It was day, but in the shade of the One Tree there was no sun, only an endless blackened trunk that rose to the sky. A mesh of gnarled roots thick as normal trees, sprang from the earth, surrounding the trunk for miles. The only light was the faint white aura encompassing the man's form. If not for the Power there would be only darkness, and he would be blind. Emanating from all directions, a constant wailing filled his ears as if the earth itself was in torment. Branches wafted toward him, although the air was still, snapping like breaking bones as they uncoiled to grasp at him, then withering away the moment they brushed his aura of white light.
He had traversed the maze of roots for days to reach his destination, so far he had remained unmolested. But he sensed that was about to change.
Everywhere he looked with his large wide eyes he saw them dangling from the One Tree, filling the branches like leaves. Mouths agape as though wordlessly screaming, their eyes of white and gray stared blankly into the darkness, meanwhile their skin constantly rippled as though swarms of maggots feasted beneath. Though in truth, it was the tree itself beneath their flesh. Unable to compel the elves in the Undeath, the tree now grew within them. Its vines fusing as one with muscle and bone. .
"I bring you a message," the man said, the words whispered through thin lips.
"Speeeeeeak," the hanging elves moaned as one.
"You're end is upon you. You will fail."
His message sent, the light vanished.
The last thing Anon saw was the branches, reaching out like fingers to grab hold of him then pierce his flesh. He watched the earth receding from his feet and then there was only darkness and pain.
"No, Anonnnnn. It is you who shall faillllllll!"
With the elf nearly stepping on his heels, Alec headed toward Shattered Rock's exterior wall. At his side, the Red Mage was silent, his features downcast. They had said nothing to one another throughout their trek, which suited Alec just fine. He had, for the most part, sobered up, though now he was beginning to feel the aftermath of his intoxication. Every thump of the elf's staff on the cobblestones made his head throb. The less said in his company, the better. Besides, his mind was still too addled for intelligent communication, especially a conversation with the mage, though there were many words he wished to say to the man. Hopefully, he would have an opportunity to say them before it was all over.
Above all, he was especially thankful that the mage had ordered his imp to watch over Emily and the others. At the moment, the little red devil would have been more than Alec could stand.
All around them, people were stirring with the news that something was amiss beyond the wall. To his left, Alec saw a young woman fastening the armor of a gray haired man whom Alec assumed was her father. After she tightened his straps, the man heaved himself upright and returned the favor to the young woman. Standing in a doorway behind the pair, an elder woman braced herself against a doorjamb and a crutch. Except for the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her face resembled that of the girl. She looked on, wiping her eyes as her husband garbed their daughter for war.
The daughter found Alec's gaze on her and gleefully smiled in return. Yelping to her father, she pointed in Alec's direction.
Quickly he averted his eyes.
They think I'm some bloody hero, he thought, hastening his pace.
Shadows fell on the trio as high above their heads figures darted along the many wooden planks crisscrossing the rooftops. After the wall surrounding the city fell -- which it was certain to do, being far too weak to withhold any sizable force -- the battle would spill onto the roofs. More than likely, the figures scurrying there now were stockpiling the area with arrows, ensuring that every rooftop had an inexhaustible heap of silver-tipped shafts waiting to be unleashed upon the undead.
Walking the remaining blocks in silence, they at last made it to the end of the city and stood together before the wall of poorly laid stones that would serve as the initial layer of defense. The defenders' strategy assumed its fall. They would hold their position along its ramparts for as long as possible, then, the moment it showed the slightest crack, the mages would set it, and the land around it, aflame. Those who failed to reach the rooftops would be obliterated in a rain of fire, while those who yet lived would begin their slow retreat, constantly making their way inwards to the Archenon, where they would make a final stand within the walls of the ancient human king.
Alec had no plans of making it quite that far.
They were at the foot of the wall when the mage turned to Alec and said, "You're on your own up there, Destroyer. Try not to do anything foolish. Your actions will be scrutinized by men far less sympathetic than I." He turned to Solo Ki, his features softening. "Fight well, One Elf, from this world to the next."
A golden sleeve was extended to the elf. Solo Ki hesitated only briefly before clasping the mage's hand.
"And you, Red Mage. May you at last find what you seek."
Brice nodded his head of silky brown hair and then his body ignited in flames of blue. With his eyes shut and his hands and legs hanging limply, he left the earth, the toes of his boots passing by Alec's face. In a matter of moments the mage was traveling through the air hundreds of feet above the wall. Alec looked up, squinting into the orange glow of the setting sun as the mage became a speck. He noticed others up there as well, a group a tiny dots bobbing in the air. He watched them for a while, finally losing sight of them in the growing haze of darkness.
"Shall we?" Alec said, gazing upwards at the makeshift scaffolding lining the city's wall.
The elf leaned on his staff as though exhausted.
If nothing else I'll make him happy, Alec thought, knowing that his shadow was growing weary of following him and anxious for the sun to fully set.
