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the gauntlet

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the gauntlet

Postby J.C.Bell » Tue Feb 19, 2013 9:33 pm

Thanks for all the positive feedback and help launching my first novel, Infinite Limits. Looking to polish up my second novel, Limits @ Infinity, before I e-book it, and I’m ready to brave another stroll down the gauntlet that is literary criticism.
links removed- Bmat


J. C. Bell


Anon chose to observe the sentencing, and nothing more. He was invisible to all but one. Even if he chose to do so, Anon doubted he could hide from the great Dona’Cora.
Their robes so white they seemed to sparkle, the Conclave of Elders formed a circle around Alana. Consumed by grief and shame, her head hung low. Throughout the questioning she hardly made eye contact with the Elders -- probably had not heard a single word they said. Her mind was encased in an impenetrable shield, but even so, Anon knew her well, and could easily sense her thoughts. The words of the Elders meant nothing to her. What they did not realize, was that her failure was of an entirely different nature, a loss they no longer could comprehend. She had ignored their laws, and would do so again. Perhaps a million times over if it would save those she deemed worthy. To uphold purity and goodness was her only true law. On the world Ki'minsyllessil, the Plague swept that all away. Her law was sundered by the undead army, forcing her to see the truth of things; the fragility of innocence and the limitless breadth of corruption.
Frustrated with her stubbornness, and realizing the futility of any further condemnation, the Elders cast their sentence and left her to her fate -- she was forbidden to step upon a living world until she once more accepted the Conclave’s ways. To reenter the fold, she would have to fully open her mind to them. If she harbored any doubt, they would find it and banish her once more.
Quite possibly she would never return. For some, such a punishment amounted to a sentence of death. The Dead Worlds were harsh beyond imagining. Upon many the undead remained, and would no doubt find a weakened god an irresistible treat. Or perhaps, Alana would refuse the Conclave forever -- find her own path in the fate of the universe. Ultimately, the choice would be her own.
Slowly Alana arose, her head of smooth silver hair towering over all but one of the Elders (Ostedes, a thin giant with branch-like arms and legs from the world Edilan). She faced the Elders, seemingly unfazed by her sentence and their harsh reprimanding.
As Anon suspected, she had but one thought left in her mind.
“What of Ki'minsyllessil? What if some remain?” she asked, not bothering to acknowledge the harsh stares garnered from her words.
“The Elves are no longer your concern. Though most likely none remain, an entire strain lost because of your arrogance.”
The speaker was Dona’Cora. Next to Anon she was the most ancient of all the Elders. At one point in time, entire galaxies bowed before her, worshiping her as a true god. In the beginning of the Age of Death, she led perhaps the single greatest offensive strike against the Makii. Worlds upon worlds rallied to her call, joining her in a battle that spanned nearly a century. She was, of course, doomed to fail. For as ever, the Plague’s greatest strength was its ability to acquire its enemies; the more that stood before it, the more that joined it. The truth of Dona’Cora’s effort was that she hastened the spread of the Plague, funneling thousands of worlds directly into its maw.
Her final glimmer of hope lost, Alana lowered her head.
Very little softened Dona’Cora’s heart anymore. She had seen more devastation than most, and no doubt found Alana’s suffering childlike. Still, she responded with what could almost be seen as sympathy.
“Nonetheless, we will return for a final assessment. With so promising a specimen at stake, we must be certain.”
Even from his distance, Anon saw a sudden glimmer of hope in Alana’s eyes – though it was snuffed out as quickly as it arose when Dona’Cora continued, “Do not mistake me, Alana. I care not for your tale of lost love. You were to return with him. As tragic as it may be, I cannot afford to feel sympathy for you. Nor do I weep for the loss of his people or his world. The Dead Gods had claimed Ki'minsyllessil. It is only because of the Treaty that they bothered to inform us of this fact at all. You dared to deny not only us, but the Treaty as well. Because of you, a Godling is lost, and our treaty with the Dead Gods quite possibly broken. If we didn’t value your power so dearly -- perhaps now more than ever -- most likely your sentence would be death.”
Alana appeared made of stone.
“I promise you Dona’ Cora. I will not fail again.”
“I hope you have that chance, Alana. As I hope you return to us soon.”
As much as he hated to admit it, Anon doubted she would ever return. It was clear to him that she was more committed to upholding her own laws than ever before.
His thin lips spread into a grin.
As if they were non-existent, she walked through the ring of Elders to begin her banishment.

* * *
Along with a pair of staunch white robed Elders, Anon followed Alana to the hangar – a spacious barreled chamber that opened to the wind-warn mountains. Two lines of egg shaped objects filled the chamber. These oblong metallic vessels were known as ‘pods’. Relics from the Age of Unity, the pods relied on the Oneness as their sole power source. Colossal failures at the time, the pods never achieved speeds anywhere near those of the more popular grav or matter condensing drive systems -- even when powered by the greatest of the Blood. Not to mention, such vessels were only logical for short range distances, rare were those who dared to test the limit of their power by undertaking a major interstellar trip. More often than not, such fools were never heard from again.
Needless to say, other than for amusement, the pods were quickly discarded, and considered almost laughable when the Rift made space travel an instantaneous event.
Now, the pods were the Chosen’s only way off of the small basalt covered moon which they called home. Known as the Sanctuary, the moon was the sole orbiting body of a Dead World that no longer had a name. With the Oneness, the Elders were able to carve out a keep within the largest of the moon’s smooth black mountains. Inside the keep, an artificial atmosphere was constantly maintained by lesser Chosen, while outside, solar winds transformed the moon’s surface into ever shifting waves of black glass.
The Dead World below housed a Rift. The Sanctuary did not. Despite the moon’s constant volcanic activity and flesh searing winds, being disconnected from the Rift made it one of the safest places in the universe. Even with all their knowledge and power, the Elders had found few such places: lands forgotten or overlooked by the Plague. It was to the largest of these hidden lands that the Chosen were sent, terraforming the worlds with their Oneness.
