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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A ball of grey hair and hardened muscles plopped out of the Rift.

With a gruff curse, TOphin crashed to the ground of wavy brown rock.  The dwarf was slow to rise to his stubby legs; first checking his vest of many pockets and the precious cargo within, then he searched the land for his fallen pick and hammer while adjusting his skull-cap of dented blue-steel.

“Where the dead hell are we now?” he asked, taking in the bizarre setting through his bushy white brows.

In the distance, a grey ocean vanished into a fiery blue sun.  An arm extended from the sun, spiraling into a space of sky so dark and empty it was like looking into the Void.

“Oh, boy,” TOphin mumbled, knowing only one force in the universe strong enough to eat a star and any other light that happened to cross its path.

“A damned black hole.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, on the horizon, large, rolling waves crashed against a shoreline of perfectly shaped, black metallic cubes.  The cubes varied in size from as large as a building to as small as a set of dice, and were poorly stacked, as if arranged by a toddler playing with toy blocks.  Wherever the ocean flung them, that’s where the cubes stayed – fused together into a natural seawall that withstood the tide and pounding waves. 

Depending on how the bluish sun hit them, they appeared either pure black or glistening gold.

“Fool’s gold,” TOphin scoffed, sniffing the air.

His nostrils widened as he deeply inhaled the scent of rotten eggs.  He doubled over, coughing; a blast of sulfuric air burning through his lungs.

Worse than I imagined, he thought, allowing the pain run its course. 

He continued to suck in the air, trusting that his tough dwarven constitution would soon kick in and not only alleviate the pain, but adapt his lungs to the foul air.

His people were a hard lot, part of the reason they survived the Rift was because their bodies could adapt to some of the universe’s harshest environments.  It was also why they thrived in their mines far below the earth; where carbon monoxide and methane were more plentiful than oxygen, and the heat from the planet’s core turned their tunnels into a furnace.

Though his body was slower to recover than normal – he figured his age the most likely culprit -- the coughs subsided, and soon his lungs accepted the air as if it were pure.  Wiping bloody spittle from his lips, he grimaced at the ocean.

“Yep, definitely pyrite,” the dwarf grumbled, regarding the shining cubes in disgust.  “A whole damn lot of it.”

He focused his attention to the land at his back, which was an endless expanse of melted brown rock.  Hovering on the horizon, a swirling, green-tinged cloud dumped rain onto the rippled landscape.

TOphin was a mineralogist, not a meteorologist, but nevertheless he was still able to make an educated guess as to why all of the rocky formations were drooping like melted wax; he assumed it had a lot to do with the green cloud, and torrent of sulfuric rain falling from it.  His people were a tough lot, but the acid rain would still make short work of even his leathery dwarven skin.

“Great,” he mumbled.  “The wizard has found us yet another oasis.”

Before he could ponder the lethal environment further, the Rift shuddered above him . . .

“One problem at a time,” he said, raising his hammer and pick and turning to the Black Door; where a stream of bodies came pouring through. 

It was a mess of limbs; bone and flesh.  Some had armor, bloody and bent, their swords still awkwardly swinging as they fell to the ground.  Others were nothing but bones, soiled with blood and sand; clawing and biting at anything that resembled living flesh.

One after another, his companions were dumped out of the Gate – but so too were a maddened host of undead.

“Back to hell with you!” TOphin raged, raising his hammer and pick above his head and swinging like mad.  Silver-fire and blood rained down upon him. 

Doing his best to distinguish between the living and the dead, he hammered away at the falling bodies before he was finally buried beneath the horde.

Like excrement, the bodies continued to spill out of the Rift. 

The heap was a bloodied frenzy.  The living fought desperately to escape, while the dead fought even more fiercely to feed.  Their swords practically useless in such close quarters, the humans abandoned them, and punched and kicked their way free of the pile.  But once free, they doubled over, struggling to catch their breath but burning their lungs as they took in the sulfuric air.  Meanwhile, deep within the mound of bodies, the muffled curses of TOphin could still be heard. 

Bathed in silver-fire, a tall maiden with golden hair and grey and white eyes exited the Rift.  Her tight-fitting suit of golden scales was slick with the foul black blood of the dead.  Slashing at the dead with a pair of short spears, she danced her way to the ground; nimbly avoided the clawed skeletal hands by skipping off of shields, plates of armor, and whatever body part she deemed adequate footing.

