Orlias Krell ducked as the spiny, multi-legged creature sailed over his head like a cannonball, thrashing angrily. Somehow another Tumblespine had broken loose from the containment area in Evera’s workshop, and this time they had gotten as far as the miners’ track before she’d realized and sent word up the mountain.
Orlias had come as soon as he’d heard, taking the Torn Path down the mountain. The network of hidden platforms and crash nets in the rockface allowed the Riftkeepers to teleport down Summit through a long chain of short jumps and controlled falls, always giving them sightlines to their next exit portal. It turned his stomach inside-out taking so many rapid-fire leaps, but it allowed Orlias to move fast and undetected.
Truth be told, he was getting used to the journey. It seemed every week, some fresh new crisis had sprung anew—usually something to do with Evera’s experiments.
“I should just set up a camp down here!” he said, opening a snap portal as the creature pounced again, but it redirected its path at the last minute, catching him hard in the chest. Its chitinous barbs pierced his leather chestplate and drove into his flesh. He fell over backwards, grunting as the hard earth drove the wind from his chest.
“Orlias!” Evera screamed.
She channeled a blast of crackling purple energy, blindsiding the creature and showering Orlias with sparks and shards of chitin. The momentum sent it careening off him, and Orlias was quick to react. He rolled to his feet, wincing in pain and focusing his energy on opening a portal behind the rolling creature. It caught itself just in front of the rippling rift, and Orlias launched himself forward, winding up a kick that sent it hurtling through the window of shimmering purple.
There was a distant crashing sound, like a mirror crashing on cobblestones, and then the portal closed with the Tumblespine sealed on the far side.
“Ten points!” Evera laughed. “You know, you’d make an excellent bullyball striker. We should really get a league going.”
Orlias leaned over, panting and running his fingers over the bloody perforations in his armour.
“What, is this not funny yet?” she asked.
“This is the third time this month, Ev,” Orias scolded. “Someone could have died.”
“The casualties have all been thieves and criminals, people who deserve it,” Evera replied. “And if you don’t want to do this anymore, tell the council I don’t need a babysitter.”
“I’m not your babysitter. I’m your clean-up crew, and the messes are getting bigger.”
“Not my fault!” Evera protested, pointing a finger at Orlias. “I didn’t ask for all this responsibility. I was happy doing my anonymous little summoning experiments down here before the higher-ups noticed.”
Orlias crossed his arms. “That didn’t stop you from saying yes to more funding and resources.”
“Look, I’m not in the habit of saying no to the High Guardian of the Riftkeeper’s Guild when she takes interest in my research. We don’t all have the Krell name to open doors for us.”
At the jab at his family name, Krell felt his temper flare. “She only took interest in you because a kid got killed, Ev!” Orlias shouted, already regretting what he was saying, but he couldn’t stop himself. “And she was only willing to overlook that fact because what killed her was one of your—”
“We don’t know that was one of mine!” Evera snapped.
A silence fell over the road. Orlias could tell he had crossed a line. Evera knew on some level that the child who had been mauled by a Riftspawn was her fault, even if she claimed she was absolutely certain she had banished every Tumblespine she’d summoned during her early, unsanctioned experiments in the area.
Evera looked away, watching clouds drift by down the mountain. Orlias could see the guilt written in the dark rings around her eyes, even if she wasn’t allowing herself to acknowledge the feeling. It was there, rooted deep behind the wall of anger that sprang up when he asked her if she was absolutely sure it wasn’t her creature.
She wanted to move on, but she hadn’t seen the child’s body. Orlias had, and he’d had to adjust the wounds to look like a regular wild animal attack rather than the work of Riftspawn. No amount of scrubbing under his fingernails had gotten rid of the feeling that there was still blood on his hands, that everything he touched would one day turn bloody.
“Anyway, I saved a kid too,” Evera muttered. “You don’t hear anybody talking about that.”
Orlias suddenly felt exhausted, as if all the distances he had jumped on his way down had caught up with him all in an instant. “Look,” he said, running his hands through his close-cropped hair. “Just be more careful.”
