Stop. Come this way.
Do you see him there? There, to your left. See? Right there!
I’ve got him. I’ve got him!
Stop. No, don’t go. This way. This way! Come with me.
Watch out! There’s one behind you.
The shouts and exclamations the Oathtakers communicated to one another magically, and therefore silently, continued as the group that had left their home base earlier to search for a missing compound member, sought to respond to an invasion of their place of refuge. After moving to the camp nearly two decades earlier, the Oathtakers had used magic crystals to fortify most of its perimeter against incursions from the curious and the threatening. But a recent vicious storm knocked down portions of those protections in the surrounding hills and across the wide river that separated one side of their retreat from the outside world. Consequently, encroachments across its borders had increased over the past months, and in recent weeks, had become incrementally more frequent and dangerous.
I’ve got it, Dixon, Mara said, after peeking around the boulder behind which the two of them hid.
She pulled a poison-tipped arrow from her quiver, stood, quickly took aim, and then released her shot. Moving easily in her standard Oathtakers’ garb, a half dozen knives hung from sheaths about her waist and boots, and resting in its holder at the back of her neck, ready to be used with the flick of her wrist, she carried Spira, her Oathtaker’s blade, a magic weapon that would never miss its mark.
Dixon crouched down. His back to Mara, he turned her way, caught her eye momentarily, and then winked. She was the love of his life, and he of hers. It was only due to a unique magic exception that the two had been able to commit to one another even though Mara had a living charge—or charges, as it happened—the twins, Reigna and Eden, the current ranking members of the Select.
“Charmer,” she whispered, grinning.
Got you! Ha!
She spun around to find Velia, who smiled with satisfaction as she sprang out from her place of concealment. Seconds later, her latest target grunted and then fell to the earth.
Good work, Velia, Basha complimented her cohort.
Mara offered a silent prayer of gratitude for her friends. Over time, she’d discovered that each of the other Oathtakers and Select who’d sworn a life oath to protect her charges, enjoyed as did she, continued youth from the moment he pledged his vow. None knew if he’d ever age again. Indeed, they preferred not to know, as they surmised that they’d learn the answer to their question only after the death of one, or of both, of the twins. Even so, the phenomenon meant that each remained every bit as strong and vital as he’d been on the day he’d first given his oath. Better yet, as time progressed, each became fortified with the wisdom that came with age, experience, and a continuously improving understanding and appreciation of the Good One’s principles.
She glanced briefly at her longtime friends, Basha and Velia, then at the two additional Oathtakers who rounded out her troop. She’d chosen Kayson to accompany her on her mission, since his attendant magic included, as did her own, the power to heal. She’d also selected Raman, whose temperament she particularly enjoyed. Since nothing brought the man’s spirits down, he wore a nearly constant smile.
She peeked around the edge of the boulder. Waves of heat hung in the air, making things in the distance appear distorted. For a moment, she recollected a long ago similarly sweltering day—the day she’d been called to the side of Rowena, the former ranking member of the first family of the Select as she labored to birth her twins.
She inched closer to Dixon.
Turning to her, he raised five fingers to designate the number remaining.
“Ready?” Velia whispered as she sidled nearer.
When Mara stepped back to make room for her, Dixon restrained her, as from there the ground quickly dropped off.
Looking down at the treacherous area below, littered with sharp rocks that fell away at a steep slant, Mara nodded her understanding. Then she gestured for the group to divide their attentions. She and Dixon would direct theirs to the left, while Basha, Velia, Kayson, and Raman, would remain focused to the right.
After retrieving a clear magic crystal from her pocket, she peeked out again.
Just then, the enemy, apparently also recognizing the Oathtakers’ vulnerable position, advanced in a rush.
“They’re coming!” she cried.
Dixon sprang out from the left, with a knife in each hand.
Kayson, similarly armed, ran out from the right. Basha followed at his heels, holding a bow with an arrow nocked. Behind her came Velia, sporting her Oathtaker’s blade, Justise, at the ready. Finally, Raman headed out, wielding a sword.
Mara jumped up. She pulled her arm back, preparing to throw her crystal. She needed to toss it sufficiently far that it wouldn’t harm her cohorts when it landed and then exploded.
At precisely that moment, one of the enemy forces, hidden in a tree, shot an arrow that rushed in at Mara from high on her left side. She tossed her crystal a mere heartbeat in time before the trespasser’s arrow pierced her shoulder.
Startled, she stepped back, catching her foot on the edge of the drop off. Then, in the space of a single breath, she experienced the shock of finding no earth beneath her.
Tumbling backward, she fell down . . . down . . . down . . .
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