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Hard Meat (AT Fic)

Sheepsquatch Sep 18th, 2018 (edited) 315 Never
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  1. Hard meat don’t get eat.
  2.  
  3. These five words were the very tenets Huntress Wizard lived her life by. If it could be said that she followed any sort of laws these would be them, for they were the immutable laws of the forest.
  4.  
  5. The weak die, the strong live. The weak get eaten, the strong eat. The weak are the prey, the strong are the hunters.
  6.  
  7. It was such a simple concept that often times Huntress found herself astounded that others didn’t see it that way. Just more proof that animals, at one with themselves and with the song of nature roaring in their breasts, were smarter than people as far as she was concerned.
  8.  
  9. They all lived their lives thinking themselves apart of the cycle, that they above all of creation were exempt from the laws. And like always they were proven wrong.
  10.  
  11. But not the Huntress. She knew better than anyone. She knew the law.
  12.  
  13. Hard meat don’t get eat.
  14.  
  15. And there was nobody in all of Ooo harder than her.
  16.  
  17. Time and again she’d proven this. Alone in the wilds she honed her skills, hunting the most dangerous beasts, surviving in the harshest of environs, and a thousand other self-imposed challenges that extended far beyond simple survival.
  18.  
  19. If it was to be survival of the fittest, and it unquestionably was, then she would be the fittest. She would be the strongest. In this world weakness was met only with death and the weak only had themselves to blame for their misfortune. It was the way of things for the strong to prey on the weak.
  20.  
  21. The Huntress would never be weak. She would be hard.
  22.  
  23. And as she walked through the mists of her forest she pondered the nature of things, as she was wont to do in these rare moments of peaceful introspection, and she found herself considering the nature of heroes. How easy it would be to write them off, foolish enough to believe they were above the law as they dedicated their lives to saving the weak from the strong. And yet, one could also not deny the righteousness of their cause, the zeal in which they threw themselves. And was she herself not above culling unruly predators, or expunging the unnatural monsters that threatened the ecosystem?
  24.  
  25. Heroes were the hardest of all, and yet they dedicated themselves to protecting the weak. Such a paradox was not lost on Huntress, though for the life of her she could not comprehend it. All her life was spent in search of power, the power and drive to keep herself strong, and yet here were these people who not only defied her worldview but thrived outside of it.
  26.  
  27. There was something there, a niggling in the back of her mind that she knew if she could just focus on might provide the essential clue to solving this mystery; but try as she might it would evade her every time.
  28.  
  29. Huntress Wizard thought of Finn and she frowned.
  30.  
  31. Finn the Human. The only human left in Ooo, maybe the whole world. Alone and abandoned by his people, if he ever had any, and yet he found the strength to defy the despair that threatened to consume him. She respected that. Heck, she admired it. Where most would have succumbed he fought back, he threw every fiber of his very existence into being a hero, into saving and helping and protecting and though Huntress would have argued the merit of such things she could not deny that he was truly a hero. Perhaps the last great hero in all of Ooo.
  32.  
  33. Huntress Wizard thought of the last few weeks, back to when she first stumbled upon him in that river. She thought of how he helped her, how willing he seemed to go through her plans, all for her.
  34.  
  35. She stopped and thought of yesterday, and she scowled.
  36.  
  37. She stood there, immobile, dead to the world, with not even the sound of birdsong to accompany her on this misty early-morning.
  38.  
  39. She suddenly snapped to attention, all too aware of what had just happened. She’d stopped, she allowed herself to become vulnerable. Huntress scowled and pressed onwards. This was why things had to be the way they were, as long as Finn remained in her head he was a weakness to her, and she would never be weak.
  40.  
  41. Never mind how beautiful his song was.
  42.  
  43. Huntress’ face scrunched up in an expression of both pain and confusion. She was hurting, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t the first time she’d experienced pain and it wouldn’t be the last, but this was the first time she’d ever felt pain like this. It wasn’t the worst (that particular honor went a certain Rock Troll by the name of Wham-a-Wham who, through careful application of his fist to her legs, proceeded to show her just how he earned the moniker) but it was uncomfortable. Perhaps what really caught her attention though was the way the pain, a heavy wet feeling somewhere in her stomach, didn’t seem to be physical at all.
  44.  
  45. Huntress picked up the pace. She wasn’t stupid, she knew what this feeling was, and she knew why it was a very bad thing. Every animal knows what happens when you’re injured, and Huntress could not afford the distraction. Weakness had to be expunged from the mind and body under all circumstances, it could not be tolerated. She would not tolerate it.
  46.  
  47. It was weakness after all that led to this very conundrum. Huntress Wizard and this forest were one, she’d surfed the minds of every beast within these woods, she’d become intimate with the very fabric of the food web, she’d heard the names of each rock and tree whispered on the airy breaths of the wind. The forest she called home was life and the noise of existence rang out in a way that wasn’t entirely corporeal, resonating deep within her very soul.
  48.  
  49. The forest was silent now.
  50.  
  51. She’d left her home, a long time ago. Her reasons were her own, but she came back, she’d always intended to and felt sure her absence would amount to nothing.
  52.  
  53. And nothing was what she received in turn.
  54.  
  55. The trees would not call her name. The animals feared her even more than usual. The rocks no longer hummed with mystical intent and infinite wisdom. The secrets of field and forest were lost to her and she could not fathom why.
  56.  
  57. She called to her patron deity, the very spirit of the forest, but he would not heed her call. In despair Huntress nearly grew frantic until she had heard magic on the wind, a deep old magic resonating with the Earth itself though underlined with an almost imperceptible malicious intent.
  58.  
  59. How surprised she had been to find Finn the Human in that river. How surprised to see that he, or at least his arm, had become a wood elemental. Cursed as he was he took it in his usual stride and when she requested his help he obliged.
  60.  
  61. They had worked hard, and adventured together, and had grown fond of the other as they bonded over their mutual synergy. His enthusiasm proved infectious and her skills and talents were dutifully appreciated by the young hero who seemed glad to be with someone who was able to keep up the pace.
  62.  
  63. It had been a strange journey, and Huntress wasn’t sure what bothered her the most: the certainty that it would end, or realization that she wasn’t sure she wanted it to.
  64.  
  65. Their efforts culminated yesterday, thought not in a way any of them expected. Either way, the outcome was bittersweet, and it left Huntress feeling more lost and confused than when she’d started.
  66.  
  67. Why would the spirit not talk to her? Was he displeased? He had warned her against leaving but she had assured him she’d be back and stronger than ever from her sabbatical in the City of Wizards. He seemed so sad to hear that, didn’t he want her to be strong?
  68.  
  69. Huntress Wizard came to a stop and stared ahead. Her house stood before her, an enormous tree on the edge of a cliff overlooking a waterfall. It was a lovely sight, and every creature needs shelter. Even Huntress, hard as she was, needed a place to sleep, and she was exhausted.
  70.  
  71. Sleep would do her good. She’d try again tomorrow. She’d try every day until she succeeded.
  72.  
  73. She’d do it without Finn though.
  74.  
  75. The pain flared up, but she ignored it.
  76.  
  77. Walking through the open roots of her tree home Huntress crawled up the semi-hollowed interior into an open chamber that more or less served as a bedroom. Gently placing her arrows on the ground Huntress knelt and lowered her forehead to the wood. She waited a moment, then slowly opened her eyes and sat up on her knees.
  78.  
  79. Nothing.
  80.  
  81. Fighting back the urge to sigh Huntress settled onto the hard wood. She had no furniture, no mattress, no blankets. Such trappings were for the weak. She was hard.
  82.  
  83. She’d prove it too. She’d show the Forest Spirit she was still strong enough to be his disciple.
  84.  
  85. She’d prove herself.
  86.  
  87. This she promised.
  88. ----------------------------------------
  89.  
  90. Huntress Wizard’s eyes opened.
  91.  
  92. She was in the forest. Her forest. All around her she felt the breaths of every living thing, the beautiful song of the Earth hummed with a resounding thumm that resonated in her bones.
  93.  
  94. Sitting cross-legged on a mushroom Huntress closed her eyes and breathed deep, allowing herself to descend into the sweet bliss of existence. This was what she had been missing, what she had been yearning for, searching for, needing.
  95.  
  96. Huntress leaned back and stared straight up into the sky. A swirl of colors, all pinks and violets and greens coalescing in the sky, the auras of the world dancing for the eyes of the cosmos in a celebration of life.
  97.  
  98. Huntress lowered her gaze.
  99.  
  100. All around her the world vibrated with the intensity of reality boring down on it. She could hear the thoughts and minds of the animals, she could feel the whispers of the trees sweeping over her skin, she could feel the overbearing weight of every secret the ancient stones beneath her held for themselves and only for themselves.
  101.  
  102. The Spirit of the Forest floated before her, mirroring her meditative pose.
  103.  
  104. “Master,” Huntress whispered, a strange distorted echo following and twisting her tone in every conceivable way.
  105.  
  106. “Huntress,” the Spirit replied, his voice completely normal and in an odd way completely unnerving because of just how normal it seemed.
  107.  
