They entered the Hangar. Adros strode in, his body poised and collected, the Graelic clenched in his hands and ready to strike. The white eyes of the Prince held no fear, only anger and hate for the being who had betrayed him so long ago.
His halo burning bright, Brontes walked at his side; fearful and wary. He had seen first-hand how powerful the evolved Plague was, and through the minds of the Chosen he had seen how powerful it had made the former Elder, Ostedes. Also, he was well aware that this wasn’t the first time Adros had faced the being; there had been two such encounters in the past, and each battle had ended in Adros’ defeat.
If it was at all possible, Brontes would have avoided this confrontation. They had never faced such evil before, nor so powerful a foe. But he knew his friend, the Elf Prince would not be denied this confrontation. He had a score to settle with the fiend that was long overdue.
From their previous journeys into the Rift, Adros had grown stronger than ever – yet so too had Ostedes. And none of their past experiences prepared them in the least for the enigmatic powers the giant now possessed.
Nevertheless, Brontes knew this was a fight they had to partake in . . . and had to win. If they failed, every living being in the Sanctuary would die.
Side by side, they stepped into the room, then paused. The floor of black glass shimmered under Brontes’ flames, reflecting back at him in a crimson hue through the thick coating of blood covering the floor. To either side of them, sanctuary awaited; twin rows of glistening metallic pods. In front of them, the giant reared up, his limbs uncoiling and thrashing in the air, his body a blackened trunk of putrid, rotting wood. Beyond him, the Hangar opened to the harsh wind-torn landscape, the cruel environment suddenly so appealing to Brontes.
He had heard that in his last battle with the being, Adros had severed one of his arms (Anon had removed the other). Miraculously, both arms had regrown, but now, instead of the previous, flexible branch-like limbs, they more resembled an angry nest of black snakes.
Long before the giant attacked, they knew what was coming . . .
‘YOU STILL OWE ME SOMETHING, BOY,’ the giant said, he voice threatening to tear apart their minds. ‘FROM YOU, I REQUIRE FLESH . . . IT’S TIME TO PAY UP.’
Impossible, Brontes thought, falling to his knees. Amidst the pain burning through his mind, he somehow managed to recall the last time he heard those words. It can’t be, Anon destroyed you . . .
A strange, clucking sound filled the room.
‘ANON . . . THE FOOL. THE FALSE GOD. EVEN HE CANNOT KILL ME. I CANNOT DIE.’
‘We shall see,’ Adros replied, his rage-filled mind shaking off the giant’s mental barrage.
On their journey to the Hangar, they shared a theory; if Adros’ staff of King’s Wood could control the Dead Tree, could its power extend to those the Dead Tree possessed as well?
It seemed Adros was in the midst of testing that theory, for Brontes felt the waves of mental pain fading. Alongside him, Adros gripped his staff tightly, his white eyes locked in deep focus on the distant giant.
The theory proved true, the giant’s telepathic hold over them vanished. But how long could he Adros hold him, and how deep did the control extend? The giant stepped forward, his eyes glowing bright in rage. He continued on, obviously slipping further and further from Adros’ control.
If they wished to stand a chance against the demon, they had to break his focus before he was fully freed and once more assaulted their minds. Brontes sent a stream of Oneness into Adros. The moment he felt the flames enter him, he knew what they meant, and what he should do – Adros was off. He became a blur, moving so fast his feet never seemed to touch the floor. Being an elf, he was naturally fast, but after Brontes enhanced his speed he was nearly invisible. Before Ostedes knew what was happening, Adros was on him, a deadly hurricane of black wood. With his staff twirling in front of him, Ostedes’ branch-hands were obliterated. His limbs flew through the air as Adros severed them, falling to the ground where they shriveled up and withered to ash.
The giant stepped back, his eyes white hot and glaring down at the elf. He arched his back, stretching his body until he was well beyond twice Adros’ height.
A swarm of tentacle limbs came at Adros, though none of them came anywhere near the elf. His staff intercepted anything that got close, incinerating it on contact. Adros fought on, pruning his way through the giant’s limbs.
Brontes sensed pain in his friend -- his hands burning as the staff absorbed Ostedes’ power -- so he amplified the stream of Oneness, sending forth a thread of healing as well.
