Infinite Limits

For centuries there had been only silence . . .
The gateway through worlds known as the Rift, the Black Door, remained still as glass; a pitch-black mirror that when gazed upon showed only the reflection of one’s soul, and the emptiness therein.
Throughout the silence the races soundly slept, dreaming of an age past — a history of horror that slowly faded to legend, and slower yet into myth.
Then the Rift awoke . . . and their dreams turned to nightmares, nightmares into reality.

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For centuries there had been only silence . . . 
The gateway through worlds known as the Rift, the Black Door, remained still as glass; a pitch-black mirror that when gazed upon showed only the reflection of one’s soul, and the emptiness therein. 
Throughout the silence the races soundly slept, dreaming of an age past — a history of horror that slowly faded to legend, and slower yet into myth. 
Then the Rift awoke . . . and their dreams turned to nightmares, nightmares into reality.
From its pulsating maw spewed the infinite, undead legion assembled from the farthest reaches of a universe in ruins. With only one world remaining in their conquest – one last flicker of life in an otherwise darkened universe — the full might of the Dark Army descended.
An army of races must stand against it; hastily assembled, vastly outnumbered, and utterly unprepared for the evil that comes. Alone, the Guardians of the Gate will surely be swept away. 
But they’re not alone. While the races slept, the gods planned. They created . . . 
After the passing of ages the powers of their children, their Chosen, have come to fruition. Their godlings wield the Oneness, the very power that gave birth to the Black Door. Yet still it will not be enough . . . to defeat the Void it will never be enough.
Thus the gods risked everything. They created another; a new power – his gifts born of the Void itself. A boy not only capable of ending the Dark Army but the very world in which he lives — along with all those he loves. 
As the battle for the final world unfolds, the gods cannot help but wonder, would this be their final failure? 
Would their savior grow to become the Destroyer?
 

Tags: scifi universe fantasy magiczombies elves undead walking deaddune game of thrones


Author J.C. Bell
Edition Feedbooks
ISBN 9781301284825
Pages 183
Publication Date Dec. 01, 2012
Publisher Smashwords, LLC.
Series The Limits, Book 1
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

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        ∞Infinite Limits∞

    The Limits, Book 1

    BY J.C. BELL

    © 2012, 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.

     


    Infinite Limits


     

    Dedication

    For the children, may they be immortal.

    Introduction

    “I’ve spent ages searching for answers … for truth. I had lost everything, learned nothing. Finally my quest

    ended. Finally I understood . . .”

    —ADROS, Elven Forefather

     

    I will not fail

    The thought of it kept her going, made her strong — stronger than they ever could have imagined her to be.

    Rose petals drifted to the earth. Tumbling to the grass, their crimson forms decayed the moment they landed on the bed of blades. The surrounding forest groaned, shrinking back in horror as the woman yanked petal after petal from the rose. Gnarled. Ancient. The elder oaks loomed over the woman, attempting to be menacing, but betraying their true emotions with the trembling of their limbs.

    This is my reality. My world to create.

    She felt the rose dying in her hand. With every petal she destroyed its agony echoed in her soul. She wove her bond tighter, becoming one with the rose as it fell into death.

    The rose had a voice and from her lips it screamed …

    Darkness. Nothing but darkness. The closer I get the more it keeps me at bay.

    Would she ever be strong enough?

    She awoke in a world of dust, sitting with her legs crossed on a parched and cracked land. The world around her was filled with heat and with wind, illuminated by a pair of suns that nearly covered the entire western sky. All that she saw, all that she could see, was a flat wasteland of dust.

    H’Aleron, the planet was called. One of the first to fall to the Plague and former home of the once thriving civilization known as the Makii — a race thought to be immortals, masters of life and death. It was here that the Plague was made, created by the Makii.

    The Dead Gods, She thought, looking upon their ruined world in disgust.

    By the position of the planet’s suns, she judged it to be midday. Oribus hung at its peak. Its orange rays enough to char her flesh without a constant halo of power to protect her. Meanwhile, the Blue Wife was rising on the horizon, a distant sun — more light than heat. When alone, the Blue Wife turned the world to ice. Daily, the sudden changes in temperature birthed demon winds of sand and ice that have long since washed away even the largest of H’Aleron’s monuments — natural or hand-made.

    In her journeys, she had found that all of the fallen worlds shared this fate. The Plague’s hunger for life proved insatiable and highly adaptable, infecting all life forms on a cellular level. After running its course, nothing is left.

    H’Aleron may have been the first to fall, but not the last. The Makii drained the life from their mother-world then moved on, and on, and on …

    Every world they left behind became a lifeless shell, its people slaves for their army. She had traveled to hundreds of the Forsaken Worlds, hoping to revive a small part of any one of them, but she always found her way back to H’Aleron — the most lifeless one of all. Many said these dead lands would never revive, but she found the impossibility of the task a fitting lesson, the suffering of failure and death granted her a knowledge that seemed to come hand in hand in this hell. Just to dwell here took every bit of her focus and discipline, but she had not only survived, but thrived. And she had done so alone for quite some time.

    Then he came.

    It had been ages since last they met, but she recognized his presence immediately. Among the Elder Gods, he was unique. ‘Your skill has grown considerably, Alana,’ the newcomer thought, materializing behind her.

    Motionless, she took a moment before sending her reply, absorbing him with her mind.

    The old form, she thought, not the least bit surprised at his choice.

    One of his many bodies, the old form was actually a mimicry of the flesh in which he was born; humanoid standing no more than five feet tall and hefty, lugging a rotund potbelly. His eyes were brown and bulging on his face. Deep set in thick rings of black, his eyes appeared even larger than they actually were, seemingly filling the entire upper portion of his face. His thin, pale lips looked more like a pair of scars than a mouth. Practically bald, the man had only two patches of brown hair, one on each side of his head. His pants hung loose at his hips, but at the knees his legs were covered in strips of white cloth, which tightly wound their way down his shins and ankles. Clasped around his neck, a mossy, green cape draped over his bulbous stomach. Interwoven in the fabric; hundreds of silver, cup shaped bells jingled on his belly as he walked toward her.

    Wherever he stepped seedlings burst from the dusty earth, instantly blooming into white flowers.

    ‘Yes, Anon. I’ve learned much during my exile,’ she replied, rising to her feet without moving a single muscle. As he took shape in her mind, she couldn’t help but remember how it once was — undoubtedly his intention — and felt suddenly at ease.

    ‘Yet, after all this time I still feel a failure.’

    ‘Thus far we have all failed,’ the man said soothingly, his thin lips stretching into a grin as he continued to approach her. ‘You know I am sorry for this, your exile, but we had to question your loyalty.’

    Though it suddenly welled inside her, she stifled her rage, hiding her true thoughts and emotions from the mind of the other.

    ‘Loyalty? It was my heart that you questioned,’ she thought, lowering her face to the ground, focusing her attention on the winding pattern of cracks below. ‘You believed my emotions misplaced, my actions misjudged. What I failed to believe was the depths of the Plague. I underestimated the darkness, and

    for that I gladly suffer. If only I could change the past … ‘ ‘Unfortunately, all that we have is the future,’ sadness coated his thoughts.

    Ages ago she had been deemed worthy by the Elder Gods to be a Savior, one who traveled to the dying worlds collecting the Chosen Ones, the children of the gods. It was they who would grow to one day recreate what the Plague destroyed.

    ‘And me? What of my future?’ she cautiously asked, knowing that in light of her dishonor she dare not hope for much. She had failed the Elder Gods on the elven world, Ki’minsyllessil, disobeying their orders to return with the Children, choosing instead to lead them into battle against the undead. The elven race had been so promising; immune to the Plague and virtually immortal. It wasn’t until the Plague swept them all away that she finally understood the depths of the darkness. No matter how courageously the elves had fought to defend their world, the undead continued to advance. In the end, her efforts resulted in defeat, and the work of the gods was lost upon that world, their every last progeny taken by the Plague.

    The elves. Pupils of white within a pool of gray. An entire race decimated. After the passing of ages she could still see the eyes and knew that their white pupils would be burned into her mind for all time.

    ‘You can join us anytime,’ he wearily replied, shaking his head. ‘You know that, Alana. The real question is are you ready?’

    Will I ever be? she reflected, choosing to save the thought for her mind alone. Adros … What have I done to you?

    ‘Despite our best plans, best efforts, the worlds continue dying. We have all failed, and lost that which we love. We need you back, Alana. We are the final hope. Without us, all will

    perish, it is inevitable. Every Child matters.’

    For a time their minds were blank, as desolate as their surroundings. It was believed that only by combining the efforts of thousands could the Plague be undone. Every child they saved brought them closer to that goal and the hope that one day their ability to recreate could counterbalance what the Plague destroyed.

    Despite her many failures, her time alone had taught her only one thing.

    I will not stand back and watch as another world falls into darkness.

    The Elders were wrong.

    ‘I’m sorry. I cannot return. I no longer believe in your cause.’

    ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

    He was beside her, had placed his hand on her shoulder.

    She turned her head and found his wide eyes staring up at her.

    ‘Perhaps, with more time you will remember why you once believed, once cared, once joined to fight in our cause,’ he said.

    His eyes, massive pools of brown. She fell into them — had never been able to look at them without being drawn in.

    She remembered when she had first seen them. Instead of falling, she had been flying. A child, fragile and drowning in a world of darkness. She remembered how she swam like mad toward those brown orbs, how they had shined upon her — a binary sunrise on the horizon of her dark world.

    Among the Elders, Anon was rumored to be the most ancient of all, and that he lived before the Plague, back when the worlds were one. Even in those days he devoted his power to children, traveling the worlds not as a Savior but a Merri-man. Though condemned by his brethren of the time — for they deemed such displays beneath them — he was somewhat of a celebrity among the worlds. His performances had been legendary, though no living being had the fortune to see him perform, herself included. Before the Plague, he brought joy to countless children. After the Plague, he had saved but a handful from death. One of which was Alana. ‘For you, I will consider it.’ He held her hand.

    ‘Thank you, Alana. And know, that regardless of your de-

    cision I will not be, nor have I ever been, disappointed in you.’

    Her hand was empty, her thoughts all her own. Anon was gone. A garden of white petals erupted from where he had stood. Her surroundings remained as empty as ever, but she no longer felt alone.

    ‘Is she ready then?’

    ‘Soon.’

    ‘And her loyalty, will she betray us once more?’

    ‘I count on it.’

    ‘But will she succeed, Anon? Will she be able to stand against the darkness?’

    Anon felt doubt in the thoughts of the other, could see her fear festering like gangrene of the mind.

    A strange lapse for an Elder, Anon thought. Strange, but perhaps justified. We have but one world left, one chance.

    ‘Who better than her. After all, she is the only one of us to

    have ever done so before.’

    “Merrick … ”

    The man’s wrinkled hand disappeared as he placed it on

    Merrick’s back, enveloped by his thick wool cape.

    “You must learn to let go,” the man continued, his voice worn, weary and scraping its way through his throat. “We’ve done what we can here.”

    Adel had never encountered a Healer as powerful in the Singularity as Merrick. Young, unskilled in anatomy and a slow learner when it came to herbal and biological healing, but even so, time after time Adel stepped aside, his own knowledge and power defeated, only to watch as his young student performed miracles.

    Like most Healers, Adel was an outcast of the Order of Magi. Too weak to become more than an apprentice mage, they deemed him unfit and sent him from the High Tower after what was only a short stay. Immediately he was drawn to the Healers, finding in them the perfect mixture of Singularity and knowledge, both of which always balanced and limited by mortality. Adel could sidestep what the Order considered his limitation by increasing his knowledge of biological and chemical healing, and when his knowledge failed, the Singularity was always there to work its little wonders. Because of this, Adel had grown to become one of the Seventh World’s most respected and requested Healers.

    Merrick on the other hand, had never bothered to enter the Order. All Merrick ever wanted was to be a Healer. Without knowledge, he could stop infections, heal the crippled, give the blind back their sight, but what he attempted now … only knowledge could deal with such things.

    “Merrick, some things are simply not meant to be. You must learn this if you wish to become a Healer. You must learn this and you must let them go. Sometimes all we can offer them is freedom from their pain.”

    Kneeling in a pool of blood, his body heaving from exhaustion Merrick coldly replied, “No. This is different, I can feel it. I don’t know why, Adel, I just know this baby cannot die. He must live.”

    He slowly arose, positioning himself once more before the table. In front of him, droplets of blood continued to fall, pooling on the floor. His body engulfed in flames of blue, Merrick pried her legs apart. Already they had grown stiff, fighting to contain the last bit of life within her dead flesh. The flames found him, a dim thumping surrounded in silence. The flames cradled him, gave him warmth as they pulled him free. It took all of Merrick’s energy to free him … even more to give him life.

    Merrick saved him. Collapsing to the floor his life became a shadow, a dream, alien and unfamiliar as it followed him down into oblivion. His pain and every living emotion ceased to be. With a sudden wail, his pain began.

    They watched him. Always they watched. They were at the conception, spent the days at her side as he grew within. Anxiously they watched as he came to be, born of a dead womb.

    A voice spoke in a broken whisper, like dead leaves blowing

    in the wind, “Our gifts to the Merrick proved sufficient.”

    “We knew they would,” replied the other, his words tinged with regret.

    “I only hope the boy child will prove as sufficient.”

    “Of course he will.”

    “I envy your certainty, Anon. The Plague has evolved beyond our control, what makes you think this creation will be different, that this one can be contained?”

    “I am certain he cannot,” Anon replied to the being. “In the end there will be only Him.”

    “Then our time is done?”

    Anon sensed excitement growing from the Dead God.

    “He will take you back to the Maker, back to His ways. All things must end. The best we can ever hope for is a new beginning.”

    The creature, once so powerful and feared it dominated the universe, now shriveled into itself, a pile of shadows and dust. “Yes, Anon. Death … I see the truth of it now.”

    In centuries there had been none like him. A Black Mage, a true Gatekeeper. Possibly even a god. Was there no limit to his power and potential? He certainly thought not, and meant to test that belief. What better way to do so than a journey through the Black Door? He had already confirmed his ability to control the Rift, and now with two hundred of his most loyal soldiers he would enter it – to the dead with the Keeper and his archaic laws. If the Plague was real, he would send it running back through the Black Door and return home a hero. The

    Keeper himself would have no choice but to bow before him.

    Until then, secrecy was a must. The Council would condemn him to death for the mere ability to open the Rift. But for daring to enter it, the entire Seventh World would rise against him.

    His troops gathered in formation near the stairway of stacked circular stones leading up to the Rift – a haze of blue flames muffled the crunch of steel boots on dry bones, and clattering plate mail. The cover of night and the shadow of Lock Core did the rest, hiding them from prying eyes. Though typically none but tourists ever visited the wall, and at this hour the wall was sure to be empty — never was it guarded. If there was some army of horrors within the Rift, the great wall would be all but useless to stop them. The man was determined to prove to everyone that only he had that power.

    A wave of blue flames surged from his fingertips, blending with the utter blackness of the Rift. Soon the flames and darkness coalesced, spiraling outward into what seemed like oblivion. The outline of the Rift began to throb, pulsating like a beating heart.

    Behind him, his army began their march. They moved in perfect formation; patient, calm, confident in their leader’s power and the glory they were soon to find under his command. Wolf helms hid their faces while their dark armor blended with the night. Those at the head of the procession gazed forward through crossbow sights, their fingers caressing the triggers as they strode toward the gaping black slit hanging in the air. They hesitated but an instant at the dark threshold then, continuing their march they were consumed within the pool of black.

    Though their comrades vanished before them, those who followed never faltered their steps. Walking with swords and shields raised before them, they entered the swirling, pulsing hole ten by ten until their black robed leader was the last man left. Then, surrounded in flames of blue, he too disappeared into the Rift …

    Together they died and were reborn in a world of darkness and bitter cold. Only with his eyes of blue fire could he see the blackened trunk before them, so thick and massive its girth filled the horizon. So tall it vanished in the clouds.

    Only he could see it come alive — the black roots seeping from the earth, ensnaring the boots of the soldiers who were blind to its existence. By the time his soldiers discovered its presence — felt it crawling up their flesh — it was too late. Within moments the entire army was consumed.

    His blue flames held the darkness at bay, allowing those who could, to flee back to the Rift, to the safety of the Seventh World. His power and barrier of blue flames fading against the onslaught, the man in black was forced to abandon the rest of the soldiers to the darkness. With his last bit of strength he turned, preparing to dive back into the Rift. Before his feet left the soil of the forsaken world, a single strand of black shot toward him, curling around his ankle as he leapt.

    And then … there was fire. Burning him from the inside out.

    And a voice …

    ‘My seed shall grow upon this land.’

    Along with the handful of soldiers he saved, he collapsed on the soil of the Seventh World. Lying at the foot of the Rift they were burned alive by flames of black. Every trace of life forever scorched from their flesh.

    First, he felt consumed with the shame of failure. What a fool he had been to think himself invincible.

    Then, as his soldiers lay screaming around him, LeCynic began to laugh, for the darkness seeped into his blood, filling him with true power — immortality. Now, he truly was invincible.

    He stormed down the steel corridors, furious for having been awakened – and so rudely at that. Red lights flashed around him, hounding him every step he took. They only tracked him, coming to life the moment he drew near, and then disappearing the moment he left – ensuring he couldn’t ignore the warning no matter where he went. He knew the only way to stop them was to go to their source.

    Worse yet, was the siren. Even if he somehow could outrun the red lights, the siren echoed through every nook and cranny of the entire ship. He had stuffed his ears with strips of his uniform to endure his trip, but even with the sound muffled, he wondered if he could keep his sanity long enough to reach his destination.

    The polished steel walls seemed like a maze, but he knew them well – probably too well. He navigated his way with ease, every little nick and scratch a landmark.

    He took a shortcut through the stasis chamber, making a quick inspection of the many cylindrical tubes lining the chamber walls. He was satisfied to note that only one in ten of the tubes displayed readings beyond optimal parameters – none were malfunctioning. One tube in particular drew his immediate concern, but again, all vital signs were normal, stasis systems ideal. His small fingers cleared a trail of dust from her tube, revealing the angelic face within. She seemed all but lifeless within her glass canister, like a doll on display – her oxygen deprived skin porcelain white, and her bright blue eyes, sparkling, multifaceted gems. All he knew was her name, for like all the others, it was etched in her stasis tube’s glass – XF601 – GEMINI. As he often did, he fantasized what it would be like to actually meet her, to learn the real identity behind those blue eyes. But as always, he resigned himself to the fact that they would never meet, and he would have to be content loving the woman he iMagined her to be. He gave her one last look of longing, and then moved on.

    He neared the end of the chamber, where the empty tubes were stacked, then paused once more. He turned, his own gem-like eyes falling on one of the empty tube’s transcriptions.

    XM591 – RAPHEAL

    He stared at the writing as if lost, his mind drifting to another life.

    The siren brought him back.

    His head starting to ache from the constant blaring, he continued on.

    He thanked the old Gods, when at last he reached his destination. The doorway was larger than those he had passed, and opened into a vast, dome-shaped chamber – the walls all made of the same polished steel as the corridors. The chamber door was half open — a scrap of bent metal jammed in its track. He looked at the doorway and grunted, remembering how he fought for a full standard day to pry the door open the last time it was shut. His “repair” wasn’t very sophisticated, but it had lasted for over three standard years.

    He stomped into the room, growing angrier. In his sleep he had been free of this ship — its steel walls and malfunctioning equipment. In his sleep there had only been peace. All he wanted was to fall back into it. To forget he ever stepped foot into this place, maybe dream of his long lost life.

    “Why in the dead did you wake me?” He asked of the empty room, screaming to be heard above the wailing siren.

    The siren stopped, silence was his only reply.

    He hoped the ship wasn’t simply having one of its moments.

    Sometimes he wondered if it felt as lonely as he did.

    One could say the ship was sentient, artificially intelligent (though he was reluctant to credit it with the intelligent part). Among his people, it was a highly prized piece of tech, which they had stolen from a distant alien world. Once the language barrier had been overcome, the ship was virtually self-sufficient, and operated on voice command alone.

    It named itself Argos.

    Now its communication was limited to a Delphinian program that interpreted its data then projected it onto a common holoscreen — in the rare occasions when the holo-screen was actually functioning, which, at the moment it wasn’t.

    The being put his hands on the wall. Glowing buttons appeared wherever his fingers met the smooth steel. His fingers were thin and tiny, and danced rapidly on the console. He had to stand on his tiptoes to reach many of the buttons, his full height no greater than four standard feet.

    Unable to initiate the monitor manually, he switched his strategy; forming his hand into a fist, he tried pounding the blinking symbols into submission. Receiving little more than bruised knuckles for his efforts, he gave up on the console and dropped to the floor, his little fingers brushing through the dust until there was a sudden “Click”, and a section of the metal floor levitated upward. It hovered before him as though weightless, then he pushed the panel away and dove headfirst into the pit of multicolored wires and blinking lights.

    A geyser of sparks soon filled the maintenance shaft and the ship’s monitor flickered to life.

    A crackle of energy, followed by more sparks, and the monitor brightened and expanded, the words upon it stretching horizontally to unrecognizable dimensions. Gradually, the image stabilized. Though the words remained unreadable; scrolling down the screen faster than any living eye could read. After some grumbling from below the bridge, the list slowed, becoming comprehensible at last.

    “There, should give me a little time,” the being said, before scampering back out of the maintenance shaft.

    He moved quick, freeing his small form from the tangle of wires, and scrambling to a stand. A pair of emerald green eyes darted to the monitor. The eyes were even facetted like gems and sparkled in the dim light of the console.

    Line after line beginning with the word WARNING, slid down the screen, detailing the ship’s major hull defects — which may as well have been a cabin by cabin breakdown of the ship’s exterior, for it appeared that every exterior room had either been lost to the vacuum of space or soon would be.

    Not that he wasn’t aware of every last crack in the ship — having patched most of them himself. Those he couldn’t repair had been sealed off to the extremes of space by welding the cabin doors shut, leaving the rooms forsaken.

    After a structural illustration of the entire ship came into view — the elliptical exterior highlighted in blinking red lights — the hull report faded off screen, immediately followed by a status update for the life-support systems. The only words to follow were — Status unknown. In order to keep the crew alive over all the years the Captain in Transit had cannibalized nonessential systems, turning the life-support into a mass of rerouted wires and cables, their functions no longer recognizable by the ship’s own diagnostics.

    “Come on, Argos,” he declared, his voice gruff, his vocal chords stiff from lack of use. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

    Growling, his eyes flaring in anger, the being deleted any internal ship readings as soon as they appeared, no matter how insistently they flashed “WARNING”. He had long since learned to stop jumping any time he read “failure this” or “danger that”. Having kept the ancient vessel moving through space the last seventeen standard years, he knew there was little the computer could tell him about the ship that he didn’t already know. The majority of the warnings he had already dealt with to the best of his abilities — and dwindling resources. Those beyond repair simply had to be ignored or avoided. As long as the ship continued to move through space, and its cargo (living or otherwise) remained safe, the barrage of warning lights didn’t faze him one bit. It all appeared to be standard stuff, certainly nothing worth waking for.

    “What gives, Argos? You have something to say then spit it out.”

    The reports switched to the external sensors, and the probes.

    The first thing he noticed was the abundance of new data, and the lack of a correlating time frame.

    “Argos, exactly how long have I been sleeping?”

    Part of his job as Captain in Transit was to observe external readings once every ten-day. What he saw now was enough data to span over three such time periods. Argos sent him another warning – Chronometer malfunction.

    It suddenly made sense.

    His last ship repair had been a warning he couldn’t ignore. The ship transported a number of dangerous items, one of which required a constant supply of energy to keep its destructive power contained. The barrier field had been on the verge of failure, requiring him to reroute numerous other systems to keep the field maintained – which was no easy task, considering the limited functioning systems, and jumble of power feeds sprouting from the ship’s core in a seemingly random manner. One of the functioning systems that he happened to reroute had been the ship’s internal chronometer, which — in his exhaustion — he forgot to reset.

    In his seemingly endless drifting through the void of space, time itself seemed to lose meaning without the ship’s internal clock to dictate its passing. The ship’s clock was the only thing that kept him grounded to life, allowed him to maintain a daily schedule in an environment where stars abounded but never rose nor set, merely faded from his view-screen.

    Normally, to keep sane, he liked a vigorous day that emphasized discipline by way of extreme fitness. The routine served dual purposes. First, it kept him healthy and physically fit in an otherwise stagnant environment. Second, it kept his senses sharp, alive, giving him something to focus on even if it was physical pain.

    He couldn’t remember his last session of physical fitness, of which his scrawny arms and legs would attest. He mostly remembered wandering the ship. No specific memories, just visions of a nightmarish maze of recurring steel corridors. At one point he felt so familiar with the maze he began to think he could even escape it. He must have wandered for days before he came to the realization that he truly did know the way out, and that it couldn’t be found in any of the ship’s twisting corridors. He wasn’t even sure how much of his wandering had been done while awake or dreaming but finally he simply gave up. There was only one way off of Argos. He rested his head on the smooth steel floor and finally found peace.

    Then he was awakened by Argos.

    Even when the ship’s clock was functioning, the being didn’t know exactly how long it had been since the fleet disbanded and he had entered hibersleep.

    He only knew that there had been seventy-five Captains in Transit before him – a fact he knew well, having counted the empty hiberpods on numerous occasions.

    The burden of Captain in Transit was his until death. At which time the seventy-seventh captain would awake from their slumber to suffer the burdens of a decaying ship and fruitless mission. Should they fail to find safe harbor for their cargo, the cycle would continue until the tenth generation, failing at long last with the death of the final captain in that rotation.

    Perhaps his entire race would die at that time. In all his long hours of wandering through the computer’s memory, the last recorded contact with another member of the fleet had been over a hundred standard years ago. Even that hadn’t been much of a contact, merely a drifting vessel with its warning signal blaring through the galaxies. The Captain in Transit who had come upon it, confirmed the warning transmission was

    Makiian, then detonated it the moment he came into range.

    Where the rest of the fleet ended up was anyone’s guess. When they disbanded, the ships set out in opposite directions throughout the universe. He doubted much of the fleet remained any longer. Considering the troubles he had dealt with in his rotation alone, it wouldn’t surprise him if Argos was the only one left. Space travel was dangerous enough without every world being filled with the undead plague.

    Smallings. Half-men. His people were known by many names throughout the worlds. But to themselves they would always be known as Delphinians, or in the shorter form — Delphins. Named for their fallen home-world, Delphi.

    His people had always been builders and inventors, their nimble fingers and sharp minds had birthed some of the greatest technological advancements in the universe. But after the Mage-lords conquered the worlds, technology itself became banned. His people became hunted, their technology threatened with destruction. Forced to abandon their homeworld to the Mage-lords, they no longer had a planet but a fleet. Space became their new home.

    They may have been great inventors, but after the Age of War they were even better pirates. While all other races forfeited their technologies, his kind continued to thrive in theirs, traveling the stars in the old way. Though slower than the Gate, they moved invisible to even the Mage-lords. They never stayed on solid land for more time than it took to fill their hulls, then, before the Mage-lords stormed through the Gate their fleet was well beyond the power of their so-called Oneness.

    The elders used to talk of a time when the planets were ripe for plunder and a single Captain could see a hundred conquests in a lifetime. Now, after reading through the logs of his predecessors, there hadn’t been a living planet in well over two hundred standard years. The Plague had seen an end to all plunder, sweeping through the planets at a rapidly accelerating rate.

    In the beginning, the Fleet had fared better than the worlds, being untethered to the Rift like the rest of the races. But even his race of drifters had not been immune. The first time they encountered the Makiian Virus, many ships were lost before comprehension set in. Once they figured out that even their weapons were no match for this dark version of the Oneness, they quarantined the infected ships then fired upon them.

    For a time they sought to study the virus with their technology. But even their greatest scientists were baffled, for it was birthed by the Oneness, something his people typically fled from, not studied. In their arrogance they had always thought their own science was the superior path, and therefore had never bothered to study the Oneness.

    Because it was so highly contagious and foreign to them, all thoughts of studying the virus were abandoned. Any contact forbidden. Infected worlds could not be set upon, to do so was an act of war against the fleet. Many ships were lost in the beginning, before they knew what to scan for.

    But eventually they adapted to the growing evil, even formed a sort of plan to combat it. Once more his people focused on technology, marauding the living planets and taking their secret reserves of ancient weapons and occasional ships. With the Mage-lords focused on shielding themselves from the horrors of the Rift, the Delphinians were free to plunder unopposed.

    Their plan was to steal their weapons then leave the planets to rot. If the Plague ever found them in space, they would have an arsenal of weapons capable of sending it back into the Rift forever.

    The years passed and the planets died, meanwhile lacking supplies (either bought or stolen) from the worlds, the fleet fell into ruin. Having nothing in their hoard of weapons capable of battling the ravages of time, they had to face the plague, or sit and die.

    The Delphinians decided they would find a living world and make a stand.

    That was the day the Captain in Transit went into hibersleep, and his mission began.

    Many years later he awoke, and found himself in charge of a ruined ship and a mission on the brink of failure.

    During his reign as acting captain he devoted a great deal of time studying the weapons in his hull. Unfortunately, the technology behind the weapons was ancient and alien, and for the most part, beyond his understanding. As for finding worlds, so far he had found thousands of them, all infected.

    Because of these failures, perhaps a part of him had never wanted to restart the ship’s chronometer. Maybe he had finally accepted the fact that he was lost, and his time was running out. All the blood and sweat that he put into his stringent routine and ship repairs had been for naught, and that his days as Captain in Transit would end as inglorious as his predecessors — as would the poor bastards that had to follow him. “Fine, will you let me go back to sleep if I fix the chronometer?”

    The siren blared to life again, louder than ever. Every inch of the chamber walls were flashing red.

    “Argos, enough,” he pleaded, falling to his knees. “Just tell me what you want.”

    As suddenly as the alarm started, it stopped. The external readings reappeared, beginning with the probes — there remained three that yet transmitted a signal, though all of which were but faintly detected. As it was so fond of doing, Argos also sent him a warning: Core power failing in probes 541, 783, and 777. Requesting immediate send-back for core restructuring. Communication loss imminent.

    The Captain in Transit knew better. He had already set a limit to their search perimeter. Their signal was as powerful as it would ever get, as long as he kept them close they shouldn’t wander off.

    “Wait a minute. What happened to probe 363?” Argos responded by redisplayed the previous warning.

    “Fine,” the Delphin growled. “Just get on with the one’s we got.”

    Terrestrial Probe 541 — Habitable zone binary system.

    Atmosphere — 40 parts methane, 18 parts diacetylene … ammonia … hydrogen sulfide…

    He had seen enough. Probe 541 faded off screen.

    The next probe — 783 — sent a similar reading; Habitable zone, toxic atmosphere, vegetation nil, weather unstable, etc … More all too familiar data.

    He expected nothing less from the final probe.

    777 …

    … habitable zone. … oxygen rich.

    … weather stable.

    Vegetation rich. Life-forms…

    … multiple readings.

    The Captain’s thin, stick-like legs nearly crumpled beneath him.

    “What of the Plague?” He begged of the ship, his gruff baritone voice strangely out of place in his seemingly adolescent frame.

    … Makiian virus – 0%.

    He recovered himself, his fingers once more flying on the control panel.

    “Distance?”

    97,483.397 light years.

    “Well, what are you waiting for, Argos?” he roared. “Set a course.”

    The star-chart of Argos’ course appeared on screen, already plotted and engaged. “What’s the problem then?” Gravdrive 59% efficiency.

    With that amount of power, neither him, nor those who followed, would live to see the planet. He no longer felt the need for sleep. He finally had a real means of escape from his ship. His emerald eyes lingered on the screen a moment longer to make sure it wasn’t just a dream, and then he dove back into the maintenance shaft where he knew he would spend his next ten-day in the ship’s bowels, feeding as much power as possible to the gravdrive.

    Shortly after he left, another warning appeared.

    … Makiian virus – .001% … .002% … .004%

    It continued to grow exponentially, until there was a growl and flicker of sparks.

    Then screen flickered and went blank once more.

    Argos tried to access its emergency faculties, but they were nowhere to be found. The Captain in Transit had already rerouted all emergency power to the gravdrive. Electric currents flared in the ancient computer’s brain as it attempted to scream a warning. But lacking a connection to the physical world, it was a warning only Argos could hear.

    Chapter 1: THE BLACK DOOR OPENS

    –The Age of Death,

    The Seventh World, Post Exodus 565–

    His robe had at one time been white, a garment of silk caressing his flesh. Now, covered in the stains of his enemies’ foul blood it dragged at his heels, threatening to trip him with every step. Moving awkwardly in order to avoid such a fall, he approached the arched portal leading him out of the tower and into the rain. His blue eyes misted over as he paused at the threshold, remembering the allies and friends desecrated by the Plague. He took a moment before continuing out into the night, his thoughts not only on his allies but on the legends as well.

    The legends … I never believed.

    Surviving the horrors of the day had blessed him with a newfound faith. The Ancients knew this day would come, but Dertois never iMagined it would come to pass, certainly not during his reign.

    Three whole days …

    For three whole days the defenders lined the Red Wall, destroying all that moved within the circle of earth and stone. Lock Core was thought to be impregnable, built by the Ancients themselves knowing that one day the Plague would come for them.

    Darkness and rain washed over his form as Dertois left the chamber and stepped outside. Immediately he was drenched, his robe soiled and clinging to his flesh. Below him streaks of fire arced into the night, while distant shouts mingled with the wind screeching past his ears. He felt a momentary chill as a gust of wind lashed out at him, then his skin was covered in a bluish light and he felt nothing at all.

    Beneath the flickering aura he gazed out over the ground below, to the red wall of Lock Core, where the rain cascaded on armored defenders desperate to empty their quivers into the pool of darkness before them. The dark … a field of shadows hidden beneath the night and the great Red Wall. He shifted his gaze there, into the shadows, and through eyes of blue fire he saw a landscape of soulless beings howling for the defenders’ flesh. And beyond them … a black gash rent the sky — the

    Rift.

    He watched it pulsing, hovering in the air and was filled with loathing. How he despised it, the gateway through worlds known as the Black Door, a tear in the fabric of space through which his ancestors had used to flee the Plague. Created to bind the universe into one world, all that it now conveyed was the end of all life, a horde of monstrosities which, despite the combined efforts of the Triad, continued to spill from the dark portal without end.

    There is no end … Dertois thought, appalled by the sight before him, the truth of Adros’ words finally sinking in – according to the Elf Prince, the Plague once hunted the living, devouring world after world. Nothing could withstand them … not Adros himself, or even the Gods. Eventually the living worlds were no more. Those who survived were forced to wander the Forsaken Worlds, until Adros found them and gave them hope, and a home – the Seventh World.

    It was a living world, a planet lush with life and blessed with one amazing feature — greeting their arrival, everywhere the Ancients looked, sheer walls of red granite arose before them, a natural barrier to the evils lurking within the Black Door. Homeless and weary, their spirits soared at the sight and together the races declared that they would no longer flee but make their last stand atop those heights. From that moment on, they quickly set to work perfecting what nature had made, filling any of the gaps with piles of earth encased in stone. Thus, Lock Core was created, a gigantic wall that was still very much a mountain.

    Generations later, the Ancients’ descendants continued to add to their creation, strengthening Lock Core with towers, internal causeways, and multileveled walls. It wasn’t until the memory of the Ancients and the Plague faded into myth that the Triad were at last satisfied and finally able to live in peace within their new found home-world.

    But the Elf Prince also warned them that they would never truly be safe; that the Plague would find them once more – it always did. Now, untried and blanketed by the dust of ages, the Red Wall was Dertois ward. It became his fortune to face the awakening Rift and to finally test the toil of generations.

    I will not fail.

    ‘Our efforts are wasted on all fronts, my Lord. Even our brethren of the Magi blood fall, assassinated by beings unheard of in the legends.’

    The voice of his advisor, LeCynic penetrated his mind, disrupting his thoughts. The young mage had proven his worth time and again in the last three days. Always his greatest pupil, LeCynic’s recent display of power was surprising and often frightening to Dertois. He had always known the young mage would surpass him, but he never suspected it would occur so suddenly.

    As for his reports, Dertois knew the truth of them all too well. He had faced one of the beings himself, surviving the encounter only by drawing on every last bit of strength he possessed. Though he lived, he was certain that the creature did as well, and that it hunted him still, watching and waiting from within the darkness.

    ‘We must do something before all is lost.’ His advisor’s voice continued in his mind, his words accompanied by a wave of urgency.

    We must do something … He didn’t need the man to tell him that. But what could they possibly do?

    “Over five hundred years have passed, and nothing.”

    He crossed the balcony, his frustration and power amplifying his voice so that he could be heard as the wind and screams mounted below.

    “No wars to be fought. No world to defend. We deluded ourselves into thinking we were at peace. Safe within our ancestral wall.”

    Water trickled down his wrist, winding its way through the contours of his flesh, washing away the blood of his enemies.

    Gritting his teeth, Dertois squeezed the iron railing, his skin growing pale from the exertion. He stood on the balcony, his eyes narrow slits peering into the darkness before him.

    “Now … ”

    Though hundreds of yards distant and enshrouded in the night he could clearly see the dark portal festering in the land, spewing forth the Plague upon the Seventh World. A crack of thunder heralded the arrival of yet another new being — a behemoth of bone. Illuminated by a lightning flare it emerged, shredding its nearby allies with hooked claws and fangs. Its lust for flesh so great that even the undead fell victim to its hunger. The being crouched down, pausing to pluck a morsel from the horde of walking dead. With its mouth full of rotten flesh it continued on, unsatisfied and eager to feel warm blood on its tongue.

    “… the Rift stirs, and through the dark portal pours every last minion of the Forsaken Worlds.” His voice hissed through gritted teeth, while below him the monstrous being lumbered forward, crushing the undead beneath its feet.

    “The wall will hold, my Lord,” the words came from behind and were spoken slowly, rumbling from the speaker’s throat as though drawn from the bottom of some distant cavernous depth.

    “Aye, but can we, Drau’d?” Dertois replied to his longtime friend and ally, the Boulder Dwarf and Head Stone Master Drau’d. Leaving deep indents within the iron from where his hands had been, he released the railing. “I do not doubt that the creation of your kin will remain standing until the end of all time. But what of us, Drau’d? How will we fare once the Red

    Wall is overrun?”

    Dertois could feel the dwarf’s lungs sucking the air from the room as he prepared to speak.

    “We cannot escape death, Dertois. The Ancients knew this. We adhere to the pact. Fight until we die. That is how it will end, in victory or in death.”

    “Aye, I say what better way to die then in battle,” Ebboron, Lord of the Rock Dwarves declared. “We’ve taken the gift of our forefathers for granted and I dare say we’ve grown weak because of it. The Rift has been quiet far too long in my opinion. It’s time we become the great warriors our ancestors meant us to be.”

    Regaining his composure, Dertois turned, facing into the chamber. The representatives of the races had come together in the uppermost level of Lock Core’s northern tower, a room which had been utilized by the Ancients as a sentry post, a place for the Triad to keep a constant eye on the Rift. The light in the chamber was dim, illuminated by only three candles arrayed at three points of the compass, north, east and west. To Dertois’ back were the south, the darkness, and the Rift. It was within this chamber that the inhabitants of the Seventh World had seen the Rift come alive, and now it was there that they met to discuss the ways in which they would avoid their annihilation.

    The sentry chamber itself was round, topped with a domed ceiling that had once been layered with silver, but had long since been stripped of the precious ore, revealing a framework of copper and rotting wood beneath. The walls were comprised of thick interlocking stones, smaller, yet similar to those that made up the main wall of Lock Core. They were reddish in hue and often riddled with cracks. All of the stones were identical in shape — large four foot blocks interlocked by a complex system of tongue and grooves chiseled on their surfaces. Tiles covered the floor, their faces worn smooth and white through the ages. In the center of the room a staircase of rusted iron spiraled down through the tower’s lower levels which were seven stories of shooting galleries — walls dissected with arrow slits.

    The lights in the chamber flickered, causing shadows to dance on the faces of Dertois’ companions as they looked toward him with expressions mixed with courage and dread. Including Dertois, there were four humans, two dwarves, and one elf. Together, they were all that remained of the Council of the Seventh World and the representatives of the Triad of Races.

    If the elves had a leader, it would be Solo Ki — the last of the pure-blooded elves, the true descendants of Adros. As such, he was ancient, even for an immortal, perhaps the last being in existence to have witnessed the Forsaken Worlds. Dertois could only guess at his age, though others swore that he existed long before the coming of the Plague, in the days when the worlds were one. He stared at Dertois, his white pupils surrounded in gray poking out from beneath his hood as he patiently awaited Dertois’ next words.

    Other than that small portion of his face, the rest of his body was fully concealed, hidden within the folds of a tattered and dust covered cape. In his hand was a long wooden staff that resembled a knotted and twisted piece of driftwood colored with a mixture of black and red. The wood itself was so smooth and polished that the candle light gleamed off of it as though it were steel. To the casual observer, it appeared to be nothing more than a walking staff, but Dertois knew it to be the most powerful weapon in all of the Seventh World. The Graelic. The weapon which Adros himself had used to lead the races in their battle to enter the Rift. Passed down to him through the line of Adros, the Graelic was made even fiercer when wielded in the skillful hands of Solo Ki.

    Dertois was comforted by the appearance of the Elf Lord and thankful that he had come to join in their battle. It was well known that Solo Ki had made a home of the outlands, shunning the city of Lock Core in favor of wandering the uncharted wilderness beyond the Gorian Range. Some people went as far as to say that Solo Ki had abandoned the Seventh World altogether.

    Even though the cloth rippled in the wind, Dertois could still detect the contour of the elf’s slender body, particularly where the cloth rested on his shoulders, hugging them like flesh being stretched over bone. In order to meet the gaze of Dertois,

    Solo Ki had to dip his head.

    Drau’d and Ebboron, the dwarves, stood side by side, a strange pairing of boulder and rock. Drau’d towered over Ebboron. Actually, Drau’d towered over everyone in the room, even the wiry Solo Ki. Standing near nine feet tall and thick as two men, the boulder dwarf seemed to fill the entire chamber with his bulky frame, while the diminutive rock dwarf Ebboron appeared in danger of being squashed should Drau’d decide to move.

    As for the human representatives; there was Dertois’ young advisor, LeCynic, Hitt’rille Lady Protector and commander of Lock Core’s northern garrison and of course the beautiful raven haired High Mage Nicola. Lastly there was Dertois himself, Ruler of the Kingdom of Humanity, Keeper of the Wall, and Supreme Protector of the Seventh World — a string of titles so long that when called to utter them they filled his mouth like puke. There was some comfort in the knowledge that soon this burden would no longer be his. Even if he survived this battle it had become overwhelmingly obvious that Dertois was ill equipped for the title. No doubt the Order would deem LeCynic to be more than an adequate replacement.

    ‘My Lord. The enemy seems focused on overcoming the

    northern front. We need to act now.’

    Steeling his nerves, he looked toward LeCynic who was calmly leaning against the wall, arms crossed, his hands hidden within his white robe which somehow remained immaculate, despite the chaos of the last three days. The robe seemed suddenly ill-fitting on the young mage.

    We must do something.

    “Amass our forces along the northern wall. 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 her former commander the garment appeared scarlet being saturated with the man’s blood. She 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. Turning to Nicola he said, “Gather all the mages, it is

    time we rejoin the battlefront.”

    Her watery light blue eyes lowered to the floor as she softly replied, “Aye, my lord.”

    “Aaarrr … ” wobbling forward, Drau’d’s roar seemed to shake the room. “So that all may live!”

    His 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.

    “I warned you it was so,” Solo Ki whispered into his ear.

    He opened his mouth. Even gave some sort of reply. But whatever words he said were suddenly lost.

    The darkness came, and the sound of the earth screaming tore his voice away.

    “What are we supposed to do?” Alec asked as his squad leader Broggish sorted through his companions, rounding up the older children.

    The order to reinforce the northern front had recently filtered down the wall to where Alec and his companions from Cipher Squadron were positioned in the east. As of yet, the eastern wall had been relatively quiet. Occasionally, Alec would lift his bow and take aim at shadows scurrying below, or catch a sudden scent of rotting flesh with a shift in the wind. But beyond half seen shapes moving in the dark and brief moments of foul air, the only signs of war were to the north, where the skies were constantly glowing crimson as though the very heavens were on fire. Some of the larger bursts of flame sent tremors through the wall which Alec felt, even though he was positioned miles to the east. So far, the worst things his squad had faced were the constant rain and the headaches from straining their eyes as they attempted to see the movement of their enemies within the darkness.

    “You’re gonna stay here, boy,” Broggish said as he walked past Alec, ushering the chosen teenagers northward. He measured Alec through squinted eyes, stroking his ruffled, gray beard which fell to his breastplate in a snarled mass. “I wouldn’t want you to become a snack for the meat puppets.

    The Triad needs warriors not fodder. I can only pray to the Gods that the northern wall holds and we needn’t resort to fighting with you whelps.”

    “You and me both,” Alec whispered, staring once more into the darkness below.

    The man issued a final order before he continued on,

    “Bradley’s in command while I’m gone.” Good.

    “Thank the Gods that old Broggish is gone. I was sure he’d take us with him.”

    Not likely, Alec thought, turning to size up his friend.

    Collapsing into a gap in the wall at his right, Ducky smiled, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth. He was older than Alec by two years, but had more than likely been passed over by Broggish because of his lanky frame and utter lack of coordination. Of all the children in Cipher Squadron — some of which were only ten years old — Ducky was the least proficient in arms and more likely to injure himself than his opponent, an ineptitude which was remarkable considering Cipher Squadron was regarded as humanity’s greatest defenders.

    Like the rest of his comrades, Alec was an orphan, and as such in honor of the orphans of the Exodus they dedicated their lives to studying warfare in order to be the Seventh

    World’s next generation of champion soldiers.

    His entire life he had been at Drex’elder’s School of Warfare for the Wayward Young (more commonly known as the Warphanage). He never knew his parents, never even learned their names. While growing up the rigorous training of his instructors left little time for any such thoughts — no doubt intentionally — for humanity’s orphans were supposed to have a grand destiny, one that would not be waylaid by their personal quests for identity. Only the younger children watched for their parents to come running through the Warphanage doors. Innocent children with foolish dreams. Usually the training eliminated their innocence and dreams, while those unable to take their eyes off the doors ended their days at the Warphanage in suicide or insanity. In order to continue living, Alec had long since learned to accept his life with the Cipher Squadron.

    What other choice did he have?

    With the Rift silent for generations, their training had become more of a tradition. The skills and lessons of the Ancients had become a way to keep wayward children focused and disciplined as opposed to “protecting the future of society” which was its original goal. While struggling to master the three rhythm offensive stance, he never dreamed he might actually have to employ it in a battle against the Plague. After all, before today Lock Core had been a tourist attraction, its walls patrolled by armored actors.

    Now, Alec dug through his memories, reliving those childhood lessons with a new thought in mind — the Plague is real! Suddenly every word his instructors said had a brand new significance. He even found himself trying to recall the lectures on the teachings of Adros (how boring they had been). Though perhaps not the Elven King’s best convert, being a member of Cipher Squadron meant that the great elven sword-master would still give him a nod of respect.

    Ducky on the other hand … , Alec thought. Can barely hit the toilet with his piss.

    His parents having been murdered when he was nine, Ducky was relatively new to the Warphanage.

    “I guess we can consider ourselves lucky Broggish left us behind eh, Alec?”

