" 'All that is, was once nothing. And nothing can avoid returning from where it came,'" Brice began, quoting the words of Adros. "A fact that was true for the Purebloods as well. Empowered with the very essence of reality, these Gods foresaw many things -- including the end to their own existence. Knowing they were bound to this fate and unable to alter the laws governing their own existence, they sought to create something that was eternal and capable of outlasting even them. It was their hope that in the embodiment of their creation they could at last achieve some sense of immortality.
"The universe was theirs to command, their power could move mountains, empty oceans. All the worlds they joined together with a single thread. Yet eventually entire worlds they possessed ceased to be, consumed by the very star that gave them life, or destroyed in some random, cataclysmic event. Meanwhile, like all things they themselves began to decay. They realized there was another power at work far greater than their Oneness, a gap which even they could not cross. They named it the Void. It was the limit to their power which barred them from the infinite. This Void reclaimed all. It was the ultimate power. To achieve victory meant either possessing or surpassing it.
"Let me guess, one of their experiments was the Plague?"
"Yes," Brice replied, his eyes shifting to the floor. He continued, though now he spoke though a faltering grin. "Though in a way, I believe that to them, we were already dead. At any moment any life could be forsaken, without warning, without reason, and without purpose. Entire races could vanish in an instant and for what? When viewed through this perspective, existence itself was a failure. For the Pureblood, the only true solution, the only permanent escape from the Void was to create the living death and thus they circumvented the problem altogether. They redefined the concepts of life, death and immortality. For them, the Plague is the embodiment of all."
As he spoke, the lamplight glowed off his silky skin and golden lace.
"So that's what this is all about? They wish to start over with the Undeath? We're a mistake?"
A new pitcher of ale arrived at the table.
"Yes, some did. Though others did not. Unfortunately for us, those who would see us dead had a greater voice. It was they, the Dead Gods who unleashed the Plague. The others, the Elder Gods, they viewed immortality in a different light. For them, the true path was creation, an ability the Plague seemed to lack. For the Plague could only steal life, not replicate it. A major flaw in the Dead Gods' plan.
The Elders saw this flaw as well. That coupled with the living proof of just how far advanced the races had become since the days of the Origin Race, proved to them that the true path was evolution, to continually advance humanoid life in seemingly infinite ways. They bred their children to be their betters, as did their children and their children up until this very day. The evolutionary possibilities are endless. They thought that perhaps one day a progeny would evolve with the power to stand before the Plague. Even defeat it. It is my belief they finally succeeded in you."
There was a moment of silence as Alec took a swig of his drink.
"Wow. By dead, I'm a goddamn god," Alec said, his voice calm though his words were somewhat slurred.
"Well then. That just about solves everything. If only I could control my power we'd be in good shape."
"Such things can be learned. The Order feared accessing your abilities."
No kidding Smiley.
"But I am willing to take the risk. I'm not afraid."
He set his mug on the table. "Well . . . Brice, is it?"
The mage slowly nodded.
"If you were at Lock Core then you know what I'm about. I must say you're a brave man to be sittin with me. Not many folks like to be around me. Can't says I blame em. I thank you kindly for the drinks, and the tale, and I do sincerely hope you seal that Rift."
No longer bothering with the mug, Alec two-handed the pitcher. After it was empty he continued on.
"But I do think it's time I be going. Huh . . ." He started to rise then paused. He looked past Brice, then rubbing his eyes said, "Am I that drunk?"
"What is it?" Brice asked, scrunching his forehead.
"This thing you found, was it a kinda little devil lookin . . . red . . . little guy?"
"Yes . . . how did you . . ?"
"Galimoto?" His face a mixture of confusion and rage, Brice turned his head and found Galimoto hovering before him. Panting and wild eyed, the imp's chest was heaving while he struggled to flap his wings.
Brice leapt to his feet, toppling his chair and causing many of the bar's patrons, the Death Guards in particular, to cast looks in his direction. Alec shook his head.
"Demons . . . Children . . . The elf." Galimoto plummeted to the earth, but was saved by Brice's outstretched hand. Nestled in Brice's palm, the imp managed to voice a few more words before his eyes closed, "The One Elf."
"Solo Ki?" Brice pondered to himself.
"Solo Ki . . .?" Alec mumbled between belches. "Nathalia's mention'd that name before."
Desperate for another round, Alec was working on catching the serving girl's attention when he noticed a pair of figures standing beside him. Feeling suddenly queasy, he looked up to find a pair of executioner hoods looming over him.
The stench of rot had grown so powerful that even LeCynic's decaying senses were overwhelmed by it.
