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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They were being hunted . . .  

A glow followed them . . . red-hot, burning in the distance.  The rhythmic, fast-paced clang of metal feet rang throughout the chamber. 

Directly behind him, the clumsy steps of Commador kept pace with his own.   

Running through the chamber, TOphin felt like he was chasing the void; no matter what direction he took, or how fast he ran, the darkness remained elusive.  He had no clue where he was going – but wasn’t about to admit that to the boy.  Being a dwarf, he had a natural instinct for sensing direction, depth, and even the slightest degree of incline.  Even so, the only thing he knew for certain was that they were travelling upward.  Yes, he sensed it instinctually, but his burning calves were a far better indication.  The floor was perfectly flat, but inclined at approximately seven-degrees; a relatively minor pitch, but even so, the grade made escape all the more difficult considering he had to run for his life up hill.   

Initially, he tried his luck moving in different directions.  After coming up empty-handed and growing even more disorientated and lost, TOphin decided it was best to pick a course and stick to it instead of meandering aimlessly in the dark.  Hopefully his straight-line path would lead him to something significant . . . or better yet, something safe.  But searching the chamber was like exploring space – it was vast, dark, enigmatic and seemingly endless.

And he was growing tired . . . perhaps it was due to his age, but running up the slope was beginning to take its toll on his tough dwarven resolve.  His feet ached, his calves burned, and his heart was on the verge of exploding in his chest.

As for his mechanical pursuers, TOphin very much doubted they were having the same problem.  Their footsteps hadn’t slowed a beat, and only grew louder with every passing moment.

The metal floor was cold and dense – impervious to even his cave-vision.  The only reason he could see anything was the patterned grooves in the floor.  They pulsed from faint-blue to indigo, providing enough radiant light by which to place his blistered feet.  Initially, he thought them random markings, but the change in hue was constant – an exact count of twenty-four to cycle from light to dark.  By the recurring change in temperature, TOphin knew that power coursed through the runes, and that their seemingly random pattern was in fact a very elaborate means to distribute energy throughout the alien vessel. 

But power for what? he wondered.  And even more mysterious, what was its source?

Once he figured that out, he could make sense of the maze of lines – use them as guide-marks.  Ideally, if he could find what was generating the power, he could potentially disable the entire vessel.  With any luck, the metal men would be deactivated along with it.  In all honesty, it was more wishful thinking than a plan, but before he could come up with something better, what he really needed was to find a way out of the opened chamber; a place to regroup -- and most importantly – a place to hide.  If they didn’t get out of the open soon . . .

The metal men were closing in -- quickly. 

The red light of their eyes expanded, flooding the chamber. 

The sound of their metal feet hitting the floor grew even louder, reminding him of the dwarven smithies of the old; the ring of steel as a hundred dwarves edge-hammered their blades to perfection. 

Sweat poured down his forehead, stinging his eyes and seeping into his curly, grey beard.

Damn it’s hot. 

He swore he could feel the heat of their gaze, burning on his back. 

Without warning, TOphin skidded to a sudden halt.

The lines in the floor changed direction . . .

Predictably, Commador crashed into him.  Already bracing his squat form in anticipation of the collision, TOphin easily deflected the human off of him. 

“What is it?” Commador asked, crawling on the floor to retrieve his glowing metal fist.

“They branch off . . .”

“What?”

“The grid . . .”

The lines separated into two distinct directions, after which they continued to branch off by threes until they disappeared beyond TOphin’s cave vision. 

“I think I found something . . .”

But exactly what, he wasn’t yet sure.

“Keep moving,” TOphin continued, not that Commador really needed the urging.  He had already scooped up his ‘hand-lantern’ and was rushing after him.  “I’ll figure it out as we go.”

Behind them, the eyes of their enemy came into view; dozens of fiery red coals bounding through the darkness.  A stark contrast; their bodies were like shadows, cold, black silhouettes. 

If he didn’t figure it out, and soon, the pair of them would be taking an unwanted nap.