She leaned over the tower, covering her pointed ears beneath the fluffy black and white feathers of her collar. Looking down through a gap in the tower's circular parapet, she shivered as a sudden gust of wind drifted past. The gaps were spaced five feet from one to the next and angled downward at a near ninety degrees, allowing defending archers a clear shot at the enemy directly below them. Through the angled gap, Nathalia saw that Lord Rafe's garden was no longer green, but full of dull clad refugees waiting to stuff themselves into the palace. Coordinating their movements with jabs of his massive war pick, the wicked boulder dwarf Gunt kept the crowd moving at a constant and ordered pace. Other than Gunt, a sparse number of soldiers were present below. Mostly, the Garden was filled with the disabled, the elderly, or with children, hardly any of which could lift a bow, let alone draw an arrow. Yet, there were others walking through the Garden as well, their strides smooth, flowing. Unlike the rest of the refugees, these beings were fighters of mythical prowess, immortal beings with eyes of gray and white.
Shal'in Ome, Nathalia thought, looking down with disgust at her despondent kin.
Seeing them piling into the keep alongside children and cripples filled her with shame. She wanted to kill them herself, put an end to their lives before they humiliated the elven race by cowering in the keep, waiting for death.
Unlike them, she had come to the Archenon to fight. To save the children if she could. While the rest of the defenders were positioned along the city's outer wall, Nathalia had chosen to await the undead within the Archenon. Eventually the fight would come to the heart of the city, and when it did, she wanted to be certain she was with the children. If she was to die in this battle, she would much rather give her life knowing that in her final moments she had helped to preserve something pure and good.
With a bow of cherry wood on her back and a pair of thin, elven blades at her hips she was ready to eliminate whatever remnants of the undead made it to the Archenon. Comfortably seated on her shoulder was the imp Galimoto, his tail curled around Nathalia's left breast.
She turned, facing the backs of the children -- Tetloan's head of short-cut red hair and the lengthy dark curls of Emily -- as they looked out over the city.
"They shouldn't be here," Tetloan said, scowling down at the constant flow of people entering the Archenon's gates. He too had a pair of blades at his hips, but unlike Nathalia he hadn't the slightest idea how to use them. "To us, they're useless. But you can bet your life they'll be fighting when they're undead. Someone should have kicked them out of the city a long time ago."
"Where would they go?" Emily asked with a squeak. "You know there's no escape, and we've both seen what happens to those who flee."
She grabbed a fist-full of curls and stuffed it behind her ear.
"What about you? Would you walk those roads knowing that the demons are hiding in the woods, waiting to leap out at you?"
"Like you even know they're out there. How could you possibly know that? You act like the undead have thought things out, like they have some sort of plan. They're just stupid undead. All they know is hunger. That's all. I bet the roads are clear from here to Lock Core."
"If you're so sure then why don't you lead them there?"
"Because, I don't give a dead about them. I'm here for Nathalia."
"Like when you were there for, Whimly?" she said, her eyes misting over.
Silence was Tetloan's only reply.
"Must the children always fight?" Galimoto said from his perch. "Can't they see it gives Galimoto a headache?"
"Galimoto's right," Nathalia interjected summoning up her most authoritative voice. "The way you two carry on one would think you're siblings."
"I was only saying that we might end up having to fight these people. That's all."
The boy grew somber, lowering his head to the stone.
"You're right, Tetloan we may."
At that point it won't matter, Nathalia thought. We'll fall as easily as they once the Archenon is breached.
She prayed it never came to that, yet she held no illusions as to her own invincibility. If the dark tide rose above the Archenon, she knew they would all be swept away, even the immortals.
Though she had intended the thoughts to be held within her mind alone, she saw Emily turn to her, a look of despair suddenly clouding her face, and she knew that the girl had heard everything.
'You're inside me again aren't you? Are my thoughts no longer my own Emily?'
'I'm sorry . . . I didn't mean to. They just come to me, your voice, your feelings. The feelings of others. I can't stop them. They just happen, same as the voices of my own mind.'
She remembered how, in order to heal his tortured mind, she had once linked her mind with Alec's. She had found him, rotting in the darkness and had felt him, the sadness, the guilt, . . . the pain. The never ending pain. She felt it still, and now, because of it, she could no longer bear to enter his mind.
'I felt him too,' the child stated, once more reading her mind.
'Alec?' Nathalia thought, shocked and intrigued. What might the child have found that she could not?
'He is still afraid, and sad. Very sad. Everything else he hides, even from himself. Like the pain. He cannot feel it. But it's there still, almost like it's a part of him now. Almost . . . comforting.'
She would trade her immortality for a second of the girl's sight. A second was all she would need, and in that moment she would finally know.
'He has shown me that as well.'
She felt a wave of embarrassment wash over her -- though she wasn't certain if the feeling was born of her or the child.
'He loves you, Nathalia, though he would never say. It's what he feels strongest, fears the most, and keeps hidden far deeper than all else.'
She dared not believe.
'It's true. He hides it, but it's there for all to see. He can't bear to be near you, would rather push you away than admit what he feels. He knows that your death would be more than he could bear. He can live -- even though he blames himself for the death of thousands -- but, if he lost you . . . he would be destroyed. Even Alec has his limits.'
'It cannot be true.'
"Well, if comes down to a fight, I'll carve every last one of them worthless wretches into pieces," Tetloan said, fumbling with two hands as he sought to unfasten one of his weapons.
