The Emerald Empire -8- Empire of Matathran
It was spring, and so the Glacial marshes where living up to their name. The rising temperatures had begun to chip away at the snow and glaciers clinging to the Frozen cliff’s northern slopes. The resulting meltwater had spilled down into the plains below, bursting the banks of the various twisting rivers that crossed them. It was upon one of these rivers that the mixed band now sailed, through calling what they were on a river was generous considering how hard it was to distinguish the water in the river from the water flooding the surrounding landscape. All around them muddy marshland spread out for kilometers until it reached another river or eventually dried up before it hit the road running along the wall of ash. The marsh water was overgrown with plants of various kinds, from thick beds of reeds to floating mats of vegetation and the odd thicket of trees clinging to shallow regions.
Here and there small islands of stone poked up out of the marshwatter, though, as had been discovered on their first journey through the marsh, not all of these were actually land. Some where instead massive snapping turtles that where either grazing or waiting for a tasty snack to float by. In the water large fish could be seen flitting by, occasionally pursued by oversized ottars, while the air around them was filled with a fog of mist and insects that obscured everything beyond the middle distance. The bugs notably contained both mosquitoes and midges, both of which would harass anyone with exposed skin, seeking blood to grow their eggs. Small birds darted too and fro, catching insects in their beaks to bring back to their families nesting in the waterlogged trees.
The crafts the expedition used were meagre. Simple, lamed riverboats of oak. A few even looked as if they had been bought off the docks of local fishermen. They were not for show, not for battle; such was not their purpose. The five boats carried a mix of crews. The thirty-odd Matathran scouts sat in the boat’s center while the ten Morkt raiders paired off, one at the helm with a depth finding rod and one at the aft steer board.
The small contingent sifted through the water, again without need of conventional propulsion. However the Calid scouts were equipped with paddles which they dipped mimickingly in the water should someone be watching. The small crafts danced up the sides of the river banks silently. Few boats spoke. Save for that of Trygve’s.
A muffled crack sounded out as Trygve thrashed a mosquito against the side of his neck. Its viscous entrails covered the breadth of his hand. “It is times like these that I wish I could fit into a shiny burka like you.” Trygve offered without even looking for Tafari's reaction. Trygve was clad in a muffled black gambeson with a dappled grey seal skin cloak. At his side, a great war ax sat longlily perched on the ship’s gunnel.
"You can have one of your very own when you learn how to flense Agate Spiders and harvest their silk glands." Tafari replied nonchalantly from behind. "Pay attention though; according to the charts from our scouts, there is an Treefolk encampment further up along the river." He pointed to a spot on the weathered, hand-drawn map of the marshes that the Calid Scouts had pieced together through prior scouting.
“An interesting development. It seems your war has stirred up quite some interest. There was no camp there during our trip to your lofty bridge. I do not doubt your men though, even with a brain of bark I would place a post where the rivers meet. As it stands, my pockets are fresh out of sunshine and dirt to pay our safe passage.” Trygve reliped as he slid down the boat's prow to face Tafari and the produced map.
"Well, you are the sailor here. How do you propose we pass them by?" The silk-shrouded figure inquired, their arms crossed over the club-like weapon hanging from the front of their carapace cuirass.
“How well can your men carry a boat?” Trygve prodded. Black leaves once again maring his amiable smile.
"Only so long as it is not burdened by your corpulent ego." Tafari answered, prompting a quipping wink from his victim . "If you are suggesting that the boats should make land and carried around the other side of the river, we will need a distraction so that their scouts and watchers do not spot us while we are trudging through the mud." With that, and without any further explanation, he got up from where he was seated and started making his way to the ship railing, handing off the chart he had been examining to one of the Questors.
Trygve shot up from his perch quickly, attempting--if unsuccessfully--to appear in charge of the conversation’s end. Trygve grabbed his great ax’s hilt and sifted his fingers across the intricate engravings on that covered its gorgeous blade. “Precisely.” He mustered before returning his gaze to the ships heading. He paused a moment before continuing. “Perhaps you and I should test our mettle in the act, let our men make portage with Radoslaw. I want to see what these creatures can do for myself.. And you are perhaps the definition of a distraction.” Trygve glanced at the iridescent warrior behind him.
"I imagine you know the way there and will be able to rendevouz with the boats later on? In the event we are separated by more than your burgeoning pride." Tafari practically drawled as he hopped up onto the railing, as though he intended to jump straight down directly into the river below.
"Perhaps separate is best. A hammer and anvil as they say. I am quite fond of not being seen, and you are quite fond of everyone noticing you... That is if you feel competent enough to return to the boats unguided. I'm sure we could put some cute play figures on a map for you if the visual helps." Trygve replied, pulling himself up to the lip of the boat's prow like the glyphs of bygone heros.
Tafari turned their veiled head back to Trygve, their expression hidden - though the look that might have been there was not hard to imagine, from the amused tone of his voice. "Maps are for plodders and bottom-feeders like yourself."
He then leapt from the railing -
And landed on the far side of the river, completely clearing the coursing waters without issue and landing in the knee-deep shallows of the bank. He waved a single hand airly to Trygve without turning back, and then leapt into the air again in a massive arc despite the fact that his feet should have been hopelessly mired in the wet mud of the earth. His leap carried him more than twenty meters high, and more than twice as far horizontally, only to then immediately bound off the ground in an identical leap the moment he touched down again.
"Well fuck, now every bird in the sky will see him." Trygve mumbled under his breath as he returned to the base of the boat. His eyes surveyed the mixed assembly remaining. "To the shore, quickly. Our plot mustn't be foiled or the western coast will be lost. Keep your heads low, and use your whit far before your blade. Someone among us must reach the coast to parlay with the invasion force. If I or Tafari or any man among you should fall, keep that mission at heart. Its worth is far more than any of our own." Trygve gently thumped the pauldron of the Calid scout closest to him.
"Meet us south at the thirds river, but do not wait. Keep only faith." With that, Trygve produced a thick wooden shield covered in grime and sporadic thatch from the gunnel. Its coating mirrored the surrounding brush deceptively well. He gently slinked into the cool, mired water and began his swim.
