Completed The Butterfly

Hahnah

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Hahnah looked around with languid turns of her head and observant flicks of her eyes, surveying the familiar ground just at the crest of the hill which led down into the grove and to the Pond. There was no sign of the small human. Had she been imagining it, the sound that it was making? There were times before when she heard sounds that were not real, and saw things that were not there. But these were rare and inspired by long stretches of loneliness. So she did not think that the crying sound was imagined.

Where did the small human go? She could not remember. As she performed her sacred work back at the Pond, she did not see what had become of him. It was peculiar. They could not walk, the small humans, and she did not see any other creature or monster around here which could have taken him away. A strangeness about this one, she guessed; a difference in this small human compared to others. And she wanted to know what that was.

"Pretty," she said, "did you see what happened with the small human at the Pond? This one seems--"

(like me. like us.)

"--strange. He has gone away on his own. Other small humans cannot do that."

Pretty Boy
 
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Pretty Boy

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Pretty didn’t like lying. It was strange and hard to control, and had a mysterious power to confuse and destroy. He worried about what would happen if she happened upon the pup or his parents. At the same time, perhaps he could convince her mercy was the correct way. After all, what harm could a pup and a mated pair of humans do?

He nodded. He had seen, because he’d taken him away from the pond and helped him to breathe again. Pretty made a noise of distress, and went to the stump where he’d left the small human. He sniffed at it, and rubbed his tusks against it. Was there somewhere they could hide from Hahnah?

In the end he turned to her with a sigh. He’d done all he could to give them time. She was doggedly determined to find the babe. He lipped at her hair to get her attention, and nodded in the direction the male had carried his mate. If he was wrong, they’d slip past them. He left it to the gods of fortune now. Either they would favor Hahnah and her crusade, or the small family fleeing them.

He set off at a trot, slowing occasionally to adjust the man in his pouch.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Hahnah looked to the tree stump that Pretty indicated. She cocked her head this way and that, like a mildly curious bird. Her eyes slowly moved in their sockets, little orange suns scanning the breadth of the woods about them. It seemed that Pretty had last seen the small human here, but where could he have gone? And how?

"He came here. But he is not here anymore. That is strange."

Pretty lipped at her hair. She turned her attention back to him, and he nodded his head in a particular direction. A direction which led...

Hahnah smiled. Patted Pretty on his neck with invigorated appreciation. Said, "I see. The small one has gone from here back toward his town. It makes sense. Humans cluster together in their hives."

And she needn't even ask Pretty to go that way--he started on his own. Slowly too, and this was good. Hahnah would need to carefully observe their surroundings, looking for some kind of sign or trail or even the small one himself if he hid or lay in ambush.

So they had set off.

Toward Strathford.

* * * * *​

Morning of the third day of travel, and Strathford would not be far.

Hahnah slept peacefully as the eastern sky brightened with a thin line of orange, the sun starting its climb from below the horizon. She had, in fact, curled up into a small ball and slept against Pretty Boy. Had done so for the previous nights. She could endure the cold, but she did find soothing comfort in warmth.

Last night she had prayed before she went sleep. Asking three times, as she often did, "Will You watch over us?" To this she received no answer, but she did not worry. She had faith. Faith that she and Pretty would do well this day, or in the coming days. She was still intrigued by the mystery of the small human, but Strathford itself had taken her primary interest. Hahnah had never wiped out a human town before. She had never cleansed one of their settlements from Falwood. And this one was not too large. It was something to be wary of, but it was not terrifying like Vel Anir--far from it. There would be many within Strathford. Many profane things. But she and Pretty could return this land to the elves of Falwood. They could.

And what if this achievement pleased the God whose presence she felt in her heart? What if He spoke to her once it was done? That would be good. That would be very good, and she would like that very much.

A butterfly landed on her head. Briefly fluttered its wings as it perched on her hair. Then, when she stirred, it flew away.

Hahnah opened her eyes in a languid manner. Saw first the naked trees and their spindly branches reaching like skeletal fingers toward the deep blue depths of the sky above. And this she greeted with a smile.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty carefully tended to the man in his pouch during their journey. He made sure to encourage him and Hahnah to drink, found them berries and rabbits. He was generally pleased with himself; he hadn’t had this much responsibility since he’d had pups. He kept the wound on the man’s arm clean, and tried to encourage him a bit. If they found the town he’d unite this one with his pack, and try and steer Hahnah away from it.

He welcomed the girl sleeping next to him. His plush fur was soft, and he curled around her to keep her warm. She wasn’t a bad creature. Just misguided and hurt. Humans had destroyed her family and given her heart as great a wound as his.

He yawned and greeted the morning with a stretch, going to urinate and let the human out so he could do his business as well. Pretty was never out of mouth distance from the man. He offered him a sprig with some late cranberries. He needed to eat.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Zael Longfield stood in hollow disbelief when the news of the tragedy at the Pond of the Goddess and his father's death came. Strathford had never been struck by something as awful as this--his uncle David, aunt Andrea, and cousin Michael were the only survivors. David himself came to tell Zael's mother, and before he had even spoken one word Zael could see it in his uncle's eyes. Mother broke down crying right there at the front door. Zael's little sister--Friede--came back home from fetching water and saw Mother and heard the news and collapsed there alongside her in tears as well.

His heart sank along with theirs, for he loved his father Hans dearly. But more than sorrow, Zael was consumed by one thing.

Rage.

Rage at the two monsters that had killed him. He was but a boy of fourteen years, yet he felt as though the anger coursing through him and keeping him up at night could annihilate the world. He vowed to Friede when she had trouble sleeping that he would protect her and Strathford, no matter what. He vehemently voiced his solution at the town gathering the following day, and he was heeded. For the Pond of the Goddess and the journeys to it would not be safe, not for Strathford or any of her sister towns, so long as monsters stalked the woods nearby. They needed to be hunted down. And slain.

