The Archenon. It was truly a palace. Its splendor and beauty unsurpassed by any structure Brice had ever set foot in -- and he had been within Lock Core's best. Born to a long line of wealthy merchants, a family tree steeped with riches, Brice had spent his childhood surrounded in luxury. But, the Archenon was, even to him, extravagant.
Brice suspected their guide, the bald-headed elf, X'ander had chosen to take them through the palace's scenic route, ensuring that the trio witnessed the full grandeur of all the Archenon had to offer. Needless to say, the elf succeeded in his goal, inspiring awe in both Brice and the pair of Death Guards.
Their tour began by passing beneath the ten foot thick wall that was, in X'ander's words, the Archenon's 'outer shell'. Its first line of defense. As he had expected, once within, Brice saw that the interior of the curtain wall not only had a walkway lining its top, but a stone stairway leading to a midlevel causeway which was likewise lined with crossbowmen and arrow slits. As far as Brice could tell, there was just the one portal through the Outer Shell, and while walking through it, he could see that, if need be, it could be quickly sealed. For poised above the entry were five iron gates ready to descend at the slightest sign of trouble. And should they fail, beyond them was a pair of massive wooden doors that, when shut, could be easily reinforced and buttressed against any outward aggression. By all appearances, the Outer Shell was heavily fortified. After seeing what lay within, it was obvious to Brice why Rafe kept it so.
They entered the courtyard, or as their guide called it, 'the garden', and immediately their senses were assaulted. The courtyard was filled with vibrant colors, a rainbow of foliage spreading out before them. Considering the numerous plants, the color green was, surprisingly, one of the least visible colors. Its presence diminished by the plethora of red, orange and yellow hues. Also, Brice was overwhelmed with the various scents wafting through the garden. The bouquet of aroma filled the air like a cloud of incense, making his nose run and his eyes tear up as though he was, indeed, surrounded in smoke.
But, perhaps most assaulting, or insulting, was the sight of the fountain which greeted their entry. It was a statue gilded with silver, shaped into the form of a man. With his right hand glowing in the sun, he proudly thrust a sword toward the heavens, defying the very gods to face him. However, with his left hand, he grabbed the glimmering figure between his legs, aimed at the pool below and urinated.
"What a ridiculous waste of ore." Theodorous scoffed, looking at the figure.
"I think the piece makes a fine statement," Bri Lynn replied.
"And what might that be, Apprentice?"
"He seems to be raising a challenge to the gods, adding further insult by urinating upon the world they provide."
"I still think the silver would be better served on blades. Why anger the gods anyway? Isn't the Plague enough to deal with, why incur their wrath?"
"But that's the artist's point. Silver alone won't save us, we could cover ourselves in it, but without the gods we’re still standing in our own piss."
The pair continued to argue the statue's merit, while Brice used the momentary lull to further study their surroundings.
He marveled at the wide variety of creatures roaming about the garden. Strange and exotic birds strutted down the pathways or perched within the branches, filling the trio's ears with a clamor of melodies. His mouth dropped in awe as one of the larger species of birds spread its feathers, displaying a vast rainbow of colors that had previously been concealed beneath a pair of black wings. A smile almost crept onto his face at the sheer beauty of it all, but then he remembered Whimly and grew somber once more.
"That's an odd sort of creature?" Theodorous said, having finally concluded his debate. He was pointing to a small furry beast hanging from a tree limb by its tail.
The creature swayed back and forth for a while then grabbed hold of the tree and slowly crawled away along the branch's underbelly.
"I believe it's called a Timber Monkey, and can be found far to the south, in the jungle forests where the Gorian range can only be seen in memory," their guide explained.
"I've never heard of such a thing. Despite the obvious differences, it appears almost . . . humanoid."
"There does exist a vast world beyond the outlands, Master Ross. One that cannot be found in the Ancients' texts. Though it is, for the most part wild and uncharted."