The camp consisted of two main sections. The first was a small island in the sea of muddy water upon which supplies of various kinds were kept, mainly food and ammo as well as the odd pile of construction materials, protected from insects, beasts and the wet ground by tarps wrapped over and under them. There was little in the way of defences or structures of any kind such as tents and the main perimeter consisted of a few disparately positioned ents standing close to the waterline, atop which Dryads lookouts sat while their kin soaked up what little sun made it through the fog. Furthest from the river was a large area set aside for warbeasts, big and small, where they could rest in peace or leave to go out hunting without disturbing the varios supplies. At the center was a large mundane tree, upon which various birds, predator and prey alike, roosted.. Within the camp Drayds and ents milled about, either talking in small groups or moving cargo around. The majority were located closer to the river, near the living ships.
These ships were docked on the second major section of the camp, a series of floating docks grown out of a thick vegetation. They stretched about halfway across the river and a dozen or so ships where sitting within the array of floating gangways, some carrying supplies that where currently being unloaded, others perpring to take small teams down towards the main road to prepare traps or ambush areas.
From a distance the living ships might have been mistaken for long ships like those once used by Shenra, but on closer examination it became they were but an imitation with some major deviations from the base design. Their main body was a single solid trunk of a tree that had grown oddly so that it was almost semicircular, the flat section forming the deck of the ship while the rounded region formed the hull. This ship tapered off at the front, forming a relatively normal looking prow, except for the fact that it featured a figurehead of some beast, monster or insect which had the golden glowing eyes of a treekin. These figureheads were semi articulate, capable of turning to and fro to observe the area. At the center of the deck was a single large wide leaf that stretched skywards in place of a sail, made in a lateen configuration that allowed it to sail against the wind. Currently these sails were folded shut, the veins of the leaf had bent so that they were parallel with the midribowing the ship to take down its sails while docked without having to tear leaf from its own body.
At the rear was the main deviation of structure for the ships structure form what it was mimicking as the tapering off of the ship’s stern halted suddenly, as if the last meter of the ship had been cleaved off. In place of a stern where the ships roots, trailing in the water. These were used to root in onto a riverbank in order to suck nutrients from the soil, but while in the matter they acted as a propulsion system, like tentacles or Flagellum, and as the ship’s method of steering. Along the sides of the dech there were small branches forming waist high hedgerow that acted as a barrier to keep treekin and cargo on the ship while also being able to aggressively fend off enemy boarding attempts boarding attempts. Finally along the sides of the hull where many long arms ending hands webbed with leaf like material. These acted as oars, weapons and as a rudimentary method of crawling up onto or off of a shore line. The distribution of these arms varied, some having only ones whee oars would be, some had multiple dedicated combat limbs near their figurehead used to grapple with enemy craft, some had ones on the deck itself that were used as cargo cranes. Others on had limbs that formed living crossbows using arms that split in two at the elbow, one hand holding a bow while a serpentine vine was used to draw back the string and bolt. A minority had a few limbs or their figureheads covered in complex runes which acted made them into magic spell firing cannons made of living wood.
The ships present were all 8 - 15 meters in length, making them rather small for their kind. On on the high seas where multi sailed carracks, some of them bristling with runic cannons or ballistas in place of oars, that dwarfed the small longships. Those however where incable of traversing the marshes, their hulls to deep to make use of the half meter of water covering the land. The longships meanwhile could sail through it with ease and could drag themselves over shallow areas or vegetation, making them perfect for transportation and assaults in the muddy expanse. They were, however, not the only things in the water, as both ents and living ships of pecuriler and monstrous shape lurked in the regions around the encampment, revealed only by small leaf covered limbs, that could be mistaken for regular trees, poking out of the water and mud they slumbered in.
There were two responses to Tafari's advance. The first was a small volley of arrows from the various sentries, most of whom individuals decided that whatever the thing coming at them was, it wasn't one of theirs and was thus better to be safe than sorry. While his speed made targeting difficult the predictability of the arcs of his leaps meant that a few arrows did manage to hit him but the carapace armor deflected some shots and the silk absorbed others. By the time he was on top of them Tafari had several, completely harmless, arrows sticking out from various parts of his armor or hanging limply from extraneous folds of silk.
The other response was the sound of a horn coming from the center of the camp and the taking off of the birds roosting there. Most notably a number of eagles that took off in various directions, hoping to spot other intruders as they had the incoming lone warrior. This horn cleaved through the confusion and concern seeping up into the camp from the lookouts. The horn ment a threat had been spotted, and that a battle was soon to commence. Confusion, alarm and concern were all overwhelmed by purpose, the Treekin’s purpose for existing: to fight and die so that the Dreaming Forest as a whole could survive and thrive. The various dryads and Ents could be seen dropping what they were doing and rushing to repel invaders from their patch of dry land.
Lack of immediate clear instruction meant that they did not all go towards Tafari, but instead went towards all the edges or gathered in the center for clearer orders. The various humans among the treekin, who where mostly non combatants, tried their best to find a safe spot form the currents pulling the wooden warriors to battle, either pressing against or standing on supplies. The rest gravitating to the relative calm, and hopefully safety, of the center of the camp. The ships on the docks meanwhile mostly set sail, hoping to flank the intruders, their leaf like sails, arm like oars and tentacle like roots propelling them across the water at a remarkable speed. Those that stayed were waiting on crew to rally to them so that they could act as more effective fighting platforms or where carrying to many supplies to fight effectively.
At the center of the camp Sunrost the Eagle, co-commander of the entire frozen marshes operation gazed down at the surrounding swampland from the eyes of his birds of prey. He was satisfied with the response of his kin, all as eager as ever as they where to get stuck into combat instead of tramping about in the mud doing logistics. They had known that they might be attacked, being the most isolated encampment, as well as being close to Matathran’s current position. Raids form Calid scouts or harpies had been considered a possibility, as had the possibility that Matathran had some engineering solution to the marshes or that they might have build ships for the marsh crossing. One bounding human sized figure had not been on the list of expected threats however. Animals might have feared the capabilities of the lone man, or have arrogantly underestimated him. However, as plants, the Treekin did not come pre-programed with fight or flight reflex for anything other than that burnt in fear of fire.
Nevertheless, they could learn caution and, with Andromach’s might fresh in all their minds, the possibility that this figure was of a similarly dangerous caliber did concern Sunrost. He had climbed up the tree his birds had perched in after he sounded the horn and now waited to see what the figure could do, for messengers he had sent out to redirect the spread out fighters to the correct direction and for some of his options for combating the warrior, should they prove a match for the regular treekin, to arrive in the center of the camp.
