–The Age of Death,
The Seventh World, Post Exodus 565–
His robe had at one time been white, a garment of silk caressing his flesh. Now, covered in the stains of his enemies' foul blood it dragged at his heels, threatening to trip him with every step. Moving awkwardly in order to avoid such a fall, he approached the arched portal leading him out of the tower and into the rain. His blue eyes misted over as he paused at the threshold, remembering the allies and friends desecrated by the Plague. He took a moment before continuing out into the night, his thoughts not only on his allies but on the legends as well.
The legends . . . I never believed.
Surviving the horrors of the day had blessed him with a newfound faith. The Ancients knew this day would come, but Dertois never iMagined it would come to pass, certainly not during his reign.
Three whole days . . .
For three whole days the defenders lined the Red Wall, destroying all that moved within the circle of earth and stone. Lock Core was thought to be impregnable, built by the Ancients themselves knowing that one day the Plague would come for them.
Darkness and rain washed over his form as Dertois left the chamber and stepped outside. Immediately he was drenched, his robe soiled and clinging to his flesh. Below him streaks of fire arced into the night, while distant shouts mingled with the wind screeching past his ears. He felt a momentary chill as a gust of wind lashed out at him, then his skin was covered in a bluish light and he felt nothing at all.
Beneath the flickering aura he gazed out over the ground below, to the red wall of Lock Core, where the rain cascaded on armored defenders desperate to empty their quivers into the pool of darkness before them. The dark . . . a field of shadows hidden beneath the night and the great Red Wall. He shifted his gaze there, into the shadows, and through eyes of blue fire he saw a landscape of soulless beings howling for the defenders' flesh. And beyond them . . . a black gash rent the sky -- the Rift.
He watched it pulsing, hovering in the air and was filled with loathing. How he despised it, the gateway through worlds known as the Black Door, a tear in the fabric of space through which his ancestors had used to flee the Plague. Created to bind the universe into one world, all that it now conveyed was the end of all life, a horde of monstrosities which, despite the combined efforts of the Triad, continued to spill from the dark portal without end.
There is no end . . . Dertois thought, appalled by the sight before him, the truth of Adros' words finally sinking in – according to the Elf Prince, the Plague once hunted the living, devouring world after world. Nothing could withstand them . . . not Adros himself, or even the Gods. Eventually the living worlds were no more. Those who survived were forced to wander the Forsaken Worlds, until Adros found them and gave them hope, and a home – the Seventh World.
It was a living world, a planet lush with life and blessed with one amazing feature -- greeting their arrival, everywhere the Ancients looked, sheer walls of red granite arose before them, a natural barrier to the evils lurking within the Black Door. Homeless and weary, their spirits soared at the sight and together the races declared that they would no longer flee but make their last stand atop those heights. From that moment on, they quickly set to work perfecting what nature had made, filling any of the gaps with piles of earth encased in stone. Thus, Lock Core was created, a gigantic wall that was still very much a mountain.
Generations later, the Ancients' descendants continued to add to their creation, strengthening Lock Core with towers, internal causeways, and multileveled walls. It wasn't until the memory of the Ancients and the Plague faded into myth that the Triad were at last satisfied and finally able to live in peace within their new found home-world.
But the Elf Prince also warned them that they would never truly be safe; that the Plague would find them once more – it always did. Now, untried and blanketed by the dust of ages, the Red Wall was Dertois ward. It became his fortune to face the awakening Rift and to finally test the toil of generations.
I will not fail.
'Our efforts are wasted on all fronts, my Lord. Even our brethren of the Magi blood fall, assassinated by beings unheard of in the legends.'
The voice of his advisor, LeCynic penetrated his mind, disrupting his thoughts. The young mage had proven his worth time and again in the last three days. Always his greatest pupil, LeCynic's recent display of power was surprising and often frightening to Dertois. He had always known the young mage would surpass him, but he never suspected it would occur so suddenly.
As for his reports, Dertois knew the truth of them all too well. He had faced one of the beings himself, surviving the encounter only by drawing on every last bit of strength he possessed. Though he lived, he was certain that the creature did as well, and that it hunted him still, watching and waiting from within the darkness.
'We must do something before all is lost.' His advisor's voice continued in his mind, his words accompanied by a wave of urgency.
We must do something . . . He didn't need the man to tell him that. But what could they possibly do?
