There are too many . . .
A pair of orchids fluttered before her like humming bird wings.
So fast . . . Too fast!
Attacking the beings had proven useless. In one instant, she severed an arm, in the next, it was restored and swinging at her with a jagged blade. Nathalia kept up with two, three, sometimes even four at a time, but her blades had been reduced to shields, darting in all directions to parry a multitude of blows while every second, a score of her companions were cleaved in half, cut down by the demons' blades as though the wolf helmed beings were reaping wheat.
Gunt only remained standing because his hairy skin was tough, thick as leather, and his massive girth absorbed the majority of his wounds. Though drenched in his own blood, none of his injuries were mortal. Still, it was only a matter of time before his blood ran out, and with it his strength. Even now his war pick was slow to rise, and seldom struck a blow. Because of him the demons were barred from the Great Tree. Dripping with blood and sweat, Gunt filled the crack in the trunk while bent and battered armored figures laid scattered about his feet, the bodies slow to regenerate and renew their attacks considering they had been reduced to mush.
Nathalia did her best to draw the demons from him. Spinning this way and that, her blades constantly clashing with a barrage of the demons' steel.
"Cling, cling, cling . . ."
Ears ringing, Nathalia dipped beneath a horizontal slash while parrying a trio of jabs.
Suddenly, one of the demons soared into the air, a noose of blue fire wrapped around its neck. The being was still trying to cut her down, hacking and slashing as he sailed through the air.
The children . . .
She had thought they had left during the early moments of the battle, when the outcome immediately turned grim.
I told them to leave! she thought, furious that they weren't at the top of the Great Tree by now.
For an instant her attention waned, and in that brief amount of time a blade slid past her guard, easily penetrating her leather coat, the thin shirt of chain mail beneath and carving a chunk of flesh from her shoulder. She fell to her knee, limply deflecting one blade to the side but failing to stop yet another. Its jagged edge tore her jacket and flesh as it slid across her ribcage. A trail of blood dripping down her arm, she looked up to see the demons' blades descending toward her. Gritting her teeth against the pain and refusing to accept death, she thrust her swords upward as fast as her arms could bare them.
Then, before she was crushed beneath their blows, each of the demons ignited, their dark armor glowing white with heat, melting the flesh beneath. She felt her hair singeing, her own flesh burning from the fires, and she was forced to peddle her way back, away from the pyres of burning flesh.
Tetloan passed her. His feet levitating several feet above the earth. His skin had become flame. He held his hands toward the demons, pouring a steady torrent of energy into their remains. Clenching his jaw with rage, a geyser of flame erupted from his eyes, spilling into the energy stream and turning the trio of demons into a charred pit of ash, ten feet deep in the earth.
Briefly, he turned to Nathalia, his eyes alighting on her wounds. His body suddenly swelled with flames and with the stone cracking beneath him, he flew from her, moving to incinerate the nearest demon.
"Sit still," Emily told her after she had tried to rise and go after him.
Nathalia hadn't even been aware that Emily was with her, and that she was sealing her wounds with azure flames from her fingertips. Her delicate hands massaged the energy into her skin, making her flesh whole, leaving only a tear and crimson stain on her jacket from where the wounds had once been.
"Bloody gods, Emily!"
Nathalia leapt to her feet.
In a flash of silver her blades were sheathed and in the next instant her coat was flying off her arms and drifting to the ground. Her shirt of mail hugged her skin from the curves of her breast down to her slender waist. At her shoulder and ribcage, the interlocking steel rings were severed, revealing a tender layer of pinkish skin.
"I told you to stay back."
In the distance, Tetloan continued to incinerate the demons, yet with his every success his flames dwindled, and meanwhile, every last demon stormed to his location, lusting to tear him open and feast on the fires within.
"I guess we're too much like you. We don't want to wait for death any more than you," Emily said, brushing her dark curls from her eyes and tucking them behind her ears as she rose to her feet. "If we’re going to die we'd rather do it at your side."
