|Publication Date||Oct. 15, 2015|
|Series||Limits @ Infinity|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
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.
∞THE ENDLESS ROAD∞
A LIMITS @ INFINITY SHORT STORY
BY J.C. BELL
© 2015, J.C. Bell
* * * * *
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.
*NOTE TO READERS
This is a continuation of my other works in The Limits series. For a more complete understanding of characters and events, I advise you to read my past novels.
The Endless Road
The battle for the Sanctuary was over.
We left the Rift behind us . . . to never return. Once more we cheated death . . . once more we escaped the clutches of the Plague.
When we arrived in the Seventh World we were hailed as heroes; the so-called ‘Guardians of Death’. They believed in us . . . believed we could save them from the coming of the Dark Army. But those who survived the Sanctuary knew that our victory was hollow, knew that we had failed. Instead of returning with an army of gods, we returned with a handful of mortals, who, despite their great powers, were all susceptible to death and defeat at the hands of the Dead Gods.
We had failed.
The Dead Gods were more powerful and corrupted than ever before. No longer could we reason with the Dark Army, or hope to survive by appeasing their needs. They now sought but one thing – an end to all life. And they would stop at nothing to see that need fulfilled.
Our future was certain. Death would find us, no army would ever be strong enough and no wall high enough to hold it back.
No matter the truth of it, the survivors joined together and focused all their skills and energy into transforming a mountain range into a wall. As a fortification it would amount to naught, but as a symbol the wall gave them hope . . . hope that perhaps in time at least their descendants could have a future and a fighting chance.
To me it seemed death was our only future . . .
In my eyes, the wall was a false promise, if not an outright lie. Our children would grow beneath an illusion of peace, ignorant to the fact that every day their inevitable deaths drew near.
I couldn’t bear to watch their illusion unfold, watch the survivors veil their children’s minds in a lie. So I turned my back on them and lost myself in the untouched wilds of this planet; what had become known as the ‘Seventh World’.
. . . for many years I walked the land.
Away from the Rift, surrounded by the world’s raw beauty, I almost knew peace . . . Then I heard the summons of an old friend. His death was at hand; a peace he most rightfully deserved. I could not refuse his call. After the sacrifices he had made, to honor his life and offer my respect was the least I could do.
Thus I returned to the Rift, and what was now the city of Lock Core.
That’s when I saw it for myself . . . the culmination of their efforts, their hope — their Great Red Wall. The rising towers topped with silver spires, the smooth, polished, cliff-like walls — impossible to scale for even the most agile elf. Not since gazing upon the God Tree of my home-world had my vision failed to take in the breadth of such a massive structure. How the survivors could have built it – and in such a short span of time – seemed impossible.
Despite what I knew of the Dark Army, at the sight of it I couldn’t help but fall prey to the illusion of hope the wall inspired.
Then I was reunited with my friend . . . and I saw his greatest creation – his child. Half human, half elf; as I gazed into her grey and white eyes, I saw the truth of it . . . the wall was more than an illusion, more than a symbol . . . much more . . . the Red Wall was a true chance at a future — our only one.
The life of my dear friend came to an end . . . but a new life had begun . . .
I once convinced myself it was over — the universe was scorched of life. But suddenly anything seemed possible. I couldn’t escape the feeling that others might have survived . . . and that life remained . . . hiding in the darkest corners of the universe. And if so, they too should have hope and a future.
While the others rejoiced at their creation, and sought comfort and peace in their new world, I set my sights on the Dead Worlds. I sought survivors . . .
Once more I entered the Rift . . .
Once more I found only suffering and death . . .
The Seventh World
Post Exodus, 105
The seasons varied in the Outlands. In the frozen north, winter was eternal; darkness became a season, covering the icy landscapes for months at a time. In the southern lands, where dense jungles hid the sun in a canopy of leaves, rain was the major season; a torrential downpour that turned the jungle floor into a river. In the west, year round, the great desert knew only blistering heat by day, and bone-chilling cold by night.
The only true method to gauge time in the Outlands was the passing of the ‘midnight sun’, a bright, fiery comet that crossed the night sky every year; right before the autumn leaves took on their yellow hues.
Adros had watched the midnight sun cross this world’s sky eighty-two times since last he had seen his old friend; a lifetime for some, but for the ageless elf, the eighty-two years were only a season – a brief season of peace before the time of chaos and death returned.
His time away had been spent in a journey of discovery through the wilds of this ‘Seventh World’. Adros had learned a great deal about the planet since then; not only had he walked from one ocean to the next, mapping the land, but he had also encountered a vast array of indigenous life; both plant and animal. Truly the planet was a living world – perhaps the last in existence – and truly it would provide safe harbor for the Triad of Races.
But now his journey was at an end, another season had begun. He was returning to the Rift, to the red-walled city designed to defend it, and to the one man most responsible for the wall’s creation . . .
Brontes . . . You had such high hopes for this world, Adros thought, truly wishing he shared his friend’s vision; that Brontes’ dream of peace and safety in this world was a reality. But one of the reasons he left the city was that he couldn’t bear to see their wall, their false hope. And to see his dear friend give everything to its creation – including his immortality.
After the battle of the Sanctuary, as most of the survivors set to crafting their wall, Adros took to the Outlands instead. For one thing, he was at home in the wilderness. For another, if this world was truly to be their home, it had to be known. His affinity with nature and fighting instincts were best served in that regard; or so he told his old friend.
He prayed that Brontes was unable to sense his guise. Adros knew his friend wouldn’t dream of reading his thoughts, but how much could he read upon his face? Adros never hid the fact that he thought Brontes and the others were naïve to think they could stop the Dark Army. Because of this belief, he lost many friends among the races – but never Brontes. Some even claimed he was a coward, and that he had given up, not only on the survivors, but on life itself. Admittedly, their words held a great deal of truth. He was a coward. Though not for the reasons they suspected. The real reason he couldn’t stay was that he lacked the courage to look upon his friend, to see his scarred face and return his twisted smile in kind. He lacked the courage to lie to him, to pretend that everything would be all right, and the peace of which they dreamed was finally realized.
What Adros really wanted to say was that he was sorry, sorry for failing him in the Sanctuary, sorry he wasn’t strong enough to stop the Dark Army, and sorry that his failure left Brontes a ruined man.
No matter if he sensed the truth, Brontes would never deny Adros his freedom, and knew he deserved to reap whatever sense of peace he could from this world before the coming of the Plague. Brontes also knew that no matter what Adros claimed, when the time did come to face the Dark Army, the Elf Prince would be the first one standing atop the wall – likely the last one as well.
Uncertain if they would ever meet again, Adros and Brontes bid each other a brief, but heartfelt farewell. Without looking back, Adros set out to explore the world they now called ‘home’.
Can your wall save this world, old friend? Adros wondered. Is there any way to stop its death?
As he sat perched atop one of the world’s giant elms, he almost believed it was possible – to stop the Plague. With the land spread out before him for miles upon miles, the raw beauty and natural harmony of this world nearly dropped even his defenses.
Originally, after they left the city they headed west – following the foothills of the great mountain range. But on their return journey they came from the south, where their path led them to the marvelous forest of untouched elms.
The typical elms reached heights upwards of five hundred standard feet, and were undoubtedly ancient — thousands of years old. But the tree Adros had climbed dwarfed all the others. It was beyond ancient. Its existence likely spanned the ages, harkening back to before the Age of War; to a time when peace was still the dominant sentiment among the worlds.
