Fire raged and smoke clotted the air. Coughing and screams could be heard everywhere. Some people yelled for help while others simply screamed. Terror coursed through every soul. Ashe drifted through the air while the smell of burning wood and skin reached every nose. Not a single person was unaffected by the fire that ravaged the forest. Small houses lining the trees and connected by walkways started to shift as the flames consumed them. They teetered on the edge of a precipice ready to fall on the suffering people below. Wood cracked sending sparks into the dry air. At any moment a civilization in the trees would come crashing down on the people who spent a lifetime creating such a civilization.
A small cottage sat on the outskirts of this small town, the flames just reaching the leafy roof of the abode. Coughing could be heard from inside as the crash of furniture echoed down into the trees. As the flames started to consume the oily leaves fashioned into a roof a cracking of wood came from inside and moments later a young woman fell through the door made of tempered bark. She took a deep breath before a coughing fit over took her again. She composed herself and looked around at the fire that raged around her. Her home was destroyed she had no place else to go. But if she didn't leave soon they would find her and all this running would be for nothing.
She reached down and grabbed the bundle that she had dropped at her feet in her rush out the door and strapped it across her back. She glanced around at the place she had called home for the past year before turning and running down the walkway going around her cottage in the trees. The fire had barely reached this far yet but the heat still stung. Many paths crisscrossed the trees in the forest and from below one would not know that people lived in the trees unless they paid very close attention, even then the town druid's spell surrounding the town kept most strangers away. Unfortunately for them his spell did nothing to protect them from their invaders.
Planks creaked as she padded across the walkway to the northern most point of town. Most of the villagers had already evacuated town but there were still some stragglers left behind. As she reached the watch tower a man carrying a sword in his right hand and a spear strapped to his back stepped out of the hidden door in one of the trees. Not expecting someone to step out in front of her, she stumbled to a stop only to run right into the guard. She took a step back and tried to catch her breath. Her mind told her that she was safe with the guard but her heart threatened to beat out of her chest at the mere thought that this could be anyone other than her own people.
The guard sheathed his sword and placed a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him and did her best to steady her breathing.
"For the love of everything sacred you scared the hell out of me." She said as she leaned over and placed her hands on her knees to calm down. The guard looked at her with concern. He had to know that the town had been invaded; even now she could smell the fire and smoke blotted out the moons and stars.
"Are you ok?" He asked as he crouched down to look into her eyes. Eyebrows drawn together he looked at her with worry. She stared at him for a moment before twitching an eyebrow.
"Do I look ok Darnel?" She straightened up and rested her hands on her hips; her long brown hair drifting in the breeze. Darnel straightened up and crossed his arms.
“Sorry, I wasn’t sure if you were injured or not.” He said with a shrug and a tilt of his head. Arching his eyebrow he watched as she turned toward the smoke rising from the south side of town. She glanced over her shoulder at him before turning towards the watchtower.
“I have to hurry. If I don’t leave no they might do worse.” She attempted to step around him but he shifted to block her path.
“I was ordered to stay with you. Where is it exactly that you intend to run off to? All the villagers have already headed east in hopes of finding a place to hide. Why is it you are headed north?”
She glanced once more toward the smoke before sighing. “It’s me they are looking for.”
“Yes, I gathered that by the way they questioned everyone before the fire. But that doesn’t tell me why our leaving.”
“I can’t explain. Not now anyways. If we don’t hurry then everyone’s lives could be in danger. More so than it is now.” She stared up at him. Darnel towered above her, his height and build reminding her of an old oak tree; strong and balanced. His short black hair in disarray from sweat and the wind. His muscled arms crossed over his chest and his stance wide as if he were ready for anything. He wore soft leather pants and boots. A think jerkin rested on his shoulders. He had weapons aplenty; a sword was sheathed at his waist while his spear was strapped to his back. Bow and arrows accompanied his spear as well. She also knew he carried many daggers and knives hidden across his body. Not that she could see them at the moment but she knew they were there.
After a moment he stepped to the side and let her pass. She hurried to the watchtower and the steps inside. He followed after her easily keeping up with her pace. She knew that with the fire consuming their forest that anything left behind would be gone forever, so she took a moment to look around the small room. A small table sat to one side of the room with a canteen resting on top. She grabbed that and shoved it into her bag. “What are you doing?” Darnel asked from the top of the stairs.
“Grabbing necessities before they all burn to the ground.” She said as she stuffed a loaf of bread and dried meat into her bag as well. “I don’t know what they will have where I’m going-we are going-so I would rather be prepared.” Rejecting the rest of the items she followed Darnel down the stairs.
“Mira.” He said glancing over his shoulder. “Where exactly are we going? Chief told me little. Only that I was to wait for you at the northern watchtower and to follow you on your journey.”
“I’m not entirely sure.” Was all she said as they made it to the small door at the bottom. It was hidden from anyone that was passing by unless one knew where to look. Mira darted around him as he opened the door. She waited to the side in the shadows keeping an eye out for anyone that could be hidden in the forest. Darnel quietly closed the door and unsheathed his dagger that was hidden under his jerkin. They both listened and watched for a moment before following a deer trail north. Darnel kept his dagger out just in case while Mira grabbed a bow and arrows hidden in the brush next to some trees farther down the path. Knocking an arrow they walked side by side into the darkness.
