They fell out of the Rift into an ocean of black ash.
The Magi went through first, their halos of the Oneness the only thing keeping them from being buried and suffocating in the field of dark debris. Their halos swelled, becoming giant flaming bubbles that pushed the toxic air back. Then, able to breath safely in their bubbles, they surveyed the world they had tumbled into.
A grey cliff arose in the distance – a pile of sulfur and ash, the recent deposit of some cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It was well over one hundred feet high, but was loosely cemented and constantly crumbling; large chunks of solid magma were mixed in with the volcanic afterbirth and tumbled free, splashing to the earth and sending waves of ash to crash against the Magi’s blue shields.
The earth shook, sending several of the Magi to their knees. A plume of smoke and fire erupted behind the grey cliff.
“Are you sure this planet is safe, Brontes?” one of the Magi asked, shouting to be heard above the rumbling volcano.
Their faces were all hidden beneath black masks, their bodies in tight, form-fitting black suits. At first glance, the fabric seemed to be made of silken thread, but should one try to pierce or tear the thread they would find it nearly impenetrable. The suits were a gift of their new allies, the dwarves, who had grudgingly decided to remain behind. They wanted to help the mission, even if they weren’t allowed to join it, and had crafted each member a custom suit of their dwarven blue-steel. The steel retained its unbreakable strength, even when thinned to a hair’s breadth. With so many steel filaments woven together, the suits were certain to provide great defense against the Dark Army’s bite.
“This planet is unstable, to say the least,” the mage continued, struggling to keep his balance.
Only the symbols embroidered on their foreheads distinguished one mage from another – they each wore the symbol of their fallen home-world. The speaker had a crescent moon centered below two suns. His name was Ollius, and like the dwarves, he was another new and powerful ally. Ollius was once Gatekeeper to the human populated world Omicron. When the Great Exodus began, he led his people into the Black Door prior to the coming of the Plague, and from there they wandered from world to world, the Dark Army always one step behind. They lost many along the way, and would have all fallen had it not been for Ollius. He kept them alive long enough for Brontes to find them, and guide them to their new world.
Other than Ollius, none of the humans they rescued had shown the slightest desire to join Brontes’ current mission -- Brontes couldn’t blame them. After all, they had only recently made it out of the Rift, and they had but barely escaped. The moment they arrived on the new world, the majority of the humans fled the Black Door and never looked back. The others wasted no time building defenses; strengthening the great wall the dwarves had named “Lock Core”, or beginning their own fortifications somewhere deep in the outerlands.
There was safety there, in the new world -- a planet the humans had begun to call the Seventh World – and safety was something none of them dreamed they would ever find again. The humans thought Brontes and his companions were insane to leave it. To risk losing it forever in the darkness of the Black Door, was a thought that few of them could fathom.
To escape the Rift once was nearly impossible, to do so again – was a miracle.
If he survived, this would be Brontes’ sixth time escaping a besieged world. And yes, he was in fact quite accustomed to witnessing miracles. He knew that as long as the Maker was on his side, anything was possible – it had been proven so, time and time again.
He remembered the first miracle – his own rescue from his Plague infested home-world, Idrllian, a planet that was virtually defenseless, having been located deep in the Unified core. None expected an attack would come from H’aleron – the capital world of the Makii. None would have guessed that the Makii’s vendetta with death could unleash a wave of annihilation that would spread through the entire universe.
There was little left now, and the annihilation was spreading quicker than ever.
The Makii once fashioned themselves gods, but to complete this belief, they dared to become one with death. Considering all their accomplishments, the Plague was their greatest success, for once infected, they truly became death incarnate.
But the price for their immortality was great. Unbeknownst to them, their dark powers unleashed a horror even greater than they. The Void itself was awakened into reality, born in the corrupted soul of the elven Great Tree, the Graelic.
That was Brontes’ second miracle, his second brush with death in the Black Door. On the elven planet Ki'minsyllessil, he was actually killed – infected by the Dead Tree, but the Maker brought him back . . . and gave him a mission – to save as many souls as possible before the Void claimed their worlds.
Since then he had visited many worlds, mostly lifeless ones. Sadly, in most cases he was too late, the Dark Army moved too fast. In all his journeys through the Black Door he was only able to gather survivors from three worlds – each one a miracle.
Souls had been saved, but Brontes would be the last man to call any of the missions a success -- far too many souls were lost before they made their way out. Lately, Brontes feared he was not only running out of living worlds to save, but miracles as well.
