Darkbirth – Bella Forrest

This couldn’t be happening. And yet here we were, in a misty void, surrounded by glowing orbs and strange humanoid figures who had challenged Gate Maker to admit his transgressions and renounce his hubris. Whatever that meant. This must be the Higher Plane, the home Gate Maker had spoken of, though it was nothing like I’d imagined. And all these creatures were just like Gate Maker. Dorian’s hand found mine as we scrambled to our feet. All around us, the gray stretched endlessly, and my lungs squeezed. The lack of any horizon or landmark brought on a hopeless sensation of disorientation. The completely flat land stretched on forever until it was obscured by a curiously reflective yellowish haze. Only, there was nothing to reflect, creating a queasy effect. There was no visible change, horizon, or differentiation between land and sky. What exactly was this Higher Plane? I glared at Gate Maker, who only moments before had been addressed as Ruk, wondering what the hell was going on. What debt were these glowing orbs talking about? Dorian squeezed my hand, face tense, body language indicating he was in fight-orflight mode. Our tentative ally, now a red orb rather than any of the previous forms he had taken in the time we’d known him, faced the strange beings without a second glance at us. In fact, none of the humanoid figures looked at us.

Searching for the logic in the situation, I scanned my surroundings. The temperature was perfectly average with no humidity or dryness or cold. The silvery ground beneath our feet felt solid but not in a definable way; it didn’t feel like dirt or concrete or anything I knew. There were apparently no guards or barriers stopping us from leaving, but… where could we go in this empty void? Was there even a threat right now? I observed the glowing orbs, watching where they floated like giant hazy fireflies. I had no way of telling what powers they had. Perhaps, like Gate Maker, they had the ability to shift into various forms—everything from giant reptiles and horned goblins to reasonably human shapes and smaller snakes. I frowned at Gate Maker, who currently remained as a red ball. Why wasn’t he using any of the forms we’d seen him use before, especially when there were other similar humanoids in the group in front of us? The humanoid figures were honestly more unsettling than the orbs and their eerie, discordant voices. They wore plain robes, but the clothes failed to hide their strange bodies. They were entirely hairless, with a few exceptions. When they narrowed their gazes at Gate Maker’s glowing form, the movement accentuated their lack of eyelashes and brows. Emotions would be hard to gauge from these creatures. I tried not to raise my eyebrows at their noses, which didn’t protrude and were more like slits in the skin. My skin crawled when I studied the hands of one and saw that she had no fingernails, only fleshy nubs. Most of the humanoids wore robes of a gray, billowing fabric similar to those Gate Maker wore before we left the Immortal Plane.

Some, like the tall figure who had the additional blue robes, had intricate hairstyles—in his case complex braids in his white hair. My hands became tired thinking about the complicated artistry required to produce such a style. If he were here, Juneau would be furiously scrawling notes, his designer’s brain mesmerized by the detail. I tried to imagine what would stand out to Juneau, to see if I could scan for hints about these creatures and what they considered essential and stylish. There was a gold thread embroidered on the edges of the more elaborate robes that appeared to shift like the dancing flames of golden fire. For a millisecond, I worried the figures might notice my intense gaze on them, but they were completely uninterested in my and Dorian’s presence. The closer I studied the group, the more their bodies looked like paintings done by an artist who’d tried their best but wasn’t precisely sure what humans looked like. The bodies were close to right, but not quite there, the proportions subtly wrong. For a moment, Sempre’s horrific reconstructed form came to mind, but these inhabitants of the Higher Plane were different, almost beautiful in a disconcerting way. “He thinks himself brave,” someone whispered from the back. Or was it the front? Words came from floating light balls, but it was like their speech consisted of breathy vibrations through the air that left a bodiless echo that was kind of chilling. The voices, and sound in general, traveled even more oddly here than it did in the Immortal Plane. Sounds buzzed in my ears, my eardrums vibrating in confusion as I struggled to adjust. It was so unlike the sound of the chaotic battlefield that I almost missed the solid clash of swords against armor that we’d left behind. Dorian’s fingers skirted the inside of my wrist, a blissful reminder he was here with me.

I was grateful for the grounding sign that I wasn’t dreaming. This was real. We were together in an entirely different plane, unknown to humans, vampires, and other Immortals alike. It seemed that while Gate Maker had refused to talk about his home much, the existence of another plane was definitely real. It was also evident that he was not wellliked among his peers. Why? Dorian took a purposeful step forward. It wasn’t like anyone was planning to invite us into the conversation. At least I didn’t perceive any immediate danger coming from these beings; they didn’t seem to be threatening us. Gate Maker, however, was another story. The orbs brightened and dimmed, making short, darting motions of agitation. They’d surrounded Gate Maker, closing in as slowly but inevitably as a python. Dorian took another step. I wasn’t sure if that was wise, so I held back and watched, prepared to leap into action if any of them turned on Dorian. “Excuse me,” Dorian said, his tone even and polite. “What exactly is going on, and what are we doing here?” Dorian was right: we needed more information.

