Longhunter

Please note: this story is in-progress and will be updated regularly.

“Over here!” George shouted, clambering his way up the rocky outcrop. He turned to glance back at his companions, loose pebbles tumbling down the slope behind him as he dug his boots into the loose earth for purchase. They were an expedition thirty-strong, mostly trappers and traders, clad in the rough leathers and furs of their profession. The men were laden with backpacks and gear, guiding a procession of horses along with them, the animals similarly encumbered. One of their number broke ranks, scaling the grassy hill to join him, George reaching out a hand to catch him as he lost his footing for a moment.

“Careful there, Sam,” George chuckled as he steadied his friend by the tasseled sleeve of his jacket. Sam looked out at the view beyond, a rolling plain of grassland that stretched as far as the eye could see. It was pristine, untouched by the industry that was slowly encroaching Westward. They were out in the wilderness now. They hadn’t encountered so much as a homestead or a fort for days.

“Well I’ll be,” Sam muttered, reaching up to straighten his wide-brimmed hat. “Just how long do you reckon it goes on for?”

“Guess we’re going to find out,” George replied.

Another of the men climbed up to join them, pausing for a moment to take a swig from the canteen that was hanging from his belt. He narrowed his eyes as he looked out over the sun-baked plain, squinting against the sunlight. Dawes was the leader of their group, a grizzled veteran who had spent more time on the frontier than all of the other men combined. His face was as leathery as the coat that he wore, tanned and wrinkled by the elements, his bushy beard reaching the fur lining of his collar.

“Lotta open ground,” he grumbled, reaching into a leather pouch on his hip. He withdrew an ornate compass, the brass case pressed with intricate floral designs, waiting a few seconds for the needle to settle. “We’ll have to cut straight across. There ain’t no going around it.”

“Looks like grazing land to me,” George added, Dawes sparing him a glance. “The Company is gonna be very happy if we find land frequented by tatanka herds. That’s meat, furs, good leather for the taking.”

“Then, you make sure you mark it on that there map of yours,” Dawes replied in his usual gravely tone. “You’re our pathfinder, that’s your job. Mine is getting you gentlemen where you need to be safe and sound. The Company ain’t paying me to sight-see.”

George wanted to tell the man he was indeed being paid to sight-see but thought better of it, holding his tongue as Dawes called for the rest of their party to keep moving. George’s profession was cartography, naturalism. He was an educated man, which was somewhat rare in these parts, having made the voyage from Albion to seek his fortune on the frontier. Even a man who had spent his formative years with his nose buried in dusty old books could develop a thirst for adventure. He had been employed by one of the many powerful trading companies that had established themselves on the Eastern shores of the new continent, each one carving up the virgin land with deeds and Royal charters, staking their claim to the resources therein. Timber, coal, furs – there were untouched riches just waiting to be exploited. His job was to journey Westward, to make a record of what he found in these uncharted lands so that more expeditions might follow. Civilization would spread in his wake, and he found no small measure of satisfaction in the idea of steamrails one day crossing this great prairie.

“Come on,” Sam said, giving him a nudge. “We don’t wanna get left behind.”

George followed him down the slope, staying low so as not to lose his balance. The two had met back at the trading post before setting out on their journey some weeks prior, and had become fast friends during their travels. Sam had made his living hunting in the drainage basin of the great bay where the Company had set up their headquarters, and although he was less experienced than the more seasoned members of their band, he was skilled with a rifle and knew how to live off the land.

They rejoined the rest of the group at the base of the outcrop, following them out onto the plains. George had never seen land so flat. It was a far cry from the gentle hills and meadows of his homeland, and even the forests and waterways that he had left behind on the Eastern shore seemed so far away now. It was almost like a giant blacksmith’s hammer had come down from the sky to stamp everything out. Even in the far distance, where his vision became obscured by the atmospheric haze, he couldn’t make out any mountains or features. There was just a seemingly endless expanse of grasses and small shrubs, blown by the wind likes waves on the ocean.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” Dawes called from the front of the procession. “We ain’t got no formal relations with the natives this far West.”

“You heard tell of any tribes this far out?” Sam asked. George reached down to brush his fingers against the powder horn on his belt, feeling its comforting weight. It was hewn from the tip of a tatanka’s horn, the polished ivory keeping the black powder inside dry, the powder measure dangling from a string beside it. Every man in the party was armed with rifles of varying designs, either carried in their hands or slung across their backs. They were used both for hunting and defense, though George hoped that they would never need them for the latter. The native tribes that inhabited the Eastern lands could be amenable, and many were now trading partners of the companies, but those who had never seen an outlander before might react with fear. They had brought goods to trade, silver and trinkets to offer as gifts in exchange for safe passage should they unknowingly trespass. He had to hope that would be enough.

“Nothing certain,” he replied. “I’ve been told stories of tribes who follow the seasonal migrations of the tatanka herds, but there’s little else to go on.”

“Wouldn’t want to be near one of those things for any length of time,” Sam grumbled. “You ever seen one up close?”

George shook his head in response.

“Just sketches.”

“They’re a hell of a lot bigger than they look on paper, I’ll tell you that much.”

“I can handle myself,” George added, gesturing over his shoulder at the smoothbore rifle that was slung over his back. “I did my fair share of shooting back in the basin. Bagged a hottah with antlers ten feet wide.”

“Well, if you can hit a hottah, you won’t have no trouble hitting a tatanka. That first shot better be on the mark, though, or you’ll be facing down six thousand pounds of angry beast.”

 

***

 

They walked for the better part of a day, eventually setting up camp when the sun began to set. The men staked the horses and unpacked their tents, bundles of oilskin tarp and long, wooden poles bound together by lengths of hemp rope. The conical shelters were simple, and not especially effective in the snow and rain, but the sky was cloudless that night. There was a cold wind out on the plains, however, which necessitated that all of the tents face in the same direction to prevent the chill from creeping in through the flaps. In the center of their vaguely round cluster of tents, they set a fire going, the gale whipping at the oilskins and making the flames flicker as the best cook among them tended to a pot of stew.

Most of the men had crowded around the fire, the murmur of conversation rising above the whispering wind. George’s eyes played across their faces, lit by the wavering glow. Each of them was an outdoorsman, someone who called this harsh land home and who knew how to survive its challenges. Their faces were weathered, some sporting impressive scars, and almost all of them had a bushy beard. Shaving was a luxury out here, and the blonde stubble that George had been cultivating made him feel a little less out of place in their company.

Beyond the campfire’s glow, the darkness made it seem as though the earth and heavens had melded together, like they were sitting on their own isolated little island of warmth.

“Not much in the way of timber out here,” Sam muttered, chewing on a piece of jerked meat as he gazed out at the endless expanse. “I hope the firewood we brought with us lasts until we reach the far side.”

“Should be fine,” George replied, glancing at the bundles of kindling that had been stacked beside one of the tents. “I’m sure we’ll come across trees soon enough.”

“Never been anywhere like this,” he continued, tearing off another mouthful of dry meat as he examined his surroundings. “Back East, you can’t hardly move for the trees, and there are rivers and streams wherever you care to look. You got places like this back home?”

“We have moorlands that are similar in Albion,” George replied with a nod. “The lands of the Elenydd stretch for miles, vast, sweeping ranges of rolling hills covered in hardy grasses and purple heathers. There are stone formations carved by the elements over the eons, and the locals attribute the eerie sounds of the wind rushing through the rocks and valleys to the mournful wailing of banshees. Then there are the highlands to the North, which are much the same, if not more mountainous. I’ve never seen anything quite so…flat, though.”

“I ain’t never been to Albion,” Sam continued. “I was born on this side of the sea. My father was a longhunter, used to trek out into the wilds for months at a time, living off the land. He’d come back with as many furs as he could carry, and that kept my mother fed when he was away. Taught me everything he knew before he passed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” George said, but Sam shrugged his shoulders dismissively.

“Wasn’t exactly a surprise, it happens all the time. One day he went out, and he never came back. Could have been one of the natives got him, maybe an animal, or maybe he just tripped and fell into a valley. That’s the life of a longhunter.”

“You didn’t follow in his footsteps?” George asked. Sam tossed him a piece of jerky, and he tore off a chunk of the leathery meat.

“I like the regularity of the company payroll,” he chuckled. “Besides, I can put those same skills to good use out here.”

The man tending to the cooking pot called out that their meal was ready, the rest of their company emerging from the shadows to crowd around the flames with their tin cups and bowls in hand. George and Sam rose from their seats to join them, the scent of the stew making George’s mouth water as it carried over to him on the breeze. While he missed the singular cuisine of his homeland, hunger was a spice that could make almost any dish palatable, and a day of walking had his stomach rumbling. When his turn came, he held out his cup, the cook pouring a generous ladleful of steaming broth into the receptacle. There were pieces of meat floating along with the chopped vegetables, probably the last of the elk-like hottah that one of their number had brought down a few days prior. They had plenty of dried rations, but fresh meat was always at the top of the list when it was available.

Like everything on this continent, the animal seemed to grow larger than anything found in the old world. George remembered the dainty deer that inhabited the forests near his home, but they were dwarfed by the native equivalent. The hottahs could grow as tall as a man at the shoulder and weighed as much as fifteen hundred pounds. That amount of meat would keep even their thirty-strong party fed for days. Along with the impressive set of antlers on their heads, they had a set of tusks that jutted from their jaws, which they seemed to use more for shaving the bark off trees than for combat.

They returned to their seats with their meal, George blowing on the stew to cool it, juggling it in his hands as its warmth heated the tin cup. He reached into a pouch on his hip, rummaging inside for a moment until he felt the familiar texture of metal, withdrawing his trusty spoon. After fishing for a chunk of meat, he brought it to his mouth, blowing on it again for good measure. It was soft and succulent, perfectly cooked, impregnated with the flavor of the herbs and spices that it had been marinating in.

“Good?” Sam asked, George nodding his head as he ate another spoonful.

“Nothing like a hot meal to keep the spirits up,” he said, pausing to chew on a piece of potato.

 

***

 

The rising sun was starting to burn away the morning mist that hung low over the plains, the grass beneath their boots misted with droplets of dew. It was a chilly morning, but not quite cold enough to be frosty, George watching his breath form a cloud of mist as it left his mouth. He pulled his leather coat a little tighter around himself, thankful for the soft lining of fur. With a little more walking, he’d start to warm up.

They had packed up their camp and were on the move again, the thirty men spread out in a loose column with their horses at the center. The fog limited their visibility somewhat, so a few of the more cautious men had their rifles in hand as they trekked along.

Dawes was at the head of the group, and as they navigated the rolling mists, he stopped to raise his fist. The procession came to a halt, the horses starting to snort and stamp their feet, the men who were holding their reins struggling to keep them under control.

