The Rift Wars Begin

Ophelia found Empath in the courtyard of Adkarna’s central armory, stockpiling arrows, bolts, and various gunpowders shipped from the City of Iron. The battlecarts Empath had gathered carried enough equipment to level a large village.

Empath halted, more out of surprise than respect, her arms heavy with chainmail and her face slick with sweat. “My Queen.”

Ophelia lifted the mail from Empath’s arms. “I know, it is strange to see me within a city’s walls.” She carried the mail to one of the carts and draped it over the edge, where a squire hefted as much as he could and threaded it over thick wooden dowels.

Ophelia said, “I dislike the confinement almost as much as the stench of daemon blood. But when the messenger delivered your note, I had to come.”

She offered a waterskin and towel.

Empath used both. “You haven’t come to talk me out of it, I hope.”

“No. To ask why you insist on leading this mission.”

“King Jeraziah—”

“I spoke to my brother. We didn’t share much, but he did tell me the only reason he named you commander was because he was afraid not to. Apparently he believed if he hadn’t, you would have become one with him, issued the order, then left.”

“That would be disrespectful,” Empath said. “A violation.”

“But amusing, no? So tell me. Why is it so important for you to lead that odd band of warriors back into the Great Rift?”

Empath glanced at the Hunter’s Guild, those heroes who had been pulled into the Rift and survived—thrived, even—and returned to warn Newerth off the growing Riftspawn threat. They seemed even more uncomfortable than Ophelia, and rightfully so. Ophelia preferred the natural setting of Caldavar to anything man-made, but the Guild was suited to an entirely different realm.

Empath said, “I was there when they emerged. I saw what else came out of that rift, and what it intended for our world. I cannot in good conscience let another carry the responsibility.”

“But Jeraziah has granted you every resource you desire. I mean no offense, but there are other warriors better suited to spearhead an assault. The Black Legion comes to mind.”

“The mission is mine,” Empath said. She turned to collect another load of equipment, but Ophelia caught her arm.

“Tell me why.” Her voice was stern, that of a Queen, but her eyes were soft. Appealing. Empath felt within her a true desire to know…to find out if the Great Rift might offer what she hoped it would.

“Relief,” Empath said. “For years I have felt the suffering of Newerth. Of every living creature who has been tortured, maimed, killed. I will lead this mission into the Great Rift and close that gateway, because it will save Newerth. But while I am there, perhaps only for a moment…perhaps I won’t feel that suffering.”

Ophelia nodded.

Empath could not meet her eyes. “It is shameful. But the truth.”

“No,” Ophelia said. “No truth is shameful. It only is. And I, too, would embrace a moment of silence to avoid hearing my brothers and sisters of the natural world howling for the pain to stop. I wish you luck in your search for silence, even if it is only a moment.”

“Please,” Empath said. “Do not tell the King.”

Ophelia scoffed. “He wouldn’t understand. He might not even hear—he’s consumed by his dwindling faith. I feared the news of the Great Rift might topple him from his god’s altar completely. He cannot fathom an entire realm full of strange creatures, all of it beyond the touch of Sol. But he fears it.”

“He should,” Empath said.

“Have those Hunter rogues told you what to expect?”

“Chaos. Chaos and blood. They say our abilities will act erratically, as if we could swap them between us like items of clothing.”

Ophelia cocked an eyebrow. “So Jeraziah and Maliken could feel as you do, share the suffering of our world?”

“It seems so.”

“Maybe then these wars would end.” Ophelia considered this for a few moments, then shook her head. “Likely better if you or I borrowed Hammerstorm’s brute strength and just caved their fool heads in.”

“There is something else the Hunters speak of,” Empath said. “They call them Amulets of Rebirth. Activating one further scrambles the unknown Great Rift forces which grant them these new abilities. Use an Amulet, they say, and suddenly your abilities are different again.”

“Chaos doesn’t begin to describe this,” Ophelia said. “It will be anarchy on a level previously unknown.”

“The Hunter’s Guild claim it’s quite fun. Sporting, even.”

Ophelia studied the group of hardened soldiers, each one covered in skins, claws, teeth, and other trophies taken from their Rift prey. “I suppose they would.”

She put her hands on Empath’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Lead the way into the Great Rift, warrior of Newerth. We will follow. We will close that cursed gateway. And—most important—we will all return.”

Iron Legion vs Hellforged – Prologue

“Everyone stand back!” Rally shouted at the crowd, bunched together and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the devastation. “I have direct orders from King Jeraziah to keep this area secure until further investigation can occur. For the time being, you may return to your homes and your families; the Legion will take care of any possible threats in the area, you have my word.”

Naturally, this did little to persuade the citizens of Caldavar that everything was under control. After the defection of the former King Maliken to the Hellbourne ranks, it was easy to lose faith in those with power. Caldavar and its surrounding cities had been terrorized by numerous monsters, daemons, and corrupted soldiers under Jeraziah’s rule, despite messages from the capitol claiming that Scouts had been stationed on the outskirts of every major port and passageway.

