Sanctuary

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The legends of the Rift are many . . . as are the horrors within . . .

. . .the goddess Alana has failed. Now, the Elder Gods have banished her to the dying worlds, where she must suffer and wait . . . and grow strong, for one day she will stand against the Plague once more. This time, on the soil of the Seventh World.
Meanwhile, Anon begins his journey to the dying elven world to save the Elf Prince, Adros. But once there, he discovers the Plague has evolved into a horror beyond imagining. Now, to save the last of the elven race he must face creation’s greatest enemy, the embodiment of the Void itself. The fate of the universe depends on his success. But there seems only one way to prevail, for even the Maker has abandoned him in the hellish world Ki’minsyllessil.
To save Prince Adros, Anon must die. 

. . . the Servant of Death, the Dark Lord Sevron has arisen once more. This time he has taken form in the Holy Tree of the Elves, their sacred Graelic. Power, wealth, immortality . . . such things are meaningless to him, for the Servant of Death desires but one thing – to turn the universe into a living hell. Even the power of the Maker failed to see him dead.

. . . the Sanctuary.
The Dark Army is coming . . . A Rift has opened into the Sanctuary of the Elder Gods. With no way off of the small moon of volcanic glass, the Elder Gods must stay and fight – and face the full might of the Plague.
Help is also coming . . . Led by the former Elf Prince, Adros, a joint rescue squad of giants, elves, and Magi are coming to deliver the Elders to the new ‘Sanctuary’ – a world the survivors have come to call ‘The Seventh World’. But first, they have to fight their way through a maze of tunnels crawling with the undead.
The Makii are coming as well . . . every last Dead God. But they have a choice to make; embrace the will of the Dark Lord Sevron, or accept the path of the Maker.

Tags: vampires horror god universe magic zombies battle plague elves undead dwarves giants

 

Author J.C. Bell
Edition Aarden Authors
ISBN 9781310551130
Pages 191
Publication Date May 09, 2014
Publisher Smashwords
Series  The Limits, Book 3
BCRS Rating  CA-13
ca-13_thumb.png  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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sanctuary

SANCTUARY

By J.C. Bell

Published by Smashwords

www.smashwords.com

Copyright 2017

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to anything real is entirely coincidental.

 


Sanctuary.

The Plague took our friends, our families, and our worlds, yet it craved more – always more. So it moved on … and on, and on …

… So did we.

We left our dead worlds behind and fled into the Rift, to the farthest reaches of the universe. It was our hope to find the last of the living worlds before they were taken by the Plague; but instead, we found mostly death. We saved those we could and once more we moved on …

I can no longer recount how often we returned to the Rift, or how many worlds we stood upon. I only know it was not enough.

Eventually, we no longer found survivors, only the infected. It became painfully apparent that our mission was at an end. So we returned to our new home. Of all the countless worlds we ventured, we found only six that yet held life. The universe, once brimming with a multitude of intelligent races, was reduced to a mere four.

But the four races were strong; survivors who had defied the odds and withstood the onslaught of the Dark Army. Because of our joint trials and suffering at the hands of the Dark Army, the four races became as one, and together we looked to the future, to hope, and to the possibility that we had at last found sanctuary.

Little did we know that our battle had just begun.

— Book of Adros.


PART I – THE SERVANT OF DEATH


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The beginning of the Age of Death –

So close now … the young man thought, intricate wisps of blue flame drifting from his fingertips.

He sat at a rectangular desk of black stone. A lone glowglobe hovered over him, casting the room in a stale, yellow light. Upon the desk, a small, fur-covered mammal frantically clawed at a cage made of silver bars. Its red eyes alighted on the man’s oncoming threads of energy, further triggering the animal’s sense of fear to the point it began gnawing on the bars with its large front teeth.

Its efforts would be to no avail – even once the experiment was underway. It would bite and claw with all its might, but nevertheless, the man was confident the silver bars would hold … it was perhaps the only element that would do so. He discovered the secret to containing his creations, and it existed in the molecular structure of silver. Even the strength of the Oneness paled in comparison – a lesson the young man had learned the hard way. He failed to realize the effectiveness of his own experimentations, and more than once, the infected creatures threatened to escape their confines. It was but one of the many problems he had to overcome. In order to avoid a full-scale outbreak, it became necessary to eliminate such threats. That became his second problem – their destruction. Technically, once the infection set in they were already dead. The difficult part was convincing their infected cells of this fact. Transforming the Oneness into actual fire proved an adequate solution to that problem. Likewise, silver also functioned well in this regard.

Thankfully, after all was said and done, containment had been sustained. Whether or not the virus was lethal to a humanoid host had yet to be determined – there was much more trial and error to go before he dared to make that assessment.

Regardless, He worked under the assumption the virus was anything but safe – as it proved itself to be, one experiment after another. Thus far, only one of the animals lived beyond the ‘impregnation’ stage for longer than a standard day.

Out of curiosity, he had yet to discard that creature, his greatest ‘success’. He kept it close, tucked away in the corner of the room bound in a similar cage of silver – which was in turn encased in an even larger cage of silver — the young man wasn’t taking any chances with that one. The creature had survived for months, and in theory, could possibly exist for all time. Its cellular death had entirely ceased, while cellular division only occurred during trauma – to replace permanently lost cells. All virus infected cells, though essentially dead, continued to function as dictated by the genetic material of the virus. It was rotting, to be sure, the horrid stench was a clear indication of its continued decay. However, the virus kept it animated, fooling the cells into thinking they were yet living no matter how foul its flesh and organs became. As far as the young man could tell, the being required no sustenance to continue its existence. It had a rather voracious appetite for meat; the rarer the meat, the more voracious. Yet it could live for weeks without eating a single morsel. The young man surmised, that most likely, the brunt of the energy it needed to function was derived mainly from the virus itself – an entity born of pure energy. The act of feeding almost seemed a remnant of an instinct it once possessed, an instinct now warped into a gluttonous replica of what it used to be.

Behind him, the creature curled into a ball in the darkest corner of the cage, constantly wheezing as if every breath was its last. All of its hair was long since shed, revealing white flesh riddled with throbbing black veins. Even the red of its eyes had clouded over, covered with a glossy layer of black. The creature’s skin hugged its bones, stretched tight like a drum, making the creature skeletal in appearance.

Throughout the day it remained motionless, dead by all accounts except for its labored breathing. Yet, should the young man draw near, it would spring into action, howling and thrashing as it threw itself against the silver bars in a frenzy. The man didn’t doubt that given the opportunity, it would feed from him, biting his flesh with as much abandon as it did the bloodied chunks of meat he tossed into the cage.

But it wouldn’t bite the silver bars – not after its first attempt to do so had nearly set its mouth on fire. As long as the double layer of silver remained between him and the beast, he was confident he wouldn’t become its next feast.

Despite its appearance, and demeanor, the young man did consider the creature a success. It was as close to immortality as any Makii had yet to come. Quite possibly the creature would live forever … even so, he couldn’t deny that its existence was nothing to be admired. No, not yet. But he was close now, so close …

Soon — perhaps even with his current attempt — the young man would finally find an immortality worthy of the Antevictus.

Concentrating to his utmost, he forged ahead, hoping to at last achieve such a level of success. The man’s flames met the cage and melted through. Next, they took hold of the creature. As if calmed by their delicate touch, the animal grew still. The tendrils of flame washed over its flesh, then slowly began to sink in. As they did so, the man developed a sense of the animal, both mental and physical. Though it possessed mainly base emotions, considering its limited intellect, it was surprisingly resilient and adaptable to adversity. Its survival instinct was incredibly strong. As for its physical, cellular structure, it was essentially similar to higher forms of warmblooded creatures, making the animal a perfect subject for experimentation. Another blessing of the breed was their high rate of birth; to reach this stage of success, the young man had “literally” burned through hundreds of them.

He sent his power deeper into the core of the creature, making his threads of energy even thinner – so thin the blue filaments became invisible to the unaided eye. He guided them to the animal’s reproductive organs, then focused them on one single cell – an unfertilized egg in her womb. His goal was to fertilize it, but not with spermatozoa as the Maker intended. Today he was playing the Maker, creating his own diminutive life-form that he would unleash upon the animal’s unused ovum. Depending on how he crafted his virus, the union could have incredible results. His virus was born of the Oneness, and as such, the qualities it bestowed could often be considered powers in their own right; great strength, increased speed, heightened senses, and of course, immortality. To combine all of these beneficial traits into a single specimen, that was the young man’s goal. To do so would make the Makii gods, not just in name, but in truth.

… so close …

He pressed on. He flames merged into a pattern so intricate it appeared a jumble. But to the young man it was perfect – hopefully so.

He stepped back, wiping the sweat from his brow, then using the dampness to slick back his long black hair.

The creature squirmed, then entered a fit of seizures. Every muscle in its body tensed to the breaking point, and meanwhile it shrieked, a shrill high-pitched cry of utter pain.

In the corner of the room, the ‘successful’ experiment joined its cry, the young man didn’t dare take his eyes from the creature in front of him, but at his back, the sound of flesh and bone smashing against the silver cage was a distraction he could hardly ignore.

As if it wailed away its soul, there was a final cry, then the new experiment was silenced.

Afterwards, thrumming his fingers on the table in nervous anticipation, the man watched and waited. Time passed … and the creature remained lifelessly still.

That’s unfortunate, the man thought, halting his rhythm with a final rap of his knuckles. Oh well then … try, try again …

His Oneness went out once more, this time to burn the creature to ash, but before it reached the animal the creature stirred …

It dove at the cage, latching onto the bars with its sharp, long front teeth. Wisps of smoke rose from its mouth as its teeth burned, but still it bore down. Even after its teeth became melted nubs, it continued to chew … and stare at the young man with its beady red eyes – which were slowly being covered with a blackish tint.

Blood frothed from its mouth like spittle. To the man’s horror, he noticed the cage bar was bending, flexing outward as the creature continued to push and gnaw on it with bloody gums. The amount of smoke rising from the cage greatly increased, caused not only by the creature’s burning flesh, but from the silver bars as well. Its blood, like acid, was deteriorating the silver.

Now that, is truly unfortunate.

From his feet to the top of his head, the man’s body suddenly ignited in a pyre of crackling blue flames. The flames left him in a torrent, engulfing the infected animal. He tuned his power to actual fire, hoping to incinerate the creature instantaneously. But surprisingly, as the flames washed over the animal, it squirmed, shrieked and burned … but it didn’t die. His power encompassed the cage as well, the heat of which melted the silver bars faster than it did the creature’s flesh.

Imorbis, you fool, he inwardly cursed. He had no intention of being the first humanoid test subject of his virus, so he summoned as much Oneness as his body could hold. Never in his life had he held as much. The table began to crumble, the cage became a pool of liquid silver, the glow-globe burst into crystalline shards. Even the walls and floor of reinforced tungsten began to show hairline cracks. Still the animal lived … and it jumped at Imorbis.

Every bit of Oneness he could hold, he focused on the animal. He stumbled backward to avoid the creature, tripping over his own feet in his desperation to escape its bloody, wide-open maw. Still pouring energy at the animal, he fell backwards, landing with a thud on the hard floor. The animal flew over him, then with a loud “pop”, it exploded in a burst of bloody pieces – several of which fell on Imorbis to quickly burn their way into his black cloak. Luckily, the majority splattered against the back wall, burning deep holes in the ultra-dense, bi-metal structure.

Imorbis rolled over, untangling himself from his cloak as he did so. He leapt to his feet, leaving his cloak a now smoldering pile of rags on the floor. In the corner of the room, his ‘success’ howled louder than ever before. If he had the strength, he would have instantly sent his Oneness out and destroyed that one as well. He studied the marred wall speckled with chunks of burning flesh, and wondered if maybe it was time to rethink his experiments – or at the least, rethink their method of containment.

Not that he would quit his endeavors, after all, he was so close now … Imorbis just worried that perhaps he was getting too close …

Even if he wanted to quit, he couldn’t. His project was not only sanctioned by the Antevictus, it was fervently supported. The Ancient Ones had a lot resting on him, him and his companions. It was fair to say their very lives were at stake.

Such was the mission of all Makii, as dictated by the Antevictus. The Antevictus were the most ancient of Makii, those that began, and finished the conquest of the universe. It was they who created the God Door, thus binding all the worlds as one – one Dominion. And throughout their Dominion, they were beheld as gods – perhaps the most powerful beings to ever exist in the universe. Because of them, the Age of War finally came to an end, and through their strength in the Oneness, peace was imposed throughout the entire universe.

The Antevictus were now decrepit shells of useless flesh. Only the Oneness kept them alive, but that’s all it did. Their bodies were no longer theirs to control. Telepathically they dictated their will to their followers, meanwhile they sat on their royal thrones in pools of piss and watery feces. They were dying, these most powerful beings. It was their decree – their last dying command — that those with the blood of Makii were to strive for immortality – by any means necessary.

Of all the Makii, Imorbis was the closest to a solution.

He couldn’t stop, but he would have to start over, approach the problem in another way. Imorbis unstrapped the silver dagger from his waist and headed toward his ‘success’, which continued to thrash and howl in the corner of the room. As he passed the damaged wall, he noticed a glob of black blood carving a channel as it dripped to the floor.

Perhaps, he thought. I should first understand my error before I start anew.

Instead of killing the remaining creature, he used the knife to scrape the blood from the wall. He found a vial of thick crystal and deposited a drop of the viscous, black blood within. He set it aside on the burnt and cracked table, then began searching the room for something more secure to store it in. He eyed his personal locker, which had walls of synthetic plaz-steel. The locker was manufactured specifically to endure all manner of intrusion – Imorbis just hoped acid was listed among them.

Besides, he thought. One lonely drop, how much harm can come of it?

Worse case, the infection would spread, and encompass the few inhabitants of this world. Here it would remain, contained … Imorbis took a second to rethink that outcome. Would it be contained? What if the infection somehow made it through the God Door, into the inhabited worlds? He could barely conceive what sort of catastrophe that would unleash.

His supposed ‘cure’ for death would become a plague.

Safety first, Imorbis pondered. Yes, that would be best.

He planned on storing it in the locker, then, when his power returned, he would delve the sample. If the cells remained whole, he could find his virus, and perhaps uncover its properties, good and bad.

He took up the knife again – he was still going to kill his ‘success’. Not because he feared its escape, mainly he just wanted to silence the beast.

But once more, the being’s life was spared, this time because there came a knock on his door.

It was a welcome coincidence that the creature grew silent with the sudden noise.

He pondered cleaning the room before greeting his visitor, but Imorbis recognized the presence, and knew he had nothing to hide.

With a flicker of blue flame, the door to his chamber dissolved, revealing a middle-aged man with a long, triangular beard.

“There was a surge of power … ” the man declared. “I worried your experiments had finally gotten the best of you,

Imorbis.”

“Despite appearances, Mastecus,” Imorbis replied. “My creation is not nearly as disastrous as your imp Galimoto,” he finished, grinning at the man.

He had to admit, the annoying red demon was instrumental in his own work. Mastecus had shared the secret of its creation with Imorbis, and though the familiar was not entirely ‘real’, the ability to simulate life with the Oneness took Imorbis’ experimentation to a whole other level. But unlike Mastecus’ creation, Galimoto, to create life with the Oneness, Imorbis dared not work on such a large scale – nor did he wish to bind his own life-force to his creation till the end of his days, as Mastecus had done. But with a minute, well-crafted virus, he believed even the largest of creatures could be changed. The possibilities were as endless as the genetic code itself. The next step in his experiments had been finding the right code … a process that involved endless trial, and constant error – of which, the latest error was yet displayed on his wall in a splatter of burning flesh.

But he was getting close …

“Dare I ask, Mastecus, where has your fiend run off to now?” Imorbis questioned. He had no love for the man’s familiar, but now and again the being proved a source of amusement – which typically came at the cost of its staunch master, Mastecus.

“Galimoto has been confined to my quarters by direct command of the Supremis,” Mastecus replied, his cheeks blushing.

Imorbis smiled at the man’s discomfort. Perhaps he offered it too often and too freely, but for reasons unknown to him, many were misled by that smile and thought it equated to kindness on Imorbis’ part. To their error, they failed to detect the wickedness inherent in his soul.

“It appears he wandered into the female barracks,” Mastecus said, hesitant to continue. “The ensuing chaos nearly roused the sleeping Antevictus.”

“There’s only one thing the Ancient Ones would awaken for … ”

“Yes, immortality. And the old fools believe we will be the ones to find it, here, in this hell that is the universe’s core,” Mastecus fumed.

“If this star-system, or more aptly, fusion of colliding starsystems doesn’t kill us first,” Imorbis replied.

“Speaking of which, before I rushed here to save you, I was trying to talk some sense into Sevron, and at least convince him to leave the open-air, if only for enough time to recoup his shield. But no matter what I said, my words seemed to fall on deaf ears. He has become obsessed with the obelisk, as if his gift of empathy has somehow bonded him to the relic.”

Imorbis was very familiar with his friend’s latest obsession. Since the moment they arrived, Sevron had changed. They were all fascinated with the mystery of the black pillar, and diligently studied it to the best of their abilities. But Sevron was addicted to it. The one man in the entire universe that could read your soul in the first moment he met you, had finally found something he couldn’t readily understand – and it was tearing him apart.

“I will meet with him.”

“You had better hurry. The third sun is on the rise. He has been out there too long as it is, with the little power he has

left, he will not make it to see the red sun set.”

Imorbis’ experiment would have to wait, his friend needed him now. He bid Mastecus a half-hearted farewell then used his power to store the vial in his locker. He took a moment to make sure the drop of blood didn’t suddenly disintegrate a hole through the bottom, then Imorbis threw on a spare cloak and headed for the open-air.

The sun beat down upon the land of orange and red sand. Plumes of sand lifted from the desert, spiraling upwards to form miniature tornadoes. In a burst of speed they tore through the dunes, breaking apart the waves of sand in a frenzy of energy. Their power expended, the ribbons of sand broke apart, drifting back to the earth in a cloud.

On the horizon, what once was a field of jagged mountain peaks was now but a towering mound of polished stone. Tucked beneath its shadow – safely sheltered from the searing wind and blistering sun — was the expedition’s makeshift base; a fortress of interlocking slabs of grey bi-metal walls.

Covered in a dim shell of blue flame, Imorbis left the structure, his destination the stark black pillar rising in the distance, and the lone figure sitting in front of it. Imorbis walked out into the howling wind, and as always, felt humbled as he stood before the giant monolith. The structure rose hundreds of feet skyward and was a perfect geometric rectangle. The surface was jet-black and utterly impenetrable, what dwelt within was yet a mystery, as was the material the object was made of. Three dozen of the best and brightest Makii were sent to study it, but thus far, nothing they did seemed to reveal at hint at the object’s nature or power – except, perhaps, for one man – Sevron. Sevron had an unusual gift. Without using even a trace of telepathy, he could see the truth of one’s heart and soul. If the structure possessed some form of life, or intelligence, Imorbis was willing to bet Sevron would be able to understand its intent.

“So, Sevron, have you uncovered its secret yet?” Imorbis asked, grinning at his friend, who sat at the base of the structure, his sandy brown eyes transfixed on the object. “I’ve placed a sizable wager that it’s a vessel of alien descent, please tell me I haven’t been mistaken.”

Sevron continued to sit in silence. Mastecus wasn’t exaggerating, his friend was deeply engrossed in the monolith – too much so for his own good. His shield was practically non-existent, already the harsh sand was blowing through, peppering his exposed skin with red dots.

“The odds favored interstellar flotsam,” Imorbis continued, drawing nearer. “The wreckage of an ancient starship leftover from the voyages of the Origin Race. Most believe they came here, as did we, to seek the beginning of life. But lacking the God Door, the chaos of the core prove unnavigable.”

“… it doesn’t exist,” Sevron suddenly interjected, his voice icy-calm. “That’s the only thing that makes sense … ” he continued, never taking his eyes from the monolith. “Either that, or we don’t exist … and what we’re seeing is a true sliver of

reality, something our imagined minds simply cannot grasp.”

So, it was to be like this … Imorbis thought, sighing. Very well.

Normally, he would love nothing better than to sit with his friend and philosophize the time away, but judging by the blood-red horizon and their failing shields, neither of them had a great deal of time left.

“We know but one fact, my friend — it is the foundation of life, of that we are certain,” Imorbis said, trying to coax his friend toward reason.

“No, nothing is certain … ” Sevron said, lowering his head of dark-brown hair. “That’s the crux of it. That’s where we’re wrong. It’s not what they think it is. It has nothing to do with creating life … it spawned chaos, the true reality.” And the half-full glass is now half-empty.

Clearly there would be no reasoning with his friend.

“You should leave, Sevron. Your shield is dim, and the third sun is soon to rise.”

“I need a moment longer, to test my theory. I’m so close now … ”

His words were hauntingly familiar …

“When the red sun sets, I’ll know if I was right.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“It would be the first time.”

Sevron managed to tear his gaze from the pillar and turned to Imorbis. As he smirked up at him, Imorbis was surprised at how gaunt he had become. His once, well-muscled friend was all wiry muscles with loose, yet sunken flesh. Imorbis tried to smile back at him but couldn’t summon the lie – Sevron would have known the difference anyway.

“I won’t let you die out here,” Imorbis said. “Not for this thing, not for them.”

The red sun was coming, and with it came a tempest of scouring winds.

Sevron turned away and stood up, letting his robe slip to the sand. His bare chest was immediately blistered by the wind …

“I’m sure you won’t,” Sevron replied as the horizon was suddenly filled with fire. “But I have to do this … I have to know that my life has meaning … or that it does not,” he continued, walking forward to lay his hand on the smooth black surface. “Until I know for sure, everything you, or anyone else does is meaningless … ”

Sevron no longer had a shield of power to protect him, and the majority of his flesh was bare and exposed to the elements. Wearied from his experiment, Imorbis had a difficult time maintaining his own shield, and he very much doubted anything he could summon would protect him from the coming storm of burning sand. Nevertheless, he stepped forward, calling to his friend. He made it barely three steps before he was blinded by the howling storm.

His shield no longer sufficient protection, he was forced to cover his eyes. He took one final step. Gave one final shout of, “Sevron!” But even he could no longer hear the sound of his own voice. A gust of wind sent him airborne and flung him onto his back. If Sevron was still out there, he would never find him in time. Blinded, and disorientated, Imorbis was doubtful he would make it back himself.

His shield was all but useless, so he focused what little power he had left on a final moment of sight. He filled his eyes with flames of the Oneness and peered into the wind.

He distinguished two shapes; one a lumpy mountain of pol-

ished stone, the other a rectangle, towering to the sky …

His flesh pealing, Imorbis faced the mountain and crawled his way back to the base camp …

The red sun had yet to fully set, but Imorbis rushed out nonethe-less. This time he was ablaze in blue flame, and flew over the scorched sands. He sensed his friend, though faintly. The entire time the sun rode through the sky he could sense him, sense his pain. How he yet lived was nothing short of a miracle.

Imorbis followed the sensation and found Sevron curled up at the base of the obelisk, a charred and fleshless husk.

In futility, he poured his Oneness into him, hoping to restore his broken form, but clearly, Sevron was on the verge of death. No amount of Oneness would ever bring him back.

There was only one possible cure for that …

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick crystal vial.

He looked at the vial … and he looked at his friend. If anyone could handle the virus, Sevron could. Either way, he was sure to die. Perhaps it was time … time to find out what effect the virus had on one of the Makii blood.

With his head cradled in his lap, Imorbis tipped the vial to Sevron’s lips …


DONA’CORA.


Age of Death –

There it was … the Kandorian High-Bridge, the last road to Castle Kandor.

At last, she had reached her destination.

Her eyes were small and round, her pupils black pinpoints swimming in a pool of yellow. They took in the High-Bridge – the final obstacle in her century long path.

The bridge spanned a canyon hundreds of feet deep. Below it, serrated rocks littered the cliffs on either side. At the bottom, the churning river could barely be seen; a broil of foamy white liquid crashing through the rocky river bed.

The Kandorian Bridge was a gleaming structure of white metal; seven sets of flowing arches each a hundred feet long. Steel, web-shaped gussets connected the arches and tied them to giant support towers on either side of the canyon.

The infected filled the length of the bridge; a horde of growling, blood-thirsty monsters, awaiting her arrival.

From head to toe she was covered in blood, both black and red. The hair on her head was long, black and drenched in filth. Likewise, the smooth, silken layer of black hair on her arms and face was also soiled and sticking to her flesh. Her golden, form-fitting dress was torn and tattered, also soaked in the gore of her enemies. The gossamer train of her dress dragged behind her, leaving a bloody trail in her wake.

This world’s orange sun slowly set at her back. In front of her, a star-filled sky twinkled behind Castle Kandor.

How many had died for her to get here? How many had she killed . . ?

All of them … and the killing wasn’t even done.

No. Not yet.

She may have lost the long, hard-fought battle that had started it all, but she wouldn’t stop, not until he was dead. Nothing else mattered.

She stood at the entrance of the bridge, as if daring the undead to come to her. They came, howling for her blood. Just as the swarm threatened to engulf her, she covered herself in a thick blaze of blue flames, turning their charge into a storm of ash and fire. Those foolish enough to draw near were incinerated. Others, wise enough to sense an end to their corrupt immortality, tried to backpedal, but were swept up in the press of the throng and likewise shoved into the fire. By the time the mob learned its lesson and reversed direction, she was knee deep in a pile of ash.

They tried to flee, but it didn’t matter. They couldn’t hide from her. She was a goddess. She was more powerful than any Makii, even after they had infected themselves with their ‘Dark Gift’. She not only shared their genetics, but possessed many new and powerful variants that allowed her to control more of the Oneness than any living being before her. The Makii thought that by altering their blood with the Plague they could achieve perfection.

But Dona’Cora was perfection incarnate. She was born with her abilities — the ultimate achievement of evolution.

She was going to remind them of that fact. She would teach them all what it meant to anger a true goddess.

She could have burned a hole through the crowd from one end of the bridge to the other, but why waste the effort? Wisely, she conserved her power, lest the Makii try to force their ‘gift’ upon her later.

Dona’Cora melted the bridge supports instead. The western tower toppled. With an ear-wrenching groan, the entire HighBridge slowly spilled into the canyon, the steel beams and supports bending like rubber as it fell. The forces of the Dark Army tumbled down it like a giant slide, disappearing in the frothy river below.

Dona’Cora drifted upward, covered in a halo of burning blue flame. In front of her, Castle Kandor loomed, a giant keep of stone surrounded by a curtain wall of pure steel. The wall was magic-wrought and never meant to fall – but fall it had. Somewhere inside resided her fallen lover, the God-King Thane. How she dreaded to face him again, she could only imagine what he had become. Her proud, handsome lover was most likely a demon now, his flesh desecrated, his soul corrupted.

She had failed to save him in time. But she wouldn’t fail him in this … not in this.

No matter what, she wouldn’t leave this world until she put him to death.

She flew over the canyon. Below her, the flailing bodies of the undead continued to spill into the river. Some of the stronger ones were able to pull themselves up the bridge and to the other side. A crowd of them formed at the gate, but she sent a wave of flames their way, scorching a clearing for her to land. She drifted to the other side, standing at the collapsed and bent iron gate leading to the citadel. The undead were all around her, snarling, clawing the air in her direction, but otherwise they remained in place, their rotting brains finally comprehending that attacking her was pointless.

Dona’Cora encountered no further resistance as she entered the keep. She sensed the Makii were still lingering in the area, but even they feared to challenge her, and rightly so. They knew her well by now, she had sent many of their kind to the true death through the course of the battle, and would do the same to any more that chose to bar her path.

She strolled through the citadel. The once luxurious entrance hall was in ruins. The round, marble fountain spewed blood; the gilded statues circling it were toppled. The castle had fallen many years past, but the signs of battle remained, the Dead Gods hadn’t even bothered to clean their mess. Flaking stains of black blood marred the floors and walls. Skeletal corpses filled the hallways. What flesh remained to them was sunken and black, but beyond that, their clothing was the only part of them that hadn’t rotten away. The stench of death and decay clung to the keep, but Dona’Cora had grown so used to the smell she no longer even noticed it.

She ignored the remnants of slaughter altogether, well aware that her own blood-covered body was equally gruesome. She headed for the throne room, where he most likely would be found. Her flames led the way, searing a path through the corpse-filled keep. She cared not for cleaning up the carnage, but was more concerned that the skeletal figures were possessed by the Plague, and could suddenly rise up against her. She didn’t want to take that chance, so she turned them all to ash instead.

Dona’Cora left the hallways glowing red with heat as she moved through the castle. By the time she reached the throne room the entire castle was ablaze, its stone walls near melting from the magic wrought fire.

The giant double doors of the throne room had been torn from their hinges and flung to the floor. The force that struck them must have been incredible, for it nearly folded the solid iron doors in half. On a raised dais just beyond the broken doors, sat the Kandarian Throne — a polished chair of black marble. Surprisingly, the Makii left the chair untarnished; every last jewel and precious gem was yet encrusted into the black marble.

Her God King hadn’t been so lucky. He sat on the throne, his clothing remained; he was dressed in a purple silk coat, a velvet surcoat and black satin mantel. A skeletal hand held a scepter with a large, perfectly transparent diamond at the end. Like the rest of the dead she had come across in the castle, the flesh visible on her dead lover was taut and black — and very little of it remained. For the most part, his bones were fully exposed. His head was eyeless, hollow, and hung back awkwardly. A stain of black blood covered the front of his coat, and surrounded the throne as well. Some blackened flesh remained on his neck, as did a deep horizontal gash.

His right hand hung to the side, below it rested a jeweled dagger.

“So often this occurs … such a waste of life. To see it happen still saddens me.”

She was too absorbed in the horror of what her lover had become that she failed to realize the presence of the Makii, and that she was surrounded by them. There were dozens of them, and every moment more of them appeared, slinking out of the shadows.

“I offered Thane peace … immortality. What more could one want in life?” the speaker said, then sighed deeply. “Alas, in the end, Thane thought death was the better bargain.”

One of the Makii stepped out from the crowd, stopping just short of entering her personal space. He was strange (even for a Makii), it wasn’t just his manner of dress that was odd, but his physical features as well. There was something very familiar about him, as though they had met before, but she couldn’t put a name to his face — and what an unsettling face it was. Surely if she had seen him before, the memory of the man would have been hard to erase.

All of the Makii were essentially human, and were often thought to be the progenitors of that race. But after they were infected, they became something altogether different; their skin was pallid, their eyes pure black. All of their hair eventually turned gray, their teeth and fingernails purple and black. Their veins grew swollen and filled with the dark, Plague infected blood.

This being was altogether different, even more gruesome.

He wore a stark white top hat on his head and a suit of matching color. His shoes were white as well and sparkling clean. Gloves of silk covered his hands, which were fixated on twirling the frilly white lace around his collar.

His skin actually had hue – though it was mostly purple and black, and it was stiff, as though it had been unnaturally stretched to fit over the man’s face. It was so taut, the simplest facial expression was impossible, leaving the Makii with a constant, emotionless stare.

And his eyes … they weren’t just black, they were empty.

He approached her without fear … without feeling, as though he was standing before a wall.

Dona’Cora tried to recollect his name (perhaps something with ‘annihilator’ or ‘death-dealer’ in it) but nothing seemed to suit him.

Desecrator … yes, that seems more fitting, she thought, returning the Dead God’s emotionless stare with one of her own.

She knew the Makii had a fondness of such titles, but Dona’Cora made a conscious effort to ignore them. Even if she cared enough to try, she couldn’t possibly remember them all, for according to the latest estimates, the Makii yet numbered around two million (Dona’Cora took great pride in the knowledge that she had played a large role in reducing that number).

Typically, their haughty titles were meant to strike fear in the hearts of the living. But no matter how well deserved the titles may be, Dona’Cora found them to be a childish indulgence. They merely served to foster the Dead Gods’ own immortality fantasies. But no matter how ominous their names, Dona’Cora put them to death just the same.

Honestly, she really didn’t care what the white-dressed Makii’s name was — it didn’t matter — he was soon to be dead and forgotten.

“I told Thane there need not be war between us, that we could be as brothers, if he only partook of the blood,” the Dead God continued, his lips cracking as he spoke. “What heights he could have risen to in our ranks? But in the end, he denied our gift. He took another path … When at last they realized the battle was over and they had lost, Thane, and the rest of his soldiers took their own lives.”

The Dead God took off his hat and shook his head, as if in sadness – though his face was as impassive as ever.

“Even though we fought as foes, I admired his courage and power. In life, he was a valiant warrior, holding Castle Kandor far longer than we had anticipated. Had he been blessed with the blood, he would have been fearsome indeed.”

The Dead God was putting on such a credible show of sympathy that Dona’Cora half expected to see tears spilling from the pits where his eyes should be.

“His death is truly a great loss. But on behalf of my Brethren, we beg you, please do not hold us to blame. After

all, Thane’s life ended by his own hand.”

Dona’Cora had seen enough of the Dead God’s act.

She burst into flames. Every inch of the throne room was bathed in brilliant blue light, leaving the Makii with no more shadows to lurk in. All in all, there were around fifty of the Dead Gods present. She wasn’t intimidated or afraid. Instead, she only found their pale dead faces pathetic to behold.

“You wish me to believe you are without blame in this?” Dona’Cora coldly stated, throwing her own fearless self-confidence back into the man’s face.

She was a goddess! These beings were but corpses.

“To believe you actually give a damn about him?”

Her halo flared even brighter. Her blue flames crackled and roared as they leapt from her flesh.

“There is only one thing your kind cares for, the Hunger. If truly you are sad, it is only because you were denied the blood of a God.”

The white-clad Makii was through pretending.

The man gave up the charade of mock sadness. He stood before her, calm, still, and utterly devoid of emotion. He replaced the hat on his head and raised his eyeless gaze to Dona’Cora.

“I see … We had hoped you would be wiser than Thane,

Dona’Cora, and joined us willingly. It’s true, his blood would have been savored. But, judging on how difficult you have been to dispose of, I think yours will be sweeter yet. And I

promise that with you, we won’t let a single drop go to waste.” The Dead God slowly approached her.

As if oblivious to the fact that her life had just been threatened, Dona’Cora ignored the man, and turning to the others she said, “This isn’t over. We will fight again one day, and when we do, I promise your lives shall have a permanent end.”

With that, the Dead God came at her …

He was powerful! He moved so fast she could barely see him — despite the vast amount of Oneness she held. But she didn’t have to see him. His actions were predictable; he was overconfident and moved too fast for his own good. He also underestimated her power. He never expected that she could do in an instant what took others hours. She opened a Rift right in front of her, right in the path of the Dead God. In the last second he tried to halt his momentum, but it was too late. His left leg was severed at the knee, his right arm vanished at his shoulder. His top hat was cut cleanly in half … so too was his head. What was left of him crumpled to the throne room floor. His leg, arm and face disappeared into the oblivion of the Black Door.

… So too did Dona’Cora.

The rift hovered in front of her; a pulsating tear in space and time. She casually stepped into it, not worried for a second about the fifty Makii she was leaving behind. It would be easy for them to track her … but she knew they wouldn’t. The Makii’s greatest weakness was their fear of death, and she had just accentuated it by making short work their white-clad leader. She was also confident they were wise enough to realize her statement wasn’t a boast, and that if they saw her again, she truly would put an end to their immortality.

Dona’Cora was a harsh, cold, arrogant woman. Only one thing in the entire universe had ever proven to soften her heart. But now the love of Thane was no more. She had failed him. As she drifted through the abyss, she had an epiphany.

Her heart grew colder than ever, her power grew stronger.

The war was lost, her lover had died, but in the abyss she found a new purpose to her existence.

Dona’Cora left the Rift, entering a gray and desolate wasteland. The dense atmosphere nearly crushed her; the powerful wind nearly lifted her off her feet. Her power saved her from both. In the distance, a white sun burned the horizon. Above it hung a shiny black moon; a ball of melted obsidian glass.

Dona’Cora took a step toward the horizon and the hovering black moon — her first step on a long pathway to vengeance.

In the millennium that followed, her every action became focused on fulfilling her threat of one day destroying the Makii. To whatever god that would hear her, she vowed that when next they meet, she would be the one who was victorious.


SEVRON.


Sevron fell away from the Rift, collapsing onto his back. Black blood poured from his severed arm, leg, and head – which had been neatly sliced in half, leaving a gaping wound where the man’s face used to be. The only recognizable features were a pair of holes where his nose once was, and his soggy grey brain. His once immaculate jacket and pants were rapidly transforming from pure white to black as the fine fabric soaked up his blood. His remaining leg flopped around uncontrollably, splashing the black blood around the room. His top hat had been cut along with his head, only half of it remained, sitting in a spreading dark pool.

The Makii gathered around, watching the man go through what should have been his death throes. They exchanged glances with one another. Some, shared looks of knowing; others fear. But mostly they appeared uncertain.

“We should end him now. We may never have a chance like this again,” one of them dared to voice. “I believe in victory and conquest – such is the way of the Makii – but Sevron desires only corruption. It was never meant to be as such,” the speaker continued. She may have once been a young woman fully blessed with natural beauty, but it was hard to tell for certain, because now her flesh appeared to have been soaked in bleach, the blood in her veins replaced with ink. Her eyes were like black marbles, her hair was thin, coarse and grey.

Her body, however, retained its youthful shape. Her legs were long and lean, with a muscle tone that was firm and well defined. A fair amount of her ample alabaster breasts were exposed through the split of her dress, their size further accentuated by the dress’ sleek fit and the color-shifting scale mail material from which it was made. Depending how the light hit them, the tiny metal scales alternated in color from silver, purple and gold.

“The glory of the Makii will end in ruin if he is allowed to live … the entire universe will end as such,” she declared, her black eyes staring at the thrashing Dead God.

“If you wish to try, I shall not stop you, Melina. But I warn you, be certain you can actually succeed in such a task. We have all been witness to his power, and I have had the misfortune of seeing it more than most,” a Dead God replied. The speaker was handsomely dressed, wearing a black silk shirt with matching cape, and shiny boots of black leather. His gray hair was short and slicked back. The Dead God’s face was clean shaven and had smooth, soft features that would have appeared friendly on any other face. “Believe me when I say that

Lord Sevron is the only one of us who is truly immortal.”

As if in response to his words, the movements of Sevron’s body became more purposeful, his limbs stopped thrashing. His remaining arm actually pushed him to his knee. With blood still pouring from his head and his brain exposed, Sevron turned to face the rest of the Makii.

“Galimoto agrees with Melina,” a piping voice spoke, followed by a fluttering of wings as a tiny red-bodied creature with yellow eyes flew into the circle of Makii. The being had large wings of black leather and a long, whip-like tail that ended in twin barbs. He hovered in front of the Makii, keeping one yellow eye trained towards the fallen Dead God to make sure he didn’t get too close, then he continued, “Lately, Sevron reeks of death … even more than the rest of you. Perhaps,

Master, if you help her … ”

Sevron turned to the creature, blood bubbling from his gaping throat as he attempted to howl at the little imp.

As soon as Sevron turned to him, the imp instantly fled the circle … and he didn’t stop, not until he was far from Kandor Keep.

“I will end him, Imorbis. Of that you can be certain. This has to stop. For the gift I willingly accept the Hunger, but what he has become, I cannot accept,” the woman said, her white fist emanating with waves of black. “If you cowards refuse to help, then to the dead with you.”

She closed in on the wounded Dead God.

Imorbis shook his head and took several steps back – the other Dead Gods followed him, none of them moved to Melina’s aid.

“Look at you now, ‘Sevron, The Servant of Death’,” Melina said as she stood over him.

He gurgled in response to her, blood spurting from the hole that was his face, covering her steel scaled dress.

“Foul creature,” she said, her face twisting in disgust. “Time to join those you’ve despoiled, Sevron.”

Both of her fists were humming with power, the waves of black energy throbbing with the beat of her heart.

She raised her arms, preparing to unleash the full might of her power, ending the Dead God once and for all.

With surprising speed, Sevron stood up, his black blood formed into a leg … and into an arm as well. His new-born black fist plowed forward, penetrating her dress of metal scales, and continuing onward, plunging into Melina’s chest. Briefly, her face registered shock, then, once she realized her doom, it showed only fear. The power she held sputtered and faded. All of her energy was diverted to keep her already dead body alive.

She should have let herself go.

Sevron’s hand of black blood heaved her upwards. Her blood sprayed through the air, raining down on Sevron. With his other hand, he grabbed her arm, and ripped it from her body, tearing it off as easily as if he was pulling the limb from an insect. Melina’s screams filled the throne room. Sevron grabbed her face, turning her screams into gurgles. His fingers melted into her skin and bones, then he tore her skull apart, face and all. Her brain spilled from her head as Sevron flung her to the floor.

Lastly, he took a leg. He planted one foot on her body and pulled. There was an awful slurping sound and then …

“Mastecus … ” Sevron called, his black blood had formed the semblance of a face.

He began incorporating Melina’s arm to his body. His blood filled her veins, animating the woman’s severed limb and controlling it as his own.

“Yes, Lord Sevron,” one of the Makii responded, a thin, elderly looking Dead God with a long, angular gray beard.

“Learn to control your creation, the imp, or I will.”

Mastecus fully understood the threat; for Sevron to control Galimoto, Mastecus would have to die.

“I apologize, Sevron. It shall not happen again.”

“As for you, Imorbis,” Sevron said, fusing Melina’s leg to his body.

Imorbis bowed his slicked head low.

“Yes?”

“You should have stopped her … ”

Melina’s face was still in his hand. It was partially crushed and disfigured from being ripped from her head. Nevertheless, he guided it to his own wounded face.

“Oh?” Imorbis questioned, raising his eyes and daring to give the other Dead God a grin. “Should I have been worried about her safety or yours, Sevron?”

Melina’s face bonded to his head, an eyeless bloodied mask. Whatever beauty Melina may have possessed was long gone. Her face looked as if it were smashed by a hammer, her features twisted and hanging awkwardly on their new owner.

Her lush, gray lips smiled back at Imorbis.

“Neither, you should have been concerned about your own …

Sevron made his way to Imorbis. Both of the Dead Gods stared each other down.

Before their confrontation could unfold, another Dead God interrupted the exchange, asking, “What about the Mageaous, Dona’Cora? Should we pursue her into the Darkbridge?”

Sevron’s eyeless face lingered on Imorbis a moment longer, then turned to scan the rest of the Makii.

“Pursue?” Sevron said, Melina’s bloodied face contorting awkwardly in mock confusion. “Oh yes, we will pursue. We will flood the universe with our blood until there is nowhere left for her to hide. And then, when she believes we have taken everything from her, I will take more … before I am done with Dona’Cora, her flesh will be mine. As I tear her apart,

limb by limb, the last face she will see shall be her own.”


BRONTES


The Idrllian spires shone in the distance, twelve white towers that nearly touched the clouds. The towers were not only Idrllian’s heart, but its brain as well. The circle of towers held the combined knowledge of a galaxy; a million years of research, discovery and invention. All of the knowledge of the Makii were stored within the towers, the tale of their history dating back long before the Age of War. The planet was a knowledge hub; a center of learning for the entire universe.

The planet was utterly defenseless.

Brontes watched the spires burn, bonfires glowing in the murky light of dusk. Similar fires arose throughout the city.

Everywhere Brontes looked, Idrllian was aflame.

All that he had ever known was soon to be ash.

He had to obey the stranger, or he would burn with it. Following the odd (but powerful) savior was Brontes’ only hope to leave the planet Idrllian alive.

“We have to make it to the Gate, child,” the stranger said, pulling on Brontes’ little hand. Not only was the stranger’s manner of dress peculiar, having silver bells sewn into his green cape, but he was an odd looking fellow as well. His brown eyes seemed too large for his head, which was completely bald on top but had curly tufts of hair sprouting from the sides. His lips were nearly non-existent, making his mouth look like little more than a horizontal slit in his face. At his waist, his belly bulged outward, but otherwise his body seemed relatively physically fit.

The shape of the man’s midsection kindled memories of Brontes’ mother, how he placed his hand on her own stretched belly and felt the kick of his unborn brother, Feniman. Feniman would have come any day now … instead, he will forever remain unborn.

Instinctively, Brontes wiped his eyes with his free hand – though his tears had long since run dry. He then raised his gaze to his savior … his final hope. He couldn’t help but note that even this strange and seemingly invincible being seemed worried.

All the while they ran, the man kept repeating the same thing over and over, “This isn’t right … this isn’t right … ”

Miraculously, the stranger managed to keep the many silver bells hanging from his clothes silent as they ran through the streets.

Truthfully, Brontes knew nothing of the man, other than that he had saved his life. When the invasion began, Brontes and his family took shelter. But once the killing started, there was no hiding from the Lifeless, no walls thick or tall enough to keep them safe. The Lifeless found, and slaughtered his family. His father stood against them as best he could, but he was unarmed, and a scholar. The love he had for his family and his desire to protect them were no match for the Lifeless. They tore him apart and then ate the pieces – so it went for the rest of his family.

To Brontes’ horror, they left him for last. He crushed his fists into his eyes to avoid the sight, but the screams of his dying family were unavoidable. When the sound ended, he realized he was the only one left. It was obvious they had other plans for him – perhaps he was to be their dessert. Fortunately, he would never find out, the stranger came and took him away.

The man may have seemed harmless, weak and out-of-shape, but when he faced the Lifeless, he changed – he became a living fire and burned them all to dust. At that moment, it was clear, even to Brontes’ young intellect, that the stranger was more than a man, more than even a Gatekeeper.

Brontes knew he had been born with the vision. His father told him it was so. Years ago they had journeyed to the World Door to await the arrival of some distant relatives. While they waited, Brontes witnessed the blue flames of the Gatekeepers as they guided the World Door. His father explained to him what that meant – what he was, and that one day his powers would grow and lead him to a grand destiny, perhaps even became a Gatekeeper himself.

Often, Brontes went back to watch the Gatekeepers work – to study them. Mighty were their powers, virtually every world was theirs to explore, but the powers of the stranger were far greater. The ease with which he destroyed the Lifeless proved it to be true. But even lacking that display, one look at the man and Brontes knew he was special … he was pure. That’s what made his power different from the Gatekeepers’, its purity. The Oneness could control and alter matter, but the stranger’s power was unfiltered, the essence of matter and existence itself.

Brontes believed the stranger was blessed by God.

They were about to round the corner of a blackened shell of a building when suddenly the stranger’s grip tightened and he thrust Brontes inside the skeletal structure.

“Wait … keep quiet,” the man said, scouting the streets.

Brontes did his best to obey, but the room was filled with smoke and he was dangerously close to coughing, it was only a matter of time before he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

‘You have a gift, use it, child. I’ve watched you do it before. Just imagine there is a bubble around you, and inside the bubble the air is crisp, clean.’

The man’s voice was somehow sounding in Brontes’ head. The stranger’s body began to glow, and just as he had described it, the stranger was covered in a golden, glowing bubble. Brontes pictured himself within a similar shield.

His breathing came easier, the air seemed fresher. A faint, shimmering haze of blue obstructed his vision no matter where he looked.

He had done it. He was inside a bubble.

‘Good. Now, if you make the bubble strong enough, nothing can harm you. Remember that. If ever we’re separated, remember that.’

The man visibly tensed. His bulging, brown eyes scanned the smoke-filled landscape.

‘Wait here,’ the stranger telepathically commanded.

Before Brontes could argue or question his intentions, the man was gone, almost as if he had simply disappeared.

Brontes tucked himself into a darkened corner and prayed for the man’s quick return. He tried not to let himself be consumed by fear, choosing instead to focus on strengthening his shield and adhering to the stranger’s advice.