The ‘midnight sun’ will be coming again soon, he thought as the wind whipped through the forest, numbing his cheeks. The summer sun was setting earlier with every passing day. Midday had only recently passed, yet already the western sky was covered in an orange and red glow. Dimly lit stars could even be found, twinkling against the backdrop of the fiery sky.
“Very soon,” he whispered, his words accompanied by a puff of mist.
From his vantage point, the great mountain range was once more visible; its giant peaks towering higher still than even the mighty elm in which he stood. The largest peaks vanished in a thick covering of clouds.
Far below, dusk’s light was mirrored in the crystal-clear waters of a large stream. The waters were born of the mountains, feeding the valley below and winding their way through the forest. The river had proven a helpful landmark; by following it upstream, it had guided them northward on their journey home.
Adros had spent the return journey in haste, it wasn’t until he came upon the massive forest that he took a respite. For his companions, the trees provided much needed shelter. For Adros, they provided a valuable vision of the land, with which, he could fill in a large swath of his maps before his mission came to an end – at least, that’s why he thought he stopped. But once he began the ascent up the trunk, it became clear that the real reason he paused was that he couldn’t resist the urge to climb one of the ancient giants; so akin to the God-tree of his homeworld.
At the sight of them, memories of a better time filled his mind.
Even his body remembered, the moment his thin fingers took hold of the thick bark ridges the muscle-memory of his youth was suddenly restored. He was young again, an elf-child in the prime of life, born to the branches and as comfortable with the climb as he was walking.
As nimble as ever, he made short work of the ascent, and was soon above the forest canopy. With a clear view of the land below, he began to convert the valley into a map for others to follow. He had done the same in all the lands he had come upon over the past eighty-two years. And during that time, his collection of maps, and wealth of knowledge, had grown into a book. A book that, when he returned, he meant to share with the rest of the survivors – that is to say, only after he shared the final moments of life remaining to his friend . . .
We could be at home here, he thought, and swore that when he returned, he would pass on the forest’s location to his people, and by doing so hopefully pass on the traditions of their ancestors as well.
Though saplings compared to the elven God-tree, the Graelic, the elms could still restore his people’s affinity with nature. Most of them could no longer remember it, their home-world Ki’minsyllessil. Those that did – like X’ander – wished it could be forgotten. To them, the only memory of the Graelic was that of the corrupted Dead Tree – a place of suffering and pain.
Often he wondered if X’ander should have been left there to die. Unlike the other elven children he had saved from the Dead Tree, X’ander had hung from its limbs far too long. No matter the beauties they encountered in this world – the elms included — his eyes remained as glazed and empty as they were the day he found him hanging from the Dead Tree.
Such beauty . . . he mused. It has been too long.
He frowned at his maps; a lifeless collection of lines of elevation and numbers. His mind no longer registered the topography of the land as raw data, but as brilliant colors and rich textures. Only a painting could truly capture the land, and only one crafted by an expert hand. He fought the urge to scatter his works to the wind, and attempt to create the latter.
Instead, he was content to sit there — the only sound the wind whispering in his pointed ears, the tree gently swaying back and forth — and let the vision of beauty burn into his mind as a memory; a small slice of time that he could claim as his own. The rest of his near immortal existence would remain devoted to others, but that moment of beauty would be only for him.
Once more he contemplated Brontes’ peace . . . How he wished it was real. And oh how he longed to share it with another . . .
Alana, my love . . . he thought, remembering his other failure. Where have you gone?
In his lifetime, he had been to countless worlds. On every one, he always held out hope he would find her. But after discovering one dead world after another, his hope dwindled. And after the horrors of the Sanctuary, it was all but a certainty she was no more – or even worse, that she had been taken by the new, even more corrupt version of the Plague.
If he had thought for a moment she could have survived out there, alone — when entire galaxies died — he would have returned to the Rift and tore it apart to find her. But even so, he wouldn’t be the only one out there, searching . . . The Dead Gods were out there hunting as well. And if he didn’t find her in time, they would find him and then this world, and put an end to hope and to life itself.
He had seen too many planets die to believe that this one would be different . . .
As long as the Rift remained, it would never be different.
He felt it; no matter where he went in this world he felt it. Somewhere north of the mountain chain the Black Door was pulsating, beating in tune to his own heart . . . and as always, the peace that Brontes spoke of dissipated into an illusion.
Adros picked up his maps, and once more the land became sterile lines, the mountains wavy contours on a piece of parchment. He had a job to finish, and a journey to complete. The young elf prince so enamored with art, nature and love was no more. His heart grew cold. He had to be strong . . . stronger than before . . . stronger than the Plague.
Since the fall of his home-world, he had honed his mind and body to a keen fighting edge. That ‘edge’ did not simply fade away at the mere sight of the cliffs of red granite encircling the Rift. Nor did he wish it to. His existence was devoted to fighting the Dark Army, and so long as the Dead Gods remained, so too would his fighting edge. He knew in the city it would quickly dull, but in the Outlands it would keep him alive, and carve him a path through the new world.
Yes, there was a time when his life was devoted to caring for and nurturing nature, and to be surrounded by it was a welcome blessing. But that was another life . . . another elf he no longer understood, nor cared to. He was a warrior now, a weapon.
So it was, he completed his maps and abandoned the romantic elf prince atop the elms. He ensured his blackened staff was securely strapped to his back then began his descent. Once more he was Solo Ki, the One Elf — his keen edge sharp as ever.
Tumbling down the branches like an acrobat, he came to the earth. Even now, after all this time, he still found the sensation of solid ground unpleasant. He was born amongst the clouds, it wasn’t until the Plague came to his world that his feet first touched the earth.
He did his best to ignore the strange feeling of walking on flat ground and headed out to rejoin his companions, who had made camp beneath a cavernous gap in one of the elm’s trunk. As he moved, darkness quickly replaced the orange sky. It took but a moment for his white pupils to adjust to the shadowed forest. As they did so, a bluish glow appeared in the distance, making his path even clearer. Following the light, it wasn’t long before he found his companions and their living cave — a twenty-foot arch at the base of a giant elm. Together, they awaited him beneath the archway and a fiery halo of mage-fire.
As if hiding from the light, slumped over in the darkest corner of the cave was his adopted son, X’ander. The mage-fire shone on the top of his bald head, yet was unable to ignite so much as a glimmer in his dull eyes of grey and white. As it was since Adros first saved him from the Dead Tree, his silent and deadly shadow had followed in his footsteps during his journey though the wilds; his mood darkened even further since the horrors of the Sanctuary.
Side by side at the entrance to the cave, a pair of robed figures stood vigil, their bodies covered with brilliant licks of blue flames. Though a slight display of their power, the light it generated could be seen for miles, and the warmth felt from several yards away.
As Adros neared, they let their hoods fall. One revealed the soft, lean features of a woman; the rest of her frail, stick-like body hidden by her black robe. Her hair was as dark as her robe, and cropped short, lying flat upon her head. Her brown eyes, once so downcast and sullen, now had an eternal gleam – particularly when they rested upon her husband – who was at her side, his face likewise revealed. His hair was shoulder length, and bound behind his head into a high-ponytail. It was light-brown in color; but greying at his temples. His features were dour. His skin was worn and dry like the leather of a well-traveled boot. At first glance, he seemed a harsh and unforgiving man, but his stern demeanor easily broke as Adros neared. A wide smile crossed his face, revealing the kindness beneath the tough, leathery exterior.
Instead of coming over to great Adros, the final member of their group trudged away from him, retreating to the back of the cave. The being raised a handful of wrinkled and stubby fingers in a half-hearted salute before grumbling, “Bout damn time.” He then kicked off his boots of brown leather and settled his squat four-foot frame to the ground. “I told em not to worry . . . and that the last thing they had to fear was Prince Adros falling from a bloody tree,” he continued, tucking his bedroll beneath his head.
