Her companions once called her the "Devourer".
At first, the moniker was the product of good-natured humour because she ate enough for two men and yet had the frailest constitution among their party.
Later, when they staggered out of the blight that was the Brisbane Zone, reality murdered the mirth.
After that, the moniker took on an all-devouring life of its own.
In every corner where the burgeoning post-Tide Commonwealth reigned, her husband ensured the nickname was never mentioned, and that she was remembered as the heroine of the hour.
Outside of Humanity's cities, the infamy of the Devourer spread like flaming-tempests sowing wildfires, blazing north from the Saurian Reaches of far north Queensland down through the Coral Sea and onto the Shelf Kingdoms of the Mermen.
Even when her notoriety reached its peak, the men of the Mageocracy attributed the credits she had accrued to her prospector for uncovering an unpolished gem— one that, once cut and mounted, could rival the Heart of Flames.
Little did their "Friends" know that her wizened, deathless hubby had anticipated the outburst at the Brisbane Line since the evening he had found a half-wild child-sorceress hugging a dead dog's shaggy carcass. "Alfie" was the drained mutt's name, the sorceress recalled, and initially, she had loathed the kind, smiling Mage who had refused to raise her pup from the dead.
As if mocking her forlorn recollection, the Arctic wind howled, encircling her lone figure like a pack of Frost Wolves. Here at the Earth's end, the Planes of Water, Salt and Ice grew salient as angle and distance muted the presence of Radiance and Fire.
The cold did not bother the sorceress as she watched the ice crystals kiss her flawless snow-white skin. Now and then, when she did feel the cold and her body became aware of the absence beside her, she would wonder if her decision in Eger was the beginning of an end or the beginning of something beyond herself.
Thankfully, the nostalgia lasted only a second. With a rising sense of self-caution, the sorceress suppressed her sentimentalities. Perhaps, if she still lived in civilised society, someone would accuse her with the worst crime a woman could commit— but what consolation could regret offer when there had been no choice?
It was too late anyhow. Presently, in her depthless Soul Well, a million lingering shards from every being on Terra: Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Saurians, Mermen, Birdmen, Insects and Draconids; the once-living and the undying, the physical and the incorporeal, all churned in the Astral soup that was her Essence Pool, driving her onward.
"Your Ladyship…" A lithe contour half-rose from the shadows formed by a low-rising sun that drew claw-like stretches of shade over the blighted landscape. The speaker was a Wight, a lieutenant in her loose organisation of peers; a faceless, murky ghost garbed in a cowl of anonymity. "Lord Sszrar reports that his Shoals are—"
TSSSS! The earth shook.
Great plumes of abruptly superheated frost tore through the glacial sheets.
Her conversation with the Wight was checked by a monstrous predator famed for brutal power bursting from the snow. As it emerged, the linen landscape seemed to move with it, shedding algae-rich permafrost as it rose to its full height. From a billowing maw, great gouts of steam huffed as its multiple hearts inspired action, filling its conduits with molten metal. As it panted, droplets of liquified earth fell from its charred hide, drumming the hard soil with instant beads of dirty alloy.
Their intruder was an Emperor Ursine of the Magma subtype, a monster that should not exist in a place where Elemental Fire waned, and the frost ruled.
"How uncouth." Besides the Witch in black, her companion Wight crouched in the shade of her erect figure. The Ursine were an ancient species from the time of Elves. Even an earthly variant commanded a respectable tier of power. A specimen so large and so dense with Elemental mana could possess enough prowess to warp the landscape.
"Do take a civilised form." The sorceress frowned when her sheer attire flared and flailed from the heat.
"You think it's easy to pierce through the Planes and emerge in a place as miserable as this?" A thundering voice boomed from the magnificent bear. Different to the susurrating Sylvan spoken by her companion, the Elemental speech of the Fire Sea were all hiss and crackle.
"It's no reason to be rude. Know that soon, both the Dauphiness and our leader will grace us. I would not have either of them offended before we divide our rights and duties. How pleased might you be if your counterpart bursts through the crust riding a Dreadnaught Leviathan?"
