Friday, September 28, 2007

The Riddle of Regret

He watched from the parapet, his only companion sound the hiss of scale on scale as one of his bonded mount shifted in her sleep. Sylfrost was as white as her mate was red, slumbering over a nest of crystal, dark iron and glittering ruby-pearl eggs.

Above him, Sangwynn was keeping guard as well, the flares on either side of the dragon's muzzle wide and open. Both dragon and rider were alert for the same thing, looking for the same quarry, but for very different reasons. The dragon was the more honest of the two. All Sanwynn wanted to do was tear the Elementals apart, ending any threat they might pose to his mate, his eggs or his bonded master.

The master, on the other hand, was no longer as simple in his desires. He was here because he had been called across the multiverse to serve the only being capable of doing such a thing, of compelling him to once again being someone's slave.

It was Tenebrous that had pulled him from the aether, forcing him to leave his private exile and returning him to the terrible state of undeath that had been his Hell for so long before. All Vertrius had wanted was to be left alone. Betrayed by those he'd loved and stripped of his powers, he had just wanted to be away from them... to not be a liability to them... to not have to look at them every day and feel his poisoned adoration curdling into hate.

But no, the Lord of the Undead had not forgotten him and, only a few days after he'd found a small world in Wildspace to call home, Vertrius had been forced by the ancient pact his father wrought with Tenebrous, then Orcus, to leave peace behind and return once more into the fold of evil.

The Shadowed Lord had wasted no time stripping him of the humanity he'd so long wished for and only just achieved. The dark kiss of a pale woman had drained his life and replaced it with the red mockery of unlife eternal. It had amused Tenebrous to make him kill his new sire, moving him like a cursing, cursed puppet to tear out her unbeating heart and suffer through a weeping feast.

But Tenebrous' plans for him, whatever they might have been, were quickly dashed by the plots of Vecna, the Maimed One. Vecna had come to him in dreams during the single hour of day that existed in the Dark Realm. The Lord of Secrets had promised him freedom in exchange for an oath of a year's service and one... small... favor.

Vertruis had been utterly eager to strike such a bargain. At the right moment, Vertrius cast a secret spell to transpose the doomed goddess Kiaransalee with a drow pawn "raised" to godhood by Vecna for the sole purpose of existing just long enough for Tenebrous to think he'd slain his hated rival. What happened to Kiaransalee after the spell, Vertrius neither knew nor cared. His part in the masquerade was done.

Surprisingly, Vecna had upheld his end of the bargain. Pretending to slay Vertrius during a mock raid of Orcus' newly reformed Bone Citadel, the Maimed Lord spirited him away and conscripted him for one soul-ensured year as a general in his lifeless armies.

In a way, Vertrius wished he had been betrayed by Vecna. Now he felt honorbound to serve, to fulfill the rest of his oath. One year of unquestioning service, doing as his master bids, with no magical coercion existing or needed. The Master of Whispers obvious knew him well; Vertrius would never break a vow. Not even to save his own life...

And that loyalty had brought him here, to Cavitus to stand guard at the top of the Bleak Tower. His red dragon was perched above him, scanning the dismal horizon with sight unrivalled by any living creature.

Vertrius, however, was no living creature and his vision revealed things even draconic eyes could not see. He prayed under his breath to no god in particular that as acute as his sight was, it would fail to perceive what he was here to guard against. If the Elementals somehow managed to find the lost portal stone and get to his Dark Lord's godly realm, it was his duty to ensure they never reached the fortress.

"Kill them. Quick if you must but kill them all. When next you meet, either they fall or you do. I will accept no other outcome."

The Maimed One indeed knew him well. Vecna's orders left no room for interpretation. He had hesitated before, something his divine master would not tolerate or forgive again. If those he had once loved made their way here, he would have to fight them.

He would have to kill them. Even Akasha.

Even Faile.