If I make the bubble strong enough, nothing can harm me …

He put all his efforts into making his blue bubble as strong as possible.

Moments passed. There was no sign of the stranger, the only thing moving down the ruined streets were gusts of black smoke. He was about to brave the streets, in hopes of catching sight of where the stranger may have went, when out of nowhere, the alleyway to his left began blazing with white light. His retinas burning under the sudden illumination, Brontes was forced to cover his eyes. He gave them a moment to recover and adjust then risked squinting toward the light’s source. The first thing he realized was that his shadowed hiding spot was exposed, and that he would have to find cover elsewhere. The second thing he realized was that there was a massive circular hole in a nearby building where, but a moment ago, there had been only a solid steelcrete wall.

His hiding spot returned as the light faded. Nevertheless, he left the spot and ran deep into the building to avoid facing the being that had created such damage.

He didn’t make it very far before something took hold of his hand …

“Keep moving, we’re close now,” the stranger said, his body surrounded in an aura of white. He had appeared out of nowhere to once more guide Brontes to safety.

He took him through the main level of the building, which was a maze of cracked pillars and charred walls. Brontes was lost and disorientated in moments, but the stranger continued on, choosing his pathway as though he had been born in the building.

“I see you’ve remembered what I said,” the man remarked, acknowledging the enhanced glow of Brontes’ blue bubble. “Good. Keep your halo as strong as you can possibly make it, and stay behind me … Hold my cape if you must, but never leave me. I won’t lie to you, child. The Dark Army guards the Gate, and the only way to leave this world will be to make a pathway through them.”

Brontes looked up to those wide brown eyes and nodded.

“No matter what happens, you have to trust me. It will be okay. A higher power guides our path. It led me here, and it led me to you. What happens next is merely another step on that path.”

He knew nothing of the stranger (other than that he saved his life) but he whole-heartedly trusted the man. Even if he hadn’t rescued him, Brontes felt as if he would have followed the man without question.

“I trust you,” Brontes whispered.

The stranger nodded back at Brontes and smiled … then he became fire. Covered in white flames, his body stretched to twice its size. His smile was gone — his face was an inferno.

He yet held Brontes’ hand, but the flames didn’t burn the child, they merely danced and crackled upon his skin.

“Get ready … it’s time we take the next step.”

Brontes couldn’t tell if the stranger’s voice was originating within his mind, from the world outside, or both. Regardless, he obeyed and he prepared himself for the worst.

With his hand still clinging to the stranger’s, Brontes took a step …

… What they encountered was something no child could prepare for, something no young mind could comprehend or should ever behold. No living being could prepare for what they found on the Altar of Worlds – including the stranger. The vision would haunt Brontes till the end of his days.

Much later, when asked to describe it, he could use only one word, “Chaos”.


ANON


Anon had been to a thousand worlds, had seen the Age of War at its worst. He had fought alongside countless armies to stop the spread of the Plague. He had watched as all his companions died or joined his enemy’s ranks.

He killed his friends, purified their corrupt souls with the flames of the Maker.

How many worlds had he watched die? In how many ways was their manner of death?

All those previous horrors paled in comparison to what he found at the Idrllian Altar.

Anon had always faced his previous trials with confidence, knowing that the Maker was with him, guiding his path.

But this was different … the Maker was most assuredly with him, but what Anon saw on the altar couldn’t possibly be part of the Maker’s path.

Anon was afraid.

He caught himself before his grip on the young boy’s hand turned to bone-crushing force. Mistakenly, he thought to find comfort in the child’s tender grip. The boy was pure and good – Anon wanted to hold onto the child’s innocence as long as he could. But the scene before them took away all that – both

Anon the boy would never know innocence again.

“SEVRON! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” Anon raged.

He let the child go. There was no place for innocence here, only death.

Bodies covered the tiers of the altar — thousands upon thousands of them. Not all of them were dead, but not a one of them had flesh. Crying in pain and anguish, those unfortunate enough to be alive crawled up the blood-slicked steps. A dozen tiers higher, the World Door pulsed, a final vision of hope and freedom. They dragged themselves over the bodies of their companions to reach that goal. But the sanctuary of the World Door was an illusion … none of them even made it close.

Every second, the pile of dead, fleshless bodies surrounding the altar grew.

And then … there was the undead. A swarm of them. A world’s worth of infected humans. Their tongues had been torn from their throats, their jaws ripped off, their hands crushed to useless pulp. In a Hunger infused frenzy, they stumbled through the pile of bodies, terrorizing the living as they sought to fill their empty souls with warm blood. They never succeeded, though the blood was all around them they drank not a drop.

They were driven mad by it.

The undead gnawed and pounded on the living who fought to pull themselves up the altar toward the World Door.

Lastly, there was Sevron — his frame a patchwork of body parts stolen from the many worlds he had conquered.

His feet were black hooves, his legs the powerful hindquarters of some wild beast. His left hand ended in a massive pincer while seven snake-like tentacles sprouted from his right hand. His body looked like it was carved from rock – humanoid in shape, but composed of some sort of black mineral exoskeleton. The same skeletal material covered his head like a helmet, from the top of which a pair of red horns sprouted. One was cracked in half prior to where it began to form a spiral. The other was fully formed, nearly four feet long and ending in glistening black tip. One eye was a red oval surrounded in black. The other was merely an empty black pit.

Sevron stood next to the throbbing Gate. … next to him was a pile of human skins. He rummaged through them as though searching for a clean shirt in a pile of dirty garments. When dissatisfied with what he found, he flung the desecrated flesh into the Gate.

He didn’t stop his search, even when Anon’s roar momentarily silenced the screams of the living and the howls of the dead.

Anon took a step up the altar – his light flared out, setting all those he neared free. Still Sevron ignored him. He took another step – the throng of undead surged toward him, diving at his halo only to collapse as a pile of ash. Anon took another step and another …

At last he stood before Sevron, his flames went out to the Dead God, demanding his attention.

He got it …

In a roar of flames, Anon bathed the Dead God in fire. He wanted nothing more than to send him to the Void and put a quick end to the waking nightmare. But it wouldn’t be that easy.

As the flames began burning away Sevron’s ‘borrowed’ flesh, he uttered not a sound. He slowly arose from the pile of skins and faced Anon.

“You wish to leave this world, false one?” the Dead God said, his body growing covered in a charred black crust.

Anon continued to pour fire at Sevron, his stone-like skin flaked, black blood bubbled from the cracks, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.

“Then you must pay the price … your soul, or your flesh.

One of them will be mine.”

“I have another offer!” Anon replied, his flaming fist barreling toward the Dead God.

Sevron was fast … damned fast! He easily dodged the blow, and in an instant he was at Anon’s side. His pincer latched onto Anon’s blazing arm and clamped down. Anon didn’t think it was possible to be hurt in his current form, but the pain nearly caused him to lose touch with the Maker entirely. The claw nearly severed his fiery arm. With the snake-like limbs of his right hand, Sevron took hold of Anon’s body and pulled him down to his knees. Fortunately, Sevron wasn’t entirely immune to Anon’s flames, the shell of his pincer began to crumble. But even so, Sevron was determined to sever Anon’s arm and refused to relinquish his grip. Even as his claw turned to dust, he continued the attempt, and very nearly succeeded …

Then the boy came forward, covered in a solid blue bubble.

“No, child … ”

In his disgust, rage, and haste to put an end to Sevron, Anon had forgotten the child, and the final commands he had put forth to the boy. He had done as he was told – he had followed Anon, no matter what. Now he would die because of Anon’s command.

Perhaps both of them would …

Anon felt the power of the Maker leaving him as Sevron’s pincer continued to clamp down. The fire, and power, of the Maker poured like blood from the wound.

“Leave him alone,” the boy said, somehow summoning the courage to face the Dead God. There wasn’t a hint of fear in his brown eyes.

“No, leave here!”

Anon’s voice roared through the area like a thunderclap. He knew the best thing he could do at this point was keep the Dead God from tearing the child apart, so with his free hand he grabbed Sevron’s arm of tentacles. He didn’t try to burn them, just keep them from striking out at the child.

“This is wrong … I was wrong. He will kill you,” Anon screamed, focusing his remaining power on holding the Dead

God’s right arm.

He no longer burned the pincer – nor was it necessary to do so, predictably, Sevron let Anon go.

“Oh … what have we here?” Sevron asked, his bony exoskeleton glowing red like an ember. “Another traveler who wishes to enter my Gate?”

The boy ignored the question, he spoke to Anon instead, “I trust you,” he said.

The tentacle heads of Sevron’s arm began burrowing into Anon. Even though his body was pure flame, he couldn’t burn them fast enough before they entered his body. Sevron swung his pincer arm back in Anon’s direction, but it ignored him, clamping down instead on his own tentacle arm. There was a spurt of black blood and a loud snap as he cut his own arm off. With little left of it other than strands of tendon and skin, Sevron pulled the arm from his body.

Anon fell to the Altar, the tentacles continuing to burrow inside him even though the arm was severed. He continued to burn them… but not fast enough.

Blood seeped from his amputated shoulder as Sevron approached the boy.

“You wish to leave, then you must pay the price … ”

The dark haired child seemed as sure of himself as ever — even when Sevron’s claw came at his face …

“From you I desire flesh,” Sevron said, his pincer sinking into the child’s eye.

The air erupted with the child’s scream … but within his mind, Anon sensed only calm. And he heard his young voice …

If I make it strong enough, nothing can harm me …

The child’s halo flared – strong as any Elder God’s. Sevron’s arm was caught within. Anon’s power had weakened it, burnt it to a crisp, but the child’s shield of blue finished the job. The pincer’s shelled exterior sloughed away, turning to ash as it fell. Even the black, fluid like substance beneath bubbled and blistered.

Now it was Sevron’s screams that surrounded them – a highpitched, maniacal howl. He pulled his arm back, but only a managed to escape from the shield with a slimy black stump.

“The Maker’s path,” Anon said, slow to rise to his feet. Sevron had injured him, perhaps even severely. But in the end, the Maker’s power proved the stronger. The tentacles were no more, and Anon’s wounds were already on the mend.

Now Sevron was all but defenseless. Anon had underestimated him to start the confrontation, but he wasn’t about to repeat that error. He was in motion before the thought even entered Sevron’s mind … Sevron dipped his bony head low and charged the boy, the blackened tip of his good horn guiding the way.

He was too fast to see, but Anon anticipated his intentions, and had already teleported in front of the boy.

“This is the Maker’s path … ”

Had he hit the child, the horn would have impaled the boy in his forehead, but for Anon’s giant body of flames, the horn only reached his hip. Though the pain was intense, Anon knew he would survive the attack, and this encounter as well. His flaming hands grabbed the horn; one hand grabbed it at the base, just below his waist, the other reached behind and took hold of the spiraled tip protruding from his back. He focused every ounce of the Maker’s power on his strength and twisted the horn. With a sickening crunch, the horn broke free from Sevron’s head.

Flames spurted from his hip as he pulled the horn from his body. Without a moment of hesitation, he promptly returned the red horn from where it came – the glistening black tip led the way, back into Sevron’s head. He thrust it in, and didn’t stop pushing it downward, not until the entire length of the red horn was buried deep in Sevron’s skull and the twisted tip sprouted from his bowels.

Anon stepped back, watching as a geyser of black blood erupted from Sevron’s head. The Dead God toppled over, his body wracked with violent spasms. Anon patiently waited as Sevron continued to spew blood and thrash about the altar. When his corrupt form finally grew still, Anon grabbed the child’s hand and gently guided him into the Rift. He made sure the boy was safely on his way before turning back to the Dead

God and the scene of carnage he had created.

The air filled with waves of white hot flames, cleansing the altar and freeing all those Sevron had corrupted.

Once the Idrllian Altar was fully engulfed in fire, Anon limped into the Rift …

Hidden in the charred ruins of Idrllian, the Makii watched as the battle between the Holy One and Sevron unfolded. Initially, they believed Sevron would meet a quick end (as did all who stood against the Holy One).

They should have known better.

When the battle turned to Sevron’s favor, they nearly stepped in to aid their sworn enemy, Anon, so certain were they that Sevron would destroy even him. But, as ever, Anon proved himself to be blessed.

In the end, it was the power of a child that finally took down the mighty Lord Sevron.

At last, the Dead God’s rampage of madness was no more.

They waited until the Holy One left, and his deadly white fire had burned its course, then they crept from their darkened shelters to see what was left of Sevron, the Servant of Death.

Anon succeeded in clearing the altar of bodies and blood, in their stead rested a thin layer of black soot. As for Sevron, the Dead God remained, but his body had been baked into a fragile black lump of charcoal, vaguely humanoid in shape. The butt of the horn still protruded from his skull, glowing like a red-hot coal.

A boot of black leather landed on the fallen Dead God’s neck.

“This time, I will not squander the opportunity to put an end to you, Sevron,” the Makii said, applying enough pressure to crack Sevron’s crusted flesh.

The speaker’s face had smooth, soft features that one could easily have mistaken for kind – had his eyes not been glassy black orbs, or his flesh ashen and lifeless. Through the ages, many had made such an error, thought his easy charm and tender face equated with weakness. Imorbis had sent all such fools to their deaths.

“I know you yet live, but can you hear me, Sevron?”

As if in response, blood started oozing from his cracked neck.

“If so, know that your reckless disregard for the welfare of your brethren cannot go unpunished.”

“With my own eyes I have seen what becomes of the Makii arbitrarily chosen to satisfy his wicked desires,” another one of the Makii interjected. Known among his brethren as Mastecus, Death’s Creator, the being had a long, grey beard and lean, withered features. Typically, his familiar, the imp Galimoto, would be fluttering around him, spouting gibberish in his musical voice. But the magical being had a nose for evil, and couldn’t stand to be anywhere near Sevron.

“They were flayed alive, their muscles, flesh and organs taken and posed in grotesque mockery which he had the nerve to call ‘art’. And through it all they live. He keeps them from death, dousing them in the blood of the living the moment they weaken,” Mastecus continued.

“I too had the misfortune to have witnessed this ‘art’ of which you speak,” Imorbis replied. “A more clear representation of insanity I have never beheld. For that transgression alone we should end him. But as vile and senseless as those actions may be, I believe Sevron’s greatest injustice against us is that he wishes to let the universe burn in chaos, and the Makii along with it,” Imorbis continued. “But I for one rather enjoy my existence, and would prefer to maintain it. And to do so we need the Treaty. We cannot allow him to run rampant, despoiling the worlds on a whim. As much as we hate to admit it, there are rules now to what we can destroy. No longer can we indulge the Hunger – nor should we – for as of late, feasts were few and far between. We feed to sustain our lives — that is all. As much as we would love to feast upon the Elder Gods, the truth of it is that we need them … need their power. Once, we too had the power of creation. But with it, we chose to create the Plague. Now, we forever must be stuck with that decision … and the many consequences that accompany it.”

Imorbis stood silently over Sevron, his cape of black silk flowing wildly around his body.

“Enough, I grow weary of this. Destroy Sevron, and let us be free of him once and for all,” a lanky and exceptionally tall Dead God said. Even his eyes seemed stretched, more oval than round.

“If only it could be that simple,” Imorbis replied, his hand wavered, rippling like water. It transformed into a shiny obsidian blade. “There is a new power among the Elders. One

that none of us can stand against … none except Sevron.” “Anon … ” the lanky Makii said.

“Yes, the Holy One. For now, he allows us to live. But make no mistake; one day he will desire our deaths. And when that day comes, who among us can stop him?”

“Are you suggesting we let Sevron live? That we endure his twisted lust so that he may battle your so-called ‘Holy One’? Please, Imorbis, tell me you do not actually believe that ‘Anon the Illusionist’ has somehow tapped into the power of the Maker? And to think, after all these years I thought of you as intelligent,” Mastecus fumed.

Imorbis replied by chopping through Sevron’s neck with his black blade.

“Sorry to disappoint you, Mastecus. But yes, with my limited intellect I do entertain the possibility that there is a true Maker. One who has the wisdom and power to create greater forms of life than even you, Death’s Creator, have achieved with your imp,” Imorbis replied, grinning as he reshaped his hand and grabbed Sevron’s head.

“If there exists even a chance it is so, then we need him … just not all of him. His body we dump into the Darkbridge –

may it forever drift in the Void. But the head we keep.”

Imorbis studied the burnt skull, rotating it around in his hands.

“This … I bury. I promise you all, I will find the deepest hole in the most desolate planet and there it shall stay …

… until the day comes that we need Sevron once more.”

Imorbis wasn’t entirely sure the Maker existed, but even so, he prayed to him that such a day would never come.

Time passed, the Dark Army moved on. Imorbis kept his promise, burying the head of Sevron in the cold, barren edge of the universe – the place where all matter goes to die. There Sevron stayed, in the center of a dead planet’s frozen iron core …

Meanwhile, the living worlds died. Life itself neared extinction. Only the Treaty between the Dead Gods and the Elders kept it from fading entirely away. Because of the Treaty, the Dead Gods could feed, and the Elders could propagate and create. For a time, one might have even called the situation peaceful.

Then, on the elven home-world Ki’minsyllessil the Treaty came to an end. The young goddess, Alana, refused to abandon the elves to the hunger of the Dark Army, choosing instead to stay and fight alongside her love, Prince Adros. She fell in love with his people and his world as well, and would do anything in her power to save it.

Together, they stood valiantly against the Plague, and very nearly succeeded in saving Ki’minsyllessil. But the Dark Army would not be denied their world. Led by Imorbis, the Dead Gods also forfeited the Treaty. No matter what the cost, Imorbis was determined to possess Ki’minsyllessil and the god-like entity that dwelt there … the Graelic, a giant tree that towered to the sky, filling the horizon with its vast canopy. In all of the worlds he had conquered he had never seen such a thing – a living world.

The powers such a life-force could bestow were infinite.

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PART 2 THE IMMORTALS


KI’MINSYLLESSIL

Age of Death –

Ki’minsyllessil

Screaming, the children ran. Startled by the activity, a flock of multi-colored birds took flight, rising to the air like a rainbow. The children were a flurry of movement, darting in all directions; hiding behind branches, atop limbs, and burying themselves in thick piles of foliage. They kept to the shadows as they fled, dodging the slivers of light that pierced the canopy like blazing spears.

Alana observed the ruckus, amazed as ever at how fast and sure-footed they moved among the limbs. Hundreds of feet above the earth, they jumped from branch to branch without the slightest hint of fear, as though only the tree existed, and they were oblivious to the distant earth below. She was also impressed by their natural agility, and how quickly they were able to scurry up the trunk. Even when footholds were scarce, they never slowed, their nimble fingers able to cling to even the most indiscernible crack.

Alana wasn’t the only one watching the spectacle; a family of the slow-moving Bolo Monkeys crept down from the branches, regarding the scene with their wide, black eyes that always seemed so sleepy and sad. But the smaller monkeys – little more than black-eyed bundles of fur – betrayed their joy by hooting along with the cries of the elven children.

Soon, the children were all settled into their chosen hiding spots, their screams transformed to muffled laughter – the only thing giving away their positions.

Alana used the lull in the activity to look around, and take it all in. The Graelic – as wondrous to her now, as the first day she arrived. The tree was a world unto itself — a city towering to the heavens, its branches sprawling outward among the clouds. Such a lush nursery of life. Every day she uncovered a new species of animal or plant – the tree harbored countless of both. Gardens of flowers bloomed in the massive crooks of the Great Tree’s limbs; tended by the elves, but occurring naturally as organic matter piled up through the ages, forming a lush bed of soil. The elves cultivated no crops – the tree sustained them with the fruit it bore, the melina berry. As far as Alana could tell, it was their sole source of nourishment, and was a diet that was most likely responsible for their extended lifespan.

Alana thought to return to the Sanctuary with a sample of the berries, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that stealing from the tree was somehow sacrilegious.

To the elves, the tree was called the Graelic, and from what she knew of their language, the word could be interpreted to mean many things; ‘life’, ‘god’, ‘love’. But to Alana, the most apt translation was ‘holy tree’. Not only did the Graelic give the elves food, shelter, and a home, it was also their utmost symbol of spirituality — its purity the very standard by which they existed. To them it was life, it was god, (and above all) it was love. The longer she dwelt within their land, the clearer the truth of it became to Alana. Given enough time, perhaps she would become a convert of their god, the Graelic. But time was something this world lacked. Very soon, even their Holy Tree would be corrupted by the Plague, as would the elves and all of the purity they stood for.

For many days she had watched the children play. At first she hesitated, knowing their inevitable fate and finding it cruel beyond measure to see such joy in their eyes of grey and white. She tried not to think of the coming of the Dark Army, and that she must go, abandoning them to such a hideous and untimely death. She still wasn’t sure if she possessed that kind of strength – to simply leave them, knowing they were certain to die. But Anon had taught her well, and he believed she was ready. She had to put her faith in him, and the Maker, and believe that good would come. That one day the fallen would have their vengeance and peace would once more rule the universe. To set that cycle in motion, she would do what she must.

In the beginning, she couldn’t bear to watch them, then it wasn’t long before she couldn’t bear to look away. Such peace. It was something she had never known – never thought could exist, not in the Age of Death. Up here in the Holy tree, there was only bliss. The Plague did not exist. She knew it would come, but she too wanted to feel such peace, to forget about the Plague, if for but a moment. And though she dared not partake in their games, just watching the elves left her feeling content.

Then he came.

The children’s laughter grew to a fevered pitch with his arrival. Despite her training and self-discipline, Alana found her own heart fluttering — but for entirely different reasons. So regal, yet humble as well, she had never witnessed a male like him. In many ways, he reminded her of her brother, Gedron. Both men were Princes, powerful leaders that were imposing both physically and magically. Her brother however, had been a cold warrior — a brutal fighter and strategist who proved his love and loyalty by the number of enemies lying dead at his feet. The Elf Prince was altogether different; he was as strong as her brother, yet in entirely different ways. And unlike Gedron, his love was his greatest strength, and he wasn’t afraid to put it on display. One look at the man, and his kindness was plain to see. Alana couldn’t help but love the sight of it, in a universe filled with death, she found the man’s ability to blend strength and love remarkable – his broad shoulders and glowing waves of hair didn’t escape her notice either.

He moved through the Graelic so silently and fast, that even with Alana’s power, she hadn’t sensed him until he was directly in front of her. There were times he seemed to vanish altogether; despite her best efforts to find him. She prayed her own presence was equally undetectable to him, but often she wondered if he knew she was there. Sometimes she swore – or maybe hoped – that he was looking right at her, possibly even sent an arrogant wink her way. She disregarded the idea as quickly as she could. If anything, it was a lapse in focus, a dream of a real life. To succeed against the Plague, she had to eliminate the idea — tear it from her mind. In the Age of Death, war was the norm, the only real life was that of solitude and death.

She had been sent to save him, not fall in love with him. If he proved worthy, she would extract him before the death of his world. Then, she would take him before the Conclave of Elders, who would make him one of the Chosen.

The standard method to determine the Chosen was to witness their reaction during crisis – as Anon had done for her. They would be forced to watch all that they love die. Some go mad, others bloodthirsty. Only those who maintain love are saved from the Dark Army. If he was worthy … … he is worthy.

She had deemed it so in less than a day.

When the Dark Army came, he would rise against it, empowered not by hate or vengeance, but by his love for his people and his world. Convincing him to abandon all that he held dear – that it had been slated for death, and could not be undone – that would be Alana’s greatest challenge.

If only she could save them all. They were all worthy in her eyes. Never before had she seen beings so pure and good, she could even name a handful of Elder Gods who paled in comparison.

There was goodness within the Elf Prince, beyond a doubt. But still, she couldn’t help but wonder at the nature and true extent of his power, even after all this time among the elves, she still wasn’t sure what it was. Alana was certain he lacked the Dreamfire, but to say he was powerless would be a grave error on anyone’s part. No doubt, a great deal of his power was tied to his staff. The twisted staff seemed a part of him, never leaving his side.

Alana had heard tales of ancient weapons of power, relics of the Age of War; a time when weapons came in all shapes and sizes, and could nearly rival the strength of the Mage-lords. If his staff was one such weapon, she would be sure to bring it back to the Sanctuary as well. Perhaps the Elders would be able to unlock its secrets.

Until she knew the true power of the Elf Prince, she would have to be wary. Anon had warned her that oftentimes the Chosen do not wish to be saved. The last thing she wanted was to fight the Elf Prince.

The man came on, chasing after the children. He moved so fast that without a veil of Dreamfire covering her eyes, Alana doubted she would have seen him move. The children’s screams turned to squeals of delight as he closed in on each and every one. There was no escaping him – even the Holy Tree was on his side. Vines unfurled from the trunk, twisting around ankles and hoisting the children into the air, where they squirmed, dangling like leaves. Giggling during their mock peril, the vines then dumped the children in a thick bed of moss.

Alana found herself stifling a chuckle at the sight.

His head whipped in her direction for but a second. Alana’s heart nearly stopped as she fell under the scrutiny of his grey and white gaze. Thankfully, he moved on, playfully swatting a child who thought himself safely hidden in a mass of leaves above his head.

She would have to be more careful. She tested her veil of Dreamfire, and was confident that it was fully intact. By all logic, he should be unable to hear and see her, but even so, she had witnessed the Elf Prince’s heightened senses in the past, and knew that nothing could ever truly be hidden from the man.

She curbed her desire to sigh in relief as he continued to hunt down the children, her own hiding place seemingly secured for the moment.

The chase took them down the trunk, and Alana made the mistake of looking down at them. A mere glimpse of the distant ground below and her stomach grew instantly queasy. She had to look away, else she risked revealing herself to the elves by vomiting on them. She struggled to control her body, embarrassed that the great heights still had an effect on her. Meanwhile all around her, little children continued to leap about with reckless abandon. Even the knowledge that she could easily drift to the earth if she so desired, didn’t seem to help ease her fear of falling.

When she first started observing the children – so effortlessly fly from branch to branch – Alana had often wondered how it was they never fell, and how they lived at such heights without fear. Then she saw one fall. It was a little child, perhaps no taller than Alana’s knee. The child had most likely learned to climb before it had learned to walk. Unsteady on its feet, she could very well have been witnessing the child’s first attempt at the latter. Several adult elves were present, but to Alana’s amazement, they practically ignored the child as it stumbled from branch to branch. Alana knew what was to come, and very nearly exposed herself to avoid the inevitable. Horrified, she watched the child slip on an inclined limb. Alana was no fool, if Anon had taught her anything it was that the death of the child would come, whether it was that day or during the coming invasion. Still, she moved on instinct, drifting down the tree to catch the falling child.

But the Holy Tree beat her to the child. With a smile on its face, the infant tumbled into a newly formed net of vines. Delicately, the vines escorted the child back to its parents, who hadn’t so much as flinched during the entire ordeal.

It was then that Alana realized the symbiotic nature of the elves to their god, the Graelic. The elves nurtured and protected the tree, while at the same time the tree fed and cared for the elves as well.

In all the worlds she had traveled, she had found no purer religion. The elves and their god truly were one.

The Holy Tree and the Elf Prince had nearly rounded up all of the children, signaling that their game would soon be drawing to a close. Suddenly saddened, a sigh escaped Alana, knowing they would be entering the trunk, and that for a time she would be alone. Another world existed inside the tree, but that world continued to elude her. Somehow the Holy Tree barred her from entry. Dreamfire was useless; it merely faded to nothingness when it met the wood, defying her best efforts to gain entrance.

The children began their procession inside the trunk, and as always, she studied the Holy Tree, hoping to glimpse the secret crevice they were walking into. Once again, she saw none.

Whatever magic the Holy Tree possessed, it was beyond her. As much as she felt at peace in this land, it recognized her as the outsider that she was. For in truth, her home-world had been a land of steel and stone. A place where trees and plants only grew in castle gardens, and the forests were all buried beneath layers of ruined cities.

For a moment, she lost herself in memories of Edroth — the now lifeless planet. When she came out of her reflections, she realized the elves had all gone. She left her perch, floating down to where the children had so recently played. How she longed to frolic as they. Still practically a child herself, even in her younger years she never experienced such uninhibited freedom. Since birth, her brother and Alana had spent their days in training. A wise ruler, and powerful Dreamer, her father knew the day would come when she would need the Dreamfire to save her life. He had personally devoted a great deal of his time to train them both. And though she would never look back upon her days with her father with anything but fondness, his methods of training had been incredibly harsh and demanding. But she never doubted his reasoning then, and if she saw him now, would do nothing but thank him for all his efforts.

Alana was young for an Edrothian, but her harsh life had matured her beyond her years. As she had grown accustomed to doing, she tucked away thoughts of childish play – even resisting the temptation to lie down in the fluffy bed of moss where the Holy Tree had recently deposited the children.

She approached the trunk, her incredibly long, elegant fingers running over the deep ridges of bark. There was nothing to indicate the elves’ passage, and she knew better than to waste her Dreamfire trying to force her way in. Alone, and in defeat, she turned to leave.

The Elf Prince stood before her, calmly leaning on his twisted staff. Except for his golden hair dancing in the breeze, he was as motionless as a piece of wood.

Impossible!

He was tall for his kind, but compared to Alana, his grey and white eyes were no higher than her neck.

“It won’t allow you to enter,” he said, in his elven tongue.

Alana had been observing the elves long enough to pick up the majority of their language, but it was extremely complex.

She had faced Dead Gods and monsters of unimaginable evil, but never before had she felt so afraid. She had longed to speak with the man, but a simple misinterpretation, and the meeting would be ruined, her first mission as a Savior would result in failure — possibly even bloodshed.

Since she arrived on Ki’minsyllessil, she had dreamed of connecting with him, but there had always been an excuse to bar her way. Whether it was the language barrier, or a matter of timing, she always stopped short, waiting for just the right moment, praying it would come before the arrival of the Dark Army.

She wasn’t sure how to proceed; she had never done this before. All she had to go on was her own experience with Anon, and she was far less impressive than him.

Her heart beating loudly in her chest, she tried to sound authoritative and impressive.

“I am not your enemy,” she managed to respond.

Smiling broadly, he laughed in reply.

At first, she felt slighted by his casual reaction — didn’t he know he stood before a goddess? This moment was not as she had imagined. She had always thought she would come to him in his time of darkness, to be his shining Savior. When he saw her he would be in awe, not laughing — and certainly not laughing at her as if she were a fool girl. Her anger was rising, as were her blue flames.

All it took was a second look at his carefree smile, and she was disarmed.

“No,” he said, continuing to smirk. “Enemies of the Graelic never make it this high up. A friend you may be, but neverthe-

less, only the caretakers of the Holy Tree are allowed within.”

“So, have you known I was here this whole time?” Alana asked in disbelief, feeling more foolish by the moment.

“Yes. But more accurately, the Graelic knew. Being one of

its vassals, I was party to the knowledge.”

“Then why allow me to continue the charade? Let me believe myself hidden?”

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the game. But there was more to it. It’s not often visitors come to our world. And as I said, those that do, usually do not make it up this high. I was intrigued. The Graelic accepted you. Before I

could accept you as well, I had to learn why … ”

Alana had thought she was studying him, but all along she had been the one with something to prove. She wondered how much of this Anon had foreseen. Of course Anon had known the elf was worthy, that had never actually been her quest. To get close to the Elf Prince, that was her true mission. And to do so, she had to prove herself. Anon had known this would be so, and wisely, he had sent Alana, because she was the purest of all the gods.

“ … to be a part of my people, I had to know for myself that you were worthy.”

“And … What have you discerned?” Alana asked, more than a little hesitant to hear the reply. She worried that Anon erred in choosing her, and that she couldn’t possibly live up to the purity of these elves.

The Elf Prince shattered her fears with a hearty laugh.

“Thus far, you have done your best to make sure I cannot ‘discern’ much of you at all. If I thought you were simply a spy, we would not be having this conversation. I very much doubt, you would even be in the Graelic, no matter the powers you possess. Your heart is kind; I have seen enough to know that is certain. But your purpose here, that leaves me with doubt. No … ”

The shadows bent to his will, cloaking him in darkness. Alana realized it was the tree; the branches were moving to protect him – or fight at his side.

“ … it fills me with dread,” he continued. “Please, tell me.

Why have you come?”

Did she dare? This wasn’t how it was done. Did she really wish to return from her first mission a failure?

The Elf Prince stood before her, so handsome and strong. Even with the greatest Dreamfire she couldn’t know what was to come. He was pure and good, she had known that since the first day she saw him. He deserved the truth, all of it. She wouldn’t lie to him, she couldn’t. Nor would she simply step aside and let his people die. He had to know what was coming …

He must have sensed her reply was grim, for the darkness tightened around him. The branches hung in the air, menacing, as though they would crush her at any moment.

“Tell me, Prince Adros … what do you know of the Plague?”

Freedom … What did it mean to a Dead God? Finally, there could be an end to the Hunger. It had been so long, and now it was so close.

How many worlds had he drained to get here? How many wars had he fought? The Hunger had been with him since the beginning, he was Makii. A Dead God. Lord Imorbis.

Because of him, the Plague had spread throughout all of the Maker’s creation. Those who resisted suffered certain death … those who accepted him, suffered a fate far worse. They became slaves to the Hunger, and found their immortality came with a price: to be bound to Lord Imorbis and his campaign for the duration of their existence. Together, they traveled the Darkbridge, devouring world after world, his army growing stronger and larger with each fallen world.

There was a time when Imorbis claimed the souls of all he conquered. That was in the beginning, when he actually fought a war with the Living. Now, that war was long since won. No longer was there any confederation of worlds to stand against the Makii. No grand offensive to drive them back into the Darkbridge and burn their home-world to dust. Their best laid plans had all failed, and no matter how many worlds united against them; the army of the Makii perpetually grew in numbers while their enemies’ forces eventually dwindled to nothing.

Imorbis was the first to come to the realization that their victory over the living was meaningless, and that the true enemy to the Makii was the Hunger. With the battle won, and his enemies scarce, Lord Imorbis was left with a vast army to feed, and very little to nourish them. Living planets became hard to come by – and often abandoned when found. Enslaved to the Hunger, Lord Imorbis was forced to press on, his new campaign begun not for conquest but for starvation.

Eventually, the weakest of his army withered to near death, and he gladly abandoned them on the Dead Worlds. Rarely did he replenish his fallen ranks, and did so only when he found a champion worthy of the blood on one of the conquered worlds. But Imorbis was no fool, even before the war had ended he had seen the truth – those of the Blood would always be hungry, no amount of life would satisfy that. In anticipation of this, he had even formed a truce with the Living. To continue feeding on the worlds, Lord Imorbis the Bringer of Death promised peace.

But to possess the world he now beheld would make such promises meaningless. This world was life. He felt it all around him. Even deep below his feet he sensed its pulse. Clearly, even in the air above, where the branches covered the sky like clouds. In all of the worlds he had conquered, never before had he found such a life-force. To possess its power would make him truly a god, immortal. Satisfy his hunger for all time.

The indigenous population decided to stay and protect it … all the better. There was a power in them as well that could prove equally satisfying. Lord Imorbis was nearly salivating to find out exactly what it was.

Because of the prize, Imorbis had summoned twelve of his Brethren, as well as four hundred thousand of the Risen dead, and one hundred thousand of the Initiated. He meant to take the tree by the time this planet’s sun had set.

How wrong he had been.

Numbering around ten times the amount of defenders, he thought his army of the Risen ones could swarm the tree and end it at that, but to his surprise, the tree itself took up the fight, its branches moving to ensnare and smash the lumbering beings before many could even make it to the trunk. And those that did, fell by the thousands as the protectors fired upon them with simple wooden arrows from atop the branches.

He sent in the Initiated.

Unlike the Risen, they weren’t mindlessly consumed by the Hunger, and could function intelligently. Some of the older ones were even quite strong, nearly equal to the Brethren themselves. The branches came at them, too slow. The speed of the Initiated was enhanced by the Virus, allowing them to easily outmaneuver the slow moving branches. Some fell from the arrows, but they fired back with their own dark powers sending the protectors back up the tree. The Risen and the Dead Gods could tap into the Void, wielding death at their fingertips. Known as the demon wind, the dark power normally disintegrated living flesh. But oddly, the elves hit by the dark power seemed unaffected, and were able to scramble upward to safety. Accompanied by a solid throng of the Risen, the Initiated continued in pursuit. They found the protectors calmly awaiting them, simple wooden spears in their hands.

He knew his forces had been baited and trapped, but before he could relay orders the trap was sprung. As before, the Initiated threw their dark force upon them, again it had no effect, simply washing over their lanky forms. The protectors charged right through the wall of blackness and fell upon the undead with their spears.

To the Dead God’s amazement, his Initiated seemed not only matched in speed but outdone in skill, and in moments they began to collapse, raining down from the tree.

“These Elfin fight well,” the Lord Imorbis said in a hollow whisper.

He grinned. Black cracks spread across his alabaster face.

He cared nothing for his fallen forces – with their deaths, all the more life for the Brethren to feast upon. Besides, after this battle was won he would no longer have need of an army, no need for battle. This would be his last fight.

“Let us see what the Elfin are truly capable of,” he said to his fellow Makii, who were anxiously awaiting the promised feast.

Covered in waves of black, Imorbis’ body rippled, and in moments they were in the thick of the battle.

Impressive, he thought as the elves gathered and cautiously came at the group of Makii. Typically the living merely fell before him; his power stealing their life-force the moment they entered his presence. But these protectors stood, unharmed and unafraid.

No matter, the Dark God thought. There are many ways to kill with the Dark Power.

And Lord Imorbis knew them all.

He crafted a blade of black steel with his power. Every cell in his body had long since been overtaken by the Plague. It had hardened his flesh into something stronger than any known element, and unlike the lesser Initiated, it was impenetrable to even a silver edge. With the demon wind he could control his cells; enhance his speed and strength, or even turn his body into a weapon. For this fight, he did them all. The blade of demon wind became as sharp as he willed it — which meant it passed through stone and steel as easily as air, while his body was impossibly fast and strong. The elves proved to be skilled opponents indeed, but against the Makii and their Dark Power, the protectors’ flesh parted for the black blades.

Two came at him. A head of golden hair fell from one’s body, while the other lost an arm, then leg, and was finally cut in half for good measure. More came at him and fell the same, their wood sticks severed in two as easily as their soft flesh. He finished an exceptionally tall one of the beings when another came before him; a crown of vines wrapped around his head, in his hands another wooden staff, this one tinged red at the tip and had what looked like thin wisps of smoke rising from it as though the creature recently plucked it from a fire. The being’s eyes of white and gray stared down the Dead God unflinching.

Imorbis smiled as the creature came at him, knowing this one to be their leader, and that with his fall the battle would be won.

The Dead God summoned the demon wind to its fullest, his blade a blur as it shot toward the elf. Remarkably, the being managed to raise the staff in time to block his attack. To the Dead God’s shock, his blade didn’t continue on, splitting staff, crown, and skull as he would expect. But instead, it came to a dead stop, resting harmlessly against the staff.

Imorbis had but a moment to wonder at his failure before the the elf came on, his spinning staff nearly too fast for even Imorbis to block. Incredibly, the staff withstood his black steel no matter how much he willed the wood to split. In fact, his staff not only deflected the black blade but weakened it every time they met, stealing the Dead God’s own power much like he took life from the living. Imorbis found himself slowing each time the weapons met, and his opponent was skilled as well, anticipating every counterstrike Imorbis thought to send. He knew that very soon, the staff would work its way through his defenses, and that he would finally be freed of the Hunger – in the true death.

He hadn’t come so far, and gotten so close to fail now …

Imorbis had survived for the span of a thousand lives by learning to adapt to the unexpected. And in all that time he had never known failure.

His blade vanished. He channeled all of his power into his fists, and struck out – not caring whether the creature blocked him or not – hoping the sheer force of the attack would break him. His fists slammed forward, easily intercepted by the other’s staff of wood. The combatants cried out as one; the Dead God’s scream an ear-splitting shriek, while the other’s more of a hollow groan.

The Dead God looked down at his hands — saw only blackened stumps from which his infected blood poured. His opponent lay crumpled against a branch, his staff smoldering at his feet. In his anger and pain he meant to finish the being off, but then he sensed another presence — surely an Elder

God — and began to worry his own existence was in jeopardy.

Had the Elders anticipated his betrayal? Their numbers were growing, had they decided to forfeit the truce?

He sensed the attack was imminent, but before he could summon a barrier of his own dark power, the Elder God had him encased in blue flames. Though they didn’t immediately destroy him, nevertheless, the pain they caused forced him to his knees. In that moment of weakness, he hadn’t seen his fallen foe rise to his feet. He was only dimly aware that the being drew near, his staff smoking in his hands. The Elder was at his side – a woman, taller than even the elf, her silver hair engulfed in blue flames. Imorbis found himself backpedaling as the elf brought the blood-ringed staff to bear on his head.

The Dead God never dreamed such pain existed. His own twisted life-force drained away. The protector held on to his staff even as smoke started to rise from the flesh of his hands. Imorbis was all but drained by the time the being let his weapon fall.

Still covered in blue flames, the Dead God fell too — hundreds of feet from the tree. His body crumpled as it slammed into the base. Barely able to roll onto his back, he looked up and watched as his army was obliterated high above the branches. Much later, Lord Imorbis of the Makii found enough energy to crawl his way back to the Rift on broken and bloodied limbs.

No single world – no hundreds of worlds, had ever defeated him. Despite his failure, he wouldn’t abandon that life-force. Drained as he was, he needed it now more than ever. There was no shortage of Makii within the Darkbridge. And they too had vast armies. The prize could be shared. It most certainly had to be taken. When they learned a chance to be freed from the Hunger was at stake, a million worlds would answer his call. Together they would feed from the tree, the so-called

Graelic,

Imorbis would return, bringing with him enough of an army powerful enough to bury these Elves, and blanket their world in death until the end of time.

Broken, drained and near death, Imorbis refused to give up.

As he dragged his damaged body to the Darkbridge, Imorbis decided the day had finally come … so he entered the Rift, returning to the edge of the universe where he would resurrect The Servant of Death …

It would be worth the price, he reasoned. For when it was over, he would stand high atop the Graelic, at long last free of the Hunger.

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Age of Death – The Sanctuary

Anon chose to observe the sentencing, and nothing more. He was invisible to all but one. Even if he chose to do so, Anon doubted he could hide from the great Dona’Cora.

Their robes so white they seemed to sparkle, the Conclave of Elders formed a circle around Alana. Consumed by grief and shame, her head hung low. Throughout the questioning she hardly made eye contact with the Elders — probably had not heard a single word they said. Her mind was encased in an impenetrable shield, but even so, Anon knew her well, and could easily sense her thoughts. The words of the Elders meant nothing to her. What they did not realize, was that her failure was of an entirely different nature, a loss they no longer could comprehend. She had ignored their laws, and would do so again. Perhaps a million times over if it would save those she deemed worthy. To uphold purity and goodness was her only true law. On the world Ki’minsyllessil, the Plague swept that all away. Her law was sundered by the undead army, forcing her to see the truth of things; the fragility of innocence and the limitless breadth of corruption.

Frustrated with her stubbornness, and realizing the futility of any further condemnation, the Elders cast their sentence and left her to her fate — she was forbidden to step upon a living world until she once more accepted the Conclave’s ways. To reenter the fold, she would have to fully open her mind to them. If she harbored any doubt, they would find it and banish her once more.

Quite possibly she would never return. For some, such a punishment amounted to a sentence of death. The Dead Worlds were harsh beyond imagining. Upon many the undead remained, and would no doubt find a weakened god an irresistible treat. Or perhaps, Alana would refuse the Conclave forever — find her own path in the fate of the universe. Ultimately, the choice would be her own.

Slowly Alana arose, her head of smooth, silver hair towering over all but one of the Elders — Ostedes, a thin giant with branch-like arms and legs from the world Edilan. She faced the Elders, seemingly unfazed by her sentence and their harsh reprimanding.

As Anon suspected, she had but one thought left in her mind.

“What of Ki’minsyllessil? What if some remain?” she asked, not bothering to acknowledge the harsh stares garnered from her words.

“The Elves are no longer your concern. Though most likely

none remain, an entire strain lost because of your arrogance.”

The speaker was Dona’Cora. Next to Anon, she was the most ancient of all the Elders. At one point in time, entire galaxies bowed before her, worshiping her as a true god. In the beginning of the Age of Death, she led perhaps the single greatest offensive strike against the Makii. Worlds upon worlds rallied to her call, joining her in a battle that spanned nearly a century. She was, of course, doomed to fail. For as ever, the Plague’s greatest strength was its ability to acquire its enemies; the more that stood before it, the more that joined it. The truth of Dona’Cora’s effort was that she hastened the spread of the Plague, funneling thousands of worlds directly into its maw.

Her final glimmer of hope lost, Alana lowered her head.

Very little softened Dona’Cora’s heart anymore. She had seen more devastation than most, and no doubt found Alana’s suffering childlike. Still, she responded with what could almost be seen as sympathy.

“Nonetheless, we will return for a final assessment. With so promising a specimen at stake, we must be certain.”

Even from his distance, Anon saw a sudden spark of hope in Alana’s eyes – though it was snuffed out as quickly as it arose when Dona’Cora continued, “Do not mistake me, Alana. I care not for your tale of lost love. You were to return with him. As tragic as it may be, I cannot afford to feel sympathy for you. Nor do I weep for the loss of his people or his world. The Dead Gods had claimed Ki’minsyllessil. It is only because of the Treaty that they bothered to inform us of this fact at all. You dared to deny not only us, but the Treaty as well. Because of you, a Godling is lost, and our treaty with the Dead Gods quite possibly broken. If we didn’t value your power so dearly — perhaps now more than ever — most likely your sentence would be death.”

Alana appeared made of stone.

“I promise you, Dona’ Cora. I will not fail again.”

“I hope you have that chance, Alana. As I hope you return to us soon.”

As much as he hated to admit it, Anon doubted she would ever return. It was clear to him that she was more committed to upholding her own laws than ever before.

His thin lips spread into a grin.

As if they were non-existent, she walked through the ring of Elders to begin her banishment.

Along with a pair of staunch, white-robed Elders, Anon followed Alana to the hangar – a spacious barreled chamber that opened to the wind-warn mountains. Two lines of egg shaped objects filled the chamber. These oblong metallic vessels were known as ‘pods’. Relics from the Age of Unity, the pods relied on the Oneness as their sole power source. Colossal failures at the time, the pods never achieved speeds anywhere near those of the more popular grav or matter condensing drive systems — even when powered by the greatest of the Blood. Not to mention, such vessels were only logical for short range distances, rare were those who dared to test the limit of their power by undertaking a major interstellar trip. More often than not, such fools were never heard from again.

Needless to say, other than for amusement, the pods were quickly discarded, and considered almost laughable when the Rift made space travel an instantaneous event.

Now, the pods were the Chosen’s only way off of the small basalt covered moon which they called home. Known as the Sanctuary, the moon was the sole orbiting body of a Dead World that no longer had a name. With the Oneness, the Elders were able to carve out a keep within the largest of the moon’s smooth, black mountains. Inside the keep, an artificial atmosphere was constantly maintained by lesser Chosen, while outside, solar winds transformed the moon’s surface into ever shifting waves of black glass.

The Dead World below housed a Rift. The Sanctuary did not. Despite the moon’s constant volcanic activity and flesh searing winds, being disconnected from the Rift made it one of the safest places in the universe. Even with all their knowledge and power, the Elders had found few such places: lands forgotten or overlooked by the Plague. It was to the largest of these hidden lands that the Chosen were sent, terraforming the worlds with their Oneness.

The trio shielded themselves in blue flames as they approached the open-aired hangar. Anon fell back, not wishing to announce his presence to Alana by summoning a similar shield. He contented himself to watch her embark from a distance.

