The body of the shadowy being disintegrated before them, ripped apart as he stepped into the nothingness of the swelling Black Door.
They waited in silence, long after every last remnant of shadow was no more.
“Can we trust him?” one of them spoke, his voice more of a fading echo than the real thing. He pulled back a burgundy hood, revealing a face covered in a maze of swelling black veins – many of which had burst, the thick, black blood dripping from his chin.
“Could we ever?” another spoke, her voice was lighter but equally distant. All of her body was hidden in tightly wound strips of black fabric.
“Do we have a choice?”
“We should have killed him . . .”
“No, he is our last link to salvation.”
Others voiced their opinions, but none had a true solution to their problem.
“What does, The Master think?” came a piping voice, a sound far different from the others’ hollow tones. The speaker was a diminutive black-winged beast who was perched on the shoulder of one of the taller beings present.
“I think you may have to find a new master, Galimoto,” the man whispered in reply. “I have a sinking feeling that no matter my decision, my time is coming to an end.”
With a sympathetic look on its wicked little face, the tiny, red beast patted the man on his shoulder.
“The Master has grown more stinky than usual . . . much uglier too,” the being callously said in his musical voice. “If possible, could Galimoto’s new master be alive?”
The creature’s little yellow eyes lit up with excitement.
“Yes, Galimoto would definitely prefer a master who is not dead.”
The man shook his head, doing his best to ignore the comments of the creature. The being was but one of his curses. The other one was the Plague – and infection that ended cellular growth while filling him with a constant need to feed on warm blood. Because of it, his skin was ashen and lifeless, his eyes orbs of black. Then there was the new “evolved” infection, which caused his veins to thicken and grow to grotesque proportions – often bursting as they did so. In addition, now pustules sprouted from his skin on a daily basis, erupting in a spray of black blood only a short time after they appeared. Even after the pustules are spent and the swelling dissolves, a permanent wound remains where the growth once was. It causes his skin to crack open -- like parched soil in a drought.
The Plague not only corrupted his body, but his mind too; and not merely with the urgings of the Hunger. With the new Plague, even more heinous thoughts filled his consciousness. The thirst for blood was no longer sufficient, now he wanted to bath in it. Slowly, these desires were threatening to drive him mad and the only way to silence them was to desecrate all he beheld – and for no other reason than that it existed.
Even so, given a choice to be free of but one of his curses, Mastecus wasn’t sure which he would choose; Galimoto, or the Plague. Both were certain to eventually make him insane.
Hopefully, soon he would be free of one of them, both if he was lucky.
“I suppose it’s possible. Where we’re going, there are many powerful, living beings who could claim you, Galimoto.”
Doubtful though, that they would do so willingly, he thought, knowing that the only way to complete the bond with the imp was by mutual acceptance. Mastecus never had that choice. In order to create the imp, he tied the Oneness to his own life-force. After the deed was done, Mastecus realized he and the imp were one. Short of death, the bond could never be severed.
“However, Galimoto, I wouldn’t get too excited, just yet. I think it unlikely any of these Elders will survive this encounter. Perhaps neither will the Makii.”
“Humph . . .” Galimoto’s little red face scrunched in anger. “If only The Master listened to Galimoto long ago. He knew that one was trouble, he knew so the moment he first caught his scent.”
For the first time in over a thousand years, Mastecus agreed with his familiar. Yes, he most certainly should have killed Servron at the first opportunity he had.
But now . . . Sevron was growing inside him, he was becoming him. Could such a being even die?
Imorbis thought it possible. He even claimed he could do so – with the help of Anon, of course.
If it was true, and there was one more chance to put an end to The Servant of Death, he was going to take it.
“We all saw it . . .” Mastecus said, loud enough for all of the gathered Makii to hear, disrupting their fruitless arguing. “No longer can there be any doubt. Anon is blessed of the Maker. Imorbis has been freed of the Dead Tree. How can we refuse him, when what he offers is hope for us all?”
“Hope?” the woman covered with the shroud of black cloth questioned. “The attack is coming, these Elders cannot hope to win. You hear his summons as well as I, Mastecus. Sevron desires the Sanctuary, and he will have it. Nothing we do can change that. We have always laughed at the Elders, never once did they pose a true threat to our conquest. What makes you think they can succeed now, when under Sevron’s control, the Dark Army is stronger than ever?”
“Thus far, we have resisted Sevron’s pull. We should maintain our distance, let Sevron and the Elders fight it out.” another Makii argued.
“Yes, we can resist him, but for how long?” Mastecus said.
“Let’s not forget those who denied him? Do you wish to end as they? Remember too, that in the end he claimed them none-the-less,” the woman replied.
“I understand your fears,” Mastecus replied. “Sevron has taken much from us. He controls our armies. Soon he will take our bodies . . . but I for one, will not let him have my soul,” Mastecus proclaimed. “It seems there is a decision we, the Makii must make, and but two choices left to us; either we give ourselves to the Maker, or to Sevron. Either way we most certainly are damned,”
. . . or we finally get what we deserve. The best we can ask for is to send Sevron to hell with us, Mastecus thought.
“It’s time we obey the urgings of Sevron and once more join the Dark Army. When the battle begins, let us, one and all make our final choice. For when the battle ends . . . so too ends the Makii . . .
Through the Rift they poured – a host of rotting forms that more resembled puke gushing from the mouth of the Rift than they did an army.
Dona’Cora made herself invisible, and from a distance she watched as the army continued to spill out of the new-formed Rift.
Just as she suspected, whoever commanded the Dark Army was well familiar with the Sanctuary.
Anon . . .
They had chosen the Grand Lecture Hall, the ideal location to commence their assault. If her ‘allies’ hadn’t abandoned her, she would have gathered them here in anticipation for such an attack.