The northern forests had seen plenty of action since that time, but nothing quite as perplexing as what now lay scorched and calloused in the crust of Newerth. A magnificent crater, spanning over a half-mile in diameter, stretched between the trees, blemishing the landscape and alerting townspeople to its presence with smoke trails flickering across the wind. The tremor that shook most of Caldavar was reason enough to worry, but with Jeraziah’s highest ranking generals standing guard around the base of the crater, the battlefield was left without their leadership for the time being: a wholly troubling concept considering the ruthlessness of the Hellbourne army.

Rally stood his ground, unflinching in the evening breeze, and scanning the crowd without pause. He suspected something was not right, but as of yet, nothing appeared extraordinary. The scent on the wind was that of curiosity and paranoia, intertwined with the humble and seemingly unfounded hope that, perhaps, this event would result in something favorable for the Legion. While the sun set, the singed leaves of neighboring trees blended into the background, while the ornaments on the king’s men seemed only to shine brighter.

As night approached, the crowd began to dissipate, sensing that no one would get a look inside until the king made his way through personally. The truth, however, is that the main cause of the disturbance had already been excavated and brought to the Iron City for examination long before the public had made their appearance at the crash site. Moments after the quake, a group of Scouts on routine surveillance duty had raced to the scene, marked their observations, and carried the yet unidentified object, wrapped in their cloaks, back to the Engineers for study.

***

“M’lord, you don’t honestly think it’s a sign from Sol. Even I know He doesn’t work that way.”

Tork walked alongside Jeraziah, the royal guard following close behind as the two strode through the gallery connected to the palace chapel. The red carpet lining the hall had been scuffed from years of travel between the place of worship and the king’s throne room.

“Perhaps,” Jeraziah said uncertainly. “Perhaps not. We will not know until your team examines it.”

The look on Tork’s face grew stern. Weapons did not fall from the sky, and as far back as he could remember, it was the science of the Engineers that provided the Legion with the equipment and technology necessary to conquer their foes. As his grandmother used to say, there was nothing new under the sun. It was up to man to provide for himself.

“And how should we defend against future attacks like this? Our troops are already sparse enough on the battlefield. Their morale is slipping. We shouldn’t gamble on this being a boon to our forces; that’s more of a Blacksmith mentality.”

“Have a new kind of watchtower built,” Jeraziah commanded.

“We barely have the resources to arm our current brigades, and you want us to build more towers?”

“One with a large lens, like those on your glasses, so we may better observe the stars. We can’t afford any more unnecessary casualties, especially from worlds beyond our own.”

Tork’s face twisted into a scowl, his lips quivering with contempt. Without a cigar to bite down on, the words seemed to flee his mouth like birds without a cage: “You just want another toy to play with, something to get a better look at your muse. You’re going to kill them.”

Jeraziah halted his movement and turned to face Tork, his voice deep and impassioned. “Excuse me?”

“These people aren’t toys,” Tork continued. “They’re real; they have real emotions, desires, actions… You think your God will protect them? Your God isn’t the one fitting them for breastplates and training them to kill. Your God isn’t testing every new alloy to make sure they won’t get their heads smashed in by daemon claws. Your Go–”

“Sol did not destroy man; man destroyed man.”

“And He let it happen!”

Jeraziah stood a foot taller than Tork, and stared down at him with a grimace that fluctuated between disappointment and fury. Lanterns lighting the gallery cast shadows of the two on the walls, their personalities displayed in vivid silhouettes, standing larger than life against the brick and mortar of the hallway. Years seemed to pass in the seconds they stood face to face.

“You will do as your king commands.”

Tork’s cheeks grew red as he clenched his fists under worn leather gloves, holding back a flurry of curses. “Yes, of course. I’ll get my best men on it…”

He turned without saying goodbye, then reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a fresh cigar, igniting the end and breathing in deeply, despite Jeraziah’s prohibition of smoking while inside the castle walls. His grumbling could be heard the length of the hallway, growing fainter as he faded into the darkness leading to the east exit en route to the Iron City.

“The rest of you are dismissed,” Jeraziah said as he motioned to his guard. “Return to your quarters for the night, I will be back when I’m done here.”

The guard disassembled and marched back toward their rooms. Jeraziah turned to face the double doors of the chapel. He held his palm against the motif embossed in them momentarily as he took a breath, then pushed them open with one hand and made his way slowly to the front.

The Martyrs had left hours ago. Jeraziah lowered himself into a pew at the front of the chapel, helmet at his side. Decorated with finely crafted sculptures of angels and saints, and adorned in the highest quality gold of the old generation, the room nearly glowed with radiant light; however, the bright interior did little to ease his conscience. All around him, immortalized in the stained glass and woven into the tapestries, were the remnants of bygone eras and men who died for their beliefs. They surrounded him, staring holes through his armor and mocking his tether to reality. The king’s voice was soft as he spoke:

“I’d like to believe that You are looking down on us, protecting us.”

