Hold the Line
The warm touch of fine eolian sand against her skin and the bathing heat of the noonday sun were the first things Asha felt. Her eyes were closed, darkness enveloping her senses so that all she could feel was the heat of sun above and sand below enveloping her. Her fingers ran through the grains, feeling the desert heat stored within as she closed her hand around them, slowly lifting her arm to feel them slip from between her fingers.
She opened her eyes and was bathed in brilliant white.
There were no clouds in the sky, nor tall mountains rising to block the view, there was nothing but a vault of brilliant blue sky that ran from one horizon to the other, all-enveloping and all-encompassing as it wrapped itself around the world. Overhead the sun hung in the sky, like the fierce white pupil of a single great eye.
Asha lay on the sand, blinking as the sun scorched her eyes, straining to see anything else around her. She expected aching muscles or other pains, some feeling to overcome her as she lay there. But there were no aches, no tiredness. She still had feeling throughout her body and nothing seemed to hurt. Slowly she rose into a sitting position, expecting at any moment to feel her spine creak and ache with resistance, but instead there was nothing. She felt…fine, vigorous even. She tried to recall why this was so odd, but her memory was a complete haze when she tried to recall it, only flashes of memory snapped at her. She had been exhausted and starving…not too long ago, less than a day even. It was as if she had woken up at the edge of death, and by noon she felt fine.
Testing her body, Asha drew herself onto her feet. All around her there was nothing but empty dunes of bright orange-yellow sand rising high like cresting waves. There was no trail to indicate how she had gotten here, no footsteps in the sand to follow. As she turned, however, a building seemed to rise out of the desert ahead of her, a single low monolithic structure nestled between the dunes about a kilometer away.
With nowhere else to go, Asha began to walk towards the structure. She was used to these climates, but she hadn’t been in a dune-filled desert last she recalled. How had she gotten here? And why was she alone?
She took a last few glances around, hoping that someone was there, even if she couldn’t tell who it was that she was looking for. She felt…lonely, as if someone very important was missing, and should have been standing at her side. There was nothing she could do about these odd feelings, however, and she continued walking towards the structure, hoping she might find some answers, or at least some other people. The thought of being entirely alone in the desert was…unsettling to say the least.
As she approached the structure it gained definition. It was built like an old colonial fort, a low-profile wall of mortared brick with casemates at each corner. It was in a clear state of disrepair, the walls crumbling along the edges in several places and the front gate haven taken innumerable mighty blows from some unknown assailant. As she drew closer, she could see the shadow of figures skirting about the parapets, moving rapidly as the gate slowly opened. At first Asha thought they might have been opening for her, but she was soon greeted by a group of armed figures rushing out to meet her. All of them were dressed in long cloaks the color of sand, flickering in the wind as the blended with the dunes around them. They wore broad hats of the same color that hid their outline and shaded their faces. All of them had rifles trained at her, the weapons worn well past their prime but no doubt still effective. Asha noted that all of them also wore swords at their hips. Within moments she was surrounded by a half dozen of them and she slowly raised her hands into the air as a gesture of compliance. She was likely more confused than they were, and wasn’t about to start a fight when she was unarmed and alone in the desert.
The figure facing her lowered their rifle and removed their hat, revealing a youthful feminine face framed by brilliant red hair. Despite looking Asha’s age, somewhere in her late teens, her face had a strained appearance, worn down by the desert wind and sun and prematurely aged.
“Who are you?” She asked, with more than a little threat in her voice.
“Asha…” Asha said. The girl facing her didn’t have a rifle, but as her arms swept back the long cloak Asha could see two swords of gleaming gold, rubies set in the pommels, glittering red like blood in the desert sunlight.
“Where are you from?” She asked.
Asha merely shrugged, hands still raised “I don’t really know.”
A crooked grin cracked across the girl’s face “Don’t worry, that happens to everyone here. It’ll pass soon enough, but it’s proof enough of who you are.”
“And umm…sorry to ask but who am I?” Asha asked nervously. There was nothing comfortable about the girl’s smile.
“You’re our newest recruit.” She said “I was wondering when the next one would come in.”
That set off alarm bells in Asha’s mind. She didn’t know where she was but she was positive she hadn’t volunteered for anything. “R-Recruit for what? Where am I?”
The girl lifted a hand and the others all lowered their guns and traveled back to the fortress, leaving Asha alone with the girl.
“If you wanted a poetic answer, you’re at the edge of purgatory.”
“I don’t understand” Asha said.
“Come with me” the other girl said “Right this way.” She turned and led Asha back to the fortress. As they entered through the gate, Asha could see, carved into the wall above the gate the simple words”
“Line?” Asha asked “What line? Where are we?”
The other girl turned to face her, pulling off her long cloak to reveal an oversized and heavily worn set of desert fatigues, everything about her gear seemed taken through hell and back, with nothing in this fortress looking to have less than ten years of heavy use, including the people.
“This is The Line. You can call it the line in the sand, the thin red line, whatever you want. If you wanted a location we’re in Suez not far from what’s left of the canal.”
