-- End of the Age of Death,
The Seventh World
The One Elf never truly slept. Even when his eyes were closed, and his mind was lost in dreams, a primal part of his mind would be forever alert, conscious of its surroundings and the threat of danger. Those that found the courage to near him, assumed he was asleep – or possibly dead – so still was the man as he leaned on his gnarled staff. None dared to draw close enough to see if he yet breathed. But his breath was so slow and measured, that even up close, it would be unperceivable. And if they thought to investigate further, to touch him . . . the primal mind would be unleashed -- instincts born from ages of war.
On this night, there was one who did dare to come near. A being half real, half dream approached him in both worlds.
Hands brushed his face. So soft and comforting, even the primal mind was put at ease. Lost in a dream, his unconscious mind waited for an alarm, a call to action, but there was none. The only sound was a gentle whisper in his ear, ‘I knew one way or another I’d get you to fight, Shal’in Ome.’
She seemed so real in the dream – his one true child. But when he awoke, there was nothing --nothing but the hate in his heart. Of the young elf, only her blades remained, safely tucked against his hips.
“Shal’in Ome no longer, Nathalia,” he replied to the emptiness around him.
For many years, his singular desire had been to end his suffering – but no more. Before he found peace in death, he needed one thing first – revenge. For him, the journey from the charred ruins of Shattered Rock didn’t end at Lock Core. He would enter the Black Door and then . . . home. Those who would dare to stop him shall fall, whether they are living or the dead. One way or another he would make it back, back to the Dead Tree for one final chance at redemption.
Hate, it was all he had left, and he would carry it with him, from this world to the next, to the end of all time.
As his battle with the Plague began, so too would it end – on his home-world Ki'minsyllessil . . .
-- Age of Death,
For so long he dared not utter the word. With the arrival of the gods to Ki'minsyllessil the elves had hope once more.
The last to leave the cave, Adros gave a brief and hopefully final glance at his former shelter. The caverns were certainly not as comfortable and pleasant as his true home the Graelic had once been. But still, he had to admit that living below the earth hadn’t been as terrible as he had imagined. There was beauty within the earth. The entry chamber was but one of the subterranean marvels. In his quest to feed the children, Adros had found many such chambers, deep underground. Some of which were quite vast; giant fields of crystals with stalactite towers. Having lived his entire life far above the earth, the beauty below was something he had not expected to find. It was also something he would never forget, for it was perhaps the last thing of beauty left in his once wondrous world.
Despite the beauty of the subterranean chambers, he was glad to be leaving them, for the children’s sake if nothing more. For Adros, only death remained. He would return to his rightful home and confront the result of his failure. No matter what was to come of his journey, he would be content knowing his race would live on. Perhaps one day they would rejoin the fight against the Dead Tree, but for now, they would be safe with the Gods. Alana told him of their world; a place free of the Plague. There they could find peace, for a time at least.
The procession moved out, and Adros fell into the back of the line. As usual, at his side was the bald-headed child, X’ander. His white eyes were as dull and lifeless as the day he found him, and they remained fixed in the direction of the Dead Tree. He imagined the boy would be terrified to head in the Dead Tree’s direction, but he showed no emotion at all. Adros often feared he had merely saved the boy’s flesh and left his soul back at the Dead Tree. The lackluster sheen of his eyes made it was obvious that something was missing from the child -- and darkness took its place. Though not necessarily possessed by evil, the boy was inflicted with more of an emptiness. He did what he was expected to do, with no emotional investment on his part, as if he was merely going through the motions of life, but not actually living -- like an elven golem or a steel automaton of the old science. The truth was that Adros had freed him far too late. Sometimes, he wondered if the boy would’ve been better off left to the Dead Tree.
But now there was hope. And there was Anon. If half of Alana’s tales of the man were to be believed, then anything was possible -- even X’ander’s recovery.
Alana had spoken often of the man; a being as full of love as he was power. She loved the man as a father, and had a respect for him that bordered on worship. Adros would follow the man to the Rift on Alana’s word alone. But he would probably do so, even without her endorsement, for he sensed a kindred spirit in the man. The man had a selfless nature that nearly made him nonexistent. To say his life was not his own would be an understatement. Like Adros, his life was theirs – the children’s. To see life continue, and nurtured towards goodness, that was both men’s sole reason for existing.
Having met the man, Adros now felt even closer to his love, Alana. Clearly, she was the ultimate achievement of the Elder God’s existence. With the mere mention of her name, he saw his own sense of loss reflected in Anon’s eyes.
Alana . . .
Adros, on the other hand, had proven a disappointment, and failure to her. She had put such faith in him and his people. So much so, that she threw her own life away to follow him. He badly wished to leave with the children and the Gods, but even if he could find her, how would he ever prove himself worthy of her love?
Such hate yet filled his heart that he doubted he could even face her. What a monster he had become. Though he couldn’t be infected, the Plague had made him evil nonetheless, turned him into a savage killer. And Alana . . . forever so pure. Perhaps one day he would find, and face her again; when at last he satisfied the hate in his heart, and had regained his home-world and his honor. But to do so, he had to defeat the Dead Tree, a task that most likely will lead to his death.
No. The children can have hope, but he had to seal his heart, for he would never see Alana again.
Adros kept a vigilant guard as the procession moved on, his keen elven eyes studying the landscape for the slightest sign of danger. The safety of the rocky earth was far to their backs, the colossal black roots of the Dead Tree had taken their place. Adros knew from experience that any moment the roots could come alive, either to entangle, or smash those they deemed an enemy. But with his King’s Wood staff, he knew they wouldn’t dare strike him. His staff was perhaps the only thing capable of controlling the Graelic. Thought to be a sapling of the Great Tree itself, King’s Wood had always had such a power, though previously it had been a way to heal, and nurture the Great Tree. Now, Adros had to find a way to use the King’s Wood to destroy it.
His senses tuned to danger, Adros continued to survey the land. He really wasn’t worried about a direct strike from the Dead Tree; Anon’s white light seemed to whither any root that drew near, while Adros sent the more brazen roots away with a thought. What he feared, was that perhaps some Lifeless remained, or even worse, that they had been summoned back in defense of the Dead Tree. He half expected to see the entire Dark Army emerge from behind a giant root and overwhelm them all. He had seen the army with his own eyes, and indeed, by all appearances it had encompassed his entire world. If it returned in full force, neither Anon’s light nor Adros’ staff could stop it from devouring them.
His senses grew sharper. His instincts had kept him alive when all others fell, and now they told him danger was near. He searched the land, but found only darkened roots. Yet, he couldn’t deny that danger was out there. And suddenly, it was closer still.
He had to move.
Trusting to his instincts, he dove to the ground. He felt a wave of heat at his back, singeing his cape. Coming out of the roll, he spun, preparing to strike his attacker. A pit of charred earth marked his previous location.