‘You do not even wish to say goodbye?’

Dona’Cora had chosen to join him, though unlike him, she remained visible to all.

‘She must gain strength on her own now. My presence

would only undue her efforts.’

‘Or perhaps, Illusionist, you have grown too fond of her.

Your loving heart will not allow you to punish your child, so you leave it to others.

After all these years, the lack of respect from the other Elder Gods still brought a smile to his face. Despite all his recent accomplishments (what many called miracles), they believed he had fooled the Dark Army into thinking he was something he was not; some sort of holy and sacred being. But the Elders were not so easily fooled. No matter how much power he possessed, or what great feats he performed, he would always be viewed as an illusionist.

He smiled because he enjoyed their misconceptions, and because they were right – truth be told, he did foster their perceptions of him. He only appeared to the Elders as he once was; a short, middle aged man with but a patch of hair remaining on either side of his head. His belly protruded from his waist, and seemed oddly incompatible with his otherwise moderately fit body. But the most amusing part, was that they couldn’t see through their own illusions – that they were just like him, Illusionist one and all.

‘I watch my child leave for the Dead Worlds and you think me soft? You and I are more alike than we probably care to admit, Don’Cora. Like you, I do what I must — without exception.

And with no regard for the difficulties.’

‘Surely, if only for the semblance of discipline, you could muster anger and disappointment?’

‘To survive the Dead Worlds, she must begin to see truth.

Why corrupt that with lies?’

‘Lies? Truth? Both are irrelevant in battle, Anon. For the Makii, truth was a virus that made them immortals — the greatest lie the universe had ever known. It is like you said; we do what we must. Life itself is at stake. To win this battle,

I for one would do anything.’ That’s what Anon feared most.

‘Do not think you are clear of this, Anon. Alana is your child, your responsibility. As such, the Conclave has chosen you to

go to Ki’minsyllessil, to clean up your child’s mess.’

Perhaps because of her fur covered flesh, sharp pointed nose, or possibly just her general toughness, whenever Anon was in Dona’Cora’s presence he was reminded of a particular creature that once thrived in the worlds. Prior to the Age of Unity, the worlds were separated by vast and often unattainable distances. Creatures of every imaginable shape and size filled the living worlds, but rarely did any single species populate multiple planets. Miraculously, one animal did manage to find its way to virtually every populated planet, and also thrived upon every world it landed. These small fur-covered stowaways had of course been given many names throughout the years, but Anon remembered them by one name more clearly than the rest — rat.

Alana was about to enter a pod when she turned to them. Dona’Cora stared her down with her beady yellow eyes. Some thoughts must have passed between the two women, for suddenly Dona’Cora spun away. She stormed off, saying, “Stubborn girl. The Worlds die and she frets over one man.”

The follies of young love … the thought of it made him smile once more. Except for the innocence of a child, there was nothing more pure in the entire universe. Even the great Dona’Cora had once fallen prey to its spell, though she would never admit to it.

History said that The Great Offensive had begun with one woman’s love – to save her god-king from a planet under siege, that woman had rallied a legion of worlds to her cause. She would have sacrificed the universe itself, if it would have saved her love. But sadly, by the time her armies arrived, her godking had become a demon. Decades later, with her army lying in ruins around her, she yet refused to leave the battle – not until her lover was truly dead.

Yes, Dona’Cora knew well the follies of young love. It must be difficult indeed, for her to relive her errors through the life of another.

Alana watched Dona’Cora depart, her eyes lingering in Anon’s direction long after she was gone. Was she already seeing to the truth? Had she seen past his illusion? Deep down, Anon wished it were so — that she could see him one last time, that he could say a proper goodbye. He was almost on the verge of revealing himself when she turned and gracefully entered the pod.

The moment for a final farewell had passed. It would be ages before they would meet again, if ever.

A blue halo surrounded the vessel and it was off, sailing past the ocean of black glass that was the Sanctuary.

Shortly after Alana left, Anon began preparations for his own departure from the Sanctuary. His mission was to find and save the elf prince, Adros — if by some miracle he still lived. Failing that, any remnant of the elven race would suffice. Worse case, if the elves had all perished, a healthy tissue sample could perhaps unlock at least some of their biological secrets.

From what they learned from Alana’s tale; the elves all seemed blessed with a natural resistance to the Plague, and an unusually long life-span. There was no doubt that their genetic makeup demanded further study, as well as a deeper integration into the Elders’ evolutionary program. Their resistance was of particular importance. If they could rob the Dead Gods of their ability to replenish their army, the entire dynamic of the battle would suddenly shift in the Elders’ favor. With an army immune to the Plague, the Elders could even entertain the idea of outright war.

Such was the Elders’ goal – face the Dead Gods in war once more, but on their terms, and when the time was right. That was where Alana erred. She moved too soon, and without the Elders’ consent. She risked breaking the Treaty with the Dead Gods, at a time when the Elders’ survival depended on it.

The Treaty had never really been agreed upon by the Elders, so much as it was enforced upon them. Towards the end of the Age of Death, it was becoming well known that both sides were facing possible extinction. The Elders and the living worlds they ruled, were of course failing catastrophically to stop the spread of the Plague. But correspondingly, the Dead Gods’ own armies were growing beyond their own ability to maintain, and were becoming so massive that (at a time when a single living world was hard to come by) entire galaxies could not sustain them.

It was the Dead Gods themselves who brought forth the idea of ‘peace’. The Elders could continue their efforts to resurrect the Dead Worlds (obviously in hopes they would become a future source of nourishment). Meanwhile, the Dead Gods would take only what they need, leaving the Elders with their Chosen ones.

Still in the early stages of its development, the Treaty had brought little success to either side. The Elders had yet to bring life to a Dead World, and the Dead Gods were drawing ever closer to snuffing out all life in the universe.

For Dona’Cora, war had ever been the only real solution. But she dared not act, not until she was certain that the next time she faced the Dead Gods, she would be the victor. That was why the planet Ki’minsyllessil had become so vital. The blood of these elves could change everything — if all of it hadn’t been infected or spilt.

Because of the mission’s importance, (or perhaps because Dona’Cora did not trust Anon) the Elder God Ostedes was to accompany him — under Dona’Cora’s direct instruction. It was believed his uncommon affinity for nature would serve them well on this Ki’minsyllessil. Ostedes not only resembled a tree — his interior vascular system did as well. His hands and feet didn’t have typical toes or fingers, but instead ended in branchlike appendages. It was from these appendages that Ostedes found sustenance, whether it was from the nutrients in the soil or other, less wholesome things.

Though boneless, every appendage was moveable — his mind able to expand and contract his vascular system like one giant muscle. Lacking a mouth with which to speak, Ostedes was a born telepath. His mind perhaps the strongest Anon had seen. Few could resist his telepathic attacks. If he chose to enter one’s mind, he would find a way; whether it was tearing into it with pure telepathic energy, or piercing it with one of his many branch-like appendages and literally feeding on its knowledge. In truth, back on his home-world, Edilan, brains were considered a delicacy.

Fortunately, the Elders had taught him better table manners since then.

Even for Anon, it was difficult to judge Ostedes’ emotional state. His mind was an impenetrable wall of pure telepathic energy, while his long grey face was, for the most part, emotionless. The only emotion he ever truly displayed was anger – when his eyes glazed over in white, it was best to step lightly around Ostedes. Anon had seen that look once before – the day he rescued Ostedes from his dying world Edilan.

The giant never forgave Anon for that.

Being a Godling, he was exceptional among his people. They recognized this, and bestowed him a great honor because of it.

He was made their Sacred Guardian. They believed he would be the one to save them from the Plague.

By the time Anon stepped in, his failure was certain. Ostedes knew the truth of it as well, and claimed his rightful place was to die in protection of his people. Anon robbed him of that final duty – his last act as their Sacred Guardian.

Ostedes was the first child Anon had saved. From the experience, Anon had learned an important lesson: not everyone wanted to be saved. If he had to do it again, would he leave the choice to Ostedes? Did Ostedes even have a choice, or would he merely be embracing death — much like Alana’s love — the elf prince, Adros. It seemed to be an obvious fact that only one thing could be achieved by standing against the

Plague.

There was another simple truth that Anon had grown accustomed to facing over the years: no matter what one does in life, their path leads to death. He had seen entire races abandon their worlds, hoping to hide from the Plague — though in the end, the Plague found and slaughtered them. Some actually managed to spend their lifetimes in hiding, but eventually they too died, homeless refugees, living out their days in fear, outcasts on an alien world. And what of the Dead Gods, were they any different? They call themselves immortals, but in reality merely steal the life from others. In time, they too will find their end – an end they set in motion a long time ago.

Everyone must die. Anon knew there was no changing that. The Makii tried, but merely corrupted the laws – not escaped them.

Perhaps Alana’s law was the correct path. It had been proven time and time again that the Elders could not save the worlds. Then why not at least grant their people honorable deaths, in a manner of their choosing?

As Anon walked to the Hangar, he still wasn’t sure what he would do if he actually found the Elf Prince; leave him to certain death, or force him to forsake his world and his rightful resting place.

There was one more option …

Anon flexed his fingers. A white glow crept from his fingertips, working its way up his arms and soon encasing his whole body.

… He could always stay and fight.

Shinning bright white, he stepped into a pod.

Along with the giant tree-like being Ostedes, Dona’Cora had hand-picked a dozen Chosen to join them. If the decision had been his, Anon would have taken only one of them – a young human named Brontes. Anon had saved Brontes from his dying world as well, though, unlike Ostedes, Brontes and Anon had formed an immediate bond that had endured for ages.

Brontes nodded respectfully to Anon as he emerged from his pod. His head was covered in a wild mass of curly hair. Black and long, it fell upon his face where it became one with a scruffy beard that was more knots than curls. From his left cheek, a puffy pink scar ran vertically up his face, passing through the fused patch of flesh where his eye once was, to the top of his forehead. The scar always served as a grim reminder to Anon of how twisted and evil the Makii had become. Despite Anon’s best efforts to restore sight to his left eye, the wound would never truly heal.

The story of its creation was often told – the young Godling who thought he could stand against a Dead God. The most remarkable part was that the Godling survived, while the Dead God did not. Many credited Anon with the victory – one of his earliest miracles. But Anon took no honor from that battle. The horrors inflicted by that Dead God – Sevron the self-proclaimed ‘Servant of Death’, still haunted Anon. He couldn’t escape the fact that he had killed the Dead God much too late.

Like the rest of the Chosen, and Ostedes, Blue flames covered Brontes. The air was so thick and dense with toxic gases that without the Oneness, one would be immediately crushed. Even with the Oneness, merely walking on the land proved to be a task, much like trying to walk on the bottom of an ocean. Every motion was incredibly draining; too much activity could easily deplete one’s power, especially for the younger Chosen who were present. Speaking was impossible. Just to get a word across would require enough power to generate a tidal wave of the dense air. And when the word did reach a listener, so would the wave of elements — enough of a force to put an Elder on their back. Even telepathic communication was a risk; the slightest lapse in concentration could lower one’s halo, resulting in certain and sudden death.

The Dead World was dangerous indeed, but it was also part of the reason the Sanctuary remained safe. Not even the Dead Gods would near this land any longer. They only wanted living worlds. To go elsewhere was merely a drain on their power. And should any of their lessor minions happen to stumble through the Rift and into this world, their bodies would be instantly liquefied by the extreme pressure.

As much as he wished to speak with Brontes, Anon focused his movement towards the Rift, hoping there would be time for pleasantries later. He wished he knew Brontes’ role in all of this. Why had Dona’Cora chosen him — perhaps his most loyal companion next to Alana. He didn’t like where such speculations led to. It seemed there were only dead ends in this maze.

While in the safety of the Sanctuary, Dona’Cora had briefed each member of the mission individually, leaving Anon uncertain as to the others’ knowledge, or purpose. For Anon, the first order of business was to see if the Treaty was still in place – something he figured would be known perhaps the moment they set foot on Ki’minsyllessil. If they were lucky, the Dead Gods would even offer their aid, after all, the continuation of life was of mutual gain. If not, they would quickly find themselves in a violent struggle. Their party wasn’t large enough to survive any lengthy fight. Their best chance would be to flee into the Rift — though not directly back to the Sanctuary, lest they lead their enemies back to their home, bringing the war straight to their door. It could be years before they ever made it back, if they did at all. It was quite possible they would end up stuck, playing a game of hide-and-seek throughout the universe.

In the Age of Unity, the Rifts used to be housed in elaborate temples; structures that defied the laws of physics and only existed by the power of the Oneness. The Rift was the ultimate symbol of the Mage-lords’ power, and was worshipped as such. The Rift he now approached stood alone, unadorned.

Twice as tall as Ostedes, the Rift floated mid-air, its outer edge slowly wavering in the dense atmosphere.

It had been prearranged that Anon initiate their destination – a highly tasking effort for even an Elder. Once a Rift was set to a certain destination, it took a great toll to alter it, only slightly less tasking than actually opening a Rift on a new world. Not only did he have to plot his course — which required him to find one world within billions of worlds — but also redirect the pathway of the Rift – something akin to permanently reversing a river’s flow.

No doubt he would be weakened on the other side. But thankfully, should there be trouble when he arrived; he could rely on Brontes’ support. Of his other companions he was far less trusting – especially Ostedes. He had the distinct feeling the Elder longed to find him in a vulnerable state. But Anon didn’t fear Ostedes or the Chosen. There were ways around the Elder’s telepathic barrage, and lacking that weapon, Ostedes was relatively weak in the Oneness. As for the Chosen, he was fairly certain he could defeat them with his reputation alone. If they somehow mustered the courage to stand against him, he would be forced to teach them that his respect was indeed well earned.

Ostedes and the Chosen were transparent in their faults. What Anon feared was the unknown – what exactly was he walking into on the planet Ki’minsyllessil?

With the entire party growing weaker by the moment, Anon supposed it was time to find out.

Threads of white light drifted to the Rift. They spiraled inward, coalescing into a single pinpoint of pure white deep within its heart. Luckily, Anon didn’t have to search for the planet Ki’minsyllessil – he was led there by the light. Trusting in the Maker, he stepped in …

… in all of the universe there no place more peaceful than the Rift. It was a purity that defied intellect, an absence of time and space that brought one closer to the Maker – and the Void as well. All was forgotten in the Rift – all was forgiven. Reality became meaningless, but somehow life held more meaning than ever. Anon knew someday he would be allowed to stay, drifting in the blissful abyss for eternity. But it wasn’t his time yet. He was only passing through.

Sensation returned, and with it pain. He felt his mind tearing as the real world pulled him away. Consciousness was almost unbearable – surely reality would destroy him …

Anon was reborn on the other side. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts. When he did, he realized he was not alone.

His halo encased him

… and there was something else too. Evil, he was surrounded by it.

He fought to remain standing, hoped the other couldn’t see his knees tremble. If he was to face a battle he had to buy time, at least until his allies arrived.

“I once knew a man who refused immortality,” the other spoke, his voice little more than a whisper. “And to think, I thought him a fool. But now, look what I have become, while

that man — the ‘Illusionist’, remains unchanged.”

The land was buried in shadows. The Great Tree filled the horizon, its canopy blocking out the planet’s sun. Its trunk was hidden in darkness, but Anon could clearly sense it in the distance, looming over the land. The land itself was covered in twisted roots that could easily be mistaken for hills – the largest of them mountains. From beneath one of the giant roots the speaker crept – his body as much a twisted tangle of shadows as the surrounding landscape. He limped forward. He reached out to Anon, his arms ending in stumps from which his thick black blood poured. The blood formed into a hand. It didn’t try to strike out at Anon, but was left open and waiting before him.

“I too have changed, Lord Imorbis. Maybe I am merely better at hiding my scars, after all, like you said; I am an illusionist.”

Grudgingly, Anon accepted the gesture and shook the Dead God’s hand. He wasn’t worried about infection — he was confident the white halo surrounding his own hand would protect him. But for many, a handshake signified respect, something the Makii did not deserve.

“Ha. Changed indeed. But not through illusion, oh no. The Brethren know the truth of you, Anon. Of what you really have become.”

“Well then, do you offer your hand in peace or in fear?” “Respect. For the one who choose the true path.”

“There is no choice, Imorbis. There is only one path.”

“Yes, yes indeed. If only I could have seen things so clearly as you… And I thought I was the smart one.”

“What of the Treaty? Does your good gesture mean it remains in place?” Anon asked, thinking the Dead God was too far gone to find absolution, and anxious to begin the task at hand.

The Dead God laughed; a hollow rasping sound.

“No Anon, The treaty is broken beyond imagining.”

Anon released his slimy grip then stepped back, filling himself with as much power as he could summon.

If the Dead God was aware of Anon’s sudden blaze of power, he showed no sign.

“Though not by our choice, of course. Our armies have been stolen from us, Anon, and even now they march the Darkbridge. Everything has changed. No longer do they require

nourishment from your Living Worlds, only their annihilation.”

‘EXPLAIN, DEAD GOD.’

Until Ostedes spoke — with the force of a telepathic headache, Anon hadn’t realized his allies had arrived. Even so, after what Lord Imorbis had said, he doubted anything would comfort him at the moment.

His eyes pure white, Ostedes stared down the Dead God.

‘WHAT HAPPENED HERE?’

“Hah, you think you frighten me, Elder. I have seen death itself and it let me live.”

He looked at his bloodied stumps.

“Such as it is.”

“Lord Imorbis.”

This time Anon was reaching out to him. He placed a golden hand on his shoulder. The Dead God’s soul was laid bare — all the evil done, all the horrors committed. Deep inside Anon saw a man who was both a genius and highly gifted with the Oneness. Considering all his atrocities, his greatest crime in life had been that he thought he could undo the laws of nature.

Anon looked down at the crumpled form and felt sorry for the being.

“It took the army, Anon. All of our armies. It cares not for immortality or life, it wants only death. It is the embodiment of the Void.”

“Who, Imorbis? Who controls your armies now?” Anon asked.

“Such fools we were. To think we could conquer the Void. The Elfin and their Graelic — such power. We thought we were feeding off it, but in truth, we were giving it life. Life to the Void. We let it into our world, and now it wants to reclaim all.”

“Your armies,” Anon persisted. “Where are they now?” He thrust his bloodied stump to the heavens.

“Everywhere. It knows where you’ve hidden the Living

Worlds, and it moves to annihilate them.”

Anon’s companions cursed behind him. He sensed Ostedes dearly wished he could smash Imorbis.

“What of your Brethren, the other Makii?”

“My brethren have all left. Imagine … the conquerors of the universe fleeing in terror. The Void is the only foe we were never truly able to defeat. The one force capable of destroying us.”

‘I DON’T TRUST HIM, ANON. THE DEAD GODS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FALSE OF TONGUE. LET ME INTO HIS

MIND, AND I WILL SEE THROUGH HIS LIES.’

“No. He speaks the truth. I know you can feel the evil in this world as clearly as I. I’ve known the truth the moment I arrived. The real question is; where do the Dead Gods now stand?”

“Yes,” Brontes injected, the memories of his last encounter with a Dead God sparkling at the corner of his remaining eye.

“Why then, are you still here?”

The Dead God shrank away from them, as though it was trying to stuff itself into the shadows.

“My life’s work was the Void. It was I who discovered its existence, learned to exploit it. I remain while all others have left. I remained to study it.”

“I seem to remember, your studies also gave rise to the

Plague,” Anon said.

‘YOU SAID IT STOLE YOUR ARMIES, STOLE THEM HOW?’ “Infected them, of course. It’s a version of the Virus unlike any I have seen. A new strain. A living organism. It infects the host, then grows within. After time, there is nothing left of the individual; the flesh is but a puppet.”

“What of the Makii? How did you escape its control?” Anon asked.

‘PERHAPS THEY HAVEN’T ESCAPED. AND HOPE TO PLAY

US FOR FOOLS.’

“We could have ended your kind at any time, treeman.”

His eyes pure white, Ostedes bolted at the Dead God — his many snake-like appendages propelling him forward faster than seemed possible.

But Anon was faster. He held Ostedes back with a glowing white hand.

As though oblivious to the sudden threat, the Dead God continued, “But we knew that with the death of the Elders, our end would soon follow. That has not changed. The Makii remain, so long as we don’t interfere. Those of the Pure Strain cannot be controlled, but neither will they join you lest they openly seek death.”

“We have to leave,” one of the younger Chosen said. ‘NO. NOT UNTIL WE KNOW THE ELF PRINCE’S FATE.’ “I think we have bigger problems now,” said Brontes.

“No, Ostedes is right. If anyone can tell us of this tree and its abilities, it is Adros. Finding him is more important than ever,” Anon said.

“Ah, the Elf Prince. It knew you would come for him.” “What do you know of the Prince?” Anon questioned.

“I know well who you seek. Because of him, I am the creature you see.”

“So then, does he yet live?” Anon asked.

The Dead God attempted a smile, but it looked more like a knife had cut a slit in his face.

“He’s a hard one to kill, a fact I can personally attest to. He may have defeated me in single combat, but I hold my honor

intact. Even the Void could not defeat him.”

‘WHERE IS HE?’

“I can take you to him, if you wish. But I warn you, the Void desires him as well. If you find him, you may not live to take him from this world.”

‘WHY SHOULD WE TAKE YOU WITH US? HOW DO WE

KNOW YOU WILL NOT EXACT YOUR OWN VENGENCE ONCE

HE IS FOUND?’

“I was no match for him in my prime, and would be much

less now. Nor do I wish further injury on myself.”

“Why do you help us, Lord Imorbis?” Anon asked, not certain he trusted the Dead God either.

“Far too long have I walked the path of death, and what have I gained? I once had great power. With my gifts, I thought I could outsmart the Maker — steal immortality from him. For my hubris, I now suffer. Unleashing the Void was the end of my path, only now can I see that. I sought to escape from the laws of nature, never realizing why they existed. They are a

prison. Built to contain the Void.”

‘HA … A DEAD GOD WITH A CONSCIENCE.’

Ostedes’ laugh, nearly split Anon’s skull.

‘SO, YOU NOW WISH TO FOLLOW THE MAKER? THEN LEAD US, BUT THE MOMENT I SENSE YOUR BETRAYAL,

YOU WILL FOLLOW THE MAKER INTO THE AFTERLIFE.’

Anon had to admit, the Dead God delivered a fine speech, but even he wasn’t convinced.

What are you really up to Imorbis?

Anon was all too familiar with the Dead God and his reputation. In the hierarchy of the Makii, he most certainly ranked among the top. He had personally orchestrated a vast number of planetary assaults, no doubt leaving billions dead (or undead) in his wake. To think he suddenly had faith in the Maker, seemed a stretch to say the least. Anon also shared Ostedes’ worry — why would he wish to help the very same being who had so grievously disfigured him?

Once again, Anon tucked his worry and doubt to the back of his mind. He trusted to the Maker’s path – even though now it was led by a Dead God.

They walked well into the day – even saw a distant glow of light radiating on the horizon, far beyond the Graelic’s canopy.

Anon shared some friendly words with Brontes – verbally and telepathically, but otherwise the majority of their walk was left to silence. He hoped to gain more insight into Brontes’ role in this mission, and was rewarded for his efforts when Brontes’ explained that – unlike Anon – he had not kept silent during Alana’s trial. He had vehemently fought for her, not only backing her bravery when it seemed the Elders had none, but also demanding she be allowed back to Ki’minsyllessil – to help find the man she loved. Brontes felt proud to have achieved a small victory, being able to go in her stead. Anon believed otherwise, he knew the Elders would not be cowered with strong demands, or forced into a decision because of some harsh words. Most likely, he was allowed to join the hunt for the Elf Prince because they wanted him silenced and out of the Sanctuary – else other Chosen begin taking up his call. If Anon knew anything about Dona’Cora, it was that she did not like demands. He worried about Brontes’ future with the Chosen, should they ever find their way back to the Sanctuary.

As for Imorbis, Anon refused to speak with him, though the Dead God made him suffer several attempts at conversation – mainly questioning him on his power or the Maker. For a moment, Anon even entertained the idea that the Dead God now sought to either become the Maker, or steal his power. But only a fool would entertain that quest, and Imorbis had always been known for his intellect. Surely, even one so corrupted and broken as Imorbis could see the impossibility of it?

Much to Anon’s dismay – and aching head – Ostedes not only welcomed the Dead God’s conversation, but often attempted to grill him for information. Surprisingly, the questioning did earn them something other than a headache. The Dead God told them that Prince Adros possessed a weapon which the Great Tree feared. Apparently, Imorbis had firsthand knowledge of the weapon, and its ability to absorb the Plague.

“The staff negates our Dark Gift, drinks it in. I estimate the weapon is of the same material as the Great Tree itself. Like the tree, it takes the darkness into itself. Perhaps with a chance to study it … ”

‘DO NOT ENTERTAIN THE THOUGHT. I WILL DELIVER IT TO DONA’CORA ALONG WITH THE PRINCE. SHE WOULD BE INTERESTED IN POSSESSING SUCH A WEAPON. IF WE COULD REPLICATE ITS POWER, WE COULD SEE IT USED TO GREAT EFFECT AGAINST THE DARK ARMY.’

“Ha, good luck taking it from him, treeman. I believe you would have to kill him first, a task which you would prove to be unfit.”

‘YOU WOULD BE SURPRISED BY MY ABILITIES, DEAD GOD. PERHAPS SOMEDAY I WILL DEMONSTRATE THEM TO

YOU.’

“What happened to the Great Tree?” Anon asked, seeing the whites of Ostedes’ eyes and hoping to change the conversation before it became violent. “How did it become sentient?”

“I believe, on some primordial level it was always so. Like all things living, it fought us in the beginning. But after a while, we fed the Great Tree so much of the Dark Power it became

something else, it became the very thing from which it fed.”

Anon noticed the terrain had grown rocky. Fewer roots covered the land, in their place — smooth grey stones. “When will you Makii stop turning the universe into ruin?” Brontes asked.

“Oh, our time is done, little god. It is the Void’s turn now.” Imorbis stopped.

“I believe this is it.”

The Dead God pointed a bloodied hand to a distant outcropping of rock. It wasn’t much of a formation — maybe half again as tall as Ostedes — but it was the only such natural body of stone they had seen their entire journey. For the most part, the Great Tree seemed to have encompassed the land with its oversized system of roots. No doubt the roots stretched for miles in order to deliver the necessary nutrients to the tree itself. Alana believed they spanned the entire world, and sucked the surface dry of water and life. But she also described the tree as a bounty of life. Its branches held a variety of habitats, and varied forms of life. Though by definition arboreal, the elves that once lived in the Great Tree had more of an urban lifestyle, for the tree was a living city — a tower higher than any steel or stone structure in the universe. Up in its branches, all of the needs of the inhabitants were met, there had never been a need for the elves to come down.

Until now.

“It is a cave of rock. One of the only areas the Tree has not overcome. Inside hides the Prince.”

‘WE ARE DONE WITH YOU THEN. LEAVE US TO OUR

TASK.’

“As you wish, treeman,” the Dead God said, even managing to manipulate his crumpled body into the semblance of a bow.

“And you, Anon. I hope it is soon we meet again.” Anon did not wish the same.

“Perhaps if you walk the Maker’s path, we will.”

The bow the Dead God gave Ostedes was obviously mocking, but for Anon there was only respect.

The Lord Imorbis turned back the way he came, back to the Great Tree. Anon truly did wish he could find the Maker, at heart his intentions had never been evil — it was their result. He intentionally infected himself with a disease that drove him mad with hunger, a hunger to feed off of life. The universe was left to suffer and die from his mistake, but he had as well. No doubt he owed the Maker a great debt, Anon hoped it was one he could repay.

For a moment, Anon and the others simply stared at the pile of rocks, as though waiting for the Elf Prince to jump out and great them. If his reputation was anywhere near truth, he was no doubt aware of their presence. And depending on his perception of them, he would either be eager to great them as allies, or busy bolstering his defenses.

He did not come out to great them.

‘I WILL GO FIRST,’ Ostedes said, breaking the silence with his booming telepathic voice.

“I for one think that is a bad idea,” Anon replied, without hesitation. Not only could communication prove a problem, but the giant’s general demeanor and appearance could easily provoke the Prince.

“I will lead,” Anon said, extinguishing his halo. “This entire situation is partially my fault. If there is danger within, I should be the one to face it.”

“Then I’m coming with,” Brontes interjected, his right eye surveying the outcropping of rock as if he expected every last Dead God to jump out. “We have no reason to believe we haven’t been led to a trap.”

‘AGREED. THAT’S WHY I TOO WILL ACCOMPANY.’

Assuming you can fit inside, Anon thought, hopefully hiding the thought from the giant.

“So be it. Time to introduce ourselves to this Elf Prince.”

Anon headed out, not waiting if the others followed – it was their choice to make. As for those who remained, if he succeeded in removing the Elf Prince from his bunker, he hoped they kept a vigilant guard in his absence. Despite the many boulders and rocks, he felt the evil of the Great Tree more keenly here than anywhere else.

The outcropping of rock concealed a gateway into the earth. The hole looked to be a natural cave, perhaps an opening into an ancient reservoir that the Great Tree had long since sucked dry. Anon had hoped the size of the entryway would bar Ostedes, but it appeared large enough for even the giant Elder to pass. And as far as Anon could see within the cave, the interior chamber grew ever larger.

Anon entered first, followed by Ostedes, and lastly Brontes. Anon decided to forgo his power until absolutely necessary. He wanted to keep his appearance as non-threatening as possible, at least until he was able to properly introduce himself to the Elf Prince. He wasn’t sure what Alana may have told Adros about the Elders and their mission. Quite possibly, judging by Alana’s decision to go against the Elders’ law – and her subsequent failure to save his world – the Elf Prince could very well have a low opinion of the Elders.

Ostedes and Brontes didn’t hesitate to summon their halos of blue. The moment they flared to life, the chamber was illuminated in a mind-bending pattern of blue beams. The chamber walls and ceiling were covered with sparkling crystals that took the slightest wave of light and bent and twisted it into a hundred different directions. One would be better off blind in such an environment, and no doubt the Elf Prince was well aware of its properties – could be preparing his attack at any moment.

‘Halos down,’ Anon commanded.

Brontes obeyed, but Ostedes continued to hold onto his.

‘We’re blind in the light! Trust your telepathy or he will be on us before we see him coming. If possible, I would like to keep this non-violent.’

With the equivalent of a telepathic groan, Ostedes grudgingly complied.

The light seemed to linger in the crystal, and then slowly faded away, leaving the party in complete darkness — all of them currently powerless to penetrate it.

“Ken’amista maki?”

The voice was a whisper, and somehow seemed to emanate from all directions.

“We know not your language, Elf Lord,” Anon declared. “We have heard you know the common tongue, taught to you by one of our own.”

“I know your tongue well. What I do not know is why you have come?” was the elf’s response.

‘FOOL, WE HAVE COME TO TAKE YOU FROM THIS DEAD

LAND,’ Ostedes rudely replied.

“What if I mean to stay, tree-brother? Dead it may be, but it is still my world.”

So, it was as Anon feared. The situation must be handled delicately, and fast.

“We have learned a great darkness has taken this land, something perhaps worse than even the Plague,” Anon quickly stated, trying to keep Ostedes from the conversation. “Your Great Tree has become a source of pure evil. We believe it not only controls the forces of the Plague, but has unleashed them on the last Living Worlds.”

“What do I care for these worlds? Where were they when the Dark Army struck my homeland? We stood alone against the vastness of the Plague … and so nearly prevailed. Perhaps would have, if these other worlds came to my aid.”

“But you did not stand alone. Another chose to stay. She stood with you, despite her orders and all logic, and now she

suffers because of her choice.”

It seemed as though the cave grew darker.

“If you’ve harmed her, I will see you sent to the Maker.”

Anon sensed sudden movement. It was unperceivable, merely a sensation at the back of his mind, but either way, he knew the Elf Prince was poised to strike, and lacking a halo, he doubted there was much he could do to prevent him from fulfilling his threat.

‘I could never harm Alana. Trust me, Adros, she is safe. You, on the other hand, are not. This world is corrupt beyond anything we have ever encountered. I know you wish to stay, and would fight the Great Tree until your last breath. But you must leave with us while you can. I sense this fight has only just begun. Please, leave with us and live to fight another day.’

‘No, Anon.’

Anon was saddened by his response. The last thing he wished to do was force him to leave, if he could only convince him of the futility of staying. Also, Anon noticed that the Elf Prince knew his name. Alana must have told Adros something about him. He hoped it was something good.

Anon was about to try further convincing, when the Elf Prince continued, ‘I will never leave. But you must take them.

I won’t let them die here because of my failure.’

‘WHO HAVE YOU HIDDEN HERE?’

Speaking with the Prince telepathically was a risk Anon had to take. He had thought himself strong enough to escape Ostedes’ detection, but had obviously underestimated the giant Elder and his ability to intrude on one’s thoughts – he would have to note that for the future.

Adros seemed a man who was always on edge, but after Ostedes’ interruption, the edge was sharper than ever.

‘OUR INFORMATION INDICATED ONLY ONE SURVIVED,

YOU.’

“It is as you say, tree-brother. I am the One Elf. The one who escaped the Dead Tree. I alone escaped … but barely. Once I was able, I left the cave, dreading to see what had become of my world. I expected it to be crawling with the Soulless, but soon realized the Dark Army had left; its minions were no more. So I went back to my home, determined to find a way

to end the Dead Tree, or forfeit my life trying.”

Anon nearly summoned his halo, his every instinct warning him that the Elf Prince was preparing to kill.

“What I found there still haunts my soul. While recovering from my injuries, I believed my people were all dead. In this belief I found rage unlike any I have known before. Surely I should have died, but the rage brought me to my feet again. I thought there was nothing I could not face, even death and the Void. But when I discovered the truth of my people’s fate …

the horror of it brought me to my knees. ” “What happened, Adros?” Anon asked.

“My people were … imprisoned. We are immune to the Plague, but the Dead Tree thought to keep us around nonetheless, to make us a part of it. It grew within them, tree and flesh melding into one. I went back … for days I went back. I found I could save some, the young. They were able to recover, the others … they died upon separation. Eventually, even the children became inseparable. Still, I saved many before they became one with the Dead Tree. Now, they are all that

remains of my people, the sons and daughters of Solo Ki.”

“We will take them from this world, I promise you,” Anon commanded, though he knew full well to do so went against the foundation of the Elders’ belief. Only the Chosen were to be saved. But now, with the Dark Army left unbridled, Anon suspected all rules would soon be broken.

‘DONA’CORA WILL NOT BE PLEASED.’

“Angering Dona’Cora is not my greatest concern, Ostedes. Besides, once she learns of the invasion, how would she feel if we left an army of immortals to die on this world? These children may very well be our greatest weapon against the coming war. However Dona’Cora may feel about my decision, I will not leave them.”

‘AS YOU WISH, ANON.’

Even though he was in agreement, Anon sensed more sarcasm than sincerity from Ostedes.

Anon summoned his halo. Unlike the blue light of the others, Anon’s white glow bent to his will alone, filling the chamber with a soft, natural light that defied the dizzying refractive properties of the crystals.

Anon expected to find the Prince posed to deliver a violent killing blow. Instead, he saw a gaunt figure calmly leaning on a wooden staff. The Elf Prince was also far less glorious than expected. The Golden hair of the elves was legendary among the Living Worlds for its innate radiance. The hair that was visible from beneath the elf’s dirty white hood was black and caked with filth.

Despite his apparent calm poise, the edge was still there. Well versed in illusion, Anon knew the Prince could turn deadly in an instant.

‘Alana spoke at length about you, Anon. If any other had come, they would be dead. Nor would I trust another with the protection of my children.’

‘On my life, I will see them free of this world. If only there was some way to convince you to join us?’

‘Unless you mean to destroy the Dead Tree, there is none.’

Even with the power of the Maker at his hand, he did not dare to make that promise.

Something’s wrong, Anon thought as he stepped out of the cave. He held the others back with a glowing white hand while he surveyed the land. He expected to see the other Chosen they had left behind dismembered, their body parts strewn across the land. Instead they had all found a comfortable niche in the stone or small boulder to rest on. The bored looks on their faces suddenly vanished as they sighted Anon. Anon signaled all was well, though the threat of danger was still there, but Anon saw no visible sign to indicate they shouldn’t continue on. His halo grew brighter, and his senses even sharper as he led the procession out.

Brontes and Ostedes were the first to exit the cave – both likewise as vigilant for some sign of a threat. Then came the children. Brontes signaled to the Chosen to attend to them immediately. If they were to make it to the Rift, many would require major healing.

The soil and filth covering them made Prince Adros look regal. If Anon couldn’t sense their purity of life, he would have mistaken them for the dead. When first he found them, many were so weakened they couldn’t even stand. Though elves were naturally skinny, Anon had seen walking skeletons with more flesh on their bones.

The Chosen were busy pouring blue flames into the children when Prince Adros stepped out of the cave. He demanded to be the last one out. He wanted to be sure no one was left behind. Neither did Anon. He had mentally counted them as they left the cave, noting to his satisfaction that all one hundred and twenty-one had left the cavern. Lacking clean water and food, it was a miracle Adros had kept them alive as long as he did.

As Adros had briefly explained inside the cave, the Great Tree had been their sole source of food. Their main diet consisted of its fruit, the Malina Berry. The berry not only provided nourishment, but was sacred to them. They even credited it with their ability to resist the undeath, and their incredibly long life-spans. Anon would have loved to possess a sample of the berry, but the fruit was all poison now. The Elf Prince told Anon of one child who, possessed by his starvation, had bitten of the dead berries. It took only a moment for the child to rot before his eyes. Somehow the child was still alive as his flesh began shedding from his bones. Unable to witness more, Adros was forced to end the child’s suffering.

For as much as they had all suffered, one child seemed to have been inflicted more than the rest. His name was X’ander. Whereas the rest of the children had golden hair (though currently buried under a layer of filth) X’ander had no hair at all, nor would it likely ever growing again. Anon had personally tried to heal the child, but whatever darkness had taken hold of him was now deeply ingrained into the child’s very genetics.

Prince Adros had explained that he was the last child to be rescued. Since X’ander, none had survived Adros’ further attempts to separate them from the Dead Tree. Perhaps another day in possession of the Dead Tree, and X’ander would never have escaped, short of his death. Despite his separation, Anon noticed a darkness seemed to follow the boy, something beyond what had been physically ingrained into the child. Anon could see in the Elf Prince’s own white eyes that he knew it as well, the boy X’ander would never be like his elven kin.

Along with Prince Adros, X’ander was one of the last of the elves to leave the cavern.

So far, all seemed well within the outcropping of rock. The true test of their journey would begin when they walked among the roots – and what a long journey it would be. It took Anon and the others nearly a day to reach the cave, with the frail group of children it could take twice as long. Anon would have to remain vigilant the entire way. The power of the Dead Tree was, as of yet, still a mystery to him. If it was indeed the incarnation of the Void, its power could be limitless. In all of history only one being had ever defeated the Void, and even that victory came with a price – death. One could argue the Void was never truly defeated and that the creation itself was only temporary. Anon may be blessed with the Maker’s gift, but he wasn’t the Maker. To defeat the Dead Tree, they would have to find another way.

Anon was the first to leave the rocky earth. He took it as a good sign that the roots withered when he drew near. He continued on, the roots parting in his presence, leaving a path for the others to follow. They moved safely for some time, Anon paving the way while Prince Adros continued to guard the rear, his blood-tipped staff equally effective at holding the limbs at bay. It was because of the staff that he was able to return to the Dead Tree and rescue the children. He called it ‘King’s Wood’, a supposed sapling of the Great Tree itself, carried down through the ages from the line of elven kings. Few such staves were known to exist, the Great Tree had but a brief period of fertility, and that had been lifetimes ago – elven lifetimes. With the Great Tree corrupted, the staff of King’s Wood was perhaps the last pure piece of the once sacred tree. It could also be their key to understanding the power of the Dead Tree, though it was doubtful Prince Adros would part with it. More than likely, once they have seen the children safely away from Ki’minsyllessil, he would wield it against the Dead Tree. Could they allow such a valuable weapon to fall in such a futile battle?

‘NO, ANON. WE CANNOT.’

He had sensed a mounting danger since he left the cave. The entire time, Anon had been looking outward for it, but all the while Ostedes was the source.

‘What exactly is your mission here?’ Anon asked, barricading his mind for the coming assault.

He had failed. He had disregarded Ostedes after they left the cave, and now he sensed him and many of the Chosen at the end of the line. Anon didn’t have time to make it to the back …

‘TO DO WHAT YOU CANNOT.’

A bolt of lightning struck his mind – was even followed by a mental thunderclap. As one, the entire line of children collapsed, even with his most powerful shield, Anon fell to his knees. Disoriented — his vision a blur, he saw a haze of blue fire burning at the end of the line. Screams of pain filled his ears … white fire filled his veins. ‘OSTEDES!’

With a thought, he was at the center of the battle.

The Elf Prince was down – as were five of the Chosen. Brontes was disabled and slow to arise midway down the line, all of the other Chosen and Ostedes surrounded the fallen Elf Prince. In Ostedes’ branch-like hand was the staff of King’s Wood.

Anon was a pillar of white fire, towering over the Chosen and even the giant Ostedes.

Several of the Chosen dared to attack him. Their blue flames fizzled out when they met his halo. In response, beams of white devoured their shields then bound them, pinning their arms and legs to the earth.

Anon’s face had no features, no mouth with which to speak. He was pure energy. His voice originated from the air around them.

“End this, Ostedes. Before I must.”

‘I KNOW I CANNOT DEFEAT YOU, ANON. I HAVE SEEN YOUR THOUGHTS, AND SEE NO NEED FOR CONFLICT BETWEEN US. YOU KNOW THE TRUTH OF IT AS WELL AS I. THE STAFF IS THE KEY. WITHOUT THE GREAT TREE THESE BEINGS HAVE NO POWER. THE STAFF IS THE SOURCE OF THEIR GREATEST STRENGTH, DONA’CORA KNEW IT THE MOMENT ALANA TOLD HER TALE. THE ELF PRINCE HAS PROVEN HIMSELF A POWER TO BE ADMIRED, BUT WITHOUT HIS STAFF, HE WILL DIE WITH THE REST OF HIS KIND. AS A GODLING, DONA’CORA WOULD WELCOME HIM HOME. IF HE CHOOSES TO STAY HERE, SO BE IT.

BUT THE STAFF MUST COME, WHETHER HE BRINGS IT OR NO. DONA’CORA DEMANDS IT. IMAGINE, ANON … WITH IT WE COULD ALL BE IMMUNE. IN HIS HANDS THE WEAPON

WILL BE WASTED.’

The sense of danger continued to mount, evil begetting evil. Ostedes’ attack was only the beginning. It was minor at first – the roots slightly trembling, inching their way from the earth.

Then they were a swarm …

You are wrong, Ostedes. In his hands it is the only thing keeping us from death.”

Even as he spoke, Anon saw it — the earth came alive like a giant pit of snakes. Black tendrils seeped from the ground encircling everyone’s feet. Before Ostedes even thought to defend himself with the staff, his branchlike arms and legs were entangled in the black limbs of the Dead Tree. A few of his Chosen strengthened their halos, but the dead limbs puncture them with ease — and continued onward, digging into their flesh. Once beneath their skin, the limbs began to spasm madly, then throbbed, pumping a dark liquid into their bodies. Their veins blackened instantly. Their screams of pain became moans. Then they were dragged away …

Anon was a white hot ball of light that seared any black limbs that drew near.

Brontes and the children were infested, multiple roots digging into every one of them. Despite having a black limb protruding from his stomach and leg, Brontes maintained his halo, though he devoted all of his power towards the nearest children. His feeble wisps of blue light wrestled with the oncoming horde of black limbs, but lost. A larger root dug into his back, secreted its black fluid inside of him and he too was dragged away …

The children were yet stunned from Ostedes’ telepathic barrage, and were helpless to stop the limbs from taking them. Once their flesh was penetrated, they were quickly entwined, then dragged towards the distant trunk of the Dead Tree …

The One Elf was still out cold. The largest of the roots took hold of him – so many of them he could no longer be seen, his body covered in a mass of snarled black roots heading for the Dead Tree.

Ostedes fell. In one hand was the King’s wood. For all its power, all it managed to do for the Elder God was keep him from utterly falling to the ground. His other hand dug into the ground, his own branchlike fingers fighting the pull of the many black limbs sprouting from his body. His white eyes fell on Anon … and then they went black.

Anon was at his side. A hundred arcs of lights sprouting from his body – darting to those who were captured.

Anon reached out to Ostedes … grabbed the King’s Wood staff and took it from him.

“I’m so sorry, Ostedes. You should never have left Edilan.”

‘NOOOO … ’

The tips of his fingers ripped off, and Ostedes was dragged away …

This was no illusion – Anon was pure power. The Maker was with him more than he had ever been. But now he faced the Void. He had to choose. Anon made a promise to the Elf King, and he meant to keep it. He knew Adros would have wanted it this way.

His white light took hold of the children, burnt the roots to cinders, and brought them to him. To take them all tested the limits of his strength … but he wouldn’t let them go, nor would the Maker allow it to be so. Of the Chosen, there was but one he wished to recover. He took that man back as well, the white light cleansing his veins of evil. All his wounds were healed, except one – his left eye remained dead as ever.

His halo spread, encompassing all those he saved. Around its perimeter, a wall of black roots arose. Anon wasn’t sure if they meant to trap them or crush them, but then another miracle occurred – the roots parted for him … a pathway was cleared to the Rift.

Anon stood alone on the planet Ki’minsyllessil.

The Rift hovered before him.

For now, the children of Adros would be safe. He had opened the Rift into a new world – a Dead World nearly resurrected by the Chosen. There they would find safety behind a great red wall, and the army of Chosen sent there to craft it. Brontes himself accompanied them – no man could ask for a more trustworthy protector. Brontes was initially saddened he could not stay, but the truth of it was clear: he was no match for the foe Anon was to face. In the end, Brontes gladly accepted his role as the children’s guardian – an equally important task.

Thus far, the mission had been a failure. Dona’Cora would not be pleased; Anon had her staff, and the Prince was lost. Twelve of her most loyal had fallen to the Plague. And now she faced a new threat, one which defied her ancient knowledge and experience when dealing with the Plague. No, she would not be pleased at all.

But for Anon, the mission was not yet over.

He had once made the mistake of saving one who wished to stay behind. Despite the outcome of his error, Anon meant to make that same mistake one more time.

Alana had been right. Without a doubt she saw the truth.

The one who remained did not deserve to be saved — he had to be saved. Fearless, brave, and willing to sacrifice his life to save others, they needed him on their side. A new war had begun. An apocalypse worse than anything the Dead Gods could have dreamed. Their failure would not only see the end of all life, but reality itself. If the Void could not be stopped, it would reclaim all.

For Anon, there was only one path. Like the Elf Prince had done so many times before, Anon would go back to the Dead

Tree. He would go back and free Solo Ki.

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Age of Death – Ki’minsyllessil

Hope.

For so long he dared not utter the word. With the arrival of the gods to Ki’minsyllessil the elves had hope once more.

The last to leave the cave, Adros gave a brief and hopefully final glance at his former shelter. The caverns were certainly not as comfortable and pleasant as his true home the Graelic had once been. But still, he had to admit that living below the earth hadn’t been as terrible as he had imagined. There was beauty within the earth. The entry chamber was but one of the subterranean marvels. In his quest to feed the children, Adros had found many such chambers, deep underground. Some of which were quite vast; giant fields of crystals with stalactite towers. Having lived his entire life far above the earth, the beauty below was something he had not expected to find. It was also something he would never forget, for it was perhaps the last thing of beauty left in his once wondrous world.

