To their left, the Gorian mountain range dominated the horizon, a vast row of jagged peaks, piercing the mist of the morning sky. In the distance, the top of a crumbling stone wall slowly crested the landscape, protruding above the dense needle filled evergreens and the massive tangle of oaks. Occasionally light trickled down through the foliage, illuminating the trio as they trudged through shadows, climbing their way up the cobblestone pathway which led to the city of Shattered Rock.
"That's when I saw him," Tetloan said, motioning to Solo Ki. As the pair of children followed in the elf’s footsteps, Tetloan had hardly paused for breath the whole way, relating the story of how he had met Solo Ki. What she was able to learn; both from what Tetloan told her as well as from what he obviously and purposely omitted, was that while Whimly, the travelers and her had been engaged with the demons, Tetloan had been hiding within the forest, watching in safety as the humans were massacred. Emily figured he was probably on the verge of emerging from his shelter after she had buried Whimly and the demons beneath the avalanche of rock. But, before he found the courage to rejoin the others, the group of survivors had already begun their hasty retreat, leaving the cowardly Tetloan behind. Seconds before stirring from the foliage, Tetloan said that he saw the demons crawling forth from within the hill of rock -- like mist from a lake, as he put it. At that point, Emily figured Tetloan had frozen in fear at the sight of the demons' reemergence. He must have figured that with the absence of the others, the demons would have sought him next, sniffed him out from within the forest. Luckily for Tetloan, the demons weren't the least bit interested in finding him. They didn't even hesitate to survey their surroundings for survivors, but immediately tore into pursuit of Emily and the others.
"I just stepped out of the trees, and there he was . . . Standing in the middle of the road, watching me."
"I suppose you dove back into the woods then?" Emily said with a squeak.
Ahead of them Solo Ki cleared his throat.
"Come on. I'm not a country rhubarb farmer like you. I know an elf when I see one."
"My father's not a rhubarb fa . . ."
"Anyway, looking at me with those funny elf eyes of his he says to me, 'Where are the others?'. Of course I thought he meant the travelers, that he was their friend or something. But he said, 'The children.' So then I . . ."
Tetloan's head bobbed up and down while he constantly chattered with every step he took. In front of her, Emily watched as Solo Ki rhythmically drove a red tipped staff into the ground, mirroring the movement of his left leg. His long bony fingers curled around the staff. Below his hand, the staff was blackened at the center, charred as though burnt by fire. His cape rippled out behind him as he walked, and Emily could tell by the sluggish movement of his incredibly long legs, that he was patiently forcing himself into a slow, measured pace in order to match that of the children. Neither Emily's curly dark head, nor the fiery hair of Tetloan reached as high as the elf's hips. Emily was the shorter of the two, standing just under 5 feet tall, while Tetloan was a couple inches her superior. Though both were small, considering they were several Gypsium Nights shy of adulthood, even a full grown human would've appeared childlike walking next to the elf.
"You should've seen him fight. I've never seen anyone move that fast. He scared them, that's for sure. Yep, definitely scared them," Tetloan continued, speaking as though Solo Ki wasn't there, even though he was just a few feet in front of them. Had he been a mile away, his keen elven ears would've been ringing from the boisterous voice of Tetloan. "He was so fast. I couldn't even see him. The demons came at him, then . . . Whoosh! Whoosh! Pow!" Tetloan struck at the air in front of him, nearly tripping over his own feet as he did so. "Everything stopped. And he had one, stuck like a pig, his staff sticking through the things chest."
"Did he kill it?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. It kind of shook itself free after a while, then disappeared into the woods with its friends. Jeez! I just can't believe they never got him," Tetloan said, pointing at Solo Ki. "As fast as they were, they never touched him, not once."
"They touched you, didn't they, Solo Ki?" Emily asked, peering up the elf's back.
"Yes." His reply was dull and disinterested.
The road bent to the left, obscuring the city wall behind the thick forest.
"Then why ain't you one of them? You and Emily both?"
