“How we enjoying the light show, ladies?”
Relican Avery was leaning against his own private atom in the Vanguard’s Ring of Fire. From the dancing shadows of one bronze brazier, he eyed the Westwood Forest. The cold plucked at his cloak. He was wondering when the air had grown so sharp.
Even the fires did little to keep cold at bay, now.
Could it really be Citrine already?
He crossed his arms, imagining that it made him look more stern, and the wooden cup of beef broth he held sloshed with the motion. Just as slippery as the date was the precise time the beef ran out, like so many other things already had.
Now, rubbery lumps—salty and unfamiliar—had replaced the savor he remembered.
He thought, perhaps, the Luna Scarlet Monks had taken the last of it, but he couldn’t be sure.
Were they even allowed to eat meat?
The young captain's thoughts were elusive as a lonely firefly, darting back and forth. Until, that is, they alighted on the problem they liked best, which was: When is today? When am I?
Even if he asked the date, the answers would have been vague. To the Fourth Dragoons, it was all the same. The days had all blended together until the color of the world drained out in long, featureless moments that stretched on and on.
Only the comets weren’t black and white.
When he was sure no one was looking his way, Relican Avery slipped his hand into the pocket of his cloak. There was the comfortable, reassuring weight that had seen him through so many nights like this one—
Cold at first, but then warm as an egg: The steady ticking of his heirloom pocket-watch was too quiet for anyone else to hear, but it filled him with greater certainty than the beating of his heart.
Seconds were still passing. One, two, three, four—
Only with a great effort did he return to timelessness, a sea with no shore. But his mind kept on: Five, six, seven, eight, nine—
Later, he’d wonder how he missed the sound of the huge man coming up beside him. Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen—
Though others who knew him well might have guessed why.
“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout, kid?” the giant asked in an equally booming voice. —Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty—
Relican sighed, pushing the thoughts aside as he had since he was a boy.
“Waiting is the hardest part of battle,” he said, as if quoting someone.
Beside him, the very someone hoisted one bushy eyebrow. Relic’s expression could have broken in laughter, or maybe despair. Instead, he covered up his mouth with a labored sip from the soup.
It had been at least a month since they had taken the field, of that much he was sure. A month that crept by in shades of horror and suspicion as the commanders plotted their next move. Relic did not envy them their task, but he did wish they would get on with it.
On the day the first scout was dispatched, the dark heart of camp gossip began to beat.
The men told stories.
In their stories, the enemy won its second victory. And it all started on the edge of that forest.
Their story starred a dead man:
A silent protagonist, Relic might have said wryly.
But this dead man was not only unheard, but unseen—leaving only his riderless horse, bolting from the shadows of those trees. That tale, just seconds long, spread tendrils into every crevice of the camp: Every detail was so clear, Relic could see it play out in the dark behind his eyelids.
The riderless horse streaked across the plains, ragged mane streaming as it fled in mute horror.
Relic had been cautious to stop that talk among his own men, but he pitied the sentries in the Eastern Watchtower, burdened by what they alone had witnessed, until he’d consented to hear more: Its eyes swiveled, face flecked with foam, throat choked with it.
How Calloway had seen its eyes—green like ghost-light—in the instant its heart succumbed.
It had run itself to death to escape whatever killed its rider.
In the watchtower’s activity log, it was noted with a single phrase: Night Mare.
That had made this forest the stuff of Relic’s own nightmares, as it’d been when he was only a—
He glanced sideways.
“You just call me kid?” he asked with a wince. “Hell, Mac, I’ll be thirty next month.” He took another sip, winced again, then slightly shook his head. “Thirty.”
Triplicarius Mac Caulurn, Relic's oldest instructor and mentor, rolled his eyes.
“Thirty,” the triplicarius scoffed, snatching the cup from Relic. He paused before slurping some for himself. He was careful of his mustache and beard, but the wretched taste bothered him not a whit. “I got boots older than you, son.”
Relic smiled, half turning to focus on him—the stories, the watch, all forgotten.
