X’ander was the first to arrive, he darted into the chamber, his daggers ready to fly from his fingers. He was thankful to find an empty room – less so, when he realized it was a dead end.
Inwardly, he cursed. Outwardly, he maintained the cold exterior of a killer.
They had been fleeing through the tunnels for some time now. And though every member of their small party was familiar with the general lay-out of the Sanctuary, after being continually blocked from their chosen path, they eventually grew disorientated and found themselves lost. The task was increasingly annoying due to the fact that every damned tunnel looked identical to the last.
But there was another element to the situation, one which X’ander, the experienced hunter and killer, was well familiar with.
We’re being corralled . . .
The actions of the undead were proving to be highly intelligent. Despite all of X’ander’s attempts to avoid a trap, the undead had finally caught him.
He heard the others drawing near. Without turning to them he said, “Prepare to make a stand.”
He scanned the room with his grey and white eyes, seeking anything that could give them a tactical advantage. There was little. The room was roughly two elves tall, maybe eight wide as well as long. The only objects in the room were several toppled, stone tables and block-like chairs of the same material. Books of leather, and rolls of aged, yellow parchment were scattered upon the floor.
“Magi, pile the blocks of stone in the entry and fuse them together,” he commanded, his deadpan voice assuming their obedience. “Doshain, A’rhie, grab the others and get to the tables. Stand them upright. Fight two elves to a table, keep the high ground as long as you can. If they want us so badly, then let them come.”
The pair of young elves dashed past him, moving to obey. Another elf entered the room: a cautious, white eye on the hallway behind her and a caring eye on the Magi and elves, assuring they were all safely deposited into the room. She continued on, approaching X’ander. On each of her swaying hips was a worn leather scabbard, but only one held a sword.
“When they find us, they’ll kill us all. There must be another way, Brother,” S’ilindsa said as she stood beside him.
“Unless you see an exit that I do not, then it seems our options are pretty limited at the moment.”
“Maybe I do . . .”
She spun away, heading to the entry where the Magi were piling the stone chairs with their Oneness.
He nearly smiled as she walked away. It was second nature for her to disagree with him, even when there was obviously no other options. But, much to his chagrin, it wouldn’t be the first time she proved him wrong, or saw a possibility he couldn’t even comprehend. Curious to find out if this was such a moment, X’ander joined her as she talked to the Magi.
She was an amusing one, that S’ilindsa – his supposed sister. For her, the epitome of life was to bask in her father’s light. Objects such as X’ander often turned such light to shadow. Her need to compete for Adros’ approval and love had become the highlight of X’ander’s life. He found this ‘struggle’ equally challenging and complex as saving a handful of people from a world full of undead. Gladly, he played her game; not because he cared a wit what Adros felt, but because he enjoyed the challenge, and even more so, he enjoyed challenging his sister, S’ilindsa.
She was a talented, intelligent warrior. And X’ander was proud to note, that the more he challenged her, the greater her talents became.
But would her many talents be enough to free them from their current plight? Was it even possible to rise to this challenge, and defeat a foe that was seemingly invincible? It seemed unlikely, but it wouldn’t be the first time his sister had surprised him.
X’ander sidled up next to the group, doing his best to appear inconspicuous as he listened in on their conversation.
“Not I, good elf. The creation of these halls was done long before my time,” a young, chubby-faced Chosen said to S’ilindsa.
After they split up from the rest of the Guardians, their search through the halls led them to five such Magi. Four of them were young Chosen. Though they had survived their own home-worlds, they were relatively inexperienced in battle. Their previous encounters with the Dark Army had been conducted under the Treaty, making their journey to the Sanctuary a safely guided exodus. Only one of the new Magi was an Elder – and a very strange one at that. If S’ilindsa hadn’t stayed his hand in their initial encounter, X’ander would have sent a flock of knives his way. Somehow his sister saw the man’s true nature, even though his exterior form screamed ‘demon’. X’ander wasn’t even certain he was human, perhaps what a human would look like if shaped by an infant’s hands. His limbs were more twisted and bent than Adros’ staff. His head was a pummeled glob of senseless flesh. He communicated little through the flap in his head, nor did he attempt to connect with them telepathically. The little they knew of him, they learned from the Chosen. They had but two pieces of information; his name was Jakkar, and he was an Elder.
That being the case, he must have had great power, but he never utilized a lick of it. Never once did Jakkar even bother to summon a halo.
Other than those five Magi, shortly after they found them, they were forced to abandon their quest as the undead began hounding them in. X’ander wasn’t sure what became of the other groups of elves and Magi, they only found two other groups as they sought to reach the Hangar. They combined forces and continued on, a total of six elves and ten Magi.
All of which were now currently trapped.
“Aye, the Sanctuary was built before my time as well,” another young Magi said. “We’re only Chosen, perhaps if we were Elders we could do what you ask. But even so, we’re near drained. Should we manage to make a tunnel, we will be unable to fight when we get to the other side. And if we attempt it and fail, we’re surely dead.”