“What the hell has the horses so spooked?” Sam whispered, slowly reaching for his rifle. Many of the other men were doing the same, shouldering their weapons as they struggled to penetrate the fog.

George felt it before he could see it, a vibration in the very earth itself that traveled up through his legs. The sound of something heavy galloping along carried in from across the plain, along with a deep, resonating snorting that reminded him of a bull.

Tatanka,” Sam hissed, shouldering his rifle. The men began to spread out so as not to block the lines of fire, some of them taking a knee as they aimed in the direction of the sound. They were loading their weapons now, measuring out black powder from their horns and driving lead balls into the barrels with their ramrods.

“Just one?” George asked, checking the powder charge in his pan. “Don’t they travel in herds of thousands?”

“If there was a herd nearby, you’d feel it,” Sam replied. “When they run, it’s like a goddamned thunderstorm. This fella is by his lonesome.”

George wasn’t too worried – he was in the company of dozens of experienced hunters – but not being able to see the creature was unnerving. It seemed to be getting closer, which suggested it probably wasn’t aware of their presence. Even wild animals that had never encountered a man before weren’t likely to approach a person by choice.
“Must be lost,” Sam mused. “Separated from its herd, maybe.”

In the shroud of obscuring mist maybe two hundred feet ahead of them, a dark shape loomed. It was hard to tell just how big it was at first, but as it drew closer, its features became clearer. It looked to George like a walking mountain, maybe seven feet tall all the shoulder, a hump of muscle and fat rising up to frame a massive skull almost as large as a man’s torso. From its head protruded a set of bony growths and ridges that ran down between its beady eyes, a pair of ivory tusks framing its foaming jaws. They protruded from between its thick lips, curving slightly upwards, each one tipped with a point. As the men watched, it shook its head, its mane of matted fur whipping through the air. Its coat was black, somehow dirty, as though it was covered in dried mud. Twin streams of condensation billowed from its large nostrils as it snorted, pawing at the ground with its three-toed feet as though preparing to charge.

The horses were going crazy now, rearing up on their hind legs, several of the men having to rush to grip their reins as they threatened to bolt.

“I got the shot!” one of the men near the front yelled. George recognized his voice. It was Baker, one of the more experienced hunters in their company. The man knelt, pulling the wooden stock of his musket tight against his shoulder, a click ringing out as he cocked the hammer.

Almost on cue, the lumbering creature began to charge, five or six thousand pounds of furious beast kicking up clods of dirt as it set off towards the party. It was deceptively fast for its size, closing rapidly. Baker squeezed his trigger, a loud crack echoing across the plains as a plume of smoke and sparks erupted from his barrel. Rather than drop, the tatanka kept coming. Could Baker have missed such a large target at so close a range? Was it a misfire?

The beast was still coming, drawing dangerously close now, George having to resist the impulse to run as it barreled through the mist like a steam engine made of fur and horns.

More of the men stepped forward to fire off follow-up shots, George covering his ears to block out the racket, a cloud of smoke joining the fog to make it even harder to see what was happening. There was a monumental thud, and when the dust had cleared, the tatanka was lying on the ground.

“What the hell was that, Baker?” Dawes demanded angrily. “You tryin’ to get us all killed?”

“I hit it!” Baker protested, jogging behind him as he made his way over to the felled beast. “I swear I ain’t lyin’ to ya, I hit that goddamned thing square in the face!”

“Bullshit you did,” Dawes grumbled, coming to a stop beside the prone body. The rest of their party made their way over to get a look, save for the handful of men who were still trying to calm the horses, the pack animals whinnying and stamping.

George and Sam joined the loose circle that had formed around the tatanka. It was even larger up close, like a sheer wall of muscle and fur. Flies were already starting to swarm it, flitting across its matted coat, a stream of dark fluid joining the foam around its tusked mouth. Its eyes were glassy and lifeless, milky in a way that stood out as strange to George. He looked for bullet wounds, but couldn’t make out any distinctive red on its hide.

“What’s with the fur?” Dawes wondered, giving the beast’s hump a prod with the butt of his rifle that made the mound of fat wobble. “Never seen a breed like this before.”

“Smells like shit,” Baker muttered, covering his nose and mouth with a checkered handkerchief as he knelt beside the creature’s imposing head. “The coat is all matted, like it’s been rollin’ in a cesspit.” He reached out with a finger, brushing some of the shaggy fur aside. “There!” he exclaimed, leaping to his feet as he gestured to it. “I got that sucker right between the eyes, just like I said!”

“Bullshit,” Dawes mumbled under his breath, kneeling down beside the thing. As he checked for himself, his eyes widened, withdrawing a finger covered in what looked like black tar. He brought it to his nose, then gagged, turning his head away. “Mustn’t have gotten through the skull,” he said, but he sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as everyone else.

“There are more,” Sam called out, gesturing to the beast’s shoulders. It had been hard to see because of the animal’s dark coat, but there were indeed more bullet holes leaking a black substance where the volley of fire had found its mark.

“Step back,” another of their companions added, pulling a large knife with an ivory handle from a leather holster on his hip. “Somethin’ ain’t right here.”

The circle of gawking hunters widened as he stooped by the animal’s belly, drawing the sharp blade along a portion of its underside. Almost as soon as its thick hide had been pierced, a mass of dark viscera was violently ejected from the body cavity, spilling across the grass. The men nearby covered their noses, retching and coughing as they scattered, the butcher letting his knife fall as he retreated to a safe distance. There seemed to be no blood inside the thing, only an oily, black liquid that stained everything like ink. It was still warm, steam rising from the guts in the cool air.

“Smells like it’s been dead for a fuckin’ week,” Sam said, his voice muffled by the collar of his jacket as he retreated inside it like a startled turtle. “Fuck, I ain’t never smelled anythin’ like it.”

“Was it sick?” George wondered aloud, daring to take a few tentative steps closer. “Maybe that’s why it was separated from its herd – it couldn’t keep pace.”

“God damn it,” Sam grumbled, slinging his rifle over his back. “And here I thought we’d be eatin’ flame-grilled tatanka steak tonight.”

He spat on the ground to better illustrate his disappointment, a worried murmur spreading through the crowd.
“Alright, alright,” Dawes said as he raised his arms to get everyone’s attention. “You’ve all seen sick animals before. The pelt and the meat are spoiled, and I don’t want to hang around long enough to recover the ivory, so let’s head out.”

They returned to the horses, which had calmed down somewhat, the group starting to move on. The encounter with the tatanka had unnerved everyone, and there was tension in the air as they made their way across the flat terrain, most of the men keeping their muskets at the ready lest they encounter another of the beasts.

“You know about animals,” Sam said, lowering his voice as he walked along beside George so as not to be overheard by the others. He adjusted the straps of his pack, hopping over a stray rock. “You ever seen somethin’ like that?”

“Maybe,” George replied, hesitating before continuing. What he was saying didn’t make much sense, but all he could do was relay his observations. As a trained naturalist, he had dissected many animals, both fresh and preserved. “I once saw a beached whale on the shore of the Tywyll river,” he began. “It had swum up from the sea and probably gotten lost along the way. It was an unusually warm summer, and it had been there for a few days, baking in the sun. When things die, they start to decay, and sometimes those gasses build up inside the body if they have no way of escaping. When they tried to move the whale, its body ruptured, and it expelled its innards with explosive force.”

“Like the tatanka,” Sam mused, George nodding his head.

“Now, that doesn’t mean it was dead,” he added hastily. “Just…that something caused those gasses to collect inside it. Maybe a ruptured intestine could have done that, I’m not sure.”

“What about all that black tar?” Sam asked. The two shared a worried glance, but George had no answer for him.

***

 

They marched for another day without incident, then set up camp again, this time in the shelter of a rocky outcrop that gave them some measure of protection from the wind. It had been picking up during the day, and it was blowing a gale now, making an odd whistling sound as it blew between the rocks. It tore at the oilskin tents, making the fire waver, the men wearing hats and gloves as they pressed closer to the flames for warmth. The mood had changed after their odd encounter with the tatanka. Gone was the lively conversation and the joviality of the previous night. Instead, the men talked in hushed voices, glancing warily at the darkness at the edge of the camp as though expecting another twisted beast to come charging out of the shadows.

What discussion was still to be had centered around the animal, and George found that many of the questions were directed at him.

“You’re an educated man, right?” one of the hunters asked as he took a seat beside him on the grass. He was wearing a leather coat lined with sheepskin, along with a fur hat that still had the unfortunate animal’s tail danging from the back. Even though the men had all removed their packs and most of their gear, he still had his knife on his belt. Nobody wanted to be too far from a weapon right now.

“I attended the academy of natural sciences in Douvrend, yes,” George replied. Sam shifted on the grass to his right, leaning in to listen to the conversation as he picked some of the dried mud from the underside of his boot with a stick.

“Daugherty over there is a bonesaw,” the man continued, gesturing to another of their company who was sitting on the other side of the campfire. “He worked in an infirmary during the war, extracted his share of lead in his time. I asked him about what we saw today, and he told me he remembers that smell, can’t rightly forget it. Says it’s the same as what came from the guts of a man who’d been shot in the stomach. It’s the smell of a festerin’ wound. He swears by it.”

“I’d agree with his assessment,” George replied. “The animal must have been injured.”

“We didn’t find no marks on its body, though,” the hunter continued. He reached into a leather bag on his belt, withdrawing a pipe carved from ivory and a tobacco pouch. George waited patiently as he filled the bowl, then struck a match, cupping it with his hand to shield it from the wind as he gave it a few tentative puffs. “Save for those that we made,” he continued, waving the match until it went out.

“No obvious injuries, but I didn’t have time to thoroughly inspect the animal,” George replied. “Nor did I have the desire, to be frank. It could have been an internal infection, some kind of gangrene. I wondered whether the intestines might have ruptured, which could have filled the body cavity with putrefied gasses.”

“Seemed strong as an ox, even so,” the hunter added. “You’d expect a sick animal to be lethargic, weak. It’s nice to hear that there might be some natural explanation, at least. Sets my mind more at ease.”

“Want an unnatural one?” Baker asked, his sudden appearance startling George. He had approached from behind them, from the direction of the nearby tents. “Sorry,” he added, chuckling at the reaction. “Didn’t mean to alarm you gentlemen.”

“We tellin’ ghost stories now?” Sam grumbled. “I ain’t sure that’s gonna do us much good, Baker.”

Despite the complaint, Baker sat down beside them, his bearded face lit by the firelight. George was already skeptical, but it wasn’t like there was an overabundance of things to talk about.

“I hit that tatanka square between the eyes,” he insisted. “It didn’t go down, not until they poured a whole volley into it.”

“Their skulls are very thick,” George explained. “They butt heads during mating season like rams. If you put six thousand pounds of weight behind those blows, of course the skull is going to be appropriately reinforced. It’s possible that the ball didn’t penetrate or was deflected.”

