Completed The Butterfly

Hahnah

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(Intrepid Daily)​


Dawn was breaking. The sun was obscured by a thin white layer of clouds overcasting the sky from horizon to horizon. Many trees in this northern part of Falwood and this time of year were shed of their leaves, their branches naked and gnarled, like strange capillaries reaching for something unseen.

Hahnah had been following the priest and his adherents. The human priest and his human adherents. She had been following him for two days now. And she knew that he was a priest. On the first night when she had approached their camp she heard him talking to his followers. Her desire to slay them had been, strangely, stayed by her curiosity when she heard his words. She still had that desire now. But first she wanted to follow. Covertly follow him and see where he and his adherents were going on this "pilgrimage" of theirs, and what they would do once they got there.

She had been following the priest even this morning at first light.

But something caught her eye.

A cocoon. Hanging off the edge of a low-hanging branch of a tree she would have, if not for the faintest movement of the cocoon, passed right by. Hahnah saw the cocoon and she immediately knew what it was. Her elven caretakers had shown her this before, the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis. It fascinated Hahnah to no end: how one creature could enter into a cocoon, time would pass, and a different creature would emerge. This never failed to fixate her mind with a host of questions and wishful desires.

A tear opened in the milky white cocoon. Hahnah inhaled with wondrous anticipation. She bent over with her hands on her knees and peered more closely at the cocoon and the stirring butterfly within. The tear in the cocoon spread further. An orange, black, and white spotted wing emerged. Then with a quick jostle the insect came forth and clung upside-down to the empty shell of the cocoon. Hahnah gasped with a reverential awe. Orange eyes watched the first flaps of orange wings.

Hahnah, with care to try and not scare the butterfly away, lifted her right hand and extended her index finger and slowly...slowly...inched it forward toward the insect. She gently touched its wings. A small flutter of reaction, but the insect did not fly away. Hahnah touched them again.

Then the butterfly flew about briefly. And landed on Hahnah's finger.

Hahnah let out another gasp, this one shuddering with an exuberance she knew she had to restrain. Hahnah stood up straight, placed her other hand over her heart and held the finger with the perched butterfly close. She was blushing with joy, smiling without end, overcome with simple emotion and in that moment forgetting about the human priest and his followers.

"Welcome back to Arethil. You have very beautiful wings."

The butterfly's antennae bristled. It flexed and stretched its wings. It did not respond, and Hahnah knew that it would not--yet she said what she had said and meant it regardless.
 

Pretty Boy

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The woods were always a lovely place to move among. It was so still and silent this time of year, where everything was yawning it’s last in preparation for sleep. Autumn provided so many places, so many sights, that had once been hidden by leaves. Animals were moving on, and quiet was reigning once again.

Pretty Boy walked easily among the trees, crunching leaves under his great paws. He was the height of a man at the shoulder, built like a bear or fighting dog with plush, velveteen fur that recalled neither. His sable tones blended in with the array of browns, yellows and reds that were aflurry along the ground, though his size certainly made him easier to pick out. His stump tail wiggled in excitement as he tackled a pile of leaves, sending puffs of crunchy autumn everywhere. His elongated head, eyeless, was tipped in an impressively large mouth with tusks out to either side, like the pipes of an organ. He used those tusks to fling clumps of leaves into the air, batting at them like a cat.

He startled something in the brush. A rabbit, probably stirred into flight by his play. Pretty immediately took chase, lumbering after the nimbler animal through the trees. The rabbit, being much more agile than the devourer, wove through the trunks. Pretty dove between two, catching the rabbit between the road and the woods. He seized the animal and crunched down, happy with his prize.

Then he moved to pull his head back from between the tree trunks...and caught fast.

Oh no.

He swallowed his rabbit and pulled, but only succeeded in giving himself a toothache. Pretty sank his claws into the tree trunk and roared indignantly. How dare this stupid tree do this? He danced around behind it, wrenching from side to side. Nothing. He was stuck. His backward sweeping tusks had slid neatly between the trunks, but were also preventing him from leaving.
 
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Hahnah

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A noise echoed from far away through the forest, and the butterfly flew from Hahnah's finger. Hahnah, startled more by the insect's sudden flight away than the distant and muted roar, watched the butterfly go, her hands raised in a half-hearted effort to maybe try and catch it. But she did not try. It was gone and out of her reach.

She stood there for a moment. Thought of the people with wings she had seen in her brief travel from Falwood with Alden. Thought on the process of change.

Her eyes settled on the empty cocoon.

Then she turned and started off. The human priest and his followers were far ahead of her, and she needed to catch up. Still she was curious as to what they would do once they arrived at the place they were going, but she had not forgotten her sacred duty.

She would do well this day.

* * * * *​

Hahnah avoided traveling on the roads and paths whenever she could. Even here in Falwood there was a risk of encountering humans, and encountering them in an unfavorable circumstance. She thought of herself as an elf, for she had no truer descriptor to call herself, but an encounter with elves was only little better. The wilderness of the trees was her home. The dens and lairs of Falwood's monsters were her home. The road was not her home, and neither were the towns and villages scattered along it--like the village this priest had come from.

