“We need to look around nearby and gather a report of the area. Split up and give me a report of the area. Cet, you stay at camp,” Rayull says, stretching to prepare his draconic ligaments for sustained movement.
Cet huffs like a child. “What?! I gotta look over the sleepers?”
Rayull looks at Cet with a gaze that is blunt, humorless, and authoritative.
The two stare one another down. Cet takes a deep breath as if to say something, but instead just gives a half-assed nod. “Sir.”
The squad leader nods back and points out directions for Vulrick. Next he directs Awnway after he gets one of his carried rations, then Dresmond, and finally Bayl, who almost smacked Rayull in the face for waking him up before he got his full ten hours of mage sleep. The five split off in five different directions, told to only look and report what’s found, and not to interact with anything whatsoever. Rayull expects everyone will be gone for at least a few hours, so he also instructs them to winterize as much as they can.
They prepare by salvaging clothing, dry leaves, or whatever is around to pad out their armor, and they all fill up on calories to keep warm. They wave off, and Cet is alone with the sleepers.
An hour passes, Cet whiling away the time as he watches Carl, who’s losing color quickly, and Mullant, who randomly jolts with an expression of pure, racked pain on his features.
The boy watches the mage with a bemused interest, occasionally kicking Mullant every half hour or so to see if he’ll wake up between his short walks to the firewood pile. Eventually, the fire pile runs out, and he’s forced to go take a trip into the wood to replenish the stock.
Cet takes up the secret extra ration he sneaked out of Awnway’s pack and starts off into the treeline, expecting to only be gone a few minutes.
He looks for wood, finds a few sticks instead, and decides that the other’s will just have to deal with it. He turns back to camp, gets there, and he starts in shock.
Cet doesn’t need to look long to find the obvious track: no footprints, just drag marks in the snow. Cet looks up to the line of the trees, and spots the unconscious Mullant disappear feet first into the wood, pulled along by a figure cloaked in a tattered, old robe- he can barely see a pair of antlers sticking out from the black head of the kidnapper.
“Hey… HEY! What the hell?! Get back here!” Cet yells across the snow field to the trees. The figure takes a single glance back, revealing a scant blink of glowing jade-colored eyes. It then turns away quickly, Mullant’s hands still firmly in its grasp.
Cet sprints to give chase, readying his bow to fire while on the move. Though his initial reaction was of irritation, it’s a smile that quickly dominates his face— this is his moment. He rushes for Mullant’s kidnapper, following the obvious trail at a breakneck running speed. He enters after the kidnapper, and spots the trail going behind a large tree. Cet shoulders his bow and takes out his knife. He’s sure the bastard is just waiting around the side to turn on him. Rounding the corner with his blade, he sees nothing at all.
The boy is still, shifting his eyes about, the realization coming upon him that Mullant and his kidnapper just disappeared into thin air. He glances up and scans about, but to no avail. It’s on his way down that his gaze passes by and notices a seal carved into the bark of the tree.
While he has no idea what the mark means, he has heard stories about what he might have seen.
When he was a little boy, Cet enjoyed many stories from the orphanage caretaker; an exceptionally kind man for the sort that would occasionally “rent” off the kids for a day or two at a time in order to keep the place running.
The caretaker wasn’t happy about what he did, but he understood that everyone must take their turn to keep a roof over their heads.
Laying about at night, he told them stories of careless people that fell asleep in the forest, and get taken away by the outmen – a mysterious kind of fairy folk that has the power to decide the fate of man. Among the dozens of stories about men, women, and children being kidnapped and either killed and eaten, put to work, or used as living soil, there was one story of how one boy escaped their whimsied realm overlaid with the real world- Cet remembers particularly the magic words the boy would say to the marked travel trees that the outmen crafted to jump from one world to the other.
Cet places his hand on the symbol. He closes his eyes and takes a breath.
