Guardians of the Rift

The heroes of the Seventh World have gathered at the Black Door. The full might of the Plague pours through the Rift, only by standing together as one can they stop it from consuming their world and the last vestige of the Maker’s creation. Meanwhile, Alec’s journey of destruction comes to an end as well – on the elven homeworld Ki'minsyllessil. There he must face the infection’s source and the hellish manifestation it has birthed into reality. This is the final battle -- the ultimate test of the living. But without the power of the Destroy can the Chosen stop the Plague from entering their world? Will the Chosen prove strong enough to stand against the oblivion of the Void and the endless forces of the Dark Army? Or will the Servant of Death claim them all in the end, transforming all that the Maker has wrought into chaos?

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5. XM591 and X’ander

 


 

 

 

 

 

XM591 and X’ander

 

–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World, Post Exodus 565–

 

A pair of thin, translucent panels hovered in front of the diminutive, humanoid figure.  The panels glowed with an array of flashing lights (mostly red), illuminating the being’s face, which was covered in grease, sweat and a bitter scowl.  The being’s fingers were equally filthy, leaving dark smudges as they danced upon the screens.  With one desperate combination of inputs after another, he tried to eliminate the red sensors.  But despite his best attempts, his frustration only amplified, for no matter how many he extinguished, more were ignited; the red lights spreading across the pair of screens like a raging inferno.

“Damn you, Argos!” came a gruff curse from the small being.  “You’ve taken me through half the God-forsaken universe, now all I’m asking is that you get me down to that damned planet,” he demanded, knowing full well Argos was unable to answer – in his haste to divert power to the gravity-thrust generators he had inadvertently fried the system’s communication circuitry.  Given enough time, he could reroute Argos’ com panel and patch into a replacement monitor, but at the moment, all of his time was devoted to battling the many system failures that continued to flare up. 

He may have possessed the title of “Captain in Transit”, but he knew damn well the ship was commanded by another being – the sentient computer known as Argos.  And for reasons unknown to him, that being refused to drop out of the orbit of what was obviously a lush and living world.

With a violent slap, he swiped away the warning sensors from his monitors, summoning instead, seven rows of alien glyphs and symbols -- the core programming language of Argos.  The only way to truly control of the ship would be to overwrite Argos.  An act which bordered on murder, depending on one’s understanding of artificial intelligence.

 But it had to be done.  He was too close to fail.  Nor could he bare to spend another day in the confines of the ship – especially when freedom was close enough to see.

Through the view-portal, his gem-like eyes took in the world below; the sparkling blue waters and drifting effervescent clouds of white.  A vast, red-tinged mountain chain crossed the land like a fresh wound.  The planet shone in the otherwise empty surroundings of space, making it almost hard to believe it wasn’t merely a ghostly mirage.

The entire journey to the living world had gone much the same -- Argos fighting him the entire way.  He wasn’t sure if the ancient computer brain had finally malfunctioned and gone insane, or – quite possibly – Argos was trying to keep him from the planet.  But why?  For all he knew this was the last living planet in the known universe.  To land there was the culmination of their entire mission.  And the data had never been clearer: “Makiian Virus – 0%.”

Then what in the dead hell was Argos’ problem? 

Luckily, up until this point, he had been able to maintain course trajectory and speed.

To actually find a star 97,000 light years away was a near mathematical impossibility.  Yes, he could see its light (clear as day), but the light he saw was that of a star now 97,000 years older.  What he saw was an ancient light, not an actual star.  To find the star’s current location meant calculating the gravitational current of the star and a million neighboring celestial bodies.  For the past 97,000 years the star has been dancing through the universe, moving at speeds near a billion kilometers/standard day.  Determining its current and actual location basically amounted to complex mathematical guesswork.  Though Rafe was considered intelligent, even among the Delphinians, such equations were far beyond even him.  Few humanoid races had ever mastered such mathematics.  The rest used machines. 

That’s where Argos came in.  The computer mind could pin-point stars with an accuracy that bordered on prescience. 

As for the problem of maintaining speed; considering all gravitationally tethered matter (otherwise known as the universe) had a radius of around 30 billion light years, his journey of 97,000 light years was minor in comparison.  But without a functioning gravitational drive, a distance of 97,000 light years would take, at best . . . 97,000 standard years.  Even with every last captain fulfilling their position, it would be tens of thousands of years before Argos reached the planet, if ever it did.

Millennium upon millennium of technological advancements had been made to space travel and still, no one had ever overcome the light barrier.  Many, however, did find ways to cheat it.  The Rift was one such instance, and was also, by far, the simplest and most expedient method of interstellar travel ever.  The more archaic forerunner to the Rift, the grav drive, was another example, and arguably the most popular and efficient form of travel for its time. 

Argos possessed such a drive.  And in order to cover such vast distances faster than should be logically possible, the grav drive surrounded the vessel in a powerful antigravitational field -- essentially turning the ship into a mini, inverted black hole.  Space-time was warped for the passenger.  And time, being relative, thus flowed differently within the field.  For Rafe, the passenger, the universe outside his view portal was frozen, the people statues.  And for those beyond his vessel, he was invisible, moving well beyond the speed of their perceptible light.

The only down side, other than that it wasn’t instantaneous, was that this method of travel complicated the traveler’s relationship to standard time.  For Rafe, he had been moving so fast, and for so long, he had lived near two decades of life; meanwhile, the universe beyond Argos had aged at a snail’s pace.  Usually, hiber-sleep compensated for the difference by putting the traveler in a death-like state that halted the effects of aging until the destination was reached.  But Rafe didn’t have that luxury.  Part of his duty as acting Captain was to maintain the hiber-sleep of his shipmates, to suffer the passage of time so that the others could remain asleep and unchanged.  That was the agreement he had made with his people, their ‘pact’.  Each of their lives would pass in order for those who remain to travel further and deeper into the universe.  And hopefully, before all their lives had passed, at least one of them would stumble upon a living world.

After the passing of seventy-five of his predecessors, Rafe had finally done it.  He had found a living world. 

Now, if only he could convince the ship to land there. 

It wasn’t until he entered the star-system and began preparing for his descent that his major problems began and Argos locked him out of all of the ship’s functions.  No matter how hard he prodded, the stubborn computer refused to budge.  After a great deal of digital trickery, he managed to hack into navigation and engineering.  But the moment he did so, Argos stalled him with a flurry of mechanical failures, overwhelming his monitors and making it impossible to accomplish the simplest task.

He felt it was his duty as Captain in Transit to reach the planet.  Unfortunately, there was only one way to make that happen.  He would essentially have to ‘kill’ the one being that had been his companion over the last twenty years.  Not only that, he risked the lives of all of those on board the ship – the lives of those he had sworn to protect.  Many times he asked himself, what would be the greater risk?  To turn back to deep space, where they would all likely die before sensing another planet even remotely alive?  Or disable Argos, drop the ship into the planet’s atmosphere and attempt a manual landing?

Neither choice was a good one.  The decision would have been a lot tougher for Rafe, had the planet’s beauty not been so beckoning, or Argos’ silver walls not so confining.  For him there was really only one choice, and it was worth the risk, and the loss of Argos’ life (if it could even be considered as such).  He further justified his actions by reminding himself that Argos was only a machine; a collection of parts and pieces that merely imitated a living being.  He was fairly certain that, no matter how sophisticated the mechanisms, a soul wasn’t listed among them.

“I’m sorry, Argos,” he said, his voice filled with real sympathy.  As much as Argos confounded and frustrated him all these years, their exchanges had actually been a lifesaver.  Without Argos taking the brunt of his rage and frustration, the man would have gone mad a long time ago.  And all the while, Argos took his abuse stoically, never once taking offense, or replying in kind.

Because he’s a machine, you damn fool.  Beyond the parameters of his programming, he doesn’t give a dead about you or anything else.

“But i’m going down there.  With or without your help.”

. . . a damn machine.