“I’m trying, Orlias, I really am,” she said, a quiver in her voice. Then she cleared her throat, straightening up her hunched shoulders. “When you go back up, tell the council I’ll have results soon. I’m close. I can summon the Tumblespines and Spinecrawlers permanently, or close to it, but the control charm only lasts a few hours. If I can—when I can figure out how to make it stick, how to really control them, we’ll be in business.”
Orlias had known Evera for 30 years. They’d grown up together, both born to families who had served in the Riftkeepers for generations. Orlias knew that if Evera was letting her self-doubt show, she must really be struggling.
“Listen, Ev, I’m going to head up the mountain and make some recommendations. Put the Krell name to work on your behald. We need to slow down your research and take some of the pressure off. For your sake, and for the safety of everyone down here.”
Evera looked like she was ready to argue, but then she held her tongue. She stood in silence a while, looking at a thin wisp of chimney smoke wafting up from a cottage far below.
Finally she spoke. “Maybe that’s for the best.”
“I promise, Ev, this is fixable. Anything is fixable if you stick with it.”
“Yeah,” she said noncommittally, staring down into the woods below.
* * *
“I’m sorry, but Evera’s research is too important to slow down,” said the First Councilor from his dais. “I know you’re soft on your old friend, but the council cannot indulge the luxury of friendship. Not with so much of our planning contingent on her research. If Evera finds the burden of her work too great to bear, we can send some more assistants to lighten her load.”
“I told you, that won’t help,” Orlias said, gritting his teeth.
He looked around the council room. Most of these bureaucrats hadn’t left the comfort of their tapestried halls and purple velvet seats and for years, let alone descended down the mountain. Orlias respected their deep knowledge of the mysteries of the Rift and their commitment to maintaining the order of the Riftkeepers’ Guild, but these men and women didn’t understand any problem that couldn’t be solved with gold, steel or manpower.
“It’s not a matter of staffing,” Orlias insisted. “Evera’s the only one who can summon and bind them, and it’s taking a toll on her. More assistants will help keep an eye on the creatures, but it’s clear they’re too dangerous to contain. Something is helping the Tumblespines get out of the lab. It’s just a matter of time before another innocent gets killed.”
“Then you will do your duty as First Custodian and clean up the body,” said the councilor, rising to loom over Orlias from his perch. His bearded face betrayed no emotion. He looked down at his subordinate, who stood silent in the centre of the room.
Finally, the First Councilor sighed and returned to his seat. “I do not mean to sound so harsh, but these are harsh times, Orlias. Things aren’t how they used to be. Your mother has served the Riftkeepers in the Grey Legion for thirty years, correct?
Orlias nodded, frustration carved in the taught lines of his clenched jaw.
“And your father served the council faithfully for decades, to the very end of his life, correct?”
Again, Orlias nodded, a strange mixture of pride of grief swelling in his breast. His father died protecting the High Guardian from an assassination attempt by a disgruntled professor of the College of Inventors. He was a hero in these halls.
“One of your forebears practically founded our order,” said the First Councilor. “This city still has a square that bears your family name. Have the Krells ever balked at orders? Or turned away from a duty that made them squeamish?”
“No, Councilor, but—”
“They left a legacy of service that the rest of us can only aspire to. I hate to ask it, but I need that same dedication from you.”
Orlias wanted to protest, but he felt that would seem petulant. In fact, he felt petulant, the way he had after his mother or father admonished him whenever he questioned the traditions of the Riftkeepers as a child. “It’s not ours to ask,” they would say. “It’s ours to answer when called.”
Orlias looked up at the First Councilor in his elevated seat. Grudgingly, he bowed. “Yes Councilor. I’ll send word to Evera, and follow up with a visit next week.”
“You will do your family proud, Orlias,” he said. “We need more people of your mother and father’s calibre, of their loyalty. The world is changing. Summit is forgetting their fear of the Scions, of the reckless meddlers who broke the world. Just last week one of their number turned against his own kind and came to us as an informant. He claims he studied under Pavina Brightling, and that she was uncovering the means to command the Scions’ ancient automata. Can you imagine?”
