Once upon a time there was a young soldier who had never seen the outside world that he could remember. He had served the same masters ever since he was a young child, and he had spent all his life housed and fed by these Masters of Order’s generosity. As was expected of him, the young soldier served them in return by standing guard inside their grand walled palaces and training for battle at the base of their high towers.
One day, he had been told, he and his fellow soldiers would be taken through the massive gates and beyond his masters’ ordered lands, like many loyal soldiers before them. One day, they would finally march on the chaos of the outside world and bring new rule to all lands in the name of their great leader.
The day came sooner than the young soldier expected. He and his siblings - the fellow soldiers he had stood beside and trained beside all his life, his siblings in all but blood - were called to don the white armor and masked helmets of their great leader and march. They took up their shining weapons at their captain’s command, as they had drilled a thousand times before, for their first battle against chaos.
In ordered lines, on a strict beat, they followed their captain out the massive gates of the grand walled palace, which the young soldier had not left since the day he had first arrived years ago. The young soldier was not permitted to turn his head to watch the grand walled palace disappear behind them.
They marched through the ordered lands which surrounded the grand walled palace in silence. There was no obvious glory to the journey yet, only the synchronized beat of marching boots, the rustle of armor shifting as one, and there was no obvious chaos burning ahead of them. The cold forest landscape had not changed in the years since the young soldier had last seen it. He could not see much through the slits of his white helmet. He could not look around to see more.
All he could do was look ahead to their captain, who was a giant of a woman, wearing heavy armor and a masked helmet which both shone like polished silver. She rode atop an enormous white-feathered warlizard and she did not look back at the soldiers marching behind her.
All he could do was march dutifully after her until he was told to stop.
The soldiers were not told to stop for a long time, such that the young soldier lost track of the hours and perhaps even the days in the trance of the march. When the silver captain held up her arm to order them to halt, he seemed to come awake from a dream.
The cold forests of the ordered lands had become a strange and sandy desert - the alien landscape of the outside, chaotic world. Pale daylight had become a night as black as pitch. The young soldier’s feet ached fiercely as he stood like a statue, as though he had come much too close to leaving a trail of bloody footprints, lost in the march.
The young soldier could see nearly nothing of the outside world, save for pinpricks of light ahead of them in the desert hills. The pinpricks of light flickered between dark, uneven mounds which resembled poor residences.
The silver captain and her white-feathered warlizard stood still, waiting for something, and soon the young soldier heard the sounds of a new beast coming up quickly from behind them.
A single rider.
The new rider passed the lines of white-armored soldiers like a wild burst of wind, throwing up sand and dust, and came to a violent stop beside the silver captain. The new rider’s black-feathered warlizard reared at the sudden command, twisting as though trying desperately to dislodge its black-cloaked rider.
The young soldier took a step back from the flailing beast, only back into the soldier behind him and ungently returned to the correct position by a shove.
The black-feathered warlizard was as enormous as the silver captain’s white-feathered warlizard, but it looked wild. Its sharp teeth gnashed. Its feathered tail thrashed. Its eyes were bright red. But all it’s fierce shaking and twisting could not remove its tight-fisted giant of a rider, and so the beast eventually fell again to miserable obedience in the dust-cloud it had stirred.
The rider’s armor was an even darker black than their cloak, sparsely decorated with symbols in straight, silver lines. The rider stared out at the pinpricks of light ahead, and the silver captain turned her head to wait for the newcomer’s command.
“Let no one escape,” the rider said.
At their captain’s command, the young soldier and his fellows dutifully marched on the village ahead to capture all its residents. They had been told, before they had left the walls of the grand palace, that they were here to apprehend a dangerous criminal, a rebel who someday meant to destroy their army, their palaces, and their great leader at all costs. They were now meant to capture all the traitors who would dare to help an enemy of all things ordered and correct.
But the young soldier’s legs felt as though they were made of lead. His feet dragged along the sand as though wishing to sink away, but if it was a curse suddenly fallen, the enchantment seemed to affect him alone. As the other soldiers around him marched forward, as they separated to drag the screaming villagers from their poor homes, the young soldier fell slowly but surely behind.
