archived fiction: in the dim plane
In the Dim Plane
by Dean Francis Alfar
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 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.”
A fallen paladin who had denounced his queen for the promise of power, I did not feel Lord Jussin deserved to be in the Dim Plane. But somehow he 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.
“We fought, of course,” Braxas said. “We each felt betrayed, each thinking we were the only recipient of Maia’s love. The room erupted in fire, was torn apart by wind, ravaged by an earthquake, and almost washed away in a deluge as my brothers and I fought each other and our master. It ended as suddenly as it began, with Master Antilos collapsing to his knees in tears. My brothers and I – our hearts were filled with an undeniable heaviness and felt full force the senselessness of fighting among ourselves when there was clearly only one person to blame.”
“The heart betrayed has no secrets left to hide,” murmured Resa Undermasque, a halo of salt crystals barely visible above her head. “And everything to prove.”
“Oh, no,” said Lizel Gorgist, holding the high collar of her tattered overcoat to cover her nose.
“The trollop deserved it,” said Lord Jussin, stepping a small distance away from Resa Undermasque.
Braxas fixed Lord Jussin with a steady glare before continuing. “We apologized to our master and swore to set things right. Master Antilos proved he was a better man than any of us by forgiving us. Together, we decided how Maia would pay for her quintuple deception.”
“Men,” said Lizel Gorgist, lowering her collar to spit. “Did any of you stop to think that you, each one of you, were just as complicit as she was?”
“Sadly, no,” replied Braxas. “We decided that death was too good for her.”
“Really?” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Let me guess,” offered Lizel Gorgist. “You decided to mar her beauty.”
“Yes,” nodded Braxas. “It would be worse than just killing her. After all, that was her only coin, being untrained in the ways of elemental art. We also decided that none of us would do it, being unwilling to further sully ourselves with her presence. So we commissioned a man to do it. A man whose word was his bond.”
“Who?” I asked.
“We hired Ordun the Handsome, the Gray Knife, to cut off her ring finger,” Braxas said.
I felt words recoil on my tongue.
Lord Jussin the Betrayer shuddered in the silence that followed. Lizel Gorgist, the Widow’s Bane, could do no more than sit back with a pained expression. And from Resa Undermasque’s place in the circle of stone came only an almost muted susurration.
“You commissioned Ordun the Handsome, the greatest assassin of Forlorn?” Lizel Gorgist shook her head. “As black as my heart was at the height of my powers when I broke away from the Sorceriat, Ordun’s feats outshadowed mine.”
“You found him? You could afford him?” Lord Jussin the Betrayer asked. Everyone in the circle of stone knew that Ordun’s fees were outrageous and that his craft prevented him from being located if he did not wish it.
“Master Antilos found him, pushing his abilities to their limits. And as for the fee, my Master offered him a principality in Nevim, and much more besides.”
“Who cares what he asked for,” Lizel Gorgist said. “Did he succeed?”
“Don’t you think hiring Ordun the Handsome was excessive?” asked Lord Jussin. “To cut off a woman’s finger?”
“We wanted the best and we wanted to make sure,” shrugged Braxas.
“Well,” said Lizel Gorgist. “I am certain she finds a way out somehow. She does, doesn’t she?”
“Doesn’t she?” I echoed.
“When Ordun the Handsome found Maia hiding atop an abandoned tower in the woods near Karvel, he took one look her and found himself startlingly, helplessly, in love.”
“In love?” asked Lord Jussin in disbelief.
“What?” I said.
“Yes!” cried Lizel Gorgist. “Now she has a chance.”
“But I thought the woman had no powers,” asked Lord Jussin. “How did she ensorcell Ordun?”
“She’s a woman,” Lizel Gorgist told Lord Jussin without looking at him. “That’s power enough.”
“It is love.” Resa Undermasque’s intricate veil fluttered, favoring us again with her brackish breath.
“Then what happened?” I asked, surreptitiously gasping for air.
“In that moment, they were all that mattered to each other. They held hands and spoke in the brief time they had. Maia confessed everything to him, leaving nothing unsaid, and Ordun the Handsome listened and loved her more for her courage and honesty. But there was still the matter of Maia’s ring finger. Without a single tear in her eyes, Maia offered hers to Ordun, taking a blade and putting her unsteady hand against a stone. She did not want him to be at odds with my master, my brothers and I. Having heard from him about his commission, she knew death awaited him if he failed to deliver. Ordun stopped her with a kiss and told her not to worry.”
“Oh,” said Lizel Gorgist. “Oh, I think I know what he’ll do next.”
“Ordun the Handsome had delicate hands, a requirement of his profession. He went to the other side of the tower roof and, unknown to Maia, cut off his own ring finger.”
“Oh, oh,” said Lizel Gorgist softly, covering her mouth with her hands.
“He did this quickly and in silence, then heard a gasp from Maia. While his back was to her, she had cut off her own finger. She raised the bloody digit and begged Ordun not to cut off his. She was speechless when he presented her his own severed finger.”
Resa Undermasque slowly shook her covered head.
“Such love is impossible,” Lord Jussin spoke quietly, as if besieged by memory.
I was already in tears. I looked around the circle of stones and found moisture welling up in Lord Jussin the Betrayer’s eyes; perhaps the old boor had a heart after all.