  108. Huntress Wizard grasped her hands before her head in supplication and bent low. “Master please, have I not been loyal? Have I not adhered to your wisdom in all things, your tenants have I not upheld, your laws? Why do you turn your back on me, o’ spirit? Why have you abandoned me in my hour of need?”
  109.  
  110. If the spirit acknowledged her questions he gave no outward sign, his oddly shaped body continued floating and his face was serene. He stared at her, not in confusion or pity or sorrow or even disgust at her naked weakness as she would have expected and felt warranted. No, he stared at her with blank, dead eyes, if Huntress fancied her face a mask then his was a fortress where nothing could be gleaned.
  111.  
  112. “Are you in pain?” he asked, his voice flat and even, devoid of both sympathy and apathy. Monotone in all but his usual personality, it was the one thing about him that still unnerved her.
  113.  
  114. Silence reigned between them. It lasted an eternity. It lasted a heartbeat.
  115.  
  116. “Yes.”
  117.  
  118. The mask cracked.
  119.  
  120. “I’m in pain Spirit,” she whispered, her hands falling limply to her side. She looked up at him and her face was cracked, a thin line running down the center. She looked tired, so tired. “I can’t feel them. The trees, the animals, the Earth itself; they are closed off from me. I’m in pain and I don’t know what to do-
  121.  
  122. “Yes, you do,” he interrupted.
  123.  
  124. The two stared at each other in silence; hers overcome with shock and his one of gentle understanding. He craned his oddly shaped head slightly to the left and regarded her as one might an egg that had fallen from its nest.
  125.  
  126. “I… I can’t,” she finally said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
  127.  
  128. “Yes, you can,” he chided, like he was talking to child that had already been caught fibbing but kept doing it anyway. “You are the only one holding you back here.”
  129.  
  130. Huntress looked up at her patron spirit, misery and longing and perhaps even the barest flicker of pain in her eyes. A tiny clink sounded out through the air as the crack in her face grew.
  131.  
  132. “I can’t,” she affirmed. “There has to be another way.”
  133.  
  134. The spirit’s sigh was the wind that rustled through the leaves, the faint echo of birdsong on a summer’s day, the resounding crash of a tree being felled.
  135.  
  136. “I did not abandon you,” he said, his tone one of finality, not unkind but not unwavering in its final judgement. He floated off the mushroom, his body still contorted in a meditative pose and when he looked at her he just seemed tired.
  137.  
  138. “You are the one that turned your back on me.”
  139.  
  140. And he was gone, his body contracting in on itself until it was swallowed up and nothing was left. Huntress leapt off the mushroom, her deity’s name on her tongue but before she could even scream the world around her shattered and she fell into the nothing.
  141. ----------------------------------------
  142.  
  143. Huntress Wizard’s eyes snapped open and she gasped.
  144.  
  145. For a moment she couldn’t breath and she laid on the floor in catatonic silence, a burning pressure in her chest paralyzing her and keeping her rooted to her spot.
  146.  
  147. The moment passed as quickly as it came, and she sucked in a breath of fresh air.
  148.  
  149. Sensation came back to her body slowly, and when it did she ached all over. It was an odd feeling, she hadn’t felt such soreness in a long time; not since her days as an acolyte spent climbing trees, weaving through the underbrush, and mastering the bow. She still carried the scars on her fingers proudly, and though her new powers had rendered the weapon archaic she made sure her skills in it remained as sharp as ever.
  150.  
  151. Pulling herself off the floor with a grunt, Huntress hissed as she rolled her shoulders and stretched her joints with a series of pops and cracks. Had she actually slept on the floor last night? Usually she just turned into a log or a stump to hide herself, but it felt like she’d been sleeping on this floor for a week.
  152.  
  153. Mumbling to herself Huntress stood on her feet and stretched, commencing her early morning routine. Such daily exercises were necessary to keep her limber and alert; the forest she chose as her abode was the single largest in all of Ooo, ranging from the outskirts of the Ice Kingdom to the very edges of the Desert and Jungle Kingdoms with the Grasslands fringing its territory, and within its depths lived many mysterious and often dangerous beasts, monster, and anomalies. To survive in such a place, let alone call it a home, demanded downright absurd levels of dexterity, tenacity, and just a bit of insanity.
  154.  
  155. Huntress Wizard liked to think she had a healthy smattering of all three qualities.
  156.  
  157. Having finished her usual morning rigmaroles and dispelled the soreness from her limbs Huntress stood in her room, grumbling to herself and casting a wayward glance out the window. It was still just as misty as it was yesterday, heck it was even worse. A thick layer of fog had rolled in, swaddling the forest in its murky grip.
  158.  
  159. Huntress Wizard pulled herself out of the window, perching on the sill as she glared off into the grey. Her cat eyes could see just as well at night as they could in the day but even they could not penetrate the unremitting fog under which the whole of the world seemed stuck in a limbo between light and darkness.
  160.  
  161. She roosted like this for a moment, contemplating her dream.
  162.  
  163. The Spirit of the Forest had talked to her. This was good. Or, was it? He was just as cryptic as he had always been, as a spirit he only said what people needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear; it was up to others to decipher the message and ultimately their choice to heed his wisdom or ignore it.
  164.  
  165. She could not ignore his council, but she could not follow it either. To do so risked weakness, but that wasn’t right, her mentor would not willingly condemn her to her own doom.
  166.  
  167. Would he?
  168.  
  169. And then there was what he’d said. That she’d turned her back on him. How? By leaving the forest to begin with? But she had come back, she had returned and stronger than ever, with even more power. Now she was no longer weak, no she was hard, now she could truly protect her home like it deserved. She would never turn her back on this place, she loved it, loved him, loved the call of nature in her head and her heart reverberating with the thump of a drum.
  170.  
  171. Everything she had done had been for this, why could he not see that?
  172.  
  173. Huntress scowled and rubbed the side of her head. It was no use, she decided, to try and decipher it now, all she’d end up with was a headache. Such matters came naturally enough, and she felt this was no different. She’d meditate, she’d hunt, she’d live, and sooner or later the answer would come to her as it always had before.
  174.  
  175. There was the sound of a faint gurgle and Huntress pressed her hand against her stomach with a light blush.
  176.  
  177. As a matter of fact, a hunt sound pretty good right now.
  178.  
  179. Huntress dove from her tree in perfect form, her body sinking into the turf as readily as if it’d been water. The cool embrace of the Earth comforted her, though she couldn’t help but think it a bit colder than usual, a little less inviting. Like she was sneaking into someone’s home rather than being welcomed in. It wasn’t a nice thought and she tried to put it out of her mind, but it still lingered on the outskirts of her subconscious, noting the silence from the rocks and soil as she surged onwards.
  180.  
  181. When she emerged, she did so without flourish. The turf was pulled up as easily as a rug and after she pulled herself from the earth it fell back in place and merged with the rest of the grass. Huntress was thankful that at least her magic still worked so she would not leave any unnecessary scaring on her forest.
  182.  
  183. Slinking between the trees Huntress kept her eyes peeled and ears sharp, nary even daring to breath as she meandered through her now unfamiliar realm. She’d hunted in the fog before, and compared to the snow this was nothing, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right here.
  184.  
  185. This fog... it wasn’t natural. It didn’t feel right. Some might scoff at such a statement, but Huntress was a wizard and she liked to think she knew a thing or two about mystical occurrences and the like and this fog was setting off all kinds of warning bells.
  186.  
  187. Last night’s dream didn’t help either. The stench of portent was thick in the air and it made her leaves bristle. The wind rustled through her antlers, pinching her scalp and hissing in her ears before dashing away like a naughty child giggling at its own antics.
  188.  
  189. Huntress scowled. Why did she have a feeling she wasn’t going to be getting any breakfast this morning?
  190.  
  191. Stalking through the mist Huntress weaved through the brush as swiftly and elegantly as a deer, a mere shadow bobbing through the trees as she kept her light-footed sprint with hardly any effort. This forest was known to her, she didn’t even need to use her powers for something as mundane as simple movement and she couldn’t help but smirk as she recalled the myriad of times she’d come across lost travelers who hadn’t even the sense to read the moss on the side of a tree much less walk the less-beaten trail with any measure of success.
  192.  
  193. Placing a hand against the trunk of a particularly ancient oak Huntress closed her eyes and waited, her face scrunched in concentration. She held the pose for a moment, then opened her eyes. Her face was one of vague disappointment as her hand fell to her side.
  194.  
  195. Nothing.
  196.  
  197. The words of her patron raced through her mind. What had he meant? She’d never willingly abandon this place, it was her home, her very existence.
  198.  
  199. Or, at least it was. Now it was unfamiliar, foreign with an undercurrent of latent hostility not necessarily directed at her but radiated through the very lack of acknowledgment. Was this sensation what city people felt whenever they entered the woods? It was horrible, how could they live being so disconnected?
  200.  
  201. Huntress took a deep breath and resumed her journey, no longer bothering with her stealthy approach. It was obvious that she was not going to be finding anything to eat, she’d been in these woods for nearly an hour now and had yet to pick up even the faintest whiff of another animal. The silence in the air was thick, without the songs of birds or even the cacophony of cicadas to keep her company.
  202.  
  203. It was unsettling. Unnatural. Unwholesome even.
  204.  
  205. But mostly it was just annoying.
  206.  