Adros ducked low as the giant tried knock him aside with his arm. In a loud ‘swoosh’ of air, the arm continued on. Adros was back on his feet and in his fighting stance, striking out at the giant’s unguarded body. He thrust his staff forward like a spear, shoving the weapon all the way through Ostedes’ midsection. With his arms flailing like mad, the giant reared up. Meanwhile, the staff of King’s Wood caught fire, igniting in flames of black as it continued searing the giant’s midsection.
The pain in Adros’ mind was unbearable, even for Brontes who merely felt it second-hand. Brontes increased his healing, sending the full might of his Oneness into Adros. But even with the steady stream of healing power pouring into the Elf Prince, the pain only mounted.
The elf had to abandon his staff, smoldering as it stuck out of Ostedes’ body. Adros dropped back to avoid the monster’s flailing arms. Grimacing in pain, he held his hands in front of him, their flesh charred like overcooked meat. Brontes spent a moment to heal them, then flew at the giant; not wanting to squander the opportunity to attack him while he was yet in a vulnerable state. He blasted out, one barrage of flames after another, obliterating large chunks of the giant.
He kept his distance, fully aware of how dangerous the giant’s acidic blood could be. His fear fading, Brontes blasted away, now focusing all his power to tear the fiend apart. Adros continued to step away from the fight, his hands contorting into burnt and useless, half-clenched fists. Meanwhile, his staff continued burning in the giant’s body.
Even if Adros could reach the staff through the barrage of acidic blood, it would be impossible to wield. The staff was blacker than Brontes had ever seen it before, and burned hotter as well. If his hands were charred now, they would be ash the moment they touched it.
Skewered by the staff, the beast continued to thrash about in pain -- Brontes continued to rain down blows, carving the creature with his Oneness. But it wasn’t long before Brontes realized the futility of his attacks. Every chunk he sent flying, regrew by the time his next blow fell. Even the tentacle limbs Adros severed with the staff of King’s Wood had sprouted anew. Only Adros’ staff sticking out of its torso had a lasting effect. The giant understood this as well, and was completely ignoring Brontes, desperately attempting to pull the burning staff out. His tendrils sizzled as they wrapped around it, dissolving only moments later . . . but more were always there to take their place.
Brontes knew what would happen if he managed to free the weapon; not only would he assault them physically, but mentally as well. Even with all his recent training, and experience battling the Dark Army, Brontes would be helpless to defend against Ostedes’ telepathic assault.
Seeking another way to stop him, he borrowed an attack from Ollius. The ground below the giant became a pool of molten glass. His root-like feet slowly sank into the pool, igniting in flames as they did so. Unfortunately, the attack only increased Ostedes’ fury. With his tentacles disintegrating around the King’s Wood staff, he ripped it free.
The King’s Wood clattered as he tossed it to the floor. Creaking, the wood curled up and twisted in upon itself, black flames still rising from its surface. The gaping hole in the giant’s belly fused shut, his limbs all regrew. With the molten glass still burning his feet, he slowly pushed himself up.
Why won’t you die?
Brontes had only a moment before the darkness took him. In that moment, he solidified the ground, trapping the giant’s feet.
Then, the giant filled his mind with pain.
‘I TOLD YOU, BOY . . . I CANNOT DIE . . .’
The giant’s words echoed like thunder in his mind. Adros tucked away the pain coming from his hands and in his head. He let rage fill his mind instead. The sight of his fallen friend fueled his anger to incredible heights. Brontes collapsed, a flurry of black tentacles reaching out to him. Adros hurtled forward, his foot leading the way to Ostedes’ head . . . it never found its mark. Several tendrils darted out, snagging him out of the air.
Burning their way through his blue-steel suit, they slammed him to the ground. His staff sat smoldering, just beyond his reach. Even if he could get to it, he didn’t think he could hold it, not even long enough for a single strike. Then he caught a glimpse of his friend . . . and knew he had to at least try. He stretched his body to the max to get the weapon.
