Drifting . . .
"He's your father?"
"Yes. He loved my mother, Andril'lin who was once High Mage . . . back in the days when the Order had honor. Back in the days when the One Elf could still feel . . ."
. . .weaving, in and out of the darkness.
"He is the father of us all. Of all the elves in the Seventh World, Solo Ki is perhaps the only true elf. The only pure-blooded descendent of Adros left in existence. He is in many ways, the last of his race."
"He must be very lonely."
Bursting toward the light . . .
"Yes Emily, I iMagine he is."
Alec opened his eyes.
He was blind.
Groaning, he tossed the blanket over his head. He then rolled over, covering his ears and eyes with the thick feathered comforter. Despite crumpling the blanket and stuffing it into his ears, a squeaky voice managed to pierce the fluffy layer and stab deep inside his brain.
"Is that why he wants to die?" the voice continued.
"I don't know. Perhaps he's seen too many others die and is tired of watching it continue." The voice of Nathalia was somewhat softer on his ears, but the memories it stirred sent cracks running through his skull. "Who knows, perhaps he's just tired of living."
"Then why did he fight back, when you tried to kill him?"
All that Alec heard was; SQUEAK, SQUEAK, SQUEAK.
"I didn't try to kill him, just . . . revive him. Solo Ki has some honor left, even though he is a Shal'in Ome. If he murdered himself, or died willingly, his spirit would be doomed to haunt this world forever in the elven undeath, for suicide is the only way we can be turned. And once turned, elven spirits are invincible."
"Galimoto thinks the smelly one is awake, though he tries to hide himself beneath the covers." The voice sounded like a thousand bells ringing in his eardrums.
"For dead's sake! Can't you people see I'm trying to sleep," Alec said, throwing back the covers and struggling to sit upright. "What the . . .?" Alec rubbed a pair of bloodshot eyes then blinked several times at the tiny red creature hovering in front of him. "Oh yeah . . ." He groaned, his memories returning. "So, the son-of-a-bitch is real. I'll be dead."
He briefly surveyed the rest of his surroundings, quickly realizing that he had managed to safely return to his cramped quarters above the Wayward Inn.
"What are you anyways?" He said to the imp who had landed at his side and was staring up at him with a pair of beady yellow eyes. A forked tongue flicked from the creature's mouth, then vanished.
“I am Galimoto," the imp replied as though puzzled by Alec's question.
"Oh," Alec said, rubbing his temples. "That explains everything."
"Nap time is over, Destroyer."
He turned. Sunlight streamed through the windows of his room illuminating the yellow locks of Nathalia as they tumbled down the smooth white flesh of her face. She glanced at him, the sunlight catching her cheek, shining through her flesh as though it were paper and exposing a network of pulsing veins.
"Time to join the living."
She sat at a round oak table, her slim fingers rapidly twisting a mass of dark curls, entwining the hair of the young girl sitting beside her. Sadness filled the girl's wide eyes, yet when she met the gaze of Alec her puffy lips arced into a smile. The girl wore a white dress speckled with sunflowers which Alec recognized as belonging to Nathalia, though on the girl it hung loosely around her hips and breasts.
"Ehh," Alec replied. "Who's the kid?"
"Her name, Alec, is Emily. She's a pupil of Master Brice, as is the boy," she flicked her eyes to the corner where a chair had been stowed away and in it sat a young red-haired boy, his arms crossed as he sat there snarling at the wall. "And when his punishment is over, you may refer to him as Tetloan."
Galimoto darted past Alec's head, and then settled on Nathalia's shoulder. The imp leaned forward, licking his lips with his forked tongue while he took in Nathalia's cleavage.
"Where's the leader of this three-ring-circus anyways? That mage . . . Smiley."
"You mean, Master Brice."
She spoke his name almost reverently and if his head wasn't throbbing with every breath he took, he would have leapt at the chance to chastise her for her abrupt change of heart toward mages. Because of them, her mother had been murdered. Much like Alec, Andril'lin had been feared for her ability -- which was the power to activate the Black Door -- unfortunately for her, back in those days it was thought that the Rift was best left silent. Somehow the Red Mage had managed to charm Nathalia, not an easy task. Alec had to give the man credit for that.
"Yeah him, Smiley. Where did he disappear to?"
