The valley beyond the wall was silent. High above, the Magi had gathered, halting their earthbound strikes to face the new, airborne threat. The smoke from below began to reach them, making it difficult to see the black-robed figure hovering hundreds of yards before them.
Both sides were motionless, resting, restoring their strength with the brief lull in the battle. Earlier, the sky had been filled with mage-fire blasting out from both sides. As of yet, the group of Magi had suffered few losses, due in great part to the fact that they had focused all their efforts on defending themselves while offering only an infinitesimal show of retaliation. However, Brice was beginning to fear that by sitting and absorbing blows instead of delivering them, most of his people had already exhausted their power, and now any counterstrike they could raise would be laughable. Brice too felt the drain, but knew that deep within he had plenty left to give. He just prayed the others could find something more to draw on as well. If not, it was obvious to him that their fading shields of blue were no match for their enemy’s perpetual inferno.
"The bastard fancies himself to be a Black Mage, higher in the Order than the Keeper himself," Coba said, floating alongside Brice. "Higher still than that bitch, Nicola."
To Brice's surprise, the Gray Mage had fought more fiercely and with greater courage than all the rest.
"Judging by his skill, I would say it's not just arrogance that compels his manner of dress," Brice replied, secretly healing his wounds without Coba's knowledge. He didn't want Coba to see any sign of weakness on his part, especially since Brice had seen none in him. "If not a Reaper, he is certainly a Gate Keeper."
His power is beyond us all.
"Whatever he is, he is magnificent," Coba stated with far too much admiration than Brice would have liked.
"Whose side are you on, Coba?"
In the distance, the figure shifted, his robe thrashing about as he was ignited in blue flames. Simultaneously Brice and the twenty-one other mages lit up like a struck match.
"I'm with you, Master Brice, make no mistake. Granted, I would see the Triad bow before us. Yet, what fun would it be if they were all dead?"
Despite his response, Brice still wasn't sure if his question had been answered.
"Get ready!" Brice said as yet another wall of blue fire came barreling down upon them.
The fires rekindled in the heavens, covering all of the land in a reddish hue. Alec's mind finally registered reality and he saw a hooded figure rise up behind the demon, eclipsing it beneath a torrent of flowing cape. Reaching the pinnacle of his height, the lanky figure flung back its cape and in the strange crimson light Alec saw a frail skeletal hand squeezing a staff of blackened wood.
The hand of the demon wavered at the tip of his nose -- Alec blinked -- the hand was gone, its emptiness replaced with the night. Several feet away, the hooded figure and the demon fought, a pair of silhouettes dancing against the backdrop of a red horizon. Mage-fire detonated in the sky as the Graelic struck home, its reddened tip catching the demon directly on the ever shifting appendage that most closely resembled a head.
Knocked to the ground, the creature howled, crying out in a garbled plea for life. Threads, pieces of the being's dark essence momentarily hung from the Graelic's tip before they were drawn into the wood, staining the red tip black.
Softly, the hooded figure spoke in elvish, then, possessed by a sudden madness, he slammed his staff down upon the demon, grinding the tip in the creature's body. With both hands firmly wrapped around the staff, he stared down at the creature, watching as its presence within the Seventh World diminished, it body slowly absorbed by the wood of the Graelic.
Then it was done, the creature was no more and the hooded figure was utterly calm.
"Where you been?" Alec asked, seeing lines of smoke wafting from the elf's staff. "Didn't think I'd get to see you fight today." He looked to where the creature had previously lain.
"And I didn’t think you would have lasted as long as you did," Solo Ki spoke. "I had hoped you would have long since perished."
"Thanks. Another second and you would've had your wish."
Why did you save me anyways? he thought, dying to ask the question. Whatever your reasons, "Thanks for saving me, Solo Ki. I owe you one."
"I have a feeling you'll be repaying me soon enough."
With the words, Alec was reminded of the horde groaning behind him, and the fact that the mindless beings were drawing closer.
"Later. Right now we’re going to find a way onto these godforsaken rooftops."
The girl was too light. The dust settled too quick, leaving Nathalia with little to indicate her passing.
"Where are you?" she said, trying to pierce the dust with her elven eyes.
Nathalia's steps didn't even stir the dusty earth.