As it so happened, a team of four Monster Hunters had recently traveled through Strathford, shortly after David's ill-fated journey to the Pond. A runner was dispatched in the direction of travel they had gone, carrying a plea from the whole town of Strathford for their return.

Zael, perhaps more than anyone else in all of Strathford, eagerly awaited their arrival.

* * * * *​

Hahnah sat up. Held her arms above her head and turned her head toward the sky and arched her back and stretched. She placed her palms on the ground and got up onto her feet in a deft motion. A peculiar thing: how living and sleeping out in the wild felt more natural to her, yet living and sleeping indoors reminded her of the better times with her caretakers. She did not like civilization. Cities. Towns. Buildings. The confines of them all. Yet Kylindrielle and Elurdrith--and other elves--enjoyed those things which civilization brought: their lodge, the wearing of clothes, trade with other people, sleeping in a bed with blankets. There was a dichotomy Hahnah recognized within herself that she had not fully reconciled.

Hahnah trailed after Pretty Boy well after he had gone. The human Reginald was out of his mouth, looking with a forlorn and crushed gaze at the cranberries being offered. The old man had paled. He ate little, and had covertly tried to reopen his wound on a few occasions to hasten his coming death.

Hahnah stopped by a lithe tree. Placed a hand on its trunk and leaned slightly into it in a casual way. Said to Pretty, "I am curious. Humans, and most elves too, do not like things which do not look like them. I am not welcome even in elven towns and villages, and I am feared by small groups of elves that I approach in Falwood."

She thought back to Alden. To the some of the other, farther places in the world outside of Falwood she had briefly been. Things she had heard. Different things about civilization from what little she knew.

"How are you seen by elves, Pretty? Are you welcome in their towns and villages?"

She needn't ask about how he was seen by humans. She already knew.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty checked Reginald’s wound and sighed at him, setting the berries at his feet. He licked his cheek to get his attention, albeit gently. Stay alive. Will let go when close to town. Can walk? He looked at him expectantly, settling down to clean the older man’s wound with his tongue. It was healing well, even if he had been picking at it. Pretty huffed at him, got up and browsed around the forest. His mate had once done this. He grabbed a particular type of moss, and herbs from the ground, chewing them into a paste. He applied that diligently to Reginald’s wound.

Pretty wiped away his words as Hahnah approached and considered her words. Not welcome often. He wrote. Not all like me. Some hunt elf and human. He’d been chased out of a fair few towns both human and elf, and welcomed in others. It depends on how they had met Devourers. Members of his kind who treated towns like an open buffet usually invited hostility onto the entire race. Elves tasted good, he could understand. A male seeking to impress a girl or defending his territory wouldn’t hesitate.

Hell, his mate had made a point of bringing back injured elves and humans for their pups to learn on. He remembered elves who had been dragged around by his inexperienced children for hours until they’d figured out how to dismember and eat.

If there was one thing Pretty had learned, it was that two leggeds didn’t like learning their place as prey. Is not so simple. He added as an afterthought. Some Devourers lived to eat the other races as easy food sources. Others had such deep bonds they’d died for their two legged companions.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Reginald's eyes drifted over to the written words like a man regarding the noose which would soon hang him in a gallows. He did not answer Pretty Boy's question, nor did he react at all to him licking the paste onto his wound; his body merely rocked along in slight swaying motions from the tiny force of each lick from the large creature.

Then Hahnah came. Spoke with Pretty Boy. The larger monster wrote his words in the dirt. Hahnah commanded Reginald to read them. And here Reginald drew in a meek breath through his nose.

"I will not."

Hahnah narrowed her eyes. And said again in much sterner tone, "I want you...to read that to me."

Reginald shook his head in a weak gesture of defiance. "No."

Hahnah arced back her hand and slapped him across the face as hard as she could, the crisp sound of it echoing in the morning air of the forest. Reginald toppled over onto his side, and simply lay there.

"Read."

"Why are you torturing me?" His sullen gaze shifted from Hahnah to Pretty Boy. He was a broken man, on the verge of bitter tears. "Why?"

Hahnah stared down at him. The fingers of her right hand flexed up and down.

Reginald spoke to Hahnah and Pretty Boy both. Said, "I knew my death was inescapable. I wished only to die beside my beloved Valeria, and you have taken that from me." And with a hard glance to Pretty Boy specifically, "I know that you will not let me go once we are close to town." And with the same hard glance back to Hahnah, "I know what you intend to do. And I...I will not help you do it."

Hahnah flicked her eyes up to Pretty Boy, the orange of them burning with contempt for humanity from under her brow. She wanted to know what Pretty wrote--wanted to know it even more now--and Reginald, though weak and unable to fight, had nonetheless found a way to steal this from her. It was a problem. One that kindled a seething frustration with the man who refused to aid her in this. She still did not want to kill him--not yet. But she did not know how to squeeze more usefulness out of him.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Torture? Pretty tilted his head. Think too much on dead. Not care about pupHe wrote to him with a shake of his head. Free now. He got up and licked Hahnah’s cheek, moving away from Reginald. He’d seen cases like this. Injured or dying devourers and animals that just refused to live. By all accounts Reginald’s wound wasn’t mortal and the poultice would help prevent infection, so Pretty was content to let him live or die of his own accord.

He wasn’t struggling enough to trigger Pretty’s hunting instincts, and Pretty was sated enough by the recent hunt. Like a Lion confused and dragging about a baby gazelle, he ignored the human.