  207. If something was going to happen she’d appreciate it if it’d just go ahead and happen.
  208.  
  209. The fog opened like a curtain and Huntress stepped into an open clearing. She blinked once, twice, the glowered after the affect had lost its charm. In a wide circle the fog seemed to dissipate all around her, just large enough to expose the meadow, the glittering brook, and the edges of the forest on the other side before the fog obscured her vision with its presence.
  210.  
  211. Huntress thought it over. Her first instinct, one carefully cultivated from a lifetime in the wilderness, was trap and she was inclined to believe. But her other instinct, one born of equally long years prying into the secrets of glen and grove, whispered of much older and secretive things. It whispered of prophecy and the eternal, internal journey, it whispered of stories and their place in the universe. It was the voice of myths and men and civilization and nature in one package and how all things affect the other.
  212.  
  213. Huntress thought it over some more, turned around to leave, lingered against all rational thought, and with a loud grown turned on her heels and stomped over to the running brook.
  214.  
  215. As a habit she didn’t traffic much with stories, but she’d be a fool to ignore one when it was playing out in front of her. A huntress she might be, but she was also a wizard and she knew she couldn’t ignore the old magic of this time and place, not even normal folk would dare go against the grain of the narrative when it was so obviously placed before them.
  216.  
  217. And so, Huntress approached the waters, the glittering blue so bright it made her eyes hurt, and she waited. Kneeling in the wet grass Huntress closed her eyes and breathed in and out. In, and out. In... and out.
  218.  
  219. In...
  220.  
  221. Out...
  222.  
  223. The grass whispered in hushed tones. The trees creaked as they turned towards her in vague interest. The rocks muttered below her feet. But it was the water that spoke to her directly, it’s voice crisp and gentle with a musical echo that ran down up her spine and into her leaves.
  224.  
  225. Drink.
  226.  
  227. Huntress opened her eyes and knelt over the water. Clear and crystalline in its sapphire tones, practically glowing in the grey air, Huntress was immediately suspicious of its imperfections but without hesitation she obliged all the same. Cupping her hands beneath the cold water Huntress drew her hands up and tipped the contents into her mouth. It froze going down and she gasped as her entire body went numb and her vision went white.
  228.  
  229. For a moment there was nothing, nothing but the faint buzzing of static ringing in her head. When her sight had finally cleared Huntress shook her head to clear the haze. The static abated, but the uncomfortable tightness of her head didn’t, and Huntress groaned in pain as the pain flared up, pulsating and echoing in her skull like a didgeridoo.
  230.  
  231. Huntress Wizard looked down into the water and was amazed to see her face was cracked, a network of thin spiderwebs running across her features like she was some kind of broken porcelain doll.
  232.  
  233. There was the unmistakable snap of a stick being broken and Huntress Wizard’s head shot up.
  234.  
  235. On the edge of the forest across the brook, not even a few yards away, stood a moose.
  236.  
  237. Or, rather, he used to be a moose. Perhaps once long ago he would have been a beautiful creature, a true prince of the forest. Regality would have been his calling card, a master of his domain, people would have whispered of him in hushed tones when they spied his form leaping between the trees from the corners of their eyes in that magical place between reality and myth long, long ago.
  238.  
  239. He had no face left, the pale gleam of exposed bone and glistening red of raw meat was all Huntress could see as the creature stared her down. Its enormous antlers were covered in lichen and kudzu hung down like a green canopy. Huntress found herself drawn to the beast’s one eye, the other an empty socket, as it glared at her with a baleful malice. There was no fear in that eye, no recognition as a threat or a predator or even as a living thing, not even rage or anger was what kept that eye alight; just hate, old and vindictive hate born from a lifetime of pain.
  240.  
  241. When the beast stepped forward Huntress leapt to her feet and took a step back. It was huge, but not in the way it should’ve been. A moose like him should have weighed near a ton but as he cleared the mist Huntress couldn’t help but gasp. He was so skinny, skin pulled taut against ribs, not a trace of fat or even muscle on its wiry frame yet somehow it just kept going though she could hear it wheeze even from across the meadow.
  242.  
  243. Its skeletal body was covered in mange and were there was no hair she could plainly see scars both fresh and decades old crisscrossing across every available inch of skin. Around its throat and legs, she could clearly see the bitemarks of at least ten different predator species. A half dozen arrows stuck out from the beast’s body, and what looked to be a harpoon jutted out from its hump. A thousand injuries dotted its body, a thousand brutalities visited upon it by a long, hard, brutal life... no, an existence. This thing wasn’t alive, this wasn’t living.
  244.  
  245. Huntress Wizard began backing up, hand over her mouth and legs shaking and vision blurry for whatever reason as she beheld this lord, this king, this veritable god of the forest. How long had it been alive, how long had it existed like this?
  246.  
  247. How was it still moving?
  248.  
  249. The moose’s snort broke the silence, echoing through the mist like a foghorn and blowing plums of steam into the air. The old half-dead thing focused that one hateful eye on her and for the first time in a long time Huntress’ blood ran cold.
  250.  
  251. It raised a coal-black hoof, held it aloft for a breath’s length, then struck the ground in a shower of grass and dirt.
  252.  
  253. Huntress recognized the threat, and in a normal situation would respond by quickly relocating. A huntress she was but every predator knows better than to risk pointless injury.
  254.  
  255. The moose had already cleared the brook in a single bound and was halfway across the meadow by the time Huntress Wizard had realized what was happening and with all the grace of a cat she nimbly leapt to the side just as the beast’s antlers gouged into the earth where she stood just a moment ago.
  256.  
  257. Landing on her hands Huntress gave a push and was once again sailing through the air whereupon she landed on her feet. As she landed the moose tore its antlers free sending turf in wide arcs as it snorted up great billows of steam.
  258.  
  259. For a moment Huntress was stunned. Moose could be, and often were, dangerous, but they weren’t necessarily predisposed to charging, especially old ones like this. For a moment she considered her antlers, it was the season after all and the sight of them could make the bucks and bulls a little aggressive.
  260.  
  261. Then the moose turned to her and she caught that eye again, and she knew there didn’t have to be a reason for this.
  262.  
  263. The moose charged again. There was power in its limbs in spite of the malnourishment, there was strength in its neck in spite of the bites and the scars, there was weight in its chest in spite of the of the bones pushing against the flesh, and there was drive in its heart enough to spite every living thing to ever stare down at it.
  264.  
  265. This thing was fueled by pure and simple willpower born of sheer unrelenting hate.
  266.  
  267. It was strength incarnate.
  268.  
  269. It was disgusting.
  270.  
  271. Antlers tore through the grass where the Huntress once stood, and the moose wasted not even a breath before tearing itself free and charging once more in the direction she had leapt. It was an odd though no less daunting game of cat and mouse, with Huntress Wizard determined in putting as much distance between her and the mad old bull as it put in just as much effort in closing the gap.
  272.  
  273. Huntress Wizard thought of the antlers, thought of the hooves and the sharpness of them, the weight behind them. She thought of that awful eye and she put in just a little bit more effort.
  274.  
  275. Huntress reached deep down and called out to the spell inside her. It was quick to awaken and even quicker to assess the situation. An arrow, tinted by a prismatic green glow, floated out from her quiver and danced on her fingertips. Huntress pointed, and the arrow obeyed, launching itself towards the charging animal.
  276.  
  277. The arrow flew straight and true and embedded itself squarely into the creature’s chest with a resounding thunk.
  278.  
  279. The moose grunted in pain, but it wasn’t about to stop. Huntress Wizard leapt aside again and watched as the mad bull went careening past her. As the creature passed she pulled another arrow from her quiver and sent it flying into the creature’s lungs.
  280.  
  281. With a bellow the old bull slid to a stop and Huntress watched as it blew out a fountain of blood from its nostrils. She expected it to run, it wouldn’t get very far but then that the old bull wasn’t already dropping, that it had gotten this far at all, was just another testament to its iron will.
  282.  
  283. The moose slowly turned and stared at her. It blew out another fountain of red, pawed at the ground, and charged.
  284.  
  285. “Son of a bitch,” Huntress muttered, then screamed as the wide cradle of the beast’s antlers caught her in the midsection and threw her into the air like a ragdoll.
  286.  
  287. Huntress hit the ground with a grunt. Dazed and in no small amount of pain Huntress knew she was in trouble, and desperately fought the red haze in her vision and the sluggishness of her limbs. With her left hand she groped out until her fingers wrapped around the familiar shape of one of her holly arrows.
  288.  
  289. The earth shook as two pairs of hooves smashed into the ground on either side of her body. Huntress Wizard looked up and saw the bull’s scared, glistening face facing down at her, that one mad eye glaring with all the malice and alacrity of what it was about to do it.
  290.  
  291. The bull reared up onto its back legs, front hooves pawing at the air and ready to drive down with all its weight behind them.
  292.  
  293. Huntress screamed and threw her arm out, flinging the arrow with all her strength and all the mustered magic she could instinctively summon. The arrow whistled and hit the beast’s chest with meaty thwap, sinking into the sunken, pallid flesh as it disappeared into the barrel of the creature.
  294.  