The uncertainty went both ways, thankfully. Tafari, not accustomed with the ways and thinking of the treefolk, saw the small island in the middle of the river, heaped with supplies and surrounded by Living Ships, and concluded that it was the center of the encampment’s operations. Leaping through the air one last time, mid-flight, Tafari produced a fire-pot with a curious twist of his left wrist in some nigh-magical sleight-of-hand - which he then placed inside the rearmost hole of his oddly shaped weapon, still hanging from the front of his carapace armor. As he landed amidst the carefully wrapped tarps stacked in the middle of the island, he drew it. The weapon was both alien and familiar to the treefolk of the Emerald Empire. In form and shape, it looked similar to the carapace the man wore as armor; complete with protruding spines and apparent segmentation. At the same time however, the whole of the club was seemingly petrified and made of stone; and its shape seemed almost perfectly - artificially
- made to serve as a cruel and vicious clubbing implement comparable to a mace. There was also the strange matter of the three holes along it - one at its top, one at its front poised directly between four barbed stone spines, and another at rear and bottom of the weapon's haft. All seemed connected to the same hollow center - which could clearly do the weapon no favors, robbing it of mass and strength.
Tafari hefted the weapon even as the first of the human defenders who had been positioned on the island began to surround him, and brought it down. Amidst the shouts and beat of footfalls, the creaking of wood and the cries of countless birds, the cracking sound of the fire pot inside the weapon's hollow chamber could be faintly heard.
The area immediately surrounding Tafari burst into flame as great, bellowing gouts of flaming oil jetted from the three holes along the weapon's length. The tarps surrounding him immediate set alight, men and women screamed as their clothes were immediately set aflame and as oil sank into and burned their skin, and trails of insidious and ravenous wisps of flames began to wind through the grime and wet muck of the island, carried amongst the currents of the water by thin streams of fuel. Standing in the middle of the abrupt conflagration stood Tafari, seemingly unperturbed and untouched by the flames - for the most part. The edges of their silk garments were smoldering, faint flickers and embers of light picking up strength along the frayed and now dirtied fabric and threatening to engulf him in flame as well, though his motions betrayed no apprehension on his part. Hefting his club aloft once more - now covered in oil and blazing with terrible light - he ran amongst the stacks of tarps, beating human figures down and smashing supplies, lighting them aflame in the process.
From his observation post Sunrost was initially horrified, believing for a moment that the man had blown himself up to take out a chunk of their supplies. A small chunk at that. While the oil fire could not be extinguished the rest of the fire was already being combated, a few enchanters down by the waters edge made use of items designed for hydrokinesis and began extinguishing the fire. These items looked like small tubes or drums about a quarter of a meter in diameter and half a meter in length. Pointed with one and facing the marsh and another at the camp the rear of the tube drew water towards and into itself from a wide area, while the other end fired it forward in constant stream hat could be adjusted for with and intensity using dials that could be twisted slightly altering the wording of the amber runes on the drum. Those were used as fire hoses, spraying a shower of water on top of the inferno.
A few moments after the explosion Sunrost caught sight of their attacker once more, and took notice that his armor had seemingly protected him from the flames. After sorting the existence of such armor away for future use Sunrost took stock of what he had available. While the fire warrior had begun his rampage a number of people had assembled for instruction and who were now all watching the fire nervously. They varied from elite warriors, such as a small troupe of wind dancers, to those who provided more utility like mages. Neither of these he wanted to commit into the range of the flame wielding thug. He didn't really want to commit anything into his range, even as a number of the warriors down at the shore got their courage up and charged him. Seven ironbark armored dryads, armed with a mix of hammers, swords, knives and maces, primed to break the armored warrior, racing between the spread out lines of supplies to cut off his advance. Seeing this Sunrost ordered a support from the center.
“Jero,” one of his lieutenants “take ten warriors and support them!”
“Aye” the dryad, armored with reforged steel plate rather than ironbark, quickly got nine dryads and a bestial ent shaped, roughly, like a two meter tall panther with two massive prehensile vines coming out from its back just behind its shoulders, to follow him. Together the eighteen treekin began to try and get ahead of Tafari ‘s path of arson. Out on the periphery, those fighters that could see Tafari either advanced, cautiously behind the advanced attack force to stop Tafari from leaping over them again, or pelted him with arrows, archers atop ents raining fire down upon him, that hurt neither the mace wielding pyro nor his soon to be attackers. The rest of the island’s gerison however was still getting to grips with the fact that there was only one enemy, and were slow, or unwilling, to break their perimeter lest threw here more enemies lurking out there.
As the ironbark Dryads split up through the stacks of tarp-covered supplies to cut off and surround the fire-wielding warrior, they heard the distinct sound of cracking clay - and saw a number of fire pots being hurled from Tafari's position amidst the maze of supplies in every direction, creating even more outbreaks of flame upon the island. One of them rounded a corner and saw the silk-clad warrior - their iridescent garb shimmering with a malign, dusken glow as it partially reflected the light of the roaring flames surrounding him - about to throw another one of his clay pots. Seeing the ironbark dryad charge, Tafari chucked it directly at him instead, retrieved another one with another seeming sleight-of-hand, and charged down the pathway to his right, passing right through a patch of open flame and kindling in the process without stopping.
A few moments later the dryad emerged from the mass of smoke, screaming, his right side burning furiously as the oil licked at his shoulder. This was met by an instant blast of water from the nearest firefighter, knocking the dryad away from his kin lest they join him in burning. The rest of the fighters, unable to target flames directly, now that the ones they had extinguished blocked their paths, angled their water cannons upwards. And thus Tafari was chased by rain....though unfortunately the firefighters found their efforts to be in vain. Concentrated, their enchanted staves could completely engulf patches of oil and extinguish the flames therein before the oil scattered. Raining down from above however, even the heavy deluge proved unable to smother the flames spreading across the supply depot - and in fact, seemed only to exacerbate them as oil was spread by falling water, carrying the flames to yet more parts of the depot. Seeing the effect this had, the firefighters quickly resorted to their prior tactics, while Sunrost recorded this newfound knowledge for future use. For the moment though, they still had a Matathran firestarter to apprehend. For the moment Tafari seemed content to simply run around the island setting everything and everyone he saw on fire, weaving through the tarps and the burning kindling around him like a forest aflame, evading the treefolk sent to stop him and ambushing the firefighters wherever he found them. As the numbers of the latter thinned, the fires spread even further, and the treefolk found themselves unable to safely navigate the burning maze.
