Alec saw him immediately. In fact, unless he was blind he couldn't have missed him, for his crimson robe overflowing with gold lace stuck out in the bar full of wretches like a pus-filled sore on a whore's face.
Well, take a look at the fancy lad. If he ain't careful a thief will take his hands and head just to get at that pretty golden lace.
The mage had acquired a table in the corner of the bar, opposite the exit. Placed in front of him was a full pitcher of ale and a pair of empty mugs. The mage looked around the room, grinning like an idiot.
Fool's drunk. Alec thought, weaving his way through the crowd, nearly colliding with Ogrin; a young redheaded boy, as he leapt around the room blowing like mad on his wooden flute. The mage disappeared behind a haze of smoke as Halabat; an elderly veteran of Lock Core's eastern garrison, puffed on his pipe and nodded up at Alec. Half of the man's face was badly burned and drooping to the earth like melted wax.
Alec also noted the presence of a pair of masked figures sitting at the table to the back of Halabat. They sat casually, their hands resting on the table before them. Within the black executioner hoods covering their faces, Alec watched as a pair of blue and brown eyes surveyed the room, darting toward anything that moved. The blue eyes settled on Alec, dissecting him.
Though frightening to some, Alec was entirely unalarmed by their presence, comforted in fact. They were members of the Death Guard -- masked executioners who hunted those whose only sin was that they had been infected by the Plague. Created by the former Keeper, Dertois in the aftermath of the War, they became unknown soldiers, undertaking the brutal task of ensuring the War's completion by weeding out the infected from society, tracking and eliminating those who would hide their injuries in order to continue living even though they were rotting from the inside out.
It was said that there had been a Death Guard in the Ancient times, an elite army formed by various races that traveled the worlds sworn to eradicate the Plague. The result of their crusade was all too apparent to Alec's generation. Like all things living, they were eventually devoured by the Plague.
Beyond that, Alec's knowledge of their order abruptly ended. Nor did he feel it was necessary to learn more, for one of the things he did know was that the slightest sign of illness was always investigated and always dealt with. Wherever there was the Plague, the Guard would be close at hand, and for Alec, that was all he needed to know.
For more than twelve years Alec had heard nothing of any major outbreaks of the Plague. Now Shattered Rock was flooded with rumors. And though they were rumors and as of yet lacking any evidence to support their existence, Alec assumed that it was because of these rumors that the Death Guard had come. They had donned their masks, stepping out from society in order to hunt and to kill.
The pair of blue eyes and death masks vanished as Alec entered Halabat's cloud of smoke. The man's melted lips twisted into a grin as Alec patted his shoulder. His lungs filling with smoke, Alec couldn't help noticing the bitter flavor of Chopa intermingled with the scent of tobacco.
He had barely made it through the cloud when he found the mage standing in front of him, extending a golden sleeve. Alec was raising his hand, shielding his eyes from the mages blinding white smile when, before he could react, the mage grabbed his hand and began shaking it violently. Up close and clear of the smoke, Alec was able to get a good look at the grinning mage.
He was tall for a human standing nearly a head higher than Alec, and he was young -- younger than Alec anyways. Alec figured he couldn't have witnessed over thirty Midnight Suns in his lifetime. His hair was glossy, immaculate. If he had spent a year searching, Alec doubted he would be able to find a single split end in the whole bunch. Likewise, his face was clean-shaven his complexion flawless. From his sparkling white teeth to his soft, smooth skin the man was perfect.
He alters his appearance with Magic.
Not only vain, it was a direct violation of Dertois Law.
Alec sneered as he returned the handshake, clamping down on his supple flesh until his grip was beyond firm and nowhere near friendly.
"And you are?"
"Brice Langlia. Mage of the Fifth Order," he said, smiling down at him through the pain while Alec continued to squeeze.
I wonder if he'd keep smiling if I spit in his face?
Alec was well aware of the young mage's rank, his crimson robes announced it. Though his stay at the High Tower was involuntary, Alec had learned a little bit about mages because of it, their dress code being one such bit of knowledge. The color of their robes was dictated by their Order, which was in turn dictated by their level of power. The weakest of mages were of the First Order, while the strongest were of the Seventh. However, to the best of his knowledge there hadn't been a mage of the Seventh in this world for hundreds of years. In fact, at present there was only a handful of mages who were of the Sixth. They were those who wore white. The Arch Mages. Advisors, High-Mages, and those who would proclaim themselves Rulers of the Kingdom of Humanity, Keepers of the Wall, and Supreme Protectors of the Seventh World. For Alec those were the worst of all. His sessions with the Keeper had been particularly nightmarish. Somehow the man was able to keep him alive and conscious while dissecting his innards.