An effortless flip took her the rest of the way down.  She landed firmly on her feet in a deadly fighting stance, her grey and white eyes scanning the pile while her spears shot out like vipers, sparking a blaze of silver-fire wherever they landed.  She tucked her nose beneath her cowl, but was otherwise unfazed by the acidic air.

Spinning as he fell, his blade a whirlwind, the Rose Elf landed on the pile.  Bleach-bone hands reached out to him, threatening to drag him down.  He tiptoed around them, slashing as he moved, mowing down the grasping limbs as if he was cutting grass.  The Rose Elf sailed through the air performing a perfect double layout while twisting his body in a full circle.  He landed alongside Jinla, his grey and white eyes paying far more attention to her than the pile of bodies or the harsh, alien environment – but for once, his gaze held only concern and not desire. 

Their human allies were slow to untangle themselves from the undead, and meanwhile, the fin-backed monsters continued to dump into the world, making their struggle to escape all the more difficult.  A few of the humans were able to fight their way free and though they were coughing up blood, they managed to join the elves and form a loose circle around the ever growing mound.  But the circle was far too small, and every second they had to step back as the pile expanded, thus spreading themselves out far too thin.

At first, only ten humans and the pair of elves stood guard – all those not yet free were considered either dead, undead, or soon to be one of the two. 

For a time, there was only guttural snarls emitting from the pile, no gruff curses or profane insults.  Then . . . with the foulest, most obscene howl anyone present had ever heard, TOphin burst through the pile of dead, his pick and hammer gone, a shield in his hands holding the undead at bay.  Covered head to toe in the undead’s soggy, black innards, he was able to tuck his diminutive frame beneath the shield and avoid their grasping, claw-like hands.

Jinla and the Rose Elf rushed to his aid, turning the undead at his back to ash – but the circle was broken, the undead broke into the world, threatening to envelop the small group.

A fireball dropped from the Rift – a glowing blue blaze that incinerated the entire pile of undead.

As the dust settled, Kendal drifted to the ground.  Sparing only a moment to gently lay Ollius alongside her, she thrust her hands at the Black Door, pouring a pyre into its swirling depths.

Last to leave the Rift, Adros plummeted out, Kendal’s blue flames falling harmlessly on his staff as her fires burned around him, incinerating the throng of undead nipping at his heels.

His staff absorbed her power.  The bloody cracks of his hands fused shut.  The deep gashes along the rest of his body became pinkish scars.  He collapsed into a heap as he hit the ground, his wounds on the mend, but still slow to rise even with the aid of his twisted staff.

Kendal continued to burn whatever came through the Rift, but her torrent had become a trickle.  What was left of her power she sent to heal the humans, who were choking to death with every breath.  In an effort to protect her, TOphin waddled to her side, wielding the human shield as if it were a weapon.  The elves also drew near; the Rose Elf preparing to guard the Rift with his sword – Jinla her spears. 

They didn’t have too . . .

The stream of undead stopped . . .

Their scorched lungs healed from Kendal’s power, the humans were able to join the gathering, collecting whatever weapons they could find and preparing for the worst.  The human, elven, and dwarf defenders encircled the Black Door.  No one said a word as they watched it float.  At any moment, they expected to see a swarm of fin-backed monstrosities spewing forth, yet even so, none of the defenders showed the slightest glimmer of fear.  In grim acceptance of what was surely to come, they stared down the Rift.

Time passed slowly in the wasteland of melted rock and cubic shorelines.  The rhythmic throb of the Black Door marked its passage for those who stood vigil.  With every pulse, the certainty of their deaths drew near.  They held no thoughts of retreat – they had nowhere to go.  Wordlessly – the shared hatred in their eyes said it all – they mutually agreed to make their last stand, then and there. 

All the while . . . the Rift continued to hang in the air, harmlessly pulsating; taunting them with the certainty of death that was to come . . .

It never came.

“The eye . . .” TOphin said, breaking the silence.  “It must have moved on.”

“But for how long?” Adros wondered, his hollow voice filled with pain – physical and emotional.  “Kendal . . . can you retune the Gate?”

