Caleb Drask woke from the dream as always, swimming amidst the damp river of their sheets. The dream quickly faded before the cold grey light of morning, but Caleb could still remember snatches of it. Like a wild and alien song they couldn’t quite remember upon waking. The echoing void of sound directly after a soulscatter mine, the taste of dried blood and bile, something terrifying…and beautiful walking towards them.
They grunted as they swung their legs off the cot. The old scars from the final push of the Deathborn Infantry offensive in the Sundering War flared up whenever they slept rough. Caleb hummed a scrap of the song from their dream as they ran a hand over the bristle of their neatly cropped head. If it was any longer, it would have been shot through with grey both from age and other less pleasant things. If war didn’t kill you, the time stretching after it sure did, they thought, as the old pains were slowly replaced with familiar, everyday ones.
Brain still cobwebbed with the haze of sleep, they reached over for the small envelope next to their cot. It was covered with tightly penned runes, winding around in encroaching circles. Caleb gently tipped the packet onto their tongue, inhaling sharply as liquid fire coursed through their veins. Their body arched and their muscles tensed as magical energy flooded them in a rush. Suddenly preternaturally alert, Caleb picked up a nearby vial of pulverized crystal and refilled the envelope. Pressing their thumb into the middle of the runic spiral, they resealed it with a word of power. The powder was Pixie, which gave it an extra bit of kick, but it could have been glass or lint, merely a vessel for the spell on the package. It did, however, leave a sour tang in the mouth that reminded Caleb of the taste of iron right before they would charge over the top of the trenches. The acrid taste of approaching violence.
Practically vibrating with energy, Caleb dressed with the practiced ease of a lifelong soldier. They picked up their battle focus, an engraved obsidian rod, and slid it into the holster on their belt. Purple tunic, purple pants, and the starburst-and-eye collar pins of a Riftkeeper captain marked them clearly for all to see. Shouldering the rest of their kit, Caleb tramped down the hallway of the safe house toward the teleport circle anchored in the White Room.
The White Room, to put it simply, did not exist. At least not in the way most people thought about geography. It had no concrete definable terms anchored to landmasses and places that their brains could map out and pin into place on a wall. The White Room was a liminal space that the Riftkeepers had discovered in the early days of exploration, a perfectly white and nondescript room with seamless walls, floor, and ceiling: a sterile cube floating amidst the Rift. Although initially considered merely an oddity in the warp and eddies of the cosmos, the White Room eventually became much more. Caleb had discovered that, thanks to its liminal nature, the room circumvented almost all previously known limitations on teleportation spells. It was a perfect staging ground for sudden strikes and covert operations. When a team needed to be assembled without notice from prying eyes, you could do so in the White Room. However, the room seemed to come and go with a mind of its own and Caleb had only learned of its reappearance scant hours before planning this mission. Someone…or some thing was smiling on them today, or cackling hungrily. When it came to the Rift, you could never really be certain.
The teleportation was seamless, and Caleb felt only the faintest tug at the back of their skull as they emerged into the unyielding whiteness of the room. Long gone were the days when such a jump would have left them heaving, retching, and feeling like their skull was full of hot sand. You could get used to almost anything, given enough time.
Caleb heard someone humming and whirled to their right. The room was meant to be deserted.
Nobody. The room was empty. In the back of their mind, Caleb heard the song from their dream. It was fading like water through their fingers.
“It’s nothing,” Caleb assured themselves, “just a trick of the mind, a snippet of a dream.”
Sometimes the brain thought it heard things in the moments before and after teleportation, but they were always only phantom echoes. Sometimes Caleb even heard the scream of the now-distant memory of mage artillery overhead and emerged from the teleportation ring aching from long-healed wounds.
More scholarly mages might talk about it being glimpses of false memories—or perhaps someone else’s memories—as you journeyed through the Rift. But Caleb had never been one to worry about the theory of magic. More important was what kept you alive, especially from the things that wanted you dead.In a trench, understanding magical reagents could save your life, or that of the soldier next to you. But just sitting around pondering transrift dimensions, no. That was for mages who would never see the horrors they studied, never hunt down a twiceborn puppet of the Blood Mother. And that was exactly what Caleb had to do.
