Into the Rift

Once more into the Rift . . .
Led by the elf prince, Adros, a group of heroes returns to the Dead Worlds in a last ditch effort to find the living. But instead of survivors, they encounter beings more ancient and evil than even the foulest of Dead Gods.
Meanwhile, the Goddess Alana begins her own quest -- a journey back to the world of her greatest failure, the elven home-world, the land where she left her true love die. There, she must face her greatest fears -- and an enemy more powerful than anything she has ever known.

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He awoke to the echoes . . . the fatigued aftermath of bloodcurdling screams.  The voices, female -- full of pain.  A sound so distant, even his keen elven ears could barely hear it, but the agony within the cry, so resounding it jolted him to consciousness.

The sound, so familiar . . . far worse than the cries of the dying . . . it was a plea for death.

No matter how often he heard it, the sound would always haunt him.

Not again.

The screams may as well have been echoes of his past.

Enraged, he too tried to scream . . .

GAGURBLE . . . GUR . . . LUBER . . .

He nearly choked on his own tongue as he forced the mash of syllables from his lips.  Something filled his throat, making it impossible to speak.

He tried to move . . .

He was able to wiggle his body, but his arms and legs were bound.

Violently, he shook his body in an attempt to free himself.  A sharp pain ignited in his wrists and ankles, growing stronger the more he fought against his bonds.  He was forced to stop as his wrist grew wet with blood.  He felt the stream running down his naked body; warm as it trickled down his long arms and torso, then ice-cold as it left him, dripping from his feet.

Calm yourself . . .

The last thing he wanted was to kill himself before his captors had a chance to . . . or more accurately, before he had a chance to kill them.

The screams restored his consciousness, but the blood spilling from his wrists restored his senses.  He knew the situation was dire, if he was to have any hope of surviving, he would need all of his faculties; mental and physical.  Even if he managed to free his arms and legs, they would be so damaged as to be useless.  Nor would it do any good to hold onto his anger, no matter how great it was.  With a focused mind, and a great deal of luck, perhaps the time would come to unleash the full might of his rage against his captors. 

But for now . . . he had to know just how dire the situation was . . .

Adros blinked away the caked blood covering his eyes.  He tried to take in his environment, but his head was spinning – and along with it the room.  He felt like he was floating; assuming it was due to the loss of blood spilling from his wrists.  But as he pried his eyes opened further, he realized he actually was floating; suspended at his wrists at least twenty-feet above the ground.  Nor was the room spinning, his body was.  His thrashings had likely twisted the metal wire holding him aloft, and now it was unwinding, twirling him on its axis.

Calmly, he waited for the wire to finish uncoiling, utilizing the interlude to still his mind and body. 

The moment he relaxed his muscles, his bonds relaxed as well; the metal wire growing slack around his wrists and ankles. 

The first thing he took note of– it was impossible not to -- was the tube protruding from his mouth.  Filled with a frothy white liquid, the tube had been stuffed into his stomach, stretching his jaws and esophagus along the way.  It originated from the ceiling; he tried to track its source, but even with his acute grey and white eyes, the vast darkness above was impenetrable.  Whatever the bubbly liquid was within it, Adros doubted it was poison.  It was obvious that if his captors wanted him dead, he would already be so.  No matter their intentions, he had to admit it was the first time in many cycles that he didn’t feel like he was starving, leading him to believe the white substance was actually a source of nutrients.

As soon as the spinning stopped, Adros sought his companions.  Three of them hung alongside him, similarly bound -- three humans: Kalan, Drex and Trenton.  Other than their eyes – which regarded one another in fear -- they were immobile; wires bound their wrists and feet together.  White tubes also filled their throats, while four smaller tubes, like parasitic worms, were surgically fastened to their bare chests.  The smaller tubes extended to the floor below; a thin, red liquid pumping through them – their life-blood.  They wound across the length of the floor, which was smooth except for an inlaid pattern of pulsating blue lines, where they bundled together with dozens of similar cords; all of which became lost in the dark depths of the room.

