Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thank you to everyone who has followed this story, your support is greatly appreciated. One thing I must say is that this story was written under a limit of 10,000 words so that it could fit into a magazine publication. I cut a ton of great parts out because of the word count limit, and I had a hard time not expanding on things like character development and background. Perhaps one day the full version of this story will come out! Also, many thanks to Karin Sabo for your outstanding editing and help with this story.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Part 9: The grip of Darkness

Court could look no longer.
This entire time I have been wrong, Court thought. It had not been the psychic hatred of his Garai Brethren which had created this rift, it was the Wife of Aries Black. He needed air. And yet, as he stared into the abyss, Court had no will to reach the surface. Down here everything seemed silent, everything was eternal. Safe. No more adventures, no more battles, only a long awaited sleep. Let the others seal the rift, no one knew what nightmares he had lived through to reach this end. We're glad you came back, said the voices again, Let your pain be washed away. Let the pain of the world wash away...sleep.

Except Court was never very fond of sleep. In sleep was when his nightmares came. Court's eyes snapped open, and he suddenly kicked up towards the surface, his lungs burning. He was swimming and kicking ferociously, but he wasn't going anywhere. Someone was grabbing at his feet. Looking down, to his terror, was the reanimated corpse of Aries Black holding Court in his mechanical grip. Black's once vivid blue eyes were now horrific dead eyes, faded and hollow.

The more Court tried to shake his grip, the harder Black's fingers tightened. So this is how it ends, Court grimaced, letting the darkness engulf him. His heart was pounding, deafeningly loud in his ears. But then Court saw Adan's meaty, tattooed arms, then felt them wrapping around his chest. Court was being pulled up. Thank you, thank you. Black's grip on Court's heels slipped, and he sank down into the iron gray darkness and vanished. In another moment the two surfaced, and were helped up the crumbling lip of the floor by Cael.

Cael had somehow managed to get several of the torches burning, the warmth shedding away the terror and the cold. The massive war machine lay dead and broken not far from where they were, the light of the flames brushing its potted metal husk. The hole in the machine where it's armor had been torn off was wafting smoke. Court still lay in a puddle on his side, gasping, staring for a long time at the empty walkway where the Garai had been watching, while Cael proudly told him their story of how they had defeated the war machine.

“There we were, on the edge of the floor, between the two statues, when the monster came charging up at us,” Cael began, until Adan quickly cut him off.

“... I Found yer pistol and shot the damned thing.” Adan finished, waving aside Cael's protest. They laughed together. Court was sure there must be more to their story, but he would leave that for another time.

“Oh, and we also found this.” Adan said, reaching for something in the dark beside his makeshift seat of broken stone.

* * *

Court Beltain stood with the sword of Aries Black held firmly in his hand. He raised the sword skyward, closing his eyes. All his skill, what was left, he focused. Slowly he lowered the tip of the sword, aiming downward, at the gurgling water, to where the phantom gleam of the mirror lay deep below. The sword now shone in a growing warmth of color from the opening of sky above them. Outside the snow had stopped, and the wind had died.

And then Court speared the sword with all his might. It slid into the water without a noise, speeding like a bullet towards the mirror. A second later, the mirror shattered with an audible tink. But nothing else happened. The mirror lay broken and useless in the ashen gray depths.

“Then that’s the end? What about all this water—the rift?” Cael asked.

“The souls of my friends and family have found rest. The Nocturne magic is broken, the rift is sealed. The war is over. Who can say what will become of this place? Hopefully it will be forgotten.” Court said at last, “That's enough for me. Redemption, at last.”

“Let’s go home.” Court said, to which Cael and Adan nodded an approval. Both of them had filled their pockets with loot. Court smiled crookedly at them, and began walking towards the entrance of the palace. Turning one last time to see what would likely never be seen again, Court saw Gage leaning upon the walkway overhead. The older Brother gave Court an approving nod, and vanished.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Part 8: How The War Ended

The thunderous collision caused a shockwave and a splash that threw Court and his men far aside. The chamber reeled and cracked further, its pillars shook, several toppled downward from their frightful dark heights and noisily crumbled around those below. For several long moments it was chaos. The dim Dragoon Knights halted in awe, to watch their sinister masterpiece at work again.