When they originally set out from the city, hundreds were among their party. Now, including himself, only five remained. Most had been humans, a sizable group that decided to put their faith in Adros’ tracking abilities and survival skills in the hope he would guide them to fertile, hospitable lands in which they could establish colonies. The humans who originally set out were long since dead. Many perished along the way; some from weariness and age, others from injury and the elements. But many of those who began the journey succeeded in creating communities far removed from the Rift. Their legacies remained in the form of growing cities, now brimming with generations of their descendants. The land was bountiful, allowing the humans to thrive in their new-found colonies. So much so, that several major trade routes now lead back to red-walled city the dwarves named ‘Lock Core’. From the Outerlands, the trade routes now delivered everything from purple dye harvested from the flowering desert cactus to giant sea sturgeons fished from the Eternal Sea.
But the greatest trade of all was in silver. The Dwarves swarmed the mountains to find the ore, without which, even the sharpest blade they crafted would be utterly useless against the Plague.
And the being most responsible for locating the hidden treasure was one of Adros’ remaining companions, Tophin the dwarf, a mineral and ore expert who set out with Adros, likewise seeking knowledge of their new world — mainly its natural resources. Many of the current silver mines came to be from Tophin’s notes on the mountain range. As he traveled further along the mountain, so too did his kin, following the very maps he created.
Because of silver’s importance, if Tophin found even a trace of it, they had cause to report back to the city. The pair of Magi in their group made such instantaneous reports possible. Both of the Magi were powerful and trusted companions. Adros had fought alongside them on more than one world – including the Sanctuary.
The female Mage was the lithe – but powerful – Kendal; a woman whose kind-hearted nature was matched only by her fierce fighting skills and power of the Oneness. She was a legendary hero of the Sanctuary. Without whom, none of them would have ever left the planet of black glass. Adros could name few warriors as fearless and powerful as Kendal. It was an honor to have her as an ally and a friend.
If ever she became and enemy . . . it would likely be the end of the One Elf.
Never one to leave her side, her husband Ollius walked every step with her, hand in hand. Another survivor of the Sanctuary, as well as leader of the Exodus, Ollius was a former Gatekeeper of worlds and as blessed with the Oneness as his wife – when she wasn’t consumed by a battle frenzy.
Being a former premier Gatekeeper, Ollius happened to be an expert in interstellar communication. As such, he was able to replicate the technology back in the city, what he called a ‘mirror pool’. Essentially, the pool enhanced the natural telepathic powers of the Makii. By channeling the Oneness, the pool could absorb telepathic thoughts from great distances. And when another joined their mind to the pool, such thoughts could be shared. But the greatest benefit of the ‘mirror pool’ was that when paired with a similar pool, the Makii had been able to share their thoughts between worlds, no matter their distance. Though such ‘pools’ continued to exist throughout the ruined universe, Ollius feared testing them, lest he find the Dead Gods peering back. If so, they could uncover his thoughts, and worst of all, the location of their hidden world.
It had been years since their last communication with the city of Lock Core, but sadly, three weeks ago Ollius received a message . . . Brontes was on his deathbed.
And so it came to be, the Elf Prince’s venture into the wilds was at an end . . .
Adros was returning to Lock Core to see his old friend for one final time.
With the coming meeting, he began to regret his journey — as peaceful as it may have been. Adros could name only one man in the universe more caring and honorable than Brontes, and that man was so pure and good he had ascended to true godhood. Adros owed his life to Brontes, and the lives of every last one of his kin. Together they had faced the demon Ostedes and were both nearly destroyed by him. It was Adros’ fight, but Brontes refused to let him fight it alone. Because of his choice, Brontes suffered unimaginable physical pain, and permanent disfiguration. And it was all Adros’ fault.
It was time to say what he should have so long ago — that he was sorry. Until now he had been too afraid to speak the words. But before Brontes meets his maker, he deserved an apology.
Adros nodded to the others as he entered their camp. The Magi moved to great him, while the venerable Tophin continued to rest his head of grey hair against his bedroll. As expected, X’ander’s presence was all but ignored, as if his existence was an afterthought.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Ollius asked with a smirk, guessing that Adros had personal motives for climbing the tree.
I saw the Elf Prince die . . .
“Yes,” he flatly replied, causing Ollius to grow somber. “We’ll be upon the mountains within a week, and if our luck holds out, reach Lock Core shortly thereafter.”
“Humph,” Tophin grunted. “No matter our luck, the range will be a bitter crossing this time of year. I guarantee there’ll be no comfort in her frigid bosom.”
The return journey had been particularly hard on him. While the others had aged little since they left Lock Core, the years were beginning to take their toll on their dwarven friend. He began the journey in the prime of his life, now his beard was consumed by grey and his once muscular arms and legs were swollen and sore.
“We best get our rest while we can,” Tophin continued, obviously longing to catch up on some much needed sleep. “The next time we find a fine shelter like this, we’ll be in the city of Lock Core.”
“Agreed. Rest, all of you.” Adros stated, looking especially hard at the Magi, knowing their powers would be invaluable in the coming journey. “It would seem the winter wind has arrived early this year. If it carries the snow with it, we will be hard pressed to make it to the other side.”
Adros’ mood was apparent, leaving little room for idle chatter. Knowing the next leg of the journey could be his last, Tophin quickly settled in, breaking the silence of their camp with his loud snoring. Kendal and Ollius bundled together, keeping any exchange to a soft whisper.
Having spoken less than eighty-two words since they originally left the city, X’ander remained the standard silent shadow, leaning in the background the entire night.
Other than Tophin, sleep eluded the members of the group. It wasn’t so much the thunderous snores of the dwarf that keep them awake — they had long since grown accustomed to his night-time rumblings — but the impending death of Brontes. Not only was he an ally and friend of the Magi, but also their respected leader. Though he would never admit it, even the soulless X’ander had a deep connection with the man, in that he married his sister, S’ilindsa – the one being in the universe with whom he felt anything close to love.
As much as they all needed sleep, it was a restful night; memories of Brontes, and the many ways his life had enhanced their own, consumed both their waking thoughts as well as their dreams.
When morning finally came, it came without the dawn. They awoke to a rain-soaked forest. Grey clouds hid the sun. A torrent of rain fell from the sky. They broke camp in grim silence. After failing to wake Tophin with a gentle kick, Kendal latched onto his silvery beard with her power and hoisted him to his feet. Still asleep, he stumbled about on his stubby legs until a near collapse finally roused him.
“What in the dead?” he fumed, ready to pummel whoever awoke him. However, he quickly changed his mind when he saw Kendal grinning nearby; blue flames still dancing upon her body. Gnashing his teeth, Tophin moved on, stuffing his wide feet into his boots and gathering the rest of his belongings.
Once Tophin shook the weariness from his bones, they broke camp quickly, and with expert precision. After eighty years together, they all knew their roles. Not only was Tophin the mineral expert, carrying a small shovel on his back, a pick axe hanging off a belt-loop on his right hip and a large hammer on his left, but he was also the group’s expert chef, lugging a collection of herbs and cooking utensils in his pack. X’ander handled all of their climbing gear; several lengths of rope and harnesses. The Magi took the brunt of the load, using their power to hoist the heavy packs of food and fresh water. Adros was responsible for the tarp which they used to create a makeshift tent, his writing supplies, survey gear and as always, the blackened staff of wood that was the sole relic of his dead home-world. He held the Graelic in his hands, the twisted piece of wood black as coal except for the blood-red tip.