To look upon the three men was horrifying, but to realize many were missing was maddening.

The women . . .

Their screams were unmistakable; near enough to hear, yet so distant that he could only imagine the evil machinations which caused them such suffering.  

More troubling still, was the fact that Adros failed to find several of his male companions hanging alongside him.  For one, his dear friend the dwarf TOphin was nowhere to be found.  He prayed his absence was a good sign, and that the tough, old warrior had somehow fought his way free.  Adros knew it was an unlikely hope, but even so . . . the crafty veteran had a knack for survival that had seen him through more than one impossible situation.  Much like himself, the specter of death was always so near to TOphin, yet somehow the closer it came, the more likely it was to pass him by.

Now, as close as ever . . . would it let Adros slip by one more time?

With great sadness, he noted that his son was absent as well, the gallant, young elf, Montrose.  Such a skilled, and experienced warrior, Adros found it hard to believe he could have fallen in combat.  But as he had done, far too many times before, he steeled his emotions to the fact that another one of his children was lost to the Void.

Only one of the humans appeared to have escaped captivity.  To many, it would have been the most unlikely of the bunch; the simple, unassuming human known as Commador.  Could it be that the metal giants underestimated the man, as so many had erroneously done before?  When he met him, Commador was a man the Seventh World had all but discarded.  The world had a hard heart after the Exodus, leaving it no place for compassionate men.  But where others saw weakness, Adros saw strength.  Kindness, caring . . . such things may not have belonged in the Seventh, but they were in desperate need in the Rift.  A truth perfectly illustrated in their current hell, where a man’s trust was worth far more than their blade.  If Commador’s bravery and unswerving loyalty hadn’t already led to his death, the simple, farm boy could very well be their greatest chance for freedom.

Unlike the women, not even the tortured screams of the missing men marked their continued existence.  Their absence left Adros to wonder what was worse, that they lived and yet suffered, or that they ceased to exist? 

Perhaps the dead are the lucky ones, Adros thought, looking upon his helpless companions and praying that those who were absent had at least found peace.

Twenty-feet to his left hung Drex . . . still defiant, fierce, thrashing about as he hung, the wires cutting deeply into his wrists, the tubes protruding from his body writhing with his movements.  Far more of his blood ran down his arms than in the tubes attached to his chest.  Unlike Adros, Drex didn’t stop his attempts at escape; his rage consumed him . . . and if he didn’t let it go, it would kill him.  But that’s what he was . . . a madman . . . a killer.  A man who would not let go of his hate until his enemies were all lying dead at his feet.  It was one of the reasons Adros decided to allow him to come . . . for times exactly like this.  If by some miracle Drex escaped that bond, he would be a beast unleashed.  A force of death so chaotic and destructive he could very well set them all free. 

. . . if he didn’t escape, perhaps it was best that he died.  Adros knew that for a being like him, imprisonment was a fate far worse than death.

Swaying alongside him, like a pendulum, was the golden-haired Prince Kalan; proud, powerful . . . utterly helpless as he dangled from his arms, unable to prevent his strength from draining down the tubes.

On other side of Kalan hung Trenton . . . bloodied, beaten, a look of fear and defeat.  Trenton had grown so accustom to shrugging off his lot in life, that hopelessness had become a part of him.  For a time, he used humor and bravado to hide it, but his roguish grin ended the moment they entered this world.  Now, to Adros’ dismay, the hopelessness was not only a part of him, it had consumed him.  Trenton lacked the strength, and will, to even care that his very essence was being sucked from his body.

It ever they left this place, it was doubtful Adros would ever see that grin again.

Ollius . . . Adros thought, initially failing to find his old friend hanging alongside the other men.

