and continued to hold.

But it was fading – slowly, but definitely fading.

It was only a matter of time now …

Galimoto distanced himself from the scene, and once more covered his eyes. Then it happened … A miracle.

… The Master was destroyed.

Galimoto sensed it coming and opened his eyes.

A wave of darkness arose, engulfing the sky. With an earshattering roar, it spread across the city, spilling into the streets and laying waste to all it touched.

The Master sensed it too. He paused his attack and turned to face it.

The wise and ancient Master looked on … confused.

Before he decided what to make of it, the wave washed over him …

Then, just like that he was gone.

In all of the madness, the beautiful woman sensed it coming as well. Unlike The Master, before it fell upon her she decided how to face it.

She gave every last ounce of her strength to her shield, and then focused it solely on her son.

When the darkness passed, there was little left; no Master, no woman, no city … and Galimoto was soon to join them in oblivion.

A single thread of magic remained.

Galimoto understood that, if he was to live, he had to bond with it.

So he followed it … and he found it faintly beating in the charred little body of the boy … his new Master.


Chapter Seven: Destroyer


–End of the Age of Death,

The Dead Worlds

Post Exodus 586–

The Void …

It was power — it was truth — it was death … It was Alec … and it could not be escaped – the Dead Gods had been fools to think otherwise.

Damned Dead Gods! Face me!

World after world he sought them – the Dead Gods, the cause of it all.

Thus far he found only their Dead Worlds – planets once full of life, now abandoned and desecrated.

One after another he found these “Dead Worlds”. When he left them, they were particles of dust drifting in space, waiting to be reclaimed by the universe.

He stepped out of the Rift, found himself on yet another lifeless world. The moment he entered, he knew it was vacant, even the Dead Gods were long gone – only their scent remained, as though taunting him ever deeper into the Rift.

Lighting fell like rain from the orange sky. While the rain itself was acid, drenching his naked body. He let it all wash over him, hoping it would cleanse him, eat away his sins – or his flesh, thus ending his pain. But it wouldn’t be that easy, the darkness was a part of him now – it was him. The rain and lightning merely tickled his bare skin. He ignored it, just as he ignored the cyclone of sand and wind tearing apart the distant horizon. A storm was coming, one powerful enough to reshape the very landscape of this world. But Alec didn’t care. He only had eyes for the marvel before him.

It was unlike anything he had seen before. It seemed impossible, but a structure remained … a tower — a shining black rectangular tower that rose hundreds of feet to the sky. While all else had been obliterated in this world’s harsh environment, the tower somehow stood — seemingly untouched. He left the Rift pulsing at his back — the sky broiling in front of him, and he went to investigate.

As much as he wished to continue his pursuit of the Dead Gods, he felt compelled to satisfy his curiosity; he needed to know the nature of the tower; why it alone was left standing when all else turned to sand.

Besides, he had time … he had all of eternity to find the Dead Gods. Sooner or later, he will catch up to them, and when he does, he will put an end to what they started. He will show them how truly laughable their immortality is; that even their lives have an inevitable end — and he will be the cause of it.

The rain stopped, replaced by driving gusts of sand. The wind should have carried him away, the sand should have scoured his flesh, but he ignored it as easily as he ignored the acid rain.

Calmly, he strolled to the tower. He didn’t give a thought to the impending storm, choosing instead to indulge his mind with thoughts of how he would end the Dead Gods, and how happy he would be when his dark power washed over them – erased them. He laughed, picturing them vanishing in a wave of the black wind …

Just like they did when last he faced the Plague … … Nathalia … oblivion.

He wasn’t laughing any more.

No matter how deep into the Rift he went, he couldn’t escape the knowledge that he sent her to the Void as well.

He knew it would come to be … he had always known. All those he loved would die. All would die. It was what he was born to do – to erase the error of the Dead Gods. He was made to destroy it all … But who in the dead made me?

He was often plagued by that thought.

He could imagine only one possibility — that he was son to the Void itself; birthed to enact his father’s vengeance.

But he didn’t give a dead about the Void, or its war with life and the Plague. This was his war, his decision to make. And he had decided …

He was going to destroy it all.

It was ruined, corrupted now. If ever there was goodness in the universe it had long since ceased to be. Nathalia was the only good thing left in it, and he had destroyed her. She alone kept his power at bay. With her gone … he couldn’t think of a single good reason not to destroy it.

He knew deep down that no matter what he did she was doomed – but for it to happen because of him, made it insufferable.

But was it because of him?

He had asked himself that question on every world he visited, and the nearer he drew to these supposed “Gods”, the more he found them to blame.

Yes, the Dead Gods were the cause of it all, and they would pay for what they have done. Soon enough …

But first he had a mystery to solve.

What in the dead hell is this place? Alec wondered as he stood at the base of it, trying to find some kind of entrance into the strange structure. The walls were all smooth, like glass. As far as he could tell, there wasn’t a single nick or scratch on any surface.

The winds intensified. On the horizon, sand dunes flowed like waves.

Alec knew that he had to solve this mystery soon, or else he would be plowing through a mountain of sand to get back to the Rift.

He could think of only one thing to do …

Why not, he thought, sending his energy outward to bore a hole into the tower …

… he awoke on his back, still outside. The storm was on top of him. The air had been replaced by clouds of whipping sand.

“That was interesting … But please, human, do not do that again.”

The speaker was very near, had he not been, the sound of his raspy voice would have been lost in the howling winds.

Alec saw the man’s shadowy outline at his side. Because the air was thick with sand, his features were indistinguishable.

No …

It was no man. He saw the creature quite clearly.

“Dead God … ” Alec grumbled, getting to his feet. “Prepare to die.”

“Gladly,” the being calmly said, even bowing in acceptance.

Alec wasn’t interested in playing games. His power went out, tearing the being apart almost instantaneously.

No … he thought. Halfway through dissecting the being, he had entered its mind.

Death would be a blessing for this one.

The being reformed on the ground — a pile of shadows.

Alec had learned a great deal by tearing apart its mind, but there were many gaps; blank white spaces were answers should be. Somehow this Dead God was able to keep secrets, even from Alec. It would have been another mystery, if Alec hadn’t seen a familiar face in the Dead God’s memories; a face he had seen often in the mind of the goddess, Alana.

Anon … Why are you working with a Dead God?

He was dying to meet this, Anon; he had more than one question he would like to ask the man (or god, which he honestly seemed to be). But he had to solve one riddle at a time.

“I know you’ve been here before, Imorbis. But what is it? And more importantly, why have you brought me here? Speak

up, destruction isn’t my only gift, I can create pain as well.”

“Pain?” the crumpled form responded, slowly lurching to a humanoid shape. “You have seen my pain, human. Surely you know that you have nothing new to show me.”

Alec was at a loss, unsure how to deal with the being. Killing him would be a gift, and torture was meaningless. With all his power, he had no means by which to make him speak.

“Think, human … Yes, it was I who brought you here. But why else would I have done so, if not to tell you what you must

know; the truth of the Plague, and why you exist.”

Alec felt like a fool … a powerful godlike fool. He had been following a path through the Rift that had been laid out before him by this Dead God – he had seen the truth of it in Imorbis’ mind. He had thought he was going to simply lay waste to it all – Dead Worlds, Dead Gods, and all they had wrought. He thought it was his choice, his war … but he was just a tool — a dumb, omniscient, world ending tool.

He remembered his fights with Nathalia; how they always ended with him feeling as foolish as he did now. He also remembered there was a way to avoid such arguments, or failing that, at least dig himself out of a hole.

“Please, Imorbis’, can you tell me what in the dead hell this thing is before we are both buried in sand?” Alec said, attempting his best effort at politeness.

The creature’s face split into a grin.

“Your kindness is appreciated, but not necessary. The only thing that would have kept me from speaking would have been my death … which you have decided to withhold. I guided you here because there is much you must know before you meet your true enemy. To begin with, would be the tower. We, the Makii, have named it ‘Alpha’ … we believe it is the beginning

of it all, as ancient as the universe itself.”

“So, what is it? And how in the dead did it get here?” Alec asked, resting his hand on the smooth black wall.

“We know not. As I said, it is ancient, and existed before there was life, possibly before the universe itself. For a time, Alpha was known to the Makii as only a myth. On occasion, we heard stories from those we conquered. Stories of a black pillar that moves through worlds, and where it lands, change and revolution are sure to follow. They called it the ‘God Stone’, and even worshipped it as if it was the creator itself. But the Makii were the only true gods, all others religions we burnt in the flames of the Oneness …

Our conquest of the universe continued, and stories of the ‘God Stone’ were all but forgotten. It wasn’t until our dominion was complete that we encountered it. After our victory, our quest to understand existence had begun. And to gain this knowledge, we tracked the spread of life back to its origin, back to the chaos that is the universe’s core. The core is a place where galaxies collide, and black holes are more abundant than stars. Virtually all of the races considered it uninhabitable. For a starship to even venture near such a place, would be a risk no captain would dare take. But with the power of the Darkbridge, the Makii took one step and we were here.

And what we found on this planet, this world … was the pillar, Alpha. Here it stood, as though it had been waiting for our arrival the entire time. And yes, human, once it was found, there was a great change.

You wish to know what it is? The Makii sent their most gifted to answer that very question, of which I was one. And though theories abound, all we could determine for certain was that beyond a doubt this is where it all started … creation. Right here, on this world. The secrets of the God Stone defy all our logic, powers, and technologies. Whatever it is, we only know that it started us on the path to the Singularity, the Oneness, and yes, even most recently, the Plague.”

“How do you know that?” Alec asked, though he didn’t doubt Imorbis’ words for a moment.

“The universe has known suffering and death, even before the creation of the Plague. The Age of War was one such time. The blessings of the mind — invention and creativity — were devoted to one thing, murder. To achieve the death of one’s enemies, faster and more efficiently than your opponent – this was the key to victory, and the goal of every planet and every race. The carnage lasted for millennia, and seemed as though it would continue without end … Until one man made a remarkable discovery. His mind had evolved. In an age where technology and machines held the key to victory, he changed the balance of the war.

Many had the power to control the machines, but this man did so unaided, with only the power of his mind. With a thought, he could tap into and take over any machine. Eventually, this ability became known as the Singularity. His descendants carried on his power, and enhanced it. They became known by their ancestor’s given name, Makii. When their numbers grew, they dominated the universe.

But many powerful enemies remained. As did many technologies that even the greatest machines could not defeat. So again we, the Makii evolved. This time we achieved the Oneness. No longer did we simply control machines … we controlled all things. When at last we opened the Darkbridge, we were unstoppable. We called ourselves gods, and ruled the universe as though we were truly such. But we died. We all died. To hold such power, yet be faced with mortality was an inconceivable notion to the Makii. So, once more we had to

evolve … to be Gods in truth that was our goal.”

“But you made the Plague instead.”

“No, it was then that we found Alpha – an encounter that could be no coincidence. The Plague came later … As I said, theories abound. Some say it is a door, or a ship, perhaps even a god. Me, I believe it is the Void — a shard of the abyss that ended up in our reality and warped the universe, forming matter, the stars, planets, and eventually life as well.

… I thought I could control it, harness it. Use its power against itself. And at last, the Makii would have a chance at immortality and could escape the Void forever.” “Nothing escapes the Void,” Alec blurted out.

“Yes, with much regret, I see how foolish a notion that was. I now see the God Stone in a new light. Yes, it is the beginning and the end, but more aptly, it is a path. Evolution. We, the Makii tampered with that path, redirected it. We were so consumed with the importance of our own existence, we failed to realize we put the entire universe in peril.

But know this before you go further, human; the Void itself has come to claim us, all of us and everything. The Dead Gods are empty vessels the Void has filled. Your true enemy – the one which you were made to face – is chaos itself. The Plague was most certainly a grievous error, but it pales in comparison to what it has birthed into this reality. Creation itself will crumble if it cannot be stopped. That is why I brought you here, to where our path began. Before you go further, you must know that your powers were meant to pave way for a new

beginning, and not just an end.”

“I’m a tool,” Alec bluntly stated.

Not since he first met the Red-Mage had he wanted a drink so badly.

“Yes, human,” Imorbis replied with all honesty. “You are a

tool to bring us back to the Maker’s path.”

The Maker? Alec thought, not even bothering to voice the question out loud. He already had enough to ponder.

“Who are you, Imorbis, really?”

“You must have realized it by now, human … possibly seen it in my mind.”

Alec knew, but he didn’t want to say it. He would never say it.

“I am your maker, of course.”

Of course …

“Great, just don’t expect me to call you, dad, Imorbis.” The Dead God sent him a warped grin.

“I would not dream of it … son.”

Alec almost scattered the Dead God’s particles to the wind, then and there. But there was more that he needed to know, and as much as he hated to admit it, he needed the Dead God.

“Now, human. What else would you like to know?”

“Just one thing.”

There was more to the story. He had to know it all.

“Where is Anon?”

“I thought you would never ask. You will find him when you

find your enemy, on the world Ki’minsyllessil …


Chapter Eight: Boulder Brothers


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Lock Core, Post Exodus 565–

The rain continued to fall upon the Red Wall …

… so too did his father’s hammer, every blow landing on the stone like a violent crash of thunder.

The rain and oncoming night challenged Drau’d’s limited cave-vision, obscuring his father’s image. He could see clearly for ten steps in front of him, but beyond that, the Red Wall was a blur, and the land below a writhing black pit. Thankfully, by following the repetitive booms of his father’s hammer, he was easy to find amidst the walkway full of prowling shadows.

Through sheets of driving rain he closed in on the sound, finding his father’s massive form hammering away at a humanoid body at his feet. Deeply set within his crag-like eyebrows, his wide brown eyes were a mix of rage and intense focus as he sought to decimate the being. Tufts of curly grey hair sprouted from his head like a bush, so matted and snarled they defied the drenching rain

His legs trembling as the walkway vibrated below his feet, Drua’d steadied himself and lumbered towards him.

For as long as he could remember, a smile had blessed his father’s face. The only thing more legendary than his strength was his kindness. But ever since the Rift awoke, a dark scowl had been spreading upon his visage. And now, three days into the war, Drau’d feared that scowl had become a permanent fixture.

Once more the elder giant raised the massive crystalline hammer to the sky … with a roar, he propelled it downward, backing the swing with the full might of his massive arms and shoulders.

Drau’d’s legs nearly buckled beneath the blast. The granite below him fractured into hundreds of spider web cracks.

Before his father raised the hammer for another blow, Drau’d called to him.

“You’ve been summoned, Father,” the young giant said, raising his voice to be heard above the rain.

His father turned to regard him, and for a moment, the familiar wide smile returned.

Standing just over five-stones (roughly ten human feet), his father wasn’t the largest of the Boulder Dwarfs. But with his muscular arms and shoulders hardened from years of toil in the granite mines, he was possibly the strongest. Every passing day, Drau’d seemed to be gaining on him in height, yet was still a long way from filling out to match his girth.

That wasn’t to say Drau’d was weak — far from it. It simply meant that because he had only seen the passing of twentyfour sun stones, he lacked the rock-hard physique that could only be earned through a lifetime of rigorous work.

“Summoned?” his father replied, pausing to lift his hammer off the pile of mush that was once the being’s head.

“Summoned for what?”

Little flesh remained on the corpse’s bones, and that which did, was yellow and continually bled, excreting a black pus-like substance. Many of its organs were exposed, though none of them were recognizable. Judging on its location, Drau’d figured the pile of black slime spilling from its midsection to be its entrails.

The sight – and the smell – of the dead ones was still horrifying to him. As was the realization that some unholy miracle was even now keeping the creature alive.

For the most part, they had cleared the walkway of the abominations, but a few of them were proving more difficult to be rid of.

This one especially …

It was an ancient one, and though the body was no larger than a human’s, it had been a most deadly opponent. After a millennium of infection, its cells and its soul were utterly consumed by the dark power, endowing it with strength equal to the greatest of the Boulder Lords. And it was faster … far faster than his kin — faster than any living being should be. Sadly, three of their Lords fell before it was defeated. That they defeated it at all seemed a miracle, for whatever dark power gave it strength also made it nearly indestructible.

Even weapons of silver proved ineffective against it.

Drau’d remembered his own failed attempt to end the abomination; for a split second, the creature was preoccupied, tearing handfuls of flesh from a defeated Brother, allowing Drau’d to land his mace of silver spikes on the top of its head. Like hitting a wall of pure granite, the blow reverberated through his weapon, jolting his entire massive body. The being didn’t explode into silver-fire, nor did the spikes even penetrate its skull. With all of his weight and power behind the blow, Drau’d was barely able to drive it to its knees. He only managed to stun it, and only momentarily.

Nevertheless, the momentarily pause was enough time for his father, Brodin, to step in and pound it into the walkway with the legendary hammer, “Hell’s Bane”. Others joined in, including Drau’d, but only the blows of “Hell’s Bane” had any lasting effect. Still, it took over five solid swings by his father, the mighty Brodin, before the being went down. And even now, with its mushy black brains splayed over the walkway it refused to die; its fleshless hands flailed about in an attempt to dig into his father’s legs and spread its foul essence.

Brodin stilled the nearest hand, stomping on it with an enormous black boot.

“They’re holding a Council … ” Drua’d hesitantly continued, knowing full well how his father felt about such things. “For

all we know, it could be the last one ever.”

At the words, every hint of a smile faded. A fierce glint filled his father’s eyes. Like a beast sizing up its prey, he looked at Drau’d; the wild grey locks covering his face and head standing up like a lion’s mane.

“A Council eh?” Brodin replied, turning from his son to renew his efforts to kill the creature. As if he was working stone, he rhythmically slammed “Hell’s Bane” against the creature’s body. “Tell em I’m busy.”

Drau’d thought he saw an inner glow from the hammer as his father collapsed the being’s chest cavity. But the glow vanished, and he dismissed it as a trick of his mind; the hammer most likely catching the light of mage-fire or a distant lighting strike.

“Humph,” Brodin scoffed, the being little more than a mess of black slime around his boots. “Let’s see you get up from that.”

As if in response, the more meaty areas of the slime twitched.

“Will someone get me a Mage to rid us of this thing!” he shouted to a pair of giants who were guiding a cart laden with large stones through the walkway. “Can’t hardly burn it myself in this damn rain.”

Seeing the ferocious look in their leader’s eyes, they deposited their load then hurried to comply.

For the moment, the northern quarter was secure. Earlier that day, they had retaken a large portion of the Wall, joining forces with the garrison of humans, elves and their diminutive cousins the rock dwarves. The battle had been bloody, brutal, and highly costly to their kin. Many of his kin fell … but everyone they lost took a great toll on the army of the Plague.

When first the Rift awoke, it was a full day before they heard news of it – and another full day before they reached the Red Wall. Though late to the party, their arrival couldn’t have come at a better time. Their deafening charge down the wall took the Plague by surprise. The undead had victory all but in their grasp when the two hundred Boulder Lords came storming down the wall, sweeping thousands of the fiends to their deaths.

However, even now the undead forces were amassing below, preparing for another assault; obviously intent on taking this section of the wall.

To slow their progression, the Magi were working in shifts; half of them were busy raining flames down upon the gathering forces, while the others took a moment to rest and regain their strength. The humans were either scrambling down the walkway, resupplying the defenders with silver-tipped arrows, or they were constantly unleashing those arrows into the horde below. The elves lined the knee-wall alongside the humans; each wielding a longbow of black elm equal to their height (which was well over seven-feet tall). Even in the driving rain and darkening sky, with their keen grey and white eyes they could pick off enemies from five hundred yards away; their arrows flying from their fingertips twice as fast as the human archers.

Drau’d’s ‘cousins’ the Rock Dwarves, put their enhanced night-vision to use as they searched the walkway for fallen companions, or any remnants of the undead army, and put a permanent end to them with their silver hammers and axes.

As for the Boulder Lords, some, like his father, were helping the dwarves; insuring all those they ‘killed’ in the recent battle were actually dead. The rest of them were harvesting stones from any nearby non-defensive structures and stacking them along the knee wall. When the battle renewed, his kin would hurl the stones into the oncoming horde.

“Why in the Seventh would they call a Council now anyway?” Brodin pondered, mostly to himself, ignoring the twitching pile of slime at his boots.

“Perhaps they have a plan,” Drau’d said, doing his best to sound optimistic.

His father’s raucous laughter caused any nearby dwarves to pause their tasks.

“A way to drive them back into Hell’s Door once and for all,” Drau’d continued, trying to convince his father to take the

Council seriously.

“A plan … ?” Brodin mocked, slapping his meaty palm upon Drau’d’s shoulder. “You’ve seen what this enemy is capable of, my boy. Seems to me, there’s only one plan left … we stand our ground, or the Seventh World dies. Our Keeper’s a wise

enough fellow, surely he can see what this is … ”

Wrapping both hands around “Hell’s Bane’s” handle, he hoisted the shimmering brick of crystal to his shoulder and continued, “To be sure, our ancestors had a plan … a good one, a real chance to end this madness. But by dead if we didn’t ignore it. Instead of strengthening the wall, we created a city … a city for the dead ones to feed upon.”

