In the Dim Plane
by Dean Francis Alfar
part 1 of 2
After the end of the world, the hardest thing to fight is loneliness. I have never been truly sociable and eschewed the company of the few others here. With almost no power left and no way to recover any more, I managed to secretly maintain only one animated skeleton for companionship in the frenzy of escaping Forlorn’s destruction. Between the two of us, my sanity, my world, is kept intact.
I had left my cave on my way to meet the others — something that happens every year or so, at their insistence — when I unexpectedly encountered a ghost.
It was a beautiful woman with dark hair and sad eyes.
In any other place, in any other time, this would not have fazed me. I am, or was, after all, the greatest Necromancer of Forlorn. However, in this place of shadows, on the Dim Plane, I had barely enough power to do the simplest unnatural thing and could not defend myself if this was one of the hungry ones.
“What do you want, ghost?” I said with false bravado, at a loss to explain how a ghost came to be here, in this remote sanctuary, in the first place.
“Please,” the ghost said, holding out a small ornate sandalwood box toward me.
Before I could reply, she dissolved into the dimness, the box she held settling down softly near my feet. I sensed that it was the end of her tenuous existence. I took the box, both puzzled and pleased. Puzzled, because here was a mystery; pleased, because it was something I could think about.
Just as I was about to open the box, a voice boomed out from the dimness.
It was Lord Jussin the Betrayer, broad-shouldered and crooked-nosed, also on his way to meet with the others. I quickly hid the box in my vestments. It was not something I wished to share with a spavined craven like Lord Jussin.
“Teros,” Lord Jussin said with a scowl. “It is you. Come, old man. We might as well walk together toward our tiresome pretense of bonhomie.”
I did not feel that Lord Jussin, a fallen paladin who had denounced his queen for the promise of power, deserved to be in the Dim Plane. But somehow he had found a means to get here, as the others and I did, so we all had to co-exist in peace.
There are precisely five of us living in the Dim Plane, survivors of the end of the world that we knew forty years ago. Though at first we kept away from each other, as time passed we began to seek each other’s company. We didn’t speak much then; it was sufficient just to see that someone else was here. But eventually, we began to exchange glances of feigned disinterest, then to talk; and finally we agreed to regular gatherings, sometimes as often as twice a year. At least it was something to do.
Braxas, Harrower of Flame, was the first to approach me. Later, I made the acquaintance of Lizel Gorgist, the Widow’s Bane. Lord Jussin the Betrayer was next, and the maxim-laden polymath Resa Undermasque, who had bartered parts of her body for knowledge, was last.
On Forlorn, the world that we lost, we knew each other only by name and reputation, our interests and agendas separated by oceans and continents. Each of us had, in the past, ruled parts of the world or made war with those who stood in our way, through virtue of craft, blade, politics or poison. In the Dirmoth Archipelago, I built my kingdom of undead, crushed the noble houses that dared oppose me, and taught men to tremble at the mere mention of my name.
Very few could stand against any one of us in our respective domains, and in truth I had begun to make plans to teach the rest of the world the lessons known only by the dead. But all our plans were made pointless when the Ebonnites erupted from the bowels of world, unleashing terror that made our all our fell deeds and dark ambitions pale in comparison. The graves of Dirmoth, ancient and new, were exhausted before I conceded defeat.
The Ebonnites conquered Forlorn. And as far as we know, of the entire populace only five of us found the means to escape to this place of dolorous shadows where we know neither hunger nor thirst but only sempiternal tedium. Five of us, blackguards all. The irony is not lost on me.
Lord Jussin and I arrived at the circle of stones and found the others already there. Resa Undermasque, her violet eyes gleaming from behind her salt-encrusted veil, had taken her customary place while Lizel Gorgist, the scarred side of her face covered by tangled black locks, stood speaking to a clearly agitated Braxas.
“Teros!” Braxas exclaimed when he saw me. He limped in my direction. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Braxas thinks he’s seen a ghost,” said Lizel Gorgist, acknowledging my arrival with a slight nod. She raised a fractured crystal that was once so useful to her. “Even if this weren’t impotent, I wouldn’t need it to ascertain the absurdity of his fantasy. Here where there has been no one and nothing but us for forty years.”
“A ghost,” I repeated, hiding the trembling in my voice. If Braxas knew something about the apparition, then we would talk. But later, when the gathering was over and the others had left. “Why do you think you saw a ghost?”
“She’s come to...” Braxas’ voice trailed off. He made as if to say more but ended up just gesturing in the thick air.
“I think you’ve gone mad,” said Lord Jussin, following his declaration with an unkind snort. “The dimness has finally claimed you.”
“No, I’m in full control of my faculties, Jussin,” Braxas replied, shaking his head. “I’m certain it was her.”
“Lord Jussin,” Lord Jussin offered as a curt correction, stroking his raddled beard. “Let us not forget who we are, even in exile.”
“The ghost, Braxas,” I asked, taking my place in the circle. “Who do you think she was?”
“Ah,” Lizel Gorgist exulted, finally putting away her dull crystal. “I wouldn’t mind a story. It’s been an age since Resa told us hers, remember?”
Resa Undermasque sat unmoving.
“Wouldn’t you all rather hear another of my exploits?” Lord Jussin said, resting his armored figure on a stone with aggrieved dignity. “It’s pathetic how we make do with whatever entertainment comes our way.”
I gestured for Lord Jussin to keep quiet. Lizel Gorgist seemed pleased at his silent outrage.
“So, who was she?” I asked Braxas once again.
