The palace was named the Archenon, built in the age of Adros when the first of the settlers arrived in the Seventh World. Originally constructed and designed by dwarven craftsmen to house a human king who had fled from a broken world. It was, in itself, a city. A castle comprised of a circular curtain wall that was forty feet high and stretched out through ten city blocks. Several round towers strengthened the wall, giving the defending archers a panoramic view of the entire city. Silver spires rose from the central keep which was a single, thick walled tower that nearly touched the clouds.
The ancient king for whom the castle had been constructed was a fearful and paranoid man. A man who had no faith in the power of Lock Core nor in its ability to contain the Plague. Thus, the king had created the Archenon as the last line of defense should the Plague break free of Lock Core. He believed that if all else failed, the human race would have a final chance at survival within his walls.
But, the walls of the Archenon remained unmolested throughout his life, as well as the lives of his children, grandchildren and all his line until the present time. It wouldn't be until hundreds of years after his death that the undead would come to touch his wall, and the strength of his castle would finally be put to the test.
All roads led to Rafe's palace. It was the original piece of the city, to which all other buildings of Shattered Rock had sprouted around. The city's four main streets stemmed from the palace, and from those streets the rest of the city's thoroughfares and avenues were born, forming a spider web of roadways with Rafe poised at their center.
Through this web, the Red Mage Brice and the pair of masked Death Guards walked, their every step sending vibrations through the city, alerting Rafe to their presence.
"I do believe we are being followed, Master Brice," the male Death Guard said, shifting about nervously beneath his black hood.
"I know," Brice replied. "We have been for quite some time."
He had felt the man's presence when entering the inner city and had even managed to catch a glimpse of his thin face with eyes of gray and white watching them from within the crowd.
The trio continued on, traveling down Caleman road, one of the four main streets leading to the palace. The road was cramped, stuffed with traffic and closed in by rows of buildings, some well over four stories high. Laundry fluttered in the wind, draped over clothes lines that stretched from one building to the next. The road ahead was constantly flooded with traffic, mostly that of fellow pedestrians wandering through the early morning. Occasionally the trio would come upon a horde of sheep or carts laden with supplies jamming the roadway, at such times, they would be forced to wait anxiously in the tightly packed street, choking on the stench of sweat and manure until the flow of traffic crept forward once more. All the while the trio endured the eyes of the crowd, always on them, always wondering at their intentions. As the morning moved on and the sun inched higher in the sky, burning the streets below, the trio came ever closer to the palace, until finally they saw it rising above the crowd.
The rest of the city's buildings shrank as it appeared, its spiral towers reaching far beyond the grasp of any nearby structure, and much farther still than the many insects caught in the web below. Though ancient, the palace retained much of its former splendor, its white stones blinding to see as they were caught in the sun, glowing as though freshly plucked from the earth.
Brice and the Death Guards followed a line of people heading for the palace. Up ahead, the pedestrian traffic clotted near the Archenon's entrance, where over thirty guardsman stood watch over the incoming traffic. Most had halberds resting on their shoulders, long wooden poles with axe heads fixed at the ends. Several other guards held crossbows at the ready; pointing them at anyone they deemed suspicious looking. At the front of the line a pair of men in red-stained leather armor picked through the crowd at random, pulling travelers aside and questioning them at knife point. Walking closer to the gateway, the trio noted several slits in the stones above, behind which shadows could be seen shifting about.
The presence of the thin-faced man suddenly grew stronger, his eyes of gray and white close enough now that Brice was certain the spy could count the many hairs rising on the back of his neck. Brice turned, though the spy was nowhere to be found, his pale flesh blending with the many ragged faces of the crowd.
There was a moment of confusion at the entryway as one of the travelers decided to make a dash for the castle's interior, prior to being authorized to do so. The matter was quickly settled, for no sooner had the man passed beneath the archway then a volley of arrows sunk into his flesh. Falling to his knees, gaping at the many colorful feathers protruding from his skin, a halberd fell on his head, splitting the man in two from his skull down to his chest. Unceremoniously, the body was dragged away and the crowd immediately fell in line once more.
"The gods alone know why I let you talk me into coming here, Master Brice," the brown eyed Death Guard said. "If it wasn't for the Plague, the Death Guard would be hunting these people."
"We mean them no harm, remember that. We cannot succeed alone and are therefore at their mercy," Brice said, though he seemed uncertain and had not smiled once the entire day. Whimly's death weighed heavily on his shoulders, creating doubt within his mind, making him wonder that perhaps instead of saving lives he was putting them in harm's way. Along with this newborn doubt came tremendous sympathy for the Destroyer and for a moment, Brice could almost feel the weight of the burden that man must bear. He felt it but briefly, but even so, he nearly crumbled beneath it. To him it was a miracle that Alec could even stand at all.
"We are in this together. All races, all manner of people. If we must bow before cutthroats to eradicate the Plague, so be it." Her face was hidden beneath a veil of death, but from within the mask her voice was sweet and soft, her blue eyes twinkling with the slightest touch of light.
No sooner had they made it to the head of the line, then one of the interrogators in red-stained armor pulled them aside. The female Death Guard practically leapt after the man, while Brice and the male Death Guard grudgingly followed.
"Well, what have we here?" the guard said, looking them over past a crooked nose. With every word the man uttered the air between them was filled with the stench of rotting onions. “Curious? A mage and two Death Guards."
