The campfire danced in the snow-dusted night air as First Lieutenant Flavius Glacus, wide-awake for the wee-morning hour, gazed into the flames, entranced. Fidgeting with the saddle ring of his crossbow as it rested, loaded and ready against his chest, he replayed the events of the past week in his mind, biting a sore into his bottom lip as he mulled, searching for something he’d missed, some aspect of things that could clear away the sense of doom in his heart, fiercening with every minute in pace with the worsening storm. Though the wind was mild, he was becoming quite cold—frozen to the bone, to be sure—and he worried that he may have strayed off course in the white-out, now in the wee hours of its third uninterrupted day and growing more severe by the hour; this was all less than ideal, no doubt, but the young cavalryman and seasoned outdoorsman had concerns of a far more troubling nature than of storm or of step, as he puzzled into the campfire’s prancing glow… for he knew with a reluctant, stubborn certitude that, perhaps only just off beyond the trees, something stalked him—something as ancient as the eons, and wicked.
A week prior, on the first day of the journey, Flavius had ridden out from the occupied fortress city of Driesburg , with orders from Company B of the 9th Auxiliary Cavalry, off to take over for the winter as a newly-minted officer of the Frost Peaks mountain wilderness patrol, replacing a fallen colleague. Promoted to his rank only just recently, Flavius had been eager to dust his boots and prove himself a capable first lieutenant on his first true assignment—and his performance was to be evaluated, as became painfully clear upon his arrival at the riverside camp of his new riding companion and superior officer, with whom Flavius had been told to rendezvous at the base of the Frost Peaks. The campsite had appeared vacant when he had ridden in, and reckoning that his new patrol partner was off answering nature’s call or something of the like, Flavius called out, announcing his arrival. In an instant, Flavius was thrown to the ground, blinded in the late-morning sun and choking for breath, as a rope noose bit in tightly around his neck. As suddenly as the ambush had commenced, the choke hold loosened, and a firm hand from behind grabbed Flavius’s wrist, yanking him to his feet. Still gagging, Flavius spun ’round to meet his attacker.
“If I was an Inu, a loud-mouth like you’d be headed for a mighty unsavory month, son. That’s how long a young kid like yourself’ll live after they take your scalp and wings—and kind as they are, they would make sure you see every minute of that month,” scolded the tall, lanky fairy, re-coiling his lasso rope. “I’m Major Domition Prava, and you’ll be riding west with me, got it?”
Blushing with embarrassment, Flavius nodded meekly. “First Lieutenant Flavius Glacus reporting, sir!” He was awestruck by the sheer brute strength the stringy fairy had.
“That’s all very good, now get yourself sorted to ride out—and fix your scarf, boy! You’re a trooper of the mountain patrol now, for heaven’s sake,” Dom ordered as he moved to begin packing his horse.
“Yes, er— Major!” returned Flavius, trying to feign the confidence that had been knocked out of him.
The Major glanced over his shoulder as he pulled his saddle knots tight. “No more of that ‘Yes Major’ harpyshit son, you call me Dom from here out. Where we’re headed, there’s no cavalry, and no law, and certainly nobody to give one centaur’s puddl’a piss about your fancy new rank, nor mine for that matter, understood?”
Flavius nodded, still unsure whether he was getting tough love or an unsavory portrait of his new commanding officer, as they mounted their horses and trotted westward along the river, through the thin, brittle winter ground frost, set in high relief against a pale blue sky. “That bit about the inu and the scalp and wings… you haven’t seen things like that, have you Maj—uh, Dom?”
From ahead, Dom peered back over his shoulder at Flavius and smiled, mischievously. “Boy, you won’t believe what you’ll find out here!” he barked, with a chuckle.
As the men rode through the second day, Dom grilled Jimmy on this matter and that, seemingly in attempts to poke and prod, feeling around for the young lieutenant’s weak spots, and a stop for a late morning meal at a small river-bow served as venue for what had seemingly become the pastime of the trip. Having finished his fill, a meek feast in line with his slender stature, Dom commenced to polishing his sword with a handkerchief, as he ranted to Flavius.
“I see you brought a full quiver for your crossbow, there. What did you think we’d be up against, bandits?” pressed Frank, mockingly. “Boy, the trouble out here sees you long before you see it! Matter’a fact, let me ask you something, boy—do you know the purpose of this here patrol?”