He soon realized that he wasn’t among them . . . he was on the ground below, strapped to a table by dozens of the thin, metal wires.  Ollius was alive … though Adros wished it weren’t so; fully conscious, his eyes darted around the room in panic.  A metal helmet covered his head.  Protruding from the helmet, a glowing cable of blue fire drained his power.  He had aged a hundred years.  Beneath his black robe, his body was sunken, thin boned.  His face was wrinkled, his eyes clouded over with a sheen of grey. 

A dozen of the metal soldiers stood sentry around him, guarding him as if fearful – as decrepit as he was – that he may somehow escape his horrific captivity. 

What they feared was the Oneness, a weapon he only barely used at the cave – but to devastating effect.  If he would not have been so weakened from creating the Gate, their battle with the metal-men would have ended much differently.  Even if Adros was able to free his friend, he would never be the same.  Years of his life had been stolen from him along with his power. 

What have I done to you? Adros thought as he looked upon the aged body of his dear friend.  What horrors must his friends endure before his meaningless quest came to an end?

Once more he contemplated the fate of those who were unaccounted for, TOphin and Commador.  Had the clever old dwarf somehow found his way free along with the boy?  Or most likely, the pair of them were left to rot back in the cave.

And what of the women?  What evil did they suffer in the dark that made them languish so?

After seeing what had befallen the men, the cries of the women were more spine-chilling than ever.

Then, Adros heard the voice . . .

“I sense he is awake.”

It filled his mind.  It flooded the room – a grating, broken pitch.  At once, so seemingly distant, as if spoken from the depths of a well, yet it came at him from everywhere; within him and from all around the room.  At random, the tone fluctuated; the voice scattered, disembodied . . . inhuman.

His first instinct was to plea to his captures to free them, to keep him but grant the others pity.  Foolishly, he had forgotten the tube stuffed down his throat, and instead of issuing a heart-felt appeal for sympathy, he gurgled; bile and a frothy white liquid spilling from his lips.

“Pity?” the voice reverberated throughout the room and within his mind, the mysterious being obviously reading his thoughts.

“For ages we dreamt of such a thing, but no matter how much we pleaded for it, our pity was never granted.  Who are you to be so deserved of it?  You, who claim immortality . . . you are but a babe to suffering.  We have spent a thousand of your lives waiting for OUR pity, only to succumb to the realization that none would come.  That we were beings damned . . . for all time.” 

You hear me? Adros thought, once more trying to calm his mind and body, resisting his urges towards vengeance and rage.  It was all too apparent violence would do him no good at the moment; not only was he thoroughly incapacitated, but he had yet to even face his true captor – the enemy behind the voice.  As he suspected all along, the metal automatons were soldier-slaves; mindless but sophisticated weapons wielded by another’s hand.

His true enemy was something else . . . and unlike anything he had encountered before.  To have any chance to defeat it, he had to know it.

“Yes, Elf Lord, your minds are transparent to us.” 

If you have seen our thoughts, then you know we mean you no harm, he replied, curious to see how far the most basic attempts at reason would get him with his captors.  They were obviously intelligent beings, but were they devoid of emotion?  We merely sought shelter . . . and an end to our long journey.

He struggled to keep his words simple, his thoughts clear.  The last thing he wanted was to lead the beings back to the Seventh World.

“No, you couldn’t harm us even if you so desired – a fact we have made abundantly clear.  As for your world  . . . and the wall you hide behind . . . what you call sanctuary is to us as much a prison as is this world.  We have much higher goals . . .”

That answered that . . . whatever they were, the beings were callous.  Beyond what they drained from Adros and his allies, they cared not a bit for their lives.  For now, they showed no interest in the Seventh World.  But Adros very much doubted it meant their world was safe; whatever their ‘higher goals’ were, they were clearly a force of evil.  The sole fact that they knew the existence of the Seventh World was a bad sign.

His appeal to kindness was a worthless gesture – and Adros knew it.  What he really sought was to keep the conversation going, and as long as possible.  The more they spoke, the more they revealed.  But more importantly, as long as a dialogue remained, he was alive.