Drau’d knew what this was. He had seen it in their fight for the walkway, as he saw it still, filling the vale below. He didn’t have to be as wise as his father, or the Keeper, to know the truth of it.

They couldn’t hope to defeat this foe. This was the end of the Seventh World, and perhaps the end of all life.

But knowing that … seeing the endless undead army pouring into his world … it didn’t make him want to run and hide, prolonging the inevitable. Instead, the thought of it filled his veins with fire, a rage unlike anything he felt before. With the end so close, he only wanted to fight harder, survive longer, and never give up; not until his heart stopped beating and he was taken either in death, or the undeath.

He prayed to the gods, it wasn’t the latter.

“Since the Exodus, the Triad has stood as one,” Drau’d said, his intense brown eyes a mirror image of his father’s. “If this is the end, it should still be so.”

“Aye, it should … ” resigned, Brodin agreed with him. Above all, his father was honorable. Even if he thought the Council was a waste of time, he would fulfill his duty and attend.

Drau’d saw the inner struggle within his eyes; as much as he was honor-bound to attend, Brodin also needed to be with his people, at the war-front where his strength and the power of “Hell’s Bane” counted for more than debating the inevitable at the Council.

Drau’d knew where his father’s heart lay. He had never been one for deliberating. Brodin had always let his hammer do the talking for him, whether it was in the mines of the Athmas or, more recently, the walkway of Lock Core.

“With your permission … I would attend in your stead,” Drau’d said, not eager to leave his kin, but well aware that his father was far more valuable on the wall. “Besides, without the mighty Brodin to guard it, surely Lock Core will fall,”

Drua’d chided, though he believed the words to be true.

“Ha … ”

A toothy grin covered his father’s face.

“You’ve more than proven yourself worthy to do so, first as a warrior, now as a crafty politician,” he continued, smiling at Drau’d with pride. “The Council would be lucky to have you, my son. And the Boulder Lords lucky to have you as our representative. I dare say, the only one to suffer will be the Red Wall, for the mighty Drau’d will be sorely missed upon its heights.”

Drau’d reached out to clasp his father’s hand, only to find himself pulled in by his iron grip. One arm still balanced “Hell’s Bane” on his shoulder while the other wrapped Drau’d in a bone-crushing hug. A little surprised by the sentiment, Drau’d wondered if his father was merely proud of him, or if he thought it was the last time he would see his son.

“I’ll return to fight at your side, father,” Drau’d stated, doing his best to convince his father – and himself – that they would meet again.

Brodin nodded his head, though it was obvious from the look in his eyes that he knew better.

“Go then, my son. Stand for the Lords. You’ve earned a chance to lead our people, I’m sorry if this is the only one you’ll get … ”

Drau’d nodded back, then turned to leave, heading to the Northern Tower.

Behind him, his father set to work on another twitching corpse. Drau’d only made it a few feet before his heard his father’s gruff voice call out to him one last time, “If I’ve fallen when you return … take “Hell’s Bane”, and make certain my death is a permanent one.”

“I won’t disappoint you … ”

“No, son. You never have … ” Brodin whispered.

He couldn’t bear to watch him leave – not without becoming a whimpering babe in front of the rest of the defenders; the mere thought of never seeing his son again nearly drew him to tears. Doing his best to bury his sadness, he continued down the walkway, unleashing his emotions by laying waste to anything moving that wasn’t alive.

No matter what was to come, he knew his son would die well and with honor. He was not only blessed with a warrior’s heart, but a caring soul as well – a most rare, and special combination. Whatever the battle, Drau’d would always fight for the side of the righteous.

He tried to convince himself that it was a good thing he had left, and that Drau’d would be safer with the Council. After all, the World’s most powerful mages would be in attendance, and with any luck, so too would the One Elf.

Yes, it is good he has left, Brondin decided.

Drau’d stood a much better chance in the tower than he did on the walkway. The wall was a slaughterhouse. The living were the cattle. He knew what was to come, but he didn’t want to see it – to see the potential and goodness of his eldest boy desecrated, his body butchered. Brodin knew his own days were numbered, whether he died in this battle or home, upon his deathbed. But he had lived his life to the fullest; found the love of his life, and raised two strong sons.

Drua’d deserved as much. No … he deserved more. He was stronger, kinder and wiser than Brodin ever hoped to be. He would have led his people with honor.

Now he would never get that chance … the closest he would come was a meaningless Council.

His youngest boy, Gunt, would have to take on that duty. Though yet a child, Gunt would be the last of his line, and therefore heir to whatever remained of the kingdom of the

Boulder Lords.

He grinned, thinking of his first trial in this war, having to tell his feisty little boy that he was too young to join them. Unlike his elder brother, Gunt had been fighting him since the day he was born; every bit as fierce as his mother, and as stubborn as his father. A child born for war, he would take on any enemy no matter the odds, and for no other reason than he loved a good fight.

Despite having lived to see only sixteen sun stones, he had no doubt Gunt would have honored their people in the field of battle. But his rage was unbridled, and he was far too rash. He wasn’t ready for war, not yet. Because he lacked maturity and discipline, he most likely would have fallen sooner than later. Brodin had no desire to lead him to his death, and certainly no desire to witness it.

If Gunt obeyed his father’s final command, and led his people deep into the mountains, then gods willing, in time, he shall grow to adulthood and be granted the opportunity to quench his blood-lust in battle against the undead horde.

He could no longer hold back his tears as he pictured his youngest son’s anger pitted against the Plague. Oh how he wished he could have seen it …

Wiping away the tears, sweat and rain from his eyes, Brodin continued to clear the walkway, the thought of his youngest son avenging the fallen Boulder Lords making his grisly task a bit more bearable.

After bludgeoning a few more undead skulls, he couldn’t find anything else to eradicate. Most of the smaller Rock Dwarves were in a similar position, and had stowed their weapons so they could drag the lifeless corpses to the edge of the wall and hurl them into the throng below.

As he watched them labor, Brodin still found it strange that, among the rest of the Triad, his people had somehow gained the title ‘dwarf’. It wasn’t that he resented it, or found the contradictory title insulting. There was great kinship between the two races, and both groups were more than happy to be thought of as family.

Since the exodus, they had formed an immediate bond with the dwarven race. The two races were so often working together, and so physically similar (other than their size), that the rest of the Triad found it convenient to lump them together. In their mountain homes, they were relatively secluded from the rest of the races. Dwarven artisans and builders could often be found in Lock Core, but the majority of their people remained in the mountains; the Rock Dwarves dwelling deep within, burrowing caverns, halls and mining the rich supply of precious ore, while the Boulder Dwarves lived upon the cliffs, constantly sculpting the mountain face into elaborate caves.

To the Triad, his people were known as Dwarves, but among his own kind they were Lords – the Boulder Lords. If the Triad wished to group them with the dwarves, then so be it. The Lords considered it an honor to be included in such noble company.

He patted one of his smaller kin on the back, nearly toppling him over as he sought to pull his pickaxe from the skull of an undead corpse. Together, they shared a chuckle as the little dwarf’s temporary loss of balance forced him to rip the head off the rotten corpse.

“You wouldn’t have that problem if you used a hammer, Grandlefist,” Brodin joked, pointing to the crystal brick that was “Hell’s Bane”.

“You know … ” the dwarf said, studying the foul head stuck to his weapon. “I think I rather like it. Maybe I’ll keep er there … let the rest of these bastards know what they’re in for.”

Brodin replied with a booming laugh, even though Grandlefist hadn’t intended it as a joke. And indeed, the dwarf left the head as it was – a foot of silver coated spike sticking out from between its eyes. Just to even out the weapon’s weight, he found another corpse, and buried the other end of his pickaxe into its head.

Still laughing, Brodin moved on, checking the progress of the rest of the defenders.

For the most part, they had cleared the walkway of corpses, and the rain was taking care of the remaining blood and gore. The Boulder Lords continued to gather nearby stones, and had created several towering stacks along the edge of the wall. Brodin inspected a stack of the large granite blocks, testing their heft to see how quickly he could start hurling them into the horde below. He held one aloft, just beyond the edge of the Red Wall. To check its effectiveness, he let if fall, counting the seconds before he heard a distant, satisfactory thunk, accompanied by a guttural scream from below. He pondered dumping them all, so irresistible was the urge, so satisfactory the ‘thunk’. He stayed his hand however, knowing the time was soon to come when he would have more than his share of killing.

Night was creeping in, further darkening the dreary grey sky. Gradually, his eyes adjusted to the difference. The eyes of the Boulder Lords weren’t as strong in the darkness as their smaller cousins nor anywhere near as keen as that of the elves. But with the help of the constant barrage of mage-flare and occasional lightning strikes, even Brodin could see that the latest army was far more powerful than anything they faced before. Not only had they grown to cover the land below, but they continued to spill from the Black Door, piling over one another in their blood-thirsty rage to reach the wall. At the base of the wall, a sizeable pile had formed — despite the arrows, flames, and giant stones that were being hurled at it.

He couldn’t get a clear image of the enemy, but the one thing he could discern was that among this group he noticed many that were fleshless and skeletal; similar to the ancient one that had been nearly impossible to take down.

It was to be expected … so it went since the beginning. Every wave was a test, and one wave after another the forces of the Plague tested the wall. The arrival of the ancient ones in the last group was merely another test. Most likely, whoever commanded the Plague wanted to see how the defenders stacked up against them, or if they were even capable of killing them. To be sure, they could kill them – “Hell’s Bane” had seen an end to one of them. But that was only one of the ancient ones. Now, though the skeletal shapes were difficult to count in the pit of writhing bodies, there had to be thousands of such beings … and more poured from the Rift every minute.

He looked down upon the gathering army in sadness, knowing this would be the final wave. The enemy had learned all it needed to know. Now, it would hold nothing back …

And so it began … like a single entity, the mass of bodies began surging up the Red Wall.

“Brothers, to the wall!” He thundered.

He didn’t bother to look to see if his command was obeyed, the pounding of nearly two hundred pairs of giant feet was enough confirmation.

Quicker than he expected, they scaled the wall; the fleshless ones … too many of the fleshless ones, their fingertips digging into pure granite as if soft earth. Immune to fatigue, strengthened by the Virus and ensuing bloodlust, the climb wasn’t difficult for them … but it did slow them down.

It did give the Brothers enough time to reach the wall and drop their stones.

Setting “Hell’s Bane” aside, Brodin lifted one of the large bricks over the knee wall (which was no higher than his ankles) and immediately let it fall. The first ancient one in its path his saw it coming; his glassy, black eyes were emotionless as the stone plummeted towards him. As if an afterthought, the creature tried to dodge it. Though it moved quickly, the stone managed to clip its arm, and in a burst of foul black blood, it tore the limb clean off. His expression as emotionless as ever, the ancient one went plummeting end over end after his fallen arm.

Those below it had no idea what was coming. Their fallen companion and the stone collided into them, creating a chain reaction of tumbling bodies. One by one the stone peeled them from the wall, clearing a straight path to the field below.

The path closed instantly.

But now Brodin had a stone on each shoulder and was dropping them in pairs, hurling them as fast as his massive arms could lift them.

Even so, in his periphery, he saw that the wall was being covered by the foul creatures. With every passing second, the swarm of bodies grew closer to the top of the Red Wall.

And meanwhile, the Brothers were running out of stones – not that it really mattered, for it was becoming apparent that the dead would reach them before that happened. Brodin waited until he saw a skeletal hand clutching the knee wall, then he slammed his final stone down upon the creature. Instead of grabbing another brick, he wrapped his callused palms around the steel column that was the handle of “Hell’s Bane”.

The undead were about to surmount the wall. He raised the hammer into the air, preparing to blow anything that made it over back into the Rift. But instead, Brodin was the one flying backwards. He landed on the walkway, his ass taking the worst of the damage as the face of the wall was doused in broiling flames.

“Damned Mages. Cutting er a bit close, ain’t they, Brodin?”

Picking “Hell’s Bane” off the walkway, he turned to find Grandlefist at his side. His face was blackened. Smoke rose from his singed red beard. One hand held a light-weight shield of their special ‘blue-steel’, the other tightly gripped a pickaxe with a pair of half-rotten skulls on either end.

Several of Brodin’s kin rushed to his aid, but he shrugged them off, getting to his feet by using “Hell’s Bane” as a prop.

A quick glance to his left and to his right revealed a line of dwarves, giants, humans and elves arrayed along the knee-wall for as far as he could see.

They all looked below, to the burning dead ones. Though they burned, few fell … and they continued to climb. Several of the defenders emptied their stomachs onto the horde as the stench of thousands of burning corpses wafted over the wall. Brodin’s gut was hard as rock, but as his gaping nostrils sucked in the foul air even he felt the bile rising at the back of his throat.

“Apparently, the Magi didn’t cut it close enough, Grandlefist.” Brodin replied, watching as the burning horde drew nearer. As if they weren’t horrid to begin with, now what little flesh they had was cooking and sloughing off of their bones.

Shouting at the top of his mighty lungs, he called out to anyone on the wall that could hear him, “Guardians of the Gate, gather yourselves. Our end is near … I will not promise you a victory. But if we stand strong … and stand together, I guarantee that when you fall … you will have died a good death. And with any luck, you’ll have sent some of these bastards back to hell where they belong.”

A battle cry resounded along the wall. Preparing to meet the final wave, the defenders raised their melee weapons to the

air, crying out, “So that all may live!”

With his knuckles whitening on the steel handle — skeletal hands topped the wall — “Hell’s Bane” came slamming down.

The Red Wall had fallen. The throng of lifeless flooded the walkway, and spilled into the city, where they satiated their hunger within the very streets of Lock Core.

The line of defenders was reduced to a ring. They were constantly moving back … their numbers constantly shrinking. Humans were scarce among them – dwarves even scarcer. Elves formed the majority of the circle. Of the Boulder Lords, few of his kin remained. None would say they died easily, or from lack of fight. Indeed, the Boulder Lords sent many to hell before they went down. But unfortunately, their massive bodies proved too large a target, and the latest wave of enemies were much quicker than those that came before; many were, in fact, the ancient ones. And many were something else … something far worse. Though they all shared the same callous stare, the blood of some was like acid, and burnt flesh and even steel when spilt. The handle of “Hell’s Bane” was well worn from facing such beings. Blessed be the Gods, the crystal brick at the end suffered no such damage.

The only positive note to the battle – if it could be considered as such – was that the defenders no longer had to worry about infection. Those who fell, didn’t rise up to fight alongside the dead. Instead, they were quickly pulled into the horde, where the dead tore them asunder with their bare hands. They cared nothing for the blood they spilt, making it clear they hadn’t come to this world to feed on its populace, but to exterminate them.

To the Guardians’ credit, they held the wall for some time. Though most of the fight was spent backpedaling against the sheer numbers, it was hours before they were completely overcome. If it wasn’t for the quick and skilled elves, they would have been annihilated a long time ago.

Many would say Brodin could also take credit for their survival – though he wanted none. At the moment, the only thing he sought was vengeance – to take as many of the undead fiends as possible with him to the afterlife.

Swinging “Hell’s Bane” like a pendulum, anything in front of him went launching into the air.

His chest heaved in and out. His arms burned from exhaustion. But he refused to stop swinging. He refused to let his hammer fall. The more undead ones that came at him, the harder he swung … and the brighter his hammer glowed.

Surely the gods were with him in this final battle, the others knew it as well. As they all fought beneath “Hell’s Bane’s” glow, they knew they weren’t abandoned. The gods fought with them, empowering his weapon, its light the only thing between them and dark oblivion that threatened to engulf them.

Then, as if another miracle, the dead suddenly froze in their tracks. For the first time since they faced them, their vacant expressions showed an emotion … confusion. The undead may have paused, but the Guardians did not. They took their confusion as another godsend, and pushed forward, hacking and slashing their way through the solid throng.

Their free-for-all didn’t last long. They too stopped, even with their enemy utterly defenseless before them. They too looked on in puzzlement as a black tide arose in the night, swallowing every last star in the sky.

All that it touched it was scattered through the winds in a blast of dust. Even the ancient ones evaporated. The Red Wall itself collapsed into a pile of sand.

It roared down the wall, consuming all.

And it showed no sign of slowing as it came for the defenders. Side by side, they bravely awaited its arrival; elves, dwarves, humans and giants standing as one. Knowing full well it meant their death, they welcomed its arrival. Since the battle began, they had accepted the fact that they would never leave the Red Wall, and that they would die defending it.

Yes, they would be destroyed … but so too would the army of the Plague. It was closer to victory than they ever hoped to achieve.

Truly, the gods were with them … if the destructive power wasn’t proof enough, Brodin actually saw one, hovering in the air at his side. She was much stranger than he would have imagined; a golden halo surrounded her body, which was that of a frail old woman, with fine, white hair covering her skin.

Her eyes were yellow; her nose pointed and long.

As if recognizing her presence, “Hell’s Bane” glowed brighter.

With the darkness crashing down on him, she turned to Brodin and spoke, “Rest well with the Maker, Mithrlnite. And know that your hammer will pass unto your sons.”

Brodin was torn apart by the maelstrom … but instead of pain, he only felt peace, for he knew his sons would live on, and in their hands, the undead would continue to suffer “Hell’s Bane’s” wrath …


Chapter Nine: XM591 AND X’ANDER


–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World,

Argos, Post Exodus 565–

A pair of thin, translucent panels hovered in front of the diminutive, humanoid figure. The panels glowed with an array of flashing lights (mostly red), illuminating the being’s face, which was covered in grease, sweat and a bitter scowl. The being’s fingers were equally filthy, leaving dark smudges as they danced upon the screens. With one desperate combination of inputs after another, he tried to eliminate the red sensors. But despite his best attempts, his frustration only amplified, for no matter how many he extinguished, more were ignited; the red lights spreading across the pair of screens like a raging inferno.

“Damn you, Argos!” came a gruff curse from the small being. “You’ve taken me through half the God-forsaken universe, now all I’m asking is that you get me down to that damned planet,” he demanded, knowing full well Argos was unable to answer – in his haste to divert power to the gravity-thrust generators he had inadvertently fried the system’s communication circuitry. Given enough time, he could reroute Argos’ com panel and patch into a replacement monitor, but at the moment, all of his time was devoted to battling the many system failures that continued to flare up.

He may have possessed the title of “Captain in Transit”, but he knew damn well the ship was commanded by another being – the sentient computer known as Argos. And for reasons unknown to him, that being refused to drop out of the orbit of what was obviously a lush and living world.

With a violent slap, he swiped away the warning sensors from his monitors, summoning instead, seven rows of alien glyphs and symbols — the core programming language of Argos. The only way to truly control of the ship would be to overwrite Argos. An act which bordered on murder, depending on one’s understanding of artificial intelligence.

But it had to be done. He was too close to fail. Nor could he bare to spend another day in the confines of the ship – especially when freedom was close enough to see.

Through the view-portal, his gem-like eyes took in the world below; the sparkling blue waters and drifting effervescent clouds of white. A vast, red-tinged mountain chain crossed the land like a fresh wound. The planet shone in the otherwise empty surroundings of space, making it almost hard to believe it wasn’t merely a ghostly mirage.

The entire journey to the living world had gone much the same — Argos fighting him the entire way. He wasn’t sure if the ancient computer brain had finally malfunctioned and gone insane, or – quite possibly – Argos was trying to keep him from the planet. But why? For all he knew this was the last living planet in the known universe. To land there was the culmination of their entire mission. And the data had never been clearer: “Makiian Virus – 0%.”

Then what in the dead hell was Argos’ problem?

Luckily, up until this point, he had been able to maintain course trajectory and speed.

To actually find a star 97,000 light years away was a near mathematical impossibility. Yes, he could see its light (clear as day), but the light he saw was that of a star now 97,000 years older. What he saw was an ancient light, not an actual star. To find the star’s current location meant calculating the gravitational current of the star and a million neighboring celestial bodies. For the past 97,000 years the star has been dancing through the universe, moving at speeds near a billion kilometers/standard day. Determining its current and actual location basically amounted to complex mathematical guesswork. Though Rafe was considered intelligent, even among the Delphinians, such equations were far beyond even him. Few humanoid races had ever mastered such mathematics. The rest used machines.

That’s where Argos came in. The computer mind could pinpoint stars with an accuracy that bordered on prescience.

As for the problem of maintaining speed; considering all gravitationally tethered matter (otherwise known as the universe) had a radius of around 30 billion light years, his journey of 97,000 light years was minor in comparison. But without a functioning gravitational drive, a distance of 97,000 light years would take, at best … 97,000 standard years. Even with every last captain fulfilling their position, it would be tens of thousands of years before Argos reached the planet, if ever it did.