    Ducky’s heavy gauge chain mail rattled against stone as he scrunched beside him. Personally, Alec preferred fighting light, and the mobility of padded leather. To him, the best defense of a true sword-master was the metal in their hand not on their body. If your opponent was skilled enough to penetrate your blade, then penetrating body armor would be a simple matter. At least when unencumbered by armor, one still had a chance to make one last quick move, avoiding a lethal blow. Ducky’s sword arm however, probably couldn’t keep a butterfly at bay. For him, wearing a steel drum wouldn’t be protection enough.

    “I suppose, Duck,” Alec replied, not entirely sure he was right. After all, the only thing preventing the Plague from overrunning this area was a bunch of kids. “And here I thought the last fourteen years of my life were a waste. Maybe I should have taken it easier on old Broggish and listened once in a while.”

    “Probably not a bad idea, you never were his best student,

    Alec.”

    Alec turned, smiling at the newcomer.

    “Who knows, maybe if you paid more attention during drills you could best me once in a while,” the newcomer continued, striding toward Alec and Ducky with smooth measured steps.

    “I wouldn’t want to steal any glory from the great Bradley now would I?” He jested, both boys knowing four out of ten victories was a little more than “once in a while”. But Alec had to admit it did take all of his skill, and a lot of luck, to beat him. Bradley was, after all, a true prodigy with a sword. Born a lord of the western city of Minotia he was sent — of all the horrible things — by his parents to train at the Warphanage. This was reason enough for Alec to immediately feel sorry for and befriend him.

    The two shook hands, Alec’s fingers compressing under the other’s grip. Though only a year older, Bradley was vastly superior physically. His head of short-cropped, blond hair was inches taller than his own while his arms rippled with layers of well-toned muscles fashioned from constant training. Bradley’s greatest advantage over Alec was his reach. The boy’s long arms always kept his blade out of range, while their whip-like speed made it almost impossible to penetrate his guard.

    “For what it’s worth, I’m glad Broggish left you in charge.”

    Very glad, Alec thought, knowing even his sword-master friend wouldn’t stand much of a chance against whatever was making the entire length of Lock Core shake. “Just don’t expect me to follow your orders any better than his,” Alec continued.

    “As long as we get to stay here I’ll do whatever you want, Bradley,” Ducky said, tucking his chest to his knees, not even bothering to keep an eye toward the Rift.

    “Well you’re in luck, Duck, cause I’m ordering you to stay put. Not that my orders mean a thing. As far as I’m concerned you’re all welcome to do whatever you wish. I don’t think it matters at this point anyway. This whole world is dying around us.”

    “What are you going to do?” Alec asked, watching his friend’s shoulders sink, his gaze shift to the shadows below. Suddenly he knew full well what he meant to do.

    “I think I’m going to be the one disobeying Broggish this

    time, Alec. I’ve got to go there. I have to see it.”

    Bradley waved his arms toward the seemingly endless stretch of wall heading north.

    “It’s all real, Alec, it’s all real and it’s here. You always joked about our training, how you thought it was just a waste of time.”

    “I’ll admit I was wrong about that one.” Bradley actually managed a chuckle.

    “Not the first time either,” Bradley continued, then grew somber once more. “We’ve been training for something. And

    I’m heading north to find out what it is.

    Despite his better judgment, Alec had to agree with him. Deep down he knew that whatever evil was to be found on the northern front couldn’t be ignored. Whether the day ended in victory or defeat he knew that sooner or later it must be faced. And the members of Cipher Squadron might be the only ones actually trained to face it.

    “I’m sorry, Alec, I have to go.”

    The rain intensified, helping the darkness to obscure

    Bradley’s form as he followed the wall northward.

    “I guess that means you’re in charge then, Alec,” Ducky said from his fetal position.

    “No, Duck. You’re gonna have to take it from here.” Alec patted him on the back and turned to leave.

    After all, he thought. If I have to face it, might as well do it now, with my friend.

    The rain grew stronger, almost cancelling out the sound of Ducky retching over the wall.

    He was the only one alive on the walkway. In front of him, hidden by the darkness and the rain the battle raged, a cacophony a wails and screams flooding the night. Along the base of the wall the dark figures multiplied, becoming a churning sea of shadows. He stared aghast at the brackish blood on his blade. There was no mistaking it now. The Plague was real; he had seen it with his own eyes. Fought it. It happened so fast …

    … He caught up to Bradley, found him standing in a field of fallen soldiers. As Alec slowly made his way toward him — careful not to step on one of the many corpses — Bradley bent over one man in particular. Even from a distance Alec immediately knew who it was. The snarled mass of gray hair covering his face was easily recognizable.

    Broggish.

    “You shouldn’t have come, Alec,” Bradley said, never taking his eyes off of his fallen teacher.

    “What in the god’s happened here? What killed them?”

    “We can’t win this fight, Alec. Adros taught us that. He knew, he always knew.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “You have to go back. Get the others. Run. Hide in the Out-

    lands, live there as long as you can.”

    Sidestepping a half-eaten corpse, Alec reached his friend and grinning, said, “I’m not leaving you. We’ll face this together, like everything else.”

    “You don’t understand. I tried to save them. What did this … Creatures so horrible, so evil. Something no man can face.”

    “You’re right, I don’t understand,” Alec said, reaching out to his friend.

    Bradley sprang to his feet with surprising speed, fleeing from Alec’s touch as though it was fire. Against a backdrop of flames Alec understood what his friend was trying to tell him. There was a subtle hiss as he drew his blade, preparing to face

    Bradley one final time.

    “By the time I got here the battle was done.”

    His veins seemed to darken and swell by the moment.

    “Cipher Squadron had become a feast. It took a moment to comprehend what I saw.”

    Black blood oozed from the gash on his cheek.

    “That moment of hesitation was all it took. I drew my blade and they were on me. Stronger and faster than anything I’ve faced. Nothing could have prepared us, there’s no training to deal with this.”

    His eyes, normally bright blue, glazed over.

    “Now, there’s only hunger. So strong … I can’t fight it anymore Alec.”

    Broggish stirred. Alec diverted his gaze to his mentor, shocked to see him rising to his knees, and then Bradley came at him. It was like no fight they’ve had before. Bradley still fought with the same level of skill, but more wild, unafraid. Sparks of silver-fire covered the pair every time Alec scored a blow, but Bradley was now immune to pain, and fear. He came on, more powerful than ever. As the sparks of silver-fire filled the air, so too did Alec’s blood. He began to focus more on saving his own life than taking Bradley’s, backing away, he switched to a defensive stance. Alec saw his blood dripping from Bradley’s silver etched sword then realized the only reason he yet lived was because Bradley still clung to the weapon. Enough cuts from that could mean death, but a simple scratch from his nails or a bite from his teeth would lead to a fate much worse. Bradley was almost upon him again. Alec lowered his guard at the last moment, leaving himself wide open to Bradley’s blade, having decided he would rather risk a killing blow than end up like Bradley.

    Silver-fire filled the night, as did blood…

    … Alec inspected his wounds. Bradley’s final strike sunk deep along his ribcage, probably nothing a healer couldn’t remedy — assuming they weren’t all dead. Of his friend, nothing remained but his blade. The silver-fire took the rest. Alec doubted he would make it through the night without being healed, but at the moment the wound wasn’t his gravest concern.

    Suddenly, the sky above him erupted with fire. Shielding his eyes, he looked up, falling to his knees as the wall shook in the aftermath of the blast. He managed to raise his head while the fire seethed above. Horrified, he tried to avert his gaze but found his eyes locked on the vision before him. The members of Cipher Squadron were scattered along the walkway. All dead. Their bodies strewn across the stones in pieces, half eaten and left to rot by the undead horde.

    More horrifying still was the movement. A mockery of life when there should be only death. Broggish stumbled to his feet, barely mobile considering the extent of his injuries. Unlike Bradley he was mindless, A Meat Puppet. He shuffled onward oblivious to the fact that his legs lacked muscles or tendons.

    Revolted by the sight, Alec ducked between a gap in the wall, leaned outward and spilled the contents of his stomach on the ocean of skeletal hands reaching up to him from the base of the great Red Wall.

    The rain became a drizzle. The sky above was silent and dark. There was movement all around him now, he could hear them stirring at his back, sense them rising all along the great Red Wall. He knew he was surrounded, trapped within their trail of devastation. The stars became visible as the storm moved on. High above the Brother Moons shone brightly. Harbos, the greater of the two neared its zenith, filling the heavens with its aura of white. The Rift, blacker than even the night, could now be seen clearly from the wall, a mass of darkness, throbbing, pulsing, never ceasing to belch forth the plague of Immortal Dead into the Seventh World.

    Alec looked on, gazing in awe at the field of fallen warriors below.

    Some had wings on their backs, though now they hung in shreds, tattered and useless; these beings were no longer able to fly but limped on broken limbs instead. Some had scaled flesh which hung in chunks from their bare bones. They were reptilian, giant, fanged lizards walking as humans. Others, many, many others, a variety of faces that Alec could neither count nor fully describe.

    He had had no idea. He had never iMagined there once existed such a wide variety of races. Vomit dripped from his chin and he sat there, wishing he had lived before the Plague, in the days when the worlds were one. He tried to iMagine how they once were.

    Proud …

    Beautiful …

    Beings of pure Magic.

    Not as he saw them now, how he saw them in their desperation to scale the wall.

    Fleshless … Lifeless …

    Mindless killers.

    Creatures driven by an endless hunger and an immortal desire, to kill all things living.

    Behind him Cipher Squadron had awaken to their new life, and it was at that moment that Alec gave up. Gave in. Surrounded by death he finally realized what it meant to be living.

    Chapter 2: THE MIDNIGHT SUN

    –The Age of Death,

    The Seventh World, Post Exodus 585–

    At its zenith, the star Gypsium was the brightest object in the night. Not even Harbos and Minos, the brother moons, dared to compete with its light, choosing instead to hide within its shadow, awaiting Gypsium’s departure before rising once more into the night sky.

    The star was known as the Midnight Sun. In its presence the darkness of night was reduced to shadow, allowing all the inhabitants of the Seventh World to temporarily forego and forget their need for slumber. Yearly the Triad of races joined together to celebrate its passing with their Festival of Life, a celebration that not only heralded the coming of a new year but celebrated their survival of the year past.

    Through this darkless Gypsium night one man walked, carrying nothing but the robe on his shoulders and a wide smile on his face. The robe was crimson and had sleeves embroidered with frilly golden lace which sparkled in the light of Gypsium. The man’s teeth were bright, blinding as they reflected the glow of the Midnight Sun. Dark brown and long, his hair fell past his shoulders, disappearing as it blended with the folds of his cape.

    To his left loomed the Gorian range, the great mountain chain stretching from the black heart of the Red Wall to the end of the world itself, the Eternal Sea. He glanced at the jagged peaks threatening to impale the Midnight Sun and breathed a sigh of relief, grateful to have finally left those heights. The Gorian was a tough and sparsely populated land.

    Those who dwelt there thrived on seclusion, especially the Rock Dwarves who dug their realms deep within Agor’s Peak and rarely surfaced to associate with humans or elves. As for the mountain’s human inhabitants, they were mainly cave dwellers, hermits who lost faith with Lock Core and its ability to protect them. Gladly, he saw few of either which was why he had chosen the lesser known passes, rustic trade routes often mud covered and more rubble than road. Also, as winter neared, the mountain passes became more treacherous by the day. Lately morning found the paths slick with frost. Dertois Law forbid the use of Magic for impractical purposes, but toward the end of the journey the man no longer thought twice about using the Singularity to ward his camp from the mountain winds.

    Tree boughs curled high above the roadside, covering the man in a tangled web of shadows as he continued walking, the steady crunch of gravel mirroring his every step. The man never took his eyes off the road before him and all the while he smiled. Never stopped. Just kept smiling. The glow of his teeth illuminated the path before him.

    Behind him, cloaked in rags, three smaller shadows followed — their six feet struggling to keep pace with the man’s longer strides. Occasionally, they exchanged glances or whispers with one another, but for the most part they kept their eyes to the road, focusing all their energy on keeping up with the man. With the air billowing from their lungs, the three nearly ran while the man walked, and smiled.

    A dot of gray appeared on the road ahead, zigzagging in and out of the shadows. Steadily gaining form, the object flew toward the man, becoming visible as it ventured beneath the light of his teeth. It was a tiny being, no larger than the man’s hand, but with its wings fully extended, the creature tripled in size. Its wings of black leather flapped madly as it hovered in the air before him.

    The man halted, while those behind him fell to the roadside, taking the opportunity to catch their breath.

    “Well?” the man said, looking directly into the beady yellow eyes of the beast.

    “Galimoto found Master Brice’s town,” his voice was the sound of wind chimes blown by a puff of air. “He followed his nose,” the creature said, tapping it with a tiny hooked claw.

    “Galimoto can find the stench of humans, even in the dark.”

    The man’s smile somehow widened, and his face somehow refused to split apart.

    “And the man?” he said, his blue eyes sparkling.

    The creature shrugged its shoulders.

    “Galimoto don’t know,” it replied. “To him, all humans look the same.”

    The smile somewhat faded.

    “Nevertheless, we are close. Closer to finding him than we’ve ever been. For good or ill, I know my quest ends at the town of Shattered Rock.”

    He turned around, facing his three little shadows hunched together at the roadside, and began issuing orders through his never-ending grin.

    “Wait for me here, away from the city.” He bent down, sweeping them together within his robe, covering their faces beneath golden lace. “These outland dwellings are no place for children. They’re filled with deserters, traitors to the Triad. Those who would make enemies of both the living and the dead.”

    His smile vanished, and the night grew suddenly darker.

    “Remember, keep to the tree line, hidden from the road. Approach no one.”

    Gypsium dimmed in the heavens, dipping lower on the horizon.

    “You’re too important … ” He was looking past the children, studying the road as the path grew faint … shadowed … and then wound into oblivion. “Galimoto will watch over you while

    I’m gone.”

    He looked back at them and was smiling.

    Two of the children nodded while one just stood there, rolling his eyes at the man.

    They had handled their journey well thus far, but he wondered how far they could truly go. Their venture through the Gorian range had been very revealing. Not only was he homing in on the Destroyer, but he had also learned a great deal about them, the children, and the nearly infinite potential they possessed.

    “Good,” the man said, standing up.

    He turned to Galimoto who was fluttering above his head.

    “Guard them well, Galimoto.”

    I’m not the only one hunting Godlings, I’m sure of it.

    He shivered. His hands glowed a dull blue.

    “People are disappearing in the night. Whether it is related,

    I cannot say. But, there is evil out there none-the-less.” “Humph,” Galimoto scrunched his face, snarling at the man. “Not only must Galimoto fly through the dark, by himself, seeking stupid human city. But now, Master Brice would have

    Galimoto become a baby-sitter.”

    A clawed finger waved, inches from Brice’s face.

    “Well. Galimoto will not fly here taking this abuse while … ” “Silence!” His face was all hard lines, his expression grim.

    Golden fringed lace fluttered at his feet.

    Stunned by his abrupt change of mood, Galimoto nearly fell to the ground.

    “I will not have you stirring up trouble in Shattered Rock. You will stay behind or be thrown into the Rift. Those are your choices.”

    Galimoto recovered himself and was once more flapping in the air.

    “Galimoto wants more choices,” he mumbled.

    His wings folded on his back as he drifted toward a tree. Mumbling curses all the while, he squatted on a branch and crossed his arms.

    “Ah, good then,” Brice said smiling brightly once more.

    Directing a final smile at the children he headed down the road, vanishing as his robe became one with the shadows.

    “Wizard my eye,” Tetloan said as he and the other children watched Brice disappear in the darkness. “We’ve been abducted by a madman.” His freckled face sneered at the night.

    “What do you mean?” Emily replied, her voice squeaking from a pair of pouty lips. “Master Brice is a wise and powerful mage, someone who knows far more about the world than you

    ever could, even if you had the patience to learn from him.” Plopping beneath a tree, she shook the dust from her clothes before pulling back her hood, letting her curly dark hair tumble past her cheeks.

    Doing his best to mock Emily’s voice Tetloan said, “What do you mean?” — overemphasizing the squeakiness so that his words became a continuous screech. Irritated by her ignorance, he rolled his eyes and arched a pair of crooked orange eyebrows.

    “You know what I mean, stupid. You saw him standing there. For dead sake he just had an argument with the air. He’s been doing it ever since I’ve met him. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed?”

    Unfazed, Emily looked back at him and smiled.

    “You can’t see him, can you?”

    “You know what I think?” Tetloan continued, ignoring her question. “You two have been with him so long he’s polluted your minds. You’re just as mad as he is. Imps my eye. Next

    you’ll be telling me you’re seeing the undead.”

    “Just because you can’t see him doesn’t mean Galimoto isn’t real,” Emily replied. “Master Brice says he’s pure Magic. A creation of the Gods themselves.”

    “Really?” Tetloan said, his eyes nearly rolling out of his head. “Even if the Gods were real, you think that with all their power the best they could come up with was an imp?”

    He turned to the other child, a thin, curly blond haired boy wearing wire rimmed spectacles. Standing at the side of the road the boy hugged his cape tightly to his body and shivered uncontrollably.

    “What do you think, ‘Whimpy’?” Tetloan asked. “Seen any imps lately?”

    The boy stared at the ground, trembling.

    “Whimpy? Hey, Whimpy?” Tetloan continued to prod him, but to no avail. “Is this kid deaf as well as dumb? He’s hardly said two words since you guys took me.”

    “His name is, Whimly,” Emily said. “Leave him alone. Can’t you see he’s scared?”

    “Oh yeah?” He grinned. “What are you scared of, Whimpy?” Tetloan walked over to him.

    “Huh? You afraid of the dark or something?” No longer willing to be ignored, he shoved him. “Well!”

    “What?” Whimly said, looking up and blinking weakly as though roused from a slumber.

    “Whoa, he is alive,” Tetloan said. Suddenly sympathetic he hung his arm on Whimly’s shoulder. “I was just saying that

    Emily wants to know why you’re being such a baby?”

    “Jerk.”

    “She does?” Whimly said, sheepishly looking at Emily then casting his eyes to the dirt.

    “Yep,” Tetloan patted his shoulder. “She told me she’s tired of changing ‘Whimpy’s piss pants every time he gets scared.” “Shut up!” Emily leapt to her feet.

    “She’s worried that you’ll keep pissing yourself all the way to Lock Core.”

    Affectionately, Tetloan rubbed Whimly’s shoulder casting a devilish grin toward Emily.

    “And that we’ll be stuck smelling you the entire trip.”

    ‘Shut up!’

    For an instant, Tetloan thought he saw Emily glowing, bright as the Midnight Sun. As quickly as it came, the vision faded into darkness, and then for a time Tetloan thought of nothing at all.

    “What did you do to him?” Whimly asked as he bent down and inspected Tetloan’s motionless body.

    “Wasn’t me,” Emily replied, a residue of blue flames still clinging to her form. “It was the imp.”

    “Oh,” Whimly looked up into the tree branches.

    Legs crossed, hands clasped behind his head, Galimoto reclined against the tree. Beneath the canopy of leaves, his skin appeared dark red — the color of coagulated blood.

    His words jingled through the air and into their ears as the imp piped down at them, “Now. Children be quiet, so that

    Galimoto can sleep.”

    She wasn’t entirely sure, but Emily thought she saw a tiny yellow eye wink at her.

    “Thanks,” she softly replied.

    Chapter 3: THE DESTROYER

    The candles at the sides of the bed wavered, then died altogether, drowning in a pool of wax. Soft and cold, the light of Gypsium crept through the window.

    ‘Katrina.’ In his mind he felt her approach. ‘Coming to see your husband? To see your Lord?’ She burned in his mind,

    like a bonfire in the night. ‘Show me. Let me see your mind.’ RAAAAAGE!

    He sat up, slowly, casually, his abdominal muscles rippling as the silk sheets slid down his chest. His nose was thin, nearly devoid of nostrils, while his eyebrows were a pair of dark gashes on his face. The man’s flesh seemed purple in the dim light and had patches of yellow and orange staining his back, chest and neck. Smaller, yet similar discolorations could be found on the man’s face as well, especially concentrated around his lips. From his forehead to his cheek, a large vein ran down his face, bloated like a night crawler trapped in the rain and throbbing with a dark liquid that more closely resembled ink than it did human blood.

    As he arose, he disturbed the pair of young servants sleeping next to him causing moans to part from their crimson lips. The bodies moved closer together, wrapping each other up in a cocoon of silk and flesh. From head to toe, the pair was hairless, nothing but smooth, graceful curves.

    LeCynic demanded much from his servants — of which, shaving their bodies was, perhaps, the least painful or degrading.

    He looked down at the pair, stroking their supple flesh with lavender fingernails. At the corners of their lips he saw blackened stains, a reminder of their long night of chopa use. “So young and beautiful,” he said aloud, his fingernail brushing one of their lips.

    With his other hand he dug the nail of his index finger into the thigh of one of the servants. Blood trickled down her leg then fell on the bed.

    She awoke with a yelp. Startled by the outcry, the other girl roused as well, her hairless eyelids opening to reveal a pair of confused eyes.

    “Good morning my sweets,” LeCynic said, his sunken eyes transfixed on the blood stain growing on his bed. “I pray you’ve slept well.”

    Though his tone was soft, even somewhat friendly, the pair of girls reacted to it as though it was thunder, bolting upright their eyes darting around the room in panic. He reached his bloodied fingernail towards them but they backed away in horror, feebly attempting to shield themselves behind the silk sheets.

    “Oh yes, I sometimes forget myself.”

    His body seemed to vibrate for a moment, then the purple faded from his flesh, taking on a milky hue. The splotches vanished altogether, while the black vein shrank and filled with living blood.

    Abandoning their clothes in a heap, the young serving girls leapt naked from the bed and went scurrying out of the room.

    His laughter followed them from the bedchamber.

    “Huh, I thought you’d prefer me this way. Oh well then, no sense in pretending.”

    Black blood flooded his veins once more.

    ‘Onk?’

    ‘Here, my lord,’ his advisor replied.

    LeCynic felt briefly uneasy, unable to immediately detect the presence of his advisor. Then, he was simply angry. He encouraged Onk to utilize his powers of invisibility for snooping around the palace, so long as he remained visible while in

    LeCynic’s presence. “Reveal yourself!”

    Opposite the foot of the bed, a gold and green tapestry shimmered with a hue of blue, while a man, devoid of hair, stepped through it.

    “Here as always, my lord.” He wore a plain white robe, and had a face that was all sharp angles. Thick golden earrings drooped from his earlobes. He veiled his every expression as he looked at LeCynic, his chin, cheeks and nose jutting into the air.

    LeCynic was no longer in bed, but was beside the hairless man, his hand reached out to lay flat upon the man’s scalp. Streams of blue energy poured from his purple fingernails, driving the advisor to his knees.

    “You wish to play games, Onk?” Energy curled outward from his lips as he spoke.

    ‘No, my lord.’

    He had to reply with his mind, being unable to pry his teeth from off of his tongue.

    ‘I wish only to serve.’

    Blood ran from the corners of his mouth, he reached down to the floor and ensnared his fist in the plush emerald colored carpet.

    ‘I live for the Keeper of the Wall. My actions are for him

    alone. My thoughts all his own.’

    LeCynic took his hand off of his head and gagging, the advisor fell to the floor.

    “My wife approaches.” He left his advisor and walked toward the window, shielding his eyes as he stood beneath Gypsium’s light. “Deal with her.” A wall of darkness descended as he closed the curtain.

    Thin streams of energy leapt out before him, illuminating the room in a bluish glow as the threads traced the path of the serving girls. LeCynic followed the trail of light guiding him toward the bathing chamber and the pair of girls trapped within.

    “Tell Katrina I will join the council shortly.”

    His legs, a collage of purple and yellow, swept out in front of his body, taking him closer to the girls with every step. As he walked, several sconces lining the chamber’s walls suddenly ignited, revealing the bathing chamber’s interior which consisted mainly of a massive pool of blue surrounded by marble tiles.

    “If the Triad grows anxious, tell them that I have more important matters that need… ”

    In the corner of the room, the pair of serving girls were a knot of flesh, quivering beneath an orgy of rutting shadows. Their eyes were filled with tears and fear while LeCynic continued to stride toward them. ” … rectifying.”

    Eclipsed by his naked backside, the girls screamed.

    ‘Yes, my lord.’

    Onk turned his head and vomited, staining his white robe with a mixture of blood and bile.

    “Galimoto is bored,” the imp said, flicking an acorn into the air. “He is beginning to think that Brice left him here to die.”

    The acorn bounced from branch to branch as it tumbled down.

    “If the demons of the night don’t kill him, Galimoto knows the boredom will.”

    Weary from their travels and weary of hearing Galimoto complain, the children paid him little attention. Whimly and Emily huddled together against a thick trunk of oak, a cape draped over both of their heads. Whimly hugged his knees and shivered while Emily stroked his hair and whispered encouragement into his ears. Tetloan was still passed out, though he had been dragged off the road and was now sleeping on a bed of grass. Beneath his head was Emily’s neatly folded cape.

    “Galimoto?” Emily said, craning her neck upward. “Huh?”

    The claw of his index finger was buried in his nose.

    “Why have we stopped here, this close to the border of Lock Core?”

    “You should have listened to the Tetloan child, little girl.” There was a look of confusion on Galimoto’s face as he stared at the wad of snot hanging from his finger tip. “Your new master is a madman.”

    Wide and round, her eyes sparkled for an instant as they caught the light of Gypsium.

    “I don’t understand,” she said, her finger momentarily snared in one of Whimly’s curls. “Who has the Master come here to find?”

    “The man they call Destroyer. The one who destroys both dead and living.”

    A cloud passed overhead, blotting out the remnants of the Midnight Sun.

    “To him, it does not matter what you are. He destroys all.”

    “He is the one … ” Her hand fell from Whimly’s head. ” …

    the one who destroyed Lock Core?”

    “Yes, little girl.”

    Emily lowered her head.

    “Now you know who your Master seeks.”

    For a time, Galimoto simply sat on his branch and was silent. Except for the occasional rustling of leaves or chirping insect, their camp was devoid of sound, for the first time that night, the only voice Emily heard was her own, as it spoke to her from within the darkness of her half-dreaming mind. She thought of how far she had come, farther than an outland farm girl ever dreamed or hoped. With her back cushioned against the moss covered trunk, she thought of how far she had yet to go, and what awaited her at Lock Core.

    “Emily?” Whimly whispered. “Those things Tetloan said …

    Well … ”

    “Tetloan lies, Whimly.”

    “I know. It’s just that … ”

    ‘Trust me.’

    Emily was older, had been with the Red Mage longer, and therefore felt it was her duty to ease Whimly’s doubts. She remembered how her own journey began. The fear. The uncertainty. A strange man full of promises come to take her away. Even then she never dreamed that what Brice said could possibly be true. But now …

    “I will, Emily, I promise.”

    “Stop worrying about Tetloan and try to get some sleep.”

    In her mind she felt him fading away. She ran her fingers through Whimly’s hair, no longer thinking, but dreaming. Her eyelids and the Midnight Sun slowly falling until there was only the darkness …

    My years of searching are at an end.

    He smiled.

    Brice approached the gate of Shattered Rock and put his hand out, letting his palm slide over the slimy, grease coated exterior. The wall was cold, uneven. It was too dark to see the details of its surface, but from his touch it was apparent to Brice that the wall’s creator hadn’t been concerned with picking through his stones, finding where each rock fit best. Instead, the creator of this wall placed jagged edges against smooth ones, large boulders atop small stones, and fit them together, filling his gaps and seams, with massive amounts of mortar.

    Brice’s finger trailed a crack, following its path as it wove through the misshaped stones. Mortar flaked and crumbled from his touch.

    Whoever built this was in a hurry, he thought, taking his hands from the wall and wiping the grease on his robe.

    He stepped forward, his flesh melting as it contacted the stone. Rippling with waves of blue, the wall consumed him. Then, bubbling on the interior surface, it belched him out, whole and unharmed.

    Though it was well beyond midnight, the city was bursting with activity from the Festival of Life. Venders yet lined the streets hoping to snare passersby with the promise of a cheap cup of mead or wine, though all it took was a quick whiff of their product to realize there was no deal to be had. Only a fool or drunkard would fail to make such a distinction, and judging by the amount of transactions occurring, Brice realized there was no shortage of them in this town.

    In addition to the copious amount of spirits up for sale, there was a wide variety of other wares such as jewelry, clothing, and various exotic fruits and vegetables, some of which Brice was entirely unfamiliar with, having most likely been acquired from the Outland Fringe or even deep within the uncharted lands.

    In disgust, Brice also noted that the venders openly sold chopa, a poison often used by thieves and murderers to coat their blades. When diluted, the drug became a narcotic favored for its ability to numb the mind, though such a process often meant death to the user. Only a precise ratio made the drug malleable, yet even watered down chopa was still a poison and as far as Brice was concerned, the drug was merely another way to turn the living into the walking dead.

    But, Brice hadn’t come to rid the world of chopa addicts.

    Focusing on the object of his quest, he scanned the streets, searching for some kind of sign, some indication that he had reached his journey’s end.

    Men stumbled down the streets, following harlots into alleyways or simply staggered about, pausing only to fill the gutters with the contents of their stomachs. Others, men and women both, prowled the streets, glaring at everyone they saw. With their hands always on the hilt of their weapons, they challenged all who crossed their path with a glance. But mostly, the streets were filled with beggars. The broken, the dismembered, and the chopa addicts. No longer able to fend for themselves, they slumped on the streets awaiting whichever came first, a handout or death. Though murderers, drunkards, whores and vagrants, the citizens of Shattered Rock shared one thing in common, they were all casualties of the war to save Lock Core.

    “Turn back. Leave, mage,” the voice was raspy, and came from below. “Strangers aren’t much welcome these days.”

    “Oh?”

    Smile fading, Brice looked down, his brown hair falling past his face in strands.

    “Even in the light of Gypsium, the people are still afraid of the night.” The voice continued, “It is said that these days the very darkness around us is alive.”

    Sitting on the street, inches from Brice, was a man wearing nothing more than rags sewn together with twine. Brice saw the top of his head — a heap of knotted gray hair. The beggar didn’t looked up, but kept looking straight ahead, into the street. The stench of moldy cheese overpowered Brice, forcing him to step back.

    “So I’ve heard, but what do you know of it, old timer?” Brice managed to ask while choking on the man’s stench.

    The beggar lowered his head.

    “Very little … ”

    The quilt of rags on his back lurched as he shrugged his shoulders.

    “Maybe a lot … ”

    He chuckled, low and hollow.

    “Certainly as much as you.”

    Amused, Brice looked down at the man and smiled.

    With his hands clasped before him in a knot of golden lace he said, “So then, tell me, what do I know?” His right eyebrow curved upward.

    Insects crawled through the man’s matted hair.

    “You know as well as I that the War never ended. Nor has it ever. Regardless of how he left us, the Destroyer saved us from the Plague. Unfortunately, nothing is permanent and I fear his power failed to hit the infection’s source. Something made it into the Seventh World. And it’s been here a long

    time, perhaps even before the War.”

    Brice’s hands fell to his sides, he hadn’t suspected that.

    “Children vanish in the night, while entire cities grow silent. The people live in fear knowing there is nothing to do but wait, and hope that they are not the next to be taken,” the man continued. “This much is known to the people of Shattered Rock as well. This city was born of fear and distrust, the people’s lack of faith in Lock Core drew them here. They trust no one.

    Particularly those from Lock Core, but especially mages.”

    “And what are you if not a mage?” Brice asked, stepping back and covering his nose, no longer able to endure the man’s odor. He sensed the man’s power as clearly as his stench.

    A chuckle gurgled from the man’s throat. His body shook.

    “Certainly no mage.” He craned his neck up at Brice. “Not anymore.”

    As the man looked up, the knotted mess of hair on his face parted, allowing Brice to see his eyes — a pair of black and empty sockets.

    “Thanks to the Destroyer, I’m not much of anything.” He lowered his head, once more facing toward the street. “Maybe

    I’m nothing.”

    “Forgive me.”

    “It matters not.” Bones grinding, he slowly raised his ruffled form. “Nothing much does.”

    All Brice could do was stare into the hollow cavities.

    “Sooner or later, the darkness takes us all,” the man said.

    His beard began to vibrate as he burst out laughing.

    Brice managed a weak grin in response after the man slapped him on the shoulder. Laughing, the man turned and stepped into the street.

    As the blind man merged with the crowd and disappeared in the flow of traffic, Brice tugged at his dimpled cheek, shook his head, and then turned and began walking away.

    “Even if you find the Destroyer, you can’t change that fact.” The raspy voice was a mere whisper.

    The Destroyer … He knows!

    Brice spun around.

    The street was a flood of beggars, swordfighters, drunks and whores. Everywhere he looked he saw hundreds of men, all scruffy and poorly dressed. He began picking through the throng of disfigured amputees, searching for the man’s only truly distinguishing feature …

    There he was. A walking pile of rags … A mop of shaggy hair … Turning … A quick look in Brice’s direction … The eyes.

    Dead, black pits.

    Brice leapt into the crowd, jostling his way through the wall of people, keeping his eyes focused on the ragged figure fleeing before him. Ignoring the scowls and curses of those around him, Brice plunged onward, steadily gaining on the blind beggar.

    He was nearly on him, could almost reach out and grab hold of his soiled garb …

    He had it. Brice clamped his fist and pulled …

    Nothing.

    The garment hung in his hand, but the man was nowhere to be found.

    “Nice trick, old man,” Brice said to the empty space before him, smiling.

    “Now what?”

    No sooner had the question left his lips then a door was thrust open before him, engulfing him in a wave of warm yellow light while filling his ears with laughter and the shrill notes of a flute. Squinting, Brice struggled to see the room’s interior but was forced to throw his hands over his eyes. From within the light, all he could see was something dark and massive beginning to emerge, growing larger and larger until it towered over him.

    “Out of the way!”

    Brice was flung aside as a boulder dwarf walked by, a stench of stale ale lingering on its hairy body. Scowling down at him through a bushel of snarled gray hair, the mammoth being staggered on into the street.

    Strange, Brice thought, amazed to see the giant so far from the Athmas peaks. What has brought him this far from his kind? In the Seventh World they were the rarest of all races, and spent most of their lives secluded from the rest of the

    Triad.

    “Sorry,” Brice said, straightening his cape and massaging his shoulder from where the dwarf had collided with him.

    The pain quickly faded, and with the squeak of hinges, so did the yellow light. Bathed once more in the light of Gypsium, Brice looked up. The voices from within became muffled, while the rapid piping of the flute continued to echo in Brice’s ears. He saw the outline of a door, a thin thread of yellow light seeping from the edges.

    The Wayward Inn, Brice read the sign hanging above the door to himself. Walking toward it, he reached out, running his fingers over its surface. Words had been etched into the wood. At first glance, in the dim light of Gypsium, the words seemed to be a familiar and popular saying, but, after translating them with his fingertips, Brice’s found them to be an entirely different message.

    “This is it,” he said, his finger hanging at the end of the final letter.

    Carved in the elven tongue was the words; So that we may live the wall has fallen.

    Smiling, Brice grabbed the door handle, pulled, and was consumed within the yellow light.

    Alana entered the Seventh World, moving through it as a breeze in the dreams of all — a gentle touch of light in their world of darkness. She drifted through the minds of a people living in despair, teetering on the verge of emptiness. Though weakened from her journey, her presence alone was enough to tip the scale. To instill in the minds of all she passed … a breeze … a dream … a touch of hope. She knew their death was inevitable, as was the fall of their world. But deep within her heart and in her mind she couldn’t help but hope, hope that maybe this world would be different, that this time it would be the Elder Gods who were wrong.

    She came for the Children, to save those she could ere the fall of darkness was complete. This world will be different … I will not fail.

    I will save them.

    This world will be different.

    Though her mission was cemented in her mind by the very will of the Elder Gods, neither their powers nor their punishments could extinguish the hope in her heart and the thoughts it spoke, dimly in her mind, ‘I will not watch another world

    die … This world will be different.’

    Chapter 4: AWAKENINGS

    ‘Darkness …

    … it has us all.’

    ‘Awaken, for now you must shine.’

    Her eyelids fluttered, then opened. Before her the world grew into being, transforming from a dark blur into something tangible and real. The Midnight Sun had all but passed, leaving her in a world of night, shadows and nothingness, but her eyes somehow saw through them all, saw things as they truly existed, absent of the darkness and of the light.

    Whimly stopped shivering.

    “They’ve come.”

    Emily took her hand from his head.

    “What is it, Whimly? Who’s c … ”

    She felt it.

    Deep within.

    The beating of a drum, vibrating her insides, hammering at her chest, stifling the sound of her own voice with the pounding of her heart

    Suddenly the forest surrounding them was awakened, awakened and alive, flooded with the sounds of movement in the trees above and in the ground below. As one, every bird in the forest took to the air, snapping branches as they fled skyward.

    To Emily’s right, the forest exploded as a massive buck burst from the woods, his rack of horns smashing aside anything that obstructed his path. Emily ducked, pulling Whimly down with her as the deer charged toward them, then, an instant before crushing them, the creature leapt, its hooves clipping several curls from Emily’s head. The beast bolted onward and soon, it was gone. As were the rest of the forest creatures, for as suddenly as the noise had begun, it stopped, and in the new found silence, all that Emily could hear was her blood throbbing in her veins.

    Then came the scream, and her heart seemed to stop altogether.

    The voice was unintelligible, but the cry reverberated through her mind screaming, “Pain … “. Over and over again, a continuous echo in the dark.

    She turned to Whimly and snatched his hand. His flesh was cold, stiff. She looked at his face and watched as the color drained from his skin. She somehow found her voice, managed to drag it through her throat and squeezing his hand she cried out, “Whimly, Whimly, what is it?” He ignored her.

    Emily grabbed his shoulders and shook him, screaming

    “What is it?”

    He was frozen, a corpse.

    The wailing dwindled into nothingness, and the echo of pain ended. Whimly was alive once more.

    “I don’t know,” he replied, turning his pale face toward her.

    “Galimoto?” flinging the cape to the ground, Emily jumped to her feet. “Revive Tetloan, we need to go. Now.” She looked up into the trees, but found only branches. “Galimoto, where are you?” She said, cautiously raising her voice.

    “Keep moving!” The words leapt out from darkness, followed shortly by the rumble of moving feet. “The bastards ain’t far behind.”

    “We’re too late,” Emily said, peering through the trees, watching as a group of men and women trudged toward them. Her heart beat harder, faster, threatening to burst open her chest.

    Eighteen shadows filled the roadway before them.

    The rhythm mounted, became deafening!

    THUMP!

    THUMP!

    THUMP!

    A man with only one arm took the lead, thrusting a silver etched sword into the ground and leaning on it as he waited for the others to catch up to him. For the most part, the rest of the group was armed as well, equipped mostly with long daggers or swords. The few who didn’t carry weapons were encased in an aura of blue light. One of the travelers, a woman with short cropped hair, cradled a small bundle of cloth to her chest while wielding a knife with her empty hand. A continuous wail emitted from her tightly guarded bundle. Other than the occasional coat of chain mail, the people wore no armor but were dressed in garments of wool and fur.

    THUMP!

    THUMP!

    Emily nearly doubled over from the pounding in her head, then she saw Whimly stroll past her, heading straight for the road.

    “Whimly, stop,” she whispered, prying her hands from off of her ears and reaching out for him.

    Her fingers clamped down on air.

    Whimly stepped into the clearing and onto the road.

    “Where is Whimpy going?”

    Emily’s head bolted to the right, standing beside her was

    Tetloan.

    “How . .?” The question died on her lips as an uproar broke out among the group of travelers, having noticed the appearance of Whimly.

    “Hold it there, boy!” The one-armed leader shouted as he and several of his companions held their weapons in Whimly’s direction. “I said hold.”

    His eyes a dreamy glaze, Whimly kept moving.

    “Boy’s possessed by the demons,” one of the men said, his face nearly buried in the fluff of his fur lined collar.

    “Aye, ready your weapons. If he gets to close, kill him.”

    Emily could see the face of the one-armed man, a mix of wrinkles and scars. His weapon was unwavering while Whimly came onward.

    Separated by a foot of space, Whimly suddenly stopped and raised his arm.

    “There,” he said, pointing down the road.

    The group exchanging puzzled glances, then, after a brief nod from the one-armed man, they swiveled their necks in the direction of Whimly’s finger, though they still kept him in the corner of their eyes.

    THUMP …

    “What in the dead?” Tetloan said, stepping backward. His mouth gaping as he looked down the road.

    THUMP …

    Behind the travelers, the darkness was moving.

    THUMP.

    It was alive!

    “Whimly, run!” Trees shook as Emily’s voice blasted out into the night. The darkness vanished as her body ignited, transforming her into a pyre of blue.

    The woman with the baby turned, opened her mouth to scream … A shadowed hand brushed across her cheek. Her arms dropped to her sides. The dagger fell from her fingers, rattling on the gravel road. Beside it, resting in a heap, the bundle of cloth was silent. Nothing left the woman’s lips but her breath, and then she too fell to the earth.

    Those with their weapons held in Whimly’s direction spun, striking out as they moved.

    The attackers were silhouettes of men, cut from the darkness itself. Shadows cast in the absence of light and the absence of a human presence, shadows of what had once been a life. Emily watched in horror as they flowed through space, liquid and agile their dark forms able to change shape and direction instantaneously. The longer she watched, the darker they became, until eventually she felt that the very night was falling into them, and she was being pulled down with it.

    They were a blur, a current of darkness pouring over the group of travelers.

    The humans sought to defend themselves as the creatures flooded their ranks, but instead of biting into the demons’ flesh, their blades slashed and stabbed at emptiness, cutting harmlessly through the air. The beings moved faster than the travelers’ blades, faster than even their eyes could follow. The demon’s liquid forms easily outmaneuvered their every strike. Nothing could touch them, while all they needed was a touch and after their shadowed hands met with living flesh, the humans simply dropped to the earth. Even the efforts of the mages were futile. Streams of energy spilled from their fingertips, only to dissipate the instant it met the beings’ empty forms, failing to even scratch their dark surfaces.

    Half of the travelers were on the ground, twitching, green spots growing on their flesh from where they were struck, their veins clogging then bursting through their skin while their lifeblood pooled around them, thick and dark. One of the fallen travelers knelt on the road, his hands covering his throat as a continuous stream of blood poured from his lips, nose and ears. A drop of blood formed at the corner of his eyes then spilled down his cheek where it merged with the rest of the flow.

    The one-armed man managed to summon the remaining travelers to him, and together, standing shoulder to shoulder, they formed a line of swords and daggers while the dark demons, slowly and cautiously, came at them, seeming to float in the air as they came over the rotting bodies of their victims. The air around them bent from their presence, warping with their every motion. There were only three of the demons, but in a matter of moments ten humans had fallen while, by all appearances, they themselves had yet to be harmed.

    “Stand ready! Strike as one!” The one-armed leader shouted, his eyes as sharp as the steel in his hand while he studied the movements of the demons advancing toward him.

    From out of nowhere, Whimly appeared, ghostly white, walking in front of the line of defenders to place himself directly in the path of the oncoming demons.

    “No,” Emily’s lip trembled as she mouthed the word.

    Whimly turned. Through the darkness she saw his blue eyes glistening. She saw him smile.

    “No,” she softly repeated, stepping onto the road.

    The demons came at him …

    “Nooo!”

    Whimly fell beneath their shadow.

    She ran to him, shredding the darkness as her rage ignited into a maelstrom of blue light. Before her the air crackled then exploded into streams of light. The night parted, evaporated.

    But she was too late …

    Whimly crumpled to the earth. Half screaming. Half gurgling. The sparkle fading from his blue eyes as he looked to

    Emily and choked to death on his own tainted blood.

    “My husband is mad!”

    “My lady, you mustn’t,” Onk said, his eyes darting down the hallway. “He need not be present to overhear you.”

    “Our Lord is maaaaad!” The hallway emptied of servants as she shouted. “The Seventh World is in the hands of a chopa addict!”

    There’s more than poison in your husband’s veins, Onk thought.

    The pair continued walking, their footsteps and the sound of doors slamming shut echoing down the corridor. Onk’s earrings bounced in tune with his steps.

    “Please, I beg you. He will not hesitate to kill even you.” His white robe fluttered at his heels.

    “No, he would never.” She lowered her voice. “You fear him, don’t you, Onk?”

    His angular face was calm, solid as stone. ‘Yes.’

    She chuckled.

    “When death becomes your only salvation, you see that life is a lie … ”

    She stopped walking and turned to him. She wore a deep blue dyed leather dress that was tightly fitted from her hips to her neck where it split into a sharp V, revealing a great deal of her full, round breasts and continued to plunge past her firm stomach to end just inches below her navel. Plush, black rolls of fur covered her shoulders and neck, a striking contrast to her lips which were painted dark red. A black lace shawl hung from her shoulders, the ends of which were gripped tightly in her hands. Like the rest of LeCynic’s servants she was utterly bald. But unlike them, she had chosen to replace her lost hair, covering every inch of her flesh with a churning mass of black snakelike tattoos.

    ” … its greatest fabrication, fear.” She revealed her mind to Onk.

    … Purple fingernails …

    Tattooed flesh tearing …

    Blood and pain … The endless pain.

    ‘Please, no more.’ Onk pleaded in his mind.

    … Tendrils of blue light licking her wounds … eating the pain …

    Her flesh was whole, restored.

    “He only heals so that he can tear me open once more. No,

    he would not kill me. No matter how hard I beg.”

    Onk returned from her mind to find her green eyes looking at him. Her crimson lips were one of the only parts of her body that weren’t tattooed, and he found them, inches from his own. Moist and full, he felt his mouth aching toward them, but he didn’t move, nor had to, for they came to him. “Must I live this endless cycle of pain?” Her breath was sweet, her lips soft.

    “Can there be no pleasure?”

    She brushed them across his cheek, leaving a trail of red.

    “Free me,” she moaned.

    He felt her nibbling at his ear. Felt her breasts rubbing against him through the fabric of his white robe. How he wished there was nothing between them, nothing to hamper the sensation. Nothing but flesh on flesh.

    He longed to have her as his own, longed to bite down upon those red lips, softly at first, then … then clamp them between his teeth till he felt the warmth of her blood on his tongue and could hear her, no longer moaning in pleasure but in pain.

    ‘I cannot.’

    He pulled away.

    “Coward,” she said. “You have no life. Not while you continue to live in fear of death.” She spun around, throwing her shawl over her head. She began to walk away. “If you will not

    kill him, then find one who can.” Onk stood there in silence.

    Katrina … Your husband is beyond death. He buried the thought deep inside his mind.

    He waited till the back of Katrina’s tattooed head receded in the distance before surrounding himself in a hue of blue and fading from sight.

    He felt them, coursing through his hair, their fingertips gently scrapping his skull. He wanted to cringe, to shrink away from their touch. Instead, he shivered.

    “Cold?” Her lips rubbed against his ear.

    Burning.

    She pulled a sheet over his body. “Better?” Worse.

    “Cursed Midnight Sun,” he grumbled, burying his face in the pillow. “Thank the Gods they send it but once a year.”

    She didn’t make a sound as she stood up and went to the window. All he heard were the drapes sliding shut, then Gypsum’s light faded to a glow. But still, sleep eluded him; in truth, it wasn’t Gypsum’s presence that disturbed him.

    Soundless she returned to slide her fingertips down his back. He forced himself to sleep, seeking comfort in an empty, dreamless slumber … He awoke.

    “Alec?” Her soft voice called him forth.

    She shook him, gently, but with enough force that he sensed urgency.

    “Alec, Grimgy’s at the door.” Thump, thump, thump.