Thus far, he knew one thing for certain -- they were powerful telepaths.  He would have to safeguard any future thoughts he wished to remain hidden.  Considering many of his greatest allies over the years have been mages, Adros had learned a thing or two about shielding one’s mind.  First and foremost, the simplest way to keep a secret was to not think it. 

Despite his willpower and training, Adros couldn’t help the many questions arising to the forefront of his mind.

What were their higher goals?  Who were the beings behind the voice to begin with, and how did they end up imprisoned at the edge of the universe?  

What in the hell are you?

The booming electronic laughter nearly burst his eardrums. 

“We are gods, now forgotten . . . outcasts of our own empire.  Prisoners to a ship of enemies past; on a course plotted to a world that does not exist.  Here, for the passing of ages, we have been left to wonder what was worse: our fall, the journey to the ends of space, or our imprisonment in this world?”

Adros wanted to learn more -- not just because he hoped they would let slip a weakness -- he was genuinely curious to know what they were and how they ended up in this world.  Perhaps it was their years of isolation or their arrogance, but the beings were more than happy to talk freely.  Already, in the short time they had been communicating, he had learned a great deal.  For one thing, he knew they were ancient; beings from the Age of War, if not even before.  Also, like him, they were exiles, outcasts from their own home-worlds -- Adros knew first-hand how dangerous that made them.

He didn’t even have to question them further, they continued the conversation for him . . . suddenly granting his prayers.

“You shall be freed . . .”

Knowing it couldn’t possibly be that simple, in dread, Adros listened on . . .

“But by doing so, you must bring us that which we desire.”

Adros looked around the room, seeing his hapless and dying companions; Drex no longer attempted to flail his way free, he was unconscious – if not dead.  Kalan had lost the strength to be princely and looked sickly and weak instead.  Trenton was awake, but his mind was gone.  His dull, brown eyes saw a different world than the hellish one he was in.

And then there was Ollius . . . his shriveled body growing older by the minute.

More of the glowing tubes drifted out of the black abyss, their pincer laced ends suctioning onto his aged body. 

Meanwhile, the screams of the women continued without pause. 

Adros had a sinking feeling he knew exactly what his captors ‘desired’, and that after they got it, there wouldn’t be much left of him or his companions.  Still, he had to ask; if not for knowledge, then to at least keep the conversation going.

What do you want of us?

“So many things . . .”

They paused before elaborating further . . .

In the meantime, Drex was lowered to the ground.  Several of the metal giants strode over to him, disconnecting the tubes from his limp, and bloodied body. 

As they hauled him towards the dark recesses of the room, the disjointed voice continued.

“To begin with, there is revenge.  We have seen inside your mind, your memories.  In your short existence you have witnessed much, most intriguing of which is the memories of your home-world . . . principally the death of it.  Such strife . . . such a valiant battle.  But oh so destined to fail.  You’ve seen him -- fought him, he took your world and all the while you knew him not.  To this moment you fight against him and do not even know his name.  But ahh, had you known the nature of your true enemy you would have fled at the first possible opportunity . . . left your God-tree burning at your backs . . .”

Who? Adros wondered, taken aback by their knowledge of his greatest failure.  My true enemy . . .?

To save his world he fought many of the Dead Gods, the majority of which he sent to their true death.  But was there something he missed?  Had some greater power engineered his defeat and he had failed to even recognize its existence? 

“Yes . . . Oh yes, indeed.  We saw his presence so clearly in your memories even though you did not.  Through the fall of your world his power has grown.  Reborn through the corruption of you holy Graelic he has become the greatest power the universe has ever known.”

Who? he repeated, more forcefully, no longer able to quell his rage. 

“He is the eater of souls . . . the thief of flesh.  Many have named him Servant of Death, but he is most assuredly death’s master.  He is Sevron . . .”

