Slotting another bolt into his crossbow, Pux ran down the golden-cream corridor and headed towards the Heart where he was sure the Lord Prophet would be. Veins of grass green fungi illuminated the passageways with a soft emerald glow like the sun filtering through a thin leaf on a summer’s day. He encountered no sign of resistance as he ran through the first few rooms although he could see signs of a recent battle. A few stray bodies littered the floor, blood smeared the aged walls and occasional gashes bled sap where a weapon hid bitten into the tree’s flesh. Pux borrowed a discarded sword from the side of a young warrior’s corpse. He looked barely out of his teens.
Navigating through the vast maze-like structure of the tree, it took Pux longer than he would have liked to reach the Heart. He peered around the corner into the long aisle that led to a golden door. That ornate wood was all that barred access from the core of the tree. Two Fallen stood guard beside the now battered door and patches of blood stained the floor. Bodies from both armies clustered the hallway.
Pux span around the corner, releasing a bolt as he dodged two arrows that flew to meet him. Without wasting a moment he charged forward. The bolt struck the guard to the left through his stomach, pinning him to the door. The second guard let loose another arrow which Pux deflected with a deft flick of his borrowed sword. He delivered a swift slash across the remaining guard’s chest who fell to the floor with a scream. Pux stepped over his crumpled body and inched opened the door. It was designed for two Yuxova to open but Pux managed it alone, swinging the first guard who was still pinned to it.
The Heart was as stunning as Pux remembered it. He had only been here once before, on the day that he had been given the rank of Captain. More of the glowing moss formed beautiful patterns around the soft core-wood. Golden leaves grew along the ceiling and around pillars that filled the room in concentric rings. At their centre was a bone-white alter where a silver sapling grew from a hole filled with dark soil.
To Pux’s surprise, only three Yuxova occupied the chamber. A handful of bodies that belonged to the Protectors of the Heart were sprawled messily around the floor. Their strong bodies, strict training and hardened redscale armour had not helped them in the least. There was not a single Fallen corpse to indicate a battle had been fought there.
The Lord Prophet Xuex stood beside the altar, resplendent in his snow white robes. Combined with his well-kept white hair and beard and his albino skin he looked like a divine spirit among the living. He held the tall silver staff known as the Key of Life firmly in both smooth hands. Before him two Yuxova fought with a fury that Pux could hardly believe.
One of the combatants was Captain Vexil, leader of the Yuxova soldiers that guarded the Tree of Ages. The other Yuxova had the dull grey skin of a Fallen One but the similarities with the invaders ended there. He was twice the size of a regular Yuxova in all aspects, his hands looking easily capable of crushing Vexil’s skull. He did not look like a monstrosity though. It somehow looked natural, like a Yuxova should grow to that height. His armour was just a scaled up version of the normal Fallen equivalent, albeit being of a far finer quality. An elegantly curved sword rested in each of his hands. He wore dark hair in a ponytail while a thin beard and moustache combo framed his dominant jaw and thin lips. Eyes that gleamed purple sat above a hooked nose.
Neither fighter slowed but Pux was certain that they had already noted his presence and assessed his possible impacts upon the situation. Not that he could do a great deal at the moment. The two Yuxova fought at a level that Pux had no hope of competing with. If he jumped to aid Vexil then he would be little more than a distraction, a child for the other captain to protect.
Vexil rolled under a wide arcing sweep of the giant Yuxova blade but had no time to jab at his opponent’s back before he was kicked across the room. He hit a pillar that was obliterated a moment later by the oversized sword. Vexil dived away and was on his feet in an instant. His blade darted out, striking the larger Yuxova across the calf in an attempt at hamstringing his foe. The metal barely made it past leather-like skin.
The Fallen shrugged off the damage. He slashed down and Vexil tried to parry. His sword was knocked clean out of his hands and stuck itself firmly near the top of a nearby pillar. Undeterred, Vexil thumped any spot he could reach that was not guarded with armour. He dodged away from an attack but then another caught him just under his shoulder. Vexil hissed in pain, staggered back and fell on a section of rubble.
Without emotion, the giant Yuxova stabbed down, lodging his blade through Vexil’s gut and into the wooden ground below. He left it stuck there and approached the Lord Prophet.
“Where is the Oracle? We know that you have it hidden,” the Fallen Yuxova boomed. He held out a broad hand. “Give it to me now and your pathetic race will survive for a few years longer.”
The Lord Prophet eyed the giant calmly. “You will not take what you desire. We Yuxova are the chosen protectors of the Oracle. Our lives are bound to its safety.”
With a low sneer the Fallen recovered his blade. “Then your lives are forfeit.” He brought the sword down upon the elderly Yuxova with a crash.
Pux skidded into place at the last instant. The impact of the dark metal smashing into Pux’s sword sent the smaller fighter straight to his knees. Without hesitating, the Fallen kicked Pux away and prepared himself to strike down the albino prophet again.
A crossbow bolt pounded into his shoulder. A pained grunt issued out from the Fallen. He whipped around and plucked a second bolt from the air before it too could pierce his flesh. With cold eyes he cast the bolt away and rounded on Pux. An oversized hand pinned the young captain to the wall before he could escape while the second hand wrenched the crossbow effortlessly away. It cracked then shattered as he clenched his hand.
“Is this what counts for a captain now?” the Fallen snorted. “My brothers would weep if they knew just how weak you tree-dwellers have become.”
A sharp thud caused the giant to turn back to the Lord Prophet, his arm never loosening its grip on Pux. The white-robed Yuxova had fixed the invader with stern eyes.
“That is enough, betrayer. You will not harm another of my subjects.” The Lord Prophet adjusted the Key of Life so that its tip was pointed out at the Fallen’s throat.
“You think to best me?” rumbled the giant ominously. “I was a captain before you were even born.” He whistled a single sharp note and from the doorway spilled a dozen black shrouded Yuxova with wicked daggers. Not an inch of their skin was uncovered. “Search the chamber. Find me the Oracle. I will deal with this fool.”
“As you command, Chosen Goliox.” The shadowy warriors saluted with a fist to the chest then dispersed themselves around the room. Their every movement was fast and precise.
The giant, Goliox, threw Pux straight upward. Pux hit the ground hard several seconds later. All of the air was knocked out of him and every joint felt torn. Goliox had already moved away and was circling with the Lord Prophet before Pux had landed.
Steel clashed with silver as Goliox brought his weapon down upon the elderly Yuxova. The Lord Prophet blocked the attack, his aged bones still capable of holding up against the Fallen’s superior strength. A fluidity that belied his frail build became apparent in the old man as he weaved his way around Goliox’s attacks.
“Captain Wutoxa, while life still flows through your veins you must not allow these traitors to gain possession of the Oracle.” Xuex gave the order calmly, never taking his eyes from the swinging blade that sought his life.
Pux twitched. The words broke through his mental fog, sparking the flame of resilience within that had fled his body with his breath. Inhaling deeply he dragged himself into a standing position and grabbed his sword. For a moment his eyes focussed on the Lord Prophet but a slight shake of his bearded head dashed any thoughts of Pux rushing to his aid.
No sooner had Pux taken his first step toward the shadowclad warriors, they stopped their searching and turned to him in perfect synchronisation. Before Pux could even blink, every one of them seemed to have spawned a handful of throwing stars. He cursed. The room shimmered with spinning metal that filled Pux’s vision.