“Daddydaddydaddydaddy a monster!”
Frank pried his eyes open and looked at the clock on the bedside table; two-ten a.m. “She’s calling for you.” Brenda, his wife, groaned from her side.
“I did it last time.” Frank said with a sigh even as he pulled off the blankets and swung his bare feet onto the cold floor. It was a moot point, really. Brenda had tried to soothe little Karen’s irrational monster-fear a few times over the last month, but their little girl had made it perfectly clear that monsters were 100% daddy’s department. “I’m coming, honey.” Frank called out as he stood and headed for the bedroom door.
“Don’t forget the bat.” Brenda said from the lump under the blankets. Anytime Daddy had to come chase the monsters away Karen insisted he come armed, and there was no arguing the point. Frank nodded and grabbed the Louisville Slugger from the corner by the door before going down the hall.
“It’s all right, Karen.” Frank said as he pushed open her door. He stopped just inside and held the bat up in one hand to show he’d come prepared. Karen sat huddled at the head of her small bed with her stuffed lion, Harry, clutched to her chest. Frank took in the real fear in her eyes and the sheen of nightmare sweat on her brow in the dim light of her happy-clown nightlight then came into the room and sat on the edge of her bed. “It was just another nightmare.” Frank said. Karen launched herself at him and curled up in his lap to bury her face in his chest. Her hot tears soaked through his white t-shirt as his free hand alternated between smoothing her disheveled hair and patting her back.
“No it wasn’t! They were real!” Karen said. They? Frank thought to himself. Great. Now there was more than one? The therapist had told them it was good for Karen to talk about her experiences with the “monsters”. The more irrational details they could draw out of her, the more ammunition they would have to show her what she saw couldn’t possibly be real.
“There were two of them this time?” Frank asked. Karen’s breathing was slowing to a more normal rate now and her trembling had almost ceased in her father’s protective arms.
“Uh huh.” Karen said, a tiny hitch in her throat giving the syllables an odd separation. “But I saw them this time! They weren’t just all black and shadows! They were really real!” Frank’s eyes narrowed a bit as he gently pulled her away enough to look at her. This was the first time Karen claimed to have actually seen her monsters in any sort of detail.
“Karen… what did they look like?” Frank asked. Karen swallowed hard and made a visible effort to calm herself.
“The one from under the bed… he’s a… a lizard-man! He was big and all green and scaly with these really big claws and teeth! He was so big I don’t know how he fit under my bed!” Karen said. Frank nodded, but he could already feel his features hardening. “The other one came from the closet.” Karen continued, “He was… he was a man, but his skin was gray and icky and he stunk really bad and his eyes glowed all green and…”
“Ssshh. It’s okay, Karen. It was just a bad dream. Remember what the doctor said?” Frank said. He was trying very hard to control his voice and hoped the dim clown-light would help hide his grim facial expression from his daughter.
“No it wasn’t!” Karen screamed as her tears started flowing again. “When they came too close, Harry fought them and chased them away!” She held the stuffed lion out to him as if to demonstrate its fierce power. Frank glanced at the toy then did a double-take. The lion had several small gashes opened on its flanks, allowing tiny bits of fluff to poke through.
“Is everything okay?” Brenda asked from the open door, the sound of Karen’s last exclamation bringing her out of their warm bed. Frank didn’t bother looking up at her and instead tried to peel Harry from her grip.
“No, daddy! I need Harry! He protects me!” Karen said.
“I know honey, but he needs to get all sewn up so he doesn’t lose his stuffing. You don’t want that to happen, do you?” Frank asked. Brenda stiffened noticeably as the last bits of sleep cleared from her eyes and she saw the line of her husband’s jaw and the tense chords that were beginning to form in his muscles.
“What’s going on?” Brenda asked.
“It’s nothing, just another bad dream.” Frank said as he turned to her. The look in his eyes told her a different story.
“You told me this wasn’t going to happen…” Brenda started. Frank silenced her with a look then got up with Karen still in his arms.
“You’re going to sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s room tonight, honey.” Frank said to Karen. “Now, I want you to leave Harry here so I can fix him, okay? The monsters can’t get into Mommy and Daddy’s room.” Karen gave him a dubious look but reluctantly dropped the lion onto the bed. Frank dropped his bat there as well and pushed past Brenda to return to their bedroom.
“What the hell is going on, Frank?” Brenda whispered into her husband’s ear as they stood over their bed and watched Karen sleep. “You told me this wasn’t going to happen! You promised me all of that was over with!” she hissed. Frank moved into their closet but she stayed on his heels and closed the door behind them as Frank pulled the chain dangling from the overhead light. Both blinked against the sudden glare but Frank ignored it as his hands slid along one of the walls.
“Damn it, Frank! This is Karen’s life we’re talking about here! You said all of that was over with, you said there was nothing to worry about, that you were mine for a lifetime!” Frank ignored her as his hand continued to slide along the wall until a small piece of it popped open on hidden springs. Frank pulled the small leather bag from its concealment and examined it while Brenda fumed. “Oh no!” Brenda said when she saw the bag. “I knew it! I just knew this was going to happen! I should’ve known when she started seeing monsters that it wasn’t just a phase. We knew better!”
“No we didn’t, Brenda.” Frank said over his shoulder. “All kids see monsters at some point. She never saw them clearly. I know what to look for, and I never found any evidence that it was more than the usual kid fears.”
“Apparently you don’t know what to look for!” Brenda said more loudly than she’d intended. They both quieted and listened at the closet door to make sure her outburst hadn’t roused Karen before Brenda continued. “How could you not know this was really happening?”
“Has to be rouges.” Frank said absently as he regarded the pouch.
“No, Frank. You are not going back there!” Brenda said.
“I have to, Brenda. It’s the only way to stop this.” Frank said as he tried to push past her. Brenda braced an arm against the walls to either side of her, effectively blocking his path in the small confines of the closet.
“How do you know that? What if you get trapped there and can’t come back? What if you get hurt or killed or… worse? We were supposed to have a lifetime together.” Brenda paused a moment to wipe the tears from her eyes. “We can just move her room… or just have her sleep with us until the whole thing passes! Or just use the dust to protect us! They’ll get bored eventually when they can’t get to her…”
“No, they won’t get bored, and eventually I’d run out of dust. I know them, Bren’. This isn’t about keeping energy flowing into the Realm. It’s personal with these two.” Frank said. Brenda opened her mouth to speak but stopped when she realized Frank was already beginning his transformation. Frank nodded at her and she dropped her arms to her sides and stepped away from the door. She couldn’t have physically stopped her husband if he’d really wanted to push past her before he’d had the tiny bag in his thickening hand. Very soon, she’d be less effective than a gnat at stopping him from doing anything.
“I have to go.” Frank said as he leaned down and kissed her. Brenda’s lips tingled at his touch and her body felt instantly warm. She grabbed him by his suddenly too-tight t-shirt so that his kiss lingered just a moment longer on her lips. When they separated, the anger in her eyes had been replaced with both fear and love.
“I know.” Brenda said, defeated. “Be safe, and come back to us.” Frank nodded at her again then exited the closet. Brenda followed him out then crawled into their bed beside Karen. Frank carefully opened the pouch and dabbed a finger into it. When he pulled it out it was covered with tiny, glowing crystals. He held his hand over his family and snapped his fingers, allowing the dust to drift down onto the bed. The tiny bits continued to glow for a few moments more before finally fading away, leaving the two women in Frank’s life completely protected from anything that may come from the other side.