"I swear to the Gods, when I find you child I will lock you deep within the bowels of the Archenon. So deep, that when I finally release you, you will be a wizened old crow."
She paused. Felt the earth tremble, slightly at first, then . . . the entire Archenon shook, and as agile as she was, Nathalia nearly fell. Instantly regaining her balance, she bolted to the tremor's source which shone through the dust. The earth fleeting past her feet, she ran toward the tower of blue fire rising in the distance.
All the shutters were boarded off, all the doors barricaded shut. They had traversed several city blocks without finding the slightest sign of entrance into the buildings.
"How in the dead did they get up there?" Alec cursed.
With only a ten inch dagger and Solo Ki's blackened branch of wood, there was little they could do to gain access into the buildings' interiors. Not only that, but the paths before them were sealed as well, the roadways packed full of mountainous piles of debris. The citizens of Shattered Rock had cleaned house in order to blockade the roads, creating solid walls of tables, chairs and other miscellaneous house furniture. Perhaps passable by the One Elf, to Alec, the roadblocks were as impossible to scale as the walls of Lock Core. Meanwhile, every time they were forced to backtrack, the moans of the undead grew louder, echoing from the street corners at their backs.
"They used ladders," Solo Ki responded, bluntly.
"Then where in the rotting hell are the bloody ladders!"
Frustrated, Alec quickened his pace.
"After ascending, they pulled them up, assuring that the horde would be unable to follow."
Alec was suddenly longing for the days when the One Elf remained silent.
Briefly scanning the walls for signs of weakness, they continued on, Alec kept his curses to himself, gritting them between his teeth. Then, rounding another corner, he stopped in his tracks. Every last curse he withheld came exploding out.
"Bloody, rotting, f . . . ing, son of a bitch!"
His voice bounced harmlessly off of the twenty foot high barricade of junk before him. The obscenities died down, and in their absence Alec could almost hear the undead biting at his ear.
"Hail Destroyer! He who yet lives while walking among the dead."
No matter his predicament, the chant was still stinging to hear.
A helmet covered head peeked over the rooftop of a two-story building to his left, quickly followed by a score of others. Despite his reputation as a savior, many of them still eyed him down the lengths of their arrows.
"How fare you Destroyer, are you yet with us or among the dead?" One of those very same men demanded.
"Aye, I'm living. But won't be much longer if you don't send us a bloody ladder."
"What of your companion?" Someone asked.
"Aye, that one looks mighty dead to me," one of the defenders blurted, lifting his visor to ogle the One Elf. He squinted, struggling to focus through a pair of crossed eyes. Shortly after it was raised, the visor slammed shut of its own weight.
Meanwhile, his comment was greeted with much approval by the others.
Alec's patience was as precarious as a boulder dwarf dangling from a frayed thread. Froth formed at his lips while he opened his mouth, preparing to lash out in the One Elf's defense.
The harsh voice of another beat him to the punch.
"Ignorant, gutter rabble!" the voice shouted from the rooftop.
The speaker appeared, waddling to the roof's edge, his body covered in rusty plates of armor and weapons of every sort iMaginable.
"Fools! How can you aim your bows while being so blind. Surely your eyes fail you if they cannot see the magnificence and the splendor of our city's greatest hero."
"You mean the Destroyer?" the cross-eyed soldier questioned, grappling with his visor.
"No you dolt! That's Solo Ki down there!"
A hundred threads of light wafted toward Whimly, moving to tear apart his puffy white flesh.
Nothing, I cannot feel him.
Her fingers of light probed his form, passing into and through him as though he did not even exist. Meanwhile, his own hand was drawing nearer, as were the many wolf helmed soldiers. Desperate, she gathered more power, increasing the force of her efforts, sinking her energy deeper into Whimly's twisted soul. She stepped back, tripping over the fountain and landing on her rump in the water. Her efforts dissipated as the chill of the water began seeping into her flesh. Suddenly Whimly was there, hovering over her, reaching out once more.
"So much light . . ."
'Life . . .'
The word was voiceless, a disembodied echo.
With her back pressed against the statue of the pissing soldier, Whimly laid his hands on her face . . .
Beyond fire, beyond pain, she felt her soul being torn away, replaced by vast swelling darkness.