The trio shielded themselves in blue flames as they approached the open-aired hangar. Anon fell back, not wishing to announce his presence to Alana by summoning a similar shield. He contented himself to watch her embark from a distance.
‘You do not even wish to say goodbye?’
Dona’Cora had chosen to join him, though unlike him, she remained visible to all.
‘She must gain strength on her own now. My presence would only undue her efforts.’
‘Or perhaps, Illusionist, you have grown too fond of her. Your loving heart will not allow you to punish your child, so you leave it to others. ’
After all these years, the lack of respect from the other Elder Gods still brought a smile to his face. Despite all his recent accomplishments (what many called miracles), they believed he had fooled the Dark Army into thinking he was something he was not; some sort of holy and sacred being. But the Elders were not so easily fooled. No matter how much power he possessed, or what great feats he performed, he would always be viewed as an illusionist. He smiled because they were right, but also, he smiled because they couldn’t see through their own illusions – that they were just like him.
‘I watch my child leave for the Dead Worlds and you think me soft? You and I are more alike than we probably care to admit, Don’Cora. Like you, I do what I must -- without exception. And with no regard for the difficulties.’
‘Surely, if only for the semblance of discipline, you could muster anger and disappointment?’
‘To survive the Dead Worlds, she must begin to see truth. Why corrupt that with lies?’
‘Lies? Truth? Both are irrelevant in battle, Anon. For the Makii, truth was a virus that made them immortals -- the greatest lie the universe had ever known. It is like you said; we do what we must. Life itself is at stake. To win this battle, I for one would do anything.’
That’s what Anon feared most.
‘Do not think you are clear of this, Anon. Alana is your child, your responsibility. As such, the Conclave has chosen you to go to Ki'minsyllessil, to clean up your child’s mess.’
Perhaps because of her fur covered flesh, sharp pointed nose, or possibly just her general toughness, whenever Anon was in Dona’Cora’s presence he was reminded of a particular creature that once thrived in the worlds. Prior to the Age of Unity, the worlds were separated by vast and often unattainable distances. Creatures of every imaginable shape and size filled the living worlds, but rarely did any single species populate multiple planets. Miraculously, one animal did manage to find its way to virtually every populated planet, and also thrived upon every world it landed. These small fur-covered stowaways had of course been given many names throughout the years, but Anon remembered them by one name more clearly than the rest -- rat.
Alana was about to enter a pod when she turned to them. Dona’Cora stared her down with her beady yellow eyes. Some thoughts must have passed between the two women, for suddenly Dona’Cora spun away. She stormed off, saying, “Stubborn girl. The Worlds die and she frets over one man.”
The follies of young love . . . the thought of it made him smile once more. Except for the innocence of a child, there was nothing more pure in the entire universe. Even the great Dona’Cora had once fallen prey to its spell, though she would never admit to it.
History said that The Great Offensive had begun with one woman’s love – to save her god-king from a planet under siege, that woman had rallied a legion of worlds to her cause. She would have sacrificed the universe itself, if it would have saved her love. But sadly, by the time her armies arrived, her god-king had become a demon. Decades later, with her army lying in ruins around her, she yet refused to leave the battle – not until her lover was truly dead.
Yes, Dona’Cora knew well the follies of young love. It must be difficult indeed, for her to relive her errors through the life of another.
Alana watched Dona’Cora depart, her eyes lingering in Anon’s direction long after she was gone. Was she already seeing to the truth? Had she seen past his illusion? Deep down, Anon wished it were so -- that she could see him one last time, that he could say a proper goodbye. He was almost on the verge of revealing himself when she turned and gracefully entered the pod.
The moment for a final farewell had passed. It would be ages before they would meet again, if ever.
A blue halo surrounded the vessel and it was off, sailing past the ocean of black glass that was the Sanctuary.
* * *
Shortly after Alana left, Anon began preparations for his own departure from the Sanctuary. His mission was to find and save the elf prince, Adros -- if by some miracle he still lived. Failing that, any remnant of the elven race would suffice. Worst case, if the elves had all perished, a healthy tissue sample could perhaps unlock at least some of their biological secrets.
From what they learned from Alana’s tale; the elves all seemed blessed with a natural resistance to the Plague, and an unusually long life-span. There was no doubt that their genetic makeup demanded further study, as well as a deeper integration into the elders’ evolutionary program. Their resistance was of particular importance. If they could rob the Dead Gods of their ability to replenish their army, the entire dynamic of the battle would suddenly shift in the Elders’ favor. With an army immune to the Plague, the Elders could even entertain the idea of outright war.
Such was the Elders’ goal – face the Dead Gods in war once more, but on their terms, and when the time was right. That was where Alana erred. She moved too soon, and without the Elders’ consent. She risked breaking the Treaty with the Dead Gods, at a time when the Elders’ survival depended on it.
The Treaty had never really been agreed upon by the Elders, so much as it was enforced upon them. Towards the end of the Age of Death, it was becoming well known that both sides were facing possible extinction. The Elders and the living worlds they ruled, were of course failing catastrophically to stop the spread of the Plague. But correspondingly, the Dead Gods’ own armies were growing beyond their own ability to maintain, and were becoming so massive that (at a time when a single living world was hard to come by) entire galaxies could not sustain them.
It was the Dead Gods themselves who brought forth the idea of ‘peace’. The Elders could continue their efforts to resurrect the Dead Worlds (obviously in hopes they would become a future source of nourishment). Meanwhile, the Dead Gods would take only what they need, leaving the Elders with their Chosen ones.
Still in the early stages of its development, the Treaty had brought little success to either side. The Elders had yet to bring life to a Dead World, and the Dead Gods were drawing ever closer to snuffing out all life in the universe.
For Dona’Cora, war had ever been the only real solution. But she dared not act, not until she was certain that the next time she faced the Dead Gods, she would be the victor. That was why the planet Ki'minsyllessil had become so vital. The blood of these elves could change everything -- if all of it hadn’t been infected or spilt.