After some time, Court slowly regained his senses and stood up, crawling back on his feet through the rubble. He coughed at the dust clouds filling up the chamber, and cautiously peered over the ruined lengths of the toppled pillars around him. Court saw that in the midst of the ruin, the watery crack was bubbling ominously. Surely he had not just seen -- a Nocturne war machine? After all these years, and then looking for any other sign of life he realized, Where are Adan and Cael?

The great machine rose out of the dark water, a living relic, a nightmare. Built with the same skill and fearsome knowledge as Aries Black's armor, its menacing form lurched forward. Blue sparks popped out of it's moving tangled parts, and the living electricity within it's scarred and ancient husk reverberated throughout the chamber as it came rising up. Court could not help but feel overwhelmed by the raw power of it, with its twisted whirling cogs and mechanisms which had lain waste to countless Garai before him. How many wars has this monster survived...and how? Court didn't have time to finish his own thoughts, for he had been seen by it, and dread fell upon him.

With all his powers, with all his mind, Court attempted to wrench it apart psychically. A single plate of its steel – bolted armor was torn off. He tried again, but it was to no avail; he was too weak. As Court backed into the shadows, he had time to glimpse the Nocturne knights as they faded away. Steadily the towering outline of the war machine came rising above Court, breaking apart all the debris in its path. Court remembered of course, that the Nocturnals had built their war machines to be nearly indestructible by any earthly weapons, and in his weakened state he had little choice. He used the only option he had, and ran.

Court ducked under the high piles of debris, clinging to the shadows. He had made it nearly to the opposite end from where he had started, when suddenly he found Aries Black. They startled each other as Court rounded the marble throne, each still holding their guns. In a blur of action, both men were grappling each other, trying to get the first shot off. Even though Black's suit had failed him, he still had considerable strength as Court faltered. Black's sharp gauntlets squeezed down on Court's wrists till they nearly snapped.

And so, locked together in battle, Court and his nemesis toppled over the ledge before the throne that fell into the dark water, the rift. Just before they hit water, Court's silver pistol fell out of his hands and onto the ledge, but Aries Black's gun discharged out awkwardly into the dusty chamber. Sparks flew. Gun smoke swirled about them. Without a splash they sank, choking one another. There was gurgling, then a wall of silence that filled Court's ears, until all he heard was the pounding of his heart. Down and down they descended, Black's suit hastening their fall like an anchor.

It wasn't long before they hit bottom. The impact broke them apart, and they tumbled about the watery floor of the crack. Court's cloak was an immense burden in the water, and he managed to slip it off and push it away. Black was hopelessly overwhelmed by his armor now. He barely had strength to stand, yet he did, slowly and purposely. He can't have more than a few moments, Court thought darkly, for even his lungs were beginning to burn. The two looked at each other, unblinking, until Black began to shake. With all his effort, Black lifted his arm and pointed a finger towards a nook in the side of the crack behind Court. Some sort of tall object shimmered there. Aries Black died then, for the last time, as he sucked in the water, until at last his eyes rolled up as though looking peacefully into the distance.

Quickly now, Court swam to the hidden, murky object at which Black had pointed at. The closer he got, the colder and meaner the watery rift became. The rift seemed like an unnatural living thing, its malicious currents pushing against him from all directions. The worst emotions seemed to strangle him and seep into his skin like poison. Thrumming in Court's ears was the strongest wailing. We're glad you belong dead and drowned like all of us. Fearing the power of the rift, Court refused to look behind him, where with colorless eyes, the drowned multitude of the Nocturnals watched hungrily at his back.