Trying to turn her away would have been useless, not to mention time-consuming, and judging from the throng of demons arrayed near Tetloan, the three of them had far too little time left.
Not bothering to see if Emily followed -- being certain that she would -- Nathalia ran to Tetloan, who was now encircled by the demons, his barrier of flames dying to no more than a bluish haze, no longer sufficient to keep the demons at bay . . .
Armored forms flew from him, plucked into the air with threads of blue and hurled to the side by blows from Nathalia's feet and blades. Nathalia made it to Tetloan only to find him kneeling on the earth, blood pouring through his fingers as he clutched a gaping wound in his side. Next to him, a wolf helm reared up, heaving a blood stained blade into the air. Instead of striking him once more, the being reached out, grabbing the boy by the wrist.
His skin blackening and flaking off into dust, Nathalia bolted toward him, and with a series of lightning quick sweeps of her blades she stemmed the dark flow infecting his arm, severing both his and the demon's limbs. Horror stricken, Tetloan watched as his arm fell to the ground and withered to dust. Then he too fell to the earth.
Her blades flickered. Except for its steel boots, every last piece of the demon sprang into the air and into the darkness. She looked in disgust as bones grew from the black boots then with a swift kick she sent them flying into the night as well.
All around them the darkness crept in. Glowing blue, Emily hunched over Tetloan, filling the stump of his arm and hole in his side with wisps of flame. She looked down at him, concentrating, her curls draping past her face and licking his freckled cheeks. Supporting his head in the crook of her arm, the flow of blood gushing from his body slowed to a trickle.
There was no time for Nathalia to help them, the ring of demons stepped into the light. The fangs on their helms glistened beneath Emily's flames, as did the orchid blades in Nathalia's hands. Moving on the balls of her feet, she surveyed the circle of shining black steel threatening to engulf them.
I won't let them die! she cursed, her heels never straying more than an inch from the children.
Yet even she knew, there was only so much that one elf could do.
He was alone.
Alone, sitting with his back to the wall as the horde of undead feasted in the streets below. With their mouths full of flesh, they no longer moaned, and except for the occasional sound of bones cracking in their jaws, they left Alec to sit in silence. He looked to the sky, watching the Brother Moons and the stars slowly trace their way toward the horizon.
"Thump, Thump, Thump . . ."
His bones vibrated from the sound of the undead battering the building while the torrent of snarls renewed from the streets.
Dinner's over, he thought, getting to his feet. Must be time for dessert.
His hands were empty -- despite the scores of weapons scattered across the rooftop. It was past time for silver and steel. They had always failed the races, and always would. There was only one weapon that had ever brought the Triad victory. And despite his protests, he knew that it wouldn't be long before that weapon was employed once more.
The building crumbled around him and the howls of the dead drew near.
The undead mounded into a heap of corpses at the base of the building, clawing their way atop one another to get a taste of his flesh. He looked toward the bridge heading away from the Archenon -- the bridge he had crossed not so long ago -- and though he dreaded to re-cross it, he was far more afraid of what might happen if he stayed.
Blue flames were constantly nipping at her body, soothing her pain the instant it was made. She no longer feared being struck, no longer cared to defend. Her shirt of mail dissipating, Nathalia attacked, taking apart her enemies with utter disregard for the jagged blades slicing her flesh. Occasionally, Emily was able to pause her healings and blast one of the fiends apart, though mostly, she kept a constant flow of energy heading Nathalia's way. All alone Nathalia held the circle at bay, moving with a speed that was part desperation, part elven, and part Magic.
Her blades moved invisible, their presence marked only by a faint whisper as they sliced through the air, lopping off her enemies black limbs and wolf helms. The moment one of the Reapers stepped forward, she was there to meet them, instantly, as though suddenly birthed from the very air in which they intended to step. Never once did she falter, even when their blades burrowed deep within her flesh and she felt the dark steel burning her insides. She continued on, ignoring the exhaustion and the pain, never once doubting that the blue flame would be there to bind her wounds.