He had planned for this before -- during one of his many days of bored solitude.  Having virtually fixed the ship from bow to stern, it occurred to him that eventually the mind of Argos would enter the same state of dilapidation as the rest of the vessel.  Should the mind of Argos fail, in order to save the mission he would have to bypass him – manually pilot the ship.  He even went so far as to develop a program, one that would sever Argos’ mind from his body.  It was a complex sequence of symbols.  To enter them into the very matrix of Argos would require absolute precision and speed.  Once Argos knew what he was up to . . .

. . . he would finally find out what happens when the ancient computer is pissed off.

But his hands were quick and agile.  He knew he could enter them fast enough, and if he did, Argos would never see it coming.

He fed it into the system . . .

He was quick and precise, yet he still only made it halfway through.

The ship dropped out of orbit.  The screens went black.  There was an ear-splitting scream as the engine fell out of rhythm, grinding against the containment field as it tipped from its magnetic axis.  The next thing Rafeal knew, he was on the ship’s ceiling, his body crushing under the pressure.  Even the emergency lights failed to respond.  The only light came from the view-portal, which was now filled with white, fluffy clouds.

“What have I done?” he managed to voice as his chest began caving in. 

Argos . . .

He thought he knew everything about the ship; every nook and cranny was more recognizable than the features of his own face, the inner workings of its systems more familiar than those of his own flesh and blood.  As consciousness slipped from his grasp, he realized that after all his years aboard the ship he knew nothing of Argos. 

There would be no manual landing – not after what he had done.  He would make it to the planet, but only as a fiery ball of plummeting metal.  He understood his mistake . . . the ship’s reaction could mean only one thing -- Argos was truly alive. 

And he had just cut off his head . . .

 

 

 

 

X’ander basked in the solitude.  He needed the quiet to think, to remember – and there was so much to remember.  Unfortunately, most of his memories were bad ones.  But even so, X’ander was never one to shy away from sadness or horror.  No, he had been numbed to such things a long, long time ago. 

His days in the vast desert wasteland beyond the Outlands were spent much the same; in the daytime it was peaceful reflection, in the night – quiet brooding.  While not lost in memories of the past he liked to watch the wind alter the desert dunes.  Every so often, to clear his head, he enjoyed a sunset stroll through the sands – there was just something about the burning red horizon that stirred his soul.  Perhaps it was the coming of the night that truly excited him, and the promise of death that came with the ensuing bitter cold.  Even when the sun faded to black, he would wander on, lost in the wasteland, hoping to fall victim to the night with the dying sun his last vision of light. 

But dawn always came before death, and X’ander would make his way back, back to his ‘home’; a cave barely tall enough to stand in, nestled in a lone outcropping of rock. 

This was all he needed from life.  In the desert he was left alone.  In the desert there was peace.  There was no need to ask for more. 

Ages ago, he had given up on the Seventh World and its so-called ‘defenders’; the pathetic army of the Triad of Races.  He knew the Plague would eventually find this world and when it did, the defenders would be slaughtered.  X’ander wouldn’t be among them.  When he died, he wanted to be alone, in his home, with a mind full of memories.

Only rarely were the memories not enough.  Only rarely did he find the need to clear his head, to watch as the sand and the sky became one in a glowing red haze.

This was one such night.

On this night, X’ander felt uneasy . . . restless.  Something was amiss in the world, something profound and terrible enough to disrupt his peace even here, beyond the Gorian Chain.  Once more he was taken by the urge to walk the desert night.  But this time it wasn’t to clear his head of memories, but from the impending sense of doom.

Normally he travelled west – straight towards the setting sun.  But on this night he left his home with no thought of direction, destination, or even returning.  On this night, X’ander traveled deeper into the wastelands than ever before.  When the sun finally left, the darkness became absolute.  Even with his keen elven sight, he stumbled about, as clumsy as a stub-legged rock dwarf.  The Brother Moons arose, and his footing became clear, but still his movements were awkward, his usual grace absent.  The cold had left his flesh dead to the touch, his arms and legs leaden and stiff. 

High above the Brother Moons shone brightly.  Harbos, the greater of the two neared its zenith, filling the heavens with its aura of white.  He paused for a moment, his breath filling the air with a frosty mist.  He pulled the woolen cowl up from his neck, draping it over his head, which was bare to the elements being utterly devoid of hair.  His eyes of grey and white peeked out from the cowl, searching the vastness of space for the memory of another life, another home.  A memory so ancient he could barely recall it – the creatures, the colors, the Graelic.  In his mind they were all dead, all shades of black.

He couldn’t help but note that the stars never seemed so sparkle so bright amidst the bleak emptiness of space.  Or maybe, he just forgot what they looked like, being unable to recall the last time he bothered to look up.  Even the constellations were all foreign to him; a disarray of pin-point lights.  Their patterns so meaningless to an immortal; so rarely did X’ander look upon them, that when he did, he saw an entirely different sky. 

His last memory of them was when he first arrived on this ‘Seventh World’.  He remembered leaving the Rift, and the hellish Sanctuary behind.  Not only did he find it strange to call this new world home, but the mere fact that he was still alive was outright laughable.  While his fellow survivors stumbled around like mindless ‘dead brains’, X’ander looked up to the heavens – the endless, lifeless heavens -- and roared with laughter.

Surely, it was all a joke . . .

He remembered wondering why none of the others saw the humor in it.

And they thought I was the emotionless one, he pondered.

As he gazed at the multitude of stars, he struggled to make sense of them.  Some people connected them like a child’s game; drawing lines from one to the next until the semblance of an image formed, transforming the celestial bodies into something familiar and simple.  Something they could relate to in their mundane lives.

I suppose those could form a dagger, he thought, connecting the dots of a cluster of stars.  Perhaps those as well . . .

Suddenly, the night sky was nothing but blades of various shapes and sizes.  Now he remembered why he ignored the sky, he could go on forever making such arbitrary connections, but in the end, the patterns were utterly subjective and therefore meaningless.

If he so desired, he could undoubtedly find the twisted image of the Graelic hidden in the twinkling lights.  But what would it matter?  Having spent a great deal of time traveling space, he knew the stars held a deeper meaning.

And a deeper beauty.

So brilliant . . . he thought, wondering if this would be the last sky he would ever see – the sense of doom mounted in the east, in the heart of the Gorian.

Maybe he should have looked more often.  All his years on this world he had spent looking back, never once did he think to look up, to see the past so clearly written in the ancient light of all those stars.  Maybe he avoided the sight of them because he couldn’t bear to see it, his home-world.  He reveled in the memories of it.  But knowing that somewhere among the countless drifting stars Ki'minsyllessil remained, and that it was now just a dead and lifeless planet was enough to drive him mad.  That the beautiful world in which he was born was now just a rock, a pebble, a grain of sand in the wasteland that was the universe.

Only a miracle would bring it back . . . restore it to the bastion of life it once was.

But X’ander no longer believed in miracles.  He had witnessed to much disappointment to maintain hope . . .

Father . . . (the cruelest joke of all).

The stars were so bright.

And from a distance . . .

So beautiful . . .

They almost seemed alive.  He would have sworn he saw them move – one of them, anyways.

His mind was failing him.  With the dull wits remaining to him, he realized he had been in the elements too long.  The cold was taking its toll.  Numbly, X’ander accepted that this time he wouldn’t make it back to his home.  No.  He would never see his home again.

“Ki'minsyllessil,” he mumbled, reaching out to the moving star, the brightest one in all of the heavens.

Whether some illusion of his mind or blessing of the Maker, it came to him, growing brighter, more beautiful than he could have thought possible.  It was as if he pulled it from the heavens with his out flung arms.

In its wake, a fiery tail etched into the night.

It came closer, basking X’ander in a warm light.  Night became day . . . and he no longer felt cold.

Ki'minsyllessil had come to him. 

It was a miracle.

