Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Decaying World Chapter 22: The Asen Fall

And here's the final chapter for this year. Be aware, that this is more of a draft than any of the chapters before. I normally edit these before posting them, but there's not enough time left before my vacation. There's also going to be another short story today. Didn't want to post these all at once, but that's just how it happened.


Chapter 22: The Asen Fall

From atop the hill overlooking the Sanctuary, only a small fraction of Mimeidr could be seen. No tree in existence could ever have hope to challenge its splendor. Neither in a thousand years, nor in a billion. Its sprawling crown had loomed over Meceruun's soil long before life decided to crawl from the oceans. Its position had changed over the aeons, however, as was evident by the ruins crushed beneath its roots. They disturbed the tree's precarious balance and gave its form a crooked appearance. Not that anyone would have noticed from up close.
Pulsing light emanated from Mimeidr's bark, invisible to the naked eye. It traveled across the land to confront the approaching darkness. Yet halfway there, the power waned and fizzled out. The tree had simply exhausted too much of his power. And the longer it tried to hold oblivion at bay, the more of its leaves withered away.
Looking at the fields leading up to the tree revealed a more immediate threat, however. An army of darkelves had surged up from beneath. They were dressed for battle and armed to the teeth, with swords and spears and claws and flails. Similarly dressed lizards were scattered through their ranks, only made visible due to their impressive size of at least 8 feet.
A beast made of wood and earth, with white moss spread out like hair, clombered along behind the army. Its body consisted of two giant faces opposing each other, with noses long enough to impale a human from top to bottom. They had no mouths to speak of, as that area was connected to small, tendril-like arms holding onto giant spheres with eyeballs in their center. Yellow, pulsing veins covered their circumference like a net.
Corpses of their surface-dwelling brothers lay in the darkelves' wake. Most seemed to have died without being able to offer resistance. More of them were gathered in front of Mimeidr and preparing for battle, despite being severely outnumbered. A group of mages sat around the entrance to the sanctuary, with their fingers were interlocked and their eyes closed. Whatever they were planning could not yet be deduced.
The thunder of the army's footsteps suddenly came to a halt. Two pillars broke through the ground and a dome of darkness expanded from within. It remained for about five seconds before fading away, unveiling Ri'zzar's bandaged form.
Crimson light emanated from within the Splinter of Desolation and forced the army to back away, lest they be consumed by its power. Ri'zzar clenched his fist to dim its influence and peered at the elves gathered in front of Mimeidr. They talked to each other in hushed whispers and held their weapons at the ready, apparently realizing that the time of battle drew near.
“Where did these maggots come from?” said Ri'zzar into the void.
A darkelf dressed in obsidian armor squeezed himself through the ranks and stepped onto Ri'zzar's right, avoiding the Splinter.
“They must have sought shelter after seeing Golgotha rise again.”
Ri'zzar chuckled and the Splinter flashed. His voice echoed across the field like the laughter of a demon. Some of the elves backed away, looking at each other in fright.
“As if the crippled spirit of Mimeidr could save them.” He raised his left hand and stared at the fire burning within the Splinter. “I could put them out of their misery with only a thought. But I can't afford to waste the power that I need to destroy the tree.” He clenched his fist shut again and turned his head to look into the unseeing eyes of the army's commander. “Crush them and stop anyone who tries to enter the Sanctuary. I cannot afford to be disturbed.”
A wide smile crept onto the commander's face. “As you wish.” He drew his sword and raised it high. Darkness trailed behind. “They've driven us into the darkness to silence our faith. Yet we grew stronger, even when robbed of our sight. They had to sacrifice Elvone just to kept themselves afloat. But now the time of reckoning has come.” He swung his sword forward. “Kill every single one of them and the surface will be ours again!”
The bandages around Ri'zzar's mouth deformed into the hint of a vicious smile. Opening his hand once more transformed him into a flash of light that shot past the elves and penetrated the barrier erected around Mimeidr's Sanctuary. It took him only the fraction of a second, therefore preventing anyone from noticing his passing. The army now charging towards them was too much of a distraction anyway.

The battle had been raging for about ten minutes when the veil was torn asunder. More than half of a tree was toppled by darkness consuming its bark. The ground surrounding it was pierced by shards that turned into dust the moment their momentum came to a halt.
Feyadal dropped onto his stomach, groaning with pain, and Alyssa barely avoided slamming her whole weight onto him. Maximilian was spat out next and landed near a lizard whose head had been pierced by three arrows. Recoiling, he jumped to his feet. Only then did he notice the mass of bodies moving in the distance and the screams accompanying its every move.
Drake somehow managed to land on his feet, but the silver glow momentarily emanating from his flesh robbed him of his power. He fell onto his knees and held out his hands, but his arms caved in and made him rendezvous with the ground.
The robed figure of the Alp floated towards the hole in the sky. He held out his hand while reaching for his amulet, but the connection was cut off before he could attempt anything.
“How did we get here?” Drake tried pressing his hands onto the ground again. They refused no longer, allowing him to stand uo.
Alyssa turned her head towards him. “Why are you asking us? You're the one who glowed like a lighthouse before the ground shattered.”
“What are you talking about? I don't remember doing anything.”
“I saw it too,” said Maximilian over his shoulder. “I even remember something like a sword flying through the air. But that's about it.”
“Yeah, but I don't think we have time to solve that mystery.”
Alyssa helped Feyadal onto his feet and put her arm around him before catching up to Maximilian. He and Drake were overlooking the battlefield, but the lay of the land prevented them from seeing more than a couple dozen darkelves as well as the beast trailing behind them. The orbs it had been holding onto were gone now. They reappeared shortly afterwards, upon which they were flung at something close to the sanctuary's entrance.
“How did he get an entire army to the surface without us noticing?” Alyssa's eyes roamed the battlefield while expressions of anger and despair wrestled for dominance. There was no overlooking the corpses of her brethren.