The boy's actions were only marginally registered by her mind. She had thought herself freed of the Destroyer, freed from his endless cycle of pain.
Not now, she thought, hoping she had saved the thought for herself.
He only needed her when he was weak, and like a fool she would always be there to coddle him, to save him from himself. Otherwise, she was no more meaningful to him than the common gutter whore.
Rotting hell, Alec!
Now, more than ever, she wanted to go to him once more. She just wasn't sure what she would do if she saw him; hold him in her arms, or slap him in the face for being such a fool.
Meanwhile, she was oblivious to Tetloan, and to his sudden success.
In one mighty pull his sword was free . . .
. . . and flying wildly through the air, straight toward Nathalia and the imp sitting on her shoulder.
Before Galimoto could react, before he could so much as twitch his tail in fear, there came a gentle clink as steel met steel. Nathalia's blade was out, and against the silver, orchid engraved edge, Tetloan's plain blade sat, and trembled.
"Stupid child!" Galimoto said, hiding behind Nathalia's neck. "In what world was he born that he cannot wield a blade? I've seen infants handle their weapons with greater skill."
"Maybe when this is all over I'll teach you the art of swordplay, Tetloan. But for now, why don't you stick to what Master Brice has taught you."
"Sorry," he replied, embarrassed and once more fumbling as he sought to cram the weapon back into its sheath. "It won't happen again, Nathalia."
Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief as she too replaced her blade.
I wasn't ready for it. An instant longer and I could not have stopped him.
She felt the imp's claws digging into her neck.
"Don't worry, Lady Nathalia, Galimoto would have saved you."
And to think, Destroyer, we've wasted all this time because you thought I would die by your hand. But now . . .
"I'm sure you would have, Galimoto," she replied, struggling to regain her composure. "But then, who would have saved you?"
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw a gray robe appear, flying through the air while covered in a shimmering layer of blue.
"I see you were able to revive your hero," Coba said, hovering next to Brice. "How unfortunate for us."
Brice ignored him, surveying the ground below instead. The last man he wanted to speak with at the moment was the outcast mage. Brice had never been so mad, so full of hate for a fellow human. His life's work was rapidly turning into a pile of dung all because of one man. The very same man who was once the core of all his hopes and dreams. Brice had been certain that he had accounted for everything, every last possibility and that his solution would resurrect this world's fate. How could he have foreseen that his entire plan rested on the shoulders of a fool?
Brice had seen the destruction of Lock Core first hand, watched as the darkness arose and swallowed the night. Everything near him had evaporated, vanished as though it did not exist and even though he stood at its outskirt it took all his power to survive it, barely. When it passed there was a gaping hole in Lock Core a mile wide, the mountain itself had melted into a crater the size of the Brother Moon, and at its center stood a boy. No mortal could have caused that. Brice was certain. Alec was a god! It was undeniable. And what more could he do if he only believed? If he only had faith in himself? If he only stopped acting like a complete ass! For the first time in his life Brice was mad, mad enough even to . . .
If he continued his antics all would be lost. With Shattered Rock toppled, the Plague would encompass the entire Seventh World leaving no survivors. It was undeniable.
He had spoken with Rafe about what should be done, and they agreed. Instead of allowing Alec to fail, he would first be destroyed.
Beyond the grassy slopes surrounding the wall the tree line began, hundreds of yards distant, a vast forest thick with evergreens and oaks. The forest floor, and what dwelt within, was hidden from all eyes by a dense canopy of leaves. For as far as Alec could see there was a landscape of green sparsely decorated with leaves of orange and gold.
Season's changing fast, he thought, noting the myriad of color within the branches. To Alec it had seemed as though summer had only just begun. He gazed at the forest unable to set aside his feelings of dread and the notion that very soon the world he knew would forever change and his life would become unrecognizable even to him.
With Solo Ki directly behind him, he had ascended a ladder leading to the exterior wall's walkway of wooden planks. Now he stood upon that walkway, overlooking the city's western border. With a longbow in his hands and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back, Alec waited alongside the rest of the city's citizens for the legion of dead to step out from the shadows of the forest and into the fading light of day.
"Hail to the Destroyer! Conqueror of life and death!"
He had heard those words, or a slight variation of them, spoken far too much today, and, as it was now, he did his best to ignore the speaker. Luckily, this time his would-be worshipper moved on, sparing Alec further humiliation.
One hour. Alec and the elf had been waiting on the wall for over an hour thus far. And in the tense anticipation of what could only be, in Alec's mind, a catastrophe, time had seemed like an eternity. Alec kept his mind off the future, and his eyes off the faces of those around him, choosing to occupy the slow progression of time by watching the face of the wall, and the colony of red winged bugs crawling on its stone surface. Millions of the insects warmed themselves in the dying glow of the setting sun. A swarm of little red dots fluttering from one rock to the next, searching in the cracks of the wall for something only their minute bug eyes could see.
