Soft soil, humid air, and the sound of metallic armor filled the Eastern jungle. High above the ground in the thick of the branches, a single Denirog looked down at the human invaders. They leaned from their spot and gripped tightly against the bark of the tree; when they felt as if they were far enough away, they leaped from their tree to the next. Watching for a reaction, they waited, leaping again once they were certain they would not be caught. Their strong legs had no issue propelling themselves into full air-born locomotion. Their light frame made next to no impact whenever they landed, and their spotted brown skin blended effortlessly into each tree; it helped that it shifted like a Rorschach test until it was as close to a perfect match as possible.
They bound through the trees above the humans until they could predict their movements; at that point, they moved ahead, rising high into the tree line; they strayed from the human’s ability to spot them, hiding deep into the thick canopy.
“Did you hear that, sir?” One of the soldiers asked.
The captain looked around the jungle, listening to all the sounds that it had to offer.
“I hear a lot; we are in a jungle. You are going to have to be more specific.”
The recruit looked up the trees that surrounded them, his eyes squinting as small pieces of leaf and bark fell into his eyes.
“I could have sworn that I heard something, like an impact.”
“Again, this is a jungle; we are not in the plains anymore. There is a lot of wildlife out here, many species that could probably snap branches or travel fast enough to impact a tree loud enough to be heard. So please just walk, Kraker.”
“Yes, sir.” Kraker answered as he looked around the vibrant greens and browns of the jungle.
There were snide remarks made at the back of the marching troupe that were made loud enough for Kraker to hear. He lowered his head in shame as he picked out words and laughter from the back.
The captain took off his helmet to wipe the sweat from his head; starting at his brow, he slid his hand back; his short head hairs flung the sweat from him as he wiped the bulk of it to the back of his neck.
“I hate this place; far too humid for any smart creature to choose to live here.” The captain stopped marching and turned back to his men. “We are going to make camp here; if we go any further, we risk stepping into Denirog territory, and I don’t feel like explaining to them why we are here; they can be… weird about things.”
The Captain rolled his eyes at his own words as he looked around. He sloshed his feet in the mud as he looked around their surroundings.
“We will head just up there.” He said, pointing to a small rise only a few meters away. “Hopefully be less mud. We will set up camp; we can continue looking tomorrow.”
The group started to spread out and work on setting up the camp. Kraker pulled out a small hatchet and started to walk around the small trees, hacking off thin limbs and snapping the dead ones off whatever tree had them; he had wandered a short walk from the others but was aware of his space. But the gap felt much larger when he heard a sudden rustle in the woods that stopped when he faced it.
“Hello? We should probably head back.” He said with a slight croak in his throat.
He squinted at the bush and was about to step closer to it when the bush behind him started to shake. He spun around, and once again, the shaking stopped once he was looking at it. He started to step towards his camp, slowly and purposeful with each step. While his hands were full of snapped and hacked branches, his mind was aware of how long it would take him to draw his sword or his hatchet. He watched as more of the bushes shook, and for longer.
“Guys, we have company.” He whispered.
The bushes shook violently all at once, and he turned tail, dropping the dry branches he had collected into the mud. He tripped and ran back to camp.
“Company, there is something big coming.” He yelled as he tripped over an arching root, landing face down in the mud.
He panicked as he turned and drew his hatchet, wiping the mud from his eyes; he watched as a small group of three of the other guards were laughing as they walked towards him.
“You are too easy, Kraker. Like a babe.”
“Attention!” The Captain screamed.
The three men stood to attention instantly; Kraker spat the mud from his mouth as he stood to attention. Trying to ignore the slow trickle of water that was rolling into his eyes.
“You three, you are on firewood duty since I see your little stunt has ruined the wood that Kraker has gathered. Then you three will be on guard duty tonight.”
“Wait, all night? You can’t force us to stay up all night for one prank.”
“Listen here, Uop, this is not just one prank. This is a mess of annoying behavior. This is your fellow soldier; pranks are fun at base camp and when everyone is on board. Kraker is a good soldier, a little skittish bitch, but a good soldier. As are all of you, so you better start treating each other with respect. Otherwise, you might find the rest of this mission to be rather difficult. “
The Captain was just stepping away, giving Kraker the time to wipe the mud off his eyes before the Captain turned back.
“Oh, and another thing. You won’t all be on guard together. You will be doing one shift each.”
“Alone?” Uop asked
“Alone. Now get to work.”