Despite the beauty of the subterranean chambers, he was glad to be leaving them, for the children’s sake if nothing more. For Adros, only death remained. He would return to his rightful home and confront the result of his failure. No matter what was to come of his journey, he would be content knowing his race would live on. Perhaps one day they would rejoin the fight against the Dead Tree, but for now, they would be safe with the Gods. Alana told him of their world; a place free of the Plague. There they could find peace, for a time at least.

The procession moved out, and Adros fell into the back of the line. As usual, at his side was the bald-headed child, X’ander. His white eyes were as dull and lifeless as the day he found him, and they remained fixed in the direction of the Dead Tree. He imagined the boy would be terrified to head in the Dead Tree’s direction, but he showed no emotion at all. Adros often feared he had merely saved the boy’s flesh and left his soul back at the Dead Tree. The lackluster sheen of his eyes made it was obvious that something was missing from the child — and darkness took its place. Though not necessarily possessed by evil, the boy was inflicted with more of an emptiness. He did what he was expected to do, with no emotional investment on his part, as if he was merely going through the motions of life, but not actually living — like an elven golem or a steel automaton of the old science. The truth was that Adros had freed him far too late. Sometimes, he wondered if the boy would’ve been better off left to the Dead Tree.

But now there was hope. And there was Anon. If half of Alana’s tales of the man were to be believed, then anything was possible — even X’ander’s recovery.

Alana had spoken often of the man; a being as full of love as he was power. She loved the man as a father, and had a respect for him that bordered on worship. Adros would follow the man to the Rift on Alana’s word alone. But he would probably do so, even without her endorsement, for he sensed a kindred spirit in the man. The man had a selfless nature that nearly made him nonexistent. To say his life was not his own would be an understatement. Like Adros, his life was theirs – the children’s. To see life continue, and nurtured towards goodness, that was both men’s sole reason for existing.

Having met the man, Adros now felt even closer to his love, Alana. Clearly, she was the ultimate achievement of the Elder God’s existence. With the mere mention of her name, he saw his own sense of loss reflected in Anon’s eyes.

Alana …

Adros, on the other hand, had proven a disappointment, and failure to her. She had put such faith in him and his people. So much so, that she threw her own life away to follow him.

He badly wished to leave with the children and the Gods, but even if he could find her, how would he ever prove himself worthy of her love?

Such hate yet filled his heart that he doubted he could even face her. What a monster he had become. Though he couldn’t be infected, the Plague had made him evil nonetheless, turned him into a savage killer. And Alana … forever so pure. Perhaps one day he would find, and face her again; when at last he satisfied the hate in his heart, and had regained his homeworld and his honor. But to do so, he had to defeat the Dead

Tree, a task that most likely will lead to his death.

No. The children can have hope, but he had to seal his heart, for he would never see Alana again.

Adros kept a vigilant guard as the procession moved on, his keen elven eyes studying the landscape for the slightest sign of danger. The safety of the rocky earth was far to their backs, the colossal black roots of the Dead Tree had taken their place. Adros knew from experience that any moment the roots could come alive, either to entangle, or smash those they deemed an enemy. But with his King’s Wood staff, he knew they wouldn’t dare strike him. His staff was perhaps the only thing capable of controlling the Graelic. Thought to be a sapling of the Great Tree itself, King’s Wood had always had such a power, though previously it had been a way to heal, and nurture the Great Tree. Now, Adros had to find a way to use the

King’s Wood to destroy it.

His senses tuned to danger, Adros continued to survey the land. He really wasn’t worried about a direct strike from the Dead Tree; Anon’s white light seemed to whither any root that drew near, while Adros sent the more brazen roots away with a thought. What he feared, was that perhaps some Lifeless remained, or even worse, that they had been summoned back in defense of the Dead Tree. He half expected to see the entire Dark Army emerge from behind a giant root and overwhelm them all. He had seen the army with his own eyes, and indeed, by all appearances it had encompassed his entire world. If it returned in full force, neither Anon’s light nor Adros’ staff could stop it from devouring them.

His senses grew sharper. His instincts had kept him alive when all others fell, and now they told him danger was near.

He searched the land, but found only darkened roots. Yet, he couldn’t deny that danger was out there. And suddenly, it was closer still.

He had to move.

Trusting to his instincts, he dove to the ground. He felt a wave of heat at his back, singeing his cape. Coming out of the roll, he spun, preparing to strike his attacker. A pit of charred earth marked his previous location.

Like an extension of his will, X’ander was already in motion. Being an elf child, X’ander was nearly as tall as the attacker – one of Anon’s supposed gods. But the child was far more agile. And having only trained in hand-to-hand combat, he had a supreme advantage over the god; who believed himself more than capable of defeating a child. But the god knew only magic, and what little fighting experience he had did not account for the ability of the elves. It took X’ander but a second to reach the god. Then, after a deft kick to his ankle, the ‘god’ was tripping over his own feet. X’ander proceeded to finish him off with a powerful double palm strike to the man’s sternum, causing the man to collapse in a helpless heap. Without a second thought, the elf child moved on to the next god – for suddenly the number of beings covered in blue flames were multiplying in the back of the procession.

Adros had trained X’ander well. He was truly a lethal fighter, if he fell, it would be at great expense to his enemies.

But Adros was the ultimate killer. In combat he had no equal. Against him even the gods fall.

Another god thought to strike him with his power, but before he completed the thought, Adros was on him. His staff was ten feet away, then, with one fluid motion the butt end of it was slamming into the man’s forehead. Knocked out cold, the god’s power was extinguished.

As one, the gods attacked him. Arcs of blue flame came hurtling at him from every direction. He took his time, concentrating on a pathway through them. He held his body in check until they had all but encompassed him. Then he dove through the air, his body contorting in impossible ways to avoid every last thread of blue light. As he dove, he managed to swing his staff in an arc. His feet landed softly on the earth, while his staff landed with a loud ‘crack’ on a god’s head.

Knowing he had landed a vicious blow, he didn’t bother to see what became of her, but immediately moved to his next attacker. From the corner of his eye, he saw X’ander fall, snared in a net of flames.

Betrayers!” he shouted in his elven tongue.

No longer bothering to dance with the gods’ blue flames, he came at his next target head on. A pyre of flames came his way, but to the god’s shock, his power evaporated the moment it met Adros’ King’s Wood. Seconds later, that god was lying unconscious at Adros’ feet. Coils of blue-tinged smoke drifted from Adros’ staff.

‘NO MORE!’

Then, it was over.

His mind on fire, Adros stumbled. The only thing keeping him on his feet was his staff. Then it too was gone, and Adros fell to the earth.

‘I will kill you tree-brother,’ Adros said, unable to voice the words, but knowing the god would hear his thoughts.

It took all his strength just to look up, and when he did, he saw that Ostedes held the staff of King’s Wood in his branchlike hand.

‘FEAR NOT ELF PRINCE. YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE SAFE, AS WILL YOUR STAFF. AND FOR YOU, I WILL GRANT YOU THE DEATH YOU SEEK. YOU MAY GO TO YOUR TREE,

BUT THE STAFF COMES WITH US.’

Adros felt the darkness creeping in, his mind slipping to unconsciousness.

‘No, Betrayer, you will kill us all.’

Then, the darkness took everything.

Beneath the canopy of the Dead Tree, Anon’s halo was the only source of light. Through the darkness Anon walked, his body surrounded in a glowing ball of white fire. Giant roots rose up before him, attempting to obstruct his path, but Anon sent his power outward, searing a path straight through. Birthed from the darkness, black vines came darting at him from all directions. His halo flared, incinerating them before they came anywhere near his flesh.

In his right hand, he held the staff of King’s Wood. But for Anon, it was nothing more than a twisted walking staff. Whatever power it held, was only available to those of elven descent – elven royalty most likely. Even if Ostedes managed to steal it away to the Sanctuary, it would have been useless to the Elders. The secret to unlocking its power was simple: one needed to have elven blood. Even the Elders could not alter their own genetic codes, no matter how strong their ability to manipulate the Oneness. Like a fool, Ostedes had risked all for nothing. Once again, Anon found himself on a mission to correct the errors of one of his Children.

He had been in the shadow of the Dead Tree for what seemed like an eternity. He was beginning to think the giant tree was unreachable, merely a mirage in the distant and dark horizon. With such a massive object, it was difficult to judge the distance. He wanted to think he was nearing the trunk, but the more he walked the tree only grew bigger. Anon worried that perhaps its size was without limit; that eventually the trunk and the darkness would become one, and he would be forever lost within it.

He also worried about his own limits. Every step he took was a battle; roots reared up to smash him, vines to grab him, and branches to tear him apart. Thus far, the Maker was with him all the while, his power burning the Dead Tree’s limbs as though they were kindling. But what if the trunk of the Dead Tree was days away, or weeks? What then? And should his power last that long, what new challenge would he encounter there? The trunk of the Dead Tree reached the clouds, possibly the stars. Ascending it, he would have to fight for every inch.

He needed to clear his mind, if for but a moment.

A wave of energy spread out from Anon, burning any element of the Dead Tree for a half mile radius. He had to think, and to reexamine the logic of his direct assault on the tree. The landscape was to haphazard to risk teleportation, and he was unfamiliar with his destination as well. Most likely, he would arrive with half his body fused to a root. Enhancing his speed was possible, but could the Maker’s fire keep up with the pace?

Besides, the smaller vines seemed as quick as he. And if he failed to burn or avoid them in time, he could easily find himself entangled. If that happened, he would surely make it to the Dead Tree, but in the same helpless fashion as Prince

Adros.

As he pondered his options, he sensed the branches closing in on him once more. He was about to risk all and continue on his path to the Dead Tree, when the branches suddenly stopped.

Something else was out there. A presence he knew all too well.

No more games.

Anon became a pillar of flames, a faceless giant of white fire. Putting his faith in the Maker, he decided to risk teleportation.

The being was before him, its broken body hunched over. Even beneath his flames, the being was but a shadow. This one deserved no words, only death. Hands of flame wrapped around its body and squeezed.

“Truly, I am sorry, Anon,” the being managed to whisper as its body began to be crushed. “Please. It had to be. Surely, if

you trust to the Maker, then I beg you to see his path.”

In the presence of Lord Imorbis, even the Maker’s path seemed shadowed.

“You knew.”

Anon’s voice didn’t originate from his body, but from the air around him.

“You used us to remove Prince Adros from the cave. To separate him from his staff. All along you knew this would come to pass.”

“Yes, Anon, it’s true. I knew the probability of it, and indeed,

I aided in its course.”

“THEN YOU DIE!”

Dead flesh began to burn.

“Anon, wait!” Imorbis managed to scream before he was consumed.

Anon wished nothing more than to watch the Dead God burn, but his power was gone. The Maker had left him.

“The Dead Tree would have taken him whether I helped him or no,” Imorbis continued, relieved to no longer be burning. The Dead God didn’t realize Anon was now powerless, and thought he was merely holding it back to hear Imorbis’ final plea. “It was not I, but the tree-man who sent you to ruin. It’s true I played my part, but for reasons you do not know.”

What was the Dead God up to? And why had the Maker left him?

Anon was stunned, helpless.

Did Imorbis have the power to silence the Maker? Or more likely, had Anon left the Maker’s path?

But surely, this one deserved death.

“I need you, Anon. We know you have found the Maker, and walk with him. Many of my Brethren thought the only way our victory would ever be complete was with your death. Countless Brethen sought to fulfill this belief by facing you in battle. All died at your hands. And with each death, your legend grew.”

If he tested Anon now, he would be the first to succeed.

“Is that what you want from me? To test my power? That in

your defeat you will accept the Maker?” The Dead God chuckled.

“No, Anon. I know the Maker is real. The Void proved it to be so.”

“Then what is it you want from me, Imorbis?”

“I need a miracle. Strange it may sound, but to succeed in

your quest; I need to infect you, and you to heal me.”

Anon wanted to say that he was immune to the Plague, and that he could not be infected. But that was when he walked with the Maker. Now …

“I cannot heal you. Newly infected can recover, but one such as yourself … ”

“I’ve crafted my destiny and accept what I have become.

What I need you to do is free me from another.”

“The Dead Tree … ”

“Yes, Anon. The Brethren are not entirely immune to it. It grows within me as well. I resist its will, but for how long? Eventually the being known as Imorbis will be no more, and only the Void will remain. That is why I stayed on this world; to find a way to cure the Dead Tree’s infection. It was known you would come. And so I waited for your arrival, knowing that what I ask for, only the Maker can provide. I need you to cleanse me of the Void. If you promise to do so, I will help

you. I will give you the blessing of my blood.”

“What makes you think I would desire such a ‘blessing’?”

“Because, Anon. If you do not, the Dead Tree will never allow you within.”

Was this the Maker’s path? Or the Dead God’s trick?

Anon had always lived with the certainty that he was in the right, but now with the Maker absent, the only certainty was that he would no longer be fighting his way to the Dead Tree.

There was but one path to the trunk.

“If you wish to near the Elf Prince, then there is no other way. To save him, you must die.”

Anon’s hand was soft flesh. He held it defenseless before

Imorbis — who lustfully took a bite.

The walls throbbed, pumping out a thick black liquid as though they were a massive open wound. They even reeked as such; flooding the chamber with the scent of rotting flesh. At one point, Adros dared to touch it, hoping that his power to commune with the Graelic would somehow transfer to the corrupted Dead Tree. It was a mistake; and his one and only attempt at escape. He had tried to reach out to the tree, laid his palm on the dripping wall. Immediately he sensed the Tree, and the pure evil within. He felt its hunger, not merely to feed off of life, but to destroy all that is. It bombarded him with images of his people; their flesh pealing, their bodies ruptured and torn to pieces. That was its feast – utter destruction. The Dead Tree thought to drown Adros in the horror of its existence, to drive him mad with the mere thought of what it was capable of. But the Elf Prince was already possessed by madness, steeled by the hate in his heart; he faced the horrors, unflinching.

The interior of the Graelic once conformed to the needs of his people, a living city. With a thought, even a child could move walls. Elder elves could create structures of great beauty, statues and murals with such detail and realism they seemed to hold breath and life within. In order to see it to perfection, some elves spent their lives on a single piece of work — nearly a millennium. For his people, the Graelic was a canvas for their minds; living art shaped with thoughts.

With the staff of King’s Wood, anything was possible. The craft of elven artisans may have appeared to live, but the line of kings could actually give life to their creations. These Golems, had been the greatest of the Graelic’s guardians. Though, like the tree itself, eventually they too succumbed to the infection, becoming rotting hulks of misshapen wood. Before the battle was lost, the elves had dealt with most of the Golems by incinerating them. But many escaped, summoned to the aid of the Dark Army.

As for the art of the elves, it was all gone now. Their ancient masterpieces had become a flowing mass of rotten muck.

Despite his personal failure to commune with the Dead Tree, Adros knew the King’s Wood still had an effect on it even if he did not – his many excursions to the upper canopy to save the children were proof. But was its power great enough to destroy the corrupted entity that the Graelic had become? Because of the interference of the so-called gods, Adros was never granted a chance to find out. The King’s Wood staff could very well be the universe’s only weapon against the Dead Tree, and now it was either lost, or in the possession of the Dark Army.

Despite his situation, Adros laughed. The sound of his voice deadened as it hit the dripping walls.

He couldn’t help but find it amusing that so recently he embraced hope, and now there was naught but hopelessness. It was truly over now. He refused to accept it when the Dark Army first came to his world — and the second time as well. Even when the full force of the Plague stood amassed at the base of the Graelic, he refused to accept defeat. But now, all was lost: his staff, his children, his world, and his love, Alana. Whatever end the Dead Tree had in store for him was meaningless. He would endure the pain, then fade to oblivion, joining all that he had once cherished.

With the walls oozing around him, he waited. Time passed, and he continued to wait, wondering if this was perhaps the first round of his torture; to be trapped, surrounded by the full weight of his failure, knowing the only escape was death, but unable to fulfill it.

Then he came – a more corrupt and hellish being even Adros had never seen.

Adros knew that the true torture was about to begin.

The tree-like being confirmed his belief, filling Adros’ mind with fire.

‘AHHH… YOUR THOUGHTS … SUCH HOPELESSNESS.

YOUR FAILURE BRINGS ME GREAT PLEASURE, ELF.’

There was a moment where Adros wished to live, if only to see this monstrosity sent to the Maker. But the being filled his mind with such pain, that his every last thought fell apart.

Adros was hunched over, but even if he stood upright, the creature would have towered over him. His eyes were pure white, and emanated a ghostly glow.

‘OH, TO FEAST ON YOUR BRAIN.’

His branch-like limbs quivered at the thought.

‘A DESIRE NEARLY AS STRONG AS THE WILL OF MY

MAKER.’

His black tentacles caresses Adros’ scalp.

‘NEARLY … ’

Through the pain, Adros managed to collect his thoughts, and managed a whisper.

“I swear … Someday … I will kill you, Ostedes … ”

The lipless giant had a sudden fit of spasms, which Adros interpreted as its form of laughter.

‘EVEN WITH YOUR STAFF, YOU WERE NO MATCH FOR

ME. NOW, HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HARM ME, ELF?’

His mind overwhelmed by pain, and hopelessness, Adros found the hate.

‘I’ll show you how … ’

His mind cleared of thoughts. The pain remained, but his actions became instinctual. Adros was on his feet and leaping into the air, his fist flying straight towards the giant’s face.

Ostedes’ anatomy was foreign to Adros. For all he knew, the being’s brain might not even be located in its head. Nevertheless, he longed to crack it open. If he was lucky, maybe its brains would come spilling out.

The blow landed with a hollow ‘thunk’, as though he had just hit a rotten log. Unfortunately, the attack did little damage, if any. However, Ostedes was stunned by the blow, and it even sent him reeling backwards. Anon wondered how the creature would look if he could show emotion. Smiling, he fantasized a startled look on its tall grey face.

His joy was short lived, as was Ostedes’ shock. He was showing emotion now, anger. His eyes filled the chamber with their eerie white.

Either Adros was weaker than he thought, or he had underestimated Ostedes’ speed. The creature came at him faster than he imagined possible on his snakelike limbs. Adros landed a kick on his chest, hoping to use the motion to propel him away from the storming giant. But Ostedes’ tentacles caught him as he pushed off. Adros screamed as the many limbs began digging into his flesh. The giant heaved him into the air, his tentacles burrowing ever deeper. The giant’s arms pulled in opposite directions. Adros was certain his body would rip in half at any moment. Nearly unconscious from the pain, the pressure was suddenly relieved. Hanging helplessly in the giant’s hands, he looked down, wondering why the creature hadn’t torn him to pieces. Adros saw an inner struggle in the being’s eyes. His desire to see Adros torn asunder was battling the will of his ‘Maker’, who seemed to want

Adros alive, if only for now.

The will of his Maker won the struggle, and Ostedes withdrew his tentacle limbs from Adros’ skin. The elf slipped to the floor, physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. His short-lived skirmish with Ostedes had been his last.

“Why let me live?” Adros managed to ask. “Be done with it, Dead God.”

‘IF THE CHOICE WERE MY OWN, I WOULD BE AWASH IN YOUR BLOOD. SADDLY, MY MAKER HAS OTHER PLANS

FOR YOU, ELF.’

The way his eyes shown down on Adros, he still seemed to be fighting the urge to tear him asunder.

‘YOUR PEOPLE REFUSE TO JOIN MY MAKER. SO THEY ARE MADE TO SUFFER, TO ACCEPT THE WELCOME OF

DEATH. IN DOING SO, THEIR SPIRITS BECOME BOUND TO MY MAKER. THUS FAR, FEW HAVE JOINED US. BUT SOON

ENOUGH, MANY WILL FOLLOW. IT IS ONLY A MATTER OF

TIME BEFORE THEIR SUFFERING BECOMES UNBAREABLE.’ “I won’t join you, even in death.”

‘SO NOW YOU SAY. BUT YOU ARE YOUNG FOR AN ELF.

GIVEN A MILLENIUM, MY MAKER WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND. IN THE END, YOU ALL SHALL BE ONE WITH THE

VOID.’

“Why prolong it, our suffering? What does your Master even care? I’ve seen the Dark Army, and compared to its vastness, we are inconsequential.”

‘I TEND TO AGREE. BUT IN THE SCHEME OF MY MAKER, YOUR PEOPLE ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO MATTER. MY MAKER IS NOT CONTENT TO INHABIT BUT ONE WORLD. IT

WISHES TO CLAIM ALL THE WORLDS, AND TO DO SO, IT MUST GROW WITHIN THEM. ONLY THE ELVES HAVE THE POWER TO CULTIVATE MY MAKER’S SEED. THEREFORE, YOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE THE HONOR OF SPREADING ITS

EXISTENCE THROUGHOUT THE UNIVERSE.’

“Never.”

Again the giant writhed with laughter.

‘I AM EVER SO CURIOUS TO SEE HOW LONG YOU CAN

LAST, ELF. SHALL WE BEGIN?’

Adros attempted to rise again, but his legs came out from underneath him. The Dead Tree’s walls had formed into a vinelike noose, wrapping around his legs and pulling him into the walls of black fluid. He struggled to find a hold in the floor as he was pulled to the wall. Unable to get a grip on the slime covered floor, he went in feet first. The pain crept up from his toes, to his knees, then to his chest. Before it entered his mind, his last thought was that he must win this fight. No matter how long it took. This time, he wasn’t fighting for his world, his people, or even his life. If the Dead Tree took his soul, the universe would fall.

‘EVEN THAT FOOL ANON CANNOT SAVE YOU NOW. LET

HIM COME. SOON ENOUGH, HE WILL JOIN YOU.’

Anon …

Suddenly there was hope once more. Now it was Adros who was laughing. He needed a miracle, and if ever there was a man who could provide one, it was Anon.

The black oozed filled his mouth, and his laughter into a gurgle.

Hunger …

Until he had been infected by the Plague, Anon had never truly known the meaning of the word. Such thoughts flooded his mind that he feared the Maker would never return to him. He was beyond impure, he was rotten. He managed to contain his urges, for now. But every moment the infection claimed more of him, and soon it would take his soul. If so, the path of the Maker would be lost to him. Nor would Anon care, only the craving would matter at that point. To avoid such a fate, Anon had to succeed, and quickly. Already his veins had blackened and swelled to near bursting with the infection. His flesh was dead, his mind nearly so.

The power of the Maker had never been further from him. But he now had a power of another sort. Dead though it may be, his flesh was formidable. He knew from his own battles with the Dead Gods, that a blade would sooner bend than penetrate it — even weapons etched with silver. Also, the virus made him incredibly fast and strong, nearly equal to the enhancements of the Elder Gods. But unlike the Elders, Anon didn’t need a halo to maintain his abilities. They were a gift of the infection, and never left. In fact, they could even grow stronger, should he indulge his cravings.

Along with physical strength, the Makiian Virus bestowed an even darker gift — he now could tap into the power of the Void. Wherein, the Oneness manipulated matter through one’s internal energy. This demon wind simply destroyed it. And one wasn’t limited to their own inner strength, but could draw from the endless destructive power of the Void. Its effectiveness however, was limited. It depended on how much energy one stole from the living. The power of the Void transformed the stolen life-force, converting it to equal parts annihilation. The more the Dead Gods fed, the stronger they became. For Anon, he should have been relatively weak, but Imorbis had infected him with the pure strain. The very same virus that had begun it all — the false immortality, unfiltered.

Thus far, everything Imorbis said had proven to be true. Anon was all but ignored as he made his way to the trunk. Instead of scorching a path to the tree, he now strolled right up to it. Once he arrived, the rest of the Dead God’s plan was remarkably simple. Simple, yet surprisingly feasible – but only if Imorbis could be trusted. Therein was the plans greatest weakness.

The Maker had decided to abandon Anon for reasons he yet failed to comprehend, leaving him with no choice but to partake of the Dead God’s plan. If Imorbis was infected by the latest evolution of the Plague, then perhaps he truly did need Anon’s help to be freed of the Dead Tree. Should he somehow safely complete this mission, Anon would do his utmost to honor his promise to heal the Dead God. But without the blessing of the Maker, he could do little. Besides which, now that Anon was infected as well, who was going to save him? The truth was that he may survive this battle only to find himself enlisting in the Dark Army. For this reason, Anon had decided to alter Imorbis’ plan – just slightly.

His mind often wandering to thoughts of bloodied flesh on his tongue, Anon drew nearer to the towering trunk of the Dead Tree. A maze of mountainous roots blocked his path, but with his newfound abilities, he quickly ascended them. He once wondered if he would ever near the blackened trunk, now he knew he was close, for the Dead Tree had in fact replaced the skyline. Thankfully, his decomposing eyes saw clearly even in complete darkness. A mass of vines and branches floated in the air high above him. From many, a humanoid shape hung suspended. After a closer look, he realized there were thousands of them up there, swaying in the breeze. Even with his undead vision, he was unable to determine which one was the Elf Prince, but he knew he was up there somewhere, becoming one with the Dead Tree.

Soon, Anon would be up there as well – if he adhered to

Imorbis’ plan.

First, he would have to enter the trunk of the Dead Tree, and then … Imorbis had laid out many possibilities, some unfolded in their favor, others less so.

One final leap through the field of blackened roots took him to the trunk. Its bark ridges ran like towers up its side. The crevices between were like deep caves leading into the tree. Anon choose the nearest one, then headed in, slowing his pace in the full anticipation of coming danger. The walls had changed from hardened bark, to a slick viscous fluid. Before him, the caverns branched off into a maze of dripping walls.

Anon knew what he had to do.

He touched the wall.

Instantly the Dead Tree was within his mind. All the horrors he had witnessed since the birth of the Plague came flooding back. Even his most ancient memories returned – his family. So long ago he had almost forgotten. They had all died before the Plague, but he saw them now as monsters, stumbling toward him, reaching out with rotten flesh. They surrounded him, began tearing him apart …

It took all of Anon’s willpower, but he was able to pull his hand away. Communing with the Dead Tree was to be his first challenge. It knew him now. No longer would he be able to walk freely among its limbs. It would seek him out. Now, he would have to face the next challenge — the Dead Tree had acquired new servants.

‘ANON.’

The voice roared in his mind. Anon turned to face the servant of the Dead Tree, fighting to keep his knees from buckling from the force of the telepathic voice.

Ostedes had always appeared formidable, but now he was terrifying to behold. He towered over Anon, his appendages writhing in excitement. His white eyes shone down on Anon, bathing him in a white glow.

‘I AM SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU.’

“I cannot say the same, Ostedes,” Anon replied.

He noticed Ostedes was not alone. Lurking in the maze, he recognized the corrupted forms of the other Chosen who had been captured by the Dead Tree.

“I am sorry it has come to this, Ostedes.” The giant’s entire body quivered.

‘OH NO, ANON. YOU HAVE NOT BEGUN TO BE SORRY.’ The Chosen began to circle Anon.

‘I NOW REALIZE I HAD ALWAYS BEEN DESTINED TO JOIN THE DARK ARMY, BUT YOU ROBBED MY OF MY DESTINY.

AS YOU SAID, I SHOULD HAVE REMAINED ON EDILAN. TO DIE WITH MY PEOPLE. INSTEAD, I WAS MADE TO FIGHT

YOUR LOSING WAR. BUT NO LONGER.’

The circle tightened.

‘IT APPEARS THE MAKER HAS LEFT YOU? OR PERHAPS, ANON, HE WAS NEVER REALLY WITH YOU AT ALL. MAYBE YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH HAS EVER BEEN THE

ILLUSION OF POWER.’

Anon longed to prove him wrong. But he knew that without the Maker’s aid, he would be no match for Ostedes.

‘WHY DID YOU COME HERE, ANON? EVEN WITH THE

MAKER, WHAT COULD YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE?’

“I came for Adros. And no matter what occurs here, he will be freed.”

‘THEN YOU ARE A GREATER FOOL THAN I EVER

BELIEVED. YOU WILL SEE YOUR ELF PRINCE AGAIN, THAT I GUARANTEE. NOTHING WOULD MAKE ME HAPPIER

THAN TO WATCH YOU HANG BESIDE HIM FOR ETERNITY.’

All was going according to Imorbis’ plan. Anon was to be captured — to be imprisoned alongside Prince Adros was ideal. What came next was left a mystery to Anon, for wisely, the Dead God had anticipated Ostedes’ ability to invade Anon’s thoughts. Nor would Anon ever know the remainder of Imorbis’ plan.

Anon had a plan of his own.

“Before I do so. I am curious to see how the powers of the pure strain compare to this new infection. What do you think,

Ostedes? Shall we put them to the test?” ‘AS YOU WISH.’

The Giant’s blank, grey face almost registered joy.

The Chosen came at him, moving incredibly fast. He was able to dodge many blows, but some landed, painfully. To Anon’s credit, his attacks connected more often than theirs. Unlike the Chosen, Anon was fairly adept at various styles of hand-to-hand combat, and had actually employed them against Dead Gods in the past. Not to mention, he also had the advantage of having a Dead God teach him how to fight with the demon wind. Imorbis had taught him many tricks of which these newly turned Chosen were ignorant. One such trick was to focus the dark energy into his own dead flesh. In doing so, he could alter his Plague infected cells.

Instead of landing punches, his fists became blades of black steel, cleaving his foes into pieces or piercing their flesh. The battle was brief – as he knew it would be – but several Chosen would rise no more. Ostedes had meant to make him suffer. He hadn’t expected Anon to come out on top. The moment he realized his error, he put an end to the fight.

Ostedes was more powerful than ever. The mental barrage he sent into Anon’s mind would have instantly killed an Elder God. Anon fell to his knees. His focus on the dark power was gone, nor did he have enough wits about him to avoid the continued assault of the Chosen. They attacked him with reckless abandon, pounding on him long after his body was lying flat and motionless on the ground. Some of the more clever ones were even able to replicate his ability, crafting their own weapons with the dark power. When they finally stopped, the infection was all but drained from Anon’s veins. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately) so too was his life. He wouldn’t be imprisoned as Imorbis had hoped, nor would he have to worry about succumbing to the desires of the Plague. To save the Elf Prince he truly would die – this would be Anon’s contribution to Imorbis’ plan.

Before the darkness took him, he prayed to the Maker for

Imorbis to succeed.

True power. It seemed like ages since he had known its taste.

Anon’s blood had been like drinking a dream – the long lost dream of life. Imorbis remembered little of his life before the Plague. Even the simple things — like what it meant to hold breath in his lungs or warmth in his flesh — had become a fantasy to him. For a long time, mortality simply did not seem real – until he drank Anon’s blood. His blood was life. There could be no doubt now, Anon truly was touched by the Maker.

But that wasn’t enough. They faced the Void itself, a foe even the Maker had never truly defeated.

He cast a wicked smile at the staff – which, thanks to Anon’s blood, he held in his regenerated right hand. The staff of

King’s Wood made all the difference.

In order to prevent it from turning his hand to cinder, he bundled it in layers of cloth.

Imorbis was never one to accept defeat. Nor did he desire to be a prisoner of the Dead Tree for all eternity, a mindless shell moving to the whim of the Void. Even true death would be a better fate – perhaps a fate long overdue as well. He now understood that during his entire life as a Dead God he had been a prisoner to the Void. For so long there had only been the fight and the feast. He existed only to satisfy his hunger for life. To live he had to kill. But to what end? What was to become of him when the living were no more? The Elder Gods’ plan to regenerate and repopulate the worlds moved at a stagnant pace. By the time they birthed one world, a million would be dead. Meanwhile, the hunger of the Dead Gods would remain, always and forever.

Imorbis wanted nothing more than for it to end.

It was because of the Elf Prince that he finally desired death. Some would think he wished him ill, after defeating, and disfiguring him. But Imorbis held no grudge to the man – how could he after he had ravaged his planet so? It was the ravaging part that changed Imorbis’ heart – made it beat for a moment. Imorbis had seen countless battles, and been victorious in them all. Many great champions stood before him, and fell, joining his army. But never before had a champion fought so valiantly, and fiercely, as the Elven Prince. He even defeated Imorbis himself, his first such loss in over a millennium. Imorbis’ first attack against the elves had been a humiliation on his part. His second attack, though considered a victory, was equally so. Even with the full Dark Army at his disposal, the Elf Prince nearly prevailed. He would never know how close he was to routing them, most likely for all time. And it was due in great part to the ferocity of Prince Adros. And for all of the elf’s efforts, his world, and his people died. And what did Imorbis gain? Another, stronger prison.

He had been ignorant of what his victory against the elves would cost him. But he made no such error with this battle.

To be freed of the Void wouldn’t be his only reward, the Maker would bless him with something else as well.

Mortality.

Anon’s blood hinted at its existence, but he wanted it in truth. Even if the Maker only allowed him only a single living breath before he claimed his soul.

To reach that goal, Imorbis had plans within plans; a maze of possibilities that only Imorbis could navigate. His success today was but one step in the right direction. And to succeed, the King’s Wood staff had to be in the hands of the Elf Prince.

Anon’s role was for him to serve as a distraction, to become the focus of the Dead Tree. Meanwhile, Imorbis would simply walk right in and hand Adros his staff. Or so he hoped.

Imorbis was bound to the Dead Tree. As such, he was able to wander this world freely. He had also spent a great deal of time studying the Dead Tree’s interior, and had a good idea where the Prince would be detained. The Dead Tree underestimated its hold on him. This entire time, it believed Imorbis had been doing its will; helping to see the Elf Prince removed from his hole and separated from his staff, and infecting and leading Anon into a trap. But the actions had been conducted by Imorbis’ will alone, all part of his many layered plan.

Now with Anon’s blood coursing through his veins, the Void’s will was buried deeper than ever before, almost as if he was entirely freed. The Dead Tree would be ignorant of his true intentions until the moment Adros held his staff.

But the Dead Tree had many servants, particularly the newly infected Elder God, Ostedes. With his telepathic abilities, that one would not be so easily fooled. That’s where Anon came in; the Elder’s hate of the man would blind him to anything Imorbis would do.

And so it was, Imorbis entered the Dead Tree, staff in hand, and ascended the trunk to find and rescue the Elf Prince. As far as he knew, all was well. He used the demon wind to levitate upwards through the Dead Tree’s interior, careful not to come in direct contact with the Tree’s walls, else it enter his mind, unveiling his true purpose. His journey took him high up to the Dead Tree’s canopy; an area which Imorbis knew would be laden with imprisoned elves. At this height, the trunk had no true entrance, it either allowed one to come and go, or it did not. Again he relied on the demon wind, this time he sent it out to the wall of the Dead Tree, hoping it would interpret his signal to exit the trunk. If not, he would be forced to connect directly with the Tree, wherein it would no doubt refuse his request to leave – perhaps for eternity. Luckily, the signature of his dark power was enough – the wall before him collapsed in a pool of black sludge, revealing a clear pathway to a massive branch that seemed to span the heavens. Imorbis was forced to step back as the sludge threatened to pool at his feet. But the liquid was quickly reintegrated into the Tree. As soon as it was gone, Imorbis headed out. Even for his Plague enhanced vision, the ground below was as dark as the starless night above. All he could see was the trunk directly below his feet, and a wall of branches at his sides.

Hidden within the branches, he could barely make out several tall humanoid forms. He was about to go to the nearest elf, when he saw movement around it. Imorbis froze, as did the three shadowed forms around the imprisoned elf. The creatures turned to regard Imorbis, their bodies wavering in and out of existence. They were transparent like a thin layer of mist, and though they had elven physiques, they were more like elven silhouettes than the real thing.

The grey and white eyes studied him, and had he been living, they would have frozen his very soul. Once Imorbis realized they were but elven wraiths, he ignored them and continued on. The creatures were guardians of the Dead Tree, but for one such as Imorbis the beings were all but powerless. Imorbis even ventured to near them, and investigated their trapped elven snack. The creature was almost entirely drained of life. The wraiths had reduced the elf to empty, sunken flesh. His golden hair was no more. The only thing sprouting from his head was a thick, throbbing black branch. The being was spent. Imorbis figured it wouldn’t be long before he joined the ranks of the elven wraiths.

Fortunately, as indistinguishable as his features were, he was clearly not the Elf Prince. This being had suffered for quite some time. If and when he found him, he hoped Adros had a bit more life left within him.

On the other hand, he was clearly not the Elf Prince. Imorbis’ search would have to continue. And as much as he would like to disregard the wraiths, he noticed that as he left, they didn’t continue to feed on the living elf, but kept their eyes glued on him.

He started to worry that perhaps the wraiths weren’t as harmless as he first thought. He had to find the Prince, and soon, for he was now under the Dead Tree’s scrutiny.

Anon’s blood had granted him great power, and now he used it to enhance his speed to its fullest. A blur, he moved among the branches, inspecting every dangling elf he could find. So far, all were deeply integrated with the Dead Tree, their bodies full of more vines than blood.

Imorbis moved to the main branch, thinking to take his search further down. He paused. A pair of massive lumps of decaying matter blocked his way. The pair of foul giants filled the air with such a horrific odor that even Imorbis’ decayed senses were revolted. Their misshapen forms also filled the width of the branch, making it difficult to simply step around them. With his speed accelerated, he could possible sneak past. But Imorbis knew the beings and their loathsome reputation. They were the golems, the vilest servants of the Dead

Tree. If at all possible, he would stay far away from them.

They had yet to notice Imorbis, or if they did, they gave no indication. He was about to turn back the way he came when he heard a moaning coming from the branches behind the behemoths. High about them, an elf hung, trembling in pain. Imorbis couldn’t make the being out clearly, but he knew it could be none other than Adros.

“So be it,” he whispered.

There was no other way, to save the Elf Prince; he would have to get past the guards. He used his dark power to alter his body – creating a thick layer of skin to cover his nostrils, and then he took a step forward. The rotting hulks arose as if sensing his intentions.

From the mass of mush where one creature’s mouth should have been, came a gurgling voice.

“Why have you come here, Imorbis? We begin to sense betrayal in your actions.”

Rare were the times when Imorbis actually conversed with the Dead Tree. Generally he tried to avoid such conversations – much like he wished to avoid this one. He had feared encountering a situation such as this. Feared though it may be, it was not unforeseen. Imorbis knew it as a possibility.

His intentions were now known to the Void. There was a high probability this would be Imorbis’ end. But there was also a chance he could yet succeed, though it was an incredibly slim one.

“No, Great Master. I but deliver the weapon of the Elf Prince unto you.”

The Dead Tree was in many ways like a newborn child; having but recently come into its consciousness within the elven world. Often, it could be easily fooled with simple methods – Imorbis had done so on more than one occasion. Childlike it may be, but even Imorbis knew that it was not stupid. He had but one more chance to fool the powerful being. Then he would have to face it.

First, he would give it what it wanted – the King’s Wood staff.

“Here, my Master. It is for you.”

The golem that spoke with the Dead Tree’s voice lumbered

forward to receive the gift …

In one hand, Imorbis held the staff. His other hand held the bundle of cloth covering it. As the being reached out to grab the staff, Imorbis pulled back the cloth.

Imorbis leapt up and slammed the staff down upon its head. Instantly, its head crumbled, leaving a smoking crater where it once had been. Unaware of its location, the creature continued to lumber forward; possibly hoping to crush Imorbis with its massive bulk. But Imorbis simply stepped aside, grinning as the behemoth ambled off the branch of the Dead Tree.

The King’s Wood was now bare and exposed in Imorbis’ hand. His own flesh sizzled and smoked. His power was likewise quickly fading, absorbed by the power of the wood. Had he not fed on Anon, he would have immediately collapsed. Even so, whatever power he had taken from Anon was rapidly dwindling, just to stay on his feet, he had to focus every last bit of it on his disintegrating hand.

The other being moved to attack – this one quicker, and more prepared than the last. Imorbis had been in countless battles and faced many powerful foes – the Elf Prince being one such opponent. Even weakened, he was still a skilled fighter and brilliant killer.

The creature swung its massive arm to crush him, but instead of waiting to be smashed, Imorbis leapt forward, closing the distance between them. He came in under its guard, its fist landing harmlessly behind him. Imorbis’ entire right arm hung useless at his side, so he switched the staff to his left hand. Using it as a spear, he shoved the staff through the creature’s chest, forcing it in so deeply it came out its back. He then sidestepped the flailing monstrosity, pulling the smoldering staff out of its back.

All that remained of his power was channeled into his speed, and his smoking left hand. He moved, as fast as he was able, to the sound of the moaning Prince.

Meanwhile, a swarm of vines and branches moved to engulf him.

She always glowed when the sunlight hit her skin. Her flesh was translucent and designed to let the light in, to where her cells then absorbed its energy. Through the process, excess energy was expended, forming a natural halo of golden light around Alana.

Her tall, lithe body was a beacon of light in his dark nightmare. Her silver hair glowed …

… and then it turned grey. Beneath her skin, Adros saw her blue veins filling with black blood. Her heart stopped. But the veins continued to throb, pumping the black blood throughout her entire body. Her veins were all filled with the disease, but it continued to grow, branching out into every cell.

Her golden halo turned into a swelling darkness. Adros ran to her. He wanted to take the darkness away, but his staff was gone.

He couldn’t remember what had become of it … maybe he lost it, or it had been stolen. Perhaps it had never existed at all, and in the constructs of this nightmare it had only been a symbol of hope.

Hope …

He had to survive this, and to do so he needed hope. He gazed at his empty hands, seeking to will the staff into existence. Alana was gone, the Dead Tree now fully possessed her. Adros continued to stare at his empty hands, pleading for there to be hope.

Alana bore down on him; biting and clawing at his flesh. In a spray of blood, her teeth tore a chunk of skin from his neck. In the pain, he felt his life slipping away – replaced by another life, another sort of pain.

Adros screamed …

The nightmare began anew.

This time Anon came to him. At first glance he seemed so unassuming; a portly little man with a balding head. And his smile; he gave it so freely. How could one so caring have lasted so long against the Plague? The light of his halo was so pure it was almost painful to behold.

The pain. Adros waited for it to amplify, for Anon to begin rotting and then feeding on him. Anon came closer. His halo shone brighter, so bright that Anon’s body disappeared in the light. All that remained of the man was one glowing hand – and in it was the King’s Wood staff.

Hope. Did he dare dream it was real? Adros took the staff …

… he awoke from one nightmare to find himself in another. Next to him was the crumpled form of a man who looked to be more shadow than flesh. And surrounding them both … they were trapped in a globe of the Dead Tree’s limbs.

But Adros now held his staff. Using it as a prop, Adros got to his feet. Around them, the limbs thrashed against an invisible barrier.

‘Be gone,’ Adros commanded, leaning heavily on the King’s Wood staff.

His will flowed through the wood, forcing the limbs to slink back into the darkness.

But something else remained. Something his staff could not control.

But something his staff could destroy!

‘Ostedes!’

‘TIME TO END THIS, ELF PRINCE. MY MAKER NO LONGER CONSTRAINS MY WILL. THIS TIME I SHALL

FEAST.’

‘No. Now you will die.’

Adros spun around, charging at the giant. Wave after wave of telepathic energy slammed into him, but his mind knew only hate and he plowed right through them all. He reached the giant, twisting his body through his many branchlike limbs as they darted towards him. As fast as Adros was, the giant’s limbs were just as fast, and there were hundreds of them. Several penetrated his guard and dug into his flesh. But his staff swung back around, burning through the fingertips before they pulled him into the giants clutches.

Incinerate Ostedes fingers was somewhat satisfying, but for his staff to be truly effective, he needed to get in close. To do so was a risk he couldn’t afford to take, there were just too many of the snakelike fingers to possibly avoid them all. The last thing he wanted was to be trapped in the giant’s clutch, for this time, Ostedes would most certainly tear him in half.

As much as he longed to drive his staff into the being’s face, he was forced to change his strategy – first, he had to even the odds. Then he would go in for the killing blow. Taking the monster’s arm became the focus of his rage. He circled Ostedes, his staff spinning before him, turning any appendage that reached it into dust. Moving faster, he continued to circle him. Ostedes thought to trip him up with the vine-like toes of his feet, but Adros nimbly danced around them. He kept up the dance, constantly gaining momentum, knowing that soon his opportunity would arrive.

And then it did.

He managed to get behind the beast’s reach. Ostedes knew he was vulnerable, and made the mistake of attempting spin around and smash him with his other arm. As he did so, Adros took full advantage of his error, and slammed his staff into the oncoming arm. The force of the momentum threw Adros back. But the ensuing mental howl from Ostedes proved it was worth it, as did the smoking stump where Ostedes’ arm used to be.

But the rage-filled blast of mental energy the giant sent his way proved to be too much – even for Adros’ hate. Adros’ body and mind began to shut down. With his vision clouding over, he saw the giant as a dark shadow looming over him, sending a constant torrent of pain into his mind. Ostedes planted a foot on his chest, crushing him, his toes digging into his skin. He felt his staff slipping from his grasp … And then, there was only light. Pure white light. It was a miracle.

Anon drifted in the Abyss. Of all places, he should have felt at peace here most of all. But his soul was unsettled. He couldn’t escape the feeling that he didn’t belong here … not yet.

He saw a light twinkling in the distant emptiness, shining like a beacon in the night. It came toward him, growing ever brighter. Eventually he was able to discern its shape. It was Him – the faceless one. He stood of average height, his body a typical humanoid form, his face smooth and featureless. His body glowed like a shining star.

Anon reached out to touch that smooth, golden face. As though he was looking into a mirror, the being copied his motion. Simultaneously, they touched each other’s flesh. Then, they melted into one.

Anon understood now. He had never left the Maker’s path, nor had the Maker left him. His dead flesh on Ki’minsyllessil was but an illusion – Anon’s greatest one yet. There it would remain, waiting to become dust, to be reclaimed unto the Maker once more.

Anon no longer had need of it; the faceless one was his true form now.

Ostedes would not be defeated. The Elf may have taken his arm, but he would take his mind.

Adros was pinned beneath him. He was utterly helpless. Ostedes put his full weight on his foot. His fingertips moved to pierce the elf’s skull.

Instead, they met a wall of white fire. His white eyes looked on in shock as his remaining tentacle hand disintegrated.

‘IMPOSSIBLE!’

Ostedes had long ago learned to channel rage and pain into psychic power. Now he was overloaded with both. He used them to amplify his mental energy, focusing it toward the ball of light hovering in the distance.

The psychic attack was far greater than the one that had taken down Prince Adros – but when it met the ball of light, it simply vanished, never even nearing its actual target.

‘I SAW YOU DEAD, ANON. THIS CANNOT BE.’

As the ball of light neared, Ostedes saw a shape at its center – a puny, weak, humanoid form.

You questioned the Maker, Ostedes, now you will know the truth of him.”

Somehow, Anon’s voice was audible both telepathically, and physically. Yet it seemed to originate without a source.

‘THE VOID IS MY MAKER NOW, ANON.’

Ostedes rushed the glowing being, only to be met with a blast of light. His white eyes melted, his tree-like body caught on fire. The blast lifted him into the air. For a while he floated, burning, waiting to land on solid ground. It was a long wait, one which finally ended as he slammed into the base of the Dead Tree.

The odd trio of heroes stood together at the Rift.

Imorbis was all but nonexistent. Carrying the staff of King’s Wood had taken its toll. He no longer had flesh; the staff had burnt it all away. The demon wind covered him like a cloak, it was the only thing keeping him alive. Without it, he would crumple into dust.

Adros stared him down with his grey and white eyes. The Elf Prince thought that even Imorbis’ current state was unsatisfactory compensation for the pain he caused his people and his world. Because of his own injuries, to remain standing, Adros had to rely on his staff to keep him upright.

Anon doubted that staff would leave his side again for a very long time.