Because of the mission’s importance, (or perhaps because Dona’Cora did not trust Anon) the Elder God Ostedes was to accompany him -- under Dona’Cora’s direct instruction. It was believed his uncommon affinity for nature would serve them well on this Ki'minsyllessil. Ostedes not only resembled a tree -- his interior vascular system did as well. His hands and feet didn’t have typical toes or fingers, but instead ended in branch-like appendages. It was from these appendages that Ostedes found sustenance, whether it was from the nutrients in the soil or other, less wholesome things.
Though boneless, every appendage was moveable -- his mind able to expand and contract his vascular system like one giant muscle. Lacking a mouth with which to speak, Ostedes was a born telepath. His mind perhaps the strongest Anon had seen. Few could resist his telepathic attacks. If he chose to enter one’s mind, he would find a way; whether it was tearing into it with pure telepathic energy, or piercing it with one of his many branch-like appendages and literally feeding on its knowledge. In truth, back on his home-world, Edilan, brains were considered a delicacy.
Fortunately, the Elders had taught him better table manners since then.
Even for Anon, it was difficult to judge Ostedes’ emotional state. His mind was an impenetrable wall of pure telepathic energy, while his long grey face was, for the most part, emotionless. The only emotion he ever truly displayed was anger – when his eyes glazed over in white, it was best to step lightly around Ostedes. Anon had seen that look once before – the day he rescued Ostedes from his dying world Edilan.
The giant never forgave Anon for that.
Being a Godling, he was exceptional among his people. They recognized this, and bestowed him a great honor because of it. He was made their Sacred Guardian. They believed he would be the one to save them from the Plague.
By the time Anon stepped in, his failure was certain. Ostedes knew the truth of it as well, and claimed his rightful place was to die in protection of his people. Anon robbed him of that final duty – his last act as their Sacred Guardian.
Ostedes was the first child Anon had saved. From the experience, Anon had learned an important lesson: not everyone wanted to be saved. If he had to do it again, would he leave the choice to Ostedes? Did Ostedes even have a choice, or would he merely be embracing death -- much like Alana’s love -- the elf prince, Adros. It seemed to be an obvious fact that only one thing could be achieved by standing against the Plague.
There was another simple truth that Anon had grown accustomed to facing over the years: no matter what one does in life, their path leads to death. He had seen entire races of people abandon their worlds, hoping to hide from the Plague -- though in the end the Plague found and slaughtered them. Some actually managed to spend their lifetimes in hiding, but eventually they too died, homeless refugees, living out their days in fear, outcasts on an alien world. And what of the Dead Gods, were they any different? They call themselves immortals, but in reality merely steal the life from others. In time, they too will find their end – an end they set in motion a long time ago.
Everyone must die. Anon knew there was no changing that. The Makii tried, but merely corrupted the laws – not escaped them.
Perhaps Alana’s law was the correct path. It had been proven time and time again that the Elders could not save the worlds. Then why not at least grant their people honorable deaths, in a manner of their choosing?
As Anon walked to the hangar, he still wasn’t sure what he would do if he actually found the Elf Prince; leave him to certain death, or force him to forsake his world and his rightful resting place.
There was one more option . . .
Anon flexed his fingers. A white glow crept from his fingertips, working its way up his arms and soon encasing his whole body.
. . . He could always stay and fight.
Shinning bright white, he stepped into a pod.

* * *

Along with the giant tree-like being Ostedes, Dona’Cora had hand-picked a dozen Chosen to join them. If the decision had been his, Anon would have taken only one of them – a young human named Brontes. Anon had saved Brontes from his dying world as well, though, unlike Ostedes, Brontes and Anon had formed an immediate bond that had endured for ages.
Brontes nodded respectfully to Anon as he emerged from his pod. His head was covered in a wild mass of curly hair. Black and long, it fell upon his face where it became one with a scruffy beard that was more knots than curls. From his left cheek, a puffy pink scar ran vertically up his face, passing through the fused patch of flesh where his eye once was, to the top of his forehead. The scar always served as a grim reminded to Anon of how twisted and evil the Makii had become. Despite Anon’s best efforts to restore sight to his left eye, the wound would never truly heal.
The story of its creation was often told – the young Godling who thought he could stand against a Dead God. The most remarkable part was that the Godling survived, while the Dead God did not. Many credited Anon with the victory – one of his earliest miracles. But Anon took no honor from that battle. The horrors inflicted by that Dead God – Sevron the self-proclaimed ‘Servant of Death’, still haunted Anon. He couldn’t escape the fact that he had killed the Dead God much too late.
Like the rest of the Chosen, and Ostedes, Blue flames covered Brontes. The air was so thick and dense with toxic gases that without the Singularity, one would be immediately crushed. Even with the singularity, merely walking on the land proved to be a task, much like trying to walk on the bottom of an ocean. Every motion was incredibly draining; too much activity could easily deplete one’s power, especially for the younger Chosen who were present. Speaking was impossible. Just to get a word across would require enough power to generate a tidal wave of the dense air. And when the word did reach a listener, so would the wave of elements -- enough of a force to put an Elder on their back. Even telepathic communication was a risk; the slightest lapse in concentration could lower one’s halo, resulting in certain and sudden death.
The Dead World was dangerous indeed, but it was also part of the reason the Sanctuary remained safe. Not even the Dead Gods would near this land any longer. They only wanted living worlds. To go elsewhere was merely a drain on their power. And should any of their lessor minions happen to stumble through the Rift and into this world, their bodies would be instantly liquefied by the extreme pressure.
As much as he wished to speak with Brontes, Anon focused his movement towards the Rift, hoping there would be time for pleasantries later. He wished he knew Brontes’ role in all of this. Why had Dona’Cora chosen him -- perhaps his most loyal companion next to Alana. He didn’t like where such speculations led to. It seemed there were only dead ends in this maze.
While in the safety of the Sanctuary, Dona’Cora had briefed each member of the mission individually, leaving Anon uncertain as to the others’ knowledge, or purpose. For Anon, the first order of business was to see if the Treaty was still in place – something he figured would be known perhaps the moment they set foot on Ki'minsyllessil. If they were lucky, the Dead Gods would even offer their aid, after all, the continuation of life was of mutual gain. If not, they would quickly find themselves in a violent struggle. Their party wasn’t large enough to survive any lengthy fight. Their best chance would be to flee into the Rift -- though not directly back to the Sanctuary lest they lead their enemies back to their home, bringing the war straight to their door. It could be years before they ever made it back, if they did at all. It was quite possible they would end up stuck, playing a game of hide-and-seek throughout the universe.
