The mountain pass was covered in rolling snow drifts. Imposing cliff walls hung over them on both sides, leaving only a sliver of grey sky visible. Large spikes of rock curved out far above, the wind whistling as it blew up flurries of white. It gave Nyx the feeling that he was looking out from inside the jaws of some gargantuan beast. Dragons Maw was an apt name for the pass.
It was eerily quiet; the only sound that of their boots as they crunched through the blanket of white. Three sets of footprints marked the trail behind them.
In these parts, even in the summer, the cold never waned. Icicles hung far above, easily as thick as Odolf was tall. Nyx was not small by any means, but walking next to the man he might as well be a dwarf.
Odolf was slight for a half-giant, but still twice the stature of an average man. A thick red beard and scraggly head of hair obscured his face. A white dusting of snow was caught in the tangled mass and down along his thick brown hide clothing. In the two centuries Nyx had known him, he still hadn’t caught more than a glimpse of what lay beneath the dreads. He had long since given up trying to convince the man to get a proper haircut and beard trimming.
Ivan stood at Nyx's other side, only slightly taller than him, sporting a shaved head. His appearance was just what Nyx thought an outlaw should resemble, scarred and menacing. His eyes were narrowed looking ahead, as if expecting some threat to jump from hiding and ambush them at any moment.
Irene floated above the snow behind them, a perk of cultivating the air element. She was clad in a thick ermine-lined coat. Her auburn hair blew in the breeze that gusted through the mountain pass, exposing the elegant curve of her neck and severe but beautiful features. Countless men had been left heartbroken by the woman.
The four had been a unit for a very long time, the others had found him after he had been betrayed, at his lowest. They had accepted him into their group, bringing him to safety while he recovered. It was their individual tragedies that brought them all together, but it was the countless battles, that had turned them into fast friends. They fought against the ‘order,' preached by Agrion’s disciples.
In the past two centuries, Agrion’s mandate had spread like wildfire, his influence far-reaching as countries fell to his armies. Nyx’s own republic of Acadian had willingly submitted to the Godking. He was referred to as ‘his holiness,' ‘the bringer of peace and order.' What was not readily understood, was that his peace came at a price. Most people were happily oblivious, willing to surrender for temporary comfort. It was easy to sit back and be guided by forces greater than yourself, but in Nyx's experience, what defined a person was their willingness to stand, even when all alone.
He knew the truth, Agrion was a celestial, corrupted by his element.
Nyx stopped in his tracks nose upturned, the other three halted. “Nobody should know we are here, how have they found us so quickly?”
He sensed the movement of at least twenty enforcers trailing them.
“Agrion wouldn’t come for us himself, would he?” Asked Irene.
Nyx shook his head. "No, we are just gnats to him; but by the looks of it, they aren't taking a risk. Sending so many just for us? Somehow, they must have gotten wind of what we are planning, I knew something was strange when nobody showed up."
“Go on Nyx, we are counting on you… but if you fail, there is always Keagan,” said Ivan, eyes glinting as he forced a smile revealing crooked teeth.
Nyx frowned at the reminder of his rival. Keagan's element was darkness, and he had a personality to match. They might be on the same ‘side,' both being outlaws and all, but they had different methods for getting what they wanted.
“Are you sure there isn’t a better way?” asked Irene, she was shifting uncomfortably where she hovered in the air.
Odolf’s deep voice rumbled. “We’ve had this conversation; the best course is the one we tread.” He didn’t speak often, but when he did - the others listened.
Irene glared at the half-giant but stopped protesting.
The scar on Ivan’s bald head puckered when he scrunched his eyebrows. He was menacing with his tribal tattoos, rippling muscles, scars and the twin swords strapped to his back. But Nyx knew no honest person needed to fear the man. While ferocious when required, he did not enjoy causing pain.
They had expected other rebel cells to come and assist them, but none had shown. Their options had now dwindled with the arrival of the forces behind them. Without the numbers needed, escape was near impossible.