“I think so, yessir—we patrol to look for inu resistance groups and to assist larger patrols in scouting. And to capture ice sprites for Queen Melany, for whatever reason she needs them for.” Flavius replied with a raised brow, not entirely sure what Dom was after. “That was my impression, anyhow.”
“Yeah sometimes, sure, like catching those ice sprites for the Made Queen. Don’t they plead an’ beg when the dampening net goes over them?” replied Dom, a strange look passing over his face for a brief moment before he continued. “Most times, though, the fighting is long over by the time we scouts get there—and there aren’t any ’fairies’ left need assisting. You know why they had you bring that spade, there?” he asked gruffly, as he pointed to the shovel slung to Flavius’s saddle pack by the net. “It’s because we’s the last dispatches for fairies that meet their ends out here. Usually the only assistance the fairies we find’ll need is going to be our help digging a nice, deep hole. We retrieve last legacies of patrols far beyond helping, boy—and most times, such fairies’ fates are as good as guessing.”
Flavius tried to hide his grimace in response to Dom’s frankness.
Seemingly feeding off of Flavius’s unease, Dom laughed with a sadistic sort of sarcasm. “You sucker-green kid, you won’t believe what you’ll find out here!”
To the best of Flavius’s memory, the third day was when the tone of the entire venture had moved beyond the mere frustration of Dom’s lecturing, and into a place more ominous; the late afternoon was grey, imbued with thick, billowing cloud-cover. Though the morning’s ride had been uneventful, the casual atmosphere evaporated as the riders came upon a frosty, river-split meadow. A Crimsonian patrol could be seen standing on the meadow’s far edge, just next to where the river flowed out from the woods—but something about the scene was unnervingly… off, though Flavius could not discern exactly how until they came to within about a hundred yards. The legionnaires , of some fifteen of them, were lifeless—lifeless, but frozen in place, as solid as blocks of ice, with each covered in a finger-thick, transparent ice shell that glistened, as if it were a candy-coating… but it was their pose that shook Flavius the most deeply. The patrol seemed to be frozen in recoil, terrified; the faces of some were frozen in a petrified shriek; others were ossified into the beginnings of a turn-and-run as they crammed and clamored over each other to get away—but each and every one of the fairies glossy, dead eyes were locked, in sheer horror, onto a single spot at the edge of the woods. They had been fleeing something.
“By the Eternal Flame, what happened to them—what did they see?” probed Flavius, anxiously gripping the horn of his saddle as he solicited for answers, even condescending ones. “What on Ayralef came out of those woods?”
From his horseback, Dom grinned in an especially unsettling way as he raised his hands, gesticulating immense size. “Flavius, look around you. This place… is older than memory—and we are guests here. You best not forget that, boy. We’re here because it allows us. Now follow close up,” he said, nudging his horse into a trot with a light kick and a flick of his reins.
“Shouldn’t we bury them? Should we leave them like this?” Flavius asked weakly.
Dom cackled out a cruel laugh. “Boy, they are frozen solid. We’ll bury them when we pass this way in the spring. They ain’t going anywhere.”
That night at camp, Flavius rehashed the dead patrol again, wondering aloud. He’d hoped that Dom would yield some explanation, if just to salve his poor riding partner’s nerves, but Dom waved away Flavius’s concerns. “I’m sure it would’ve made perfect sense if you could’ve been there the moment it happened, boy, that’s always how things like that are,” he said, standing up from the campfire and strolling over to his pitch. “I’ve seen a million things just as strange out here—or stranger. Like I keep telling you, son, you won’t believe what you’ll find out here. Sleep on it,” he said, climbing inside his tent.
The dead border, the one that Flavius had never heard of, that’s not on any maps… that was where, Flavius decided, the events of their patrol had escalated from bizarre to downright macabre, midway through the fourth day. As the two riders approached it, despite the ever-grey skies, it had been impossible to miss—though a low-set fog had reduced the visibility to a quarter-mile or less, a piercing line of contrast could be seen, cleanly cleaving the forest into two distinct zones ahead of them; on their side, dense evergreen thickets that had garnished the majority of their journey—and on the other side, straight-ahead… the forest was sun-bleached white, and dead.
“What is this place up ahead?” asked Flavius, willing to risk belittlement. “I’ve never heard of anything that looks—”
“Forest fire, long ago.” Interrupted Dom. “All that’s left behind is bones.”