“At that range, with a twenty-two bore rifle?” Baker scoffed. “I mean no disrespect, Mister Ardwin, but I’d wager I know as much about firearms as you do about anatomy.”

“I won’t argue that,” George conceded. “So, what’s your explanation?”

Baker settled, shifting his weight to get comfortable, making it abundantly clear that he was getting ready to tell a story. Much like the hunter to his left, he produced a pipe, lighting it up and taking a puff before beginning.

“Back East, there are legends told by the tribes that live around the lakes of Kanadario. I used to do a lot of hunting up there, in and around Acadia. It was great territory for trappin’ beavers. They talk of evil spirits out there that can possess a man when he’s weakened by starvation and cold. They give ‘em a hunger so insatiable that they fall upon men, women, even children like a starving dog. Yet, no matter how much they eat, their hunger can never be satisfied. They call them the Windigo.”

“Hang on,” George said, interrupting the story. “What does that have to do with the tatanka?”

“I’m gettin’ to it,” Baker protested, taking another drag from his pipe. “They say those possessed look like they’re fresh from the grave, pallid skin stretched over bone, gaunt flesh and sunken eyes. They smell like death, too, on account of the carrion that they’re compelled to consume.”

“And this from folks who worship trees,” Sam said, the men chuckling.

“The point is, it sounds mighty similar,” Baker insisted, gesturing to Sam with the pointed end of his pipe. “That tatanka smelled like it had been rottin’ in the sun for a good couple of days, and a bullet to the head didn’t slow it down. Ain’t no livin’ thing that can survive that. What if one of them evil spirits possessed it? That thing was mean, even for a tatanka.”

“It was sick,” George replied adamantly. “Perhaps one tatanka crashed into another during a fight, caught it in the midsection, and ruptured its intestines. They’re grazing animals, they ferment their food in their stomachs like cows, so maybe all that gas escaped into its body.”

“And that would turn its blood to tar?” Baker asked skeptically.

George shrugged his shoulders.

“I like George’s explanation better,” Sam said. “Never seen any spirits out in the woods, myself. Superstition will have you jumping at shadows.”

“We’re trekkin’ out into the unknown,” Baker added, blowing a smoke ring. George watched it float up into the air, slowly dissipating. “Who knows what’s really out here?”

 

***

 

The company continued their journey across the plain, but although they found evidence that herds had frequented the area recently, they didn’t encounter a single tatanka. It was as if they had all fled. After a few days of travel, they finally sighted something in the distance, a mountain range that rose up above the flat terrain, capped with white snow.

As they neared, they saw that the foothills were carpeted in dense forest, the wealth of timber reinvigorating the tired men. This was exactly why they had come out here, to scour the land for natural resources just like this.

The plains gradually gave way to woodland, the trees straight and tall, the sound of a gurgling brook soon drawing the group in. Fresh meltwater from the mountains beyond made its way down into the valley, crisp and cool, the men filling their canteens as they stopped a while to let the horses quench their thirst.

It was nice to be beneath the shade of the trees again, the familiar terrain setting George more at ease. He glanced around, taking in his verdant surroundings. The trunks of the trees were coated in a covering of green, fuzzy moss, and the floor was carpeted in a sparse layer of ferns. There were felled logs here and there, covered over by more moss, sporting colonies of impressive mushrooms that would probably go down a treat in a soup. There would be game here, and lots of it. They had been living on jerked meat and dried beans for long enough that George was developing a hankering for something red and juicy.

The company was settling in for a longer stay, it seemed, starting to unpack some of their gear as Dawes gave out orders. It was as good a place as any to rest. There was shelter, fresh water, and plenty of firewood to be had.

George sat down on a nearby log and fished inside his pack, pulling out a small roll of leather bound by a hairy string. He unfastened the bow, then unfurled it, revealing half a dozen fountain pens secured in small loops. There was also a bottle of ink, as well as a leather-bound booklet. He opened the latter, then checked the inkwell of one of the pens, beginning to write on a blank page in looping cursive.

“What are you writin’?” Sam asked, approaching George with his rifle resting over one shoulder.

“I’m making a record of what we’ve found,” he replied, glancing up at his friend. “That’s my job, after all. When we make camp, I’ll draw a map as best I can.”

“I’m glad to see trees again,” Sam mused as he turned on the spot, glancing at the canopy above them. “Not sure what Dawes wants to do now. We’ll keep headin’ West, most likely, see what else we can find. Could be gold in those hills.”

“I’d like to survey the area,” George added, “see what kinds of trees are growing here. The Company will want to know.”

“I figure Dawes is fixin’ to send out a huntin’ party pretty soon,” Sam continued. “Best ask him if you can tag along. I’ll come too, see if I can can’t bag me a nice hottah or whatever the hell kind of critters are livin’ out here.”

“I’ll settle for a rabbit right now,” George chuckled. “Anything that hasn’t been sun-dried and salted.”

***

 

By the time George had finished making his journal entry, most of the tents had been set up, and there was already a burgeoning campfire surrounded by a circle of stones. He and Sam located Dawes, who was talking with a group of hunters, the man glancing up as they approached.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“We were wonderin’ if you’re ready to send out any hunting parties,” Sam replied. “Mister Ardwin wants to tag along, said he needed to document trees or somethin’.”

“I’d like to catalog the native tree species for my report to the Company,” George corrected.

Dawes didn’t say anything at first, but he nodded his head, reaching up to scratch his beard pensively.

“We’ll send out a couple of parties. Fresh meat will raise spirits, and we need to get the lay of the land, scout the area and make sure we have a defensible position here.”

“Are we expecting trouble?” George asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Better safe than sorry,” Dawes replied sternly. “Last thing we need is a band of braves stabbing us in our sleep or a pack of wayas deciding we look like an easy meal.”

George bristled at the word. He had seen sketches of wayas back in Albion, and although they were fairly common in the Eastern parts of the continent, he had never crossed paths with one. They were large canines not dissimilar from the dire wolves of Europa, but with a heavier build. Their jaws were adapted for crushing bone to extract the nutritious marrow, and they had a pair of long saber teeth that they used to inflict deep lacerations in their prey, waiting for blood loss to weaken them before moving in for the kill.

“We’ll send out three groups of six,” Dawes continued, squinting up at the fading light through the sparse canopy above them. “The other dozen men will remain at the camp. I want each group to take a compass, don’t get turned around out there.”

“We’re losing the light,” Sam said, following his gaze.

“Better round up the men and get going soon,” Dawes added with a nod.

***

 

George trekked through the forest, his rifle in hand, the underbrush rustling underfoot as he moved through the knee-high ferns. He was in the company of five other men. Sam and Baker were with him, along with the hunter he had met the night before, who he had recently learned was named Doyle. Two other experienced hunters from their party were with them, Meyer and Smith, experienced trackers who had spent much of their lives in the wilderness.

He wasn’t sure what they were looking for exactly that would give away the presence of dangerous animals or tribesmen. Perhaps footprints, abandoned camps, and things of that sort. George contented himself with cataloging the different tree species, making notes in his journal whenever he came across something interesting. There were a few specimens he didn’t recognize, so he made sure to take rubbings of their leaves on the off chance that they were entirely undocumented species. Botany wasn’t his strong suit, but he wouldn’t mind having a plant or two named after him.

The forest was so incredibly dense. The tall, pillar-like trunks were spaced far enough apart that a party of men could easily make their way between them, but they were packed together tightly enough that visibility rapidly diminished over distance. George found that he could rarely see more than a hundred feet in any direction. What’s more, as the temperature dropped, a low mist began to roll in.

As the sun dipped in the sky, he pulled out his compass, the other men waiting as he took a reading.

“We should circle back around to camp in maybe forty minutes by my estimate,” he said. He kept his voice low so as not to give away their position to any curious eavesdroppers. “We can stand to be out here maybe another hour more if we want to be back before nightfall.”

“Yeah, I don’t much like the idea of bein’ out here in the dark,” Sam muttered as he glanced around at the encroaching fog. “No sign of anything so far, though.”

“I vote we cover a little more ground,” Baker added, leaning against a nearby tree. There was a chorus of agreements, George following behind as they resumed their hike, climbing their way up an incline onto higher ground. Without the compass, they really would be lost. Everything looked the same to George.

It wasn’t long before they found signs of life, Doyle waving them over to a nearby tree. He gestured to score marks in the bark with a proud smile on his face.

“Looks like we have hottas in the area,” he declared, running a finger through one of the grooves. “See the tusk marks?”

“That’s some good eatin’ right there,” Sam mused.

“I feel like I could eat a whole damn hottas myself right now,” Doyle replied, giving his companion a jovial slap on the back. “C’mon, these marks ain’t too old. Maybe we can still catch up.”

The men picked up the pace, Doyle leading them through the trees, spotting a few more signs of activity on the way. Snapped branches, more scoring where the creature had used its tusks to scrape off tree bark, faded footprints in the wet soil. As they headed up the gentle incline, a sudden foul odor blew in on the breeze, George covering his mouth with his sleeve.

“The hell is that?” Sam grumbled, pulling up his fur collar to cover his nose.

“Smells like carrion,” Meyer said, the only one of them with the stomach to take a second sniff. He reached up to straighten his wide-brimmed hat, then gestured up the slope. “It’s up that way.”

They climbed higher, the fading light and the fog making it hard to see very far ahead of them. Maybe it was just his imagination, but George could have sworn that the atmosphere had become somehow heavier, more oppressive. The usual chirping of birds had gone deathly silent, and all that he could hear was the eerie creaking of branches as they swayed in the wind. As they neared the source of the smell, it grew more pungent, Sam letting out a sudden grunt of disgust. George glanced over to his right, seeing him pulling his hand away from a tree trunk that he had just leaned on, looking at his palm with a grimace.

“What the fuck is this?” he wondered aloud.

George clambered over a felled tree as he made his way over, a few more of the men crowding around. Sam’s hand was stained with what looked like black tar, and when George turned his eyes to the tree, he saw that there was more of it on the bark. It looked like someone had splashed it with the dark, oily substance.

“There’s some of it on the leaves,” Doyle said, gesturing to a patch of ferns that had been drizzled with the inky fluid. “Almost looks like something came through here that was covered in the stuff…”

Nobody had to voice their concerns, it was obvious from the way that they clutched their rifles, their eyes scanning the rolling fog. The terrible smell, the black fluid…it reminded everyone of the encounter with the diseased tatanka out on the plains.

“I don’t like this one bit,” Smith whispered, pulling the stock of his rifle tighter against his shoulder. Sam, meanwhile, was trying to rub off the tar on the leg of his pants without much success.

“Should we go back?” George asked, but Doyle shook his head.

“Dawes told us to scout out the area, check for danger. This sure as hell qualifies.”