Pretty nuzzled Hahnah. What point was there in killing Reginald? None, really. Neither was getting frustrated with him. He’d seen this before, shouted and roared and dragged them along demanding them to continue the march of life. He’d learned only they could make that decision.

Pretty knelt by Hahnah to let her get on. He wished he could tell her to leave the man to his suicide.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Hahnah watched as Pretty wrote more words in the dirt. Words which Reginald also did not and would not read to her. Pretty could be writing important things. Clever ways in which the town could be attacked, an idea on how and where to find a new translator. And this human was keeping that from her. Keeping them apart by closing the circle of their talks.

Pretty licked Hahnah's cheek. Nuzzled her. He was frustrated too, she knew it. Comfort was good, but it would not solve the problem.

"I know," she said, scratching under Pretty's large chin. "I know. I will make him read your words."

But Pretty knelt down. Hahnah shook her head. Said, "No. Let me try something."

Hahnah stepped up to Reginald and crouched down. Pretty Boy was very good at treating wounds, despite not having hands like an elf, so she could make the man bleed more. But there was something else. Something she had seen once. It was something that human men were doing to another human man; they were armored, dangerous, and many, so Hahnah could only follow and observe for a brief while before she was discovered and had to flee, but she witnessed this before she did. These human men were asking the other human questions. Questions he refused to answer.

Hahnah reached down and grabbed Reginald's hand and lifted it up carefully, holding it with a strange kind of inadvertent tenderness for a moment as she recalled her memory and endeavored to get it right. She touched Reginald's forefinger--him with a look of confusion stemming not only at what she was doing now, but what Pretty had written prior to it. She held his hand with one hand, gently wrapped her thumb around his forefinger with the other and then gripped it. She tilted her head. Considered. Thought it was right.

And then jerked his finger back until a joint of the bones snapped.

Reginald gave a pitiful holler of pain that scared away a few birds nestled in the branches of the naked autumn trees.

"You have nine more fingers that I can break," Hahnah said coldly. "And then after that you will have ten fingers that I can sever. And then you will have ten toes, two hands, two feet, two forearms, two shins, two upper arms, and two thighs. I have no mercy for you, but you can spare yourself pain if you continue to read what Pretty Boy writes."

Reginald panted. Let out a strained whimper. Said, "No." And he looked to Pretty Boy then as he said further, "I think of my beloved wife, yes, but I think of those who live more. And I refuse to help the two of you anymore..."

Hahnah switched her grip to his next finger.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty got up as she knelt in front of Reginald. He watched, expecting the man to be killed, and instead she gripped his finger. Pretty tilted his head. He’d never seen that. He startled when she immediately snapped his finger, snorting in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting that!

Pretty knew it was useless. Pain would come, then shock as overwhelming pain caused him to shut down. It was the same phenomenon that allowed deer to stay alive even as wolves pulled their guts out. Hahnah was frustrated but there was little to be done. Reginald would die, slowly, or kill himself.

If want to die, ask. Pretty wrote, stamping next to the words expectantly. Will stop nothing. Death useless. Life useless.
Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Hahnah saw Pretty writing in the dirt, and she frowned. He wanted to talk to her very badly. Her heart was heavy with an odd feeling, one that she could not readily place. And though she did not know it, this feeling was that of inadequacy. Of falling short. Of failure. She was trying, but thus far she could not get the human man to do as she wanted and translate Pretty's words.

So she snapped Reginald's middle finger. The man pinched his eyes shut and a weaker holler escaped his throat.

"Read," she commanded. And then moved on to his third finger on that hand, readying to break that one was well.

Reginald's eyes quivered open. He did not look at Hahnah, but instead toward Pretty Boy--his face a mess of sorrow and pleading. How could he explain how he felt to the creature? Was the creature even capable of understanding the intricacy of it? Reginald didn't want to die. But he was certain that there was no escape after everything that happened at the Pond, and thus, facing what he thought was the inevitable, he had wanted to die with alongside his wife. That didn't--and could not now--happen. And now these same two creatures had come within the vicinity of Strathford, and only a fool would think that something other than wholesale slaughter was on their minds after what they had done at the Pond. Will stop nothing, indeed. But he would rather die than help them; it was the least he could do for his daughter and his grandson, not to aid these two in conspiring to do further harm to their home.

"I don't want to die. I want to be free," he said in a meek voice. The bear-like creature had wrote as much earlier, but it was hardly so.

"All you have to do is read."

"I...will not."

Hahnah edged her face closer to his. Stared him down. "Then know that everything that will happen to you is deserved."

And she snapped his ring finger, the sound of it like the cracking of a broken branch carried by the wind through the trees.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty Boy approached Hahnah and put his paw over hers. He covered her hand with his paw and looked at her. The human didn’t want to die but neither would he read. Pretty Boy slowly stepped in front of her. He wasn’t aggressive, but his large bulk wasn’t about to be shoved aside. He faced Hahnah, his body over Reginald’s, and whined softly. This wasn’t the way to do this. He didn’t like the pain, nor the needless torture. Violence he could stand, but he didn’t understand torture. Not of a helpless creature.

Pretty leaned forward and kissed Hahnah’s forehead, pressing his soft lips to her skin. Calm. He thrummed, a deep and gentle sound mated pairs used to calm one another. He wished he had eyes to tell her. They would find another way to communicate.

He ducked his head and pushed forward. He was slow and deliberate, but as unstoppable as a mudslide. He slowly angled up with the intention of simply plopping her on his massive neck and walking away from Reginald.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Hahnah did not protest nor resist. She merely turned her full attention to Pretty Boy and looked up at him with a wondering and receptive gaze. She let go of Reginald's hand, and the human backed away in a short shuffle along the ground. He froze then, eyes incredulous, but Hahnah paid him no mind.