  295. The moose brought its hooves down and Huntress flinched. The ground next to her head sunk in at the force of the impact and her skull rattled at the proximity. She glanced to the right, at the coal-black sharp hoof not even an inch from her head, then back up at the bull.
  296.  
  297. It was facing her, but it wasn’t looking at her. It stared out with an unseeing eye, the anger and the hate replaced by an almost gentle placidity. The beast opened its mouth and a river of blood washed over her face, a baptism of warm red life soaked into the roots of her leaves and it was all Huntress Wizard could do to keep her eyes and mouth shut under the torrent.
  298.  
  299. The beast took a step forward on trembling legs. It stopped. It let out a loud, long wheezing breath, one last call to the forest and then it toppled onto its side.
  300.  
  301. And it died.
  302.  
  303. Silence reigned in the forest, a silence so loud it practically assaulted the senses. Huntress Wizard sat up. Her whole body was shaking, and her cat-like eyes were almost entirely black. She took a deep breath but choked on it. It was only after her coughing fit had subsided, when she finally regained control of her trembling limbs, and when her pupils had at last contracted to their usual slits that she looked over at the dead bull.
  304.  
  305. It was undoubtedly dead, that last arrow had pierced the heart and lodged itself somewhere in its chest. Chances are it was already dying from that lung shot, but then again with all the other arrows it was carrying she wasn’t about to assume anything of this beast.
  306. Huntress crawled towards the dead animal, hovering over its carcass with wide eyes and a tight grimace on her face. It was enormous, she thought, and ancient to boot. Truly a magnificent creature in its younger years but a long and hard life had made a mockery of it.
  307.  
  308. Nimble calloused fingers danced over the beast’s mangy, leathery hide. The scars of a thousand battles stood out like landmarks on a map, the weapons lodged into its flesh and bone were trophies of ages long since gone by. If somebody were to tell her this creature was from before the Mushroom War itself, she’d believe them.
  309.  
  310. How many times had this beast been on the brink of death only to escape by the skin of its teeth? How many battles had it won by fight or flight? How many battles, how many hunts, how many how its foes had it lain low beneath the fury of its antlers and hooves?
  311.  
  312. And yet here it was. Despite everything it persevered. Against all odds it continued onwards.
  313.  
  314. Hard meat don’t get eat.
  315.  
  316. The words echoed in her mind but with a distinctly sinister overtone, almost like they were mocking her.
  317.  
  318. Huntress Wizard drew in on herself, shrinking back before the great beast. She suddenly felt exposed, like a child that had been caught misbehaving. An oppressive weight settled in her breast and Huntress’ breath quickened when she realized it was guilt.
  319.  
  320. How unusual a sensation, how unfamiliar a feeling? Guilt, at what? She’d killed before, she’d always respected the prey, this was no different. She respected this creature, everything that it was, everything that it represented. It was strength, it was power, it was hardness incarnate and it proved her creed that being hard was tantamount to survival. She loved this animal even in death.
  321.  
  322. Right?
  323.  
  324. Huntress looked down at the dead moose and realized that she didn’t. It was ugly. It was hateful. It was hard, but it wasn’t alive, it had stopped living long before she’d put that arrow in its heart. There was no respect when she looked at it, only revulsion.
  325.  
  326. This... this thing didn’t prove anything.
  327.  
  328. Or perhaps it did, why else would she be so frightened?
  329.  
  330. Huntress Wizard shot to her feet and glanced around the meadow, her eyes twitching as she gazed off into the mist. There was the impression of being watched, of being surrounded, of being judged. She looked back at the dead moose, at the blood covering the grass, at the sightless eye poking out from a head more skull than meat.
  331.  
  332. It looked so peaceful in death. The hate in life washed away by welcoming oblivion. It didn’t have to fight anymore; its long years of hurting had been put to an end.
  333.  
  334. “I’m sorry,” Huntress whispered, unsure of why she had said it. She wasn’t even sure who she had said it to. The dead moose? The leering forest closing in on her?
  335.  
  336. Herself?
  337.  
  338. Huntress put a hand to her face and held out her palm. It was red, all glistening and hot and wet. The animal’s blood ran down her face and stained her jerkin, her leaves had been dyed by the crimson tide. Her vision became suddenly blurry and Huntress was distantly aware of wet sensation crawling down her face, running with the drying blood.
  339.  
  340. She rubbed her cheek and saw the blood on her hand mixing with warm water. She gave an experimental lick and recoiled at the brackish taste, salty like the ocean and stinking of death.
  341.  
  342. The moose stared at her with its wide unseeing eye.
  343.  
  344. Huntress Wizard turned and ran.
  345.  
  346. She didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t even know why she was running. Emotions and sensations long buried were beginning to resurface and they spoke of trying times as an acolyte. Feelings of being chased, memories of being hunted, every time she’d struggled and fought with beast of fang and claw, the effervescent awareness of something watching you and now it’s behind you with teeth bared and hot breath on the back of your neck as it closes in-
  347.  
  348. Huntress surged through the undergrowth, antlers tearing through the kudzu that reached out to ensnare her. The wind whipped her voice with the giggle of child. The rocks jutted out from the earth eager to trip her. The grass wrapped around her ankles. The trees grabbed at her with twisted claws of wood. The forest called out to her but in a voice she’d never heard before and the bedlam sent her into a frenzy to get away.
  349.  
  350. She couldn’t see. The fog was unending, blanketing the land within its smothering grip. It reached into her throat and stole the breath from her chest, and settled in her bones and sapped the strength.
  351.  
  352. She was so cold.
  353.  
  354. Huntress Wizard slowed. The cold grabbed her and throttled her. Every breath was a stabbing ache in her lungs and she could see her breath hang in the air before her eyes.
  355.  
  356. Huntress fell to her knees, legs and hands sinking into the snow. She crawled, her tiny whimpers already faint were drowned out by the howling wind.
  357.  
  358. Shivering and mewling she pulled herself through the rising snow, the tears and blood running down her face freezing to her cheeks and stabbing her like white-hot needles. The wind lashed her exposed skin like a whip, the tips of her fingers were growing pale, the leaves on her head grew brittle and shriveled up.
  359.  
  360. The child that would one day become the Huntress looked up, her eyes squinting, lashes coated in frost. In the distance she could make out a shape, distant and fuzzy but immediately familiar.
  361.  
  362. “Momma,” the child screamed, her voice hollow and wracked with pain and sorrow. “Momma!”
  363.  
  364. The figure stopped but did not turn around. Huntress crawled towards it, her tiny body almost covered in the falling snow, her hands and knees cracked and bleeding and staining the pristine whiteness with blotches of unseemly red.
  365.  
  366. “Momma please, I can’t! It hurts, I can’t keep up!”
  367.  
  368. The shape, now decidedly feminine in shape, did not turn. It said nothing, it did nothing.
  369.  
  370. “I’m sorry momma,” the child cried, her pale green skin growing blue, her light green hair encrusted in ice. “I can’t,” she sobbed, “I just can’t!”
  371.  
  372. The woman turned, and Huntress Wizard shrank back when she saw her own face glaring back at her, hate and disgust and naked scorn in her narrowed eyes.
  373.  
  374. “Then die,” she said, and turned. And she walked away into the gloom, her shape vanishing in the gale.
  375.  
  376. And she didn’t look back.
  377.  
  378. “Momma!” the child screamed, her voice cracked and hoarse. “Momma please! Don’t leave me momma I tried! I tried momma don’t leave me! Please!”
  379.  
  380. She fell to the ground, the weight of the snow on her back was just too heavy. She couldn’t breathe, her heart hurt, and her head hurt, and her body hurt, and everything just hurt. She was born to hurt and every day she hurt, and it was too much too much too much.
  381.  
  382. There was the crunch of snow and she looked up.
  383.  
  384. The wolf stared back. There was no malice in those amber eyes. No hate, no compassion, no sorrow.
  385.  
  386. Only hunger.
  387.  
  388. She looked back down and whimpered as the snow crunched under the wolf’s approach.
  389.  
  390. She was going to die.
  391.  
  392. She felt dead inside. She had nothing, she had no one. None but herself.
  393.  
  394. She was going to die.
  395.  
  396. The footfalls grew closer, quicker. She imagined what it would feel like. Would it be quick? Would it hurt? She’d already hurt so much now, what was a little more pain? Afterwards there’d be nothing, she’d be free.
  397.  
  398. She was going to die.
  399.  
  400. Something happened. Deep within her core something called out to her. Something with a powerful voice. It wasn’t unfamiliar, she’d oft heard it before, whispering to her whenever her mother hit her or yelled at her, urging her to listen. But now it was different, the words were the same, but the tone was all wrong. It was loud now, no longer whispering as it demanded she listened. As it demanded something of her she had always felt she could never do.
  401.  
  402. She didn’t want to die.
  403.  
  404. The thought was alarming. Defend herself? With what, how, why? Her hands were already moving, blue fingers reaching into the holster at her hip and grabbing the handle of her knife. It wasn’t much, a small skinning knife for squirrels and hares, but it was sharp.
  405.  
  406. And suddenly the words in her heart didn’t seem so wrong anymore. In fact, she’d never felt so right before in her entire life.
  407.  
  408. The child that will become the Huntress looked up and saw the wolf running towards her, mouth opened and teeth gleaming, snow billowing in the air behind it as it lunged.