In the Age of Unity, the Rifts used to be housed in elaborate temples; structures that defied the laws of physics and only existed by the power of the Singularity. The Rift was the ultimate symbol of the Mage-lords’ power, and was worshipped as such. The Rift he now approached stood alone, unadorned. Twice as tall as Ostedes, the Rift floated mid-air, its outer edge slowly wavering in the dense atmosphere.
It had been prearranged that Anon initiate their destination – a highly tasking effort for even an Elder. Once a Rift was set to a certain destination, it took a great toll to alter it, only slightly less tasking than actually opening a Rift on a new world. Not only did he have to plot his course -- which required him to find one world within billions of worlds -- but also redirect the pathway of the Rift – something akin to permanently reversing a river’s flow.
No doubt he would be weakened on the other side. But thankfully, should there be trouble when he arrived; he could rely on Brontes’ support. Of his other companions he was far less trusting – especially Ostedes. He had the distinct feeling the Elder longed to find him in a vulnerable state. But Anon didn’t fear Ostedes or the Chosen. There were ways around the Elder’s telepathic barrage, and lacking that weapon, Ostedes was relatively weak in the Oneness. As for the Chosen, he was fairly certain he could defeat them with his reputation alone. If they somehow mustered the courage to stand against him, he would be forced to teach them that his respect was indeed well earned.
Ostedes and the Chosen were transparent in their faults. What Anon feared was the unknown – what exactly was he walking into on the planet Ki'minsyllessil?
With the entire party growing weaker by the moment, Anon supposed it was time to find out.
Threads of white light drifted to the Rift. They spiraled inward, coalescing into a single pinpoint of pure white deep within the heart of the Rift. Luckily, Anon didn’t have to search for the planet Ki'minsyllessil – he was led there by the light. Trusting in the Maker, he stepped in . . .
. . . in all of the universe there no place more peaceful than the Rift. It was a purity that defied intellect, an absence of time and space that brought one closer to the Maker – and the Void as well. All was forgotten in the Rift – all was forgiven. Reality became meaningless, but somehow life held more meaning than ever. Anon knew someday he would be allowed to stay, drifting in the blissful abyss for eternity. But it wasn’t his time yet. He was only passing through.
Sensation returned, and with it pain. He felt his mind tearing as the real world pulled him away. Consciousness was almost unbearable – surely reality would destroy him . . .
Anon was reborn on the other side. It took him a moment to collect his thoughts. When he did, he realized he was not alone.
His halo encased him
. . . and there was something else too. Evil, he was surrounded by it.
He fought to remain standing, hoped the other couldn’t see his knees tremble. If he was to face a battle he had to buy time, at least until his allies arrived.
“I once knew a man who refused immortality,” the other spoke, his voice little more than a whisper. “And to think, I thought him a fool. But now, look what I have become, while that man -- the ‘Illusionist’, remains unchanged.”
The land was buried in shadows. The Great Tree filled the horizon, its canopy blocking out the planet’s sun. Its trunk was hidden in darkness, but Anon could clearly sense it in the distance, looming over the land. The land itself was covered in twisted roots that could easily be mistaken for hills – the largest of them mountains. From beneath one of the giant roots the speaker crept – his body as much a twisted tangle of shadows as the surrounding landscape. He limped forward. He reached out to Anon, his arms ending in stumps from which his thick black blood poured. The blood formed into a hand. It didn’t try to strike out at Anon, but was left open and waiting before him.
“I too have changed, Lord Imorbis. Maybe I am merely better at hiding my scars, after all, like you said; I am an illusionist.”
Grudgingly, Anon accepted the gesture and shook the Dead God’s hand. He wasn’t worried about infection -- he was confident the white halo surrounding his own hand would protect him. But for many, a handshake signified respect, something the Makii did not deserve.
“Ha. Changed indeed. But not through illusion, oh no. The Brethren know the truth of you, Anon. Of what you really have become.”
“Well then, do you offer your hand in peace or in fear?”
“Respect. For the one who choose the true path.”
“There is no choice, Imorbis. There is only one path.”
“Yes, yes indeed. If only I could have seen things so clearly as you. . . And I thought I was the smart one.”
“What of the Treaty? Does your good gesture mean it remains in place?” Anon asked, thinking the Dead God was too far gone to find absolution, and anxious to begin the task at hand.
The Dead God laughed; a hollow rasping sound.
“No Anon, The treaty is broken beyond imagining.”
Anon released his slimy grip then stepped back, filling himself with as much power as he could summon.
If the Dead God was aware of Anon’s sudden blaze of power, he showed no sign.
“Though not by our choice, of course. Our armies have been stolen from us, Anon, and even now they march the Darkbridge. Everything has changed. No longer do they require nourishment from your Living Worlds, only their annihilation.”
Until Ostedes spoke -- with the force of a telepathic headache, Anon hadn’t realized his allies had arrived. Even so, after what Lord Imorbis had said, he doubted anything would comfort him at the moment.
His eyes pure white, Ostedes stared down the Dead God.
“Hah, you think you frighten me, Elder. I have seen death itself and it let me live.”
He looked at his bloodied stumps.
“Such as it is.”
“Lord Imorbis.”
This time Anon was reaching out to him. He placed a golden hand on his shoulder. The Dead God’s soul was laid bare -- all the evil done, all the horrors committed. Deep inside Anon saw a man who was both a genius and highly gifted with the Oneness. Considering all his atrocities, his greatest crime in life had been that he thought he could undo the laws of nature.
Anon looked down at the crumpled form and felt sorry for the being.
“It took the army, Anon. All of our armies. It cares not for immortality or life, it wants only death. It is the embodiment of the Void.”
“Who, Imorbis? Who controls your armies now?” Anon asked.
“Such fools we were. To think we could conquer the Void. The Elves and their Graelic -- such power. We thought we were feeding off it, but in truth, we were giving it life. Life to the Void. We let it into our world, and now it wants to reclaim all.”
“Your armies,” Anon persisted. “Where are they now?”
He thrust his bloodied stump to the heavens.
“Everywhere. It knows where you’ve hidden the Living Worlds, and it moves to annihilate them.”
Anon’s companions cursed behind him. He sensed Ostedes dearly wished he could smash Imorbis.
“What of your Brethren, the other Makii?”
“My brethren have all left. Imagine . . . the conquerors of the universe fleeing in terror. The Void is the only foe we were never truly able to defeat. The one force capable of destroying us.”
“No. He speaks the truth. I know you can feel the evil in this world as clearly as I. I’ve known the truth the moment I arrived. The real question is; where do the Dead Gods now stand?”
“Yes,” Brontes injected, the memories of his last encounter with a Dead God sparkling at the corner of his remaining eye. “Why then, are you still here?”
The Dead God shrank away from them, as though it was trying to stuff itself into the shadows.
“My life’s work was the Void. It was I who discovered its existence, learned to exploit it. I remain while all others have left. I remained to study it.”
“I seem to remember, your studies also gave rise to the Plague,” Anon said.
“Infected them, of course. It’s a version of the Virus unlike any I have seen. A new strain. A living organism. It infects the host, then grows within. After time, there is nothing left of the individual; the flesh is but a puppet.”
“What of the Makii? How did you escape its control?” Anon asked.
“We could have ended your kind at any time, treeman.”
His eyes pure white, Ostedes bolted at the Dead God -- his many snake-like appendages propelling him forward faster than seemed possible.
But Anon was faster. He held Ostedes back with a glowing white hand.
As though oblivious to the sudden threat, the Dead God continued, “But we knew after the death of the Elders, our end would soon follow. That has not changed. The Makii remain, so long as we don’t interfere. Those of the Pure Strain cannot be controlled, but neither will they join you lest they openly seek death.”
“We have to leave,” one of the younger Chosen said.
“I think we have bigger problems now,” said Brontes.
“No, Ostedes is right. If anyone can tell us of this tree and its abilities, it is Adros. Finding him is more important than ever.”
“Ah, the Elf Prince. It knew you would come for him.”
“What do you know of the Prince?” Anon questioned.
“I know well who you seek. Because of him I am the creature you see. ”
“So then, does he yet live?” Anon asked.
The Dead God attempted a smile, but it looked more like a knife had cut a slit in his face.
“He’s a hard one to kill, a fact I can personally attest to. He may have defeated me in single combat, but I hold my honor intact. Even the Void could not defeat him.”
“I can take you to him, if you wish. But I warn you, the Void desires him as well. If you find him, you may not live to take him from this world.”
“I was no match for him in my prime, and would be much less now. Nor do I wish further injury on myself.”
“Why do you help us, Lord Imorbis?” Anon Asked, not certain he trusted the Dead God either.
“Far too long have I walked the path of death, and what have I gained? I once had great power. With my gifts, I thought I could outsmart the Maker -- steal immortality from him. For my hubris, I now suffer. Unleashing the Void was the end of my path, only now can I see that. I sought to escape from the laws of nature, never realizing why they existed. They are a prison. Built to contain the Void.”
Ostedes’ laugh, nearly split Anon’s skull.
Anon had to admit, the Dead God delivered a fine speech, but even he wasn’t convinced.
What are you really up to Imorbis?
Anon was all too familiar with the Dead God and his reputation. In the hierarchy of the Makii, he most certainly ranked among the top. He had personally orchestrated a vast number of planetary assaults, no doubt leaving billions dead (or undead) in his wake. To think he suddenly had faith in the Maker, seemed a stretch to say the least. Anon also shared Ostedes’ worry -- why would he wish to help the very same being who had so grievously disfigured him?
Once again, Anon tucked his worry and doubt to the back of his mind. He trusted to the Maker’s path – even though now it was led by a Dead God.

* * *
They walked well into the day – even saw a distant glow of light radiating on the horizon, far beyond the Graelic’s canopy.
Anon shared some friendly words with Brontes – verbally and telepathically, but otherwise the majority of their walk was left to silence. He hoped to gain more insight into Brontes’ role in this mission, and was rewarded for his efforts when Brontes’ explained that – unlike Anon – he had not kept silent during Alana’s trial. He had vehemently fought for her, not only backing her bravery when it seemed the Elders had none, but also demanding she be allowed back to Ki'minsyllessil – to help find the man she loved. Brontes felt proud to have achieved a small victory, being able to go in her stead. Anon believed otherwise, he knew the Elders would not be cowered with strong demands, or forced into a decision because of some harsh words. Most likely, he was allowed to join the hunt for the Elf Prince because they wanted him silenced and out of the Sanctuary – else other Chosen begin taking up his call. If Anon knew anything about Dona’Cora, it was that she did not like demands. He worried about Brontes’ future with the Chosen, should they ever find their way back to the Sanctuary.
As for Imorbis, Anon refused to speak with him, though the Dead God made him suffer several attempts at conversation – mainly questioning him on his power or the Maker. For a moment, Anon even entertained the idea that the Dead God now sought to either become the Maker, or steal his power. But only a fool would entertain that quest, and Imorbis had always been known for his intellect. Surely, even one so corrupted and broken as Imorbis could see the impossibility of it?
Much to Anon’s dismay – and aching head – Ostedes not only welcomed the Dead God’s conversation, but often attempted to grill him for information. Surprisingly, the questioning did earn them something other than a headache. The Dead God told them that Prince Adros possessed a weapon which the Great Tree feared. Apparently, Imorbis had firsthand knowledge of the weapon, and its ability to absorb the Plague.
“The staff negates our Dark Gift, drinks it in. I estimate the weapon is of the same material as the Great Tree itself. Like the tree, it takes the darkness into itself. Perhaps with a chance to study it . . .”
“Ha, good luck taking it from him, treeman. I believe you would have to kill him first, a task which you would prove to be unfit.”
“What happened to the Great Tree?” Anon asked, seeing the whites of Ostedes’ eyes and hoping to change the conversation before it became violent. “How did it become sentient?”
“I believe, on some primordial level it was always so. Like all things living, it fought us in the beginning. But after a while, we fed the Great Tree so much of the Dark Power it became something else, it became the very thing from which it fed.”
Anon noticed the terrain had grown rocky. Fewer roots covered the land, in their place -- smooth grey stones.
“When will you Makii stop turning the universe into ruin?” Brontes asked.
“Oh, our time is done, little god. It is the Void’s turn now.”
Imorbis stopped.
“I believe this is it.”
The Dead God pointed a bloodied hand to a distant outcropping of rock. It wasn’t much of a formation -- maybe half again as tall as Ostedes -- but it was the only such natural body of stone they had seen their entire journey. For the most part, the Great Tree seemed to have encompassed the land with its oversized system of roots. No doubt the roots stretched for miles in order to deliver the necessary nutrients to the tree itself. Alana believed they spanned the entire world, and sucked the surface dry of water and life. But she also described the tree as a bounty of life. Its branches held a variety of habitats, and varied forms of life. Though by definition arboreal, the elves that once lived in the Great Tree had more of an urban lifestyle, for the tree was a living city -- a tower higher than any steel or stone structure in the universe. Up in its branches, all of the needs of the inhabitants were met, there had never been a need for the elves to come down.
Until now.
“It is a cave of rock. One of the only areas the Tree has not overcome. Inside hides the Prince.”
“As you wish, treeman,” the Dead God said, even managing to manipulate his crumpled body into the semblance of a bow. “And you, Anon. I hope it is soon we meet again.”
Anon did not wish the same.
“Perhaps if you walk the Maker’s path, we will.”
The bow the Dead God gave Ostedes was obviously mocking, but for Anon there was only respect.
The Lord Imorbis turned back the way he came, back to the Great Tree. Anon truly did wish he could find the Maker, at heart his intentions had never been evil -- it was their result. He intentionally infected himself with a disease that drove him mad with hunger, a hunger to feed off of life. The universe was left to suffer and die from his mistake, but he had as well. No doubt he owed the Maker a great debt, Anon hoped it was one he could repay.
For a moment, Anon and the others simply stared at the pile of rocks, as though waiting for the Elf Prince to jump out and great them. If his reputation was anywhere near truth, he was no doubt aware of their presence. And depending on his perception of them, he would either be eager to great them as allies, or busy bolstering his defenses.
He did not come out to great them.

‘I WILL GO FIRST,’ Ostedes said, breaking the silence with his booming telepathic voice.
“I for one think that is a bad idea,” Anon replied, without hesitation. Not only could communication prove a problem, but the giant’s general demeanor and appearance could easily provoke the Prince.
“I will lead,” Anon said, extinguishing his halo. “This entire situation is partially my fault. If there is danger within, I should be the one to face it.”
“Then I’m coming with,” Brontes interjected, his right eye surveying the outcropping of rock as if he expected every last Dead God to jump out. “We have no reason to believe we haven’t been led to a trap.”
Assuming you can fit inside, Anon thought, hopefully hiding the thought from the giant.
“So be it. Time to introduce ourselves to this Elf Prince.”
Anon headed out, not waiting if the others followed – it was their choice to make. As for those who remained, if he succeeded in removing the Elf Prince from his bunker, he hoped they kept a vigilant guard in his absence. Despite the many boulders and rocks, he felt the evil of the Great Tree more keenly here than anywhere else.

* * *
The outcropping of rock concealed an opening into the earth. The hole looked to be a natural cave, perhaps an opening into an ancient reservoir that the Great Tree had long since sucked dry. Anon had hoped the size of the entryway would bar Ostedes, but it appeared large enough for even the giant Elder to pass. And as far as Anon could see within the cave, the interior chamber grew even larger.
Anon entered first, followed by Ostedes, and lastly Brontes. Anon decided to forgo his power until absolutely necessary. He wanted to keep his appearance as non-threatening as possible, at least until he was able to properly introduce himself to the Elf Prince. He wasn’t sure what Alana may have told Adros about the Elders and their mission. Quite possibly, judging by Alana’s decision to go against the Elders’ law – and her subsequent failure to save his world – the Elf Prince could very well have a low opinion of the Elders.
Ostedes and Brontes didn’t hesitate to summon their halos of blue. The moment they flared to life, the chamber was illuminated in a mind-bending pattern of blue beams. The chamber walls and ceiling were covered with sparkling crystals that took the slightest wave of light and bent and twisted it into a hundred different directions. One would be better off blind in such an environment, and no doubt the Elf Prince was well aware of its properties – could be preparing his attack at any moment.
‘Halos down,’ Anon commanded.
Brontes obeyed, but Ostedes continued to hold onto his.
‘We’re blind in the light! Trust your telepathy or he will be on us before we see him coming. If possible, I would like to keep this non-violent.’
With the equivalent of a telepathic groan, Ostedes grudgingly complied.
The light seemed to linger in the crystal, and then slowly faded away, leaving the party in complete darkness -- all of them currently powerless to penetrate it.
“Ken’amista maki?”
The voice was a whisper, and somehow seemed to emanate from all directions.
“We know not your language, Elf Lord,” Anon declared. “We have heard you know the common tongue, taught to you by one of our own.”
“I know your tongue well. What I do not know is why you have come?” was the elf’s response.
“What if I mean to stay, tree-brother? Dead it may be, but it is still my world.”
So, it was as Anon feared. The situation must be handled delicately, and fast.
“We have learned a great darkness has taken this land, something perhaps worse than even the Plague,” Anon quickly stated, trying to keep Ostedes from the conversation. “Your Great Tree has become a source of pure evil. We believe it not only controls the forces of the Plague, but has unleashed them on the last Living Worlds.”
“What do I care for these worlds? Where were they when the Dark Army struck my homeland? We stood alone against the vastness of the Plague . . . and so nearly prevailed. Perhaps would have, if these other worlds came to my aid.”
