The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Two Alpha

Hello, readers mine! Continuing this new experiment of posting the chapters which will be part of the free preview of The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear, here’s the first working version of the second chapter. Writing this unrighteous leviathan of a chapter just about shattered my consciousness at several points, so I’m sure it’ll be wondrous fun for all of you to read!

If you feel it might be helpful to read the first chapter before reading the second, and haven’t already done so, you may find that hereThe Necromancer and the Reaping Spear is the direct sequel to The Necromancer and the Revenant, so if you’re intrigued by what you read below you should probably read the first book to catch up on the story so far. You may find that here.

Keep in mind that like the first chapter, this is an alpha version. I may alter a great deal prior to publishing. However, they’re alpha chapters in a second draft, so you’re safe to assume most of what you like here will remain in the finished book. There are definitely typos in here somewhere; as you’ll see when you read on, much of this chapter’s material is straining at the limits of prose medium and of cognition itself. You can imagine that made it fulfilling but exhausting work, so I’m sure some malicious letters took advantage of my delirium to wind up in places they shouldn’t be, or go absent where they ought to remain.

Read on past the asterisks as Urzen and Stahrich confront the paradoxical wonders and horrors of the dead plane–

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Chapter Two
An Ill-Made Grave
“Ere the first black gate where the shadows died, ere the first grim crags saw a dark lord’s rise, ere the first false maker stole creation’s tithe, to the first Hymn’s echo sang an echo called I.” -Supposed translation of an obsidian tablet—from tongues now forgotten, in desert now vanished, by souls now lost

Roiling plumes, flecked by coursing shapes like obsidian shards, swam about a striated stony pathway. Faded dusk glows seeped through the encroaching clouds. Each light-swell dimmed swiftly and grew back only after long moments. Though they appeared like corrupted char-smoke from some misbegotten inferno, they moved like mud-murk stirred at the ocean’s utmost depths: bulging in against the path and recessing, contorting into engorged whorls. Sometimes shapes seemed to form from the plumes, or jut out from them. Never distinct, always present, they were hazy hard angle spars and clawing accretions, ragged silhouettes and jagged ranked prongs.

And the aura Urzen felt from all this sight, from the press of a freezing wind against him and the too-smooth stone beneath his feet, was absolute emptiness.

“Stahrich,” he said, resolving to look straight up the path and ignore the warping smog, “This place has no aura.” A faint shuddering entered his limbs as he spoke. Tiny wisps split from his form.

“I have noticed,” the war-god said, and quietly shifted Sireless Glory from his shoulder. He wrapped his left fist around his long grip just above the fluted mace-head pommel. With the leviathan sword held high, he swiveled to gaze slowly at the plumes. In so doing he cast crimson gleams on the surround. The red rays sank into the smog and vanished. They also drew Urzen’s attention to the stony floor. It was lustrous and reflective. Yet it showed the planelord and the titanic god alike as nothing more than washed-out smears of color.

The demon snarled. Concentrating first on his essence down his back and along his shoulders at those places beyond binary eyesight, he sought to absorb what little light came from the seeping surround. Faint purples bled out from him. His vision’s field expanded, stippled lavender lines blurring on his sight’s borders as it swept wider.

And past the blended indistinct ovoids which marked his many pupils’ sight, there lay nothing. Neither darkness nor light, not color nor pattern. It was unacceptable, impossible, and unmalleable. It was nothing. Where should seep the faintest low temperature called cold, was nothing. Where should come the vaguest echo from the rustling, shifting fabrics worn by demon and god, was nothing. In rebellion did Urzen lash himself outward. All that awaited was emptiness, and nothing. He expanded farther and faster. His radial senses found nothing to taste nor push against with phantom nerves.

How? If his feet pressed against the pathway, how could his sphere-sight tell him it was nothing? If his sphere-sight told him it was nothing, how did he see the stone’s rough undulations and dim reflection when he turned his head and stared down at it? Faster yet he hurled his distant essences through the engulfing emptiness. Warmth and electric essence grew faint, and his form softened and loosened from the fingers towards the shoulders in writhe-torn ribbons. He would not accept it, there could not be—

“Urzen, enough!” Stahrich shouted. Bracing fury cascaded from the war-god and crushed the planelord’s essence back on himself. “Whatever it is you are thinking, stop yourself thinking about it.”

The planelord answered first with silence. He reeled as he solidified once more.

“I would rather return to the Seventh,” he finally said. “I won’t try to pretend this plane doesn’t unsettle me.” Its emptiness rang at him, pressed in. How could nothingness be presence? How could the absence of energy be a force? A sudden show at his vision’s corner caught his eyes. On snapping to stare at it, he found only a swift-shallowing crevice in the imperturbable miasma. “I should also confess,” he added, his eyes flicking from side to side despite himself, “that I can’t feel the Seventh anymore. You’ll have to return us.”

“I cannot,” Stahrich said. The war-god kept up his guard. His plate rattled with each sloping step as his sabatons clacked against the pathway and he turned warding circles.

“What?” Urzen asked. Dizziness and itching tingles overtook him.

Then Stahrich did pause, and meet Urzen’s nine-pupiled eyes. “I cannot,” the war-god stated, and when he spoke there were no echoes. Nor did his steps echo when he started forward again, nor did the shearing frostbite wind make so much as a whisper by its ceaseless pressing. Even in buffeting Urzen’s ears, it made no sound. It was as if nothing existed here to catch and return what noise they made.

There was the pathway, and there were the plumes, yet no residue of emotion issued from them. These things could be seen, yet there was nothing.

Urzen moved with an impulse too deep to express save by acting on it. He thrust his hands out and drove forth a radiant purple wave into the incessant smog. He smiled, and warmed, to see it driven back—except that though he sustained the forceful tide, there came a point when the plumes shifted back no further. Nor did the vibrant shove drive them back equally, for a screen of the plumes clung about the pathway’s edges, level with them as if ducking under Urzen’s blow. And above the plumes flowed up, forward, and inward. Tatters coiled and frayed out just above Stahrich’s helm.

And no matter how deep Urzen drove his will, essence, and power into the plumes, he neither felt pressure nor yielding. There was emptiness.

“Enough,” the war-god said. “This gloom is no enemy you can fight. You are wasting your strength. Forward is our path; we will not escape by retreading older ground.”

“Why don’t you try it?” Urzen said. “Cut across the planes and take us home!”

Stahrich did not answer. He tightened his grip upon his dread sword and strode forward. Urzen watched him for a time, struck speechless, until at last he followed. Urzen fixed his eyes forward, and narrowed his soul’s invisible seep in the same way. He would not acknowledge the emptiness behind him, or to his sides. It must be that the plumes were some sort of enormous glamor, an illusion by a crazed mage who fled into this empty plane and perished after crafting them.