 

 

 

–The Age of Death,

The Seventh World

Second War of Lock Core, Post Exodus 586–

 

It had been so long since he'd last seen Argos, he’d almost forgotten the way.  From the Archenon it was three day hike back to his ship -- three days if he traveled with little rest, stopping only briefly to ease his cramped muscles and fill his empty stomach.  He managed the first day with relative ease, crossing the Widow River through the Frons.  The twin towns were abandoned on either side of the river.  As to be expected, few bodies remained to tell the tale of the battle.  When the living died, they eventually stood up and walked away.  When the dead met their end, it was usually in a pile of ash and silver fire.

He left the Frons and their falling wooden towers behind -- the last remnants of the civilized world.  It was into the wilderness that he went and then beyond – the Dead Sands.  A blistering sun by day, and frozen tundra by night with virtually no shelter to speak of.  A place where no one would dare to dwell – no one sane that is.  But X’ander was unlike any other.  How he survived out there, all alone and for so long seemed impossible.  It made Rafe’s own period of solitude aboard Argos seem like a brief vacation. 

After leaving the Frons, it was an arduous journey.  To reach the desert he had to pass the southern crags of the Gorian; a jagged barrier of sharp, limestone pinnacles that formed the tail of the great mountain chain.  Even with his incredible dexterity and physical fitness, the crags got the best of him, leaving him bloodied and battered by the time he completed his descent.  Perhaps if he took his time, or traveled further south to find a safer pass, his hands wouldn’t have been covered in fresh cuts, nor would he have suffered the deep gash to the left half of his face; a wound that would most likely become a scar.

But Rafe had a feeling there was little time left in this world.  He knew the fall of Shattered Rock was just the beginning.  Though the Destroyer had saved the Seventh World for a second time, by all accounts, the man was no longer of this world.  Whether he was dead, hiding, or in a drunken stupor somewhere among the stars, it really didn’t matter.  Rafe had to find another way to save this world.  He was done relying on the Destroyer, the man was far too unpredictable (in both his power, and his personality).  Nor was he willing to risk everything on the man a second time – having barely survived the first time.  Besides, when it came down to it, Rafe was beginning to wonder if the man’s ‘help’ was actually far more dangerous than the Plague.  Chances were, if Rafe saw the man again, instead of thanking him for saving them, he would be driving a dagger into his heart. 

And he had just the weapon to do it too. 

He wrapped his raw and bloodied palm around the bone handle.  Hidden in the black-leather sheath on his left hip was a six inch blood-red blade, its edges sharp and strong enough to carve normal steel as if it were wood.  The knife itself was near indestructible, supposedly forged in the fires of a star by some long forgotten race.  The blade was given to him by a friend – his one and only friend. 

It was X’ander’s prized possession.  The elf had a love of daggers, and had gathered an impressive collection over his lengthy lifetime.  But the Blood-knife had always been his favorite, and by far his most lethal.  Not only could the knife pierce through armor as easily as paper, whatever alloy had been used in its forging was also extremely toxic to flesh – living and dead.  A single scratch could cause a chain-reaction of accelerated decay, leaving the victim all but a skeleton in a matter of hours.  Few would dare to wield such a weapon and risk such a fate.  But X’ander was more than up for the task.  Though not as adept with daggers as his friend, being a Delphiniian, Rafe was as agile as any elf – possibly, more so -- and therefore fairly confident he wouldn’t end up cutting himself with its ultra-sharp edge.

As much as he cherished his blades, X’ander had left them all in the ruins of the Archenon.  The elf possessed another weapon now, one that made even the blood-knife all but useless . . . one that made even the Destroyer unnecessary.  But his friend would pay dearly to wield it.  In fact, if he did wield it, they all would pay the price. 

I wonder . . . Rafe thought, sliding the blood-knife out just enough to marvel at the gleaming red steel.  Would this be enough to actually kill you, Destroyer?

The man seemed to be death itself.  Could he die?  Was he their one true enemy?  The one who would destroy them all?

If they met again, Rafe would try to stop him.  First, he would start with the blood-knife.  If that didn’t work, he had plenty of other weapons to try. 

He patted the black metallic handle holstered on his right hip.  It was his weapon of choice, commonly known as a mana-ray.  Another relic of the Age of War, the mana-ray utilized the wielder’s life-force to discharge powerful blasts of energy.  Created to harness one’s life-force and transform it into a weapon -- as did the Mage-lords, the mana-ray was but one way the races thought to use their technology to make themselves equal to their conquerors.  Among the Delphiniians, and many other races, mana was thought to be the energy force that birthed the universe and guided its evolution.  They believed that it existed in all things, and if harnessed, could be used to alter matter and the course of future events. 

But other than their priests, few actually believed that mana was anything more than a myth.  It wasn’t until the rise of the Mage-lords that they realized their mistake, and that it was indeed a very real, and powerful force.  The Makii proved its existence, though they called it the Oneness, as did they prove its power, using it to rapidly conquer the universe.  The mana-ray was one of many last ditch efforts to replicate that power.  Many other bio-weapons were brought into existence near the end of the Age of War.  But unfortunately, too few were created, and by the time they were, it was far too late.

Since his arrival in the Seventh World, he had many occasions to successfully test the weapon on various beings – even a few with Mage-blood.  During his rise to power in Shattered Rock, he left many charred bodies in his wake; humans, dwarves, and even elves were among them.  During the battle for Shattered Rock, he turned countless undead into ash – even the soulless ‘Reapers’ succumbed to the true death after a blast from the mana-ray.

But, as one would expect, wielding such power came with a cost.  The Delphiniian priests once lectured that there was a balance to the universe.  It was mana that maintained that balance and prevented the universe from crumbling into ungoverned chaos.  For every action that occurred in the universe, mana created an equal and opposite reaction.  Their scientists realized the truth of it, for in order to transform one’s mana into a killing force, one had to pay with their own life.  Rafe had killed many with the weapon, and doubtless, had aged greatly because of its use (the streaks of grey at his temples were but one indication).  And though Delphiniians had an increased life-span, it was nothing in comparison to an elf.  If he continued to use it, too much and too often, it would quickly age him well beyond his years, eventually killing him.

But what did it matter?

How much time did he have left anyway?   

The end was near.  Despite the Destroyer’s aid, the battle of Shattered Rock could not be considered a victory.  Lock Core would be the final battle.  After all, it was from there that the darkness began – the Black Door.  Until they faced and defeated what dwelt within it, there would never be victory.  All this time, he had been fleeing the Gate.  He had traveled the universe for years – Argos, for an untold amount of time – and they had found nothing.  There was only one path to take, and no matter how far they traveled, all paths led them back to that destination.  The Gate.  All this time they had been trying to hide from it, but to be free, to be safe, they had to face it.

As intelligent as his people were, only by eliminating all other options had the path become clear to them.  Escape was impossible, for Argos was still a battered lump of useless metal.  Nor was there anything to escape to.  The best they could achieve was a progression of slow deaths as they scoured the heavens for the slightest glimmer of hope.

Rafe was done hiding, done with his search, done with the ‘pact’.  The time had finally come.  Time to admit his failure to his people, the subsequent line of ‘Captains in Transit’, and awaken them to the horrors of this world and this war.  He would have to face them, tell them how he crashed them here on the Seventh World, and doomed them to die by the Plague.  For so long he walked the Stasis Chamber, dreaming of meeting his fellow Delphinians . . .

Gemini . . . 

During the rare times when Argos wasn’t falling apart, Rafe would watch her sleep, “GEMINI XM574”.  He would fantasize it was just the two of them in the ship, and subsequently fight the urge to awaken her and make it a reality.  He knew the ‘pact’ forbid it.  He knew it would risk the mission.  He even had a hunch Argos would eliminate him the moment he did so – Rafe often wondered what became of his predecessor, and how strictly Argos adhered to the rule of one Captain in Transit at a time.  But despite all that, the reason he left her alone was because she was so at peace.  He had no right to take that away.  To drag her into his prison, his hell that was Argos, in the hopes she would somehow be delighted by it.  That she would fall into his arms in love, and together they would drift through the universe in happy bliss.