Millennium upon millennium of technological advancements had been made to space travel and still, no one had ever overcome the light barrier. Many, however, did find ways to cheat it. The Rift was one such instance, and was also, by far, the simplest and most expedient method of interstellar travel ever. The more archaic forerunner to the Rift, the grav drive, was another example, and arguably the most popular and efficient form of travel for its time.

Argos possessed such a drive. And in order to cover such vast distances faster than should be logically possible, the grav drive surrounded the vessel in a powerful antigravitational field — essentially turning the ship into a mini, inverted black hole. Space-time was warped for the passenger. And time, being relative, thus flowed differently within the field. For Rafe, the passenger, the universe outside his view portal was frozen, the people statues. And for those beyond his vessel, he was invisible, moving well beyond the speed of their perceptible light.

The only down side, other than that it wasn’t instantaneous, was that this method of travel complicated the traveler’s relationship to standard time. For Rafe, he had been moving so fast, and for so long, he had lived near two decades of life; meanwhile, the universe beyond Argos had aged at a snail’s pace. Usually, hiber-sleep compensated for the difference by putting the traveler in a death-like state that halted the effects of aging until the destination was reached. But Rafe didn’t have that luxury. Part of his duty as acting Captain was to maintain the hiber-sleep of his shipmates, to suffer the passage of time so that the others could remain asleep and unchanged.

That was the agreement he had made with his people, their ‘pact’. Each of their lives would pass in order for those who remain to travel further and deeper into the universe. And hopefully, before all their lives had passed, at least one of them would stumble upon a living world.

After the passing of seventy-five of his predecessors, Rafe had finally done it. He had found a living world.

Now, if only he could convince the ship to land there.

It wasn’t until he entered the star-system and began preparing for his descent that his major problems began and Argos locked him out of all of the ship’s functions. No matter how hard he prodded, the stubborn computer refused to budge. After a great deal of digital trickery, he managed to hack into navigation and engineering. But the moment he did so, Argos stalled him with a flurry of mechanical failures, overwhelming his monitors and making it impossible to accomplish the simplest task.

He felt it was his duty as Captain in Transit to reach the planet. Unfortunately, there was only one way to make that happen. He would essentially have to ‘kill’ the one being that had been his companion over the last twenty years. Not only that, he risked the lives of all of those on board the ship – the lives of those he had sworn to protect. Many times he asked himself, what would be the greater risk? To turn back to deep space, where they would all likely die before sensing another planet even remotely alive? Or disable Argos, drop the ship into the planet’s atmosphere and attempt a manual landing?

Neither choice was a good one. The decision would have been a lot tougher for Rafe, had the planet’s beauty not been so beckoning, or Argos’ silver walls not so confining. For him there was really only one choice, and it was worth the risk, and the loss of Argos’ life (if it could even be considered as such). He further justified his actions by reminding himself that Argos was only a machine; a collection of parts and pieces that merely imitated a living being. He was fairly certain that, no matter how sophisticated the mechanisms, a soul wasn’t listed among them.

“I’m sorry, Argos,” he said, his voice filled with real sympathy. As much as Argos confounded and frustrated him all these years, their exchanges had actually been a lifesaver.

Without Argos taking the brunt of his rage and frustration, the man would have gone mad a long time ago. And all the while, Argos took his abuse stoically, never once taking offense, or replying in kind.

Because he’s a machine, you damn fool. Beyond the parameters of his programming, he doesn’t give a dead about you or anything else.

“But i’m going down there. With or without your help.” … a damn machine.

He had planned for this before — during one of his many days of bored solitude. Having virtually fixed the ship from bow to stern, it occurred to him that eventually the mind of Argos would enter the same state of dilapidation as the rest of the vessel. Should the mind of Argos fail, in order to save the mission he would have to bypass him – manually pilot the ship. He even went so far as to develop a program, one that would sever Argos’ mind from his body. It was a complex sequence of symbols. To enter them into the very matrix of Argos would require absolute precision and speed. Once Argos knew what he was up to …

… he would finally find out what happens when the ancient computer is pissed off.

But his hands were quick and agile. He knew he could enter them fast enough, and if he did, Argos would never see it coming.

He fed it into the system …

He was quick and precise, yet he still only made it halfway through.

The ship dropped out of orbit. The screens went black. There was an ear-splitting scream as the engine fell out of rhythm, grinding against the containment field as it tipped from its magnetic axis. The next thing Rafeal knew, he was on the ship’s ceiling, his body crushing under the pressure. Even the emergency lights failed to respond. The only light came from the view-portal, which was now filled with white, fluffy clouds.

“What have I done?” he managed to voice as his chest began caving in.

Argos …

He thought he knew everything about the ship; every nook and cranny was more recognizable than the features of his own face, the inner workings of its systems more familiar than those of his own flesh and blood. As consciousness slipped from his grasp, he realized that after all his years aboard the ship he knew nothing of Argos.

There would be no manual landing – not after what he had done. He would make it to the planet, but only as a fiery ball of plummeting metal. He understood his mistake … the ship’s reaction could mean only one thing — Argos was truly alive. And he had just cut off his head …

–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World,

The Dead Sands, Post Exodus 565–

X’ander basked in the solitude. He needed the quiet to think, to remember – and there was so much to remember. Unfortunately, most of his memories were bad ones. But even so, X’ander was never one to shy away from sadness or horror.

No, he had been numbed to such things a long, long time ago.

His days in the vast desert wasteland beyond the Outlands were spent much the same; in the daytime it was peaceful reflection, in the night – quiet brooding. While not lost in memories of the past he liked to watch the wind alter the desert dunes. Every so often, to clear his head, he enjoyed a sunset stroll through the sands – there was just something about the burning red horizon that stirred his soul. Perhaps it was the coming of the night that truly excited him, and the promise of death that came with the ensuing bitter cold. Even when the sun faded to black, he would wander on, lost in the wasteland, hoping to fall victim to the night with the dying sun his last vision of light.

But dawn always came before death, and X’ander would make his way back, back to his ‘home’; a cave barely tall enough to stand in, nestled in a lone outcropping of rock.

This was all he needed from life. In the desert he was left alone. In the desert there was peace. There was no need to ask for more.

Ages ago, he had given up on the Seventh World and its socalled ‘defenders’; the pathetic army of the Triad of Races. He knew the Plague would eventually find this world and when it did, the defenders would be slaughtered. X’ander wouldn’t be among them. When he died, he wanted to be alone, in his home, with a mind full of memories.

Only rarely were the memories not enough. Only rarely did he find the need to clear his head, to watch as the sand and the sky became one in a glowing red haze.

This was one such night.

On this night, X’ander felt uneasy … restless. Something was amiss in the world, something profound and terrible enough to disrupt his peace even here, beyond the Gorian Chain. Once more he was taken by the urge to walk the desert night. But this time it wasn’t to clear his head of memories, but from the impending sense of doom.

Normally he travelled west – straight towards the setting sun. But on this night he left his home with no thought of direction, destination, or even returning. On this night, X’ander traveled deeper into the wastelands than ever before. When the sun finally left, the darkness became absolute. Even with his keen elven sight, he stumbled about, as clumsy as a stublegged rock dwarf. The Brother Moons arose, and his footing became clear, but still his movements were awkward, his usual grace absent. The cold had left his flesh dead to the touch, his arms and legs leaden and stiff.

High above the Brother Moons shone brightly. Harbos, the greater of the two neared its zenith, filling the heavens with its aura of white. He paused for a moment, his breath filling the air with a frosty mist. He pulled the woolen cowl up from his neck, draping it over his head, which was bare to the elements being utterly devoid of hair. His eyes of grey and white peeked out from the cowl, searching the vastness of space for the memory of another life, another home. A memory so ancient he could barely recall it – the creatures, the colors, the Graelic. In his mind they were all dead, all shades of black.

He couldn’t help but note that the stars never seemed so sparkle so bright amidst the bleak emptiness of space. Or maybe, he just forgot what they looked like, being unable to recall the last time he bothered to look up. Even the constellations were all foreign to him; a disarray of pin-point lights. Their patterns so meaningless to an immortal; so rarely did X’ander look upon them, that when he did, he saw an entirely different sky.

His last memory of them was when he first arrived on this ‘Seventh World’. He remembered leaving the Rift, and the hellish Sanctuary behind. Not only did he find it strange to call this new world home, but the mere fact that he was still alive was outright laughable. While his fellow survivors stumbled around like mindless ‘dead brains’, X’ander looked up to the heavens – the endless, lifeless heavens — and roared with laughter.

Surely, it was all a joke …

He remembered wondering why none of the others saw the humor in it.

And they thought I was the emotionless one, he pondered.

As he gazed at the multitude of stars, he struggled to make sense of them. Some people connected them like a child’s game; drawing lines from one to the next until the semblance of an image formed, transforming the celestial bodies into something familiar and simple. Something they could relate to in their mundane lives.

I suppose those could form a dagger, he thought, connecting the dots of a cluster of stars. Perhaps those as well …

Suddenly, the night sky was nothing but blades of various shapes and sizes. Now he remembered why he ignored the sky, he could go on forever making such arbitrary connections, but in the end, the patterns were utterly subjective and therefore meaningless.

If he so desired, he could undoubtedly find the twisted image of the Graelic hidden in the twinkling lights. But what would it matter? Having spent a great deal of time traveling space, he knew the stars held a deeper meaning.

And a deeper beauty.

So brilliant … he thought, wondering if this would be the last sky he would ever see – the sense of doom mounted in the east, in the heart of the Gorian.

Maybe he should have looked more often. All his years on this world he had spent looking back, never once did he think to look up, to see the past so clearly written in the ancient light of all those stars. Maybe he avoided the sight of them because he couldn’t bear to see it, his home-world. He reveled in the memories of it. But knowing that somewhere among the countless drifting stars Ki’minsyllessil remained, and that it was now just a dead and lifeless planet was enough to drive him mad. That the beautiful world in which he was born was now just a rock, a pebble, a grain of sand in the wasteland that was the universe.

Only a miracle would bring it back … restore it to the bastion of life it once was.

But X’ander no longer believed in miracles. He had witnessed to much disappointment to maintain hope … Father … (the cruelest joke of all). The stars were so bright.

And from a distance …

So beautiful …

They almost seemed alive. He would have sworn he saw them move – one of them, anyways.

His mind was failing him. With the dull wits remaining to him, he realized he had been in the elements too long. The cold was taking its toll. Numbly, X’ander accepted that this time he wouldn’t make it back to his home. No. He would never see his home again.

“Ki’minsyllessil,” he mumbled, reaching out to the moving star, the brightest one in all of the heavens.

Whether some illusion of his mind or blessing of the Maker, it came to him, growing brighter, more beautiful than he could have thought possible. It was as if he pulled it from the heavens with his out flung arms.

In its wake, a fiery tail etched into the night.

It came closer, basking X’ander in a warm light. Night became day … and he no longer felt cold.

Ki’minsyllessil had come to him.

It was a miracle.

 

–The End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

The Dead Sands, Post Exodus 586–

It had been so long since he’d last seen Argos, he’d almost forgotten the way. From the Archenon it was three day hike back to his ship — three days if he traveled with little rest, stopping only briefly to ease his cramped muscles and fill his empty stomach. He managed the first day with relative ease, crossing the Widow River through the Frons. The twin towns were abandoned on either side of the river. As to be expected, few bodies remained to tell the tale of the battle. When the living died, they eventually stood up and walked away. When the dead met their end, it was usually in a pile of ash and silver fire.

He left the Frons and their falling wooden towers behind — the last remnants of the civilized world. It was into the wilderness that he went and then beyond – the Dead Sands. A blistering sun by day, and frozen tundra by night with virtually no shelter to speak of. A place where no one would dare to dwell – no one sane that is. But X’ander was unlike any other. How he survived out there, all alone and for so long seemed impossible. It made Rafe’s own period of solitude aboard Argos seem like a brief vacation.

After leaving the Frons, it was an arduous journey. To reach the desert he had to pass the southern crags of the Gorian; a jagged barrier of sharp, limestone pinnacles that formed the tail of the great mountain chain. Even with his incredible dexterity and physical fitness, the crags got the best of him, leaving him bloodied and battered by the time he completed his descent. Perhaps if he took his time, or traveled further south to find a safer pass, his hands wouldn’t have been covered in fresh cuts, nor would he have suffered the deep gash to the left half of his face; a wound that would most likely become a scar.

But Rafe had a feeling there was little time left in this world. He knew the fall of Shattered Rock was just the beginning.

Though the Destroyer had saved the Seventh World for a second time, by all accounts, the man was no longer of this world. Whether he was dead, hiding, or in a drunken stupor somewhere among the stars, it really didn’t matter. Rafe had to find another way to save this world. He was done relying on the Destroyer, the man was far too unpredictable (in both his power, and his personality). Nor was he willing to risk everything on the man a second time – having barely survived the first time. Besides, when it came down to it, Rafe was beginning to wonder if the man’s ‘help’ was actually far more dangerous than the Plague. Chances were, if Rafe saw the man again, instead of thanking him for saving them, he would be driving a dagger into his heart.

And he had just the weapon to do it too.

He wrapped his raw and bloodied palm around the bone handle. Hidden in the black-leather sheath on his left hip was a six inch blood-red blade, its edges sharp and strong enough to carve normal steel as if it were wood. The knife itself was near indestructible, supposedly forged in the fires of a star by some long forgotten race. The blade was given to him by a friend – his one and only friend.

It was X’ander’s prized possession. The elf had a love of daggers, and had gathered an impressive collection over his lengthy lifetime. But the Blood-knife had always been his favorite, and by far his most lethal. Not only could the knife pierce through armor as easily as paper, whatever alloy had been used in its forging was also extremely toxic to flesh – living and dead. A single scratch could cause a chain-reaction of accelerated decay, leaving the victim all but a skeleton in a matter of hours. Few would dare to wield such a weapon and risk such a fate. But X’ander was more than up for the task. Though not as adept with daggers as his friend, being a Delphiniian, Rafe was as agile as any elf – possibly, more so — and therefore fairly confident he wouldn’t end up cutting himself with its ultra-sharp edge.

As much as he cherished his blades, X’ander had left them all in the ruins of the Archenon. The elf possessed another weapon now, one that made even the blood-knife all but useless … one that made even the Destroyer unnecessary. But his friend would pay dearly to wield it. In fact, if he did wield it, they all would pay the price.

I wonder … Rafe thought, sliding the blood-knife out just enough to marvel at the gleaming red steel. Would this be enough to actually kill you, Destroyer?

The man seemed to be death itself. Could he die? Was he their one true enemy? The one who would destroy them all?

If they met again, Rafe would try to stop him. First, he would start with the blood-knife. If that didn’t work, he had plenty of other weapons to try.

He patted the black metallic handle holstered on his right hip. It was his weapon of choice, commonly known as a manaray. Another relic of the Age of War, the mana-ray utilized the wielder’s life-force to discharge powerful blasts of energy. Created to harness one’s life-force and transform it into a weapon — as did the Mage-lords, the mana-ray was but one way the races thought to use their technology to make themselves equal to their conquerors. Among the Delphiniians, and many other races, mana was thought to be the energy force that birthed the universe and guided its evolution. They believed that it existed in all things, and if harnessed, could be used to alter matter and the course of future events.

But other than their priests, few actually believed that mana was anything more than a myth. It wasn’t until the rise of the Mage-lords that they realized their mistake, and that it was indeed a very real, and powerful force. The Makii proved its existence, though they called it the Oneness, as did they prove its power, using it to rapidly conquer the universe. The mana-ray was one of many last ditch efforts to replicate that power. Many other bio-weapons were brought into existence near the end of the Age of War. But unfortunately, too few were created, and by the time they were, it was far too late.

Since his arrival in the Seventh World, he had many occasions to successfully test the weapon on various beings – even a few with Mage-blood. During his rise to power in Shattered Rock, he left many charred bodies in his wake; humans, dwarves, and even elves were among them. During the battle for Shattered Rock, he turned countless undead into ash – even the soulless ‘Reapers’ succumbed to the true death after a blast from the mana-ray.

But, as one would expect, wielding such power came with a cost. The Delphiniian priests once lectured that there was a balance to the universe. It was mana that maintained that balance and prevented the universe from crumbling into ungoverned chaos. For every action that occurred in the universe, mana created an equal and opposite reaction. Their scientists realized the truth of it, for in order to transform one’s mana into a killing force, one had to pay with their own life. Rafe had killed many with the weapon, and doubtless, had aged greatly because of its use (the streaks of grey at his temples were but one indication). And though Delphiniians had an increased lifespan, it was nothing in comparison to an elf. If he continued to use it, too much and too often, it would quickly age him well beyond his years, eventually killing him.

But what did it matter?

How much time did he have left anyway?

The end was near. Despite the Destroyer’s aid, the battle of Shattered Rock could not be considered a victory. Lock Core would be the final battle. After all, it was from there that the darkness began – the Black Door. Until they faced and defeated what dwelt within it, there would never be victory. All this time, he had been fleeing the Gate. He had traveled the universe for years – Argos, for an untold amount of time – and they had found nothing. There was only one path to take, and no matter how far they traveled, all paths led them back to that destination. The Gate. All this time they had been trying to hide from it, but to be free, to be safe, they had to face it.

As intelligent as his people were, only by eliminating all other options had the path become clear to them. Escape was impossible, for Argos was still a battered lump of useless metal. Nor was there anything to escape to. The best they could achieve was a progression of slow deaths as they scoured the heavens for the slightest glimmer of hope.

Rafe was done hiding, done with his search, done with the ‘pact’. The time had finally come. Time to admit his failure to his people, the subsequent line of ‘Captains in Transit’, and awaken them to the horrors of this world and this war. He would have to face them, tell them how he crashed them here on the Seventh World, and doomed them to die by the Plague. For so long he walked the Stasis Chamber, dreaming of meeting his fellow Delphinians …

Gemini …

During the rare times when Argos wasn’t falling apart, Rafe would watch her sleep, “GEMINI XM574”. He would fantasize it was just the two of them in the ship, and subsequently fight the urge to awaken her and make it a reality. He knew the ‘pact’ forbid it. He knew it would risk the mission. He even had a hunch Argos would eliminate him the moment he did so – Rafe often wondered what became of his predecessor, and how strictly Argos adhered to the rule of one Captain in Transit at a time. But despite all that, the reason he left her alone was because she was so at peace. He had no right to take that away. To drag her into his prison, his hell that was Argos, in the hopes she would somehow be delighted by it. That she would fall into his arms in love, and together they would drift through the universe in happy bliss.

No. It was just a fantasy – something to keep him sane. He dared not play it out. She deserved better. He meant to give it to her, release her on a living world free of the Plague. Unfortunately, this was all that was left. There were no more living worlds; X’ander had taught him that. The Seventh World was all they had.

The peace of his sleeping people was over. It was his job now to convince them to join the Triad of Races, convince them to fight, and make their final stand here.

I’m sorry, he thought. Sorry to awaken you to this horror.

Not for the first time, he wondered if they were better off left to slumber. To die in their sleep, oblivious to the nightmare the universe had become.

I’m sorry, but we need you.

The Seventh World was his home now. The last home he would ever know, and he had to protect it. He needed his people. They were smart, resourceful and well versed in technology – something this world desperately lacked. Argos yet had a storeroom full of sophisticated weaponry. If they added that to the fight … it would at least guarantee it would be a good fight.

And X’ander …

If all else failed, he knew his elven friend would succeed. If there could be no victory, they would ensure the battle’s outcome was a mutual defeat. One way or another, very soon it would all be over.

He was three days into the journey and walked now under the sun, through the blistering Dead Sands. Pulling his cloak tight over his face to protect his flesh from the sun’s burning rays, he scanned the horizon; the sun-light sparkling in his emerald eyes. With sweat dripping down his body, he ran on to the rising sun. Though he had suffered much and rested only briefly during his trek, his short muscular legs moved as quickly as they did at the start of his journey. He slowed little as he scaled the flowing dunes, his body nimble and light enough that it left just the slightest impression in the sand, whereas a larger being would have sunk in, expending great amounts of energy with every step.

A sandstorm picked up in the west, driving the sand towards him in a horizontal gust. The wind swept over the dunes, altering the landscape before his eyes and erasing his path as quickly as it was made. As the storm engulfed him, he was forced to cover his eyes against the scouring wind. Blindly, he pushed on, familiar enough with his path to be confident he was at least heading in the right direction. Either way, if one knew what they were searching for, Argos was hard to miss.

He pushed on, fighting exhaustion and the deadly elements.

His body was used to such rigors – he had made it so. Since arriving on this planet, he had fervently trained his muscles and his mind. It was a carry-over of his physical training on the Argos.

