-- Age of Death,
Screaming, the children ran. Startled by the activity, a flock of multi-colored birds took flight, rising to the air like a rainbow. The children were a flurry of movement, darting in all directions; hiding behind branches, atop limbs, and burying themselves in thick piles of foliage. They kept to the shadows as they fled, dodging the slivers of light that pierced the canopy like blazing spears.
Alana observed the ruckus, amazed as ever at how fast and sure-footed they moved among the limbs. Hundreds of feet above the earth, they jumped from branch to branch without the slightest hint of fear, as though only the tree existed, and they were oblivious to the distant earth below. She was also impressed by their natural agility, and how quickly they were able to scurry up the trunk. Even when footholds were scarce, they never slowed, their nimble fingers able to cling to even the most indiscernible crack.
Alana wasn’t the only one watching the spectacle; a family of the slow-moving Bolo Monkeys crept down from the branches, regarding the scene with their wide, black eyes that always seemed so sleepy and sad. But the smaller monkeys – little more than black-eyed bundles of fur – betrayed their joy by hooting along with the cries of the elven children.
Soon, the children were all settled into their chosen hiding spots, their screams transformed to muffled laughter – the only thing giving away their positions.
Alana used the lull in the activity to look around, and take it all in. The Graelic – as wondrous to her now, as the first day she arrived. The tree was a world unto itself -- a city towering to the heavens, its branches sprawling outward among the clouds. Such a lush nursery of life. Every day she uncovered a new species or plant – the tree harbored countless of both. Gardens of flowers bloomed in the massive crooks of the Great Tree’s limbs; tended by the elves, but occurring naturally as organic matter piled up through the ages, forming a lush bed of soil. The elves cultivated no crops – the tree sustained them with the fruit it bore, the melina berry. As far as Alana could tell, it was their sole source of nourishment, and was a diet that was most likely responsible for their extended life-span.
Alana thought to return to the Sanctuary with a sample of the berries, but she couldn’t escape the feeling that stealing from the tree was somehow sacrilegious.
To the elves, the tree was called the Graelic, and from what she knew of their language, the word could be interpreted to mean many things; ‘life’, ‘god’, ‘love’. But to Alana, the most apt translation was ‘holy tree’. Not only did the Graelic give the elves food, shelter, and a home, it was also their utmost symbol of spirituality -- its purity the very standard by which they existed. To them it was life, it was god, (and above all) it was love. The longer she dwelt within their land, the clearer the truth of it became to Alana. Given enough time, perhaps she would become a convert of their god, the Graelic. But time was something this world lacked. Very soon, even their Holy Tree would be corrupted by the Plague, as would the elves and all of the purity they stood for.
For many days she had watched the children play. At first she hesitated, knowing their inevitable fate and finding it cruel beyond measure to see such joy in their eyes of grey and white. She tried not to think of the coming of the Dark Army, and that she must go, abandoning them to such a hideous and untimely death. She still wasn’t sure if she possessed that kind of strength – to simply leave them, knowing they were certain to die. But Anon had taught her well, and he believed she was ready. She had to put her faith in him, and the Maker, and believe that good would come. That one day the fallen would have their vengeance and peace would once more rule the universe. To set that cycle in motion, she would do what she must.
In the beginning, she couldn’t bear to watch them, then it wasn’t long before she couldn’t bear to look away. Such peace. It was something she had never known – never thought could exist, not in the Age of Death. Up here in the Holy tree, there was only bliss. The Plague did not exist. She knew it would come, but she too wanted to feel such peace, to forget about the Plague, if for but a moment. And though she dared not partake in their games, just watching the elves left her feeling content.
Then he came.
The children’s laughter grew to a fevered pitch with his arrival. Despite her training and self-discipline, Alana found her own heart fluttering -- but for entirely different reasons. So regal, yet humble as well, she had never witnessed a male like him. In many ways, he reminded her of her brother, Gedron. Both men were Princes, powerful leaders that were imposing both physically and magically. Her brother however, had been a cold warrior -- a brutal fighter and strategist who proved his love and loyalty by the number of enemies lying dead at his feet. The Elf Prince was altogether different; he was as strong as her brother, yet in entirely different ways. And unlike Gedron, his love was his greatest strength, and he wasn’t afraid to put it on display. One look at the man, and his kindness was plain to see. Alana couldn’t help but love the sight of it, in a universe filled with death, she found the man’s ability to blend strength and love remarkable – his broad shoulders and glowing waves of hair didn’t escape her notice either.