No.  It was just a fantasy – something to keep him sane.  He dared not play it out.  She deserved better.  He meant to give it to her, release her on a living world free of the Plague.  Unfortunately, this was all that was left.  There were no more living worlds; X’ander had taught him that.  The Seventh World was all they had. 

The peace of his sleeping people was over.  It was his job now to convince them to join the Triad of Races, convince them to fight, and make their final stand here.

I'm sorry, he thought.  Sorry to awaken you to this horror. 

Not for the first time, he wondered if they were better off left to slumber.  To die in their sleep, oblivious to the nightmare the universe had become. 

I’m sorry, but we need you.

The Seventh World was his home now.  The last home he would ever know, and he had to protect it.  He needed his people.  They were smart, resourceful and well versed in technology – something this world desperately lacked.  Argos yet had a storeroom full of sophisticated weaponry.  If they added that to the fight . . . it would at least guarantee it would be a good fight. 

And X’ander . . .

If all else failed, he knew his elven friend would succeed.  If there could be no victory, they would ensure the battle’s outcome was a mutual defeat.  One way or another, very soon it would all be over.

He was three days into the journey and walked now under the sun, through the blistering Dead Sands.  Pulling his cloak tight over his face to protect his flesh from the sun's burning rays, he scanned the horizon; the sun-light sparkling in his emerald eyes.  With sweat dripping down his body, he ran on to the rising sun.  Though he had suffered much and rested only briefly during his trek, his short muscular legs moved as quickly as they did at the start of his journey.  He slowed little as he scaled the flowing dunes, his body nimble and light enough that it left just the slightest impression in the sand, whereas a larger being would have sunk in, expending great amounts of energy with every step.

A sandstorm picked up in the west, driving the sand towards him in a horizontal gust.  The wind swept over the dunes, altering the landscape before his eyes and erasing his path as quickly as it was made.  As the storm engulfed him, he was forced to cover his eyes against the scouring wind.  Blindly, he pushed on, familiar enough with his path to be confident he was at least heading in the right direction.  Either way, if one knew what they were searching for, Argos was hard to miss.

He pushed on, fighting exhaustion and the deadly elements.

His body was used to such rigors – he had made it so.  Since arriving on this planet, he had fervently trained his muscles and his mind.  It was a carry-over of his physical training on the Argos. 

In space, the exercise gave him focus and kept him sane.  Here, it was a matter of survival; considering he was the size of a human child, in order to compete with the larger races, he needed to push his body to its physical peak.  He many have appeared child-like, but for those who thought him weak, they mistakenly found that his strength was equal to most men.

There was a break in the wind.  He used the respite to poke his gem-like eyes from beneath his hood and confirm his location.  In the distance, he saw the cracked earth give way to a gaping canyon, several miles wide.  The canyon was obviously unnatural, its walls made of melted silica glass.  At the bottom rested Argos.  From the distance, he could barely make it out; a half-buried hunk of blackened metal.  But in his mind, the memory of the damaged hull was still all too fresh.  Giant dents covered its scorched, black surface.  Many areas were even breached – large, gaping holes imploded inward through the three-foot, ultra-dense metal.  A deep set of scratches ran the length of the ship.  Like the claw mark of some giant mythical beast, the trio of gouges sliced the ship from bow to stern.

Surprisingly, the majority of the damage was preexisting -- scars suffered from a millennium of space travel.  Other than the burnt and blackened exterior, Argos suffered little from reentry.  Despite disabling the computer mind, the ship had somehow managed to level-out prior to impact.  Instead of leaving a gaping crater with a melted pile of metal at the center, Argos eventually came to a rest in the desert, carving a canyon through the sand,

The real damage to Argos was all internal.  Though Rafe hadn’t fully completed the sequence to deactivate him prior to the crash, afterwards, the computer mind was, nonetheless, unresponsive.  Only emergency power and systems were active; such as the Hiber-chamber.  He was unable to communicate with Argos on any level.  Following the crash, he often returned in hopes of restoring the communications systems.  Yet, even after a complete rebuild of the integration motherboard, there was only silence from Argos’ end.  Rafe feared the worst, and that he did indeed succeed in killing the machine; though he deeply hoped he only killed its voice.

He took a small comfort knowing the brain core continued to emit electromagnetic signals.  Though the readings were odd, they were a clear indication of synthetic brain function. 

Either way, the ship was in no condition to fly.  Nor would Rafe return to space even if it could.

Whether good or bad . . .

We’re stuck here, he thought, pausing as he reached to top of the canyon wall.

He hesitated, not because he feared the descent, but because he dreaded returning to Argos.  He stared down at the half-exposed ship, wondering what would happen when he awoke his people.  For so long he dreamt of this moment, to no longer be alone, to once more be among his own kind.  Finally, the time had come.  But what would they think of him and his decision to land them here?  Could he convince them that it was for the best?  That this was to be their new home, and that they would have to fight and give their lives for a world they didn’t know?

Rafe could be persuasive, his rise to power in Shattered Rock was proof of it, but would they listen to him, follow him, the very man who stranded them here to die?

To find out, there was but one more obstacle to overcome.  He had to scale the canyon wall.  Though a difficult task, it was one he performed many times before.  Only now, his hands were in such poor condition he had to be more cautious than ever.  The melted walls were all but smooth to the touch, leaving virtually nothing to support him.  In order to descend, he would have to turn the slightest bump into a handhold.  Because his body was light-weight, his fingers small, he usually managed it fine.  But still, Rafe knew damn well the smallest mistake could send him plunging to his death. 

It would have simplified things if he had secured a rope at some point along the canyon wall.  However, Rafe didn’t want it to be simple.  He didn’t want just anyone to be able to reach Argos, only those he summoned here.  As far as he knew, X’ander was the only other inhabitant of this world to have actually made the climb.  And other than his elven kin, no other beings would have the skill.  That was exactly how Rafe wanted it, he knew the other elves didn’t care to venture into the dessert, and if the humans somehow made it this far, they would die in the descent.

Only the Magi posed a threat, but then again, rope or no rope, if the Magi sought to reach Argos they would simply fly down to the canyon’s base.

Rafe wished he had that luxury.  He had to admit, as much as he sought to train himself to physical perfection – he was tired.  And he was worried.  If he failed this final obstacle, not only would he never meet his people, they could be trapped, sleeping in their chambers till the end of time.  There was too much at stake, and for him to be at anything less than perfect condition could result in a costly mistake.

But he was running out of time . . . 

He decided he had to take the risk.  Cautiously, he began his descent; his tiny hands and feet brushing the glassy edged until they found any imperfection.  His tucked his big toe into a divot, his left hand pinched a marble sized pebble.  Slowly, he left the edge of the cliff behind. 

It wasn’t long before he began to reconsider his decision, and his need for haste, for normally he made the descent in the dark (finding his way by feel).  But now, the sun was directly overhead, baking his body as it reflected against the glass wall.  The heat forced him to speed up his descent; his fingertips burning the longer they lingered on a grip.  Worse yet, his hands were now slick with sweat as well as blood, making it all but impossible to hang on.  Yet somehow, he continued downward, half-slipping, half-gripping.  He made it over a third of the way down before his feet lost their support.  He hung for a moment, his wet hand clamping down on a pea-sized rock.  Meanwhile, his feet flailed around, desperately searching the cliff’s face for anything to regain his footing.  But there was nothing to find.  With his fingertips blistering from the heat, he was forced to release his grip.

He fell the last thirty feet down the near ninety degree slope.  Putting his back to the wall, Rafe slid downward, using his entire body to create any friction possible in order to slow his fall.  Nevertheless, he hit the ground hard and fast.  He took the brunt of the energy and sent his body forward in a tumble.  He rolled with the momentum, but even so, it was a violent roll, and though the ground was sand-covered, a layer of hardened silica was not far beneath.  When the momentum was finally expended, he slowly rose to his feet, bruised and beaten.  His back was raw from the friction of the slide.  The recent cut on his face had reopened and was gushing with blood. 

