Harbingers in the Dark
Two years later, at the outer rim of Atlantis' western territory
They were completely lost, the young enlisted thought as he and his companions wandered in circles in the forest. It had been almost a week since they started an expedition into the forest to catch a supposed fugitive, and it had been two days since their officer had gone missing without a trace.
No one in the group knew how far they were from the Republic-Atlantis border. No one exactly understood why they were authorized to enter into Atlantis overnight. No one even had heard of any escaped fugitive to begin with.
Even though the Republic had maintained a major military presence by the border, there were never any border patrols seen on the Atlantan side. It was actually a rare occasion to spot any Atlantans by the border at all. As the Republic and Atlantis had signed a mutual treaty to deter each other from conducting any activities outside of their respective territories, the expedition had therefore been viewed with doubt. Yet the troops were simply ordered to cease their questioning and pursue the supposedly dangerous target.
All the enlisted troops in the small company were youths from the Fringe and were freshly out of boot camp. They had no prior experience when it came to actual military missions, apart from the officer with all the mission details. Yet, only a couple days ago the company woke up to find him missing along with all the maps and navigation tools.
Trapped in Atlantis territory, they could only hope either to find a way back to the border, or to approach an Atlantan patrol for guidance, yet everyone questioned the latter option as nobody could predict how the Atlantans would response if they discovered Republic combatants were carrying live ammunitions in their forest.
Their mission to capture the fugitive hence had become a secondary objective; their primary concern was to escape from the forest alive.
As the troops started to pick up their pace again, marching in a single line with their Enfield bolt action rifles raised, their point-man raised his hand to signal a halt.
"Look," he whispered and nodded towards something in front. As his companions crowed forward to gain a better sight, everyone saw what supposed to be the outline of a person, but couldn't see clearly due to all the fog in the surrounding.
"Wait," the point-man snapped at one of them who had stood up. "We don't know if that's friendly or foe."
However, with all the hustling going on, it seemed that the person heard them. The shadow stood up and moved closer to them.
"Stop right there!" The point-man yelled at the approaching figure. Still couldn't see clearly who they were talking to, all the soldiers raised their rifles at the shadow.
"We mean no harm, but please stop moving," the point-man nervously trying to convince the stranger from approaching forward but to no no avail.
Suddenly, a loud blast cracked behind the point-man. The gunshot was from a soldier same age as him yet having completely lost his composure. Everyone watched in shock as the approaching figure took the shot around the chest area and fell to the ground.
"What are you doing kid?" One of the grunts shouted at the shooter who had tripped backwards due to the recoil of the rifle. While everyone turned in unison towards the commotion, one of them decided to gingerly walk towards the body.
What he saw instantly made him lost what's left of any color from his face.
"It's a child," he turned around and exclaimed with a cracked voice. "We shot a child!"
The point-man jumped forward. To his and everyone's horror, an Atlantan child with a bullet hole in his chest was lying on the ground surrounded by a pool of blood. Still alive but barely, the child tried to call for help but only blood was spat out from his mouth.
"Hang in there kid!" One of the grunts rushed forward and tried to apply first aid frantically. However it was only briefly when the panting stopped.
"No..." the grunt said while his hands were soaked with the child's blood. "That can't be..."
The point-man initially being the calmest of them all, suddenly jerked towards the shooter who was hiding the background. He dragged him to the body and pressed him down.
"Look at what you have done!" He cried out as flashback of the child falling down rewind in his head. He could still hear the gunshot echoing and the child's dying pantings inside his mind. As he became too tired to keep pressing the catatonic shooter down, he tried to lean back to catch his breath, but an arrow suddenly stabbed through his forehead. Soon volleys of arrows followed from all directions.
"Incoming!" a grunt who first came back to his senses screamed. He tried to run behind a tree, but was too slow and became a target of at least five arrows on his back.
Soon, the surviving soldiers raised their rifles and fired at random directions. Having no idea where the ambush originated, all shots fired only landed on tree barks or nothing at all. Soon, the loud cracking sounds of gunfire died out as one by one the remaining soldiers were riddled with arrows. Only the grunt who applied medical attention to the child was left alive.
He turned around to witness the carnage. All his campions were lying lifelessly on the ground with arrow sticking out of their bodies. Finding the strength to propel himself back up, he turned around and started running towards nowhere until he ran out of energy and passed out on the ground.
With his head down, he heard footsteps approaching. As he was turned around, he saw a few pale faces with pointy eyes and ears gazing down at him. All of them were cloaked with robes matching the color of the leaves. One of them raised his bow and aimed at the grunt, except he was stopped by what appeared to be the leader.
"Stop. He tried to resurrect the idling child early on," he said calmly in his native language. "Besides, we need a messenger."
Two weeks later, the Academy
This should be your proudest day, Atticus thought as he strolled aimlessly around the packed courtyard. He walked past a window and gazed at the reflection of himself. Though he had worn full uniform on a few occasions before, today was a special commemoration, for it was graduation day.
