Chapter the Last: Triumph Over Nightmares"Samantha? Is everything alright?"
I opened my eyes as Virgil placed his hand gently on my shoulder. "Well, I'm more than a little nervous. What if the worst happens?" Gods, nothing could be that bad... only somebody as truly disturbed as I am would even dream up such a horrible scenario.
His voice was calm and soothing; I was glad for his presence. "It won't. Have a little faith in yourself, and in those you've chosen to bring with you."
Have faith in myself, eh? I suppose that's good advice. "There's no time like the present, I suppose." I stepped the rest of the way into the portal in front of me, praying that what actually happened would be nothing like the waking nightmare I had just suffered.
Standing on the other side, I came face to face with that robed figure I'd grown to despise ever since our encounter on the plains of Morbihan. He might have called himself a different name back then, but he was still every bit as evil, "Kerghan..."
He stared up at me hatefully, his eyes burning deeply into my soul, "Yes, it is I, Kerghan... I've known you were coming, traveler, seen the ripples in left in the wake of destiny's champion. At last you've come to me... young, naive, like a small child just taking its first, confused steps in the world. Have you come to stop me, child? Do you even know what it is you've come to stop?"
My nightmare had made me cautious. The anger deep inside of me faded, and I was no longer quite so eager to lash out at Kerghan or provoke him. I analyzed everything he said carefully, searching for hidden meanings he'd never intended to deliver. Such arrogance, such confidence... do you really know as much about me as you pretend to? If you did, you would've stopped me long ago... so why? What purpose do your lies serve? You don't need to resort to tricks to make me wary when I'm dealing with Kerghan the Terrible. I chose my words carefully, "I don't know what's going on here, but I know I don't like it..."
He seemed to consider my careful words interestedly, "Very well." I looked at him, still afraid, but outwardly showing no emotion. Kerghan looked unaware of the tumultuous feelings roiling beneath my calm exterior, and for that I was desperately glad. His words reached out to me, beckoning me, begging me to understand when nobody else would, "Hear my story and decide for yourself. I know that your road has been long, as has my own. Perhaps we might yet see eye to eye..." I wouldn't bloody count on it.
I had no sympathy for Kerghan, no real interest in hearing whatever it was he wanted to say, but in my caution I let him continue on regardless. His desire to explain everything was a weakness, and in so explaining he would make himself vulnerable to me. "I'm listening." If you want to trust me with your plans and weaknesses, then you go right ahead... I'm no stranger to abusing the trust of others.
200 years? Are you joking? You must've been ready to keel over any day! Even in the Age of Legends it seemed absurd for a human to live a full 200 years. He truly must have been a potent mage, and he would've had to be for the Elven Council to take notice of him. "And so? What happened?" I let Kerghan continue on while considering the gravity of his words.
He was eager to continue talking, to try and sway his greatest foe from the path of righteousness. "Perhaps it is just the way of humans, but what I had seen and learned was not enough. I craved knowledge, felt the shadow of my own mortality. And so I looked deeper, and the secrets of Black Necromancy were shown to me, and I reveled in the truths I had uncovered, and I shared them with the Council..."
Indeed, just as Loghaire said... humans are constantly motivated by the fear of their own death... never considering the consequences of their actions. Kerghan's lack of morality was hardly news to me, though that it stemmed from his own fear was an interesting little tidbit. On some level he had to know that he was wrong. "They saw it differently than you did, though..." Keep right on talking...
A dark look shone in his eyes, and his voice took on the distinct tone of revulsion as he continued speaking. "The Council... that sad, puppet Council. They didn't know what to think, and how could they? These were new discoveries, there were no precedents... and they listened to Arronax over the voice of their own reason..." Are you quite mad? They knew exactly what to think, and they were revolted.
Even though Arronax was standing right next to me, Kerghan was so lost in his own thoughts that he scarcely even noticed anymore. "What do you mean? What does Arronax have to do with this?" Well, I'm certainly not going to point it out. Be as self-absorbed as you want to be.
Although Kerghan's words were angry, his manner of speaking, for some reason, was not. I could tell he had a special hatred for Arronax, and why wouldn't he? There was something aside from that, though, and I intended on finding out what. "Why? What happened?"
He held his arms in front of himself, staring with satisfaction at his outstretched hands. An obvious pride crept into his voice. "My studies were of the souls of the dead. Once I had seen the darker side of Necromancy, I began to speak with those souls, to animate the soulless, to quench the lives of the living..."