"He left with the Death Guards. They went to the inner city, to the Archenon to discuss matters with Rafe."
Alec, as well as the entire population of Shattered Rock, was perfectly aware of the name Rafe. The being was, more or less, the city's ruler, and he was, most certainly, its most powerful crime lord. Few had ever actually seen him, and those that did said he was a being altogether different from the Triad. Even his existence and origin were both somewhat of a mystery. After the War of Lock Core he suddenly appeared in Shattered Rock, where he quickly began to dominate its underworld. Regardless of who he was, or where he came from, there wasn't a prostitute, thief or chopa dealer in the entire city who didn't hand him a cut of their earnings -- including Alec and Nathalia. Whether directly or indirectly, everyone paid him off, for all the money in Shattered Rock eventually lead straight to the heart of the city. Straight to Rafe's palace the Archenon.
The mage was going to stroll into the home of the most dangerous living being in the Seventh World – next to Alec, of course. It was a conversation that Alec would have loved to be present for, but for the life of him, Alec couldn't figure out . . .
"Why in the dead did he go there?"
"Do you remember this afternoon at all?"
He tried to think . . .
He shrugged his shoulders, blushing beneath his gray trimmed beard. Nathalia's white orbs rolled into her head while she shook her golden curls.
"Figures," she said. "There. All done. Let me see how it looks." Nathalia treated the girl like a little sister. Sitting there, smiling at one another, Nathalia may have looked like her older sibling, but in truth she was probably older than the child's grandmother.
Her long black lashes fluttering, Emily grinned up at Nathalia.
"More beautiful than the fairest of elves." Nathalia beamed down at the child with pride. "Wouldn't you say so, Alec?"
He saw her.
"Yeah, looks good kid."
There was only two dark curls remaining, one hanging over each of her earlobes dangling there like jewelry. The rest of her hair had been masterfully sewn together forming a crown of coils that blossomed from the top of her head, spilling down her neck in a fountain of silken black hair. The girl retained a thin layer of baby fat that made her cheeks puffy, but not exactly plump.
The sight of her made him suddenly uneasy.
"Am I done yet?" Tetloan said, still staring at the corner.
Alec breathed a sigh of relief at the boy's intrusion.
"It's an honor to meet you, Master Alec," Emily said in her squeaky voice. "My father says you're a hero."
Your father is an idiot, he thought, biting his tongue to keep from saying the words aloud.
"He says that if it wasn't for you, I may never have been born."
"Alec saved many lives that day, though you'll never get him to admit it," Nathalia said, smirking at him.
"Like my father used to say; 'the Destroyer saved both our lives'."
She cast her eyes to the ground and fidgeted with her dress.
"I guess . . . I just want to say thank you," she continued, looking up at him once more.
Her wide eyes made Alec feel queasy.
"Yeah, well my dad says he's a murderer. And that he . . ." Tetloan said, his neck swiveling so that he could face the others.
The boy had crooked eyebrows colored orange like his short cropped hair. His face was as pale as an elf's and splattered with brown freckles.
"Did you hear me say that your time-out was over? As long as you keep acting like a child, I will treat you as such."
Alec had seen Nathalia disembowel scores of opponents, but never had he seen her as mad as she was at that moment. Luckily for Tetloan, her weapons weren't at her sides.
"Well, you're both right,” Alec said, growing desperate to change the subject.
"So? Are you going to tell me what's going on or do I have to wait and hear it from the boy over there?" He threw his feet over the bed and began to stand. The sheet slid from his body as he stood up and suddenly Alec became aware that he was naked. Before he revealed his manhood to the others, he snatched the falling sheet, wrapping it around his waist.
Nathalia looked at the wad of sheets covering his groin and grinned. Then, she turned to the girl, whispered into her ear, and together they shared a chuckle.
"For dead's sake. Can someone get me my clothes and tell me what in the rotting hell's going on." His cheeks burned red beneath his beard.
"Yes, Master Alec," Nathalia said between chuckles. "Galimoto, would you please see to the Master's attire?"
"For the mistress Nathalia, Galimoto would do anything," the imp managed to pry his eyes from her breasts. "Except he will not touch the stinky man's undergarments."
To the sound of the women's increased laughter, the imp sped across the room, disappearing into Alec's wardrobe.