Braxas, Harrower of Flame, sighed and sat down, obviously shaken. “Maia was the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t care what you think, what you know, or who you’ve known. There was simply no question about it. One look at her and you were lost forever. And such a kindly woman too. No airs about her.”
“Sounds too good to be true,” Lizel Gorgist, the Widow’s Bane, shook her head. “In my experience, women like that have the heart of scorpions.”
“No one is interested in what you have to say,” Lord Jussin the Betrayer said.
“Gods of Forlorn!” I exploded. “Let him speak.”
Braxas smiled weakly and continued. “She was wed to my master, the great Antilos, Master of the Dark Elements. And while my master was a perfect teacher, he wasn’t known for his kindness, so we speculated often what Maia saw in him.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” asked Lizel Gorgist.
“My three brothers and I,” replied Braxas. “We were his students.”
“Certain things see beyond the surface,” Resa Undermasque uttered harshly from her place among the stones, startling all of us with a sudden motion of her robes. “Love sees what can be seen; desire prefers the taste of secrets and the tantalizing tang of the unknowable.”
We all averted our gazes from her form for a moment, allowing the sudden intense stench of fathomless oceans that came from her to waft over us. None of us uttered a word, unwilling to draw attention to the reek. We had leaned early on that she did not take kindly to candid observations. When the odor dissipated, I politely motioned for Braxas to continue.
“Where was I,” Braxas asked, taking a shallow breath. “Oh, yes. Master Antilos and Maia were wed. And he loved her and she loved him. My brothers and I continued our education and went on to specialize, each in a fatal elemental art. I mastered fire, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, shifting in my seat. In the fallen world, Braxas’ talent with punishing flame was justly feared.
“At the moment we achieved the pinnacle of craft, Master Antilos presented each one of us with identical rings, proof of our prowess in his eyes. Each of the rings bore his oriflamme, a closed fist. Receiving the ring was one of the happiest days of my existence. I wore it with pride for years.”
“Don’t make this story about you,” Lizel Gorgist said with a curled lip, tilting her head. “What about the woman?”
“One day—” Braxas began.
“Widow’s Bane,” Lord Jussin the Betrayer intoned in a stentorian voice, fingering the pommel of his broken sword. “You will keep your mouth shut and listen to the story — or else face my unholy wrath.”
Lizel Gorgist, whose subtle sorceries had slain numerous men better than Lord Jussin in the past, ignored the mordant threat and favored him instead with a smile filled with teeth. She offered no retort.
It would be pointless to fight anyway. Nothing worked here: Lizel Gorgist’s mystic artifacts were no more than odd trinkets and baubles, and the remnants of Lord Jussin’s blade would fail to break skin. The Dim Plane deadened everything we had. But still we kept what little we managed to bring from the old world. These things retain the potency of memory, reminding us of who we once were. I smiled at the notion that I was not alone in keeping what was dead close by.
“Carry on, Braxas,” Lord Jussin said, mollified.
“One day, Master Antilos woke up from a terrible dream. In his dream Maia was coupling with another man. Deeply disturbed — for he believed in the provenance of dreams — he began to brood and suspect her, confiding in no one, looking for any signs of an adulterous slant. He found none and life went on, but the quality of their togetherness had changed.”
“True, true,” whispered Resa Undermasque, her words accompanied by the rustle of fabric. “What remains unspoken breeds demons.”
I steadied myself against the customary saline stench that accompanied her words.
“It was a few years before the terrible day of confirmation arrived,” Braxas continued. “The world offered incontrovertible proof of his suspicions when he returned unexpectedly early from a sojourn. Looking for his wife, he found instead, in their bedchamber, wedged between the sheets, one of the rings he had given my brothers and myself. Outraged, he used his power to summon all of us, feigning a message from Maia herself. He thought that the guilty party would immediately attend to his traitorous wife’s call.”
“Now it gets interesting,” Lizel Gorgist said, moving closer to Braxas, oblivious to the dark stare of Lord Jussin the Betrayer.
“Who came?” I asked. “Which one was it?”
“I came,” Braxas said simply. “For I was her lover and had foolishly removed the ring before an act of passion, so as to reduce my guilt.”
“Well,” exclaimed Lord Jussin, raising a gray eyebrow. “Well, well.”
“Gods of Forlorn,” I murmured, tired of stories of the heart’s betrayal.
“Good for you, Braxas,” Lizel Gorgist said. She reached out a slender arm, patterned with tattoos that once held immeasurable power, and stroked Braxas’ bald head. “I always thought there was something behind your monkish exterior.”
“Speak,” hissed Resa Undermasque, her voice scarcely above a briny sigh. She shifted to a more comfortable position on her stone, issuing a glistening appendage from the depths of her discolored robes to maintain her balance as she moved, for an instant intimating just what she had willingly transformed herself into in times past.
Braxas gently pushed away Lizel Gorgist’s hand before he continued. “When I arrived, I was surprised to see my master. He brandished my ring in front of me and I would have perished then and there — for at that time he was more formidable than I — if not for the fact that the door opened.
“There another of my brothers stood, equally in shock, for he too, it turned out, enjoyed Maia’s graces. And in quick succession, my two other brothers arrived, one after the other, responding to the cry of the woman whom they also loved and knew in ways inappropriate to her status as a married woman.”
“I love this woman, I really do.” Lizel Gorgist’s laughter rose and faded in the dimness. For a moment, I imagined the deadly splendor of her lost youth in the way mirth shaped her mouth.
Lord Jussin the Betrayer stared into the shadows in silence.
“What happened next?” I asked, taking off my skullcap.
Copyright © 2009 by Dean Francis Alfar