She had not yet gotten sight of the priest and his followers again. But she would. She was not on the road but she was traveling parallel to it. Soon she would catch a glimpse of them through the trees, or hear them faintly talking in the morning air, or smell the lingering traces of their stench along the road when she periodically approached to check its direction.

Hahnah heard a rustling. A rustling that was not the wind. She continued walking, and beyond the trees whose green leaves had not fallen like most others and the shrubs she eventually came to see a creature. A large bear, it seemed, somehow caught between the "V"-shaped trunks of twin trees.

Hahnah looked at the bear. Blinked. She did not approach it. Wild animals and monsters left her alone, but only if she left them alone. She had on occasion been too bold and too desperate and reached for a piece of meat on a fresh kill, only to have her hand snapped at. Or touched one's hide or carapace a few too many times.

She decided to leave the creature alone. And she turned, ready to continue on after the humans she was hunting.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty pulled at the tree fork. He danced around until he’d left a horseshoe sized furrow in the earth around the trees. He was utterly exhausted by the time he heard the rustling of someone coming closer. A person! Someone with hands! People were resourceful, this he knew. Pretty may not have had the best interactions with humans and other two legged ilk, but aren’t they supposed to be empathic?

But she turned, as if to leave. He began struggling violently, shaking the tree. He whined at her, which sounded quite similarly like the mewling bark of a puppy. He wanted out of this tree and she could help him! He waggled his head, sighing heavily and sitting down.

He looked at her. Please, please come back..,
 
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Hahnah had taken a single step. She was prepared to leave the bear to its fate. It would likely die and that was okay. It was an animal, and its death would feed other animals. It would feed the insects which would be drawn to its carcass. Hahnah herself, if she came back this way once she was done, might feed from it. A truth about how the world worked, that things had to die so that other things could live. It was eat and be eaten.

Hahnah had taken her step, and then she heard the bear make a pitiful sound. She cast a sideways glance, noticing then the peculiar reason why the "bear" was stuck. It had claws growing out of its mouth. Claws that had been lodged against the tree trunks.

It was a strange bear. Much like how Hahnah described herself when the rare occasion arose: that she was a strange elf.

She circled around, allowing for herself this second distraction from her purpose. Over to what would be the creature's muzzle, the front of the thing, she approached. Bare feet on the forest floor crunched the stiff and dead leaves. Hahnah crouched down on her haunches, looking at the thing.

It did not have eyes. That was how it got stuck--it could not see. But how could it have lived for so long to become so big if it could not see?

Hahnah--squatted down a few paces from the strange bear--tilted her head in an inquisitive slant as she regarded it, the bottoms of her eyes hiking up in a slightly puzzled squint. She held up her right hand. Arced it left. Arced it right. Like an exaggerated wave. Would it even know she was doing that and react to it?

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Oh thank the gods, she’d come back. He nodded his head, scraping his tusks up and down. He’d damaged the tree fairly severely, rubbing the bark away with the frantic movement of his tusks. She could probably surmise that he’d been stuck for a while, and he’d been there at least two hours. He had at least caught the rabbit, so he wasn’t ravenous yet.

She crouched in front of him and waved her hand. He followed her hand as well as he could, pointing his nose. He whimpered again and wiggled. She could help, right? He waggled his stump tail, thumping it on the forest floor. He wouldn’t hurt her. Left, then right, he followed her hand. Lipped at her playfully.

Pretty made the whining noise again, and tugged at his tusks. They were stuck if he pulled straight back, but if he angled them a bit, they could slip through.
 
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Hahnah

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It was moving its nose, tracking the movement of her hand. Was it smelling her hand? Was its sense of smell that acute? Or did it have hidden eyes? If it did not have any eyes and could still see somehow, could she kill it with a Cascade? This last was a question of pure curiosity, unfettered by the decency and values her caretakers had instilled (or tried to instill) in her. She hunted as such, locking eyes with her prey and using her sorcerous Cascade to bring about sudden and violent aneurysms in deer, in rodents, in other animals. It was what she knew.

The question came and went in her mind.

Hahnah wondered if she could set it free--somehow. What it would do if did get free. Was it a bear or was it a monster? She did not know. Normal spiders were insects, but giant spiders were monsters. She hoped it was a monster, because monsters killed humans. They killed elves as well, but the rangers like her caretakers kept many elves safe. Vel Anir likewise kept many humans safe, and that was why it was the most profane place upon all of Arethil.

Hahnah shuffled back slightly when the strange bear lipped at her, drawing her hand close to her chest. Her Living Armor, the "fur" covering a large portion of her body, bristled with an alert autonomy across each individual strand--then went inert again.

Undeterred by her caution, Hahnah considered what to do. She could not break the tree. She probably could not break off the claws protruding from the strange bear's mouth. The bear had followed her hand when she presented it and moved it. What if she tried to get it to follow her hand and move its head so that it became unstuck?

