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0.6. – The Line of the Oath

      The logs in the fireplace were blazing away fiercely, but Ayla threw another one on anyway and rubbed her hands together. Everything was changing, faster than she’d anticipated. The ghostly shapes and structures of Endarth kept on appearing in the sky, and the temperatures were increasingly wintery. There was no doubt now that time was no longer standing still, at least not altogether.

      The Interventor leaned out of the window of the log cabin; in the distance, she could see the body of the banshee that she’d executed, the head still smouldering a bit further away. Somehow the changes were holding, but not altogether. It was an even stranger sensation.

      She paced in circles around the small room, trying to concentrate. But it was hard, she was waiting for the final call in order to be able to fulfill her mission, and there was still one last ghost from the past she needed to face: the little white door to the pantry.

      She had no idea what would happen after the call to collect the final hero. Would there be time for her to open the door then? Or would everything immediately fall apart? What lay on the other side of that door troubled her deeply, but she didn’t want to leave without having dared to open it.

      She stopped in the middle of the room and pinched the bridge of her nose. Making up her mind, she headed briskly towards the door and grabbed the handle. She stared at the scene around her: the blood, the scratches, the mud… she remembered the last vestiges of her life, the memory of how she’d been hunted down like a dog and slain here in this log cabin, the last refuge of her Order.

      Damn it. Behind this door was the last trace of who she had been in Endarth. Her own dead body. She gritted her teeth. Why did she want to know if it was really and truly there? What did it matter? Proof that she’d existed, perhaps?

      Slowly, she turned the handle. The mechanism clicked free. But Ayla didn’t open it. She was clenching her teeth so hard that they ached.

      And then she heard the sound of the wind, felt the chill wetness of drizzle just as night began to fall. And couldn’t help feeling a warm wave of relief run through her.
The call had begun. If she returned to the cabin after collecting the soul, she’d open that door. But for now, she had work to do.

***

      Alone, at the top of the Oath Line, the soldier was getting in some sword practice. The slim blade hissed as it slashed through the rain, each thrust leaving a ghostly halo behind. But there was something more, something hidden; as his sword slashed faster and faster a faint bluish colour, visible with each movement, suffused the metal.


      After a while, the soldier grabbed his shield. He studied it for a moment: it was so battered and dented that it had lost its original almond shape. However, this was the shield that had rung out together with his sword during the Vigil, and well, it wasn’t as if there was much to choose from in Tyrennor. In a few swift movements he strapped it to his left arm, and practiced intercepting and blocking, just as he had so many times in so many training sessions.

      The rain was coming down harder now, making it impossible to see clearly, so with a final swish of his sword he exhaled slowly. It was time to finish the session. He ran his fingers down the blade, as the metal lost all its sheen. Smiling, he sheathed his sword, and walked quickly back along the battlements to the shelter of the sentry box.


      Once inside, he picked up his canteen, took a long drink of water, and then dried off his face, neck and hair with a piece of old cloth. He was absolutely drenched.
He climbed the narrow spiral staircase leading to the upper floor of the sentry box and sat watching, looking out over the Mandora Swamp as he had so many times before. All appeared to be quiet: the treacherous little islands of earth were now flooded, the trees shone, twisted and menacing, and the blackened reeds shivered in the cold winds of the storm. Everything looked even more ghostly on these rainy end-of-autumn days.

      But the solider was still alert to every tiny detail. It was getting late; the sun was starting to sink and it wouldn’t be long before the shadows were creeping over the swamp. And although he felt safe in his stone sentry box, the most dangerous part of his watch was fast approaching: nightfall.

      Absently, he ran the tips of his fingers over the rocks that gave him shelter, just as he did every day. Before the Apocalypse, the Oath Line had been the frontier between Tyrennor and the Mandora Swamp. And as the name suggested, the soldiers of Tyrennor had sworn never to allow any of the abominations to enter the kingdom, and they’d kept that oath until the scourge of the Corruption had overwhelmed them. A sad end to a heroic legend, and one that had led to the unforgivable loss of many millions of civilian lives.

