It has begun
"The Echelon! The Echelon are here!" The hoarse but jubilant cry of the lone watcher rose up on the wind and flew across the blood bathed battle ground. A hundred faces, some shining with radiant joy - others clouded with fear turned to stare towards the ridge of the hill. Even through the sleeting rain the flaming red banner still stood out as clear as day against the grey, clouded sky. Three skulls, flying out in the howling wind above the four horsemen who had paused, like wildcats ready for the kill on the rise. The whole world seemed to hold its breath, not even the vultures that circled high in the black clouds interrupting the silence with a cruel, bloodthirsty cry.
Not even they, the great scavengers of the sky would dare interrupt the silent awe that surrounded the four warriors like a curtain. The Rider's fed them; left enough carnage in their wake to keep the world's worth of carnivores in meat for the rest of a year. Just four men, that's all it took to win a battle - even a battle of this size that had not come about for hundreds of years. The Echelon were Saviours, angels in human form. And now they would save the battle, bring it back from the foul grasp of our enemies.
And then they charged. With a cry that would render the heart of even the bravest solider the stallions cantered at a ferocious pace down the hillside and then, with a clang of metal and screams that echoed through out the whole of the valley they began their duty.
The stench of blood and pain lay heavy of the battle ground. You couldn't move without lying your feet in crimson or having to step around the lifeless, cold body of yet another man in armour. The further you got towards the base of the hills more and more of the bodies bore the clean, quick slashes from Echelon blades. The skin around the fatal wounds was singed, almost as if they're been made with a sword that was white hot. You learnt not to look after a while, as you picked your way through the bodies and the already feasting vultures. Learnt not to look down and see the twisted, frozen faces of the dead men, blood pooling around like the earth they would soon descend into. After a while the carnage became normal, an occurrence that was just a part of life instead of a brutal end to the lives of too many young men and women.
The camp, huge and sparkling white with the linen of the tents, was pitched on the other side of the hill, shielded from the battleground and the ruins of the enemy's once great army. As you step over the ridge, the rest of you comrades and fellow survivors striding proudly - if not wearily beside you, a glimpse of the King's dark blue banner, with its silver sickle moon sat proudly in the middle could be caught. Dancing in the breeze and bringing a relieved smile to the faces of the soldiers as they swarmed down the slope and into the relative comfort and warmth of the city-like encampment.
You stop, about half way down, the other men and women surging around you, and look down at the place that will be your home for what could be days, could be months. The King's tent, the size of the Circus tents that came to the village when you were little, sat in the very centre of the camp, the banner fluttering from the very top peak. A way to the side, tucked away at the base of the hill, four small tents nestled, made out of black material that stood out dark against the green foliage that surrounded it. The blood red banner, stark against the dimming sky seemed to even over shadow the King's own, but instead of making the soldiers smile, most of them glanced away even before the Trinity of Skulls and the faint echo of the unknown language arched around the bottom even registered on their retina. Your gaze lingers a little longer but you carry on down the hill not soon after. They wouldn't be back until later, having their own rituals to carry out over the dead of the slaughter.
No one understood them - and you doubted anyone wanted to.
A lone figure sat up on the ridge, the beginnings of dawn just starting to dye the clouds high above his head light, baby pink. The valley was still charcoal black beneath him but his eyes weren't focused on any of it. Staring down at his feet but not really even looking at them his vision swam with a million flashes of memory. Screams, burning, his mother's tears, a red velvet dress, the voice of a stranger who would shape the rest of his life. A tear trickled slowly and morbidly down his pale cheeks as the fleeting moments of his life danced before his eyes - this is what he'd been raised to do - protect the people and if that meant slaughtering hundreds then so be it. But the man who had brought him up to do that...
His thoughts were interrupted by footsteps on the loose scree, and he didn't even need to turn his head to see who it was. The weigh behind the footsteps and the meandering path that they took was all he needed to hear to tell him everything he needed to know. He felt a pair of dark eyes come to rest on him seconds later, still slightly fidgety, unsure of what to do next. He had always thought that after three years of this, of just the four of them it would have made the youngest at least a little more sure around everyone than he had been a first.
There was a sigh, and then the sound of tumbling stones as his friend sat down next to him, his eyes fixed on the horizon, the Sun just starting to peak above it. "You shouldn't blame yourself, even if we'd set out hours earlier we still wouldn't have got here in time." The other man's voice was quiet, not it's normal slightly laughing self. The sincerity of his words lay heavy in the air as his companion, still haunted by memories struggled to find an answer.
"He's dead." He muttered, almost angrily as he scooped some of the gravel into his hand, feeling it trickle back through his fingers as he stared down at the dark mass of shingle. "Dead and gone. What are we supposed to do now?"
His companion glanced across at him, dark, spiky hair clear against the gently coloured sky. "We do what we always have." He shrugged "We carry on protecting the people." He yawned slightly and got to his feet, sending more pebbles tumbling down to the graveyard below them. "Where's Jared, we should go in. The burning starts early tomorrow."
The other man looked up at him, the tears sparkling on his tears, and his friend seemed to utter a silent prayer as he noticed them. "He's down in the valley." The answer came back, quiet and subdued "Tell him I'll come down later."
The look his companion got as he went to argue was enough to send any remarks plummeting back down to where they came from. It was that look, a look that was enough to make the strongest man crumble that made Shannon Leto a General. That's what made him who he was. That and the man who lay, lifeless in the centre of the death pit that sat, festering at the bottom of that valley.
"What do we believe?" The voice rang out high and clear over the attentive silence of the room, echoing in the ears of the twenty young teenagers who sat in a semi circle around their teacher on the hard, polished wooden floor.
"We believe in equality and free speech, rights for all men and women and the protection and peace of our land." Twenty mouths chanted, twenty minds recited, twenty hearts savoured every word.
The teacher, his armour glittering in the morning sunlight smiled to himself as he paced up and down the gathering of young people, their faces glowing with respect and admiration. The slight breeze danced around his golden hair, picking it up from where it lay against his crimson collar. He stopped infront of one of the boys, but the eyes of two darted up to look at him. One pair of probing, intelligent blue orbs and then another, more relaxed and observing, as brown as the coat of stag in spring. He looked at the older boy, a knowing smile flitting around his face as memories of times and places and the two boys he'd come to treat like sons meandered back into his mind.
"Shannon," He started, slowly and quietly, with the kind of reserve and presence only a man such as he could possibly control. "When all else fails, what must you always do?" He was taking a risk asking this boy such a question but he knew no matter what answer he got those brown eyes could give him a million reasons why he was right and what they had been taught all these long years was wrong.
"That no matter what happens you must protect those who mean the most to you." Shannon spoke clearly, his eyes glowing slightly as he changed the words he'd repeated over and over again. "Because they are even more important than the safety of the people."
His teacher nodded thoughtfully "And if you lose them, what do you have to protect then?" He asked, challenging the young adolescent's slant on the verses.
"Then you've failed as a warrior." Shannon shrugged "And then no verses and no rules will mean anything to you."
He had probably just committed blasphemy. But in his heart, the old warrior knew that the world needed more people like the boy who sat in front of him. More people brave enough to change the world.