"Over five hundred years have passed, and nothing."
He crossed the balcony, his frustration and power amplifying his voice so that he could be heard as the wind and screams mounted below.
"No wars to be fought. No world to defend. We deluded ourselves into thinking we were at peace. Safe within our ancestral wall."
Water trickled down his wrist, winding its way through the contours of his flesh, washing away the blood of his enemies. Gritting his teeth, Dertois squeezed the iron railing, his skin growing pale from the exertion. He stood on the balcony, his eyes narrow slits peering into the darkness before him.
"Now . . ."
Though hundreds of yards distant and enshrouded in the night he could clearly see the dark portal festering in the land, spewing forth the Plague upon the Seventh World. A crack of thunder heralded the arrival of yet another new being -- a behemoth of bone. Illuminated by a lightning flare it emerged, shredding its nearby allies with hooked claws and fangs. Its lust for flesh so great that even the undead fell victim to its hunger. The being crouched down, pausing to pluck a morsel from the horde of walking dead. With its mouth full of rotten flesh it continued on, unsatisfied and eager to feel warm blood on its tongue.
". . .the Rift stirs, and through the dark portal pours every last minion of the Forsaken Worlds." His voice hissed through gritted teeth, while below him the monstrous being lumbered forward, crushing the undead beneath its feet.
"The wall will hold, my Lord," the words came from behind and were spoken slowly, rumbling from the speaker's throat as though drawn from the bottom of some distant cavernous depth.
"Aye, but can we, Drau'd?" Dertois replied to his longtime friend and ally, the Boulder Dwarf and Head Stone Master Drau'd. Leaving deep indents within the iron from where his hands had been, he released the railing. "I do not doubt that the creation of your kin will remain standing until the end of all time. But what of us, Drau'd? How will we fare once the Red Wall is overrun?"
Dertois could feel the dwarf's lungs sucking the air from the room as he prepared to speak.
"We cannot escape death, Dertois. The Ancients knew this. We adhere to the pact. Fight until we die. That is how it will end, in victory or in death."
"Aye, I say what better way to die then in battle," Ebboron, Lord of the Rock Dwarves declared. "We've taken the gift of our forefathers for granted and I dare say we've grown weak because of it. The Rift has been quiet far too long in my opinion. It's time we become the great warriors our ancestors meant us to be."
Regaining his composure, Dertois turned, facing into the chamber. The representatives of the races had come together in the uppermost level of Lock Core's northern tower, a room which had been utilized by the Ancients as a sentry post, a place for the Triad to keep a constant eye on the Rift. The light in the chamber was dim, illuminated by only three candles arrayed at three points of the compass, north, east and west. To Dertois' back were the south, the darkness, and the Rift. It was within this chamber that the inhabitants of the Seventh World had seen the Rift come alive, and now it was there that they met to discuss the ways in which they would avoid their annihilation.
The sentry chamber itself was round, topped with a domed ceiling that had once been layered with silver, but had long since been stripped of the precious ore, revealing a framework of copper and rotting wood beneath. The walls were comprised of thick interlocking stones, smaller, yet similar to those that made up the main wall of Lock Core. They were reddish in hue and often riddled with cracks. All of the stones were identical in shape -- large four foot blocks interlocked by a complex system of tongue and grooves chiseled on their surfaces. Tiles covered the floor, their faces worn smooth and white through the ages. In the center of the room a staircase of rusted iron spiraled down through the tower's lower levels which were seven stories of shooting galleries -- walls dissected with arrow slits.
The lights in the chamber flickered, causing shadows to dance on the faces of Dertois' companions as they looked toward him with expressions mixed with courage and dread. Including Dertois, there were four humans, two dwarves, and one elf. Together, they were all that remained of the Council of the Seventh World and the representatives of the Triad of Races.
If the elves had a leader, it would be Solo Ki -- the last of the pure-blooded elves, the true descendants of Adros. As such, he was ancient, even for an immortal, perhaps the last being in existence to have witnessed the Forsaken Worlds. Dertois could only guess at his age, though others swore that he existed long before the coming of the Plague, in the days when the worlds were one. He stared at Dertois, his white pupils surrounded in gray poking out from beneath his hood as he patiently awaited Dertois' next words.
