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  2. “Keep your eyes above.  The bloodfeasters make a nest of the swamps jus’ north of here.” Tendrils of breath spilled out in the frost-bitten air from the wiry man in front of Tarin.  He raised a crooked finger to the hills poking just above the treeline to their left.  The sun had not yet risen over the horizon, but the light of its coming had brightened the morning sky and given the men the luxury of scanning the woods for danger.  Unfortunately, this worked both ways.  
  4. “Is it true what they say?  The feasters are large enough to drain a grown man in seconds?” A mousy runt of barely twelve winters asked the elder of the party, trying hard to mask his fear with a sarcastic tone.  
  6. Arnin wheeled around to face the boy.  “They wouldn’t dare try an’ drink the hot blood of a Karanin warrior.”  He looked the lad’s frame up and down with piercing brown eyes.  “They might mistake you for a lost fawn, though.  Best you keep your mouth shut an’ stay close.”  
  8. Mezi drifted towards the back of their group with a sullen face.  He shouldn’t have come with us, Tarin thought as he watched the youngling stab at a flower with his spear.  The Karanin had fallen on tough times, with the dwindling deer herds and a heavy frost that still hadn’t melted from the soil.  Even the strongest of their tribe had begun to waste away, and pestilence borne of infirmity slew a brawny warrior like a babe.  This had left their young boys, or any who could hold a spear for that matter, to do the work of grown men.  Tarin did not like the arrangement, but necessity cared little for his opinion, bearing down on the people of the Karanin with callous indifference.  He took solace in the knowledge that their mission was one of simple reconnaissance, an expedition to map the shifting of a herd’s migration path.  This meant the chance of encountering an enemy tribe or vicious beast was low, but not impossible.  
  10. For unknown reasons, the herd in question had diverted their normal path northwest along the Graymouth Ridge to a less direct route through the wood to the northeast.  Many took it as an ill omen, or a sign from the gods of their displeasure, but Tarin only saw it as more work to do.  He was at home in the forest, electing to spend his youth setting hare traps and tracking anything on four legs rather than run around playing hide and seek in the pigpens.  His natural talent and passion for bushcraft guided him into the role of hunter; a job he took very seriously.  The only other hunter left in the tribe with more experience than he was the party leader, Arnin.  The old crow had a sharp eye, but his tendons had long since begun to stiffen and his short tufts of hair had turned to a milky white.  Any winter could be his last as an able-bodied stalker of the wood.
  12. Before long, the hunters made their way past The Black Stakes that marked the edge of Karanin controlled territory.  The several dozen ridged, sable poles of sizes ranging from knee to shoulder height reached up towards the morning sky.  They lined up perfectly in rows and squares to outline an area roughly the size of two huts bound together.  Nobody knew how long the stakes had been there, only that they predated the Karanin’s presence in the area.  Folktales claimed that a tribe of great advancement and power once built a tower there in an effort to grasp the heavens, but it was struck down in a storm of fire that led to the tribe’s extinction.  Some insisted it was a holy site, and a small group of believers even brought offerings of grain and venison to leave in the center of the unnatural formation.  Tarin liked to hunt here because of this; the rotting food brought every manner of creature to the area.        
  14. The hunter tied two more knots in his walking string beyond The Black Stakes before they reached the dense foliage of the Eastwood.  As they made their way through a particularly troublesome thicket, a hand signal from the front brought the party to a halt.  “The tracks scatter here, some run off down toward the brook.  A couple off to the bushes there.  Most in towards the swamp.  Something spooked ‘em.”  Corvil, a heavyset man with a crooked nose, spoke up.  Despite the famine, the trapper had managed to keep every ounce of meat on his frame.  More than a few had accused him of hoarding a portion of his catches, but those few had come out with a more crooked nose than he.
  16. “Maybe the feasters.  Maybe gromlins, or snarkles, or janglysmoots too.”  Yrvin looked back at Mezi, baring his crooked yellow teeth in a sneer.  Tarin had trained the barely blooded youth on the basics of tracking and hunting, at the request of their chief, but he was an impatient lad with an indifferent attitude.  He much preferred to spend his time pining after young maidens and even a few of the bonded women.  His attempts had earned him more than one black eye.    
  18. “Or a bear.  Or wolf pack.  A sign to take seriously, regardless.  Every message the wild sends should be read in earnest.”  Arnin cut in, pushing past the green hunter who had turned to tease Mezi.