Orlias suppressed a shudder.
“He brought us much of her research as a peace offering. I’ll be working closely with him on training the Grey Legion for counter-Scion operations. If what he says is true, we will need an army of the creatures Evera can raise. An army of Riftspawn that can survive on this plane long-term so we can build our forces. We need troops that are loyal unto death. We need Evera, and we need you, Orlias.”
Orlias nodded, feeling the weight of his purple cloak of office shift on his shoulders, feeling the weight of fifty generations of Krells pressing down on him, the last of the name.
He would go to his desk and write a letter to Evera, telling her it was time to take her work seriously. No more playing around, no more slip-ups. It was not hers to ask, only to answer when duty called.
* * *
Orlias’ stomach lurched as he plunged downward in freefall, opening a rift just before he hit the ground. His momentum launched him through the exit portal, sending him sailing through open air on a trajectory down toward Toehold.
His heart hammered in his chest. This was the fastest and most reckless descent he’d made on the Torn Path, but he didn’t care. Word had come up from Evera that there had been another outbreak, and she’d gone to handle it herself. Something had gone wrong and there were multiple fatalities.
Orlias overshot the crash net and winced as he hit the dirt hard. His hasty warding spell absorbed a fraction of the impact, but he lost control, rolled down a slope of loose stones and careened off a boulder at the foot of the hill. Woozily getting to his feet, he scanned the mountainside for a nearby vantage point, then teleported up.
“Evera!” he called out, his voice echoing off the surrounding stone as he frantically searched the forest for signs of her.
He heard a faint cough from below, and warped down to find his friend in a puddle of blood on the road next to the shattered carapace of a Tumblespine.
“Hey buddy,” she said when she saw him, her voice drowsy with blood loss. “Sorry ‘bout the mess.”
“Shh,” Orlias told her. “Save your strength. I’ll do what I can to stop the bleeding.”
She shifted, trying to prop herself up on an elbow. “Lissen. I’m sorry, ‘kay? Thought I could handle this one on my own. No more slip-ups, you said.”
“Please,” Orlias begged her, his voice trembling. He felt tears welling behind his eyes, and he tried to turn his head so they wouldn’t fall into her wounds. “Just stay still. I can fix this.”
He reached into his satchel for bandages, and Evera’s eyes suddenly lost their drifting look and focused on him, bright as beacons in the night.
“No, you gotta go. There’s another one of these out there and I think… I think the Tumblespines aren’t escaping. I think one of the village kids is summoning them. An old ritual page must’ve fallen outta my notebook. Been meaning to fix the binding…”
“Hush,” Orlias said, unspooling a length of gauze.
Evera summoned the strength to slap him across the cheek. A soft blow, but it left his cheek warm with blood.
“Yer not liss’ning. There’s still another Tumblespine out there, and there’s a kid who’s got the power to summon ’em without training. Gotta find ’em. Just… just don’t hand ’em over to the council. They’ll do to ’em what they did to me.”
“Ev, I can’t leave you here,” Orlias said, crying.
“Some messes you can’t clean up,” she said, and she raised a bloody hand and rested it on his cheek. “I was watching from the woods when you found the dead kid way back when this started. I saw ‘im, and I saw you, I really saw you, saw it break you. You hate this. Hate covering up ‘stead of fixing the problem, ‘stead of helping people. Well now there’s someone you can help, and it ain’t me.”
Orlias saw her hands moving, but it was too late to stop her. Evera gestured in the air and there was the sound of shattering glass as a rift opened below her, swallowing her whole. Orlias didn’t have to look to know she hadn’t opened an exit portal. She had dropped into the Riftdeep, and she wasn’t coming back.
Orlias knelt there, staring at the swirling tear in reality, feeling like some black hole had burst open inside him as well. At any moment he could keel over and tumble into it forever.