The room was not only one of the Sanctuary’s largest, but it was also directly connected to dozens of other vital passageways -- each of which branched off into several other tunnels. All of the Sanctuary was interconnected in some fashion or another, but the Grand Hall was a hub, central to all tunnels. From there, the Dark Army could spread through the Sanctuary in a matter of hours, and there would be no way to stop them.
Too many open tunnels and no one to stand in their way.
Dona’Cora waited for the Grand Hall to fill. She stood still and patient, even as the fleshless monstrosities piled around her, nearly tripping over her invisible form. She would have waited, she knew what this was – in the ancient times they called this first wave cannon fodder. These were the weakest, most inconsequential forces of the Dark Army. Their sole purpose was to drain the Elders’ power, weaken them for the eventual coming of the Makii.
Dona’Cora was content to let the fodder pass her by, she sought the Makii. Whatever power she had left she wished to devote solely to them.
But then something else came through the Rift . . . actually, it was someone. The last being she would ever have suspected to see. The one she had struggled so hard to bring to the Sanctuary had finally come there on his own – and he even brought his weapon with him.
Adros dove from the Rift, immediately rolling into a somersault. He ended the somersault on his feet and running, in front of him, his spinning staff of King’s Wood carved a path through the throng of undead. He didn’t wait to see if his companions were behind him, he trusted them, and knew they would come. No matter what, he was moving forward. If at some point he found himself surrounded, he would fight his way out – it wouldn’t be the first time.
The power of his staff was incredible – all that it touched simply collapsed, their tainted souls devoured. And his staff touched many, for Adros’ reach was incredible as well. His long, limber arms combined with the eight foot staff made a substantial path through the undead army.
There were many exits to choose from in the large room of black glass, but Anon had shown him the path to take – the quickest, most direct course to the Hangar. To succeed, they had to get ahead of the undead, then, if all went according to plan, they would meet with the rest of the Elders and Chosen, hopefully delivering them from this world.
He saw the correct exit, and began carving a path toward it. For the most part, the undead (the type known among his people as Assun’kul, or ‘Dead Brains’) hardly had time to register his presence. If they managed enough sense to turn and confront him, his staff of King’s Wood was already on its way to take their soul.
As he continued plowing through the horde, the walls of black glass began to glow blue, reflecting the flames of the Magi like water rippling on their black surface.
Brontes is through, Adros thought. But what about the Mithri . . .
With an earth-shaking roar, the Mithrlnites made their presence known. There was only ten of them, but their thundering charge was enough to vibrate the entire room.
War-cries and explosions sounded at his back as Adros continued to fight on, his efforts spurred to greater heights knowing he wasn’t alone.
By the time he made it to the exit, his staff had grown warm to the touch, and blackened at its core. But otherwise, Adros suffered not a scratch.
“What took so long, Father?”
Adros wasn’t the least bit surprised to see his adopted son, X’ander casually leaning against the obsidian opening, twirling one of his silver daggers on the tip of his index finger.
He cast X’ander a look of disapproval.
“This is not a game, X’ander. Not some individual race to achieve personal glory. We’ve been charged with clearing a path for those who follow. It is essential we succeed, for in the end, we only move as fast as our slowest member.”
X’ander returned his look of disapproval with a cold, dead stare.
“Don’t worry, Father,” he whispered in reply. “I ended plenty dead ones to get here.”
Adros didn’t doubt the truth of his claim for a moment.
Like Adros, X’ander was covered head to toe in the blue-steel suit the dwarves had provided them. Typically, X’ander’s most distinguishable feature (or lack thereof) was his bald head. Unlike the rest of the elves, who had golden manes of curls, X’ander was utterly hairless; a result of his imprisonment in the Dead Tree. Adros had never been able to escape the feeling that he was responsible for what X’ander had become. He freed him from the Dead Tree, but too late. The young elf’s hair wasn’t the only thing the Dead Tree took from him. One look at his cold, compassionless grey and white eyes and it was plain to see who, and what, X’ander was.
“I was so hoping the dead had finally made a snack of you, Brother,” came a sultry and sweet voice from behind Adros. He instantly recognized the speaker as S’ilindsa, and caught himself before he breathed a sigh of relief at the knowledge of her safety.
He struggled to bury the thought. He had to accept their deaths. All fifty-two of the remaining elves had already made peace with their role in the universe. They pledged their lives to Adros and his cause. Because of him, they were freed from the horrors of the Dead Tree, and the desolation of their home-world.
Still though, he felt responsible for them. The children of Ki'minsyllessil had always been his responsibility. Any time one of them died, he couldn’t help but take the loss personally, like he failed them somehow. With each death, another part of Adros was lost – another part of his fallen home-world Ki’minsyllessil gone. It was his duty to not only ensure the continuation of his people, but to preserve their history and culture as well. His ‘children’ were young when Ki’minsyllessil fell. For them, the purity and beauty his planet once stood for was only a fading memory. They perceived their home-world as a horror. A place full of pain and suffering, of which they had barely escaped.
They may not have known it, but the true spirit of Ki’minsyllessil survived within them. Adros saw it in their courage, kindness, and strength – even in the face of the most unimaginable horrors. When he looked upon his children, he saw the hope and love that had been the foundation for the utopian world, Ki’minsyllessil.
As long as the foundation remained, Adros believe the universe could find peace once more. Perhaps they could start again on Anon’s new world, this ‘Seventh World’. But first, they had one more mission, one more world to save. Anon was tasked to continue his race, but he had made another promise as well. He made a vow before the Maker that he would leave no living beings behind.
By saving the Elders and their Chosen, he would see that promise fulfilled.
“The day is young, S’ilindsa. You may yet have your wish granted,” X’ander replied. “But when I fall, I assure you it won’t be by some rotting Assun’kul.”
S’ilindsa sauntered past Adros, her shapely hips swaying back and forth in an almost hypnotic fashion. Any other male in the universe would have taken note of the way her tight-fitting suit of steel hugged her curves, but Adros was her adopted father, and not-to-mention, had already given the full breadth of his heart to another – the goddess, Alana.
