As he sat on the silent stone steps of the fortress, he gazed into the far distance, where the sky was eternally darkened by a malice so intent, it tainted the northern sky black. A flash of lightning lit the sky, briefly revealing a wide field of nothingness. Here, he sat, contemplating the future that awaits him. It was so quiet. It was the calm before the storm.
Storm.. A storm is brewing. With it, a furious gale of unforgiving force of terror will rip apart anyone foolish enough to enter it unprepared.
He still remembered. How he, among thousands others, thousands of the best soldiers from the Empire’s army were chosen for the elite fighting force. An elite fighting force so renown all over the Empire that it became a dream for every soldier to be part of it. He had friends who failed to be chosen. Yet when the official scroll of appointment came, he was a tad surprised to see that he, along 25 other soldiers of different creed, would be sent to garrison an outpost far in the cold, dark northern reaches of the Empire. An outpost so notorious for its distance from civilisation, only a handful were posted there. In his heart, he thought.. why the tiny troop? 26? Suicidal, considering the dangers that would be faced by them when they travel the perilous journey to garrison their new posts.
A soft breeze ruffled his hair, bringing him back to reality. He blinked, let out a slow sigh and looked down. His armour is heavy. His sword is dull. His shield, scarred from countless battles, rested against the stone steps. His leather gauntlets, embellished with the Empire’s royal seal and coat-of-arms of the elite army, reminded him how he had surrendered the coming years under a voluntary service, all for the glory of the Empire. Was it worth it?
He remembered how being part of the elite army was all he ever wanted. Of course it was worth it.
He looked upwards and saw the glimpse of a raven, circling high above him. Closing his eyes, he suddenly recalled the first day he stepped into the barracks, where he would be spending the next 9 months undergoing a series of grueling and harsh training to prepare for his ultimate assignment. Together with hundreds others of new recruits, he would eat, sleep, and train in the isolated barracks. They had a nasty name for that place. He couldn’t remember.. it had something to do with isolation..
He remembered the first day they were gathered in front of the Field Marshal and countless other captains. They had only words of warning and not one looked too happy nor proud. They knew that not all can survive out here.
“You do or you die. You have been chosen not out of your merits, not because you deserve the honour to serve as an elite soldier. You are here to prove your worth. Fail it, you’re gone. No matter how many enemies you’ve killed, how many battles you’ve endured, no matter how high your ranks were in the army, in here, you’re nobody.”
Not a single one who didn’t shudder at the thought then. He, for one, have not the slightest inkling of how harsh the training would be. All the thought of pride, of honour of being chosen, vanished. It was not what he thought it would be. It was far from it. It was, in a sense, hellish.
A sudden rumble of thunder brought him back out of his reverie. He opened his eyes, stifled a yawn and stood up clumsily. Armour be damned.. but such is the rule. They, the chosen 26, had to adhere by the strict code. They had to undergo the harshest training since they were posted to the northern frontier. He didn’t know much about the others who trained alongside them, a much larger platoon of 60. Word was the rest were going to head south.
He felt sleepy. Aching all over from the sparring tests last week, he and his comrades had a few days off to rest before the actual perilous journey. He gazed northwards again. Storm is coming, he kept thinking. In 3 weeks’ they would have to traverse the rugged terrain, bracing icy gale, holding on to dear life. It would be the hardest journey they ever took.
He stretched. The bell rang, signalling the switching of guard duty. He turned back and heard metal clinking. Immediately, he saw Xuyin, an talented sword-fighter and excellent archer who was probably the best among the 26. He never saw her being tired. She was always vigilant, always ready, eyes shining and face stern. Knowledgeable and wise. He paled in comparison.
He gave her a curt nod, she nodded back. He clambered up the steps, dreading the routine sparring practice and war skills they would have to undergo for the final time before embarking from the barracks. 3 more weeks before the bloody storm. Damn it.
Yet, with each step, his steely resolve began to surge through his blood. His heart is set with an unstoppable determination, not unlike those of his comrades:
I shall survive the storm. I have to. I will.
With one last look northwards at the dark sky, he trod lightly through the silent training ground.