Uop spat at the ground and scrunched up his face; he walked over to Kraker and outstretched a hand.
“I’m sorry, just stressed, trying to blow steam.” He mumbled under his breath, so it was hard to hear.
Kraker took his hand and shook it.
“Don’t let the captain find out, but your hatchet is missing.”
Uop looked down, patting down the other parts of his armor.
“Take this,” Kraker said as he handed over his own.
Uop grabbed it, but Kraker did not let it go.
“Now listen here, I respect you are scared; I am too. But if you cause me any shit from here on in, there will be carnage. Got it?”
Uop nodded, and Kraker let go of his hatchet and wandered off to clean up. Uop juggled the handle of the hatchet in his hand a few times as he watched Kraker walk away before turning to find more wood for the fire.
Once the party had prepared themselves for the night, they sat down around a fire and took time to rest. They took out their rations and began to eat, finally having the freedom to slouch and become comfortable. Most were willing to sit on the damp ground and allow their legs and clothes to get wet and assaulted by bugs. While no one would say it, their bodies ached, and their skin felt slick from the humid atmosphere, promoting people to sweat and drink in excess. Meanwhile, overhead, they were being watched with keen eyes.
A small gathering of Denirogs stood in the trees, hanging from branches. They lowered their ears holes to angle toward the camp, listening keenly to the captain in particular.
He sat alone, coveting over a map and a journal with notes.
“There is no way we can find our charge out here.” The Captain looked around the dense bush with concern. “I can barely see in front of my own feet in this place. How are we expected to find this temple?” He asked himself rhetorically.
Scratching at his head, he watched as his short hair flung the sweat from his head, coming down like a fine mist over his work. He grunted and wiped his map when the calls from one of his men caught his ear.
The Captain spun on the spot, leaving his map behind. He grabbed his helmet and drew the spear that sat next to him. Running the short distance back to his men, he joined the formation. They stood in a circle with their weapons aimed outwards, creating a small circle of safety.
“What do we have men?”
“Movement, fast, circling the camp.”
“Is it the Tuatran we have been chasing?”
“Unknown, sir. But it feels too fast to be one of them.”
The Captain’s eye was pulled to part of the jungle as he noticed the sign of sudden movement.
“Fast is an understatement. Be ready, men; they could strike from anywhere.”
Their bodies were poised, and they were ready to strike when suddenly the tree line was breached by slow-moving Denirogs, calmly stepping into view of the humans. Not only were they surrounded, they were outnumbered; from high above in the canopy, more Denirog dropped to the ground, filling out their ranks. They all had simple wooden staves in their hands but stood with no intent to cause harm to the humans. The Captain judged the situation and lowered his spear, stepping forward.
“Who are we talking with?” He asked, his eyes darting around for a leader.
“You, Captain Otto, are talking with my tribe.”
The Captain turned to see a Denirog holding his map and going over his journal.
“How do you know me?” The Captain asked.
“Oh, it was simple; your name is written on this note for your orders.”
The Denirog holding the map stopped; lowering his hands to his side, he bowed slightly.
“I am Hyla; it is a pleasure to meet you all.”
The Captain dropped his spear and mimicked the same action.
“It is good to meet you, Hyla; as you know, I am Otto, the captain of this platoon. We have been sent into your territory to find a Tuatran temple that has been sending zealots out to harm our towns in the neighboring region.”
Hyla looked over the squad, calmly he walked over to Otto, and handed over the map and journal. Towering well over Otto, although his form was not threatening, the size difference was enough to put Otto at unease.
“Answer me please, Otto; I would like honesty.”
“Of course, nothing but.”
“Do you intend to destroy our jungle?
“Do you intend to hurt my people?”
“No, of course not.” Otto looked back to his men and gestured for them to lower their arms. “I apologize; they are not used to the Deni; they are on edge.”
“Do you intend to kill animals here for the sake of killing?”
“No, no hunting will happen in your jungle; the only killing will be for food or the Tuatran when we come across them.”
Hyla looked around to his people, turning his head from Otto.
“If you are being truthful, and I think you are, then this is not our territory.” He said, gesturing to his people. “It is all of our land.” He said, gesturing to the humans as well as the Denirogs.
“We know of the temple you search for; we have had our eyes on it but have seen no sign of concern. We were unaware of the raids they were committing. We assume in the name of a god?”