Other than that small portion of his face, the rest of his body was fully concealed, hidden within the folds of a tattered and dust covered cape. In his hand was a long wooden staff that resembled a knotted and twisted piece of driftwood colored with a mixture of black and red. The wood itself was so smooth and polished that the candle light gleamed off of it as though it were steel. To the casual observer, it appeared to be nothing more than a walking staff, but Dertois knew it to be the most powerful weapon in all of the Seventh World. The Graelic. The weapon which Adros himself had used to lead the races in their battle to enter the Rift. Passed down to him through the line of Adros, the Graelic was made even fiercer when wielded in the skillful hands of Solo Ki.
Dertois was comforted by the appearance of the Elf Lord and thankful that he had come to join in their battle. It was well known that Solo Ki had made a home of the outlands, shunning the city of Lock Core in favor of wandering the uncharted wilderness beyond the Gorian Range. Some people went as far as to say that Solo Ki had abandoned the Seventh World altogether.
Even though the cloth rippled in the wind, Dertois could still detect the contour of the elf's slender body, particularly where the cloth rested on his shoulders, hugging them like flesh being stretched over bone. In order to meet the gaze of Dertois, Solo Ki had to dip his head.
Drau'd and Ebboron, the dwarves, stood side by side, a strange pairing of boulder and rock. Drau'd towered over Ebboron. Actually, Drau'd towered over everyone in the room, even the wiry Solo Ki. Standing near nine feet tall and thick as two men, the boulder dwarf seemed to fill the entire chamber with his bulky frame, while the diminutive rock dwarf Ebboron appeared in danger of being squashed should Drau'd decide to move.
As for the human representatives; there was Dertois' young advisor, LeCynic, Hitt'rille Lady Protector and commander of Lock Core's northern garrison and of course the beautiful raven haired High Mage Nicola. Lastly there was Dertois himself, Ruler of the Kingdom of Humanity, Keeper of the Wall, and Supreme Protector of the Seventh World -- a string of titles so long that when called to utter them they filled his mouth like puke. There was some comfort in the knowledge that soon this burden would no longer be his. Even if he survived this battle it had become overwhelmingly obvious that Dertois was ill equipped for the title. No doubt the Order would deem LeCynic to be more than an adequate replacement.
'My Lord. The enemy seems focused on overcoming the northern front. We need to act now.'
Steeling his nerves, he looked toward LeCynic who was calmly leaning against the wall, arms crossed, his hands hidden within his white robe which somehow remained immaculate, despite the chaos of the last three days. The robe seemed suddenly ill-fitting on the young mage.
We must do something.
"Amass our forces along the northern wall. Reinforce it with our forces from the east and western fronts leaving only a contingent army upon those walls. Should the undead attempt to overrun our flanks, have our southern forces ready to rush to their aid."
Nodding at his words, the Lady Protector Hitt'rille spun to relay the orders to her officers waiting in the room below. Draped over her shoulders was an olive green mantle which signified her rank. Having recently pulled it from the corpse of her former commander the garment appeared scarlet being saturated with the man's blood. She quickly descended the ladder and could be heard by the rest of the Council barking orders to those below.
Dertois' body faintly glowed while slivers of light began crawling from his flesh, like worms creeping from moistened earth. Turning to Nicola he said, "Gather all the mages, it is time we rejoin the battlefront."
Her watery light blue eyes lowered to the floor as she softly replied, "Aye, my lord."
"Aaarrr . . ." wobbling forward, Drau'd's roar seemed to shake the room. "So that all may live!"
His heart sank to see the battle lust filling the eyes of the normally gentle giant.
"Aye, so that all may live . . ." Dertois replied, his fists transformed into balls of fire hanging at his sides. ". . . we shall fight, from this world to the next."
Outside, the rain and the undead army continued to pound the wall of Lock Core.
“I warned you it was so,” Solo Ki whispered into his ear.
He opened his mouth. Even gave some sort of reply. But whatever words he said were suddenly lost.
The darkness came, and the sound of the earth screaming tore his voice away.
"What are we supposed to do?" Alec asked as his squad leader Broggish sorted through his companions, rounding up the older children.