Flavius had been unsettled by Dom since they’d first met days prior—the skinny prick didn’t leave a lot for warming up to, after all, and perhaps it was just the marble-white tree boneyard into which they rode, Flavius remembered thinking—but the way Dom had said what he did shook Flavius. All that was left were bones. The eerie scenery couldn’t have done a better job of helping that creepy bastard in setting his spooky tone. As if on some sinister queue, just as the men crossed over the border, into the dead forest, Dom began to digress,
“The inu won’t cross into this place, nor will our valka fae mercenaries. Nobody in the villages at the base of the mountains is old enough to remember exactly why, but the elders say these’re wicked lands—that they’re evil! Now, can you imagine such… praeposterus!” he asked rhetorically, smiling his impossibly wide, chilling, white-toothed smile.
Though Flavius knew it to be ridiculous, he thought Dom’s grin stretched wider, even, than usual, as if reaching out to split his skull in half across the middle. That horrible winter-white smile, combined with Dom’s thin skull and sunken-in eyes, atop his tall, lanky frame—he looked especially skeletal. Yes, though Flavius knew it was absolutely improbable, he could almost swear that Dom’s limbs seemed to be even longer, even lankier than before—that Dom’s fingers seemed to have extended, appearing more claw-like, his fingers becoming longer and more nimble. Back on the fourth day, as they crossed the dead border, Flavius had tried to push it out of his mind—for he did not know then that it would be his last chance to turn back.
On the morning of the fifth day as he ate his biscuit and drank his tea by the fire, Flavius came to a horrible realization, made all the more troubling by the events of the previous two days, and further worsened by his growing distrust in his new partner—the game trail they’d been following had ended, sometime the day prior. Flavius didn’t even notice, apparently, as he’d been lost in an awestruck melancholy brought about by their fire-bleached deadwood surroundings after crossing the border that day. More worrying was the rapidly-deteriorating weather; snow fell in thin, sharp flakes, and it looked as though the storm would only grow. Flavius packed his horse silently alongside Dom, until his sense of urgency got the better of his wish to avoid scorn.
“Dom, I don’t reckon you’d see your way into going over the map with me?” asked Flavius, nervously. “It’s only that, well… we’re off the game trail now, and I figure we both should be familiar in case we have to spli—”
Dom shook his head sternly, silencing Flavius. “Map? Boy, the only map out here is this one,” he scoffed, pointing to his right temple. “And this little doohickey.” Dom produced a lump from his coat pocket and tossed it to Flavius. It was a compass, of spartan build to put it mildly, with the N-S-E-W etched with some kind of sharp point into the exposed, shaky tin dial, along with the name, ‘Iulian’ on the backplate. “You can hold onto that if it’ll keep your sub ubi un-bunched; don’t need it after all these years, anyhow. And you can spare me your judgments on the build quality, as it was your predecessor’s.”
“Whatabouts… what happened to him, by the way, if you don’t mind my asking, Dom?” croaked Flavius, regretting it instantly. He hadn’t truly wanted to know, he thought.
Dom grinned his horrible grin—yes, a wider grin now, more sinister, Flavius was sure—and pointed his long, spindly finger directly up into the snowfall. “These storms, they are unnatural, created by an angry power I think, Flavius—you’ll get lost in ’em like that!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. Flavius swore he’d seen a new, foreboding twinkle in Dom’s eyes as he did so. “Speaking of, this storm’ll be an ugly one by the looks of it, so you’ll stick to me like a fly on a shit wagon, if you’re smart—in line with all that, let the compass serve as a warning to you, more than a bearing, y’hear? It’s the last living piece anyone’ll see of ol’ Iulian, and a hundred times more than you’ll find of most fools that meet their ends out here. Now let’s get riding, and follow me closely, for the Flames’s sake,” he said, mounting his horse.
The Fairies rode northward—Flavius checked the compass from time to time—as the morning faded to afternoon, the snowfall now having grown into a still, windless white-out. Just as the men prepared to stop for a midday meal, a dark silhouette appeared out of the snow ahead of them, beyond some trees; as they drew nearer, the shape of a tent and camp could be made out, inside of a tight clearing. On the far side of the camp, two cavalry horses stood hitched to a tree, yanking nervously at their reins.
“Should we post up somewhere out of sight for a bit and watch for activity?” asked Flavius. “Could be danger, right?”
“Won’t be necessary, boy—use your eyes,” replied Dom, gesturing towards the tent. “That thing’s got two inches of snow on it, and it’s only snowed one inch since morning. These folks are long gone—have been since yesterday evening, at the very least.” Dom smiled his bone-chilling smile, now easily the widest part of his impossibly thin skull.
