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0.7. – Unwavering faith

      Tzadik raised a hand and reined in her horse. Behind her, Sergal repeated the order, bringing the whole Division to a halt. Before them stood Fort Tesónica, the most imposing castle in all of Damardas.

      The fortress, built from ochre-brown coloured stone, its powerful walls bristling with battlements and arrow loops, was dwarfed by the majestic bulk of a vast keep crowned by the Fire of Asherah, which never went out. Access to the interior was through a barbican and a drawbridge, reinforced by a stockade along each side, the aim being to block any access from the wastes of Aresia. In the distance the city of Tesónica could be seen towards the east, stretching between the plain and the foot of mountain, a chaotic sprawl.

      Originally it had been a military base aimed at preventing incursions from the wastelands, and had grown to become a jumble of barracks, houses, forges and stables, with vast training camps on the outskirts.

      “We’ve arrived at a place that’s sacred to the Divine Asherah, the Goddess of Creation. She who brings Light to the wastelands. She who comforts the spirits of the humble and the righteous,” said Tzadik.

      “Of course, my lady,” replied Sergal, her lieutenant, obediently.

      “Our mission is sacred, Sergal. We’ve been summoned by Commander Abonis. Today the Crimson Division will become the Goddess’s enforcers, so take a deep breath and hold your head up with pride!”

      “Whatever you say my lady,” said Sergal with a shrug of the shoulders.

      Tzadik shot a glance at Sergal. Her lieutenant always wore light armour, rather than the heavy imposing armour that was a distinctive symbol of the entire Order. He didn’t wear the full helmet either, preferring a smaller, half open one. And he’d exchanged the standard mace for a fine double-edged sword as well. Together with his small frame, tousled blonde hair and lack of expression, this made him stand out as different from the rest of his Division.

      But Tzadik didn’t care. Like everyone else under the Light of Asherah, Sergal had a good reason for sticking with her since her rise to become First Lady of the Crimson Division. Closing her eyes, she said a quick prayer, clasping her armoured hands together. As soon as she’d finished, she spurred on her horse without giving any warning. Sergal sighed, raised an arm, and ordered the twenty or so acolytes to follow their leader.

      They reached the foot of the north side of the fort, and came to a halt. Several of the barbican guards poked their heads out as they saw the company approach.

     “For the Light of Asherah!” yelled Tzadik in greeting, raising her hand. Sergal sighed behind her.

      The soldiers were moving fast, beginning to shout out orders that were unintelligible from such a distance. Minutes later, the first portcullis was being raised, and the drawbridge slowly lowered. The Crimson Division rode onto the bridge. The barbican portcullis closed behind them, and only then were the castle’s massive wooden gates opened. Tzadik ordered them forward once again, and the acolytes entered a vast courtyard.

      Inside, two garrisons of around fifty men were waiting for them. Standing to attention, they all drew their swords, driving them into the ground in front of them and placing their hands on their hearts in salute.

      The acolytes dismounted and returned the military salute. A swarm of servants emerged from the lower hall of the nearest tower, and took the horses off to be fed and watered. Almost immediately the Division was led to the spacious dining halls of the other tower. Once inside, Tzadik took off her heavy helmet, which was covered with carvings of sacred verses, and deposited it on the table. The face now revealed was an angular one, with a strong jaw, large turquoise eyes, and auburn hair pulled back by plaits wound into a simple ponytail, but hanging loose and straight at the back. She was a strong woman, and the impression of strength was further enhanced by what she was wearing: plate armour with the red and black surcoat of her Order, with the Throne of Light in gold in the middle of the chest. With deft movements, she undid the leather straps on her armoured gauntlets, pulling them off and leaving them next to the helmet. Sergal, her lieutenant, helped her to remove her shoulder and elbow guards. The rest of the acolytes, all similarly attired, were doing the same, stretching and griping. It had been an exhausting march from the Holy City. But no-one was really surprised: they knew that when Tzadik was on a mission, food and rest always took second place. And they accepted this, because they had absolute faith in their First Lady.

      A few minutes later, the men were relaxing and checking their things when the door to the barracks opened. An ageing servant, dressed neatly in black, stepped over the threshold and walked towards her. From a respectful distance a few feet away, he bowed deeply.

      “My lady, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to our fort. My name is Demius, and I am the seneschal here,” he said, without raising his head. “Commander Abonis would like to deal with the business of your visit as soon as possible, so that you may rest after your long journey. If you would be so good as to accompany me, I will take you to him.”