She didn't understand, but she trusted in her companion anyway. He had been writing to her, coming up with a plan to cleanse the human town--maybe this was part of it. She just didn't know. Because that human did not do what she wanted. It was typical. Humans always sought to harm, and since this one could not fight them directly, this was how he managed to do it.

But Pretty had an idea. It involved not killing the human just yet. So, for now, Hahnah was willing to let him go free. She knew, after all, where it was that he would be going. His cruel god, the one called Astra, was giving him false hope.

Hahnah closed an eye when Pretty kissed her forehead. He was forgiving her for her failure, because he was kind. And his grace saddened her all the more that she could not read what he had been writing, and that she could not force the human to do so for her.

Pretty ducked his head. Pushed forward. Hahnah did not need to be put upon his neck--she climbed up willingly once she recognized his intention. Climbed up and twisted around and came to sit on his back.

She let out a small sigh. Crossed her arms and laid them atop Pretty's head as he walked and then she leaned her chin down onto her arms. She said, "I am sorry that I could not make that human read your words. I promise I will kill him. And I promise to ask you my question again when we can speak once more."

Hahnah glanced off to one side. Watched the ground move as she rode along.

"But I think you are right. It was a waste of time to try and make him. He knew that he could hurt us this way, and so it did not matter if I broke all of his bones and severed all of his limbs. Human cruelty is boundless."

She drew in an invigorating breath.

"But in that place they call 'Strathford,' we can cleanse some of it from Falwood."

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty sighed in relief when she finally climbed onto his back. She apologized to him then, though it was more to apologize for not forcing Reginald than it was for the unnecessary torment. He looked at Reginald and carefully stepped over him, slowly walking along. He had to admit, it felt better with the human out of his pouch. She leaned down, her chin resting close to his soft fur, and he made a pointed effort to walk smoothly.

He nodded carefully in agreement. It was pointless to torture the human and he was glad she recognized that. The town he felt ambivalent over. If she wanted to destroy it then he would eat and happily so. But he drew the line at puppies and their mothers. He had no such compunctions about guards.

Pretty picked up the scent of the town soon after. It was easy to recognize the smells of humans. He nosed around the carcass of a deer killed that morning. The head was taken, and some of the meat, but most of it was wasted. Bones, offal. Right next to axe marks on a tree. Pretty picked up the abandoned rib cage and swallowed it with a few jerks of his head and the cracking of bone. Humans wasted. Devourers didn’t.

Pretty walked up to the axe marks, where two saplings had been cut for firewood and the larger tree suffered a wound from being used as an axe holder. He lipped at the mark.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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The whole town of Strathford had gathered outside the mayor's manor, and a chord of hopeful anticipation was shared among them, among every tone and glance. And none among them was more excited than Zael Longfield, standing beside his mother and his sister Friede--close by to Uncle David and Aunt Andrea. He stood on the tips of his toes. Hopped up a few times. Did what he could to see over the shoulders of the other townsfolk gathered.

For the monster hunters had returned. All four of them.

He saw them coming, and shouts and cheers broke out among the townsfolk at their approach. The monster hunters--a human, a dwarf, a komodi, even a drow--took the adoration in stride, only the komodi lifting a friendly hand in greeting and the drow unable to hide his smiling appreciation. Zael caught a few good glimpses of them: they wore some kind of strange metal armor over their arms and shoulders that connected to large solid backplates; they wore as well gambesons, harnesses and straps about their torsos and legs, boots with noticeably thick soles. Each carried a variety of gear, and each armed with a different weapon.

The mayor received them at his doorstep, and cordially invited them inside his manor such that they might discuss the particulars of the matter at hand.

"I wish I could join them," Zael said, musing aloud.

"Zael, no," Mother said, aghast. "They are skilled and trained. You are not! The town is paying for their services, so let them do their job."

"I have the boar spear father gave to me."

"Did you not hear what your Uncle David said of those monsters? What do you think a spear would do??"

Zael spoke adamantly, "It kills boars. It can kill them too."

Mother, frazzled, simply declared, "You will not be leaving Strathford until those monster hunters return victorious. Do you understand me?"

Zael opened his mouth to reply--to protest, more precisely--but he relented and said a begrudging Yes to calm his mother. He would have given anything to go with the monster hunters on their hunt, but, thinking about it now, he didn't want to leave Friede and Mother alone. He was the man of the house now. The young man, but the man of it nonetheless. He would need to tend to the fields as father had done, doing father's share as well as his own from now on.

But, if those monsters came from the Pond all the way to Strathford...then Zael would be ready.

* * * * *​

Hahnah was not hungry. Not too hungry, in truth. She could eat almost anything, but there were somethings which were better than others. So she eyed the remains of the deer with disinterest. If all went well, or even somewhat well, then Strathford would become a feast, and she could choose whatever she wanted from among the dead.

Marks on the tree. Made with tools of iron or steel. Hints that they were close, and indeed they were. Hahnah recognized the landscape, the particular arrangement and look of certain trees, from when she stalked about the periphery of the town in days prior--stalked for small groups or individual humans departing the town.

"This is what they do," Hahnah said. "What they do not like, they destroy. Humans do not like elves nor the forest, and so they kill elves and scar Falwood, stripping the forest of trees for their buildings and fields."

Hahnah glanced upward. Gauged the mostly cloudy sky. If it held, the moon and many of the stars would be hidden once the sun disappeared. The dark like nights previous. Thick. Complete, or near complete.

"I think we should wait for night to come. Humans do not see well in the dark, and they fear it. It will be good for us. What do you think?"