For that reason if for no other, he hoped against hope that his vigil would go undisturbed. Let them be on any other world, please. Let them wander, lost but alive. forever. Let the portal stone from Tovag Baragu remain in obscurity, discovered by no one and forgotten until the end of days...

A sharp hiss broke his prayer. He was almost afraid to look, suspecting grimly what he would see.

Sangwynn was pointing with one adamantine-laced talon, snarling in warning to him. "Six come, Whitehair. Six come!"

Vertrius raised his head and let his profane sight show him what he already knew to be true. They were leagues away, moving through the Ashcrags on foot. Clever of them, really; flight would only have made them easier to spot. But they had been spotted and as such his duty was clear. There would be no escaping it this time.

"You are still wounded, Sangwynn. Stay with your eggs. I will take Sylfrost into battle."


Vertrius looked up into the angry eyes of his dragon, letting his own flare with unholy, blood-crimson power.

"If we need you, I will send for you. Be ready to teleport on my command."

The red juggernaut growled again but nodded, cowed by the twin impact of his bond with Vertrius and the force of the vampire's unimaginably strong will. Few could tame a dragon with a thought, but only someone that potent could rightfully tame a beast such as Sangwynn.

"Yessss... Master."

By the time the scarlet male was coiled protectively over his precious clutch, his beloved was already taking wing, their shared lord astride her back. Sylfrost was the color of opals, complete with the inner fire that ignited within her scales the first time they'd mated. Hissing the first part of a teleportation spell over and over, Sangwynn waited for the call.

His master was powerful but the vampire was also soft when it came to these foes. Lord Vertrius might have trouble finishing this battle...

...but if any of them harmed Sylfrost, the horror of their deaths would become legend.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dark Days

"Has anyone else noticed something?"

They had been walking a long time. So long that they had made camp, broken camp, walked until they were tired, and did so again. There was nothing to eat but Akasha's magic was capable of creating food, even if it had basically no flavor and the consistency of lumpy mud.

Azure was the first one to answer Corundar's question. "I have noticed that I am proud of my aestetic lifestyle."

"Why's that?"

"Because that way, I am not disappointed that the inside of my mouth tastes like a quarry."

The Lady of Light scowled. "Would you rather starve?"

The blue elven monk shook his head. "No, I wouldn't. I was commenting because of the chorus of complaints at last night's repast."

Corundar pointed at Azure. "There! That's what I am talking about!"

The monk master looked confused, an all too common expression of late. "You were wondering if we'd noticed how much we complained lately?"

The big man sighed, his massive shoulders slumping in exasperation. "No. You know, for a paragon of wisdom, you can be pretty damn dumb at times. Where is all that monastic insight when we need it?"

Without missing a heartbeat, Azure replied, "You are calling me stupid?" One pale white eyebrow raised, letting everyone around him know that the Lord of Water was about to open up a verbal fire hose.

Nyx cut the moment of silence with a hiss and a hollow rasp. She spent most of her time in armor these days, something that quite rightfully unnerved her siblings. "Stop it."

Corundar blinked and looked to his dark sister. "What?"

"I am getting tired of the fighting. If we insist on attacking each other, perhaps we should just do so honestly and get it over with."

Akasha shook her head frantically, light pouring from her hands as she held them up. "No! No fighting. Please! I don't like it when we get like this. I won't have any of my sisters or brothers hurting each other!"

Under her breath, Faile murmured, "Too late." No one around her heard it but all the way at the other end of the group, Byrne caught the comment. Inwardly, she died just a little bit more.

Oblivious, Corundar rumbled a quiet apology and looked back up at the shadowy night sky. Perhaps the comment was sincere, perhaps it was just a token to satisfy Akasha, but it was said all the same and it seemed to defuse the situation. For now. Nyx glowered, the black flames around the eye slits of her helm burning a little smaller as she pressed on down what passed for a path in this endless wasteland.