“Then we arrived,” Braxas said suddenly. “Soon after we sent Ordun the Handsome off, we started talking and realized how much we all loved Maia and were more than willing to forgive her and settle things somehow. After the tide of anger we were consumed by deep remorse and set off to stop Ordun from completing the terrible thing we had tasked him with. By combining our powers with that of Master Antilos, we were able to discern where they were, heard their conversation and surmised what was about to happen. We moved as fast as we could, by flame and wind and earth and water.”
“But you bastards were too late,” Lord Jussin interrupted.
“When we completed our ascent to the tower roof,” Braxas continued, “we came upon Maia and Ordun the Handsome, each with a finger cut. Ordun exploded into action and fought against us. Try as we might, we could not stop to talk – so puissant and vicious was Ordun at his craft that none of us could risk a word to enlighten him about our intent. He thought we were going to kill him for his betrayal.”
“I’ would have fought you all too,” I said, clenching my fists.
“As would’ve I,” boomed Lord Jussin, his tired eyes consumed with lost fire. “For love. And survival.”
Braxas nodded. “None of us wanted to harm or kill either Maia or Ordun the Handsome. At least that’s what I believe to this day. But with Ordun’s prowess and our summoning of the elements and various expressions of power, what happened next was inevitable. There was a tremendous explosion that devastated the tower.”
“No,” exclaimed Lizel Gorgist. “What happened to Maia?”
“When I regained my wits, I found myself on the ground, surrounded by the remnants of the tower – and the bodies of my three brothers. I wrenched myself free from where I was pinned and was moved to tears when I came across the hollowed-out form of my Master. Maia I found, barely alive. Cradled in her hands were two severed fingers – hers and Ordun’s.”
“And Ordun?” I asked, almost breathless.
“There was no trace of him at the rubble, so I assumed he survived and fled while he could. Though it must be said that the end of Forlorn was less than a year away, so I don’t know if he survived the Ebonnites.”
“Gods,” I whispered, my mind awhirl.
“And Maia?” Lizel Gorgist asked.
“I carried her back with me, did what I could to restore her finger to her hand. The physic who helped us told us that it would not be the same but offered as a consolation that at least she wasn’t incomplete. She sat through this all in silence, while the physic set and stitched and I explained to her about how everything came to pass. She wouldn’t say a word to me, and, if I remember correctly, never shed a tear. I left for a few hours to inform the necessary people about the deaths of my master and of my brothers. When I returned, she was gone.”
“She was gone?” asked Lord Jussin the Betrayer. “Just like that? Couldn’t a man of your abilities find her?”
“He let her go,” said Resa Undermasque quietly as the penumbra of salt around her head gently dispersed. “There are those who are not ours to keep.”
I felt the sting of her words and closed my eyes briefly.
“I did not wish to impose upon her heart,” Braxas admitted, lowering his head into his hands. “I knew that at the end, it was Ordun whom she loved. I never saw her again. The end of Forlorn saw to that. Well, until tonight when I thought I saw her ghost.”
The five of us sat in silence for a few moments, unmoving statues lost in reflection.
“She would not have stayed with you,” Lizel Gorgist softly told Braxas. “I know that kind of woman. She made her choice. I hope she found sanctuary somewhere, like we did.”
Lord Jussin stood up slowly and stretched his arms and legs in order. “I’ll take my leave now,” he told us. “Thank you for the small diversion, Braxas. It amused me, quite unexpectedly. ” He bowed and moved away.
“Gods of Forlorn,” I said under my breath, my thoughts on the contents of the ghost’s box I kept hidden on my person. I knew now, even without looking, what it contained, and how it would change my life.
“Listen, Braxas,” Lizel Gorgist said. “If it was her spirit you saw, then she was looking for him and not for you. Take what comfort you can from that.” She stood and took her leave, parting the shadows with her outstretched arms to return to her secret place on the Dim Plane, where she kept all her dead artifacts.
“I’m leaving as well,” I told Braxas, donning my equally useless skullcap. “I have something I need to do. Thank you for the story.”
“But Maia’s ghost– “ Braxas said, looking up to where I stood. “It was her I saw earlier. You must believe me.”
“I do. But like the Widow’s Bane, I also believe that she is gone and had no quarrel with you.”
“But how did she get here?” asked Braxas. “You know all about the undead. Tell me.”
It was the salt-tinged whisper of Resa Undermasque that answered him, fading, as its owner did, into the dimness. “A questing heart knows no boundaries.”
Braxas lowered his head.
“Fare you well, Braxas, Harrower of Flame,” I said, offering my arm.
“Fare you well then, Teros, Doom of Dirmoth,” Braxas said formally, clasping my arm in the manner of his people. “And thank you.”
I thought of the ghost and how it was me, and not Braxas, that she sought as I made my way through the dimness back to my haunt.
How did she know?
I could only admire her courage. And her devotion.
I reflected on the unassailable fact that years in exile changed people. I was simply not the man I used to be – which made my next choice easier to make but no less difficult to bear.
I entered my cave and moved into the central chamber where the last skeleton under my power sat mutely, tapping away time with nine fingers on a smooth stone.
Sensing my presence, he tilted his head toward me.
At that moment, I felt profound sorrow. Up until the time I left my cave earlier, just before Braxas and his story, I would never have considered, never even dreamed, of my next action.
Gods of Forlorn, how did she know?
He was mine. He was all I had left of the old world, my old world. By completing him I would lose him.
“Ordun,” I called to the skeleton, determined to act before my heart betrayed me. I retrieved the ghost’s box from within my vestments, my eyes wet as I prepared to say goodbye.
“I have something that belongs to you.”
*from "The Kite of Stars and other Stories"
** illustration by Andrew Drilon