by Dan Hiestand
The Ring of Fire
The Ring of Fire
“Send for the Outriders.”
Outside Fairlawn City
The men told stories, and in recent days, Tillian Bren had gone to collect them.
Even his loyal scribe considered this far beneath his master. Tillian was the elder statesman of his country, arguably the most respected of his generation: To brush elbows with "lesser" men and women would have been unthinkable to many of his peers, but he took to the task with gusto.
The old veterans had stories of battle. Of the Looking Glass War, and of serving beside Artemus Ward, whose name they barely dared breathe. More popular by far was their current leader, General Thaddeus Creed, who had made his name fighting Sindell—the southerners.
They had tales of the enemy airships and of Creed’s ingenious war machines that transformed the conflict as all seemed lost. And after they knew Bren better, they admitted their fondest hope:
That some stroke of brilliance would turn the tide just as it had back then.
Young volunteers on their first campaign had stories of home; of love left or lost. There were women among them, too, who had learned blade and bow beside their brothers and now risked all. They were the ones who knew the thousand ancient tales better than anyone else.
Not that long ago, the red monks had been the keepers of such stories—
But they were gone now, and in their place, this old man had begun to appear.
From time to time, that is—
In their camp.
He stood, silent and watchful, at the edge of everything; his boots planted in the places where the words eddied. Everyone ought to have recognized him, he thought, but he did not press the point.
Troops young and old never saw him frown. He’d smile when he spoke the words:
Tell me your stories.
His scribe was always at his side, but his master insisted they never stop to write more than the barest notes in another’s presence. There was something too live, too vital about the task to imagine recording it as it happened, though two leather-bound books had been filled so far.
“It’s a simple matter of respect,” he would say again and again to the boy’s waiting ear.
Some tales were indescribably old, like the talk of grim old Papa Bones who lurked in the Westwood Forest. Swathed in children’s ragged cloaks, all patched together, he was said to limp along in the dead of night with the souls of those he snatched lighting his lantern.
The devil with no reflection—
When they were at last in private, Bren did frown, remembering the days that story began.
Some tales were fresh and unfamiliar:
Who, or what, was this Fallen Angel of which they all so reverently spoke?
There was one more tale, however; one that awoke all the instincts that had gotten him here— pointing his way with all the luminous clarity of an arrow made of light. He’d gotten only a few hints of the details, but he already suspected greatness in the making—
The one they called The Kid.
Tillian turned his eyes toward Chapel Hill, shielding them from the comets above, as he focused on the high ground that commanded a full view of the camp. Surrounded by a burning ring of bronze braziers, every soul there called it the Ring of Fire.
And within its bounds stood the praetorium – more commonly thought of as the command tents.
The senator was due to be up there now, but he dreaded the nightly occasions. He once looked forward to them with great anticipation, but that was before they had grown stale and fruitless. Before their futility drove him down here for some morsel of light, petrified in words.
“Come, boy," he said to his scribe, and urged his tired horse on.
Just the idea of returning to the top of that hill made him frown.
But no one saw it. No one ever did.
Soon, he would attend upon the general.
The frozen night sky was on fire, blistering with the terrible beauty of magical warfare and splashing the plain in colors no one living had witnessed before. Some of the comets left a trail like a melting rainbow, too bright to look at, as they roared overhead. Others seared the senses with a long-burning afterimage that left the stomach churning.
Their passing gave no relief – tight-closed eyes brought no sanctuary. The sight still writhed. Even as it faded away, it unfolded and unfolded and unfolded into endless grotesque silhouettes.
Beneath this storm of chaos, the Republic of Veil’driel Vanguard carried on in its routines. It was a contradiction to which the camp had grown accustomed, an effort to avoid thinking about whatever it was that waited beyond Westwood Forest.
Whatever was behind these attacks.
From atop the ridge of Chapel Hill, overlooking the field, General Thaddeus Creed gnashed his teeth. Below, his force had been reduced to a sea of sparkling idleness, milling around beneath that hellish kaleidoscope that had stolen away the sky.
It was nothing less than a nightmare. As much to him as to them.
In the face of helplessness, that routine had become their last defense.
Westward, behind this massive force, the aura of the distant Fairlawn cityscape pulsed defiantly against the relentless assault. Creed could not see the devastation those comets inflicted, but he could imagine it well.
All he had to do was close his eyes each time one vanished on its course, arcing out of sight beyond the horizon. The crackling of buildings and stones alike melting away, the flaming pyres that froze beneath the night sky in a long, slow collapse.
It was said the stricken homes burned for hours. Burned without hope of salvation.
Most blasts, his scouts reported, killed no one. But not one spared the survivors on the inside. Not as everything around them fell.
Not as they were forced to watch.
One day, one structure, one family at a time ...
Creed could hear the sizzling pavement of the city.
That distant target – the city he was meant to protect.
He could imagine the screams, yet all he could do was shift in his saddle and watch.
The impotent commander of thousands.
“Curse them,” he blurted, then opened his eyes.
The sentiment echoed the feeling of his comrades, for each one nodded and mumbled agreement. Senator Tillian Bren and Constable Fenlow Thean were motionless on his flanks.