“Actually, sort of no. The god they worship does not exist; it is Tentra, who we all know was slain by their sisters. So their faith is not only misplaced, but it is hurting our people; we are here to stop it.”
“This is very troubling; death for the sake of death is never justified. We will help you to rid these lands of the misguided, we seek balance in these lands, and if someone is trying to disturb that balance, we will come down on them with the fury that nature can provide.”
“I thank you, Hyla. May we request that we move tomorrow? My people are tired, and we need rest.”
“Of course, we will convene tomorrow. Do not worry about setting guards; my folk will remain here to provide safety.”
“That is not needed; you can go to your homes; we will not ask you to spend a night in the wilds for us.”
Hyla and a few of the nearby Denirog laughed.
“This is our home, Otto; the structures we live in are no different to the grounds of the jungle; they provide safety high in the trees, and they do not create creature comforts.”
Hyla gave another short bow which was met with Otto doing the same. Hyla turned away, walking calmly into the dense bush of the jungle.
“Well, Uop, it looks like you and your friends have the night off. Everyone get some rest; tomorrow, we take on the Tuatrans; it will be bloody, but with the help of the Denirog, hopefully, a little less bloody on our side.”
Otto Packed up his map and journal before he retired himself to a place to sleep for the night. Most of the others were happy about the situation, but Kraker and Uop both shared an eye of concern; while everyone else got ready to sleep with their spirits raised high, Uop approached Kraker quietly and spoke to him with hushed tones.
“You don’t seem so happy, Kraker.”
“Odd, I was about to say the same thing to you.”
“Do you trust these bugged eyes monsters?”
Kraker turned to Uop and walked them out of earshot from the others.
“Why are you talking to me about this and not your mates over there?”
“Simple, you are the only person I saw that did not look excited, the others all saw it as an option to relax, but I think we should be on high alert with all these freaks around us.”
“Yeah, I don’t trust them. They seem too eager to help. It is unnatural.” Kraker said as he looked over his shoulder to make sure he could not see any Denirogs.
“Honestly,” Uop said, taking a deep breath. “I think we need to take turns on alert for the squad, then tomorrow we keep a keen eye out on the battlefield… Agreed?”
Kraker nodded as he looked back to the others, all finding spots to sleep among the roots of the trees.
“I’ll go first; we should make it look like we are sleeping, keeping eyes nearly closed; we want Deni’s to feel as if we are not onto them.”
Uop nodded in agreement, reaching out a fist. Kraker greeted it with his own, then they went back to the others, getting ready for a long night.
Kraker took the first watch with no issues, followed by Uop, who ended up falling asleep before the day arrived. During the morning, Kraker found Uop and pulled him aside again.
“Did you see anything in your watch?” Kraker asked with concern. “Because the bastards didn’t show face last night.”
“Na, I didn’t see anything on my watch.” Uop said as he shamefully covered the fact that he had fallen asleep during his set.
“They must be waiting for the battle; I am not sure what we are looking for, but keep your eye out. These things are everywhere.”
Kraker left Uop and continued to get ready like everyone else. Once everyone had eaten and got their equipment ready, Hyla re-emerged from the crowded tree line. With the bowing greeting out of the way, they began to talk with Otto.
“If you all follow me, I can lead you to the temple; from there, I will rely on your tactical expertise to help organize an encounter with the Tuatran.”
Otto nodded his head, calling for everyone to follow. “We move out now, boys; we are taking these Tuatran and saving those in our towns.”
The squadron cheered and followed foot.
“I will need to see the temple before we start any tactics, but above all, we need to work together; the Tuatran is not an enemy to take lightly; they have a wide array of damage they can cause with just their bodies, not to mention how thick that hide is. Even one is a concern for many.”
“We have seen them training, it has been an experience to see. They train for an impossibly long time and not only with power but also speed. No creature has the right to be so powerful in combat as the Tuatran naturally seem to be. Not even the Orks come to their level, and they are ferocious, relentless even. These Tuatran seem like something else.”
Otto looked up to Hyla, confused.
“Have you not fought with Tuatran before?”
“We fight to protect balance, not for war, or territory, or any other reason. Nor will we fight if we believe loss is a high probability because we can’t help maintain balance if we are dead. Because of this, there are whole tribes that have never been in combat. It is very common for tribes to have not fought with many of the races.”