“I'm more surprised that the tree hasn't already been destroyed,” said Drake.
“Destroying Mimeidr won't be as easy as carving a hole into the ground. But Ri'zzar will succeed if we don't stop him. The tree's too weak to resist for long.”
Drake and Maximilian drew their swords. “Then we'd better get moving and find a way past the army. Any idea where Ri'zzar would be?”
“Inside the sanctuary, just past the enemy forces. It's where we commune with Mimeidr in times of need. The perfect place for strike.”
Drake nodded and accelerated his steps.
“Stop!” yelled Feyadal. “We don't need to fight our way through.”
The vampire almost toppled over before steadying himself on a tree. “What are you talking about?”
“There's a hole on the western side. It leads into a collapsed tunnel that connects to the sanctuary. Must have belonged to a part of the complex that got destroyed in the fall.”
Alyssa looked at her friend with furrowed brows. “I don't remember there being other entrances.”
“It's hidden from sight if you enter the normal way. Might have belonged to an area not meant for the public.”
“Then how'd you find it?”
“Does it really matter?” he said while avoiding her gaze. “Let's just avoid the army and and stop Ri'zzar before it's too late.”
Alyssa pried her eyes loose and let them roam the battlefield once more. A few seconds passed before she shook her head. “No, we can't leave them to their own devices. They're going to get crushed while we try to stop Ri'zzar.”
“Everyone's going to die if we don't stop him! And what difference do you think four people can make?”
“We already fought an army and came out on top,” said Maximilian.
“Yeah, an army of mindless beasts. But they”—Feyadal pointed his left hand at the army—“can hear you coming from miles away and will use the power of the earth against you. And they're surprisingly proficient for being blind.”
“We still have to try! What's the point of saving Mimeidr when most of our kind have been killed by then?”
“Meceruun is full of life. One race doesn't matter.”
Alyssa's let go off Feyadal with trembling arms and turned to face him. Her lips were tightly pressed together when her right palm connected with his face. The slap resounded through the air as if the battle was non-existent. “I might have feelings for, but condemning an entire race for the actions of a few is still wrong! So do whatever you like. I'm going to save as many as I can.” She spun on her heels and looked at the others. “Are you with me?”
“Sure,” they replied in unison.

Drake and Maximilian approached rapidly from the back. They were close enough to unleash a combined attack against the beast standing in their way. Its orbs had been flung away only moments ago, yet something was different from before. Its arms were now raised into the sky instead of pointing down.
“Scatter!” yelled Alyssa from the back.
Both warriors frowned and looked for a potential threat, but all they saw was darkness engulfing the ground.
An arrow soared over their head and drew their attention. It was pulverized by the approaching orb but gave them just enough time to jump away. The following explosion blasted them sideways while Alyssa evaded the impact with a graceful jump.
Despite seeming impossible given its stature, the beast had turned around by then. A group of darkelves followed suit and relayed the news to the front. But no commander would care about four soldiers when most of the opposing force was still standing.
The orbs reappeared and were instantly hurled forward. They burrowed through the ground like pudding and barely slowed even after a barrage of attacks. Drake and Maximilian had no choice but to evade again.
Being limited to a certain number of attacks gave Alyssa the chance to drive arrows between chinks in the enemy's armor. The first fell silently, the second howled until his blood had been spent and the third conjured a barrier made of earth. That's when the soldiers switched places with ones bearing tower shields.
Two rows were formed, one with their shields aimed at the front, one with theirs aimed at the sky. Not the slightest gap remained.
“Tartaron, cover the entire field. Don't leave space to escape!” yelled one of the soldiers.
A growl emanated from deep within the beast's body and the moss covering its head jumped to attention. As soon as the orb's reappeared, a shower of what looked like needles rained down upon the battlefield. It covered the ground so far back that even the tree destroyed by the rift got pierced.
Drake and Maximilian swung their blades and covered the path in beams of energy. More than half the needles intended for them melted in an instant while the rest tore through their clothes. Yet the tartaron showed no sign of running out of munition, as the waves kept on coming without depleting the moss they were made off.
“This isn't going to work!” Maximilian sent out another blast before raising his blade. A spherical shield made of light engulfed his body while he rammed his feet into the ground.
“Staying still will only make us into targets for these orbs,” said Drake while conjuring a barrier of his own. The tartaron followed up on his prediction and hurled the orbs at them. The rain of needles intensified at that very moment.
Maximilian bit onto his lips when the onslaught rippled through his barrier and almost flung Elegnis from his grip. Drake had no such trouble, but his feet were driven deeper and deeper into the ground while the pressure pushed him backwards.
Alyssa, who had positioned herself behind the two barriers, conjured one of her own to cover her allies. This one was made of wind and did not serve as mere protection. Any needle reaching its area of effect was diverted from the center, which in turn drove others away too.
“I hope that's enough to lessen the pressure.”
“For the moment, yes,” said Maximilian, once again able to steady his blade. “But we have to move now unless you can stop the orbs!”
The projectiles had traveled more than half the distance to their targets. It was only a matter of seconds until impact. Any non-shielded human would instantly have died before realizing that every bone in his body had been pulverized. But using a barrier did not guarantee survival. It might have actually led to a more painful death.
“Then move! They're too fast to be stop—”
A luminous arrow the size of a battering ram burned a path through the needles and slammed into one of the orbs. Its western half exploded while the other tumbled into the second orb. The shattered remains bounced away harmlessly before dissipating. The rain of needles stopped at the same time.
Alyssa looked over her shoulder and caught sight of distant figure sprinting away. The hint of a smile formed around her lips before she turned her head once more.
“Now's our chance. Hold on tight!”
“What are you—”
Drake's question was answered by a gust of wind that propelled all of them into the air. As darkelves where creatures who had adapted to the World Below, they could not sense their approach. At least not as vividly as they could have done before. The tartaron's eyes did follow their every move, however.