“If we fight this foe, we die,” S’ilindsa bluntly declared. “Adros commanded it himself, we flee, not fight. Do it. Make a tunnel. As best you can, get it done. We’ll hold them back to buy you time, but do it, and do it quickly. Drain yourselves if necessary, but we need that tunnel.”
She danced through the crowd of Magi, then pointed at a section of wall at the back of the room.
“Do it there,” she commanded. “If memory serves me, there’s another passage fifty feet beyond that wall. If we can get to it, we’ll have a clear path to the Hangar.”
Looking doubtful and defeated, the Magi headed to the indicated area.
Leave it to S’ilindsa to find an exit where none existed . . . Perhaps she will free us from this hell after all.
She walked over to Jakkar, who seemed oblivious to the entire conversation, his lumpy body resting against the wall in order to avoid tipping over.
S’ilindsa rested her hand on his . . . shoulder?
They shared a moment of silence, then, for no apparent reason, she nodded her head.
“I wouldn’t call myself an Elder, but I’ll do my best to get it done,” Ollius said, approaching the pair. “And if Kendal’s fists are as good at smashing stone as they are bone, then we may have a shot.”
“No, as much as they need your help, you have to conserve your power,” S’ilindsa replied, shifted her focus to Ollius. “If we somehow survive this, someone has to take us off this world. Ollius, you may not be an Elder, but you were once a Gatekeeper. I doubt any of these Chosen can tune a Gate, let alone create one. And Kendal . . . ,” she said, nodding to the waifish girl. “We need you in the fight, you may be the only one who can actually kill these things.”
Kendal’s eyes immediately perked up at the suggestion.
“Jakkar . . .” S’ilindsa addressed the odd Elder, though he gave no indication he heard a word she said. “Get ready. Time to do what you do best.”
X’ander was actually excited to find out what that could possibly be. He had a feeling he would find out soon enough.
“They’re near, Sister,” X’ander said, breaking in on the conversation as he picked up their enemies’ familiar putrid scent.
Her sword seemed to jump into her hand by its own will. S’ilindsa’s new blade was a thicker, shorter, double-edged weapon. The technique and weight of the weapon were quite different than what she was use to with her thin blades. Non-the-less, X’ander was quite confident she would adapt to its use effortlessly. But even so, would it matter when their enemies’ blood was like acid? He decided he would have to keep a close eye on her when the battle began, lest she mistakenly over-step her abilities. Kendal was to be the killer in this fight, the rest of them (X’ander included) were meant to serve as distractions. Every last one o them knew they stood no chance against this foe, in this, X’ander was in total agreement with Adros – a rare occurrence of late. As long as they could keep them from overwhelming Kendal, the thin goddess might actually have a chance to eradicate a few of them.
X’ander signaled the other elves to join them at the entrance, meanwhile, the group of young Magi had begun the laborious task of boring a fifty foot long hole through a wall of solid obsidian. Ollius stepped back to the center of the room, despite S’ilindsa’s command, he covered himself in a flaming blue halo. Jakkar remained nearby, as seemingly unhuman and oblivious as ever.
Past the half-constructed wall of melted block-like chairs, X’ander saw the dead creeping down the hallway. There was over a dozen of them; their flesh covered in festering wounds and winding black veins -- their empty, black eyes drinking in their enemies. They moved slowly, cautiously, confident that they had finally cornered their victims, but fully aware how dangerous trapped prey could be.
Her eyes filled with fire, Kendal raised her head. Her typically timid features twisted in rage. As the twelve infected Chosen and Elders charged forward, Kendal ran out to great them with a pair of flaming fists.
One hand held M’jllner, the other, Dona’Cora. Her power was gone – her life nearly so. Like a baby, her shrunken and shriveled body was nestled in the crook of Rag’nerack’s hairy arm. He glanced down at his leg, cursing the old gods after noticing the black-blood had spread from the bite in his calf to his knee and ankle. In his frenzied escape, one of the foul, ball-shaped creatures managed to suction onto his leg with its grotesque, slit of a mouth. It fed for but a second before Rag’nerack squashed it with his foot -- that second was enough to spread the infection.
His next string of curses he directed towards himself, for letting his weariness blur his senses and allowing a simple blob of a creature to be his end.
As a boy, Rag’nerack learned that even the strongest of stone could be changed, and that the only thing permanent in the universe was the past.
That being the case, Rag’nerack found no sense in dwelling on it.
Grunting from the pain, he trudged on.
He was a Mithrlnite, born of the stone-blood. The infection would spread, but his blood was strong and he yet had time.
Time enough to deliver the little goddess to the Hangar. If Brontes and the others still remained, she could find sanctuary with them.
His legs pumped on. His broad chest heaved in and out. With every breath his nostrils filled with the scent.
Rot . . . decay . . . death . . .
He caught wind of it behind him, but he knew the most pungent scent came from him – his infected leg.
He was so near now.
. . . so were they . . . so too was death.
Chaos . . . the being basked in it. In front of him a young Chosen crawled away, his entrails dragging behind him.
Ostedes’ new limbs went out, a flurry of black tentacles. They latched onto the Chosen, searing her flesh as they dragged her towards his tree-like body. All the while, the young woman screamed, begging the Dead God for mercy, pleading with him to remember that he once was an Elder. It was her final hope; to find some remnant of goodness within his twisted soul.