“Please?” He says. Instantly he feels the air rise, the cold replaced with warmth, and the distinct feeling of moss upon the bark. He opens his eyes and finds himself in the outmen’s land, a deep, everlasting forest that circles around and repeats for eternity. It’s a summery, radiant version of the wood Cet was just in, with the wonderous chirping of a hundred kinds of kindly insects.
Cet tenses his body and looks around. Just at the edge of his vision he can see Mullant disappear into a denser grove. A spark relights in the boys eyes, and he gives chase.
In the proper waking world, Rayull returns to the camp alongside Vulrick, who he met during his trek back.
“So, tracks?” Rayull asks, the clearing coming into view.
Vulrick nods. “Yeah, hooves, probably huntable game.”
Rayull hums. “That’ll be useful to keep off our rations. It’s weird, I would have thought that the eastern forces would’ve had more of a presence here, like the camp.”
Vulrick nods again. “It seems like a no-brainer, there must be some reason they’re staying out of here. Now that the tower’s down they don’t have a reason not to invade through here, right?”
Rayull shrugs. “I can only know what the chain of command tells me, and I don’t think the good general’s in much of a mood to talk… if I were to guess, I’d say they’re spooked by outman stories or something.”
In a rare moment, Vulrick gives a gentle chuckle. “So between the two of us: what’s the plan?”
“Carl’s probably not going to make it.”
“There’s no doubt.”
“Either way, I’d consider folding back to the basecamp.”
“Not further into Midland line?”
“Again, the chain of command will decide. Knowing the current commander, he’ll probably just tell us to push up with the others for Yarseld.”
Vulrick hums. “Yarseld… has been mentioned as the current end-goal, but that place is one of the most populous cities on the continent.”
Rayull raises a brow. “And?”
Vulrick takes a labored breath. “Do you think he’d really do that? Reduce us to murderers? I’m sure that you would know best of all they wouldn’t evacuate everyone properly. Ulterians are too proud not to leave a civil garrison.”
Rayull hums. “I doubt that would ever be on th-” he stops himself with a hiss between his teeth.
Vulrick stares at Rayull from the side, gazing intently between the slits in his helmet visor.
Rayull is quiet for a moment more, and then comes to a shrug. He’s got a point.
“Ragnivanian’s have trouble seeing things from the eyes of other races, even other humans. There’s an element of compassion in other three kingdoms, even Whihelmish, but not Ragnivan, they could swallow a world’s worth of blood, and still the next generation would ask for more,” Rayull says with a glance behind his shoulder, a subconscious impulse one naturally develops if they ever speak ill of the “Hero Nation” of the W.K.D.R.. “You’re not wrong. A real storm against Yarseld would mean pools of blood on both sides,” he adds.
They’re silent as they get to camp- they quickly notice something’s the matter.
“Hell’s Cet at?” Rayull asks with a tired groan. “Fire’s almost out.”
Vulrick’s eyes focus on the trail first, Rayull seeing it a second later, and then to Carl.
“Yeah, it’s not working out,” Vulrick says, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword while approaching the downed, pale man next to a scarcely-embering fire.
Rayull nods. “Pretty serious for sure- not even sure if he’d be worth saving though.”
The two exchange an exceptionally-cold glance, as they both think the same thing. “Honestly, I have half a mind to just get it over with,” Vulrick says. “It would be the merciful thing.”
Rayull takes a breath and looks down at Carl. His features frozen in agony- even in resting he’s racked with pain. “Me too, but I say we give it a little time. I’d like to hear Mullant’s word on it first.”
Vulrick nods in admission. “True, he probably knows something about healing we don’t… so I guess we should follow the trail, find Mullant and Cet?”
Rayull grins. “Yeah, one sec.” He tosses on the sticks Cet dropped in the chase then kindles them instantly with a swift throw of his fiery breath. “At least he won’t freeze to death,” Rayull says with a bland expression as he gets up to leave with Vulrick.
The two turn to follow the trail and find the tree with the mark on the tree.
Vulrick is short of breath. “Is this…”
“Son of a bitch,” Rayull snaps.