I just need one more . . .
This mission was different. There could be no failure this time. Brontes honestly believed all souls were equally precious, but in the war with the Void, the ones he sought now were priceless.
They were gods . . . once upon a time.
“Of course it is unstable, Ollius. It is a Dead World, after all,” Brontes replied to his new friend. “If you were expecting to find paradise, then you signed up for the wrong mission. We must deal with what we have. If the volcano becomes active . . . the Maker willing, we’ll find a way to deal with that too.”
Brontes’ symbol was a large, silver diamond with twin triangles, their tips conjoined at its center; all three shapes were aflame.
His right eye was somewhat visible through his mask, as was the pink scar that had replaced his left eye.
He took in the ash covered world around him with his one good eye.
Brontes looked to the horizon, there should have been a sun or stars up in the sky, but even with his eye of mage-fire he could only see ash.
The sky was pure black – a cloud of ash five hundred feet thick enveloped the entire world. Only by using the Oneness as a lens was he able to see anything at all. The cliff of collapsing ash vented its own clouds of sulfuric gas. At the base of the cliff, the liquid sulfur sat in a steaming orange pool. Encircling the pool was a yellow crust -- like pus drying around an infected wound.
And the smell! Brontes didn’t want to waste too much power cleansing the air of the odor, but the sour stench was nearly unbearable.
“Truth be told,” Brontes jested. “We have seen worse.”
Ollius couldn’t deny that, having been through hell himself.
“I doubt Anon would have sent us here if this wasn’t the best location; the closest to the Sanctuary and least hostile. We have to trust him in this . . .”
Was this your decision, Anon?
Anon had acquired a new ally on Ki'minsyllessil, one that Brontes was none too fond of -- to say the least.
Brontes sensed the Dead God, Imorbis’ hand in this rescue mission. Whether that was good or bad, was yet to be determined. The Dead God was considered a genius . . . and he was Anon’s ally. That should be enough.
Then why then did Brontes still have his doubts?
Most likely, they stemmed from his past experiences with Dead Gods -- particularly the one who took his eye, Sevron the so-called “Servant of Death”. Even among the Dead Gods, he had a reputation for cruelty – a reputation he fully lived up to while conquering Brontes’ home-world. Sevron hadn’t been interested in spreading the Plague, only carnage. Those he slaughtered didn’t rise again to join the Dark Army. When Sevron was done with their bodies, there wasn’t enough left of them for even the Plague to resurrect.
Thankfully, Sevron wouldn’t be rising again either – Anon had made sure of that.
“And where is Anon now?” Ollius asked, as if he was reading Brontes’ mind. “If he truly is as powerful as I have heard, his aid would be much appreciated for the assault . . . or rescue . . . whatever you are calling it.”
Having never met the man himself, Ollius had a tough time believing the tales of Anon, and that many of the past miracles had actually been performed by Anon’s hand.
“Well, I hope to call it a rescue . . .” Brontes replied. “And I wouldn’t doubt Anon’s power, or question how he chooses to use it, Ollius. If we truly needed him, he would be here. He trusts us to succeed in this, just as we must trust in his judgment. Besides, we cannot expect him to fight all of our battles, some of them we must win on our own.”
The rest of the Magi nodded in acceptance. Even though he could only see their eyes, Brontes hoped his doubts were better hidden than their own.
“I’m with you, Brontes. No matter where we go or who we fight. I would never have made it this far without you,” Ollius said. “I apologize if I’ve offend you . . . I just can’t help being worried about jumping into the middle of the Dark Army.”
You and me both.
“It gets easier after a couple times,” Brontes jokingly replied, his grin hidden beneath his mask. “There’s no need to worry, Ollius. We may not have Anon, but we do have the Elf Prince.”
Brontes would’ve bet, that Ollius was grinning as well.
“Speaking of which . . .” Brontes said, growing serious. “We should probably get him here and the sooner the better.”
Wasting no more time, he ordered the Magi to secure the environment.
The Magi banded together, sending out their blue flames to clear a path for those who followed. Their burning halos flowed together, turning ash into oxygen and clearing an area a mile wide.
Altogether there were twenty of the Magi – a small force compared to the number of dead they expected to face (which could very well be the entire Dark Army). Brontes didn’t intend for this mission to become a prolonged fight, just a quick strike – in and out. Thus his decision to leave the dwarves behind, though they were great warriors, with their short and stocky legs they were simply too slow. Convincing them to stay behind, without offending them, had been a delicate bit of persuasion – Anon himself had to step in and handle that one.