Once the villagers realized that the white-armored soldiers were upon them, they took up their own weapons and fought back. This was surely proof that they were criminals, he had been forewarned. They were guilty, all of them, according to his masters; they were rebels one and all, for the innocent would not have taken up arms to resist.
The young soldier could not move in the chaos.
The dark of the night peeled away quickly for the flames which were set to the poor residences, the light of which flickered against the dust clouds kicked up in the fight. Without it, he might not have seen one of the villagers strike down one of his brothers.
The white-armored figure lay crumpled in the sand and yet the young soldier still could not bring himself to repay the blow, stumbling forward as the villager fled. The young soldier’s hands were heavy on his own weapon, fingers numb around his handle. He fell to his knees beside his fallen brother, who reached up with a bloody hand and knocked clumsily against his helmet. The hand fell limp again almost immediately. There was too much blood for the young soldier to hope that his brother was not dead.
The young soldier felt as though he was between dreaming and waking. The fast-moving scene before him was nightmarish in its reality, but sleep’s claws were missing from his mind, a different sort of claws were coming free instead.
Without him, the soldiers put most of the villagers to their knees in the centre of the chaos, while the flames jumped from shed to crate to fence. Some of the rebels were dragged along limply, bleeding, and left facedown in the sand. The white-soldiers worked to bring order to the madness that had stirred so quickly, sparked to a blaze in only moments.
Out of the dust clouds and smoke, the black-cloaked and black-masked rider rode forward, dismounted and threw the enormous warlizard’s reins to a soldier, and drew a strange sword of red metal, which burned the eyes which dared to linger. The rider was just as much a giant as the silver captain. His head turned over the village, searching, until his attention appeared to come to rest on the last house.
Two soldiers were beating heavily at the locked door, while the silver captain stood nearby with her weapons ready. The door was thick, by the deep THUD against its surface, but it was breaking under the onslaught.
There were small slits in the walls of the residence, rather than wide windows of glass, and in them the young soldier could see a strange light. This light was much brighter than the gentle glow that had flickered in the windows of the other residences. It was much too bright. Even though the fire was crackling wildly across the other side of the village, far away from the target for now, it appeared as though the interior of this last house was similarly aflame.
With a great CRACK, the door finally gave way.
And flames and smoke burst out of the house in a great orange cloud. The explosion swallowed the soldiers who had been beating at the door and spat out a massive creature instead.
The young soldier stumbled back in fear.
It was a long-necked bird, larger than even the feathered warlizards, with bright feathers made of red, orange, and yellow fire. It knocked the silver captain aside easily and launched itself up into the air, revealing an enormous wingspan that seemed to replace the sky with flames.
The firebird streamed up into the sky, long feathers following, but then it dived back down and descended on the white-armored soldiers with massive, burning claws. In its fell swoop, the firebird snatched up two of the young soldier’s brothers, then released them from a height at speed, so that they flew far across the village and broke against the burning residences.
Chaos returned to the village.
The firebird twisted suddenly in midair, a masterful pilot, flaring with a flash of white and blue, and swooped down again. It caught only one scrambling soldier in a claw this time, but another soldier was snatched up in its sharp beak, and its enormous wings batted more white-armored soldiers aside as it launched itself back into the air.
The young soldier scrambled desperately back, but it felt as though the air itself was aflame with the firebird’s wrath.
He watched as the rider in black ran forward, cutting through the chaos, and fearlessly threw his red sword at the deadly firebird like a spear. In a great feat of strength and precision, the blade, which must have been magic, lodged itself in one of the firebird’s wings, near to where the fiery wing met the burning torso.
The firebird screamed and toppled from the sky, releasing the soldier in its beak, but crushing the soldier in its claws. Its other wing beat wildly and the firebird barely managed not to fall on the poor residences below, landing heavily in the desert just outside the village. The firebird struck ground with a sound like thunder, throwing up clouds of sand and bursts of flame.