    “Alec? You there boy?” The voice was gruff and loud, even though stifled by the door.

    “Aye. What do you want, Grimgy?” Alec replied, sitting up and rubbing his eyelids.

    “There’s a stranger downstairs. A mage … ” He paused. ” …

    I think. Anyways, seems to be asking a lot about you.”

    “Mages,” the woman said, hissing. “To the dead with them.” She jumped off the bed, naked, her skin as white as the sheets and riddled with pulsing blue veins. Clothes flew through the air as she tore the room apart. “They’ve found you. No doubt they’ve come to take you back, back to Lock Core. I won’t let them take you, won’t let them study you anymore.” She seemed ready to shout, to blast the room apart with a scream. Somehow, she managed to vent her rage through a whisper instead. Bent over, her naked backside white, nearly transparent in the lamplight, she finally stopped rumMaging through the room. “Found em,” she said, standing up, a pair of worn scabbards in her hands. Sticking out of the scabbards were a pair of silver, leaf shaped cross guards fixed to leather wrapped cherry wood handles. “I’ve seen enough mages die to know how it is done.”

    “As have I,” Alec said, grabbing her wrist. I’ve probably even killed a few. “But I don’t intend to see it happen ever again.” She easily slipped free from his grip.

    “You’re defending them? After what they’ve done to you?” Imprisonment is the least I deserve.

    He didn’t remember much of his imprisonment, other than the pain. He didn’t hold all of the Magi to blame, mainly just one man. The purple fingernails still haunted his dreams. Sometimes he could still feel them digging into his flesh, tearing him apart as they sought his power.

    “I don’t know … not exactly.”

    “You know what happens if they take you back to Lock Core?” She said, her lips trembling though still keeping her voice to a whisper. “Remember how I found you? I was

    shocked you could even be alive.”

    After the War, hard times fell on the people of the Seventh. Being extremely quick and agile, Nathalia realized her skills made her an excellent thief, and she always had a personal grudge against mages, making them fair game in her eyes. The Keeper’s Tower was going to be Nathalia’s big score. She had learned that the Mages had kept something of uniMaginable value locked away within its depths. She never considered the treasure would be a boy. With no idea who he was, she never doubted his value, and without fear or hesitation she set him free. Since then they’d been together to see the passing of twenty Midnight Suns.

    “Maybe you should have just left me.” He regretted the words the moment they left his lips. Alec had to lower his head, unable to bear looking into her white and gray eyes and watch as they filled with pain. He stared at the floor boards in silence. Then, alerted by the muffled sound of a throat dislodging phlegm, he turned to the door.

    “Thanks, Grim,” Alec said, his voice terse. “That it?”

    “One other thing?”

    “What’s that, Grim?”

    “Is that Nathalia I hear in there?”

    His brown eyes turned toward the woman who was in the process of pulling up her slacks.

    “No, Grim. Just one of Eldelphie’s whores.”

    Her hair, radiant, glossy yellow curls, covered her face as she stopped tugging on her slacks and looked up at Alec with her twin pupils of white.

    “Thanks,” she whispered. Whether the reply was sarcastic or sincere, Alec couldn’t tell.

    She tucked her hair back, fastening it behind a pair of pointed ears. Her face was as pale as her backside, and just as smooth. Alec left her age a mystery, but he had enough sense to know that she was old, far older than him. In the beginning, he allowed himself to be deluded by her youthful beauty, convincing himself they were a pair of young lovers, not some ignorant boy enthralled by an immortal. Oddly, the older he got the less comfortable he became with the relationship. He knew that with his ever widening waistband, and graying head of hair, the day was coming when they would no longer seem a pair of young lovers, but an old man with his daughter. If that wasn’t reason enough to push her away, the rumors circulating lately were. Undead attacks, unexplained disappearances, and as always the Rift remained open. With his last encounter with the Plague, he nearly broke the unbreakable Lock Core. If it happened again, he meant to be miles from the nearest breathing being, Nathalia especially. For that reason alone, the relationship had to end.

    “Well, if you see her. Remind her she owes me rent, and that I aim to get it, even if I have to take it from her half-breed hide.”

    At least his lie had worked. He knew Grimgy wouldn’t dare make such a boast in Nathalia’s presence. Every now and then Alec came to his senses and pushed Nathalia away, forcing her to rent out her own quarters at the Wayward Inn. Problem was, she never had money to pay for her stay.

    Though they both had found a way to make a lucrative living by raiding the chopa dealers’ hideouts, despite Alec’s efforts to dissuade her, the elf woman insisted on distributing her share to Shattered Rock’s impoverished. Not only had she grown in debt to Grimgy because of this, but also her kind actions channeled their hard earned money directly back into the dealers’ hands — her benefactors being far more eager to feed their addictions than they were to feed their empty stomachs. Alec on the other hand knew better. He wasn’t about to give his money back to the very same people he stole it from. What’s the point? He would only end up stealing it back anyways.

    “Sure, I’ll tell her, but if I were you, Grim, I wouldn’t force the matter.” Even having lived through the horrors of the Plague, Nathalia was by far the most deadly being Alec had ever seen.

    “Either she pays, or she can live on the street with her charity cases.”

    Luckily for Grimgy, she honored her debts; otherwise the issue could have been quickly resolved by her orchid blades.

    Pulling the sheet off of his legs, Alec swung his feet to the floor. “Hey, Grim?” he said, while scratching his beard. “Let the mage know, that if he wishes to see me, I’ll be down shortly.”

    “Fool.”

    Alec turned to Nathalia.

    “But, tell him that he’s buying the drinks.”

    “Aye, Alec, I’ll tell him.”

    The floorboards creaked outside the door as Grimgy departed.

    “Do as you wish, Master Alec,” Nathalia said, throwing her arms into a brown leather coat that nearly touched the floor. She tugged the collar, a thick roll of fluffy white and black fur, causing her yellow curls to fall beneath it and vanish from sight. “Perhaps I am nothing more than a whore to you.”

    “Nathalia, I didn’t mean it.”

    “No. You’re right. Why do I care?” She strapped a scabbard to each hip, just beneath the opening of her jacket. “Next time you’re at the Keeper’s tower maybe Eldelphie can save you.”

    She pulled her hair out from behind her neck, deftly twirling seven separate strands into a ponytail. Once woven, her wave of hair flowed down her neck and then dissipated, breaking on her back. It was a style common among her kind, male and female alike, its elven title unpronounceable to humans it was simply referred to as an “elven ponytail”.

    “Nathalia.”

    He began digging through his jacket pockets, desperate to find something that would make her happy. “At least let me

    give you this, to settle your debts with Grimgy.”

    A pile of coins gleamed in his outstretched hand, then suddenly, the coins leapt into the air, scattering throughout the room. Despite his years of training at the Warphanage — and his recent alleyway encounters with vengeful chopa dealers — Alec hadn’t even seen Nathalia strike. She was halfway out the door before Alec even felt the pain.

    “I could give a rotting hell about your money, Destroyer,” Nathalia spat while the coins began clinking on the wood

    floor. “Save it for your real whores.” Alec rubbed his wrist, grimacing.

    “Nat, that’s not what I meant.”

    “No. Of course it isn’t.” She buried her face beneath her collar and tucked her ponytail behind her back before opening the door. “You never say what you mean do you, Alec?”

    Alec wanted to stop her from going. He wanted to reach out, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her, screaming, “Damn

    you leave. Leave me or you’ll die!”

    He owed her everything, including his life. It was a debt that he knew could never be settled. Should his power decide to return, all those around him would die — as they did at Lock

    Core — even the ones he loved.

    The door closed and she was gone. Instead of chasing after her, Alec found himself kneeling on the floor, picking up coins.

    Chapter 5: THE COUNCIL

    Beams of sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows lining the chamber’s walls. From one end of the hall to the other — well over five hundred feet — the multicolored windows filled the northern wall, their panes of color and pictures of heroes only briefly interrupted by pillars of polished marble stretching from the floor to the ceiling. A full spectrum of light shot toward the center of the room, then fell, glowing red, green, yellow and gold as it touched the surface of a circular wooden table.

    The table itself was white, and though massive, the wood was a solid piece down to the thick center leg on which it rested. The table had not been created by the chisel and hammer of a craftsman, but planted and nurtured to life by the hands of the ancient elves who had been skilled in the lost organic arts — a mastery of nature which allowed them to manipulate the development of various forms of life. Even now, well over four hundred years since its germination, it was believed that the table yet lived, and grew. Though none but the elves could attest to such a claim, for only in their lifespan would its radius noticeably expand. For the moment, the table seemed lifeless and still, unaware of the strange group of beings gathered around it.

    White, brown, blue … all eyes looked to the eastern end of the table, to the empty seat found there, and to the giant double doors behind it.

    “I for one will not sit here much longer, waiting like a fool,” Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves said. He glowered at the door, his bushy eyebrows smashed together on his face. In order to be at eye level with the others, Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, sat upon a highchair. “He demands more stone than a world of dwarves could mine, yet wastes our time by making us wait.” His thick, black beard was suspended inches from the floor.

    His fellow Rock Dwarves, seated to his right and left, nodded in agreement, growling curses from beneath their beards.

    “Ha!” The table vibrated at the sound of the voice. “As it stands, we have more stones than we could lay in a hundred Gypsium nights. My people work harder than even the Ancients, but we are no more than a handful, whereas they were thousands.” All eyes turned to the speaker as his voice thundered down the table. He sat opposite the doorway and the empty chair, his body filling an entire quarter section of the table. He wore a leather vest that was fastened at his neck with a thick fiber cord. Hair covered his arms, as thick and long as that found on a human head. Hidden below the layer of hair his muscles bulged and rippled with the slightest twitch of a finger. His eyes were brown, though difficult to detect beneath the shadow of his brow, which was a cliff jutting out of his skull. His chair groaned, splintering at the feet as he leaned forward. “So that all may live, my people will die to restore Lock Core. But, I fear that we will work ourselves to death, ere the wall is whole.”

    “What do you demand, Drau’d? That the Keeper set them himself? That the Order be reduced to nothing more than laborers?” Onk questioned from beside the empty seat. A beam of red light glowed on his angular features, coloring his earrings blood red.

    “Aye, perhaps they should. Our backs break with every stone we set, but with their aid we could lay hundreds without shedding so much as a drop of sweat. Compared to the Ancients, our technology is crude, our methods of construction haphazard. Much of their ways are lost to us, making our task more difficult than theirs ever was. Even at its creation, Lock Core was built with the aid of your Order. Now, you lend us mere apprentices, children incapable of elevating a pebble let alone a twelve ton stone.”

    “I couldn’t agree more. Maybe it is time our Keeper set aside his other … affairs,” Katrina said from the other side of the empty seat, the black symbols on her face partially obscured by her veil. A scruffy black wig sat lopsided atop her bald skull.

    Onk paled, while Drau’d cast his eyes to the table, burying them beneath his brow. Rollinthor and his fellows stifled their chuckles.

    “With all due respect, Lady Katrina, the Keeper’s private affairs are not the Council’s concern. Nor has the Council ever spent its time dealing in gossip,” the High-Mage Nicola said, looking toward Katrina who sneered back at her through the holes in her veil. Nicola’s face was a wad of scorched flesh, her nose — a nub of red with a single hole on its side which hissed with every breath she took. Her right eyelid sagged past her eye where it continued on, fusing with the flesh of her cheek. She had no lips, but spoke through a flap of skin hanging over her upper row of teeth while her lower jaw was fully exposed down to the white bone of her chin. Very little hair grew atop her head, being unable to sprout through the thick layer of scar tissue. Those that were able to find root, were gray and scraggly, growing like diseased wheat within a wasteland. Her left eye was light blue and sparkled beneath a sheet of ever-flowing tears.

    “As for your people, Drau’d,” she said, her scarred flesh knotting as she twisted her neck in his direction. “We simply have no mages to spare you at this time. We too have endured great losses, our numbers depleted as are your own. Now, we are forced to recruit below our standards and traditions in order to replenish our numbers. Regretfully, it has been the Order’s decision that the restoration of the northern wall is not a priority of the Seventh World.”

    With that, Drau’d’s nostrils flared open, causing his chest to balloon outward as the pair of giant cavities sucked the air out of the room.

    “The Black Door is silent. And for all we know, it may remain as such for another millennium. We may gamble on its restoration, counting on the possibility that the Plague shall return within our time. Or, we can focus our resources on the problem at hand, which, the Order believes, is the presence of the undeath in our world at this very moment,” Nicola said, wiping her eye with the sleeve of her white robe.

    “My gentle cousin Drau’d may hold his tongue in your presence, Nicola, but by dead my clansmen and I will not.” Rollinthor nearly toppled his high chair as he slammed his fist on the table. “Forget Lock Core? How can we, when it is the only thing keeping this world from death! The wall is breached! If the Plague returns there will be no battle, but a massacre of all life. I say leave the protection of our homeland to the Death Guard, it is why they exist. Besides, they have never failed before. Why should they now?”

    His companions lent him their approval with several bursts of “Aye!”.

    Nicola continued, unfazed by Rollinthor’s words or those of his companions.

    “This threat may be beyond the capabilities of our Death Guard alone. Many of the Order have sensed a dark power in our world. A power that, I for one, have felt once before, during the War of Lock Core. Even then, it was a foe that was virtually invincible, immune to the effects of both sword and mage-fire. If it dwells in our world now, it is without question our greatest concern,” Nicola said.

    “Bah,” Rollinthor replied, dismissing Nicola with a wave of his stubby hand. “And you, A’rhie? What does your kind have to say of this dark power?” he questioned of the elven representative who had been silent throughout the conversation, his eyes of white and gray fixed on the entrance to the chamber.

    The elf slowly turned and focused his attention toward the council members.

    “You speak of your races. Your casualties. The dark forces

    in our world and the death of your kind.”

    His thin fingers slid from the table and onto his lap and he turned to Nicola. Pointy ears stuck out from beneath a glowing halo of hair.

    “Many of my people can feel the darkness. Though for them it is not felt in their flesh or bones. But in their souls. As you all know, the sons and daughters of Adros are resistant to the undeath. Our bodies immune to its effects. But over time, we suffer in our minds. A darkness. We lose the ability to feel, to hope, and to find purpose in anything we do. We suffer Shal’in Ome. The Elven Death. Daily this affliction spreads among my people, and daily we begin to lose all hope. Now, the elven quarter is all but vacant. My people have deserted their homes among the branches of the Brentwood to self-destruct through a life of decadence in the outlands. For my people, the Elven Death has become an epidemic.”

    “An epidemic of decadence.” The words slid down the council members ears as though coated with grease. “Dark powers in our world.”

    The council members returned their attention to the entry, and found LeCynic — his face and body nearly entirely hidden by a black hooded robe. From beneath the hood they could see him smirking with a slightly hooked upper lip. Blotches of yellow stained the edges of his mouth.

    “The precious Lock Core,” he said, rolling the final words off the tip of a protruding tongue.

    With a nod toward his chair, it slid backward, screeching, leaving a pattern of white cuts on the stone floor as it moved. Nicola grimaced at the direct affront to Dertois Law. He walked toward the table, traversing a kaleidoscope of light that vanished harmlessly as it fell on his black robe. Positioned at the head of the table he stood for a moment and cast a grin toward every one of the council members. He had his eyes on the High-Mage Nicola and announced, “I have a solution to all of our problems.”

    Nicola returned his gaze, her single blue eye unblinking.

    Below LeCynic there came a soft chuckle.

    ‘Laugh while you can Katrina, for soon enough I’ll have you screaming once more.’

    LeCynic’s grin rested on his wife, Katrina, who was adjusting her black wig.

    ‘Now.’

    His chair slid back into place, catching him as he floated downward and saving him just moments before he would have crashed to the floor.

    ‘Enter.’

    To the surprise and shock of the entire council, Nicola included, a group of soldiers dressed in shining black full-mail burst through the doorway, swarming the room. Every inch of their bodies were hidden within a layer of glistening steel, their heads covered in fanged helms that resembled the gaping maw of a wolf as it tore into its prey. Covering their chests were dark breastplates molded to illustrate the skeletal framework of a human torso; a swelling ribcage, breastbone and the many interlocking sections of ones spinal cord. The soldiers took positions behind the startled council members and froze in place gauntlets gripping the hilts of the jagged edged swords hanging at their sides.

    Rollinthor and his fellows reached to their backs, then, after fumbling behind their shoulders, they remembered that weapons weren’t allowed in the council chamber.

    “What in the rotting hell do you intend, LeCynic?” Rollinthor blurted, his hands returning to their place on the white table.

    “The Keeper’s guard has come here, uninvited. There can be no weapons nor Magic in the council chamber. Yet you have brought both,” Nicola said. “Do not think we are easily awed or intimidated, LeCynic. Your actions accomplish little more than folly.”

    “You’re a fine one to speak of folly, Nicola,” LeCynic replied. “I realize that the grudge you must hold against me is immeasurable. But let us face the facts. I was elevated to Keeper be-

    cause you are not, and may never be, fit for the task.”

    Deep within her eye of light blue, a fire was ignited. The chunk of melted flesh that passed for her upper lip curled over her teeth as she quenched the flames and smiled at LeCynic.

    ‘Tread lightly my lord. The Council is in ill temper.’

    ‘I can handle the Council.’

    “Your exploits during the war are, no doubt, legendary. But I am the strongest of the Order, and therefore by right, I am this world’s Supreme Protector,” LeCynic said, not bothering to hide the licks of energy dancing in his eyes.

    “Please, fellow council members … ”

    The deep voice rumbled through the chamber, drawing LeCynic’s attention to the opposite end of the table, to the gigantic boulder dwarf, Drau’d.

    “… Lord LeCynic.” Drau’d’s immense brown eyes sunk into the Keeper. “Do not dishonor this council with petty arguments.”

    “Hump! You waste our time with your insults and threats, LeCynic. Either unleash your dogs upon us, or tell us how in the dead you intend to solve our problems. Otherwise, I’ll be returning with my kin to the Gorian, so that I may do something of use.”

    “Feel free to leave whenever you wish, Rollinthor.”

    ‘Caution, my lord.’ “Go back to the Gorian … ” ‘Do not continue,’ Onk pleaded.

    ‘To the dead with the Council!’

    Squinting, Onk reached up and buried his forehead in his hands. A bead of red trickled from his nose down to his upper lip.

    “… go back to that tomb you call your home if you so desire.

    Your race is no longer of consequence to this world.” Silence.

    Those who could muster the courage to witness Rollinthor’s reaction raised their eyes.

    For an instant Rollinthor was stunned, unable to believe in his own indignation. Then …

    “How dare … ” The words could hardly be heard over the breath gushing from his lips. His cheeks began filling and deflating like the pumping of blood through a heart. From his face to the floor, his beard was a continuous quiver.

    Fearing he would tear the Keeper apart, or die trying, his companions had climbed down from their chairs and were struggling to pull their leader from his perch, though he refused to move, and just sat there gritting his teeth, his sturdy little frame shaking with rage. Finally, it was the massive hand of Drua’d that finally brought him down, scooped him up and then began dragging him to the exit.

    Rollinthor thrashing in his hands, Drua’d trudged past the line of wolf helmed soldiers, the light of a thousand colors flashing on his face while the pair of Rock Dwarves walking beside him moved in darkness, obscured by the shadow of the

    Keeper’s guard.

    “May the dead take you, LeCynic. For as of this day,” Drua’d roared. “The Triad is broken!”

    And with that, the dwarven race exited the Council chamber. “Well then,” LeCynic said, slouching in his chair. “Does anyone else wish to leave, or shall we get on with the business at hand?”

    The elven representative A’rhie was looking at the table as though caught in a daydream. His hair no longer shimmered, but seemed dull and yellow, the color of stale urine.

    “The Order will not approve of this,” Nicola said. A stump of a hand stuck out from her white sleeve and rested on the table.

    “The Order will do what is in the best interest of our world. The days when the dwarven race was an asset to this world have passed. Drau’d and his ilk are a meager reflection of their great ancestors. We cannot wait for them to drag their feet rebuilding our only defense against the Plague. As for their cousins the Rock Dwarves, they have long since excavated this world’s suitable resources. In order to rebuild Lock Core, they must now travel halfway to the Eternal Sea in order to quarry their stone. By the time the combined efforts of the dwarven race have finished the reconstruction of Lock Core

    our world will be but another casualty of the undeath.”

    “I suppose then, you have a better solution,” Katrina said, nibbling on her index finger through the fabric of her veil. “After millions of decades of strife, you have suddenly found a way to defeat the Plague?”

    “Perhaps.”

    The orange stains on his lips shimmered as though covered in a layer of oil.

    “What exactly do you propose?” Nicola asked.

    “I propose, High-Mage, that we forget about Lock Core, change our strategy from a defensive status to a more … mutually satisfying arrangement.”

    “The Plague will be satisfied with nothing short of our deaths,” Nicola replied.

    “Good, for that is precisely what I intend to give them.”

    “You’re mad,” Katrina replied with a slight chuckle. “You will kill us all.”

    “No, my dear. Not all of us. Only those fit for death. Consider our current plight; the decadence A’rhie spoke of affects not only his kind, but ours as well. Hiding in the form of chopa it has laid waste to our society, overflowing our prisons in the aftermath of this newly discovered plague. Though mostly concentrated in the outlands, even here at Lock Core people are dying in the streets, slain by a poisoned blade or a poisoned mind. It seems as though many humans as well as elves seek death. So why then don’t we grant them their wish, while at the same time making their lives useful for those of us who seek life.”

    “I fail to see how any of this relates to the undeath. Murdering our own kind for the sake of upholding morality will solve nothing. You will only further weaken our depleted ranks.”

    “You couldn’t be more wrong, Nicola. Not only will I put an end to the decay in our society, I will finally end the decay of life that is the undead plague.”

    “How can you stop the Plague?” Katrina asked, sneering.

    “Simple. I am going to feed it. Empty our prisons into its maw.”

    “Dear gods,” Nicola exclaimed.

    Katrina cackled while Onk shriveled in his chair.

    The elven representative continued to gaze down at the table.

    “You cannot get away with this. The Order … ”

    “Enough with your Order! Besides, they cannot stop me even if they wished it were so. It is too late. I have already begun.”

    “Would you have us join your death march as well, LeCynic?” Katrina whispered at his side, gripping her veil in a pair of fists.

    “The Plague cannot be satiated. The hunger has no limit.”

    “My Lord, the Lady Nicola is right. Every victim it acquires is another mouth we must feed. Over time its hunger will be unstoppable,” Onk said, pleading for his lord to accept reason.

    “I have, of course, considered this. I have spent the last two decades training my army, forcing them to endure the most brutal physical conditioning iMaginable, while teaching them swordplay in the Ancients’ ways. Those who are able … ” LeCynic smirked in the direction of his guards.

    ” … have even mastered many of the Elven techniques. Every being I send has spent years in prison training for their deaths. When they enter the Rift, they make their journey as fully armed master fighters, one and all. With any luck, they can have the honor in their deaths that they utterly lacked while living.”

    “Your idea lacks originality, LeCynic. If half of what Adros teaches is true, battles upon battles have been waged within the Black Door. Armies capable of populating entire planets

    have gone within, only to reemerge as undead.”

    “Perhaps, but I may have one weapon they all lacked.”

    “What might that be?”

    “The power of the Destroyer.”

    Nicola was on her feet. “You’ve found him!” Not yet.

    “Not the man no, from all reports he’s likely drank himself to death in some outland pit. However, even though he was taken from me, my research continues, and I believe someday soon I will have his secret.”

    “Hah, the Destroyer? Even if you had the man, nothing living has stepped through the Gate in five hundred years,” Katrina said, trying to vanish beneath her veil. “You don’t even know what dwells on the other side.”

    “Wrong again, Katrina.”

    “Even you are not foolish enough to have gone through.”

    “Of course he has. He controls the Black Door, isn’t that right, LeCynic?”

    “Yes, Nicola, I am this world’s Gatekeeper. Sit and wait for death if you wish, but I aim to take this battle beyond the Black Door.”

    She brushed past a flock of brown robed mages. Apprentices, mages of the first order. All of them children. Some, no taller than her waist. As she moved through the crowd of brown, the children looked up at her, their eyes filling with disgust.

    “Gross,” one of the younger children said, covering his eyes, unable to stand the sight of her.

    The children cringed as she passed within their midst, then she was through the crowd of youngsters and left them behind to giggle and gag while retelling the details of her hideous appearance. She ignored them and moved on, climbing upwards through the High Tower, her skin too thick with scars to allow any childish remarks to penetrate. She met with others on her way, reds, blues, greens and grays, and unlike the children, they at least were able to mask their disgust, covering it with pleasant smiles — though she could still see them cringing inside, their minds retching.

    She ascended a stairway of white marble and at last reached her destination, the Chamber of Knowing.

    “High-Mage Nicola, welcome. Welcome indeed,” a Red Mage said, stepping away from a fountain of silver liquid to greet her. “What news have you from your meeting with the Council?” The man had an incredibly long and hooked nose and a head that was nearly as thin as his neck.

    “None good, I’m afraid,” Nicola curtly replied, walking past the man. “I must use the Well of Knowing, Conius.”

    “Very … well.” Conius said, winking at Nicola, a smile spreading across his face.

    Nicola was in no mood to tolerate the man’s simple sense of humor.

    “Alone.”

    He paused for a moment of thought, then the smile left his face.

    “Yes, High-Mage Nicola,” he said, quickly backing away from the pool and out of the chamber.

    The room was round and made of white stone. From the ceiling to the floor a row of pillars ran along the circumference of the wall, evenly spaced from one another by exactly four feet. In the center of the room there was a small pool which continually rippled as a thick silvery liquid trickled in, spilling like blood from fissures in an orb shaped fountain. The Well of Knowing had existed since the time of the Ancients, and was believed to have once allowed them to communicate between worlds. Considering there was no longer anyone left to talk to in the Forsaken Worlds, it was now used by the Order to contact fellow members within the confines of the Seventh World.

    She stepped up to the pool’s surface and saw her reflection wavering in the liquid below, her visage made even more grotesque in the constant silver ripples. Her face was transformed in the waves, her eye of light blue became an empty, black pit, sunken into her flesh. Hair, a snarled gray mess, sprouted upon her cheeks down to her chin. A hood covered the head of the image in the pool, a tattered shred of cloth sown together with what appeared to be yarn. Nicola looked down into the pool, down into the pair of dark holes forming at its surface. ‘It is confirmed,’ she thought.

    ‘So, he has traveled through. He has been inside the Rift.’ The thoughts of another echoed in her mind.

    ‘Yes, my Lord.’

    The figure in the pool grew distant from Nicola, his thoughts fading from her mind.

    ‘I should have seen it years ago. He was so young … I always suspected he could have been a Gate Keeper. So young. So ambitious. As soon as the Black Door awoke I should have seen it.’

    ‘The fool. Lifetimes of strife undone by the arrogance of one man.’

    ‘So it seems. As we feared, he is the source. It begins and ends with the Keeper.’

    ‘And what of the Outlands? Are those rumors true as well?’

    Nicola asked of the pool’s reflection.

    ‘If only they were lies. We arrived in Minotia too late, its citizens had been all but overwhelmed. We were a mere handful against a horde of dead. Needless to say we were helpless to stop it. When these Shadowed Dead joined the battle the best we could hope for was to flee for our lives. Because of our failure, the infection continues to spread eastward. Soon it will

    fall upon Shattered Rock and then … ‘

    ‘Lock Core.’

    ‘Yes, Lock Core. Ere the passing of the next Gypsium night it will be upon Lock Core. Beyond Shattered Rock there is little

    more than fields of wheat to slow its march.’

    ‘What must I do, lord? I cannot simply assassinate the Keeper. Given his ability, such a task could very well be beyond us. As for our allies, with the Triad divided they will be hard to come by. While he has but to say the word and the garrison of

    Lock Core rises against us.’

    ‘Lock Core may already be lost. If so, the fate of the Seventh World now rests within the walls of Shattered Rock. It will be

    there that the tide will turn, or wash us all away.’

    ‘What do you advise?’

    ‘LeCynic will march against Shattered Rock. Our best chance of destroying him will be there. Use the Well to contact your best Guardians in the area. Have them stay at the Wayward Inn. When the time comes, they will know what to do … Be ready. A victory at Shattered Rock will merely pave the way for a future struggle at Lock Core. Remember, Nicola, no

    matter the cost, this world must be cleansed.’

    Chapter 6: THE DRUNK AND THE DREAMER

    Alec saw him immediately. In fact, unless he was blind he couldn’t have missed him, for his crimson robe overflowing with gold lace stuck out in the bar full of wretches like a pusfilled sore on a whore’s face.

    Well, take a look at the fancy lad. If he ain’t careful a thief will take his hands and head just to get at that pretty golden lace.

    The mage had acquired a table in the corner of the bar, opposite the exit. Placed in front of him was a full pitcher of ale and a pair of empty mugs. The mage looked around the room, grinning like an idiot.

    Fool’s drunk. Alec thought, weaving his way through the crowd, nearly colliding with Ogrin; a young redheaded boy, as he leapt around the room blowing like mad on his wooden flute. The mage disappeared behind a haze of smoke as Halabat; an elderly veteran of Lock Core’s eastern garrison, puffed on his pipe and nodded up at Alec. Half of the man’s face was badly burned and drooping to the earth like melted wax.

    Alec also noted the presence of a pair of masked figures sitting at the table to the back of Halabat. They sat casually, their hands resting on the table before them. Within the black executioner hoods covering their faces, Alec watched as a pair of blue and brown eyes surveyed the room, darting toward anything that moved. The blue eyes settled on Alec, dissecting him.

    Though frightening to some, Alec was entirely unalarmed by their presence, comforted in fact. They were members of the Death Guard — masked executioners who hunted those whose only sin was that they had been infected by the Plague. Created by the former Keeper, Dertois in the aftermath of the War, they became unknown soldiers, undertaking the brutal task of ensuring the War’s completion by weeding out the infected from society, tracking and eliminating those who would hide their injuries in order to continue living even though they were rotting from the inside out.

    It was said that there had been a Death Guard in the Ancient times, an elite army formed by various races that traveled the worlds sworn to eradicate the Plague. The result of their crusade was all too apparent to Alec’s generation. Like all things living, they were eventually devoured by the Plague.

    Beyond that, Alec’s knowledge of their order abruptly ended. Nor did he feel it was necessary to learn more, for one of the things he did know was that the slightest sign of illness was always investigated and always dealt with. Wherever there was the Plague, the Guard would be close at hand, and for Alec, that was all he needed to know.

    For more than twelve years Alec had heard nothing of any major outbreaks of the Plague. Now Shattered Rock was flooded with rumors. And though they were rumors and as of yet lacking any evidence to support their existence, Alec assumed that it was because of these rumors that the Death Guard had come. They had donned their masks, stepping out from society in order to hunt and to kill.

    The pair of blue eyes and death masks vanished as Alec entered Halabat’s cloud of smoke. The man’s melted lips twisted into a grin as Alec patted his shoulder. His lungs filling with smoke, Alec couldn’t help noticing the bitter flavor of Chopa intermingled with the scent of tobacco.

    “Alec Strom.”

    He had barely made it through the cloud when he found the mage standing in front of him, extending a golden sleeve. Alec was raising his hand, shielding his eyes from the mages blinding white smile when, before he could react, the mage grabbed his hand and began shaking it violently. Up close and clear of the smoke, Alec was able to get a good look at the grinning mage.

    He was tall for a human standing nearly a head higher than Alec, and he was young — younger than Alec anyways. Alec figured he couldn’t have witnessed over thirty Midnight Suns in his lifetime. His hair was glossy, immaculate. If he had spent a year searching, Alec doubted he would be able to find a single split end in the whole bunch. Likewise, his face was clean-shaven his complexion flawless. From his sparkling white teeth to his soft, smooth skin the man was perfect.

    Unnatural.

    He alters his appearance with Magic.

    Not only vain, it was a direct violation of Dertois Law.

    Alec sneered as he returned the handshake, clamping down on his supple flesh until his grip was beyond firm and nowhere near friendly.

    “And you are?”

    “Brice Langlia. Mage of the Fifth Order,” he said, smiling down at him through the pain while Alec continued to squeeze.

    I wonder if he’d keep smiling if I spit in his face?

    Alec was well aware of the young mage’s rank, his crimson robes announced it. Though his stay at the High Tower was involuntary, Alec had learned a little bit about mages because of it, their dress code being one such bit of knowledge. The color of their robes was dictated by their Order, which was in turn dictated by their level of power. The weakest of mages were of the First Order, while the strongest were of the Seventh. However, to the best of his knowledge there hadn’t been a mage of the Seventh in this world for hundreds of years. In fact, at present there was only a handful of mages who were of the Sixth. They were those who wore white. The Arch Mages. Advisors, High-Mages, and those who would proclaim themselves Rulers of the Kingdom of Humanity, Keepers of the Wall, and Supreme Protectors of the Seventh World. For Alec those were the worst of all. His sessions with the Keeper had been particularly nightmarish. Somehow the man was able to keep him alive and conscious while dissecting his innards.

    LeCynic!

    He almost wished his power could return for just one more cataclysmic blast to take that bastard out.

    Hands clasped together, Alec felt the mage’s hand in his own. His grip was childlike, and had he wanted to, Alec could have crushed it, forever ruined his perfect, manicured hand. However, before the bones began popping beneath his flesh

    Alec released him.

    “I’ve been searching for you for quite some time.” The mage said, through a smile and gritted teeth while rubbing a red

    hand. “I’ve traveled the outlands for years hoping to find you.”

    “Well, congratulations. You’ve found me. But … ” Alec poured himself a mug of ale. “… did it ever occur to you that I didn’t want to be found?” The mage’s smile faded.

    Good.

    “Please, being that you are a mage and no doubt an educated man, tell me if this makes sense?” Alec followed his words with a gulp of ale. “Invisibility,” he continued. “Only benefits those who don’t wish to be seen.”

    He downed the rest of his drink then belched before pouring another.

    “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

    The Order must have lowered their standards.

    “Maybe I was hard to find because I didn’t want to be found.

    Does that make sense?”

    “Yes.”

    “Good, then you should understand why I’m not exactly thrilled by the sight of you.”

    Somber, the mage motioned to the table.

    “Please, sit.”

    Alec noticed Brice’s hand was no longer red. It was perfect and untouched once more. He stood still.

    Maybe Nathalia was right.

    “I had considered the possibility that you might not receive me warmly.”

    “Possibility?” Alec laughed. “A possibility? Rotting hell! After what your Order put me through, I’d say it was a certainty.”

    “I have seen the Keeper’s notes on your stay at the tower. You must believe that I played no part in his research, but I

    will admit that his work was instrumental in bringing me here.” “My stay, you make it sound as though I spent the summer on the white beaches of Boccal.” He slammed his mug down, causing its contents to splash on the table.

    Alec’s empty hand inched toward the dagger hidden at his waist as he began to plan the quickest way to bury it in the mage’s throat. If he timed it right, he knew that he could take the man’s life before the mage could even think of summoning his power.

    “I realize the experience must have been traumatic, but we needed answers. The world needed answers.”

    “Answers? I was just a child. I knew nothing. My only memory was of my awakening, coming to the realization that I was alive, unscathed, while all those around me, the entire Northern Garrison, ceased to exist. I told them this. Told your Order over and over that I knew nothing. And though I was a child, they flayed me alive. Used their power to keep me from death while they sought to tear the answers from my bones. From my very soul, should they have found it, hidden in my flesh!”

    His fingers were on the steel hilt.

    “You must understand our position. You are but one man. How many died that day and yet you lived? How many worlds have died as the Plague progressed, yet ours is still standing in their path? True your pain was great but it has ended, many cannot make that claim.”

    Alec saw faint wisps of blue dancing about the man’s skin. His dagger was immediately forgotten. Though he still longed to drive it into the mage’s throat, he knew that the steel would sooner bend than it would pierce his aura of blue.

    “Yes, you suffered,” the mage continued. “But there are those who have suffered more, those who continue to suffer.

    And, unlike you, their suffering is eternal.” … White inside gray. Ageless.

    An immortal heart …

    “Nathalia,” Alec whispered.

    “What was that?”

    “Nothing.”

    Alec pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.

    “Perhaps you’re right. After all, I am the Destroyer. I’m reminded of it daily, see it in their faces and know they suffer because of me.” He looked around the room, studying those he destroyed. The veteran Halabat. Ogrin the flute player. The patrons of the Wayward Inn. The citizens of Shattered Rock. The inhabitants of the Seventh World. And, above all, there was Nathalia. He owed them all more than he could ever give. “Your Order is right to fear me. I’m a danger to this world as surely as is the Plague. I should never have left your prisons, not before knowing … ”

    For these people I would suffer, die if I was certain it would save them.

    “Much has changed since you’ve escaped the High Tower. At the time the consensus was that your death was the only solution. I was one of the few who disagreed,” Brice said, taking a seat opposite Alec, his teeth shining once more. “I believe there is a better way. That is why I have come.” Alec eased back into his chair.

    “How?”

    “As I have said, I have seen the Keeper’s notes. And since then I have dedicated my life to you. To finding out precisely what happened at Lock Core.”

    All that Alec could see was teeth. The mage’s smile had taken over his entire face.

    “It is my belief, that I have discovered not only what happened to you, but why. And that if you learn to control your power, you can free this world. Perhaps even seal the Rift forever.”

    “You are drunk. The last mage to control the Rift was the High Mage Andril’lin. Even she couldn’t seal it. Adros himself said the Rift became a permanent part of the universe the day it was made.”

    Alec regarded the mage out of the corner of his eyes as he gulped down the last of the pitcher. Throughout Alec’s speech, the mage’s smile never wavered, and all the while he waited patiently for Alec to finish.

    “Of course, I cannot argue with what you say. I want you to perform nothing less than a miracle,” Brice said. “But … consider what you have already done. It was said the Red Wall could not be broken. Yet you toppled it with a force the likes of which none have ever seen or heard of before. The undead army. Our ancestors fought them from world to world, all the while fleeing before them, never once halting their momentum. Now, for the first time ever they’ve been driven back into the Black Door. And it was you who did this. Did the impossible.”

    Alec shook his head.

    “Yes, but for all these great feats you’ve forgotten that I destroyed an army of living along with the army of undead.

    Besides, I have no power. Or, at the very least, the very worst,

    I have no control over it.”

    “I have not forgotten. But, you know as well as I that it was only a matter of time before all would have fallen. Every day we fought, the foe grew stronger. At first we almost felt safe, shredding the hordes of meat puppets as quickly as they arrived. But we now believe the dark army acted with purpose, sending its weakest forces simply to drain our resources. On the third day the battle was all but lost. The Triad and Lock Core had failed to stop the Plague. Simply put, this world had fallen.”

    Simply put, I killed people. Don’t you think I too want to know what happened?”

    “If you’ll allow me the opportunity, I can explain everything.”

    “Well then, please do so,” Alec said, tipping his head and throwing his hands out before him. “I suppose I may as well

    hear the punch line after sitting through the joke.”

    Okay Smiley, let’s see if your lifetime of questions has brought you any answers, Alec thought, painfully aware that his had not.

    For every mage, there seemed to be a theory of how he destroyed Lock Core, and in his lifetime Alec was certain he had heard them all. Still, he was curious to hear the young mage out, on the off chance that he had indeed uncovered some new revelation. Besides, the man was buying him drinks.

    “While at Lock Core did you learn of how the Magi came to be, of why we exist?”

    “No, they were busy teaching me other things. But feel free to fill me in.”

    “The Order began long before the Plague, even before the worlds were one,” the young mage said, wasting no time and eager to deliver a speech which was obviously long in the making.

    “It is said that before there was the Plague and the Rift there existed but one race, one world. It is from this Origin Race that we have all descended, for much like the Plague, they set out to conquer the universe. But instead of leaving death in their wake, they filled the darkest corners of the universe with civilization and order. World by world the universe became their domain. And for a time there was peace.”

    “But we all know that doesn’t last,” Alec said, taking a healthy swig of ale.

    “No, unfortunately it does not.”

    “So? How did these guys manage to mess it up?”

    “Well, having conquered the vastness of space their empire was faced with a serious problem which was … well … the vastness of space. The great distances between their worlds could only be crossed at a lumbering pace, even a voyage to the nearest neighbor could take years in their fastest vessel. With no direct link between worlds the colonies grew culturally and physically unique, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the origin race.”

    He had seen them, on the walkway of Lock Core. The multitude of races …

    … A variety of faces that Alec could neither count nor fully describe.

    “The empire began to crumble as separate factions developed to meet their diverging needs. When their needs came in conflict, the wars began. The war of races had become the new universal dynamic replacing the colonial spirit of the Origin Race. This ‘Age of War’ continued for a millennium, only ending as one race rose to superiority.

    None could stand against them, they controlled the very earth upon which their enemies stood, cracking it open beneath them to swallow entire armies, while the air around them came to life, ripping ships from the heavens. They had of course discovered the Singularity, thus beginning the Order of Magi.”

    Brice paused as Alec motioned for the bartender to send over another round.

    “Go ahead, I’m listening,” he said, though he seemed to be paying more attention to the serving girl’s hips as she headed toward the bar.

    “Though gifted at turning the Oneness into a weapon, the Age of War had hardened the races, birthing new and more destructive weapons by the day,” Brice continued. “But with the Singularity they had a new technology” which proved unstoppable. The Rift. They used their power to cut through space itself, tearing a hole into the heart of every world they conquered. While their enemies spent years launching an assault, they conquered worlds within a day. When their conquest was complete, the Black Door was formed — binding the worlds as one. And upon every world they conquered, one of

    their kind remained to be the Gatekeepers of the Rift.”

    “Huh, I thought the Gods made the Rift not a bunch warmonger mages.”

    “The Pureblood were worshipped as such, and were no doubt godlike. Though we are their descendents, now we are

    weakened, our powers diluted along with our blood.”

    “Fascinating. Truly. But what does any of this have to do with me? Mage blood? They drained gallons of my blood, and the one thing your brethren agreed on was that I was not one of them.”

    “True, all records indicate that you are not of the bloodline, but your blood is however different. The Keeper new this. You see, I happened to learn that the gods never ended their war, they simply changed their opponent. After their victory over the races, they focused their power on … experiments.”

    “I’m liking your Order less by the moment. It seems like playing with lives is in your nature. Who else did they “experiment” on? ”

    “Everyone. Everything.”

    He waved his hand across the room.

    Here we go … , Alec thought, his mind beginning to wander in anticipation of another lengthy rant. At least he had a full pitcher of ale in front of him.

    “They had but one foe left.”

    The gentle notes of Ogrin’s flute filled Alec’s ears and he drummed his fingers on the table to the beat. Meanwhile, the pitcher of ale rapidly diminished.

    Ogrin’s at his best tonight, Alec thought.

    “What was that?” Alec asked, having missed the mage’s last words.

    “Death.”

    “Look, this all sounds fascinating but how do you know all this? Like every other poor fool in this world I’ve been forced to read The Book of Adros, and even that ancient guy never mentioned any Origin Race.”

    “I too was at Lock Core.”

    Alec sobered for a moment, pondering the depth of that statement. He had always assumed the mage would’ve been far from the war. He couldn’t have seen more than nine or ten midnight suns at that time. Maybe he owed the man some respect after all.

    “I found something that day, or maybe I should say it found me. At first I thought it was another demon unleashed from the Door. But I quickly realized it was something altogether different, neither living nor dead, a being of pure Magic. An experiment of the Gods. We formed a sort of bond and through him I learned the truth.”

    Ale sloshed over the sides of the pitcher as Alec poured another drink. With the rim of his mug hanging at his lip, he stared back at the man’s smiling face and said, “Alright. Enlighten me.”

    Beneath the tombs of four hundred years of heroes LeCynic walked through darkness, more shadow than man beneath his black robe. It was a leisure stroll through hand-carved tunnels occupied only by vermin and the dead. Barriers of web sought to keep him away but he plowed through them, not even blinking as a thick layer of web began covering his face. He was deep within the base of Lock Core, having traveled through miles of tunnel of the Keepers’ Crypt. A project that was began long ago by the dwarves, the Keepers’ Crypt was the resting place of all those who guarded the Seventh World before him. After ages of rulers, the series of halls had long since overflowed, forcing the dwarves to spread their tomb throughout the bowels of the Gorian. The dead grew with the passing of time, as did the Crypt, becoming a maze of tunnels which even the dwarves no longer knew, nor dared to tread.

    LeCynic had wandered them all, a feat which few others could claim. The halls of the Ancients were now lost to the Seventh World — and none except LeCynic cared to find them. He wandered them now, thoroughly enjoying the rich spectacle of self-adoration — the many crumbling monuments of forgotten men and women. He smiled, cracking open the sores on his face.

    On the wall to his left was a statue of white marble depicting a female Keeper her slender hips and ample breasts only slightly hidden beneath a lavish jewel encrusted robe. The statue stood well over ten feet tall, even though its head had fallen from its neck and now rested next to her feet.

    Fools, he thought, chuckling to himself. Even your monuments fall.

    At one time this was to be his resting place. When his days of toil and self-sacrifice had finally ended he would have been granted the honor of rotting alongside his predecessors. And perhaps, had he toiled hard enough and sacrificed enough of his self his many loved ones would have erected a monument of his very own to stand for all time as an indication of his benevolent existence. Or maybe, he too would be forgotten, buried beneath time with no one to watch as the splendor he once stood for crumbled to dust.

    Your halls end here.

    There would be no more Keepers and soon no more dwarves, the Keepers’ Crypt had finally ceased to grow. Its death would be the monument to LeCynic’s greatness, and unlike the effigies of his predecessors, it would exist through all time.

    LeCynic was not alone. Driven by lust, Onk followed him deep beneath the earth. He stood in fear, watching as LeCynic laughed at the tombs of the Ancients. Then, having finished mocking the dead LeCynic continued on, moving farther and farther down the catacombs. Invisible to even the dead, Onk followed.

    Chapter 7: THE ONE ELF

    ” ‘All that is, was once nothing. And nothing can avoid returning from where it came,'” Brice began, quoting the words of Adros. “A fact that was true for the Purebloods as well. Empowered with the very essence of reality, these Gods foresaw many things — including the end to their own existence. Knowing they were bound to this fate and unable to alter the laws governing their own existence, they sought to create something that was eternal and capable of outlasting even them. It was their hope that in the embodiment of their creation they could at last achieve some sense of immortality.

    “The universe was theirs to command, their power could move mountains, empty oceans. All the worlds they joined together with a single thread. Yet eventually entire worlds they possessed ceased to be, consumed by the very star that gave them life, or destroyed in some random, cataclysmic event. Meanwhile, like all things they themselves began to decay. They realized there was another power at work far greater than their Oneness, a gap which even they could not cross. They named it the Void. It was the limit to their power which barred them from the infinite. This Void reclaimed all. It was the ultimate power. To achieve victory meant either possessing or surpassing it.

    “Let me guess, one of their experiments was the Plague?”

    “Yes,” Brice replied, his eyes shifting to the floor. He continued, though now he spoke though a faltering grin. “Though in a way, I believe that to them, we were already dead. At any moment any life could be forsaken, without warning, without reason, and without purpose. Entire races could vanish in an instant and for what? When viewed through this perspective, existence itself was a failure. For the Pureblood, the only true solution, the only permanent escape from the Void was to create the living death and thus they circumvented the problem altogether. They redefined the concepts of life, death and immortality. For them, the Plague is the embodiment of all.”

    As he spoke, the lamplight glowed off his silky skin and golden lace.

    “So that’s what this is all about? They wish to start over with the Undeath? We’re a mistake?”

    A new pitcher of ale arrived at the table.