The giants, however, would not be denied. Another . . . ‘arrangement’ had been made with them, an arrangement that Brontes whole-heartedly disagreed with, but Anon had allowed. In the end, they did manage to convince them that because of their size, only ten could come. The honor went to ten of their eldest. And though they were old, they were all tough, war-hardened veterans who had hacked and smashed their way into their twilight-years – and didn’t intend to stop until they were dead.
As for the elves . . . Brontes wouldn’t leave without them. As always, every member of the elven race would accompany him -- all fifty-two of them.
Brontes accepted the fact that, like their previous missions, there would be casualties, but the size of his group ensured the casualties would be minimal. He also hoped to be leaving the planet with over twenty times the amount of Magi he arrived with . . . if things went well. If they didn’t, none of them would be leaving.
Once they had the environment under control, Brontes sent the others a signal that all was clear; a wisp of blue flame left his hand, swirling out into the darkness of the Black Door
The elves answered his summons, gracefully striding through the pulsating Rift. They were tall, thin beings, their eyes of grey and white the only feature visible through their own black hoods. Even their pointed ears and golden manes of hair were tucked away beneath the fabric of blue-steel.
One symbol was emblazoned on all of their foreheads – a tree, its roots forming a world, its branches blazing like a sun. Many of them were difficult to distinguish from one another, but Brontes could easily pick out the Elf Prince, Adros. Not only was he a head taller than the rest, as ever, his trusted staff of King’s Wood was tightly clutched in his hands. The blood red tip seemed to throb in this bleak environment, as if warning the Prince of mortal peril.
The wood held the life-force of Adros’ fallen home-world. And though it was a sapling of the Great Tree, and thus the embodiment of life -- to the Dark Army it was death. Countless of the undead had fallen to Adros’ staff, ending their long span of immortality as lifeless husks.
After they abandoned his home-world Ki'minsyllessil, Brontes and Adros quickly bonded through their mutual mission to save the worlds. Since then, they have suffered, and survived, countless turmoil in their attempts to save other races from the coming Plague – and in doing so, have grown to be the closest of friends.
Adros and his elven kin were remarkable in so many ways. One of which was that they never hesitated to journey back into the Black Door – even after all the horror they suffered on their own home-world. Without their aid, there would have been no survivors on any of the other worlds. The Elves were remarkable warriors; immune to the Plague, but also incredibly agile and fast. Brontes had seen them stand as equals against the Dead Gods themselves in combat.
Over the past several years, Magi and elf had fought as one in many a battle. They had proven themselves to be a formidable union, surviving some of the harshest Dead Worlds in the universe. But no matter how the odds were stacked against them, they always survived. And they always went back for more. The one being Brontes would credit most for their bravery and success was Adros. He led them in battle, and he led them to safety. Without him, none of it was possible.
The Elf Prince had no fear.
As though the world around him was full of sunshine and rainbows, and not ash and fire, Adros calmly strode over to Brontes, his slender fingers reaching out to clasp his hand. The mage gladly accepted the gesture, feeling far more comforted now that the Elf Prince had arrived.
Next to the Prince was his guardian, X’ander. Brontes recognized him first by the lifeless glaze in his eyes, not the fact that he was always at the Prince’s side. Unlike the rest of the elves, X’ander wasn’t a soldier or warrior, he was a killer. And a more skilled killer Brontes had never seen. He was just thankful the elf employed his skills against the undead and not the living.
Because their tight fitting suits were so similar, he recognized but one other elf, and only because she cast him a sultry wink. As usual, he did his best to ignore the flirtation, but his good eye probably lingered a little too long on her shapely body. It was especially difficult to look away when the tight-fitting suit of blue-steel accentuated her every curve.
S’ilindsa . . .
How he wished she had stayed behind.
He couldn’t afford to worry about her in the coming rescue. He knew that to do so would be a weakness on his part. S’ilindsa was more than capable of making her own decisions and taking care of herself. Perhaps when they returned to the Seventh World he would finally return her affections . . .
Especially since there was a high probability at least one of them would not be returning.
He returned her wink with his one good eye, then turned away before he could witness her response. S’ilindsa was bold and shameless, an unpredictable combination. He didn’t dare encourage her further, not with her adopted father, Adros present.
Brontes aided the twenty Magi as they ensured the elves’ safety, then he summoned the next group of warriors.