The elven eyes focused on Brice. He felt X'ander probing at the outskirts of his mind.
"The good Master Brice would certainly be able to tell you of such things. His mind is full of tales. After all, his father made a career out of exploring our world. Isn't that right, Master Brice?"
"You knew my father?"
"We met on occasion."
'Perhaps even aided in some of his explorations.'
"I heard he was a skilled merchant and a brave warrior. It was said he had died well at Lock Core. There are many who have achieved far less."
Brice would have liked to probe him further, but his bald head turned, and the elf changed the subject, relating the history of several oblong, spike covered plants. X'ander spent some time briefing them on dozens of other flora and fauna, each more colorful and exotic than the next. After a brief stay in the aviary of predatory birds, the elf guided them to the forty foot wide moat which encircled the central tower.
They crossed it by way of a small ferry. A pair of heavily armed soldiers guided them over the black water with incredibly long wooden poles. At the other side of the moat, a sentry post full of archers was raised high above the ground and below it was the enormous arched entrance into the palace. Brice craned his neck upwards as their raft drifted closer, noting how the spire high atop the keep sparkled in the presence of the sun.
Silver? He wondered, astounded by what it would cost to build such a structure.
Nearing the entry, the trio saw a series of huge iron gears partially hidden within the building's interior. The gears, they soon learned, were used to raise and lower a bridge resting at the bottom of the brackish water. The elf said, that if needed, they could quickly adapt the bridge to accommodate a sudden influx of heavy traffic or loads of supplies. Otherwise, the only ways into the keep were to float or swim. Brice was amazed to see that operating the hoist was a gray bearded Boulder Dwarf -- whom he quickly recognized as the very same being who had nearly plowed him over when he had first come upon the Wayward Inn.
In the dwarf's giant hand was a hammer, which was, in human terms, a maul. There was no doubt in Brice's mind that the object could be used with tremendous effectiveness as either a tool or a weapon. With a simple tap, the dwarf could crush a human's skull.
"I see you've noticed our gatekeeper, Master Brice. Gunt's our last line of defense. Anything that makes it past the moat must deal with him."
They secured the raft along the shore and were greeted by more guards, and after a brief explanation by the elf they were once more on their way through the Archenon. A red carpet led them into the palace itself and into, what X'ander proudly referred to as, 'the Great Hall'. As soon as they entered the tower all three of them looked upwards in awe.
Sprouting through the center of the chamber was a spiral staircase of iron wrapping around what must have, at one point, been an enormous tree, but now served as the centerpiece of the entire palace. The bark ridges running up the trunk were as thick as Brice, and though leafless and rotting, the tree reached the apex of the tower's interior, nearly bursting through the arched rib shaped trusses well over twenty stories up. The majority of its limbs ended in splinters, but even these fractured branches were thicker than the largest trees Brice had ever seen -- even those of the Brentwood, where the elves lived among the branches.
In order to see the top of the trunk, Brice had to squint.
A stone stairway followed the wall, gradually meandering upwards through the tower's many levels. Lavish tapestries covered the walls of each floor, while displayed along the wall of the main level, the intimate moments of lovers were frozen for all time to see in granite friezes, most of which depicted images more erotic than artistic and at the sight of them, Bri Lynn's speckled cheeks reddened.
The elf led them straight toward the gigantic tree where, hidden in the weave and shadows of its many exposed roots, they saw a cleft in its base, a split in the trunk large enough for even a Boulder Dwarf to squeeze through. For the trio of humans, the hole was cavernous, allowing them to walk side by side with the elf. A pathway of sconces holding amber light guided their way through a twisting maze of roots. The air was damp. Moldy. Suffocating to breathe. Brice stifled a cough within his golden lace.
Other than the occasional soldier, they passed very few people, though Brice could sense that many others were present, wandering through the roots toward their own destinations.
