Ruler of the Outland
The Outland was a complete opposite from Zerin. While Zerin was a country filled with silver-based minimalist buildings, the Outland was all woods and greens. It was like walking into a huge forest. It was stunningly beautiful. Rivers, trees, and flowers everywhere as far as the eyes could see. There were no tall, fancy buildings out of silver. All the houses and shops were made of wood, natural sources. It's as if they lived here without relying on advanced technology.
The most surprising of all, this place was full of savages at every corner; dragons freely flying in the sky, mermaids swimming by the rivers, children riding on centaurs' backs. The siren had brought me into their lair. A lot of questions suddenly popped up in my mind.
Isn’t this their world? Why did the siren bring a human here? Am I getting captured? Are they getting their revenge?
There were so many questions I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t even express my anxiety because she was keeping me around as her human puppet.
The siren took me for a walk—with an invisible leash—over a bridge, down the path leading to a huge treehouse above lots of big trees. It looked like a forest palace. Of course. She was bringing me to the ruler of this place and then she was going to throw me into jail. Like we did with their kind back in Zerin.
If we’re capturing them, it would only make sense that they’re capturing us, too. It usually went both ways. Whatever it was going on between Zerin and this world, it must have been going on for a long while.
The Zerin government had been keeping the existence of this place a secret. There’s no way they didn’t know. If so, then the savages were actually mere trespassers. But the higher-ups at Zerin had established a rule for us to treat them like pests.
If my hunch was right, this would be a total eye-opener. There were too many things that I didn’t know. Everything was extremely confusing at the moment.
Approaching the palace, I could see that trying to trespass here would be a stupid move. Most of the palace guards were centaurs, who were lightning fast and genius in archery. Their watch dogs were dragons that flew around and breathed fire from above your head. You’d be dead in seconds.
We were climbing up the wooden stairs towards the palace above the trees and the guards were bowing their heads at the siren as we walked past them. She must be some big shot here in the palace, although she was currently wearing normal Zerin girl clothes unlike the other palace guards—they were wearing all-black robes as standard uniform. My guess was the king’s personal guard. Having a siren as a personal guard must be convenient. The king would be untouchable.
The throne was empty, fortunately. I’d expected to meet an intimidating, evil demon king or someone even worse. It was a huge relief knowing that I wouldn’t die immediately from dark magic and the likes. Instead, a girl around my age came to greet us from her guard post next to the throne. She looked like a normal girl with short hair, except that her eyes were all black.
I wasn’t really sure what she was, but those eyes screamed ghoul. Ghouls fed on human flesh. That fact alone made them a lot scarier than the other savages. They saw us as their food. They're the predators and we’re the preys.
“General Mizuhara, you’re finally back! It’s unusual for you to take this long for a mission.” The ghoul was grinning widely, but she still seemed creepy to me. Probably because of her eyes. No, actually, her diet frightened me more than anything else.
“Advisor Akamori. I know. No need to rub it in my face. It’s difficult to catch this guy off guard.”
She addressed her as a general. I was right to assume she was an important figure. Apparently, the ghoul was also a high-ranking person. The palace was pretty much impenetrable at this point. Only someone with a death wish would dare to break in.
"Ah. So that's why he's still under your control. You can let him go now. He can't run away. Not under my watch." There's an implied warning in her tone. I wasn't stupid to ignore that. I knew I would be torn to pieces if I tried to escape.
The moment I could move my mouth I used it to ask, "What do you want with me?"
"The council asked for you," she answered curtly, and then turned to say to Advisor Akamori, "I honestly don't know what they see in him."
Advisor Akamori looked at me up and down, as though she could assess my worth from my outer appearance. "I'm sure he has potential."
"Can I at least have my necklace back?" I asked, holding myself back from getting offended by their rudeness. I'd never gone anywhere without that necklace. Not wearing it made me anxious.
General Mizuhara turned my request down without missing a beat. "No. You're in the Outland now. It's dangerous for you to put it back on here."
I rolled my eyes at the absurdity. Since when was a piece of jewelry considered dangerous? "It's a necklace. I assure you it's not lethal."
"Do you seriously not know what this is?" She seemed genuinely concerned. This was getting more and more confusing.
"It's a kind of jewelry that humans wear around their necks," I deadpanned. She acted as if the necklace could kill us all. It's ridiculous.
Advisor Akamori was finally intrigued by the heated discussion we're having. "What are you guys talking about?"
"A necklace," I said frustratedly.
At the same time, she said, "A magic sealing pendant."
Groaning, Advisor Akamori said, "Don't kill yourself here, boy. It'll leave a bad taste in our mouths. Ah, I don't mean that literally. I'm sure you taste good."
"Not helping." I was slowly losing my patience. "Can anyone explain to me so that I can understand?"
As if on cue, the huge double doors on the right side of the throne room were opened, revealing a very familiar person. It's Lady Hakurei, but with red eyes and the palace guard's uniform. No. This couldn't be her. I refused to believe it.
"Sorry for surprising you, Teruya."
God. It's really her. Has everybody been lying to me? Am I the only one who doesn't know anything?
"Lady Hakurei? Why are you here? Oh my God. Don't tell me you're a savage, too?" I was this close to losing my mind completely. I thought of her as a big sister that I didn't have, but I should have known better.
General Mizuhara complained, "Oh, great. He knows you and you made me fetch him? You could've done the job yourself. He probably lets his guard down around you."