Caleb checked the spell kits and mission load-outs as the rest of the team arrived in various stages of readiness. They repressed a sigh, and had to remind themselves that this was no longer a time of outright war. Although the mission would almost certainly prove dangerous, the Riftkeepers were nowhere near the disciplined force the Deathborn Infantry had been. “Nor should they have to be,” Caleb thought with a shiver.
As their team arrived and settled into their accustomed spots for the briefing, leaning on walls or sitting on supply crates, Caleb took a moment and mentally cataloged them for the upcoming mission.
Trevark from the Thell Mountains quietly and methodically checked his equipment. He remurmured weapon enchantments and organized his spell components into the pouches he always wore across the belt on his chest. Trevark had given up his furs and hide armour in favour of the purples of the Riftkeepers, but still kept a trim of snowrabbit along his cloak’s collar and the curved spectre hunting blade at his back. Caleb never brought up the non-regulation attire. They had seen what Trevark could do with that blade when his back was up against a wall. Frankly, it was reassuring to know Trevark was on their side.
On the other end of the spectrum was Arkaed, whose uniform was more armour than robes at this point. She had added a particularly nasty set of glass gauntlets to her kit after their last run-in with blood golems. Arkaed had just finished fine tuning the Rift receptor crystals and attuning their glass frequencies, and was now braiding her long flowing hair into a tight knot to keep it out of the way. All the while, she bragged about how much of a wallop the new glass tech would pack. Once again, Caleb bit his tongue. They had seen Arkaed send one of those golems flying through a stone wall with one sorcery-powered punch—and that was before the gauntlets. The memory of her looking back through the smoke, lips pulled back in fierce glee, completely mindless of the blood streaming from her fist… that was the memory that gave Caleb confidence in their chances to pull off this mission and come out alive.
And finally the team was rounded out with Paul. Slight and dark haired, Caleb swore Paul was nowhere near the nineteen years he claimed. But nothing changed the fact that he was among the most terrifying necromancers Caleb had ever seen. And that was saying a lot, coming from a veteran of the Deathborn Infantry. Paul, as usual, calmly read a book. His robes were the standard purple issue of all Riftkeeper cadets. The only outward sign that they were anything other than that was a single line of bone ash, drawn in a downward-facing triangle on the center of his forehead. Caleb always felt a cold shiver of unease when they looked at the kid, and swore for one awful, hair-whitening moment that they could still hear the crawling corpse masses of their once-friends writhing over the top of the trenches. But how did that old saying go? “When one must fight monsters, sometimes one must become… well, something that scared the monster back…”
Or something like that.
Caleb cleared their throat and set an ornately tooled chunk of obsidian into a matching base on the table before them. Pale blue traceries of magical energy wove themselves into the air above, forming the image of a humanoid creature made of pulsing blood and bone. Even on the small projection, the creature loomed with menace. The runes running down the side of the image said it was over twenty feet tall. Its flesh was twisted, with veins of blood sprouting in places and erupting into jagged spines of bone in others. The squad didn’t bat an eye at the appearance of the creature with the exception of Arkaed, who bared her teeth in a feral grin of anticipation. Caleb felt gratitude for that, at least.
“That’s what I’m gonna smash?” asked Arkaed, far too brightly for someone about to face off with an abomination of blood sorcery and the Sundering knows what else.
Caleb grimaced but it did not reach their eyes, which twinkled with appreciation. “Well, maybe its cousin, Ark” said Caleb, drolly.
Paul looked up from where he had been writing something in one of the many books he always had around his person, in what looked very suspiciously like blood. “Lieutenant Arkaed, I sincerely hope this will not be like the last time, when all I had to study after the mission was… pieces.”
Arkaed stared at the necromancer for a full moment before deadpanning, “But Paul, they were interesting pieces, right? More to study.”
For a moment it looked like the young necromancer was about to pass out with indignation. Then realization of the joke spread through his face and Paul, in one of the rare times Caleb had ever seen him actually act anything like his age, stuck his tongue out at Ark before turning back to bury his nose in his writing.
Clearing their throat Caleb looked at the two expectantly with a raised eyebrow and with a swipe of their hand pulled up the images of several people. These new figures appeared with the local garb of Summit, and one of them had a glowing red sigil pulsing in the air next beside their face. Caleb stood a little straighter and all traces of amusement left their eyes. The squad knew this look and all banter ceased as they waited for Caleb to speak again.
