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The Lawman's Daughter
- Paul Miller
Raine receives a final, disturbing message from her father. The problem is, it was written after he was supposedly killed in battle. Now she must join the ranks of the inhuman Rift Wardens to try and uncover the truth.
What she finds is a dark plot involving some very powerful people, and stopping it could very well cost Raine her life. Or, even worse, it could cost her soul.
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Observations of a Drunken Man
On the surface, it appeared to be the same as any other Rift Warden recruitment. There was a dweller attack. The Wardens defeated it but took losses. Then, they selected locals and forcibly recruited them to replace their fallen. That was just the way of things, and everybody had better accept it.
But this particular time—apparent to only the most observant of bystanders—was rather unique.
The truth involved foul play. Murder, if one still considered the Rift Wardens human. And it also involved something even more unthinkable: a willing recruit.
The first version of the story—the one most people present thought they saw—started when a handful of ape-sized dwellers appeared near the city of Kraden’s marketplace. They were hideous things, covered with black fur, their snapping mouths full of deadly fangs. Panic immediately ensued as the day’s shoppers scattered in every direction. The dwellers leaped after them, long streams of spit trailing from the corners of their gaping maws.
Fortunately, a group of three Rift Wardens arrived almost as soon as the attack started. Perhaps a few people remembered seeing the white-skinned, black-clad warriors strolling through the marketplace earlier, but if so, they thought little of it. Regardless, the Wardens sped after the dwellers with inhuman speed, drawing their swords and hacking them apart mercilessly until the vile creatures vanished into clouds of mist.
All of the Rift Wardens succeeded in dispatching their foes unharmed save one. That one clumsily stumbled at the moment of attack. The dweller he was pursuing turned and, seizing the rare opportunity it had been given, used one clawed hand to disembowel its attacker. Somehow, as he was bleeding out, the Warden managed to drive his sword through the dweller’s eye and out the back of its head, instantly killing it and ending the attack.
Then he died, his body coalescing into mist, no different than a dweller.
As the people nearby gathered themselves, the surviving Rift Wardens said a few quiet words for their lost companion. Then they looked sharply at the people now quickly moving away from them. Everyone knew what came next. Somebody would have to be selected to replace the dead warrior and become a Rift Warden themself.
A young woman was the only one who failed to flee. She crouched motionlessly near where the dead Warden had fallen. Perhaps she was too horrified by the attack to take notice of what was happening around her, to notice she was right in front of them. After a moment, she rose and approached the two Wardens, no doubt because one of them had called out to her and commanded her to do so. Everyone else breathed a sigh of relief. There was a short conversation and the three of them departed together.
And if she didn’t argue or attempt to flee like many others had over the years? Or if, in truth, she didn’t even appear the least bit scared? What of it? Everyone was just happy to have avoided her fate themselves.
So the two Rift Wardens and their new recruit departed, and that was the end of it.
Except that wasn’t at all what really happened. Not by a long shot.
The truth was far more confusing, and apparent only to an incredibly observant person. Someone who knew how to put two and two together.
It just so happened there was such a person in the marketplace that day: an old drunk sprawled in the mouth of a dirty alley. He may have been suffering a terrible ache in his snow-topped head from the previous night’s revelry, and he might have just been awakened after far too little sleep by the sharp kick of a lawman, but his eyes were still sharper than most. As was his mind. He liked to think that’s what led him to the life of a homeless drunk. It was only because he was so much smarter than everyone else; he was more keenly aware of what a terrible world they all lived in. Only he realized that everyone was doomed, and there was no point fighting it.
He was also the only one to immediately realize something was different about that particular dweller attack.
Attacks were not uncommon in the city. Many of the citizens of Kraden were destitute, many were starving. In such desperate circumstances, the Prophet’s laws against the use of magic didn’t hold as much weight, even though the penalty for breaking those laws was death. Starving people knew they were going to die anyway, only slower and more painfully. So they would scribble the old runes in the dirt or on a wall and draw forth forbidden magic to build a fire or kill a rat. Usually they used it to run some discarded, magic-powered machine that could make their lives much easier. But magic was hard to control. If too much was drawn too fast, a lesser rift could open—a gateway to whatever hellish world the dwellers were from but also from whence magic came. Dwellers would pour through and then all one could do was run and hide and hope the Rift Wardens would arrive soon.
That’s what first caught the old drunk’s attention: the Rift Wardens arrived on the scene far too quickly. They had to have already been in the marketplace, which begged the question, why would somebody risk drawing magic so close to Wardens? It was insane. They could feel its use and would kill the user without remorse. And the user had to have known they were present. They traveled through the marketplace in a virtual bubble because nobody wanted to get too close to them. Also, it was impossible to miss their long black coats and wide, black-brimmed hats. Everyone who had ever drawn magic checked for nearby Wardens first. It was common sense.
No, the drunken man thought, for whatever reason, someone had drawn magic with Rift Wardens nearby on purpose. Absolutely crazy.
