I will not fail . . .
The thought of it kept her going. It made her strong . . . stronger than they ever could have imagined her to be.
She reached for the rose. Azure flames roared over her opaque skin. Slender and long, her fingers gently took hold of the stem . . . then she ripped it from the earth.
. . . no, I’ll never fail again.
Rose petals drifted to the grass; their crimson forms decayed the moment they landed on the bed of blades. The surrounding forest groaned, shrinking back in horror as the woman yanked petal after petal from the rose. Gnarled. Ancient. The elder oaks loomed over the woman, attempting to be menacing, but betraying their true emotions with the trembling of their limbs.
This is my reality. My world to create.
She felt the rose dying in her hand. With every petal she destroyed, its agony echoed in her soul. She wove her bond tighter, becoming one with the rose as it fell into death.
The rose had a voice and from her lips it screamed . . .
. . . Darkness. Nothing but darkness. The closer I get the more it keeps me at bay.
Would she ever be strong enough?
She awoke in a world of dust, sitting with her legs crossed on a parched and cracked land. The world around her was filled with heat and with wind, illuminated by a pair of suns that nearly covered the entire western sky. All that she saw, all that she could see, was a flat wasteland of dust.
H'Aleron, the planet was called. One of the first to fall to the Plague and former home of the once thriving civilization known as the Makii -- a race thought to be immortals, masters of life and death. It was here that the Plague was made, created by the Makii.
The Dead Gods, She thought, looking upon their ruined world in disgust.
She stared at the planet’s suns, unable to tear her gaze away though the sight of them burned her large round eyes.
It was midday, or as close as the planet came to such a thing. Oribus hung at its peak. Its orange rays enough to char her flesh without a constant halo of power to protect her. Meanwhile, the Blue Wife was rising on the horizon, a distant sun -- more light than heat. When alone, the Blue Wife turned the world to ice. Daily, the sudden changes in temperature birthed demon winds of sand and ice that have long since washed away even the largest of H'Aleron's monuments -- natural or hand-made.
In her journeys, she had found that all of the fallen worlds shared this fate. The Plague's hunger for life proved insatiable and highly adaptable, infecting all life forms on a cellular level. In the end, it was always the same; after the Plague has run its course . . . there is nothing.
Nothing . . .
How often did the thought cross her mind – that all life was gone, that the nothingness was all that was left in the universe.
How long has it actually been? she wondered. Since last I’ve seen a living soul?
H'Aleron may have been the first to fall, but not the last. The Makii drained the life from their mother-world then moved on, and on, and on . . .
Every world they left behind became a lifeless shell, its people slaves for their army. She had traveled to hundreds of the Forsaken Worlds, hoping to revive a small part of any one of them, but she always found her way back to H'Aleron -- the most lifeless one of all. Many said these dead lands would never revive, but she found the impossibility of the task a fitting lesson, the suffering of failure and death granted her a knowledge that seemed to come hand in hand in this hell. Just to dwell here took every bit of her focus and discipline. But not only had she survived here, she had thrived. She had done so for quite some time, and she had done so alone.
Then he came.
Though it had been ages since last they met, she recognized his presence immediately. Among the Elder Gods he was unique, he was special, but above all he was her friend.
'Your skill has grown considerably, Alana,' the newcomer thought, materializing behind her.
Motionless, she took a moment before sending her reply, absorbing him with her mind.
A shield of blue flames continued to surround her. Meanwhile, the man showed no hint of power, yet was completely unaffected by the lethal environment.
The old form, she thought, not the least bit surprised by his choice of body.
One of his many avatars, the old form was actually a replica of the flesh in which he was born; humanoid standing no more than five feet tall and hefty, lugging a rotund potbelly. His eyes were brown and bulging on his face. Deep set in thick rings of black, his eyes appeared even larger than they actually were, seemingly filling the entire upper portion of his face. His thin, pale lips looked more like a pair of scars than a mouth. Practically bald, the man had only two patches of brown hair, one on each side of his head. His pants hung loose at his hips, but at the knees his legs were covered in strips of white cloth, which tightly wound their way down his shins and ankles. Clasped around his neck, a mossy, green cape draped over his bulbous stomach. Interwoven in the fabric; hundreds of silver, cup shaped bells jingled on his belly as he walked toward her.
