Book of Loboshi

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Dust billowing behind her, Tauro came running over the hills carrying the broken form of Orlachmar over her shoulder. Keeping pace next to her was Fain, shouting directions at her and pointing towards the Gladdyn Forest. Overhead, Illith the Leviathan crawled through the sky, her ripped lower half flailing and spraying red-black blood.

Foul blood rained upon us, hitting the ground like burning lava then cooling to hardened stone, I clapped my hands together and unleashed bolts of pure domoth energies at her. Next to me, Clangorum, Gruen and Thax, my cadre of the Second, were doing the same. When Tauro and Fain arrived, Fain immediately began barking out orders.

"Thax, find Gheasia and Raezon and bring them to the healing mounds!" he ordered.

Thax clapped a fist to his chest and immediately departed, while Clangorum, Gruen and I kept an onslaught upon the Leviathan. Tauro still held what was left of Orlachmar's body in her arms, tears of fury and sorrow streaming down her face. Fain clapped me on the shoulder.

"Loboshi," he said to me, "Contact Volkh and have a doorway opened to the ethereal fold! We need to get to the Fields of the Maeve now!"

Behind me in the wooded areas beyond the hills, Volkh's creations, the wolves, watched me as they always have, ready to protect. I merely had to look their way and Great Spirit Wolf bridged a connection between Volkh and myself. I passed along Fain's message and immediately felt a portal open up not far away.

"Follow me!" I shouted, running towards the portal within the forested area.

Fain and Tauro were on my heels, leaving Gruen and Clangorum to drive Illith off on their own. She was in such pain and so deeply mangled, I did not fear they would have trouble. The wolves were howling their terror as we plunged through the woods and into the shimmering portal.

The ethereal realm was a reflection of the prime plane, and where the awakened spirits first manifest, their natural home, unlike the animals created by the Seventh Circle who resided on the prime. The ethereal realm teemed with these lesser spirits, awakened from trees and rocks, rivers and streams, clouds, flowers, reeds, countless little ones.

Since we entered through a forested area, we were standing in the centre of an ethereal forest, and Volkh immediately manifested next to me, his arms circling my shoulder. Great Spirit Wolf, the oversoul of his wolves, rubbed against my legs. Tauro and Fain came stumbling behind me, carrying Orlachmar between them. Volkh looked at me and saw tears welling in my eyes. He reached up and gently held my head between his hands.

"Orlachmar was of your cadre," Volkh whispered. "If he has any chance, you must go there and be with him."

"Do you know I love you beyond reason," I said, briefly nuzzling his neck.

"I know," he said. "Now go with them."

I nodded and followed Tauro and Fain as they headed towards the Fields of the Maeve. There, the healing mounds were created by the Hamadhi, those of the Third Circle devoted to healing and caring. Before, the Hamadhi mostly kept to the outer planes and cared for the half formed. Now, however, their healing skills were needed to help us in the war. Upon each of the mounds was a stone table covered in thick moss. Vines of fragrant blossoms grew upon the mounds, curling and winding around the sides of the stone table. Hovering over each table were crystals, glittering with auron energies.

Tauro laid what was left of Orlachmar on one of the stone tables. Tauro stepped back, so I went up and stood next to her. I took her hand in mine and she squeezed back tightly. Lantra the White, one of the Hamadhi, ran up to our healing mound and then slowed as she saw what was left of Orlachmar on the stone table. It was only his upper body, half an upper torso, the lower half and legs irretrievably lost down the gullet of Illith.

"Fain, it is too late," said Lantra the White gently. "Please, you must let him go, and let loose your sorrow and grief."

"Start the healing!" Fain snapped, and sharply gestured for her to begin.

But what could Lantra do? Even I could see that life had been emptied from Orlachmar's body. The breath was still, the heart silent, the skin cool, and no spirit flickered behind his vacant eyes. His expression was frozen partially between pain and resignation. Tauro squeezed my hand even tighter.