By the time Frank stepped into his daughter’s room and closed the door his shirt and pajama pants had become rags on his enlarged body. He absently pulled the tattered remnants away as he crossed the room and regarded the stuffed lion on Karen’s bed. “Time to go back to work, Havoc.” Frank said. His voice had become much deeper in tone and darker in spirit. It was his true voice, not the softer, quieter tone his human form had forced him to adopt. He smiled a little at the feeling of power that now coursed through him then sprinkled a bit of the glowing powder onto the toy and watched as the lion’s plush fur and thick mane filled with the stuff. The tears in its flanks slowly knitted themselves back together even as the thing began to grow. Frank watched as the toy’s limbs shifted and moved of their own accord and it’s glossy, plastic eyes turned to real, glistening ones. It opened its mouth, a mouth now filled with sharp fangs, and let out a low, throaty roar as its body continued to grow and change. Gone was the plush, artificial coat. In its place was a new coat, one just as smooth yet attached to a thick, living hide.
“Quiet! And get off the bed before you break it.” Frank said. Havoc stepped away from the bed and shook his great head, allowing his mane to flow free and long for the first time in a human’s decade. The massive lion growled low in its throat as it locked eyes with its master, companion and brother-in-arms. Less than a moment passed, but in that wisp of time Frank saw the events that had occurred in the room less than an hour before through Havoc’s eyes.
The beast growled again and padded to the closet door while Frank withdrew a palm-full of the glittering dust from the bag and tossed it into the air above his head. The sandy bits immediately clung to his form as they fell, and by the time the glow faded away Frank stood in the full and stately armor of his true post, his first calling… the armor of a Dream Lord. He picked up the baseball bat from the bed and touched it to the visor of his great helm in the traditional warrior’s salute. As soon as the wood touched the mithral helm the bat first stretched to half again its length then burst into flames, burning away the wood until, like Havoc and even Frank himself, its true form was regained. Frank slipped the gleaming bastard sword into the sheath on his back and joined Havoc at the closet door. The lion growled again, a sustained rumbling that Frank could feel reverberating across his chest plate.
“Yes, Havoc. I know. But if you ever want to sleep soundly in Karen’s arms again, we need to do this. Gilth and the Dead One have found us. Now that they have, none of us are safe in this world.” Frank said. Havoc’s growl changed ever so slightly in its pitch and tone for a moment. “I do not know how they found us or why the rest of the Dream Lords have not discovered and dealt with them. It seems it is up to us to ensure Karen and Brenda’s safety. You are not bound to this task, old friend. If you choose to remain I shall not hold it against you…” No sooner had the words left Frank’s lips than the lion coiled itself and sprung at the closet door. The wood exploded into shards and splinters under the ferocity of the beast’s charge, the sound of tearing wood and Havoc’s throaty roar echoing beyond the threshold giving Frank his answer.
Frank looked through the opening. In his natural form he saw all as it truly was. Where Brenda would see and a rack of Karen’s coats and dresses and forgotten board games, Frank saw nothing but an inky, swirling darkness on the other side. “You did not have to destroy the door…” Frank said under his breath as he ducked his head low and stepped through the ragged portal.
Once through the void and into the Twilight Realm, the human known as “Frank” sloughed away from him. Just as the veneer had turned to ashes from his beloved blade, Harvenger, just as Havoc had thrown off his mortal guise to reclaim his noble, savage form, this Dream Lord had regained his true identity. “Bastion” the night wind whispered through the lush, dark trees surrounding them. “Lord Bastion returns” the rustling leaves agreed. He walked across the black grasses and up a small hillock. Havoc was already at the top, surveying the land that they had not so long ago both served and lorded over. Havoc threw back his head and let loose with a roar that silenced the leaves and reminded the wind that not only had the Realm’s greatest Dream Lord returned but its greatest predator once again roamed the darkened land.
“If any missed the whispers of the wind they certainly know now that we have returned.” Bastion said. Havoc snorted through his wide nostrils and continued surveying the Realm. Here the magic was dark and the land caught in a perpetual state of twilight; no sun or moon, just that shade of light and night between them. Some of the creatures here could only exist under the moon, while others came to be in the sun’s rays. The constant twilight condition allowed for both to exist together, to share their mutual need for the dark energies from the mortal planes. Fear, anger, hatred, lust… these things fed them. But most were no more evil than they were good. Without the creatures of the Twilight Realm, those dark energies that burned so brightly in the fleeting lifespan of most mortal creatures would build until they were consumed by them. What humans that truly knew of them called them monsters, when in fact without them humanity would have imploded from its own carnal desires and would have ceased to be millennia ago.
“Come; let us find the other Lords. It is for them to deal with Gilth and the Dead One.” Bastion said. Havoc growled again, this time a softer though menacing rumble. “We are but guests here now, Havoc. Our return is not due for another 75 years by human reckoning. Our presence is suffered here now only because of our power and past glories. It is for the others to police the denizens of the Twilight Realm.” Bastion said as he and Havoc started down the other side of the hill towards the wide swath of meadow below. “But that does not mean we will not respond in kind should those two find us before we find my kin.” Bastion added.
The human concepts of measuring time and space held no power in the Realms beyond mortal ken. What was a moment in the Realms could be a week by human standards, and what passed for a mile in the waking world could stretch beyond imagination in the Realms. Bastion and Havoc had crossed either an immeasurable distance in a short amount of time or had made only a few steps in a month. Nothing had stepped forth from the great forest they now trod to accost them, the whispering wind and Havoc’s occasional roars reminding the rest of the beasts he had returned ensuring that any who would have at them knew they would be run through by the bastard sword Harvenger or devoured in Havoc’s toothy maw. There were few here that could stand against the trio and even fewer that would even try.
As a Dream Lord, Bastion had been charged with keeping the creatures of the Twilight Realm in check. It was the duty of he and the other Lords to make sure its denizens kept their forays into the mortal world to a minimum and took only what was needed. It was a constant balancing act to enforce the laws that kept humanity safe from its own baser desires while making sure the individual denizens of this Realm did not gorge themselves and become too powerful to be trusted. If any of the creatures here absorbed too much negative energy or lingered too long among the humans, their power and strength could grow at an alarming rate. This would not only present a danger to the human race but to the other Twilight creatures as well. The Dream Lords had been created for the sole purpose of keeping the peace, maintaining the order and making sure that each and every one of the creatures of the Twilight Realm remained symbiotic and not despotic over the humans in their plane as well as their fellows in the Realm. The only ones that dared challenge the Lords outright were the ones that had crossed the thin line that separated living their lives from hoarding power.
Bastion stopped them in a small clearing and extended his senses. “I cannot feel the other Lords. They should have come to greet me by now.” Bastion said. Havoc suddenly growled low and broke away from his friend and master. His powerful legs pumped once, twice before launching him through the air and into the darkened fringe of undergrowth to their left. A short, keening screech erupted from the tree line, it’s pained wailing cut off just as suddenly as it had began. Moments later, Havoc strolled out of the trees and padded back to Bastion. A small humanoid creature with green, wart-covered skin and bulging eyes dangled from the great lion’s mouth, its neck held tightly between the massive jaws. Bastion’s nose wrinkled at the smell of the thing. By the dark wetness that still dripped from the goblin’s legs he knew the little one had voided its bladder as soon as it knew Havoc was coming for him.
“Please…” the goblin whispered. Havoc responded with a growl that vibrated its tiny bones.
