"Startled" doesn't begin to describe the reaction of the two, but "aghast" and "frightened" do.
"You don't need to be afraid," said Jani, "though I appreciate that you are. You and your parents did an evil thing. There are consequences that I won't hold you accountable for, but you must learn. Stompers and Trompers will not be tolerated. They are murderers. Do you understand? We will not allow murders of the natural inhabitants of the forest any longer."
If we had arbiters for the land who had the kind of power to punish those they judged in our land, we might not be facing global climate change The part of Jani who remembered another land thought. But even here, we are suffering environmental catastrophe thought the part of Jani who knew about the land in which they were.
"I am Sapphire," said the young woman. "Jasper and I are recently married, and we are going to Morraw to establish a trading house for my father, the great merchant Diamond." Her voice quavered as she spoke, but she stuck her chin out proudly.
"Well! A bit of chit-chat. Some small talk." Jani grimaced, interrupting the proud human, "This is why I spend no time amongst civilized folks... they have nothing important to say. They proclaim their petty facts-"
Jasper interrupted as well, but quiet as a weevil, "Sapphire wasn't done... I don't think." He paused and looked at Sapphire for confirmation, but she didn't bother looking at him, "Right, Sapphire?"
Sapphire, without acknowledging her husband, snarled, "My father will burn this forest to the ground."
Jani stepped back at the unexpected unreasonableness of this wealthy child. "You..." Jani composed herself, closing her eyes for no longer than 2 blinks. A badger waddled from the woods and stopped beside her. "If your father begins a war with the forest, which I would have hoped he would have done earlier than this if he was even mildly planning to rescue you, he will find that cities exist only because the forest permits them."
Jasper whispered his way into the conversation again, "That may once have been true, druid.-" Though part of Jani seethed forward to correct his titling of her, another part was fascinated to hear what he was going to say. His tone, quiet, but certain, and more formalized than before, told her that Jasper was an academic, like she now was, and though she had a rashness, she also had a respect for study. "But since the rending of the mana, the forest no longer has the omnipotence that it had when the world was new and the first cities were built. Surely both sides would be devastated by war. And that is why we have peace."
Don't let's unbalance the world. I need to go home to mama. We must find our way back to mama. Thought Jani to herself, as the pressing worry about loss, of mana, of control, became subsumed by the worry about a loss of brainpower, of control - a stroke of misfortune in this moment, because Sapphire saw uncertainty cross Jani's face, and flung herself at Jani. Misfortune for both because in that distracted moment, Jani responded, not with finesse, but with fear. The badger leaped from Jani's feet to Sapphire's face, It's fierce claws tore open Sapphire's perfectly young cheek, and drew a line of exposed flesh and bone along her jaw. Its sharp teeth, harder and sharper than wolf teeth, tugged a chunk from Sapphire's eyebrow.
Sapphire, screaming in pain, clutched her blood-gushing face and fell to her knees. Jasper reacted slowly, or perhaps he reacted not at all. Bent low over Sapphire, he tore he shirt and pressed it to her eyebrow while she screamed.
Jani shuddered. She hadn't meant to let this small talk turn into this gruesome scene. She'd meant to show them some kindness, to guide them to a soft glen where they could spend the night. Should she confess that she had failed or should she double down on her ferocity? She made a choice that she determined later was the worst of all possible choices. She faded away, to leave the young wealth-mongers to fend for themselves and survive their excursion in the forest.
Jani tumbled through the forest. She'd seen predators kill and consume prey. But she'd never faced scared humans suffering from grievous but non-fatal injuries. She retched. The bile rose in her throat, and berries from breakfast pushed their way out. How in the world could this have helped?
Jani collapsed, spent, and dreamt and explored her mind.
We can do no good here. We are not fit to be an arbiter. We must go back to where we can be a daughter. Jani shook her head but we don't know how. I haven't been to that world. I am- And then the earth shook.
Jani stopped retching. Stopped moving entirely. The earth was not shaking. But she felt the shaking. Hands in the dirt. Arms embracing an oak. Feet firmly underground. Thoughts underground. Following roots connected to roots connected to roots. Intertwined with the natural roots, not connected to, but among the jumble of roots, a wire, a pipe. Something metal and ceramic... pottery and hard worked materials. Pushing pushing towards the same place they all connected. Pushing towards the center. Jani felt her mind reaching to resistance. A push back on her. This was as far as thoughts could go, and so she let thought go, and simply felt. Felt without thinking, a tall drink of mana pouring down. The feeling of being awash in love in liquid in pain in all the world's mana, but shallow. shallow. less less.