“You are in for a very big surprise. The main tactic is to stay out of their reach. That is why all our men have a bow to use. Those I have brought on this mission are highly skilled archers and melee artists. Because of this, we can achieve victory with a small contingent; it is important to know how to fight your enemy.”
“So magic will be beneficial?”
“Not really. Tuatran have been cursed by Komdo, so the only magic they can cast is anti-magic, and they are very good at it.”
“Even with such a debilitating curse, I get the feeling that many of us are to die today.”
Otto walked along with wide eyes, he looked back to his troupe, but thankfully they were too far away to hear what had been said.
“We need to not talk about that. I don’t want to ruin morale. Because if we cannot kill them with range, close combat will be our only option, and because of this, they have the advantage, even if we have them outnumbered. Speaking of which, how many are you able to bring to this fight?”
“I have several casters and ranged units hidden in the trees. But only myself was willing to take to the ground to fight. The others were scared.”
“That makes sense; they don’t need to risk their lives for our cause. I am thankful that you are joining us.”
“Killing under the guise of a god is not a part of how the world should be. We will rectify this and continue our mission.”
Otto smiled before his eyes darted to the back of Hyla, spying his weapon.
“The Tuatran’s have very resilient scales. I don’t think your staff will cause much damage to them.”
Hyla smiled wide, looking back at Otto. His eyes darted to the staff on his own back.
“This is not a weapon; this is a training staff. While we use them for combat to subdue enemies, we have other weapons that are designed to kill. We hide them around our territories to ensure that we are never without arms.”
Otto shook his head, and he smiled back.
“I have to admit, you lot are a lot more capable of violence than I realized. I have to be honest; I am a little scared.”
“If you are only a little scared, you don’t realize how strong we are.”
Hyla stopped suddenly as he looked past low tree lines to see the corner of a stone structure.
“We are here; get your men ready. Mine are already in the trees.
“Form up; we are moments away. Weapons ready, we raid their temple now.”
Kraker and Uop kept an eye on Hyla as they drew their swords and prepared their shields. Getting into formation, they watched as Hyla signaled to others behind Otto’s back. When Otto turned back around, Hyla stopped; they were about to tell Otto when they heard him speak.
“Make sure to tell your men to focus one at a time. Otherwise, they will struggle to get through their targets scales.”
Hyla started signaling again, then silence.
Otto took deep breaths as he marched forward, his men following behind; Hyla went out wide and disappeared into the trees. Kraker ran after him; Uop wanted to stay but found himself running after Kraker. Both of them disappear into the trees. Otto noticed; assuming they were going to help, he addressed the others.
“Keep on me, let Hyla and the others flank, and be prepared for the taste of filthy lizard blood.”
Kraker and Uop did their best to keep up with Hyla, but it was not long before he had completely vanished from sight.
“Why did you stop?” Uop asked.
“Shush, I lost him. I couldn’t keep up; he moves like a freak.”
“Well, what do we do now? Do we try and follow, head back, or do we head in, just the two of us on this side?”
Kraker looked around the trees until he finally exclaimed loudly, turning to face the way of the stone temple.
“We go in; we need to make sure that the others are not ambushed.”
Otto was the first the breach the tree line, standing in the cleared land around the temple. The smell of cooking meat came from haphazard smoking shacks that had been constructed to cure the meats. They walked through as fast as they could, just to watch as the Tuatran started to exit the temple towards them, stopping still under the cover of the thick stone roof above them.
“If you wish to claim us, you will have to venture into our temple. We are not dumb enough to meet you in open field. You want us gone; you will have to come and fight in our territory.” The leader of the Tuatran cried out.
The Tuatran slowly retracted back into their temple, their eyes being the last of them to fade into the black of the temple walls.
“What do we do, sir?” One of the men asked Otto.
“We leave the bows here, we go in, this is us, this is our charge, and we will purge them.”
The men reluctantly dropped their quivers and prepared for the coming fight. Kraker and Uop appeared out of the tree line just a few meters away.
“Where is Hyla?” Otto asked.
“Gone, sir, we lost him. We think he ran.”
“Shame.” Otto said. Gripping his sword tightly, he started to rush into the temple. The others fell into rank behind him. “We will cut this disease from our land, we will restore safety, and most importantly, we will avenge those we have lost.”
Like a flash of pale greens and blues, Hyla flew past them; holding something metallic in his hands, he disappeared into the temple.
“We don’t let him take our kills, move!” Otto screamed as they all charged head-first into the temple.