“Release him, Havoc.” Bastion said. Havoc opened his jaws and dumped the hapless thing at Bastion’s feet before turning and going back into the trees. While it was true the goblinoids were the lowest class of creature to roam the Realm, they rarely traveled alone and could be quite formidable when encountered in large groups.
“What say you, Yulgul?” Bastion asked the goblin. It sat up and rubbed at its neck while it regarded the Dream Lord.
“You know Yulgul?” the goblin rasped.
“I know all creatures of this Realm, little one; great and small.”
“You Lion Lord.”, Yulgul said, using the name the goblins most often gave him. The goblin’s voice was still rough from Havoc’s treatment of his throat and his body still trembled gently yet uncontrollably at the feet of the Dream Lord. “You not here.”
“It seems I am.” Bastion said as he scanned the trees again, though he had little need to do so. Bastion could both hear and feel Havoc as the lion moved through the dense brush of the forest floor.
“No, you not to be here.” Yulgul said. The absence of the rest of Yulgul’s tribe, coupled with his odd words, troubled Bastion more than if they would’ve been charging from the trees with their slobbering jowls and rusty, poisoned spears.
“The fact remains. And speaking of here, where is the rest of your party, little Yulgul?” Bastion said. Yulgul did his own scan of the forest and his trembling increased.
“Not here. There. Yulgul only one here and not there.” the goblin said. Bastion’s eyes narrowed slightly and he sent a mental barb out to Havoc to watch where he stepped. They should have encountered any number of creatures on their walk through the forest. That the only one they encountered was a goblin, a lone goblin at that, told him there was more to Gilth and the Dead One’s machinations than a simple oversight by the other Lords in their duties. Even more troubling was that he couldn’t sense anyone, from the lowly Yulgul all the way up to the other Lords. He was supposed to be a master of this Realm, his mind completely in tune with any of its denizens, but if not for Havoc’s sharp eyes Bastion wouldn’t have even known Yulgul was there. Bastion thought about asking Yulgul where there was, but goblins only seemed stupid. If Bastion admitted he didn’t know where the rest of the goblins had gone, he would be admitting he’d somehow been cut off from some segment of his power. The last thing you did in the Realm was admit to weakness; any weakness.
“And why are they there?” Bastion asked. A sudden roar from Havoc split the night, shocking flocks of bats and owls from the trees en masse as the echo of his savage cry was joined by thin, reedy screams of battle and terror. Harvenger was in his hand in the same instant that Havoc burst from the forest. Half of a goblin was in his jaws and another, whole one clung for dear life to the shaft of the short spear that stuck out from the lion’s left front shoulder.
Havoc tossed the goblin torso away then whipped his head around, his thick mane swatting against the hapless goblin rider like hundreds of tiny whips before his teeth sank into his rider’s thigh and ripped it from his back. Bastion arrived at his friend’s side just as Havoc put one of his paws on the prone goblin’s chest. The lion’s blood-soaked grin was the last thing the goblin would ever see as Havoc extended his claws to pierce shoulder, neck and heart at once. Scores of goblins suddenly broke from the tree line. Most only stood as tall as Bastion’s belt, but their numbers and ferocity, not to mention their gall in overtly attacking a Dream Lord meant the time for talk was over.
Havoc coiled and sprang at the head of the flank to their right as Bastion brought Harvenger back in both hands, dropped his stance and swung in a low, scything arc. Seeing the huge lion, airborne and coming right for them, broke the first few ranks. But instead of escaping those huge fangs already stained red-brown with goblin blood, their retreat caused those behind to crash into them in a screaming, boiling heap. Havoc landed atop the struggling goblins and set to work with fangs and claws, burrowing down through the mound of stinking flesh and bone like a dog digging a hole to hide its bone. Ichor and gore flew around the clearing in great wet chunks, coating the rest of the goblins as well as Bastion and Havoc with the stuff as Harvenger whipped back and forth among the rest of the tribe. Green-skinned heads and arms rained to the ground with each pass and adding to the mess and stink Havoc made. Those at the rear of the phalanx had finally seen enough of the carnage and threw their spears into the fray before running, screaming from the battle into the comparative safety of the trees.
“Havoc!” Bastion barked as the lion finished off the last of the goblins in his path. The lion looked up, its fur and mane caked with all manner of thick, congealing gore and trumpeted a roar. “Follow them, at a distance. You will move faster without me. Find where they have gathered and I will find you.” Havoc bobbed his thick head once then crept off into the woods. Bastion watched his comrade move off into the woods then grabbed up half of a goblin and wiped the remnants of the battle from his blade on its already-filthy tunic, adding a mental nod to the weapon that he would give it a proper cleaning when time allowed. The sentient blade hummed in his hand, its joy at once again seeing battle dimming its narcissistic tendencies. That’s when he noticed Yulgul still sitting where Havoc had dropped him a few dozen yards away from where the battle had been fought. Bastion strode back to Yulgul and looked down at the now cowering goblin, aware that his blood-soaked image did little to allay the small creature’s fears.
“Why did they attack us?” Bastion asked.
“Had to.” Yulgul replied.
“As a Lord of the Realm, I order you to speak true.” Bastion said. As a lesser creature of the Realm, Bastion’s invocation of authority virtually guaranteed Yulgul wouldn’t lie in his answer.
“Not say. Cannot say.” Yulgul said. It had moved from trembling to complete, utter, violent shaking now and its crying eyes were locked on Harvenger. The blade was still sticky with the leavings of his tribe and even Yulgul could feel the malevolence with which it regarded him. The sword wanted to slice Yulgul down the center and only Bastion’s staying hand kept it from doing so.
“You mean you will not say?” Bastion said as he dropped to one knee and stared into the goblin’s large eyes. “You will answer my question!”
“Yulgul cannot say!” the goblin cried. He curled himself into the smallest ball possible and lay quivering in the grass at Bastion’s feet, his thin, wiry arms thrown up over his head. “Yulgul cannot say! Please do not hurt Yulgul!” the goblin said. Bastion stood and considered kicking the truth from Yulgul, but he doubted even that method would yield results. If the goblin had been bound to deny Bastion information, it meant at least one of the other Lords was working against him. He knew of no other being in the Realm that could inspire such fear.
“Go and hide, little one. Stay to the fringes of the Realm.” Bastion said as the goblin gore bubbled and boiled away from his armor and stark white tabard and cloak, leaving both pristine and almost glowing in the continual gloom of the Twilight. “You do not want to be anywhere near, of that I can assure you.” With that, Lord Bastion turned on his heel then stormed across the clearing and into the woods beyond.
Since the first day the mortal world had winked into being, Bastion and the other four Lords had kept the Realm in check, their time forever spent patrolling and monitoring its residents. But not all of their work could be done in the Twilight or other fey Realms. Occasionally, a Lord would be called upon to enter the mortal realm to retrieve a wandering beast or make sure the creatures from the Twilight Realm behaved themselves when doing their work. In the beginning days of humanity, those jaunts had been easy enough. But the difference in the passage of time between the Realm and the Plane soon created problems for the Lords. On one visit, Lord Bastion found one of their vampires terrorizing men that lived in caves. His next visit was barely a week later in Realm reckoning, yet the humans had not only discovered how to create fire but also bronze as well.
After that, the Lords realized the world of Men moved in leaps and bounds, their miniscule lifespans fueling innovation, science and technology at an alarming rate. The side effect of all this mortal thinking was, of course, more numerous and powerful fears. Each advance in weapons brought new fears of violence. Each time one color of human discovered another of a different color, fears and wars grew. Every new science they endeavored brought equal amounts of wonder and terror into their lives. The creatures of the night were attracted to the mortal world by the abundant and growing fears like moths to the flame, the sheer abundance of the stuff creating for them an almost irresistible urge to gorge upon and revel in the power it gave them.