He moved through the Graelic so silently and fast, that even with Alana’s power, she hadn’t sensed him until he was directly in front of her. There were times he seemed to vanish altogether; despite her best efforts to find him. She prayed her own presence was equally undetectable to him, but often she wondered if he knew she was there. Sometimes she swore – or maybe hoped – that he was looking right at her, possibly even sent an arrogant wink her way. She disregarded the idea as quickly as she could. If anything, it was a lapse in focus, a dream of a real life. To succeed against the Plague, she had to eliminate the idea -- tear it from her mind. In the Age of Death, war was the norm, the only real life was that of solitude and death.
She had been sent to save him, not fall in love with him. If he proved worthy, she would extract him before the death of his world. Then, she would take him before the Conclave of Elders, who would make him one of the Chosen.
The standard method to determine the Chosen was to witness their reaction during crisis – as Anon had done for her. They would be forced to watch all that they love die. Some go mad, others bloodthirsty. Only those who maintain love are saved from the Dark Army.
If he was worthy . . .
. . . he is worthy.
She had deemed it so in less than a day.
When the Dark Army came, he would rise against it, empowered not by hate or vengeance, but by his love for his people and his world. Convincing him to abandon all that he held dear – that it had been slated for death, and could not be undone – that would be Alana’s greatest challenge.
If only she could save them all. They were all worthy in her eyes. Never before had she seen beings so pure and good, she could even name a handful of Elder Gods who paled in comparison.
There was goodness within the Elf Prince, beyond a doubt. But still, she couldn’t help but wonder at the nature and true extent of his power, even after all this time among the elves, she still wasn’t sure what it was. Alana was certain he lacked the Dreamfire, but to say he was powerless would be a grave error on anyone’s part. No doubt, a great deal of his power was tied to his staff. The twisted staff seemed a part of him, never leaving his side.
Alana had heard tales of ancient weapons of power, relics of the Age of War; a time when weapons came in all shapes and sizes, and could nearly rival the strength of the Mage-lords. If his staff was one such weapon, she would be sure to bring it back to the Sanctuary as well. Perhaps the Elders would be able to unlock its secrets.
Until she knew the true power of the Elf Prince, she would have to be wary. Anon had warned her that oftentimes the Chosen do not wish to be saved. The last thing she wanted was to fight the Elf Prince.
The man came on, chasing after the children. He moved so fast that without a veil of Dreamfire covering her eyes, Alana doubted she would have seen him move. The children’s screams turned to squeals of delight as he closed in on each and every one. There was no escaping him – even the Holy Tree was on his side. Vines unfurled from the trunk, twisting around ankles and hoisting the children into the air, where they squirmed, dangling like leaves. Giggling during their mock peril, the vines then dumped the children in a thick bed of moss.
Alana found herself stifling a chuckle at the sight.
His head whipped in her direction for but a second. Alana’s heart nearly stopped as she fell under the scrutiny of his grey and white gaze. Thankfully, he moved on, playfully swatting a child who thought himself safely hidden in a mass of leaves above his head.
She would have to be more careful. She tested her veil of Dreamfire, and was confident that it was fully intact. By all logic, he should be unable to hear and see her, but even so, she had witnessed the Elf Prince’s heightened senses in the past, and knew that nothing could ever truly be hidden from the man.
She curbed her desire to sigh in relief as he continued to hunt down the children, her own hiding place seemingly secured for the moment.
The chase took them down the trunk, and Alana made the mistake of looking down at them. A mere glimpse of the distant ground below and her stomach grew instantly queasy. She had to look away, else she risked revealing herself to the elves by vomiting on them. She struggled to control her body, embarrassed that the great heights still had an effect on her. Meanwhile all around her, little children continued to leap about with reckless abandon. Even the knowledge that she could easily drift to the earth if she so desired, didn’t seem to help ease her fear of falling.
