Double D's

Jul 30th, 2018
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  1. >Leaves crunched softly underfoot in dense forest.
  2. >The canopy high above cut deep, dark patches out of the waning sun.
  3. >Cool and damp air washed against her face as she prowled through the woods.
  4. >You are Zecora, travelling ranger, protector of the forest and its inhabitants, and of the Realm of the Princesses from those that would invade its borders.
  5. >You've crossed this forest a thousand times, every twig and leaf, every new baby born and mighty Stag killed registered to your senses.
  6. >The forest spoke, it was alive and you were privy to its secrets.
  7. >The heft of your bow was familiar, as was the draw strength.
  8. >An arrow was knocked, and it was let go.
  9. >It traveled straight and true, and the beast in your sights fell to the earth with a strangled groan.
  10. >You were on the groaning creature in an instant.
  11. >The dirk strapped to the small of your back was slid from its scabbard and cut the life of the buck short.
  12. “Rest easy now mighty buck. I should hope your life brings me much monetary luck.”
  13. >Your sword slices through the buck’s stomach.
  14. >With practiced ease you empty its entrails.
  15. >They would be left behind, either to feed the other animals in the forest, or to provide nutrients to the soil.
  16. >You heft the heavy deer carcass onto your back and grab it by the legs.
  17. >Time to make your way back to civilization, the meat wouldn’t be worth anything if left out too long.
  19. >The well-worn path to the nearest town was one you had taken a hundred times, at least.
  20. >Vines and low-lying plants nearly covered the trail, and anyone not accustomed to it would surely be lost.
  21. >But not you, you navigate it with ease.
  22. >You stop, your ears perking as the sound of a herd rumbling across the main road that connected to the lesser-traveled path you were on crashed through the forest, a pounding symphony that echoed through the trees.
  23. >You drop the carcass and roll it into the underbelly of a tree.
  24. >You hoped the roots that now concealed it would protect it from other predators.
  25. >The pounding, rumbling noise grew louder as you approach, hidden in the shadows of mighty trees and the underbrush climbing up around your crouched form.
  26. >A troupe of golden-armored knights were trudging down the wide dirt path.
  27. >There was twenty of them, or more, all with determined, scowling faces.
  28. >Their armor clinked and rustled, and the swords strapped to their sides bobbed in time with their walking.
  29. >They weren’t wearing any sort of traveling equipment, and that made you wonder what they were up to.
  30. >You could count the number of times royal knights came out this far.
  31. >Your eyes strayed from the shining knights to the horizon.
  32. >Thick, billowing clouds of black smoke rose over the horizon.
  33. >That wasn’t good.
  36. >You could hunt another buck, but you couldn’t grow another forest.
  37. >Other predators would take the kill eventually, it wouldn’t go to waste.
  38. >You were fine with that.
  39. >Seeing who was burning your forest down to the ground was probably more important, you decide.
  40. >Your movements are swift and true, but it seemed the billowing black clouds of smoke doubled in number with every step.
  41. >A sense of urgency overtakes you, your heart states thundering in your chest and your cheeks burn with effort as you speed up.
  42. >Whatever was doing this was big.
  43. >Really, really big.
  44. >The dozens of magical entities in the forest wouldn’t do this, and a fire elemental wouldn’t be that powerful, and that definitely didn’t bode well.
  45. >You could see the flames, thundering and roaring like a lion and streaming far into the air like a Phoenix.
  46. >Still, it seemed like you were miles away, no matter how fast you ran.
  47. >You sucked in a great gasp of air and tried to ignore the burn in your muscles, but you couldn’t.
  48. [Exhaustion Status Effect Applied] [-1 Constitution] [-1 HP]
  49. >You involuntarily slowed to a stop and leaned heavily against a tree.
  50. >Lungs burning, and sweat pouring down your face, you let yourself recuperate.
  51. >All the while the flames seemed the grow brighter, and the grove of trees lit up in the night sky like lanterns.
  52. >Those trees looked awfully familiar…
  53. >You push yourself away from the tree you were leaning against and begin to run again.
  54. >Slower, this time, a pace you could keep up with.
  55. >It felt like you had been running for miles.
  56. >The heat of the burning trees begins to settle on your face, the closer you get the more painful it becomes to look at the intense inferno.
  57. >That’s when it hits you.
  58. >The hissing and crackling that you assumed was caused by the trees boiling out the water inside of it wasn’t either, it was screaming.
  59. >You were a hundred or so feet from the grove of trees, and the scene begins to unfold.
  60. >Dark, decrepit figures shambling about, wielding torches and rusted, ugly-looking swords.
  61. >They were masked by the darkness of night and the blazing fire that cut their features into amorphous figures.
  62. >Women and men alike were screaming as the figures, dozens or even hundreds of them, came out from every direction.
  63. >You ducked down and pulled your cloak tighter around yourself.
  64. [+5 Dexterity]
  65. >You crept closer, so you were only fifty feet away from the horrific scene.
  66. >Dozens of the shambling, groaning figures were cutting down people of all ages, of all races, completely indiscriminately.
  67. >They did have one thing in common.
  68. >They were all druids.
  69. >You recognized the marking the druids carved into their trees with their magic, and you had to wonder with dawning horror was sort of magic was powerful enough to destroy trees imbued with druidic protection spells.
  70. >The figures attacking the druids were coming from every direction, even right next to you.
  71. >You couldn’t see them clearly, but you could feel a cold, soul-sucking chill wash over you every time one of their eerily, shining blue eyes passed.
  72. >Irregardless of the light, their eyes were plainly visible.
  73. >A blood curdling scream sundered the air, and your eyes locked onto a girl hopelessly fending off hordes of the… Things.
  76. >You look mournfully at the other druids- they were surrounded by the flames of their trees, and the hordes that ever encroached on them.
  77. >The girl had been separated, she was reachable.
  78. >Like a ghost you slid from tree to tree as quickly as you could, but even then the shambling figures never glanced away from the grove, never moved in any direction but that one.
  79. >Odd.
  80. >The girl was valiantly trying to fend off the half dozen figures, her hands alight with magic.
  81. >The closer you got, the more you could see her state.
  82. >Barely standing, her body was drenched in sweat and there was a nasty burn on the left half of her face.
  83. >The already thin garments that druids were known for was reduced to sunders, it hang loosely off her trembling form.
  84. >Shuffling, moaning beings slowly trudged their way to her.
  85. >She let out a primal, almost inhuman scream and blasted magic at the closest being with a punch.
  86. >To your shock, the magic splattered harmlessly against the decrepit figure.
  87. >But the massive root that came out and slammed into it tore it apart.
  88. >She was breathing even harder after that, it seemed to take a lot out of her with every use.
  89. >Horror and revulsion constricted your chest when the pieces of the body that she was smashed apart slowly began to put themselves back together with sickening squelching sounds.
  90. >The being rose from the ground, groaning and gasping, its throat gurgling as if filled with water.
  91. >You sprint around the outside of the circle and dive into the roots of a massive tree, thankfully it wasn’t on fire.
  92. >The way several groaning figures were shambling that way told you that it wouldn’t be untouched for long.
  93. >You whip out your bow and, with precise draws of the string, send arrows flying into circle that encroached on the girl.
  94. >The arrows didn’t pierce there heads- it seemed nothing would stop them, but the arrows shattering their knee caps worked just as well.
  95. >Several crumpled to the ground, their hands desperately pulling them forward.
  96. >The girl, seeing the gap in the circle, stumbled her way towards it.
  97. >You lunged out from your hidden position and grabbed her.
  98. >She was larger than you, but a lot thinner.
  99. >You grabbed her around the waist and pulled her along, sprinting towards trees a little farther out.
  100. >The gasping, gurgling voices and empty eyes seemed to have noticed you, with the way their moaning turned ever-hungrier.
  101. >You could feel their hungry, soulless blue eyes dig deep into your back, and you hoped it wasn’t their teeth that would up doing it instead.
  102. >The both of you duck behind a large, outstretched tree a hundred or so yards from the battle, where druids were still valiantly attempting to fight off the innumerable horde.
  103. >Your chest felt tight, watching the druids slowly get ripped to shreds, but you couldn’t help them.
  104. >The babbling, hungry figures shuffling towards you was of bigger concern.
  105. >You unclasp your cloak and throw it over the near-comatose druid.
  106. >Hopefully these things couldn’t smell.
  107. >The pair of dirks tied to your belt horizontally at the small of your back slid from their scabbard with a hiss.
  108. >Like a jaguar leaping into action, you became a blur of metal and leather.
  109. >Limbs were hacked to pieces, heads chopped in half, and bodies piled high.
  110. >Bodies that didn’t stay down, or even in pieces.
  111. >They were reforming as quickly as you could kill them, but it took almost no effort to do so.
  112. >You kept them at a distance, never letting them encircle you.
  113. >Hack a limb, then duck back.
  114. >It seemed to be working.
  115. >The right hand of one of those things was cleaved in two by your short sword just as it touched you.
  116. >That had been far, far too close.
  117. >You had to lead these things away, get them away from the half-dead girl just feet away.
  118. >Like a top, you became a swirling vortex of steel and leather once more, completely drawing the attention of the half-dozen monsters that had followed you.
  119. >You backed up until you were just outside the sacred grove.
  120. >Fires blazed at in a half-circle around the massive clearing, not to mention the beings burning the druid’s homes to the ground with torches.
  121. >The last of the druids themselves were being herded into a circle in the center, and were quickly being overwhelmed.
  122. >You stopped, your whole body still among the chaos that flashed around you.
  123. >Gleaming, golden armor reflected off the orange flames, and the screams of the tortured became furious screams of warriors.
  124. >The Royal Knights had finally arrived.
  125. >You readied your bow, the Royal Knights were beginning to cut their way through the horde nearest to them, they wouldn’t be of any help to you.
  126. >You quickly nocked an arrow and let it fly, collapsing the nearest of the half-dozen figures.
  127. >It let out a hungry, rasping growl as it began to drag itself towards you.
  128. >The thing was slow, far too slow to be of any importance.
  129. >Three more arrows were let loose, and the number of walking, groaning figures was now only a fraction.
  130. >You reached back over your shoulder to grab another arrow, but your hand met an empty quiver.
  131. >Wet, rasping moaning made you vault forward, away from the being that had turned away from the horde travelling towards the druids, and towards you.
  132. >The Royal Knights, you saw, were getting the horde distracted, pulling them to their position with the pounding of sword-wielding fists on square shields.
  133. >The horde just behind you turned towards them, and a contingent of them fixed their soulless blue gaze on you.
  134. >Your leap landed you just in front of the nearest upright monster.
  135. >Your reaction time was quick, and a swipe of the dirk now held in your hand made it fall to the earth.
  136. >Directly on top of you.
  137. >The putrid smell of sickeningly-sweet decay burned at your nose, and the thing’s gnashing, gnarled teeth came inches from tearing a chunk out of your neck.
  138. >You grab it by the collar of the rusted, ancient armor it was wearing, and tried to throw it off.
  139. >The bony, cold hands wrapped around the straps of your armor, and it began to slowly overpower you.
  140. >You had yet to see one of these things up close, their features had always been obscured under the cover of night or by the deep shadows cast by the raging inferno they had started.
  141. >That changed. You saw it. Every open, gaping chasm showing half-decayed flesh or pearly white bone, every maggot and worm-infested hole. None of that phased you, not like the nerve-trembling mark branded onto the undead’s skull.
  142. >Irregardless of your horror at the very thought of a massive army of undead, seemingly never-ending, never-stopping, ever-reassembling….
  143. >It sent you reeling.
  144. >Yet the mark on the being’s forehead, made of an inky-black substance, cast deep into its flesh, made the horror you were feeling triple.
  145. >These weren’t average undead, raised by petty necromancers.
  146. >They were the servants of a Lich.
  147. >Your throat constricted, you couldn’t scream, couldn’t think, all you could do was try to push this thing off, and hope the other undead wouldn’t tear you apart before you could escape.
  148. >Every nerve ending fired in your body, telling you to get away, run, never look back.
  149. >With a burst of strength you didn’t know you had in you, you threw the Lich’s servant off you.
  150. >It was too late, the undead were closing in far too fast for you to escape…
  152. >A gleaming, golden figure shocked you, as it descended onto the undead.
  153. >A shield, wider, taller, and probably heavier than you was followed by a broad, heavily-armored figure as they smashed like a bull through one side of the undead with ease.
  154. >The Knight roared and swung the mace that made your arm look small around in a wide arc, completely obliterating the skulls of three more undead with a single swing.
  155. >With another swing, the undead were lying in a twitching, groaning circle around you.
  156. >”Stand and fight, Ranger!”
  157. >The voice was odd, unlike the usual gruffness of a man’s, so eerily similar to a woman’s…
  158. >The Knight stuck their shield into the grove’s soft soil and grabbed you by the collar of your leather armor.
  159. >As easy as picking up a newborn, they pulled you to your feet.
  160. >You took a second to respond, still in awe at the power wielded so easily by the warrior.
  161. “I- Thank you, noble Knight, for your assistance in my fight.”
  162. >They didn’t respond past picking up their shield and starting another devastating path of destruction.
  163. >You looked around at the battlefield, drinking in the sight of the grove.
  164. >The fires still raged as furiously as ever, the druids had been cut in half, and the knights seemed to slowly be slowing down in their zeal under the assault of the never-ending horde of Lich Servants.
  165. >You then look at the path that the knight who had come to your rescue had taken.
  167. >You were out of arrows, and you couldn’t fend off a horde by yourself with just your swords, so you started to run after the charging Knight.
  168. >They weren’t fast, carrying all that armor and smashing head-long into dozens of undead.
  169. >You caught up with them in moments.
  170. >Like a human wrecking ball the Knight was smashing Undead with great, wide swings of her brilliantly gleaming mace that was now stained with black ichor.
  171. >Not blood, no, these things didn’t bleed.
  172. “Knight” you called, “We must find the lich summoning these monsters, if we are to snuff out their light.”
  173. >The Knight stopped, and turned around to look at you.
  174. >”Lich?”
  175. “You can tell by the symbol on their head. If we do not kill the Lich summoning them, we are surely dead.”
  176. >The Knight shattered the jaw of an undead that shambled too close, then jogged over to you.
  177. >”Show me.”
  178. “I can not, I am afraid, somewhere outside our range no doubt this Lich has stayed.”
  179. >The Knight let out a low growl, “Then find it so we can kill it. Rangers are supposed to be good at that, aren’t they?”
  180. >The both of you began to retreat from the fight- the other Knights were handling themselves.
  181. >They wouldn’t for long, though.
  182. >You grab your chin, and think, long and hard.
  183. >Where would a Lich be hiding?
  184. >It couldn’t be too far away, they had to be close enough to command their undead hordes.
  185. >Less than a mile, you would guess, but at the same time, the Lich’s control over the undead wasn’t the greatest.
  186. >If it was, the horde wouldn’t have been distracted, not even for a second.
  187. >So either the Lich was far away, or their magic was being hindered.
  188. “I think the Lich is hiding around the grove, their magic is likely being interrupted by the magic in the trees, which makes me think they’re hiding in an alcove.”
  189. >The Knight rubbed a gloved hand across their helmeted face, wiping away most of the ichor that stained the golden metal.
  190. >”An alcove huh? I thought I saw one of those massive trees have a little opening at the bottom…”
  191. “We must be quick, so we can stop this conjuring trick.”
  192. >”Right, follow me. Stay close, you’re out of arrows and my reach isn’t long enough to keep you from getting ripped to shreds if you’re a mile behind me.”
  193. “I’ll follow your lead, but a warning of mine you should heed. Lich’s are cunning, their powers are immense and could send you running.”
  194. >”I can handle myself. Let’s get moving.”
  195. >The Knight broke into a dead run, and you followed, hot on their heels.
  196. >They didn’t stop, not for anything.
  197. >Any undead that happened to be in your way was shattered by the hefty mace, or thrown out of the way by the wide shield strapped to the Knight’s left arm.
  198. >You weren’t useless, with every swing of your sword grasping arms and gnashing teeth were lopped off.
  199. >Even if you didn’t kill them, it didn’t matter.
  200. >The Lich had to go down.
  202. >”In here”, the Knight said, gesturing into a the wide, deep underbelly of a tree.
  203. >It looked like it had been hollowed out.
  204. >You couldn’t see more than a few feet in before the inky blackness obscured your vision, and you weren’t entirely sure that this was a good idea…
  205. >”Come on, don’t back out now”, the Knight said, giving you a small push.
  206. “You’re correct, We should go now, before my mind pushes me to defect.”
  207. >The Knight looked around at all the chaos, the hordes, the Knights across the way that were still valiantly holding off the undead.
  208. >They had holed up in a trenched area, fending off the mountains of shambling, grumbling undead that climbed over each other to reach them.
  209. >”Let’s go.”
  210. >You nodded, and the pair of you descended into the darkness.
  211. >An eerie, glowing light lit the back of the tree, almost two dozen or so feet away.
  212. >It was hard to tell in this darkness.
  213. >The Knight went first, shield raised and mace gripped tight.
  214. >”So… I see you have discovered my current lair…”
  215. >A voice, smooth as silk, echoed throughout the chamber.
  216. >”I was sure I could kill those pesky druids and knights before someone discovered the truth of my horde…”
  217. >You felt a shiver run down your spine.
  218. >That voice… It was so sickeningly-sweet, it sounded decayed and rotten, but at the same time it reminded you of how a serpent would speak.
  219. >”Show yourself, coward!”
  220. >The Knight banged on her shield and looked around.
  221. >You tried to see through the darkness, but the light at the end of the chamber was all you could make out.
  222. >”If that is what you wish…”
  223. >Light exploded into being.
  224. >Your eyes cringed as the light washed over them for the first time since the sun had set.
  225. >It looked like it was coming from nowhere.
  226. >You didn’t look around, no, there was no need.
  227. >The Lich was clearly visible.
  228. >It was dressed in black, patched robes, and you could see brilliant vermilion flames dancing in skeletal hands.
  229. >There was one eerily blue eye, just like the undead outside, staring at you from under the hood.
  230. >The skeletal fingers danced merrily, in a morbid tune.
  231. >“The pair of you… Shall make fine additions to my horde…”
  232. >The Knight bashed her shield again, “Come on then! We can take you down!”
  233. >“Of that I have no doubt” the Lich stated, “But will you have an easier time against my… Personal guardian?”
  234. >The vermilion flames roared to life and flashed across the cavern, striking a half-rotten corpse just in front of the Lich.
  235. >The Knight, for the first time you could remember, looked uneasy.
  236. >A great beast rose from the dirt.
  237. >Sinew connected its muzzle and you could still see patches of brown, bloody fur, and entrails that hung loose, like morbid necklaces, around its neck.
  238. >It was a bear, an undead one, but bigger than any you had ever seen.
  239. >It dominated the entire cavern, its head ghosted the ceiling and the eerie blue eyes it had were blazing with hunger.
  240. >The bear dropped to four legs, and let out a deafening roar.
  242. >The Knight next to you took a step back, and their grip seemed to falter on their mace.
  243. >”We might be in trouble…”
  244. “Size is but one factor to be battled, do not let this aberration make you rattled.”
  245. >”You’re right.”
  246. >The Knight hefted their shield and settled into a wide stance.
  247. >”Try to take out that Lich, I can handle this.”
  248. >The bear seemed content to growl menacingly, its eyes never straying for even a second.
  249. >The Lich’s skull looked like it was twisted into an amused grin, and its burning blue eye seemed to be waiting for them to attack before it commanded the bear to do anything.
  250. >”Yes… Try to kill me, little ranger…”
  251. “No, that’s a recipe for suicide. In this fight I shall stay by your side.”
  252. >”If you insist”, the Knight said.
  253. >”Ooh… Are you starting now…?”
  254. >The bear let out another deafening roar, and began to charge.
  255. >You both rolled out of the way.
  256. >The bear turned on its heel and swiped at the Knight.
  257. >Deep gouges scarred their armor without barely a thought, the razor-sharp claws cutting through the metal like paper.
  258. >You twirled your swords in your hands and ran after the massive monster.
  259. >The Knight roared back and pulled off the breastplate that now lay in tatters, great holes ripped into the metal across the side.
