They had failed. Almost completely and totally. The party had been split, the worst of the soothsayer’s words had come to pass and everything hung on The Stranger. The man who refused to speak. Refused to help. And who had taken his ivory knife to the heart of Badduk.
The Glimmer was wearing down fast and The Stranger, at his usual slow pace, strolled through the castle halls towards room where the witch was to make her final stand.
The Stranger was alone. The rest of the party was scattered, but some thread of the magic that brought them together still linked them, and through this, with the help of the tower mages, Kaplan and Sumary were able to see through The Stranger’s eyes. Whether he could tell this was happening or not, he gave no indication. He just kept walking. His step purposeful. His goals unknown.
While Kaplan and Sumary stood and watched, the outcome of the worlds out of their control, Drury arrived at the cave and held his torch ahead of him, lighting up a small area around his hand. It smelled like rotten meat and the air was still. Behind him, across the bay, the storm rolled in slowly. Flashes of light broke the darkness and the constant low hum of the thunder filled the air. He could feel the electricity as he gritted his teeth and entered the cave.
As he made his way deeper, the smell only grew stronger and before too long, the only light was from his torch.
There were noises now. Something scratching on the rock around him as he took each step. Hissing from off to the sides as he brushed against the walls. A slow dripping every so often as the water table above found a small crack and slowly made its way through.
But one noise that cut through them all, the one noise he had been hoping not to hear, the one noise he had come here to hear. The slow, laboured breathing of something big, something old and something beyond knowledge of any one man.
“You are one man. You cannot be more than what you are. You will try, and in the trying, you will doom everyone else. Know your place. Know your worth. Do not-”
The final words of the soothsayer. The final warning, as incomplete as it was. Drury had always put a high value on the words of those who claimed knowledge beyond what is possible to know and meeting, and travelling with, the soothsayer had reinforced his beliefs, even when The Stranger had forced him to watch as the soothsayer lied to the King of Windell.
The King had not been a good man. A good king, perhaps, but not a good man. The party split soon after his death and The Stranger had become more approachable, more amenable, to working towards the party’s goal as they drifted further apart.
Like the others, wherever they had got to, Drury had yet to work out why The Stranger was the way he was. Ultimately, now, it didn't matter. He was helping, to a point, and they needed all the help they could get if they were to eventually face down the witch and ensure her words were never spoken.
But, again, like a bad itch, the thought raced to the front of his mind: why hadn't she spoken them yet? He couldn't not think about it. None of the others could answer his questions when he brought it up, and they didn't really seem to think it meant anything. They just said she has rules she needs to follow. He played and replayed the same conversation he had had with all of them about it over and over as he progressed deeper into the cave. He willed the memory to change, to become what he wanted it to become, but it stubbornly stayed the same where he and they all ended in a circular argument before Sumary yelled that she had had enough and they all went to sleep.
The breathing noise had stopped and instead he could hear the sound of something larger scratching on the rock floor. Aside from a nearby dripping, there were no other noises.
“Who dares enter,” an old voice said, sounding of death and torment.
There was one other member of the party. Another they dare not think of. An addition that Badduk had insisted on, but who had turned out to be a mistake. The young monk. He had also split from the group and was doing whatever he could to achieve his own goals. While he wasn't as close to them as The Stranger was, and while he wasn't as fearful as Drury was, he was, in a sense, exactly where he needed to be. He knew the curtain was about to come down, one way or another, and there were only a few places that could withstand the struggle to come.
Here was The Citadel of Stone. The oldest and most revered place in all the 12 worlds. The young monk stood at the gate and waited with several other petitioners. Here, unlike most other places, The Glimmer was still strong. It wavered here and there, but nothing from outside was trying to break it. Not like the castle, not like the caves.
But the doors to the citadel were closed. Locked, even. The petitioners who gathered outside were yelling through the small gap between the two large, wooden doors. Demanding to be seen. The young monk pressed his palm, the one with the tattoos, onto the wood and slowly breathed outwards, listening to what the door told him.
