CLASSIFIED - TOP SECRET THE NAMELESS ORDER Starling’s Raid The man pulled his coat tighter around his body, trying in futility to shut out the biting wind that sought to numb his mind and body alike. He crouched down on the log he sat on, leaning into the dangerous warmth of the fire, closing his eyes as the smoke stung them. The flames crackled mirthfully as if laughing at his plight, amused that a man of the Order could feel such cold. The figure shook his head, chasing away the self-deprecating thoughts, choosing instead to survey the rest of the campsite. The small cluster of fires blazed in the middle of a tiny clearing, surrounded by endless miles of dark forest on every side. The perilous slopes of the mountains loomed overhead, illuminated by the harsh gleam of the stars above. Forty souls huddled around these flickering beacons, murmuring in low voices as they cooked the meager rations they had allowed themselves for this night. The man briefly met the eyes of his nearest counterpart, and a nod of reassurance passed between them before their gazes continued to wander. The man aside the fire was known as Starling, captain of the Sword’s Eleventh Front. Wind-whipped, short dark hair topped a face that had known no shortage of hardships. The captain’s lean body seemed out of proportion with the confident presence that he projected in the midst of combat, sword swinging in inhuman motions, twirling in the dance of oblivion. A small scar ran across the length of his right cheek, the end result of an unpleasant encounter with a massive bear, and a constant reminder that the wilderness gave nothing it would not take. The captain did not sit at his fire alone. A low growl reminded him of the presence of his constant companion, lying comfortably among the needles and shrubs of the frigid earth. The nation that had ruled these lands a thousand years ago had called the animals mountain lions, not unlike the rangers of the Order, they were a brilliant mix of wiry strength and calculated stealth. Generations of rangers had tamed these creatures, a tradition that had faded like many others near to the point of disappearance. “Shroud, come here!” The captain called to his friend in a low whisper, and was rewarded with the feel of the cat’s pelt under his gloved fingers. A rumbling purr grew in the shadow, and the captain smiled. A few paces away, his horse whinnied loudly in contest. The man chuckled, reaching out and scratching his mount under the chin. The horse, Falcon, calmed, settling on the ground aside his rider. The sound of hoof beats brought the captain’s head up in a snap, and his hand was already reaching for his sword before he consciously decided to do so. He pulled the blade halfway out of its holster before sighing in relief and replacing it, as the flowing dark coats of the approaching riders announced them as fellow rangers. All but one of the figures pulled up short of the clearing and dismounted; the last rode straight toward the captain and jumped down with a flourish; her cloak brushing against his face. She turned to face him, her breath warm against his skin. “Captain Starling,” she said slowly, as if analyzing the value of his name. The captain snapped into a salute; body ramrod straight and hands crossed behind his back. “General Shade,” he greeted his superior. She waved off his formality, and he relaxed again. “What brings you to my humble encampment?” The captain asked, smiling as he did so. Shade’s face remained firm, darkened under the watch of her cap. “You have been tasked to eliminate a small group of unknowns about ten miles south of here,” she explained, looking into his eyes to gage his reaction. He kept his features carefully neutral, showing no trace of excitement or apprehension. She smiled, apparently pleased with what she saw. “Will I get any support? Perhaps the Forth Front?” Shade shook her head. “No,” she replied, declining to explain further. The captain did not follow the thread. “Very well, I shall carry out these orders,” he said, then turned to face the rest of the camp. “Rock!” He yelled at his second command, “get the troops ready! We’re moving in twenty minutes!” Rock nodded and began to rouse the figures sitting among the fires. The camp seemed to transform almost instantly; where cold indifference had sat just seconds before, new life and anticipation bloomed from the rangers. “Starling,” Shade’s soft voice took his mind off of the camp, and he turned around to face her. She gestured at a thick grove of trees a few paces away, obviously with intentions of a private conversation. The captain followed her wordlessly, brushing his cloak behind him. The pair reached the shadows, and he looked at his superior with building suspicion. She smiled at him again, a different smile, tainted with something deeper and more wanting. A strange fire ran through the captain’s veins, and his lips met those of his lover. Passion exchanged without interruption between two souls, his hands exploring the contours of her body. Her fur cap fell off of her head and plunged into the snow, unnoticed by the youthful couple. His kisses found their way to her neck, and she inhaled sharply with pleasant surprise. The captain separated from the eager embrace of his lover with reluctance as the clanging of metal and frantic neighing of horses announced that the rangers were beginning to mount up; having finished breaking down the camp. Shade grinned at him, face burning red in the cold, and he laughed aloud. She turned serious in an instant, fingers brushing across his scarred cheek. “Stay safe out there,” Shade said with concern even as the mask of general returned to her face. He nodded once and watched as she opened her mouth as if to say something more before deciding otherwise. They walked out of the grove in opposite directions; the general toward her waiting escort, and the captain to his men. He was met by Rock, who shook his head as the captain fell into step with his second-in-command. “I still think its a bad idea, you two,” Rock said, voice gruff with the cold. The captain merely shook his head, chuckling at the worry of his long-time friend. “Are the men ready?” The captain asked, changing the subject. Rock nodded, and the two men arrived at their horses. Both swung up with the ease of an experienced rider, Shroud slinking next to the captain’s mount. He looked across the clearing to his general and lover, smiled briefly, and kicked his horse into motion.