Only, if they were mere rippling light, why could he push them back? Yet if he could push them back, why could he not feel them?

“I must request that you do not look back the way we came,” Stahrich said suddenly.

“I wasn’t about to!” Urzen snapped. “There’s only the same rocks and nothing.” He drew in his ten chiming wings against himself, and shuddered. “Damn you, you know this place begins to terrify me. Must I admit it anew every moment lest you remind me?”

Stahrich answered only with silence.

Urzen could not so easily cast off the sights teasing his eye-corners. And after walking so long through the devouring silence, it became easy to fancy there were infinitesimally faint sounds. Never distinct, never enough to anchor oneself by. Faintest traces left by a mind unfathomable would gnaw less than the anti-resonance of the place. Urzen took to making small sounds—to parting his lips and oh-so-softly clicking his tongue against his teeth, brushing his hands along his arms or coiling his tails around each other. Yet each echoless utterance left the emptiness more pronounced by its absence.

Over and over he told himself that emptiness held no substance, emptiness bore no power. Emptiness could not grow, could not writhe and knot and coil to strike. It was nothing, and nothing could not spread. Urzen need not rage against the plumes and the path, for there was nothing to meet that rage. He need not assail, for there was nothing to threaten him. He told himself these things. Many times he opened his mouth to voice his thoughts to Stahrich. On each attempt the words bled away before they even left his lips. So it was that Urzen said nothing when his folly came home to him:

The dead plane’s great terror lay as much in the certainty that it held nothing for him to affect as the unknowability of its nothingness. The very assurances he scrabbled for became a second clutching horror within him. From their union within his swifter-thrashing psyche spawned a third: now that he accepted the clinging vacuum for it what it was, a vessel expressing the shape of its ancient-made emptiness, a fearful question grew:

If all that surrounded them was but an empty vessel, what was it wrought to contain?

Thence birthed the maddening urge to reshape himself in defiance. To dense his spirit’s power into heart, and lungs, and vessels of flesh and blood simply so that he might know one thing for real again. He gritted his teeth. He shook and thrummed faintly at the strain this urge inflicted. He yearned for a heartbeat thudding in his ears, and if no other echo, then that of breath drawn down his throat.

Yet if he breathed in this place, if he inhaled the emptiness around him… he shied from that thought. With each step grew the grim conviction that the shifting plumes would surge upon him by the very fact of his substance—or would he rather pour out from himself into the infinite nothing until his mind’s traces grew so faint that he sputtered out? There was no knowing, and under such fell humors as festered already within him, that simple ignorance became a hollow talismanic lurk. For was not ignorance the emptiness of knowledge? He thought to ram his own fingers through his eyes and gouge it out. Yet the voids torn in his form would be emptiness too. If he faltered, if he flagged in screaming with his will and color and still-shifting feet that he was something—

Their impossible prison pulled him from that ruin’s brink by its abrupt shift. For as they onward trod, the plumes drained from emberous hues into colorless greys and faint white-light strands. Refractive glimmers rippled through the mist, sometimes catching the hues of planelord, god, or both. Yet shadows still lurked along the pathway. They rippled and rose in erratic waves beneath the settling smog. He wanted to say they were simply the result of the mist’s condensing and diffusion. Could not shadows appear a little too dense, and a little too sharp, and yet occur as naturally as the sunrise? As Urzen glanced down he now saw the pathway as a sheet of black jet with lengthwise razor ridges. Yet for all this, their sharpness made no impression on the purple foot-pads. The only sensations returned came from within each foot as it spread against the resistance of nothing.

No matter what he saw around them, he still saw only emptiness.

The planelord snapped his binary sight back to the path ahead. A terrible sense took hold as of a shuddering—not on his vision, but between it. Seams existed now where no seams should. At some infinitesimal, indefinable staccato frequency, his sight faltered for a fractured instant. And in that instant, as vision stuttered while consciousness persisted, Urzen became aware of what lay in the gaps. He fought for a time not to name it. Yet the more he railed against it, the more it drove in. That crushing, pulsing flicker where for a moment too brief to be certain of witnessing, no perception of reality accompanied his self.

Those moments when Urzen saw and experienced nothing.

He padded along in Stahrich’s wake. His horror at the dead plane’s truths squirmed in his throat, and broke as bilious nausea from his lips to his belly. He fought to focus on the sights his less-supernatural sight told him he saw. Too late–he was forevermore aware of the staccato shuddering and that which rippled into the crevices between simpler vision’s flickered waxings and wanings. The knowledge settled beneath his mindscape’s surface. It felt, perhaps, like a heatless hard mound covered in tickling, reaching roots that pressed and teased along the runnels and furrows of cerebral flesh he did not possess.

He stared wildly at the surround. He needed something, any salvation from the dulling presence nested among his perceptions. His blinks-without-blinks dragged onward. The fiercer he fought against the unnamable knowing, the more it tore into him. Just when he reached the verge of screaming to Stahrich in hopes of aid, a taller darkness formed to his left off the stony path. Snarling, the planelord spun and hurtled through the mist towards it.

“Urzen!” Stahrich yelled. “Return to the path!”

Urzen did not. He was determined to catch and seize upon the shadowy essence—only it grew fainter as he hurtled through the fog towards it, and was gone well before he reached the point where he thought it had stood. He halted there and looked upon the newfound region encasing him. He stood upon a long, narrow bridgeway bereft of rails or supports. Beneath lay the merest suggestion of a chasm. The emptiness still encroached, yet for all his terror of it he felt warmth and some small relief.

“Do you feel better now that you have summoned this change?” Stahrich asked. “What were you chasing, idiot? Where there is linearity there is order, and order can be understood. And if it is evil, it is then the easier to destroy.”

“There was someone or something here,” Urzen said. “A shadow, a silhouette.”

“So?” Stahrich asked, gesturing to shifting darknesses in the surrounding mist. Urzen peered at the reflections. He only then recognized that any of a hundred shapes formed by the pale light’s intermixed distortions and absences could resemble a person.

“It was sharper than those,” he said, “more complex.” Hadn’t it been? He couldn’t be sure any longer. Though the shadow lingered long, it was only for the briefest instant that it resembled a person. Even his demon’s memory, steadier and quicker than that carried in grey matter and neurons, recollected the shadow only as a suggestion of deeper dimness. “I just want something in this place to be real,” he added, glancing about.

“No,” Stahrich said, once again moving forward, “you don’t.”

The planelord opened his mouth to ask the inevitable question. It died on his lips. He followed on behind the war-god. At last he saw distinct forms in the depths below, and looming against the sickened sky of silver glass above: stark swept frameworks, ranked and hollowed, crafted from metal whose natural blackness emerged only as oblique corruption the reflections filling it. They implied concave-walled constructs with intersecting walls as though many cylinders and rectangular rises were transported by a mad whim into the same place. Corners and recessed porticoes jutted out at erratic heights.

