The water was cold as frost upon the bare feet of the lancer. His leather ankle straps did little to keep back the icy chills which shot through his body with every step through the harsh torrents of the central river. Every tread required all his effort, stopping him from halting the clatter of his teeth. Already he was fatigued down to his very marrow. The past hour had been hell and the echo of pain was the only thing keeping him warm.
‘We must keep on,’ the lancer said, echoes reverberating as he spoke. This encouragement was not for any companion; he had none. His muttering was aimed at himself. This fact was repeated often, normally accompanied by the refrain: ‘Nothing can stop our march.’
His usual mantra filled him with sadness, as he trudged through the shocking and unsympathetic waters of the river which separated the war which had lasted before time imaginable. For his march had been ended – his march, the march of his allies and the phantom army which he had relied on for so long. For once in what seemed eternity, he felt alone. For once, he felt that this unstoppable tide would finally be halted.
His companions were slain and not merely the temporary death so common in this mystical valley, but that permanent disappearance of those that spoke the unknown tongues. Even when the lancer called them his allies, he could never admit to understanding a word they had said. Now they were gone. They had lived, died and disappeared – forever dead in the void.
The lancer did not know if the remainder of his comrades still stood and a small part of him knew it did not really matter. The enemy was too strong. One of his fallen compatriots had been slain many times to the Dire leader, feeding him with a power far above that of the lancer or any of the Radiant’s soldiers. No matter the lancer’s own skill, it was hopeless to confront the Seeker of Blood.
As the lancer approached the green shoreline which signified the end and the beginning of friendly territory, he glimpsed movement in the treeline. Weary with fatigue, he struggled to lift his golden lance into a ready position. His foot barely touched the sandy gravel of the shore when he saw his quarry. Standing by a group of the animals that inhabited this forest was a white-haired woman with a cloak of gray. She was armed with a bow which she fired like wind, arrows speeding into her targets seemingly before she even drew them from her quiver.
The lancer limped towards her, his golden tipped spear dragging along the ground.
“Where were you, Traxx?” he asked, the echoes of his voice filled with near anguish. “We were assaulting the barracks and your skills may have changed the course of the battle.”
“I was helping with the assault by attacking the lower fortifications.”
“And how did that go?”
Traxx hesitated. “I was…wounded and forced to retreat.”
The lancer shook his head. “As we told you would happen. As what always happens. Once again, Ranger, you cost us the attack. We need to stick together. After the disappearance of the Woodcutter and Chaos Knight, we need to stick together even more.”
Still outwardly calm, an edge seemed to enter Traxx’s voice. “I do what I wish, Spearman. I saw an opening and I took it.”
“But at what cost?”
“Whatever cost I am willing to take!” Traxx was shouting now, the beasts she was hunting now slain. “What I do is of no concern to you.”
The lancer shook his head once again. “That belief is what has caused our failure here. Why can you not understand that if we are to win, we need to work together?”
They stood silently, staring at one another as a gust of wind shook trees and garments alike. Emotion was absent from both their faces, but the shifting of weaponry was easily noticeable. They both knew that nothing would arise from internal conflict, but logic seldom entered when anger had been sparked.
Then Traxx fell. Blood gushed from her pale skin as the Lancer turned to the shadows. Flanked by twin pine trees, wielding a rifle, was a short bearded man. He chuckled while reloading his fire arm.
The lancer, mouth agape, tried to flee. He did so, until a sharp and searing pain tore through his stomach. He lay prone, clutching at his bleeding belly as the blood magic of the vile Seeker ruptured his very being.
As his vision blurred, a red figure approached. Before total darkness overtook him, the lancer heard a guttural voice say, “I believe your march has been stopped, Phantom.”
Everything went black.
Whispers assailed Azwraith, the Phantom Lancer, in his deathly sleep, whispers of failure and hopelessness. Memories of both victories and defeats meshed into one all-consuming experience. His life became one single event and entity, as a large clock in the sky continued to tick ever closer to its finish.