Sevron . . . Adros thought, finally putting a name to his pain.

At one time he was our greatest success and hope, until he betrayed us, becoming our most catastrophic failure.  He was the one . . . the first to succeed in our quest.  But he returned to us a madman . . . a demon possessed by the knowledge he had attained.  His ability to ‘feel’ the reality in which he lived twisted into a need to devour it.  Those he defeats, he possesses.  And the more he takes, the stronger he becomes . . . and he has taken countless lives, countless worlds.  He took your world as he took our empire, and we were equally unable to stop him.  He is the one . . . the one who trapped us here, sentenced us to a fate both banishment and death.  We want him . . . and the vengeance we deserve . . .”

A common enemy . . .

“Perhaps . . . but to be common allies is a foolish notion – predators do not align with their prey.  What we want, even more than vengeance . . . is his gift.  That which is rightfully ours, yet so unjustly denied to us.  What we have sought since the beginning . . . we seek true immortality.”

The Plague . . .

“What you call Plague, we call blessing, the most sacred blood of all.  Denied to us, by one of our own, he who wrought the new order and brought ours to ruin.  For so long we sought immortality, only to have it found and then forbidden.  The greatest travesty of all was that we were denied a quick death, instead sentenced to banishment aboard this ship . . . banished to a world so distant our rescue was a virtual impossibility.  That you arrived here is nothing short of a miracle, a gift of the True God, a sign that our suffering has finally come to an end.  For eons we were prisoners of our own devices, our false “immortality” kept us alive all the while; dreaming, hoping, waiting . . . until our justice comes.  And now here you are . . . our deliverance, and our absolution.”

You are mistaken, I cannot give you the Plague.

“So you say . . . Though you suffer it not, you reek of it.  One of your very own possesses it and because of its glorious gifts, she was able to evade us.”

He didn’t understand . . .

“Nor did we . . . until we realized she must have hid it from you.”

She . . .

Adros tried to think who it could be . . . none of the women were present.  The most obvious assumption was that it was one of the humans, but he had personally witnessed their inspections after leaving the Rift and those who did show marks were quickly dispatched by Prince Kalan.  He trusted the Prince, perhaps not to guard his back, but certainly as a man who would do what he thought was right.  Adros ruled out Jinla immediately, but couldn’t help but wonder where his elven children were.  That left only one other . . .

Kendal . . .

“Yes.”

He tried to deny it . . . drawing on every bit of her power, she had saved them all; delivered them to the cave.  How many times had she saved their lives?  His life?  It was inconceivable to him that she was out there . . . infected . . . one of his greatest allies and friends, now his enemy.

“You know her, but more importantly you have great knowledge of the Gift.  You will find her, and bring her to us . . . alive.  Rest assured we will put an end to her existence, but not until we have taken what is rightfully ours.”

Never . . .

“Do not overestimate your position, Elf Prince.  You are worthless to us, your blood incompatible, as is that of your kin.  If you refuse, you will die.  Your memories have shown us her power . . . a power we acknowledge as well as respect.  We realize she is a formidable opponent, and therefore will allow you to take your male companions to aid you . . . but the women shall remain with us.  Fear not, we have no intentions of absorbing them outright.  But if you fail to acquire the Gift, the women . . . we shall breed.  After surviving the ages absent nourishment, their offspring shall sustain our existence for millennia to come.”

I’ll find her . . .

“Good . . .”

The metal wire slowly lowered him to the ground, uncoiling from his wrists and feet as it deposited him upon the blood slicked floor.  Their eyes glowing fierce white, several of the metal giants approached him and detached the bloody tubes from his chest – the metal plate they left, pulsating rapidly with his fiercely beating heart. 

Adros was on his hands and knees, gagging as they pulled the tube out of his throat.

As he continued to cough, he did his best to hide the thought . . .

But when I bring her back . . . we’ll kill you all.

The booming artificial laughter was everywhere – even emanating from the robots standing over him as well as inside his own mind.

