"Now what?" Alec asked as Bri Lynn popped out of the trap door and shook her head. Next to the door was an iron anvil which Alec and the other survivors had pushed aside.
Besides himself, there was Theodorous, Solo Ki and five other soldiers on top of the corpse-covered rooftop.
In the streets below, the undead were whipped into a frenzy, the freshly spilt blood taunting them from above. They threw themselves against the already damaged building, smashing their own bones into pulp in their desperation to feed.
"I don't know. The rooms below have been cleared out." Bri Lynn replied. "I recommend we conserve our arrows for when the demons come. Beyond that, I haven't the slightest idea. The bridge linking our building to the warehouse was the main artery in our route to the Archenon. As far as I know, from where we stand there is no other path. Except the streets."
Alec glanced over the edge of the building to watch the broken bodies piling up below. Even if they didn't succeed in breaking into the building by throwing themselves at it, sooner or later the heap of bodies would climb to their height and the position would be overrun. Luckily the Living Dead had yet to show themselves. Alec wasn't sure if the Red Mage and the others succeeded in roasting them all or if they were just being cautious, perhaps fearful of running into Alec.
Grabbing a half empty quiver of arrows and a longbow from the hands of a fallen defender, Alec did his best to slow the pile's creation.
"Together we could exit the building from below. But the moment we succeed, we will be battling for our every step," Bri Lynn continued.
"There must be another way. We won't last a minute in the streets," Theodorous said, pausing from shooting the undead to address the others. "What do you think we should do, Master Ki? No doubt you have faced greater threats before and have always prevailed."
"Don't you get it, Death Guard? This time he doesn't want to prevail," Alec interjected while releasing an arrow.
Theodorous ignored the comment, awaiting a response from the One Elf himself.
"Don't bother saving your ammunition," Solo Ki finally said after moments of silence. "When the demons come, your arrows will be as little use to you as the steel in your hands. I can only recommend that you spend your last moments in this world praying to the gods for an honorable death."
"Tried to warn you," Alec said to the Death Guard before firing another round into the street.
Puffing out his chest, Theodorous turned away, facing toward the undead once more. Before the Death Guard resumed firing, Alec heard him softly utter a prayer from beneath his visored helm.
"What the . . ." Alec muttered, peering out into the dark skyline.
A black spot stained the face of Minos, a tiny little speck which grew larger the longer he watched. Groaning, Alec was finally able to distinguish its shape within the white glow of the moon. He raised his bow, aiming his steel tip straight toward the minute red creature flying toward him on a pair of leathery black wings.
The little bastard will never see it coming, he thought, the bowstring slipping from his fingertips.
"Wait," the One Elf said softly at his side. "For once, you may wish to hear what Galimoto has to say. He comes bearing a message from Nathalia."
It was pointless for him to ask how he knew that, Alec had simply grown accustomed to the fact that the One Elf knew everything.
. . . Immortal heart. Nathalia.
Amidst the chaos of the night he had nearly forgotten her. His mind filled with dread as the imp drew closer, knowing that only something terrible would cause the imp to leave his so-called lady love.
"What happened!" Alec burst out before the imp had a chance to speak. "Where's Nat?"
Ignoring Alec, the imp turned his yellow eyes to Solo Ki.
"The Lady is in danger! Trapped in the hall of the human king . . ." the imp said, buzzing toward them. "Trapped there by many powerful Demons."
He spread his wings, gliding down to the rooftop.
"The Lady ordered Galimoto to warn the humans, to tell them that their castle is safe no more. But Galimoto came to Solo Ki instead. He knew that if there was anyone who could save her the One Elf could. If only he would do Galimoto this final favor, Galimoto swears he will not ask for more."
"I would think Nathalia could handle herself against a few undead," Solo Ki replied, disinterested.
"No. The One Elf does not listen. They are beings which your kind would call Reapers, warriors of the void itself!"
Alec felt his insides knotting at the mention of the name.