      “My thanks to you seneschal. Please lead the way,” said Tzadik, indicating to Sergal that he should follow her.

      “Forgive me my lady,” he replied, with a reproachful glance at Tzadik’s companion.

      “But the commander has requested the presence of you yourself alone.”

      The seneschal ignored the repressed sniggers from the rest of the acolytes. The man didn’t know what was coming to him. The First Lady speared him with her turquoise eyes.

      “No, seneschal. As acolytes of the Crimson Division, we follow the teachings of Asherah: we trust in our brothers, and doubt only ourselves. It is never just one of us alone who receives information; one single soul can fall prey to temptation. But as in battle, if we are accompanied by our brothers, the shield of light is indestructible. Our Faith is our weapon, our sustenance, and the scourge of our enemies. Asherah will light the way, and it is we who must follow.”

      The seneschal held Tzadik’s gaze for an instant, but then lowered his head immediately.

      “As you wish, my lady. Please, follow me.”

      The man lead Tzadik and Sergal out through the courtyard and down towards the lower rooms of the keep – it was rather like being in different castle altogether. As they ascended, the stairs gradually widened and became rather more grand. The walls of the rooms were no longer bare rock, but were covered with rich tapestries. Eventually they came to a set of wide doors in dark wood, decorated with a magnificently carved Throne of Asherah, and the figure of the Goddess herself inlaid in gold. It was here that seneschal Demius stopped.

      He approached and spoke to the guards flanking the entrance, who were in full armour. They turned and pushed the two heavy doors, which swung open without a sound.

      “The commander is expecting you,” said the seneschal, bowing once again. “If you will excuse me…”

      Tzadik and Sergal stepped into the room. They heard the guards on the doors connecting some ornamental fountains so that the sound of the falling water would ensure that the conversation couldn’t be heard by anyone outside the room. The doors closed as silently as they had opened.

      Tzadik looked around the room. A luxurious office at the heart of the fortress. The floor was of polished wood, and the walls were hung with large tapestries embroidered with gold thread. On one wall there was a marble fireplace where a fire was blazing away, warming the room. At the back was a huge table of rich wood, with a man sitting on the other side of it. He was a big man, bald, with bright little eyes set rather too close together, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. He held out a pair of chubby hands, and gave them a reptilian smile.

      “Welcome to Fort Tesónica, my lady. Your presence does me great honour. Please, do sit down,” said Commander Abonis, gesturing towards two armchairs.

      “The pleasure is ours, commander,” replied Tzadik. She bowed slightly, but remained standing. “Our Order mobilised immediately as soon as we received your message.”

      “I have spent whole nights praying for a prompt response from Quibar, and now it has arrived. And they have even sent me the First Lady of the Crimson Division. I feel most honoured. But please! Do make yourselves comfortable. Would you care for something to eat? A little wine, perhaps?”

      Before Tzadik had the chance to turn down the offer, and to Sergal’s delight, the commander clapped twice. From one side of the room a servant appeared through a concealed door.

      “Bring us three full servings. With wine and fruit. Immediately. We mustn’t keep our guests waiting!” he said.

      Tzadik watched the servant disappear through the door. She knew she had no choice. She always liked to eat with the troops, although her rank often obliged her to do so in other more illustrious company. Tzadik was a follower of the cleric’s code, which stated that battle had to be everlasting, faith unshakeable, and that luxuries should be avoided to make sure that the purity of the soul could never be defiled. But she made no objection. She was extremely interested in the information that the commander had for her. And although she somehow felt that she was about to enjoy a kind of sinful luxury, she convinced herself that it was necessary: the army of Damardas didn’t generally ask the clergy to involve themselves in its affairs. Particularly in the case of the Order.

      Tzadik gestured to Sergal to sit, and she did the same.

      “How was your journey to Fort Tesónica my lady?”

      “Please call me Tzadik, Commander Abonis,” replied Tzadik with a smile. The commander smiled too, revealing a set of small, yellowish teeth.

      “As you wish, Tzadik. Tell me then, how are you and your troops?”

      “We are well, commander,” she said, after reflecting for a moment. “Our horses are being looked after, our hunger satisfied, and we are assured a good nights’ rest. As always, the sacred mission is of greater importance than a lot of earthly comforts. In this sense our tenacity has been recognised for centuries. We could continue with our task this very night should the mission demand it.”