“Yeah, dainty fuckers. They probably took Mullant and Cet somehow knew the word.” Rayull rubs his temples with his free hand, as the works its fingers around his mace angrily.
“They’re not supposed to be out here, are they? Isn’t it too cold, and why would they be outside of Liefland?”
“The other fairies wouldn’t accept Outmen, never did. They’re not like normal fairy folk that need a warm climate; they’re melded with the nature of the area, so they can survive whatever the woods around them can.”
They’re both quiet. Vulrick shakes his head. “For all these years, and only we spot it.”
“Only because they made the first move… bastards have probably been swiping people for years, decades even; maybe longer.” He scratches his neck in thought. “We need to make a decision.”
Vulrick scoffs. “We can’t go in just the two of us- one’s already half dead, and Cet’s probably tied to a tree by now. Let’s wait for the others.”
Rayull scratches down to his chin, he’s certain this decision is critical, and Vulrick hasn’t led him astray yet... but something tells him this one’s going to be especially pressing.
He makes a bold, brash decision as he squints with a grim perception.
“It could be hours before the others get back. We’re going in.”
Vulrick inhales sharply, obviously perturbed by the decision.
“Yes, sir. We’ll die with our weapons raised,” he answers.
Rayull smirks at the morbid tone of Vulrick’s speech as he lays his large hand upon the tree’s symbol.
They both take a labored breath and they close their eyes. “Please.” Rayull feels the world around him change and shift to something new, something strange. The warm and fragrant pollens of the deep out wood unfold inside and out of Rayull as the smokey chill of the snow dissipates. He opens his eyes once he hears Vulrick emerge as well, and they both look upon the forest.
“Miraculous,” Rayull says.
“You’re a veteran by human years,” Vulrick notes, “have you ever been in a fairy realm?”
“My first time was just last week, actually.” Rayull sniffs the air. “This one’s a little different.”
“The Liefland situation?”
“Right. It was warm and woody too, but this is different… darker.”
The two admire the swaying emerald tints of the wood as they search out for a path. After a moment, Vulrick points out a grouping of weighted down plants as if it were stepped over by the clumsy feet of a Ragnivanian orphan boy with a poor attitude. “What do you think?”
“Our best bet. Let’s go.”
Rayull and Vulrick start down the dream-like path filled with the skittering and calling of unknown animals and insects all about them. A minute passes as they creep through the wood, and Vulrick turns to his superior.
“Just so we’re clear. How are we going to engage the enemy if it comes to that?”
Rayull releases smoke from his draconic nostrils. “If they won’t let us just take our kids, we kill them.”
Vulrick clears his throat. “But you know… they have a bit of a… infamous reputation as being able to cast ‘fate death’ on a person. Is that something you want to deal with?” Vulrick asks.
Rayull smirks. He can hear in Vulrick’s tone that he doesn’t believe in it either; rather he wants to test Rayull to see just how superstitious he is.
“Naw, that’s a rumor. They can’t curse people with death. We’re going to smash them to pieces if we have to and that’s that.”
Vulrick scoffs under his visor. “Good. I’d ask for nothing else,” Vulrick says, his tone the darkest that Rayull’s heard it before.
The commander looks aside to his fully-armored, cloaked companion. “I think after this you need to take some time to rest. I’ll carry you if I have to.”
“I’m fine, sir, I don’t need sleep.”
“Yeah, you do. Consider it an order,” Rayull says, looking away and focusing on the trail.
“I won’t slow you down, si-”
“I know best. I’m your squad leader.”
There’s a menacing silence. “…Is this the first time you’ve led an actual squad?”
Rayull pauses, giving a quick glance to the side to look at Vulrick through his helmet visor.
Dark, focuses eyes, like a night-creature, peer back at the dragon-kin.
For the first time in years, Rayull feels intimidated by a human, tiny in comparison to himself. There’s something about Vulrick’s eyes that tell the dragon-kin that this is a man with a streak of almost fantastical murderousness: a genuine war-crime person. “Then maybe you don’t know what’s good for your unit,” Vulrick says with a gentle tone but with the implications of a landslide.