She found none.
Ostedes reclaimed her. Her flesh dissolved as he pulled her into him. Every cell of her body ruptured, spilling forth her genetic material to become food for his Plague infested cells. He devoured her whole. The woman struggled inside him during the reclamation, his torso flexing as she fought to escape. For a moment, her muffled scream continued to sound, then it became a moan, then there was only silence from inside his trunk-like body.
They became as one. All her thoughts and fears became his own, strengthening him, fueling his dark power.
The Oneness . . .
The true Oneness . . .
There was another voice inside him, another will. It spoke to him of true power, something the Elders never dreamed. It was his Oneness. His truth.
It was chaos . . . all of it.
When he had reclaimed the Elders, one by one, he showed them the truth of it. They too sought mercy, sought goodness. Some wept as he consumed them, others begged for infection. Most of them he reclaimed, a small few he sent out to ensure the chaos spread. And oh how his power has grown. With each feast, new memories, new powers.
Nothing can stop him now . . . he is the Servant of Death.
Let chaos reign . . .
Ostedes was preparing to move on, to further his power, further the chaos, when suddenly he sensed new arrivals to the Hangar – both of their minds oh so familiar. And their flesh . . .
His chortled laughter filled the chamber.
. . . yes, the flesh. Time to finish what he started so long ago.
‘YOU STILL OWE ME SOMETHING, BOY. FROM YOU I REQUIRE FLESH . . . IT’S TIME TO PAY UP.’
He stood on the highest peak. He let his halo fall, welcoming the bitter cold and pounding wind against his flesh.
Serrated cliffs of red granite surrounded him for as far as his unaided eyes could see. Encircled in stone, a sole, solitary field filled the valley below, at its center, a pulsating black heart – the Rift.
Around the Rift, small sections of granite had been worn smooth, forming walls and walkways. A low parapet wall lined the walkways. Yet unfinished, it required another tier of brick to create the crenellation, thus providing the defenders narrow gaps to fire upon their enemies far below. To the north, the lower half of what would become a great tower was on the rise. Tiers of wooden planks and scaffolding encased the structure like an exoskeleton.
Normally, the scaffolding would be swarming with workers, but now the lifts were all still, the plank walkways empty. Since their arrival to the Seventh World, the races had been furiously working to transform the mountain range into a massive, insurmountable fortification. Thus far they had done well, Anon was most impressed. Given time, the barrier would be formidable indeed. But their time was limited. To complete the task on schedule it would take an army, an army of gods.
It was Anon’s hope to provide that army . . . but as he was all too painfully aware, the Plague corrupted all things, especially hope. Lately, too often even the Maker’s path was shadowed by the corruption. What once was clear and true, became doubt. He walked the path blindly now, his faith the only compass by which to guide his way.
For now, he would wait, and continue to hope. No matter what occurred, he would trust in the Maker, and believe this was the path.
Anon wasn’t the only one who waited, far below him, the inhabitants of the Seventh World had changed themselves from workers to warriors, and now stood in formation around the Rift. Most were humans, two thousand of them donned in sparkling, polished full plate mail armor. The second largest group were the dwarves; fierce fighters and brilliant craftsmen. Shimmering axes of blue-tinged steel rested on their stocky shoulders. Then there was the giants, only a hundred strong, but their bodies were so massive their line was as wide as the human’s and covered their ranks in shadow. Only a handful of Magi speckled the gathering, thin blue halos burning around their bodies.
One race was noticeably absent from the congregation. The elves had all entered the Rift, embarking on a most perilous journey to save a people that was neither kin, nor even friend. They went because he asked them to go, and because they understood the value of life and knew that it was to be cherished no matter what its form.
They knew the only enemy was death, and they would fight it, wherever it went.
But had he delivered them into their enemy’s hands? Was that where their path came to an end, the Sanctuary?
He sensed a failure of catastrophic proportions. What was most puzzling was that he only sensed it, but couldn’t see it. His power – the power of the Maker – was barred from the Sanctuary. The temptation to storm the Elders’ home with the army of races was nearly irresistible. But Anon knew that if he did so, he would likely be sending them all to their deaths. Nor could he even make the journey. It was the Maker’s will that those he sent must face this evil on their own. Either they would return, stronger than ever before, or storm the Gate with an army of undead at their side.
He trusted in his friends and their abilities, as he trusted the Maker’s will as well. But, whatever force held the Sanctuary was powerful beyond knowing. An evil even Anon had been unable to fully destroy.
The army of races sensed the potential failure as well. They were arrayed around the pulsating Black Door, fully expecting death to come storming through at any moment.
Anon still hoped the elves and Magi would be coming through, turning the gathering into a celebration – but they were long overdue.
So much was at stake here. Had he been a fool to trust Imorbis . . . again. The last time, the price he paid had been his own life. What would be the cost for following the Dead God this time?
There was only one certainty at this point – if indeed Imorbis betrayed him, he would make sure the Dead God burned in the Maker’s flame until the end of time.