Brontes was nearly buried beneath the tentacles. The blue-steel had disintegrated, so too had his flesh. Clearly, there was a method to the monster’s madness; by strategically placing his limbs on Brontes’ body, he was able to carve out large areas of the Mage’s skin. He then began extracting them from his body. Ostedes started by peeling the skin from Brontes’ face. The pain revived him, his friend awoke screaming as he was flayed alive.
Adros’ fingers burned as they touch the King’s Wood. His legs burned as well, the layer of blue-steel was long gone, the tentacles now melting their way through flesh.
Adros wrapped his hand around the King’s Wood staff, instantly it burned him to the bone. Screaming in rage and pain, he swung it at the arm holding his friend. Like a hot poker through butter, it sank through the giant’s arm. He felt a tinge of hope at the sight of Brontes falling free, then, almost immediately, the severed limb grew back.
The King’s Wood staff fell from his crippled hand.
He had nothing left to give . . .
Once, long ago, he swore to end this monstrosity. But the feat had proven to be beyond him, not once, but three times. Three times he had failed . . . this would be his last.
‘AHH . . . ELF PRINCE. HIS SUFFERING IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT I HOLD IN STORE FOR YOU. TOGETHER, YOU AND I WILL HAVE EONS TO EXPLORE YOUR PAIN . . .’
He could no longer resist his telepathic attacks, his anger was all spent in futility. The last sight Adros saw was the giant’s wicked eyes as they glowed down upon him . . .
“Wake up, Father,” a gentle voice softly insisted.
He opened his eyes to see an angel. Glowing curls danced upon his face as she looked down at him, the shimmer in her grey and white eyes mesmerizing. A pair of pointed ears peeked through her golden head of hair.
“S’ilindsa . . . Is this the afterlife?” Adros whispered, fully expecting the Maker to suddenly appear to great them.
“No, Father,” X’ander coldly replied from somewhere close by. “This is hell.”
As Adros slowly regained his senses he looked around, realizing he was still at the Hangar, and quite alive. He hoped he could still say the same for his friend, Brontes, who was trapped beneath one of the giant’s massive feet. He was severely damaged, but the constant moan coming from his lip-less mouth indicated he still had a shred or life left.
With the a little help from S’ilindsa, Adros got to his feet. He flexed his fingers in amazement, seeing pinkish flesh where before had been exposed bone. Miraculously, he was virtually healed.
He also noted there were many others in the room now. Several of which, were familiar faces: Ollius, and Kendal were there, as were around two dozen of his kin. Those he didn’t recognize were mostly young faces full of fear, their bodies covered in thin layers of blue flame. Then, he noticed another being at his side. A man of twisted flesh, his halo filled with more Oneness than all the others combined – including Kendal. And all that power he poured into Adros.
“Save your power for him,” Adros gently commanded to the deformed human, while nodding to Brontes.
Everyone turned to Ostedes, who was patiently awaiting them, his arms writhing in excitement. He was using what was left of Brontes as bait, goading the group to come at him.
“Can you save him, Jakkar?” S’ilindsa asked, though no response was forthcoming. Adros did, however, see a fire suddenly ignite in the young elf’s eyes.
“Wait,” Adros called, reaching out to grab her.
But she was already gone.
Not even bothering to grab a weapon, she ran toward Ostedes . . . X’ander was right behind her, and Kendal – burning hotter than ever – was flying out as well.
Fully healed, Adros ran after them to once more face Ostedes . . .
“Can you save him, Jakkar?” the beautiful, young elf-ling asked.
‘Yes. Brontes yet lives . . . but if you go to him, Ostedes will destroy you both. I see it in his mind, he wishes you to come.’
Jakkar felt her heart fill with fire, saw it mirrored in her eyes.
The telepathic power of Ostedes was incredible. But Jakkar had incredible powers as well. His ability to heal was unprecedented in the known history of the universe. Not only was it a healing gift for others, but himself as well. It was how he survived the initial assault. He had been bitten, cut, pummeled . . . and even infected, but he had healed all his wounds. The Dark Army moved on, spreading through the tunnels and leaving him for dead. A short time later he arose, completely restored. And not much time after that, he encounter the group of elves and joined them as they sought to return to the Hangar. They were chased by evil, but Jakkar knew that an even greater evil awaited them at the Hangar. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t convince the young elf-ling that she was heading to her death.