And then he heard a scream from the village below.
Wiping the tears from his face, he stood. He waited a long, painful moment before he sealed the portal and turned down the mountain. Duty called, and it was his to answer.
* * *
Orlias found the boy cowering against the rock face in the forest outside of Toehold.
“I didn’t mean to,” the kid said, his voice shaking with fear and grief.
“I know,” said Orlias.
“I thought it was a game. A rhyme from that lady’s notebook.” He held up a crumpled, bloodstained ball of pearlescent paper in a trembling hand. “I never thought it would make the monsters real.”
“I know,” said Orlias.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“I don’t know,” said Orlias, only then realizing he was covered head to toe in Evera’s blood. He wiped his face self-consciously.
“It killed Ma’ and Da’, but I think my sister got away. She escaped it once before, a long time ago, but nobody believed her.”
There was a rustling in the bushes behind him, and a Tumblspine launched itself out of the darkness. Orlias turned and raised an open palm to catch it, slamming it into the ground. He dashed it against a stone again and again until the creature was a mass of paste and chitin and his hand was a bloody mess.
“You’re strong,” the boy said, and hearing those words, Orlias burst in tears, shaking with sobs that rocked his whole body back and forth. Finally, when he was done, he stood again.
“Come with me,” he said, gesturing to the boy.
“Where are we going?”
“To find your sister. Then we’re going somewhere safe.”
They walked together into the night.
* * *
There were mutterings in the halls of the Riftkeepers when Orlias Krell—known more as a rank-and-file soldier than an innovator of rift magic—discovered the key to permanent Riftspawn summoning. After a decade of foundering, he had finally managed to replicate the experiments of the prodigious Evera Chorus, whose research in the area had been left unfinished after her untimely death ten years earlier. Not only that, but he’d found a way to summon Tumblespines and Spinecrawlers that didn’t depend on advanced rift magic and could be taught to lower-level acolytes.
“Who knew he had it in him,” the First Councilor said behind closed doors. In public, he praised the breakthrough and hinted at a promotion to Field Commander to keep an eye on his new army.
It had been a hard decade for the First Custodian of the Riftkeepers. Orlias had lost his closest friend and fallen into disgrace when he failed to track down the child mentioned in Evera’s research—the one she had begun to theorize might have been summoning the creatures using a primitive version of one of her rituals. The town accused the Riftkeepers of abducting the child, and the Riftkeepers accused the town of hiding him, and after some bitter years, the incident passed into memory.
A year after the bloody debacle, Orlias’ orphaned niece and nephew came to live with him. His friends, not that he kept many, said it was a good thing, although it was strange they’d never heard him speak of having family outside of the Riftkeepers, especially with the Krell ancestral tree having been pruned so brutally by time and circumstance. Orlias was not the nurturing type, but everyone agreed it was nice for him to have a distraction from his grief. After all, he had spent the past year making weekly pilgrimages down the Torn Path to visit Evera’s grave outside her laboratory, which he had ordered shut down, citing “unstable residual energy” from her experiments.
If they had been paying closer attention, Orlias’ fellow Riftkeepers might have noticed that during that year, he would leave the guild hall with bags full of rations, and come back up the mountain empty-handed. They might have noticed how he looked over his shoulder before entering the condemned laboratory, and that sometimes, if the wind was silent and you stood near the door, you could faintly hear the sounds of two children playing within.
But all of this went unnoticed, as did most of Orlias’ comings and goings, until he came up the mountain with his niece and nephew the following year, and brought the council his summoning breakthrough a decade later.
“How did you do it?” the First Councilor asked him. “You never had Evera’s talent with summoning.”
“Anything is fixable if you stick it out,” he replied, and the First Councilor laughed as if he understood.
When the council asked Orlias if his niece and nephew took after him, if they had considered a career in the Riftkeepers, he said a soft, “No, they’re not from the Krell side.” Then looking down the mountain, he whispered, “That’s not what she would have wanted.”
Story by Peter Chiykowski.
Art by William Liu.