After all their belongings were secured, with little more than a grimace at the wet forest, the companions set out.
Adros led the way, the beauty of the woods forgotten; his focus now solely on getting through, and as soon as possible. Even with the Magi forming an umbrella of power to hold back the rain, the group was quickly drenched. The leaves of the elms were as large as their heads and cupped, collecting the rainfall like bowls. Every leaf they brushed against caused a chain reaction, unbalancing the leaves above and sending the water crashing down around them like a waterfall. Likewise, the forest bed was ankle deep with water-soaked moss, leaves and mud. Walking through it, their boots were not only filled with water, but bogged down as well. Every step became twice as taxing as it should be.
Tophin struggled the most. Whereas the others sank in to their ankles, Tophin was up to his knees. A steady stream of blue flames poured from Kendal into the dwarf. The mage-fire eased his trek through the obstacle, enhancing the strength and stamina of his aged body.
It wasn’t the first time they aided him with their power. And as usual, Tophin accepted their help grudgingly. He knew from past experience they wouldn’t simply leave him. That being the case, the last thing he wanted was to slow them down.
Over the past several years, it had become customary for the Magi to pour their power into Tophin; partly to silence him from grumbling about his aching joints, but more importantly to keep him from lagging behind. Initially, he scoffed at the decision, but after the healing blue fires soothed his pains, any complaints he raised were raised mainly for show.
Trudging onward, Adros took them back to the river, which was now overflowing its banks. He kept the party a safe distance, lest they accidently become swept away in the now murky and broiling waters. A bed of smooth black rocks lined the riverbank, making the terrain far easier to navigate. In less than a day, the Brentwoods were at their backs and the mountains were rising in front of them. The raging river became a slow-moving stream running between a pair giant mountain peaks. The forest of ancient elms was replaced with a sparse scattering of evergreens sprouting from the rocky hillside. Whether it was luck, or the will of the Maker, once they reached the mountains the weather turned in their favor. They continued following the stream, the pass between the two peaks the most obvious way through the mountain chain. The rain let up, and never materialized as snow in the mountain pass. The next two nights, they camped beneath a clear sky full of stars. And on the third night, they even managed to find lodging in a cave beneath the foothills. Stopping only to feed and to sleep, they set out immediately at first light. For the most part, the weather remained mild, and they continued to make good time. A viable trade-route had yet to be established through this side of the mountain, leaving the companions to cling to goat paths as they sought passage. But even so, they travelled faster than Adros anticipated; the elves, as sure-footed as any goat, virtually danced from one rock to the next, while the Magi were able to levitate most of the way. At home among the mountains, even Tophin fared well, gaining strength and stamina the higher they climbed.
It wasn’t until they reached the upper heights of the mountain that their luck changed for the worst. A layer of snow and ice covered the jagged rocks at their feet; the snow hid the ground, turning any misplaced step into a broken ankle, while the icy cliffs were a sure way to slip and fall, crashing to the rocks hundreds of feet below. Worse yet, nearing the peak, a thick blanket of mist materialized from out of nowhere, enveloping the mountain and them along with it. Even for the elves, the thick fog made the final leg of their journey difficult. Adros had to save himself more than once when he mistook solid footing for thin air. Though he cursed and grumbled more than the rest them combined, Tophin actually managed better than them all. His highly adapted ‘cave vision’ cut through the fog as if his eyes were covered in mage-fire, while his low center of gravity kept him grounded to the mountain path.
Being amongst the clouds and the fog made any respite, no matter how temporary, a dangerous notion. To them, the terrain was unfamiliar. But not so to the many mountain beasts who had hunted these parts long before the settlement of this world began. Every bluff and outcropping of rock was a potential hiding spot from which such a beast could spring, catching them virtually unaware. The covering of fog, and the loud stumbling of the group made them easy prey.
Instead of seeking shelter and waiting out the fog, they decided to push on, relying on the power of the Magi to keep them moving, and to keep them invigorated. Eventually the fog grew so thick that even the highly skilled Adros had to drop out of point and give way to Kendal’s lead; the waifish girl floating over the rugged path in a halo of the Oneness, her eyes shining like beacons of blue flame against the mist.
For several grueling days they climbed; the air growing thinner, the fog thicker. When at last they entered the summit pass, they thought the worst was over. But their relief was shortlived, for the descent proved more treacherous than the climb. Even tethered to the flying Magi with ropes, with the fog still clinging to the mountain, they had no idea what they were descending into. The slightest miscalculation could send them plummeting into the unknown ground below and certain death. At one point in time, Tophin lost his footing and went tumbling head over heels into the abyss. Kendal was quick to react, bursting upward until his line went taut. They all breathed a sigh of relief after his gruff curses echoed their way up the mountain. Then, reeling him in like a flopping fish, Kendal pulled the rope up with the Oneness, landing him safely on a flat, ice-covered ledge.
They moved more cautiously after that, all of them doing far more floating than climbing. But now, the draw of power was proving to be taxing on the Magi. For the majority of the climb, they had used their power to keep the frigid climate at bay. Likewise, because of the fog, their eyes held a constant blue-burning glow. Though they were two of the most powerful Magi Adros had ever met, the extended use of their abilities had taken them to their limits.
Adros was on the verge of halting the descent, to rest and seek some sort of shelter among the cliffs. Then, as if stepping from the Rift into an unknown world, they found themselves below the fog.
One moment there was nothing but an endless, impenetrable white, and the next, a wide open blue sky.
As one, their eyes took in the clear sky, and the valley below. They all paused in awe at what they beheld . . .
Even from a distance the red-wall appeared massive, was impossible to take in in a single glance.
Easily twenty stories high at its lowest point, the walkway wound through the mountains like a giant serpent, the huge red stones its scales. Half of the wall was carved into the mountain, the other was formed by filling the gaps between the natural cliffs with stacks of giant blocks of granite. It followed the contours of the mountain, which was a circular formation of peaks that enclosed the valley, and the Rift far below. The Rift . . . in comparison to the mountain wall, appeared a harmless, throbbing speck.
Gatehouses topped with silver domes and spired minarets dotted the walkway. Most were made of the same red stone as the wall; some of the smaller ones were made of notched timbers. Behind the wall, garrison houses had been built into the mountain – thousands of them, as well as larger keeps and storehouses full of supplies for the garrisoned army. A single, larger keep stood tall along the northern wall. Though obviously an important structure, the keep was simply adorned; a row of columns fronted the structure and supported an upper curtain wall. The structure itself was cube-shaped, with only one visible entry. The entire top of the square structure was a flat battlement large enough to support a legion of defenders. A circular tower rose on either side of the keep, a spiral staircase wound upward on the exterior of each. Several balconies protruded from the towers, guarded by iron palisades. Vertical slits used as murder holes for the defending archers lined the wall of the towers as well as those of the main keep.
More towers divided up the length of the main wall as well, though most were double the size of those at the keep – four of them greater still. The four towers were aligned with the major compass points; north, south, east and west. Only three were fully complete, the Northern Tower was still a framework of timber, yet to be encased in the massive red stones.
Glimmering in the morning sun, lines of mail-clad guardians marched the walkway, their formations at least twenty soldiers wide. All along the knee wall, similar sparkling forms could be found, tucked between the crenelated blocks facing the Rift. Adros didn’t have to see them clearly to know they were the archers, and that many of the sparkles came from the silver tipped arrows notched in their bows.
There appeared no entry to the Rift itself – only a giant circular wall enclosing it. The grounds within were a killing field, the only escape a two hundred foot climb up the smooth red cliff.