At last the path ended at a wooden stairway carved from the tree itself. Looking upward, Brice saw a distant circle of light, as bright as a brother moon, shinning down upon them. As the light trickled down, Brice felt as though he was standing at the bottom of some deep pit hundreds of feet within the earth. Except for the light above, everything was dead and black, nothing but shadows and a cylindrical trunk forever rising toward the light. The wall was alive with motion, hundreds of shadows scurrying up and down its dark tube shaped interior. They joined the shadows, climbing up its hollow trunk.
"The Great Tree houses those loyal to the Lord Rafe," X'ander briefly explained. "It was my Lord Adros' gift to your human king, for it is said that after the human world fell to the Plague, Adros felt responsible for its death. Thus, saddened by his failure, he gave Lord Archenon a piece of his own world. At that day the Great Tree was planted and has, as we elves say, 'been growing, or dying', ever since."
X'ander quickened his pace, taking them up the stairs two per step. By the time they had reached their destination the humans were breathless and exhausted, but at long last they had found Rafe.
The elf ended their journey at a pair of heavy wooden doors, hand carved with an emblem of a fanged and scale covered beast belching forth what appeared to be flames. Within its blazing breath, a cloaked figure stood, holding back the beast's flames with an upheld shield.
"This is where I leave you," X'ander said, dipping his bald head at them. Without issuing a further farewell, he promptly departed, leaving the trio alone at the doorstep to the king of the underworld.
"Should we knock?" Theodorous asked, looking puzzled as he tugged his mustache.
Brice shrugged his shoulders then reached out to tap it with his knuckles. His flesh met the wood, and shimmering beneath a haze of blue, the door creaked open.
"Welcome, Master Brice," a figure standing in the center of the room called out, his voice boisterous, practically leaping from the air and grabbing hold of them.
Rafe's back was to them and was rippling with sinews from beneath a tight fur rimmed vest. His arms were golden brown and contoured with shadows from his many bulging muscles. Though his physique was incredible, the man stood no taller than a child, barely reaching four feet. The diminutive man stared forward to where a shiny black globe -- no larger than a fist -- sat on a pedestal of white marble. Encasing the globe was a barrier of shimmering azure flames.
The trio cautiously entered the narrow hallway plastered with what appeared to be implements of war; blades, armor, shields etched with elaborate runes of both silver and gold. Some were made of stranger metals (red and white steel), or even stone. Others were blades of pure glowing crystal, and shields of flickering red energy similar to mage-fire. And then there were other weapons, strange boxes covered in alien glyphs, shiny steel tubes that resonated with a low humming sound, and many other strange unidentifiable items of unknown origin.
Several feet behind them, the small muscular being stood motionless. On each hip, a leather holster held a metallic black handle fixed to a hollow tube. The trio drew closer to him -- he seemed even shorter than before -- while the black object in front began to swell as if sensing their presence.
"What do you think of it, Master Brice?" he asked the mage, his words spoken with an underlying edge of fierceness. He continued studying the object, not bothering to wait for a reply. "In the Age of War, with devices such as this the common soldier was nearly equal to a mage. Nearly. Your Order proved their superiority by drowning us in oceans of blood. And afterward, to further weaken us, they had the gall to banish such things. Keeping the power to kill as their own. The Blood Born they called themselves. Purebloods. Damned Mage-lords. They proved themselves to be the greatest weapons of all."
He reached out with his little hands, letting his fingers brush against the barrier of blue, lightning sparks arching across his fingernails.
"The only weapon of the age became the Singularity, with it they ruled uncontested for a millennium. Some would say this was an age of peace, others an age of slavery. Whatever the case, in the end the Magi were the only ones capable of destroying the Order. With the birth of the Plague, things instantly changed. The Magi that survived were no match for their undead brethren, their Oneness failed to put an end to the so-called immortality of the Dead Gods. The worlds needed their weapons once more."
Brice had thought the object was solid, for it shone like polished steel, but suddenly it moved like fluid, becoming misshapen as it followed Rafe's fingers along the shield of mage-fire.
