Chapter 8

Only the dead
have seen the end
of the war.

George Santayana

The room Vexx had raced into was eerily similar to the entrance to the Neverglades temple: three halls branched out in a junction of sorts, and the fires in the nearby lamps highlighted the yellowy stone that formed the room. The hallways only held pitch black save for the flickering luminescence of the torches.

Sonnellion walked straight for the centre hall, ignoring the rest. Vexx followed on his heels, walking with him through the darkness. The demon flared his fist outwards, an explosion of energy flaming from his palm, lighting the narrow corridor.

"Whatever is at the end of this corridor will be guarding the energy well." Sonnellion said grimly, staring down the endless passageway. "He's the thing that had the vines, and won't go down without a fight. I leave it in your hands for now, but if you fuck it, I'll take the wheel again."

Vexx snarled. "I don't need you. Just go then."

Sonnellion snorted derisively. "Gladly." And the light went out.

With a stumble and a curse, Vexx reignited his flame, wandering through the temple. Dust and cobwebs clung to every corner, every small crack in the stones was inhabited – it seemed this temple had been abandoned for years.

In time, he came to the main chamber – a near replica of the rift hub in the Neverglades, built from yellow stone and granite. Vines invaded the great columns that held the roof aloft and there was only one great stone arch that dominated the far end of the room. The flames had begun to light themselves, running into the darkness, making definition to the archway.

"Who dares disturb this place?" a low voice boomed over the low hiss of the flames.

Looming out of the darkness, latched over the archway, was a massive tree, expanding outwards, entangling the walls and the ceilings in its encroaching presence. It seemed to breathe slowly with a great purpose, and the vines and walls seemed to throb in unison – it was the thing that attacked them before, the guardian of Nightingale Gorge.

Vexx summoned his courage, walking forward. When he spoke, his voice boomed with power and authority, despite his appearance.

"I am Vexx. I am the holder of the Astani War Talons and slayer of the great Dark Yabu within his own realms. I am here to close the door that should never have been opened."

There was a silence. All of a sudden, a small pod sunk to the ground, cradled by roots, descending from the great branches of the tree. It opened slowly, revealing a tall man who leant heavily on a staff of yew. He seemed mature enough, but there were age lines creasing his face. He was embraced by the tree itself, roots binding him to the tree, both prisoner and master.

"I welcome you, young warrior." he replied, opening his arms wide, wincing as he did so. "I am Orthos, the high elder of the Nightingale Gorge, and the guardian of the rift. I presume you have come to slay me?"

Of course, you old crone. Sonnellion whispered in his ear, but Vexx was taken aback. "I do not wish to slay a fellow guardian." he responded. "I will simply close the rift and proceed."

"Ah, but therein lies a dillemna, young Vexx." Orthos gestured to the climbers adorning the room. "The temple and I are one. We coexist, and have done so for centuries. I apologize for my hospitality before. It was…a reflex."

Vexx nodded. "I only wish to close the rift. Please stand aside."

Orthos gave a short, mirthless laugh, raising an arm. His back had been pierced by the roots of the tree. They had entangled them – it was indiscernible who controlled who; Orthos looked for the entire world like an oversized puppet.

"Look at me, young one. I am nothing but a plant now. A great tree…a sentinel. A sleeping one, until the rift flared back into life, and you came to set things right. In fact, when the rift was reactivated, I breathed for the first time in seven hundred years."

Vexx raised an eyebrow. "Seven hundred years? How have you survived?"

Orthos sighed, a breath that exemplified weariness and heartache. "It is a long tale, filled with despair. You would have thought as such when you entered this place. Nightingale Gorge is, and always has been, a place of death. A graveyard. Nothing more.

"You see, I was, a long time ago, the lord of the small village that lived upon the steps of this mighty temple. We lived in peace and harmony. We had our differences with the rest of Astara, granted, but we lived on. We acted as a hub of trade, offering our harvests and knowledge to the fringe cities.