No matter how powerful the Dream Lords were, either here or on the mortal plane, they knew that time itself was far more powerful. They had to be able to monitor the progress of the world of men or risk more surprises. What frightened Men today would not necessarily frighten them tomorrow. If the Lords were to keep their charges in check they needed to understand at all times the fears of the mortal world. Their technology, science, theology and history needed to be understood in order to know the current sources of their fears.It was decided that each Lord would take a “Sabbatical” of 85 years by human reckoning. They would spend this time living among the humans as they lived, experiencing their lives and monitoring their fears. The Dream Lords were all linked, and the ones in the Twilight Realm could tap into the mind of the one on Sabbatical whenever they wished as a way of keeping up with the mortal world.
Unfortunately, this communication worked in only one direction. While on Sabbatical, the earthbound Lord was completely cut off from the Twilight Realm so that he could more fully experience the mortal plane. The only way to return was at the end of the Sabbatical or by using the fey dust as Bastion had done. Such a return was only sanctioned under dire emergency or the need of the Realm. It was obvious the other Lords were unable, or perhaps now unwilling, to stop Gilth and the Dead One from attempting to carry out their plans of revenge against Bastion. If the failure of his fellows to contain just two, albeit powerful, denizens of the Twilight Realm wasn’t enough justification to interrupt his Sabbatical then nothing was.
Lord Bastion continued mulling these thoughts as his feet followed the path of crushed vegetation and broken brambles that marked the passage of the fleeing goblins through the forest. The fact he couldn’t sense any other creature save for Havoc weighed heavily upon him. He had returned early from Sabbatical, meaning the other Lords would have to allow him to regain his full measure of power in the Realm. The others had to know he’d returned, and he could see no logical reason why they would not have simply returned his power as soon as he stepped foot in the Realm. What had been designed as a safety against a Dream Lord breaking the Sabbatical was now crippling Bastion, the only Lord that may still be in defense of the Realm.
Bastion stopped in the same spot where the goblin-sign did; a thick mass of multiflora rose shot through with tangles of wild, light grey roses accompanied by thick, black thorns. The dull petals were flecked with bright red that oozed and dripped from them to the ground below, continually painting and repainting the forest floor that ran up against the natural wall. Many an unwary rodent, and in some cases foolish, living and sentient creatures, had attempted to pass without invitation. Those many had been allowed to enter, but none had ever been seen again.
The Dream Lords knew the origin, life and purpose of the natural wall. They should; they had been the ones to plant it when the Realm was young. The oval-shaped wall carved out a huge swath of territory in the center of the Realm, the Dark Place, keeping the worst of the Realm’s denizens separated from the rest. Inside the confines of the wall dwelt all manner of beasts, but all had one thing in common; they were judged too dangerous to be allowed to enter the mortal world to feed. Most had been exiled there due to their own faults and failures. A precious few were enslaved by their very natures and were banished to the Dark Place by simple necessity. Aside from the goblins and on any normal day, if there was such a thing in the Realm, he and Havoc would’ve encountered scores of creatures in their trek to reach the Dark Place. It didn’t take his absent omniscience to know there was only one place they could be.
Since their powers of perception and near-omnipotence couldn’t get through the wall any easier than a physical thing could, the Dream Lords were forced to physically patrol it. Unlike the prisons of the mortal world, these inmates couldn’t be stripped of their weapons and easily confined to cells. It was the only place in this Realm, or in most any other, where a Dream Lord could have a reasonable expectation of being truly harmed. Bastion put a hand to the uneven surface of the wall and concentrated, willing the vines and thick flora to part and allow him passage. Havoc growled impatiently at his side, the taste of the goblin blood still thick on his tongue keeping his lust for battle boiling. Three rose vines suddenly looped away from the wall and wrapped themselves around Bastion’s searching hand and forearm, their thick, serrated thorns slipping under his grieves to pierce the flesh beneath. Bastion stepped back and grit his teeth against the pain, pulling the vines taut while his free hand drew Harvenger. The wall seemed to shudder as the enchanted blade sliced through the vines, their dark, thick blood falling to the ground in fat globules.
“It appears we are not to be admitted.” Bastion said as he stuck Harvenger into the ground by its point and worked at his armor. He removed the grieve from his forearm, steeled himself then grabbed the vines that still clung to him and ripped them from his flesh. Pain shot up his arm as the barbed, serrated thorns protested their removal to finally come free in a small spray of Bastion’s blood. Havoc growled low and turned his great head to face Bastion. The Dream Lord held out his arm and allowed the noble beast’s rough, thick tongue to lap at his wounds. Within moments Bastion’s arm was healed. He strapped his armor back into place then pulled Harvenger from the ground and regarded the wall. He could have healed himself, of course. But that required power. Havoc’s healing ability was a natural consequence of his nature and cost him nothing more than saliva. But Bastion was beginning to understand which powers he’d kept and which he’d lost. He still maintained the abilities and power within himself but was cut off from anything allowing him control over the realm and its peoples. What remained to him would have to be enough.
Havoc tossed his head toward the wall and issued an impatient growl. Bastion pulled the pouch of dust from his belt, weighed it for a moment in his gauntleted hand then opened it. “Are you certain you wish to do this? I cannot say how long it will affect you, or for that matter if this will even work.” Havoc bobbed his head once. “Very well.” Bastion said. He tossed the sack of fey dust into the air above the lion then pulled up Harvenger and spun the blade. The sword found the pouch in the air and sliced it open, allowing the dust inside to rain down in a sparkling cloud.
A pinch of fey dust had a great deal of power. Just a pinch had healed Havoc’s wounds and allowed him to transform into his proper form, and just a pinch had made certain that Brenda and Karen would be safe through the night, and just a pinch had allowed Bastion himself to return to his true state. What was now falling upon Havoc was an ogre’s handful of the stuff. Bastion had never used so much at once before, but they had few options left to enter the Dark Place. Havoc was a powerful force to be reckoned with in any Realm. He only hoped the beast’s noble bearing and good heart would be able to channel the massive power that much dust bestowed without losing sight of their objectives.
Havoc’s large eyes narrowed as the particles infused his fur, making it glow with a soft white light for a few moments. Bastion watched with some trepidation as Havoc approached the wall, stopped just a few feet from it and let out a roar that rattled around inside Bastion’s helm and made the living wall visibly shudder. That was it. Havoc had issued both warning and challenge. The wall, the creatures behind it and even the Realm itself had been put on notice. Before the roar’s echoes had died away, Havoc launched himself into the roses, vines and twisted vegetation.
Bastion had thought to use the dust himself to see if it would allow him enough power to hack his way through. But where he had but one blade, Havoc had four sets of thick claws capable of rending a troll into seventeen distinct pieces before the first part could hit the ground. To Bastion’s relief, those claws now ripped and tore through the wall with abandon. The wall could heal, growing new vines almost instantly to replace those that had been lost. But the speed and ferocity of Havoc’s attacks combined with Bastion’s own surgical strikes as he followed Havoc into the brush allowed them to continue their push forward. Red-black blood hug in a thick cloud around them as the destroyed vines tried to heal and wrap themselves back into their defensive postures, but the onslaught was just too fast and vicious for the vines to do more than close again a safe distance behind the pair.
