“There was nothing but a flash of light, then Baptiste was dead.” Venn stared at the ground while he spoke. His commanding officer stood in front of him, speechless. “His stomach was cut from the waist up and his entrails were strung about in the trees. It’s almost like whatever killed him was trying to send a message.”
Venn didn’t have the courage to report that he was enamored by the radiance of the light. His black, bearded face remained stern and still, yielding seriousness that was not common amongst the resource extraction crews that were now being sent deep into the forest. He was a strong, thick man that looked accustomed to the horrors of the old world, but he was noticeably shaken by the events that had taken place during his task. He’d never seen anything as morbid or beautiful in his life.
“Were there any other losses?” The Commanding Officer asked after gaining his composure.
“Pierre is missing, but that’s it. Baptiste gored and Pierre MIA. That leaves 5 left in the company, including myself.” Venn replied, remaining at attention. He knew to respect the military, as they paved the way for the new world. Once the coup occurred and Belsace became a militant country, manufacturing and extraction teams were significantly increased and an emphasis was put on material procurement and technologies development. The reason for this was fairly obvious, the country was preparing for war and all of Belsace knew this. Whether the majority of the populace approved of war between countries was an entirely different matter.
The commanding officer, Fitz, looked over the remainder of the extraction company and relinquished his orders in an emotionless tone.
“Pack it up. We are heading back to L’All.”
Venn relaxed and gestured to his subordinates to follow the Commander. Venn and the commanding officer both mounted their horses and led the team out of the ancient forest. They walked a trail of dead trees and foliage that had been created when they first cut their way through to the planned extraction point. However, due to Venn’s heightened perception and caution after the incident, he noticed now how untouched the forest had actually been before they began to hack at it. The verdant ropes that hung like cobwebs from trees off the trail looked like they hadn’t been tended to since man had first stepped into Belsace. The trees weren’t like the ones around L’All. These trees were accustomed to the dark secrets of time and seemed to keep them in the hues of their bark. Gray and brown trunks that were fat with age and experience warned the men that this place had been untouched for a reason. The black niches that were spaced in the distance of the forest seemed to flaunt mystery that enticed Venn, bringing on a macabre curiosity that burned like a fire in the man’s belly.
After traveling for several hours, the group of men arrived at the South Gate of L’All. The stone wall that surrounded the city was well kept and shined bright white in setting sun. Guards posted at the gate noticed the Commander immediately and hit a switch that pulled up the steel barrier slowly. The men made their way into the city and were greeted by several people in the town square just beyond the South Gate. While the team was engaged in conversation with the people, the Commander moved closer to Venn.
“We’ve got a council meeting ASAP. Go home, get cleaned up, and meet me at the Town Hall in an hour.” The Commander whispered.
Venn nodded as Fitz proceeded to dismiss the remainder of the company. After everyone had left from the Square, Venn headed home. It didn’t take him more than fifteen minutes to get cleaned up, so he decided to spend his spare time listening to news on the radio. Advertising for the newly available motorcars crowded the airwaves, though, and Venn immediately became disinterested. He flipped off the radio and hailed a carriage to get to the Town Hall. L’All was quite small, so Venn knew he’d have a few minutes to waste after the carriage arrived at its location. However, once he’d exited the carriage, the Commander was waiting for him at the front of the large, stone doors of the hall.
“Tellanin,” The Commander said, addressing Venn by his last name in traditional military fashion, “Make sure you have an exact recollection of the events leading to discovery of Baptiste’s corpse. I want every minuscule detail accounted for. It seems like the higher ups are arriving. High Mystic Guillermo, Chief Biologist Dana Canne, and Brigadier General Tah plan to attend the meeting.”
“I understand the High Mystic and Ms. Canne attending, but why would Brigadier General Tah be here? We are such a small province; I’d think he has bigger things on his plate.” Venn replied in mild shock.
“There has been an excess of these unexplained killings around L’All and a few provinces at the borders of Belsace. Tah will be here to address the security concerns posed by the Mayor and his prefects.”
“Government covering it’s ass to prevent another revolt?”
“I’d watch my mouth if I were you. You’re clever, but cleverness is not always conducive to social well-being.” The Commander responded sternly.
“My apologies, sir.” Venn made a salute of respect. “Will the mayor be in attendance? The Head Prefect?”
“Yes, both will be here. However, you know how useful they are when it comes to reports from the field. Hell, I don’t know if Mayor Gallen or Prefect Yahn have even been in a forest before. That’s why High Mystic Guillermo had you and I brought in.”