  409.  
  410. I will never die, she thought.
  411.  
  412. Huntress lunged with a wild scream and met the animal in the air. The beast let out a shocked yip as her shoulder caught it in the nose and the two landed in pile in the snow. A desperate struggle followed, all fur and fang and claw and teeth as the snow fell around them. Limb struck limb, fang met flesh, and in the blinding white there was the flash of metal and a low howl cut short and followed by an ear-splitting silence.
  413.  
  414. The wolf lay in the snow, its life leaking from the open hole in its neck. Underneath it the Huntress lay, baptized in blood, her vision blurry and heart roaring in her skull.
  415.  
  416. She’d get up soon, she thought. She’d find a way, and if not then she’d make her own way. She would never be hurt again, she’d never be prey, she would carve out her own place in this world with her bare hands if she had to.
  417.  
  418. But not now. Fist she’d rest, just for a while. Safe and warm in this cocoon of fur and heat.
  419.  
  420. All around her the snow fell and the wind howled, beasts prowled the woods and called out their intentions to the night sky. Predators hunted, and prey died. For this is the way of things, and the little Huntress did not stir in her sleep for she was no longer scared.
  421.  
  422. She’d found herself.
  423. ----------------------------------------
  424.  
  425. Huntress Wizard awoke.
  426.  
  427. There was confusion, brief and fleeting and near immediately supplanted by the familiar comfort of her surroundings. Swaddled deep within the earth she was warm and safe, the constant presence of something greater than her on all sides was reassuring and she felt at peace.
  428.  
  429. She slowly unfurled and reached out with an arm. The soil above her opened and she slid her out as easily as she might through water. Her fingers clutched grass and Huntress pulled herself from the earth, breathing deep the fresh air.
  430.  
  431. Once free she gave herself a quick shake, preened her leaves, and sat on the grass in her usual meditative state as she pondered recent events.
  432.  
  433. The hunt, she had learned something there. It wasn’t immediate, but it was there, waiting for her beneath the surface. She knew it would be folly to ponder its relevance prematurely, such things are revealed not through force but experience. It would come to her in time just as her master’s words would for she had come to believe that it was all connected.
  434.  
  435. The memory was another matter. Was it a dream? No, too real, a re-visitation more like, a reminder of what had happened to her, what had set her on this path. She had buried it long ago, tried so hard to forget it, and yet had once again been forced to relieve it. But not without purpose, she knew, not without reason. Had she been foolish to hide her secret shame, her past weakness?
  436.  
  437. Deep within her core Huntress Wizard knew she was on the cusp of something, a greater understanding of herself loomed just out of sight like a monolith in the mist. It was not the first time she’d undertaken a spiritual journey, but this was of an altogether different caliber.
  438.  
  439. With her patron’s words echoing in her ears Huntress stood on her feet and continued onwards through the forest. The fog still lingered, though it didn’t seem nearly as thick, as ominous. Just as the fog of doubt in her mind cleared so did the forest’s and she could feel the buzzing of nature all around her though she could not yet tap into it.
  440.  
  441. It felt like she was in a tunnel, but unlike before she could see the light. It was faint and dim and far away, but it was there, all she had to do was keep walking.
  442.  
  443. And walk she did. She walked for hours, she walked for days, she walked through field and forest, o’er hills and moors, through night and day though it was near impossible to tell through the fog.
  444.  
  445. And when she stopped Huntress stood on the edge of one of the smaller mountains within her forest realm, for all the forests of Ooo are connected by their roots and they stretch nearly the whole of the continent (except for the far South, those are jungles which is an entirely different beast altogether thank you).
  446.  
  447. Huntress, compelled by some hidden wisdom and not at all by the soreness in her legs shut up, sat on a nearby rock. Behind her loomed the craggy face of Mount Killed-a-Man-Named-Jaro, in front a sea of green stretched from miles around until they reached the edges of Ooo’s grasslands.
  448.  
  449. And, somewhere in the heart of those distant plains, there was a tree with a house in it, and in that house lived the last human in all of Ooo.
  450.  
  451. A loud bleat shook Huntress from her reveries and she looked down to see an old ram glaring at her from one of the lower rocks. Further down Huntress spied a sizeable flock of wild mouflon grazing at the foot of the mountain, browsing on grass and low-lying berry bushes.
  452.  
  453. He was an old beast, but not in the same decrepit way the moose was. For one he still had all of his skin. Haggard he was though, his fur had lost the luster of youth, his horns were so large that his head bent under the strain, and his beard was long enough to trail on the ground. Still, even with all the indignities of age plaguing him, the creature held his head high (metaphorically speaking) and bore the brunt of his years with a quiet dignity.
  454.  
  455. Huntress found herself respecting the beast. Didn’t mean she was about to let him get away with that though, and the wizard perched cat-like on her rock and hissed at him, baring her fangs and flashing her eyes in warning.
  456.  
  457. The ram snorted and glared at her. For a moment it looked like he was about to come up there and teach this upstart wizard a thing or two himself but a call from the flock below caught his attention. He glanced back towards the base of the mountain, spared Huntress one last withering look, then moseyed on down the rocks to rejoin the group.
  458.  
  459. Huntress couldn’t help but huff at the indignation. She must be losing her edge that even an old sheep wasn’t scared of her. Or, was his age the reason for that, for a ram to get as old as he was he’d certainly have to be a tough old codger.
  460.  
  461. Hard meat don’t get eat.
  462.  
  463. The words no longer comforted her.
  464.  
  465. Huntress Wizard curled up on the rock, chin resting on her knees as she stared off into the distance, tuning into the songs of birds and their hidden meanings. Summer was in full swing and all the animals of the forest were engaging in their usual habits. The sounds of their frolicking, their calls and their screams, the sounds of nature undiluted and pristine echoed through the air and she listened, discerning meaning where others would hear nothing.
  466.  
  467. It wasn’t much if we’re being honest. The thoughts of animals aren’t exactly Nobel Prize winning, largely consisting of mating, eating, and running away from things that want to eat them. Birds are slightly more verbose, but they have terrible language and their sense of humor is notoriously crude.
  468.  
  469. Below the call of the wild sheep drew Huntress’ attention. In a small clearing the animals grazed while their lambs played, never straying too far to the forest’s edge and with the watchful eyes of their parents always on them. The old ram stood apart from the rest, lazing on an overhanging rock about halfway down between her and the flock. Occasionally its ears would flick, and it would slightly turn its head back to peek at her. The old ram knew better than to let such an obvious threat go unsupervised, and Huntress had no doubt that in his youth he’d have already chased her off, but age was obviously doing him no favors and the ram just hadn’t the energy.
  470.  
  471. He was wise, she thought, not to let her out of his sight. His fears though were unfounded, at least for today. Strangely enough she had no appetite.
  472.  
  473. The same could not be said for others.
  474.  
  475. There was a flash of movement off to the side, the light ruffling of leaves. Hardly anything, anyone else would’ve blamed the wind, a trick of the light. She knew better of course, she could feel them out there, her mind prying into… hers?
  476.  
  477. Yes, a mind so like hers, and yet so very different. Hunger yes, but also a note of urgency. Not of fear, at least not for herself, but agitation and distress all the same.
  478.  
  479. The wind shifted, and the sheep stopped their grazing, horned heads rearing up to gaze into the deep woods. The old ram shuffled to his hooves and bellowed, his voice echoing across the rocks. At once the lambs stopped, tiny eyes wide in confusion and fright as the rest of the flock either ran or leapt to their defense.
  480.  
  481. The she-wolf burst from the tree line, a grey blur making a bee-line straight for the lambs. The tiny things screamed in panic and scrambled for their mothers. Huntress leaned forward on her rock, eerily intent on watching the spectacle. Normally she wouldn’t be so rude as to intrude on another’s hunt but for some reason she felt compelled to stay, to observe.
  482.  
  483. One lamb lagged just a mere second behind his fellows and he payed the price. The wolf’s jaws clamped down on his legs and the lamb went down bleating in pain and panic. It wouldn’t be much longer, Huntress knew. The wolf would pin him in place then go for the throat, and with just a few shakes it would all be over. Already the rest of the flock was leaving him behind, not out of cruelty but of necessity. This was just the way of things, he was weak and so he would die, he was always meant to be prey-
  484.  
  485. The mother of the lamb slammed into the wolf’s side, knocking the yelping predator away. The ewe stood protectively over her charge, snorted and pawing at the ground, head lowered and eyes fixed on the predator.
  486.  
  487. Huntress perched on the very edge of her rock, eyes alight. She was surprised, but on second thought chastised herself. It wasn’t unusual for a mother... most mothers to defend their offspring, though she had admittedly expected the ewe to take off running herself. It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise, nor a pleasant one, the lamb might live but then the wolf had her reasons; and with that bite there was no guarantee he would make it anyways. Still, now that the wolf had been barred she’d no doubt retreat, either to find a meal elsewhere or to track the flock at her leisure and pick off the wounded lamb some other time.
  488.  
  489. For the second time in just as many seconds Huntress Wizard was surprised. The she-wolf shook her head, and turned to face the ewe, her hackles raised and fur bristling. Huntress was interested, most predators would not risk a confrontation like this. She reached out and touched into the wolf’s mind, marveling at the single-minded desperation, peeling back the layers until one thought above all echoed in the void.