As soon as one of the demons fell, another was there to take its place. She might have disassembled hundreds or even thousands, they came at her too fast and fell apart too quickly for her to possibly count them all. For all she knew, she may have been fighting the same demon -- over and over again. Chopping it down only to face it once more, its form restored by the dark power filling the armor with the semblance of life. She tried not to think about that possibility, nor concern herself with the certainty that Emily's strength must eventually reach its limit. Knowing that the time must come when the child could heal no more. Emily would heal for as long as she could, and Nathalia would fight, until she was dead. As long as the children yet lived, then hope remained. And as long as there was hope, she would never succumb to the dark.
The dark . . .
A vastness that none can cross . . .
An eternity to ponder nothing.
'Shal'in Ome!' her voice echoed through the void.
In a blur of brown the darkness vanished, swallowed by a spinning wooden staff. With the Graelic throbbing in his hands like a thick varicose vein Solo Ki advanced to Nathalia's side, a tempest against which the demons crumbled, became piles of rattling steel.
"It's good to see you, Shal'in Ome," Nathalia said gasping for breath.
With one blade she severed a wolf helm, with her other she sent it flying into the night. Behind her she felt Emily collapse with exhaustion.
"I knew sooner or later I could draw you into a fight," she continued while the Reapers sought to evade the deadly hurricane.
Bits of armor falling all around him, Solo Ki replied, "Had I not come, he would have haunted me through the end of time."
He paused his attacks only long enough to nod his head of white hair toward the imp, who was trying to bury his teeth into one of the wolf helms. The demon beneath Galimoto reached up to swat him with a gauntlet.
In a spark of silver, the gauntlet was hurtling through the air, and shortly after so was the wolf helm, with Galimoto included -- the little fiend still intent on driving his teeth through the layer of steel even while gravity drove him and the helm to the earth.
"And you've brought friends?" Nathalia said, seeing a figure wearing a suit of gore-covered plate mail cleave a demon in half with a double headed axe. An axe that was nearly as large as he was. Leather straps and belts intersected throughout his armor, fastening an arsenal of weapons to the man's body.
Nathalia knew the man must be Theodorous, despite the visor hiding his face, for at his side she recognized his short companion Bri Lynn poking the demons with a spear. Her normally flat blond hair was frosted with dirt and jutting from her head like spikes.
Next to her, there was a pair of scraggly looking soldiers donned in breastplates and helms, one of which had to continuously stop fighting in order to adjust his falling visor.
With a renewed skip in her step, Nathalia grinned as yet another Reaper stepped forward. Peeking to her left, she saw her grin echoed in the pasty face of the One Elf.
Thunder rolled through the sky accompanied by bursts of lighting and flame. Crawling on his belly from one building to the next, he tried not to look down but often he found himself glimpsing at the streets below, watching the shadows scatter as yet another ball of flame ignited the sky. This far from the Archenon, the streets were empty but for a blanket of silver tipped shafts resting on the cobblestone roads. There was no sign of the undead, their wounded having vanished in silver-fire while all those who could yet move dragged their bloated forms toward the city's heart.
Three stories up, hugging a creaking wooden plank, Alec found himself completely alone.
With only five city blocks remaining before he reached the city's end, he pulled himself onto a slate tiled rooftop and continued on, crossing it to where another span of boards lay, connecting that rooftop to the next.
On the horizon, three tiny droplets of fire plummeted from the sky. Glowering at the falling shapes, he craned his neck to the sky and when the heavens glowed beneath a series of bursts, he noted with anger and disgust that the number of specks floating above had greatly diminished since the last time he looked.