“They locked it,” he said to the few who were there. “They fear what is out here. They do not want it to enter the citadel,” he opened his eyes and let his hand drop from the wood. “They fear the collapse of the spiral.”
“What could scare ‘em so?” a toothless old man said. “The citadel has stood through everything.”
“Not everything,” the young monk said. “It hasn't survived the end of the 12 worlds. Not yet.”
The monk turned and looked back the way he, and presumably, the other petitioners had come. To each of them, it looked the same as it had always done. But one of them knew differently. One of them knew of the betrayal. Of the death of the King of Windell. And only one of them knew that that death was only the opening salvo in what the great mages called the 13th world.
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Part Two - Here Be Dragons
The 12 worlds had hung in the stars for eons. They were the first, so the story went. But stories are just that. There is nothing outside of the stories that make any of them true – or false – but, in this, there are very few competing stories.
If you listened, like Badduk did, to the soothsayer, then you would have heard the apocrypha. The one story that travels through all 12 that tells of something different. The story of the 13th world.
The story always ends the same way – with the destruction of The 12 and the rise of the 13th. A cycle that has played out so many times, according to the myth, and will play out forever. Very few people pay much attention to myths, but that – as the story goes – is when they become the most important.
The official story ends with The 12 being saved, and the 13th? Well, that’s the boogeyman. That’s the clown that will eat you. The big bad thing in the shadows which never really comes out. The 13th, in other words, is nothing. A fiction. Created to ensure the people who need to play their roles as demanded. The stick to the carrot of the everlasting 12.
But the party had split. Their leader, the man who had pushed them through to the final world, where the witch had made her home, where the final spell was to be performed, had been killed. Murdered by another party member. And now the story had gone wrong. There was no one to stand against the witch, no mage to perform the counter spell if things went really wrong.
One of them had even gone off in search of something that was even more myth than the 13th world. A dragon. One of the creatures that were eradicated when The Glimmer went up all those centuries ago. There were no dragons anymore. No hellfire to cleanse everything.
In fact, there was only one man. The man with no name; the man who never spoke. The Stranger. The stern faced cowboy who had killed the party leader. Who had usurped his role and who had split the party. The man who had resolutely disagreed with Badduk’s changes.
He was the only one left. The only one inside the castle. The only one who could possibly stop the witch.
Drury froze. The voice was so close. It felt like it was right in front of him. The voice exerted a pressure, a feeling of intense weight. Drury felt it as he took a step back; it was as if the speaker didn't want him to leave.
“Answer me,” the voice echoed again. Dripping with pain and vitriol. “Who dares to disturb my rest.”
“M-My name is Drury,” the terrified young man stammered, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
“You are not a sorcerer. You are not a warrior. You are barely even a human.”
“I’m a researcher,” Drury said. “I study things.”
“I do not understand. You are a scholar?”
“You will find it hard to kill me as a scholar,” the creature breathed and two pin points of light glowed briefly not too far away.
“I am not here to kill you,” Drury said fast, trying to back up again.
“A human,” the creature nearly spat the word, “coming here and not to kill me? It must be the end of days,” the creature almost sounded sarcastic.
“Actually,” Drury replied. “That's exactly what it is.”
The doors to the citadel remained firmly closed and no matter how much the petitioners yelled through the small gap, nothing happened and no one came to address them. Nearby, the young monk stared back down the path towards the city.
“There ain’t nothing back there,” the old man said. “Ain’t no one from down there ever comes up here. No one who matters, least.”
“I know,” the monk said. “But they will. When they understand.” He turned to face the doors to the citadel again. “But by then it will be too late, likely. I do not believe that he can stop what is coming.”
“What is coming?”
“The 13th,” the monk said. “The party has been split, the king is dead. Two out of the five markers. Only The Glimmer, the spell and the dragon remain.”
“The king?” the old man said. “Ain’t no king here.”
“No,” the monk nodded. “This is on the fifth world. There lies the final throne, a false seat of power, and the king of Windell, a minor nation amongst many factions. But no more, the king was killed, betrayed even. The Windell line fell and the central worlds fell into chaos. The castle was besieged and the witch has made her final stand at the edge of the 12th world and The Glimmer falls. They know not what they have done, and a dragon exists.”
