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A note from KellInkston

And we're back!

“Alright,” he says with a distant, professional tone as he turns and goes off for the wood. “I’ll be back soon.”

The crimsoned Vulrick nods and starts lumbering towards his unconscious fellows- picking up the smallest and stepping farther into the clearing. Dresmond can see no more as he enters the tree line to get wood. With his hatchet in hand and the rest of his tools dressed tight into his cloak, Dresmond looks through the deep silent wood, following Bayl’s footprints and listening for anything unnatural.

A few minutes later and Dresmond spots the boy curled up by a tree with a small bundle of sticks clung tightly into his grasp. Right next to him is a fallen tree that looks like it’s been there a while; a good choice for cutting.

“You alright?” Dresmond asks, smacking the hatchet straight into a fallen branch along the tree.

Bayl averts his eyes. “H-” He draws a sharp breath. “How many of them are going to die?”

Dresmond snaps another limb and lops off the hanging bark with the hatchet for kindling. “We’re all going to die, man,” he says with a considerate, though certain tone.

Bayl sighs. “Very funny.”

“It’s true.”

“I mean,” Bayl gets up and gets back to finding sticks, “that fight, some of those people have really… really bad wounds. One of Rayull’s arteries was severed, I’m sure.”

“I’m the least worried about him, actually.”

Bayl raises a brow. “Yeah?”

“Dragon-kin have weird veins, they close really fast.”

Oh…” Bayl says as if in some realization, “That’s why they decapitated them in The Extermination Wars.”

“Yeah,” Dresmond says, slashing another large branch aside with his hatchet. “Not much matters when you’re disconnected from your body completely.”

“Mmm… and the others?”

“That uh… Big sword guy,” Dresmond starts with an uncertain tone.

“Super smiley?” Bayl offers helpfully.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Carl.”

Dresmond nods. “Thanks. Carl got it in the stomach. If Mullant doesn’t have anything for that he’ll be dead for sure, and it won’t be quick, either.”

Bayl squints an eye. “Mullant has healing magic?”

“Oh yeah, or at least he had something for me,” Dresmond says, revealing his arm just a second to show a scar across it, probably healed by magic. “He knows skin and muscle words, don’t know about organs.”

“Gotcha… alright.”

Dresmond pulls up a large pile of big sticks, kindling, and small logs. He takes a deep breath as he follows his tracks back to the camp. “The other kid’s probably going to be fine.”

“Cet.”

“Thanks. It looks like he’s susceptible to shock- probably something he picked up to cope for something.”

Bayl furrows his brow, a complex expression on his face. “And the others?”

“Mullant’s pretty hit or miss. Pretty sure I can keep him from getting infected so I’d say he’ll be okay. Rayull as I said will probably be fine- he’ll be the first one back up after Cet for sure. Vulrick… I don’t know.”

“Isn’t he still standing?” Bayl asks.

“Yeah, but… He’s kinda weird. I haven’t seen him sleep at all.”

Bayl hums. Steadily, a squinting, covert expression washes over the boy’s face. “Now that you mention it, neither have I. He’s kept every watch at night too, I hear.”

Dresmond stops in his tracks in thought, and then starts back on the road. “You mean to say that he hasn’t slept in days?”

“I… I think?”

Dresmond sighs. “Do you know for sure?”

Bayl looks aside. “Not really.”

“I’ll take the watch tonight, th-.”

*CLAMP*

A great sound reverberates through the wood- a frosted, sharp din of pain incarnate.

“What was that?” Bayl asks.

Dresmond drops his wood, and Bayl does as well. “Let’s take a look.” The two step through the wood towards the source with weapons at the ready. Before long, they can hear the pathetic cries of an animal.

Peering through the trees, they find a snared mammal, its white and grey fur marked with crimson where the trap holds on.

“A fox.” Bayl withdraws his crossbow. Just as he steps forward to approach the creature, he’s interrupted.

Dresmond pushes an arm in front of Bayl. The two are quiet for a minute more and from another part in the woods emerges an easterner. The Ulterian speaks to the animal in his tongue, taunting the animal and dancing smugly with a minimal use of energy to celebrate his catch.

Just as he pulls out his hunting knife to finish the job, a bolt marks him in the side- a second later, a precise knife strikes his neck. The soldier (Luut Beramanous, age 23, P.F.U.M., Wanted to be a comedian,) falls to the ground, his neck severed beyond saving. His consciousness dies out seconds after.

The fox is still straining against the trap.

“The Ulterians are here.” Dresmond notes outwardly.

“Well, this is the midland,” Bayl says while looking over the trees for any more surprises.

“Yeah, but I thought this was a spot they were ignoring. I know they’re far north, but not through the woods around here… at least they shouldn’t.”

“Why shouldn’t they be here?” Bayl asks as he kneels down to the trap with the fox.

Dresmond watches Bayl attempt to free the fox, and sighs. “Because Whihelmish wouldn’t be far… also, you’re not going to release that fox, are you?”

Bayl smiles. “This is an outman wood.”

Dresmond flinches. “Wh- how do you know?”

“Longevai Studies was my major in the academy,” Bayl notes with an awkward smirk.

“Yeah? So how do you know it’s outman?”

Bayl shrugs as if it weren’t a complex answer, and it’s not: “I just read it. Northern midland in the mountains has a lot of outmen.”

“Ahh, and hurting animals there is a big no.”

Bayl nods. “I hope they don’t think it was us that laid this trap,” he says, struggling to force it open after he got past the locking mechanism.

Dresmond chuckles. “Doubt it, I’m sure the fox’ll tell ‘em, right?”

Bayl sighs. “I don’t think that’s how it works. As long as we don’t sleep under the trees we should be fine.”

“Huh.”

The two take a moment to watch Bayl pull open the trap and free the fox’s leg. With a snap, it tears off elsewhere into the woods.

There’s a pause while the two get back to their feet, and they start following the trail that the Ulterian left in his wake. The two quiet their steps, but they keep their eyes alertly forward. There’s something about the snow-drifted wood that makes them feel at peace; perhaps how it provides a blanket of silence that they can both trust to muffle their words.

“I hear Whihelmish has really incredible artillery batteries,” Bayl says, getting back to the previous conversation.

Dresmond nods. “That’s what the East has heard too, I’m sure. They’re nowhere close to having the right position to hit them. If by some miracle we start getting pushed back, it’ll still take them a month if not more.”

“Really? Are we winning?”

Dresmond scoffs. “Did you have any doubts?”

Bayl hums. “Well, I just didn’t know. I never really kept up with any of that.”

“Well, it’s not like they tell us anything. We’ve been winning on all fronts- but that’s mostly because we’ve been sending so many people forward- I think the East’s running out of guns.”

Bayl looks off wistfully to where the fox had run off as Dresmond glances back at the corpse of the easterner. “Well, that’s good then,” Bayl says. “I don’t like this,” he mutters.

Dresmond smiles as he readjusts his spectacles. “Not many do- I don’t think. Probably anyone who loves fighting is the sort that dies in wars like these.”

Bayl sighs. “How do you think a person starts to like killing?”

Dresmond stands up and gestures for Bayl to follow. “Hell should I know?”

Bayl’s eyes widen as he stumbles over his previous tracks. “Maybe the feeling of survival is what they get addicted to, and they can’t get that feeling any other way. Maybe they just want to see that look in the eyes of those people they kill, and that reminds them of when they were scared for their lives to-”

“Hey, Bayl, right?” Dresmond interrupts.

“Y-yeah.”

“Don’t be weird, dude. Let’s save the philosophy for when we’re back in the academies so all those stuck up fat-ass professors can tell us we’re stupid.”

Bayl snorts. “Y-yeah, okay.”

The two march forward, following the easterner’s footprints to his camp.

“Huh, just him it seems,” Dresmond says, poking around the camp.

“Maybe a scout?” Bayl asks.

“Or a deserter,” Dresmond says as he takes up the dried wood, rations, and other items of use.

The two turn back and follow their footprints just as the snow begins to fall. They take up their original piles of wood and kindling and finish the trip to the tower.

Cet and Vulrick are there. Cet’s sitting about in a funk, staring up at the grey sky, and Vulrick’s piling out snow and making compacted bricks. In only the half hour he was gone, Dresmond sees Vulrick’s made surprising progress. There’s a clearing for the fire, parts of the wreckage searched for goods, the downed soldiers are all laid together at the same spot, and there’s a high wall of snow bricks and materials from the tower protecting against the soft wind. Unfortunately, it seems no one from the keep survived the dual threats of Overlord Crimson and his set blaze.

“Got the wood,” Dresmond says with a bland tone as he tosses his load aside.

Vulrick nods. “Thanks.”

The four sit about as they stack up the sticks, have Bayl spark up a flame spell, and suddenly the unloving cold around them becomes warm and flush. Cet immediately scoots up to the fire with Bayl as Dresmond and Vulrick pull up the unconscious to warm up by the fire.

As if by a different kind of magic, everyone feels a little better.

All things considered, they seem to be doing alright, Dresmond feels.

Minutes later, Vulrick disappears to the forest to get more wood, though Dresmond’s reasonably certain they had gathered more than enough for the night. It’s a full hour before he returns with only a single log; as if he just wanted to avoid them all for a bit.

Night curls over them, and most of the soldiers are already asleep in their little snow-bricked dig-out. As the others rest, Dresmond realizes that Vulrick is still not planning on sleeping tonight. He wonders what he should ask him about.

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A note from KellInkston

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About the author

KellInkston

Bio: Hey, traveler!

Get the first book in Courts Divided for free here: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/lxsfw9icf9

Join us at the discord for fun, memes, and literary analysis! :
https://discord.gg/VmMdUA3

Thank you for your readership!

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