"Sounds like a good way to die to me,” he said, hoping to guide Solo Ki to Nathalia's aid. He knew that the only way the elf would willingly leave his side was if he was certain it would result in his doom. As for Alec, though his heart would shatter no matter how she died, at least his spirit would rest peacefully knowing that it wasn't by his hand.
The elf was silent, pondering the situation.
"If so, then this world is far more corrupted than I believed," Solo Ki said. "If the Void has come to reclaim this world than there is little any of us can do."
Desperate to save her, Alec continued trying to goad the elf into helping Nathalia, quickly intervening.
"An opportunity like this doesn't come along often Solo Ki. How long has it been since you've battled a worthy opponent?"
He felt the One Elf probing his mind.
"You would have me at her side, but you would remain behind, Destroyer?"
"Aye," Alec said, unembarrassed at his lack of heroism even in the face of Theodorous' scowl. "But don't worry, One Elf, I'll be here when you return."
. . . If you return.
'Perhaps I will not have to.'
With the imp perched on his shoulder, Solo Ki whipped around and yelled out to the others, "The Void has come to reclaim us. Whether we reunite with it at Alec's side or in the streets, before the night passes we will all be dead."
Everyone, including Theodorous, paused from what they were doing to look at the One Elf dumbfounded.
"I am through waiting for death. For those who would do the same, follow me as I choose my own end fighting in the street."
"Either that, or stay here with me when I turn this building into dust," Alec added. He had to get rid of them all. Not merely because he was -- more than likely -- going to kill them, but also he knew that whatever danger she was in, Nathalia would need all the help she could get.
Even the five soldiers, self-proclaimed followers of the Destroyer, blanched at his words.
Theodorous leapt to his feet, surprisingly fast considering all the armor he wore, and slapped his hand to his chest, proclaiming, "It would be an honor Solo Ki to end my days at your side."
It was with much greater reluctance that the others agreed.
"Imp? I don't see nothing," the cross-eyed soldier said, his visor once more falling over his eyes.
Alec had learned the man's name was Lenny.
"Consider yourself lucky, kid. If only I could be so blind," Alec replied. "Take my word for it, the little bastard's on top of the warehouse."
"Beggin your pardon, Master Destroyer, but what if that imp can't let us in? We'll be trapped in those streets."
Aye, Lenny, you will. The Gods know I wouldn't put my life in Galimoto's hands.
"Well kid, no matter what. I can guarantee that you'll be better off out there than staying here with me."
He turned to Theodorous who was cramming more weapons onto his body.
"What's taking so long, Death Guard?"
Theodorous had been fastening armor straps and holstering weapons for what seemed like hours.
"For the love of the Gods, what more protection do you need?"
"That's easy to say, Destroyer, when you haven't even the courage to join us in the streets."
The man had no idea that it was far more difficult for Alec to stay than it would have been for him to go. He was only trying to help them in the best way he knew how.
"Someone has to cover your ass," he said, spreading out arrows at the roof's edge. "You can't expect Solo Ki to do all of the work."
As though the sound of his name was a summons, the One Elf appeared, his head of white hair poking up from the trap door.
"Are you ready?" Solo Ki calmly asked. The red tip of the Graelic jutted from his back where he had strapped it in exchange for a dagger and a plain worn double-edged broadsword both of which he had acquired from one of the slain soldiers.
Along the western side of the building four soldiers were heaping their fallen comrades into a grisly pile. Their bodies covered in blood, the soldiers draped the corpses over the wall, creating a frenzy of activity in the street below as a stream of blood trickled down the gaps in the brick wall.
"All set? What about the exit?" Alec asked. "Will you be able to leave when I give the word?"
"We have a table propped against it, otherwise, there is nothing preventing it from being opened by the undead. We are ready to enter the streets, and I recommend we proceed very soon."