Somehow, their sharp silhouettes, like serrations on a hundred blades all stacked and beaten into one bladed mass, created imposing lines against the mist. Piercing through its rivulets and abiding beneath its languid waterfalls, there sometimes appeared larger shapes—always distant and indistinct. Narrow plateaus, blotted chains, trapezoidal arrays. No memory existed of this this place, nor any emotion in its empty sights and movement. Even so, in witnessing it, Urzen could not escape a faint hollowness within his heart—as of visiting some once-warm hearth and seeing only ashes in its chimney’s belly, and peering up through the void where once was its shingled roof.

Laced through it was a subtler sentiment: a heated, insistent tug. A suggested invigoration, a cut to the core. Urzen grew angry with himself, for he could not place it.

They walked along the spindly bridge for many minutes. At times the alien architecture below loomed close, even crowding in, and at others the constructs seemed to fall away through the mist as though some enormous sword clove sibling chasms into the unseen cityscape. Then the bridge swelled out and merged into the uneven landscape that splayed out past it. Its black metal disappeared into dark grey stone. The shifting light and shadows were gone, for the fog ahead hung still and thick. The sudden stillness brought no relief.

It only left Urzen with less to hold his attention, less to distract him from the shuddering seams when his sight’s flow felt split. There lay the emptiness. They marched long through the grey gloom. Again Urzen shifted, and despite Stahrich’s earlier words he spun now with his steps. He saw nothing back the way they’d come: no change, and no longer any sign of the bridge. He swept his wings close against him. His senses and sapience wedged themselves apart, and he fought not to admit that which crept in.

Then he became cognizant of a sound.

A curious gusting noise with a faint underlying ululation—it resembled the sigh of the bellows interwoven with a metallic piping. Each time it came as a single long rush. Each time it faded into silence for one beat, two, three. Each time, it rose anew. Though it did not echo in the impossible emptiness of the dead plane, it did seem faded by distance. This tiniest concession to reality’s laws steeled his once-broken resolve. For a short time, with each step he and Stahrich took, the planelord stood taller. The nothingness still laid heavy upon him like a looming disaster too obvious and inevitable to speak of. Yet now he was at least able to bear its ever-repeating descent with grim dignity. The sound’s source grew closer all throughout their march. At least, it sounded louder. Yet though it emanated from somewhere ahead along the dark grey path, hearing could never isolate it to a single place.

Though of a different tinge, dread creeped back into his breath.

Stark shapes loomed through the fog ahead: shapes with ridged iron roofs and beveled buttresses, winding hollow lengths with irregular perforations. They stretched out from blurry hillocks, jutted upward on ill diagonals, and spiraled out and upward like the spokes of immense, warped wheels from the merest impressions of titanic ground-divots. The sound came from exit-portals that narrowed to spiked outlines and formed parallel arches suggesting snarling mouths. The planelord sagged as he looked on them.

In perfect time with its brethren, each gaping passage passed forth a hollow moaning. They pressed on, and on, and on, and still they were surrounded by wailing punctures in the dark grey stone. The lengthened gasps drifted from somewhere at the other end, deep below or far away, if indeed the source of the construct-gusts could be related to distances and places at all. Yet even when hundreds lay behind, and hundreds or more lay ahead, their repeating exhalations arrived in perfect time with each other. Neither echo nor discordant overlap, nor did any sigh louder than its kindred or at a different pitch.

Urzen gritted his teeth in terror. He forced needless breaths through them as if to drown out the noise from the false throats pockmarking the landscape. Enough! He whirled and leapt into the air, meaning to swoop down the nearest tunnel to its depths and—

“Kill the sound?” Stahrich demanded, for in a pulse of fire and blood the war-god barred his way. “Consider that the best you may expect below is a cavern of surpassing size, and in it, nothing but this wind without a source. What will you do if you find something worse?”

“I’ll rip it to pieces, I’ll scourge it with fire and poison, I’ll smash it until nothing remains!” Urzen screamed, launching himself forward. Stahrich caught him in one huge arm’s crook. “Let me go, damn you! I won’t let them do this to me!”

“There is no ‘them!'” Stahrich shouted back. He snapped his arm forward. Urzen skidded along the ground, feeling it only by the aches and blunt-force tremors that spread through his form with each impact. “Whether or not there is anything down there, you will not kill it—violence is not your domain, planelord. How can you know what lies beneath?”

“I know it hates me,” Urzen said, and as he spoke he knew the words for true.

“Then you should be warier of awaking it to that fact,” Stahrich answered.

Urzen glared at him for a long time: shoulders heaving, wings expanding and contracting, tails lashing. His form’s immortal energies pulsed beneath his skin. For one insane blink, he even wondered who this usurper godling was to order a primordial of the planes, or tell him his place in the universe. “Let’s continue,” Urzen finally said.

“This would be best,” Stahrich agreed.

Forth, once more, through the unmoving mist. Forth past the false breaths—if they were false, if they were not the wordless voice of something colossal and relentless below—while they put a thousand constructs behind them, and a thousand more. Though the loudness persisted, its character at last began to shift. It lost the cadence and timbre of breath. It molded into metallic humming like the tinny vibrations left behind by the gong’s last clash. The grey fog thickened until it clung so close that Urzen could not see his feet when he set them down. He pressed close behind Stahrich, and still could barely see him.

His body’s glows should still light the shrouds from the other side. They did not; his own light disappeared from him. The same senses that in other planes told Urzen of emotion, and invisible force, and all light’s spectrums that mortal eyes could not perceive, and let him guess a material’s properties by its feel under his soul’s touch—they told him that still, there was neither fog nor stone underfoot. Only nothing. And when his feet vanished within the fog, his glow, energy that he felt as an ever-changing second skin around him—he could no longer feel that glow either. The same happened if he spread his wings too far, or stretched his tails. Even his hands appeared half-lost if he reached out.

When they reached the reverberant sound’s new incarnation, its relative clearness against the fog came as mockery. It was a maze of dull-gleaming metalloids. Each hollow set of walls featured beams and tubes. Three layers formed each section: an outer with flattened faces and rounded-over edges, a mid-section crafted from narrow connecting bands that warped and bent like soft saw blades as the outer layer pressed towards the inner, and this last: in-facing blades. These expressed something like sound as Urzen understood it. As he and Stahrich passed parallel to each edge, the metallic hum’s clamor peaked. Yet still, no echoes passed from the framework maze into the fog. The vibrations came through the metal in waves as though brought by successive gale-winds.

There was nothing like wind, of course.