“It's going to … start attacking … any moment now!” Maximilian had trouble squeezing out the words with the pressure pushing onto his stomach.
“Then we'll have to move faster.” Alyssa's spread her fingers and her eyes lit up. Spinning discs of energy manifested from within her skin and a second gust of wind followed the first. Just in time to push the group away from the renewed rain of needles.
“Too far! We're going to land in the middle of battle,” yelled Drake, with his hands clutched around the hilt of his blade
“Perfect! That means the beast can't harm us without destroying the ones it serves.”
“If you put it that way.”

Two unlucky darkelves met their end by having two magical blades driven through their skulls. Their bodies served to drain what little momentum remained after Alyssa had slowed their descent. A dozen additional soldiers fell to the might of Elegnis and the shadow sword before anyone realized the emergence of enemy forces within their ranks.
Screams echoed over the battlefield and the blaring of a horn followed. All the darkelves not yet engaged in combat readied their weapons and turned to where Drake and Maximilian were cutting down their forces. Alyssa stood between them and conjured a small tornado. It engulfed her form in spinning blades that were ejected whenever an enemy got too close to her or her allies.
If looked at from above, one could easily have assumed that these three had taken out more soldiers than the entire group of elves gathered in front of Mimeidr.
Their carnage stopped when more enemies bearing shields emerged from the mass of bodies and sealed off the area. Only a single spot was left open. The commander who had spoken with Ri'zzar stepped through and immediately blocked two attacks, one with his sword and one with an earthen wall that sprung from the ground.
Drake leapt away when the earth collapsed while Maximilian found himself with a foot in his stomach. Alyssa was still engulfed by wind but made no move to strike.
“Who are you interlopers? Do you really think you can interfere with our affairs and get away with it?”
“How about you ask your dead comrades?” Drake inched closer again, but Maximilian held out his hand and shook his head.
“Everyone can launch a surprise attack.” The commander snarled and drew another blade, identical to the first. Both left darkness wherever they moved despite not being coated in it. “But this will be your final stand. We don't take prisoners.”
Alyssa raised her arms into the air. Half of her wind blades ascended into the sky without making a sound. The commander followed their movement as if eh was able to see, then swung his blades. Crevices leading into darkness emerged from nowhere and swallowed the magic without leaving a trace.
“We're blind, not stupid, elf!” Spit followed his words and splattered onto the ground. “So, who's going to be first?” He twirled his blades and stepped into the circle. Another soldier bearing a shield clogged up the hole. “The human? The elf?” His head leaned in Drake's direction while he furrowed his brow. “Or whatever you're supposed to be?”
Your demise!
The commander broke into laughter. Maximilian lunged at him, but he diverted the blow with his left blade and followed it up with his right. Drake slammed the second blade into the ground before it could tear into his friend's flesh.
Alyssa readied an arrow, but the earth below the commander's feet catapulted him forward. His helmet slammed into her stomach and caused them both to fall. He raised his blades the moment they landed and aimed for her face.
Drake swiftly closed the gap and kicked at the commander from below. The darkelf bent over backwards and the vampire's foot passed him by a hair's breath. Robbed of his balance, Drake fell over.
Elegnis came at the darkelf from behind. He blocked the attack with both blades at once, then catapulted himself into the air once more by making it surge up around his knees. One backflip later, he descended upon Maximilian like an assassin.
A gust of wind emerged from Alyssa's hands and pushed the commander's torso backwards. Unable to steady himself, he crashed onto the ground while Maximilian dove out of reach.
“You bitch!” The darkelf growled and jumped to his feet. His mouth was opened wide, revealing an endless row of devilish fangs. A trait unique to his clan, all of whom had been hunters and commanders. His unseeing eyes focused on his prey as the wings of his nose opened wide. “Nice teamwork, but it will only delay the inevitable.”
“You won't stop us!” said Maximilian, who stood in the corner opposite to the one Drake had chosen.
“I could crush you where you stand, human! But were would be the fun in that?” He chuckled and slammed his teeth together. They aligned so perfectly that not a single gap remained. “But let me humor you for a moment. If you were to defeat me, what then? You're still surrounded by an entire army, one that faces a laughable force and has barely suffered any losses.”
The group glanced towards Mimeidr for the first time since their landing. Ents could be seen on the side of the surface-dwellers, but the number of those still fighting was already smaller than those who littered the battlefield.
“You'd be mad to assume that you could cut all of us down. And don't forget about the tartaron. Once the path is clear, it will attack once more.” He readied his weapons and put his right foot ahead. “Not that it will ever come to that.” His body shot forward like an arrow and crossed the gap between him and Alyssa.
Light and darkness clashed in front of Alyssa. She shielded her eyes from the blinding light and backed away, keeping an eye out for the follow-up attack. Yet the commander was nowhere to be seen.

After destroying the tartaron's orbs, Feyadal sped off into the distance, as far away from prying eyes as possible. No one seemed to notice his approach. Or maybe they didn't care. He had no time to think about it.
His gaze was stiff, his fists were clenched, and his mouth only wide enough to inhale and exhale at a steady rate, so that he could keep running all the way.
Once in a while, he found his head turning away. He instantly moved it back into position and emptied his mind of all thoughts. Just have to get inside and kill Ri'zzar. That's all that matters! He knew these thoughts to be a lie, but there was no turning back now. He'd never be able to find Alyssa in the midst of battle.
Eventually, he arrived at a familiar spot. Two thick roots were wrapped around a series of pillars leading into darkness. They continued further down and blocked most of the entrance, making it almost impossible to see if you didn't know what to look for.
Feyadal jumped atop the roots and threw his bow through the gap. It was much smaller than he remembered, but that's to be expected after hundreds of years. Had Mimeidr been healthy, the entire passage might have long since been swallowed.