Covered in a whirlwind of blue, Emily fought to repel it with every bit of strength she had left. Her dark curls writhed in the cyclone while she rose to her feet, drifting to a stand by the power of her will alone. Hovering inches above the water, her wide eyes opened and before her, the rotting husk that was once Whimly fell back, a look of shock covering his bloated face.
"I don't understand," he said, creeping backward. "What does this mean?"
She could still feel the darkness growing within, but in the next instant, the blue flames burned it to dust.
Whimly continued backpedaling, seemingly terrified at Emily's display. Then, turning, he quickly departed, disappearing into the darkness and dust. Slumping to the water, her power spent, it was with great dismay that Emily noted that the dark clad soldiers had chosen to remain.
They thought it was yet another miracle. Another display of the Destroyer's awesome power and invincibility. His presence among them was all the convincing they needed for them to hail him as the savior of the Seventh World. No matter the amount of profanity he directed at them, they refused to leave his side -- all of them. Except for Theodorous who had his own idol to admire, and his better half, Bri Lynn, who easily saw beyond the legends and rumors to see that Alec was nothing more than a man.
Alec and the elf had joined a squad of fifty soldiers (actually, the only true soldiers were the Death Guards, all the others were dimwits and drug addicts) who had been moving from one rooftop to the next, firing down at the Plague as it slowly crept through the city's streets. They took their position on top of a building only long enough to watch as the ground swelled with the undead. Then, fearing a prolonged stay would become an invitation to the Living Dead or the demons, the squad crossed the wooden bridges spanning the rooftops, one soldier at a time.
So far, Alec had joined them for three such crossings and as far as he was concerned, he was more than happy to stay right where he was. He knew that sooner or later he would find himself halfway between buildings when CRACK! The four foot wide plank would give way to his weight and he would fall several stories, while in the street below hundreds of undead would be scrambling to catch him in their maws.
"At least let me go before Theodorous next time," Alec said after crossing his forth bridge. "I swear he cracked that last one with all of that bloody metal he carries."
Outraged and indignant, the Death Guard shuffled over to him and immediately the two men battled to top each other with expletives. Between words of bloody this and rotting that Bri Lynn managed to interject herself into the conversation, the honey in her voice replaced with venom as she shouted, "Would you two shut up! Either kill each other or start killing the undead. I don't care, just shut up!"
Teeth gritted, she fired into the crowd below then ripped out another arrow from the quiver at her hip.
There came a sound like that of ice cracking in a cold winter night. Alec turned, and there was Solo Ki leaning on the Graelic, laughing.
I'll be dead, Alec thought. If the One Elf can still laugh then that's hope enough for me.
Alec playfully swatted Theodorous' plate covered shoulder while smirking toward the One Elf. Shocked, the Death Guard recoiled from Alec's hand as though it held the touch of death itself. Drawing an arrow, Alec joined Bri Lynn's side.
He was smiling as he shot into the street, releasing every arrow with glee. He had managed to get off five blissful shots before he heard Bri Lynn cry, "The demons. Get moving! We leave NOW!"
Emily lowered her head to the pool, her curls spilling past her plump cheeks, when suddenly a familiar voice softly spoke out, "Get up. Move."
Glancing up, she saw a pale white hand to her left. The hand was empty, then before she could blink, a silver orchid was shining in her face.
Slow to obey the command, the voice grew tense crying, "Move NOW!"
Somehow the words spurred her to her feet, and with the sound of clashing steel and cries of, "To the Archenon" she drove on, stumbling forward on unsteady feet while behind her, the sounds of battle grew to a frenzied pitch.
Dazed by exhaustion, she wandered into the moat, wading into the murky waters until they were at her waist. Before she could make it any further, hands grabbed her and roughly pulled her to land.
Tetloan was holding her by the wrists, looking down at her with eyes filled with mage-fire.
Raising his hand as if to slap her, she quickly replied, "behind me."
He flung her to the ground and turned to look. There she was, skipping over the earth with her spry elven limbs, a bow of cherry wood in her hand, cocked and ready. Bobbing in the air behind her came the imp Galimoto.
"What are you waiting for? Run!" She called out, and soon afterwards several wolf helms appeared, bursting through the darkness.