Rayull turns his own guts on at the impulse of a challenge. “… Excuse me, what did you just say?”
“…Permission to speak frankly?”
Rayull takes a breath. “Granted.”
Vulrick takes a deep breath.
“It should be obvious to anyone with half a mind to realize you’re not nearly hard enough on the others, and definitely not hard enough with your decisions- you’re idealistic. I don’t know about your missions with the knights, but Midland is my world, and in Midland it’s about those ‘what if’ situations.
Tell me, Rayull, what if we get overpowered because there’s only a couple of us? What if we get outed and the rest come back wondering where we were. Four people in the squad, just gone. We have absolutely no fucking idea what these bastards are packing. IF we waited we could have increased our chances. Really, what’s the value of some orphan kid and a caster with one arm? They’re both practically useless as they are now- but to get them you’re risking us. You know I’m not bragging to say you and I are the glue holding all of this shit together, but if you make even one mistake that we get punished for, it’s over. You may feel like hot shit that we pushed an overlord over. I’ll admit it was a good feeling, but it blinded you. We’re on strings right now.
Frankly, sir, I don’t give a single damn that we killed Crimson- we kill things all the time because it’s our job. Let historians freak out about that shit. What you’re doing right now is risking everyone’s lives for two. We have absolutely no idea how the others are doing. Perhaps they encountered more of these outmen, or worse, easterners. Take a look at what we’re doing. Do you really expect we’re just going to barge on in there, grab the kids, and run ou-”
Rayull raises his hand in halting. “That’s enough. Thank you for your input. I’ll consider your words.”
“Am I hitting too close to ho-”
Vulrick is immediately silenced by the dense, pressurized sound of Rayull scraping his gauntlet across his mace.
“I’ll prove this rank anytime you ask for it. Thank you for your thoughts.”
Vulrick seethes between his teeth. “Thank you, sir,” he says in a tone Rayull would almost call spiteful.
There’s an air of anticipating violence between the two of them they realize at the same time. They’ve both met people like that in their lives as soldiers, but nothing ever came from it.
This vibe is different, however. Vulrick and Rayull both know the other is too genuine to back down from what they recognize as a challenge. Despite the words they speak, despite anything resembling courtesy or respect to rank, the two of them realize the murderous aura of the other.
“Now settle down. We’re a unit, and the unit’s not going to throw parts of itself away unless absolutely necessary. We’re going to get them back,” Rayull says with a mild hiss.
“Sure,” Vulrick says blandly.
The two reach the end of the trail and see golden lights glowing off in the distance. “Looks like we’ve found the camp.” Rayull ducks into himself, still a boulder in size while Vulrick perfectly shrouds into the undergrowth. They creep forward into sight and make out the camp.
No walls, but several bracken-made huts, including a tent so tall that it stretches far out from the trees into the darkness above. Outmen are dancing about a fire and playing all manner of forest instruments. Vulrick spots out a couple of stumps near the fire with a lute playing outman resting on one.
“There they are.” Vulrick points out the two lumpish silhouettes.
Rayull squints to focus on what Vulrick’s pointing at and then his gaze shoots open in shock. “By The Lost King and Caliburn. They beheaded them?” Rayull notes with an uncharacteristic look of shock.
“No, just buried them up to their necks. It looks like they haven’t bee-
“FOR THE LAST TIME, YOU TREE-SMOKING BASTARDS! LET US OUT!” Cet screams as the lute player pats him on the head with a cordial, foppish sort of grace.
“Scratch that. It sounds like they haven’t been killed yet,” Vulrick corrects with a scoff, his tone quickly growing humored in comparison to how he sounded just a minute ago.
“Good,” Rayull says with an awkward nod.
“This is going to be a hassle, like I said. We’ll have to dig a bit of them out before we can pull ‘em up,” Vulrick says.
“You’re becoming a real pessimist,” Rayull says.
“Always been this way, sir. So, what’s the plan?”
