Chapter 22: The Yuxova Strike Back
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.
Stood 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 span around to face Pux, pouncing within the same breath. Pux swerved the lizard and the spider rammed into 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 spiders 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.
Slotting another bolt into his crossbow he 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 delivering 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.
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 quick 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 was 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 could not 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 alter 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 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.