Read Time: 8mins
Treanu struggled to make out anything that lay ahead as he stumbled through the dense black smoke. His movement had grown more erratic and uncertain the deeper he pushed into the forest.
The Cropfather came to a halt, as another uncontrollable coughing fit overcame him; his lungs burned with the remnants of this once great forest. Nurtureville wasn’t far but with every step he took the devastation around him grew greater and the path became more treacherous.
The cries of the Wildwood echoed all around him. Somewhere close by, the flames of destruction bore down on this place with an unstoppable force. The fire had spread quickly and uncontrollably; if the umbron had wanted to unleash chaos upon the oakthorn then they had succeeded.
As Treanu gazed towards the sky, flakes of ash fell from above, caught on a breeze like delicate snowflakes, in an instant they were gone; lost to the swirling vortex of smoke.
The oakthorn’s heart sank. Ashwood had been his charge. He had been destined to follow in the great line of wardens, to nurture these ancient oaks until his final season; then he would pass this most sacred of duties to another promising apprentice. But now he would be the last. He had failed.
“No,” his words roared as if cast down from the sky itself, “it does not end here!”
As the words left his lips, he drove his staff deep into the blanket of moss that lay below his feet. A pulse of light ran through the soft green plants, forcing everyone to stand to attention as if a great stream of electricity had surged through them. The burst of energy moved from plant to plant, invigorating them with life. Roots writhed like snakes, branches flexed and bent. Ashwood was alive!
“This is our home, we shall drive them back now!”
Treanu drew his staff from the ground before swinging it skilfully in a wide arc across his chest. As it passed, a mighty gust of wind broke through the canopy of trees, forcing back the dense and impassable smoke.
Ceasing his moment, the Cropfather lunged forward as the trees shifted and moved for him. He would make it to Nurtureville. They would not stop him.
“Right, lads, this is the place.” A hunched umbron with a single eye shot a wicked grin towards his brothers, his gnarled and broken teeth the result of many hard fought battles.
The umbron pack broke through the tree line and found itself in a wide clearing. A calming presence emanated from this place; a gentle breeze whistled through the leaves, as rays of sunlight fell upon patches of fresh blooming flowers.
“Keep moving, boys!” Deep, booming words erupted from the throat of the umbron leading the pack.
For weeks, the mob had torn and slashed their way deep into the oakthorn’s home, cutting a swathe of devastation wherever they went. Glorious destruction reigned upon the once peaceful land, all in the name of General Carnage. The horde had followed his instructions with unwavering obedience and joy.
‘Leave nothing but ash;’ that had been the general’s final demand, and one they had followed with glee.
“Lets get it done!” Snagtooth barked as he raised a jagged and rusty blade high above his head.
The rest of the gang let out a chorus of roars that echoed through the glade. Charging forward like a battering ram, the creatures tore the ground with their monstrous stride, leaving little of recognition in the once beautiful clearing.
As the mob approached the opposite tree line, something changed. Where once the trees had stood near motionless, their leaves gently drifting in the breeze, they now swung with an unnatural force. Like a wave crashing upon the shore, the energy that at first embodied only a handful of trees quickly spilled out in all directions. In moments, every tree surrounding the grove was filled with otherworldly life.
The umbron’s charge came to an abrupt halt; several of the beasts crashing into each other and tumbling into the dirt.
“What’s going on?” a towering umbron brute yelled, confused by the sudden change in his brothers’ temperament.
Like a legion of the finest warriors, the tree line that encircled the umbron hoard began to move in unison; raising onto their mighty roots they pulled themselves from the earth that had bound them to their forest home. The trees moved slowly and uneasily at first, their thick trunks having been frozen for so long. In a matter of moments, the sleeping giants advance had built into an impenetrable shield.
The impact was immense; a maelstrom of wood and flesh. Axes and spinning blades bit deeply into Ashwood’s defenders as their huge branches sent umbron warriors crashing in all directions.
“Burn ‘em down!” screamed Snagtooth, his single eye glistening with the excitement of battle.