Like an extension of his will, X’ander was already in motion. Being an elf child, X’ander was nearly as tall as the attacker – one of Anon’s supposed gods. But the child was far more agile. And having only trained in hand-to-hand combat, he had a supreme advantage over the god; who believed himself more than capable of defeating a child. But the god knew only magic, and what little fighting experience he had did not account for the ability of the elves. It took X’ander but a second to reach the god. Then, after a deft kick to his ankle, the ‘god’ was tripping over his own feet. X’ander proceeded to finish him off with a powerful double palm strike to the man’s sternum, causing the man to collapse in a helpless heap. Without a second thought, the elf child moved on to the next god – for suddenly the number of beings covered in blue flames were multiplying in the back of the procession.
Adros had trained X’ander well. He was truly a lethal fighter, if he fell, it would be at great expense to his enemies.
But Adros was the ultimate killer. In combat he had no equal. Against him even the gods fall.
Another god thought to strike him with his power, but before he completed the thought, Adros was on him. His staff was ten feet away, then, with one fluid motion the butt end of it was slamming into the man’s forehead. Knocked out cold, the god’s power was extinguished.
As one, the gods attacked him. Arcs of blue flame came hurtling at him from every direction. He took his time, concentrating on a pathway through them. He held his body in check until they had all but encompassed him. Then he dove through the air, his body contorting in impossible ways to avoid every last thread of blue light. As he dove, he managed to swing his staff in an arc. His feet landed softly on the earth, while his staff landed with a loud ‘crack’ on a god’s head.
Knowing he had landed a vicious blow, he didn’t bother to see what became of her, but immediately moved to his next attacker. From the corner of his eye, he saw X’ander fall, snared in a net of flames.
“Betrayers!” he shouted in his elven tongue.
No longer bothering to dance with the gods’ blue flames, he came at his next target head on. A pyre of flames came his way, but to the god’s shock, his power evaporated the moment it met Adros’ King’s Wood. Seconds later, that god was lying unconscious at Adros’ feet. Coils of blue-tinged smoke drifted from Adros’ staff.
Then, it was over.
His mind on fire, Adros stumbled. The only thing keeping him on his feet was his staff. Then it too was gone, and Adros fell to the earth.
‘I will kill you tree-brother,’ Adros said, unable to voice the words, but knowing the god would hear his thoughts.
It took all his strength just to look up, and when he did, he saw that Ostedes held the staff of King’s Wood in his branch-like hand.
‘FEAR NOT ELF PRINCE. YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE SAFE, AS WILL YOUR STAFF. AND FOR YOU, I WILL GRANT YOU THE DEATH YOU SEEK. YOU MAY GO TO YOUR TREE, BUT THE STAFF COMES WITH US.’
Adros felt the darkness creeping in, his mind slipping to unconsciousness.
‘No, Betrayer, you will kill us all.’
Then, the darkness took everything.
Beneath the canopy of the Dead Tree, Anon’s halo was the only source of light. Through the darkness Anon walked, his body surrounded in a glowing ball of white fire. Giant roots rose up before him, attempting to obstruct his path, but Anon sent his power outward, searing a path straight through. Birthed from the darkness, black vines came darting at him from all directions. His halo flared, incinerating them before they came anywhere near his flesh.
In his right hand, he held the staff of King’s Wood. But for Anon, it was nothing more than a twisted walking staff. Whatever power it held, was only available to those of elven descent – elven royalty most likely. Even if Ostedes managed to steal it away to the Sanctuary, it would have been useless to the Elders. The secret to unlocking its power was simple: one needed to have elven blood. Even the Elders could not alter their own genetic codes, no matter how strong their ability to manipulate the Oneness. Like a fool, Ostedes had risked all for nothing. Once again, Anon found himself on a mission to correct the errors of one of his Children.
He had been in the shadow of the Dead Tree for what seemed like an eternity. He was beginning to think the giant tree was unreachable, merely a mirage in the distant and dark horizon. With such a massive object, it was difficult to judge the distance. He wanted to think he was nearing the trunk, but the more he walked the tree only grew bigger. Anon worried that perhaps its size was without limit; that eventually the trunk and the darkness would become one, and he would be forever lost within it.
He also worried about his own limits. Every step he took was a battle; roots reared up to smash him, vines to grab him, and branches to tear him apart. Thus far, the Maker was with him all the while, his power burning the Dead Tree’s limbs as though they were kindling. But what if the trunk of the Dead Tree was days away, or weeks? What then? And should his power last that long, what new challenge would he encounter there? The trunk of the Dead Tree reached the clouds, possibly the stars. Ascending it, he would have to fight for every inch.
He needed to clear his mind, if for but a moment.
A wave of energy spread out from Anon, burning any element of the Dead Tree for a half mile radius. He had to think, and to reexamine the logic of his direct assault on the tree. The landscape was to haphazard to risk teleportation, and he was unfamiliar with his destination as well. Most likely, he would arrive with half his body fused to a root. Enhancing his speed was possible, but could the Maker’s fire keep up with the pace? Besides, the smaller vines seemed as quick as he. And if he failed to burn or avoid them in time, he could easily find himself entangled. If that happened, he would surely make it to the Dead Tree, but in the same helpless fashion as Prince Adros.
As he pondered his options, he sensed the branches closing in on him once more. He was about to risk all and continue on his path to the Dead Tree, when the branches suddenly stopped.
Something else was out there. A presence he knew all too well.
No more games.
Anon became a pillar of flames, a faceless giant of white fire. Putting his faith in the Maker, he decided to risk teleportation.
The being was before him, its broken body hunched over. Even beneath his flames, the being was but a shadow. This one deserved no words, only death. Hands of flame wrapped around its body and squeezed.
“Truly, I am sorry, Anon,” the being managed to whisper as its body began to be crushed. “Please. It had to be. Surely, if you trust to the Maker, then I beg you to see his path.”
In the presence of Lord Imorbis, even the Maker’s path seemed shadowed.
Anon’s voice didn’t originate from his body, but from the air around him.
“You used us to remove Prince Adros from the cave. To separate him from his staff. All along you knew this would come to pass.”
“Yes, Anon, it’s true. I knew the probability of it, and indeed, I aided in its course.”
“THEN YOU DIE!”
Dead flesh began to burn.
“Anon, wait!” Imorbis managed to scream before he was consumed.
Anon wished nothing more than to watch the Dead God burn, but his power was gone. The Maker had left him.
“The Dead Tree would have taken him whether I helped him or no,” Imorbis continued, relieved to no longer be burning. The Dead God didn’t realize Anon was now powerless, and thought he was merely holding it back to hear Imorbis’ final plea. “It was not I, but the tree-man who sent you to ruin. It’s true I played my part, but for reasons you do not know.”