He took a moment to ensure he had his weapons (and that he hadn’t accidently cut himself with the blood-knife) then he wiped the sand and blood from his eyes.

He froze . . .

Something was amiss.

A crackle of energy sent him rolling once more.  He barely dove out of the way before the arc of lighting blasted him off his feet.  Another blast streaked over his head as he crouched in the sand.  He had a weapon in both hands; the blood-knife glimmered in his left, while the needle of the mana-ray dug into the palm of his right hand, drawing his blood, and energy.

After his fall, he had been momentarily disoriented, and hadn’t been paying attention to his surroundings.  But he could see his attackers now . . .

He holstered the mana-ray, and tucked the blood-knife back into its sheath.  No matter what happened, he wouldn’t be using them to fight his attackers – to fight his own people.

Three gem-eyed Delphiniians came at him, all very familiar faces, but one far more so.  Two held their own sort of energy weapon in their hands; a rectangular black box with silver buttons on its surface.  The other was unarmed, a female – a face he only dreamed he would see awake and with consciousness in those light-blue topaz eyes. 

She came forward slowly, cautiously, a clear fighter’s stance enacted with every step.  Though her body was thinned from her long years of slumber, Rafe could tell there was a definite toughness to every bit of her scrawny muscles. 

He also noted the flickering golden aura that covered her body.  Rafe recognized the device that created it; a gold belt around her waist.  A phase shield.  He also knew its weakness, and the many ways to disable it – scattering a handful of sand at it would be the most convenient.  Though it could fully absorb a wide range of individual strikes, multiple attacks would weaken its ability, and drain its power core, which possessed a brief lifespan to begin with. 

Typically, one donned a phase shield if they planned on engaging in a brief, but bloody battle.  The wearer could forego defending themselves, and focus instead on eliminating their enemy as quickly as possible.

Rafe took her use of the shield as a bad sign, and deeply hoped she wasn’t planning to kill him too quickly. 

I just need time to explain myself, then they will understand . . .

The trio came closer, Gemini leading the way, a murderous look in her brilliant blue eyes.

Rafe stood up, dusting himself off, wondering what a ragged mess he must look to her.  Their meeting was not how he imagined it to be, and he imagined it often and in many ways.  In none of them did she hold such a loathsome scowl, nor did he think such a hateful look could ever come upon that lovely face.

Several feet in front of him, she stopped.  Finally, he was face to face with Gemini.

“Gemin . . .”

Before he could finish his greeting, or offer an explanation, her fist landed squarely on his face.

The blow took him by surprise and was well-delivered, knocking Rafe on his ass.

Kneeling on the canyon floor, one hand stemmed the flow of blood from his nose, the other grabbed a handful of sand . . . all he wanted was a chance to explain . . .

“You FOOL!” she spat.  “What have you done?”

He let the sand spill from his fingers, his bloodied lips opened to reply. 

But before he could say another word, Gemini launched a swift and skillful kick towards his head . . . he clamped down on the sand.

Though expertly delivered, this time Rafe wasn’t so easily surprised . . . he pitched his weight to the side, moving with the momentum of her blow.  He tucked his right shoulder to the ground, while his left hand rose up, flinging a fistful of sand at Gemini.  Her foot clipped his wrist, shattering it.  But the sand scattered against her shield, causing it to flicker uncontrollably.  Large gaps spread across its golden surface. 

Rafe roared in pain . . .

Heaving up with his fist, he landed a vicious uppercut directly on her beautiful face.  Luckily, the shield wasn’t fully deactivated.  It managed to absorb most of the blow, but still, Gemini flew back, crashing into her two companions.  Rafe followed after her, kicking the blaster from the nearest of them, while the mana-ray was in his right hand and pressed against the other Delphiniian’s head.  Below him, Gemini scowled at him in disgust.

“I don’t want to fight you,” Rafe growled, his eyes mainly focused on Gemini.  “If you only let me explain . . .”

He was about to tell her everything . . .  Tell her that this was it.  That he was only doing what was best for them all.  That he wanted to save her . . . that he wanted her, for so long he wanted her . . .

He never got the chance.

He never sensed the other being . . . it moved so silently, so swiftly . . .  Before he even knew what was happening, a metallic fist caved in his rib-cage and sent him crashing into the glassy canyon wall. 

Gasping for breath, Rafe struggled to his feet.  Before he did so, he was lifted into the air by a glimmering metal hand.  He looked down into a pair of burning red eyes and smooth, blank metallic face.  He struggled to unsheathe the blood-knife with his broken left hand, meanwhile, his robotic captor heaved him into the air, its body incredibly thin and near ten feet tall.

He managed to free his knife . . . was about to use it to sever the robot’s arm . . .

You should not have brought me here, Caretaker Rapheal XM591,” the faceless being said in a thunderous electronic voice.

“Argos?” Rafe managed to whisper, the blood-knife slipping from his crippled grip.

“. . . Nor should you have attempted my destruction. ”

“. . . I’m sorry, Argos,” Rafe continued, struggling for breath.  “I never meant to hurt you . . . to hurt any of you . . .”

Rafe desperately wanted to continue, but blood spurted from his lips instead of words.  His vision filled with stars . . . the robotic voice of Argos became a muffled roar.  The eyes of his love drew near, sparkling against the oncoming darkness.  He longed to stay in their blue light, but the darkness claimed him and Rafe was left unconscious, and utterly speechless.

 

 

 

 

For as far as X’ander could see, the earth was dead, a blackened pit of ash.  And beyond it, the autumn sun turned the horizon blood red.  As he had been commanded; he stood atop the scorched tower of the Archenon, his keen eyes of white watching for the last of the refugees to vanish into the distant bloody aura. 

He had to be sure he was alone.  None knew what was to come – not even Rafe fully understood what it was capable of.  Once, he foolishly asked his lord the obvious question, to which he received the simple, and more obvious answer; “It feeds.  That is all.  All that it nears it consumes.  The more it consumes the more it becomes.  Should it grow beyond our control, it will not stop feeding until the entire Seventh World is devoured.  Next to the Plague, it is the universe’s darkest creation.  It is ‘The Eater’, a weapon created to end worlds.  To end the worlds of the Makii.”

Darkness fully descended upon the land as all the survivors traveled beyond his sight.  Certain he was the last of them, X’ander left the balcony and entered the main tower of the Archenon.  He descended the spiral stairway that hugged the Archenon’s walls, then crossed an iron walkway leading into the Great Tree.  His thin fingers reached out, brushing the tree’s bark as he stepped through a gaping cleft in the trunk.

He felt its life-force, though dim, and was somewhat heartened knowing that the Great Tree was yet clinging to life.  But then again, considering what it could have become, even though it still survived, it would never be anything more than a monstrosity; its hollow, rotting and near-lifeless trunk the ultimate metaphor for the remnants of the elven race. 

The human king who built the Archenon tried to kill the Great Tree, to utilize its dense wood for the construction of his indestructible tower.  The Great Tree was a gift to his grandfather from the elf prince Adros.  But the grandson believed more in stone and steel than the magic of the elves.  He also feared the legends of the Graelic, and the embodiment of evil it had become, so he stripped it of its branches, gutted its interior, and incorporated the remnants into his grand Archenon. 

Little did he know the Great Tree yet lived, and that every moment of its life was spent in suffering.  Only the elves could feel its pain.  Only a few had the courage to actually do so . . .

X’ander let the Great Tree’s pain wash over him, then he entered into the trunk’s hollowed interior.

He followed the hand-carved stairway upwards, ending his journey at what was once a pair of heavy wooden doors.  The elaborate dragon carved on the face was lost in a pile of splinters and cracked planks; the heavy iron lock was smashed to pieces.  Halfway across the room, the interior bar latch rested -- a bent piece of hardened steel.