The rider did not wait for the firebird to land before giving chase. The rider stretched out his hand and the red sword flew through the air to return to him, bringing out another scream from the beast.
The silver captain ordered the panicked soldiers to regain control of the screaming captives.
The firebird struggled to return to its feet, but the rider threw his sword again, and this time, the red sword cut off the firebird’s other wing. The massive wing fell to the sand in fire, and the firebird collapsed again with an agonized cry. The beast twisted and writhed, sending out bursts of fire, but the rider in black approached without fear.
Helplessly, the young soldier watched the rider recall the red sword again.
The third time that the rider threw the magic blade, the red sword cut the screaming firebird’s other wing from its body properly, and the beast twisted in on itself. It gave one last, terrible cry, then apparently died in a burst of yellow flames, vanishing in a cloud of black smoke and ash.
Though the firebird itself seemed to vanish, the enormous, beautiful wings remained, twitching in the sand. The feathers still glowed red, orange, and yellow, flashing with edges of white and blue, though they were no longer aflame - they were now more like jewels with flame-like patterns. The wings would have been the oft-toasted trophy of any general’s hall or the greatest splendor of any king’s throne room, but the rider didn’t seem to care for the glory.
The rider marched into the black cloud that had been the firebird’s body for a greater prize.
When the rider stalked out again from his kill, he was dragging the body of a man.
It was not the soldier that the firebird had crushed in its claws. The man was a stranger, without armor, wearing a peasant’s clothes and overtop a brown leather coat that had been stitched with spells and the symbol of rebellion. The man was black-haired, pale brown, and breathing heavily, and his gaze down at the sand, as the black rider forced him to his unsteady knees in front of the captive villagers, was murderous.
The young soldier had now been forced back into line with the others, weapons ready, behind the rider. The young soldier watched as the rider stood before the smoke-stained, sweaty stranger in silence. They watched as, when the silence grew to be too much, the rider put his red sword under the chin of the man he had dragged from the ashes of a deadly firebird.
As the man’s handsome face turned up, taking in a deep breath, something like fire seemed to flicker beneath his skin.
“Where is the map to the Sky-Walker?” the rider demanded.
The man coughed, then answered, “My mother warned me not to speak to strangers on the road.”
The red sword pressed closer, threatening to draw more blood, but the man did not look afraid even as he leaned back, trembling with the effort. His gaze was no less murderous.
“I might get lost,” the man said hoarsely.
The rider was still for a long time, before he pointed back towards the silver captain with his free hand, before flicking that hand towards one of the captive villagers on their knees. All without turning his masked head away from the man before him.
“Bring the old man forward.”
The young soldier watched as the silver captain brought forward an old man with pale, leathery skin and a white beard. The rider brought his red sword to the old man.
“Where is the map to the Sky-Walker?” the rider demanded again.
“I do not have it,” the old man answered evenly.
The rider’s red sword moved closer.
“I swear this upon my name, Lor San Tekka,” the old man said.
Persistently, the rider demanded again to know which of them had the way to the legend he sought. The Order knew that this old man, who had now named himself Lor San Tekka, had once had the map, for their spies had heard the quiet call which had summoned this strange rebel to this settlement. The rider’s red sword, covered in black burns, moved dangerously between the rebel and the old man as he questioned them.
Neither gave him the answers he sought.
“Some men hold so tightly to their curses, unable to confront the transformations of their own making,” the old man, Lor San Tekka, said calmly.
He then looked up at the black-cloaked, black-armored, black-masked rider and claimed to know his true name.
The red sword flashed through the air.
And the old man’s head struck the sand, with his body following after.
The rebel first flinched away, and then he threw himself at the rider in rage, only to be pushed back by a backhanded wave of a black glove. Forced down by an invisible wall, the rebel collapsed with a grunt and a wheeze. The rider turned away, passing by the silver captain, who had been waiting several steps behind him.
“Search him,” the rider said. “Take him back to the palace. Bring the wings.”
“Sir,” the silver captain called after him. “The villagers.”