In an hour or a minute, Havoc finally burst through the other side of the wall and into the cool air of the Dark Place. Bastion had only been two steps behind Havoc, but that lag had allowed enough time for the wall to catch up. Havoc turned back to see his friend and master slowly disappearing behind the rapidly-healing vines. Havoc issued a low, warning rumble and the wall stopped its knitting. It moved and rustled for a moment, the rattling of its leaves sounding like a large group in hushed, murmured conversation before a hole finally opened and Bastion was unceremoniously ejected into the Dark Place. Havoc nodded regally then turned away from Bastion, allowing the Dream Lord the dignity of picking himself up without witnesses. Bastion imagined the low, short sounds from Havoc’s throat as growling, which was better than acknowledging the lion was chuckling at his expense.
True night ruled the Dark Place. Unlike the Twilight Realm proper, the conditions here were forever night. The bulk of the inhabitants of this Realm within a Realm were creatures of darkness, and not just in their preference for ambiance. It hadn’t started out that way, but the malevolence and evil inherent in so many of the Dark Place’s residents had acted over time to change the very landscape, plunging it into the true, pitch blackness of a moonless night. Fortunately, both Lord and lion had retained their excellent night vision. While they couldn’t see as if in the bright summer sun they could make out enough to search and, if need be, to battle. Much effort had gone into concealing the goings-on from him in the Dark Place, a place he should not have been able to enter without his full powers as a Dream Lord. Evil made strong plans and careful calculations, but it so often left room for the unexpected. Obviously they had expected Bastion to return and had retired to the Dark Place, thinking to hide from him. What they’d not counted on was Bastion’s determination and more than a ton of enraged, power-drunk lion.
Bastion and Havoc had spent the better part of a day or a moment searching through the stunted forests and blackened plains, but the lion’s fey-infused power had yet to wane. And while that was a comfort, so much power had set the beast on-edge and ready to pounce at the slightest hint of motion regardless of how many times Bastion cautioned him against such things. Whoever was behind this knew they’d entered the Dark Place now, and it was virtually guaranteed they would be led into a trap. And though they were two of the most powerful forces the Twilight Realm had ever known, even they could fall to a concerted and massive attack by the creatures here. All they could do now was search the places Bastion thought relevant and wait for their enemy to show themselves. A month or a moment later, they did just that.
Hissing and growling suddenly sprang up from all around them; guttural, hateful noises that when combined in their cacophony sent chills down Bastion’s spine and made Havoc’s long whiskers vibrate against his muzzle. “Ferals!” Bastion whispered as he readied Harvenger and put his back to the lion’s tail. The sudden, blood-thirsty shrieks and pounding of feet around them cut him off, and he only hoped Havoc could contain his bloodlust and stay with him as a large group of humanoid forms materialized on the fringes of their compromised vision.
“You are all my wards.” Bastion said into the darkness. “I am not only your keeper, but your defender from those what do not understand your important place in the weave of worlds. I give you one chance to stay within the auspices of my care and protection. To attack me now is to forfeit my grace and make you my enemy.” In better times, the feral vampires surrounding them still would not have understood his words, but the powers of his office would have at least given them a base understanding of their meaning. Their roaring, slavering charge told him this power, too, was one that had been denied him.
The ferals were one of the saddest things in the Realm. Many of them had started their mortal lives as denizens of another realm and were the product of a vampire that had escaped into their reality. Contrary to popular myths, most vampires had no desire to fully turn another into their ilk. More vampires mean more competition. But what many were quite fond of doing was only partially turning a mortal. Their humanity would be lost, replaced by the basest of vampire needs and desires. Strong, fast and suffering only from the weaknesses of the vampire race, ferals were the perfect soldier for a vampire looking to amass power without worrying over one of them becoming too powerful and turning on them. Their loyalty was supernatural, and their bond with their masters made his will and his will alone their own. A vampire making an unauthorized stay in a mortal realm almost guaranteed that ferals would be created, and part of any mission to retrieve or destroy a vampire was to gather the wretched ferals and bring them back to the Twilight Realm for safe keeping. Bastion forced his pity for the miserable creatures aside and set his stance to receive them as Havoc moved a respectable distance away. The beast would need room to face their attackers, and even Bastion could fall and be overwhelmed by an errant swipe of the lion’s dinner-platter-sized paws.
The sword began to glow with a soft, red light as the half-dead neared. Of all its enemies, Harvenger harbored a near-fanatical grudge against those not living yet not dead. They were an abomination to the sentient weapon, one that needed scoured from the Realms, so much so that Bastion was often forced to leave it sheathed when he entered the Dark Place. It was time to let loose the reigns that confined the sword’s true power. Bastion let Harvenger take over his sword arm and filled his empty hand with a long dagger from his belt. The enchanted blade didn’t need its master’s eye to deal its death, only his hand from which to roll and slip. In battles like these, it was as if Bastion became two warriors at once with Harvenger guiding his sword arm to thrust, slice and parry of its own accord while Bastion controlled his other arm. Both were finely-honed warriors, and both could deal death in less than a heartbeat to those foolish enough to have at them.
Harvenger hummed with power as it punctured chests and lopped heads from necks, its magical nature enough the equivalent of holy relic and ash-wood stake enough to drop the vampiric animals in pieces at the Dream Lord’s feet. Bastion did not rest on his laurels, though. The hand in his own control had bested nearly as many of the undead as Harvenger had claimed, though he didn’t have the benefit of being made entirely of enchanted steel and mithral and as such looked a bit worse for wear. Long scratches and deep gouges from claws and fangs marked places on his cheeks, chin and thighs left exposed by the places his helm and armor didn’t quite cover and blood trickled freely from them. Havoc was fairing just as well or just as poorly as his master, but the benefits of the dust were more than just strength, speed and ferocity. Neither of them had any real worry of becoming sick or even infected by the tainted blood and saliva of the ferals, but that didn’t make the injuries burn any less. Where Bastion’s wounds would heal fairly quickly, Havoc’s would do so almost instantly, allowing him to shrug off virtually any claw or tooth that managed to slip past his furious attacks and reach his flesh. The lion had taken almost as many vampires as the combined might of Bastion and Harvenger, but where the remains left by Lord and blade were practically bloodless thanks to their natures, Havoc’s fur, fangs and claws were simply caked with steaming gore and blackened blood.
When there were but a half-dozen left standing, the ferals pulled back from the assault and regrouped out of harm’s reach. The half-dead spread themselves in a rough semi-circle around their quarry, their lungs still remembering life and making them pant and salivate as they growled and hissed. The battle had not gone well for them, but Bastion had never known enraged ferals, especially when they had supposedly superior numbers, to back down from a fight. “Be watchful…” Bastion said to Havoc’s wide back. The lion only growled a reply and put his body low to the ground, his powerful rear legs tensed and ready to launch him back into the fray. Havoc wanted nothing more than to charge into the line of ferals and rend them into large, ghastly chunks, but even through his haze of power and battle-lust he knew to trust Bastion’s instincts.
“Show yourselves! I make the same pledge I made to your beasts, those that you threw against me knowing you would only accomplish their deaths.” Bastion called out into the darkness beyond sight. Only the command of their masters would’ve caused the ferals to break off the attack, and that could only mean those masters were near. Bastion only hoped the concealed vampires couldn’t sense that the onslaught of ferals had accomplished at least in part what was sure to have been their mission. Harvenger was a master at combat, as was his master, but the sword cared little for its master’s physical state. Both of Bastion’s arms were sore and strained, and even Havoc as coiled and ready for battle as ever was breathing hard as he regained his wind. Bastion’s strength would be slow to replenish without the full extent of his power, and if the whelps’ vampire masters decided to join the fray in the next sortie the battle could turn in their favor.