"Not now, General. Your job is done here." Lady Hakurei nodded her head towards the door she'd just come out from. "Come with me, Teruya. I'll explain everything."
"Bye, Teruya. See you later." Advisor Akamori waved her hand at me. Usually, I would have corrected her for using my first name because we're not close enough for that. But formalities were no longer important compared to my survivability.
Behind the double doors were a long hallway with a few doors on each side of the walls. Lady Hakurei opened the first door on the left, leading to an empty room with a huge round table in the middle, surrounded by chairs. This was probably where they held their council meetings. She sat on a random chair, beckoning me over with a wave. I chose to sit opposite her, keeping my distance. Just in case.
Now that we're alone, I could finally vent. "What the hell? You're with them? I thought I could trust you. I told you everything." I might be afraid and confused at the moment, but the anger from being betrayed overwhelmed the fear.
She took a deep breath, as though explaining to me was a difficult chore. "We're not the bad people, Teruya. I'm a vampire and also the council chairwoman of the Outland. Ten years ago, I went undercover in the Inland—you know it as Zerin—to look after you."
A vampire. Why did we never know about that? How could she go out under the sunlight? How could she eat normal food like us?
They must have developed a method to hide their inhuman characteristics. In Zerin, she’d looked just like a human, minus the porcelain skin and the otherworldly beauty that remained unchanged even here. No wonder no one saw through her. It's a perfect disguise.
"Vampire. Great. Why are you watching over me? Do you need to feed on my blood or something?" I was fed up with their lies. Did everyone think I was a joke?
"I'm still the same Hakurei that you knew. Me being a vampire doesn't change anything. Besides, I don't feed on human blood." Her expression turned grim all of sudden. "Looking after you was the king's last order."
Well, that's unexpected. "What does the king want with me?"
"You're his son. And it should be did." She corrected my sentence. "The king's dead. Ten years ago."
After ten years surviving alone in Zerin without parents, I didn't want someone telling me that I actually had another parent aside from my mom. Experiencing more loss was something I didn’t need. "I don't have a father. He's practically nonexistent to me."
"Believe what you want. But it's his blood that runs through your veins," she insisted.
"And also my mom's," I countered, refusing to back down.
Seemingly tired of arguing with me, Lady Hakurei took something out of her robe pocket. It's a sapphire butterfly necklace with the exact same design as mine. I was at a loss for words.
I stopped trying to fight her and ask in disbelief, "How did you get that?"
"Everyone who's assigned to a mission in the Inland gets this necklace—we call it a magic sealing pendant. It blocks our magic and basically turns us into humans. That's how I blend in."
I had been living in a lie. I'd kept it with me my whole life because I thought it's a special present that my mom had given me. I wasn't sure what to believe anymore. It was a lot to take in. I couldn't keep up with the endless revelations.
My earlier conversation with the siren and the ghoul crossed my mind. "Then why did they keep me from wearing it here?"
"The Inland is surrounded by a magical barrier that only allows supernatural creatures—SCD calls us savages, I hate that term—to enter. Let's just say, the witches here despise humans. I strongly advise you against wearing that necklace inside the barrier unless you want to get badly burned."
"So, what you're trying to say is I'm actually a savage?"
"Half-savage," she corrected. "I think this will make it easier for you to believe me."
Lady Hakurei got to her feet and walked to the corner of the room where there was a full-size body mirror leaning against the wall. She wanted me to look at myself in the mirror? Okay. Maybe it's a magic mirror or something. Nothing would surprise me at this point.
I was proven wrong the next second. To say I was surprised was an understatement. When I saw myself in the mirror, I barely recognized my own reflection. My hair which was supposed to be black was now blonde, and my brown eyes turned to gold. All of that was nothing compared to the huge butterfly wings—golden wings with black markings—attached on my back.
"You've got to be kidding me," I muttered under my breath. This was plain madness. "What are you playing at? This is not funny.”
"You're half-fairy. The mirror only helps reflect your true self. Your father was the fairy king of the Outland. The council decided you should take the reign."
I said through gritted teeth, trying so hard to keep calm, "You can't decide anything for me. I don't want the throne. Give me your necklace. I'm going to return to Zerin and pretend this place doesn't exist."
"Please think about it, Teruya. You need us. We can help you." Her tone softened and she sounded desperate. That's fishy.
Then it struck me. The reason why they only brought me here now after leaving the throne empty for ten years. The number of savages running wild in Zerin had increased significantly this year alone. They obviously hadn't gone to Zerin under the council's order because none of them who we had captured wore the necklace, which was why we could notice from their inhuman appearances. But this might also be deliberate to confuse us with common trespassing cases.
There were a lot of possibilities of what could be happening here. What if the Outland government had a falling-out with their own subjects and they started their revolution? Or what if this was the start of the Outland's coordinated attack to take over Zerin?
If what she said was true, then they wanted to use me as a bridge between the humans and the savages. Either to start a war, to make peace, or to suppress the rebels.
Whatever it was, I didn't want to be a part of their agenda.
I finally snapped, "No! You need me. Give me the necklace now. I'm getting out of here."
My rage must have set something loose from inside of me, because the wooden chair Lady Hakurei was sitting on suddenly moved by itself and a part of the wood changed its own shape, turning into something like vines and binding her to the chair. Instead of trying to understand what's happening, I took the chance to snatch the necklace from her grasp and get away from this place.
I heard Lady Hakurei order the guards to let me go as I ran out of the room. I kept running towards the archway where I'd come from, looking straight forward without turning back.