The moon hung low over the chaos below, quickly rising to meet it in the sky. Clouds and smoke obscured the sliver of light that faintly poured through the opaque wisps, desperately trying to bring some illumination to the unearthly cries below.
Shadows darted in and out amongst the fog blanketing the small forest beneath the dark, hazy sky. One particular shadow stood tall, nervously and cautiously proceeding through the wood. Every few minutes they would perceive a squeak, a twig snapping, the thinnest notion of movement in the corner of their eye; they couldn’t tell if the various perceptions were imagined or real.
“Get out of our forest! Get out, get out, GET OUT!” A reedy voice rang out of nowhere hysterically, startling the shadow. The tall silhouette whirled to the source of the voice and raised the bulky object they had lugged through the forest painstakingly. With the press of a trigger, the forest lit up brightly with the harsh intensity of fire. Those few moments were permanently branded into the wielder’s eyes.
The shadow--a man in baggy fireproof gear--wore a look of fear and desperation when he reflexively raised the stream of fire to engulf the small, twiggy figure that had green eyes aglow with rage. The small creature appeared to be a pile of leaves and sticks made living, and it had leapt from a tree branch to attack the man with the flamethrower. The creature’s battle cry had given it away to the man, and in moments it was licked by billowing flames curling around it. With a last, anguished screech, both it and the flames dissipated into ashes.
“Careful, Raymond! We already lost Dan to one of those larger faeriefolk. Stay on your toes!” A gruff voice called across the dark expanse of wood and fog, who had evidently seen Raymond scorch the twig faerie out of existence. The voice’s owner was Raymond’s field sergeant, one of the few leaders in the raid on the forest.
“Dan?” Though Raymond was a fairly large person, Dan had been a giant among men. The fact that he was gone because of these faeries burned a cold hole in Raymond’s stomach. “T-to what?” He didn’t want to know what would happen if one of the tiny faeries would land an attack on him, much less one of the human sized ones.
“Not even a damn troll, it was a naiad. Watch yourself out there.” Sergeant Jackson barked and turned to leave. “Not everything here can be torched and expected to just die. Remember that!” Raymond swallowed, unable to continue. The danger of the situation had not sunk in until that moment. He knew the stories of naiads, and could barely imagine the situation Dan had gotten himself into. He had likely been proceeding carefully next to a stream and before he knew it, a hand had shot out of the water and dragged him in. Raymond shuddered at the thought.
A chill shot down the fireman’s spine and he stepped forward along the path. He could hear snippets and catch glimpses of other incidents with his comrades in their fight against the fairies. Sometimes it was a flash of light, or a scream, other times it was the whispers of the fairies among the trees. Raymond refused to listen closely to their soft words. He refused to give those creatures even the smallest foothold against him.
They moved forward as a group, despite the casualties. They had to be almost to the heart of the forest. The magic of the forest had kept Raymond separate from his co-workers. He was aware that phenomena was common with fairy woods, so when he saw a few of his friends and his sergeant, he couldn’t help but exhale sharply. He was almost there. After they cleared the forest, it could finally burn and they could rest easy.
“You’re the last one to make it here, Raymond. We’ve waited for ten minutes without sign from anyone.” The sergeant furrowed his brow and turned his sights to the center of the clearing. “You’re lucky we waited that long fo--” The sergeant stopped and cocked his head. “D...Do any of you hear that noise?”
The firemen looked at each other in utter silence. Not even the ambient sounds of night were present. No crickets or cicadas, no breeze running through the trees, and no sound of running water. There was only complete, stifling silence, barring the soft cooing noises coming from the hollow of a tree ringing the clearing.
They froze. They trusted anything that appeared in the forest like they would trust a crocodile with a child in its mouth not to devour it. Raymond was not quite so stunned, however, and cautiously ventured to the tree since he was closest to it. He was not terribly keen about examining the hollow in the tree, but as he approached, he was astonished to find he had no reason to worry.
“H...Hello there, little guy.” Raymond crouched down to the level of the small being beaming up at him. The other firemen closed into a loose semicircle behind Raymond.
“What’s a toddler doing here…?” the sergeant mumbled, looking terribly confused. “A human child…Is he even human?” The group murmured to itself trying to figure out what to do with the child who just looked happy to see all these people. He wobbled over to Raymond and stumbled, taking the fireman’s arm for support with a giggle.
“I think he’s as human as it gets, sir….I humbly request we take him back with us.” Raymond picked the boy up, who instantly perked up at the prospect of seeing the world from five and a half feet off the ground.
“...We’ll take him to the Council and see what they say,” the sergeant rubbed his temples. “Raymond, you stay back and keep the kid safe. We’re going to make sure this damn place burns after all these years.” The toddler cooed inquisitively when the rest of the group left for the large tree in the center of the clearing, staggered around it in a circular formation.
“I don’t think you want to watch this, kid…” Raymond hesitantly put a hand over the toddler’s big brown eyes, who pawed at the fireman’s calloused hands and giggled. He couldn’t help but think that the baby was a very pleasant little guy. Perhaps it would work in his favor when they took the boy to the Council tomorrow.
There was a sudden burst of sound and light, and the intricately curling tree with a diameter wider than three of the firemen, gear and all, was aflame. The sound was piercing and immediately, as if the boy knew what was happening, he began to cry. Raymond tried his best to bounce the kid and shield him from the horrid sights and sounds, but it was for naught. Mucus dribbled out of the toddler’s nose as he wailed and cried, covering his ears.
The tree finally disappeared with a screeching swansong akin to breaking glass. When the firemen turned to face Raymond, the surrounding forest was gone and burned down. Barring a few burned husks of trees, and ash floating through the fog, there was nothing left of the forest but the firemen and the little boy, who by at that point had cried himself to sleep. Raymond couldn’t help but stare in wonder at what their actions had done. The forest that seemed to go on for miles when they entered it had really only covered a couple acres at best. The group was standing less than thirty yards from the nearest house of the suburb where most of them lived.
With a heave of finality, Raymond followed his comrades home.