He drifted through an eternity of nothingness . . . Floating disembodied through the Void . . .
'Welcome home, Whimly.'
He felt the hunger and craved to devour . . .
He could smell it, feel it seeping into his rotting pores, an aroma beyond lust and a sensation more powerful than any known to mere flesh. It called to him from an infinite distance, pulling him forth from an eternity of darkness, all the while begging to be consumed.
It was near him, taunting him to arise beneath its shadow.
Surrounded by rubble, he stood and watched -- without eyes -- as the emptiness before him splintered from the force of a billion points of light. With their touch he iMagined his flesh ached. IMagined that he could feel. IMagined what it was like to be alive. The life-force was all around him, but within him there was nothing. Nothing but a need to remember and a hunger he knew not how to quench.
'The secret's in giving up. It's knowing that this is life, and that what went before is the true nothingness.' The speaker was near. He could see him now, another shadow in the dark. And beyond him there were others, others like him. An army of them. Nearly filling the emptiness of his environment.
'Nothing?' he replied, using the voice within his mind. 'Then why does it feel so . . . Fulfilling.'
The shadow's laughter filled his ears.
'It's a feast, waiting to stuff our empty stomachs. But it never fulfills child. Eventually, we always want more.'
Yes. A feast! He had to have it. To not only fill his insides with it, but to bathe beneath it. To cover himself, inside and out.
To be whole once more, Whimly had to feast.
Alec descended the stairway with Tetloan in tow. His stomach rumbled as he breathed in the smell of spices, honey and freshly cooked meat. Instantly his mouth watered. The scent of honey in particular caught his attention, sparking to life memories of gorging on Grimgy's specialty, duck saturated in a sweet honey glaze. It was a recipe that the innkeeper only served on special occasions, though Alec couldn't see what was special about today.
Someone's birthday? he thought.
Whatever the occasion, he was willing to celebrate, just as long as he was able to stuff his face full of duck. His stomach muttered in agreement. With saliva filling his mouth, he scanned the room seeking the first empty table he could find. To his dismay, every table was taken. In fact, every inch of the room seemed occupied. He saw one of the Wayward Inn's serving girls, a plump young woman by the name of Elana, struggling to stuff her frame through the crowded room while balancing a tray of mugs high above her head. Alec called out her name, gesturing around the room.
"Sorry, Alec. We're full up," the waitress shouted in reply, nearly tripping over a patron's boots as she glanced at him.
"For dead's sake," he said, exasperated. "I can't even find a place to sit and eat in my own home." One of the reasons why he'd chosen to make a home of the inn was that -- beyond a handful of regulars, of which he was one -- very few customers frequented its walls. But, with the celebration of the Midnight Sun the night before and this afternoon's unexpected activity Alec wanted nothing more than to crawl into the corner of an unknown dive, eat his meal in peace and be confident that no one would dare burst in to disturb him. He remembered that not too long ago, the Wayward Inn used to be such a place. But now. . .
Tetloan had stopped beside him.
"I for one don't want to take my meal upstairs. I'd rather stand and eat than sit and listen to Nathalia's nagging."
Alec thought he saw the boy smile.
Nope, not quite.
"Okay kid, what do you want to eat."
Alec was contemplating the number of servings it would take to fill his stomach when a gap toothed old woman jumped in his face.
"It's you! The Destroyer," she said, her white hair flailing about. At her words, a great murmur arose through the room and all eyes seemed to fall on him.
Maybe eating upstairs isn't such a bad idea, he thought.
Alec tried to turn away from the woman, but before he could, she had him by the arm. Her fingers, clammy and cold, wrapped around his wrist.
"What do you want from me, woman?"
He couldn't shake free from her grip, her strength being fueled by the desperation in her eyes. Beside him, Tetloan was chuckling at his predicament.
At least I managed to get the kid laughing.
"Is it true? Have the undead come to claim the world?"
"Dear gods, lady . . . how in the dead would I know?" he replied, finally breaking free of the woman. "I just want something to eat."
Her jaw quivered.
"But . . . won't you save us?"
She tried once more to lay her hand on Alec's arm, but this time he was ready and quickly dodged to the side.
"Like you did at Lock Core?" she continued, reaching out with an empty hand.
"No offense, but what do you care?" Alec replied, tired of being reminded of Lock Core. He took a quick measure of the woman's health. "At your age, a chill breeze could kill you just as easy."
You're gonna be dead soon anyway old woman, you should wish for infection.
He realized he was misdirecting his anger toward the old woman, still, it felt good to vent it nonetheless.
Tears began forming in her eyes. Her hand continued reaching out to him, pleading, empty.