“Do you really?” he asked, pausing as a tremor disturbed the dirt at his feet for a few seconds. They’d all been told it was the sound of the bigger comets landing. Relic, at least, had his doubts. But Caulurn didn’t seem to share them—
The old veteran's gaze moved to the shadows, his voice coming slow and thick, musing: “Mm.”
“Well ...” Relic, too, now turned his eyes back to the woods. “That was money well spent.”
Caulurn smirked and slowly nodded, acknowledging a mildly amusing inside joke. That faded, however, in unison with Relic's smile beside him; and it seemed, at least in part, because of that.
Relic narrowed his eyes, but there was nothing there. Or, perhaps, there was Nothing there. Yet, as his firefly-mind flicked, he couldn’t help but remind himself: That land belonged to the Republic only a few weeks ago.
Or a month, or ... however long it had been.
Westwood was a sylvan abyss—always watching. Watching him, watching them.
On nights like these, when Relic’s head began to pound and his mind wouldn’t rest, he could swear he saw lights flickering just out of sight. How many times had he almost asked Mac—do you see it, too? But he knew it was only his imagination striving to concoct a distraction ...
And he hardly wanted that distraction to grow into another story.
There was no going back, once that happened—his study of history told him that.
What stories will people tell about this war? What will they imagine we were doing right now? The near-empty cup was returned to his hand, snapping him back to the present.
Relic flicked his wrist, splashing the rest of the broth out over the grass, then tossed the cup into the bronze brazier. The young captain had lost his appetite, and when he closed his eyes, the shades of things lost and found twirled across them.
Damien Calloway adjusted the lens of the spyglass his eye was pressed to.
“Hey, Cal,” his best friend and watch partner, Marcus White, beckoned. Then: “Yo, Calloway!”
The two had been sentinels stationed along the Fairlawn Thoroughfare; then, they were hand- picked by General Creed to man the Eastern Watchtower. Damien was the first to write about strange occurrences on patrol; his log entries had been reported to the general himself.
Marcus, on the other hand, was the first to believe him.
The decision to abandon the sentry house a week before the vanguard made way for Fairlawn saved hundreds of lives when the forest was suddenly overrun. In his monthly herald, Valiant Notions, Senator Bren proclaimed Calloway “The Hero of the 305th.”
Until not long ago, Marcus kept a dog-eared copy of it in the tower.
But just what had overrun the sentry house was a subject Damien had held his silence on; and Marcus knew that whatever it had been, it weighed on his friend as if he’d never escaped. When they talked now, some part of the man Marcus knew simply wasn’t there.
So Marcus filled the gap between them with words.
Words, words, words.
“See anything?” Calloway sighed.
“If I had, man, isn’t it a pretty safe bet I would, I don't know ...” He shook his head, squinted his left eye, and pressed his right back to the lens. “Sound the alarm?”
Marcus said nothing. His words had only been an effort to hear his friend's voice, to break the endless quiet and be sure of his presence. It was difficult to articulate exactly what he meant by it, but somehow he felt it was important.
More important every day.
His attention drifted down to Captain Avery, the only other person he and Damien had told about the horse. The Outrider was walking beside Triplicarius Caulurn, making their way to a small group huddled at the edge of his division: Boys who were as close to “ragtag” as the Republic would allow. Recruited, no doubt, back when this whole thing was to be over by Candlemas.
They couldn’t even mark Candlemas with no candles.
“He who would snark would pick a pocket,” Marcus declared.
“That’s he who would pun, stupid ass," Calloway responded.
Absent as it sounded, it still made Marcus smile.
“Who the hell says snark, anyway?”
At this, he smiled wider.
Caulurn fanned left, eyes fixed on a basket of oranges set out by the 125th Gun Battalion right beside their catapults.
“Be right back,” he said.
Relic only nodded.
Both pretended not to notice the first signs of commotion floating in from the Third Dragoons—
All the shuffling and shouting any newcomer might mistake for an incoming attack.
As he rounded the massive war machines, Caulurn raised his hand without turning, and Relic watched until he disappeared amidst the brevets: Ten or so, sitting around chewing slowly on whatever rumors and local nonsense went best with citrus.
For now, at least, there were no demons or monsters or half-eaten horses to reflect on. Relic went back to sizing up those he meant to address: The Unicorn Youth Brigade.