Somehow, I had to get through his obvious delusions, "But can't you see how some might see those actions as evil?" You know what you did was wrong... I can tell that you know... so why must you continue to pretend like it was all for the purity of research?
Anger was his only response, sudden rage at my accusation, "The bodies I experimented upon were already dead! If I raised their souls to again quench them, who is to say I didn't have the right? I'm no monster... I know that the line between good and evil is a gray one, and perhaps all of my actions weren't necessarily pure, but I never killed a living soul..."
His anger was only proof that I was right, his sudden need to defend himself so vociferously could only stem from an inner guilt that ate away at his very soul. It was as though there were two thoughts in his mind, each fighting for domination. One was Kerghan the Terrible, the necromancer that stood in front of me, the ancient evil bent on destroying the world. The other was a timid, cowardly human who was once so afraid of death that he obsessively researched it by any means necessary, even knowing it was truly wrong. "You have a point, but there may be holes in your logic..." I tried to sound sympathetic while at the same time urging him to consider the ill effects of his twisted mind.
"And eventually Arronax was sent here as well..." You know, looking back on it, nobody regrets banishing you... but I suppose that doesn't even enter into your twisted little mind.
Kerghan smiled grimly, though I could scarcely see it beneath his robes. It was slow and subtle, shrouded in darkness. "Yes... for the same crime on a grander scale. And when we met here in the Void, I had become so much more powerful than he, and again he feared my words, and he made war against me. And now he is in chains, and this Void has truly become his prison. Not so for me..."
I still did not care to remind him that Arronax had been released from his prison, by my hand no less. If he was so absorbed with himself to have forgotten such a crucial detail, I wouldn't be the one to rouse him from his self-inflicted blindness. "What do you mean?" Do keep talking, pretending it's just you and I, all alone on this platform...
He laughed, a raspy and horrible noise like the sound of a lifetime factory worker coughing up black soot in the streets. "In your world, your Arcanum, I was powerful, perhaps the most powerful human magicker who has ever been." That may very well be true, but you're still positively insane. "But to humans... cursed with our shortness of life, our brevity... what is this power? What can be learned in that impermanent spark that is our lives? Nothing. But here, in this so-called prison, there are no limits, there is no end...
This place... this VOID... has no time as you know it... I've been here for more than 2,000 of your years, and yet I've aged not at all... I feel as I did the moment they sent me here, or as when the Dark Elves first called to me. Do you now see? Here I can do everything I did in your world, but I am unfettered by the chains of mortality that time hangs upon us..."
Yet by the time you finally realized your own immortality, it was too late... you'd gone too far down this path of madness. Once the original motivation that fueled your research had dwindled, there was nowhere else to go but down... Regardless of how well I might have understood his reasons, it didn't change the fact that they were completely bloody insane. "Fine. Then stay here, and leave our world be..." I didn't expect it to work - nothing was ever that easy - but I certainly had to try.
It seemed like he was finally coming back to the present, realizing that we were not alone and that the two of us were still enemies. Blast! It's still too soon! I had a good insight into how his mind first began to twist and tear, but it did little to help me combat him in the present. I needed more, something I could hopefully use against him to place the seed of doubt that I would then nurture to fruition. "Then what? What is it you want?" Come on, like any crazed villain I bet you're just dying to tell me all about it. He did exactly that.
If only I could show you the places I've seen, you might understand the things I say. I've been to the desolate lands, wandered by those souls who still see the lands of the living, but wear the cloak of the dead. Blind to their own ends, they cry, passing through one another like shadows in the dying light of day.
I've traveled to where souls rot in torment, pierced with the jagged shards of life and vision, clinging to memory, regrets of the flesh. I saw that this prison was of their own making and the key was in unknowing, in release... and still, I traveled on.
And finally, I came to the place where souls go to die, where the mirrored and worn spirits fall into an endless sea of gray, mirrored glass... and I lowered myself within, and laid there among them and I almost did not return.
And do you know what I found there? There, among the silent and battered shells of the innumerable? Peace, enlightenment, truth. Only then did I realize that this place, this life, is an abomination... a horrible distortion of the natural order.
This... LIFE... who mothered pain, and fear, and envy... these twisted children who exist only because we are here to feed them, to nourish them. This... LIFE... this afterthought... a disturbance, a mere ripple in that great, dead sea... not even the cause, but merely an effect sending these souls upward, screaming for release from the day they are torn from their waters. The effect of what? I do not know, nor do I care.
Have you ever spoken with the dead? Called to them from this side? Pull them from their silent rest? Do you know what it is that they feel? Pain. Pain when torn into this wakefulness, this reminder of the chaos from which they had escaped. Pain... at having to live. There will be no more pain. There will be... no more chaos.
"An interesting point of view. I can see the merit it holds..." How could I not? If everything were put to rest, living and undead, Nathaniel and I could both rejoin Frederick in the afterlife... knowing what I know, vividly remembering the details of that place... it stirs a longing in me like nothing else ever will. ...but my needs do not supercede the needs of the world, my life is not everybody's life. I need not rush into my own death, it will come for me eventually, and then Frederick and I can be together for all of eternity. Neither must I bring an end to the entire world just for the release of my son. I will find him myself, and release him with my own two hands... it is the least I can do for him, after having failed him when he was still alive. My resolve strengthened in the face of Kerghan's madness, and I knew deep in my heart that I had come to the correct conclusion.
Kerghan nodded at me, pleased, folding his hands in front of himself. He was completely oblivious of my resolve to destroy him, hearing only the deceptive words I presented to him, "And why not? I realize that you've followed the way of the righteous, or at least that's the role you've decided to play. But you've yet to see the other side. Follow me, and I'll show you things you've never imagined..."
Hmph. Fat chance. "Your offer is tempting... perhaps..." I continued leading him on, luring him into my verbal trap. He knew, somewhere in that twisted mind of his, that he was positively a lunatic. I aimed to find that remaining shred of sanity and drag it out into the light of day, kicking and screaming if I had to. Weapons were for the time when words failed, and even against an opponent like Kerghan there was always the possibility of negotiation.
Unfortunately, Arronax wasn't nearly as familiar with me as the rest of my companions. He couldn't detect my deception and, much like Kerghan, he mistook it for sincerity. "Are you daft, woman? Are you not listening to what this madman is proposing? He will kill every living being in both realms, including you."
Don't you dare ruin this. I quickly turned aside and whispered into his ear quietly, "I think I can convince him he's wrong."
"We'll see about that." I whispered to him, immediately turning back to Kerghan so as to avoid excessive suspicion. That I whispered to Arronax at all was already a strike against me, but I had to have faith in my own skills. Just as Virgil said... have faith in myself... "Now, Kerghan, I have a few words to say about this..."
He actually looked at me with an amused expression on his face. "Splendid. I've spent the last 2,000 years developing my philosophy, but I'm always eager to hear another's thoughts. Please, proceed..." I'll have you know I can be quite persuasive... actually, it'll be better for me if you don't know.
"Very well." I cleared my throat, preparing for what was sure to be a difficult conversation. "Let's speak of the nature of life and death..."
He nodded, happy to challenge whatever opinions I held. "Yes... let us speak of this." He was so damned sure of himself, and I hoped to use that arrogance to my advantage now that the negotiations had begun in earnest. "It is my opinion that the nature of life is accidental, that this reality we experience is merely a distortion of death. What say you, traveler?"
That may very well be the reality YOU experience, but... I suddenly had an idea, and decided to run with it, "As you've said, I have only my experience to draw from..."
"Hold, Kerghan." Do shut up. I'm trying to make a point here. "That assumption is based on YOUR experience..." It's easy to blame others for their 'flawed' perceptions when you never consider that your own is flawed in the same ways, isn't it? I stared at him with a passionate fire in my eyes, eager to continue our duel of words.
He stood there for a moment, pensive, silent, considering heavily the words I spoke and how he could incorporate them into his own philosophies. "Yes, you're correct. I concede you that point. But! I have seen both sides, whereas you have only the lands of the living." That's where you are so very, very wrong... "Trust me when I say that the souls who are called back to this life are in the most excruciating pain... it's unnatural..."
Virgil and I might have some pain in our continued living, but we have joy as well... we have each other... we have a purpose to our continued life. When my death comes, I certainly welcome it... but I will not seek it out so readily. "Maybe your opinions bias your observations?" It was my opinion that I still had a reason to live, and so my pain was slight. For Kerghan it was surely different. He'd already lived well beyond what a normal human should have... he tired of it.
Unfortunately, my argument didn't particularly seem to convince him, "Are you saying that I can't trust the sight of my own eyes? You presume too much, traveler... you've NO idea of the things I've endured... of the things endured by ALL the souls of the dead because of the thoughtlessness of the living..."