“No,” She weakly replied, gasping between breaths, a constant blue halo emitted from her body, sheltering the group from the deadly atmosphere.  “I haven’t the strength to do such a thing.  To keep the air from burning our lungs and flesh is nearly more than I can bear.”

“Perhaps together . . .” Ollius whispered, struggling to rise – though he only made it to his knees.

“No,” Kendal snapped.  “It would kill you.”

“Not that it would matter,” TOphin grumbled, to which Kendal shot him a fierce glare.  “There’s a good chance we’re dead anyway.”

“Besides,” Kendal continued, doing her best to ignore the dwarf.  She focused on the Rift, a puzzled look on her face as her flames still lingered along the edge of it.  “It wasn’t the storm that saved us . . .” she mused.  “The Rift has been retuned . . .”

“By who?” Adros asked, bolting upright; the sudden motion caused many of his freshly healed bite and claw marks to split open.

“I cannot say . . .” Kendal replied.  “Nor do I have the power to find out.  All I know is that the world is lost to us.”

“Good riddance,” TOphin growled.  “To the dead hells with that place.”

The rest of the group muttered in agreement – except for Adros, his grey and white eyes lingering on the Black Door and the mysterious savior within . . . 

“How soon before you can retune it?” he asked, rousing from his somber reflection.

Extremely pale and gaunt, Ollius made it to his feet -- with the aid of Kendal – and feebly replied, “I can’t say for sure.  What I’ve done . . . is a first, for even me.”

“What exactly have you done?” Prince Kalan demanded, his body drenched in a mix of human blood and the viscous, black innards of the undead.  He approached the weakened mage, his chest swelling, his dark eyes boring into him.

He was furious, and for good reason, half of his companions had just been savagely torn to pieces in front of him.

“I have taken us to safety . . .” Ollius said in his defense. 

“Safety . . .”

The sinews on Kalan’s arm rippled as he clenched his hilt.

“To a world free of the dead . . . a world where none have gone to before.”

Kendal stood in front of Kalan, who was growing less pleased with every passing word.

“I made a new Gate . . . to a world farther than anything anyone has ever known.”

Kalan stopped, but continued to stare down Ollius -- even though Kendal’s fists were burning with the Oneness.

“Well, then,” TOphin blurted, interrupting the standoff; far more concerned with the distant clouds than his angered companions.  “It appears we’re staying,” he finished, his words devoid of enthusiasm.

“For only as long as it takes Ollius to heal,” Adros stated, on the verge of stopping the fight, should it arise. 

The One Elf seemed calm as stone, but TOphin knew him well enough that he could tell his grey and white eyes were studying every twitch of the human prince’s muscles.  He also knew that with his staff, Adros could close the distance between himself and Kalan in an instant, even though he was more than twelve-standard feet away.

“As soon as we are able to retune the Gate, we leave . . .” Adros stated.

His eyes turned back to the Rift.

“We go home.”

Adros struggled to speak the words.

I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, old friend . . . TOphin thought.  But nothing could have survived out there. .

TOphin figured his friend had learned all he needed to know in the Rift . . . and at great price . . . the worlds were truly and utterly dead.  But most importantly, Adros now understood that if they didn’t leave, and soon, they would be dead as well.

TOphin could see it in his grey and white eyes -- the burden of her banishment – not only the failure of her death, but the deaths of all those who had sought her out.  He prayed his friend had a shred of comfort knowing the truth; that the Elder Gods were to blame, and that Alana never had a chance.  If TOphin could see it, surely Adros could as well – Alana had never been sentenced to banishment, but to death.

“Home,” Prince Kalan said, relaxing.  “It’s about damn time.” 

He went to his people, consoling what was left of the broken and battered lot. 

“If I live my life without ever having seen another dead fiend, I can die a happy man,” he continued.

Adros grew even more disheartened upon hearing the words of the human prince.  If he was lucky, Kalan’s wish would be fulfilled; he would die with a crown upon his head, surrounded by his loving family, friends and followers – all thoughts of the Plague nothing more than a memory. 