  490.  
  491. Pups.
  492.  
  493. Ah, so that was it then. She was a mother as well, with a hungry litter back home. Was she on her own then? Didn’t matter, all that mattered was that her pups hungered, and their empty bellies fueled the she-wolf onwards.
  494.  
  495. Two mothers faced off in the clearing, both striving to protect their babies. Most people would see something poetic in this, but Huntress had seen many little things die, had herself hunted them before she found them a waste of her efforts and moved onto bigger prey for the challenge. This was just nature she knew, nothing special.
  496.  
  497. So why could she not turn away? Why did she feel so obliged to witness this? Why was she looking for a message where she knew there was none to have?
  498.  
  499. The wolf snarled and snapped. The ewe snorted and stayed right where she was. If this wolf wanted her lamb she’d have to come and get. A dangerous prospect with those hooves and horns, and one no sane wolf would want to take on her own. But this wolf had pups, and frantic distress coupled with maternal instincts could do interesting things to a sane animal’s mind.
  500.  
  501. Just another weakness, Huntress thought bitterly, and wondered what the outcome of this would be.
  502.  
  503. Strangely enough she wasn’t disappointed when a loud bellow sounded off through the clearing and all parties turned to see the old ram, standing hunched and defiant with his grim and gruff air. The wolf snarled at the intrusion and the ram stared at her for a moment, then started walking. The wolf gave a warning growl, but the grizzled veteran gave her no acknowledgment walking at an angle to put himself between the ewe and the wolf.
  504.  
  505. It was a standoff. Neither side was going to back down, neither could afford to. The ram snorted once and shook his head, his lengthy horns waving in the air menacingly. The wolf stared at them, but she wasn’t going anywhere. The ram seemed to notice this, and if it wasn’t so preposterous Huntress could’ve sworn he gave a sigh.
  506.  
  507. He tilted his head and looked at the ewe. It lasted only a second before he turned back to the wolf. His hoof struck the ground and the ewe jumped at the sound. She nudged her mewling lamb with her head and the two began to slowly leave, he stumbled a few times on his damaged leg but his mother kept him up and she kept him moving. The wolf whined at their retreat and made to follow them but was cut off by the ram.
  508.  
  509. Huntress crawled down the rock wall, silent and spider-like, her eyes greedily drinking in the drama before her. Was he going to fight her? A foolish endeavor, he was tough and hard, but he was also old. But then perhaps it was best this way, for the old ram to go down fighting, and Huntress Wizard was reminded of the moose, the hate and the pain in his eyes, of the rage that only seemed to dissipate in the sweet release of death.
  510.  
  511. The ram shook his head, sneezed, and then sat in the grass.
  512.  
  513. The wolf stopped. The Huntress stared. The ram sneezed again and looked at the she-wolf with tired, rheumy eyes. He sighed and tilted his head back, his massive horns tucked against his sides with his neck totally exposed.
  514.  
  515. Time slowed to a crawl. The forest was silent. The wolf crouched to the ground and whined, staring at the gruff sheep. Their eyes met, and in that one moment predator and prey shared something so personal Huntress Wizard dared not pry. For them the whole of existence was experienced in that one second.
  516.  
  517. The wolf lunged and bit into the ram’s throat, pushing him to the ground and pining him with her weight. He kicked, it was a half-hearted feeble attempt that missed the wolf’s head entirely and Huntress had half a mind to scoff when she realized he wasn’t even trying to hit the wolf.
  518.  
  519. He’d given himself up. Just like that, without a fight or anything. Huntress glanced over the meadow, but the lamb and the ewe were already gone.
  520.  
  521. For them.
  522.  
  523. When the ram’s death gurgles finally tapered off and the wolf stopped shaking her prey she gently set the ram on the ground. She panted for a moment, her long red tongue hanging in the air, then she licked his bleeding neck with a whine. She looked around the meadow and Huntress hugged the rocks, remaining as still as possible.
  524.  
  525. A minute passed as the wolf regained her strength, and after making sure nothing was going to try and steal this kill she grabbed the ram by his neck and began hauling him away. It was a slow, grueling process, and Huntress watched with baited breath until the wolf finally disappeared into the forest. The mist rolled in soon after, swaddling Huntress’ in its pale embrace.
  526.  
  527. On all fours the Huntress crawled down the mountain, watching her footing and making sure no rocks fell in her wake. She stalked through the grasses and flowers until she stood before the kill site. She took it in: the crushed blood-stained grass, the stink of its postmortem fluids, the lingering sense of lost life and the continuation of the great cycle.
  528.  
  529. Huntress Wizard wasn’t happy. She wasn’t angry either, she was more... perturbed.
  530.  
  531. Yes, that was the word. Anxious, unsettled. There was something here, the dam was bursting at the seams and she felt like a little beaver cramming sticks into the leaks, desperately trying to hold it all together. It was going to burst, it had to, but she was going to try and prolong it anyway simply because it was her nature and she knew the revelation would hurt.
  532.  
  533. Huntress Wizard rubbed a hand along the blood-stained grass and inspected the red on her fingers. Why had he done it? She couldn’t wrap her head around it. He was old yes, but he was still alive, he had a little more time in him. So why the sacrifice, to save the lamb? In all her years she’d never seen that before, she’d seen parents protect their offspring, she’d seen the herd drive off a predator, but a genuine sacrifice like this? Never.
  534.  
  535. So why?
  536.  
  537. Huntress groaned and pressed her hands against her aching head, unsure whether she was trying to suppress it or draw it out. She stood up and began walking, tracking the trail left by the she-wolf as she dragged her prey back to her den.
  538.  
  539. The ram was hard, he had to be to have lived this long, but he was also weak from age. He willingly challenged a predator even with his infirmity, and yet instead of fighting laid down and accepted it. Was this weakness, or was it strength? He sacrificed himself to save another, did this prove what she had always thought, that others only made you weak? It had to, he would have lived had he not decided to do so.
  540.  
  541. So why did it feel like she was missing something?
  542.  
  543. Huntress’ mind was a-buzz with static. She tracked without thinking, her body instinctively following the obvious signs at a slow and steady pace. When she had finally come to the end of the trail huntress stopped and tucked into the bushes, slithering along the ground on her belly until she found what she was after.
  544.  
  545. Peering through the bushes Huntress saw a small den, a mere outcropping of rocks with a small hole dug between them. At the front of this hole laid the carcass of the ram, already partially eaten, flies buzzing around his sightless eyes and open mouth.
  546.  
  547. In the mouth of the burrow lounged the wolf, lazing on her swollen side while her pups nuzzled into her belly, greedily latching onto her teats as they vied for the best spots. Huntress leaned forward from her hiding spot and stared at the little creatures.
  548.  
  549. They were so tiny, she thought. Helpless really, unable to do much of anything. At least newborn deer could stand and run, but these things were practically helpless. They had to be protected at all costs, until they were full grown their mother would have to provide for their every need, watch them, feed them, and all the while they would use up her valuable energy without even a second thought of her needs. And she’d oblige, she’d tackle dangerous prey that could very well get herself killed for them. She’d die for them.
  550.  
  551. But why?
  552.  
  553. In a detached, impersonal way Huntress knew the answer. But what she was beginning to understand was that this wasn’t enough. She didn’t feel it, and feeling was very different from simply knowing.
  554.  
  555. It suddenly dawned on her that perhaps she wasn’t as in tune with nature as she thought.
  556.  
  557. Slowly Huntress Wizard crawled backwards, her belly hugging the dirt as she backed away from the den. She’d leave the family to their devices, for better or worse she’d gotten what she came for.
  558. ----------------------------------------
  559.  
  560. Huntress Wizard stalked through the leafy canopy of the trees, her ‘hair’ brushing against the leaves of the trees and stealing little whispers from their boughs. Her head felt like a hornet’s nest, her stomach clenched itself in pain, and the mask that was her face had already begun to chip away. She briefly considered looking into a pool or a puddle to see what she might find underneath but found the proposition too frightening to endure.
  561.  
  562. As day gave way to night, and as the sun was supplanted by the pale moon, Huntress wandered through her home, both so familiar and yet so alien. It was a terrible feeling to feel so strongly that you belong and yet also feel so uncomfortable, she was a stranger in her own house and the feeling sat somewhere in her lower stomach where it festered and gnawed at her insides.
  563.  
  564. What was she missing?
  565.  
  566. These and other things she pondered as she leapt from tree to tree before finally landing on the grass. She considered all that she had seen.
  567.  
  568. On first glance, the ram and the moose were the same. They were old, they were hard, they had lived long, hard lives and through it all they had persevered.
  569.  
  570. And, in the end, they both died. One at the jaws a wolf feeding her young and the other at her hands.
  571.  
  572. Huntress stopped. There was something there, this distinction was important. Both went willingly to their deaths, in their own ways they looked forward to it. But where the ram went peacefully, the moose went forcibly.
  573.  
  574. Unnaturally, perhaps?
  575.  
  576. There was nothing unnatural about the Huntress or what she did but perhaps in the circumstances lay the foundation for this burgeoning understanding.
  577.  