When she first started observing the children – so effortlessly fly from branch to branch – Alana had often wondered how it was they never fell, and how they lived at such heights without fear. Then she saw one fall. It was a little child, perhaps no taller than Alana’s knee. The child had most likely learned to climb before it had learned to walk. Unsteady on its feet, she could very well have been witnessing the child’s first attempt at the latter. Several adult elves were present, but to Alana’s amazement, they practically ignored the child as it stumbled from branch to branch. Alana knew what was to come, and very nearly exposed herself to avoid the inevitable. Horrified, she watched the child slip on an inclined limb. Alana was no fool, if Anon had taught her anything it was that the death of the child would come, whether it was that day or during the coming invasion. Still, she moved on instinct, drifting down the tree to catch the falling child.
But the Holy Tree beat her to the child. With a smile on its face, the infant tumbled into a newly formed net of vines. Delicately, the vines escorted the child back to its parents, who hadn’t so much as flinched during the entire ordeal.
It was then that Alana realized the symbiotic nature of the elves to their god, the Graelic. The elves nurtured and protected the tree, while at the same time the tree fed and cared for the elves as well.
In all the worlds she had traveled, she had found no purer religion. The elves and their god truly were one.
The Holy Tree and the Elf Prince had nearly rounded up all of the children, signaling that their game would soon be drawing to a close. Suddenly saddened, a sigh escaped Alana, knowing they would be entering the trunk, and that for a time she would be alone. Another world existed inside the tree, but that world continued to elude her. Somehow the Holy Tree barred her from entry. Dreamfire was useless; it merely faded to nothingness when it met the wood, defying her best efforts to gain entrance.
The children began their procession inside the trunk, and as always, she studied the Holy Tree, hoping to glimpse the secret crevice they were walking into. Once again, she saw none. Whatever magic the Holy Tree possessed, it was beyond her. As much as she felt at peace in this land, it recognized her as the outsider that she was. For in truth, her home-world had been a land of steel and stone. A place where trees and plants only grew in castle gardens, and the forests were all buried beneath layers of ruined cities.
For a moment, she lost herself in memories of Edroth -- the now lifeless planet. When she came out of her reflections, she realized the elves had all gone. She left her perch, floating down to where the children had so recently played. How she longed to frolic as they. Still practically a child herself, even in her younger years she never experienced such uninhibited freedom. Since birth, her brother and Alana had spent their days in training. A wise ruler, and powerful Dreamer, her father knew the day would come when she would need the Dreamfire to save her life. He had personally devoted a great deal of his time to train them both. And though she would never look back upon her days with her father with anything but fondness, his methods of training had been incredibly harsh and demanding. But she never doubted his reasoning then, and if she saw him now, would do nothing but thank him for all his efforts.
Alana was young for an Edrothian, but her harsh life had matured her beyond her years. As she had grown accustomed to doing, she tucked away thoughts of childish play – even resisting the temptation to lie down in the fluffy bed of moss where the Holy Tree had recently deposited the children.
She approached the trunk, her incredibly long, elegant fingers running over the deep ridges of bark. There was nothing to indicate the elves’ passage, and she knew better than to waste her Dreamfire trying to force her way in. Alone, and in defeat, she turned to leave.
The Elf Prince stood before her, calmly leaning on his twisted staff. Except for his golden hair dancing in the breeze, he was as motionless as a piece of wood.
He was tall for his kind, but compared to Alana, his grey and white eyes were no higher than her neck.
“It won’t allow you to enter,” he said, in his elven tongue.
Alana had been observing the elves long enough to pick up the majority of their language, but it was extremely complex. She had faced Dead Gods and monsters of unimaginable evil, but never before had she felt so afraid. She had longed to speak with the man, but a simple misinterpretation, and the meeting would be ruined, her first mission as a Savior would result in failure -- possibly even bloodshed.
Since she arrived on Ki'minsyllessil, she had dreamed of connecting with him, but there had always been an excuse to bar her way. Whether it was the language barrier, or a matter of timing, she always stopped short, waiting for just the right moment, praying it would come before the arrival of the Dark Army.
She wasn’t sure how to proceed; she had never done this before. All she had to go on was her own experience with Anon, and she was far less impressive than him.
