The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Four Final

Hello, readers mine! Line edits continue, and so do the finalized preview chapters of The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear. I’ve made my way as far as finishing Chapter Twenty-One in line-edits. Of that I shall say little except that its title is “Who Seeks the Forbidden Hymn”–but of course that’s deeper into the book and you’ll need to buy it to find out what any of that means.

As always, 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 see enough of worth here that you want to help me rewrite this series, then please pick up the first book here: Smashwords – The Necromancer and the Revenant: Resurrected Edition – a book by Caerllyn McCurdy. I know there are some rather ridiculous Senator Armstrong vibes in saying “I’m using appropriative fantasy to get my name out there so I can end appropriative fantasy,” but… that’s where I’ve washed up.

That’s the preliminaries sorted–for now, back to Urzen and Stahrich as they enter the heart of the dead plane…

***

Chapter Four

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, with the First Hymn’s echo clashed an echo called I.” -Supposed translation of an obsidian tablet—from tongues now forgotten, in desert now vanished, by souls now lost

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 they had just escaped, and the abysmal gloom waiting to envelop their all. No reverberations crept through the metalloid maze in the too-still fog. Thus the echoes of the pair’s motion and voices, only just returned, 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 from 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. These echoes mixed with Stahrich’s until the overwrought demon imagined there were a hundred other souls 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, broad, 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. Spindly shapes with shifting shade-flows atop them might be broken banners. A shape leaning in profile against an implicit wall might be framed by a broken wingtip’s outline. A pair of curving prong silhouettes might be horns on a downturned head. In this Urzen 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 the echoes changed, growing tinnier. The last lightless fires and unreflective rays fell away into the black horizon behind. 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. Barely. He was still alone with sight’s limitations and the mind’s rebounding skip from one impossibility to the next.

Every instant carried the sense of having hurried into a room only to forget the purpose for entering it on arrival. Or struck suddenly by a shockwave, perhaps, all senses lost in its sundering. Though all around came the feel of nothing, within there began a faint coolness. It deepened with every unseen step of the dour march. A lapping sound grew slowly all around. Still, they walked. That lapping pitched down and grew in potency until it became slow-rolling thunder. Coolness grew into 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 through something they approached, or something that approached them. Even though the frigid currents deepened within, a tiny flame of hope answered the sight of glimmers ahead. That hope soon died. The glimmers never multiplied to more than faint yellowish shades. The fiercest wavered, less lively than a guttering candle’s glimpses reflected by age-tarnished brass. They shifted, rippled, distorted. And the negative space whose oblique surfaces and undersides the glimmers clung to? It clawed up, and up, and up past all reason.

As comprehension of the immense umbral citadel swiftened, so did 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 crushed the senses like the certainty of damnation.

The boreal cold within was become sharp as a hundred blades whose biting beneath the flesh was never fire but an endless arctic gnaw. Urzen discovered a sensation as of freezing wind flow down his gullet. A wind that originated not through the mouth, but already halfway past it below the jaw-line. And what filled the throat above that glacial seething’s improbable entry was—Urzen 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. He fought against choking tension formed by a 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, soaring ever swifter as when he chased the fey spike in the reverberant maze. The passing glimmers by became only stippled streaks and instant convergences by the time he crested the first tier of the enormous citadel. Another passed. Another. Each passage more fleeting until hope grew of finding an end. A thunderstroke blast passed behind. Rather, Urzen thought one must have. His raw velocity must suffice 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 reports faded away, the sunless sea roared forever below.

The quicksilver glints suggested heretofore unseen architecture. Interlocking causeways soared and looped around each other at such mad angles that no footbound creature could ever hope to tread them. Crenellations like splintered shafts and frozen detonations: their points birthed sharp-faced rods that in turn upheld faceted ramparts. Whether the by-flickering eyes saw any such impressions or a fevered imagining concocted them to explain the entropic expurgoria of endless shadow and frail light, who could say?

Urzen 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. his hypersonic flight’s echo caught him up and passed him by in a mournful roll. Urzen looked on the glimmers before him for a heartbeat too long. Understanding gnawed through denial’s mirroring shield. Nothing was imagined. The frail interloper’s imagination could never have wrought the dread edifice lurking against the infinitude of the underworld. Urzen 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. For the nothingness of the unspoken question, Urzen answered with the nothingness of quiet. Freezing blades cut deeper. The march resumed in silence. Upwards not into light but deeper into its unmaking. Undersides of balconies like broken-off claws with tendon-strip impressions. Slit-windows with hooded frames as of beaks. Serrated ribbing on dour halls with too-high arched doors opening on utter blackness.

Such vision and the craft had the dead plane’s makers decreed. Often meshing lines and colliding bulwarks left no choice but to see the fell artifice more closely. The tightening alleys, passages, and vaulted tunnels seemed poised to slam inward all at once, retract, slam again. As many thousand times as necessary to kill a planelord—so too a god.