He lay down and squeezed his body through the opening. Cracked stone ripped through his clothes and scraped over his skin, but he bit onto his lips until his torso vanished in the darkness. His legs followed in one go.
His hands slammed onto the ground and rattled his bones. A rough coughing fit took gold of his lungs and held him in place. Black goo spilled from his mouth and dissipated upon coming into contact with the ground.
He forced the air out of his lungs and into his mouth. A horrible taste spread across his tongue before an even bigger gob of darkness escaped his body. It wriggled around and grew feelers before Feyadal squashed it with his fist.
A surge out of air enriched with magic filled his lungs, then fled through his mouth. If any darkness remained, he could not feel it.
Picking up his bow, he sprinted down the hallway. While it did have twists and turns, it never led him astray. The only other openings had been created by roots breaking through the walls.
The hidden entrance looked the same from his side as the rest of the corridor leading up to it. Only when he stepped upon the threshold did he see the magic wall shielding its entrance from within the sanctuary.
Four pillars rose around a rectangular pedestal occupying the center of the room. Three were connected to the ceiling, while the fourth had collapsed a long time ago. Roots had taken its place, ensuring the structural integrity of the chamber.
Ri'zzar stop atop the pedestal, with his left hand resting on a black pearl hovering above a spiral-shaped column. Originally supposed to serve as a conduit between Mimeidr and its servants, it was now being abused to transmit a crimson beam of energy into a mirror at the back of the room—an artifact reflecting the exposed bark of the World Tree.
Every few seconds, a strong impulse rippled through the beam and slammed into Mimeidr. A distant scream, far from that of any mortal, echoed through the chamber and even the walls started to shake. Feyadal tumbled through the wall and became visible. He quickly retreated, just in time to avoid Ri'zzar's turning head.
The darkelf stared at where Feyadal was hiding for almost a minute before returning his attention to the tree. A stronger impulse followed and the bark visible through the mirror squirmed like flesh while another scream rang out from within.
“Why do you continue to resist? There is nothing you can do to save this world.”
“Neither can you,” replied a voice so weak that it could have belonged to a person on their death-bed. A twinge of pain spread through Feyadal's chest when he remembered the magic surging through his flesh shortly before burning out. His teeth drew blood in an attempt to focus on the present.
“We'll see about that once I've extracted your soul.”
Another impulse fled the pearl while one of pure radiance emerged from within the mirror. They clashed halfway to their destination and pressed into each other with a force powerful enough to make shockwaves ripple through the room.
The pillar closest to the mirror shuddered with every impact. Layer after layer was scraped off, until it finally collapsed in on itself. Parts of the ceiling followed, bathing the chamber in a cloud of dust. Ri'zzar coughed and groaned, losing just enough concentration for Mimeidr to push back.
The darkelf screamed and backed away when his turned seething hot. The pearl clattered onto its column and rolled over the edge, but its descent stopped an inch above the ground.
Still coughing, Ri'zzar picked it up and placed it back above the column. “Nice try, but destroying the pearl will only delay your demise.”
Feyadal fired an arrow at the exact moment that the beam resumed. While far from powerful, its trajectory should have carried it straight through Ri'zzar's brain. But a barrier made of earth squeezed itself through the floor and stopped the projectile in its tracks.
The elf's premature smile dropped and turned into a scream when vines emerged all around. They wrapped themselves around his body, encasing it in a skin-tight prison that only left his face uncovered. It moved through the barrier all by itself and delivered its prisoner to the foot of the pedestal. Halath, Aquis, and Mordred had taken position around it.
“Did you actually believe I hadn't noticed your arrival?” said Ri'zzar without removing his eyes from the mirror. “But I'm surprised that you actually managed to escape the arbiter's clutches.”
“We won't let that happen again.” A fireball emerged from within Mordred's right hand and lit up her face.
“Stop! Let him bear witness to the end of the world. He deserves at least that much.” Ri'zzar chuckled and sent another pulse into the mirror. Mimeidr did not resist this time.
Feyadal strained his muscles and pushed against his prison, but it didn't budge so much as an inch. “You're not going to get away with this!”
“And who's going to stop me? The rest of your group? Ludicrous! Aquis, Halath, guard the entrance. Mordred, you stay here in case they fail.”
“We won't fail!” said Halath while rubbing her neck. “Not again...”

“Where'd he go?” Drake turned 360 degrees, focusing on everything that moved, but the enemy commander had disappeared without a trace.
“He must have fled underground!” said Alyssa while aiming her bow at the earth. “We have to get away before—”
Every shield-bearing soldier raised a leg and slammed it back down. A tremor rippled through the earth and a dome made of rocks emerged from the edges of their battlefield. It grew faster than the eye could follow and left only a small hole at the top.
“So much for th—agh!” Drake staggered and blood fleeing his arm splattered the ground. “Dammit. Looks like he's playing with us.”
“Let him try!” Maximilian swung his blade and a glowing crack spread throughout the dome. But it closed before any real damage could be done. “They don't want to us leave, eh?”
“I might have enough time to catapult us out of here if you combine your magic again.”
“Forget it!” The earth spit out the commander in front of Alyssa's eyes. He grabbed onto her head and slammed it against the wall, leaving a bloodstain behind. She groaned and collapsed while the darkelf's body submerged again.
Maximilian stepped towards her, knelt down, and pressed his fingers against her neck. Her pulse was weaker than normal, but still steady. He rapidly backed away and let his blade roam over the ground.
“And you call yourself a warrior? Come out and fight us directly!”
“Why should I waste the powers I have been given?”
Now it was Maximilian's turn to come face to face with the darkelf. He had no space to swing Elegnis and ducked away before whirling around. His blade slammed against the barrier, which the commander had used to vanish again.
The knight snarled and walked closer to the center of their prison. “Admit it. You're afraid that we could actually defeat!”