  578. The ram had died giving itself up to protect something. On the surface it would appear then that this would prove her insistence that others only made you weak. But was he not willing to fight, willing to die for them? How dissimilar was this ram from a hero, protecting the weak by laying his life on the line? The moose was different, its life ended not through a desire to protect but through a selfish desire to end its own suffering by force. Who then was she to decry the ram’s fate as a byproduct of the weakness of others. Did he not choose his fate, his end? If he had decided, then and there, that this was how he was going to die then by what right did she or anyone else have to denounce it?
  579.  
  580. And what of the wolf? A mother bound by instinct to provide even at her own expense, surely that proved her beliefs. To take on the ram, to take on the ewe defending her own child, surely this was madness; madness brought about by the weakness of others. She’d give her life for her pups, and as they grew they would depend on her to feed them, teach them to hunt, and a thousand other things that would take up her precious time and energy and she’d give it without even a second thought.
  581.  
  582. But was it truly a weakness?
  583.  
  584. Fear for her pups, that same fear that forced the ewe to stand against a predator to protect her own lamb. Such suicidal courage all for the sake of another, it was insane! And yet it was undeniably natural, brave even. Stupid yes, but then so were heroes.
  585.  
  586. And heroes were the hardest of them all.
  587.  
  588. Huntress Wizard looked up into the night sky. She missed Finn. It was a terrible thing to admit, but it was true. She’d been alone so long, and it wasn’t until he was gone, until she had chased him away, that she realized she missed having someone by her side.
  589.  
  590. But if she found what she was after then she’d be weak. And if she was weak then she’d die. But the ram wasn’t weak, the moose wasn’t, and they both still died. The ewe and the wolf had their weaknesses, but they still lived.
  591.  
  592. Was it weakness then? What was weakness? She had always written off others as a weakness, to depend on anything but yourself made you weak, to put anything before yourself meant consigning yourself to weakness. Strength was in you and in you alone.
  593.  
  594. But what if... what if that wasn’t true? To protect her lamb the ewe put herself in harm’s way, willingly putting her life on the line to fight something that could easily kill her. If she had died Huntress would have written it off as weakness, but what if she won? What if she had driven off or even killed the wolf, what then? Well, then she would be strong, yes? But she only did it to protect another, which was a weakness. But if she won then it wouldn’t have been a weakness at all.
  595.  
  596. The lamb was her strength, Huntress realized. Just as the pups were the wolf’s strength. Not a weakness at all, they made them strong. Strong enough to protect what they cared about, strong enough to fight against insurmountable odds, strong enough to lay their life on the line.
  597.  
  598. The epiphany came as quick as a flash of lightning and struck her with all the intensity of a landslide.
  599.  
  600. Strength wasn’t the absence of weakness, but the ability to persevere regardless, to withstand and continue even when the outcome seemed bleak. That was the strength of heroes, that was why they did what they did. To draw your strength from others, not see them not as a weakness to overcome or abandon, but as your motivation to better yourself and strive for the impossible, was just as valid an option as any other.
  601.  
  602. Huntress Wizard closed her eyes, letting the light from the moon above wash over her.
  603.  
  604. She took in a deep breath-
  605.  
  606. -and then she gagged.
  607.  
  608. It was an awful odor that filled her senses, enough to give her a headache and curl her lips back over her teeth in a snarl as a look of sheer disgust scrawled across her face. It was the stink of death, the malodorous miasma of rot and decay. Thick enough to leave a trail in the air as the fumes wafted in the breeze.
  609.  
  610. She followed, more than simple curiosity guiding her. This was the culmination of her efforts, the zenith of her journey.
  611.  
  612. Huntress Wizard stepped out of the tree line and found herself in the clearing by the brook.
  613.  
  614. Before her laid the moose, exactly where she had dropped him. He was undisturbed, nothing to suggest that anything had even moved him. No vultures, no crows, no wolves or jackals or foxes, no tracks or anything. Nothing had been here, nothing at all.
  615. Except for the flies.
  616.  
  617. Huge, black flies. So many of them they were as a cloud of smog over the carcass, the buzzing of a thousand wings droning in the air as they swarmed over the corpse. They alone would enjoy this bounty, even in death nothing wanted the old bull.
  618.  
  619. Too tough to eat, too hard.
  620.  
  621. Hard meat don’t get eat.
  622.  
  623. Except it did. For all his hardness he was still being eaten.
  624.  
  625. Huntress Wizard approached the carcass, desperately trying to stem the tide of rising bile in her throat. It was a disgusting, rotting mess. Without the usual scavengers to clean it up the meat had spoiled, maggots spilled from its popped, distended midsection in a great tidal wave and flies crowded around the extremities and exposed organs and bloated tongue. It was a foul display, Huntress had seen many kills but nothing so noxious before, even a ghoul’s breakfast table looked more wholesome than this.
  626.  
  627. There was the sound of glass breaking, as though from far away.
  628.  
  629. Huntress Wizard sank to her knees, her eyes focusing on the bull’s exposed skull. The eye was missing, rotted away, but she could still feel it judging her.
  630.  
  631. The mask cracked.
  632.  
  633. The dam burst.
  634.  
  635. A clear, terrible understanding befell the Huntress as she stood alone and apart in time and space.
  636.  
  637. This beast was her. It represented everything about her. Her ideals, her motivations, her existence, and her very end were reflected in its great scared body pockmarked by wounds and weapons.
  638.  
  639. All its life it had been hard, it had fought and won so many battles, lived longer than so many of its fellows. Even when the pain must have been tremendous it kept going, pushed on by its inexorable will to live. All traits Huntress Wizard herself espoused, virtues she commended.
  640.  
  641. And yet here it was.
  642.  
  643. It had died, just as all things die, must die. And its life, this life of running and fighting and surviving, had not been much of a life at all. To live to be so old, to live through so much, and for what? To simply exist? What was the point of such a life if it ended like this, if it had continued like this for so long?
  644.  
  645. It was hard yes, but such hardness had only gifted it more pain in the long run. And with an awful clarity she recalled that one eyes staring out at her, so clear and pale, so peaceful in death.
  646.  
  647. It had found peace at last in death.
  648.  
  649. Huntress Wizard reached out and stroked the old dead bull’s naked skull. She leaned down and brushed her lips against the bone, a kiss as light as a feather. The swarm departed with an ominous droning, leaving behind the pale bones of the moose in their wake. The bones sank into the ground with nary a sound, at last reclaimed, accepted, by the earth.
  650.  
  651. Huntress Wizard felt something warm running down her cheek. She stuck a tongue out and lapped out the liquid just as it raced past her lips.
  652.  
  653. Salty.
  654.  
  655. She smiled then, a weight as old and heavy as the mountains had been lifted from her stomach. For the first time since she was a child she felt like she could breathe.
  656.  
  657. But she knew she wasn’t done yet.
  658.  
  659. Huntress Wizard stood up and turned, marching into her forest. The trees discretely shuffled their branches, the grass surreptitiously guided her steps, the wind kissed her cheeks like a child would a mother and the rocks hummed at her passing as the forest welcomed her back home.
  660.  
  661. When she found the Spirit of the Forest he was sitting cross-legged on a mushroom. At his right side sat the old ram, now perhaps not so old, so weighed down by his years as he carried his horns proudly. At his left sat the old bull, his many wounds and souvenirs of war missing, his coat glossy and face restored. The animals both looked at her with knowing glances, their eyes gleaming with a golden light.
  662.  
  663. Before the spirit stood another mushroom. At its right sat the ewe, her eyes closed and a serene smile on her face; her lamb tucked away under her fleece with his leg still red but not nearly as gravely injured as Huntress first suspected. At the left sat the she-wolf, sitting upright and alert, her long red tongue hanging from her mouth as she panted. Before her played her pups, tiny terrors in their own right as they cavorted and played with the wild abandon only the youthful can exert and only the elderly can truly appreciate.
  664.  
  665. Huntress Wizard approached the mushroom and sat on it, assuming her meditative stance.
  666.  
  667. The Spirit opened one eye and smiled at her, it was a warm welcoming smile, the kind she didn’t truly realize just how much she missed until she’d been without it.
  668.  
  669. “Welcome back,” he said in a light, friendly tone.
  670.  
  671. “Hello master,” Huntress said, bowing her head. “I have heeded your words and learned much on my travels.”
  672.  
  673. “Oh?” The Spirit asked, easing out of his meditative trance and opting instead to lean sideways on the mushroom with one hand holding his head up. “Well good, in that case I don’t suppose you could tell me who this is?” With a jerk of the thumb he pointed over to the moose who focused on her with one eye closed and the other opened.
  674.  
  675. Huntress smiled at the old bull. “He is me, he is the embodiment of my beliefs. He is my existence, and my end.”
  676.  
  677. “Does it have to be?” the Spirit asked.
  678.  
  679. Huntress smiled and shook her head. “No, I see that now, for I also know the one on your right.”
  680.  
  681. “Do tell,” the Spirit replied, scratching the head of the ram.
  682.  
  683. “He is the hero. He is… he is Finn.”
  684.  
  685. The Spirit looked at her with a cocked eyebrow and a soft smile, but Huntress Wizard was too busy smiling too notice.
  686.  