Though they could barely see their own limbs, the maze’s visibility shifted with each step. The furthest spars looming through the fog never seemed closer than fifty feet. Yet, at times they all but crashed into an in-facing edge even as they looked at, and strode towards, those most distant segments. In cursing and snapping his gaze about after the ninth such near miss, Urzen saw what must be the maze’s heart: a towering hollow-ground spike, silvery, that gleamed with mirror polish. The reflections shining its surfaces bore no relationship to the maze or fog. Urzen forced himself not to understand them.

“Perhaps if we reach that thing, we’ll reach the exit,” he said, feigning determination.

“Perhaps,” Stahrich said. The war-god attempted no such facade.

So they paced, pivoted, and dodged the maze’s singing razor walls. They moved all the more slowly for the caution needed to navigate it. Several times they found what seemed like a steady pathway towards the distant spike. Each time, the maze’s turns forced them to turn back. To turn about. To turn through brief tunnels whose semi-distant walls looked clearer in the fog than they did to each other or their shifting limbs to themselves. All the while the reverberations passed through the metal. Each surge skipped over the hollow spaces where they walked and arrived an instant later on the next side. Urzen and Stahrich exchanged glances, sometimes, or exclamations. They barely spoke.

After the fourth such setback, Urzen cried out in irritation and launched himself skyward.

“Damn you, boy, cease that!” Stahrich roared.

Urzen ignored him and flew on. He turned through the air that his deeper senses told him was emptiness. He fought against the sudden sight-shudderings and the nothingness seen between unbroken glimpses of the gleaming spike. He drew down his brows. Hastened by resolve and fright alike, he hurtled faster and faster towards it. He measured his ever-greater speed by occasional glimpses of the maze, and the fractured sound wafting up from each humming metalloid layer as he blitzed past it.

Yet he drew no closer upon the spike.

He snarled, and shouted, and flapped his ten wings all the harder. He called upon his power until purple-tinted radiance burned out from his limbs in cloud-breaking rays. Yet they did not break the fog, and still he drew no closer upon the spike. He shook his head in disbelief, again seams opened where no seams should be, and then he had but a severed dream’s echo in warning before the metalloid frames exploded out from the fog before him. He shredded and howled and tumbled in purple gleams lost among the fog. He felt no cold nor sharpened hardness. It was all nothing, yet agony in hues of itching fire and crushing tears sprang out through his form. Sight and sound warped and went dark in one eye, on one ear’s side, and then in their entirety as one collision briefly obliterated his head.

Finally, he came to a rest against a wisp of solidity.

His eyes reformed, and he saw one of Stahrich’s giant plate legs looming before him. “This,” the war-god intoned, with a rumble of annoyance, “is as anticipated.”

Urzen leapt upright. From his feral eyes to his fingers tensed into clawing so hard at the air that they vibrated to his head and tails thrashing with fury, he screamed. He snapped both hands out, angling his wing-tips and tails to match their aim, and from every single point he blasted radiant lavender beams into the nearest framework. An instant later the energies dissipated in a cacophonous shockwave all throughout the maze. Metalloid squalls consumed his continued scream and the suggestion of a bellow from Stahrich.

When at last he subsided, the vibrations continued for a while longer.

Stahrich sighed. “I hope that was worth any trouble it causes, you idiot.”

“How can you act so calm?” Urzen demanded, shouting up towards the origin of the titanic god’s voice in the fog overhead. “No plane should be able to resist one of us, let alone two—and to make our own senses lie to us that it isn’t here, does that not bother you?”

“It is a greatly bothering foe indeed, this empty place,” Stahrich answered. “Have you considered perhaps that it does not solve this problem of bothering to rage at it?” Sireless Glory’s blade moaned down from on high and clunked, flat against antlers, atop Urzen’s head. “Control your emotions. There is far too much nothing for you to fill it.”

“And what about you?” Urzen demanded.

“To answer that question is our last resort. We shall be without hope already if I do so,” Stahrich said, and again resumed his march. Urzen, though seething, followed on.

Soon the planelord’s wrath burned out. Once more, fear coiled out in its place. The maze’s reverberations took on a new and terrible resonance. Urzen thought he heard the beginnings of an echo in them now—an echo always coming from somewhere near the spire, but never its precise location. He was so enthralled by it that he walked into Stahrich, or rather into one of Stahrich’s shinguards, when the war-god changed direction suddenly.

“What are you doing?” Urzen asked. “The spike is this way.”

“I find this unlikely, as I am staring at it,” Stahrich said.

Urzen peered around the armored calf, doing his utmost to ignore the emptiness where he should smell blood, smoke, and scalding iron. Past it, he saw the spike. “So am I,” he said.

Stahrich shifted one foot. “Each of us will make a half-turn right without breaking his line of sight to the spike, so that his left shoulder is pointed straight at it,” he said. “When this is done, I will look over my right shoulder. You will hold your gaze until I say to look over your right shoulder. Understood?”

“Understood,” Urzen said. His dulcet voice emerged as a croak. Jostling each other, they completed their turns. He heard a clatter as Stahrich turned to look in the same direction as him. “Do you see it?” he asked.

“Ja. I see it,” Stahrich said. “Now, look over your right shoulder.” And Urzen did, and though the mazeworks all around them remained the same as it had been when they initiated the maneuver, there was the spike. “Do you see it?” Stahrich asked.

Urzen swallowed fear. “I see it,” he said.

Some seconds passed in silence as each looked over one shoulder, then the other.

“I think, maybe,” Urzen said, “I made a mistake. I think maybe that spike is more a hindrance than a help.”

“I think, likely, you are correct,” Stahrich said. “We move.”

Urzen answered only by keeping close on the war-god’s heels when Stahrich moved again. The maze continued its new pattern of double reverberations. Though Urzen did his utmost not to see it, the spike sometimes appeared closer, sometimes further away. At one point their journey through the maze’s warping frames brought them within what looked like a hundred paces of it—that, or it was a hundred kilometers tall. So too did the secondary nexus of reverberations sound far closer.

With each shudder that ran through the metal maze, it sounded a little closer yet.

“Stahrich,” Urzen whispered, and for the first time he feared something more than the god he walked beside. The war-god kept the same placid pace. The hums bounced closer.

“Eyes forward, boy,” Stahrich said. “Eyes forward. Do not look back. Cover your ears if you must, but keep the ranks and the rhythm of the march. Haste will ruin us.”

The reverberations were almost upon them. Any moment now that second source would reach them, and when it did—would there be a foe to fight? Would Urzen face some unspeakable violation of natural law that might die by their efforts? Or would it be a deeper, more insidious nothing, and in its coming merge with him, and make him nothing, too? He felt clawing all along his back. It tapped up the nape of his neck. It ran over the power-formed vertebrae into the base of his skull, and as it did the thrumming came—

Then they entered another tunnel, and the thrumming was far distant again. The maze shuddered more suddenly, and the reverberations came through it faster from both directions. The second source drew towards them. Nothingness bloused itself swifter and swifter into the seams behind Urzen’s sight. He opened his mouth to cry out in alarm. Still, Stahrich held his pace. Though the planelord wept within himself, he kept it too.