"Ho? Your sponsor has chosen to come out of the shadows?" The Ursine began to shrink until it was twice her height, reducing in girth until only a hulking, red-skinned, barrel-chested giant tattooed with searing mystical inscriptions remained. On his head, a long tuft of white hair stood tightly coiled in the shape of a turban, affixed with priceless ornaments wrought from gems and precious metals. Below his tapered waist, the Elemental's trunk-like legs ended in massive red feet clawed with obsidian. Where the Efreet stood, his bronze bangles smouldered, polluting the atmosphere with whiffs of nostril-singing sulphur.
The Elemental cracked his neck. In the Efreet's molten-metal eyes, the sorceress recognised a smouldering thirst.
"One would think you'd abhor mortal flesh," she mocked the creature's unnatural, inter-species impulse. "Little wonder you've yet to ascend, Lord Zodiam. For shame."
"So long as we smoulder, we are slaves to the death-desire." The Efreeti Emir did not bother hiding his wanton impulse. "In beings with vital-forces as rich as we, the impulse for blissful oblivion parallels the lust for conquest. Such is the Elder One's will, is it not? As natural as the molten core of our home where the spheres conjoin. I am a man, and you, a woman— what shame should this one feel? In this, you may be unique, O Witch of Untamable Hunger."
Before the sorceress could offer a riposte, a seaspray surrounded them, setting her dress to glisten and the Efreeti's skin to hiss and pop.
"Correct, there is no equal to the Void Witch on all of Terra, not even in the lightless depths, O Emir from the Sea of Sand and Fire." The voice that joined them arrived as a cloud of congealing mist, growing more solid with distance until finally, an exquisite face materialised with a complexion the translucence of brilliant aquamarine.
Their finned ally arrived as anticipated, her scales clad in the sheerest of gossamer. Unlike Human armour, the true daughters of the sea wrapped themselves in spirit-garments wrought from the skin of their beloved kin. In the deep depth where the weight of countless fathoms warped the Planes themselves, no physical apparel could be worn that did not impede the movement of the wearer. It was for this reason that a Mermen's most prideful possession was their highly-evolved body, each specialised for survival against the ten-thousand-and-one threats seeking to engulf the Sea-kin at every instance of their lives.
As one, the two inclined their chins. Nin Gak was a youthful Priestess blessed by the Watchers in the Deep, a Dauphiness ruling over a billion souls and thus, worthy of their respect.
But despite the Mermaid's adolescence, the sorceress and the Efreet knew better than to underestimate their bioluminescent companion. Where the Efreeti received their knowledge from their ancestors, the Mermen endured through their unseen patrons. Though Nin Gak's body was youthful, her mind may well be an instrument millenniums in the making.
"We now await our leader," the Witch of the Void said to either of her lauded companions.
"Milady. Our Lord has arrived." At her prompt, the obfuscated shadow beneath the sorceress stepped into the light. "This one shall now excuse herself."
Abruptly, the female figure began to change. From underneath the cowl came the sound of snapping bone and transmuting flesh, then in one, agonising pull, the figure stood, removing the headpiece covering his face.
"Lillybird," the man addressed the raven-haired sorceress with a faint, paternal smile. "I thank thee. And to our partners, welcome."
"Emir Zodaim, Dauphiness Nin Gak, may I refer your attention to the architect of our endeavour—" the sorceress dipped her head at the knife-eared male standing straight as an oak. "If you wish to address our compatriot directly, he fancies the name Malakath."
"A Ljósálfar bearing the name of a Svartálfar Elder One?" The Efreet's nostrils, which resembled the hungering orifice of carmine carnivorous plants, swallowed the air. "What are you?"
"I sense that we are as fellow Vessels… but who is your patron?" the Mermen Priestess drank in the ambient mana, flaring her pink gills as the flow of slow-forming rime filtered through her transmuted organ.
The Elf raised a hand to dismiss the creatures' invasive enquiry.
