–The Age of Death,
The Seventh World, Post Exodus 565–
What are you thinking, Dertois? Nicola wondered, watching as the Keeper stared down at the Rift.
If only she could penetrate his mind. There was so much she wished to know – so much she feared to know as well.
She sensed his thoughts, but as ever, they were deeply buried under layers upon layers of powerful shields. As long as she had known him he had always kept his thoughts well hidden, but they were even more so now – and for good reason. After all, the fate of their world was in his hands.
Dertois stood alone on the balcony, his hands clenched as they gripped the iron railing. Mage-fire and lighting flared in the distance, while the driving rain hammered against his shield of blue flames. The screams of the dead and the dying became one with the wind as it howled through the chamber. With every powerful gust, the room was flooded with the putrid stench of death.
The scent followed them everywhere. It clung to them -- and not solely in their blood-soaked clothing. Death seemed inescapable now; the scent, the sight and the sad acceptance that it was coming to claim them, one and all. After three days, Nicola still fought the fear and the hopelessness of it all -- as she still fought the urge to gag on her every breath.
Death was coming, and they were unable to stop it. Even now, death was spilling into the city; a throng of Plague infected monstrosities.
Don’t give up on us, Dertois . . .
With every burst of lightning Nicola’s blue eyes glowed. Her head of light brown locks writhed in the wind.
Don’t let this be the end.
He meant so much to her . . . to the entire Seventh World. For the city, Dertois was the symbol of their courage and strength. To the Order of Magi, as their highest ranking member, he was the pinnacle of what one could achieve with the blood-born gift of the Singularity. For Nicola . . . he meant something else, something he would likely never know. Something she should have shared with him a long time ago.
If Dertois gave up, if his strength faltered and he fell sway to fear and hopelessness, all others would follow suit. The Order would dissolve, the Triad of Races would scatter, and Nicola would die alongside a broken man.
If he gave up, it would be the final sign, the final confirmation that all was lost.
Below them, the Great Red Wall shook. It was slowly, but surely, crumbling. The Dark Army was relentless, and seemingly endless. By the hundreds they poured from the Rift, more powerful and hideous creatures emerging by the minute. The defenders had fought well, killing legions of the dead, but despite their best efforts the wall was being overrun. Next to fall would be the city, and then shortly thereafter, the entire Seventh World.
Fully aware of their impending doom, the surviving leaders of the Seventh World had gathered in the Northern Tower of Lock Core. They all knew the end was near, but they had to determine how near, and if possible, figure out a way to postpone it. They already sounded the Death Bell for a full seven tolls, thus signifying to the entire city that Lock Core was lost. To stay was to die. Anyone who wished to survive the day was to immediately leave the city. The rest were knowingly giving their lives to buy the rest of the world time to flee. They hoped that by combining their knowledge and skills, they could establish a new perimeter before the Dark Army tore through the entire city of Lock Core.
It all came down to Dertois’ final command . . . They knew the man had no grand scheme to drive the Dark Army into the Rift. The best they could achieve was to see a glimmer of hope in the face of their Keeper.
So far they had seen none.
As they waited, water trickled through the ceiling of rotten wood, the droplets occasionally falling on the gathering of defenders.
Including Dertois, there were seven of them -- every one of which had more than proven themselves in the last three days. Their deeds had been beyond heroic, more akin to miracles. They were all powerful in their own right, but when those powers combined, they had made certain the Dark Army suffered dearly to take their wall.
The largest member of the group was the mighty Boulder Dwarf, Drau’d, eldest son of Brodin. Brown tufts of hair covered his legs, arms and chest; as thick as that found on a human head. With every breath, his gaping nostrils seemed to drain the chamber of air. Drau’d was twice Nicola’s height, and as wide as she was tall. To reach the sentry chamber, he virtually crammed himself up the rusty iron stairway. During his climb, Nicola was certain the ancient structure would collapse. Thankfully, the stairway flexed and bent, but it held – she just hoped the structure had enough integrity to safely deliver him back down. Nicola would be certain to keep her mage-fire ready during his descent, just in case the Boulder Dwarf started crashing down the seven flights of iron stairs. Considering what Drau’d had been through in the last three days, it would be a travesty for him to suddenly die a senseless death – not to mention a significant loss to the overall strength of their army. Drau’d was an extremely valuable warrior, and an essential element in the defense of the Red Wall. In fact, every Boulder Dwarf was a priceless soldier in the Triad’s army. The powerful giants left countless Plague infected beings to rot along the wall. Just earlier that day, with only a small force of two hundred, they had fought through miles of infested rampart in order to reinforce the Northern Garrison before it was overrun. In their charge, they lost a dozen of their kind, yet obliterated thousands of the undead.