All at once they stepped out into a place free entirely of the fog. When Urzen looked over his shoulder the maze lay behind them, and the distant spire with it. He sank to the ground and furled his wings around him as he laughed with bitter relief. Stahrich drew a deep breath and shouldered Sireless Glory. When the zweihänder‘s blade struck its master’s plate, echoes birthed from that clang and clatter. That raucous wallop seemed as beautiful to Urzen as a lover’s cry of ecstasy.

“Gather your courage,” Stahrich said. “We have found a place to brace ourselves. It is not, however, a place we can stay forever, nor reach home from.”

Urzen sobered. With swift-renewing dismay he stared all around. They stood upon rust-colored ground in a liminal space. Overhanging crags and shattered boulders filled it farther than the eye could see along its longest axis. It soared upwards to what might as well be infinity, yet behind and ahead it ran no more than twenty meters. It was a band like displaced horizon between the looming wall of fog behind them, and abysmal gloom ahead. No reverberations crept through the metalloid maze in the too-still fog. Thus their echoes, only just returned to them, seemed to Urzen an awful new portent. He hunched over and strained his eyes at the soil. Its color was that of dried blood. He sat on it, legs crossed, and cradled himself in the silence.

Still, time passed. He stood once more. Without looking to Stahrich, he marched forward. Without a word of reproach, the war-god fell in behind him. The gloom behaved, at first glance, like natural gloom. Except, there was no setting sun behind them to cast the purplish-red twilight that sickened slowly until it became midnight far ahead. Where, in a true dusk, the sharp-sided rises ahead would carry more of the dying light upon their upper heights, here their tallest reaches were lost in the gloom.

The pair advanced some distance further before Urzen noticed another tiny, horrid impossibility. Though he could see his own purple aura as well as the glow of Stahrich’s bloody might, neither set of energies cast light on the landscape. Nor even did their light illuminate themselves: each aura began and ended with itself, having no power to catch upon or reflect any physical thing. By the time the planelord and the war-god walked beneath rising stonework that might form an archway far above, the gloom rendered all traces of it as muddled hallucinations on the oily shadow above.

Now their echoes became a curse. The long-absent successor sounds lanced at Urzen’s hearing. Each little repetition of his own footsteps startled him. He often turned by reflex, rustling his robes, chiming and clattering his wings, and these echoes mixed with Stahrich’s until the overwrought demon imagined there were a hundred others in the shadow around them. Still, they walked on. At some point they entered into a nightspawn landscape populated by many lights that, like those they wore about themselves, cast no light.

Some sprouted as azure fires whose shapes suggested that they poured from crevices or slashes in the land. Others jabbed up towards the sky as bronzy or scarlet spills. White lightning and static clouds and light-motes like infinitesimal stars speckled the gloom. All the area should shiver with clashing light. Instead, all about them was gloom. Urzen knew that they must be on some form of broad, straight path. Its impression could be seen by the unbroken gloom directly ahead, a straight shear between the unreflecting light-smears on either side. Perhaps it marked a triumphal avenue from the dead plane’s unfathomable halcyon.

Urzen shuddered and tore his mind from that thought. He daren’t dream. He feared that if he did, in the ever-present sight-seams when his mind shifted from seeing the nothingness of darkness to the nothingness of nothing, he might glimpse that fell breed which could inhabit so hopeless a realm as he now traversed.

Secondary darknesses often interrupted the empty lights. Some seemed sweeping and broad and solid. Some held cracks through which the same light might be traced for a time. At regular intervals a secondary darkness, flanked as this one was by azure fire and white lightning on each side, intersected their path from the left and continued on to the right. In its smallest forms, the lesser darkness was but huddled lumps whose silhouettes indented an azure fire’s base, or obscured a bronzy up-spill’s lowest rays.

They passed none that lay close enough to judge their shapes with certainty. Urzen could not help but fancy that some spindly shapes with shifting shade-flows atop them must be broken banners. Sometimes he even imagined that a shape leaning in profile against an implicit wall was framed by a broken wingtip’s outline, or a pair of horns. In this he knew that he only projected himself onto the abyss in hopes of creating meaning from madness. The oppressive darkness made fertile ground for self-suggestion.

Eventually their echoes changed, growing tinnier. The last of the lightless fires and unreflective rays fell away into the black horizon behind them. Eventually they lost even these. Urzen strove to force words from his mouth. He could not. Save for Stahrich’s crimson fire still outlining the war-god, and the clank of his mighty companion’s sabatons against the iron-like avenue, Urzen would soon have descended into madness. These few distractions saved him, but only barely. For he was left alone with his sight’s limitations and his mind’s rebounding skip from one impossibility to the next.

He felt at every instant as if he’d hurried into a room only to forget his purpose there on arrival, or been struck suddenly by a shockwave and lost all senses in its sundering. Though all around him he felt nothing, within himself there began a faint coolness. It deepened in the many meters, or kilometers, they walked. A lapping sound grew slowly on either side, and still they walked. That lapping pitched down and grew in potency until it became a slow-rolling thunder. Meanwhile the coolness grew into a bone-needling chill.

“Imagine something as banal as a sea here,” Urzen said. His words, meant as light-hearted, emerged in a ragged rasp. He rubbed his hands along his arms and told himself that doing so made him feel warmer.

“Indeed,” Stahrich said. “This plane is out of all proportion with it.”

The pitiable jest resounded and echoed through something ahead of them. Even though the frigid currents within his form deepened, Urzen felt a tiny flame of hope to see glimmers ahead. That hope soon died. The glimmers never multiplied to more than faint yellowish things. The fiercest wavered, less lively than the reflected glimpses of a guttering candle in age-tarnished brass. They shifted and rippled and distorted as he and Stahrich pressed forward. And the negative space whose oblique surfaces and undersides the glimmers clung to? It clawed up, and up, and up past all reason.

As his comprehension of the immense umbral citadel accelerated, so did Urzen’s horror. Flanged buttresses and bridge supports seemed the more brutal for their elegance. Bleak-tower bastions and tiered, peaked roofs, fluted walls whose half-seen forms echoed the cruel beauty of Stahrich’s own Gothic plate, statues perceptible only as fragmentary silhouettes and the suggestions of heads etched upon the infinite shadow by glimmers—there was no end to this place! Its gargantuan scope crashed down upon him.