"Now, now, good lady. The Destroyer does not wish to be disturbed at this time." The voice was gruff but pretended to be soft for the elderly woman's sake. Soon after he spoke the words, the Inn's owner Grimgy burst through the crowd and was escorting the weeping woman away, his meaty hand nudging her waist. Next to Grimgy's stocky frame, the woman appeared even frailer than before. "Here, take her. Fix her something to eat," Grimgy said, passing the woman off to one of his staff before walking back to Alec and Tetloan. "Sorry about that, Master Alec."
Grimgy had always been respectful and pleasant to Alec, but never before had he referred to him as Master.
"What in the name of the Gods is going on here, Grimgy? I could've sworn that things would've quieted down after last night."
"Aye. Remarkable isn't it? Apparently gossip is popping up in the city like pimples on an unwashed back. Believe it or not, most of these people are here to see you."
Draped over his shoulder was a rag, dripping with grease.
"Great . . . just why in the dead would they want to do that?"
"As I said, rumors. Gossip. Wild tales of an undead horde advancing on the city, plus eyewitness accounts of mages and Death Guards wandering the streets. For some reason, everyone believes that you're at the center of it."
"Perfect," Alec said, a fake smile cutting through his bearded face. "Anything else I should know."
"Aye, there is. Among your many visitors there's one whom I think you should meet. Judging by his height and eyes I'd say this ones an elf . . . and an old one at that."
With a look of dread, Alec turned.
"There, to your left."
He was definitely tall, for even seated he was at eye-level with Alec. But beyond that, the elf was completely hidden beneath a cape that was, at different locations, either gray or brown.
Or maybe . . . , Alec thought, noticing the many frayed edges and holes in the garment. Maybe it's just a really dirty white cape.
Regardless, something about the elf seemed vaguely familiar.
"It's Solo Ki," Tetloan said, his voice surprisingly absent of malice or sarcasm.
"Really, lad? Solo Ki is here? In my Inn?" Grimgy said, his gruff voice filled with excitement. "We'll I'll be dead. What sort of business have you gotten yourself into, Alec? Mages one day, elven kings the next. You'd tell me if there was any truth to what they say? Right, Alec?"
"Yeah, you bet, Grim."
So that's Solo Ki?
"I wonder what he wants with me?" Alec asked of no one in particular.
"Maybe he's come to finish off Nathalia," Tetloan said, looking at the elf with admiration.
"What are you talking about, kid?"
Tetloan turned to Alec and sneering at him said, "You were probably too drunk to remember when he beat the snot out of your girlfriend."
He did remember some sort of struggle -- blonde hair, spinning blades and wood -- but had thought it a creation of his inebriated mind.
Nobody beats the snot out of Nathalia.
Once, back at the Warphanage, an elven master had come to train the orphans. After a week of fumbling at his lessons, Alec had learned little. He lacked the agility and speed to replicate any of the elf's moves. Even if he didn't, no human could stand alone against an elf, for they bring to every duel eons of experience that simply could not be attained in a human lifetime. As good as that master had been, he wouldn't have lasted a minute against Nathalia. Even among the elves, Nathalia's skill was both highly regarded and rarely tested. Those who did seek to find her limits always died before reaching them. As far as Alec knew, she had no equal, nor limit to her skill.
By dead he must be good!
"Oh, that reminds me . . . how is the lovely Nathalia?" Grimgy asked.
"Fine. Good," Alec stammered. "She's not here if that's what you mean."
"No, no Master Alec. Her debts have been settled, the young Master Brice has seen to that."
I try to take care of her and I'm a pimp? But the mage does so and suddenly she speaks his name as though he were a god?
"In fact, the mage has agreed to take care of all your expenses for the duration of your stay."
"Great," Alec said, more annoyed than ever. "Since that's the case, why don't you cook us up a couple of ducks and have them sent to the elf's table."
"I'll have Elana send em over as soon as they're done. Anything else I can get for you Master Alec?"
"Yeah, since you're asking. You might as well chill a couple bottles of wine, just in case I get thirsty. And not that piss you usually serve. The good stuff. The ones you keep hidden away in that cellar."
Grimgy was about to issue a protest, then he glanced at Solo Ki and made a quick half bow before heading to the kitchen.
"Okay, kid, I think it's time I was formally introduced to your elf friend."
They walked through the crowded room while every patron they passed shot Alec a look accompanied with a smile, a nod, and in some instances, a wink. Only the winks caught his attention, and he replied with a sly smile.
"I hear you wanted to see me," Alec said as he stood before Solo Ki.
Tetloan didn't hesitate to join the elf, plopping into an empty seat. Meanwhile, Alec scratched his beard and waited for some sort of response from the elf. There was an awkward period of silence in which the elf remained motionless. Alec passed the time by inspecting the elf's body for signs of life. He found none. For all he knew, the skeletal frame beneath the cloak was a corpse. He was on the verge of peeling back the elf's hood when Solo Ki's frail fingers stirred and clutched the cup of tea steeping before him.