While the standard officer's uniform looked similar to the enlist's, the blue jacket was made from a finer leather with gold outlines around the collar, shoulder straps, and cuffs. A golden stripe was also pinned on Atticus' collar and shoulders like the other graduates to denote his rank as a second lieutenant. As he blankly walked through the crowd again, he felt a pang of sadness hitting him squarely after seeing every graduate happily reuniting with their families after three years of harsh discipline and training. His name was called out a few times as he walked pass the crowd, but he simply nodded towards his associates without staying to chat.
Trying to find somewhere to sit down, he walked to the end of the courtyard where the limestone benches were located. However they were already occupied by a company of female graduates chit chatting and giggling amongst themselves. To be exact, they were the only female graduates out of the entire lot graduating today. The majority of the Academy's population were male given its nature, plus a handful of female cadets had dropped out throughout the past three years, leaving only a small but close knitted community who had braved through the trainings with their male counterparts.
The group continued to chat cheerfully without noticing Atticus, except for Clara who was sitting right at the center. Throughout the past three years she had become more outgoing and willing to socialize more with her fellow cadets. The female population had actually seen her as an inspiration given her prodigious performances that landed her the top of her classes. However, she had continued to maintain humble and stuck by Atticus however possible. As they locked eyes, she glided towards him against the protest of her peers.
"You don't have to leave them, you know," Atticus said as they moved back to the crowd.
"I wasn't even paying attention to what they were talking about," Clara replied with her usual reserved tone.
"Nice medals by the way," Atticus pointed at all the medals pinned on her jacket. Compared to Atticus' uniform, Clara's was decorated with medals she had received this morning, signifying her honors and achievements from all her classes.
"I don't really care about them. You can have them if you want."
"No thanks. Isn't that kind of pointless if I put them on? You earn them anyway."
"We are all soldiers now of equal ranks now. No one is better or higher."
"If that is only the case," Atticus scoffed as they walked past Snowdin who was with his goons. He tried to signal Clara to come over, but she ignored him and continued to walk alongside Atticus. Though he was back to the center of the crowd again, he felt less lonely and awkward thanks to Clara's company.
"If only my mama was here," Clara whispered.
"She would be real happy, along with the good Pastor. They are watching you from above, so lift your chin up," Atticus tried to cheer Clara up. He noticed her stopped to stare towards a camera man taking photos for graduates with their family.
"Hey Atty, can I have a photo with you?"
"You know they usually tend to jack up the price at occasions like today right?" Atticus muttered but relented after seeing Clara was already talking with the operator.
"Actually sir can you take two for us?" Atticus hopped in. He might as well keep one for himself, seeing that he never had a photo with his companion before.
"By the way Clara, please try to smile."
"Let's make sure to pick them up before sundown," Clara said as she rubbed her eyes. The flash seemed too bright her to handle, while Atticus simply blinked a few times before regaining his vision. "That's when he said they should be ready by then."
"By the way Atty, I ran into Commandant Sherman this morning. He said he wanted to see you."
"Wait... why are you telling me now?" Atticus turned towards her. Commandant Sherman was one of the acting councilor of the Academy, and to Atticus, Sherman should have no interest in an average cadet like him.
Clara shrugged. "We are still early. Besides he told us to drop by his office anytime today."
Though Clara told Atticus that Sherman had exclusively requested for him, Atticus asked her to accompany him to Sherman's office as he still thought there was a mistake. Already intimidated by the grand atmosphere of the Academy's Executive Tower, he was further stunned by the presence of the Commandant himself, who had never made much public appearances. Sitting across them (Sherman also asked Clara to stay if she wanted to), the Commandant smiled at the shocked graduate.
"I don't know what's the fuss all about," Sherman was the first to speak. "Just a councilor wanting to know his students better. Am I right, Ms. Patton?"
"Of course sir," Clara answered sternly.
"Good, now then Mr. Lincoln, first off I want to congratulate both of you on graduating," the Commandant's smile widened into a grin.
"Thank you, sir." Both Atticus and Clara replied simultaneously.
"No need for formalities here, children. And now Mr. Lincoln, the reason I wanted you to attend this meeting is that I am in possession of a item that belonged to a good friend of mine," Sherman pointed at a wooden box in front of him. He opened it and presented its content to Atticus.
"Colt semi-automatic pistol. Every serviceman's trusty sidearm. One of the most ingenious masterpiece designed by Dr. Browning. It is an old model though, but it has accompanied my friend throughout his entire career," Sherman explained as he took out and examined the black service pistol.
"It has the same caliber as the most updated version, and it also uses the same cartridge and magazines. In my opinion, I like old models like this. It's heavier but more grippy.
"Once you meet your quartermasters upon deployment you can simply request for the common ammunitions the current models use and you will be ready to serve the good ol' Republic," the senior continued to the bewilderment of both Atticus and Clara. He twirled the weapon on his finger and grabbed it by the slide.