While Tafari had been playing a game of cat and mouse Sunrost had found who he needed. Lestriala the Scalebinder, a proficient beastmaster, now sat with him in his lookout tree, from there they could track the progress of the firestarter, and guide Lestriala’s monsters towards him.
As utter chaos raged on the shore banks, the living ships remained unassailed. However, a strange figure had appeared on one of the sentient vessels. His face and likeness was hooded with a seal skin shawl, the faint tail of a long ax dipping below his cloak’s reach. The figure made every attempt to seem apart of the crew, looking for hoists and rope line to tack sail or oars to power. However, it did not seem like the crew was doing much of anything by way of aiding the ship in travel. What dryads manned the vessel appeared purely devoted to being a combat force. As such, the figure stood out almost immediately.
There where other things that made him stand out. First and foremost, an axe was a taboo weapon of the highest order. A tool built to slay trees first and foremost the Dreaming Forest reviled them and refused to allow its use by human militias. Second was the fact that the crew where all companions of the the ship and the hooded figure was not a known to it. Thirdly, it had felt him boarding after everyone else was already abroad. The figurehead of the ship, shaped like a dragonfly, swiveled from where it had been watching the shore to see who had boarded it with its luminous amber eyes. He stood out like a seal in a frenzy of sharks. The ship immediately brought the intruder to the attention of its crew. The eyes of the dryads onboard all turned to join the ship in staring at the seal cloaked man with uncanny speed. Hands went to weapons. The closest figure to him, a crudely crafted woman in who had drawn a mace shouted at him “Drop the axe and Identify yourself” practically spitting the word axe as she said it.
“I am the Good Marshal,” the figure replied with a darkened smile. In the same breath, he spat a long trail of saliva, mired black by the snuff that had been present in his under lip. The vile liquid sped through the air like a bullet toward the questioning dryad. With a faint thiiick
the liquid passed between her amber eyes and out the back of her wooden skull. The wooden figure seemed unphased by this and simply stared on in aggravated annoyance and raised her mace to strike him in response.
Trygve made for his ax. In a synchronized motion a rogue wave crested the ship’s port gunwale. It was a small amount of water, but enough to take the feet out of many of the crew. Trygve closed with the dryad woman before him. From under his cloak swept a a gorgeous long ax, it’s head embellished in ornate fashion. In a single motion he swept it into the dryad's shoulder. The rune studded ax sliced horizontally through the dryad's upper torso as if it were hot butter. A shocked expression crossed the womans face as her armor failed her and then the light in her eyes dimmed as her upper half hit the deck. Her trunk severed in two, a dull splash marked her return to the swamped deck.
The lower half however remained standing before Trygve for a few moments, only to take off at a sprint away from him down the length of the ship. The sound of it falling over on the now soaking floor was heard a few moments later, but Trygve had bigger concerns. As the rest of the crew picked themselves up from the splash attack the ship itself came to their aid. What Trygve may have mistaken for oars where actual arms, and dozens of them now reached out of the water on either side of the ship. Bunching up its webbed hands into fists the size of cannonballs the ship then tried to punch the hostile currently standing on its deck. The barrage of jabs was not up to full strength however, as the ship endeavored to not hit itself or its crew in the process.
Trygve danced among the boat like a mad man, a smile growing with every swoop of his ax. It was hard to tell if his excitement came from the fray or finally being aboard one of these magnificent creatures. His enchanted weapon found the hides of three more unsteady dryads, the splinters or their ironbark shattering into his face like small quills. As Trygve closed his eyes to avoid the third marine’s inevitable shards, a stray ship arm caught the side of his brow. With fluid momentum he lopped off the gargantuan arm, but was forced to recoil from the cracking blow.
While Trygve had been busy dealing with the ship itself the crew had begun to recover and acclimating to standing on the the treacherous flooded deck. The ship boarding brawl had also caught the attention of other treekin in the region and they where now drawing in to support their fellows. A second ship closed in on the first, this one bristling with ballistas and magicannons, while some way off in the water something stirred and began to close in on the assailed ship, a long hump of water the only indication of its passage Sunrost too had spotted the battle in the waters from his eyes in the sky. Having ascertained from Trygve’s presence that this was not be the work of the flaming man alone he ordered his beastmasters to “spread your eyes far and wide, they might have come from some ship or have allies, we must find out if this is a distraction like the fire starting scouts in the border forest!”
Sweeping away the blood now surging from his right brow, Trygve hurriedly realized the attention he had been drawing. He muttered curses under his breath before quickly raising the great bearded ax over his head. With his full might the ax careened downward through the floorboard of the ship’s deck. The ship briefly recoiled in horror at the blow, giving him an opening to pivot and hack twice more. On the third cut, the meter wide triangle soared into the sky as a geyser of turbid water erupted from beneath. The stream came with unnatural force and the ships hull quickly began to take water. Trygve gave a lewd hand gesture to the remaining ships crew as he stepped into the jet of swamp water and disappeared.
He never caught sight of what it was under the water, as the moving wave continued to the beleaguered ship to attempt to stop it from sinking, rather than attempting to pursue him. Shortly after he left the soft glow of magic began to emanate from the ship as an enchanter from the other vessel did what they could to repair some of the damage the hydromancer had left in his wake.
Into the west side of the burning maze something massive crashed. A hydra, twisted descendant of dragons, waded into the burning wreckage without fear, trampling ruined supplies beneath its claws and dozen meter long body as its three heads searched for their silk coated pray. Flanking it where cicatrices, horse sized drakes native to the marsh. Behind them, protected by distance and the dragonspawn before them, advanced a concentrated fire fighting team. Enchanters douse the flames of the materials with streams of water while air mages fanned the flames of the oil, creating small points into which both oxygenated air and the oil where concentrated, causing them to briefly burn brilliantly as they were forced to consume their waterproof fuel in seconds rather than minutes.