She knew that Pretty couldn't elaborate on an answer outside of a gesture of Yes or No, but such simplicity was one way they could communicate.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty examined the tree. He didn’t like the wounds. It was senseless. One could harvest limbs for a decent enough fire and stave off the cold. The ground could hold the axe better than a tree. This had been wounding for the sake of convenience. He snorted and rolled his powerful shoulders. Hahnah wanted to wait for night to hunt, and he had done all he could. He yawned and stretched. He was fed, and ready.

Pretty nodded to her, and approached a tree. He sharpened his tusks and claws, rubbing his head up and down to keep that angle sharp. He leaned up and raked the tree with his claws. He returned to her to give her warmth, curling up around Hahnah. They were slightly exposed, but he kept his nose and ears sharp for word of the humans.

He was awake when the sun fell, and gently nuzzled Hahnah. If she wanted to hunt, they would hunt.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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"Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?" Edwin Griffin, the leader of the monster hunter team, asked the mayor as soon as he recounted the details of the two monsters.

Slightly taken aback by Griffin's intensity, the mayor stuttered some. "I-I...well, that's how David and Andrea Longfield described them."

Griffin pondered for a fleeting moment. Then said, "No charge for our services. But listen very closely to me."

And Griffin outlined his plan.

* * * * *​

Once the formal meeting was done, the monster hunters convened in the foyer of the mayor's manor.

Eagle, the drow, was the first to speak up, "No charge? What the hell, Griffin?"

Falcon, the komodi, added in a dejected tone, "We could have used that coin."

Sparrow, the dwarf, quoted, "'Surprises abound around every corner, don't you know.'"

Griffin turned to face them. They were his team, these three, and all of them had coalesced by chance to seek their fortunes in the dangerous trade of monster hunting together, and they were a tightly knit unit. They each had their given names of course, but each had fallen into using avian nicknames in honor of Griffin's last name. Griffin never truly thought himself as much of a leader, just an equal among equals, but as time and their collective travels had went on...yeah, he supposed that he had simply slipped into the role without much realizing it at first.

They had a range of personalities and tastes, the four of them together, but they all meshed well--held strong by the bonds of battle against the monsters which plagued Arethil. Eagle was an escaped male from Zar'Ahal, and, though most of the time cool and confident, he still held an ill-concealed wariness of even stepping foot on the continent of Epressa and being that much closer to his dreadful home city. Falcon was a soft-spoken and frankly bashful komodi, the tallest among them by at least a full foot, who had something of a rough time growing up in the grand city of Elbion--at least Vel Anir was outright with its xenophobia. Sparrow...well, none of them knew what had happened to her; a slim, perhaps even gaunt figure by normally stocky dwarven standards, she spoke only in quotes from both famous and obscure plays from Belgrath, Elbion, Alliria, and so on, and though aloof and out of touch with the world, was nevertheless dedicated to monster hunting.

All of them were. Dedicated in that way. To monster hunting...and to coin. So Griffin knew they wouldn't like the agreement he reached with the mayor of Strathford. But it had to be done.

"Next job, I'm not taking a share," Griffin said. He placed his hands on his hips. "That monster with the orange eyes? That's the one that killed my old team. I'm certain of it."

Eagle, Falcon, and Sparrow all looked at one another. Immediately understanding. They all knew Griffin's story. He was a younger man, a little too cocksure for his own good back then, and his old team bailed him out of a situation with a basilisk that would have killed him for sure if not for their intervention. His old team lead was a good man. He worked for coin as all monster hunters did, but he was no mercenary. He truly cared about the people he helped, and a lot of that rubbed off on Griffin himself. Then came that day. That day when Griffin was the only survivor...because he was a coward and ran after seeing what that orange eyed monster could do.

"What's she doing with a Dev?" Eagle asked.

"Do you think she mind controlled it?" said Falcon with a quiet earnestness. "Like she did with those two elves?"

Griffin canted his head in an unsure manner. "Maybe. Those elves were ready to kill us on her behalf--she had them swayed into thinking they were her mother and father. So I wouldn't be surprised. But we can't think it to be coincidence. Assume the Dev is under her command."

"'I don't deal in coincidence,'" Sparrow said, her eyes half-closed and her smile lazy, as they perpetually were.

"Warrior from the West. Revon Kildare," Falcon said. Sometimes he and Eagle liked to state from which plays Sparrow's quotes came from, see who could name it first. Something of a game they played between one another.

Eagle, after snapping his fingers when beaten to the guess by Falcon, recovered quickly and said to Griffin, "So you think Orange may be coming here? How intelligent is this thing?"

"Enough to be cunning and dangerous, I know that," Griffin said. "And I believe so, yes. The mayor said that some of the townsfolk recall, however vaguely, seeing orange eyes out in the woods. Watching them and disappearing. They're probably right. Orange hunted me for days after...after it happened. The only reason she stopped, I think, is because I got to Vel Anir and hunkered down there for months. Orange is sinister and tenacious, a spawn of dark magic, that's for damn sure. And it's too close to nightfall to leave the townsfolk undefended. If Orange doesn't show, then tomorrow we'll go hunting."

"'There is no better vigor for the blood than the eve of the hunt,'" Sparrow quoted whimsically.

"The Fletcher. Not sure on the playwright," Eagle said.

"Yuric Clearsky," Falcon said, and both he and Sparrow shared a small smile.

"Alright," Griffin said. "Standard tactics once we engage. Stay mobile, and do not let Orange look you in the eyes. The Dev is grounded, but that doesn't mean you can discount it. It's a threat to you if you land there, and moreover it's a threat to the townsfolk. How's everyone's crystal charge? Boots and vambraces. Anyone need the magic recharged?"

Eagle lifted his right arm and clapped the long, slender tube on the outer edge of his vambrace. "Yeah. I do. Been practicing that move. You know the one."