Lantra sighed and ran her hands over Orlachmar's body, opening up channels to the healing domoth energies. She cleaned away the blood, and sealed what she could of his wounds. She laid a slender hand over his face, softening his pained features. The blossoms around the stone table released a cool fragrance, while the green moss soaked up leaking fluids.

"There is nothing more to do," Lantra said.

"You are wrong! There is much more to do!" said Fain, not looking at her but at a group that was quickly running towards us.

Thax had not only brought Gheasia and Raezon, but their entire Fifth Circle Coterie. As coteries were groups who came together for a specific task, it was obvious they were here with a preplanned purpose. It was no secret that Fain had been working with the Fifth Circle, leading and directing them in certain experiments to help fight the Soulless.

Gheasia was extremely thin, her black hair cropped short and severe. Raezon was her mate and could have been her twin, except he preferred to keep his black hair long and wound in a simple twist. Their ice blue eyes glittered, hungrily I thought, like many of the Fifth Circle. Their coterie consisted of themselves, Mugowumpois whose dark skin was flushed as she licked her moist lips, Oshterel whose small hands fidgeted with some instrument of his own devising, Yomoigu who was tall, silent and stoic except when excited as he now was, and Mililiki whose sharp features were now turned to a seemingly perpetual frown as she hovered next to Gheasia and Raezon.

As they circled around the stone table, Fain pushed Lantra aside. Tauro looked at me in confusion but I could only shrug. Fain must have had a plan.

Raezon and Gheasia seemed to be in charge, as they carried between them a block of pure white marble. Fain excitedly moved to Orlachmar's head, laying hands on either side of his face, then nodding towards Raezon.

"This is it, Raez," he whispered. "Our salvation could be at hand."

Raezon nodded and bit his lower lip, a nervous twitch momentarily marring his smooth features. I looked around at the other Fifth Circle, and none seemed too pleased. Mugowumpois opened her mouth as though she were about to speak but then snapped it shut. Yomoigu and Mililiki were giving each other meaningful glances, while Oshterel could barely contain his agitation and kept twisting the strange device in his hand.

"We should have done more experiments," said Gheasia, giving voice to the trepidation that grew among them. "We have not gathered enough information."

"My experiments have proven unpredictable," said Mugowumpois in a rush, "I want it recorded that I object to rushing forward with this."

"As do I," said Mililiki, nodding at Yomoigu who was shaking his head slowly. "This is much too hasty."

"What are you doing?" asked Lantra the White, her eyes flickering uncertainly around the gathering. "Orlachmar is dead, his spirit has left him, leaked out with his lifeforce. It is only a matter of time before his body disperses and decays."

"Orlachmar is dead," said Fain, gazing intently at each of the Fifth Circle in turn. "There is no time for more experiments or considerations. My friends, it is time to act, while our dear colleague rests on the table before us. We have a chance to bring him back, to turn the tide in this war. Let us try, at least, to see if your work holds any promise. Lantra is right that time runs out, is running out. We must hurry before his body decays. We must try this! Now! Raezon, begin."

Fain's words stirred excitement in the group, and hope was palpable among those gathered. Certainly, an excitement swept through me. Had the Coterie of Fain's Fifth found a way to turn back death or dissolution of our bodies, to call back our spirits? That would certainly turn the tide of war!

Raezon and Gheasia laid the strange white block down. Running their fingers over its smooth surface, golden glyphs appeared, gleaming with power. Whispering incantations and directing subtle immanidivinus forces, the top of the block slid back, revealing a vial cushioned in folds of white velvet. The crystal vial was an enormous cut diamond within which a green liquid pulsated. Carefully lifting it out, Raezon gently unstoppered the vial.

Fain pressed his fingers into the joints of Orlachmar's jaws, forcing his mouth open. Raezon tilted the vial over Orlachmar's lips, letting a single drop of emerald fire dribble onto Orlachmar's tongue.

