Beams of sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows lining the chamber's walls. From one end of the hall to the other -- well over five hundred feet -- the multicolored windows filled the northern wall, their panes of color and pictures of heroes only briefly interrupted by pillars of polished marble stretching from the floor to the ceiling. A full spectrum of light shot toward the center of the room, then fell, glowing red, green, yellow and gold as it touched the surface of a circular wooden table.
The table itself was white, and though massive, the wood was a solid piece down to the thick center leg on which it rested. The table had not been created by the chisel and hammer of a craftsman, but planted and nurtured to life by the hands of the ancient elves who had been skilled in the lost organic arts -- a mastery of nature which allowed them to manipulate the development of various forms of life. Even now, well over four hundred years since its germination, it was believed that the table yet lived, and grew. Though none but the elves could attest to such a claim, for only in their lifespan would its radius noticeably expand. For the moment, the table seemed lifeless and still, unaware of the strange group of beings gathered around it.
White, brown, blue . . . all eyes looked to the eastern end of the table, to the empty seat found there, and to the giant double doors behind it.
"I for one will not sit here much longer, waiting like a fool," Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves said. He glowered at the door, his bushy eyebrows smashed together on his face. In order to be at eye level with the others, Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, sat upon a highchair. "He demands more stone than a world of dwarves could mine, yet wastes our time by making us wait." His thick, black beard was suspended inches from the floor.
His fellow Rock Dwarves, seated to his right and left, nodded in agreement, growling curses from beneath their beards.
"Ha!" The table vibrated at the sound of the voice. "As it stands, we have more stones than we could lay in a hundred Gypsium nights. My people work harder than even the Ancients, but we are no more than a handful, whereas they were thousands." All eyes turned to the speaker as his voice thundered down the table. He sat opposite the doorway and the empty chair, his body filling an entire quarter section of the table. He wore a leather vest that was fastened at his neck with a thick fiber cord. Hair covered his arms, as thick and long as that found on a human head. Hidden below the layer of hair his muscles bulged and rippled with the slightest twitch of a finger. His eyes were brown, though difficult to detect beneath the shadow of his brow, which was a cliff jutting out of his skull. His chair groaned, splintering at the feet as he leaned forward. "So that all may live, my people will die to restore Lock Core. But, I fear that we will work ourselves to death, ere the wall is whole."
"What do you demand, Drau'd? That the Keeper set them himself? That the Order be reduced to nothing more than laborers?" Onk questioned from beside the empty seat. A beam of red light glowed on his angular features, coloring his earrings blood red.
"Aye, perhaps they should. Our backs break with every stone we set, but with their aid we could lay hundreds without shedding so much as a drop of sweat. Compared to the Ancients, our technology is crude, our methods of construction haphazard. Much of their ways are lost to us, making our task more difficult than theirs ever was. Even at its creation, Lock Core was built with the aid of your Order. Now, you lend us mere apprentices, children incapable of elevating a pebble let alone a twelve ton stone."
"I couldn't agree more. Maybe it is time our Keeper set aside his other . . . affairs," Katrina said from the other side of the empty seat, the black symbols on her face partially obscured by her veil. A scruffy black wig sat lopsided atop her bald skull.
Onk paled, while Drau'd cast his eyes to the table, burying them beneath his brow. Rollinthor and his fellows stifled their chuckles.
"With all due respect, Lady Katrina, the Keeper's private affairs are not the Council's concern. Nor has the Council ever spent its time dealing in gossip," the High-Mage Nicola said, looking toward Katrina who sneered back at her through the holes in her veil. Nicola's face was a wad of scorched flesh, her nose -- a nub of red with a single hole on its side which hissed with every breath she took. Her right eyelid sagged past her eye where it continued on, fusing with the flesh of her cheek. She had no lips, but spoke through a flap of skin hanging over her upper row of teeth while her lower jaw was fully exposed down to the white bone of her chin. Very little hair grew atop her head, being unable to sprout through the thick layer of scar tissue. Those that were able to find root, were gray and scraggly, growing like diseased wheat within a wasteland. Her left eye was light blue and sparkled beneath a sheet of ever-flowing tears.