Too tired to fight, Emily turned and hurried on while behind her the air was rent with thunder as Tetloan began striking the invading soldiers.
"Lower the bridge! The enemy has entered the Garden!” She heard Nathalia screaming from behind, her words aimed at the boulder dwarf Gunt who was commanding the drawbridge.
With the air crackling from Tetloan's repeated attacks, Emily continued on, barely able to lift her feet from the ground, forcing herself into a sluggish march toward the distant bridge. Every blast of energy illuminated the entire palace in a bluish glow. Looking up at the colossal structure Emily could see the shadows of those behind her cavorting on its walls.
Panting, she made it to the foot of the bridge. No longer able to stand on her own legs, she utilized the bridge's rusted iron railing as a crutch, and with whatever strength she had left she dragged herself across.
On the other side, beneath the arched entry way into the keep, the boulder dwarf looked around, scratching his head of gray hair when suddenly he must have caught sight of Nathalia and her armored pursuers for without pondering the situation a moment longer, he wrapped one of his meaty hands around a lever and thrust it to the ground.
"Clank, clank, clank . . ."
Groaning, as if in protest, the bridge began sinking.
Little more than halfway across, Emily felt the chill water creeping up past her toes. Fearing she would be dragged to the depths of the moat along with the bridge, she released the railing and dove forward. Splashing more than swimming, she flopped her way through to the other side, laying in a drenched heap beneath the entry while the boulder dwarf cranked away at yet another lever.
"Clink . . . clink . . .clink ."
She looked up.
"Clk, clk, clk, clk, clk . . ."
A wall of steel and silver spikes plummeted toward her waist but she no longer had the strength to move.
Their next bridge was a particular joy for Alec to behold. Not only did it span one of the city's wider roads, but it was inclined at a steep angle, moving from a two level structure to a four-story warehouse. Alec had watched several soldiers crawl up the thing already, and every time they neared the center the entire bridge bulged downward, flexing till he swore it would surely snap.
Behind him, Bri Lynn was trying to convince the stubborn Theodorous to remove his armor and choose which weapon he loved the best.
"I will most certainly not part with my battle axe," the man said, fuming.
Battle axe? Alec wondered, unaware that the man had even been carrying such a weapon. Where in the dead has he been stashing that?
Due to the precarious angle, the squad was taking considerably longer to transition from one rooftop to the next. Roughly half had safely made it to the other side. Slowly but surely, Alec's turn approached.
"Down! All of you!"
Solo Ki suddenly shouted, then . . .
"Thh, thh, thh . . ."
A hail of arrows hissed through the air, falling down on Alec and the others. Crouching low, Alec crept toward the knee wall surrounding the rooftop's edge.
To the distant sound of clashing arms and shouts of outrage, the arrows began landing among them, sinking into far too many of their targets. Except for Theodorous, who had mysteriously come upon a large round shield, and Bri Lynn, who was tucked beneath it as well, all those who had been caught in the open were wounded or dead.
Screams began filling the night, coming from the wounded bleeding to death in front of him, and from the distant warehouse roof where Alec figured, judging by the shouts of "Long live the Destroyer!", the rest of their squad were fighting for their lives.
The noise from the warehouse was surprisingly brief. Then, even the cries of those in front of him ended as a second volley of arrows littered the rooftop. Finally, there was only the sound of the undead moaning in the streets below.
"You will not rob me of this, X'ander," Solo Ki called out, standing in the open among the many fresh corpses.
"Sorry to disappoint you, One elf, but I have my orders. The Destroyer must perish by a living hand."
"Damn your orders!"
The other laughed.
"What would I be without orders? Rules to guide me? A sense of purpose in life? Shal'in Ome One Elf, I would be you."
"If you wish to have him, then you must face me. And unlike him, I cannot die by a living hand."
There was silence for a moment, then the conversation resumed.
"Perhaps a compromise, Solo Ki. You keep your Destroyer and I leave both of you here to die."
Now it was Theodorous who was yelling. Alec saw the man peeking his head out from behind the shield, a look of horror on his face. Soon after, Alec heard a tremendous BOOM! At the sound the entire building shook. There was no need to raise his head and look, he knew what made the sound. The bridge had been demolished, cast aside from atop the warehouse.
