The candles at the sides of the bed wavered, then died altogether, drowning in a pool of wax. Soft and cold, the light of Gypsium crept through the window.
'Katrina.' In his mind he felt her approach. 'Coming to see your husband? To see your Lord?' She burned in his mind, like a bonfire in the night. 'Show me. Let me see your mind.'
He sat up, slowly, casually, his abdominal muscles rippling as the silk sheets slid down his chest. His nose was thin, nearly devoid of nostrils, while his eyebrows were a pair of dark gashes on his face. The man's flesh seemed purple in the dim light and had patches of yellow and orange staining his back, chest and neck. Smaller, yet similar discolorations could be found on the man's face as well, especially concentrated around his lips. From his forehead to his cheek, a large vein ran down his face, bloated like a night crawler trapped in the rain and throbbing with a dark liquid that more closely resembled ink than it did human blood.
As he arose, he disturbed the pair of young servants sleeping next to him causing moans to part from their crimson lips. The bodies moved closer together, wrapping each other up in a cocoon of silk and flesh. From head to toe, the pair was hairless, nothing but smooth, graceful curves.
LeCynic demanded much from his servants -- of which, shaving their bodies was, perhaps, the least painful or degrading.
He looked down at the pair, stroking their supple flesh with lavender fingernails. At the corners of their lips he saw blackened stains, a reminder of their long night of chopa use.
"So young and beautiful," he said aloud, his fingernail brushing one of their lips.
With his other hand he dug the nail of his index finger into the thigh of one of the servants. Blood trickled down her leg then fell on the bed.
She awoke with a yelp. Startled by the outcry, the other girl roused as well, her hairless eyelids opening to reveal a pair of confused eyes.
"Good morning my sweets," LeCynic said, his sunken eyes transfixed on the blood stain growing on his bed. "I pray you've slept well."
Though his tone was soft, even somewhat friendly, the pair of girls reacted to it as though it was thunder, bolting upright their eyes darting around the room in panic. He reached his bloodied fingernail towards them but they backed away in horror, feebly attempting to shield themselves behind the silk sheets.
"Oh yes, I sometimes forget myself."
His body seemed to vibrate for a moment, then the purple faded from his flesh, taking on a milky hue. The splotches vanished altogether, while the black vein shrank and filled with living blood.
Abandoning their clothes in a heap, the young serving girls leapt naked from the bed and went scurrying out of the room.
His laughter followed them from the bedchamber.
"Huh, I thought you'd prefer me this way. Oh well then, no sense in pretending."
Black blood flooded his veins once more.
'Here, my lord,' his advisor replied.
LeCynic felt briefly uneasy, unable to immediately detect the presence of his advisor. Then, he was simply angry. He encouraged Onk to utilize his powers of invisibility for snooping around the palace, so long as he remained visible while in LeCynic's presence.
Opposite the foot of the bed, a gold and green tapestry shimmered with a hue of blue, while a man, devoid of hair, stepped through it.
"Here as always, my lord." He wore a plain white robe, and had a face that was all sharp angles. Thick golden earrings drooped from his earlobes. He veiled his every expression as he looked at LeCynic, his chin, cheeks and nose jutting into the air.
LeCynic was no longer in bed, but was beside the hairless man, his hand reached out to lay flat upon the man's scalp. Streams of blue energy poured from his purple fingernails, driving the advisor to his knees.
"You wish to play games, Onk?" Energy curled outward from his lips as he spoke.
'No, my lord.'
He had to reply with his mind, being unable to pry his teeth from off of his tongue.
'I wish only to serve.'
Blood ran from the corners of his mouth, he reached down to the floor and ensnared his fist in the plush emerald colored carpet.
'I live for the Keeper of the Wall. My actions are for him alone. My thoughts all his own.'
LeCynic took his hand off of his head and gagging, the advisor fell to the floor.
"My wife approaches." He left his advisor and walked toward the window, shielding his eyes as he stood beneath Gypsium's light. "Deal with her." A wall of darkness descended as he closed the curtain.
Thin streams of energy leapt out before him, illuminating the room in a bluish glow as the threads traced the path of the serving girls. LeCynic followed the trail of light guiding him toward the bathing chamber and the pair of girls trapped within.