  687. “He is the one that sacrifices himself for others, not out of weakness but out of conviction. His power lies in others, and theirs in him. He embodies all they strive for, he defends them even at the cost of his own life. And he does this willingly, he would march knowingly into the jaws of death if it meant saving even one and he would do so content that he did all he could.”
  688.  
  689. Huntress Wizard’s face cracked apart, the glass shards of her carefully constructed mask fell to the forest floor and for the first time since she was a child she cried, and she laughed, and she truly smiled.
  690.  
  691. “I’m starting to understand it,” she whispered in a ragged yet somehow happy voice. “My philosophy is flawed.  These two represent my beliefs but in totally different ways. The bull is hard in spirit and body, his will kept him going beyond the shroud of death but at the cost of his life, his sanity. Only death could free him then, the thing I feared above all else. The ram though, the ram is hard as well. He who gives his life up for others is not weak, protecting others is not a weakness, other people do not make you weak.”
  692.  
  693. And here Huntress paused to glance down at the ewe and wolf, both of them gazing down at their little ones.
  694.  
  695. “Others can make you strong, strong enough to face a fight you wouldn’t otherwise, strong enough to face insurmountable odds and still come out on top. And even if you don’t that’s okay, because at least you tried, at least you lived.”
  696.  
  697. She looked back at the spirit and gave him a sad smile. “I think I’ve been afraid to try lately, to live. The more I learned the more it fed into my obsession. And I was obsessed, obsessed with becoming the strongest, the hardest. I was afraid, I see that now; or rather I’ve always known, I just couldn’t admit it.”
  698.  
  699. “You?” the Spirit asked, his tone betraying neither shock nor derision but merely a gentle knowing.
  700.  
  701. “Yes,” she replied with a nod, “afraid of death.”
  702.  
  703. Huntress paused here to take a deep breath, the memories of her youth catching up to her. Memories of her abandonment, of her brief existence in the forest afterwards, surviving against all odds throughout the winter, eating whatever she could catch or scavenge.
  704.  
  705. And come spring she heard the most beautiful music, and she followed it to a clearing where she saw a funny looking spirit sitting on a mushroom and playing the flute. He spoke in riddles and gave her berries to eat, he taught her the secrets of magic and sent her on her way to learn from the animals.
  706.  
  707. And she threw her old name away and was reborn as the Huntress Wizard.
  708.  
  709. “Fear of growing soft led me to the mad and sad world of wizarding,” she continued. “Fear of death. I thought that if I could become hard I would never die, and in my folly, I pushed you away, pushed the forest away, pushed myself away. Pushed my happiness away even when I knew it was hurting me, all in some misguided belief that I was making myself stronger.”
  710.  
  711. The Huntress frowned at that, her brow tightly knit, and mouth set in a thin grimace.
  712.  
  713. “But I was wrong. Finn and I are the same, magnificent beasts who rise up to the challenges of the world. We are both hard, but I thought if he remained by my side I would grow weak in my happiness, that I would become soft and idle. Not once did I ever consider that he would help me, support me, even though it’s his nature.”
  714.  
  715. Huntress Wizard looked again to the beasts by her patrons’ sides. The bull and the ram focused entirely on her, their eyes searching her and hers theirs.
  716.  
  717. “These beasts were both hard, but in the end they both died. It is inevitable that all things that live die. Even we will die, Finn and I, the difference then is how it shall transpire.”
  718.  
  719. “Finn is a hero, everyday he puts his life on the line to save others. When his time comes it is likely that such a fate shall befall him. And if someone were to tell him the day and the means by which he should pass, he would still go if it meant saving others. He puts others before himself for that is his strength, the strength of a hero. He will have a noble end and like the ram shall nourish the next generation through his sacrifice. Finn will beget wolves in his honor.”
  720.  
  721. “And I am the bull, for whom strength alone is a virtue. I can see clearly now my fate should I continue to follow this path I have chosen. It will be a long existence, but it will not be a life, eluding death for so long that when the time comes, and my soul has grown weary, I will not be able to find it. My strength and my life shall be sapped by the ages no matter how hard I fight it; my end will come in violence, but it shall be an ignoble end. I shall beget nothing but flies, my legacy will be known by none. I will be swallowed up by the earth in spite of all my beliefs and only the forest shall mourn my passing, until even that fades.”
  722.  
  723. Huntress Wizard gasped. The pain in her chest was gone, the weight totally dissipated. She felt free, she felt alive. She looked up at her master with the widest smile she could muster, his strange form blurred by the tears pouring from her eyes and down her face.
  724.  
  725. The Spirit of the Forest smiled at her and he rose into the air. As light as a feather he floated over to his pupil and dried her tears with his thumbs.
  726.  
  727. “My child,” he said, “you are home.” And then he hugged her, and she hugged him back, and she was home again.
  728.  
  729. And when they pulled apart he grinned and wagged a finger at her. “Your desire for strength is understandable, for it is true that the weak shall die and the strong shall live. But what was once strong shall grow weak, and what starts out weak shall grow strong. It is a delicate balance child, and it is one all things are bound too.”
  730.  
  731. “Your folly lay not in seeking strength, but in your desire for power. Power and strength are not the same, for the strength you seek cannot be found in muscles or magic, but in yourself. An inner strength that comes from your very core. When you traveled to Wizard City you did so assuring me that you would come back powerful enough to protect this realm, but what you sought was power to protect yourself from your fears.”
  732.  
  733. The Spirit of the Forest held his arms wide, so wide they encompassed the whole of the forest for he was the forest and just as all things reside in him he does in them.
  734.  
  735. “Mine is the power of nature, and so is yours. By turning your back on death, you turned your back on me, on yourself, for what is nature without life and death? They are fundamental to the great cycle, by denying death all you are doing is denying yourself life. A life spent in fear of death is a life that has not been truly lived. There is no shame in wanting to be hard, just as there is no shame in being eaten, for death only brings new life into this world in its wake. Those that live only for themselves are in turn denying themselves a part in this great dance of existence.”
  736.  
  737. The Spirit smiled down at his astonished pupil and gently cupped her head in his hands. “Leave the past in the past child. Never forget what has led you down this road, but no longer let it tether you, bind you, hold you hostage. You are your own person now, embrace what you have become and throw away the shackles of the past.”
  738.  
  739. Huntress Wizard said nothing, in shock of what she had heard and experienced. The Spirit chuckled at this and floated off a bit, hands behind his head and a smirk on his face.
  740.  
  741. “You remind me of a wolf,” he said, inclining his head towards the she-wolf. “Eyes facing forward, locked in a single-minded pursuit. But perhaps you should give the sheep a try,” and he pointed over to the ewe. “They may not have good depth perception, but they have a much wider range of vision, able to see all around to get the bigger picture. Who knows, you might learn something.”
  742.  
  743. The Spirit of the Forest chuckled as he settled back on his mushroom, eyes closed and a small smile on his face. Huntress Wizard looked at him, then at the wolf, then to the ewe. She smirked a bit, she never fancied herself a sheep but then what did she know? Perhaps a change in venue would do her some good.
  744.  
  745. Huntress Wizard sat up straight, straightening her back and feeling all the world like a freshly sprouted tree.
  746.  
  747. “So then,” the Spirit said conversationally, eyes still closed as he meditated. “Do you know what you have to do?”
  748.  
  749. “Yes,” Huntress replied, smiling to herself and not really caring if it made her look just a little goofy. “But I can’t, not just yet. I will, but I need some time first. Too much has happened, I need some time to think, to find myself again. It’s been a while, I think it’s a bit overdue now.”
  750.  
  751. “You’ll be leaving then?”
  752.  
  753. Huntress Wizard shook her head, sliding off the mushroom and to her feet. “No, this place is my home, if I’m going to find myself than there’s no better place to look than right here. I’m not leaving, I belong here. I’m sorry it took this long for me to figure that out.”
  754.  
  755. The Spirit waved a hand at that and shook his head. Huntress grinned and bowed her head.
  756.  
  757. “Thank you Spirit, for your guidance, your wisdom.”
  758.  
  759. “No prob,” he said, giving her a thumb’s up, “any time.”
  760.  
  761. She nodded her head and turned around, walking into the forest. She suddenly stopped at the tree line, waited a moment, then turned around.
  762.  
  763. “Hey Spirit,” she asked with a cheeky grin, “what was all that stuff about attracting forces coming and going again?”
  764.  
  765. The Spirit’s eyes shot open and he blew a raspberry. “Oh, don’t give me all that baloney,” he rebuked, “we both know you’re totally in love with him!”
  766.  
  767. Huntress Wizard sputtered in righteous indignation, pulling her hood down over her reddening face as she marched off into the woods. The Spirit’s laughter echoed in her ears for a moment but quickly faded, soon to be replaced by birdsong.
  768.  
  769. Huntress Wizard pushed through the tree line and was greeted by the warm glow of the morning sun rising in the sky. The fog was gone, dissipating in the early morning light. The trees whispered her name as the wind shook their leaves, the grass below her feet called out to her, and all around she could feel the gentle pull of the forest deep inside her.
  770.  
  771. Huntress Wizard took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. When she looked out into the forest she did so with a gleam in her eyes and a smile on her face.
  772.  
  773. It was a great day for a hunt.
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