"As for your people, Drau'd," she said, her scarred flesh knotting as she twisted her neck in his direction. "We simply have no mages to spare you at this time. We too have endured great losses, our numbers depleted as are your own. Now, we are forced to recruit below our standards and traditions in order to replenish our numbers. Regretfully, it has been the Order's decision that the restoration of the northern wall is not a priority of the Seventh World."
With that, Drau'd's nostrils flared open, causing his chest to balloon outward as the pair of giant cavities sucked the air out of the room.
"The Black Door is silent. And for all we know, it may remain as such for another millennium. We may gamble on its restoration, counting on the possibility that the Plague shall return within our time. Or, we can focus our resources on the problem at hand, which, the Order believes, is the presence of the undeath in our world at this very moment," Nicola said, wiping her eye with the sleeve of her white robe.
"My gentle cousin Drau'd may hold his tongue in your presence, Nicola, but by dead my clansmen and I will not." Rollinthor nearly toppled his high chair as he slammed his fist on the table. "Forget Lock Core? How can we, when it is the only thing keeping this world from death! The wall is breached! If the Plague returns there will be no battle, but a massacre of all life. I say leave the protection of our homeland to the Death Guard, it is why they exist. Besides, they have never failed before. Why should they now?"
His companions lent him their approval with several bursts of “Aye!".
Nicola continued, unfazed by Rollinthor's words or those of his companions.
"This threat may be beyond the capabilities of our Death Guard alone. Many of the Order have sensed a dark power in our world. A power that, I for one, have felt once before, during the War of Lock Core. Even then, it was a foe that was virtually invincible, immune to the effects of both sword and mage-fire. If it dwells in our world now, it is without question our greatest concern," Nicola said.
"Bah," Rollinthor replied, dismissing Nicola with a wave of his stubby hand. "And you, A'rhie? What does your kind have to say of this dark power?" he questioned of the elven representative who had been silent throughout the conversation, his eyes of white and gray fixed on the entrance to the chamber.
The elf slowly turned and focused his attention toward the council members.
"You speak of your races. Your casualties. The dark forces in our world and the death of your kind."
His thin fingers slid from the table and onto his lap and he turned to Nicola. Pointy ears stuck out from beneath a glowing halo of hair.
"Many of my people can feel the darkness. Though for them it is not felt in their flesh or bones. But in their souls. As you all know, the sons and daughters of Adros are resistant to the undeath. Our bodies immune to its effects. But over time, we suffer in our minds. A darkness. We lose the ability to feel, to hope, and to find purpose in anything we do. We suffer Shal'in Ome. The Elven Death. Daily this affliction spreads among my people, and daily we begin to lose all hope. Now, the elven quarter is all but vacant. My people have deserted their homes among the branches of the Brentwood to self-destruct through a life of decadence in the outlands. For my people, the Elven Death has become an epidemic."
"An epidemic of decadence." The words slid down the council members ears as though coated with grease. "Dark powers in our world."
The council members returned their attention to the entry, and found LeCynic -- his face and body nearly entirely hidden by a black hooded robe. From beneath the hood they could see him smirking with a slightly hooked upper lip. Blotches of yellow stained the edges of his mouth.
"The precious Lock Core," he said, rolling the final words off the tip of a protruding tongue.
With a nod toward his chair, it slid backward, screeching, leaving a pattern of white cuts on the stone floor as it moved. Nicola grimaced at the direct affront to Dertois Law. He walked toward the table, traversing a kaleidoscope of light that vanished harmlessly as it fell on his black robe. Positioned at the head of the table he stood for a moment and cast a grin toward every one of the council members. He had his eyes on the High-Mage Nicola and announced, "I have a solution to all of our problems."
Nicola returned his gaze, her single blue eye unblinking. Below LeCynic there came a soft chuckle.
'Laugh while you can Katrina, for soon enough I'll have you screaming once more.'
LeCynic's grin rested on his wife, Katrina, who was adjusting her black wig.
His chair slid back into place, catching him as he floated downward and saving him just moments before he would have crashed to the floor.