“We just got a ping from one of our Sparkstone spotters. A bloodrager is tearing up Krell’s Square, heading down into the tenements under the Sparkstone Steps, so this one is close to home. We don’t know what the Bloodkin are doing on our home turf. Really doesn’t matter. The council has authorized us to go in hot and put it down. That’s what we are going to do. We don’t have a lot of time, so let’s get up and ported.”
Trevark put away the knife he had been fiddling with and looked over at Paul. “Will a twenty-foot bloodrager be big enough of a specimen?” he said gruffly but with a wry smile.
“Yes, it should do quite well, Sergeant Trevark” Paul replied with studious seriousness.
Rolling their eyes Caleb disbursed the projection with a practiced gesture and returned the stone to their kit bag. The rest of the team silently gathered their gear and headed to the teleport circles. Caleb held up a gloved hand with the palm flat, and they all stopped behind it. Turning around, Caleb looked at each of them in the eye for a moment before allowing a slight smile to cross their lips.
“Let’s do this by the numbers and get back early so I can get a nap in at headquarters, okay? I’m getting old, after all, and it’s been a while since I slept in a real bed.”
Without giving them a chance to crack a smile, Caleb stepped back into the pull of the transportation circle.
The squad landed on a rooftop of baked clay surrounded by bundles of drying fregrash roots and lines of dyed cloth. Arkaed, Trevark, and Paul immediately loosened their assorted arcane focuses and weapons and began covering the attack angles. Caleb conferred with the spotter, a young girl who could not have been more than fifteen.
“It went that way,” she said, and gestured off the side of the building to where Caleb could hear low cries of pain and see the smashed remains of vendor carts scattered across the alley like chaff before a harvesting wind.
The carnage continued down the street before the alley turned into the low archway of the expansive but now defunct aqueduct system. As they looked down, Caleb heard a familiar tune hummed from behind them. The same tune from their dream and that they thought they had heard in the White Room. Turning quickly, Caleb saw no one new. The girl was looking at them oddly.
“What were you just humming?” Caleb asked in a tense whisper.
The girl just cocked her head to the side in confusion before gesturing again to the street below.
“I wasn’t about to follow it,” the girl said solemnly. Then, leaning closer, she whispered, “But I can tell you it was changing—”
She was interrupted by a harrowing scream that was joined by an animal shriek from the archway where the bloodrager had gone.
Caleb turned from the kid without another word and nodded towards the street below. The squad silently followed their lead, each of them holding their own wind amulet as they stepped off the roof of the building. They landed quietly and spread out in front of Caleb. Arkaed and Trevark took point and Paul brought up the rearguard.
Caleb drew their battle focus, and held the obsidian rod at a downward angle as they moved through the chaos and blood of the market stalls. They soon entered dark shadows of the aqueduct archway, and Caleb’s eyes adjusted to the gloom.
It took a few moments to comprehend, but a ghastly sight accosted them. In the darkness, the red was hard to make out. But it was everywhere. The remains of a vendor and their cart animal were spread up the walls of the short tunnel. And onto the ceiling. It was the droplets that made everything clear. As they passed through, viscera and gore dripped down onto them in steaming clumps.
Arkaed and Trevark were posted ahead, behind more wreckage on each side of the tunnel. Trevark had his own battle focus trained on a figure whose outline was a dark shadow against the afternoon light pouring in at the other end of the short tunnel. Arkaed had her gauntleted fist held up, traceries of Rift energy beginning to fill the inscriptions and the glass chambers within it. She nodded curtly to Caleb and then to the figure.
Caleb nodded back and, holding up a fist to order them to hold position and cover them. Then they moved forward one cautious step at a time. Rushing in was for soldiers still wet behind the ears, and most of Caleb’s friends who had been so brave had been left to feed the carrion birds on long-past battlefields. Smart keeps you alive, Caleb reminded themselves as they leveled their rod at the cloaked figure’s back and advanced, strafing slightly to the right.
“Did you see what happened here?” Caleb barked.
Now that they were closer, they could see the figure was wearing a ratty grey-hooded robe and was about their same height. Its bulk didn’t match the description of any bloodragers in the Riftkeeper archives, but something didn’t sit right with Caleb. If the rager had passed through here, why had it left this person alone?
Caleb edged closer to the cloaked figure, who still had not moved. They could hear the rest of the squad moving up to cover them.
“I need you to turn around slowly,” Caleb barked.
