A small dragon guarding a big forest.

This is a gift piece for a friend, Touvkka, with her character Pine. You can find art of Pine here.

4986 words

As the sun rose above the grand forest, towering trees projected multiple layers of leaves to hungrily devour as much life-giving light as they could. Despite the trees’ best efforts, dappled lances and patches of light still reached the undergrowth below. An ever-present whisper of wind underpinned the constant calls of birds, who were muted by the trees just like the sunlight.

One particular patch of sunlight slowly drifted down the trunk of a tree as the sun climbed in the sky. Eventually, it reached the gnarled roots just above the ground, and then a small burrow between them. Here, the light roused an odd assortment of creatures from their slumber.

The green pigeon was the first to wake, its gentle coos filling the hollow. The frog’s croaking was much harsher on the ear, but somehow the two made a simple harmony to rouse the deepest sleeper.

Pine groaned as she rolled over to scratch an itch on her belly scales. An indignant croak followed as the frog was forced to hop out of the way. “Sorry, Foesnatcher,” she mumbled. Both critters went silent and waited.

When no further movement was forthcoming from her, the pigeon began gently pecking at her snout. 

“Fine, fine, you win Deathbeak. I’m up. I’m up.”

The tok-toking of the pecks stopped for a moment. But Pine was not, in fact, up. So, they resumed. 

Finally, Pine cracked open her eyes to see her assailant, a green pigeon slightly larger than her snout. She shooed away the bird with a lazy swipe of her claws and, with a melodramatic sigh, got her feet beneath herself. The frog and pigeon exited the hollow, but made a point of waiting at the entrance.

Pine, in turn, made a point of taking her time to check over the plants she had cultivated on her back, ensuring nothing had come loose overnight. Once she was satisfied that everything was in place, she picked up her Guardian Crown from her small collection of shiny baubles, gave it a gentle but meticulous dust-off, and eventually placed it carefully upon her head. 

Once she’d stepped out of her home, she stretched out the sleep from her muscles. Foesnatcher used the opportunity to leap all the way from the ground onto his favourite hitchhiking spot on her back. Deathbeak followed suit with a flap of her wings.

Passengers aboard, Pine set off towards the nearby river for her first Guardian Duty each day: ensuring that she and her comrades-in-arms were properly sustained. This amounted to Foesnatcher feasting upon riverside insects, Deathbeak flying off to scavenge seeds and berries, and Pine managing to snatch a fish from the river for herself, then following Deathbeak’s lead in some scavenging.

When they were all fed and feeling ready for the day, they set off on their patrol. Pine strolled casually between the trees and shrubbery, humming aloud a tune she’d made up, and generally not caring for stealth. The denizens of the forest deserved to know their protector was on the watch.

As she did most days, she started her patrol by heading in the general direction of the colony of a group of two-legged flightless creatures. They were regular troublemakers. The only regular troublemakers, really. No other creatures had such a destructive and malevolent impact on the forest Pine protected. 

The land they claimed had only continued to grow in the decades since she’d found them. On the fringes of their territory, swathes of unnaturally orderly plants or clearings filled with trapped but unusually docile animals were found frequently. Each set of these always had a two-leg cave nearby, made from murdered trees. The dens only grew more common further in. 

The few times she had snuck nearer to the core of their territory, they’d always spotted her and made such a fuss that she’d had to flee to avoid a fight. As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, there were just too many of them for her to deal with. The very centre must have been their spawning grounds, it had seemed like there were more of those fake caves than open ground. However, she’d only ever seen it from afar.

Thus, she was forced to patrol a wide perimeter. The best she could do was mitigate the damage they were doing to the forest around them.

Her thoughts were interrupted by an urgent coo from Deathbeak, who took to the air. Pine stopped to listen and, once Deathbeak had settled on a branch to wait for her, was able to make out distant rumbles. 

Knowing what this signified, she broke out into a run, with a croak of protest from Foesnatcher. She dodged and weaved between trees and bushes as narrowly as she dared while she rushed to her destination. 

The rumbles eventually resolved into a repeating pattern that was audible even over her own crashing footsteps and heavy breaths. This was the rhythm that the two-legs’ tree-hunting parties used. Knowing she would need it, she began syphoning the life force from the trees around herself as she ran. Not enough to hurt them, but enough to be useful later.

Almost before she realised she’d reached it, she burst into a clearing. While the two-legs made startled noises and stopped beating on the massive round things that made such noise, she quickly took stock of the situation. The five of them had slain a large number of pine trees and already dragged all the corpses away. Fortunately, they were still stupid enough to not have learnt to clean up the seeds. These lay hidden among the hacked-off tree limbs and other carnage strewn throughout the clearing.

