Trees sped by around them as the two Yuxova captains darted through the labyrinth of branches. They had joined up with sixty of Kenux’s surviving warriors then rounded up Pux’s platoon before even heading towards their destination. Without their captain, the hundred Yuxova warriors had been kept in reserve so were eager to enter the fight. Along the way several warriors from other squads had joined them after having been routed from the battle. A great mass of bird mounted Yuxova warriors now followed them towards the Tree of Ages in a living cloud of angry two inch high soldiers.
Pux was horrified by the damage that lay all around him. Tree trunks littered the leaf strewn ground where they had been roughly felled. Charcoal stained sectors of the forest black. These scorched patches looked to have been well contained but there were many of them. The corpses of Forukks usually accompanied the damage, tainting the ground where they lay. A handful of tiny bodies were scattered around most of these areas.
The sound of combat came before any sighting of the current battleground. Pux burst through the leaves of an oak tree and was confronted with the scene of thirty or so Forukks advancing toward the nearby Yuxova settlement with blades and blazing torches. Yuxova swirled around the monsters but were spread too thinly to truly damage the thick-skinned beasts.
“Initiate the Razor-wind formation,” Kenux ordered. The warriors behind him grouped closer together as they flew, forming a great, shapeless mass of life. The host of birds dove at the Forukks, the cloud of feathers piling into the howling creatures and absorbing them into the heart of the swarm. Forukks thrashed and roared, striking down birds with every swing.
As one, the birds rocketed back into the skies. The Forukks were sprawled motionless below, ripped clean of all of their tainted flesh. Dull grey bones could be glimpsed where the armour did not cover. Small groups of Yuxova on pigeons rushed with buckets of water to douse the torches before their flames could spread.
The leader of the Yuxova who had been engaging the Forukks drew his bird up beside Kenux and Pux. “Glad you came when you did, sirs. We were holding back the Forukks easily until those damned traitors showed up. The Lord Prophet ordered most of the soldiers to pull back and defend the Tree of Ages. The second that our forces were split, the Forukks launched another attack. It makes no sense but everything is screaming at me that the Fallen must be working with the Forukks.”
“Do we have any clear numbers yet?” Kenux asked briskly.
“I’m no captain so I don’t know for sure,” the Yuxova began. “From what I’ve seen and heard though, I’d say we’re dealing with at least another fifty Forukks and upwards of five hundred Fallen. We should have the numbers to force them back but we are too scattered and cannot regroup.”
“Who is in-charge here?” Pux put to the sergeant.
“Captain Lexisow and her Night-Riders command the defence against the Forukks. She is south-west of here by the root bridge,” answered the sergeant wearily.
Kenux made a quick guess of his own numbers. They had gathered over two hundred soldiers but had suffered losses against the Forukks. “Take a hundred men and join up with Captain Lexisow. Tell her that we went on ahead. Kill the brutes as fast as is possible then swing back around to help us.”
“As you command, Captain.”
After quickly splitting their forces, Pux and Kenux led what remained of their soldiers north-west. The Tree of Ages stood alone in a small clearing that was holy ground to all Yuxova. The city of Iliox had been constructed around the vast tree and was home to nearly every Yuxova in Farava. The Lord Prophet himself resided within the mighty tree.
Screams and shouts filled the clearing and the nearby trees that formed vast structures within Iliox. Yuxova battled everywhere. Combat raged across the forest ground while birds fought fiercely in midair. The very trees swarmed with soldiers who leapt from branch to branch, darting in and out of trunks and gliding from one platform to another with webbed coats.
Warriors in the dull green and brown clothes of the Forest Guardians were locked in battle with red clad Yuxova who wore black metal armour over their bright attire. Unlike the tanned skin of the local Yuxova, the Fallen had ash grey flesh that seemed unable to sweat. Despite what the sergeant had said, the invaders seemed to outnumber the defenders by a fair margin.
“Looks like they’ve captured the area surrounding the palace and have prepared a welcome party for us.” Pux smiled grimly as he watched the forest erupt with black and red armoured traitors. They seemed to ooze from behind every leaf and out of every crevasse that the trees had to offer.
“Just how I like it,” murmured Kenux. “Takes me back to my youth.”
Kenux lifted his blade high then roared a battle-cry. The other Yuxova took up the cry and charged into the battle to help the beleaguered defenders. The two forces met at breakneck speed. Several birds fell from the sky as the two solid masses came together. The centre became a swirling storm of shouts, screams, feathers, weapons, blood and death.
Pux lost sight of Kenux almost immediately. A crow had flown into him at full speed, its beak only held back by Pux’s sword. The crow’s rider advanced upon Pux with his mace raised. With one hand holding his sword, Pux grabbed his crossbow from his back and shot a single bolt at his opponent. Then with his other hand he slashed at the crow, sending it hurtling into another Fallen’s gull.