“Ain’t no dragons either. Kept out by The Glimmer they are.”
“Old man, friend,” the monk said gently. “The Glimmer has been fouled. It falters across the 12. Here, on the first, there is no way of seeing. But, in time, it will fail here too. Sped by the spell that must never be cast. Heralded by the dragon. The end of the 12 is here, and soon the 13th will rise. The apocrypha must be maintained.”
“What about the party?” another man said, he was younger. Just a few years older than the monk. His eyes were sharp and he looked as if none of what the monk said bothered him at all. “The party has split before. They rode for the artefacts, if you'll recall.”
“Which were broken when the witch turned against the spiral,” the monk retorted. “It all plays out as the great monk foretold.”
“Ah,” the man said, grinning. “You are one of them. I had a feeling.”
“If we are so wrong,” the young monk said, pointing back at the citadel doors angrily, “why are they closed to us?”
“Anger is not something I expected from a Monk of the Age,” the man said. “You are supposed to be calm. Supposed to not give in to those elements that led us to here.”
“The boy ain’t yet a monk,” the old man said with a toothless giggle. “An acolyte. Look, he tries to hide it, but the white sash is around his neck.”
“Indeed it is, Master Gregor. Why would an Acolyte think they need to be shamed by their rank?”
“Perhaps it's their relationship with the party,” the old man, Gregor, said.
“Yes, that’s right,” the younger continued when he saw the young monks face. “We know who you are and why you're here. I also know you're the reason Badduk is dead. Why the only hope for the 12 lays on the shoulders of the one man who knows more than me about you and your kind.”
“You know The Stranger?”
“I do. I'm probably the only person who’s heard him speak.”
“Who are you?” the young monk asked. “What is your purpose here?”
“I'm here to make sure you don't get in there,” the man said, pointing at the citadel. “I'm The Nemesis, and you are who I stand against.”
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Part Three - The Contradiction
Kaplan and Sumary watched as the tower mages projected The Stranger’s point of view on to the wall of the giant gallery where they awaited the end of everything.
The Glimmer was shuddering violently every few moments as the armada of unimaginable creatures thrashed against it, feeling the weakness and the spite as it flowed out of the Twelfth and into the system.
The tower mages didn't speak as they carried out their work. Their vow to assist the party, no matter what came their way, overruled their desire to leave this world, to head back down The Path to the First and shelter in the Citadel of Stone.
They worried for the quest. For the end of the witch and the restoration of the 12. To them it appeared the party had failed. They knew the apocrypha. But they had never believed it. Now, though, with the King dead, the party split and the young man, the outcast, the scholar, He Who Should Be, on his own path to the realm of the dragon, they were worried that all five markers would manifest before this Stranger was able to confront the witch.
The Stranger thought vivid thoughts about what had happened and what he wanted to happen. His head swirled with images that were both his, and not his. His mind had been taken from him years ago. Replaced with something slightly off. He knew his role here. He knew it would be the last thing he ever did. He knew there was to be no forgiveness after the dust had settled. But he also knew there would be no reckoning either. It would either be, or it wouldn't. Regardless of which, he would be in no place to face the judgement of others.
He could feel his brother. He was far from here. The Stranger would see him again, one day. They would recount their stories. Fill in each others gaps. The Stranger wondered what persona the other had taken this time. Whether he was playing the hero or the villain. He smiled and shook the vibrant image of the brother out of his head and continued his leisurely stroll down the long hall of the castle.
Ahead of him, somewhere, was the witch. He had heard the others, the party they called themselves, talk about her in hushed tones. They never named her, she was always just the witch. He had an idea about what to expect. Violent magic and hostile intent. Or, at least, hostile to them. Perhaps he could offer her something different. A small smile, the small smile, crept across his face and he brought forward his usual travelling memory. That time he and his brother accepted a job that required the two of them. The day they had met their sister.
Kaplan and Sumary were arguing. They had put the pedestal between them and the gem glowed dimly in the top of it. The tower mages watched out of the corner of their eyes as the two discussed the future of the system in heated, yet quiet, voices.
