The Covenant: that was the goal to the beginning of her Master’s vision, and the reason Ayla Swanlake had lost everything. However, in order to start it, the Chosen Ones were needed, the main thread to provide a last hope for Endarth.
When her Order had been active, it had comprised two types of Interventors: the strategic and pre-emptive on the one hand, and the visceral and impulsive on the other. While Ayla had always felt herself to be part of the first group, and they were the ones who had led the Order most of the time, she recognised that they had been overtaken by circumstance, and had not been sufficiently tempered to deal with the internal betrayals that had plagued the entire Order during the fall, prior to the Apocalypse.
These thoughts caused an annoying ringing in her ears, accompanied by an earthquake in her chest as it unleashed from her heart. She took a breath and tried to calm herself, but no matter how much she repeated to herself that nothing had been left to chance, it was in vain. She went over all her work for the umpteenth time and nodded: she had been thorough to the extreme. She had even gone into each of the Gems and contacted the souls of the Chosen Ones, exchanging feelings, preparing them for her return, hoping to avoid certain questions. It was true that she did not like it in the least, but for the proper performance of their task, the defenders had to focus on what was important… and later learn the rest of the truth.
However, there was too much that even she did not know, she accepted pessimistically. The entities she had dealt with in the Gems were a sleeping version of the heroes who would later awaken; it made her uneasy to think that, when they did, they would not be complete. What’s more, could she be sure they would be as capable as they were in life, or would they be in any way hindered? And if all else went well, what would be their ultimate power, their real power? She couldn’t know, and as mortifying as that uncertainty was, it didn’t matter: events had already begun, and they would have to fulfil their destiny or die trying.
She braced herself, as the magic lazily swept through the Heroes’ Pavilion. The crystals that were once the Soul Gems hovered in the air, but their contents emerged, ethereal, turning into forms that slowly materialised: boots, greaves, trousers, armour, embroidery, rings, weapons – all reappeared on a real plane, as did their wearers: the mighty defenders of Endarth.
Ayla couldn’t help but smile, as she felt her eyes water. Finally! After a bloody eternity, here they were, in front of her, the conclusion of a milestone of her mission. She cleared her voice.
“I greet you, mighty Chosen Ones. Here you are, in the Pavilion of Heroes, where the greatest legends have begun, the most sacred place for the Interventors; the one chosen to begin our mission.”
She found only unfocused glances in response, as the silence of the Pavilion engulfed her words. Ayla swallowed.
“You know me; we have met before. And so you know that your destiny no longer belongs to you, but is entwined with the prophecies of Leelah Swanlake, the greatest Interventor ever known. That is why I have gathered you here after your life has been taken from you in a bloody way.”
Silence orphaned of response again. Damn it, they had to react, they had to! It wouldn’t do for broken dolls, the heroes had to wake up! Ayla stepped forward and raised her arms. Her voice thundered.
“Your goal is to stop the Second Apocalypse, the one that threatens to destroy Endarth! You are the Chosen Ones, each of you an important and irreplaceable piece to success.”
She made an effort not to look at the dwarf.
“And to that end, the time has come to form our Covenant!”
To her relief, Ayla saw the heroes react. And a few moments later she regretted it.
“So, if I understand correctly, we simply have to travel all over Endarth, closing all the Stygian Gates, in order to avoid this Apocalypse. And after that, we’ll come back to life and be able to continue our peaceful existence, is that right?” Riavan asked.
“I don’t understand your tone, wizard,» Eren replied. “Our mission is difficult, but not impossible. We must have faith in our chances, in the team we will form, in the reasons why we have been chosen.”
“Oh, are you really that gullible? Let’s make a small summary: we are a group of strangers, asked to face an invasion from another dimension, adding the common enemies we already have on our own,» Riavan was enumerating, raising his fingers. “In addition, we must close mystical portals that would kill anyone nearby (if it’s not us). These portals will probably be spitting out enemies or filled with the ingenious traps of a race we violently extinguished, and who will hold us in no esteem. Am I forgetting something?”