Her heart beating loudly in her chest, she tried to sound authoritative and impressive.
“I am not your enemy,” she managed to respond.
Smiling broadly, he laughed in reply.
At first, she felt slighted by his casual reaction -- didn’t he know he stood before a goddess? This moment was not as she had imagined. She had always thought she would come to him in his time of darkness, to be his shining Savior. When he saw her he would be in awe, not laughing -- and certainly not laughing at her as if she were a fool girl. Her anger was rising, as were her blue flames.
All it took was a second look at his carefree smile, and she was disarmed.
“No,” he said, continuing to smirk. “Enemies of the Graelic never make it this high up. A friend you may be, but nevertheless, only the caretakers of the Holy Tree are allowed within.”
“So, have you known I was here this whole time?” Alana asked in disbelief, feeling more foolish by the moment.
“Yes. But more accurately, the Graelic knew. Being one of its vassals, I was party to the knowledge.”
“Then why allow me to continue the charade? Let me believe myself hidden?”
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying the game. But there was more to it. It’s not often visitors come to our world. And as I said, those that do, usually do not make it up this high. I was intrigued. The Graelic accepted you. Before I could accept you as well, I had to learn why . . .”
Alana had thought she was studying him, but all along she had been the one with something to prove. She wondered how much of this Anon had foreseen. Of course Anon had known the elf was worthy, that had never actually been her quest. To get close to the Elf Prince, that was her true mission. And to do so, she had to prove herself. Anon had known this would be so, and wisely, he had sent Alana, because she was the purest of all the gods.
“ . . . to be a part of my people, I had to know for myself that you were worthy.”
“And . . . What have you discerned?” Alana asked, more than a little hesitant to hear the reply. She worried that Anon erred in choosing her, and that she couldn’t possibly live up to the purity of these elves.
The Elf Prince shattered her fears with a hearty laugh.
“Thus far, you have done your best to make sure I cannot ‘discern’ much of you at all. If I thought you were simply a spy, we would not be having this conversation. I very much doubt, you would even be in the Graelic, no matter the powers you possess. Your heart is kind; I have seen enough to know that is certain. But your purpose here, that leaves me with doubt. No . . .”
The shadows bent to his will, cloaking him in darkness. Alana realized it was the tree; the branches were moving to protect him – or fight at his side.
“ . . . it fills me with dread,” he continued. “Please, tell me. Why have you come?”
Did she dare? This wasn’t how it was done. Did she really wish to return from her first mission a failure?
The Elf Prince stood before her, so handsome and strong. Even with the greatest Dreamfire she couldn’t know what was to come. He was pure and good, she had known that since the first day she saw him. He deserved the truth, all of it. She wouldn’t lie to him, she couldn’t. Nor would she simply step aside and let his people die. He had to know what was coming . . .
He must have sensed her reply was grim, for the darkness tightened around him. The branches hung in the air, menacing, as though they would crush her at any moment.
“Tell me, Prince Adros . . . what do you know of the Plague?”
Freedom . . . What did it mean to a Dead God? Finally, there could be an end to the Hunger. It had been so long, and now it was so close.
How many worlds had he drained to get here? How many wars had he fought? The Hunger had been with him since the beginning, he was Makii. A Dead God. Lord Imorbis.
Because of him, the Plague had spread throughout all of the Maker’s creation. Those who resisted suffered certain death . . . those who accepted him, suffered a fate far worse. They became slaves to the Hunger, and found their immortality came with a price: to be bound to Lord Imorbis and his campaign for the duration of their existence. Together, they traveled the Darkbridge, devouring world after world, his army growing stronger and larger with each fallen world.
There was a time when Imorbis claimed the souls of all he conquered. That was in the beginning, when he actually fought a war with the Living. Now, that war was long since won. No longer was there any confederation of worlds to stand against the Makii. No grand offensive to drive them back into the Darkbridge and burn their home-world to dust. Their best laid plans had all failed, and no matter how many worlds united against them; the army of the Makii perpetually grew in numbers while their enemies’ forces eventually dwindled to nothing.