Anon. To the others, he was human once more; simple, and almost foolish in appearance. He seemed to have suffered not at all from the ordeal – but that was another illusion, for it could be said he had suffered the most, having died to save the

Elf Prince.

“Now, are you ready to leave this place, One Elf?” Anon asked, not sure what more he could do to convince him.

“What’s out there, Anon?” Adros asked, shifting his gaze to the Rift.

“A new world. Another chance. And your children.”

Anon approached him, reaching up to lay his hand on his shoulder.

“There’s other worlds as well, those that the Dead Tree seeks to possess. Those worlds need a savior, Adros. Someone to lead them to safety, prepare them for their final day. Gather an army, Elf Prince, and never let them forget. For one day,

the Void will find them once more.”

Adros nodded to Anon, he still felt responsible for it all. His failure to withstand the Plague brought about the creation of the greatest evil the universe had ever known. Now it sought to destroy other worlds, other people – Adros meant to see the Dead Tree stopped.

He sneered at Imorbis, and then headed into the Rift.

For a moment the two stood in silence; a Dead God and an

Elder God – allies.

“I owe you a debt, Imorbis. And a promise made in the presence of the Maker must be met.”

“Yes, Anon. To be freed of the Dead Tree is all I ask.”

“It shall be done. But first I need a promise from you as well.”

Imorbis withered beneath his cloak of the demon wind, expecting the Maker would now require payment for the sins he committed.

“I need your help. No one knows the Dead Tree and the

Plague better than you.”

“Yes. This is true, Anon. How can my knowledge serve the

Maker?”

“I need you to figure out a way to defeat it.”

Anon couldn’t have asked him to perform a more impossible task. The Dead Tree and the Void were one. But he was right. Imorbis had spent a great deal of time studying them both, and perhaps there was one way …

Yes, I will put an end to the Dead Tree … Imorbis liked the thought of it, very much. Strangely, it wasn’t the thought of vengeance that pleased him, but that he would finally have a chance at absolution.

Besides, now he fought alongside Anon and had the power of the Maker at his side, with that, Imorbis had learned anything was possible.

“We once had a saying among the Makii; to escape death we must become it. So too, must we face the Void. To defeat it, we must embrace it.”

Would Anon allow such power to be recreated? “But, I warn you, Anon. The cost to do so will be great.” Anon didn’t hesitate to reply.

“Either way we are lost. It is the Maker’s will that our fate is, and always has been ours to make. In this, our final hour, it should remain so.”

“Then I shall see it done, Anon … create one to destroy the Dead Tree.”

Both men were silent – Imorbis already plotting the creation of his ‘Destroyer’, while Anon pondered a way to stop it; to keep it from becoming a greater evil than even the Dead Tree.

He knew of only one soul pure enough to stand against it.

But alone, even Alana cannot begin to stop it. She will need a great deal of help … She will need love, hope, and a world of heroes.

In time, she will have them all …

“You have failed me. Now your body will be reclaimed.”

Vines began tearing him apart, piece by piece. Through the pain, he somehow summoned a thought.

‘I CAN REDEEM MYSELF, GREAT LORD. PLEASE, I CAN YET AID YOU … DELIVER TO YOU WHAT YOU DESIRE

MOST OF ALL.’

“You have nothing left to give me but your flesh, Ostedes?”

There was only one force the Dead Tree feared, one world it could not obtain.

‘THE ELDERS. GRANT ME THE DARK ARMY, AND I SHALL

GIVE YOU THEIR SANCTUARY.’

As if in thought, the vines paused their grisly task.

“You will take me there. But if you fail me again, you will not

be reclaimed, but will suffer eternal.”

‘I PROMISE YOU, GREAT LORD. I WILL NOT FAIL.’

The vines came at him again. This time they didn’t tear him apart but penetrated him instead. They swelled with the dark fluid, secreting it in his innards, rebuilding his ruined flesh. Somehow, his reconstruction was more painful than his rending.

But through it all, Ostedes thought only of fulfilling his promise to the Dead Tree. Oh yes. He would make the Elders suffer, far more than even he had. He would go to the Sanctuary and show their minds pain and suffering like they never thought possible.

His body was so swollen with the fluid it spewed from his eyes.

The bark-like ridges on Ostedes’ face warped into what could almost be interpreted as a grin.


PART 3 THE SANCTUARY


DAVIDIAN

Death was at his back … and closing in fast.

In front of him, a wave of blue flames scorched a path to the Black Door. Crackling as they leapt from his fingertips, the flames crawled up the ivory altar, found the Door and tuned it to his home. The Rift beckoned Davidian onward as if eager to devour him body and soul. It hovered before him, pulsating like a beating heart.

Death had him surrounded.

Hands – more bone than flesh – reached out for him …

Davidian dove into the Rift, leaving the dead hands to clench the air.

Thank the Gods, he thought as his soul spiraled through space. I didn’t think I’d actually make it.

There was peace in the Rift – and he enjoyed every moment of it.

The tranquility allowed him to clear his head and to ponder his errors – there had been many. He wondered what he could have done differently. Would it have even mattered? Could he possibly have changed the outcome?

… No.

In that brief moment of peace, he came to the conclusion that nothing could have saved them.

I did my best … and it didn’t mean a damn thing.

With that thought in mind, his tranquility came to an abrupt halt as the Black Door callously dumped him onto a Dead

World.

He was home … almost.

Davidian cursed in pain as he landed on his back. Instantly the tremendous pressure of the world’s atmosphere began to crush him. He was only able to summon a thin veil of blue flames around his body, but it was enough to relieve the pressure, allowing him to get to his feet. It was a slow process. With every move he made, more vulgar and creative expletives filled his mind along with the pain. Thankfully he had saved his trusted blade, Alithia, and was able to make use of it as a crutch.

He carried the blade wherever he went, despite the fact that the Elders frowned on his use of the weapon. Even though the edge of black steel was blessed, they considered any weapon, other than the Oneness, an archaic method of combat.

But Alithia had saved his life several times … and many of those times had just recently occurred. To escape the latest Plague infested world, he had nearly drained himself of the Oneness. Lacking the ability to kill his enemies with blue flame, Davidian found the cold steel of Alithia more than an acceptable substitute.

So much for the Treaty, he thought, still not sure what the hell went wrong back there. Davidian was no rookie when it came to venturing into the Rift. He had been to many worlds, both living and dead. And had faced the Dark Army on countless occasions. But never before had he seen such a brutal, and blatant slaughter as that which he found on Torathius. So consumed by madness, the Dark Army even ignored the feast, preferring to revel in pure carnage … and chaos. The blood of the living, typically so precious and savored, was left to run down the gutters and bath the streets.

I reckon Dona’Cora’s gonna burst into flames when she hears about this …

He tried to take a step, but with the thick atmosphere surrounding him, it was like walking through a swamp. Not to mention, every motion sent a searing pain down his shoulder and back.

… If she hears about this, Davidian thought, beginning to wonder if he had saved enough of his power to make it home.

The Dead World he stood on wasn’t his home, the black moon that orbited it was. They dubbed the moon ‘The Sanctuary’, the home of the Elders and their Chosen ones. The only way to reach it was by piloting a pod; metal vessels designed to be powered by the Oneness. There was no Gate to the Sanctuary. The Dark Army could travel the Gate, but only the Oneness could power a pod. It was a simple, but effective way to keep the Sanctuary safe from the Plague, and it had done so for thousands of years. All Davidian had to do was reach a pod and he would be safe, but the Dead World harbored a lethal environment. Every second spent within it was incredibly taxing on one’s power – and Davidian didn’t have much to start with.

There were several pods scattered around the Rift, their eggshaped metallic hulls shimmering like a mirage as the planet’s sun beat down upon them. The closest of them was roughly twenty standard feet away. But what normally would be quick stroll, now seemed like an impossibility, considering Davidian had failed to complete a single step.

I will make it, he inwardly cursed. … I have too.

He didn’t come this far to die on a Dead World.

Davidian looked up, his dark brown eyes peeking out from a mop of disheveled black hair. There it was … the Sanctuary, hanging in the sky; a half-moon sliver of metallic black.

It almost seemed close enough to touch. If he could just reach out to it …

He lifted his left arm… there was a loud pop. With the sudden jolt of pain, he nearly lost control of his halo of Oneness – the only thing keeping the dense atmosphere from turning his body into pulp. He struggled to focus his mind, actually used the pain as a focal point.

He regained his senses as the pain slowly faded. Clearly, before he did anything else, he had to assess his injuries.

He wore a jacket of black leather, the cuffs and collar dyed blood red. A diagonal tear ran the full length of the back of his jacket. The leather was cut clean, as if made by a razor — so too was the flesh beneath, exposing muscle, tissue and bone. His left arm hung at his side, he once more attempted to raise it above his head, but only made it waist-high before his mind was awash in pain.

Davidian couldn’t see the injury, but could guess at its severity. Most likely, his shoulder blade had fractured or broken under the blow. The wide slice down his back was a flesh wound, but a severe one. He knew the wound was deep, but thankfully not deep enough to harm his spinal column or internal organs. All in all, nothing an Elder couldn’t heal, or even one of the lesser Chosen for that matter. If he was stronger, he could do it himself, but in his current condition he needed all the power he had left to guide his pod back to the Sanctuary; and the longer he spent on the Dead World licking his wounds, the less energy he would have to make that a possibility.

He gritted his teeth against the pain and trudged onward, one slow, excruciating step after another …

Davidian was a Savior. He had spent the last decade on the world Torathius, anticipating their scheduled destruction, as dictated by the Makii. He had found many on the planet he believed could prove themselves worthy as Chosen. But before he could fully vet them, the dead came – far ahead of schedule. That should have been his first clue that something had gone horribly wrong, but despite the unexpected arrival, Davidian did what he was supposed to do; he watched, and he waited.

He didn’t have to wait long, the Torathians were quickly slaughtered. The lust to kill was unprecedented, even for the Dark Army.

That was his second clue – this time he didn’t ignore it.

He went into action. Saving the world was an impossibility – he vaguely remembered an Elder teaching him that – so he went for the Chosen. To his credit, he collected five of them. It was when he tried getting them back through the Rift that things went from bad to worse.

They had been just kids. They could have been great

Chosen, perhaps even Elders one day.

Davidian couldn’t save them … but before he focused on saving his own ass, he made sure they wouldn’t end up as slaves in the Dark Army.

In his blood-bath scramble to get to the Rift, Davidian even took down a Dead God. As Alithia slowly burned through the creature’s innards, he demanded to know why they had abandoned the Treaty. It was common knowledge that it was a benefit to both sides, Dead Gods and Elders. The Dead Gods had succeeded in devouring most of the universe, but their hunger remained. It would always remain, such was their curse. In order to keep them sated, in essence, the Elders created living planets for the Dead Gods to feed upon. And by doing so, they were allowed to save their “Chosen” from these worlds and bring them back to the Sanctuary. There, their powers could grow to create more planets for the Dead Gods to consume, and when they did, the Chosen who had been elevated to Saviors would venture out to collect more Chosen … etc … etc. And so it would go for all time – a truce (sort of). The truth of it was that the Elders were enslaved by the Treaty. They were allowed to live and propagate, so long as the Dead Gods were fed.

But the attack on Torathius was different than anything Davidian had seen, the Dark Army wasn’t the least bit interested in feeding, just slaughtering anything with warm blood in its veins.

Even as he twisted Alithia deeper, and black smoke curled from its torso, the Dead God said not a word. It simply stared at him, oblivious to the pain. When whatever sort of life the being possessed finally left, its eyes were as blank and empty as they had been the first moment Alithia sank into its stomach.

Something is wrong as hell, Davidian thought, remembering the creature’s dead eyes. I have to make it, I have to tell Dona’Cora.

He discovered reserves of power he didn’t know he had, and lumbered onward to the gleaming pods.

Davidian grinned, gaining confidence as he drew nearer. He was going to make it. He would get back to the Sanctuary and tell his tale. The Elders would heal him (make him strong as ever), and together they would face this unbridled resurgence of the Dark Army. With Alithia in his hands, he would make them pay for what they have done.

He stood in the shadow of a pod and smiled. He was about to send his power out and open a door in the vessel when another shadow appeared – eclipsing both Davidian and the pod.

His smile vanished. He would have recognized the giant tree-like silhouette anywhere. Of all the Elders, this being was his least favorite, and the last one he wished to see at the moment.

‘Ostedes, what in the dead hell are you doing here?’ he asked as the creature rounded the pod.

Davidian was also well aware of the being’s tremendous telepathic abilities, and knew Ostedes would easily be interpreting his thoughts – most likely had been since he arrived in the world.

The creature was a giant, nearly twice as tall as Davidian. Though his body and limbs were thin, he seemed deceptively massive, for each of his arms had over a hundred limbs that spread out from his body like branches. His feet were like roots, digging into the earth as he moved. Ostedes had no mouth, only a blank face with a pair of glowing white eyes.

Suddenly the being reared up, and grew larger still, his branch-like limbs stretching out and writhing in the air.

It was tough to tell through the hazy atmosphere, but he seemed even larger than Davidian remembered … and his eyes, it was rumored they turned white when the giant was angered, but now they shown like beacons. And there was something else …

Davidian, you damned fool!

He cursed himself. How could he have missed it?

Ostedes doesn’t have a halo!

Any living being without a shield of the Oneness to protect them would have been instantly crushed in the dense atmosphere, leading Davidian to a simple conclusion – Ostedes wasn’t a living being anymore.

He focused the Oneness, enhancing his speed. He had enough left for one strike – maybe. But it had to count.

Davidian disregarded his injuries and dove for the being’s trunk-like chest — Alithia leading the way.

A hollow gurgle came from somewhere in the giant’s mouthless head. His limbs vibrated and twitched as Davidian came on, but they didn’t move to intercept him.

They didn’t have to. ‘DAVIDIAN.’

The sound of his name reverberated through his mind. Davidian felt his body shutting down, his own limbs were no longer his to control. And there was pain, a solid wall of fire that prevented any rational thought.

But he was already in motion. Alithia was still heading for her target … the tip of his blade made contact with Ostedes chest and easily sank in to the hilt. The strike must have broken the giant’s concentration, for Davidian had his body back, the pain in his mind was but an echo. He landed on his feet and pulled Alithia free. A spurt of black blood accompanied the blade, drenching Davidian. He ignored the spray of viscous fluid and prepared for a second strike.

The only thing moving on the tree-like giant was its flailing limbs. His eyes continued to shine down on Davidian.

Perhaps he was mistaken, but it almost appeared like the bark ridges of Ostedes’ face had twisted into a grin.

Davidian grinned back. With his next strike, he planned to bury Alithia into the Elder’s face.

Smoke rose from Alithia’s edge …

… and from Davidian’s flesh. His face and body were suddenly on fire. The black blood was like acid, burning into his skin. He summoned what little power he had to stop it, but it was too late … and worse yet, the black blood wasn’t burning his flesh, it was burrowing into it.

‘Curse you, Ostedes!’

Davidian was being possessed.

His leather coat was speckled with holes from which his lifeblood was pouring. The majority of the fluid had landed on his face, which was rapidly being eaten away, his tussled head of hair became a skull cap of white bone.

Alithia slipped from his grip, the entire length of blessed steel was pocked and rapidly disintegrating.

Davidian screamed, but he didn’t make a sound, his voice was swallowed in the dense atmosphere.

‘I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU, DAVIDIAN. I KNEW EVENTUALLY A SAVIOR WOULD COME, AND WHEN THEY

DID … ’

Even as his flesh melted away, Davidian summoned all the

Oneness he had left, and prepared for one last attack.

But Ostedes took his mind, and with it his power. The branch-like limbs came at him, digging into his body.

‘SAVE YOUR STRENGTH. I HAVE NEED OF YOUR POWER.

I AM COMING HOME, AND YOU WILL BE THE ONE TO TAKE

ME THERE.’

The strange choking noise came louder from the giant. Davidian’s eyes melted from his head. Before the darkness took him, he realized the choking sound was Ostedes’ laughter.clip_image010

A breeze followed the man. It surrounded him in an invisible shield. Leaves parted at his approach, tree bows bent. Where there was only dense forest a path was cleared. The breeze brushed his mossy green cape, stirring the many silver bells sewn into the cloth and filling the air with their gentle ringing.

Birds echoed the sound throughout the canopy.

There was even a rainbow breaking through the trees …

… He stood in the ruins of a once colossal structure. Slabs of rubble etched by the elements closed him in. They rose to the sky; giant grey monoliths hundreds of feet tall. On the horizon there was a sun, a blood-red ball that seemed too decrepit to fully arise. The dying light cast the land into shadow. The shadows of the monoliths became warped replicas of their creators, stretching over the man.

There were shadows all around him … one of them even moved, and it drew near.

“Have you made contact?” the man asked as the humanoid silhouette shuffled over to him.

“Yes,” the being replied, his voice half echo, half whisper.

“And yet you live?” he chided the being.

“Ha … so it seems. It appears their hatred for the new en-

emy has trumped their hatred of me.”

The being was wrapped in darkness, he wore it like cloak. His face was shaped like a human, but his features were an indistinguishable dark blur.

“There was but a few who would meet with me,” the being continued. “I wager that many of my Brethren have either succumbed, or been reclaimed by the Void. Even those who are yet free were willing to say little. They fear their fate will soon mirror that of their lost Brethren, and rightly so. It was only when I mentioned the great Anon that they spoke at all.

They think you, and only you, can save them from the Void.”

“They are forsaken. Nothing can save them now,” Anon bluntly stated.

“I know the truth of it … ” the shadow said, performing an elaborate bow. “But felt the knowledge should be withheld.

An act of kindness perhaps, for those who were once my brothers.”

“Kindness?” The man said, arching an eyebrow in mock confusion. “I didn’t think you were capable of it, Imorbis. Nor are your brothers deserving of it.”

“We, the Makii, have much to atone for, Anon. Those who

are free, only wish to set things right with the Maker.”

“Their time will come. One day they will meet the Maker, let them beg for atonement then. The Maker may be blessed with infinite kindness, but after what your people have done, my

guess is they will only be granted suffering.”

“To stand before the Maker is more than we deserve. No

doubt, his punishment will be just.”

Anon nodded. His head was bald on top and had a clump of hair on either side.

“What then, have you learned from them, these brothers of yours?”

Imorbis withered away as though the shadows were drawing him in.

“It is as you feared, the Dark Army will move against the Sanctuary. In this, we will need all the allies we can get, even the free Makii.”

Anon wasn’t so certain, he already had a difficult time trusting just one of them.

“I knew it would come to pass, but sought to deny it. Only one empowered with the Oneness can reach the Sanctuary … ”

Anon lowered his head, pondering the meaning of his own statement.

“Surely we have been betrayed by one of our own. But why would an Elder seek our destruction? Why would they dare

open a Gate into the Sanctuary?”

“There is but one who would wish such a thing, but he is an Elder no longer. We thought him dead, killed by your own

hands. But it seems we were both greatly mistaken.”

Anon raised his head, his bulging brown eyes filled with white fire.

“Even if what you say is true, the Oneness has left him. He

cannot create – not even a Gate. Death is his only power.” “Not his only power,” Imorbis replied.

Imorbis was right, Anon remembered the evil being’s telepathic abilities all too well.

“And my Brethren say his powers have grown. He doesn’t plan to create a Gate himself, but force one of your kind to do it for him.”

Anon’s flesh disintegrated in a burst of white flame. He was a faceless man of fire – in front of him hunched the shadowed being that had once been a Dead God.

“The Sanctuary’s loss will be unavoidable.”

Anon’s voice came from every direction, from everything.

“But we may yet save many lives … if we can free them from the Sanctuary. However I fear such a task could prove as difficult as a direct confrontation with the Dark Army. Any attempt to rescue them could very well become a suicide mission.” The Dead God’s face warped into a shadowed grin.

“Yes, Anon, I know. Of course, I have already given the mat-

ter thought, and believe I have a plan.”

“Of course … ” Anon replied, dreading to have to go through with another one of the Dead God’s plans. The last time he did, he had died.

But, as it was then, he had little choice.

“Alright, Imorbis. What do you have in store for us this time

. . ?”

And so it began … Imorbis discussed the plan with Anon. He went into great detail, describing what should and would happen, when and where. Though he never once lied to Anon, he omitted one immensely important detail – Sevron. He spoke truly when he told Anon the evil force behind this attack was one he had defeated and left for dead. What Anon didn’t know, was that Sevron survived because of Imorbis’ sin. In his longing to be free of the Hunger, he resurrected the greatest evil the universe had ever known. He unleashed him upon the Elfin God-Tree, the Graelic, and in doing so, he unknowingly imbued Sevron with unimaginable powers – powers that Imorbis should have possessed.

But now Imorbis sought another power, had another plan to be free of the Hunger. Now, Imorbis walked a different path.

No, he would never lie to Anon, to do so would make him a prisoner to the Hunger for all time. On the other hand, he couldn’t help but wonder how Anon will feel when he discovers the truth. Sooner or later he’ll see it for himself. Will he continue to forgive Imorbis’ sins? Or will he send him to hell alongside his old friend, Sevron?

Either way, he’ll be free of the Hunger. Either way, he’ll hold steadfast to the Maker’s path.

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They fell out of the Rift into an ocean of black ash.

The Magi went through first, their halos of the Oneness the only thing keeping them from being buried and suffocating in the field of dark debris. Their halos swelled, becoming giant flaming bubbles that pushed the toxic air back. Then, able to breath safely in their bubbles, they surveyed the world they had tumbled into.

A grey cliff arose in the distance – a pile of sulfur and ash, the recent deposit of some cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It was well over one hundred feet high, but was loosely cemented and constantly crumbling; large chunks of solid magma were mixed in with the volcanic afterbirth and tumbled free, splashing to the earth and sending waves of ash to crash against the

Magi’s blue shields.

The earth shook, sending several of the Magi to their knees.

A plume of smoke and fire erupted behind the grey cliff.

“Are you sure this planet is safe, Brontes?” one of the Magi asked, shouting to be heard above the rumbling volcano.

Their faces were all hidden beneath black masks, their bodies in tight, form-fitting black suits. At first glance, the fabric seemed to be made of silken thread, but should one try to pierce or tear the thread they would find it nearly impenetrable. The suits were a gift of their new allies, the dwarves, who had grudgingly decided to remain behind. They wanted to help the mission, even if they weren’t allowed to join it, and had crafted each member a custom suit of their dwarven bluesteel. The steel retained its unbreakable strength, even when thinned to a hair’s breadth. With so many steel filaments woven together, the suits were certain to provide great defense against the Dark Army’s bite.

“This planet is unstable, to say the least,” the mage continued, struggling to keep his balance.

Only the symbols embroidered on their foreheads distinguished one mage from another – they each wore the symbol of their fallen home-world. The speaker had a crescent moon centered below two suns. His name was Ollius, and like the dwarves, he was another new and powerful ally. Ollius was once Gatekeeper to the human populated world Omicron. When the Great Exodus began, he led his people into the Black Door prior to the coming of the Plague, and from there they wandered from world to world, the Dark Army always one step behind. They lost many along the way, and would have all fallen had it not been for Ollius. He kept them alive long enough for Brontes to find them, and guide them to their new world.

Other than Ollius, none of the humans they rescued had shown the slightest desire to join Brontes’ current mission — Brontes couldn’t blame them. After all, they had only recently made it out of the Rift, and they had but barely escaped. The moment they arrived on the new world, the majority of the humans fled the Black Door and never looked back. The others wasted no time building defenses; strengthening the great wall the dwarves had named “Lock Core”, or beginning their own fortifications somewhere deep in the outerlands.

There was safety there, in the new world — a planet the humans had begun to call the Seventh World – and safety was something none of them dreamed they would ever find again. The humans thought Brontes and his companions were insane to leave it. To risk losing it forever in the darkness of the Black Door, was a thought that few of them could fathom.

To escape the Rift once was nearly impossible, to do so again – was a miracle.

If he survived, this would be Brontes’ sixth time escaping a besieged world. And yes, he was in fact quite accustomed to witnessing miracles. He knew that as long as the Maker was on his side, anything was possible – it had been proven so, time and time again.

He remembered the first miracle – his own rescue from his Plague infested home-world, Idrllian, a planet that was virtually defenseless, having been located deep in the Unified core. None expected an attack would come from H’aleron – the capital world of the Makii. None would have guessed that the Makii’s vendetta with death could unleash a wave of annihilation that would spread through the entire universe.

There was little left now, and the annihilation was spreading quicker than ever.

The Makii once fashioned themselves gods, but to complete this belief, they dared to become one with death. Considering all their accomplishments, the Plague was their greatest success, for once infected, they truly became death incarnate.

But the price for their immortality was great. Unbeknownst to them, their dark powers unleashed a horror even greater than they. The Void itself was awakened into reality, born in the corrupted soul of the elven Great Tree, the Graelic.

That was Brontes’ second miracle, his second brush with death in the Black Door. On the elven planet Ki’minsyllessil, he was actually killed – infected by the Dead Tree, but the Maker brought him back … and gave him a mission – to save as many souls as possible before the Void claimed their worlds.

Since then he had visited many worlds, mostly lifeless ones. Sadly, in most cases he was too late, the Dark Army moved too fast. In all his journeys through the Black Door he was only able to gather survivors from three worlds – each one a miracle.

Souls had been saved, but Brontes would be the last man to call any of the missions a success — far too many souls were lost before they made their way out. Lately, Brontes feared he was not only running out of living worlds to save, but miracles as well.

I just need one more …

This mission was different. There could be no failure this time. Brontes honestly believed all souls were equally precious, but in the war with the Void, the ones he sought now were priceless.

They were gods … once upon a time.

“Of course it is unstable, Ollius. It is a Dead World, after all,” Brontes replied to his new friend. “If you were expecting to find paradise, then you signed up for the wrong mission. We must deal with what we have. If the volcano becomes active …

the Maker willing, we’ll find a way to deal with that too.”

Brontes’ symbol was a large, silver diamond with twin triangles, their tips conjoined at its center; all three shapes were aflame.

His right eye was somewhat visible through his mask, as was the pink scar that had replaced his left eye.

He took in the ash covered world around him with his one good eye.

Brontes looked to the horizon, there should have been a sun or stars up in the sky, but even with his eye of mage-fire he could only see ash.

The sky was pure black – a cloud of ash five hundred feet thick enveloped the entire world. Only by using the Oneness as a lens was he able to see anything at all. The cliff of collapsing ash vented its own clouds of sulfuric gas. At the base of the cliff, the liquid sulfur sat in a steaming orange pool. Encircling the pool was a yellow crust — like pus drying around an infected wound.

And the smell! Brontes didn’t want to waste too much power cleansing the air of the odor, but the sour stench was nearly unbearable.

“Truth be told,” Brontes jested. “We have seen worse.” Much worse.

Ollius couldn’t deny that, having been through hell himself.

“I doubt Anon would have sent us here if this wasn’t the best location; the closest to the Sanctuary and least hostile. We have to trust him in this … ”

Was this your decision, Anon?

Anon had acquired a new ally on Ki’minsyllessil, one that

Brontes was none too fond of — to say the least.

Brontes sensed the Dead God, Imorbis’ hand in this rescue mission. Whether that was good or bad, was yet to be determined. The Dead God was considered a genius … and he was

Anon’s ally. That should be enough.

Then why then did Brontes still have his doubts?

Most likely, they stemmed from his past experiences with Dead Gods — particularly the one who took his eye, Sevron the so-called “Servant of Death”. Even among the Dead Gods, he had a reputation for cruelty – a reputation he fully lived up to while conquering Brontes’ home-world. Sevron hadn’t been interested in spreading the Plague, only carnage. Those he slaughtered didn’t rise again to join the Dark Army. When Sevron was done with their bodies, there wasn’t enough left of them for even the Plague to resurrect.

Thankfully, Sevron wouldn’t be rising again either – Anon had made sure of that.

“And where is Anon now?” Ollius asked, as if he was reading Brontes’ mind. “If he truly is as powerful as I have heard, his aid would be much appreciated for the assault … or rescue … whatever you are calling it.”

Having never met the man himself, Ollius had a tough time believing the tales of Anon, and that many of the past miracles had actually been performed by Anon’s hand.

“Well, I hope to call it a rescue … ” Brontes replied. “And I wouldn’t doubt Anon’s power, or question how he chooses to use it, Ollius. If we truly needed him, he would be here. He trusts us to succeed in this, just as we must trust in his judgment. Besides, we cannot expect him to fight all of our battles, some of them we must win on our own.”

The rest of the Magi nodded in acceptance. Even though he could only see their eyes, Brontes hoped his doubts were better hidden than their own.

“I’m with you, Brontes. No matter where we go or who we fight. I would never have made it this far without you,” Ollius said. “I apologize if I’ve offend you … I just can’t help being worried about jumping into the middle of the Dark Army.” You and me both.

“It gets easier after a couple times,” Brontes jokingly replied, his grin hidden beneath his mask. “There’s no need to worry,

Ollius. We may not have Anon, but we do have the Elf Prince.” Brontes would’ve bet, that Ollius was grinning as well.

“Speaking of which … ” Brontes said, growing serious. “We should probably get him here and the sooner the better.”

Wasting no more time, he ordered the Magi to secure the environment.

The Magi banded together, sending out their blue flames to clear a path for those who followed. Their burning halos flowed together, turning ash into oxygen and clearing an area a mile wide.

Altogether there were twenty of the Magi – a small force compared to the number of dead they expected to face (which could very well be the entire Dark Army). Brontes didn’t intend for this mission to become a prolonged fight, just a quick strike – in and out. Thus his decision to leave the dwarves behind, though they were great warriors, with their short and stocky legs they were simply too slow. Convincing them to stay behind, without offending them, had been a delicate bit of persuasion – Anon himself had to step in and handle that one.

The giants, however, would not be denied. Another … ‘arrangement’ had been made with them, an arrangement that Brontes whole-heartedly disagreed with, but Anon had allowed. In the end, they did manage to convince them that because of their size, only ten could come. The honor went to ten of their eldest. And though they were old, they were all tough, war-hardened veterans who had hacked and smashed their way into their twilight-years – and didn’t intend to stop until they were dead.

As for the elves … Brontes wouldn’t leave without them. As always, every member of the elven race would accompany him

— all fifty-two of them.

Brontes accepted the fact that, like their previous missions, there would be casualties, but the size of his group ensured the casualties would be minimal. He also hoped to be leaving the planet with over twenty times the amount of Magi he arrived with … if things went well. If they didn’t, none of them would be leaving.

Once they had the environment under control, Brontes sent the others a signal that all was clear; a wisp of blue flame left his hand, swirling out into the darkness of the Black Door

The elves answered his summons, gracefully striding through the pulsating Rift. They were tall, thin beings, their eyes of grey and white the only feature visible through their own black hoods. Even their pointed ears and golden manes of hair were tucked away beneath the fabric of blue-steel.

One symbol was emblazoned on all of their foreheads – a tree, its roots forming a world, its branches blazing like a sun. Many of them were difficult to distinguish from one another, but Brontes could easily pick out the Elf Prince, Adros. Not only was he a head taller than the rest, as ever, his trusted staff of King’s Wood was tightly clutched in his hands. The blood red tip seemed to throb in this bleak environment, as if warning the Prince of mortal peril.

The wood held the life-force of Adros’ fallen home-world. And though it was a sapling of the Great Tree, and thus the embodiment of life — to the Dark Army it was death. Countless of the undead had fallen to Adros’ staff, ending their long span of immortality as lifeless husks.

After they abandoned his home-world Ki’minsyllessil, Brontes and Adros quickly bonded through their mutual mission to save the worlds. Since then, they have suffered, and survived, countless turmoil in their attempts to save other races from the coming Plague – and in doing so, have grown to be the closest of friends.

Adros and his elven kin were remarkable in so many ways. One of which was that they never hesitated to journey back into the Black Door – even after all the horror they suffered on their own home-world. Without their aid, there would have been no survivors on any of the other worlds. The Elves were remarkable warriors; immune to the Plague, but also incredibly agile and fast. Brontes had seen them stand as equals against the Dead Gods themselves in combat.

Over the past several years, Magi and elf had fought as one in many a battle. They had proven themselves to be a formidable union, surviving some of the harshest Dead Worlds in the universe. But no matter how the odds were stacked against them, they always survived. And they always went back for more. The one being Brontes would credit most for their bravery and success was Adros. He led them in battle, and he led them to safety. Without him, none of it was possible.

The Elf Prince had no fear.

As though the world around him was full of sunshine and rainbows, and not ash and fire, Adros calmly strode over to Brontes, his slender fingers reaching out to clasp his hand. The mage gladly accepted the gesture, feeling far more comforted now that the Elf Prince had arrived.

Next to the Prince was his guardian, X’ander. Brontes recognized him first by the lifeless glaze in his eyes, not the fact that he was always at the Prince’s side. Unlike the rest of the elves, X’ander wasn’t a soldier or warrior, he was a killer. And a more skilled killer Brontes had never seen. He was just thankful the elf employed his skills against the undead and not the living.

Because their tight fitting suits were so similar, he recognized but one other elf, and only because she cast him a sultry wink. As usual, he did his best to ignore the flirtation, but his good eye probably lingered a little too long on her shapely body. It was especially difficult to look away when the tight-fitting suit of blue-steel accentuated her every curve.

S’ilindsa …

How he wished she had stayed behind.

He couldn’t afford to worry about her in the coming rescue. He knew that to do so would be a weakness on his part. S’ilindsa was more than capable of making her own decisions and taking care of herself. Perhaps when they returned to the

Seventh World he would finally return her affections … Why wait?

Especially since there was a high probability at least one of them would not be returning.

He returned her wink with his one good eye, then turned away before he could witness her response. S’ilindsa was bold and shameless, an unpredictable combination. He didn’t dare encourage her further, not with her adopted father, Adros present.

Brontes aided the twenty Magi as they ensured the elves’ safety, then he summoned the next group of warriors.

They were the giants … the Mithrlnites. They had to step through the Black Door single file, so thick were their bodies. Unlike the rest of the party, the giants weren’t dressed in suits of blue-steel, but were mostly bare-chested, wearing scant amounts of clothing; vests and breechcloths of exotic animal skins. Their clothing was basic – but well crafted. Medallions of gold and silver adorned their clothing; symbols of their valor in past battles. The rest of their bodies were covered with bushy tufts of grey hair, their thick, corded muscles rippling beneath.

An inch thick and tough as bark, their skin was armor unto itself. Thus their refusal of the dwarven suits. They did, however, accept the dwarves’ gifts of weapons; gargantuan axes with silver inlay, and steel hammers as tall as Brontes.

Even the Elf Prince Adros, seemed small next to them – a twig next to a boulder.

The Mithrlnites were the newest additions to their little army. They had been told to stay back, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were fearsome warriors, but they were also slow, cumbersome behemoths that could potentially jeopardize the mission. But Anon (or most likely Imorbis) allowed them to come, granting them a role in the coming battle that would ensure their value. Truth was, the addition of the Mithrlnites could make all the difference. As much as he inherently hated their role in the mission, Brontes was glad to have them along. After all, he had seen their leader, Rag’nerack kill a Dead God – with but one blow of his hammer.

Rag’nerack was the most impressive of his kind, towering over them all as though they were children. In his massive, hair-covered fist was a thick column of steel with a glowing brick of crystal fastened to the end. Brontes had yet to learn the giant’s true name (perhaps never would) ‘Rag’nerack’ was a title given to him by his people. The ancient meaning was something akin to ‘World’s end’, but in the giant’s tongue, the title meant ‘God’s weapon’ and represented a position of great honor among his kind. Rag’nerack was the closest thing the Mithrlnites had to a Chosen, though he wasn’t a product of the Elders, his size and strength had certainly been enhanced by god.

In general, the giants were an incredibly hardy people, a fact made evident as they lumbered out of the Rift and refused the Magi’s offer of protection, sucking in a vigorous breath of the planet’s acidic and ash filled air instead.

“Well,” the giant Rag’nerack thundered, his fist clenching on the steel column. “Let’s get on with it.”

“You’ll have your vengeance soon enough,” Brontes replied. Brontes was still in awe of their size, and found it difficult to be authoritative when his body was the size of Rag’nerack’s arm.

“The moment they create a Door, we’re going in,” he continued, craning his neck up in an effort to look Rag’nerack in his massive brown eyes.

“And how ya be knowing they’ll make one for sure?” Rag’nerack asked, heaving his hammer onto his shoulder.

“Anon said it will open, so it will be so,” Adros replied, before Brontes had the chance.

Brontes knew Adros and his kin wouldn’t have a problem waiting, when your life span lasted a millennium one gained a bit more patience. But the Mithrlnites were more than eager to see their mission fulfilled – and their time was limited.

“The Gate will open to the Sanctuary, and when it does, I will sense it. We will do our best to gain access, but it could take some time. Every moment counts, the longer it remains open, the more of the Dark Army we must face. When we do gain control, it will last but a short time. As soon as the Dark Army senses our efforts they will tune us out. We are but twenty Magi, the Dark Army has thousands of Makii. Once we are discovered, we will be shut out immediately. Our battle is not for control of the Gate, but for the souls of those stuck in the Sanctuary. We land and we leave. The more time we spend fight-

ing, the more we lose to the Dark Army.”

Brontes looked to the giants, acknowledging that they would be the exception to the rule.

“As much as we wish this to end, this battle will pass to our ancestors. It will be they who fight our final battle. They can change the fate of the universe, but only if we live to pass on our knowledge and help them grow. If we fail in this, all is lost. This new world we have made together will surely fall. We need them … as much as they have failed us in the past, the Elders, the Chosen. They are Magi. And without their bloodline we do not stand a chance. They have no idea what is coming for them, or that we are coming to save them. But we will save them. We the ‘Guardians of Death’ will save the gods.”

We have to.

Then he felt it … just as Anon predicted, the Dark Army tore open a Door directly into the Sanctuary of the Elder Gods.

The Magi at his back sensed it as well, and shuffled nervously in anticipation.

“They’ve done it,” Brontes said, torrents of flames leaving his hands to pour into the Rift. “Get ready. We’re going to the Sanctuary.”

The roar of the Mithrlnites made the rumbling volcano seem like a whisper.

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She was hunched over, her back bent from a harsh life that spanned ages. The small, yellow-eyed woman scurried through the dark tunnels of the Sanctuary. Her nostrils flared as she breathed, almost as if her sharp, pointed nose was sniffing the air, searching for a path through the maze of tunnels.

And to think, there was a time when she walked through hallways gilded with silver and gold, and all who beheld her fell to their knees. Worlds worshipped her … then she led them to their deaths. After that, she lost everything.

Almost everything …

She still had one thing left – revenge. The thought of it had kept her going all these years. Her flesh should have withered to dust long ago, but by focusing her vast reserves of the Oneness on slowing her cellular decay she had outlived her own mortality. Like the Dead Gods, her ‘immortality’ came with a price; to continue her quest of vengeance Dona’Cora had to sacrifice her power. Sadly, she had devoted so much of it to maintaining her existence that she was hardly the goddess she once was. But she was still a goddess, and still powerful enough to be ranked among the Elders. Though with every passing day, the processes required more of her. It was only a matter of time before she was as weak as any Chosen, and shortly thereafter, the great and powerful Dona’Cora would be little better than a bloodless. Likewise, the process to extend her life only slowed decay, unlike the ‘immortality’ of the Dead Gods, it didn’t stop it. Little by little, Dona’Cora was inching her way toward death.

Surprisingly, her advancing geriatric condition was the least of her worries. With the latest wave of reports (or lack thereof) she very much doubted she would be dying of old age.

As she moved through the tunnels, the same thought that had plagued her of late continued gnawing at her — Something was wrong.

Dona’Cora’s mind was clouded with a sensation she rarely felt, an emotion she had thought herself incapable of – fear. She vaguely remembered experiencing it as a child, and felt as helpless now as she had then. She was an immortal, a goddess, perhaps the most powerful being in known existence, and yet she was as frightened as a little girl.

Dona’Cora was ancient and had been born before the Age of Death. Since then, she had witnessed virtually every imaginable nightmare come to life and had faced all those horrors unflinching and unafraid.

There was truly only one thing she feared – failure.

The Void was coming to reclaim her – reclaim them all, and she wasn’t ready. A thousand years of planning, all for naught.

It’s over, she thought, a new (more familiar) emotion arising. I’ve failed. This will be the end, my final battle, and once more

I will be defeated.

Anger replaced fear.

I will not die easy.

Her anger flared. How she wished to bath herself in the Oneness.

Soon enough …

She had a promise to keep, and there were many Makii left to kill. No matter what happened, she would do her best to see that promise fulfilled.

Even so, she harbored no illusions of victory. If the Dark Army found a way to the Sanctuary, death would be an inevitability.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.

She had been so close; her Chosen were stronger than ever. In only a short matter of time they could have marched against the Makii. But they weren’t ready now – and most likely, all those she had invested on the Living Worlds were either dead or enslaved to the Dark Army.

For over a standard year, there had been only silence from the Living Worlds. No Saviors returned home bringing a new flock of Chosen. Even the sparse communication with the Dead Gods was no more – and likely so too was the Treaty. Most recently, she had sent a team down to the Rift-world to investigate the Gate. But they were long overdue. With every passing moment of their absence, Dona’Cora drew closer to the conclusion that they were all dead, and the Rift-world was compromised.

What is happening out there … ? she wondered, not used to being left in the dark.

The Conclave of Elders had been summoned to discuss the situation, but Dona’Cora knew that it would become a war council, for it was obvious that the only thing left to discuss was an impending attack.

She walked through a tunnel of black glass to reach the Conclave, one of the many pathways the Elders had carved through the mountain of basaltic obsidian. She crossed paths with many Chosen and even a few Elders as she walked the tunnels, but she spared them hardly even a yellow-eyed glance. Soon they would all be dead; nothing she did could change that. That was the truth of the coming battle; she didn’t want them to read it in her eyes.

Let them have hope in the battle to come, it may be the only thing left to them.

Those she passed gave her a quick bow before scurrying out of her way. Clearly, everyone sensed her mounting anger as well as the mounting threat of danger, and none of them wanted to have any part of either.

There was an unusual amount of traffic in the Sanctuary’s halls. Dona’Cora wondered where they were heading. Where could they possibly go? It was doubtful they even had a destination. Without access to the Gate, each and every one of them were trapped in the Sanctuary. Part of the reason it remained standing through the millennia was that the moon was inaccessible, but if the Dark Army controlled the world below them, then the Sanctuary was also inescapable. The metallic ships they called ‘pods’ were the only way to reach the moon, and the only way off of it as well.

The thought of taking the pods and fleeing into deep space crossed her mind, but she dismissed it almost instantly. Since the creation of the Rift, star-charts were no longer maintained. They wouldn’t know what direction to begin their journey, or even what they were searching for. Not to mention, the power of the Oneness was limited – space was not. They could only go so far before they became stranded.

No. A trip to deep space was akin to suicide. Dona’Cora wouldn’t end it that way …

Thane …

She remembered her fallen lover, and how she found him killed by his own hand rather than risk becoming a demon.

No. She will die in the fight. The Dead Gods will have to kill her, she wasn’t going to give them any other choice.

As for their own choices, the only other way off of the Sanctuary would be to make a Gate on the moon itself. But the Dark Army would love nothing more, for the moment they did so, every last undead being in the universe would pour through. Even if the Elders could take control of the Gate, the entire Sanctuary would be flooded with the dead by the time they did so.

There was but one choice left to them.

Our only choice is to fight.

But who would stand beside her now? Who could she trust?

She had sent her most loyal to the elven home-world, Ki’minsyllessil – the place where her best laid plans began to unravel. They were to return with a great source of power, something that could have brought Dona’Cora her long sought after victory. But instead, they were all murdered.

Anon if ever we meet again.

She once thought Anon was trustworthy — perhaps even a friend — but now the man plotted against her. Sources said he even aligned himself with a Dead God. He betrayed her on the Elven home-world, not once, but twice. His first betrayal was in the form of his acolyte, Alana. He entrusted her to save a Chosen one from the dying world Ki’minsyllessil, but instead of leaving with the Elf Prince Adros, she took it upon herself to stand against the Dead Gods – thereby forfeiting the Treaty. Her actions brought about grave consequences, of which Dona’Cora was soon to suffer. It was apparent their ‘peace’ with the Dead Gods was broken, allowing the Dark Army to run amok throughout the universe.

As for Alana’s quest to save Ki’minsyllessil; predictably, the world fell anyway and whatever Chosen existed on the world were lost – or so Dona’Cora thought. A handful remained, most markedly their leader, Adros.

As punishment, Alana was sent to the Forsaken Worlds, and Anon was sent to Ki’minsyllessil to fix the mess she had made. But instead of returning with the remaining elves and their source of power, he hid them all – even from Dona’Cora. And her loyal followers who were sent to aid Anon were now dead, presumably murdered by Anon’s hand.

Despite this travesty, many yet viewed Anon as some sort of sacred entity. She could almost forgive the naiveté of the Chosen to be swayed by his lies, but even some of the Elders had become followers of Anon’s monotheistic belief in a socalled ‘Maker’.

If anyone had knowledge of the gods, it was Dona’Cora – she was one, after all. She was the leader of the gods, the most blessed with the Oneness.

As for Anon, she was quite certain the man was barren of the Oneness. Without-a-doubt he did ‘things’, but how? She felt no power in the man; saw no signature of blue flame when he did his ‘magic’. He managed to convince many it was the hand of the Maker itself that gave him power, but Dona’Cora wasn’t so easily fooled. He had been an illusionist in the ancient times, and most likely, was still little more than a charlatan.

But he was beloved, and had risen in the hierarchy of the Elders because of it. Dona’Cora though, was at the hierarchy’s top, not because she was loved, but because she had incredible power and a devotion to succeed against the Dark Army that was its own religion. She put her faith within herself. She didn’t require the power of some supreme being to fight her battles, her powers were supreme.

In a millennium, they had only failed her once … she vowed they would never do so again. No matter how grave the circumstances had become, she trusted them still. Ideally, she would have bided her time — let her army of Chosen grow — but if a battle was imminent she had no choice but to fight it.

The nagging sense of doom grew stronger as she reached her destination. The room was a spacious, rectangular chamber located deep within the Sanctuary. Like the majority of the Sanctuary, the walls were smooth obsidian glass. The ceiling was over four stories high, and from one end to the other was filled with elaborate, magic wrought carvings depicting the fallen star-systems of every Chosen and Elder who had ever stepped foot in the Sanctuary. As she always did, Dona’Cora paused for a moment at the threshold, her yellow eyes immediately darting to her own system, her own fallen world.

Demicron …

Of late, she remembered little of it. If it wasn’t for the mural, she would probably no longer even recognize her own system.

‘Greetings, Elder Dona’Cora. What news have you on the mission to the Rift?’ an Elder God asked, interrupting

Dona’Cora’s attempt at nostalgic reverie.

Dona’Cora took her eyes from the ceiling and focused them on the Elder, a one, Mila Dosanti. Mila was kind-hearted, intelligent, trustworthy and brave. Nevertheless, Dona’Cora couldn’t help sneering at the woman. What annoyed

Dona’Cora was that she belittled each of those benign qualities by flaunting her other (less wholesome) ones. On any world in the universe she would be perceived as a remarkable beauty. She stood just less than seven standard feet tall, though she seemed taller with her hair made up into an elaborate crown of jet-black curls. Her features were subtle and flowing; like tiny, wind-blown waves stirring the surface of still water. Her flesh was soft and smooth – far too soft in Dona’Cora’s opinion. She would prefer it if the woman spent more time enhancing her physical fitness, hardening her flesh in anticipation of war, as opposed to enhancing her physical beauty in anticipation of love-making.

Even so, Dona’Cora would have been willing to overlook her lack of physical discipline if only the woman could be persuaded to wear the proper attire.

