This was then.
The two men sat apart, as they always did, on the rocky outcrop just beyond the walls of The City.
The Wall rose up behind them: sturdy, weather-worn and scarred in a thousand places. Robust and ever-dependable, it had stood for centuries, and would have to stand a thousand more. The alternative did not bear thinking about. The higher stretches of the wall were unscathed; modern and sleek by design; crenelated with defense towers and orbital cannon. It was the lowest stretches where energy scoring scabbed the steel skin, and bullet holes punctuated its fire-forged history; antique pockmarks from the last war.
Above it, inscrutable and unknowing in the clouds high above, rose The Traveler. Serene, opaque. Inscrutable and yet all knowing. The fading sun dazzled as it split against its smooth circumference, glinting over the harsher edges at the underside, where jagged cracks and deep fissures bit savagely into the mirror-smooth surface of the hovering planetoid; exposing the mottled girder work beneath.
The two men sat apart, and said little. This was their routine, their own private ritual. For years it had been an unspoken arrangement, an understanding between two like-minded souls. They would sit and look out at the great unknown beyond, and harden their resolve. Steel themselves for the fight ahead.
The horizon fell away before them, scorched open scrubland stretching far and falling away into tumbling forests, surging rivers and rolling foothills. Beyond rose jagged mountains, untouched by the ages. It was beyond here where the mystery really began. The Twilight Gap, it was called. A hostile land, unknown and – for so many decades before – unknowable. Stretches of it were charred, clumped with broken and battered fortresses, long since abandoned. Overgrown and forgotten, much of the wilds beyond was bursting with verdant wildlife. Lichen coated crumbling walls, and lonely nettles twisted their way through cracks in broken floor tiles. Nature had reclaimed the frontier long before mankind.
This was then.
It was seldom, in these early times, that Guardians were allowed to travel beyond the city’s boundary. There were too many risks, too many dangers. Responsibilities too. Their business as Titans was holding The Wall. protecting those within. The Oath took precedence. Anything else was secondary. Humanity had hid beneath the Traveler shadow for centuries, skulking beneath the meager shelter offered by the energy field enshrouding the City; rebuilding, regrouping. All the while its citizens had been tested; beset on all sides by enemies as numerous as they were ruthless.
Today that would change. These Guardians, and those that would surely come after, would be different.
They had experienced war firsthand. Their armour spoke of it: a half-hundred battles, each more savage than the last. Cracked and pitted, scratched and dented. Guardians of the City were seldom long for this world, and only the toughest of them lived to see old age. Too stubborn to let death reach out and take them, the two companions had served for over twenty years; long enough to named seasoned veterans by anyone’s measure.
And yet the pride had never left them. Even with all the dints and scorch-marks, the scrapes and the bruises; even beneath the torn, scrap-tatters of cloak which clung limply to their scarred battle plate, you could still see a polished gleam; where the abused metal had been cleaned and polished and buffed to a mirror sheen. They were Titans of the City, and they would be damned before they bowed to anyone.
Titans. Tall and broad as they were, the name suited them. Even without his hulking armour and swept-back helm, Ederic Kael cut a heroic figure. Clear green eyes, a strong chin, high cheekbones and a mischievous twinkle in his eye that made him a popular sort with the women of the city.
A lady killer’s squint, as he himself referred to it, grinning sheepishly all the while.
Such vanity brought him no small amount of abuse from his companion, who appreciably dwarfed him in size.
Marcus Vardiker was haggard where Ederic was handsome, balding where his slighter companion’s hair was dark and full. His nose had been broken eight times too many, and when he smiled, it was with the lop-sided grin of a man who wore his storied history on his face. It had been a harsh tale to date.
More than one tooth had been replaced with a silver stand-in. The left eye was discoloured; the only sign that it was a cyberthetic replacement. Where Ederic’s armour was engraved with noble depictions of wolves and eagles, to the point of ornate ostentation, Vardiker’s was pragmatic, functional; as practical and war-weary as the flesh it housed.
“So where do you reckon we’re going?” Vardiker asked again, rubbing at his jowls absently.
This was his habit; to ponder and question. As curious as a goat, and twice as ugly, the womenfolk said. Stronger than five oxen and twice as reliable, he often retorted. Ederic knew Vardiker that didn’t particularly care where they were going, nor why. To ask questions, and badger his friend, that was the game.
Ederic smiled faintly, choosing to humour him. Or perhaps hide his own nervousness.
“Wherever our Lord needs to go.” Ederic galloped his fingers on the auto-rifle propped across his lap. “You know better than to ask such questions.”
“Still though,” Vardiker sniffed glumly, “It’d be nice to be told for a change.”
“Lord Draven is a warlock. Warlocks reserve the right to be enigmatic. You know this, Vardy.” Ederic shot him a mirthful grin, “Although you could try ask our friend over there if you like?”
Vardiker scowled at him sourly.
“Our friend over there” referred to their third companion, who waited further down the hill. He stood apart, perched upon a small mound overlooking the descending valley. His long poncho flapped in the breeze, though beyond that there was no movement out of him. The man’s posture was statuesque.
That was hardly surprising. For Mettek was no man at all.