In the other areas firing lines where set up to strike at the arsonist if he showed his face. On the shoreline the living ships, their sides bristling with bolt throwers and magi-canons, did their best to cover the work of the remaining firefighters, who had all learned to keep their distance. To the west monstrous ents did their best to move supplies out of the way, warding themselves against fire pots with disposable vines stretching sheets of cloth before them. Their fellow stood by with slings to return fire with great blunt stone projectiles capable of harming the armored Tafari. Should one be struck their fellows would use water magic to stop the spread of the oils flames while the inextinguishable part of them was severed to prevent immolation.
And at the center, the mages stood ready to deliver arcane fire, while the wind dancers watched the flames and smoke without eyes, probing their edge of the fire with a sense beyond human understanding. Sunrost meanwhile had begun to send messengers beyond the encampment, around the spreading fire. Should the scouts find anything out there, he would need to have fast moving troops ready to respond to whatever might be hidden out there in the marshes.
The Hydra and its escorting cockatrices did not have to search through the burning ruins for long before their quarry made an appearance. Springing out of the flames, Tafari leapt directly on top the Hydra's path, leveling one of his arms towards the cicatrice to the right - and with a seething hiss akin to rapidly uncoiling rope and the springing of a plywood trap, a net of silken webbing erupted from the folds of the warrior's sleeve. The insidiously woven fibers engulfed the cicatrice, causing it to stumble on the spot as the unexpectedly resilient threads of the net caught its limbs, forcing it to fall prone on the ground. Lying caught and helpless, it screeched in anguish as the wooden brambles amidst the sod around it caught alight; the webbing it had been caught in was superheated - fire-resistant enough to withstand the tremendous heat without catching flame, whilst setting everything around in aflame. Only the cicatrice’s own fire-resistant scales prevented it from being cooked alive in the torturous snare.
Even as the cicatrice fell to the ground, Tafari slid a second fire pot into the lowermost aperture of his club, and with another cracking sound great gouts of flame bellow out from the two openings along its length, covering the weapon in raging flames once more and turning Tafari's surroundings into a conflagration. The sharpest-eyed of Sunrost's avian spies spotted that, at last, the warrior's flame-retardant raiment had finally started to give way to the very flames Tafari had been spreading so freely - the flowing lengths of the warrior's silk robes that covered his left leg were now fully aflame, and the ravenous fire was slowly eating away at the fabric and spreading across the remainder of his outfit - though he still remained unperturbed, and merely brandished his club to meet the Hydra head-on.
The hydra however, did not seem to feel the need to do the same, instead it charged towards his right side, thundering up towards the top of the island, its three heads hissing menacingly as they all watched him with its narrow slit pupils. This did not however reveal the mages behind it as the hydra’s tail, a tail roughly ten times the size of its body and almost as thick, side winded itself in such a manner as to drag itself round the other side of him. It was clear that the hydra did not want to charge him, nor to duke it out in the open, but instead desired to ensnare him as he had the cockatrice. Said beast was itself in the process of using its sharp talons to meticulously cut its way out of the burning net using a distinctly non animalistic intelligence. The rapidly lost from view treekin forces closed in, preparing unseen plans with ever increasing coordination as the exact nature of the threat spread by word and dream alike. Not content to wait for the noose to draw taught around his neck, Tafari leapt onto the ensnared cockatrice which the Hydra had elected to abandon while it was still attempting to cut its way free of its webbing. The cocatrice responded to the aprotching to Tafari as best it could, guided by the hydra's eyes more than its own. The beast opened its jaw slightly, fire briefly licking destructively at the exposed insides of its mouth, revealing the insides to include two small snake like fangs. out of these it sprayed two thin streams of liquid, in a similar manner to a spitting cobra. The two streams intertwined a few cm’s from their exit point and chemically reacted together, rapidly vaporizing in the air to form a rolling wave of miasma directed at its attacker - only for the mists to be scattered to the winds by the ferocious heat and fury of the flames surrounding Tafari's weapon and continuing to creep along the length of his robes as the warrior fell upon the cockatrice and started to viciously club it on the head.
The cockatrice screeched in pain and tried to squirm so that its head was protected from the blows, only for its screaming to be drowned out by three hisses. The noose had drawn taught while he occupied himself with the juicy morsel laying at its center. The partially on fire man was now surrounded by a two meter tall wall of scales and flesh, the upper, stronger side of the hydra’s bulk turned inwards to face him. Towering above his rapidly shrinking patch of ground where the three heads of the beast, hoods flared, gazes locked upon him as they prepared to strike.
Tafari seemed to slowly and deliberately rise from beating the cockatrice, and tore his club in a horizontal slash through the air, filling the space around him with a haze of flame that rolled and spilled over the edges of Hydra's coiling tail, will-o-wisps of flame pouring out from its confines to join the larger conflagration around it - obscuring Tafari from its vision and surrounding the hydra in a ring of flame.
The noose continued to tighten, walls of scales slowly closing in as outside the fires died down as the fighters away from the firestarter were allowed to go about their work in peace. Two of the head remained in wait, while the third ducked down behind its own bulk to perform a task unseen.
The haze of flame vanished. Tafari was nowhere to be found. Trailing threads of glimmering, burning silk hovered in the air where he had stood perched upon the cockatrice's body.
Before spreading a panic, the beastmaster made sure that there was no illusionary magic occurring, and had the hydra head butt the region that had once contained the silken warrior. It slammed its head directly into the mangled cockatrice. Then, cries and shouts broke out from amongst the firefighter brigades. Acting quickly, Sunrost peered through the dreaming to ascertain how the flame-swathed warrior had escaped. Through the eyes of their fellow treefolk, he saw a ravenous tower of flame that seemed peculiarly resistant to the geysers of water being streamed at it - and it moved
. As it approached, the flames broke and twisted, revealing themselves to in fact be the very thing the beastmaster had feared - an illusion. Tafari, his silken vestments still catching flame, shimmered and gleamed with distorted light, and all who viewed it from a distance mistook it for just another flame. That had been how he had escaped from the Hydra's clutches - surrounded by flame, he had likely leapt from the center of the Hydra's coils into the nearest blaze while he remained obscured - and also explained yet more of his prior antics, leading the camp's defenders through the maze of flame he had made of the supply depot. Now, he took his mace to yet more of the firefighters even as the flames devouring most of his lower body began to spread to consume the fabric of his chest.