He sought to focus him mind on trivial thoughts, pondering the insects’ fate once the undead moved on. Could they be turned as well, the insects of the world? What of the trees? He wondered. What affect did the Plague have on their life-force? He knew it really didn't matter though, for when the time for answers arrived his only concern would be feasting on flesh. More than likely, the bugs would thrive afterwards, blanketing the defenders' corpses with their maggot offspring.
Alec had been leaning over the wall, watching the bugs lounging in the sun, when a sudden crash startled him upright.
"By the Gods!"
Chain mail hugging his skin, a dented plate of armor on every inch of his body, and at least two weapons for every limb -- the Death Guard Theodorous cursed while struggling to lift his encumbered form from a hole in the walkway. Apparently the boards below him had been forced to give way to his steel covered feet. Bri Lynn was crouched down beside him, a tuft of blond hair hanging over her forehead as she helped pull him from the hole.
"You there!" Theodorous said, trying to stand up tall and proud, though gravity and humility were both working against him. He directed his words to a youthful looking boy who was peering over the wall with a sickened look on his face.
"Sir?" the boy replied, managing to bring words from his mouth instead of puke.
"Fix this forsaken walkway! How in the Seventh World are we to defend this wall when a soldier can't take ten bloody steps without falling to his death."
The child took one look through the broken floor, then lowered his head between the boards and vomited.
"Rotting hell," Theodorous cursed, lumbering his way to Alec and Solo Ki.
The soldiers whom he passed leapt to the side, fearing the creaking of the walkway was a death knell to an early doom.
"Greetings, Master Ki."
"Theodorous," the One Elf whispered in greeting, dipping his head.
"It would be my greatest honor to fight at your side this day."
Standing stiffly at attention he waited for some word of acknowledgement or acceptance from the elf. Receiving little more than the rustling of his soiled caped Theodorous fumbled on, " . . . of course I would find any day at your side an honor, and not just during times of trouble mind you, but upon any occasion. In my mind there could be no greater splendor than to dwell in the shadow of the One Elf."
He turned to Alec lifting his visor, then continued, "The one true hero of the Seventh World."
Alec didn't mind the insult directed toward his hero status and was actually glad to see the Death Guard. With his presence, all thoughts of the coming battle had been momentarily erased from Alec's mind, cast asunder by the sound of his own laughter.
Solo Ki seemed whiter than ever, disgusted by the sudden praise. Alec nearly fell from the wall amidst his amusement.
He slapped Solo Ki on the back, felt his bones like stone against his palm.
"Sorry to say, elf, but it's nice to see someone else getting all the attention," Alec said, trying not to laugh as the One Elf sneered. "Theodorous, I've been in his shadow for over a month now. And believe me, he's not that great of company."
Alec couldn't hear what the Death Guard mumbled beneath his helmet, but he was sure the comment was for him and that it was most unpleasant.
Bent over with laughter, Alec leaned over the wall, unable to stop the torrent of chuckles racking his frame. He felt like he could have laughed forever . . .
It began as a whisper from somewhere down the line, then . . .
. . . soldiers shifting . . . the sound of armor clanging.
Branches swaying, groaning, moving with a life of their own.
From the trees!
"The dead!" The call rang out among the line of defenders.
No sooner had Alec noticed the shifting forest than an arrow arced into the sky.
"Phht, phht, ph, ph, ph . . ."
The defenders were an undisciplined lot, hardened fighters one and all, but few soldiers. Fear was in command of this battle as every man began to fire at will, few waiting to even see an actual target. Up and down the wall the volley was joined and the air was filled with hundreds of wooden shafts.
His laughter gone, an arrow at his cheek, Alec searched the tree line, his stomach coiling into knots with dread at what he would see.
"Where?" he asked in a whisper. "Where?" he cried out his eyes desperately scanning the forest.
The arrows began spilling into the trees. Then, in a wave of silver-fire the plague broke into the clearing, stumbling their way forward as a sky full of silver rained down on them.
Without thought, he found a target and let loose. Stunned with disbelief and fear he tracked the arrow as it bolted to the sky then gradually drifted downward. His target; from the distance he was uncertain, but thought it had once been a woman. Her spine having been gnawed through, the woman's neck was no longer able to support the weight of her head, and now it bobbled on her shoulder, hanging from her body with what little muscle and tissue remained in the neck. She moved slowly, no doubt due in great part to the pile of entrails spilling from her ribcage to the ground and tripping up her feat.
The sight of her made Alec ill. He had thought he was beyond this, beyond the fear of death. And though he had seen as much before, he could not escape the fear. Not merely of dying, but of becoming like her -- a meat puppet -- mindless, lifeless, doomed to live for eternity desecrated in both spirit and body, all the while knowing only one feeling -- hunger.
He continued watching her in horror, transported back to that day at Lock Core when his every childish nightmare had become a reality. He watched, numb, his mind no longer acknowledging his senses, blind to his environment and the events unfolding around him.
Somewhere. . .
The walking corpse that had once been a woman was struck down in a field of green, vanishing in silver flames.
Somehow. . .
Alec stared down the length of another arrow and took aim toward the horde once more.
They came crawling from the forest with the setting of the sun. Brice saw the end of day hanging blood red on the horizon. Before it, the trees shook with the march of the undead.
'Summon all defenders to the Western front.'