Griffin nodded. "I'll take care of it. Now let's get these townsfolk arrayed around the town properly for the plan."

"Do you think their nerves will hold?" Falcon asked.

And Griffin glanced his way, a look of plain honesty in his expression. "They had better. This is their town, and the weight of lives is upon them."

* * * * *​

Hahnah tried to sleep through the day, and she was more or less successful. At first she could not, so close was she in time to having just woken up. So she sat, leaning back against Pretty's bulk, spending much of the day in pleasant memory of what once was. She did sleep. If only for a little while in the afternoon. And this sleep was interrupted halfway through, when she bolted awake as if startled by a nightmare, and she had immediately set about to praying.

"Are You still with me?" She asked--once, twice, thrice--her hands tightly clasped together and her voice trembling. But eventually she settled back against Pretty and found sleep once again, as if the abrupt episode had not at all occurred.

The sun trailed across the sky.

As did the clouds. These thinning out as the day wore on, leaving a mostly clear sky by evening. It would not be as dark as Hahnah would have liked.

And when the last waning of light from the west settled for its brief time on Arethil, Hahnah woke once more. After Pretty had. She felt his nuzzling, opening her eyes when she did. A soft glow of them in the dimness. She took in a hearty breath. Smiled in a slightly groggy way one might upon first waking. Rolled her shoulders and stretched her arms.

Then laid a hand on Pretty's head and patted it. Said, "You are a good friend, and humans are cruel to us both. I am glad that I did not leave you stuck in that tree."

A good friend. Who else would be with her now, helping her to cleanse Falwood of the profane things that lay within that town?

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty enjoyed laying about in sleep. Devourers, once their bellies were filled, were avowed hedonists. He and his mate had spent hours together after a good hunt playing, having sex and napping against one another. He missed the steady companionship, and he was happy Hahnah was here. She wasn’t a female devourer, and she wasn’t his poor mate, but she was a good friend. He hoped to temper a bit of her savagery, but he was beginning to think of her much like he did older, more dominant members of his kind. Sometimes that was just how they were.

Pretty slept intermittently, only waking when he caught the scent of another Devourer. A young female, probably just left her mother’s side, skimming the forest for rabbits. She might have even gone to the pond to glut herself on the meat Pretty couldn’t finish. He saw her once, cautiously giving him a wide berth. She was a pretty little strawberry roan, but far too young to catch his interest. A loud huff was all it took to send her on her way.

The rest of the day passed in relative laziness until he woke Hahnah and rose himself. He leaned in to her patting; two legs had such delightful fingers that could rub and scratch like no claw or tree bark could. He nodded and gently caught her fingers in his lips. She was a good friend to him too. He let her go to stretch, and shake his head.

He was ready to fill his belly again. If that roan had the brains to stick around, he’d leave some for her.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Strathford.

This was what the humans called this place. Towns she did not like on a fundamental level; they were places of sharp angles, complex and unnatural spaces, confining, alien to Hahnah in a way that she felt and could not adequately articulate beyond these reasons. She could bear to be within these monuments of civilization--the Temple, her caretakers' lodge, other towns which had snuck into--but she strongly preferred not to be.

This aversion she put aside for tonight. She had to. It was her purpose to be a human slayer, and here were her enemies and she with the means to kill them. The elves of Falwood would never know what good would be done here tonight on their behalf, and Hahnah was alright with that. It was enough to help them, however quietly and unspoken her deeds. To her elven caretakers and their kin, she owed everything. Her undying loyalty would never break.

Never.

* * * * *​

Hahnah stood in the periphery wood to the south of Strathford; the east, west, and north had all been cleared of trees, turned into fields, scarred in the way humans habitually scarred the world.

As she had at the Pond, she hid behind a tree as she observed. Pretty, at least, had the cover of the moonlit darkness on his side this time. Hahnah needed to be careful though. She knew about her eyes, how they glowed like small embers in the dark--she had been discovered on other occasions in this manner before. So she had to squint, close her eyes entirely sometimes and be quick about it.

This especially so tonight. Because something was different. Different from the other nights when she would watch the town from the wood. There were men with torches and poorly made wooden shields, standing by all of the periphery entrances around the town, those spaces between the homes and buildings which led into the town proper. Simply standing and looking out into the darkness, the distance too great to see clearly the expressions on their faces. It was like the armored men called guards that stood at the gated entrance of a walled human town or city. Were they guards? Strathford had no walls, but that did not mean that it had no guards.

"I have not seen them do this before," Hahnah said to Pretty, giving voice to her thoughts. "Many are awake and alert tonight."

It was peculiar, but she did not want to let it stop her. Those men had no armor, no weapons of metal, only those torches and those round shields. They would be many but they would not be very dangerous. However peculiar and unexpected the appearance of these men tonight, it could be overcome. She wanted to purge this town. She wanted to find out how the small human had gotten back here on his own. And she had a promise to keep to Pretty about Reginald.

"It does not matter. They will be easy to kill, and we can maybe kill some of them quietly. They may be dangerous when they discover us and gather, but we can run back here to the woods and the dark if it is too much."

Hahnah looked over to him.

"Are you ready, Pretty?"

* * * * *​

Each man, apprehensive or outright scared beyond his wits as he stood sentinel at the numerous entrances to the town, nevertheless held their nerve and observed what they could see in the night.

And, unbeknownst to Hahnah, they all waited to give the signal and retreat. For behind each man, hidden as covertly as possible around corners or through windows and doors or behind other obstructions, were at least two more sets of eyes observing them. And behind these secondary observers were yet more. Nearly the entire town was awake.