Sending Bo-bo into a vertical dive, Pux grabbed onto the tail of a finch that was heading in the opposite direction. Bo-bo continued his descent as Pux climbed onto the finch’s back and threw off its rider, watching him fall into the maelstrom below. Pux followed him by jumping off the bird. As he fell he clipped many birds’ wings with skilful slashes of his blade.
Mere feet from the ground he was scooped up by Bo-bo and they soon had regained their former altitude. They continued to rise until they broke from the melee into the sky beyond. Pux observed the battle from above and sighed as he watched a group of Fallen fly in perfect formation, defeating any Guardian they came into contact with.
Pux removed a bag from his rucksack and examined its contents. Mini boom-balls, so small that Pux could hold half-a-dozen in each hand. Liam had had no spare powder but upon learning its contents, Pux had been able to create a similar mix from plants and minerals around the forest. The formula was not as potent but it should do the job. Following the Fallen from above he lit the explosives as quickly as he could then let them drop. For a second it looked like they might miss and destroy anything unlucky enough to be below him but to his relief they rained down upon the crows. A series of very small bangs followed then charred birds fell from the sky. Most looked to be stunned rather than dead.
Pux’s victory was short-lived as a huge hawk darted from the clouds. The Fallen atop of it was a black haired Yuxova woman with a barbed whip flowing beside her. Pux only had a split second’s notice to try and dodge the attack. Bo-bo swerved to avoid the talons but was not quick enough. Rather than grabbing Pux and Bo-bo like the attacker intended, the hawk clipped Bo-bo’s wing, causing the small bird to spiral down to earth.
The woman made to follow but was blocked by hundreds of small birds as they flew like one entity across the battle. By the time they had passed, Pux and his bird were nowhere in sight.
The ground was closing in on them far too fast for Pux’s liking. Bo-bo had lost consciousness and made no attempt to avoid the forest floor. Desperately Pux slapped his blade into the bird’s side causing the bird to twitch. The pain brought consciousness back but it was too late.
They hit the ground with a thud and crack. Light filtered through Pux’s eyes. With a groan and a large headache he rose to his feet. He looked over to Bo-bo. The bird’s feathers were ruffled and its left leg looked broken. Comforting the bird by stroking its head, Pux looked at the carnage around him. A large black mass moving down a nearby hill drew his attention from the sky.
It was a spider swarm. Vicious forest arachnids rode by tough looking Fallen. Red war paint dashed their faces and armour and jagged blades waved around in vice like hands. They were heading straight for Pux.
“Damn!” shouted Pux as the spiders closed in. Using all of his strength he threw the bird onto his back and began to run. It was no use though; Bo-bo was too heavy.
A sharp whistle pierced the air. Pux dropped Bo-bo and drew his sword. He whistled again and waited as the sea of death sped towards them. The spiders were feet away now. Pux could make out their beady eyes and blade like fangs. Sharp screeches shattered the air as the spiders howled at the prospect of blood.
Pux stepped aside as a lizard leapt from a tree and landed where he had been standing. It was three times larger than Bo-bo, had gore red skin and black lines that were scattered around its body.
“Took your time,” snapped Pux as he hauled Bo-bo onto the lizard’s back. The lizard made an apologetic sound as it eyed the coming assault. Pux climbed up and sat in front of the bird.
“Hold on tight my feathered friend,” Pux roared as he gave the lizard a tap. In a show of power the lizard’s muscles rippled then it shot off towards the enemy. Bo-bo squawked in displeasure as he held on for dear life with his wings, feet and beak.
The spider riders did not seem the slightest bit fazed at the counter attack. If anything they were more enthusiastic now that their prey was going to put up a fight. It was suicide. The chance of survival was one in a million. Even a captain could not face a full spider battalion. Even so Pux had a greater chance of survival charging them than waiting for them to rip him limb from limb.
The lizard reached full speed just as the spiders were in attack range. With a mighty leap the lizard flew over the front line and landed several feet into the spiders’ ranks, crushing an unlucky warrior and his mount under its bulk, all without missing a step.
Spears lunged from all directions, most breaking as they hit the lizard’s armour like scales, but some hit flesh. As Pux rode through the maelstrom of eight legged tanks at lightning speed he spotted what he was looking for. Beyond the spiders was a huge twisted tree. On closer inspection Pux could see it was actually three trees, grown together to form one spiralling trunk. Its golden leaves shone out like a beacon, guiding Pux towards it. The Tree of Ages.
A barbed sword caught Pux on the thigh, bringing him from his reverence. He hacked to his side, severing a hairy leg from a spider’s torso.