      Sergal sighed, discreetly, but rather more loudly than Tzadik would have liked.

      “I agree with your companion, Tzadik,” laughed the commander. Tonight you must rest. I fear that the mission that awaits you is far from simple. And I need your assurance that it will be accomplished.”

      Tzadik opened her mouth, but shut it again as the servants came in, loaded with trays of food. They set them down on a table in the centre of the room. Commander Abonis stood up and waddled over to the table on a pair of short bandy legs. Tzadik thought that he looked rather like a large, sweaty cockroach.

      “Please, come and eat with me. You need to rebuild your strength,” he said, settling down at the head of the table.

      The two acolytes stood up and sat opposite the commander. The smell of food reminded Tzadik that her body did have some basic needs that faith was unable to satisfy. Even so, she bowed her head, offering a prayer of thanks to Asherah. When she’d finished, the three of them began to eat.

      After a few moments, Tzadik broke the silence.

      “So, Commander Abonis, What is the reason for your message requesting help?”

      “Tzadik, if you will forgive me for just a moment,” said the commander, clapping once again. A servant appeared; he ordered him to bring more jugs of wine, and told him that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.

      They continued eating in silence, as the servants each set a jug of wine on the table. Although these were made of stone, they were exquisitely carved, and the handles were inlaid with precious stones. Once the wine had been decanted, the commander stood and poured two generous glasses for his guests, and then one for himself. He took a mouthful, rolling the wine around his mouth with obvious pleasure. Smiling, he refilled their glasses to the brim, and noticed that the inquisitor hadn’t touched hers.

      “Everything they say about your self-control is clearly true, my lady,” said the commander, as Sergal hiccupped softly. “Anyway, it is time for me to explain why we have summoned you so urgently. As you will already be aware, the army of Damardas has committed resources to trying to map the wastelands of Aresia. Are you familiar with that area?”

      “Of course, commander. The Order has always been mindful of the wastelands. But to venture into them is a death sentence.”

    The man stood and walked over to the fireplace, his back towards them.

      “Not necessarily, Tzadik. Not necessarily.”

      When the commander turned to face them, Tzadik saw his eyes. There was something else there too, not just pride or satisfaction. A glint of madness.

      “I myself have done it!” he burst out. “It took me some months, but I found a way to build small fortifications that would not be attacked by the creatures of darkness. Then we advanced, leaving small outposts every kilometre along the way. Until we came across ruins – ruins in Aresia! Do you understand what that means? We could unravel the mystery of Leelah! There is no reliable information about how this woman managed to end the Apocalypse. Just imagine, this knowledge, this… power, in the hands of our glorious army.”

      The commander fell silent, and turned to look into the fire. Nothing could be heard but the crackle of the flames.

      “The power of a god… to unite all under a single flag,” he said softly.

      Tzadik stood up.

      “Leelah is one of the mysteries to be solved by our Order. It is one of our duties as acolytes. To keep our faith strong, we must understand the legend that lies in these wastes so far away from the light. Leelah was considered a strong woman and a true leader, but she was not a goddess, commander, there was nothing divine about her. The only one who is worthy of our devotion is Asherah, the Goddess of Creation who sits above all of us on the Throne of Light. And remember that we all form part of Her plan. Including those who gave their lives to stop the Apocalypse.”

      The commander turned towards her. He held her gaze, his little eyes were fixed on her like those of a predator. He was sweating profusely.

      “You are absolutely right. This is why I am asking you just to go and take a look at these ruins. Let your superiors know what you find there. Let the Council of Quibar hear another voice as well as mine, so that our forces can be mobilised.” The commander looked away. Tzadik could see that he was making an effort to control himself. “All I am asking you to do is to strengthen our faith, so we may unravel this mystery together.”

      Tzadik didn’t believe him. The commander’s motivation clearly lay elsewhere, that much was obvious, and she hadn’t given him the answer he’d expected. But she’d play along with him. And anyway, she was indeed interested in the ruins. It was, she thought, ironic that Abonis would get what he was after: the Council would send more troops to Tesónica. But then on the other hand, once Tzadik told them how unbalanced the commander was, he’d probably be removed from his post.
Politely taking leave of the commander, Tzadik gestured to Sergal, who rapidly downed the rest of his wine, tried unsuccessfully to disguise a belch, and grabbed a few chunks of cheese for the road. They left the room.

***

      Her armoured boots echoing on the stone stairs, Tzadik was talking to Sergal, who was very unsteady on his feet.