  260. >They swung at the bear with their shield, shattering the great beast’s face.
  261. >The bear’s head jerked away, before it turned back and bit at the Knight.
  262. >Its shattered jaw was already reforming, the tiny pieces of the bone molding back into shape at the Lich’s command.
  263. >”More… More!” the Lich crooned, swiping its hand and cackling merrily.
  264. >”Yes, fight! Kill! Destroy them both!”
  265. >The Knight swung at the bear with its mace, but with almost lightning-fast reflexes, the bear caught the wooden shaft in its mouth and shattered the wood.
  267. >You had been sneaking up on the bear, it was fast, too fast for you to dodge out of the way if it knew you were coming and turned around.
  268. >It seemed the Lich was too occupied with the Knight to pay you much attention.
  269. >Your sword swiped through the bear’s hind leg, unbalancing it with a startled growl.
  270. >The bear collapsed, letting you vault onto its back.
  271. >You jammed your sword into the bear’s spine, but the magic holding it together was too strong for you to decapitate it.
  272. >With a mighty yank you pulled your sword free.
  273. >You had to hurry, the bear’s leg was reforming and it wouldn’t take long for it to tear you apart once it got back up onto its legs.
  274. >The Knight took that chance to smash the bear in the face with their shield before raising the wide piece of metal.
  275. >”Jam your sword into the bear’s neck!”
  276. >You did as the Knight said, with a great downward thrust the sword was lodged in between the bear’s skull and vertebrae.
  277. >The Knight followed, slamming her shield into the spot you had begun to separate with your sword.
  278. >The bear’s mighty roar of defiance was cut off as its head clattered to the ground.
  279. >The Knight had to leap back, leaving their shield, as the bear’s head kept snapping at them.
  280. >Leg reformed, the body of the bear shook you off, throwing you hard to the ground.
  281. >Your blade was still stuck in the space between the vertebrae, so you only had one left.
  282. >”Now! The Lich! Before the bear get’s up-krgh”
  283. >The Lich’s laugh boomed in the wood-ceiling’d cavern when the bear’s headless body caught the Knight’s helmet and launched them back towards the entrance.
  284. >”You thought it so easy? I am in control of the bear! It has no need of a head!”
  285. >The Knight gasped and ripped off the crumpled helmet.
  286. >Dark bruises were already covering half of… Her… face.
  287. >”Ged dah Lish!” She commanded, gripping her face.
  288. >You nodded and launched yourself at the Lich.
  289. >It wasn’t expecting the quickness of your movements, and your blade ran through its head.
  290. >You could hear the ‘pop’ of phylactery, the source of its power and the binder of its soul.
  291. >The Lich stopped, and you could hear the bones of the bear clatter to the ground.
  292. >You breathed a sigh of relief and your shoulders slumped.
  293. >”Hehe… Hahaha… HaHAHAHA!”
  294. >The Lich grabbed the sword that was ran through its skull and ripped it out, the skeletal fingers held the blade tight and its jaw seemed to curve into a malevolent grin.
  295. >”As if I would keep my most treasured item within this body…”
  296. >The Lich blasted you away, sending you sprawling next to the Knight.
  297. >This was… Bad.
  298. >The Lich didn’t reform the Bear, rather it seemed the amusement of the situation had fled for it.
  299. >It’s hands blazed bright with purple fire.
  300. >The Knight worked her jaw up and down.
  301. >Half of her face was almost black with bruises, and it looked like she couldn’t see out of that eye at all.
  302. >”Why’s da Lish not dead?”
  303. “We did not kill the item binding it’s soul, the phylactery, without destroying that our outcome against this monster will be… Unsatisfactory.”
  304. >The Knight struggled to her feet and grabbed your sword that had landed next to you.
  305. >It looked more like a dagger in the woman’s large hands.
  306. >”Find da thingy, Ah’ll fight da Lish.”
  308. “As you desire. Careful of the purple in the Lich’s hands, it’s enchanted fire.”
  309. >”Noded.”
  310. >The Knight screamed and charged the Lich.
  311. >You held back, praying for the Knight’s safety.
  312. >There wasn’t anything you could do to the Lich anyway, not without a weapon, and getting close enough to grab your other sword from the bear’s neck might make the Lich turn it’s attention towards you.
  313. >You breathed in deeply, and closed your eyes.
  314. >The forest was alive, and you were privy to the secrets held within it’s boughs.
  315. >Every broken branch, every burned leaf.
  316. >You opened your eyes and scanned the room around you, no doubt with the fine control the Lich had its phylactery would be somewhere very close.
  317. >Inside the cavern, you would guess, if it were outside the latent magic infused in the tree above would surely block the vile magic.
  318. >Just being near the undead, and especially the Lich’s body, made your skin crawl, you imagined it was similar for the trees that dominated the area.
  319. >Thick roots covered the walls, sinking down into the soft soil.
  320. >Your eyes crawled over every inch of the walls, the floor, the ceiling.
  321. >There could be so many places that a phylactery could be hidden, so many little crevices that could hide an object.
  322. >But Lich’s weren’t so keen on leaving their most precious possession unguarded.
  323. >You could see the slight shimmering of magic around one particularly withered looking root, as if a vile plague had reduced it to a state barely befitting of its grand magic.
  324. >It was cleverly hidden, right past and to the right of the Skeleton, entangled in other vines that masked the withered look it had.
  325. >You caught it, though.
  326. >You looked back to the Knight, with only one eye and one short sword she was fending off two finely controlled skeletons, each armored better than she was.
  328. >It was old, rusted armor, and even rustier swords, but even a rusty sword could puncture the thin tunic she was wearing.
  329. >Your legs felt like jelly, and your whole body felt like it was made of lead.
  330. >That didn’t change the situation, you had to get that phylactery.
  331. >You sucked in a deep breath, and began to sprint towards the back wall.
  332. >The Lich was staring directly at the Knight, like a puppet master it was directing every swing of the skeletal knight’s swords.
  333. >They were much deadlier than the mindless hordes just outside.
  334. >That distraction was good for you, you reached the withered branch without much trouble.
  335. >The shimmering magic stayed your hand, whatever it did could only be bad.
  336. >You crouched low, hiding almost completely by a root that stuck up a little higher than the others, and looked around for something.
  337. >A loose branch caught your eye, and you picked it up.
  338. >Gently, you prodded the magical bubble.
  339. >It popped, as if it were a real bubble.
  340. >That gave you pause.
  341. >You looked at the tip of the branch, it was completely unharmed.
  342. >”Wash out!”
  343. >You leaped away from the thick root at the Knight’s shout, just as a great sword cut it apart.
  344. >The Lich’s pair of skeletons advanced on you quickly.
  345. >It seemed the magic bubble alerted the Lich whenever someone got too close.
  346. >You could see it reforming until it was completely covering the withered root again.
  347. >The skeletons weren’t slow, shambling monsters, the Lich made sure of that.
  348. >They were almost on top of you, and you leaped away from them again, towards the half-decayed bear carcass.
  349. >You wrenched your sword free and brandished it at them.
  350. >The first skeleton that got near you slammed its massive sword down onto yours, and you just managed to deflect the blow.
  351. [-2 hp]
  352. >The impact sent tremors up your arm.
  353. >The second was stopped by the Knight smashing its head apart with her great gauntlet-ed fists.
  354. >She reached for the second, but the skeleton swung the massive sword it was holding in a wide arc, it twisted almost all the way around at its spine.
  355. >The Knight grunted as the blow impacted her left gauntlet that she raised to protect her face.
  356. >Your sword, it seems, had been lost somewhere, as the Knight was unarmed.
  357. >That didn’t make her helpless, she moved like a tank, every swing of her fists shattering bones and throwing the skeletons around like paper.
  358. >The skeletons just couldn’t stay down, they were reforming just as fast as she destroyed them.
  359. >You dodged past the skeletal beings and sprinted towards the withered root.
  360. >A great gout of fire from the furious Lich splashed against the roots just next to you.
  361. >It seemed it didn’t want to hit its precious phylactery.
  362. >You ignored the scorching heat and clenched your jaw
  363. [-1 hp]
  364. >You jammed your fist in between the still-green roots and into the withered, decaying one.
  365. >Your hand desperately sought the feeling of metal, glass, stones, whatever it was that the Lich made its phylactery from.
  366. >You could hear the Lich chanting a spell that would surely kill you…
  367. >Your hand touched something cold, and you yanked your arm out of the hole you had created.
  368. >The spell’s heat was visible, even from a distance, but it was traveling towards you.
  369. >You could feel it, you could see it, a great gout of purple flames.
  370. >Before it could touch you, incinerate you, the Knight leaped in front of the fire and took it to her armored forearms.
  371. >The fire washed over the gauntlets, already they were white hot and they would be melting soon if you didn’t destroy the phylactery.
  372. >The Knight screamed in agonizing pain.
  373. >You took the chance and threw the small glass bauble over the Knight’s head, and directly into the blazing gout of fire.
  374. >The chamber went still, the fire puttered out, and the sounds of fighting outside ground to a halt.
  375. >All that was left was the screaming.
  376. >The screaming of the Knight as she clutched her arms, the roar of the Royal Guards still outside, the horrified screams of the druids as they observed their destroyed homes.
  377. >It was over.
  378. >The Lich was no more.
  379. >The Knight in front of you ripped off the armor attached below her elbow and roared in pain as the deep burns lit white hot against her flesh.
  380. >She collapsed, the pain too much.
  381. >Unconscious.
  382. >You felt like doing the same, but you had to see if the Lich was really dead.
  383. >What you found was a pile of bones and a tattered, old robe.
  384. >Neither of them moved, and the magic that made you shiver in disgust was gone.
  385. >You just caught site of a symbol on the Lich’s skull as it faded as the life of the Lich was extinguished.
  386. >You saw an ‘S’ ground in ash on the Lich’s forehead for a measly second before it was blow away in the non-existent wind.
  387. >The skull clattered to the floor, and you fell to your knees.
  388. >You had done it.
  389. >You had won.
  390. >You wanted to lay down and go to sleep for a year, but you knew you couldn’t.
  391. >The woman next to you needed your help, not to mention that druid you had saved earlier.
  392. >So, you struggled to your feet, jelly-legged and weak-kneed.
  393. >Your swords were scatted across the floor, but you really didn’t want to get them, and the battle was over.
  394. >Climbing the handful of steps out of the warm underbelly of the tree felt like climbing a mountain, but the crisp, night air helped to wake you up.
  395. >The Royal Knights across the grove were still waiting, shields raised and weapons held high.
  396. >Druids- the few that were left- were hidden behind them, cowering, waiting.
  397. >Ash fell on them like snow, dusting their armor and clothes.
  398. >The fires had gone out, it seemed now that the Lich was dead the enchanted fire had finally waned as the magic of the sacred grove overwhelmed it.
  399. >The Knights across the grove were looking around at the mounds of dead, unmoving carcasses, before they spotted you.
  400. >One broke off, shield still raised and sword held high.
  401. >”Halt! Are you dead or alive?”
  402. >You stopped one you got close enough and the dead bodies became too difficult for your exhausted body to clamber over.
  403. “The Lich controlling these beasts is dead, into that tree your comrade and I were led. Go now to help her, or death shall soon claim that mighty warrior.”
  404. >The Knight seemed surprised when you spoke, and he quickly relaxed.
  405. >The darkness shadowed you from view, no doubt you looked much like the undead you had helped kill.
  406. >A small team of Knights, at the one standing in front of you’s command, headed towards the tree you had pointed towards.
  407. >The Knight speaking to you approached you, and wound an arm around your shoulder.
  408. >”You are a ranger, are you not?” He asked.
  409. “Indeed, to that path I am keyed.”
  410. >The Knight was practically carrying you back to the group.
  411. >You could barely stand, so perhaps it was for the best.
  412. >The Knight carrying you had immediately taken you to the druids.
  413. >They seemed eager to heal you, but you couldn’t be bothered to care much, yet.
  414. “Across the grove, under that tree there, hidden under my cloak is another of your kind. I must tell you before I, too, lose the ability to think in my higher mind.”
  415. >Several Knights broke off and returned in moments, carrying the druid on one of their shields.
  416. >They set her down next to you, and next to that they finally laid the Knight that had helped you fight the Lich.
  417. >To your right were more injured, most of them unconscious.
  418. >You shuddered when you thought of what happened to the bodies of those that had perished, for the undead were not known to leave a corpse whole, until it was reanimated.
  419. >”Easy”, one of the druids said, resting a glowing hand to your forehead.
  420. >The druid healing you was giving you a smile, and the sparkle in her vibrant green eyes caught your attention.
  421. >It was cold, and the ash fell like snow around you, and it smelled of the dead and blood, but still, you could barely keep awake.
  422. >The druid above you seemed to realize this, and she leaned in to whisper sweetly into your ear.
  423. >”Thank you for saving TreeHugger, and all of us. I wouldn’t know what would have happened if you weren’t there, noble ranger.”
  424. “Zecora.” You muttered.
  425. >The girl above you giggled and ran a glowing-green hand down your chest, restoring energy in every one of your cells.
  426. >”Nice to meet you Zecora. I’m Roseluck.”
  427. “Rose…luck…”
  428. >You could barely speak, and Junebug smiled at you again.
  429. >Junebug placed a hand over your eyes and slid them down for you.
  430. >You couldn’t open them.
  431. >You were asleep.
  433. >”Morning Zecora. How are you feeling?”
  434. >You woke up with a start, your entire body tingling.
  435. >You couldn’t remember the last time you had felt this good.
  436. >The sky was bright and the sun beamed through the canopy, the ash had settled, and it seemed the forest was already back to where it was before.
  437. >You knew better, the steely smell of copper and the sickeningly sweet stench of death hung over the groves like a dark cloud.
  438. >You awoke just as Roseluck was healing an injured Knight next to you.
  439. ”I feel great, your healing skill carries much weight.”
  440. >”…Thank you?”
  441. >You looked around, at the druid you had saved- who was named Treehugger, you remember- then the Knight next to you that you knew.
  442. >You couldn’t see your swords, nor your cloak.
  443. >Just as you stood to find them, your stomach rumbled.
  445. “Your healing has been a great service to me, you see, but I must find my sword and cloak, now that I have been awoke.”
  446. >”Your gear?” Roseluck asked, “It’s probably still where you left it. Come on, let me-”
  447. >Roseluck grabbed you by the arm and helped you stand up.
  448. >Her arm wound around your waist and she put yours around her neck.
  449. “That is very kind, help getting to where I need to go, I would not mind.”
  450. >Roseluck was patient and helpful, she kept you steady as you worked your way through the veritable sea of bodies.
  451. >You could see Roseluck looking up into the forest canopy rather than down into the bodies, and the scraps of fabric and the fresh-looking, mutilated corpses told you why.
  452. “I am sorry you have lost the ones you love, but I am sure they are glad that the monsters that killed them are rid of.”
  453. >Roseluck stiffened a little.
  454. >”I’m sure they’d be happier if they didn’t get torn apart by monsters.” She muttered.
  455. >You fell silent, and a blush heated your cheeks.
  456. >Stupid, stupid, stupid!
  457. >Roseluck helped you wade through the last of the corpses, then separated.
  458. >”Sorry Zecora, I really should get back to tending to my people and the Knights that are still injured…”
  459. “Not to worry my dear, if we part without a goodbye, then I wish you good cheer.”
  460. >”Thanks”, Roseluck muttered, starting her journey back.
  461. >Your blush burned up and down your face, but you shook it off to focus on the task at hand.
  462. >Roseluck dropped you off in front of the tree.
  463. >You were quick- well, as quick as you could be- to stumble down the steps carved into the dirt.
  464. >The chamber smelled as rancid as it did the first time.
  465. >Your swords were located, grabbed, and you vacated the underbelly of the giant tree.
  466. >You really had no desire to stay down there longer than you had to.
  467. >You limped over towards the root you had hidden the druid in the night before.
  468. >Thankfully the path there was clear of undead.
  469. >Your cloak was hanging from the root, and you threw it over your shoulders.
  470. >The familiar weight settled across your shoulders and helped calm your nerves.
  471. >The distance back, without Roseluck’s help, felt like ten miles as you struggled over hundreds of undead.
  472. >Your arrows were… Somewhere in there, and you really didn’t want to go looking.
  473. >No doubt the undead you had taken down had gotten mixed up with the rest of the horde.
  474. >You made it back into the ring that was steadily being expanded by the Knights.
  475. >They had cleared a path towards the road and were opening up the area around their final stand.
  476. >You slumped to the ground just when you hit one of the few trees in that part of the clearing.
  477. >The familiar grain of the wood hissed against your cloak as you settled in between its roots.
  478. >You closed your eyes and breathed in the smell of the forest, and the unfortunate smell of the undead.
  479. >Your stomach rumbled again, and you desperately wished you didn’t have to get up.
  480. >”Here.”
  481. >You jumped and your eyes shot open.
  482. >You were greeted by the sight of the Knight from last night, holding out a piece of bread to you.
  483. >You smiled at her and accepted.
  484. >She grunted and dropped to the forest floor.
  485. “Thank you noble Knight. For this, and the help last night.”
  486. >”Right. Thanks. You were pretty helpful, too.”
  487. >The Knight gnawed on her own piece of bread, and you were quick to follow.
  488. >You were both ravenous in your hunger but soon the bread was gone and the air grew stale between you.
  489. >”Name.” The Knight grunted.
  490. “Zecora. Pleased to meet you. What may I call you?”
  491. >”Bonbon.”
  492. “A pleasure”, Zecora said with a smile, “Meeting new people is always a treasure.”
  493. >”I suppose so.”
  494. >Bonbon crossed her legs and held onto her shins.
  495. >You saw her look around, before her eyes fixed to you.
  496. >”So what are you gonna do now?”
  497. “I am not sure. A ranger’s duty is to protect the realm. I suppose I shall continue with my ultimate goal, and see what trouble I can incur, and hope that I am not overwhelmed.”
  498. >“Then I wish you luck.”
  499. >Bonbon stood up and walked away, what remained of her armor clinking as she left.
  500. >You followed her lead and lifted yourself up from between the roots of the tree.
  501. >The forest line you had taken to get here was tantalizingly close, the freedom of solitude.
  502. >You began to struggle over the corpses, and nearing the treeline.
  503. >Maybe your kill had survived the night, and you could fetch a tidy profit…
  504. >”Wait!”
  505. >A voice called out to you as your feet touched forest floor, stopping you in your tracks.
  506. >You turned around.
  507. >The druid you had saved- Treehugger, you remember- was standing there.
  508. >She looked as tired and beat down as you felt.
  509. >”You’re like, leaving so soon?
  510. “Ah, Treehugger, yes? I am afraid I must go, my place is not here, to stay any longer my path forward would be slow, and my destination not any nearer.”
  511. >”Woah, do you really like… Rhyme every time you talk?”
  512. “I do, it’s true.”
  513. >Treehugger pulled at one of her dreadlocks in thought.
  514. >”It’s kinda awkward but… I was wondering if I could like, go with you?”
  515. >You were surprised.
  516. “Why do you want to come with me, on my journey?”
  517. >Treehugger looked anywhere but at you.
  518. >”The forest sort of… Told me. Err, I guess it did indirectly, with you I mean. Like, you came out of nowhere and saved me. I shoulda been dead. That’s gotta be more than a coincidence, right? I love the others, and this place is my home, but the forest, and you, and the Gods and Goddesses gave me a second chance for a reason, right? Besides, I owe you like, my whole life. Literally.”
  519. >Treehugger blushed a little.
  520. >”And you sorta put out some really good vibes, just from me standing here. You’re like, all cool and stuff.”
  521. >You didn’t really know what to say.
  522. >You smile.
  523. “I will never be one to turn help away, but please follow me so you do not get lead astray. These woods are vast, and I move rather fast.”
  524. >Treehugger giggled, “Right on.”
  525. >The familiar silence of the woods deafened all others, and you drunk it in.
  526. >This was your home, and it was where you belonged.
  527. >”So, like, where to?”
  528. “I killed a mighty deer yesterday, it still may be there but I can do nothing but pray.”
  529. >”Oh. Radical.”