“Yes. While we do that we will be consuming the resource that will ultimately be needed to obtain our reward: coming back to life,» Aura added.
Damn, this isn’t going well, Ayla thought. She had to get the conversation back on track.
“You’re wrong on this point,» she said. “We will get enough Life magic before we close the last Gate, the one in Amidra, beyond Atlius, past Mistwall… where was once the land of the shamash. However, if I were to bring you back to life now it would be impossible for us to approach the gates, the aether would consume us.”
“I don’t like assignments without guarantees,» Aura sighed.
“You have every possible guarantee, given the situation. We have been restored to life, which I would say can be considered payment. Our souls were held before we disembarked before the Goddess of Light, Aserath, and have been returned?” said Tzadik.
“Oh. The nobility of Quibar always have the last word, don’t they, Inquisitor? No hesitation, no loopholes, just drawing a deep line between good and evil,” Aura spat out the words.
“It’s not like that, assassin. Everyone ends up getting what they deserve. If your path leads you away from the light, not even the Goddess can bring you back.”
“The funny thing is that it is you, the upper classes of Quibar, who decide where that damned light is.”
The Inquisitor and the assassin stared at each other, their animosity palpable.
“Khan knows that when he dies he will stand before the Judgement of Kah…”
“Really?” Riavan grinned from ear to ear. “Tell me, please, please, it’s something like ceremonial combats with a lot of drinking and a lot of unnecessary testosterone, where you fight until you’re tired of bleeding on each other. I see it so in line with you.”
“Khan doesn’t like your tone, wizard.”
“You’re the second one to tell me that. I love this group!”
“I don’t think this helps anyone, Riavan. You’re a smart man, and you know that confronting us won’t help any of us,» Eren interrupted.
“Oh, the ‘let’s team up’ man. You know what, soldier? We ain’t no damn team. We’re a bunch of returnees who have no guarantee of staying alive for the next few minutes. We’re cannon fodder that’s been offered a frankly shady deal.”
Reproaches about the differences between the social strata of Damardas were rising in intensity between Aura and Tzadik.
“Haven’t you ever had battle-brothers, Riavan? Never fought hand-to-hand with people you’d trust with your life?” Eren asked.
“I was stabbed in the back. But yours was from the front, wasn’t it?”
Eren took a step and glared at the wizard.
“You’re still pitting us against each other. But you have no power over me. I know what I’m capable of, and I know how to trust others.”
“Khan had brothers in battle. Khan killed them.”
The dwarf laughed loudly, patting his knees.
“I agree with the barbarian, for once,» Riavan said.
“Khan disagrees with you.”
Ayla clicked her tongue. This was not going well, not well at all.
“Eztrok and I are a team. But I understand you. We don’t trust you, and you would do well not to trust us,» Vyktor said, smiling.
“Eztrok. Trust. Returnees.”
“No, Eztrok. I’m the one who talks to strangers, remember?”
“Eztrok knows. Souls in gems.”
“What the hell are you saying, mate? What have you seen of them? Have you taken any hits in the head?”
“Eztrok is right,» Selynn said, reaching over and resting her hand gently on the ook’s forearm, as he smiled at her. “I felt his presence when I was in the gem, his magic of Nature through these glowing stones.”
Selynn fixed her golden eyes on the other returnees.
“In the forests, we hunters learn to hunt alone as well as in groups. Depending on the moment and the need, we can act in one way or another. I’m no expert, I was still learning from my teachers, but I did understand that we elves were too specialized,» Selynn looked down, uncomfortable. “So I tried to learn as a hunter, as a scout, and as a druid. To be more useful to my village.”
Ayla was surprised. The elf’s calm words had managed to capture the attention of the rest of the team. Selynn continued.