  20. Tarin walked past the pouting youngling to get a look at the tracks himself.  He stooped down and examined the imprints, picturing in his mind the scene as it unfolded.  Something spooked the herd, there were signs of scrambling hooves in the soft mud.  They were fresh; it must have happened within the past day.  A splash of dried blood had caked on a nearby fern.  Whatever it was had teeth and claws, and was quick enough to score on a deer.  A shimmer of light from the nearby brush caught his eye.  Nestled in a pile of detritus sat a smooth piece of filed flint, one side jagged as if broken off a weapon.  Tarin palmed the item, bringing it closer to his eye to examine its grain.  Perhaps it wasn’t teeth or claws that tore into the herd after all.
  22. “What’s that?”  Arnin squatted next to the veteran hunter.  
  24. “Could be just a rock.  Looks like part of an arrowhead, though.  Scraped smooth, like by an edging stone.  I don’t know where it’s from.  No other tribes roam this area.  Nobody we’ve seen yet, anyway.”  Tarin muttered, rolling the stone between his fingers.
  26. Arnin struggled to piece together an explanation.  The prospect of a foreign hunting party brought the bickering Mezi and Yrvin to silence.  Corvil had already begun to scan the woodline for signs of potential human trespassers.  “Mezi, Yrvin take watch around us.”  Arnin turned to face the two senior trackers.  “Let’s dig around this area and find everything we can.  We’re not goin’ a step further until we find something.”
  28. The hunters studied the site until the sun climbed to its zenith.  Every leaf and stone was upturned, every tree examined, every inch of soil exhaustively searched for more arrowheads, spears, footprints, or any sign of disturbance - human or otherwise.  A fountain of blood had stained the foliage in the northerly direction, but this brought them only more confusion.  They could locate no carcass or gore at the killsite, only bits of fur and skin that one might expect from a vicious attack.  If a swarm of feasters had descended on the herd, they would have drank their fill of blood and left the sunken bodies to rot.  Had it been men, they would have dressed and harvested the meat and left the guts.  Even if they had some motive to not be followed, nobody was meticulous enough to scrape the earth of every piece of viscera.  Tarin had grown used to the tedious nature of tracking, but the lack of discovery stoked his ire.  Married to his irritation was the fear of a predator that could maim and kill without leaving a single trace.
  30. “Are we going to stay here until the feasters come back?”  Yrvin groaned.
  32. “This wasn’t the work of feasters.” Arnin replied.
  34. “Right, well whatever it was.  I wouldn’t particularly care to find out.  Let’s keep moving.”  The coal-eyed young man shifted his weight nervously.  
  36. “I think we should head back.”  Corvil said.  His expression had grown increasingly grim with every fruitless hour.  “Whatever did this isn’t natural.  It must be smart like a man, but couldn’t have a body like our own.  Nothing is this traceless.  Nothing human.”  The trapper held firm to the colorful myths and folktales of the Karanin people.  His mind raced with the possibility of the many spirits and shifters that senile elders and bored wives gossiped about.  Tarin himself was not a very superstitious man; he had encountered very little in his journeys to suggest the woods were full of giants that feasted on babies, wolfmen, swamp hags, and other beasts of legend.  Though, the fireside stories of spectral hunters and their hounds that dragged the living back into a shadow realm couldn’t help but creep into his mind with the disturbingly empty scene before them.        
  38. “We’re pressing on.  Into the bog where most the tracks lead.  I don’t want to hear any more ghost talk.  Everything that kills has a body that can be killed.  We’re hunters of the Karanin, and our people are starving.  If you turn your back on this task, I will plant my own arrow in it.”  Arnin barked.  Despite his age, his bronze eyes burned with fiery intensity.
  40. Whether inspired by his vigor, or quashed by his threat, the other men fell in line to continue their trek.  A silence thicker than fog hung in the air as the party stalked through the woods.  Tarin weighed the words of his superior.  They were sensible, if nothing else about the situation was.  Their tribe had a desperate need for a good hunt and fresh harvest.  They could not afford to turn back and delay locating their primary source of food.  For many knots they pressed to the north, towards the mire of the swamp.  Time flowed in a peculiar fashion, like a stream clogged by fallen timbers.  Tarin felt as though they had walked only an hour, but when they reached the sunken edge of the bogs he had twelve knots already corded on his string.  