Every step summoned forth a thousand echo-siblings. Speech’s merest concept fell away lest the echoes overwhelm their makers. The unseen sea filled every corridor with tumultuous waves’ besieging roar. In tracing the sourceless gleams all around came the latest dread comprehension. It was shadow that ruled here. It was light that fled, cowered, and dared dwell only where the shadow did not. It was pointless now to flee back the way they’d come. Only here at the heart of darkness would escape be reclaimed.

One way. One way, or the other.

Bitter cold and crushing terror hung so heavy that Urzen the Gossamer no longer considered his wings. The yawning dark put the effort of such conceptions outside the meager will possessed at each instant. So though it would be harder by the end, it was easier in the journey’s each abyssal juncture to continue. Sight charted other things suggested by the glimmers whose treason gave the shadow form, even while 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, sight found them.

They appeared for an instant before the two invaders’ march ground past. And in truth the glimmers grew so few and so faint none could have seen any such thing. Even so the image burned on an 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 impossibly 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 a 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. 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 shifting feet passed the visions by.

Urzen 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 sounded 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? Something familiar?”

Stahrich was silent.

They transgressed an incalculable behemoth gate. Echoes followed only as muffled wraiths that knew no kinship with whatever leering structure cradled the darkness now enshrouding. 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 all. So too its echoes. So too the last glimmers. Walking was no more than lifting limbs and allowing them to descend again. Neither force nor 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, all was cold, and soon would be empty.

A memory of light. No hope rose at the sight of faint shapes growing larger ahead. Desolation was soon rewarded. True, the light picked out sparse engravings on faded red-orange tiles between iridescent black-metal inlays. True, 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 under-patterns like frozen smoke. And true, it sometimes clutched at the feet of statues in alcoves to each side. For all that 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 shadow 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 ornamental. Seeming radiance descended in broad golden beams from ornate slits in the ceilings above and at matching intervals on the walls to each side. They slanted outward, pointing back the way the two intruders had come, as though the light fought to flee.

The rays faded before touching aught.

Still, the march. In its course arrived a region where the daytime glows disappeared. The shadow allowed that the light around it would spread wider, yet grow weaker by it. The light became gloaming dimness. It served to differ vaulted pillars and the lower portions or half-visible bowls of braziers before total shadow swallowed all. 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 dared to acknowledge the forlorn hope of the intruders by reflecting them.

Final. Irretrievable. The dead plane’s unfettered truth.

The vaulted ceiling above swept out and up, bolstered by pillars forged from the gleaming black metal rather than stonework shaped and molded. They brooded like immeasurable spears driven down by the unending shadow above. Or perhaps, a sourceless notion suggested, they betokened keys rather than spears: keys to the up-closed castle of the primordial night and the preternatural end of all.

The walkway broadened, yet in so doing drew notice to the bottomless chasms on either side. Thrumming blade-constructs rose from the depths. Wider than the mightiest galleon’s height from beam to masthead. They issued thunderous vibrations accompanied by ever-shaking blood-orange lightning in an infinity of girding rings.

The rings pulsed and spiked in response to the thrum’s shifting pitch. They plunged far into the darkness below and above. Rank upon rank they hovered, forever bound, until at both ends their overlapping shines melded like the coronas of sickened stars peering out from a deathless hundredfold eclipse. More even than the countless gusting passageways of the dead plane’s outer reach, their calumny sounded akin to flesh-born voices.

But if such they were, they sang a song alien to any lexicon mortal, demonic, or divine. The shuddering blades pulsed an endless low pitch that the deepest human throats could not quite match. Mournful grandeur driven by 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 dissonant harmony. For this wicked place, a hymn.

Now, a platform framed by the spars from which its shape flowed upward into tapered roofing like a sharp conical fang, and downward to an underside to match. Upon it there waited a throne upon which sat a statue. The failing captive light ebbed from existence in passing behind it. Of the throne it illuminated only the flanged arms and tiered base. Shadow took the upper margins. Shadow mantled the statue’s shoulders and obscured most of the fluted armor and elaborate robes attiring it. Shadow obscured 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 and stood before the monstrous statue’s armored feet. As high as Stahrich towered above Urzen, higher by far did the statue tower above the war-god. 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 sharp-toed sabatons. A script cruel and beautiful in its sharp lines and abrupt twists. They spoke unspeakable, heretical familiarity.

Shaking himself, Urzen lifted his eyes towards the umbra-shrouded visage. “Stahrich, we must 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 would force it to fill,” 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 foreknowledge by either of us. If we leave 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 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. Of course, these were but a long-strained mind’s demands. 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 suffering as the artifice of absolute nothingness. The planelord shifted. He clutched and loosened his fingers. He shook equally from the cold within and an uncanny desire to fold 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. Cold departed from the deep form’s depths. Fear was forgotten in hurling rays at the shadow shrouding the effigy’s dire brows. For a single instant, riotous exultation.