"But it all came to a change when the wraiths came. In fear, we took refuge in the gorge and in the temple. But they came regardless. They could taste our fear, and thrived on it. Every last man, woman and child within the gorge was slain, save the ones that I took under my protection within the temple itself.

"It was then I knew this temple was more than simply a place of worship. This place had power, more than any mere mortal could harness alone. I carved a staff from the life here and began to fortify this place, to protect my people. It was then I knew. All the lost souls that had perished, all of my friends…they never passed. They remain, the temple a harbour for their spirits."

Vexx spoke up. "They remained because they never died, Orthos. The wraiths feed upon flesh alone. It is part of their legend. They leave the soul behind, tortured and untouched."

Orthos nodded slowly. "Regardless of that, there was something different about this place. There was life here that I couldn't place. And then I came to understand – this temple was everything that death stood for. Darkness, young warrior, was the thing saving us and dooming us. Their souls endured, and came to this place, granting power to the earth…to Astara."

Orthos turned to gaze around him, nostalgia glazing his eyes over. "I haven't gazed upon this place since I last lived." he breathed. "Such life…how I envy it so. I remember when this place was filled with life. They were so vivacious…but that was a long time ago. It is but a lost dream."

Vexx stepped towards Orthos. "What happened to them?" he asked, transfixed by Orthos' tale. "Did they survive?"

Orthos turned to Vexx, wretched sadness replacing the gaze on his face. "They could not survive in this place. We did not think such turmoil on the outside would last. In the end, they began to beg me to save them, to provide them hope…to rescue them from the world outside."

Vexx was about to ask further, but Sonnellion had other plans. It was almost as if his demonic half felt a sense of disgust at the guardian's words; an inhumane, pitying disgust.

"So you killed them." Sonneillon spoke from Vexx's lips, spitting out contempt. "There was no other choice."

Vexx couldn't believe his ears, and, with a certain horror, watched as Orthos nodded, tears in his eyes. "I knew that, should they die, they would never know they could live on with the world, such as it was. I gave them this hope…" his voice changed all of a sudden, a steely determination overcoming his pain. "…and I slayed them all."

"You killed innocent lives…" Vexx said, fists balling.

"Are you no different, Vexx?" Orthos argued, the vines around him constricting in anger. "I had the power to save my people, to protect this earth. I did the only thing I could do. I killed them to save them, for them to endure this pain. It was the only way. You, Vexx, should understand this more than anyone. You, of all of Astara, should understand why I cannot let you continue."

Vexx shook his head. "The wraiths will come again, Orthos. The rift must be closed. They will come for you, and your people. They will burn this place, this entire gorge to ashes!"

Orthos closed his eyes. "And I will be ready for them. My people, their souls…they will endure. I will protect them no matter what the cost. And no adversary will defeat us…not even you."

With a low rumble, vines – the very souls of Nightengale Gorge rose from the earth, surrounding Orthos, raising him up on a throne of nature's make. Never taking his eyes off Vexx, he pointed his staff at him.

"I do not wish to destroy a guardian of Astara, particularly a young one. You have power beyond recognition…but you will destroy my people. I cannot allow you to end our legacy."

Vexx tensed his muscles, settling into a combat stance. "Orthos, I promise you. For your people, I will save Astara. But I must close this rift. It is the only way."

Orthos face settled into sadness. Then all of a sudden, rage in his eyes, his eyes flashing, steeling over. "Then, young Vexx, you are my enemy." His voice boomed, transcending and distorting into a voice of great power. "And the people of Nightingale Gorge condemn you to death."

Orbs of light danced around the temple walls, enraged, intensity flaring. the line was drawn, the sides had been set. Vexx flared his palms, wisps of energy flashing from his claws. Orthos closed his eyes, letting the roots and the earth embrace him.

Vexx sprung into action. The roots lunged in kind.