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The first breeze. The first whisper of power from the Veilstorms. It was quiet, a zephyr lost in the mountains and drifting through the plains. With the first trickles of anger leaking from the broken Veil, a hush fell over the world. The winds shifted, and hints of magic filled the electric air. The world changed as a new and unpredictable power arose.
Some interpreted the changes as signs and omens of dark days to come, watching for the disaster that loomed on the horizon. Others ignored them, going about their lives as though nothing was any different, and simply accepting their fate. A few new religions appeared, trying to explain the unexplainable, or holding onto faith as a shield against the trembling beginnings of apocalypse. Some folk panicked and hid deep under mountains, while the desperate ones held parties, trying to laugh at their doom.
One man long past his prime gathered his family, the Alsea, to him. He sat on the root of a tree and spoke seriously, eyeing one squirming little granddaughter holding herself in front of the gathering. “A great calamity has come. It will wreak havoc on the world; some folk will hide, others will take care of their own and a few will deny that anything is happening. But who will protect nature? Who will ensure that surviving generations can live beneath a tree, or catch a fish in a stream? In our own little corner of the world, we must do what we can to protect this forest. It is older than we are, and deserves our help.”
The little girl, youngest of the Alsea family that could speak, took a step toward him. She leaned forward, a challenge in her eyes. “But why, grandfather Emon? We should hide in the ground, or build big, strong houses.”
The old man stared at her for a long moment with hard blue eyes. Then he smiled. “Let the others do that, child. They worry about themselves. We must care for Mother Nature, for no one else will.”
Slowly, the girl nodded, as if the proceedings needed her approval to continue.
Under the direction of the aged Emon, the Alsea family gathered together their possessions, called in their extended relations and close friends, and left their homeland to find a place they believed must be kept safe: the deep, dark heart of the forest. There, they built a new life.
The Alsea family chose a spot near an old, majestic oak tree for their central home, and swore to live in complete harmony with the forest. They promised to only use the wood of trees that had already fallen, to help the forest grow, and to keep out rot and disease. They would defend the wild woods with their lives. Instead of straining the forest to support them, they swore to bring it vivid life. The little granddaughter was among the first to take the vow. The ways of the woods came easily to her, and she ended up teaching much older members of the family how to fulfill their vow.
As the world around the forest began its upheaval, and vast mountains were sucked beneath the sea, the little enclave among the dark trees remained almost unchanged. The terrible destruction of the world spread all around, but it seemed to spare the forest’s heart, even as earthquakes and storms bit at the edges of their home. Though the great changes crept ever closer, the family began to believe that the great oak tree was protecting them. In return, they cared for the forest as one of their own children, helping the saplings grow tall and straight.
Hearing tales of their safety, a few folk outside the family traveled to join the little settlement. Their branch-woven huts grew, slowly spreading from the central oak tree. There were a few newcomers to the forest who found they couldn’t live with such a strict code of natural reverence, and left to start their own settlements.
However, these other settlements were the first to flee when the storms shifted.
In truth, no place could stay safe from the Veilstorms forever. Some of the Alsea family muttered that not enough care was taken for the forest, but their littlest daughter believed the storms’ movement was simply chaotic. The forest’s apparent protection ended when a terrible storm swept into the verdant valley where they lived, and began to wreak terrible destruction.
With his granddaughter at his side, Emon watched the skies. His breath was labored as he felt the earth shake. The air grew heavy with magic, and titanic winds whipped across the land. The storm had almost reached their enclave. Trees, some of them ancient as stones, were torn from their roots and tumbled end over end in the terrible force of the storms, shivered to pieces as they crashed into one another.
One after another, some inhabitants of outlying settlements in the forest gathered toward the center, to the great heart-tree of the woods. The Alsea family stood at the borders of the forest and howled into the storm as they tried to tie down the trees or tamp down the earth around their roots. But though Emon urged his children and grandchildren on, they could do little. The edges of the forest shrank down as it was ripped apart, and the inhabitants huddled together, praying that the Veilstorms would pass. Shredded and pulled into pieces, the forest was reduced to just one grove, and then to just one great oak tree.
