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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Another Dead World . . .

She stepped out of the Rift – her feet slim, bare and glowing with power.  Flames radiated from her body, flaring bright azure against the night, illuminating even the deepest, darkest secrets of the Dead World.

Rising up before her, mountainous black arches undulated along the horizon like an ocean of slow-moving waves.  For as far as she could see, the ground was a snarled mass of the thick corded limbs; those closest to her coiled tighter around one another, as if in anticipation of crushing her in their midst.  As her light spread across the world, the land awoke; countless black tendrils stretched to the sky, searching for source of the sudden glow.  Sensing power and life within the light, the entire surface of the planet suddenly became a frenzy of writhing roots and vines. 

She moved forward, shrugging off the sensation of being a mouse walking into a pit of snakes. 

I am no ordinary prey. 

And yet . . .

This is no ordinary Dead World. 

Beyond the living mountain range of enormous roots, the elven ‘pillar of life’ rose to the heavens -- its canopy of dead limbs filled the sky. 

Somewhere, a golden sun crossed the sky, but the dense mess of branches blocked the slightest glimmer of light from touching the land.  From east to west, as far as her eyes could see, its trunk covered the horizon; a foul, dead and rotting tower of wood.  The lush, colorful foliage that once decorated its limbs had all fallen, yet something still hung from the branches – something so high and far away, that even with her eyes covered in blue fire it was faint to see.  Fainter still, was the flicker of life she sensed dangling from those limbs.

What could it be? she thought, and for a fleeting moment she wondered if it was possible . . .

Adros?

Frightened, yet thrilled by the notion, her consciousness expanded, spreading across the land.  Like a soft breeze, her will drifted through the world, searched for his presence.  But as she expected, the stench of death and decay not only permeated the air she breathed, but the very land below her feet; either the scent was so powerful it overwhelmed her abilities, or there was truly nothing left in this world.

Still clinging to hope, she searched deeper, focusing on the heart of the darkness -- the corrupt God-tree of the elves . . . the Graelic. 

A crystalline tear spilled down her cheek at the thought of what it used to be.  The tree existed for eons; a bastion of life in a dying universe and living proof that harmony could exist in what otherwise seemed to be only madness.  She had encountered much of the latter . . . so very much of it that she had begun to think that such peace and beauty couldn’t possibly remain.  Even if they did, surely they were something she would never find.

Sometimes . . . she wished she never had.  For when the Plague came to the world, she watched helplessly as its beauty transformed to atrocity, and the peace of the elves came to a horrific and heart-wrenching end. 

. . . The decay crept up the tree . . . the limbs blackened then bloated . . . the oily infection spewed from the cracked bark, spilling down the trunk like blood.  The elves tumbled from the branches . . . a growing pile of corpses at the base of the tree . . .

And so it went . . . the Plague erased any vestige of proof that the universe was anything other than hell.  To this day, she still cursed herself for being so foolish . . . to think she could protect it, save the elves from the inevitable.  Especially since she had seen it before . . . and knew what was to come.

How could I have possibly saved them?

She often asked herself that question.  Since her banishment began she sought the answer.  And when she thought back to that time – which she constantly did – she wondered if it had been the other way around.  The elves were a force of nature unlike anything she had encountered – an entire race of ageless immortals; endowed with speed and agility equal to any god.  And their greatest strength of all -- their immunity to the Plague.  They couldn’t be taken down by a bite or a scratch – to be defeated, they would have to be killed – a task which proved difficult for even the greatest Dead Gods. 

And no matter what, they would never join the ranks of the Dark Army.

Maybe she hadn’t stayed to save them.  Maybe she thought they could save her -- protect her when the darkness returned, perhaps even pass on their peace and harmony unto her tortured soul. 

If so, if that’s what she was really hoping for, she was still a fool.  There was only failure on all counts . . .