What was the Dead God up to? And why had the Maker left him?
Anon was stunned, helpless.
Did Imorbis have the power to silence the Maker? Or more likely, had Anon left the Maker’s path?
But surely, this one deserved death.
“I need you, Anon. We know you have found the Maker, and walk with him. Many of my Brethren thought the only way our victory would ever be complete was with your death. Countless Brethen sought to fulfill this belief by facing you in battle. All died at your hands. And with each death, your legend grew.”
If he tested Anon now, he would be the first to succeed.
“Is that what you want from me? To test my power? That in your defeat you will accept the Maker?”
The Dead God chuckled.
“No, Anon. I know the Maker is real. The Void proved it to be so.”
“Then what is it you want from me, Imorbis?”
“I need a miracle. Strange it may sound, but to succeed in your quest; I need to infect you, and you to heal me.”
Anon wanted to say that he was immune to the Plague, and that he could not be infected. But that was when he walked with the Maker. Now . . .
“I cannot heal you. Newly infected can recover, but one such as yourself . . .”
“I’ve crafted my destiny and accept what I have become. What I need you to do is free me from another.”
“The Dead Tree . . .”
“Yes, Anon. The Brethren are not entirely immune to it. It grows within me as well. I resist its will, but for how long? Eventually the being known as Imorbis will be no more, and only the Void will remain. That is why I stayed on this world; to find a way to cure the Dead Tree’s infection. It was known you would come. And so I waited for your arrival, knowing that what I ask for, only the Maker can provide. I need you to cleanse me of the Void. If you promise to do so, I will help you. I will give you the blessing of my blood.”
“What makes you think I would desire such a ‘blessing’?”
“Because, Anon. If you do not, the Dead Tree will never allow you within.”
Was this the Maker’s path? Or the Dead God’s trick?
Anon had always lived with the certainty that he was in the right, but now with the Maker absent, the only certainty was that he would no longer be fighting his way to the Dead Tree. There was but one path to the trunk.
“If you wish to near the Elf Prince, then there is no other way. To save him, you must die.”
Anon’s hand was soft flesh. He held it defenseless before Imorbis -- who lustfully took a bite.
The walls throbbed, pumping out a thick black liquid as though they were a massive open wound. They even reeked as such; flooding the chamber with the scent of rotting flesh. At one point, Adros dared to touch it, hoping that his power to commune with the Graelic would somehow transfer to the corrupted Dead Tree. It was a mistake; and his one and only attempt at escape. He had tried to reach out to the tree, laid his palm on the dripping wall. Immediately he sensed the Tree, and the pure evil within. He felt its hunger, not merely to feed off of life, but to destroy all that is. It bombarded him with images of his people; their flesh pealing, their bodies ruptured and torn to pieces. That was its feast – utter destruction. The Dead Tree thought to drown Adros in the horror of its existence, to drive him mad with the mere thought of what it was capable of. But the Elf Prince was already possessed by madness, steeled by the hate in his heart; he faced the horrors, unflinching.
The interior of the Graelic once conformed to the needs of his people, a living city. With a thought, even a child could move walls. Elder elves could create structures of great beauty, statues and murals with such detail and realism they seemed to hold breath and life within. In order to see it to perfection, some elves spent their lives on a single piece of work -- nearly a millennium. For his people, the Graelic was a canvas for their minds; living art shaped with thoughts.
With the staff of King’s Wood, anything was possible. The craft of elven artisans may have appeared to live, but the line of kings could actually give life to their creations. These Golems, had been the greatest of the Graelic’s guardians. Though, like the tree itself, eventually they too succumbed to the infection, becoming rotting hulks of misshapen wood. Before the battle was lost, the elves had dealt with most of the Golems by incinerating them. But many escaped, summoned to the aid of the Dark Army.
As for the art of the elves, it was all gone now. Their ancient masterpieces had become a flowing mass of rotten muck.
Despite his personal failure to commune with the Dead Tree, Adros knew the King’s Wood still had an effect on it even if he did not – his many excursions to the upper canopy to save the children were proof. But was its power great enough to destroy the corrupted entity that the Graelic had become? Because of the interference of the so-called gods, Adros was never granted a chance to find out. The King’s Wood staff could very well be the universe’s only weapon against the Dead Tree, and now it was either lost, or in the possession of the Dark Army.
Despite his situation, Adros laughed. The sound of his voice deadened as it hit the dripping walls.
He couldn’t help but find it amusing that so recently he embraced hope, and now there was naught but hopelessness. It was truly over now. He refused to accept it when the Dark Army first came to his world -- and the second time as well. Even when the full force of the Plague stood amassed at the base of the Graelic, he refused to accept defeat. But now, all was lost: his staff, his children, his world, and his love, Alana. Whatever end the Dead Tree had in store for him was meaningless. He would endure the pain, then fade to oblivion, joining all that he had once cherished.
With the walls oozing around him, he waited. Time passed, and he continued to wait, wondering if this was perhaps the first round of his torture; to be trapped, surrounded by the full weight of his failure, knowing the only escape was death, but unable to fulfill it.
Then he came – a more corrupt and hellish being even Adros had never seen.
Adros knew that the true torture was about to begin.
The tree-like being confirmed his belief, filling Adros’ mind with fire.
‘AHHH. . . YOUR THOUGHTS . . . SUCH HOPELESSNESS. YOUR FAILURE BRINGS ME GREAT PLEASURE, ELF.’
There was a moment where Adros wished to live, if only to see this monstrosity sent to the Maker. But the being filled his mind with such pain, that his every last thought fell apart.
Adros was hunched over, but even if he stood upright, the creature would have towered over him. His eyes were pure white, and emanated a ghostly glow.
‘OH, TO FEAST ON YOUR BRAIN.’
His branch-like limbs quivered at the thought.
‘A DESIRE NEARLY AS STRONG AS THE WILL OF MY MAKER.’
His black tentacles caresses Adros’ scalp.
‘NEARLY . . .’
Through the pain, Adros managed to collect his thoughts, and managed a whisper.
“I swear . . . Someday . . . I will kill you, Ostedes . . .”
The lipless giant had a sudden fit of spasms, which Adros interpreted as its form of laughter.
‘EVEN WITH YOUR STAFF, YOU WERE NO MATCH FOR ME. NOW, HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HARM ME, ELF?’
His mind overwhelmed by pain, and hopelessness, Adros found the hate.
‘I’ll show you how . . .’
His mind cleared of thoughts. The pain remained, but his actions became instinctual. Adros was on his feet and leaping into the air, his fist flying straight towards the giant’s face.
Ostedes’ anatomy was foreign to Adros. For all he knew, the being’s brain might not even be located in its head. Nevertheless, he longed to crack it open. If he was lucky, maybe its brains would come spilling out.