He almost wished his power could return for just one more cataclysmic blast to take that bastard out.
Hands clasped together, Alec felt the mage's hand in his own. His grip was childlike, and had he wanted to, Alec could have crushed it, forever ruined his perfect, manicured hand. However, before the bones began popping beneath his flesh Alec released him.
"I've been searching for you for quite some time." The mage said, through a smile and gritted teeth while rubbing a red hand. "I've traveled the outlands for years hoping to find you."
"Well, congratulations. You've found me. But . . ." Alec poured himself a mug of ale. ". . . did it ever occur to you that I didn't want to be found?"
The mage's smile faded.
"Please, being that you are a mage and no doubt an educated man, tell me if this makes sense?" Alec followed his words with a gulp of ale. "Invisibility," he continued. "Only benefits those who don't wish to be seen."
He downed the rest of his drink then belched before pouring another.
"I'm sorry. I don't understand."
The Order must have lowered their standards.
"Maybe I was hard to find because I didn't want to be found. Does that make sense?"
"Good, then you should understand why I'm not exactly thrilled by the sight of you."
Somber, the mage motioned to the table.
Alec noticed Brice's hand was no longer red. It was perfect and untouched once more. He stood still.
Maybe Nathalia was right.
"I had considered the possibility that you might not receive me warmly."
"Possibility?" Alec laughed. "A possibility? Rotting hell! After what your Order put me through, I'd say it was a certainty."
“I have seen the Keeper's notes on your stay at the tower. You must believe that I played no part in his research, but I will admit that his work was instrumental in bringing me here."
"My stay, you make it sound as though I spent the summer on the white beaches of Boccal." He slammed his mug down, causing its contents to splash on the table.
Alec's empty hand inched toward the dagger hidden at his waist as he began to plan the quickest way to bury it in the mage's throat. If he timed it right, he knew that he could take the man's life before the mage could even think of summoning his power.
"I realize the experience must have been traumatic, but we needed answers. The world needed answers."
"Answers? I was just a child. I knew nothing. My only memory was of my awakening, coming to the realization that I was alive, unscathed, while all those around me, the entire Northern Garrison, ceased to exist. I told them this. Told your Order over and over that I knew nothing. And though I was a child, they flayed me alive. Used their power to keep me from death while they sought to tear the answers from my bones. From my very soul, should they have found it, hidden in my flesh!"
His fingers were on the steel hilt.
"You must understand our position. You are but one man. How many died that day and yet you lived? How many worlds have died as the Plague progressed, yet ours is still standing in their path? True your pain was great but it has ended, many cannot make that claim."
Alec saw faint wisps of blue dancing about the man's skin. His dagger was immediately forgotten. Though he still longed to drive it into the mage's throat, he knew that the steel would sooner bend than it would pierce his aura of blue.
"Yes, you suffered," the mage continued. "But there are those who have suffered more, those who continue to suffer. And, unlike you, their suffering is eternal."
. . . White inside gray.
An immortal heart . . .
"Nathalia," Alec whispered.
"What was that?"
Alec pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.
"Perhaps you're right. After all, I am the Destroyer. I'm reminded of it daily, see it in their faces and know they suffer because of me." He looked around the room, studying those he destroyed. The veteran Halabat. Ogrin the flute player. The patrons of the Wayward Inn. The citizens of Shattered Rock. The inhabitants of the Seventh World. And, above all, there was Nathalia. He owed them all more than he could ever give. "Your Order is right to fear me. I'm a danger to this world as surely as is the Plague. I should never have left your prisons, not before knowing . . ."
For these people I would suffer, die if I was certain it would save them.
"Much has changed since you've escaped the High Tower. At the time the consensus was that your death was the only solution. I was one of the few who disagreed," Brice said, taking a seat opposite Alec, his teeth shining once more. "I believe there is a better way. That is why I have come."
Alec eased back into his chair.
"As I have said, I have seen the Keeper's notes. And since then I have dedicated my life to you. To finding out precisely what happened at Lock Core."
All that Alec could see was teeth. The mage's smile had taken over his entire face.
