Contact: Twitter: @Bannersnft
Call the Banners
“Man, it’s cold up here,” Timo said, flicking a breadnut shell that had fallen on his scout badge. “Could be worse though, could be working in the mines.”
“The cold iron does as much to secure the sanctuary as we do,” Luka, Timo’s watch partner, countered, panning his sight-scope across the realm.
“Suppose you’re right,” Timo said sheepishly, pulling his cloak tight. “Always the scholar, Luka. You haven’t changed since we were kids.”
“You’d be in those mines If I hadn’t helped you through Defence Science class,” Luka laughed and looked through the viewfinder. “Shit.”
“What?” Timo replied with a mouthful of breadnuts.
Luka stood, pushed his braids over his ears and squinted into the distance. The lanky, stubble-faced scout was looking east, across the Hollow Plains toward the realm of Flengftan.
“Fuck. Fuck.” He said, darting across the watchtower.
“What is it, Luka?” Timo had pushed his stout figure from a wooden chair.
“It’s an army, Timo.”
Luka grabbed a coiled rope anchored to the stone wall and gave it two swift tugs.
“Signal the Rose Tower, Timo.” Luka threw the rope over the edge and pulled a flint from his pocket. He lit the alarm fuse and watched a spark fly down the wire into the mist surrounding their blue stone tower. Luka hopped onto the crenel, and his cold-iron scout insignia fell unnoticed from his shirt.
“Luka, wait!” Luka gave Timo a solemn nod and jumped.
“Fucking hell. I’m taking the stairs. One of us needs to make it there alive.” Timo muttered to himself, tucking Luka’s badge into his pocket. He pulled a pouch of powdered true ice and tossed a handful into his tower’s signal fire. The flame crackled a bright blue, and Timo stared west to the Rose Tower, awaiting their response.
Except for being shorter by a foot, the Rose Tower was identical to the one where he stood. Scouts of the Topaz Tower kept watch over the plains, coasts and cliffs to the east, while three hundred feet to the west, the Rose Tower surveilled the highlands and the Empyrean Inlet. Together, the towers provided an unobstructed view for miles in every direction. When the fire burned blue on the Rose Tower, Timo started down the steps.
Down inside The Bridge, the command centre of the Sanctuary’s defences, a series of candles burst into light.
“Marm.” The Bridge’s First officer, Hugo said, gesturing to the flames. Hugo was an older man with long white hair pulled back in a ponytail and a broad white moustache to match.
General Anteegha turned her tall, muscular frame toward the candles. Her long, dark-green overcoat cast a wide and authoritative berth.
“How long for a report?” She asked. With her eyes narrowed, her sharp, faceted face grew even sterner. The bun of black hair pulled behind her head only added to her formidable appearance.
“The descent takes eighteen minutes, marm. Should have word in fift–” Hugo stopped as something hit the roof of the bridge.
The command centre was situated between the Rose and Topaz towers, five hundred feet below the scout nests. It sat atop an impressive stone archway designed by the ancient thinker and builder Letyr Har’eez. Another four hundred feet below the bridge was a keep nestled in the base of the twin spires. The three sectors of defence sat stacked atop the hollow mountain that housed the Sanctuary city.
A door in the ceiling opened, and the daring scout jumped through.
“General Anteegha, Marm.” He bowed slightly. The bridge guard had converged on the General when they heard the thud but eased upon seeing their scout.
“You take your duties quite seriously….” She waited.
“Luka, marm. The many outweigh the few.” Reciting the sanctuary mantra elicited a nod of approval from the General
“Now, tell us what you’ve seen.”
“There’s an army marching, five or six wide, across the pass beyond Slammik. It stretches for miles,” he explained.
“What else, scout?” The General asked.
“It’s not men. I don’t know what they are, but there are mighty creatures among the horde. I’ve never seen legions like these.” He continued while the gaping jaws of the officers contrasted with the General’s stoic expression. “Their pace…is…” he paused, “unnatural.”
The General walked to the bridge’s western bank of windows. “Call the Banners.”
“Which ones, General?” Hugo asked. All eyes were on the leader, who stared into the distant highlands.
“All of them.”
Officers scrambled to the fuse wall and dispatched calls of alarm fizzing to all corners of the Sanctuary. Hugo watched as the messages left a spider’s web of smoke in the setting sun.
Timo and the scouts from the Rose Tower had entered the bridge, waiting to be addressed. While the General surveyed the scouts from the Rose Tower, Timo shuffled over and slid Luka’s fallen pin into his pocket.