X’ander failed to notice her feminine charms because his heart was devoid of passion.
Adros’ grey and white gaze did glance at her hips though, however, it was only to note that her blades were sheathed. Obviously, the slender short-swords had seen a deal of recent activity, for the scabbards were dripping with gore.
Contrary to the ways of their ancestors, these young elves preferred weapons of steel to wood. In their hands, these weapons were more deadly than their human and dwarven creators ever dreamed. In only a short time, the young elves gained a proficiency with their blades that rivaled the highly skilled and experienced humans who they helped save from the Rift. The truth of it was, the humans lacked the keen muscle-memory, agility, and speed that was inherent to all elves.
X’ander’s blade of choice was the dagger. He seemed obsessed with the weapon and had acquired quite a collection of them. When utilized as a ballistic weapon, his innate, elven speed and accuracy meant certain and instant death for anything closer than thirty feet. Anything within arm’s reach fell in a blur of silver.
S’ilindsa preferred her thin blades of blue-steel. They were custom made by the dwarves to accommodate her elven speed, and though extremely thin, the special blue-steel, combined with the slight curve to their edge, greatly strengthened the blades. Also, a flowing, wave like line of silver had been imbedded in their edges, thus ensuring any wound she inflicted on the undead would prove a permanent one.
“I have feeling we will all be tested to our outmost with this mission,” Adros said, to both of his children. “We’ve fought battles before, but never for such a prize. Today, our enemies will hold nothing back.”
“I welcome the test,” X’ander coldly stated.
“As do I,” S’linda said, bursting with youthful bravado.
Had he trained them well enough?
“I truly hope you both shall pass.”
Adros turned back to the chamber, checking the status of the rest of his party.
I hope we all do . . .
A quick head-count determined the rest of his children remained; they had rapidly carved a defensible position in the room and then fanned out, decimating the Assun’kul to make room for the other races. The army of undead that once filled the chamber from wall to wall now wandered the room, broken and scattered. In a blaze of silver-fire, the line of elves pressed them back to the glass, walking forward almost effortlessly as they cut the mindless beings down.
A few large groups of undead remained, but the collective power of the Magi quickly burnt them to dust. Brontes took control of his people, directing their attacks in a calculated and efficient manner. In his life-time, Brontes had faced many battles with the undead, and over the years had grown to become highly skilled when it came to killing them with the Oneness.
Then there was the Mithrlnites, only ten, but they were enough to hold the Rift. Their massive bodies formed a wall in front of it. The moment anything came out, it was immediately blown back in or hacked down. It was evident the Magi no longer controlled the Gate, for once more the Assun’kul were gushing out. The giants seemed almost happy to see them, their war-cries sounded more like howls of joy as they obliterated whatever had the misfortune to step out of the Rift.
So far the undead had yet to gain a foothold in the Sanctuary, but Rag’nerack and his men were old and would eventually wear out. And soon, the Makii would catch on to their plan and send heavier forces – possibly even themselves – then the wall of Mithrlnites would truly be put to the test.
The giants’ role in this battle was to buy the others time, it was never their intention to leave the Sanctuary. That was the deal they had made with Anon. They were old, veteran warriors. They had spent their entire existences fighting the Dark Army. Only recently had the word ‘safety’ entered their vocabulary. They had never known peace, nor fathomed its existence until Brontes and the Magi brought them to Anon’s ‘Seventh World’.
They knew their days were numbered because of their age -- but their days had always been numbered. As they have done since the moment of their births, they would face death head-on, grinning as they hammered away at it. The Maker willing, they would take many with them when they died.
Adros watched as the giants turned the pile of smashed bodies in front of the Rift into a mountain, and knew that the Maker would bless them this day.
He regretted not being able to see that mountain rise up and fill the mouth of the Rift, but they had to move. The chamber was virtually clear, so he signaled for a trio of elves to stay and eliminate any stragglers while he ordered the rest of his people to take to the hallways.
Their white pupils glowing, Adros, X’ander and S’ilindsa led the way into the smooth, black tunnels of the Sanctuary . . .
It was time to go to the Hangar.
Covered in halos of burning blue flames, Brontes and the Magi flew out of the Rift. They hovered upwards, immediately adjusting their position to ten feet off the ground – safely beyond the reach of the dead. Then, they proceeded to burn anything with dead flesh.
As Brontes expected, Adros and the elves did a tremendous job dividing, and routing, the enemy. Where groups of the undead suddenly gathered and surged, Brontes and his Magi directed their flames. Converting the Oneness to actual fire had always proven the quickest and most effective method to kill the undead. Thus, any group of dead numbering more than a handful suddenly became a bonfire of burning dead flesh. The smoke, and accompanying stench threatened to fill the chamber, but several strands of Oneness became wind, and sucked it into the Rift.
Not far behind, the Mithrlnites lumbered through the Black Door. The last to leave the Rift; they burst out roaring, angered and disappointed to see that the chamber was all but clear. They weren’t disappointed for long. The moment the last of them touched ground, Brontes sent a telepathic message to his companions, ‘Relinquish the Gate, focus all efforts on moving forward . . .’
He also sent a message to Rag’nerack, leader of the Mithrlnites, ‘The Gate is yours . . . good luck, guard it well . . .’
This mission had many difficulties, leaving the giants to their deaths would be the first of them.
‘. . . and die well, Rag’nerack,’ he finished.
He noticed Adros and the elves were already cleaning up and gathering at the tunnels. Brontes remained only long enough to acknowledge Rag’nerack, who raised his giant glowing hammer in salute, then he turned to join the elves.
Behind him, the chamber filled once more with the giants’ roars. This time, the sound seemed filled with a certain amount of joy.
Brontes floated down the chamber, his blue flames occasionally leaping out to aid the remaining elves, hastening their job of finishing off the undead. He was halfway down the chamber when he felt it . . . felt her.