The firefighters were far from helpless however, quickly changing the runic configurations on their tools to narrowed the exit part of their drum-like contraptions and turned them on their attacker. Dozens of pressure blasts of water hammered into the warrior as he tried to change them, joined by torrents of wind from the air mages. Behind him the hydra uncoiled, its third head now sporting a singular dryad who was chanting magic incantations. To either side of the hydra other cockatrices were seen closing in on him. Clearly, the flame-cloaked warrior had not been expecting such immediate reaction, and was bowled off his feet and right back into the flames - where the defenders then immediately lost track of him once more, even as they quickly rushed to douse the remaining fires. The Hyrda turned and resumed it's advance into the firestorm, seeking to capture Tafari in it's coils once more, and this time to allow no escape.
As the firefighters continued to attack the flames and allow the hydra’s advance, they began to notice their arcane water drums go afoul. They choked on the water in their systems and some even noticed the contents of their hydromancing flow backwards into the marshy river. The subtle ice blue eyes of Trygve smiled in delight through the thick clumpets of reed and cattails a distance away. With the water conduits out of commission, the blaze could now spread at will toward the hydra. Trygve hoped his flamboyant Matathran partner would see this as the time to escape with both of their lives. If a distraction were the mission, he considered it met.
The water supply sabotaged allowed the western end of the blaze began to spread while the rest of the blaze continued to die, its fuel rapidly expanded and new sources having been dragged clear while the firestarter was occupied with the hydra. That beast and its lesser kin where undeterred by the lack of firefighting and continued to root around in the flames, seeking their prey. The treekin however were forced to fall back, the mages the only ones capable of fighting the blaze now and their numbers only able to slow it. It took a few moments for someone to go investigate the countermagic stopping the water, but eventually the party who had originally attempted to intercept Tafari, lead by the plate mailed Jero, arrived by the waters edge. The seven dryads and the hulking panther like ent spread out, attempting to locate the saboteur.
Trygve slinked quietly through the heavy reed and sweetflag. With hope, his compatriot had done what was wise and left the area. However, his retreat would no doubt need to be covered. The Matathran pyromancer would stand out like a whore in chapel with all his explosions and hopping about. To Trygve, the success of this plot would hinge on the fellowship’s escape. The searching eyes of the plate mailed dryad and his bark-laiden kin would be quite a threat to that. He gently brushed fresh blood from his brow as he watched them approach. Trygve dropped a small hand axe into the water at his feet and cracked a grin as the weapon appeared to swim though the shallow water toward a neighboring patch of brush.
The cohort of treekin soon were meters away from Trygve’s blind. With a faint slosh, the hand axe careened out of of the adjacent thicket and into the side of a dryad’s head, cleaving into the warriors helmet and knocking them over into the muddy water. While two went to assist the downed dryad most of his fellows, predictably, charged the thicket the axe had emerged from, only to be confounded by its emptiness. As the wounded dryad was dragged back up towards the center of the camp the others wheeled around from the distraction spot, now aware of the existence of a still unseen threat stalking them from somewhere in the reeds.
However, in the reed thicket the ground around the dryads began to give way. Every second their feet sunk deeper and deeper into what has once been knee deep muck. Now many of them were forced to fight their way out of waist high floating peat. The Dryads and their armor’s innate buoyancy mitigated some of this effect, but the metal armored Jero sunk fast, his already heavy fooding dragged far deeper than that of his kin. They all would be forced to watch in vein as Trygve sprinted from his vantage point at the untrapped ent panther. Spared from the muddy burial by the long spread out roots that formed its feet acting as snow shoes the bestial ent counterchanged the warrior as soon as it became aware of him, thorn filled jaw open in a silent roar, the two thick tentacle like vines emerging from behind its shoulder blades coiling up in preparation to strike.
Trygve sent up a harmless spray of mist as he closed with the beast to blur it’s vision. He crashed through the mist at a disconjugate direction from his start. With a heavy sweep of his great axe Trygve blasted through the left front leg of the feline ent. Splinters cascaded like shrapnel as the beast stumbled, only just managing support itself on a single forelimb before it came crashing down. Instead the great beast relocated its attacker and went in for a second attack, this time bringing its vines low down in a low down scissor position, blocking access to its remaining forelimb as it attempted to either bite at the man or catch him between the vines in a pincer maneuver.
The man lurched back from the biting maw and drew a small hand axe from his belt. With a hard overhand pitch he sent the weapon at the intersection of the beast's scissored vines. There it lodged deep into both of the prehensile weapons, clogging the independence of their use. After a few, brief, futile attempts to free its two vines the ent resorted to using them as a combined bludgeoning weapon, ramming them forwards to try and knock him off balance.
However, the warrior sidestepped the clumsy thrust and countered with a whistling axe. The bearded blade cut through the vines like brittle bone. The tendrils splashed helplessly to the ground. Trygve darted below the beast, wary of its thorned jowls. As he had done with the other foreleg, the great ax found the trunk of its sister. The rooted limb was sent to splinters as the beast crashed face down into the waterlogged soil. Trygve took his time, adjusting the hilt of his axe between his worn hands. Blood oozed from his face at an uncountable number of points, a lasting gift of the dismembered treekin. With muted concentration Trygve swung his ax like an executioner upon massive panther’s neck. It cleaved.
The headless beast continued to lurch, but helplessly so. Trygve looked back upon the entrapped members of the search party, his impromptu audience. They were now nearly shoulder deep in bogwash. Trygve returned their gaze, a heaviness on his usually smiling face. He simply stared at them. At the iron barked lieutenant. And without word, he turned to leave.
At the center of the island Sunrost saw two things. The first, through his own eyes, was the wounded soldier, the thrown axe having damaged their vision when it struck them, to who’s side a healer quickly rushed. Those that had borne the casualty to them brought news of the man that had attacked them before rushing back to the fight. The second thing he saw through his avian allies, small ships attempting to bypass their encampment. Here then, where two targets not cloaked in death, targets they could actually reach. To strike those far away sunrost sent an eagle to cry at the envoys he had sent out to the marshes earlier. Having awaited this signal they instructed fast moving troops to follow it to battle. Previously tranquil water was stirred as several massed began to make a beeline towards the small vessels, a low wave the only denotation of their presence. To strike the axeman he committed the Wind dancers at last, held back as they where as vulnerable to the inferno as any other, here was a foe they could strike. Once he had completed ordering the outward strike he followed after the eccentric elite troops, something about the brief description of the attacker had stuck in his mind, a collar around his neck.