Randomly, TOphin picked a path of energy and followed it.  It made him all the more uneasy to have to ‘guess’ his way through the chamber; he preferred to make educated decisions based on analysis not assumptions -- but there was no time for any of that.  Besides, everything about the vessel was beyond his expertise.  The ship could very well be a lost technology from the Age of War, or perhaps it had even more bizarre origins – something created from beyond the known universe.  As much as his analytic mind would love to stop and figure the mystery out, he had to do so on-the-fly, which unfortunately meant a whole lot of guessing.

He despised the feeling of being lost.  To be ignorant on top of it, was a huge blow to his ego. 

At least I’m not alone.

The only thing that comforted him was hearing the boy’s awkward footsteps behind him.

TOphin had to admit, he was growing fond of the boy.  Sure, he was hard on him.  Not because he enjoyed punishing Commador – well, maybe just a little -- but mainly he wanted to toughen him up, drive out some of his rural naivety. 

Adros saw potential in the lad, otherwise he never would have allowed him to join them.  For the longest time, TOphin couldn’t imagine what that potential could have possibly been.  He thought maybe Adros intended to use him as bait, or as the stooge of the group; doing the menial, but necessary, tasks that would most likely result in death.  As far as TOphin could tell, it seemed it was all he was suited for.  After all, the boy had about as much sense as a boulder, rudimentary fighting skills, and zero natural ability with a blade – or anything else, for that matter. 

Adros knew better . . .

In an instant, he had seen what took TOphin years to discern; Commador was courageous – albeit, often foolishly so – honest, even when the truth landed him in trouble, and overall he was just a genuinely nice guy.  His heart was pure, a unique and powerful quality that, in this day and age, was not only rare, but an impossibility.  Even more remarkable, after five-cycles in the Rift, he maintained that purity, and never let the Dead Worlds corrupt his soul.  Sure, the death of their companions, and the rigors of it all had left him pallid, sickly looking, and perhaps worse for the ware, but somehow the innocent farm-boy remained.  TOphin believed no amount of sadness or horror would ever change that.  If all was lost, and the universe reduced to ruin, Commador would still look upon it with those dopey country eyes and find hope in what he saw. 

If only TOphin could pound some sense into him, he might even make a decent warrior out of him – or at the very least, keep him alive. 

Back at the cave, Commador had impressed him – and it wasn’t the first time.  He never thought the awkward, half-wit would last a single day in the Rift, yet he was still standing, even after the rest of the humans – the mighty Adros himself -- had fallen. 

Even now, with his metal fist providing less light than a birthday candle, the boy was right on his heels.

Inwardly, he reminded himself to take it easier on the boy.

“Move your ass, Commador,” he barked.  “Those walking suits of armor are closing in.”

There’ll be more than enough time to pat him on the back when this is all done, he thought.  Right now I need those scrawny legs to keep moving.

They did.  In fact, the boy didn’t seem to have any problem keeping up.  TOphin could barely catch his breath, while Commador had yet to break a sweat.

TOphin was starting to worry that he would be the one who would falter; on a good day, his bones were weary, his muscles ached.  After running uphill for so long, his legs were on fire.  His body wasn’t built to run a marathon to begin with, let alone do so uphill and in the twilight of his life.  Perhaps in his prime he could have maintained his pace for another hour or so, but at the moment, the only thing keeping him on his feet was his dogged stubbornness. 

Thank the gods, he thought.

The lines of power turned once more . . . this time running vertically, up a wall.

He stopped, taking the opportunity to catch his breath while he contemplated his next move.

“Oh boy,” he mumbled, arching his neck as he traced the pathway of energy.

He finally found something . . . but it was the last thing he hoped to see.

It was a massive barreled shaped wall, the energy lines hugged its contour as they arced up along it . . . and where each of the lines ended, a body was suspended, a pulsating blue cord fixed to their heads.  The bodies were identical to those they encountered at the cave; nine-foot, sleek metal forms -- row after row of them for the entire length of the wall.  TOphin could see fairly far in the dark; at a good squint, he could discern shapes fairly well fifty-feet away.  Squinting as hard as he could, he still couldn’t see the top of the ship, nor an end to the rows of metal soldiers.

