The floating head and Riftwolf circled the fallen Hunter, his weapons empty and scattered across the dusty ground. His large purple hand flexed and extended, reaching for his blade. The Riftspawn’s rolling torso eye glared at him as the headless creature stalked closer, its needle-sharp arm ready to plunge.
As the Riftspawn stepped within striking distance its circling head whipped toward the Rift, its single eye wide. The Riftwolf sank against the ground, and as one the Riftspawn creatures ceased their attacks and turned to their portal. Even the giant purple tentacles grew still, the thick stalagnite fluid dripping from their ends.
From the Rift, two red eyes floated into Newerth. They were as high as the tallest Legionnaire in our ranks and attached to serpent-like bodies. At first I believed them separate entities, and as they emerged fully from the Rift more tentacles joined them, tipped with stingers sharp enough to pierce a man through-and-through.
When the source of these tentacles set foot on our soil, I realized they belonged to a single being, the most powerful yet: their Queen. The other Riftspawn assembled and bowed to her regal bearing as she surveyed her new domain. Organic braids flowed back from her face and twitched as her tentacles sampled the environment.
“It is over,” Jaru the Corrupted Disciple said to me. “I hope you have planned well for the next world, whoever you are; this one is lost to us.” He stood and began to back away from the battle.
I was frightened, but more than that, I was furious. “That is the difference between man and daemon. When the Scar opened we charged forward to contain and hopefully, one day, close it. Now that you face a similar threat, you run.”
“One of many differences I embrace,” Jaru said. “You and your kind are so eager to die valiantly—I have seen what happens to those who die with shadows upon their souls. Had you seen it too, you would already be running back to your masters.”
“My soul is clean.”
Jaru smirked. “Is that what your priests sold you?”
“No, it is what your sister gave me, every time I came within a breath of dying on the battlefield.”
He froze, the smirk gone. “You will tell me who you are, or I’ll make sure your Newerth blood is the first that Rift Queen tastes.”
“Tell you?” I stood. “I think it’s time I showed you.”
I released the magic that made me as one with King Jeraziah’s Anointed Conciliator. The confused mediator stumbled away toward the sheltering stone, goggling at his strange surroundings. I felt sorry for him, but the explanation would have to wait.
Jaru’s mouth fell open. “Empath?”
Before he could react I cast a veil to contain the Riftspawn and sought a synergistic link with the wounded members of the Hunter’s Guild. They shook with renewed health and rose, scrambling to recover their weapons and assemble near me. The Riftspawn charged the veil and recoiled from the jolt it gave them.
Jaru’s orb flew from his hand and began to spin frantically. Before it made five revolutions he had four blades, a blowgun, and a rifle pointed at his face. The orb stopped spinning.
The Rift Slayer cocked his rifle. “Shall I?”
“No,” I said. “I will honor our Colloquy and allow him to warn the Hellbourne of this threat. All of Newerth needs to know of it.”
“Honor,” Jaru spat. “You’ve carried a false face the entire time.”
“Go. The Hunter’s trigger finger looks unsteady.”
Jaru took out his unused Homecoming Stone.
I tethered it from his grasp. “You will walk.”
He lingered long enough to cast a withering look upon me, then turned and fled into the labyrinth of crevasses on Krula’s slope.
The Hunter Rampage soothed his Riftbeast, who seemed unnerved by the proximity of the spawn. “How long will your barrier last?”
“Not much longer.” I lifted the Homecoming Stone and pulled the Conciliator from his crouch. “Gather closely, Hunters.”
The tribal Hunter stopped me. “Our commander waits for us on the other side of the gateway. He covered us as we passed through and secured a path for our retreat, if necessary. We cannot leave without him.”
“There is no time,” I said, and was interrupted by a shape hurtling through the Rift. It flew over the Riftspawn and my veil to land and skid to a halt in a cloud of soot.
When the dust cleared, the Hunter with the twin cleaver-like blades said, “Seems he grew tired of waiting.”
The Guild’s leader rose, ash falling from his long black trench coat and wide-brimmed hat. He was masked, his eyes hidden behind opaque goggles, and carried huge matching pistols with blades along the barrels that seemed capable of felling a tree. He saw the Rift Queen and her brood contained by the veil, surrounded by the stalagnights pumping darkness into the sky.
I felt his fear as he turned to his Guild and said, “It’s coming. We need to run.”
“She brought it?” said the rallying Hunter.
“She means to conquer this world; why wouldn’t she?” He addressed me. “You command here?”
He worked to reload his bladed guns. “Have you anything to combat a creature who eats everything in its path?”
“You speak of the Devourer daemon?”
A guttural roar echoed from the portal as a grotesque two-legged monstrosity lumbered through. The Rift had sunk its infection deep into whatever daemon this had once been. A single, giant eye was attached where the head used to be. Pulsing tubes carried glowing fluid to various body parts, including a fleshy orifice on its right arm that contained thick green tendrils. The other hand held a saw-toothed sword with spinning blades. It waddled toward its queen, and I believe I could hear its stomach rumbling.
The leader of the Hunter’s Guild said, “Worse. A daemon who has been consumed by the endless hunger of the Rift itself. The Rift compels it to constantly feed so the realm can expand and create more spawn. Now, can you stop it?”
Thoughts rushed through my head. I felt Newerth trembling with the new evil that had set foot upon her skin. “If these invaders are cut off from the Rift, will that kill them?”
“They are powered by the Rift,” the Hunter Rampage said. “Closing the portal would sever their lifeforce, if you can call it that. But what do you think we’ve been trying to do? There are many other Hunters still on the other side, fighting to close this damned thing while they keep the Riftspawn from flooding through.”
“Then we will help them,” I said. “We will enter the Rift and close it from within. But not alone.” I activated the Homecoming Stone. “Stand close. When the Legion hears your tale, you will have all the help you need.”
We were engulfed in a shifting prism of light and carried home, away from the site of the battle between the Hunter’s Guild and the Riftspawn.
But the true war had not yet begun.