“Bloody Gods,” the man grumbled at her back. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into leaving my weapons behind.” His face was hidden beneath a hood of black; his only visible feature – a pair of brown eyes. “. . . What I wouldn’t give to have something more than this damned sword,” he continued. “Not to mention my armor . . . it’s been saving the lives of my family since the Exodus – saved my own ass on more than one occasion -- and I’ll be dead if I don’t need it now more than ever. Besides, considering what it’s been through – the very Rift itself -- it just doesn’t seem fitting to have it end its days as a pile of rust in that hell-hole, Shattered Rock.”
She had listened to him gripe for days now, and for the most part, she suffered his words in silence. But there was a limit to what she would ignore, and her mentor had more than surpassed it.
“We lost much in Shattered Rock,” she replied, her voice laden with honey, even though her words bespoke her disapproval. “I would think your dented armor would be counted among the least of them.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t hear the standard “Humph”, curse, or equivalent unintelligible grunt.
Her reply managed to shut him up . . . momentarily anyways. They didn’t make it much further down the cobblestone road before the complaints renewed, much louder and more vulgar than before. She knew it was brought on by fear, and was therefore willing to disregard the majority of it -- the rest, she tried to ignore altogether. Truth was, she too was afraid. But even worse – and perhaps most frightening of all – her mentor was right.
Where they were going, they would need all the help they could get. . .
Ahead of them, the Gorian Mountain loomed, its snowy peaks hidden by a dense layer of smoke. The ash-filled clouds veiled the sun, covering the land in a dusk-like gloom even though it was not yet midday. Occasionally lightning flares erupted in the distant sky, followed immediately with an earth-shaking thunderclap. Constant flames rose from the heart of the city, from where the Black Door lay.
All of the sights had been visible from miles away. Only recently were they close enough to hear the screams; at least their dying echo as they reverberated through the canyon of red granite.
Though heart-wrenching and eerie, she took the continued screams as a good sign. If the people were in pain, it meant they still lived, and if so, then perhaps they weren’t entirely too late.
Since they left Shattered Rock, they had moved at a near sprint. Now, weary beyond measure, they somehow managed to pick up their pace; the images of the burning city, and the muffled echoes of pain, forcing them to dig deeper into their every last reserve. Huffing and puffing with every breath, the man also somehow managed to continue spouting expletives at her back. She was actually impressed by the man’s level of creativity and vulgarity in his use of the words. The thought of killing a ‘meat puppet’ with its own genitalia had never crossed her mind. But surprisingly, her mentor could think of several methods.
“. . . I’ll shove that shriveled . . . huff, huff . . . down your dead . . . puff, puff . . . and rip out every last piece until . . . huff, huff . . . before I kill you I’ll pull it from your . . . puff, puff.”
She had to turn and glare at him when the methods focused on the female ‘meat puppets’. Then, like a mantra, he once more turned his grumbling to his lost weapons, listing every last item he was forced to abandon at Shattered Rock.
“If only I had my axe . . . and my mace . . . can’t forget my daggers . . . and my armor, of course . . .”
For the most part, his words fell on deaf ears, but now, with the obvious battle raging before them, she couldn’t help but agree with him. Her fingers lingered uncomfortably on the hilt of her own standard-issue longsword. She felt the corded leather handle in regret, wishing she could wrap her hands around the smooth oak shaft of her spear instead.
In their need for haste, she had decided it would be best to leave their larger weapons behind. For her grumpy mentor, this amounted to a virtual armory which she personally had to rip from his hands – and he had been complaining about it ever since. Once more they wore the uniforms of the Death Guard. Partly, it was because she knew they could move quicker the less encumbered they were. If he had it his way, her mentor would have waddled his way to Lock Core in his antique suite of plate mail. Sure, the armor could have saved his life, but by the time he made it to Lock Core, he would also be the last one standing.
There was another reason she had convinced him to leave their items behind and don their Death Guard attire; it was because she desired as little trouble as possible along the way. The living tended to avoid any one who was ‘under the mask’, and for good reason. One could never be sure for whom they were summoned to cleanse of infection. And if they happened to come upon the undead, there was always the hope the smarter of their kind would realize their profession, and let them pass in anticipation of weaker prey.