The blow landed with a hollow ‘thunk’, as though he had just hit a rotten log. Unfortunately, the attack did little damage, if any. However, Ostedes was stunned by the blow, and it even sent him reeling backwards. Anon wondered how the creature would look if he could show emotion. Smiling, he fantasized a startled look on its tall grey face.
His joy was short lived, as was Ostedes’ shock. He was showing emotion now, anger. His eyes filled the chamber with their eerie white.
Either Adros was weaker than he thought, or he had underestimated Ostedes’ speed. The creature came at him faster than he imagined possible on his snakelike limbs. Adros landed a kick on his chest, hoping to use the motion to propel him away from the storming giant. But Ostedes’ tentacles caught him as he pushed off. Adros screamed as the many limbs began digging into his flesh. The giant heaved him into the air, his tentacles burrowing ever deeper. The giant’s arms pulled in opposite directions. Adros was certain his body would rip in half at any moment. Nearly unconscious from the pain, the pressure was suddenly relieved. Hanging helplessly in the giant’s hands, he looked down, wondering why the creature hadn’t torn him to pieces. Adros saw an inner struggle in the being’s eyes. His desire to see Adros torn asunder was battling the will of his ‘Maker’, who seemed to want Adros alive, if only for now.
The will of his Maker won the struggle, and Ostedes withdrew his tentacle limbs from Adros’ skin. The elf slipped to the floor, physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. His short-lived skirmish with Ostedes had been his last.
“Why let me live?” Adros managed to ask. “Be done with it, Dead God.”
‘IF THE CHOICE WERE MY OWN, I WOULD BE AWASH IN YOUR BLOOD. SADDLY, MY MAKER HAS OTHER PLANS FOR YOU, ELF.’
The way his eyes shown down on Adros, he still seemed to be fighting the urge to tear him asunder.
‘YOUR PEOPLE REFUSE TO JOIN MY MAKER. SO THEY ARE MADE TO SUFFER, TO ACCEPT THE WELCOME OF DEATH. IN DOING SO, THEIR SPIRITS BECOME BOUND TO MY MAKER. THUS FAR, FEW HAVE JOINED US. BUT SOON ENOUGH, MANY WILL FOLLOW. IT IS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE THEIR SUFFERING BECOMES UNBAREABLE.’
“I won’t join you, even in death.”
‘SO NOW YOU SAY. BUT YOU ARE YOUNG FOR AN ELF. GIVEN A MILLENIUM, MY MAKER WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND. IN THE END, YOU ALL SHALL BE ONE WITH THE VOID.’
“Why prolong it, our suffering? What does your Master even care? I’ve seen the Dark Army, and compared to its vastness, we are inconsequential.”
‘I TEND TO AGREE. BUT IN THE SCHEME OF MY MAKER, YOUR PEOPLE ARE THE ONLY ONES WHO MATTER. MY MAKER IS NOT CONTENT TO INHABIT BUT ONE WORLD. IT WISHES TO CLAIM ALL THE WORLDS, AND TO DO SO, IT MUST GROW WITHIN THEM. ONLY THE ELVES HAVE THE POWER TO CULTIVATE MY MAKER’S SEED. THEREFORE, YOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE THE HONOR OF SPREADING ITS EXISTENCE THROUGHOUT THE UNIVERSE.’
Again the giant writhed with laughter.
‘I AM EVER SO CURIOUS TO SEE HOW LONG YOU CAN LAST, ELF. SHALL WE BEGIN?’
Adros attempted to rise again, but his legs came out from underneath him. The Dead Tree’s walls had formed into a vine-like noose, wrapping around his legs and pulling him into the walls of black fluid. He struggled to find a hold in the floor as he was pulled to the wall. Unable to get a grip on the slime covered floor, he went in feet first. The pain crept up from his toes, to his knees, then to his chest. Before it entered his mind, his last thought was that he must win this fight. No matter how long it took. This time, he wasn’t fighting for his world, his people, or even his life. If the Dead Tree took his soul, the universe would fall.
‘EVEN THAT FOOL ANON CANNOT SAVE YOU NOW. LET HIM COME. SOON ENOUGH, HE WILL JOIN YOU.’
Anon . . .
Suddenly there was hope once more. Now it was Adros who was laughing. He needed a miracle, and if ever there was a man who could provide one, it was Anon.
The black oozed filled his mouth, and his laughter into a gurgle.
Hunger . . .
Until he had been infected by the Plague, Anon had never truly known the meaning of the word. Such thoughts flooded his mind that he feared the Maker would never return to him. He was beyond impure, he was rotten. He managed to contain his urges, for now. But every moment the infection claimed more of him, and soon it would take his soul. If so, the path of the Maker would be lost to him. Nor would Anon care, only the craving would matter at that point. To avoid such a fate, Anon had to succeed, and quickly. Already his veins had blackened and swelled to near bursting with the infection. His flesh was dead, his mind nearly so.
The power of the Maker had never been further from him. But he now had a power of another sort. Dead though it may be, his flesh was formidable. He knew from his own battles with the Dead Gods, that a blade would sooner bend than penetrate it -- even weapons etched with silver. Also, the virus made him incredibly fast and strong, nearly equal to the enhancements of the Elder Gods. But unlike the Elders, Anon didn’t need a halo to maintain his abilities. They were a gift of the infection, and never left. In fact, they could even grow stronger, should he indulge his cravings.
Along with physical strength, the Makiian Virus bestowed an even darker gift -- he now could tap into the power of the Void. Wherein, the Oneness manipulated matter through one’s internal energy. This demon wind simply destroyed it. And one wasn’t limited to their own inner strength, but could draw from the endless destructive power of the Void. Its effectiveness however, was limited. It depended on how much energy one stole from the living. The power of the Void transformed the stolen life-force, converting it to equal parts annihilation. The more the Dead Gods fed, the stronger they became. For Anon, he should have been relatively weak, but Imorbis had infected him with the pure strain. The very same virus that had begun it all -- the false immortality, unfiltered.
Thus far, everything Imorbis said had proven to be true. Anon was all but ignored as he made his way to the trunk. Instead of scorching a path to the tree, he now strolled right up to it. Once he arrived, the rest of the Dead God’s plan was remarkably simple. Simple, yet surprisingly feasible – but only if Imorbis could be trusted. Therein was the plans greatest weakness.
The Maker had decided to abandon Anon for reasons he yet failed to comprehend, leaving him with no choice but to partake of the Dead God’s plan. If Imorbis was infected by the latest evolution of the Plague, then perhaps he truly did need Anon’s help to be freed of the Dead Tree. Should he somehow safely complete this mission, Anon would do his utmost to honor his promise to heal the Dead God. But without the blessing of the Maker, he could do little. Besides which, now that Anon was infected as well, who was going to save him? The truth was that he may survive this battle only to find himself enlisting in the Dark Army. For this reason, Anon had decided to alter Imorbis’ plan – just slightly.