  42. While the whole situation had the hunter on edge, it served to sharpen his senses.  The closer the sun came on its descent to the earth, the more the wilds around them began to stir.  Tarin heard the breath of every living creature, from the smallest fly to the songbirds above.  His heartbeat felt intertwined with the flow of life around him.  The bog beneath his feet pulsed with every step, sloshing mud and grime on his cracked leather boots.  If they were to make it out of the swamps alive he had to pour every ounce of concentration into his surroundings.  In addition to the threat of their earlier encounter, the marshes teemed with man-sized crawlers with carapaces like polished stone.  Though they frequently made prey of birds, rabbits, and the occasional fox that drifted too far into their swampy domain, he had once seen the half-digested remains of a wolf strung up in a web that spanned the height of an aspen.  He imagined they weren’t so fussy about eating man-flesh given the chance.  Then there were the feasters, that flew in hordes and drained any warm-blooded thing that moved.  Usually they drank from the small and the weak, and would leave you alone if you swatted one or two down to spill their pasty guts.  Tarin wasn’t one to take chances, however.  He kept his eyes rolling and ears trained on the vibrations of the air.  Should anything spring at them, he would be ready.
  44. “Nightfall will be on us within the hour.”  Corvil remarked.  The sound of a human voice felt foreign to Tarin after their pensive voyage into the lowlands.  
  46. The tracks had led them through the heart of the swamp.  With night rapidly approaching, they had little chance to make it out and set up camp in the safety of the mountain slopes.  “We’ll find a place to set down soon.  The fen will be our bed tonight.”  Arnin replied.
  48. Though nobody said anything, the the party’s mood soured at the prospect of spending the night in the bog.  After another half hour or so of walking, Arnin stopped them in a small clearing that boasted more grass than mud.  The warped boughs of aspens sprouting around the verdant island served as a makeshift palisade and lent to a general feeling of security.  “This will do.”  The old man said as he set down his bow and quiver in the center.  “Start fetching some tinder and sticks.  Green, leafy plants too.  We’ll need a lot of smoke to keep the buzzers off of us tonight.”
  50. “You mean to make a fire?”  Tarin asked.
  52. “Aye.  I do.”
  54. “With what we found earlier, don’t you think that a bit unwise?  Just as many predators are attracted to fire as are repelled by it.  Predators of a more clever strain.”  The veteran hunter replied coolly to Arnin’s indifference.
  56. “Listen child, that was a half a day and ten knots ago.  The kill was over a day old, if it were even a kill.  Who’s to say it wasn’t just a couple of bucks fighting for a mate and the loser dragged himself off to die here?  Losing wit over a phantom predator is one thing.  Taking precaution over the known threats of this swamp is another.  I’ve waded through this muck since before you were born;  I know what I’m doing.  Go get me some damned firewood.”  Arnin waved Tarin away and began digging at the soft soil with a flat stone, refusing to carry the conversation any further.  Corvil caught Tarin’s eyes with his own, trading him a look of uncertainty, but they went off to the woodline in compliance with Arnin’s order.
  58. “This is a bad omen.  The stench of Velnas’ hounds rises from the filth of this place.  It reeks of death.” Corvil muttered as he grabbed a bundle of leafy branches from the ground.  A chunk of mud clung to the branches, and he swatted at the clot angrily.
  60. “All we can do is keep a watchful eye.  No fate, no matter how grim the tidings, is unavoidable.  Keep pressing on.”  Tarin placed a hand on Corvil’s shoulder reassuringly.  Although the trapper was a few years his senior, already sporting several gray hairs from the sides of his balding head, his nerves had started to fray in this putrid marsh so far from home.  He felt an odd sense of pity for the portly man.  “Szcezie” he said, nodding to Corvil.  Fortune.
  63. Arnin assigned the two youngest to take first watch.  The hours just after nightfall held the least danger; a sharper eye would be necessary for the gloom of the early morning.  Mezi and Yrvin moved off into the woodline on opposite sides of the clearing, each disappearing into the thick brush. Tarin fashioned a lean-to out of a nearby log and some broken off branches thick enough to support a lattice-weave.  The wind stirred gently that night.  He would need little insulation.  Instead, he focused his efforts on piling up leaves and sticks to get himself off the wet ground.                    
  65. Tarin’s shelter served its purpose well, and he sunk into the warm comfort of his makeshift cot.  They had been traveling hard for two days, sleeping late and rising early to maximize the distance they could cover.  He chewed on a strand of hard jerky he had brought to curb his hunger.  This was the first time they had stopped at sundown, only due to the danger of traversing the bogs in the darkness.  His back and leg muscles had tightened with soreness, and a persistent headache beat at his brow.  A peaceful night of slumber was all the hunter could hope for.  