X’ander smirked at the sight.  The force necessary to break the doors, and the magic barrier that supported them, was impressive indeed.  But what impressed him even more, was that the young elf had not only managed to persuade Gunt to break them, but to also assist her in raiding his lord’s beloved armory.  If X’ander was capable of feeling sorrow, she was the one person lost in the battle for whom he would have shed a tear.

So like your mother . . . and grandmother, X’ander thought, storing the memory of her alongside that of her maternal ancestors.  So brave yet recklessly so.  So confounding in the ways of your compassion.  Together the line of beautiful, strong elven woman would remain in his memories.  So long as he lived they would be remembered, deep within the part of his mind that could almost be described as his ‘happy place’. 

It was a very, very miniscule part of his mind.

Like them, you cared too much . . . and died because of it.

He absorbed the memory of her death as well.  A sacrifice that restored their father to life, and united the entire elven race.  But in the end, her sacrifice amounted to nothing.  The elves were near extinct now, and their father, the One Elf, was fully immersed in the Elven Death.  X’ander felt nothing as he let the dark memory in, it was soon lost among the countless others that filled his mind.

He longed to lose himself within them, to drift from one horror to the next in the hopes that he felt something.  But, as ever, he knew it would be a waste of time.  There was nothing there, and that no matter how long he dwelt among them, he would only find indifference.

He tore himself from thoughts of the past, reminding himself he had a future now.  His new lord, Rafe, had given him one, and now it was time to claim it.

He stepped over the broken door, entering the precious armory of his lord.  Few of the collection remained.  The hallway leading into Rafe’s chamber was lined with empty shelves, and shattered display cases. 

Blades and armor of rare and precious materials had been looted, as well as many ‘less typical’, though equally precious weapons.  Only the oddities remained, those that least resembled an actual weapon.  A bronze cube had been kicked into the corner, each face etched with a unique (and dangerously powerful) rune.  Separated by less than an inch, a pair of steel tubes vibrated on the floor.  Alone, they softly hummed, but when touched together they created a wave a sound so violent it could rupture an enemy’s organs from over a hundred yards away, or crack stone within a hundred standard feet.  Other equally strange, but only slightly less dangerous, items were carelessly strewn across the room.  All of them were powerful, but one was far more powerful, and dangerous, than all of them combined.

There it sat, on a pedestal of white marble.  Untouched by the thieves, and rightly so.  The shield of energy held, though barely.  The barrier of azure flames flickered and dimmed as the shiny black substance inside flexed and expanded, as if testing the limits of its prison.

“A world ender . . .” Rafe once said.

Only once had another dared to touch the weapon, let alone wield its power.  X’ander had the misfortune to be present for the event; the White Mage held it for only a moment, stroking it as if it was the wizard’s pet, before his body caved in upon itself and the globe stretched and engulfed his remains.  The man never even had a chance so scream.  He was suddenly no more, and the blackness was a ball, larger than before, and floating in the air where, a heartbeat ago, the man once stood.

Now, X’ander would wield the weapon, knowing full well it would consume him.  And knowing too, that it wouldn’t stop there . . . Ki’minsyllessil could not be revived.

His thin elven fingers reached out, penetrating the shimmering blue shield.

X’ander would follow in the refugees’ wake.  If they failed to save Locke Core, he would return to his home-world . . . and he would take the Eater with him.

If Ki’minsyllessil could not be saved, it would have to be destroyed.

He took hold of his future . . .

 

 

 

 

Rafe awoke . . . he tried to sit up but a jolt of pain shot from his belly and he collapsed onto his back.  He groaned as his head slammed against the unyielding metal floor.

What happened? he wondered, rubbing the back of his skull while his jadestone eyes took in his surroundings.  Where in the dead am I?

Everywhere he looked he saw smooth, metallic walls.

“No . . .” 

He instantly recognized the room – as he recognized every room within the Argos.  In his many years aboard the ship he had thoroughly explored every room, every chamber.  He knew every flaw, every nick and every scratch on every wall of this ship with far greater detail than even the advanced computer mind of Argos. 

And it just so happened, Rafe knew this particular room better than most.

The chamber was five hundred paces long, and three hundred wide.  The side walls were barely taller than a human, but the ceiling barreled upwards, forming an archway in the center tall enough for any elf to comfortably navigate.  A clutter of boot prints covered the floor, outlined by a thin, sparkling layer of silver dust.  Barely recognizable amidst the stampede of feet, a row of faint, circular imprints ran down the length of the chamber’s center. 

Yes.  He remembered this chamber very well.  After all, it wasn’t all that long ago since he looted it.  Ultra-fine particles of silver ore still lingered in the air, shimmering as they drifted past the line of glow-lights on either side of the chamber’s barreled ceiling.

Rafe was deep within the ship’s stern, securely imprisoned in what was once Argos’ silver hold. 

For the price of a single canister of silver (a fortune at the time), he enlisted a pack of Blue-mages to help him empty the chamber of its goods.  Back then, he felt the people of the Seventh World needed it far more than did his slumbering brethren.  So Rafe took the canisters from the hold, melted down the silver dust, and put it into circulation.  By doing so, he flooded the silver market, making the ore affordable for all.  It was because of him that even the poorest citizen of the Seventh World now had a silver blade in their hands – and more importantly, the ability to fight the Plague.

That wasn’t to say Rafe had been acting purely out of kindness and the best interest of the Seventh World.  It was no coincidence that he sold the cargo at a time when the Seventh World’s market was starved for silver.  The dwarven mines had all but run dry.  They were digging so deep and so distant, that the cost to transport their goods basically tripled its value; thus allowing Rafe to sell his silver at an obscene price.

And immediately after he did so, the price plummeted.

As a result of the sale, he possessed unlimited funds; without which, his rise to power in Shattered Rock would not have occurred quite so swiftly and peacefully.

But it was all gone now; his wealth, his power . . . and apparently his ship as well.

Once more, he was a prisoner to the Argos.

“Damn you, Noooo!”

He didn’t even bother to plan his escape, knowing full well the chamber was built like a safe.  All of the walls were three-feet of solid hardened bi-metal.  Even if he had his mana-ray, a full blast wouldn’t put a dent in them.  The only way in or out was through a single access located at the far end of the tunnel-shaped room.  It was invisible, marked only by the slightest crack in the smooth wall that was too thin to see, and could only be discerned by a familiar touch.  The doorway could only be opened from the outside, and only by passing a bio-cerebral test that was tuned to the Captain in Transit – which, judging by his current predicament, Rafe very much doubted he would pass. 

Without-a-doubt, he was thoroughly imprisoned.  And there were few places Rafe dreaded more than being imprisoned on the Argos.  The Rift was one . . .

The room suddenly shrank, the walls seemed to collapse in on him.

There was another place, one that he feared more than even the Rift.  One that would amplify the horror of his imprisonment a thousand fold – space . . . endless, empty space.  

His hand shoot out, running over the polished metal wall.  Long ago he had learned to sense the slightest shift in the grav drive, and could practically determine its velocity by how much it vibrated the hull.

“Thank the gods,” he growled, comforted that the walls were utterly still to his touch.  They were yet grounded on the Seventh – a death sentence to be sure, but at least here it wouldn’t be drawn out.  At least here he would die quickly, fighting and not drifting through space.

Instinctively, he thought to call to Argos, to assess the ship’s current condition, but then he remembered something . . .

. . . a metallic fist pounding his flesh.

Argos was alive!  And he was pissed off . . .

His tiny hands ran along his bandaged ribcage.  Even a gentle touch left it tender.  But even so, it was clearly on the mend.  What should have been broken ribs was a bruised belly.  Likewise, he felt his cheek – the deep cut suffered during his hasty climb through the pinnacles – and felt only smooth skin.

Ignoring the jolt of pain from his ribs, he stood up.  His captors had to know what this world was, what it meant to not only their people, but to the very continuation of all life.

Though it pained him to do so, he screamed, “THERE’S NOTHING LEFT!”

He knew Argos had a sensor positioned in the far corner and he faced it with all his rage.

“THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD!  AND WE ALONG WITH IT IF WE DO NOT FIGHT!”