Most importantly, we needed to know what Gate Maker had done to upset the other inhabitants of the Higher Plane, but I was eager to learn everything about this Higher Plane, like who had made these beings, why they were in this plane, and what powers they had. If they were anything like Gate Maker, it wasn’t unrealistic to assume these beings had immense power. My stomach clenched in preparation for any action that might threaten us. I mentally calculated how long it would take for me to draw my pistol—assuming it would work in this strange new place—trapped between wanting to be ready for anything and not wanting to escalate the situation. Gate Maker said nothing. He’d told us that he was going to send us back through a portal to the training grounds once he’d drawn the energy he needed from us, but this welcoming committee was clearly not planned. We’d basically abandoned the entire Coalition, left our friends and allies, to come on this quest. What had gone wrong for Gate Maker to have dragged us here, to the Higher Plane, instead of sending us back? And why exactly were they all against him? It seemed unfair. This was supposed to be his home. I bit my lip as doubt seeped into me. This had to be a mistake. Unless… The voices didn’t acknowledge Dorian’s question, focusing all their attention on Gate Maker. Even the humanoid figures who possessed eyes didn’t so much as glance at us. I shot a curious look at Dorian, and he returned the gesture with a questioning frown. “How did you get back through the barrier?” the figure with white braids demanded sharply.

“It was supposed to be impassible after the Separation,” one ball of light hummed in a three-part melody. My brows knit together. If the barrier to this plane was meant to be impassable, how had Gate Maker brought us here? And what was the Separation? The beings continued their arguing. The strange echoes grew more accusatory and charged. Almost literally. I rubbed my arm as every hair on my body stood to attention as if drawn by static. Everything about this place felt so wrong. Since nobody had yet paid attention to us, I leaned toward Dorian. “Do you think ‘Ruk’ is his actual name?” Dorian sighed. “I have no clue. Whatever he’s called, they’re ripping into him. I’d like to voice an opinion, but that won’t help things. Mainly because no one seems to care that we’re here.” I hummed quietly in agreement. The commotion Gate Maker’s entrance had caused was obvious.

The voices congregated around his red form, which flickered with an ebb and flow. It was as if the explosive comments from his peers were pummeling his life energy. “Have sixteen hundred years of being displaced wrought any change on your habit of making poor choices?” A disembodied voice floated up. Another voice joined in, coming from one of the lights in the back, if my perception of distance was trustworthy. “This was awfully inconvenient of you.” “What we do with you now that you have returned is the real question,” a small humanoid mused aloud. She stroked her pointed chin with stubby fingers that bent as if there weren’t bones inside. Her glimmering black eyes slid to the side to regard the silver-haired man. “Un, has it really been so long in the Immortal Plane?” Un sighed haughtily. “It has.” “Are you here to beg forgiveness?” cried a different light. “You must fix your mistakes and repay your debt. The chaos you caused—” “Unforgivable,” another orb cut in with a voice like vibrating glass. “Staying with those so-called Immortals brought nothing but harm in the end.” A lanky humanoid who stood near Un, with the shiniest of bald heads, sniffed.

“Has Ruk’s suffering at the hands of that insufferable ruler negated some of his debt? Or do we still expect the full payment?” she asked. This sparked another flurry of conversation. Voices overlapped, and I couldn’t make out who or what was speaking. The floodgates had opened, releasing an unstoppable barrage. The one voice I understood came from Gate Maker himself. Speaking so loudly that it hurt my teeth, he demanded, “Let me explain.” The uproar increased, the voices ricocheting off one another like an orchestra warming up. “Explain? How can you possibly explain?” “Tell us immediately how you plan to repay your debt.” My eyes went to Gate Maker in the fervent chaos. Strange, I never thought I’d miss those unsettlingly flat lavender eyes, but it was impossible to say what he was feeling, since he currently lacked a face. What was clear, however, was that whatever these beings were talking about, Gate Maker owed his kin something. An explanation for all of us will be an excellent start. Un performed a sharp clap that reverberated like intense thunder in the void around us. The other voices instantly hushed. “If you thought everything had been forgotten, then you’re mistaken,” Un announced.

His voice carried, growing to fill the endless plane. “You have yet to pay for your crimes.” Crimes? My pulse spiked with dread. Gate Maker had always carried an air of power and mystery, but I’d never considered that he might be a criminal. How was he planning to get us home if he got arrested on sight? Sempre’s words immediately after I’d released Gate Maker from his chains came back to me: “You have no idea what you have just unleashed.” “Oh, Un,” Gate Maker called in a mock-friendly tone. “I’m glad to see that you haven’t found anything better to do with eternity than nurse your foolish ire.” Un narrowed his eyes. Although he lacked lashes, the skin at the edges of his eyelids was dark, smudged gold, the skin slightly raised like scarification marks. “Still so arrogant.” He sucked in a breath. “It’s like you’ve learned nothing.” He gestured to the crowd and smiled victoriously. Although the orbs of light had no faces, I could tell that they were focused on Un’s presence, since they swiveled in his direction. This guy was important.