The elves made a valiant stand – perhaps the greatest of all time.  But in the end, it was her error that led to their demise.  She underestimated her foe . . . and that the forces of the Plague were truly infinite.  World after world of infected arose against them, and despite their abilities, they were simply and utterly overwhelmed.  The full might of the Dark Army came against them and the magical, powerful race of immortals was slaughtered . . .

. . . except for one. 

No matter what they threw at him, Adros refused to fall, he refused to let his race and his God-tree be taken by the Plague.

The last time she saw him, he went out, alone, to face the full might of the Dark Army. 

He went out to die . . .

How simple it would have been to adhere to her mission . . .

She was instructed by the Elders to take him, to take him and leave his world to its fate.  Instead of banishment, she could have spent the passing years with her love, living in the safe-haven of the Elder Gods, their ‘Sanctuary’. 

No.

It was a fanciful thought, but she wasn’t a foolish love-stuck child – certainly not any longer.  She knew nothing was simple . . . especially where love is concerned.

Would he even have left with me?

Or would she have been forced to take him away from all he held dear?

Had I taken him, would he have loved me still?

How could he love her, knowing she abandoned his people and his world to the evils of the Dark Army?

If he yet lived, would he love me now . . ?

She had failed him, led his people to a massacre.  Would he even be able to stomach the site of her?

The likeliest conclusion was that the Maker’s path never intended for them to be together.  Another bit of His divine wisdom which she would never comprehend as anything but cruel.  For such reasons, she could never be His blind follower – like her mentor, Anon.  No matter the outcome of her existence, it would be impossible for her to understand why the Maker would give such wondrous gifts if only to take them away.

She didn’t bother trying to understand the Maker, or even care if He actually existed.

For Alana, there was only one certainty in the universe -- she was truly and utterly alone . . .

But oh how she wished it wasn’t so . . . how desperately she wished to find even the slightest shred of harmony left in this world.  Perhaps then she would have grounds to build her faith upon.

She couldn’t give up – not on the Maker, not on her love and certainly not on the fate of the universe.

There must be something left . . . something pure, something good . . .

She had to fight on, to keep searching . . .

Her power brushed against the distant, massive trunk; even though it was her ethereal form that made contact, it left her physically ill and fighting to hold on to her most recent meal.  Because of the nauseating sensation, she probed the surface of rotting bark, but stopped there. 

There once was a world within the tree, the secret, magical world of the elves.  She had been given the honor of partaking of that world; a place where art, magic, and spirituality combined to create the purest form of existence.  To be taken in meant you were safe, loved, and that you would want for nothing. 

Even with His infinite wisdom, the Maker could only create such a thing in the afterlife; but in Ki'minsyllessil the elves had made heaven a reality.  Such a feat was only possible because the elves were inherently kind, caring and loving beings; but even more importantly, the elves were patient.  They viewed time differently than all other races.  Most beings live with a deep-rooted sense of their finite existence and eventual death.  Because of it, they rush through life, very rarely taking the time to enjoy and appreciate it.  Instead, they devote all of their energy into creating something of lasting importance -- a sign post in time that proves they not only existed, but that their existence meant something.  In their minds, the longer their signs remain standing, supposedly the greater the life that was lived.  Some signs weather time better than others, but eventually all are forgotten – lost to rot and ruin.  And no matter how long their sign post may stand, the true quality of their life is always lacking.  For instead of living, and loving life, they spend their days fighting death.  Instead of cherishing those around them, they build false idols to the memory of their own existence, in the hope it will somehow prolong their inevitable fate.

However, to the elves, death was always so distant they lived as if it didn’t exist.  Because of their extended lifespans, they took the time to appreciate every little blessing of the Maker.  Even the smallest, simplest of tasks were enacted to perfection – no matter the time it took to achieve it.  They devoted their lives to it – the pursuit of perfection, and they had ages to attain that goal. 