After a few more minutes of small talk between Venn and the Commander, several ornate carriages moved by ivory white horses arrived with the remainder of the council that would be meeting. Tah arrived in his formal, public attire; dressed head to toe in thick, brown leather and jeweled medals. His feet clicked on the stone street as he hauled his enormous, strong body through the Town Hall doors. He was followed closely by Mayor Gallen and three prefects, who were all in government uniform. From the third carriage, the High Mystic and Chief Biologist stepped out casually. Ms. Canne was wearing a plain, beige jumper that was custom for field scientists. High Mystic Guillermo was dressed in flowing purple robes that looked soft to the touch and showed all over with the reflection of the sun. Canne and Guilllermo exchanged pleasantries with the Commander and Venn as the remainder of the party outside made their way into the Town Hall. Once everyone was seated in the conference room that was set-up, the meeting began.
“Greetings everyone, we are here to discuss a case brought to us by our MPs this morning.” Tah said, opening a briefcase and grabbing several manilla report folders. “The case number is 847-B78, if you’d like to review with me. We are investigating the death of one Private Rene Baptiste and the disappearance of one Pierre Fontaine.”
Each member of the group grabbed the files that had been laid before them and opened to the first page of the dossier while Tah continued.
“We have one eye witness account from the leader of the party, Extraction Specialist and Crew Lead Venn Tellanin,” Tah paused, looked up, and pointed at Venn, “that would be you, correct?”
“Yes sir.” Venn said as he nodded.
“We’ve got the paper work here, but why don’t you give us your account of the events.” Tah said as he put the report down in front of him on the table.
“Alright,” Venn stood up and spoke, making sure to address everyone at the table during his speech, “We were doing a standard resource extraction. Foliage and fauna from Quadrant 6 to Quadrant 8 were ordered removed by the Belsace Department of Agriculture and Technology. Obviously, this was a mission of at least intermediate difficulty as we were ordered deep into the Great Forest, near to the borders of Verican. We followed the proper pre-cautions when cutting our trail out and it took us about day and a half to get the purposed removal spot. We arrived, set-up our equipment, and began to cull the area without issue. There were a few large animals. You know, bears and the like, but we made 100% sure that they were the first to be culled and their resources were taken and stored. It was just toward the end of the mission, as we began to cut the trees that we started to hear rustling in the foliage just beyond our worksite. This seemed peculiar to us as we had already culled the three quadrants of fauna, so we investigated and found nothing but sticks and leaves. We dismissed it as harmless superstition and made our camp for the evening. When we awoke the next morning, we went to cut one of the remaining trees in our final quadrant and then a great white flash occurred.” Venn looked down and paused, then returned to his speaking position. “It was beautiful. The flash, that is. It was one of the purest, radiant lights I had ever seen. If it hadn’t been for the death of Baptiste, I’d have said we saw an angel that day. The light blinded us for several minutes as we scrambled around in confusion, then the light disappeared. When we had gained our composure, we saw that Baptiste’ corpse was prepared at the source of the light. His torso was split down the center and his internal organs were hung from a tree and sprawled across all the branches. That’s when we sent a message to inform the Commander, who arrived the next morning.” Venn bowed his head and sat down, indicating he was finished with his report.
“Well, I think it’s obvious what happened.” High Mystic Guillermo chimed in.
“Please enlighten us, Guillermo.” Tah replied.
“As you all know, I’m the High Mystic, appointed to keep the knowledge of magic that was lost after the War of Tribes. Personally, I believe this is the re-emergence of magical forces into our border. Yes, Verican were allies in the War of Tribes and magic was successfully removed from that country. However, Bule, Yi, and Hjaffagher still live in the balance of magic and industry. Maybe, just maybe, a natural magical entity has found a way to penetrate our borders and take back some of its land. I suspect a Unicorn, maybe a Manticore.”
“I personally disagree with Guillermo on this point. We destroyed the Belsace crystals, we destroyed the forest, plains and mountain guardians in all of our regions, we tortured and culled all the witches and wizards, the Children of the forest are dead, and we’ve all but completely eliminated the practice of magic in Belsace. A creature like a Unicorn could not possibly survive. In addition, Unicorns are pure beings, they wouldn’t kill a human.” Chief Biologist Canne was speaking with respect and was not attempting to discredit Guillermo’s claim, just offering a different perspective.
“What are your thoughts, Gallen?” Tah asked.
Mayor Gallen shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking from Prefect to Prefect, hoping one had concocted a provocative thought. When no Prefects spoke up, Gallen addressed the group.
“Something must be done.” Gallen replied and sat.
Commander Fitz rolled his eyes and raised two fingers indicating he’d like to speak. Tah pointed to him and he rose. “Indeed, I respect Gallen’s opinion and agree.” Fitz said, restraining his sarcasm. It wasn’t out of respect for Gallen, but Fitz knew, to get all the resources he needed, he’d need Gallen on his side. “We should send another crew out. This time, they will be more prepared for investigation. I, of course, volunteer myself. I’d also like if I could bring the original extraction crew out with Venn leading them.”
Venn noticeably twisted in his chair.
“Is there a problem with this, Tellanin?” Fitz asked.