“You have been planning this for a while haven’t you?”
Mira cringed and glanced over at him and only nodded.
“Do you mind telling me what’s going on?”
“I would rather not. Not until we get to our destination.” She walked carefully through the leaves and twigs that blanketed the path. Even with his size, Darnel was a master of silence. She on the other hand had to learn the hard way.
“Then can you tell me what we will find at our destination?” He asked glancing behind them to check for followers.
“I am uncertain of that as well. I can only guide us to it and hope it will be our savior.” They continued on in silence. The night passed by without a hint of trouble. As the sky began to brighten to the east Mira spoke for the first time.
“I do not wish to travel during the light but there is no point in waiting until sundown.” They stopped beneath the branches of a willow tree and looked towards a clearing that stretched for dozens of feet in either direction. In the middle of the clearing sat a rough stone arch with a smattering of smaller stones encircling it. Ivy crawled up the sides of the arch and wrapped around the top. Only grass grew inside of the circle while flowers overtook the rest of the clearing.
Mira studied the clearing while Darnel studied her. It looked exactly as she expected. She didn’t know what she was waiting for, she knew all she had to do was make it to the arch and she would be free. But a part of her didn’t want to move. So she stood frozen beneath the tree.
Darnel placed his hand upon her shoulder causing her to jump. “You alright?” He asked as she turned her back to the clearing.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She took a deep breath and removed her bag from her shoulders. She dug through it until her fingers grazed a rough object. It was warm to the touch but she latched onto it regardless. As her fingers wrapped around it a breezed whipped her long hair into the air. The branches of the willow tree swayed back and forth. Darnel took a step back from her. Mira pulled her hand out and stood up as the breeze died down. She looked to him and saw the confusing plastered across his face. She opened her hand and showed him what she held. A small uncut stone sat in her palm, its rough edges sparkled in the early morning light shining through the willow.
“So why do you have it?” Darnel asked from her side. He had sheathed his dagger and stepped up next to her.
“It was a gift from my mother. She gave it do me for safe keeping before she died.”
“Safe keeping from whom?” He was very much curious about the stone and didn’t understand how precious it truly was.
“Some very bad people.” She said. Taking a deep breath and knocking an arrow she stepped out from under the branches of the willow tree and into the clearing. The sun had risen just enough to cast light on the circle while the edge of the clearing to the east was still in the shadows. She did her best to scan the edges of the clearing and trees but it was hard to actually see anything. She walked slowly towards the circle with Darnel following along behind.
At some point he had unsheathed his sword, she wasn’t sure when but she was glad he did. She had this uncomfortable feeling they were being watched and as they got closer to the circle she immediately wished that she had scouted out the area before crossing. Much to her surprise nothing happened before she reached the circle. She had expected an arrow or someone charging at her from one of the trees but nothing came. She stopped just before the stones and stared up at the arch.
“Do you feel that?” Darnel asked scanning the area. His back was to her at that moment but he rotated in place watching her back from all directions.
“Yeah, I feel it. We better hurry.” She dug into a pouch hanging from her belt and pulled out the stone. The small stone seemed to vibrate with energy. Her mother said she would know if she was in the right place and that the stone would let her know. She wasn’t sure if this was what she had been talking about but she hoped it was. She scanned the area one last time and noticed it had grown slightly darker. There hadn’t been any clouds when they had entered the clearing but now dark clouds drifted closer and closer to them. “Those came in just a little too quickly didn’t they?” Mira asked glancing at Darnel. His face was stern with a hint of concern in them. He was watching the sky and the edges of the clearing at the same time.
“Just a bit. Can we get going now and do whatever it is that you have to do. I’m feeling just a tad uncomfortable here with no cover.”
“Agreed.” She said and stepped into the circle. The dark clouds drifted over them much quicker than Mira would have thought. The wind picked up and whipped her hair around. Branches squeaked and leaves fell from the trees. Darnel hesitantly followed her with his sword at the ready. He had no bag or anything to carry with him just his weapons. She assumed that he didn’t have enough time to bring anything with him once the chief had given his order.
Mira stopped in front of the arch just as the first drops of water splashed around them. The stone pulsed in her hand. She could feel the energy in the air, taste it on her tongue, she thought she could almost smell it as well. The energy was thick in the air. The rain continued to fall, getting heavier as the clouds continued to move it. Darnel stepped up beside her and looked at the stone. It was glowing a bright green and sparks of light could be seen at its center.
“What now?” He asked and looked to the arch.
“I’m not sure. This thing is getting hotter and if I’m not careful it’s going to vibrate right out of my hand.” She placed her bow on her back so she could have at least one free hand and then grasped Darnel’s. She looked up at him, an idea forming. “I hope this works. Just don’t let go.” She said and looked to the arch.
“We are going through aren’t we?” He sheathed his sword and took a deep breath. Mira nodded and took a step forward. She hoped wherever they were going it was at least dry. They stepped through the arch as lighting struck; tripping on something unseen she fell forward bringing Darnel down with her. Light flashed before her eyes and then there was nothing but darkness.