"And now, it is all yours," Sherman finished by pressing the sidearm towards Atticus, who was still unaware of the Commandant's intentions, continued to stare blankly until he was nudged by Clara. Holding its hollow grip, Atticus found the pistol much heavier than those he used during target practice.
"Permission to speak sir," Atticus decided to clear the puzzlement in his head. The Commandant nodded.
"Sorry to be blunt sir, but what's I do not understand what's going on here... and I do not think I can accept this gift."
Sherman chuckled. "It's not a gift son. Read the rail."
Atticus hold up the pistol and examined its side. Beneath all the scratches laid eight letters imprinted on its right side.
"Invictus..." Atticus read out while rubbing his finger along the word.
"It's an old Canterbury language. It means 'unconquered'," Clara said while also taking interest in the pistol.
"That's right, kids. That's the word your father lived by," Sherman seemed to be waiting to say this since their meeting had begun. "Tough world he lived in, so that's quite a fitting name for his sidearm. Too bad he couldn't live to see his son graduating from his alma mater."
Hearing his father being mentioned, plus realizing that he had been holding the very artifact he used, Atticus jumped up from his seat with excitement yet instantly calmed down when he realized he should never have reacted such way in front of a senior officer like Sherman.
"Sorry sir," he apologized. "But permission to -" Atticus did not have a chance to finish his sentence as the Commandant had already held up his hand.
"Denied. I am way too exhausted from handing out all those diplomas today," Sherman said flatly. "Now you kids enjoy the rest of the evening. I had matters to attend"
While Clara was lying with her back to him on the adjacent bed, Atticus continued to run his fingers along his father's pistol. It was way past sun down, and after Atticus and Clara picked up their developed photos they decided to settle down at an inn nearby.
"Hey Clara," Atticus said without taking his eyes off his father's pistol. He heard her shuffled as she sat up on her bed. "What do you mean by 'unconquered'?"
"However you may want to interpret it," she replied in her usual monotonous voice.
"That is not helpful at all."
"Remember when you told me about your father served as a young officer during the Civil War? So I assume that just like the Pastor and probably Sherman, he had probably witnessed some atrocities that made him lose faith in humanity. Imagine Atty," Clara suddenly rose up and sat next to Atticus on his bed.
"Imagine a world surrounded by bloodshed and violence," she continued as she leaned closer to him. "That was during the bloodiest era of the Republic where peace could only be fantasized. Seeing everyone dying around you in the most gruesome manner, you would start to doubt your very existence and your reason to fight. Fear would start to take over, leaving you nothing but an empty shell."
Grabbing hold of Atticus' hand, she continued. "Yet I am sure your father must be a great soldier who survived the war because of his unwavering will. That word on his gun is the avatar of his spirit, trying to remind us to not be conquered by such fear nor doubt our humanity no matter how dark the world we are living in. In other words, never give up."
Atticus gulped while Clara continued to stay inches away from his face. "That was quite creepy, the way you put it, and I still have a difficult time comprehending what you said."
Clara rolled her eyes back and retracted to the corner of Atticus' bed. Hugging her knees, she stared out of the window at the empty street.
"I wish someone who have said that to me when mama passed away right in front of my eyes." She muttered. Atticus sighed. He had known her for more than ten years already, yet he had avoided bringing up her past, seeing how that had haunted her even until now. In fact, he didn't even know how her mother died; it seemed Clara had been suppressing a tragic memory but he had no intention to find out.
It was Atticus' turn to lean forward towards Clara and gently reached for her hands. "Hey, I know it's still early to decide, but have you thought about which unit to apply for yet?" He asked, trying to change the subject.
Clara shook her head. "I guess I will do whatever you choose Atty."
Atticus frowned while dropping her hand he was holding. "Well you shouldn't. We are both officers in the military now who have to lead our own squads. Besides, we all know that you belong to the Cavalry." The Cavalry of the Republic was one of the elite forces of its military. It usually was responsible for scouting operations or conducting lightening assaults on enemy positions. Under most circumstances, only the top graduates were allowed to join the Cavalry right after graduating. In his first year at the Academy, Atticus aimed to do so, yet changed his mind upon realizing how incapable he was on a horseback.
Clara sighed and and tugged at Atticus' sleeve. For the past eleven years, Clara had remained attached to Atticus and tried to look out for his well being whenever she could. In fact, though they were the same age, she had frequently acted like an older sister, a role which he had found to be overprotective of him and to certain extent, frustrating.
"Promise me one thing Atty," Clara whispered. "No matter where you go, promise me you won't get yourself hurt or killed."
Atticus frowned and shook his head. "Yeah," he muttered. "I ain't planning on doing that anytime soon, so don't worry about me."
As Clara climbed back into her bed, Atticus laid the Invictus back to its box and blew out the candles. Lying in bed, he gazed blankly at the ceiling, contemplating when and where he would actually be deployed. Yet, he thought to himself, he didn't have to lose sleep over it, as they were still living in an era of relative peace.