  530. >The journey there was long, much longer than last night because you simply didn’t have the energy to sprint all the way back, and it was already early afternoon by the time you got back.
  531. >The sun was high, but thankfully shadowed under the mighty trees left you well defended from the heat.
  532. >You had gotten to the tree you had left the deer in, and it seemed the Gods were pleased with you.
  533. >It was still there, whole and untouched.
  534. >”Woooah you killed that all by yourself? That’s Groovey.”
  535. >You laughed.
  536. “I did hunt this on my own, I usually stalk my… prey… alone.”
  537. >”C-cool.”
  538. >You gave Treehugger a smile, and her face began to match her hair in color.
  539. “Now to the village near here, so we can sell this deer.”
  540. >You hefted the deer over your shoulders again.
  541. >Your legs felt unsteady and weak, but Treehugger was probably in worse shape.
  542. >”Hey chill out, I can still, like, help.”
  543. >Treehugger looked around, and grabbed a long, straight stick.
  544. >”Here, let’s tie the deer to this so we can both carry it.”
  545. “Very resourceful, I will not deny your help, if you are going to be forceful.”
  546. >”Radical.”
  547. >You looked around at the vegetation surrounding you.
  548. “Aha!”
  549. >”Is that dog-bane?”
  550. “Correct”, you said, pulling browning stalks out of the soil under a nearby tree, “A sturdy rope, with this I can erect.”
  551. >”Woah.”
  552. “See? Break the wood and separate the fibers, then twist it around and around, to make it wider and wider.”
  553. >In minutes you had a small length of cord.
  554. >Not enough for the deer, but it was a start.
  555. “Come, I shall show you how to make one, it will be fun.”
  556. >”That’s like… Awesome.”
  557. >You picked more dog-bane and began to separate it into two pieces.
  558. “Watch my fingers”, You said to Treehugger, “You must be quick and not linger.”
  559. >Treehugger accepted the partially finished cord, her clumsy hands fumbling with the fibers.
  560. >You squatted down next to her and placed your hands on either side of hers, directing her fingers in the proper method to bind the fibers together.
  561. >When it seemed like Treehugger had the idea, you let go.
  562. >She fell apart almost immediately, and you had to quickly correct her by grabbing her hands again.
  563. >She was blushing, though, probably from embarrassment you thought.
  564. “No need to be discouraged, this takes time and patience, you are already showing growth which should be encouraged, do not be worried about your frustration.”
  565. >”I’m, like, totally chill…” Treehugger mumbled.
  566. >She seemed disappointed when you finally let go, after the cord was finished.
  567. “We’ve been idle long enough, we must hurry before the meat gets any more gamey and tough.”
  568. >”Right. Lift on three? One, two, three!”
  569. >You lift your half of the stick, the deer now bound and hanging upside down from it, onto your shoulder as Treehugger does the same behind you.
  570. >You lead the way through the forest and towards the road.
  571. >The road quickly gives way to town, and the bustling market was surrounding you just after that.
  572. >The people around you were giving the pair of you odd looks, not to mention the large deer swinging idly between the pair of you, but they knew better than to say anything.
  573. >You looked around- though you couldn’t actually see over the crowds, unfortunately- and managed to catch sight of a butcher.
  574. >An older man, covered in dried blood up to elbows and the size and strength of a bear.
  575. >His eyes gleamed when he caught sight of the deer swinging between the pair of you.
  576. >”That for me? You rangers always bring in good catches.”
  577. >You nodded.
  578. >”Right, right. I’ll take it off your hands for… Say, a hundred gold pieces?”
  579. “That is a fair offer. Come, Treehugger, we must continue on, this time as shoppers.”
  580. [+100 gold]
  581. >You turned away from the butcher as he hefted the deer onto a wagon behind the stall he was using.
  582. >Treehugger followed you as you walked towards the middle of the market.
  584. >”Where too now?”
  585. “The local smithy. We have several chores to do, today is sure to be busy.”
  586. >”That’s rad.”
  587. >Treehugger kept close, you could almost feel her breath on your neck.
  588. >She seemed uncomfortable.
  589. “Do not be nervous, it would only do you a disservice.”
  590. >”Sorry, it’s just, I’ve never been, like… In a town before.”
  591. >You stopped and turned to look at Treehugger, and gave her a small smile.
  592. >The people around you bustled past you, and you had to squeeze in close so you wouldn’t get trampled.
  593. >”It’s a little hard to be so squeezed in, it’s like I’m underground or something”, Treehugger muttered.
  594. “It will take some getting used to, with all these experiences being new.”
  595. >”I guess.”
  596. >You began to push back through the crowd, and Treehugger stuck to you like glue.
  597. >When you crossed through the thicker portion of the crowd, Treehugger slipped her hand into yours and gave it a squeeze.
  598. >You squeezed back.
  599. >Finally, as you pushed passed the last of the crowd and came out onto a mostly empty street.
  600. >There were still stragglers, but it seemed the crowds avoided the boiling heat of the smithy, and the smith himself pounding away at metal with a hammer larger than your arm.
  601. >The man looked up from his work when you two approached.
  602. >He shoved the metal held in the grip of his tongs back into the forge and hung the hammer from a loop of metal at his waist.
  603. >His squinted, crinkled eyes looked at both of you up and down as he pulled the goggles he was wearing up his head.
  604. >His eyes had an almost hungry, predatory look to them.
  605. >You put it out of your mind.
  606. >”What can I help you ladies with?”
  607. >His voice was gritty and it sounded like ash, it clambered over itself like gravel in a tumbler.
  608. “More arrows I seek, without them I am currently weak.”
  609. >”Arrows, huh?” He ran a hand over his thin hair then scratched his neck.
  610. >”Yeah, I got some. Over there in that barrel. Two coins per.”
  611. >You looked at the wide barrel the man was pointing to, a squat, wide container banded around the middle with iron and a large stack of arrows leaning to one side.
  612. >You picked one up and inspected it.
  613. >It was well made, the shaft was straight and sturdy, the fletching was even and nicely aligned, and the tip was free of blemishes.
  614. “I will purchase thirty, many adventures that I will need arrows for, I can foresee.”
  615. >”Err…” The smith looked at you oddly, but accepted the sixty gold anyway.
  616. >Money was money.
  617. [-60 gold]
  618. >You stepped out from the workshop, Treehugger tailing you.
  619. >”That guy’s spiritual energy felt like… Way off…”
  620. “Do you mean he is a threat? I’m not quite ready for a fight yet…”
  621. >”No, no, just something about him felt like, off.”
  622. “Maybe your imagination, or perhaps the heat of the location.”
  623. >”Right. Where too next, Zecora?”
  624. >Your stomachs rumbled together.
  625. “Perhaps some food would be good.”
  626. >”That’s probably a good idea”, Treehugger said evenly.
  627. >You were still in the alley leading to the smiths, but even so you could see the closest tavern over the bustling crowd.
  628. “We have to go through the crowd, it won’t be as bad as it sounds.”
  629. >You grab Treehugger’s hand and guide her back into the hustle and bustle of city life, quiver finally stocked.
  630. >The trip across the market took several minutes, all the while Treehugger was practically hugging your back, your hand gripped tightly in hers.
  631. >The tight crowd gave way for a second before you were thrust into the even tighter and hotter tavern.
  632. >It was warm, and the ceiling was low, and it smelled strongly of drink and roasted meat, and sweat and blood.
  633. >Exactly like every other tavern you had been in.
  634. >You and Treehugger found a roughly-scrubbed wooden table far in the back corner, away from the rest of the busy- and loud- place.
  635. >You waved a barmaid over, and it was like she crossed the entire floor in a matter of seconds, re-materializing in front of your table without any trouble.
  636. >”Hi!” She said, giving you both a mega-watt grin, “I’m Berry, welcome to the Swallowtail! What can I get you two fine ladies?”
  637. >Berry gave you a smirk and a wink, that had you not been looking directly at her you would have missed.
  638. “Something hearty for my companion and I, we just came back from a long journey, I will not lie.”
  639. >”A journey huh? You two look like the… Adventurous type~”
  640. >Treehugger blushed, but you kept smiling at Berry.
  641. >”So somethin’ hearty. How about a mug of ale and a leg of somethin’ for each of you?”
  642. >”I actually don’t eat meat…” Treehugger said.
  643. >”Well so long’s you’re open to eating some sort of meat, I can let that go. How’s about some roasted vegetables?”
  644. “That sounds lovely, truly that would be a great sight to see.”
  645. >”Comin’ right up ladies~”
  646. >Berry gave the both of you a quick wink, then disappeared back into the crowd.
  647. >”She has… Good vibes”, Treehugger muttered, her face red with a blush.
  648. >You chuckled.
  649. “So Treehugger, who are you? We do not know each other, not a clue, and that is a mistake I would like to unmake.”
  650. >”Oh. Well, I guess I’ve always lived at the grove, but…”
  651. >Treehugger goes silent for a second.
  652. >”I… Well I use plant magic. And I can like, heal wounds, and fix chakras.”
  653. “I saw some of your combat prowess, you could consider me impressed.”
  654. >”Thanks. What about you?”
  655. “Ah, I come from a far away land, covered in a vast ocean of sand. My people taught me my skills with a bow, and I have refused to let it drop low. I traveled to this land and fell in love with its people, my home I made in the forest, which I do believe the gods played a hand.”
  656. >”A far away land? I’ve never even been outside of the forest before…”
  657. “My homeland was vast and great, but my lust for adventure before coming here I could not sate.”
  658. >”And here, you, are, ladies. A big platter of vegetables for you, and a hot, moist, juicy leg o’ lamb for the Ranger… Since you two just blew into town I’ll let all this be on the house,” Berry said, before leaning in close to your ear, “If you promise to come tell me all your stories. After. Work…”
  659. “A commitment like that I cannot pass, for me it will be no hassle.”
  660. >”Good. Enjoy~”
  661. >Berry kissed your cheek and skipped away, humming merrily to herself.
  662. >You and Treehugger fell silent as you dug in with gusto.
  663. >The drink and meat before you vanished just as fast as the large platter of roast potatoes and carrots and onions in front of Treehugger.
  665. “My stomach is full to burst, the ache may need to be nursed…” You said as you and Treehugger stumbled from the tavern, clutching your full stomachs.
  666. >”That was great, thanks Zecora.”
  667. >Night had drifted over the town, and suddenly it was all but empty outside.
  668. >You wondered what to do.
  669. ”You are quite welcome, it was not a problem.”
  670. >”So, what now?”
  671. “We could go see, that barmaid Berry.”
  672. >”What? Well, her aura was all, like, shifty… And she gave off this good vibe, like, intoxicating or something.”
  673. >You could see the small blush on Treehugger’s face, and were sure that there was one on yours as well.
  674. >”So should we go back in? I don’t think she ever told us where to go to meet her.”
  675. “Well thought, it’s worth a shot.”
  676. >You both stepped back into the warm fire-lit tavern, and looked around for Berry Punch.
  677. >Treehugger nudged you and pointed to a spot near the bar, where Berry was knocking back a large pitcher of ale.
  678. >You started the journey across the rowdy bar, squeezing through large and small drunken men and women alike.
  679. >”Heeey Ranger~” Berry said on spotting you walking towards her.
  680. >”Couldn’t stay away, huh?”
  681. >She was painfully drunk, her words were slurring badly, and she looked one small breeze away from toppling over.
  682. >Yet, she was giving you and Treehugger a look of pure lust that sent electric chills up your spine.
  683. “I am always open for a quest, and-”
  684. >Berry Punch stopped you, by shoving a tongue down your throat.
  685. >Her lips were hot, and her breath stunk of liquor, but she was an excellent kisser.
  686. >You took a second to respond, but began to kiss her back just as she pulled away.
  687. >”Anyone tell you you’re better off quiet?”
  688. >You shrugged, and smiled at her.
  689. >Berry looked ready to kiss you again, but this time her hand wrapped around the back of Treehugger’s head and pulled her in, much like she had done with you.
  690. >There was a rosy blush on Treehugger’s face, and it quickly spread down to her neck and burned at the tips of her ears.
  691. >”You girls~” Berry said huskily, running a finger up and down your chest, “Want to take this somewhere… Private? I gotta room right here at the inn ‘n all.”
  692. >”Better than givin’ those pervs a free show”, Berry said, jerking her head lazily at the rest of the inn.
  693. >It had fallen silent, and you hadn’t noticed.
  694. >When you turned around the rest of the patrons were looking at you, some lecherously.
  695. >Not a small number of women among them.
  696. >”Well Ranger? Whatdya say? I’m not real picky, but some folks like to keep their modesty about ‘em…”
  697. “It would be best if we had some privacy, it is plain to see.”
  698. >Berry gave you a wink and took yours and Treehugger’s hands and pulled you towards a heavy oak door.
  699. >The crowd that had been eagerly expecting a show let out several sighs of disappointment, but you couldn’t care less.
  700. >Berry pushed the door open and pulled you both into a small hall, then she ducked into a shoebox-sized room.
  701. >There wasn’t a window, and it was dark, and there was a lingering, burning smell you couldn’t identify.
  702. >Like incense, but somehow… Off.
  703. >It smelled slightly familiar though.
  704. >You let the thought go when Berry pushed you against the closed door, threading her fingers into your Mohawk and pulling you into a searing kiss.
  705. >”Gods you taste good Ranger…” Berry moaned, diving back in a second later after she had caught her breath.
  706. >You couldn’t exactly share the sentiment, Berry’s lips tasted like cheap wine.
  707. >Not as if you cared.
  708. >Treehugger pressed against your and Berry’s side, her lips landing on Berry’s neck and her dreadlocks tickling your chin.
  709. >Berry separated and pulled Treehugger’s face to her neck, her breath coming in heavy pants.
  710. >”T-that’s it- r-right there, luv…”
  711. >Treehugger pulled away, then sandwiched Berry between the two of you, and started to attack the other side of her neck with gusto.
  712. >Berry’s head fall back onto Treehugger’s shoulder, her eyes going glassy.
  713. >Her chest and face was slick with sweat, and her panting slowly became more and more shallow.
  714. >You could barely make out her features, but that didn’t matter.
  715. >You pulled Berry into another kiss, your hand running down to squeeze her firm bottom through her tight dress.
  716. >Berry squeaked, and guided your other hand to squeeze her soft chest.
  717. >Treehugger switched sides again.
  718. >Something new tickled your nose, it smelled sort of metallic, like a bronze coin.
  719. >There was a glow coming from somewhere that almost lit up the small space, but you were too distracted to open your eyes and see clearly what it was.
  720. >Berry’s hand traced your face and fell limply between your legs.
  721. “If you would please, do not be such a tease”, you joked, pulling away to look at Berry.
  722. >Her face was pale, and her eyes glassy and unfocused.
  723. >You touched her neck, checking for a pulse.
  724. >It was weak.
  725. >Something wet stained your hand and you brought it up to your nose and sniffed it.
  726. >Your blood ran cold, as the smell of blood stung at your senses.
  727. >Treehugger still hadn’t separated from Berry’s neck, and she seemed even more ravenous at biting the flesh.
  728. >Her eyes flashed blood red in the dim darkness, sending chills up your spine.
  729. >You gently grabbed Berry around the waist, then, in a burst of movement, you flung her away onto her bed and tackled Treehugger.
  730. >Treehugger hissed and spit, blood poured down her chin and her limbs flailed as she tried to throw you off.
  731. >She was stronger than she looked, because she managed to throw you off and bolt out the door.
  732. >Your mind was racing and your blood was pumping, you looked at the open door and where Treehugger had run off then at Berry, as she quietly moaned on the bed.
  733. >You sprung into action, leaping from your prone position you bounded towards Berry.
  734. >Blood was leaking profusely from her neck, from a pair of holes on either side.
  735. >You rubbed your hands together and felt the magic within you.
  736. >It was small and weak, but it coursed through your veins and saturated your cells, before focusing at your finger tips with a pleasant heat.
  737. >You touched Berry’s neck and massaged the bleeding puncture wounds.
  738. >They closed themselves up without problem, but already you could feel a drain on your energy.
  739. >You sucked in a breath and pulled your hands away.
  740. >Already she was regaining some color in her face, but her breathing was still shallow.
  741. >You bolted out the door, crossed the bar, and made to leave.
  742. >You called over your shoulder “Check on Berry, please hurry!” Before sprinting out into the darkened streets.
  743. >It was cold out, and the chill sharpened your fuzzy mind.
  744. >Your head and eyes darted this way and that, looking at every dark corner and every alleyway around you.
  745. >The market just in front of you was bare, and the closest alley seemed empty.
  746. >Your eyes caught on to a small splatter of blood that was no doubt from Treehugger’s meal.
  747. >You bent down, your eyes following the trail into a dark alley, shadowed by an overhanging bridge.
  748. >Your blood raced and your chest felt heavy as you panted, adrenaline and magic coursing through your veins.
  749. >The alley was too dark for you to see the end, so you pulled your swords and stepped in slowly, observing every shadow that was cast by a box or rat scuttling along the ground.
  750. >A flash of red preceded something slamming into your side, throwing you against a wooden crate, splintering it beneath you.
  751. [-2 HP]
  752. >You recovered quick and rolled away, just as Treehugger fell onto the spot you had been laying seconds ago.
  753. >Her eyes were hungry, and she hissed and spit at you like a feral animal.
  754. >Her hair seemed to be stuck on-end, bristling like a beast as she bared blood-drenched fangs.
  755. “Treehugger!” You shouted, “Take hold of yourself, you’re not some common mugger!”
  756. >Treehugger pounced at you again.
  757. >You rolled back, towards the back of the alley.
  758. >She was slowly boxing you in.
  759. >She growled, her jaw working up and down and her brow crinkling like a wild beast.
  760. >You brandished your swords.
  761. >Red eyes faded in the low light, the furious look was replaced by her lilac irises.
  762. >Her eyes were wide with fear as she fell to her knees.
  763. >”K-kill me, Zecora! I h-hurt B-Berry, and I a-almost h-hurt you t-too!”
  764. >You relaxed slightly as Treehugger seemed to regain control.
  765. >Though for how long, you didn’t know.
  766. “Treehugger you are no danger”, you said softly, “But this affliction, I have only rarely seen stranger.”
  767. >Treehugger wiped at her eyes, then at her mouth, clearing the tears and blood.
  768. >”I-I should have told you…”
  769. >You didn’t lower your swords, but you did listen.
  770. >”I was bit”, Treehugger said, pulling down the thin cloth covering her neck, exposing a faded bite-mark, much like you saw her give to Berry.
  771. >”T-that’s why I tried to k-kill myself that night. I threw myself into that crowd, knowing I'd die. I got bit just as the battle started. I didn't want anyone to know b-because I knew the others would have… They’d have excommunicated me, like they have with others who got infected with Vampirism.”
  772. >”I should have told you, I-I wasn’t sure if I was I-infected. I knew I h-had to leave”, Treehugger said, wiping at her eyes and pulling her knees up to her chest.
  773. >”I thought that if I g-got infected and I turned into a m-monster, that you could at least s-stop me.”
  774. >Treehugger looked up at you, and shifted so she was on her knees.
  775. >”Kill me! I’m a monster! Please kill me, before I hurt anyone else…”
  776. >You could see her eyes slowly turning a coppery-red, and it was darkening.
  778. >The pommel of your sword impact against the side of Treehugger’s head, dropping her into unconsciousness.
  779. >You looked around at the darkened alley, then up at the wide, full moon beaming small shafts of light all around you.
  780. >You breathed in the cool night’s air, then looked back down at Treehugger’s prone form.
  781. >You hefted her across your shoulders and set off back towards the tavern.
  782. >You experience with Vampirism was… Limited, to say the least, but you couldn’t leave Berry without finding out if she was experiencing any negative side effects.
  783. >Like death.
  784. >The rough oak door swung open when you used Treehugger’s ass to slam it open.
  785. >At once, the silence hit you, as did the dozens of eyes that swung towards you as you walked in.
  786. >No one moved except you, as you strode in and walked through the door that Berry had taken you through earlier.
  787. >Berry was awake, but she was flushed and drenched in sweat.
  788. >She was breathing hard, and her body looked boneless.
  789. >”So you’re back, and you brought the bitch that tried to kill me.”