“We should be there,” the woman, Sumary, was saying.
“I know,” Kaplan replied, his voice calm, yet on edge. A worrisome man, he always had the best interests of the party at heart, and the mages could tell that being here hurt him in ways Sumary would never, truly, understand. “But we can’t be. The Glimmer won’t let us past the Tenth world now. Soon the Ninth will be closed and we’ll have to leave here.”
“The citadel will weather the storm,” one of the mages said.
“No,” Sumary said, “it won’t. You heard the monk. The apocrypha is fulfilled and the 13th is upon us. Not even the first can withstand that.”
“Forgive me,” the mage replied.
“There is nothing to forgive,” Sumary said, rolling her eyes, already regretting engaging these sycophants in conversation. “If the monk was right-”
“A big if,” Kaplan said.
“If,” Sumary continued, glaring at her friend. “Then very soon we will see the other markers.”
“The dragon and the spell,” the mages intoned together.
“The Glimmer will fall as well.”
The mages looked at Kaplan. “He said it has fallen.”
“It’s falling,” he corrected. “If it had fallen, the creatures would be here, devouring us.”
“Then we must pin our hopes on this Stranger,” one of the mages said, clasping his hands in prayer.
“Or that the scholar fails in his quest,” the other replied.
“Drury is not someone who will give up easily,” Kaplan said. “I suspect he will endure to the bitter end. Where and whatever that is.”
“You understand,” one of the mages said awkwardly and the two party members instantly knew he was about to talk about something he wasn't supposed to. He trailed off before saying anything more as his compatriot shot him a dark look.
“We understand what?” Sumary asked.
“Fine,” the other mage said. “Tell them.”
“The contradiction,” the first mage said. “The scholar, sent to fulfil a marker of the apocrypha. A member of the party sent to blaspheme against the writings. That contradiction.”
The two party members looked at each other. The thought had occurred to them as well, but neither had wanted to say it and make it real. Drury needed this, after everything he had been through since they had resurrected the Eighth.
“He needs to do this,” Kaplan said eventually, not sounding convinced.
“We agree,” the mages said. “But,” they let the rest hang in the air. They were right.
The Nemesis looked at the young monk with greedy eyes. “You know, I didn't think it would be that easy to trap a party member,” he said to Gregor.
“They get too damn full of themselves, you ask me,” Gregor replied. “Get too uppity with them prophecies and think themselves untouchable.”
“Yes, that is what it is, isn't it? They forget that there are others who work to their own beat. Not everyone believes in the party. Or the prophecies.”
“I am of that belief!” the young monk shouted. “I got them to separate, to split. I fulfilled the first marker of the apocrypha!”
“You?” The Nemesis asked. “Are you sure?”
“I was there, I spoke the words. I made the kid leave. To hunt down the creatures that exist within The Glimmer. We both know that the only one of them is the dragon; another marker.”
“You did that?” The Nemesis insisted. “To my knowledge, that was The Stranger who did that. Of course, I wasn't there, but I have heard tales, whispered on the winds.”
The young monk froze at the turn of phrase he had used. He had heard someone else use those words.
“Yes,” The Nemesis said. “That’s right.”
“You’re her?” the monk asked, scared out of his mind.
“I am not,” The Nemesis said. “But I have been employed by her, just like you. You betrayed her, though, and this is your punishment.”
The Nemesis pulled a small gem out of his pocket and threw it at the young monks feet. The monk stepped back and bumped into Gregor who had come up behind him.
“Be seeing ya,” the old man said as he shoved the monk into a vortex of colour which had erupted from the gem and watched as he swirled down and down and down into the abyss. “Where would that one go?” he asked.
“No idea,” The Nemesis said. “Somewhere nasty, I hope.”
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“Steel yourself, boy,” the creature said as three jets of deep orange and red flames shot from the centre of the cavern to large torches that sat against the walls.