The blood slicked floor and walls were the only further confirmation that he needed. It was the crypt of one of the original Keepers. A man none remembered nor cared for, who had lived by the name Brontes. Until LeCynic's ventures through the Crypt his name and achievements had been entirely forgotten. Then he was altogether erased, for shortly after the discovery of his tomb, LeCynic had ensured that every indication of the man's existence had been destroyed. Now, beyond the confines of LeCynic's mind the man would never be thought of again.
The chamber had been cleared of the man's once cherished possessions -- those with value were sold, while everything else was incinerated. No longer a tomb, the room now served many other functions; play room, prison, torture chamber, and laboratory. This far below the Gorian, LeCynic was free to function as he wished.
LeCynic entered the room, immediately encountering Hollabrand, the dwarven servant and former Caretaker of the Crypt. The dwarf looked up at him, his left eye black and swollen to twice its size, while a trail of pus oozed from the socket on his right side.
'I trust all is well?' LeCynic questioned, filling his lungs with the rooms aroma. Lacking vocal chords and functioning eardrums, communication with Hollabrand flowed smoother when conducted telepathically.
The dwarf hesitated a moment before replying, 'No Master. The darlings you've brought though strong and ripe, failed to reproduce as expected. The seed germinated, yes, but there were latter . . . unexpected complications.'
'See for yourself, Master.'
The dwarf bowed, exposing the gray matter of his brain through a gaping hole in the back of his head, then he stepped out of LeCynic's way.
Once the chamber had been stuffed with treasures, now the room housed rows of straw-filled mattresses caked with human feces and blood, several of which yet dripped with the red liquid having been freshly spilt. It was toward those beds that LeCynic went.
'A difficult task, Master. Giving birth to the dead.'
LeCynic didn't want to hear about difficulties. He had to succeed in this. Ever since he first stepped foot into the Black Door, something was growing inside him. Initially, his power limited its growth, but little by little it expanded within him. He fully enjoyed the power it gave him, but lately he was becoming aware of the cost such power took upon his flesh. He feared that soon, neither the power, nor his own body would be his own. He would be possessed by the darkness within him. Already, he saw the dark power’s toll in his most loyal guards. Being weaker than LeCynic, little remained of their original identities. If he failed in this, he would become as lifeless as they.
Only one thing seemed to cleanse the darkness – the power of the Destroyer. That’s why recreating it was essential for LeCynic. It did seem a difficult task, if not impossible. But he had never backed down from the impossible before, and now with the power he possessed was there anything he could not do?
LeCynic vowed that, once he is cured, he fully intends to take the battle back into the Black Door. And this time, the entire Seventh World will be his to command. And his new, elite army will be there as well; prisoners and vagrants transformed into highly trained soldiers, bound to him by blood.
He would have his vengeance on the being that threatened to extinguish his life, and prove that he was not one to be so easily defeated.
But first, he needed the Seventh World to be his.
Within the pile of gore strewn on top of the beds it was difficult to distinguish specific shapes. It wasn't until LeCynic was standing at the foot of one of them that the 'complications' which Hollabrand spoke of became apparent. As far as LeCynic could discern, the girl's womb had ruptured, the force of which was yet displayed on the ceiling and adjacent wall. Many of the smaller chunks resisted gravity's pull, oozing to the floor much slower than the larger bits of flesh.
Pity, he thought, regarding the girl's remains without compassion.
Able to survive the rupture, momentarily anyways, the child had lived while her newborn creation emerged -- a disease that quickly began feasting on its mother's flesh. Over time, her flesh decomposed and her bones turned to mush, even the shackles at her wrists and ankles fell away, the mere weight of them enough to tear through her festering limbs.
'I see,' LeCynic coldly stated. 'These ones were something else, but what though?'
'Unfortunately, Master, we will never know. As you thought, there is a unique blood code necessary to make the Shadowed Dead.'
'And a unique blood code for the Destroyer as well. There's a purpose to all of them. First we must find out what it is and then we can begin to exploit it.’
'Of course, Master,' Hollabrand said, approaching LeCynic with an empty vial in one arm, a small curved blade in the other.
Unbuttoning his collar, LeCynic bent down, the black vein on his neck throbbing as if in anticipation.
'If all goes well you'll have new subjects within the changing moons. My army grows fat off these outland cities. Soon, I’ll be ready for Shattered Rock, and if rumors hold true we may have him once more.'
The dwarf beamed with the possibilities. Even in life Hollabrand had been a demon, which was why LeCynic knew he was perfect for this task.
'I cannot wait.'
LeCynic's swollen vein deflated as the blade bit into it, allowing a stream of black blood to flow down his neck, slow like pus.