  67. As the dark blanket of slumber crawled into his vision, Tarin gazed over at his leader.  Arnin sat hunched at an odd angle, staring blankly into the embers of the fire.  The dancing flames seemed to speak to the wiry old man, who had his head cocked to the side to listen.  Smoke billowed out from the pit like a flailing snake.  He had placed their lives in its coils to be guarded; Tarin hoped it would not suffocate them instead.
  69. The hunter woke with a cold chill.  He had dreamt of a jovial summer solstice festival.  The women danced about in hues of blue and white.  All the men had shaved their beards and donned brightly painted fabrics in celebration.  At the heat of the day, when the sun rose to its highest point in its cycle, they had all gathered about for feasting on the haunches of a fat boar.  It sat on a round podium constructed of smooth, hard wood and finished with tree resin.  The high shaman raised his hands in exultation towards the sun’s shimmering rays.  The crowd before him surged forth with a cry of ecstasy.  They surrounded the swine, ripping and grabbing with ravenous abandon.  To Tarin’s shock, the beast still lived.  It kicked and squealed as the Karanin tore chunks of red flesh from its writhing body.  He spun one of the crowd-goers about to demand an explanation, yet his face was nothing but one large, crooked mouth splattered in the gore of the beast.  Repulsed, Tarin pushed himself away.  Before he could clear the crowd, several rough hands grabbed him from behind and subdued him.  They hoisted him atop the platform with the remains of the pig and tied him down.  “An offering!  An offering!”  The shaman cried, pointing his crooked staff at Tarin.  He screamed as the people clawed at him, feeling his flesh tear from bone.  As the dream went dark, his own screams melted into the forest around him.  His eyes shot open just as the last of the screaming died down and the forest went silent.
  71. “Hell.  All of blazing hell!”  Tarin cursed, kicking the leaves away from his body.  He snatched up the spear by his side and rolled out from under the confines of his lean-to.  Before calling out, the seasoned woodsman scanned his surroundings.  The fire had died down to a light simmer, its tender having abandoned it some time ago.  He could not spot the sleeping Arnin in the darkness.  Perhaps he went to take a shift, he thought to himself, though he doubted it.  An ominous stillness hung in the air like a cloud.  No creature stirred the brush and no bugsong filled the air, only the sound of crackling embers remained.  Tarin’s mind raced as he bent over to pick up his bow and quiver.
  73. “Tarin, that you?”  Corvil’s husky voice broke the silence.  
  75. Tarin glared at the trapper, a look he surely did not see.  “Keep your voice down.  We have no idea what’s out there.  You seen the elder?”
  77. “Nay.  I been sleepin’ like a log.”  Corvil got closer to Tarin and lowered his voice, trying to heed the veteran’s warning.  “Sounded like screaming.  What do you figure it was?  Wild cat? Human?  Spirits preserve, I hope it weren’t one of the boys.”
  79. “I’m not sure.  I was asleep myself.  The last of the screaming woke me.  Corvil, where’s your bow?”  He chided the clumsy man.  They could not afford to lose focus now.
  81. “Right, erm.”  Corvil hurried over to his shelter.  Tarin heard the clambering of arrows as he pulled up his quiver.  Before his comrade could return, though, a yell pierced through the darkness.  The voice sounded like the rasp of Arnin, but Tarin still readied his bow.  The sound of twigs snapping and leaves crunching grew louder to his left as the source of the disturbance approached.  
  83. “Go grab the boy.  We’re abandoning this spot.”  Arnin’s face broke through the foliage.  Tarin lowered his bow.  Though barely visible, he could tell the elder was pale white, and his breath came in heaves.  
  85. “Where’s Yrvin?  Wasn’t he that way?”  Corvil pointed back the way Arnin had come.  His voice was a pitch higher than it was a moment ago.  
  87. “Heard him hollering.  Went out to go get him; he’s gone.  Nothing but his bow and spear left at his post.  A great deal of somethin’ was stirring in the trees. Shadows moving all around, but not making any noise.”  The elder scrambled to put out the fire and gather up his supplies.  “I said go grab the boy!”
  89. Tarin nodded and hurried off into the brush to the right of the clearing.  He would be faster going alone.  A half moon hung over the fen, giving the hunter just enough light to evade the dense brambles as he moved.  A light mist clung to the swamp floor, obscuring his footsteps with its wispy appendages.  He could have sworn he heard the pounding of footsteps in pursuit from his right, but he spared no time to investigate.  After a couple minutes of combing the terrain, Tarin managed to find Mezi in a small nest of leaves and branches that all but shrouded his diminutive frame.  He lay peacefully still, his chest rising and falling with the breathy tides of slumber.