Prince Kalan had suffered enough for a lifetime – a human lifetime.  Of the fifty humans that originally set out with them, only ten remained.  And the majority of the losses had occurred only moments ago -- in the pile of blood and bones.  If they made it home, it would be generations before the humans had to worry about the Plague.  Hopefully the survivors could return with a shred of sanity, and find peace in the Seventh World.

As for TOphin, his once hardy body was worn and weary; his death always a day away. 

But not so for his friend.  If Adros did make it back, it would be a long, agonizing wait before he next faced the Plague.  He would spend the years haunted by his failures, wondering how he could have changed the past, yet dreaming of a future . . . of redemption . . . of his next encounter with the Plague.

The day would come.  And when it did, Adros would have to face his greatest fear – failure.  He had already lost his home and his love.  To fail again, all would be lost.

It was clear by the way his golden mane no longer glimmered, and his shoulders slumped, that the acceptance of his lover’s death, and the deaths of the humans were weighing heavily on him.  It was a miracle he hadn’t given up on life a long time ago. 

How much suffering can one bear? TOphin wondered.  Surely the One Elf had tested the limits of what one can endure.  If it wasn’t for a promise Adros had made to his dying friend, he would have lost himself in the Rift in search of his love.

“Who would have thought . . .” said another human, Kalan’s cousin and closest friend, Trenton.  Trenton had long sandy hair, which continuously fell over his eyes.  At some point in his life he must have given up on brushing it off of his face, and had become content to let it linger over his light brown eyes.  In the Seventh World Trenton was a drifter, a rogue.  He was only a minor lord with no real claim to the throne, nor real expectations in life.  His family had acquired a fortune in trade rights for silver ore, so he suffered no want in life – other than a purpose for being, which he thought he would find in the Rift 

“I’ve had it right my entire life . . . a barrel of cider-brandy and an ample bosom upon which I can rest my drunken head,” Trenton continued.

“Stop dreaming of your mother’s tits.”

Covered in more blood and gore than anyone else present – TOphin included -- the human known only as Drex, chided Trenton.  He leaned on his unusually wide broadsword, a wicked smirk bending beneath his filthy, and wildly unkempt black beard.  He was thin, but strong.  His wiry muscles hardened from a lifetime of fighting.

If TOphin didn’t know that Trenton was the only living soul Drex would come close to considering a friend, he would have thought the insult – and sneer Drex sent him was real.  Back in the Seventh World, Drex and Trenton were cohorts of the underworld, often sharing a mug of ale, in the seediest of the Seventh’s taverns or brothels.

Drex spoke little, but any words he did say were certain to be hurtful.  For the most part, he kept himself off to the side of the human group, occupying the time by slow-honing his broadsword to perfection, or running one of his curved daggers across his smooth-shaven head. 

Among the humans, Drex was TOphin’s least favorite.  He was an evil man.  TOphin heard more than one rumor of the evils he had done back in the Seventh.  But what really gave it away was the darkness in his eyes.  They didn’t just lack compassion, but a soul. He was a moody, hate-filled man, but TOphin couldn’t deny that he was an excellent fighter.  And the longer he was in the Rift, the stronger he became, growing surprisingly close to even the elves.

TOphin figured he wanted to enter the Rift to escape the many soldiers who sought to see him hang from the Red Wall.  Or perhaps his intentions were even more nefarious – to leave them all dying in the Rift as he laughs over their corpses.  TOphin liked to think the worst of him, but the most likely explanation for why Drex came into the Rift was that he was insane.  He knew all the horror stories but just didn’t give a damn.  All he really wanted was to kill something.  In the Seventh World it was considered a crime, in the Rift his murderous lust made him a hero. 

Originally, Adros was adamantly against him, considering it too much of a risk to allow a murderer among them.  Because of his refusal, Drex actually tried to kill Adros.  To his credit, he came incredibly close.  And during the failed assassination attempt, and subsequent fight, Adros saw something in the man that changed his opinion of him.  Clearly, the man’s fighting skills were unequalled (among humans that is).  But there was something more . . . something only the highly skilled eyes of Adros could see.  Something in the way he fought, a spark of genius, a dedication and drive that took him beyond human limits. 

Or perhaps he saw a little of himself in the man; a broken being, a creature driven mad by the madness of the world . . . and in that madness genius was born.

Or maybe Adros’ decision was not so complicated after all . . . 