Hahnah crouch-walked closer to where she had been before shuffling backward. She held out her hand again. Went left and right again to see if the bear would follow. Then, slowly, she twisted her hand, akin to the motion of turning a doorknob.

Pretty Boy
 
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Pretty Boy

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She drew back, and fluffed up like an indignant hawk when he lipped at her. Clearly she didn’t like that, even if his jaws hadn’t opened even slightly. He resolved to try not to do that again. If he wanted her to help him, there was no sense in scaring her off. She shuffled forward again, holding out her hand and waving it right and left again. Pretty followed it, confused. Why were they doing this again? All it did was make him wiggle and he’d tried that.

Then, she turned her hand. Twisting upward. Pretty pushed forward, and followed the hand. There was an enormous amount of pressure on his tusks, but with a loud grinding noise he popped free.

He was free! Pretty shook his head on his thick, powerful neck. That felt so much better! He raced in a small circle, crowhopping and waggling his head violently back and forth. It felt so good not to be stuck again!

Pretty bounded up to his savior and sat in front of her, mouth hanging open slightly and a fat tongue hanging out from his exertions. He looked at the ground between them and extended a claw, arduously carving out the letters upside down so she could read them.

Thank. Owe.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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It worked. She did not know if it would, if the strange bear would track the motion of her hand in the way necessary to free itself, but the bear did and it worked.

Hahnah watched the creature race about in a circle, feeling the subtle vibration in the ground of each thumping footstep. It had not come near her, so she did not feel compelled to back off and give way. She was aware of the danger of being small in the vicinity of the large. She had come close to being trampled before. Monsters and big animals were indifferent to her, and this was both good and bad.

And then the strange bear did. It did come near her. Hahnah fell back from her squat and onto her rear end, and she would have tried scrambling out of the way if the bear had not stopped and sat. She blinked. Cautiously sat up straight and watched the bear.

Watched as the bear did something peculiar. It was pawing at the ground, but not in a way other animals did. This was precise. Purposeful? Hahnah leaned a little more forward, peering down at the markings the strange bear had made in the dirt.

Those were letters. Hahnah could not read them, but she recognized the symbols as letters. Her caretakers had tried to teach her how to read the written script of Common and as well the written script of elvish. Neither had taken. Hahnah wanted to learn them, especially the elvish script, but no matter how hard she tried she simply could not retain it; her mind with the written words was much like the body rejecting food that it did not like.

But this, what was before her here, was not a fluke or coincidence--the bear had done that purposefully.

Which meant he was a strange bear indeed. Different from others. Like Hahnah was different from elves.

Hahnah did not know what he had written, but she thought to mimic it back. She shifted around from sitting on her rear end to being on her hands and knees, and she used two fingers of her right hand to carefully copy the eight letters and the dots on the ends, yet she did not think to write them upside down so that they would be oriented right-side up for him.

˙ǝʍO ˙ʞuɐɥ┴

Then she sat back onto her rear end. A smiling curiosity becoming her as she wondered now what he would do.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty cocked his head, and twisted it awkwardly trying to read what she’d written. Eventually he just got up and sat next to her, looking at the letters. She’d copied him. Could she not read? Two-leggeds invented the concept of writing. He couldn’t speak; any language he tried came out as a twisted form of his normal gutteral sounds.

He looked down at her. There was one thing he could do. He pulled the doglike corners of his mouth up into a comical portrayal of a smile. It looked a bit ridiculous and made him drool a bit, but humans had liked it. Maybe she would like it.

Pretty got up to shake himself, working leaves and dirt out of his velveteen fur. Then he got down on his elbows, looking at her expectantly. It was still a good three feet up, a decent jump. He poked an elbow out for her to use as a footrest.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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The strange bear got up and shuffled around and sat beside her. Only then did Hahnah realize that she had probably gotten the orientation of the letters wrong. But it was a mistake easily rectified.

Hahnah looked over and up at the strange bear. He was smiling, or seemed to be smiling. She had spoken to the butterfly earlier knowing full well that it would not understand her. Here it might be different? The bear was not the butterfly. He could write. That was strange for a bear, maybe stranger than the protruding claws in the mouth and the lack of eyes. He might not understand her speech like she did not understand his written letters, but she could try.

The bear got up. Shook himself off. A leaf set loose by this shaking fluttered and landed on Hahnah's shoulder, and a small company of strands of her Living Armor moved and brushed the leaf off--this without Hahnah's direct input or even attention. She watched the bear for a moment. Watched as he hunkered down on the elbows of his forelimbs. It did not occur to her that there might be a reason why he had done this and why he had poked out his elbow.

She decided to try talking.

"You are free from the tree," she said, stating the simple fact.

She touched her chest.

"My name is Hahnah. It is Hah. And then it is Nah. That is how my name is said."