"Tell Katrina I will join the council shortly."
His legs, a collage of purple and yellow, swept out in front of his body, taking him closer to the girls with every step. As he walked, several sconces lining the chamber's walls suddenly ignited, revealing the bathing chamber's interior which consisted mainly of a massive pool of blue surrounded by marble tiles.
"If the Triad grows anxious, tell them that I have more important matters that need. . ."
In the corner of the room, the pair of serving girls were a knot of flesh, quivering beneath an orgy of rutting shadows. Their eyes were filled with tears and fear while LeCynic continued to stride toward them.
" . . . rectifying."
Eclipsed by his naked backside, the girls screamed.
'Yes, my lord.'
Onk turned his head and vomited, staining his white robe with a mixture of blood and bile.
"Galimoto is bored," the imp said, flicking an acorn into the air. "He is beginning to think that Brice left him here to die."
The acorn bounced from branch to branch as it tumbled down.
"If the demons of the night don't kill him, Galimoto knows the boredom will."
Weary from their travels and weary of hearing Galimoto complain, the children paid him little attention. Whimly and Emily huddled together against a thick trunk of oak, a cape draped over both of their heads. Whimly hugged his knees and shivered while Emily stroked his hair and whispered encouragement into his ears. Tetloan was still passed out, though he had been dragged off the road and was now sleeping on a bed of grass. Beneath his head was Emily's neatly folded cape.
"Galimoto?" Emily said, craning her neck upward.
The claw of his index finger was buried in his nose.
"Why have we stopped here, this close to the border of Lock Core?"
"You should have listened to the Tetloan child, little girl." There was a look of confusion on Galimoto's face as he stared at the wad of snot hanging from his finger tip. "Your new master is a madman."
Wide and round, her eyes sparkled for an instant as they caught the light of Gypsium.
"I don't understand," she said, her finger momentarily snared in one of Whimly's curls. "Who has the Master come here to find?"
"The man they call Destroyer. The one who destroys both dead and living."
A cloud passed overhead, blotting out the remnants of the Midnight Sun.
"To him, it does not matter what you are. He destroys all."
"He is the one . . ." Her hand fell from Whimly's head. " . . . the one who destroyed Lock Core?"
"Yes, little girl."
Emily lowered her head.
"Now you know who your Master seeks."
For a time, Galimoto simply sat on his branch and was silent. Except for the occasional rustling of leaves or chirping insect, their camp was devoid of sound, for the first time that night, the only voice Emily heard was her own, as it spoke to her from within the darkness of her half-dreaming mind. She thought of how far she had come, farther than an outland farm girl ever dreamed or hoped. With her back cushioned against the moss covered trunk, she thought of how far she had yet to go, and what awaited her at Lock Core.
"Emily?" Whimly whispered. "Those things Tetloan said . . . Well . . ."
"Tetloan lies, Whimly."
"I know. It's just that . . ."
Emily was older, had been with the Red Mage longer, and therefore felt it was her duty to ease Whimly's doubts. She remembered how her own journey began. The fear. The uncertainty. A strange man full of promises come to take her away. Even then she never dreamed that what Brice said could possibly be true. But now . . .
"I will, Emily, I promise."
"Stop worrying about Tetloan and try to get some sleep."
In her mind she felt him fading away. She ran her fingers through Whimly's hair, no longer thinking, but dreaming. Her eyelids and the Midnight Sun slowly falling until there was only the darkness . . .
My years of searching are at an end.
Brice approached the gate of Shattered Rock and put his hand out, letting his palm slide over the slimy, grease coated exterior. The wall was cold, uneven. It was too dark to see the details of its surface, but from his touch it was apparent to Brice that the wall's creator hadn't been concerned with picking through his stones, finding where each rock fit best. Instead, the creator of this wall placed jagged edges against smooth ones, large boulders atop small stones, and fit them together, filling his gaps and seams, with massive amounts of mortar.
Brice's finger trailed a crack, following its path as it wove through the misshaped stones. Mortar flaked and crumbled from his touch.
Whoever built this was in a hurry, he thought, taking his hands from the wall and wiping the grease on his robe.