"Nathalia's told me a lot about you," was all Alec could think of saying.
Resting against his chair was a strange wooden staff that was dark at the center, but otherwise crimson in hue.
"I know a lot about you too, Destroyer," the elf replied, his voice the sound of grinding bones.
He brought the tea up to his lips.
"You may sit, if you wish."
"Thanks," Alec said, not entirely certain that he did. Nevertheless, he took a seat opposite the elf.
"I thought you left?" Tetloan said, slouching in his chair. "So you've come to fight for this city after all?"
"What do you want, Solo Ki?" Alec asked. "If it's about Nathalia then forget it. You two can work out your own problems, leave me out of it."
"I’m not here for Nathalia. I've come for you, Destroyer."
"I don't get you people. Shouldn't you all be running from me in terror? What is it you could possibly want from me, elf?"
"I merely wish to stand by your side when the battle begins."
Alec issued a dry chuckle before saying, "You’re either a poor student of history or suicidal."
"History . . . I know more of the past than you could iMagine.”
Alec didn’t doubt it for an instant.
“Besides, it's not suicide as long as I strive for life."
"Whatever that means," Alec said continuing to tug on his beard. "Regardless, I'm sitting this battle out. If you want to 'strive for life' with me at the sidelines, then that's your business."
'Somehow I doubt that will be the case.'
The elf was in his head!
He's in my head!
While at the High Tower LeCynic had done the same, though he had been more interested in tearing it apart, filling his mind with pain. In comparison, the voice of the elf was soft, tranquil, almost lulling him to sleep.
Alec stared hard at the elf, struggling to see his eyes of white and gray from within his hood, hoping to find in them a hint at the elf's true purpose. He didn't have to search long, for the elf took it upon himself to reveal all.
'I want what you have given so many others.'
While he spoke, a pile of steaming meat surrounded in vegetables was deposited on their table.
'I want to be destroyed.'
The skin of the duck glistened beneath the honey glaze. But now, looking at the meat, all Alec saw was a corpse.
There had been fifty of LeCynic's personal guards, plus three hundred garrisoned soldiers when Drau'd had initially thundered toward them. He never asked for any of the others to follow, but behind him he heard the battle cry resounding throughout the work pits. Black mail erupted in fleshy pieces before he even reached the Cipher Squad, the young mage Harple obviously hard at work clearing him a path.
Still, with over a thousand hardened laborers screaming at his back, Drau'd knew he was in for a grizzly fight the instant he lifted Hell's Bane off of a crushed, wolf helm and saw the creature's flesh regenerate almost instantaneously. A couple more swings finished the task, but it had become an entirely different sort of battle than he had iMagined.
Thankfully the soldiers of Lock Core were mere humans and remained dead when killed. Many even switched sides once they realized the true nature of their allies. But LeCynic's guards were another matter. Those jagged blades took a heavy toll. Every guard they killed took a dozen good fighters down with it, and more often than not, the fallen living rejoined the fight on the undead side. At the War of Lock Core, Drau'd had faced similar beings, and with the power of Hell's Bane he was able to defeat them, though only by reducing their bodies to mush. More powerful than the Living Dead, these creatures regenerated at a dreadful rate, even wounds of silver closed almost instantly. If it wasn't for the help of the Cipher Squadron his forces very well could've lost.
"You and yours fought well today, Rian," Drau'd said, looking down at the gore covered youth of sixteen suns and current commander of the Cipher Squadron.
Drau'd had learned the boy's elder brethren had long since marched to their deaths within the Black Door, being the fiercest and bravest of their lot left, Rian had fallen into the role of their leader.
"We'd be dead if it wasn't for you, my lord," the boy replied, his features hidden beneath the blood of the living and the undead. "You gave us a fighting chance. Somehow I doubt we would have found the same beyond the Black Door."
The young warriors had more than upheld the honor of their kind. Needless to say, Drau'd had been highly impressed. Immediately they had adapted to their enemy, working in efficient teams to dismember and disable the Keeper's Guards, allowing Drau'd and his giant ilk to grind them into the dirt.
Drau'd still wasn't sure what he had been thinking or expecting when he attacked the Keeper's Guard. Acting out of sheer rage he mostly just wanted to see them dead, which he accomplished, though at far greater losses than he could have iMagined. Most of his workers had made their way to the battle, and afterwards he found most of them dead and scattered around the Black Door. His work force was meager enough to begin with, but now it was almost nonexistent.
What now? he wondered, no longer certain reconstructing Lock Core was his greatest concern. Soon the truth of LeCynic would spread through the city and with it revolution. He only hoped it wasn't too late to undo all of the man's evil.