It was not always so. When first her caretakers were teaching her the Common language, they had come to name her Hannah. But she, new to even the concept of speech and communication, did not pronounce the name they had given her exactly as they did. She kept saying "Hahnah" as her name for months. Kylindrielle patiently kept trying to correct her, but Elurdrith eventually convinced her to let the name Hahnah stay.

A question then. One that was blunt, but entirely sincere in its inquisitiveness. "Where are your eyes?"

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty kept the pose for a few minutes, then sat up and tilted his head at her. Yes, he understood he was free from the tree. He shook his head yes, similar in his fashion of nodding to the way a horse might do it. That he understood. He was happy to be free from the tree and he wouldn’t do it again no matter how good fresh rabbit tasted.

She touched her chest and spoke. Hahnah. That was her name. He wished he could speak his. He could form the same positions with his lips, and his tongue was certainly long enough, his throat just didn’t work that way. If he had been able to, he would have told her his name. He had been named, rather ironically, by the first human he’d come across. Well ain’t that a pretty boy? What the hell is that?

The name had stuck, at least in Pretty’s mind, moreover because as far as Devourers went he was a handsome devil. He rubbed out her marks with his paw and wrote it. Pretty. Boy.

Where were his eyes? He shrugged. He’d never had any. Devourer magic helped him get around, as much as a snakes pits helped them see heat or the membrane of a cat helped them see in low light. Either way it wasn’t important.

Pretty flopped on his side and stretched. If she didn’t want a ride, she could put those fingers to good use and rub his fur.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Different letters this time scratched into the dirt. Hahnah looked at them, but like before, she could not read them and their meaning was lost to her. That was how it was. He could write but she could not read, she could speak but he could not reply. Here a hard disconnect between them.

But he could gesture. Other animals gestured, but these shown by the bear--the nod of his large head and the shrug of his shoulders--had a distinctly elven (she did not think of them as "human") quality. They were the same. A nod meaning affirmation. A shrug meaning ignorance. Or so Hahnah perceived them to be. It was becoming difficult to see him as the bear and the animal that she originally had.

He flopped over onto his side. Stretched.

And Hahnah took the opportunity to pray, the compulsion to do so swiftly coming about. She raised herself up onto her knees, clasped her left fist in her right hand, and turned her gaze skyward--straight up toward the thin layer of white clouds.

"Does this please You?"

She spoke with awe and reverence.

"Does this please You?"

And again.

"Does this please You?"

Her eyes, ever hopeful for an answer. Her demeanor patient and deferent. She waited. Waited. But nothing came. She felt the presence of the Dying God in her heart as she always did, but nothing came. She closed her eyes and thought beseeching thoughts. This for a moment.

Then she opened them. Looked over her shoulder, in the direction that she was originally heading. Her pursuit of the priest and his followers. The trail of the profane. Their paths had crossed, Hahnah's and those of the priest and his flock. If they were without sin, then their paths would not have. But their human gods had forsaken them.

And left them to Hahnah.

This is what she needed to do. This was her purpose. This would please the Dying God. She could not continue to ignore it. The paths had been crossed.

So Hahnah rose up onto her feet. Turned her body to be oriented straight with her head. She then spared a glance to the bear, and said, "There is something that I must go and do."

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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No belly rubs then. Pretty sat up to see her...praying? Calling to the sky. He sat up and lifted himself up on his haunches, looking up at the sky with her. Who exactly was she talking to? He couldn’t see, hear or smell anyone. He dropped down to a sit with a huff. What in the world was this girl on about? She got up, and informed him she had something to do...but he could help with that couldn’t he?

After all, he owed her for the tree. He looked at the way she was oriented. If he’d made her late perhaps she could catch up? He lowed at her, a noise very much like a bear if a bear was dropped down a well with a particularly angry bird. He meant to get her attention. He lifted his paw, pointing a claw in the direction she was pointed, then launched off his haunches.

Pretty might have been large, but he was fast in the way elephants, locomotives and bears were fast. Once that weight got moving it was hard to slow down. He took off down the road and dug his heels in a few hundred yards down, spinning neatly on his back paws and thundering back toward her. He was fast. She could catch up fast.

He bent down again next to her, elbows on the ground, and turned his head to lip at his back. Hopefully she’d get the message. He was offering her a ride.

Hahnah
 
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The bear made a noise, and actually pointed with his paw in the direction she was looking and ultimately heading. And then he was off. Faster than Hahnah thought him to be. But he was free now. He had his life, and though he was going in the same direction as Hahnah, she assumed that he was off to live it. He went from the forest floor all the way to the road proper and went roaring down it.

Hahnah started walking. Steady and with prim posture, elven grace--these qualities imitated from her caretakers. She would not have far to go. She had overheard when she spied on the priest's camp the previous night that this would be their last day of travel. They would reach their destination today. Soon, she could both satiate her curiosity and fulfill her purpose.

The hastened crunching and snapping of heavy paws on the forest floor. The bear was coming back?

Yes. Much to her surprise, he was coming back. And coming back fast. She stopped walking, and her Living Armor down her forearms and her thighs and across her torso began to wave like long grass in a light breeze--anticipating. But he stopped too, and her Armor settled into stillness again.