The fire ran from the larger torches and through small channels that circled the whole cave and let smaller torches that were embedded into the walls at regular intervals ignite. The effect was mesmerising and Drury was lost in the flashes as each of them caught. After a few moments, the cave was lit and the young man turned his head back to the creature before him. As he stared on the lazily seated creature, his fear returned in spades.
Dragons were unique among the void creatures. They were, of course, affected by The Glimmer in the sense that they couldn't cross it – one way or the other – but once The Glimmer was up, being on the inside of it caused them no harm.
Some scholars had hypothesised that the dragons were not of the void as, for example, harpies were. They were obviously not from the system either; they were not a human construct.
In the early days of the system, when fear and superstition ruled, the dragons that remained inside The Glimmer were hunted. The ones who escaped this fate hid and for a long time, there were no sightings. For all intents and purposes, dragons ceased to exist inside The Glimmer.
But now the eighth was back, and with it the caverns that hid the last dragon.
Drury stared upon the creature who stared back. Its eyes were large and wide. Orange set on black with white slits for pupils. It did not blink.
Drury had studied the dragons of old. Massive creatures which would, as the text books said, stalk throughout the system, being the one creature which could actually go from planet to planet unaided. According to his studies they were ruthless predators and it was only the cooperation of the system worlds, something the dragons could never hope to achieve, which led to their eradication.
“I can feel your fear,” the creature snarled.
Drury swallowed. “I'm sorry,” he managed.
“You are right to fear me,” it continued, slowly standing. “I can crush you and your petty worlds in a week, should I choose.”
“The system has grown stronger in your absence,” Drury said, reading from his notes. “We have machines which help us fly.”
“My absence?” the dragon lurched its head forward until it was a foot from Drury. “Explain.”
Drury stepped back from the smell of sulphur and looked at the scaly face, so very close. He could see the individual scales overlapping and moving across each other as the dragon moved. He could see how his own armour, worn under his jacket right now, mimicked this motion. “The eighth world fell,” he said. “Years ago, long before I was born. I don't know the true story. But recently the party brought it back.”
“The party?” the dragon had latched onto the term.
“There was a prophecy, set to stone in the beginning of the system. One day the system would fall. Or be threatened. A party would form and they would stop it, or prevent the fall. The system would survive and the hordes of creatures outside of The Glimmer would stay there and not tear the system to shreds.”
“And who are you in all of this? Why come here? I am, after all, a creature of the void.”
“Some people disagree with how the party has gone about their role.”
“I care not for prophecy and parties, boy. I asked who you were.”
“I stand allied with the party. I used to represent a guild who stands with feet on both sides of the prophecy.”
“You broke with your people.”
“In a sense. But they were corrupt; a symptom of the end of the system. Or so you'd think if you listened to Badduk.”
“Badduk,” the dragon said, saying the name as if it were its own. “An old name. A powerful name.”
“The leader of the party until he was murdered.”
“Ah,” the dragon said, sounding if it was smirking. “It is funny how the worlds work, don't you think? You people write down every small piece of information you get, thinking it’s some prophecy or foretelling. You forget that everything that is happening has happened before and it’s all just another go around on the cycle. The same people. The same actions. The same everything. Even this meeting is the same.”
“You know all this?”
“Know? No. I don't know any of this. But I am aware. Dragons have somethings that you humans do not. This is one of them. An awareness. But,” the dragon turned to stare back at Drury again.
“But?” Drury asked after a moment of silence.
“That doesn't answer the question, does it? Why are you here? Why now? At the end of everything, or perhaps not, why are you here with me instead of with the party?”
“They didn't need me for what they're doing. They don't need me.”
The dragon made a noise that caught Drury by surprise. It was a rough noise. Two sheets of sandpaper rubbing against each other. The dragon was laughing. “You think this isn't what you needed to do?”
“They sent me away.”
“So? The worlds don't work how you humans imagine them to. What you need is not a matter of what you're told. What you need is what you do. You could have died before reaching me. I could have engulfed you at any point. But you didn't. I didn't. The last dragon. Hunted his whole life. Angry at the system, as you call it. Not a friend to humanity. And merciful? It doesn't sound right to me.”