“You offer us your protection?” a voice called out. Few creatures dared speak to a Dream Lord in such a manner. “You are hardly in a position to offer anything but blood and sport.”
“I wonder how the blood of a Dream Lord would taste.” another voice, this time feminine, came at them from the dark.
“I will have the lion’s blood. I have heard it is both sweet and tart, with an underlying tone of primal warmth.” came another, male voice. Bastion’s eyes narrowed. There were at least three, though he was fairly certain that was the extent of their numbers. Even numbers represented harmony and were an ill omen to dark creatures. Vampires were also not known for working together, with such groupings when they did occur being short-lived. To have three banded together against Bastion proved a far greater power worked against him.
A trio of forms stepped into their sight to stand among the ferals. Three of the beastly vampires crowded around one while a pair dropped to their haunches like obedient dogs at the feet of another. The last scuttled to the ivory-skinned female vampire and crouched down behind her legs like a beaten dog. “You are not of my Realm.” Bastion said. At his last count there were only a handful of truly powerful vampires in the Twilight Realm. Lordly vampires were rare in any Realm, and unless they made a nuisance of themselves in their home plane weren’t necessarily hunted down and brought here just for being a vampire.
“And they said you were the dullard of the Lords.” the one in the middle said. The others laughed at the joke, their sycophants chortling along though they couldn’t possibly understand the slight. “I am Robért, the exceedingly gracious gentleman to my right is Boris, and the beautiful and delicate belladonna to my left is Val. Now that we know each other, you can die with our names on your lips.”
“I am Bastion, Lord and Protector of the Twilight Realm and its peoples, bearer of the blessed sword Harvenger and master of all I survey. Remember my name, for you will be screaming it in hell.” Bastion said. This brought a huge bout of laughter from the undead, with Val’s high, tinkling laugh riding over the deeper chuckling of her fellows and the incomprehensible shrieking of their slaves. Havoc gave Bastion a glance that told the Dream Lord he was more than willing to fall upon them at any moment if he would but give the word. Bastion stayed the beast with a thought.
“You are less than nothing, a Lord without a manor as it were.” Boris said.
“You have gone to great lengths to hide from me and keep me from your plans. You fear me it seems, and for good reason.” Bastion said.
“Fear you, dear, sweet, silly Lord Bastion? We fear nothing, least of which you. Like the Realms at large, our plans do not revolve around you. We hadn’t planned on you even being here, and your presence will do little to impact our designs. Your involvement only comes from a debt we owed in laying the foundation for our new empire. Despite being a handsome and tasty morsel, we are not the ones that care about you.” Val said.
“We three were quite happy in our respective mortal realms, until we learned of your little oasis. Each of us was on the verge of greatness, ready to spread our power and influence beyond the ruling councils and vampiric laws you and your cohorts made sure were instituted.” Robért said.
“To truly grow our power, your puppet dictators and the weak codes and rules they enforced had to be removed. If not for the ones you call Gilth and Dead One, we wouldn’t have learned of this Realm, nor would we have discovered that you, the Dream Lords, controlled the vampire hierarchy from your otherworldly perch. It’s obvious from how easily Dead One was able to get us into your Realm and the laughable defense your Lords offered that you are far better suited to politics than war.” Boris said.
“I see.” The pieces were falling into place now for Bastion. “So, all of this is because of Gilth’s oath of revenge upon me. He and Dead One knew they could not come for me on Sabbatical while the other Lords ruled.”
“Perhaps you’re not as dim as you seem, Bastion.” Val said as she absently stroked the matted hair of her remaining feral and shrugged. “No matter, we’ve upheld our end of the bargain.” Two more forms came out of the darkness, this time to Bastion’s rear. Havoc spun round to face the new threat to find a huge, humanoid lizard and a shorter man-shaped creature covered in tattered robes. Its hands were glowing with a dim, green and sickly light and its reek of rotting flesh carried across the air to them both. Bastion dared not turn away from the vampires, though he could tell by the Dead One’s corpse smell exactly who had joined the fray.
“And finally the cowards reveal themselves.” Bastion said.
“Cowards or no, it’s for them to finish you. We’ve other matters to attend.” Val said. With that, the three vampires turned their backs and slipped away into the darkness. The ferals remained a few moments longer, their desire to join the coming fight vying against their commands before they, too, slinked off after their masters.
Bastion turned to face Gilth and the liche. Harvenger had thrummed silently yet painfully in his hand the entire time the trio of vampires had been in sight. Now that the Dead One was in sight the sword’s vibration increased five-fold to create a low, tremulous and eerie growl. Harvenger and Dead One were old enemies and had faced each other throughout history, their hatred transcending the half-dozen different names by which the liche had been known and the many hands that had wielded Harvenger.
“What have you wrought here?” Bastion said.
“I am fulfilling my oath of revenge upon you for the death of my mate and her clutch.” Gilth said. His voice was cold, soft and pitched in such a way as to make the hairs on Bastion’s arm stand on end.
“And any enemy of Harvenger and its wielder is an enemy of mine.” Dead One added. His voice was wispy and paper-thin and carried with it a natural echo that was disturbing to the ear. The undead thing pulled back his hood to reveal a face that was more skeletal than cadaverous, its remaining skin pulled taut as a drumhead over the skull to give him a death’s-head smile even when there was no humor to be had.
“You were the cause of Shik’vah’s death, Gilth. Had the two of you not conspired to infuse her eggs with pure dark energy, and had you surrendered them, she would yet live. What you did was unconscionable and against the laws of the Realm…” Bastion said. Gilth charged forward a few steps and raised his long, curved, serrated blade like an accusatory finger at the Dream Lord.
“You would have me kill my children! We had no choice but to fight!” Gilth hissed.
“Your parental concern is less than touching when you add that you fed the clutch so much negative energy the result would have been nothing more than born-evil. Do not try to hide behind moral outrage when you had none at the start. You sacrificed your offspring to create would be no more alive than a feral vampire.” Bastion said to the seething lizard. Gilth was a slave to his emotions where Dead One was nothing but cold, calculated evil. Together they were more than formidable, especially for a battle-sore Dream Lord cut off from much of his power. But if he could push Gilth to act on nothing but hatred, the lizard-man would make a mistake.
“You killed Shik’ Vah and destroyed my children!” Gilth cried out again, his poisonous slobber sliding down his scaly neck in huge gobs with each word.
“She attacked me, Gilth. I had no choice but to defend both myself and the Realm.” Bastion said evenly.
“The Realm! The Realm! At least the rest of us make no bones about wanting power. You Lords are no better than we… worse even! You revel in the power you have, and in the power you lord over us! You love nothing more than to torture us for being only what we are. You are the evil here, not us!” Gilth said.
“You came to me and tried to murder my childe. That is evil, Gilth. She has nothing to do with this.” Bastion said, his own ire rising a bit at the charge that he and the other Lords were nothing more than power-drunk despots.
“Because you murdered my children! An eye for an eye, Dream Lord! An eye for an eye.” Gilth said.
“And what of you, liche? Why do you throw your lot in with Gilth?” Bastion asked.
“Seeing as your soul will soon part ways with your body, I see no harm in the telling.” Dead One said. The smugness in his reed-thin rasp of a voice was enough to set Bastion’s back teeth to grinding. “Robért, Boris and Val are indeed very powerful, but they are naïve in the ways of the Realms. I will allow them to assume control and destroy the rest of you Lords. Once they have their house in order, it will be a simple matter to control them. After all, I am death incarnate, Bastion.”