"Well met, Princelings of Fire and Water." The Elf took a moment to stretch out his newly formed body. From the portions of their speaker not covered by the heavy-set robes, the Elementals could make out the man's lustrous blonde brows and Mithril-hued hair, marking the Demi-human as a "Light Elf", elder beings that hailed from the north where the sky-curtains danced, keepers of the old Lore. And as with all Elder-kin, it was impossible to tell his age. "Tis is a pleasure to meet thee both in person. It cannot be easy travelling so far from thy homes, especially thanks to that..."
The foursome looked toward the horizon. There, set against a backdrop of an endless snowdrift, giant bowers stretched upward like vague fingers.
"We meet today to attain assurance." Nin Gak's petite nostrils couldn't help but shrink against the icy air. "Both the Emir and I have committed an immoderate amount of our resources to your cause. The promises you've pledged— if it cannot be met…"
"Have faith, good allies." The Elf's lips curled cruelly. "If not in me, then in the simplicity of the laws that govern the Prime Material Plane. If thou hast questions, I am but here to put thy worries to eternal rest. Be liberal, make thy minds known."
"Then allow me to verify what your pet sorceress has sold us— by what means will you nullify the World Tree's divine protection?" demanded the Efreeti Emir. "I may forcibly bypass its defences, but for our lesser kin, the perimetry is near-inviolable."
"The answer is simple, scion of the Ever-burning Flame, we shall draw out the Serpent to weaken its barrier," replied the Elf. "Without the Frost Wyrm, there shall be no absolute territory. Trees, even one from the beginnings of the world, are merely the material manifestation of order in a sea of chaos. Its trunk has existed since time immemorial, but it possesses no Ego, no will. It is a thing, an aggregate of power, a fount of mana, an anchor, that is all."
"The Serpent will not leave the tree," Nin Gak reminded the Elf. "It is known."
"Not so," the Elf said. "The Serpent can be compelled. If the Frost Flower of Lhîweth suffers, it has no choice but to battle the threats outside its barrier. That's the sole reason for its upkeep, after all."
"How will you compel it?" The Efreet enquired.
"Through my numberless minions." Nin Gak redirected the Efreet's attention unto herself. "I shall commit both of the Great Shoals under my leadership."
"And for that, thou hast humbled me." The Elf inclined his chin in thanks. "Though the long march may prove wasteful, rest assured that no loss shall be wasted in the end."
"And this will bring forth the Snake from the pocket plane?"
"If the Serpent does not emerge to purify the land," the Elf continued. "Then the dead will rule, and their World Tree can only wilt. Of course, two Shoals, or three, or four shalln't fathom the defences of an Elfhome guarded by a Serpent. For that, we have our Void Witch."
"And I shall do my duty," the sorceress stated flatly. "Two Shoals, or whatever survives, together with the Tree's disrupted ley, should be enough to destabilise the Serpent's bond to Lhîweth, either through consuming it directly, or forcing it into dormancy— the latter, of course, is likelier than the first."
"And even so, a World Tree as ancient as that will not bend nor yield," the Elf known as Malakath continued. "But tis no matter; its decimation was never our purpose."
"Aye. We have agreed to crack the pillars of the Planes, not to fell it." The Efreet Prince agreed.
"Indeed, though thy advantage will endure no more than a decade," the Elf spoke with a tone of regret. "Though overwhelming power may alter the elemental admixture of a place, the Tree is tenacious."
"Whatever the outcome, your folk will have enough time to wreak havoc," the sorceress added her assurance.
"It is strange to me." Nin Gak watched the sorceress and her Elf's impassive faces. "Both the Emir and I know what we shall gain from this endeavour. For myself, our people have always known that Terra was our domain and that these terrestrial 'Humans' must be exorcised like a parasitic barnacle. Zodiam's country as well, has been endlessly harassed by Humans, his kin reduced to Cores and made into weapons and ornaments— but what of yourself? Are you not terrestrial beings of this Plane? Where is your Tree, Elf?"
"Tis a most intimate question." Malakath raised a hand in protest. "Forgive me. We art allies and compatriots, Dauphiness, not friends."
"You say that, but I am committing two Great Shoals— that's four million souls sacrificed to the Void Witch so that we may cripple a sleeping, limbless Wyrm. Is that insufficient cause for trust?"