“Why didn't you kill me?”
“I couldn't tell you. I just didn't. But, for me, it was worth it. You've taught me much. Perhaps you are a scholar. Time will tell, I suppose.” The dragon stretched and extended its wings out as far as they would go in the cavern. “No use sitting around here waiting, boy. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Drury asked.
“To where the fun is. To the final world. Where the barrier that prevents me from being with my own kind is about to splinter.”
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Part Five - Confrontation
Much like his memories, and the knowledge of the things he had done, the castle The Stranger was walking through seemed to be a lot bigger when he paid attention to it.
He knew, intellectually, that he had never been here before. He had always spent his days on the Third. Being out here, in the wilds of the system, especially now as The Glimmer fell, was as far from the comforts and luxuries of that world as he could possibly be. Yet he knew, in his heart, that this was familiar.
He hadn't been here before, but he knew this place. And ahead of him, very close now, was the room he knew he would understand when he entered. If, of course, the witch invited him to cross the threshold.
He saw the doors, made of a black wood that never existed in the system. Trimmed with a lustrous gold that could only be made with three mages of an order that could never meet in person. At the handles, head height for The Stranger, was a tarnished silver padlock. It looked strangely out of place against the extravagance of the door itself.
He took the lock in his hands and looked at the base. Three keyholes, as he had expected. But only one would open the lock. Two of them would trigger a series of precast spells which would send him into the void. He smiled and dropped the lock.
He took a step back and breathed out slowly. He pressed the palms of his hands together and muttered something under his breath. The first time he had spoken out loud in nearly three years; ever since he had been christened. As he separated his hands, a glowing light filled the gap between them and formed itself into a small walking stick with a large orange metal orb at the top.
He took the orb in his hand and tapped the base of the stick on the floor. The noise echoed through the hall behind him.
He breathed in slowly and used the orb to knock on the door. This noise did not echo through the hall. The lock disintegrated before him and the doors swung inwards. An invitation.
“How the fuck,” Kaplan asked. “What the hell was that?”
“It appears your friend is something of a mage,” one of the tower mages replied. “An interesting turn of events.”
“He never showed any sign of that while we were travelling, right?” Kaplan asked Sumary who was standing next to him, her mouth still agape.
“I have never seen magic like that,” the other mage said. “Light based forming? That is not something we are taught.”
“There are magics beyond your knowledge, though,” Sumary said, pulling herself together. “Right?”
“Apparently so,” the mage said. “We did not believe this to be true, however. Our entire order is dedicated to documenting all the magic the system has to offer.”
“The system,” Kaplan said quietly.
“Kap?” Sumary asked.
“What if that’s void magic?”
“There is no magic in the void,” the mages said as one, as if some rote learned catechism they had had burned into them.
“Huh,” Sumary said. “The dragons had magic, did they not?”
“Of a sort. But it was blinding and raw. There was no real definition to it. It was as if they could coarse nature itself through them. Not like that.”
“But they’re of the void. How do they have this power, even if it isn’t real magic if they’re from outside The Glimmer? And if it exists, or existed, for them, is it not logically possible that there are other forms of magic outside The Glimmer?”
“Well said,” Kaplan said, smiling. “Ask those questions, make them work for their favours.”
The mages frowned and for the first time looked upset that the two party members were there. “Learning about the void,” one of them said.
“And what exists beyond The Glimmer,” the other continued.
“Is it?” Sumary asked, leaning closer to the mages, her smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “If the assumption is correct, and the magic we just saw him use is from the void, then he knows it and presumably who he learned it from does as well. Impossible is not the best word for you to use in this instance.”
The mages were silent, exchanging looks with each other.
“Perhaps the failing of The Glimmer is to blame,” Kaplan shrugged. “Who knows whats leaked in through the cracks.”
“That is not how magic works,” the mages shouted, angrily. “It is a pattern. Understandable. Predictable. Reliable. The void is the opposite. Nothing regular can exist out there. It’s why The Glimmer exists in the first place. It’s how we can live here, in the system.”