“Lord Death will enjoy making you eat your hubris, Dead One.” Bastion said. “You are still of the Realms, and we all know that Lord Death does so hate competition for his mantle.”
“That is a matter for another time.” Dead One said through his grin. “Another fact that we all know is that here in the Realm no undead creature can escape my control for long, and it matters not from where they hail. The bonds you and the rest placed upon me when you imprisoned me here will soon be gone, and when those three dolts finish their work I will no longer be under your geise. I will rule this Realm, and I will see that accursed hunk of metal you carry melted down into a chamber pot for the trolls to piss in.”
It was all quite clear now. The off-Realm vampires weren’t the true enemy, and the Dead One was right; without the powerful bonds placed upon him by the Realm and the Lords it wouldn’t matter how powerful the vampires were, together or individually. The reality of the Realm would find them slaves to the Dead One just as their ferals were to them. It also told Bastion that though the other Lords may be in dire straits of their own they at least still lived. Otherwise, Dead One would already be free of his restraints. That meant there was still hope in saving them. Havoc opened his mind to Bastion. The Dead One would not enter melee combat. He would stay out of reach and use his dark magics against them while Gilth harried them. That meant the battle would have to be brought to the liche, and Bastion was now quite certain there was no avoiding tooth-and-steel combat, not when Gilth had the object of his single-minded revenge before him and the Dead One had so much to gain from the deaths of the Lords.
In the space of a thought and with a deafening roar, Havoc sprung. Bastion grabbed up a handful of the lion’s mane as he shot forward, allowing himself to be carried through the air until he was within reach of Gilth. He let go of Havoc, allowing the beast to fly at the liche unfettered while his thick, armored body collided with the surprised lizard man. Both recovered quickly, even though greenish-black blood flowed freely down Gilth’s face and neck from his wounded nostrils. Bastion knew he had to be careful. Not only was Gilth a more than worthy opponent, his bodily fluids were either acidic or poisonous and Bastion wasn’t about to believe that even his armor would hold up to much of any of it without the true power of the Realm to sustain him.
“You die this day, Dream Lord!” Gilth cried as he came at Bastion, his wicked sword held in both hands over his head. Had the blow connected it would’ve been enough to at least cleave his helm in two if not continue on to the ground to bisect Bastion in its wake. Bastion stepped to the side and brought Harvenger up to meet the attack. Steel clanged against steel in a shower of sparks again and again as the two traded blows, each measuring the other’s mettle. Bastion would’ve much preferred going at the Dead One first, but that would’ve left the unarmored Havoc to face this fountain of acid and poison. Besides, the liche depended upon time and distance to properly work his most wicked magic, and Havoc’s ferocity would keep him from the concentration he so desperately needed.
Havoc had at first been faring well against the undead mage. The Dead One had gotten off several bursts of pure necromantic energy, but only a few had connected. The bulk of his fight was spent trying to avoid the lion’s charges and in putting distance between them. The liche was indeed powerful, but the sacrifice of his soul and living body for his power made it almost impossible to move fast enough to put just a few seconds between him and the beast. But Dead One had not lived so long by rushing into the fray or panicking in the face of physically superior opponents. The liche continued dodging and lashing out when he could until Havoc leaped at him again. Dead One dropped to the ground and placed both hands upon it, letting the beast pass harmlessly overhead while he channeled his dark incantations directly into the Dark Place.
The moment the Dead One’s lips stopped their dark invocations, dozens of rotting hands burst forth from the ground all around the combatants. Bastion cursed as he avoided one pair of them only to have another grip his ankle and throw him off balance while three of Havoc’s four paws were set upon by more. The graveyard! How could Bastion have been so stupid? Even without his full power he should have known where in the Dark Place he was. The Dead One stood and flashed his permanent grin around the field of battle as scores of dead bodies made up of races from around the Realms clawed their way from their shallow graves to do his bidding.
Havoc’s roars had no effect on the dead, their souls so long removed from fear as to make them immune to his rage. The effects of the dust were waning now it seemed, and it was all the lion could do to keep from being brought to ground by those still under the surface while those above ground tore at his mane and tail and tried to bite through his thick fur and hide. A dead troll, its thick hands and rotting arms still holding the power they’d once had in life, had heeded the Dead One’s call. It shambled the few steps to Havoc and fell upon him, pinning the lion to the ground while a cadavered elf tried to bite through one of his ears and three dead goblins worried at his thick hide.
“Your comrade is down, Dream Lord. He only lives because I allow it. With but a word the troll will snap his spine. Surrender now, Bastion, and I will make both your deaths quick and painless. Your unlife, however, will not be so. I have so wanted a death knight of my very own, and your beast’s pelt will make quite a lordly robe of office.” Dead One said.
“Bastion’s death will be nothing but suffering!” Gilth roared as he advanced on Bastion. The Dream Lord had managed to free himself from the grasping hands but was now being set upon by two mindless ogres while Gilth protested the Dead One’s change of their plans.
“I need him in one piece, Gilth. This is for the greater good, you understand. There will not be enough of the other Lords left once the vampires are done with them. I need Bastion more or less intact. Kill him, but do it quickly and with a minimum of bodily harm.” Dead One said.
“I will tear him apart and eat his heart!” Gilth said as he shoved through a lumbering mob of elves and satyrs to get to Bastion. Those that wouldn’t move fast enough lost heads or arms and a few were even sliced in two as the lizard man stalked across the field of battle towards Bastion. Bastion allowed Harvenger his head once again and the bastard sword literally sang as it sliced through rotting flesh and bones. It was all he could do to bring the blade back to his defense to meet Gilth’s steel once again.
“Quickly and cleanly, Gilth…” the Dead One cautioned again, though this time his voice carried a very clear authority.
“Yes… you heard your master, Gilth. Do as you are commanded like the slave you are!” Bastion said as he dodged another pair of dead hands and brought his blade across the lizard man’s chest. Harvenger didn’t sink deep, but the long gash he opened across the scaly green chest was enough to make more sizzling blood flow down his legs and to the ground.
“I bow to no master!” Gilth screamed as he stumbled back and put a hand to his fresh injury. The sight of his blood on his taloned fingers and Dead One’s new attitude towards him combined. Seething red hatred of everyone and everything slid over the lizard-man’s eyes and he came at the Dream Lord with wild, vicious attacks. Bastion had originally hoped for such a tactic, but the battles of the day had taken their toll on his body. Now, it was all he could do to keep the wildly-flashing blade from slicing him to ribbons while still keeping the rest of the dead from piling upon him and bringing him to ground.
“Havoc!” Bastion called out. The lion was still struggling furiously on the spot where the undead troll held him though he’d at least been able to shake off many of the smaller dead things from his eyes and flanks. Havoc let out a quick, almost impotent growl to announce his own straits, the pressure from the massive troll’s weight making it hard to even draw the breath to growl much less fight. Bastion risked a look to confirm his fears on Havoc’s condition and found Dead One surveying the struggles a safe distance away. Another undead troll towered over the liche, a most formidable guard for any occasion. Bastion knew this fight was going to end quickly, regardless of its outcome.
“Just kill him and get it over with.” Dead One said to the lizard-man. Gilth’s only response was an enraged scream as he lunged again at the tired, scarred Dream Lord.
“Stop giving me orders! You are not my master!” Gilth finally managed to hiss back at the liche as he recovered from a wide, missed arc of an attack.