“There's always a risk, no matter how good you are. Someone of your level should have realized that by now.”
Sword clashed with sword, but blocking the attack left Maximilian open to a counterattack. The commander's boot slammed into his stomach and drove the air from his lungs. The follow-up strike would have severed his head, but Drake ruined his plan once again.
“Wouldn't be the first time I lost a battle.” Maximilian and and Drake pressed their backs together, constantly turning in circles.
“I do remember you saying 'I never lose to anyone'.”
The knight sighed while scouring the ground. “Might be time to retire to phrase before Assar actually rips me apart.”
“I'll never let that happen.”
“Already thinking about the future you don't have?”
The ground below their feet burst apart and they fell into what appeared to be a small cave. The light shining through the hole of their prison did not reach far enough to illuminate its floor and Elegnis revealed Maximilian's side to be empty.
Air pushed away by the commander's blades blew onto Drake's neck. He raised his arms and blocked them with his bare flesh while his blackened eyes honed in on the frown visible on the darkelf's forehead.
You want to fight darkness with darkness? And here I thought you weren't an idiot.
The vampire pushed his bleeding arms into the commander's face. The ensuing explosion pushed him against the rough confines of the cave and made the earth crumble above their heads.
“Great idea,” growled Maximilian. “Just bury us all before the world ends.”
Shut your yap. As if this could stop me.
He grabbed the knight's hand and leap into the prison above. The entire floor was crumbling now, but the barrier remained steady.
“Now what?”
We do what the sleeping beauty asked of us. But why burst through the top when we can cut through the enemy forces instead?”

A tide of energy broke through the barrier and obliterated more than a dozen darkelves before fizzling out. At that exact moment, a howl much greater than any before echoed across the battlefield. Elves and darkelves stopped fighting to see what was happening, only to have Mimeidr's roots come crashing down.
The elves were scattered enough to evade total annihilation, but only the darkelves engaged in battle or positioned at the edges had room to escape. The rest was either crushed or flung away.
Oh, now the tree is fighting back! Guess it didn't care enough to intervene earlier.” Drake jumped upon a root rapidly approaching their prison and Maximilian followed closely behind, with Alyssa in his arms.
“It's not fighting. It's just destroying everything in its path. Why else would it have crushed the ents working for the elves?”
Who cares? Time to move on. There's nothing we can do in this chaos.
“I really wish I wouldn't have to agree.”
One of the tartaron's orbs slammed into the root and carried them off their feet. The vampire rammed his sword into the tree and held on tight. Maximilian, on the other hand, could only fling his arms around Alyssa and hope for the best. He vanished from sight seconds later.
The tartaron advanced screeching and shooting needles, apparently intent on destroying its original targets. But it was still an ant compared to the World Tree, as proven by three roots crushing it into pulp.
Goodbye, you ugly son of a bitch!” The vampire cackled and pulled himself to his feet before continuing his journey across the root.

Alyssa woke from the sharp pain rippling through her body upon impact. Maximilian and the world surrounding him spun in front of her eyes until a rock stopped them dead in their tracks. The knight coughed up blood upon hitting the obstacle with his back and sprinkled half of Alyssa's face with it.
“Where are w—”
“—ot!” Maximilian coughed and tried again. “Root!”
While she could not see the hasty movement of his left arm, she could certainly feel it. Looking over her shoulder brought her face to face with death. Eyes full of fear, she turned back and slammed her right hand into the ground between her and Maximilian.
A gust of wind blasted them into the air like puppets, separating them from each other. The passing root caught onto Alyssa's hair and was about to pull her away, but she had the present of mind to separate herself from the captive strands with a wind blade.
Another spell softened her landing, but by the time she turned to Maximilian, he had already hit the ground. She hurried towards him and placed her glowing hands atop his chest while taking in the chaos.
Other elves could be seen flinging themselves from root to root, either away from the tree or towards the sanctuary. What remained of their enemies had gathered out of reach after travelling through the earth. Only a few lizards were still running across the battlefield, but the armor impeded their natural swiftness. Nothing recognizable remained of the tartaron.
“Agh...” Maximilian moaned and opened his eyes just enough to make out Alyssa's shape. “I knew that it wouldn't be easy, but I could have done without getting assaulted by a tree.”
“It keeps the army at bay, at least. Should give us enough time to enter the sanctuary and stop Ri'zzar.”
Maximilian leaned back his head and widened his gaze. The entrance to the sanctuary could barely be seen towards his right. “You mean if you don't get crushed while trying to get there.”
“My magic will get us through.” She looked left and right, then over her shoulders. “Where's Drake?”
“Still atop the root if it didn't throw him off.” He sat up and groaned, with his right hand pressed onto his stomach. “So let's get moving...”

Drake jumped off at the base of the tree and crossed the remaining meters between him and the sanctuary with hasty steps. It didn't take long for him to run into the first corpses. Some seemed to have exploded from within, others had been ripped apart, while only a handful appeared to be the victims of a blade.
The vampire wrinkled his nose and focused on the passage leading deeper inside. It didn't help much, as it too was littered with corpses. “How disgusting. Who did this?” Not disgusting. Beautiful! Why don't you kneel down next to that woman and consume whatever blood remains? I'm sure we could use it. I'm not going to suck blood from a corpse!
“Ah, so you're a vampire.”
Drake whirled around, sword in hand. The commander's charred face connected with his while his insides were pierced by both of his blades. He twirled them around, then tried to pull up. But Drake returned the favor and slammed their faces together once more.
Involuntarily leaving his blades behind, the darkelf staggered away. Drake freed them from his flesh and hurled them away like daggers. One scraped over the commander's cheek while the other missed its mark. Another attack was impossible, as he retreated back into the ground.
“Still playing hide-and-seek?”
“I'd already be dead if I didn't. Or do you think I'm the one responsible for this massacre?”