“Thought I saw something last night,” Damien Calloway was saying. “Pretty sure, anyway.”
Marcus stood up straight, his palms suddenly cold.
“What was it?”
“Don’t know exactly.” Damien wiped at his eye. “Coulda been light from the comet trails.” He swiveled the spyglass and leaned back, gazing up at the ceiling.
They knew better than anyone that no light penetrated these trees.
Still, they said nothing for a long, long time.
“When?” Marcus finally asked.
“’round about midnight.” Damien crossed his arms as he spoke. His hands were shaking, but he imagined—hoped—that Marcus couldn’t tell. “I ... the day the sentry house ...” He stopped. Tried again: “Well, I-I—just ...” His words ended in a sigh. That dissolved into a big, grim grin, and he declared: “I wish they would just send in The Kid so we could get this over with.”
Marcus nodded, blowing a warm breath into his hands and bouncing in place.
“You and me both, bro. You and me both.”
“How we enjoying the light show, ladies?” Relic asked as he came to a stop.
A flurry of uneasy smiles lit the faces of two dozen raw recruits.
Relic knew their anxiety well, but they did not expect combat. They would not have been accepted on the battlefield by Caulurn, who struck the fear of the Titans into Relic at their age.
Seems like lifetimes ago ...
“See somethin’, captain?” one asked: A tall kid holding his sword unsheathed, as if he might will their enemies to reveal themselves. The blade glittered from relentless polishing and a keen lack of use; both it and the boy seemed as brittle as glass.
“Gonna stop ‘em all on your own, kid?” Relic asked. Scattered laughter swirled around the others, standing close and casual as they could once the captain muttered, “At ease.”
“I would very much like to,” Tall Kid snapped. He tilted his chin upward as if he spoke to the shadows. Relic seemed to pay that no mind, at least at first; he hardly noticed how his own eyes followed those shadows for a brief moment.
These boys had their own stories—he’d read them in every docket. They had their own fears, too.
“Sword’s old,” Relic observed. “Seems familiar ...”
He’d shared them once, too, though he tried not to remember that.
An auburn comet blasted overhead, and all eyes rose to watch it. Now and again, the comets would weave so close that every soul in sight would think: This is the one that comes down – and in the midst of all these youths, Relic knew this was one such comet.
When the kid looked back, Relic's gaze was still upon him, as if the comet wasn’t even there.
If the others had stirred with fear, their commander did nothing to accuse them; Relican Avery's attention was unwavering, his intent firm. The lad before him was on the brink, courage hanging by a thread – one no thicker than those tracing the weathered old patch he wore.
That patch ...
There was something about it. But, even as careful as he’d been to read every scrap he could learn about each young man, he couldn’t remember the details. Instead, he imagined the boy’s mother giving it to him with a smile. Waiting until he was gone to cry.
“May I?” Relic asked, holding the stare a little longer. “The sword.”
The boy handed it over, and Relic’s suspicions were confirmed as soon as he held it in his hand. “Impressive,” he said. “Haven’t seen one like this since ...”
He trailed off as he noticed a curious marking etched in untarnished figures on the blade’s bottom edge:
“Where did you get this?”
“It was my grandfather’s, captain.”
“Is that right?”
“He fought in the Grassland Campaign; awarded the Veil’driel Star for the Battle of Pendragon—”
“—Downs. Yeah, no kidding,” Relic said, eyes back on the blade. “I know who you are, Sayre, I was just pretending for dramatic effect. What I’m really wondering is: Why are you here?”
“You think since your family owns half the shops in Avalon, it gives you a right to stand here?”
The boy breathed out slowly, suddenly aware of the other recruits around him.
Caulurn stepped into view as he popped an orange slice in his mouth, chewing slowly and without relish.
Relic paused in his inspection of the sword and closed his eyes.
“Don’t yell in my face.”
“Sorry, captain,” the unicorn whispered.
“So ... you’re Augustus Sayre’s—”
“Grandson. Yes, sir,” he said.
“Don’t interrupt him, either,” Caulurn warned. “Excuse me, Captain Avery, please proceed.”