The presence was faint, impossibly so. He had always known she was powerful, but she wasn’t just invisible, she had made herself virtually non-existent. No doubt Brontes’ own powers had grown a great deal stronger since last they met, but even so, if he hadn’t practically ran into her, he doubted he would have felt her at all.
Dona’Cora . . . what are you up to? He wondered. Discovering her presence had caused him to pause – albeit momentarily – he truly hoped she missed it and yet thought herself hidden. If anyone could ruin this mission it would be her.
Not that he considered her an enemy, but it was certain that she had her own agenda. And more often than not, those who failed to heed her agenda suffered because of it. He had enough to deal with at the moment without worrying about getting on the wrong side of Dona’Cora.
He continued on, enhancing his speed to catch up with the elves, all the while doing his best to pretend he hadn’t almost crashed into the Elder Goddess, Dona’Cora.
‘The Gate is yours . . . good luck, guard it well . . .’ the wizard said, speaking in his mind.
Rag’nerack prepared himself, flexing his mighty arms. His wide, gaping nostrils sucked in a deep breath of air . . .
‘. . . and die well, Rag’nerack.’
Oh the scent! So familiar to him. The aroma of battle . . .
He raised M’jllner high.
The foul stench of infected, rotting flesh. He both despised and loved it. A mere whiff of the undead was enough to send him into a frenzy . . .
The little wizards all left . . . good. Now the slaughter belonged to the brothers.
The Stone Sense flowed through him. Born of his thundering heart, it flooded his blood-veins with the power of steel and earth. It surged through his arms; thick, corded muscles tough as stone. It filled his meaty fist, then traveled up the six foot column of steel, igniting M’jllner in a blaze of white light.
He shifted his massive girth toward the Rift, swinging the glowing block of crystal downward as he did so.
A dozen rot-skins were blown back; their bloated bodies erupting into bits and pieces of burning flesh.
Alongside him, his stone-brothers stood – a wall. A wall of giants.
In front of them, Hell’s Gate writhed in fury. Wailing with bloodlust, the dead poured out in a raging flood.
Rag’nerack raised his hammer to the Door, howling back at it.
Again and again his hammer fell – and where it landed, the undead were obliterated. With every passing arc of M’jllner a dozen fell, their bodies exploding on contact. But almost instantaneously, a dozen more walking corpses were there to take their place. Back and forth his hammer swept, sundering anything that got in its way.
Their charred remains covered him, still smoldering as they landed on his thick, leathery skin.
The rot-skins fell in innumerable amounts. His stone-brothers took nearly as much as he; their axes and hammers filled the spacious chamber with enough blazing silver-fire to nearly match M’jllner’s glow.
And oh how his stone-brothers roared . . . Hell’s Gate quaked in fear.
The Dark Lords sent greater foes; larger, smarter rot-skins, but they fell the same. Like all rot-skins, their minds were slow and weak – as were their bodies.
Then came the bitten. The hell-spawn of the Dark Lords. They were strong, fast, and often filled with the essence of death.
But none of that mattered.
The moment they left the Hell’s Gate they hit the wall. The only difference between the bitten and the rot-skins, was that they saw their end coming. The war-cries of his brothers turned their dead blood into ice. M’jllner turned their bodies into ash and dust.
The stone-brothers stood fast and held the Gate, even when injured. Some were bitten, several clawed. A few suffered even worse; broken bones, deep internal wounds. But the wall remained solid and strong. The pile of fallen bitten nearly clogged Hell’s Gate.
Then there was a pause . . .
His body was blackened with soot. His sweat turned to steam under the layer of hot ash. His chest heaved in and out from exhaustion.
Keeping a wary eye on Hell’s Gate, Rag’nerack turned to assess his brothers.
Stokimere was full of their blood; his body was covered in bites, many of which were quite deep. He leaned wearily on his axe for a moment, then toppled over. With a swift drop of his hammer, Brokheim was there to send him away. But Brokheim had the blood as well; bite marks marred his hairy chest and arms. His own blood spilled from the wounds, signifying penetration – infection. He would fight for a time longer, but then no more.
He looked at his brothers, for what would probably be the last time. Seven had the blood in them – at varying degrees, and one was dead. Of the ten giants who journeyed to the Sanctuary, only two of them remained whole – Rag’nerack and the crafty old warrior, Oldem. They all knew what this was. They were born with battle in their blood-veins, and had spilt much of it fighting against the Demon Horde. The tactics of the Dark Lords were well known to them. The Horde had paused, not out of fear, but because they awaited the birth of infection. They thought to turn their enemies into their allies . . .
Rag’nerack would give them none.
His infected brothers came to him . . . to be blessed with M’jllner.
Only two stone-brothers remained.
They were the last ones left in the chamber when the Dark Lords came . . .
Dona’Cora was more than impressed – she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Only ten . . . they decimated an army!
If only such beings had joined her in her war to save the planet Kandor . . . what would have become of Thane then? With her God-king at her side, the Dark Army would never have spread so far.
What would she have become?
There was little time to ponder the past, she knew what this meant – what was sure to come. With their armies decimated so, the Makii would be forced to make an appearance.
Come damn you . . . you cowards, see how your armies fall to only a handful.
She knew their arrogance wouldn’t accept this; beings devoid of the Oneness standing before them as gods.
How easily these giants felled even the Makii’s Soulless; those they ‘blessed’ with their tainted blood, thus endowing them with their own dark powers.
No matter what came through the Gate, it didn’t stand a chance. The giants fought in a berserk rage, crushing and hacking anything with dead flesh.
And their leader . . . rarely had Dona’Cora seen such a mighty warrior. The giant’s sheer power was more than a match for an Elder, even in their hottest halo. Had he wanted, he could have easily picked up his enemies and simply crushed them in his fists. But instead he obliterated them. His massive hammer held a power that even Dona’Cora had never seen. Like the majority of non-humanoid beings, he was devoid of the Oneness. However, he possessed a raw elemental energy that he somehow enhanced by channeling it into his crystalline hammer.