Azwraith did not see Traxx in the eternal blackness, but somehow sensed her presence. They were both floating through the nothingness. They were one with the void. If only they could have such unity in life. This was one of the great failures of Traxx, the Ranger. She was skilled, but lacked the will and dedication to work with others.
That would have to change.
Another whisper broke through the torrent of mental abuse – a definitive and clear voice belonging to the Ranger herself.
“I did it again, didn’t I?”
Azwraith did not reply.
“I never mean for this to happen.”
“Then why do you do it?” Azwraith’s voice came like a whisper of a hundred men, echoing around oblivion.
Traxx paused. “Failure…I guess. I fear that if I participate in the battle, I will fail and harm my team with me. If I try push alone, then at least I can take responsibility for my own failure and know that I did not cause that of yours.”
If Azwraith had a head in his current form, he would have shaken it. “That is what you do not understand. If we fail as one, we fail not due to the mistakes of ourselves, but due to the merit of our enemies. What we do now is sign our own terms of defeat. Can you not see? It does not matter if we win or lose, so long as we put up a fight – together.”
The clock finished its countdown. Both Traxx and Azwraith appeared within the confines of a giant altar. Nestled in a gigantic hole, just ahead of them, was a colossal dome of crystal – glittering in the sun. This was the symbol of their unity – a unity which until now had been broken.
Enemy minions and soldiers assaulted their base from all sides. The remainder of their fortifications did little to defend them. Standing at the front of the main battle line was their other ally – a large man with red skin, wielding a massive axe.
Azwraith looked at Traxx and said, “What we do now, we do together. One way or another.”
As a pair, they ran from the altar. This time, however, they were not running from an enemy, but towards one.
Their ally, Axe, turned as they entered the fray. Soldiers charged towards the final line of defence of their team and they would meet them with steel, arrow and blood. Arrows flew like the wind; lances shone in the sun and disappeared into the gut of enemies. With every occasional blow, illusions and phantoms in Azwraith’s likeness appeared in order to aid them.
Then it was silent. The wave of red minions had stopped. Only the distant sound of footsteps upon the steps of their home reverberated around the land, as the Seeker of Blood approached. With a bloody grin, he charged.
Traxx let forth a barrage of cold frost towards him, slowing him only slightly. In response, he used his blood magic to silence her and disallow her from chanting the magic needed to enchant her arrows. Axe met him head on and a bloody hand-to-hand ensued. With a mighty roar, Axe laid into the Seeker with his mighty blade. The vile creature dodged almost every blow – so Azwraith met him from behind.
So strong was their enemy that even as the three of them attempted to bring him down, they could do little. Then Azwraith struck. His lance stuck into the flesh of his enemy and as a result, a new phantom appeared, thrusting his own lance through the demon’s heart. The Seeker of Blood screamed in anguish, as he burst.
Azwraith and his allies were panting with exhilaration, but they knew they had no time. Their final fortifications were being assaulted, and they could not afford to waste this opportunity. The leader of the Dire was dead – for now.
“Lancer! Go and get the Heart of Terrasque. It will make you powerful enough to assault their base alone!” Traxx shouted over the explosions and screams of the battle ensuing to their north.
Azwraith did not leave any time for debate. He ran from the false safety of their base and to the secret shop beyond. There he bought the object that would hopefully be their salvation. With the Heart, his phantoms would be much stronger. Hopefully it would be enough.
Once again he crossed the cold of the central river, but this time he did not shiver from pain or frost. He surged onward, an army at his back. As he passed through the enemy territory, he slew the sporadic enemy which sought to stop him. None knew which of the phantom army was him. They could not know who to target.
A veritable wave of blue and gold fell upon the fortifications of the Dire base. No defender could withstand their march. As one, they shouted, “No one can stop our march!”
And nobody could. Disjointed, the lancer – Azwraith’s team was a failure. With numbers and teamwork – even if only in spirit – the enemy, which at one time had seemed so powerful, fell.
Azwraith grinned, for the first in a long time, as he delivered the final blow to the enemy’s heart. Finalising their victory over the Dire, but also over the discord which had plagued them for so long. For once, in a long time, Azwraith was happy to be on a team.