  790. >Her words, though harsh, were as dull and sluggish as her eyes as they looked over the both of you.
  791. >You dropped the unconscious Treehugger to the floor and looked Berry in the eye.
  792. “You’ll have to come with me, you may be infected and I have to find some way to see.”
  793. >Berry snorted. “Come with you, you lunatic? That cunt just tried to kill me! I’m not going anywhere with you.”
  794. “I can not be swayed from this task” You said with a smile, “And you seem to be under the illusion that my intention was to ask.”
  795. >Berry slumped, already a bruise was forming from where the pommel of your blade impacted the side of her head.
  796. >You looked at the pair of girls, and wondered what the patrons just two doors away would say.
  797. >You hefted Treehugger over your shoulder, then wrapped Berry in your cloak.
  798. >You used the length of rope that tightened the cloak to wrap it securely enough so you could drag her.>She seemed much lighter than Treehugger, but it was still no easy task to get them squeezed through the tight hall.
  799. >You looked at the way into the main hall of the tavern, then at a door at the end of the hall.
  800. >You hoped it led outside.
  801. >Carry Treehugger and dragging Berry was almost impossible, the three of you were just too thick to fit reasonably, but you barely managed to squeeze them along and into the fresh air.
  802. >You started to stalk towards the woods, but stopped when you saw a large coil of rope bundled just next to a merchant’s stall.
  803. >It put your limit of your ability to carry all three, but you managed until you found a small clearing a short distance into the woods.
  804. >You dropped Treehugger and unbound Berry, then bound the both of them with a long coil of rope.
  805. >Just for kicks you wrapped a coil around their chests, then pulled one tight against their crotches.
  806. >You pulled Berry to one end of the clearing, then Treehugger to the next, then began to arrange a small circle of stones to build a fire.
  808. >By the time the fire was softly roaring, Treehugger was slowly roused from her slumber.
  809. >”Z-Zecora?” She mumbled, “Where am I? Why am I tied up?”
  810. >Blood slowly filled her cheeks.
  811. >”W-why is there rope pressing right up against my…”
  812. >You stoked the fire, your gaze never leaving the orange flames.
  813. “You asked to die, but first an alternative I would like to find and try.”
  814. >Treehugger looked over at you, then she dropped her head to the ground.
  815. >”I’m right, I shouldn’t be left alive. I’m too dangerous like this.” She muttered, going limp in her bindings.
  816. “Not quite, we’ll figure something out to set you right.”
  817. >”Zecora I know what this disease does. If you’re, well, more attuned to natural energies like Druids are you’ll go through periods of insatiable hunger, like an animal. Until you either die or your body balances the disease and your nature magic.”
  818. “You have seen someone survive this disease? Tell me if we can find them, please.”
  819. >”Well yeah, but I don’t think she would help us. Her last letter was like, all out of balance. She seemed angrier than ever. Not even her animal friends would go back to deliver my letters.”
  820. >”And there is no surviving it. Eventually my heart will stop and I’ll be this way forever.”
  821. “Then we had best hurry, yes? No need to stress.” You said with a small smile.
  822. “So where is this friend, so we this disease we can end.”
  823. >”I’m not really sure anymore”, Treehugger muttered, “She could’ve left the forest altogether, but I doubt it. She loves plants and animals alike too much to just leave.”
  824. “Information is what we require, if we are to ever reach what we desire.”
  825. >”Yeah…”
  826. >”Now could you like, take this rope off my… Lower chakra point?”
  827. “No, the danger is too great to let you or Berry go.”
  828. >Treehugger spared you a thin-eyed look before letting her head drop to the forest floor.
  829. “So where is this friend? Maybe a message to her we could send.”
  830. >”You can’t. I told you, not even her animals would go back.”
  831. “Then we must find her last trail, most often denizens of the forest leave behind a thin veil. We can find her, of that I am sure.”
  832. >”Really? You could find her?”
  833. “Of course I can, I can find any in my forest, woman or man.”
  834. >”Radical. So what are you gonna do with her?”
  835. “Of that I am not sure, if she is infected then we must bring her along to find a cure.”
  836. >”I doubt it, vampires have to be aware of what they’re doing enough to give someone vampirism. It’s a conscious choice, and my brain was all like, woah, so the chances are really small.”
  837. “Interesting. That revelation for her, I’m sure, will not sting.”
  838. >You poked at the low fire some more just as it spit embers at you, hissing and crackling as the branches you threw in earlier was slowly consumed.
  839. >Your pointed ears pricked when the distant crunch-crunch-crunch of branches bending under a person’s foot reached them.
  840. >The sound was soft, but clearly made by someone who didn’t know how to walk around in the woods.
  841. >You stood up from your crouched position and pulled one of your swords from its scabbard.
  842. >Treehugger looked up from her prone position, but you kept her quiet with a finger pressed against your lips.
  843. >The cloak wrapped around your shoulders was pulled tight, and it was as if you became foliage.
  844. [+5 Dex]
  845. >Your steps were soft, branches bent out of the way to keep your silence and leaves were stilled at your passing.
  846. >The rustling and crashing of the forest pulled you in the direction of whoever was stalking around this late.
  847. >You crouched, long strides kept you quiet and your eyes pierced through the darkness and foliage.
  848. >Whoever was traipsing around was just on the other side of a wide, low-hanging bough.
  849. >You pushed away just a few leaves and spied through the small hole.
  850. >Your shoulders, tense as they were, relaxed when you spotted a little girl.
  851. >A head shorter than you, and twice as thin.
  852. >Her vivid red hair was tousled, falling over her forehead and just exposing a pair of gray-purple eyes.
  853. >Her shoulders were shaking like a leaf in the wind, but her face was set in a fierce, determined scowl.
  854. >A hand was tightly clutching a small sword, even if her arms shook.
  855. >Her head whipped around when a nearby owl cooed softly.
  856. >You saw her take a deep breath before plowing on ahead.
  857. >Right towards where Berry and Treehugger were.
  858. >Oh dear.
  859. >The girl crashed loudly through the underbrush, perfectly concealing your every movement as you stalked her through the shadows, your piercing eyes fixed firmly on her back.
  860. >Just as she began to wind around in a large circle, nearing the crackling fire you can just hear over her stomping, you stepped in front of her.
  861. >Your cloak, now loosened, billowed out around you as you materialized from the darkness, hood casting a deep shadow over your face.
  862. >You raised your hand, purposefully blotting out the beaming moon before you jabbed a finger menacingly at the girl.
  863. >She shrieked, her shoulders tensed and her eyes bulged.
  864. >Her shaking arms raised her sword as she backed up away from you.
  865. “Why are you stalking around my forest so late, child?” You boomed, “Has your sire never taught you to not be wild?”
  866. >Her eyes darted around, looking for a way to escape, but her back was to a tree and the way she glanced fearfully at your swords told you that she didn’t think running was a good idea anyway.
  867. “What is your name?”
  868. >You waited, watching as the girl looked all around, shaking like a leaf.
  869. “This is no game!” You shouted, making her eyes snap to you.
  870. >”S-s-scootal-loo!”
  871. “Now answer my question, why have you trod into my bastion?”
  872. >”Y-you!” Scootaloo’s fear was tamped down by a scowl, but she was still shaking from head to toe.
  873. >”You k-kidnapped Berry!”
  874. >That gave you a momentary amount of pause.
  875. >So this kid knew Berry.
  876. >Interesting.
  877. >”I saw it! You were carrying her this way int-to the w-woods! She was all t-tied up, and you put a rope on h-her…”
  878. >Scootaloo blushed.
  879. >Then, her angry red face just became angry.
  880. >”If you hurt her, I’ll kill you!”
  881. >Scootaloo’s arms stopped shaking, and she slid into a stance, the tip of her sword pointed right at your heart.
  882. >Her eyes blazed with a fire and her teeth set into a snarl.
  883. “Calm yourself child, do not be riled.”
  884. >You stilled, your cloak falling limply around you and your voice lowering.
  885. “Berry is-”
  886. >”I KNEW you had her!”
  887. >Scootaloo seemed to have lost all fear, her face twisted into a snarling mass of rage.
  888. >”I’ll kill you!”
  889. >She bolted towards you, and was a little quicker than you expected.
  890. >The tip of her sword reached you in a second, but you reacted in half that.
  891. >You twisted out of the way and let the tip of the sword slam into the tree behind you.
  892. >Scootaloo looked up at you, fear slowly bleeding into her eyes at your closeness to her.
  893. >It didn’t deter her as she tugged one, twice, then gave up to simply lunge at you with bare fists.
  894. >Dodging to and fro, weaving around her attacks was child’s play.
  895. >Scootaloo overstepped a punch, and your knee caught her in the chest.
  896. >She fell to her knees and clutched at her chest as she began to cough.
  897. >You kicked Scootaloo harshly in the ribs, sending her crashing against the tree that her sword was still stuck in.
  898. >It wobbled dangerously, and just as it fell, you caught it.
  899. “Go home. Do not roam.”
  900. >You dropped the sword carelessly next to her and turned to walk back towards where you left Treehugger and Berry.
  901. >”C-*cough*-come back!” Scootaloo staggered to her feet.
  902. >You heard her footsteps behind you.
  903. >You stepped out of the way of her charge, sword held high, and slammed a fist into her kidneys.
  904. >Scootaloo gasped and crumpled.
  905. “Do not be a fool, run home. I do not wish to be cruel, but if you continue you’ll wind up in a catacomb.”
  906. >”Y-you t-t-took my h-home! B-Berry is the o-one that takes c-care of me!”
  907. >Tears slowly began to well up and stream down her face as she slowly pushed herself to her hands and knees.
  908. >You looked down at her, struggling weakly to get to her feet and leaning against her sword to keep herself upright.
  909. >”A-and I won’t let you take her!”
  910. >That may present a problem, you thought.
  911. “Come with me, and Berry you will see.”
  912. >”W-wait! Just like that?”
  913. >You didn’t wait for Scootaloo before you started walking back towards the small fire and the bound girls.
  914. >Scootaloo followed along, tramping through the woods behind you.
  915. >Every step ground against your ears, as only a novice could do.
  916. >If Scootaloo were any louder you might as well light a cannon off, any predator within a mile would hear her.
  917. >Broken branches, rustling leaves, thundering underbrush followed every unsteady step.
  918. >You spun on your heel and jabbed a finger towards her.
  919. “Learn how to walk! Surely you can do that, if you can talk?! Heel to toe, on grass and dirt, slow and steady! Do not step if you are not ready!”
  920. >”W-what?”
  921. >You pointed out patches of dirt and the occasional grass plot.
  922. “Step there, before I tear out my hair!”
  923. >Scootaloo did as you said, stepping on the dirt plod, then on the small patch of grass.
  924. “Keep doing that, or revenge for disturbing my peace I will have to exact.”
  925. >”Don’t think I have any reason to listen to YOU! You kidnapped Berry!”
  926. “And you do not know how to walk, so do not talk.”
  927. >You spun on your heel and began the short trek back to camp.
  928. >You could feel the intense glare radiating at you from Scootaloo.
  929. >She muffled her footsteps, though.
  930. >Small blessings.
  932. >When you got back, Berry was still asleep, but Treehugger wasn’t.
  933. >Scootaloo rushed past you as soon as she saw Berry, cheerfully calling her name.
  934. >You grabbed her shoulder, stopping her dead.
  935. “H-hey!” Scootaloo squirmed in your ironclad grip, but not hard enough to shake it off.
  936. “Do not run further, or you may be in the scene of a murder.”
  937. >Scootaloo stopped, her eyes growing fearful when she looked at you.
  938. >You shook your head and pointed at Treehugger.
  939. >Her gnashing, snarling teeth snapped at Berry’s neck as she squirmed her way towards her, growling low in her throat, the promise of blood so near, yet so far away.
  940. “Stay still, do not mill.”
  941. >You strode forward and wrenched Treehugger away from Berry’s exposed neck, dragging her thrashing body several feet before dropping her.
  942. >Treehugger spit and twisted, hissing as her lamp-like red eyes burned seething holes in your head.
  943. “Now you may approach Berry, but she may be in a similar state to Treehugger soon, so be wary.”
  944. >You looked around for a place to sit before turning Treehugger over onto her stomach and taking a seat on her back.
  945. >Treehugger’s squirming redoubled, but it still wasn’t enough to throw you off.
  946. >You watched Scootaloo tend to Berry with a sharp eye.
  947. >She didn’t seem to be displaying any symptoms of Vampirism like Treehugger, but Treehugger did say that Vampirism manifested differently in those exposed to nature magic…
  948. >Treehugger herself seemed to be slowly succumbing to the disease.
  949. >After several more minutes she finally settled down, this time she had slipped right into unconsciousness beneath you.
  950. >It had taken minutes last time for the change to reverse itself.
  951. >You would have to move now if you wanted to find Treehugger’s friend, with or without her advice.
  952. >Your eyes strayed back to Scootaloo, defensively hovering over Berry’s all-but-lifeless body.
  953. >They would pose a problem.
  954. >You couldn’t leave her, either of them for that matter.
  955. >Berry finding herself a vampire would pose an issue, one you would no doubt have to take care of anyway.
  956. >Scootaloo…
  957. >Just a kid, it seemed.
  958. >You stood up, and Scootaloo looked at you warily.
  959. >The fire had all but died when you felt the rustling of movement behind you.
  960. >You opened your eyes and took in the softly glowing embers, then looked behind you as Treehugger squirmed around in her bonds.
  961. >Her eyes fluttered open, thankfully they weren’t poisoned with deep maroon, but they seemed darker all the same.
  962. >They were like two chips of slate, peaking out from under weary half-lids.
  963. >”U-ugh… Zecora?”
  964. “I’m here. Is your mind, from influence, clear?”
  965. >”I-I think so…”
  966. >You shuffled over towards her then rested a hand against her face.
  967. “I’ve been awaiting your wake from this unnatural sleep, but a schedule we must now keep. I need to know where your friend was last seen, there we must travel to convene.”
  968. >”Uh…” Treehugger looked up at you from dazed, glassy eyes.
  969. >She rapidly blinked to clear the sand from her eyes.
  970. >”About five miles west of the Grove, I think that’s where we left her after she was exiled… But that was years ago. After that I got some letters, but not for a while. I have no clue where she is.”
  971. >That gave you pause.
  972. >You would have certainly heard of a vampire stalking about your woods, but not necessarily if they were here before you were.
  973. “Do you know where she would have travelled to? Anything might help, it may lead to a clue.”
  974. >You pulled loose the ropes keeping Treehugger’s legs together loose, and helped her sit up.
  975. >You leaned her against a tree as she answered.
  976. >”She was like, super into nature and animals and stuff… Like, because she was a druid too, you know? She always talked about setting up an animal preserve or something…”
  977. “Any idea where? We might have to start there.”
  978. >Treehugger rolled her head from side to side and bit her lip as she thought.
  979. >”Near… Near a river, I think. Or like, a waterfall. I never left the grove, so I never saw where it was.”
  980. >That narrowed things down.
  981. >You could think of a hundred rivers crossing the massive expanse of forest that you called home, but waterfalls- especially anywhere near the grove- were few and far between.
  982. “I know exactly where she may be, but until we get there we have to wait and see.”
  983. >You kicked dirt over the fire and adjusted your swords.
  984. >Scootaloo had fallen asleep at some point during the night, but the noise seemed to be waking her up.
  985. >She yawned and rolled away from where she was hugging the still-unconscious Berry.
  986. >”Whas goin’ on?”
  987. “We must leave this place, our journey draws us East, against the clock of this disease we must race, before Berry and Treehugger fall to their inner beast.”
  988. >”Berry’s still asleep.”
  989. >Scootaloo sat up and rubbed wearily at her eyes.
  990. >”Who’s that?”
  991. >You followed Scootaloo’s finger to Treehugger.
  992. >”I’m Treehugger, little one. Who are you?”
  993. >”Scootaloo.”
  994. “She is the ward of Berry, now let’s go, we must hurry.”
  995. >”But what about Berry?”
  996. >You gently pushed Scootaloo out of the way and re-tied Berry so there was now two loops hanging loose from her shoulder blades.
  997. >You grunted as you hefted Berry onto your back.
  998. >A necessary sacrifice, Berry was your responsibility.
  999. >Treehugger shimmied against the tree she was leaning against until she was standing up.
  1000. >They were ready to go, and so were you, so you started at a slow trot towards the waterfall.
  1001. >Dawn was breaking when you finally reached the right river that lead to the waterfall, and it would take most of the morning to finally get there.
  1002. >Scootaloo’s feet were dragging and she was moaning and groaning, and Treehugger wasn’t much better.
  1003. >Then again, with the weight on your back, neither were you.
  1004. >You set up camp near the river and lashed Treehugger and Berry to separate trees to keep them from turning and running off.
  1005. >Or worse.
  1006. >You built up a small fire within minutes, then, when your combined stomachs rumbled, you walked towards the river.
  1007. >It was wide, but shallow, and you could clearly see fish twisting back and forth in its clear depths.
  1008. >You looked around and began to gather reeds hanging at the soft, muddy banks.
  1009. >They were strong enough for the job, even if they weren’t very dry.
  1010. >Your dexterous and well-practiced fingers began to weave together a long, cylindrical tube.
  1011. >Your pointed ears caught the sound of shoes squishing in the soft mud, and Scootaloo’s voice broke the silence.
  1012. >”Zecora?”
  1013. “Mmm?”
  1014. >Scootaloo seemed hesitant to tell you, but she swallowed hard and did so anyway.
  1015. >”Berry woke up. She’s dazed, but she seems okay for now. Treehugger said I should come tell you.”
  1016. “Good, that means she can walk. With her later, I can talk. Come, of the skills I know, I can teach you some.”
  1017. >Scootaloo only hesitated for a second before she walked over and crouched on the river bank next to you.
  1018. “Watch what I do, and copy my actions, with that you can do what I can do too, ignore any distractions.”
  1019. >”What are you doing?”
  1020. “Making a fishing trap, at this end I’m weaving a cap.”
  1021. >You showed Scootaloo how you weaved the small vines around the larger one, and held her hands as she tried to do the same.
  1022. >The difference between your work and hers was great, but it didn’t matter.
  1023. >The cage worked.
  1024. “Pull this way and tighten that vine, just like I’ve done with mine” You said, showing Scootaloo how to tie the knots.
  1025. “No no, not like that! Keep your hands firm, and your vines straight, don’t be messy, like a rat.”
  1026. >You guided her until the trap was complete.
  1027. >You guided Scootaloo into making several lengths of fiber rope, then tied it off after weighing it down just a little away from the bank.
  1028. >You stood up from the soft silt and stepped out of the chilly knee-deep water.
  1029. >Your ears perked and you grabbed Scootaloo’s hand.
  1030. >Something sent chills down your spine, then you heard it, just barely audible over the rushing river.
  1031. >A scream, a few meters deep into the woods.
  1032. “Stay, do not stray.”
  1033. >There was another, and it sounded like Treehugger.
  1034. >You bolted from the river bank and through the forest, stopping just short of entering the small clearing that the girls were in.
  1035. >A pack of wolves, each as large as you, were circling the clearing.
  1036. >They were emitting low, menacing growls that seemed…
  1037. >Off, like they didn’t always growl, like it wasn’t second nature for them.
  1038. >You saw a pair of the largest one’s eyes, and it was a startling, hungry red.
  1039. >Definitely not normal wolves.
  1040. >You hesitated, because these wolves should have killed both Berry and Treehugger by now, but it seemed they were almost communicating with each other.
  1041. >What to do, what to do.
  1043. >Treehugger nodded quickly.
  1044. >You untied her, then turned towards Berry.
  1045. >Her eyes were cloudy and unfocused, and her jaw flexed as she moved her mouth up and down, muttering quietly.
  1046. >Her head lolled back and forth.
  1047. >She didn’t look so good, whether that was from fear or the potential disease now coursing through her veins, you couldn’t tell.
  1048. >You heard another person enter the clearing just as you finished untying Berry.
  1049. >It was Scootaloo, the blood drained from her face.
  1050. >”T-t-the w-w-wolves…”
  1051. “Let’s go, quickly, we must hurry because Berry is looking rather sickly…”
  1052. >Scootaloo and Treehugger nodded.