    “Yes, some did. Though others did not. Unfortunately for us, those who would see us dead had a greater voice. It was they, the Dead Gods who unleashed the Plague. The others, the Elder Gods, they viewed immortality in a different light. For them, the true path was creation, an ability the Plague seemed to lack. For the Plague could only steal life, not replicate it. A major flaw in the Dead Gods’ plan.

    The Elders saw this flaw as well. That coupled with the living proof of just how far advanced the races had become since the days of the Origin Race, proved to them that the true path was evolution, to continually advance humanoid life in seemingly infinite ways. They bred their children to be their betters, as did their children and their children up until this very day. The evolutionary possibilities are endless. They thought that perhaps one day a progeny would evolve with the power to stand before the Plague. Even defeat it. It is my belief they finally succeeded in you.”

    There was a moment of silence as Alec took a swig of his drink.

    “Wow. By dead, I’m a goddamn god,” Alec said, his voice calm though his words were somewhat slurred.

    “Yes.”

    “Well then. That just about solves everything. If only I could control my power we’d be in good shape.”

    “Such things can be learned. The Order feared accessing your abilities.”

    No kidding Smiley.

    “But I am willing to take the risk. I’m not afraid.” He set his mug on the table. “Well … Brice, is it?” The mage slowly nodded.

    “If you were at Lock Core then you know what I’m about. I must say you’re a brave man to be sittin with me. Not many folks like to be around me. Can’t says I blame em. I thank you kindly for the drinks, and the tale, and I do sincerely hope you seal that Rift.”

    No longer bothering with the mug, Alec two-handed the pitcher. After it was empty he continued on.

    “But I do think it’s time I be going. Huh … ” He started to rise then paused. He looked past Brice, then rubbing his eyes said, “Am I that drunk?”

    “What is it?” Brice asked, scrunching his forehead.

    “This thing you found, was it a kinda little devil lookin … red … little guy?”

    “Yes … how did you . . ?”

    “It’s here.”

    “Galimoto?” His face a mixture of confusion and rage, Brice turned his head and found Galimoto hovering before him. Panting and wild eyed, the imp’s chest was heaving while he struggled to flap his wings.

    Brice leapt to his feet, toppling his chair and causing many of the bar’s patrons, the Death Guards in particular, to cast looks in his direction. Alec shook his head.

    “Demons … Children … The elf.” Galimoto plummeted to the earth, but was saved by Brice’s outstretched hand. Nestled in Brice’s palm, the imp managed to voice a few more words be-

    fore his eyes closed, “The One Elf.”

    “Solo Ki?” Brice pondered to himself.

    “Solo Ki … ?” Alec mumbled between belches. “Nathalia’s mention’d that name before.”

    Desperate for another round, Alec was working on catching the serving girl’s attention when he noticed a pair of figures standing beside him. Feeling suddenly queasy, he looked up to find a pair of executioner hoods looming over him.

    The stench of rot had grown so powerful that even LeCynic’s decaying senses were overwhelmed by it.

    I’ve arrived.

    The blood slicked floor and walls were the only further confirmation that he needed. It was the crypt of one of the original Keepers. A man none remembered nor cared for, who had lived by the name Brontes. Until LeCynic’s ventures through the Crypt his name and achievements had been entirely forgotten. Then he was altogether erased, for shortly after the discovery of his tomb, LeCynic had ensured that every indication of the man’s existence had been destroyed. Now, beyond the confines of LeCynic’s mind the man would never be thought of again.

    The chamber had been cleared of the man’s once cherished possessions — those with value were sold, while everything else was incinerated. No longer a tomb, the room now served many other functions; play room, prison, torture chamber, and laboratory. This far below the Gorian, LeCynic was free to function as he wished.

    ‘Greetings, Master.’

    LeCynic entered the room, immediately encountering Hollabrand, the dwarven servant and former Caretaker of the Crypt. The dwarf looked up at him, his left eye black and swollen to twice its size, while a trail of pus oozed from the socket on his right side.

    ‘I trust all is well?’ LeCynic questioned, filling his lungs with the rooms aroma. Lacking vocal chords and functioning eardrums, communication with Hollabrand flowed smoother when conducted telepathically.

    The dwarf hesitated a moment before replying, ‘No Master. The darlings you’ve brought though strong and ripe, failed to reproduce as expected. The seed germinated, yes, but there

    were latter … unexpected complications.’

    ‘Like what?’

    ‘See for yourself, Master.’

    The dwarf bowed, exposing the gray matter of his brain through a gaping hole in the back of his head, then he stepped out of LeCynic’s way.

    Once the chamber had been stuffed with treasures, now the room housed rows of straw-filled mattresses caked with human feces and blood, several of which yet dripped with the red liquid having been freshly spilt. It was toward those beds that LeCynic went.

    ‘A difficult task, Master. Giving birth to the dead.’

    LeCynic didn’t want to hear about difficulties. He had to succeed in this. Ever since he first stepped foot into the Black Door, something was growing inside him. Initially, his power limited its growth, but little by little it expanded within him. He fully enjoyed the power it gave him, but lately he was becoming aware of the cost such power took upon his flesh. He feared that soon, neither the power, nor his own body would be his own. He would be possessed by the darkness within him. Already, he saw the dark power’s toll in his most loyal guards. Being weaker than LeCynic, little remained of their original identities. If he failed in this, he would become as lifeless as they.

    Only one thing seemed to cleanse the darkness – the power of the Destroyer. That’s why recreating it was essential for LeCynic. It did seem a difficult task, if not impossible. But he had never backed down from the impossible before, and now with the power he possessed was there anything he could not do?

    LeCynic vowed that, once he is cured, he fully intends to take the battle back into the Black Door. And this time, the entire Seventh World will be his to command. And his new, elite army will be there as well; prisoners and vagrants transformed into highly trained soldiers, bound to him by blood.

    He would have his vengeance on the being that threatened to extinguish his life, and prove that he was not one to be so easily defeated.

    But first, he needed the Seventh World to be his.

    Within the pile of gore strewn on top of the beds it was difficult to distinguish specific shapes. It wasn’t until LeCynic was standing at the foot of one of them that the ‘complications’ which Hollabrand spoke of became apparent. As far as LeCynic could discern, the girl’s womb had ruptured, the force of which was yet displayed on the ceiling and adjacent wall.

    Many of the smaller chunks resisted gravity’s pull, oozing to the floor much slower than the larger bits of flesh.

    Pity, he thought, regarding the girl’s remains without compassion.

    Able to survive the rupture, momentarily anyways, the child had lived while her newborn creation emerged — a disease that quickly began feasting on its mother’s flesh. Over time, her flesh decomposed and her bones turned to mush, even the shackles at her wrists and ankles fell away, the mere weight of them enough to tear through her festering limbs.

    ‘I see,’ LeCynic coldly stated. ‘These ones were something else, but what though?’

    ‘Unfortunately, Master, we will never know. As you thought, there is a unique blood code necessary to make the Shadowed Dead.’

    ‘And a unique blood code for the Destroyer as well. There’s a purpose to all of them. First we must find out what it is and

    then we can begin to exploit it.’

    ‘Of course, Master,’ Hollabrand said, approaching LeCynic with an empty vial in one arm, a small curved blade in the other.

    Unbuttoning his collar, LeCynic bent down, the black vein on his neck throbbing as if in anticipation.

    ‘If all goes well you’ll have new subjects within the changing moons. My army grows fat off these outland cities. Soon, I’ll be ready for Shattered Rock, and if rumors hold true we may have him once more.’

    The dwarf beamed with the possibilities. Even in life Hollabrand had been a demon, which was why LeCynic knew he was perfect for this task.

    ‘I cannot wait.’

    LeCynic’s swollen vein deflated as the blade bit into it, allowing a stream of black blood to flow down his neck, slow like pus.

    ‘How much today, Master?’ the dwarf asked, replacing the blade with the vial.

    ‘Keep the vials coming, Hollabrand. The demand for Chopa grows daily. Soon enough they will join us, we may not even have to kill them.’

    ‘How unfortunate.’

    Yellow liquid dripped from the dwarf’s right eye like tears.

    Had he known the way back, Onk would have immediately turned and fled. As it was, he suffered the horrors within the chamber, silently waiting as the Demon LeCynic inspected his many failed experiments.

    If a human could cast a shadow in the utter darkness of night, it would be them. The demons. The trio of dark silhouettes turned their empty faces toward the avalanche of blue fire that was the incarnation of Emily’s rage. The torrent of power cascaded down upon them as they stood over Whimly, who had ceased writhing on the ground though blisters continued to rise from his flesh.

    To the onlookers; the one-armed man and his companions, it appeared as though all of the earthly elements had arisen before them to strike out as one against the demons. Fire, earth, water and wind came together to form a boiling wall of magma and ice that heaved into the air, sucking the ground from beneath their feet as it grew, towering high above all who were present as well as the surrounding forest.

    The travelers tumbled to the ground as the force raged on. Even the demons lost their footing, wavering momentarily on their dark, liquid like legs, unable to move as the wall collapsed, burying them beneath a mountain of fire and ice.

    Emily fell to her knees, exhausted. Her head sagged to the earth while her power was reduced to a trickle of light curling on her skin. A teardrop dripped from her eye and splashed on the gravel road.

    “Whimly … ”

    She raised her head to find a heap of melted rock smoldering where Whimly’s rotting corpse once rested.

    There were voices in the air, on her ears and in her head, but she couldn’t hear.

    “Quickly, finish them. We can’t let them remain to spread the Plague.”

    Blades of silver bit into the flesh of those who were, just moments ago, friends, lovers, family members. The one-armed man and his fellow survivors decapitated their fallen companions without hesitation; carving them up as though they were butchers preparing a feast.

    “Grab the girl. Hurry! She may have injured them, but be assured that they yet live,” the one-armed man said as he thrust his sword into the chest of one of his fallen companions, gouts of dark liquid sprayed upwards as he buried the tip of his blade and then twisted his wrist.

    A pair of strong hands took hold of Emily and scooped her into the air.

    “Come on, child,” the man who grabbed her said, throwing her over his shoulder. Her curly black locks tumbled down his back as she hung there; limp, her chin jostling against his ribcage as he ran.

    She saw the earth moving below her, a dark smear of gravel and grass. Lifting her head, she watched the battle scene shrink, the mound of rock she created compressing to the size of a pebble — and from that pebble three dark shapes emerged, slowly pulling free of the solid mass of earth. She wanted to cry out in warning. Alert the survivors to the demons’ reemergence. But instead of a shout, all she could muster was a moan. Dangling over the man’s shoulder, she watched and moaned as the demons gave chase, their bodies growing larger and darker the longer she looked.

    “They’re gaining.” Emily recognized the gruff voice of the one-armed man. She couldn’t see him as he spoke the words, but in the next instant she passed him and could see him standing still, his sword upheld as he faced the oncoming demons. “Flee for your lives. One of us must make it to Shattered

    Rock. One of us must live to warn the world.”

    The demons rounded a bend in the road, and, like a wave of darkness they flowed toward the one-armed man.

    “Fight well, Bradford,” the man carrying her whispered.

    “From this world to the next.”

    Her powers were extinguished, her energy gone. In its absence the darkness became impenetrable. Bradford, the onearmed soldier, was lost to her sight, his final battle hidden by the veil of night. Though she could no longer bear witness to his struggle, she could see it unfolding in her mind and was certain of two things. One of which was the knowledge that

    Bradford had fought well. The other …

    She forced that thought from her mind

    Emily and the others left Bradford to his fate, obeying his final command. They fled.

    The ground continued moving below her, while occasionally she would lift her head, attempting to peek into the darkness behind them. But at such times she failed to distinguish shapes within the night. For all she knew the demons were far behind, or at their heels. She couldn’t tell. Time and space lost all meaning, for to her there was only the darkness.

    Her human transport continued carrying her, her head bouncing in tune to his heavy breathing.

    Her vision returned, it happened slowly, gradually. Gaining focus as the arc of fire grew on the horizon, creeping into the night and stealing the darkness from the Seventh World. She felt empowered by the light of day, relieved to have survived the night.

    “I must rest,” the man said, and suddenly the ground no longer moved below. He swung her from his back, depositing her upon a boulder at the side of the road. “I cannot continue,” he said as he sat on the ground, gasping for breath.

    She lifted her head. Looking around with her new found sight she suddenly realized that they were alone. The other survivors were nowhere to be found, nor were the demons. She didn’t know who had left whom. Had the others continued on, abandoning their encumbered companion? Or had the man carrying her continued running, while one by one his friends were taken by the night? Either way, she didn’t have long to ponder the situation for moments after they sat down, the trio of demons returned, carving their way through space, appearing darker than ever in the light of day.

    “I’m sorry, child,” the man said, lurching to his feet. “Run if you can, my legs can no longer carry me. They are rooted here. Forever.”

    He drew a dagger from his belt and as the trio of demons approached he yelled, “To the dead with you. To the dead with us all!”

    Fingers reached out to him like wisps of smoke grasping at flames. Before the dark fingers could take hold, he drew his dagger upwards and into his throat, ending his life before the demons could.

    Emily tried to get to her feet, but stumbled instead, falling to her knees upon the ground while the trio of demons surrounded her. Looming over her, she was covered in darkness, unable to distinguish where their shadows ended and their bodies began. She looked up — a single strand of blue light tumbling from her lower lip — and watched as the fingers crept ever closer to her flesh … slowly … until she burned from their touch.

    Her veins filled with fire. From her mouth came an endless scream while her vision clouded over in shadow. Through the fog filling her mind she saw a figure emerge, a blur of brown rippling before her, wielding a rod of white fire which swallowed the surrounding darkness. She also heard a familiar voice falling on her ears, calling out her name, “Emily? Emily? They’ve infected her. We should kill her now, before she becomes one of them.” Somewhere, very near, Tetloan cast his sentence.

    The fog lifted from her eyes and she found herself staring into a pair of dull orbs, white surrounded in gray. They were the eyes of an elf, though they were lackluster as those of a corpse.

    “Humans … So little patience,” the elf spoke, his words rolling from his lips, gracefully, even though his voice was jagged and rasping.

    Tetloan looked at him blankly.

    “This child will not die. Not today anyway. She’s strong.

    Even though she is human,”

    ‘Strong as a pureblood elf,’ the voice continued, though his lips hadn’t moved.

    “She fights the infection like few can. A gifted child indeed.”

    Though his ears were pointed, as were all elves, the tips were slumped over and drooping to the earth.

    “Whimly?” The name was a stone, plummeting from her plump lips.

    She looked into the elven eyes and found nothing, they reflected neither light nor sympathy. Just looking at them made her heart grow cold. “Dead.”

    Emily shivered.

    “Don’t you remember what you did?” Tetloan asked.

    She did remember, clearly.

    “It was incredible. You buried him, and the demons, beneath an entire mountain.”

    She lifted her head, the curls of her hair were clumps of knots, and turned to find the freckled face of Tetloan grinning at her.

    “How did you do that, Emily? Not even the Destroyer could have matched that. Not even Adros himself … ”

    “Enough!” The elf’s head darted toward Tetloan. His expression continued to defy emotion, yet despite his lack of apparent rage, Tetloan was silenced. Emily was thankful for the elf’s intervention, though she wished she had the power to stifle him herself.

    As the fire inside her dwindled, her senses returned and she realized that she was floating high above the head of Tetloan, suspended in the air by the arms of the elf. His long bony fingers nearly wrapped around her entire body. She almost panicked, almost leapt from his grip for after closer observation she couldn’t help noticing how skeletal the elf actually seemed. His face was pallid, sunken. His skin was translucent and stretched over his skull so severely that Emily believed a single cut on his cheek would be enough to split open his entire face. The elf’s body was thin, she could feel the bones of his arms grinding against her skin and could see — even though masked by the flows and ripples of his cape — that his body was nothing but skin and bone.

    She recovered from the initial shock of his appearance after noticing his hair — which was woven into an elven ponytail and reached down to his lower back—and that it was whiter than bones bleached by the sun. Though she had only met a few elves in her life, Emily knew that they all shared certain traits which marked them as members of their race. For one, their incredible height which was well over a foot taller than the average human. Also, their eyes, the pupils of white encased in gray, an indication of their heightened sight. Another common trait of the elves was their ears, pointed and jutting toward the sky. Lastly, and most remarkable was their hair, iridescent and golden, the hair of an elf had a light of its own. Emily knew for certain that this elf wasn’t inflicted with the undeath, though he was vastly different from any elf she had ever seen or heard of. Even for a race of immortals, this elf was old.

    The color of his hair hinted at it, as did his drooping ears, but for Emily, it was his eyes that truly gave it away. The coldness in their white, burning like frostbite. From the chill they sent,

    crawling up Emily’s spine, she knew … This elf was ancient.

    “Who are you?” Emily asked, her voice a weak squeak emanating from within his cradled arms. She gazed up at him, her eyes wide and full of wonder.

    “I am Solo Ki.”

    ‘I am the One Elf.’

    Chapter 8: THE ELVEN DEATH

    To their left, the Gorian mountain range dominated the horizon, a vast row of jagged peaks, piercing the mist of the morning sky. In the distance, the top of a crumbling stone wall slowly crested the landscape, protruding above the dense needle filled evergreens and the massive tangle of oaks. Occasionally light trickled down through the foliage, illuminating the trio as they trudged through shadows, climbing their way up the cobblestone pathway which led to the city of Shattered Rock.

    “That’s when I saw him,” Tetloan said, motioning to Solo Ki. As the pair of children followed in the elf’s footsteps, Tetloan had hardly paused for breath the whole way, relating the story of how he had met Solo Ki. What she was able to learn; both from what Tetloan told her as well as from what he obviously and purposely omitted, was that while Whimly, the travelers and her had been engaged with the demons, Tetloan had been hiding within the forest, watching in safety as the humans were massacred. Emily figured he was probably on the verge of emerging from his shelter after she had buried Whimly and the demons beneath the avalanche of rock. But, before he found the courage to rejoin the others, the group of survivors had already begun their hasty retreat, leaving the cowardly Tetloan behind. Seconds before stirring from the foliage, Tetloan said that he saw the demons crawling forth from within the hill of rock — like mist from a lake, as he put it. At that point, Emily figured Tetloan had frozen in fear at the sight of the demons’ reemergence. He must have figured that with the absence of the others, the demons would have sought him next, sniffed him out from within the forest. Luckily for Tetloan, the demons weren’t the least bit interested in finding him. They didn’t even hesitate to survey their surroundings for survivors, but immediately tore into pursuit of Emily and the others.

    “I just stepped out of the trees, and there he was … Standing in the middle of the road, watching me.”

    “I suppose you dove back into the woods then?” Emily said with a squeak.

    Ahead of them Solo Ki cleared his throat.

    “Come on. I’m not a country rhubarb farmer like you. I know an elf when I see one.”

    “My father’s not a rhubarb fa … ”

    “Anyway, looking at me with those funny elf eyes of his he says to me, ‘Where are the others?’. Of course I thought he meant the travelers, that he was their friend or something. But he said, ‘The children.’ So then I … ”

    Tetloan’s head bobbed up and down while he constantly chattered with every step he took. In front of her, Emily watched as Solo Ki rhythmically drove a red tipped staff into the ground, mirroring the movement of his left leg. His long bony fingers curled around the staff. Below his hand, the staff was blackened at the center, charred as though burnt by fire. His cape rippled out behind him as he walked, and Emily could tell by the sluggish movement of his incredibly long legs, that he was patiently forcing himself into a slow, measured pace in order to match that of the children. Neither Emily’s curly dark head, nor the fiery hair of Tetloan reached as high as the elf’s hips. Emily was the shorter of the two, standing just under 5 feet tall, while Tetloan was a couple inches her superior. Though both were small, considering they were several Gypsium Nights shy of adulthood, even a full grown human would’ve appeared childlike walking next to the elf.

    “You should’ve seen him fight. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast. He scared them, that’s for sure. Yep, definitely scared them,” Tetloan continued, speaking as though Solo Ki wasn’t there, even though he was just a few feet in front of them. Had he been a mile away, his keen elven ears would’ve been ringing from the boisterous voice of Tetloan. “He was so fast. I couldn’t even see him. The demons came at him, then … Whoosh! Whoosh! Pow!” Tetloan struck at the air in front of him, nearly tripping over his own feet as he did so. “Everything stopped. And he had one, stuck like a pig, his staff sticking through the things chest.”

    “Did he kill it?”

    “I don’t know. I don’t think so. It kind of shook itself free after a while, then disappeared into the woods with its friends. Jeez! I just can’t believe they never got him,” Tetloan said, pointing at Solo Ki. “As fast as they were, they never touched him, not once.”

    “They touched you, didn’t they, Solo Ki?” Emily asked, peering up the elf’s back.

    “Yes.” His reply was dull and disinterested.

    The road bent to the left, obscuring the city wall behind the thick forest.

    “Then why ain’t you one of them? You and Emily both?”

    “Perhaps similar blood flows through our veins,” Solo Ki said bluntly.

    “Huh?”

    “Aren’t you the elven expert?” Emily said.

    Tetloan immediately began wagging his tongue at her.

    “Elves can resist the undeath. Some … Are immune,” Emily replied, her wide eyes radiant and shimmering, despite

    Tetloan’s tongue hanging in front of them.

    “Whatever. I’m just glad we’ve made it to the city. I don’t care to find out if we’re related by being bit. I just want to find Brice and have him take me back home. Just wait till my parents hear about what he’s put me through. My dad’s mayor of Argor, second largest city in the entire Outland. He’ll have him

    booted from the Order for sure.”

    Solo Ki suddenly stopped, dead in his tracks.

    “Argor … ”

    He turned, casting his ashen face toward Tetloan. His lips opened as if to speak, then something in the distance drew his attention.

    “The Red Mage approaches.”

    Somehow Emily doubted those were the words he had originally intended to speak.

    “What makes you think he’s coming?” Tetloan asked.

    “For one, the Red Mage Brice is never far from the imp

    Galimoto.”

    “For dead’s sake. Enough of this imp business. I want to … ”

    With a ripple of his cape, Solo Ki turned and cast his white orbs toward the top of Tetloan’s head.

    “Galimoto!” Emily cried, shocked and enraged at the same time. She too was focused on Tetloan’s auburn head. His legs crossed and his tiny red rump buried in hair, the imp Galimoto was comfortably squatting on Tetloan’s head. Galimoto’s claws were balled into fists, filled with clumps of

    Tetloan’s hair.

    “Where were you, Galimoto? We needed your help.” Emily’s finger shook at Tetloan’s head.

    “What are you talking about?” Tetloan said, craning his neck upwards, seeking the source of Emily’s anger.

    “Galimoto is sorry … ” The imp clung to Tetloan’s hair as the boy flung his head up and down, back and forth, desperately trying to track the focus of Emily and Solo Ki’s pupils. ” … but he is no fighter. Galimoto knew that if Solo Ki could not stop

    the demons, it would be stupid for Galimoto to even try.”

    Tetloan’s frustration was growing, as were his thrashings.

    “Whooo! This Tetloan child is more amusing than he seems.”

    Tetloan quickly swiped a hand across his head, knocking the imp from his perch.

    “Ouch.” Tetloan and Galimoto said at once, Tetloan rubbing his head while several strands of hair fell from the imps claws.

    “Your Master is not alone.” Solo Ki addressed the imp, who was now hovering in the air at eye level with the elf. “Who has he brought?”

    “Many stinky humans,” the imp said rubbing his chest from where Tetloan had struck him. “And listen to Galimoto when he says that these humans are the worst that he’s ever smelled.”

    “You’re all mad. All of you. Wait till my father … ” Tetloan’s words were mostly ignored. He had chosen to step away from the group and was now sitting at the side of the road, a puzzled look on his face as he rubbed his head.

    “Especially the Alec man.”

    “The Destroyer?” Emily said, piping in from far below the conversation.

    “Yes, Destroyer of all things fragrant,” the creature said, landing on Solo Ki. He wrapped his tail around Solo Ki’s arm, entwining it from shoulder to wrist where it split into a pair of curved barbs that dug into the elf’s cape. A fork tongue flickered from the imp’s mouth as he buried a claw into his nose. His eyes glowed yellow even in the light of day.

    “You’ve always had a keen nose for death, Galimoto,” the elf said. “But what makes your Master so certain he has succeeded?”

    “Death? More like defecation,” the imp chimed in from his perch atop the elf’s shoulder. “Galimoto is certain. Even the Rotting Ones have a better scent,” he continued, his voice muffled as claw, and finger, disappeared into his nostril.

    “Then your Master has finally succeeded. But to what end?”

    ‘You may have only succeeded in bringing about your own destruction, Red Mage.’

    Emily’s puffy cheeks grew flush after hearing the elf’s voice inside her head. She doubted the thought had been meant for her to hear, and grew embarrassed at her intrusion, ashamed for having glimpsed the private moment of another.

    “Smell for yourself, One Elf. Here comes stinky man now,” the imp said, covering his nostrils.

    Shortly after Galimoto smelled him, Alec came around the bend, accompanied by the red robed Brice and two figures cloaked in black, a hairy arm wrapped around each of their necks. They carried Alec between them. His long hair streaked with gray draped over his face, while his head hung limply to the ground. The pair lugged their burden, his feet dragging behind them.

    “That’s him?” Emily asked. “What happened to him?”

    “Yeah really, is he dead or something?” Tetloan said from the roadside.

    As if in response, the man burst out, “Yer dead. Yer all dead.” He continued on, mumbling to himself, never bothering to lift his head.

    “Children. Are you safe?” Brice approached them and was reaching out, tucking his hand beneath Emily’s curls to rest it upon her cheek.

    “Yes,” she replied.

    “Thank you,” Brice said, turning to Solo Ki. The elf nodded, his pale face impassive. “Thank the gods, Galimoto found you.”

    “He always does, no matter how well I hide,” the elf said, shrugging his bony shoulders and the imp on top of them.

    “What of the boy, Whimly?”

    “Because of you he’s dead. You nearly killed us all.”

    Tetloan was on his feet and storming toward Brice. His fists were balls of flaming sapphire. Brice stepped back, his own body suddenly glowing.

    “Stop it, Tetloan,” Emily jumped between them, tendrils of blue light dancing at her fingertips, ready to bind him if possible, destroy him if necessary. Enraged, Tetloan was an extreme danger, his power was perhaps greater than her own and manifested without his awareness. She had stopped him once before, but barely, and the power he now held was well beyond anything she had ever faced before.

    “Stop it. It wasn’t his fault,” she continued, hoping to deflate him with words instead. “You didn’t even care about Whimly.”

    “No. I won’t stop. He left us alone so he could find this drunkard,” the freckled boy said, sneering at Alec. “He shouldn’t have left us, Emily. He shouldn’t have taken us in

    the first place. This is all his fault.”

    “For once, Galimoto thinks the Tetloan child is right. Brice shouldn’t have taken him. If Brice is so smart, he should’ve known why the child’s parents were so eager to be rid of him.”

    “Enough.” The withered voice of the elf seemed to have a power all its own. First The Singularity left Tetloan, then Brice, and finally, though hesitant, Emily. Even Galimoto managed to grow silent. “Resolve this in the city. If you wish to save these children take them from these woods, now. The

    demons were just the beginning.”

    “And what of you, Solo Ki?” Brice asked.

    “I would have thought you knew me better than that, Master

    Brice?”

    “Yes, I know. You, ‘no longer care to battle death.’ You refuse to fight, and to live. Yet, you somehow always end up do-

    ing both. Yes, I know you very well, Solo Ki.”

    Solo Ki was silent. Emily gazed at the ground, occasionally shifting her large brown eyes to the face of Solo Ki. She would look at his thin, sunken features then quickly return her gaze to the earth.

    “Master Brice, was it absolutely necessary to bring this man along?” The voice was masculine, gruff, and emitted from the taller of the two hooded figures who had finally arrived with their cumbersome load. “I do believe he has soiled himself along the way.” The man appeared eager to drop Alec as he halted near the others. From within the black hood a pair of brown eyes alighted on Solo Ki. “You there! Elf. Drop your weapon and put your hands to your side. You will submit to

    the Death Guard for inspection or be condemned as infected.”

    Solo Ki remained unmoving, while the other shorter-blue eyed guardian turned its head to the taller one. Leaning over the now silent Alec, the shorter one began whispering to the other.

    Jolting as though a dagger had been thrust into his back,

    Alec nearly slipped from the tall man’s grasp.

    “M … m … my apologies, Master Ki. I am indeed an old fool for being unaware of your presence. There is of course only one elf as venerable as yourself. I can only lower my head before you, knowing that to look upon your … ”

    “Save your praise,” Solo Ki coldly interrupted. “The Death Guard is too late. Nothing you can do will alter this world’s fate.”

    “Master Ki,” the blue eyed Death Guard said, speaking with a soft, gentle voice that seemed to drip with honey. “Pardon my mentor, he often wags his tongue when he should be biting it. Please, if you have knowledge of the outbreak, anything you can tell us would greatly benefit our cause. Our leader, Dertois holds your council in the highest regard, and we would certainly do the same.”

    “Dertois should heed an old friend’s advice and accept defeat.”

    “Hopeless Shal’in Ome freak.” The elegant voice startled everyone, even Alec roused from his drunken slumber to watch the speaker emerge from the forest.

    She had soft, smooth features. Eyes of gray and white with a head of light, iridescent hair tied into an intricate elven ponytail. Her ears were slim and pointy, striking straight toward the sun. She wore a leather jacket that reached down to her ankles and had a fluffy collar made of white and black fur. The elven woman slipped from the forest leaving the foliage around her undisturbed, somehow managing to maneuver her lithe form through the tangled mesh of branches without causing the slightest trembling of leaves. She moved with less force than a breath of air.

    Emily watched the woman emerge, astounded by her beauty, her smooth, graceful features, her long curled eyelashes, and most of all, Emily marveled at the woman’s flowing yellow curls. Instinctively, she tried to run her hand through her own hair, but stopped short after her fingers became ensnared in knots. Her hand came down before her face. Soiled. Filthy. “The great Solo Ki. My how the mighty have fallen.” “Nathalia,” the white-haired elf said, dipping his head.

    “Nat? What arrr … ya doin’ ere?” Alec mumbled, squinting at her.

    A strand of glowing curls tumbled over her eyes.

    “What? Did you really think I would just let you waltz back into the High Tower to be dissected? You’re too much of a fool to protect yourself Alec, so I followed you. And when I saw who the mage had brought you to, I couldn’t resist the chance to reacquaint myself with the legendary One Elf,” Nathalia said, her voice light, airy, floating into the ears of the others. While she spoke she completely disregarded Alec, keeping her white eyes glued on those of Solo Ki. “It has been ages, hasn’t it Shal’in Ome?”

    Solo Ki didn’t respond and seemed bored with the female elf.

    “What a shame. Even the greatest of my kind has fallen into despair. I had hoped that at least the One Elf was beyond the Elven Death.”

    Her words finally elicited a reaction from Solo Ki. And though he spoke, his face was as blank as ever.

    “I always told you my existence should be reviled. I’m glad you’re beginning to understand” Nathalia sneered at him.

    “All I know is that the elf I once loved and longed to follow, has become a coward.” She flipped back the opening of her jacket, placing her hands on her hips. The light of the sun glimmered off a pair of silver pummels and leaf shaped crossguards. “The Graelic belongs in the hands of a true elf, Shal’in Ome. One who would wield it for the benefit of all.”

    Brice immediately began glowing, while the pair of Death Guards let go of Alec and hurriedly reached for their swords. Alec stood on his own, shaking, stumbling about as though the earth was shifting below him, then he reached out to Nathalia and collapsed onto his face. Galimoto muttered a curse and hid behind Brice’s aura of blue.

    “I am not your enemy child. Do not change that,” Solo Ki said. He was watching Nathalia, his face white, devoid of emotion. Still, motionless except for the dull throbbing of blood inflating the veins on his hands; his thin skeletal fingers encased the blood red tip of his staff.

    “Enemy … you became my enemy the day you abandoned your sons and daughters to Shal’in Ome. If you will not fight

    the Plague then you will have to fight me instead.”

    With a sparkle of light, a pair of thin single edged blades were in her hands, mirroring the sunlight with the silver orchids inlaid on their sides. Before anyone could bat an eye she leapt toward Solo Ki, skipping past a stunned Tetloan who moved to avoid her, falling back as though he were in slow motion. Moving one step for every three she took, the Death Guards managed to cut her off, standing between her and Solo

    Ki, their long swords held before them.

    She bolted onward as though they did not exist.

    They swung at her, striking simultaneously high and low. The blue eyed Guard crouched down and slashed at Nathalia’s legs while the larger guard swung high with all his might — straight toward Nathalia’s chest.

    Her eyes of white never leaving those of Solo Ki, she hopped, leaving the blade of the female guard to slice the air below her feet, while she fended off the attack of the other with a series of lightning quick parries, both her blades flashing out to redirect the powerful blow of his long sword. She moved in tune with his momentum, hurling herself forward, planting her foot atop the blue eyed guard’s head and launching her body upwards. The man’s blade swung harmlessly behind her left shoulder as she somersaulted through the air landing firmly on the earth, directly in front of Solo Ki.

    Her every movement had been masterfully combined to form a single, fluid motion that — when taken together — had lasted no longer than the time it took for Emily to complete a breath. Stunned by her agility and speed, the Death Guards shifted behind her, reorganizing for a second strike. Meanwhile, a thin thread of blue wove through the crowd, crawling on the ground, rapidly advancing toward Nathalia’s feet.

    Solo Ki hadn’t even blinked while Nathalia came at him. If Emily would have missed the faint bulging of his lungs beneath the folds of his cape, she would have sworn he was already dead.

    “Stand down,” the One Elf finally said, his eyes shifting to the Death Guards. “I do not wish for anyone to get hurt.”

    “Except yourself, Solo Ki. It’s what you want isn’t it, Shal’in Ome? The death you’ve longed for,” Nathalia said, the tendrils of light receding from her feet.

    She attacked. A flurry of blades. A frenzy of dancing orchids and light flowing around Solo Ki. The One Elf towered over Nathalia, his head of white hair sitting high above the myriad of flashing blades. The strikes of Nathalia continued to rain down on Solo Ki, but they never found the One Elf’s flesh. His staff was a spinning barrier of black and red wood that was, for all of Nathalia’s best efforts, impenetrable. She fought with the skill of a true elven master — graceful, adaptable, deadly, blending ages of knowledge and technique into one harmonious form, her movements invisible except for a blinding flow of silver light.

    But Solo Ki fought with prescience as though blessed with a foresight of her actions, fighting without form, forsaking knowledge to move by instinct alone. Appearing oblivious to his opponent’s presence he intercepted her every strike, his staff always a step ahead of her blades.

    For a moment, his gaunt face and her golden curls were lost to Emily’s sight, covered by the swirling tattered cape of Solo Ki. Then suddenly, the dirty gray and brown garment drifted to the earth, resting in a heap of folds next to the sprawled out body of Nathalia. Her swords were still in her hands, though now they were useless for Solo Ki had her pinned to the ground, his staff digging into her chest. The One Elf was standing, his face impassive, safely distanced from the range of her weapons.

    Struggling against his staff, she spat at him, though even her mucus was out of range and fell harmlessly at his feet.

    “You disgust me,” Nathalia said, speaking in the elven tongue. “You are more powerful than an army of humans.” She no longer struggled, but looked up at the One Elf, pleading, “What must I do? You would fight your children but not the Plague?”

    “What choice have you left me? I cannot die willingly. To do so would make me this world’s greatest enemy. You may find

    me formidable now, but in the undeath I would be invincible.”

    “Will you kill me then? What does the life of your children mean to you, One Elf?”

    “Would you have killed me, Nathalia?”

    Solo Ki pulled his staff off of her chest and placed the tip on the ground.

    “Listen to me, all of you,” he said, turning to the Death Guards who were cautiously watching Nathalia rise to her feet. “You wish to possess my knowledge? Then have it. Know that the Plague feasts upon this world. The outland cities are falling, one after another. The pack of demon hunters is

    merely the beginning of what has become a legion of undead.”

    “With all respect, Solo Ki, how can this be?” the female Death Guard said. “We have heard nothing of any such force. Disappearances yes. But a full scale assault? Surely our order

    would have been alerted of such a widespread infection.”

    “How do you know this?” Brice asked, walking past Nathalia who was sheathing her blades.

    For a moment, Emily thought she saw sadness in the One

    Elf’s cold white eyes.

    “I traveled to the end of the outlands and beyond hoping to forsake this battle … only to find the dead had followed me

    there. Whoever orchestrates this war is no fool.” No, there’s anger in his white eyes as well.

    “In the initial attack on our world, they came at Lock Core head-on and because of it, suffered their first defeat. Though it’s doubtful we could repel them again, there’s no need for them to repeat such an attack. The Plague has leaked into the Seventh, and though too weak to feed directly from Lock Core it nourished itself on the Outlands. I followed it back east past the cities of Minotia, Leflan and Argor where their populations were wiped-out and their walls overrun. Though slowly, the Undeath is encompassing the land, advancing toward the great

    Red Wall itself.”

    “By the gods!” The female Guard exclaimed. “If what you say is true, we must tell our Lord, summon the entire Cure immediately.”

    “Dertois is well aware of the situation, and no doubt has been for some time. Though he believes the only way to stop this in-

    fection is to eliminate the source.”

    “And what do you believe?” Nathalia asked, retying her golden curls into an elven ponytail.

    “For every source, there is a source. Eternity would end before Dertois found a beginning. As for me, my weapon, my skill, they have all been tested to their utmost and mean nothing to the vastness of the Plague.”

    “So what then?” Nathalia continued “You’ll just wander this world, praying for death?”

    “Why should I do anything? What difference will it make? After battling the Undeath for an eternity, I have grown accustomed to the fact that it cannot be defeated. Weapons are the tools of fools. Walls … Fleeting. Their fall an inevitability. Nothingness is the only constant in this reality. All we can do is wait until it claims us once more. Why must there be more? Why must we cling to life as though it meant something? As though it were even real? I have lived to see the sun setting on the infinite days ahead and have attained the end of all knowledge. Spare yourselves the journey, and know that the quest

    to understand life ends in nothingness. ”

    Alec was engrossed in a deep sleep on the ground, mumbling incoherently to no one in particular. The others remained silent, their eyes vacant and empty as they stared at the ground.

    “Excuse me, Master Ki?” The brown, doe-like eyes of Emily gazed up at him, trembling. “Have you news from the village Havenwood? Was it attacked as well?” She nibbled her pouty lower lip, while her upper one quivered.

    “I am sorry, child,” he replied, his tone and features devoid of emotion. “Your Havenwood is within their path. No doubt it has already fallen.”

    “He lies,” Tetloan suddenly interjected as Emily’s eyes began filling with tears. “Lock Core would have been the first to fall. Everyone knows that. How in the dead would the army have gotten past the Red Wall without anyone knowing, even the Death Guard?”

    Emily remembered where Brice had found Tetloan, his family ruled in the mountain city of Argor where a barrier of white walls and cliffs kept invaders at bay. She too wanted to deny the elf’s tale, but saw only brutal honesty in the One Elf’s face. Despite all his misgivings, Emily felt sympathy for the freckled Tetloan.

    “You’re heartless, Shal’in Ome,” Nathalia said, approaching Emily and leaning into the girl, wrapping her arm around her.

    Emily wept into her feathered collar. “Atop the wall of Lock Core I would have followed you to my death.” She hugged Emily tighter, muffling her weeping within the thick roll of black and white feathers. “Go! Leave now before you take away all hope.”

    Solo Ki shrugged his bony shoulders then strode past Nathalia and Emily. His eyes of white and gray ignored everyone. He looked ahead, to the winding cobblestone path leading away from Shattered Rock, disappearing as it twisted through the forest. His long strides carried him over Alec — who was fast asleep — stepping over his body as he would a felled log.

    “No. No,” Alec muttered as the elf passed over him. “I will kill you all.”

    For a moment the One Elf paused to look at him, then briefly closing his eyelids over orbs of gray and white he renewed his descent down the pathway. The folds of his tattered cape billowed at his back.

    “Master Ki … Wait,” The male Guard called out to him, but the elf paid him no mind and soon after vanished altogether, swallowed by the forest.

    “Do not worry about Solo Ki,” Brice said, standing next to the Death Guard. “He will always fight, and live. Whether he chooses to or not.”

    “No. No more … ”

    Everyone turned toward the source of the words. Alec was flailing about, rambling while the little red imp hovered over him, an inquisitive look on its face. One of the imp’s hands was covering his miniature nose, while the other one was poking

    Alec’s rump with a stick.

    “Stop … I will kill you all … ”

    Chapter 9: A DARK SEED GROWS

    Drifting …

    “He’s your father?”

    “Yes. He loved my mother, Andril’lin who was once High Mage … back in the days when the Order had honor. Back in

    the days when the One Elf could still feel … ” … weaving, in and out of the darkness.

    “He is the father of us all. Of all the elves in the Seventh World, Solo Ki is perhaps the only true elf. The only pureblooded descendent of Adros left in existence. He is in many ways, the last of his race.”

    “He must be very lonely.”

    Bursting toward the light … “Yes Emily, I iMagine he is.” Alec opened his eyes.

    Fire!

    He was blind.

    Groaning, he tossed the blanket over his head. He then rolled over, covering his ears and eyes with the thick feathered comforter. Despite crumpling the blanket and stuffing it into his ears, a squeaky voice managed to pierce the fluffy layer and stab deep inside his brain.

    “Is that why he wants to die?” the voice continued.

    “I don’t know. Perhaps he’s seen too many others die and is tired of watching it continue.” The voice of Nathalia was somewhat softer on his ears, but the memories it stirred sent cracks running through his skull. “Who knows, perhaps he’s just tired of living.”

    “Then why did he fight back, when you tried to kill him?” All that Alec heard was; SQUEAK, SQUEAK, SQUEAK.

    “I didn’t try to kill him, just … revive him. Solo Ki has some honor left, even though he is a Shal’in Ome. If he murdered himself, or died willingly, his spirit would be doomed to haunt this world forever in the elven undeath, for suicide is the only way we can be turned. And once turned, elven spirits are invincible.”

    “Galimoto thinks the smelly one is awake, though he tries to hide himself beneath the covers.” The voice sounded like a thousand bells ringing in his eardrums.

    “For dead’s sake! Can’t you people see I’m trying to sleep,” Alec said, throwing back the covers and struggling to sit upright. “What the … ?” Alec rubbed a pair of bloodshot eyes then blinked several times at the tiny red creature hovering in front of him. “Oh yeah … ” He groaned, his memories return-

    ing. “So, the son-of-a-bitch is real. I’ll be dead.”

    He briefly surveyed the rest of his surroundings, quickly realizing that he had managed to safely return to his cramped quarters above the Wayward Inn.

    “What are you anyways?” He said to the imp who had landed at his side and was staring up at him with a pair of beady yellow eyes. A forked tongue flicked from the creature’s mouth, then vanished.

    “I am Galimoto,” the imp replied as though puzzled by Alec’s question.

    “Oh,” Alec said, rubbing his temples. “That explains everything.”

    “Nap time is over, Destroyer.”

    He turned. Sunlight streamed through the windows of his room illuminating the yellow locks of Nathalia as they tumbled down the smooth white flesh of her face. She glanced at him, the sunlight catching her cheek, shining through her flesh as though it were paper and exposing a network of pulsing veins.

    “Time to join the living.”

    She sat at a round oak table, her slim fingers rapidly twisting a mass of dark curls, entwining the hair of the young girl sitting beside her. Sadness filled the girl’s wide eyes, yet when she met the gaze of Alec her puffy lips arced into a smile. The girl wore a white dress speckled with sunflowers which Alec recognized as belonging to Nathalia, though on the girl it hung loosely around her hips and breasts.

    “Hello.”

    (SQUEAK)

    “Ehh,” Alec replied. “Who’s the kid?”

    “Her name, Alec, is Emily. She’s a pupil of Master Brice, as is the boy,” she flicked her eyes to the corner where a chair had been stowed away and in it sat a young red-haired boy, his arms crossed as he sat there snarling at the wall. “And when

    his punishment is over, you may refer to him as Tetloan.”

    “Great.”

    Galimoto darted past Alec’s head, and then settled on Nathalia’s shoulder. The imp leaned forward, licking his lips with his forked tongue while he took in Nathalia’s cleavage.

    “Where’s the leader of this three-ring-circus anyways? That mage … Smiley.”

    “You mean, Master Brice.”

    She spoke his name almost reverently and if his head wasn’t throbbing with every breath he took, he would have leapt at the chance to chastise her for her abrupt change of heart toward mages. Because of them, her mother had been murdered. Much like Alec, Andril’lin had been feared for her ability — which was the power to activate the Black Door — unfortunately for her, back in those days it was thought that the Rift was best left silent. Somehow the Red Mage had managed to charm Nathalia, not an easy task. Alec had to give the man credit for that.

    “Yeah him, Smiley. Where did he disappear to?”

    “He left with the Death Guards. They went to the inner city, to the Archenon to discuss matters with Rafe.”

    Alec, as well as the entire population of Shattered Rock, was perfectly aware of the name Rafe. The being was, more or less, the city’s ruler, and he was, most certainly, its most powerful crime lord. Few had ever actually seen him, and those that did said he was a being altogether different from the Triad. Even his existence and origin were both somewhat of a mystery. After the War of Lock Core he suddenly appeared in Shattered Rock, where he quickly began to dominate its underworld. Regardless of who he was, or where he came from, there wasn’t a prostitute, thief or chopa dealer in the entire city who didn’t hand him a cut of their earnings — including Alec and Nathalia. Whether directly or indirectly, everyone paid him off, for all the money in Shattered Rock eventually lead straight to the heart of the city. Straight to Rafe’s palace the Archenon.

    The mage was going to stroll into the home of the most dangerous living being in the Seventh World – next to Alec, of course. It was a conversation that Alec would have loved to be

    present for, but for the life of him, Alec couldn’t figure out …

    “Why in the dead did he go there?”

    “Do you remember this afternoon at all?”

    He tried to think …

    He shrugged his shoulders, blushing beneath his gray trimmed beard. Nathalia’s white orbs rolled into her head while she shook her golden curls.

    “Figures,” she said. “There. All done. Let me see how it looks.” Nathalia treated the girl like a little sister. Sitting there, smiling at one another, Nathalia may have looked like her older sibling, but in truth she was probably older than the child’s grandmother.

    Her long black lashes fluttering, Emily grinned up at

    Nathalia.

    “More beautiful than the fairest of elves.” Nathalia beamed down at the child with pride. “Wouldn’t you say so, Alec?” He saw her.

    “Yeah, looks good kid.”

    There was only two dark curls remaining, one hanging over each of her earlobes dangling there like jewelry. The rest of her hair had been masterfully sewn together forming a crown of coils that blossomed from the top of her head, spilling down her neck in a fountain of silken black hair. The girl retained a thin layer of baby fat that made her cheeks puffy, but not exactly plump.

    The sight of her made him suddenly uneasy.

    “Am I done yet?” Tetloan said, still staring at the corner.

    “No.”

    Alec breathed a sigh of relief at the boy’s intrusion.

    “It’s an honor to meet you, Master Alec,” Emily said in her squeaky voice. “My father says you’re a hero.” Alec groaned.

    Your father is an idiot, he thought, biting his tongue to keep from saying the words aloud.

    “He says that if it wasn’t for you, I may never have been born.”

    “Alec saved many lives that day, though you’ll never get him to admit it,” Nathalia said, smirking at him.

    “Like my father used to say; ‘the Destroyer saved both our lives’.”

    She cast her eyes to the ground and fidgeted with her dress.

    “I guess … I just want to say thank you,” she continued, looking up at him once more.