"I thought that you had gone on your way."

The bear bent down. Turned his head in a gesture toward his back.

Hahnah gave him a quizzical look. "What is it?"

She was not sure. She went through some guesses in her mind, until she gasped with readily apparent realization. Kylindrielle, when going into town to restock the ranger refuge with certain supplies, did so on a horse. She rode it. On its back. There were other types of animals that could be ridden as well, so she had told Hahnah.

Hahnah stepped forward gingerly. Placed a hand down on the fur of the bear's back. Said, "May I ride on your back? Is that what you want me to do?"

She didn't wait for an answer. She wanted to try. She swung a leg high up and over and then sat down on the bear's back, grabbing two handfuls of fur, and waited with bated breath.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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She put her hand on his back, and after a few minutes, swung herself up. She was grabbing his skin, as his fur was plush but much too short to grab by itself. His skin shivered at the treatment, as though irritated by her grasping. He wasn’t about to lose her. He pushed himself back up on all fours, making sure she had a steady seat.

Pretty started forward at a lope, his long, ground eating strides making swift progress. He wanted to make sure she knew what she was doing. While his back was steady as a rock when he loped, the rocking motion began when he kicked into that heavy gallop. He had no idea where she was going, but he’d seen her start down the trail coming back, so surely she was going this way.

The devourer eased himself into the run. It would go easier for her if she flattened herself closer to his shoulders. His head was down while he was running, making his withers the highest point on his back. He’d had a rider before, when he was much younger. He bellowed happily, tail wiggling behind him as he ran. He liked running. He was just as fast as any horse, and he liked to think that once he was going he was a little faster.

Hahnah
 
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The skin bristled under her grasp, but she did not know what else to grasp. Kylindrielle had things that she put onto the horse before she rode it into town. Hahnah did not have those things.

"Oh. O-Ohhh!"

Little gasps of exclamation when the bear stood up fully and began his stride. This was something to which she was not accustomed. It was an odd feeling, to see the ground and the trees around her moving but knowing that her body was still. The ground and the trees started to go faster, the air blowing harder against her body, her face, her eyes--the bear had gone from a walk to a run. This she was certainly unaccustomed to: moving with such speed across the land.

But it was fun. Fun like the games she would sometimes play with her caretakers.

She had been sitting perfectly straight and upright, maintaining a posture akin to an attentive student, but the wind that came whipping against her with the speed of the run made her lean forward. Lean forward a little more. Lean until she was laying her upper body flat on the big bear's back. Her hair still whipped about, but the wind could not gain the fierce grasp on her body it had while she was sitting up.

She didn't need to squint her eyes so much either. And she could see beyond the bear's galloping head that the terrain was graduating into a long and gentle downward slope. Further down in this shallow depression were many more trees--larger trees--that were thick with their green and durable leaves. The shadows cast by them fuller than the mostly skeletal trees on the higher ground.

Hahnah thought that she could smell the lingering traces of the traveling humans in the air.

The grove with the pond was ahead.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty felt her unsteadily grasp him, then lean forward to duck out of the wind against his shoulders. Good. Without the wind constantly attempting to rake her off his back, he could run with impugnity. He threw himself into the downward slope, letting his weight carry them down it. He hadn’t had a rider in such a long time!

She was adjusting well, too, and he tried to teach her a bit how to ride. If she gripped harder with either hand he would angle himself a bit. Hopefully enough to give her the idea that all she needed to do was pat his neck or squeeze his hip with a knee, and he’d turn for her. Until he got some direction from her, he just enjoyed their run.

Pretty plunged into the grove, slowing a bit to a smoother gait. When he strode like this, his back was solid as a rock while his legs stretched out. Slower, but longer strides. He turned his head a bit to check on her. Hopefully that hadn’t scared her too much.

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Down in the grove, it seemed as if the hours of the day had rewound back to the dimness preceding the break of dawn. The sun, obscured by the overcast layer of clouds and obscured further by the increasingly taller and more powerful treetops in the grove, as well did not have a high enough angle in the sky to shine directly down into the huge depression.

Hahnah picked up on an unspoken level that the bear responded to some of the things that she did. When she had to readjust the grip of her left hand, and she held more firmly with her right, he veered to the right. She tried it vice versa. He veered to the left. A simple delight came from this mounting realization--that in this way they could communicate with one another, through a language of touch and reaction instead of spoken words or written letters.

He slowed down once the downward slope leveled out at the bottom. Enough so that she sat up straight again. He glanced back at her with an eyeless look that may have perturbed or horrified others but not Hahnah. She exhaled, and grinned to show her exhilaration.

"You are fast."

And it was then that she heard a voice, made quiet and muffled by distance. A man's voice, his indistinct words among the calls and songs of birds and the low whisper of wind through the trees.

Hahnah didn't know how to make the bear stop. So she simply said it, "I need you to stop."