The rider did not stop. “...Kill them all.”
At the silver captain’s command, the white-armored soldiers slaughtered the captive villagers. Some of the rebels screamed. Some tried to beg. Some tried to escape into the night. They joined the old man in the sand one by one. None escaped the ruling.
Except for the rebel pulled from the firebird, struggling violently for freedom.
The young soldier did nothing. He raised his weapon to no one, but this could neither undo nor counter any of the blows made by the soldiers with whom he had been raised. He had touched nothing here, save for the body of his fallen brother, but the fire around him still spread without his help. He stood like a statue. He wished desperately either to wake up from this nightmare or to fall back into the trance which had carried him here, but all he could do was stand in the centre of the chaos, painfully awake.
He saw the rider sheathe his terrible red sword and mount his nightmarish black-feathered warlizard, which danced restlessly before the rider brought it back under control. Now mounted, the rider looked directly at the young soldier, standing still amidst the chaos.
The young soldier recognized the silver markings on the rider’s black armor and mask. He had heard of the red sword which glowed so hurtfully. He had overheard many stories of this rider, the treasured apprentice of their order’s great leader who was a formidable wizard. The young soldier was certain that the rider, the leader of the Knights of Ren, had never heard of him, a common soldier, who had not left the walls of the grand palace for the march until now.
Yet the apprentice stared directly at him as though the young soldier was worth noticing. The young soldier felt pierced through by a gaze he could not see. There were the only two still things among all the fire and death.
And then the rider turned away and fled across the desert.
It was a long march back to the walled palace. They were soon met by a caravan for the prisoner, who had been bound and forced to stumble behind the silver captain’s white-feathered warlizard, as well as two large wagons, one for each of the enormous, flame-colored wings of the firebird. The soldiers, glad to be freed of their burden, loaded up the wings. The rebel was forced into the prison caravan, chained to its bars.
The rebel villagers and the fallen soldiers had been left behind to burn.
Freed from his heavy burden, without the heat from the jewel-like feathers which had somehow stayed warm, the young soldier fell back into the repetition of the march. Through the thin slits of his helmets, he watched the outside world disappear around him.
Much too soon, the high walls of the grand palace came into view, and the young soldier had no hope of leaving again once he returned. They marched inside and the great gates closed behind them as though they would never open again.
The silver captain dismounted and handed off the reins of her mount. She directed the rebel prisoner to be taken to the dungeons, the firebird’s wings to be cleaned by their great leader’s servants, and for the white-armored soldiers to report for debriefing.
At the top of the high steps to the grand palace’s great hall, the young soldier could see the rider in black, standing tall as though he had been waiting for them. He was still cloaked and still masked. The wizard apprentice’s attention seemed to be completely on the rebel prisoner, being dragged from the caravan, but the young soldier fled his line of sight regardless.
The young soldier tucked himself away, in a lowly corner of the grand palace, and ripped off his white helmet. It was the first time that he had removed it since he had been whisked away by the spell of the march. He wanted to throw the helmet, which felt like a cursed thing in his hands, away from him, into the deepest pit he could find. However, before the urge could overtake him completely, the young soldier noticed the red among the black ash and the brown dust.
There were three long stripes of dried blood across one eye.
The young soldier reached up to his face, to the eye, overcome with the sensation that it took had somehow been marked by blood. His white-armor was dull and filthy now, too much so to see his own reflection clearly in his helmet.
The march back had been so long that he wasn’t sure the coat of dust and ash on him could ever be removed from his skin now.
The silver captain found him like this, which was not a surprise. It was not a surprise that it had been noticed that he had been unable to wield his weapon, unable to fall into line, and unable to follow orders when the Order had demanded he pay his dues. It was not a surprise that he was now ordered to report to rooms deep in the palace, from which many did not return, miserable places made of strange lights and stranger smells and discordant sounds, full of sorcerers who specialized in teaching pain. The silver captain said that it would reaffirm his loyalty to their great leader and their most worthy cause.