In space, the exercise gave him focus and kept him sane. Here, it was a matter of survival; considering he was the size of a human child, in order to compete with the larger races, he needed to push his body to its physical peak. He many have appeared child-like, but for those who thought him weak, they mistakenly found that his strength was equal to most men.

There was a break in the wind. He used the respite to poke his gem-like eyes from beneath his hood and confirm his location. In the distance, he saw the cracked earth give way to a gaping canyon, several miles wide. The canyon was obviously unnatural, its walls made of melted silica glass. At the bottom rested Argos. From the distance, he could barely make it out; a half-buried hunk of blackened metal. But in his mind, the memory of the damaged hull was still all too fresh. Giant dents covered its scorched, black surface. Many areas were even breached – large, gaping holes imploded inward through the three-foot, ultra-dense metal. A deep set of scratches ran the length of the ship. Like the claw mark of some giant mythical beast, the trio of gouges sliced the ship from bow to stern.

Surprisingly, the majority of the damage was preexisting — scars suffered from a millennium of space travel. Other than the burnt and blackened exterior, Argos suffered little from reentry. Despite disabling the computer mind, the ship had somehow managed to level-out prior to impact. Instead of leaving a gaping crater with a melted pile of metal at the center, Argos eventually came to a rest in the desert, carving a canyon through the sand,

The real damage to Argos was all internal. Though Rafe hadn’t fully completed the sequence to deactivate him prior to the crash, afterwards, the computer mind was, nonetheless, unresponsive. Only emergency power and systems were active; such as the Hiber-chamber. He was unable to communicate with Argos on any level. Following the crash, he often returned in hopes of restoring the communications systems. Yet, even after a complete rebuild of the integration motherboard, there was only silence from Argos’ end. Rafe feared the worst, and that he did indeed succeed in killing the machine; though he deeply hoped he only killed its voice.

He took a small comfort knowing the brain core continued to emit electromagnetic signals. Though the readings were odd, they were a clear indication of synthetic brain function.

Either way, the ship was in no condition to fly. Nor would

Rafe return to space even if it could.

Whether good or bad …

We’re stuck here, he thought, pausing as he reached to top of the canyon wall.

He hesitated, not because he feared the descent, but because he dreaded returning to Argos. He stared down at the half-exposed ship, wondering what would happen when he awoke his people. For so long he dreamt of this moment, to no longer be alone, to once more be among his own kind. Finally, the time had come. But what would they think of him and his decision to land them here? Could he convince them that it was for the best? That this was to be their new home, and that they would have to fight and give their lives for a world they didn’t know?

Rafe could be persuasive, his rise to power in Shattered Rock was proof of it, but would they listen to him, follow him, the very man who stranded them here to die?

To find out, there was but one more obstacle to overcome. He had to scale the canyon wall. Though a difficult task, it was one he performed many times before. Only now, his hands were in such poor condition he had to be more cautious than ever. The melted walls were all but smooth to the touch, leaving virtually nothing to support him. In order to descend, he would have to turn the slightest bump into a handhold. Because his body was light-weight, his fingers small, he usually managed it fine. But still, Rafe knew damn well the smallest mistake could send him plunging to his death.

It would have simplified things if he had secured a rope at some point along the canyon wall. However, Rafe didn’t want it to be simple. He didn’t want just anyone to be able to reach Argos, only those he summoned here. As far as he knew, X’ander was the only other inhabitant of this world to have actually made the climb. And other than his elven kin, no other beings would have the skill. That was exactly how Rafe wanted it, he knew the other elves didn’t care to venture into the dessert, and if the humans somehow made it this far, they would die in the descent.

Only the Magi posed a threat, but then again, rope or no rope, if the Magi sought to reach Argos they would simply fly down to the canyon’s base.

Rafe wished he had that luxury. He had to admit, as much as he sought to train himself to physical perfection – he was tired. And he was worried. If he failed this final obstacle, not only would he never meet his people, they could be trapped, sleeping in their chambers till the end of time. There was too much at stake, and for him to be at anything less than perfect condition could result in a costly mistake.

But he was running out of time …

He decided he had to take the risk. Cautiously, he began his descent; his tiny hands and feet brushing the glassy edged until they found any imperfection. His tucked his big toe into a divot, his left hand pinched a marble sized pebble. Slowly, he left the edge of the cliff behind.

It wasn’t long before he began to reconsider his decision, and his need for haste, for normally he made the descent in the dark (finding his way by feel). But now, the sun was directly overhead, baking his body as it reflected against the glass wall. The heat forced him to speed up his descent; his fingertips burning the longer they lingered on a grip. Worse yet, his hands were now slick with sweat as well as blood, making it all but impossible to hang on. Yet somehow, he continued downward, half-slipping, half-gripping. He made it over a third of the way down before his feet lost their support. He hung for a moment, his wet hand clamping down on a pea-sized rock. Meanwhile, his feet flailed around, desperately searching the cliff’s face for anything to regain his footing. But there was nothing to find. With his fingertips blistering from the heat, he was forced to release his grip.

He fell the last thirty feet down the near ninety degree slope. Putting his back to the wall, Rafe slid downward, using his entire body to create any friction possible in order to slow his fall. Nevertheless, he hit the ground hard and fast. He took the brunt of the energy and sent his body forward in a tumble. He rolled with the momentum, but even so, it was a violent roll, and though the ground was sand-covered, a layer of hardened silica was not far beneath. When the momentum was finally expended, he slowly rose to his feet, bruised and beaten. His back was raw from the friction of the slide. The recent cut on his face had reopened and was gushing with blood.

He took a moment to ensure he had his weapons (and that he hadn’t accidently cut himself with the blood-knife) then he wiped the sand and blood from his eyes.

He froze …

Something was amiss.

A crackle of energy sent him rolling once more. He barely dove out of the way before the arc of lighting blasted him off his feet. Another blast streaked over his head as he crouched in the sand. He had a weapon in both hands; the blood-knife glimmered in his left, while the needle of the mana-ray dug into the palm of his right hand, drawing his blood, and energy.

After his fall, he had been momentarily disoriented, and hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings. But he could see his attackers now …

He holstered the mana-ray, and tucked the blood-knife back into its sheath. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t be using them to fight his attackers – to fight his own people.

Three gem-eyed Delphiniians came at him, all very familiar faces, but one far more so. Two held their own sort of energy weapon in their hands; a rectangular black box with silver buttons on its surface. The other was unarmed, a female – a face he only dreamed he would see awake and with consciousness in those light-blue topaz eyes.

She came forward slowly, cautiously, a clear fighter’s stance enacted with every step. Though her body was thinned from her long years of slumber, Rafe could tell there was a definite toughness to every bit of her scrawny muscles.

He also noted the flickering golden aura that covered her body. Rafe recognized the device that created it; a gold belt around her waist. A phase shield. He also knew its weakness, and the many ways to disable it – scattering a handful of sand at it would be the most convenient. Though it could fully absorb a wide range of individual strikes, multiple attacks would weaken its ability, and drain its power core, which possessed a brief lifespan to begin with.

Typically, one donned a phase shield if they planned on engaging in a brief, but bloody battle. The wearer could forego defending themselves, and focus instead on eliminating their enemy as quickly as possible.

Rafe took her use of the shield as a bad sign, and deeply hoped she wasn’t planning to kill him too quickly.

I just need time to explain myself, then they will understand …

The trio came closer, Gemini leading the way, a murderous look in her brilliant blue eyes.

Rafe stood up, dusting himself off, wondering what a ragged mess he must look to her. Their meeting was not how he imagined it to be, and he imagined it often and in many ways. In none of them did she hold such a loathsome scowl, nor did he think such a hateful look could ever come upon that lovely face.

Several feet in front of him, she stopped. Finally, he was face to face with Gemini.

“Gemin … ”

Before he could finish his greeting, or offer an explanation, her fist landed squarely on his face.

The blow took him by surprise and was well-delivered, knocking Rafe on his ass.

Kneeling on the canyon floor, one hand stemmed the flow of blood from his nose, the other grabbed a handful of sand … all

he wanted was a chance to explain …

“You FOOL!” she spat. “What have you done?”

He let the sand spill from his fingers, his bloodied lips opened to reply.

But before he could say another word, Gemini launched a swift and skillful kick towards his head … he clamped down on the sand.

Though expertly delivered, this time Rafe wasn’t so easily surprised … he pitched his weight to the side, moving with the momentum of her blow. He tucked his right shoulder to the ground, while his left hand rose up, flinging a fistful of sand at Gemini. Her foot clipped his wrist, shattering it. But the sand scattered against her shield, causing it to flicker uncontrollably. Large gaps spread across its golden surface.

Rafe roared in pain …

Heaving up with his fist, he landed a vicious uppercut directly on her beautiful face. Luckily, the shield wasn’t fully deactivated. It managed to absorb most of the blow, but still, Gemini flew back, crashing into her two companions. Rafe followed after her, kicking the blaster from the nearest of them, while the mana-ray was in his right hand and pressed against the other Delphiniian’s head. Below him, Gemini scowled at him in disgust.

“I don’t want to fight you,” Rafe growled, his eyes mainly focused on Gemini. “If you only let me explain … ”

He was about to tell her everything … Tell her that this was it. That he was only doing what was best for them all. That he wanted to save her … that he wanted her, for so long he wanted her …

He never got the chance.

He never sensed the other being … it moved so silently, so swiftly … Before he even knew what was happening, a metallic fist caved in his rib-cage and sent him crashing into the glassy canyon wall.

Gasping for breath, Rafe struggled to his feet. Before he did so, he was lifted into the air by a glimmering metal hand. He looked down into a pair of burning red eyes and smooth, blank metallic face. He struggled to unsheathe the blood-knife with his broken left hand, meanwhile, his robotic captor heaved him into the air, its body incredibly thin and near ten feet tall.

He managed to free his knife … was about to use it to sever the robot’s arm …

You should not have brought me here, Caretaker Rapheal XM591,” the faceless being said in a thunderous electronic voice.

“Argos?” Rafe managed to whisper, the blood-knife slipping from his crippled grip.

“… Nor should you have attempted my destruction. ”

“… I’m sorry, Argos,” Rafe continued, struggling for breath.

“I never meant to hurt you … to hurt any of you … ”

Rafe desperately wanted to continue, but blood spurted from his lips instead of words. His vision filled with stars … the robotic voice of Argos became a muffled roar. The eyes of his love drew near, sparkling against the oncoming darkness. He longed to stay in their blue light, but the darkness claimed him and Rafe was left unconscious, and utterly speechless.

–The End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Shattered Rock, Post Exodus 586–

For as far as X’ander could see, the earth was dead, a blackened pit of ash. And beyond it, the autumn sun turned the horizon blood red. As he had been commanded; he stood atop the scorched tower of the Archenon, his keen eyes of white watching for the last of the refugees to vanish into the distant bloody aura.

He had to be sure he was alone. None knew what was to come – not even Rafe fully understood what it was capable of. Once, he foolishly asked his lord the obvious question, to which he received the simple, and more obvious answer; “It feeds. That is all. All that it nears it consumes. The more it consumes the more it becomes. Should it grow beyond our control, it will not stop feeding until the entire Seventh World is devoured. Next to the Plague, it is the universe’s darkest creation. It is ‘The Eater’, a weapon created to end worlds. To end the worlds of the Makii.”

Darkness fully descended upon the land as all the survivors traveled beyond his sight. Certain he was the last of them, X’ander left the balcony and entered the main tower of the

Archenon. He descended the spiral stairway that hugged the Archenon’s walls, then crossed an iron walkway leading into the Great Tree. His thin fingers reached out, brushing the tree’s bark as he stepped through a gaping cleft in the trunk.

He felt its life-force, though dim, and was somewhat heartened knowing that the Great Tree was yet clinging to life. But then again, considering what it could have become, even though it still survived, it would never be anything more than a monstrosity; its hollow, rotting and near-lifeless trunk the ultimate metaphor for the remnants of the elven race.

The human king who built the Archenon tried to kill the Great Tree, to utilize its dense wood for the construction of his indestructible tower. The Great Tree was a gift to his grandfather from the elf prince Adros. But the grandson believed more in stone and steel than the magic of the elves. He also feared the legends of the Graelic, and the embodiment of evil it had become, so he stripped it of its branches, gutted its interior, and incorporated the remnants into his grand Archenon.

Little did he know the Great Tree yet lived, and that every moment of its life was spent in suffering. Only the elves could feel its pain. Only a few had the courage to actually do so …

X’ander let the Great Tree’s pain wash over him, then he entered into the trunk’s hollowed interior.

He followed the hand-carved stairway upwards, ending his journey at what was once a pair of heavy wooden doors. The elaborate dragon carved on the face was lost in a pile of splinters and cracked planks; the heavy iron lock was smashed to pieces. Halfway across the room, the interior bar latch rested — a bent piece of hardened steel.

X’ander smirked at the sight. The force necessary to break the doors, and the magic barrier that supported them, was impressive indeed. But what impressed him even more, was that the young elf had not only managed to persuade Gunt to break them, but to also assist her in raiding his lord’s beloved armory. If X’ander was capable of feeling sorrow, she was the one person lost in the battle for whom he would have shed a tear.

So like your mother … and grandmother, X’ander thought, storing the memory of her alongside that of her maternal ancestors. So brave yet recklessly so. So confounding in the ways of your compassion. Together the line of beautiful, strong elven woman would remain in his memories. So long as he lived they would be remembered, deep within the part of his mind that could almost be described as his ‘happy place’.

It was a very, very miniscule part of his mind.

Like them, you cared too much … and died because of it.

He absorbed the memory of her death as well. A sacrifice that restored their father to life, and united the entire elven race. But in the end, her sacrifice amounted to nothing. The elves were near extinct now, and their father, the One Elf, was fully immersed in the Elven Death. X’ander felt nothing as he let the dark memory in, it was soon lost among the countless others that filled his mind.

He longed to lose himself within them, to drift from one horror to the next in the hopes that he felt something. But, as ever, he knew it would be a waste of time. There was nothing there, and that no matter how long he dwelt among them, he would only find indifference.

He tore himself from thoughts of the past, reminding himself he had a future now. His new lord, Rafe, had given him one, and now it was time to claim it.

He stepped over the broken door, entering the precious armory of his lord. Few of the collection remained. The hallway leading into Rafe’s chamber was lined with empty shelves, and shattered display cases.

Blades and armor of rare and precious materials had been looted, as well as many ‘less typical’, though equally precious weapons. Only the oddities remained, those that least resembled an actual weapon. A bronze cube had been kicked into the corner, each face etched with a unique (and dangerously powerful) rune. Separated by less than an inch, a pair of steel tubes vibrated on the floor. Alone, they softly hummed, but when touched together they created a wave a sound so violent it could rupture an enemy’s organs from over a hundred yards away, or crack stone within a hundred standard feet. Other equally strange, but only slightly less dangerous, items were carelessly strewn across the room. All of them were powerful, but one was far more powerful, and dangerous, than all of them combined.

There it sat, on a pedestal of white marble. Untouched by the thieves, and rightly so. The shield of energy held, though barely. The barrier of azure flames flickered and dimmed as the shiny black substance inside flexed and expanded, as if testing the limits of its prison.

“A world ender … ” Rafe once said.

Only once had another dared to touch the weapon, let alone wield its power. X’ander had the misfortune to be present for the event; the White Mage held it for only a moment, stroking it as if it was the wizard’s pet, before his body caved in upon itself and the globe stretched and engulfed his remains. The man never even had a chance so scream. He was suddenly no more, and the blackness was a ball, larger than before, and floating in the air where, a heartbeat ago, the man once stood.

Now, X’ander would wield the weapon, knowing full well it would consume him. And knowing too, that it wouldn’t stop there … Ki’minsyllessil could not be revived.

His thin elven fingers reached out, penetrating the shimmering blue shield.

X’ander would follow in the refugees’ wake. If they failed to save Locke Core, he would return to his home-world … and he would take the Eater with him.

If Ki’minsyllessil could not be saved, it would have to be destroyed.

He took hold of his future …

–The End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

The Dead Sands, Post Exodus 586–

Rafe awoke … he tried to sit up but a jolt of pain shot from his belly and he collapsed onto his back. He groaned as his head slammed against the unyielding metal floor.

What happened? he wondered, rubbing the back of his skull while his jadestone eyes took in his surroundings. Where in the dead am I?

Everywhere he looked he saw smooth, metallic walls.

“No … ”

He instantly recognized the room – as he recognized every room within the Argos. In his many years aboard the ship he had thoroughly explored every room, every chamber. He knew every flaw, every nick and every scratch on every wall of this ship with far greater detail than even the advanced computer mind of Argos.

And it just so happened, Rafe knew this particular room better than most.

The chamber was five hundred paces long, and three hundred wide. The side walls were barely taller than a human, but the ceiling barreled upwards, forming an archway in the center tall enough for any elf to comfortably navigate. A clutter of boot prints covered the floor, outlined by a thin, sparkling layer of silver dust. Barely recognizable amidst the stampede of feet, a row of faint, circular imprints ran down the length of the chamber’s center.

Yes. He remembered this chamber very well. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago since he looted it. Ultra-fine particles of silver ore still lingered in the air, shimmering as they drifted past the line of glow-lights on either side of the chamber’s barreled ceiling.

Rafe was deep within the ship’s stern, securely imprisoned in what was once Argos’ silver hold.

For the price of a single canister of silver (a fortune at the time), he enlisted a pack of Blue-mages to help him empty the chamber of its goods. Back then, he felt the people of the Seventh World needed it far more than did his slumbering brethren. So Rafe took the canisters from the hold, melted down the silver dust, and put it into circulation. By doing so, he flooded the silver market, making the ore affordable for all. It was because of him that even the poorest citizen of the Seventh World now had a silver blade in their hands – and more importantly, the ability to fight the Plague.

That wasn’t to say Rafe had been acting purely out of kindness and the best interest of the Seventh World. It was no coincidence that he sold the cargo at a time when the Seventh World’s market was starved for silver. The dwarven mines had all but run dry. They were digging so deep and so distant, that the cost to transport their goods basically tripled its value; thus allowing Rafe to sell his silver at an obscene price.

And immediately after he did so, the price plummeted.

As a result of the sale, he possessed unlimited funds; without which, his rise to power in Shattered Rock would not have occurred quite so swiftly and peacefully.

But it was all gone now; his wealth, his power … and apparently his ship as well.

Once more, he was a prisoner to the Argos.

“Damn you, Noooo!”

He didn’t even bother to plan his escape, knowing full well the chamber was built like a safe. All of the walls were threefeet of solid hardened bi-metal. Even if he had his mana-ray, a full blast wouldn’t put a dent in them. The only way in or out was through a single access located at the far end of the tunnel-shaped room. It was invisible, marked only by the slightest crack in the smooth wall that was too thin to see, and could only be discerned by a familiar touch. The doorway could only be opened from the outside, and only by passing a bio-cerebral test that was tuned to the Captain in Transit – which, judging by his current predicament, Rafe very much doubted he would pass.

Without-a-doubt, he was thoroughly imprisoned. And there were few places Rafe dreaded more than being imprisoned on the Argos. The Rift was one …

The room suddenly shrank, the walls seemed to collapse in on him.

There was another place, one that he feared more than even the Rift. One that would amplify the horror of his imprisonment a thousand fold – space … endless, empty space.

His hand shoot out, running over the polished metal wall. Long ago he had learned to sense the slightest shift in the grav drive, and could practically determine its velocity by how much it vibrated the hull.

“Thank the gods,” he growled, comforted that the walls were utterly still to his touch. They were yet grounded on the Seventh – a death sentence to be sure, but at least here it wouldn’t be drawn out. At least here he would die quickly, fighting and not drifting through space.

Instinctively, he thought to call to Argos, to assess the ship’s current condition, but then he remembered something … … a metallic fist pounding his flesh.

Argos was alive! And he was pissed off …

His tiny hands ran along his bandaged ribcage. Even a gentle touch left it tender. But even so, it was clearly on the mend. What should have been broken ribs was a bruised belly. Likewise, he felt his cheek – the deep cut suffered during his hasty climb through the pinnacles – and felt only smooth skin.

Ignoring the jolt of pain from his ribs, he stood up. His captors had to know what this world was, what it meant to not only their people, but to the very continuation of all life.

Though it pained him to do so, he screamed, “THERE’S NOTHING LEFT!”

He knew Argos had a sensor positioned in the far corner and he faced it with all his rage.

“THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD! AND WE ALONG WITH IT IF

WE DO NOT FIGHT!”

That was it, all he wanted to say, his grand speech to compel his people amounted to basically four words; “The universe is dead”. Stop searching. There is nothing left out there to find.

He stepped back, then crumpled over, succumbing to the pain.

To himself, or to anyone else who was listening, Rafe groaned, “There’s nothing left out there, you fools. The Virus beat us to them. There’s only one world it hasn’t fully consumed … ”

He glared at the recorder, and his mystery accusers on the other end.