There were few folk left who hadn’t fled the forest or been tossed up into the sky and killed by the winds. Even fewer remained who hadn’t been transformed by the devastating magic. The survivors only lived by clutching at the sturdy roots of the great oak, ensconced within the earth. The nine of them barely fit around the trunk. It was hard to breathe as the tremendous storm grew in force, constricting the air with enormous pressure.
The old man who had led them here held on with a trembling grip as the winds pulled at the branches of the oak tree. With his free hand, he clutched the arm of his little granddaughter. In turn, she held on to him with all her might.
“Hold tight, everyone! Hold the heart-tree to the ground!”
Emon tried to answer, but the words were ripped from his mouth. As if enraged at their defiance, the storm roared furiously, becoming a true Malevolence.
Refusing to give in, the bodies of the Alsea were infused with the power and magic swirling around them even as they held on, trying to keep the last oak tied to the earth. They took the full brunt of the storm’s fury, chanting an old rhyme and offering their own lives for the tree. The little girl begged the powers above and below for the strength to protect the heart-tree of the forest as it creaked and groaned above her. She offered her life to the storm in the heart- tree’s place. She heard her grandfather weeping as he clutched her hand harder. The storm’s shadow descended and hid the graveyard of the forest from view. For a time, all was darkness and howling rage.
When the Veilstorm finally sighed and dissipated into silence, there was no sign of the Alsea family or the other settlers. They had vanished, skin, blood, and bone. All that remained was the trunk of an oak tree, grey and scored as if long dead and desiccated.
A year passed. Some of the survivors of the outlying settlements of the forest who had fled at the approach of the storm returned to find what had happened to their home. Little trace remained of the great forest, with its dark nooks and crannies in between the tall trees, the thick carpet of leaves and the deep green canopy that changed the color of the sunlight below.
Now, splinters of trees and their broken roots lay tangled in a vast plain, bone-white wood rotting. They could see the waves of shattered trunks where the winds had blasted the landscape. The only thing that stood tall on the flattened plain of destruction was a lone treetrunk. It was grey, aged, and weather-worn, a dead tree standing sentinel over the crushed graveyard.
The ragged, stick-thin people shivered in their patched clothes as they viewed the scene. It was one year to the day since they had fled the forest’s environs, and all seemed lifeless and quiet. Slowly, however, the air grew heavy and oppressive. A new Veilstorm was forming in the heavens above this place. It grew dark, and the clouds swirled overhead with malignant purpose. The storm was alive; once again, it was quickly becoming a Malevolence.
The band of refugees huddled against the only thing still standing in that forsaken place. The chaotic magic began to press down upon them, and the tall trunk creaked and groaned as if in agony and anger. A tremendous crack of thunder thudded through the heavens, and was followed by silence. Into that silence there came a voice. Wonderingly, the small group looked up at the trunk of the tree, for from within the wood there came a clear feminine voice speaking an old tongue. “Enow!”
As the shivering folk looked on in wonder, glowing bark spread over the dead wood, shimmering with life. The trunk groaned again; old wood splintered as the tree stretched and grew. Glowing branches sprouted as the whole oak twisted and shook.
The storm’s rage increased, yet the oak seemed unharmed. The purple leaves of light that burst from its branches drank in the power of the storm like so much sunlight. The more the Malevolence howled, the taller and broader the tree became. The survivors felt the two powerful beings battling for supremacy, as each took a world-shattering blow from the other and then came on again, hungry for more.
With each thunderous blast of magic, the once-lifeless sap inside the trunk hummed with power, and the great roots trembled and stood out from the ground. As the storm lashed the tree mercilessly, power flowed through the great oak reborn, and pulsed into the earth. The shards of wood nearby lifted, twitching as purple sparks jumped among the shattered grove.