His sharp eyes scanned the fleeing people as the dwellers gave chase, searching for anything else out of the ordinary. He immediately found something. One young woman stood motionless while everyone else was fleeing wildly around her, face utterly calm as she watched the dwellers attack.
The drunken man had never seen anything quite like it. He thought she had to be the one insane enough to draw magic so near the Rift Wardens. Another thought struck him as well. Had she purposefully drawn enough magic to tear open a rift? She didn’t seem surprised by the attack in the least, but why would anyone purposefully do such a thing?
His interest piqued, he kept an eye on the young woman. Because of this, he was the only one to see the truth of the clumsy Rift Warden’s death.
The young woman killed him.
She threw something at his legs as he attacked the dweller, some kind of rope with weighted balls on either end. The drunken man would never have believed such a thing had he not seen it with his own two eyes. It was a masterful throw, accounting perfectly for the Rift Warden’s incredible speed. She obviously knew what she was doing.
The young woman then moved closer as the dweller and Warden slew each other. She just managed to find the rope she’d thrown and stuff it in the bag slung over her shoulder when the other Rift Wardens finished their business and turned to see what had become of their companion.
It was at that moment the old drunken man recognized her. That glossed ebony skin and thick braided hair hanging the length of her back could only belong to one person. He couldn’t remember the name…Reen or some such…but he knew she was the old lawman’s daughter. She had aged a bit since he’d last seen her, but he knew he had the right of it.
Then he remembered what had happened, and he grimaced. Her father, a lawman, had been forcibly recruited into the Rift Wardens a few years back, leaving her completely alone in the world. Everyone in Kraden had been sorry to see it, though not sorry enough to help the girl in any way, of course.
The old drunken man wondered what she was up to. Revenge, perhaps? It was such a common motivation. And it so rarely ended well or made anyone feel better about anything. But there seemed to be an innate need in people to lash out at those that had wronged them. The greater the wrong, the more extreme the recourse.
It was sad.
He wasn’t surprised when the lawman’s daughter approached the remaining Rift Wardens. They never called out to her, the other people watching just filled in that little gap with what they thought would have happened, probably subconsciously. The old drunken man envied their ignorance.
He saw the Warden’s sickly white faces twist in confusion when she spoke to them. They had to be wondering why she hadn’t fled like everyone else. After a brief discussion, one of the Wardens shrugged and nodded. Then, the three of them walked away together. The old drunken man was the only one to notice the small smile that ghosted across the young woman’s face. Just a moment, then it was gone. But he knew what he’d seen.
The lawman’s daughter had set the whole thing up. He was sure of it. And the only possible reason was that she actually wanted to be recruited. It seemed crazy, and he couldn’t fathom why, but he knew it for truth the instant it crossed his mind.
The Rift Wardens had no idea what they were taking back with them.
The old drunken man briefly toyed with the idea of warning them, but truth be told, he had no love for the Rift Wardens either. Also, as he was debating what to do, he spotted a half-full bottle of whiskey clutched in one of his grimy hands.
A short time later, the only person to see beneath the surface of the day’s most peculiar recruitment was snoring softly, a contented smile plastered across his filthy face.
~ * ~
“What do you want, girl?” the closest Rift Warden snapped as Raine approached. The eyes peering out from beneath his wide-brimmed hat glowed red, perfectly matching the ruined sky above. She supposed he had every right to be upset, seeing as how his friend was dead. It might have been enough to make her feel some remorse if not for what the Rift Wardens had done to her family and to her life. No, there was room in her heart for anything but hatred for them.
She raised her arms in a placating gesture. “I saw you lost one of your number is all. I thought you might be looking to recruit.”
The expression of utter surprise that flashed across the Rift Warden’s face almost caused Raine to laugh out loud. She had no doubt this was the first time anybody had ever volunteered to be recruited. She knew it encouraged curiosity and suspicion in them, which was the last thing she wanted, but she couldn’t risk them recruiting anyone else. Not after all the trouble she’d gone through to set the whole thing up. Drawing enough magic to open a lesser rift was an experience she hoped never to repeat.
“I uh…” the Rift Warden hesitated. Then, in a whisper. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Raine nodded, striving to achieve a look of wide-eyed innocence and profound ignorance.
“It’s a hard life,” he said softly. “Lots of killing. Dwellers mostly, but sometimes people too. And the ceremony you have to go through to actually become one of us…” A haunted expression glazed over his red eyes. “I’m not human anymore. That much I know. My very touch is death to one of you. And who’s to say what happens to us after we die, or whether we still have the souls the Prophet always speaks of. Somehow I doubt it. Are you sure you want that?”
She made herself nod. “I’m sure. There’s nothing left for me here.” In truth, the Rift Warden’s concern unnerved her. She’d always thought of them as more monsters than men. She didn’t like seeing one use genuine human emotion. Especially not after having just brought about the death of another of them.
“Better she volunteer than we have to take someone,” the second Warden said as he cleaned his sword with sure strokes of a thick gray cloth. He was a smaller man with a weak voice.