Imorbis was the first to come to the realization that their victory over the living was meaningless, and that the true enemy to the Makii was the Hunger. With the battle won, and his enemies scarce, Lord Imorbis was left with a vast army to feed, and very little to nourish them. Living planets became hard to come by – and often abandoned when found. Enslaved to the Hunger, Lord Imorbis was forced to press on, his new campaign begun not for conquest but for starvation.
Eventually, the weakest of his army withered to near death, and he gladly abandoned them on the Dead Worlds. Rarely did he replenish his fallen ranks, and did so only when he found a champion worthy of the blood on one of the conquered worlds. But Imorbis was no fool, even before the war had ended he had seen the truth – those of the Blood would always be hungry, no amount of life would satisfy that. In anticipation of this, he had even formed a truce with the Living. To continue feeding on the worlds, Lord Imorbis the Bringer of Death promised peace.
But to possess the world he now beheld would make such promises meaningless. This world was life. He felt it all around him. Even deep below his feet he sensed its pulse. Clearly, even in the air above, where the branches covered the sky like clouds. In all of the worlds he had conquered, never before had he found such a life-force. To possess its power would make him truly a god, immortal. Satisfy his hunger for all time.
The indigenous population decided to stay and protect it . . . all the better. There was a power in them as well that could prove equally satisfying. Lord Imorbis was nearly salivating to find out exactly what it was.
Because of the prize, Imorbis had summoned twelve of his Brethren, as well as four hundred thousand of the Risen dead, and one hundred thousand of the Initiated. He meant to take the tree by the time this planet's sun had set.
How wrong he had been.
Numbering around ten times the amount of defenders, he thought his army of the Risen ones could swarm the tree and end it at that, but to his surprise, the tree itself took up the fight, its branches moving to ensnare and smash the lumbering beings before many could even make it to the trunk. And those that did, fell by the thousands as the protectors fired upon them with simple wooden arrows from atop the branches.
He sent in the Initiated.
Unlike the Risen, they weren't mindlessly consumed by the Hunger, and could function intelligently. Some of the older ones were even quite strong, nearly equal to the Brethren themselves. The branches came at them, too slow. The speed of the Initiated was enhanced by the Virus, allowing them to easily outmaneuver the slow moving branches. Some fell from the arrows, but they fired back with their own dark powers sending the protectors back up the tree. The Risen and the Dead Gods could tap into the Void, wielding death at their fingertips. Known as the demon wind, the dark power normally disintegrated living flesh. But oddly, the elves hit by the dark power seemed unaffected, and were able to scramble upward to safety. Accompanied by a solid throng of the Risen, the Initiated continued in pursuit. They found the protectors calmly awaiting them, simple wooden spears in their hands.
He knew his forces had been baited and trapped, but before he could relay orders the trap was sprung. As before, the Initiated threw their dark force upon them, again it had no effect, simply washing over their lanky forms. The protectors charged right through the wall of blackness and fell upon the undead with their spears.
To the Dead God's amazement, his Initiated seemed not only matched in speed but outdone in skill, and in moments they began to collapse, raining down from the tree.
"These Elfin fight well," the Lord Imorbis said in a hollow whisper.
He grinned. Black cracks spread across his alabaster face.
He cared nothing for his fallen forces – with their deaths, all the more life for the Brethren to feast upon. Besides, after this battle was won he would no longer have need of an army, no need for battle. This would be his last fight.
“Let us see what the Elfin are truly capable of,” he said to his fellow Makii, who were anxiously awaiting the promised feast.
Covered in waves of black, Imorbis’ body rippled, and in moments they were in the thick of the battle.
Impressive, he thought as the elves gathered and cautiously came at the group of Makii. Typically the living merely fell before him; his power stealing their life-force the moment they entered his presence. But these protectors stood, unharmed and unafraid.
No matter, the Dark God thought. There are many ways to kill with the Dark Power.
And Lord Imorbis knew them all.
He crafted a blade of black steel with his power. Every cell in his body had long since been overtaken by the Plague. It had hardened his flesh into something stronger than any known element, and unlike the lesser Initiated, it was impenetrable to even a silver edge. With the demon wind he could control his cells; enhance his speed and strength, or even turn his body into a weapon. For this fight, he did them all. The blade of demon wind became as sharp as he willed it -- which meant it passed through stone and steel as easily as air, while his body was impossibly fast and strong. The elves proved to be skilled opponents indeed, but against the Makii and their Dark Power, the protectors' flesh parted for the black blades.