His flesh trembled from the sound of a nearby explosion of energy. Turning to the source, he saw a ball of blue light blasting down to the forest, hurled forth by one of Brice's elder, but new apprentices. The man's name was Jarrard, and only a month ago the man had been knee deep in pig slop, tending to his farm.
'Not yet!' Brice commanded, his mind at one with the rest of the Magi. 'Hold your fear, and Magic. Save it for when it matters most.'
Meanwhile, Jarrard was falling. His energy expended in one mighty blast of mage-fire the man no longer had the strength to levitate and rapidly began plummeting to his death.
If only I had more time, Brice thought, a thread of energy leaping from his finger tips and wrapping around Jarrard's ankles. They're not ready.
The earth shook as Jarrard's ball of fire met with the forest, uprooting trees and carving a path hundreds of yards long. In the fiery aftermath, the forest was ignited. Towers of flame multiplied from one tree to the next, consuming everything within their path. Even the undead.
"Look," the gray mage Coba said.
The flames licking at their backs, the undead were piling from the forest, many entering into the clearing only to collapse in smoldering heaps.
"Maybe the fool had the right idea. He's torching the bastards before they can clear the forest."
Without awaiting Brice's approval Coba followed suit, sending waves of flame to the forest below.
Brice watched as other mages quickly took up Coba's lead and knew that he had to intervene before he lost all control.
"Hold your fire!" he shouted, his voice amplified by the Singularity. "Adhere to our orders. Wait till the defenders retreat. Give them time to fall back. Then, when that moment arrives. . ." a line of undead littered the ground below, a string of black corpses hugging the outskirts of the inferno like a procession of ants. ". . . scorch the Earth!"
He held Jarrard's life-line within a clenched fist surrounded in golden lace.
"Until that time we wait."
Landing Jarrard safely within the city wall the line of energy between them was cut.
Grumbling, Coba and the others obeyed, though Brice could tell they were tired of waiting and he had to admit, he was weary of it as well.
Her pale, slender hand trembled as it rested on the stone. Her pupils of white saw far to the west, to the cities end where the red sky churned with fire and smoke.
For the love of the Gods don't be a fool out there, Alec.
"It's him!" Emily squealed beside her.
"Alec?" Nathalia replied, thinking that the child was tuned to her mind once more.
"No. It's him. I can't believe it, but it's him."
With her dark curls draping over her eyes, she looked up at Nathalia. Her plump lips parted, and smiling, she said, "Whimly. It's Whimly. I can feel him."
"Somehow, I don't think that's possible, Emily," Tetloan said, rolling his eyes.
"I don't care what you think. I feel him. And he feels . . . real. He isn't dead!"
She tucked her lithe body into one of the gaps in the wall and looked to the empty garden below.
"And he's here!"
She scurried past the others and began leaping down the steps two at a time.
"Emily wait," Nathalia called out, watching as the girl's brown robe whipped around the corner and vanished from sight.
"Stay here, both of you," she said before jumping into pursuit, her feet barely touching the stairs as she flew after the girl.
Alone in the tower, Tetloan said, "Hey, if you do exist imp. I for one ain't about to let Nathalia run off without me."
Ensuring that his swords were securely fastened at his waist, Tetloan took off after her.
Little did he know that at the time he spoke, Galimoto was already halfway down the stairs.
Darkness had fallen. Yet the horde of undead could be easily seen, silhouetted before the flaming forest. The outer wall trembled from a hundred thousand fists battering its stones. Here and there cracks formed and widened, while throughout the western front the wall slowly but surely began to crumble.
His teeth rattling from the force, Alec slipped an arrow between his middle and index finger. The arrow leapt from his fingertips. As quickly as he could snatch the next one up, it was gone, disappearing into the horde of dead which now filled the field below and encompassed the entire western front and beyond. Though he was a skilled archer, as were most inhabitants of the Seventh World, aiming was a non-issue. By pointing his bow toward the stench of burnt and rotting flesh, even a blind man could hit his target.
There's an awful lot of Meat Puppets down there.
How many had it been? A dozen? A hundred? Thousands? He had lost count of the number of arrows he had let fly, though he knew the number had to be significant, as was, no doubt, the casualties he inflicted on the undead. The process had become a ritual. The repetition of his motions relaxing. His hope mounted with every twang of the bowstring and every sight of his arrow piercing into undead flesh.
"Ain't so bad," Alec said, grinning, momentarily pausing his barrage of arrows to playfully swat Theodorous on the back. "Like shooting fish in a bucket."
The corpse of a dwarf was pulling himself up the wall with fleshless fingers. Leaning over, Alec pointed his bow at the creature's skull and fired, turning the dwarf's head into silver-fire and dust. Though headless, the dwarf's body crawled on.
"Still hungry huh?" Alec said, digging into the quiver at his back. "That's okay, I can do this all night long."
But then, moments after obliterating the rest of the dwarf, a new army emerged, forming ranks at the edge of the forest. They waited, more cautious than their Meat Puppet brethren.
"Get ready," Theodorous shouted. "The Living Dead come!"
Time to die.
But first he had to get everyone else out of the way.