“I have never been out of the woods, and I neither knew nor cared what lay beyond. But now I see you and I feel we have a chance, for there is variety among us…”
You’re doing well, Selynn, Ayla thought.
“Are you saying we’re ‘varied’ because of us, elf? Do we look like weirdos to you?” Vyktor mumbled, raising a finger to the hunter’s surprised face.
“Khan does not like elves. Khan’s people have always fought against elves, they are our enemies.”
Oh, shit, Ayla thought again, as she pinched the bridge of her nose. She raised a hand in disgust and used her magic. All the chosen were instantly silent.
“Are you aware of the gravity of the situation? Are you really aware?” she mumbled bitterly. “The energies that surround us, that drive us, that have glimpsed a glimmer of hope, are counting on you. Do you think you know the sacrifices that have been made? Do you think there have been no risks in bringing you back to life? What do you think our goal is, if not to save our world from ruin?”
Ayla moved, stamping her heels loudly, raising echoes against the marble floor. She had to trust that they would work, but there was nothing to give her the slightest hope. She could concede that they had just returned from the dead, that they had no real awareness of the situation yet, but the unease enveloped her. Not to mention that they had to get back to Endarth… and she couldn’t wait any longer. She took an angry breath.
“It won’t be easy. Damn it, we all know that! But there is no other choice. You know it, deep down inside: you have been chosen for a reason. And unfortunately, none of this will work if we don’t act together.”
Ayla paused, magic coursing through her body violently. Doubt gripped her heart, pierced her soul like an icy arrow. Would they be able to understand each other? Could they ever move forward together? Maybe the approach had to be changed. And while Ayla didn’t feel comfortable improvising, like those she had despised in her Order, she didn’t know what else to do. She turned and pointed at Khan.
The Interventor’s voice boomed with such intensity that even the barbarian flinched.
“Hit whoever you want. Go on! Unleash your legendary wrath!”
The tirkahn blinked twice, but grinned, baring its fangs. He charged forward and threw a brutal punch at the wizard. But Riavan had guessed that he would be the one, and had already thrown a powerful bolt of lightning, the one that had been enough to take out a pair of armoured men and mortally wound a mage in his Tower.
Khan’s fist slammed hard into the wizard’s head. The spell pierced the barbarian through. And they both stood in the same place, unmoving and bewildered.
“I would be grateful if you would remove your hand from my face, barbarian. Up close, your particular scent is even more unpleasant.”
“Khan has not sensed your magic. Khan knows you’re not a good wizard.”
“It’s not that, of course not,» Ayla said as she approached the two. ”It’s because you’re essence here, you don’t belong in the Interstice. Not like I do, damn it!”
Ayla placed a hand on Riavan’s chest. Her spell exploded with such power that the mage shot backwards, screaming and engulfed in flames. Then the Interventor turned and punched Khan in the stomach, snapping his sturdy belt and causing the barbarian to double over and fall to his knees as he struggled for breath.
“Strength? Magic? You don’t have any of it here. Do you want it back? Of course, you are warriors, soldiers, hunters or thugs. Return to Endarth, honour the Covenant and you will be free.”
Finishing her words, Ayla snapped her fingers vehemently. Both the wizard and the barbarian sat up unharmed. Ayla folded her arms across her chest and only half-smiled a humourless smile beneath her hood.
“And now, let us move on,» she said.
Dramo’s Crucible, brimming with energy, hovered in the centre of the Pavilion as Ayla concluded her explanation.
“So, are we immortal?” Tzadik asked.
“That’s not what she said, Tzadik,» Aura replied disdainfully.
The Interventor clenched her fist, causing silence to spread through the Pavilion. Then she pointed to Selynn, the huntress, allowing her to speak.
“We can accomplish our mission, Interventor, I’m sure of it. But we’ll need time. How much time do we have?”
Ayla shook her head sadly.
“I agree with the huntress. There are too many lives at stake, we can do it. Or, at least, we should try,» Eren added.