Two came at him. A head of golden hair fell from one's body, while the other lost an arm, then leg, and was finally cut in half for good measure. More came at him and fell the same, their wood sticks severed in two as easily as their soft flesh. He finished an exceptionally tall one of the beings when another came before him; a crown of vines wrapped around his head, in his hands another wooden staff, this one tinged red at the tip and had what looked like thin wisps of smoke rising from it as though the creature recently plucked it from a fire. The being's eyes of white and gray stared down the Dead God unflinching.
Imorbis smiled as the creature came at him, knowing this one to be their leader, and that with his fall the battle would be won.
The Dead God summoned the demon wind to its fullest, his blade a blur as it shot toward the elf. Remarkably, the being managed to raise the staff in time to block his attack. To the Dead God’s shock, his blade didn’t continue on, splitting staff, crown, and skull as he would expect. But instead, it came to a dead stop, resting harmlessly against the staff.
Imorbis had but a moment to wonder at his failure before the the elf came on, his spinning staff nearly too fast for even Imorbis to block. Incredibly, the staff withstood his black steel no matter how much he willed the wood to split. In fact, his staff not only deflected the black blade but weakened it every time they met, stealing the Dead God's own power much like he took life from the living. Imorbis found himself slowing each time the weapons met, and his opponent was skilled as well, anticipating every counterstrike Imorbis thought to send. He knew that very soon, the staff would work its way through his defenses, and that he would finally be freed of the Hunger – in the true death.
He hadn’t come so far, and gotten so close to fail now . . .
Imorbis had survived for the span of a thousand lives by learning to adapt to the unexpected. And in all that time he had never known failure.
His blade vanished. He channeled all of his power into his fists, and struck out - not caring whether the creature blocked him or not - hoping the sheer force of the attack would break him. His fists slammed forward, easily intercepted by the other’s staff of wood. The combatants cried out as one; the Dead God’s scream an ear-splitting shriek, while the other’s more of a hollow groan.
The Dead God looked down at his hands -- saw only blackened stumps from which his infected blood poured. His opponent lay crumpled against a branch, his staff smoldering at his feet. In his anger and pain he meant to finish the being off, but then he sensed another presence -- surely an Elder God -- and began to worry his own existence was in jeopardy.
Had the Elders anticipated his betrayal? Their numbers were growing, had they decided to forfeit the truce?
He sensed the attack was imminent, but before he could summon a barrier of his own dark power, the Elder God had him encased in blue flames. Though they didn’t immediately destroy him, nevertheless, the pain they caused forced him to his knees. In that moment of weakness, he hadn’t seen his fallen foe rise to his feet. He was only dimly aware that the being drew near, his staff smoking in his hands. The Elder was at his side – a woman, taller than even the elf, her silver hair engulfed in blue flames. Imorbis found himself backpedaling as the elf brought the blood-ringed staff to bear on his head.
The Dead God never dreamed such pain existed. His own twisted life-force drained away. The protector held on to his staff even as smoke started to rise from the flesh of his hands. Imorbis was all but drained by the time the being let his weapon fall.
Still covered in blue flames, the Dead God fell too -- hundreds of feet from the tree. His body crumpled as it slammed into the base. Barely able to roll onto his back, he looked up and watched as his army was obliterated high above the branches. Much later, Lord Imorbis of the Makii found enough energy to crawl his way back to the Rift on broken and bloodied limbs.
No single world – no hundreds of worlds, had ever defeated him. Despite his failure, he wouldn't abandon that life-force. Drained as he was, he needed it now more than ever. There was no shortage of Makii within the Darkbridge. And they too had vast armies. The prize could be shared. It most certainly had to be taken. When they learned a chance to be freed from the Hunger was at stake, a million worlds would answer his call. Together they would feed from the tree, the so-called Graelic,
Imorbis would return, bringing with him enough of an army powerful enough to bury these Elves, and blanket their world in death until the end of time.
And when it was over, he would stand high atop the Graelic, at long last free of the Hunger.