"Unfortunately, only a handful of these weapons remained, smuggled down through the ages. Many tried to replicate them, but usually such efforts ended in disaster. There was simply too little time to recreate a technology birthed from thousands of years of war. The Plague spread too quick. In the end, the races were left with but two simple methods; silver and fire."
“So?" Theodorus asked "What in the dead does that thing do?"
"Hah, why kill of course. How to control it? Now that's the real question. That's why I had the barrier made, surely you can see it, Master Brice?"
"It's hard to miss. The power it must have taken to make it . . . very impressive."
"Yes, it took three of your kind. The red ones. Unfortunately they perished not long after. It seems that just to be in the object's presence means death. I have many such relics in my collections, during the Exodus collecting them became a passion of mine. Actually, given my situation, a sort of necessity. But, much like the black globe, their use remains a mystery."
The Exodus? What are you.
"If only I knew what they did, perhaps then we might have a fighting chance."
The man turned.
Except for his muscular physique he looked . . . like a child. An adolescent boy.
"After Lock Core, I came here where I quickly made a name for myself as a thief and assassin for hire. The War was a dark time in the history of the Seventh, but the years after . . . a never-ending night," he said, speaking with the gruff voice of a man.
"It seems you've weathered the night very well," Brice replied.
The man laughed.
"Yes, Master Brice. I am and always have been but a thief. But this Chopa business. That's something altogether different. I merely control it, limit its growth. But never do I profit from it. Without my input, this city would be consumed by it. Why, I even leave your new found friends Alec and Nathalia to disrupt it as they may, without any real repercussions for their actions."
"I've seen for myself how chopa is openly sold on the streets of Shattered Rock. If your power over this city is as complete as I have heard, then why let such madness continue?"
"Chopa will come to Shattered Rock whether I wish it or no. If I don't disperse it in small drops, then it will come in a flood. Be thankful, Master Brice that I do control chopa. Ah, but come now, Red Mage. What do you think of my collection?" he said, pausing in thought. "No doubt unimpressed I would guess. How can I blame you, considering you've witnessed the Graelic in action." The man-child lowered his head in mock sadness. "If only that weapon blessed my collection. But alas," he said laughing. "In order to have it, I would first have to pry it from the One Elf's grasp." His laughter grew until his body shook. "Even I am not that good of a thief."
"Lord Rafe . . ." Bri Lynn said, her tone somber and her cheeks flush.
With a wave of his hand, the man-child dismissed Bri Lynn from speaking further.
"I know what you're going to say, Lady Bri, and you're right. You're not here to be lectured in weapon history. I know why you've come. There's an army of undead heading our way, and you want me to rally the city. Lead Shattered Rock to war. Maybe even lead them to victory."
Bri Lynn nodded her head of short blond hair.
"You're right of course, my dear, this town needs a leader. But I'm sure Master Theodorous would agree that I'm not right for the job. I could of course, drive them to battle at knife point, but what good would they be to us then?" He pulled a curved sword with a hilt made of bone from off the wall and held it in front of his face, marveling at the markings covering the silver, scythe-shaped blade. Then, brushing his finger along its edge he said, "I would make them a herd of cattle driven to the slaughter."
"We should have known better than to ask a murderer for help," Theodorous whispered to Brice who did his best to ignore the comment.
"No. I will not lead this city to its death. After all. How will I continue to weather the night without it?"
With his gaze focused on Brice, he walked closer to the trio. As he did so, Brice saw that his eyes were emerald green and even sparkled like the precious ore.
"No, not me," the man-child continued, staring up at Brice with his gem like eyes. "What this city needs is a hero, someone who can give them hope. Someone they would follow wholeheartedly, even if he led them into the mouth of the Rift. I think you know of whom I speak, Master Brice."
He didn't want to say it.
"Yes, the Destroyer. The one man in all of known history who was able to repel the Horde."