Ayla thought about it. She had to decide. She looked at them all, one by one. She knew them, perhaps too well. She had been with them in their final moment, and she had also learned from them in their lethargy in the Gems.
And, in her heart, Ayla wanted to trust them. Not because of her Master’s words, but because of her own honest intuition. Ayla knew they were the Chosen Ones.
So she decided.
For Selynn, the sensations overlapped one another: she fell free as she felt an impossible chill inside her, and a flood of light pierced her eyes. She was accompanied by the whispers of countless forgotten voices, the feelings of a thousand moments, the quiet of death, and the pressing bustle of life.
And it all ended with a sharp, burning blow to her chest, like a merciless axe.
Selynn folded in on herself and fell to her knees on the ground. Mother Nature’s magic enveloped her again, filling her being with throbbing pain, turning every breath into fire, every heartbeat into razor-sharp blades. In desperation she tried to scream, but only a distant rattle emerged from her, as her organs seemed to twist and tear against her bones, cold as ice. The agony was ascending and complete, and tears welled up in her eyes, streaming down her cheeks. Her fingers dug into the soft earth, claws clawing uncontrollably, as her body was reborn again.
Time passed slowly until the pain ceased to be unbearable and began to subside. Then she found herself, lying there cringing, trembling and weak. Yet Mother Nature embraced her again tenderly, and Selynn felt the energy return to her body, with a power like she had never felt before. Her breathing came in rhythm, with a grunt, and she stood up, numb but full of energy. She looked around at her companions. Only three more: the barbarian from Tirkah, the assassin from Quibar, and the wizard from Agamon. The Interventor had said something about «making a test in order».
“Are we back? Are we really back in Endarth?” she muttered to herself.
Ayla had watched the whole process from the Interstice, through the Oracle of Dioconus, a gigantic golden metal eye. Behind her stood the other four returnees.
“So it is. You have returned to your homeland, though not for good.” Ayla’s voice echoed in the elf’s head, as clear as if she were there herself. “You are whole beings again in our land. But remember that the laws that bind you are not the same as they once were.”
To the Interventor’s satisfaction, the heroes drew closer to each other, hesitating, but seeking safety in each other’s company. Their breaths were calming, as the magic filled the shells that had once been them. For logical reasons, it was the wizard who was having the hardest time.
“How can I be vomiting? When was the last time I ate anything, damn it?” Riavan said, retching.
The barbarian beside him, on the other hand, seemed recovered.
“Khan has his sword, the one Belegor gave him. But Khan’s weapon fell far from here, in a city?”
“That’s right! My bow was broken when I was… attacked in the forest. But this is it, I’m sure of it. The nicks, the wear… this is my weapon!”
In the Heroes’ Pavilion, Ayla nodded. The answers should come in order, and this was one of the ones she had prepared.
“In the Gems were contained not only your souls, but all the elements that are engraved in your being. All that has accompanied you through your life, and is recorded as part of yourselves. They have materialised as part of your body.”
“That means that our body, our real body, lies somewhere in Endarth,» said Aura in a neutral tone.
Ayla swallowed. Yes, that’s right, do you want to find it? Do you want to peek once more into mortality and find your remains? But she hid the thought in the privacy of her head.
“As long as it’s an accurate memory of my shotgun, that’s good enough for me,» Vyktor muttered, in the Pavilion, as he disassembled his weapon into countless small pieces. “Barker is Barker, and I have to be sure I haven’t misremembered anything. I wouldn’t want to lose a hand like old Jerins. Now that was a blast! They say a whole gallery was shut down for a month… By the way, Interventor, we’re safe here, aren’t we? By firing a few calibration shots against the columns, if you know what I mean.”
Ayla pinched the bridge of her nose hard. She took a slow breath and maintained a conciliatory tone, even at the cost of much of her patience.