"Perhaps similar blood flows through our veins," Solo Ki said bluntly.
"Aren't you the elven expert?" Emily said.
Tetloan immediately began wagging his tongue at her.
"Elves can resist the undeath. Some . . . Are immune," Emily replied, her wide eyes radiant and shimmering, despite Tetloan's tongue hanging in front of them.
"Whatever. I'm just glad we've made it to the city. I don't care to find out if we're related by being bit. I just want to find Brice and have him take me back home. Just wait till my parents hear about what he's put me through. My dad's mayor of Argor, second largest city in the entire Outland. He'll have him booted from the Order for sure."
Solo Ki suddenly stopped, dead in his tracks.
"Argor . . ."
He turned, casting his ashen face toward Tetloan. His lips opened as if to speak, then something in the distance drew his attention.
"The Red Mage approaches."
Somehow Emily doubted those were the words he had originally intended to speak.
"What makes you think he's coming?" Tetloan asked.
"For one, the Red Mage Brice is never far from the imp Galimoto."
"For dead's sake. Enough of this imp business. I want to . . ."
With a ripple of his cape, Solo Ki turned and cast his white orbs toward the top of Tetloan's head.
"Galimoto!" Emily cried, shocked and enraged at the same time. She too was focused on Tetloan's auburn head.
His legs crossed and his tiny red rump buried in hair, the imp Galimoto was comfortably squatting on Tetloan's head. Galimoto's claws were balled into fists, filled with clumps of Tetloan's hair.
"Where were you, Galimoto? We needed your help." Emily's finger shook at Tetloan's head.
"What are you talking about?" Tetloan said, craning his neck upwards, seeking the source of Emily's anger.
"Galimoto is sorry . . ." The imp clung to Tetloan's hair as the boy flung his head up and down, back and forth, desperately trying to track the focus of Emily and Solo Ki's pupils. " . . . but he is no fighter. Galimoto knew that if Solo Ki could not stop the demons, it would be stupid for Galimoto to even try."
Tetloan's frustration was growing, as were his thrashings.
"Whooo! This Tetloan child is more amusing than he seems."
Tetloan quickly swiped a hand across his head, knocking the imp from his perch.
"Ouch." Tetloan and Galimoto said at once, Tetloan rubbing his head while several strands of hair fell from the imps claws.
"Your Master is not alone." Solo Ki addressed the imp, who was now hovering in the air at eye level with the elf. "Who has he brought?"
"Many stinky humans," the imp said rubbing his chest from where Tetloan had struck him. "And listen to Galimoto when he says that these humans are the worst that he's ever smelled."
"You're all mad. All of you. Wait till my father . . ." Tetloan's words were mostly ignored. He had chosen to step away from the group and was now sitting at the side of the road, a puzzled look on his face as he rubbed his head.
"Especially the Alec man."
"The Destroyer?" Emily said, piping in from far below the conversation.
"Yes, Destroyer of all things fragrant," the creature said, landing on Solo Ki. He wrapped his tail around Solo Ki's arm, entwining it from shoulder to wrist where it split into a pair of curved barbs that dug into the elf's cape. A fork tongue flickered from the imp's mouth as he buried a claw into his nose. His eyes glowed yellow even in the light of day.
"You've always had a keen nose for death, Galimoto," the elf said. "But what makes your Master so certain he has succeeded?"
"Death? More like defecation," the imp chimed in from his perch atop the elf's shoulder. "Galimoto is certain. Even the Rotting Ones have a better scent," he continued, his voice muffled as claw, and finger, disappeared into his nostril.
"Then your Master has finally succeeded. But to what end?"
'You may have only succeeded in bringing about your own destruction, Red Mage.'
Emily's puffy cheeks grew flush after hearing the elf's voice inside her head. She doubted the thought had been meant for her to hear, and grew embarrassed at her intrusion, ashamed for having glimpsed the private moment of another.
"Smell for yourself, One Elf. Here comes stinky man now," the imp said, covering his nostrils.