The two-legs were spreading out and were making their uselessly eccentric threat displays all over the place. They made cries that seemed directed at her, but whose meanings she could not discern.

“I’ll put a stop to you!” she declared loudly, instinctually puffing out her scales to make herself more intimidating. Using her magic to amplify the life force she’d recently harvested, she pumped it into the scattered seeds. She wasn’t able to concentrate on the entire clearing’s worth of seeds at once, so she focused on smaller patches. 

The seeds accelerated through their lifespan at unnatural speeds. With the vigour of ravenous animals, the fresh saplings tore into the earth with their rapidly thickening roots. Their trunks shot skyward at such a rapid pace as to frighten the two-legs away from the new trees.

To their credit, the two-legs put on a brave act. They didn’t flee immediately, rather regrouping on the still-open patches of ground to once again threaten Pine. As the first saplings became young trees, she turned her attention to a new batch of seeds and repeated the process—forcing the two-legs to cluster into an area a third the size of what they had once occupied.

Reaching an end to her stores of life-force she could safely draw on, she syphoned some more from the trees behind her to fuel the last batch of saplings. Just as she knew they would, the barbaric tree-killers broke and fled like the cowards they were as their last open ground disappeared. Not even one had worked up the courage to attack her directly. They never did.

Watching Foesnatcher give chase for a few hops and make some threatening croaks for good measure, she idly wondered why they feared live trees so much that they kept so much of their territory clear of them and made such regular expeditions to murder trees. It couldn’t be the trees themselves; they made their fake caves from dead trees, and kept some few live ones around in their lands. She’d even glimpsed the canopies of a few trees over the tops of their spawning ground caves. Maybe they just didn’t like enclosed spaces? That would explain the many wide open areas they had filled with simple grasses and other low-growing greenery, but then why would they live in caves? Admittedly, many of the caves were quite large.

She shook her head and moved into the once-clearing to check over the young trees to make sure they were all growing right and healthy. She’d flooded them with directionless life energy and let them grow how they wished. Sometimes that was too much for a plant. Once she was satisfied, she gathered up Foesnatcher and Deathbeak and resumed her patrols. The rest of the day went without further incident, and she eventually retired to her burrow. 

The next day she repeated her routines as usual. To her surprise she soon heard the faint rhythmic beating of the two-legs’ noise-makers again. Usually they didn’t hunt so soon after being scared away, it always took them a time to work up the courage again. As she neared, she was further befuddled to realise there was only one set of beats happening, and that it was happening in the same area as yesterday. They rarely hunted in the same spot for years after she’d scared them off, out of some delusion that she wouldn’t find them if they just hunted somewhere else.

She rushed ahead nonetheless, gathering life essence as the sound grew nearer and nearer. Eventually she burst through the trees to find… a single two-leg bent over the round noise-barrel? It jumped back in fright, but seemed to calm when it saw her – despite her threat display. There was no hunting party, and no clearing cut into her freshly grown trees. The two-leg looked smaller than the usual hunting party members. Her head could easily reach up to its abdomen. It must have been somewhere between a hatchling and an adult. 

It took a couple uncertain steps towards her and began speaking. She had no idea what it was saying. But its voice was high pitched, and whiny like an injured hatchling. Was it in distress? It clawed the air with one of its air-paws, as if trying to grab her from afar. She tensed at the motion, and the creature noticed. It got down to its knees and began speaking in gentler tones, but kept making that pulling motion. This was combined with some pointing in a particular direction. She understood that gesture, but didn’t see anything there. Just to be safe, she also looked in the other direction, and behind herself. She couldn’t see any ambush. Still, she kept her distance, but she didn’t try to scare off the two-leg either.

Eventually it stood up and began to walk in the vague direction of the nesting grounds, leaving behind the noise-maker. The way it walked and kept glancing back at her made it obvious that it expected her to follow. She didn’t. This had to be some sort of trap. The two-legs were incredibly cunning when they weren’t being stupid and scared. Instead, she turned and began to walk away. Until the distressed sounds of the two-leg started again, but louder, and brought her to a stop. She glanced back and saw that its face was reddening and its eyes starting to leak. Even Deathbeak and Foesnatcher were looking perturbed by the display.

“Why am I doing this,” she sighed as she turned around to follow. “I know it’s going to end badly.”

Their journey began slowly, with the two-leg frequently looking back to ensure Pine was still following. However, once it was more certain she’d keep following, it gradually brought them up to a jog. It quickly became apparent that they were not headed directly to the nesting grounds, but rather at an angle to it. This caused Pine to relax somewhat, but only a little. There was still the matter of what had distressed the two-leg so greatly.