His mind often wandering to thoughts of bloodied flesh on his tongue, Anon drew nearer to the towering trunk of the Dead Tree. A maze of mountainous roots blocked his path, but with his newfound abilities, he quickly ascended them. He once wondered if he would ever near the blackened trunk, now he knew he was close, for the Dead Tree had in fact replaced the skyline. Thankfully, his decomposing eyes saw clearly even in complete darkness. A mass of vines and branches floated in the air high above him. From many, a humanoid shape hung suspended. After a closer look, he realized there were thousands of them up there, swaying in the breeze. Even with his undead vision, he was unable to determine which one was the Elf Prince, but he knew he was up there somewhere, becoming one with the Dead Tree.
Soon, Anon would be up there as well – if he adhered to Imorbis’ plan.
First, he would have to enter the trunk of the Dead Tree, and then . . . Imorbis had laid out many possibilities, some unfolded in their favor, others less so.
One final leap through the field of blackened roots took him to the trunk. Its bark ridges ran like towers up its side. The crevices between were like deep caves leading into the tree. Anon choose the nearest one, then headed in, slowing his pace in the full anticipation of coming danger. The walls had changed from hardened bark, to a slick viscous fluid. Before him, the caverns branched off into a maze of dripping walls.
Anon knew what he had to do.
He touched the wall.
Instantly the Dead Tree was within his mind. All the horrors he had witnessed since the birth of the Plague came flooding back. Even his most ancient memories returned – his family. So long ago he had almost forgotten. They had all died before the Plague, but he saw them now as monsters, stumbling toward him, reaching out with rotten flesh. They surrounded him, began tearing him apart . . .
It took all of Anon’s willpower, but he was able to pull his hand away. Communing with the Dead Tree was to be his first challenge. It knew him now. No longer would he be able to walk freely among its limbs. It would seek him out. Now, he would have to face the next challenge -- the Dead Tree had acquired new servants.
The voice roared in his mind. Anon turned to face the servant of the Dead Tree, fighting to keep his knees from buckling from the force of the telepathic voice.
Ostedes had always appeared formidable, but now he was terrifying to behold. He towered over Anon, his appendages writhing in excitement. His white eyes shone down on Anon, bathing him in a white glow.
‘I AM SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU.’
“I cannot say the same, Ostedes,” Anon replied.
He noticed Ostedes was not alone. Lurking in the maze, he recognized the corrupted forms of the other Chosen who had been captured by the Dead Tree.
“I am sorry it has come to this, Ostedes.”
The giant’s entire body quivered.
‘OH NO, ANON. YOU HAVE NOT BEGUN TO BE SORRY.’
The Chosen began to circle Anon.
‘I NOW REALIZE I HAD ALWAYS BEEN DESTINED TO JOIN THE DARK ARMY, BUT YOU ROBBED MY OF MY DESTINY. AS YOU SAID, I SHOULD HAVE REMAINED ON EDILAN. TO DIE WITH MY PEOPLE. INSTEAD, I WAS MADE TO FIGHT YOUR LOSING WAR. BUT NO LONGER.’
The circle tightened.
‘IT APPEARS THE MAKER HAS LEFT YOU? OR PERHAPS, ANON, HE WAS NEVER REALLY WITH YOU AT ALL. MAYBE YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH HAS EVER BEEN THE ILLUSION OF POWER.’
Anon longed to prove him wrong. But he knew that without the Maker’s aid, he would be no match for Ostedes.
‘WHY DID YOU COME HERE, ANON? EVEN WITH THE MAKER, WHAT COULD YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE?’
“I came for Adros. And no matter what occurs here, he will be freed.”
‘THEN YOU ARE A GREATER FOOL THAN I EVER BELIEVED. YOU WILL SEE YOUR ELF PRINCE AGAIN, THAT I GUARANTEE. NOTHING WOULD MAKE ME HAPPIER THAN TO WATCH YOU HANG BESIDE HIM FOR ETERNITY.’
All was going according to Imorbis’ plan. Anon was to be captured -- to be imprisoned alongside Prince Adros was ideal. What came next was left a mystery to Anon, for wisely, the Dead God had anticipated Ostedes’ ability to invade Anon’s thoughts. Nor would Anon ever know the remainder of Imorbis’ plan.
Anon had a plan of his own.
“Before I do so. I am curious to see how the powers of the pure strain compare to this new infection. What do you think, Ostedes? Shall we put them to the test?”
‘AS YOU WISH.’
The Giant’s blank, grey face almost registered joy.
The Chosen came at him, moving incredibly fast. He was able to dodge many blows, but some landed, painfully. To Anon’s credit, his attacks connected more often than theirs. Unlike the Chosen, Anon was fairly adept at various styles of hand-to-hand combat, and had actually employed them against Dead Gods in the past. Not to mention, he also had the advantage of having a Dead God teach him how to fight with the demon wind. Imorbis had taught him many tricks of which these newly turned Chosen were ignorant. One such trick was to focus the dark energy into his own dead flesh. In doing so, he could alter his Plague infected cells.
Instead of landing punches, his fists became blades of black steel, cleaving his foes into pieces or piercing their flesh. The battle was brief – as he knew it would be – but several Chosen would rise no more. Ostedes had meant to make him suffer. He hadn’t expected Anon to come out on top. The moment he realized his error, he put an end to the fight.
Ostedes was more powerful than ever. The mental barrage he sent into Anon’s mind would have instantly killed an Elder God. Anon fell to his knees. His focus on the dark power was gone, nor did he have enough wits about him to avoid the continued assault of the Chosen. They attacked him with reckless abandon, pounding on him long after his body was lying flat and motionless on the ground. Some of the more clever ones were even able to replicate his ability, crafting their own weapons with the dark power. When they finally stopped, the infection was all but drained from Anon’s veins. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately) so too was his life. He wouldn’t be imprisoned as Imorbis had hoped, nor would he have to worry about succumbing to the desires of the Plague. To save the Elf Prince he truly would die – this would be Anon’s contribution to Imorbis’ plan.
Before the darkness took him, he prayed to the Maker for Imorbis to succeed.
True power. It seemed like ages since he had known its taste.
Anon’s blood had been like drinking a dream – the long lost dream of life. Imorbis remembered little of his life before the Plague. Even the simple things -- like what it meant to hold breath in his lungs or warmth in his flesh -- had become a fantasy to him. For a long time, mortality simply did not seem real – until he drank Anon’s blood. His blood was life. There could be no doubt now, Anon truly was touched by the Maker.
But that wasn’t enough. They faced the Void itself, a foe even the Maker had never truly defeated.