Though not exactly pleased at the current situation, he was strangely relieved knowing that he wouldn't have to cross it.
"Why have they stopped?"
From the other side of the door there was only silence. Nathalia took her ear off of it and turned to Emily, who was several feet back from the entryway and wrapped in a rich, silken tapestry that Nathalia had ripped off the walls. Tetloan was clad in a similar fashion. All three of them were still soaked from their dip in the moat.
If it hadn't been for the boy, Emily would have been cut in two and Nathalia trapped outside with nothing but her blades between her and the demons. Tetloan's power had kept the gate open just long enough for her to drag Emily out of harm's way, then the portcullis descended and they were locked inside the Archenon with the rest of the refugees.
The chamber to their backs was stuffed with refugees, their eyes full of fear and apprehension. Even the spiral stairway that wrapped around the ancient tree trunk was packed with people, many dangling off the sides like ornaments. It was from those heights that her own people had gone to hide, and unlike the other refugees, their eyes of gray and white held nothing but boredom.
"They are seeking another way in," she replied to the wide-eyed young girl, then quickly craned her neck upwards. "Is there another access to the keep?"
His throat rumbling like an earthquake, Gunt sucked the mucus from his lungs before answering, "I reckon they can look all they want. But the only way in is through them doors."
He raised his war pick -- which was a two foot steel spike fastened to a steel brick thick as a human head. Her golden ponytail bouncing, Nathalia nodded her approval.
"Good," she said, relaxing her form. "Then at least we'll know where to bolster our defenses. Are these the only ones you could find then?"
Hidden behind the boulder dwarf's girth, a group of ragged and filthy faces regarded one another in awe. They peered out from within helms gilded with gold and silver, their eyes sparkling from the reflection of the jewels encrusted in the armor and weapons of those around them. They had lived their lives without seeing so much as a pinch of gold and now they were draped in it. After struggling for ages to free themselves from poverty, they had finally acquired a fortune, though now beyond saving their lives their possessions no longer had value.
Many of the soldiers in the crowd were wrinkled, bent, elderly men and women, their eyes clouded over with glaucoma and their joints inflamed with arthritis. Nevertheless, these ancient veterans had come forward from within the crowd, fully prepared to give their lives in yet another battle for the Seventh World. Worse yet, several of the other soldiers Gunt had been able to scrounge from the refugees lacked limbs with which to even wield their fancy weapons. Yet, despite their disabilities, they too were ready to die defending their world. Lastly, Gunt had recruited a score of children. With helms of gold draping past their eyes, and tripping over their own armor, Nathalia took one look at their brave little faces and immediately said, "The others can stay, but for the sake of the gods please bring them back to their mothers. We're trying to fight the Plague not feed it."
Snarling in obedience, Gunt roared down at the children, "You heard her! Drag your diaper covered asses back to the others." Immediately the children scrambled out of sight.
"Somehow I doubt these fighters will suffice," Nathalia said, looking over the odd group of soldiers numbering no more than fifty.
In order to raid Rafe's armory, she had been forced to break Gunt's nose -- no simple task. But now, at least all of the soldiers were armed, and for an added bonus, the giant Boulder Dwarf had grown rather amiable to her wishes.
"Aye, unfortunately all the real soldiers we have are fighting at the front, or clinging like cowards to the Great Tree," the dwarf said, pulling a bloody wad of cloth from his left nostril.
Gunt's comment made Nathalia's cheeks blush with shame.
"I would shake the bastards loose if falling to their deaths wouldn't please them so," Gunt continued. He twisted the cloth, wringing out the blood. Then, after wadding it into a ball he stuffed it back in.
"The Shal'in Ome will fight only when cornered. Otherwise, only Adros himself could drag them from that tree," Nathalia was sickened by the discussion.
She left the boulder dwarf and his paltry group of soldiers to join Emily and Tetloan.
"I'm sorry, Emily . . . Sorry for your loss," Nathalia said, resting her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"No. No, Nathalia. I'm the one who should be sorry. I acted like a fool and nearly got you all killed. I should have known . . ."
She lowered her head.
"I should have accepted the fact that Whimly was dead a long time ago."
"Sometimes, the death of a loved one is impossible to accept," Nathalia said, her eyes drifting off into the past. "And as long as we hope . . . we can be deceived."