'How much today, Master?' the dwarf asked, replacing the blade with the vial.
'Keep the vials coming, Hollabrand. The demand for Chopa grows daily. Soon enough they will join us, we may not even have to kill them.'
Yellow liquid dripped from the dwarf's right eye like tears.
Had he known the way back, Onk would have immediately turned and fled. As it was, he suffered the horrors within the chamber, silently waiting as the Demon LeCynic inspected his many failed experiments.
If a human could cast a shadow in the utter darkness of night, it would be them. The demons. The trio of dark silhouettes turned their empty faces toward the avalanche of blue fire that was the incarnation of Emily's rage. The torrent of power cascaded down upon them as they stood over Whimly, who had ceased writhing on the ground though blisters continued to rise from his flesh.
To the onlookers; the one-armed man and his companions, it appeared as though all of the earthly elements had arisen before them to strike out as one against the demons. Fire, earth, water and wind came together to form a boiling wall of magma and ice that heaved into the air, sucking the ground from beneath their feet as it grew, towering high above all who were present as well as the surrounding forest.
The travelers tumbled to the ground as the force raged on. Even the demons lost their footing, wavering momentarily on their dark, liquid like legs, unable to move as the wall collapsed, burying them beneath a mountain of fire and ice.
Emily fell to her knees, exhausted. Her head sagged to the earth while her power was reduced to a trickle of light curling on her skin. A teardrop dripped from her eye and splashed on the gravel road.
"Whimly . . ."
She raised her head to find a heap of melted rock smoldering where Whimly's rotting corpse once rested.
There were voices in the air, on her ears and in her head, but she couldn't hear.
"Quickly, finish them. We can't let them remain to spread the Plague."
Blades of silver bit into the flesh of those who were, just moments ago, friends, lovers, family members. The one-armed man and his fellow survivors decapitated their fallen companions without hesitation; carving them up as though they were butchers preparing a feast.
"Grab the girl. Hurry! She may have injured them, but be assured that they yet live," the one-armed man said as he thrust his sword into the chest of one of his fallen companions, gouts of dark liquid sprayed upwards as he buried the tip of his blade and then twisted his wrist.
A pair of strong hands took hold of Emily and scooped her into the air.
"Come on, child," the man who grabbed her said, throwing her over his shoulder. Her curly black locks tumbled down his back as she hung there; limp, her chin jostling against his ribcage as he ran.
She saw the earth moving below her, a dark smear of gravel and grass. Lifting her head, she watched the battle scene shrink, the mound of rock she created compressing to the size of a pebble -- and from that pebble three dark shapes emerged, slowly pulling free of the solid mass of earth. She wanted to cry out in warning. Alert the survivors to the demons' reemergence. But instead of a shout, all she could muster was a moan. Dangling over the man's shoulder, she watched and moaned as the demons gave chase, their bodies growing larger and darker the longer she looked.
"They're gaining." Emily recognized the gruff voice of the one-armed man. She couldn't see him as he spoke the words, but in the next instant she passed him and could see him standing still, his sword upheld as he faced the oncoming demons. "Flee for your lives. One of us must make it to Shattered Rock. One of us must live to warn the world."
The demons rounded a bend in the road, and, like a wave of darkness they flowed toward the one-armed man.
"Fight well, Bradford," the man carrying her whispered. "From this world to the next."
Her powers were extinguished, her energy gone. In its absence the darkness became impenetrable. Bradford, the one-armed soldier, was lost to her sight, his final battle hidden by the veil of night. Though she could no longer bear witness to his struggle, she could see it unfolding in her mind and was certain of two things. One of which was the knowledge that Bradford had fought well. The other . . .
She forced that thought from her mind
Emily and the others left Bradford to his fate, obeying his final command. They fled.
The ground continued moving below her, while occasionally she would lift her head, attempting to peek into the darkness behind them. But at such times she failed to distinguish shapes within the night. For all she knew the demons were far behind, or at their heels. She couldn't tell. Time and space lost all meaning, for to her there was only the darkness.
Her human transport continued carrying her, her head bouncing in tune to his heavy breathing.
Her vision returned, it happened slowly, gradually. Gaining focus as the arc of fire grew on the horizon, creeping into the night and stealing the darkness from the Seventh World. She felt empowered by the light of day, relieved to have survived the night.
“I must rest," the man said, and suddenly the ground no longer moved below. He swung her from his back, depositing her upon a boulder at the side of the road. "I cannot continue," he said as he sat on the ground, gasping for breath.