Mila wore nothing at all — that is to say, no physical garb. Her naked flesh was covered by a thin layer of blue flames instead. The Oneness was her wardrobe, a constantly shifting sheet of silken flames. The more males in her company – the less blue flames. At the moment, five were present, thus she revealed enough skin to only be mildly vulgar. But it was still far more of Mila than Dona’Cora would have liked to see.

Mila returned Dona’Cora’s sneer with an angelic, bright smile.

‘As one would expect, those we sent to the Rift-world are no longer among us,’ Dona’Cora replied, communicating telepathically to hasten the pace of the meeting.

‘Are you certain? They were all highly trained Chosen, led by one of our own, the Elder Corrisan. He is no novice to the ways of the Dark Army, and would not have succumbed to a trap – especially knowing he was heading into one,’ the Elder, known simply as Ome, said.

Among the remaining Elders, Ome held the greatest amount of Dona’Cora’s respect (and he held the most power as well). For a mortal, he was old, perhaps several centuries so. If they had been of a like age, Dona’Cora would have easily outranked him in power, but now they were near equals – Ome edging her out, but barely.

He was wise, old, and a veteran warrior. But could she trust him?

Because they were so similarly matched in power, Ome would not simply bow before her. He had his own opinions on how the battle should be waged, and like the boulder he so resembled, he was immovable, highly resistant to changing his stance on anything.

Ome was a squat, thickset being. His appendages were little more than stubs poking from his ball-like body. He only had three fingers per hand, each of which were so small and fat they were all but useless unless utilized as a sort of claw. Ome had no definable head, his race had long since evolved to the dense gravity of their home-world by melding head and body into one. His eyes were giant saucers on his chest, while his nose and mouth shared the same location; a hole where his belly-button should be.

His limited vocal chords made verbal communication nearly impossible. Nor did Dona’Cora stand a chance speaking his native language — which was comprised mainly of gurgles and grunts; meaning formed by subtle variations between the two. Thankfully, the Oneness enhanced telepathic abilities and

Dona’Cora didn’t have to try.

‘I cannot claim knowledge of what occurred down there, Ome. I know only that Corrisan is long overdue and that can mean only one thing … an attack is imminent. The Dark Army

is coming to claim the Sanctuary.’

There was silence and nervous shifting among the Conclave, and then Ome replied, ‘We should have heeded his warnings.’

‘Yes, but what good would it have gained us?’ another Elder asked, a stocky, grey-skinned being named Atomin.

‘Anon would have welcomed us to his new world … ’ Ome began, before Dona’Cora forcefully interrupted.

‘ANON! You have spoken with Anon?’

Ome continued, ignoring Dona’Cora’s interruption, ‘But now we are beyond that.’

The group of Elders backpedaled as Dona’Cora ignited into a pyre of blue flames. She would not be ignored!

‘Anon spoke to you and you failed to inform me of it?’

Her gaze concentrated on Ome, as if she was attempting to bore a hole in him with her beady little eyes.

‘Did it ever occur to you that we are in this situation because of him? That he is the direct cause of this? It is possible, even

quite likely, that he is the one orchestrating this assault.’

Ome was the only Elder brave enough to stand his ground as she stormed toward the Conclave. His own halo was but a thin blue shell while Dona’Cora’s had grown to a towering inferno.

‘You’re wrong about him, Dona’Cora. Wrong about what he has done, what he is, and what he means to our struggle. Why is it, that among the Elders, you alone cannot see it? There is no doubt that you are wise and powerful beyond any one of us, but nonetheless, you are wrong.’

Dona’Cora was shocked, so much so that her grasp of the Oneness faltered, her flames sputtered and died. In a millennium of life, she had never been spoken to so bluntly.

‘How dare you … ’

Her flames returned, stronger than ever. Even so, Ome continued to stand his ground, unafraid.

‘I have dedicated my life to eradicating the Plague, and you would betray me for one knowingly aligned with a Dead God. You fools. You believe Anon is a God, perhaps even the Maker. The man is a fake, a murderer. He left my most loyal companions to die on Ki’minsyllessil, or killed them himself. If ever I see him again he will surely pay!’

As stoic as ever, Ome replied, ‘He assumed you would feel this way. Thus, he came to us. We are sorry to hide this from you, but you leave us no choice. Anon may have betrayed you, but his reasons are justified. Even had he not told us his tale, we all see it … the hate in your heart.’

Ome continued talking, even as Dona’Cora’s halo bathed him in flame.

‘If anything has led to our downfall it is that. You have been consumed with vengeance for so long you can no longer fathom the true purpose for your existence. You no longer understand why we fight. It is not simply to defeat our enemies, but to ensure the continuation of life. That is the Maker’s path … and you, Dona’Cora have strayed.’

‘Damn your Maker, and damn you as well, all of you. This won’t be the first time I have faced the Dark Army alone. I promise you, once more I will be the last one standing. Even after you have become ash and bone, I will stand against the Makii. When the Plague enters your veins and you lay in agony, rotting, wondering why your Maker has forsaken you, I

will not hesitate to burn you to ash.’

Dona’Cora had heard enough, and said enough as well. She spun away, putting an end to the final meeting of the Conclave of Elders. Where she once stood, a pool of steaming, molten glass remained.

‘I feel for her,’ Mila said, her dress of flames swirling around her. Tears formed at the corners of her sparkling blue eyes. ‘Did it have to be this way? She has suffered more, fought

harder than all of us combined.’

Ome shifted his weight, wobbling over to her.

‘She is lost, Mila – has been for far too long. It is up to us to bring her back. When the Dark Army comes, I do not doubt she will be the last of us standing. If half of Anon’s tale is to be believed, then this new mutation of the Plague is sure to destroy us all. As gods, we have proven ourselves false. Only one power can save us now, the power of the Maker. If Dona’Cora remains blind to the truth until the end, then I too shall feel for her, for when she stands before the Maker, he will find only hate in her heart …

Damn them, damn them all … Dona’Cora fumed as she aimlessly stormed through the Sanctuary. But you most of all, Anon, may you rot in hell. I so pray you are behind this, and that you find the courage to come and face me in your betrayal. Let them watch what a true god is capable of. Let the truth be revealed as you die by my hand.

As she rampaged through the Sanctuary, she hardly noticed that the once bustling hallways were now completely empty. When she did finally take note, it only served to fuel her rage even further.

Where in the dead is everyone? The cowards, they flee when we should be gathering for an assault.

Out of curiosity, she sent her power outward, her tiny blue threads sweeping into the tunnels. She would find where they had hidden, and with what little authority she had left, she would make them stand and fight.

What she sensed should have shocked her, but after what happened in the Conclave she wasn’t the least surprised.

Fools, all fools. And to think, I had such high hopes for you all.

Dona’Cora sensed a large gathering — including the presence of many of the Elders — in the Hangar. Undoubtedly, instead of staying to fight they thought to flee with the pods. It would be possible to launch a preliminary strike on the world below, thus challenging the Dark Army for control of the Rift, but Dona’Cora theorized instead, that they most likely sought to test their faith in the Maker by fleeing into space.

She thought to join their gathering and chastise them for their cowardice, but then she sensed something else … a large swell of the Oneness. It was otherworldly, lacking a detectable source, and it was tearing a hole into the Sanctuary.

Better hurry, Ome, she thought, changing her direction and enhancing her speed to reach the power’s source. I hope you’ve made the right decision, and find your Maker out there in space.

Her anger towards the being dwindled. In all honesty, she had always respected him. It should have come as no surprise that he didn’t agree with Dona’Cora, in over two hundred years he had rarely done so before. Truthfully, she desired him no ill will (nor Mila and the rest of them). If anything, her anger fell to Anon, he was the ruin of them all. If his acolyte, Alana had never set foot on Ki’minsyllessil none of this would be happening. In only a short time, Dona’Cora could have led her army of Chosen and Elders into a battle with the Makii (a battle that they could actually win).

Besides, no matter what Ome and the others decided at this point was meaningless, either way they would die.

She would have much rather preferred that their final moments were spent as companions, fighting side-by-side in battle against the Dark Army. But perhaps it was better this way; even if she stood with an army at her side, in the end she would stand alone just the same. At least this way she wouldn’t have to watch her army die.

No, not again.

As for Dona’Cora, she was still going to get what she wanted

– a final battle with the Dark Army.

She knew it was a battle she could not win, but she would yet try. Long ago she made a promise to the Makii, and she still meant to see it fulfilled. Let them come to her home … let them die in the tunnels she personally wrought. As long as her powers hold, she will hunt them …

… and if her efforts give Ome and the others a chance to flee, then all the better.

The tunnels of the Sanctuary were a blur of black glass as Dona’Cora sped to the burgeoning Rift, and her final battle with the Dark Army.


SANCTUARY’S FALL


The body of the shadowy being disintegrated before them, ripped apart as he stepped into the nothingness of the swelling Black Door.

They waited in silence, long after every last remnant of shadow was no more.

“Can we trust him?” one of them spoke, his voice more of a fading echo than the real thing. He pulled back a burgundy hood, revealing a face covered in a maze of swelling black veins – many of which had burst, the thick, black blood dripping from his chin.

“Could we ever?” another spoke, her voice was lighter but equally distant. All of her body was hidden in tightly wound strips of black fabric.

“Do we have a choice?”

“We should have killed him … ”

“No, he is our last link to salvation.”

Others voiced their opinions, but none had a true solution to their problem.

“What does, The Master think?” came a piping voice, a sound far different from the others’ hollow tones. The speaker was a diminutive black-winged beast who was perched on the shoulder of one of the taller beings present.

“I think you may have to find a new master, Galimoto,” the man whispered in reply. “I have a sinking feeling that no matter my decision, my time is coming to an end.”

With a sympathetic look on its wicked little face, the tiny, red beast patted the man on his shoulder.

“The Master has grown more stinky than usual … much uglier too,” the being callously said in his musical voice. “If possible, could Galimoto’s new master be alive?”

The creature’s little yellow eyes lit up with excitement.

“Yes, Galimoto would definitely prefer a master who is not dead.”

The man shook his head, doing his best to ignore the comments of the creature. The being was but one of his curses. The other one was the Plague – and infection that ended cellular growth while filling him with a constant need to feed on warm blood. Because of it, his skin was ashen and lifeless, his eyes orbs of black. Then there was the new “evolved” infection, which caused his veins to thicken and grow to grotesque proportions – often bursting as they did so. In addition, now pustules sprouted from his skin on a daily basis, erupting in a spray of black blood only a short time after they appeared. Even after the pustules are spent and the swelling dissolves, a permanent wound remains where the growth once was. It causes his skin to crack open — like parched soil in a drought.

The Plague not only corrupted his body, but his mind too; and not merely with the urgings of the Hunger. With the new Plague, even more heinous thoughts filled his consciousness. The thirst for blood was no longer sufficient, now he wanted to bath in it. Slowly, these desires were threatening to drive him mad and the only way to silence them was to desecrate all he beheld – and for no other reason than that it existed.

Even so, given a choice to be free of but one of his curses, Mastecus wasn’t sure which he would choose; Galimoto, or the Plague. Both were certain to eventually make him insane.

Hopefully, soon he would be free of one of them, both if he was lucky.

“I suppose it’s possible. Where we’re going, there are many powerful, living beings who could claim you, Galimoto.”

Doubtful though, that they would do so willingly, he thought, knowing that the only way to complete the bond with the imp was by mutual acceptance. Mastecus never had that choice. In order to create the imp, he tied the Oneness to his own lifeforce. After the deed was done, Mastecus realized he and the imp were one. Short of death, the bond could never be severed.

“However, Galimoto, I wouldn’t get too excited, just yet. I think it unlikely any of these Elders will survive this encounter. Perhaps neither will the Makii.”

“Humph … ” Galimoto’s little red face scrunched in anger. “If only The Master listened to Galimoto long ago. He knew that one was trouble, he knew so the moment he first caught his scent.”

For the first time in over a thousand years, Mastecus agreed with his familiar. Yes, he most certainly should have killed Servron at the first opportunity he had.

But now … Sevron was growing inside him, he was becoming him. Could such a being even die?

Imorbis thought it possible. He even claimed he could do so

– with the help of Anon, of course.

If it was true, and there was one more chance to put an end to The Servant of Death, he was going to take it.

“We all saw it … ” Mastecus said, loud enough for all of the gathered Makii to hear, disrupting their fruitless arguing. “No longer can there be any doubt. Anon is blessed of the Maker. Imorbis has been freed of the Dead Tree. How can we refuse

him, when what he offers is hope for us all?”

“Hope?” the woman covered with the shroud of black cloth questioned. “The attack is coming, these Elders cannot hope to win. You hear his summons as well as I, Mastecus. Sevron desires the Sanctuary, and he will have it. Nothing we do can change that. We have always laughed at the Elders, never once did they pose a true threat to our conquest. What makes you think they can succeed now, when under Sevron’s control, the Dark Army is stronger than ever?”

“Thus far, we have resisted Sevron’s pull. We should maintain our distance, let Sevron and the Elders fight it out.” another Makii argued.

“Yes, we can resist him, but for how long?” Mastecus said.

“Let’s not forget those who denied him? Do you wish to end as they? Remember too, that in the end he claimed them nonethe-less,” the woman replied.

“I understand your fears,” Mastecus replied. “Sevron has taken much from us. He controls our armies. Soon he will take our bodies … but I for one, will not let him have my soul,” Mastecus proclaimed. “It seems there is a decision we, the Makii must make, and but two choices left to us; either we give ourselves to the Maker, or to Sevron. Either way we most certainly are damned,”

… or we finally get what we deserve. The best we can ask for is to send Sevron to hell with us, Mastecus thought.

“It’s time we obey the urgings of Sevron and once more join the Dark Army. When the battle begins, let us, one and all make our final choice. For when the battle ends … so too ends the Makii …

Through the Rift they poured – a host of rotting forms that more resembled puke gushing from the mouth of the Rift than they did an army.

Dona’Cora made herself invisible, and from a distance she watched as the army continued to spill out of the new-formed

Rift.

Just as she suspected, whoever commanded the Dark Army was well familiar with the Sanctuary.

Anon …

They had chosen the Grand Lecture Hall, the ideal location to commence their assault. If her ‘allies’ hadn’t abandoned her, she would have gathered them here in anticipation for such an attack.

The room was not only one of the Sanctuary’s largest, but it was also directly connected to dozens of other vital passageways — each of which branched off into several other tunnels. All of the Sanctuary was interconnected in some fashion or another, but the Grand Hall was a hub, central to all tunnels. From there, the Dark Army could spread through the Sanctuary in a matter of hours, and there would be no way to stop them.

Too many open tunnels and no one to stand in their way.

Dona’Cora waited for the Grand Hall to fill. She stood still and patient, even as the fleshless monstrosities piled around her, nearly tripping over her invisible form. She would have waited, she knew what this was – in the ancient times they called this first wave cannon fodder. These were the weakest, most inconsequential forces of the Dark Army. Their sole purpose was to drain the Elders’ power, weaken them for the eventual coming of the Makii.

Dona’Cora was content to let the fodder pass her by, she sought the Makii. Whatever power she had left she wished to devote solely to them.

But then something else came through the Rift … actually, it was someone. The last being she would ever have suspected to see. The one she had struggled so hard to bring to the Sanctuary had finally come there on his own – and he even brought his weapon with him.

Adros dove from the Rift, immediately rolling into a somersault. He ended the somersault on his feet and running, in front of him, his spinning staff of King’s Wood carved a path through the throng of undead. He didn’t wait to see if his companions were behind him, he trusted them, and knew they would come. No matter what, he was moving forward. If at some point he found himself surrounded, he would fight his way out – it wouldn’t be the first time.

The power of his staff was incredible – all that it touched simply collapsed, their tainted souls devoured. And his staff touched many, for Adros’ reach was incredible as well. His long, limber arms combined with the eight foot staff made a substantial path through the undead army.

There were many exits to choose from in the large room of black glass, but Anon had shown him the path to take – the quickest, most direct course to the Hangar. To succeed, they had to get ahead of the undead, then, if all went according to plan, they would meet with the rest of the Elders and Chosen, hopefully delivering them from this world.

He saw the correct exit, and began carving a path toward it. For the most part, the undead (the type known among his people as Assun’kul, or ‘Dead Brains’) hardly had time to register his presence. If they managed enough sense to turn and confront him, his staff of King’s Wood was already on its way to take their soul.

As he continued plowing through the horde, the walls of black glass began to glow blue, reflecting the flames of the

Magi like water rippling on their black surface.

Brontes is through, Adros thought. But what about the Mithri …

With an earth-shaking roar, the Mithrlnites made their presence known. There was only ten of them, but their thundering charge was enough to vibrate the entire room.

War-cries and explosions sounded at his back as Adros continued to fight on, his efforts spurred to greater heights knowing he wasn’t alone.

By the time he made it to the exit, his staff had grown warm to the touch, and blackened at its core. But otherwise, Adros suffered not a scratch.

“What took so long, Father?”

Adros wasn’t the least bit surprised to see his adopted son, X’ander casually leaning against the obsidian opening, twirling one of his silver daggers on the tip of his index finger.

He cast X’ander a look of disapproval.

“This is not a game, X’ander. Not some individual race to achieve personal glory. We’ve been charged with clearing a path for those who follow. It is essential we succeed, for in the end, we only move as fast as our slowest member.”

X’ander returned his look of disapproval with a cold, dead stare.

“Don’t worry, Father,” he whispered in reply. “I ended

plenty dead ones to get here.”

Adros didn’t doubt the truth of his claim for a moment.

Like Adros, X’ander was covered head to toe in the blue-steel suit the dwarves had provided them. Typically, X’ander’s most distinguishable feature (or lack thereof) was his bald head. Unlike the rest of the elves, who had golden manes of curls, X’ander was utterly hairless; a result of his imprisonment in the Dead Tree. Adros had never been able to escape the feeling that he was responsible for what X’ander had become. He freed him from the Dead Tree, but too late. The young elf’s hair wasn’t the only thing the Dead Tree took from him. One look at his cold, compassionless grey and white eyes and it was plain to see who, and what, X’ander was.

“I was so hoping the dead had finally made a snack of you, Brother,” came a sultry and sweet voice from behind Adros. He instantly recognized the speaker as S’ilindsa, and caught himself before he breathed a sigh of relief at the knowledge of her safety.

He struggled to bury the thought. He had to accept their deaths. All fifty-two of the remaining elves had already made peace with their role in the universe. They pledged their lives to Adros and his cause. Because of him, they were freed from the horrors of the Dead Tree, and the desolation of their homeworld.

Still though, he felt responsible for them. The children of Ki’minsyllessil had always been his responsibility. Any time one of them died, he couldn’t help but take the loss personally, like he failed them somehow. With each death, another part of Adros was lost – another part of his fallen home-world Ki’minsyllessil gone. It was his duty to not only ensure the continuation of his people, but to preserve their history and culture as well. His ‘children’ were young when Ki’minsyllessil fell. For them, the purity and beauty his planet once stood for was only a fading memory. They perceived their home-world as a horror. A place full of pain and suffering, of which they had barely escaped.

They may not have known it, but the true spirit of Ki’minsyllessil survived within them. Adros saw it in their courage, kindness, and strength – even in the face of the most unimaginable horrors. When he looked upon his children, he saw the hope and love that had been the foundation for the utopian world, Ki’minsyllessil.

As long as the foundation remained, Adros believe the universe could find peace once more. Perhaps they could start again on Anon’s new world, this ‘Seventh World’. But first, they had one more mission, one more world to save. Anon was tasked to continue his race, but he had made another promise as well. He made a vow before the Maker that he would leave no living beings behind.

By saving the Elders and their Chosen, he would see that promise fulfilled.

“The day is young, S’ilindsa. You may yet have your wish granted,” X’ander replied. “But when I fall, I assure you it won’t be by some rotting Assun’kul.

S’ilindsa sauntered past Adros, her shapely hips swaying back and forth in an almost hypnotic fashion. Any other male in the universe would have taken note of the way her tight-fitting suit of steel hugged her curves, but Adros was her adopted father, and not-to-mention, had already given the full breadth of his heart to another – the goddess, Alana.

X’ander failed to notice her feminine charms because his heart was devoid of passion.

Adros’ grey and white gaze did glance at her hips though, however, it was only to note that her blades were sheathed. Obviously, the slender short-swords had seen a deal of recent activity, for the scabbards were dripping with gore.

Contrary to the ways of their ancestors, these young elves preferred weapons of steel to wood. In their hands, these weapons were more deadly than their human and dwarven creators ever dreamed. In only a short time, the young elves gained a proficiency with their blades that rivaled the highly skilled and experienced humans who they helped save from the Rift. The truth of it was, the humans lacked the keen musclememory, agility, and speed that was inherent to all elves.

X’ander’s blade of choice was the dagger. He seemed obsessed with the weapon and had acquired quite a collection of them. When utilized as a ballistic weapon, his innate, elven speed and accuracy meant certain and instant death for anything closer than thirty feet. Anything within arm’s reach fell in a blur of silver.

S’ilindsa preferred her thin blades of blue-steel. They were custom made by the dwarves to accommodate her elven speed, and though extremely thin, the special blue-steel, combined with the slight curve to their edge, greatly strengthened the blades. Also, a flowing, wave like line of silver had been imbedded in their edges, thus ensuring any wound she inflicted on the undead would prove a permanent one.

“I have feeling we will all be tested to our outmost with this mission,” Adros said, to both of his children. “We’ve fought battles before, but never for such a prize. Today, our enemies will hold nothing back.”

“I welcome the test,” X’ander coldly stated.

“As do I,” S’linda said, bursting with youthful bravado. Had he trained them well enough?

“I truly hope you both shall pass.”

Adros turned back to the chamber, checking the status of the rest of his party.

I hope we all do …

A quick head-count determined the rest of his children remained; they had rapidly carved a defensible position in the room and then fanned out, decimating the Assun’kul to make room for the other races. The army of undead that once filled the chamber from wall to wall now wandered the room, broken and scattered. In a blaze of silver-fire, the line of elves pressed them back to the glass, walking forward almost effortlessly as they cut the mindless beings down.

A few large groups of undead remained, but the collective power of the Magi quickly burnt them to dust. Brontes took control of his people, directing their attacks in a calculated and efficient manner. In his life-time, Brontes had faced many battles with the undead, and over the years had grown to become highly skilled when it came to killing them with the Oneness.

Then there was the Mithrlnites, only ten, but they were enough to hold the Rift. Their massive bodies formed a wall in front of it. The moment anything came out, it was immediately blown back in or hacked down. It was evident the Magi no longer controlled the Gate, for once more the Assun’kul were gushing out. The giants seemed almost happy to see them, their war-cries sounded more like howls of joy as they obliterated whatever had the misfortune to step out of the Rift.

So far the undead had yet to gain a foothold in the Sanctuary, but Rag’nerack and his men were old and would eventually wear out. And soon, the Makii would catch on to their plan and send heavier forces – possibly even themselves – then the wall of Mithrlnites would truly be put to the test.

The giants’ role in this battle was to buy the others time, it was never their intention to leave the Sanctuary. That was the deal they had made with Anon. They were old, veteran warriors. They had spent their entire existences fighting the Dark Army. Only recently had the word ‘safety’ entered their vocabulary. They had never known peace, nor fathomed its existence until Brontes and the Magi brought them to Anon’s

‘Seventh World’.

They knew their days were numbered because of their age — but their days had always been numbered. As they have done since the moment of their births, they would face death headon, grinning as they hammered away at it. The Maker willing, they would take many with them when they died.

Adros watched as the giants turned the pile of smashed bodies in front of the Rift into a mountain, and knew that the

Maker would bless them this day.

He regretted not being able to see that mountain rise up and fill the mouth of the Rift, but they had to move. The chamber was virtually clear, so he signaled for a trio of elves to stay and eliminate any stragglers while he ordered the rest of his people to take to the hallways.

Their white pupils glowing, Adros, X’ander and S’ilindsa led the way into the smooth, black tunnels of the Sanctuary … It was time to go to the Hangar.

Covered in halos of burning blue flames, Brontes and the Magi flew out of the Rift. They hovered upwards, immediately adjusting their position to ten feet off the ground – safely beyond the reach of the dead. Then, they proceeded to burn anything with dead flesh.

As Brontes expected, Adros and the elves did a tremendous job dividing, and routing, the enemy. Where groups of the undead suddenly gathered and surged, Brontes and his Magi directed their flames. Converting the Oneness to actual fire had always proven the quickest and most effective method to kill the undead. Thus, any group of dead numbering more than a handful suddenly became a bonfire of burning dead flesh. The smoke, and accompanying stench threatened to fill the chamber, but several strands of Oneness became wind, and sucked it into the Rift.

Not far behind, the Mithrlnites lumbered through the Black Door. The last to leave the Rift; they burst out roaring, angered and disappointed to see that the chamber was all but clear. They weren’t disappointed for long. The moment the last of them touched ground, Brontes sent a telepathic message to his companions, ‘Relinquish the Gate, focus all efforts on moving forward … ’

He also sent a message to Rag’nerack, leader of the Mithrlnites, ‘The Gate is yours … good luck, guard it well … ’

This mission had many difficulties, leaving the giants to their deaths would be the first of them.

‘… and die well, Rag’nerack,’ he finished.

He noticed Adros and the elves were already cleaning up and gathering at the tunnels. Brontes remained only long enough to acknowledge Rag’nerack, who raised his giant glowing hammer in salute, then he turned to join the elves.

Behind him, the chamber filled once more with the giants’ roars. This time, the sound seemed filled with a certain amount of joy.

Brontes floated down the chamber, his blue flames occasionally leaping out to aid the remaining elves, hastening their job of finishing off the undead. He was halfway down the chamber when he felt it … felt her.

The presence was faint, impossibly so. He had always known she was powerful, but she wasn’t just invisible, she had made herself virtually non-existent. No doubt Brontes’ own powers had grown a great deal stronger since last they met, but even so, if he hadn’t practically ran into her, he doubted he would have felt her at all.

Dona’Cora … what are you up to? He wondered. Discovering her presence had caused him to pause – albeit momentarily – he truly hoped she missed it and yet thought herself hidden. If anyone could ruin this mission it would be her.

Not that he considered her an enemy, but it was certain that she had her own agenda. And more often than not, those who failed to heed her agenda suffered because of it. He had enough to deal with at the moment without worrying about getting on the wrong side of Dona’Cora.

He continued on, enhancing his speed to catch up with the elves, all the while doing his best to pretend he hadn’t almost crashed into the Elder Goddess, Dona’Cora.

‘The Gate is yours … good luck, guard it well … ’ the wizard said, speaking in his mind.

Rag’nerack prepared himself, flexing his mighty arms. His wide, gaping nostrils sucked in a deep breath of air …

‘… and die well, Rag’nerack.’

Oh the scent! So familiar to him. The aroma of battle … He raised M’jllner high.

The foul stench of infected, rotting flesh. He both despised and loved it. A mere whiff of the undead was enough to send him into a frenzy …

The little wizards all left … good. Now the slaughter belonged to the brothers.

The Stone Sense flowed through him. Born of his thundering heart, it flooded his blood-veins with the power of steel and earth. It surged through his arms; thick, corded muscles tough as stone. It filled his meaty fist, then traveled up the six foot column of steel, igniting M’jllner in a blaze of white light.

He shifted his massive girth toward the Rift, swinging the glowing block of crystal downward as he did so.

A dozen rot-skins were blown back; their bloated bodies erupting into bits and pieces of burning flesh.

Alongside him, his stone-brothers stood – a wall. A wall of giants.

In front of them, Hell’s Gate writhed in fury. Wailing with bloodlust, the dead poured out in a raging flood.

Rag’nerack raised his hammer to the Door, howling back at it.

Again and again his hammer fell – and where it landed, the undead were obliterated. With every passing arc of M’jllner a dozen fell, their bodies exploding on contact. But almost instantaneously, a dozen more walking corpses were there to take their place. Back and forth his hammer swept, sundering anything that got in its way.

Their charred remains covered him, still smoldering as they landed on his thick, leathery skin.

The rot-skins fell in innumerable amounts. His stone-brothers took nearly as much as he; their axes and hammers filled the spacious chamber with enough blazing silver-fire to nearly match M’jllner’s glow.

And oh how his stone-brothers roared … Hell’s Gate quaked in fear.

The Dark Lords sent greater foes; larger, smarter rot-skins, but they fell the same. Like all rot-skins, their minds were slow and weak – as were their bodies.

Then came the bitten. The hell-spawn of the Dark Lords. They were strong, fast, and often filled with the essence of death.

But none of that mattered.

The moment they left the Hell’s Gate they hit the wall. The only difference between the bitten and the rot-skins, was that they saw their end coming. The war-cries of his brothers turned their dead blood into ice. M’jllner turned their bodies into ash and dust.

The stone-brothers stood fast and held the Gate, even when injured. Some were bitten, several clawed. A few suffered even worse; broken bones, deep internal wounds. But the wall remained solid and strong. The pile of fallen bitten nearly clogged Hell’s Gate.

Then there was a pause …

His body was blackened with soot. His sweat turned to steam under the layer of hot ash. His chest heaved in and out from exhaustion.

Keeping a wary eye on Hell’s Gate, Rag’nerack turned to assess his brothers.

Stokimere was full of their blood; his body was covered in bites, many of which were quite deep. He leaned wearily on his axe for a moment, then toppled over. With a swift drop of his hammer, Brokheim was there to send him away. But Brokheim had the blood as well; bite marks marred his hairy chest and arms. His own blood spilled from the wounds, signifying penetration – infection. He would fight for a time longer, but then no more.

He looked at his brothers, for what would probably be the last time. Seven had the blood in them – at varying degrees, and one was dead. Of the ten giants who journeyed to the Sanctuary, only two of them remained whole – Rag’nerack and the crafty old warrior, Oldem. They all knew what this was. They were born with battle in their blood-veins, and had spilt much of it fighting against the Demon Horde. The tactics of the Dark Lords were well known to them. The Horde had paused, not out of fear, but because they awaited the birth of infection. They thought to turn their enemies into their allies …

Rag’nerack would give them none.

His infected brothers came to him … to be blessed with

M’jllner.

Only two stone-brothers remained.

They were the last ones left in the chamber when the Dark

Lords came …

Dona’Cora was more than impressed – she couldn’t believe her eyes.

Only ten … they decimated an army!

If only such beings had joined her in her war to save the planet Kandor … what would have become of Thane then? With her God-king at her side, the Dark Army would never have spread so far.

What would she have become?

There was little time to ponder the past, she knew what this meant – what was sure to come. With their armies decimated so, the Makii would be forced to make an appearance.

Come damn you … you cowards, see how your armies fall to only a handful.

She knew their arrogance wouldn’t accept this; beings devoid of the Oneness standing before them as gods.

How easily these giants felled even the Makii’s Soulless; those they ‘blessed’ with their tainted blood, thus endowing them with their own dark powers.

No matter what came through the Gate, it didn’t stand a chance. The giants fought in a berserk rage, crushing and hacking anything with dead flesh.

And their leader … rarely had Dona’Cora seen such a mighty warrior. The giant’s sheer power was more than a match for an Elder, even in their hottest halo. Had he wanted, he could have easily picked up his enemies and simply crushed them in his fists. But instead he obliterated them. His massive hammer held a power that even Dona’Cora had never seen. Like the majority of non-humanoid beings, he was devoid of the Oneness. However, he possessed a raw elemental energy that he somehow enhanced by channeling it into his crystalline hammer.

In a manner of minutes, a legion of dead fell. For what seemed like eternity, the minutes continued to pass … and the dead continued to fall.

Surely the giants wouldn’t last forever, but Dona’Cora was certain they had already done their job. It was obvious they were buying time for the others; the elves, Brontes and his troupe of Chosen. But what were they hoping to gain? There was no escaping the Sanctuary. By coming here, they had sentenced themselves to death.

Dona’Cora should have been gladdened by the knowledge; Brontes was an ally of Anon. His loyalty had always been questionable in the past, but his recent actions proved he was an enemy. And the Elf Prince … what she wanted was his power – the secret of his immunity to the Plague, and his staff with its strange but devastating abilities. If only he had come to her before – willingly, this might all have been avoided. It could have been her army launching an assault on the worlds of the

Makii.

Yes, with an army of Chosen, Elves and Giants she could have sent the Dark Army into the Rift for all time.

She held no love for either Adros or Brontes, but deep down, she couldn’t help but pray they somehow succeed. If they truly had the power of the Maker on their side, then anything was … No. She wouldn’t buy into Anon’s belief. There was no Maker. All the gods were in the Sanctuary, and were soon to be dead – or Dead Gods. If indeed, by some miracle, he saved them all, then perhaps she would change her religion. But shy of that … Dona’Cora couldn’t imagine what he hoped to achieve.

What are you up to, Anon?

She continued to ponder his plans, when the battle at the Rift entered a sudden lull …

Anon had been many things in his life, but never a fool. Whatever miracle he had in store, Dona’Cora would never witness it. This was to be her end … her final battle.

Dona’Cora prepared herself, filling every cell of her body with the Oneness.

Even her cold, compassionless heart stirred when their leader ‘cleansed’ his companions. They went willingly, every single one of them ended their lives with a face-splitting grin.

The leader completed his duty, then once more turned to face the Rift.

What once was a wall of giants guarding the Gate, had been reduced to a shield; only two of them now remained.

The leader had barely squared his bulky frame to the Rift, when the Makii finally came.

“Is, The Master sure about this?” the little red fiend piped.

Together they stared at the pulsating gate. Walls surrounded them; stone walls over four feet thick. They were all cracked, crumbling, and for the most part, toppled. They stood on the altar of some long dead planet – its altar to the Darkbridge. The structure must have once been a magnificent

temple dedicated to the powers of the Gate …

… the Gate … the bridge between worlds … the union of the universe.

… The pathway of the Plague.

Above them the night sky was dancing with stars … so many of them. And how many worlds were out there, hidden in the darkness? Even Mastecus hadn’t come to grips with what the

Makii had truly lost. Was it even possible to comprehend?

Despite Imorbis’ apparent freedom from the ‘new’ Plague, Mastecus continued to struggle with what should have been an obvious conclusion.

Is the Maker real?

Perhaps his reasoning was clouded by the ‘other’ voices in his head, those of Sevron, the Servant of Death. He couldn’t deny it any longer, his mind was not his own. He was being erased, overwritten by the entity Sevron.

Is this what the universe has in store for us? Madness and death?

Or was that its core … ? Was that all it ever really was? And the struggle for life and order had always and forever been just a futile endeavor.

He almost dared not to think it, lest he suddenly lose his soul … but, was Sevron right? Were they the mad ones to assume it was otherwise?

With great sorrow, he accepted the fact that he could no longer refuse Sevron’s call.

Mastecus entered the Rift …

Ome floated down the glassy hall, the single, circular orifice on his face hissing as it sucked in air. Only one familiar with Glokeen anatomy would be able to see that Ome was disturbed, worried. They would see it in his bulbous eyes; the spider-web of red veins flaring from his black pupils. Or find it apparent by the nervous vibrating of the filter-feeding intake flaps found in the mouth of his kochlar. Even his flesh gave him away, shining with the greasy coat of gel that secreted from his pores in a similar fashion to human sweat – but was far more viscous, the secretion more closely resembling mucus than actual perspiration.

Ome had always lacked the ability to veil his emotions. On his home-world, he would be read like an open book — but he was a long way from Q’ptin Major. In the Sanctuary, Ome was an enigma.

Not only was it rare for a non-human to develop the Oneness (only a handful had ever risen to the rank of Elder) but from what he had learned, the Elders had never even invested their genetics into his home-world. Seemingly, Ome developed the power entirely on his own – a feat so rare, it had happened only one other time in all of known history.

The first to do so was the forerunner of the Makii — the one who started it all. His blood passed to his ancestors, the Makii, who eventually used the power to create the Gate, thus beginning the second conquest of the universe. Those they conquered, they infused with their blood and the gift of the Oneness, though only those with pure-blood retained the name, Makii. The others became viewed as half-bloods — experiments. Some developed surprising abilities, while others birthed nothing at all.

Ome, on-the-other-hand, lacked the genetic lineage entirely. He had no ancestral tie to the original Makii. Yet, somehow the Oneness still flowed through his veins.

As with the original Makii, Ome was a miracle … the truth of which, was known to only one man, Anon. Anon hadn’t saved him from Q’ptin Major so much as he had stumbled upon him. Anon fought for the Glokeen because none other would. The rest of the universe left them discarded, abandoned them to the pathway of the Plague. All Anon wished, was to see Ome’s people die with honor and not alone. For his efforts, he was rewarded with even more — he found a miracle. He found Ome.

Ome trusted Anon since the first day he met him, as he trusts him still. He believed Anon, when he told him help was coming … but so too was the Dark Army. The worrisome part was wondering who would arrive first.

Yes, Ome was worried … and rightly so; he sensed a distant surge of power building in the Sanctuary.

The gathering of so much Oneness could mean only one thing; a Rift was forming. He had to get to the Hangar. That was where they had been told to gather should this occur. There they would wait, and hope that Anon arrived to save them before the Dark Army found and slaughtered them all. He sped through the halls as fast as he was able, his halo a fiery blue blaze shimmering on the walls.

Not long ago, Anon had spoken to Ome and a select few. He had warned him this was coming, that the Makii had their sights set on taking the Sanctuary and ending the battle once and for all. Some refused to believe him, others even dared to condemn him a liar and a traitor. But then he informed them of the truth of Ki’minsyllessil, and how the Plague had evolved to an even more infectious and vile form. After his tale, many of their doubts were put to rest, only a few left the meeting feeling Anon’s loyalty remained in question.

It wasn’t long before all of their suspicions came to an end. The sudden silence from the outer-worlds was the first confirmation. The second (and final) confirmation was the failed mission to investigate the Gate in the planet below. Ome should have never let that mission commence. However, he was the only member of the Conclave who didn’t require further proof (Anon’s tale had been enough). The Elder Corrisan and the dozen Chosen should have never left the Sanctuary. Ome should have been strong enough, stood up to Dona’Cora sooner. He saw her clearly now. For Dona’Cora, Corrisan was a casualty of war – her war. Corrisan was a proud, thoughtful, and intelligent Elder – he had been so for over a hundred standard years. Because of Dona’Cora, the value of the man’s life had been used as currency to solve a single question (to which they already knew the answer).

In Ome’s mind, there was no longer any doubt that Dona’Cora cared nothing for them. The Conclave, the Elders and the Chosen – one and all – were merely pawns in Dona’Cora’s quest for personal vengeance. She no longer walked the Maker’s path – if ever she had.

The Treaty was over, but not because a single Chosen had dared to stand her ground. Whether Dona’Cora knew it or not, Alana was the only one among them who had done the right thing. She gave everything to defend Ki’minsyllessil. Every Elder and Chosen should have joined her. If they had, maybe the God-tree of the elves would have escaped infection. By all accounts, the tree was a vast and powerful life-force; its roots were said to span the circumference of the planet, while its canopy of leaves and branches filled the sky like a never-ending cloud.

The entire breadth of if had succumbed to infection. According to Anon, the consolidation of such a large amount of dark energy had somehow awakened the Void itself. Almost as if it had become another sort of Gate, one that didn’t span worlds, but realities.

Anon claimed to have stood against this evil force … stood and died.

If what he said was true (and Ome was one who never doubted Anon) then Anon was truly blessed by the Maker. Perhaps had even become him. He could very well be the only being in the entire universe who could save them from the Plague – and Dona’Cora cast him out, banished him from the Sanctuary, only to return under penalty of death.

Hopefully, Anon understood that in the current situation that penalty no longer applied.

All they could do now was wait and see. Hopefully Anon returned to the Sanctuary … and soon.

Ome arrived at the Hangar, was heartened to see a sizeable gathering of Chosen and Elders had beat him there. He looked over the gathering, the many familiar faces milling around in nervous anticipation.

Beyond them, the cavernous barreled chamber opened directly to the outside. A thin shield of blame flames covered the opening, preventing the deadly external environment from entering the Sanctuary. Beyond the veil of blue, waves of black writhed under the moon’s powerful winds, their clear glass tops coiling across the land like serpents.

He also noted that among the gathering, twenty of the shiny, egg-shaped vessels known as ‘pods’ were parked in a pair of lines – ten to each side of the chamber. Were the pods to be their pathway to freedom? Anon never revealed what would happen next. At full capacity, it would be possible to load the entire inhabitants of the Sanctuary, but what then? Even with the Maker at his side, would Anon risk delivering them to deep space? Or was he planning on bringing them to the Rift-world below? It seemed certain that the planet was likely swarming with the dead, but if by some chance it wasn’t, even if the Elders and Chosen made it to the Gate, no matter where they went, the Dark Army could easily follow.

Once they entered the Rift, there would be nowhere to hide.

The Makii would hunt them till the end of time.

Anon said to wait, so that’s what they would do.

Ome floated down to the gathering, depositing his round form amidst a group of fearful Elders.

The first to approach him was the goddess, Mila Dosanti, her bright, friendly smile somewhat warming the cold grip of doom clutching his heart. Thankfully, at the moment, the majority of her body was concealed in a suit of armor made of blue flames. The sight of her naked flesh sent his kochlar vibrating uncontrollably in disgust. Males tended to have the opposite reaction, while most females grew angry at her near-naked body. But Ome was neither. Nor was he even remotely human. The mere thought of sex made his flesh ooze — and Mila was the epitome of human lust.

Copulation was unknown to his people, their reproductive organs were all internally located, and were asexual in nature. If, at some point in life, Ome chose to become a life-parent, his body would enter a yearlong period of hibernation and gestation. After which, he would produce a genetically similar copy of himself – birthed through his kochlar.

But given the state of the universe, not to mention their current plight, birthing a simulacrum would be a bad decision – for both Ome, and the child as well.

The sad truth of their age was that it was a horrible time to be a child of any race.

Mila Dosanti walked over to him. Her flesh may have been hidden, but her sexuality was still more than apparent in the sensual swagger to her step.

“We were beginning to wonder if you’d come,” she whispered in her half-moaning voice.

She was a kindhearted woman, but — as it usually was when in her presence — Ome resisted the urge to regurgitate his recent air-sifted particles through his kochlar. In his mind, projecting them upon her would greatly improve her appearance. Undoubtedly, she would not appreciate the gesture.

‘I had one more matter to attend … I sought out Dona’Cora. Despite her anger, and attitude toward this war, I felt it necessary to inform her of our exodus,’ Ome stated, bluntly and without any apparent emotion.

“Tell me, Ome … what has become of our great goddess?”

She asked in a breathy murmur.

Many of the other Elders closed in on their conversation, a few were even fellow members of the Conclave. He noticed his friend, Jakkar was among them. Jakkar was human, but it was nearly impossible to tell. Jakkar was more familiar with ‘plague’ and infection than anyone present. When he was but an infant, Jakkar suffered a malady that twisted his body into wicked, unhuman proportions. His home-world was a poor, mineral drained planet that lacked sufficient Healers. On a world where poverty was the norm, Jakkar’s family was considered to be among the lowest class. By the time his Savior arrived, Jakkar was horribly and irrevocably disfigured.

He was the mirror-opposite of Mila Dosanti: she was a sexual goddess that embodied perfection of the human form. She not only flaunted her perfection, but enhanced it with the Oneness, ensuring that it was impossible for all who neared her to take note of her stunning beauty. She draped the Oneness around her body like a second skin, an even more sensual and alluring flesh than what the Maker had blessed her with. Jakkar’s body was broken and bent. His bones were twisted at impossible angles. His spine was shaped into an S, one leg failed to grow since infancy, while the other thickened and stretched beyond human proportions every passing year. His arms were disjointed at some locations, while possessed with multiple malfunctioning joints in other locations. Dosanti had graceful, nearly symmetrical features (other than the strangely endearing black dot slightly above her lip), and a head of smoky dark curls that danced with her every step. Jakkar’s head was grotesquely huge. Though even on a giant it would be ill-fitting. Nor was it symmetrical – not in the least. It resembled more of a misshapen lump of tumorous flesh than a human head. The half-closed eye, bowed nose and row of jagged, sloped teeth were the only indication it was otherwise.

Mila was never seen without a radiant halo around her – Jakkar could’ve easily hidden his appearance with but a simple thought, but never once did he hide who, or what he was. When Jakkar summoned his Oneness, it wasn’t to hide his appearance, or even battle the undead; Jakkar chose to use his gift to heal – and only to heal. Without ever having killed a single undead, he had risen high among the Elders because he was the greatest Healer the universe had ever known.

‘I went to find Dona’Cora, and indeed I did,’ Ome continued. ‘But, as one would expect, she had her mind fixed on hate and vengeance. I didn’t have to read her mind to see it … she was heading to the source of power, to the coming Rift. She wants her final battle, and she wants to face, and be done with, the demons that have plagued her all these years.’

“Poor woman,” Mila sighed, and for once, her voice filled only with sympathy and not sensuality.

‘Perhaps in her final moments, she may yet find peace,’ Jakkar said. Much like Ome, his verbal communication was limited.

Ome nodded his head-body at the notion – he did wish Dona’Cora well. Mostly he wished she remembered what she had lost, and that when she fought, it was out of love for her

God-king and fallen companions, and not purely out of hate.

‘What if he doesn’t come?’ the grey-skinned Elder Atomin asked. The same question was on everyone’s mind, but only

Atomin lacked sufficient faith in Anon to ask it.

‘We have to have faith that he will come,’ Ome replied.

The Elders grew silent at the notion – no doubt, they wished to keep the struggle with their faith an internal one.

Faith … that was all that was left to them now. Faith in Anon and the Maker. Ome didn’t care to debate the foundations of his faith with Atomin at the moment, nothing he could say would matter, not now. All they really could do was hope and wait.

The Elders waited in silence, all of them fully aware of the burgeoning source of power in the Sanctuary. All of them aware that with every passing moment, their home was being overrun.

Meanwhile, at the Hangar, the empty moments stretched eternal and nothing happened. Beyond the shield-wall the wind continued to reshape, and polish the landscape. Ome envisioned what must be occurring at the site of the Rift – he saw a swarm of bloodthirsty monstrosities filling the Sanctuary’s halls. He imagined their rage when they found the halls empty – and their fear when they ran into Dona’Cora.

How long could she stand against them? A single Elder against the entire Dark Army.

He pictured her alone, surrounded by death, her power fading and her life ending as a feast for the dead.

Faith …

Did they make the wrong decision? Should they be there, fighting at Dona’Cora’s side?

Despite his growing doubt for Anon, the decision had already been made – and Dona’Cora left to her fate. If Anon didn’t come to save them, then they would have to make their last stand here, at the Hangar.

Perhaps it’s past time we prepare for the worst …

Ome was on the verge of directing the Elders and Chosen into defensive formations, maybe barricade themselves within the Hangar before the Dark Army found them, when suddenly a Chosen shouted out in warning.

“Incoming pod!” the young man yelled.

Several Chosen and Elders rushed to the shield-wall.

Ome waddled after them to get a better look. Sure enough, drifting over the glassy black mountains on the horizon, a metallic gleam could be seen. As it neared, the blue sheen of Oneness driving the vessel was also apparent. The blue flames were a welcome sight to Ome and many others who initially wondered if the craft had peaceful intentions.

But some weren’t convinced, nervous murmurs arose (so too did flaming halos) as the ship decelerated and prepared to enter the shield wall. It slowly merged through the blue wall, coming to a land just beyond the edge of the cavern.

There it sat.

The nervous murmurs turned to loud, fearful conversations the longer the vessel remained inactive. Burning blue halos flared up all around him. Ome even enacted his own. With Dona’Cora gone, he knew the others looked to him for a decision. But truth-be-told, he had no greater knowledge of the pod’s contents than any other. There was nothing left to do but find out.