In a manner of minutes, a legion of dead fell. For what seemed like eternity, the minutes continued to pass . . . and the dead continued to fall.
Surely the giants wouldn’t last forever, but Dona’Cora was certain they had already done their job. It was obvious they were buying time for the others; the elves, Brontes and his troupe of Chosen. But what were they hoping to gain? There was no escaping the Sanctuary. By coming here, they had sentenced themselves to death.
Dona’Cora should have been gladdened by the knowledge; Brontes was an ally of Anon. His loyalty had always been questionable in the past, but his recent actions proved he was an enemy. And the Elf Prince . . . what she wanted was his power – the secret of his immunity to the Plague, and his staff with its strange but devastating abilities. If only he had come to her before – willingly, this might all have been avoided. It could have been her army launching an assault on the worlds of the Makii.
Yes, with an army of Chosen, Elves and Giants she could have sent the Dark Army into the Rift for all time.
She held no love for either Adros or Brontes, but deep down, she couldn’t help but pray they somehow succeed. If they truly had the power of the Maker on their side, then anything was . . . No. She wouldn’t buy into Anon’s belief. There was no Maker. All the gods were in the Sanctuary, and were soon to be dead – or Dead Gods. If indeed, by some miracle, he saved them all, then perhaps she would change her religion. But shy of that . . . Dona’Cora couldn’t imagine what he hoped to achieve.
What are you up to, Anon?
She continued to ponder his plans, when the battle at the Rift entered a sudden lull . . .
Anon had been many things in his life, but never a fool. Whatever miracle he had in store, Dona’Cora would never witness it. This was to be her end . . . her final battle.
Dona’Cora prepared herself, filling every cell of her body with the Oneness.
Even her cold, compassionless heart stirred when their leader ‘cleansed’ his companions. They went willingly, every single one of them ended their lives with a face-splitting grin.
The leader completed his duty, then once more turned to face the Rift.
What once was a wall of giants guarding the Gate, had been reduced to a shield; only two of them now remained.
The leader had barely squared his bulky frame to the Rift, when the Makii finally came.
“Is, The Master sure about this?” the little red fiend piped.
Together they stared at the pulsating gate. Walls surrounded them; stone walls over four feet thick. They were all cracked, crumbling, and for the most part, toppled. They stood on the altar of some long dead planet – its altar to the Darkbridge. The structure must have once been a magnificent temple dedicated to the powers of the Gate . . .
. . . the Gate . . . the bridge between worlds . . . the union of the universe.
. . . The pathway of the Plague.
Above them the night sky was dancing with stars . . . so many of them. And how many worlds were out there, hidden in the darkness? Even Mastecus hadn’t come to grips with what the Makii had truly lost. Was it even possible to comprehend?
Despite Imorbis’ apparent freedom from the ‘new’ Plague, Mastecus continued to struggle with what should have been an obvious conclusion.
Is the Maker real?
Perhaps his reasoning was clouded by the ‘other’ voices in his head, those of Sevron, the Servant of Death. He couldn’t deny it any longer, his mind was not his own. He was being erased, overwritten by the entity Sevron.
Is this what the universe has in store for us? Madness and death?
Or was that its core . . . ? Was that all it ever really was? And the struggle for life and order had always and forever been just a futile endeavor.
He almost dared not to think it, lest he suddenly lose his soul . . . but, was Sevron right? Were they the mad ones to assume it was otherwise?
With great sorrow, he accepted the fact that he could no longer refuse Sevron’s call.
Mastecus entered the Rift . . .
Ome floated down the glassy hall, the single, circular orifice on his face hissing as it sucked in air. Only one familiar with Glokeen anatomy would be able to see that Ome was disturbed, worried. They would see it in his bulbous eyes; the spider-web of red veins flaring from his black pupils. Or find it apparent by the nervous vibrating of the filter-feeding intake flaps found in the mouth of his kochlar. Even his flesh gave him away, shining with the greasy coat of gel that secreted from his pores in a similar fashion to human sweat – but was far more viscous, the secretion more closely resembling mucus than actual perspiration.
Ome had always lacked the ability to veil his emotions. On his home-world, he would be read like an open book -- but he was a long way from Q’ptin Major. In the Sanctuary, Ome was an enigma.
Not only was it rare for a non-human to develop the Oneness (only a handful had ever risen to the rank of Elder) but from what he had learned, the Elders had never even invested their genetics into his home-world. Seemingly, Ome developed the power entirely on his own – a feat so rare, it had happened only one other time in all of known history.
The first to do so was the forerunner of the Makii -- the one who started it all. His blood passed to his ancestors, the Makii, who eventually used the power to create the Gate, thus beginning the second conquest of the universe. Those they conquered, they infused with their blood and the gift of the Oneness, though only those with pure-blood retained the name, Makii. The others became viewed as half-bloods -- experiments. Some developed surprising abilities, while others birthed nothing at all.
Ome, on-the-other-hand, lacked the genetic lineage entirely. He had no ancestral tie to the original Makii. Yet, somehow the Oneness still flowed through his veins.
As with the original Makii, Ome was a miracle . . . the truth of which, was known to only one man, Anon. Anon hadn’t saved him from Q’ptin Major so much as he had stumbled upon him. Anon fought for the Glokeen because none other would. The rest of the universe left them discarded, abandoned them to the pathway of the Plague. All Anon wished, was to see Ome’s people die with honor and not alone. For his efforts, he was rewarded with even more -- he found a miracle. He found Ome.
Ome trusted Anon since the first day he met him, as he trusts him still. He believed Anon, when he told him help was coming . . . but so too was the Dark Army. The worrisome part was wondering who would arrive first.
Yes, Ome was worried . . . and rightly so; he sensed a distant surge of power building in the Sanctuary.