      He frowned. It hadn’t been his fault, but he felt responsible nonetheless. Anyway, not everything had fallen. The northern part of the Line was still standing proud, guarding the last free, living city of Tyrennor, Byzardus. Where he worked gruelling shifts, fighting sporadically against the disoriented beasts that attacked them while he waited for the final day. The day when he would stand side by side with his brothers, as a Defender of the Oath Line. The day when the enemy would come, sweeping away everything before them as far as the eye could see. To finish the job. The day of his death.

      That was the destiny of a hero, the destiny of those who had defended the Line before him, and of those who would continue to defend it when his weapons had been returned to the bowels of the armoury. He shook his head and tried to think of something else. His mission now was a different one – to stay alert. Shifting his position, he concentrated on watching the swamp but saw nothing unusual out there, as had been the case over the last few weeks.

      After a time, he stood up, stretching as fully as the dimensions of the sentry box permitted. His shoulders and arms felt tired, but he took no notice. The tiredness would wear off over the course of the night, as he’d been assigned a full watch. He turned to look at the walled city on the other side of the swamp.

      Legend had it that Byzardus was the only place in all of Tyrennor to withstand the onslaught of the Corruption. Eren wasn’t altogether sure, but as far as he could see, even if the city had managed to withstand the attack, it had been a very close call. Essentially, the sprawling city had served as a vast barracks for Tyrennor’s armies. Connected to the Oath Line to the north, the city stood at the foot of the last peaks of Atlius, and was surrounded by a semi-circle of walls. Eren knew the location of each point along the wall that had fallen during the Apocalypse, although they were all indistinguishable from the rest of the defenses. Thanks to the efforts of the brave soldiers who’d survived the onslaught and had worked so hard to re-establish Byzardus’ mighty defensive cordon, along with the indispensable help of the dwarves’ profound knowledge of engineering and their silent slaves, the city had been protected and the wall rebuilt.

      From his privileged vantage point, Eren could see the full expanse of the city. Crossed by the River Avlon, which entered via the northeast, and flowed south, the city was the last remaining jewel in the devastation that was now Tyrennor. The sluggish river was lined by the low houses that filled Byzardus‘ commercial district. From there the city was clearly divided into two halves, one on each side of the river. The western part, the one nearest to the Oath Line, was dominated by the military. Training camps, barracks, warehouses, forges all jostled for space, and competition was fierce. All overlooked by the ruins of the North Castle, which defended a lower building that lay below and shone with a lustre all of its own: The Armoury of Souls.

      It was made up of two buildings, broken in many places and blackened by the fighting, and it was here that the remaining weapons and combat vials were stored. And this was Tyrennor’s command center, from where General Cordias commanded the meagre army with an iron will. Even though his strategic skills and insight were a blessing, his advanced age was starting to be a concern. No man, however just or honourable he may be, could escape the call of death.

      To the east, on the other side, there were farms and fields. They produced enough food to supply the city and enable all economic activity to be contained within the walls.

      “Eren! Are you there?”

      The voice echoed in the sentry box. Eren jumped, banging his head on the stone. Swearing, he heard laughter from the floor below. He went carefully down the stairs, rubbing the side of his head.

      “Why do you have to shout like that, Caleb?”

      “If it had been old Blackpatch instead of me, you’d be in trouble.”

      The two friends looked at each other and burst out laughing. Everyone called the sergeant in charge of the watchmen on the Oath Line ‘Blackpatch’. Another old warrior who would soon be passing on his weapons to the new generations – if those new generations arrived in time, that is.

      “You know all you need to do is keep an eye on the swamp. You should have seen me coming.”

      “I was looking at the city.”

      Caleb shook his doublet, showering Eren with raindrops again, and carefully took out a package. He smiled at his friend.

      “You’ve got fifteen minutes to get up to the next sentry box. But we can grab a quick dinner,” he said with a wink.

      Eren hid his surprise. How long had he been engrossed in looking at the city? He saw that night was already falling, and the heavy rain was now a light drizzle. And his stomach was telling him in no uncertain terms that it was time to replenish his energy. Afterward, he’d run over to the next tower further north and relieve his companion for the next four hours.