Hesitantly, Ome approached it. He shuffled forward, his kochlar flaps nearly humming from vibrating so fast.

He was within arm’s reach (his arms) of the vessel when a circle of blue flames appeared on the silver surface, opening a door into the ship. Ome paused, waiting, enhancing his halo after nothing happened … then something happened.

A figure appeared, skeletal, faceless, his head an opened, bloody wound. The humanoid figure stumbled from the door, reaching out to Ome, moaning. Flesh sloughed from his face, as did the remnants of his eyes.

“The Plague! Someone screamed at his back.”

Ome hesitated, he sensed something in the figure … life.

And a familiar life-force at that.

Unbelievably, this man was alive – and he was a friend.

If he could have shouted for them to wait, he would have, but either way it would have been too late.

Blue flames dove from the crowd, setting the figure on fire.

Ome wobbled forward, his own flames shooting out to heal him. He reached out to the sunken figure with his stubby, three-fingered hand. There were too many working against him. They had acted out of fear, never fully comprehending what they saw. As his healing flames entered the man’s flesh, Ome found the truth.

‘Davidian … what happened to you?’

Before he had his answer, Davidian’s life-force faded away.

Then Ome sensed another presence, this one also familiar – sort of. Unlike Davidian, this one was tainted virtually beyond recognition.

‘Ostedes?’

‘OME … ’

Even as well versed in telepathy as he was, Ome was no match for the giant Elder’s own ability.

Ome’s halo disintegrated. What little support his legs provided, vanished. Ome collapsed into a helpless ball. Even his senses were abandoning him. The darkness was coming to claim him, but before it did, he saw a flurry of black tendrils spilling from the door to the pod. He was unable to stop them as several tendrils crept toward him and then sunk into his flesh …

Adros dashed through the tunnels. To his left, X’ander kept pace; a knife at the ready in each hand, a gleam in his white eyes. For a being that was incapable of emotion, he seemed almost excited for what laid ahead. On Adros’ right was S’ilindsa, her body graceful and flowing as she sped on. Her blades remained sheathed, but S’ilindsa looked onward in determination; ready to draw her blades at a moment’s notice. Adros knew from experience it would truly take but a moment, then S’ilindsa’s blades would be out and slicing through her enemies in a whirlwind of silver-fire.

That moment was coming; Adros could tell by the look in her eyes, she knew it as well.

Not far behind the trio, the rest of Adros’ children followed – a small, but highly skilled army of elves. And among them, the Magi came as well, enhancing their speed with the Oneness just to keep up with Adros and the others.

In front of them, the black walls glowed with mage-fire. One after another, massive eruptions shook the Sanctuary, flooding the tunnels with thunderous booms. Between the blasts, screams of terror could be heard, echoing throughout the Sanctuary.

“What is this?” S’ilindsa asked, mid-sprint. Even though she was pushing her body to its utmost, she wasn’t the least bit winded.

“It’s the Plauge,” X’ander replied, giving the most obvious answer.

Another blast rocked the Sanctuary, more powerful than all the rest. Even the agile elves nearly stumbled under the ensuing shockwave. Never pausing, they continued on, faster than ever.

“It’s a massacre … ” Adros said. “We have failed.”

What went wrong? He wondered, and not for the first time. A part of him didn’t actually want to know what had happened at the Hangar – another part of him already knew. They had failed. The gods were dying – possibly all dead. Instead of fleeing with the Chosen and Elders, they would be fighting them to reach the pods.

A massacre …

He had seen it all before … far too many times. He should have known better; there was no victory in this war, only heartache. Why had he ever thought this would be any different?

Either way, the plan remained the same; find the living and leave. The only difference was that the ‘leaving’ part just became a lot more difficult.

The trio came upon a sharp turn in the tunnel, without slowing, they took the turn; running halfway up the wall of black glass before changing direction. After they took the corner, they immediately stopped – S’ilindsa’s thin, silver blades flowed from their scabbards.

They saw a group of Magi speeding down the hallway in a mad dash. Behind them, waves of blue flames rippled along the walls.

“Stop,” Adros yelled, his command intended for the children and Magi behind him, as well as for the Magi in front of him.

The fleeing Magi had been focused on the terror behind them, but because of Adros’ shout, they finally took note of the elven trio. Considering the elves were entirely clad in black, not to mention incredibly tall and lanky, the Magi failed to recognize them as allies.

Without further consideration, waves of blue energy shot from their fingertips. The flames roared down the hallway, becoming a flood of fire by the time it barreled into Adros and the others.

“GET BACK!” Adros screamed, stepping forward, thrusting out the staff of King’s Wood.

Before him, the flames formed a vortex, funneling into the twisted staff. Adros stood fast as the waves continued to crash against him, the dark staff taking on a bluish hue the more power it devoured. The combined Oneness of over a dozen Magi washed over him, but the staff absorbed it all. The bluish hue grew bright azure. Coils of smoke arose from the staff’s blood-red tip – and from Adros’ hands as well. His skin blistered and peeled as the energy mounted within the King’s Wood. Blood dripped from his fingers, but despite the pain, he only tightened his gripped.

Somewhere in the inferno’s roar he dimly recognized the

voice of S’ilindsa as she screamed, “Brontes! Help him!”

Little by little, the fires dwindled – but the burning heat within his staff remained. Even so, with his hands split open and blackened, Adros didn’t release his grip on the King’s Wood – not even when the fires of the Magi were extinguished altogether.

Gently, S’ilindsa took his wrists.

“Someone, heal him,” she demanded, and shortly after her words were spoken, blue flames caressed his bloodied hands. But the King’s Wood remained ripe with power, his hands blistered anew the moment the Oneness left him. Adros gritted his teeth against the pain, refusing to drop his staff.

Brontes put a hand on Adros’ shoulder, then strode past him, heading out to greet the new Magi — Ollius followed shortly behind. The Magi came forward to meet them, albeit hesitantly. Neither party said a single word, but Adros didn’t doubt they were engaged in a furious telepathic conversation. Eventually, Brontes was able to convince them their intentions were benign, and ushered them towards the rest of the group. As the Magi came closer, they stared at Adros in awe – some, in fear. Brontes guided the frightened and disheveled group to the gathering, then turned to Adros and the others.

Ollius, however, continued down the hallway to find more survivors, accompanied by two of their fellow Magi from the Seventh World…

Ollius left the main party and headed out into the halls.

He spoke with the survivors, they said more Magi were coming. Other Survivors … perhaps. Or perhaps they were something else now. Ollius sent his telepathy outward and picked through their minds as best he could. With humans it was easy, but with other Magi there was often little to see. Nevertheless, he would take any advantage he could get. He didn’t seek information, he heard the tale of the Hangar from the other survivors. What he sought was infection – the building bloodlust. The one thought the undead couldn’t hide because it filled their minds.

Kendal and Gabe followed him down the hallway. Both were veteran Guards who had fought on several worlds – not to mention they were the lone survivors of their own fallen homeworlds.

Gabe was a rather squat young man, standing no higher than five standard feet. Most likely, he had reached the pinnacle of his height. His girth however, seemed to expand daily. In the little time Ollius had known the man, his waist-line nearly doubled. When not battling the Dark Army, Gabe indulged himself in all the bounty the Seventh World had to offer. For the majority of his life, he had known only famine. Judging by his current, gluttonous behavior, the young Mage seemed to be making up for lost time.

Kendal was also quite young. She was a shy and mousy waif of a girl. Her arms were thin as twigs, hardly able to lift her own body-weight (which was approximate to an adolescent child). Her brown eyes were forever sad, and far too often could be found studying the ground at her feet. When in battle, she was transformed by the flames. She grew fierce, unafraid. More than once, the other Guardians had to pull her away from the battle, keep her from charging into the thick of things where she preferred to pound her enemies to death with nothing but her fists.

At the moment, Kendal wasn’t looking at the ground. She seemed fixed on the hallway before her, a ferocious look in her eyes.

Anticipating the worst, the trio moved on down the hallways of black, obsidian glass. Up ahead, explosions continued to resound – though with far less frequency than just moments before.

They encountered two more Chosen; one nearly collided into them as he came flying down the tunnel at top speed, the other came running full sprint – her Oneness completely drained. The moment he sensed their presence, Ollius communicated telepathically with them. Both seemed sound of mind, though incredibly frightened – and rightly so, in the minds of their companions he had glimpsed the monstrosity that sent them running. The image of it made him wonder why he dared to walk on.

Ollius had been through many worlds, survived them all by what could only be called the ‘Maker’s Luck’. He had seen more horror and evil than he dared to remember. There were many soldiers in the Legion of Death: the Dummies, the Soulless, and of course the Dead Gods. They came in many shapes and sizes – during his exodus, he had faced them all. But never had he seen anything like the demon that attacked the Hangar.

Not only was it invincible, but it was utterly evil.

You better get your ass out here, Anon. You wanted us to save these people, the least you could do is give us a way out, Ollius fumed. He had never personally met Anon, but the rumors of his greatness could be heard to the farthest ends of the universe. Even before he united with Brontes and the others, Ollius was fully aware of Anon’s splendor. He was a Savior – maybe a saint – perhaps even the Maker himself. But where in the dead was he now? Where had he been when Ollius dragged his people through the Rift? When they were broken, starving … hunted?

If Anon wanted Ollius to believe in him, then he would have to prove himself worthy of it … now seemed as good a time as any.

After a brief, telepathic conversation, Ollius sent the two fleeing Chosen to Brontes and the others, informing them of who they were, and why they came. For a split second they seemed hopeful, then they asked the question, and he had to tell them, ‘No. Anon has not come.’

Their shoulders sank as they made their way to Brontes and Adros.

If you truly cared, Anon, you would come, Ollius said, before continuing on, sensing a larger group farther down.

For some reason the group had stalled in their current location. Ollius sensed confusion, shock, and a great deal of fear among the group. He sent a mental warning to his companions, indicating they should proceed with caution.

Ollius, Kendal and Gabe moved on. They came to a bend in the hallway … with their halos blazing hot, the three Magi took the turn …

“How bad is it?” Adros asked, seeing the grim look in

Brontes’ eye.

“It’s far worse than even you can imagine, my friend.

They’ve taken the Hangar … that’s the obvious part … ”

Brontes hesitated to continue, as though his mind had suddenly just drifted off.

A pair of haggard looking Magi appeared down the hallway. Adros looked down at Brontes, arching an eyebrow. Brontes nodded back at him, confirming the new-comers had friendly intentions.

“Before I tell you what we face, you must promise me one thing … ” Brontes continued as the Magi drew nearer.

“For you, anything.”

He was about to continue, then abruptly froze. At first, Adros thought he was communicating with more new arrivals. But after a closer look, it was plain to see his friend was worried.

“Ollius … ” Brontes whispered.

Requiring no further information, Adros was already in motion by the time the screaming began …

They came around the bend. Their glowing blue halos flooded the area in light. In front of them the glassy hallway opened into a large, tube shaped chamber. A row of black pillars lined the room’s center. Identical in shape and design, the pillars were roughly three feet in diameter, and rose from the room’s floor to the ceiling (which was over twenty standard feet tall). Beyond that, the room was comprised of the same, smooth glass that was found in the hallways.

Two pillars into the chamber, Ollius saw the group of Magi – what was left of them.

For the most part, they were only body parts now, strewn haphazardly throughout the room. Blood covered the majority of the floors and walls – a surprising amount had even found its way to the ceiling.

Only four figures remained standing. One was obviously dead – the other three, were soon to be.

The dead one was female – Ollius could tell because every inch of her flesh was bare. What would have been a sensuous and voluptuous figure, was not only corrupted by her ghostly white skin, but also by her jet-black veins. Her veins swelled to such heights they almost seemed external to her skin, as if her blood was flowing outside of her body. With every beat of her heart the veins expanded, branching out further along the surface of her skin. Her eyes were empty sockets, as if they had ruptured in her skull.

She held one Magi in her hand, her fingers clutching his throat. The other two stepped back, throwing weak blasts of Oneness at her. Their attacks landed with little damage, her skin charred black for a moment then immediately restore to its alabaster white.

“Mila … please,” her prisoner begged between haggard

breaths. “You can fight it … ”

She directed him a lusty smile.

“I don’t want to,” she replied, grinning.

Her lips parted … with an effortless jerk, she ripped out the man’s throat. Her lips dove down into the spray of blood, suctioning onto the open wound.

The remaining two Magi had seen (and done) enough. With their halos little more than a bluish mist, the pair turned and bolted – or tried to.

Mila released her victim. Her tongue fully protruded from her mouth, and was dripping with blood, having recently been licking around the inside of the man’s throat. Before he even hit the floor, she had another Mage by the arm. The man tried to keep running, but was lifted off his feet instead. To the sound of crunching bones, Mila slammed him to the ground. His arm was bent in the opposite direction to the rest of his body, while his legs were motionless and seemed unable to move entirely.

He screamed as Mila bent down and bit into his skull.

It all happened so fast, Ollius hardly had time to take it all in, let alone decide what to do.

But Kendal had made her decision. For her, there was only one thing to do in the presence of the undead – fight.

Her fists glowing like blue stars, she sped towards Mila. She completely disregarded the lone, surviving Mage who continued to flee their way. She flew past him, her fists punching out at Mila who was moaning in ecstasy as she slurped up the man’s brains. Kendal’s fist landed squarely on Mila’s head, collapsing half her skull, snapping her neck and folding her head back behind her shoulders. That should have done it, but Kendal didn’t stop there, she continued pounding the woman, breaking more of her bones with every blow. Mila’s black

blood sprayed into the air …

Suddenly Kendal fell back, screaming in agony …

Where Mila’s blood fell upon her, her suit of blue-steel disintegrated, Kendal’s skin melted.

Ollius and Gabe ran to her …

Mila rose to her feet … as did the other two Magi she had recently feasted upon …

Adros was the first to arrive. He leapt into the room, sprinting past a terrified Mage who was fleeing the scene. He saw his friends forty feet away … their situation was dire indeed. Gabe was on his knees, his innards spilling out of a giant tear in his mid-section. Despite suffering what was an obvious mortal wound, he used what little power he had left to cover his steaming pile of guts in a shield of Oneness, while simultaneously attempting to shove the twisted pile of entrails back inside with his hands.

Kendal … a fiercer warrior Adros had never seen — the harder the fight, the stronger her power. She was ablaze in the Oneness. Her steel armor was riddled with holes, through which, raw pinkish flesh could be seen. She moved with impossible speed, her glowing blue fists striking out with incredible destructive power.

She landed many blows, broke many bones, but her opponent seemed oblivious to them. And her opponent was just as quick, if not quicker. A tall, sensual Dead God. Her body was completely bare, and completely riddled with a spider web of pulsating black veins. As Kendal hammered away at her, she landed her own vicious blow to Kendal’s chest, throwing the waifish girl back twenty feet. The Dead God flew after her, continuing to land more blows before Kendal finally crumpled to the ground in a beaten lump of blue flames.

She licked the black blood from her cracked lips, grinning as she prepared to fell her with a killing blow. Suddenly, the ground below her feet liquefied. Before she knew what happened, the Dead God was knee deep in molten obsidian. She wailed in pain as the liquid glass burned her legs. Ollius levitated past her, scooping up the child-like body of Kendal. He hurled a wisp of Oneness as he passed, returning the obsidian glass to its solid state, leaving the Dead God temporarily trapped.

He tried to flee the area, but Ollius was forced to stop as a pair of Dead Gods came at him; one virtually lacked a head, while the other had a gaping hole in his throat. Thick, black blood poured freely form both of their wounds. He set Kendal down and prepared to face them …

It took only a couple quick strides of his long legs and Adros was in striking range. The King’s Wood shot out, taking off the remainder of the one Dead God’s head. The staff was blistering to the touch to begin with, but once it took the Dead God’s life, it was smoldering. Adros felt the staff slipping his grasp, his hands too crippled with pain to hold onto it. Somehow he held on, and shoved its blood-red tip into the hole of the other Dead God’s throat.

Adros screamed out in pain, against his will, the staff fell. His fingers had burnt into charred black digits that he could no longer control.

The undead woman was freed from the floor – and coming at them fast. Ollius simultaneously sent blue flames at her and Adros. He meant to burn the bitch down before she reached them, or failing that, heal Adros so he could fight her. Indeed she burned. Smoke rose from her bleached, white flesh, while the blood within her large veins boiled and burst. But she didn’t stop.

Enough blue fire sank into Adros’ hands that he was now able to move them, but the woman was upon them, and he didn’t have time to reach for his staff. He kicked out at her instead. His foot landed flat upon her face, but she completely ignored the attack. She willingly accepted the blow to get her purple fingernails on Adros. There was a loud snap as her neck bent back, her nails latched onto Adros’ leg, sinking through the blue-steel like it was paper and burrowing into his flesh.

He felt the infection spreading through his limb like fire. The pain was so intense his crippled hands were forgotten. Adros dropped to the ground, letting the woman take the brunt of his weight. As he did so, he reached for his fallen staff. It was just inches out of his reach. He struggled to kick his leg free; her nails dug deeper. He stretched out, his burnt fingers latching onto his staff’s blood red tip. He turned over, preparing to slam it onto her head when he saw Ollius appear from behind the woman, blowing a flaming hole through her chest.

The woman let Adros go and spun around, her dagger-sharp nails going straight for Ollius’ throat … they found a hair-thin blade of silver instead. Her fingers went flying through the air – as did her blood. The silver blade melted in half. The black blood sprayed out, hitting Ollius’ halo of flame. Neither his halo, nor suit of blue-steel offered him much protection. The acid-like blood sank through both, and continued on into Ollius’ flesh …

Wave after wave of blue flames entered him, kept him whole and unharmed. Another blade appeared to sever her other arm at the shoulder. A pair of daggers sunk into her empty eye sockets. Ten more daggers followed, each one coming to rest in one of the woman’s vitals.

She screeched in agony and defeat, then was silenced as another dagger stuck into her throat.

A child-like form stepped forward, stopping right in front of the woman. The pyre of Oneness surrounding the lithe figure broiled to the ceiling. The fire continued to rise, threatening to melt the roof of the chamber. Before it did so, the flow of energy reverted, focusing entirely on the small figure’s fists. Kendal’s fists – too bright to behold — struck out, exploding the upper half of the Dead God’s body.

Lacking a head and heart, the woman’s lower half continued to stumble around, spurting black blood wherever it went.

Adros finished it off, his King’s Wood staff rained down on her waist.

“What in the dead do we do now?” Ollius asked. “It took all of us to take down but one of these, if the rest of the Elders shared a similar fate, we will be hard pressed to near the Hangar.”

“Hard pressed indeed,” S’ilindsa said, a confused look on her face as she studied her melted blades. She flung them to the ground before continuing on, “The steel of the dwarves is the hardest I have seen, yet it melts like butter when it touches their blood.”

“Mage-fire is little better,” Ollius said. He looked to Kendal, who was half naked beneath her disintegrated suit, then continued, “Unless employed in vast amounts. But even then, nothing we can do proves fatal. It would seem, only Prince

Adros has that power.”

Nearby, a dozen Magi were fervently pouring their Oneness into Gabe’s ‘now external’ organs. Brontes had to intervene and halt their efforts. The young Mage was on the verge of death, and nothing they could do would keep him from crossing the brink. He convinced the Magi to let him go. It was even more difficult to convince them to burn him to dust, lest they risk battling another powerful undead foe.

“So it seems,” Adros said. The Magi had healed his hands, but he still walked with a limp due to his injured leg. The Oneness had no effect on the infection — fortunately, elven blood did. Within his cells, another battle was being waged. Due to the slow recession of pain, Adros judged his body to be winning.

“We have to complete this mission,” Brontes said, returning from the charred lump of Gabe. “Stick to the plan. It was never our intention to come here to fight. We came to save these people, if any yet live we should find them and get the dead out of here.”

“Agreed,” the others said, echoing one another.

Then Brontes took Adros aside.

“Now for that promise, Adros,” he said, grabbing his arm and guiding him away from the others.

The elf allowed himself to be led, and nodded his head.

“You have to know what we’re up against before we proceed. But I worry, that once you know the truth, you’ll act rashly. I want you to promise me, that no matter what, we hold fast to Anon’s plan.”

“Of course,” Adros replied, though his white eyes betrayed his uncertainty.

Brontes accepted his word, without exception.

“When I spoke with the survivors, they say a single, powerful entity took the Hangar.”

From the survivors’ minds he gleamed scattered images of what had happened. When taken together, the many images

formed a pretty solid picture of the desolation …

Ome fell to the ground, his halo dissipating …

Darkness swept from the pod, spreading outward and into the Hangar … the darkness took Ome … it filled him, possessed him and bound him to its cause …

The Oneness of over four hundred gods filled the chamber …

the blue flames struck out against the tendrils of darkness …

The tendrils moved on … one after another it fell upon the gods … one after another they were claimed …

The living fled … the dead walked … and they fed …

“He turned their forces against them and scattered over four hundred Chosen and Elders into the Sanctuary,” Brontes continued. “They said they knew the creature, and that at one time he stood among them as a brother. They say his name is Ostedes, and that he has returned to the Sanctuary, a monster.”

There came a soft hiss as Adros’ grip tightened on his gnarled staff. The wood yet burned, blood trickled from his fingers, winding down the length of it.

“Impossible … ” he said through gritted teeth. “That fiend was slain by Anon. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“I don’t doubt what you saw. But by some ungodly miracle, he has survived … and now it appears he is stronger than ever. By the Maker, he alone scattered the entire might of the Elders!”

Some said X’ander wasn’t the only elf to have suffered permanent, emotional loss at the hands of the Dead Tree. Some said that Adros also left a part of himself high upon the branches of the Graelic.

They say that when he first stepped foot upon the soil of his home-world, the Elf Prince, Adros abandoned his fear high atop the branches of his God-tree, the Graelic.

“I’m going to the Hangar,” Adros said, side-stepping Brontes. The Mage reached out to him, but this time, the elf gracefully avoided his hands.

“You made a promise,” Brontes pleaded, knowing the Elf

Prince would surely be heading to his doom.

“I made a promise to Ostedes as well,” he replied, continuing down the chamber. “The Maker willing, I will be able to keep them both. The plan remains. Gather the survivors then meet me at the Hangar. Someone has to secure our transport out of this deathtrap … like Ollius said, nothing you can do will destroy them. Therefore, I’m making it my responsibility . . .” S’ilindsa strode forward, cutting him off.

“What are you going to do, Father?” She questioned.

“I’m getting us out of here,” he bluntly stated.

“Not alone you aren’t. I’m coming with you,” She demanded.

X’ander was already at Adros’ side, as though his companionship was expected.

“No,” Adros commanded. “We’ve already seen what becomes of your weapons. You cannot stand against these demons.”

“Father … please, we can find another way to defeat them,”

S’ilindsa pleaded.

“No. I’m ordering you to stay. That’s not the command of a father, but of your Prince,” Adros harshly replied. “And I expect you both to obey it.”

“And what about me, Elf Prince?” Brontes asked.

“You know I cannot order you to stay, Brontes. But you would be a fool to come.”

“Then we’ll be a pair of fools against the Dark Army,”

Brontes said with a warm smile.

“A pair of dead fools,” S’ilindsa cried out. She took Brontes hands, tears forming at the corners of her white eyes.

“Pray we are not,” Adros replied. “Or none of us will be going home.”

Home …

Did it even exist any longer?

Adros raised his voice, directing it at the others, “Our sole means of escape, the Hangar, has fallen. Brontes and I must go to reclaim it. The mission continues, though I fear we haven’t much time before these hallways become flooded with the Dark Army. Even the mighty Rag’nerack must have fallen by now. You must move quickly, spread out, search the Sanctuary in threes; two elves to a Mage. Recover survivors, and at all costs, avoid confrontation … I do not doubt the bravery or skill of any one of you, but this foe you cannot kill. If they find you, run … and run fast. Don’t stop running until you get to the Hangar. If all goes well, we will be waiting for you when you arrive. If things go badly, do your best to fight your way to a pod and flee.”

He put a hand on X’ander and S’ilindsa.

“X’ander … ” he said. “I know what you’ve faced better than any. And I know one day you will see beyond your suffering, one day you will change. If I’ve learned anything in my own life of suffering, it is that the only constant in the universe is change. Accept the path of the Maker and free yourself from pain.”

X’ander said not a word, merely sent his father a blank, white-eyed stare.

“S’ilindsa … ” Adros said.

She left Brontes and wrapped her arms around him.

“Fight on … ” he whispered into her ear as he returned her hug. “Never stop.”

X’ander took her hand as Adros turned and walked away.

“I’ll never stop … ” she replied. “Not ever.”

She held on tightly to X’ander’s hand as Adros and Brontes headed out to the Hangar.

Rag’nerack lifted his hammer from Brokheim’s crushed skull. Brokheim was the last of them; the last of his infected brothers. Once more he caught that oh so familiar scent … the reek of death and decay. This time it not only filled his nostrils but his every pore. His teeth gnashing, his hands twisting and tightening on M’jillner, Rag’nerack slowly turned to Hell’s Gate.

It was time … time for his vengeance to be fulfilled.

At his side, the wise old Oldem clanged a pair of massive silver axes together, howling at the Hell’s Gate in the old tongue – shouting out ancient profanities, cursing the very wombs of the Dark Lords’ mothers.

Rag’nerack squared his shoulders to the Gate, taking up Oldem’s howl …

The first Lord was stunned by the sound … It was the last sound he ever heard. Oldem cleaved his head in half and then some. From the top of his skull down to his chest, the Dark Lord’s body was split like a log. He was damaged, but not quite dead. With the axe stuck in his torso, the Dark Lord flailed around; even attempted to escape by running away.

Oldem’s other axe swept off his legs. Oldem slammed his foot upon the body, spewing out the Lord’s guts around his toes.

He pried his axe free, seeking his next victim.

Rag’nerack took down the second Lord, and the third as well. The pair came out of the Gate together, more wary and prepared than their fallen companion. Immediately, they split up, attempting to take Rag’nerack on either side … They were fast, and thought they could outrun the sluggish giant, outflank him and take the fight beyond the range of his devastating weapon.

Rag’nerack defied the stereotypes of his race, he was neither slow, nor stupid. His left hand shot out, wrapping around the one Lord’s head and neck. Aided by the moon’s gravity, his right hand bore the weight of M’jillner, swinging the hammer downward to crash into the other Lord’s back. There was a brief scream from the Lord before he was blown to bits. Rag’nerack watched the Lord’s remnants rain down, then suddenly remembered the other Dark Lord trapped in his left hand. His hand was wet with mush. In his excitement, he had unknowingly squished the being’s head.

To Rag’nerack’s left, Oldem was engrossed in another battle. He fought two – and then three, Dark Lords simultaneously. One was heavily injured, her spine severed from the axe sticking out of her back. She collapsed to the ground, desperately trying to pull the axe free.

Rag’nerack squashed her skull with his boot, then slammed M’jillner on top of another Dark Lord’s head. Oldem got the other with an axe straight between its eyes.

Oldem screamed a warning, wrenching the axe free.

Rag’nerack didn’t even bother to question the warning, but took a huge step, rotating his body while swinging M’jillner around in a circular arc. One Dark Lord managed to dip below the hammer – two didn’t. His allies exploded behind him as he rolled into the room. The Dark Lord turned his hands into blades and arose to his feet – Oldem’s axe took off his head.

That was it … the end of the Dark Lords’ attempted assault (that is to say, their first attempt). After that, the Dark Lords came slowly. During the course of the battle, Rag’nerack and Oldem had been pushed far enough from the Gate that now the Dark Lords were able to enter the room without being immediately cut down. They came through the Gate in threes – nine had already made their way into the chamber.

The Dark Lords had a better sense of their foe now. Instead of rushing the giants, they waited, building their forces and pressing the giants further and further away from Hell’s Gate.

“No point waiting for it,” Oldem grumbled.

“Apparently not,” Rag’nerack agreed, tossing M’jillner back and forth, from one hand to another, preparing for an attack at any angle. “Well, old friend … Let’s be on with it then … ”

Thirty Dark Lords barricaded Hell’s Gate by the time the Giants came thundering at them … and still the Dark Lords came, now shoulder to shoulder, ten at a time.

Fascinating, Dona’Cora thought, rather enjoying the spectacle. These mighty giants slaughtered the Makii as easily as sheep.

Even so, it would be over for them soon … just how soon, had yet to be determined.

Time after time, she was on the verge of stepping in – fearful the spectacle was coming to an end, and eager to play her own part in the slaughter. It wasn’t until the Dead Gods gained a foothold that she finally saw her opportunity.

It is time … She thought, watching as the Dead Gods flooded her Sanctuary.

She also noted how the Giants were no longer content to wait, and were on the verge of charging headlong into the growing gathering of Makii.

What a perfect distraction the giants would provide her as they rampaged into the Makii’s ranks. The Dead Gods would never see her coming. The blaze of glory would be her own when she fell upon the unsuspecting Makii.

As expected, the Giants filled the chamber with their roars, and then fearlessly charged forward to their deaths.

She almost let them … It didn’t feel right to her, abusing their courage so she could have her revenge. They too deserved a glorious death. They too deserved revenge.

Perhaps they could share it together – and by joining forces, let their glory rise ten-fold.

Before Dona’Cora rushed out to their aid, she even offered up her own version of a prayer, damn you, Maker. If you refuse to let my life have meaning, at least let my death count for something.

A living inferno, Dona’Cora joined the giants’ charge …

Mastecus stepped out of the Darkbridge – Galimoto hovering fearfully behind him. In front of them, a pair of grim, battlescarred, giants towered over them. One, was far more fearsome than the other. He was over a head taller than his companion, and wielded a hammer of unimaginable power. He cast such a look of shear, bloodthirsty hatred toward the Makii that he sent even Mastecus’ dead heart fluttering with fear.

Without-a-doubt they should be feared. Thus far, everything they faced they destroyed. Mastecus wasn’t surprised it took his brethren this long to form a logical response to their resistance. The Dead Tree commanded many of their minds now, Sevron cared little for the value of their lives. It was his will that this be the final battle. He possessed armies upon armies, which he could virtually throw them upon the Giants until the end of time. As for the Makii, with the battle won, they would no longer be of value to him.

Madness and death … that is all Sevron really wanted … and he would have more than his fill of it today.

Over a dozen Makii were aligned around Mastecus. He felt free will in many of them, the others were of weaker blood and had been fully taken by Death’s Servant. Nevertheless, for the moment, their goals were aligned. Sevron seemed to be coming to his senses. Since the beginning of the Plague, the strategy of the Makii had been three-fold; test, tire, then take their enemies. Why kill a powerful enemy when you can make him an ally? That simple strategy was the secret to their rise to power. Perhaps a part of Sevron yet remembered that.

Now, they were gathering power and forces to enact the third phase of the assault – they would combine their demon wind, then take the Giants.

Mastecus had to admit, they would make fierce additions to the Dark Army. Sevron must have finally seen the value in them as well. No doubt, he had already conceived a hundred horrors for them to enact.

The group of Makii grew to eighteen … they summoned their power, joined it as one. Mastecus felt the surge of power building, and knew it would take only of few more, then the Giants would be easily overwhelmed …

‘Is The Master ready yet?’ his familiar, Galimoto asked. For once, Galimoto would serve a purpose in battle.

‘Yes, Galimoto. The time has come. Tell the others it is time to stand before the Maker … ’

Past time, Mastecus thought to himself. Death is long overdue …

M’jillner was raised over his head, glowing like a star as Rag’nerack rushed forward. The Makii remained motionless in front of him, an ever-growing line of pasty, despondent faces. He hoped to obliterate more than a few of those faces before he died.

At his side charged his trusted brother, Oldem, a silver axe in each of his thick, wrinkled hands. His axes had bathed in the black-blood, yet seemed eager to spill more.

Rag’nerack focused all his hatred and rage into the steel column of M’jillner, determined to make his final blow a costly one. The crystal shone brighter, as though it sought to burn the very eyes from the Dark Lords’ skulls … Then came another light – equally bright, though burning blue with the signature wizard-flare.

Brontes? He wondered, unable to give the matter too much thought as he focused on the enemy ahead. Instead of a man, he saw a flaming woman suddenly appear at his side. It was only a single, quick look out of the corner of his eye, but the brief glimpse was enough for Rag’nerack to recognize a kindred soul – an ancient warrior who hated the Dark Lords as much as he.

And what a display of wizard-flare, nearly as impressive as M’jillner’s glow … nearly.

He was looking forward to seeing whose power proved greater.

Only a few more step remained before they were upon the Dark Lords, their numbers had greatly multiplied in only a matter of moments. It would take far more time than Rag’nerack had left in life to count them all. And with every moment that passed, ten more Dark Lords arrived.

Despite the pair of Giants and flaming goddess barreling at them, oddly, the Dark Lords remained motionless.

Rag’nerack was within striking range when the scene turned to utter chaos, and not at all the type he had expected.

… a white hand burst through a Dark Lord’s throat, clenched into a fist, then snapped its spine … hands turned to black blades, one entered the belly of a nearby companion, the attacker’s powers went out, exploding its victim’s torso skyward … limbs and black-blood flew through the air … heads came off … heads were cut in half … the rain of blood and body parts was everywhere.

The Dark Lords continued to come through Hell’s Gate, enacting their own private war. To Rag’nerack, it was impossible to tell who was who, or what side to join. Nor did he care. He joined in, killing whatever he saw … and there was a lot to see.

The carnage spread out through the Grand Hall. Dona’Cora thought she had seen it all, but she was baffled by the chaos. The Dead Gods fought amongst themselves, and in such a reckless abandon that their actions seemed akin to suicidal.

They wish to die? She wondered. Then die!

Gladly, she joined in the chaos … any chance to kill Dead Gods was a good one, and this one seemed a miracle. Some fought back, some didn’t. It was obvious one party welcomed death, perhaps even sought remittance for their sins, while the other Dead Gods clearly desired no such thing. The only way to tell them apart was by killing them. One group maintained a blank empty stare, even as she burnt their bodies to cinders. The others screamed, begged for forgiveness, or even prayed to the Maker as they died.

That empty stare … looking into those emotionless black orbs seemed vaguely familiar to Dona’Cora. She had seen such a vacant being once before, back in Castle Kandor.

Despite the ‘aid’ of the one faction of Makii, the only ones she truly trusted in this battle were the Giants, the rest she put down without hesitation.

The Giants … they had fought well together in the opening moments. For a while it almost seemed they could hold the Gate, but the Makii were too numerous and were ceaselessly vomited up by the Rift. Eventually, they had to separate, spread out into the Grand Hall along with the Makii, who continued to engage in their own personal vendetta.

The Giants were easy to find in the melee, especially the larger one with his blazing crystal hammer. Few approached him any longer. The dead-eyed Makii were more concerned with putting an end to their treacherous brethren, and besides, they knew any attempt to stop the giant meant certain death.

The other giant fared much worse. He was surrounded, wounded, and tiring. The pair of huge axes were the only thing keeping him from being overcome, and they were slowing.

Dona’Cora fought her way to him.

Covered in flames, she danced through the chaos … her fists burning, smashing, and exploding her foes. The Oneness leapt from her body as if alive – alive and leaving death in its wake.

It was like a dream come true.

For the first time in over a thousand years, Dona’Cora was smiling.

When she made it to the grey-haired giant, she wasn’t smiling anymore. The giant was on his knees, his axes lying flat upon the ground. His legs were marred with vicious gashes. Red blood dripped down his legs, black blood filled his veins. Already, his veins had blackened up to his hips, and with every beat of his heart it continued to spread. The blank-faced Makii no longer fought him, they just gathered around him, regarding him with that vacant stare.

She had to set him free – he deserved as much. Besides, if she didn’t, she doubted she could defeat him once fully infected.

Dona’Cora carved a path to him. Her flames went out, wrapping three of the Makii in burning blue tendrils. With a thought, she slammed the three Makii against the obsidian wall. Bones popped and snapped as they hit the black glass, black blood poured from their orifices. The Makii took the beating in silence, their faces blank and impassive. She enhanced her flames, igniting them to a brilliant azure. Sizzling, smoke rose from the Dead Gods’ flesh. Wherever her flames bound them, they melted straight through, leaving the Makii in smoldering pieces.

She made it to the giant just as he was rising to his feet. Once more, his axes were in his hands, though now those hairy hands were riddled with swelling black veins.

A group of Makii barred her way. She did her best to smash and burn her way through them but they were too many. She hated to admit it, but her own power was dwindling. Initially, a single blow was enough to blast a hole through one of their pale bodies, but now, she had to land several just to disable them. A great deal of Oneness went to enhancing her speed, a great deal to her protective halo, and a great deal to her strikes. In her prime she could have maintained them simultaneously for near eternity. Unfortunately now, the greatest amount of her Oneness went to slowing the rate of metabolic aging. If she let any area of power slip, she was doomed.

She found herself on the retreat as the giant continued to rise, towering over her. Certainly, she no longer had enough power to face him. With some clever, well-timed blows, she could still take down many Makii before she was entirely spent, but to face the giant would result in her immediate death.

She was about to meld back into the chaotic battle, hunting weaker foes when a blinding ball of light slammed into the giant’s head, showering the area in burning brain matter.

She felt the ground shake beneath her, heard the rhythmic boom of the giant’s feet as they pounded the earth. The larger giant came storming toward them, charging the scene. He ignored the gathering of Makii – they should have ignored him as well. They stood strong and blank-faced as he plowed into their ranks, his massive feet sending them flying, or grinding them into the black glass. His crystal war-hammer rested on the ground alongside his ally, who was now a headless corpse. The infected blood pooled around both as it drained from the giant.

His wide, brown eyes looked down at his fallen companion and then he howled …

He didn’t even bother with his hammer, he dove into the gathering of Makii, his club-like fists smashing and crushing anything he saw.

So it ends … Dona’Cora thought, looking upon his rampage in awe and admiration. A glorious death … one surely befitting a goddess.

She abandoned immortality – was instantly crippled. In a single heartbeat she aged a millennium. Her legs could no longer support her, her arms were too weak to move. She would have crumpled to the ground, a pile of brittle bones, if not for her halo.

Her halo flared – brighter than ever. She drifted upwards, a gleaming ball of flame. A dozen blinding, blue coils leapt out as she went to join the giant and together fulfill their glorious end.

“Master, look out!”

Mastecus saw it coming – how could he miss it – but he knew that even with the demon wind he couldn’t avoid the oncoming glowing hammer.

His legs came out from under him. His face slammed to the floor as the hammer passed him over. The ashes of his allies and enemies rained down on him after the hammer continued on, the others not as fortunate to avoid its arc.

A barbed tail uncoiled around his ankles.

‘Galimoto … thanks,’ he said, more than a little confused, wondering why the imp had cared enough to save him. He had expected the fiend would be pushing him into the servants of

Sevron by now, being all too eager to possess a new master.

Perhaps the Elder Dona’Cora was not what the imp had in mind.

The Giants moved on as more and more Makii continued to pile out of the Darkbridge. Dona’Cora followed, equally as dangerous as the pair of behemoths. Mastecus was wise enough to avoid that trio, besides, he had made his choice – they were his enemies no longer.

Instead of sticking around by the Darkbridge, Mastecus took the fight into the chamber, trying his luck with his own kind – the Makii.

He got to his feet, and in a ripple of dark energy he moved out. The hosts of Sevron were everywhere. He snuck up on a pair of them who were engrossed in tearing apart one of his allies with their bare hands. Four rapid bursts of energy stunned them, his blade-shaped hands cut them down. Nearby, Galimoto had entwined his tail around another’s neck, his claws buried deep in its dark eyes. Mastecus sunk his hands into the Makii’s body and sent his energy out – rupturing his every last internal organ.

From there the battle continued to rage, much the same. The upper-hand passed from one faction to another. Mastecus and those who sought atonement were clearly outnumbered, but they had the advantage of possessing free-will. The servants of Sevron had a slow response time, and responded to attacks in an equal, and predictable fashion. When the servants came at them, they attacked head-on. They focused the demon wind on speed and strength, preferring to get up close to their opponents and rend them to pieces with their hands.

Meanwhile, the free Makii operated independently, and unpredictably. Each of them employed the demon wind in uniquely destructive ways, making it hard for the servants to anticipate, and defend. Galimoto was the most unpredictable force of all. His tail could bind limbs, while his claws could leave his foes blind. His ‘antics’ left many a Dead God defenseless, allowing Mastecus to finish them quickly and easily.

The battle raged on, and the Makii died in droves. It almost seemed as if the battle would bring them to the brink of extinction … then they simply stopped coming.

Mastecus’ first thought was that something happened on the other end of the Bridge. Perhaps another battle was being waged in that world, or perhaps Sevron somehow managed to redirect the Darkbridge, closing it off to this Sanctuary. Either way it really didn’t matter, for, win or lose, this place was death for Mastecus. Even if they managed to overwhelm the servants, in the end, either the giant, or Dona’Cora would take their lives without hesitation. They would never view him as an ally, nor should they, death was all he really wanted – death and redemption.

Judging by the dwindling number of servants, he would soon have both things.

The majority of the servants had focused their efforts on the weaker of the two giants – a wise move. To infect him would be a tremendous boon to their forces, they would no longer need superior numbers to win. Mastecus thought to aid him, but saw a blaze of blue flames heading his way and changed his mind. Dona’Cora was on a killing spree, and Mastecus didn’t intend to become a part of it.

As he assumed, the servants had a lot of their hopes invested in possessing the giant. When Dona’Cora came at them, they threw everything they had at her, desperate to repel her. Many fell in the effort, but they managed to keep her away – long enough for the fallen giant to arise.

But the larger giant they simply could not stop. His glowing hammer flew through the air, taking off his former ally’s head. The Makii came at him, but he trampled right over them. At the sight of his fallen companion, the mighty giant entered such a rage that even the blank faces of the servants seemed afraid.

And then Dona’Cora returned to the fray – her body suddenly frail and weak, but surrounded in a halo of flames greater than anything Mastecus had ever seen. He even saw wisps of white fire dancing in the inferno, a power he thought belonged to only one man …

The sight filled his dead heart with hope. Perhaps Sevron could be stopped, the universe restored to order once more.

Then they came from the tunnels …

His allies, the free Makii stood against them, independent and unpredictable … the newcomers annihilated them.

Galimoto dropped to his shoulder, pinching his nose.

“What are those stinky beasts?” he asked in his musical voice.

Mastecus watched his former allies arise from what should have been their deaths – their bodies more vile and corrupt than ever before. Before heading out to face them, he replied

to his creation, “Good bye, Galimoto” …

Hands of blue light wrapped around the Dead God’s waist and neck – burning as they pulled, the Dead God was ripped in half. Next to Dona’Cora, the mighty Rag’nerack finished his last foe by slamming his boot upon its skull.

They stood in a heap of burnt, squished, sundered pieces of Makii.

She did it … no, they did it together. Victory. Over fifty

Makii met their deaths, and yet they stood.

It was a miracle.

Rag’nerack leaned wearily on his huge hammer, panting, his chest heaving … grinning. His smile broadened as he looked down on Dona’Cora. He likely would have slapped her back in congratulations, had such a blow not broken her frail body.

She made the gesture instead, her thin fingers patting his thick, hairy leg.

“A glorious end, my giant friend,” she said, her voice a scratchy whisper.

“Well fought, little wizard. A glorious end, indeed.”

She was utterly spent. Only enough Oneness remained to keep her frail body upright. For some unknown reason, the Makii no longer poured through the World Door. She liked to believe it was because they feared the great Dona’Cora and her mighty giant ally. But she knew that was too much to wish for. If they returned, they would kill her. If so, she would die content. She had done enough — more than she could have hoped for. She spilt enough Makii blood today that she could now go to the Maker content.

The Maker …

Had this miracle victory made her a believer? Perhaps … or perhaps she had learned to believe in others. The giant for instance; so fierce, brave and caring. As powerful as he was, he never would have made it this long without the loyalty and love of his companions – including his most recent one, Dona’Cora.

Even the Makii had a change of heart in the end. Though far too late, they finally saw the evil they had wrought, and realized their victory and glory came at the price of their souls.

For so long she believed evil ruled the universe, and the best she could do was defy it. But now she knew the war had yet to be won. Goodness remained. It would always remain … and it would fight the evil for all eternity.

Dona’Cora stood with her new ally, content to watch the Dead Gods put an end to each other. There remained only a handful of Makii left in the Grand Hall. The minority of which were blank faced. The rebels made short work of their emotionless enemies, gaining the final upper hand. Provided the Rift remained silent, the outcome of their battle would soon be decided. She was a little more than curious to speak with these ‘good’ Makii once their battle was won. After all the years, and all the atrocities, why the sudden change of heart?

Why now, when they could have won their war for all time? Unfortunately, she would never have the answer …

Suddenly, she felt the giant tense up, his muscle turning hard as steel. He raised his hammer.

“It would seem our fight is not yet done,” the giant growled.

She had to focus more of the Oneness to her ancient eyes before she understood what the giant meant. When she abandoned immortality, her age almost instantaneously caught up to her. Her muscles were weak, her bones frail. All of her senses were incredibly dull. Unless she filled her eyes with the Oneness, the world was a murky blur.

When, at last, she was able to see the distant figures creeping from the tunnels, her first instinct was to tell the giant he was mistaken, that the beings coming out of the tunnels were allies; her Chosen, and Elders. But after enhancing her vision even further, the blackened veins and bleached flesh became all too apparent.

“Our fight is never over,” Dona’Cora whispered

The infected Elders took a moment to survey the battle, then, wasting no time they struck out against the ‘good’ Makii. The Makii fought back, often scoring viscous, fatal blows, but nothing stopped the undead Chosen and Elders. They healed almost instantly, and were faster, more powerful than their counterparts.

“Are you able to fight on, wizard?” Rag’nerack asked, tightening his grip as the battle drew near.

She recognized many faces in the crowd. One in particular posed a horrifying sight. With his body spewing black slime, Ome wobbled out of the tunnels. He briefly paused, then his body was suddenly wracked with spasms. Something emerged from the sole orifice in his belly that handled all his body functions, from breathing to defecating. A veiny black ball, covered in pus and bile, spewed out of the slit in his stomach. It plopped to the floor. A high-pitched squeal emitted from the object as it started wobbling around. Ome abandoned it, and continued to waddled forward, meanwhile, the ball grew, and sprouted limbs. Soon, it too was waddling forward, a perfect clone of Ome.

After witnessing the foul birth, Dona’Cora wasn’t the least bit surprised to see another Ome emerge from a different tun-

nel … and then another … and another …

So much for victory …

“Until they kill me, I will fight,” she said, knowing full well she had nothing left to give. “Promise me one thing though, my giant friend. When I finally do fall, make my death a permanent one.”

Dona’Cora was startled when the giant suddenly roared with laughter.

“Don’t worry, fierce, little Wizard,” Rag’nerack said, wrapping both hands on the hilt of his hammer and stepping in front of Dona’Cora. “Soon, we shall both stand before the Maker.”

All of the Makii were defeated, dead. They arose, more loathsome and foul than ever before. The corrupt Chosen and Elders set their sights on Rag’nerack and Dona’Cora. Onward they came, walking beneath M’jillner’s glow …

X’ander was the first to arrive, he darted into the chamber, his daggers ready to fly from his fingers. He was thankful to find an empty room – less so, when he realized it was a dead end.

Inwardly, he cursed. Outwardly, he maintained the cold exterior of a killer.

They had been fleeing through the tunnels for some time now. And though every member of their small party was familiar with the general lay-out of the Sanctuary, after being continually blocked from their chosen path, they eventually grew disorientated and found themselves lost. The task was increasingly annoying due to the fact that every damned tunnel looked identical to the last.