The gathering of so much Oneness could mean only one thing; a Rift was forming. He had to get to the Hangar. That was where they had been told to gather should this occur. There they would wait, and hope that Anon arrived to save them before the Dark Army found and slaughtered them all. He sped through the halls as fast as he was able, his halo a fiery blue blaze shimmering on the walls.
Not long ago, Anon had spoken to Ome and a select few. He had warned him this was coming, that the Makii had their sights set on taking the Sanctuary and ending the battle once and for all. Some refused to believe him, others even dared to condemn him a liar and a traitor. But then he informed them of the truth of Ki'minsyllessil, and how the Plague had evolved to an even more infectious and vile form. After his tale, many of their doubts were put to rest, only a few left the meeting feeling Anon’s loyalty remained in question.
It wasn’t long before all of their suspicions came to an end. The sudden silence from the outer-worlds was the first confirmation. The second (and final) confirmation was the failed mission to investigate the Gate in the planet below. Ome should have never let that mission commence. However, he was the only member of the Conclave who didn’t require further proof (Anon’s tale had been enough). The Elder Corrisan and the dozen Chosen should have never left the Sanctuary. Ome should have been strong enough, stood up to Dona’Cora sooner. He saw her clearly now. For Dona’Cora, Corrisan was a casualty of war – her war. Corrisan was a proud, thoughtful, and intelligent Elder – he had been so for over a hundred standard years. Because of Dona’Cora, the value of the man’s life had been used as currency to solve a single question (to which they already knew the answer).
In Ome’s mind, there was no longer any doubt that Dona’Cora cared nothing for them. The Conclave, the Elders and the Chosen – one and all – were merely pawns in Dona’Cora’s quest for personal vengeance. She no longer walked the Maker’s path – if ever she had.
The Treaty was over, but not because a single Chosen had dared to stand her ground. Whether Dona’Cora knew it or not, Alana was the only one among them who had done the right thing. She gave everything to defend Ki'minsyllessil. Every Elder and Chosen should have joined her. If they had, maybe the God-tree of the elves would have escaped infection. By all accounts, the tree was a vast and powerful life-force; its roots were said to span the circumference of the planet, while its canopy of leaves and branches filled the sky like a never-ending cloud.
The entire breadth of if had succumbed to infection. According to Anon, the consolidation of such a large amount of dark energy had somehow awakened the Void itself. Almost as if it had become another sort of Gate, one that didn’t span worlds, but realities.
Anon claimed to have stood against this evil force . . . stood and died.
If what he said was true (and Ome was one who never doubted Anon) then Anon was truly blessed by the Maker. Perhaps had even become him. He could very well be the only being in the entire universe who could save them from the Plague – and Dona’Cora cast him out, banished him from the Sanctuary, only to return under penalty of death.
Hopefully, Anon understood that in the current situation that penalty no longer applied.
All they could do now was wait and see. Hopefully Anon returned to the Sanctuary . . . and soon.
Ome arrived at the Hangar, was heartened to see a sizeable gathering of Chosen and Elders had beat him there. He looked over the gathering, the many familiar faces milling around in nervous anticipation.
Beyond them, the cavernous barreled chamber opened directly to the outside. A thin shield of blame flames covered the opening, preventing the deadly external environment from entering the Sanctuary. Beyond the veil of blue, waves of black writhed under the moon’s powerful winds, their clear glass tops coiling across the land like serpents.
He also noted that among the gathering, twenty of the shiny, egg-shaped vessels known as ‘pods’ were parked in a pair of lines – ten to each side of the chamber. Were the pods to be their pathway to freedom? Anon never revealed what would happen next. At full capacity, it would be possible to load the entire inhabitants of the Sanctuary, but what then? Even with the Maker at his side, would Anon risk delivering them to deep space? Or was he planning on bringing them to the Rift-world below? It seemed certain that the planet was likely swarming with the dead, but if by some chance it wasn’t, even if the Elders and Chosen made it to the Gate, no matter where they went, the Dark Army could easily follow.
Once they entered the Rift, there would be nowhere to hide. The Makii would hunt them till the end of time.
Anon said to wait, so that’s what they would do.
Ome floated down to the gathering, depositing his round form amidst a group of fearful Elders.
The first to approach him was the goddess, Mila Dosanti, her bright, friendly smile somewhat warming the cold grip of doom clutching his heart. Thankfully, at the moment, the majority of her body was concealed in a suit of armor made of blue flames. The sight of her naked flesh sent his kochlar vibrating uncontrollably in disgust. Males tended to have the opposite reaction, while most females grew angry at her near-naked body. But Ome was neither. Nor was he even remotely human. The mere thought of sex made his flesh ooze -- and Mila was the epitome of human lust.
Copulation was unknown to his people, their reproductive organs were all internally located, and were asexual in nature. If, at some point in life, Ome chose to become a life-parent, his body would enter a yearlong period of hibernation and gestation. After which, he would produce a genetically similar copy of himself – birthed through his kochlar.
But given the state of the universe, not to mention their current plight, birthing a simulacrum would be a bad decision – for both Ome, and the child as well.
The sad truth of their age was that it was a horrible time to be a child of any race.
Mila Dosanti walked over to him. Her flesh may have been hidden, but her sexuality was still more than apparent in the sensual swagger to her step.
“We were beginning to wonder if you’d come,” she whispered in her half-moaning voice.
She was a kindhearted woman, but -- as it usually was when in her presence -- Ome resisted the urge to regurgitate his recent air-sifted particles through his kochlar. In his mind, projecting them upon her would greatly improve her appearance. Undoubtedly, she would not appreciate the gesture.
‘I had one more matter to attend . . . I sought out Dona’Cora. Despite her anger, and attitude toward this war, I felt it necessary to inform her of our exodus,’ Ome stated, bluntly and without any apparent emotion.
“Tell me, Ome . . . what has become of our great goddess?” She asked in a breathy murmur.
