'Darkness . . .
. . . it has us all.'
'Awaken, for now you must shine.'
Her eyelids fluttered, then opened. Before her the world grew into being, transforming from a dark blur into something tangible and real. The Midnight Sun had all but passed, leaving her in a world of night, shadows and nothingness, but her eyes somehow saw through them all, saw things as they truly existed, absent of the darkness and of the light.
Whimly stopped shivering.
Emily took her hand from his head.
"What is it, Whimly? Who's c . . ."
She felt it.
The beating of a drum, vibrating her insides, hammering at her chest, stifling the sound of her own voice with the pounding of her heart
Suddenly the forest surrounding them was awakened, awakened and alive, flooded with the sounds of movement in the trees above and in the ground below. As one, every bird in the forest took to the air, snapping branches as they fled skyward.
To Emily's right, the forest exploded as a massive buck burst from the woods, his rack of horns smashing aside anything that obstructed his path. Emily ducked, pulling Whimly down with her as the deer charged toward them, then, an instant before crushing them, the creature leapt, its hooves clipping several curls from Emily's head. The beast bolted onward and soon, it was gone. As were the rest of the forest creatures, for as suddenly as the noise had begun, it stopped, and in the new found silence, all that Emily could hear was her blood throbbing in her veins.
Then came the scream, and her heart seemed to stop altogether.
The voice was unintelligible, but the cry reverberated through her mind screaming, "Pain . . .". Over and over again, a continuous echo in the dark.
She turned to Whimly and snatched his hand. His flesh was cold, stiff. She looked at his face and watched as the color drained from his skin. She somehow found her voice, managed to drag it through her throat and squeezing his hand she cried out, "Whimly, Whimly, what is it?"
He ignored her.
Emily grabbed his shoulders and shook him, screaming "What is it?"
He was frozen, a corpse.
The wailing dwindled into nothingness, and the echo of pain ended. Whimly was alive once more.
"I don't know," he replied, turning his pale face toward her.
"Galimoto?" flinging the cape to the ground, Emily jumped to her feet. "Revive Tetloan, we need to go. Now." She looked up into the trees, but found only branches. "Galimoto, where are you?" She said, cautiously raising her voice.
"Keep moving!" The words leapt out from darkness, followed shortly by the rumble of moving feet. "The bastards ain't far behind."
"We're too late," Emily said, peering through the trees, watching as a group of men and women trudged toward them. Her heart beat harder, faster, threatening to burst open her chest.
Eighteen shadows filled the roadway before them.
The rhythm mounted, became deafening!
A man with only one arm took the lead, thrusting a silver etched sword into the ground and leaning on it as he waited for the others to catch up to him. For the most part, the rest of the group was armed as well, equipped mostly with long daggers or swords. The few who didn't carry weapons were encased in an aura of blue light. One of the travelers, a woman with short cropped hair, cradled a small bundle of cloth to her chest while wielding a knife with her empty hand. A continuous wail emitted from her tightly guarded bundle. Other than the occasional coat of chain mail, the people wore no armor but were dressed in garments of wool and fur.
Emily nearly doubled over from the pounding in her head, then she saw Whimly stroll past her, heading straight for the road.
"Whimly, stop," she whispered, prying her hands from off of her ears and reaching out for him.
Her fingers clamped down on air.
Whimly stepped into the clearing and onto the road.
"Where is Whimpy going?"
Emily's head bolted to the right, standing beside her was Tetloan.
"How . .?" The question died on her lips as an uproar broke out among the group of travelers, having noticed the appearance of Whimly.
"Hold it there, boy!" The one-armed leader shouted as he and several of his companions held their weapons in Whimly's direction. "I said hold."
His eyes a dreamy glaze, Whimly kept moving.
"Boy's possessed by the demons," one of the men said, his face nearly buried in the fluff of his fur lined collar.
"Aye, ready your weapons. If he gets to close, kill him."
Emily could see the face of the one-armed man, a mix of wrinkles and scars. His weapon was unwavering while Whimly came onward.
Separated by a foot of space, Whimly suddenly stopped and raised his arm.
"There," he said, pointing down the road.
The group exchanging puzzled glances, then, after a brief nod from the one-armed man, they swiveled their necks in the direction of Whimly's finger, though they still kept him in the corner of their eyes.
THUMP . . .
"What in the dead?" Tetloan said, stepping backward. His mouth gaping as he looked down the road.
THUMP . . .
Behind the travelers, the darkness was moving.
It was alive!
"Whimly, run!" Trees shook as Emily's voice blasted out into the night. The darkness vanished as her body ignited, transforming her into a pyre of blue.
The woman with the baby turned, opened her mouth to scream . . . A shadowed hand brushed across her cheek. Her arms dropped to her sides. The dagger fell from her fingers, rattling on the gravel road. Beside it, resting in a heap, the bundle of cloth was silent. Nothing left the woman's lips but her breath, and then she too fell to the earth.
Those with their weapons held in Whimly's direction spun, striking out as they moved.
The attackers were silhouettes of men, cut from the darkness itself. Shadows cast in the absence of light and the absence of a human presence, shadows of what had once been a life. Emily watched in horror as they flowed through space, liquid and agile their dark forms able to change shape and direction instantaneously. The longer she watched, the darker they became, until eventually she felt that the very night was falling into them, and she was being pulled down with it.
They were a blur, a current of darkness pouring over the group of travelers.
The humans sought to defend themselves as the creatures flooded their ranks, but instead of biting into the demons' flesh, their blades slashed and stabbed at emptiness, cutting harmlessly through the air. The beings moved faster than the travelers' blades, faster than even their eyes could follow. The demon's liquid forms easily outmaneuvered their every strike. Nothing could touch them, while all they needed was a touch and after their shadowed hands met with living flesh, the humans simply dropped to the earth. Even the efforts of the mages were futile. Streams of energy spilled from their fingertips, only to dissipate the instant it met the beings' empty forms, failing to even scratch their dark surfaces.
Half of the travelers were on the ground, twitching, green spots growing on their flesh from where they were struck, their veins clogging then bursting through their skin while their lifeblood pooled around them, thick and dark. One of the fallen travelers knelt on the road, his hands covering his throat as a continuous stream of blood poured from his lips, nose and ears. A drop of blood formed at the corner of his eyes then spilled down his cheek where it merged with the rest of the flow.
The one-armed man managed to summon the remaining travelers to him, and together, standing shoulder to shoulder, they formed a line of swords and daggers while the dark demons, slowly and cautiously, came at them, seeming to float in the air as they came over the rotting bodies of their victims. The air around them bent from their presence, warping with their every motion. There were only three of the demons, but in a matter of moments ten humans had fallen while, by all appearances, they themselves had yet to be harmed.
"Stand ready! Strike as one!" The one-armed leader shouted, his eyes as sharp as the steel in his hand while he studied the movements of the demons advancing toward him.
From out of nowhere, Whimly appeared, ghostly white, walking in front of the line of defenders to place himself directly in the path of the oncoming demons.
"No," Emily's lip trembled as she mouthed the word.
Whimly turned. Through the darkness she saw his blue eyes glistening. She saw him smile.
"No," she softly repeated, stepping onto the road.
The demons came at him . . .
Whimly fell beneath their shadow.
She ran to him, shredding the darkness as her rage ignited into a maelstrom of blue light. Before her the air crackled then exploded into streams of light. The night parted, evaporated.
But she was too late . . .
Whimly crumpled to the earth. Half screaming. Half gurgling. The sparkle fading from his blue eyes as he looked to Emily and choked to death on his own tainted blood.
"My husband is mad!"
"My lady, you mustn't," Onk said, his eyes darting down the hallway. "He need not be present to overhear you."
"Our Lord is maaaaad!" The hallway emptied of servants as she shouted. "The Seventh World is in the hands of a chopa addict!"
There's more than poison in your husband's veins, Onk thought.
The pair continued walking, their footsteps and the sound of doors slamming shut echoing down the corridor. Onk's earrings bounced in tune with his steps.
"Please, I beg you. He will not hesitate to kill even you."
His white robe fluttered at his heels.
"No, he would never." She lowered her voice. "You fear him, don't you, Onk?"
His angular face was calm, solid as stone.
"When death becomes your only salvation, you see that life is a lie . . ."
She stopped walking and turned to him. She wore a deep blue dyed leather dress that was tightly fitted from her hips to her neck where it split into a sharp V, revealing a great deal of her full, round breasts and continued to plunge past her firm stomach to end just inches below her navel. Plush, black rolls of fur covered her shoulders and neck, a striking contrast to her lips which were painted dark red. A black lace shawl hung from her shoulders, the ends of which were gripped tightly in her hands. Like the rest of LeCynic's servants she was utterly bald. But unlike them, she had chosen to replace her lost hair, covering every inch of her flesh with a churning mass of black snakelike tattoos.
" . . . its greatest fabrication, fear."
She revealed her mind to Onk.
. . . Purple fingernails . . .
Tattooed flesh tearing . . .
Blood and pain . . . The endless pain.
'Please, no more.' Onk pleaded in his mind.
. . . Tendrils of blue light licking her wounds . . . eating the pain . . .
Her flesh was whole, restored.
"He only heals so that he can tear me open once more. No, he would not kill me. No matter how hard I beg.”
Onk returned from her mind to find her green eyes looking at him. Her crimson lips were one of the only parts of her body that weren't tattooed, and he found them, inches from his own. Moist and full, he felt his mouth aching toward them, but he didn't move, nor had to, for they came to him.
"Must I live this endless cycle of pain?"
Her breath was sweet, her lips soft.
"Can there be no pleasure?"
She brushed them across his cheek, leaving a trail of red.
"Free me," she moaned.
He felt her nibbling at his ear. Felt her breasts rubbing against him through the fabric of his white robe. How he wished there was nothing between them, nothing to hamper the sensation. Nothing but flesh on flesh.
He longed to have her as his own, longed to bite down upon those red lips, softly at first, then . . . then clamp them between his teeth till he felt the warmth of her blood on his tongue and could hear her, no longer moaning in pleasure but in pain.
He pulled away.
"Coward," she said. "You have no life. Not while you continue to live in fear of death." She spun around, throwing her shawl over her head. She began to walk away. "If you will not kill him, then find one who can."
Onk stood there in silence.
Katrina . . . Your husband is beyond death. He buried the thought deep inside his mind.
He waited till the back of Katrina's tattooed head receded in the distance before surrounding himself in a hue of blue and then faded from sight.
He felt them, coursing through his hair, their fingertips gently scrapping his skull. He wanted to cringe, to shrink away from their touch. Instead, he shivered.
"Cold?" Her lips rubbed against his ear.
She pulled a sheet over his body.
"Cursed Midnight Sun," he grumbled, burying his face in the pillow. "Thank the Gods they send it but once a year."
She didn't make a sound as she stood up and went to the window. All he heard were the drapes sliding shut, then Gypsum's light faded to a glow. But still, sleep eluded him; in truth, it wasn't Gypsum's presence that disturbed him.
Soundless she returned to slide her fingertips down his back. He forced himself to sleep, seeking comfort in an empty, dreamless slumber . . .
"Alec?" Her soft voice called him forth.
She shook him, gently, but with enough force that he sensed urgency.
"Alec, Grimgy's at the door."
Thump, thump, thump.
"Alec? You there boy?" The voice was gruff and loud, even though stifled by the door.
"Aye. What do you want, Grimgy?" Alec replied, sitting up and rubbing his eyelids.
"There's a stranger downstairs. A mage . . ." He paused. " . . . I think. Anyways, seems to be asking a lot about you."
"Mages," the woman said, hissing. "To the dead with them." She jumped off the bed, naked, her skin as white as the sheets and riddled with pulsing blue veins. Clothes flew through the air as she tore the room apart. "They've found you. No doubt they've come to take you back, back to Lock Core. I won't let them take you, won't let them study you anymore." She seemed ready to shout, to blast the room apart with a scream. Somehow, she managed to vent her rage through a whisper instead. Bent over, her naked backside white, nearly transparent in the lamplight, she finally stopped rummaging through the room. “Found em," she said, standing up, a pair of worn scabbards in her hands. Sticking out of the scabbards were a pair of silver, leaf shaped cross guards fixed to leather wrapped cherry wood handles. “I've seen enough mages die to know how it is done."
"As have I," Alec said, grabbing her wrist. I've probably even killed a few. "But I don't intend to see it happen ever again."
She easily slipped free from his grip.
"You're defending them? After what they've done to you?"
Imprisonment is the least I deserve.
He didn't remember much of his imprisonment, other than the pain. He didn't hold all of the Magi to blame, mainly just one man. The purple fingernails still haunted his dreams. Sometimes he could still feel them digging into his flesh, tearing him apart as they sought his power.
"I don't know . . . not exactly."
"You know what happens if they take you back to Lock Core?" She said, her lips trembling though still keeping her voice to a whisper. "Remember how I found you? I was shocked you could even be alive."
After the War, hard times fell on the people of the Seventh. Being extremely quick and agile, Nathalia realized her skills made her an excellent thief, and she always had a personal grudge against mages, making them fair game in her eyes. The Keeper's Tower was going to be Nathalia's big score. She had learned that the Mages had kept something of unimaginable value locked away within its depths. She never considered the treasure would be a boy. With no idea who he was, she never doubted his value, and without fear or hesitation she set him free. Since then they'd been together to see the passing of twenty Midnight Suns.
“Maybe you should have just left me." He regretted the words the moment they left his lips. Alec had to lower his head, unable to bear looking into her white and gray eyes and watch as they filled with pain. He stared at the floor boards in silence. Then, alerted by the muffled sound of a throat dislodging phlegm, he turned to the door.
"Thanks, Grim," Alec said, his voice terse. "That it?"
"One other thing?"
"What's that, Grim?"
"Is that Nathalia I hear in there?"
His brown eyes turned toward the woman who was in the process of pulling up her slacks.
"No, Grim. Just one of Eldelphie's whores."
Her hair, radiant, glossy yellow curls, covered her face as she stopped tugging on her slacks and looked up at Alec with her twin pupils of white.
"Thanks," she whispered. Whether the reply was sarcastic or sincere, Alec couldn't tell.
She tucked her hair back, fastening it behind a pair of pointed ears. Her face was as pale as her backside, and just as smooth. Alec left her age a mystery, but he had enough sense to know that she was old, far older than him. In the beginning, he allowed himself to be deluded by her youthful beauty, convincing himself they were a pair of young lovers, not some ignorant boy enthralled by an immortal. Oddly, the older he got the less comfortable he became with the relationship. He knew that with his ever widening waistband, and graying head of hair, the day was coming when they would no longer seem a pair of young lovers, but an old man with his daughter. If that wasn't reason enough to push her away, the rumors circulating lately were. Undead attacks, unexplained disappearances, and as always the Rift remained open. With his last encounter with the Plague, he nearly broke the unbreakable Lock Core. If it happened again, he meant to be miles from the nearest breathing being, Nathalia especially. For that reason alone, the relationship had to end.
"Well, if you see her. Remind her she owes me rent, and that I aim to get it, even if I have to take it from her half-breed hide."
At least his lie had worked. He knew Grimgy wouldn't dare make such a boast in Nathalia's presence. Every now and then Alec came to his senses and pushed Nathalia away, forcing her to rent out her own quarters at the Wayward Inn. Problem was, she never had money to pay for her stay.
Though they both had found a way to make a lucrative living by raiding the chopa dealers' hideouts, despite Alec's efforts to dissuade her, the elf woman insisted on distributing her share to Shattered Rock's impoverished. Not only had she grown in debt to Grimgy because of this, but also her kind actions channeled their hard earned money directly back into the dealers' hands -- her benefactors being far more eager to feed their addictions than they were to feed their empty stomachs. Alec on the other hand knew better. He wasn't about to give his money back to the very same people he stole it from. What's the point? He would only end up stealing it back anyways.
“Sure, I'll tell her, but if I were you, Grim, I wouldn't force the matter." Even having lived through the horrors of the Plague, Nathalia was by far the most deadly being Alec had ever seen.
"Either she pays, or she can live on the street with her charity cases."
Luckily for Grimgy, she honored her debts; otherwise the issue could have been quickly resolved by her orchid blades.
Pulling the sheet off of his legs, Alec swung his feet to the floor. "Hey, Grim?" he said, while scratching his beard. "Let the mage know, that if he wishes to see me, I'll be down shortly."
Alec turned to Nathalia.
"But, tell him that he's buying the drinks."
"Aye, Alec, I'll tell him."
The floorboards creaked outside the door as Grimgy departed.
"Do as you wish, Master Alec," Nathalia said, throwing her arms into a brown leather coat that nearly touched the floor. She tugged the collar, a thick roll of fluffy white and black fur, causing her yellow curls to fall beneath it and vanish from sight. "Perhaps I am nothing more than a whore to you."
"Nathalia, I didn't mean it."
"No. You're right. Why do I care?" She strapped a scabbard to each hip, just beneath the opening of her jacket. "Next time you're at the Keeper's tower maybe Eldelphie can save you."
She pulled her hair out from behind her neck, deftly twirling seven separate strands into a ponytail. Once woven, her wave of hair flowed down her neck and then dissipated, breaking on her back. It was a style common among her kind, male and female alike, its elven title unpronounceable to humans it was simply referred to as an "elven ponytail".
He began digging through his jacket pockets, desperate to find something that would make her happy. "At least let me give you this, to settle your debts with Grimgy."
A pile of coins gleamed in his outstretched hand, then suddenly, the coins leapt into the air, scattering throughout the room. Despite his years of training at the Warphanage -- and his recent alleyway encounters with vengeful chopa dealers -- Alec hadn't even seen Nathalia strike. She was halfway out the door before Alec even felt the pain.
"I could give a rotting hell about your money, Destroyer," Nathalia spat while the coins began clinking on the wood floor. "Save it for your real whores."
Alec rubbed his wrist, grimacing.
"Nat, that's not what I meant."
"No. Of course it isn't." She buried her face beneath her collar and tucked her ponytail behind her back before opening the door. "You never say what you mean do you, Alec?"
Alec wanted to stop her from going. He wanted to reach out, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her, screaming, "Damn you leave. Leave me or you'll die!"
He owed her everything, including his life. It was a debt that he knew could never be settled. Should his power decide to return, all those around him would die -- as they did at Lock Core -- even the ones he loved.
The door closed and she was gone. Instead of chasing after her, Alec found himself kneeling on the floor, picking up coins.
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