To the surprise and shock of the entire council, Nicola included, a group of soldiers dressed in shining black full-mail burst through the doorway, swarming the room. Every inch of their bodies were hidden within a layer of glistening steel, their heads covered in fanged helms that resembled the gaping maw of a wolf as it tore into its prey. Covering their chests were dark breastplates molded to illustrate the skeletal framework of a human torso; a swelling ribcage, breastbone and the many interlocking sections of ones spinal cord. The soldiers took positions behind the startled council members and froze in place gauntlets gripping the hilts of the jagged edged swords hanging at their sides.
Rollinthor and his fellows reached to their backs, then, after fumbling behind their shoulders, they remembered that weapons weren't allowed in the council chamber.
"What in the rotting hell do you intend, LeCynic?" Rollinthor blurted, his hands returning to their place on the white table.
"The Keeper's guard has come here, uninvited. There can be no weapons nor Magic in the council chamber. Yet you have brought both," Nicola said. "Do not think we are easily awed or intimidated, LeCynic. Your actions accomplish little more than folly."
"You're a fine one to speak of folly, Nicola," LeCynic replied. "I realize that the grudge you must hold against me is immeasurable. But let us face the facts. I was elevated to Keeper because you are not, and may never be, fit for the task."
Deep within her eye of light blue, a fire was ignited. The chunk of melted flesh that passed for her upper lip curled over her teeth as she quenched the flames and smiled at LeCynic.
'Tread lightly my lord. The Council is in ill temper.'
'I can handle the Council.'
"Your exploits during the war are, no doubt, legendary. But I am the strongest of the Order, and therefore by right, I am this world's Supreme Protector," LeCynic said, not bothering to hide the licks of energy dancing in his eyes.
"Please, fellow council members . . ."
The deep voice rumbled through the chamber, drawing LeCynic’s attention to the opposite end of the table, to the gigantic boulder dwarf, Drau'd.
". . . Lord LeCynic." Drau'd's immense brown eyes sunk into the Keeper. "Do not dishonor this council with petty arguments."
"Hump! You waste our time with your insults and threats, LeCynic. Either unleash your dogs upon us, or tell us how in the dead you intend to solve our problems. Otherwise, I'll be returning with my kin to the Gorian, so that I may do something of use."
"Feel free to leave whenever you wish, Rollinthor."
'Caution, my lord.'
"Go back to the Gorian . . ."
'Do not continue,' Onk pleaded.
'To the dead with the Council!'
Squinting, Onk reached up and buried his forehead in his hands. A bead of red trickled from his nose down to his upper lip.
". . . go back to that tomb you call your home if you so desire. Your race is no longer of consequence to this world."
Those who could muster the courage to witness Rollinthor's reaction raised their eyes.
For an instant Rollinthor was stunned, unable to believe in his own indignation. Then . . .
"How dare . . ." The words could hardly be heard over the breath gushing from his lips. His cheeks began filling and deflating like the pumping of blood through a heart. From his face to the floor, his beard was a continuous quiver.
Fearing he would tear the Keeper apart, or die trying, his companions had climbed down from their chairs and were struggling to pull their leader from his perch, though he refused to move, and just sat there gritting his teeth, his sturdy little frame shaking with rage. Finally, it was the massive hand of Drua'd that finally brought him down, scooped him up and then began dragging him to the exit.
Rollinthor thrashing in his hands, Drua'd trudged past the line of wolf helmed soldiers, the light of a thousand colors flashing on his face while the pair of Rock Dwarves walking beside him moved in darkness, obscured by the shadow of the Keeper's guard.
“May the dead take you, LeCynic. For as of this day," Drua'd roared. "The Triad is broken!"
And with that, the dwarven race exited the Council chamber.
"Well then," LeCynic said, slouching in his chair. "Does anyone else wish to leave, or shall we get on with the business at hand?"
The elven representative A'rhie was looking at the table as though caught in a daydream. His hair no longer shimmered, but seemed dull and yellow, the color of stale urine.
"The Order will not approve of this," Nicola said. A stump of a hand stuck out from her white sleeve and rested on the table.