      The two of them sat down in the cramped sentry box. There was hardly enough space for both of them, but as always, they crossed their legs, improvising a table with their knees. Caleb opened the package and took out their modest meal, small military rations, and even a bit of meat. Eren stroked his beard, preferring not to think about where such bounty had come from. The two soldiers began to eat in silence.

      “Everyone at the top, including Blackpatch, is worried, Eren,” said Caleb suddenly.

      “Eh?”

      “Something’s going on, don’t ask me what. But I can smell trouble coming.”

      “Sarah’s realised that you’re after her sister now, is that it?” said Eren.

      “Idiot!” said Caleb, giving him the finger.

      The pair of them carried on eating in silence. Caleb finished his part and was looking out over the swamp, almost invisible in the darkness. Eren looked at his friend, his mouth still full of food. Handsome features, wavy brown hair and ready smile. And that extra something that made him so special. Tyrennor had never been governed by a line of kings of royal blood but by brave, capable men. And Eren suspected that he was sitting next to the next General of Byzardus. He knew he wasn’t the only one to think so. The rest of the soldiers were all talking about it too.

      He smiled. They’d been together ever since they were kids in the orphanage running around and playing with their wooden swords; they’d passed the Vigilia at the same time, and they’d both spent countless years as guards on the Line. But that was about to change. Caleb had something more: he had charisma, skills, a talent for leadership. The men, even the old hands, followed his orders without question, asking his advice and listening to his ideas on tactics. Next to him, Eren was just a run of the mill soldier, who knew that he would never reach the same dizzy heights as his friend, particularly as he had those strange powers that he kept a close secret. Nevertheless, he felt a sincere pride in his friend. He knew that he would only rise up through a few more ranks with Caleb. And that at some point they would each go their own separate ways. Which would be the best thing for both of them. Eren didn’t want to hold his friend back and so deprive Byzardus of the chance to have the best general possible.

      To be honest, Eren didn’t mind being a simple soldier, as long as he could defend his position with honour. Being a soldier had been his job for the entirety of his life, and he was extremely good at it. And, at the same time, he’d see is friend rise all the way to the top, and why not?

      All of a sudden, he felt something sharp, like a needle in his head. Pain, pressure, like an unseen force that was trying to rip through his consciousness. He recoiled. And the pain went away, just as quickly as it had arrived.

      “But what…?” he said, looking up at his friend.

      The blood froze in his veins. Caleb was staring at the swamp, the expression on his face one of pure terror.

      Eren followed his gaze, and stifled a scream. A figure had just cleared the battlements and was floating towards them. A shape even darker than the night itself, tall, in the form of a woman dressed in mourning. The outline was vague, seeming to melt into the darkness. All that could be seen were two intense spots of blazing red that had to be its eyes.

      “Banshee!” shouted Eren. He pulled hard on the emergency alert handle in the sentry box, and heard a hiss above their heads: the fire in the dome had been triggered. The torches on each side of the door blazed into life too, under the shelter of the tiles on the roof. The gears of the mechanism were turning, lighting yet more torches on the outer walls, making it possible to see if there were more of these beasts trying to breach the Oath Line.

      Now they had to hold the threat at bay until reinforcements arrived. Eren tried to leap over his friend who was frozen with terror, but he couldn’t untangle his legs, and fell flat on his face. The banshee paused in its advance when it reached the ring of lights, just a few metres away from him.

      Eren stood up ready for action, drew his sword and glared at the abomination. He knew what he was up against, and he knew that his chances were zero. All those battles against the possessed, the stalwarts, and other beasts weren’t enough preparation for facing this nightmare. He smiled bitterly. If ever there was a time when there was no choice but to give it everything he got and more, that time was now. Caleb knew his secret, and it wouldn’t be a problem.

      The soldier stood up straight and looked the monster in the eye. It had the face of a woman, rotting behind a tattered veil, the sockets of its eyes glowing an intense red. Planting his feet firmly on the ground, he swung his shield forward, gritted his teeth, and let the energy flow through him. His sword started to glow, and ghostly weapons began to dance around him. But a hand fell on his shoulder.