Drake's gaze swept over the corpses. A rather recent memory popped into mind.
“As if a puny elf could be responsible for such exquisite destruction!” Aquis' voice beckoned Drake to turn around. She and Halath blocked the doorway to a larger area. “But it looks like we missed a few roaches. Any volunteers?”
Halath held out her arm and stepped in front of Aquis. “That one is mine! He's going to pay for forcing me into such a miserable state.”
“Fine. I'll try to flush out the other one.” Aquis' body exploded and her remains trickled through gaps in the floor until nothing was left.
“So, how would you like to die?” The walls behind Drake collapsed under the onslaught of vines breaking through and cutting off the path. “Slow and painful or … no, that sounds about right.”
Drake clasped his blade and put his left diagonally from the other. “I choose the one where you die.”
The arbiter laughed and raised her hands. Spiked vines broke through the ground and propelled themselves towards Drake. He severed them with two strikes, but failed to notice the movement in his back. A stronger set of vines grabbed onto his neck and pulled him back. When he hit the barrier conjured by Halath, half of it collapsed and wrapped itself around the rest of his body. Only small gaps remained when he hit the ground like a cocoon.
“You didn't put much effort into that choice of yours.” She crossed the corridor slow-paced and knelt down in front of him. “Too bad that no one will come to your aid this time.”
“Think again!”
Halath leapt backwards before looking up. A decision that saved her from being consumed in Elegnis' fire. An arrow obscured by the flames still caught her of guard, but it only grazed her wooden frame.
“How dare you interfere?” She snarled like a wild beast and frowned before slamming her hands into the air. The ground below Maximilian's feet shattered and the earth surged up as if trying to consume him. He swung his blade before it could close, but it bounced off harmlessly. Another layer followed, and then a third, until Alyssa could barely see past the barrier.
“And now for the finishing touch!” Halath's palms connected and Maximilian's prison began to shrink. He screamed and kicked and punched, but the earth swallowed his every sound.
Alyssa dropped her bow and raised her hands. Her eyes flared up and the earth shuddered, as it was now being pulled into two different directions.
Halath growled and pulled her hands away, only to slam them back together. The sound of stone slamming upon stone echoed through the sanctuary, followed by shockwaves. Dust trickled from the ceiling and stones exploded. The arbiter repeated the same motion again and again, increasing the pressure every few seconds.
“Give up, give up, give up, give up! You're only staving off his death.”
Alyssa's face turned red, her lips became a thin line, sweat ran down her forehead, and her arms quivered, yet she kept on pulling at Maximilian's prison.
Now's our chance! That bitch is too focused on Alyssa to pay us any attention. But we're still trapped! Yeah, by fucking plants. They're nothing special as long as the arbiter doesn't pay them any attention. Right...
Drake strengthened his muscles and pressed against his confines, giving his hands enough space to move. The one not holding onto his sword was wreathed in a thin film of fire—a subdued form of the magic used to summon fireballs—and burned through the vines facing the ground. The rest became a dead husk that he could shake off at a moment's notice.
Be swift and strike hard. Don't give her any chance to react. I'll try.
Pressing his hands into the ground, he robbed forward, still hidden underneath his confines. All Halath would have needed was to look down, but her furious gaze was entirely reserved for Alyssa.
Maximilian's prison was steadily shrinking now. He had barely enough space to move around and could at best curl up into a ball, but even that might have proven inefficient in delaying his death. What little oxygen remained was quickly running out. He'd used too much trying to escape.
Alyssa's veins throbbed visibly and her legs faltered. Piercing pain rippled through her legs when her knees hit the ground. She groaned and her eyes flickered, but she instantly resumed the pressure with her jittery hands. Blood trickled from her mouth, but she paid it no heed, lest she loose control entirely.
Drake was almost upon Halath when her eyes fluttered to where he had been. Her hands stopped moving and chaos ensued. Maximilian's prison exploded due to rapid expansion, Drake propelled himself to his feet and slashed upwards, the wall behind Halath burst apart, the darkelf commander came flying, and the sanctuary was gripped by a tremor much stronger than when the roots had started moving.
A heart-rending scream penetrated the air, coinciding with Halath's demise. Drake's sword cut through her torso while the commander's blades happened to slice off her head before his body was propelled into the wall by Aquis' waterspout.
The arbiter's body burst into green flames and imploded. All that remained was a seed encased in crystal. It cracked once, twice, then shattered in an explosion so devastating that the entire corridor collapsed.

Drake's consciousness stirred from its slumber when another scream pierced his ears. His eyes snapped open and were blinded by a blue flame engulfing Aquis. As soon as she exploded, a crimson beam snatched up her crystal. It slammed into Ri'zzar's left palm and merged with his flesh.
“You dare betray us?” Mordred propelled herself at the darkelf, with her fist aimed at his face. Inches before impact, she froze in mid-air.
“Yes, I dare betray the abominations who ruined our world.” Ri'zzar chuckled and flicked his wrist downwards. The arbiter crashed into the ground with enough force to leave a dent behind. “You're delusional if you expected anything else.” Mordred's body burst into flames not of her own making. “Your only purpose was to ensure my victory. And since there's no one left to interfere, you power is better spent fulfilling my ambitions.” The arbiter's body perished and her crystal was consumed by Ri'zzar's flesh.
His veins bulged, some popped open, and the entirety of his lower arm grew twice in size. Groaning, he slammed the nails of his right hand into his flesh. Blood spurted everywhere and his arm began to tremble, but the swelling ceased rapidly.
“Please, you have to stop this madness!” screamed Alyssa, whose body was encased in crystal at the north-eastern edge of the pedestal. All she could move was her head. The same could be said of everyone else. Only their positions differed. “All life will waste away if you destroy the tree. It doesn't matter what plane you inhabit.”
Ri'zzar shrugged. “So what? I had no intention of sparing the World Below.”
