by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012
Once again, further inside the Tomb…
Seven stood over the altar, looking over the remains. All that was left of her was dry, dusty bones and his memories. In another thousand years, her bones would crumble to dust, but she would still live in his mind, alive and vibrant. If this did not work….
But it had to work. So much had been sacrificed that it had to work. Because if it did not….
The memories flooded back to him, unbidden.
Twenty years previous…
The woman danced and dodged as the massive undead dragon rained down blow after blow upon her. Seven struggled against the vice-like tentacles that held him fast, helpless to intervene. The knight pushed himself to his feet, the heavy plated armor still sizzling where the snake-like creature spat its acidic venom. Dazed, the knight made for Seven, intent on cutting him free.
“No!” Seven cried, trying to point. “Help her!”
The knight turned just in time to see the dance end. The huge claw pinning her to the rain-soaked ground, the dragon reared its huge horned head for another geyser of acid, this time directly onto the helpless woman.
The knight roared his fury at the imminent end of his long-time travelling companion, raised his hammer high in the air and invoked the name of the Dawnmaker. Holy fire rained from the raging gray sky, wreathing him in white hot flames as he charged his foe. The crackling nimbus of righteousness burst from him as he neared the monstrous creature, ripping muted black scales and desiccated flesh from its dry bones, but it was too little, too late.
The undead creature simply turned its head and unleashed the torrent of caustic bile at the knight instead, even as Seven wrenched his arms free. Seven activated the ring on his finger even as the knight screamed his last oath, expending the very last of the ring’s magic… and instantly switched places with the woman.
“No!” screamed the woman as the dragon made to snap off Seven’s head, still thinking it was she.
Seven had barely a second to act, but he did not hesitate. He thrust the blade of his sword deep into the monster’s maw, piercing the spinal column, and with a swift and brutal twist, separated the skull from the spine. The huge body collapsed, though the head clamped down on his arm, eyes blazing. Seven released the blade and reached up into the cranial cavity, digging his metal fingers into the withered husk of the dragon’s brain and shredded until the light faded from the creature’s eyes.
Seven prized the monster’s jaws apart and removed his arm. Pushing the large skull away, he stood and looked around. The knight was dead, little more than a puddle of noxious goo, and the woman lay where Seven had stood, looking feebly at him.
Even form where he now stood, Seven could see the horrible wound un her stomach where the dragon had mercilessly pushed its dewclaw into the soft flesh of her belly. She would not survive.
“Is it dead?” she asked. Seven didn’t press the point. It had been dead from the beginning, it was dead now, and it would be dead later when its body reformed and it resumed its reign of terror and acid. But telling her so seemed… cruel.
“Yes,” he said, truthfully. “It is dead.”
She nodded, coughed, and sighed. “Tell me why,” she breathed. “Why we did it.”
“I will show you,” he murmured. He yanked his sword from the creature’s mouth and moved to its exposed belly. He drove the blade in and slit it wide open, its glittering contents spilling onto the ground at his feet. Diamonds. He turned to see tears in her eyes.
“Treasure?” she gasped. “You said we were saving the world!”
His orange eyes flickered and he looked down at the diamonds at his feet. “But we are,” he said, “they will restore the one thing that can save this world…” but he trailed off. Her eyes stared at him blankly, accusingly. She would never know.
Because if it didn’t work, they died in vain.
“It’s almost all over,” he murmured, touching the forehead of the grinning skull. “Almost.”
The soft footfall behind him heralded the arrival of the others. He withdrew his hand and stepped back. Twelve entered, followed closely by Ten, and then Eight and Nine behind him.
“Ten, if you would place the three whole diamonds into each eye and her mouth,” Twelve instructed. “Then pour the diamond dust around the altar in a-”
A quiet noise followed by a rush of air preceded the bowl of irreplaceable dust in Ten’s hands exploding in a spectacular cloud. Then a gust of wind powered by magic blew the majority of it up and out of the cracked stained glass window above. Five pairs of eyes, each burning with the color of their souls, turned to Eleven, standing in the entrance, still holding her bow. The arrow she had fired still quivered embedded in the sarcophagus nearest Ten’s elbow. No one moved.
Seven unleashed a violent roar, ripping his sword from his scabbard and charging Eleven. Ten moved to intervene and Twelve cried out wordlessly. Seven pushed Ten aside, swinging his blade in a mighty arc. Eleven simply stood, bow at her side. She made no move to defend or attack. Seven’s sword halted a hair’s breadth from her faceplate.
“Draw your bow,” he snarled. “Fight back!”