That wasn’t to say they had no concept of death, nor were they truly ‘immortal’.  Like all things the Maker has wrought, they eventually died.  But when death came to an elf, it came after a millennium – time enough to experience the full complexity of life, and what it means to be living.  When they passed, they understood that their time was done; their role in the universe had been fulfilled and the chain of life continued with the passing of their seed.  They would be no more . . . but others would take their place.  They approached the end of their lives with contentment, knowing their children would remain to discover anew all the beauty and wonder of their world.

That world was no more . . .

What was left to discover within the Graelic was a darkness so foul and corrupt she dared not delve too deep.

The elven race was slaughtered; she had given everything to save them, but in the end all she could do was watch them die.  Among all of her failures, her greatest regret was that she didn’t stay . . . that she didn’t stay by his side . . . and that she didn’t die along with him. 

Now it was time to correct that error . . . she had no intention of leaving this world, Ki'minsyllessil, the land where her true love lay.  She meant to stay, and to fight until either she was dead, the darkness was no more, or she dredged the final shred of goodness from the foul heart of the Graelic. 

One way or another she would have her answers . . . perhaps in death she would meet the Maker and curse him face to face for devising so cruel a reality.  Possibly she would find purity, and thereby the will to fight on.

She clung to such pleasant fantasies like a drunkard to his flask . . . meanwhile, beyond her drunken senses the truth of reality was waiting to be found – darkness, oblivion, endless toil with nothing but sadness as her reward.

How much longer could she face it before she let it take her?

One of the slow-moving roots ripped out of the earth, heaving skyward over a hundred feet before it plummeted towards her . . .

NO . . . He didn’t give in . . .

She had to believe it was so.

He fought on . . .

With a thought, her shield flared brighter. 

He didn’t succumb to the darkness . . . he died fighting against it . . .

The monstrous root fell upon her, crashing against her shield and evaporating in a cloud of dust.  Her halo sliced through the appendage like a razor; what remained, thrashed over the land until it was bound, and buried, by the rest of the limbs covering the land.

So will I, she thought.  I will give my life in a battle for the Graelic’s soul.

The first time she fought to save the Great Tree she had the entire elven army at her side and still she failed.  She had no delusions she could succeed this time, certainly not on her own. 

But oh how she would try . . .

She continued forward, blazing a trail through the pit of snakes.  Like a blue star, her halo lit up the land.  Any of the dead vegetation beneath its glow caught fire.  Sizzling in the light, the roots desperately tried to squirm out of her way, but the larger ones were too slow and the moment she neared, they ignited into flaming pillars.

As if realizing the futility of hiding from her halo, the large roots decided to attack instead.  From every direction the monstrous black appendages came for her, exploding into ash as they slammed against her shield.  Even the greatest of them – the living mountains -- came rolling her way.  As if they didn’t exist, she kept walking, utterly calm as the ground began shaking and they thundered towards her.  They rumbled over her, her halo burning a cave straight through them as the continued rolling harmlessly by.  

And so it went, on and on it went, for what seemed like days she walked and she burned any of the rotting vegetation that stood in her way.  Meanwhile, the Graelic loomed larger, darker, forcing her to fight harder for every step she took. 

On occasion she looked back to the Rift, and was disheartened to see that no matter the damage she caused her path was gone; the mass of roots slithered back in place the moment her halo moved on. 

But worst of all, she was finally close enough to see what was hanging from the trees . . . bodies . . . thousands upon thousands of them.  Entwined around their necks, vines from the Dead Tree held them aloft to hang limply, hundreds of feet from the earth.  The only thing moving was their flesh – it rippled.  Beneath it, a network of black tendrils squirmed as it slowly spread throughout their bodies.  The vines around their necks had burrowed beneath their skin and was growing within them.  The process was so far along now it was impossible to tell the veins from the vines, so swollen and black were both.  The beings screamed in pain – or tried to -- their mouths stretched to tearing, their jaws locked in a silent shout. 