But she would not wait, even as she said it. Whether he stopped or not, Hahnah would slid off of him and back onto the ground and stumble briefly and regain her footing. She was looking in the direction of the man's voice, and she crouched down onto one knee, lowering herself beneath the height of the shrubs and bushes of the grove.

She looked to the bear then.

"Will you come with me?"

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty felt his heart thrill at the realization they could communicate. She was learning, he was learning. They were becoming one as rider and mount were meant to, responsive and seamless. It would take time, but in those few little moments Pretty was extraordinarily happy.

She grinned at him, and Pretty smiled back. He liked being called fast. His chest and throat pouch puffed out a bit, in an eerily similar way to a humpback’s pouch. He was fast, and strong, and it felt good to hear. He wasn’t expecting the command to stop and by the time he’d slowed enough, she’d already slid off his back. He stopped then, tilting his head at her and his pouch collapsing back against his chest. What had happened?

He caught the words on the wind, and his lips flipped up and drew back over his teeth, showing off an impressively sharp array of incisors. Pretty was born to be a protector, and right now that voice was making Hahnah crawl for cover.

Maybe there was a reason to be cautious? He lowered himself on his elbows and hocks, crawling toward her carefully to keep himself below the shrub line. She asked if he would follow, and he nodded his head. His expression relaxed a bit, his nostrils flaring and catching smells. Humans and what was worse....weapons.

He didn’t like the smell of weapons. Iron at all, really. His fur bunched up on his neck and shoulders, the irritated look returning to his face. He didn’t like weapons. Weapons hurt. Weapons had killed his mate, his Cassia. His claws extended out from their sheaths, digging a bit into the ground. His shoulder touched Hahnah’s, protectively.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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The bear nodded. He would come with her. Hahnah returned a nod, one of confirmation rather than affirmation. It was good that he understood her and that he would follow her. There was work to be done. She had her curiosity about the priest and his followers, but there was work to be done.

Hahnah slowly and carefully pressed forward. Staying low. Staying behind trees and bushes and fallen logs. The voice of the priest, and the voices of others, started to become clearer as they approached.

The pond was becoming visible through the obstructing foliage. Human figures in the pool and two standing on the far shore.

Hahnah stopped behind the mighty trunk of a tree that was close to the bank of the pond. It did not appear as though her advance, nor that of the large and more noticeable bear, had been detected.

She listened. And watched.

* * * * *​

It was a lovely day for Andrea and David Longfield. For Andrea especially. The past two years with her husband had been marred by tragedy. She had not one, but two stillbirths when they had married and tried to start a family. David, Astra bless his soul, was sorrowful about his lost son and daughter but supportive of her, even as she thought herself cursed by some manner of wicked spirit. She thought of herself as less of a woman, unable to bear her husband's child and bring life into Arethil. It was worse than being barren, she felt, for it was the gestation of hope over months only to have it taken in the final moments.

But she and David tried again. And she did it! She gave birth to their beautiful son, little Michael, only weeks ago. She had held him in her arms as the mid-wives cleaned up, let his tiny fingers curl around the tip of her own finger, kissed his beautiful forehead, and that very night she had cried with joy until she fell asleep.

David was reserved as he always was, but Andrea could tell that he was truly taken with joy as well. David met with Strathford's priest, Raphael Durin, to arrange for the pilgrimage to the Pond of the Goddess. There were a number of towns in the area that had followers of the faith of Celestialism, and all of them believed the pond down in the grove to be blessed by Astra herself. Many of the faithful journeyed with their newborn babies to the pool, such that they might be blessed in its holy waters and live a long and fruitful life.

And that was why Andrea and David had come. They wished for their son to have such a life with Astra's blessing. Little Michael might become a potter like his father, a shoemaker like his mother, or he might forge for himself a new path in life. He might even have been born with the gift of magic, and could go to the College of Elbion. Whatever he so chose, Andrea would love him. She would love him all the days of his life.

The journey had not been long, but many friends and family of Andrea's and David's had come. Andrea's mother Valeria and her father Reginald, David's two brothers Edward and Hans, the teenage orphan girl Fiora that Raphael had taken in and who wished to become a priestess, and as well two able-bodied men that were friends of David's--Frederick and Willem--who volunteered to be men-at-arms. They'd but gambeson armor and shortswords, but the travel from Strathford to the Pool had been thankfully peaceful.

Andrea, David, Fiora, and Raphael were all in the center of the pond, the water up to their waists or slightly above them. Valeria, Reginald, Edward, and Hans all stood together in the water but closer to the shore. Frederick and Willem stood on the shore itself, watching the proceedings.

Raphael held little Michael--swaddled in a pure white cloth--with one hand on his back, making it appear as though Michael was floating on the surface of the water. Michael's tiny chest was exposed. Andrea and David stood to either side of baby Michael, while Fiora observed from behind the Raphael.