“I’m starting to think now might be a good time to see the light of the order. What you think? ’May you follow the balance, and let it guide you,’” said Ivan in a high-pitched voice, mocking the priests who traveled with contingents of soldiers, wearing white and gold robes.
Nyx smiled sadly at the attempted joke while he regarded his friends, it might be the last time he saw them. He could see the hope in their eyes, they had faith in him and his plan. Hard decisions and sacrifices were necessary, he understood that, but he didn’t have to like it. There was no point in voicing the feelings, Ivan would just ridicule him for it.
“Now get on, if you make it, we are counting on you.”
Nyx looked to Irene, the closest thing to a lover he had had since the death of his wife. She lifted her head giving him a distinctive look, lips slightly parted, eyes roamed his face. There was sadness in her bearing, an understanding that Nyx would never care for her in the way she wanted.
“You going to kiss him already? We don’t exactly have the luxury of time. Maybe you could give me a smooch while you are at it,” said Ivan, his lips puckered, wrinkles creased on his ugly bald head.
Irene crossed her arms glaring at him.
Odolf stood to the side stoic as ever. "Our hopes go with you," Nyx swore he could feel his bones rattle when the giant spoke.
“No pressure.” Ivan cracked another fake grin, Nyx could tell he was just trying to alleviate some of the tension. “I would go in your place, but not sure I could find the way… you know… never having been to this ‘Earth’ before.”
“It’s a long shot,” Irene shrugged, “but it’s the best one we’ve got. We will try to hold them off and give you your chance.”
Ivan gave Nyx a gentle push, forcing him further into the pass ahead of the others.
“I’ll be back, once I have the strength,” said Nyx over his shoulder.
The three nodded then turned away from him. From his back, Odolf pulled the massive battle-ax he had named Lothar. A wickedly curved weapon that had tasted its share of blood, imbued with the power of Earth.
The infamous Windrunner daggers appeared in Irene’s hands, glowing white.
Ivan drew his twin swords, blue currents of electricity conducted down the length of the blades and along his arms.
Snow began to whirl into the air kicked up by Irene’s power. Nyx caught a last glimpse of the trio’s determined faces before they were obscured in the wash of white. A sadness and sense of loss filled him, today he would not be standing with his friends against the enemy. He wanted to stay, leaving felt like giving up. Clenching his fists, he locked the image of his comrade's faces in his mind, then bounded off through the snow, into the pass.
The wind whistled by his ears, it had only been a short time, but he had traveled far. He heard Odolf’s roar echo through the pass, the mountains themselves began to shake. Nyx’s lips turned up in a sad smile, the enforcers were in for more of a fight than they had bargained on.
A shadow blocked out the little light and Nyx leaped forward, narrowly avoiding a falling icicle the size of a house, then bounded over the piles of snow that had been rattled loose from above. He didn't stop running even with the sounds of the battle taking place far behind him.
“Give them hell,” he muttered under his breath.
For another time, Nyx fought off the feeling that he had abandoned his friends, forcing himself to continue. After half an hour of running, the pass opened into a steep decline, but he didn't slow. Spread out far below him was an enormous valley, tucked away between the mountain peaks. With a leap he cleared the slope into the open air, skipping the winding trail that led to its base. He plummeted, building speed as gravity took effect. Nyx could see heads sitting on spikes dotting the winding trail bellow, a warning not to trespass. At the last moment Nyx braced for impact landing feet first feeling his legs bulge under pressure, snow billowed out, spraying in all directions.
Nyx leaped from the crater then brushed away the snow that had gotten stuck in the folds of his clothing, he could make out a temple in the distance. It was built on a hill, the mountains on the far side of the gully rose up, their details indistinct from a distance. The temple had a massive archway carved from obsidian, the spiraling symbol for Aether was inlaid above an enormous pair of dark wood doors.
Nyx observed a figure standing at the base of the winding stone steps that led up to the temple. He loped forward feet digging trenches with each bound, closing the distance. He stopped, boots sinking into a snowdrift as he lowered into a fighting stance. Facing him, the elder, guardian of the shrine regarded him impassively. The guardian's perfect posture drew attention to his blue aura crackling with power.