Rayull looks over the situation, looks over the tents, and then the fire. “Tell me, Vulrick. That sword of yours, considering how broad the blade is, could double as a shovel pretty well, don’t you think?”
Vulrick sighs. “Are you actually serio-”
“It’s not like you maintain it.”
Vulrick scoffs almost haughtily at the dragon-half’s words.
“Smartass,” is all he says back.
Rayull nods with a grin. “I’ll buy you time. If one spots you, take care of them. Let’s go,” Rayull says, his irises squinting like those of a true reptile.
Vulrick takes a deep breath and then nods. “Okay. You can count on me.”
Rayull sneaks to the side around the camp so he can approach in front of a hut out of the view of the others. He creeps up like a stereotypical lizard might, peeks about the hut, and begins pushing. It takes a few seconds, but eventually, all of the outmen turn and stare at the mysterious hut moving straight to the center bonfire.
The outmen say all sorts of arcane words from their old language to alert and command their fellows as they try to push the large hut back in a comedically whimsical reaction.
Vulrick takes a second for himself to admire the sight of a bunch of hooting, laughing woods people doing all they can to keep a goofily floating tent from the flames; it’s almost as if they’re not sure if this isn’t just some harmless prank.
They find out soon enough when Rayull overpowers them, and a pile of the bracken used for making the hut catches and spreads to the rest of the structure. The bonfire becomes an inferno. Vulrick watches in awe as Rayull creeps along the ground, still miraculously undetected as he gets behind yet another hut and pushes it forward with a comically easy shove.
This is Vulrick’s chance.
As the antlered outmen rally to douse the flames with dirt, Vulrick steps up to the two- Cet’s still screaming.
“OH RAYDA ON HIGH THE FIRE! THIS IS A TERRIBLE FUCKING PLACE! I HATE FAIRIES! FUCK FAIRIES! SOMEONE HEEEeeeeel-… Vulrick?” Cet notes in shock as his armored comrade plunges his blade into the dirt just behind Cet’s back and piles out a couple blade-fulls.
“Help me get Mullant,” Vulrick says as he tugs out Cet with one great pull from the earth. Cet gets to it immediately and starts paddling out dirt from around the woozy, somewhat-conscious Mullant. Just as he starts, an arrow flies right through Mullant’s hair, and then another straight into Cet’s arm.
“Wh-what the fuck!?” Cet screams.
Vulrick spots the assailant: an outman that looked over from the commotion and took up its bow.
“Keep digging!” Vulrick shouts as he draws his shield up to guard against the oncoming arrows.
Cet inhales sharply, dismisses his pain, and continues on. The outman alerts others as it draws its knife and rushes forward to strike behind the shield.
Vulrick’s ready, spots the outman curve around, and he thrusts right where he expects it to come. The cloven-hoofed foe (Nee, age seven months, one hundred and sixty eighth incarnation, top flute-player of the camp, dreamt of meeting other fairy folk one day,) impales itself into Vulrick’s blade. He pins it down into the dirt and sends his armored fist into its masked face. The skeletal systems of outmen are incredibly delicate, and though it was guarding, Vulrick’s punch sent itself straight through the outman’s guarding arms, and deep into its skull.
A spew of semi-clear, amber-tinted sap coats Vulrick’s fist as Nee goes limp, bow still gripped in hand. Vulrick shoves his shield into the ground and takes up the bow. He starts firing off on the approaching outmen, who fire back but miss their marks. Turns out Outmen are way better at partying and kidnapping people than fighting soldiers.
“What a joke. You almost got ‘em?” Vulrick asks, firing an arrow into an outman’s torso who buckles over immediately from the shock alone. Cet nods behind him.
“Yeah, one second.” Cet piles out the rest of the dirt as Rayull bursts from the flaming huts and starts throwing around the outmen.
Another nearly reaches Vulrick and Cet’s position. Vulrick shoots another arrow, this one precise enough to go right through the outman’s thin mask. The outman (Yoo, age two months old, fifty seventh incarnation, favorite food is grass, winner of most races and widely considered the grand champion runner of the camp,) jolts back as its weak amber blood pours from its wound. It falls to the ground and bleeds to death almost immediately.