“Full speed ahead,” Pux called to the lizard. Making a sharp left turn they headed straight for the great tree, ploughing through any spiders that got in their way. The spider riders continued to throw themselves towards Pux. For every ten attacks that failed, one managed to inflict damage. The lizard began to slow as blood dripped from several small cuts that crisscrossed its body.
One arachnid with stilt-like legs vaulted into the air to land on the lizard’s back and kill Pux directly. As the spider flew through the air, Pux drew his crossbow and fired. The bolt struck the bug in the eye, causing it to flail in pain. With its balance off it missed the lizard altogether, instead cannoning into one of its comrades.
Pux was through most of the spiders now. He had a horde on his tail but as long as he made it to the Tree of Ages, that did not matter. The battle around him was merely a distraction. The real fight was going on deep inside the ancient plant’s halls. That was the fight Pux was needed in.
A screech unlike anything any mortal should ever hear pulsed through Pux’s soul causing the lizard and Bo-bo to flinch. With all of his senses on full alert Pux looked to his right, knowing what he would see.
Standing amidst the chaos was a Yuxova almost twice the size of Pux. He wore no shirt and he had no hair other than a short ponytail that billowed in the wind. On his right shoulder sat a plain iron shoulder guard held onto him by a strap that ran across his chest and back then connected to his belt. On his left hand he wore a gauntlet.
Pux grinned with relief. It was the Silent Captain. A mute, with an unknown name and calm demeanour yet deadly skills in combat. Strength wise, he was the top captain. He killed without a word or a hint of emotion.
Below the Silent Captain stood his mount, a huge tarantula with talon-like fangs, eight bloodshot eyes and a spiked exoskeleton. Ironically it was the loudest, most vicious creature in the forest. More spiders carrying Guardians scurried behind him.
Releasing an otherworldly scream the tarantula shot forwards. Its rider raised his flail and directed the mount towards the oncoming tide of arachnids. Spider met spider in a clash of legs and venom. Pux raced by, offering the mute captain a salute as they passed each other.
A shadow blacked out the sun. Pux glanced up and cursed. A jumping spider bounded through the air above, spiked armour strapped to its stomach. It landed where Pux’s lizard had been a moment before and was instantly back in the air for a second attempt at the captain’s life. Pux fired his crossbow but unlike the last jumper, his bolt pinged harmlessly against armour.
It landed ahead of the lizard and spun around to face Pux, pouncing within the same breath. Pux swerved the lizard and the spider rammed into the lizard’s side instead. The Fallen did not hesitate, swinging his morning-star into the reptile’s scaled leg. The lizard reeled up and flipped as it collapsed to the ground.
Pux parried a blow as the lizard shakily rose to its feet. He fired a shot at the spider’s face. It struck but only caused a shallow wound that hardly made the arachnid falter. The spider lunged forwards with its fangs bared.
At the last second the lizard sprang into the air, avoiding the attack and landing on a thin tree. The Fallen motioned for his mount to follow and it too sprang up to join Pux. The spider horde swarmed towards the tree, covering it like tar.
With all the speed he could muster, the reptile raced along a branch, the spider riders in close pursuit. Vaulting from branch to branch, Pux suffered an assault of twigs and thorns. His Fallen opponent rode along Pux’s side and a vicious melee began. The grey skinned Yuxova must have been the equivalent of a captain with how hard he pressed Pux. He hissed and bayed with the same venom as his eight-legged mount.
At breakneck speed they shot through the leaves exchanging a barrage of attacks. Stray birds swooped through the skies, occasionally skirmishing with the crawling sea below them, the bigger birds plucking up the spiders to swallow whole.
Searing pain lanced through Pux’s arm as the ball of the Fallen’s morning-star struck his shoulder. With an agonising crack Pux felt the bone shatter. Losing some of his control the lizard swayed to the left and almost toppled from the branch. Pux quickly adjusted their direction as he tried to avoid another strike aimed at his head.
They were on the last branch. Pux could see the entrance clearly now. It was not big enough to fit the lizard through or even Bo-bo. Only a Yuxova could enter.
The lizard dived off of the very tip of the branch. Pux dove off the reptile and landed with a roll through the open door. At the last second the lizard extended its arms and revealed it had thin wing like webbing on its joints. They caught the wind and it and Bo-bo glided up, around the tree then were lost to sight in the forest.
The spiders did not have any such tricks. The Fallen captain and a few of the wiser riders skidded to a halt before jumping. The rest leapt towards the door. Those that did not miss the platform crashed into the tree’s trunk. Those nearest to the entrance tried in vain to squeeze through or reach Pux until Guardians forced them back into the battle.
As the riders began to dismount and charge towards the opening, Pux quickly heaved the thick door closed and locked it with the only suitable thing he had: his sword. It would not hold them forever but it would have to do.