He cast a wicked smile at the staff – which, thanks to Anon’s blood, he held in his regenerated right hand. The staff of King’s Wood made all the difference.
In order to prevent it from turning his hand to cinder, he bundled it in layers of cloth.
Imorbis was never one to accept defeat. Nor did he desire to be a prisoner of the Dead Tree for all eternity, a mindless shell moving to the whim of the Void. Even true death would be a better fate – perhaps a fate long overdue as well. He now understood that during his entire life as a Dead God he had been a prisoner to the Void. For so long there had only been the fight and the feast. He existed only to satisfy his hunger for life. To live he had to kill. But to what end? What was to become of him when the living were no more? The Elder Gods’ plan to regenerate and repopulate the worlds moved at a stagnant pace. By the time they birthed one world, a million would be dead. Meanwhile, the hunger of the Dead Gods would remain, always and forever.
Imorbis wanted nothing more than for it to end.
It was because of the Elf Prince that he finally desired death. Some would think he wished him ill, after defeating, and disfiguring him. But Imorbis held no grudge to the man – how could he after he had ravaged his planet so? It was the ravaging part that changed Imorbis’ heart – made it beat for a moment. Imorbis had seen countless battles, and been victorious in them all. Many great champions stood before him, and fell, joining his army. But never before had a champion fought so valiantly, and fiercely, as the Elven Prince. He even defeated Imorbis himself, his first such loss in over a millennium. Imorbis’ first attack against the elves had been a humiliation on his part. His second attack, though considered a victory, was equally so. Even with the full Dark Army at his disposal, the Elf Prince nearly prevailed. He would never know how close he was to routing them, most likely for all time. And it was due in great part to the ferocity of Prince Adros. And for all of the elf’s efforts, his world, and his people died. And what did Imorbis gain? Another, stronger prison.
He had been ignorant of what his victory against the elves would cost him. But he made no such error with this battle. To be freed of the Void wouldn’t be his only reward, the Maker would bless him with something else as well.
Anon’s blood hinted at its existence, but he wanted it in truth. Even if the Maker only allowed him only a single living breath before he claimed his soul.
To reach that goal, Imorbis had plans within plans; a maze of possibilities that only Imorbis could navigate. His success today was but one step in the right direction. And to succeed, the King’s Wood staff had to be in the hands of the Elf Prince.
Anon’s role was for him to serve as a distraction, to become the focus of the Dead Tree. Meanwhile, Imorbis would simply walk right in and hand Adros his staff. Or so he hoped.
Imorbis was bound to the Dead Tree. As such, he was able to wander this world freely. He had also spent a great deal of time studying the Dead Tree’s interior, and had a good idea where the Prince would be detained. The Dead Tree underestimated its hold on him. This entire time, it believed Imorbis had been doing its will; helping to see the Elf Prince removed from his hole and separated from his staff, and infecting and leading Anon into a trap. But the actions had been conducted by Imorbis’ will alone, all part of his many layered plan.
Now with Anon’s blood coursing through his veins, the Void’s will was buried deeper than ever before, almost as if he was entirely freed. The Dead Tree would be ignorant of his true intentions until the moment Adros held his staff.
But the Dead Tree had many servants, particularly the newly infected Elder God, Ostedes. With his telepathic abilities, that one would not be so easily fooled. That’s where Anon came in; the Elder’s hate of the man would blind him to anything Imorbis would do.
And so it was, Imorbis entered the Dead Tree, staff in hand, and ascended the trunk to find and rescue the Elf Prince. As far as he knew, all was well. He used the demon wind to levitate upwards through the Dead Tree’s interior, careful not to come in direct contact with the Tree’s walls, else it enter his mind, unveiling his true purpose. His journey took him high up to the Dead Tree’s canopy; an area which Imorbis knew would be laden with imprisoned elves. At this height, the trunk had no true entrance, it either allowed one to come and go, or it did not. Again he relied on the demon wind, this time he sent it out to the wall of the Dead Tree, hoping it would interpret his signal to exit the trunk. If not, he would be forced to connect directly with the Tree, wherein it would no doubt refuse his request to leave – perhaps for eternity. Luckily, the signature of his dark power was enough – the wall before him collapsed in a pool of black sludge, revealing a clear pathway to a massive branch that seemed to span the heavens. Imorbis was forced to step back as the sludge threatened to pool at his feet. But the liquid was quickly reintegrated into the Tree. As soon as it was gone, Imorbis headed out. Even for his Plague enhanced vision, the ground below was as dark as the starless night above. All he could see was the trunk directly below his feet, and a wall of branches at his sides.
Hidden within the branches, he could barely make out several tall humanoid forms. He was about to go to the nearest elf, when he saw movement around it. Imorbis froze, as did the three shadowed forms around the imprisoned elf. The creatures turned to regard Imorbis, their bodies wavering in and out of existence. They were transparent like a thin layer of mist, and though they had elven physiques, they were more like elven silhouettes than the real thing.
The grey and white eyes studied him, and had he been living, they would have frozen his very soul. Once Imorbis realized they were but elven wraiths, he ignored them and continued on. The creatures were guardians of the Dead Tree, but for one such as Imorbis the beings were all but powerless. Imorbis even ventured to near them, and investigated their trapped elven snack. The creature was almost entirely drained of life. The wraiths had reduced the elf to empty, sunken flesh. His golden hair was no more. The only thing sprouting from his head was a thick, throbbing black branch. The being was spent. Imorbis figured it wouldn’t be long before he joined the ranks of the elven wraiths.
Fortunately, as indistinguishable as his features were, he was clearly not the Elf Prince. This being had suffered for quite some time. If and when he found him, he hoped Adros had a bit more life left within him.
On the other hand, he was clearly not the Elf Prince. Imorbis’ search would have to continue. And as much as he would like to disregard the wraiths, he noticed that as he left, they didn’t continue to feed on the living elf, but kept their eyes glued on him.
He started to worry that perhaps the wraiths weren’t as harmless as he first thought. He had to find the Prince, and soon, for he was now under the Dead Tree’s scrutiny.
Anon’s blood had granted him great power, and now he used it to enhance his speed to its fullest. A blur, he moved among the branches, inspecting every dangling elf he could find. So far, all were deeply integrated with the Dead Tree, their bodies full of more vines than blood.
Imorbis moved to the main branch, thinking to take his search further down. He paused. A pair of massive lumps of decaying matter blocked his way. The pair of foul giants filled the air with such a horrific odor that even Imorbis’ decayed senses were revolted. Their misshapen forms also filled the width of the branch, making it difficult to simply step around them. With his speed accelerated, he could possible sneak past. But Imorbis knew the beings and their loathsome reputation. They were the golems, the vilest servants of the Dead Tree. If at all possible, he would stay far away from them.