They had travelled for long enough for the sun to have noticeably shifted position when Deathbeak, who had been scouting ahead, swooped back with an alarmed call. Pine came to such a quick stop that she almost threw off her remaining passenger. The two-leg – Shorty, she’d started calling it in her head – also stopped. 

Shorty began creeping forward at a much more cautious pace, and she did likewise. It didn’t take Pine long to notice what Deathbeak had been warning them of. The sound of trees being attacked was ringing out in front of them. Her hackles rising, Pine quickly stalked forward. Shorty, who had started making remarkably bird-like noises with its mouth and air-paws, made a surprised noise as it realised how close she had gotten, but she paid it little heed. Shorty resumed its bird noises.

She neared the edge of a very large artificial clearing beside a large river. She hadn’t often caught tree-hunting parties while they were still slaying trees, but they had never been anywhere near this big before. They didn’t seem to have any noise-makers with them. The two-legs here had draped themselves in different kinds of materials and colours than the usual ones. Many of them wore garb made of shiny interlocking plates that reminded her of fish scales. They spoke with different cadences than the two-legs she knew.

Half were spread around the edges of the clearing, actively felling trees. The rest were piling up the corpses besides ditches or digging more ditches around an area filled with their belongings. Some corpses had been re-planted in a compact, straight line – forming some sort of barrier. The rest of the ditches must be intended to be filled and form a barrier around a large portion of the clearing. 

She finally realised there was a smell of blood and death in the air, and she turned her attention from the barrier. As horrible as the destruction of so many trees were, they didn’t smell like that. Animals did. She looked around from her hiding spot until she spotted the source. It was several two-leg corpses. Two had been laid out neatly, their fish-scales stained red. Six more were haphazardly piled up. Though blood-splattered and hard to make out, the garb those in the pile wore seemed more familiar to Pine. 

She could only feel satisfaction at having less tree-killers on both sides of this conflict, but that was tinged by worry that she might have to deal with another group of these creatures moving in. The worry solidified into a determination that she wasn’t going to let that happen. Even if they did cull each other, two colonies were undoubtedly going to be worse than one. She’d have to scare these off before they set down roots. Make them know they were unwelcome in her forest before they festered. 

She walked forward, but was halted when something grabbed her tail. She turned around, growling, and found Shorty yelping and jumping back. It began making some noises at her in soft but scared tones, gesturing for her to return to the cover.

“Cower here if you want, I’m going to protect my forest.”

Pine stepped into the clearing, roaring to make her presence known. Foesnatcher hopped from her back and croaked deeply at them too. There were shouts from the two-legs as they noticed her. Eight quickly clustered together, dropping their tree-choppers and grabbing long straight sticks with shiny pointy tips. They lowered the points at her and began approaching her as a group, making threatening noises while the rest watched. She admitted to herself that this was a much more intimidating display than the usual blustering, but she wouldn’t let it scare her off.

Reaching out with her magic, she could sense the trees’ seeds weren’t as well-scattered about as usual, but she could make do with that. She flooded two in front of the formation full of life energy, causing saplings to burst up in rapid growth. The formation dispersed somewhat, retreating and creating gaps for the new trees, but they did not scatter or flee like expected, even if they seemed too nervous to approach now. One in the row passed their pointy stick to their friend and began fiddling with a strange wooden contraption, placing a miniature version of a pointy stick on it and turning something on it that made a strange squeaking noise.

Suddenly, there was yelling from multiple sides of the clearing. Smaller groups of two-legs appeared from the forest and charged at the ones that had been watching Pine’s group. The new two-legs clad themselves in styles she was more familiar with. 

While they engaged each other, something brought her attention back to the group that had been approaching her. The one that had been fiddling with the contraption lifted it up and pointed it at her. She got the sense it was meant to be dangerous, but she couldn’t see how, so she roared again in the hopes of scaring it.

There was a yell from behind her and footsteps rapidly approaching. She turned just in time to be part-shoved part-dove onto by Shorty. There was a thwack sound from the direction of the two-leg formation and, almost immediately after that, she felt Shorty’s body against her shudder with some sort of impact.

She pulled herself from under Shorty, giving a hiss of annoyance that abruptly cut short as she caught sight of the length of wood burrowed deeply into their torso. That contraption had been a stick thrower? A very strange one. Shorty was making weak, pained sounds, looking at Pine all the while. Shorty had protected her? Why? They mumbled something to her, and for the first time, she found herself truly wishing she could understand their strange language.