And Urzen found then that the boreal cold within him was become sharp as a hundred blades whose biting within him was never fire but an endless arctic gnaw. He discovered a sensation as of freezing wind flow down his gullet. A wind that originated not through his mouth, but already halfway past it below the level of his jaw. And what he felt filling his throat above that glacial seething’s improbable entry was—he snapped out his wings and took off ere the damning thought struck home.

“Don’t you dare—” Stahrich began.

Urzen stopped and flapped about to face him. “Please,” he said. His voice emerged half-hollow, and he fought against a choking tension formed by his own throbbing throat. “I know it won’t be different this time. But you understand I have to hope. I have to hope that if not this time, then the next, or else…”

Stahrich sighed. “Very well. I will abide here. Your glow, at least, I can still see.”

So Urzen sped upward without another word. As when he chased the spike, he soared ever swifter. The glimmers passing by became only stippled streaks and instant convergences as he crested the first level of the enormous citadel. Another passed, and another, each passage more fleeting until Urzen hoped that he might soon find an end. A thunderstroke blast passed behind him. Or he thought one must have, for his raw velocity must be enough by now to shatter the sound-barrier. Yet even as the lines from one level came to their last points and fell away, more swept in from either side. Though its sharper impacts faded away, the roar of the sunless sea below never dissipated altogether.

The quicksilver glints suggested heretofore unseen architecture: interlocking causeways soaring and looping around each other at such mad angles that no footbound creature could ever hope to tread them, crenellations like splintered shafts and frozen detonations whose points birthed sharp-faced rods that in turn upheld faceted ramparts. Whether Urzen truly saw any such impressions or only concocted them in his own fevered imagining to explain the entropic damnation of endless shadow and frail light he flew along, he could not then say. He feared that if he learned the answer, he would strive to the ends of all redemption to be free of its reaving.

At last he drew to a halt, and as he did so his hypersonic flight’s echo caught him up and passed him by in a mournful roll. He looked on the glimmers before him for a heartbeat too long. He began to understand that he had imagined nothing, that indeed his imagination could never have wrought the dread edifice before him. In that instant he hurled himself back the way he’d come, flying faster than ever before. At last he saw a crimson dot far below. Again he snapped out his wings to slow himself. He succeeded well enough that when he plummeted towards Stahrich the war-god caught him and played out the momentum with a low spin and drop to one knee.

Stahrich set him back on the metalwork ramp. He did not ask whether Urzen had found the ends of the citadel, and Urzen gave no answer. The freezing blades cut deeper. They moved forward again, and up not into light but deeper into its unmaking. Undersides of balconies like broken-off claws with impressions of tendon. Slit-windows with hooded frames as of beaks. Serrated ribbing on dour halls with too-high arched doors opening on utter blackness. Such was the vision and the craft that the dead plane’s makers decreed. Often its meshing lines and colliding bulwarks left no choice but to look on it more closely. It pressed down as if the tightening alleys, passages, and vaulted tunnels it formed would slam inward all at once, and slam again, as many thousand times as necessary to kill a planelord—so too a god.

Their every step summoned forth a thousand siblings, and they no longer spoke lest the echoes overwhelm them. The unseen sea behind them filled every corridor with its tumultuous waves’ besieging roar. It was only in tracing the sourceless gleams all around them that Urzen understood. It was shadow that ruled here, and light that fled, and cowered, and dared dwell only where the darkness did not. To flee now was pointless. Here at the heart of darkness they would find their escape, one way or the other.

Bitter cold and crushing terror hung so heavy on him that Urzen the Gossamer no longer contemplated flight. Their weight put the effort of such conceptions outside the meager will he possessed at each instant. So though it would be harder by the end, it was easier in each abyssal juncture of their journey to continue forward. He started to see other things suggested by the glimmers around them, even as they grew dimmer at their brightest and the weakest disappeared. Phantasmal gateways and broken lines that might be the corners of forgotten furniture or the shoulders of horrors lurked behind disintegrating window frames. Through a crevice or a door, he saw them.

They appeared for an instant before the two invaders’ march carried them past. And in truth the glimmers grew so few and so faint that Urzen could not really have seen any such thing. Even so the image burned into his overburdened mind: slab after slab stretching off along the monumental curvature of the shadow-citadel, each row upon its own terrace slightly higher than the last. Faint clawed fingers rested on riven breasts. The faintest recollected lines flowed along angular faces in profile. Atop their heads—sprouting from their heads, had there been?—as for the other forms he thought he witnessed, the protrusions and projections expanding those countless bodies reclining back and back and back through the phantasmagoric slab-ways—those must be naught but his own crazed effort to inflict meaning on the meaningless sprawl of faint-tracing glimmers.

Laid upon the breast of the nearest lay this: a jagged heap like a miniature mountain that might just have been a cloven helm. Sharp curving shapes with a splintered middle that implied a broken sword. Then the merest hints of a cloven jaw with two auxiliary mouths opening out and downward through its lines to either side of its lips, and from the reposing brow something too horrifying in its import to call by its name: pointed, framing lines ran parallel with the figure’s face, lines that all too closely resembled—

Then he passed the visions by.

He only noticed the echoes of his own frantic scream when Stahrich said, “Whatever you think you saw, it cannot have been there. These false-lights are too faint to create clear shapes now. It is common for mortals to hallucinate, for their minds to fill in unexpected emptiness with horrors. It is not impossible, nor shameful, that after all this you start to do the same. Of course they are terribly familiar things—they come from you.”

“Stahrich,” Urzen asked, his voice sounding calm only for such force of horror that even instinct would never suffice to derive speech’s emotion from the soul’s nightmare, “why did you assume that I screamed because of something I saw?”

Stahrich was silent.

Finally they passed beneath an incalculable behemoth gate. Their echoes followed them only as muffled wraiths that knew no kinship with whatever leering structure cradled the darkness now around them. Too terrified even to twist his head lest his roving gaze invite some abyssal darkness within darkness to enter it, Urzen stayed close by Stahrich. The sunless sea’s dirge abandoned them, as did its echoes, as did the last of the glimmers. Though they walked, it was no more than moving their feet and allowing them to come down again. No more force or determination remained. Beside Stahrich’s crimson outline, Urzen’s once-bright purple bobbed and wafted like pigment swamped in oil.

Still, where in ages past Urzen felt lust and heat and magic’s spry current, where he smelled spice and wine and lovers’ scents, all was empty. Where once he heard music and laughter and the stamp of dance, all was empty. Where once he tasted hearty stew, heady drugs, and the tender wetness of many a flushing bud and stalwart shaft, all was empty.

Within himself, all was cold, and soon would be empty.