There were a few murmurs of agreement, the group deciding to press onward. Baker seemed even antsier than the rest, his wide eyes darting from tree to tree, his rifle at the ready. George remembered the ghost story he had told about evil spirits, but he did his best to banish such thoughts from his mind. As Sam had said, superstition would have him jumping at shadows.

They finally located the source of the stench, a dark shape rising from the ferns ahead of them. It was indeed a carcass, lying on its side, putrefaction making its slender legs stick out from its bloated body in a way that seemed wholly unnatural.

“It’s a hottas,” Doyle confirmed, stepping closer to give the body a tap with the toe of his boot. “Looks like it’s been dead a couple of days.”

As George approached, he recognized the telltale set of antlers that were partially covered over by the undergrowth, maybe eight or nine feet wide, along with the tusks that protruded from its dark muzzle.

“It’s remarkably intact,” he mused, examining the matted coat of fur. The creature’s eyes were milky, staring up at the sky blankly, its mouth open in a silent cry. There was more of the tar-like substance spattering the ferns and trees nearby. “Look at the lacerations on the neck and torso. What do you suppose killed it?”

Wayas,” Baker replied solemnly. “I’ve seen animals killed this way before. They use their saber teeth to slash and stab. See where the throat was torn open?”

“If wayas killed it,” Sam began, his brow furrowing. “Why the hell didn’t they eat it?”

There was silence as the group considered, but nobody had an answer for him.

“Animals don’t kill for sport,” George added. “Could we have scared them away?”

“We didn’t arrive until today,” Baker replied, leaning on his gun as he planted the stock in the ferns. With his free hand, he reached into a pouch on his hip, producing his pipe. He let his gun balance against his shoulder as he used two hands to light it, taking a long drag to calm his nerves. “Besides, we’re downwind. That’s why we smelled it from all the way down the hill. Ain’t no way a waya could smell us coming from that direction.”

“I think this is proof enough that there’s a pack in the area,” Doyle said, keeping the group’s mind focused on the task at hand. “Let’s head back and report what we saw to Dawes. Wayas won’t be scared of people if they’ve never encountered them before, so watch your step.”

George took one last glance at the dead creature, then pulled out his compass, pointing them back down the incline.

“This way,” he said, the group setting off at a brisk pace. It was growing darker now, the sun dipping below the horizon, casting long shadows between the trees. The fog gave everything a claustrophobic feel, like opaque walls that were slowly pressing in on them.

“What’s wrong with these trees?” George wondered, stopping to glance up at the canopy.

“Come on, George,” Sam protested as he turned to jog back towards him. He reached out to take him by the arm, trying to guide him along. “We don’t wanna waste any more time than we have to.”

“Wait, look at this…”
There was a patch of maybe a dozen dead trees, their naked branches devoid of any leaves, jutting into the sky like skeletal fingers. Even the moss on their trunks and the mushrooms that had been growing between their roots were decaying, the ferns nearby turned a sickly shade of black, almost like they had been singed by a forest fire. Everywhere George looked, there was more of that black tar, seeping out of breaks in the rough bark like sap.

“We gotta go,” Sam reiterated, a touch of panic creeping into his voice. He froze suddenly, the color draining from his face as a low, resonating growl echoed through the forest. When George turned to follow his gaze, he saw a creature maybe a hundred feet away from them, peering at them through the trees. It was a waya, its canine snout furrowed, its hackles raised. Its dark lips pulled back to expose its fangs, incisors as long as butcher’s knives glinting through the mist. It was large, stocky, far more imposing than the wolves that George was accustomed to. It was maybe three feet tall at the shoulder, at least two or three hundred pounds, its pointed ears pricked up as it watched them.

The mere sight of it wasn’t what had Sam so transfixed, however. Just like the tatanka, its fur was matted and filthy, like it had been covered in mud. Its beady eyes were glassy, sunken, strands of slaver hanging from its jaws. Even at a glance, it was obvious that something was gravely wrong with it, its bones shifting beneath loose skin as it started to stalk towards them.

“W-we have to get outta here!” Baker stammered, his courage finally running dry. He turned to flee in a blind panic, stumbling through the ferns as he raced down the incline, quickly vanishing into the fog.

“Get back here, Baker!” Doyle called after him, but he was already out of sight. “Damn it!”

Sam maintained his composure, dropping to a knee, bringing up the long barrel of his rifle to aim it at the creature. If it were to break into a sprint, it would cross the distance in moments. They only had one chance to bring it down before it was upon them.

The other men took up position nearby, knowing what to do intuitively. Doyle moved up to George’s right, leaning his rifle on the trunk of a nearby tree for stability.

“Wait until it gets closer,” he hissed. “Don’t miss, we won’t get a follow-up shot.”

George still had to load his rifle, taking a knee beside Sam as he fumbled with the pouch on his hip. He fished for a paper cartridge, biting off one end, and upending some of the powder into the open pan of his rifle. He dumped the rest into the narrow aperture of the barrel, cursing as he spilled a little of it.

“Take your time,” Sam said sarcastically, George inserting the lead ball. Rather than force it deeper with the ramrod, he instead tapped the butt of the gun against the ground a couple of times, then brought it up to his shoulder.

“Ready,” he huffed, sighting the creature. It was drawing closer, maybe fifty feet away, its dead eyes fixed on them. It rose from a crouch, breaking into a run with a blood-curdling snarl.

Doyle was the first to fire, the loud crack of his rifle enough to make George’s ears ring. A plume of smoke and sparks reached out, quickly carried off by the wind, the creature lurching under the impact as it was struck in the shoulder. Seeing that it didn’t even slow the thing down, three more shots rang out, one of them kicking up a plume of dirt as it went wide. George pulled his own trigger, the spring-loaded hammer driving the flint into the frizzen, creating a spark that ignited the powder in the pan. There was a flash, his weapon rocking back against his shoulder as the lead ball tore out of the barrel, creating a puff of black mist as it struck his target dead-center. The sixth and final shot joined it, the beast losing its footing, skidding a few more feet down the hill before coming to a stop.

A successful kill would usually be followed by celebration, but there was no hooting or hollering as the men made their way towards the felled beast, reloading their rifles as they went. Sam dared get close enough to the thing to give it a tap with the butt of his rifle, but it lay there motionless, a mass of matted fur and dark blood.

“Just like the tatanka,” he muttered.

“Something is very wrong here,” George added, noting the stench that came from the thing. “What if this is some kind of contagion, a plague?”

“The black death,” Doyle whispered.

“Not literally, but it’s an apt name.”

“If all the animals are infected, what the hell are we gonna eat?” Sam asked as he turned to glance back at them. They exchanged worried looks, but nobody had an answer.

“Fuck, I almost forgot about Baker,” Meyer grumbled. “That fool took off like the devil was on his heels. Who knows where the hell he is now.”

“He went back in the direction of the camp,” Doyle replied, gesturing down the hill into the obscuring mist. “He ain’t got no compass, though.”

“We can’t search for him on our own,” George added. “Better to get back to camp and organize the search effort from there.”

Doyle nodded in agreement, and there were no protests from the rest of the men, the group setting off back down the slope.

***

 

Dawes walked up to meet the party as they made their way past the ring of tents, the flickering light of the campfire bathing the surrounding area in its glow. Night had fallen, and the forest that encircled them was wreathed in shadow, the fog only making it harder to see.

“What the hell happened out there?” Dawes demanded. “We heard the gunshots from all the way back here, a whole volley of fire.”

The men hesitated, as though none of them really wanted to be the one to relay the bizarre story. George eventually stepped forward, hoping that his academic background might give his words a little more credibility. He told Dawes everything that happened – the carcass of the hottah, their encounter with the waya, how Baker had fled into the night. Rather than being incredulous, Dawes took his account very seriously, scratching his bushy beard as he often did when he was deep in thought.

“You said that black tar was coming out of the trees?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “How can a sickness that infects animals also infect trees?”

“That’s just what I saw,” George replied with a shrug. “I can’t explain it.”

“Baker never made it back here,” Dawes continued, glancing past the tents at the gloom beyond. “He must have gotten himself lost, that idiot. I won’t risk sending more men out in the dark. We’ll have to organize a search party at first light.”

“What if there are more wayas?” Smith asked.

“He’s armed, and he’s an experienced longhunter. He’ll have to deal with them himself. Our priority right now is protecting the camp.”

“Did everyone else make it back alright?” George asked.

Dawes shook his head solemnly.

“We heard more gunshots from the North maybe an hour ago,” he replied as he nodded in that direction. “The second party came back, but the third hasn’t turned up yet. I don’t like this one bit. We’ll have men guardin’ the camp in shifts tonight, I want eyes on every inch of the forest from dusk ‘till dawn. Until then, get some hot food in you. I have a feelin’ we’ll need every man fed and rested for tomorrow.”

George and Sam made their way over to the fire, glad of its warmth as they helped themselves to the pot of stew that was hanging over the flames. George filled his tin cup with a ladleful, then took a seat on a nearby log, Sam sitting down beside him. They ate in silence for a few minutes, not sure what to say, appreciating the hot food while they had the opportunity.

“You think Baker is gonna make it back alright?” Sam asked, finally breaking the silence.

“In this?” George asked, glancing out at the dark forest. “He’s a good hunter, but I don’t think anyone could find their way through this without a lantern and a compass. I just hope there aren’t more wayas out there. The one we took down ate four or five shots before it was stopped.”

“I’ve hunted wayas before,” Sam muttered, pausing to fish out a piece of meat from his bowl of stew. “Never seen one just brush off gunfire like that. They hunt in packs, too. They’re wily creatures. They’ll try to surround you, close in on you from different directions, they never run at you like that. It was like it…wasn’t thinkin’ straight.”

“Okay,” George sighed, trying to collect his thoughts. “Let’s think about this in terms of an illness. What are the symptoms?”

“Black tar for blood,” Sam suggested, counting on his fingers. “Matted fur, they stink real bad. I guess whatever they’ve got makes ‘em meaner than usual. I want to say they look…dead, but that’s not possible, right?”

“No, that’s one thing we can be sure of,” George replied. He was trying to be reassuring, but he had to admit, the observation wasn’t entirely incorrect. They smelled like carrion, and they looked like they had just clawed their way out of a grave. The sight of the glassy, cloudy eyes of the tatanka flashed in his mind again, but he did his best to bury his more speculative impulses. “It has to be some kind of transmissible disease, that’s it. Something that causes symptoms not dissimilar from gangrene. Perhaps the rot reaches their brain and makes them violent, insensible.”

“What about the trees?” Sam asked. “Maybe it’s coming out of the ground. Maybe the water’s foul.”

“I don’t think we should eat anything that the hunters catch,” George added, lowering his voice a little. “We have rations enough to see us through.”

“You might be right,” Sam replied.