“Impressive . . .” Adros inadvertently mumbled.
Could it be . . . ? A barrier to the Dark Army . . .
The ragged group of survivors had transformed a mountain into the most formidable barrier to the Plague Adros had ever seen – and in a shorter time than should have been possible.
A barrier, indeed . . . but no one to defend it, Adros thought, noting how few the lines of sparkling defenders on patrol, and the many empty guardhouses and towers. If only there were more . . .
His thoughts again turned to Alana. Not only because he thought this world would greatly benefit from her aid, but because he knew how much she would enjoy this sight . . . and more importantly, how much he would enjoy sharing it with her.
“Hah, a miracle of the Stone Brothers, it is.” Tophin said.
“Brontes has been busy. Only the Oneness could have created such a thing,” Ollius added.
Even X’ander had a glimmer in his dull eyes.
“Either that, or it’s a gift of the Maker,” Adros said, though he figured both were most likely correct.
He well knew what the Stone Brothers were capable of; their former leader, Rag’nerack was a force of nature that even an army of Dead Gods could not stop. And the power of the Oneness . . . he witnessed it perform more miracles than he could count. If the Magi – such as Brontes – were devoting their every last bit of it to the wall then it was no wonder they succeeded.
I’m sorry I doubted you, my friend, Adros thought, adding the apology to the list.
The sight of the wall invigorated them all. And for Adros, it also left him feeling something he never thought he would feel again . . . hope. He swore, then and there, that no matter what occurred, when the dead returned he would stand atop the wall his dear friend, Brontes, had created. And he wouldn’t leave, not until the Dark Army was defeated, or he was dead.
With their energy renewed, and the end of their journey in sight, the rest of the descent was made with ease. They chose the clearest path, though it led them miles from the circular wall. Kendal and Ollius were all but drained of the Oneness, and none of them were in any mood to be scaling the rest of the way down the ragged cliffs. Besides, they wanted to make their presence known, and not swoop down upon their old friend entirely unannounced.
They took advantage of the easy stroll to recoup their strength, as well as to take in their surroundings.
As they came closer to the city, Adros couldn’t help but note how drastically the land had changed since he had left. Cottages dotted the hillsides where trees once stood. Beyond the foothills, oceans of wild prairies were now structured rows of wheat and barley.
Looking upon it all, Adros wondered how much he had changed in the last eighty-two years. Most likely little, if at all. He was still the warrior, through and through. As for his appearance, beneath the layer of dirt and grime, his face hadn’t aged a day. His hair, though likewise caked with filth, still retained its golden glow.
He thought it incredibly odd, that an entire world could so suddenly change, and meanwhile he could not, as if he was frozen in time. Immortality . . . he realized how repulsive a notion it truly was. Why anyone ever sought such a thing, when it was so obvious it could be nothing more than a curse.
At some point in time, his own life would end. Perhaps of old age, perhaps at the hands of the Plague. He thanked the Maker it was so, and that he wouldn’t be forced to watch the universe rot for eternity.
Ollius, Kendal, and X’ander had aged little on the journey as well. The magic of the Magi kept them fit and young, while X’ander’s elven blood endowed him with a natural immortality. But the years took a toll on Tophin, who was now a wizened dwarf, his silver beard often tripping up his feet. For Tophin, the journey to Lock Core would be his last. He would reunite with his race, passing on his maps and knowledge of the lands so that his dwarven kin could harvest his recommended locations.
The day was drawing near that Adros would be standing vigil upon his deathbed as well . . .
Immortality . . .
Again, Adros scoffed at the notion, wondering how many deaths he must suffer before his own soul would finally be at peace. Deep down, he knew he the answer . . . just as he knew that for him, the road to peace would be a long and grueling one. And that all he could do is suffer it, walking down that path one agonizing step at a time . . .
He took another step down the mountain.
The roadway below them was a flood of activity. Not only was the path well-worn, but often covered in crushed gravel or even flat stones. Fellow travelers filled the road, most making the early morning journey to the city from the Outlands. For the most part, they were simply dressed, wearing earthen colored breeches, unadorned dresses of light wool and loose-fitting tunics. Heavy bundles were strapped to their backs; leaden with trade goods intended for sale at the capitol market. In the city, the Outland goods garnered the greatest price, for the storage bins were in constant need of filling to maintain the garrisoned army. Adros noted a group of grimfaced dwarves hauling a cart down the roadway. Like Adros and his companions, their journey to the city appeared to be a grueling one. Their leather vests were blackened – soaked with sweat. As was their long hair and braided beards. They battled for every step as they wheeled their cargo down the road – which, most likely, was stuffed with precious silver ore.
Adros and his companions descended from the mountain, merging with the incoming swarm of travelers on the road to Lock Core. They did their best to blend in with the flow of traffic. But as they walked, many paused to gawk at them. At first, Adros thought it was because they were so filthy and disheveled, but then he noticed many other travelers who were as ragged looking as they, if not more so.
Then he heard it . . . the gentle whispers as he neared, a single word shared among them, spoken as if in prayer, ‘Adros’.
After hearing his name spoken aloud, Adros knew, those who stopped to stare, stopped to remember . . .
After eighty-two years they had not been forgotten, the heroes of the Rift . . . the deadly, bald-headed elf, X’ander . . . the grim-faced Gatekeeper, Ollius – leader of the human exodus . . . the frail, but mighty Kendal – slayer of the Dead Gods . . . and the immortal Elf Prince, his magical staff of twisted wood as black as ever and still clenched in his hands.
It meant a great deal to him, that after all this time, they still remembered, and that Adros’ trials in the Dead Worlds and the Sanctuary had indeed bore fruit. Those he saved had not only been able to live their lives in peace, but so too had their descendants. So long as they remembered . . . they had a chance.
If ever they forget . . . then there surely can be no hope.
The group did their best to continue on, trying to pass through the crowd while ignoring their whispers and wide-eyed stares.
They encountered few elves along the way. But those they did, immediately stopped what they were doing to bow to their Prince; instant recognition alighting in their grey and white eyes. As he passed them, Adros rested a pale hand upon their golden heads. In the elven tongue, he bid them to rise, and assured them that they too had not been forgotten – his children, the children of Ki’minsyllessil.
It wasn’t long before a crowd had gathered to view the rugged looking group of mysterious travelers, and the closer they came to the Red-wall, the larger the gathering. When they finally made it to the outskirts of the wall, the streets were jammed, forcing them to stop and endure the clamor of their admirers.
“It appears we’re famous,” Ollius said, amused by the sight.
“Dead Hells,” Tophin grumbled, fingering his pickaxe as if ready to carve a path through the crowd.
Before he began, Adros saw another old friend among the throng.
He stuck out among all others, and not because he was the only one wearing a black robe. Even from a distance, his head appeared huge – more aptly fitting upon the body of a giant Stonebrother. One eye was half shut, while the other was grotesquely large, as if ready to burst. His limbs twisted around his body, like gnarled vines hugging a tree-trunk. It seemed a miracle he could walk at all considering his knees bent in the opposite direction, yet he limped toward them, the crowd parting as he neared.
Smiles alighted on Ollius and Kendal as they caught sight of him, and together, the companions worked their way through the crowd to reach him.
As they neared, his calming and gentle voice invaded their thoughts.
“It’s been a long time, my friends,” he said, telepathically. His mouth full of crooked teeth functioned for eating, and little more, requiring that all of his communication was performed telepathically.
A smile formed on his bulbous head, twisting his features even more so.
“I only pray not too long, Jakkar” Adros replied, dreading to discover if Brontes had already met his maker.
