He tried to dodge, to knock away the metal with his sword but he was too slow. He hit the ground with a heavy weight pinning him down. Twisting around he saw that it was Kenux who had thrown him to the floor in a life or death dive. A dozen gleaming shuriken were wedged deeply into the wood where Pux had been standing a moment before.
“I expect better of you, Wutoxa.” Kenux pulled Pux to his feet. He looked ruffled but short of a few cuts that continued to faintly bleed, he still looked ready to fight.
Pux offered his mentor a grateful nod. “They are looking for something called an Oracle. On the Lord Prophet’s orders they cannot take it.”
Kenux slid his blade from its scabbard. “The battle outside is turning in our favour. Captain Lexisow is leading the counter-attack as we speak. She should be able to handle those Fallen who remain. There are no Yuxova to spare though. It is up to us to defend the Heart.” He cast a sombre look at Vexil’s body.
The shrouded Fallen unleashed another volley of shuriken but with two targets to dilute the attacks and more prepared prey, this second wave achieved nothing. The two captains dashed at the shadow warriors. In perfect unity, twelve short, thin bladed swords were drawn.
Pux sliced at the first Fallen and was certain that the blade should have connected with flesh but the dark Yuxova simply disappeared from his sight. On instinct Pux spun, managing to block a strike that would have severed his spinal cord. Another Fallen ran at him before he could recover his stance from the first attack.
One blade tore into his shoulder while the second only pierced through his coat. Ignoring the sudden pain he sliced off the hand that had missed him then quickly recovered his opponent’s sword from the folds of cloth.
Both blades flashed out causing the Fallen to jump away. Pux was far from an expert at duel wielding weapons but he knew enough to keep most opponents on their toes long enough for him to formulate a better plan.
The Fallen darted in and struck out for Pux’s heart. One blade blocked the attack while the second stabbed the Yuxova through the forearm of his offensive hand. No sound came from the veiled face. With the sword that had parried the strike, Pux lopped off his foe’s head in one clean swipe.
Kenux was wading through the much faster Fallen with seeming ease. Three corpses already lay at his feet while another four Yuxova dashed around him. That was all that Pux had time to see before the remaining three shadow warriors rushed him from three sides.
It took him every ounce of his skill to come out of the flurry of blades with nothing more than scratches. He doubted that he could pull it off a second time. The three Yuxova ran around him, swapping their positions before closing in once more for the kill.
Pux loosened his muscles and stood with his swords hung at his side. Steadying his breath he closed his eyes and listened to the soft pad of rushing feet. He waited. In an explosion of movement he threw himself forward, using his blades’ superior reach to scissor the Yuxova in front of him. The other two warriors hit out where he had been while Pux charged past the bifurcated body of the first. His feet moved as quickly as he could will them. The Fallen were close on his heels and gaining every second. Trusting in his luck, Pux ran up one of the pillars and flipped behind the two grey-skinned Yuxova. Pux cut them down before they could even turn.
Looking to the side as he caught his breath, Pux watched Kenux grab the arm of a Fallen who was attempting to slide his blade into the captain’s chest. Without pause, Kenux bent the Yuxova’s arm and used the short blade to slit the warrior’s own throat. The Fallen fell limply to the floor, joining the cluster of his defeated companions.
“Not bad,” Kenux told Pux with an approving smile. “A few more years and you will be one of the best.”
Pux was on the verge of responding when the Lord Prophet flew through the air and smashed into him, sending them both hurtling into the base of a pillar. Heavy footfalls sounded down the chamber. As fast as possible, Pux pulled Xuex up and dragged him behind the pillar. Kenux intercepted Goliox before the giant could reach the Lord Prophet again.
“Are you hurt?” Pux asked Xuex. The elderly Yuxova looked beaten but Pux could see no major injuries.
The Lord Prophet shook his head slowly. “No. I just need a minute to catch my breath. These old organs just can’t keep up anymore.” He coughed then slumped into a sitting position. “Go, my son. Help your brother captain. I will be fine here.”
A pained curse from Kenux shattered any arguments. Pux jumped from his cover and slammed into Goliox’s back. Any normal Yuxova should have been knocked down hard but Goliox only staggered for a step. The Fallen pushed himself back, ramming Pux to the ground. Kenux lunged but his blade clanked harmlessly against the thickened metal armour.
“Every captain together couldn’t hope to beat me! You will all drown in a wave of chaos!” Goliox laughed. It was a booming noise that filled the entirety of the chamber. “The Oracle will be mine.”