The rays frayed, broke apart, and disappeared without reaching the statue. Their last auroral wisps dissipated into the unbreachable darkness. Denial raises thrashes and snarls in limbs now chilling all the swifter. The more energy drawn from immortal substance and blasted towards the effigy, the deeper gathered the shadows behind it. The deeper they gathered behind the invaders. The statue itself neither darkened nor lightened.

The fanged maw lay dormant. The mammoth sword kept its balance beneath its master’s steadying hand, unseen 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 scraped armor. Battle-ranks clattered.

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

There was no denying now that the umbra coursed inward. 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 outmost reaches.

By the foregone moment when the intruders dropped their hands and each met the other’s gaze, only the statue and the central dais remained lit as if in colorless twilight. It, 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. And then they perceived that their efforts achieved their end in a horrifying, mutant sense: they succeeded in causing the statue’s cheeks to match the light on its jaw.

Except that the light split apart around two tapering umbra-trails down those cheeks, with a corded texture and the faintiest ridged implication of too many bones beneath. And the trails seemed to grow the slightest bit larger with each horrified breath, as if stained by fraying shadow oozing down the hidden visage’s contours. So too did the shadows seem to creep further inward from what little remained visible of the platform.

It was imagined. And even if it were not, the severing segments against the distinction between the platform’s dim-lit stone and the total blackness beyond could not resemble standing silhouettes. The inward spokes from the abyss could not be shade-boots that moved forward whenever unwelcome eyes dared glance away from them for a second.

“Urzen,” Stahrich said, with utmost calm, “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 came hoarse and hollow. The shadows were not creeping inward whenever he shifted his eyes to another space. The black-tar tears pouring down the statue’s cruel jaw were not sliding further down its armored collar towards them. But if they were to do so—how close now would the shadows behind him be, that he forgot to halt with his sight until this final half-choked breath?

“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 to shadow is still present in full, if it is built on the other side to mirror our entrance as its shapes and symmetry suggest, then there is 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. Into the umbra. Everything disappeared. Stahrich’s blood-and-fire. Urzen’s sparkling purples. The stamp of sabatons on ancient floor. All sense ended. All the dead plane’s nothingness hammered a swift-splintering psyche equally bereft of all things. A scream’s intention went unheard. Whether one thrashed and fell from another’s grasp, nothing could tell. If one stepped wrong and sent both tumbling into the endless depths surrounding an unhallowed effigy’s platform, it made no difference, for all around them was nothing. No cold existed, nor a form’s coursing energies. All was emptiness and nothing.

Now, so was this one.

Shriveling. Tatters. Forlorn memories of an amber lady and a vibrant plane spilled out. A thousand treasured memories of lift, light, and power were come to nothing.

Sound returned to the universe with a sabaton’s crash on ancient stone. 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 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.

Focus lost hold on these senses. A stranger one assailed. It compounded the dripping heat that filled: a smell defying all explanation. It clogged nostrils and lathered an unsteady tongue with its cloying pungent ache. The bracing steely grip seemed too fluid underneath. 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. It lightened as something slid away around blurring eyes. Escape was just visible. A jagged outline against deep red bleeding over the far horizon. First, landscape otherwise marked by the same unreflective lights that lined the shadow-city’s approach. A doorway. Angular sides and ridged prongs exemplified the cruel plane’s works. Many flanged archways connected by bladed frameworks formed an inconstant tunnel for the approach.

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

A gauntlet rasped in failing ears as Stahrich shifted Sireless Glory. The sound distorted, bubbly and pulsing as though heard half-underwater. The suffusing warmth rose. Overpowering now. It swam through the eyes and erased all sensations from 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, nothing was felt but warmth. One rocked back, head lolling against the war-god’s shoulder.

The staccato shudder glanced constantly from failing gaze. 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, it caught sight—

Spread out behind the just-vanished citadel. Impossible in scale. Something existed within the emptiness. There was no life in the Void. In that nothingness it lived. By its presence the abyssal darkness and the nothingness became 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. 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. The muggy warmth began to fade. It did not fade swiftly enough. When Urzen’s retainers poured into the chamber, cheerful Murab was the first. Their lovely faceted face peeled open in a wordless cry of horror.

None ever said what they saw in that instant as they looked upon the stricken lord of the Seventh. Nor did he ever ask. Later he knew only that they bore him away to his rooms. For many days he fought cloying warmth. It ebbed slowly. With all the Seventh’s energies embracing, his form at last regained its old shapes. The impossible wrecks 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 soul-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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