Wherever he stepped seedlings burst from the dusty earth, instantly blooming into white flowers.
'Yes, Anon. I've learned much during my exile,' she replied, rising to her feet without moving a single muscle. As he took shape in her mind, she couldn't help but remember how it once was -- undoubtedly his intention -- and felt suddenly at ease. 'Yet even so, after all this time I still feel a failure.'
'Thus far we have all failed,' the man said soothingly, his thin lips stretching into a grin as he continued to approach her. 'I’m sorry it came to this, your exile. But it had to be endured. Your loyalty had to be proven, not just to them, but to me. I had to know your faith was without question . . . even after this.'
Though it suddenly welled inside her, she stifled her rage, hiding her true thoughts and emotions from the mind of the other.
'Loyalty? Faith? It was my heart that you questioned,' she thought, lowering her face to the ground, focusing her attention on the winding pattern of cracks below. 'You believed me a lovesick child, my emotions misplaced, my actions misjudged. What I failed to believe was the depths of the Plague. I underestimated the darkness, and for that I gladly suffer. If it could change the past, I would endure this hell until the end of time . . .'
'Unfortunately, all that we have is the future,' sadness coated his thoughts. ‘And even that seems to be coming to an end.’
Ages ago she had been deemed worthy by the Elder Gods to be a Savior, one who traveled to the dying worlds collecting the Chosen Ones, the children of the gods. It was they who would grow to one day recreate what the Plague destroyed.
'And me? What of my future?' she cautiously asked, knowing that in light of her dishonor she dare not hope for much. She had failed the Elder Gods on the elven world, Ki'minsyllessil, disobeying their orders to return with the Children, choosing instead to lead them into battle against the undead. The elven race had been so promising; immune to the Plague and virtually immortal. It wasn't until the Plague swept them all away that she finally understood the depths of the darkness. No matter how courageously the elves had fought to defend their world, the undead continued to advance. In the end, her efforts resulted in defeat, and the work of the gods was lost upon that world, their every last progeny taken by the Plague.
The elves. Pupils of white within a pool of gray. An entire race decimated. After the passing of ages she could still see the eyes and knew that their white pupils would be burned into her mind for all time.
'You can join us anytime,' he wearily replied, shaking his head. 'You know that, Alana. The real question is are you ready?'
Will I ever be? she reflected, choosing to save the thought for her mind alone. Adros . . . What have I done to you?
'Despite our best plans, best efforts, the worlds continue dying. We have all failed, and lost that which we love. I need you back, Alana. The Chosen are the final hope. Without them, all will perish. It is inevitable. Every Child matters.'
For a time their minds were blank, as desolate as their surroundings. It was believed that only by combining the efforts of thousands of Chosen could the Plague be undone. Every child they saved brought them closer to that goal and the hope that one day their ability to recreate could counterbalance what the Plague destroyed.
Despite her many failures, her time alone had taught her only one thing.
I will not stand back and watch as another world falls into darkness.
The Elders were wrong.
'I'm sorry. I cannot return. I no longer believe in your cause.'
'I'm sorry to hear that.'
He was beside her, had placed his hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and found his wide eyes staring up at her.
'Perhaps, with more time you will remember why you once believed, once cared, once joined to fight in our cause,' he said.
His eyes, massive pools of brown. She fell into them -- had never been able to look at them without being drawn in.
She remembered when she had first seen them. Instead of falling, she had been flying. A child, fragile and drowning in a world of darkness. She remembered how she swam like mad toward those brown orbs, how they had shined upon her -- a binary sunrise on the horizon of her dark world.