They were the giants . . . the Mithrlnites. They had to step through the Black Door single file, so thick were their bodies. Unlike the rest of the party, the giants weren’t dressed in suits of blue-steel, but were mostly bare-chested, wearing scant amounts of clothing; vests and breechcloths of exotic animal skins. Their clothing was basic – but well crafted. Medallions of gold and silver adorned their clothing; symbols of their valor in past battles. The rest of their bodies were covered with bushy tufts of grey hair, their thick, corded muscles rippling beneath.
An inch thick and tough as bark, their skin was armor unto itself. Thus their refusal of the dwarven suits. They did, however, accept the dwarves’ gifts of weapons; gargantuan axes with silver inlay, and steel hammers as tall as Brontes.
Even the Elf Prince Adros, seemed small next to them – a twig next to a boulder.
The Mithrlnites were the newest additions to their little army. They had been told to stay back, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were fearsome warriors, but they were also slow, cumbersome behemoths that could potentially jeopardize the mission. But Anon (or most likely Imorbis) allowed them to come, granting them a role in the coming battle that would ensure their value. Truth was, the addition of the Mithrlnites could make all the difference. As much as he inherently hated their role in the mission, Brontes was glad to have them along. After all, he had seen their leader, Rag’nerack kill a Dead God – with but one blow of his hammer.
Rag’nerack was the most impressive of his kind, towering over them all as though they were children. In his massive, hair-covered fist was a thick column of steel with a glowing brick of crystal fastened to the end. Brontes had yet to learn the giant’s true name (perhaps never would) ‘Rag’nerack’ was a title given to him by his people. The ancient meaning was something akin to ‘World’s end’, but in the giant’s tongue, the title meant ‘God’s weapon’ and represented a position of great honor among his kind. Rag’nerack was the closest thing the Mithrlnites had to a Chosen, though he wasn’t a product of the Elders, his size and strength had certainly been enhanced by god.
In general, the giants were an incredibly hardy people, a fact made evident as they lumbered out of the Rift and refused the Magi’s offer of protection, sucking in a vigorous breath of the planet’s acidic and ash filled air instead.
“Well,” the giant Rag’nerack thundered, his fist clenching on the steel column. “Let’s get on with it.”
“You’ll have your vengeance soon enough,” Brontes replied. Brontes was still in awe of their size, and found it difficult to be authoritative when his body was the size of Rag’nerack’s arm.
“The moment they create a Door, we’re going in,” he continued, craning his neck up in an effort to look Rag’nerack in his massive brown eyes.
“And how ya be knowing they’ll make one for sure?” Rag’nerack asked, heaving his hammer onto his shoulder.
“Anon said it will open, so it will be so,” Adros replied, before Brontes had the chance.
Brontes knew Adros and his kin wouldn’t have a problem waiting, when your life span lasted a millennium one gained a bit more patience. But the Mithrlnites were more than eager to see their mission fulfilled – and their time was limited.
“The Gate will open to the Sanctuary, and when it does, I will sense it. We will do our best to gain access, but it could take some time. Every moment counts, the longer it remains open, the more of the Dark Army we must face. When we do gain control, it will last but a short time. As soon as the Dark Army senses our efforts they will tune us out. We are but twenty Magi, the Dark Army has thousands of Makii. Once we are discovered, we will be shut out immediately. Our battle is not for control of the Gate, but for the souls of those stuck in the Sanctuary. We land and we leave. The more time we spend fighting, the more we lose to the Dark Army.”
Brontes looked to the giants, acknowledging that they would be the exception to the rule.
“As much as we wish this to end, this battle will pass to our ancestors. It will be they who fight our final battle. They can change the fate of the universe, but only if we live to pass on our knowledge and help them grow. If we fail in this, all is lost. This new world we have made together will surely fall. We need them . . . as much as they have failed us in the past, the Elders, the Chosen. They are Magi. And without their bloodline we do not stand a chance. They have no idea what is coming for them, or that we are coming to save them. But we will save them. We the ‘Guardians of Death’ will save the gods.”
We have to.
Then he felt it . . . just as Anon predicted, the Dark Army tore open a Door directly into the Sanctuary of the Elder Gods.
The Magi at his back sensed it as well, and shuffled nervously in anticipation.
“They’ve done it,” Brontes said, torrents of flames leaving his hands to pour into the Rift. “Get ready. We’re going to the Sanctuary.”
The roar of the Mithrlnites made the rumbling volcano seem like a whisper.