He fidgeted with the handle of his shield, head lowered. Staring at the repetitive tile pattern of the chapel floor, he began to lose his gaze in the design meticulously crafted by the Blacksmiths during his father’s reign. The war from the east, the mounting tension within his own advisors, and the pressure from the citizens under his rule burdened him greatly. It was not difficult to see why Maliken so easily walked away, searching for his peace in another realm. Jeraziah could almost feel the hand of his father on his shoulder as light poured in from every corner of the room.

***

The Blacksmiths and Engineers, as well as a few lucky apprentices, stood overlooking the alien contraption laid before them. On a large metal table, with myriad tools and measuring instruments directed at it, the object sat lifeless.

It resembled a suit of armor, but nothing like what the Legion had seen before, even from the most decorated of infernal Hellbourne soldiers. Long, clean cut lines blended smoothly into the joints of a human shape, the tarnished white material glowing under the intense lights of the workshop. Jagged edges protruded from the waist and legs, likely a result of the heat and force of impact upon landing on the forest floor. The missing pieces allowed full view inside, which appeared hollow, sans a few metal wires. Its face was distinctly human, drawing an eerie resemblance to the art of those who lived before the Fall of Man, as it stared blankly at the spectators with a tilted head: a marionette without a puppeteer, a past without a present.

One of Tork’s head Engineers began examining the specimen, careful to avoid any beads of sweat falling from his brow onto the subject of his concentration. His eyes moved quickly from side to side, comparing the thousands of blueprints in his mind with the advanced technology placed before him, attempting to quietly figure out the way each piece functioned with the rest. He had not noticed the shutter on the figure’s palm spiraling open and closed against the tabletop, and when its eyes illuminated with a flash, it sent the Engineer stumbling backward.

“Loading Operating System 3.2 Andromeda…” A female voice reverberated through motionless lips.

The circuits inside the armor shell sparked, the eyes flickering light through the helmet. A nebulous, purple gas swirled within, slowly expanding to fill the gaps in the armor. It was captivating, awing the group as it bathed them in a colorful aurora which stuck to the walls of the chamber. Stars pulsed through her body like a heartbeat, the breath of life entering her slender frame in the form of a miniature galaxy, constantly shifting: small enough to fit within her, and large enough to house the work of generations.

“I am at your service. Enter command prompt.”

The audience remained silent, their eyes glued to the cosmic marvel. No other sound but the fans on the robot could be heard as it awaited further instruction. The head Engineer stood at the front of the pack, his hands still nervously shaking.

“I, uh…” He managed to sputter. “I think we should wait for Tork.”

Circe the Deceiver

In ancient days it was the wanderers and adventurers who fell victim to the sorceress known as Circe the Deceiver, drawn to the island prison by her enchanted disguises of long-lost loved ones, missing sailors, even gods they worshipped and believed they had found.

In the days of the Lost Civilization, Circe grew weak as Man refined his gift of science; he knew all corners of the earth and had no sense of exploration. Circe’s wanderers dwindled, then vanished. The sorceress waited alone on her island for centuries, scanning the horizons for a glimpse of a topsail or debris from a shipwreck. Continue reading Circe the Deceiver

Steampunk Part 3

Tork yanked on the shoulder straps to ensure the steel backpack could not shift once Caustor ignited the fuel that would spray from the nozzles along the bottom. He checked the flame rifle again and found specks of grit near the trigger. As he turned to take it inside the shop for cleaning Caustor pulled the weapon from his hands.

“It’s fine,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll swing it like a hammer. Seems heavy enough.”

“If it doesn’t work,” Tork said, “you’ll be too busy screaming and burning alive.” He’d grown to almost like the flameless Pyromancer over the previous days as they worked to tailor the weapon system to Caustor’s shape and movements. Continue reading Steampunk Part 3

Steampunk Part 2

Far to the east on the fringe of dead forest below Grimm’s Crossing, a line of Legion soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, their swords, spears, axes and hammers ready behind overlapping shields. To their rear civilians scurried about a tiny, shabby settlement, some fool’s suicidal idea to occupy the no-man’s-land between Caldavar and Hell’s Keep in an attempt to force the daemons to retreat. Continue reading Steampunk Part 2

Steampunk Prologue

The pale body lay within a soiled cloak under a busy swarm of flies. The family of vegetable merchants who had found it in the roadside ditch near the City of Iron sat in their open wagon, the father insisting his wife and children keep their eyes away from the corpse. Against his own advice he mustered furtive glances to make sure it did not stir with daemonic life.

He knew not how the man had died. The body wore the armor of a Legion foot soldier, but if his soul had been replaced with a Hellbourne seed that began to grow, the merchant would see how fast his sway-backed mule could pull. If it were up to him, he’d get a fire going and the body would be ash before nightfall. The dead could no longer be trusted to stay so. Continue reading Steampunk Prologue

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