And four hunters were ready to spring into action.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty Boy looked at the situation carefully. The guards were bristling but nervous, and he would be lying if he said he hadn’t seen something similar to this. His mother, a great black devourer, had hunted water buffalo deep in the Ixchel wilds. As a pup he had watched intently, and much like these humans buffalo ringed their most vulnerable. They put out their horns and kept their young inside the circle, while any enemy was confronted with an angry nest of sharp things.

However, there was a way to shatter the circle, or provoke them into a charge that would scatter them. Unnerving them. Pretty had listened to his mother skulk through the trees, shouldering rotten logs to make them groan and fall, or howling deep into the night. She hadn’t let them break the circle, and she hadn’t let them sleep a wink. After two days even the lead bull had been forced to lie down and watch, exhausted, dehydrated. In the end his mother had simply marched up and seized her prize by the throat, leaving the exhausted herd to stumble away.

There was a similar strategy here. The humans were well defended but this was a small town. Small towns needed those fields and livestock to survive. Without it, they’d need to leave to find more. What they needed to do was unnverve them, and cut them off. No running, no gathering in the fields, no outright fight.

Pretty looked at Hahnah and silently shook his head. He wanted her to wait. He held up a paw, and drew two eyes in the soil. Hopefully, pictures would get across what words couldn’t. Watch.

He lowered himself to the ground and slunk away from her. While he couldn’t disguise all of that bulk, it was definitely harder to see him between the trees. He used them as cover, and headed for the fields. He was intending to use them in much the same way, though he recognized his large form would cause an inordinate amount of noise.

Hahnah might not necessarily make that noise. He crouched low, chin almost to the ground, and swallowed air to inflate his marsupium. He howled, a low and loud call that vibrated through the air sac much like a drum. He moved away, slowly and carefully, then released the air in a fluttering hiss that brought to mind a large cat. Hopefully while the untrained men with shields were distracted, Hahnah would follow his lead and do the same.

Once they had the men searching for noise, or confused about which way to face, Pretty would sneak up...and take one. Not quietly. They’d need to hear his screaming.

Humans were much like buffalo in that way. When his father and mother hunted together, his mother would begin eating before her prey had died. The helpless cries and pained moans would frighten the buffalo, who would investigate to see if they could scare her off their wounded compatriot. Then his father would carry off another, and spark panic. They could follow herds for weeks this way, worrying their quarry until they were mad with fear.

Humans were known for stupid things like going after wounded friends and family. Pretty had learned this from Hans, who had foolishly faced an enemy he could not defeat rather than regrouping.

If he managed to catch one he’d disarm him and simply...start eating. Tear him apart slowly, starting at his vulnerable belly, so the others could hear him shrieking for help.

All they needed was one, and the fear would begin.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Pretty shook his head. No, he was not ready. Hahnah did not know why he was not ready, and this festered more contempt for Reginald within her. If only she could have broken him, forced him to do as she wanted, then she would know. This contempt was further festered when Pretty began to write--no, draw? Those were not letters. Those...looked like eyes? But Pretty did not have eyes. He did not have eyes but he could see--or so she thought. Hahnah had eyes. Maybe he wanted her indicate which human along the periphery of the town they should kill first.

Hahnah simply pointed to the closest one. She was about to say that she could kill the man from afar, and then they could move up and Pretty could dispose of the corpse. But then Pretty lowered himself down and started to prowl away from her. Hahnah blinked. Oh. Maybe the eyes he drew meant that he wanted to look elsewhere. Yes, they could. There might be a different angle of attack unbeknownst to them.

Hahnah followed after him, not bothering to lower herself and crouch-walk as she did. Aside from her eyes, she blended into the darkness very well, and with Pretty's size it was not as if her deliberate sneaking would make much difference. They passed through the wooded area at the southern periphery of Strathford, and were out toward the open fields of cabbages and newly-planted wheat to the east. The orange torchlight of the townsfolk sentinels did not reach out far enough to illuminate them, but the light of the revealed moon would work against them. They could potentially be seen. It was not to Hahnah's liking. She preferred to strike and disappear, strike and disappear. But, with Pretty on her side, maybe she could face all of them in the open field? If only she knew Pretty's plan.

Then Pretty began to make noises. Loud noises. A rumbling call, a seething hiss. He did want to face them all at once. His bravery, his boldness, was astounding to Hahnah.

But none of the humans came out. None. They all held their ground, and all the ones Hahnah could see on the eastern side of the town--in near unison--lifted their torch-wielding arms straight up into the air.

Then, they all turned right around. And they retreated back into the town, the last evidence of their presence the reflections of orange light against the wattle and daub of the houses, and then this too disappeared. A certain stillness common to ordinary nights followed.

Hahnah glanced about at the places the men were once posted. Glanced to Pretty. Said, "This behavior I have not seen before. I do not like it."

From the town, muted by distance, came faint and peculiar sounds. A near rhythmic series of dull bangs, like little claps of thunder or little slams of a door. Two black silhouettes could be seen...hopping?...through the air, not even landing on solid ground before the next hop was made, those bangs timed exactly with each hop. Hahnah saw them, but did not know what to make of them, as indistinguishable by distance and outside of her experience as they were. Then the black silhouettes seemed to disappear as they glided down into the murky darkness that had claimed Strathford now too in the absence of the torch-bearing sentinels.

"I saw something," Hahnah said, her voice low and cautious. "I do not know what it--"

POP.

A brilliant star--so it seemed to Hahnah--alighted from the rooftop of a house and arced high into the air and out toward the eastern field. White light powerful enough to banish the night and bring in a temporary day showered the field as the magical flare rose higher and flew farther. The edge of the light's radius on the ground raced toward Hahnah and Pretty as the overhead flare continued in its high arc.

Threatening to expose them within seconds.