There was a sudden commotion, George looking towards the edge of the camp, seeing that the missing scout party had returned. As they made their way between the tents, he noted that all six men had returned, but one of them was being helped along by two of his companions. He was slung between them, dragging one of his legs, obviously in some measure of pain. George and Sam joined the crowd that was forming nearby, Dawes pushing his way through to the front.

“What the hell happened?” he demanded as they lowered their injured friend to the grass. George could see a nasty gash in his leg that had stained his trousers with blood, a belt strapped tightly around his thigh probably the only thing keeping him breathing.

Daugherty, the resident doctor, made his way to the injured man’s side. He knelt, producing a leather pouch full of bandages and surgical tools, starting to cut away the leather around the wound as his patient writhed on the ground.

“It was a goddamned waya,” one of the men explained. “It rushed us, managed to gore Adley’s leg before any of us could get a shot off. Fucking thing took a whole volley to bring down.”

“The same thing happened to us,” Doyle said, a worried murmur spreading through the ranks.

“So, what? The whole damned forest is full of feral wayas?” another of the men asked.

Sensing that a panic was brewing, Dawes clearing his throat loudly, raising his voice over the chatter.

“I want a perimeter set up around the camp, and I don’t want anyone leaving it on their own. Even if you have to take a shit, I want a man to accompany you with a rifle that’s cocked and ready to fire. We have one man missing right now, Mister Baker, and we’ll be organizing search parties to look for him in the morning. Until then, stay put.”

He began to pick people out of the crowd, ordering them to start securing the camp, Adley still rolling around on the grass.

“Keep still, Sir!” the doctor complained. “You’re damned lucky it didn’t nick the femoral artery, or you’d be stone-cold by now.”

George and Sam returned to their seat on the log, George crossing his arms against the cold as a chill wind made the campfire flicker.

“I get the feeling we aren’t meant to be here,” Sam said, taking a swig from his canteen.

 

***

 

George’s troubled sleep was interrupted by someone kicking his boot. He sat up, rubbing his eyes groggily, looking up to see a man holding a lantern peering through the flap of his tent. He squinted against the light, his vision slowly adjusting.

“It’s your turn on watch,” the man said, setting the lantern down. He was terse, irritable, but George could understand that. He would probably be in a similar state of mind when it came time to wake his replacement.

As the man wandered off to his own tent, George collected his rifle, then shuffled out into the camp. They had kept the fire stoked, its golden glow illuminating the surrounding area just enough to put George more at ease. He loaded his weapon, then picked up the lantern, making his way over to the edge of the clearing. Dawes had explained their duties and where they were to stand earlier that evening, so he knew more or less what he was supposed to be doing. A few other men were stumbling their way through the clearing behind him, like a very sleep-deprived changing of the guard.

The perimeter was large enough that he couldn’t see any of his fellow sentries directly, just the faint glow from the lanterns of the men to his left and right. His own lantern wasn’t doing much to penetrate the darkness and fog. George couldn’t see more than fifty feet ahead of him, which didn’t give him much time to get off a shot if some grotesque creature should come wandering into the light. The forest ahead was just as dark and as deathly silent as ever. He could have sworn that birds had been chirping when they had first arrived, but now there was nothing but the unnerving creaking of the branches as they swayed in the breeze. The fog was pervasive, rolling between the tall, stout trunks like a thick smoke.

He set the stock of his rifle on the ground, leaning the barrel against his shoulder as he gazed out into the woods, his eyelids still heavy. For what must have been an hour or two, he stood there, his mind playing tricks on him as it conjured moving shapes in the smoke and shadow.

After a while, something more tangible caught his attention. George was suddenly wide awake, bringing his rifle to bear as he saw something through the mist. It was stumbling between the trees, making its way closer, but he couldn’t make out its features. He considered raising the alarm, but if it was another infected animal, a gunshot would rouse the men far faster than a yell.

As the dark shape came into view, he realized that it was a person. It was Baker. George recognized the distinctive beard.

“Damn it, Baker,” he sighed as he lowered his weapon. “You scared me half to death. Where the hell have you been? We were going to organize a search party to go out and look for you.”

Baker didn’t reply, continuing on his way, his gait oddly uneven. George began to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he called out to him again, louder this time.

“Baker!”

The man’s head snapped in his direction, and he paused, staying at still as a statue as the fog swirled around his boots. With an unnatural, jerky motion, he set off again. He wasn’t quite running, he seemed unable, shuffling like someone who had a lame leg.

As Baker drew closer, George’s blood ran cold. His wide-brimmed hat was missing, and his beard and his long hair were matted with what looked like dark mud, his clothes in tatters. He looked like he had rolled through a muddy bramble patch.

His mind racing, George raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. A loud crack echoed through the forest, a cloud of smoke and sparks erupting from the barrel. He wasn’t aiming at Baker, however. He had fired into the air to raise the alarm.

George heard shouting behind him, and he began to retreat away from the approaching figure, waiting for backup to arrive. He was soon supported by a dozen men with loaded rifles, others holding their lanterns aloft in an attempt to illuminate the scene. Dawes was among them, his commanding voice ringing out.

“What the hell is going on? Is that…Baker?”

One of the men began to step forward, intending to help the shuffling figure, but George put a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Wait,” he hissed. “Look at him. There’s something wrong.”

“Mister Baker!” Dawes yelled. “Are you alright?”

There was no reply, and Baker was only twenty feet away now, stumbling through the ferns like a drunk after a night of hard liquor. In the light of the lanterns, George could see his pallid complexion, the way that he peered back at the crowd of hunters with vacant eyes.

“I think he’s sick,” George added, Dawes turning to glance at him. “He must be restrained, Mister Dawes.”

Baker suddenly broke into an unsteady run, loosing a sound that George had never heard before. It wasn’t quite a scream, not quite a growl, but some mournful blend of the two that struck fear into his heart like an icy dagger. It wasn’t a noise that a person should be able to make.

Not knowing what to do, the men scattered, unwilling to turn their guns on their companion. Baker lunged at the nearest man, who dodged out of his way, the rest forming a loose circle around him. He was feral, insensible, just like the diseased animals that they had come across. That same rank smell was present, George covering his nose.

Baker let out another harrowing screech, a blend of black tar and foaming saliva dripping from his mouth, his matted hair whipping through the air as he turned his glassy stare on one of the hunters. With surprising speed, he launched himself into a sprint, covering the distance quickly enough that his target could do little other than use his rifle to block him. Baker threw all of his weight into a shoulder charge, knocking the hunter to the ground, setting upon him like a rabid dog. He gnashed his teeth, the man struggling to hold him at arm’s length as the two grappled.

“Help me!” the hunter sputtered, panic raising the pitch of his voice as Baker clawed at him with dirt-caked fingernails.

A shot rang out, the sheer concussive force knocking Baker off the man, sending him sprawling onto his side. The hunter struggled out from under him, stumbling as he backed up a few feet, bringing his own weapon to bear. As the smoke cleared, George saw that it was Dawes who had fired, and he was already biting open a second paper charge. More of the men had leveled their weapons, seeing now that they might have no other choice.

Baker stirred, then rose to his feet, George’s eyes widening as he saw the fist-sized hole in the man’s chest. Dark fluid seeped from the wound, along with his nose and mouth, its consistency far thicker than blood should have been. Even with a mortal injury, he was not deterred. Baker turned his attention to the nearest man, extending his arms as he loosed another unnerving cry, his fingers contorted into talons.

Smoke filled the air as a chorus of shots rang out, half a dozen men pouring fire into the stumbling figure. George had seen gunshot wounds before, but Baker was practically dissembled, the lead balls taking out chunks of flesh as they tumbled and expanded inside his jerking body. He slumped to the forest floor, lying there motionless, his inky fluids staining the ferns.

Daugherty pushed through the crowd of onlookers, his satchel in hand, kneeling on the ground beside the prone body. As he started to unpack his medical tools, Sam stepped closer, aiming his rifle at Baker’s head, worried that he might yet be dangerous.

“For God’s sake, man,” Daugherty grumbled as he pushed the barrel of the gun away. “Can’t you see that he’s Swiss cheese?”

The doctor produced a handkerchief from his pocket, tying it about his face like a bandana in a bid to ward off the foul odor. Baker was lying face down, the doctor gripping the motionless figure by the shoulder, heaving him onto his back. He was covered in bullet wounds, and one of them had blasted off part of his jaw, his discolored tongue hanging limp.

“Doctor?” Dawes asked as Daugherty examined him, cutting open his tattered vest with a pair of surgical scissors.

“If you had brought me this man before he was shot, I would have told you that he died hours ago,” Daugherty replied. “There are telltale signs of decomposition. The skin is marbled with broken blood vessels, there’s some swelling beginning in the face, the process of putrefaction has begun. Yet, rigor mortis has not set in, and the dead tend not to stumble around screaming…”

“What kind of disease infects men, animals, and plants?” George asked.

“There is no disease I know of that mimics the process of decomposition,” the doctor replied, shaking his head as he gazed down at the body. “We must bury him, far from the camp.”

The man who had grappled with Baker stepped forward, still visibly shaken, his hands trembling as he clutched his rifle.

“We should turn back,” he insisted, his voice wavering with fear. “There’s nothing out here but death.”

“Go back with nothin’ to show for it?” Doyle demanded angrily. “If we turn up at the Company’s doorstep without havin’ found so much as an acre of good timber or a single piece of coal, what do you think they’ll say? Oh, you didn’t do the job we paid you for, but here’s your wages anyway? Bullshit,” he added, taking off his fur hat and tossing it on the ground. “I’ll be destitute without that pay, I might as well be dead.”

There was a low murmur of agreement from the group. It seemed that most of the men were siding with Doyle, and George could sympathize. Life on the frontier wasn’t easy. Hunters lived off the land, and if they didn’t bring back enough meat and furs, they didn’t eat. Many of them had invested their very lives in this expedition, foregoing their usual work and leasing equipment with the promise of a company paycheck, and there was simply nothing to go back to if they failed in their task. George himself had leased his rifle, intending to pay it off with the money he expected to receive upon returning home.

The man could read the crowd, he knew that he wasn’t going to sway them.

“Then, let’s pack up and head somewhere else,” he suggested, practically pleading with them now. “We go North or South, find a way around this cursed forest.”

“We would have to go around the entire mountain range,” George explained. “This forest probably extends throughout the foothills, could be hundreds of miles wide and just as deep. There’s nowhere else to go, not with the rations we have.”

“Then, what are we supposed to do?” the man demanded as he gestured to the darkness beyond the trees. “Just hang around until we all end up like Baker?”

“We have a defensible position here,” Dawes replied. “Baker only got hurt because he ran off on his own. You’re all hunters, you’ve all dealt with harsh conditions, you’ve all encountered dangerous animals before. We’re not going to roll over and give up just because some of them are sick. We stick to the mission.”