“We all know the stories,” Sumary said. “But they are clearly not complete. Here, at the end of it all, perhaps opening your minds to other options is not as taboo as it once was.”
“We cannot, even if we wanted to,” a mage said. “Our vows bind us. It hurts to consider anything else.”
“Hence our anger at the potential,” the other said. “It is nothing personal, nor does it reflect on the party, or your quest.”
“The party is gone,” Sumary said sadly. “If our quest is to be fulfilled, then we rely on The Stranger.”
“The one person we do not want to rely on.”
There was another blinding flash of light, and out of nowhere, the young monk stood back on the path. His clothing had changed and his hair was longer, but it was the same man, no question. He had a look of terror in his eyes, but when he saw the other two, it quickly changed to anger. “Finally,” he muttered and approached The Nemesis.
Gregor sat back and watched the young monk stare down The Nemesis. He thought back on his meeting with the latter several weeks earlier. Certain elements of the conversation made more sense now. He smirked. This young man, the monk who made it to the citadel gates on the back of bragging about his membership in the party, was now set to face down the lies and arrogance he had left behind him.
“Imagine if you were really a member of the party,” The Nemesis said, taking the monks reappearance in stride. “You wouldn't have to run here to save yourself. You'd have faith in your colleagues to ensure the survival of the system.”
“The party is broken,” the monk shouted. “It was never a true fellowship. They bickered and fought every chance they got. They never had the 12 in the front of their minds, only their own fame and reputations.”
“So?” The Nemesis said. “They still played their roles. The Eighth was returned, the witch was cast out. They freed the people of Cunda. Every step of the way, they made strides to ensuring the survival of the system. Until they met you.”
“The Stranger was the turn,” the monk sneered. “The singular among the collective. The one aspect of all of this that never fit.”
The Nemesis smirked. “You always questioned why you never graduated, didn't you? Always an acolyte. Never to receive your robes. You call yourself a monk, but that's just another lie. At least The Stranger has the courage to end his quest. Even now he approaches the witch. Even now he does more than you to bring this whole endeavour to an end.”
In the castle, behind the black doors, The Stranger stood, face to face with the one person he needed to see. The one person who was the end of his quest. The witch. The antagonist in this story. The villain of myth.
“Hello, my old friend,” she said, her voice soft and friendly. She stood before him, dressed in a simple shapeless brown frock. Behind her, a long table was scattered with parchments and books and in her hands, a small scrap of old leather.
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“The citadel is closed,” The Nemesis repeated. “Don't you get it? You have already lost. What do you think is going to happen here?”
“The party will win,” the monk said. “You said it yourself, I'm a member of the party. Everyone recognises that. I’ll be hailed as a hero.”
“You don’t believe that,” The Nemesis said plainly. “And even if you did, the party is in the wilds. Far from here, far from you. No one will accept you as anything but the betrayer.”
“I'm here looking for reinforcements. For help,” the monk said the words with confidence, but the look on his face gave away his anxiety.
The Nemesis laughed. “No one believes that. The party tried to come here. They tried to recruit the Army of the Stone. The baron refused their audience and sent them on their way. Whoever sits in the high chair has no interest in the party, or the 13th. They, like you, consider this place to be the one place of safety. You're all wrong.”
“Then we all die here together,” the monk spat.
“That is how I expect it to go, yes,” The Nemesis said, shrugging.
“Unless they win,” the monk retorted.
“And then what?” Gregor asked. “You're here, they're there. You're witnessed. You'll be right here when the gates open. What do you think they'll say, lad? Hero? You'll be pariahed. Revealed for the coward and betrayer you really are.”
“You may not have killed the King yourself, but abandoning them at the time when they most needed you? Your acts will condemn you more than I, or my brother, ever could,” The Nemesis turned from the young acolyte and looked back at the firmly shut and fortified door. There was nothing more to be said.
Drury could only hear the rushing of the wind as the dragon flew across the nearly empty Eighth. He could make out partial words as the dragon commented on what he saw below, but never anything complete.
He sat on the dragons back, between the giant creatures wings and held tight to scaly protrusions that were just big enough for him to wrap his hands around. He knew what was about to happen and he closed his eyes and waited.