Helpless, and likely to do the mages more harm than good, Alec shook his head and moved on, dropping to his hands and knees as he came to the next makeshift bridge. His fear of falling had disappeared, his mind occupied only with worry, both for Nathalia and for the Red Mage as he battled in the sky. The entire length of the bridge was crossed in silence and utter dark. The explosions ended signaling a conclusion to the mages battle for dominion of the heavens. Stepping onto the next roof, he didn't bother to look up, knowing full well who the victor was.
His shoulders slumped as he moved on, shuffling forward. But then a new light appeared in the sky. A falling star shimmering faintly in a hue of blue and what appeared to be . . . gold? It disappeared beyond the city's decimated wall. Running across the next bridge, Alec launched himself forward without fear, hoping to intercept the fallen star before its light burned out.
Side by side the elven pair stood against the Reapers, a storm of black ash and silver-fire. Along with the humans, they broke through the ring of demons and formed their own circle around the pair of unconscious children. For all her efforts, and those of the humans, the Reapers could not be destroyed. Nathalia was certain now that no matter how many pieces she reduced them to, their bodies always regenerated. Only the Graelic seemed able to get at their hearts, swallowing them whole. Though even that ancient weapon had its limits, for now it was ripe with darkness, growing painful for Solo Ki to bear. The One Elf gritted his teeth as smoke rose from his hands, his flesh sizzling from his hold on the wood. Smelling his flesh burn, there was no doubt in Nathalia's mind that he would wield it until the heat baked through his flesh, cooking his hands. Even then he would fight on, never stopping, not until his fingers crumbled to ash. None of the others would last half as long. The Reapers had quickly learned to avoid the elf and his blackened staff focusing instead on the weaker sections of their ring -- which was of course its human half.
Helpless to save them, she watched as a jagged edged sword tore through one of the soldier's breastplate, ripping open a huge horizontal gash along his waist from which the man's innards quickly spilled. He dropped his blade and fell to his knees, desperately fighting to stuff his organs into his stomach. With the next swing of its blade, the Reaper cleaved through the man's neck. His hands still grasping his guts, the soldier's body toppled. Meanwhile, pitching through the air, the man's head landed on the ground. His visor slowly falling over a pair of crossed eyes.
Immediately, the other soldier found himself fighting off several demons at once. And in a spray of blood, he too fell to the earth.
Solo Ki managed to make his way to them. Though too late to save them, his presence filled the gap left by their deaths. Barely able to deflect the constant rain of steel falling at her Nathalia had to make up for his absence, Emily's Magic no longer keeping her from death. With every passing instant the demons' blades came closer to striking a fatal blow.
The fall of the other humans seemed inevitable. Bri Lynn had a short sword and a small round shield, both of which she plucked from her mentor's body, and was doing little more than tucking her body behind the shield while the jagged blades covered it with dents. Theodorous was faring slightly better. The undead being unable to near the man without impaling themselves on one of his many weapons, but beyond that his axe was useless. He could chop them down, though he was destined to face them once more. Sooner or later he too would fall, for he could not possibly swing his great axe forever.
While pondering her own chances -- which seemed as grim -- Nathalia heard a thunderous roar, and suddenly, the light of Minos -- the very moon itself -- was eclipsed by a mountainous form. Followed by a gush of wind that lifted her ponytail -- and nearly her whole body -- into the air, one of the demons in front of her was crushed, compacted flatter than the breadth of her blades by a monstrous war pick. Dripping with blood -- both black and red -- and covered from head to toe in gashes, Gunt grinned down at her as he pounded another demon into the ground with the flat end of his pick.
Even more miraculous than the appearance of the boulder dwarf, all around her the Reapers were suddenly disintegrating. Their armor and severed limbs filling the air. She looked around, shocked to see a pair of eyes, gray and white, reflecting her own gaze everywhere she looked.
Fighters of mythical prowess.
Nathalia's kin had finally found their hope in the blood red tip of the Graelic. The ages of rest were no more. Spurred by the presence of their king and father -- Solo Ki -- at long last their blades awoke -- vibrant and alive within their hands once more.