The burden he must bear . . . Anymore and he will be crushed.
"I am afraid that Alec has been through a great deal and I have my doubts that he will be willing to accept such a destiny," Brice replied. "Besides which, I have only begun to understand the nature of his power. It may very well be as devastating to us as it is to the undead. Much as it was during the battle at Lock Core."
"We've all been through hard times, Master Brice, yourself included. No longer can we afford to be sympathetic. For him they will fight. And I'm certain that together, you and I will make him a hero, whether Alec wants to be one or not."
I've already led one human to his death.
Doubt - The possibility that Alec would die.
How many more must follow?
Terror - The possibility that he would take the entire city with him.
"The man's a drunkard," Theodorous added. "And with his power . . ." His moustache quavered. "He will kill us all!"
"What choice do we have?" Bri Lynn said flatly. "Our best chance for success lies in a coordinated front. Lord Rafe knows this city better than anyone. If he believes these people will fight for the Destroyer, then we must consider his wisdom in this matter. If the city cannot work as one then the failure of all is inevitable."
"I suppose you're right, apprentice, I would much rather follow a drunk than an assassin . . ." Theodorous immediately whipped his head toward the man-child, fearing he may have offended the strange Lord. "I meant no offense, Lord Rafe."
"None taken," he said, though his tone was sharper than ever. "Unlike some murderers, I've never masked my chosen profession."
Luckily for everyone, Theodorous was unable to grasp the insult. Nevertheless, Bri Lynn was ready to disarm her mentor should he suddenly realize that the honor of their order had been put to question by an assassin.
Rafe turned to Brice and continued, "What say you, Master Brice? Are you ready to craft a hero?"
Sparkling, the emerald eyes sought an answer, but Brice had none. Nor did it matter, for he had already been out voted.
"Where do we start?" Brice asked.
"I'm way ahead of you, Red Mage. It has already begun."
The city of Lock Core was vast. A dense maze of roads and alleyways spread from the great Red Wall like roots from the base of a Brentwood elm. The northern quarter, having been decimated by the Destroyer, continued to lie in ruins for the general population refused to near the blackened crater where the city's greatest monuments once stood. Some claimed that the presence of those slain in the blast lingered on, haunting the area in a ghostly form of undeath.
Now, along the outskirts of the devastation, Lady Katrina moved through the shadows of toppled walls and skeletal structures of scorched framework, keeping her black wig fixed to her head by tugging it downward. A shawl of black lace hung over her fox fur covered neck and shoulders while the rest of her tattooed frame was hidden beneath a blue robe. She moved with haste, familiar with the landscape and guide posts of rubble and debris marking the path before her. Nearing a small rectangular building of stone she paused, scanning the path behind her from beneath a pair of long black eyelashes before ducking within the building's crack riddled walls. Creatures scurried into the shadows as she entered, hiding within the crumbling walls and pieces of decaying furniture. A tiny blur of fur leapt through a ray of light cast from a gap in the ceiling, darting through the light only to disappear beneath a fallen beam. In the corner of the room a soiled and stained mattress rested. Nestled in the foul padding, an eyeless doll stared outward, her silk stuffing oozing down her face like maggots from a corpse's skull. Katrina averted her green eyed gaze, choosing instead to watch a blizzard of dust particles sparkle as they drifted into the ray of light, knowing it wouldn't be long before her presence was felt.
"Greetings, my Lady . . . my Lady . . . my Lady."
At first there were only the voices, disembodied, three childlike whispers echoing one another from amidst the darkness of the room. Then they appeared. First the elder child -- her body transparent and ethereal, the beams of light from above slicing right through her. She was a child with golden hair, no taller than Katrina's neck. Within the halo of curls, Katrina could see the tips of her pointed ears and forced herself to keep her eyes on the child even as the girl's white orbs threatened to burrow into her soul. Shortly after the elder child took form, her younger siblings came into view as well. The middle child was named Imigin, and looked a great deal like her elder sister, though thinner, with shorter hair and not quite as tall. The youngest of them however, was half their height, plump, entirely bald and possessed a white eyed gaze that Katrina could not bear to behold. Instinctively Katrina brushed her nails across her own clean shaven head, reminding herself that she had nothing to fear from the ghostly trio for they were bound as allies through a sisterhood of horrors.