    Her wide eyes made Alec feel queasy.

    “Yeah, well my dad says he’s a murderer. And that he … ” Tetloan said, his neck swiveling so that he could face the others.

    The boy had crooked eyebrows colored orange like his short cropped hair. His face was as pale as an elf’s and splattered with brown freckles.

    “Did you hear me say that your time-out was over? As long

    as you keep acting like a child, I will treat you as such.”

    Alec had seen Nathalia disembowel scores of opponents, but never had he seen her as mad as she was at that moment.

    Luckily for Tetloan, her weapons weren’t at her sides.

    “Well, you’re both right,” Alec said, growing desperate to change the subject.

    “So? Are you going to tell me what’s going on or do I have to wait and hear it from the boy over there?” He threw his feet over the bed and began to stand. The sheet slid from his body as he stood up and suddenly Alec became aware that he was naked. Before he revealed his manhood to the others, he snatched the falling sheet, wrapping it around his waist.

    Nathalia looked at the wad of sheets covering his groin and grinned. Then, she turned to the girl, whispered into her ear, and together they shared a chuckle.

    “For dead’s sake. Can someone get me my clothes and tell me what in the rotting hell’s going on.” His cheeks burned red beneath his beard.

    “Yes, Master Alec,” Nathalia said between chuckles.

    “Galimoto, would you please see to the Master’s attire?”

    “For the mistress Nathalia, Galimoto would do anything,” the imp managed to pry his eyes from her breasts. “Except he will not touch the stinky man’s undergarments.”

    To the sound of the women’s increased laughter, the imp sped across the room, disappearing into Alec’s wardrobe.

    “All right.”

    Alec puffed out his chest, and attempted to speak in an authoritative voice.

    “What is going on? Who are these kids? Why are they here? Why is the mage visiting with Rafe? And most importantly,

    why in the name of the gods am I naked?” His head was spinning.

    “Slow down, Alec, you’ll make yourself ill.”

    He squeezed his forehead between his thumb and forefinger while he said, “I need a drink.”

    “You’re right,” Nathalia turned to the boy. “Tetloan, you may leave the corner if you bring Alec a glass of water.”

    “Fine.”

    Tetloan stood up then kicked the chair away from his backside. The chair skidded across the floor, crashing into Alec’s table.

    “I will let you rot in that corner, Tetloan.”

    With his shoulders slumped, Tetloan made his way to the counter and took hold of a brown glazed ceramic vase. Nathalia tracked him with her white pupils while he filled a cup of water, leaving him only after the cup was secure within Alec’s grip. Alec grunted his thanks and would have felt sorry for the boy if Tetloan hadn’t been sneering at him as he placed the cup into his hand.

    Though not exactly the type of drink he had in mind, Alec drank the liquid with greed while Nathalia began recounting the morning’s events.

    “And you believe this elf, Solo Ki?” Alec asked after emptying his cup.

    “Yes, more than anyone. The One Elf does not lie.”

    “Then why are we still here? Let’s ditch this place before it becomes a mausoleum. You can even take the kids along if you want.”

    Well, maybe not the boy.

    The next thing Alec knew, a pile of clothes were being dumped over his head.

    “We’re staying in Shattered Rock, Alec. We’re staying and we will await the Plague.”

    “Come on, Nat, that’s ridiculous, why in the dead would we do that? In a matter of days the Plague will turn this town into rubble. Even if Rafe decides to join forces with the mage, what good would it do? His men are cutthroats and thieves, not soldiers. We’d be fools to stay.”

    “Where will you go, Destroyer? The outlands are no more. Shattered Rock is the last great city in the Horde’s path. Lock Core? Would you go there and risk imprisonment once more?

    Live the rest of your days in a High Tower cell?”

    Alec draped the blanket over his waist as he squeezed into his pants.

    “Besides which, Lock Core was built to defend against an attack from the Rift, not one from the outlands. I’d rather make my stand here then do so sandwiched between two evils, fighting with my back to the Rift,” Nathalia continued.

    “Whatever.”

    Either way we’re dead, Alec thought. He knew Nathalia was right, she always was. Alec had no intention of returning to Lock Core, it held for him only memories of destruction and endless pain, while welcoming him back with nothing but the promise of death. The certainty of the future and the echoes of the past were more than he could face, more horrifying than a world of dead. But stay in Shattered Rock? What new horrors might he then live to face?

    Whether she was beneath the light of the sun or buried in the darkness of his covers, Nathalia always glowed, radiating a beauty that one needn’t have eyes to see, but could simply feel with one’s heart.

    She’ll die if I stay.

    “What?” Nathalia asked, both her and the girl were gazing at Alec with puzzled looks.

    He realized he had been staring at her for some time, and that he was trembling.

    “Nothing,” he replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “I think I just need something to eat. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

    “Fine, Alec. Just don’t get yourself drunk again.” The thought of ale made the bile rise in his throat.

    “Oh, and could you take Tetloan with you? Maybe he would

    be more pleasant if he was in the company of his own gender.”

    “Yeah, whatever,” Alec said, turning to the red-haired boy.

    “You coming, kid?”

    Tetloan replied by sticking out his tongue.

    The more she searched the land, the greater Alana’s despair grew. A dark seed had already sprouted from where it lay, deep within the Seventh World, and now it grew, spreading its roots throughout the land, enveloping entire cities beneath its limbs. An army of dead grew within the Seventh World and none saw them but her. While all of the world had their eyes focused on the Rift, they were blind to the blight growing in their own land, born from the very heart of their world. In

    Lock Core the evil heart continued to beat.

    She saw them as well. The children of the gods. Every last one surrounded in darkness, each in their own way inching closer to death. Some, had already fallen. Some, she could yet save.

    Then, there was the other. The one she could not see. A soul tainted beyond anything she had ever seen, its true identity hidden from her and from the rest of the world. The presence was a mystery to her. A renegade power whose purpose she could not fathom nor predict. A power that, whether good or evil, she knew it must be reckoned with.

    Chapter 10: THE ARCHENON

    The palace was named the Archenon, built in the age of Adros when the first of the settlers arrived in the Seventh World. Originally constructed and designed by dwarven craftsmen to house a human king who had fled from a broken world. It was, in itself, a city. A castle comprised of a circular curtain wall that was forty feet high and stretched out through ten city blocks. Several round towers strengthened the wall, giving the defending archers a panoramic view of the entire city. Silver spires rose from the central keep which was a single, thick walled tower that nearly touched the clouds.

    The ancient king for whom the castle had been constructed was a fearful and paranoid man. A man who had no faith in the power of Lock Core nor in its ability to contain the Plague. Thus, the king had created the Archenon as the last line of defense should the Plague break free of Lock Core. He believed that if all else failed, the human race would have a final chance at survival within his walls.

    But, the walls of the Archenon remained unmolested throughout his life, as well as the lives of his children, grandchildren and all his line until the present time. It wouldn’t be until hundreds of years after his death that the undead would come to touch his wall, and the strength of his castle would finally be put to the test.

    All roads led to Rafe’s palace. It was the original piece of the city, to which all other buildings of Shattered Rock had sprouted around. The city’s four main streets stemmed from the palace, and from those streets the rest of the city’s thoroughfares and avenues were born, forming a spider web of roadways with Rafe poised at their center.

    Through this web, the Red Mage Brice and the pair of masked Death Guards walked, their every step sending vibrations through the city, alerting Rafe to their presence.

    “I do believe we are being followed, Master Brice,” the male Death Guard said, shifting about nervously beneath his black hood.

    “I know,” Brice replied. “We have been for quite some time.”

    He had felt the man’s presence when entering the inner city and had even managed to catch a glimpse of his thin face with eyes of gray and white watching them from within the crowd.

    The trio continued on, traveling down Caleman road, one of the four main streets leading to the palace. The road was cramped, stuffed with traffic and closed in by rows of buildings, some well over four stories high. Laundry fluttered in the wind, draped over clothes lines that stretched from one building to the next. The road ahead was constantly flooded with traffic, mostly that of fellow pedestrians wandering through the early morning. Occasionally the trio would come upon a horde of sheep or carts laden with supplies jamming the roadway, at such times, they would be forced to wait anxiously in the tightly packed street, choking on the stench of sweat and manure until the flow of traffic crept forward once more. All the while the trio endured the eyes of the crowd, always on them, always wondering at their intentions. As the morning moved on and the sun inched higher in the sky, burning the streets below, the trio came ever closer to the palace, until finally they saw it rising above the crowd.

    The rest of the city’s buildings shrank as it appeared, its spiral towers reaching far beyond the grasp of any nearby structure, and much farther still than the many insects caught in the web below. Though ancient, the palace retained much of its former splendor, its white stones blinding to see as they were caught in the sun, glowing as though freshly plucked from the earth.

    Brice and the Death Guards followed a line of people heading for the palace. Up ahead, the pedestrian traffic clotted near the Archenon’s entrance, where over thirty guardsman stood watch over the incoming traffic. Most had halberds resting on their shoulders, long wooden poles with axe heads fixed at the ends. Several other guards held crossbows at the ready; pointing them at anyone they deemed suspicious looking. At the front of the line a pair of men in red-stained leather armor picked through the crowd at random, pulling travelers aside and questioning them at knife point. Walking closer to the gateway, the trio noted several slits in the stones above, behind which shadows could be seen shifting about.

    The presence of the thin-faced man suddenly grew stronger, his eyes of gray and white close enough now that Brice was certain the spy could count the many hairs rising on the back of his neck. Brice turned, though the spy was nowhere to be found, his pale flesh blending with the many ragged faces of the crowd.

    There was a moment of confusion at the entryway as one of the travelers decided to make a dash for the castle’s interior, prior to being authorized to do so. The matter was quickly settled, for no sooner had the man passed beneath the archway then a volley of arrows sunk into his flesh. Falling to his knees, gaping at the many colorful feathers protruding from his skin, a halberd fell on his head, splitting the man in two from his skull down to his chest. Unceremoniously, the body was dragged away and the crowd immediately fell in line once more.

    “The gods alone know why I let you talk me into coming here, Master Brice,” the brown eyed Death Guard said. “If it wasn’t for the Plague, the Death Guard would be hunting these people.”

    “We mean them no harm, remember that. We cannot succeed alone and are therefore at their mercy,” Brice said, though he seemed uncertain and had not smiled once the entire day. Whimly’s death weighed heavily on his shoulders, creating doubt within his mind, making him wonder that perhaps instead of saving lives he was putting them in harm’s way. Along with this newborn doubt came tremendous sympathy for the Destroyer and for a moment, Brice could almost feel the weight of the burden that man must bear. He felt it but briefly, but even so, he nearly crumbled beneath it. To him it was a miracle that Alec could even stand at all.

    “We are in this together. All races, all manner of people. If we must bow before cutthroats to eradicate the Plague, so be it.” Her face was hidden beneath a veil of death, but from within the mask her voice was sweet and soft, her blue eyes twinkling with the slightest touch of light.

    No sooner had they made it to the head of the line, then one of the interrogators in red-stained armor pulled them aside. The female Death Guard practically leapt after the man, while Brice and the male Death Guard grudgingly followed.

    “Well, what have we here?” the guard said, looking them over past a crooked nose. With every word the man uttered the air between them was filled with the stench of rotting onions. “Curious? A mage and two Death Guards.”

    He pulled out a piece of parchment from beneath his leather breastplate and began reading it over.

    “Nope.”

    He stuffed the paper beneath his armor.

    “Didn’t think you were on the list.”

    Guardsmen began making their way to the trio.

    “It’s just not proper manners to go where you ain’t been in-

    vited, no matter who, or what, you are.”

    “We are, obviously, unaware of this list of which you speak. Though we lack a proper invitation, rest assured that we must hold council with your lord,” the female Death Guard said, trying to smooth the man over with her honey-laced voice.

    “Oh. My lord,” the crooked nosed guardsman said, laughing.

    “If he had wanted to see you, then you’d be on the list.”

    The movements of the palace guards were so subtle that the trio almost failed to realize that they were being surrounded. With this realization, Brice was instantly covered in flames of blue. The Death Guards reached for their hilts.

    “There’s no need for this. The Master will see them.”

    The voice startled the trio as well as the guardsmen, who grew suddenly uneasy.

    The speaker’s presence erupted in Brice’s mind, and then he was before him and in the flesh.

    Though he was short for his race, at eye level with Brice, it was obvious the being was an elf, his eyes were the only indication Brice needed, even though unlike most elves, this one lacked the lush halo of gold hair and was completely bald. Yet, like most of the modern day elves his eyes were dull and lifeless, his features despondent. Clearly he was yet another victim of the elven death.

    “Forgive me, X’ander,” the guard said, his crooked nose

    pointing to the earth. “But they were not on the list.”

    “Then write them in if you must. The Red Mage, Brice

    Langlia. Renown in the Order as a dreamer and a fool … ”

    The guard hastily tore out the roll of parchment, his hands trembling.

    “… And Theodorous Ross, an Elder Hunter and historian. A man who can be found hiding behind dusty tomes when not hiding beneath a black hood. And of course his novice, Bri Lynn.” The elf turned to the shorter Death Guard, a smile creeping into his face. “The bright young teacher of children. A woman who manages to nurture life while perusing her crusade against death.”

    Theodorous, the brown-eyed Death Guard, recoiled in shock, his eyes nearly popping out of his black hood. His partner and apprentice, Bri Lynn, seemed unfazed at the elf’s knowledge, as though fully aware that their identities had been unmasked the moment they stepped foot into Shattered Rock. Meanwhile, Brice appeared worried and puzzled all at once, his eyebrows appearing unable to decide whether they should rise up in arcs, or scrunch together. The guard finished writing down their names then hastily retreated toward the head of the line where he resumed his interrogations with increased vigor.

    “How in the dead?” Theodorous’ hand lingered a moment longer on the hilt of his long sword before he let it go, placing his hands at his sides, no doubt remembering his last encounter with an elf. “This is an outrage. You have no right to publicly name us. By the laws of the Keeper, you have no right to name us at all. It is for the good of all that our identities remain hidden. What happens when we’re called on to cure their loved ones,” he said gesturing to the crowd gathered at the entryway. “Time and again I’ve seen those who are just and honorable, betray the living, unable to part with those they love no matter how vile they have become.”

    “I’ve made no attempt to hide my name in this town, but my companions … How is it you know?” Though he may have been slightly ill at ease in the company of the elf, Brice managed to speak calmly.

    “At this time it would not help you to know, but rest assured that your days of hiding are over,” the elf said, shifting his white gaze to the Death Guards. “It was not I who named you, but the very creature you seek. My Master Rafe has knowledge and experience beyond any other of this world. Know too that your deaths have become a treasure in this town, it is only by Rafe’s will that the blades remain sheathed. Yet, I strongly advise that you remove your masks if you do not wish to walk the city with a bulls-eye covering your face. You’ve only made it this long out of respect for your duty, but rest assured that greed always overcomes honor, especially in the hearts of humans.”

    “How can this be!” Theodorous fumed. “Our greatest strength was in our secrecy. If our identities are for sale, then we’ve been undone,” he said, peeling back his hood revealing a thick gray mustache covering his upper lip and a hairline in the advance stages of recession. Alongside his right eye, a long white scar marred a tan and slightly wrinkled face. “And what

    of you elf? Have you come to claim your reward?” The elf snickered.

    “Had that been his intention, Theodorous, I believe he would have done so long ago,” Bri Lynn said holding her hood at her side. Her hair was blond and short, hanging slightly past the tops of her ears and lying flat against the contours of her skull. Chubby and round, her cheeks were filled with a constant crimson hue and speckled with tiny black spots like a sprinkling of pepper. “What is it that you want from us,

    X’ander, if not the bounty on our heads?”

    “What I want is of little consequence my dear, Bri Lynn. I exist but to serve another, come with me and he will make his desires known.”

    ‘And you, Master Brice? What is it that you desire?’

    The elf was inside his mind. Brice struggled to shut the voice out of his head, sought to regain control of his thoughts as he

    had been taught at the Order …

    “I don’t understand,” Brice said through gritted teeth.

    Beads of sweat formed on Brice’s forehead. He leaned out, laying a trembling hand on the shoulder of Theodorous who shrugged at his touch, arching a gray eyebrow in his direction.

    ‘Would you give your life to save us all?’

    “Now then. Shall we head into the Archenon?”

    Brice looked to the others, to Theodorous who stared at him with a look of disgust, and to Bri Lynn who appeared worried at his sudden loss of composure.

    “Yes,” Brice mumbled.

    Is there another choice, he thought.

    “Very good.”

    The elf dipped his bald head.

    “My Master is dying to meet you. He has been since you arrived.”

    Chapter 11: THE DWARVES

    At a height of forty standard feet the winch began groaning under the pressure, the massive brentwood timbers that composed the frame bending as it inched its way upward. Even the thick rings of dwarven blue-steel seemed ready to snap as they kept the rigging air-bound. The pulleys squealed, and though drenched in grease, a wisp of smoke arose as the axle and bearings ground against one another. Far below a pack of slug-mules pulled the counterweight bucket, occasionally pausing so they could rest or to allow workers to refill the bucket with water in order to maintain its level; just enough so it was slightly under the weight of the giant red stone, but not too much, else it accelerate to the ground at an uncontrollable rate.

    “This is madness,” Drau’d boomed, watching the stone rise from the bottom of the Red Wall. “Our equipment can’t take much more of this. All we need is one failure then we’ll be facing months of repairs.”

    As if in response the pulley’s head beam suddenly lurched, causing the stone and the water bucket to wobble mid-air. After much muffled shouting from atop the parapet, the beam settled in a slightly bent position then the weights continued on once more.

    “That’s enough. Summon Harple. I need his mage-fire before someone dies today,” Drau’d said, ordering his boulder dwarf companion, Lobar, who was slightly smaller than himself but thicker in girth. His chest and arms bulged beneath a thick carpet of black fur. Though the winter sun was on its way, the dwarf required no clothing for warmth, sporting only a leather garment to hide his loins and a strap around his back which held a massive, double-edged battle axe, its edges protected with padded leather. This close to the Rift no one worked unarmed, especially since the Keeper no longer guarded the Rift but sent his soldiers inside it instead.

    “Yes, Stone Master,” the exceptionally hairy dwarf replied, turning to the still gaping fissure in the Red Wall and ambling away.

    Layer upon layer of wooden scaffolding covered the hole, the figures of men, dwarves, and occasionally elves could be seen hard at work at that section as well. Until the Destroyer came, there had been no entrance through the Red Wall. The Ancients never meant to go back into the Rift, just defend against it. Now, Drau’d took advantage of the open section to transport supplies and men between sides. Though risky — should the Plague decide to reenter their world — it greatly facilitated his task, allowing him to work both sides of the wall simultaneously. Very soon, the gap would be closed at last, making his current task high priority. Though completing the barrier between the city and the Rift was of the utmost importance, Drau’d had chosen to take command of the northern tower’s construction instead. He had but one section of wall left to bulkhead, then secure to the Gorian before the actual framework of the tower could begin. Much of this phase of the tower’s formation was only possible from this side, and if he didn’t complete it by the time the wall was up, most of the workers would be hard pressed, perhaps unable, to make it to the city side should a problem arise.

    His project was almost on schedule with the wall closure, the slightest problem could ruin all that. That’s why he decided the apprentice should be pulled from his duties at the wall and relocated to the tower.

    As the giant rectangle of red stone reached the apex of the pulley, a team of workers roped it in, guided it to its destination, then signaled to the ground below where the counterweight bucket was uncorked and the slug mules untethered, allowing the stone to settle into its final resting place.

    Drau’d’s thick shoulders seemed to settle with the stone, and for the moment he could relax.

    “Only fifty-four to go,” Drau’d said, turning to regard the other project underway at the base of the Rift.

    LeCynic too used the hole through Lock Core, sending a near steady stream of unfortunate soldiers on their way to the Dead Worlds. Drau’d hadd seen many go in over the last couple of days, though none had yet to come out. Where LeCynic found so many victims was anyone’s guess. There couldn’t be that many criminals in all of the Seventh, let alone just Lock Core. The man had to be stopped, but what could Drau’d do when the entire Council had failed to stop him?

    Saddened, he turned his wide brow to the Black Door. A new procession of roughly a hundred soldiers had begun. These new recruits seemed different somehow, maybe smaller than regular humans, less armored than the last ones too. Regardless, they were definitely unwilling, eyeing LeCynic’s black mailed guards with as much fear as they did the Rift, which hovered before them waiting to swallow them within its pulsing, black maw.

    “It’s the Cipher Squadron,” a small voice said from down low.

    “What in the dead?” Drau’d rumbled back, looking down at the speaker who was no taller than his hip. He wasn’t shocked that his mind had been read, but baffled by what the mindreader had said.

    No older than fourteen suns, Harple had smooth pinkish flesh that was rather plump, especially at his cheeks, even though much of his excess fat had actually dissipated with his recent work load. He looked every bit the innocent child in his brown apprentice robe, but Drau’d new better, had seen him emotionally and mentally mature as his power grew. If one looked in his blue eyes closely, the man in him was plain to see. As long as the Keeper and his cronies kept their distance, Drau’d was content to let them believe he was just another newbie mage.

    Harple had been the High Mage’s gift. A boy of vast potential and power who could masquerade as an apprentice. Nicola kept him in brown robes when he could be wearing red — maybe even white. The charade served dual purposes. For one, the boy was a powerful builder, using the Oneness to help their efforts in ways undreamed of by even the Ancients. Meanwhile the only apprentices the Keeper authorized were all but useless. Secondly, he could hide out in the work pits where the Keeper rarely tread, for according to Nicola, LeCynic had lately been taking any child with potential from the High Tower, keeping them for his own.

    “Cipher Squadron! What’s next, the Death Guard?” Drua’d boomed, his thunderous voice causing several nearby workers to pause their tasks.

    True enough, as Drau’d looked closer many of the new soldiers were indeed small. Children. These weren’t criminals but mere orphans, innocent beings. Even if LeCynic’s so-called war through the Black Door somehow had merit, this couldn’t be allowed. Drau’d’s blood boiled as it had only once before, and at that time many fell before him, crushed by his ancient war hammer — the unbreakable Hell’s Bane.

    Boasting a column of steel as tall as a human, the handle was fixed to a giant, transparent stone, rumored to have fallen from the heavens. Hell’s Bane took two hands to wield, even for Drau’d, and therefore he only carried it when in battle. But this close to the Rift, Hell’s Bane was never far from his reach.

    The wolf helmed soldiers began corralling the children toward the door, marching them up the stairway of stacked circular stones. Drua’d wrapped his meaty hands on Hell’s Bane’s handle and went to halt their march.

    Rollinthor and twenty of his finest guards returned to the mines to find empty carts lining the pathway to the tunnel’s main entry. There was no sound. No clanging of steel against rock, or grunting of miners hard at task. Even the birds in the trees refused to sing. Alongside the carts, the carcasses of slug-mules sat and festered. Their flesh too foul for even maggots to eat.

    Simultaneously twenty-one axes were slung from twenty-one backs, and together the dwarves crept toward the gaping mouth of their caverns. They walked in stealth, masking the sound of every footfall their forty-two feet made. As they walked within the entry they halted, waiting for their eyes to blacken, allowing them to see through the darkness. Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, was the first who could see …

    “The Plague!” he cried, digging his heels into the dirt as a wall of undead began falling on their twenty-one heads.

    “Raaaaaaaa!” Rollinthor bellowed while swinging his axe in an arc from his shoulder down to his feet, cleaving through the dead flesh of all those who stumbled into his reach.

    Silver and fire. His dismembered attackers fell to the ground, their hewn body parts bursting into flames from where Rollinthor’s axe once passed. Their hunger for flesh fed with silver and quenched for all eternity by fire. But as far into the depths of the mines as his eyes could see there was nothing but shadows of half-eaten kin, an endless line of faces that were but vaguely recognizable. With his axe in hand,

    Rollinthor began to deliver his people from hunger.

    Mountains, solid stone. Rollinthor and his companions were born, carving their way through mountains and solid stone. What they did now was no different. They saw the obstacle before them and they struck it. Again and again and again. Their arms immune to fatigue, their minds focused on one purpose … tearing apart that which was in their way.

    With blades empowered by silver and the strength of their rage, they did what came naturally, and together, their twentyone axes reduced hundreds to ash.

    They uttered no words, all the while they merely gritted their teeth at the obstacle before them and struck, one after the other. And for a time it seemed their line of axes could not falter, and that they would stay in the mouth of the cavern, forever swinging until the pile of ash before them became a mountain.

    But then it happened … A moment of hesitation.

    A remembrance.

    The sight of a familiar face.

    An axe held for but a moment too long.

    Midlan, nephew of Rollinthor, had longed to return home, to once more cast his eyes upon his bride-to-be. Her plump cheeks speckled with tiny drops of orange. Her hair … the color of the sun just moments before it is swallowed by the night. Midlan, nephew of Rollinthor, had returned home. And at the mouth of the dwarven tunnels he had at last found his love.

    One …

    Two …

    His axe lingered on his shoulder.

    Three .

    By the time he realized his error the dead hands were on him, dragging him into the depths of the horde where the name of his bride-to-be sprayed from his lips in a gout of blood.

    He was consumed.

    Midlan’s death was all it took and the line of dwarves was broken, divided in two. And through the gap in their ranks the army of undead surged, surrounding the twenty remaining dwarves. One by one they were plucked by the undead, their axes useless as the undead continued to close in on them, making it impossible to strike in close quarters.

    Rollinthor, and the last of the dwarven line fought the undead to the end. Fought them, not with axe, sword or dagger, but with their bare hands. Snapping the necks of their undead kin until the time came when all twenty-one of them had rejoined their ranks.

    Buried to his shoulders in the broken bodies of his people, Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, was the last to be consumed. The last to be reunited with the dwarven race.

    He drifted through an eternity of nothingness … Floating disembodied through the Void … Then.

    ‘Welcome home, Whimly.’

    He felt the hunger and craved to devour …

    ‘Life!’

    He could smell it, feel it seeping into his rotting pores, an aroma beyond lust and a sensation more powerful than any known to mere flesh. It called to him from an infinite distance, pulling him forth from an eternity of darkness, all the while begging to be consumed.

    It was near him, taunting him to arise beneath its shadow.

    Surrounded by rubble, he stood and watched — without eyes — as the emptiness before him splintered from the force of a billion points of light. With their touch he iMagined his flesh ached. IMagined that he could feel. IMagined what it was like to be alive. The life-force was all around him, but within him there was nothing. Nothing but a need to remember and a hunger he knew not how to quench.

    ‘The secret’s in giving up. It’s knowing that this is life, and that what went before is the true nothingness.’ The speaker was near. He could see him now, another shadow in the dark. And beyond him there were others, others like him. An army of them. Nearly filling the emptiness of his environment.

    ‘Nothing?’ he replied, using the voice within his mind. ‘Then why does it feel so … Fulfilling.’

    The shadow’s laughter filled his ears.

    ‘It’s a feast, waiting to stuff our empty stomachs. But it never fulfills child. Eventually, we always want more.’

    Yes. A feast! He had to have it. To not only fill his insides with it, but to bathe beneath it. To cover himself, inside and out.

    To be whole once more, Whimly had to feast.

    Alec descended the stairway with Tetloan in tow. His stomach rumbled as he breathed in the smell of spices, honey and freshly cooked meat. Instantly his mouth watered. The scent of honey in particular caught his attention, sparking to life memories of gorging on Grimgy’s specialty, duck saturated in a sweet honey glaze. It was a recipe that the innkeeper only served on special occasions, though Alec couldn’t see what was special about today.

    Someone’s birthday? he thought.

    Whatever the occasion, he was willing to celebrate, just as long as he was able to stuff his face full of duck. His stomach muttered in agreement. With saliva filling his mouth, he scanned the room seeking the first empty table he could find. To his dismay, every table was taken. In fact, every inch of the room seemed occupied. He saw one of the Wayward Inn’s serving girls, a plump young woman by the name of Elana, struggling to stuff her frame through the crowded room while balancing a tray of mugs high above her head. Alec called out her name, gesturing around the room.

    “Sorry, Alec. We’re full up,” the waitress shouted in reply, nearly tripping over a patron’s boots as she glanced at him.

    “For dead’s sake,” he said, exasperated. “I can’t even find a place to sit and eat in my own home.” One of the reasons why he’d chosen to make a home of the inn was that — beyond a handful of regulars, of which he was one — very few customers frequented its walls. But, with the celebration of the Midnight Sun the night before and this afternoon’s unexpected activity Alec wanted nothing more than to crawl into the corner of an unknown dive, eat his meal in peace and be confident that no one would dare burst in to disturb him. He remembered that not too long ago, the Wayward Inn used to be such a place.

    But now…

    “Well, kid?”

    Tetloan had stopped beside him.

    “I for one don’t want to take my meal upstairs. I’d rather

    stand and eat than sit and listen to Nathalia’s nagging.” Alec thought he saw the boy smile.

    Nope, not quite.

    “Okay kid, what do you want to eat.”

    Alec was contemplating the number of servings it would take to fill his stomach when a gap toothed old woman jumped in his face.

    “It’s you! The Destroyer,” she said, her white hair flailing about. At her words, a great murmur arose through the room and all eyes seemed to fall on him.

    Maybe eating upstairs isn’t such a bad idea, he thought.

    Alec tried to turn away from the woman, but before he could, she had him by the arm. Her fingers, clammy and cold, wrapped around his wrist.

    “What do you want from me, woman?”

    He couldn’t shake free from her grip, her strength being fueled by the desperation in her eyes. Beside him, Tetloan was chuckling at his predicament.

    At least I managed to get the kid laughing.

    “Is it true? Have the undead come to claim the world?”

    “Dear gods, lady … how in the dead would I know?” he replied, finally breaking free of the woman. “I just want something to eat.”

    Her jaw quivered.

    “But … won’t you save us?”

    She tried once more to lay her hand on Alec’s arm, but this time he was ready and quickly dodged to the side.

    “Like you did at Lock Core?” she continued, reaching out with an empty hand.

    “No offense, but what do you care?” Alec replied, tired of being reminded of Lock Core. He took a quick measure of the woman’s health. “At your age, a chill breeze could kill you just as easy.”

    You’re gonna be dead soon anyway old woman, you should wish for infection.

    He realized he was misdirecting his anger toward the old woman, still, it felt good to vent it nonetheless.

    Tears began forming in her eyes. Her hand continued reaching out to him, pleading, empty.

    “Now, now, good lady. The Destroyer does not wish to be disturbed at this time.” The voice was gruff but pretended to be soft for the elderly woman’s sake. Soon after he spoke the words, the Inn’s owner Grimgy burst through the crowd and was escorting the weeping woman away, his meaty hand nudging her waist. Next to Grimgy’s stocky frame, the woman appeared even frailer than before. “Here, take her. Fix her something to eat,” Grimgy said, passing the woman off to one of his staff before walking back to Alec and Tetloan. “Sorry about that, Master Alec.”

    Grimgy had always been respectful and pleasant to Alec, but never before had he referred to him as Master.

    “What in the name of the Gods is going on here, Grimgy? I could’ve sworn that things would’ve quieted down after last night.”

    “Aye. Remarkable isn’t it? Apparently gossip is popping up in the city like pimples on an unwashed back. Believe it or not, most of these people are here to see you.”

    Draped over his shoulder was a rag, dripping with grease.

    “Great … just why in the dead would they want to do that?”

    “As I said, rumors. Gossip. Wild tales of an undead horde advancing on the city, plus eyewitness accounts of mages and Death Guards wandering the streets. For some reason, every-

    one believes that you’re at the center of it.”

    “Perfect,” Alec said, a fake smile cutting through his bearded face. “Anything else I should know.”

    “Aye, there is. Among your many visitors there’s one whom I think you should meet. Judging by his height and eyes I’d say

    this ones an elf … and an old one at that.” “Where?”

    With a look of dread, Alec turned.

    “There, to your left.”

    He was definitely tall, for even seated he was at eye-level with Alec. But beyond that, the elf was completely hidden beneath a cape that was, at different locations, either gray or brown.

    Or maybe … , Alec thought, noticing the many frayed edges and holes in the garment. Maybe it’s just a really dirty white cape.

    Regardless, something about the elf seemed vaguely familiar.

    “It’s Solo Ki,” Tetloan said, his voice surprisingly absent of malice or sarcasm.

    “Really, lad? Solo Ki is here? In my Inn?” Grimgy said, his gruff voice filled with excitement. “We’ll I’ll be dead. What sort of business have you gotten yourself into, Alec? Mages one day, elven kings the next. You’d tell me if there was any truth to what they say? Right, Alec?” “Yeah, you bet, Grim.” So that’s Solo Ki?

    “I wonder what he wants with me?” Alec asked of no one in particular.

    “Maybe he’s come to finish off Nathalia,” Tetloan said, looking at the elf with admiration.

    “What are you talking about, kid?”

    Tetloan turned to Alec and sneering at him said, “You were probably too drunk to remember when he beat the snot out of your girlfriend.”

    He did remember some sort of struggle — blonde hair, spinning blades and wood — but had thought it a creation of his inebriated mind.

    Nobody beats the snot out of Nathalia.

    Once, back at the Warphanage, an elven master had come to train the orphans. After a week of fumbling at his lessons, Alec had learned little. He lacked the agility and speed to replicate any of the elf’s moves. Even if he didn’t, no human could stand alone against an elf, for they bring to every duel eons of experience that simply could not be attained in a human lifetime. As good as that master had been, he wouldn’t have lasted a minute against Nathalia. Even among the elves, Nathalia’s skill was both highly regarded and rarely tested. Those who did seek to find her limits always died before reaching them.

    As far as Alec knew, she had no equal, nor limit to her skill.

    By dead he must be good!

    “Oh, that reminds me … how is the lovely Nathalia?” Grimgy asked.

    “Fine. Good,” Alec stammered. “She’s not here if that’s what you mean.”

    “No, no Master Alec. Her debts have been settled, the young

    Master Brice has seen to that.”

    “Has he?”

    I try to take care of her and I’m a pimp? But the mage does so and suddenly she speaks his name as though he were a god?

    “In fact, the mage has agreed to take care of all your ex-

    penses for the duration of your stay.”

    “Great,” Alec said, more annoyed than ever. “Since that’s the case, why don’t you cook us up a couple of ducks and have them sent to the elf’s table.”

    “I’ll have Elana send em over as soon as they’re done.

    Anything else I can get for you Master Alec?”

    “Yeah, since you’re asking. You might as well chill a couple bottles of wine, just in case I get thirsty. And not that piss you usually serve. The good stuff. The ones you keep hidden away in that cellar.”

    Grimgy was about to issue a protest, then he glanced at Solo Ki and made a quick half bow before heading to the kitchen.

    “Okay, kid, I think it’s time I was formally introduced to your elf friend.”

    They walked through the crowded room while every patron they passed shot Alec a look accompanied with a smile, a nod, and in some instances, a wink. Only the winks caught his attention, and he replied with a sly smile.

    “I hear you wanted to see me,” Alec said as he stood before

    Solo Ki.

    Tetloan didn’t hesitate to join the elf, plopping into an empty seat. Meanwhile, Alec scratched his beard and waited for some sort of response from the elf. There was an awkward period of silence in which the elf remained motionless. Alec passed the time by inspecting the elf’s body for signs of life. He found none. For all he knew, the skeletal frame beneath the cloak was a corpse. He was on the verge of peeling back the elf’s hood when Solo Ki’s frail fingers stirred and clutched the cup of tea steeping before him.

    “Nathalia’s told me a lot about you,” was all Alec could think of saying.

    Resting against his chair was a strange wooden staff that was dark at the center, but otherwise crimson in hue.

    “I know a lot about you too, Destroyer,” the elf replied, his voice the sound of grinding bones.

    He brought the tea up to his lips.

    “You may sit, if you wish.”

    “Thanks,” Alec said, not entirely certain that he did. Nevertheless, he took a seat opposite the elf.

    “I thought you left?” Tetloan said, slouching in his chair. “So you’ve come to fight for this city after all?”

    “Not exactly.”

    “What do you want, Solo Ki?” Alec asked. “If it’s about Nathalia then forget it. You two can work out your own problems, leave me out of it.”

    “I’m not here for Nathalia. I’ve come for you, Destroyer.”

    “I don’t get you people. Shouldn’t you all be running from me in terror? What is it you could possibly want from me, elf?”

    “I merely wish to stand by your side when the battle begins.”

    Alec issued a dry chuckle before saying, “You’re either a poor student of history or suicidal.”

    “History … I know more of the past than you could iMagine.” Alec didn’t doubt it for an instant.

    “Besides, it’s not suicide as long as I strive for life.”

    “Whatever that means,” Alec said continuing to tug on his beard. “Regardless, I’m sitting this battle out. If you want to ‘strive for life’ with me at the sidelines, then that’s your business.”

    ‘Somehow I doubt that will be the case.’ The elf was in his head!

    He’s in my head!

    While at the High Tower LeCynic had done the same, though he had been more interested in tearing it apart, filling his mind with pain. In comparison, the voice of the elf was soft, tranquil, almost lulling him to sleep.

    Alec stared hard at the elf, struggling to see his eyes of white and gray from within his hood, hoping to find in them a hint at the elf’s true purpose. He didn’t have to search long, for the elf took it upon himself to reveal all.

    ‘I want what you have given so many others.’

    While he spoke, a pile of steaming meat surrounded in vegetables was deposited on their table.

    ‘I want to be destroyed.’

    The skin of the duck glistened beneath the honey glaze. But now, looking at the meat, all Alec saw was a corpse.

    There had been fifty of LeCynic’s personal guards, plus three hundred garrisoned soldiers when Drau’d had initially thundered toward them. He never asked for any of the others to follow, but behind him he heard the battle cry resounding throughout the work pits. Black mail erupted in fleshy pieces before he even reached the Cipher Squad, the young mage

    Harple obviously hard at work clearing him a path.

    Still, with over a thousand hardened laborers screaming at his back, Drau’d knew he was in for a grizzly fight the instant he lifted Hell’s Bane off of a crushed, wolf helm and saw the creature’s flesh regenerate almost instantaneously. A couple more swings finished the task, but it had become an entirely different sort of battle than he had iMagined.

    Thankfully the soldiers of Lock Core were mere humans and remained dead when killed. Many even switched sides once they realized the true nature of their allies. But LeCynic’s guards were another matter. Those jagged blades took a heavy toll. Every guard they killed took a dozen good fighters down with it, and more often than not, the fallen living rejoined the fight on the undead side. At the War of Lock Core, Drau’d had faced similar beings, and with the power of Hell’s Bane he was able to defeat them, though only by reducing their bodies to mush. More powerful than the Living Dead, these creatures regenerated at a dreadful rate, even wounds of silver closed almost instantly. If it wasn’t for the help of the Cipher Squadron his forces very well could’ve lost.

    “You and yours fought well today, Rian,” Drau’d said, looking down at the gore covered youth of sixteen suns and current commander of the Cipher Squadron.

    Drau’d had learned the boy’s elder brethren had long since marched to their deaths within the Black Door, being the fiercest and bravest of their lot left, Rian had fallen into the role of their leader.

    “We’d be dead if it wasn’t for you, my lord,” the boy replied, his features hidden beneath the blood of the living and the undead. “You gave us a fighting chance. Somehow I doubt we

    would have found the same beyond the Black Door.”

    The young warriors had more than upheld the honor of their kind. Needless to say, Drau’d had been highly impressed. Immediately they had adapted to their enemy, working in efficient teams to dismember and disable the Keeper’s Guards, allowing Drau’d and his giant ilk to grind them into the dirt.

    Drau’d still wasn’t sure what he had been thinking or expecting when he attacked the Keeper’s Guard. Acting out of sheer rage he mostly just wanted to see them dead, which he accomplished, though at far greater losses than he could have iMagined. Most of his workers had made their way to the battle, and afterwards he found most of them dead and scattered around the Black Door. His work force was meager enough to begin with, but now it was almost nonexistent.

    What now? he wondered, no longer certain reconstructing Lock Core was his greatest concern. Soon the truth of LeCynic would spread through the city and with it revolution. He only hoped it wasn’t too late to undo all of the man’s evil.

    Chapter 12: THE HALFLING

    The Archenon. It was truly a palace. Its splendor and beauty unsurpassed by any structure Brice had ever set foot in — and he had been within Lock Core’s best. Born to a long line of wealthy merchants, a family tree steeped with riches, Brice had spent his childhood surrounded in luxury. But, the Archenon was, even to him, extravagant.

    Brice suspected their guide, the bald-headed elf, X’ander had chosen to take them through the palace’s scenic route, ensuring that the trio witnessed the full grandeur of all the Archenon had to offer. Needless to say, the elf succeeded in his goal, inspiring awe in both Brice and the pair of Death Guards.

    Their tour began by passing beneath the ten foot thick wall that was, in X’ander’s words, the Archenon’s ‘outer shell’. Its first line of defense. As he had expected, once within, Brice saw that the interior of the curtain wall not only had a walkway lining its top, but a stone stairway leading to a midlevel causeway which was likewise lined with crossbowmen and arrow slits. As far as Brice could tell, there was just the one portal through the Outer Shell, and while walking through it, he could see that, if need be, it could be quickly sealed. For poised above the entry were five iron gates ready to descend at the slightest sign of trouble. And should they fail, beyond them was a pair of massive wooden doors that, when shut, could be easily reinforced and buttressed against any outward aggression. By all appearances, the Outer Shell was heavily fortified. After seeing what lay within, it was obvious to Brice why Rafe kept it so.

    They entered the courtyard, or as their guide called it, ‘the garden’, and immediately their senses were assaulted. The courtyard was filled with vibrant colors, a rainbow of foliage spreading out before them. Considering the numerous plants, the color green was, surprisingly, one of the least visible colors. Its presence diminished by the plethora of red, orange and yellow hues. Also, Brice was overwhelmed with the various scents wafting through the garden. The bouquet of aroma filled the air like a cloud of incense, making his nose run and his eyes tear up as though he was, indeed, surrounded in smoke.

    But, perhaps most assaulting, or insulting, was the sight of the fountain which greeted their entry. It was a statue gilded with silver, shaped into the form of a man. With his right hand glowing in the sun, he proudly thrust a sword toward the heavens, defying the very gods to face him. However, with his left hand, he grabbed the glimmering figure between his legs, aimed at the pool below and urinated.

    “What a ridiculous waste of ore.” Theodorous scoffed, looking at the figure.

    “I think the piece makes a fine statement,” Bri Lynn replied.

    “And what might that be, Apprentice?”

    “He seems to be raising a challenge to the gods, adding fur-

    ther insult by urinating upon the world they provide.”

    “I still think the silver would be better served on blades. Why anger the gods anyway? Isn’t the Plague enough to deal with, why incur their wrath?”

    “But that’s the artist’s point. Silver alone won’t save us, we could cover ourselves in it, but without the gods we’re still standing in our own piss.”

    The pair continued to argue the statue’s merit, while Brice used the momentary lull to further study their surroundings.

    He marveled at the wide variety of creatures roaming about the garden. Strange and exotic birds strutted down the pathways or perched within the branches, filling the trio’s ears with a clamor of melodies. His mouth dropped in awe as one of the larger species of birds spread its feathers, displaying a vast rainbow of colors that had previously been concealed beneath a pair of black wings. A smile almost crept onto his face at the sheer beauty of it all, but then he remembered Whimly and grew somber once more.

    “That’s an odd sort of creature?” Theodorous said, having finally concluded his debate. He was pointing to a small furry beast hanging from a tree limb by its tail.

    The creature swayed back and forth for a while then grabbed hold of the tree and slowly crawled away along the branch’s underbelly.

    “I believe it’s called a Timber Monkey, and can be found far to the south, in the jungle forests where the Gorian range can only be seen in memory,” their guide explained.

    “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Despite the obvious differences, it appears almost … humanoid.”

    “There does exist a vast world beyond the outlands, Master Ross. One that cannot be found in the Ancients’ texts. Though

    it is, for the most part wild and uncharted.”

    The elven eyes focused on Brice. He felt X’ander probing at the outskirts of his mind.

    “The good Master Brice would certainly be able to tell you of such things. His mind is full of tales. After all, his father made a career out of exploring our world. Isn’t that right, Master

    Brice?”

    “You knew my father?”

    “We met on occasion.”

    ‘Perhaps even aided in some of his explorations.’

    “I heard he was a skilled merchant and a brave warrior. It was said he had died well at Lock Core. There are many who have achieved far less.”

    Brice would have liked to probe him further, but his bald head turned, and the elf changed the subject, relating the history of several oblong, spike covered plants. X’ander spent some time briefing them on dozens of other flora and fauna, each more colorful and exotic than the next. After a brief stay in the aviary of predatory birds, the elf guided them to the forty foot wide moat which encircled the central tower.

    They crossed it by way of a small ferry. A pair of heavily armed soldiers guided them over the black water with incredibly long wooden poles. At the other side of the moat, a sentry post full of archers was raised high above the ground and below it was the enormous arched entrance into the palace.

    Brice craned his neck upwards as their raft drifted closer, noting how the spire high atop the keep sparkled in the presence of the sun.

    Silver? He wondered, astounded by what it would cost to build such a structure.

    Nearing the entry, the trio saw a series of huge iron gears partially hidden within the building’s interior. The gears, they soon learned, were used to raise and lower a bridge resting at the bottom of the brackish water. The elf said, that if needed, they could quickly adapt the bridge to accommodate a sudden influx of heavy traffic or loads of supplies. Otherwise, the only ways into the keep were to float or swim. Brice was amazed to see that operating the hoist was a gray bearded Boulder Dwarf — whom he quickly recognized as the very same being who had nearly plowed him over when he had first come upon the Wayward Inn.

    In the dwarf’s giant hand was a hammer, which was, in human terms, a maul. There was no doubt in Brice’s mind that the object could be used with tremendous effectiveness as either a tool or a weapon. With a simple tap, the dwarf could crush a human’s skull.

    “I see you’ve noticed our gatekeeper, Master Brice. Gunt’s our last line of defense. Anything that makes it past the moat must deal with him.”

    They secured the raft along the shore and were greeted by more guards, and after a brief explanation by the elf they were once more on their way through the Archenon. A red carpet led them into the palace itself and into, what X’ander proudly referred to as, ‘the Great Hall’. As soon as they entered the tower all three of them looked upwards in awe.

    Sprouting through the center of the chamber was a spiral staircase of iron wrapping around what must have, at one point, been an enormous tree, but now served as the centerpiece of the entire palace. The bark ridges running up the trunk were as thick as Brice, and though leafless and rotting, the tree reached the apex of the tower’s interior, nearly bursting through the arched rib shaped trusses well over twenty stories up. The majority of its limbs ended in splinters, but even these fractured branches were thicker than the largest trees Brice had ever seen — even those of the Brentwood, where the elves lived among the branches.

    In order to see the top of the trunk, Brice had to squint.

    A stone stairway followed the wall, gradually meandering upwards through the tower’s many levels. Lavish tapestries covered the walls of each floor, while displayed along the wall of the main level, the intimate moments of lovers were frozen for all time to see in granite friezes, most of which depicted images more erotic than artistic and at the sight of them, Bri Lynn’s speckled cheeks reddened.

    The elf led them straight toward the gigantic tree where, hidden in the weave and shadows of its many exposed roots, they saw a cleft in its base, a split in the trunk large enough for even a Boulder Dwarf to squeeze through. For the trio of humans, the hole was cavernous, allowing them to walk side by side with the elf. A pathway of sconces holding amber light guided their way through a twisting maze of roots. The air was damp. Moldy. Suffocating to breathe. Brice stifled a cough within his golden lace.