As he did in his initial encounter with Ostedes, Jakkar absorbed the full brunt of the monster’s telepathic assault, allowing it to tear apart his mind. For now, as quickly as the damage was done, it was undone. But he had played this game before. Eventually his cellular regeneration would slow, and the power of Ostedes would overwhelm him. If they elves were unable to kill him by that time, then their battle would become another massacre.
He had already informed the elf-ling of this. But Jakkar knew the knowledge wouldn’t keep her from the fight, but only make her fight harder.
‘Save us all, Jakkar. You must . . .’
S’ilindsa bolted out.
“Wait,” her father cried. The Elf Prince tried to grab her, his arm whipping out impossibly quick.
This time his daughter proved quicker, and was already well beyond his reach. Practically flying over the glassy black floor, she came upon Ostedes. The giant sent a swarm of slithering tendrils her way. Before they engulfed her, she tucked her body into a ball and rolled . . . away from the giant, to where the burning staff lay.
‘Heal me, Jakkar!’ she pleaded, her mind filling with pain as she came out of her roll – staff in hand.
A flood of blue fire flowed her way. Jakkar drenched her in the Oneness.
She turned, facing the giant and his oncoming barrage of limbs. S’ilindsa didn’t even bother to dodge them. For all her grace and skill, there was no elegance to her attack, only rage. She slammed the staff downward against the giant, then repeated the motion, over and over . . .
His limbs came at her, but she ignored them, as though she anticipated her allies’ aid and the limbs’ certain destruction. Her instincts proved true. With a couple quick flicks of his wrists, X’ander let fly his daggers, slicing through several of the black threads. Kendal was more aggressive. She flew through the air, a ball of fire. Her flaming fist led the way, blasting a hole through the Dead God’s chest. The Elf Prince dove into the fray, ignoring all thoughts of pain and personal safety to grab two handfuls of the burning black tentacles. The remainder of the elves also joined in as well, shredding the giant’s limbs nearly as quickly as they could grow. Nearly . . .
Jakkar had already watched this fight. The last time it had been two score of Elders and countless Chosen facing the beast. One by one Ostedes took them all. Jakkar had to admit, lacking the Oneness, the elves fought incredibly well – more so than even the Elders had. But they wouldn’t hold out, not when the combined power of the entire Sanctuary had failed to stop Ostedes. Sadly, as he expected, eventually a tendril took hold of an elf. Almost instantaneously, it drew him in, absorbing him into the body of Ostedes. The rest of the elves were aghast at the sight . . . the slight pause was enough for Ostedes to take two more. To their credit, the elves adapted – fighting more cautiously, facing off against the tendrils as if they were individual foes, ignoring Ostedes trunk-like body -- except for Kendal and S’ilindsa. S’ilindsa continued to pound away at the giant, every strike cleaving large chunks off his body. X’ander and Adros continued to keep the tendrils from taking her, meanwhile, Kendal hovered around the being, raining down vicious blows wherever she went – until a tendril took hold of her leg . . . It wound around her, and began pulling her in.
Suddenly Ollius appeared, incinerating it moments before she was taken. More black vines took her arms, but Ollius grabbed her legs and sent his fire to burn them away . . . then the vines came at Ollius as well.
The battle raged on . . . the defeat of the elves an apparent inevitability.
As if the situation couldn’t be any worse, a new threat arrived. The group of frightened, young Chosen at the entryway, turned as one to the tunnels. Jakkar sensed it as well . . . evil. A whole lot more of it. He spared a quick glance in their direction, and saw the Chosen throwing weak blasts of Oneness against a horde of oncoming demons. The demons didn’t even flinch, they stared down the Chosen with their blank, dead eyes then overwhelmed them.
Jakkar had a choice, continue to dump power into S’ilindsa to prolong her futile attack, or send his power to aid the Chosen. Jakkar was a healer. Never once had he used his power to harm anything, even an undead being. It was his gift – his blessing from the Maker.
But what good had it done him when his home-world was taken? When his entire community was slaughtered?
He wouldn’t allow that to happen again . . . No, this time he would fight . . .
