Jaru the Corrupted Disciple and I ducked and scurried toward an outcropping of volcanic rock to avoid being trampled by the Rampage-like Hunter and Rift Arachna as they tore at each other.
My eye was drawn once again to the blackness of the Great Rift, which seemed to have grown in the brief time since Jaru brought me there. At first I thought the shape emerging from the darkness was another tentacle, but it was white and, when I squinted to gain detail, braided. It lashed into Newerth and disappeared back into the Rift.
Then the tip of a steel sword sliced across the black veil. A jagged red blade that seemed to be made of bone met and stopped it, and both weapons retreated into the Rift. Jaru saw it as well. His orb began to glow brighter and spin faster. I made sure I was not between him and whatever might issue forth.
One of the giant purple tentacles uncoiled from the Rift and loomed above us. The end spread and dipped, its viscous fluid quivering. Our reflections in it appeared quite concerned, even terrified. The tentacle jerked once, twice, and fell into the dust and ash, where it rolled and whipped in a frenzy. Its severed base flopped through the Rift spewing purple blood that glowed upon the stones.
A warrior burst through the Rift and landed next to it. The white braid trailed behind him from a golden mask adorned with a fringe of white hair and a single giant green eye in the center. He carried two swords, wicked cleaver-like blades with rolling eyes embedded near the base. I shuddered, imagining what sort of creatures this Hunter had subdued in order to forge these weapons.
He gazed at us with the burning green eye for a moment, then swiftly drove both blades into the tentacle. It gave a final twitch and moved no more. The fluid which would have become a stalagmite spilled from its mouth and formed an opaque pool in a crevice. The Hunter pulled his blades free and turned to join the fight against the Rift Arachna. He had taken two steps when a glowing red streak burst from the Great Rift and slammed into him, knocking the Hunter off his feet into a graceless tumble across the harsh landscape.
The Hunter sprinted forward, blades whirling, and the Riftspawn lunged to meet him.
He recovered and rose into a half-crouch to face the Riftspawn. This monster seemed to welcome the confrontation, as if it had finally cornered its elusive prey. It possessed the massive lance-like claws of red bone I had seen moments earlier. They grew from its forearms, leaving the hands and their hooked claws free to slash and pierce. Jagged bony armor ran down its back to a tail bristling with bulbous red tendrils that matched the two at the end of the whip-like antennae sprouting from its head.
The Legion Command sent me to the meeting in a blackened carriage. The door was locked from the outside, the windows shrouded with thick canvas. It was a most secret palaver, the details of which I read from a sealed parchment, opened only when I was away from the eyes and ears of The Capital. As King Jeraziah’s Anointed Conciliator, I had expected to find orders that sent me to some childish disagreement between egotistic generals, squabbling over who got the honor of dying first.
Instead, I read by the light of a shaking candle that I was being taken to meet with the Hellbourne. This, to put it politely, was a shock that made my bowels quake. When I read why the meeting was necessary, I began to pray.
The sun was above the horizon when I finally emerged from the carriage. We were in a dark wood near an overgrown stone ruin that had once been a grand keep. Two royal guardsmen led me to a doorway clogged with vines and dead leaves. One of them went inside while the other stayed with me. The first returned and tilted his head, indicating I should enter. He seemed shaken.
The urge to turn and run was strong, but I was a representative of the King. My pride—and yes, my curiosity—got the best of me. What sort of creature served as a negotiator for the daemons? Had they sent a conversant imp? A savvy warlock?
I followed a damp stone hallway that was much warmer than it ought to be. I ignored the evidence, however, and was rendered speechless when I entered the round stone chamber. The only light came from a rotating orb floating near the high domed ceiling. Forks of red lightning crackled from it and caressed the damp stone. Beneath it, a man sat facing me across a small wooden table in the middle of the room.
He used to be a man, I should say. I don’t know what he is now. But I was about to palaver with Jaru the Corrupted Disciple himself, and I was woefully unprepared.
The empty chair slid away from the table with no visible force moving it.
“Sit,” he said.
I sat, and remained completely still while the chair slid toward the table until my stomach touched its edge.
The Corrupted Disciple leaned back, his red eyes burning. “Before we begin, tell me. How is my sister?”
“Sister Juna is well, or so I hear.” So far his negotiating style was impeccable—I was terrified not to answer.
“Have you met her?”
“When you leave here, seek her out and tell her I still reserve a place at my side for her. You know we were raised studying the Codex Solaris, that worthless brick, competing to live the most devout life?”
“I’ve heard the tale.”
Jaru smiled and smoke spilled through his teeth. “It was readily apparent I’d lose that race. She was an angel from birth, and from there her purity increased. So I found a shortcut to everlasting power. I ask you, Conciliator: What kind of god makes you wait until you’re dead for a reward?”
I was already on my heels. I had no weapon save for my sharp wit, which has saved me from many altercations. To be fair, it may have been the cause of some of them, but that is another matter. I recalled my purpose and summoned courage from unknown depths. “And I ask you, what kind of brother forsakes his loving sister for black corruption? The only reason she risks her life on the battlefield is the hope of finding and saving you, sir, and I will not share your message and further shatter her heart. Now if we are done tending to your family tree, I believe an urgent matter brings us to this table.”
The smile grew. “You realize I could cook you in your clothes.”
“And return to your masters bragging of that and no more.”