“He waits,” Jakkar said, gleaming his thoughts. Only one being in the universe was more skilled in telepathy than Jakkar – but when it came to healing with the Oneness, Jakkar was unmatched.
“Until the One Elf returns to him, he will wait,” Jakkar continued.
The notion made Adros dread the coming meeting even more.
“Is there nothin you can do to save him?” Tophin asked, shuffling over to the deformed mage. Though not a close friend to Jakkar, Tophin was still well aware of his reputation as a healer.
Not only was Jakkar another famous hero of the Sanctuary, it was common knowledge that he had survived the Plague. On the Sanctuary, he was infected and left for dead by the Dark Army. But instead of becoming one with the Dead Gods, Jakkar was able to regenerate his corrupt and damaged cells. Afterwards, he united with Adros and the others, joining in the battle to escape the Hangar and thus greatly aiding in their escape from the fallen moon of black glass.
“Even if he wished to be healed, I simply could not,” Jakkar said, sadness filling his enlarged eye. “He has given his all to this world . . . to this wall. Many of the Order have done the same. To see it built, to see this world safe, they have devoted the entirety of their Oneness to creating the Red Wall.”
“A more powerful Mage I have never seen. If Brontes gave his life-force to this wall, then the dead will suffer dearly to take it,” Ollius said, his eyes full of pride and admiration as he looked upon the creation of his friend.
“Dearly, indeed,” Tophin added, running his stubby fingers along the flawless joints of the crenelated wall.
I pray your sacrifice is worth the price . . . Adros thought, not entirely convinced it was, but swearing he would do his utmost to ensure Brontes’ gift was not made in vain.
“Only time will tell, Prince Adros,” Jakkar said, once more picking up on his thoughts. “But if we follow Brontes’ example, giving the sum of our lives so that others may live, then perhaps life will we have a chance.”
Perhaps . . . Adros pondered, beginning to see the truth of his friend’s wisdom. There was no doubt Adros had given much over the course of the years, but he was still young for an elf. There was much more life ahead of him . . . much more yet to give. Again, he saw the long road stretching out before him, a path of pain and suffering that wound through time with seemingly no destination or end in sight . . . In his mind’s eye, Adros stared down the path, this time knowing that by following his friend’s lead he could endure what was to come.
Yes, he would find peace, but only in the acceptance of his suffering, and only when he had nothing left to give.
But would his sacrifice be enough? Would it even matter what he gives if there was nothing left in the end?
“We must all face that question, Prince Adros,” Jakkar said, sensing Adros’ self-doubt. “But we do not face it alone . . . we are one. And as one we shall give an answer . . . and no matter what we say, our reply shall be resounding.”
While Adros pondered his words, to the rest of the party, Jakkar continued, “Come. I will take you to him. Brontes anxiously awaits your arrival.”
Once more, the throng of people parted for the misshapen being, not out of revulsion, but pure respect. Following Jakkar’s slow-moving lead, he guided them along the walkway to the large square keep.
The crowd of onlookers halted as they neared the pillars at the entry. Situated among the stout columns, dozens of human guards stood vigil. Garbed head to toe in gleaming armor, each soldier held a spear; a black ironwood shaft topped with a foot-long blade of silver etched steel. Full helms with horizontal eye-slits hid their faces, while sleeveless white surcoats draped over their bodies; a circle of seven suns emblazoned on their chests. Black mantles embroidered with silver hung upon their shoulders.
They formed a line on either side of the entry; motionless, and as stoic as the stone columns they stood between. Above them, rows of murder holes covered the entry wall. Farther up, along the crenelated parapet, silver tipped arrows focused on the approaching party; the soldiers above, viewing them through their crossbow sights. With Jakkar guiding them onward, they continued past the line of soldiers, who eyed them warily through their horizontal eye-slits. Their gauntlets tightened on the shafts of their spears, yet otherwise they remained motionless.
At the entry, a pair of ten-foot giants manned a silver-studded door that was nearly twice their height. Each giant held a seven-foot double-edged blade before them, a single swing of which could cut a man in half — from head to toe. They bowed at Jakkar’s approach, and lumbered aside. Eyeing the companions beneath their large, bushy brows, each of the giants wrapped their meaty fingers on a door handle and pushed the portal open.
With a wave of his crippled hand, Jakkar gestured them forward. Adros and his companions followed the giant doors as they continued to swing inward, groaning on the hinges.
Similar columns to those at the entry lined the room, supporting a ceiling that was three stories tall. Each level had a walkway that ran the perimeter of the room and was joined from one floor to the next with iron stairs. On every level, onlookers (and archers) crowded the railings to regard the group of legendary figures. A squadron of soldiers filled the large chamber – similarly garbed as those at the entry – as well as a large gathering of Magi. All of the Magi were young, unfamiliar faces to Adros. Instead of wearing the standard black robe, they wore robes of varied colors; red, blue, brown and white. They chatted excitedly amongst themselves as Adros’ group neared; the young Magi focusing mainly on Ollius and Kendal, their eyes mixed with respect and awe.
A pack of dwarves came bursting from the line of soldiers, jostling them aside to meet the procession. Utterly ignoring the elves and the Magi, the dwarves swarmed Tophin, filling the chamber with their boisterous laughter as they each gave a long-winded introduction, detailing their lineage hundreds of years prior to the Exodus. Tophin’s cheeks grew flush at the sudden attention, but he accepted it surprisingly well; returning every hearty handshake – and even hug.
No longer able to contain their own excitement, the group of young Magi joined in, pulling Kendal and Ollius aside and bombarding them with questions – little of which had to do with their time in the Outlands, focusing instead on their exploits during the Exodus and the Sanctuary.
“The Keeper waits, Prince Adros,” Jakkar said, limping over to the gathering of Magi in an attempt to contain his young apprentices. “You will find his chamber at the end of the Great
Hall. May you bring him peace in his final moments.”
Following Jakkar’s guidance, Adros moved on, never doubting – or much considering — that X’ander was somewhere behind him.
Under the gaze of many eyes, he strode the length of the great hall, ending his walk at an iron door, plated in silver. Several raised inscriptions were upon its surface. Repeated in every language of the survivors, the phrase was written; ‘So that all may live . . .’
Adros reached out . . . his pale, slender hand brushing over the words as they were written in the elven tongue . . .
Sensing his touch, the door opened . . .
It was like entering the gates of Heaven.
Rays of light filled the room, spilling in from the stained glass windows in the back.
Before him stood and angel.
As if drawn to the figure in the doorway, the beams of light shone upon her, covering her in a natural aura of sunlight. Her hair glowed — a golden halo upon her head — making Adros wonder if the light was coming from the sun or her flowing curls. Her eyes were a pure white pupil, surrounded by a pool of grey. The tips of her ears poked up from her hair, striking straight towards the heavens. The sunlight glowed against her silky white skin, exposing the blue veins beneath and the rhythmic pulse of her heart. Golden ringlets dangled on her cheeks, while a waterfall of interwoven braids tumbled upon her back. Silver rings encircled her biceps, while similar silver bands hung upon her neck and waist, supporting the flowing blue fabric of her dress, which was split from her hips down, exposing her long legs with every step.
She held a bundle in the crook of her arm, wrapped in a similar blue fabric as that of her dress.
“S’ilindsa . . .” Adros whispered, stunned to see her face again . . . and that he had forgotten how beautiful she was.
At the Sanctuary, she was still ageing — nearing the end of her childhood cycle. Now she had finally matured into her ‘immortal’ face; a face which would remained unchanged for centuries to come.