"You're starting to sound like Solo Ki," Tetloan interjected, his words thrusting Nathalia back into the present.
"How dare . . ." she was about to reprimand him when she suddenly realized he was absolutely right. She had been merely repeating what the One Elf once told her, a long time ago.
Son of a . . .
"Boom! Boom! Boom!"
The pounding resumed and she turned to see the gate vibrating.
She leapt back to the door; laying her hands and pointed ear open its surface. Gunt joined her, saying, "Sounds like they're getting angry, or hungry."
"Aye, they're getting desperate to feed. They know there is a ton of meat trapped in this shell, and all they have to do is crack it," Nathalia said, cautiously stepping back. "We need to warn the rest of the city. Prepare them for the possibility that they may be retreating toward a massacre."
"That's impossible," Gunt said. "Not only is that gate the only way in, it's our only way out."
Nathalia lifted her head to the multilevel balconies circling the walls above.
". . . the arrow slits," she whispered.
"Ha! You may be thin elf child, but not even you could squeeze through them gaps. Not even a human child could fit . . . unless . . ." The boulder dwarf pondered. "Perhaps with enough force, I could shove them through." He scanned the crowd searching for a test subject. "Though I cannot say what their remains would look like on the other side."
Nathalia blanched, disgusted by the thought.
"I have a better way," She said, looking around the room.
Where in the dead did Galimoto fly off to?
Finally she saw him, marveling at a middle aged woman seated before him as he repeatedly poked a claw into her right leg. He stared at the woman, his yellow eyes not only wondering at her inability to see him, but awed by the fact that no matter how far his claw dug, Galimoto's presence could not be felt.
Her eyes as listless as a Shal'in Ome, the middle aged woman looked ahead, unaware of the world around her.
Meanwhile, Galimoto continued to poke his claws into her flesh, unaware that she hadn't felt sensation in her legs since she had fallen from Lock Core some twenty years past.
Soaring through the shadows and night on wings of black leather the imp Galimoto surveyed the city below with a pair of eyes that glowed yellow in the light of the brother moons. As much as he hated leaving Nathalia's side, he could never disobey her. To him, she was the only thing of beauty on the entire stinking dung pile of a planet they called the Seventh World. Her and the girl smelled sweet and fresh, like the flesh of a new born. The rest of them reeked of death. His true Master, the Red Mage Brice, could compel him into obedience with his power, but Galimoto would do anything for Nathalia if only to hear her soft voice speak his name.
Below him rows of buildings towered over streets flooded with the undead. Meanwhile scattered along the rooftops, the humans continued their slow flight toward the Archenon, an arrow constantly at their fingertips whether it laid within their quivers or at their cheeks. As far as Galimoto could tell, the horde had diminished little from the humans' efforts. Even if they had fallen back, all the way to Lock Core, Galimoto was wise enough to know that it would have made little difference. The defenders of Shattered Rock were the citizens of but one outland city, while the horde represented hundreds of such cities, not to mention what appeared to be the entire dwarven nation. An army of ants could no sooner remove the sands from the desert world Er'Konis than the defenders could strike down every last one of the undead. Perhaps the walls of the Archenon would buy them some time, but still, the humans would need an eternity.
Galimoto sensed the presence of his master, felt him emanating fear, far away at the outskirts of the city. His master was too distant to be of any help to Galimoto, and Galimoto was far too busy to be of any help to him.
Galimoto cannot save everyone, the imp thought, deciding to leave Brice to fend for himself. Besides, what has Master Brice ever done for Galimoto?
Perhaps the imp's adoration for Nathalia overcame his allegiance to Brice? Or perhaps Brice's grip on Galimoto's usually short leash slackened, his control over the imp diminished as he focused all his efforts on saving his own life? Either way, it was clear to Galimoto what he must do. Not only would he warn the defenders of the attack against the Archenon, he would warn the One Elf of it as well. After all, Solo Ki still owed him a favor or two.
Casting aside the sense of fear radiating from the Red Mage, the imp honed in on the scent of the elf.
Dead . . .
Another scent wafted from Solo Ki's direction almost drowning out all other smells. His wings stirring to a rapid flutter, he plugged his nose then made haste toward the overwhelming stench of death.