"The Order will do what is in the best interest of our world. The days when the dwarven race was an asset to this world have passed. Drau'd and his ilk are a meager reflection of their great ancestors. We cannot wait for them to drag their feet rebuilding our only defense against the Plague. As for their cousins the Rock Dwarves, they have long since excavated this world’s suitable resources. In order to rebuild Lock Core, they must now travel halfway to the Eternal Sea in order to quarry their stone. By the time the combined efforts of the dwarven race have finished the reconstruction of Lock Core our world will be but another casualty of the undeath."
"I suppose then, you have a better solution," Katrina said, nibbling on her index finger through the fabric of her veil. "After millions of decades of strife, you have suddenly found a way to defeat the Plague?"
The orange stains on his lips shimmered as though covered in a layer of oil.
"What exactly do you propose?" Nicola asked.
"I propose, High-Mage, that we forget about Lock Core, change our strategy from a defensive status to a more . . . mutually satisfying arrangement."
"The Plague will be satisfied with nothing short of our deaths," Nicola replied.
"Good, for that is precisely what I intend to give them."
"You're mad," Katrina replied with a slight chuckle. "You will kill us all."
"No, my dear. Not all of us. Only those fit for death. Consider our current plight; the decadence A'rhie spoke of affects not only his kind, but ours as well. Hiding in the form of chopa it has laid waste to our society, overflowing our prisons in the aftermath of this newly discovered plague. Though mostly concentrated in the outlands, even here at Lock Core people are dying in the streets, slain by a poisoned blade or a poisoned mind. It seems as though many humans as well as elves seek death. So why then don't we grant them their wish, while at the same time making their lives useful for those of us who seek life."
"I fail to see how any of this relates to the undeath. Murdering our own kind for the sake of upholding morality will solve nothing. You will only further weaken our depleted ranks."
"You couldn't be more wrong, Nicola. Not only will I put an end to the decay in our society, I will finally end the decay of life that is the undead plague."
"How can you stop the Plague?" Katrina asked, sneering.
"Simple. I am going to feed it. Empty our prisons into its maw."
"Dear gods," Nicola exclaimed.
Katrina cackled while Onk shriveled in his chair.
The elven representative continued to gaze down at the table.
"You cannot get away with this. The Order . . ."
"Enough with your Order! Besides, they cannot stop me even if they wished it were so. It is too late. I have already begun."
"Would you have us join your death march as well, LeCynic?" Katrina whispered at his side, gripping her veil in a pair of fists.
"The Plague cannot be satiated. The hunger has no limit."
"My Lord, the Lady Nicola is right. Every victim it acquires is another mouth we must feed. Over time its hunger will be unstoppable," Onk said, pleading for his lord to accept reason.
"I have, of course, considered this. I have spent the last two decades training my army, forcing them to endure the most brutal physical conditioning iMaginable, while teaching them swordplay in the Ancients' ways. Those who are able . . ."
LeCynic smirked in the direction of his guards.
" . . . have even mastered many of the Elven techniques. Every being I send has spent years in prison training for their deaths. When they enter the Rift, they make their journey as fully armed master fighters, one and all. With any luck, they can have the honor in their deaths that they utterly lacked while living."
"Your idea lacks originality, LeCynic. If half of what Adros teaches is true, battles upon battles have been waged within the Black Door. Armies capable of populating entire planets have gone within, only to reemerge as undead."
"Perhaps, but I may have one weapon they all lacked."
"What might that be?"
"The power of the Destroyer."
Nicola was on her feet. "You've found him!"
"Not the man no, from all reports he's likely drank himself to death in some outland pit. However, even though he was taken from me, my research continues, and I believe someday soon I will have his secret."
"Hah, the Destroyer? Even if you had the man, nothing living has stepped through the Gate in five hundred years," Katrina said, trying to vanish beneath her veil. "You don't even know what dwells on the other side."
"Wrong again, Katrina."
"Even you are not foolish enough to have gone through."
"Of course he has. He controls the Black Door, isn't that right, LeCynic?"
"Yes, Nicola, I am this world's Gatekeeper. Sit and wait for death if you wish, but I aim to take this battle beyond the Black Door."
She brushed past a flock of brown robed mages. Apprentices, mages of the first order. All of them children. Some, no taller than her waist. As she moved through the crowd of brown, the children looked up at her, their eyes filling with disgust.