Many of the other Elders closed in on their conversation, a few were even fellow members of the Conclave. He noticed his friend, Jakkar was among them. Jakkar was human, but it was nearly impossible to tell. Jakkar was more familiar with ‘plague’ and infection than anyone present. When he was but an infant, Jakkar suffered a malady that twisted his body into wicked, unhuman proportions. His home-world was a poor, mineral drained planet that lacked sufficient Healers. On a world where poverty was the norm, Jakkar’s family was considered to be among the lowest class. By the time his Savior arrived, Jakkar was horribly and irrevocably disfigured.
He was the mirror-opposite of Mila Dosanti: she was a sexual goddess that embodied perfection of the human form. She not only flaunted her perfection, but enhanced it with the Oneness, ensuring that it was impossible for all who neared her to take note of her stunning beauty. She draped the Oneness around her body like a second skin, an even more sensual and alluring flesh than what the Maker had blessed her with. Jakkar’s body was broken and bent. His bones were twisted at impossible angles. His spine was shaped into an S, one leg failed to grow since infancy, while the other thickened and stretched beyond human proportions every passing year. His arms were disjointed at some locations, while possessed with multiple malfunctioning joints in other locations. Dosanti had graceful, nearly symmetrical features (other than the strangely endearing black dot slightly above her lip), and a head of smoky dark curls that danced with her every step. Jakkar’s head was grotesquely huge. Though even on a giant it would be ill-fitting. Nor was it symmetrical – not in the least. It resembled more of a misshapen lump of tumorous flesh than a human head. The half-closed eye, bowed nose and row of jagged, sloped teeth were the only indication it was otherwise.
Mila was never seen without a radiant halo around her – Jakkar could’ve easily hidden his appearance with but a simple thought, but never once did he hide who, or what he was. When Jakkar summoned his Oneness, it wasn’t to hide his appearance, or even battle the undead; Jakkar chose to use his gift to heal – and only to heal. Without ever having killed a single undead, he had risen high among the Elders because he was the greatest Healer the universe had ever known.
‘I went to find Dona’Cora, and indeed I did,’ Ome continued. ‘But, as one would expect, she had her mind fixed on hate and vengeance. I didn’t have to read her mind to see it . . . she was heading to the source of power, to the coming Rift. She wants her final battle, and she wants to face, and be done with, the demons that have plagued her all these years.’
“Poor woman,” Mila sighed, and for once, her voice filled only with sympathy and not sensuality.
‘Perhaps in her final moments, she may yet find peace,’ Jakkar said. Much like Ome, his verbal communication was limited.
Ome nodded his head-body at the notion – he did wish Dona’Cora well. Mostly he wished she remembered what she had lost, and that when she fought, it was out of love for her God-king and fallen companions, and not purely out of hate.
‘What if he doesn’t come?’ the grey-skinned Elder Atomin asked. The same question was on everyone’s mind, but only Atomin lacked sufficient faith in Anon to ask it.
‘We have to have faith that he will come,’ Ome replied.
The Elders grew silent at the notion – no doubt, they wished to keep the struggle with their faith an internal one.
Faith . . . that was all that was left to them now. Faith in Anon and the Maker. Ome didn’t care to debate the foundations of his faith with Atomin at the moment, nothing he could say would matter, not now. All they really could do was hope and wait.
The Elders waited in silence, all of them fully aware of the burgeoning source of power in the Sanctuary. All of them aware that with every passing moment, their home was being overrun.
Meanwhile, at the Hangar, the empty moments stretched eternal and nothing happened. Beyond the shield-wall the wind continued to reshape, and polish the landscape. Ome envisioned what must be occurring at the site of the Rift – he saw a swarm of bloodthirsty monstrosities filling the Sanctuary’s halls. He imagined their rage when they found the halls empty – and their fear when they ran into Dona’Cora.
How long could she stand against them? A single Elder against the entire Dark Army.
He pictured her alone, surrounded by death, her power fading and her life ending as a feast for the dead.
Faith . . .
Did they make the wrong decision? Should they be there, fighting at Dona’Cora’s side?
Despite his growing doubt for Anon, the decision had already been made – and Dona’Cora left to her fate. If Anon didn’t come to save them, then they would have to make their last stand here, at the Hangar.
Perhaps it’s past time we prepare for the worst . . .
Ome was on the verge of directing the Elders and Chosen into defensive formations, maybe barricade themselves within the Hangar before the Dark Army found them, when suddenly a Chosen shouted out in warning.
“Incoming pod!” the young man yelled.
Several Chosen and Elders rushed to the shield-wall.
Ome waddled after them to get a better look. Sure enough, drifting over the glassy black mountains on the horizon, a metallic gleam could be seen. As it neared, the blue sheen of Oneness driving the vessel was also apparent. The blue flames were a welcome sight to Ome and many others who initially wondered if the craft had peaceful intentions.
But some weren’t convinced, nervous murmurs arose (so too did flaming halos) as the ship decelerated and prepared to enter the shield wall. It slowly merged through the blue wall, coming to a land just beyond the edge of the cavern.
There it sat.
The nervous murmurs turned to loud, fearful conversations the longer the vessel remained inactive. Burning blue halos flared up all around him. Ome even enacted his own. With Dona’Cora gone, he knew the others looked to him for a decision. But truth-be-told, he had no greater knowledge of the pod’s contents than any other. There was nothing left to do but find out.
Hesitantly, Ome approached it. He shuffled forward, his kochlar flaps nearly humming from vibrating so fast.
He was within arm’s reach (his arms) of the vessel when a circle of blue flames appeared on the silver surface, opening a door into the ship. Ome paused, waiting, enhancing his halo after nothing happened . . . then something happened.
A figure appeared, skeletal, faceless, his head an opened, bloody wound. The humanoid figure stumbled from the door, reaching out to Ome, moaning. Flesh sloughed from his face, as did the remnants of his eyes.