As the storm exhausted itself, the rain hissed down more gently. The survivors’ eyes opened wide with wonder. The grove was restored. Tall trunks lifted their branches to the grey sky and their roots writhed in the magic-steeped earth. Above, the glowing oak rose high above its children, the first Great Protector.
Nine vast trees surrounded it, equal in number to the defenders that had given their lives to hold the old oak to the ground a year ago. They stood like silent sentinels over the new life that bloomed all around.
The survivors that had fled the forest set up camp there, in the exact spot where the Alsea family had given their lives. They strove to build homes in harmony with the forest in the way they had been taught.
As time passed, the survivors of the second Malevolence spread the story of the Alsea. The little enclave of trees flourished, and became a sacred place, where folk would come and whisper their secrets to the serene sentinels. The purple roots spread throughout the forest, and eventually other Great Protectors grew, creating their own pockets of serenity and tranquility in the thick woods.
One day, a strange youth came to the settlement. His deep brown eyes roved among the homes woven of fallen branches and overgrown with moss, the people who wore leaves sewn with the vines that had so quickly returned to life. A few children paused in their daily chores and turned to watch him as he silently approached the ring of massive trees.
The leaves rustled in waves of sound above, as though a great wind were just touching the top of the green canopy. A few other settlers of the woods slowed, then stopped in their duties. The elders smelled a thick, rich scent like bark dust on the air, that reminded them of the old days before the storms had come to the forest, when the Alsea family had thrived.
As the mysterious youth reached toward one massive treetrunk, the fallen twigs that lay nearby stood on end and sprouted. The tree itself shuddered as his fingers made contact with the bark, and leaves shook loose, drifting and tumbling on the wind. The stranger whispered something, too low even for the children nearby to hear. The Great Protector in the center of the village seemed to whisper also, though perhaps that was only the wind.
Shimmering energy pulsed through the tree like purple sap, and with a noise like laughter, a face appeared in the trunk. It slowly pulled forward as if drawn out by the mottled sunlight, and the stranger stepped back. More and more of the new creature pulled free of the wood, stretching the bark like a new skin.
When it had fully emerged, the folk gathered round in amazement. It was a new being: neither flora nor fauna, neither fully Human nor tree. A pair of antennae sprouted from her head, and a long tail grew behind her. She smelled intensely of life, of growing things and the verdant heartbeat of the forest. She smiled with the same knowing glint that the little girl of the Alsea had so many years ago.
Before disappearing into the forest once more, the dark-eyed youth bowed. “Welcome, Hamadryas of the first family,” he said.
With a wink, she bowed gracefully in return, her tail curling to follow suit. It seemed to have teeth, barely hidden in folds of leaf-like skin, and the tip of her tail appeared to be smiling. The new settlers of the forest looked at one another in amazement, marveling at how familiar this strange new creature seemed. She walked to all of the protectors, and touched every tree in the grove. Her family emerged, all greatly changed as she was after their long sleep.
Her grandfather did not emerge. Emon’s spirit thanked her, but remained within the central heart-tree of the forest, his heartbeat in rhythm with the land itself as he raised its shimmering, purple boughs above the rest. Later, as other Great Protectors grew throughout the forest, more of these beings would emerge, part human but infused with plant life and the spirit of the woods.
These beings became known as Hamadryads, and they have never forgotten their vow to protect the forest. It grew thick and tall under their care, covering the land with protected groves and raising defiant branches to the sky.
Hamadryas became a famous name among the Tuatha Dé Danann, synonymous with leadership, bravery, and devotion to family. With the verdant forest always in her heart, she walks the Stormlands looking for survivors, and doing battle with the Stormwrought, as they call Abominations in her land. She is quick to destroy any creature that would harm her family.
Thus ends the first tale of the Hamadryads.
As for the mysterious brown-eyed youth…well, one day he would pick up one of the three swords. But his tale is for another time.
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