The object, though rusted and covered with grime was clearly identifiable; it was a mirror, a tall, rectangular mirror that would have served a Queen's vanity. It lay sunken against the sharp protrusions of the crack, waiting. Defying his fear, Court made to brush his frozen fingers over the grime, to push away the mud that obscured its polished face. Only his fingers slipped through it. There was only a phantom shimmer where the glass had been, no face to the mirror at all. Yet it was not empty, which made it all the more terrifying. My Gods, I have no reflection. Behind the mirror was an abyss of water vast and endless. This is the source of the rift, Court knew instantly.

Memories flashed through Court's mind with dizzying speed. He understood as this was happening, that the mirror was transferring what it had seen before the rift had opened. There in the middle of the chamber had been two figures arguing beneath their towering white marble Gods, Marduke and Tiamat. One was a man, wearing a tall, well worn suit of mechanical Nocturne armor and the other was a woman, in a flowing regal red dress with fair skin and dark hair and eyes. The vast, domed chamber shook and cracked around them, as outside the war was raging into a climax. Outside the Palace, the Garai army approached at a steady and unrelenting pace.

"Do it now, I say!" Commanded Aries Black to his Sister-Wife.

"It has never been done. It will kill our Knights!" She cried out.

"They are all dead anyways, but we can still save ourselves." Black said with a lowered, grim tone.

"…Then this is the end of everything." She wept.

Now Court saw the Queen standing before her ancient mirror, the special mirror she had brought up from the dusty bowels of the Palace. Her spell, at Blacks command, was to unleash a tidal wave from the ocean. Surely such a massive wave would disperse the Garai fleet, and crush their army as it crashed over the island of Nocturne.

"This wave," Black whispered in her ear, "must be larger and more deadly than has ever been seen."

Moments after she had worked her magic, they knew something had gone wrong. The statues above them stirred, a malign look upon their faces. Panic. The floor around them was cracking, and then sinking around the mirror as a vast pressure built within it. The fabric of the world had been torn open through the mirror. In a moment of unparalleled violence they had all died. The image of the frightened Queen, with Aries Black at her side, was wiped away into darkness as the mirror spewed out like a geyser, the nameless evil ocean that was the rift.

Out of the palace hallways the waters exploded, washing over the entire fortress city. Thousands of people died at once. Hundreds of black armored Nocturne Knights, who were desperately defending the besieged fortress walls, were obliterated. The walls broke apart, and the vast waters leapt over the ruins to fall upon the entire Garai army. Court saw himself, washed off the cliffs with the rest of his Brethren. At sea, the Garai fleet buckled as the wave hit…

Court could look no longer.

To be concluded...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Part 7: Relics of Nocturne

He was Aries Black. Alive.

“Venishaad deit gah!” Black demanded again.

“We're not one of you.” Court said, meeting the man's glare.

Aries Black cocked his head to the side a little, a cynical frown creasing over his face. He glanced up at the dome overhead to the rows of the deceased Garai soldiers, who remained silent and attentive. His eyes settled back down on Court, a sudden awareness sparking in his blue eyes. Court nodded to him slowly, with a grin he couldn't suppress. For now his greatest enemy understood who he was, and that despite the world itself having been split, the Garai were not all dead.

And then, in broken Anselm speech, Aries Black spoke.

“I'm the Guardian of this place, Heathen.”

“Aries Black, we meet at last.” Court said, reaching for his cutlass.

“Who are you?” Black asked in a steady, sinister voice.

“I am Court Beltain , the last of the Garai.”


“Yes, I survived, and I am here to seal the rift.” Court declared.

Aries Black paused for thought, and as he stepped towards Court said slowly, realizing at the same time, “So this is why my Gods have restored me to life. The old Gods of Nocturne still hunger for your blood, Court were foolish to come back here. We have unfinished business, the two of us. The Gods' vengeance must be put upon you.” Black's eyes bulged as he voiced his own thoughts, “Perhaps when I feed your body to the dark water, the Gods will raise my Armies once again.”