Something was off. Caleb reached out with their focus, preparing to prod the figure, but it began to turn. As it did, Caleb again heard the familiar tune. They could feel their blood run, first cold, and then unnaturally hot in their veins. The robe slipped from the figure’s shoulders as it moved.
It was roughly humanoid, but its skin looked like grey clay, hastily sculpted. In fact, it was still writhing and reforming itself as they watched the flesh roiling and settling in places like living mud.
As if from a distance or underwater Caleb heard Arkaed bark, “Trev, we have contact! That’s the sunderin’ rager! Take it down!”
But the thing Caleb could not tear their eyes away from was its lips. They were sunk in the middle of a mostly featureless face that was moment by moment taking on more human characteristics. But the lips were full and finely formed, and they were parted in song. Caleb realized that they had begun to hum the song in return. Even though they could hear the shouts of Arkaed and Trevark behind them, they could not tear their gaze away from this creature’s face. Such a beautiful face. Caleb knew this face. A milky crystalline mask surfaced from within the creature’s blank face, like a creature breaching the surface of the ocean after rising from the depths. The mask was both alien and beautiful and Caleb could feel tears of happiness begin to run down their face.
A crackling bolt of arcane energy lanced past them from behind, followed fractions of a second later by Trevark’s echoing word of command. The bolt blew a gaping hole through the creature’s shoulder. Arkaed surged past them next, shoving Caleb aside as she brought her hissing glass gauntlet down in a leaping strike, a plume of Rift vapour trailing it. The air in front of Arkaed shimmered with corruscating grey and purple energy as a portal was torn open by the glass technology. She phased through it, disappearing completely, only to reappear suspended momentarily in the air directly behind the rager, the momentum from her blow still in motion. It caught the creature square on the side of the head and slammed it into the cobblestones beneath their feet with a sickening crunch.
Caleb felt a hot rage rising within, but it was directed at Trevark and Arkaed. How could they do this? This beautiful creature meant Caleb no harm. How dare they attack such perfection? Such a perfect creature. A perfect child that Caleb loved.
They struggled to their feet, and raised their battle rod until it pointed at Arkaed. No more harm could come to Caleb’s child. The words of command began to form on Caleb’s lips, but they never made it out. A touch as cold as ice grew on Caleb’s shoulder, and the soft voice of Paul spoke deep into their mind.
No, Captain, or whatever you have become, I don’t think I can let you do that.
And then the world began to dim. An unassailable lethargy crept into Caleb’s bones, like the fingers of the grave quieting them down to sleep. With all the effort they could muster, Caleb slowly turned towards Paul. The young necromancer’s face, eyes fully black from the power he was harnessing, showed obvious shock that Caleb had been able to move at all.
“Captain, I don’t know how this creature is affecting you, but I can see this is a textbook case of…”
Paul’s voice faded into a haze. Caleb was no longer looking at their young subordinate but instead at the towering figure behind him. For one infinitely stretching moment, the tall figure of a red robed creature loomed behind Paul. Her alien face was unreadable as Her eyes glittered crimson in the gloom of the tunnel. There was something about Her form that made Caleb’s eyes shy away from fully seeing Her. But, nonetheless, Caleb knew in that moment that this was their Mother. She had always been their Mother, and always would.
The song grew to a thundering crescendo inside Caleb’s head as the creature smiled lovingly down at them and Caleb reached out to Her. They had never wanted anything more than to be taken into Her enveloping embrace and they knew now that they had already felt it once before.
And then the song was gone. Well, not entirely. Caleb could still feel its tune writhing through their veins and echoing in their bones. But Mother was gone, and the world was slowly returning to colour from the icy grey spell Paul had been holding them under.
Looking down at their hand, Caleb was confused for a second to just see their elbow and forearm splashed with crimson blood that spurted and squelched intermittently. Then they realized it wasn’t their blood. It was because they had buried their hand and forearm deep into Paul’s chest as easily as one would push it into mud. The cadet looked down in shocked disbelief, then looked up at Caleb with betrayal and fear. But Caleb felt nothing except a growing happiness that they were doing what the Mother wanted.
Paul coughed a flume of black blood onto Caleb’s chest, and the necromancer’s eyes blazed for a moment with a dark flame. Snaking black veins spread back from their temples like they were summoning up one final burst of death energy. But then it faded. Paul slumped backward to the ground without another sound, leaving Caleb holding their still warm heart in one gore-drenched hand.