They had been heading towards what seemed like a coastline on the horizon. The thought had been, 'find water and follow the coast, eventually you'll find civilization'. After all this time, however, they weren't any closer to the coast... assuming the end of visible land far in the distance even was a coast. They had been to planes where the world just ended.

"I do not know if I can take much more of this," Akasha said quietly. She might have been referring to the walk, the fighting, or both. "This would be so much easier if we could still..."

The Lady of Light trailed off, but everyone knew what she was going to say and why she didn't say it. They had been able to travel between the planes without needing a portal or gate. That was before they had betrayed a loved one's trust and before Akasha herself had broken his heart. That had been before a lot of things...

"That was then, sister. This is now." That was Faile, talking softly. Her offering comfort in this was surprising to most of them. It was no secret that Akasha's driving Vertrius away had also driven a rift between Light and Air. The pale, gentle vampire had been loved by them all but none had cared for him as much as Faile. "Talking about it won't get us through another day."

"There! That's it exactly!" Again Corundar was shouting and again he was pointing.

Faile frowned visibly, even through her bandages. "Cor, give it a rest. I wasn't complaining."

The Lord of Earth stomped his iron-shrouded foot and shook the ground, nearly toppling them all. "I am not talking about complaining! Haven't any of you noticed something about this place?"

"It's dark?"

"It's gloomy?"

"There's nothing good to eat?"

"Screw you, Azure!"

"Don't. She'll only leave you too."

"And you, Fay!"


Corundar pointed at the sky. "We've been here a long damn time and it's still night. There haven't been any days. There isn't a moon or stars. There's no life at all and no light except those bands of magic in the sky."

"What is your point, Corundar?" Akasha was clearly at the edge of her patience. "Quickly."

"My point is that we were all in the last monolith when Tovag Baragu exploded, remember? We were almost to Vecna's realm when everything went boom."

Azure rubbed his side; there was a wound there from part of the funeral bier of Tharuzdin. That cut would never completely heal - not while the Lord of All Destruction was partially free. "Don't remind me."

"Well apparently I do... because I think I figured out what you all haven't."


Corundar chose to ignore the insult and press on. "Look, I think I know where we are."

Byrne growled. "Then enlighten us..."

"I think we've spent all this time looking for the monolith to get to Tovag Cavitus when all we had to do was what we did. Teleport without a destination again." He pointed to the sky. "Remember the glimpse we got through the portal before it closed and we got thrown into the Astral? It looked just like that!"

They all stared. They stared hard.

Then they looked back at Corundar.

Azure thought out loud. "We must have carried the monolith with us magically. We were in it... and now it is inside us."

Nyx unsheathed Mancleaver and stared down the runesword's glittering black edge. "Then we are finally at the end at the journey."

"Well, sort of."

They all stared at Corundar again. Azure said what they were all thinking. "What do you mean, 'sort of'?"

A man that size should never be able to look that sheepish, but somehow the titan of Earth managed to do so. "Ummmm... does anyone know which direction to go now?"

The silence was epic.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lost in Transition

"Okay. Does anyone know where we are?"

That was Akasha, tired and exasperated and seemingly at the end of her patience. She had gotten here drained, as they all had, and hadn't gotten any better in the short time since. Her aura of light, a constant presence around her whether she was in armor or not, was at the dimmest they'd seen it since she was nearly slain by their "father" in the ruins of the Ruathym.

The only person to speak was Corundar, standing nearby on the highest precipice of rock he could find. He had one hand in contact with the ground, obviously trying to speak with the stones of this strange world. Overhead, the violet sky was ablaze with massive bands of scintillating blue and white. Occasionally, a rage of lavender fire shot down from the heavens, burning out before it could disappear over the distant horizon.

"No clue. I did not know where we were when I got here and I still do not know. Please stop asking."

The Lady of Light glared at him, her thin hands curling into angry fists. "You...!"

A swirl of blue silk marked Azure rising from his meditation. "Siblings, temper will not grant us prescience. We need to remain calm and solve the riddle of our location without fighting among ourselves." He looked between Earth and Life sharply. "Or would you both rather do what the Dark One's forces just failed to accomplish?"