A now-familiar squeaking noise drew her attention away from Shorty. That two-leg was operating its contraption again. Her shock was drowned in a wave of rage at the attempt on her life, and the injury to Shorty. They were trying to kill her? She could reciprocate.

She magically reached out to the two trees she had grown earlier. This time, instead of flooding them with directionless energy, she directed them and bent them to her will. Aberrant branches burst from the trunks, whipping out as fast as snakes, and grabbing most members of the formation. The two that managed to dodge the first lash didn’t dodge the second. Under her control, the branches thickened and tightened, lifting the squirming two-legs up into the air. Their fish scales couldn’t stop the life from being crushed out of them.

As she turned her attention from the trees’ new morbid fruit, she found that the rest of the conflict was ending. The two-legs from her colony had sustained many casualties, but only three of the opposing side still lived, and those were all running at full speed into the forest. Her two-legs had begun singing energetic chants that seemed to be victorious tunes.

Pine ignored them all, and turned back to Shorty. She was glad to find them still breathing, but they did not look good. Shorty wasn’t even attempting to get up and flee like wounded animals did when possible. She felt an all-to-familiar twinge of regret that she could not use her magic directly to regenerate animals directly like she did plants. 

“I can still help you.”

She twisted her neck sharply so that she could see the collection of plants she’d cultivated on her back. Picking two smaller sprouts hidden between the ornamental leaves and flowers, she trickled just enough magic into them to grow a bushel of excess leaves on each, which she then plucked. One of these she knew had a numbing and calming effect when ingested. She placed those in Shorty’s mouth and gently gripped and moved their lower jaw, trying to encourage them to chew without damaging their soft hide with her claws. When Shorty complied, she turned her attention to the second handful of leaves she’d plucked. Her mother had taught her that these would mitigate the buildup of rot on wounds, and her first years of experience on her own had confirmed this when she’d foolishly forgotten to apply the herb. She sat down, brushing off the dust caught on her forepaws before crushing the leaves. They released a pungent smell, and she placed the mulch around the shaft that stuck from his abdomen, not wanting to disturb it just yet. She didn’t know if it was one of those with the nasty barbs that tore when someone tried to pull them free. She would need to make the tree to drop the two-leg that shot Shorty so she could look at their other sticks more closely. 

When she looked up from Shorty, she found a group of three two-legs watching her. Now that she had noticed them, one lowered themselves and approached slowly, their air-paw out towards her. This one had a chain of shiny metal and gems hanging around its neck. She’d seen them before, at the tree-hunting parties. She bared her teeth and backed away. They kept approaching and she kept backing away, until the two-leg was standing over Shorty. When their attention turned to Shorty, Pine growled protectively even though she knew these were Shorty’s colony-members. The two-leg flinched, but began making comforting motions with Shorty, and inspecting the wound. 

They then picked up something shiny from beside Shorty, dusting it off. It was her guardian crown, which she’d taken as a spoil of war from one of the hunting parties in the past. She hadn’t noticed it being knocked off when Shorty saved her. They were going to take it back, weren’t they? While she considered a plan to take it back that would minimise the risk of her accidentally hurting Shorty, the necklaced two-leg bent over Shorty, placing it as far in her direction as they could reach.

She crept closed and snatched the crown back with her teeth, only using a forepaw to settle it on her head again once she’d backed away. The two-leg’s lips curved, baring their teeth aggressively. Had they not wanted her to take the crown? But then why had they placed it there, and not tried to stop her? Well, she wasn’t going to let them get it back.

They called out to the two that had remained behind, who ran off. Pine suspiciously watched them run over to some others who had wrapped strips of their outer-hides between two of the invaders’ big pointy sticks. Surveying the clearing, she realised that every two-leg that wasn’t actively doing something amongst the aftermath of the battle was staring at her. Their victory tunes had stopped sometime when she was working on Shorty. The two that had run off brought back the bound sticks and began gently lifting Shorty and placed them between the sticks, on top of strips of hide.

Deciding it was her time to go, Pine turned and made her way out of the clearing. She collected Foesnatcher from where he’d been standing, and Deathbeak fluttered as she came in for a landing. As she passed the first standing trees, a voice behind broke out into a new type of tune. More and more joined in. The feeling it gave her was… something somewhere between happy and mournful. The melody they made was enough to stop her beyond sight of the clearing. 