      “Your behaviour was utterly shameful,” she snapped.

      Sergal limited himself to a “Thank you, my lady”, in reply.

      They walked down another flight of stairs in silence.

      “What do you think?” whispered Tzadik.

      “We were not alone in the room,” said Sergal, who had exchanged his servile, resigned tone for one that was more analytical. “There was another door on the north side near the desk as well as the one the servants were using. Smoke from the fire was filtering through it. There was someone else in there, someone with great magical powers, listening to our whole conversation. And the commander looked in that direction at least seven times while we were there.”

      “You did well to spot that,” conceded Tzadik. “How about what he was actually saying?”

    “His arguments were full of holes, my lady. The military presence in Fort Tesónica alone constitutes more than half of troops posted along the former border with Tyrennor. What the Order does will have no effect at all on his ambitions to push into the wastelands. I think there’s a much more effective way for him to attract the attention of Quibar and the Council: by wiping out a whole Division of the Order in one fell swoop. If he did that, he’d have the whole of the Clergy on his back within a week demanding an explanation; which in all probability would lead to audiences with senior officials, giving him the chance to talk about what he really found out there in the wasteland. Then it would simply be a question of provoking their greed and gaining support with both the army and the Clergy. Which has been unthinkable in Damardas over recent centuries.”

      Tzadik nodded. Sergal’s analytical skills no longer surprised her. While it was true that he often had to play the role of a complete dimwit, something he did so well sometimes he almost had Tzadik wondering if it might be his true personality, his mind was as sharp as his sword. And he was utterly loyal to her.

      They came to the final door before the courtyard. Opening it, they stepped out into the cold night. Guards were patrolling the ramparts, and there seemed to be an awful lot of activity out there, considering how late it was. The two acolytes quickened their pace, wanting to reach their barracks as soon as possible.

      “When do you think will be the best time? When we are out on the mission, in the middle of the wastelands?”

    “I don’t think so,” replied Sergal after a moment’s reflection. “The best time would be right now: we’re tired, unarmed and totally unsuspecting. Nobody would be expecting a full-scale attack. As you have so clearly seen, he is desperate for recognition and power. If we disappear into the wastelands, it will be several weeks before a rescue party is sent out. And weeks more before it returns.”

      Tzadik pondered for a moment while they opened the doors to the barracks. The rest of their company were asleep in the back.

      “Do it Sergal. Activate the Night Prayer Protocol.”

      Sergal pulled out the silver locket he wore around his neck. With swift movements he unclipped it and refashioned it into a “T” shaped object. He blew hard into one end of the thing, and it emitted a low tone. Although barely audible, the sound reverberated within his chest.

      Tzadik and Sergal headed for where they’d left their armour, and started to put it all back on. The rest of the acolytes rose from their beds and without a word silently began to don their armour too.

      The Night Prayer Protocol had been activated.

      Sergal moved towards Tzadik to help her with her shoulder guards.

    “What do you think our chances are?” said the inquisitor.

      “For the company, about fifty per cent. All the troop barracks are blazing with light, so our enemies will be the defenders of Fort Tesónica. On the other hand, for you yourself, since you are the primary target, that figure unfortunately drops down to ten per cent,” replied Sergal tonelessly.

      “That means that if you survive, the command of a division will be yours. That’s what you have always wanted, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, my lady. The thought of leading my own division is the only thing that keeps me going when I think of all the time, I waste serving lords and ladies.”

      “Think you could do it better than me, Sergal?”

      “Definitely my lady,” said the lieutenant, making the final adjustments to his armour.

      Tzadik smiled. They had taken an oath, sworn in blood, never to lie to each other. It was a small island of stability in a sea of intrigue. She knew that her own actions had always been above reproach. So, when she was reunited with Asherah, she’d be rewarded for her unblemished record. But that said, she certainly didn’t want to be paying that visit before her time. And for that reason, a companion like Sergal was worth his weight in gold.

      “You don’t think I’ve handled the situation well this time then?”

      “No, my lady. You should have been suspicious right from the beginning. Besides, when we were summoned, the orders should have been…”

      Sergal didn’t go on, as the bells were beginning to loudly toll the alarm.

      Tzadik grabbed her huge Hammer of Justice and took the lead, sheltered by the darkness of the barracks. Behind her, all the acolytes had started to pray in low voices, asking for the protection of the Goddess of Creation. Less than a minute later, the door slammed open and Demius, the seneschal, rushed in, followed by two guards in full armour who were carrying flaming torches.