Among the Elders, Anon was rumored to be the most ancient of all, and that he lived before the Plague, back when the worlds were one. Even in those days he devoted his power to children, traveling the worlds not as a Savior but a Merri-man. Though condemned by his brethren of the time -- for they deemed such displays beneath them -- he was somewhat of a celebrity among the worlds. His performances had been legendary, though no living being had the fortune to see him perform, herself included. Before the Plague, he brought joy to countless children. After the Plague, he had saved but a handful from death. One of which was Alana.
'For you, I will consider it.'
He held her hand.
'Thank you, Alana. And know, that regardless of your decision I will not be, nor have I ever been, disappointed in you.'
Her hand was empty, her thoughts all her own. Anon was gone. A garden of white petals erupted from where he had stood. Her surroundings remained as empty as ever, but she no longer felt alone.
'Is she ready, Anon?'
'What of her loyalty, will she betray us once more?'
'I count on it.'
'Her power is unrivaled . . .’
Coming from her, it was quite an admission. There was a time she would give no praise, especially not to Alana.
‘But I wonder, will even she be able to stand against the darkness?' she questioned.
Anon felt doubt in the thoughts of the other, could see her fear festering like gangrene of the mind.
A strange lapse for an Elder, Anon thought. Strange, but perhaps justified. We have but one world left, one chance.
'Who better than her,’ Anon replied. ‘After all, she is the only one of us to have ever done so before.'
"Merrick . . ."
The man's wrinkled hand disappeared as he placed it on Merrick's back, enveloped by his thick wool cape.
"You must learn to let go," the man continued, his voice worn, weary and scraping its way through his throat. "We've done what we can here."
Adel had never encountered a Healer as powerful in the Singularity as Merrick. Young, unskilled in anatomy and a slow learner when it came to herbal and biological healing, but even so, time after time Adel stepped aside, his own knowledge and power defeated, only to watch as his young student performed miracles.
Like most Healers, Adel was an outcast of the Order of Magi. Too weak to become more than an apprentice mage, they deemed him unfit and sent him from the High Tower after what was only a short stay. Immediately he was drawn to the Healers, finding in them the perfect mixture of Singularity and knowledge, both of which always balanced and limited by mortality. Adel could sidestep what the Order considered his limitation by increasing his knowledge of biological and chemical healing, and when his knowledge failed, the Singularity was always there to work its little wonders. Because of this, Adel had grown to become one of the Seventh World's most respected and requested Healers.
Merrick on the other hand, had never bothered to enter the Order. All Merrick ever wanted was to be a Healer. Without knowledge, he could stop infections, heal the crippled, give the blind back their sight, but what he attempted now . . . only knowledge could deal with such things.
"Merrick, some things are simply not meant to be. You must learn this if you wish to become a Healer. You must learn this and you must let them go. Sometimes all we can offer them is freedom from their pain."
Kneeling in a pool of blood, his body heaving from exhaustion Merrick coldly replied, "No. This is different, I can feel it. I don't know why, Adel, I just know this baby cannot die. He must live."
He slowly arose, positioning himself once more before the table. In front of him, droplets of blood continued to fall, pooling on the floor. His body engulfed in flames of blue, Merrick pried her legs apart. Already they had grown stiff, fighting to contain the last bit of life within her dead flesh. The flames found him, a dim thumping surrounded in silence. The flames cradled him, gave him warmth as they pulled him free. It took all of Merrick's energy to free him . . . even more to give him life.
Merrick saved him. Collapsing to the floor his life became a shadow, a dream, alien and unfamiliar as it followed him down into oblivion. His pain and every living emotion ceased to be.
With a sudden wail, his pain began.
They watched him. Always they watched. They were at the conception, spent the days at her side as he grew within. Anxiously they watched as he came to be, born of a dead womb.
A voice spoke in a broken whisper, like dead leaves blowing in the wind, "Our gifts to the Merrick proved sufficient."
"We knew they would," replied the other, his words tinged with regret.
"I only hope the boy child will prove as sufficient."
"Of course he will."
"I envy your certainty, Anon. The Plague has evolved beyond our control, what makes you think this creation will be different, that this one can be contained?"
"I am certain he cannot," Anon replied to the being. "In the end there will be only Him."