Pretty Boy
 

Pretty Boy

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Pretty didn’t like this. There was an odd stillness to the air unlike any other hunt he’d ever been on. This was a dangerous proposition and he was frightened that Hahnah had been too ambitious in selecting this particular herd. Instead of tensing and closing ranks near where they heard the sound, as he expected, they turned and headed right back into the annals of the town where he couldn’t see them. That wasn’t normal human behavior at all. Humans were nervous herd animals by design. They didn’t just take frightening noises in the night on the chin; at least not the normal ones who didn’t wear armor.

He did not like the sight of the two things hopping. He growled and his hackles bunched on his shoulders. Those were strange and he didn’t like them...and not at all human. Was this a normal town? Were they cursed in some way?

The loud pop got his attention. He lowered his head and scooped Hahnah up in his tusks, racing through the fields toward the tree line. This wasn’t normal. Humans didn’t naturally have big balls of white light that turned night into day! There was a mage among them and they needed to completely reevaluate what they were going to do.

Back in the tree line he lowered flat to the ground, searching for any sign of the strange shadows. The big light had flashed brighter than the sun, and was now guttering out to plunge them into shadow again. Whatever was in the town it wasn’t human, and it wasn’t normal prey.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Hahnah did not need to run, though she had turned to do just that as Pretty Boy scooped her up and onto his head. She held on and maneuvered herself to sit on his back. Rode with her body pressed low to his bulk as the light of the flare illuminated the field where they had once been. The flare hung in the air behind them, descending slowly, a large pocket of daylight pushing the night away from the field. Hahnah knew that there were humans with magic, but also that they were rare. She did not think at all that there would be some of them in Strathford.

They were back in the southern tree line. Pretty was low and flat. Hahnah was low and flat on top of him, head by his tusks and presumably close to his ears. She regarded the town beyond the tree line with a new wariness.

"They can make the dark go away," Hahnah whispered. The flare over the field had waned and winked out, but they could possibly do it again. "Now we know."

From the town came another of those series of bangs. A single silhouette--unclear if it was one of the two from before--could be seen bouncing up and then descending down, bouncing up and then descending down, through the air in a southeasterly direction. A final descent and the bangs stopped and the silhouette merged with the town's dark and shadow and obscuring buildings.

"If those are the armored men humans call guards, they are unlike the guards I have witnessed before," Hahnah said. "The sound they make is strange. The way they move is strange. They will be difficult to hit with my sorcery."

Hahnah thought. Considered.

"I think we can use their own buildings against them. We can hide in them. We can use them to get closer. We can find protection in them. What do you think, Pretty?"

This meant going into the town, Hahnah knew. It was aggressive. She did not know if it was maybe too aggressive, or if it was just aggressive enough. Once in the town they may not be able to retreat so easily.

But Hahnah was not ready to flee. Not yet.

* * * * *​

One among the four hunters had superb nightvision. And this hunter was scanning the perimeter of town from a vantage point, looking for Hahnah and Pretty Boy.

Pretty Boy
 
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Pretty Boy

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Pretty watched the town closely, Hahnah laying along his head and neck. With his bulk, that put his ear flaps about level with her hips, while his nose was just under her chin. He kept low so she could see for him; he got the sense she had better eyes than he. Her plan was definitely risky; she was right in that they could hide among the buildings. Then again, Hahnah was smaller than he was. It was hard for him to maneuver in city streets or bring his tusks around to bear.

He really didn’t like the jumping thing. His one weakness was the back of his skull. His head was so long that if someone laid very similarly to how Hahnah was now, they could essentially grab his tusks and steer him. That was a frightening thought. He was experienced as a warrior, but not as much as some devourers. His father had all kinds of tricks for dealing with two legs.

Pretty took a deep breath and nodded, carefully so as not to dislodge her. He slowly rose up on his hocks and elbows. Even if these people could banish the dark, he wasn’t giving them any easy targets. He army crawled forward with Hahnah on his head, sneaking toward the town.

Hahnah
 
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Hahnah

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Pretty nodded. Started to crawl forward, the shifting sound of his bulk against the grass and the crinkling of fallen leaves and the tiny snaps of old twigs coming along with it. Hahnah rode low and flat, keeping her eyes squinted. She could see better in the dark than humans, but certainly not with the same clarity that came with the day. And with her eyes squinted this modest advantage was narrowed.

She heard a distant laugh come from the town ahead, but she could not see from where or from who.

They were drawing closer to the edge of town. To an open space between two houses. There were so many corners just from those two houses, let alone the houses beyond them. A rigid landscape of unnatural structures arrayed in a manner mostly unfamiliar--that was civilization to Hahnah. But they could use the buildings against the guards. They could. Hahnah had to put aside her uncomfortable, disturbed feelings of the environment of the town if she and Pretty were to cleanse Strathford tonight.

More bangs. Two distinct series of them. Getting closer. Silhouettes briefly visibly against the starry sky before gliding down and disappearing behind the looming and obscuring view of the town's buildings. Then the quiet of night returned.

Hahnah and Pretty crossed the threshold into Strathford. Two wattle and daub houses boxing them in on their left and on their right.

A slight rattling of gear somewhere ahead and off to the right. Around the front side of the house. Hushed quiet on the left.

Hahnah upturned the palm of her right hand. Manifested an Orb of Elemental Hatred in it. Even the low sound of the magic coalescing in her palm had a raw intensity to it in the taut stillness of the town and in the alley between the two houses.

She slid off of Pretty Boy. Bare feet in the dirt and the patchy grass. She pressed her back to the side wall of the right house, looked at Pretty and brought a finger to her lips.

Then started to inch toward the corner. Intent on peering around to see what was at the front of the house.

Pretty Boy
 
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