Stray hairs from the Elders' white beard were blown by an errant gust, causing him to squint to keep them from his eyes. A wrinkled hand brushed the hairs from beady eyes. A snow dusting slowly melted as it landed on Nyx's face - he ignored it.
The reflection of light drew his gaze back to the hill behind the guardian, the temple, his goal. It was a wonder that light could be reflected off its drab appearance. After years of searching, he was finally here. The idea of returning to a place lost in his past was a surreal feeling; but at the same time, it was exciting. With a glance, Nyx noted thick swirls of natural, icy Chi, mixing with the snow.
The elder's voice boomed across the expanse between them, "I knew you would come, don't let the cold bother you. You are now in my domain, and as guardian, I will do as I see fit." He tilted his head. "I believe your head would look good posted on one of my spikes."
The lines of Nyx's face deepened as he frowned, his jaw flexed. The idea of killing the man made his stomach churn, but this would not be the first or last time he ended a life. The elder was just a pawn, but in allowing himself to be used, he became complicit. He wouldn't let himself to hesitate.
He sprinted forward, eyes locked on his adversary. The man was definitely stronger than him, with years spent defending the temple and at least a century devoted to cultivating.
The elder smiled, not a friendly look that seemed to spread slowly as he raised a hand. Light blue wisps rose from his fingers rapidly growing into a whirlwind of ice. Nyx kept careful watch, readying to defend himself from the inevitable attack. Nyx had almost closed the distance when something thundered into him from his blind spot knocking him off course. The whirlwind of ice was only a distraction. He tasted a metallic tang in his mouth as his body windmilled through the air; he was no longer in control of his momentum. Just as Nyx crashed into the snow, he glimpsed a massive fist made entirely of ice floating in the sky. Its fingers clenched and unclenched in time with the elders.
Lying in the snow, Nyx could feel shattered bones and ruptured organs beginning to scream out. He coughed, and a mouthful of blood spilled over his lip. The attack had been one only a master could pull off. It had to be timed to perfection. Nyx’s senses were honed and could pick out disturbances near or close meaning the Elder had astonishing control of his Chi, able to manipulate it without him noticing while distracting him at the same time.
As the seconds passed, the pain started to become muted, and a comfortable numbness began to move from the ends of his hands and feet toward his torso. He had one option left, something that guaranteed his death. Nyx delved inside himself, gazing upon his core. It glowed red, like a molten piece of metal in the shape of a ball. He had spent centuries cultivating for strength, but now he would be throwing it all away for a temporary boost. If he broke his core, the energy would repair his body before slowly tearing him apart. Once the energy was scattered he would die. But what did he have to lose? He was as good as dead anyway. With an iron will, Nyx tore at his core. Cracks began to form, spider webbing outward from a single point. He continued to beat at it with increased urgency as he sensed the Elder moving in his direction. With an explosion of heat, the container of Nyx’s strength splintered.
The energy traveled through him in a wave. His muscles repaired and enlarged, flames engulfed his body, and eyes burned as he rose to his feet. The snow in a massive radius around him instantly evaporated, and steam billowed into the air. With an earsplitting crunch, the ground exploded sending up tufts of dirt as his muscles bunched and he launched toward his adversary.
Surprise etched into the elders' face, wrinkles bringing out his age. Nyx blasted towards him almost faster than the guardians' enhanced eyes could follow. He sensed the Elder draw at the sea of icy Chi in his core. A thick barrier of ice began to form in front of him, streaming from his fingertips.
Nyx’s lips drew up slightly at the corners, he pulled more energy into his outstretched hand as he catapulted through the air, it blazed to life, a swirling inferno of blue fire. Using the heat of his element, Nyx punched through the would-be shield like a dart through paper.