The windancers far outstriped the pace of the returning dryad warriors, arriving on the scene as swiftly and silently as a breeze. It was clear that Trygve was not going to escape so easily. The three were dressed in light, naturally colored, flowing outfits that made them stand out among the normally ubiquitously armored Dryads. One had their eyes closed, another was blindfolded and the last lacked eyes entirely, for they all saw with a sight beyond sight, a kind of heavily localise omniscience that was a refined form of the Tree’s own understanding of the world. They all wielded a heavy two handed weapons such as a great hammer or claymore in a single hand while holding a smaller companion weapon like a claw or dagger in the other. There was something strange about how they stood on the wet earth, for their light footfalls did not sink into the mud, not even slightly, as their dash brought them towards Trygve.
By now the Morkt warrior was approaching fatigue. Crisp air caught each heavy breath with a gust of mist. He peered in frustration at the fast encroaching party. Out of the corner of his eye Trygve also spotted a bird. The creature was to deliberate in its course to be ferrel. Its path loomed dangerously close to his men portaging South. The smell of sweat and stale adrenaline clung to Trygve's brain as he imagined what would happen if his crew was found. He trusted his men with his life, but even the strongest man could crack under torture. The Morkt’s silent invasion of the West would be extracted or at least surmised. Hordes of treekin would be waiting for them at the beaches. His brothers and sisters would be led to slaughter on the sands. Somewhere between the blood on his hands and the smooth grain of the axe in their grasp stood the entire fate of his people.
Instead of charging the waiting warrior, the lightly dressed dryads slowed, before coming to a halt a short distance before him.The eyeless one, his face smooth and mask like apart from his mouth, spoke to him as the other two fanned out slightly to either side yet deliberately staying within Trygve’s field of vision.
"I am Robretan the Blank. To whom do we owe this dance?”
“I am just a man. A man sent by masters the same as you.” Trygve replied, keeping leery eyes on those encircling him. He walked slowly into the heart of a shallow puddle as the treekin drew near.
“We have no masters” “nor kings” “nor gods” “not like yours” “those who put that thing around your neck” “leadership is given” “an honor” “a burden” “a tool to preserve us all” “not something to be wielded like an axe”
The three started speaking in turn, their words matching some unheard yet shared rhythm, flowing like poetry, as they approached, truly encircling him. They did not sink as they took their places, each knowing precisely where they needed to be as they watched without eyes for the first steps of the dance.
Trygve provided it as he sent up a glittering screen of water from the pond at his feet. It cast up a double mirror to his front and left. With the screen up, he lunged for the warrior to his right. His great ax sweeping low at the dyrad’s thigh.
Yet they seemed to be already moving before he came at them, narrowly managing to move out of the way of the tired man’s blow using a graceful leap that carried the blindfolded Dryad out of his imidate range. As they landed the weight of the blade she carried caused the dancer to pirouette round to face him and, inadvertently, Sunrost, who had just arrived. Suddenly the other two warriors burst through the mirror walls, seemingly undeterred, and chased after him, managing with ease to not simply plow into one-another as they did so. They lepet to either side of Trygve, dragging their large weapons with them skywards and then spinning mid jump to bring the hammer and mace thundering down towards him.
Their weapons both crashed through what could only be described as mist.
The image had only been a decoy, as Trygve appeared where the shield of water had been. He had hidden his true self in its fold. In the midst of the pairs strike he descended from behind. The hydromancer hurled a hand axe at the eyeless creature while barreling into its companion with a lowered shoulder.
The axe thumped into the eyeless ones chest, sticking there, while the third’s eyes opened wide in shock from the impact, losing the grip of his mace to be sent flying. Yet despite this they managed to twist in the air, landing on their feet with as much grace as he could muster. The eyeless one drove a powerful kick into Trygve, knocking the two of them away from one another without doing any real harm to the Morkt servant in the process. The blindfolded one was already engaging, rushing Trygve as the third went to the eyeless one's side to remove the axe from his torso.
Sunrost watched, impressed by the warriors skill and cunning. “Why do you fight for Matathran, slave, when no one is here holding your chain. The arsonist is lost in his fire, the boats far from view. You could simply have simply disappeared, yet here you are fighting in vain those who stand against your wretched masters.”
Trygve froze at the words. Vomit lingered as his gut somersaulted. They had found the boats. They had found his men. His rage turned to a vice which gripped his voice. “Perhaps I do not fight for my masters. Perhaps the seamstress sows so that her village is warm. My people cannot sunbathe to live.” Trygve shot back as he swept the water out from under its charging dryad to try and knock it off balance, yet the foot was not dragged with the water as it should have and they dryad instead ran atop the wave, supported by the same magic that had held them above the mud, causing it to be slowed but not faltered.
“If you were to claim spoils for your village I am afraid you’ve done burn and pillage in the wrong order. Not that I imagine your masters would let you keep them. If you seek to protect the village from us then...”
The blindfolded dryad leaped off the end of the cascade of water, running along the dirt and mud left in its wake before coming to an unexpected dead stop just before Trygve. The dryads long blade was not halted however and they turned its momentum into a low swipe, the dancer pivoting on the ball of their heel as they ducked down to fully commit to the swipe.
“This is not the way to go about it.” his words were punctuated by the sound of the throwing axe’s handle being snapped by the open eyed dancer after they had removed it from their wounded kin’s chest.
Trygve countered the sweeping blade with his own. His axe’s cutting edge met the dryads sword and miraculously sliced clean through it with a shriek of sparks. The severed tip of the sword tumbled harmlessly to the sodden earth.
“FUCK YOU!” He roared at the taunting voice. Blood from his seeping brow found marriage in the spittle from his cry. With the momentum of his parry he crashed the base of his axe hilt into the dryads face; a strike that would kill a normal man but Trygve knew it would be futile. That it would all be futile. What was he to do against such monstrosities? What could his men do? All he could think of was who of them would see the end of this war; at this rate he assumed not himself.