"It is my belief, that I have discovered not only what happened to you, but why. And that if you learn to control your power, you can free this world. Perhaps even seal the Rift forever."
"You are drunk. The last mage to control the Rift was the High Mage Andril'lin. Even she couldn't seal it. Adros himself said the Rift became a permanent part of the universe the day it was made."
Alec regarded the mage out of the corner of his eyes as he gulped down the last of the pitcher. Throughout Alec's speech, the mage's smile never wavered, and all the while he waited patiently for Alec to finish.
"Of course, I cannot argue with what you say. I want you to perform nothing less than a miracle," Brice said. "But . . . consider what you have already done. It was said the Red Wall could not be broken. Yet you toppled it with a force the likes of which none have ever seen or heard of before. The undead army. Our ancestors fought them from world to world, all the while fleeing before them, never once halting their momentum. Now, for the first time ever they've been driven back into the Black Door. And it was you who did this. Did the impossible."
Alec shook his head.
"Yes, but for all these great feats you've forgotten that I destroyed an army of living along with the army of undead. Besides, I have no power. Or, at the very least, the very worst, I have no control over it."
"I have not forgotten. But, you know as well as I that it was only a matter of time before all would have fallen. Every day we fought, the foe grew stronger. At first we almost felt safe, shredding the hordes of meat puppets as quickly as they arrived. But we now believe the dark army acted with purpose, sending its weakest forces simply to drain our resources. On the third day the battle was all but lost. The Triad and Lock Core had failed to stop the Plague. Simply put, this world had fallen.”
"Simply put, I killed people. Don't you think I too want to know what happened?"
"If you'll allow me the opportunity, I can explain everything."
"Well then, please do so," Alec said, tipping his head and throwing his hands out before him. "I suppose I may as well hear the punch line after sitting through the joke."
Okay Smiley, let's see if your lifetime of questions has brought you any answers, Alec thought, painfully aware that his had not.
For every mage, there seemed to be a theory of how he destroyed Lock Core, and in his lifetime Alec was certain he had heard them all. Still, he was curious to hear the young mage out, on the off chance that he had indeed uncovered some new revelation. Besides, the man was buying him drinks.
"While at Lock Core did you learn of how the Magi came to be, of why we exist?"
"No, they were busy teaching me other things. But feel free to fill me in."
"The Order began long before the Plague, even before the worlds were one," the young mage said, wasting no time and eager to deliver a speech which was obviously long in the making.
"It is said that before there was the Plague and the Rift there existed but one race, one world. It is from this Origin Race that we have all descended, for much like the Plague, they set out to conquer the universe. But instead of leaving death in their wake, they filled the darkest corners of the universe with civilization and order. World by world the universe became their domain. And for a time there was peace."
"But we all know that doesn't last," Alec said, taking a healthy swig of ale.
"No, unfortunately it does not."
"So? How did these guys manage to mess it up?"
"Well, having conquered the vastness of space their empire was faced with a serious problem which was . . . well . . . the vastness of space. The great distances between their worlds could only be crossed at a lumbering pace, even a voyage to the nearest neighbor could take years in their fastest vessel. With no direct link between worlds the colonies grew culturally and physically unique, eventually becoming indistinguishable from the origin race."
He had seen them, on the walkway of Lock Core. The multitude of races . . .
. . . A variety of faces that Alec could neither count nor fully describe.
"The empire began to crumble as separate factions developed to meet their diverging needs. When their needs came in conflict, the wars began. The war of races had become the new universal dynamic replacing the colonial spirit of the Origin Race. This ‘Age of War’ continued for a millennium, only ending as one race rose to superiority.
None could stand against them, they controlled the very earth upon which their enemies stood, cracking it open beneath them to swallow entire armies, while the air around them came to life, ripping ships from the heavens. They had of course discovered the Singularity, thus beginning the Order of Magi."
Brice paused as Alec motioned for the bartender to send over another round.
"Go ahead, I'm listening," he said, though he seemed to be paying more attention to the serving girl's hips as she headed toward the bar.
"Though gifted at turning the Oneness into a weapon, the Age of War had hardened the races, birthing new and more destructive weapons by the day," Brice continued. "But with the Singularity they had a new "technology" which proved unstoppable. The Rift. They used their power to cut through space itself, tearing a hole into the heart of every world they conquered. While their enemies spent years launching an assault, they conquered worlds within a day. When their conquest was complete, the Black Door was formed -- binding the worlds as one. And upon every world they conquered, one of their kind remained to be the Gatekeepers of the Rift."