  1053. >Treehugger stood and stretched, flexing every which way and letting out satisfied groans that followed loud crackling sounds.
  1054. >”I’m ready. Let me carry Berry, you must be exhausted, Zecora.”
  1055. “That would be very kind, If you would not mind. Your last transformation happened not long ago, hopefully the time between that one and the next one will be slow.”
  1056. >”Here’s hoping.” Scootaloo muttered.
  1057. >You smiled at her, then the three of you started at a clipped pace through the woods, all semblance of hunger forgotten.
  1058. >At least, you weren’t hungry anymore.
  1059. >Not when you could feel the eyes of those wolves on your neck…
  1060. >The river had gotten stronger as you followed it towards the waterfall.
  1061. >Rushing white water barreled through densely-packed forest.
  1062. >The whole way neither Treehugger nor Scootaloo had complained about an empty stomach, their faces were still ashen and their eyes darted through the shade, watching for hungry, burning red eyes.
  1063. >You knew that they were following you.
  1064. >Hungry red eyes burned at your peripherals, but were gone just as soon as you glanced that way.
  1065. >They had yet to reappear beyond that, just angry, beady red eyes that lingered just out of sight, whether high in the air or low to the ground.
  1066. >You put it out of your mind and hoped the others didn’t see it.
  1067. >Your ears perked and you stopped.
  1068. >You could feel Treehugger and Scootaloo’s gaze lingering on the side of your head.
  1069. “Something I hear, that is coming near.” You said softly.
  1070. >The bow strung around y our chest was in your hand in a flash, and an arrow was readied.
  1071. >Sinking into the foliage was out of the question, not with Scootaloo and Treehugger with you, and especially not with Berry being unconscious.
  1072. >They finally seemed to hear a rustling beating its way through the woods, sounding much larger than any of you.
  1073. >Your arrow was readied at a great cluster of boughs stitched neatly together that were shaking, as if blades of grass in the wind.
  1074. >Your hands and knees shook, but you kept your bow steady and your mind ready, every nerve screaming at you to hide, to run.
  1075. >A hand split its way through the bough, and a ruddy red arm larger than you followed.
  1076. >With ease the massive branch was pulled apart, and the gleam of something sharp, long, and heavier than the tree the creature was pushing aside glinted in the sun.
  1077. >The creature’s dark-brown face followed, two massive fangs sticking up out of a square, heavy jaw and a pair of deeply-sunken eyes under a heavy brow.
  1078. >A tuft of burnt orange hair was pulled back into a topknot, and a piece of wheat was stuck between his lips.
  1079. >What followed was one of the largest men you’ve ever seen, though he wasn’t human.
  1080. >An Orc by the look of it.
  1081. >Massive swatches of heavy leather crossed over his chest, tied to massive, dull metal rings.
  1082. >A great axe was hefted in one hand over the massive Orc’s shoulder, and piercing green eyes looked directly at you, then at Treehugger
  1083. >When he spoke it sounded like gravel poured out of his throat.
  1084. >”Treehugger?”
  1085. >At some point your bow had dropped, your jaw slack.
  1086. >You had seen Orcs before, but this man…
  1087. >He was immense.
  1088. >”U-Uh Y-yeah?”
  1089. >You would’ve told Treehugger to shut up if you weren’t stunned into silence by the sight of him.
  1090. >”Follow.”
  1091. >He turned on his heel and began to stomp through the woods.
  1092. >You looked back at Treehugger, her jaw hanging as loose as yours and her eyes as wide as plates.
  1093. >The Orc had carved a path through the woods just as easily as a knife through butter, and that seemed to stretch on for miles.
  1094. >That’s how it felt, walking in the silhouette of a bear of a man.
  1095. >You had strayed far in front of the others, weighed down by a still mostly-comatose Berry as they were, and were the first to stop.
  1096. >Your eyes were locked on a massive clearing, half the size of the Druid Grove but more than large enough for what looked like a camp.
  1097. >Fire pits ringed around the center and dozens of animal-skin tents dotted the landscape.
  1098. >The waterfall was in full view, softly trickling water along the riverbank.
  1099. >A massive ring of logs taller than the Orc that lead you here covered the entire clearing.
  1100. >Dozens upon dozens of different races- other Orcs, much smaller and admittedly much uglier than the one you met, pointy-eared elves of all races, Dwarves by the half-pint, and Minotaurs, standing high above most of the crowd.
  1101. >There were others, but it seemed those dominated your vision everywhere you looked.
  1102. >It wasn’t just the races that had you surprised- you really couldn’t think of a time so many were together, much less in a peaceful setting- it was the buildings.
  1103. >At the far end, furthest from the way in you were standing at, was a long row of ramshackle buildings.
  1104. >Massive hogs and deer and animals of all kind were spitted and roasting over huge pits filled to the brim with hot coals, or hanging from poles waiting their turn, and barrels upon barrels of fish.
  1105. >Your stomach churned at the sight.
  1106. >”Follow.” The Orc commanded.
  1107. >You looked up at him and nodded dumbly as Scootaloo and Treehugger stepped up besides you.
  1108. >The Orc parted the crowd with ease, and the three of you that were awake followed along closely in his trail.
  1109. >As you drew further and further into the encampment you began to notice things you didn’t before.
  1110. >There were no humans, at least no fully blooded humans, and the way the crowd eyed Berry, Treehugger, and even Scootaloo angrily didn’t make you wonder why that was.
  1111. >The other thing you picked up on was the amount of undead or infected people there were.
  1112. >For every uninfected being there was a vampire or Were-beast.
  1113. >You watched a bestial looking man that had to have been a Werebear rip and tear into a cooked leg of meat with interest.
  1114. >Treehugger looked on with disgust.
  1115. >”Treehugger and lady follow. You and small one stay. Do not leave village.”
  1116. >The Orc had stopped you just outside of a tent that dwarfed even him in size.
  1117. >He jabbed a finger at you then opened the tent to let Treehugger in.
  1118. >She didn’t have much of a choice, especially when the Orc grabbed Berry and carried her in over his shoulder.
  1119. >Treehugger looked back at you with wide, frightened eyes.
  1120. >You could only hope that your look was reassuring before the tent flap was closed.
  1121. >You turned away from the tent and pulled Scootaloo close when a passing thickly-robed and hooded full Vampire eyed her hungrily, then you warily.
  1122. >Scootaloo looked up at you worriedly.
  1123. >You patted her on the head.
  1124. “Do not be worried young one, I’ll keep you safe so you can live in the sun.”
  1125. >She seemed comforted by the gesture and your words.
  1126. >You looked through the crowd and noticed a scuffle going on just down the road, then on the other side you saw a hut grilling and drying meats, and you remembered how hungry you and Scootaloo were.
  1127. >The Orc didn’t say that had to stay there, per say…
  1128. >...But it was better safe than sorry.
  1129. >You gripped Scootaloo’s shoulder and pulled her against you.
  1130. >Scootaloo seemed partially relieved by the contact as she sunk against your side wearily.
  1131. >You didn’t feel much better…
  1132. [Status Effect: Exhaustion: -5 stamina]
  1133. >You just hoped that Treehugger was with her friend, and that the four of you hadn’t just walked into your deaths.
  1135. >The sun had reached its peak when the tent flap opened and the large Orc stepped out into the sunshine.
  1136. >He grunted and held the tent flap open.
  1137. >”In.”
  1138. >It didn’t sound like he was asking.
  1139. >You held Scootaloo a little tighter and pulled your cloak more firmly around yourself as the pair of you stepped into the tent.
  1140. >You palmed the hilt of one of your blades under the cloak with your free hand as your eyes adjusted to the low light.
  1141. >The Orc let the flap flutter closed behind you.
  1142. >In front of you was a large basin dug into the soil, filled to the brim with water so clear it was hard to see.
  1143. >There seemed to be an almost iridescent glow on the top that lit up the dark tent.
  1144. >Every step felt like a drum beat beating in your heart, and brought you closer to the nauseatingly strong smell of incense that burned in a small urn hanging over the water.
  1145. >You hadn’t noticed them before, but you did now.
  1146. >A woman was in the water, leaning against the side of the marble basin.
  1147. >Treehugger was with her, sitting in between her legs as the woman softly whispered muttered incantations, rubbing her hands into Treehugger’s naked shoulders and neck.
  1148. >They were both naked, but you could only see Treehugger’s generous figure.
  1149. >Berry was laying unconscious on a smooth, marble table inscribed with runes, the only stitch of fabric she was wearing was a thin piece of animal skin that barely covered her modesty.
  1150. >You could almost feel Scootaloo’s red face under your leather armor.
  1151. >”Zecora…” Treehugger moaned, her voice breathy.
  1152. >Her eyes now glowed a dull, soft red when they met yours, not like her usual dull purple, nor like the vicious, hungry red that sent chills down your spine.
  1153. >”This is my friend…”
  1154. >”Shh…” The woman said, moving out from behind Treehugger.
  1155. >She leaned the druid-turned-vampire against the marble edge tapped a finger against Treehugger’s forehead.
  1156. >Treehugger shuddered and sunk against the marble with a moan.
  1157. >The woman’s eyes were half lidded, but still you could see a peek of burning, hungry red.
  1158. >Her hair was a soft pink, but it was wild and untamed, and a fang poked out of her top lip.
  1159. >She rose from the water, revealing a massive set of mammaries that made your eyes widen just so you could see them in their full glory.
  1160. >Scootaloo kept dodging the hand you tried to slap over her eyes.
  1161. >The woman clapped her hands together and shadows from around the room rose to drape over her shoulders.
  1162. >In an instant she was clothed in a robe.
  1163. >Though, judging by the nipples poking through the material, it wasn’t very thick…
  1164. >”Hello” She said softly, giving the both of you a smile, “My name is Fluttershy. What’s yours?”
  1165. “Zecora is my name. What was that magic you were performing on Treehugger? Will the beast inside her keep tame?”
  1166. >”Beast…? Oh, her vampirism you mean? I did manage to speed up the process of merging the two magical energies, yes.”
  1167. >You looked confused, so Fluttershy continued.
  1168. >”Vampirism is a magical curse. In any regular human, the process would kill them then reanimate their corpse, in druids, because their spirit is already linked to the natural world, their magic fights the curse. I just… Helped along the process of getting the two on the same page.” Fluttershy said, smiling softly.
  1169. “I am not sure I understand completely, but pray tell now, what has happened to Berry?”
  1170. >”Ah, Treehugger mentioned something about that. Berry isn’t a Vampire, and won’t be any time soon.”
  1171. “That’s good to hear, of any more dangers I hope she can stay clear.”
  1172. >Fluttershy’s smile and her eyes flashed with sadism for only a second, so quick you weren’t sure it was there.
  1173. >”Unfortunately…” Though it didn’t sound like it was very unfortunate to her, “She won’t be a Vampire anytime soon because she’s dead.”
  1174. >”WHAT!”
  1175. >Scootaloo broke the hold on her shoulder and barreled passed Fluttershy.
  1176. >She slid to a stop in front of Berry, her face white and her hands shaking as she touched Berry’s pale face.
  1177. >”BERRY!” Scootaloo shouted, shaking the unresponsive woman’s shoulder, “BERRY! WAKE UP! Please… Wake up…”
  1178. >When it looked like Berry wasn’t going to wake up, her head dropped next to Berry’s, and she started softly sobbing, hugging the corpse as tightly as she could.
  1179. >A chill struck in your chest as you looked past Fluttershy to the corpse that Scootaloo was holding on to.
  1180. “Berry is no longer alive? This is a great, and terrible, surprise… What killed her? Hopefully not Treehugger?”
  1181. >Fluttershy’s smile hadn’t faltered in the slightest as she answered.
  1182. >”Indeed it was Treehugger, but, well, she did need fresh blood in order to make the full merge, and Berry was just there…”
  1183. >Your stomach twisted into knots and your eyes snapped to Scootaloo.
  1184. >Her eyes were wide and her chest rose and fell sharply.
  1185. >She locked eyes with you before you caught site of the unmistakable surge of anger that crossed her face.
  1186. >”Y-you! You killed Berry!” Scootaloo screamed, her eyes clenched tight on the tears that threatened to fall, her hand winding tight around the sword at her hip, “I’LL KILL YOU!”
  1187. >Scootaloo lunged at Treehugger, and before you could react, Fluttershy snarled and whipped her hand across her body, throwing Scootaloo away from Treehugger with a burst of shadowy magic.
  1188. >”Do not presume to be able to get away with murder, human. You are here on my good will, and my good will alone.” Fluttershy said dispassionately. “Do not make me drain you of your blood.”
  1189. >Scootaloo bounded to her feet and took a look at Fluttershy, then Berry, then Treehugger, then at you.
  1190. >You were paralyzed with shock, then your gut twisted itself into knots when she looked at you.
  1191. >”Zecora?”
  1192. >She sounded so alone, and you wanted to hug her, grab her, anything, but before you could she bolted out of the tent.
  1193. >”Let her go. Treehugger will return to reality soon, and I dare say a friendly face is what she needs right now.” Fluttershy said with a small smile.
  1194. >"Would you like to join us in the bath?" Fluttershy asked, letting the robe fall apart into shadows and slipping back into the clear water.
  1195. >You were at a loss for words.
  1196. >You looked between the very naked, stirring Treehugger and the newly-naked Fluttershy, then at the tent flap Scootaloo had ran out of.
  1197. >You made your mind up in a snap, and before Fluttershy could look over you were already out of the tent.
  1198. >Your eyes darted around the closely packed camp before they spotted a mop of unruly purpler hair bobbing and weaving through the crowds.
  1199. >You felt sluggish and weak, but the thought of losing Scootaloo in this crowd made you shudder.
  1200. >You took off in a blur, dodging through the closely-knit crowd.
  1201. >Every time you caught a snippet of Scootaloo’s purple hair she seemed to disappear around a corner.
  1202. >No matter how fast you were running, she was still unpredictable.
  1203. >More than once in the chase she had backtracked before you could catch site of her, further confusing you.
  1204. >It was even worse when the crowd around you all seemed to have a distasteful look on their face whenever Scootaloo barreled around them.
  1205. >How long before one of them decided to take a bite out of her?
  1206. >Among other, much worse things.
  1207. >You were certain you had ran past a shaman dealing with some preserved limbs somewhere…
  1208. >Limbs much too small to be an adult’s.
  1209. >You spotted her flash of purple hair darting their way out of a small entrance, and into the woods that bordered the other side of the wall.
  1210. >You squeezed past a thin wizard and a squat, barrel-bodied dwarf and shot out into the woods after her.
  1211. >This was your terrain, and you were privy to its’ secrets.
  1212. >The branches spoke softly in your ear about the direction she went, giving you subtle clues as the little girl barreled into the underbrush.
  1213. >It parted for you, and you were quick to take the advantage and press on, feet ever-nimble and eyes ever-keen.
  1214. >You spotted her kneeling at the edge of a river, hugging her legs to her chest and burying her head in her knees.
  1215. >You stayed quiet as she started to sob, the sound just audible over the rushing river.
  1216. “Scootaloo?” You said, quietly taking a seat next to her, “How are you?”
  1217. >You didn’t get a chance to react when she threw herself into your arms.
  1218. >You almost fell into the river, but you managed to catch yourself and her as she balled her fists into your cloak and sobbed into your chest.
  1219. >You backed up from the bank of the river and hugged Scootaloo to your chest, content with letting her cry herself out.
  1220. >You weren’t much of a talker, anyway…
  1222. >She took her time, as you suspected.
  1223. >The sun steadily crept over the tree line, shining bright down on the both of you in the gaps of the canopy.
  1224. >When she finally pulled back, red-faced, snot-nosed, and tear-streaked, she gave you a flat, miserable look.
  1225. >One you could sympathize with, a little.
  1226. “Are you hungry?”
  1227. >She gave a half-shrug and looked away.
  1228. “let’s fix that, shall we?”
  1229. >You stood up and helped her to her feet.
  1230. “You remember how to make a fishing trap, correct? Show me.”
  1231. >”I don’t want to.” She muttered softly.
  1232. “You are as hungry as I am, that is plain to see. Show me what you’ve learned, and I’ll show you with that knowledge, what you can earn.”
  1233. >You poked her nose, and she gave you another miserable, half-hearted look.
  1234. >”I don’t ‘member.”
  1235. “Then I’ll show you over, you’ll pick it up in time, you’re clever.”
  1236. >You pulled her gently over to a log laying on the forest floor, just inside the tree line.
  1237. >You pulled out one of your short swords and hacked away several long and thin branches.
  1238. “Watch me, and copy.”
  1239. >You handed her her own small set of twigs and began to thread them neatly together.
  1240. >She humored you, but the amount of effort she put in was minimal…
  1241. “Try once more, you need to build a stronger core. Like this, copy my movements.”
  1242. >You showed her again, and she tried again.
  1243. >She failed, and did so the next time, and the next time, until her face slowly grew red with anger.
  1244. >”This is stupid! Why don’t you just do it!?”
  1245. >Scootaloo attempted to stand up, but you grabbed her wrist.
  1246. “You are very close. One more try and you’ll have it, at most.”
  1247. >You looked her in the eye, and smiled gently.
  1248. >She was glaring at you, but sat down on the log again.
  1249. >You showed her how to do it the right way once more, and she settled enough for one more attempt.
  1250. >The sparkle in her eye when she finally knotted it right and held up a completed trap was worth your effort.
  1251. >”I did it. You were right, Zecora. Thanks.”
  1252. “You’ll find I’m most often right, to see me wrong is quite a sight.” You joked.
  1253. >She gave you a small smile.
  1254. “Now what’s the point of a trap if we’re not going to use it?” You said, your eyes twinkling, “Let’s try them out, and then a fire I’ll get lit.”
  1255. >Scootaloo nodded vigorously.
  1256. >You perched your trap and Scootaloo’s in the water then got to setting up a fire.
  1257. >By the time the sun was slowly going down, you both were eating roasted fish.
  1258. >It didn’t take you long to eat, the both of you were starving.
  1259. >Not many words were shared between you, in between large bites of fish.
  1260. >When the fish was gone and the fire was almost out, she began to talk.
  1261. >”Berry wasn’t the first person to look after me.” Scootaloo whispered.
  1262. >”I had a sorta big sister.” Scootaloo said dully, “She wasn’t related or anything, but she was all I had.”
  1263. >”She said she’d come back.” Scootaloo said, ”She was on her way to Canterlot. I… I don’t know what happened to her. I think she just abandoned me.”
  1264. >”I don’t have anyone else, Zecora. I’ve never met my parents. Berry only did what she did for me because I helped out a little at the pub.”
  1265. >You didn’t really know what to say, there wasn’t much you could.
  1266. >You wound your arm around Scootaloo’s shoulders and tucked her against your side.
  1267. >The top of her head butted up against your neck.
  1268. >You stayed like that in silence for a while, before you knew it it was almost pitch black, only a few stars shined through the gaps in the trees.
  1269. >She was almost asleep, judging by the way her chest rose and fell rhythmically.
  1270. >”Zecora?” Scootaloo muttered.
  1271. >You tilted your head down so your chest brushed up against the top of her head.
  1272. >”Is it wrong? To be scared?”
  1273. “No”, you whispered.
  1274. >”Are you ever scared?”
  1275. “Yes.”
  1276. >”Do we have to go back?”
  1277. >You weren’t sure how to answer.
  1279. “No.” You said.
  1280. >”Oh.”
  1281. >Scootaloo expelled a breath of air through her nose as she finally settled and stilled.
  1282. >The gentle rise and fall of her chest followed soft, high snoring.
  1283. >You waited what seemed hours before you finally moved.
  1284. >Gently, so you didn’t wake her, you let Scootaloo slip into your lap.
  1285. >You wrapped her tight in your cloak which you had discarded when you were eating, then softly slipped her into the space between log and ground.
  1286. >She just fit, and you hoped this kept any animals away.
  1287. >She didn’t have to go back, but you did.
  1288. >Treehugger was still there, and Berry deserved more for her suffering than being abandoned, even after death.
  1289. >You checked your swords and your bow and started a slow trot through the trees back to camp.
  1290. >You felt better now that your stomach was full.