A pair of umbron warriors hurriedly reaching for bottles that swung energetically from their weapon covered belts, before striking a blade against the metal of their armour. A single spark was all it took for the old, soiled rags that had been stuffed into the bottles necks to ignite. Then, with a mighty throw, the bottles disappeared into the mass of trees.
Flames burst from the bottles as they struck one of the ancient oaks; the tree instantly and uncontrollably engulfed in the umbron’s hate filled flames. The fire climbed high into the trees branches, spreading quickly in such a tightly packed unit.
“You are not welcome here!” bellowed Treanu as he weaved artfully around the giant guardians. With a single swing of his staff, the flames that clung to the surrounding trees were extinguished as quickly as they had appeared.
The speed of the Cropfather’s attacks were unparalleled, he moved as if possessed by the spirit’s themselves. Diving into the midst of the umbron horde, he brought his staff down upon one warrior with bone crushing force. Then, turning towards another, unleashed a bolt of energy that sent the broken umbron crashing into a tree.
“You’re mine!” yelled the enraged brute as he charged towards Treanu. His size was immense, standing more than double that of his brothers, his raised fists tore into the ground as they made contact, sending a shockwave in all directions. The oakthorn shaman lost his until now confident footing and fell to his knees.
The shadow of the brute blocked out the sun as he towered over the fallen oakthorn.
“Finish him off,” barked Snagtooth.
With little effort, the brute lifted Treanu from the ground. His immense grip leaving the oakthorn gasping for breath.
“Do it, Crusha!” the umbron leader yelled as he sunk his axe deep into the bark of another tree.
As the umbron’s grip began to tighten, Treanu felt the world fading, he watched as the great trees of Ashwood met with blades and fire. If this was where the forest met its end then at least it hadn’t done so silently.
It was as if the earth rushed up to meet Treanu, the soft blanket of grass doing all that it could to dampen his fall from the brutes embrace. As the oakthorn lay stunned on the ground, he felt the earth moving around him. It rose and fell as if taking one giant breath after another. All around the sound of muffled cries, then silence.
Staggering to his feet, Treanu looked around in wide eyed amazement. Where only moments ago a great battle had raged, now the forest was motionless once more; the wide open grove now a thing of the past. Breaking from the earth all around him like great cables were thick, sturdy roots, each one ensnaring a helpless umbron warrior like an insect caught in a spider’s web.
“Spirits be praised,” the shaman whispered to himself as he surveyed the surroundings.
A guttural laugh caught Treanu’s attention as he made his way through the forest. To his left and right lay members of the umbron hoard, each one now come to the realisation the there was no escape. As the laughter grew louder, Treanu found himself in the presence of a single great oak. A coil of roots wrapped around its trunk, pinning a single umbron in place; Snagtooth.
“You are done here,” The oakthorn addressed him sternly, but Snagtooth’s laughter continued.
“Stupid tree!” Spit sailed from the umbron’s mouth as his single eye pierced into the heart of Treanu. “Stupid, stupid tree! This ain’t it, it don’t end here!” Once more, Snagtooth descended into unstoppable laughter.
Treanu turned away from the captive, his nonsensical ramblings were unimportant. Nurtureville would be safe, but now he must turn his attention to the rest of the forest; much of it was still aflame and in need of help.
“No more stone for you,” yelled Snagtooth gleefully, in-between his bouts of hysterics.
Treanu stopped in his tracks, turning back towards the one-eyed warrior.
“What did you say?”
Deep within the centre of Ashwood forest, the old oak stood silent, the throb of light that emanated from deep within the ancient protector now gone; the lanterns that normally burned brightly hung in darkness.
This once sacred spot now felt changed, cold and lost. The bodies of several oakthorn warriors lay motionless, cut down as they took their last stand in defence of these holy lands.
Overseer Tuskrage gripped the Heart of the Forest in his jagged claw. How could something so small and easily broken contain so much power? He knew better than to question the orders of General Carnage.
If taking the stone meant the end of the disgusting trees, then that’s what he would do.