Or at least he seemed to think so. I stepped up to join Dorian, taking his hand once more in mine. “You see?” Un said with melodramatic bitterness. “The criminal has returned, his banishment and punishment changing nothing in his attitude. Oh, how we hoped it would be different, that he would request permission to return with humility and a new appreciation for the importance of order and cohesion, but alas, we must face the facts. This fugitive has sneaked back into this plane, attempting to avoid judgment and breaking the Mandate of Secrecy by bringing these two human mortals with him—” “We’re not both humans,” Dorian muttered. “I’m a vampire.” Un ignored this comment, which was honestly no surprise. “—with not a scrap of remorse. As was originally decreed, he must cede the energy he’s gathered to all of us. Any arbiters who asks for repayment must be given what they ask. Nothing else but the most intense penance will absolve him of his rebellious crimes.” He has to pay them in energy? I stared at Gate Maker, again wishing he had a body so I could decode his facial expressions. “I will not do so, and I cannot.” Gate Maker’s voice rang out.

“After you altered me without my consent, I’ve been reduced to virtually nothing. I don’t have enough energy left to hold a physical form right now, so how exactly am I meant to pay you?” “How unfortunate.” Un scoffed, though it was clear he didn’t think it was unfortunate in the slightest. “Then you shall remain weak for a long time.” His face settled into a smug smile. The orbs of light and humanoids muttered low whispers of agreement. Was this a trial? I scanned the crowd, looking for indications. “You would love that,” Gate Maker spat. Un shook his head, his braids flying as he turned his back on Gate Maker. “My peers, we cannot let him disappear back into the lower planes once more. He must remain in the Higher Plane, the plane of purity and justice. If he does leave, we will never receive justice.” My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as I searched for words. These beings were discussing a situation that directly affected Dorian and me, yet they had not included or addressed us at all. Powerlessness was a feeling I’d just managed to beat in the Immortal Plane, and now it came back in full force in the Higher Plane.

Dorian let out a low growl beside me, clearly equally irritated by the situation. We were less than oxygen here. I took a deep breath. Hell, I didn’t even know if I was breathing oxygen in this place. The shiny-headed humanoid next to Un crossed her arms with a scowl and said, “I sense that Ruk lacks the energy to escape. We can decide on his course of action, but we have no need to restrain him.” The corner of her mouth lifted a fraction of an inch, a smile of satisfaction at his helplessness. Gate Maker couldn’t escape. He lacked the energy to actually portal us out of here. I stared at him in disbelief. Try to understand. That’s what he told me. “Now… why have you brought these creatures here?” For the first time, Un spared Dorian and me a disparaging glance. It was the first time our existence had been acknowledged, and it almost came as a surprise that he could see us. He turned back to Gate Maker before I could recover from my shock.

“Are they supposed to help pay off your debts?” Gate Maker paused. My mind raced. Since they could hear us, it was time to speak for ourselves. Surely, they could just hear us out. “We need an explanation,” I blurted. “We did not agree to come here, and we honestly have no desire to get mixed up in whatever is going on right now. We just left the Immortal Plane. There’s a war going on. We had to abandon our friends and allies. There must be some mistake because we don’t have time for this.” Dorian nodded heartily. “Exactly. We have duties to attend to. In fact, we were in the middle of battle before Gate… before Ruk pulled us away to ostensibly fulfill part of our pact with him. What is going on here?” The humanoid ones gave us scathing looks, then turned back to Gate Maker.

I imagined the orbs would throw us actual glares if they could. A rising frustration grew inside me. There was no doubt about it—they could see us and hear us, and they were purposefully ignoring us. It was utterly infuriating. “Are these what Immortals look like? I haven’t seen one in so long,” a ball muttered to another. “Not an Immortal,” I pointed out. “He’s a vampire. I’m a human.” Another added, “Their bodies are awfully different than they should be. There’s quite a lot of hair. Such interesting pores on these creatures.” I bit my tongue. It was tempting to snap that they too might not look so great after an all-out brawl with dozens of hunters, several soul-scourgers, and Immortal rulers on ash wraiths. Antagonizing these beings would not help us at all. The female beside Un sighed.

“What are we to do with them?” She regarded us carefully. “Unravel their energy? Would that play a part in Ruk paying his debt? He did bring them here.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded bad, whatever it was. My insides turned to stone as I listened to the outpouring of suggestions. “Unravel them. Give us the energy.” “Let Ruk suggest his grand plan if he chooses to use his words.” “They’re a threat to the Mandate of Secrecy,” Un said firmly. Every time he spoke, he wrested everyone’s attention back to himself. It would be impressive if it weren’t so frustrating. “If we send these creatures back to their own plane, they’ll expose the existence of arbiters to the rest of those lower beings. We have taken many pains to keep apart from them.”


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Updated: 22 March 2021 — 20:28

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