  91. “Get up.”  Tarin kicked him in the ribs.  
  93. “Ow, what’s that for?”  Mezi groaned, rolling over to grab his spear.  
  95. “I said get up, we’re leaving.  Something’s stalking us out here.”  The hunter replied.
  97. “Do you think it’s what killed those deer?”  Mezi’s eyes widened in fear.
  99. Tarin didn’t say anything.  He handed Mezi the quiver he had left propped against a tree.  When the boy stumbled to his feet, Tarin motioned for him to follow quietly.  As they moved he kept his ears trained on the ambient sounds of the marsh.  Mud sloshed and slurped from a short distance behind them.  Branches cracked and leaves crumpled all around.  The heavy weight of feet traipsing through undergrowth was unmistakable.  They were being followed.  The hunter turned his head only for a moment, just long enough to see the warped face of a man-like creature, face contorted in an awful snarl.  Dripping fangs jutted from a curved mouth that reached up to either ear.  The skin was mottled and hard like wood.  It held an expression of pure malice.  
  101. “Faster.” Tarin hissed to the boy.  He took off back towards the clearing.  From behind them, the sound of footsteps grew louder in pursuit.  The hunter dared not look back.
  103. The pair burst forth into the clearing, pursuers not far behind.  Tarin rapidly scanned the area looking for Corvil or Arnin, but saw no trace of them.  “Come on,” he grabbed Mezi by the wrist and started to lead him off until a voice interrupted him.
  105. “Tarin, over here.  Let’s go.”  Arnin waved to him from a thicket at the edge of the clearing.  Off a ways, to the side of the brambles, stood the fidgeting figure of Corvil.  
  107. Tarin nodded to the pair and ran over to join them.  As soon as he reached the elder, the forest erupted in noise.  Hounds snarled and barked from the woods as if signalling a hunter to a wounded animal.  Shrieking that sounded like a mix between an old hag and a mountain lion bounced about the trees.  Feet fell and twigs snapped from all around, suggesting a great host of the beings had come for them.  No sooner had Arnin turned to run than a shadow leapt from the shrubs and claimed his leg with a flourish of teeth.  Two more shadows engulfed him, dragging him screaming into the depths of the marsh.  
  109. “No!  Get away from me!”  Corvil cried.  Had the situation not been so dire, Tarin would have laughed.  The burly trapper sounded like a terrified little girl.  He bolted off in the opposite direction.  Tarin called out for him to stop, but it was no use.  The lumbering figure disappeared behind a row of trees, his voice drowned out by the symphony of the hunt.
  111. Tarin yanked Mezi’s arm and ran back into the clearing.  Running where the shadows claimed Arnin would do them little good.  Instead, he doubled back to the far side of the woodline, towards the ridge they had hoped to cross on the other side of the swamp.  The young boy at his side had begun to cry at this point, but the hunter did not slow down.  He tightened his grip on Mezi and rushed into the nearest thicket to shake his pursuers.  A cloud lazily drifted over the moon and dampened the meager light source they had at their disposal.  Thorns tore at him and branches pelted him as he ran but he grit his teeth in resolution.  The barking and yelling still pursued him; he refused to slow down. Just keep moving, just keep moving, he thought to himself.  With his focus narrowed on getting away, he failed to notice the crater of soft mud that latched onto his boot and dragged him to the ground.  He felt a quick twist and a sharp jolt of pain shot up his leg.  Mezi kept on running, the darkness of the marsh taking him into its embrace.
  113. As the hunter made to rise, he saw figures move by him on either side, and he pressed himself down against the cool earth to avoid them.  The rustling of leaves grew fainter as they chased Mezi through the marshland.  He prayed the poor boy would be wise enough to hide.  Tarin could do little else for him now.  
  115. After an eternity of waiting, the crickets began to chirp once more.  A lone owl hooted from its nocturnal stand.  Tarin raised his head to look around for any signs of danger, but found no trace of his pursuers.  He staggered off to what he believed to be an easterly direction, away from both the clearing and the direction that the shades had gone.  His mind had numbed from the adrenaline, his thoughts were void of all save for the din of his surroundings.  Every step he took weighed with fear and exhaustion.  