"Aye, it is out of sincerity that we are here, risking our flesh." The Efreet smouldered. "I am with Nin Gak. Even if you lie, we would like to hear your reasons; else I cannot put it past my conscience to commit my tribe to this frozen wasteland."
"Is the promise of conquest and revenge not persuasive enough?" The Elf chuckled. "We art sincere in our suit, O Emir, else your father would immolate mine immortal Soul for all of eternity."
"I am an excellent judge, dear Elf," Nin Gak assured them. "Do you forget that I am the mistress of a thousand-millions. I can taste falsehoods before they manifest."
The Elf shrugged. "Very well— though our snow-white Lilybird here has a far better tale to tell. Nevertheless, I shall speak of mine with as much courtesy as I can offer without the Accord rending mine soul asunder."
The two Elementals remained unmoved by the Elf's aggrandisement.
Assuming a faint hint of sorrow, the Elf pointed to himself. "This one rages against the chains that tether mine kin. I thrash and howl against the bindings of kismet."
"You seek to escape the karmic wheel?" The Efreeti's pupils burned. "Are you an adherent of Undeath?"
The Elf shook his head.
"No Necromancy. Nothing so crude will free mine people," he said. "Did thou know that all Humans are born free? Their kind art blank slates, free to be whatever they desire, to succeed, or to fail. Yet we who art ageless sovereigns art bound by kismet. Be we Elf or Elemental, it enshrouds us, forces us into our respective places. The Álfar art tethered to the pillars of the Prime Material. However we struggle, imprisonment is our only reward."
The Elementals furrowed their brows; Zodiam's bushy brows were twin gouts of bright fire, while Nin Gak's sleek scales crinkled and overlapped.
"For thou whose birth was given purpose, it may be hard to imagine the frustration." The Elf laughed. "This one has had a few thousand years to ponder, after all. Can thou even imagine the frustration of such a thing? Living for longer than most civilisation has stood, agonisingly comprehending the limitations of thy sphere and its dumb Pillars— all is futility! If the Humans and the mortal beings art born free, then why should their betters be held in bondage? Why is this the sufferance of my tribe? For whose benefit and at whose command do we yield our sacred selves?"
The Elementals stood in silence, clearly struggling to empathise with the Elf. When the Demi-human said nothing more, they turned to the woman.
"Revenge." Her smile was effortlessly chilling. "I want the Commonwealth to bleed. I want their Mageocracy to fall. I want everything my husband had ever touched to turn to dust and ruin and ash. I want to see his beloved Humanity fed to the fishes."
For some reason, though they had known the female for far longer than the mad Elf, their irrespective scales and hair suddenly stood on end.
To Nin Gak, the sorceress' vitriol regarding her mate was utterly alien. In her palace, she would spawn her eggs in a pool, after which a host of Champions standing at the apex of a billion beings would fertilise her eggs. Then, as elvers, her children would cannibalise each other's potentials until a dozen Priestesses and Champions emerged as the next generation's successors.
Conversely, Zodiam thought of the Sultanate's famed seraglio from which his mother came and the sheer number of adversaries whose Cores she had to immolate to attain the power she now wielded in the Brass Court. Female Elementals, be they Djinn of the Sky, Efreeti of the Fire Sea, the noble Marids of the coast, or the wily Shaitan hiding among the Sand Sea, all held grudges with an intensity rivalling True Dragons. If what the Void Sorceress professed was the truth, then the Emir could only worship the woman's malice. Passion, in his mind, made a female desirable. As his mother had shown, few appetites burned as bright and black as unbridled hate.
"You would spite a mate by making his entire tribe pay?" Against the invading cold and the stabilising dimensions forcing his energies to disperse, Zodiam warmed his body with Elemental Fire, once more turning a healthy, molten orange.
"Late... husband," the sorceress added. "He is with the Void now."
The Efreet licked his lips. "But one's tribe..."