The order to reinforce the northern front had recently filtered down the wall to where Alec and his companions from Cipher Squadron were positioned in the east. As of yet, the eastern wall had been relatively quiet. Occasionally, Alec would lift his bow and take aim at shadows scurrying below, or catch a sudden scent of rotting flesh with a shift in the wind. But beyond half seen shapes moving in the dark and brief moments of foul air, the only signs of war were to the north, where the skies were constantly glowing crimson as though the very heavens were on fire. Some of the larger bursts of flame sent tremors through the wall which Alec felt, even though he was positioned miles to the east. So far, the worst things his squad had faced were the constant rain and the headaches from straining their eyes as they attempted to see the movement of their enemies within the darkness.
"You're gonna stay here, boy," Broggish said as he walked past Alec, ushering the chosen teenagers northward. He measured Alec through squinted eyes, stroking his ruffled, gray beard which fell to his breastplate in a snarled mass. "I wouldn't want you to become a snack for the meat puppets. The Triad needs warriors not fodder. I can only pray to the Gods that the northern wall holds and we needn't resort to fighting with you whelps."
"You and me both," Alec whispered, staring once more into the darkness below.
The man issued a final order before he continued on, "Bradley's in command while I'm gone."
"Thank the Gods that old Broggish is gone. I was sure he'd take us with him."
Not likely, Alec thought, turning to size up his friend.
Collapsing into a gap in the wall at his right, Ducky smiled, revealing a mouth full of crooked teeth. He was older than Alec by two years, but had more than likely been passed over by Broggish because of his lanky frame and utter lack of coordination. Of all the children in Cipher Squadron -- some of which were only ten years old -- Ducky was the least proficient in arms and more likely to injure himself than his opponent, an ineptitude which was remarkable considering Cipher Squadron was regarded as humanity's greatest defenders.
Like the rest of his comrades, Alec was an orphan, and as such in honor of the orphans of the Exodus they dedicated their lives to studying warfare in order to be the Seventh World's next generation of champion soldiers.
His entire life he had been at Drex'elder's School of Warfare for the Wayward Young (more commonly known as the Warphanage). He never knew his parents, never even learned their names. While growing up the rigorous training of his instructors left little time for any such thoughts -- no doubt intentionally -- for humanity's orphans were supposed to have a grand destiny, one that would not be waylaid by their personal quests for identity. Only the younger children watched for their parents to come running through the Warphanage doors. Innocent children with foolish dreams. Usually the training eliminated their innocence and dreams, while those unable to take their eyes off the doors ended their days at the Warphanage in suicide or insanity. In order to continue living, Alec had long since learned to accept his life with the Cipher Squadron. What other choice did he have?
With the Rift silent for generations, their training had become more of a tradition. The skills and lessons of the Ancients had become a way to keep wayward children focused and disciplined as opposed to "protecting the future of society" which was its original goal. While struggling to master the three rhythm offensive stance, he never dreamed he might actually have to employ it in a battle against the Plague. After all, before today Lock Core had been a tourist attraction, its walls patrolled by armored actors.
Now, Alec dug through his memories, reliving those childhood lessons with a new thought in mind -- the Plague is real! Suddenly every word his instructors said had a brand new significance. He even found himself trying to recall the lectures on the teachings of Adros (how boring they had been). Though perhaps not the Elven King's best convert, being a member of Cipher Squadron meant that the great elven sword-master would still give him a nod of respect.
Ducky on the other hand . . ., Alec thought. Can barely hit the toilet with his piss.
His parents having been murdered when he was nine, Ducky was relatively new to the Warphanage.
"I guess we can consider ourselves lucky Broggish left us behind eh, Alec?"
Ducky's heavy gauge chain mail rattled against stone as he scrunched beside him. Personally, Alec preferred fighting light, and the mobility of padded leather. To him, the best defense of a true sword-master was the metal in their hand not on their body. If your opponent was skilled enough to penetrate your blade, then penetrating body armor would be a simple matter. At least when unencumbered by armor, one still had a chance to make one last quick move, avoiding a lethal blow. Ducky's sword arm however, probably couldn't keep a butterfly at bay. For him, wearing a steel drum wouldn't be protection enough.
"I suppose, Duck," Alec replied, not entirely sure he was right. After all, the only thing preventing the Plague from overrunning this area was a bunch of kids. "And here I thought the last fourteen years of my life were a waste. Maybe I should have taken it easier on old Broggish and listened once in a while."
"Probably not a bad idea, you never were his best student, Alec."
Alec turned, smiling at the newcomer.