Smiling, her heart swelling with pride, Nathalia looked upon the eyes of gray and white surrounding her, watching as the light of the Brother Moons made them shine. Her blades began slicing through the air faster than ever before.
At first he thought he was mistaken. The motionless body before him couldn't possibly be the man he knew, the man who used to smile at him with teeth brighter than the Twin Moons. That man would smile, despite Alec's efforts to make him stop. This man had no teeth. Hardly any face to speak of. All of his features had long since melted into one continuous puffy white scar. The only sections of healthy skin had patches of course black hair sprouting from them. Then he remembered. . .
He alters his appearance with Magic.
And he knew . . .
"What have I done to you?"
Alec knelt beside him on the scorched earth.
"Why?" he demanded.
The man's only reply was a stirring of gold lace brushed by the wind.
"You believed in me . . . even after what I've done, what I've done to you."
He cradled the man's neck in the palm of his hand. His flesh was cold, stiff, unyielding to his efforts as he sought to raise his head.
"What do you think I am!"
Phlegm shot from his lips as he shouted at the faceless man.
"What do you want me to do!"
Darkness filled his eyes.
'I want you to see . . .'
A distant voice echoed in his mind.
"Not again," he pleaded of the dark.
Through eyes clouded over in darkness everything was revealed. In the absence of all he could finally see. He had forgotten it, the truth. For years he had tucked it away where it remained hidden from his own mind. A reality he could not face . . .
Not if he wished to live.
I am the Destroyer.
Despite all his knowledge, the Red Mage was wrong. The Order's Magic was a lie. It was all a lie. Instead of a Singularity encompassing all, he saw only emptiness. A hole that would never be filled, no matter what it devoured, for it was deeper . . . more limitless than reality itself.
The Red Mage spent his life clinging to the illusion, always shifting shadows . . . nothing more.
But shadows disappear in the dark.
Without looking he saw everything --
Saw to the heart of the Seventh World where a black veil hid hatred, secrecy, lust . . . and falling tears.
Saw to the Gorian and beyond -- the Wastelands, the shores of the Endless Sea. The people of the Seventh World packing their belongings to flee . . .
. . . And the child with the wide eyes -- a light that makes shadows even in the darkest night, a fire burning bright as the Midnight Sun.
The Dwarf king and his army standing solid as stone at the foot of the Rift.
The stranger, a woman with transparent flesh, taller than even Solo Ki and nearly invisible even to him.
Solo Ki . . . The Elf Father and the orchid blades.
'Nathalia . . .'
Even with his sight she could not be found.
Without looking he saw the hollowed remains of men and women surround him. The Living Dead. Towering above them, a smear of darkness drew near.
"Well, well. Haven't you strayed far from the flock."
. . . The energy tore through his flesh like a thousand knives, in moments his insides levitated before him suspended in a web of energy. Despite all the man's power none of it was wasted on stemming Alec's pain. Cold and calculating as he inspected his innards, the man never even gave it a thought.
The dark stain came closer, bent to inspect Alec.
The man drew closer, cackling.
"Finally . . . I have you back once more," the smear continued, speaking from a body that was black as a starless night but blinding and bright when compared to the shade of its soul. "Now I will have your power."
Alec's voice was everywhere. It was everything.
"Yes, you will."
I no longer fear the dark.
To do so was pointless . . . to deny its embrace, futile.
'I am the Destroyer.'
. . . from him, all things became nothing.
Despite his refusal, Emily poured her energy into the cracks upon Solo Ki's swelling hands. On the ground at his side the Graelic sat smoldering, totally black and shriveled like a worm caught in the baking sun. Nathalia and the other elves heaped the last pieces of black armor into a pile, waiting as Tetloan raised his remaining arm to melt them with mage-fire. With Galimoto on her shoulder she stepped back, nearly caught in Tetloan's raging energy. Hate filled, his eyes didn't even notice her, would not have, even had she been standing naked at the center of his flames. His left arm was a stump, ending several inches below his elbow.