Sure enough, as they crossed the camp’s perimeter, it was clear that the horses were near starving; they’d not been fed for days, at best, having eaten themselves out of reachable grazing grass. Flavius, ever the keen observer, started to add things up; no Crimsonian soldier would willingly leave these kinds of supplies out here, at least not if anything good happened to them—and especially not horses. He surveyed around his boots; no foot tracks, sans Dom’s and his own. He could rule out an inu or wild animal ambush, as a mere inch or two of snow wouldn’t sufficiently bury evidence of the ensuing struggle, and nothing of the sort could be seen. “Besides,” Flavius had mused, upon seeing crossbow bolts strewn inside the tent, much to his chagrin, “what in the world would take down well-armed fairies, yet leave horses unharmed, tied defenselessly to trees?” Flavius massaged his brow in disquieted confusion, puzzling.
“Son, I keep telling you, over and over…” chuckled Dom, from behind.
“Yeah Dom, I get it, alright?” Flavius hissed, forgetting himself in his growing panic, balling his fists in frightened rage. “I won’t belieeeeve what I’ll find out here,” he said mockingly, trying to keep the nervous tremble out of his voice. “Well I belieeeeve it just fine, Dom, belieeeeve me!” He spun around towards Dom. “And you need to start taking all of this more seriou—”
Dom was nowhere in sight. Flavius was alone.
With that, his final nugget of remaining fortitude vanished. With a lightning like haste, Flavius mounted his horse and rode onward, continuing north. He wanted nothing to do with the deserted camp at that point, and his wits were shaken far beyond use. He rode at a brisk trot—as fast as the terrain would allow—through the night, and still on through the next day, lost in a terrified stupor. He stopped and made camp only when the blizzard rendered further passage impossible. As he pitched his tent, he could swear he heard a voice on the evening wind… it was cackling.
The flash and crack report of an air bubble rupturing inside one of the fire logs jolted Flavius, ripping him out of his umpteenth flashback of the previous week, back into the present. He’d seen no sign of Dom or his horse in the day and a half since he’d fled the deserted camp—and he didn’t care to dwell on it. As soon as the sun rose, Flavius would continue riding on, no matter the storm’s fierceness, even if he’d see no further than the tip of his own nose. He needed rest, as riding through the night had left him exhausted. Satisfied that thinking would be easier once he was mobile again come daybreak, he entered his tent and climbed into his bedroll; a pallid, restless sleep found him, due only to his sheer enervation.
The next morning, Flavius woke to the same unnatural blizzard-force storm that had raged on for days. Slightly defeated at the sight, yet still motivated by fresh-enough fear, he packed his camp with particular haste, before kneeling down by the now-embers of his campfire, to scarf down a desperately-needed bit of jerky ahead of his departure. Deciding to orient himself preemptively, Flavius reached into his pocket, feeling for the compass. As he did, a large shadow slowly emerged from the woods, into the camp, obscured by the blizzard until it was within an arm’s reach of Flavius, startling him for his life—Dom’s horse. Appearing as unperturbed as ever, complete with Dom’s saddle rig mounted neatly, the now highly out-of-place animal rattled him; he wasn’t glad to see it one bit. In fact, he hated it. It reminded him that Dom had, well… He pulled out his compass, and he was greeted by a terror of a far greater nature. All it had taken, to shatter Flavius’s entire universe of hope, was the act of producing the compass… the N-S-E-W on the dial had been replaced by L-O-S-T, and now spun aimlessly. he slowly turned the compass over, exposing the backplate in his leaf-trembling hands—it read, “Flavius.” Just then, from all directions at once, he heard the faintest of whispers, calling out from the storm.
“Boy,” it taunted, “you won’t belieeeeve… what will find you out here!”
It was only then, in that instant, did Flavius realize that it had been Iulian who he was supposed to meet a week prior… and that whatever it was that he had come to know as “Dom” would see to it that they’d soon meet after all—Flavius knew this; he could hear it on the wind! It was here! Now! A branch cracked and broke directly behind him, but he didn’t bother glancing back—he already knew what was there. As First Lieutenant Flavius Glacus, of the 9th Auxiliary Cavalry, Company B, knelt down and closed his eyes, ready to surrender to the personified horror rising up behind him, he had one final notion:
“The patrol’s patrolled by somethin’ old!” he blurted out with a gruesome, tear-streaked chuckle, in the final moment just before something, wicked and ancient as eons—and *Angry—*lunged down upon him, its agape jaws stretched into a wide, sinister smile.
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