His eyes flared but his voice was calm. “Another time, then. Today we shall converse as equals. Let the Colloquy begin.” He folded his hands on the table. The wood charred beneath them. “What does your Legion know of this Great Rift?”
The laws of Colloquy prohibited lying. Cleverness, however, was highly encouraged. “We know Valreia the Riftwalker opened a portal to the damned place to save Hell’s Keep from an eruption of lava.”
“An eruption caused by your Black Legion sappers,” Jaru said.
“What is the Black Legion?” This was not dishonest. No one outside the elite unit knew for certain who they were or what they did. I brushed it aside. “No matter. As my orders state, I am here to discuss what is coming out of this portal, and how we can close it. It is a threat to all of Newerth, even greater than your Hellbourne.”
“That is debatable,” Jaru said. “But what about the things going into the portal?”
“Oh yes. Drawn in, or pulled, then re-emerging...changed. Don’t tell me your Legion isn’t aware of this.”
I could not be false. “Go on.”
He began to burn shapes into the table with his fingertip. They seemed to have life, squirming tentacles and quivering spikes. “Have you not noticed some of your soldiers missing?”
“We have many warriors on missions of secrecy. Too many to count, gone for months at a time while they execute their orders. Sometimes years.”
Jaru said, “But these soldiers are not missing for months, my friend, or sometimes years. They are gone for a few hours, a day at most. But in the Great Rift, those hours span a decade.”
I could not help myself. At this news, my expression shifted a fraction.
Jaru nodded. “You may dispose of the artifice; your ignorance is apparent. I will share what we know, however, because your statement is true. The Great Rift is a threat to us. It is expanding and refuses to be tamed and used as a weapon against you, so it must be destroyed. It and everything it spews forth, including those returning to Newerth.”
“You said they are changed? In what way?”
Jaru said, “The Great Rift steals them from Newerth. Man, beast, daemon, it does not discriminate. They spend years in the pitch blackness, wandering, killing, surviving. Or not. If they do live and find their way back to Valreia’s portal, they emerge and wreak havoc until they are killed, at massive casualties to our forces, or escape into the wilderness. Their paths of destruction are easy to follow—just look for the vultures.”
I considered this for some time. Above, the red orb crackled with energy. “It is the official stance of the Legion that we will do nothing, and watch with pleasure as these Riftspawn wipe the Hellbourne from the face of Newerth. Don’t ask for documentation; I forgot my sealing wax.”
Jaru swept his palm across the table, scorching the drawings into a black smear. “I expected as much. And if the Riftspawn should destroy us, do you believe they will march back into the Great Rift and be gone forever? Or will you just pray for it?”
I said nothing.
“You say you’ll watch,” Jaru said. “So let’s go watch.”
Jaru produced a Homecoming Stone from beneath his cloak. In the next instant I stood next to him on the windswept slope of the volcano Krula, my eyes watering from the oppressive heat and grit flying through the parched air. His red orb rotated over his right shoulder.
“How close of a look would you like?” Jaru asked.
I took a step backward. A hundred paces down the slope the black portal into the Great Rift gaped like a shark’s mouth, as wide as ten roads and tall enough to swallow a castle. Glowing purple tentacles thicker than any tree on Newerth slid across the threshold and seemed to taste the charred stone on our side, sampling it. I prayed whatever they were attached to found it lacking.
The end of the nearest tentacle split and fanned apart to discharge a tear-shaped blob of viscous fluid which glowed with a harsh blue light. When the fluid touched the stone it immediately hardened, shifting to a mottled gray color and fusing itself to the slope. The top remained open, however, and the internal blue glow intensified until an oily black substance spewed into the air.
“Can you count them?” Jaru said.
There were dozens of the alien stalagmites, perhaps hundreds, already in place and clouding the sky above Hell’s Keep with a thick black shroud.
Jaru smiled. “As you can see and smell, our volcano emits soot and a lovely sulphurous aroma. But her pollution is temporary.” He nodded at the large cones. “This will be permanent. We believe their
aim is to create pitch blackness over Newerth, an environment that will allow all the unspeakable things within the Rift to cross over.”
“The Rift wants to expand,” I said.
“Yes. Swallow us whole, if you will.”
“Can’t you destroy these things?”
“We have tried—stop!”
I know not what overtook me in that moment. The nearest tentacle had withdrawn into the Great Rift, and I rushed forward and kicked its latest cone. I haven’t kicked many things in my life, but this was by far the hardest blow I’d ever dealt. I may as well have struck the world I stood upon and hoped for movement. I stumbled backward into Jaru, who stepped aside and let me fall into the dust.
He looked down at me. “As I was saying. We have tried every means, including weapons we have not yet brought against you on the fields of war. The stalagnights—I coined that term, thank you—are impenetrable. We have tried to shatter them with steel and magic. We have tried to cap them with stones and spells. Nothing made a difference. But the Rift has made it clear: it does not appreciate any of these actions. I assume it won’t appreciate your attempt either.”
I stood and slapped some of the grit from my cloak. “What does it do?”
“Wait and see.”
We watched three tentacles place their stalagnights, which immediately began to spew the black pitch into the sky.
Jaru smirked. “Perhaps you scared the Rift into submission with your ferocity.”
Then a giant spider’s foot, glowing purple and barbed with claws, stomped through the portal.
“Or perhaps not,” Jaru said.