Tillian was the first to speak.
“They’re so close,” he said, rolling his head to follow the path of a hissing lavender comet.
Creed offered a sidelong glance at the politician.
"Never close enough,” he said, turning back in disgust.
Tillian nodded, the grimness on his aged and tired face unchanged by the words.
It was hard to believe that, only a month before, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for this mission. To be named liaison to the Senate and news correspondent for all Veil’driel was a privilege even he could not put into words; and to accompany the legions sent to intercept the mysterious invasion was an honor. Morale in the Republic had peaked when such a mighty force, unrivaled in living memory, was brought to bear in time to repel the enemy.
But one could not repel what never approached.
The first attacks began less than a week after General Creed’s forces set camp outside Fairlawn, a day after the first scout failed to return. Three more had disappeared into the Westwood within two weeks. It was not long before stories of things prowling the woods began to spread, seeming to jump from one mind to the next without ever being spoken out loud.
As the bombardment continued, the politician’s confidence wilted into despair.
All the men in the world were useless against a foe they could not reach. Here on the doorstep of one of the Republic’s great cities, the senator found himself contemplating the fall of Veil’driel. There was a time he would have scoffed at the idea.
All of them would have – as they all wished they still could.
But Tillian knew that the destruction of Fairlawn would be the beginning of the end.
He braced himself to speak—
“We should march on them, general.”
“We’ve been over this at length, senator,” Creed said.
I will not march blindly on an enemy I know nothing about.
It was repeated so often, Creed needed not say it again; and yet, the senator heard it clear as day.
Bren tilted his head, blowing a warm breath into his fist; lavish rings on his fingers shone like the stars choked from sight.
“Well, if I may,” he said, “how do you explain ...” He nodded down to the legions. “This as a suitable tactic? You refuse to march on that which you cannot see, and yet no scout returns. You say we must wait for information, and yet none comes.”
The old man let out a tired sigh.
“My point, sir, you see, is that in the place of maneuvers, it appears your plan is to have us sit here night after night until these attacks demolish all we have sworn to defend!”
Tillian realized he had gone too far even as the words left his mouth. He could feel Creed’s gaze burning into him, and suddenly felt small and ashamed.
"Forgive me, general.” he said, hanging his head. “Frustration chooses my words, not wisdom.”
But the general’s scowl had only been imagined. His eyes had never left the glowing ring of braziers that encircled his camp, but now he held up a hand.
“Honestly, I find it a bit of both. And so, you’ll be interested to learn that I no longer deem waiting an option.”
At this, the general’s other companion looked over.
Creed went on: “That strategy has failed us at last.”
Creed’s tone brought Bren’s attention back from the ground with an expression bright with hope. This was the first time failure had been spoken, unveiled for what it was.
Something would change now – he was sure of it!
Excitement stirred in his stomach.
Creed looked to the last of their trio: Constable Fenlow Thean, the leader of all mounted forces.
“Send for the Outriders,” the general instructed.
Tillian's shoulders sagged.
It was not the radical change he had hoped for.
Creed breathed deeply as he glanced into the burning sky, his knuckles white on the reins.
The senator looked utterly lost.
“More ... scouts,” he said, not forming the words as a question.
Constable Thean’s eyes narrowed on the camp, suddenly irritated by a growing ripple of tension in one of the cavalry legions. He had read something in it the others couldn’t, but when he finally spoke, he did so serenely; as if staring out at a sunset.
“Not scouts,” he said, clearing his throat. “Outriders.”
Tillian massaged the bridge of his nose, bafflement crossing his features. At last, he thought, the whole world has gone mad.
Noticing the reaction, General Creed offered more.
“An elite order of scouts,” he said. “Their skill on horseback is unparalleled.” The general, too, took notice of the shift in the Third Dragoons; he squinted at the emerging lane. “The Outrider Point Teams of old stood at the forefront of our greatest discoveries. The original trailblazers.”
The senator looked up at this.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said. “But then why have we waited so long to dispatch them?”
“The answer is simple, Your Grace: Because they’re also the commanders of my cavalry.”
Bren was growing impatient. Being treated as a nuisance was an unwelcome novelty, just as unusual and, he had to admit, disturbing as the sense that there was something deeper going on here. Yes; he certainly suspected Thean’s relationship with Creed went back further than he knew.
Stories were one thing, but secrets were quite another.
Now Bren looked to Thean for answers.
“As such, their deployment is not without risk,” the constable explained, sounding – as he often did – like an annoyed schoolmaster. “But perhaps it is a risk worth taking.”
“Send for them,” Creed repeated. “But summon only two of the four. I will not sacrifice the discipline of the dragoons ...” He turned to face his oldest friend, his tone full of private meaning. “Not at a time like this.”
Thean nodded, but his eyes stayed fixed on the lane.
The general tugged the reins to back his horse away from the ridge.
“I leave which to your discretion, constable, and I will await them in my tent."
Without another word, Creed galloped back to the command tents a few hundred yards behind them.
Thean departed as well, leaving the senator and his scribe to watch him vanish into the camp below.
Something had changed, but even Bren could not appreciate it fully.