Drex existed to fight and to kill.  What better place for such a being than in the Rift?

TOphin looked over the surviving humans – only ten of them.  Kalan, Drex, Trenton, Alicia, Mika, Commador, Yula . . .

Damn . . .

He couldn’t help but not the many obvious bite and claw marks some had received.  He was about to speak his mind; to ensure what was necessary was done.  But before he did, Prince Kalan’s blade was out and spilling the blood of his people.  Drex was quick to join in – Trenton unable to do so.

TOphin wasn’t sure if he should be proud or ashamed of the human prince.  Kalan was a bit of a contradiction in TOphin’s eyes.  At times, the kindest man he knew, at other times a pure-blooded killer – no better than Drex.  TOphin suddenly wondered, did he go to comfort his people, or was he really just assessing their wounds and checking for infection?  

Too few escaped . .

Whatever his merits, Kalan made sure their pleas and screams of mercy were brief.  But still the question remained in TOphin’s mind; was he a caring Prince, or just a highly efficient butcher?

Only seven humans remained -- Kalan, Drex, Trenton, Alicia, Mika, Commador and Yula.

Kalan callously wiped his blade clean on his already gore-covered mantle.  One of the humans had been his niece, the once beautiful and dream-filled girl who looked at the Rift starry-eyed.  She thought it such a romantic quest; exploring the universe to save a lost love.  It didn’t take her long to see the truth – and that only evil could be found in the Rift – while love remained an elusive dream.

She was the Rose Elf’s lover of choice (second choice).

Kalan buried his broadsword up to the hilt inside her small body – his eyes a mix of rage, sorrow and disgust.  As he took her life, he focused on Ollius, as if imagining he was burying his blade inside of the mage instead.

The Rose Elf watched the entire macabre display, his grey eyes watering.  Surely he was saddened by the sight, yet TOphin knew he would have done the dead himself, had he a right to it.  But it was Kalan’s kin . . . Kalan’s duty.  Besides, the Rose Elf would soon be over the girl, it wasn’t the first lover he lost to the Rift . . . nor likely the last.  For the Rose Elf, there were always more lovers to be found – already, the fire-haired Mika and auburn Yula had him sandwiched in a compassionate embrace.  TOphin had watched the Rose Elf ply his charm enough to know it was only a matter of time before that compassion turned to passion.

After the infected humans had been dealt with, it was only fair – especially considering he was engulfed by the undead – that TOphin submitted himself for inspection. 

He took a deep breath (perhaps his last) as Prince Kalan walked over with his bloodied broadsword.  TOphin was fairly certain he was bit or at least scratched during the battle.  By the sad look Adros gave him, he likely figured it was the case as well.

He handed Adros his multi-pocketed vest, saying, “Take good care of em, One Elf.  I know you think the world of your stick, but don’t so easily dismiss the power of the stones beneath your feet.”

Adros nodded; his slim fingers delicately holding the vest as if he knew it was to now be his ward.

But to his – and everyone’s -- surprise, for having fought his way from the bottom of the pile, by some miracle TOphin emerged unscathed.  Perhaps it was his tough, leather thick skin, or that his aged flesh was simply undesirable to the undead.  Whatever the reason, Adros and the humans examined his squat, wrinkled body from head to toe and they didn’t find the slightest scratch on him.  He was plenty bruised and beaten, but never once bitten.

On the other hand, for all their agility the elves weren’t so lucky.  Blood dripped from Jinla’s right arm, her milky flesh looked like it had been gnawed, covered in bite marks and open sores.  A trio of claws marks ran down the Rose Elf’s chest, shredding through his silken coat, black leather armor and flesh.  But unlike the human prince, Adros was spared the misery of slaughtering his own kind, for elven blood was naturally resistant to the Plague. 

The One Elf breathed a sigh of relief as he handed TOphin his bulging vest; TOphin wasn’t quite sure if he was more relieved that he didn’t have to end their years of friendship by killing him, or that he didn’t have to lug his collection of rocks around for the next millennium.

“You may as well kill me now, One Elf,” TOphin said, struggling to stuff his stocky backside back into his breeches.  “Would be a much kinder end than staying in this godless planet.”