The guise seemed to serve its purpose, for they met little resistance in the course of their journey. Only a few minor gatherings of ‘meat puppets’ barred their way, but they made short work of them and lost little time with the effort. In her estimation, they should be days ahead of the others – if the others yet lived. And she had the utmost faith they yet did, and that they too would make it to the city. Considering the company they kept, it would take an army of the undead to stop them. The Destroyer pretty much took care of the Outland infection, leaving the hell-spawn of the Rift as their only true threat.
If they could keep the Plague contained in the city until the One Elf and the others arrived, they could just stand a chance . . .
“Wait until the One Elf has a crack at this lot,” her mentor scoffed, similar thoughts apparently running through his mind. “By the time Solo Ki’s done with em, they’ll be sorry they ever set foot in this world.”
Once more, she found herself in agreement with her mentor. An odd coincidence, to be sure, so rarely did the man string his expletive laden sentences into a logical thought.
But like her mentor and herself, the others had no idea what they were walking into. This wasn’t what anyone expected to find after leaving the remains of Shattered Rock. They had hoped to find help in the red-walled city. Having only recently ‘defeated’ the Plague, the last thing she expected was to face it once more. And this time it was coming from the endless depths of the Rift . . .
And this time they didn’t have the Destroyer to stop it . . .
As much as the sight of the city gripped her with fear, she knew damn well there was nowhere left to go. The Outlands were dead. Only one city remained to the living, and they had no choice but to press on towards it . . . to the burning Red Wall.
The Red Wall . . . the city of Lock Core . . .
Originally, it was never intended to be a city, but a fortress. The many tiers of dwellings carved in the face of the cliff were built as barracks; to house a standing army of the Triad at all times. But after so many years of silence from the Rift, families began joining the soldiers in their dwellings, and with a growing domestic base, more workers moved in to fulfill their needs. The housing developments continued to spread over the mountain, drawing even more workers – more families. Before long, the Red Wall was a city, its structures and dwellings growing more elaborate, larger, and climbing farther and burrowing deeper into the massive Gorian Mountains. The cliffs became castles. The interior -- an ant-hill like maze of chambers and tunnels. And the mountain itself, a sprawling city surrounding the Great Red Wall.
As for the actual wall, one look at the marvel of fortification and it was no wonder why their predecessors thought it was insurmountable. At its shortest point, the wall was over ten stories high – nearly twice that if one included the four primary towers, positioned at the north, south, east and west ends of the wall. Between the primary towers, smaller towers of red stone divided up the length of the crenelated wall. Depending on their location, the towers were constructed in various ways; some were entirely tunneled into the mountain face, while others were mainly stacks of granite blocks. But no matter their shape, each tower was similarly outfitted with defenses. Row after row of archers’ slits faced the Rift, and each tower had several cantilevered balconies large enough to hold a dozen soldiers or a war-machine; most commonly a catapult, scorpion, or giant, pourable bucket of molten lead.
From their distance, she could see little of the Wall’s defenses other than the northern tower, which was still under construction even twenty years after the Destroyer toppled it with his power. The tower itself was surrounded by a scaffold exoskeleton, with rigging, ladders and several lift platforms providing transitions from one level to the next. All of which were aflame, turning the entire northern tower into one massive pyre.
As they drew closer, it was obvious the city had been hard at work bolstering its defenses in their absence. They hadn’t been gone long, but since they left, a wall had been built to block access to the city from the Outlands – something unheard of in the history of the city. It was always assumed the enemy would come from within the Wall, from the Black Door. No one ever thought the Plague would fester and grow in the Outlands, consuming the cities and thus turning them into an army that could take the city from beyond.
Luckily, they were able to save the city from such a fate. She just hoped they could save it from its latest threat as well.
Upright logs bound together and sharpened to points barricaded the roadway in front of them. A ramshackle tower, roughly two-stories high, was behind the wall. The lower half, brick and mortar, the second-floor timber-framed with a knee-wall of notched logs. A large wooden gate blocked the road, suspended at the top by wheels that were attached to a large support beam spanning the width of the opening.
Written in blood red letters upon the gate was the warning; “No Outland admittance.”
The wall was far from insurmountable, any substantial army could easily force its way through, while a smaller party could climb it with only a minimal effort.
She was about to attempt the latter, believing the tower to be vacant, when she saw a pair of conical helms slowly poke up from the tower’s knee-wall . . .