"Gross," one of the younger children said, covering his eyes, unable to stand the sight of her.
The children cringed as she passed within their midst, then she was through the crowd of youngsters and left them behind to giggle and gag while retelling the details of her hideous appearance. She ignored them and moved on, climbing upwards through the High Tower, her skin too thick with scars to allow any childish remarks to penetrate. She met with others on her way, reds, blues, greens and grays, and unlike the children, they at least were able to mask their disgust, covering it with pleasant smiles -- though she could still see them cringing inside, their minds retching.
She ascended a stairway of white marble and at last reached her destination, the Chamber of Knowing.
"High-Mage Nicola, welcome. Welcome indeed," a Red Mage said, stepping away from a fountain of silver liquid to greet her. "What news have you from your meeting with the Council?" The man had an incredibly long and hooked nose and a head that was nearly as thin as his neck.
"None good, I'm afraid," Nicola curtly replied, walking past the man. "I must use the Well of Knowing, Conius."
"Very . . . well." Conius said, winking at Nicola, a smile spreading across his face.
Nicola was in no mood to tolerate the man's simple sense of humor.
He paused for a moment of thought, then the smile left his face.
"Yes, High-Mage Nicola," he said, quickly backing away from the pool and out of the chamber.
The room was round and made of white stone. From the ceiling to the floor a row of pillars ran along the circumference of the wall, evenly spaced from one another by exactly four feet. In the center of the room there was a small pool which continually rippled as a thick silvery liquid trickled in, spilling like blood from fissures in an orb shaped fountain. The Well of Knowing had existed since the time of the Ancients, and was believed to have once allowed them to communicate between worlds. Considering there was no longer anyone left to talk to in the Forsaken Worlds, it was now used by the Order to contact fellow members within the confines of the Seventh World.
She stepped up to the pool's surface and saw her reflection wavering in the liquid below, her visage made even more grotesque in the constant silver ripples. Her face was transformed in the waves, her eye of light blue became an empty, black pit, sunken into her flesh. Hair, a snarled gray mess, sprouted upon her cheeks down to her chin. A hood covered the head of the image in the pool, a tattered shred of cloth sown together with what appeared to be yarn. Nicola looked down into the pool, down into the pair of dark holes forming at its surface.
'It is confirmed,' she thought.
'So, he has traveled through. He has been inside the Rift.'
The thoughts of another echoed in her mind.
'Yes, my Lord.'
The figure in the pool grew distant from Nicola, his thoughts fading from her mind.
'I should have seen it years ago. He was so young . . . I always suspected he could have been a Gate Keeper. So young. So ambitious. As soon as the Black Door awoke I should have seen it.'
'The fool. Lifetimes of strife undone by the arrogance of one man.'
'So it seems. As we feared, he is the source. It begins and ends with the Keeper.'
'And what of the Outlands? Are those rumors true as well?' Nicola asked of the pool's reflection.
‘If only they were lies. We arrived in Minotia too late, its citizens had been all but overwhelmed. We were a mere handful against a horde of dead. Needless to say we were helpless to stop it. When these Shadowed Dead joined the battle the best we could hope for was to flee for our lives. Because of our failure, the infection continues to spread eastward. Soon it will fall upon Shattered Rock and then . . .'
'Yes, Lock Core. Ere the passing of the next Gypsium night it will be upon Lock Core. Beyond Shattered Rock there is little more than fields of wheat to slow its march.'
'What must I do, lord? I cannot simply assassinate the Keeper. Given his ability, such a task could very well be beyond us. As for our allies, with the Triad divided they will be hard to come by. While he has but to say the word and the garrison of Lock Core rises against us.'
'Lock Core may already be lost. If so, the fate of the Seventh World now rests within the walls of Shattered Rock. It will be there that the tide will turn, or wash us all away.'
'What do you advise?'
'LeCynic will march against Shattered Rock. Our best chance of destroying him will be there. Use the Well to contact your best Guardians in the area. Have them stay at the Wayward Inn. When the time comes, they will know what to do . . . Be ready. A victory at Shattered Rock will merely pave the way for a future struggle at Lock Core. Remember, Nicola, no matter the cost, this world must be cleansed.'