We all waited, holding our breath. Even Lantra had quieted and stilled, her hands clenched before her. Was there colour rising in Orlachmar's cheeks? Did his eyes momentarily clear and focus? I couldn't tell.

"More," commanded Fain.

Raezon tilted the vial again, letting the emerald fire trickle into Orlachmar's mouth until the viscous liquid filled the cavity. Small streams dribbled down the sides of his cheeks, leaving behind ochre trails. Raezon paused again, and we waited. The liquid pooling in Orlachmar's mouth began to smoke, then slowly sink down into his throat. Gouts of thick grey smoke poured out of Orlachmar's mouth and nose. The healing crystals around the stone table turned black and spun madly and then shattered, peppering us with shards. The moss upon the table withered and turned to ash, and the healing blossoms shriveled, their fragrance tinged with the stink of rot.

This time there was a definite reaction. Orlachmar's mouth opened and closed, and his eyes snapped open. He looked as though he were screaming. Lantra the White gasped, staggering backwards as she pointed to the opening of Orlachmar's torso, which was leaking the same grey smoke.

"It's dissolving him!" she cried.

"No!" said Gheasia. "No, it's not. Look!"

Indeed, smoke descended from Orlachmar's torn torso, but instead of drifting off the table, the smoke gathered into columns, taking on the shape of legs. As grey smoke leaked from Orlachmar's every pore and orifice, his body began shuddering.

"More!" shouted Fain. "Use the rest!"

Raezon poured out the remainder of the vial's contents down Orlachmar's throat, and his body began shuddering uncontrollably. Trying to draw great gasps of air, his mouth stretched open so wide it seemed it would like to split. The grey smoke surrounding him solidified, hardening into a firm shell. His body was bucking now, tossing Raezon away. Fain shouted for us to hold him down, as he gripped Orlachmar's thrashing head.

I lunged forward, along with Thax, and we pressed Orlachmar's shoulders down to the stone table. His regrown legs were kicking wildly and none of the Fifth could hold them down. A moaning cry came from deep within Orlachmar's throat, a bellow of pain and rage. I focused only on holding him down, dimly aware of Lantra shouting at the other Hamadhi for help as they blanketed us with soothing domoth energies. I heard a sickening crunch and thought we had broken Orlachmar's newly formed spine.

But it was the breaking of the healing table upon which he rested.

Finally, Orlachmar stopped his screams and lay still, his exertions perhaps finally running to exhaustion. I stepped back, bruised and aching as though having just come from battle. All of us were staring at this miracle before us.

Orlachmar's eyes were closed, and his chest lifted and fell with heavy, thudding breaths. The golden gleam of his skin was gone, leaving only a grey pallor. His physique seemed changed as well, broader, even more muscled than before. Looking more closely, the newly formed grey skin was thick like an elephant's and small cracks were crisscrossed over its surface. All his golden hair had fallen off, and his lips and nails were black.

Slowly Orlachmar opened his eyes, which glowed the same emerald green as the mysterious fluid that brought him back to life. He blinked through the sickly pale light gleaming from his pupils and bared his teeth. Was his jaw wider? His teeth sharper? Why were his lower canines now so long and curved like tusks?

"What have you done to me?" he said, voice rumbling forth like cracked boulders, laced with bitterness and accusation.

"We have saved you!" said Fain, gripping Orlachmar's shoulder in affection.

Orlachmar slowly climbed to his feet, his movements jerky and slow as he rolled off the rubble that was once a healing table. He looked at me, a dull sort of recognition that tugged at my heart. I couldn't help it, but tears filled my eyes.

"Loboshi," he said. "Take me away from here. Take me away!"

So I wrapped an arm around Orlachmar, taking his weight against me. He felt hot and feverish. Raezon started to follow but Orlachmar stared at him. Raezon saw something in Orlachmar's his eyes and retreated. As we walked away, I heard Fain triumphantly proclaim, "There goes our salvation!"