  1291. [Status effect: Exhaustion] Has worn off!
  1292. >You were still tired, but it wasn’t like you haven’t gone hunting deep into the night before.
  1293. >You kept your eyes and ears trained on your surroundings as the torches posted outside of one of the camp’s entrances drew you in like a moth.
  1294. >So far, nothing, but who knows how long that would last?
  1295. >So you kept silent, even as you tread a path further and further into the quiet camp.
  1296. >There were pockets of hooded beings circling fires and going about business, as if it were the middle of the day, but you could see they weren’t nearly as numerous as the rest of the camp’s occupants.
  1297. >You spotted Fluttershy’s tent and ducked into the dark interior, lit only by the luminescent glow of the shallow basin of water.
  1298. >You quickly spotted Fluttershy and Treehugger sitting at a small table, two cups of dark liquid resting in front of them on the roughly scrubbed wood.
  1299. >Fluttershy, who was looking in your direction as you entered, let her burning red eyes settle on you.
  1300. >”Welcome back, Ranger.”
  1301. >Treehugger looked back over her shoulder, and her face lit up.
  1302. >”Zecora! You made it! Fluttershy said you just left, man, I thought you weren’t gonna come back.”
  1303. “I will always return to my friend, until the end,” you said with a smile.
  1304. >”Where’s Scootaloo?” Treehugger asked.
  1305. “Camped along the river, wrapped in my cloak because it’s almost cold enough to make me shiver.”
  1306. >You looked past them, at the carved marble table that Berry had rested on.
  1307. >It was empty.
  1308. >A shiver of dread ran up your spine.
  1309. >Fluttershy gave you a red-lipped smile when she saw where you were looking.
  1310. >You stayed silent about it, it would be better to get Treehugger and leave as quickly as you could.
  1311. >”Care to join us for… Dinner, Ranger?” Fluttershy said smoothly.
  1312. >”Yeah, like, Fluttershy’s been helping me adapt to my, like, new diet and everything”, Treehugger said, “It’s a bit of an acquired taste.”
  1313. >Her fangs poked out of her bottom lip when she smiled, and her dull red eyes seemed to shine a little brighter when she took another sip of the blood in her cup.
  1314. >Something clenched in your gut when you saw that.
  1315. >The last thing you needed was to ‘join’ a vampire for ‘dinner’.
  1316. >”Oh I insist”, Fluttershy muttered, swiping her hand just-so and conjuring a shadow chair that solidified into a dark, almost ugly wood.
  1317. >”Come on Zecora, at least stay until I’m actually full.” Treehugger begged.
  1318. >Your stomach twisted again, but you took a seat.
  1319. >The wood felt dark and mangled, like it was corrupted by the very magic used to conjure it.
  1320. >It made you squirm, so you focused on the two women at the table instead.
  1321. >Fluttershy was eyeing you with her cold, unflinching gaze.
  1322. >”Treehugger was telling me of your initial meeting… How you saved her from a… Lich, was it?”
  1323. >She didn’t look away, but it was clear she was talking to Treehugger.
  1324. >”Yeah. Zecora like, came out of nowhere and saved me! It was awesome.” Treehugger giggled.
  1325. >”It seems ever so odd that a Lich would be foolish enough to attack the home of a Druid, let alone an entire colony… All that nature magic isn’t very good for them, I would imagine.”
  1326. “I haven’t thought too much of the destruction of one of the Druid’s colonies, they kept their space away among their trees.”
  1327. >”Too true…” Fluttershy said, tapping a long-fingered nail on the roughly-scrubbed wooden table.
  1328. >”Did you say one?” Fluttershy asked, “Are you unaware of what’s been happening?”
  1329. >Something primal and almost… Sickly gleeful entered her piercing red eyes.
  1330. “Happening? What has been starting?”
  1331. >Her gaze didn’t waver, and neither could yours.
  1332. >It was like she was trying to pull you in with her searing red eyes.
  1333. >”Would it shock you to know that this isn’t the first… Incident? My scouts- you remember them, right? They remember you-” Fluttershy’s red lips curled into a cruel grin, “Brought interesting news to me just the other night.”
  1334. “Interesting how?” You snapped.
  1335. >She smirked and took a long, slow swallow of blood.
  1336. >”All across the northern forests you call home, little Ranger, colonies of Druids have been slowly pillaged by legions of the undead… Very bold. All by liches too, it seems.”
  1337. >Your eyes glanced quickly over towards Treehugger, who was busy drinking heavily out of her cup.
  1338. >She hadn’t reacted to the news.
  1339. >Then again, she seemed to make it her mission to act strangely tonight.
  1340. >”Of course it wasn’t me” Fluttershy said with a slight grin, letting her blood-stained fangs poke out of the top of her lip, “I would never destroy the… People that cast me out and left me for dead. No, no. I applaud whoever has done this, but it wasn’t I.”
  1341. >She sounded almost remorseful.
  1342. >About missing an opportunity at genocide, or the destruction of the people she once called ally, you weren’t sure.
  1343. >You bit your tongue, and Fluttershy caught the movement, and her grin widened a little further.
  1344. >“All done!” Treehugger quipped happily, grinning from ear to ear at Fluttershy.
  1345. >You shot up from the table and grabbed Treehugger by the arm.
  1346. “I believe that we must take our leave. Treehugger, shall we go? It would not do to be any more slow.”
  1347. >”Go…? But Fluttershy said we could stay in camp. She didn’t want us to get killed by whatever’s killing the druids.”
  1348. >You eyed her with contempt.
  1349. >She could be lying about the druids, but you couldn’t imagine why.
  1350. >If there was… Something out there that was doing this, you had to figure out why and who.
  1351. >It was your duty.
  1352. >Help though, even if it was from someone like Fluttershy, didn’t sound so bad…
  1353. >You shuddered when you remembered the single lich you fought, without help you’d be dead.
  1354. >You weren't sure what you would do...
  1356. >Yet, when you glanced at Treehugger’s joyful, bliss-filled face and glazed, listless eyes, you weren’t entirely sure you could trust Fluttershy…
  1357. “My little companion I must collect, before a decision I will select. I will return soon, under this moon.”
  1358. >”Take all the time you’d like”, Fluttershy said, flashing her crimson stained teeth, “The long you wait the less time you’ll have to find out what’s destroying the ones that cast me out to die.”
  1359. >You gave her a grim look, then stood up.
  1360. >”Would you, like, want some help?” Treehugger asked.
  1361. “No, this journey I can handle, to my others, this one barely holds a candle.”
  1362. >”Oh, okay.”
  1363. >Treehugger seemed downtrodden for a moment, but before long her blissful gaze was back.
  1364. >Interesting.
  1365. >You bid a farewell to both of them then stepped out of the darkened tent and into the night’s cool air.
  1366. >The denizens that lingered around smoldering fires turned to you, and you could see glimpses of hairy muzzles and blood thirsty red eyes under deep hoods.
  1367. >They didn’t make a move towards you.
  1368. >You wished you had your cloak with you, but even without it your hands discreetly palmed the hilt of your blades.
  1369. >They noticed where your hands were resting, they turned away without a sound.
  1370. >A feeling of dread crept up your shoulders as you strode past the towering, shadowy tents made of animal hide.
  1371. >Even after passing the village walls unimpeded, you could feel something wrong deep in the pit of your gut.
  1372. >Everything was deathly silent, the forest was still and almost artificial in its stillness.
  1373. >Yet you had a task to do, like a shadow you melted into the darkness and the foliage, speeding through the densely packed underbrush.
  1374. >You became one with the forest, your moves were swift and your eyes and ears sharpened to a fine point.
  1375. >Vines and bushes parted to allow you through, and branches bent out of the way to keep your movement silent.
  1376. >You traveled the entire distance to the river, though it was short, with an uneasy feeling in your stomach.
  1377. >More than once you thought you saw the rustle of a branch that you didn’t make, or the flash of lamp-like yellow eyes.
  1378. >More of Fluttershy’s monsters, you assumed, but even then you were uncertain.
  1379. >When you arrived at the log you had tucked Scootaloo under, you found her just as you had left her.
  1380. >A tuft of her magenta hair was sticking out of the hood, and her scraped up legs were sticking out from the front of the cloak.
  1381. >It was cute.
  1382. “Scootaloo? Scootaloo? Wake up, we have to move.”
  1383. >Scootaloo groaned and curled the cloak tighter around herself.
  1384. >You prodded her in the stomach, and despite her exhaustion she giggled.
  1385. “Come on, we have to get going before you make us wait until dawn.”
  1386. >”Do I hafta?” Scootaloo muttered, her magenta eye peaking out from the bottom of the hood.
  1387. “Yes.”
  1388. >You pulled the cloak out from under her in one fell swoop, then nestled it on your shoulders.
  1389. >The familiar weight calmed your nerves.
  1390. >Something about the silence settling over the forest made your skin crawl and the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
  1391. >You had noticed it when you entered the forest, the way the insects were still and the leaves didn’t rustle set your teeth on edge.
  1392. “Hasten your pace, consider this a race.” You say, gripping Scootaloo by the offered arm and dragging her to her feet.
  1393. >Your ears perked as a soft, almost unnoticed rustle came from the bushes behind you.
  1394. >Your hand slowly slid to your sword, wrapping tight around the leather-wrapped hilt.
  1395. >Scootaloo looked like she was about to say something, but you stayed her with a hand.
  1396. >The forest settled into silence.
  1397. >A thunderous crash burst from the bushes behind you, followed by an inhuman, blood-curdling roar.
  1398. >A beast of fangs and fur and teeth fell on you, twice your height and four times your weight, claws as long as your head and thick as your forearm bared to rip you to shreds.
  1399. >You threw Scootaloo away and turned around, hand gripping your blade.
  1400. >Time seemed to move at a snails pace as you saw the great beast roaring towards you, fangs bared and spittle flying from its maw.
  1401. >You only had a second to react.
  1402. >In a flash you had rolled away and slashed at it with your sword, scouring a small laceration in the beast’s thick hide.
  1403. >It landed across the clearing from you.
  1404. >The beast looked at the wound, then at you, then it snarled.
  1405. >Its hulking, hunched frame stalked across the clearing, every muscle tensed and ready to pounce.
  1406. >Your eyes caught on to Scootaloo, hidden from the beast by the log separating the small clearing.
  1407. >Fighting this thing wouldn't be easy, and you weren't sure you could win.
  1408. >You could probably make it back to camp, but getting Scootaloo out would be another issue...>Your ears perked as a soft, almost unnoticed rustle came from the bushes behind you.
  1409. >Your hand slowly slid to your sword, wrapping tight around the leather-wrapped hilt.
  1410. >Scootaloo looked like she was about to say something, but you stayed her with a hand.
  1411. >The forest settled into silence.
  1412. >A thunderous crash burst from the bushes behind you, followed by an inhuman, blood-curdling roar.
  1413. >A beast of fangs and fur and teeth fell on you, twice your height and four times your weight, claws as long as your head and thick as your forearm bared to rip you to shreds.
  1414. >You threw Scootaloo away and turned around, hand gripping your blade.
  1415. >Time seemed to move at a snails pace as you saw the great beast roaring towards you, fangs bared and spittle flying from its maw.
  1416. >You only had a second to react.
  1417. >In a flash you had rolled away and slashed at it with your sword, scouring a small laceration in the beast’s thick hide.
  1418. >It landed across the clearing from you.
  1419. >The beast looked at the wound, then at you, then it snarled.
  1420. >Its hulking, hunched frame stalked across the clearing, every muscle tensed and ready to pounce.
  1421. >Your eyes caught on to Scootaloo, hidden from the beast by the log separating the small clearing.
  1422. >Fighting this thing wouldn't be easy, and you weren't sure you could win.
  1423. >You could probably make it back to camp, but getting Scootaloo out would be another issue...
  1425. >Leaping at the beast may put him on your side of the log, and you couldn’t allow it to find Scootaloo.
  1426. >You sheathed your swords and slid your bow into your hand in one quick second.
  1427. >An arrow was already knocked as you brought it up and pulled the string back.
  1428. >The beast growled then lunged, fangs bared and claws extended.
  1429. >Your eyes became as sharp as any hawk’s, and your muscles carried with them the weight of practiced movement.
  1430. >You were a master hunter, every movement of your prey caught your attention, and no detail was left unnoticed.
  1431. [Eagle Eye Activated!]
  1432. >You stood your ground and fired an arrow, it struck true and deep into the beast’s left shoulder.
  1433. >The werebeast yowled in agony and scratched at its chest.
  1434. >It landed painfully on its back, just before it reached the log Scootaloo was trembling under.
  1435. >Your hand found another arrow, then another, then another.
  1436. >Like an automaton you drew and released arrow after arrow.
  1437. >The beast’s hide was thicker, though, and eventually it managed to roll out of the way of one of your arrows.
  1438. >It snarled and leaped at you, this time you only had a second to roll away before it slammed into the spot you had just been standing on.
  1439. >Half a dozen broken arrows were littering the beast’s chest and back, and more were lodged firmly in its massive thighs, even so it kept coming with the voraciousness you had yet to see before.
  1440. >You spun on your heel, still crouched, to let loose a half dozen more arrows into the thick flesh of the beast.
  1441. >Your eyes and skill were unmatched, you could see every detail of the beast and how it moved, every twitch of its corded muscle that told you it was about to pounce, to the way its muscles began to spasm, telling you it was on the end of its rope.
  1442. >The beast was shaking, its body littered with a dozen arrows sticking out from every angle of its muscular body.
  1443. >It was crouched low to the ground, whimpering as its crimson blood bled freely.
  1444. >You stood, eyes locked to the beast.
  1445. >You gasped suddenly as the wind was knocked from your chest.
  1446. >Everything came rushing at you, your vision blurred and turned back to normal, your eyes no longer locked to your prey.
  1447. [Eagle Eye Deactivates!]
  1448. >You looked over towards the thing that pushed you, and your eyes grew wide.
  1449. >Your chest tightened painfully.
  1450. >Another beast, this one slightly smaller but still with that same, menacing look in its eye, had crept up on you.
  1451. >It would have killed you, its powerful jaws snapping across your midriff and no doubt crushing your chest without effort.
  1452. >Instead the second wolf’s mighty jaws clamped around Scootaloo’s arm, the one she had pushed you away with, you assumed.
  1453. >She screamed.
  1454. >Her eyes were wide with fright and her face was deathly pale as the beast yanked its head and tore her arm off.
  1455. >Everything from the elbow down was hanging in the beast’s maw, fingers still twitching and grasping at the air as Scootaloo stumbled back and collapsed.
  1456. >Rage flooded your body and your mind grew hazy.
  1457. >Your eyes sharpened to a fine point, and suddenly both of the beasts were locked in your unwavering gaze.
  1458. [Eagle Eye Activates!]
  1459. >You let loose arrow after arrow, each one streaking through the air and tearing into the hide of the beasts with little effort.
  1460. >Only when their bodies were still and unmoving did you finally drop the intense, tunnel-eyed look you were giving them.
  1461. [Eagle Eye Deactivates!]
  1462. >Your shoulders burn and your eyes feel taxed, but it doesn’t slow you down in the slightest as you slide to a stop next to Scootaloo.
  1463. >She was pale, deathly so, the remains of her arm was bleeding dark crimson blood profusely.
  1464. >Something wrenched in your gut, and your hands shook as you clamped one of them around the stump that made up what was left of her arm.
  1465. >With your other hand you pulled off the belt around Scootaloo’s waist, then tightened it around her bicep.
  1466. >It was as tight as you could make it, but even then she was losing blood, and fast.
  1467. >”Z-Zecora? I-It hurts” Scootaloo whimpered.
  1468. >”I c-can’t fe-feel my fingers, Zecora, I can’t f-feel my arm.”
  1469. >You brought her close to your chest, and let her lay over your lap as you cradled her head.
  1470. >She was looking up at you, her eyes clouded with fear and pain.
  1471. “It will be okay, Scootaloo, I’ll help you.”
  1472. >You could feel fat, wet tears trail hot lines down your face as you observed her.
  1473. >She felt so cold, except where her blood ran hot like lava.
  1474. >You weren’t sure how you could help her, you weren’t even sure if she was going to make it a foot, let alone the journey back to camp.
  1475. >You held her tight, listening to her soft, whimpering voice begged you.
  1476. >She was shaking and her uninjured arm tried to touch the arm that had been removed.
  1477. >Her eyes widened, and she looked up at you.
  1478. >So alone and lost, searching purple eyes were cloudy and unfocused as they looked up deep into your own.
  1479. “I will help you”, you said softly, your blood drenched hand shaking as it rested over the haggard stump of her arm.
  1480. “Y-you’ll be just as good as new.”
  1481. >Your hands lit up with a green glow, the very life essence of the forest poured into her wound and slowly stitched the skin and sinew and muscle back together.
  1482. >It wasn’t nearly enough, just as the blood was slowing to a stop the magic glowing softly in your hands slipped through your fingers like water.
  1483. >Her slick, sweat-stained and sunken cheeks brightened, and her eyes drifted back into focus just the bare amount.
  1484. >”Z-Zecora…”
  1485. >A fire lit deep in her eyes and her chest rose and fell as sweat began to pour in buckets down her face.
  1486. >Her mouth opened, silent at first, until it rose into a crescendo of agonized screaming and torturous wails.
  1487. >She thrashed back and forth and frothed at the mouth as her throat opened wide to let out a high pitched, furious scream.
  1488. >You held onto her tight and kept her from jerking about as she began to spasm wildly in your arms
  1489. >Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she went completely still, drooping lifelessly in your embrace.
  1490. >You hugged her to your chest and buried your face into her hair.
  1491. >The tear streaks forming quiet lines down your face were wiped away in her dirty, purple hair.
  1492. >You had to get her somewhere safe, there’s no telling what other creatures are lurking around, and you couldn’t keep her safe.
  1493. >Just thinking that made your gut twist unpleasantly.
  1494. >You hefted her in your arms, and even now she felt as heavy as a stone.
  1495. >She whimpered, squirming uncomfortably in your arms as you began to walk back to Fluttershy’s camp.
  1496. >You didn’t have a choice.
  1497. >You wouldn’t mind never seeing her again, but she was once upon a time a druid.
  1498. >She could heal Scootaloo, and if not…
  1499. >Scootaloo was dead already.
  1501. >The trip back left your shoulders burning and your arms aching.
  1502. >It wasn’t particularly long, but carrying her all this way was taxing.
  1503. >Thankfully you hadn’t run into any of the creatures that you had thought you would, even so you could feel their glowing, angry eyes boring holes in your back.
  1504. >You weren’t sure why they hadn’t pounced, especially when you were so vulnerable.
  1505. >You didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth, but even so it made you wonder.
  1506. >Scootaloo had settled into a silent state of unconsciousness, and the pallor in her face made her look like a ghost.
  1507. >You felt like collapsing yourself, but the tall wooden fence line of Fluttershy’s camp spurred you on.
  1508. >Not to mention the shallow, soft breaths that Scootaloo was taking in between heaving gasps as blood leaked steadily from her arm.
  1509. >The sun was just peaking over the horizon, casting warm rays over the silent camp.
  1510. >You wished Scootaloo could see it.
  1511. >She would see the next one, you promised yourself.
  1512. >If you could make it, that is.
  1513. >Every step further into the camp felt like another hundred pounds was added on to your shoulders and arms.
  1514. >They felt like lead, and were only held up by sheer force of will.
  1515. >Just as you felt your arms start to give way, you arrived at Fluttershy’s large, circular tent.
  1516. >Already a small billowing of smoke was leaving through the hole cut in the center of the leather tent.
  1517. >A single step into the warm space sent you to your knees, and Scootaloo to the ground.
  1518. >”Oh”, Fluttershy’s voice drifted from across the room, “I was sure you two weren’t coming back… Not after those beasts followed you.”
  1519. >Your stomach flipped, and your face heated up.
  1520. “Y-you knew?”
  1521. >Fluttershy laughed.
  1522. >”Of course I knew. Nothing happens in this camp without me knowing.”
  1523. >Your eyes grew adjusted to the darkness in the tent, and you spotted Fluttershy leaning against the side of the pool of water set low into the ground.
  1524. >She, like Treehugger next to her, was completely bare of clothing.