“… and we’re on it.”

–The End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

The Dead Sands, Post Exodus 586–

In one clear-screen was the past, the other – the present and the inevitable future …

She couldn’t take her sapphire-blue eyes off the past … the looks he gave her, the longing in his eyes. She watched one reel after another and saw the action repeated, time and time again. The villainous Rapheal made his rounds to assess the stasis chamber. He checked the life-readings as he walked; for the most part giving but a quick gaze to discover any abnormalities. Content that no one was dying, he always moved on from one pod to the next. It wasn’t until he reached the XM generation that he finally paused. And every time it was at the same pod. And every time he gave it that same look …

Gem watched the reels for hours, and it was always the same; never once did he make it through without pausing at her pod, to stare at her as she slept.

Why me … ? she wondered, fully aware there was over two hundred other female Delphiniians left in the chambers, yet he hardly spared any one of them a glance. Who do you think I am?

He didn’t know the first thing about her. He had no right to gaze at her so lovingly … If he knew what she really was, he would have buried that red knife deep into her heart.

Gem was a Cleanser.

She was only awoken at the end of their shifts; when their usefulness expired, or when they went mad. More often than not, she was roused for the latter; few Captains in Transit lasted more than a decade before they lost their minds and Argos determined them to be hazardous to the ship and the entire mission.

Such was Gem’s purpose aboard the Argos – to be an assassin. A killer of her own people. Argos summoned her to clear the way for the next Captain in Transit – to eliminate any trace of them or their final days of madness.

Another reel commenced. But this one was different …

Once more Rapheal entered the stasis chamber … but this time he was half stumbling, as if lost, a crazed look in his sparkling green eyes. He didn’t take a single reading, nor look at a single pod – except Gem’s. But he almost walked past even her.

The lighting must have struck her eyes at just the right moment, creating a blue twinkle within the glass tube. It was only a brief glimmer, but was enough to draw his attention … Rafe stopped stumbling forward. He paused at her pod …

He stared at her, transfixed; far longer than ever before. So long, Gem had to scan forward through the recording in order to see him move. When she finally slowed the playback to normal speed, she saw a different man. He had steadied himself, the crazed look had left his eyes. He stood over her, straight and tall (tall for a Delphiniian).

“You deserve better than this,” he whispered to her slumbering form.

You’re wrong, she thought.

“I promise you, I won’t stop until I find it … ” he said, before leaving her and then continuing down the chamber; his emerald eyes now full of determination.

There’s but one thing I deserve …

He couldn’t be more wrong about her. And judging by the last reel, it was a miracle she hadn’t been roused to kill him. Argos must have seen something in the man that stayed her hand. Most likely, she could attribute his continued existence to his remarkable resourcefulness.

All of the Delphiniians aboard the Argos had their role to play … for Rapheal, it was to repair the ship. He was an engineer, the most gifted one they had, and as he had proved, the only one capable of keeping Argos space-worthy. The truth of the matter was that Argos was falling to pieces. And somehow, despite their dwindling supplies and resources, Rapheal had been able to keep them moving through space. Undoubtedly,

Argos was aware of this as well.

However, because Argos couldn’t afford to let him go, Rapheal had greatly overstayed his captainship. One such as him was meant to be awakened for a span of a few years at most – enough time to repair Argos then fall back asleep until he was needed once more. Far too much time had passed for anyone to weather such solitude and remain sane.

Surely Rapheal was mad? Why else had he landed them here?

And the things he had done since then …

Such as the orb … the most powerful weapon know to creation, and he dared to take it!

She should kill him for that alone … yet …

Gem continued to ponder the man, and the records continued to unfold. She grew so deep in thought that she barely realized there was a disturbing lull in the records — a lengthy period whereby Rafe failed to make his rounds. In fact, she couldn’t find him anywhere in the ship, on any of its monitors.

And then …

Another recording started on the clear-screen … this time warning lights were on all the recordings of the past, flashing in the background while a siren blared.

Looking more haggard, gaunt and lost than ever, Rapheal appeared on the screen. He approached her tube and gently placed his hand upon her face. His fingers left a clear trail on the dust covered glass …

Meanwhile, in the other clear-screen – the one showing the present — he howled – “THERE’S NOTHING LEFT!”

Was he mad? she wondered, focusing on the display of him in his present state.

Rapheal stared down the monitor as he roared, “THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD!”

After the fight, in order to heal his broken ribs, they had removed his shirt. Gem couldn’t help but marvel at his physique, and the many layers of corded muscles covering his body. She had to admit, together they would make a splendid mating pair. There was much to admire in the man – discounting his potential insanity. Foremost would be his intelligence. He was brilliant, perhaps dangerously so, but only to those he deemed an enemy. Otherwise, for the few he called friends, he proved himself to be a highly loyal and useful asset.

And Rapheal was determined. It was obvious in the way he fought, and the way he had trained his body to become a weapon. In his time upon this world, he had become as skilled a killer as herself – perhaps more so.

Gem brought her hand to her bandaged head, her own aching reminder of what comes from underestimating the man. She knew too, that the injury could have been worse. Rapheal could easily have struck a lethal blow to her unshielded vitals. Instead, he chose to disable her with an attack to her shielded head. Likewise, he could have killed her companions, yet he spared them as well.

Was he mad at all, or merely determined? Determined to save them … to save her?

It was obvious what kept him going all those years. Just to see her was enough … enough to give him hope. To give him a reason to fight on. And oh how he fought … he landed them here, even after Argos determined it was infected and sought to alter their course.

But Argos also underestimated the man’s determination and brilliance. Unbeknownst to the machine, Rafe had not only taught himself Argos’ programming language – which was ancient and long since dead – but he also found a way to disable the computer with it. And none of them, not even Argos itself could find a way to repair the damage.

Being unable to reconnect Argos to the ship, the best they could do was upload Argos’ mind to a battle-mech they had salvaged from the Age of War.

What if he wasn’t mad at all? What if he was right?

How many times had she been awakened? How many of her kind had she been summoned to kill? How long had they actually been searching?

Considering the value of any one of their lives, the time-table was staggering.

What if there was nothing left? What if this is the last world not fully consumed by the Virus?

Even if he was mad, even if he purposely sabotaged the ship to land them on an infected planet, Gem couldn’t deny that he was still damned clever … Clever enough it seemed, to not only live in an infected world, but to have thrived within it. Apparently, he had risen to some sort of lord in this land; one who commanded a substantial army. But more incredulous than that, he faced the Plague with his army … he faced the Plague, and he survived!

“What if he is right?” Gem whispered out loud. “What if it’s time to stop running?”

And what if he is wrong?” came the booming electronic reply at her back.

Instinctively, she ran her hand over her shield’s trigger – not that it would have done a bit of good in a battle with Argos. The body he possessed was ancient and held unknown powers. Once, at the bloodiest height of the Age of War, armies of such beings flooded the universe; sent forth with a very specific set of programs – to wipe out the enemies of their creators. And for a time, they were incredibly successful.

But with the discovery of the Singularity, the machines became puppets to the Mage-lords — who subsequently turned them against their creators.

Before now, the Delphiniians simply had no reason, or no way to test the mechanical body. Fearing any lingering programs, they didn’t dare power the thing up without bestowing it with a fully sentient artificial mind – one they could trust – thereby knowing for certain it wouldn’t turn against them and slaughter them all.

Like Gem, the automatons existed for one purpose – to kill.

And she had a feeling they were far better at it than her.

For starters, she was a little more than unsettled at how silently he moved – normally, she was the stealthy one. Gem was accustomed to her diminutive size, actually found it had advantages when fighting larger opponents. But next to the slender metal giant, she never felt so small and insignificant. In her experience, most beings of substantial stature tended to move relatively slow. Argos suffered no such deficiency. She had seen him move – seen him fight in their encounter with Rapheal – and the body was nothing but fluid grace, mixed with incredible speed and power. Any attack she would dare to raise against Argos would be met with a decisive and deadly counter, which the computer mind would process at the speed of light.

Luckily, unlike Rapheal, she hadn’t done anything to anger the being. Besides, if he wanted to kill her, he could have done it anytime during their journey by simply severing power to her life-pod. For those countless years she had trusted the computer with her life, she had no reason to stop now.

“How can we ever know if he is wrong?” she asked, turning to face the giant metal being, and looking him square in his fiery red eyes.

“We cannot,” came Argos’ reply. “By stranding us here, he

has strategically ensured we must accept his truth.”

His truth … “THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD! AND WE ALONG

WITH IT IF WE DO NOT FIGHT!”

“But what do you think, Argos? You have known him these many years … ”

She turned her gaze back to the past, to the recordings of the landing, and of Rapheal hacking into Argos’ mind.

“I’m sorry, Argos,” he said.

Gem sensed only sympathy in his gruff voice – not madness.

“But I’m going down there. With or without your help.”

After seeing all the recordings, it finally made sense to her; he wasn’t purely mad. Nor was he purely a villain. Argos may have stayed her hand in killing him because of his ability to maintain the ship, but there was another reason. One the computer may not readily admit, considering what Rapheal had done to it. But after such a lengthy time with but the two of them alone in space, Gem was beginning to realize the Delphiniian and Argos had become friends.

The further proof of it was the mere fact the man remained alive in the holding chamber – Argos could have easily taken his revenge and squeezed the life from him when he held him in his cold, metal hands.

“He is resilient, and resourceful beyond measure,” the robot replied.

Gem did her best to bury her smirk, finding the comment to be a polite acquiescence to the fact that Rapheal had bested him.

“But he was wrong, the world was infected … we should not have landed here.”

“But here we are. And considering he is the only one cap-

able of fixing the ship, it appears we are at his mercy.”

The recordings of the past ended as Rapheal severed Argos’ link to the ship. The screen went black. Gem was left with the current image of Rapheal crumpled on the floor of the holding chamber.

“Whether or not the universe is dead doesn’t really matter. Does it, Argos? I suppose in that sense his is correct. If it is even possible to fix the damage he has done, we cannot force him to do so. It would seem there is only one thing left for us

to do, one world left in which to live.”

A weight lifted from her shoulders as she uttered the words. For the first time since she set foot in this cursed ship she almost felt happy. No longer would her purpose be to kill her kin. Oh yes, she would still serve her purpose, better than ever. But this time it would be against her enemies. This time it would be against the Plague.

“Yes … ” a chill seemed to fill the robot’s emotionless, monotone voice. “Rafe’s actions may have proven false, but the data does not. We will not leave this world … there is but one

chance for our continued survival.”

Argos’ red eyes burned like embers.

“We must stay … and we must fight.”

–The End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

The Outlands, Post Exodus 586–

A weapon to end worlds …

He limped onward; his hands shriveled, his bald head covered in a spider web of blackened veins.

How must I look now? he wondered. One glance at his

sunken, splotchy flesh, and X’ander knew the answer …

Like you, Father. I must look like the One Elf himself.

He had only recently left the charred lands of the Destroyer behind him, and already, he had aged a millennium.

But unlike you, I will soon find death.

Of all the elves, only one of them was truly immortal – Solo Ki. Once, ages ago, X’ander thought to test his invincibility for himself. On every level, his father not only passed, but far exceed X’ander’s best efforts to end his life.

It wasn’t to say that X’ander wasn’t a skilled killer – far from it. His skill with knives was renowned and unrivaled, in this world, or any other world he ever set foot upon.

In his lengthy life, he met few who could stand against him – Nathalia may have been one. No doubt, some of the more powerful Dead Gods could be counted among his superiors.

But Solo Ki was on a whole other level, and blessed with an ability none in the universe could claim — a fact X’ander learned the hard way.

He was blessed with prescience.

The One Elf was so in tuned with the slightest aspect of his surroundings — particularly the minds of his kin — that during their battle, he knew what X’ander was going to do before even X’ander did. By the time X’ander’s blades came leaping from his fingertips, Adros was already in motion. He didn’t even bother to use his staff. His dirty cape caught the majority of the blades, the rest flew harmlessly past him. When his boot came crashing against X’ander’s skull, he hadn’t even realized the One Elf was upon him.

He learned that day that he would never be the equal to Solo Ki, and that his father was beyond death, beyond any physical test. And oh how it angered him! An emotion so rarely felt, suddenly filled his very core. He was enraged. Not because he lost the contest, but because of how skilled and gifted Adros truly was.

He spat at the man while cursing him … cursing his very existence.

“How can you be so powerful … and yet such a failure?”

After that, X’ander made his way to the Dead Sands, where he expected to live the remainder of his days malcontent and dwelling on the crumbled dreams of his past.

Then, like a miracle, Rafe came; and with him came hope.

I will do what you never could, Father … I will end the blight that infests our people.

X’ander trudged onward toward Lock Core, in his wrinkled hands, the Eater continued to test the dim barrier of blue flames that encased it. The thinner the flames, the greater the drain on X’ander’s soul – and at the moment, they held but a spark of life.

He met few as he travelled – as he had hoped. Most were the undead – which were spiritually drained the moment they mistook him for a snack. The rest were survivors of the war of Shattered Rock. Many were too weak to continue on, and had the misfortune to lie down in his path. He felt little sympathy for them as their life-force was consumed. He knew, their end was coming sooner than later, regardless of the Eater. And with X’ander’s passing, their deaths were at least quick.

Days passed, and he continued on; every step he took slower than the last until eventually, they were no longer steps. X’ander crawled the remaining distance to Lock Core; the Eater no longer held in his hands, nor in a barrier of flames. As he came upon the crumpled tower at the edge of the city, the Eater was within him, devouring him from the inside out. What was left of him – his paper-thin flesh, and fleeting soul – were the only things keeping it from feeding upon the entire Seventh World.

He clawed his way to the tower, only to collapse at its base – utterly spent; his skin fading to an oily black. As even his eyes of grey and white filled with the black liquid he took a final look at his destination, and failed goal.

High above the city, blue flames filled the night. While at the city’s heart, where the Black Door throbbed, a familiar and powerful glow turned the city into shadows of grey and gold. Atop the remnants of the Northern Tower, a brilliant sphere of azure blue grew, stretching out to cover the entire city, spreading to the Outlands as well. All it touched filled with life; the grass stood straight and tall, growing around him. Leaves of green filled the trees, then they blossomed, fruit budding on their branches.

Before X’ander’s flesh was no more he too fell beneath the healing glow …

Then, X’ander rose to his feet.

The battle continued rage on at the heart of the city …

With the Eater devouring his insides as quickly as they were healed, X’ander headed towards the Rift, and the final battle for the Seventh World.

… unbeknownst to him, golden shafts of hair began sprouting from his bald head.

158


Chapter Ten: LECYNIC AND COBA


–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Outlands, Post Exodus 586–

Life … Death … it all tasted so sweet. And oh the power it bestowed …

Through the cold, dark night he hunted; the barren wasteland created by the Destroyer a virtual buffet of beings both living and undead.

Everything was prey now. Reality itself was his to feast upon. He moved through the land a blur, a ripple of black in the otherwise eerily still night. Those he hunted never saw him coming. By the time his eyes of glowing blue flames lit up the night they were well on their way to death; their bodies shrunken and withered, their veins empty and dry. The last thing left to them was their souls; but he fed on those as well. When LeCynic was done with them, they fell to the earth – a pile of dust, and before their dust settled, the scent of life (or death) filled him and the hunt began once more.

How he loved the hunt … he lived for it. For as long as he could remember it had been so. He had always been a hunter; preying off of those who were weaker, growing stronger as he tore them apart, physically and mentally.

In his human life, he quickly rose to Alpha male by dominating those among his pack – the Order of the Magi. He ascended their ranks because none came close to challenging his power – none would dare! With little effort he had the Magi pups bowing before him and whimpering as he walked among them. Even the former Keeper, Dertois, reeked of fear when he drew near. Both men knew it was only a matter of time before Dertois relinquished his role as pack leader for the younger and more powerful LeCynic.

Back then he felt as though nothing could stop him, and oh how he longed to prove the truth of it to the entire Seventh World. So, like a fool, he did the unthinkable … he entered the

Rift.

No matter his current strength, or the heights of power he was soon to achieve, nothing will ever erase the sting of that failure. How easily he was defeated … how humiliating his defeat. The Tree took him and his loyal army with the utmost of ease. He had been so consumed by his own arrogance and power, he dismissed his opponent and failed to understand its true nature; that the Tree was death incarnate, and would never be defeated by a mortal.

Despite his unheard of skill with the Singularity, death claimed him and made him one of its own.

He had hoped to find glory in the Black Door, but instead he found catastrophic failure. He was beaten, humiliated … infected, and suddenly more powerful than ever before.

LeCynic survived and returned to the Seventh World, bringing with him the Hunger … and something else …

LeCynic was no longer alone. Another entity dwelt within him. Hidden in his Plague infected blood, it grew inside him. It sensed his world and the life within and it followed him back to the Seventh World.

No sooner had the Plague finished filling his veins, then the entire Dark Army began filling his world.

He remembered collapsing at the base of the Rift, his body consumed with pain, and power. He cried out; a scream part agony, part ecstasy. Meanwhile the dead flooded the valley, limping, snarling, and clawing their way to the great Red Wall. They paused only to catch LeCynic’s scent, then they passed him by.

They shouldn’t have done that. They should have finished him when they had the chance.

LeCynic arose.

He watched as the undead filled the Seventh World – his world! The Hunger grew within him as the infection continued to spread, urging him to join them; to annihilate his people and desecrate his world until it no longer existed.

They sought to take everything from him; his world, his flesh, and his mind.

LeCynic vowed to give them nothing.

He would never become like them – a mindless slave to the Hunger. Nor would he sit back and watch them turn the world he had so rightfully earned into a dead planet.

He summoned his power … his powers. The Singularity alone wasn’t enough to fight the will of the Tree, but he had their power now. No longer was LeCynic a mere mortal. No longer did he fear death – he was death!

He turned the field of battle into a bonfire. The flames of the burning corpses could be seen from the entire city, the smoke from as far as the Outlands.

It became a beacon. It roused the defenders to line the wall and defend their world.

But it was just the beginning …

For three long days LeCynic continue to burn his enemies to ash. During that time many unimaginable horrors came from the Rift to test his might … he killed them all. Even so, it wasn’t enough. Even with all of his powers it wasn’t enough. On the third day for the battle of Lock Core, even LeCynic surely would have met his end.

Had it not been for the Destroyer …

Some say it was a victory, some a defeat. To LeCynic it was both. The enemy lingered on, inside him, and his battle continued. Afterwards, it took every bit of his power to keep from losing himself; to be erased by the evil spirit of the undead tree. Desperate, he grasped at any possibility of defeating it. The blood of the Destroyer seemed the likeliest of solutions, so he drank it in gallons. The Hunger was appeased, but it only grew stronger. The infection accelerated, as did the decomposition of his body. To hide his rotting flesh, he was forced to veil his symptoms with the Oneness.

He continued to keep the Destroyer as his prisoner, but instead of drinking the man’s blood, he drained it, then used his power to study it. He learned a great deal from the man, but sadly, before he could unlock his secrets, he was taken from him. Fortunately, some of his blood remained, and with it he began his own experiments. He took his own infected blood, mixed it with the Destroyer’s and then altered it with the Singularity. He continued to toy with the recipe, all the while testing it on various captives of the Triad of Races. Most were utter failures, ending in foul deaths, or becoming monstrosities too horrid for even LeCynic to endure. Children, however, seemed to produce the most interesting results – those with Mage-blood, far more interesting than all the rest. So he began to collect them, these young Magi who were blessed with the blood nearly as pure as his own. Regrettably, all of them died during the course of his experiments. But from their deaths came the seeds of LeCynic’s new army — the beginning of his new pack; one more loyal and subservient than ever before.

They were his children – his wraiths …

He unleashed them on the Outlands and his new pack quickly grew to a legion of undead followers; all of which were bound to him by the power of his own infected blood. And for a time he ruled them all; the Triad of Races and the forces of the

Plague.

Once more he thought himself unstoppable … once more he was proven wrong.

During the battle for Shattered Rock, he came face to face with the Destroyer, and suffered the full brunt of his ability. The Destroyer proved LeCynic’s Plague-born immortality to be false and the gift of the Singularity an illusion.

The power of the Destroyer was the purest thing of all — pure annihilation.

Through his eyes of Mage-fire he watched as it dissembled reality. The army of undead at his back became dust, and then the dust fractured into particles so small even LeCynic’s eyes of mage-fire could no longer detect them. Their division continued without end until eventually they became one with the wave of death and moved on, dissembling the rest of reality in its path.

To survive it, LeCynic gave all his power to his shield. For a moment it held, glowing brightly against the onslaught of darkness. But the rage of the Destroyer had no match. LeCynic’s shield evaporated – and his body soon after. There was pain beyond belief, and through the pain LeCynic fought on. Even as his flesh was no more, his bones crumbling, he fought on; refusing to accept that this was his end. That, for all his greatness, his life ended by another; a drunkard and a fool, and that in the end he would die a failure.