“The Plague! Someone screamed at his back.”
Ome hesitated, he sensed something in the figure . . . life. And a familiar life-force at that.
Unbelievably, this man was alive – and he was a friend.
If he could have shouted for them to wait, he would have, but either way it would have been too late.
Blue flames dove from the crowd, setting the figure on fire.
Ome wobbled forward, his own flames shooting out to heal him. He reached out to the sunken figure with his stubby, three-fingered hand. There were too many working against him. They had acted out of fear, never fully comprehending what they saw. As his healing flames entered the man’s flesh, Ome found the truth.
‘Davidian . . . what happened to you?’
Before he had his answer, Davidian’s life-force faded away.
Then Ome sensed another presence, this one also familiar – sort of. Unlike Davidian, this one was tainted virtually beyond recognition.
‘OME . . .’
Even as well versed in telepathy as he was, Ome was no match for the giant Elder’s own ability.
Ome’s halo disintegrated. What little support his legs provided, vanished. Ome collapsed into a helpless ball. Even his senses were abandoning him. The darkness was coming to claim him, but before it did, he saw a flurry of black tendrils spilling from the door to the pod. He was unable to stop them as several tendrils crept toward him and then sunk into his flesh . . .
Adros dashed through the tunnels. To his left, X’ander kept pace; a knife at the ready in each hand, a gleam in his white eyes. For a being that was incapable of emotion, he seemed almost excited for what laid ahead. On Adros’ right was S’ilindsa, her body graceful and flowing as she sped on. Her blades remained sheathed, but S’ilindsa looked onward in determination; ready to draw her blades at a moment’s notice. Adros knew from experience it would truly take but a moment, then S’ilindsa’s blades would be out and slicing through her enemies in a whirlwind of silver-fire.
That moment was coming; Adros could tell by the look in her eyes, she knew it as well.
Not far behind the trio, the rest of Adros’ children followed – a small, but highly skilled army of elves. And among them, the Magi came as well, enhancing their speed with the Oneness just to keep up with Adros and the others.
In front of them, the black walls glowed with mage-fire. One after another, massive eruptions shook the Sanctuary, flooding the tunnels with thunderous booms. Between the blasts, screams of terror could be heard, echoing throughout the Sanctuary.
“What is this?” S’ilindsa asked, mid-sprint. Even though she was pushing her body to its utmost, she wasn’t the least bit winded.
“It’s the Plauge,” X’ander replied, giving the most obvious answer.
Another blast rocked the Sanctuary, more powerful than all the rest. Even the agile elves nearly stumbled under the ensuing shockwave. Never pausing, they continued on, faster than ever.
“It’s a massacre . . .” Adros said. “We have failed.”
What went wrong? He wondered, and not for the first time. A part of him didn’t actually want to know what had happened at the Hangar – another part of him already knew. They had failed. The gods were dying – possibly all dead. Instead of fleeing with the Chosen and Elders, they would be fighting them to reach the pods.
A massacre . . .
He had seen it all before . . . far too many times. He should have known better; there was no victory in this war, only heartache. Why had he ever thought this would be any different?
Either way, the plan remained the same; find the living and leave. The only difference was that the ‘leaving’ part just became a lot more difficult.
The trio came upon a sharp turn in the tunnel, without slowing, they took the turn; running halfway up the wall of black glass before changing direction. After they took the corner, they immediately stopped – S’ilindsa’s thin, silver blades flowed from their scabbards.
They saw a group of Magi speeding down the hallway in a mad dash. Behind them, waves of blue flames rippled along the walls.
“Stop,” Adros yelled, his command intended for the children and Magi behind him, as well as for the Magi in front of him.
The fleeing Magi had been focused on the terror behind them, but because of Adros’ shout, they finally took note of the elven trio. Considering the elves were entirely clad in black, not to mention incredibly tall and lanky, the Magi failed to recognize them as allies.
Without further consideration, waves of blue energy shot from their fingertips. The flames roared down the hallway, becoming a flood of fire by the time it barreled into Adros and the others.
“GET BACK!” Adros screamed, stepping forward, thrusting out the staff of King’s Wood.
Before him, the flames formed a vortex, funneling into the twisted staff. Adros stood fast as the waves continued to crash against him, the dark staff taking on a bluish hue the more power it devoured. The combined Oneness of over a dozen Magi washed over him, but the staff absorbed it all. The bluish hue grew bright azure. Coils of smoke arose from the staff’s blood-red tip – and from Adros’ hands as well. His skin blistered and peeled as the energy mounted within the King’s Wood. Blood dripped from his fingers, but despite the pain, he only tightened his gripped.
Somewhere in the inferno’s roar he dimly recognized the voice of S’ilindsa as she screamed, “Brontes! Help him!”
Little by little, the fires dwindled – but the burning heat within his staff remained. Even so, with his hands split open and blackened, Adros didn’t release his grip on the King’s Wood – not even when the fires of the Magi were extinguished altogether.
Gently, S’ilindsa took his wrists.
“Someone, heal him,” she demanded, and shortly after her words were spoken, blue flames caressed his bloodied hands. But the King’s Wood remained ripe with power, his hands blistered anew the moment the Oneness left him. Adros gritted his teeth against the pain, refusing to drop his staff.
Brontes put a hand on Adros’ shoulder, then strode past him, heading out to greet the new Magi -- Ollius followed shortly behind. The Magi came forward to meet them, albeit hesitantly. Neither party said a single word, but Adros didn’t doubt they were engaged in a furious telepathic conversation. Eventually, Brontes was able to convince them their intentions were benign, and ushered them towards the rest of the group. As the Magi came closer, they stared at Adros in awe – some, in fear. Brontes guided the frightened and disheveled group to the gathering, then turned to Adros and the others.
Ollius, however, continued down the hallway to find more survivors, accompanied by two of their fellow Magi from the Seventh World. . .