I watched Xu rebuild the fortifications that the cultists had destroyed, his eyes glowing green as he called stone from the ground. He was building the southeastern corner of the fort, a watchtower rising beneath his feet as he shaped the earth. Other stone-callers [Note: see the comment on "spirit-speakers" and the difficulty of translating certain words and phrases] were likewise rebuilding the walls, towers, and gates of the fortress. With his tower finished, Xu dusted off his hands and walked down the steps.
"The ground here is corrupted," he said, an unpleasant expression on his face. "I doubt these defenses will hold up to much without ritual purification."
I nodded. "I'll add that to our next report."
"Still, earth is earth. Stone is stone. No matter how much corruption runs through this land, it cannot pervert the ground's nature, only sap its strength. These walls will serve, for now at least." He walked away slowly, casually strolling towards his tent to rest after the magic. As he did so, Jiro ran past us and sprinted up the stairs of the watchtower, closely followed by Jeong-Ho. I turned and watched them race, then, shaking my head with a smile, followed them.
The tower was twenty feet tall, just like the swirling portal. Purple lightning continued to crackle around the rift's edges, keeping it open. At the top of the tower was a roofed observation platform with stone battlements. I scratched at one of the pillars holding the roof and noted the pink dust that came off of it.
"Xu was right," I noted. "It's no wonder the Verorians tore apart this place so easily."
Jeong-Ho laughed. "Of course he was right. Just as much as I would expect you to be right in matters concerning the ancestors, spirit-speaker. And as much I as I would expect Jiro here to be wrong about, well, anything."
"Hey!" Jiro said, and we all laughed.
We turned to examine the wastes outside of the quickly assembled fortress. "What a sad place," I said. "The air itself is heavy with despair." A stormcloud rumbled in the distance. "Hmph. Just what we needed. Rain."
The storm arrived an hour later, toxic rain eating into the stone of the defenses. Unable to do anything but wait, each of us fell into old habits. Jiro ran through weapons forms, Jeong-Ho oiled his bow, and I wrote.
Jeong-Ho glanced out at the wastes, stood up, and fired a single shot. In the distance, I heard the howling of a beast through the rain. He grinned. "Just a devil."
"Was it alone?" I asked, and he nodded.
"Wandering out in the rain like a mad fool." He shrugged and started counting his arrows.
As the rain continued to eat through the roof of the watchtower, I summoned a shield of spirit armor to protect it. After another hour, the storm passed and the camp seemed to awake from a deep slumber. Stone-callers went back to work, repairing damaged walls. Other monks began to patrol the perimeter, watching out for cultists and devils. We fell back into our routines. Gao Han summoned me and finished his letter to the Council. Summoning a spirit, I sent the letter to the fortress of Xia Han as darkness fell.
All around the fort, torches flared to life, providing an orange counterpoint to the purple lightning holding the rift open. As I walked past towards the watchtower on the southeastern corner, I noticed that the sun was setting in that other world as well. I remember noting that our day cycle must be identical. At night, the rift blended in with the rest of the sky. Even the constellations were the same.
Even the constellations were the same.
I rushed back to the command tent. "Sir," I said, "is it possible that the portal leads to a parallel universe?"
Gao Han looked at me, surprised. "What makes you say that?"
"The sunset coincided with our own, but that could be coincidence. But when the constellations are the same..."
"I see." He stroked his chin. "An interesting possibility, but it changes nothing. The Sorceress must be hunted down and imprisoned, even if she cannot be slain." There was a crash outside and he paused. Then there was another crash and a shout of alarm. "To your post," he said, and suddenly he was flying out of the tent towards the sounds.
I followed Gao Han out, but immediately stopped in my tracks. Fires had spread out of control along the south wall, and the southern gate was being frantically reinforced by two monks. There was a thud as something pounded on the gate and the monks were thrown back. Then there was another.
And then the gate was smashed open, revealing an immense, twisted abomination. Reaching into the fort, it snatched up one of the two monks and ate him, screaming, in two giant bites. Then it forced its way through the gate and reached for the other helpless monk.
Gao Han darted forward, planting himself between the devil and the unconscious monk and swatting away its monstrous arm. Snarling, the devil swiped at the Stalwart with scything claws. There was a flash of bright blue and I was reminded once again of why the commander and I got along so well.
He, too, was a spirit-speaker. Calling upon the honored ancestors of Jinhai, Gao Han crafted a shield that the devil's claws bounced off of. He struck out with one arm and the spirits flowed forward, overwhelming the monster and forcing it out of the gate. Striding forward, the Stalwart summoned the ancestors back to his side, crafting spectral armor around himself. The monster snarled once again. Gao Han roared in answer and beat his chest.
The devil charged forward, a twisted juggernaut. But its unstoppable force met the immovable object that is my commander, and its own corrupted physiology failed, crushing itself on his wall of spirits. Galvanized back into action, I ran towards the watchtower where my friends were embroiled fighting smaller devils. In the flickering light of the spreading fires, I saw a winged devil leap over the wall, only to be shot down by an arrow. Jeong-Ho's work.
I took the stairs two at a time, spells already forming on my lips as I reached the top. I saw Jiro facing off against a devil with two large horns sprouting from its head, its corrupted physiology swelled to twice the size it had been as a human. Jiro stabbed it in the shoulder with his three-bladed spear, tearing into muscle and calling forth a spurt of purple blood. When the beast swung at him with its other arm, I spoke and spectral armor blocked the blow. Jiro took the opportunity to eviscerate the devil and throw it back into the darkness of the night, then turned to me and nodded.
Jeong-Ho's bow twanged as he took another shot. "How nice of you to join us, Wen," he said, as cheerful as ever. "I was afraid that you would miss the party."
I couldn't help grinning. "And let you two die gloriously? Someone's got to keep you alive." Another corrupted devil climbed over the battlements and I summoned a spectral warrior to fight it off, allowing Jeong-Ho to concentrate on dealing with any flying demons or devils. After killing another devil, Jiro helped the spirit finish of its adversary.
"I told you this had the smell of battle," Jiro said, his eyes flickering in the firelight as he turned to face another opponent--a scrawny devil with a swollen and hairless head. Jiro's spear darted forward and the devil was knocked off of the watchtower, its head liberated from its body. A few moments later, the watchtower was clear of foes.
I took stock of how the rest of our garrison was doing. Although we had been attacked by night, we had not been taken by surprise. After initially overwhelming our defenses, the Exiles had been beaten back--and beaten hard. Twisted corpses littered the walls.
At the southern gate, Gao Han continued to face off against the larger devils, those that couldn't climb the defenses and were forced to attack on the ground. His shining spirit armor absorbed blows that would level buildings while he dealt out attacks in kind. Nothing intimidated him. Nothing fazed him. Nothing would stop him from defending the rift, defending the unblemished world beyond. For his unyielding determination, Gao Han had ever been called the Stalwart. That night, he proved himself worthy of the title yet again.
Discipline, Strength, and Honor. The Jinhai way.
Well, there you have it: Chapter 1. What do you think? Let me know and I may just incorporate your feedback into the story as it develops.
Also, my 1500th post!