The pair of gray and white eyes focused on Theodorous, who was suddenly spurred into motion by the gaze. Whether it was the light of Minos or a trick of his mind, Alec swore that he saw a gleam appear in Solo Ki's dull lifeless eyes.
"Good. Then get the dead out of here. The Meat Puppets will tear this building apart if I don't give them what they want. And soon."
Dipping his head to Alec, the One Elf vanished into the building. His armor and weapons clanging together a thousand times with every single step, Theodorous waddled after his hero then stuffed his weapon laden body down the stairs. With Lenny at his side, Alec walked over to the other soldiers and relieved them from their gruesome work. Together -- four of them covered in the blood of their friends and the other constantly lifting a visor past a pair of crossed eyes -- they stood and stared at Alec.
"What are you waiting for?" Alec yelled. "Get the dead out of here!"
As one they bowed, then quickly filed away. The last to disappear through the roof was Lenny, who, peeking up from the hole, called out, "Fight well Destroyer," before his visor fell over his face and he too vanished below.
"Aye. Fight well, all of you . . ." He grabbed a corpse and flung it from the rooftop. ". . .from this world to the next."
He watched it tumble slowly through the air. Immediately the horde swarmed to greet it.
"BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! . . ."
Splinters flew from the doors. The thick oak table propped against them cracked in the center.
"It won't be long now," Nathalia said, stepping back, her blades hissing out of their sheaths. "Emily, Tetloan." The children were standing beside her. "Find higher ground, the higher the better."
"I'm staying," Tetloan stated from behind her.
"Me too," Emily piped.
She turned to them, the words, "get moving!" ready to burst from her lips. However, seeing them standing there with the look of determination in their eyes, she knew the Great Tree would sooner budge than them. Emily's lips didn't pout, but scrunched together, her jaw clenched. Blue fire filled her eyes.
At her side, Tetloan tossed aside the tapestry replacing it with a blanket of blue flames.
"If you're going to stay, then at least stand back. I don't want either of you thinking you can fight them hand to hand."
She stared particularly hard at Tetloan.
"Fight them afar with your Magic, but if the soldiers fail, you must promise me you'll fall back. As fast as you can."
They both nodded, though it took Tetloan longer to do so.
"Stand back!" Gunt bellowed. "The door will hold no longer!" Muscles bulging, the Boulder Dwarf grabbed the ends of his war pick and pressed it against the doorway.
Several other soldiers made a feeble effort to aid him, but their wizened and frail frames added little resistance. And for their help, Gunt hollered at them.
"Fools, I said stand back!"
Before the elderly warriors could move to obey, the dwarf's strength gave out, and the doorway with it. The dwarf flew back, landing with a crash on the stone floor. Meanwhile, the other soldiers who had been aiding him fell to the ground, pinned to the earth by a large section of wood. Amidst the flying bodies and debris, several blackened wolf helms emerged. They crossed the threshold, slowing only long enough to drive their blades into the soldiers trapped on the ground.
Gunt was still lumbering back to his feet when Nathalia leapt out to meet them, a flock of old and crippled soldiers trailing behind.
Driving his sword into the forehead of a trapped soldier, one of the Reapers was unable to defend himself when Nathalia came at him in a whirlwind of silver. No sooner had the Reaper turned to regard her than a pair of orchid blades slipped beneath his breast plate, one on each side of his body. Amidst a spurt of black blood, she withdrew them as quickly as they entered. Her blades covered in gore, Nathalia left him, squaring her shoulders to face two more of the wolf-helmed demons who were barreling toward her.
"Nathalia!" the children simultaneously shouted.
The warning fell on her pointed ears and quickly, she pitched her weight to the side, tumbling, narrowly avoiding a sweeping blade. Immediately she was on her feet, and to her surprise, so was the Reaper she had recently struck and left for dead. The other two demons were almost on top of her, charging at her from the left, moving with remarkable speed considering the heavy layer of steel plates covering their bodies. In front of her, the demon who had almost taken her head came at her slowly, the rubble from the doorway crunching beneath his boots.