      “Acolytes of the Crimson Division! We are under attack!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Please leave your barracks and take refuge in the tower! There you can pass by the armoury and…” he stopped in mid-sentence as the armour of some twenty warriors, all with drawn swords, gleamed in the torchlight.

      Tzadik took a step forward and slammed into the man with her hammer. The seneschal fell to the ground immediately. He was dead. The seneschal’s guards hadn’t reacted, they’d had no time. In silence, the acolytes fell on them, killing them all with icy precision.

      “Acolytes of the Crimson Division!” roared Tzadik in the semi-darkness. “We are surrounded by enemies and heretics. Do not hesitate. Do not retreat. Asherah is with us tonight. For the Goddess of Creation!”

      The inquisitors smiled. The proud defenders of Tesónica outnumbered them by four to one.

      And now they were going to learn a lesson.

***

      The archers were in their places on the battlements, with their weapons at the ready; but they were pointing towards the interior of the fort. The Crimson Division would be coming out soon. And they’d open fire on them as soon as the seneschal reached the safety of the keep. Below, the rest of the Fort Tesónica troops were waiting, armed with the standard short swords and shields.

      Many of the soldiers were praying, asking for blessing before the coming battle. They’d been told that a group of heretics – imposters – were on their way. And now they would kill them all. Nobody messed with the army of Damardas, particularly with the proud defenders of Tesónica.

      So, they were surprised to see only one figure emerge from the barracks. Imposing in her full heavy armour, silver with gold detailing on shoulder guards and joints, covered with engravings of scenes from the Book of Asherah and sacred symbols, with a red surcoat with the Throne of Light in gold in the middle of the chest.

      It was the leader of the imposters. She was the one they had to hunt down.
Before they had a chance to react, the figure raised the hammer it was holding. Many had heard the stories told about this huge war hammer, but most thought them to be exaggerated. That is until the hammer emitted a blinding white light, a light so intense that nearly all of them flung themselves to the floor in agony.

      Then the war cry of the Crimson Division rang out, loud and clear.

***

      Tzadik roared as she cast the spell, and even with her eyes closed she saw the world turn red and the pain seemed to stab her eyes.

      She felt the ground shake as half of the acolytes stormed out through the doors of the barracks to finish off the enemy soldiers close at hand before they had time to recover.

      Shouts from above indicated that Sergal, commanding the other half of the acolytes, had managed to gain access to the battlements via the barracks tower and was now dispatching the archers posted up there. Tzadik knew that they were the ones who’d suffered most from the effects of her Pious Light spell, so Sergal needed to advance fast, if not they’d be at the mercy of the shower of arrows that would rain down on them.

      She sprang forward and struck down two soldiers, giving them no opportunity to defend themselves. Another attacked from the side, but avoiding his first thrust she blocked the second with her hammer triggering a barrage of sparks and smashed her helmet into his face. He staggered backwards, stunned, as Tzadik whirled round and let rip. The impact of the blow must have splintered bones and ruptured organs, the soldier’s chest was crushed and he was thrown nearly a metre into the air.

      Then an arrow glanced off her back. Tzadik turned and another pierced her armour at thigh height. She saw where the attack had come from; although Sergal had cleared almost half of the battlements, a group of archers had recovered and were beginning to fire on her troops.

      Tzadik watched impotently as some of her men fell under the onslaught of arrows. She seized the hammer with both hands, and dazzling white energy flashed through it. A furious hammer blow to the ground put all the enemy soldiers in the vicinity to flight. She aimed her hammer at the archers as arrows ricocheted off her sacred armour, concentrating hard. Her body blazed for a moment with the magic of life, and a ball of light slammed into her enemies, who shrieked in agony. Tzadik gasped, trying to catch her breath. Grabbing the arrow stuck in thigh she snapped it off, screaming with pain.

      It was then that she saw a soldier, burlier than the others, in black armour and cape, bearing down on her wielding an enormous mace. The inquisitor gritted her teeth and swung the hammer with every ounce of strength she possessed. Their weapons clashed and clanged. Tzadik realised that she was losing her footing, the wound in her leg a serious disadvantage. She was still exchanging blows with her adversary, but couldn’t help falling back.