He survived …

He faced the very wrath of the Void and he survived. It wasn’t because of his vast reserves of the Oneness, or his enhanced biological strength from the Plague. The reason he survived was simple, LeCynic refused to fail.

Yes, in all honesty he died … and he met his end. But what he encountered in the oblivion of death was a new power. One he never dreamed of possessing. He found the Void.

The Destroyer possessed it, and now so too did LeCynic.

The undead tree that infected him, that sought to claim his soul, it should have left him alone. It never should have fu***d with LeCynic. Now he was free of it, and growing more powerful by the minute. LeCynic was coming for it, this “Evil Tree”. Let it send its armies against him. He will feed from them all, the entire Dark Army will become his feast. The legendary ‘infinite’ army of the Plague will provide an equally limitless source of power. He will drain anything that stands in his path, and then he will turn that power against the tree. LeCynic will return to the Rift, and this time he will burn the Dead Tree to the ground.

Then, after that … nothing in the universe will be able to stop him …

Including the Destroy.

LeCynic was truly a god now …

Coba had always thought as much, but now there could be no doubt. The powerful being he once was had been unmade by the Destroyer, and then born again through the blood of the living and the dead. By will alone he had survived the power of the Destroyer. It was that primal instinct, the will to survive that kept him here. And now those base instincts he unleased upon the world; the need to feed, to hunt. Whether they were the living or the undead, it mattered not. He fed from them all … and with each feeding his power grew.

Yet fearful of his new master and god, Coba took a back seat as the hunt commenced. One victim after another, he watched as the Singularity spewed from LeCynic’s eyes in blue flames to burn away his victim’s flesh, while the dark gifts of the Plague transformed his body to black threads to tear them apart. LeCynic was in command of both powers now, and masterfully, he wove them together as one to create an unstoppable killing combination. At times he was a man; handsome and young. A head of dark brown locks, and strong chiseled features. His eyebrows were full and dark, casting a shadow over his ever burning eyes of blue-fire. A robe of energy covered his body, blacker than even the moonless night. But when he killed he became something else; a dark inferno. His robe vanished, melding with his flesh which became living flames of black. Wisps of blue fire danced along his body, while his eyes continued to burn azure blue. To behold him was to drown within him – to lose one’s soul in the blackened pit of fire that was LeCynic, the Keeper of the Wall, the leader of the Plague, and to Coba, a god.

They picked clean the desolate wasteland that was Shattered Rock, and then together they hunted the outskirts of the city; feeding off the survivors of the Destroyer’s cataclysmic blast. Scattered groups fled the city, wandering the scorched land in hopes of finding a glimmer of life – a sign that the entire world hadn’t burned beneath the Destroyer’s wave of death. What they found was LeCynic … or more aptly, he found them. One by one, one group after another he fed – and oh how his power grew. Other hunters lurked in the night, but they found them as well. They were the undead, remnants of LeCynic’s former army. No matter how rotten and foul their flesh, he consumed them too. They even fell upon a pack of his personal guards. Still garbed in their fanged wolf-helms, the guards thought to contest LeCynic for dominion of the area. As though to demonstrate his control of the land, he took them with particular savagery. Crushing their wolf helms like tin cans and spewing their innards out of their suits of armor in a geyser of black goo. When at last they laid as crumpled bits of armor and mush at his feet he then summoned the fires of the Oneness, and burnt them to dust.

For his obedience, his god, LeCynic, left plenty of scraps – though Coba could only feast of the living. Mostly they were morsels of little nourishment; soldiers near death, or crippled and elderly humans too weak to move. His god tracked a steady stream of the latter, a trail of them leading to the city of Lock Core. When LeCynic passed over the old souls, Coba liked to believe he was leaving them purely for Coba’s benefit, but then he sensed what his god likely had a long time ago – there was a larger group ahead of them, a group not of halfdead humans, but one filled with great power, and an unbelievable feast of life. In his excitement, he nearly asked his god what could create such a power, but he caught himself, realizing that he dared not show his ignorance in LeCynic’s presence. He was all too aware of the fact he too could become a snack for his god should he prove an inadequate devotee. He had to put faith in his god, and that he would deliver him unto a bountiful feast.

They continued heading to Lock Core, sparing but one refugee in their path; an elf, his body and soul already sustenance for another dark power – a power remarkably similar to LeCynic’s own. They kept their distance as they passed him by, his gaunt body obviously claimed by another demon.

All the rest they encountered they consumed …

Empowered by their undead gifts, they tore through the scorched land, quickly gaining on the distant party. Eventually, the landscape changed. The ash-covered earth was replaced with fields of wheat and lush swaths of grass. Before them, a forest loomed, and beyond that, the great Gorian chain rose to the sky. It was a mountain city, a wall. The great red wall of Lock Core. They continued on, leaving the fields of wheat festering with disease, the blades of grass and the leaves dropping from the forest trees; withered and brown.

As they closed in on their prey, the sensation of life grew. In the presence of the power, the corruption he had become was felt more profoundly than ever before. So much so, Coba’s twisted soul screamed for release, the true death. Had it not been for the presence of his god, Coba would have turned and fled. It was visible now as well, a beacon in the night, as if the being’s power spilled from the very heavens.

… Another god? Coba wondered, staring at the beacon in awe … and fear. Could even his god take such a being?

He realized his mistake the instant LeCynic stopped – being a god, LeCynic most likely was party to Coba’s every thought, his every doubt.

Though he didn’t require air to live, Coba realized he was holding his breath for what seemed like an eternity. He satisfied the instinctual urge and exhaled, believing his god would have killed him by now had he so desired. Something other than his moment of doubt caused his god to pause. Having no desire to risk any further lapses, he waited patiently beside

LeCynic until the reason presented itself.

Suddenly, he wasn’t alone with his god. As powerful as Coba was, he never saw the other being approach – nor did he sense him. The child parted the dark night as if it was a curtain and was standing before them. He wore a pair of shattered spectacles that hung awkwardly on his face. His flesh was white as bone. He gazed blankly at them, his eyes empty and black.

By all appearances he was lifeless, infected. But Coba saw through the façade; beneath the rotting flesh he sensed a beating heart that was very much alive.

And he was very powerful. Close, perhaps, in strength to his god, but certainly not LeCynic’s equal.

Coba expected his god to engulf him, take the child’s power as his own. Instead, his evil, undead god smiled …

“What a pleasant surprise,” LeCynic said to the child. “I thought this ‘Destroyer’ had surely taken you from me. But I see you too have survived … and changed.”

The child was motionless, expressionless, as LeCynic’s voice thundered down upon him.

“And you hunt them as well.”

Coba jolted back in fear as his god’s laughter rent the air.

“Surely, there is enough power to be shared. Join us,

Whimly. Together we shall feast on their souls.”

“No.”

Coba’s god was no longer amused.

He changed from a man into a blackened pit, threads of pure blue energy crackling outward, stopping just short of engulfing the child.

“You would deny me, child. Perhaps I take their power for my own … and yours as well.”

The child continued his dead stare, even as LeCynic’s black tendrils tickled his flesh.

“You do not fear me … I sense your power, but rest assured, even you cannot stop me, nothing can stop me now.”

“You’re wrong,” the child flatly replied. “She will stop you. If you attack them she will kill you … if they don’t kill you first.”

The black threads took hold of the child, flames of mage-fire crackled from LeCynic’s body.

“She travels with the One Elf … ” the boy continued.

The blue flames faded, the tendrils of black withdrew.

Finally, the child showed emotion, a mix of sadness and hate.

“And there’s a boy,” the child said. “One as gifted with the Oneness as yourself.”

“Our master has no equal,” Coba blurted, charging the child.

“He will take them all, including the One Elf.”

LeCynic was a man once more. Before Coba knew what had happened, the hand of his god was wrapped around his neck. Coba offered no resistance as his god flung him back. Even if he had resisted, he doubted LeCynic would have noticed the difference. Coba fell to the ground, the touch of his god a smoldering hand-print on his neck.

“The One Elf,” LeCynic said, his hand flexing as if eager to crush something in his grasp.

Coba scuttled backward as silently as possible.

“An encounter with the One Elf may not be worth the price.

Even for her … ” LeCynic continued.

LeCynic seemed to gaze remorsefully at the beacon of light.

“I only sought to protect the Master, and see his desires fulfilled,” Whimly said, bowing his head.

Coba saw the lie, clear as day. Surely his god did as well.

Why then, did LeCynic not strike the child down?

“I suppose, there will be plenty to feed from in the city … not to mention a limitless amount inside the Rift,” LeCynic said. “Besides, it’s past time I return to Lock Core. I have much to

attend to before I can see my vengeance fulfilled.” His burning blue eyes focused solely on the boy.

“Join me, Whimly. I know you desire her, though for another purpose. I know too, that you crave vengeance. Prove your

loyalty, and I promise that one day you will have them both … ”

He didn’t wait for a response, instead LeCynic became a black inferno and became one with the night. Coba picked himself off the ground, taking a moment to glare at the child before following his god. Whimly continued to stare into the darkness, as if the encounter with LeCynic had never occurred. After a time, he roused, and turned to the beacon of fire that was Emily. Her blue fire glimmered within his black orbs. Then, as suddenly as he appeared, Whimly vanished.


Chapter Eleven: THE GIRL AND THE GHOST


–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Border of Lock Core, Post Exodus 586–

She told the others (the ragged few who remained) to keep moving, to never stop, not until they reached Lock Core. She told them not to worry, that she would find them in the city, and when they met again they would at last be safe.

Emily was beginning to worry she was a liar, and that not only would she never see them again, they wouldn’t be safe … none of them would, not ever.

They had made camp in an abandoned farming village on the border of Lock Core. North of them, the mountains rose to the sky, splitting the clouds as they drifted through their snowy white peaks.

Likely, all the city’s inhabitants had fled to the Red Wall; no doubt spurred on by rumors of the battle of Shattered Rock, or the prior devastation of the Outland cities.

When first they arrived, Emily felt comforted upon seeing the quaint, thatched cottages and timber-framed barns. Sitting on a large knoll at the edge of town, a dozen brick and mortar windmills stood sentry against the Red Wall; their canvas covered blades a flurry as the mountain winds plunged through the vale. Even the rows of slate roofed granaries – though empty – were a welcome sight. The town was much larger than her own, yet the sights and smells were so similar to the village of Havenwood in which she was born, she almost felt at home.

Originally, the plan was to stay there for the night, to take advantage of the many empty lodgings that would more than accommodate the remaining refugees of Shattered Rock. They could have pushed on, but everyone was in desperate need of rest, and though they were less than a day from the city, they would need their energy and their wits about them when they arrived. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, Emily realized there was a reason why the village was abandoned – it wasn’t safe. A ten foot wall of stone with large wooden towers guarded the road to Lock Core, while a picket fence, no taller than Emily’s waist, was the only barrier between the town and the infested Outlands.

In the darkness beyond that small fence, an evil unlike anything she had ever felt was drawing near.

‘What is it, Nathalia?’ she questioned her companion, her words delivered in a well-guarded telepathic bond. She pulled her cloak tight to her breast, the autumn wind sending a chill through her heart. ‘What do you see out there?’

Next to her, the body of the golden-haired elf shimmered– or perhaps shivered, Emily thought. A pair of orchid blades flickered in and out of existence in her otherwise empty hands.

“I see death,” she softly whispered, her voice falling on Emily’s ears alone. “Death like me … but different, and far stronger. It almost reminds me of … Alec, but evil. And unlike him, this being won’t hesitate to kill us or anything else it may encounter, nor will it hesitate to embrace the name

‘Destroyer’.”

Like Alec, Emily pondered, more afraid than ever to face what dwelt in the darkness.

She had grown powerful since the battle of Shattered Rock, but she would still be no match against the power of the

Destroyer.

The man leveled an entire city! They had only just recently escaped his swath of destruction, a blast radius that charred the land for miles.

‘Can we defeat him, Nathalia?’

“Perhaps … ” she said. Her blades vanished as she smiled

down at Emily. “If we face him together, all four … ” Her smile broadened.

“All five of us.”

Emily dared to take her eyes from the night to catch a glimpse of her other companions. The three of them stood guard at the dilapidated gate of cedar that was supposed to seal off the city’s gravel roadway. But the gate was bent so badly at the hinges, it couldn’t possibly latch shut. They hadn’t even bothered dragging it across the roadway to try, knowing full well it wouldn’t slow down whatever hunted them.

With every breath of wind, the gate shook. The hinges screeched, echoing out into the fields like a dying animal pleading for mercy.

Together … she thought, wondering if such a thing was even possible. At the moment, other than the ghostly presence of Nathalia, she never felt more alone. They detest me, why would they ever fight for me?

She glanced at Solo Ki. His thin fingers coiled around the blackened Graelic; the dark staff reflecting the smallest light as if it were made of steel. His cape was even more worn and soiled since they left Shattered Rock, it whipped about his lanky frame — which was as motionless as a slab of stone. Hate radiated from his grey and white eyes as he gazed into the night.

Sure, he will fight, Emily thought. But only for himself; to satisfy his need for vengeance, and to quiet the never-ending sorrow of his soul, if for only a moment.

His intense scrutiny of the darkness was the first signs of life the One Elf had shown since their journey from Shattered Rock began. Their unknown, powerful enemy had managed to rouse him from what Emily had begun to fear was an eternal slumber. To her surprise, as despondent as he may have seemed, his senses proved to be permanently tuned to danger, for Solo Ki was the first to detect the evil presence, and the first to realize they were being hunted. Initially, Emily failed to realize it. When he began dropping back from the rest of the party, she simply assumed he had finally given up on the Seventh World. She continued onward in dread, fearing that at any moment she would feel an emptiness at her back, and turn to find the One Elf gone. If so, she would have no choice but to turn back to Lock Core and move on without him — as she did with so many others too physically or mentally weak to continue.

Dertois’ words, and her subsequent decisions, continued to haunt her: “No matter what you do, you cannot save them all.

But perhaps with your power you can save their world.”

Along with the mighty warrior, Gunt, she had charged Dertois to guide the survivors to the safety of Lock Core. If they found trouble along the way, the pair would be the only ones able to face it. But, as for the demon hunting them in the dark; neither the giant’s mighty war-pick, nor the blind, old mage’s wisdom would make a bit of a difference. She prayed to the gods, both false and true, that the two of them were at least strong enough to deliver the others to safety.

“To the dead with you. What are you waiting for?” Tetloan cursed, appearing ready to bolt into the darkness at any moment. His remaining hand clenched and unclenched on the cherry wood handle of one of Nathalia’s blades. Licks of blue flame poured from the stump of his missing arm, caressing

Nathalia’s other blade.

During their journey to Lock Core, she often noticed Tetloan and the One Elf would wander off from the rest of the group, but she couldn’t figure out why. She would even see massive bursts of mage-flare erupting from their location. Out of curiosity, and concern, she even tried to snoop in on their private meetings, but was stopped short of her goal by a hissing and foul-tongued Galimoto. Because they were so frequently stepping away from the others, she wasn’t originally worried when she realized Tetloan had joined Solo Ki at the village gate, but then she felt it, and ignoring Galimoto’s dirty looks, she joined them. When she found them gripping their weapons, and glaring at the darkness, she instantly knew that – whatever secret meetings they were having before – this was something different.

And the evil she sensed … it filled the very darkness, as if the shadows moved by its will.

When first she sensed it, she had to catch herself before instinctually filling her veins with the Oneness. She thought to question the pair, but realized by their intense glares, she would most likely be ignored. Even Galimoto ignored her, and refrained from insulting her in his musical voice.

Whatever hatred Tetloan held for her, Galimoto shared it as well. The two of them shared everything now. They were bound by the Singularity, perhaps deeper than either of them even realized. Beyond Tetloan’s mind, Galimoto didn’t actually exist. But through the Oneness and Tetloan’s will, the creature was given the illusion of life. And because Tetloan was far more powerful than Brice, so too was Galimoto’s presence in reality (unfortunately so).

There was a time she would have counted on Galimoto, despite his wicked temperament. But now the creature was more fiend than friend. Even Emily was no longer spared his cruel words or evil glares.

If it came down to a fight, it was doubtful Galimoto would be of much help, for at the moment, the little red being looked more frightened than angry. His tail wound around Tetloan’s body, his claws digging into the boy’s shoulders. Only occasionally did he poke his beady yellow eyes out from behind the boy’s fiery red head.

And as for Tetloan … Even the hate-filled eyes of Solo Ki couldn’t match his glare. He would fight. Of that Emily was certain. He would fight anyone or anything. And he would do it alone. Emily was surprised he hadn’t burst into flames already, to fly off, storming into the darkness.

No. She wasn’t worried about him engaging the enemy, so much as she was worried about keeping him from it.

Emily knew there was only one thing that would bind them together … one woman.

‘They’ll fight for you, only you. Appear to them, and they will fight as one.’

The elven ghost turned her eyes to Tetloan, and the pair of thin, orchid blades sheathed at his hips. Her own illusionary weapons ceased to appear.

“If I must … ”

Her body solidified, and for a moment she stood as she once was – beautiful, golden, glowing and bold. Then she faded to a silhouette, her milky flesh became the dark night.

“Only if I must … ”

Why won’t you speak to them? Emily wondered, and not for the first time. What was she waiting for?

She wouldn’t ask, not now. Not when such sadness filled those ghostly eyes of grey and white.

They all prepared for the worst as the evil presence neared. None of them spoke. Even the constant ranting of the imp had been replaced by his chattering fangs.

Then … as mysteriously as it began …

“It’s gone,” Solo Ki murmured, his keen senses once more the first to grasp the situation.

His words broke the silence, and Emily’s fear. She blushed, embarrassed to discover she had unwittingly been holding vast amounts of the Oneness.

She let her fear, and flames, go.

She realized she wasn’t the only one, Tetloan was covered in flames too. However, he wasn’t letting go so easily

At the words of Solo Ki, Tetloan twisted his face into a snarl.

His flames rose higher. He leapt forward as if to pursue …

The Graelic swept down at his feet, tripping him before he made a single step. He tumbled to the gravel road, his power gone.

Tetloan whipped his head around, directing an even more vicious snarl toward Solo Ki. One look at the disapproval in Solo Ki’s white eyes and the snarl vanished. Emily was certain the two of them were about to turn their hate against each other, then surprisingly, Tetloan turned away in shame.

“Whatever it was, it’s now gone,” Emily said, attempting to take charge of the situation and her hate-filled companions. “I for one don’t wish to wait for its return. If we leave now, by sunset tomorrow we can be at Lock Core. I think it’s more important we tend to the others then risk our lives hunting this thing in the dark.”

“Agreed.”

The brief concession from Solo Ki actually managed to startle her. Before she even had a chance to respond, Solo Ki was already in motion. His long elven legs striding straight to the great Gorian mountain chain.

Tetloan was slow to rise, and paused only briefly to cast a final glare into the night, but then he was right on the One Elf’s heels – Galimoto in tow, of course, making sure he sent Emily a dirty look as he passed her by.

“Thank the gods we didn’t have to face him,” Emily whispered, her words leaving her plump lips in a puff of mist. The others moved on, unconcerned with Emily and whether or not she chose to follow. “There is so much hate in them all, I doubt they would have fought as one. Even for you.”

Her head hanging low, Emily turned back to the village, back to Lock Core, and followed after them.

I pray you’re wrong, child, Nathalia thought, watching as Emily trailed after the others, her shoulders sinking in exhaustion and defeat. If you cannot fight as one, in Lock Core you will all surely die alone.

Next to Nathalia a child appeared, a cherubic, bald-headed elfling.

“The demon lives … ” the child pondered. “That was not foreseen … ”

Worry filled the child’s wide white eyes.

“What does it mean?” Nathalia asked.

“It would seem, sister, that nothing is certain … neither our fate … nor the justice of the Maker.”

Nathalia studied her friends as they traveled into the night. Her eyes looked beyond the village to the city of Lock Core. She looked beyond the darkness, beyond her friends’ earthly path. She saw their timelines as a jumble of possibilities – few of which were good. She longed to show them the true path, but she was only allowed to guide them so far. In the end, their fate would be their own to make.

For the first time since her return, she spoke out loud to the fleeting figures, “Father … you have to have faith. Goodness remains, so long as you believe.”

Her elven-ponytail flowed along her back as she shook her head.

Tetloan, find love before all that is left to you is hate. Emily … ”

Imagined tears spilled from her eyes.

Don’t give up on them. Heal their hearts, and they will fight for you … ”

And for the last of her companions, she grinned.

Galimoto … for dead’s sake, be good.”

The four heroes passed through the stone gate, continuing on the road to Lock Core. The pair of ghostly elves watched them leave the city, then they vanished.