Behind them, the sounds of the fight returned as the necromancer’s power vanished and Caleb heard Arkaed’s rage-strangled shout of, “Captain what in the Sundering are you…” followed by Trevark’s cold, “Watch your six, Ark, that thing isn’t down yet!”
Turning to face these two enemies of their Mother, Caleb smiled. They saw the grey, clay-like figure that Arkaed had pummeled into the ground suddenly rear up, its flesh flowing out into a constellation of dark snaking veins and bone that rapidly knit itself into a new, towering form. The creature’s legs snapped, the bones crunching and reforming into roughly canine haunches. Others slithered together to sheath one of its newly formed arms in a massive blade of bone and blackened blood. Spikes of bone erupted all over its body, spraying Arkaed with grey flesh and old blood as it finished its transformation into a bloodrager, now towering above them both and blocking out most of the light from the tunnel’s entrance.
Caleb had never seen anything so beautiful and they knew, without even having to wonder how, that the Mother wanted them to protect this child, to help it escape and deliver it to… well, they were sure the Mother would tell them where to go once they dealt with these two annoyances.
Trevark came forward from behind his cover and aimed another blast of arcing black energy at the beast. He cast a gaze over at Caleb and Paul’s slumped form, taking it all in in a split second.
“Arkaed, the Captain’s burnt!” he barked. “We have to take them both down!” He fired another blast that barely managed to rock the rager back on its heels.
To her credit, Arkaed hardly paused for even a second before launching herself across the hallway, her gauntlet a blur of smoke and Rift energy in the dim light. After all, Caleb had trained her for just such an occurrence. That’s how you stayed alive: you trusted nothing, not fully.
However, Caleb wasn’t the same person Arkaed had trained with. Now that Caleb was awake to the Mother and all that they must do, they had new moves to play.
Flinging their arms wide, fingers spread like claws, Caleb reached deep into the blood flowing in their veins. Blood that they now knew was not theirs but the Mother’s, Her gift to them. Caleb let it flow up and out of their mouth, a crimson, writhing river that they then directed into a shimmering, crimson veil before them. With two downward swipes of their clawed hands, Caleb reached into this Veil, and through it into the Rift. And now, with the Mother’s power corrupting, no… perfecting their power, Caleb ripped the Veil in half and allowed something to stumble out of the Rift in reality before it dissipated.
The creature towering over them was not one Caleb had ever seen in their years with the Riftkeepers, and that was saying a lot. It also wasn’t a creature of the Mother as far as they could tell. Its height was barely contained by the tunnel’s arched ceiling. Its body was a nightmarish mass of tendrils and organs that floated wetly in the air around it. It slowly turned a sac-like head at the end of a long fleshy stalk to peer down directly at Arkaed.
Smiling, Caleb slipped from behind the creature towards where Trevark was dancing around the towering rager, his blade flashing almost too fast to follow, alight with its own cold flame.
Looking back to the creature just in time, Caleb saw Arkaed raise her gauntleted arm in the Descent of Walls stance. The alien creature before them let out an unearthly, warbling lowing that seemed to come vibrating from all the organs that floated on tendrils around it. The air before Arkaed shimmered as she tried to divert whatever unknown attack the creature was making, and then their entire gauntleted arm exploded in a shower of glass, bone, blood and Rift energy.
Turning back towards Trevark, Caleb watched as the rager grabbed his blade in a bone-encrusted hand and flung it away. Trevark leapt backwards to neatly avoid the rager’s half-hearted riposte with its bone blade. Rather than pressing its attack, the creature just stood there, watching Caleb expectantly.
Caleb gestured back towards the bleeding, but still defiant Arkaed, and then back to the rager and stated simply, “Choose one.”
Trevark hesitated for a moment before cursing and turning on his heels to rush back to Arkaed’s side, blasting rod out and already flashing.
Turning towards the giant bloodrager, Caleb looked up into its still-morphing face, which moved around the Mother’s mask from flesh to bone like a piece of driftwood on the surface of an uneasy sea, and said, solemnly with outstretched hand, “Let’s get you out of here, child.”
Story by Jordan Shiveley. Jordan lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he writes weird things. Sometimes they appear in games. Most recently he wrote the Codex of the Deep Spire supplement book for the SPIRE roleplaying game.
Art by William Liu. William Liu is a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanor.