Rayull gnashes his teeth with slow, perceptive motions. “We’re splitting three by three, melee in one group, and rangers in the other. Don’t stray, but set up a spot to watch us and move when you have to,” Rayull says. There’s no major response from the youths this time, just compliance.

Awnway, Bayl, and Cet cautiously fold out of the dilapidated building, watching closely for the smoke of a fire, or the sound of eastern words.

Rayull watches the three step off, and then his group starts off in the opposite direction. The silence only seems to accentuate the tension outside.

“You’d think there’d be at least some refugees hanging about here,” Carl says as he shifts his gaze about the various ruined buildings, only a few of them with remaining roofs overhead.

“Getting caught by artillery magic trashes most everything, especially the fire-element spells- those are exceptional at killing,” Rayull says, motioning over to a large group of burnt-out, blackened skeletons spilling out from the opening of a house; probably the remains of a family gathering.

Vulrick sighs. “The east’s artillery have nothing on this. Though some of these buildings are still holding, our magic artillery target the life of the town, rather than its infrastructure. I once saw one of the grand bolts hit a town a mile off- fire poured through the streets and blasted through the windows. Everyone was killed, but not a single building fell down.”

Carl scoffs, focusing in on some windows to the right. “Well, you can’t hate those blues for doing their job right. Spares us a lot of trouble dealing with their bitches and brats.”

Vulrick’s breath is shorter than his usual, and Rayull snuffs out a bit of smoke. “You mean to say you’d rather have all the innocents just killed off, rather than captured and sent behind the lines?” Vulrick asks.

Carl shrugs with a light expression. “Well, maybe not the girls if they’re cute, but I really couldn’t care less about everyone else. Might as well get rid of them if they’re just going to help the war effort in their capitols.”

Vulrick and Rayull exchange a quick glance. They both simultaneously and silently agree that Carl’s an enormous piece of shit.

“I see,” Vulrick says, “Would you feel the same way about our own people were you on the eastern side?”

Carl turns to Vulrick with a shocked, facetious grin, “Hell, no! We’re not a bunch of inbred dumbasses for one, well, maybe Kanvanians, but the rest of us are decent folk. These people had it coming.”

The three skim across a nearby wall to cut their chances of being spotted.

“You understand, Carl, that I’m half easterner,” Vulrick notes with a surprising amount of genteel.

“Well ’course! Not saying they can’t do the right thing. Your pa’s probably fine considering he knew who the good guys are. Shame he couldn’t get in with you.”

There’s another silence. “Yeah, that was quite a shame,” Vulrick says, his understatement speaking volumes to Rayull.

Carl nods, picking up on Vulrick’s tone, if only a little. “And I didn’t mean nothing about them being like, evil or anything, it’s just, if they’re going to help the effort, I’d rather them not alive. A kid we spare might be the one to craft a gun for a soldier. You got me?”

“Yeah, I got you,” Vulrick says.

Carl smirks and pats Vulrick on the back. “Thanks for understanding, brother. Sorry about your pa’, again.”

Vulrick takes a deep breath. “It’s all passed. I don’t think about it anymore.”

Carl nudges Vulrick as they round a corner. “Well that’s for the best, then.”

“Secure the place first, talking later,” Rayull says, putting an end to the conversation now that it’s lost his interest. Carl nods with a smidgen of humility on his features, and Vulrick decides not to respond.

The three creep to the middle of the town, passing the ground zero of the artillery strike, but nestled into the nook of a blown-out building is an unexpected, alarming sight.

With myriad vines wrapping and providing support, there is a sizable, verdant tree covering the damages of the building. In it is a small window framed with ornate iron and along with it is a shockingly cute door leading right out from the tree. A blatant eastern banner hangs over the door, making it clear that the tree’s inhabitants are on the gun-toting side.

“Rayda preserve…” Rayull mutters.

A rare twinge of fear marks Carl’s features, and Vulrick sighs.

“That a… Is that really a-”

“An eastern mage, probably several,” Vulrick says, finishing for Carl.

Carl draws back with a dumbfounded look. “There’s mages from the East?

“They’re a bitter, rare product of our war,” Vulrick says. “When the easterners capture one of our mages, they’re tortured for weeks to tell them every spell they know, and how it’s done. Very slowly, they’re building up their own magic forces. Looks like these ones have trained natural magic since the start of the war.”

Carl smirks. “You’d expect that from ‘em- the cowards. But why’d you think it’s more than one of them?”

Vulrick peers on. “The vast majority of Eastern mages have been training only since the first couple of months of the war. It would be unlikely that a single one could make an entire tree encampment like this with only a couple year’s practice.”

Carl chuckles. “So, do we just burn down the tree, or what?”

Rayull snorts a puff of smoke. “Definitely not. My armor’s set with a couple of anti-magic enchantments, but you two would have a harder time. If there’s several of them we couldn’t stop all of their casts unless we ambushed them perfectly. We’d have to kill every one of them at the same time.”

Carl squints, watching the tree’s branches sway cheerily. “Yeah? So what’s stopping us from ambushing them?”

“They’re probably here waiting for opponents. If we screw up most of us would be greeted with a sharp root to the heart,” Rayull says.

Carl cringes, and Vulrick speaks up. “Well, sir?”

Rayull snuffs out some more smoke in contemplation. “I’ll tolerate your suggestions, he says with a mild smirk.”

Carl coos humorously. “Eh, well, sir. I feel it best we grab the other three and make a go for ‘em. You know, more folks to stop the casting and thus less damage to us, right?”

Vulrick is quiet, allowing the gusting wind to speak first, as he also needs to weighs his thoughts. It takes him a few seconds, but he comes to a personal nod before speaking. “The two kids aren’t ready for this. The three of us are ready to die, and they’re not. Awnway can keep them safe, but not from several spell casters. Usually I’d say caution is the best tactic, but we’re equipped to nip this in the bud immediately. They might have life-detection magic, they could already know we’re here. If we wait, we could be the victim of their ambush, and I’m certain they’d have most of us choking up our organs before we knew they were near. We should bust in and kill them right away. There’s not much room in there by the looks of it, wouldn’t be hard to do a few short swings,” Vulrick leans against the wall, staring intently at Rayull. “I don’t make the calls, sir, but if I were in your shoes, we’d already be at their door.”

Rayull strokes his scaled chin in thought.

It’s not really that hard of a decision for such a tight spot.

“We strike immediately. Either of you fought a mage before?”

Vulrick scoffs. “Twice; both the hardest fights of my life.”

Carl grins sheepishly. “Well, they bleed too. How hard could it be?”

Rayull sighs some smoke from his nostrils. “Rush them hard. Don’t let them say anything. They need to be dead by the first ten seconds- no survivors or we’ll be the ones dead. Some can speak after having their organs broken, so make sure you go for the jaws as well if they seem like they’re pulling some kind of necromancy or sanguimancy.”

Vulrick nods and pulls his blade an inch from its wide sheath. “Let’s take what’s ours.”

Witness to Vulrick, Carl’s initial fear is forged into confidence, and he taps his comrade in a friendly way. “Damn right. Let’s fuck these animals,” he hisses, brandishing his broadsword.

Everyone takes a moment of contemplation, Rayull serving a mental prayer to the old dragon spirits, Carl clearing his head for his planned berserk-rage, and Vulrick, listening to the wind as he calls to mind other assaults like this one, particularly how he acted to get him through it.

A note from KellInkston

I'm a little nervous.

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