  1525. >Her arm was wrapped possessively against Treehugger, keeping her close.
  1526. >Fluttershy’s glowing red eyes seemed to light up with a strange sort of glee when she spotted Scootaloo.
  1527. >”I see why you came back.”
  1528. >Anger bubbled up in your chest and threatened to spill out, but you had to temper it.
  1529. >Fluttershy’s passionless eyes traced their way back over to you, then to Scootaloo, and back and forth several more times before she settled on looking at you.
  1530. >”So what do you want?”
  1531. >You bit your tongue, and thought of what you should say.
  1532. “I want you to heal her, I know you know a cure.”
  1533. >Fluttershy’s fangs flashed in the dim light as she smiled a wide, cruel grin.
  1534. >”You want me to save her? Delightful.”
  1535. >Water dripped down her soft looking body as Fluttershy stood from the water.
  1536. >Treehugger was observing the way she moved, almost enraptured by her silken, smooth form.
  1537. >You staggered to your feet, your limbs and mind heavy.
  1538. >You still had to look up to Fluttershy, you noticed, even shin-deep in water.
  1539. >Fluttershy’s fingers caressed your cheek, sending cold chills down your spine.
  1540. >”Of course I’ll heal her”, Fluttershy said, “…For a price.”
  1541. >Your fists clenched and your jaw hurt by how hard it was tensed.
  1542. “Name your compensation, then do your wicked incantation.”
  1543. >Fluttershy’s smile tightened.
  1544. >Her hand rested against your shoulder.
  1545. >You bit your lip to keep yourself from wincing.
  1546. >The grip she had was immense.
  1547. >”Healing someone is such tiring work… It’s not quite so easy now that I’m half dead, you know? I’m sure if you were to reward me with a fine meal, well, I might just be willing to help her.”
  1548. >Fluttershy’s thumb brushed up against your neck, her cold digit sent shivers down your spine.
  1549. >She was looking at you dead in the eyes, glowing red irises that split the darkness told you how hungry she was.
  1550. >You were torn.
  1551. >On one hand, Scootaloo’s life was hanging in the balance, on the other…
  1552. >You weren’t sure you could trust Fluttershy not to rip your throat out.
  1553. >She seemed to sense your hesitation, and she giggled.
  1554. >”Oh come on, you won’t even do it for Scootaloo?”
  1555. >You weren’t sure what to say…
  1556. “Okay, but first heal Scootaloo, do not delay.”
  1557. >Fluttershy’s grin was wolfish.
  1558. >”Oh of course, I’m nothing if not honest.”
  1559. >She knelt down to Scootaloo’s level, her hands glowing an almost ghostly, sickly green.
  1560. >It looked nothing like what you had ever seen before, it was almost haunting in the way it made your skin crawl and the back of your neck tingle.
  1561. >Fluttershy’s hand rested against the poorly fused stump that was Scootaloo’s arm, already it was starting to knit back together.
  1562. >Muscle intertwined, veins grew anew, and skin was wrapping over the bloody stump.
  1563. >It took Fluttershy only minutes, but Scootaloo didn’t look any better.
  1564. >”Well I did all I could. It’s on her to pull through now”, Fluttershy said, wrapping Scootaloo in her dark magical aura and laying her down near the edge of the tent.
  1565. “What do you mean? Her arm is fixed, and it looks clean.”
  1566. >Fluttershy let the whispy, ghoulish magic dissipate from her hands.
  1567. >”My ability to heal the living hasn’t been the same since I was turned”, Fluttershy admitted sullenly, “It’s about the only thing I miss. I stopped her from bleeding, but that doesn’t mean she can’t die from infection, blood poisoning, or simply not having enough blood in her body.”
  1568. >You gulped.
  1569. “Do you think she will be okay? Will her feeling better be put on a timed delay?”
  1570. >”I don’t know, but she has a better chance.”
  1571. >”Now…”
  1572. >Fluttershy’s demeanor rapidly shifted, so her impish grin was now back on her face.
  1573. >”I did all I could, I think it’s time I earned my reward, don’t you?”
  1574. >You bit your lip, and the urge to bolt was pushing to the forefront of your mind, but…
  1575. >You felt so exhausted, your limbs were heavy and your mind foggy.
  1576. “Make it quick, before I’m sick”, you spat.
  1577. >”Aw, don’t be like that”, Fluttershy cooed, moving in close.
  1578. >She was only inches away from you, her breath was hot on your neck and her hands were cold, even resting on top of your clothes.
  1579. >Fluttershy gently grasped your chin and pulled your head down to expose your neck.
  1580. >She drew your hood down your face and pulled it away, exposing warm, living flesh.
  1581. >Her tongue flicked over the side of your neck.
  1582. >You lamented the chill that came from her cold, almost inhuman tongue, but it still sent shivers up and down your spine.
  1583. >Her fangs scraped teasingly against your jugular, and her lips captured your taught skin.
  1584. >She released the skin caught in her teeth with a soft pop, then pulled away.
  1585. “Hurry”, you pleaded, as Fluttershy began to lay gentle kisses across your neck.
  1586. >Despite the chill that came from touching her unnaturally cold skin, you could feel yourself heating up as one of her hands came up to cup your sex.
  1587. >”I intend to take my time”, Fluttershy murmured, biting deeply at the junction of your shoulder, but still not deep enough to break the skin.
  1588. >”A prize this sweet must be savored”, she said, her free hand tangling itself in your short Mohawk and jerking your head to the side.
  1589. >You grew to be painfully aware of Fluttershy’s lack of dress, especially as she began to unbuckle and untie the straps to your armor.
  1590. >Her cold skin was pressed flush to yours as she worked to strip you of the leather clinging to your skin.
  1591. >Your cloak had already hit the ground, as had the belt where your swords were sheathed.
  1592. >You were certain your torso would be bared to her feasting eyes and yearning, hungry hands and mouth.
  1593. >Flushed red in the face, you were panting as Fluttershy bit gently on your collar bone and began to stroke you through the too-thick-it-hurt leather pants you were wearing.
  1594. >Your top hit the floor of the tent with a soft ‘whoomph’, letting Fluttershy take in your now bare upper body.
  1595. >You could feel a furious blush rising in your cheeks at the predatory grin that snaked its way across her face.
  1596. >Not content with being a doe-eyed passenger you leaned in for a kiss, wrapping your thin, toned arms around Fluttershy’s hourglass hips and grabbing handfuls of her rear.
  1597. >Fluttershy leaned in as well, grabbing your face in her hands and smashing your lips against hers.
  1598. >It felt like she was sucking all the heat from your body, but there was a certain sweetness to it that set and unwavering flame deep in your chest.
  1599. >Fluttershy bit at your bottom lip, and you responded by opening up your mouth to let her unnaturally cold tongue in.
  1600. >You sucked in a sharp breath through your nose when one of Fluttershy’s hands left your face to trail down your body, landing on the buckle keeping your lower garments up.
  1601. >You could feel the lick of ghostly magic against your skin as the buckle was almost torn off and your pants yanked down to your ankles.
  1602. >Fluttershy pulled away from the kiss, but she didn’t leave your mouth unoccupied for long as the hand still holding your face slipped in two icy digits.
  1603. >Your tongue lapped and swirled around the fingers shoved down your throat, your mind cloud as Fluttershy trailed kisses down your stomach.
  1604. >The cloudiness and fatigue from earlier was replaced by a warm lightness that made you feel like you were floating, held up by Fluttershy’s strings, as if you were a marionette.
  1605. >Fluttershy was on her knees by this point, and she had pulled her fingers free from your lips.
  1606. >You begged her with your eyes, chest heaving, covered with a thin sheen of sweat.
  1607. >The well-lubricated fingers trailed themselves down your body until they were just inches from your dripping hot sex, resting on a pulsing vein.
  1608. >”I never specified where I would feed off you”, Fluttershy said, licking the inside of your thigh, her warm breath contrasting the chilly body hugging your legs.
  1609. “W-wha…?”
  1610. >You gasped, ecstasy flowing through your veins as Fluttershy’s fangs finally pierced through the thin skin of your thigh, creating a weird draining sensation that sent tingles directly to your blazing sex.
  1611. >You tried to push her head off, but her grip was like iron and suddenly fatigue was settling on your taxed, weary mind.
  1612. >A pair of wet, cold arms wrapped around your middle, and another pair of fangs joined Fluttershy’s, though this time they pierced your neck from behind.
  1613. >Your head lolled onto Treehugger’s shoulder as she kept you from collapsing.
  1614. >Your eyes shut and your breathing became labored, already darkness was creeping in.
  1615. >Everything grew black, and you knew nothing but silence as you fell unconscious.
  1617. >You jolted awake.
  1618. >It felt like you had cotton shoved in your mouth, your throat was parched.
  1619. >Your eyes were sensitive even to the dim morning light, and you had to rapidly blink to keep your eyes from watering.
  1620. >A thick, animal skin blanket slid off your still-nude form.
  1621. >You looked around the tent- Fluttershy’s tent, you realized- and then at the pair of cold bodies hugging you from either side.
  1622. >Fluttershy and Treehugger had dragged you to a spot across the wide tent to a small, circular cot.
  1623. >You sucked in a breath and fell back into their embrace, their soft snores like an echo.
  1624. >You looked around the room as best you could until you found Scootaloo laying unconscious on the raised dais that Berry had been on before.
  1625. >You weren’t quite sure what to do now…
  1627. ***
  1629. >Despite the volume of your... Amorous activities with Fluttershy, Scootaloo was still fast asleep in the corner of the tent.
  1630. >You shuddered when she saw how shallowly Scootaloo was breathing.
  1631. >The little girl was unconsciously curled in on herself, shivering and clutching the stump at the end of her arm.
  1632. >What a waste.
  1633. >You tore your eyes away and looked over at Fluttershy.
  1634. "I shall return soon, not before the high point of the Moon."
  1635. >Fluttershy flicked her wrist and disrobed before dropping into the crystal clear pool.
  1636. >Treehugger scrambled after, eyes alight and blood red.
  1637. >You grabbed your bow and tightened it over her shoulder, then strapped your short swords to your belt, and stepped out into the sun.
  1638. >You looked around the camp.
  1639. >Tall pillars of smoke were already curling up into the air like a smudge against the azure morning sky.
  1640. >Great brown and tan tents were erected on soft, green grass, each one occupied by one of the camp's denizens.
  1641. >Whether that was lanky, tall Satyrs, massive Orcs, or even spindly Elves with pointed chins and ears.
  1642. >They spared You little mind as they moved about their business like ants, barking their wares or roasting animals or any number of other tasks that kept the camp running.
  1643. >Thankfully there were no eerie red eyes that made your skin crawl, nor ravenous beasts lurking in the darkness.
  1644. >You stepped into the thronging crowd and clasped your hands behind her head.
  1645. >You took in the morning sun's glorious rays and basked in the feeling of the soil under your boots and wind gently teasing your Mohawk.
  1646. >You caught site of a woman with her back turned to you, spindly hands deftly chiseling a shaft of wood with a small knife.
  1647. >Her hair gleamed in the sun, like spider silk that draped over her shoulders and nearly down to her waist.
  1648. >She turned enough to reveal her face, soft, blemish-free skin was framed by jewels woven in her hair, glittering in the sun's rays.
  1649. >She had a long, pointed chin and a jaw chiseled from marble.
  1650. >Her ears were clearly Elven, and despite living in the sun, her skin was as pale as snow.
  1651. >The Drow, for she could be no other kind of Elf, was muttering something under her breath as she continued to straighten and try to fix the oddly-made shaft.
  1652. >”Something you need, or are you just trying to irritate me by staring at the back of my head?”
  1653. >The Drow’s voice startled you, especially with how soft it was despite the snappish tone.
  1654. >Her accent was refined, that of a sweet, tinkling sugar that reminded you of a fae.
  1655. “My intent was not to irritate, I was just watching the shafts someone did not with any expertise create.”
  1656. >The Drow turned fully around and offered you an unimpressed look.
  1657. >”My idiot apprentice decided to try her hand at creating shafts even though I said she wasn’t ready, and now I have to spend all day fixing them.”
  1658. >Her cerulean eyes narrowed.
  1659. >”You’re a ranger.”
  1660. “Yes.”
  1661. >”How about you help me with these? You know how to make shafts?”
  1662. “I do indeed, it was part of my training, and it was my lot in life to succeed.”
  1663. >The Drow gave you another unimpressed look, then tossed you a small knife.
  1664. >You caught it and frowned.
  1665. “What do I get in reward, if this task I do perform?”
  1666. >”This idiot cost me money, if she costs me an entire day’s labor I’ll kill her. You can keep whatever arrows you manage to make, your quiver’s empty.”
  1667. “Excellent point, to that affect I do accept.”
  1668. >You took a seat on a log nearest to the barrel with the poorly made shafts and pulled the first one out.
  1669. >It still had a bit of bark from where the Drow’s apprentice had attempted- and failed miserably- to craft a shaft.
  1670. “Who might your apprentice be? She knows very little, it is plain to see.”
  1671. >The Drow grunted, “Doesn’t matter, I told her if she came back within the next week I’d string her up. She really blundered this one.”
  1672. >You hummed as syou held up the shaft, your face falling when it looked like repairing the damage would be…
  1673. >Irritating, to say the least.
  1674. >That being said, you had made your fair share of shafts.
  1675. >No big deal, right?
  1676. “May I ask your name, while we continue to play the “fix the shafts” game?”
  1677. >The Drow snorted as she ran her knife up the length of the poorly crafted shaft.
  1678. >”Fleur.”
  1679. “Fleur? Very noble, a name I did not think that finding in this camp was possible.”
  1680. >”You’d be right. I used to be… well. I was a noble. Not anymore. Yours?”
  1681. “Zecora.”
  1682. >”Pretty. From the southern plains, right?”
  1683. “Indeed”, you hummed, pulling another thin strip of wood from the shaft in your hand using the knife.
  1684. >She held it up to her face again and tossed it into the finished pile.
  1685. >You worked in silence for a while longer as the sun slowly grew higher into the sky, warming their shoulders like a great blanket.
  1686. >Fleur stood up and stretched to the sky.
  1687. >You could see more than a few eyes catching the Drow’s lithe, athletic body- barely hidden by a short tunic and even shorter breeches- as she exposed her flat, defined stomach.
  1688. >”Thanks, Zecora. We’re nearly done and it’s not too late, just yet. You can have those arrows there, that should about be fair payment.”
  1689. >You offered Fleur a small smile and grabbed a small bundle of arrows from a barrel on the other side of the tent.
  1690. >You could see a handful more barrels, one stuffed with arrow heads, another with unfletched shafts, and half a dozen more with arrows in all degree of construction.
  1691. >Fleur’s work station was neat and tidy, with tools of all manner hanging around the large, leather-covered desk.
  1692. >The tent they were sitting under, too, was organized, with a bedroll in the far corner hidden by most of the inventory.
  1693. >Two of the sides were lifted up to expose Fleur’s wares to the thronging crowd.
  1694. >Many of the passerby's eyes weren’t on the finely crafted arrows- and, as you inspected them, they were extremely well-made- but rather on Fleur herself.
  1695. >”I’m feeling pretty hungry, up for some nosh?”
  1696. >You hesitated.
  1698. ***
  1700. >You nodded.
  1701. >Fleur’s face lifted into a smile, before dropping down into a frown again.
  1702. >She stepped into the moving crowd and you hurried to follow.
  1703. >She weaved the way through the burbling crowd with a practiced grace.
  1704. >She lead the way towards one of the pillars of smoke surrounded by tents.
  1705. >You hummed as the crackling of a low fire and scent of a roasting boar met your nose.
  1706. >”Good right? Mac makes the best food around here.”
  1707. >Fleur pointed at an Orc- the same one that had escorted you into camp- towering over the other villagers as they pushed past a tent and into a wide clearing.
  1708. >The Orc was rotating a spit holding at least a half-dozen cleaned hogs with a roaring, merry fire underneath.
  1709. >All around children scurried between his legs and he had more than a few hanging from an outstretched arm.
  1710. >Other citizens were giving the Orc a wide berth, save for a few that gave him smiles or collected their children.
  1711. >”Still got those hangers-on, Mac?”
  1712. >Mac grunted, his heavy jaw with jutted, cragged tusks tilting into a smile.
  1713. >”Not going soft on me are you?”
  1714. >You laughed as Mac responded with a withering look and casually batted the Drow away from him.
  1715. >Fleur tumbled ass-over-tea-kettle and only stopped when she hit a tree.
  1716. >Her head was on the grass, her back to the bark of the tree, and her legs were splayed out in front of her.
  1717. >”I not soft” the giant of an Orc said.
  1718. >You walked over to the dazed Drow.
  1719. “Let me help you, you’re all askew.”
  1720. >You lifted the stunned Drow to her feet and to a proper orientation, but not without a lot of grumbling.
  1721. >Fleur muttered something in a different, flowery, language as she straightened up and brushed the dirt and grass off her tunic.
  1722. >”Are you two done laughing at me?”
  1723. >Mac’s eyes, small and beady and set into a skull three times too big, crinkled as another broad grin crossed his massive face.
  1724. “Not quite, it keeps the mood light.”
  1725. >”Yeah, yeah”, Fleur muttered, though her lips twitched as she grumbled, “We want some food, and I think you owe me after knocking me over. She can still pay.”
  1726. >You shot her look that made Fleur’s lips curl into a grin.
  1727. >Mac’s rippling muscles shifted as he turned to look at you and Fleur, eyes now narrowed as bulging biceps and massive forearms were crossed against a broad, titanic chest.
  1728. >”Friend of Fluttershy no pay, you pay, silly Elf.”
  1729. “What?” Fleur squawked, “You just knocked me over you under-developed troll!”
  1730. >”Just scratch”, Mac said dismissively.
  1731. >“Just a-”, Fleur fumed, but she stopped when you nudged her.
  1732. “Greetings, Mr. Mac, food is what we lack. I ask kindly you give us some, or our stomachs may riot and we would not see another sun.”
  1733. >You smiled and the Orc’s eyebrows knitted, as he tried to process what she was saying.
  1734. >For a moment, ice filled her guts as Mac looked unimpressed, before he smiled, and laughed.
  1735. “Small elf funny. Come, eat. Sister be here soon.”
  1736. >Before you could ask, Mac had pushed both you and Fleur back onto a log and sliced off most of a rack of ribs off of the roasting boars.
  1737. >He split it in two and slapped it into bowls.
  1738. >The two bowls were thrust into their hands as Mac got back to tending to the fire.
  1739. >”Smells great, Mac! Thanks!”
  1740. >Fleur dug greedily into the massive hunk of meat.
  1741. >With a fervor unseen in one usually so graceful, you grew a little queasy as she watched her eat.
  1742. >”You gonna eat that, or let it get all cold?”
  1743. “Of course”, you said smoothly, “Merely debating internally about showing you some manners, and the potential recourse.”
  1744. >”What’s that?”
  1745. >Your reply was cut off by an Orc stamping into the clearing.
  1746. >She was almost as tall as Mac, but where Mac was solid muscle she was finely-tuned, slim with an almost unnatural grace for her size.
  1747. >The sword strapped to her back was at least as tall as you were and probably just as heavy.
  1748. >Her blonde hair the color of straw was done up in a topknot and her ruddy green cheeks were dotted with freckles.
  1749. >Forest-green eyes darted around the clearing until they landed on you.
  1750. >”Who are you?”
  1751. “Zecora is my name, can I ask of you the question that is the same?”
  1752. >She stopped, her brow furrowing as she thought about what you said.
  1753. >”…Applejack?” She said, though it sounded more like a guess.
  1754. >Her eyes then landed on Fleur.
  1755. >”Fleur why are you with an outsider? I already don’t very much care for others bein’ brought in to trade, and the like, but this one looks like a ranger. They don’t get on with camps ‘n’ villages real well.”
  1756. >Fleur eyed you out of the corner of her eye as she responded, “Wasn’t me. Fluttershy brought her in, I think.”
  1757. >Applejack stomped over to you, and bent almost at the waist.
  1758. >Even so Applejack was still towering over you.
  1759. >You blushed, there was a straight line of sight into Applejack’s envy-inducing bust.