As we left the Fields of the Maeve, Volkh came running with Great Spirit Wolf at his side. After getting over his incredulity of seeing Orlachmar alive, Volkh helped me carry him to a private glade hidden within the ethereal fold. Orlachmar sat heavily on the ground, his eyes blazing green yet his expression blank.

I explained to Volkh what happened, how Fain and the Fifth Circle Coterie brought Orlachmar back from the dead. Being of the Seventh Circle, Volkh carefully studied Orlachmar's physical form and gave him healing unguents to soothe his skin and herbs to calm his inner turmoil. Orlachmar said very little, just leaned against a large rock and took the medicines.

"He has changed, Loboshi," Volkh confided to me later. "Whatever was done, he is not as he was. And it is more than just his physical form. His very aura seems to repel domoth fields, and I swear even the immanidivinus pathways through his body have altered."

"What does it mean?" I asked, for being of the Second Circle this was far beyond me. "All I know is that the immanidivinus is the source of our inner strength and power."

"Just so," said Volkh. "Each of us has a unique system of pathways within our spirit, if you will, that forms our spiritual body and taps directly into the immanidivinus energies that surround us. We of the Seventh Circle tried to recreate these pathways to create new beings, but our creations could not connect to the immanidivinus but only to the domothean forces."

"So Orlachmar is now more animal? He is only drawing from the domoth energies?"

"No," said Volkh with a sigh. "I do not know how he is even alive. It is certainly not domoth energies that animate him. Partly he is still drawing from the immanidivinus but that alone is not enough. I have a suspicion though. Some of the Fifth Circle have been trying to analyze how the Soulless draw their power since they don't use immanidivinus energies themselves. They theorize that there is an opposing force which they call the excoroperditio force."

"Poor Orlachmar," I whispered with a shudder.

Volkh and I stayed with Orlachmar for several weeks. He remained distant and brooding, refusing to engage in conversation. He adamantly refused to allow the Fifth Circle Coterie to examine him, so they had to be content with reports from Volkh and I of his progress.

The remnants of the First Circle had been cloistered in discussions over whether or not Fain's experiment should even be repeated. There were only 10 of the First Circle left: Fain, Meridian, Olm, Eventru, Aslarn, Shairim, Czixi, Dahlthea, Zvoltz and Auginorus. Since they could not reach a consensus, they called a Gathering at the Towers of Xyl for a vote among all of us. Orlachmar decided to leave his seclusion and attend, and it was here where we all learned the truth of the serum given to Orlachmar.

Once we had all gathered, Fain strode forward on the top dais, the Fifth Circle Coterie and his mate Lisaera of the Sixth Circle arrayed behind him. Fain struck an impressive figure, dressed in gold and crimson robes with his dark hair held back with a platinum circle studded in rubies. He held up his hands until all were quiet, then he bowed deeply, a wan smile on his handsome face. I leaned forward with those around me in response to his magnetic presence.

"We must come to consider our fate, our situation," Fain said, his melodious voice ringing throughout the chamber. "It is time to put aside all qualms and inhibitions, and look to see what strategy the Soulless Ones have used to so far defeat us. Can we use it to our advantage? My Fifth Circle Coterie and I have come to the conclusion that we can in fact emulate the strategy of absorbing the essence of others into ourselves. The first great step was collecting the essence of the Soulless. The serum given to Orlachmar was the distilled essence of the Soulless God Erlechtoch."

Fain paused as the furious whispering at his revelation subsided. Like everyone else, I was utterly shocked. I think Volkh had understood what had happened to Orlachmar, for he did not appear surprised, only sad. We held each other tightly.

"As you can see, the experiment was an unmitigated success!" Fain continued, pointing to Orlachmar. "Indeed, it went beyond our hopes! Orlachmar was brought back from the dead, resurrected if you will. And from all reports we've heard, he is stronger and greater than he was before. And so I put to you that we embrace this new beginning, that we exploit this strategy. We can indeed take their essence into us, use their strength against them. This I believe we must do for our own survival."