“Not for me, no. The money is great and the government has always taken good care of me. However, it’s going to be difficult to get a crew of four average men to return to an area of uncertain doom.”
“Well, we’ll have to sweeten the incentive then.” Tah replied, “Do you think we could persuade them for 500 Coils per person for the mission, plus expenses?”
“500 coils? That’s a hefty chunk of change. I don’t know if that’s necessary, General Tah.” Fitz interrupted.
“We must do whatever is necessary to ensure the security and well-being of the Belsacian standard of living. Despite Ms. Cannes expert analysis, I think we should be prepared for the worst; a magical encounter. A manticore would be an easy kill; however, if by some impossible occurrence, we encounter a Unicorn, we’ll need to be prepared. I speak for everyone when I saw if a Unicorn is involved, there are more potent sorcery at play. The research party will include the extraction crew of five, including Mr. Tellanin, Commander Fitz, and a small dispatch of mid-rank infantry. You’ll investigate the area, destroy what you find, and return with any significant artifacts from your work. I think that will end the session. I’ll have the Prefects write up a mission brief and you’ll head into the Great Forest early tomorrow.”
Everyone shuffled out of the town hall and Commander Fitz met with Venn after the meeting.
“Call your men together. We leave for the Great Forest tomorrow. Let them know of the additional incentive and the main objective, search and destroy. If there are any staffing problems, let me know and we’ll substitute with mid-rank infantry. Beyond that, please keep all details and speculation from the meeting to yourself.”
Venn nodded and went home. He picked up his telephone and tapped into the extraction crew line, leaving an APB that all men in his extraction crew were set to leave tomorrow. By the end of the evening, he’d gotten replies from all of his men. Three had signed on; the other respectfully declined the mission. Venn reported the numbers to Fitz then began to pack his equipment for the next day. As Venn packed, he couldn’t get the idea of the white light out of his mind. It was so enticing and inexplicably beautiful. One thought kept him from sleeping. In his mind, it was a terrible thought, but it sat so well in his gut that he couldn’t explain why he was content with it:
I’d have died to stay in that white light.
The company had been traveling for several hours that morning. Fitz and Venn were on horseback, leading the rifle equipped mid-rank infantry. Behind the soldiers were the three men left from Venn’s extraction company, who were bogged down with cheap pistols and their gear packs. They had made it to the entrance of the Sixth Quadrant and began to set-up camp slightly outside of the purposed area of the incident and investigation. Once everything had been set-up, Fitz began issuing orders.
“Alright, Extraction crew. Take two infantry and fan the perimeter of Quadrant 6 through 8. Venn and the remainder, we will go to the scene of the incident and continue with a more thorough investigation.”
All men took Fitz’s words as gospel and moved to their work quickly.
As Venn and Fitz arrived, they noticed that clean-up crews had come and removed the remains of Baptiste. What was left was a bare tree the company could not see without imagining Baptiste corpse strung up into it. Suddenly, a crackle came from the radios Venn and Fitz carried.
“Perimeter team checking in. We…” the reporter took a drawn out pause. “We found Pierre. Rather, we found what was left of him. We are at Quadrant 7, coordinates 59, 42, 1.3. You’ll want to come have a look at this.”
Venn and Fitz broke from their group and made their way to the location set out by the perimeter crew. As they did, another transmission came through a minute later.
“COMMANDER…they came too fast. We…investigation is no longer an option.” The voice that came from the radio did not pause, but seemed to be getting cut off by radio static and loud shrieks from both men mixed with what sounded like inhuman squeaks. “Horrible. Horrible. Unicorn and the monsters. The Unicorn and the monsters! They’re back. We aren’t worthy. There is no balance. We are doomed. Doomed!”
Radio static and then silence replaced the perimeter report. Venn and Fitz exchanged no words. Instead, both began to run to the location the perimeter crew had reported. Once they arrived, they were only greeted by Pierre, or what was left of him. Pierre’s head sat on a sharpened wood pike and below him his limbs and organs were organized into letters. The mutilated corpse spelled the word “Balance.”
Venn stood speechless, and then became nauseous and vomited. Fitz just stared at the display and ground his teeth while furrowing his eyebrows.
“Sick bastards. What do they want?” Fitz said.
“It would seem they want balance.” Venn replied, his voice devoid of humor and sarcasm.
“Any ideas what that means?”
Venn thought back to his pre-briefing meetings with the High Mystic.
“Maybe magic is fighting back. Maybe the Gods and nature are fed up with us.”
“Farfetched blasphemy.” Fitz said, still investigating the scene.
“Sir, you asked my opinion. That’s it.”
Both men stared at the scene pondering Venn’s statement. Even though Fitz didn’t want to let on, he was filled with fear based on Venn’s statement. What if the Gods were angry? What if magic truly did belong to them?