The first shrugged and nodded. He looked sad. “Very well. You are hereby officially recruited as a Rift Warden. May you live long and fight well.” The second man repeated the last phrase, then the first continued. “And…uh…I guess that’s about it. Now come. It’s time we departed.”
The three of them started to walk away.
And just like that, she was in.
Now came a far more difficult task, but the only one that mattered. She needed to get to their compound so she could find out what had happened to her father.
Then, if he was still alive, save him.
She’d already known something was wrong some time ago when a traveling Disciple fresh from the Rift Warden compound spoke to her. He said he’d heard her father was slain in a fight against the dwellers. The Disciple said her father had lost his footing or some such nonsense and been cut down. This was extremely unlikely due to the fact her father had been the best lawman Kraden ever had. Few men could match him with a sword, and she’d never seen him bested with a bow. He wasn’t the type of man to lose his footing in a fight.
It was thanks to him she was so very capable. He’d taught her everything he could think of to increase her chances of surviving such a brutal world.
Perhaps even then Raine could have accepted the story of his accidental death…if not for the letters. Ever since her father had been recruited, he’d secretly sent letters and money back to her. They were brought by a peddler that fought beside her father in the wars when they were younger. One day, she received a letter that was obviously hurried, sloppy handwriting and no mention of how badly he missed her. It said he’d discovered some among the Rift Wardens who were not loyal to their cause.
And then the letters stopped. She would always get her hopes up time and again when the peddler rolled through the city, but when their eyes met, he would shake his head sadly and keep on going. Rage bubbled up inside her as she re-lived those painful, oh-so-helpless moments.
Finally, just as she was starting to believe the Disciple’s story, a final letter arrived at her doorstep from her supposedly dead father. It only consisted of three sentences:
I may not survive what’s to come, but I must stop them. Otherwise everyone, even you, my precious, is in danger. I love you.
She took a deep breath to calm the rising tide of her anger. She told herself she would find him alive. She had to.
She would rescue her father, and that was the end of it.
Raine looked back as they walked through the city gate, her braids flopping over her shoulder. She realized she was actually going to miss the city. She’d lived in Kraden her entire life. She would miss the familiarity of the hulking wooden structures—reinforced with the metal skeletons of what had once been magic-powered airships, before the war that had opened the Great Rift and destroyed the world. She thought she might even miss a few of the people.
It was her home, after all—at least it had been until her father was taken from her and everything ruined.
Her eyes fell on a drunken old man in the mouth of an alley. He was staring right back at her with a sharp look in his eyes—a knowing look. Was it possible he had noticed her little ruse? Could he have seen what she did to get recruited? Perhaps it would be best if she eliminated the threat. But could she kill another normal person in cold blood? She wasn’t sure.
A ridiculous smile lit up the man’s face as he noticed the whiskey bottle in his hand was still half full. He took a generous drink, his sharp eyes began to lose focus, and he slumped against the wall on one side of the alley, sliding slowly to the ground.
Raine shook her head, dismissing the poor fool. She had far more important things to worry about.
She turned to face away from the city of her birth and didn’t look back again.
~ * ~
The dozens of days of travel began to feel like an eternity to Raine. She couldn’t believe they hadn’t already crossed the entirety of Myria-that-was many times over. Her two companions never spoke unless it was absolutely necessary, and she didn’t like the way they looked at her. The first one she’d spoken to, the group’s leader, always wore an expression of the most profound sadness when he looked upon her. The other man just looked hungry.
So it was with great relief she received the news they’d reached their destination. The group’s leader came trudging into camp one morning and announced it in the same voice one might use to comment on the weather. Raine leaped to her feet and sprinted up the hill he’d just descended, ignoring the smaller man’s laughter in her excitement to set eyes on the Rift Warden compound and, more importantly, the Great Rift. She crested the hill and—
Her breath caught.
A sudden wave of nausea assaulted her, and it was all Raine could do to keep her feet. She suddenly felt very small and wondered at the arrogance it had taken to even think she was capable of discovering what became of her father in a place like this.
A massive, unnaturally round canyon marred what should have been a great plain. Spiked metal walls ringed the canyon, swarming with thousands of black-clad Rift Wardens, bravely keeping watch on the horror in their midst. Hundreds of buildings—warehouses and offices and barracks—and dozens of large practice yards crouched behind the walls. This was where she would be spending her time in the coming days.
But only one thing filled her mind in that moment. The Great Rift. A massive tear in the world’s fabric that hovered in the center of the canyon, dominating the walls and compound set around it. Inside it was a constantly shifting miasma of colors. A strange light pulsed hypnotically from within, and when the pulse dimmed, it seemed the ruined red sky itself grew dark. She noticed a low hum coming from the Rift, and knew it was going to drive her mad over time. The worst thing, though, was a palpable sense of malevolence emanating from it. Raine suddenly felt dirty and wasn’t sure she would ever feel clean again.
A hand clapped her on the shoulder. She turned to see the leader of their small group smiling at her, though in his eyes there was still only sadness.
“Welcome to your new home,” he said.