"Elf or Human, we art outcasts now, beings with neither tribe nor home," the Elf interceded on his sorceress' behalf. "The Witch of the Void and I, we art the forgotten ghosts of abandoned conscience— the hollow ones— straw-stuffed Revenants belonging to a vengeful, spectral band. Does that satisfy?"
Their audience showed neither compassion nor satisfaction.
"No? Then call it revenge," the Elf conceded. "Why complicate a simple thing?"
"Let us return to our prior topic." Zodiam chose not to dwell. "I now perceive the disruption to the region caused by our assault on the Tree. However, I do not understand how terraforming these frozen wilds will lead to the accomplishment of more enduring goals."
"Hahaha, trust our kin of flames to grow confused at the power of water." Nin Gak laughed, then offered her summer compatriot a shot at understanding autumn. "Look around you, exalted Emir. Know that an enormous volume of liquid is stowed in this vast wasteland connected to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt, Ice and Water. The disruption of the ley-lines, together with the proliferation of your kin, will be enough to return much of it to the ocean, for a time."
"The overabundance of Elemental Water will cause Terra's Planar Axis to overcompensate," the Elf continued with an all-knowing serenity. "As the Axis Mundi seeks to rebalance itself, the dimensional instabilities that afflict the Prime Material with grow by three to four-fold. Mana Storms the likes of which the planet has never seen will afflict its equatorial regions. Quakes compounded by a recession of the Elemental Plane of Earth and the expansion of the Elemental Plane of Water will plague its diminishing shores. Even without Leviathans, Priestess Nin Gak's Shoals will be able to access the innermost reaches of Humanities' coastal cities. For both of thy folk, there shall be such access to thine Planes the likes of which has not existed since the Dragon Age."
"Not to mention," the Human sorceress added to the conversation. "Dark and aberrant things long-hidden in the dark spaces between the Planes will emerge to feast."
Zodiam cocked his magnificently wrapped head. "What of our Human allies? Their goals seemed self-defeating."
"Humanity tis a strange, multi-headed beast," the eternal Ljósálfar answered the Elemental Emir. "Wouldst thou believe that a portion of Humanity desires this outcome? Tis insanity, but then again, such is human freedom. Within their warring tribe, our sympathetic compatriots have lost sway. For them, this blood-letting shall serve as a way to reclaim power. In their eyes, only by surrendering the good of the many can the few arise."
"Recall that, unlike Lord Malakath's kin, Humanity is afflicted by impurity," Nin Gak explained to Zodiam. "Like our kin, they are split into mortal fodder and sorcerous predator. Presently, their leading echelon believes that the weaker humans should be protected and sheltered by the powerful— but our allies believe in the opposite."
The Elf laughed. "Tis nothing so noble, sweet Priestess. Verily, they simply loath the sharing of power. Imagine if an Imp had the same say as your esteemed self, Lord Zodiam— because a hundred-thousand Imps made this one Imp their representative."
"I would extinguish them all!" Zodiam sucked in a breath of frigid air, feeling his head throb from the frosty breath.
"Precisely," the Elf nodded approvingly. "Long ago, our allies once held the reigns of power. Now deprived of their influence, they see no more merit in feeding their federation. For them, playing the Necromancer over a shattered carcass is preferable to permitting others to rule in their stead."
"It's a fish-eat-fish world." Nin Gak shrugged. "The humans are the same as us in this regard, though they do try very hard to suppress what comes naturally to them, unlike our Void Witch."
"Aye." The Elemental Emir laughed. "From the mana in her body, I can only say our vanguard has not held back for some time."
"You flatter." The woman smiled, then looked up at the horizon. Awed by one of the world's old existences, the group allowed the conversation to fade.
"We proceed as planned." Nin Gak was the first to concede. She had a lot to lose, but at the same time, her Mermen bred quick and food was scarce. "I do apologise for my impatience, but your air is murder, and my feet feel as though pierced by jagged coral."
"Yes, we proceed." Zodiam flared once more, heating the frigid atmosphere around his polymorphed avatar. Unlike the Mermaid, what the Emir had in mind was the accomplishments brought by his success and his place in the line of succession once their father ascends. "By the Sultan's Mark, the Fire Sea shall not rescind its commitment."