"Have you news of my husband?" She asked, recovered from her initial shock of their appearance.
"The demon eludes our sight," they replied, echoing one another. "He is beyond our vision now, moving through darkness."
Where have you gone to, LeCynic?
After initiating the steady death march of warrior prisoners into the Rift, her husband had suddenly vanished, leaving a fearful and crushed Council of Races to ponder his latest evil machination. Of the prisoners and her husband, there had been no word. Katrina had hoped the eyes of the elven sisters could have seen what she could not, but apparently her husband’s journey into darkness had brought him beyond even them.
What in the dead are you up to now?
Some saw his disappearance as a good sign, praying that he had finally paid for his sins at the tip of an assassin's blade. But Katrina knew better. Her own numerous plots against him had all met with disaster while her anguish only increased with her efforts. She was certain now that her husband could read her mind, or at the very least anticipate her thoughts -- thus her growing need to entice his advisor Onk into her service. For all of his cowardice and stupidity, the advisor had one remarkable talent -- his ability to become invisible, even from the eyes of his Lord. The man was, after all, a master spy, hand chosen from the Order by LeCynic himself due solely to his ability to be undetectable. Persuading the man to betray his lord was an irritating task to say the least, not to mention the fact that many of her previous failures to assassinate LeCynic were a direct result of his snooping. He was far too fearful of LeCynic's wrath to do the deed himself, therefore, Katrina's only hope lay in the possibility that she could at least persuade him to enlist the services of someone capable of the task, all while maintaining his powers of stealth.
"And the efforts of Onk? Have we achieved any progress?" Katrina asked.
The smallest child, whose name was simply Bell, floated forward and replied, "His attempts to summon the assassin Rafe remain unheeded. Something is amiss in the west my lady, we fear the assassin may be lost."
LeCynic . . .
"We can only assume his death was at the Demon's hands," the elder child, Carillign, said, drifting to her sister's side.
Katrina could speculate on the atrocities LeCynic had inflicted on the elven sisters, atrocities which had driven them to suicide, though she tried not to bring such dark thoughts into her mind. One thing she did know, it was within this room that LeCynic had enforced his horrors on them, and that whatever he had done, it had damned them for eternity, forcing them to live lusting for life and lusting for vengeance, cravings which could never be satiated. If they could kill him themselves they would, but unfortunately their touch drained life, which was something LeCynic did not possess. Therefore they needed a link with the living as much as Katrina needed their link with the undeath. Together, the women combined their resources to bring about the annihilation of the demon LeCynic.
"There is another matter we wish to report,” Imigin, the middle child, said.
"Yes?" Katrina turned to the girl, unable to discern from her stony expression whether it was good news or bad.
"Our eyes on the Red Mage assure us that he nears his objective."
It took a moment for Katrina to comprehend the message, but when she finally did, her eyes instantly widened.
"He has found the Destroyer?" she responded with amazement.
"Yes . . . yes . . . yes."
She had nearly forgotten about the young mage and his quest. After all, it had been years since she had heard from him, even the Order no longer uttered his name in their punch lines. The man had almost ceased to exist, lost to the world in a foolish quest. At one time the man was all the Order cared to discuss. His ideas and beliefs had caused quite a raucous within the Magi's hierarchy, a disruption that nearly ended with the man's dismissal from the Order.
Then Katrina stepped in. Having heard his speeches, heard him proclaim his understanding of the Destroyer's power and his ability to teach the man to control it, Katrina's mind began spinning with the ways in which she would direct such devastation. She approached him in secret, convincing him that she felt a passion for his cause that was similar to his own and conscripting him into service, providing him will all the necessary resources the man would need to carry out his quest. That had been over three years ago. She had begun to believe he would never succeed, but now . . .