The gate to the Outlands continued to shake; its bent hinges, crying out in the night.

For a time, the town was utterly vacant once again …

Then another being passed through the Outland gate. His body gaunt. His once elegant stride a slouching limp. His immortal face, sunken and withered as if worn by a million years of suffering. Tucked tightly to his chest, hidden beneath the folds of his cape, a black globe slowly expanded; growing ever closer to breaching the barrier of blue flames that kept it contained.

The elf’s eyes were nearly pure white, and saw little as he passed through the town. Lurching onward, he felt the gravel below his feet and made his way to the capitol city of Lock

Core.


Chapter Twelve: PRINCE ADROS AND THE LORD OF ARGOS

 


–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Border of Lock Core, Post Exodus 586–

Out of nowhere the blackened staff appeared and smacked against his wrist — the only wrist he had left. There was a loud ‘pop’ as all of the carpal bones in his wrist exploded on impact. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed his scream as a jolt pain ran the length of his arm. Desperately, he fought to maintain his grip on the orchid blade, but it slipped from his limp grip, falling with a clatter to the field of grey stones that was their chosen fighting grounds.

Then, as quickly as it came, the staff withdrew.

Sneering at the fallen blade, and his useless hand, his pain became anger.

Without hesitation, the young man summoned the full might of his power, covering himself from head to toe in azure flames. He raised his left arm – which was a stump, ending several inches below his elbow – and sent blue flames pouring from the end of the amputated limb. The flames twisted around the cherry-wood handle at his hip, slipping the blade from its leather scabbard. As the weapon slid free, the silver, leaf-shaped cross-guards and orchid inlay sparkled beneath the blue flames. His mage-fire encompassed the weapon, animating it, forcing it to circle clockwise in the air, its razor edge leading the way. Spinning like a windmill in a hurricane, he launched the blade at his opponent, who was stoically still, his hands coiled around his blackened staff as he awaited its arrival.

Spinning so fast it appeared a solid circle of silver and bluefire, the weapon came at the gaunt, eight-foot tall being.

Meanwhile, blue flames raged through the boy’s body, fusing the broken bones in his right hand. The pain was gone, but the anger remained … and it was stronger than ever.

He clenched his hand into a fist.

Flames dripped from his fingers, etching a trail through the stone floor as they burned their way to his fallen orchid blade. Crackling with power, the flames curled around the weapon’s hilt, retracting it back into his waiting hand.

Just as his fingers wrapped around the handle, the spinning wheel of steel and flame came upon his opponent … only to be met with a similar spinning wheel; this one, a whirlwind of blackened wood.

As if the elf had ripped out a chunk of his soul, the young man felt his power drain as the two forces collided. Even so, the exchange only served to fuel his anger – and therefore his power. He channeled them both against his opponent.

Impossible! he fumed, as the staff of charred wood continued to hold his twirling weapon at bay.

Even after many such sessions, many such battles, he continued to be amazed and confounded by the elf’s abilities. Not only could he drain the vast amounts of mage-fire he sent against him – enough power to make the Destroyer envious – but it seemed physically impossible that any living being could move so fast, especially considering he was unaided by the

Singularity.

Let’s see what you’re truly capable of, One Elf, the young man thought, his grip tightening on his other blade.

This time, he would force his opponent to be even faster …

This time, Tetloan was going to put the One Elf to the test …

The One Elf’s staff began to take on a bluish hue as Tetloan leapt forward, his strength, speed and agility enhanced to their utmost by the Singularity.

Tetloan’s form was still far from perfect, but like the One Elf taught him; what he lacked in perfection, he could compensate for with brute force and power. Since the beginning, the One Elf knew they had a limited time to train, and he would never make a sword-master out of him before they reached the city. And now they were nearing Lock Core, and thus nearing the end of their little training sessions. Indeed, as Tetloan attacked, his footing was all wrong, his poise sloppy, and his balance awkward. They may be close to Lock Core, but he was still a long way from becoming a sword-master.

But …

The One Elf taught him other things, a bag of tricks with which he could intertwine the Singularity and his limited sword-fighting skills. And thus, he could become something else … something far deadlier than a sword-master, or even a Magi. By combining Nathalia’s razor sharp blades with his power, the One Elf had trained him to be a weapon more deadly than any sword-master ever dreamed.

The One Elf also taught him that the Magi of the old order shunned the use of any weapon, other than mage-fire, and that the Solo Ki had met only a few who had gone against that rule. But those that did successfully join the two disciplines became far more lethal fighters than virtually all of their peers.

A single step sent him flying through the air, faster than a lightning strike. The keen edge of the orchid blade came down in an arc … right where Solo Ki’s head was … Or where it used to be. A strip of dirty fabric drifted through the air where the elf once stood. Undeterred, Tetloan continued swinging with the weapon in his right hand, while simultaneously pressing his attack with his other animated blade. Using the spinning weapon to keep the One Elf too busy to initiate his own offensive, Tetloan chased the One Elf down with his other blade, hacking and slashing wherever the lanky being appeared.

As if fighting a ghost, the One Elf vanished wherever his blade fell. The elf’s cape suffered one serious blow after another, but the One Elf was always one step ahead of him. He couldn’t fathom how he continued to miss him. His intended target was so large, yet moved with such fluid grace. And for a being that seemed so decrepit, worn and weary, he was incredibly agile and quick. Even so, it shouldn’t have been possible for the elf to dodge him, not when he moved so fast. Not when his every pore was broiling with the mage-fire.

Tetloan was beginning to believe the One Elf was anticipating his thoughts, reacting before Tetloan had even thought to act. He somehow needed to surprise him, to find a way to attack him that even the ancient weapon master wouldn’t expect.

And he would have to come up with something quick, for the longer the fight lasted, the greater the drain on his power. Little by little, it was slipping, consumed by the One Elf’s twisted staff. Once Solo Ki managed to free himself from the spinning blade, the fight would be over. Tetloan would be powerless to stop the staff from penetrating his otherwise limited defenses.

Beyond the rudimentary sword skills, the One Elf taught him a thing or two with the Singularity. Normally, he wouldn’t resort to such foul play, but the elf had said so himself; everything was fair game. If he had to cheat to win, then do so.

Sending his power directly against him was useless, he knew that from experience. But for a skilled mage, everything in the environment could be considered a potential weapon. Taking a quick look around, Tetloan saw a field of such weapons.

His energy went out in all directions. Dozens of giant stone slabs arose from the ground.

He sought to hurl them at the One Elf, or at the least hamper his movement, box him in so he couldn’t escape his blade so easily. But yet again, the One Elf proved an elusive foe. As they flew at him, the crafty old elf used the stones against him, leaping from one to the next as if they were stepping stones. He also timed their movements to shield himself from Tetloan’s spinning blade. Dancing his way through the slabs of grey stone, he even managed to slip between them and thrust his staff out at Tetloan.

The butt of the staff struck him squarely in the forehead. Tetloan fell to his knees, the stones all fell from the air, as did his spinning blade.

The pain disorientated him, and the staff drained his power.

“You promised me you would put them to use,” the One Elf

said, looming over him. “And that you would give me your all.”

He felt his power rising … along with his anger …

“You said you would send the Dark Army to hell … ”

“I will,” Tetloan growled, his rage building as he stared at

the fallen orchid blade. “I will kill them all!”

“Then do so,” the One Elf said, stepping back, raising his

staff into a defensive stance. “Starting with me.”

Tetloan filled with power … more so than ever before. So much so that it didn’t merely cover him, it consumed him. For the first time in his life, he didn’t try to control it, he became one with it.

He stood up, his flesh was fire, a pyre of blue flames that burned to the heavens.

Tetloan sent his power out, all of it. Solo Ki was engulfed. Even his legendary Graelic had trouble absorbing the vast amount of raw power. He swung out with his sword as the inferno raged over the One Elf; the orchid blade coming faster and more powerful than ever before. As usual, there was the standard, disappointing “thunk” as the blade was intercepted by the staff. But surprisingly, the blade imbedded itself in the staff. The One Elf’s eyes of grey and white widened as they regarded his damaged staff … they widened even further, when the other orchid blade came bursting out of his chest.

Tetloan grabbed hold of the elf as he collapsed. Cradling the giant elf with his power, his used his good hand to pull the sword from his back.

“I didn’t mean to … ” he said in disbelief, amazed that he had actually managed to overpower elf. All of his prior rage was replaced by sadness at the sight of the injured elf. During their journey to Lock Core he had developed tremendous respect for the ancient being and never actually intended to harm him – he didn’t believe it was possible to even do so. After failing for so long to so much as scratch him, he never actually thought it was possible to hit him, let alone land a lethal blow. For Tetloan, the death of the One Elf would be a tragic loss for all of the Seventh World. And for it to occur by his hand, would be a travesty he could not bear.

“I’ll take you to Emily, she can heal you … ” Tetloan stammered, knowing his healing skills were more than a little bit lacking. “She can heal anything.”

To his amazement, the One Elf laughed. With every dying chortle, bloody phlegm spewed from his mouth, but still he laughed.

Then, still clutched tightly in his skeletal hands, the bluish glow of his staff faded to black. Blood stopped pouring from his chest, and from his lips.

With the wound fusing shut, the One Elf said, “Well done, boy.”

He stood up, Tetloan’s eyes looking straight into the pink scar on his chest.

“But before we reach Lock Core, there is one more lesson you need to learn … the most important one if you wish to face the Plague.”

The elf stared down at him, his grey and white eyes lifeless and cold.

“The next time you kill something … make sure it is dead.”


Chapter Thirteen: EYES OF BLUE AND BROWN


–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Lock Core, Post Exodus 586–

“Bloody Gods,” the man grumbled at her back. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into leaving my weapons behind.” His face was hidden beneath a hood of black; his only visible feature – a pair of brown eyes. “… What I wouldn’t give to have something more than this damned sword,” he continued. “Not to mention my armor … it’s been saving the lives of my family since the Exodus – saved my own ass on more than one occasion — and I’ll be dead if I don’t need it now more than ever. Besides, considering what it’s been through – the very Rift itself — it just doesn’t seem fitting to have it end its days as a pile of rust in that hell-hole, Shattered Rock.”

She had listened to him gripe for days now, and for the most part, she suffered his words in silence. But there was a limit to what she would ignore, and her mentor had more than surpassed it.

“We lost much in Shattered Rock,” she replied, her voice laden with honey, even though her words bespoke her disapproval. “I would think your dented armor would be counted among the least of them.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t hear the standard “Humph”, curse, or equivalent unintelligible grunt.

Her reply managed to shut him up … momentarily anyways. They didn’t make it much further down the cobblestone road before the complaints renewed, much louder and more vulgar than before. She knew it was brought on by fear, and was therefore willing to disregard the majority of it — the rest, she tried to ignore altogether. Truth was, she too was afraid. But even worse – and perhaps most frightening of all – her mentor was right.

Where they were going, they would need all the help they could get…

Ahead of them, the Gorian Mountain loomed, its snowy peaks hidden by a dense layer of smoke. The ash-filled clouds veiled the sun, covering the land in a dusk-like gloom even though it was not yet midday. Occasionally lightning flares erupted in the distant sky, followed immediately with an earth-shaking thunderclap. Constant flames rose from the heart of the city, from where the Black Door lay.

All of the sights had been visible from miles away. Only recently were they close enough to hear the screams; at least their dying echo as they reverberated through the canyon of red granite.

Though heart-wrenching and eerie, she took the continued screams as a good sign. If the people were in pain, it meant they still lived, and if so, then perhaps they weren’t entirely too late.

Since they left Shattered Rock, they had moved at a near sprint. Now, weary beyond measure, they somehow managed to pick up their pace; the images of the burning city, and the muffled echoes of pain, forcing them to dig deeper into their every last reserve. Huffing and puffing with every breath, the man also somehow managed to continue spouting expletives at her back. She was actually impressed by the man’s level of creativity and vulgarity in his use of the words. The thought of killing a ‘meat puppet’ with its own genitalia had never crossed her mind. But surprisingly, her mentor could think of several methods.

“… I’ll shove that shriveled … huff, huff … down your dead … puff, puff … and rip out every last piece until … huff, huff … be-

fore I kill you I’ll pull it from your … puff, puff.”

She had to turn and glare at him when the methods focused on the female ‘meat puppets’. Then, like a mantra, he once more turned his grumbling to his lost weapons, listing every last item he was forced to abandon at Shattered Rock.

“If only I had my axe … and my mace … can’t forget my daggers … and my armor, of course … ”

For the most part, his words fell on deaf ears, but now, with the obvious battle raging before them, she couldn’t help but agree with him. Her fingers lingered uncomfortably on the hilt of her own standard-issue longsword. She felt the corded leather handle in regret, wishing she could wrap her hands around the smooth oak shaft of her spear instead.

In their need for haste, she had decided it would be best to leave their larger weapons behind. For her grumpy mentor, this amounted to a virtual armory which she personally had to rip from his hands – and he had been complaining about it ever since. Once more they wore the uniforms of the Death Guard. Partly, it was because she knew they could move quicker the less encumbered they were. If he had it his way, her mentor would have waddled his way to Lock Core in his antique suite of plate mail. Sure, the armor could have saved his life, but by the time he made it to Lock Core, he would also be the last one standing.

There was another reason she had convinced him to leave their items behind and don their Death Guard attire; it was because she desired as little trouble as possible along the way. The living tended to avoid any one who was ‘under the mask’, and for good reason. One could never be sure for whom they were summoned to cleanse of infection. And if they happened to come upon the undead, there was always the hope the smarter of their kind would realize their profession, and let them pass in anticipation of weaker prey.

The guise seemed to serve its purpose, for they met little resistance in the course of their journey. Only a few minor gatherings of ‘meat puppets’ barred their way, but they made short work of them and lost little time with the effort. In her estimation, they should be days ahead of the others – if the others yet lived. And she had the utmost faith they yet did, and that they too would make it to the city. Considering the company they kept, it would take an army of the undead to stop them. The Destroyer pretty much took care of the Outland infection, leaving the hell-spawn of the Rift as their only true threat.

If they could keep the Plague contained in the city until the One Elf and the others arrived, they could just stand a chance …

“Wait until the One Elf has a crack at this lot,” her mentor scoffed, similar thoughts apparently running through his mind. “By the time Solo Ki’s done with em, they’ll be sorry they ever set foot in this world.”

Once more, she found herself in agreement with her mentor. An odd coincidence, to be sure, so rarely did the man string his expletive laden sentences into a logical thought.

But like her mentor and herself, the others had no idea what they were walking into. This wasn’t what anyone expected to find after leaving the remains of Shattered Rock. They had hoped to find help in the red-walled city. Having only recently ‘defeated’ the Plague, the last thing she expected was to face it once more. And this time it was coming from the endless depths of the Rift …

And this time they didn’t have the Destroyer to stop it …

As much as the sight of the city gripped her with fear, she knew damn well there was nowhere left to go. The Outlands were dead. Only one city remained to the living, and they had no choice but to press on towards it … to the burning Red

Wall.

The Red Wall … the city of Lock Core …

Originally, it was never intended to be a city, but a fortress. The many tiers of dwellings carved in the face of the cliff were built as barracks; to house a standing army of the Triad at all times. But after so many years of silence from the Rift, families began joining the soldiers in their dwellings, and with a growing domestic base, more workers moved in to fulfill their needs. The housing developments continued to spread over the mountain, drawing even more workers – more families. Before long, the Red Wall was a city, its structures and dwellings growing more elaborate, larger, and climbing farther and burrowing deeper into the massive Gorian Mountains. The cliffs became castles. The interior — an ant-hill like maze of chambers and tunnels. And the mountain itself, a sprawling city surrounding the Great Red Wall.

As for the actual wall, one look at the marvel of fortification and it was no wonder why their predecessors thought it was insurmountable. At its shortest point, the wall was over ten stories high – nearly twice that if one included the four primary towers, positioned at the north, south, east and west ends of the wall. Between the primary towers, smaller towers of red stone divided up the length of the crenelated wall. Depending on their location, the towers were constructed in various ways; some were entirely tunneled into the mountain face, while others were mainly stacks of granite blocks. But no matter their shape, each tower was similarly outfitted with defenses. Row after row of archers’ slits faced the Rift, and each tower had several cantilevered balconies large enough to hold a dozen soldiers or a war-machine; most commonly a catapult, scorpion, or giant, pourable bucket of molten lead.

From their distance, she could see little of the Wall’s defenses other than the northern tower, which was still under construction even twenty years after the Destroyer toppled it with his power. The tower itself was surrounded by a scaffold exoskeleton, with rigging, ladders and several lift platforms providing transitions from one level to the next. All of which were aflame, turning the entire northern tower into one massive pyre.

As they drew closer, it was obvious the city had been hard at work bolstering its defenses in their absence. They hadn’t been gone long, but since they left, a wall had been built to block access to the city from the Outlands – something unheard of in the history of the city. It was always assumed the enemy would come from within the Wall, from the Black Door. No one ever thought the Plague would fester and grow in the Outlands, consuming the cities and thus turning them into an army that could take the city from beyond.

Luckily, they were able to save the city from such a fate. She just hoped they could save it from its latest threat as well.

Upright logs bound together and sharpened to points barricaded the roadway in front of them. A ramshackle tower, roughly two-stories high, was behind the wall. The lower half, brick and mortar, the second-floor timber-framed with a kneewall of notched logs. A large wooden gate blocked the road, suspended at the top by wheels that were attached to a large support beam spanning the width of the opening.

Written in blood red letters upon the gate was the warning; “NO OUTLAND ADMITTANCE.”

The wall was far from insurmountable, any substantial army could easily force its way through, while a smaller party could climb it with only a minimal effort.

She was about to attempt the latter, believing the tower to be vacant, when she saw a pair of conical helms slowly poke up from the tower’s knee-wall …


Chapter Fourteen: The Outland Gate


 

–End of the Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Lock Core, Post Exodus 586–

“You hear something, Dobb?” the thin, scruffy-faced man asked his companion. His eyes were surrounded by large black circles. Since the fires began, he had slept little. When the screaming started, he slept not at all.

“Other than the battle?” Dobber replied, gnashing his teeth on an empty pipe, not even bothering to look the other man’s way. “Not really. You’re imagining things, Pete. Who in the dead hell would want to come here?”

Four weeks ago, the pair of men had been commanded to man the Outland Gate. Rumor had it that the Outlands were swarming with the dead, but during their watch, they hadn’t seen a single being – living or dead. Because of the silence, they assumed everyone beyond the city avoided Lock Core because it was under siege, or they were already dead and infected.

Whatever the reason, both men were far more worried about what was happening in the city. People may have considered Pete slow, but even he knew the fires and the screams of the dying could mean only one thing – the Rift was opened, the full might of the Plague had returned to claim their world.

They hadn’t expected to stay on their post as long as they had, especially with no further contact with the rest of the city.

Rations were running low, as were their moods. The first to go was their tobacco, the second their brandy. As soon as those were gone, Dobber became grumpier than ever.

Empty jars and metal canisters were scattered around the tower, many of which emitted foul odors — begging to be emptied. A bushel of half-rotting apples, a basket of figs and a quarter-dozen eggs, were all that remained of their food.

Dobber continued to gnaw on his pipe, sitting with his back to the Outlands. He only had eyes for the city, and rarely took away his gaze. His eyes were red and glossy, as if mesmerized by the burning Northern Tower.

Not for the first time, Pete questioned the logic of continuing to man their post. He knew Dobber felt the same, though he was itching to join the fighting at the Wall. All Pete really wanted was to find somewhere to hide. Considering it was well-known the Outlands were infested, the guard tower had seemed as good a place as any. That was to say, until he heard the muffled curses from down below.

Before the Outland Gate had fallen under their charge, refugees were allowed to enter the city. Though back then, there was a squadron of Death Guards stationed in their place. But still, even under the close scrutiny of the Death Guards, mistakes were made – the Plague found its way into the city, scattered outbreaks flared up. Entire neighborhoods were consumed before it was contained.

After that, the Outland Gate was closed to all.

The Death Guard doubled their forces, and turned away all who approached.

Then, the uprising occurred. It was discovered that the Keeper’s guards were infected – likely had been for some time. The Death Guard were forced to abandon their posts, moving quickly to hunt down LeCynic’s unholy creations and eradicate every last one of them.

At last count, five remained at large.

The Keeper’s soldiers were said to be demons, and killed many Death Guards before they succumbed. After the uprising, not only were the Death Guard’s ranks weakened, but a new threat was growing at the Rift, calling for every able-bodied soldier to be mobilized around the Black Door.

And now Pete knew why …

“There! I swear I heard something in the road,” Pete continued.

“Well, if you’re so sure, then take a look,” Dobber replied, disinterested with Pete’s fears and anything else that remotely related to his assignment. He took it as an insult to be sent to the edge of the city, when the war was being fought at its heart.