He stepped forward, his flesh melting as it contacted the stone. Rippling with waves of blue, the wall consumed him. Then, bubbling on the interior surface, it belched him out, whole and unharmed.
Though it was well beyond midnight, the city was bursting with activity from the Festival of Life. Venders yet lined the streets hoping to snare passersby with the promise of a cheap cup of mead or wine, though all it took was a quick whiff of their product to realize there was no deal to be had. Only a fool or drunkard would fail to make such a distinction, and judging by the amount of transactions occurring, Brice realized there was no shortage of them in this town.
In addition to the copious amount of spirits up for sale, there was a wide variety of other wares such as jewelry, clothing, and various exotic fruits and vegetables, some of which Brice was entirely unfamiliar with, having most likely been acquired from the Outland Fringe or even deep within the uncharted lands.
In disgust, Brice also noted that the venders openly sold chopa, a poison often used by thieves and murderers to coat their blades. When diluted, the drug became a narcotic favored for its ability to numb the mind, though such a process often meant death to the user. Only a precise ratio made the drug malleable, yet even watered down chopa was still a poison and as far as Brice was concerned, the drug was merely another way to turn the living into the walking dead.
But, Brice hadn't come to rid the world of chopa addicts.
Focusing on the object of his quest, he scanned the streets, searching for some kind of sign, some indication that he had reached his journey's end.
Men stumbled down the streets, following harlots into alleyways or simply staggered about, pausing only to fill the gutters with the contents of their stomachs. Others, men and women both, prowled the streets, glaring at everyone they saw. With their hands always on the hilt of their weapons, they challenged all who crossed their path with a glance. But mostly, the streets were filled with beggars. The broken, the dismembered, and the chopa addicts. No longer able to fend for themselves, they slumped on the streets awaiting whichever came first, a handout or death. Though murderers, drunkards, whores and vagrants, the citizens of Shattered Rock shared one thing in common, they were all casualties of the war to save Lock Core.
"Turn back. Leave, mage," the voice was raspy, and came from below. "Strangers aren't much welcome these days."
Smile fading, Brice looked down, his brown hair falling past his face in strands.
"Even in the light of Gypsium, the people are still afraid of the night." The voice continued, "It is said that these days the very darkness around us is alive."
Sitting on the street, inches from Brice, was a man wearing nothing more than rags sewn together with twine. Brice saw the top of his head -- a heap of knotted gray hair. The beggar didn't looked up, but kept looking straight ahead, into the street. The stench of moldy cheese overpowered Brice, forcing him to step back.
"So I've heard, but what do you know of it, old timer?" Brice managed to ask while choking on the man's stench.
The beggar lowered his head.
"Very little . . ."
The quilt of rags on his back lurched as he shrugged his shoulders.
"Maybe a lot . . ."
He chuckled, low and hollow.
"Certainly as much as you."
Amused, Brice looked down at the man and smiled.
With his hands clasped before him in a knot of golden lace he said, "So then, tell me, what do I know?" His right eyebrow curved upward.
Insects crawled through the man's matted hair.
"You know as well as I that the War never ended. Nor has it ever. Regardless of how he left us, the Destroyer saved us from the Plague. Unfortunately, nothing is permanent and I fear his power failed to hit the infection's source. Something made it into the Seventh World. And it’s been here a long time, perhaps even before the War."
Brice's hands fell to his sides, he hadn't suspected that.
"Children vanish in the night, while entire cities grow silent. The people live in fear knowing there is nothing to do but wait, and hope that they are not the next to be taken," the man continued. “This much is known to the people of Shattered Rock as well. This city was born of fear and distrust, the people's lack of faith in Lock Core drew them here. They trust no one. Particularly those from Lock Core, but especially mages."
"And what are you if not a mage?" Brice asked, stepping back and covering his nose, no longer able to endure the man's odor. He sensed the man's power as clearly as his stench.
A chuckle gurgled from the man's throat. His body shook.
"Certainly no mage." He craned his neck up at Brice. "Not anymore."
As the man looked up, the knotted mess of hair on his face parted, allowing Brice to see his eyes -- a pair of black and empty sockets.