He pulled out a piece of parchment from beneath his leather breastplate and began reading it over.
He stuffed the paper beneath his armor.
"Didn't think you were on the list."
Guardsmen began making their way to the trio.
"It's just not proper manners to go where you ain't been invited, no matter who, or what, you are."
"We are, obviously, unaware of this list of which you speak. Though we lack a proper invitation, rest assured that we must hold council with your lord," the female Death Guard said, trying to smooth the man over with her honey-laced voice.
"Oh. My lord," the crooked nosed guardsman said, laughing. "If he had wanted to see you, then you'd be on the list."
The movements of the palace guards were so subtle that the trio almost failed to realize that they were being surrounded. With this realization, Brice was instantly covered in flames of blue. The Death Guards reached for their hilts.
"There's no need for this. The Master will see them."
The voice startled the trio as well as the guardsmen, who grew suddenly uneasy.
The speaker's presence erupted in Brice's mind, and then he was before him and in the flesh.
Though he was short for his race, at eye level with Brice, it was obvious the being was an elf, his eyes were the only indication Brice needed, even though unlike most elves, this one lacked the lush halo of gold hair and was completely bald. Yet, like most of the modern day elves his eyes were dull and lifeless, his features despondent. Clearly he was yet another victim of the elven death.
"Forgive me, X'ander," the guard said, his crooked nose pointing to the earth. "But they were not on the list."
"Then write them in if you must. The Red Mage, Brice Langlia. Renown in the Order as a dreamer and a fool . . ."
The guard hastily tore out the roll of parchment, his hands trembling.
". . . And Theodorous Ross, an Elder Hunter and historian. A man who can be found hiding behind dusty tomes when not hiding beneath a black hood. And of course his novice, Bri Lynn." The elf turned to the shorter Death Guard, a smile creeping into his face. "The bright young teacher of children. A woman who manages to nurture life while perusing her crusade against death."
Theodorous, the brown-eyed Death Guard, recoiled in shock, his eyes nearly popping out of his black hood. His partner and apprentice, Bri Lynn, seemed unfazed at the elf's knowledge, as though fully aware that their identities had been unmasked the moment they stepped foot into Shattered Rock. Meanwhile, Brice appeared worried and puzzled all at once, his eyebrows appearing unable to decide whether they should rise up in arcs, or scrunch together. The guard finished writing down their names then hastily retreated toward the head of the line where he resumed his interrogations with increased vigor.
"How in the dead?" Theodorous' hand lingered a moment longer on the hilt of his long sword before he let it go, placing his hands at his sides, no doubt remembering his last encounter with an elf. "This is an outrage. You have no right to publicly name us. By the laws of the Keeper, you have no right to name us at all. It is for the good of all that our identities remain hidden. What happens when we're called on to cure their loved ones," he said gesturing to the crowd gathered at the entryway. "Time and again I've seen those who are just and honorable, betray the living, unable to part with those they love no matter how vile they have become."
"I've made no attempt to hide my name in this town, but my companions . . . How is it you know?" Though he may have been slightly ill at ease in the company of the elf, Brice managed to speak calmly.
"At this time it would not help you to know, but rest assured that your days of hiding are over," the elf said, shifting his white gaze to the Death Guards. "It was not I who named you, but the very creature you seek. My Master Rafe has knowledge and experience beyond any other of this world. Know too that your deaths have become a treasure in this town, it is only by Rafe's will that the blades remain sheathed. Yet, I strongly advise that you remove your masks if you do not wish to walk the city with a bulls-eye covering your face. You've only made it this long out of respect for your duty, but rest assured that greed always overcomes honor, especially in the hearts of humans."
"How can this be!" Theodorous fumed. "Our greatest strength was in our secrecy. If our identities are for sale, then we've been undone," he said, peeling back his hood revealing a thick gray mustache covering his upper lip and a hairline in the advance stages of recession. Alongside his right eye, a long white scar marred a tan and slightly wrinkled face. "And what of you elf? Have you come to claim your reward?"
The elf snickered.
"Had that been his intention, Theodorous, I believe he would have done so long ago," Bri Lynn said holding her hood at her side. Her hair was blond and short, hanging slightly past the tops of her ears and lying flat against the contours of her skull. Chubby and round, her cheeks were filled with a constant crimson hue and speckled with tiny black spots like a sprinkling of pepper. "What is it that you want from us, X'ander, if not the bounty on our heads?"
"What I want is of little consequence my dear, Bri Lynn. I exist but to serve another, come with me and he will make his desires known."
'And you, Master Brice? What is it that you desire?'
The elf was inside his mind. Brice struggled to shut the voice out of his head, sought to regain control of his thoughts as he had been taught at the Order . . .
"I don't understand," Brice said through gritted teeth.
Beads of sweat formed on Brice's forehead. He leaned out, laying a trembling hand on the shoulder of Theodorous who shrugged at his touch, arching a gray eyebrow in his direction.
'Would you give your life to save us all?'
"Now then. Shall we head into the Archenon?"
Brice looked to the others, to Theodorous who stared at him with a look of disgust, and to Bri Lynn who appeared worried at his sudden loss of composure.
"Yes," Brice mumbled.
Is there another choice, he thought.
The elf dipped his bald head.
"My Master is dying to meet you. He has been since you arrived."