Rise of the Neutrals

From the Journal of the Grenyew Antling Camp, Day 7 of the Splinter Moon:

The Red Cedar Camp was raided yet again, our brothers and sisters used as fodder in this endless war that draws us in against our wishes. We know not who the raiders were—those who appointed themselves Legion or the aptly-named Hellbourne. For us, they are all a scourge. Visit the fresh mounds in the Spirit Glade as proof.

Our Antlore Healer has seen enough death. In his long, honorable life, he has mended countless Antlings who have fallen from trees, been swept downriver in a flood, even tussled too long with a Vagabond. But what he has faced in the years since war came to the forest—the amputations, the mercy killings, and most of all by far, the burials—have taken a toll on him. He is gone for stretches of time that grow longer, sometimes not returning until the moon has swelled twice.

When he returns, he speaks of a time when the land was unscarred by man, beast, or daemon. A time when the forest dwellers were at peace, and his communion with the natural world brought him the sound of butterflies landing, the grass breathing, rather than the constant scream he hears from our mother being torn apart.

Most of all, he speaks of the laws of nature, and what happens to those who violate them.

When he began to harvest saplings by the dozen and stack them near his hut, we first thought he was preparing a ritual burning, after which we would seek refuge even deeper within Caldavar. Again.

Then he lifted a shaft from the pile, tested its heft and balance, and sharpened one end into a wicked point, which he hardened in the fire. This spear he set aside and began to work on the next. We needed no more prompting, and certainly no orders. We all chose a shaft and began sharpening.

When the work was done we had more clubs, spears and arrows than the camp could carry. It was an impressive arsenal, if we were battling another forest camp. But we were not.

One brave Antling spoke as much: “These will do nothing against the weapons and magic the invaders wield.”

“This is truth,” our Healer said. “And it is why we must face them as equals first, to strip them of those tools, return them to merely man, beast, and creature, before we drive them from our home for good.”

We waited to hear how this miracle would come to be, thinking the weapons we’d crafted would make a good fence around our mass grave.

“And when I say ‘we,’ I mean all of our brothers and sisters.”

He gestured with his staff, and from the fringe of the camp emerged a Vagabond Leader, a Wild Hunter, and a Predasaur, each with a small retinue. This encroachment and violation of forest law had us reaching for the fresh spears, but our Healer brought the leaders to him and embraced each one. We stared at the Vagabonds, Hunters, and Predasaurs, scarred and hardened from encounters with the invaders. They were outnumbered but looked prepared to remedy that, if necessary.

Our Healer said, “Brothers and sisters, my forays into the jungles and marshes have not been aimless wanderings. I have sought the ancient wisdom that will return our home, our mother, to her rightful state of balance and peace.”

He reached into a leather pouch hanging from his belt and extracted a rolled parchment.

“And I have found it. Given to me by a being as aged as the soil we tread upon, one who works primal magic the way we weave baskets and carve bowls. She walked in beast form once, and human, when she called herself Sylvia and pulled a veil over the eyes of Maliken Grimm, and gave him a daughter.”

The Healer stared unblinking into the fire for a long moment. “If only she had killed him then, perhaps none of this would have passed. But she did not.” He raised the rolled parchment. “This magic will change us forever—if you believe it best that I toss it into the fire, I will hear you say so now.”

The Vagabond Leader lifted his huge, scaled head. His spiked club was scratched and dented from countless impacts. “Our elders speak of a time when our hides were not so thick, our claws not so long. Because they did not need to be. This war has already changed us. If I can serve as a guardian of this cause, and our homes, I will.”

The Vagabond moved to stand with our Healer, who said, “What do the Hunters of Caldavar say?”

“Probably not what you want to hear.” The Wild Hunter’s wings were wilted, his massive shoulders slumped. “We are all merely chaff to these selfish, heartless beings. It’s only a matter of time before they find and kill us.”

Against this statement our Healer had no argument. If the Hunters walked into the forest, our chances of victory—and survival—would vanish with them.

“However,” the Wild Hunter said, “before we all die, we should spill as much of their blood as we can. Let’s see what your magic can make of me.” He joined our Healer and the Vagabond, his wings spread to shield their backs.

The Predasaur, last of the leaders, tamped his heavy-bladed poleaxe against the packed earth of our camp a few times before he spoke. “I will show my back to you.”

The Antlings, Vagabonds, and Hunters exchanged looks of grave concern at this. Our Healer raised a hand to quiet the murmurs.

The Predasaur said, “In the forest, it is honorable to approach each other face-to-face, so that we see the other coming. After this magic is done, and I am transformed into what our mother sees fit, do not take offense when I show my back to you. For I am leading you toward our enemy.”

He stepped to the leaders, who welcomed him into their circle around the fire. Our Healer unrolled the parchment and spoke the words scrawled across its face, a language this Antling did not recognize. When he finished, not a breath was drawn as we waited. Nothing happened. At first.
Then the flames turned green. I cannot speak for the others present, but my instincts screamed to flee into the safety of the underbrush. Yet no one moved.

A female voice spoke from a source that to this day remains unknown. Some believe it was Sylvia, others our earth mother, but she gave no name. “My children. I have lost many tears while you have been slaughtered within this corruption. I will raise you to fight as equals against the humans, beasts, and daemons who would see you destroyed. Rise Antphelia, Vagabonadon, Grapnel the Stealth Hunter, and Keras the Predasaur Tyrant.”

The blue orb on our Healer’s staff swirled into a bright green that matched the emerald flames in the center of the camp. His chipped horns became smooth as they reached higher and he grew taller, as the furs adorning his shoulders hardened into spiked steel.

The Vagabond also grew taller and larger, and his club grew additional spikes and swelled until it seemed to become an anchor. But he lifted it easily, the new heavy plates of armor shifting across his back and shoulders.

The Wild Hunter found himself wrapped in thick leather, cloth shrouds and scaled armor, none of which made a whisper as he shifted to examine it. A huge razor-sharp sickle curved from his hand—a blade eager for bloodletting, we were the lucky few to see it clean and dry.

The Predasaur’s hide rippled and glimmered with a golden hue, his tarnished armor growing thicker and turning a deep scarlet. His wood and bone weapon became forged steel, the blade rising and spreading into a wicked axe.

The leaders stared at one another, at themselves.

“Do you feel it?” Antphelia said. “The old magic.”

They all nodded.

“Finally,” Vagabonadon said, ”I look as I’ve always felt.”

This raised a wild cheer from the camp. Spears and clubs were lofted. Flickers of orange and yellow began to appear within the green flames. The woman’s voice spoke again, growing more distant with each word:

“Seek those worthy of being raised, speak the magic, and I will return. There is already one of you among the ranks of man and beast. Find him, join him, and begin your war.”

With that, the fire returned to normal. Bright flames sent winking sparks upward in the center of our leaders.

“Seek those worthy?” Grapnel the Stealth Hunter said. “We are all worthy of fighting for our own lives.”

Keras the Predasaur Tyrant said, “Perhaps she means those worthy of dying for another’s.”

Antphelia nodded. “We will seek them as we join the fight. Man and beast…as she who raised us says, we will do. We will fight alongside this Jeraziah and Ophelia until the Hellbourne are once again sealed in their fetid pits. When that is done…then we will see what man and beast have to say for themselves.”

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