      A badly deflected blow ripped off her surcoat, while another destroyed her left shoulder guard, leaving her arm numb. She was running out of options, and her enemy knew it, he was redoubling his efforts, striking fast on her chest and arms, even grazing her helmet. It was speed that was needed now rather than force.
The metallic tang of blood in her mouth, Tzadik felt her back hit the stone wall. She couldn’t hold out any longer. Her arms felt like lead, too heavy to counterattack, she could barely hold herself upright and pain racked through her body.

      The solider would finish her off. A desperate prayer burst from her lips, and the enemy suddenly froze, halting in his attack. Tzadik collapsed to the ground, stunned, drained of all her strength, tears mingling with the blood on her face. He fell backwards, and there stood Sergal, his rapier dripping blood. Her lieutenant had leapt down from the battlements to protect her.

      A soldier confronted him. Sergal inflicted multiple wounds with a few swift strokes, elegantly dodging his opponent’s blows, and then slashed the man’s throat.
“My thanks, Sergal,” said Tzadik, trying to get to her feet.

      “That’s the first time you’ve ever thanked me, my lady,” gasped her lieutenant. “And now I would like you to be silent.”

      The stable doors opened and four acolytes rode out, charging at the troops in the courtyard. Another was coming towards them with a free horse. Sergal grabbed Tzadik, and with a huge effort heaved her onto the horse, and then jumped on himself. Shouting loudly, he ordered the retreat, and made a dash for the exit.
The plan had worked out well. When his group had attacked the battlements, they’d raised the portcullis. The way was clear for the few remaining survivors of the Crimson Division to flee the trap set for them by Fort Tesónica. Sergal was in command, riding hard. Desperate showers of arrows were raining down from the fortress, but the remnants of the Crimson Division were rapidly swallowed up by the night.

      They rode on for almost an hour. Tzadik held up as best she could, supported by Sergal, but her consciousness was slipping away, her body racked with pain. She tried casting little curative spells, but they had insufficient magical power. When the pain became unbearable, she shouted at them to stop.

      The riders were hesitant at first, but Sergal repeated the command. Slowing the tired horses to a trot, they turned off the road into a small wood. One remained on lookout. Once the others were all off the main road, Sergal dismounted, and helped Tzadik to get off the horse and sit herself down, leaning against a tree.

      “We have to go on, my lady.” Sergal sounded agitated – a novelty for him. “The commander will do everything he can to stop us from informing Quibar of his betrayal. Troops from Tesónica will already be on their way.”

      Tzadik coughed, took off her helmet letting it fall to the ground at her side, and spat forcefully. Her mouth was filled with blood.

      “Do you seriously think I can make it, Sergal? One of my legs is useless, too many of my ribs are broken and I can’t move my left arm. There’s no way I can ride, and if there are two of us on one horse we’ll be brought down for sure. My road ends here.”
Sergal stared at her. Tzadik knew that his brain was working overtime. But not even Sergal’s cool, analytical mind could come up with a solution here, because there wasn’t one.

      “And I need a leader to make sure that Quibar listens to us.” She looked at the rest of her men. Only five had survived, including the lookout. “And I need all of you to help him along the way. You must speak for our fallen brothers.”

      The rest of the acolytes nodded in silence. They were covered in blood. Sergal was about to say something, but Tzadik interrupted him.

      “I’ll stay here, away from the road. I need you to send troops fast to rescue me. Assuming I’ve calculated correctly, we’re talking about less than twenty-four hours. Asherah will protect and comfort me while I wait for you to return.”

      Sergal’s gaze was intense. In the moonlight, his eyes shone with tears. They both knew that she wouldn’t last that long.

      “We promised never to lie to each other my lady,” he stammered.

      “I’m proud of you Sergal; my companion, my friend.” Tzadik had lost one of her gauntlets during the battle, and she touched his face with her fingers. “I hope that the Crimson Division will rise again under your command, because I will be there up above to help you. Now you must ride and fulfil your mission. Asherah has an end for every one of us, and mine is here.”

      Sergal took her hand in both of his, but Tzadik gestured gently to another acolyte who took the lieutenant by the shoulders and led him back to his horse. They all mounted, and at the last minute Sergal turned back to her, a final farewell. Tzadik smiled and nodded. The horses moved off at a trot.

      Tzadik remained alone in the wood, in the moonlit darkness. Half an arrow was still stuck in her leg, but it no longer hurt, and she knew that the broken ribs had punctured some of her organs. She smiled, thinking about Sergal and allowing herself to be carried away with dreams of what might have been. But she was very tired now. Taking refuge in her faith, she began to pray, reciting every prayer to Asherah that she knew.