Thankfully, their eyes were as cold and dead as the rest of their mechanical bodies.

“It’s an army,” TOphin mumbled, awestruck by the size of it.

The boy raised his hand-lantern to get a better look . . .

“Dear gods . . .” he gasped.  “There’s so many of them.”

“I don’t think the gods can help us out of this one,” TOphin replied.  “Let’s just thank them that they’re not all activated.”

A handful of the things had defeated his group in a manner of minutes.  He couldn’t imagine what such an army could accomplish . . .

“What sort of godless ship is this?” Commandor asked.

TOphin had heard of such things . . . legends of the Age of War.

“It’s a siege vessel . . . the army of metal men are a death squad, built for one purpose -- to conquer worlds.”

Solves that mystery, he thought, confident now that he knew the vessel’s origins.  Still, the ship was a giant puzzle, and he had only set one piece.

“But why they would want to conquer this hellish world, is beyond me.”

TOphin ran his fingers along one of the energy lines. 

“Nor do I care.  It’s just all the more reason for us to get the bloody hells out of here.”

Like we needed another . . . he thought. 

Honestly, TOphin didn’t know if he could make it much farther.  Especially now that they stopped; his joints flared, filling with pain, his muscles clenched with cramps as if someone was hammering at his calves.

The metal men were still hot on their trail – and at any moment he expected to see the eyes of the hanging bodies ignite with the spark of life. 

“I’m at a loss, Commador,” he admitted.  “I don’t have the slightest idea what to do.”

He couldn’t believe he was doing it . . .

“You have any ideas, boy?”

Commador nearly smiled.  His eyes filled with determination – the same look they held back in the cave, when he nearly ran headlong against insurmountable odds to rescue his allies from the metal giants.  Just like TOphin thought, he was all bravery and no brains . . .  No matter, they had tried it his way and he had failed.  TOphin was done running anyway.  The time for bravery was at hand, to face the demons head on.

TOphin clenched his hammer, preparing to join Commador in a final stand.

Surprisingly, Commador’s courage took them in a different direction.

“We keep moving,” the boy replied.  “Like you said, it’s the only way we can help the others.  We keep running, and in the meantime I’m certain you’ll think of something.”

TOphin was more than a little ashamed at the boy’s confidence in him.  If only he could live up to it.  He was almost hoping Commador would have chosen to fight, that way he wouldn’t have to confess his weakness to the boy.  He was on the verge of admitting defeat when Commador dropped his hand-lantern to the floor and instead took hold of TOphin, wrapping his arm around him. 

There was no point in hiding his weariness any longer.  He accepted his aid, collapsing into his arm – which was far stronger than he imagined, practically supporting his entire weight.  It was then TOphin realized something . . . the entire time they were fleeing, Commador had purposely slowed his pace to match his.  He wasn’t lagging behind . . .

He was guarding my back . . .

“Just tell me where to go,” Commador said, practically carrying him.

Doing his best to bury his embarrassment, TOphin grudgingly replied, “Keep the wall to your left . . . and don’t stop.  Not until they catch us or I tell you otherwise.”

With the dwarf in his arm, the boy ran, moving even faster than before.  Again, TOphin was amazed at how powerful those scrawny legs were.  Thankfully, he didn’t have to take him far. 

“WAIT!” TOphin shouted, far louder than he intended.

He found something . . .

This time something good. 

“A door!” he exclaimed.

He saw it . . . several power lines converged on the floor, forming a pulsating blue circle . . . the door shimmering at the edge of his vision, fifty-feet away . . .

But despite Commador’s pace, the giants were closing in . . . so close, his ears rang with the metallic drumming of their feet.

“Where?” Commador asked, having to shout to be heard above the banging footsteps.