    Other than the occasional soldier, they passed very few people, though Brice could sense that many others were present, wandering through the roots toward their own destinations.

    At last the path ended at a wooden stairway carved from the tree itself. Looking upward, Brice saw a distant circle of light, as bright as a brother moon, shinning down upon them. As the light trickled down, Brice felt as though he was standing at the bottom of some deep pit hundreds of feet within the earth. Except for the light above, everything was dead and black, nothing but shadows and a cylindrical trunk forever rising toward the light. The wall was alive with motion, hundreds of shadows scurrying up and down its dark tube shaped interior. They joined the shadows, climbing up its hollow trunk.

    “The Great Tree houses those loyal to the Lord Rafe,” X’ander briefly explained. “It was my Lord Adros’ gift to your human king, for it is said that after the human world fell to the Plague, Adros felt responsible for its death. Thus, saddened by his failure, he gave Lord Archenon a piece of his own world. At that day the Great Tree was planted and has, as we elves say,

    ‘been growing, or dying’, ever since.”

    X’ander quickened his pace, taking them up the stairs two per step. By the time they had reached their destination the humans were breathless and exhausted, but at long last they had found Rafe.

    The elf ended their journey at a pair of heavy wooden doors, hand carved with an emblem of a fanged and scale covered beast belching forth what appeared to be flames. Within its blazing breath, a cloaked figure stood, holding back the beast’s flames with an upheld shield.

    “This is where I leave you,” X’ander said, dipping his bald head at them. Without issuing a further farewell, he promptly departed, leaving the trio alone at the doorstep to the king of the underworld.

    “Should we knock?” Theodorous asked, looking puzzled as he tugged his mustache.

    Brice shrugged his shoulders then reached out to tap it with his knuckles. His flesh met the wood, and shimmering beneath a haze of blue, the door creaked open.

    “Welcome, Master Brice,” a figure standing in the center of the room called out, his voice boisterous, practically leaping from the air and grabbing hold of them.

    Rafe’s back was to them and was rippling with sinews from beneath a tight fur rimmed vest. His arms were golden brown and contoured with shadows from his many bulging muscles. Though his physique was incredible, the man stood no taller than a child, barely reaching four feet. The diminutive man stared forward to where a shiny black globe — no larger than a fist — sat on a pedestal of white marble. Encasing the globe was a barrier of shimmering azure flames.

    The trio cautiously entered the narrow hallway plastered with what appeared to be implements of war; blades, armor, shields etched with elaborate runes of both silver and gold. Some were made of stranger metals (red and white steel), or even stone. Others were blades of pure glowing crystal, and shields of flickering red energy similar to mage-fire. And then there were other weapons, strange boxes covered in alien glyphs, shiny steel tubes that resonated with a low humming sound, and many other strange unidentifiable items of unknown origin.

    Several feet behind them, the small muscular being stood motionless. On each hip, a leather holster held a metallic black handle fixed to a hollow tube. The trio drew closer to him — he seemed even shorter than before — while the black object in front began to swell as if sensing their presence.

    “What do you think of it, Master Brice?” he asked the mage, his words spoken with an underlying edge of fierceness. He continued studying the object, not bothering to wait for a reply. “In the Age of War, with devices such as this the common soldier was nearly equal to a mage. Nearly. Your Order proved their superiority by drowning us in oceans of blood. And afterward, to further weaken us, they had the gall to banish such things. Keeping the power to kill as their own. The Blood Born they called themselves. Purebloods. Damned Mage-lords. They proved themselves to be the greatest weapons of all.”

    He reached out with his little hands, letting his fingers brush against the barrier of blue, lightning sparks arching across his fingernails.

    “The only weapon of the age became the Singularity, with it they ruled uncontested for a millennium. Some would say this was an age of peace, others an age of slavery. Whatever the case, in the end the Magi were the only ones capable of destroying the Order. With the birth of the Plague, things instantly changed. The Magi that survived were no match for their undead brethren, their Oneness failed to put an end to the so-called immortality of the Dead Gods. The worlds needed their weapons once more.”

    Brice had thought the object was solid, for it shone like polished steel, but suddenly it moved like fluid, becoming misshapen as it followed Rafe’s fingers along the shield of magefire.

    “Unfortunately, only a handful of these weapons remained, smuggled down through the ages. Many tried to replicate them, but usually such efforts ended in disaster. There was simply too little time to recreate a technology birthed from thousands of years of war. The Plague spread too quick. In the end, the races were left with but two simple methods; silver and fire.”

    “So?” Theodorus asked “What in the dead does that thing do?”

    “Hah, why kill of course. How to control it? Now that’s the real question. That’s why I had the barrier made, surely you can see it, Master Brice?”

    “It’s hard to miss. The power it must have taken to make it … very impressive.”

    “Yes, it took three of your kind. The red ones. Unfortunately they perished not long after. It seems that just to be in the object’s presence means death. I have many such relics in my collections, during the Exodus collecting them became a passion of mine. Actually, given my situation, a sort of necessity.

    But, much like the black globe, their use remains a mystery.” The Exodus? What are you.

    “If only I knew what they did, perhaps then we might have a fighting chance.”

    The man turned.

    Except for his muscular physique he looked … like a child.

    An adolescent boy.

    “After Lock Core, I came here where I quickly made a name for myself as a thief and assassin for hire. The War was a dark time in the history of the Seventh, but the years after … a never-ending night,” he said, speaking with the gruff voice of a man.

    “It seems you’ve weathered the night very well,” Brice replied.

    The man laughed.

    “Yes, Master Brice. I am and always have been but a thief. But this Chopa business. That’s something altogether different. I merely control it, limit its growth. But never do I profit from it. Without my input, this city would be consumed by it. Why, I even leave your new found friends Alec and Nathalia to disrupt it as they may, without any real repercussions for their actions.”

    “I’ve seen for myself how chopa is openly sold on the streets of Shattered Rock. If your power over this city is as complete as I have heard, then why let such madness continue?”

    “Chopa will come to Shattered Rock whether I wish it or no. If I don’t disperse it in small drops, then it will come in a flood.

    Be thankful, Master Brice that I do control chopa. Ah, but come now, Red Mage. What do you think of my collection?” he said, pausing in thought. “No doubt unimpressed I would guess. How can I blame you, considering you’ve witnessed the Graelic in action.” The man-child lowered his head in mock sadness. “If only that weapon blessed my collection. But alas,” he said laughing. “In order to have it, I would first have to pry it from the One Elf’s grasp.” His laughter grew until his body shook. “Even I am not that good of a thief.”

    “Lord Rafe … ” Bri Lynn said, her tone somber and her cheeks flush.

    With a wave of his hand, the man-child dismissed Bri Lynn from speaking further.

    “I know what you’re going to say, Lady Bri, and you’re right. You’re not here to be lectured in weapon history. I know why you’ve come. There’s an army of undead heading our way, and you want me to rally the city. Lead Shattered Rock to war.

    Maybe even lead them to victory.”

    Bri Lynn nodded her head of short blond hair.

    “You’re right of course, my dear, this town needs a leader. But I’m sure Master Theodorous would agree that I’m not right for the job. I could of course, drive them to battle at knife point, but what good would they be to us then?” He pulled a curved sword with a hilt made of bone from off the wall and held it in front of his face, marveling at the markings covering the silver, scythe-shaped blade. Then, brushing his finger along its edge he said, “I would make them a herd of cattle driven to the slaughter.”

    “We should have known better than to ask a murderer for help,” Theodorous whispered to Brice who did his best to ignore the comment.

    “No. I will not lead this city to its death. After all. How will I continue to weather the night without it?”

    With his gaze focused on Brice, he walked closer to the trio. As he did so, Brice saw that his eyes were emerald green and even sparkled like the precious ore.

    “No, not me,” the man-child continued, staring up at Brice with his gem like eyes. “What this city needs is a hero, someone who can give them hope. Someone they would follow wholeheartedly, even if he led them into the mouth of the Rift.

    I think you know of whom I speak, Master Brice.”

    He didn’t want to say it.

    “The Destroyer.”

    “Yes, the Destroyer. The one man in all of known history

    who was able to repel the Horde.”

    The burden he must bear … Anymore and he will be crushed.

    “I am afraid that Alec has been through a great deal and I have my doubts that he will be willing to accept such a destiny,” Brice replied. “Besides which, I have only begun to understand the nature of his power. It may very well be as devastating to us as it is to the undead. Much as it was during the battle at Lock Core.”

    “We’ve all been through hard times, Master Brice, yourself included. No longer can we afford to be sympathetic. For him they will fight. And I’m certain that together, you and I will make him a hero, whether Alec wants to be one or not.” I’ve already led one human to his death.

    Doubt – The possibility that Alec would die.

    How many more must follow?

    Terror – The possibility that he would take the entire city with him.

    “The man’s a drunkard,” Theodorous added. “And with his power … ” His moustache quavered. “He will kill us all!”

    “What choice do we have?” Bri Lynn said flatly. “Our best chance for success lies in a coordinated front. Lord Rafe knows this city better than anyone. If he believes these people will fight for the Destroyer, then we must consider his wisdom in this matter. If the city cannot work as one then the failure of all is inevitable.”

    “I suppose you’re right, apprentice, I would much rather follow a drunk than an assassin … ” Theodorous immediately whipped his head toward the man-child, fearing he may have offended the strange Lord. “I meant no offense, Lord Rafe.”

    “None taken,” he said, though his tone was sharper than ever. “Unlike some murderers, I’ve never masked my chosen profession.”

    Luckily for everyone, Theodorous was unable to grasp the insult. Nevertheless, Bri Lynn was ready to disarm her mentor should he suddenly realize that the honor of their order had been put to question by an assassin.

    Rafe turned to Brice and continued, “What say you, Master Brice? Are you ready to craft a hero?”

    Sparkling, the emerald eyes sought an answer, but Brice had none. Nor did it matter, for he had already been out voted. “Where do we start?” Brice asked.

    “I’m way ahead of you, Red Mage. It has already begun.”

    The city of Lock Core was vast. A dense maze of roads and alleyways spread from the great Red Wall like roots from the base of a Brentwood elm. The northern quarter, having been decimated by the Destroyer, continued to lie in ruins for the general population refused to near the blackened crater where the city’s greatest monuments once stood. Some claimed that the presence of those slain in the blast lingered on, haunting the area in a ghostly form of undeath.

    Now, along the outskirts of the devastation, Lady Katrina moved through the shadows of toppled walls and skeletal structures of scorched framework, keeping her black wig fixed to her head by tugging it downward. A shawl of black lace hung over her fox fur covered neck and shoulders while the rest of her tattooed frame was hidden beneath a blue robe. She moved with haste, familiar with the landscape and guide posts of rubble and debris marking the path before her. Nearing a small rectangular building of stone she paused, scanning the path behind her from beneath a pair of long black eyelashes before ducking within the building’s crack riddled walls. Creatures scurried into the shadows as she entered, hiding within the crumbling walls and pieces of decaying furniture. A tiny blur of fur leapt through a ray of light cast from a gap in the ceiling, darting through the light only to disappear beneath a fallen beam. In the corner of the room a soiled and stained mattress rested. Nestled in the foul padding, an eyeless doll stared outward, her silk stuffing oozing down her face like maggots from a corpse’s skull. Katrina averted her green eyed gaze, choosing instead to watch a blizzard of dust particles sparkle as they drifted into the ray of light, knowing it wouldn’t be long before her presence was felt.

    “Greetings, my Lady … my Lady … my Lady.”

    At first there were only the voices, disembodied, three childlike whispers echoing one another from amidst the darkness of the room. Then they appeared. First the elder child — her body transparent and ethereal, the beams of light from above slicing right through her. She was a child with golden hair, no taller than Katrina’s neck. Within the halo of curls, Katrina could see the tips of her pointed ears and forced herself to keep her eyes on the child even as the girl’s white orbs threatened to burrow into her soul. Shortly after the elder child took form, her younger siblings came into view as well. The middle child was named Imigin, and looked a great deal like her elder sister, though thinner, with shorter hair and not quite as tall. The youngest of them however, was half their height, plump, entirely bald and possessed a white eyed gaze that Katrina could not bear to behold. Instinctively Katrina brushed her nails across her own clean shaven head, reminding herself that she had nothing to fear from the ghostly trio for they were bound as allies through a sisterhood of horrors.

    “Have you news of my husband?” She asked, recovered from her initial shock of their appearance.

    “The demon eludes our sight,” they replied, echoing one another. “He is beyond our vision now, moving through darkness.”

    Where have you gone to, LeCynic?

    After initiating the steady death march of warrior prisoners into the Rift, her husband had suddenly vanished, leaving a fearful and crushed Council of Races to ponder his latest evil machination. Of the prisoners and her husband, there had been no word. Katrina had hoped the eyes of the elven sisters could have seen what she could not, but apparently her husband’s journey into darkness had brought him beyond even them.

    What in the dead are you up to now?

    Some saw his disappearance as a good sign, praying that he had finally paid for his sins at the tip of an assassin’s blade. But Katrina knew better. Her own numerous plots against him had all met with disaster while her anguish only increased with her efforts. She was certain now that her husband could read her mind, or at the very least anticipate her thoughts — thus her growing need to entice his advisor Onk into her service. For all of his cowardice and stupidity, the advisor had one remarkable talent — his ability to become invisible, even from the eyes of his Lord. The man was, after all, a master spy, hand chosen from the Order by LeCynic himself due solely to his ability to be undetectable. Persuading the man to betray his lord was an irritating task to say the least, not to mention the fact that many of her previous failures to assassinate LeCynic were a direct result of his snooping. He was far too fearful of LeCynic’s wrath to do the deed himself, therefore, Katrina’s only hope lay in the possibility that she could at least persuade him to enlist the services of someone capable of the task, all while maintaining his powers of stealth.

    “And the efforts of Onk? Have we achieved any progress?”

    Katrina asked.

    The smallest child, whose name was simply Bell, floated forward and replied, “His attempts to summon the assassin Rafe remain unheeded. Something is amiss in the west my lady, we fear the assassin may be lost.”

    LeCynic …

    “We can only assume his death was at the Demon’s hands,” the elder child, Carillign, said, drifting to her sister’s side.

    Katrina could speculate on the atrocities LeCynic had inflicted on the elven sisters, atrocities which had driven them to suicide, though she tried not to bring such dark thoughts into her mind. One thing she did know, it was within this room that LeCynic had enforced his horrors on them, and that whatever he had done, it had damned them for eternity, forcing them to live lusting for life and lusting for vengeance, cravings which could never be satiated. If they could kill him themselves they would, but unfortunately their touch drained life, which was something LeCynic did not possess. Therefore they needed a link with the living as much as Katrina needed their link with the undeath. Together, the women combined their resources to bring about the annihilation of the demon LeCynic.

    “There is another matter we wish to report,” Imigin, the middle child, said.

    “Yes?” Katrina turned to the girl, unable to discern from her stony expression whether it was good news or bad.

    “Our eyes on the Red Mage assure us that he nears his objective.”

    It took a moment for Katrina to comprehend the message, but when she finally did, her eyes instantly widened.

    “He has found the Destroyer?” she responded with amazement.

    “Yes … yes … yes.”

    She had nearly forgotten about the young mage and his quest. After all, it had been years since she had heard from him, even the Order no longer uttered his name in their punch lines. The man had almost ceased to exist, lost to the world in a foolish quest. At one time the man was all the Order cared to discuss. His ideas and beliefs had caused quite a raucous within the Magi’s hierarchy, a disruption that nearly ended with the man’s dismissal from the Order.

    Then Katrina stepped in. Having heard his speeches, heard him proclaim his understanding of the Destroyer’s power and his ability to teach the man to control it, Katrina’s mind began spinning with the ways in which she would direct such devastation. She approached him in secret, convincing him that she felt a passion for his cause that was similar to his own and conscripting him into service, providing him will all the necessary resources the man would need to carry out his quest. That had been over three years ago. She had begun to believe he would never succeed, but now …

    “However … ever … ever … he too remains in darkness, hidden in the west.”

    “Then the west is where our fates lay. It seems there’s little we can do now but wait.”

    “We wait till the light shines in the west once more, then we shall see … “

    Anxious to leave the meeting with the ghostly trio, Katrina nodded her bald head in thanks then turned to leave. She froze mid-step. Barring the doorway was the youngest child, Bell. Katrina made the mistake of looking into her white eyes and felt paralyzed under her gaze. She stood immobile as the small elf approached her. A delicate little hand reached out to Katerina — her mind screamed at her to move, knowing that the child’s touch meant certain death. The hand rested softly on her belly. There was no pain. No death. For the first time in a long, long while, Katrina felt peace.

    “Sometimes good can arise from evil,” the elf child said. “But to make it so, there must be love. Find love Katrina. If

    you fail to do so, the demon most certainly will win.”

    Overcome by tears, Katrina doubled over. All the suffering at her husband’s hands, all the pain and the horror began to make sense. She refused to share his bed, but the Demon had forced his seed upon her in another, even more horrible way.

    Find love?

    Knowing what he was, and what he had done, could she ever love his child?

    As was custom, all combatants remained at the field of battle, awaiting the Death Guard’s inspection. It had been an hour since Drau’d had finished off the last of LeCynic’s corrupted guards. Though he was certain all the dead were thoroughly dead — having seen to the duty personally — he did his due diligence along with the rest of his troupe and waited in single file formation under the shadow of the Rift.

    Finally, a slumping, white-robed figure appeared, accompanied by an army of black masked killers. The High Mage Nicola had chosen to personally lead the procession of Death Guards, which — judging by their numbers — seemed to be every last one. Apparently Nicola was taking no chances with this latest discovery, not to mention that she no longer felt it necessary to hide her role as Commander of the Death Guard, which had previously been a secret shared by only Drau’d and a select few.

    She approached him, her single blue eye as beautiful as ever, shining like a jewel in the light of the setting sun.

    “What transpired here, Stone Master?” she demanded, wasting no time on pleasantries.

    “The Keeper’s dogs proved rabid, so we put them down, my

    Lady.”

    To his left were Rian and his forty-two young soldiers. At his right stood Lobar and Harple — his eyes fiercer than ever. From there the line continued to run northward, a ragged group of Boulder Dwarves, humans, and elves, nearly four hundred strong.

    “Yes, so I see,” Nicola said, turning her blue eye to the now smoldering pyre of dead flesh. “We apologize for not being here sooner. When we heard of the infection, eliminating the remnants of the Keeper’s Guard became essential. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, eradicating them was no simple matter.”

    While they talked, Nicola’s hooded companions began their inspection of the survivors.

    “What of LeCynic? Please tell me you were able to get to that bastard,” Drua’d boomed.

    “Unfortunately no. We’ve been monitoring him for some time, truth be told. But it wasn’t until the meeting of the Council of Races that my fears were confirmed. We now believe he not only entered the Black Door prior to the War of Lock Core

    but that in doing so he became infected.”

    “What are you telling me? That all of this is because of him, the war, the hole in Lock Core?”

    Drua’d felt his anger rising once more and suddenly felt compelled to squash something with Hell’s Bane.

    “Yes.”

    Drau’d waited, hoping she would say more, and when she

    failed to elaborate, thundered, “So where in the dead is he?”

    “It seems he’s planning something in the Outlands, possibly building an army much like we now fear he has been doing with the Rift. A large contingent of his Guard has disappeared

    as well, likely moving to join him in the Outlands.”

    “What in the dead do we do now?”

    “We do what we’ve always done, Stone Master, we guard the Rift,” Nicola plainly stated, air hissing from the hole in her cheek. Without further words she reached out to him with her remaining charred hand and then meticulously began to inspect his massive body for infection.

    Chapter 13: DAYS AT THE TIMBER WALL TAVERN

    When the lines of people started forming outside of the Wayward Inn, Alec threw a fit, threatening at the top of his lungs to destroy the entire inn if every last one of them didn’t leave.

    They didn’t leave.

    Instead, they bowed before him, claiming that to die at his hands was the pathway to enlightenment. It was at that time that Alec decided he had had enough.

    His tranquility, and peace of mind, having been compromised at the Wayward Inn, Alec sought refuge at a far less crowded, and less refutable establishment, the Timber Wall Tavern; a dilapidated shack that made his former residence seem as grand as the Archenon. Even though the only inhabitants of the tavern were; Alec, Solo Ki, a pimp, his three whores, and the barkeep, the tiny inn seemed more cramped and uncomfortable than sitting in a coffin. Nevertheless, he loved it. Early on the pimp and whores had learned to mind their own, especially when it came to the One Elf, for Solo Ki was far beyond the temptations of flesh or tactics of intimidation. Alec, on the other hand, was irritated enough that he was willing to turn the tavern into a bloodbath just to have a moment of peace and quiet. Needless to say, after their initial introduction to the pimp and his whores, Alec and Solo Ki spent their days and nights at the Timber Wall Tavern undisturbed. Alec couldn’t have been more content.

    It had been over a month since Brice and the Death Guards had returned from their meeting with Rafe, and judging by the outcome of their conversation, they meant to defend the city to the end, no matter what that end may be. Already the preparations were in full swing. The Death Guards, along with Rafe’s elven companion X’ander, had organized construction crews throughout the city and had begun building huge wooden planks which, once the battle began, were to be used as pathways to connect the city’s rooftops. Apparently the defensive strategy, dreamed up by Rafe and Brice, involved turning the city streets into a ‘death trap for the dead’, as Rafe put it. It was basic enough, archers would unload their quivers from the rooftops while below them, the streets filled with the walking dead. Though short of being brilliant, the plan was simple and sound, and in the little time they had before the undead closed in on the city it was the best defense they could hope for.

    Being mindless feeding machines, the walking dead made for easy targets. It was their sheer overwhelming numbers that became a problem. But what worried Brice, Rafe and the others more wasn’t the hordes of walking dead — who could care less whether it was arrows or rain that fell on them — it was the deadly and immortal Living Dead. Unlike the Meat Puppets — who were infected, killed, then came back to life — the Living Dead where infected while still alive, and never actually ‘died’. As a result, they still possessed some of their former intelligence, though their desire for flesh often overrides their intellect. Nevertheless, such beings were stronger, faster, and far more fearless than they were in life. Luckily, the younger they were, the weaker they were, and Alec was willing to bet there wouldn’t be any ancient ones in this coming army. Those ones still remained on the other side of the Rift, fearful of losing their supposed immortality with a blast of Alec’s power.

    Worse even than the Living Dead were these new demons that had chased the children. From all accounts, they were seemingly invincible and extremely deadly. With little else known about them, the matter was very worrisome for the defenders, so much so that the Lord Rafe made a special visit to the Timber Wall just to hear the One Elf’s opinion on the matter — which was simply, “If you see one, run.” For according to Solo Ki, mage-fire was useless, silver daMaging — but never fatal. They could be weakened, but never destroyed.

    Therefore any confrontation with the demons was, like everything else in the elf’s life, pointless.

    Other than that occasion, they never saw Rafe, which suited Alec just fine, for the Lord of Shattered Rock came accompanied by several guards. One of which was a massive Boulder Dwarf named Gunt, a being known throughout the Seventh World for his savagery and short temper, traits which were unheard of among his race of gentle giants and had caused him to become an outcast of his kind. Somehow Rafe had managed to corral the being into his service, utilizing him as a source of intimidation, and if necessary, as a brutal thug.

    Their visit was especially tense, for after Rafe was finished questioning Solo Ki, the dwarf decided to spit a fist sized glob of mucus into Solo Ki’s face. Luckily for Gunt, or maybe it was safe thinking on the elf’s part, Solo Ki calmly wiped away the bile onto his already soiled cape, then, as though nothing ever happened, he took a sip of tea. After watching Solo Ki back down, Gunt shook with laughter, bellowing out, “Shal min nome.” Needless to say, Alec was much relieved when Rafe took his goons and left.

    At one point in time, Alec questioned the elf on the encounter, wondering why he hadn’t retaliated. Shrugging his bony shoulders he had replied, “He was not a threat. I’m forced to defend myself from death, but insults are wasted on me.”

    During the past month, the mage Brice had spent most of his time rounding up anyone and everyone who had enough mage blood in them to ignite a candle. Currently he had dozens of mages, some of which actually had rankings within the Order, and now the Red Mage spent a great deal of his time training those he found, hoping to hone their skills and prepare them to face the coming onslaught of undead. Now and again, the mage would join Alec and Solo Ki, always accompanied by the imp Galimoto.

    The pest! Alec would have loved to grab the creature’s little red body and squish it in his hands until the only thing spewing from its mouth was its innards. He had even tried to do so, several times, but the little beast was too quick and would always dart away, fleeing to the rafters above where it would continue to cast insults in its musical voice.

    And the mage, he would mostly talk of the advancement of his students, speaking with particular pride when it came to the extraordinary feats of the girl Emily, whom, according to Brice, was above and beyond the most powerful mage he had ever seen, even though she was but fifteen.

    “If she continues to progress … ” Brice would say, his excitement growing. “She could restore the bloodline, turn the

    Order into Gatekeepers once more.”

    For a moment he would smile, then the silky soft skin of his face would grow flaccid, his eyes lowering in despair. Alec knew that at such times he was reminded of what was to come, and of the very real possibility that all of their lives would soon end. Or maybe the mage was just remembering the other child, the one he lost, the one he stole from home with prom-

    ises of limitless potential and infinite possibilities …

    Either way, Alec preferred it when the mage was happy, even missed seeing the flashing teeth light up his face.

    Every time the mage visited he made certain to ask Alec to join his troop, and every time Alec refused. Not just because he had anxiety about being around several mages at once — an environment which was far too similar to his imprisonment at the High Tower — but even more terrifying than that was the girl Emily and the way she looked up at him with those wide brown eyes. At once beautiful, yet unsettling. Whenever he had the misfortune to run into her, which was usually when Nathalia came to visit, the girl would stare at him for the duration. He dreaded her arrival, found her to be a strange and disturbing creature, not to mention the fact that she had incredible power and Alec knew first-hand how great of a danger that made her. What disturbed him most about the girl was the possibility that when she looked on him she saw a hero. Saw a lie. She credited him for her existence, when the truth of the matter was that Alec didn’t care the least bit about her father, had never intended to save him. It was merely a coincidence that he lived and was able to give her life while thousands of other potential parents were destroyed.

    As for Nathalia, she spent her days watching over the children as though she was their mother, clothing them, feeding them, practically suckling them at her breasts (perhaps actually doing so, though only in Tetloan’s dreams). She even managed to corral the fire haired demon child’s behavior. Now the boy looked up to her with respect, love — and if Alec wasn’t mistaken — a great deal of lust. Though not nearly as much as the imp Galimoto, who openly ogled Nathalia’s cleavage at every chance he could get.

    However, neither of them could compare with Alec’s own desire to be with her once more. How could they? Having shared her bed before, over and over again, he had grown accustomed to quenching his lust as soon as it arose. Now, for both of their sakes, he had to be weaned from it. Like the drug chopa, he was addicted, reminded of the pleasure whenever he saw her, whenever he caught her scent in the air. To the dead with the imp and the boy! He wanted to ravage her. And would have, even if he couldn’t escape the elf Solo Ki, her supposed father. To the dead with him too! If he was so intent on following Alec wherever he went, then he would have to watch as Alec threw his daughter on the bed and …

    Biting his lip was not enough to curb his desire for Nathalia. However, the trio of whores were somewhat helpful in this regard, and yes, the One Elf did actually remain at his side during such sessions.

    In fact, the only time the elf left his side was when it became necessary for Alec to relieve himself. But even achieving that brief period of solitude had required a great deal of discussion. A discussion which ended only after convincing the elf that all he would be destroying while defecating was the elf’s sense of smell.

    The One Elf … Other than administering to him during potty breaks, he was to Alec the perfect companion. He just sat, drank his tea and was silent. He never asked questions — why would he? He knew everything. And though it was difficult to get him to speak, when he did, their conversations were always enlightening. One day in particular the One Elf said a great deal. Brice had just left, once more thwarted in his efforts to recruit Alec to his cause when their conversation began …

    “What does Smiley want me from me anyways? More than likely I’ll end up incinerating his entire pack of mages.” Alec said, his words spoken more for his benefit than for Solo Ki’s. “Like many he wishes to live in a world that is pure and good.”

    Alec had been lost in thought, staring into his mug of ale before the voice of the elf startled him to attention. Considering his words a gift, he hung on the One Elf’s every raspy word.

    “Unfortunately he has yet to learn that the world is built on chaos, and that his quest for order is contrary to the nature of reality. This desire cannot be fulfilled and through failure he grows ever desperate, eventually falling prey to the most absurd forms of hope.”

    “Like believing in someone like me?” The elf slowly nodded, sipping his tea.

    “You see, what Brice refuses to acknowledge is that we are the problem. The Plague is the solution. The gods see it, but Brice cannot …

    Sometimes Alec felt himself getting swept up in Brice’s cause, and after hearing him speak with such passion he almost believed there could be hope.

    Then … there was the One Elf.

    Always present, always looming near, his tattered cape draping over his bony figure like a death shroud. Alec knew Solo Ki would be there till the end, waiting for his death, waiting for him to destroy all and put an end to the elf’s work in the

    Seventh World.

    In the proximity of the One Elf hope seemed like a joke.

    Though it had yet to begin, Alec was tired of the war. Tired of hearing about it, and tired of thinking about it. Like Solo Ki, he wasn’t interested in victory so much as he was simply longing for the fighting to end.

    The month was, for the most part, uneventful. Then, the day came that for no reason at all — unless drunkenness can be considered a reason — Alec accepted Brice’s invitation, and stumbling his way through the light of day, with the One Elf in tow of course, he joined the Red Mage for a lesson.

    Chapter 14: A LESSON LEARNED

    “The fabric of the universe is woven together by the thread we call the Singularity. It is the embodiment of all — the power of the Order, and the sum of all things organic and inorganic. When seen in its true form it is a current of pure energy constantly moving through the river of time, always flowing beyond its limits in a direct course toward the infinite,” Brice finished his speech, then gazed out over the faces in the crowd seated before him.

    All but one of them returned his look with blank faces. Only in the pair of wide brown orbs did he find understanding. But he had nothing new to show those eyes. They held all knowledge. It was Brice who should be learning from them, if only he could comprehend their lesson.

    What can I teach her? A child, a child who will someday move through worlds. A Gatekeeper.

    Most of the students present were young, children of comparable age to Emily and Tetloan, but far inferior to the pair in their ability to control the Singularity. The others were older, adults with skill so insignificant that they had been overlooked by the Order a long time ago. All told, Emily had more power in the tip of her baby toe than the lot of them had together. Tetloan was the second closest to Emily in strength, though for him, his power had manifested itself differently than anything Brice had ever seen. There were some skills in which the boy had no equal, mainly those involving brute force. Whereas in other matters, those requiring finesse and subtle adaptations of the energy, Tetloan seemed lacking in the slightest hint of power. After much direction, the boy was finally beginning to see the Singularity’s signature, but most of the time he did not, and manipulated it blindly and by sheer will alone.

    Overall, Emily’s power was unmatched, far beyond anyone present, far beyond the mages of the Order standing at Brice’s back, and even far beyond the Red Mage himself.

    For several days now Brice had been conducting lessons within the garden of the Archenon, gathering together daily in a clearing adjacent to the Statue of the Unpure Soldier. For the most part, the courtyard was now vacant, the gardeners having rounded up most of the wildlife, as well as any edible plant life, to be immediately delivered to the kitchen, prepped for storage and added to the keep’s list of supplies in anticipation of a lengthy siege.

    Now, except for Brice’s voice filling the air and the constant tinkle of the statue, the garden was eerily quiet.

    “Galimoto thinks Brice would have better luck teaching a stone to dance then he would teaching Magic to these idiots,” the imp said, perched on Brice’s shoulder. If he didn’t know better, Brice would swear there were wind chimes dangling next to his ear.

    “The imp’s right,” someone said from behind Brice. He sensed the presence and knew the speaker, it was the Gray Mage Coba, a refugee of the Order and, next to Brice, he was the highest ranked mage in Shattered Rock.

    Under normal circumstances, Brice would have refused to work with the man, for not only was he constantly trying to undermine his authority, but he was also, like Alec, a man who was hunted by the Order. Though unlike Alec, Coba was a true killer, a man who willingly used his power to destroy those who were defenseless against it.

    We’re in this together, all races, all manner of people, Brice thought, biting his tongue while Coba continued to speak.

    “We’re wasting time here, Brice. There’s a reason why the Order never recruited these people, it’s because they’re illbred, poor blooded idiots.”

    Brice was aware that Coba had more than just contempt for those who were uninitiated in the Singularity. Originally he had been exiled from the Order for his beliefs, which included elevating mages to a godlike status while all others lived as their slaves.

    ‘The slightest thing we teach them will be a great benefit to all,’ Brice said, sending his thoughts to all of the mages present not just Coba.

    “Perhaps a demonstration would help to explain things.” A sleeve of gold motioned toward Emily.

    “Emily, would you please aid us.”

    “At least your brown nose matches your robe,” Tetloan blurted, receiving chuckles from many of the other, younger, students.

    By all appearances, it seemed like Emily ignored him, standing gracefully and walking to the front of the class, through his years of training and an overly acute eye for detail, Brice detected a hair thin thread of blue leave her body and work its way toward Tetloan’s sandals where it rapidly tied his laces into knots. Even if he could see the Singularity, the boy would have been hard pressed to detect such a slight manipulation. Though he would certainly sense something was amiss once he tried to stand.

    It didn’t matter that Emily was as powerful as any White Mage in existence, Brice had still chosen for her to wear the brown robe of a novice, which she humbly did, somehow making the dull garment appear lordly. In fact, her beauty was even more pronounced when contrasted with the coarse, dull fabric of the robe. Smirking, she winked at Brice then turned to the students, suddenly appearing very serious. Inwardly Brice could sense she was bursting with glee not only because of the trick she played on Tetloan, but also from anticipation, fully expecting to awe the crowd and her instructors with her performance.

    She glowed, her body radiating an aura of blue that burned

    Brice’s eyes to behold.

    “As you can see, every one of us is a part and sum of the Singularity. The blue glow of mage-fire, what we call Magic, it is the true face of reality. And had we the eyes of Gods it would be all we see — a current of light sweeping through space and time. What we are, our very life-force is but a drop of water falling into that current.”

    ‘Now Emily, as I showed you.’

    A blue globe of fire appeared before her, hovering inches above her hand.

    “By giving us their blood, the Gods left us their power. The

    ability to interact with and even control the current’s flow.”

    The ball of flame still floated before her, though now both her hands rested at her sides. Watching it swirl with energy, she grinned.

    “Please,” Brice said to the crowd. “Rise.”

    Tetloan toppled to the ground as the others stood.

    “Study how Emily guides the flow, both in its shape, size and element. Then, once you believe you understand her work, try to duplicate it.”

    Several blue spheres ignited. Most were no larger than a pebble. Some weren’t even balls at all, but misshapen blobs of blue. But there were others that were quite impressive in size, equal to Emily’s own creation. Not to be outshone, Emily now worked several balls simultaneously.

    “No one can live without changing the current, whether they are mages or not. Every drop of water creates a ripple. For some of us, the surface merely stirs, while others, such as those of the Magi bloodline, they generate disruptions that travel deep within the waters and are often capable of altering the streams course altogether. Because of our power, it is our duty to always use our abilities for good, to guide the current in a course that benefits all. The flow of the Singularity began with the gods, but its destination they left within our hands.”

    Brice was getting whipped up, carried away by the growing thunder of his own voice.

    “It is within our power to change the destiny of the world!”

    To Brice’s surprise, the crowd was laughing. Laughing when they should have been floored to the earth with enlightenment. Coba was laughing too, along with the rest of the mages at Brice’s back.

    “Pew,” Galimoto said, sniffing the air around Brice’s

    shoulder. “What is that horrible smell?”

    Pinching his nose, the imp turned, a look of sudden realization covering his features.

    “Oh. Galimoto should have known.”

    Stifling her laughter in the cup of one hand while pointing with the other, Emily let her globes dissipate. Her concentration completely shattered.

    Annoyed, Brice turned to see the source of everyone’s amusement.

    “It seems your hero has finally decided to join us,” Coba said. “Do tell us, Master Brice, what lesson is this display meant to teach?”

    Standing knee deep in water, Alec was casually relieving himself in the fountain. Off to the side stood Solo Ki, leaning on the Graelic with his lips twisted into what might be considered a smile.

    “Some savior you’ve found us, Master Brice,” one of the mages behind him replied. “And to think, the Order finds this man dangerous.”

    “By the gods, Alec. What are you doing?” Brice said, his voice full of rage.

    Alec lurched to attention, searching the crowd with a pair of blood-shot eyes, pissing all the while.

    “Em I late for the lessin?” he said, shaking off the last droplets.

    “Cover yourself. Children are present,” Brice could no longer contain his anger, threads of blue light spilled from his golden sleeves.

    “Aw, come on, Brice, compared ta this guy … ?” Alec replied pointing at the urinating statue . “My member’s all but invisible.”

    For some bizarre reason, the sculptor had chosen to make the soldier extremely well endowed.

    “Besides. I couldn’t hold er anymore. Soon’s I heard the wader running … well, ya know how it is. Ya could sooner seal the Rift dan stem that flow.”

    Brice’s only response was to close his eyes and shake his head.

    Dripping — mostly from the water he was standing in — Alec made his way toward the class.

    “So, wad I miss?”

    Brice could sense the crowd growing restless, full of energy after, what was for them, a welcome interruption to a boring lecture. Meanwhile, the words, ‘I think we’ve learned enough today,’ were waiting to drop from Coba’s tongue.

    There’s so little time, Brice thought, knowing that the more he taught them, the more likely they were to survive. If they were going to learn anything today he had to quickly stifle the excitement and restore order among his students.

    “I am glad you could finally join us, Alec.” Speaking the words was almost as difficult as holding back his mage-fire, though it boiled his insides. “Now please, if you could just take a seat with the rest of the group we could continue.”

    “Okay,” Alec said while shrugging his shoulders. He then stumbled his way through the students and collapsed at the back of the crowd.

    Silent throughout the exchange, Solo Ki slowly navigated the outskirts of the class, heading toward where Alec was last seen toppling over.

    Thanking Emily, Brice bid her to return to her seat. Still fuming over Alec’s display, Brice attempted to rejoin his lecture from where he left off. Though now his heart wasn’t in it, so numbly, he recited quotes from Adros. The words leaving his lips to instantly become a lullaby. It wasn’t long before Alec was fast asleep, his nasal cavity booming louder than a thunderstorm, and soon afterwards his students began yawning, one after another, as though the weariness was an infection. The loudest yawns of all came from his back.

    “Master Brice?”

    He turned, a wave of energy ready to leap from his fingertips and strike the new intruder.

    Armed and armored, Bri Lynn and Theodorous strode toward him

    “Pardon the interruption, Master Brice, but Lord Rafe urgently requests your council,” Bri Lynn said, her skull covered by a steel half-round helm while the rest of her face, on down to her neck, was protected by a thin layer of gleaming chain mail. A black cape was draped over her back, clasped together at her neck with a silver dagger shaped pin.

    Brice sensed the mages rousing behind him and could hear whispers running through the crowd of students.

    “What is it?” Brice questioned, seeing the worry in Bri Lynn’s eyes and knowing that it could be nothing good.

    “There appears to be a problem with our scouts,” Theodorous said, his thick white scar twitching on his face. He was covered from head to toe in a rusty and heavily dented suit of full plate and chain upon which various weapons had been strapped — far more than any one man could possibly wield. Besides the standard long sword and bow strapped to his back, he had two daggers, one at his left wrist, and one at his ankle. Also, he had a weapon at each hip; a small throwing axe at his right side, and a short sword at his left. Considering those weapons were the ones that were visibly apparent, Brice figured they were but a small portion of the man’s true arsenal. It was a wonder to Brice how the man managed to walk under the weight, and to do so without impaling himself.

    “What sort of problem, Death Guard?”

    Brice would have asked the question himself, but the gray mage Coba beat him to it.

    Many of the children, as well as all of the mages, crowded around the pair of Death Guards and listened intently to their conversation.

    “Have they sighted the horde?” someone from the crowd asked.

    “More than likely, yes,” Theodorous said. “Though what worries Rafe most is that they haven’t reported back. In over

    three hours we have heard nothing from beyond the wall.”

    “It is the Lord Rafe’s opinion that an attack is imminent,” Bri Lynn broke in.

    It’s too soon.

    Brice’s thoughts were of his students, fearing that they would die because of what he had failed to teach them.

    There was laughter at his side.

    “You’d better waken your hero, Brice,” Coba said. “It seems

    he has a battle to win.”

    He shut his eyes against the water and held his breath … Silence …

    “Aaaaaa,” he sucked in the air as he arose, his hair and beard dripping wet, spilling water all around him. “That’s enough, I feel much better n … ” his voice suddenly ended in a geyser of vomit.

    “We need him sober, Brice. We need him sober now!” Rafe said, his deep voice booming from his child-like body. Meanwhile Alec was still bent over the fountain, gagging on his puke. “By the gods what was I thinking?”

    Rafe could hardly bare to turn his emerald eyes upon him.

    “Get him to the wall, that’s all that matters. If the people see him there, they may actually stay for the fight. Just see that he gets there, one way or another. Humph,” he said, a childish smirk on his face. “Who would have thought, Theodorous was right. This man is nothing more than a drunk. Let’s just hope

    that he really doesn’t end up killing us all.”

    Rafe departed, motioning for Brice to follow. The Red Mage frowned at Alec before joining the Lord of Shattered Rock and his entourage of guards. One of his golden sleeves was soaked from dunking Alec’s head while the rest of his robe was splattered with stains of puke.

    “I’m fine, really.”

    Alec slowly stood upright, wiping chunks off of his beard.

    “Maybe I should bring him to the Archenon, shelter him in

    the Great Tree with the rest of the children.”

    He hadn’t realized Nathalia was there, but at the sound of her soft, eloquent voice, the blood began pumping through his veins and suddenly, miraculously he did in fact seem fine.

    “Don’t think you can adopt me like one of your whelps,” Alec said, raising his head to the others.

    Nathalia had brought her whelps along. The boy stood with his arms crossed, gritting his teeth with rage. The other one, the girl, she stared at him as usual. Her wide brown eyes a mix of compassion, sadness, and something that Alec might have mistook for love.

    Staring right back at the girl he said, “You may be old enough, but I’ll be dead if you think you’re going to be my mother.”

    Those wide eyes didn’t even blink.

    But he was certain Tetloan was going to explode. And, while watching, waiting for the boy to erupt, he had completely forgotten and disregarded the imp …

    “Ouch! Come here you little fiend!” Alec said, swatting at the air with one hand while covering the claw marks on his cheek with the other.

    “Disgusting human!”

    The imp retreated into the air.

    “Next time the smelly man falls asleep he can be sure

    Galimoto’s claw will be pressed to his throat!”

    “It’s okay Galimoto, Tetloan … ” her hand rested on his shoulder and the boy instantly relaxed. “I’ve grown far too accustomed to this. Alec refuses help. He would place himself in harm’s way just to spite my kindness. Time and again I’ve been there to save him from himself, but, like his shadow here,” she said, referring to Solo Ki who was half sleeping beneath the shade of a strange wide leaved tree. “He seems intent on destroying himself. Nothing else matters does it Alec?

    Certainly not friendship. Definitely not love.”

    I am the destroyer …

    “To the dead with you two,” she said, her eyes of white and gray washing over Solo Ki and Alec. “I’m staying with the children. At least they’re worth saving.”

    He may have been incapable of feeling love, but the shame cascaded in. As always Alec was ready for it and knew that it was something that must be endured.

    Then the mage came. No more smiles graced his face, only a deep scowl. The Magic veneer that was his face appeared angry, violent, and perhaps even deadly.

    “Don’t fail me, Destroyer,” Brice said flatly.

    His robe was alive. Pure energy!

    There would be no more bright smiles, nor white teeth. Alec had found the man’s limit, and had shat upon it. All traces of kindness were gone from his eyes, and along with it, the belief, the hope. In its place was something darker. A look beyond the threat of warning. The eyes watched him anew, vigilant now, waiting for Alec to fail, waiting for him to live up to the name — Destroyer.

    The shame was nearly overwhelming.

    He finally understands, Alec thought. At least I’ll be far from Nathalia now.

    He found a shred of comfort in that thought.

    I just hope I can save you too Smiley.

    Chapter 15: BEYOND LIMITS

    It was day, but in the shade of the One Tree there was no sun, only an endless blackened trunk that rose to the sky. A mesh of gnarled roots thick as normal trees, sprang from the earth, surrounding the trunk for miles. The only light was the faint white aura encompassing the man’s form. If not for the Power there would be only darkness, and he would be blind. Emanating from all directions, a constant wailing filled his ears as if the earth itself was in torment. Branches wafted toward him, although the air was still, snapping like breaking bones as they uncoiled to grasp at him, then withering away the moment they brushed his aura of white light.

    He had traversed the maze of roots for days to reach his destination, so far he had remained unmolested. But he sensed that was about to change.

    Everywhere he looked with his large wide eyes he saw them dangling from the One Tree, filling the branches like leaves. Mouths agape as though wordlessly screaming, their eyes of white and gray stared blankly into the darkness, meanwhile their skin constantly rippled as though swarms of maggots feasted beneath. Though in truth, it was the tree itself beneath their flesh. Unable to compel the elves in the Undeath, the tree now grew within them. Its vines fusing as one with muscle and bone. .

    “I bring you a message,” the man said, the words whispered through thin lips.

    “Speeeeeeak,” the hanging elves moaned as one.

    “You’re end is upon you. You will fail.” His message sent, the light vanished.

    The last thing Anon saw was the branches, reaching out like fingers to grab hold of him then pierce his flesh. He watched the earth receding from his feet and then there was only darkness and pain.

    “No, Anonnnnn. It is you who shall faillllllll!”

    With the elf nearly stepping on his heels, Alec headed toward Shattered Rock’s exterior wall. At his side, the Red Mage was silent, his features downcast. They had said nothing to one another throughout their trek, which suited Alec just fine. He had, for the most part, sobered up, though now he was beginning to feel the aftermath of his intoxication. Every thump of the elf’s staff on the cobblestones made his head throb. The less said in his company, the better. Besides, his mind was still too addled for intelligent communication, especially a conversation with the mage, though there were many words he wished to say to the man. Hopefully, he would have an opportunity to say them before it was all over.

    Above all, he was especially thankful that the mage had ordered his imp to watch over Emily and the others. At the moment, the little red devil would have been more than Alec could stand.

    All around them, people were stirring with the news that something was amiss beyond the wall. To his left, Alec saw a young woman fastening the armor of a gray haired man whom Alec assumed was her father. After she tightened his straps, the man heaved himself upright and returned the favor to the young woman. Standing in a doorway behind the pair, an elder woman braced herself against a doorjamb and a crutch. Except for the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her face resembled that of the girl. She looked on, wiping her eyes as her husband garbed their daughter for war.

    The daughter found Alec’s gaze on her and gleefully smiled in return. Yelping to her father, she pointed in Alec’s direction.

    Quickly he averted his eyes.

    They think I’m some bloody hero, he thought, hastening his pace.

    Shadows fell on the trio as high above their heads figures darted along the many wooden planks crisscrossing the rooftops. After the wall surrounding the city fell — which it was certain to do, being far too weak to withhold any sizable force — the battle would spill onto the roofs. More than likely, the figures scurrying there now were stockpiling the area with arrows, ensuring that every rooftop had an inexhaustible heap of silver-tipped shafts waiting to be unleashed upon the undead.