The rest of the defenders seemed to move like lead, ambling to the portal, their jewel encrusted weapons reduced to crutches in their feeble hands. Likewise, Gunt was as slow, if not slower, to move, only recently rising to his feet. But even so, he took his time collecting his wits, rubbing the dust from his eyes.
It didn't matter. Nathalia was ready for them, all three of the Reapers. Before her heart could even beat the course of action was laid out in her head. One move after another, she plotted the future for as far as her mind could see. With the path before her made clear, every motion was restrained within her, condensed into a single coil waiting for its moment in time to explode. Her body and her energy bursting out as one . . .
. . . one fluid motion . . .
The air crackled. A chain of blue energy blasted the demon in front of her, pitching the black clad knight into the garden. Her gray eyes darted to the left where a large chunk of wood levitated above the heads of the other demons, then, before they could reach her -- with an ear popping THUD!, the shard of doorway slammed to the earth, crushing them. A cloud of dust billowed outward, rolling across the stone floor and around Nathalia's feet.
Charging through the cloud with their weapons raised before them, the other defenders finally arrived, halting their crippled procession at Nathalia's side. Even Gunt had managed to drag his lumbering form to the entryway. Nearly filling the doorway, the Boulder Dwarf's knuckles whitened as his fingers twisted around the handle of his war pick. Dust caked his shaggy brow, coloring it gray.
Shadows scurried through the courtyard. Occasionally Nathalia's elven eyes detected a wolf helm, or a glint of black armor shuffling in the moonlight.
"They're testing us," she stated, her ashen face calm, her eyes digesting the darkness.
Several feet in front of her the fallen Reaper stirred, traces of Tetloan's energy still flickering on its armor.
"Move everyone into the Great Tree. Keep the demons from entering it at all costs. If they get inside, these people will be massacred."
She slipped through the doorway, her padded feet resting at the head of the rousing demon.
With a flash, a flick of her wrist, and a spray of black blood, the wolf helm sprung into the air, bouncing on the courtyard several times before finally coming to a rest.
"What the . . ?"
The blood stopped pouring from its neck, reverting the direction of its flow and regenerating the white, severed tip of its spinal cord. Stunned, Nathalia watched as black blood restored its vertebrae and tissue began growing over its newly formed spine. Headless, the demon lurched to its feet.
"How in the dead am I supposed to kill you?" She asked, fully aware that -- without a mouth -- the creature was unable to reply.
Fortunately, Gunt stepped forward and answered for it.
Crushing metal, bones, and even the stones beneath its feet, the Boulder Dwarf repeatedly heaved his war pick into the air and hammered away at the being's body, only satisfied with his work once he was looking down at a crumpled pile of steel and pulp.
"Hah," he bellowed, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"That seemed to work," Nathalia said.
The mass of flesh and steel vibrated for a moment then was motionless. She turned, looking toward the fallen section of door, and the pair of demons trapped beneath it. "Now, see if it works on them."
Grunting, he ambled off.
I just hope his stamina holds out, she thought, once more turning her attention to the horde of shadows lurking beyond the moat. For a second all she could see was darkness, then, the shadows were everywhere . . .
"They're moving," Bri Lynn whispered, peeking through a crack in the wall.
A pungent mixture of mold and rotting flesh permeated the cramped room. Pieces of broken furniture were scattered about the floor, thrown there by Solo Ki and Bri Lynn while clearing a pathway to the door.
"Now," Solo Ki ordered.
Theodorous and the five soldiers instantly moved to obey, thrusting aside the table propped against the door. As they flung it to the ground, Bri Lynn scurried down from the crack to aid them. Meanwhile, drawing his dagger and broadsword, Solo Ki strode toward the door. With his vein riddled hands curled around the hilts of his blades, his foot flew outward, smashing apart the door. Already heavily fractured from the beating of the undead, the force of his kick blew the door from its hinges, spraying a hail of fragments into the street. Then, in a blaze of silver-fire, the One Elf rushed in.