They had yet to notice Imorbis, or if they did, they gave no indication. He was about to turn back the way he came when he heard a moaning coming from the branches behind the behemoths. High about them, an elf hung, trembling in pain. Imorbis couldn’t make the being out clearly, but he knew it could be none other than Adros.
“So be it,” he whispered.
There was no other way, to save the Elf Prince; he would have to get past the guards. He used his dark power to alter his body – creating a thick layer of skin to cover his nostrils, and then he took a step forward. The rotting hulks arose as if sensing his intentions.
From the mass of mush where one creature’s mouth should have been, came a gurgling voice.
“Why have you come here, Imorbis? We begin to sense betrayal in your actions.”
Rare were the times when Imorbis actually conversed with the Dead Tree. Generally he tried to avoid such conversations – much like he wished to avoid this one. He had feared encountering a situation such as this. Feared though it may be, it was not unforeseen. Imorbis knew it as a possibility.
His intentions were now known to the Void. There was a high probability this would be Imorbis’ end. But there was also a chance he could yet succeed, though it was an incredibly slim one.
“No, Great Master. I but deliver the weapon of the Elf Prince unto you.”
The Dead Tree was in many ways like a newborn child; having but recently come into its consciousness within the elven world. Often, it could be easily fooled with simple methods – Imorbis had done so on more than one occasion. Childlike it may be, but even Imorbis knew that it was not stupid. He had but one more chance to fool the powerful being. Then he would have to face it.
First, he would give it what it wanted – the King’s Wood staff.
“Here, my Master. It is for you.”
The golem that spoke with the Dead Tree’s voice lumbered forward to receive the gift . . .
In one hand, Imorbis held the staff. His other hand held the bundle of cloth covering it. As the being reached out to grab the staff, Imorbis pulled back the cloth.
Imorbis leapt up and slammed the staff down upon its head. Instantly, its head crumbled, leaving a smoking crater where it once had been. Unaware of its location, the creature continued to lumber forward; possibly hoping to crush Imorbis with its massive bulk. But Imorbis simply stepped aside, grinning as the behemoth ambled off the branch of the Dead Tree.
The King’s Wood was now bare and exposed in Imorbis’ hand. His own flesh sizzled and smoked. His power was likewise quickly fading, absorbed by the power of the wood. Had he not fed on Anon, he would have immediately collapsed. Even so, whatever power he had taken from Anon was rapidly dwindling, just to stay on his feet, he had to focus every last bit of it on his disintegrating hand.
The other being moved to attack – this one quicker, and more prepared than the last. Imorbis had been in countless battles and faced many powerful foes – the Elf Prince being one such opponent. Even weakened, he was still a skilled fighter and brilliant killer.
The creature swung its massive arm to crush him, but instead of waiting to be smashed, Imorbis leapt forward, closing the distance between them. He came in under its guard, its fist landing harmlessly behind him. Imorbis’ entire right arm hung useless at his side, so he switched the staff to his left hand. Using it as a spear, he shoved the staff through the creature’s chest, forcing it in so deeply it came out its back. He then sidestepped the flailing monstrosity, pulling the smoldering staff out of its back.
All that remained of his power was channeled into his speed, and his smoking left hand. He moved, as fast as he was able, to the sound of the moaning Prince.
Meanwhile, a swarm of vines and branches moved to engulf him.
She always glowed when the sunlight hit her skin. Her flesh was translucent and designed to let the light in, to where her cells then absorbed its energy. Through the process, excess energy was expended, forming a natural halo of golden light around Alana.
Her tall, lithe body was a beacon of light in his dark nightmare. Her silver hair glowed . . .
. . . and then it turned grey. Beneath her skin, Adros saw her blue veins filling with black blood. Her heart stopped. But the veins continued to throb, pumping the black blood throughout her entire body. Her veins were all filled with the disease, but it continued to grow, branching out into every cell.
Her golden halo turned into a swelling darkness. Adros ran to her. He wanted to take the darkness away, but his staff was gone.
He couldn’t remember what had become of it . . . maybe he lost it, or it had been stolen. Perhaps it had never existed at all, and in the constructs of this nightmare it had only been a symbol of hope.
Hope . . .
He had to survive this, and to do so he needed hope. He gazed at his empty hands, seeking to will the staff into existence. Alana was gone, the Dead Tree now fully possessed her. Adros continued to stare at his empty hands, pleading for there to be hope.
Alana bore down on him; biting and clawing at his flesh. In a spray of blood, her teeth tore a chunk of skin from his neck. In the pain, he felt his life slipping away – replaced by another life, another sort of pain.
Adros screamed . . .
The nightmare began anew.
This time Anon came to him. At first glance he seemed so unassuming; a portly little man with a balding head. And his smile; he gave it so freely. How could one so caring have lasted so long against the Plague? The light of his halo was so pure it was almost painful to behold.
The pain. Adros waited for it to amplify, for Anon to begin rotting and then feeding on him. Anon came closer. His halo shone brighter, so bright that Anon’s body disappeared in the light. All that remained of the man was one glowing hand – and in it was the King’s Wood staff.
Hope. Did he dare dream it was real?
Adros took the staff . . .
. . . he awoke from one nightmare to find himself in another. Next to him was the crumpled form of a man who looked to be more shadow than flesh. And surrounding them both . . . they were trapped in a globe of the Dead Tree’s limbs.
But Adros now held his staff. Using it as a prop, Adros got to his feet. Around them, the limbs thrashed against an invisible barrier.
‘Be gone,’ Adros commanded, leaning heavily on the King’s Wood staff.
His will flowed through the wood, forcing the limbs to slink back into the darkness.
But something else remained. Something his staff could not control.
But something his staff could destroy!
‘TIME TO END THIS, ELF PRINCE. MY MAKER NO LONGER CONSTRAINS MY WILL. THIS TIME I SHALL FEAST.’
‘No. Now you will die.’
Adros spun around, charging at the giant. Wave after wave of telepathic energy slammed into him, but his mind knew only hate and he plowed right through them all. He reached the giant, twisting his body through his many branchlike limbs as they darted towards him. As fast as Adros was, the giant’s limbs were just as fast, and there were hundreds of them. Several penetrated his guard and dug into his flesh. But his staff swung back around, burning through the fingertips before they pulled him into the giants clutches.
Incinerate Ostedes fingers was somewhat satisfying, but for his staff to be truly effective, he needed to get in close. To do so was a risk he couldn’t afford to take, there were just too many of the snakelike fingers to possibly avoid them all. The last thing he wanted was to be trapped in the giant’s clutch, for this time, Ostedes would most certainly tear him in half.