Then came a memory of light. Yet Urzen felt no hope to see faint shapes growing larger ahead. When they arrived his desolation was rewarded. For though the light picked out sparse engravings on faded red-orange tiles between iridescent black-metal inlays, though it appeared equal to the full light of day where it highlighted the walkway’s core crafted from a black stony substance with mottled silvery sub-patterns like frozen smoke, and sometimes clutched at the feet of statues in alcoves to each side, this light was the most pitiable and ephemeral of all. Light fled from darkness on the umbral citadel’s exterior. Though too weak ever to defeat it there, it still found small freedom and some scant refuge.

Here the light served only to hint at the nightmares whose true scope the darkness concealed. It was a curated thing. No glows emanated from those few places its master allowed it to touch, nor did the faintest glimmer pass within the polished black metal over the absolute border where daytime brightness became pitch black. Here, the light was but an ornament to it. And though seeming radiance descended in broad golden beams from ornate slits in the ceilings above and at matching intervals on the walls to each side, the rays faded before touching the floor. They slanted outward, pointing back the way the two intruders had come, as though the light fought to flee.

It could not, for no illumination from those hapless slits bolstered that upon the floor, nor the statues, nor the huddled planelord and the silent god beside him. Still, Urzen and Stahrich marched forward. In that march’s course they passed into a region where the daytime glows disappeared, and the darkness allowed that the light around it would be more diffuse. The light became gloaming dimness, just enough to make out vaulted pillars and the lower portions or half-visible bowls of braziers before total shadow swallowed them. Only the faintest shapes emerged among frescoes and engraved metal plates on the bronze walls. Reflections existed only as color, not light, and no matter how polished, no piece that Urzen and Stahrich passed dared to show any acknowledgement of them.

Now, finally and irretrievably, they came to the dead plane’s unfettered truth.

The vaulted ceiling above swept suddenly out and up, supported by pillars forged from the gleaming black metal rather than shaped of stone. They looked like immeasurable spears driven down by the unending shadow above. The walkway broadened, yet in so doing drew more attention to the bottomless chasms on either side. Rising up from them came thrumming, reverberating blade-constructs wider than the height of the mightiest galleon from beam to masthead. The thunderous vibrations that issued from them were accompanied by an infinity of rings in ever-shaking blood-orange lightning.

The rings pulsed and spiked all along themselves as if in response to the humming’s shifting pitch. They plunged far into the darkness below and above. Rank upon rank they hovered, forever bound, until at both ends they looked like the coronas of sickened stars peering out from behind a deathless hundredfold eclipse. More even than the countless gusting passageways—it felt like an eternity since Urzen and Stahrich passed between them—these reverberations sounded akin to voices. But if such they were, they sang a song without any words he could understand. The shuddering blades pulsed an endless low pitch that the deepest of human throats could not quite match. The mournful grandeur driven by its slow swells and shifts surpassed the heaviest and most morose wordless dirges that of old were sung by the Gothic choirs of Stoßdär.

The cold filling Urzen’s flagging energy reverberated in harmony with it. He knew that for this wicked place, it was a hymn.

And, upon a platform framed the spars from which its shape flowed upward into tapered roofing like a sharp conical fang, and downward to an underside to match, there waited a throne upon which sat a statue. The failing captive light ebbed from existence just behind it. Of the throne it illuminated only the flanged arms and tiered base. Shadow took the upper margins, just as shadow mantled the statue’s shoulders and obscured most of the fluted armor and elaborate robes carved upon it. So too did shadow obscure the guard and scabbard-fittings upon the immense curved greatsword the statue balanced against the floor before it—one that by its height would stand tall as its obsidian bearer should they ever rise from that woeful rest.

Of the statue’s visage, only its lower jaw and mouth could be seen. The jaw narrowed to a chin so sharp and fine as to resemble a spearhead’s ridgeline and flats meeting at the point, yet in its back-sweeping lines it evoked the steely prow of an ancient dreadnought battleship. The mouth above the jaw spread wide, neither grinning nor snarling in exposing ranked razor fangs. Shadow hid the statue’s upper lip, and cheeks, and all else.

Side by side, Urzen and Stahrich trod out along the broadening walkway until they stood before the monstrous statue’s armored feet. As high as Stahrich towered above Urzen, higher by far did the statue tower above him. His full stature barely brought his helm’s hunting-shark crest level with the effigy’s knee. Engraved symbols ran along the throne’s base past its sharp-toed sabatons. The script looked cruel and beautiful in its sharp lines and abrupt twists. They spoke an unspeakable, heretical familiarity to Urzen.

Shaking himself, he looked up towards the umbra-shrouded visage. “Stahrich, we have to light this statue,” he said, though the notion wracked him with terror.

“What madness is this?” the war-god demanded. “If there is any condition that will let us to leave without pointless battle, it is to witness, to accept this place for its nature, and pass on. We have brought too much light already. Let us be gone.”

“No!” Urzen shouted. He recovered himself. “No,” he added, insistent and stunning himself by his calm. “We never passed outside the lattice. If this plane is within it, and touches Canno in any way, then it could be a threat. We must know so we can prepare.”

“Emptiness is not a threat unless you try forcing it to be full,” Stahrich said. He shifted, however, canting his head slowly and staring up at the statue. He tightened his grip on Sireless Glory.

“You don’t know that,” Urzen said. “This plane seized us without either of us knowing it was here. If we leave it without seeing what’s inside those shadows…” He knew, by the same primal instinct that taught mortals to make love, that whatever hid within the darkness was paramount. He could not shake an equal intuition that merging that primal truth with his conscious self would unmake him. “… we have to know,” he finished.

Stahrich stared at him for a long time. The resonant hymn vibrated through the shrine to darkness. Urzen’s purple energies wavered in time with it. “Very well,” the war-god said, “you may make the first effort. I will escalate by my own power if it is right and necessary.”

Urzen nodded and twisted slowly to confront the effigy. He imagined that with each slight shift of his body, it tensed its fingers on the immortal throne and rose higher. He knew these were but a long-strained mind’s demands—that after so much strife, some faint impression must be made on the indifferent watcher. To assume some sinister hand closed about them was easier than to accept all this as the artifice of absolute nothingness. The planelord shifted. He clutched and loosened his fingers. He shook equally from the cold within him and an uncanny desire to fold in on himself and submit before the effigy.

Then he ground his teeth. As in the reverberant maze he brought every finger, tail-tip, and wingtip into alignment bearing on the dead plane’s sole solidified inhabitant. He drove purple radiance towards it. His power’s heat tingled within him. The cold departed from his deep form’s depths, and he forgot his fear in hurling his rays straight at the shadows shrouding the effigy’s dire brows. For that single instant he felt riotous exultation—

Then the rays frayed, broke apart, and disappeared without reaching the statue. Within moments their last auroral wisps dissipated into the unbreachable darkness. Urzen shook himself, thrashing with denial. Yet it seemed to him that the more energy he drew from his form’s immortal substance and blasted towards the effigy, the deeper gathered the shadows behind it, and behind himself and Stahrich. The statue itself neither darkened nor lightened. The fanged maw lay dormant. The mammoth sword balanced beneath its master’s unseen, steadying hand in the umbra somewhere above. The war-god stepped up behind Urzen. He clasped Sireless Glory before him in salute. Shining forth from its outward flats, he drove his own bloody essences like a red sun’s roar at the effigy. With him came the faint echoes of battle-cries, blades scraping armor, and clattering ranks.