“Eh, problem,” Cet addresses.
Vulrick glances over and spots Cet trying to lift Mullant out of the dirt. “Yeah?”
“This guy’s a complete fatass!” he says with a wince while he struggles over Mullant’s admittedly unathletic, though not overweight, frame.
Vulrick looks over the red-faced Cet, and then down to Mullant. “He’s not fat at all,” he says with a scoff as if he wasn’t even feeling pressured.
“Help me!” Cet cries.
Vulrick sighs, puts down his bow, and gives a single, crouched tug on Mullant- the man shoots up like a turnip.
“There,” Vulrick says as he leans Mullant over to Cet before retaking to arms.
Vulrick turns to Rayull, who’s so busy flipping and slinging attacking outmen around that he doesn’t notice their success.
Mullant, his eyes hazy and his head aching, is still lucid enough to spot that the slit of the taller-than-trees tent is slowly opening.
“Commander!” Vulrick shouts.
Rayull looks over as he tosses an outman into a tree in a manner Vulrick would say is almost playful. “What?”
“We’re ready!” Vulrick shouts, waving him along to follow the moment he slaps an unarmed outman across the body with his shield, sending it in a twirl to the ground.
The immaculately unhurt Rayull runs up just as a tall, cloaked creature looms out from the tent of leaves.
The group turns and looks upon it in horror. The outmen all stop their chase and bow before the tallest of them all.
Mullant coughs. “A Great Out. In all my years….”
The Great Out’s crown of antlers spans out longer and thicker than a dragon’s bones, and through its illuminated skull it looks down upon the two outmen that Vulrick wasted.
The Great Out bends down, and from its cloak extends a long, fur-covered arm. It takes up the two outman bodies and stands back to full height.
It looks over the four and raises a hand once again. The three able soldiers prepare to fight or run with Mullant draped over Rayull’s shoulder, but The Great Out simply points. It points at Vulrick, then it points at Cet. At that, it turns around with the two corpses back into its darker-than-pitch tent.
“A reasonable reparation,” it says as the draping of the tent door closes behind it.
The outmen stand down and back off- they turn instead to dousing the flames.
Rayull looks to Vulrick. “That was easier than I expected.”
“Yeah, but that thing pointed at me,” Vulrick says as they turn to leave amidst fiery, furious side glances of the out men.
“I hear that’s how they curse you,” Rayull says with a smug grin.
“Well we lucked out, then. I’ll be dying soon anyway,” Vulrick says with a laugh.
Rayull rolls his eyes as Cet hums with a surprisingly-open concern. “Just so long as you fight like you want to live, I have no problem with that,” Rayull responds with a half-hearted smirk.
The four cross over again back to their realm and find Awnway stabbing at the tree. He jolts back in shock.
“Y-you’re all alive!” Awnway says with a wide look.
“Yup,” Rayull says. “Now why are you stabbing at the tree?”
Awnway looks at the group blankly. “I saw the tracks, thought you all got captured by spirits.”
There’s an awkward pause.
“F-figured that, you know, if I annoyed them enough, they’d give you back,” he says with an embarrassed smirk.
In a rare moment of comradery, Cet and Vulrick share a quick, very Ragnivanian sort of glance that simultaneously forms a bond of understanding that at least neither of them are as weird as a Spirakandrin.
“Something like that.” Rayull waves them along back to camp. He rustles the mage on his shoulders. “You with us, Mullant?”
Mullant sighs over Rayull’s shoulder. “Yeah… So… outmen kidnapped me?”
Cet nodded. “Yup, saw it happen.”
Mullant’s tired features become grim. “Only me?”
The group exchanges some humored glances. “Yes, just you,” Cet confirms.
Mullant sighs. “Then Carl’s dead.”
Everyone freezes, save Vulrick, who stops only because the others did.
- The Ascended Scribery; Inklend
- Extra-dimensional Freak
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! :
Thank you for your readership!