Shortly after Galimoto smelled him, Alec came around the bend, accompanied by the red robed Brice and two figures cloaked in black, a hairy arm wrapped around each of their necks. They carried Alec between them. His long hair streaked with gray draped over his face, while his head hung limply to the ground. The pair lugged their burden, his feet dragging behind them.
"That's him?" Emily asked. "What happened to him?"
"Yeah really, is he dead or something?" Tetloan said from the roadside.
As if in response, the man burst out, "Yer dead. Yer all dead." He continued on, mumbling to himself, never bothering to lift his head.
"Children. Are you safe?" Brice approached them and was reaching out, tucking his hand beneath Emily's curls to rest it upon her cheek.
"Yes," she replied.
"Thank you," Brice said, turning to Solo Ki. The elf nodded, his pale face impassive. "Thank the gods, Galimoto found you."
"He always does, no matter how well I hide," the elf said, shrugging his bony shoulders and the imp on top of them.
"What of the boy, Whimly?"
"Because of you he's dead. You nearly killed us all."
Tetloan was on his feet and storming toward Brice. His fists were balls of flaming sapphire. Brice stepped back, his own body suddenly glowing.
"Stop it, Tetloan," Emily jumped between them, tendrils of blue light dancing at her fingertips, ready to bind him if possible, destroy him if necessary. Enraged, Tetloan was an extreme danger, his power was perhaps greater than her own and manifested without his awareness. She had stopped him once before, but barely, and the power he now held was well beyond anything she had ever faced before.
"Stop it. It wasn't his fault," she continued, hoping to deflate him with words instead. "You didn't even care about Whimly."
"No. I won't stop. He left us alone so he could find this drunkard," the freckled boy said, sneering at Alec. "He shouldn't have left us, Emily. He shouldn't have taken us in the first place. This is all his fault."
"For once, Galimoto thinks the Tetloan child is right. Brice shouldn't have taken him. If Brice is so smart, he should've known why the child's parents were so eager to be rid of him."
"Enough." The withered voice of the elf seemed to have a power all its own. First The Singularity left Tetloan, then Brice, and finally, though hesitant, Emily. Even Galimoto managed to grow silent. "Resolve this in the city. If you wish to save these children take them from these woods, now. The demons were just the beginning."
"And what of you, Solo Ki?" Brice asked.
"I would have thought you knew me better than that, Master Brice?"
"Yes, I know. You, 'no longer care to battle death.' You refuse to fight, and to live. Yet, you somehow always end up doing both. Yes, I know you very well, Solo Ki."
Solo Ki was silent. Emily gazed at the ground, occasionally shifting her large brown eyes to the face of Solo Ki. She would look at his thin, sunken features then quickly return her gaze to the earth.
"Master Brice, was it absolutely necessary to bring this man along?" The voice was masculine, gruff, and emitted from the taller of the two hooded figures who had finally arrived with their cumbersome load. "I do believe he has soiled himself along the way." The man appeared eager to drop Alec as he halted near the others. From within the black hood a pair of brown eyes alighted on Solo Ki. "You there! Elf. Drop your weapon and put your hands to your side. You will submit to the Death Guard for inspection or be condemned as infected."
Solo Ki remained unmoving, while the other shorter-blue eyed guardian turned its head to the taller one. Leaning over the now silent Alec, the shorter one began whispering to the other.
Jolting as though a dagger had been thrust into his back, Alec nearly slipped from the tall man's grasp.
"M . . . m . . . my apologies, Master Ki. I am indeed an old fool for being unaware of your presence. There is of course only one elf as venerable as yourself. I can only lower my head before you, knowing that to look upon your . . ."
"Save your praise," Solo Ki coldly interrupted. "The Death Guard is too late. Nothing you can do will alter this world's fate."
"Master Ki," the blue eyed Death Guard said, speaking with a soft, gentle voice that seemed to drip with honey. "Pardon my mentor, he often wags his tongue when he should be biting it. Please, if you have knowledge of the outbreak, anything you can tell us would greatly benefit our cause. Our leader, Dertois holds your council in the highest regard, and we would certainly do the same."