I had a difficult time explaining to him how his pain was his alone, not shared by all. The pain that I felt, though clear, was certainly not as excruciating as Kerghan made it out to be. Some souls felt that way, certainly, like the spirit of Charles Brehgo I had encountered so very long ago... but there were exceptions. "Yes, but perhaps that is the nature of those particular souls..."
Hmph. Meddling? You're the one that started all the so-called 'meddling' with the spirits of the dead in the first place, you hypocritical bastard... but I'm not here to defend necromancy. "No. Some souls are in pain because they hold on too tightly..." Even as I spoke the words I knew them to be true. When I thought of Frederick, focused on my longing to be with him, it truly did hurt... almost unbearably so. But when I thought of what I still had yet to do in life, when I thought of finding the bastard holding Nathaniel in a mortal shell and giving him a solid dose of motherly justice... living didn't seem quite so bad anymore.
Kerghan started to grow irritated and I knew I was getting close to breaking through that thick skull of his. "But you speak as if these souls have a choice when they're brought back! It's the mindless bravado of the living that subjects them to the vagaries of this life...!"
I pressed on, growing more and more confident even as Kerghan grew more irritated. My fear washed away and I stood my ground solidly. "No, but the PAIN is of their own making..." 2,000 years of philosophy, eh? That doesn't matter one bit when you're a bloody lunatic. Now be a good little terror and listen to reason.
He seemed like he had a response prepared for me, one that possibly would've involved violence, but then he suddenly fell silent, nearly defeated. "I'm willing to say you might be correct. But what proof have you?"
The proof is standing right in front of you... "I've spoken with souls who weren't in pain... and you're wrong about me... I HAVE seen the lands of the dead. I've come back from them, not in pain like you, but with a purpose... with a reason to continue living."
It almost bothered me that Kerghan even had to ask... he was desperate, grasping at the remaining strands of the extreme conclusions he'd drawn in his own insanity. "The distortion is caused by the eyes with which we choose to see. I choose to focus on my reason for continuing to live, the joy that life may yet bring me. You have focused only on your own pain, and that pain perpetuates itself."
He finally looked away from me, no longer able to look me in the eyes. His voice came slowly, shamefully, "Perhaps it is my own arrogance, my own bravado, that has brought us here, to this crossroads. The question is... where to go from here? We've spoken of fate, of prophecy. Have I traveled this road too long to turn back? Perhaps I have no choice but to continue on to the end..."
The pleading in his words came across clearly to me, the long-held desire for a solution, swift and permanent. "No... I have a solution. I can free you once and for all..." You know those are the words you've been longing to hear... embrace them, accept them... go quietly to your own oblivion...
Sadness was the only expression I could see in his eyes any longer, a deep and all-encompassing melancholy. "Truly, I wish there were freedom for me. But I cannot let go of this life, knowing that I might be called back to its pain. No, it seems I've no choice..."
As if on cue, Sebastian pulled V'ed Eckes' robe off of the large, green orb he carried with him. Kerghan looked at it, perplexed, and I spoke, "The Vendigroth Device... it will sever you from this world forever... just as you said, no more pain... no more chaos. It's the solution you've always wanted, and I offer it to you now."
Right... he was banished before its creation, he has no idea its purpose. "Yes. I can free you from the pain that you fear. This object was built to destroy Arronax, to sever him from the world forever. It can do this to you as well.
He bowed his head towards me, graciously, his shoulders sagging. "So many years I've raged against the living. All those years, and the distortion was in my own soul. No man can see the nature of his flaws with diseased eyes... the contradiction lies within me."
At last, I had truly convinced him of his own insanity, the error of his ways. With the solution in my hands, he was overjoyed to simply give in, to let go of everything. "Let me end your journey, Kerghan. Go to your rest." I almost couldn't believe what I was saying, yet even more strange was how much sense it made... and how Kerghan responded. It wasn't every day that one could convince another to accept their own death.
If it had been possible for him to shed tears, I suspected he would have at that moment. His voice was no longer one of sadness, but one of joy and also regret. "Yes. I thank you... and I'm sorry. So very, very sorry. Perhaps some souls are born into death... they never knew how to live..."
I smiled at him as Sebastian set the Vendigroth Device on the ground in front of me. "Yes, I think you might be right..."
"Good bye, Kerghan..." I pressed the button on the top of the device, stepping away from it cautiously. Kerghan walked closer to it with open arms, welcoming his own death like it was a warm ray of sunshine. He tossed off his robe, revealing the hideous, snake-like creature beneath. I turned away from the sight uncomfortably, not wanting to think about how painful such a form must have been, how trafficking in the lands of the dead might have bestowed such a ghastly form.
The riveted casing of the Vendigroth device split apart, giving way to a spinning, spiked contraption on the inside. I felt a horrible wave of power as a thick, green light projected upwards from the center, enveloping Kerghan completely. He started to grow pale and translucent, beginning to shimmer out of existence.
The innumerable spikes that graced the interior of the device shot forth like a network of a thousand thin, metal wires. Kerghan tossed his arms upwards, welcoming the oblivion that now sought him. He slowly shrank down into the device, growing ever smaller while the wires continued to expand, twisting, tangling into each other.
Kerghan's now fading body burst into an explosion of a thousand souls, their translucent blue, skeletal figures flying outward from the device even as a separate, bright blue and white light shot forth from the base of it. I could hear no sound save for the terrible wailing of the damned, and beneath it the ever-present hum of machinery.
The strange wires that twisted and tangled all over at last splayed upwards, guiding the souls of the damned away from the machine while the spectacular nova of light held Kerghan's body and spirit still in its menacing confines. The wailing ceased as the souls drifted upwards, the network of wires pulled downwards, back into the device, dragging Kerghan along as well. Once the spirits were out of sight everything seemed to flow in reverse, pulling metal, light, flesh, and soul all inwards towards the center of the device.
The horrible hum and shrill clanking reached a final crescendo, almost deafening in its pitch. Then, as suddenly as it had all started, everything was silent. The riveted sides of the orb clanked mechanically back into place, and the whole thing wobbled just slightly before settling back on the ground. I stared at it for several moments, and then, slowly at first, I heard the applause from behind me.
Arronax was the first to speak, "I cannot believe that you actually managed to convince him of his own lunacy! Well done, madam! Well done, indeed!"
Vollinger nudged me on the hip with a pleased look on his face, "Your gift for oratory is unparalleled, and you certainly put it to good use. I am pleased to call you friend."
Franklin couldn't help but laugh, "You know, for a moment there I really thought we were going to fight Kerghan the Terrible! I must say I'm almost disappointed, but one can't very well tell stories from the Void when he's DEAD, now can he? I was frightened out of my wits! Good show!"
Sebastian, too, grinned at me. "Hey, I like this outcome as much as any, though I would've loved to squeeze a shot off at that bastard. Ah well, no harm done."
Virgil was silent at first, simply staring at me. I looked back at him and he stepped forward, slowly, unsure of what he was about to do. I grinned wickedly and dove at him, wrapping my arms around him tightly. "We did it, Virgil! We defeated Kerghan!"
He only laughed, hugging me back, "I didn't do a thing... you did, Samantha. You... saved us all... just like I always knew you would, from the moment I saw you."
"Oh stop it!" I scolded him good-naturedly. "Hey, wait a minute... where's Terry?" I looked around just in time to see Terry nosing the Vendigroth Device off the platform and into the great, black beyond. You know... that's probably for the best. He woofed at me happily and Sebastian tossed him a piece of jerky, laughing. Noting another peculiar absence, I looked around for Kraka-tur as well, but he was nowhere to be found. Probably off to cower in his desolate valley for the rest of eternity, then... that, too, is probably for the best.
It took the dwarves no more than a week to finish assembling the portal device, especially with the help of myself and all the other technological enthusiasts I brought with me. Working with them was a pleasure, even if I didn't understand a fraction of what they were saying half the time.
Although we were all still trapped within the Void, that single week was a joyous one. We were victorious, Kerghan defeated, and every minute we worked brought us one step closer to home.
When at last the machine was completed, I was chosen to be the first one to step through it... as an honor for everything that I had done. Make no mistake about it, I was not a test subject... if there's one thing a dwarf knows better than anything else at all it's a machine he built with his own two hands. That the dwarves who built it saw fit to send me through even before they could witness the marvel of their own device was an honor indeed, and I recognized it for what it was.
The central wheel on the machine began revolving around the larger frame, slowly at first but rapidly gaining in speed. A blue light suddenly pierced the center of the wheel, following it along the track as it revolved around and around. The light only gained in intensity and formed a thin, white halo where the center of the wheel pathed repeatedly, faster and faster. The halo began to expand and shimmer, forming a thin, blue film across its center and radiating a crackling, white light at its edge.
That thin film grew wider and thicker, forming into the portal that I would take to the other side. Grenjar Silver Hammer nodded at me with a smile and I slowly climbed the short staircase leading to the shimmering portal. I closed my eyes and, without hesitation, I stepped through.