“Back in line, Scout!” Hugo scolded, his moustache accentuating the disdain from a stiff upper lip.
“Nevermind that.” The General said, quashing the matter, “You two, from the Rose Tower. I want reports every hour on the army’s progress. Dismissed.”
She turned her attention to the wide-as-he-was-tall Timo. “I want you and the daredevil to
seal the Tree Gate and give orders to the stables. It’s crucial for the Sanctuary’s survival.”
Timo and Luka nodded.
“A General’s words can move hearts, but hearts do not move feet. Our enemy will have hawks, and we can’t rely on our birds. You must ensure the Banners heed our call and have the Green Fire Battalions ride to their outposts.” The General said, staring at Luka.
Timo and Luka ran from the command centre and across the archway. Each tower staircase continued from Bridge level to the keep atop the mountain fortress below.
“Marm, the gates haven’t been sealed in 50 years….” Said the first officer through pursed lips.
“I know, Hugo. My brother and I were the last ones to close them.”
“The many outweigh the few.” He said with solemn understanding. “Is it.…her?”
Anteegha narrowed her eyes into the dusk.
“Yes. It’s Violette.”
Luka bounded down the staircase with Timo trailing in feeble pursuit.
“Shit, Luka, The Green Battalions?!”
“I know. It’s been a lifetime since they’ve been called.”
They arrived at the Crestkeep, a squat formidable-looking structure with two guards stationed at its entrance.
“Seal the door behind us and have the quartermasters ready the arms,” Luka called to the Summit guards.
“But the General…” He looked up at the bridge between the spires.
“Her orders,” Timo explained. He and Luka entered the building that served as a base for the bridge and scout nests above. On the far side of the building, they entered a cable lift that would take them to the ground level of the sanctuary fortress below.
The sound of metal clanking grew louder as armouries opened and readied, confirming the General’s orders had been received. No one was allowed to carry arms in the city, but in times of war, the Sanctuary’s forces were as formidable as any in the realms.
At the end of their descent, they stepped into the town of Sanctuary, washed in the warm tones of dusk from arrays of polished steel plates that reflected light into the subterranean metropolis.
In the city’s centre, a sky birch stretched its blue branches two hundred feet above a majestic courtyard. Tree-lined boardwalks carried thousands of citizens from shops to schools to workplaces and homes. The bustling citizenry would have heard the defences being set in motion but would assume it was routine drills and training. They wouldn’t yet know an enemy was approaching.
Preparation is the key to Sanctuary, the first lesson in defence sciences class, which all citizens were required to take.
Hidden on the mountain walls were the ant-holes, narrow passages just wide enough for a single person. They required a great deal of effort to traverse and could only be reached from the inside by a series of mobile platforms. Ordered by fuse, the pulley-masters manned their stations, ready to move the platforms away from the ant holes at a moment’s notice. There were hundreds of companies and armouries, all intentionally redundant in service of the Sanctuary.
“Come on, Luka. This way.” Timo called, pulling Luka across a boardwalk. They walked northeast to the underground passage to the Tree Gate. The guards saluted Timo before gesturing to Luka’s bare lapel.
Timo elbowed Luka in the ribs.
“In your pocket.”
Luka, whose face flushed, fumbled into his trousers and re-attached the pin, giving Timo a nod of relief in the process. Satisfied, the Treewatch pulled open a hatch and handed each a torch. Timo and Luka each drew deep breaths and went below to the level of the crypts, over a thousand feet below their scout nest.
Torches lit the earthen corridor that led straight through to the northwest side of the mountain. The first pair of levers were a short walk and flanked the massive portcullis that hung in place above them.
“Sixteen gates of Nlamkas cold-iron,” Timo remarked. He pulled the wall-mounted lever, and the gate crashed into the recessed plate anchored in the floor.
“Levers on either side so that one may close the gates in any circumstance,” Luka joked, in a voice imitating their defence sciences teacher. He hadn’t forgotten anything about protecting the Sanctuary.
After a thirty-minute jaunt, they reached the eighth gate. The corridor opened into a large cavern and continued on the far side.
“I don’t remember this,” Luka’s voice cracked. Timo and he shared a look of uncertainty.
Timo pulled the lever, and the closing gate echoed in the dome-shaped room.
“We should split up and walk around the outside,” Luka suggested, his voice lowered. “We’ll meet at the corridor on the other end.”