“But you did not stand alone. Another chose to stay. She stood with you, despite her orders and all logic, and now she suffers because of her choice.”
It seemed as though the cave grew darker.
“If you’ve harmed her, I will see you sent to the Maker.”
Anon sensed sudden movement. It was unperceivable, merely a sensation at the back of his mind, but either way, he knew the Elf Prince was poised to strike, and lacking a halo, he doubted there was much he could do to prevent him from fulfilling his threat.
‘I could never harm Alana. Trust me, Adros, she is safe. You, on the other hand, are not. This world is corrupt beyond anything we have ever encountered. I know you wish to stay, and would fight the Great Tree until your last breath. But you must leave with us while you can. I sense this fight has only just begun. Please, leave with us and live to fight another day.’
‘No, Anon.’
Anon was saddened by his response. The last thing he wished to do was force him to leave, if he could only convince him the futility of staying. Also, Anon noticed that the Elf Prince knew his name. Alana must have told Adros something about him. He hoped it was something good.
Anon was about to try further convincing, when the Elf Prince continued, ‘I will never leave. But you must take them. I won’t let them die here because of my failure.’
Speaking with the Prince telepathically was a risk Anon had to take. He had thought himself strong enough to escape Ostedes’ detection, but had obviously underestimated the giant Elder and his ability to intrude on one’s thoughts – he would have to note that for the future.
Adros seemed a man who was always on edge, but after Ostedes’ interruption, the edge was sharper than ever.
“It is as you say, tree-brother. I am the One Elf. The one who escaped the Dead Tree. I alone escaped . . . but barely. Once I was able, I left the cave, dreading to see what had become of my world. I expected it to be crawling with the Soulless, but soon realized the Dark Army had left; its minions were no more. So I went back to my home, determined to find a way to end the Dead Tree, or forfeit my life trying.”
Anon nearly summoned his halo, his every instinct warning him that the Elf Prince was preparing to kill.
“What I found there still haunts my soul. While recovering from my injuries, I believed my people were all dead. In this belief I found rage unlike any I have known before. Surely I should have died, but the rage brought me to my feet again. I thought there was nothing I could not face, even death and the Void. But when I discovered the truth of my people’s fate . . . the horror of it brought me to my knees. ”
“What happened, Adros?” Anon asked.
“My people were . . . imprisoned. We are immune to the Plague, but the Dead Tree thought to keep us around nonetheless, to make us a part of it. It grew within them, tree and flesh melding into one. I went back . . . for days I went back. I found I could save some, the young. They were able to recover, the others . . . they died upon separation. Eventually, even the children became inseparable. Still, I saved many before they became one with the Dead Tree. Now, they are all that remains of my people, the sons and daughters of Solo Ki.”
“We will take them from this world, I promise you,” Anon commanded, though he knew full well to do so went against the foundation of the Elders’ belief. Only the Chosen were to be saved. But now, with the Dark Army left unbridled, Anon suspected all rules would soon be broken.
“Angering Dona’Cora is not my greatest concern, Ostedes. Besides, once she learns of the invasion, how would she feel if we left an army of immortals to die on this world? These children may very well be our greatest weapon against the coming war. However Dona’Cora may feel about my decision, I will not leave them.”
Even though he was in agreement, Anon sensed more sarcasm than sincerity from Ostedes.
Anon summoned his halo. Unlike the blue light of the others, Anon’s white glow bent to his will alone, filling the chamber with a soft, natural light that defied the dizzying refractive properties of the crystals.
Anon expected to find the Prince posed to deliver a violent killing blow. Instead, he saw a gaunt figure calmly leaning on a wooden staff. The Elf Prince was also far less glorious than expected. The Golden hair of the elves was legendary among the Living Worlds for its innate radiance. The hair that was visible from beneath the elf’s dirty white hood, was black and caked with filth.
Despite his apparent calm poise, the edge was still there. Well versed in illusion, Anon knew the Prince could turn deadly in an instant.
‘Alana spoke at length about you, Anon. If any other had come, they would be dead. Nor would I trust another with the protection of my children.’
‘On my life, I will see them free of this world. If only there was some way to convince you to join us?’
‘Unless you mean to destroy the Dead Tree, there is none.’
Even with the power of the Maker at his hand, he did not dare to make that promise.

* * *

Something’s wrong, Anon thought as he stepped out of the cave. He held the others back with a glowing white hand while he surveyed the land. He expected to see the other Chosen they had left behind dismembered, their body parts strewn across the land. Instead they had all found a comfortable niche in the stone or small boulder to rest on. The bored looks on their faces suddenly vanished as they sighted Anon. Anon signaled all was well, though the threat of danger was still there, but Anon saw no visible sign to indicate they shouldn’t continue on. His halo grew brighter, and his senses even sharper as he led the procession out.
Brontes and Ostedes were the first to exit the cave – both likewise as vigilant for some sign of a threat. Then came the children. Brontes signaled to the Chosen to attend to them immediately. If they were to make it to the Rift, many would require major healing.
The soil and filth covering them made Prince Adros look regal. If Anon couldn’t sense their purity of life, he would have mistaken them for the dead. When first he found them, many were so weakened they couldn’t even stand. Though elves were naturally skinny, Anon had seen walking skeletons with more flesh on their bones.
The Chosen were busy pouring blue flames into the children when Prince Adros stepped out of the cave. He demanded to be the last one out. He wanted to be sure no one was left behind. Neither did Anon. He had mentally counted them as they left the cave, noting to his satisfaction that all one hundred and twenty-one had left the cavern. Lacking clean water and food, it was a miracle Adros had kept them alive as long as he did.
As Adros had briefly explained inside the cave, the Great Tree had been their sole source of food. Their main diet consisted of its fruit, the Malina Berry. The berry not only provided nourishment, but was sacred to them. They even credited it with their ability to resist the undeath, and their incredibly long life-spans. Anon would have loved to possess a sample of the berry, but the fruit was all poison now. The Elf Prince told Anon of one child who, possessed by his starvation, had bitten of the dead berries. It took only a moment for the child to rot before his eyes. Somehow the child was still alive as his flesh began shedding from his bones. Unable to witness more, Adros was forced to end the child’s suffering.