“What do you mean by that?” one of the humans asked; his nose was bent and broken at multiple locations giving his voice a garbled, nasal tone.  If one wasn’t paying close attention to what he said, his words easily became an unintelligible stream of mumbles.  “What could be worse than the last world?”

Judging by his despondent expression, the man wasn’t all that eager to hear an answer.  The speaker was the former Outland farm-boy who had grown to become the self-proclaimed warrior known as Commador.  When first they met, he was a gangly and awkward young boy – little had changed since then.  Sure, he was a bit older, but not a damn bit wiser – or more coordinated.  Despite all that, TOphin had to give him some credit; he made up for his shortcomings with hard work and an unrivaled sense of honor.  The youngest son in a family of twelve children, he ran away from his family’s farm to find fame (or at the least recognition) in Lock Core.  He began his career as a lowly garrison soldier stationed in the frozen heights of the eastern wall.  After remaining there for seven years without so much as inching his way up through the chain of command, he realized he had once more found himself in obscurity.  He heard the rumors of a mission to the Rift and saw it as his last chance to make a name for himself.  When the mission began, he had a glimmer in his eyes.

Now Commador’s blue eyes were vacant.  His skin sunken and pale.  If Kalan hadn’t personally proclaimed him free of the Plague, TOphin would have sworn he was well on his way to being undead. 

“That, my boy . . .” TOphin said, pointing to the ocean and shore of massive black crystals structures. 

They were beautiful to behold . . . such natural symmetry, and their shiny metallic gleam.  They covered the shoreline for as far as the eye could see; a wall, often well over twenty-standard feet tall, comprised of perfectly shaped cubes, stacked, and projecting from one another like an unsolved geometric puzzle. 

The group looked on at them in wonder while TOphin scowled at them in disgust.

“. . . that is pyrite,” TOphin stated.  “And when pyrite combines with water, we get sulfuric acid,” he continued, bluntly delivering the information as if teaching a class of infants.

“What’s sulfric acid?” Commador continued to question.

TOphin fought hard to keep an explosion of expletives from his reply.  There was a good reason the boy had been left to freeze to death in his post on the Red Wall.  Commador was honest, hard-working, even a decent fighter, but in the end he had less brains than a dead slug mule.  TOphin had to remind himself Commador had lived the majority of his life in rustic seclusion – in an Outland farm or his post upon the Red Wall – and likely didn’t know much beyond fighting and farming.  He would have to be patient, and explain the problem in the simplest way . . .

“It’s the stuff that’s melting your boots.”

Standing in a shallow pool of the acidic water, the thick rawhide sole of Commador’s boot was disintegrating.  TOphin’s words finally seemed to register as Commador leapt from the pool.

“We need to get clear of the ocean,” Adros said.  “Find high ground, and if possible fresh air and water.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” TOphin replied.  “Look about you, One Elf.  There’s likely a good reason the land’s melted.  With enough sulfuric acid . . .” he nodded his head at the ocean.  “There’s sure to be acid rain.”

He looked to the sky and the distant yellow-tinged clouds.

“And that . . .” he stated, hoping to cut off Commador’s next question.  “Is acid rain.  If we want to live through the day, what we need first is shelter.  If we’re caught in the open before the wizards get their power, we’ll all be dead.”

In a hopeless gaze, the group looked over the land.  Not a one of them saw anything but endless rippling rock.

“I’m sorry to say, that’s not our only problem,” Ollius weakly stated.  “I’ve brought us to a dying system, one that is on the verge of being engulfed by a dead sun, a black hole.”

His face more dour than ever, Ollius nodded to the spiraling blue sun.

“Normally, the Makii avoided joining such systems to their Union,” he continued.  “Time flows strangely in the presence, warping one’s relation to standard time.  For all we know, with every second we remain here, months, even years, could be passing back on the Seventh World.” 

“Why then have you brought us to this hell?” Prince Kalan demanded.

“Because I had no other choice,” Ollius replied as if even he was unsure, and that perhaps they would have been better off in the previous world.

“We need to move.  Now!” Kalan said, not waiting for the One Elf to make a decision.  Adros was immortal, the humans were not.  If they spent too long in the world all those Kalan loved would be long dead.  When Adros returned he would at least have his children . . . their faces most likely as youthful as they day they left. 