They parted and began circumnavigating the cavern with quiet footfalls. It was quiet, except for the distant clicks and clanks of chains and gears deep inside the mountain. The scouts were halfway around when a low rumble echoed inside the concave room, and the ground began to shift.
“Fuck,” Luka whispered to himself. He looked across the room to Timo, whose torch illuminated his own look of fear.
“RUN!” Timo yelled. Luka obeyed. He ran at top speed around the room and dove into the corridor at the other end.
He sat up and looked back for Timo. He should have made it out. He was faster than he looked. In the middle of the room, a massive figure of rock and dirt had rose, human in form but not much else. It was nearly as tall as the sky birch in the town square but much broader. Timo was waving his torch at the monster back near the gated corridor from where they came.
The monster swung a massive fist of boulders toward Timo, who dove just in time. The entire cavern shook as the rock fist met the wall.
“RUN, LUKA. CLOSE THE —” The left hand of the beast swung and caught Timo by the arm, pulverising it completely and snuffing his torch.
Luka stood in the doorway, his hand on the ninth lever, unable to see his friend or the beast.
“TIMO!” He yelled into the suddenly quiet cavern.
Then the weighty sound of rock grinding on rock came from deep inside the room, and Luka gripped the lever a little harder. The scraping grew louder, and the monster charged into the weak light of Luka’s torch right in front of him. Luka pulled the lever.
The golem crashed into the cold iron gate just as it slammed down. It clapped its heavy hands together and smashed them on the ground, shaking the earth beneath Luka. He stumbled backwards, his eyes straining to see in the dimly lit corridor. He tried to see, and he tried to hear. But there was no sight or sound of Timo.
Years of training kicked in, and Luka collected himself, swallowed the guilt, and stood. The enemy of all enemies was at their doorstep. Every minute he wasted here was a minute longer the Banners would take to arrive.
At the tenth lever, he looked back.
A single hand reached up, fingers wrapped around the lattice, and Timo pulled himself to his feet.
Locking eyes, Timo shouted with waning strength.
“Go,” Timo called, “You did the right thing. Go. Call the Banners,”
From the darkness, a bouldered fist hurtled toward Timo. Luka recoiled, unable to cry out before the rock crashed against metal. When Luka opened his eyes, a thick pool of blood and flesh collected on his side of the stained gate.
He turned and ran, closing the next seven gates in full stride, sweat pouring from his brow and guilt rotting in his gut. Luka bounded out of the mountain and collapsed, unable to watch the sixteenth and final gate fall into place.
“We received a fuse. What’s going on? “Came a gruff voice from one of several mounted officers that awaited him on the outside.
“Seal the gates,” Luka said, hyperventilating.
A short, rotund man stepped in front of the officer. Four gilded horse head epaulettes marked him the Stableford, and he started pulling the levers in non-sequential order.
Calmit, Sin, Forn, Brith, Tibi, Ada, Sathuus, Qaye.
A convoluted code to prevent the unintentional sealing of the gates.
With the final lever pulled, clicks and pulleys chimed into action in and around the gate. The sound of sizzle and steam preceded a thick flow of molten metal from openings on either side of the gate. It spilt into the depression at the bottom, welding the barrier to the ground. Luka could hear the hissing of deeper gates through the lattices as they were permanently sealed in place.
A shiver went down Luka’s spine, thinking about what remained of Timo mixing with the liquid metal at the ninth gate.
“What was that monster?”
“The Golem is a defence mechanism should anyone breach the first eight gates. They leave that part out in scout class.” He explained. “What orders do you bring from the General?”
Luka was staring at the steam rising from the outer gate.
Luka shook his head and turned to the Stableford.
“She’s calling the Banners,” Luka said meekly, then cleared his throat. “They’re to march hard for the Sanctuary. No rest. Send a rider in each direction.”
“Fuck me. Those fires on the mountains?” He pointed to the highlands east, and Luka nodded. “Shit. You ride for Two-Trees, scout. I’ll ride to the Skill Swords. Godspeed.”
The Stable Lord turned to a trio of riders whose horses dwarfed the others. “Green Fire Battalion, assemble your company and ride to your posts at once.” Each squad leader spurred their horse and was off.
The Stable lord barked orders at a dozen other riders, and in minutes they were off. The reins of a readied horse were handed to Luka by a stablehand, and he took off in the direction of the house of Mountains and Two Trees.