"O Astra," Raphael was saying, "I beseech You, for it is in You that we--all who are gathered here today--place our everlasting faith. I am your humble servant, Raphael Durin, and I call upon You not for my sake, but for the sake of he who has only so recently entered Your glorious and wonderful world. His name is Michael Longfield, and for him I beseech You. If it does so please You, O Astra, may You bestow onto little Michael Your grace, and carry him through his days upon Arethil. If it does so please You, O Astra, we would bid little Michael a warm welcome into the world with the touch of Your favor upon him."

Raphael wet his free hand in the waters of the Pool, and then laid it flat on Michael's chest. He then nodded to David and Andrea.

"I, David Longfield, your father, welcome you to Arethil, Michael."

"I, Andrea Longfield, your mo--" Andrea brought both of her steepled hands over her mouth and nose. Drew in a sharp breath, simply overcome with emotion. David rubbed her back reassuringly. She lowered her hands and fanned herself and tried again. "I, Andrea Longfield, your mother, welcome you to Arethil, Michael."

Andrea simply couldn't believe this was happening. She simply could not.

It was a lovely day indeed. One without compare.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty followed her. He felt a bit silly right on her heels, as his great bulk couldn’t be hidden neatly behind a fallen log like hers could. Nonetheless he hadn’t ever hidden much from things like this before, and he found the sneaking around to be great fun even if he wasn’t exactly used to it. He snuck behind Hahnah to sit behind the same tree, peeking his head out from behind it. His haunches, shoulders and stomach jutted out, as he was a bit too large to be hiding behind trees.

He made an uncomfortable rumble in his chest, his hackles going back up at the sight of the two men with short swords. He didn’t like the look of them. The man and his mate with their pup looked to be bathing the babe in some sort of ritual. Another male held the babe, and was speaking words that Pretty recognized but not necessarily understood. Men spoke in ritualistic voice that almost seemed to be an entirely different tongue on occasion.

He looked at the babe sadly. He remembered his own pair of pups, long gone with their mother. He missed his Cassia more than anything in the world...and they’d looked at their pups together exactly like the pair of humans were looking at theirs. It hurt a bit to see that. He made his uncomfortable rumble again. It was a cute little pack, but they were likely harmless.

Pretty came out from behind the tree and laid down on his stomach to watch them calmly, one paw over the other. He didn’t like humans per se, and the men in gambesons looked far too closely to the men who had killed his mate, but...in a painful way it was good to see. Life moved on.

Pretty put his chin on his paws and sighed.

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Hahnah

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Hahnah watched alongside the bear the peculiar thing these humans were doing. The priest was praying in a manner that Hahnah had not seen before, and he knew the name of that which he was praying to. He knew the name. Hahnah was not familiar with the name Astra, but she knew the humans had gods. This was one of them.

The small human. The one the priest held. It was wrapped in a white cloth. And Hahnah thought of the milky white cocoon from which the butterfly had emerged. She did not know what to think of that.

The bear made a low rumble in his chest. One of the men in gambesons (Frederick) glanced up and toward them, scanning the forest briefly. Hahnah closed her eyes, hiding the faint glow of red and orange. She opened them a moment later, and the man in the gambeson across the pond had gone back to looking at the other humans in the pond. Despite the bear not fitting entirely behind the cover of the tree, the man had not noticed them.

Hahnah watched the ceremony continue. The priest put his wet hand on the small human's chest. Two nearby humans took over, saying their words. Father. Mother. They were the small human's caretakers.

And they would raise him to murder elves.

The bear made that rumbling sound again. And then stepped out from behind the tree.

He was right. It was time to begin.

* * * * *​

"Place your hands upon baby Michael's chest," said Raphael.

David placed his hand atop Raphael's. And then Andrea placed her hand atop David's.

Raphael said, "Let it be that--"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" said Willem. Both he and Frederick saw a large, deformed animal emerge from the treeline, and they grabbed for the hilts of their swords. Everyone turned to look. Valeria gasped. Edward and Hans both said similar versions of, What is that? Willem and Frederick started to jog around the perimeter of the pond.

"Move away," Frederick advised the group in the pond cautiously. "Move away slowly and--"

And that's when many things happened terribly fast.

A magic Knife of churning black, white, and maroon color sailed out from the treeline and penetrated through Raphael's right eye and out the back of his head. Blood spilled out from both ends of the horrific wound and darkened the water of the pond around him. He slumped forward, coming to float face down on the water's surface.

Fiora went into immediate shock and panic. "Raphy!? RAPHY!?"

"By the gods!" Reginald exclaimed.

Valeria was next. She shrieked in fright and held both hands to her mouth. Another Knife of Elemental Hatred flew and sliced through her wrists and the front of her neck. Her hands fell loose from her arms and a powerful squirt of blood shot from her neck and dowsed her daughter Andrea. Valeria fell back, caught by Reginald, and she was still quivering with tenuous life.

"Mother!! Mother, no!" Andrea shouted.

"Get Michael and get behind me! Get behind me!" said David, urgently.

Fiora was crying out Raphael's name, shaking his arm and sobbing. Edward was helping Reginald pull the severely bleeding Valeria from the pond. Hans was wading intently through the pond to join Frederick and Willem as they unsheathed their swords and closed on the bear. They thought that thing, that creature, to be responsible.