"Dertois should heed an old friend's advice and accept defeat."
"Hopeless Shal'in Ome freak." The elegant voice startled everyone, even Alec roused from his drunken slumber to watch the speaker emerge from the forest.
She had soft, smooth features. Eyes of gray and white with a head of light, iridescent hair tied into an intricate elven ponytail. Her ears were slim and pointy, striking straight toward the sun. She wore a leather jacket that reached down to her ankles and had a fluffy collar made of white and black fur. The elven woman slipped from the forest leaving the foliage around her undisturbed, somehow managing to maneuver her lithe form through the tangled mesh of branches without causing the slightest trembling of leaves. She moved with less force than a breath of air.
Emily watched the woman emerge, astounded by her beauty, her smooth, graceful features, her long curled eyelashes, and most of all, Emily marveled at the woman's flowing yellow curls. Instinctively, she tried to run her hand through her own hair, but stopped short after her fingers became ensnared in knots. Her hand came down before her face. Soiled. Filthy.
"The great Solo Ki. My how the mighty have fallen."
"Nathalia," the white-haired elf said, dipping his head.
"Nat? What arrr . . . ya doin' ere?" Alec mumbled, squinting at her.
A strand of glowing curls tumbled over her eyes.
"What? Did you really think I would just let you waltz back into the High Tower to be dissected? You're too much of a fool to protect yourself Alec, so I followed you. And when I saw who the mage had brought you to, I couldn't resist the chance to reacquaint myself with the legendary One Elf," Nathalia said, her voice light, airy, floating into the ears of the others. While she spoke she completely disregarded Alec, keeping her white eyes glued on those of Solo Ki. "It has been ages, hasn't it Shal'in Ome?"
Solo Ki didn't respond and seemed bored with the female elf.
"What a shame. Even the greatest of my kind has fallen into despair. I had hoped that at least the One Elf was beyond the Elven Death."
Her words finally elicited a reaction from Solo Ki. And though he spoke, his face was as blank as ever.
"I always told you my existence should be reviled. I'm glad you're beginning to understand"
Nathalia sneered at him.
"All I know is that the elf I once loved and longed to follow, has become a coward." She flipped back the opening of her jacket, placing her hands on her hips. The light of the sun glimmered off a pair of silver pummels and leaf shaped cross-guards. "The Graelic belongs in the hands of a true elf, Shal'in Ome. One who would wield it for the benefit of all."
Brice immediately began glowing, while the pair of Death Guards let go of Alec and hurriedly reached for their swords. Alec stood on his own, shaking, stumbling about as though the earth was shifting below him, then he reached out to Nathalia and collapsed onto his face. Galimoto muttered a curse and hid behind Brice's aura of blue.
"I am not your enemy child. Do not change that," Solo Ki said. He was watching Nathalia, his face white, devoid of emotion. Still, motionless except for the dull throbbing of blood inflating the veins on his hands; his thin skeletal fingers encased the blood red tip of his staff.
"Enemy . . . you became my enemy the day you abandoned your sons and daughters to Shal'in Ome. If you will not fight the Plague then you will have to fight me instead."
With a sparkle of light, a pair of thin single edged blades were in her hands, mirroring the sunlight with the silver orchids inlaid on their sides. Before anyone could bat an eye she leapt toward Solo Ki, skipping past a stunned Tetloan who moved to avoid her, falling back as though he were in slow motion. Moving one step for every three she took, the Death Guards managed to cut her off, standing between her and Solo Ki, their long swords held before them.
She bolted onward as though they did not exist.
They swung at her, striking simultaneously high and low. The blue eyed Guard crouched down and slashed at Nathalia's legs while the larger guard swung high with all his might -- straight toward Nathalia's chest.