"Run, damn you," Alec shouted at them, knowing the plan was to draw out the Living Dead so the Magi could have at them, but he wanted to take them out himself. For once he was glad to be a hero, for immediately the defenders obeyed him, and began scrambling down the wall, their arms laden with arrows. One by one they practically tumbled down the ladders in their haste to retreat.
"Where you going damn you? We must hold the wall," Theodorous commanded while lumbering after the fleeing defenders. With every footstep the walkway groaned. Finally the section he was on gave way altogether. To the sound of crashing timber and clanging metal, Theodorous plummeted to the ground, laying in silence for a moment, then awakening, cursing out, "Bloody walkway!"
"Good," Alec said. "Looks like soon it will be just you and me elf."
Seemingly oblivious to the undead invasion, the One Elf had sat patiently throughout the battle, leaning on his staff the whole while, so silent that Alec had almost forgotten about him.
He was about to get in more firing practice when he spotted other shapes moving in the crowd below. Cloaked beneath the shadows of the inferno, the beings slithered among the undead, dark, empty stains on the land. He counted ten of them rapidly making their way to the wall.
He picked one, aimed an arrow in its direction and fired . . .
The shaking from the undead pounding the wall vibrated his bones.
Nothing. Alec watched as his hope and his arrow were consumed by darkness. Meanwhile, the demon continued toward the wall unfazed.
"Too soon," Alec said, hanging his bow over his shoulder and cautiously stepping around the crumbled section of walkway. "I have to get them moving. You coming or not?" He asked, seeing that Solo Ki remained motionless.
The elf's head was lowered and his cape gently vibrated around his tall bony frame.
He may have fallen asleep -- but Alec was in no mood to see if he was going to awaken any time soon, so he shrugged his shoulders, turned, and ran to check on the progress of the defenders. He was glad to see that the majority of them had already made it to the ground and were hurrying to take up positions on the city's rooftops.
Unfortunately, at a nearby ladder a line of soldiers had formed, waiting for its use.
"Come on you bastards!" Alec yelled out to the soldiers. "Hurry it up. Don't you know who I am?"
Smiling to one another they replied, "Hail Destroyer he who comes to deliver us from the dead."
"Good, you know who I am. Then you know the moment the undead breach this wall I'm likely to burn your existence from this world."
As if in response, the wall was racked by a massive blow, and to Alec's horror, the ladder, and the soldiers on it, toppled to the ground, screaming. A few of them broke free from the ladder, but those highest up held on while it slammed to the earth, pinning them beneath.
"Hey, bring that ladder back up here," one of the younger looking soldiers in front of Alec called down to the troops below.
Beneath the fallen ladder several limbs wriggled. No one heeded the young soldier's call, instead the survivors continued scrambling into the streets, navigating past the fallen ladder and flailing limbs beneath it.
"Don't worry, son. Have no fear of death, for the Destroyer is with us."
The speaker was an older man, no doubt a gray haired veteran of Lock Core. The man turned to Alec, and said, "Hail to the Destroyer! Conqueror of life and deaaaaaaaa . . ."
Alec was thankful for the abrupt end to his words, but much less so when he saw the shadowed hand wrap around the man's neck. To his credit, the soldier managed to draw his blade before the flesh began rotting from his face.
"Son of a Bitch!"
Stepping back, Alec slid his short sword from its sheath, watching as the dark being began tearing apart the veteran soldier and all eight of his companions. Gulping down his own vomit, he watched as the demon wrapped its tentacle like appendages around one man's shoulders and waist then, with the man mid stride running from the demon, he was ripped in half, his entrails steaming in the evening air as they spilled onto the walkway.
As far as he could tell, not a single one of them even had a chance to strike at the demon before they died. Yet despite their failure, Alec drew a dagger with his left hand and stood ready, prepared to give his luck a try.
Having quickly exhausted its supply of fresh blood, it turned its blank face toward Alec, and -- quick as light -- it came at him.
Outside the wall it was raining fire. Giant balls boiling with flames hammered the ground, forcing Alec to his knees. He raised his head. Wood particles and shards of rock whipped past his face. Buffeted by debris the dark being strode toward him, ignoring the hail of burning rock crashing down around it. Rising, Alec prepared to meet it . . .
The walkway disintegrated.
In an eruption of splinters, Alec and the demon flew through the air.
"Curse you, Coba, there's defenders down there!"
Brice took his eyes off the devastation below and drifted toward the man. The Gray Mage's body was covered in blue, his palms spread out before him. From his hands, sparks of energy leapt outward, merging several feet in front of his chest to form a ball of pulsing blue flames. Teeth clenched, Brice flew closer to the man, his face covered in shadows cast by Coba's glowing ball. As he neared, his features were illuminated by the blue light, and for a second it seemed as though Brice's face was melting. His skin, normally smooth and flawless, began transforming into rough patches of white scar tissue. As quickly as it began, the illusion was gone, and his flesh was baby soft and perfect once more.
"Defenders, Brice?" Coba replied, energy curling from his mouth with every word. In front of him, the ball of energy had grown to nearly half his size. "The Magi have sought that man's death for years. And now there he is, your hero, alone and utterly helpless. I have but to sneeze and the Destroyer is no more."