She lifted her head. Looking around with her new found sight she suddenly realized that they were alone. The other survivors were nowhere to be found, nor were the demons. She didn't know who had left whom. Had the others continued on, abandoning their encumbered companion? Or had the man carrying her continued running, while one by one his friends were taken by the night? Either way, she didn't have long to ponder the situation for moments after they sat down, the trio of demons returned, carving their way through space, appearing darker than ever in the light of day.
"I'm sorry, child," the man said, lurching to his feet. "Run if you can, my legs can no longer carry me. They are rooted here. Forever."
He drew a dagger from his belt and as the trio of demons approached he yelled, "To the dead with you. To the dead with us all!"
Fingers reached out to him like wisps of smoke grasping at flames. Before the dark fingers could take hold, he drew his dagger upwards and into his throat, ending his life before the demons could.
Emily tried to get to her feet, but stumbled instead, falling to her knees upon the ground while the trio of demons surrounded her. Looming over her, she was covered in darkness, unable to distinguish where their shadows ended and their bodies began. She looked up -- a single strand of blue light tumbling from her lower lip -- and watched as the fingers crept ever closer to her flesh . . . slowly . . . until she burned from their touch.
Her veins filled with fire. From her mouth came an endless scream while her vision clouded over in shadow. Through the fog filling her mind she saw a figure emerge, a blur of brown rippling before her, wielding a rod of white fire which swallowed the surrounding darkness. She also heard a familiar voice falling on her ears, calling out her name, "Emily? Emily? They've infected her. We should kill her now, before she becomes one of them." Somewhere, very near, Tetloan cast his sentence.
The fog lifted from her eyes and she found herself staring into a pair of dull orbs, white surrounded in gray. They were the eyes of an elf, though they were lackluster as those of a corpse.
"Humans . . . So little patience," the elf spoke, his words rolling from his lips, gracefully, even though his voice was jagged and rasping.
Tetloan looked at him blankly.
"This child will not die. Not today anyway. She's strong. Even though she is human,"
'Strong as a pureblood elf,' the voice continued, though his lips hadn't moved.
"She fights the infection like few can. A gifted child indeed."
Though his ears were pointed, as were all elves, the tips were slumped over and drooping to the earth.
"Whimly?" The name was a stone, plummeting from her plump lips.
She looked into the elven eyes and found nothing, they reflected neither light nor sympathy. Just looking at them made her heart grow cold.
"Don't you remember what you did?" Tetloan asked.
She did remember, clearly.
"It was incredible. You buried him, and the demons, beneath an entire mountain."
She lifted her head, the curls of her hair were clumps of knots, and turned to find the freckled face of Tetloan grinning at her.
"How did you do that, Emily? Not even the Destroyer could have matched that. Not even Adros himself . . ."
"Enough!" The elf's head darted toward Tetloan. His expression continued to defy emotion, yet despite his lack of apparent rage, Tetloan was silenced. Emily was thankful for the elf's intervention, though she wished she had the power to stifle him herself.
As the fire inside her dwindled, her senses returned and she realized that she was floating high above the head of Tetloan, suspended in the air by the arms of the elf. His long bony fingers nearly wrapped around her entire body. She almost panicked, almost leapt from his grip for after closer observation she couldn't help noticing how skeletal the elf actually seemed. His face was pallid, sunken. His skin was translucent and stretched over his skull so severely that Emily believed a single cut on his cheek would be enough to split open his entire face. The elf's body was thin, she could feel the bones of his arms grinding against her skin and could see -- even though masked by the flows and ripples of his cape -- that his body was nothing but skin and bone.
She recovered from the initial shock of his appearance after noticing his hair -- which was woven into an elven ponytail and reached down to his lower back--and that it was whiter than bones bleached by the sun. Though she had only met a few elves in her life, Emily knew that they all shared certain traits which marked them as members of their race. For one, their incredible height which was well over a foot taller than the average human. Also, their eyes, the pupils of white encased in gray, an indication of their heightened sight. Another common trait of the elves was their ears, pointed and jutting toward the sky. Lastly, and most remarkable was their hair, iridescent and golden, the hair of an elf had a light of its own. Emily knew for certain that this elf wasn't inflicted with the undeath, though he was vastly different from any elf she had ever seen or heard of. Even for a race of immortals, this elf was old.
The color of his hair hinted at it, as did his drooping ears, but for Emily, it was his eyes that truly gave it away. The coldness in their white, burning like frostbite. From the chill they sent, crawling up Emily's spine, she knew . . .
This elf was ancient.
"Who are you?" Emily asked, her voice a weak squeak emanating from within his cradled arms. She gazed up at him, her eyes wide and full of wonder.
"I am Solo Ki."
'I am the One Elf.’