As much as he longed to drive his staff into the being’s face, he was forced to change his strategy – first, he had to even the odds. Then he would go in for the killing blow. Taking the monster’s arm became the focus of his rage. He circled Ostedes, his staff spinning before him, turning any appendage that reached it into dust. Moving faster, he continued to circle him. Ostedes thought to trip him up with the vine-like toes of his feet, but Adros nimbly danced around them. He kept up the dance, constantly gaining momentum, knowing that soon his opportunity would arrive.
And then it did.
He managed to get behind the beast’s reach. Ostedes knew he was vulnerable, and made the mistake of attempting spin around and smash him with his other arm. As he did so, Adros took full advantage of his error, and slammed his staff into the oncoming arm. The force of the momentum threw Adros back. But the ensuing mental howl from Ostedes proved it was worth it, as did the smoking stump where Ostedes’ arm used to be.
But the rage-filled blast of mental energy the giant sent his way proved to be too much – even for Adros’ hate. Adros’ body and mind began to shut down. With his vision clouding over, he saw the giant as a dark shadow looming over him, sending a constant torrent of pain into his mind. Ostedes planted a foot on his chest, crushing him, his toes digging into his skin.
He felt his staff slipping from his grasp . . .
And then, there was only light. Pure white light.
It was a miracle.
Anon drifted in the Abyss. Of all places, he should have felt at peace here most of all. But his soul was unsettled. He couldn’t escape the feeling that he didn’t belong here . . . not yet.
He saw a light twinkling in the distant emptiness, shining like a beacon in the night. It came toward him, growing ever brighter. Eventually he was able to discern its shape. It was Him – the faceless one. He stood of average height, his body a typical humanoid form, his face smooth and featureless. His body glowed like a shining star.
Anon reached out to touch that smooth, golden face. As though he was looking into a mirror, the being copied his motion. Simultaneously, they touched each other’s flesh. Then, they melted into one.
Anon understood now. He had never left the Maker’s path, nor had the Maker left him. His dead flesh on Ki'minsyllessil was but an illusion – Anon’s greatest one yet. There it would remain, waiting to become dust, to be reclaimed unto the Maker once more.
Anon no longer had need of it; the faceless one was his true form now.
Ostedes would not be defeated. The Elf may have taken his arm, but he would take his mind.
Adros was pinned beneath him. He was utterly helpless. Ostedes put his full weight on his foot. His fingertips moved to pierce the elf’s skull.
Instead, they met a wall of white fire. His white eyes looked on in shock as his remaining tentacle hand disintegrated.
Ostedes had long ago learned to channel rage and pain into psychic power. Now he was overloaded with both. He used them to amplify his mental energy, focusing it toward the ball of light hovering in the distance.
The psychic attack was far greater than the one that had taken down Prince Adros – but when it met the ball of light, it simply vanished, never even nearing its actual target.
‘I SAW YOU DEAD, ANON. THIS CANNOT BE.’
As the ball of light neared, Ostedes saw a shape at its center – a puny, weak, humanoid form.
“You questioned the Maker, Ostedes, now you will know the truth of him.”
Somehow, Anon’s voice was audible both telepathically, and physically. Yet it seemed to originate without a source.
‘THE VOID IS MY MAKER NOW, ANON.’
Ostedes rushed the glowing being, only to be met with a blast of light. His white eyes melted, his tree-like body caught on fire. The blast lifted him into the air. For a while he floated, burning, waiting to land on solid ground. It was a long wait, one which finally ended as he slammed into the base of the Dead Tree.
The odd trio of heroes stood together at the Rift.
Imorbis was all but nonexistent. Carrying the staff of King’s Wood had taken its toll. He no longer had flesh; the staff had burnt it all away. The demon wind covered him like a cloak, it was the only thing keeping him alive. Without it, he would crumple into dust.
Adros stared him down with his grey and white eyes. The Elf Prince thought that even Imorbis’ current state was unsatisfactory compensation for the pain he caused his people and his world. Because of his own injuries, to remain standing, Adros had to rely on his staff to keep him upright.
Anon doubted that staff would leave his side again for a very long time.
Anon. To the others, he was human once more; simple, and almost foolish in appearance. He seemed to have suffered not at all from the ordeal – but that was another illusion, for it could be said he had suffered the most, having died to save the Elf Prince.
“Now, are you ready to leave this place, One Elf?” Anon asked, not sure what more he could do to convince him.
“What’s out there, Anon?” Adros asked, shifting his gaze to the Rift.
“A new world. Another chance. And your children.”
Anon approached him, reaching up to lay his hand on his shoulder.
“There’s other worlds as well, those that the Dead Tree seeks to possess. Those worlds need a savior, Adros. Someone to lead them to safety, prepare them for their final day. Gather an army, Elf Prince, and never let them forget. For one day, the Void will find them once more.”
Adros nodded to Anon, he still felt responsible for it all. His failure to withstand the Plague brought about the creation of the greatest evil the universe had ever known. Now it sought to destroy other worlds, other people – Adros meant to see the Dead Tree stopped.
He sneered at Imorbis, and then headed into the Rift.
For a moment the two stood in silence; a Dead God and an Elder God – allies.
“I owe you a debt, Imorbis. And a promise made in the presence of the Maker must be met.”
“Yes, Anon. To be freed of the Dead Tree is all I ask.”
“It shall be done. But first I need a promise from you as well.”
Imorbis withered beneath his cloak of the demon wind, expecting the Maker would now require payment for the sins he committed.
“I need your help. No one knows the Dead Tree and the Plague better than you.”
“Yes. This is true, Anon. How can my knowledge serve the Maker?”
“I need you to figure out a way to defeat it.”
Anon couldn’t have asked him to perform a more impossible task. The Dead Tree and the Void were one. But he was right. Imorbis had spent a great deal of time studying them both, and perhaps there was one way . . .
Yes, I will put an end to the Dead Tree . . . Imorbis liked the thought of it, very much. Strangely, it wasn’t the thought of vengeance that pleased him, but that he would finally have a chance at absolution.
Besides, now he fought alongside Anon and had the power of the Maker at his side, with that, Imorbis had learned anything was possible.
“We once had a saying among the Makii; to escape death we must become it. So too, must we face the Void. To defeat it, we must embrace it.”
Would Anon allow such power to be recreated?
“But, I warn you, Anon. The cost to do so will be great.”
Anon didn’t hesitate to reply.
“Either way we are lost. It is the Maker’s will that our fate is, and always has been ours to make. In this, our final hour, it should remain so.”
“Then I shall see it done, Anon . . . create one to destroy the Dead Tree.”
Both men were silent – Imorbis already plotting the creation of his ‘Destroyer’, while Anon pondered a way to stop it; to keep it from becoming a greater evil than even the Dead Tree.
He knew of only one soul pure enough to stand against it.
But alone, even Alana cannot begin to stop it. She will need a great deal of help . . . She will need love, hope, and a world of heroes.
In time, she will have them all . . .