TOphin raised his hammer in the direction, then, without giving him a choice in the matter, the boy tossed him forward.

Go . . .” Commador said.

Damnit boy! TOphin cursed as he sailed through the air.

“Open it . . .” he shouted from at his back.  “I’ll be there when you do.”

A litany of curses came to mind as he crashed to the ground.  But there wasn’t enough time to chastise the boy for his foolhardy gallantry, besides, he was right.  TOphin was the only one who could open the door.  Perhaps the boy was smarter than he gave him credit for.

Picking himself off the ground, TOphin trudged forward . . .

First I have to make it there, he thought, struggling to complete every step.

He crossed half the distance when the clanging stopped . . . or more accurately it changed -- from the steps of metal feet, to the ring of a steel blade.

Good luck, boy, you brave son-of-a-bitch.

The boy’s courage fueled his own.  Fighting through the pain, he closed in on the pulsating circle.  Digging through his pockets, TOphin once more took out his steely-grey cube of di-chromium.  He held it tenderly in his rough, calloused palm.  The material was brittle, but despite its fragile nature, it was a powerful antiferromagnetic; capable of disrupting electromagnetic charges at a short distance.  The cube was also highly toxic – except to a dwarf.  After handling it for so long, he would have been a drooling vegetable by now – worse off than even Commador -- if his body wasn’t able to adapt to its toxin.

If the cube was to be of any use, first, he would have to get close enough to the portal.  But at this pace, there was no way he would ever make it in time . . .

Summoning whatever strength he had left in his stumpy legs, TOphin dove for the door -- the lustrous cube clenched in his outstretched hand . . .

He belly-flopped onto the ground, a good five-feet short of his goal.

Damn, he cursed, scrambling the rest of the way on his hands and knees.  As he crawled, he pressed the cube to the runes, hoping it would disrupt the flow of power and disengage the locking mechanism.  The blue lines flickered . . . the ground around him turned black as pitch.

The floor dropped out below him.

Desperate to save himself from falling, he reached out . . . grabbed onto something – something soft . . . an ankle . . . he pulled what he hoped was Commador down with him.  The next thing he knew, he was tumbling head over heels through the hole.  All the while, he kept a hold of the boy’s ankle.  While upside down, his hope was confirmed as he glimpsed Commador; still clutching his blade; several new notches now marring its edge.  Gradually, the tube levelled off, but with the smooth metal walls, there was little friction to slow them down.  They were still moving fast when the tube split in two.  In a desperate attempt to avoid being ripped in half at the Y shaped junction, TOphin pitched his weight to the right.  In doing so, he lost his grip on the boy.  He tried to slow himself by driving his hammer against the tube.  He managed to create a colorful trail of sparks as he ground the silver plating off its face, but otherwise he was still barreling down the tube. 

Where’s my damn pick when I need it?

He could only pray that Commador still followed him . . . and that neither of them were crushed to death when they finally came to the end of the tube.  After sliding for some time, he decided there was no use fighting the inevitable; he settled in, going down -- feet first with his back to the chute.  He was beginning to wonder if the tube actually had an end, when -- as if flung from a catapult -- he launched out of the thing. 

The air left his lungs as he hit the ground hard.  His tough dwarven body saved him from any broken bones, but he wasn’t spared the pain.

Commador wasn’t so lucky; he watched as the boy flew out, crashing face-first into the floor. 

Laying on the ground, moaning in pain, TOphin looked up at the chute.  It was well over five-feet in diameter and lined with smooth metal walls.  It would be impossible to climb back up it, but even more worrisome, the sleek metal bodies of their pursuers would have no problem sliding down.

On his knees, Commador covered his face, trying to stop the blood from pouring between his fingers. 

“Shake it off, boy.  We may have company soon.”

Sure enough, a faint heat signature radiated far above.

They were tough words, but TOphin knew that even with his accelerated healing, he would be bruised for months.

“My nose,” Commador groaned, the crooked appendage likely broken again.