“Look around you, madman – look at what your Gods have wrought.” Court sneered, gesturing wide around them, “Whatever cause you once fought for is now dead, or drowning in this dark water you speak of. Tell me the source of the rift, so we can end this tonight.” Court said.

Court followed Black's intense gaze as it swept his ruined throne room. It ran over the cracked dome, and the grim black-cloaked ghosts waiting above them. His eyes settled at last upon the restless pool of water behind Court, and he seemed to be recalling something of immense sadness. Then rage welled up within those eyes as they focused on Court again. Court threw Adan and Cael a warning glance as Aries Black recomposed himself, and stepped nearer.

“Heathen fool, if the Gods had wanted the rift closed, it would have been done long ago. Yes, tonight, after a hundred years of war it ends,” Black bellowed, his voice echoing up so that the dead Garai Masters could hear, “Goodbye, Court Beltain, I send you now to join your Brethren!”

Black, in his gaunt mechanical armor moved much faster than Court could have imagined possible. It took only three strides to reach Court's position between the statues, and he had already torn his broadsword from off his back. Black slashed downwards with his great sword, hoping to end the battle with one swift stroke. However, he met only thin air as Court leapt to the side, spinning behind the tall female statue. Adan and Cael fled to either side, knowing full well when they were outmatched. The armor has doubled his strength and speed, Court noted, narrowly dodging another blow.

Court fiercely parried with his cutlass, their blades meeting with a shrill clang. In strength, both swords were equal. However, as Court slowly bent beneath the broadsword and brute strength of Aries Black, he realized his disadvantage in the shorter length of his blade. He took the defensive, and backed away towards the edge of the water. Again and again their blades met, the clamor echoing about the chamber. Using the basket hilt of his sword, Court managed to thrust aside Black's blade and strike at his undefended face. It left a bleeding streak across his right cheek, but Black’s tall neck guard had mostly deflected the blow. Well he's not disappointing me. Excellent fighter, possibly the best I've ever faced, Court thought.

And then he saw, rolling beneath another slash at his torso the whirling mechanisms and pistons fastened on Black's right arm. Just then a swift kick to Court's chest sent him flying backwards. Court's backwards fall was abruptly halted as he crashed against a pillar, bouncing off it only to lock blades with Black again. He desperately needed to get away from the punishing assault. Slipping between pillars, Court maneuvered to the opposite side of the chamber, carefully avoiding the crumbling ledges that fell down into the deep, watery crack. Court backed up against the tall marble throne, as Black steadily closed in.

In another five seconds, Black would be on him. Using his scarce few seconds, Court focused directly on the mechanisms of Black's right arm, and then leapt sideways just in time to dodge Black's sword. Black sliced a chunk of marble off the side of his throne, angering him further. However, some of the gears and gadgets began bursting off his arm, along with two pistons that popped out of place with a snap. It was obvious now that Black had lost mechanical power in his sword arm as it hung lower, and less steadily.

Aries Black gave Court a look of disgust and said, “Those demon ways of yours, Court Beltain. They are not how men do battle.”

Angered for the first time, Court smote the giant armored man backwards with a solid sword blow, until Black crashed with a tremendous clamor against his own throne. Pieces of his armor broke loose and rolled away, the heavy armor now burdening him as its helpful machinery ground to a halt. Black himself looked defiant, with smoldering eyes as he struggled to right himself. But now Court was nearly spent, drained to the brink of exhaustion. By the time Black could stand again, Court had already retreated again into the center of the chamber, and awaited him between the two statues.

Then the two stood facing each other, pistols drawn across the flooded ruin of the chamber. Court's eyes flickered over to his left, where Adan and Cael were huddled away from danger behind a broken pillar. They were safe, and soon Black would fall. A slight tensing of his trigger finger would finish it. Aries Black began taunting Court from across the water: “Despite whatever lies your Masters may have told you, this was never a war between men. We mortals are mere pawns in a timeless war between the Gods. I hope well they take pity on your soul, for soon the Garai will be gone forever...”