And what a beautiful face it was; every graceful line an artist’s stroke, her skin smooth and white like porcelain; the only hue a tint of red on her cheeks and lips.
He was about to wrap her in a powerful hug but hesitated . . . when he heard the bundle whimpering in her arms.
The One Elf froze . . . the keen fighting edge he so coveted was nowhere to be found.
“I never thought I’d see the day . . . that I would see the great Adros shocked,” S’ilindsa chided, a smile glowing upon her face at his reaction. “Meet your granddaughter,” she continued, raising the child to him. “Her name is Andril’lin . . . Brontes’ final gift to this world”
S’ilindsa passed the child to the Elf Prince, his staff of blackened wood clattered as it left his hand and fell to the stone floor. Delicately, Adros took the babe into his arms.
He locked eyes with Andril’lin, who gave him a bubbly smile and cooed as he nestled her closer to his chest. Though half human, the child still possessed all of the features of his people. Already golden sprouts were springing from her head. Her ears were like tiny triangles. And her eyes . . . a miniscule reflection of Adros’ own.
Adros’ stiff lips arced upwards. His hand drifted to the infant’s face, brushing her thin, golden curls. Her tiny hands took hold of his finger.
“She’s beautiful . . . a true miracle.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he looked upon a new-born elf. He never thought he would see such a miracle again . . .
Hope . . .
He saw it in her grey and white eyes . . . purity . . . truth. Everything he fought for.
All those years in the Outlands he thought himself a failure, never knowing what he had truly achieved . . . life continued on . . . his race continued on!
In the face of the most daunting and powerful army the universe has ever known, he had succeeded. Life had a chance — no matter how small it may be. It was up to him to see that chance grow.
Anything is possible . . . Alana . . .
It became suddenly clear to him what he had to do . . . what the next step of his journey would be.
“Hah, now I truly can die at peace, having finally seen a smile on the face of the One Elf,” spoke the familiar and dearly missed voice inside Adros’ mind.
Unbeknownst to Adros, he was grinning ear to ear.
There came a deep groan, and rustling of fabric from the opposite end of the room. Adros turned his head to the source of the sound; to the seven circular windows – six small windows surrounding a single large window. The six were stained a myriad of colors – made to resemble the fallen worlds of the Exodus. The seventh was a glowing globe of pure white light. Bathed in the Seventh’s glow was a bed; a canopy of white silk draped over four red-mahogany bed posts. Hidden in the canopy was his dying friend . . .
Adros was trembling . . .
“I’ll take her, Father,” S’ilindsa said, the cherubic bundle putting up a fuss as she pulled him from Adros’ arms. “Go . . . he has been waiting for you, he has been waiting too long.” Adros had been so disarmed by the infant he had forgotten why he had come . . . death. The smile faded from his face.
S’ilindsa saw his mood darken, “Don’t worry. He is ready . . . now that you are here, he is ready. Trust me, he is more at peace now than ever before.”
He did trust her . . . utterly. But still, what would he find under there? Forgiveness . . .
would he be granted yet another chance at redemption? Or would there be only death . . .
another empty loss of one he loved.
Hesitantly, Adros approached.
He paused at the side of the bed . . . his slender hand pulled back the canopy . . .
In a single glance, all his greatest fears were confirmed.
The shriveled being could not possible be his friend . . .
He knew Brontes was a ruined man after the Sanctuary. But now that he abandoned his power, the years had caught up to him, amplifying his every pain and disfigurement. He was far older than even Adros, and was showing every bit of it.
In the Sanctuary, all of the flesh had been peeled from his face. The gaping wound that was his head had fused into a featureless scar, which was now shrunken and wrinkled. A long patch of scraggly grey hair sprouted from his head, while the rest of his exposed skin was covered in grey blotches and hemorrhaging lesions. The white sheet covering his body was peppered in red stains. Beneath the sheet, his skeletal frame heaved with every labored breath.
Despite his love for the man, Adros still found it difficult to look upon him without flinching; not because the sight of his ruined face repulsed him, but because he felt partly responsible for his condition. He should never have joined him in the Hangar, he should never have stood against the abomination that was Ostedes. Alone, Adros surely would have died. Brontes’ suffering was the price he paid for Adros’ life.
“I’m so sor . . .” Adros began.
“Don’t you dare say it, One elf,” Brontes interrupted in a raspy whisper.
“I’ve know the horrors of the Plague since I was a child,” he continued telepathically, raising a frail hand to the blackened pit on his face where an eye should have been. “I knew . . . even before the birth of the immortal Adros, I knew. Every time I entered the Rift I knew the risk, the sacrifice.”
Bloody phlegm dripped from his lipless mouth as his body was suddenly wracked with a fit of coughing.
“The Sanctuary was my battle . . . my failure. I saw him . . . Ostedes . . . in the minds of those who fled, I saw him. And I knew what he was capable of . . . such horror . . . How easily he decimated my Order. I knew the risk, you did not. I followed you, certain I was heading to my death . . . but you, my friend . . . you had hope. At your side, anything was possible . . .” he said, his remaining eye covered in a dreamy glaze. “I would have followed you to the very Void itself, had you but led the way.”
The burden of guilt he had carried to the Outlands suddenly vanished – replaced with embarrassment. There was no need to apologize to his friend, any attempt to do so would be an insult. He saw the ruined body of his friend anew . . . the frailty was an illusion. Brontes’ power transcended mortality . . . transcended the flesh.
Adros had always known it was so; Brontes wasn’t an invalid or a fool. He was a survivor . . . he survived the battle with Ostedes when hundreds of his peers were slaughtered. And he was a great man . . . one of the most powerful Magi to have existed. Even now, with his body merely a shell, he radiated with power.
But above all, he was the best friend Adros had ever known . . . and he had abandoned that friendship . . .
While Adros had been hiding from reality in the Outlands, Brontes had continued to fight, to devote his existence to saving others and ensuring the continuation of life.
“I should have stayed at your side. I never should have doubted you . . .”
“No. Because of the work you’ve done, we know the world in which we live . . . the world we must defend. Even now, cities rise where you have walked . . . life spreads.”
Blood continued dribbling from his mouth, his body shook with every breath. Yet he continued on, as if his body did not exist, his mind severed from the physical world.
“We all have our part to play in the Maker’s game, Adros. Mine . . . mine was easy . . . I merely built the wall. You must defend it. I won’t live to see that day, but I trust none more than you to succeed.”
“On my life I will . . . but first . . .”
After all he had been through . . . Adros knew he had no right to request anything of the man. But he had to . . .
“I have to go back . . .”
Brontes waited for a severe fit of coughing to subside before managing to reply, “By the
Adros shifted uncomfortably under his friend’s confused one-eyed gaze. As much as it pained him, he had to continue, he had to have Brontes’ permission. Without it, he wouldn’t dream of entering the Black Door. He had to convince him his reasons were justified, and that his journey was more than a suicide mission.
“I have to go back for them. For those that yet live, yet fight. The survivors . . . Not only will we need them on the Wall, but they too deserve the peace we have achieved in this world.”
Brontes’ body was still, frighteningly so. Even his chest stopped heaving. Adros feared his request had overwhelmed his friend in his weakened state, and was on the verge of calling for
Jakkar when Brontes’ voice once more sounded in his mind. “ “You return for them . . . or for her?” He wouldn’t lie . . . he couldn’t.
“For love. I have to know beyond-a-doubt there is only death . . .”
“And if she is dead . . . what then?” Brontes questioned, his ragged breaths restored.
“When does it end?” Does it ever end . . . ?