“You know nothing of my people!” Tygve grimaced, veins erupting from every corridor of his neck.
The Dryad bore the full force of the axe hilt, the blow ruining her face with an almighty crack, and stabbed Trygve with the blunt head of the decapitated sword, pushing them both apart once more. The dryad nimbly found her feet while the hydromancer bent low, clutching his seeping abdomen, once again surrounded by all three dancers.
“Perhaps not, but let me make a few guesses. First off, they’re not from Matathran or you would have been ‘promoted’ long ago. Second, based on your possessiveness of them, it seems that you are a leader of some kind among them, like a chief or general, which is an odd level of authority for someone who still wears a slave collar to hold. A colar dripping with the arcane I might add. Your masters conquered and enslaved your people, an entire
people, and collard them like animals” Sunrost raises an arm beside him and an eagle, wearing a collar marked with amber runes “If you are a true leader, if you serve your people rather than rule them, then you do not want to be our enemies, because we can give you the tools and knowledge” the general brings the eagle round in front of him so he can reach forth and grasp its collar. After muttering a few words the enchantment dulls and dies, the collar slips from the birds neck. As the bird takes flight Sunrost concludes “to help you set them all free.”
As Sunrost conversed with the keen edged hydromancer it was left to his subordinates to deal with his fire flinging friend. With their water no longer being disrupted the firefighters finally managed to make headway against the now fuel starved fire. His hiding spaces rapidly dwindling, Tafari burst from one of the last patches of flame, leaping across the marshes in great bounds that would have made a wind-dancer creak with envy. Deftly weaving and dodging between hails arrows, bolts and spells launched at his form the Matathran warrior ran the blockade intended to stop his escape, emerging from the episode with only a few scratches and a faint ringing in his ears from numerous near misses. Freedom secured he made with haste to the beleaguered portage team upon whom the carrion birds seemed to flock as the spies of Sunrost guided great dark shapes sinking beneath the swamp water to their target.
Radoslaw and his coalition of men desperately heaved the five heavy craft over the marshes soft peat. The shore was within sight, and yet it appeared so were they. The men hurled curses under their breath at the birds flocked above. Some even took stray shots with their small recurve bows, only one or two quarrels striking home. Spirits soared as the shimmering Grand Marshal came into view. Flurries of hushed thanks tricked through the party. The Morkt raiders and their Calid kin heaved even harder as their comrades skyward shots became increasingly truer. They were inches from the letin. Inches from escape.
Yet their pursuers where hot on their savior’s heels. As the approaching masses came into view it became clear that what was hidden beneath the water was not swimming through it, but instead tunneling through the mud, the part pushing the water aside only the top of what must be a massive monster worming its way through the soft marsh earth. When they were mere inches from the shore the titans breached the surface, revealing themselves to be massive worms of wood covered in hundreds of bark scales.
As Tafari came soaring down through the air, he tore one of the spines lining the shoulders and neck of his silk robes loose and flung it down at one of the wooden worms as it breached the earth. The spine itself - technically the oversized bristle of an Agate Spider - barely even hurt the beastial ent as it embedded a short ways in its tough bark scales - but the bristle was hollow, and it was filled with death.
The bristle sprang apart at the seams like snapping cordwood with a light popping sound, a small black haze of dust flinging up through the air around it, seemingly leaving the worm unharmed - but unseen, just beneath the surface of the Ent's bark inside the thin puncture the spine had pierced, an insidious flame began to burn its way through the creature's innards, spreading far faster than such a confined and air-starved fire had any right to. The spines Tafari wore along his cloak were more than decorative - each one was a hollow stabbing implement that had been filled with a malign alchemical substance, and even as he landed Tafari pulled at more of them to fling at the remaining worms as they too breached the surface of the waterlogged earth, one by one.
Unfortunately this did nothing to stop either the momentum of the worms, nor anything about the wave of mud and water the breaching monstrosities brought with them as one of the boats disappeared before they reached the water, a truck sized mass of living wood plowed into them before disappearing into the water and mud on the far side of the traveler's hiding spot. Tafari himself barely managed to avoid being reduced to a fine paste, leaping out of the way as a mouth capable of swallowing him whole filled with dozens of massive sword length teeth attempted to snatch him up as it careened by. The entire ordeal was over in moments and as the beast disappeared into the muck beyond it was unclear if any had actually perished or if the freezing muck had quench the flames before it could consume any of them. What they left behind was a mess. Several boats damaged and one destroyed, men injured by glancing blows or simply gone entirely. Regardless of the amount of injury suffered, everything was now soaked through and at least some of the beasts were still out there, preparing another charge.
The boat crews stifled their reactions at the horrors from beneath. Their vetrancy was a blessing in that respect. They drew arms and watched nervously for return volleys from beneath. A number of Questors amongst them, less than helpful in guiding the boats along in the first place, turned away from the waters and drew their Geyser blades, determined to, if nothing else, distract
the monstrous ents while their comrades escaped.
“Get to the water!” Radoslaw’s voice boomed with penetrating depth. “If it is the mud from which they clamor, then we shall see them left behind in it!” Radoslaw used his hulking mass to single handedly toss a raft into the birth of the river. Men began scrambling for the boats and hefted their wounded comrades through the razor edged reeds. “Where is Trygve?” The giant shaman shouted to Tafari as the last of the remaining boats entered the muddy slip.
"Either still fighting or right behind me! He seemed to have everything under control! Worry about your men right now!" Tafari called back, even as he flung two spines in quick succession at another worm as its massive back breached through the muddy waters once more.
“May the Deep keep his soul.” Radoslaw replied softly, resigned to the Grand Marshal’s words. With a deep hum he closed his eyes and the boats began to visibly quiver in the shallow river. Then suddenly, as if powered by great sails, they hurled through the water, their prows bent high as they pleated the muddy firth. Westward they flew as the spring sun began to kiss the horizon, dazzling the trails of their escape.
In the distance, a horn sounded 3 times, the same horn that had alerted the camp to Tafari’s approach, and all of a sudden the threat to the boats melted away as the birds and worms turned back to the island for some unknown reason. Both groups were noticeably smaller than they had been on arrival. In the distance the final fire was quenched, yet the distant figures upon the island remained chaotic and frantic as if the danger had not yet passed, even as the boats slipped away toward the incandescent skyline.