    Walking the remaining blocks in silence, they at last made it to the end of the city and stood together before the wall of poorly laid stones that would serve as the initial layer of defense. The defenders’ strategy assumed its fall. They would hold their position along its ramparts for as long as possible, then, the moment it showed the slightest crack, the mages would set it, and the land around it, aflame. Those who failed to reach the rooftops would be obliterated in a rain of fire, while those who yet lived would begin their slow retreat, constantly making their way inwards to the Archenon, where they would make a final stand within the walls of the ancient human king.

    Alec had no plans of making it quite that far.

    They were at the foot of the wall when the mage turned to Alec and said, “You’re on your own up there, Destroyer. Try not to do anything foolish. Your actions will be scrutinized by men far less sympathetic than I.” He turned to Solo Ki, his features softening. “Fight well, One Elf, from this world to the next.”

    A golden sleeve was extended to the elf. Solo Ki hesitated only briefly before clasping the mage’s hand.

    “And you, Red Mage. May you at last find what you seek.”

    Brice nodded his head of silky brown hair and then his body ignited in flames of blue. With his eyes shut and his hands and legs hanging limply, he left the earth, the toes of his boots passing by Alec’s face. In a matter of moments the mage was traveling through the air hundreds of feet above the wall. Alec looked up, squinting into the orange glow of the setting sun as the mage became a speck. He noticed others up there as well, a group a tiny dots bobbing in the air. He watched them for a while, finally losing sight of them in the growing haze of darkness.

    “Shall we?” Alec said, gazing upwards at the makeshift scaffolding lining the city’s wall.

    “After you.”

    The elf leaned on his staff as though exhausted.

    If nothing else I’ll make him happy, Alec thought, knowing that his shadow was growing weary of following him and anxious for the sun to fully set.

    She leaned over the tower, covering her pointed ears beneath the fluffy black and white feathers of her collar. Looking down through a gap in the tower’s circular parapet, she shivered as a sudden gust of wind drifted past. The gaps were spaced five feet from one to the next and angled downward at a near ninety degrees, allowing defending archers a clear shot at the enemy directly below them. Through the angled gap, Nathalia saw that Lord Rafe’s garden was no longer green, but full of dull clad refugees waiting to stuff themselves into the palace. Coordinating their movements with jabs of his massive war pick, the wicked boulder dwarf Gunt kept the crowd moving at a constant and ordered pace. Other than Gunt, a sparse number of soldiers were present below. Mostly, the Garden was filled with the disabled, the elderly, or with children, hardly any of which could lift a bow, let alone draw an arrow. Yet, there were others walking through the Garden as well, their strides smooth, flowing. Unlike the rest of the refugees, these beings were fighters of mythical prowess, immortal beings with eyes of gray and white.

    Shal’in Ome, Nathalia thought, looking down with disgust at her despondent kin.

    Seeing them piling into the keep alongside children and cripples filled her with shame. She wanted to kill them herself, put an end to their lives before they humiliated the elven race by cowering in the keep, waiting for death.

    Unlike them, she had come to the Archenon to fight. To save the children if she could. While the rest of the defenders were positioned along the city’s outer wall, Nathalia had chosen to await the undead within the Archenon. Eventually the fight would come to the heart of the city, and when it did, she wanted to be certain she was with the children. If she was to die in this battle, she would much rather give her life knowing that in her final moments she had helped to preserve something pure and good.

    With a bow of cherry wood on her back and a pair of thin, elven blades at her hips she was ready to eliminate whatever remnants of the undead made it to the Archenon. Comfortably seated on her shoulder was the imp Galimoto, his tail curled around Nathalia’s left breast.

    She turned, facing the backs of the children — Tetloan’s head of short-cut red hair and the lengthy dark curls of Emily — as they looked out over the city.

    “They shouldn’t be here,” Tetloan said, scowling down at the constant flow of people entering the Archenon’s gates. He too had a pair of blades at his hips, but unlike Nathalia he hadn’t the slightest idea how to use them. “To us, they’re useless. But you can bet your life they’ll be fighting when they’re undead. Someone should have kicked them out of the city a long time ago.”

    “Where would they go?” Emily asked with a squeak. “You know there’s no escape, and we’ve both seen what happens to those who flee.”

    She grabbed a fist-full of curls and stuffed it behind her ear.

    “What about you? Would you walk those roads knowing that the demons are hiding in the woods, waiting to leap out at you?”

    “Like you even know they’re out there. How could you possibly know that? You act like the undead have thought things out, like they have some sort of plan. They’re just stupid undead. All they know is hunger. That’s all. I bet the roads are clear from here to Lock Core.”

    “If you’re so sure then why don’t you lead them there?”

    “Because, I don’t give a dead about them. I’m here for

    Nathalia.”

    “Like when you were there for, Whimly?” she said, her eyes misting over.

    Silence was Tetloan’s only reply.

    “Must the children always fight?” Galimoto said from his perch. “Can’t they see it gives Galimoto a headache?”

    “Galimoto’s right,” Nathalia interjected summoning up her most authoritative voice. “The way you two carry on one would think you’re siblings.”

    “I was only saying that we might end up having to fight these people. That’s all.”

    The boy grew somber, lowering his head to the stone.

    “You’re right, Tetloan we may.”

    At that point it won’t matter, Nathalia thought. We’ll fall as easily as they once the Archenon is breached.

    She prayed it never came to that, yet she held no illusions as to her own invincibility. If the dark tide rose above the Archenon, she knew they would all be swept away, even the immortals.

    Though she had intended the thoughts to be held within her mind alone, she saw Emily turn to her, a look of despair suddenly clouding her face, and she knew that the girl had heard everything.

    ‘You’re inside me again aren’t you? Are my thoughts no longer my own Emily?’

    ‘I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to. They just come to me, your voice, your feelings. The feelings of others. I can’t stop them.

    They just happen, same as the voices of my own mind.’

    She remembered how, in order to heal his tortured mind, she had once linked her mind with Alec’s. She had found him, rotting in the darkness and had felt him, the sadness, the guilt, … the pain. The never ending pain. She felt it still, and now, because of it, she could no longer bear to enter his mind.

    ‘I felt him too,’ the child stated, once more reading her mind.

    ‘Alec?’ Nathalia thought, shocked and intrigued. What might the child have found that she could not?

    ‘He is still afraid, and sad. Very sad. Everything else he hides, even from himself. Like the pain. He cannot feel it. But it’s there still, almost like it’s a part of him now. Almost … comforting.’

    She would trade her immortality for a second of the girl’s sight. A second was all she would need, and in that moment she would finally know.

    ‘He has shown me that as well.’

    She felt a wave of embarrassment wash over her — though she wasn’t certain if the feeling was born of her or the child.

    ‘He loves you, Nathalia, though he would never say. It’s what he feels strongest, fears the most, and keeps hidden far deeper than all else.’

    ‘Impossible.’

    She dared not believe.

    ‘It’s true. He hides it, but it’s there for all to see. He can’t bear to be near you, would rather push you away than admit what he feels. He knows that your death would be more than he could bear. He can live — even though he blames himself for the death of thousands — but, if he lost you … he would be

    destroyed. Even Alec has his limits.’

    ‘It cannot be true.’

    “Well, if comes down to a fight, I’ll carve every last one of them worthless wretches into pieces,” Tetloan said, fumbling with two hands as he sought to unfasten one of his weapons.

    The boy’s actions were only marginally registered by her mind. She had thought herself freed of the Destroyer, freed from his endless cycle of pain.

    Not now, she thought, hoping she had saved the thought for herself.

    He only needed her when he was weak, and like a fool she would always be there to coddle him, to save him from himself. Otherwise, she was no more meaningful to him than the common gutter whore.

    Rotting hell, Alec!

    Now, more than ever, she wanted to go to him once more. She just wasn’t sure what she would do if she saw him; hold him in her arms, or slap him in the face for being such a fool.

    Meanwhile, she was oblivious to Tetloan, and to his sudden success.

    In one mighty pull his sword was free …

    … and flying wildly through the air, straight toward Nathalia and the imp sitting on her shoulder.

    Before Galimoto could react, before he could so much as twitch his tail in fear, there came a gentle clink as steel met steel. Nathalia’s blade was out, and against the silver, orchid engraved edge, Tetloan’s plain blade sat, and trembled.

    “Stupid child!” Galimoto said, hiding behind Nathalia’s neck. “In what world was he born that he cannot wield a blade? I’ve

    seen infants handle their weapons with greater skill.”

    “Maybe when this is all over I’ll teach you the art of swordplay, Tetloan. But for now, why don’t you stick to what Master Brice has taught you.”

    “Sorry,” he replied, embarrassed and once more fumbling as he sought to cram the weapon back into its sheath. “It won’t happen again, Nathalia.”

    Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief as she too replaced her blade.

    I wasn’t ready for it. An instant longer and I could not have stopped him.

    She felt the imp’s claws digging into her neck.

    “Don’t worry, Lady Nathalia, Galimoto would have saved you.”

    And to think, Destroyer, we’ve wasted all this time because you thought I would die by your hand. But now …

    “I’m sure you would have, Galimoto,” she replied, struggling to regain her composure. “But then, who would have saved you?”

    Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a gray robe appear, flying through the air while covered in a shimmering layer of blue.

    “I see you were able to revive your hero,” Coba said, hovering next to Brice. “How unfortunate for us.”

    Brice ignored him, surveying the ground below instead. The last man he wanted to speak with at the moment was the outcast mage. Brice had never been so mad, so full of hate for a fellow human. His life’s work was rapidly turning into a pile of dung all because of one man. The very same man who was once the core of all his hopes and dreams. Brice had been certain that he had accounted for everything, every last possibility and that his solution would resurrect this world’s fate. How could he have foreseen that his entire plan rested on the shoulders of a fool?

    Brice had seen the destruction of Lock Core first hand, watched as the darkness arose and swallowed the night. Everything near him had evaporated, vanished as though it did not exist and even though he stood at its outskirt it took all his power to survive it, barely. When it passed there was a gaping hole in Lock Core a mile wide, the mountain itself had melted into a crater the size of the Brother Moon, and at its center stood a boy. No mortal could have caused that. Brice was certain. Alec was a god! It was undeniable. And what more could he do if he only believed? If he only had faith in himself? If he only stopped acting like a complete ass! For the first time in

    his life Brice was mad, mad enough even to … Kill?

    If he continued his antics all would be lost. With Shattered Rock toppled, the Plague would encompass the entire Seventh World leaving no survivors. It was undeniable.

    He had spoken with Rafe about what should be done, and they agreed. Instead of allowing Alec to fail, he would first be destroyed.

    Beyond the grassy slopes surrounding the wall the tree line began, hundreds of yards distant, a vast forest thick with evergreens and oaks. The forest floor, and what dwelt within, was hidden from all eyes by a dense canopy of leaves. For as far as Alec could see there was a landscape of green sparsely decorated with leaves of orange and gold.

    Season’s changing fast, he thought, noting the myriad of color within the branches. To Alec it had seemed as though summer had only just begun. He gazed at the forest unable to set aside his feelings of dread and the notion that very soon the world he knew would forever change and his life would become unrecognizable even to him.

    With Solo Ki directly behind him, he had ascended a ladder leading to the exterior wall’s walkway of wooden planks. Now he stood upon that walkway, overlooking the city’s western border. With a longbow in his hands and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back, Alec waited alongside the rest of the city’s citizens for the legion of dead to step out from the shadows of the forest and into the fading light of day.

    “Hail to the Destroyer! Conqueror of life and death!”

    He had heard those words, or a slight variation of them, spoken far too much today, and, as it was now, he did his best to ignore the speaker. Luckily, this time his would-be worshipper moved on, sparing Alec further humiliation.

    One hour. Alec and the elf had been waiting on the wall for over an hour thus far. And in the tense anticipation of what could only be, in Alec’s mind, a catastrophe, time had seemed like an eternity. Alec kept his mind off the future, and his eyes off the faces of those around him, choosing to occupy the slow progression of time by watching the face of the wall, and the colony of red winged bugs crawling on its stone surface. Millions of the insects warmed themselves in the dying glow of the setting sun. A swarm of little red dots fluttering from one rock to the next, searching in the cracks of the wall for something only their minute bug eyes could see.

    He sought to focus him mind on trivial thoughts, pondering the insects’ fate once the undead moved on. Could they be turned as well, the insects of the world? What of the trees? He wondered. What affect did the Plague have on their lifeforce? He knew it really didn’t matter though, for when the time for answers arrived his only concern would be feasting on flesh. More than likely, the bugs would thrive afterwards, blanketing the defenders’ corpses with their maggot offspring.

    Alec had been leaning over the wall, watching the bugs lounging in the sun, when a sudden crash startled him upright.

    “By the Gods!”

    Chain mail hugging his skin, a dented plate of armor on every inch of his body, and at least two weapons for every limb — the Death Guard Theodorous cursed while struggling to lift his encumbered form from a hole in the walkway. Apparently the boards below him had been forced to give way to his steel covered feet. Bri Lynn was crouched down beside him, a tuft of blond hair hanging over her forehead as she helped pull him from the hole.

    “You there!” Theodorous said, trying to stand up tall and proud, though gravity and humility were both working against him. He directed his words to a youthful looking boy who was peering over the wall with a sickened look on his face.

    “Sir?” the boy replied, managing to bring words from his mouth instead of puke.

    “Fix this forsaken walkway! How in the Seventh World are we to defend this wall when a soldier can’t take ten bloody

    steps without falling to his death.”

    The child took one look through the broken floor, then lowered his head between the boards and vomited.

    “Rotting hell,” Theodorous cursed, lumbering his way to Alec and Solo Ki.

    The soldiers whom he passed leapt to the side, fearing the creaking of the walkway was a death knell to an early doom.

    “Greetings, Master Ki.”

    “Theodorous,” the One Elf whispered in greeting, dipping his head.

    “It would be my greatest honor to fight at your side this day.”

    Standing stiffly at attention he waited for some word of acknowledgement or acceptance from the elf. Receiving little more than the rustling of his soiled caped Theodorous fumbled on, ” … of course I would find any day at your side an honor, and not just during times of trouble mind you, but upon any occasion. In my mind there could be no greater splendor than to

    dwell in the shadow of the One Elf.”

    He turned to Alec lifting his visor, then continued, “The one true hero of the Seventh World.”

    Alec didn’t mind the insult directed toward his hero status and was actually glad to see the Death Guard. With his presence, all thoughts of the coming battle had been momentarily erased from Alec’s mind, cast asunder by the sound of his own laughter.

    Solo Ki seemed whiter than ever, disgusted by the sudden praise. Alec nearly fell from the wall amidst his amusement.

    He slapped Solo Ki on the back, felt his bones like stone against his palm.

    “Sorry to say, elf, but it’s nice to see someone else getting all the attention,” Alec said, trying not to laugh as the One Elf sneered. “Theodorous, I’ve been in his shadow for over a

    month now. And believe me, he’s not that great of company.”

    Alec couldn’t hear what the Death Guard mumbled beneath his helmet, but he was sure the comment was for him and that it was most unpleasant.

    Bent over with laughter, Alec leaned over the wall, unable to stop the torrent of chuckles racking his frame. He felt like he

    could have laughed forever …

    “There!”

    It began as a whisper from somewhere down the line, then … … soldiers shifting … the sound of armor clanging.

    The trees!

    Branches swaying, groaning, moving with a life of their own.

    From the trees!

    “The dead!” The call rang out among the line of defenders.

    Phhhhhttt.”

    No sooner had Alec noticed the shifting forest than an arrow arced into the sky.

    Phht, phht, ph, ph, ph … “

    The defenders were an undisciplined lot, hardened fighters one and all, but few soldiers. Fear was in command of this battle as every man began to fire at will, few waiting to even see an actual target. Up and down the wall the volley was joined and the air was filled with hundreds of wooden shafts.

    His laughter gone, an arrow at his cheek, Alec searched the tree line, his stomach coiling into knots with dread at what he would see.

    “Where?” he asked in a whisper. “Where?” he cried out his eyes desperately scanning the forest.

    The arrows began spilling into the trees. Then, in a wave of silver-fire the plague broke into the clearing, stumbling their way forward as a sky full of silver rained down on them.

    Without thought, he found a target and let loose. Stunned with disbelief and fear he tracked the arrow as it bolted to the sky then gradually drifted downward. His target; from the distance he was uncertain, but thought it had once been a woman. Her spine having been gnawed through, the woman’s neck was no longer able to support the weight of her head, and now it bobbled on her shoulder, hanging from her body with what little muscle and tissue remained in the neck. She moved slowly, no doubt due in great part to the pile of entrails spilling from her ribcage to the ground and tripping up her feat.

    The sight of her made Alec ill. He had thought he was beyond this, beyond the fear of death. And though he had seen as much before, he could not escape the fear. Not merely of dying, but of becoming like her — a meat puppet — mindless, lifeless, doomed to live for eternity desecrated in both spirit and body, all the while knowing only one feeling — hunger.

    He continued watching her in horror, transported back to that day at Lock Core when his every childish nightmare had become a reality. He watched, numb, his mind no longer acknowledging his senses, blind to his environment and the events unfolding around him.

    Somewhere…

    The walking corpse that had once been a woman was struck down in a field of green, vanishing in silver flames.

    Somehow…

    Alec stared down the length of another arrow and took aim toward the horde once more.

    ‘It begins.’

    They came crawling from the forest with the setting of the sun. Brice saw the end of day hanging blood red on the horizon. Before it, the trees shook with the march of the undead. ‘Summon all defenders to the Western front.’ Mage-fire!

    His flesh trembled from the sound of a nearby explosion of energy. Turning to the source, he saw a ball of blue light blasting down to the forest, hurled forth by one of Brice’s elder, but new apprentices. The man’s name was Jarrard, and only a month ago the man had been knee deep in pig slop, tending to his farm.

    ‘Not yet!’ Brice commanded, his mind at one with the rest of the Magi. ‘Hold your fear, and Magic. Save it for when it matters most.’

    Meanwhile, Jarrard was falling. His energy expended in one mighty blast of mage-fire the man no longer had the strength to levitate and rapidly began plummeting to his death.

    If only I had more time, Brice thought, a thread of energy leaping from his finger tips and wrapping around Jarrard’s ankles. They’re not ready.

    The earth shook as Jarrard’s ball of fire met with the forest, uprooting trees and carving a path hundreds of yards long. In the fiery aftermath, the forest was ignited. Towers of flame multiplied from one tree to the next, consuming everything within their path. Even the undead.

    “Look,” the gray mage Coba said.

    The flames licking at their backs, the undead were piling from the forest, many entering into the clearing only to collapse in smoldering heaps.

    “Maybe the fool had the right idea. He’s torching the bas-

    tards before they can clear the forest.”

    Without awaiting Brice’s approval Coba followed suit, sending waves of flame to the forest below.

    Brice watched as other mages quickly took up Coba’s lead and knew that he had to intervene before he lost all control.

    “Hold your fire!” he shouted, his voice amplified by the Singularity. “Adhere to our orders. Wait till the defenders retreat. Give them time to fall back. Then, when that moment arrives… ” a line of undead littered the ground below, a string of black corpses hugging the outskirts of the inferno like a procession of ants. “… scorch the Earth!”

    He held Jarrard’s life-line within a clenched fist surrounded in golden lace.

    “Until that time we wait.”

    Landing Jarrard safely within the city wall the line of energy between them was cut.

    Grumbling, Coba and the others obeyed, though Brice could tell they were tired of waiting and he had to admit, he was weary of it as well.

    Alec?

    Her pale, slender hand trembled as it rested on the stone. Her pupils of white saw far to the west, to the cities end where the red sky churned with fire and smoke.

    For the love of the Gods don’t be a fool out there, Alec.

    “It’s him!” Emily squealed beside her.

    “Alec?” Nathalia replied, thinking that the child was tuned to her mind once more.

    “No. It’s him. I can’t believe it, but it’s him.”

    With her dark curls draping over her eyes, she looked up at Nathalia. Her plump lips parted, and smiling, she said,

    “Whimly. It’s Whimly. I can feel him.”

    “Somehow, I don’t think that’s possible, Emily,” Tetloan said, rolling his eyes.

    “I don’t care what you think. I feel him. And he feels … real. He isn’t dead!”

    She tucked her lithe body into one of the gaps in the wall and looked to the empty garden below.

    “And he’s here!”

    She scurried past the others and began leaping down the steps two at a time.

    “Emily wait,” Nathalia called out, watching as the girl’s brown robe whipped around the corner and vanished from sight.

    ‘Emily!’

    “Stay here, both of you,” she said before jumping into pursuit, her feet barely touching the stairs as she flew after the girl.

    Alone in the tower, Tetloan said, “Hey, if you do exist imp. I

    for one ain’t about to let Nathalia run off without me.”

    Ensuring that his swords were securely fastened at his waist,

    Tetloan took off after her.

    Little did he know that at the time he spoke, Galimoto was already halfway down the stairs.

    Darkness had fallen. Yet the horde of undead could be easily seen, silhouetted before the flaming forest. The outer wall trembled from a hundred thousand fists battering its stones. Here and there cracks formed and widened, while throughout the western front the wall slowly but surely began to crumble.

    His teeth rattling from the force, Alec slipped an arrow between his middle and index finger. The arrow leapt from his fingertips. As quickly as he could snatch the next one up, it was gone, disappearing into the horde of dead which now filled the field below and encompassed the entire western front and beyond. Though he was a skilled archer, as were most inhabitants of the Seventh World, aiming was a non-issue. By pointing his bow toward the stench of burnt and rotting flesh, even a blind man could hit his target.

    There’s an awful lot of Meat Puppets down there.

    How many had it been? A dozen? A hundred? Thousands? He had lost count of the number of arrows he had let fly, though he knew the number had to be significant, as was, no doubt, the casualties he inflicted on the undead. The process had become a ritual. The repetition of his motions relaxing. His hope mounted with every twang of the bowstring and every sight of his arrow piercing into undead flesh.

    “Ain’t so bad,” Alec said, grinning, momentarily pausing his barrage of arrows to playfully swat Theodorous on the back.

    “Like shooting fish in a bucket.”

    The corpse of a dwarf was pulling himself up the wall with fleshless fingers. Leaning over, Alec pointed his bow at the creature’s skull and fired, turning the dwarf’s head into silverfire and dust. Though headless, the dwarf’s body crawled on.

    “Still hungry huh?” Alec said, digging into the quiver at his back. “That’s okay, I can do this all night long.”

    But then, moments after obliterating the rest of the dwarf, a new army emerged, forming ranks at the edge of the forest.

    They waited, more cautious than their Meat Puppet brethren. “Get ready,” Theodorous shouted. “The Living Dead come!” Time to die.

    But first he had to get everyone else out of the way.

    “Run, damn you,” Alec shouted at them, knowing the plan was to draw out the Living Dead so the Magi could have at them, but he wanted to take them out himself. For once he was glad to be a hero, for immediately the defenders obeyed him, and began scrambling down the wall, their arms laden with arrows. One by one they practically tumbled down the ladders in their haste to retreat.

    “Where you going damn you? We must hold the wall,” Theodorous commanded while lumbering after the fleeing defenders. With every footstep the walkway groaned. Finally the section he was on gave way altogether. To the sound of crashing timber and clanging metal, Theodorous plummeted to the ground, laying in silence for a moment, then awakening, cursing out, “Bloody walkway!”

    “Good,” Alec said. “Looks like soon it will be just you and me elf.”

    Seemingly oblivious to the undead invasion, the One Elf had sat patiently throughout the battle, leaning on his staff the whole while, so silent that Alec had almost forgotten about him.

    He was about to get in more firing practice when he spotted other shapes moving in the crowd below. Cloaked beneath the shadows of the inferno, the beings slithered among the undead, dark, empty stains on the land. He counted ten of them rapidly making their way to the wall.

    He picked one, aimed an arrow in its direction and fired …

    The shaking from the undead pounding the wall vibrated his bones.

    Nothing. Alec watched as his hope and his arrow were consumed by darkness. Meanwhile, the demon continued toward the wall unfazed.

    “Too soon,” Alec said, hanging his bow over his shoulder and cautiously stepping around the crumbled section of walkway. “I have to get them moving. You coming or not?” He asked, seeing that Solo Ki remained motionless.

    The elf’s head was lowered and his cape gently vibrated around his tall bony frame.

    He may have fallen asleep — but Alec was in no mood to see if he was going to awaken any time soon, so he shrugged his shoulders, turned, and ran to check on the progress of the defenders. He was glad to see that the majority of them had already made it to the ground and were hurrying to take up positions on the city’s rooftops.

    Unfortunately, at a nearby ladder a line of soldiers had formed, waiting for its use.

    “Come on you bastards!” Alec yelled out to the soldiers.

    “Hurry it up. Don’t you know who I am?”

    Smiling to one another they replied, “Hail Destroyer he who comes to deliver us from the dead.”

    “Good, you know who I am. Then you know the moment the undead breach this wall I’m likely to burn your existence from this world.”

    As if in response, the wall was racked by a massive blow, and to Alec’s horror, the ladder, and the soldiers on it, toppled to the ground, screaming. A few of them broke free from the ladder, but those highest up held on while it slammed to the earth, pinning them beneath.

    “Hey, bring that ladder back up here,” one of the younger looking soldiers in front of Alec called down to the troops below.

    Beneath the fallen ladder several limbs wriggled. No one heeded the young soldier’s call, instead the survivors continued scrambling into the streets, navigating past the fallen ladder and flailing limbs beneath it.

    “Don’t worry, son. Have no fear of death, for the Destroyer is with us.”

    Rotting hell.

    The speaker was an older man, no doubt a gray haired veteran of Lock Core. The man turned to Alec, and said, “Hail to the Destroyer! Conqueror of life and deaaaaaaaa … ”

    Alec was thankful for the abrupt end to his words, but much less so when he saw the shadowed hand wrap around the man’s neck. To his credit, the soldier managed to draw his blade before the flesh began rotting from his face.

    “Son of a Bitch!”

    Stepping back, Alec slid his short sword from its sheath, watching as the dark being began tearing apart the veteran soldier and all eight of his companions. Gulping down his own vomit, he watched as the demon wrapped its tentacle like appendages around one man’s shoulders and waist then, with the man mid stride running from the demon, he was ripped in half, his entrails steaming in the evening air as they spilled onto the walkway.

    As far as he could tell, not a single one of them even had a chance to strike at the demon before they died. Yet despite their failure, Alec drew a dagger with his left hand and stood ready, prepared to give his luck a try.

    Having quickly exhausted its supply of fresh blood, it turned its blank face toward Alec, and — quick as light — it came at him.

    “Boom!”

    Outside the wall it was raining fire. Giant balls boiling with flames hammered the ground, forcing Alec to his knees. He raised his head. Wood particles and shards of rock whipped past his face. Buffeted by debris the dark being strode toward him, ignoring the hail of burning rock crashing down around it. Rising, Alec prepared to meet it … The walkway disintegrated.

    In an eruption of splinters, Alec and the demon flew through the air.

    “Curse you, Coba, there’s defenders down there!”

    Brice took his eyes off the devastation below and drifted toward the man. The Gray Mage’s body was covered in blue, his palms spread out before him. From his hands, sparks of energy leapt outward, merging several feet in front of his chest to form a ball of pulsing blue flames. Teeth clenched, Brice flew closer to the man, his face covered in shadows cast by Coba’s glowing ball. As he neared, his features were illuminated by the blue light, and for a second it seemed as though Brice’s face was melting. His skin, normally smooth and flawless, began transforming into rough patches of white scar tissue. As quickly as it began, the illusion was gone, and his flesh was baby soft and perfect once more.

    “Defenders, Brice?” Coba replied, energy curling from his mouth with every word. In front of him, the ball of energy had grown to nearly half his size. “The Magi have sought that man’s death for years. And now there he is, your hero, alone and utterly helpless. I have but to sneeze and the Destroyer is no more.”

    He threw his head and arms back.

    “Noo!”

    “Aaachew!”

    The ball of fire thundered downward. No more than a heartbeat later, several strands of energy from Brice’s fingertips darted after it. Crackling as they wove through the air, the threads of light closed in on the meteor, diving into its fiery tail. His energy took hold, latching on.

    Immediately, he tugged on the blue threads, redirecting its course moments before it slammed into the earth. Flames and stone hurled through the air as the wall was evaporated in fire.

    “What are you doing?” Brice asked, his body engulfed in flames as he began searching the blast area.

    Alec?

    Little could be seen in the pile of rubble below. The only thing moving was a throng of undead seeping through the newly created breach.

    Had he failed?

    “Rafe thought you were too delicate of heart to deliver the blow yourself.”

    Brice turned, his eyes hidden in thick pools of mage-fire.

    “He thought it would be best if I handled things,” Coba said.

    At the sight of Brice’s rage, Coba drifted back, the flames of blue thickening all over his body.

    “This had to be. You know that as well as I, Master Brice.”

    It was true. He knew it had to be done. But to see his dream blown asunder was more than his eyes could bear. He had failed, failed the fool Alec, failed the entire Seventh World. It was because of Brice that Alec’s power never came to fruition. Somewhere along the way Brice’s plans for the future overshadowed the thoughts and emotions of one man. And because of it, there would be no miracle victory, only another meaningless defeat.

    Suddenly his head began throbbing, his every heart beat filling his mind with fire.

    Squinting in pain, Brice raised a gold sleeve to his head. His eyes looked to the horizon, seeing the world through the Singularity. Hundreds of yards distant, a man hooded in black robes filled the night with an aura of blue flames.

    Brice wiped his nose, raising a sleeve of blood stained lace up to his eyes saying, “Someone approaches.”

    “I know, I feel him as well.”

    His dark brows mashing on his face, Coba scanned the distance.

    Veterans of Lock Core, those who were warriors and Magi both, told tales of many incredible demons marching from the Rift that day. Some, they said, could squash a boulder dwarf in their fist, and with one punch, entire stones were split. Others were larger still, fanged demons capable of crushing stones within their very maws. As dangerous as these giants may have been, there were other, far more powerful beings that sought to crack open Lock Core. They were creatures beyond both life and death, indestructible. These beings controlled the Hunger, existed by their own will, and — according to those who had lived to see them — they fought with a skill that was beyond even that of the elves, leaving many of those ageless beings to rot upon the Red Wall.

    In the Book of Adros these beings were known as the Reapers, servants of the Void that were far more dedicated to eradicating life then they were to feasting on it. The greatest of their ilk wielded the Singularity, twisting the flow toward a dark end. It was their presence at Lock Core that shattered the Order. They sought and slaughtered every mage they could find … and after killing them, they bound them to the shadow.

    Looking at the dark robed figure, Brice felt his soul well up with darkness…

    “Kill it! Everyone. Blast it from the sky.”

    A bushel of dark curls bounced on her back as she scurried through the garden. All that remained of the once lush collection of flowers was dust covered earth. What was edible had been stored, all the rest had been trampled to death by the flood of refugees. Her throat grew raw from breathing in mouthfuls of dust.

    “Whimly?” She cried out, gagging on the word.

    Receiving no answer she ran on, becoming invisible as her brown cloak blended with the dust. Throughout the courtyard she ran, calling his name till her lungs could take no more, then, her throat cracking from dust she made her way to the Statue of the Unpure Soldier where she sunk her curls into the depths of his piss.

    Her hair matted to her face. She raised her head, forming her hands into a cup. She dipped her fingers into the water, filling her palms, then raised them to her plump lips.

    “Whimly,” She said, her eyes wide while water dribbled from the corners of her mouth.

    Ecstatic she spun.

    “Whimly. I knew you were alive. Tetloan wouldn’t believe

    me, but I knew it. I could feel you.”

    He stood before her in a haze of dust, his eyes hidden from her as he stared at the ground. His glasses were nowhere to be found.

    “Whimly?”

    Slowly, Emily stood and reached out to him, the palm of her hand still moist.

    “I felt you as well … as well,” Whimly said, lifting his head. Renewed by a breath of wind, his words echoed through the courtyard. “The moment I awoke I saw you. You’re the bright-

    est of them all … so full of life … life.”

    She drew her fingertips toward his cheek, then stopped, leaving her small hands to hover near his flesh and tremble. The dust began settling around them.

    “What . . ?”

    She remembered when she had seen him last, seen the light of his eyes extinguish in death. Rejecting the truth of that vision, she had come to find him, hoping beyond hope that her eyes were deceived. At last, seeing his eyes clouded, rotting in his head, she knew it was her heart that could not see.

    Horrified, she quickly withdrew her hand.

    The air began clearing around her, she saw figures emerging from the haze at his back, dark humanoid forms, their features obscured by the dimming sun and the thinning layer of dust.

    “I need you … Emily.”

    She stepped back. Black fingernails moved toward her face.

    “Save me. Make me whole once more.”

    Those behind him drew closer their features revealed as they strode through the dust. Their armor was black, their breastplates contoured like a skeletal frame. Fanged helms hid their faces, hid their true identities behind the visage of a cackling wolf.

    A film of blue surrounded her. Not a pyre or conflagration of flames, but a simple, elegant mist.

    “You’re not Whimly,” she coldly stated.

    A pair of alabaster hands reached out to her and a wave of blue mist wafted out to great them.

    Blue waves. A ripple in time. To those who were blind; flames, water, earth and wind — a fiery cyclone of magma and steam. LeCynic laughed as it engulfed him.

    A breeze.

    It barely stirred the threads of his black robe.

    Unharmed, he passed through it then halted in midair, curious to see what trick the flying clowns would perform next. They bobbed in the distant sky, a colorful troop of brown, green and blue — highlighted with a dab of red and gray. The majority of them were slow to recover from the opening act. Their bodies glimmering in a hazy blue, hardly enough to even keep them afloat.

    To easy, LeCynic thought, knowing it would be a small matter to penetrate and rupture their shields. Despite their frailty, he would go slow, relishing the moment, enjoying every death, each one certain to be surprising and unique. After years of concealing the extent of his abilities he would finally reveal the true meaning of power to his peers and one by one he would pluck them from the sky, granting them more power in death than any of the fools could ever have hoped for in life.

    The air shuddered and quaked as he summoned his power, replacing his black robe with writhing blue flames. He released the energy — thousands of snakelike tendrils ripping through the air. Meanwhile, the distant mages continued to regain their strength, their shields only thin layers when the hissing flames washed over them.

    Coughing, Alec dragged himself from the rubble. Bruised and battered he rose to his feet, groaning. His beard and hair were black, caked with dust. He took a moment to shake the dust off his face before realizing his peril.

    Son of a bitch blew a hole through the goddamn wall.

    The wall was breached. A hundred foot section had been blown to shreds from the blast, and now, stepping over the rubble and crushed bodies of their comrades, the undead army piled through.

    His sword was gone — no doubt buried beneath a pile of stone — and his bow snapped in two. His only defense was his dagger, which landed several feet away and was glaring out at him from among a pile of rock. He ran to it. Snatching it up on the fly, he continued running, moving as fast as his legs could bear him to the sound of human voices coming from the rooftops. He couldn’t die yet, they were still too close. He had to get to higher ground and regroup, figure out a way to drive them off. Get them to the Archenon.

    Behind him, arrows fell to the ground, clinking as they hit stone, or landing in silence as they sunk into flesh.

    Within the din of inhuman howls he heard a pair of intelligible words ringing out from somewhere high above.

    “The demons!”

    Theodorous, he thought, easily recognizing the man’s irritating voice.

    Abruptly the volley of arrows ceased falling behind him and

    Alec was left to fend for himself.

    A second before colliding into it, he saw a two story building of brick appear before him. His recognized it, having raiding it in the past. Its first level was an herbal shop — supposedly medicinal herbs though their primary medication was chopa — while the second level was housing space, strictly rented to addicts in order for the dealers to keep their customers in arms reach. Nowhere did Alec see a ladder nor any type of access to the rooftop. All of the doors and windows were sealed, covered over with boards or filled in with stone and mortar.

    “Rotting hell! How in the dead did they get up there?” he said, wondering if it might have been best to have paid more attention when the Red Mage was going over the battle plan.

    Just then a blur of darkness caught the corner of his eye.

    His years at the Warphanage took over. Instinctively he dove to the ground, doing so just moments before the dark object sped by. He tumbled headlong till his momentum was exhausted, then, anticipating a quick follow up strike, he leapt to his feet, spinning.

    As he thought, a blob of darkness was seeping toward him. The very same creature he had just seen decimate a dozen soldiers within seconds, and all he had to fight it with now was a ten inch blade.

    Despite the situation, or perhaps because of it, he chuckled.

    “In case you’re not aware, I’m the Destroyer.”

    The being hovered beyond the range of his weapon, shaping itself into a man and looking back at Alec with an empty face.

    Apparently unable to comprehend his message.

    “That means if you touch me you die, I don’t care how invincible Solo Ki thinks you are.”

    The creature remained motionless.

    Finally, someone who doesn’t know who I am. If only he …

    He dropped to his knees as a dark fist blasted through the wall above his head. Granted a sudden opportunity, maybe the last he would get, Alec drove his silver dagger into the being’s form, burying the blade up to the hilt. His attack struck home. The demon reared up, crying out with a gurgling scream. Waiting only long enough to twist his dagger deeper then pull it free, Alec flung himself away from the creature.

    No sooner had he made it to his feet, then the gurgling voice ended in silence and once more the black silhouette was coming at him.

    Too fast! Too bloody fast, Alec thought, turning to watch the being speed through space.

    Sluggish, he stepped back.

    The undead were crowding into the streets, filling the air with inhuman moans as they stumbled through the city. Scraping the flesh from their bones as they crawled over jagged stones to reach him, they shuffled forward on broken limbs, slowly contaminating the city with their rotting lifeless forms.

    Beyond the pile of rubble and fractured wall, smoke seeped from the blackened earth, rising from the ashes of evergreens and oaks. The air above was clouded in darkness and smoke, stifling the light of a thousand fires burning in the very sky itself. The fires thundered to life in the heavens, shaking the earth below with an ear shattering BOOM!

    His thoughts seemed to slow. With his brain filled with mud he could hardly register the dark hand reaching out to him.

    The valley beyond the wall was silent. High above, the Magi had gathered, halting their earthbound strikes to face the new, airborne threat. The smoke from below began to reach them, making it difficult to see the black-robed figure hovering hundreds of yards before them.

    Both sides were motionless, resting, restoring their strength with the brief lull in the battle. Earlier, the sky had been filled with mage-fire blasting out from both sides. As of yet, the group of Magi had suffered few losses, due in great part to the fact that they had focused all their efforts on defending themselves while offering only an infinitesimal show of retaliation. However, Brice was beginning to fear that by sitting and absorbing blows instead of delivering them, most of his people had already exhausted their power, and now any counterstrike they could raise would be laughable. Brice too felt the drain, but knew that deep within he had plenty left to give. He just prayed the others could find something more to draw on as well. If not, it was obvious to him that their fading shields of blue were no match for their enemy’s perpetual inferno.

    “The bastard fancies himself to be a Black Mage, higher in the Order than the Keeper himself,” Coba said, floating alongside Brice. “Higher still than that bitch, Nicola.”

    To Brice’s surprise, the Gray Mage had fought more fiercely and with greater courage than all the rest.

    “Judging by his skill, I would say it’s not just arrogance that compels his manner of dress,” Brice replied, secretly healing his wounds without Coba’s knowledge. He didn’t want Coba to see any sign of weakness on his part, especially since Brice had seen none in him. “If not a Reaper, he is certainly a Gate

    Keeper.”

    His power is beyond us all.

    “Whatever he is, he is magnificent,” Coba stated with far too much admiration than Brice would have liked.

    “Whose side are you on, Coba?”

    In the distance, the figure shifted, his robe thrashing about as he was ignited in blue flames. Simultaneously Brice and the twenty-one other mages lit up like a struck match.

    “I’m with you, Master Brice, make no mistake. Granted, I would see the Triad bow before us. Yet, what fun would it be if they were all dead?”

    Despite his response, Brice still wasn’t sure if his question had been answered.

    “Get ready!” Brice said as yet another wall of blue fire came barreling down upon them.

    The fires rekindled in the heavens, covering all of the land in a reddish hue. Alec’s mind finally registered reality and he saw a hooded figure rise up behind the demon, eclipsing it beneath a torrent of flowing cape. Reaching the pinnacle of his height, the lanky figure flung back its cape and in the strange crimson light Alec saw a frail skeletal hand squeezing a staff of blackened wood.

    The hand of the demon wavered at the tip of his nose — Alec blinked — the hand was gone, its emptiness replaced with the night. Several feet away, the hooded figure and the demon fought, a pair of silhouettes dancing against the backdrop of a red horizon. Mage-fire detonated in the sky as the Graelic struck home, its reddened tip catching the demon directly on the ever shifting appendage that most closely resembled a head.

    Knocked to the ground, the creature howled, crying out in a garbled plea for life. Threads, pieces of the being’s dark essence momentarily hung from the Graelic’s tip before they were drawn into the wood, staining the red tip black.

    Softly, the hooded figure spoke in elvish, then, possessed by a sudden madness, he slammed his staff down upon the demon, grinding the tip in the creature’s body. With both hands firmly wrapped around the staff, he stared down at the creature, watching as its presence within the Seventh World diminished, it body slowly absorbed by the wood of the Graelic.

    Then it was done, the creature was no more and the hooded figure was utterly calm.

    “Where you been?” Alec asked, seeing lines of smoke wafting from the elf’s staff. “Didn’t think I’d get to see you fight today.” He looked to where the creature had previously lain.

    “And I didn’t think you would have lasted as long as you did,” Solo Ki spoke. “I had hoped you would have long since perished.”

    “Thanks. Another second and you would’ve had your wish.”

    Why did you save me anyways? he thought, dying to ask the question. Whatever your reasons, “Thanks for saving me, Solo

    Ki. I owe you one.”

    “I have a feeling you’ll be repaying me soon enough.”

    With the words, Alec was reminded of the horde groaning behind him, and the fact that the mindless beings were drawing closer.

    “Later. Right now we’re going to find a way onto these god-

    forsaken rooftops.”

    “Emily!”

    The girl was too light. The dust settled too quick, leaving

    Nathalia with little to indicate her passing.

    “Where are you?” she said, trying to pierce the dust with her elven eyes.

    Nathalia’s steps didn’t even stir the dusty earth.

    “I swear to the Gods, when I find you child I will lock you deep within the bowels of the Archenon. So deep, that when I

    finally release you, you will be a wizened old crow.”

    She paused. Felt the earth tremble, slightly at first, then … the entire Archenon shook, and as agile as she was, Nathalia nearly fell. Instantly regaining her balance, she bolted to the tremor’s source which shone through the dust. The earth fleeting past her feet, she ran toward the tower of blue fire rising in the distance.

    All the shutters were boarded off, all the doors barricaded shut. They had traversed several city blocks without finding the slightest sign of entrance into the buildings.

    “How in the dead did they get up there?” Alec cursed.

    With only a ten inch dagger and Solo Ki’s blackened branch of wood, there was little they could do to gain access into the buildings’ interiors. Not only that, but the paths before them were sealed as well, the roadways packed full of mountainous piles of debris. The citizens of Shattered Rock had cleaned house in order to blockade the roads, creating solid walls of tables, chairs and other miscellaneous house furniture. Perhaps passable by the One Elf, to Alec, the roadblocks were as impossible to scale as the walls of Lock Core. Meanwhile, every time they were forced to backtrack, the moans of the undead grew louder, echoing from the street corners at their backs.

    “They used ladders,” Solo Ki responded, bluntly. “Then where in the rotting hell are the bloody ladders!” Frustrated, Alec quickened his pace.

    “After ascending, they pulled them up, assuring that the horde would be unable to follow.”

    Alec was suddenly longing for the days when the One Elf remained silent.

    Briefly scanning the walls for signs of weakness, they continued on, Alec kept his curses to himself, gritting them between his teeth. Then, rounding another corner, he stopped in his tracks. Every last curse he withheld came exploding out.

    “Bloody, rotting, f … ing, son of a bitch!”

    His voice bounced harmlessly off of the twenty foot high barricade of junk before him. The obscenities died down, and in their absence Alec could almost hear the undead biting at his ear.

    “Hail Destroyer! He who yet lives while walking among the dead.”

    No matter his predicament, the chant was still stinging to hear.

    A helmet covered head peeked over the rooftop of a twostory building to his left, quickly followed by a score of others. Despite his reputation as a savior, many of them still eyed him down the lengths of their arrows.

    “How fare you Destroyer, are you yet with us or among the dead?” One of those very same men demanded.

    “Aye, I’m living. But won’t be much longer if you don’t send us a bloody ladder.”

    “What of your companion?” Someone asked.

    “Aye, that one looks mighty dead to me,” one of the defenders blurted, lifting his visor to ogle the One Elf. He squinted, struggling to focus through a pair of crossed eyes. Shortly after it was raised, the visor slammed shut of its own weight.

    Meanwhile, his comment was greeted with much approval by the others.

    Alec’s patience was as precarious as a boulder dwarf dangling from a frayed thread. Froth formed at his lips while he opened his mouth, preparing to lash out in the One Elf’s defense.

    The harsh voice of another beat him to the punch.

    “Ignorant, gutter rabble!” the voice shouted from the rooftop.

    The speaker appeared, waddling to the roof’s edge, his body covered in rusty plates of armor and weapons of every sort iMaginable.

    “Fools! How can you aim your bows while being so blind. Surely your eyes fail you if they cannot see the magnificence

    and the splendor of our city’s greatest hero.”

    “You mean the Destroyer?” the cross-eyed soldier questioned, grappling with his visor.

    “No you dolt! That’s Solo Ki down there!”

    A hundred threads of light wafted toward Whimly, moving to tear apart his puffy white flesh.

    Nothing, I cannot feel him.

    Her fingers of light probed his form, passing into and through him as though he did not even exist. Meanwhile, his own hand was drawing nearer, as were the many wolf helmed soldiers. Desperate, she gathered more power, increasing the force of her efforts, sinking her energy deeper into Whimly’s twisted soul. She stepped back, tripping over the fountain and landing on her rump in the water. Her efforts dissipated as the chill of the water began seeping into her flesh. Suddenly

    Whimly was there, hovering over her, reaching out once more.

    “So much light … ”

    ‘Life … ‘

    The word was voiceless, a disembodied echo.

    With her back pressed against the statue of the pissing soldier, Whimly laid his hands on her face …

    Beyond fire, beyond pain, she felt her soul being torn away, replaced by vast swelling darkness.

    “Noooo!”

    Covered in a whirlwind of blue, Emily fought to repel it with every bit of strength she had left. Her dark curls writhed in the cyclone while she rose to her feet, drifting to a stand by the power of her will alone. Hovering inches above the water, her wide eyes opened and before her, the rotting husk that was once Whimly fell back, a look of shock covering his bloated face.

    “I don’t understand,” he said, creeping backward. “What does this mean?”

    She could still feel the darkness growing within, but in the next instant, the blue flames burned it to dust.

    Whimly continued backpedaling, seemingly terrified at Emily’s display. Then, turning, he quickly departed, disappearing into the darkness and dust. Slumping to the water, her power spent, it was with great dismay that Emily noted that the dark clad soldiers had chosen to remain.

    They thought it was yet another miracle. Another display of the Destroyer’s awesome power and invincibility. His presence among them was all the convincing they needed for them to hail him as the savior of the Seventh World. No matter the amount of profanity he directed at them, they refused to leave his side — all of them. Except for Theodorous who had his own idol to admire, and his better half, Bri Lynn, who easily saw beyond the legends and rumors to see that Alec was nothing more than a man.

    Alec and the elf had joined a squad of fifty soldiers (actually, the only true soldiers were the Death Guards, all the others were dimwits and drug addicts) who had been moving from one rooftop to the next, firing down at the Plague as it slowly crept through the city’s streets. They took their position on top of a building only long enough to watch as the ground swelled with the undead. Then, fearing a prolonged stay would become an invitation to the Living Dead or the demons, the squad crossed the wooden bridges spanning the rooftops, one soldier at a time.