“I will cease to function with my bow in my hand,” she returned coolly. “But I will not fight you.”
“Fight me!” Seven screamed in her face. Her red eyes flickered, but she remained motionless.
“Strike me down, if it is your will to do so,” she murmured, and then her tone turned dry. “See if your god will forgive you then.”
Seven’s eyes flamed, but he did not strike. “Do you k now what it cost me to find those? The lives of the last two living beings in the world. And because of you, they died for nothing.”
“This was your folly, Seven, not mine.” Eleven sneered. For a moment, it appeared as though Seven would strike.
“Decommission her,” Twelve said, suddenly. All eyes but Seven’s flitted to her, Eleven’s dimming with hurt at the betrayal. “You are one of the Elders, Seven it is your power.”
“It is not,” Seven spoke slowly. “When Charris created the lot of you, she wanted you as reinforcement. The command to decommission a Boneguard can only come from an Elder with regard to another Elder, and only functions within these walls.”
“However,” he continued, finally lowering his sword, “I have another option.” His voice raised in volume and in power, infused with the magic of the Elders.
“Boneguard Eleven,” she said, “you have shamed the sacred trust placed in we who cannot age. You have betrayed your vows and as such, I hereby banish you forever from the Tomb of Lost Heroes. I strip you of your title and rank and name you Exile.” As he spoke, a change came over Eleven. It was impossible to describe what physically transpired, but suddenly she looked… bereft. The 11 on her forehead written in the language of the sages was gone, and one every available space on her body was written the word Exile in every known tongue. Then those faded, leaving her with the rune of the same, permanently etched in her forehead.
“Gather your things,” Seven said harshly. “And begone from this place.”
“You cannot force me to-” Exile stated, but Seven cut her off with a sharp gesture.
“I can,” he said. “I just have not. I will allow you the dignity of leaving under your own power. Once you leave this place, you will forget where it is. You will be unable to see it, or hear anything within it. And Exile,” he stepped close, towering over her. “If I see you in the world… there will be no reprieve.”
She turned away from the baleful glow of his amber stare and departed.
Seven spun around.
“Seven, I am so-” Twelve began, but Seven cut her off.
“Speak the prayer.”
Twelve and the others stared at him. “Impossible,” she protested. “Without the dust to catalyze the restoration-”
We still have the three whole diamonds, correct?” Seven glanced at Ten. The big Boneguard held open his hand to reveal the three sparkling gems. “The diamond dust isn’t a catalyst,” Seven said, taking them from Ten and moving to the altar. “Not for Naenia. For Zoratzu or any of the others maybe, but for Naenia, it is a tribute. A commitment to devotion, and I travelled for twenty years over two continents, and one thrice-damned large ocean to procure those trinkets at the cost of the last living creatures in this world. If that is not commitment to devotion, I know not what is.”
He placed a diamond in each of the eye sockets and one in the mouth. “So Naenia can find her.” He stepped back. “Speak the prayer.”
Twelve moved to stand alongside the altar. She raised her hands to the level of her shoulders, palms upward, her faceplate to the heavens, the burning violet of her eyes mere flickers. Seven and Ten bowed their heads, but Eight watched with reverence, Nine with calm interest.
When Twelve spoke, her words were calm and strong. “Zoratzu called Dawnmaker, we humbly ask thy blessing to retrieve this soul, removed from this realm prematurely by the hands of good intent.”
“Naenia, daughter of Dawn and Dusk, have mercy on we who tread alone and restore this devoted daughter of thy dawnlit Father’s teachings.”
Silence. A moment passed. Then another. Twelve turned to look at Seven. Then she turned away and moved to the entry. She paused only a moment, but then passed through. Ten and Nine followed, with Eight trailing reluctantly behind. And then Seven was alone.
He moved forward so that he stood beside her. “Zoratzu,” he murmured. “Even after I broke my vows, I have served you. Since that day, one thousand years ago, I have upheld your ideals, prayed to you though you did not answer, and sought counsel in your teachings.”
“I broke my vows one time so that this girl, your true servant, could be restored this day and bring an end to this madness. And I never truly believed that you had turned your back on me, on us, on this world.”
Seven knelt, resting his hand against the stone altar, the amber flame of his eyes extinguished.
“It is all over,” he whispered.
“It is almost all over,” said a woman’s voice. “Almost.”
Seven looked up, his eyes flaring to life. On the altar was a girl, barely twenty, naked as the day she was born, whole and breathing. And she was smiling at him.
“It is you!” he exclaimed, and then spoke her name for the first time in one thousand years.