"However . . . ever . . . ever . . . he too remains in darkness, hidden in the west."
"Then the west is where our fates lay. It seems there's little we can do now but wait."
"We wait till the light shines in the west once more, then we shall see . . ."
Anxious to leave the meeting with the ghostly trio, Katrina nodded her bald head in thanks then turned to leave. She froze mid-step. Barring the doorway was the youngest child, Bell. Katrina made the mistake of looking into her white eyes and felt paralyzed under her gaze. She stood immobile as the small elf approached her. A delicate little hand reached out to Katerina -- her mind screamed at her to move, knowing that the child’s touch meant certain death. The hand rested softly on her belly. There was no pain. No death. For the first time in a long, long while, Katrina felt peace.
“Sometimes good can arise from evil,” the elf child said. “But to make it so, there must be love. Find love Katrina. If you fail to do so, the demon most certainly will win.”
Overcome by tears, Katrina doubled over. All the suffering at her husband’s hands, all the pain and the horror began to make sense. She refused to share his bed, but the Demon had forced his seed upon her in another, even more horrible way.
Knowing what he was, and what he had done, could she ever love his child?
As was custom, all combatants remained at the field of battle, awaiting the Death Guard's inspection. It had been an hour since Drau'd had finished off the last of LeCynic's corrupted guards. Though he was certain all the dead were thoroughly dead -- having seen to the duty personally -- he did his due diligence along with the rest of his troupe and waited in single file formation under the shadow of the Rift.
Finally, a slumping, white-robed figure appeared, accompanied by an army of black masked killers. The High Mage Nicola had chosen to personally lead the procession of Death Guards, which -- judging by their numbers -- seemed to be every last one. Apparently Nicola was taking no chances with this latest discovery, not to mention that she no longer felt it necessary to hide her role as Commander of the Death Guard, which had previously been a secret shared by only Drau'd and a select few.
She approached him, her single blue eye as beautiful as ever, shining like a jewel in the light of the setting sun.
"What transpired here, Stone Master?" she demanded, wasting no time on pleasantries.
"The Keeper's dogs proved rabid, so we put them down, my Lady."
To his left were Rian and his forty-two young soldiers. At his right stood Lobar and Harple -- his eyes fiercer than ever. From there the line continued to run northward, a ragged group of Boulder Dwarves, humans, and elves, nearly four hundred strong.
"Yes, so I see," Nicola said, turning her blue eye to the now smoldering pyre of dead flesh. "We apologize for not being here sooner. When we heard of the infection, eliminating the remnants of the Keeper's Guard became essential. And, as I'm sure you're aware, eradicating them was no simple matter."
While they talked, Nicola's hooded companions began their inspection of the survivors.
"What of LeCynic? Please tell me you were able to get to that bastard," Drua'd boomed.
"Unfortunately no. We've been monitoring him for some time, truth be told. But it wasn't until the meeting of the Council of Races that my fears were confirmed. We now believe he not only entered the Black Door prior to the War of Lock Core but that in doing so he became infected."
"What are you telling me? That all of this is because of him, the war, the hole in Lock Core?"
Drua'd felt his anger rising once more and suddenly felt compelled to squash something with Hell's Bane.
Drau'd waited, hoping she would say more, and when she failed to elaborate, thundered, "So where in the dead is he?"
"It seems he's planning something in the Outlands, possibly building an army much like we now fear he has been doing with the Rift. A large contingent of his Guard has disappeared as well, likely moving to join him in the Outlands."
"What in the dead do we do now?"
"We do what we've always done, Stone Master, we guard the Rift," Nicola plainly stated, air hissing from the hole in her cheek. Without further words she reached out to him with her remaining charred hand and then meticulously began to inspect his massive body for infection.