Their bravery bought the city time, but they couldn’t take all the credit for that small victory. The garrison had many staunch defenders who managed to stave off their defeat with one brilliant maneuver after another. One man in particular, a rich merchant-trader of some renown, was mainly responsible for rallying the garrison. Because of him, the wall was held far longer than should have been possible, allowing the thunderous charge of the Boulder Dwarves to reach them.
And, of course, the garrison had Solo Ki and his army of elves. The immortals. Each a legendary warrior even long before the coming of the Plague. The quick, highly-skilled elves proved an equal match to the greatest horrors spawned by the Rift. They were faster and far more experienced than the common soldier, but their greatest strength was their immunity. Whereas other fallen soldiers arose to fight alongside the Dark Army, the elves could not be enslaved by the Plague. But they could be killed. Sadly, even many of these great immortal warriors fell to the forces of the Plague.
Nicola stood next to their leader, Solo Ki, perhaps the most ancient elf of all. He loomed over her, a thin, skeletal figure with a dirty cape draped over his shoulders. His hood was up. Beneath it she saw a face of sunken shadows, and a pair of bright, glowing eyes of grey and white.
Nicola knew little of him, other than the many legends that surrounded the man. But they were only legends, myths to be more accurate. In actuality, the truth of his past was somewhat of a mystery. With his head of grey hair, and pale, worn features, he was certainly a relic of an age long past – possibly a time prior to even the great Exodus. But strangely, his name was absent from the historical records of that time. The first mention of ‘Solo Ki’ appeared at the beginning of the second era, coinciding with the end of the Gatekeepers, and the death of the High Mage Andrillin.
No matter his true origins, Nicola was certain of one thing, there was pain in his cold, dead eyes. Far more pain than even this world could possibly offer.
Solo Ki was a mystery, and a living legend. Having witnessed his abilities first-hand, there was no doubt in Nicola’s mind that he fully lived up to his reputation. In the thick of battle Nicola had seen his power and his prowess. She watched as his twisted staff of black wood sucked the very life from his enemies. The Graelic, the legendary staff of Adros. The one weapon the Plague feared. When wielded in the hands of Solo Ki, the wisest members of the Plague fled . . . the rest met their permanent end.
But even so, as powerful as Drau’d and Solo Ki were, there was another among them who had proven himself to be far more powerful than Nicola had ever thought possible.
His name alone filled her with venom.
And the things she had seen him do with the Oneness . . . simply shouldn’t be possible.
LeCynic was advisor to the Keeper. But he was more than that – much more. Nicola was fairly certain LeCynic was a god.
If he wasn’t such an arrogant bastard she would have given him a shred of respect. But he showed respect to no others, not even his Keeper.
Even now, on the verge of defeat, LeCynic calmly leaned against the chamber wall; his arms crossed, a smirk on his face. Remarkably, his robe was still sparkling white, while the clothing of all the others was filthy and worn. His tan features glowed and his dark brown hair danced in the wind. All in all, the young man appeared to have come straight from a refreshing trip to the bathing chambers and not a bloody and hopeless battle.
A stark contrast to LeCynic, and by far the bloodiest and most battered among them was Ebboron, Lord of the Rock Dwarves; his beard yet dripping with the blood of his enemies. Ebboron wore a breastplate of the precious dwarven ore known as ‘blue-steel’. But now the typical bluish tinge to the metal was hidden under a crust of dried up black blood. Even the mountain insignia and runes blazoned on his chest were indistinguishable, marred by deep gashes and heavily dented. What the Rock Dwarves lacked in size, they made up for in ferocity. They showed no fear in the face of the Dark Army, but charged headlong into the fray, their hammers and axes inflicting a deadly toll.
The last member of their council was also the newest; Hitt'rille, the recently elevated Lady Protector and commander of Lock Core's northern garrison. Being the lone survivor of her squadron, she justly earned her title. Perhaps not as skilled a fighter as the elven warriors, she was a clever young woman who was also blessed by the gods with a great deal of luck. Just a week ago, Hitt’rille had been utterly untried in war – hadn’t they all? But she had proven herself a quick-thinking commander after the passing of her superior, the venerable (and extremely vulgar) Bortimere.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was the leader of their world, Dertois.
Of those she considered companions, his name was not only at the top of the list; it stood alone on a blank sheet of parchment. In this world, Dertois was her one true friend . . . and yet, Nicola had always longed for more – more than she could ever dare to ask of him. Many times she was on the verge of revealing her true feelings, yet faltered, for Nicola knew Dertois well. She knew where his heart of hearts truly lay.