Pete, however, considered himself lucky. He was still unsure how he landed the position, nor did he wish to question such fortune. He did, however, have a strong suspicion as to how Dobber ended up there. Back at the barracks, he had heard rumors that Dobber got a little too close to the commander’s wife. For his own safety, Dobber was relocated as far as possible from the man, who was a hardened survivor of the first war of Lock Core.

“What if it’s the dead out there?” Pete asked.

“Then all the more reason to look. It’s our job, after all. But, if you ask me, all the dead are at the Black Door, where we should be.”

The curses from below became clearer, and fouler. Pete blushed beneath his scruffy beard, while Dobber’s sun-tanned complexion grew suddenly pale.

“Whoever it is, he doesn’t sound happy,” Pete said.

“No, he doesn’t.”

“You still think we should take a look?”

“May as well,” Dobber stated, with little conviction. “My ass has been getting tired from sitting here so long.”

Though not exactly the order he expected from his senior officer, Pete complied, and together they poked their heads up from the tower wall.

One look at the masked figures below, and both of them immediately ducked back down; Pete frantically trying to string an arrow to his bow.

“You there!” came a gruff call from the road.

“What do we do, Dobb?” Pete whispered, still wrestling with his bowstring. “Don’t we have to let them in?”

“I’ll handle it,” he replied, spitting out the tip of his pipe he had unwittingly bit off. He then shouted to the pair of Death Guards below. “Sorry, good sir. You’ll find no infected in this tower. I give you my word on that … as a gentleman.”

Pete did his best to mask his chagrin at the last part, but even so, he couldn’t keep his eyes from rolling back in his head.

“I don’t give a bloody damn about your honor, or if you’re infected or not,” the man below fumed. “If you don’t open that

gate, I’ll split your skull either way.”

“Begging your pardon, but I don’t think I can do that … even

for you. No one’s to enter the city, Keeper’s very own orders.”

“The Keeper!” the man below fumed. “Your Keeper’s a rotting son-of-a-bitch. Literally! He’s god-damn infected. To the dead with his orders.”

“I think he means LeCynic,” Pete whispered to Dobber. “Right … ” he replied. “They must not know”

“May LeCynic rot in hell,” Dobber cursed down to the pair.

“And all his creations. We take our orders from the good lady Katerina now. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a war brewing in the city, and a plague as well. We have enough to deal

with in the city without letting in the Outland infection.”

“Besides,” Pete chimed in, poking his head up for another look. “You’d be a fool to want in. Beyond this door, there’s nothing but death.”

“A fool?”

The man’s hand whitened as it constricted on the sword handle. His brown eyes filled with pulsating red veins.

Pete ducked back down, his arrow finally notched and ready. “Let me in the gate, boy, and I’ll show you who’s a fool.”

A gentle whisper interrupted the tirade of cursing, then a sweet and soft voice spoke, “We just came from Shattered Rock, and have seen more death than you could possibly imagine. We faced the Keeper’s undead army and have survived. It’s true, we know nothing of the City’s plight, only what has befallen the Outlands. Please, let us inside. We need to tell our tale to our leader. And as members of the Death Guard,

we need to join the fight for this city.”

“There is only the two of them … And after all, they are Death Guards.” Dobber pondered. The man always had a soft spot for women, and the sweet voice from below seemed to easily melt his reserve. “And really, what harm can they do?

Other than to themselves?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Pete replied, not sure he was. The woman seemed to be a reasonable sort, but he was certain the man was going to cut him down at the first chance he could get.

“Keep your arrow on them,” Dobber said, sensing his fears.

“Just in case.”

Fortunately, beyond the insults directed at their mothers, the pair of Death Guards left them alone – the female one even ignored Dobber’s best attempts at seduction. They didn’t even bother to check them for infection before dashing off into the city, where their black robes and masks soon vanished amidst the darkened streets.

Afterwards, it was relatively quiet in the tower. The fires died down in the distant sky, and the screams as well. Only the occasional moan reached their ears, but whether it was from the living or the dead, they couldn’t tell. From their position, there was little they could do either way.

Further orders never came … so in the meantime they continued to man their posts. The pile of apples dwindled, while the putrid smell emanating from the jars increased. Taking advantage of the respite, Pete was even able to catch up on some sleep.

Then, half sleeping during his watch, Pete once more heard something from the Outlands … a rhythmic pounding from the roadway below.

He nudged Dobber, motioning to the Outlands.

He took a moment to rub the sleep from his eyes, then, ever

so slowly, they raised their heads over the wall …

… just as before, they immediately crouched back down.

“What do we do about them?” Pete nervously asked, not even bothering to notch an arrow this time.

No Outland admittance … what the dead! Open the damn gate or I’ll smash it open,” came the thunderous voice from the road. “… then I’ll topple that pile of twigs and you along with it.”

“We let them in, of course,” Dobber replied. “Didn’t you see the size of him … and his weapon?”

Pete scampered down the tower to obey, operating the winch before the giant could make good on his threat. As soon as the door opened a crack, a meaty hand took hold of it, thrusting it open the rest of the way. Pete flew to the ground as the winch spun wildly out of control. Laying on the ground, he felt the earth shake as the massive being lumbered in. It paused to scowl down at him, gripping its gigantic war-pick tightly. Scars covered his hairy face and arms, a leather vest covered his chest.

Pete was certain he was about to be squashed by the fearsome giant, when a hooded man stepped forward; his eyes empty pits on his head. Behind him, a throng of ragged children piled into the city.

“Who is the current Keeper? What has befallen the city?” the man with the dead eyes asked, somehow able to gaze directly at Pete’s location, though obviously blind.

He felt even more frightened under his eye-less gaze than he did under the giant’s, and felt compelled to reply.

Before they left for the city, Pete told the man what he knew – which was very little. The Boulder Dwarf looked angrier than ever at his words, while the blind, old man simply looked defeated. Taking the children with them, they followed the same path as the pair of Death Guards …

… Roughly a day later, they didn’t even bother to stop the other party that arrived at their gate. The one-armed boy seemed ready to kill them with his glare. The gaunt elf lord

appeared to be death itself. And the girl with the pouty lips …

They were embarrassed to admit it afterwards, but she disarmed them with little more than a smile.

… Much later, another being approached the gate to Lock Core. But by the time he crawled his way to the wall of logs, the gate was already burning. And the tower was a pile of ash … a pair of skeletons mixed within.

The being lacked the strength to crawl over the debris, so it rested among the ashes instead. As the being was about to make peace with death, a miracle occurred … a globe of blue energy covered the entire city and beyond … it passed over him, caressing his emaciated body with gentle licks of flame.

The bald-headed elf rose to his feet, then entered the city through the Outland Gate.

195


Chapter Fifteen: The Destroyer an the Dead God


–End of the Age of Death,

Ki’minsyllessil, Post Exodus 586–

Journey’s end …

After a rampage of destruction that took him through some of the darkest realms of the universe, he had finally arrived –

Ki’minsyllessil, the darkest world yet.

This was it … the source. He sensed it, hidden somewhere deep within the colossal trunk of the tower-like tree – the Graelic. The tree once worshipped by the elves as a god of purity and life, had been poisoned by an undead heart that was corrupt and evil beyond imagining.

The moment his bare foot touched the world’s soil the source sensed him as well. The roots that covered the land were suddenly ripping free from the ground, uncoiling in his direction.

A swarm of vines fell from the sky, darting towards him.

But it didn’t matter … it was time to do what he was born to do. It was time to destroy the source, to tear out the hellish heart and send it back to the Void where it belonged.

“You’re telling me Anon’s somewhere up there?” Alec asked, as if oblivious to the ten foot thick black root rising up above his head, or the many barbed vines slithering from the sky.

If Anon was truly up there, then why couldn’t he sense him? In the tree … in the world, he felt only madness and death. He craned his neck upwards, but saw only an endless black trunk and a sky full of skeletal branches.

“Unfortunately, yes,” his companion and guide, the Dead God Imorbis whispered in reply.

Anon … if Imorbis was to be believed (even after tearing through his mind, Alec wasn’t sure he was) Anon could very well be a true god, or at the least a direct conduit to the power of this so-called Maker. And the tree had taken him! If so, how in the dead was he supposed to prevail when even the Maker had not? Considering the ominous sight of the towering tree in front of him and the depths of evil within, he began to wonder how far he could trust Imorbis – or his own power for that matter, so closely tied were the two. Could he face such an evil? Did he actually have a choice? The only certainty was that this was his destiny, he had to face this evil – and if his life was to have any meaning … he had to win.

“Well then, if Anon’s up there, you may want to leave now, Imorbis,” Alec said, sparing the former Dead God a backward glance. “I’m not sure what’s gonna happen when I try to save him … but I can guarantee you it won’t be good.”

As ever, Imorbis wore a skin of dark energy that turned him into a living shadow. But somehow, in this place, he appeared more solid and real and could have almost passed for a living being. Alec didn’t have to read his mind to tell that the Dead God was eager to see his plan fulfilled and had no intention of leaving. He had planned for ages for this moment, and Alec knew nothing would keep him from missing it – this was Imorbis’ destiny as well. Alec had seen the Dead God’s mind, and the countless evils he had unleashed upon the universe. He could even make a strong case that the spread of the Plague was his doing – without-a-doubt it was his creation. Still though, Alec saw something else in the being when he tore through his mind. Hidden deep within the pile of shadows and fleshless bones there existed the remnants of a gifted and highly intelligent young man who was once capable of love, and cared deeply for those he called friends. The infection erased such thoughts – to be replaced by the Hunger, but now, nearly devoid of the dark power, bits and pieces of that young man began to return. Despite all the evil that Imorbis had done, he was trying to set things right – a feeling Alec knew well. Because of that, Alec couldn’t help but feel a shred of sympathy for him, and felt it necessary to at least offer up a warning before he unleashed the full might of his power and gave the Dead God his final death.

Imorbis didn’t respond, nor did he have to. He looked on at the towering tree, lost in memories of the past. The layer of dark energy that held his body together vibrated as if in anticipation.

Alec turned away from him – Imorbis didn’t need a warning, he knew damn well this was where his life would finally end.

He gave his full attention to the deadly onslaught of roots and vines, which continued to tear free of the earth, rising up hundreds of feet into the air. For a moment they hovered over their heads, slowly swaying back and forth … then they smashed downward … A million vines with needle sharp tips joined them, falling like rain from the sky to dive straight towards the pair …

Alec’s bare flesh became black flames. His aura swelled, becoming a pulsating wave of dark energy. As if effortlessly, Alec disintegrated everything the Dead Tree sent. The roots fell upon the pair in a shower of dust. The vines withered and retracted to the dark recesses of the night. More came … more took their place …

Alec grinned as they came on, then he destroyed them all … for as far as he could see. The sight of the tree evaporating made it hard to keep his grin in check before it became a smile. But he knew he must be cautiously optimistic. It was a small victory, and granted it was a small display of his power, but the roots were an inconsequential obstacle … the true evil had yet to be faced. His power may seem limitless, but so too did the evil in this world. The last thing he wanted was to realize his new-found power did have a limit, and to find it before he was able to defeat the source. Apparently, the source held similar thoughts, for it was holding back as well, and now the distant mountains of roots remained deceptively still. “Looks like your old pal isn’t too happy to see you, Imorbis,”

Alec said, the black flames retracting into his body.

“Humph … yes, he’s unhappy to say the least. But most likely, I am too insignificant to occupy his thoughts. You

however, seem to have drawn his full attention.”

“No doubt, exactly as you anticipated … ”

Imorbis fought well to keep the smile from creeping into his shadowy features.

“Well then, you may as well see to it that I’m properly introduced … shall we?” Alec asked, waving his hand towards the

Graelic.

“After you,” Imorbis replied, no longer able to keep the smile from arcing on his face.

Alec headed out, not entirely comfortable having the Dead God at his back, but far more afraid of what dwelt ahead of him.

Together the Dead God and the Destroyer strolled out to the trunk. Had it not been for the giant monstrosity looming over the landscape, and the stench of death permanently embedded in the air, the journey would have almost been peaceful. Looking upward at the Dead Tree, Alec could almost imagine the bountiful garden of life it must have once been … almost. The planet had come a long way from the world of Solo Ki’s birth. Instead of lush green branches dancing in the breeze, the black limbs swayed menacingly though the air was still and dead calm. Instead of leaves, and ripened fruit, bodies dangled from the branches; the immortal kin of Solo Ki, damned to suffer for eternity lest Alec can set them free.

And somewhere among them was the man he sought, Anon.

The closer he came, the more Alec was in awe of the tree. He had seen many worlds, many wonders (unfortunately, all of which were long since sent to ruin), and Alec could think of only one other structure in the universe that could compare with the Graelic – it was the black obelisk, Imorbis’ ‘Alpha’. The similarities between the two entities could not be coincidental. Both rose to the heavens, both were alive with a mysterious and unfathomable power that could only come from a true god. Both were simultaneously full of the essence of life and death, and were capable of spreading either force throughout the entire universe. Somehow, they were tied to one another; a secret only they shared. A secret he soon hoped to share as well – he would find it in the massive black trunk. First he would find the source … then Anon. Between the two of them he will have all the answers.

With Imorbis little more than a shadow cowering at his side, Alec at last stood at the base of the Graelic. In front of him, the roots rose like pillars and twisted together to create a maze of tunnels leading into the tree. The vast collection of warped arches kept the tree upright, displacing its weight to the anchoring system of roots that burrowed to the heart of the world and covered the planet’s surface as well.

For a second Alec paused, wondering what would happen if he simply disintegrated them all, used his power like a lumberjack’s axe and let the whole damn tree fall. What a sight it would be to watch the evil tree topple to the earth. Likely, the force of such an impact would throw the entire planet out of alignment, disrupt its orbit and send it hurtling into the cold depths of space for all time. But would that be enough? Could victory be so simple? There was that – a strong sense of doubt that his enemy would die so easily, but also Alec couldn’t help but feel that the complete destruction of the tree seemed sacrilegious. It was infected. It was evil. But it was still very much godly. The true victory would be had, not by its death, but by tearing the infection out.

Besides, he thought. If I destroy the thing, I’ll never have my answers. I need answers …

With that thought in mind, he sent his power out, a thousand threads of black smoke probed the surface of the tree then delved its interior as well. To sense the tree (even with his power) was to flirt with madness. But he needed answers …

To command his power – the power of the Void – he had accepted a truth. Reality did not exist; he saw it for the illusion it was and could unravel it and return it to its true state with a thought. He knew well the power of the Void, and that the universe was a cold and uncaring bitch of a mother that didn’t give a damn about him or those he loved.

Even so, as heartless and false as reality proved itself to be, there was one thing he had yet to accept — the belief that life – HER LIFE – held no meaning.

Nathalia …

What was the damn point? Life – even though it was some sort of grand illusion, it was yet a miracle, the greatest ever. Why then had it been reduced to madness and meaningless death? Such a miracle – such a gift – it should be a blessing. Why must they live if only to suffer and die? Could there be a better way? Could there be peace? And if so …

How do we find it? – perhaps the toughest question of all. I have to find it …

With all the power he now commanded, if he still couldn’t find it, then there truly was no hope.

Hope … it drove him onward (that and revenge). Was there a point to it all? Or was the universe merely random madness, and the nothingness of the Void the only constant in what is otherwise pure chaos?

These questions filled his mind as he probed deeper into the tree. The chaos was calling to him, taunting him with an answer to all his desires at the end of what was an infinite pit. A part of him dreaded to find the answer — the rotten and corrupted wood echoed his every fear, and the realization that he already knew what the answer would be.

He continued on, fully aware of the dangers. The drain on his ability was great, but Alec knew there was no other way; to find the source he had to risk himself, and to hope his power was the stronger force. He flooded the tree with his power, entering every last infected cell in his search.

He was falling now, falling into the tree’s dark heart. He became one with the Dead Tree. There was a moment when he realized his power was dwindling and that eventually he would need it to escape, to free himself from the tree and reenter his own flesh. But he left the point of no return and his flesh behind … to find the source, Alec delved deeper.

He was the Dead Tree.

He felt what it felt; not simply a desire to kill, but to desecrate all that existed. For the tree, reality was the true desecration – an abomination to the purity of oblivion and the Void.

He had hoped to find Anon, and with him a reason to believe in something more. That life was real, and that it had meaning.

He didn’t find Anon. Nor the smallest glimmer of hope. What he found was the source. Alec found nothingness … with his power tied to the tree he felt it spreading throughout creation. It permeated the air around him; continually splitting and dividing as it branched out through space. It burrowed below Alec’s feet. The very earth was infected as it leeched into the soil. Throughout the universe, it was returning creation to its original state – nothingness.

And the source of it all … finally he had found it, but when he did, he realized his error … There was no source, only madness and a meaningless gift – life. He saw himself through the eyes of the Dead Tree and saw his deepest fears staring back at him amplified a million fold. He saw a shell … an empty vessel … a collection of matter that tricked itself into thinking it was alive, and then again fooled itself into believing that life had meaning. He was dust, cast off from one star after another to drift through space, time and time again reshaped and remade in an utterly random manner. All that he was, and all he could ever be would inevitably be washed away by the winds of time – to become dust once more. It didn’t matter what he did. Even his power meant nothing to this force, this emptiness – this

Void.

In the mind of the evil being, there could never be peace for there was only chaos — it was the foundation of it all. Deep down Alec knew this as well. He had been born with the knowledge. Like the rest of the living, it had been forgotten. As a child, his mind struggled to make sense of its surroundings, crafting the illusion of order where there was none. Once more, his mind fell into the madness of this truth — he was born again. To see through the eyes of the source was to look with newborn eyes; to see a reality that held no meaning. Like a babe pulled from the womb Alec looked at the world around him and, in fear and confusion, he screamed.

Meanwhile, too engrossed in discovering what dwelt inside the tree, he never saw the vines unfurling above his head and slowly drift his way.

He never saw the black vines as they entered his flesh, pumping him full of a thick, black liquid. His eyes glazed over in a sheen of oil. High up the trunk, a dripping slit opened to the tree’s interior. The vines hoisted him up to the crevice.

Alec was still screaming as his body was sucked inside.

Once there, he didn’t find Anon, but he found an answer …

Reality no longer made sense to him – if ever it had. He may have had his answer, but he no longer comprehended his own questions.

Nor did it matter … the Destroyer was now one with the Servant of Death.

There was only chaos … forever and always there had only been chaos.

Alec had his answer.

Pain … suffering … madness …

They were all so familiar to him they had become redundant. Imorbis had lived with them for a millennium, even Sevron had nothing new to show him – but oh how Sevron tried …

“You were a fool to return … ”

Even Sevron’s voice was pain … a thunderous noise that rattled his soul.

“Even more foolish to think I could be defeated by your creation … His power is mine now. Soon all will be mine … I alone will remain, my existence a testament to the truth. The Age of Lies is at an end. The illusion of life will be no more, no more pretending. The dream you savored, and fought so hard to extend is over now. It’s time you see the truth, old friend, as

I once did.”

Sevron showed him … a new horror and a new pain beyond even Imorbis’ imagination, and at long last Imorbis found his penance – the suffering he so justly deserved. Even as Sevron sent him to hell, Imorbis couldn’t help but laugh. He knew he would never find the Maker, but instead suffer eternal in the mind of Sevron. Still though, Imorbis knew something that Sevron did not; the Maker was real. And though this age was at an end, a new beginning was to come. And it would not be by Sevron’s design, but would once more follow the Maker’s path. Before he was utterly sundered body and soul, Imorbis’ shadowed lips split into a wide grin. He found it ironic, that of all the places he had been, he would at last find peace in Sevron’s hell, for he went there knowing that he had corrected the error he began so long ago …

Imorbis’ died … but his plan survived, and it was fully in motion.

∞THE END∞

For my latest works, find me at http://infinitelimitsjcbell.wix.com/jcbell. I would also love to hear any feedback – good or bad.

Thanks,

J.C. Bell

The End.

 

(Visited 13 times, 1 visits today)

About

J.C. Bell began writing at a young age. His first short story, Peter and Poon, was a disgusting, offensive, pornographic piece of filth. Unfortunately, his English teacher had no knowledge of its content and read it (thankfully, only the first paragraph) in front of J.C. Bell’s sixth grade English class. Peter and Poon gained immediate attention from the Middle School Principle, various faculty members, and of course, J.C. Bell’s parents. Despite J.C.’s growing popularity among his fellow students, Peter and Poon was a disaster. Remarkably, J.C. Bell’s English teacher managed to set his anger and humiliation aside. And through the ordeal, he somehow taught J.C. to respect reading and writing. After finishing the first two books of his required after school reading, that respect became love. Hundreds of novels later, and that love continues to grow. Some would even argue that, since Peter and Poon, J.C. Bell's writing has somewhat improved.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply