Freedom . . . What did it mean to a Dead God? Finally, there could be an end to the Hunger. It had been so long, and now it was so close.
How many worlds had he drained to get here? How many wars had he fought? The Hunger had been with him since the beginning, he was Makii. A Dead God. Lord Imorbis.
Because of him, the Plague had spread throughout all of the Maker’s creation. Those who resisted suffered certain death . . . those who accepted him, suffered a fate far worse. They became slaves to the Hunger, and found their immortality came with a price: to be bound to Lord Imorbis and his campaign for the duration of their existence. Together, they traveled the Darkbridge, devouring world after world, his army growing stronger and larger with each fallen world.
There was a time when Imorbis claimed the souls of all he conquered. That was in the beginning, when he actually fought a war with the Living. Now, that war was long since won. No longer was there any confederation of worlds to stand against the Makii. No grand offensive to drive them back into the Darkbridge and burn their home-world to dust. Their best laid plans had all failed, and no matter how many worlds united against them; the army of the Makii perpetually grew in numbers while their enemies’ forces eventually dwindled to nothing.
Imorbis was the first to come to the realization that their victory over the living was meaningless, and that the true enemy to the Makii was the Hunger. With the battle won, and his enemies scarce, Lord Imorbis was left with a vast army to feed, and very little to nourish them. Living planets became hard to come by – and often abandoned when found. Enslaved to the Hunger, Lord Imorbis was forced to press on, his new campaign begun not for conquest but for starvation.
Eventually, the weakest of his army withered to near death, and he gladly abandoned them on the Dead Worlds. Rarely did he replenish his fallen ranks, and did so only when he found a champion worthy of the blood on one of the conquered worlds. But Imorbis was no fool, even before the war had ended he had seen the truth – those of the Blood would always be hungry, no amount of life would satisfy that. In anticipation of this, he had even formed a truce with the Living. To continue feeding on the worlds, Lord Imorbis the Bringer of Death promised peace.
But to possess the world he now beheld would make such promises meaningless. This world was life. He felt it all around him. Even deep below his feet he sensed its pulse. Clearly, even in the air above, where the branches covered the sky like clouds. In all of the worlds he had conquered, never before had he found such a life-force. To possess its power would make him truly a god, immortal. Satisfy his hunger for all time.
The indigenous population decided to stay and protect it . . . all the better. There was a power in them as well that could prove equally satisfying. Lord Imorbis was nearly salivating to find out exactly what it was.
Because of the prize, Imorbis had summoned twelve of his Brethren, as well as four hundred thousand of the Risen dead, and one hundred thousand of the Initiated. He meant to take the tree by the time this planet's sun had set.
How wrong he had been.
Numbering around ten times the amount of defenders, he thought his army of the Risen ones could swarm the tree and end it at that, but to his surprise, the tree itself took up the fight, its branches moving to ensnare and smash the lumbering beings before many could even make it to the trunk. And those that did, fell by the thousands as the protectors fired upon them with simple wooden arrows from atop the branches.
He sent in the Initiated.
Unlike the Risen, they weren't mindlessly consumed by the Hunger, and could function intelligently. Some of the older ones were even quite strong, nearly equal to the Brethren themselves. The branches came at them, too slow. The speed of the Initiated was enhanced by the Virus, allowing them to easily outmaneuver the slow moving branches. Some fell from the arrows, but they fired back with their own dark powers sending the protectors back up the tree. The Risen and the Dead Gods could tap into the Void, wielding death at their fingertips. Known as the demon wind, the dark power normally disintegrated living flesh. But oddly, the elves hit by the dark power seemed unaffected, and were able to scramble upward to safety. Accompanied by a solid throng of the Risen, the Initiated continued in pursuit. They found the protectors calmly awaiting them, simple wooden spears in their hands.
He knew his forces had been baited and trapped, but before he could relay orders the trap was sprung. As before, the Initiated threw their dark force upon them, again it had no effect, simply washing over their lanky forms. The protectors charged right through the wall of blackness and fell upon the undead with their spears.
To the Dead God's amazement, his Initiated seemed not only matched in speed but outdone in skill, and in moments they began to collapse, raining down from the tree.
"These Elfin fight well," the Lord Imorbis said in a hollow whisper.
He grinned. Black cracks spread across his alabaster face.
He cared nothing for his fallen forces – with their deaths, all the more life for the Brethren to feast upon. Besides, after this battle was won he would no longer have need of an army, no need for battle. This would be his last fight.
“Let us see what the Elfin are truly capable of,” he said to his fellow Makii, who were anxiously awaiting the promised feast.
Covered in waves of black, Imorbis’ body rippled, and in moments they were in the thick of the battle.
Impressive, he thought as the elves gathered and cautiously came at the group of Makii. Typically the living merely fell before him; his power stealing their life-force the moment they entered his presence. But these protectors stood, unharmed and unafraid.
No matter, the Dark God thought. There are many ways to kill with the Dark Power.
And Lord Imorbis knew them all.
He crafted a blade of black steel with his power. Every cell in his body had long since been overtaken by the Plague. It had hardened his flesh into something stronger than any known element, and unlike the lesser Initiated, it was impenetrable to even a silver edge. With the demon wind he could control his cells; enhance his speed and strength, or even turn his body into a weapon. For this fight, he did them all. The blade of demon wind became as sharp as he willed it -- which meant it passed through stone and steel as easily as air, while his body was impossibly fast and strong. The elves proved to be skilled opponents indeed, but against the Makii and their Dark Power, the protectors' flesh parted for the black blades.
Two came at him. A head of golden hair fell from one's body, while the other lost an arm, then leg, and was finally cut in half for good measure. More came at him and fell the same, their wood sticks severed in two as easily as their soft flesh. He finished an exceptionally tall one of the beings when another came before him; a crown of vines wrapped around his head, in his hands another wooden staff, this one tinged red at the tip and had what looked like thin wisps of smoke rising from it as though the creature recently plucked it from a fire. The being's eyes of white and gray stared down the Dead God unflinching.
Imorbis smiled as the creature came at him, knowing this one to be their leader, and that with his fall the battle would be won.
The Dead God summoned the demon wind to its fullest, his blade a blur as it shot toward the elf. Remarkably, the being managed to raise the staff in time to block his attack. To the Dead God’s shock, his blade didn’t continue on, splitting staff, crown, and skull as he would expect. But instead, it came to a dead stop, resting harmlessly against the staff.
Imorbis had but a moment to wonder at his failure before the the elf came on, his spinning staff nearly too fast for even Imorbis to block. Incredibly, the staff withstood his black steel no matter how much he willed the wood to split. In fact, his staff not only deflected the black blade but weakened it every time they met, stealing the Dead God's own power much like he took life from the living. Imorbis found himself slowing each time the weapons met, and his opponent was skilled as well, anticipating every counterstrike Imorbis thought to send. He knew that very soon, the staff would work its way through his defenses, and that he would finally be freed of the Hunger – in the true death.
He hadn’t come so far, and gotten so close to fail now . . .
Imorbis had survived for the span of a thousand lives by learning to adapt to the unexpected. And in all that time he had never known failure.
His blade vanished. He channeled all of his power into his fists, and struck out - not caring whether the creature blocked him or not - hoping the sheer force of the attack would break him. His fists slammed forward, easily intercepted by the other’s staff of wood. The combatants cried out as one; the Dead God’s scream an ear-splitting shriek, while the other’s more of a hollow groan.
The Dead God looked down at his hands -- saw only blackened stumps from which his infected blood poured. His opponent lay crumpled against a branch, his staff smoldering at his feet. In his anger and pain he meant to finish the being off, but then he sensed another presence -- surely an Elder God -- and began to worry his own existence was in jeopardy.
Had the Elders anticipated his betrayal? Their numbers were growing, had they decided to forfeit the truce?
He sensed the attack was imminent, but before he could summon a barrier of his own dark power, the Elder God had him encased in blue flames. Though they didn’t immediately destroy him, nevertheless, the pain they caused forced him to his knees. In that moment of weakness, he hadn’t seen his fallen foe rise to his feet. He was only dimly aware that the being drew near, his staff smoking in his hands. The Elder was at his side – a woman, taller than even the elf, her silver hair engulfed in blue flames. Imorbis found himself backpedaling as the elf brought the blood-ringed staff to bear on his head.
The Dead God never dreamed such pain existed. His own twisted life-force drained away. The protector held on to his staff even as smoke started to rise from the flesh of his hands. Imorbis was all but drained by the time the being let his weapon fall.
Still covered in blue flames, the Dead God fell too -- hundreds of feet from the tree. His body crumpled as it slammed into the base. Barely able to roll onto his back, he looked up and watched as his army was obliterated high above the branches. Much later, Lord Imorbis of the Makii found enough energy to crawl his way back to the Rift on broken and bloodied limbs.
No single world – no hundreds of worlds, had ever defeated him. Despite his failure, he wouldn't abandon that life-force. Drained as he was, he needed it now more than ever. There was no shortage of Makii within the Darkbridge. And they too had vast armies. The prize could be shared. It most certainly had to be taken. When they learned a chance to be freed from the Hunger was at stake, a million worlds would answer his call. Together they would feed from the tree, the so-called Graelic,
Imorbis would return, bringing with him enough of an army powerful enough to bury these Elves, and blanket their world in death until the end of time.
Broken, drained and near death, Imorbis refused to give up.
As he dragged his damaged body to the Darkbridge, Imorbis decided the day had finally come . . . so he entered the Rift, returning to the edge of the universe where he would resurrect The Servant of Death . . .
It would be worth the price, he reasoned. For when it was over, he would stand high atop the Graelic, at long last free of the Hunger.
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