“Who knows, maybe if you paid more attention during drills you could best me once in a while," the newcomer continued, striding toward Alec and Ducky with smooth measured steps.
"I wouldn't want to steal any glory from the great Bradley now would I?" He jested, both boys knowing four out of ten victories was a little more than "once in a while". But Alec had to admit it did take all of his skill, and a lot of luck, to beat him. Bradley was, after all, a true prodigy with a sword. Born a lord of the western city of Minotia he was sent -- of all the horrible things -- by his parents to train at the Warphanage. This was reason enough for Alec to immediately feel sorry for and befriend him.
The two shook hands, Alec's fingers compressing under the other's grip. Though only a year older, Bradley was vastly superior physically. His head of short-cropped, blond hair was inches taller than his own while his arms rippled with layers of well-toned muscles fashioned from constant training. Bradley's greatest advantage over Alec was his reach. The boy’s long arms always kept his blade out of range, while their whip-like speed made it almost impossible to penetrate his guard.
"For what it's worth, I'm glad Broggish left you in charge."
Very glad, Alec thought, knowing even his sword-master friend wouldn't stand much of a chance against whatever was making the entire length of Lock Core shake. "Just don't expect me to follow your orders any better than his," Alec continued.
"As long as we get to stay here I'll do whatever you want, Bradley," Ducky said, tucking his chest to his knees, not even bothering to keep an eye toward the Rift.
"Well you're in luck, Duck, cause I'm ordering you to stay put. Not that my orders mean a thing. As far as I'm concerned you're all welcome to do whatever you wish. I don't think it matters at this point anyway. This whole world is dying around us."
"What are you going to do?" Alec asked, watching his friend's shoulders sink, his gaze shift to the shadows below. Suddenly he knew full well what he meant to do.
"I think I'm going to be the one disobeying Broggish this time, Alec. I've got to go there. I have to see it."
Bradley waved his arms toward the seemingly endless stretch of wall heading north.
"It's all real, Alec, it's all real and it's here. You always joked about our training, how you thought it was just a waste of time."
"I'll admit I was wrong about that one."
Bradley actually managed a chuckle.
"Not the first time either," Bradley continued, then grew somber once more. "We've been training for something. And I'm heading north to find out what it is."
Despite his better judgment, Alec had to agree with him. Deep down he knew that whatever evil was to be found on the northern front couldn't be ignored. Whether the day ended in victory or defeat he knew that sooner or later it must be faced. And the members of Cipher Squadron might be the only ones actually trained to face it.
"I'm sorry, Alec, I have to go."
The rain intensified, helping the darkness to obscure Bradley's form as he followed the wall northward.
"I guess that means you’re in charge then, Alec," Ducky said from his fetal position.
"No, Duck. You're gonna have to take it from here."
Alec patted him on the back and turned to leave.
After all, he thought. If I have to face it, might as well do it now, with my friend.
The rain grew stronger, almost cancelling out the sound of Ducky retching over the wall.
He was the only one alive on the walkway. In front of him, hidden by the darkness and the rain the battle raged, a cacophony a wails and screams flooding the night. Along the base of the wall the dark figures multiplied, becoming a churning sea of shadows. He stared aghast at the brackish blood on his blade. There was no mistaking it now. The Plague was real; he had seen it with his own eyes. Fought it. It happened so fast . . .
. . . He caught up to Bradley, found him standing in a field of fallen soldiers. As Alec slowly made his way toward him -- careful not to step on one of the many corpses -- Bradley bent over one man in particular. Even from a distance Alec immediately knew who it was. The snarled mass of gray hair covering his face was easily recognizable.
"You shouldn't have come, Alec," Bradley said, never taking his eyes off of his fallen teacher.
"What in the god’s happened here? What killed them?"
"We can't win this fight, Alec. Adros taught us that. He knew, he always knew."
"What do you mean?"
"You have to go back. Get the others. Run. Hide in the Outlands, live there as long as you can."
Sidestepping a half-eaten corpse, Alec reached his friend and grinning, said, "I'm not leaving you. We'll face this together, like everything else."
"You don't understand. I tried to save them. What did this . . . Creatures so horrible, so evil. Something no man can face."
"You're right, I don't understand," Alec said, reaching out to his friend.