He threw his head and arms back.
The ball of fire thundered downward. No more than a heartbeat later, several strands of energy from Brice's fingertips darted after it. Crackling as they wove through the air, the threads of light closed in on the meteor, diving into its fiery tail. His energy took hold, latching on.
Immediately, he tugged on the blue threads, redirecting its course moments before it slammed into the earth. Flames and stone hurled through the air as the wall was evaporated in fire.
"What are you doing?" Brice asked, his body engulfed in flames as he began searching the blast area.
Little could be seen in the pile of rubble below. The only thing moving was a throng of undead seeping through the newly created breach.
Had he failed?
"Rafe thought you were too delicate of heart to deliver the blow yourself."
Brice turned, his eyes hidden in thick pools of mage-fire.
"He thought it would be best if I handled things," Coba said.
At the sight of Brice's rage, Coba drifted back, the flames of blue thickening all over his body.
"This had to be. You know that as well as I, Master Brice."
It was true. He knew it had to be done. But to see his dream blown asunder was more than his eyes could bear. He had failed, failed the fool Alec, failed the entire Seventh World. It was because of Brice that Alec's power never came to fruition. Somewhere along the way Brice's plans for the future overshadowed the thoughts and emotions of one man. And because of it, there would be no miracle victory, only another meaningless defeat.
Suddenly his head began throbbing, his every heart beat filling his mind with fire.
Squinting in pain, Brice raised a gold sleeve to his head. His eyes looked to the horizon, seeing the world through the Singularity. Hundreds of yards distant, a man hooded in black robes filled the night with an aura of blue flames.
Brice wiped his nose, raising a sleeve of blood stained lace up to his eyes saying, "Someone approaches."
"I know, I feel him as well."
His dark brows mashing on his face, Coba scanned the distance.
Veterans of Lock Core, those who were warriors and Magi both, told tales of many incredible demons marching from the Rift that day. Some, they said, could squash a boulder dwarf in their fist, and with one punch, entire stones were split. Others were larger still, fanged demons capable of crushing stones within their very maws. As dangerous as these giants may have been, there were other, far more powerful beings that sought to crack open Lock Core. They were creatures beyond both life and death, indestructible. These beings controlled the Hunger, existed by their own will, and -- according to those who had lived to see them -- they fought with a skill that was beyond even that of the elves, leaving many of those ageless beings to rot upon the Red Wall.
In the Book of Adros these beings were known as the Reapers, servants of the Void that were far more dedicated to eradicating life then they were to feasting on it. The greatest of their ilk wielded the Singularity, twisting the flow toward a dark end. It was their presence at Lock Core that shattered the Order. They sought and slaughtered every mage they could find . . . and after killing them, they bound them to the shadow.
Looking at the dark robed figure, Brice felt his soul well up with darkness. . .
"Kill it! Everyone. Blast it from the sky."
A bushel of dark curls bounced on her back as she scurried through the garden. All that remained of the once lush collection of flowers was dust covered earth. What was edible had been stored, all the rest had been trampled to death by the flood of refugees. Her throat grew raw from breathing in mouthfuls of dust.
"Whimly?" She cried out, gagging on the word.
Receiving no answer she ran on, becoming invisible as her brown cloak blended with the dust. Throughout the courtyard she ran, calling his name till her lungs could take no more, then, her throat cracking from dust she made her way to the Statue of the Unpure Soldier where she sunk her curls into the depths of his piss.
Her hair matted to her face. She raised her head, forming her hands into a cup. She dipped her fingers into the water, filling her palms, then raised them to her plump lips.
"Whimly," She said, her eyes wide while water dribbled from the corners of her mouth.
Ecstatic she spun.
"Whimly. I knew you were alive. Tetloan wouldn't believe me, but I knew it. I could feel you."
. . .
He stood before her in a haze of dust, his eyes hidden from her as he stared at the ground. His glasses were nowhere to be found.
Slowly, Emily stood and reached out to him, the palm of her hand still moist.
"I felt you as well . . . as well," Whimly said, lifting his head. Renewed by a breath of wind, his words echoed through the courtyard. "The moment I awoke I saw you. You're the brightest of them all . . . so full of life . . . life."
She drew her fingertips toward his cheek, then stopped, leaving her small hands to hover near his flesh and tremble. The dust began settling around them.
"What . . ?"
She remembered when she had seen him last, seen the light of his eyes extinguish in death. Rejecting the truth of that vision, she had come to find him, hoping beyond hope that her eyes were deceived. At last, seeing his eyes clouded, rotting in his head, she knew it was her heart that could not see.
Horrified, she quickly withdrew her hand.
The air began clearing around her, she saw figures emerging from the haze at his back, dark humanoid forms, their features obscured by the dimming sun and the thinning layer of dust.
"I need you . . . Emily."
She stepped back. Black fingernails moved toward her face.
"Save me. Make me whole once more."
Those behind him drew closer their features revealed as they strode through the dust. Their armor was black, their breastplates contoured like a skeletal frame. Fanged helms hid their faces, hid their true identities behind the visage of a cackling wolf.