“Where, cousin?” Trenton asked, a defeated look upon his face as he scanned the land.  “The world’s melted.  Everywhere I look it’s the same . . .”

“We should follow the shore . . . to the setting sun,” TOphin suggested. 

“Aye,” Kalan replied.  “If we want to find anything in this damned world, we’ll need every bit of daylight we can get.”

Adros nodded his head of golden hair at the logic of the plan.  Even though elves required far less light to see, at night the distance of their vision would be limited.  TOphin, on-the-other-hand, could see in even utter dark, but it was a different sort of vision.  When the sun fully sets, electromagnetic radiation will become visible to him.  But in an environment such as this, the world will look like a painter dumped his pallet directly onto the canvas and smeared it around.  It would be colorful, even beautiful, but the images basically meaningless.

“Stay close, stay together,” Adros added, content to follow Kalan’s lead.  The One Elf didn’t seem to mind giving Kalan command of the group – he had more than earned it; nor had Adros’ lead been exactly beneficial up to this point.  If anything, it had only brought them to ruin. 

“The only way we survive this is if we stay together,” he finished.

Kalan took point, with the young elves on either side – their keen eyesight the best tool for scouting the land.  Together, they walked the rippled landscape; the ocean of acid and gleaming blocks to their right, the storm to their left – otherwise the land was the same, waves of smooth brown ripples. 

The blue sun had nearly vanished on the horizon by the time it appeared.  Adros was the first to see it . . . or more accurately to ‘feel’ it; the Elf Prince had senses that bordered on magical.  Whatever he detected was well beyond TOphin’s cave vision as well as the vision of both the elves and Magi. 

“Did I hear you correctly, One Elf?  You wish us to walk into the storm?” Kalan asked, doubtfully, after Adros indicated the direction.  Lacking the keen vision of the elves, Kalan could only see for ten-feet in front of him in the dying blue light.  “Why would we risk such a thing?”

“There’s something . . . I know not what . . . but it’s there.  You have to trust me.”

Kalan’s dark eyes struggled to glimpse it, failing to do so, they turned to Adros’s eyes, seeking the answer and the truth within his pools of grey and white.  Despite the many catastrophes they suffered in their mission thus far, he knew, deep down, if Adros had any faults, lying wasn’t among them.  In the end, he trusted the elf’s honor, and his intuitive senses, relinquishing his command of the group.

“Can you take us there?” Adros asked the mages, particularly Kendal, for Ollius had only recently acquired the strength to walk on his own.

She studied the land with her eyes of blue-fire.

“I can see it . . . on the outskirts of the rain . . . but it’s far, nearly half a league away.  Yes, I believe I can shield us long enough to reach it . . . provided the storm doesn’t shift direction.”  

She gripped Ollius’ hand tightly in her own.  

“But we will only be able to reach it,” Kendal continued.  “If it fails to provide us with shelter . . . we won’t make it back out alive.”

Adros turned to the others, allowing them to make the decision for themselves.

“You have all sworn your lives to seek out life in the Rift.  That mission is at an end.  Every last one of you have more than upheld your duty.  I can demand nothing further of any of you.  It has been a long road in the Rift, and it may very well end here.  If you follow me out there, I can’t promise you will survive, but if you stay here, you will surely die.”

“Not much of a choice, is it, Adros?” TOphin grunted.

“Better than standing here and melting,” Drex replied.

In the end, the words of Prince Kalan sealed their fate.

“The One Elf is right, we have to try.”

They moved out to the melted hills and strange shape, Kendal’s blue shield flared brighter as a mist of acid filled the air – and brighter still, when the mist became rain.  She stumbled to her knees from the exertion . . . Kalan was immediately there to help her to her feet.  They continued on, Kendal in Kalan’s arms, Ollius yet unsteady, limped on alongside them.

At last TOphin saw it, something at the edge of the pouring rain; an unnatural geometric shape that defied the uniform contours of the melted land.  A pyramid of pure black jutting from the ground at an angle of roughly 45º.

“What the dead is it?” TOphin asked the Elf Prince.

“Shelter . . .” he quietly replied.  “I pray,”

But TOphin knew by his rigid stance and sharp-eyed gaze, Adros thought it was anything but safe . . .

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