  1760. >Applejack saw you staring and smirked.
  1761. >”If you cause trouble in my camp, I’ll string y’all up by your ankles ‘n’ use you as a punchin’ bag, got it?”
  1762. >You opened your mouth to respond- how, you weren't sure- but Mac beat you to it.
  1763. >”Leave Funny Elf alone, Jackie”, Mac called from across the clearing.
  1764. >Applejack rolled her eyes and stood up.
  1765. >She stamped back over to Mac and pulled most of a boar free from one end of the spit and took a seat across the clearing on a well-worn stump.
  1766. >You began to eat, your eyes straying from Fleur that was casting you surreptitious glances, to Applejack that was outright staring at you as she ripped a chunk of pork from the boar in her massive grip.
  1767. >You weren't quite sure which you preferred, either gave you butterflies, and definitely not for the same reason.
  1768. >Despite the glances around the clearing, only the crackling coals and sizzling carcasses made any noise.
  1769. >It was enough to ruin your appetite, but you ate anyway, even long after she was full.
  1770. >Mac didn’t seem the type to respond to impoliteness too well.
  1771. >You mechanically chewed your food, thoughts lingering on everything that had happened over the last few days.
  1772. >As you began to finish what Mac had given you Applejack approached you.
  1773. >An icy hand gripped your stomach as the great Orc grabbed you by your leather armor and hefted you to your feet.
  1774. >”Come on, Ranger, I got hunting to do and y’all are supposedly the best. This camp ain’t fed on hopes 'n' dreams.”
  1775. >The icy hand gripped tighter as Applejack made to drag you away, but Fleur’s soft hand grabbedyours.
  1776. >”She was actually planning to come back to my tent and do a bit more work.”
  1777. >Applejack tugged you a little more, but Fleur kept her ground.
  1778. >The two women’s eyes met and you were certain that if either of them were magic users lightning would start to spark between them.
  1779. >That said, you tried your best to shrink down and hope that the two of them didn’t rip you apart.
  1780. >”Funny Elf decide”, Mac declared, pushing his sister and Fleur away.
  1781. >Their grips broke easily, but where Applejack merely stumbled, Fleur landed in almost the same position as earlier.
  1782. >You breathed a sigh of relief.
  1783. “Thank you Mac, you are very kind…”
  1784. >You looked back and forth between Fleur and Applejack.
  1785. “But I have made up my mind.”
  1786. >They both turned to look at you.
  1787. >Fleur was giving you an unreadable look, while Applejack’s brows were furrowed.
  1788. “My young charge I must see, before I spend anymore time with any of you three.”
  1789. >Your chest ran cold when Applejack gave you a look, then snorted and turned away, her muscular arms crossed across her broad chest.
  1790. >Fleur was much the same, if in a more hoity-toity fashion that both displayed her displeasure and made you feel an inch tall as she stared down her nose at you.
  1791. >Perhaps she was a noble, once upon a time, after all.
  1792. >But in the here and now she was kind of an ass.
  1793. >You spun on your heel and stalked away from the trio, confident only in the fact that Mac wouldn’t judge you, nor look down on you, in the slightest.
  1794. >You set a slow pace towards the tent that Fluttershy inhabited.
  1795. >It towered over the others, yet, as you stepped inside, it was mainly encompassing a single ever-clear, pure pool of water surrounded by a trio of marble benches set into soft soil.
  1796. >Fluttershy was at a table, reading over a half dozen scrolls that lingered over the marble table.
  1797. >She leafed through them at her leisure with a confident, self assured look on her face when she spotted you.
  1798. >”You’ve returned, Zecora. Not for Treehugger, I take it?”
  1799. >Her eyes flickered over towards Treehugger’s still form, eyes glazed over as Fluttershy’s gaze lingered over her body wading in the pool.
  1800. “No, I think not, Though the idea of you holding one who I hold dear a slave is most assuredly for you a funny thought.”
  1801. >Fluttershy’s blood-red lips curled into a cruel smirk as her eyes flickered over towards Scootaloo.
  1802. >She lay curled in a ball on the small bedroll she had been inhabiting when you left, but her eyes were misty and her hand clenched at the stump of her arm.
  1803. >Pale skin contrasted with a dirty, bruised face and arms and there was still blood decorating her tunic as she shivered despite the heavy wool under her.
  1804. >”Z-Zecora?” Scootaloo muttered softly in the din of the Vampire’s den.
  1805. >She sounded exhausted, and the deep bags under her eyes confirmed it as Scootaloo thrashed about on the woolen cot.
  1806. >Scootaloo scratched at the stump that ended her limb and moaned softly as the itching got worse and worse.
  1807. >Scratchy wool did a number on her already scratched red, raw skin as she worked it deeper into her cot to stop the intense itching and burning.
  1808. >It seemed like she had little awareness of what happened, yet the way her wild eyes darted all around contrasted that thought.
  1809. >You raced over to her and collapsed to your knees, holding her head in your lap as she stared blankly up at the ceiling of the roof.
  1810. >”Am I… Broken, Zecora?”
  1811. >You brushed the hair out of her eyes and gave her a smile.
  1812. “I do not think you are broken, merely ill-spoken.”
  1813. >Scootaloo relaxed in your arms and her eyes shut tight.
  1814. >”I am. I am and you won’t even admit it. I sacrificed my arm- my life- and you won’t even admit the fact that it’s over for me.”
  1815. >Her voice, though young, was bitter and resentful.
  1816. >As if years were added to every word that slipped past her lips.
  1817. >Zecora smoothed down her brows and lined her jaw with gentle thumbs,
  1818. “I’m sorry.”
  1819. >Scootaloo startled at the lack of a rhyme in your words
  1820. “I’m sorry I let you get maimed, and that you’re even involved with me. I’m sorry you’re wrapped up in all of this.”
  1821. >”It’s okay.”
  1822. >Your heart clenched miserably as fat, wet tears started to well up in your eyes.
  1823. >Everything around you was dead, every nerve in your body was numbed, and it was like your mind was frozen in a block of ice.
  1824. >This child that had gone through so much- and had lost a limb, for you none the less- was laying in your arms and you felt near helpless.
  1825. “Your story is not done, only when I get you back into fighting shape, shall I consider the day a well-fought one.”
  1826. >Scootaloo smiled softly in your arms.
  1827. >The world slowly seemed to bleed back into focus and your hammering heart slowed to a normal beat as the blood stopped pounding in your ears.
  1828. >”Okay. I believe you.”
  1830. >The arrow that split the tent’s canvas roof startled you.
  1831. >You looked up into a dozen more that were falling towards the shelter you inhabited with wide, unbelieving eyes as they began to rain down into the small tent.
  1832. >You hugged Scootaloo tight to your chest and rolled out of the tent from a side panel, hands already drawing a familiar pattern with your bow and an arrow nocked.
  1833. >Fluttershy was only a second after you, Treehugger in her grip as she appeared in a great cloud of black smoke.
  1834. >Your jaw went slack and the arm holding the arrow back loosened slightly as a rain of perhaps a thousand arrows dotted with fire loomed towards you.
  1835. >All around you, you could hear the screams of horror as members of the small camp saw what was coming, then you could smell the undeniable putrid stench of undeath.
  1836. >The very same that had ravaged that Druid sanctuary so long ago…
  1838. >You grabbed Scootaloo around the chest and dove under the cover of a table and out of the way of the oncoming swarm of arrows.
  1839. >Fluttershy, you could see, was reforming her pitch black robe and flicked her hand, sending a hundred arrows that had been falling in her direction careening off a great black shield that streaked against the waning sun’s sky.
  1840. >Treehugger was curled up around her legs, her entire body shuddering as she pulled herself into a tight ball.
  1841. >Another wave of arrows and another bone-chilling, gut wrenching chorus of screams followed.
  1842. “Do not stray, here you must stay”, you whispered in Scootaloo’s ear.
  1843. >She nodded and you were gone in a moment, darting in between tables and ducking under chairs to escape a rainfall of arrows.
  1844. >Everywhere around you lay broken, bleeding bodies, littered with arrows and staring up into the great void of the waning sun’s last rays with unfocused eyes and an unnatural stillness.
  1845. >Yet there were just as many denizens of the camp that rushed around you in a great stampede, some holding books or other items over their head and making a mad dash away from the rain of arrows.
  1846. >You, and a few others, were running towards the gate nearest to the source.
  1847. >Big Mac was sprinting forward, his massive lumberman’s axe blocking any arrows that came his way, and his massive frame ignoring any arrows that slipped through.
  1848. >Following hot on his heels was a number of other camp-dwellers, some spell-casters, others warriors.
  1849. >You followed their lead as Big Mac smashed through the wooden gate and let out an almighty, blood-chilling roar that pounded in your ears.
  1850. >Then, you slid to a stop.
  1851. >For every one camp-dweller that had taken charge, there were at least a thousand undead.
  1852. >They were coming out of the treeline, dragging, moaning, hungry- eyes staring a thousand yards away yet no less with unrelenting fervor and jaw-gnashing hunger.
  1853. >The forest behind them was withered to near death as they scrabbled from under tree roots and stumbled through the gaps in the trees.
  1854. >Your jaw was slack, and everyone now outside the gate was stopped next to you, swords and shields held in loose grips and shoulders slumped as they looked at the ever-approaching horde.
  1855. >One of the warriors took a step back, and you could hear his heavy swallow, as he took another step back.
  1856. >”No running. Fight for home”, Big Mac said, hefting his axe over his shoulder and gripped the warrior by the back of his neck and pushing him forward.
  1857. >A deep, swirling vortex spread over the floor and Fluttershy rose through it with a sickening shriek, her eyes ablaze with a sickening fire as hellish, warped creatures followed from her void.
  1858. >Big Mac grabbed his great woodsman’s axe and raised it to the sky with another thunderous roar as he charged in, the hellish creatures of Fluttershy’s making nipping at his heels.
  1859. >The first cleave of his axe split apart three trees, and a half dozen undead as his massive form lumbered through the trees.
  1860. >Fluttershy screeched and followed after him, beginning a rush to follow her by the other camp-dwellers.
  1861. >You were close behind, arrow knocked and let loose, splitting open the head of the nearest undead as it’s clawing fingers tried to reach out towards you.
  1862. >The clearing between the wall and the tree line was steadily filling with undead and you began to let loose another arrow with rapid, practiced movements, collapsing another zombie and another.
  1863. >Your hands grasped an empty quiver as another zombie was near about to grab you, with practiced ease your bow came down onto it’s head, flattening it as it collapsed like a puppet without strings.
  1864. >The others were steadily being pushed back and you weren’t much better as the unending series of gnashing teeth and unearthly stench dragged themselves forward.
  1865. >Even Fluttershy, supernatural and dark powers alight, couldn’t cut a path through the ranks of the undead.
  1866. >Your twin short swords made quick work of the undead, and your cloak and leather armor kept most of the bites at bay, but neither was a permanent solution.
  1867. >You spun on your heel and chopped the hand off a grasping, groaning, slobbering undead.
  1868. >A light-eating spike shot past your head and into the skull of an undead ready to chomp on your neck, Fluttershy’s burning red eyes piercing into yours.
  1869. >You shivered and dove back behind the undead Druid and covered your face as she let out a shriek and blew a line of undead away with a great wave of her arms.
  1870. >Big Mac grabbed the door- the part that he hadn’t split open- and slammed it shut.
  1871. >Two spell-casters formed a crude lock on it, just stopping the undead that were now scraping, moaning in incessant, endless hunger at the door and walls.
  1872. >”What do we do, Fluttershy? Sister not here and dead breaking walls”, Big Mac shouted over the raucous screeches of undeath just feet away.
  1873. >Fluttershy looked around at all of them, despair and worry tinging her face as her black cloak licking at her ankles.
  1874. >The world that seemed to far away was now crashing down upon them and you couldn’t help your chest tightening with worry.
  1875. >”We need to go.” Fluttershy rose her hands to stifle the dissatisfied murmurs of the small group as she continued, “It’s… There’s too many of them out there. We have to leave and regroup with what few others we have left, if they haven’t been scattered to the winds already.”
  1876. >As she said this you could see her glance around at the burning bodies and the fire that slowly began to consume the tents and char the ground black with ash.
  1877. >Acrid as it was, the smell of death burned at your nose as if alight with coals and hellfire.
  1878. >Your heart began to fill with dread and your lips thinned when you thought of Scootaloo, hopefully safe, but the here and now came first. Right?
  1879. >You pulled your cloak around you a little tighter and raised your head to protect your head from the ash that fell like cherry blossoms, dusting you and everyone around.
  1880. >”Sister still gone”, Big Mac grunted, his jaw set and his eyebrows furrowed in worry and anger.
  1881. >”Need to find Applejack, then go.”
  1882. >”Sorry big man”, one of the warriors said, clapping Mac on the shoulder, “We gotta head out, your sister is as tough as nails, she’ll make it.”
  1883. >”Sister. Still. Gone”, Mac said firmly, one of his massive hands gripping the warrior by the strap of his sword’s hilt and dragging him up to snarl in his face.
  1884. >The warrior raised his hands in surrender and Mac dropped him to his ass.
  1885. “As much as this needs to be said, currently we are surrounded by undead. They grow no less hungry, so if we do not wish to be a meal we must hurry.”
  1886. >”Zecora’s right”, Fluttershy said, her soft hand resting on Big Mac’s hand, “We have to go. I know Applejack, she’ll follow us. Trust.”
  1887. >Mac hesitated, but one great groan from the door that was separating them from the massive wall of undead set himself right.
  1888. >He picked up his massive axe and the group began to move just as the great oak door finally splintered and caved in.
  1889. >The group, now down to Big Mac, Fluttershy, two spellcasters, two warriors, and yourself, were sprinting across the camp grounds and trying to dodge around the ever-encroaching fire that seemed to block more and more of your path.
  1890. >More than once you had to suck in a deep breath to get through a thick black cloud of soot that threatened to choke the life out of you.
  1891. >The group just turned the corner, another door out of the camp was busted open, but it lacked the withering, decayed quality that the undead brought.
  1892. >”There!” Fluttershy shouted, “Out that way!”
  1893. >You all sprinted towards the way out, but you slid to a stop.
  1894. >”Come on Zecora, what are you waiting for?”
  1895. >You looked out into the forest, then back into the camp, your heart clenching painfully as you thought of Scootaloo.
  1896. >Surely dead by now, but who knew for certain?
  1897. >Your face set in a grim, determined scowl as you pulled up your cloak so that it covered your nose and mouth.
  1898. "I have to run into the camp, to save my little scamp."
  1899. >"Zecora no go back! Bad idea!"
  1900. >Big Mac's low growl was cut off by Fluttershy eyeing you for a moment, before she turned her back on you.
  1901. >"She's made her choice. Let her throw her life away."
  1902. >That's about what you expected from Fluttershy.
  1903. >Big Mac seemed less enthused as he made to grab you, whether to drag you along or smack some sense into your thick skull, you weren't sure.
  1904. >You darted out of his range and into the field of fire, hot coals underfoot and flames licking at your boots.
  1905. >You really, really hoped Scootaloo was alive.
  1906. >And that you were, by the end of it.
  1907. >The dead, thankfully, were staying dead as they lay charring all over the ground, staining it with a foul-smelling black ichor.
  1908. >Most of the army that had foolishly followed your group in here were charred husks already, and the ones that weren't were on their way as they weakly clawed towards you.
  1909. >You vaulted over another broken post that blocked your way as you tried to remember where you had left Scootaloo.
  1910. >The camp seemed massive now, and, without the indicator of Fluttershy's tent being the most massive one in the area, it was even harder to find your way around.
  1911. >You hissed as soot and ash threatened to choke you, stinging at your eyes and the little exposed skin you had.
  1912. >The choking dust was starting to cover your cloak, bleaching it white.
  1913. >Furnace-like heat was slowly making it harder and harder to keep pushing yourself as you vaulted under a burning tree that had collapsed near the middle of camp.
  1914. >You finally spotted the large marble basin- though now it was nearly pitch black, covered with soot as it was- and beyond that, the table Scootaloo had taken refuge under...
  1915. >A hand as cold and apathetic as death clutched at your chest, squeezing the air out of your lungs.
  1916. >Scootaloo wasn't there, and neither was a body.
  1917. >You looked back and forth, darting around the glowing hot beds of coals and dipping out of the way of flames that threatened to get a little too close.
  1918. >The smoke swirling around you was slowly getting under your cloak as great, heaving coughs started to rack your body.
  1919. >Every step slowly began to tire you as you dove out of the way of a tent that finally given up the ghost, collapsing and sending a swirl of ash into the air.
  1920. >Despite your speed you only just managed to avoid getting caught in the ash cloud, but another tent pole you hadn't notice jarred you as it came down over your right shoulder.
  1921. [-3 HP]
  1922. >You slammed into the ground, head dizzy with smoke inhalation.
  1923. >A snarling death rattle woke you from the stupor and you rolled away from the grasping gray, rotten hand as a zombie dragged itself to you.
  1924. >You flopped onto your front and dragged yourself away from the groaning creature.
  1925. >It grabbed your boot and sunk it's rotten teeth into your heel, gnawing ineffectually at the stiff leather.
  1926. >You sucked in a mouth full of soot and began to hack, kicking the thing's soft head away as you stumbled forward into a barrel mostly untouched by the fire that crept in closer and closer.
  1927. >The affront to nature stopped moaning as it gave out a rattling, despaired wail, then fell deathly silent.
  1928. >You looked behind you and saw a shape moving through the smoke.
  1929. >It was too human to be one of the horde that hadn't been consumed with fire, and too fast as it wrapped it's arms around your chest and started to drag you.
  1930. >"Come on Zecora, don't make me carry you the whole way out of here!"
  1931. >Fleur's richly accented voice was heavy with desperation.
  1932. >You got your footing back and tried to stand up.
  1933. >Fleur was there as soon as you began to pitch forward, your hand coming up to your expose mouth as you spit out a chimney's worth of ash.
  1934. >"Come on, no time to dally!"
  1935. >Fleur's arm was wrapped around your rib cage and your left arm was over her shoulders as she pulled your forward.
  1936. >Moving through the smoke was much harder as you tried to suck in a clean breath of air, only to gag when the disgusting stench of burnt bodies or a cloud of soot exploded in front of you.
  1937. >Your eyes were stinging and seeing more than a foot in any direction was almost impossible.
  1938. >Fleur kept you going though, her arms like a vice around you as she practically dragged you through the camp.
  1939. >Just as your legs began to cramp and your vision began to darken, the pair of you breached the thick cloud of smoke and impacted the soft, green grass just outside the camp.
  1940. >You sucked in a great breath of air as you lay limply on your side, coughing out tar and holding your chest.
  1941. >You flopped back over onto your back, enjoying the cool air even as the heat of the inferno just feet away made you sweat.
  1942. >"Did you really think you had the right to die on me?"
  1943. >Fleur collapsed next to you, the Drow was drenched in sweat as you were, her bone white hair plastered to her chest and her thin white shirt almost see through.
  1944. "Of that I had no desire, to horribly die in that fire."
  1945. >"Why did you even go in there?"
  1946. >Her accented voice cut through the air like a knife.
  1947. "Scootaloo."
  1948. >Your voice was grim
  1949. "I... Couldn't find her."
  1950. >Your hands came up to wipe at your stinging eyes, the stench of smoke and ash clear as day on them, and you wondered if any of it belonged to Scootaloo.
  1951. >Fleur stood up, gazing blank-faced into the fire.
  1952. >"My apprentice is dead. Saved me from one of those things when they grabbed me."
  1953. >"...I..."
  1954. >Fleur wiped at her eyes as her face screwed up.
  1955. >"I killed her. The thing that grabbed me, it would have torn me apart, but she..."
  1956. >You sat up with a wince, gripping your shoulder.
  1957. >You grabbed her shoulder.
  1958. >She gave you a watery smile.
  1959. >You staggered to your feet, holding out a hand for her to take.
  1960. >The pair of you began to limp off into the direction that the others had seemed to head what felt like a lifetime ago.
  1961. >You stopped, staring into the setting sun, the heat of the fire behind you, and Fleur to your side.
  1962. >She stopped with you, her gaze questioning.
  1964. ***
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