But there was another element to the situation, one which X’ander, the experienced hunter and killer, was well familiar with.

We’re being corralled …

The actions of the undead were proving to be highly intelligent. Despite all of X’ander’s attempts to avoid a trap, the undead had finally caught him.

He heard the others drawing near. Without turning to them

he said, “Prepare to make a stand.”

He scanned the room with his grey and white eyes, seeking anything that could give them a tactical advantage. There was little. The room was roughly two elves tall, maybe eight wide as well as long. The only objects in the room were several toppled, stone tables and block-like chairs of the same material. Books of leather, and rolls of aged, yellow parchment were scattered upon the floor.

“Magi, pile the blocks of stone in the entry and fuse them together,” he commanded, his deadpan voice assuming their obedience. “Doshain, A’rhie, grab the others and get to the tables. Stand them upright. Fight two elves to a table, keep the high ground as long as you can. If they want us so badly, then let them come.”

The pair of young elves dashed past him, moving to obey. Another elf entered the room: a cautious, white eye on the hallway behind her and a caring eye on the Magi and elves, assuring they were all safely deposited into the room. She continued on, approaching X’ander. On each of her swaying hips was a worn leather scabbard, but only one held a sword.

“When they find us, they’ll kill us all. There must be another way, Brother,” S’ilindsa said as she stood beside him.

“Unless you see an exit that I do not, then it seems our op-

tions are pretty limited at the moment.”

“Maybe I do … ”

She spun away, heading to the entry where the Magi were piling the stone chairs with their Oneness.

He nearly smiled as she walked away. It was second nature for her to disagree with him, even when there was obviously no other options. But, much to his chagrin, it wouldn’t be the first time she proved him wrong, or saw a possibility he couldn’t even comprehend. Curious to find out if this was such a moment, X’ander joined her as she talked to the Magi.

She was an amusing one, that S’ilindsa – his supposed sister. For her, the epitome of life was to bask in her father’s light. Objects such as X’ander often turned such light to shadow. Her need to compete for Adros’ approval and love had become the highlight of X’ander’s life. He found this ‘struggle’ equally challenging and complex as saving a handful of people from a world full of undead. Gladly, he played her game; not because he cared a wit what Adros felt, but because he enjoyed the challenge, and even more so, he enjoyed challenging his sister,

S’ilindsa.

She was a talented, intelligent warrior. And X’ander was proud to note, that the more he challenged her, the greater her talents became.

But would her many talents be enough to free them from their current plight? Was it even possible to rise to this challenge, and defeat a foe that was seemingly invincible? It seemed unlikely, but it wouldn’t be the first time his sister had surprised him.

X’ander sidled up next to the group, doing his best to appear inconspicuous as he listened in on their conversation.

“Not I, good elf. The creation of these halls was done long before my time,” a young, chubby-faced Chosen said to

S’ilindsa.

After they split up from the rest of the Guardians, their search through the halls led them to five such Magi. Four of them were young Chosen. Though they had survived their own home-worlds, they were relatively inexperienced in battle. Their previous encounters with the Dark Army had been conducted under the Treaty, making their journey to the Sanctuary a safely guided exodus. Only one of the new Magi was an Elder – and a very strange one at that. If S’ilindsa hadn’t stayed his hand in their initial encounter, X’ander would have sent a flock of knives his way. Somehow his sister saw the man’s true nature, even though his exterior form screamed ‘demon’. X’ander wasn’t even certain he was human, perhaps what a human would look like if shaped by an infant’s hands. His limbs were more twisted and bent than Adros’ staff. His head was a pummeled glob of senseless flesh. He communicated little through the flap in his head, nor did he attempt to connect with them telepathically. The little they knew of him, they learned from the Chosen. They had but two pieces of information; his name was Jakkar, and he was an Elder.

That being the case, he must have had great power, but he never utilized a lick of it. Never once did Jakkar even bother to summon a halo.

Other than those five Magi, shortly after they found them, they were forced to abandon their quest as the undead began hounding them in. X’ander wasn’t sure what became of the other groups of elves and Magi, they only found two other groups as they sought to reach the Hangar. They combined forces and continued on, a total of six elves and ten Magi.

All of which were now currently trapped.

“Aye, the Sanctuary was built before my time as well,” another young Magi said. “We’re only Chosen, perhaps if we were Elders we could do what you ask. But even so, we’re near drained. Should we manage to make a tunnel, we will be unable to fight when we get to the other side. And if we attempt it and fail, we’re surely dead.”

“If we fight this foe, we die,” S’ilindsa bluntly declared. “Adros commanded it himself, we flee, not fight. Do it. Make a tunnel. As best you can, get it done. We’ll hold them back to buy you time, but do it, and do it quickly. Drain yourselves if necessary, but we need that tunnel.”

She danced through the crowd of Magi, then pointed at a section of wall at the back of the room.

“Do it there,” she commanded. “If memory serves me, there’s another passage fifty feet beyond that wall. If we can

get to it, we’ll have a clear path to the Hangar.”

Looking doubtful and defeated, the Magi headed to the indicated area.

Leave it to S’ilindsa to find an exit where none existed … Perhaps she will free us from this hell after all.

She walked over to Jakkar, who seemed oblivious to the entire conversation, his lumpy body resting against the wall in order to avoid tipping over.

S’ilindsa rested her hand on his … shoulder?

They shared a moment of silence, then, for no apparent reason, she nodded her head.

“I wouldn’t call myself an Elder, but I’ll do my best to get it done,” Ollius said, approaching the pair. “And if Kendal’s fists are as good at smashing stone as they are bone, then we may have a shot.”

“No, as much as they need your help, you have to conserve your power,” S’ilindsa replied, shifted her focus to Ollius. “If we somehow survive this, someone has to take us off this world. Ollius, you may not be an Elder, but you were once a Gatekeeper. I doubt any of these Chosen can tune a Gate, let alone create one. And Kendal … ,” she said, nodding to the waifish girl. “We need you in the fight, you may be the only

one who can actually kill these things.”

Kendal’s eyes immediately perked up at the suggestion.

“Jakkar … ” S’ilindsa addressed the odd Elder, though he gave no indication he heard a word she said. “Get ready. Time to do what you do best.”

X’ander was actually excited to find out what that could possibly be. He had a feeling he would find out soon enough.

“They’re near, Sister,” X’ander said, breaking in on the conversation as he picked up their enemies’ familiar putrid scent.

Her sword seemed to jump into her hand by its own will. S’ilindsa’s new blade was a thicker, shorter, double-edged weapon. The technique and weight of the weapon were quite different than what she was use to with her thin blades. Nonthe-less, X’ander was quite confident she would adapt to its use effortlessly. But even so, would it matter when their enemies’ blood was like acid? He decided he would have to keep a close eye on her when the battle began, lest she mistakenly over-step her abilities. Kendal was to be the killer in this fight, the rest of them (X’ander included) were meant to serve as distractions. Every last one o them knew they stood no chance against this foe, in this, X’ander was in total agreement with Adros – a rare occurrence of late. As long as they could keep them from overwhelming Kendal, the thin goddess might actually have a chance to eradicate a few of them.

X’ander signaled the other elves to join them at the entrance, meanwhile, the group of young Magi had begun the laborious task of boring a fifty foot long hole through a wall of solid obsidian. Ollius stepped back to the center of the room, despite S’ilindsa’s command, he covered himself in a flaming blue halo. Jakkar remained nearby, as seemingly unhuman and oblivious as ever.

Past the half-constructed wall of melted block-like chairs, X’ander saw the dead creeping down the hallway. There was over a dozen of them; their flesh covered in festering wounds and winding black veins — their empty, black eyes drinking in their enemies. They moved slowly, cautiously, confident that they had finally cornered their victims, but fully aware how dangerous trapped prey could be.

Her eyes filled with fire, Kendal raised her head. Her typically timid features twisted in rage. As the twelve infected Chosen and Elders charged forward, Kendal ran out to great them with a pair of flaming fists.

One hand held M’jllner, the other, Dona’Cora. Her power was gone – her life nearly so. Like a baby, her shrunken and shriveled body was nestled in the crook of Rag’nerack’s hairy arm. He glanced down at his leg, cursing the old gods after noticing the black-blood had spread from the bite in his calf to his knee and ankle. In his frenzied escape, one of the foul, ball-shaped creatures managed to suction onto his leg with its grotesque, slit of a mouth. It fed for but a second before Rag’nerack squashed it with his foot — that second was enough to spread the infection.

His next string of curses he directed towards himself, for letting his weariness blur his senses and allowing a simple blob of a creature to be his end.

As a boy, Rag’nerack learned that even the strongest of stone could be changed, and that the only thing permanent in the universe was the past.

That being the case, Rag’nerack found no sense in dwelling on it.

Grunting from the pain, he trudged on.

He was a Mithrlnite, born of the stone-blood. The infection would spread, but his blood was strong and he yet had time.

Time enough to deliver the little goddess to the Hangar. If Brontes and the others still remained, she could find sanctuary with them.

His legs pumped on. His broad chest heaved in and out.

With every breath his nostrils filled with the scent.

Rot … decay … death …

He caught wind of it behind him, but he knew the most pungent scent came from him – his infected leg.

He was so near now.

… so were they … so too was death.

Chaos … the being basked in it. In front of him a young

Chosen crawled away, his entrails dragging behind him.

Ostedes’ new limbs went out, a flurry of black tentacles. They latched onto the Chosen, searing her flesh as they dragged her towards his tree-like body. All the while, the young woman screamed, begging the Dead God for mercy, pleading with him to remember that he once was an Elder. It was her final hope; to find some remnant of goodness within his twisted soul.

She found none.

Ostedes reclaimed her. Her flesh dissolved as he pulled her into him. Every cell of her body ruptured, spilling forth her genetic material to become food for his Plague infested cells. He devoured her whole. The woman struggled inside him during the reclamation, his torso flexing as she fought to escape. For a moment, her muffled scream continued to sound, then it became a moan, then there was only silence from inside his trunk-like body.

They became as one. All her thoughts and fears became his own, strengthening him, fueling his dark power.

The Oneness …

The true Oneness …

There was another voice inside him, another will. It spoke to him of true power, something the Elders never dreamed. It was his Oneness. His truth.

It was chaos … all of it.

When he had reclaimed the Elders, one by one, he showed them the truth of it. They too sought mercy, sought goodness. Some wept as he consumed them, others begged for infection. Most of them he reclaimed, a small few he sent out to ensure the chaos spread. And oh how his power has grown. With each feast, new memories, new powers.

Nothing can stop him now … he is the Servant of Death.

Let chaos reign …

Ostedes was preparing to move on, to further his power, further the chaos, when suddenly he sensed new arrivals to the

Hangar – both of their minds oh so familiar. And their flesh … His chortled laughter filled the chamber.

… yes, the flesh. Time to finish what he started so long ago.

‘YOU STILL OWE ME SOMETHING, BOY. FROM YOU I

REQUIRE FLESH … IT’S TIME TO PAY UP.’

He stood on the highest peak. He let his halo fall, welcoming the bitter cold and pounding wind against his flesh.

Serrated cliffs of red granite surrounded him for as far as his unaided eyes could see. Encircled in stone, a sole, solitary field filled the valley below, at its center, a pulsating black heart – the Rift.

Around the Rift, small sections of granite had been worn smooth, forming walls and walkways. A low parapet wall lined the walkways. Yet unfinished, it required another tier of brick to create the crenellation, thus providing the defenders narrow gaps to fire upon their enemies far below. To the north, the lower half of what would become a great tower was on the rise. Tiers of wooden planks and scaffolding encased the structure like an exoskeleton.

Normally, the scaffolding would be swarming with workers, but now the lifts were all still, the plank walkways empty. Since their arrival to the Seventh World, the races had been furiously working to transform the mountain range into a massive, insurmountable fortification. Thus far they had done well, Anon was most impressed. Given time, the barrier would be formidable indeed. But their time was limited. To complete the task on schedule it would take an army, an army of gods.

It was Anon’s hope to provide that army … but as he was all too painfully aware, the Plague corrupted all things, especially hope. Lately, too often even the Maker’s path was shadowed by the corruption. What once was clear and true, became doubt. He walked the path blindly now, his faith the only compass by which to guide his way.

For now, he would wait, and continue to hope. No matter what occurred, he would trust in the Maker, and believe this was the path.

Anon wasn’t the only one who waited, far below him, the inhabitants of the Seventh World had changed themselves from workers to warriors, and now stood in formation around the Rift. Most were humans, two thousand of them donned in sparkling, polished full plate mail armor. The second largest group were the dwarves; fierce fighters and brilliant craftsmen. Shimmering axes of blue-tinged steel rested on their stocky shoulders. Then there was the giants, only a hundred strong, but their bodies were so massive their line was as wide as the human’s and covered their ranks in shadow. Only a handful of Magi speckled the gathering, thin blue halos burning around their bodies.

One race was noticeably absent from the congregation. The elves had all entered the Rift, embarking on a most perilous journey to save a people that was neither kin, nor even friend. They went because he asked them to go, and because they understood the value of life and knew that it was to be cherished no matter what its form.

They knew the only enemy was death, and they would fight it, wherever it went.

But had he delivered them into their enemy’s hands? Was that where their path came to an end, the Sanctuary?

He sensed a failure of catastrophic proportions. What was most puzzling was that he only sensed it, but couldn’t see it. His power – the power of the Maker – was barred from the Sanctuary. The temptation to storm the Elders’ home with the army of races was nearly irresistible. But Anon knew that if he did so, he would likely be sending them all to their deaths. Nor could he even make the journey. It was the Maker’s will that those he sent must face this evil on their own. Either they would return, stronger than ever before, or storm the Gate with an army of undead at their side.

He trusted in his friends and their abilities, as he trusted the Maker’s will as well. But, whatever force held the Sanctuary was powerful beyond knowing. An evil even Anon had been unable to fully destroy.

Ostedes!

The army of races sensed the potential failure as well. They were arrayed around the pulsating Black Door, fully expecting death to come storming through at any moment.

Anon still hoped the elves and Magi would be coming through, turning the gathering into a celebration – but they were long overdue.

So much was at stake here. Had he been a fool to trust Imorbis … again. The last time, the price he paid had been his own life. What would be the cost for following the Dead God this time?

There was only one certainty at this point – if indeed Imorbis betrayed him, he would make sure the Dead God burned in the

Maker’s flame until the end of time.

They entered the Hangar. Adros strode in, his body poised and collected, the Graelic clenched in his hands and ready to strike. The white eyes of the Prince held no fear, only anger and hate for the being who had betrayed him so long ago.

His halo burning bright, Brontes walked at his side; fearful and wary. He had seen first-hand how powerful the evolved Plague was, and through the minds of the Chosen he had seen how powerful it had made the former Elder, Ostedes. Also, he was well aware that this wasn’t the first time Adros had faced the being; there had been two such encounters in the past, and each battle had ended in Adros’ defeat.

If it was at all possible, Brontes would have avoided this confrontation. They had never faced such evil before, nor so powerful a foe. But he knew his friend, the Elf Prince would not be denied this confrontation. He had a score to settle with the fiend that was long overdue.

From their previous journeys into the Rift, Adros had grown stronger than ever – yet so too had Ostedes. And none of their past experiences prepared them in the least for the enigmatic powers the giant now possessed.

Nevertheless, Brontes knew this was a fight they had to partake in … and had to win. If they failed, every living being in the Sanctuary would die.

Side by side, they stepped into the room, then paused. The floor of black glass shimmered under Brontes’ flames, reflecting back at him in a crimson hue through the thick coating of blood covering the floor. To either side of them, sanctuary awaited; twin rows of glistening metallic pods. In front of them, the giant reared up, his limbs uncoiling and thrashing in the air, his body a blackened trunk of putrid, rotting wood. Beyond him, the Hangar opened to the harsh wind-torn landscape, the cruel environment suddenly so appealing to Brontes.

He had heard that in his last battle with the being, Adros had severed one of his arms (Anon had removed the other). Miraculously, both arms had regrown, but now, instead of the previous, flexible branch-like limbs, they more resembled an angry nest of black snakes.

Long before the giant attacked, they knew what was coming …

‘YOU STILL OWE ME SOMETHING, BOY,’ the giant said, he voice threatening to tear apart their minds. ‘FROM YOU, I REQUIRE FLESH … IT’S TIME TO PAY UP.’

Impossible, Brontes thought, falling to his knees. Amidst the pain burning through his mind, he somehow managed to recall the last time he heard those words. It can’t be, Anon destroyed you …

A strange, clucking sound filled the room.

‘ANON … THE FOOL. THE FALSE GOD. EVEN HE

CANNOT KILL ME. I CANNOT DIE.’

‘We shall see,’ Adros replied, his rage-filled mind shaking off the giant’s mental barrage.

On their journey to the Hangar, they shared a theory; if Adros’ staff of King’s Wood could control the Dead Tree, could its power extend to those the Dead Tree possessed as well?

It seemed Adros was in the midst of testing that theory, for Brontes felt the waves of mental pain fading. Alongside him, Adros gripped his staff tightly, his white eyes locked in deep focus on the distant giant.

The theory proved true, the giant’s telepathic hold over them vanished. But how long could he Adros hold him, and how deep did the control extend? The giant stepped forward, his eyes glowing bright in rage. He continued on, obviously slipping further and further from Adros’ control.

If they wished to stand a chance against the demon, they had to break his focus before he was fully freed and once more assaulted their minds. Brontes sent a stream of Oneness into Adros. The moment he felt the flames enter him, he knew what they meant, and what he should do – Adros was off. He became a blur, moving so fast his feet never seemed to touch the floor. Being an elf, he was naturally fast, but after Brontes enhanced his speed he was nearly invisible. Before Ostedes knew what was happening, Adros was on him, a deadly hurricane of black wood. With his staff twirling in front of him, Ostedes’ branch-hands were obliterated. His limbs flew through the air as Adros severed them, falling to the ground where they shriveled up and withered to ash.

The giant stepped back, his eyes white hot and glaring down at the elf. He arched his back, stretching his body until he was well beyond twice Adros’ height.

A swarm of tentacle limbs came at Adros, though none of them came anywhere near the elf. His staff intercepted anything that got close, incinerating it on contact. Adros fought on, pruning his way through the giant’s limbs.

Brontes sensed pain in his friend — his hands burning as the staff absorbed Ostedes’ power — so he amplified the stream of

Oneness, sending forth a thread of healing as well.

Adros ducked low as the giant tried knock him aside with his arm. In a loud ‘swoosh’ of air, the arm continued on. Adros was back on his feet and in his fighting stance, striking out at the giant’s unguarded body. He thrust his staff forward like a spear, shoving the weapon all the way through Ostedes’ midsection. With his arms flailing like mad, the giant reared up. Meanwhile, the staff of King’s Wood caught fire, igniting in flames of black as it continued searing the giant’s midsection.

The pain in Adros’ mind was unbearable, even for Brontes who merely felt it second-hand. Brontes increased his healing, sending the full might of his Oneness into Adros. But even with the steady stream of healing power pouring into the Elf

Prince, the pain only mounted.

The elf had to abandon his staff, smoldering as it stuck out of Ostedes’ body. Adros dropped back to avoid the monster’s flailing arms. Grimacing in pain, he held his hands in front of him, their flesh charred like overcooked meat. Brontes spent a moment to heal them, then flew at the giant; not wanting to squander the opportunity to attack him while he was yet in a vulnerable state. He blasted out, one barrage of flames after another, obliterating large chunks of the giant.

He kept his distance, fully aware of how dangerous the giant’s acidic blood could be. His fear fading, Brontes blasted away, now focusing all his power to tear the fiend apart. Adros continued to step away from the fight, his hands contorting into burnt and useless, half-clenched fists. Meanwhile, his staff continued burning in the giant’s body.

Even if Adros could reach the staff through the barrage of acidic blood, it would be impossible to wield. The staff was blacker than Brontes had ever seen it before, and burned hotter as well. If his hands were charred now, they would be ash the moment they touched it.

Skewered by the staff, the beast continued to thrash about in pain — Brontes continued to rain down blows, carving the creature with his Oneness. But it wasn’t long before Brontes realized the futility of his attacks. Every chunk he sent flying, regrew by the time his next blow fell. Even the tentacle limbs Adros severed with the staff of King’s Wood had sprouted anew. Only Adros’ staff sticking out of its torso had a lasting effect. The giant understood this as well, and was completely ignoring Brontes, desperately attempting to pull the burning staff out. His tendrils sizzled as they wrapped around it, dissolving only moments later … but more were always there to take their place.

Brontes knew what would happen if he managed to free the weapon; not only would he assault them physically, but mentally as well. Even with all his recent training, and experience battling the Dark Army, Brontes would be helpless to defend against Ostedes’ telepathic assault.

Seeking another way to stop him, he borrowed an attack from Ollius. The ground below the giant became a pool of molten glass. His root-like feet slowly sank into the pool, igniting in flames as they did so. Unfortunately, the attack only increased Ostedes’ fury. With his tentacles disintegrating around the King’s Wood staff, he ripped it free.

The King’s Wood clattered as he tossed it to the floor. Creaking, the wood curled up and twisted in upon itself, black flames still rising from its surface. The gaping hole in the giant’s belly fused shut, his limbs all regrew. With the molten glass still burning his feet, he slowly pushed himself up.

Why won’t you die?

Brontes had only a moment before the darkness took him. In that moment, he solidified the ground, trapping the giant’s feet.

Then, the giant filled his mind with pain.

‘I TOLD YOU, BOY … I CANNOT DIE … ’

The giant’s words echoed like thunder in his mind. Adros tucked away the pain coming from his hands and in his head. He let rage fill his mind instead. The sight of his fallen friend fueled his anger to incredible heights. Brontes collapsed, a flurry of black tentacles reaching out to him. Adros hurtled forward, his foot leading the way to Ostedes’ head … it never found its mark. Several tendrils darted out, snagging him out of the air.

Burning their way through his blue-steel suit, they slammed him to the ground. His staff sat smoldering, just beyond his reach. Even if he could get to it, he didn’t think he could hold it, not even long enough for a single strike. Then he caught a glimpse of his friend … and knew he had to at least try. He stretched his body to the max to get the weapon.

Brontes was nearly buried beneath the tentacles. The bluesteel had disintegrated, so too had his flesh. Clearly, there was a method to the monster’s madness; by strategically placing his limbs on Brontes’ body, he was able to carve out large areas of the Mage’s skin. He then began extracting them from his body. Ostedes started by peeling the skin from Brontes’ face. The pain revived him, his friend awoke screaming as he was flayed alive.

Adros’ fingers burned as they touch the King’s Wood. His legs burned as well, the layer of blue-steel was long gone, the tentacles now melting their way through flesh.

Adros wrapped his hand around the King’s Wood staff, instantly it burned him to the bone. Screaming in rage and pain, he swung it at the arm holding his friend. Like a hot poker through butter, it sank through the giant’s arm. He felt a tinge of hope at the sight of Brontes falling free, then, almost immediately, the severed limb grew back.

The King’s Wood staff fell from his crippled hand.

He had nothing left to give …

Once, long ago, he swore to end this monstrosity. But the feat had proven to be beyond him, not once, but three times.

Three times he had failed … this would be his last.

‘AHH … ELF PRINCE. HIS SUFFERING IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT I HOLD IN STORE FOR YOU.

TOGETHER, YOU AND I WILL HAVE EONS TO EXPLORE

YOUR PAIN … ’

He could no longer resist his telepathic attacks, his anger was all spent in futility. The last sight Adros saw was the giant’s wicked eyes as they glowed down upon him …

“Wake up, Father,” a gentle voice softly insisted.

He opened his eyes to see an angel. Glowing curls danced upon his face as she looked down at him, the shimmer in her grey and white eyes mesmerizing. A pair of pointed ears peeked through her golden head of hair.

“S’ilindsa … Is this the afterlife?” Adros whispered, fully expecting the Maker to suddenly appear to great them.

“No, Father,” X’ander coldly replied from somewhere close by. “This is hell.”

As Adros slowly regained his senses he looked around, realizing he was still at the Hangar, and quite alive. He hoped he could still say the same for his friend, Brontes, who was trapped beneath one of the giant’s massive feet. He was severely damaged, but the constant moan coming from his lipless mouth indicated he still had a shred or life left.

With the a little help from S’ilindsa, Adros got to his feet. He flexed his fingers in amazement, seeing pinkish flesh where before had been exposed bone. Miraculously, he was virtually healed.

He also noted there were many others in the room now. Several of which, were familiar faces: Ollius, and Kendal were there, as were around two dozen of his kin. Those he didn’t recognize were mostly young faces full of fear, their bodies covered in thin layers of blue flame. Then, he noticed another being at his side. A man of twisted flesh, his halo filled with more Oneness than all the others combined – including Kendal. And all that power he poured into Adros.

“Save your power for him,” Adros gently commanded to the deformed human, while nodding to Brontes.

Everyone turned to Ostedes, who was patiently awaiting them, his arms writhing in excitement. He was using what was left of Brontes as bait, goading the group to come at him.

“Can you save him, Jakkar?” S’ilindsa asked, though no response was forthcoming. Adros did, however, see a fire suddenly ignite in the young elf’s eyes.

“Wait,” Adros called, reaching out to grab her.

But she was already gone.

Not even bothering to grab a weapon, she ran toward Ostedes … X’ander was right behind her, and Kendal – burning hotter than ever – was flying out as well.

Fully healed, Adros ran after them to once more face

Ostedes …

“Can you save him, Jakkar?” the beautiful, young elf-ling asked.

‘Yes. Brontes yet lives … but if you go to him, Ostedes will

destroy you both. I see it in his mind, he wishes you to come.’

Jakkar felt her heart fill with fire, saw it mirrored in her eyes.

The telepathic power of Ostedes was incredible. But Jakkar had incredible powers as well. His ability to heal was unprecedented in the known history of the universe. Not only was it a healing gift for others, but himself as well. It was how he survived the initial assault. He had been bitten, cut, pummeled … and even infected, but he had healed all his wounds. The Dark Army moved on, spreading through the tunnels and leaving him for dead. A short time later he arose, completely restored. And not much time after that, he encounter the group of elves and joined them as they sought to return to the Hangar. They were chased by evil, but Jakkar knew that an even greater evil awaited them at the Hangar. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t convince the young elfling that she was heading to her death.

As he did in his initial encounter with Ostedes, Jakkar absorbed the full brunt of the monster’s telepathic assault, allowing it to tear apart his mind. For now, as quickly as the damage was done, it was undone. But he had played this game before. Eventually his cellular regeneration would slow, and the power of Ostedes would overwhelm him. If they elves were unable to kill him by that time, then their battle would become another massacre.

He had already informed the elf-ling of this. But Jakkar knew the knowledge wouldn’t keep her from the fight, but only make her fight harder.

‘Save us all, Jakkar. You must … ’ S’ilindsa bolted out.

“Wait,” her father cried. The Elf Prince tried to grab her, his arm whipping out impossibly quick.

This time his daughter proved quicker, and was already well beyond his reach. Practically flying over the glassy black floor, she came upon Ostedes. The giant sent a swarm of slithering tendrils her way. Before they engulfed her, she tucked her body into a ball and rolled … away from the giant, to where the burning staff lay.

‘Heal me, Jakkar!’ she pleaded, her mind filling with pain as she came out of her roll – staff in hand.

A flood of blue fire flowed her way. Jakkar drenched her in the Oneness.

She turned, facing the giant and his oncoming barrage of limbs. S’ilindsa didn’t even bother to dodge them. For all her grace and skill, there was no elegance to her attack, only rage.

She slammed the staff downward against the giant, then repeated the motion, over and over …

His limbs came at her, but she ignored them, as though she anticipated her allies’ aid and the limbs’ certain destruction. Her instincts proved true. With a couple quick flicks of his wrists, X’ander let fly his daggers, slicing through several of the black threads. Kendal was more aggressive. She flew through the air, a ball of fire. Her flaming fist led the way, blasting a hole through the Dead God’s chest. The Elf Prince dove into the fray, ignoring all thoughts of pain and personal safety to grab two handfuls of the burning black tentacles. The remainder of the elves also joined in as well, shredding the giant’s limbs nearly as quickly as they could grow. Nearly …

Jakkar had already watched this fight. The last time it had been two score of Elders and countless Chosen facing the beast. One by one Ostedes took them all. Jakkar had to admit, lacking the Oneness, the elves fought incredibly well – more so than even the Elders had. But they wouldn’t hold out, not when the combined power of the entire Sanctuary had failed to stop Ostedes. Sadly, as he expected, eventually a tendril took hold of an elf. Almost instantaneously, it drew him in, absorbing him into the body of Ostedes. The rest of the elves were aghast at the sight … the slight pause was enough for Ostedes to take two more. To their credit, the elves adapted – fighting more cautiously, facing off against the tendrils as if they were individual foes, ignoring Ostedes trunk-like body — except for Kendal and S’ilindsa. S’ilindsa continued to pound away at the giant, every strike cleaving large chunks off his body. X’ander and Adros continued to keep the tendrils from taking her, meanwhile, Kendal hovered around the being, raining down vicious blows wherever she went – until a tendril took hold of her leg … It wound around her, and began pulling her in.

Suddenly Ollius appeared, incinerating it moments before she was taken. More black vines took her arms, but Ollius grabbed her legs and sent his fire to burn them away … then the vines came at Ollius as well.

The battle raged on … the defeat of the elves an apparent inevitability.

As if the situation couldn’t be any worse, a new threat arrived. The group of frightened, young Chosen at the entryway, turned as one to the tunnels. Jakkar sensed it as well … evil. A whole lot more of it. He spared a quick glance in their direction, and saw the Chosen throwing weak blasts of Oneness against a horde of oncoming demons. The demons didn’t even flinch, they stared down the Chosen with their blank, dead eyes then overwhelmed them.

Jakkar had a choice, continue to dump power into S’ilindsa to prolong her futile attack, or send his power to aid the Chosen. Jakkar was a healer. Never once had he used his power to harm anything, even an undead being. It was his gift – his blessing from the Maker.

But what good had it done him when his home-world was taken? When his entire community was slaughtered?

He wouldn’t allow that to happen again … No, this time he would fight …

He diverted his power from S’ilindsa and for the first time in his life, he altered his power to a killing blaze.

He directed it toward the oncoming horde …

The hallway was blocked …

“Fa’en tat deg!” Rag’nerack roared, hammering out onehanded with M’jllner. He swatted aside the undead, filling the hallway with burning chunks of flesh. He saw more of the strange, ball-shaped dead ones and clubbed them into the crowd in a spray of ash. He thundered on, cursing, annihilating … limping.

The infection had spread to his body … very soon, he too would be a dead one.

But not yet, there was much cleansing to be done.

He burst into the Hangar covered in steaming ash. At the entry, he saw the living fighting the dead, M’jllner came to the living’s aid, rapidly slamming down on one rotten skull after another. Beyond the skirmish, screams erupted. He turned his wide brow forward, and saw the sweet, kind S’ilindsa caught in a web of black vines. They not only burned her, but were trying to tear her apart. Nearby, her father knelt on the ground, a vine wrapped around his neck, decapitating him as it burned his flesh. Brontes … his face lacked flesh, his body severely burned … Ollius, entwined and airborne … Kendal, pulled by the vines and swallowed into the body of the sizable, treeshaped monstrosity …

The evil fiend dared to stare Rag’nerack down with his glowing white eyes.

Delicately, he set Dona’Cora down on the obsidian floor.

“Guard her with your lives,” he grumbled at the frightened looking group of young wizards.

Both of his meaty – black-veined – hands wrapped around M’jllner, he hurled it out. End over end it sailed through the Hangar. As it neared, the crystal’s glow overwhelmed the light shining from the tree-man’s eyes, then with a loud “thunk” it slammed into the tree-man’s chest.

The creature’s entire upper half exploded.

Rag’nerack smiled at the sight, then turned to the nearest blue-glowing being he could find and said, “Kill me … ”

The man with twisted flesh stood up from tending to Dona’Cora, and humbly complied, sending massive waves of flames his way.

Her entire body burnt as if dipped in acid, Kendal crawled out of Ostedes’ torso …

Ollius helped her out, sending healing flames her way …

The surviving elves, now less than twenty, scurried about freeing their allies with whatever remaining blades they could find …

X’ander sliced S’ilindsa free … who in turn immediately went to tend her father …

Adros was choking to death on his own blood by the time he was finally healed …

Jakkar was the one who healed him, but only after he saw to the – even more grievously wounded Brontes …

Brontes stood up … his face a complete scar that now

matched his missing eye …

Dona’Cora stood up as well … her decrepit body covered in a brilliant golden halo …

Rag’nerack … Dona’ Cora approached his lifeless body and whispered a prayer to the Maker in his ear … in one frail, bony hand, she held M’jllner – the massive hammer over twice her size. With her prayer complete, she swung the hammer down, ensuring Rag’nerack’s journey in the afterlife would lead him straight to the Maker …

In the center of the room, Ostedes once more regrew …

And once more, the hallways were flooded with the dead … but now they seemed less than eager to face the group of heroes …

Nor were the survivors eager to stay, before the room was swarmed and Ostedes regrew, they gathered together and entered the pods …

Mastecus lifted his bloated, purple lips off the young Chosen’s opened head … a sudden thought entered his mind – one that was his own. To no one in particular, he mumbled, “Braaaaaains … ”

Hovering nearby, Galimoto pinched his nose and looking on in disgust, piped, “so much for a new master … ”

WHERE WILL YOU GO? The demon wondered as he watched the three pods take to the sky. They continued on, disappearing from his sight as they left the moon’s atmosphere.

THERE’S ONLY DEATH FOR YOU OUT THERE. DEATH, NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO … I ALONE CAN ESCAPE IT. FOR I ALONE AM ITS SERVANT …

Far beyond his sight, and his ability to detect it, a Rift formed in the nothingness of deep space … it swallowed the three pods whole, delivering them to their new home … to

sanctuary. To a place where they would at last find peace … … for a time anyways…

The Rift hovered over the stairway of stacked circular stones, its jet-black outline swelling and contracting like the ungodly heart of hell. An army of humans, dwarves, giants and Magi surrounded it, watching as it continued to pulsate, its rhythmic throbbing a steady measure of the passing of time. The sun blazed through the sky, baking the army of races as they stood vigil in the bowl-shaped valley. Eventually, the sun sank into the jagged peaks of the Gorian Range, allowing the stars to appear, poking through the dim, red light of the dying sun.

And still the races stood, watching the black heart beat.

Even the Brother Moons stood sentry over the Gate; first Harbos arose in the eastern sky, the massive crater on its face like a watchful eye, followed shortly by his little brother, Minos, just barely peeking over the Gorian Range to the north …

Then, the Rift stirred … the pulsating waves of black spiraled inward, becoming a never-ending vortex that appeared to swallow the night. The little moon, Minos, hid away behind the Gorian. As if giving birth, a metallic, egg-shaped vessel breached the vortex. The army of races broke formation and fell back as a metallic egg floated through. They eyed it warily, arcs of blue flame dancing upon its surface.

Anon walked among the apprehensive soldiers, invisible to them, but as eager to uncover the contents of the pod as any.

The craft settled to the earth, and the flames dissipated. No sooner had it settled, then another pod emerged … and then another. But that was the end of them. Once the third and final pod came to a rest, so too did the Black Door, at last the pulsating ceased. The gathering of Magi banded their power together then sealed the Rift – and so it would remain, silent and dark, for many years to come.

The commanders barked orders to their soldiers, splitting them into three groups to better guard each individual pod. Anon sensed something within the pods, and knew the soldiers’ efforts and apprehension were wasted – only their allies were within, and they were uninfected.

‘Dona’Cora,’ Anon thought, a grin spreading across his face as he sensed her familiar presence. ‘After all these years, you finally see … ’

There were many other familiar beings within the pods, the thought of each one strengthened his grin. But then he realized how many were missing, and his smile vanished.

What happened out there? What ruin have I led you to?

One after another, a glowing blue door appeared on the pods, then slowly, out came the survivors, a beaten, motley and morose crew. Whatever happened to them in the Sanctuary, they were all worse for the wear. Instead of bursting into celebration at the home-coming of their allies, the gathering watched their grim debarment in silence.

The Elf Prince Adros was there, his grey and white eyes nearly as dark and full of emptiness as his son, X’ander, who, for the first time since Anon had known him, was absent from his father’s side. The bald-headed, young elf kept far to the back of the group, even managed to slink away altogether once the greetings began. Anon’s own son, Brontes was there as well – though now he was unrecognizable; his face a fleshless mask.

By the Maker, Brontes …

The lovely, young S’ilindsa helped escort him out of the pod, her thin elven fingers affectionately wrapped around his own.

As expected, no giants returned. But rather unexpectedly, the powerful hammer of Rag’nerack did – though it was held in the frail hands of a now shrunken, and ancient looking Dona’Cora. It was evident to Anon, that despite her sudden aging, the power of the Maker kept her alive, for a halo of glowing white light now surrounded the woman. The Maker’s power also greatly increased her strength, allowing her to wield the mighty weapon which was well over twice her size. Her flesh was shriveled and hairless, her eyes covered in a blurry layer of grey. With the power of the Maker guiding her way, she went straight to the army of giants, delivering the massive hammer back into their hands.

Though he was far removed from the conversation, Anon used his power to eavesdrop …

“A more honorable warrior I have never seen,” Dona’Cora said, looking up at the giants. “I promise you he died well … very well. And that he now rests with the Maker.”

The gathering of giants nodded their heads, then, lifting their weapons to the sky, they took up the chant, “Rag’nerack, Rag’nerack, Rag’nerack … !”

“Rag’nerack … ” Dona’Cora whispered, before turning her shadow covered eyes toward Anon. There would be no hiding from Dona’Cora now, she could see clearly, even through his greatest illusion. As the giants continued their chant, she drifted to him.

“I owe you an apology, Anon,” she said as she drew near. “All this time … I doubted in you, in the Maker. My every action as leader of the Elders only served to add fuel to the Dark Army’s flames.”

“I fear I owe you an apology as well,” Anon replied, grim faced. “Only three pods returned when there should have been twenty. This gathering, those who stand in the valley of Lock Core. We are all that remain to stand against the Plague. It was my hope to free your people … keep your army intact so that when the final battle came, we would be ready. I failed them all. It appears that against the enemy you faced, even the power of the Maker is insufficient. As is our trust in the Maker to see us through.”

“Keep faith, Anon,” she replied, a slight grin on her taught lips – an unheard of expression on her eternally harsh face. “Our suffering was destined – our survival was not. Make no

mistake, the battle for the Sanctuary was a victory.”

Looking at Brontes and the other wretched looking survivors, it was hard for Anon to believe it was so.

“I had my final battle, and it was more than I could have ever hoped it would be,” Done’Cora continued. “I will fight no longer,” she paused, deep in thought. “As for the enemy we faced … in that regard you are correct. The Maker may very well be no match for that one. In this matter, you must speak with your child, Brontes. I once faced the demon and in my arrogance thought I left him for dead … a mistake, I have learned, we both have made. We failed to kill him once before, but now his power has grown beyond limits.”

“I will personally see to Ostedes’ death,” Anon said, knowing the former Elder played a major role in the assault on the

Sanctuary.

“If only it were that simple, but Ostedes no longer exists. There is but one evil now. He is neither Makii, nor Dead God, but has become one with the Void. Talk with your child and know the true nature of our enemy, and the depths of evil we

must somehow destroy if we wish to survive.”

S’ilindsa was leading Brontes from the gathering, taking him to the half-constructed keep in the northern section of the wall. Anon was afraid to go to him, Brontes had always maintained his faith in him, and for the second time in his life, that faith has led to his physical ruin.

“When the time is right, I will go to him,” Anon said, his wide eyes misting over as he watched him depart. “It would seem I failed them all, all of my children, my Chosen. Ostedes was the first, Alana the last … ”

Or was Alana his last chance at success?

“Yes … Alana,” Dona’Cora said, very somber. “That error in judgment is mine alone. I see that now. She not only acted out of love for her Prince, but for love of all life. She was the only one of us to stand against this evil … if only I stood beside her, perhaps this war would be already won.”

Anon withheld his reply. In many ways the failure to stop the Plague was as much his fault as her own. He trusted so deeply in the Maker, he assumed the Maker’s path would lead him to victory. He never wanted to believe there could exist another power greater than the Maker. For so long he focused solely on walking the Maker’s path, ignoring all else. That which existed beyond the path remained in darkness, his vision remained fixed on the end goal, which was a beautiful glowing

light at the end of the otherwise dark tunnel

Perhaps he should have wondered what happens when that light goes out, and only darkness remains.

He would forever walk with the Maker at his side, but it was clear now, he would have to forge his own path.

“Of course, I will ensure her retrieval from the Dead Worlds with the utmost haste,” Dona’Cora continued.

“No. As much as I long for her to live among them, in peace, and as much as she deserves it to be so, she must remain on the Dead Worlds — and there she must suffer. You were right when you said I was too soft on her, nor am I strong enough to see to her suffering personally. If any can do so, it is you – one who knows what it means to have lost everything, and was yet able to emerge from the nothingness, stronger than ever. If you can no longer fight, I beg of you to train one who can. Make her days in the Dead Worlds a constant trial. Make her stronger than any Elder god that has gone before her – yourself included. Let her power grow, so that when the final

battle comes she will have the strength to stand against it.”

“I will do as you ask, Anon. But I cannot guarantee she will ever be strong enough … ”

“She may not have to be … not all is lost to us,” Anon said, looking directly at the misshapen Elder Jakkar, and then the scrawny, little scrapper Kendal. “In time, more Chosen will come. And with the help of Imorbis, I am creating one who will be stronger than us all … ”

Imorbis!

Anon turned from Brontes, his anger was concealed – for now. As he left, he placed a tender hand on S’ilindsa, who was patiently waiting outside the chamber. Within the room, Brontes rested on a mattress covered in silken red sheets. He wore a black mask on his face, and a robe of black on his body. There was a shred of comfort in the knowledge that he would heal spiritually, and mentally in time. The love of S’ilindsa would take him there, to a sense of happiness. But the physical wounds would stay till the end of his days. Thankfully, for the pair of lovers, their battle was over, the time for rebuilding had begun …

Anon left the Keep and the lovers behind to begin their new life. He had spoken with Brontes and heard his tale of the monstrosity they had faced and the suffering they had all endured — now there was another ‘ally’ he had desperate need to speak with …

His body shimmered with white light …

The red walls of the keep flickered and faded …

… He stood in the ruins of a once colossal structure. Slabs of rubble etched by the elements closed him in. They rose to the sky; giant grey monoliths hundreds of feet tall. Shadows were all around him …

Anon’s flesh became flame, stretching towards the tops of the pillars … with a hand of flame he reached out, taking hold of one shadow in particular …

“You betrayed me, Imorbis. This will be the last time … ” Anon said, his voice echoing like thunder through the fallen structure. “This whole time you knew … The new Plague … The Dead Tree … The Dark Army, and your Brethren … The Void … it’s him. It’s all him now. Sevron … he not only lives, he has become it all.”

“Yes,” Imorbis humbly replied as his body burned in Anon’s

flames. “It’s true, all of it is true.”

Anon had expected more lies, half-truths and schemes from the mouth of the Dead God, certainly not truth.

“That’s all you have to say? You’ve deceived me for long enough, before I destroy you I demand to know why? How is it

even possible that Sevron yet lives?”

He lessened his grip on the Dead God, desiring at least some answers before his death.

“Sevron cannot die, Anon. You know nothing of him, other than his great evil. Allow me to live, if only to tell his tale. If you remain intent on my destruction when I finish, then so be it. But you must believe me, if only on one thing. What I desire most in this life is Sevron’s destruction. I made him what he is – first a Dead God, then the incarnation of chaos and death that he has now become. I am responsible for it all. I know what it means for me to meet the Maker, my suffering will be beyond imagination, and shall last eternal. But I beg of you, before my justice is dealt, grant me the chance to set things right. I know Sevron better than any … If one being exists in this universe who has a chance to destroy him it is me. At her greatest, Dona’Cora failed. With the power of the Maker at your disposal, even you were unable to see him fully destroyed. After possessing the God Tree of the Elfin, he has become more … much more. The Void itself is truly awoken through him. Only by destroying his every last particle will our victory be complete. The being I wish to create can perform such a feat.”

Anon wanted so badly to burn the Dead God to cinder, to see him sent to the Maker where his long overdue penitence may begin… but first, he wanted to hear the ‘truth’ of Sevron the Servant of Death …

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Imorbis looked up – high up. He couldn’t take his gaze away. The Great Tree towered high above him, its canopy swallowed by a mass of rapid moving dark clouds. The Plague moved quickly up the massive trunk; the infection blackening the bark as if it had been scorched by fire.

He was still up there, the Elf Prince. The being had fought bravely but his world had fallen. His Great Tree, the Graelic was dying. Imorbis watched as the leaves withered and fell, raining down from the sky.

He was unable to shake the feeling that he was the one who had lost.

“So, are you satisfied, Imorbis? Was the victory worth the price?” came a voice at his back.

Imorbis changed his focus, looking at the remnants of his body — he had no hands. He could manipulate the demon wind to recreate them, but to do so was taxing and drained energy from other, now vital, resources. To simply maintain his shape was nearly impossible. He could mold himself into a humanoid form, but only by covering himself in a constant cloak of demon wind. If he failed to do so, his body would simply dissipate; drift off with the planet’s wind.

This victory has no meaning …

The price to defeat the Elfin was indeed high, and Imorbis had gained nothing. Even though he was victorious, he had fed little. The victory feast of his dreams was non-existent. The Elfin blood proved vile and somewhat toxic to the Dark Army.

Likewise, what he thought was a highly coveted prize, their God Tree, was utterly inedible – at least for Imorbis. He had learned that somehow Sevron found a way to consume its lifeforce.

It appeared Sevron would be the only true victor. And with the power he claimed he would fulfill his darkest desires – he would turn the universe into hell.

“If we failed to take this world … If we fail to take any world, the Elders win. I admit I was beaten. I had failed. With all my powers and resources set to the task, I yet failed,” Imorbis said, turning to the grey-bearded Mastecus and the yelloweyed imp squatting on his shoulder. Usually, Imorbis couldn’t keep the little red devil quiet, but the creature said not a word; he eyes were half-closed, his head downcast.

“Still … to bring him here, Imorbis. Have you even seen what he has become?”

Imorbis turned back to the God Tree, watching as the Dark Army swarmed up the trunk. Anything with warm blood in its veins became prey, species were extinct in minutes. The multicolored canopy blackened. Everything died. Never once slowing, the black infection continued to creep upwards.

“No.”

He couldn’t bear to see him. Sevron’s capacity for evil was limitless. He believed in only one thing – chaos. The man was a horror before Imorbis had resurrected him … he couldn’t imagine what he had now become.

This is all my fault.

He couldn’t bear to see him – but he would have to face him, kill him if possible.

“To be free … that is all I really wanted. An end to the

Hunger.”

“There is only one end to the Hunger.”

“Yes, death. I know it well. Over the years I’ve grown all too accustomed to the concept. But for the chance to truly live again … our losses would have been worth it.”

“Humph, just as I thought, you still don’t have a clue what you have done … what we have truly lost. Sevron controls the Army now. He’s as mad as ever – perhaps more so – and is determined to plunge the entire universe into his madness. He cares nothing for life, nor for this ‘immortality’ we possess. He will put an end to it all, starting with the Elfin. We’re leaving this place, I suggest you do the same … while you can.”

“I’m not leaving. Not until he is truly dead.”

“You already had your chance to rid us of Sevro