Her eyes of white never leaving those of Solo Ki, she hopped, leaving the blade of the female guard to slice the air below her feet, while she fended off the attack of the other with a series of lightning quick parries, both her blades flashing out to redirect the powerful blow of his long sword. She moved in tune with his momentum, hurling herself forward, planting her foot atop the blue eyed guard's head and launching her body upwards. The man's blade swung harmlessly behind her left shoulder as she somersaulted through the air landing firmly on the earth, directly in front of Solo Ki.
Her every movement had been masterfully combined to form a single, fluid motion that -- when taken together -- had lasted no longer than the time it took for Emily to complete a breath. Stunned by her agility and speed, the Death Guards shifted behind her, reorganizing for a second strike. Meanwhile, a thin thread of blue wove through the crowd, crawling on the ground, rapidly advancing toward Nathalia's feet.
Solo Ki hadn't even blinked while Nathalia came at him. If Emily would have missed the faint bulging of his lungs beneath the folds of his cape, she would have sworn he was already dead.
"Stand down," the One Elf finally said, his eyes shifting to the Death Guards. "I do not wish for anyone to get hurt."
"Except yourself, Solo Ki. It's what you want isn't it, Shal'in Ome? The death you've longed for,” Nathalia said, the tendrils of light receding from her feet.
She attacked. A flurry of blades. A frenzy of dancing orchids and light flowing around Solo Ki. The One Elf towered over Nathalia, his head of white hair sitting high above the myriad of flashing blades. The strikes of Nathalia continued to rain down on Solo Ki, but they never found the One Elf's flesh. His staff was a spinning barrier of black and red wood that was, for all of Nathalia's best efforts, impenetrable. She fought with the skill of a true elven master -- graceful, adaptable, deadly, blending ages of knowledge and technique into one harmonious form, her movements invisible except for a blinding flow of silver light.
But Solo Ki fought with prescience as though blessed with a foresight of her actions, fighting without form, forsaking knowledge to move by instinct alone. Appearing oblivious to his opponent's presence he intercepted her every strike, his staff always a step ahead of her blades.
For a moment, his gaunt face and her golden curls were lost to Emily's sight, covered by the swirling tattered cape of Solo Ki. Then suddenly, the dirty gray and brown garment drifted to the earth, resting in a heap of folds next to the sprawled out body of Nathalia. Her swords were still in her hands, though now they were useless for Solo Ki had her pinned to the ground, his staff digging into her chest. The One Elf was standing, his face impassive, safely distanced from the range of her weapons.
Struggling against his staff, she spat at him, though even her mucus was out of range and fell harmlessly at his feet.
"You disgust me," Nathalia said, speaking in the elven tongue. "You are more powerful than an army of humans." She no longer struggled, but looked up at the One Elf, pleading, "What must I do? You would fight your children but not the Plague?"
"What choice have you left me? I cannot die willingly. To do so would make me this world's greatest enemy. You may find me formidable now, but in the undeath I would be invincible."
"Will you kill me then? What does the life of your children mean to you, One Elf?"
"Would you have killed me, Nathalia?"
Solo Ki pulled his staff off of her chest and placed the tip on the ground.
"Listen to me, all of you," he said, turning to the Death Guards who were cautiously watching Nathalia rise to her feet. "You wish to possess my knowledge? Then have it. Know that the Plague feasts upon this world. The outland cities are falling, one after another. The pack of demon hunters is merely the beginning of what has become a legion of undead."
"With all respect, Solo Ki, how can this be?" the female Death Guard said. "We have heard nothing of any such force. Disappearances yes. But a full scale assault? Surely our order would have been alerted of such a widespread infection."
"How do you know this?" Brice asked, walking past Nathalia who was sheathing her blades.
For a moment, Emily thought she saw sadness in the One Elf's cold white eyes.
"I traveled to the end of the outlands and beyond hoping to forsake this battle . . . only to find the dead had followed me there. Whoever orchestrates this war is no fool."
No, there's anger in his white eyes as well.