“Your time has already ended.” Court said firmly, finger on the trigger.

In mere seconds both men could have lay dead, had it not happened. For a moment time stood still. Anxiety had reached its peak, and so the Nocturne forces surrounding the chamber walls broke rank, and howling like the damned, started in towards Court. It was just then, as Adan and Cael cowered in the shadows, thinking that it couldn't get any worse, that it did. To the surprise of all, a large shadow fell over the floor of the dome. Overshadowed, all of them together looked above with gaping jaws to see what it was.

A Nocturne war machine had suddenly appeared above them. The machine was clearly unmanned, yet was animated by a will not of the natural world. The rounded mass of gears and engines rolled out of its secret, dark and dusty eyrie in the dome and plummeted downward. The Garai phantoms recoiled and were blown away like smoke as its twisted mechanical body tumbled past them, crashing with a fury not seen since the war, directly into the center of the chamber between the two poised men.
To be Concluded...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Part 6: The Revenant

The heart of the Nocturne Empire was clearly in shambles, and looked as if the epicenter of the destruction had been focused on the chamber ahead. A high, domed ceiling yawned above Court and his two men, but was partially cracked open, allowing the dim gray light to stream in, illuminating tiny flakes of snow drifting down. All around the top of the pale dome was a ledge walkway, where books were stacked on shelves. Below that hung dusty faded tapestries, flags and paintings of the famous Nocturnal aristocrats. There were rows of tall pillars much like the ones outside, with unlit torches sitting dark and mute beneath them. Some of the pillars had cracked or fallen over, but most were intact, stretching into the shaded darkness above.

The large circular room had been pierced by cannon fire from the Garai fleet. On the far eastern wall between racks of ceremonial weaponry, a massive hole had been blasted open, and flowing dark water from the rift washed in. Half the room was flooded as a large, wide crack followed the opening in the wall and right through the center of the chamber, and had filled with water like a black pool. The flooded crack gave the room the effect of being shattered and sinking.

In the center had been an ornate red rug, rolled out to the feet of a tall throne made of polished white marble and encrusted with jewels. Only the ends of the rug were above water now, and the rest of it had been torn loose and drowned in the depths of the water sloshing about in the center of the chamber. Adan and Cael seemed to lighten up a little at the sight of the jeweled throne, and started looking around for any treasure the chamber might hold. Along the far walls, where the two of them began rummaging, were racks full of dusty swords and axes, most of them ceremonial. On either side of the throne room, two strange and beautiful statues, a man and a woman, stood amongst the pillars.

It was very silent in the chamber, save for the gushing water through the wide crack in the floor. There were no scurrying rats, or sounds of wind, no spiders or webs. There weren't any birds or nests in the ceiling, but something was wrong, Court could feel it in his gut. Always on guard, Court kept his hand on his sword hilt, not forgetting what he had sensed here earlier, a whispering unlike the ghosts, a shadow moving amongst shadows.

He stepped forward cautiously over the worn and ancient floor, slipping between the pillars to get a closer look at the two statues of the man and the woman. Both statues were nearly twenty feet tall with a base etched in gold. As he neared, it looked as if the statues were made of the same white marble as the throne, but the golden writing on the base must have been in the Nocturne language, as it was unintelligible to Court. The man and woman were Gods of some sort, naked and fearless with immutable, timeless expressions. As Court gazed into their large oval eyes, it seemed as if they both had words poised on their silent tongues, and if only given a chance, they would speak it to him. Both statues teetered over the brink of the water's edge, as the floor had cracked and sunk all around them.

Who are you? Court wondered, growing ever more fascinated by the place. And then it came to him, as if an alien voice spoke in his mind, we are Marduk and Tiamat.
This alien thought frightened Court. He felt small, glancing up at the pillars all around him reaching to the vast shaded ceilings. For all his power, for all his skills with weapons, Court suddenly wanted to shrink into the shadows and hide.