      Cold was seeping into her bones.

      She surprised herself by tripping over the words at times. But just smiled and started over. And then, right there, pressed close against a tree, she saw the figure of a woman dressed in a black tunic, observing but not intervening. Tzadik tried to focus, but couldn’t. It had to be some kind of hallucination brought on by loss of blood.

      She heard the sound of horses. The troops from Tesónica had wasted no time in setting off in pursuit. But her men would outwit them and reach Quibar. There was still a war to be fought.

      Some of the horses had stopped, and their riders were entering the wood, following the trail left by the Crimson Division. Tzadik gave thanks to the Goddess of Creation, as this way their pursuers would lose some time.

      Just as she was expecting them to come into sight, she heard shouts and the sounds of fighting; animal grunts and maniacal laughter. And then suddenly all was silent.

      Tzadik saw the beasts approach the clearing, peering at her with curiosity, rough scythes dripping with blood. They were little nightmares, all nervous giggles and jerky movements, armed with sharp knives. Tzadik was no longer sure if they were real or just part of her imagination, so she closed her eyes and continued to pray. The pain had gone completely now. She was calm, and very sleepy.

      One of the beasts reached her side, raised its weapon, and decapitated her with a single swift stroke.

***

      In the log cabin, Ayla saw that a soul gem was beginning to glow with a faint golden light. Carefully, she picked it up and placed it next to the others, and turned to the sand clock. Only a few grains of sand were left.

      She studied the marble altar for the umpteenth time, but couldn’t find anything more. She saw the six glowing gems that held the last hope for Endarth, and the last one, still empty, standing to one side. Picking it up with both hands, she saw that it was much bigger than any of the others. Now she could see how the cut of the gems provided clues to the essence each contained. But this last one was odd, it just looked like an ordinary stone, a very big one.

      She set it down carefully on the table, thinking, staring blindly. She’d checked not only the altar but the whole damned cabin. There were no more soul gems, she was absolutely sure. And that meant that when the next call came it would all be over.
She’d been listening to the hissing of the souls in torment who prowled around the cabin. They were getting bolder, and Ayla knew that it wouldn’t be long before they launched some kind of tentative attack. But she was ready for them, and how. It wouldn’t make any difference, but at least a couple of these nightmares would be burned up by her magic.

      She realised that her steps had led her to the small white pantry door. Where what she’d spent an eternity refusing to accept was waiting. But now the time had come. If she had to lead the last hope for Endarth, she needed to be complete.
And that she would not be, not until she opened that damned door.

      She grabbed the handle and turned it. Swallowed hard, and drawing on every ounce of courage, opened the door wide.

      She looked into the little cupboard, with its broken shelves, the eternal light of the setting sun shining through the window, and the trail of blood and dirt leading to the back. And there, leaning against the wall, was a corpse. Her own dead body.

      Ayla felt her limbs turn to lead, as her vision blurred. But she had passed the point of no return. She took a step into the larder; it sounded like a cannon shot. With a huge effort of will, she managed to look at the body that was herself, and to remember her last agonising moment in Endarth.

      Black arrows piercing her flesh, searing pain, and the sting of the poison as it entered her body. The clothes were torn, soaked in her own blood, the deep wounds visible. Her left side was burned, where the magic shield had been weak and the fire had consumed her. On the floor lay a small knife, the one she had used to slit her own wrists in order to be able to use the blood to form the symbols that had enabled her to cross the barrier into this log cabin that existed outside of time, and that was now her prison.

      Ayla fell to her knees. With an effort, she looked up at her own face. The face that she’d left behind when she died.

      Ayla Swanlake, the last of the Interventors, smiled as the tears streamed down her cheeks. To her surprise, she saw real determination in the corpse’s empty gaze. Now, at last, she felt complete. She ran her fingers over what had once been her own face, a soft caress.

      “You knew you’d do it. Your life ended for a reason, and you became what I am today. Your road came to an end on that day, Ayla of Endarth. As will mine as Ayla of the Interstices after the next call. And then you and I will both put our trust in that new Ayla who will return to our land and wage the final battle.”

      She stood up and turned, her cape billowing around her. She was the only one to have doubted herself.

      But never again. She wasn’t just going to lead the last hope of Endarth.

      No.

      She was going to unleash the Apocalypse.

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