Until another one emerged from the trees. A black thing with orange eyes. Eyes that looked at Frederick and Willem and Hans and the rest of those gathered with utter disdain and contempt. And in that thing's upturned hands were two manifested magic Orbs--of that same churning black, white, and maroon energy.

Frederick and Willem and Hans (though unarmed) did not hesitate. They were scared beyond belief, but they gave no thought to their own safety. Only that of the others.

They charged at Hahnah, ready to strike.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty was rather used to this sort of reaction. The alert milling behavior that humans did that made them look so much like nervous deer. He eyed the armed ones jogging around the perimeter of the pond and bared his teeth. He didn’t like the men with weapons but he wouldn’t attack until they did. He half-rose when they got close, but things went so very wrong so very fast.

Pretty actually startled when the knife went through the priest’s head, making a honking noise similar to a startled goose. Next was the woman, throat sliced. Pretty knew she was gone within the next few previous minutes. He growled at the swordsmen, who had drawn their weapons and were advancing on him. He didn’t do this! He couldn’t throw weapons! What did these silly creatures think he’d done? He got up and his hackles raised, his lips drawing back over his grotesque mouth to show off his fangs.

The two swordsmen and one young human lunged are Hahnah. Pretty charged them with a roar. Hans he picked up by the shirt collar and tossed him with a powerful shake of his head back into the pond. He wasn’t armed, and didn’t earn his ire. Willem he simply closed his mouth over, easily encapsulating the man’s head and shoulders in his jaws.

Pretty bit down and shook wildly, like a dog with a rat, until the sword went flying from Willem’s loose hand and tumbled down into the water. Pretty jerked his head, and worked Willem’s upper body down his throat. His throat constricted, and crushed down the wide shoulders and rib cage to fit. With a few shakes of his head he simply compacted the human down and swallowed him whole.

He looked back at the others. They weren’t armed. He wasn’t going to let Hahnah kill the couple...not when he had been through something so similar. He stood at the edge of the pond, between Hahnah and the others, and shook his head. No. Not them. They weren’t armed.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Willem and Frederick had the presence of mind to move aside for the monster bear's charge. Hans, however, was bitten--or so it appeared. He was then thrown and went twirling through the air, arms and legs flailing, and he splashed down hard into the pond.

And Willem could not escape the monster bear a second time.

Andrea, with little Michael clutched fiercely to her chest, saw Willem's head and shoulders disappear into the maw of the monster. And she let out a prolonged and horrified scream as David desperately tried to get her to move back and away.

"Willem! Buddy! Fuck!" Frederick exclaimed...

...Right as he remembered the black creature with the orange eyes. He glanced back to her as Willem's sword went flying into the pond.

Hahnah threw one of the sorcerous Orbs at Frederick. In a burst of instinctive action he raised his arm to shield his face, and this is what saved him. The thick layered textile armor of his gambeson's sleeve did not allow for any of Hahnah's magic to penetrate through, and the Orb dispersed harmlessly. In a state of incredulous shock that nothing happened and that he felt no pain, he lowered his arm and looked at his undamaged sleeve with wide, disbelieving eyes. And this is when Hahnah's second Orb struck his head and passed through and left only his jaw and the bottom row of teeth and a slight protrusion of his brain stem. Arterial blood arced upward in powerful pulses, and then his body fell backward.

"Get her to the shore!" Reginald said to Edward as they both were pulling the gravely injured Valeria through the water.

"We can't stay here!" Edward said to him.

"I'm not leaving her!" Reginald replied, adamant.

"Move," David said to Andrea behind him, facing the monster bear and the black creature so that he could keep eyes on them. "Move, move, move, sweetheart, we have to move now." Then, to the teenage girl, "Fiora!"

But Fiora was possessed with trying to revive the priest Raphael, shaking his arm and his body. Her face was a mess with tears. She spoke to his unhearing ear, "What am I going to do? Raphael...what am I going to do without you? Please don't leave me..."

Andrea made sounds of gagging and retching when she saw Willem be swallowed whole by the monster bear. She coughed violently. Thick strings of spittle burst from her mouth, tainted sour by risen bile from her stomach.

"Don't look, sweetheart. Just move. Go, go!" David said, reaching back with his hand and trying to get her to move. She replied, but her words were unintelligible.

Hans stood up in the water. Shook his head and his hair and wiped his face with a hand. In his other he held Willem's shortsword. "David!" he called out, temporarily disoriented.

And Hahnah looked to the strange bear when he placed himself between her and the remaining humans, blocking her view. She had a halo of manifested sorcerous Knives about her head and shoulders now, their vicious points aimed in the general direction of those she hunted. She gave the strange bear a quizzical look. Why had he shaken his head? She could not fathom it.

"There are still more," Hahnah said to him, with a patient and matter-of-course calm. "They are the profane, and their end has come."

Pretty Boy