“Tell me about these people, Captain. What made them our enemies?” Adan's voice trailed from across the chamber, where he was busy rummaging through shelves and pottery. Court came to his senses, and answered, keeping a wary eye on the statues.

“It all began as a territorial dispute, over the Archipelago of the Storms. We learned about how they had built their Empire on the edge of night, across the Jade Sea. They had no power like the Garai, and eventually used machinery to imitate us. Their last Warlord, Aries Black, ended a family dictatorship that had lasted one hundred years or more. An incestuous bastard, married to his own Sister, a witch of some power. His knights wore suits of mechanical black armor, and Dragoon styled helms, with strange red markings running down their sides.”

Court backed further away from the statues, and he glanced up at the walkway circling the top of the dome. All along this ledge ghosts were lined up, silently watching him. They were all of the same garb, hooded and cloaked in black, vaporous like shadows. At their sides were silver pistols and cutlasses, each matching Court in every way. They were the entire Garai order, nearly all, save the one man far below, peering up at them. As Court tried to see into the shadows of their hoods, one of them came forward and spoke.

“Court Beltain.” A strong voice echoed down.

Court was frozen in place, legs trembling. Even Adan and Cael had heard the voice. Here were the souls of Court's friends and family, and now speaking to him from beyond the grave was the familiar voice of his beloved older Brother. He suddenly felt like the young headstrong man who had been with these men ten years ago that fateful night. He fought the stubborn lump in his throat, and addressed the phantom.

“ it really you?”

The ghostly figure threw back his hood and Court knew him then, the same man from his countless memories and nightmares. His gray hair was thin and long, and though Court could not see it, he knew the stern wrinkles on his Brother's face, and the light in his deep-set blue eyes. He spoke again.

“We have been waiting for you. Waiting for you to seal the rift.”

“But I don't understand! How can one man undo what was the effort of thousands?” Court asked hopelessly, revealing a weakness in his plans that Adan and Cael, who petrified with fear and listening in, had not contemplated.

But we'll never let him, answered the alien voices in Court's mind.

Out of the darkness of the hallway from which Court and the others had just come, a long ghostly procession marched into the chamber. Filed in ranks, marching to the beat of some otherworldly war drum, came a legion of Nocturne soldiers dressed in ceremonial black armor. The head of the procession heralded a large red flag, the unmistakable dark crest of Aries Black dancing in its folds. In life, the noise of their combined armor, and clanking weapons should have shook the entire palace. But it was solemnly silent, save for the vague drumming, far away.

The Nocturne ghosts floated along the entire circular chamber, lining the dim walls. Court and his two men were completely surrounded. There the Nocturne soldiers stood in mute attention, their ghostly armor flickering in and out of existence. Their faces were hidden behind sinister dragoon style helms, their posture frozen with hands resting on their sword hilts. The drumming that echoed in the bowels of the palace came to a sudden halt, and then came a rumble from the shadows.

At the end of the procession was a man, mean and hooded and powerful looking. His armor made such a terrible noise as it stepped forth that even Court winced. From beneath his regal black cloak, plate mail clanked thunderously against the stone floor, echoing up to the dome. Watching grimly, seeing what could only forebode the worst, Court had backed into the center of the chamber, between the mysterious statues. Adan and Cael were on either side of him, and not knowing what else to do, drew their knives in a single act of bravery, useless as it was.

“Venishaad deit gah.” Intoned a deep voice from the hooded, armored man.

The great figure slouched off its black hooded cloak, and it fell to floor as if to crumple, but instead vanished like smoke. Now the identity of this greater man was revealed. He was tall and pale, dark haired with wild burning blue eyes. Middle aged, but not entirely gray. He wore the full black on black armor of a Nocturne General: iron riveted, mechanical plate mail with a strange red star emblem drawn on the chest. The entire suit of armor was a menacing machine. Along the arms and chest ran gears and pistons, enhancing the strength of the wearer tenfold. There was a vivid flash from the golden regalia, the family crest, of the large pistol hanging loosely at his side. Also, Court was quick to note that a broadsword was attached by black leather straps onto his back.