A soldier who would not kill could not be a soldier. If he could not fulfill his purpose, after he had been raised to serve, then this young man was not only a failure, but a traitor to the cause. Any soldier who would not kill would be revealed to be a traitor. Traitors could not be permitted.
It did not seem to occur to the silver captain, as she left, after the young man had acknowledged the order for punishment, that a young man who had finally woken up would not wish to go back to sleep. It didn’t seem to occur to her that he would now, trapped as he was, fail to obey.
They young man had nowhere in all the world to go, it was true, but he still had something to run from. Which meant, he thought, that the direction didn’t really matter, so long as the road he choose took him far, far away.
The young man cleaned himself, exchanged his armor, and replaced his helmet. He walked through the grand palace carefully, with his head held high, and began to formulate a plan.
As much as the keepers of this grand palace tried to hide it, as much as the Masters of Order denied it, he knew that he was far from the first to consider running. He knew from the few examples they had made that escape was difficult, if not impossible. The walls were high. The great gates were thick. The ordered lands all around them were hostile, and the scores of hunters who would be sent after him knew the unwelcoming terrain well.
The young man went to the dungeons. As he got closer, he was able to follow the long and distant screams of a prisoner, and when he came too close, he waited in a dark corner for the interrogation to end. He had no hope of interfering. All he could do was hope that the apprentice would not leave only a body behind when he was finished.
The young man could not rescue the dead.
It felt as though all the day had gone by, by the time that the apprentice swept out of the cell, still cloaked and masked in black. The apprentice’s long, furious strides ate up the ground at first, but then the apprentice paused suddenly. He turned his head like a beast tasting the air.
The young man stayed very still in his dark corner, not daring to breathe, and soon the apprentice left whatever scent he had caught be. The apprentice stalked off, footsteps fading away, leaving this part of the palace dungeons empty and agonizingly silent once more.
The young man approached the prison cell cautiously, dreading what he might find inside.
The prisoner inside was chained on some sort of rack, breathing heavily, unconscious but clearly alive. There were no visible wounds on the captured rebel, now mostly cleaned of ash. Whatever the wizard apprentice had done, he had not drawn blood.
The young man quickly let himself into the cell and, as gently as he dared, shook the sleeping rebel awake.
“Listen carefully,” the young man said, once the rebel’s eyes focused on him. “If you follow me and do as I say, I will help steal back your wings for you.”
The rebel, even weak and chained, frowned up at the young man with judgement as piercing as that of any prince. The man on the rack did not look like he had once been a wild, fiery monster that had needed to be cut from the sky.
The young man took off his helmet, much to the rebel’s obvious surprise.
“If I return you to your wings, could you wear them again? Could you fly again?”
“...I could fly anywhere,” the rebel answered.
Seeing as the other man was coherent and agreeable, the young man quickly set about freeing the prisoner from his restraints. The rebel yanked his limbs free quickly and gladly, as the young man set them loose one by one, and the rebel even accepted the young man’s support to stand from the rack. Even when the rebel was on his feet again, he needed to lean on the young man, and, oddly, the rebel then reached up to touch the young man’s face.
Bare skin against bare skin, as though to assure himself that this was real.
“Are you a spy for the Resistance?” the rebel asked him.
“No,” the young man answered.
He left the rebel to lean against the rack, so that he could pick up his helmet again. He would only need to wear it again once, the young man told himself, and then he would never have to wear the white armor again, if this worked.
“Then… what is your price?” the rebel demanded hoarsely.
“For help,” the rebel clarified.
The young man paused, before he could replace his helmet. “None,” he said finally, “save that you take me with you. When you fly over the walls and far away from this wretched place, carry me with you.”
“Carry you away?”
“I cannot stay here and live. I cannot kill for them. I will not kill for them.”
The rebel who was also a firebird stared at him, then slowly smiled, wide and open, which transformed his tired face into something dangerous and splendid. Something, the promise of fire, seemed to flicker beneath the man’s skin again. His eyes lit up with excitement.
“Return to me my wings, friend, and I’ll take you anywhere you wish.”