"Thanks to the Destroyer, I'm not much of anything." He lowered his head, once more facing toward the street. "Maybe I'm nothing."
"It matters not." Bones grinding, he slowly raised his ruffled form. "Nothing much does."
All Brice could do was stare into the hollow cavities.
"Sooner or later, the darkness takes us all," the man said.
His beard began to vibrate as he burst out laughing.
Brice managed a weak grin in response after the man slapped him on the shoulder. Laughing, the man turned and stepped into the street.
As the blind man merged with the crowd and disappeared in the flow of traffic, Brice tugged at his dimpled cheek, shook his head, and then turned and began walking away.
"Even if you find the Destroyer, you can't change that fact." The raspy voice was a mere whisper.
The Destroyer . . . He knows!
Brice spun around.
The street was a flood of beggars, swordfighters, drunks and whores. Everywhere he looked he saw hundreds of men, all scruffy and poorly dressed. He began picking through the throng of disfigured amputees, searching for the man's only truly distinguishing feature . . .
There he was. A walking pile of rags . . . A mop of shaggy hair . . . Turning . . . A quick look in Brice's direction . . . The eyes. Dead, black pits.
Brice leapt into the crowd, jostling his way through the wall of people, keeping his eyes focused on the ragged figure fleeing before him. Ignoring the scowls and curses of those around him, Brice plunged onward, steadily gaining on the blind beggar.
He was nearly on him, could almost reach out and grab hold of his soiled garb . . .
He had it. Brice clamped his fist and pulled . . .
. . .
. . .
The garment hung in his hand, but the man was nowhere to be found.
"Nice trick, old man," Brice said to the empty space before him, smiling.
No sooner had the question left his lips then a door was thrust open before him, engulfing him in a wave of warm yellow light while filling his ears with laughter and the shrill notes of a flute. Squinting, Brice struggled to see the room’s interior but was forced to throw his hands over his eyes. From within the light, all he could see was something dark and massive beginning to emerge, growing larger and larger until it towered over him.
"Out of the way!"
Brice was flung aside as a boulder dwarf walked by, a stench of stale ale lingering on its hairy body. Scowling down at him through a bushel of snarled gray hair, the mammoth being staggered on into the street.
Strange, Brice thought, amazed to see the giant so far from the Athmas peaks. What has brought him this far from his kind? In the Seventh World they were the rarest of all races, and spent most of their lives secluded from the rest of the Triad.
"Sorry," Brice said, straightening his cape and massaging his shoulder from where the dwarf had collided with him.
The pain quickly faded, and with the squeak of hinges, so did the yellow light. Bathed once more in the light of Gypsium, Brice looked up. The voices from within became muffled, while the rapid piping of the flute continued to echo in Brice's ears. He saw the outline of a door, a thin thread of yellow light seeping from the edges.
The Wayward Inn, Brice read the sign hanging above the door to himself. Walking toward it, he reached out, running his fingers over its surface. Words had been etched into the wood. At first glance, in the dim light of Gypsium, the words seemed to be a familiar and popular saying, but, after translating them with his fingertips, Brice's found them to be an entirely different message.
"This is it," he said, his finger hanging at the end of the final letter.
Carved in the elven tongue was the words; So that we may live the wall has fallen.
Smiling, Brice grabbed the door handle, pulled, and was consumed within the yellow light.
Alana entered the Seventh World, moving through it as a breeze in the dreams of all -- a gentle touch of light in their world of darkness. She drifted through the minds of a people living in despair, teetering on the verge of emptiness. Though weakened from her journey, her presence alone was enough to tip the scale. To instill in the minds of all she passed . . . a breeze . . . a dream . . . a touch of hope. She knew their death was inevitable, as was the fall of their world. But deep within her heart and in her mind she couldn't help but hope, hope that maybe this world would be different, that this time it would be the Elder Gods who were wrong.
She came for the Children, to save those she could ere the fall of darkness was complete.
This world will be different . . .
I will not fail.
I will save them.
This world will be different.
Though her mission was cemented in her mind by the very will of the Elder Gods, neither their powers nor their punishments could extinguish the hope in her heart and the thoughts it spoke, dimly in her mind, 'I will not watch another world die . . . This world will be different.'