It made him wonder who he should be addressing, the robots, or the disembodied voice?  Or were they one in the same?

“We shall not prevent you from trying.  Go then, bring her to us.  But know that if you fail in either venture . . . we will destroy you . . . and before we do so, you will watch as we drain the life of all of your allies.”

“If you wish me to succeed,” Adros said, his voice raspy, the words painful to speak.  “I’ll need two things . . .”

“So be it.  But we warn you, no tricks, we will be with you the entire time.”

The eyes of the metal giants flared bright white.

“I’ll need my staff . . .”

As if on cue, a tall metal being handed it to him.  They must have anticipated his need of it.  Most likely, they tried their best to unlock its power, only to come to the conclusion that in the hands of any other than Adros, it was little more than a twisted piece of wood.  The beings must have seen the true power of it in his memories and knew that, for now, they had nothing to fear from it.  The metal giants had already proven its inability to stop them, and until the faceless masters partook of the ‘Gift’ it would have little effect on them . . . unless he beat them to death with it.

His hand wrapped around the blackened staff, so comforting as if a piece of him had been missing.  He used it to push himself to his feet.  With the staff in his hands, he stared directly into the burning eyes of metal giants.

“Second . . .”

The robotic eyes blazed even brighter.

Adros didn’t believe a word of these beings . . .  He would wait to plot against them, until he was beyond the range of their telepathy, and then he would replay their words and what he saw.  Only then would he let the idea form . . . a way to destroy these bastards and free what was left of his friends.

He addressed the nearest giant, knowing his every word and expression was certain to be relayed to the masters.

“Give Ollius his power back.”

“No,” they instantly and bluntly replied.

Undeterred, Adros continued, “We can’t find her without him . . . we won’t even survive the air long enough to try.”

“We left him enough power to protect you from the environment . . . for a time.  Besides we could not give it back even if we wanted . . . we have already acclimated his Oneness.  It is ours now; minor in comparison to the greatness we once held, but even so, by harvesting his power, we can be free . . . once more we will be masters of the God Door.”

It was as Adros thought . . . as he hoped, beyond their metal slaves, the beings were powerless themselves.  If he could find them, meet them face-to-face, they could be easily killed.  Puzzle pieces fluttered in his head but he didn’t let them form . . . the plan . . . Kendal was the key to it all.  There was no hiding that from them, he could only hope they believed it was in alignment with their goals. 

The truth of it was that Adros needed her as much as they -- but he would never take her without Ollius.

“I will never succeed, not without his power.  Kendal will kill me the moment I find her.”

“NO!” they restated, the disembodied voice more booming and emphatic than before.  “You have your staff . . . it shall be enough . . . we leave it to you, Elf Lord to make it so.  We know you care deeply for them, your allies.  If you wish them to live we suggest you succeed, and do so quickly.”

His voice still a whisper, Adros risked their growing ire and continued on, “At least grant me one more thing . . . a guarantee that if I do return you shall set us free.”

“We can grant you nothing more.”

“At least give me a reason then . . .”

His hands tightened on the Graelic.

“. . . why we should not end it here and now.”

“As we said . . .”

At their words, the screams of the women grew to a fevered pitch.

“You care deeply for your allies . . .”

He expected nothing less.  For all he knew their entire conversation was a charade.  He knew little of his enemy -- never even saw their true forms.  Yet they had ransacked his mind, and in doing so had gained knowledge of his most intimate thoughts.  They thought they knew him . . . who and what he was . . .

They thought to use his compassion against him – as if it were a weakness.  But they failed to realize that the love for his companions was his greatest strength . . .

Through the ages he was many things: elven prince, hero of the Rift, Lord Adros . . . the One Elf, Solo Ki . . .

At the moment he was something else – the warrior; but even more importantly, he was alive . . . he was free . . .

Soon they would learn what a grave mistake they just made . . .

 

 

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