That was it, all he wanted to say, his grand speech to compel his people amounted to basically four words; “The universe is dead”.  Stop searching.  There is nothing left out there to find.

He stepped back, then crumpled over, succumbing to the pain.

To himself, or to anyone else who was listening, Rafe groaned, “There’s nothing left out there, you fools.  The Virus beat us to them.  There’s only one world it hasn’t fully consumed . . .”

He glared at the recorder, and his mystery accusers on the other end.

“. . . and we’re on it.”

 

 

 

 

In one clear-screen was the past, the other – the present and the inevitable future . . .

She couldn’t take her sapphire-blue eyes off the past . . . the looks he gave her, the longing in his eyes.  She watched one reel after another and saw the action repeated, time and time again.  The villainous Rapheal made his rounds to assess the stasis chamber.  He checked the life-readings as he walked; for the most part giving but a quick gaze to discover any abnormalities.  Content that no one was dying, he always moved on from one pod to the next.  It wasn’t until he reached the XM generation that he finally paused.  And every time it was at the same pod.  And every time he gave it that same look . . .

Gem watched the reels for hours, and it was always the same; never once did he make it through without pausing at her pod, to stare at her as she slept.

Why me . . . ? she wondered, fully aware there was over two hundred other female Delphiniians left in the chambers, yet he hardly spared any one of them a glance.  Who do you think I am?

He didn’t know the first thing about her.  He had no right to gaze at her so lovingly . . . If he knew what she really was, he would have buried that red knife deep into her heart.

Gem was a Cleanser. 

She was only awoken at the end of their shifts; when their usefulness expired, or when they went mad.  More often than not, she was roused for the latter; few Captains in Transit lasted more than a decade before they lost their minds and Argos determined them to be hazardous to the ship and the entire mission. 

Such was Gem’s purpose aboard the Argos – to be an assassin.  A killer of her own people.  Argos summoned her to clear the way for the next Captain in Transit – to eliminate any trace of them or their final days of madness. 

Another reel commenced.  But this one was different . . . 

Once more Rapheal entered the stasis chamber . . . but this time he was half stumbling, as if lost, a crazed look in his sparkling green eyes.  He didn’t take a single reading, nor look at a single pod – except Gem’s.  But he almost walked past even her. 

The lighting must have struck her eyes at just the right moment, creating a blue twinkle within the glass tube.  It was only a brief glimmer, but was enough to draw his attention . . . Rafe stopped stumbling forward.  He paused at her pod . . .

He stared at her, transfixed; far longer than ever before.  So long, Gem had to scan forward through the recording in order to see him move.  When she finally slowed the playback to normal speed, she saw a different man.  He had steadied himself, the crazed look had left his eyes.  He stood over her, straight and tall (tall for a Delphiniian). 

“You deserve better than this,” he whispered to her slumbering form. 

You’re wrong, she thought. 

“I promise you, I won’t stop until I find it . . .” he said, before leaving her and then continuing down the chamber; his emerald eyes now full of determination.

There’s but one thing I deserve . . .

He couldn’t be more wrong about her.  And judging by the last reel, it was a miracle she hadn’t been roused to kill him.  Argos must have seen something in the man that stayed her hand.  Most likely, she could attribute his continued existence to his remarkable resourcefulness. 

All of the Delphiniians aboard the Argos had their role to play . . . for Rapheal, it was to repair the ship.  He was an engineer, the most gifted one they had, and as he had proved, the only one capable of keeping Argos space-worthy.  The truth of the matter was that Argos was falling to pieces.  And somehow, despite their dwindling supplies and resources, Rapheal had been able to keep them moving through space.  Undoubtedly, Argos was aware of this as well. 

However, because Argos couldn’t afford to let him go, Rapheal had greatly overstayed his captainship.  One such as him was meant to be awakened for a span of a few years at most - enough time to repair Argos then fall back asleep until he was needed once more.  Far too much time had passed for anyone to weather such solitude and remain sane. 

Surely Rapheal was mad?  Why else had he landed them here? 

And the things he had done since then . . .

Such as the orb . . . the most powerful weapon know to creation, and he dared to take it!

She should kill him for that alone . . . yet . . .

Gem continued to ponder the man, and the records continued to unfold.  She grew so deep in thought that she barely realized there was a disturbing lull in the records -- a lengthy period whereby Rafe failed to make his rounds.  In fact, she couldn’t find him anywhere in the ship, on any of its monitors.

And then . . .

Another recording started on the clear-screen . . . this time warning lights were on all the recordings of the past, flashing in the background while a siren blared. 

Looking more haggard, gaunt and lost than ever, Rapheal appeared on the screen.  He approached her tube and gently placed his hand upon her face.  His fingers left a clear trail on the dust covered glass . . .

Meanwhile, in the other clear-screen – the one showing the present -- he howled – “THERE’S NOTHING LEFT!”

Was he mad? she wondered, focusing on the display of him in his present state.

Rapheal stared down the monitor as he roared, “THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD!” 

After the fight, in order to heal his broken ribs, they had removed his shirt.  Gem couldn’t help but marvel at his physique, and the many layers of corded muscles covering his body.  She had to admit, together they would make a splendid mating pair.  There was much to admire in the man – discounting his potential insanity.  Foremost would be his intelligence.  He was brilliant, perhaps dangerously so, but only to those he deemed an enemy.  Otherwise, for the few he called friends, he proved himself to be a highly loyal and useful asset.

And Rapheal was determined.  It was obvious in the way he fought, and the way he had trained his body to become a weapon.  In his time upon this world, he had become as skilled a killer as herself – perhaps more so. 

Gem brought her hand to her bandaged head, her own aching reminder of what comes from underestimating the man.  She knew too, that the injury could have been worse.  Rapheal could easily have struck a lethal blow to her unshielded vitals.  Instead, he chose to disable her with an attack to her shielded head.  Likewise, he could have killed her companions, yet he spared them as well. 

Was he mad at all, or merely determined?  Determined to save them . . . to save her?

It was obvious what kept him going all those years.  Just to see her was enough . . . enough to give him hope.  To give him a reason to fight on.  And oh how he fought . . . he landed them here, even after Argos determined it was infected and sought to alter their course.

 But Argos also underestimated the man’s determination and brilliance.  Unbeknownst to the machine, Rafe had not only taught himself Argos’ programming language – which was ancient and long since dead – but he also found a way to disable the computer with it.  And none of them, not even Argos itself could find a way to repair the damage.

Being unable to reconnect Argos to the ship, the best they could do was upload Argos’ mind to a battle-mech they had salvaged from the Age of War.

What if he wasn’t mad at all?  What if he was right?

How many times had she been awakened?  How many of her kind had she been summoned to kill?  How long had they actually been searching? 

Considering the value of any one of their lives, the time-table was staggering.

What if there was nothing left?  What if this is the last world not fully consumed by the Virus?

Even if he was mad, even if he purposely sabotaged the ship to land them on an infected planet, Gem couldn’t deny that he was still damned clever . . . Clever enough it seemed, to not only live in an infected world, but to have thrived within it.  Apparently, he had risen to some sort of lord in this land; one who commanded a substantial army.  But more incredulous than that, he faced the Plague with his army . . . he faced the Plague, and he survived!

 “What if he is right?” Gem whispered out loud.  “What if it’s time to stop running?”

And what if he is wrong?” came the booming electronic reply at her back.

Instinctively, she ran her hand over her shield’s trigger – not that it would have done a bit of good in a battle with Argos.  The body he possessed was ancient and held unknown powers.  Once, at the bloodiest height of the Age of War, armies of such beings flooded the universe; sent forth with a very specific set of programs – to wipe out the enemies of their creators.  And for a time, they were incredibly successful. 

But with the discovery of the Singularity, the machines became puppets to the Mage-lords -- who subsequently turned them against their creators.