“Baker was perfectly healthy less than twelve hours ago,” Daugherty added, wiping his hands on his handkerchief as he rose to his feet again. “Whatever this disease is, the onset is fast. I think we would know by now if anyone else was infected.”

“And whatever happened to him, it happened out there,” George added as he nodded to the treeline. “He must have come into contact with one of the diseased animals. Maybe a bite or a scratch.”

“The oddly rapid onset of decomposition coupled with the damage from the gunshot wounds makes it hard to say with any certainty,” the doctor replied. “I don’t see any obvious signs of an animal attack, but I can’t be sure.”

“We resume our work as normal tomorrow,” Dawes said. George usually respected the man’s decisiveness, but something told him that their leader was putting on blinders, as though the situation would return to normalcy if he just ignored the unnatural events that were unfolding around him. “Stay vigilant. Now that we know what we’re dealin’ with, we won’t be surprised again. I want twelve men guardin’ the camp at all times. We’re down a man, but two teams of six and one of five can continue to scout out the area and map its resources. Furs, good timber, coal, gold. We ain’t leavin’ until we have a thorough report for the Company.”

That seemed to satisfy most of the group, the men nodding and muttering to one another.

“For now, return to your posts,” Dawes added as he started off towards the tents. “We’ll resume the guard duty shifts. I need a few volunteers to help me bury Baker.”

“Ain’t he gettin’ a service?” Sam asked, taking off his hat and holding it against his chest as he glanced down at the body.

“Maybe in the morning,” Dawes replied. “I don’t want anyone out in the fog for too long.”

***

 

The whole party attended the service the next morning. Baker had been buried some distance from the camp in a shallow pit, his grave marked only by a pile of rocks that had been stacked on top of it in lieu of a headstone. The more spiritual among them said a few words and blessings, but it didn’t feel like much of a send-off.

George hadn’t known the man very well, but he had shared a few friendly conversations with him. It was odd to think that he had died, and in such an undignified way. Death was a reality of life on the frontier. Being killed by exposure, a wild animal, or unfriendly natives were all possibilities that hunters contended with on a daily basis. While George had been anticipating that there might be deaths during the expedition, the manner of Baker’s passing was disquieting, to say the least.

They were not afforded much time to grieve, as there was business to be taken care of. Dawes seemed to be rushing the men through their tasks, but the faster they accomplished their mission, the sooner they could leave this tainted forest. Their original plan had been to continue heading West through the foothills, maybe even reaching the far shore of the continent, but nobody much liked the prospect of heading even deeper into the woods. They were only a day or two’s walk from the plains, so the option to turn around was still there if it really became necessary. Instead, they would try to find resources enough to satisfy the Company, and if that failed, they might have to trek deeper…

George was assigned to the same group as before, with Sam, Doyle, Smith, and Meyer accompanying him. They were a man down without Baker, but Dawes shuffled the hunters around and assigned a sixth member to their group, a man named Marshall. That left eleven men to defend the camp while three teams of six ranged out to scout the area, but that should be enough to ward off wayas.

They loaded up with gear and supplies, intending to spend as many as a few days out on their own, wanting to cover as much ground as possible. The party had been hoping to supplement their supplies of dried meat, flour, and beans with wild game, but they hadn’t encountered anything so far that wasn’t diseased. They were still optimistic, but rationing what they had for the time being was a sensible precaution. There would be no more bread. They would ration out the flour and use it only to thicken the soups that would be the bulk of their diet until they came across some fresh meat. All of the men in the group had spent time in the wilderness, and all but a few were experienced longhunters, so this kind of lifestyle wasn’t unusual for them. Needless to say, the presence of the strange, infected animals raised the stakes quite a lot from a normal outing.

Laden down with his rucksack, George set off from the campsite in the company of his scout party, rifle in hand as he wound his way through the stout trees. During the day, the sun burned away much of the mist, and the darkness of the forest receded somewhat. One still couldn’t see further than two or three hundred feet in any direction, but it was far less oppressive, his mood seeming to lighten along with his environment.

“The first order of business is finding out whether the disease that infects the trees is isolated or widespread throughout the forest,” he explained as the group navigated around a fallen log that was being reclaimed by the moss and ferns. “There’s a wealth of timber here, but nobody wants dead, rotting lumber.”

“I’ve been noticing more dead trees now that you’ve pointed ‘em out,” Sam muttered as he walked along beside them. “It seems to be happenin’ in patches, almost like…the forest itself has mange.”

“Trees are one thing, but we need to secure a food source,” Doyle added. “That’s a more immediate concern. We found a dead hottah, which means there must be live ones, right?”

“I don’t know if we should be eating anything that we catch out here,” George replied, giving him a worried glance.

“You saw how quickly Baker turned,” Doyle continued. “Less than twelve hours, and I doubt it was sudden. Poor soul was probably losing his faculties for hours before he ended up in the state we found him in. My thinkin’ is that if we see an animal that looks healthy, it probably is. If we cut inside it and find black tar or a foul smell, we leave it alone.”

“We can’t just subsist on soup for the next few weeks,” Marshall added. The newcomer was dressed much like the rest of the men, all leather and fur, with an unkempt beard that he hadn’t shaved since leaving the Eastern shore. He was a rugged mountain man, his skin tanned by a lifetime of outdoorsmanship. “I say it’s worth the risk.”

George was clearly being overruled, but they had a point. Baker had started to decompose in the time between fleeing from the waya and wandering into the camp, so the window was a narrow one.

“Dawes said to head West,” George added, pulling his compass from his pocket to check that they were still walking in the right direction. “That’s going to take us much deeper into the forest, probably into the foothills at the base of the mountains.”

“Do you think things are gonna get better or worse the deeper we go?” Sam asked warily, George shrugging his shoulders in reply.

***

 

“This one is infected too,” George said, watching dark fluid seep from the trunk where he had scored it with his knife. He brought up his journal, making a note of it. He had drawn a crude map of the area and was marking off the patches of diseased trees where he found them, but no obvious pattern had jumped out at him yet.

“Is there any logic to it?” Sam asked, pausing to wipe his brow on his sleeve. They had been walking for the better part of the morning, and it would soon be time to take a break and get some lunch.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything linking the patches of diseased trees together,” George explained as he examined his map. “One would expect proximity to play some part, but that isn’t the case. That said, maybe the groundwater is carrying the disease, or perhaps an infection is spreading through the roots beneath the soil.”

“I found a clearing up ahead,” Doyle said as he came crunching through the undergrowth, gesturing behind him with a thumb. “We should take a break, get some food in our bellies.”

There were no objections, George closing his journal as he followed the rest of the group through a dry creek, eventually emerging into a small area that was mostly clear of trees. They began to build a campfire, arranging a circle of rocks, half of the men heading out to cut some kindling and firewood while the rest unpacked some of the gear.

Marshall packed the circle of stones with dead twigs and bundles of dry brush, then began to strike his flint and steel firelighter, blowing on the burgeoning flame to get it going. Meanwhile, George and Sam assembled a tripod from three suitably-sized branches and some cordage, strong enough that it could hold the weight of their cooking pot over the fire. They had to be freshly-cut greenwood, as the moisture in the still-living branches would prevent them from simply catching fire when exposed to the heat for any length of time.

As Marshall stoked the fire, George began to unwrap some of the dried and salted meat, which was tied up in little cloth parcels with a piece of string. He wasn’t sure exactly what kind of meat it was, most likely tatanka. He sat down on a fallen log that they had dragged a little closer to the fire, setting a wooden cutting board on his knees, starting to chop up the long strips of meat into more edible chunks. They were brittle, sometimes crumbling when he tried to separate them with his knife, but he did a good enough job. Sam had already filled their small cooking pot with water and suspended it above the licking flames, setting it to boil, so George scraped the meat into the iron vessel. It didn’t look like much right now, but it would expand somewhat as it soaked.

Next came the flour, which would be used to thicken the soup, preventing it from being too watery and insubstantial. He grabbed a few handfuls from their sack, tossing them into the pot, eyeballing the measurements. A little seasoning went the extra mile, so he rummaged through his pack, pulling out a small glass vial. It was mushroom powder, George upending the container into his hand, sprinkling a generous helping into the pot. He leaned over and began to stir it with a wooden spoon, watching the liquid change color as it bubbled. The scent soon attracted the other men, who took seats around the fire, watching hungrily as they made small talk.

“I didn’t figure you for a cook, George,” Sam said as he cleaned the barrel of his rifle. He was pushing a piece of cloth into it with the ramrod, scraping away any of the powder residue left from the last time it had been fired.

“I dabble,” George replied, raising the spoon to his lips to take a taste. “Back in Albion, we do most of our cooking in kitchens, but I picked up the craft pretty quickly when I arrived in the colonies.”

“What brought you out here?” Marshall asked from the other side of the fire. “You seem like an educated man to me, well-spoken. What made you leave everything behind?”

“As much as my professors struggled to beat down any kind of enthusiasm or wanderlust, it seems they failed,” he replied with a smirk. “I grew weary of reading about adventures and exotic lands as second-hand accounts from journals and papers. I wanted to go somewhere that I could make the discoveries myself. That’s the main reason I signed up for this expedition, I suppose. It’s a chance to go where nobody has gone before, to catalog new plants and animals, maybe get my own name in a journal one day.”

“Looks like you got more than you bargained for,” Marshall replied, the men chuckling around the campfire.

“You may be right,” George conceded, taking the comment in good humor. “I was betting on having an animal or a tree named after me, but I’m not so fond of the idea of being the man who discovered a brand new plague.”

The soup was ready, and the men offered their bowls to him, George spooning a generous helping into each of them before filling his own. The meal had come out perfectly. The meat had taken on some water to make it a little more substantial, the flour had given the soup some body, and the addition of the mushroom powder added some extra flavor. They had been walking all morning, and hunger made the soup all the more palatable.

“Well, I have to admit,” Marshall began as he lifted the rim of his bowl to his mouth to take a drink from it. “You make a fine soup, Mister Ardwin.”

“What about you, gentlemen?” George asked. “What brought you all out here?”

“I expect we all have similar reasons for comin’ out here,” Marshall replied. “Most of us are hunters by profession. We go out into the wilderness, we track down whatever game we can, and we sell the meat and furs. It’s a hard life, but it gives us a lot of autonomy. We’re free to wander the land as we please. Problem is,” he continued, taking another drink from his bowl. “One bad season, and you’re destitute. You miss that big hottah, you don’t bring in enough furs, that means no food on the table for you and your family. A big company contract like this means a steady wage and a big payout at the end of it.”

“If you make it back in one piece,” Sam added, fishing a morsel of meat out of his soup with his fork.

“A contract like this means I can pay off my debts,” Smith said. “I can maybe live off the paycheck for a few years, spend some time with my wife rather than being away for six months out of the year.”