Kenux bared his teeth at the massive Yuxova. “The only thing that will be yours is an unmarked grave!” He jumped at the larger fighter and was instantly hit with a wide sweeping swing of Goliox’s oversized blade. Pux hacked at his calf muscle and the Fallen fell to one knee.
A roar that hit Pux like a slap was all the warning he got before Goliox burst back to his feet in a rampage of devastating sword strokes. Veins throbbed on his forehead while his grey skin grew darker, almost black with rage. He lashed out at Kenux who slid under the swing. Goliox’s blade cut deeply into one of the pillars and did not budge when he tried to yank it free. Another bellow was let out. Blinded by wrath, Goliox scrambled for any object to use as a weapon. His bulky hands worked their way to the central altar and gripped hard. With a single, mighty pull, the rectangular slab was raised from the ground.
Kenux charged and was batted across the chamber by a swing of the carved bone block. Goliox spun around and threw the altar straight at Pux. Pux dived to one side but the heavy box caught his legs, causing him to spin into a wooden column.
The altar hit the ground and shattered into a million tiny fragments as though it had been made of glass. As the slithers of white clattered to a stop, a dark-wood cube about the size of a human eyeball continued to spin in the middle of the debris.
“The Oracle!” Goliox exclaimed. His rage faded the instant that his eyes had spotted the plain looking object.
Pux tried to crawl to the cube but his legs would not move. Kenux showed no sign of moving at all. Step by step, Goliox was coming closer to victory. His slight limp did nothing to slow him. Wide-eyed, the Fallen reached down. The cube fell and finally ceased its spinning. Then it was gone.
Goliox whipped around to his right, every part of him radiating the fury of a storm. The Oracle sat a short distance away. Atop it was seated the Lord Prophet.
“The Oracle will not be leaving this room.” The words left Xuex’s mouth as cold, hard daggers. His face was impassive and the Key of Ages rested on his shoulder. “Nor will you.”
“That is big talk for a man who I have already beaten.” Goliox’s eyes did not stray from the Oracle for a moment. He addressed Xuex but it was as though the Lord Prophet no longer existed. “The Oracle will unleash its secrets.”
Xuex’s robes and hair started to sway in a wind that appeared to surround the Lord Prophet alone. A faint white glow overlapped his body, slowly growing into a pale inferno.
Now Goliox’s eyes shot up to stare heatedly at the old Yuxova. “The flames of Akri,” he breathed, almost reverently. “I thought that knowledge was lost.”
“Not lost; only forbidden.” The Lord Prophet’s voice sounded deeper. Each word felt charged with energy.
Goliox took a hold of himself. “No matter. I will kill you then take both the Oracle and the scroll that contains Akri’s techniques.”
From his belt he drew a thin-bladed dagger that was the size of a normal Yuxova sword. His large muscles flexed then he burst into movement. Xuex brought his staff down in a single, sharp strike that caught the Fallen on the knuckles, knocking the dagger clean from his hand. The Lord Prophet twisted his wrist so that the tip of the Key of Ages slammed into Goliox’s gut. The giant shot back, smashed through a pillar then landed in a heap at the other end of the chamber. He scurried to his feet but the Lord Prophet was no longer sat upon the Oracle.
A sharp pain flared in Goliox’s back then he was hurtling through the air again. In a heartbeat he was smacked in a different direction, then another and another. Pux watched in a daze, saw the Lord Prophet seemingly teleport to where the giant would be thrown to continue his assault.
Goliox crashed to the floor after a final downward smash by Xuex. The Lord Prophet landed gently beside Pux, white flames still burning around him. It took a visible effort for Goliox to struggle to stand. Even then he swayed slightly as he faced down Xuex.
“Don’t think that you’ve won! Those of us who follow the true gods have powers of our own!” Blood red tendrils tore through his skin and started to wrap around his armour. From these tendrils, strange crystals formed and spread, encasing Goliox in a jumble of razor sharp edges and points that glimmered in the light.
The flames around Xuex suddenly blazed tenfold brighter than before. The air around him became supercharged and the ground beneath him started to crack and burn. His long hair and flowing robes whipped around him wildly. He pointed the Key of Ages at Goliox and it too became engulfed in the white inferno. “Fool.”
A beam of raw power flared out from the tip of the staff that flooded the chamber in harsh, blinding light. The beam struck Goliox in the centre of his chest, and struggled in place for a few seconds. Then, with a high-pitch sound that cut through the roar of the flames, the crystals shattered explosively. Without the crystal protecting him, Goliox screamed as armour and flesh was seared away by the power. A moment passed until the beam tore into the wall behind him.