    So far, Alec had joined them for three such crossings and as far as he was concerned, he was more than happy to stay right where he was. He knew that sooner or later he would find himself halfway between buildings when CRACK! The four foot wide plank would give way to his weight and he would fall several stories, while in the street below hundreds of undead would be scrambling to catch him in their maws.

    “At least let me go before Theodorous next time,” Alec said after crossing his forth bridge. “I swear he cracked that last

    one with all of that bloody metal he carries.”

    Outraged and indignant, the Death Guard shuffled over to him and immediately the two men battled to top each other with expletives. Between words of bloody this and rotting that Bri Lynn managed to interject herself into the conversation, the honey in her voice replaced with venom as she shouted, “Would you two shut up! Either kill each other or start killing the undead. I don’t care, just shut up!”

    Teeth gritted, she fired into the crowd below then ripped out another arrow from the quiver at her hip.

    There came a sound like that of ice cracking in a cold winter night. Alec turned, and there was Solo Ki leaning on the Graelic, laughing.

    I’ll be dead, Alec thought. If the One Elf can still laugh then that’s hope enough for me.

    Alec playfully swatted Theodorous’ plate covered shoulder while smirking toward the One Elf. Shocked, the Death Guard recoiled from Alec’s hand as though it held the touch of death itself. Drawing an arrow, Alec joined Bri Lynn’s side.

    He was smiling as he shot into the street, releasing every arrow with glee. He had managed to get off five blissful shots before he heard Bri Lynn cry, “The demons. Get moving! We leave NOW!”

    Emily lowered her head to the pool, her curls spilling past her plump cheeks, when suddenly a familiar voice softly spoke out, “Get up. Move.”

    Glancing up, she saw a pale white hand to her left. The hand was empty, then before she could blink, a silver orchid was shining in her face.

    Slow to obey the command, the voice grew tense crying, “Move NOW!”

    Somehow the words spurred her to her feet, and with the sound of clashing steel and cries of, “To the Archenon” she drove on, stumbling forward on unsteady feet while behind her, the sounds of battle grew to a frenzied pitch.

    Dazed by exhaustion, she wandered into the moat, wading into the murky waters until they were at her waist. Before she could make it any further, hands grabbed her and roughly pulled her to land.

    “Where’s Nathalia?”

    Tetloan was holding her by the wrists, looking down at her with eyes filled with mage-fire.

    Raising his hand as if to slap her, she quickly replied, “behind me.”

    He flung her to the ground and turned to look. There she was, skipping over the earth with her spry elven limbs, a bow of cherry wood in her hand, cocked and ready. Bobbing in the air behind her came the imp Galimoto.

    “What are you waiting for? Run!” She called out, and soon afterwards several wolf helms appeared, bursting through the darkness.

    Too tired to fight, Emily turned and hurried on while behind her the air was rent with thunder as Tetloan began striking the invading soldiers.

    “Lower the bridge! The enemy has entered the Garden!” She heard Nathalia screaming from behind, her words aimed at the boulder dwarf Gunt who was commanding the drawbridge.

    With the air crackling from Tetloan’s repeated attacks, Emily continued on, barely able to lift her feet from the ground, forcing herself into a sluggish march toward the distant bridge. Every blast of energy illuminated the entire palace in a bluish glow. Looking up at the colossal structure Emily could see the shadows of those behind her cavorting on its walls.

    Panting, she made it to the foot of the bridge. No longer able to stand on her own legs, she utilized the bridge’s rusted iron railing as a crutch, and with whatever strength she had left she dragged herself across.

    On the other side, beneath the arched entry way into the keep, the boulder dwarf looked around, scratching his head of gray hair when suddenly he must have caught sight of Nathalia and her armored pursuers for without pondering the situation a moment longer, he wrapped one of his meaty hands around a lever and thrust it to the ground.

    Clank, clank, clank … ”

    Groaning, as if in protest, the bridge began sinking.

    Little more than halfway across, Emily felt the chill water creeping up past her toes. Fearing she would be dragged to the depths of the moat along with the bridge, she released the railing and dove forward. Splashing more than swimming, she flopped her way through to the other side, laying in a drenched heap beneath the entry while the boulder dwarf cranked away at yet another lever. “Clink … clink … clink .” She looked up.

    “Clk, clk, clk, clk, clk … ”

    A wall of steel and silver spikes plummeted toward her waist but she no longer had the strength to move.

    Their next bridge was a particular joy for Alec to behold. Not only did it span one of the city’s wider roads, but it was inclined at a steep angle, moving from a two level structure to a four-story warehouse. Alec had watched several soldiers crawl up the thing already, and every time they neared the center the entire bridge bulged downward, flexing till he swore it would surely snap.

    Behind him, Bri Lynn was trying to convince the stubborn Theodorous to remove his armor and choose which weapon he loved the best.

    “I will most certainly not part with my battle axe,” the man said, fuming.

    Battle axe? Alec wondered, unaware that the man had even been carrying such a weapon. Where in the dead has he been stashing that?

    Due to the precarious angle, the squad was taking considerably longer to transition from one rooftop to the next. Roughly half had safely made it to the other side. Slowly but surely, Alec’s turn approached.

    “Down! All of you!”

    Solo Ki suddenly shouted, then …

    Thh, thh, thh … ”

    A hail of arrows hissed through the air, falling down on Alec and the others. Crouching low, Alec crept toward the knee wall surrounding the rooftop’s edge.

    To the distant sound of clashing arms and shouts of outrage, the arrows began landing among them, sinking into far too many of their targets. Except for Theodorous, who had mysteriously come upon a large round shield, and Bri Lynn, who was tucked beneath it as well, all those who had been caught in the open were wounded or dead.

    Screams began filling the night, coming from the wounded bleeding to death in front of him, and from the distant warehouse roof where Alec figured, judging by the shouts of “Long live the Destroyer!”, the rest of their squad were fighting for their lives.

    The noise from the warehouse was surprisingly brief. Then, even the cries of those in front of him ended as a second volley of arrows littered the rooftop. Finally, there was only the sound of the undead moaning in the streets below.

    “You will not rob me of this, X’ander,” Solo Ki called out, standing in the open among the many fresh corpses.

    “Sorry to disappoint you, One elf, but I have my orders. The

    Destroyer must perish by a living hand.” “Damn your orders!” The other laughed.

    “What would I be without orders? Rules to guide me? A

    sense of purpose in life? Shal’in Ome One Elf, I would be you.”

    “If you wish to have him, then you must face me. And unlike

    him, I cannot die by a living hand.”

    There was silence for a moment, then the conversation resumed.

    “Perhaps a compromise, Solo Ki. You keep your Destroyer

    and I leave both of you here to die.”

    “No!”

    Now it was Theodorous who was yelling. Alec saw the man peeking his head out from behind the shield, a look of horror on his face. Soon after, Alec heard a tremendous BOOM! At the sound the entire building shook. There was no need to raise his head and look, he knew what made the sound. The bridge had been demolished, cast aside from atop the warehouse.

    Though not exactly pleased at the current situation, he was strangely relieved knowing that he wouldn’t have to cross it.

    “Why have they stopped?”

    From the other side of the door there was only silence. Nathalia took her ear off of it and turned to Emily, who was several feet back from the entryway and wrapped in a rich, silken tapestry that Nathalia had ripped off the walls. Tetloan was clad in a similar fashion. All three of them were still soaked from their dip in the moat.

    If it hadn’t been for the boy, Emily would have been cut in two and Nathalia trapped outside with nothing but her blades between her and the demons. Tetloan’s power had kept the gate open just long enough for her to drag Emily out of harm’s way, then the portcullis descended and they were locked inside the Archenon with the rest of the refugees.

    The chamber to their backs was stuffed with refugees, their eyes full of fear and apprehension. Even the spiral stairway that wrapped around the ancient tree trunk was packed with people, many dangling off the sides like ornaments. It was from those heights that her own people had gone to hide, and unlike the other refugees, their eyes of gray and white held nothing but boredom.

    “They are seeking another way in,” she replied to the wideeyed young girl, then quickly craned her neck upwards. “Is

    there another access to the keep?”

    His throat rumbling like an earthquake, Gunt sucked the mucus from his lungs before answering, “I reckon they can look all they want. But the only way in is through them doors.”

    He raised his war pick — which was a two foot steel spike fastened to a steel brick thick as a human head. Her golden ponytail bouncing, Nathalia nodded her approval.

    “Good,” she said, relaxing her form. “Then at least we’ll know where to bolster our defenses. Are these the only ones you could find then?”

    Hidden behind the boulder dwarf’s girth, a group of ragged and filthy faces regarded one another in awe. They peered out from within helms gilded with gold and silver, their eyes sparkling from the reflection of the jewels encrusted in the armor and weapons of those around them. They had lived their lives without seeing so much as a pinch of gold and now they were draped in it. After struggling for ages to free themselves from poverty, they had finally acquired a fortune, though now beyond saving their lives their possessions no longer had value.

    Many of the soldiers in the crowd were wrinkled, bent, elderly men and women, their eyes clouded over with glaucoma and their joints inflamed with arthritis. Nevertheless, these ancient veterans had come forward from within the crowd, fully prepared to give their lives in yet another battle for the Seventh World. Worse yet, several of the other soldiers Gunt had been able to scrounge from the refugees lacked limbs with which to even wield their fancy weapons. Yet, despite their disabilities, they too were ready to die defending their world. Lastly, Gunt had recruited a score of children. With helms of gold draping past their eyes, and tripping over their own armor, Nathalia took one look at their brave little faces and immediately said, “The others can stay, but for the sake of the gods please bring them back to their mothers. We’re trying to fight the Plague not feed it.”

    Snarling in obedience, Gunt roared down at the children, “You heard her! Drag your diaper covered asses back to the others.” Immediately the children scrambled out of sight.

    “Somehow I doubt these fighters will suffice,” Nathalia said, looking over the odd group of soldiers numbering no more than fifty.

    In order to raid Rafe’s armory, she had been forced to break Gunt’s nose — no simple task. But now, at least all of the soldiers were armed, and for an added bonus, the giant Boulder Dwarf had grown rather amiable to her wishes.

    “Aye, unfortunately all the real soldiers we have are fighting at the front, or clinging like cowards to the Great Tree,” the dwarf said, pulling a bloody wad of cloth from his left nostril.

    Gunt’s comment made Nathalia’s cheeks blush with shame.

    “I would shake the bastards loose if falling to their deaths wouldn’t please them so,” Gunt continued. He twisted the cloth, wringing out the blood. Then, after wadding it into a ball he stuffed it back in.

    “The Shal’in Ome will fight only when cornered. Otherwise, only Adros himself could drag them from that tree,” Nathalia was sickened by the discussion.

    She left the boulder dwarf and his paltry group of soldiers to join Emily and Tetloan.

    “I’m sorry, Emily … Sorry for your loss,” Nathalia said, resting her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

    “No. No, Nathalia. I’m the one who should be sorry. I acted like a fool and nearly got you all killed. I should have known …

    She lowered her head.

    “I should have accepted the fact that Whimly was dead a long time ago.”

    “Sometimes, the death of a loved one is impossible to accept,” Nathalia said, her eyes drifting off into the past. “And as long as we hope … we can be deceived.”

    “You’re starting to sound like Solo Ki,” Tetloan interjected, his words thrusting Nathalia back into the present.

    “How dare … ” she was about to reprimand him when she suddenly realized he was absolutely right. She had been merely repeating what the One Elf once told her, a long time ago.

    Son of a …

    Boom! Boom! Boom!

    The pounding resumed and she turned to see the gate vibrating.

    Bitch!

    She leapt back to the door; laying her hands and pointed ear open its surface. Gunt joined her, saying, “Sounds like they’re getting angry, or hungry.”

    “Aye, they’re getting desperate to feed. They know there is a ton of meat trapped in this shell, and all they have to do is crack it,” Nathalia said, cautiously stepping back. “We need to warn the rest of the city. Prepare them for the possibility that they may be retreating toward a massacre.”

    “That’s impossible,” Gunt said. “Not only is that gate the

    only way in, it’s our only way out.”

    Nathalia lifted her head to the multilevel balconies circling the walls above.

    “… the arrow slits,” she whispered.

    “Ha! You may be thin elf child, but not even you could squeeze through them gaps. Not even a human child could fit … unless … ” The boulder dwarf pondered. “Perhaps with enough force, I could shove them through.” He scanned the crowd searching for a test subject. “Though I cannot say what

    their remains would look like on the other side.” Nathalia blanched, disgusted by the thought.

    “I have a better way,” She said, looking around the room.

    Where in the dead did Galimoto fly off to?

    Finally she saw him, marveling at a middle aged woman seated before him as he repeatedly poked a claw into her right leg. He stared at the woman, his yellow eyes not only wondering at her inability to see him, but awed by the fact that no matter how far his claw dug, Galimoto’s presence could not be felt.

    Her eyes as listless as a Shal’in Ome, the middle aged woman looked ahead, unaware of the world around her.

    Meanwhile, Galimoto continued to poke his claws into her flesh, unaware that she hadn’t felt sensation in her legs since she had fallen from Lock Core some twenty years past.

    Soaring through the shadows and night on wings of black leather the imp Galimoto surveyed the city below with a pair of eyes that glowed yellow in the light of the brother moons. As much as he hated leaving Nathalia’s side, he could never disobey her. To him, she was the only thing of beauty on the entire stinking dung pile of a planet they called the Seventh World. Her and the girl smelled sweet and fresh, like the flesh of a new born. The rest of them reeked of death. His true Master, the Red Mage Brice, could compel him into obedience with his power, but Galimoto would do anything for Nathalia if only to hear her soft voice speak his name.

    Below him rows of buildings towered over streets flooded with the undead. Meanwhile scattered along the rooftops, the humans continued their slow flight toward the Archenon, an arrow constantly at their fingertips whether it laid within their quivers or at their cheeks. As far as Galimoto could tell, the horde had diminished little from the humans’ efforts. Even if they had fallen back, all the way to Lock Core, Galimoto was wise enough to know that it would have made little difference. The defenders of Shattered Rock were the citizens of but one outland city, while the horde represented hundreds of such cities, not to mention what appeared to be the entire dwarven nation. An army of ants could no sooner remove the sands from the desert world Er’Konis than the defenders could strike down every last one of the undead. Perhaps the walls of the Archenon would buy them some time, but still, the humans would need an eternity.

    Galimoto sensed the presence of his master, felt him emanating fear, far away at the outskirts of the city. His master was too distant to be of any help to Galimoto, and Galimoto was far too busy to be of any help to him.

    Galimoto cannot save everyone, the imp thought, deciding to leave Brice to fend for himself. Besides, what has Master Brice ever done for Galimoto?

    Perhaps the imp’s adoration for Nathalia overcame his allegiance to Brice? Or perhaps Brice’s grip on Galimoto’s usually short leash slackened, his control over the imp diminished as he focused all his efforts on saving his own life? Either way, it was clear to Galimoto what he must do. Not only would he warn the defenders of the attack against the Archenon, he would warn the One Elf of it as well. After all, Solo Ki still owed him a favor or two.

    Casting aside the sense of fear radiating from the Red Mage, the imp honed in on the scent of the elf.

    Cold.

    Dead …

    “Oh, Oh.”

    Another scent wafted from Solo Ki’s direction almost drowning out all other smells. His wings stirring to a rapid flutter, he plugged his nose then made haste toward the overwhelming stench of death.

    “Now what?” Alec asked as Bri Lynn popped out of the trap door and shook her head. Next to the door was an iron anvil which Alec and the other survivors had pushed aside.

    Besides himself, there was Theodorous, Solo Ki and five other soldiers on top of the corpse-covered rooftop.

    In the streets below, the undead were whipped into a frenzy, the freshly spilt blood taunting them from above. They threw themselves against the already damaged building, smashing their own bones into pulp in their desperation to feed.

    “I don’t know. The rooms below have been cleared out.” Bri Lynn replied. “I recommend we conserve our arrows for when the demons come. Beyond that, I haven’t the slightest idea. The bridge linking our building to the warehouse was the main artery in our route to the Archenon. As far as I know, from

    where we stand there is no other path. Except the streets.”

    Alec glanced over the edge of the building to watch the broken bodies piling up below. Even if they didn’t succeed in breaking into the building by throwing themselves at it, sooner or later the heap of bodies would climb to their height and the position would be overrun. Luckily the Living Dead had yet to show themselves. Alec wasn’t sure if the Red Mage and the others succeeded in roasting them all or if they were just being cautious, perhaps fearful of running into Alec.

    Grabbing a half empty quiver of arrows and a longbow from the hands of a fallen defender, Alec did his best to slow the pile’s creation.

    “Together we could exit the building from below. But the moment we succeed, we will be battling for our every step,” Bri Lynn continued.

    “There must be another way. We won’t last a minute in the streets,” Theodorous said, pausing from shooting the undead to address the others. “What do you think we should do, Master Ki? No doubt you have faced greater threats before and have always prevailed.”

    “Don’t you get it, Death Guard? This time he doesn’t want to prevail,” Alec interjected while releasing an arrow.

    Theodorous ignored the comment, awaiting a response from the One Elf himself.

    “Don’t bother saving your ammunition,” Solo Ki finally said after moments of silence. “When the demons come, your arrows will be as little use to you as the steel in your hands. I can only recommend that you spend your last moments in this

    world praying to the gods for an honorable death.”

    “Tried to warn you,” Alec said to the Death Guard before firing another round into the street.

    Puffing out his chest, Theodorous turned away, facing toward the undead once more. Before the Death Guard resumed firing, Alec heard him softly utter a prayer from beneath his visored helm.

    “What the … ” Alec muttered, peering out into the dark skyline.

    A black spot stained the face of Minos, a tiny little speck which grew larger the longer he watched. Groaning, Alec was finally able to distinguish its shape within the white glow of the moon. He raised his bow, aiming his steel tip straight toward the minute red creature flying toward him on a pair of leathery black wings.

    The little bastard will never see it coming, he thought, the bowstring slipping from his fingertips.

    “Wait,” the One Elf said softly at his side. “For once, you may wish to hear what Galimoto has to say. He comes bearing a message from Nathalia.”

    It was pointless for him to ask how he knew that, Alec had simply grown accustomed to the fact that the One Elf knew everything.

    … Immortal heart. Nathalia.

    Amidst the chaos of the night he had nearly forgotten her. His mind filled with dread as the imp drew closer, knowing that only something terrible would cause the imp to leave his so-called lady love.

    “What happened!” Alec burst out before the imp had a

    chance to speak. “Where’s Nat?”

    Ignoring Alec, the imp turned his yellow eyes to Solo Ki.

    “The Lady is in danger! Trapped in the hall of the human king … ” the imp said, buzzing toward them. “Trapped there by many powerful Demons.”

    He spread his wings, gliding down to the rooftop.

    “The Lady ordered Galimoto to warn the humans, to tell them that their castle is safe no more. But Galimoto came to Solo Ki instead. He knew that if there was anyone who could save her the One Elf could. If only he would do Galimoto this final fa-

    vor, Galimoto swears he will not ask for more.”

    “I would think Nathalia could handle herself against a few undead,” Solo Ki replied, disinterested.

    “No. The One Elf does not listen. They are beings which

    your kind would call Reapers, warriors of the void itself!”

    Alec felt his insides knotting at the mention of the name.

    “Sounds like a good way to die to me,” he said, hoping to guide Solo Ki to Nathalia’s aid. He knew that the only way the elf would willingly leave his side was if he was certain it would result in his doom. As for Alec, though his heart would shatter no matter how she died, at least his spirit would rest peacefully knowing that it wasn’t by his hand.

    The elf was silent, pondering the situation.

    “If so, then this world is far more corrupted than I believed,” Solo Ki said. “If the Void has come to reclaim this world than there is little any of us can do.”

    Desperate to save her, Alec continued trying to goad the elf into helping Nathalia, quickly intervening.

    “An opportunity like this doesn’t come along often Solo Ki.

    How long has it been since you’ve battled a worthy opponent?” He felt the One Elf probing his mind.

    “You would have me at her side, but you would remain behind, Destroyer?”

    “Aye,” Alec said, unembarrassed at his lack of heroism even in the face of Theodorous’ scowl. “But don’t worry, One Elf,

    I’ll be here when you return.” … If you return.

    ‘Perhaps I will not have to.’

    With the imp perched on his shoulder, Solo Ki whipped around and yelled out to the others, “The Void has come to reclaim us. Whether we reunite with it at Alec’s side or in the

    streets, before the night passes we will all be dead.”

    Everyone, including Theodorous, paused from what they were doing to look at the One Elf dumbfounded.

    “I am through waiting for death. For those who would do the

    same, follow me as I choose my own end fighting in the street.”

    “Either that, or stay here with me when I turn this building into dust,” Alec added. He had to get rid of them all. Not merely because he was — more than likely — going to kill them, but also he knew that whatever danger she was in, Nathalia would need all the help she could get.

    Even the five soldiers, self-proclaimed followers of the Destroyer, blanched at his words.

    Good.

    Theodorous leapt to his feet, surprisingly fast considering all the armor he wore, and slapped his hand to his chest, proclaiming, “It would be an honor Solo Ki to end my days at your side.”

    It was with much greater reluctance that the others agreed.

    “Imp? I don’t see nothing,” the cross-eyed soldier said, his visor once more falling over his eyes.

    Alec had learned the man’s name was Lenny.

    “Consider yourself lucky, kid. If only I could be so blind,” Alec replied. “Take my word for it, the little bastard’s on top of the warehouse.”

    “Beggin your pardon, Master Destroyer, but what if that imp

    can’t let us in? We’ll be trapped in those streets.”

    Aye, Lenny, you will. The Gods know I wouldn’t put my life in Galimoto’s hands.

    “Well kid, no matter what. I can guarantee that you’ll be better off out there than staying here with me.”

    He turned to Theodorous who was cramming more weapons onto his body.

    “What’s taking so long, Death Guard?”

    Theodorous had been fastening armor straps and holstering weapons for what seemed like hours.

    “For the love of the Gods, what more protection do you need?”

    “That’s easy to say, Destroyer, when you haven’t even the

    courage to join us in the streets.”

    The man had no idea that it was far more difficult for Alec to stay than it would have been for him to go. He was only trying to help them in the best way he knew how.

    “Someone has to cover your ass,” he said, spreading out arrows at the roof’s edge. “You can’t expect Solo Ki to do all of the work.”

    As though the sound of his name was a summons, the One Elf appeared, his head of white hair poking up from the trap door.

    “Are you ready?” Solo Ki calmly asked. The red tip of the Graelic jutted from his back where he had strapped it in exchange for a dagger and a plain worn double-edged broadsword both of which he had acquired from one of the slain soldiers.

    Along the western side of the building four soldiers were heaping their fallen comrades into a grisly pile. Their bodies covered in blood, the soldiers draped the corpses over the wall, creating a frenzy of activity in the street below as a stream of blood trickled down the gaps in the brick wall.

    “All set? What about the exit?” Alec asked. “Will you be able to leave when I give the word?”

    “We have a table propped against it, otherwise, there is nothing preventing it from being opened by the undead. We are ready to enter the streets, and I recommend we proceed very soon.”

    The pair of gray and white eyes focused on Theodorous, who was suddenly spurred into motion by the gaze. Whether it was the light of Minos or a trick of his mind, Alec swore that he saw a gleam appear in Solo Ki’s dull lifeless eyes.

    “Good. Then get the dead out of here. The Meat Puppets will tear this building apart if I don’t give them what they want. And soon.”

    Dipping his head to Alec, the One Elf vanished into the building. His armor and weapons clanging together a thousand times with every single step, Theodorous waddled after his hero then stuffed his weapon laden body down the stairs. With Lenny at his side, Alec walked over to the other soldiers and relieved them from their gruesome work. Together — four of them covered in the blood of their friends and the other constantly lifting a visor past a pair of crossed eyes — they stood and stared at Alec.

    “What are you waiting for?” Alec yelled. “Get the dead out of here!”

    As one they bowed, then quickly filed away. The last to disappear through the roof was Lenny, who, peeking up from the hole, called out, “Fight well Destroyer,” before his visor fell over his face and he too vanished below.

    “Aye. Fight well, all of you … ” He grabbed a corpse and

    flung it from the rooftop. “… from this world to the next.”

    He watched it tumble slowly through the air. Immediately the horde swarmed to greet it.

    BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! … ”

    Splinters flew from the doors. The thick oak table propped against them cracked in the center.

    “It won’t be long now,” Nathalia said, stepping back, her blades hissing out of their sheaths. “Emily, Tetloan.” The children were standing beside her. “Find higher ground, the higher the better.”

    “I’m staying,” Tetloan stated from behind her.

    “Me too,” Emily piped.

    She turned to them, the words, “get moving!” ready to burst from her lips. However, seeing them standing there with the look of determination in their eyes, she knew the Great Tree would sooner budge than them. Emily’s lips didn’t pout, but scrunched together, her jaw clenched. Blue fire filled her eyes.

    At her side, Tetloan tossed aside the tapestry replacing it with a blanket of blue flames.

    “If you’re going to stay, then at least stand back. I don’t

    want either of you thinking you can fight them hand to hand.” She stared particularly hard at Tetloan.

    “Fight them afar with your Magic, but if the soldiers fail, you must promise me you’ll fall back. As fast as you can.”

    They both nodded, though it took Tetloan longer to do so.

    “Stand back!” Gunt bellowed. “The door will hold no longer!” Muscles bulging, the Boulder Dwarf grabbed the ends of his war pick and pressed it against the doorway.

    Several other soldiers made a feeble effort to aid him, but their wizened and frail frames added little resistance. And for their help, Gunt hollered at them.

    “Fools, I said stand back!”

    Before the elderly warriors could move to obey, the dwarf’s strength gave out, and the doorway with it. The dwarf flew back, landing with a crash on the stone floor. Meanwhile, the other soldiers who had been aiding him fell to the ground, pinned to the earth by a large section of wood. Amidst the flying bodies and debris, several blackened wolf helms emerged. They crossed the threshold, slowing only long enough to drive their blades into the soldiers trapped on the ground.

    Gunt was still lumbering back to his feet when Nathalia leapt out to meet them, a flock of old and crippled soldiers trailing behind.

    Driving his sword into the forehead of a trapped soldier, one of the Reapers was unable to defend himself when Nathalia came at him in a whirlwind of silver. No sooner had the Reaper turned to regard her than a pair of orchid blades slipped beneath his breast plate, one on each side of his body. Amidst a spurt of black blood, she withdrew them as quickly as they entered. Her blades covered in gore, Nathalia left him, squaring her shoulders to face two more of the wolf-helmed demons who were barreling toward her.

    “Nathalia!” the children simultaneously shouted.

    The warning fell on her pointed ears and quickly, she pitched her weight to the side, tumbling, narrowly avoiding a sweeping blade. Immediately she was on her feet, and to her surprise, so was the Reaper she had recently struck and left for dead. The other two demons were almost on top of her, charging at her from the left, moving with remarkable speed considering the heavy layer of steel plates covering their bodies. In front of her, the demon who had almost taken her head came at her slowly, the rubble from the doorway crunching beneath his boots.

    The rest of the defenders seemed to move like lead, ambling to the portal, their jewel encrusted weapons reduced to crutches in their feeble hands. Likewise, Gunt was as slow, if not slower, to move, only recently rising to his feet. But even so, he took his time collecting his wits, rubbing the dust from his eyes.

    It didn’t matter. Nathalia was ready for them, all three of the Reapers. Before her heart could even beat the course of action was laid out in her head. One move after another, she plotted the future for as far as her mind could see. With the path before her made clear, every motion was restrained within her, condensed into a single coil waiting for its moment in time to explode. Her body and her energy bursting out as one …

    … one fluid motion …

    The air crackled. A chain of blue energy blasted the demon in front of her, pitching the black clad knight into the garden. Her gray eyes darted to the left where a large chunk of wood levitated above the heads of the other demons, then, before they could reach her — with an ear popping THUD!, the shard of doorway slammed to the earth, crushing them. A cloud of dust billowed outward, rolling across the stone floor and around Nathalia’s feet.

    Charging through the cloud with their weapons raised before them, the other defenders finally arrived, halting their crippled procession at Nathalia’s side. Even Gunt had managed to drag his lumbering form to the entryway. Nearly filling the doorway, the Boulder Dwarf’s knuckles whitened as his fingers twisted around the handle of his war pick. Dust caked his shaggy brow, coloring it gray.

    Shadows scurried through the courtyard. Occasionally Nathalia’s elven eyes detected a wolf helm, or a glint of black armor shuffling in the moonlight.

    “They’re testing us,” she stated, her ashen face calm, her eyes digesting the darkness.

    Several feet in front of her the fallen Reaper stirred, traces of Tetloan’s energy still flickering on its armor.

    “Move everyone into the Great Tree. Keep the demons from entering it at all costs. If they get inside, these people will be massacred.”

    She slipped through the doorway, her padded feet resting at the head of the rousing demon.

    With a flash, a flick of her wrist, and a spray of black blood, the wolf helm sprung into the air, bouncing on the courtyard several times before finally coming to a rest.

    “What the . . ?”

    The blood stopped pouring from its neck, reverting the direction of its flow and regenerating the white, severed tip of its spinal cord. Stunned, Nathalia watched as black blood restored its vertebrae and tissue began growing over its newly formed spine. Headless, the demon lurched to its feet.

    “How in the dead am I supposed to kill you?” She asked, fully aware that — without a mouth — the creature was unable to reply.

    Fortunately, Gunt stepped forward and answered for it.

    Crushing metal, bones, and even the stones beneath its feet, the Boulder Dwarf repeatedly heaved his war pick into the air and hammered away at the being’s body, only satisfied with his work once he was looking down at a crumpled pile of steel and pulp.

    “Hah,” he bellowed, wiping the sweat from his brow.

    “That seemed to work,” Nathalia said.

    The mass of flesh and steel vibrated for a moment then was motionless. She turned, looking toward the fallen section of door, and the pair of demons trapped beneath it. “Now, see if it works on them.”

    Grunting, he ambled off.

    I just hope his stamina holds out, she thought, once more turning her attention to the horde of shadows lurking beyond the moat. For a second all she could see was darkness, then, the shadows were everywhere …

    “They’re moving,” Bri Lynn whispered, peeking through a crack in the wall.

    A pungent mixture of mold and rotting flesh permeated the cramped room. Pieces of broken furniture were scattered about the floor, thrown there by Solo Ki and Bri Lynn while clearing a pathway to the door.

    “Now,” Solo Ki ordered.

    Theodorous and the five soldiers instantly moved to obey, thrusting aside the table propped against the door. As they flung it to the ground, Bri Lynn scurried down from the crack to aid them. Meanwhile, drawing his dagger and broadsword, Solo Ki strode toward the door. With his vein riddled hands curled around the hilts of his blades, his foot flew outward, smashing apart the door. Already heavily fractured from the beating of the undead, the force of his kick blew the door from its hinges, spraying a hail of fragments into the street. Then, in a blaze of silver-fire, the One Elf rushed in.

    Clutching a battle axe in a pair of gauntlets, Theodorous cried out, “Hah! Have a bite of the One Elf you rotting meat puppets!” and lumbered out into Solo Ki’s path of flame. Hacking into the crowd like an insane lumberjack, Theodorous continued cursing, swinging his axe from shoulder to shoulder. What his axe missed, his weapon covered body somehow hit, slicing any creature that came near with one of the many weapons jutting from his body.

    For every step the One Elf paved, a score of undead closed in to reclaim it. But, trudging along in his suit of full mail, Theodorous and his battle axe kept the road open for Bri Lynn and the rest of the soldiers to follow.

    The herd was thinned by the time Bri Lynn leapt into the street. She moved fast, goring the first zombie she saw with the silver tip of her spear. Its body split in half with a flash of silver-fire, the being’s lower half walked on while the upper half was on the ground moaning and gazing up in confusion as its lower half walked by. With a swift kick, she toppled the legs to the earth where they thrashed about in an attempt to stand. Then, thrusting her spear forward, she impaled the creature’s head.

    Soon the five soldiers were in the street as well, finishing off the crippled victims of the others, and before long, they had managed to carve a defendable position on the street. Undead reinforcements were slow to come, the horde being more interested in the bloodbath Alec had created in the alleyway. As a result, Solo Ki had ample time to reach the warehouse.

    A blur of silver-fire, the One Elf incinerated everything within arms-reach (which was a great deal of space considering the elf’s incredible size), ending his hurricane of steel and silver in front of a pair of ten foot double doors fastened shut with boards and chain. With a slash of his broadsword he severed the chain. It fell, slipping from the door handles and rattling as it landed on the street. Then, with his dagger pressed against the door, the One Elf struggled to pry the boards from off the door. His only result a bent blade, Theodorous lumbered up and said, “Allow me, Master Ki”, his battle axe falling with a heavy thud on the door. He repeated the blow, again and again, chopping through the barricade of boards one by one.

    “Hurry, Theodorous, they’re coming stronger now,” Bri Lynn said, plucking away at the advancing horde with a short bow while the rest of the soldiers cut down any of the advancing undead she couldn’t hit.

    “That’s it!” Theodorous shouted, throwing down his axe and grabbing one of the brass handles. “Quick, help us pull.”

    Solo Ki was on the other handle, tugging with all the strength his thin arms possessed. Neither him, nor Theodorous seemed to be making any progress. Bri Lynn and the soldiers crowded around them, helping them pull, grabbing whatever they could hold.

    “Try pushing then!” Theodorous said, raising his voice to be heard above the growing roar of the undead.

    “No, the doors swing outward.”

    The One Elf studied the heavy steel hinges attached to the door.

    “It is still secured from within.”

    He reached behind, freeing the Graelic from beneath his cape.

    “Keep trying,” he said, walking out to meet the oncoming wall of undead. “The imp will succeed, he has never failed me yet.”

    “Here apprentice, you try,” Theodorous said, picking up his axe and charging to the One Elf’s side.

    Bri Lynn took one look at the door then turned to Lenny, “See what you can do.” She grabbed hold of her spear and went to aid her master. “We’ll hold them back as long as we

    can. If we’re still alive when that door opens, let us know.”

    The moment the undead were within reach of the Graelic, Solo Ki swung out, felling several of the beings with a single swing. Though, unlike silver, the beings did not burst into flame, but merely dropped to the ground instead, their corrupted life-force swallowed by the blackened shaft of wood. Eager to aid his hero, Theodorous joined in, hewing several of the undead down with a swing of his axe.

    The mass of undead closed in, forcing both of the warriors to step back. In a foolish attempt to impress Solo Ki, Theodorous dashed forward, his axe blowing the undead back like a battle ram. Unfortunately, his success was greater than he anticipated, and he soon found himself dangerously deep within the undead ranks.

    “Um … Master Ki? Some help please,” Theodorous said, tightening his grip with both hands and heaving his axe upwards.

    All around him undead hands reached out. Many quickly burst into flame as his axe fell, and many others disintegrated as his armor shifted — the bare blades hanging from his body jumping to life with the motion. But as soon as his axe finished its arc a pair of fleshless hands grabbed hold of him … then another … and another …

    “Master Ki!” Theodorous screamed out as the hands began dragging him down. Solo Ki and Bri Lynn leapt to his aid, the One Elf batting the undead away as they piled on top of him while Bri Lynn fought fiercely to carve a path to her master’s side.

    Theodorous lifted his axe to strike once more but fell to the ground instead. Silver flames ignited around him while he struggled to free himself — the many weapons hanging from his armor the only thing keeping him from harm, functioning as a weapon as well as a means of defense. Somehow his helmet was lost in the shuffle, leaving the flesh of his face and neck fully exposed. Not about to miss the sudden opportunity to feed, one of the undead dove in with a wide opened jaw. Unable to move, Theodorous saw the yellowed teeth coming at him and was certain he was doomed. Then …

    The creature burst into flames. Theodorous closed his eyes as the fiery ash rained down on his face. Miraculously, one by one the undead ignited. The next thing he knew, Solo Ki and Bri Lynn were standing above him. Curls of smoke wafted from the tip of the Graelic as a pile of lifeless husks grew around them. The surge of undead was temporarily thrown back, allowing Theodorous to lurch to his feet — with Bri

    Lynn’s aid of course.

    “My deepest thanks, Master Ki,” Theodorous said while freeing his helmet from beneath a pile of ash.

    “Thank the Destroyer. A moment longer and I would have

    been wielding the Graelic against you.” “Ha … ”

    He noted several arrows resting in the piles of ash.

    “I’d thank him, if only he had the guts to fight in the streets.”

    Slowly, Theodorous and Solo Ki stepped back as the undead amassed in the street once more. Within the crowd a dark blob appeared, slinking its way toward the combatants. An arrow plummeted from the building above. It sank into the blob of darkness and, unfazed by the silver tipped shaft, the demon crept to the battle’s forefront.

    LeCynic had the Gray Mage in his hand. The veins in Coba’s face bulged, his flesh shifted in hue from crimson to blue. In comparison to the hand wrapped around his throat Coba’s flesh seemed vibrant. Far more alive than the flaking yellow fingers crawling with black, pulsating veins. The mage’s black robe fluttered, as did Coba’s eyes.

    “Betrayer!”

    Brice raised his arms, the dwindling aura of blue around him erupting into a final burst of flames.

    The Black Mage looked on him and smiled, letting Coba slip from his fingers.

    “You’ve killed us all, LeCynic!”

    “Fool, mage. Haven’t you learned?” he replied, the words lubricated by the pus oozing from the sores on his lips. “You were already dead.” Brice struck him.

    The hue surrounding his robe fizzled into nothing as he raised a hand of blue fire to deliver one last blow. His fist tore through the night, landing with an explosion of flames on the Black Mage’s chest.

    He never saw what happened next. It was his last attack. His power was no more. Extinguished. All for nothing. Though he could not see him, he knew that like the rest of his efforts, he had failed, and in his mind the Black Mage laughed … Coba closed his eyes.

    Brice fell to the earth, defeated, deaf to the wind as it howled past his ears and buffeted his gold fringed robe. His final thoughts were of his failure. Of his students — all dead. Somewhere within the city below their fallen corpses grew dark, corrupted by the lord LeCynic. If the city hadn’t already fallen, his students would awaken to their new life and rise up against it, tearing every last remnant of life from Shattered Rock … from the entire Seventh World.

    Before gravity swept the soul from his bones Brice thought of Alec, saw the man’s scruffy face in the darkness, mocking him for living a life that was a waste. The One Elf was in there as well, impassive as ever. In his cold, emotionless voice Solo Ki simply stated, “I warned you it was so.”

    There are too many …

    A pair of orchids fluttered before her like humming bird wings.

    So fast … Too fast!

    Attacking the beings had proven useless. In one instant, she severed an arm, in the next, it was restored and swinging at her with a jagged blade. Nathalia kept up with two, three, sometimes even four at a time, but her blades had been reduced to shields, darting in all directions to parry a multitude of blows while every second, a score of her companions were cleaved in half, cut down by the demons’ blades as though the wolf helmed beings were reaping wheat.

    Gunt only remained standing because his hairy skin was tough, thick as leather, and his massive girth absorbed the majority of his wounds. Though drenched in his own blood, none of his injuries were mortal. Still, it was only a matter of time before his blood ran out, and with it his strength. Even now his war pick was slow to rise, and seldom struck a blow. Because of him the demons were barred from the Great Tree. Dripping with blood and sweat, Gunt filled the crack in the trunk while bent and battered armored figures laid scattered about his feet, the bodies slow to regenerate and renew their attacks considering they had been reduced to mush.

    Nathalia did her best to draw the demons from him. Spinning this way and that, her blades constantly clashing with a barrage of the demons’ steel.

    Cling, cling, cling … ”

    Ears ringing, Nathalia dipped beneath a horizontal slash while parrying a trio of jabs.

    Suddenly, one of the demons soared into the air, a noose of blue fire wrapped around its neck. The being was still trying to cut her down, hacking and slashing as he sailed through the air.

    The children

    She had thought they had left during the early moments of the battle, when the outcome immediately turned grim.

    I told them to leave! she thought, furious that they weren’t at the top of the Great Tree by now.

    For an instant her attention waned, and in that brief amount of time a blade slid past her guard, easily penetrating her leather coat, the thin shirt of chain mail beneath and carving a chunk of flesh from her shoulder. She fell to her knee, limply deflecting one blade to the side but failing to stop yet another. Its jagged edge tore her jacket and flesh as it slid across her ribcage. A trail of blood dripping down her arm, she looked up to see the demons’ blades descending toward her. Gritting her teeth against the pain and refusing to accept death, she thrust her swords upward as fast as her arms could bare them.

    Then, before she was crushed beneath their blows, each of the demons ignited, their dark armor glowing white with heat, melting the flesh beneath. She felt her hair singeing, her own flesh burning from the fires, and she was forced to peddle her way back, away from the pyres of burning flesh.

    Tetloan passed her. His feet levitating several feet above the earth. His skin had become flame. He held his hands toward the demons, pouring a steady torrent of energy into their remains. Clenching his jaw with rage, a geyser of flame erupted from his eyes, spilling into the energy stream and turning the trio of demons into a charred pit of ash, ten feet deep in the earth.

    Briefly, he turned to Nathalia, his eyes alighting on her wounds. His body suddenly swelled with flames and with the stone cracking beneath him, he flew from her, moving to incinerate the nearest demon.

    “Sit still,” Emily told her after she had tried to rise and go after him.

    Nathalia hadn’t even been aware that Emily was with her, and that she was sealing her wounds with azure flames from her fingertips. Her delicate hands massaged the energy into her skin, making her flesh whole, leaving only a tear and crimson stain on her jacket from where the wounds had once been. “Bloody gods, Emily!” Nathalia leapt to her feet.

    In a flash of silver her blades were sheathed and in the next instant her coat was flying off her arms and drifting to the ground. Her shirt of mail hugged her skin from the curves of her breast down to her slender waist. At her shoulder and ribcage, the interlocking steel rings were severed, revealing a tender layer of pinkish skin.

    “I told you to stay back.”

    In the distance, Tetloan continued to incinerate the demons, yet with his every success his flames dwindled, and meanwhile, every last demon stormed to his location, lusting to tear him open and feast on the fires within.

    “I guess we’re too much like you. We don’t want to wait for death any more than you,” Emily said, brushing her dark curls from her eyes and tucking them behind her ears as she rose to

    her feet. “If we’re going to die we’d rather do it at your side.”

    Trying to turn her away would have been useless, not to mention time-consuming, and judging from the throng of demons arrayed near Tetloan, the three of them had far too little time left.

    Not bothering to see if Emily followed — being certain that she would — Nathalia ran to Tetloan, who was now encircled by the demons, his barrier of flames dying to no more than a

    bluish haze, no longer sufficient to keep the demons at bay …

    Armored forms flew from him, plucked into the air with threads of blue and hurled to the side by blows from Nathalia’s feet and blades. Nathalia made it to Tetloan only to find him kneeling on the earth, blood pouring through his fingers as he clutched a gaping wound in his side. Next to him, a wolf helm reared up, heaving a blood stained blade into the air. Instead of striking him once more, the being reached out, grabbing the boy by the wrist.

    He screamed.

    His skin blackening and flaking off into dust, Nathalia bolted toward him, and with a series of lightning quick sweeps of her blades she stemmed the dark flow infecting his arm, severing both his and the demon’s limbs. Horror stricken, Tetloan watched as his arm fell to the ground and withered to dust.

    Then he too fell to the earth.

    Her blades flickered. Except for its steel boots, every last piece of the demon sprang into the air and into the darkness. She looked in disgust as bones grew from the black boots then with a swift kick she sent them flying into the night as well.

    All around them the darkness crept in. Glowing blue, Emily hunched over Tetloan, filling the stump of his arm and hole in his side with wisps of flame. She looked down at him, concentrating, her curls draping past her face and licking his freckled cheeks. Supporting his head in the crook of her arm, the flow of blood gushing from his body slowed to a trickle.

    There was no time for Nathalia to help them, the ring of demons stepped into the light. The fangs on their helms glistened beneath Emily’s flames, as did the orchid blades in Nathalia’s hands. Moving on the balls of her feet, she surveyed the circle of shining black steel threatening to engulf them.

    I won’t let them die! she cursed, her heels never straying more than an inch from the children.

    Yet even she knew, there was only so much that one elf could do.

    He was alone.

    Alone, sitting with his back to the wall as the horde of undead feasted in the streets below. With their mouths full of flesh, they no longer moaned, and except for the occasional sound of bones cracking in their jaws, they left Alec to sit in silence. He looked to the sky, watching the Brother Moons and the stars slowly trace their way toward the horizon.

    “Thump, Thump, Thump … ”

    His bones vibrated from the sound of the undead battering the building while the torrent of snarls renewed from the streets.

    Dinner’s over, he thought, getting to his feet. Must be time for dessert.

    His hands were empty — despite the scores of weapons scattered across the rooftop. It was past time for silver and steel. They had always failed the races, and always would. There was only one weapon that had ever brought the Triad victory. And despite his protests, he knew that it wouldn’t be long before that weapon was employed once more.

    The building crumbled around him and the howls of the dead drew near.

    The undead mounded into a heap of corpses at the base of the building, clawing their way atop one another to get a taste of his flesh. He looked toward the bridge heading away from the Archenon — the bridge he had crossed not so long ago — and though he dreaded to re-cross it, he was far more afraid of what might happen if he stayed.

    Blue flames were constantly nipping at her body, soothing her pain the instant it was made. She no longer feared being struck, no longer cared to defend. Her shirt of mail dissipating, Nathalia attacked, taking apart her enemies with utter disregard for the jagged blades slicing her flesh. Occasionally, Emily was able to pause her healings and blast one of the fiends apart, though mostly, she kept a constant flow of energy heading Nathalia’s way. All alone Nathalia held the circle at bay, moving with a speed that was part desperation, part elven, and part Magic.

    Her blades moved invisible, their presence marked only by a faint whisper as they sliced through the air, lopping off her enemies black limbs and wolf helms. The moment one of the Reapers stepped forward, she was there to meet them, instantly, as though suddenly birthed from the very air in which they intended to step. Never once did she falter, even when their blades burrowed deep within her flesh and she felt the dark steel burning her insides. She continued on, ignoring the exhaustion and the pain, never once doubting that the blue flame would be there to bind her wounds.

    As soon as one of the demons fell, another was there to take its place. She might have disassembled hundreds or even thousands, they came at her too fast and fell apart too quickly for her to possibly count them all. For all she knew, she may have been fighting the same demon — over and over again. Chopping it down only to face it once more, its form restored by the dark power filling the armor with the semblance of life. She tried not to think about that possibility, nor concern herself with the certainty that Emily’s strength must eventually reach its limit. Knowing that the time must come when the child could heal no more. Emily would heal for as long as she could, and Nathalia would fight, until she was dead. As long as the children yet lived, then hope remained. And as long as there was hope, she would never succumb to the dark.

    The dark …

    A vastness that none can cross … An eternity to ponder nothing.

    ‘Shal’in Ome!’ her voice echoed through the void.

    In a blur of brown the darkness vanished, swallowed by a spinning wooden staff. With the Graelic throbbing in his hands like a thick varicose vein Solo Ki advanced to Nathalia’s side, a tempest against which the demons crumbled, became piles of rattling steel.

    “It’s good to see you, Shal’in Ome,” Nathalia said gasping for breath.

    With one blade she severed a wolf helm, with her other she sent it flying into the night. Behind her she felt Emily collapse with exhaustion.

    “I knew sooner or later I could draw you into a fight,” she continued while the Reapers