  117. The sound of crying stole him from his stupor.  Tarin immediately crouched down, wary of another ambush.  When the soft sobbing continued and no other threat made itself obvious, he reasoned that it may be a comrade and made a cautious approach.  Parting two ferns, he saw a lean figure huddled over one much smaller, cradling it in his arms.  Tarin raised a spear and pressed forward, icy fear gripping at his stomach.  In a pool of moonlight, Yrvin sat clutching the body of Mezi.  The boy’s head had been brutally caved in, his face an unrecognizable mass of bone and gray matter.  
  119. Tarin felt his stomach heave.  He made a grunting noise that caused Yrvin to turn.  His eyes were stained a bright red, tears streaked down his ruddy cheeks.  Tarin never realized how young the man looked; he was barely older than the corpse in his lap.  It was then that he noticed the blood-stained rock the size of a fist that Yrvin held in his left hand.  
  121. “He looked like one of them.  They did somethin’ to him.  I had to.”  The young man whispered, rocking back and forth.  He jabbered on, the rest of his words indecipherable.  Tarin gazed at him sadly, and moved to place an arm on his shoulder.  “Don’t take me!”  He screamed, swinging the rock in his hand like a club.
  123. Tarin pushed him to the ground and stepped back.  Yrvin began sobbing once more, becoming a useless heap on the ground.  The hunter left him that way.  With a bum ankle and the lad’s unstable mind, he’d have no strength to subdue and carry him back to the village.  He looked one more time at the broken body of Mezi and cursed his own clumsiness.  The time to mourn would come later.  With a steeled mind, Tarin ventured back into the wood.
  125. For hours he walked on, stalked by visions of death and feelings of guilt.  With what little hope he had left in his heart, he willed Corvil to make it back to the tribe.  The shades had pursued in Tarin’s direction; surely they had let the trapper go unmolested.  He thought of Corvil’s lightly bearded face and the sweet wife he kept at home.  She deserved to see him again.  Though, Mezi’s parents deserved just as much to see their boy grow into a man.  Fate didn’t think to owe family their kin, it stole without remorse.
  127. The familiar sounds of nature were a modest comfort to his trembling heart.  The soft mud and stagnant pools of the swamp started to give way to the crunch of fallen leaves and more sparsely placed trees.  Outside of the swamp, Tarin felt in his element.  As the mists and mire of the bog faded, so too did the panic that had taken hold in his mind.  A wave of exhaustion suddenly washed over him.  The pain in his ankle sharpened with the fall of his adrenaline.   Just make it to that next tree, he told himself.  And when he came to the next tree, he told himself once more: Just one more tree.  Further and further he walked, pushing the limit of his broken body with every step.  In the distance, he spotted what appeared to be a bizarrely shaped outcropping of rock that rose up from the edge of the forest.  
  129. Stumbling towards the gray object, Tarin took in some of its finer details.  The squarely shaped base seemed to have once been expertly carved, but time and decay had compromised its integrity.  Atop the base were the remains of a sculpted effigy, the design of which had long since been lost to time.  He crawled up the base of the odd structure to get a better look.  Inscribed on the aged hunk of rock were small shapes and scribbles of foreign design.  He had never seen anything like it.  
  131. “Perhaps it is a remnant message from the fallen ones.  ‘Here lies our hubris, match it at your peril.’ ”  Hoarse laughter came from Tarin’s throat, but he felt no mirth.  He rolled over, propping his back against the cool stone.  “At least it makes for good sitting.”
  133. The sun began to rise once more over the horizon, shedding its light on the woodlands.  The morning bird began its first song.  A small squirrel scurried up the side of an oak tree, a walnut in tow.  How strange it was to see the peace of morning after the savagery of night.  The land seemed to have already forgotten the lives it claimed, rolling ever-forward in its proceedings.  Frustration filled Tarin’s heart.  Had they done all this for nothing?  Was their fate sealed from the beginning?
  135. The snapping of a branch brought the hunter’s attention back to his surroundings.  He nocked an arrow and shakily raised his bow towards the source of the noise.  If they had come to take him, he would not go quietly.  As long as he breathed he would fight on. He could not precisely give the origin of the fire rising in his heart.  Perhaps it was the damning pride of the ancients, or simply the firm defiance inherent to all the living against the oppression of death.  The stirring of foliage gave away the creature’s position and he trained his sights on the disturbance.  Before he could loose the arrow, a rack of stubby antlers poked out from behind the leaves.  A young buck stepped into sight, illuminated by the sun’s rays.  Tarin lowered his bow and chuckled in relief.  The firstborn of spring had come.
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