He was Aries Black. Alive.
To Be continued....

Monday, February 18, 2008

Part 5: The Frozen Palace

Court was tossed as gracelessly as a doll against the half-sunken, cracked marble steps of the palace, landing with a splat on the snow-lined lips. His heavy, wet cloak clung to his thin frame while he clawed his way up to safety from the current threatening to drag him back down. He winced in pain from the bruising of his ribs, and rolled away from a broken stair that crumbled back into the water. Once he reached the top of the steps, he made sure his pistol was still dry. Adan and Cael followed suit, grumbling at their bruised sides. They joined Court near the top, below the massive white pillars and archways that seemed capable of housing a God.

They lingered on the snow crusted steps for a moment, clutching at themselves in a uselessly attempt to block the wind. Some of the structure had been damaged by cannon fire, where some pillars were actually broken or lying toppled over on their sides. Some areas of the palace walls were shattered, as if by impact. Under the huge, decorated archway above them, near the shaded walls were life-sized statues of crumbling, forgotten Gods, ancient guardians of the carrion debris scattered over the steps and down various hallways, rolling and tossing about in the wind. Rusted, brittle pieces of Nocturne armor lay everywhere on the steps, the grayish stone forever stained dull red by rust and blood. Tattered flags, pale and ghostly, flew from heights of the palace above them. Behind the pillars, the doors of the palace were cracked open just enough to see the dark hallways beyond, open like gaping mouths.

“This was once tall and proud Ilium Palace. Home of Aries Black.” Court said, lost in thought, “This was the seat of his power.”

Cold and worn, Adan and Cael could only listen, their sunken eyes taking in the sheer grandeur of the place. Court closed his eyes, focusing his senses, forgetting his shivering body that begged for warmth. Then came the haggard sound of his two companions breathing, shivering. He could hear the sound of metal debris rolling in the wind, the screeching suck of wind through the cracks in the doors before them, the stirring dust within. He heard the crashing waves of the rift behind and around them. And then to his dread, Court heard a whisper, a stirring, somewhere deep inside the palace.

“Quickly now, inside before we freeze to death.” Court nodded towards the doors.

The doors were wooden, splintered and green from the weather but heavy, riveted with black steel strips and bolts much like the larger gate to the fortress. It took two of them to heave the door open on its rusted hinges, and they were already exhausted. It opened with a shrill wail. As they stepped inside they were startled to see Court examining the walls just down the length of the hall. He was running his hand down an engraving, thoughtfully. They looked back to where he had been moments before on the steps, seeing nothing but the expanse of the rift beyond. Adan could only shrug his massive wide tattooed shoulders and whispered,“Garai magic.”

The palace hallways were made of smooth stone, well fitted with hardly a flaw. It was dry and dusty, with no wind biting at their already soaked bodies. A dim light filled the place, as if it were dusk. Lining the walls were large fresco engravings of the old Dukes of Nocturne, displayed at the head of their armies. Reflecting, Court began to wonder if long ago before the war, the Nocturne Empire had been rich in art and lore. Another scene seemed to depict a great battle at sea. That must be the first war between us, in the Archipelago of the Storms. Who could have foreseen our armies would be one hundred years at war, he thought.

“What do we do now?” Adan asked.

He didn't respond right away, but rather walked further down and inspected each engraving carefully, respectfully. Court's soaked black cloak left a long trail of water, mopping the dust as he went. He looked back at Adan and Cael, who were still shivering. They had seemed stronger before; now they slouched and grumbled. Perhaps the rift has weakened them, as it has me.

“There is a focal point for this disturbance, somewhere in this palace and I must find it, and stop it.” He said

“But you don't know what it is exactly?” Cael asked, then regretted it.