“S-Suez!?” Asha almost shouted in surprise. “We’re in Egypt!?”
“Ya, where did you think you were?” The girl asked.
“I was…umm…”Asha struggled to remember. It had been warm, but still quite far from Egypt.
“Well then allow me to welcome you to the first day of the rest of your life. I’m Christina, and I’ll be in charge of you until you get in proper shape.”
“Proper shape for what?” Asha asked “What are we doing here? Why is this fort even here?”
Christina looked at her with an active disinterest before herking her head toward the closest wall.
“Follow me” she said.
Christina led Asha up a flgith of stairs to the top of the low wall, giving her a clear view of the vest ntohign that stretched out in all directions, nothing but a vast dune sea.
Christina raised a hand and pointed to the west.
“Out there is Egypt, now the house of a nasty snake demon they call Apep. From there we get an army of serpent monsters, jackal demons, and all other kinds of desert nasties.”
She then moved her arm and pointed east. “Out there is a big ugly dragon named Tiamat, mother of monsters, and a never-ending well of evil that’s spreading further by the day.”
Finally she pointed her hand to the ground. “We are the line that separates the ugly bastards so they never get to play nice, Every monster, demon, and generally ugly motherfucker fresh-faced from your nightmares is funneled right through this fort. And it’s our job to kill each and every one that we see. Got it?”
“I…” Asha was lost for words, her head spinning with the thought. “How did I get here?”
She never recalled deciding to travel to Egypt, nor did she recall signing up to kill monsters. Was she being shanghaied? What was she even doing in this dangerous part of the world?”
“Alright, here comes the hard part.” Christina said, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re dead.”
“I said you’re dead. Deceased, out for the duration, expired, ashes to ahes, in the ground, am I coming through clear?”
“If it makes you feel better so am I.” Christina shrugged.
“Look kid, every single person at the Line is dead. As a doornail.”
“So we’re…what, ghosts?” Asha didn’t feel dead. She’d never felt better!
“Or spirits. Something like that.” Christina said “Point is we died and didn’t go to heaven, jury’s still out on hell.”
Asha stared at her hands, trying to get over the thought. Dead? How? When!?
“Beats me. Not my job to know, or care.” Christina shrugged. “Point is we were all dragged here, one by one, and given a single line of instructions to follow if we ever want to get out.”
“And what’s that?” Asha asked.
“Hold the Line.”
Asha fell into silence as her mind went blank, unable to even think as she struggled with the overwhelming feeling of doubt and growing terror. Any words she would have said, however, were interrupted as a siren blared across the fort, every single man and woman there lifting their heads as they stared at the screaming sirens. There was an instant of total stillness before everyone began running. Weapon lockers were thrown open as the gates were reinforced and people rushed to the edges of the walls.
Christina turned away from Asha as she roared at another passing soldier.
“What’ve we got? Bandits or monsters!?” She shouted over the siren.
“Monsters this time!” He shouted back as he kept running.
“You ever kill a monster, new girl?” Christina asked Asha.
“No!? I-I mean…I don’t remember..”
“Well practice makes better.” Christina said as she dropped her cloak, drawing the twin gleaming swords from her waist.
“Sh-should I get a gun?” Asha asked. She certainly didn’’t feel like taking a sword to a monster fight.
“Won’t help.” Christina said “The guns are for humans, shooting monsters is like flicking rocks at a beehive. Might get a lucky hit or two but it’ll make ‘em real angry first. Get a bow or a spear or something.”
“O-okay!” Asha rushed to one of the closest weapon racks, where a number of rifles hung alongside more medieval weaponry. Several other soldiers were passing them out rapidly, Asha fell into line practically by accident and had a bow with a quiver full of arrows shoved unceremoniously into her hands. Slinging her quiver over her shoulder, she ran to meet with Christina again, who was standing atop the wall along with a line of archers, to see what exactly was coming for them.
A small army of horrors was slithering, lurching, and crawling towards the walls. Great serpents ten meters in length coiled through the sands, as giant men with the heads of demonic canines ran with claws and teeth bared towards the wall. Flying batlike creatures came in a small swarm as they flew ungainly towards The Line, and at least a dozen different variety of monsters all came down on their position along the wall.
“Not too many” Asha was shocked to see a grin on Christina’s face. “Shouldn’t take long.”
“D-do you not see the monsters!?” Asha asked incredulously.
Christina grabbed Asha by the collar, bringing her face in close. “Listen up, new girl. I don’t care if it’s God himself marching on The Line, you get a weapon and you hold it. You see something with scales or too many legs? You shoot, stab, and slice it till it dies then a few more times to be sure. If you wanna sit on this wall and wet yourself then I’m gonna throw you over to make room for someone more useful, got it!?”
“I…got it!!” Asha visibly shook form the girl’s fury, clutching the bow tightly.
“Then get that bow ready!” Christina said. “Consider this your first day of the rest of eternity. Welcome to the Line.”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=51&sl=25