All seemed well within the outcropping of rock. The true test of their journey would begin when they walked among the roots – and what a long journey it would be. It took Anon and the others nearly a day to reach the cave, with the frail group of children it could take twice as long. Anon would have to remain vigilant the entire way. The power of the Dead Tree was, as of yet, still a mystery to him. If it was indeed the incarnation of the Void, its power could be limitless. In all of history only one being had ever defeated the Void, and even that victory came with a price – death. One could argue the Void was never truly defeated and that the creation itself was only temporary. Anon may be blessed with the Maker’s gift, but he wasn’t the Maker. To defeat the Dead Tree they would have to find another way.
Anon was the first to leave the rocky earth. He took it as a good sign that the roots withered when he drew near. He continued on, the roots parting in his presence, leaving a path for the others to follow. Prince Adros continued to guard the rear, his blood-tipped staff equally effective at holding the limbs at bay. It was because of the staff that he was able to return to the Dead Tree and rescue the children. He called it ‘King’s wood’, a supposed sapling of the Great Tree itself, carried down through the ages from the line of elven kings. Few such staves were known to exist, the Great Tree had but a brief period of fertility, and that had been lifetimes ago – elven lifetimes. With the Great Tree corrupted, the staff of King’s Wood was perhaps the last pure piece of the once sacred tree. It could also be their key to understanding the power of the Dead Tree, though it was doubtful Prince Adros would part with it. More than likely, once they have seen the children safely away from Ki'minsyllessil, he would wield it against the Dead Tree. Could they allow such a valuable weapon to fall in such a futile battle?
He had sensed a mounting danger since he left the cave. The entire time, Anon had been looking outward for it, but all the while Ostedes was the source.
‘What exactly is your mission here?’ Anon asked, barricading his mind for the coming assault.
He had failed. He had disregarded Ostedes after they left the cave, and now he sensed him and many of the Chosen at the end of the line. Anon didn’t have time to make it to the back . . .
A bolt of lightning stuck his mind – was even followed by a mental thunderclap. As one, the entire line of children collapsed, even with his most powerful shield, Anon fell to his knees. Disoriented -- his vision a blur, he saw a haze of blue fire burning at the end of the line. Screams of pain filled his ears . . . white fire filled his veins.
With a thought, he was at the center of the battle.
The Elf Prince was down – as were five of the Chosen. Brontes was disabled and slow to rise midway down the line, all of the other Chosen and Ostedes surrounded the fallen Elf Prince. In Ostedes’ branch-like hand was the staff of King’s Wood.
Anon was a pillar of white fire, towering over the Chosen and even the giant Ostedes.
Several of the Chosen dared to attack him. Their blue flames fizzled out when they met his halo. In response, beams of white devoured their shields then bound them, pinning their arms and legs to the earth.
Anon’s face had no features, no mouth with which to speak. He was pure energy. His voice originated from the air around them.
“End this, Ostedes. Before I must.”
The sense of danger continued to mount, evil begetting evil. Ostedes’ attack was only the beginning. It was minor at first – the roots slightly trembling, inching their way from the earth. Then they were a swarm . . .
“You are wrong, Ostedes. In his hands it is the only thing keeping us from death.”
Even as he spoke, Anon saw it -- the earth came alive like a giant pit of snakes. Black tendrils seeped from the ground encircling everyone’s feet. Before Ostedes even thought to defend himself with the staff, his branchlike arms and legs were entangled in the black limbs of the Dead Tree. A few of his Chosen strengthened their halos, but the dead limbs puncture them with ease -- and continued onward, digging into their flesh. Once beneath their skin, the limbs began to spasm madly, then throbbed, pumping a dark liquid into their bodies. Their veins blackened instantly. Their screams of pain became moans. Then they were dragged away . . .
Anon was a white hot ball of light that seared any black limbs that drew near.
Brontes and the children were infested, multiple roots digging into every one of them. Despite having a black limb protruding from his stomach and leg, Brontes maintained his halo, though he devoted all of his power towards the nearest children. His feeble wisps of blue light wrestled with the oncoming horde of black limbs, but lost. A larger root dug into his back, secreted its black fluid inside of him and he too was dragged away . . .
The children were yet stunned from Ostedes’ telepathic barrage, and were helpless to stop the limbs from taking them. Once their flesh was penetrated, they were quickly entwined, then dragged towards the distant trunk of the Dead Tree . . .
The One Elf was still out cold. The largest of the roots took hold of him – so many of them he could no longer be seen, his body covered in a mass of snarled black roots heading for the Dead Tree.
Ostedes fell. In one hand was the King’s wood. For all its power, all it managed to do for the Elder God was keep him from utterly falling to the ground. His other hand dug into the ground, his own branchlike fingers fighting the pull of the many black limbs sprouting from his body. His white eyes fell on Anon . . . and then they went black.
Anon was at his side. A hundred arcs of lights sprouting from his body – darting to those who were captured.
Anon reached out to Ostedes . . . grabbed the King’s Wood staff.
“I’m so sorry, Ostedes. You should never have left Edilan.”
‘NOOOO . . .’
The tips of his fingers ripped off, and Ostedes was dragged away . . .
This was no illusion – Anon was pure power. The Maker was with him more than he had ever been. But now he faced the Void. He had to choose. Anon made a promise to the Elf King, and he meant to keep it. He knew Adros would have wanted it this way.
His white light took hold of the children, burnt the roots to cinders, and brought them to him. To take them all tested the limits of his strength . . . but he wouldn’t let them go, nor would the Maker allow it to be so. Of the Chosen, there was but one he wished to recover. He took that man back as well, the white light cleansing his veins of evil. All his wounds were healed, except one – his left eye remained dead as ever.
His halo spread, encompassing all those he saved. Around its perimeter, a wall of black roots arose. Anon wasn’t sure if they meant to trap them or crush them, but then another miracle occurred – the roots parted for him, a pathway was cleared to the Rift.

* * *
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