Before now, the Delphiniians simply had no reason, or no way to test the mechanical body.  Fearing any lingering programs, they didn’t dare power the thing up without bestowing it with a fully sentient artificial mind – one they could trust – thereby knowing for certain it wouldn’t turn against them and slaughter them all. 

Like Gem, the automatons existed for one purpose – to kill.  And she had a feeling they were far better at it than her.

For starters, she was a little more than unsettled at how silently he moved – normally, she was the stealthy one.  Gem was accustomed to her diminutive size, actually found it had advantages when fighting larger opponents.  But next to the slender metal giant, she never felt so small and insignificant.  In her experience, most beings of substantial stature tended to move relatively slow.  Argos suffered no such deficiency.  She had seen him move – seen him fight in their encounter with Rapheal – and the body was nothing but fluid grace, mixed with incredible speed and power.  Any attack she would dare to raise against Argos would be met with a decisive and deadly counter, which the computer mind would process at the speed of light. 

Luckily, unlike Rapheal, she hadn’t done anything to anger the being.  Besides, if he wanted to kill her, he could have done it anytime during their journey by simply severing power to her life-pod.  For those countless years she had trusted the computer with her life, she had no reason to stop now.

“How can we ever know if he is wrong?” she asked, turning to face the giant metal being, and looking him square in his fiery red eyes.

“We cannot,” came Argos’ reply.  “By stranding us here, he has strategically ensured we must accept his truth.”

His truth . . . “THE UNIVERSE IS DEAD!  AND WE ALONG WITH IT IF WE DO NOT FIGHT!”

“But what do you think, Argos?  You have known him these many years . . .” 

She turned her gaze back to the past, to the recordings of the landing, and of Rapheal hacking into Argos’ mind.

“I’m sorry, Argos,” he said.

Gem sensed only sympathy in his gruff voice – not madness.

“But I’m going down there.  With or without your help.”

After seeing all the recordings, it finally made sense to her; he wasn’t purely mad.  Nor was he purely a villain.  Argos may have stayed her hand in killing him because of his ability to maintain the ship, but there was another reason.  One the computer may not readily admit, considering what Rapheal had done to it.  But after such a lengthy time with but the two of them alone in space, Gem was beginning to realize the Delphiniian and Argos had become friends.

The further proof of it was the mere fact the man remained alive in the holding chamber – Argos could have easily taken his revenge and squeezed the life from him when he held him in his cold, metal hands.

“He is resilient, and resourceful beyond measure,” the robot replied.

Gem did her best to bury her smirk, finding the comment to be a polite acquiescence to the fact that Rapheal had bested him.

“But he was wrong, the world was infected . . . we should not have landed here.”

 “But here we are.  And considering he is the only one capable of fixing the ship, it appears we are at his mercy.”

The recordings of the past ended as Rapheal severed Argos’ link to the ship.  The screen went black.  Gem was left with the current image of Rapheal crumpled on the floor of the holding chamber.

“Whether or not the universe is dead doesn’t really matter.  Does it, Argos?  I suppose in that sense his is correct.  If it is even possible to fix the damage he has done, we cannot force him to do so.  It would seem there is only one thing left for us to do, one world left in which to live.”

A weight lifted from her shoulders as she uttered the words.  For the first time since she set foot in this cursed ship she almost felt happy.  No longer would her purpose be to kill her kin.  Oh yes, she would still serve her purpose, better than ever.  But this time it would be against her enemies.  This time it would be against the Plague.

“Yes . . .” a chill seemed to fill the robot’s emotionless, monotone voice.  “Rafe’s actions may have proven false, but the data does not.  We will not leave this world . . . there is but one chance for our continued survival.”

Argos’ red eyes burned like embers.

“We must stay . . . and we must fight.”

 

 

 

 

A weapon to end worlds . . .

He limped onward; his hands shriveled, his bald head covered in a spider web of blackened veins.

How must I look now? he wondered.  One glance at his sunken, splotchy flesh, and X’ander knew the answer . . .

Like you, Father.  I must look like the One Elf himself.

He had only recently left the charred lands of the Destroyer behind him, and already, he had aged a millennium.

But unlike you, I will soon find death.

Of all the elves, only one of them was truly immortal – Solo Ki.  Once, ages ago, X’ander thought to test his invincibility for himself.  On every level, his father not only passed, but far exceed X’ander’s best efforts to end his life.

It wasn’t to say that X’ander wasn’t a skilled killer – far from it.  His skill with knives was renowned and unrivaled, in this world, or any other world he ever set foot upon.

In his lengthy life, he met few who could stand against him – Nathalia may have been one.  No doubt, some of the more powerful Dead Gods could be counted among his superiors. 

But Solo Ki was on a whole other level, and blessed with an ability none in the universe could claim -- a fact X’ander learned the hard way. 

He was blessed with prescience. 

The One Elf was so in tuned with the slightest aspect of his surroundings -- particularly the minds of his kin -- that during their battle, he knew what X’ander was going to do before even X’ander did.  By the time X’ander’s blades came leaping from his fingertips, Adros was already in motion.  He didn’t even bother to use his staff.  His dirty cape caught the majority of the blades, the rest flew harmlessly past him.  When his boot came crashing against X’ander’s skull, he hadn’t even realized the One Elf was upon him.

He learned that day that he would never be the equal to Solo Ki, and that his father was beyond death, beyond any physical test.  And oh how it angered him!  An emotion so rarely felt, suddenly filled his very core.  He was enraged.  Not because he lost the contest, but because of how skilled and gifted Adros truly was. 

He spat at the man while cursing him . . . cursing his very existence.

“How can you be so powerful . . . and yet such a failure?”

After that, X’ander made his way to the Dead Sands, where he expected to live the remainder of his days malcontent and dwelling on the crumbled dreams of his past.

Then, like a miracle, Rafe came; and with him came hope.

I will do what you never could, Father . . . I will end the blight that infests our people.

X’ander trudged onward toward Lock Core, in his wrinkled hands, the Eater continued to test the dim barrier of blue flames that encased it.  The thinner the flames, the greater the drain on X’ander’s soul – and at the moment, they held but a spark of life.

He met few as he travelled – as he had hoped.  Most were the undead – which were spiritually drained the moment they mistook him for a snack.  The rest were survivors of the war of Shattered Rock.  Many were too weak to continue on, and had the misfortune to lie down in his path.  He felt little sympathy for them as their life-force was consumed.  He knew, their end was coming sooner than later, regardless of the Eater.  And with X’ander’s passing, their deaths were at least quick.

Days passed, and he continued on; every step he took slower than the last until eventually, they were no longer steps.  X’ander crawled the remaining distance to Lock Core; the Eater no longer held in his hands, nor in a barrier of flames.  As he came upon the crumpled tower at the edge of the city, the Eater was within him, devouring him from the inside out.  What was left of him – his paper-thin flesh, and fleeting soul – were the only things keeping it from feeding upon the entire Seventh World.

He clawed his way to the tower, only to collapse at its base – utterly spent; his skin fading to an oily black.  As even his eyes of grey and white filled with the black liquid he took a final look at his destination, and failed goal.

High above the city, blue flames filled the night.  While at the city’s heart, where the Black Door throbbed, a familiar and powerful glow turned the city into shadows of grey and gold.  Atop the remnants of the Northern Tower, a brilliant sphere of azure blue grew, stretching out to cover the entire city, spreading to the Outlands as well.  All it touched filled with life; the grass stood straight and tall, growing around him.  Leaves of green filled the trees, then they blossomed, fruit budding on their branches.

Before X’ander’s flesh was no more he too fell beneath the healing glow . . .

Then, X’ander rose to his feet.

The battle continued rage on at the heart of the city . . .

With the Eater devouring his insides as quickly as they were healed, X’ander headed towards the Rift, and the final battle for the Seventh World.

. . . unbeknownst to him, golden shafts of hair began sprouting from his bald head.

 

 

 

For my latest works, find me at http://infinitelimitsjcbell.wix.com/jcbell.  Would also love to hear any feedback – good or bad.

Thanks,

J.C. Bell

 

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