The elder stumbled backward, mouth open in disbelief. True terror filled the guardian's eyes, the Chi he had begun to draw faded away. Nyx considered summoning his divine armament but discarded it, the drain would be too high. Another thing he would be giving up.
The elder had no time to react, Nyx opened his enlarged hand and gripped his head. White hairs stuck out at odd angles but quickly turned to ash. With a splat, he crushed the man’s skull. Blood and brain matter sizzled as the heat from his body burned it away. Charred remains and chunks of gore littered the now snow-less ground. Blood from the depths of the corpse oozed to the surface causing it to become an ugly purple and black mess.
Nyx made his way towards the temple, already feeling himself weakening from the energy he had exerted. He could only hope what he had left was enough. His footsteps were soft as he jogged up stone steps leading to the temple. After all his searching he had finally found the means to return to Earth. The snow had fallen quickly already beginning to hide the traces of the brief battle. He picked up his pace, running up the stairs three at a time.
As he neared the entrance, Nyx decided it was much more impressive than he had first thought. The archway towered far above him as he strode closer, making him feel small and insignificant. The stone exterior of the building had been worn smooth with time, a remnant from a lost age, hidden away from seeking eyes. Bracing his feet on a crack, Nyx grabbed the rusted metal handles and pulled, the doors creaked, their enormous hinges screeching until they stood open.
Nyx ran a finger along one of the doors, they were made from wood he did not recognize. The wind immediately began to buffet through opening blowing Nyx's cloak around his shoulders. The musty smell that came with long neglect filled his nose. Grey light from the overcast sky streamed into the space highlighting particles of dust in the air. It reached inside the temple, just far enough to highlight a sculpture sitting in the middle of the otherwise unadorned space.
Nyx walked over to the statue, it depicted a woman in a flowing dress with her hands outstretched in front of her. In her hands rested the artifact. It was a sphere so black it seemed to suck the light into it, leaving the area nearby in shadow. It resembled a soulstone but was much purer. It was the purest form of Aether that could be found in the material world. This was what Nyx had been searching for, a relic that poked holes between dimensions.
Reaching out Nyx closed his eyes as his fingers touched the stone. He knew he was touching something, but it felt like his hand passed into a void. He directed his Chi into it, to unlock its power. The object began to siphon the remaining energy from his body in droves. His instincts told him to pull away, but he forced himself to keep contact. Nyx could feel the air itself begin to bulge, cracks forming. His teeth ground together, this was insufficient. He began to map out an intricate array pattern using his soul in the Aether, the pattern only visible in his mind's eye glowed goldenly.
More cracks began to form till the pathway opened, leading to Earth.
Time worked differently on the lower and higher planes, while centuries had passed for him in the higher realm, only hours had taken place on Earth. Visible only to his soul, the passage was a wormhole that bored through the Aether, the space between material planes. Dark matter.
He had to leave his power behind, his vessel on Earth was not ready to contain it. He could not bring his body from the higher dimensions. A tear ran down the length of Nyx's chin as he thought of the things he was leaving behind, he could only hope his friends had somehow managed to escape. With a deep breath, he centered himself, ready to commit fully. He ran his Chi through his body in a seemingly chaotic fashion; it would detonate in the higher dimension taking with it the crystal, the means for others to follow.
On Earth he would be starting fresh, feeding off energy from both higher and lower realms, tempering his body and spirit.
Although it would be challenging to cultivate the Chi from higher dimensions due to its scarcity on Earth, the demonic Chi was readily available. This merging of upper and lower energy was something rarely found in the multiverse. Had he not grown up on Earth and seen the demons with his own eyes, he would be completely unaware of this potential. His anger burned, demons did not belong in his home dimension. They sustained themselves by feeding off others life energy.
His spirit entered the vortex, his door home. Lights spun as his consciousness traveled through the wormhole, he could feel the energy on all sides shielding him from the black nothingness that was the Aether. Directing the power, he felt himself drawing closer, a sea of lights spread out in front of him, but it was the patch of darkness that felt familiar. He let himself be drawn onward, toward that familiar feeling.