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.”
“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.”
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.”