The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Three Final

Hello, readers mine! Another day brings us another final-form chapter as a preview for the The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear. I’m picking up some speed in my line-edits now. If all goes well, I’ll have the book out before Christmas.

As always with these previews, I encourage you to read Making Points, Mental Health, and the Necromancer’s Vengeance Series (northbornsword.blog) before giving me your time or money.

If you still want to support me once you know the sorry background of all this, then please pick up the first book of the series: Smashwords – The Necromancer and the Revenant: Resurrected Edition – a book by Caerllyn McCurdy. Reviews and word of mouth are greatly appreciated–I’m an indie author, no marketing team, no money to put into ads, just me.

Now then, who’s ready to see a demon lord lose his mind to the uncanny horror of a dead plane? Why so upset, Urzen? You’re making such a big deal out of… nothing.

Chapter Three

Nothing Left Behind

“Of that dread lineage none remain. Never speak their name. Too dire was the war. Too dear its cost. Too narrow the victory to risk need of another.” -a tome with its author’s name, true title, and much of its contents gouged out; nicknamed the Umbra Potentia and sealed deep within the Vaults of Telon-Brocca

Roiling plumes, flecked by coursing shapes like obsidian shards, swam about a striated stony pathway. Dusky 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. Hazy hard angle spars. Clawing accretions. Ragged silhouettes and jagged ranked prongs.

And the essence Urzen felt from all this sight, from the press of a heatless 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. His resolution failed the first test during the half-second wait for the war-god’s answer. He convinced himself by surging panic that the shapes scratching towards his peripheral sight were clawed fingers. He whirled. He found only smoke, wisping away.

“I have noticed,” the Stahrich said. He 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. 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. The terror of his own folly boiled in his gullet. He’d come within seconds of shattering himself trying to fill the void around them. And to prove what? To whom? To nothing? Each time he tamped his fear down, it leveled off ever so slightly higher than the time before. Always a little closer to bursting forth. Boiling out. Leaving nothing behind.

“I would rather return to the Seventh,” Urzen 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.

Then Stahrich did pause. The chasm behind the visor faced Urzen’s nine-pupiled eyes. “I cannot,” the war-god stated. 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.

They vibrated like sand following vibrations on a dish. Sickle-shapes, hatchet-angles. 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 waste 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. Fix the eyes forward. Narrow the soul’s invisible seep in the same way. Never acknowledge the emptiness behind, or to the 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 anti-resonance. Urzen took to making small sounds. Parting his lips and oh-so-softly clicking his tongue against his teeth. Brushing his hands along his arms. Coiling his tails around each other. Each echoless utterance left the emptiness more pronounced by its absence.

“This isn’t the way of things,” Urzen said, glancing about. “A power must rule here. Power must rule, and someone must hold it, or…”

“Or what?” Stahrich asked. “Would you appeal? Would the power listen?”

The Planelord of the Seventh went silent again.

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. 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 in defiance. To dense power into heart, and lungs, and vessels of flesh and blood simply to know one thing for real again. Teeth gritted. Shakes and thrumming faintly at the urge-inflicted strain. Yearning for a heartbeat thudding against eardrums. If no other echo, then that of breath drawn down the throat.

Urzen spoke in a scalding burst of clarity. “I could see it shape,” he said. “The shape that power wears here. If it were just a shape like mine…”

“What would that shape matter,” Stahrich said, “if its nature was still to destroy you?”

With each step grew the grim conviction that the shifting plumes would surge upon Urzen 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. 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. With their onward trod the plumes drained from emberous hues into colorless greys and faint white-light strands. Refractive glimmers rippled through the mist. Sometimes they caught 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.

Urzen 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 perceived 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. It 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 fringing 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. At others the constructs seemed to fall away through the mist as though some enormous sword cleaved 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. 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. Dull orange and gold grasses coated inconstant bumps in the landscape. Dismal. Still. Again Urzen shifted. 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. 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. 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 crept 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. 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 heaved. Wings expanded and contracted. Tails lashed. 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. The same senses that let him guess a substance’s nature 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. Gleaming 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 the intruders 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 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. They did not break the fog. Still he drew no closer upon the spike. He shook his head in disbelief. Again seams opened where no seams should be. Only a severed dream’s echo in warning before the metalloid frames exploded out from the fog ahead. 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. 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. He 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.” Urzen did. 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. 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. 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.

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