Mettek was Exo. Machine Kin, bounty hunter and war monger. All steel and circuits and soft-servos where his fellows were flesh and bone. Instead of eyes, Mettek had twinned targeting lenses, which burned with an ice-cold sentience. Four years the Exo have accompanied their war band. To this day, Ederic knew little and less of the machine warrior’s motives.
Ederic had pieced together what little he could. It was the little details that gave it away. Bandoliers, pouches and over-lapping weapon holsters; they festooned the bounty hunter; trophies all. But it was the armour that made him a curious sight. Or rather, the layers of it. Some of it was new; recently won at games in the markets or traded in barters with passing traders. Much more of it was ragged, with newer layers simply strapped slap-shod over the more bullet-chewed armour beneath. The Exo smelled of two things: leather and gun oil. He exuded raw efficiency.
Some said the origins of his armour were of a less savoury nature, and that he looted it from the bodies of his fallen enemies. Even with all his Titan training, Ederic wasn’t prepared to ask.
The Exo’s presence bothered the Titan though, and it wasn’t for the machine’s typical brooding silence. No, his inclusion was an unspoken indication of the severity of their mission. Ederic Kael and Marcus Vardiker were typically muscle enough for any fire team. Mettek’s inclusion outright stated that things would invariably get violent, and that – in return – more than the usual level of violence would be required.
And then others began to arrive.
They emerged from shadows of The Wall, coming at two or three at a time. Warlocks and gunslingers, trackers and pathfinders; mercenaries all. The two Titans rose to their feet, receiving each of them in turn with a wary nod. Some responded, many others did not. Few wore tabbards or branding of any clear faction affiliation. Most of them were strangers; each of them dangerous. None of them were FOTC.
And yet there were some he recognised. Reputations preceded them. There was Lila, the Awoken ranger; as glacially calm as she was beautiful. She offered a brief bow of her head, then stood off to one side, near Mettek. Then Torvaal the Huntsman; his only good eye hidden beneath a mirrored targeting monocle. A high power rifle was slung across his back. There was Antelio Vornas, the notorious dicer and gambler. Sleek limbed and cocksure, particularly dangerous for his skill with a knife. His eyes flicked between the two Titans. He sniffed, spat on the ground, and sauntered away. One gloved hand stroked at his elaborately maintained goatee. The other obsessively flipped a glimmer chit from finger to finger.
Fifteen souls, all told. No less than five complete fire teams.
This time it was Ederic’s turn to be curious. There was a hum in the air amongst those gathered, a murmured excitement of nervous energy.
When Imperious Draven did arrive, it was without ceremony or fanfare. He simply appeared amongst them, as suddenly and immediately as though he’d been there all along. The force of his presence revealed him as somebody markedly different, however.
The very air crackled around him; the Traveller’s power draping itself as heavily as that heaving moment before a thunderstorm. The man was approaching middle age and bareheaded; with a groomed beard that shadowing an aquiline face as proud and commanding as his name. The Warlock regarded each of them in turn, expression grim.
The hired guns gathered in a loose semi-circle. Some men didn‘t need to beckon.
“Friends.” Draven began with a brief bow of his head, “Your presence here does me much honour.”
“You’ll have questions, I’m sure. Of why I have summoned you here. Of what it is I require that warrants the very best I could ask for, be it through oath or through coin. It pains me that I cannot tell you. At least not yet. What I can tell you that there will be glory in it for those who stand at my side.”
“And enough Glimmer to make these little speeches worthwhile.” Vornas smiled liplessly.
“Your compensation will be more than adequate, Hunter.” Draven replied patiently, “And appropriate for the challenges we face.”
The Warlock’s gaze settled on the two Titans.
“Ederic, Vardiker. A word.”
The two Titans stepped forward, heads bowed in deference.
“You two are the only ones here who represent The City, the only ones who have spoken the words of The Oath. You are here not simply for your skill at arms, but also because I trust you.
“I do not, I might add,” Draven tilted his head back in the direction of Vornas, “trust him.”
“Respectfully, Sir, Vornas is a snake.” Kael shook his head, “We can do without his like.”
“He knows the lands beyond the Twilight Gap better than anyone. His inclusion, while regrettable, is necessary. Keep an eye on him, if you please.”
“As you command, Lord Draven.” Kael bowed, as dutiful as ever.
Draven smiled mirthfully, “Am I a Lord now?” he chuckled to himself, glancing over his shoulder at the assembled war band, “I suppose I am.”
He stepped past them, striding down into the centre of the clearing before the tumbling forests ahead. The others followed, exchanging wary glances amongst themselves.
In the distance, a swoop-winged transport ship soared into view. They saw it before they heard it, a snap-boom as the heavens themselves seemed to split. A shadow fell across them. Pulse engines flared as hands went up, shielding eyes. Cloaks, coats and robes rippled in the vent-wash, snapping like unmanned sails. The landing ramp lowered with a geyser of churning coolant. Landing gear clicked down on the smooth earth of the clearing. Imperious Draven settled his golden, spherical helmet upon his head as he turned to face his motley pack of assembled warriors. He turned to face them, his face rendered impassive by his visor.
Backlit by the flood lamps of the yawning landing hatch, his long cloak billowing, Imperious Draven raised his voice to address them all.
“Destiny awaits us, Vanguard.” his filtered voice boomed out, projecting over the hissing exhaust jets, “Shall we keep it waiting?”