She turned and listened for a while, the melody fading a bit as some voices left it, but enough kept it going. It was far prettier than the battle tunes their tree-hunting parties used. Despite all the killing they, and she, had just done, the tune roused some of her old curiosity about the two-legs. She’d known they were smarter than most animals for a long time, but she still knew so little about them. They clearly didn’t hate her as much as she had thought – whether that was because she’d turned the battle in their favour, a new respect for how dangerous she actually could be, or something else, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps she could leverage this to investigate their nesting grounds at last? 

She approached the clearing again, making herself visible. There was some excitement as she was noticed, causing some to rejoin their song. When she settled down onto her haunches to make it clear she was there to watch, they resumed their work. They had a number of their kin laid out in two rows. One appeared to be for the dead, another – containing Shorty – for the wounded. Each wounded lay between two sticks.

The song faded after some time, and they prepared to depart – separating into two groups. One made off towards the nesting grounds, while the rest seemed to be staying behind. This was an even better opportunity than she’d expected – they’d have less fighters at the nesting grounds to threaten her if things went wrong.

She stood up and slunk off into the forest in a different direction, but picked up her pace after a moment and made her way in a gradual arc until she intercepted the party carrying the wounded. She let this group see her. She didn’t want those who were staying behind to suspect where she was actually going, but she also wanted this group to accustom themselves to the idea of her tagging along. Maybe they would raise less of a fuss when she tried to follow them into the nesting grounds to investigate.

As they trekked back, she gradually drew nearer to them to further acclimatise them to her presence. She decided the looks they were giving here were ones of awe, not fear, and she made sure to let them get some good looks at her. Purely for tactical purposes, of course.

As they passed through the outer reaches of the two-leg colony, Pine got her first indications that the plan might just work. Two-legs that rushed out to greet the returnees always noticed her in short order. They had various reactions, but any who made too much noise or tried to approach her stopped at a call from Necklace. They appeared to be the leader of the returnees.

Even when they reached the crowded nesting grounds, Necklace managed to keep a space clear for her. She stayed near them. While the wounded were carried off, Necklace followed her around while she investigated the previously forbidden area. It was clear that the two-legs wanted to approach her for some purpose, but they were kept dispersed enough for her to feel comfortable enough to peeking into a few of their dens. Necklace even shooed the residents out of the way when her curiosity became clear. Each den held masses of various baubles and trinkets, far larger than her hoard, but rarely did she see anything as shiny as her own possessions. No wonder they needed such big dens if they kept so much junk.

There were so many dens, each looking so different. A hive stranger than any insect’s. They were all made from dead trees, which saddened her, but… neither were the trees being wasted. She could see some massive dens toward the centre of the nesting grounds, and made her way there slowly enough for Necklace to keep the way ahead clear. She glanced back and realised that there was certainly a crowd gathering behind her. Necklace made some attempts to scatter them, but they didn’t disperse. She picked up her pace. Her time here was probably running short.

She passed between two dens, back onto a different part of the large central path she’d entered the nesting grounds on. She noted the distance to the exit and that it was still clear enough for her to sprint down if she needed a quick escape, before looking the other direction. 

A large square of greenery immediately caught her attention. It stood out all the more amongst the incredibly unnatural nature of the dens. Yet, as she approached, it was clear to her that this wasn’t quite a natural space like the forest. The plants and trees here were clearly carefully managed and arranged. She had to admit that it was aesthetically pleasing. At the centre, there was a large tree with a wooden creature at the base.

She entered the green space to investigate further. To her relief, all the two-legs, including Necklace, remained behind. The creature was about her size. A duplicate of the guardian crown rested upon its head. Its back was covered by a dense layer of foliage much like her own. They’d even gone to the effort to carve scales upon the wood. It was maintained well, but she could see the signs of many years of weathering. This was not a recent addition.

Staring at this likeness of herself, she thought back to every interaction she could remember having with the two-legs. There were so many new ways to interpret their actions.

She turned back to look at the crowd gathered at the edge of the green area. It had grown much larger. In fact, every visible side of the square was loosely surrounded. A spike of fear that she’d been lured into a trap rose in her gut, but she fought it down. She could still fight her way out if she needed to, but it didn’t seem like that would be necessary. Sure enough, she noticed Necklace had once again cleared a path through the crowd.

“I think I’ve got a lot to learn about you creatures,” she said to none of them in particular. She figured she’d probably need to observe them far more closely than she had been to decipher their complex behaviour. Thinking about the wasted time it would take to travel between her burrow and these central nesting grounds each day, she decided there was a way to save some time and not give them a chance to follow her to her main stash of shinies. 

She turned to the tree behind her wooden doppelganger, using her magic to part the roots and the earth along with them.

“Hope you don’t mind if I make myself at home for a while.”


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.