Clutching a battle axe in a pair of gauntlets, Theodorous cried out, "Hah! Have a bite of the One Elf you rotting meat puppets!" and lumbered out into Solo Ki's path of flame. Hacking into the crowd like an insane lumberjack, Theodorous continued cursing, swinging his axe from shoulder to shoulder. What his axe missed, his weapon covered body somehow hit, slicing any creature that came near with one of the many weapons jutting from his body.
For every step the One Elf paved, a score of undead closed in to reclaim it. But, trudging along in his suit of full mail, Theodorous and his battle axe kept the road open for Bri Lynn and the rest of the soldiers to follow.
The herd was thinned by the time Bri Lynn leapt into the street. She moved fast, goring the first zombie she saw with the silver tip of her spear. Its body split in half with a flash of silver-fire, the being's lower half walked on while the upper half was on the ground moaning and gazing up in confusion as its lower half walked by. With a swift kick, she toppled the legs to the earth where they thrashed about in an attempt to stand. Then, thrusting her spear forward, she impaled the creature's head.
Soon the five soldiers were in the street as well, finishing off the crippled victims of the others, and before long, they had managed to carve a defendable position on the street. Undead reinforcements were slow to come, the horde being more interested in the bloodbath Alec had created in the alleyway. As a result, Solo Ki had ample time to reach the warehouse.
A blur of silver-fire, the One Elf incinerated everything within arms-reach (which was a great deal of space considering the elf's incredible size), ending his hurricane of steel and silver in front of a pair of ten foot double doors fastened shut with boards and chain. With a slash of his broadsword he severed the chain. It fell, slipping from the door handles and rattling as it landed on the street. Then, with his dagger pressed against the door, the One Elf struggled to pry the boards from off the door. His only result a bent blade, Theodorous lumbered up and said, "Allow me, Master Ki", his battle axe falling with a heavy thud on the door. He repeated the blow, again and again, chopping through the barricade of boards one by one.
"Hurry, Theodorous, they're coming stronger now," Bri Lynn said, plucking away at the advancing horde with a short bow while the rest of the soldiers cut down any of the advancing undead she couldn't hit.
"That's it!" Theodorous shouted, throwing down his axe and grabbing one of the brass handles. "Quick, help us pull."
Solo Ki was on the other handle, tugging with all the strength his thin arms possessed. Neither him, nor Theodorous seemed to be making any progress. Bri Lynn and the soldiers crowded around them, helping them pull, grabbing whatever they could hold.
"Try pushing then!" Theodorous said, raising his voice to be heard above the growing roar of the undead.
"No, the doors swing outward."
The One Elf studied the heavy steel hinges attached to the door.
"It is still secured from within."
He reached behind, freeing the Graelic from beneath his cape.
"Keep trying," he said, walking out to meet the oncoming wall of undead. "The imp will succeed, he has never failed me yet."
"Here apprentice, you try," Theodorous said, picking up his axe and charging to the One Elf's side.
Bri Lynn took one look at the door then turned to Lenny, "See what you can do." She grabbed hold of her spear and went to aid her master. "We'll hold them back as long as we can. If we're still alive when that door opens, let us know."
The moment the undead were within reach of the Graelic, Solo Ki swung out, felling several of the beings with a single swing. Though, unlike silver, the beings did not burst into flame, but merely dropped to the ground instead, their corrupted life-force swallowed by the blackened shaft of wood. Eager to aid his hero, Theodorous joined in, hewing several of the undead down with a swing of his axe.
The mass of undead closed in, forcing both of the warriors to step back. In a foolish attempt to impress Solo Ki, Theodorous dashed forward, his axe blowing the undead back like a battle ram. Unfortunately, his success was greater than he anticipated, and he soon found himself dangerously deep within the undead ranks.