“When I have nothing left. Only then will I stop . . . until then, I fight on. I fight harder, and never make the same mistake again . . .”
Brontes feebly shook his head, lowering his eye.
“You say love . . . but I worry what you really seek out there is vengeance . . . or worse, death.”
“I only want is Alana . . . she is all I ever wanted.”
“Alana . . .”
Adros never forgot that Alana was a Chosen of Anon, and therefore sister to Brontes. He also knew that Brontes held a deep love for her, one that was nearly equal to his own. He was counting on it . . . counting on Brontes’ own longing to set her free, to save her from the Rift and the punishment she unjustly suffered. What worried him most, was that if Brontes thought her rescue was possible, he would have attempted it himself a long time ago.
“For over a century she has been out there, lost and alone. To survive for so long would seem impossible . . . But if anyone could do it, it would be Alana.”
“You have made a believer out of me. What you have done here . . . You have shown me anything is possible.”
“All I’ve done is give life a chance . . . But if I lose you to the Rift as well, there will be nothing. I need you here . . . when the Dark Army comes I need Prince Adros atop the Wall. If you are not there to lead them, then none of this matters. All that I have done will be for naught . . .”
“I wish only to do the same, ‘give life a chance’. And I swear to you, my friend, when the day comes I will be here,” Adros replied, kneeling down and taking his friend’s hand in his own. “I will fight till my last breath to see your dream fulfilled. But to do so, I must be strong. To sit and wait for that day to come, I will only grow weak, and meanwhile the Dark Army grows stronger.”
A knowing look filled Brontes’ single eye; tears spilled down his mutilated cheek.
“It saddens me to say it, but peace no longer suits you, my friend. All too well I know the feeling — living with the knowledge of what’s out there . . . that the last vestiges of life are being swallowed up, and we have abandoned them to their fate. If it wasn’t for my daughter Andril’lin and my loving wife, my soul would be unsettled . . . as yours must be. Since the Sanctuary, they have called me a ruined man . . . but I fear you have lost more than us all. My pains are of the flesh . . . fleeting . . . but yours are eternal.”
“It’s true, I can no longer bear this . . . ‘peace’. Not while others yet suffer. There was a time I was a caregiver, and would have loved nothing more than to nurture the life in this world. But that young elf is no more. I am nothing now if not a warrior. Time and time again I have returned to the Black Door to fulfill my duty to Anon, to deliver others to safety. Now I ask your blessing to return for myself, to return for her . . . Alana.”
What might have been a grin spread across Brontes’ scarred face.
“Just like old times . . . A journey to the unknown . . . the odds stacked against you, facing certain death.”
A deep sigh passed through his mouth.
“If only I could follow you once more.”
Adros looked upon that twisted and warped smile, and this time Adros did respond in kind.
Then his friend grew somber “You’ll die out there alone.” I’m never alone.
For the first time since he entered the keep he thought of his son, X’ander. Adros felt a strange emptiness at his back and turned . . . He was shocked to discover X’ander hadn’t followed him to Brontes’ bedside, but was at the doorway with S’ilindsa. And in his arms, a little bundle cooed. Much to Silindsa’s chagrin, he held the child stiffly in his arms, regarding her tiny form in puzzlement — unsure how to react to such a fragile and innocent being. X’ander had faced Dead Gods unflinching, but somehow, those tiny grey and white eyes managed to frighten him.
“Kendal has been itching for a good fight,” Adros said, happy to see any hint of emotion in his son. “And Ollius wouldn’t dream of letting her wander the Rift without him. Perhaps others will come as well . . .” X’ander . . . ?
“I promise you the secret of this world shall remain,” he continued. “We will leave as we came . . . taking a pod to deep space, and forming a Gate there.”
Golden light covered the body of his friend, more pure and brilliant than even that which shone through the large central window.
“Go, Adros. Find her . . . Bring her back to our world,” Brontes said, his voice as strong and clear as the day Adros had first met him.
Adros leaned over, enveloping his friend in his long arms. Not surprisingly, Brontes returned the hug, his thin arms wrapping around Adros with a near bone-crushing force.
“I will, my friend . . . And together, we shall stand atop your wall . . . and send the Dark Army scrambling back to hell . . .”
Love . . .
Surely Adros had earned it.
He fought for his people, for survival, for life . . . but at the utmost Adros fought for love. Brontes had always known as much. It wasn’t to say he doubted Solo Ki’s loyalty or commitment to the Triad of Races, but he always knew that deep down the strongest force driving Solo Ki back to the Rift, time and time again, was the infinitesimal hope that he would be reacquainted with his love, Alana, who had been cast adrift by the will of the Elder Gods. A punishment she never deserved. She too believed in love, so deeply she thought it would save Adros’ world.
She failed. But her cause was just, her decision the righteous one. In the end it was the Elders who were proven wrong.
Though he wouldn’t be able to join him on his latest journey, Brontes was a little comforted knowing Adros would be in the best of company.
He spoke with Ollius and Kendal, and new they would be joining the Elf Prince. He also spoke with X’ander, and was surprised to learn that he would not. It seemed he would be shadowing his daughter now . . . X’ander spoke little in their meeting, beyond swearing his life to protecting Andril’lin. On one hand, Brontes was comforted knowing such a formidable warrior would be watching over her, but on the other hand, X’ander was a cold killer, and he worried the darkness within him would somehow pass unto her.
He turned his eye to them, standing vigil at his bedside. Andril’lin was still in X’ander’s arms; her eyes closed, asleep and so peaceful, as only a babe could be. He never saw such wonder in X’ander’s eyes, such joy. Perhaps it was for the best . . . perhaps her goodness would be the one force in the universe that could heal his dead heart.
The thought filled him with peace, and he felt himself fading away . . .
He looked to the others . . . to his wife; her beauty eternal, her love infinite . . . All these years, as his body continued to deteriorate, her love only grew stronger. For all his power and exploits, he couldn’t have endured the pain and loss without her at his side.
That was why he allowed Adros to go back . . . without love, even the immortal One Elf would surely die.
The Elf Prince was still at his side, one hand holding his own while his other clenched his staff. It was obvious he was torn – eager to enter the Rift, yet unwilling to miss Brontes’ final moments of life.
Good company indeed, Brontes thought, his melted face lighting up in a smile as he looked upon the companions at Adros’ side — Ollius and Kendal, a pair of hardened survivors of the Rift. No one knew the Gate better than Ollius, and none would fight harder than Kendal.
There was time he would have longed to join them, but he had sacrificed enough already. What he had left to lose was that which he dared not risk, his wife, the immortal beauty S’ilindsa, and of course their newborn child, Andril’lin.
Besides, he thought. The universe has Adros to look after it now.
He was content to go to the Maker knowing his wife, his child, his world and his wall would be left in good hands . . .
“They are entrusted to the hands of the Maker now . . .” a disembodied voice spoke, as if through his very soul.
Brontes reached out with his other hand and took hold of empty air.
Anon . . .
The last time he had spoken with his Savior was after Sanctuary’s fall — not that he was surprised or offended by his absence. Ever since he was first rescued from his home-world, he realized Anon was no man, but a force of nature, coming and going as inexplicable as the wind.
And like the wind, at times soft and gentle, at other times powerful enough to reshape the world.
It’s time . . ?
“Yes, I’ve come to take you . . . to take you to the Maker.”
He felt Anon’s hand in his own, the touch so gentle and soft his consciousness began to drift away . . .
Please, Anon . . . before I go, I must know one thing . . . Will he succeed? Will he save her?
The reply was stated too quickly and too plainly for there to be any doubt.
“But one day, she will save him . . .
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