      “Eren, it’s a banshee, one of the biggest threats we’ve seen in years. We need to prepare ourselves. Remember your training. No special skills without a clear understanding of the situation.”

      It was Caleb. Calm, cool, and collected. The reinforcements would be here in no time, and they weren’t absolutely sure what the enemy might be capable of. Using his training, he held his instincts in check and gave himself up to the movements he’d practiced and learned. He felt around in his breast pocket and pulled out a small vial of bluish liquid, emptying it into the groove that ran down the full length of his sword. The weapon shone white for a moment, before turning a brilliant cobalt blue. Eren released his metal shield from the clip at his hip, and adopted the classic stance of the Defenders. Caleb had done the same.

      The figure hadn’t moved. It was staring fixedly at Caleb. All three of them remained motionless.

      “How could it have got past both the physical and the magical alarms?” asked Eren, his lips hardly moving.

      “No idea” admitted Caleb. “But it’s bad news. It’s been more than ten years since the last time we saw one of these. And if there’s one thing I do know, Eren, it’s that they’re smart. Why has it come on its own?”

      As if it were listening to them, the banshee opened its bony arms and gestured to Caleb, calling him closer. The soldiers separated, staying within the circle of light. The other watchtowers along the Oath Line were lighting up. The alarm horn began to sound in the distance. Yes! The Oath Line was responding. Tyrennor was getting ready to defend itself.

      The apparition, looking peevish, raised its arms and let out a piercing shriek. Eren instinctively jumped back, covering his ears. On both sides of the creature, shadows swirled and glittered, the magic moulding them into shape. Horrified, the soldiers watched as a mass of dark vapour tore through the night, eventually solidifying and transforming the shadows into four creatures of the swamp. Big, strong creatures with brown skin and almost no neck. Armed with axes.

      “It’s summoning Stalwarts, Eren!” cried Caleb.

      “I can bloody well see them!” replied Eren.

      The two friends smiled. They changed their stance slightly, in perfect harmony. It was time to attack, not defend.

      “We’re the Defenders! We’re the key to our city! We never retreat!” shouted Eren.

      The two soldiers threw themselves forward. Eren slammed into the first Stalwart using his shield, making it fall back. He dodged the swing of the second one’s axe, retreating in the face of such a ferocious attack. The Stalwarts relied on their huge brute strength, but this tended to make them lash out wildly without giving things too much thought. Old Blackpatch had taught them to always look for that opening, and make absolutely sure they took full advantage of it.

      An axe whistled over his head, and all Eren needed to do was to raise his sword, fast. He heard a wet sort of sound, and severed from the wrist, the beast’s hand fell to the ground. The effect the vials had on weapons was truly incredible. The Stalwart screamed in pain, but twisted round and lashed out so furiously with its axe that Eren was only just able to block the blow with his shield, which shattered into a thousand pieces in a shower of sparks. With effort, the soldier collected himself, spun round, and with a swing of his sword cut deep into the enemy’s throat.

      Mortally wounded, the monster staggered backwards and collapsed against the wall, life slipping away. Eren turned his attention to the next one which was already charging towards him, and saw that Caleb was just about holding on in an unequal battle with two of them.

      He couldn’t allow this; the situation was desperate. He gritted his teeth and summoned all the energy flowing inside him to create a blue shield over his arm, using it to repel the Stalwart’s first attack. It yelped in surprise. The blows between them came thick and fast, each swifter and more powerful than the last, as his sword glowed ever more brightly, slicing into his enemy’s weapon. Adrenalin mixed with power, and he felt exhilarated, alive, unstoppable. When he could feel the energy in every cell of his body, he summoned a sword in his mind, it took shape in the air and flew at one of Caleb’s assailants, running it through.