He diverted his power from S’ilindsa and for the first time in his life, he altered his power to a killing blaze.
He directed it toward the oncoming horde . . .
The hallway was blocked . . .
“Fa’en tat deg!” Rag’nerack roared, hammering out one-handed with M’jllner. He swatted aside the undead, filling the hallway with burning chunks of flesh. He saw more of the strange, ball-shaped dead ones and clubbed them into the crowd in a spray of ash. He thundered on, cursing, annihilating . . . limping.
The infection had spread to his body . . . very soon, he too would be a dead one.
But not yet, there was much cleansing to be done.
He burst into the Hangar covered in steaming ash. At the entry, he saw the living fighting the dead, M’jllner came to the living’s aid, rapidly slamming down on one rotten skull after another. Beyond the skirmish, screams erupted. He turned his wide brow forward, and saw the sweet, kind S’ilindsa caught in a web of black vines. They not only burned her, but were trying to tear her apart. Nearby, her father knelt on the ground, a vine wrapped around his neck, decapitating him as it burned his flesh. Brontes . . . his face lacked flesh, his body severely burned . . . Ollius, entwined and airborne . . . Kendal, pulled by the vines and swallowed into the body of the sizable, tree-shaped monstrosity . . .
The evil fiend dared to stare Rag’nerack down with his glowing white eyes.
Delicately, he set Dona’Cora down on the obsidian floor.
“Guard her with your lives,” he grumbled at the frightened looking group of young wizards.
Both of his meaty – black-veined – hands wrapped around M’jllner, he hurled it out. End over end it sailed through the Hangar. As it neared, the crystal’s glow overwhelmed the light shining from the tree-man’s eyes, then with a loud “thunk” it slammed into the tree-man’s chest.
The creature’s entire upper half exploded.
Rag’nerack smiled at the sight, then turned to the nearest blue-glowing being he could find and said, “Kill me . . .”
The man with twisted flesh stood up from tending to Dona’Cora, and humbly complied, sending massive waves of flames his way.
Her entire body burnt as if dipped in acid, Kendal crawled out of Ostedes’ torso . . .
Ollius helped her out, sending healing flames her way . . .
The surviving elves, now less than twenty, scurried about freeing their allies with whatever remaining blades they could find . . .
X’ander sliced S’ilindsa free . . . who in turn immediately went to tend her father . . .
Adros was choking to death on his own blood by the time he was finally healed . . .
Jakkar was the one who healed him, but only after he saw to the – even more grievously wounded Brontes . . .
Brontes stood up . . . his face a complete scar that now matched his missing eye . . .
Dona’Cora stood up as well . . . her decrepit body covered in a brilliant golden halo . . .
Rag’nerack . . . Dona’ Cora approached his lifeless body and whispered a prayer to the Maker in his ear . . . in one frail, bony hand, she held M’jllner – the massive hammer over twice her size. With her prayer complete, she swung the hammer down, ensuring Rag’nerack’s journey in the afterlife would lead him straight to the Maker . . .
In the center of the room, Ostedes once more regrew . . .
And once more, the hallways were flooded with the dead . . . but now they seemed less than eager to face the group of heroes . . .
Nor were the survivors eager to stay, before the room was swarmed and Ostedes regrew, they gathered together and entered the pods . . .
Mastecus lifted his bloated, purple lips off the young Chosen’s opened head . . . a sudden thought entered his mind – one that was his own. To no one in particular, he mumbled, “Braaaaaains . . .”
Hovering nearby, Galimoto pinched his nose and looking on in disgust, piped, “so much for a new master . . .”
WHERE WILL YOU GO? The demon wondered as he watched the three pods take to the sky. They continued on, disappearing from his sight as they left the moon’s atmosphere.
THERE’S ONLY DEATH FOR YOU OUT THERE. DEATH, NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO . . . I ALONE CAN ESCAPE IT. FOR I ALONE AM ITS SERVANT . . .
Far beyond his sight, and his ability to detect it, a Rift formed in the nothingness of deep space . . . it swallowed the three pods whole, delivering them to their new home . . . to sanctuary. To a place where they would at last find peace . . .
. . . for a time anyways. . .