"Very well." The Elf bowed. "Thou hast mine word, O Lord and Lady of Fire and Water. Though in the aftermath, the Grove of Lhîweth may stand and the world's balance return— Humanity shall ebb as the receding noon-tide and thy time of reckoning will satisfy. Lilybird, canst thou escort our guests? This far from their natural abode, it is inconvenient for them to return."
"Very well." The sorceress turned and swung her arm, splattering the broken ground of the tundra with tenebrous ink. Very quickly, the tar-like discharge blossomed into proliferating clusters of milling Hydras, eating into the earth until an intricate, multi-layered Mandala formed.
"Mass Teleportation!" The sorceress finished the eighth-tier invocation before the Efreet's body could cool, burning the Mandala mid-night black with mana from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of the Void.
Their august guests could hardly hide their aversion as an obsidian portal the shape of an elliptical gash connected the Prime Material and the Astral.
"It's ready, Dauphiness Nin, Emir Zodiam, step this way—"
The Elementals regarded one another.
"Humans have a saying." The Efreet grinned at the Mermaid. "Ladies first."
Unamused, Nin Gak stepped through the portal.
Toward the sorceress, the Fire Elemental winked, then was gone, swallowed by the pitch-black Void.
The remaining two individuals waited in silence in case their guests inadvertently returned. When no Elemental royalty re-materialised, they relaxed their guard and shut the portal.
"Wights—" Malakath hissed at the shrinking shadows now that the sun hung higher. "How fairs the south?"
From the distending shadow of the sorceress came the milling forms of the organisation's Essence-fed sycophants, some tall, some hideous, some short and others stout. All of them occupied Avatars consisting of vile, chimeric vermin fed with the sorceress' consumptive mana.
"— The terraforming is on schedule— Emperor Sszrar sends— Six Shoals of his finest— for our southern endeavour."
"He desires— every coast of Oceania," The shadow's speech jittered and halted, the lag in delivery an unfortunate symptom of the World Tree's dimensional pacification. "—Gunther Shultz—"
The Elf looked toward the sorceress, who stood unfazed.
"Tell the greedy whale he can have Sydney, Shultz, and whatever else he desires," the sorceress scoffed. "He's seen what can be accomplished when the desire for conquest overrules compassion for his creatures. Remind Sszrar that it is because he failed to commit the entirety of his forces that Sydney still stands. A Holy War must be paid in blood, that's the way of the world."
"— the way."
"Notify our sorceress if any changes should occur," Malakath dismissed the shadow before addressing another. "Speak, what of the Svartálfar?"
"The Guardian—Sea of Trees— unaware," another phantom jittered, his movements like that of a faulty Golem. "—uncaring— insular."
"That's Elves for you." The sorceress shrugged at her partner. "Were you expecting anything else?"
"Perhaps," The Light Elf glanced at the ice tree on the horizon. "Though maybe not."
"Are you certain we can't bring down the tree?" The woman wet her ruby-red lips. "The vitality there could be put to use on our next project, and the next."
"Not without dire cost, Lilybird," the Elf declined. "A failure to defend the Tree is the problem of the Grove; as is the Serpent's pacification by a superior force. There are no eternal victors, for that which is bound to nature must ebb and flow, whether by interference, occurrence or chance. Mine kind will not act harshly to failure. BUT— if we fell a pillar, then the meddlesome Hvítálfar may put aside their split from the Svartálfar to cooperate. That would be a dire prospect."
"If our involvement is discovered and our purpose fails." The sorceress chuckled. "Every Grove on Terra and their allies as well would hunt us down from the Prime Material to the Unformed Land. Is that not a direr prospect?"
"We cannot and will not fail." The Elf faced his partner, his hard eyes growing soft. "Yes, tis dire, Elizabeth. I thank thee and love thee for thy labours."
From Devourer to Revenant, one bloodless face observed the other.
"Be very careful, Malakath," Elizabeth Sobel's voice was a whisper on the wind. "If I didn't know better, I'd say your Humanity is leaking."