      Eren’s attacker took advantage of the moment to launch a frenzied attack. But the soldier had been counting on him doing just that. Blocking the axe with his energy shield, he took the opportunity to draw all the energy into his sword. With a powerful thrust he pierced his enemy’s chest, and twisted the blade, ripping into its rotten flesh, planting a foot on its chest, and freeing his weapon, all in one fluid sweep.

      He spat on the ground and turned towards the banshee…

      It was then that he felt something sharp, like a needle in his head, for the second time. His eyes were burning from within. One knee on the ground, he fought the nausea. His consciousness dimmed, and confusion invaded his mind. It was as if something was trying to supplant the very essence of his being. He felt the fatigue in his shoulders, the weight of his light armour, the solidity of the hilt of his sword, the scent of rain mingled with the stench of the Stalwarts, the shouts of the reinforcements that were streaming along the Line towards them. And a sombre presence that was trying to take everything away from him.

      Eren fought against the darkness. He was aware of the banshee approaching but could do nothing to defend himself. Looking up he saw the abomination laugh and flex its razor-sharp claws. But he didn’t have the strength to raise his sword. The banshee shrieked at the top of its voice, lashing out. Eren used all the force of his will to block the blow with his shield, which exploded into glittering blue shards. The banshee grinned, claws raised, and ready for action once again. Eren screamed at the top of his lungs, driving the darkness from his mind. He jumped up, ready to attack with his sword, but Caleb appeared at his side, slashing wildly at the banshee, forcing it to retreat.

      “Thanks Caleb,” muttered Eren, blinking hard to clear his vision.

      His friend turned his back on him, face to face with the banshee, adopting the defensive stance. Eren was grateful for the moment of respite, time to clear his thoughts. Taking a deep breath, he stared at his forearm where the shield that he’d summoned had been. It was dripping blood.

      With no warning, Caleb swung round and rammed his sword into his chest. Eren felt an agonising pain, and he couldn’t breathe. Looking into his friend’s eyes, he saw that there was no life in them. At that moment, Caleb blinked, and their usual shine was back. He mumbled, just two words.

      “Kill me.”

      But it was too late. Eren fell to the ground, and just as everything went black, he saw Caleb drop his weapons and stagger towards the banshee. And how it embraced him, seconds before melting away into the night.

      The stone was cold beneath him, and he could hear the sound of the rain. Until, little by little, everything disappeared.

****

      At that point, the call came to an end, and Ayla straightaway caught the soldier’s soul in a gem, which started to glow dark blue. It was obvious that he was one of the Chosen Ones.

      She knew that they’d all needed to die in order to be of use, but there was something that didn’t add up. Banshees shouldn’t be able to pass through to the other side. And actually, this particular creature had seemed, well, different to the rest somehow. Yet, again, the pieces didn’t fit together. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and stared at the table. At her complete work, her set of five soul gems, glowing but scattered. She ran a hand over them.

      Clink.

      The sound and the feel of them beneath her fingers made her jump backwards. She could touch them! This was one of the signs that meant that time was beginning to flow, and that the time had come to return to Endarth. At last!

      Like a child with a new toy, she lifted the crystals; they were big, and they shone. They didn’t feel altogether solid, but as she touched each one she felt the essence of the hero captured within it, the hero who would help her liberate Endarth: the skilful Elven hunter, the fiery Tirkhan warrior, the lethal assassin with her silver eyes, the powerful and ironical wizard, and the noble soldier.

      She put them back on the table, tidily this time, and smiled. She felt just a step away from freedom, even if that would mean the beginning of the last war of Endarth. Taking great care, she touched the sand clock; it too had substance now. But the sensation was different: if she tried to pick it up, her hands slipped through it.


      What was there still left to be done? Why wasn’t it solid like the gems? Or maybe she just needed to wait a bit longer for everything to stabilise.

      She tried a couple more times, but the result was still the same. In the end, she had a go at dragging it, and to her surprise it did move a few centimetres along the marble altar.

      That was when she saw what had been hidden between the sand clock and the wall. She stared at her find for a few long seconds, unable to believe her eyes. Taking an uncertain step backwards, she covered her mouth with her hands.

      “But that’s just not possible!” she said at last.

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