The raging white light spluttered then dimmed, fading away into nothing over the course of several seconds. Xuex sagged and the flames flickered out of existence. Sweat was slick all across his pale skin. Opposite him, Goliox was still standing. The vast majority of his chest was missing, leaving only a charred black ring of flesh where his organs had once been. He fell wordlessly, the crystals already evaporating into dust.
A sigh of relief had almost crossed Pux’s lips when a slight thud behind them drew his attention to the Oracle. Two of the black-clad shadow Fallen had lifted the inch long cube between them and were making their way to the exit.
Pux tried to move but knew he would never reach them in time. He called out to the Lord Prophet who turned to face them, the white flames instantly blazing across him once again. One of the Fallen dropped a small ball to the floor that burst and began to flood the area in thick smoke. Xuex threw the Key of Ages like a javelin. He waved his arm and a great gust blew down the chamber to clear the smoke.
The Oracle was gone. One of the Fallen was pinned to a pillar, the Key of Ages impaled through his gut and into the wood beyond. He was already dead. Xuex held out a hand and closed his eyes. A moment later a frown crossed his face.
“He is gone. I can read no trace of him nearby.” The Lord Prophet recovered his staff with a sharp tug before inspecting the dead Yuxova. “They must have powers of their own.”
“What will we do now, Lord Prophet?” Kenux asked through shaking breaths. He had managed to stand and was slowly staggering toward Xuex and Pux.
Xuex was silent and his face was stern. Then the sternness faded and a slight smile crossed his lips. He once again assumed the role of a loving grandfather. “The first things should always come first. It is time to stop that farce going on outside, eh boys,” he announced, offering a helping hand to both captains.
“We are fully grown Yuxova, not boys,” mumbled Kenux as he took Xuex’s hand for support while Pux was pulled to his feet.
“You are still but babies to those of my age,” replied the Lord Prophet as he led the way out of the Heart and into the adjoining corridor.
The walk was painfully fast for the two injured warriors but they were both determined not to show weakness in front of the Lord Prophet. They did not encounter a single living creature as they passed through room after room. The only sound was their footsteps and the burdened breathing of Pux and Kenux.
Sound flooded back into the three Yuxova’s ears as the entrance doors were swung open. A handful of spider bodies were sprawled across the platform and far below them on the forest floor was a carpet of corpses, both Yuxova and animal. Hundreds of Yuxova waited in the clearing around the mighty tree, all of them the brave warriors of the Guardians.
Stood at their head was the Captain of the Night Riders, Lexisow, atop of her snow-white owl. The female Captain wore a flowing white dress that matched the feathers of her mount and her ice blue hair rolled around her figure in the wind. Despite her beauty, Pux knew she was a very skilled fighter and had never lost a battle.
“My children!” bellowed the Lord Prophet from the edge of the platform. His voice reverberated through the trees, carrying for miles around him. It was like thunder from a mouse. Every creature in the forest gave their full attention to him. Even the trees seemed to lean in closer to hear what he had to say.
“That which we had turned into myth has revealed itself to be an all too real danger. Yuxova who betrayed their brothers and sisters many lives ago and were exiled to the darkest corner of the world fought against us this day. The Fallen have returned and we must be ready for anything that they can throw at us.”
Xuex looked every person in the eyes before continuing. “We cannot become blind to the rest of the world though. Forukks continue their rampage of the land and humans are dying all around us. Too long have we lingered in our trees and let the world forget about us. Too long have we allowed corruption to spread. That ends today. The Yuxova will strike back and nothing can stand in our way!”
Pux noted that Xuex never mentioned the Oracle or any of the events within the Heart. He had no idea of the importance of that box but everything screamed at him that they had not really won the battle. The Fallen had accomplished their goal, a goal which they made their existence known to achieve.
“Long live the true Yuxova!” roared Kenux from the Lord Prophet’s side. The army and gathering citizens chanted those five words as loud as their voices would allow.
Xuex turned to Pux. “What did you learn in your travels?”
Pux cleared his throat then gave a full report on everything that had happened since he had left the forest with Trey, Billy and Zak.
“Hmm. It looks like we will have to be swift in recovering our forces. There is still much work to do and little time to do it in,” the Lord Prophet mused.
“We leave for war and death when the sun lifts above the horizon. For victory or defeat I do not know but I will not have the Yuxova forgotten from the records of time or recalled as unfaithful cowards.”
Pux lifted his sword into the air. “For honour.”
“For honour,” chorused Xuex and Kenux as they raised their blades up to cross Pux’s. The Oracle could wait for now. There was a group of teenagers in need of saving first.