Traditionally, the role of Keeper was reserved for the one most blessed of the Oneness. Dertois, however, was raised to Keeper because of his wisdom. His greatest strength – and the trait she most admired – was his ability to keep his emotions in check, and base his decisions on his intellect. Some found him to be cold and calculating man, but Nicola knew the truth of him; Dertois was a just ruler, one who set aside his own desires and held the needs of his followers to be greater than his own.
He loved every last citizen of Lock Core equally – Nicola included. Because of this, Nicola knew she would never hold a special place in his heart – just a place among all the others.
Over the years, she cherished that small piece of him that was her own, all the while suffering when that piece failed to grow.
But none of that mattered any more. Very soon, Dertois would sacrifice every last bit of himself in defense of his world.
This would be their end. The end of them all.
Slowly, Dertois turned, his brown hair draped just past his ears and was plastered to his face. Much like her own, his white robe was stained in the blood of both the living and the undead.
He stepped into the chamber, water pooling around his feet on the floor of red stones.
Dertois let his gaze wash over those gathered in the chamber.
"Amass our forces along the northern wall,” he said, his face filled with determination. “Reinforce it with our forces from the east and western fronts, leaving only a contingent army upon those walls. Should the undead attempt to overrun our flanks, have our southern forces ready to rush to their aid."
Nodding at his words, the Lady Protector Hitt'rille spun to relay the orders to her officers waiting in the room below. Draped over her shoulders was an olive green mantle which signified her rank. Having recently pulled it from the corpse of Bortimere, the garment appeared scarlet being saturated with the man's blood. Hitt’rille quickly descended the ladder and could be heard by the rest of the Council barking orders to those below.
Dertois' body faintly glowed while slivers of light began crawling from his flesh, like worms creeping from moistened earth.
He turned to Nicola, his voice harsh and unforgiving, "Gather all the mages, it is time we rejoin the battlefront."
She found herself unable to return his gaze. Nicola lowered her sparkling blue eyes to the floor and she softly replied, "Aye, my lord."
"Aaarrr . . ." Drau’d wobbled forward, his voice shaking the room. "So that all may live!"
Her heart sank to see the battle lust filling the eyes of the normally gentle giant.
"Aye, so that all may live . . ." Dertois replied, his fists transformed into balls of fire hanging at his sides. ". . . we shall fight, from this world to the next."
Outside, the rain and the undead army continued to pound the wall of Lock Core.
Solo Ki approached Dertois and whispered into his ear.
Nicola drew closer to the pair, knowing they had a rich past together and eager to hear the exchange. But she failed to catch the elf’s words, and as for Dertois’ reply . . . she would never know, for Dertois opened his mouth to respond, but his words were lost. The darkness came, and the sound of the earth screaming tore his voice away . . .
. . . It began on the Northern Wall; a rapidly expanding globe of pure black. At first, the soldiers on the wall watched it arise in awe and confusion. Then it overcame them . . . it consumed them. They saw the bodies of their companions scatter in a blast of ash and then they tried to run. They failed. The globe expanded too quickly, catching many before they could even take a step. Others collapsed into the blackness along with the mighty Red Wall, which crumpled like a sandcastle caught in the waves of a high tide. Unable to escape as the wall disintegrated below their feet, the soldiers tried to scream . . . they failed in that as well -- dying without a sound as they were swallowed by the darkness.
It also took the forces of the Plague; equally confused, and equally unable to avoid their destruction.
Their ‘immortality’ meant nothing to the dark power as they too were swept away in a tidal wave of black ash. Realizing their millennium of life was at stake, the throng of undead reversed direction and surged back to the pulsating Rift, trampling their own forces in their frenzy to escape. Meanwhile, unaware of the calamity, whatever godless leader dwelt on the other side of the Rift continued to order his forces into the Seventh World. The newcomers arrived into the Seventh World to find their allies stampeding in their direction, spurred on by the giant ball of death rising up behind them. The new arrivals collided with those seeking refuge in the Black Door. At the base of the Rift, the army of the Plague became a frantic mound of rotting flesh as they clawed and crawled over one another in their attempt to reach the Rift. They too failed . . . the darkness came and claimed them all.
Throughout the Northern Wall, nothing was spared. All that the darkness touched, it destroyed. But the surge of annihilation wasn’t done yet. The globe continued to expand, and was soon to devour the Northern Tower.