"In the initial attack on our world, they came at Lock Core head-on and because of it, suffered their first defeat. Though it's doubtful we could repel them again, there's no need for them to repeat such an attack. The Plague has leaked into the Seventh, and though too weak to feed directly from Lock Core it nourished itself on the Outlands. I followed it back east past the cities of Minotia, Leflan and Argor where their populations were wiped-out and their walls overrun. Though slowly, the Undeath is encompassing the land, advancing toward the great Red Wall itself."
"By the gods!" The female Guard exclaimed. "If what you say is true, we must tell our Lord, summon the entire Cure immediately."
"Dertois is well aware of the situation, and no doubt has been for some time. Though he believes the only way to stop this infection is to eliminate the source."
"And what do you believe?" Nathalia asked, retying her golden curls into an elven ponytail.
"For every source, there is a source. Eternity would end before Dertois found a beginning. As for me, my weapon, my skill, they have all been tested to their utmost and mean nothing to the vastness of the Plague."
"So what then?" Nathalia continued "You'll just wander this world, praying for death?"
"Why should I do anything? What difference will it make? After battling the Undeath for an eternity, I have grown accustomed to the fact that it cannot be defeated. Weapons are the tools of fools. Walls . . . Fleeting. Their fall an inevitability. Nothingness is the only constant in this reality. All we can do is wait until it claims us once more. Why must there be more? Why must we cling to life as though it meant something? As though it were even real? I have lived to see the sun setting on the infinite days ahead and have attained the end of all knowledge. Spare yourselves the journey, and know that the quest to understand life ends in nothingness. "
Alec was engrossed in a deep sleep on the ground, mumbling incoherently to no one in particular. The others remained silent, their eyes vacant and empty as they stared at the ground.
"Excuse me, Master Ki?" The brown, doe-like eyes of Emily gazed up at him, trembling. "Have you news from the village Havenwood? Was it attacked as well?" She nibbled her pouty lower lip, while her upper one quivered.
"I am sorry, child," he replied, his tone and features devoid of emotion. "Your Havenwood is within their path. No doubt it has already fallen."
"He lies," Tetloan suddenly interjected as Emily's eyes began filling with tears. "Lock Core would have been the first to fall. Everyone knows that. How in the dead would the army have gotten past the Red Wall without anyone knowing, even the Death Guard?"
Emily remembered where Brice had found Tetloan, his family ruled in the mountain city of Argor where a barrier of white walls and cliffs kept invaders at bay. She too wanted to deny the elf's tale, but saw only brutal honesty in the One Elf's face. Despite all his misgivings, Emily felt sympathy for the freckled Tetloan.
"You're heartless, Shal'in Ome," Nathalia said, approaching Emily and leaning into the girl, wrapping her arm around her. Emily wept into her feathered collar. "Atop the wall of Lock Core I would have followed you to my death." She hugged Emily tighter, muffling her weeping within the thick roll of black and white feathers. "Go! Leave now before you take away all hope."
Solo Ki shrugged his bony shoulders then strode past Nathalia and Emily. His eyes of white and gray ignored everyone. He looked ahead, to the winding cobblestone path leading away from Shattered Rock, disappearing as it twisted through the forest. His long strides carried him over Alec -- who was fast asleep -- stepping over his body as he would a felled log.
"No. No," Alec muttered as the elf passed over him. "I will kill you all."
For a moment the One Elf paused to look at him, then briefly closing his eyelids over orbs of gray and white he renewed his descent down the pathway. The folds of his tattered cape billowed at his back.
"Master Ki . . . Wait," The male Guard called out to him, but the elf paid him no mind and soon after vanished altogether, swallowed by the forest.
"Do not worry about Solo Ki," Brice said, standing next to the Death Guard. "He will always fight, and live. Whether he chooses to or not."
"No. No more . . ."
Everyone turned toward the source of the words. Alec was flailing about, rambling while the little red imp hovered over him, an inquisitive look on its face. One of the imp’s hands was covering his miniature nose, while the other one was poking Alec's rump with a stick.
"Stop . . . I will kill you all . . ."