They were the elves; their golden hair scraggly and grey, their eyes solid black.  To see them desecrated so was more than Alana could bear.

Only one thought gave her hope . . .

They live . . .

The sensation was faint, and twisted.  But life remained within their vine-filled flesh.

Her heart beat faster at the possibility.

Could he be up there?

The moment she asked the question she nearly collapsed.  She realized what such an existence meant, and how selfish was her hope – a thought reserved for a child. 

Dear Maker, she prayed.  If you have any mercy . . .

It wasn’t solely their flesh which was tortured.  The pain inflicted upon them was so deeply ingrained it had warped their souls as well.  Their once harmonious hearts continued to pound, though now hate-filled, pumping infected blood within their chests.  They were immune to the Plague, but the Graelic had found another way to enslave them – to grow within them, breaking their resolve with pain. 

She couldn’t endure the sight of it any longer, or the thought that maybe Adros did survive, and she had abandoned him to such a hideous fate.  In the horror of it all, she lowered her defenses; her halo extinguished, plunging the world into darkness. 

Please let him be dead . . .

All of her hardened resolve vanished, she fell to her knees, unable to stop the flow of tears.

Please let him be by your side . . .

If there was any justice in the universe – any ounce of pity in the heart of the Maker – it would be so.  Her love, the proud, powerful Prince Adros would not end his days as some dead-eyed puppet; to be a slave to the evil incarnation of the entity he once loved and lived to serve. 

With a thought, she regained her composure . . .

If he yet lives . . .

It was up to her to put an end to his suffering.

She raised her head . . . wiping the tears from her eyes.

Her halo blazed back to life . . .

. . . Her sorrow came to an abrupt halt as her power returned – and with it her heightened senses . . .

She was no longer alone.  In her anguish she had dropped her defenses . . . allowed herself to be surrounded. 

Alana, must you forever be the fool?

Everywhere she looked, emotionless, rotting faces stared back at her . . .

. . . dead-eyed faces wrapped in oozing black cloth . . . eyeless skulls of bleached-white bone . . . skulls open and exposed; fetid brain matter dripping from the holes . . . 

Behind them a solid wall of roots arose, waving menacingly in the background.

There were countless of the dead, but strangely she sensed but one presence . . . the same foul scent that filled the entire world.  It slightly satisfied her damaged pride knowing that was how they managed to sneak up on her so easily; in the darkness, they were indistinguishable from the rotten limbs of the Dead Tree. 

But even so, she never should have been so easily trapped.  Her emotions had betrayed her.  And she was weakened, emotionally and physically.  She couldn’t recall the last time she felt so exhausted.  She had been pushing herself so hard and for so long.  Now that she was back where it all began, confronting the cost of her failure, the toil of it all finally hit her.  To make it back here had cost her so much . . .

Another thought crossed her mind . . .

The Graelic’s been toying with me . . .

What should have been an obvious conclusion, suddenly hit her like a slap in the face . . . despite their menacing behavior, the roots of the Graelic were never meant to kill her – only to distract, and to drain her . . . to drain her of the Oneness before she ever made it up the trunk. 

The Graelic set the trap, and she not only took the bait, she stayed to eat every last bite.

I’ve come so far, I cannot stop now . . . not when I’m so close.

This was her fault . . . all of it. 

I have to set him free . . .

She found strength . . . even though none existed.

Her halo flared brighter . . . the edges glowing with golden flames.

I WILL set him free!

A strange chortling sound came from the darkness; a wet gurgle, like the dying words of someone with their throat slit. 

The sound was followed by a voice, bellowing inside her mind.

‘NOTHING CAN SAVE YOUR PRINCE . . . NOR YOU, ALANA.’

The voice not only entered her mind, it filled her every thought.  It took all of her strength just to keep her focus.  Revolted by the voice, she realized she recognized the speaker.

‘Ostedes?’