Nicola was so fascinated and horrified by sight she didn’t realize LeCynic had joined them – and he was smiling! The army of the Triad was being destroyed and he was smiling.
“Get back!” Dertois commanded. His body tensed, his shield flared then swelled to encompass the entire gathering.
Nicola obeyed, and sent her power out as well, her own blue flames merging with Dertois’ and strengthening his shield. LeCynic however, continued out onto the balcony, not a lick of energy anywhere near his body.
‘Get back, you fool.’
She tried to call out to him telepathically, knowing her words would be lost in the chaos, but like the arrogant fool he was, he ignored her. The darkness washed over them and LeCynic vanished from her sight.
It slammed against their shields, driving Nicola to her knees. Her shield compressed, barely large enough to keep the darkness from touching her flesh. She felt the Singularity drain from her body as if siphoned by the dark power. In front of her eyes, her barrier of flames flickered and wavered. In the initial contact alone, her shield thinned to a hair’s breadth. And still the darkness came, a tempest of death broiling around them. At her side, Dertois fared little better. He was on his feet, but gritting his teeth as he struggled to maintain his own thin barrier. Wisps of darkness leeched through, singeing his face.
Solo Ki stood beside them, raising his staff against the onslaught. For a brief time, the power of the Graelic held, absorbing the oncoming darkness. But as it did so, the blood red tip ignited in flames of black. Solo Ki’s skeletal hands blackened as well, burning as he struggled to maintain his grip. He fought to remain standing, but was unable to bear the pain. He too dropped to his knees, his legendary staff, the Graelic slipped from his charred hands, fully engulfed in black flames. Whatever aid the staff was providing was no more, and Nicola felt the loss keenly.
So too did Dertois. Whatever power he had, he devoted to strengthening the shield at his back. To save his companions he let the darkness in . . . he let it take him. His shield evaporated. His flesh blistered and peeled.
‘I won’t let you die!’
His eyes melted from his head.
Somehow, Nicola found the strength to stand, and placed herself between Dertois and the darkness. Achieving heights of power she never dreamt of before, she raised a hand covered in blue flames and thrust it out against the oncoming wave of destruction.
For a brief second her power held, her love was safe . . . she felt pure annihilation at the tips of her fingers and she actually held it back. But the moment was brief, and the darkness was never-ending. The flames on her hand sputtered and then vanished. Her hand vanished as well; scattering into countless particles of dust. There was no pain, only shock as the rest of her arm vanish before her eyes.
As the darkness crept onward, melting her face like wax, she turned to Dertois. Through her one remaining eye she saw him collapse. Screaming, she fell to him, draping her body over his as the dark power swept over them. Nicola continued to scream, and she burned . . .
She was certain it was the end . . . after what seemed like an eternity of suffering she begged for it to come; an end to all her earthly pain . . . to die alongside the man she loved.
The end came. But the pain remained, unlike the thousands swept away in the darkness, Nicola was denied peace. She lived. So burnt and disfigured she appeared unhuman, she yet lived.
An eerie silence covered the land -- a shield of crackling azure flames cover her and Dertois.
Her vision was filled with tears, her body filled with pain. Every breath was like inhaling fire as she struggled to suck in air through the drooping flap of skin that was her face.
The darkness was nowhere to be found, only its aftermath remained – a gaping black pit where a great red wall once stood.
The roof of the Northern Tower was gone, fully exposing the survivors to the down-pouring rain. Every drop that fell upon her was like a knife piercing her flesh. She screamed anew, louder than ever before.
The clouds parted. The rain became a drizzle. A dome of twinkling stars filled the heavens.
A giant, calloused hand wrapped around Dertois’ body, lifting him up and away from Nicola. Feebly, she sought to cling to him with her remaining hand. But she was no match for the power of the giant, and Dertois easily slipped from her grip.
“My Lady, please. It’s over now,” a gruff voice called out to her, then a similar hand took her body with more care and tenderness than she would have ever thought possible.
. . . It’s over.
Then she saw Him, hovering in a shell of blue flames where the balcony used to be. His sparkling white robe was singed, his flesh was blistered -- though healing by the moment. Otherwise he was unharmed . . . and the bastard was smiling. LeCynic was looking at the epicenter of the blast and he was smiling.
As weak and battered as she was, she would have arose and blasted him from the sky – but then she realized . . . LeCynic saved her life. He just saved them all . . .
She had gone beyond the limits of her power and failed. Meanwhile, LeCynic stood against the darkness and he survived.
One final thought filled her mind as the pain washed her consciousness away; to survive such utter destruction, LeCynic must truly be a god . . .
. . . or the devil himself.