There was silence at the end of his words. What did this mean? We would all consume the Soulless Ones? We would eat them as they ate us? And what of our own fallen? Do we cannibalize our own? Could this be the answer to our dilemma, our almost imminent defeat. Yes, perhaps.

Looking around, the faces of others mirrored my own thoughts. Confusion and fear and trepidation and . . . hope. Then Meridian stepped forward, bowing stiffly to Fain. Bowing deeply to Meridian in return, Fain relinquished the forefront of the speaker's dais. Meridian was somber in deep blue robes, his eyes burning still with grief.

"Taking in the essence of our enemy is an abomination," said Meridian. "I ask you this: What will we become if we embrace such a course? Those who killed my dear Amberle, who sucked her dry, would we become like them? Would we be no better than them? I suggest that we would not! And what would happen to us? How would we change? We do not know but we may have an inkling. I've made my own inquiries of those of Fain's Coterie as well as others of the Fifth Circle. There is the possibility that we would become what we hate. Indeed, look at Orlachmar. Is he the same as he was? What if he falls again? Will he be given another infusion of this so-called serum? At what point will he lose all that he is? Will he become another of the Soulless? If not, then what? Something evil. Something cruel."

Orlachmar strode forward, his grey skin darkened with emotion. His eyes were glittering green orbs. He quivered with emotion.

"Listen to Meridian!" Orlachmar shouted, then breathed deeply to gain some measure of control over himself. "Forgive me, Fain, but you cannot do this. You cannot continue on this path. I am not what I was. I do not know what I am! I know what you did was for our salvation, but trust me, Fain, this is not the answer. Do not do this! I beg of you and all that Dynara held for us, do not make any other become like me. It is not just hatred and despair that consumes me! It is hunger! Hunger for destruction! Why have I not wanted to be around others? I will tell you why! I want to kill you all! I want to tear each of you limb from limb! And I do not know how to stop this wanting!"

With his fists clenched, Orlachmar's voice broke. Indeed, he looked ready to begin tearing into all of us. But Fain strode down to stand before Orlachmar and placed a hand on Orlachmar's trembling shoulders. There was such compassion in Fain's eyes that Orlachmar eventually calmed down and seemed to deflate, unclenching his fists and bowing his head.

"Oh, my dear brother," said Fain to Orlachmar, "my dear friend, my dear comrade, if there was only any other way! But know what I did, I believe was right. I believe this is our only way to defeat the Soulless Ones."

"You do not understand," whispered Orlachmar heavily.

"There is no choice, my friend," Fain said, then turned to face the assembly. "And to all of you I ask, what other way out is there for us? Tell me and I will gladly follow! Meridian, I know you reject this plan, but tell me what you would do in its place? You do not answer because you have no other plan! We may survive the coming weeks and months, but what of the coming years? How long can we hold out? The few of us are getting fewer, and the Soulless are growing stronger with each of our fallen. They grow stronger with each of their own fallen, for indeed they cannibalize each other! This is our chance, my friends. This is our only chance. This is what we must do to survive."

Well, Fain's words were impressive. I do not know one of us who could not dispute what he said. But there were also those who deeply felt Meridian's warning. Like Meridian, many of us felt the death of a loved one as he or she was devoured by a Soulless. From sundown through sunrise, we argued the merits of each side.

But in the end, we only had to look out of the tall windows in this crystal chamber to see the world had changed. The sky was black and grey, angry with the venom of the Soulless. Clouds rained acidic fluids, staining the earth black and bloody red. Who could argue that it was only a matter of time before we were defeated? Fain offered us a way. A glimpse to salvation. We had to take it.

May Dynara forgive us, we voted overwhelmingly in favour of Fain's plan.