He slithered forward into the light of her halo, propelled by hundreds of tendrils at the base of his towering faceless body.  Until he moved, she hadn’t even seen him; his tree-like form indiscernible from the rest of the black roots and vines hovering in the background.  His trunkfish body was taller than her, more so than she even remembered.  She always had to look up into those glowing white eyes, but now she had to arch her neck to the max just to take them in.  He had changed . . . not only his height.  His arms once resembled tree branches but now were now more like spouts of black ink projecting from his chest – drops of the black fluid even fell from them, dripping to the earth.  His body was grotesque, a mouthless rotting log.  His eyes . . . they were the same, but brighter; burning white pits on his decomposing black head.

‘So, I see the rumors are true . . . you have been taken by the Plague,’ Alana stated telepathically.

The gurgling sound began anew, emitting from somewhere in his foul trunk-like body.  This time, the sound was accompanied by a pounding laughter in her head.

‘HA, HA, HA . . . TAKEN?’ Ostedes asked, creeping closer.

YES, I WAS TAKEN . . . AGAINST MY WISHES I WAS TAKEN FROM MY HOME BY YOUR MENTOR, ANON.  HE ROBBED ME OF MY DESTINY . . . BUT NOW THAT DESTINY HAS FINALLY BEEN FULLFILLED.  NOW, ALANA, I AM ‘ONE’.’

She didn’t flinch as his putrid body came inches away from her face and the glow of his white eyes burned against her halo covered flesh.

‘AND SOON, YOU WILL BE ‘ONE’ AS WELL.  YOUR OWN DESTINY FULLFILLED.  SADLY, ANON ESCAPED ME IN THE END.  BUT IF I CANNOT HAVE HIM, YOUR SOUL SHOULD SUFFICE.’

His watery limbs writhed with excitement. 

‘OR BETTER YET, PERHAPS I LET YOU LIVE . . . AS BAIT FOR THE ONE WHO WOULD SO FOOLISHLY CALL HIMSELF THE MAKER.’

Despite his threats and monstrous appearance, Alana wasn’t intimidated or afraid – the horrors of the Rift were numerous, and she had faced many . . . many terrifying things within it.  

‘What happened to you, Ostedes?’ she calmly asked.

Again the laughter, so powerful it nearly dropped her to her knees . . . nearly.

‘SOON YOU WILL HAVE NO NEED FOR ANSWERS.  NO NEED FOR WORRY.  NO NEED FOR WANT.  NO NEED FOR ANYTHING.  ISN’T THAT WHAT YOU FIGHT FOR, ALANA?  IS THAT SO DISSIMILIAR FROM THE LOST HARMONY OF THE ELVES OF WHICH YOU SO WEEP?  I WILL GIVE YOU PEACE UNLIKE ANYTHING YOU HAVE KNOWN.  THE GRAELIC . . . YOU CLAIM IT IS CORRUPTED, BUT ON THE CONTRARY, ALANA . . . IT IS PERFECTED.’

Even when he was alive Alana had never been too fond of Ostedes – in death, she liked him far less.

“I’ll find my own answers . . .”

To hell with this bastard . . .

Her entire halo left her body – a broiling ball of pure energy.  It struck Ostedes squarely on his chest, ripping the being apart.  Black blood and bits of rotten flesh filled the air.  She didn’t wait to see how the other Dead Gods reacted – whatever they were going to do would have been too slow anyway. 

She was a fiery blur among them – her fist landed on the face of a Dead God who was missing half of his head.  What remained of his brains and skull exploded into bits of flaming ash.  One of the Dead Gods covered in bloody cloths suddenly ignited into blue pyre . . .  Bodies parts rained down from the air as she wove through the circle, sowing chaos, reaping death – with far greater skill than even the Dead Gods.

By the time they the remnants of the Dead Gods stopped falling, Alana had blazed a new path . . . one that did not close . . .

As the Dead Gods regrouped and regarded their fallen, Alana was already halfway to the trunk of the Graelic.

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