“Quite alright,” he said. “Boy’s got a lot to learn.” Had tears rimmed Master Sayre's eyes, there would have been no shame. When they didn’t, Avery and Caulurn exchanged a glance; but none of the terrified youngsters were of mind to take note. “You know...” Relic stepped back and twirled the weapon, spun the grip and caught it; a masterful maneuver. “My father was killed in the Grassland Campaign. Only he called it something else, something rather different ...” Relic slid his free hand into the pocket of his cloak, arcing his head. He turned to the side. “What was that he called it, triplicarius?” His eyes were back on the boy. “Refresh my memory, won’t you ...?”
Caulurn cleared his throat, but Relic didn’t waver.
“Tri-State Civil War,” the veteran said, holding his breath as he let the words go.
Relic pursed his lips into a contemplative pout, glancing down.
“Civil War. Yeah; that's right. I watched as they carted his body to the crematorium the women and children in my village were forced to build six months after first blood. No one was ever the same after that ...” His gaze rose slowly. “No one.”
The boy’s hands scrunched to white-knuckled fists at his sides.
“Captain, pardon the interruption,” Caulurn interjected. “But ...”
Relic silenced the man with an upraised palm, his eyes steady.
“Sayre, do you know that Campaign never officially ended? A hundred thousand lives were lost for peace down in the provinces, but in the end, it was just an armistice. So ... no real end to the hostilities between us. Technically, you and I are, well ... you know.”
“I do, sir.” When there was no response, he went on: “Enemies.” He gulped audibly—and it echoed over the silent young recruits. “We’re at war.”
“Mm. I imagine that would be hard to forget.”
The Outrider could almost feel that sensation of heat pulsing out of the boy’s body with each heartbeat, settling in the strangest places, like fingertips and ears. The captain had him all alone on an island, and that’s what he’d been waiting for. No pompous uncle telling him it’s all just an act when you get there the night before he set out. No talk of letters to the camp – written, perhaps, but undelivered. No admiring glances from peers at that party they'd have held.
In times like these, reassurances meant nothing.
Not in the face of all you hoped one day to be.
“You have any idea how many people despise your grandfather in the province I’m from? Hell,” Relic said, stepping even closer. “How many people in what used to be the Commonwealth do?”
Caulurn dug his fingernails into his palms.
Any reference to the provinces as the Commonwealth was forbidden by the Senate. It was thought worse, even, than loose talk about Ward—
“The answer is zero.”
—and Caulurn’s worries faded in a flash.
“And I’ll tell you why ...” Relic tilted his chin down ever so slightly. “Legend, heroism, Veil’driel Star aside ...” The flint was gone from his voice; the Outrider spoke so only the boy – and his own mentor – could hear what came next. “Your grandfather was a good man before he was anything else.” Slowly, he handed the kid back his sword. “And if he’s watching us right now, he deserves the respect of seeing me make sure his grandson knows that. Don’t forget it.”
“Sheathe that sword, unicorn!” Caulurn bellowed.
Stepping back like a tin man, the recruit resumed attention.
“Don’t lock your knees,” Relic said. An awkward laugh broke from the kid’s throat; the fear that strained his whole body was subsiding. Relic had seen him on an island: Now, he sought to show him he wasn’t alone. “You’re not, are you?”
The boy laughed a little.
“Good. Wouldn’t wanna pass out in front of that cute page over there, know what I mean?”
“What’s your given name, Sayre?”
“Well, Arthur, let me tell you what percentage of our country’s population volunteers for the armed forces. Those same forces that make sure ...” he trailed off, glancing to the sky and holding his gaze above – challenging the invisible to a showdown just as Arthur had before. He waited just long enough, then said: “Triplicarius?”
“One percent,” Caulurn said.
They were in perfect rhythm now.
Relic held up a finger.
His mind began to race—the thousand ways this moment could play out spread to the horizon.