“It sounds to me as if he is, Gilth.” Bastion said between breaths. Bastion received the enraged roar and clumsy charge he’d expected from the lizard man. Using the last of his strength, Bastion leaped into the air before the pit that was the roughly-excavated grave of one of the risen trolls. Gilth’s roar turned to a whimper of confusion as his charge sent him crashing into the deep, rough hole. His speed, power and weight worked against him now as he plummeted to the bottom, leaving him in a crumpled heap on the floor of the grave. Bastion, still in the air, heard the snapping of bones below him as he turned at the waist and threw his long dagger at the troll keeping Havoc out of the fight. The blade spun end-over-end and sank deep into the troll’s neck. Bastion knew attacking anything but the skull wouldn’t stop the dead troll, but it was the softest part he could attack from a distance. The force the heavy dagger delivered was enough to put it off balance, though, and Havoc made full use of the distraction. Bastion had just enough time to tuck his body into a ball and use the rest of his momentum to carry him over the troll’s abandoned grave to keep from landing on top of Gilth where he lay below.
“Bravo, Dream Lord.” Dead One said as Bastion rolled to a stop and rose slowly, painfully to his feet. Havoc was already out from under the troll’s hands and was going at the dead thing for all he was worth while simultaneously tossing the forms of the lesser dead away from him with wide swipes of his paws when they got too close.
“Your admiration of my skills is humbling.” Bastion returned as he wiped a bit of blood away from his chin. Three more undead came shambling at him and he dropped his stance and swung Harvenger wide. The enchanted blade turned the three bodies into headless, unmoving corpses in its single pass. “You cannot win this, liche. I give you one last chance to comply with the laws of the Realm and stand down.” Bastion said. He thought he saw the liche smirk, though it may just have been a trick of the nearly non-existent light.
“For one such as I, there is always another chance. I am eternal. I am Death…” Dead One said. He raised a hand towards the Dream Lord and started mumbling spidery, slippery words in a tongue dead long before the first human ever drew breath. His corpse-troll took one wide step and then another toward Bastion as the glow around the liche’s outstretched hand became a ball of green, roaring fire. Bastion had seen this power before, a flame that burned not the body but the soul within it. It would leave nothing more than a shell behind, a shell that the Dead One could use to his own ends.
“And I am the law of this Realm, liche. But to show I am merciful, I will allow you audience with Lord Death himself so that the two of you may work out who controls his noble office once and for all.” Bastion said. Harvenger had started vibrating and whining in his grip the moment the green flames had crackled to life in the liche’s withered hand, and Bastion could see no reason why their eternal struggle should not finally end. With a massive heave, Bastion let loose his sword.
Harvenger issued a roar as deafening and powerful as any Havoc had ever voiced as it flew threw the air. The last word of the incantation died off Dead One’s mummified lips and the flame snuffed itself as the blade hit home. It tore through paper-thin flesh and shattered brittle ribs to pierce the dark creature’s desiccated heart. “Lord Death is always looking for souls that have escaped his grasp, and you have been avoiding your final rewards for far too long already.” Bastion said.
The liche looked down at the shimmering hilt and found the two diamonds set into the cross-guard staring back at him like shimmering, laughing eyes. No gasp or final epitaph escaped the Dead One’s lips, and no final bravado or whispered oath of vengeance was issued. The thing simply crumpled to the ground, an impotent sack of dust, skin and bones. As the Dead One crumbled so did his undead horde, but not before Havoc could have his final say in the matter of the troll. He trotted back across the litter of bones and skin to his master with the troll’s huge, chap-less skull clutched in his maw. The lion spit the thing to the ground at Bastion’s feet just as Gilth managed to crawl up from the grave.
The lizard man reached the surface then simply collapsed, careful not to lay on the piece of jagged bone that jutted up through his thigh. Bastion had hoped Gilth’s drop into the ground would be enough to take him out of the fight at least long enough to deal with Dead One, but the sight of the lizard-man’s own sword jutting from his guts proved that fate had other plans. Falling upon one’s own sword by chance was no way for a warrior to die, but after the events of the day Bastion was more than willing to take what victories he could from whatever quarter they came. Bastion and Havoc went to the graveside to join the shattered Gilth.
“Look what your need for misguided vengeance has wrought, Gilth. You are responsible for all of this, and you may well yet be responsible for the destruction of the Realm itself.” Bastion said.
“Then let it die!” Gilth said. He coughed, producing a large glob of bloody spittle that sizzled on the ground. “It is nothing more than a prison, tended by obscene guards!” Bastion kneeled down beside Gilth’s shattered body.
“Without this Realm and its protections, you and your ilk would have been hunted to extinction eons ago and across every Realm. Here, you had the chance to live as free as your own natures would allow. You may have doomed every denizen of this Realm to extinction by your selfish desires. I offer you the chance to redeem yourself… tell me what you know of the vampires’ plans. Where are they keeping the other Dream Lords? What has become of the rest of my charges?” Bastion asked. Gilth looked up at him with nothing but blind hatred.
“I will tell you nothing, Dream Lord… you, I… your precious Realm… will all go to our deaths…” Another fit of bloody coughing racked the lizard-man, and only now could Bastion see that several of his ribs had been broken in the fall as well, their points sticking up at different angles through his chest. Like as not there were other jagged bits that even now cut into his lungs and organs with every labored word and breath. “For what time remains you… you will know that the beginning of the end came from your murder of my beloved and my children.” Gilth said. His breath came in short death rattles now and the blood simply rolled out of his mouth and nose, his lungs lacking the air to even expel the stuff with any real force. “My vengeance is upon you, Dream Lord… you and you all…” Gilth took one last, shuddering breath and then went still as death exhaled his soul onto the path of his next Realm.
Havoc trotted away while Bastion collected his thoughts. When the lion returned, the Dream Lord’s long dagger was in his mouth. The noble beast was moving much more slowly now and was definitely showing his war wounds. The dust had given him great power, but it exacted its toll upon being spent. Bastion wasn’t fairing much better, but he instructed Havoc to take a moment and nurse his own wounds. Bastion wouldn’t be much better or worse off at this point, but if they were going to carry the day he needed Havoc to be as healed and strong as he could be.
While Havoc dabbed at his wounds with his tongue, Bastion walked to the sight of the liche’s demise, careful not to disturb the bones of the huge troll as he went. Harvenger was there, but its steel was now dull and lifeless, its diamonds chipped and cracked in their settings and deep pits and rust scars marred the length of the once-keen blade. Now that it had slain its lifelong enemy, had slain the reason for its very creation, the true age of its mundane parts was visited upon it. What had once been a powerful blade, full of its own life and energy would now fall to slivers if brought sharply against a tailor’s scissors.
Bastion came back to the grave and regarded Gilth’s corpse for a moment before grabbing the hilt of the lizard-man’s sword. The Dream Lord put his foot upon the corpse and pushed, freeing the sword to his hand and the body to the bottom of the deep grave. If all ended well, the graveyard would need attention and the corpses would all need returned to their proper plots. What was superstition in other Realms was simply real here, and Bastion wasn’t about to risk everything to save his Realm just to have it haunted by the souls whose rest the Dead One had chosen to disturb.
Bastion closely inspected Gilth’s blade. It was no Harvenger, but it would have to do. Havoc looked up at him. The great beast’s body still showed the ravages of their long day at war, but at least his eyes still sparkled with their same inner light. The lion got to his feet, shook out its shaggy mane then threw back his head. The roar that followed told Bastion all he needed to know about his comrade’s readiness to fight.
“Come, Havoc. We have a Realm to save.”