Bradley sprang to his feet with surprising speed, fleeing from Alec's touch as though it was fire. Against a backdrop of flames Alec understood what his friend was trying to tell him. There was a subtle hiss as he drew his blade, preparing to face Bradley one final time.
"By the time I got here the battle was done."
His veins seemed to darken and swell by the moment.
"Cipher Squadron had become a feast. It took a moment to comprehend what I saw."
Black blood oozed from the gash on his cheek.
"That moment of hesitation was all it took. I drew my blade and they were on me. Stronger and faster than anything I've faced. Nothing could have prepared us, there's no training to deal with this."
His eyes, normally bright blue, glazed over.
"Now, there's only hunger. So strong . . . I can't fight it anymore Alec."
Broggish stirred. Alec diverted his gaze to his mentor, shocked to see him rising to his knees, and then Bradley came at him. It was like no fight they've had before. Bradley still fought with the same level of skill, but more wild, unafraid. Sparks of silver-fire covered the pair every time Alec scored a blow, but Bradley was now immune to pain, and fear. He came on, more powerful than ever. As the sparks of silver-fire filled the air, so too did Alec's blood. He began to focus more on saving his own life than taking Bradley's, backing away, he switched to a defensive stance. Alec saw his blood dripping from Bradley's silver etched sword then realized the only reason he yet lived was because Bradley still clung to the weapon. Enough cuts from that could mean death, but a simple scratch from his nails or a bite from his teeth would lead to a fate much worse. Bradley was almost upon him again. Alec lowered his guard at the last moment, leaving himself wide open to Bradley's blade, having decided he would rather risk a killing blow than end up like Bradley.
Silver-fire filled the night, as did blood. . .
. . . Alec inspected his wounds. Bradley's final strike sunk deep along his ribcage, probably nothing a healer couldn't remedy -- assuming they weren't all dead. Of his friend, nothing remained but his blade. The silver-fire took the rest. Alec doubted he would make it through the night without being healed, but at the moment the wound wasn't his gravest concern.
Suddenly, the sky above him erupted with fire. Shielding his eyes, he looked up, falling to his knees as the wall shook in the aftermath of the blast. He managed to raise his head while the fire seethed above. Horrified, he tried to avert his gaze but found his eyes locked on the vision before him. The members of Cipher Squadron were scattered along the walkway. All dead. Their bodies strewn across the stones in pieces, half eaten and left to rot by the undead horde.
More horrifying still was the movement. A mockery of life when there should be only death. Broggish stumbled to his feet, barely mobile considering the extent of his injuries. Unlike Bradley he was mindless, A Meat Puppet. He shuffled onward oblivious to the fact that his legs lacked muscles or tendons.
Revolted by the sight, Alec ducked between a gap in the wall, leaned outward and spilled the contents of his stomach on the ocean of skeletal hands reaching up to him from the base of the great Red Wall.
The rain became a drizzle. The sky above was silent and dark. There was movement all around him now, he could hear them stirring at his back, sense them rising all along the great Red Wall. He knew he was surrounded, trapped within their trail of devastation. The stars became visible as the storm moved on. High above the Brother Moons shone brightly. Harbos, the greater of the two neared its zenith, filling the heavens with its aura of white. The Rift, blacker than even the night, could now be seen clearly from the wall, a mass of darkness, throbbing, pulsing, never ceasing to belch forth the plague of Immortal Dead into the Seventh World.
Alec looked on, gazing in awe at the field of fallen warriors below.
Some had wings on their backs, though now they hung in shreds, tattered and useless; these beings were no longer able to fly but limped on broken limbs instead. Some had scaled flesh which hung in chunks from their bare bones. They were reptilian, giant, fanged lizards walking as humans. Others, many, many others, a variety of faces that Alec could neither count nor fully describe.
He had had no idea. He had never iMagined there once existed such a wide variety of races. Vomit dripped from his chin and he sat there, wishing he had lived before the Plague, in the days when the worlds were one. He tried to iMagine how they once were.
Proud . . .
Beautiful . . .
Beings of pure Magic.
Not as he saw them now, how he saw them in their desperation to scale the wall.
Fleshless . . .
Lifeless . . .
Creatures driven by an endless hunger and an immortal desire, to kill all things living.
Behind him Cipher Squadron had awaken to their new life, and it was at that moment that Alec gave up. Gave in. Surrounded by death he finally realized what it meant to be living.