“One.” He released the grip on the kid’s hand and tapped him lightly on the side of the face. “One!” he yelled to the rest of the unicorns. “Per-cent!” He paced up and down the ranks. With every word, every pause, every enunciation, Relic could feel history shifting beneath him. To the boys, who could not tear their eyes from Captain Avery, it was like hearing those first terrifying shifts of snow before an avalanche—but surely there was a faint air of excitement, too. This was why he’d studied every speech like this one – this was why it mattered so much. “One percent – of millions – sign up to stand where you are! One percent between the shadows and the ninety-nine who take what we do for granted. Does that make them cowards?”
“NO, CAPTAIN!” the rest of the legion called.
The lightning of Now flowed from one path to the next, one future to the next—
Relic gave no reaction even when the Unicorns flinched.
He turned on his heel; hands behind his back as he gazed at the grass.
“But it does make all of you heroes.” He directed the digit that had illustrated that percentage to the boys. “And you guys join up now? In the middle of this?” Relic smiled. “That tells me two things.”
“What two things, captain?” Caulurn boomed.
“One,” Relic raised the finger up in front of him now, held it there to suggest some connection between the points.
“You’re either crazy ...” His shoulders went slack. “Or your timing just really ... really sucks.”
The legion’s laughter echoed his own, a sound of disjointed thunder.
No cloak ever made could have shielded the boys from the chills that ran up their spines.
Relic laughed least, one man representing the whole with the flash of his smile. The mirth faded slowly, like dew before the dawn, and what remnant of that smile was left when he spoke again was only the afterimage of an emotion left behind.
Relic’s eyes were back on Arthur Sayre.
“Heroes. Like it or not, boys, from this day forward, come what may. And you don’t ring that blade for any other reason than to put the fear of the Titans into whatever threat is before you.”
“Before your home, before the Republic,” Caulurn added.
“You never ... ever unsheathe your weapon unless it’s time to go to work, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Arthur said, mindful not to yell this time.
Relic motioned back to the veterans.
“Or if you don’t know where she’s been, got it?”
“YES, SIR!” the rest of the Fourth Dragoons responded.
—then it was over.
Relic’s mind: Calm.
As it never was; as it’d only ever been in this moment.
This time the Unicorn Brigade could laugh more easily with them. This time they knew they belonged. Now, those wishes that their enemies would show themselves were no longer spoken in anger, but with hope. Yet, not a one was ready to understand the implications of that wish.
A lesson for another day, thought Relic, his gaze piercing the veils of night and time.
“And if you take nothing else from what I’ve told you tonight, remember this ...” Relic stepped forward and clapped Arthur hard on the shoulder, those closest to him nodding as if adolescent popularity had just been bestowed like a magic word that meant The One We Would Die For.
“I am perfectly aware the sword does not actually ring when unsheathed, do you all understand?”
“Yes, sir!” the Unicorns bellowed.
“Damn right you do.” A legionnaire came from the crowd with Midnight, Relic’s horse. The captain walked casually over, and after exchanging a nod, leapt deftly into the saddle. “Play your cards right and they’ll be tellin’ stories about you back home, Art. Over tea ... or brunch ...” He shrugged. “Or whatever it is you people do when the world is safe for badminton.”
Relic had been taught well by the man who’d now casually returned to peeling his orange:
Always leave them wanting more.
Off in the distance, a rider broke over the ridge—
—while, in the direction of where the Third Dragoons were camped, a roar dwarfed the ones that Relic had just won.
The triplicarius glanced at his pocket-watch, massaged the bridge of his nose and muttered: “Here we go.”
He dropped the fruit and snapped to attention.
“Constable Thean approaches!”
To a man, the Fourth snapped in place like bolt-force locks, and Relic wheeled toward Caulurn.
“Fourth Dragoons!” he shouted. “Pre-sent!”
“PRE-sent,” Caulurn repeated.
“ARMS!” Relic yelled with a sharp salute.
“ARMS!” Caulurn echoed; the rest of the legion did likewise.
Thean may have been advancing in years, as his graying hair attested, but his body was solid as stone and he rode as if born in the saddle. Every movement was as graceful as an airborne eagle. It was a sight – and an example – Relic could still appreciate after all this time.
“Constable,” Relic greeted with a salute.
“Captain Avery.” Thean said, returning it vacantly. “Come with me.”
Behind him, Relic’s men dropped their salutes when he did. There was no need to tell them where their captain was headed.