"Huh, I thought the Gods made the Rift not a bunch warmonger mages."
"The Pureblood were worshipped as such, and were no doubt godlike. Though we are their descendents, now we are weakened, our powers diluted along with our blood."
"Fascinating. Truly. But what does any of this have to do with me? Mage blood? They drained gallons of my blood, and the one thing your brethren agreed on was that I was not one of them."
"True, all records indicate that you are not of the bloodline, but your blood is however different. The Keeper new this. You see, I happened to learn that the gods never ended their war, they simply changed their opponent. After their victory over the races, they focused their power on . . . experiments."
"I'm liking your Order less by the moment. It seems like playing with lives is in your nature. Who else did they "experiment" on? "
He waved his hand across the room.
Here we go . . ., Alec thought, his mind beginning to wander in anticipation of another lengthy rant. At least he had a full pitcher of ale in front of him.
"They had but one foe left."
The gentle notes of Ogrin's flute filled Alec's ears and he drummed his fingers on the table to the beat. Meanwhile, the pitcher of ale rapidly diminished.
Ogrin's at his best tonight, Alec thought.
"What was that?" Alec asked, having missed the mage's last words.
"Look, this all sounds fascinating but how do you know all this? Like every other poor fool in this world I've been forced to read The Book of Adros, and even that ancient guy never mentioned any Origin Race."
"I too was at Lock Core."
Alec sobered for a moment, pondering the depth of that statement. He had always assumed the mage would've been far from the war. He couldn’t have seen more than nine or ten midnight suns at that time. Maybe he owed the man some respect after all.
"I found something that day, or maybe I should say it found me. At first I thought it was another demon unleashed from the Door. But I quickly realized it was something altogether different, neither living nor dead, a being of pure Magic. An experiment of the Gods. We formed a sort of bond and through him I learned the truth."
Ale sloshed over the sides of the pitcher as Alec poured another drink. With the rim of his mug hanging at his lip, he stared back at the man's smiling face and said, "Alright. Enlighten me."
Beneath the tombs of four hundred years of heroes LeCynic walked through darkness, more shadow than man beneath his black robe. It was a leisure stroll through hand-carved tunnels occupied only by vermin and the dead. Barriers of web sought to keep him away but he plowed through them, not even blinking as a thick layer of web began covering his face. He was deep within the base of Lock Core, having traveled through miles of tunnel of the Keepers' Crypt. A project that was began long ago by the dwarves, the Keepers' Crypt was the resting place of all those who guarded the Seventh World before him. After ages of rulers, the series of halls had long since overflowed, forcing the dwarves to spread their tomb throughout the bowels of the Gorian. The dead grew with the passing of time, as did the Crypt, becoming a maze of tunnels which even the dwarves no longer knew, nor dared to tread.
LeCynic had wandered them all, a feat which few others could claim. The halls of the Ancients were now lost to the Seventh World -- and none except LeCynic cared to find them. He wandered them now, thoroughly enjoying the rich spectacle of self-adoration -- the many crumbling monuments of forgotten men and women. He smiled, cracking open the sores on his face.
On the wall to his left was a statue of white marble depicting a female Keeper her slender hips and ample breasts only slightly hidden beneath a lavish jewel encrusted robe. The statue stood well over ten feet tall, even though its head had fallen from its neck and now rested next to her feet.
Fools, he thought, chuckling to himself. Even your monuments fall.
At one time this was to be his resting place. When his days of toil and self-sacrifice had finally ended he would have been granted the honor of rotting alongside his predecessors. And perhaps, had he toiled hard enough and sacrificed enough of his self his many loved ones would have erected a monument of his very own to stand for all time as an indication of his benevolent existence. Or maybe, he too would be forgotten, buried beneath time with no one to watch as the splendor he once stood for crumbled to dust.
Your halls end here.
There would be no more Keepers and soon no more dwarves, the Keepers' Crypt had finally ceased to grow. Its death would be the monument to LeCynic's greatness, and unlike the effigies of his predecessors, it would exist through all time.
LeCynic was not alone. Driven by lust, Onk followed him deep beneath the earth. He stood in fear, watching as LeCynic laughed at the tombs of the Ancients. Then, having finished mocking the dead LeCynic continued on, moving farther and farther down the catacombs. Invisible to even the dead, Onk followed.