"Then our time is done?"
Anon sensed excitement growing from the Dead God.
"All things must end. He will take you back to the Maker, back to His ways. The best we can ever hope for is a new beginning."
The creature, once so powerful and feared, had dominated the universe. Now it shriveled into itself, a pile of shadows and dust.
"Yes, Anon. Death . . . I see the truth of it now."
It hovered in the air before him, the Rift; a still, blackened pool, darker than even the surrounding night. Though he was eager – oh so eager – he hid his excitement well; his body as outwardly calm as the motionless Black Door. Only his robe moved, the black silk rippling in the wind like clashing shadows.
Soon . . . he thought. The entire universe will be my domain.
In centuries there had been none like him. A Black Mage, a true Gatekeeper. Possibly even a god. Was there no limit to his power and potential? He certainly thought not, and meant to test that belief. What better way to do so than a journey through the Black Door? He had already confirmed his ability to control the Rift, and now with two hundred of his most loyal soldiers he would enter it – to the dead with the Keeper and his archaic laws. If the Plague was real, he would send it running back through the Black Door and return home a hero. The Keeper himself would have no choice but to bow before him.
Until then, secrecy was a must. The Council would condemn him to death for the mere ability to open the Rift. But for daring to enter it, the entire Seventh World would rise against him.
His troops gathered behind him, aligning in formation around the stairway of stacked, circular stones leading up to the Rift. A haze of blue flames muffled their march; the clatter of plate mail and the crunch of steel boots falling on dry bones. The cover of night and the shadow of the Great Red Wall did the rest, hiding them from prying eyes. Though typically none but tourists ever visited the wall, and at this hour the wall was sure to be empty -- never was it guarded. If there was some army of horrors within the Rift, the Red Wall would be all but useless to stop them.
Only he had that power.
A wave of blue flames surged from his fingertips, blending with the utter blackness of the Rift. Soon the flames and darkness coalesced, spiraling outward into what seemed like oblivion. The outline of the Rift began to throb, pulsating like a beating heart.
Behind him, his army began their march. They moved in perfect formation; patient, calm, confident in their leader’s power and the glory they were soon to find under his command. Wolf helms hid their faces while their dark armor blended with the night. Those at the head of the procession gazed forward through crossbow sights, their fingers caressing the triggers as they strode toward the gaping black slit hanging in the air. They hesitated but an instant at the dark threshold then, continuing their march they were consumed within the pool of black.
Though their comrades vanished before them, those who followed never faltered their steps. Walking with swords and shields raised before them, they entered the swirling, pulsing hole ten by ten until their black robed leader was the last man left. Then, surrounded in flames of blue, he too disappeared into the Rift . . .
Together they died and were reborn in a world of darkness and bitter cold. Only with his eyes of blue fire could he see the blackened trunk before them, so thick and massive its girth filled the horizon. So tall it vanished in the clouds.
Only he could see it come alive -- the black roots seeping from the earth, ensnaring the boots of the soldiers who were blind to its existence. By the time his soldiers discovered its presence -- felt it crawling up their flesh -- it was too late. Within moments the entire army was consumed.
His blue flames held the darkness at bay, allowing those who could, to flee back to the Rift, to the safety of the Seventh World. His power and barrier of blue flames fading against the onslaught, the man in black was forced to abandon the rest of the soldiers to the darkness. With his last bit of strength he turned, preparing to dive back into the Rift. Before his feet left the soil of the forsaken world, a single strand of black shot toward him, curling around his ankle as he leapt.
And then . . . there was fire. Burning him from the inside out. And a voice . . .
'My seed shall grow upon this land.'
Along with the handful of soldiers he saved, he collapsed on the soil of the Seventh World. Lying at the foot of the Rift they were burned alive by flames of black. Every trace of life forever scorched from their flesh.
First, he felt consumed with the shame of failure. What a fool he had been to think himself invincible.
Then, as his soldiers lay screaming around him, LeCynic began to laugh. The darkness seeped into his blood, filling him with true power -- immortality.
Now, he truly was invincible.
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