"Um . . . Master Ki? Some help please," Theodorous said, tightening his grip with both hands and heaving his axe upwards.
All around him undead hands reached out. Many quickly burst into flame as his axe fell, and many others disintegrated as his armor shifted -- the bare blades hanging from his body jumping to life with the motion. But as soon as his axe finished its arc a pair of fleshless hands grabbed hold of him . . . then another . . . and another . . .
"Master Ki!" Theodorous screamed out as the hands began dragging him down. Solo Ki and Bri Lynn leapt to his aid, the One Elf batting the undead away as they piled on top of him while Bri Lynn fought fiercely to carve a path to her master's side.
Theodorous lifted his axe to strike once more but fell to the ground instead. Silver flames ignited around him while he struggled to free himself -- the many weapons hanging from his armor the only thing keeping him from harm, functioning as a weapon as well as a means of defense. Somehow his helmet was lost in the shuffle, leaving the flesh of his face and neck fully exposed. Not about to miss the sudden opportunity to feed, one of the undead dove in with a wide opened jaw. Unable to move, Theodorous saw the yellowed teeth coming at him and was certain he was doomed. Then . . .
The creature burst into flames. Theodorous closed his eyes as the fiery ash rained down on his face. Miraculously, one by one the undead ignited. The next thing he knew, Solo Ki and Bri Lynn were standing above him. Curls of smoke wafted from the tip of the Graelic as a pile of lifeless husks grew around them. The surge of undead was temporarily thrown back, allowing Theodorous to lurch to his feet -- with Bri Lynn's aid of course.
"My deepest thanks, Master Ki," Theodorous said while freeing his helmet from beneath a pile of ash.
"Thank the Destroyer. A moment longer and I would have been wielding the Graelic against you."
"Ha . . ."
He noted several arrows resting in the piles of ash.
"I'd thank him, if only he had the guts to fight in the streets."
Slowly, Theodorous and Solo Ki stepped back as the undead amassed in the street once more. Within the crowd a dark blob appeared, slinking its way toward the combatants. An arrow plummeted from the building above. It sank into the blob of darkness and, unfazed by the silver tipped shaft, the demon crept to the battle's forefront.
LeCynic had the Gray Mage in his hand. The veins in Coba's face bulged, his flesh shifted in hue from crimson to blue. In comparison to the hand wrapped around his throat Coba's flesh seemed vibrant. Far more alive than the flaking yellow fingers crawling with black, pulsating veins. The mage's black robe fluttered, as did Coba's eyes.
Brice raised his arms, the dwindling aura of blue around him erupting into a final burst of flames.
The Black Mage looked on him and smiled, letting Coba slip from his fingers.
"You've killed us all, LeCynic!"
"Fool, mage. Haven't you learned?" he replied, the words lubricated by the pus oozing from the sores on his lips. "You were already dead."
Brice struck him.
The hue surrounding his robe fizzled into nothing as he raised a hand of blue fire to deliver one last blow. His fist tore through the night, landing with an explosion of flames on the Black Mage's chest.
He never saw what happened next. It was his last attack. His power was no more. Extinguished. All for nothing. Though he could not see him, he knew that like the rest of his efforts, he had failed, and in his mind the Black Mage laughed . . . Coba closed his eyes.
Brice fell to the earth, defeated, deaf to the wind as it howled past his ears and buffeted his gold fringed robe. His final thoughts were of his failure. Of his students -- all dead. Somewhere within the city below their fallen corpses grew dark, corrupted by the lord LeCynic. If the city hadn't already fallen, his students would awaken to their new life and rise up against it, tearing every last remnant of life from Shattered Rock . . . from the entire Seventh World.
Before gravity swept the soul from his bones Brice thought of Alec, saw the man's scruffy face in the darkness, mocking him for living a life that was a waste. The One Elf was in there as well, impassive as ever. In his cold, emotionless voice Solo Ki simply stated, "I warned you it was so."