“Cheer up, maybe the fall straightened it out,” TOphin said, struggling to get to his feet.  “Besides, we have worse problems.”

They were in a rectangular chamber, roughly twenty by thirty-standard feet.  Unlike the storage chamber of the metal giants, the entire room glowed with power.  There were no energy lines, only symbols . . . cold, dark symbols covered the walls.  The room itself radiated with heat-energy, a warm azure blue.  The symbols were different than the lines they encountered before, not only in that they didn’t glow, but they weren’t meant to convey power.  Partly complex geometric shapes and partly a collection of elegant lines; it was obvious to TOphin they were a language . . . an ancient and unrecognizable language.

He saw nothing to indicate another possible exit – no hairline cracks, no faint infrared glow, and no differential in the material.  It was as if the room was forged, a solid piece of steel.  They were trapped in a metal box with no way out other than climbing the chute and facing the giants above.

“We’re trapped,” he flatly stated, gripping his hammer and waddling over to the opening in the ceiling.

Commador stood up to join him.  Ignoring the rush of blood from his nose, he raised his chipped blade.

“You ready for this, boy?”

He nodded his head, blood pouring freely down his face.  His nose was definitely broke -- actually smashed was a more accurate description. 

Huh, at least it won’t be crooked anymore, TOphin mused.  He always thought Commador could have been a handsome man had it not been for his bent, beak of a nose.  Well, maybe not handsome, but at least average.

“I don’t suppose you’ve come up with a way to defeat them?” Commador asked, his lips caked with blood.

“Not exactly,” TOphin admitted.  “I suppose I could start with my hammer, and see what happens after that.”

He raised the weapon, was about to slap it into his palm to accentuate his point . . .

Wait a dead minute . . .

The di-chronium cube was still in his hand, and still intact.  On instinct, he must have guarded the fragile material in his palm during the fall.

And all this time I thought Commador was the fool one.

“Or maybe, lad . . .”

One of the giants shot out of the tube. 

“Maybe there is a way . . .”

With a bang! the giant landed solidly on its feet.  Its eyes burned with fire – pure white to TOphin’s cave-vision, as if some internal furnace powered the being.  The metal giant righted itself, standing well over twice TOphin’s height.  The being was unarmed, but TOphin was well aware that its body was a weapon.  Not only were its long arms and legs as powerful as sledgehammers, it could also channel its inner energy, using it as a deadly projectile weapon.  It was fast, fierce and powerful enough to have laid out the mighty Adros. 

It walked towards them, slowly; it eyes burning down upon the duo with the knowledge it had cornered its prey and would soon dispose of them with little effort.

Its chest glowed, filling with heat and with power.  The power coursed through its arms and into its fists, where it gathered in a blinding blaze . . .

“Here . . .”

TOphin casually tossed the di-chronium cube to the towering being.

“Catch.”

It didn’t catch it . . .

The fiery eyes tracked it, but its mechanical brain must have dismissed it as a harmless rock . . .

With a soft clink the cube bounced off of its fiery chest.  As the di-chromium fell to the ground, the glow vanished from its eyes, hands and chest.  

TOphin dropped his hammer and leapt forward; his palms outstretched.  He fell at the being’s feet, the cube safely stowed in his hands.

He looked up from the ground, fearing a metal foot would come slamming down on his head.  Instead he found the giant was motionless, its body cold and dead.  It may as well have been a metal statue. 

 “See . . .” Commador said, his voice muffled worse than ever due to his crushed nasal cavity.  “I knew you’d find a way to beat them.”

“Well, I’m glad you were so certain,” TOphin replied, craning his neck back up to the hole in the ceiling. 

“Even so,” he continued.  “We may have found a way to fight them, but little good it will do if we’re trapped.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Commador replied, at the moment more concerned with resetting his broken nose than escape.

This time, TOphin was bolstered by the boy’s faith.

“Eye, Commador,” he replied, looking at the symbols on the walls.  “I believe I will . . .”

 

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