Neither of them really meant it, but the slight contrition was enough to satisfy the monk. At least for now, he accepted it. "Good. Now how are we going to puzzle through this conundrum?"

Nyx didn't answer her blue-skinned brother. She was angry, brooding in her own way, hidden in a nearby shadow. This was typical for the Elementals. Too much power, no damn sense. She was most upset because she had no specific person to be upset with. The Dark Lady was as guilty as the rest; none of them had thought to consider a destination. None of them, not even her. It was infuriating, utterly frustrating.

She almost hoped the Maimed Lord would find them and send more minions to the slaughter. Her runesword was hungry, so very thirsty for death. Right now, she was of a mind to let the fiendish blade feast.

Nyx would not answer the question and the last two Elementals could not answer. Not because there was anything stopping them directly but simply because they were too far away to hear Azure's voice.

Byrne and Faile were on the other side of Corundar's outcropping, having an uncomfortable conversation of their own....

"Ummm..." Byrne hated how she sounded, how she was standing, but most especially how she was feeling. She was a few feet away from her winged sister, head bowed, shoulders slumped, shifting from one foot to the other in Faile's shadow.

From the Mistress of the Winds, there was only silence. She was sitting as she always did, balanced on the fronts of both feet, her legs folded under her, her wings arching up and curving back. Her fingers were tracing abstract pictures in the dirt, swirls of air erasing them moments after being drawn.

"I..." Byrne growled inwardly. She was a bloody warlord, a tyrant in the life she could no longer remember. She had ravaged nations and ruled a planet. A planet for Fire's sake! How could she be tongue tied talking to a feather-backed elf?!?

"I don't blame you."

Sputter. Byrne fell as silent as her sister had been for more than an hour now. They were simple words but she just could not believe she had heard them right. Finally, as the quiet seconds stretched into more than an empty minute, she found the cognizance to say, "You... you don't? You don't blame me?"

"That's right, Byrne. I don't." Each word was careful, meticulously phrased and nearly emotionless. For the normally flighty avariel woman, Faile was being incredibly, almost unbelievably, calm.

"So you aren't mad at me?"

Faile shook her head, her personal winds making her hair flow in hypnotic, unnatural patterns through the otherwise stagnant air. "No."

Byrne started to breathe a deep, soul-quenching sigh of relief.

"I am furious at you."

The breath caught in her throat. Caught and started to choke.

Faile stood up slowly, her agonized body only barely healed enough to let her stand. She was still bandaged, her skin ravaged by a godly fire that might never fully heal. Akasha had done what she could... but unless they all found a way to attain their divinity again, the scars of Byrne's single, terrible blaze might last forever.

Slowly, the winged elf walked past her, heading with staggered steps back to the rest of the groups. As she passed close to the Lady of Flames, she stopped and a single, deliberate breath. What came now was as hard for Faile to say as it was for Byrne to hear.

"I pushed you, did not back away when you warned me, and I was burned for it." Faile closed her eyes, steeling herself for the next words. "But it was you who burned me. You. My sister. Someone I love more than life."

Byrne dared only a slight turn of her head, just enough to see Faile in her peripheral vision. She had heard before that elves did not cry, that elves were not capable of weeping.

Apparently, she heard wrong.

"Byrne," Faile started moving away. "I don't blame you... but I also don't trust you. I may never trust you again."

Byrne sank to her knees as his sister walked away. There was nothing to say. No response to what was just the simple truth. She wanted to say so much but there were no words. No way to express her pain. Her utter disappointment in herself.

No. It wasn't disappointment. It was hate. So many times, she had wondered if the others were being changed by their powers. She did not understand them like she used to, no longer felt the same connection to her family that once bound them so close together. For many nights now, she had worried that they were becoming monsters...

But now she saw the truth. They weren't the monsters.

She was.