“No.” Court said, turning back to the engravings, “But it is close now. I can hear the voices of the dead wailing; they call me by name.”
“Well if you don't mind me saying sir, we can look at all this later...shouldn't we be moving along?” Adan pressed him.

“You're right, of course. It's just that I've waited my entire life to see the inside of these walls. We were so close that night. Now I am here in their palace, virtually abandoned.” Court said, a nostalgic gleam in his eyes.

They moved forward, into the heart of the palace itself, toward the voices Court heard calling him to come, come closer, you belong here with us...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Part 4: The Rift

The rift looked something like an ocean, rolling into the distance, growing vast and deep as it reached across the bleak horizon, though at first its waves were more like the shimmer of heat off a hot tin roof. Court looked into the pearlescent distance to see the snowy horizon filled with it. He glanced down, noticing that he was standing in the tide of the rift, just the very beginnings of its waves slapping and gurgling around his heels. A few more steps and he would be willingly walking into the rift, would feel the first pulling of its rip tide, as powerful and deep as the waters of any real ocean. And this rift, this immense phenomena of psychic pain and twisted reality, was for the time being completely invisible to all save Court.

“Nightfall's coming.” It sounded like Adan.

With each step they took towards the palace, the world itself changed slightly. The closer they got to the palace, the more it sunk down into the rift, and the ruins of the homes sank with it. Soon they had the disorientating feeling as if they were marching down a slope, the invisible plasma rising up to the level of their chests, their feet sticking in mud. They could feel there must be a thousand broken swords and pistols beneath their feet as they walked the uneven ground. Surely a thousand brittle skeletons still clung to those weapons beneath the snow and the mud.

The weather grew ever heavier, thick cold dampness seeping rapidly through their clothing. It was difficult to walk, or to move at all. Their boots were now sinking down into the mud. It became more like swimming than walking, as the daylight grew dim. The rift had become a mist, rippling over everything, cold and damp.

And now the palace was closer, close enough to see it was a half sunken, broken place. Its pillars rose up from the frothing tide, like thin white arms coming out of the waves, to support cracked palatial domes and archways now frozen over with snow and ice. The fog slowly lifted, blown away by the snow-speckled winds, and with mild shock they all realized they were wading through real water. Only the cracked rooftops of the houses remained above water, and some of the gate wall surrounding the fortress. Beyond that in all directions, gray snowing skies and an endless dark ocean. It was impossible, and yet here they were, fighting to stay afloat.

Court struggled through the water, tucking his silver pistol into the folds of his hood, which hung dryly at the back of his neck. His black cloak sprawled out in the heaving tide, ten times heavier in the water. The others fared only mildly better, poor swimmers all.

“Get to that house over there!” Court motioned, already on his way.

They reached the crumbling stone walls of a house, dark and watery within. They floated, grasping the frozen stone ledges of the walls for protection from the breaking waves. Looking around at the dark unnatural water, it seemed as if the entire bottom had dropped from under them and was a thousand miles deep. The snow was ceaseless, melting as it touched the misty water.

“What in the name of Hell is this place?” Adan asked, catching his breath.

This is what I feared Court thought, hesitating before saying to them, “It’s a rift...we've crossed Worlds just now. Look back, you see that fog?”

Turning to look back, they could see only rolling fog where the borders of the rift had yet to swallow their living world. The fortress gate lay behind that shroud, in another time and place.

“That’s the gate where we came in.”

“Where did all this damn water come from?” Cael asked.

“I'm not sure. Listen,” Court said impatiently, “It’s like we're drifting in loathing and despair, the froth of war. This is why we're here, to stop it from growing any further. If left alone it will eventually wash over our entire world. You wouldn't want your loved ones drowning in this foulness would you? I think not. So, let's just keep moving.”

“I want to see my wife again, sir. Please.” Adan pleaded between heavy breaths as he clutched at the crumbling stone ledge of the house.

“We'll never get out of here alive.” said Cael through chattering teeth, shaking his head in horrified disbelief.

To be continued....