Something that doesn't belong, filled drip dripping a city away. Jani struggled to connect to her thoughts and she pushed out of her feelings. There was city at the world tree, and the world tree was draining. The rift - it could no longer protect itself, and could therefore no longer protect its capacity to create mana for the forest, and so its mana was being siphoned away, and ever less mana could be created. Soon, there would be no mana. And then, though they didn't know it yet, there would be no man.
There is always enough until there is not. And when there is not, it is too late. We must stop while we can see.
Jani awoke to the sound of roaring and the feeling of little feet scampering. Stompers and trompers. Here.
They came, large men and women, wearing clothes made of metal and carrying clubs made of metal, stomping, tromping, driving the forest. This was not the natural way of mankind. Those suits of metal, though they carried strong men and women, were too heavy for a person to move. No, these were infused with mana. Ironic that the machinery of mana's destruction was powered by mana. A blow to the earth, a burst of grass and wood and soil flew into the air. A fox and her kits leaping out of its path just as a foot trampled the vine-bond earth. Jani and the vines leapt up to grasp the metal monstrosity, but another machine man pulled them, roots and all from the earth. Then another monstrous metal machine woman crashed herself into a tree, rending bark from trunk, searing the side with some hot metal.
no more no more, the stricken woods whispered, but there was no mercy from these deaf machines. Trees swung wildly as mobile as you can imagine a tree, but without the attention of a true arbiter, they haven't got a chance Jani ran towards the metal machine now clutching a capybara by its stumpy tail.
Then Jani found the capybara flung into her own arms. Unthinking, she held the battered creature, ungainly, she ran with the battered creature. Where?
Where to? Where to?
She followed the road. And she came upon a stumbling Sapphire held up by a burdened Jasper. She held his tattered shirt to her face, so Jani couldn't see the damage the badger had done, but he knew she would be forever scarred. Would she brag someday about how she had fought off a vicious protector of the forest, or would it simply become a rabid animal? Would she tell the truth of how it had defeated her when she had rushed to harm an arbiter-apprentice. Would she be labeled a Druid?
It didn't matter. Perhaps they would all die here... Perhaps they would all die here.
The machines came closer. The screams of the forest were deafening. Jani could hear the roots crying out. Jasper could hear the animals shrieking and howling. Sapphire could only hear her own crying.
The machines came closer. A tornado of splinters flew toward the three as a machine metal monster pounded through a tree and onto the road on which they stood. Sapphire managed to look up. She screeched "Father!" And Jani acted without thinking, again, something she would learn never to do again, she hoped. Abandoning the injured and now... now....
She grasped Sapphire's left ear, the one attached to one side of the line of exposed flesh.
"Murderer!" She called out, "You deserve death! Take one more swing and I shall tear your daughters face off entirely and feed it to you. You are nothing in the forest!" Jani tried to keep the deep resonance of power in her voice, but she felt it drifting into higher and higher octaves as her passion carried away her intention.
The machine man stood still. Looking down from his 6 feet of broad metal, he seemed neither frightened nor resolute. No defiant or angry. He didn't even seem in control. He only seemed to be waiting. Within moments the other two machine monstrosities joined him. "Mama!?" called Sapphire. "Dad?" whispered Jasper.
Mama also appeared to be waiting, and Jasper's dad, though he looked like Jasper had often looked, a bit nervous, less of a decisive spirit than the sense that exuded from the other two, appeared to be waiting for something.
"It doesn't matter that you have three monstrosities. I have you daughter's very fragile face in my hand. You shall march on the road back where you came from and you shall never enter this forest again." This time Jani's voice would not betray her. She had found her plan for the moment and had no fear that she could not carry it out. The strength of rage. all this destruction. This was, all things considered, a measure and merciful response. She was in the right absolutely, and better that they know the evil intentions of humanity than that the humans have been left to build these terrible things and siphon mana in secret for so many more years.
And then she was surprised. Yes, Sapphire's ear came off in her hand, but there was Jasper, more decisive than he'd ever been before, carrying the bloody, unconscious remainder of Sapphire to her parents, who mana-infused metal arms took her from him. Without a word, those two began sprinting back toward the town, while Jasper's father retrieved a metal club that Sapphire's mother had dropped, hefted his own as well, and threw both at Jani and the capybara. I want to tell you that the capybara survived, but she did not. Jani plunged out of the way as Jasper's father picked up Sapphire's father's club, and, beginning with the tallest oak, began smashing his club into every living thing in the forest, which was literally the entire forest.
All hope was lost. Murderers were on the loose in the great forest.