The Death Guards' faces were once more hidden beneath black hoods as they walked among the fallen, their blades stained crimson. Pleased to aid them, the Boulder Dwarf Gunt hastened their brutal task with the pounding of his war pick. The shorter Death Guard paused, fingering the blade in its hand as it studied Tetloan's actions, perhaps uncertain his infection had been removed along with his arm.
All heads turned as shouts arose from atop the wall. With Rafe cursing them to move onward, the defenders had finally returned, fleeing like mad over the Archenon's Outer Shell. Once beyond the wall they didn't stop to fight the force behind them, but continued on, many leaping from the battlements, risking the tremendous drop rather than face what they fled.
Crossing the drawbridge, Nathalia ran out to aid them, her kin and Galimoto following right behind.
"Wait!” Solo Ki shouted.
Then it happened.
A dark swell blotted out the sky, swallowing the Brother Moons. Rafe turned his back to the rest of his soldiers and dove from the wall.
"Nathalia!" Emily cried out, a blue shell forming over her and the One Elf.
Tetloan took a moment to gaze in awe at the dark tide before he too donned himself in blue flames. Having witnessed the dark storm once before, the taller Death Guard and Gunt scrambled to join the One Elf beneath Emily's blue barrier. Wise enough to sense its purpose, the shorter Guard followed its mentor.
"Go!" Nathalia shouted to Galimoto, who was slightly ahead of her, holding back his true speed in order to remain at his lady love's side. She tried to run to the others but discovered that her legs were stiff, her body weary, and that she could no longer hold back the exhaustion.
"What are you waiting for? I'll make it," she cried. "Go!"
He looked at her, his yellow eyes uncertain, then, seeing the black storm rise up behind her he zipped away.
The darkness spilled over the Outer Shell, surging into the courtyard. There was no point in trying to outrun it. She no longer had the energy to try. She gazed forward with eyes of gray and white, content to see the children safely sheltered beneath a blue shell. Nathalia stopped and turned to face it. One by one it engulfed her kin.
"Alec . . ." her whisper was lost in the howling darkness. "I don't want to fight you anymore."
Her blades slipped from her grasp.
Then . . .
Nathalia fell into a dreamless sleep and the darkness swept over them all.
Held back by the hands of the Death Guards and Gunt, Solo Ki raged at the maelstrom as it tumbled over them.
"Nooo! Damn you! Take me . . ."
All were blind as the world around them evaporated into nothingness.
It was a swell of pure power unlike any Alana had felt before. Pure annihilation. With a thought she was there, at its heart, finding herself within a smoking crater carved deep within the earth. Lying naked at its center was a man, his face covered by a scruffy gray fringed beard.
She knelt down, touched him with a hand that was incredibly slender and completely transparent.
He opened his eyes.
"Nathalia . . ." He whispered. In his mind she heard him wailing, "What have I done?"
She saw inside his mind. She saw his lover's face; pointed ears, golden hair, and the eyes . . .the eyes! White within gray, a vision of those eyes had haunted her mind for ages. She never dreamed she would see them again, not while holding life within their gaze.
She sought his presence. Surrounded by death she found him.
'Adros. It cannot be.'
He yet lived. After wandering the dark for an eternity he had survived.
But what had he become?
She longed to go to him. To focus every bit of her power to heal his tortured soul.
"Nathalia . . . No!"
But the darkness arose once more. Even with all her power, focus and training, she doubted even she had what it took to contain it.
Emily collapsed and so did her shield. The air was hot, stifling their efforts to breathe. The Archenon remained, a blackened pillar standing in a wasteland of dust.
Several figures, including Rafe, limped from the remnants of the Outer Shell, saved by crouching against it as the swell flowed over the wall.
As for the elves, the children of Adros, they were nowhere to be found.
Resting on the earth in their stead, a pair of orchid blades sat, glimmering in the light of the Brother Moons.