“Please, Vyktor, don’t shoot at anything in the Heroes’ Pavilion.”
“I don’t see the point in being so careful. We’re out of space and time, aren’t we? I mean, if I shoot, as the projectiles pass through…”
“Don’t. Shoot. In. The. Damn. Pavillion.”
The dwarf looked at her offended as if he were being forbidden a fundamental right. But he was smart enough not to insist any further. Still, he grumbled a little under his breath, but not too much.
“All the wounds are there, Interventor… except the last one,» Selynn whispered, running her hand across her chest.
“That’s right, huntress. You will find all the wounds that have been with you for so long, those scars that were on your body and soul. The last ones you will not find, nor any others that were not important.”
In the Pavilion, Eren unbuttoned part of his duster and looked inside his shirt. As he expected, he found a scar in the centre of his chest, the mark with which Caleb had taken his life. He nodded. That wound was the most important wound of his life, and it was a reminder of his mission and his purpose, beyond the Pact.
In Endarth, the assassin checked her daggers cautiously, and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“What about our memories, Interventor? Is it really us, or have you manipulated us in some way?”
Ayla blinked in disbelief. Did they really suspect her to this extent?
“I can’t manipulate your minds, and even if I could, it wouldn’t do any good. We needed you, so were the words of my Master…”
In the Pavilion, Tzadik knew it was true. Her memories were there, all the way back. Even certain feelings she had tucked away in the deepest recesses of her being, blocked and obscured by her duty. In fact, she didn’t know how long it had been since her death… or if Sergal was still alive.
“Five years,» Ayla said, without looking at her. “Only five years since you left Endarth.”
“Can you read our minds?” Tzadik asked curtly. She didn’t like her secrets being exposed.
“No, Tzadik,» Ayla said in a conciliatory tone, «I only sense your doubts or regrets. We are connected, and you can do the same for me.”
Everyone was silent, until Riavan spoke.
“Why only four of us, Interventor?”
This will be your last question… for now, Ayla thought.
“It’s the amount of energy the Crucible of Dramo can channel. There is nothing I can do about it.”
Ayla sensed the uncertainty in several of them, but nothing came from Riavan, who was just staring at an undefined point in thought. And that was what she liked least.
“And will you be the one to choose which four will participate at any given moment?” continued the wizard.
Ayla swallowed. The question was sharp, and implied much more than it seemed, but she couldn’t help it. She lowered her head and was honest.
“No. Our path is not set in stone. We must face this challenge together, and unravel all its mysteries. But I cannot give you omniscience… for I have none myself. There are no guarantees, my companions.”
The wizard raised his gaze to the sky, and Ayla felt his gaze glance on her.
“So be it,» Riavan concluded simply, shrugging his shoulders. “Let’s get on with it. Anything else we should know?”
Ayla looked around, trying to decipher the atmosphere. The huntress was making swift arrow loads on her bow, her hand a blur. The warrior swung his sword, cutting through the morning wind. The assassin went over all her knives in her armour meticulously. The wizard waited, gathering a great deal of magic around him. The soldier kept his hand on the hilt of his weapon, while his eyes showed determination. The inquisitor muttered prayers, as life magic poured from her armour. The dwarf had loaded and unloaded his weapon several times and was restless until he could shoot something. And finally, the ook was looking at her, smiling calmly, reassuringly, for which Ayla was grateful.
They all seemed, even in the present circumstances, ready. They had accepted the Pact.
Ayla felt an almost forgotten sensation welling up inside her. It puzzled her at first, but she couldn’t help it; like a torrent, she burst into uncontainable laughter. The sound emerged sincere and natural, so that the returnees could not help but join in to a greater or lesser extent.
And Ayla laughed and laughed, as her chest ached, as tears streamed down her cheeks and fell to the Pavilion floor, as the memories of a century of hardship faded before a new dawn.
The road had been long, but, at last, the time had come to begin the Covenant of Endarth.
End of part two.