“I don’t really have anything waiting for me back East,” Meyer said, leaning over to stoke the fire with a long branch. The hot embers shifted, sending bright sparks floating up into the air. “I just wanted to see what was out here, maybe stake a claim on some good land of my own, set up a homestead.”

“Why so far from civilization?” George asked.

“Some folks feel safer havin’ Army forts all over the place, havin’ tax collectors coming knockin’, but I sure as hell don’t.”

“At some point in time, the whole continent will be tamed,” George continued. “What will you do then?”

“Guess I’ll just stay ahead of it for as long as I can.”

***

 

“There are definitely more dead trees out here,” George said, pausing to examine another of the diseased plants. These were practically rotting where they stood, more of that black fluid seeping out of them wherever the bark was broken, staining the ground beneath them. Even the ferns and moss were tainted, blackened and wilted, the mushrooms that grew between their roots some foul-smelling breed that George had never seen before. They were just as black, and they let out clouds of noxious spores whenever someone trod on one.

“It’s like the land itself is sick,” Sam said, scanning the area with his rifle at the ready. “You can feel it in the air, like it’s somehow…heavy.”

“Feels like we’re being watched,” Meyer muttered, pausing at the head of the group. “Isn’t this proof enough for Dawes that we shouldn’t go any further?”

George opened his journal, making another mark on his map.

“The pattern is starting to show,” he replied, his eyes fixed on the page. “The further West we go, the more sickness there is, the more the forest changes. If we keep going, maybe we’ll find the source, something that might explain what’s happening here.”

“Do we want to?” Sam asked, turning to glance at him.

“Yeah, I don’t share your academic interest,” Meyer added.

“I vote we keep going,” Marshall said. “No reason to turn back with nothing to show for it. You heard what Dawes said, we ain’t going anywhere until we have something that’ll satisfy the Company. The faster we get that done, the faster we can get the hell out of here.”

There were a few nods from the other men, and it seemed like the objections had been overruled.

“I don’t think we could circle around it if we wanted to,” George added as he gestured to his map. A few of the men crowded around him to peer over his shoulder. The map was crude, but it showed a few landmarks, enough for them to get their bearings. “We’re approaching the foot of this mountain here,” he said, pointing to it. He glanced up, able to see its snowy peak rising through the canopy in the distance. “It seems to be concentrated here.”

“Could something from the mountain be causing it?” Sam wondered.

“No idea,” George said with a shrug.

“Come on, no sense dawdling,” Marshall said as he waved them on.

***

 

Dusk had fallen, the sky growing darker, that obscuring fog rolling in over the ferns in a carpet of ghostly white again. It swirled around their feet as they marched, the shadows cast by the full moon creating pools of pale light where it bled through the canopy. There wasn’t much of one out here. Most of the leaves had been shed from the naked branches, as though they were in the midst of a harsh winter. That wasn’t the case, however. They had been coming across trees that hadn’t yet succumbed to the disease until a few hours ago, their leaves still verdant, their roots and bark still providing a home for flourishing mosses and fungi.

“I feel like it’s about to start snowin’,” Sam grumbled. He had draped the woolen blanket he used for sleeping over his head and shoulders for extra warmth, securing it around his waist with a length of cordage to form a kind of poncho. George was considering doing the same, the biting cold was creeping in through his clothes.

“We should find a place to make camp,” Smith suggested. “I need to warm myself by a fire pretty soon, or I feel like I’m gonna start losing fingers.”

After scouting around for another half hour or so, they found a suitable place. The forest was dense here, and there were no clearings that they could find, but they would be able to string up their shelters between the trunks.

They suspended the oilskin tarps that they used as tents between the trees, passing ropes through the tie-out loops that were woven into the material, creating rudimentary lean-to shelters. They were attached to the nearby trunks in a rough triangle, with two ropes to hold them up and another to pull them outward to give them a little more headroom. They didn’t provide as much protection as the tents, but they would shield them from the wind.

Collecting firewood was a bit of a challenge in this area. An abundance of dead wood would usually be ideal, but the fallen branches here weren’t just dead, they were decaying. Sometimes they would pick up what looked like an ideal piece of kindling, only to have it practically disintegrate in their hands, turning into a foul-smelling dust. It had almost ceased to behave like wood, as if instead of sapwood, the trunks were filled with rotting meat. Still, they managed to get enough to start a fire, the six men huddling around its glow as they peered out warily at the dark woods.

“I haven’t seen any sign of any animals so far,” Sam said. “No tusk marks on the trees, no footprints, not so much as a chipmunk. Where the hell have they all gone?”

“Maybe they can sense the rot,” Meyer suggested, pulling his blanket tighter around himself. “Remember how the horses reacted when the tatanka was nearby?”

George suspended a cooking pot from the tripod that they had placed over the fire, starting to make another round of soup. Warm food would be a boon right now, even if he felt like he could barely move his stiff hands. How had it gotten so cold so quickly? It wasn’t the altitude – they weren’t nearly high enough yet.

When the soup was ready, he passed around the ladle, George able to feel the warmth of every mouthful sliding down into his stomach. Immediately, the men’s spirits were lifted, and they began to engage in more conversation as they ate.

The time soon came to turn in, George wrapping himself in his sleeping blanket as best he could. Usually, one would fashion a makeshift bed from fallen leaves for some added comfort and insulation, but there were no leaves here. Cocooned in his blanket and exhausted from all the walking, it wasn’t all that difficult to get to sleep.

 

***

 

“What the fuck is this!?”

George was woken by raised voices, and he quickly untangled himself from his blanket, shuffling out from beneath his lean-to. Smith and Marshall were standing just outside the camp, looking at something up in the trees. George shared a worried glance with Sam as his friend emerged from beneath his oilskin tarp, more of their company roused by the ruckus. It was morning, the fog still lingering, the sun just starting to rise behind the mountain.

“What’s going on?” George asked, suppressing a yawn.

“Someone was here in the night,” Smith snapped, turning to look at him with wide eyes. George couldn’t tell if it was fear or anger, but something had rattled the man.

“There’s nobody else out here,” Sam said, walking over to join them. “What do you mean?”

He pointed up into a nearby tree, George’s blood running cold as he followed the man’s finger. Up in the branches was an object, clearly man-made, hanging from a piece of hairy string. It was fashioned from small twigs that had been assembled into a diamond shape, more sticks crisscrossing it to create an odd pattern, one that clearly held some kind of meaning to the person who had constructed it. If that wasn’t unnerving enough, it had been painted with what looked like dried blood, clumps of dark hair and what might be feathers glued to it. Now that he was looking more closely, the string might actually be woven from hair too.

“If one of you put that there as some kind of practical joke,” Marshall began, but nobody stepped forward.

“Look, there are more,” Smith said as he gestured to the forest floor. The group spread out to examine the area, finding that the whole camp had been encircled with them. Each one had the same design as the last, and they were all painted with the same macabre coating of blood and hair. Some were hanging from the tree branches, while others had been driven into the dark soil on stakes.

“There are natives out here,” Meyer hissed, glancing out into the forest. “That’s the only explanation. This is some kind of warning. They’re telling us to get out of their territory.”

“What kind of natives encircle a camp in the night and just leave a bunch of sticks behind?” Sam demanded, kicking over one of the fetishes. “I’ve had my share of encounters with unfriendly natives, and I ain’t never seen ‘em spare a man who was trespassin’ just ‘cos he happened to be asleep at the time.”

“What more encouragement do you people need?” Meyer asked, turning to face the rest of the group. “We have to turn back. We aren’t supposed to be here. Next time they sneak up on us in our sleep, they might decide to butcher us instead of leaving a warning.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Marshall said, kneeling to examine one of the strange icons. “We didn’t hear a thing, and they came right up to the camp. Why would they just leave?”

“We should be thanking our lucky stars, that’s what we should be doing,” Meyer added. “Come on, let’s pack up the tents and go. Wayas are one thing, but I’m not here to tangle with savages.”

“What if they’re friendly?” George suggested, shrugging his shoulders. “We brought gifts and barter items so that we could treat with any uncontacted tribes that we met.”

“Yeah, because leaving fetishes painted with blood is a friendly gesture,” Meyer scoffed. “If you want to walk out there and try to pacify them with beads and silver, be my guest, but I’m not sticking around.”

Everyone had been spooked by the strange artifacts, and even Marshall was starting to second-guess himself now. Even six men armed with rifles wouldn’t be enough to fight off a native war party, especially when they knew the lay of the land.

“I say we vote on it,” Meyer said. “Who wants to keep going?”

Nobody raised their hand, and as much as George was curious about the source of the corruption that was plaguing the forest, he didn’t either.

“Well, fuck it,” Meyer said as he started to untie the cordage that was holding up his tent. “What are we waiting for? Let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

***

 

They packed up their gear and headed back in the direction of the base camp, making good time, as they weren’t stopping to catalog trees or survey the area. Something seemed wrong, however. There was still an abundance of sick trees and blighted land, rather than the healthier forest they had trekked through to get there. It was day, but one could hardly tell. The same thick fog clouded the sky to the point that George could scarcely make out the treetops, casting the forest into shadow, the bitter cold making his teeth chatter.

“Hang on,” George said, stopping the party. “This isn’t right.”

“What’s wrong?” Sam asked, turning to glance back at him.

George rummaged in his pocket, pulling out his compass and opening the brass case. His heart sank as he watched the needle dart about erratically.

“My compass isn’t working, I don’t know what direction we’re heading in.”

“Damn it, Ardwin,” Marshall growled. “Did you sit on the goddamned thing or something?”

“No!” George protested, the man marching over to snatch it from his hand. He held it up, watching the needle spin. “It isn’t broken, it’s just not showing North anymore. Maybe…magnetic rock in the hills?”

“Well, this is just great,” Smith grumbled as he threw up his arms in a display of exasperation. “Now we’re lost.”

“We’re not lost,” George corrected, Marshall handing him back his compass rather apologetically. “The mountain was due West of us, which means that as soon as this mist clears, we can use it to get our bearings. Don’t worry.”

“The mist has been here since last night,” Sam said, glancing up at the treetops. “It’s not showin’ any sign of goin’ away.”

“Should we stay put?” Meyer asked. “Wait for it to clear up?”

“You can bet your life that we’re being tracked as we speak,” Marshall replied. “We need to keep moving.”

“Even if we don’t know where we’re going?”

The men began to argue amongst themselves, unsure of what course of action to take. George started to wander away in the meantime, waving his compass around like it was a dowsing rod, seeing if the needle would go straight. To his disbelief, it actually worked, the little needle springing into position.

“Hey!” he shouted, interrupting their argument. “I got something here!”

The men walked over to see what he was doing, Marshall leaning over his shoulder to get a look at the compass.

“Did you fix it?”

“I don’t think so,” George replied, scratching his head beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Unless we got really turned around, I don’t see how North could be in this direction. I think the needle is pointing to something else, and it’s nearby,” he added as he waved the compass. “Look, see it moving?”