Suddenly, the bushes shuffled as they had done the day before, however, this time, something was standing there when the men turned to investigate. What looked like a child in a loin cloth stared back at the men through two holes in a Ram’s skull. The skull that covered the child’s face was painted with various tribal designs, all denoting the old runes of magic.
“It…It can’t be.” Fitz managed to say.
“A Child of the Forest.” Venn was motionless and spoke softly. He knew the Children of the Forest were even more ruthless than the old forest guardians. They were the nature’s hitmen; the merciless agents of magic.
“You,” the child said in a mangled common accent, “are monsters.”
Fitz and Venn looked to each other. Their eyes both asked each other the same question:
What do we do now?
Venn stepped up. “You are the monsters. Baptiste had a family. Pierre had a family. They were both good men and you strung them up like cattle.”
“Like cattle? Nasty humans do nasty things then make nasty jokes about it. The rest are already dead. Only you two now.”
Fitz, obeying his militant instincts, ran at the creature while drawing his pistol, but from out of the thick forest, in a quick flash of light, a Unicorn sped directly into his side, impaling him. Venn was shocked, but still couldn’t stifle the admiration in his belly for the beauty of the Unicorn and the conviction of the child.
“Gods dammit!” Fitz screamed as the Unicorn lifted the man into the air by his side. Blood spilled like wine from the wounds like a goblet and seeped onto the ground below.
“Why?” Venn asked.
“For the balance. It’s all balance.”
“How is this balance?” Venn asked pointing at the dying Fitz.
“You murdered. You massacred families. Soiled ritual spaces with cruel steel and petty civility, feeding off the Gods gifts. You turned your back on magic. Now magic will turn its back on you.”
“Is that not the intention? Did the Gods not give us this splendor so that we could do what we pleased? We are growing as a society! We are becoming more and more intelligent. We are becoming more and more civil. How can you say we squander the gifts of the Gods?”
“The end is coming for you. The end for Belsace. Maybe the end of man.” The child peered down through the eyeholes of the skull directly at Venn. Its full black eyes burned Venn’s as he looked into them.
“Unicorns are pure creatures, though. How can you command them to kill man?”
“Command? The Unicorns choose to kill. Purity lives to snuff out evil. That is the balance.”
“I am not evil.” Said Fitz as he fell off the horn of the Unicorn and hit the ground. The Unicorn stood over his body, making sure that nothing else would finish its prey.
“You are man. Man has started a vendetta against natural magics. You are evil in the eyes of the Gods.” The child said, hopping on the back of the Unicorn. “This is just a warning. Man has forgotten the old balance, so now the Gods have proposed a new balance.”
The Unicorn turned around in its grace and majesty, almost speeding off before it looked back at Venn. Its eyes were a crystal and cerulean color and entice Venn, like a siren song of the forest. Venn began to follow, but the beast turned around completely and stamped in anger. Venn’s admiration was replaced by fear and the Unicorn no longer filled his heart with joy. His sense of fantastic romanticism had been replaced by a crippling fear, as if the Unicorn was an impending angel of death. It’s pure, soft eyes were now blood red.
The Child spoke one more time. However, this time it lifted its mask and revealed a face made of bark and wood. Its eyes weren’t merciless. On the contrary, it’s eyes looked like a military cadet that had just gotten out of basic. They were filled with a mixture of duty, fear, pride, and purpose.
“When the last of a species is backed into a corner, it has no choice but to fight.” The child said. “The Unicorn can only kill because this is the only balance man can understand. You didn’t listen before, you never will. Now, we are at war again. Man will not be spared this time. Tell your nation that they should no longer prepare to defend from human civil war. Magic will be back and the Gods have decreed you will be culled.” The beast put down its mask, then began to leave. Just before it disappeared into the mist that had shrouded the area, the child consulted with the Unicorn and stopped one final time.
“You must understand why we have to do this. I’m sorry.”
The Unicorn and the child disappeared into the forest abyss. Venn ran to Fitz’s side, but he had died during the final speech of the forest child. Venn wiped the blood away from Fitz’s medals. Each was a shining testament to how many men and magical creatures he’d killed. However, Fitz was a hero and just a pawn in a game played by men and Gods. As a soldier, he wanted the true, old balance that the Child had described. Instead, the power thirsty master of the country made a decree and doomed a good man.
Venn sat by Fitz’s corpse for a while, thinking to himself. He no longer saw the beauty of magic. Instead, it became the fear and propaganda the government had been feeding him since he was a child. It no longer was a triumph of the world he was fortunate enough to co-exist in, but instead was an instrument of grand misery, heralding the impending doom that man was destined to follow because of his nature. Venn held Fitz’s head and kissed his cheek.
“Hell has arrived.” Venn looked into Fitz’s wound, which was now closing with vines and moss that grew quickly. “And we opened its gates with innocent blood.”