Stahrich’s crimson rays frayed, broke apart, and disappeared without a trace.

There was no denying now that the darkness coursed inward towards them. It swallowed the hymnal constructs soaring up from the bottomless pits, and the imprisoned lightning adorning them. It swallowed the gleaming pillars plunged down by the high shadow, and the central platform’s reaches. By the foregone moment when Urzen and Stahrich dropped their hands and each met the other’s gaze, naught remained to sight where once brooded the shrine to darkness. Only the statue remained, and the striated oval of dim-lit floor before it in which the planelord and the war-god stood. If the thrumming constructs still sang their metallic choral, its sound no longer reached them. Existence contained but silence, the statue, and themselves.

“Urzen,” Stahrich said, with utmost calm, “as there is now endless darkness behind us, and endless darkness ahead, we might as well seek an escape forward. Do you agree?”

“I agree,” Urzen managed, his voice hoarse and hollow.

“I will carry you, then, that we are not separated,” Stahrich said. Nor did the demon protest when the war-god stooped down and lifted him in one arm’s crook. “If this shrine is still there, if it is built as its shapes and symmetry suggested, then there will be a path flowing out directly behind the statue.”

“And if there is not?” Urzen asked.

“We can survive a fall,” Stahrich said. “Let us assume a fall is the worst.”

The war-god gave Urzen no time to brace himself before plunging into the absolute darkness. And the instant that he did, everything disappeared. Stahrich’s blood-and-fire and Urzen’s sparkling purples. The stamp of sabatons on ancient floor. All sense ended. All the dead plane’s nothingness hammered against Urzen. He screamed but heard nothing. If he thrashed and fell from the war-god’s grasp, he heard nothing. If Stahrich stepped wrong and sent them both tumbling into the endless depths surrounding the effigy’s platform, it made no difference, for all around them was nothing. No cold existed for Urzen, nor his form’s coursing energies. All was emptiness and nothing.

So too, now, was he.

He splintered and tattered. Forlorn memories of an amber lady and a vibrant plane spilled out from him. All his ages as Planelord of the Seventh were come to nothing.

Then sound returned to the universe with a sabaton’s crash on ancient stone, and Urzen would have screamed if the unbeckoned muggy heat in his body had not reduced his voice to ragged, watery spluttering. He looked over Stahrich’s armored shoulder, again seen as a silhouette, and up at the infinite reaches of the umbral citadel behind them. The sunless sea’s crash filled his hearing. Its moaning echoes tumbled over the fluted walls and throughout the flanged buttresses. It carried howling notes now—a storm-wind frothing. And it sounded, though for each time too briefly to name as certain, as though some further metallic ululation now answered the waves’ crash from the city’s depths.

Urzen lost his focus on these senses. A stranger one assailed him. It compounded the dripping heat that filled his form. It was a smell defying all explanation. It clogged his nostrils and he tasted its cloying pungent ache. Stahrich’s grip seemed too fluid against him. As the war-god pressed onward, something clattered onto the stonework below. Other things joined it, sometimes with a dull squish, sometimes with a splatter.

The demon recognized, then, that the impossible smell came from himself.

“Look there,” Stahrich growled, “an exit.” Urzen twisted his head and felt it lighten as something slid away from his eyes. It was just visible as a jagged outline against deep red bleeding over a far horizon in the landscape otherwise marked by the same unreflective lights that lined the shadow-city’s approach: a doorway. Its angular sides and ridged prongs exemplified the cruel plane’s works. Many flanged archways connected by bladed frameworks formed an inconstant tunnel around them as they approached it.

Within its depths lurked shadow—yet, shadow with faint glows lacing it.

Stahrich’s gauntlet rasped in Urzen’s ears as the war-god shifted Sireless Glory. The sound distorted, bubbly and pulsing as though heard half-underwater. The suffusing warmth rose. It was overpowering now. It swam through his eyes and erased all sensation of his throat and mouth. When the war-god drove his undulating blade before him in a headlong lunge, and bloody power streamed back from its pierce into the portal-door, Urzen felt nothing but warmth. He rocked back, head lolling against the war-god’s shoulder. The staccato shudder glanced constantly from his failing sight. Even now it opened seams where no seams should be. And in the final instant of their flight from the dead plane, as for a single blink all the umbral citadel’s distant glimmers, and the azure fires, and the white lightning were washed out by a flash of nothing, Urzen saw it—

Spread out behind the just-vanished citadel, impossible in scale, something existed within the emptiness. By its presence it made both the abyssal darkness and the nothingness one. All around it the latter crept into the former and overlapped it as a mad jarring rattle against sight and psyche. It appeared only in profile, but defied denial. It rose above a jawline that narrowed to a spearhead’s ridge of a chin from a start like a steely prow: a fanged maw that neither smiled nor snarled, but waited to awaken.

Then they passed through the portal. Emptiness surrendered them at last, and with a furious bellow Stahrich clove the portal in twain behind them. He knelt on the floor in Urzen’s lavish throne room. The Seventh Plane’s coursing energies enveloped the ailing planelord. Yet though the muggy warmth began to fade, it did not fade swiftly enough. When Urzen’s retainers poured into the chamber, cheerful Murabe was the first. Their lovely face with its rainbow-shard facets peeled open in a wordless cry of horror.

None ever said what they saw in that instant as they looked upon Urzen, nor did he ever ask. Later he knew only that they bore him away to his rooms. For many days he fought against the cloying warmth. It ebbed slowly at first. With all the Seventh’s energies embracing him, his form at last regained its old shapes. The impossible things wrought of his essence by the dead plane were finally undone. In time it passed that Urzen the Gossamer walked his domain once more, and drank of all its sights and sounds.

Yet there were those who saw that this color never again looked as vibrant, nor his radiance as bright, as before the ill-fated journey. Sometimes he encountered Azukai. She never again spoke to him as harshly as on the day of his departure. For whatever they spoke about, whatever else they quarreled over, there always came a moment when the zhumozhe looked on him with a paring eye. Then her gaze would grow pitying. Somehow she knew why Urzen would never reclaim the vibrance he wore before the dead plane’s embrace. And in lonely hours when he could not bear to seek a lover’s touch, Urzen brooded over the truth he now knew:

That if ever they woke in that darkness beyond the final stars, things lurked against which no god could offer salvation.

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