Alyssa's eyebrows rose in confusion. “But why would an entire army help you destroy the world? All for vengeance?”
“Yes, but not for driving us into the underworld.”
“Then why?”
He stared into her eyes for what felt like forever before his fingers closed around the bandages keeping his head obscured. “Do you remember an expedition into the World Below? Where your troops stumbled upon a cave inhabited by one of your kind and a darkelf?” Bandage upon bandage fell to the floor, slowly revealing a golden mane of hair framing gray flesh with burn mark all over. “The woman, the elf, begged you to go away. But you refused and slaughtered the man she was living with, her husband!” Alyssa's eyes widened in recognition. “They had a child, remember? One that almost died in the flames that were supposed to wipe away the traces of their existence.”
“But I saved you!”
Ri'zzar crossed the gap and spit splattered Alyssa's face. “You think that changes anything? My parents are still dead, all because you couldn't bear to see a union between our races.” He stepped away and turned around. “Saving me only made it worse. I was prosecuted wherever I went, never got a good night's sleep.” His voice accelerated, making his ramblings almost indecipherable. “Had to live from rats, maggots, mushrooms. Was beaten close to death multiple times. Was thrown in a pit crawling with beasts. Had to fight and scrape and kill, kill, kill.” The splinter pulsed and the chamber rattled. “And then they finally understood. My power grew and grew, far surpassing anything they had ever seen. All because of my origin. They made me a warrior, a commander, a general. I was supposed to bring glory to their race, maybe even reclaim the surface. But I never forgot.” Spit flew from his mouth once again.
“How can you condemn us for our hatred while trying to destroy the world for the same reason?” yelled Feyadal.
Ri'zzar spared him no glance and resumed his assault on Mimeidr. “This world is doomed, no matter what. All you accomplished was to prolong its suffering. So why not ease its pain before the darkness closes in?”
“There has to be a way!” said Alyssa. “We just need to find it.”
“You had a thousand years to restore the tree, and yet you failed.”
“But destroying it is not the answer!”
Ri'zzar smiled. “You know, I wasn't being entirely honest with you. Destroying Mimeidr is only the first step of my plan. The next involves me ascending to a higher plane of existence and taking its place.”
Alyssa frowned and looked at Feyadal as if he could wipe away her confusion. “You're going to take Meimeidr's place? For what purpose?”
“To remake it from the ground up, so that life can start anew. There will be no pain, no suffering, just a paradise free from decay.”
Maximilian scoffed. “With you as its god?”
“Would that be so bad?”
Pulse upon pulse slammed into the tree, eliciting one painful wail after another. The bark visible through the mirror had cracked open, allowing a black liquid to ooze out. It smoldered like acid and broke down whatever it came into contact with.
There has to be something we can do! Drake's eyes roamed over what little of the room he could see, yet all he could find was rumble. He's not supposed to win! I already tried burning through the crystal while you were out. It only grew thicker. Can't the shadows consume it? Same result. You'd need a strong physical impact to break through. Where's our sword? Sitting in the corner. Good luck summoning it without Ri'zzar getting in the way. Dammit! He wanted to slam his hand against the crystal, but it held on tight.
“And what will you do when conflict arises?” said Feyadal.
“Why would there be conflict in a world full of bliss?”
“Because everyone desires something. Be it power, love, recognition, riches … you'll never be able to satisfy them all.”
“I'll be almighty. I can do everything!”
“Oh yeah? What if two men love the same woman? How can you satisfy them both? Make a copy?” He chuckled. “Or how about someone who demands to rule over others? Will you rob them of their emotions so they'll never be able to complain?”
Ri'zzar's beam flickered as his eyes turned on the elf. “I'll find a way!”
“Bullshit!” Cracks spread through Feyadal's crystal as if fearing the power of his voice. “You'll have billions of creatures crawling across your world. How would you ever keep up with all of their wishes?”
The chamber rumbled and a distant hum filled the air, steadily rising in volume.
“Stop it!” Ri'zzar's hand rose from the pearl and panned towards Feyadal. A rift opened in the center of his crystal and consumed it with a single gulp.
“No!” Alyssa screamed and struggled, with her eyes flaring up, but her prison refused to budge.
The humming grew as loud as a scream and a vortex of light exploded above Ri'zzar. Feyadal's unscathed form emerged from within. A web of energy permeated his skin, adding another layer to his circulatory system.
Alyssa's expression froze in confusion. What she saw shouldn't have been possible. And yet she saw Feyadal's magic circuits burning bright, literally bursting with power.
Ri'zzar spun around and raised his hand, but an invisible fist slammed into his stomach and propelled him into the mirror. It shattered into a million pieces, most of which buried themselves in his flesh.
Feyadal turned his palms towards the ceiling. Glowing particles reminiscent of fireflies gathered above his flesh and transformed into blades of light. Closing his fingers, he shot towards Ri'zzar's rising form.
The earth slammed into the ceiling, yet the moment it connected, a thousand strikes cut it into pieces. Ri'zzar's crossed his arms just in time to summon a magical barrier, but the flurry of Feyadal's attacks drove him into the wall.
“Where did you get such power?”
“I borrowed it just long enough to send you to Hell!”
Ri'zzar's barrier shattered and the Splinter of Desolation flared up. Chaos spread from the point of impact as the very fabric of reality collapsed. Darkness, light, a myriad of colors, all existing at the same time, yet none remaining longer for the blink of eye. Everything was pulled into whatever lay beyond. Even the crystal keeping the rest of Drake's group in place began to move.
“See, that's what you get for defying—”
The hole collapsed into a singular point held steady by Feyadal's palms. His flesh smoldered, rapidly turning crimson, and his magic circuits pulsed with pain. His face might have been full of agony, but it shifted faster than the eye could see, as if showing every emotion at the same time.
“Die already!” Ri'zzar aimed the Splinter at Feyadal and unleashed a beam similar to the one he had assaulted Mimeidr with.