A film of blue surrounded her. Not a pyre or conflagration of flames, but a simple, elegant mist.
"You're not Whimly," she coldly stated.
A pair of alabaster hands reached out to her and a wave of blue mist wafted out to great them.
Blue waves. A ripple in time. To those who were blind; flames, water, earth and wind -- a fiery cyclone of magma and steam. LeCynic laughed as it engulfed him.
It barely stirred the threads of his black robe.
Unharmed, he passed through it then halted in midair, curious to see what trick the flying clowns would perform next. They bobbed in the distant sky, a colorful troop of brown, green and blue -- highlighted with a dab of red and gray. The majority of them were slow to recover from the opening act. Their bodies glimmering in a hazy blue, hardly enough to even keep them afloat.
To easy, LeCynic thought, knowing it would be a small matter to penetrate and rupture their shields. Despite their frailty, he would go slow, relishing the moment, enjoying every death, each one certain to be surprising and unique. After years of concealing the extent of his abilities he would finally reveal the true meaning of power to his peers and one by one he would pluck them from the sky, granting them more power in death than any of the fools could ever have hoped for in life.
The air shuddered and quaked as he summoned his power, replacing his black robe with writhing blue flames. He released the energy -- thousands of snakelike tendrils ripping through the air. Meanwhile, the distant mages continued to regain their strength, their shields only thin layers when the hissing flames washed over them.
Coughing, Alec dragged himself from the rubble. Bruised and battered he rose to his feet, groaning. His beard and hair were black, caked with dust. He took a moment to shake the dust off his face before realizing his peril.
Son of a bitch blew a hole through the goddamn wall.
The wall was breached. A hundred foot section had been blown to shreds from the blast, and now, stepping over the rubble and crushed bodies of their comrades, the undead army piled through.
His sword was gone -- no doubt buried beneath a pile of stone -- and his bow snapped in two. His only defense was his dagger, which landed several feet away and was glaring out at him from among a pile of rock. He ran to it. Snatching it up on the fly, he continued running, moving as fast as his legs could bear him to the sound of human voices coming from the rooftops. He couldn't die yet, they were still too close. He had to get to higher ground and regroup, figure out a way to drive them off. Get them to the Archenon.
Behind him, arrows fell to the ground, clinking as they hit stone, or landing in silence as they sunk into flesh.
Within the din of inhuman howls he heard a pair of intelligible words ringing out from somewhere high above.
Theodorous, he thought, easily recognizing the man's irritating voice.
Abruptly the volley of arrows ceased falling behind him and Alec was left to fend for himself.
A second before colliding into it, he saw a two story building of brick appear before him. His recognized it, having raiding it in the past. Its first level was an herbal shop -- supposedly medicinal herbs though their primary medication was chopa -- while the second level was housing space, strictly rented to addicts in order for the dealers to keep their customers in arms reach. Nowhere did Alec see a ladder nor any type of access to the rooftop. All of the doors and windows were sealed, covered over with boards or filled in with stone and mortar.
"Rotting hell! How in the dead did they get up there?" he said, wondering if it might have been best to have paid more attention when the Red Mage was going over the battle plan.
Just then a blur of darkness caught the corner of his eye.
His years at the Warphanage took over. Instinctively he dove to the ground, doing so just moments before the dark object sped by. He tumbled headlong till his momentum was exhausted, then, anticipating a quick follow up strike, he leapt to his feet, spinning.
As he thought, a blob of darkness was seeping toward him. The very same creature he had just seen decimate a dozen soldiers within seconds, and all he had to fight it with now was a ten inch blade.
Despite the situation, or perhaps because of it, he chuckled.
"In case you're not aware, I'm the Destroyer."
The being hovered beyond the range of his weapon, shaping itself into a man and looking back at Alec with an empty face. Apparently unable to comprehend his message.
"That means if you touch me you die, I don't care how invincible Solo Ki thinks you are."
The creature remained motionless.
Finally, someone who doesn't know who I am. If only he . . .
He dropped to his knees as a dark fist blasted through the wall above his head. Granted a sudden opportunity, maybe the last he would get, Alec drove his silver dagger into the being's form, burying the blade up to the hilt. His attack struck home. The demon reared up, crying out with a gurgling scream. Waiting only long enough to twist his dagger deeper then pull it free, Alec flung himself away from the creature.
No sooner had he made it to his feet, then the gurgling voice ended in silence and once more the black silhouette was coming at him.
Too fast! Too bloody fast, Alec thought, turning to watch the being speed through space.
Sluggish, he stepped back.
The undead were crowding into the streets, filling the air with inhuman moans as they stumbled through the city. Scraping the flesh from their bones as they crawled over jagged stones to reach him, they shuffled forward on broken limbs, slowly contaminating the city with their rotting lifeless forms.
Beyond the pile of rubble and fractured wall, smoke seeped from the blackened earth, rising from the ashes of evergreens and oaks. The air above was clouded in darkness and smoke, stifling the light of a thousand fires burning in the very sky itself. The fires thundered to life in the heavens, shaking the earth below with an ear shattering BOOM!
His thoughts seemed to slow. With his brain filled with mud he could hardly register the dark hand reaching out to him.