“You'll have to ride me,” the dragon said sounding none to pleased with the idea. “It will be unpleasant for the both of us, but unless you have another way of getting me to the 12th world, it’s the only option.”
“You definitely wont fit in the capsule,” Drury said with an awkward chuckle. “But I can’t breathe in space.”
“I am aware. I can create a bubble of atmosphere around me. I, too, cannot breathe in space. But the bubble will travel with us, and will keep us safe.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. As I said, it will be unpleasant while we are within the atmosphere of this world, but while we travel in space, it will still be unpleasant, but it’ll be quieter.”
“Will it take long?”
“If your actions, and I am still not sure how to acknowledge them, are true, then this world is the Eighth and it is closer to the outer worlds than the inner. It should not take long. Days, perhaps?”
“We do not have days,” Drury said. “The Stranger is in the castle now.”
“The Stranger?” the dragon asked immediately, turning its head to peer at the small human. “Is this a name, or a description?”
“Both,” Drury said. “It’s how he was introduced to us and how we refer to him. He answers to the name.”
“Then,” the dragon said, “I fear you are correct. We do not have the time to go to the castle. We are needed elsewhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“I do not deal in prophecy, but I am aware of things.”
“There are entities. Changers. They existed before the dragons, before The Glimmer. They exist when they need to. Are called forth from somewhere beyond the void.”
“But the void is eternal, how can something be beyond that?”
“Trust me, boy, it would take too long to explain and what you would learn would sear your brain. Take my word for this and maybe, if we see the end of this, I will teach you. But for now, just take it as read that these entities are you enemies. They are cast from requirement. What is needed is how they are formed. There are many, but never all at once and never in groups of more than three.”
“Ok, and The Stranger is one of them?”
“Indeed. He does not have a set goal. He is made from the waste energy of other castings. He forms spontaneously. You can never know where or what he is, but he has the most potential of any of them.”
“That sounds,” Drury didn't get a chance to finish what he was saying as the dragon lifted into the air and flapped his wings.
“It is very bad. His powers, his reason depend on what other entities have been formed and for what reason. He mirrors them, reflects them. We must rejoin the party. We must ensure The Stranger does not reach his goal.”
The Stranger smiled at the woman and shed his coat. She took it from him gently and hung it on a rack on the far side of the room.
She sighed and looked upon him in awe. “I always knew you would come here,” she said.
“I did not want to,” he said, his voice deep and sonorous. Even the witch was almost overcome, listening to him speak.
“It is a good thing you did,” she replied eventually, calming herself. “I need you.”
“I am not some dog to be called,” he said, his voice changing to a low hiss.
“Of course not,” the witch replied. “Dogs do as they're told. You took a longer route than was strictly necessary.”
“They helped me carve a path,” was all he said.
“They wish to end my work here.”
“They wish only that,” he replied.
“What do you wish?”
“I don't have wishes. Desires. Any of that. I just am.”
“Yes,” she said curiously. “You are. Are you aware of others?”
“Yes, The Nemesis exists. He is far from here. Almost at the limit of my feeling.”
“I wondered about that. There was a surge on the first some time ago. Another of you. But you, my friend, you predate him.”
“Which means that there's another out there.”
“I do not feel them.”
“What does that mean?”
“If I don't feel them, they don't exist.”
“Taken, then? Unformed?”
“No, I have only felt The Nemesis.”
“Interesting,” the witch said.
“Why am I here,” The Stranger demanded. “Why have you called me here.”
“I did no such thing,” the witch said. “I don't know this magic,” she waved her arms at him. “But I can see it. See you. Only you. Not the other.”
“There is no other.”
“The Stranger only forms in the waste of other forms. You predate The Nemesis, which means you can’t have formed from him. There must be another that formed before The Nemesis. But it doesn’t matter. They aren’t here. You are and with you here, at my side, and don’t worry, you don’t need to do anything, I will finally be able to utter the spell and bring forth the 13th. And then, my friend, and then, the system, this whole experiment, will finally be complete.”
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