Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”
Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.
“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.
“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”
Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.
“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.
Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.
“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.
The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.
A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.
The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.
“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”
Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.
“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.
Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”
Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.
“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”
The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.
“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.
“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.
Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.
“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”
Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”
Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.
Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.
“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”
The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.
“Wolf,” Curian muttered.
“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”
A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.
“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”
“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.
Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”
“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.
Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”
Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.
“Gnarlroot, what say you?”
Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”
The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.
An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.
“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”
“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.
A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.
“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”
Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.
“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.
Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.
In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.