Alec puffed out his chest, and attempted to speak in an authoritative voice.
"What is going on? Who are these kids? Why are they here? Why is the mage visiting with Rafe? And most importantly, why in the name of the gods am I naked?"
His head was spinning.
"Slow down, Alec, you'll make yourself ill."
He squeezed his forehead between his thumb and forefinger while he said, "I need a drink."
"You're right," Nathalia turned to the boy. "Tetloan, you may leave the corner if you bring Alec a glass of water.”
Tetloan stood up then kicked the chair away from his backside. The chair skidded across the floor, crashing into Alec's table.
"I will let you rot in that corner, Tetloan."
With his shoulders slumped, Tetloan made his way to the counter and took hold of a brown glazed ceramic vase. Nathalia tracked him with her white pupils while he filled a cup of water, leaving him only after the cup was secure within Alec's grip. Alec grunted his thanks and would have felt sorry for the boy if Tetloan hadn't been sneering at him as he placed the cup into his hand.
Though not exactly the type of drink he had in mind, Alec drank the liquid with greed while Nathalia began recounting the morning's events.
"And you believe this elf, Solo Ki?" Alec asked after emptying his cup.
"Yes, more than anyone. The One Elf does not lie."
"Then why are we still here? Let's ditch this place before it becomes a mausoleum. You can even take the kids along if you want."
Well, maybe not the boy.
The next thing Alec knew, a pile of clothes were being dumped over his head.
"We're staying in Shattered Rock, Alec. We're staying and we will await the Plague."
"Come on, Nat, that's ridiculous, why in the dead would we do that? In a matter of days the Plague will turn this town into rubble. Even if Rafe decides to join forces with the mage, what good would it do? His men are cutthroats and thieves, not soldiers. We'd be fools to stay."
"Where will you go, Destroyer? The outlands are no more. Shattered Rock is the last great city in the Horde's path. Lock Core? Would you go there and risk imprisonment once more? Live the rest of your days in a High Tower cell?"
Alec draped the blanket over his waist as he squeezed into his pants.
"Besides which, Lock Core was built to defend against an attack from the Rift, not one from the outlands. I'd rather make my stand here then do so sandwiched between two evils, fighting with my back to the Rift," Nathalia continued.
Either way we're dead, Alec thought. He knew Nathalia was right, she always was. Alec had no intention of returning to Lock Core, it held for him only memories of destruction and endless pain, while welcoming him back with nothing but the promise of death. The certainty of the future and the echoes of the past were more than he could face, more horrifying than a world of dead. But stay in Shattered Rock? What new horrors might he then live to face?
Whether she was beneath the light of the sun or buried in the darkness of his covers, Nathalia always glowed, radiating a beauty that one needn't have eyes to see, but could simply feel with one’s heart.
She'll die if I stay.
"What?" Nathalia asked, both her and the girl were gazing at Alec with puzzled looks.
He realized he had been staring at her for some time, and that he was trembling.
"Nothing," he replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "I think I just need something to eat. I'll be downstairs if you need me."
"Fine, Alec. Just don't get yourself drunk again."
The thought of ale made the bile rise in his throat.
"Oh, and could you take Tetloan with you? Maybe he would be more pleasant if he was in the company of his own gender."
"Yeah, whatever," Alec said, turning to the red-haired boy. "You coming, kid?"
Tetloan replied by sticking out his tongue.
The more she searched the land, the greater Alana's despair grew. A dark seed had already sprouted from where it lay, deep within the Seventh World, and now it grew, spreading its roots throughout the land, enveloping entire cities beneath its limbs. An army of dead grew within the Seventh World and none saw them but her. While all of the world had their eyes focused on the Rift, they were blind to the blight growing in their own land, born from the very heart of their world. In Lock Core the evil heart continued to beat.
She saw them as well. The children of the gods. Every last one surrounded in darkness, each in their own way inching closer to death. Some, had already fallen. Some, she could yet save.
Then, there was the other. The one she could not see. A soul tainted beyond anything she had ever seen, its true identity hidden from her and from the rest of the world. The presence was a mystery to her. A renegade power whose purpose she could not fathom nor predict. A power that, whether good or evil, she knew it must be reckoned with.