The elf reacted by pointing his hands at his opponent. A tremendous discharge of energy erupted from within. It roared like a beast of planet-sized proportions and met Ri'zzar's attack head on.
Sparks as big as apples scattered from the point of impact and ate through the ground. Shockwaves toppled the pillars and shattered the crystals, catapulting their prisoners against the walls. The ceiling above Feyadal caved in, but the debris was pulverized by the heat of his attack.
Drake pushed against the shockwaves and crawled towards Alyssa, who fumbled with the bow the arbiters had thrown into the corner. “Where'd he get that power from?” He reached past her and grabbed his blade.
“Mimeidr must have bestowed it upon him. But he shouidn't be able to channel it!” Raising her quivering arms, she aimed at Ri'zzar. The arrow shattered next to her face a split-second after leaving her fingers.
Stupid bitch!
Alyssa furrowed her brow and snarled with murderous intent, but she redirected her anger into clawing out a splinter protruding from her cheek. A spout of blood followed. She paid it no attention and reached for a second arrow.
You might as well just ram it into your face!
“But I have to do something! Fey won't be able to hold on much longer.”
Feyadal's skin was whiter than even a ghost's and his breath rattled as if chains were stuck in his throat. His eyelids were close to falling shut and his knees seemed ready to cave in. Consequently, Ri'zzar's beam had begun to push him back.
“Well, none of them is paying us any attention,” said Drake after submerging the beast back in his subconsciousness. “One surprise attack is all that we need.”
“And what kind of attack would that be?”
Drake pressed his right arm against the wall and pulled himself up. “I'll pour every ounce of my power into my legs and run towards Ri'zzar. I just need a little boost, which is where your magic should come in handy.”
Alyssa nodded as he put his back against the wall. Only his right foot stood against the shockwaves.
She slammed her hands against the wall. The stones rattled, cracked, and exploded under the force of a tornado escaping from within. Drake flew away and hit the ground running. Whatever energy he could spare was used up to accelerate his steps.
Every move felt as if he was wading through pudding, but Ri'zzar drew steadily closer. The heat emanating from his and Feyadal's attack made Drake's blood boil. His thoughts became a blur, his sword a meaningless weight. Then the beast ascended and took control of his arms.
Ri'zzar's sparkling eyes pulled away too late. The shadow sword was already in motion. It severed his flesh, cut through bones and muscles. A shockwave more powerful than all that came before followed. The Splinter became like a sun and screamed with the agony of an entire race when the hand it had been bound to smacked onto the floor.
Feyadal hit the wall with the sound of breaking bones. Blood spilled from his mouth and his eyes fell shut before he hit the ground. His body was still smoldering despite appearing as lifeless as a corpse.
“Fey!” Alyssa ran through the hall and dropped onto her knees while the center of the chamber collapsed. Her glowing eyes turned Feyadal around and sank onto his chest. It felt horribly thin, as if robbed of every muscle.
Drake rose from where the shockwave had sent him and returned to Ri'zzar's sunken figure. Maximilian stood above him and held Elegnis against his throat. The hand bearing the Splinter of Desolation had been kicked into a corner.
“How is this … possible? I should have been … almighty.”
“Arronax lost despite having more power. It was only a matter of time until someone defeated you,” said Maximilian.
“But he had no power. He was weak. Puny. A nobody.”
Drake couldn't see Feyadal through the rubble, but the sensation of his life fading away permeated the entire chamber. “And thanks to you, he has barely any time left.” He raised his sword and Maximilian removed his. “So we'd better make sure to send you ahead.”
Ri'zzar raised his head and both of his arms. “Stop, you can't kill me just yet!” His eyes fell onto the stump of his left hand and his lips began to quiver.
“And why is that?”
“I promised you answers, didn't I?”
Drake stared into Ri'zzar's cold eyes. He lowered his blade and took a step back. “Go on, then. But don't expect any mercy.”
“Only idiots would show mercy to their enemy.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, do you know what this is?” His remaining hand pointed at the broken mirror.
“You're talking about the tree, are you?”
“Yes. Mimeidr, the World Tree. Mother of all life. But that's a name given to it by mortals.” The severed hand shook unseen. “The spirit trapped within is a messenger of the gods, one of the ten Asen tasked with protecting Meceruun from evil.”
Drake pointed his blade at Ri'zzar's throat. “I didn't want a history lesson. Tell me about Assar!”
“I'm getting there!” His severed hand shook again. “Most of the Asen were destroyed in the War. We wouldn't be having this conversation otherwise. Aside from Mimeidr, there's only one left. And he's stronger than ever before.”
Drake's eyes turned into slits. “You're not going to say—”
“That Assar is one of them? Bingo!”
“Bullshit! He's trying to destroy the world, not protect it!”
“True. That's why I wanted to help Modera.” His severed hand rolled over. “Together, we might have been able to free him from the shackles binding his essence.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He's corrupted. Infected with madness. If not for that, his crusade against the vampires might never have happened.” The Splinter of Desolation spun around itself, burning away the flesh holding it in place.
“Does that mean we have to save him to thwart Meceruun's destruction?”
Ri'zzar shrugged. “No … all you're supposed to do is die!”
The Splinter flew past Maximilian and straight at Ri'zzar's remaining hand. Yet before it could connect, a flash of light lit up the ceiling. Feyadal's gaunt body descended from above, with the tip of his knife aimed at the Splinter.
A crack spread down the middle and time seemed to freeze. Beam upon beam of energy emerged from within, blinding everyone in the vicinity. A shockwave followed. Then another. Every repetition stronger than the first.
By the time Ri'zzar or his enemies were able to formulate a coherent thought, they had long since vanished from the confines of the sanctuary. Only a chamber robbed of its intestines remained. It collapsed shortly afterwards, with no one left outside being aware of what had happened.

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