“What the hell is it?” Sam wondered, peering into the trees ahead.

“Might just be a big lodestone,” George replied with a shrug. “We don’t have anywhere else to go, though.”

They began to walk in the direction the compass was pointing, following it between the trees, the way that the needle moved more and more when George turned letting him know that they were getting closer.

“Look,” Sam whispered, gesturing to the branches above. George stopped to glance up, seeing that more of the charms that the natives had left around their camp were hanging there on string made from dark hair, the bent twigs painted with gore. There were dozens of them, dangling from every visible tree like morbid yuletide decorations, staked into the ground at random intervals. The air seemed somehow thicker here, colder, like the very atmosphere was weighing down on George’s shoulders.

Through the fog, a dark shape came into view, a rank smell carrying on the wind. It wasn’t moving, however, and it seemed too large to be an animal. The men readied their weapons as they trudged through the dark mud, imbued with the foul tar that was leaking from the surrounding trees.

The object ahead of them looked like it might be a bonfire of some sort, a collection of broken branches and sticks all arranged in a cone, but he could only see its silhouette. As they approached, and it came into focus, George had to suppress the bile that rose in his gullet. At the center of the construct was a jagged, broken tree trunk, so decayed by the strange disease that it looked charred. A person had been nailed to it, or rather something that had once been a person, its hands raised above its head in a kind of morbid prayer. It was the upper half of a human torso, still covered in strips of dark, rotted flesh, the pale bones of the rib cage showing through. The end of its severed spine hung below it like a tail, its face little more than a skull, the open jaw still connected by remnants of sinew. There were wooden stakes hammered between the bones of its wrists to keep them raised, more through its chest, suspending the corpse on the broken trunk. Bent branches and sticks had been lovingly arranged around its base, reaching up towards it like a funeral pyre that had never been lit, all of them painted with the same blend of blood and hair that they had seen on the native charms. There were more strange shapes made from twigs, and what could only be runes carved into the wood, the care that must have been required to produce the grisly monument contrasting starkly with its cruelty.

“Oh, what the fuck?” Smith grumbled, George hearing one of them start to retch behind him.

“Goddamned savages,” Marshall added, expressing his disgust through anger. “Was this one of their own? Someone from another tribe?”

“We need to get the hell out of here,” Meyer said, shaking his head as he began to retreat backwards.

“Halt!” Marshall said with a commanding wave of his hand. “Don’t lose your nerve, man. Remember what happened to Baker?”

Meyer looked no less unhappy, his face as pale as a bedsheet, but Marshall’s warning was enough to stop him from fleeing into the woods.

George covered his mouth and nose, starting to trudge around the base of the structure, the ferns that had once grown there wilted and decayed. He could scarcely look at the body. Even years of dissecting animals and examining pickled creatures in jars hadn’t prepared him for such a sight.

“This is what the compass was pointing to,” he said, his voice muffled by his sleeve.

“Why?” Marshall demanded, sparing another disgusted glance at the staked corpse.

“It must be magnetic,” he replied. “Maybe…maybe they piled lodestones in there somewhere. Maybe they think there’s something sacred about them.” It wasn’t much of an explanation. He wasn’t even convincing himself. “If there are more of these pyres nearby…”

“That’s what was throwing off the compass,” Marshall whispered, turning to watch the surrounding trees warily. “Just what the fuck are these savages doing out here?”

“Isolated populations can develop all sorts of strange customs,” George began. “For all we know, they might believe that staking out their dead on trees will bring the rains, or maybe that sacrificing whoever draws the short straw will confer some kind of blessing from whatever deities they worship.”

“This don’t look like that,” Sam added, walking up to the base of the pyre. “Somethin’s wrong here. Don’t y’all feel that? Like…it’s sappin’ all the warmth out of the forest. I feel like I’m breathin’ molasses, the air’s so heavy.”

“Still want to see if they’ll give us safe passage in exchange for a few shiny beads?” Meyer asked, George rolling his eyes in response.

“We should take him down,” Sam added, slinging his rifle over his shoulder as he prepared to climb up the mound of branches. “Give him a proper burial.”

“Why in the hell would we do that?” Meyer snapped.

“Just help me, would you?” Sam asked.

“We wouldn’t even be here if we’d stayed put like I said,” Meyer continued, another argument starting to break out. The sound of raised voices echoed through the trees until Smith called out, the fear in his voice palpable.

“Shut up and look!”

George turned to glance at him, seeing that he had shouldered his rifle, the barrel pointing out into the trees as the man stood as still as a statue. He followed his gaze, drawing his own rifle when he saw what had Smith so rattled.

Standing perhaps a hundred feet away, just visible through the mist, was a figure. This was no shambling corpse, it was a stout man, standing upright as he peered back at the group. He wore only a loincloth that hung down between his legs, made from some kind of tanned leather, his head adorned with an elaborate wreath. It perched atop his mane of dark hair like a crown, bent sticks and what might be pieces of antler jutting up into the air, decorated with feathers. His already ashen skin was painted with what might be some kind of white peat, creating a cracked layer that adhered to his body, giving him a ghostly appearance.

The men formed a firing line, three of them kneeling, the other three standing over them as they stared the stranger down. Their display must have come off as aggressive, even to someone who had never seen a rifle before, but they weren’t taking any chances.

“What’s he doin’?” Sam whispered, training his sights on the native.

“I dunno,” Smith replied, keeping his voice low. “He’s just standin’ there lookin’ at us.”

“We must look as strange to him as he does to us,” George added. “Careful now, we don’t want to frighten him…”
“Frighten him,” Meyer scoffed. “God forbid we should make him feel uncomfortable.”

The native reached into a pouch that was hanging from his leather belt, producing a carved object. As he brought it to his mouth, George realized that it was some kind of instrument, maybe a whistle.

“Oh, maybe he’s going to play us a tune,” he said.

As the stranger blew into the whistle, it produced a sound that could only have been compared to the scream of a man being burned alive. It was one of the most horrible things George had ever heard, the noise piercing him, transcending simple alarm to imbue him with a kind of primal fear that he hadn’t felt even when facing down the waya.

A shot rang out, then a second, blood spraying from the native as the force of the impacts knocked him off his feet like he had been hit by a sledgehammer. In the distance, they heard more whistles, screams of agony surrounding them in every direction as the tribal’s companions answered his call.

“Run!” Marshall bellowed, Smith and Meyer reloading as they began to flee. Nobody had any idea where they were going. With the compass broken and the fog clouding the sky, all they could do was run away from the grisly monument that the natives had erected. They raced through the trees, stumbling in the dense underbrush, hopping over protruding roots and fallen branches. More whistles echoed through the forest, the natives coordinating, using the terrifying instruments to communicate at a distance.

“Ahead!” Sam shouted, dropping to a knee. Between two trees in front of them, another native bounded into view, a stone axe raised above his head as his face contorted into a snarl. He was clad in the same loincloth and headdress as the last, his ashen skin painted over with cracked, white paste. Sam leveled his rifle, a cloud of smoke billowing from the barrel as he fired, catching his target in the shoulder to send him spinning to the forest floor.

“They’re all around us!” Marshall yelled, pausing to loose another shot at a second assailant who approached from their left with some kind of knife made from flint. “Keep moving, or we’ll be overrun!”

They continued through the shadowy woodland, skidding to a halt as another native leapt out from behind a tree, brandishing his hatchet as he loosed a screeching war cry. He was close enough to Marshall to get a swing in, the alarmed hunter using his musket to block the blow, the stone blade biting into the wood. Marshall hit the man in the face with the butt of his rifle, breaking his nose, blood splattering across his pale face paint. He hit him again, sending him to the ground, then followed up with a jab from his bayonet. The triangular blade plunged into the native’s chest, the writhing man uttering a pained gurgle.

From behind them, another charged out of the swirling fog, Sam wheeling around to take off most of his head with a well-placed shot. He began to reload frantically, biting off the cap of a paper charge, refilling his pan. Even the best marksmen couldn’t get off more than three or four shots in a minute under ideal conditions. The natives would overwhelm them with their sheer numbers at this rate.

“Keep running!” Smith shouted.

“Where are we even going?” Meyer asked, hurrying along after him.

“I don’t care. Anywhere that isn’t here!”

They stumbled into a dry riverbed that provided them some cover, following it down an incline, the exposed roots of the nearby trees tripping them where they protruded from the muddy soil.

“Come on, this way,” Marshall said as he waved them forward from the front of the pack.

George was starting to tire, his lungs burning, adrenaline making him manic. His hands were shaking so much that he doubted whether he would be able to reload his rifle again if he had to fire it.

They proceeded perhaps another hundred feet down the riverbed, until another whistle rang out, the terrible screaming setting George’s heart pounding again. He glanced up at the bank, seeing that one of the natives had found them and was alerting his companions. George lifted his rifle, the acrid smell of black powder filling his nose as he fired, the crack making his ears ring. The native was almost lifted off his feet, sent tumbling backwards, George staring at the spot where he had just been.

He had just killed a man…

Sam gripped him by the arm, pulling him along.

“Come on, George!” he panted. “We have to keep up the pace!”

George nodded, too shaken to really think much about what he was doing, his hand reaching into a pouch on his hip as he fumbled for another cartridge. It was so hard to run and reload at the same time, and he cursed as he spilled some of the powder, watching it fall to the dirt behind him. He struggled to pour the rest into the barrel, then pushed the lead ball inside, cursing again as he burned himself on the still-hot muzzle. As he jogged along, he tapped the butt of the rifle against the ground, then cocked the hammer as he shouldered it.

There was another battle cry as a native leapt off the top of the embankment, the spear that he was carrying pointed downward. He landed on top of Meyer, another cry of alarm and pain filling the air as the hunter was knocked to the ground, the stone tip of the weapon running him through from his neck to his ribs. George knew immediately that he was done for, even as a trio of shots sent the spearman collapsing beside Meyer in a twitching heap.

Blood seeped from Meyer’s mouth and nose as Sam and Marshall tried to lift him, but he was already limp, his eyes unfocused.

“We have to leave him!” Marshall exclaimed, Sam shaking his head adamantly.

“We can carry him outta here! I ain’t leavin’ him to be strung up like that poor soul we found on the tree!”

“There’s no choice!”

“Fuck!” Sam bellowed, aiming his rifle at Meyer. He put a bullet through the man’s heart, then continued on, stepping over the two prone figures.

George hurried after the group, giving Meyer one final glance as he skirted around his bloodied body. George had come here to explore, he hadn’t come to fight in a war. What the hell had he gotten himself into?

As they rounded a bend in the riverbed, a chorus of shouts rose above the sound of their own heavy breathing, George looking up to see half a dozen white-painted braves sliding down into the muddy channel maybe fifty feet ahead of them. They were brandishing stone axes, knives, and spears. Immediately, the hunters formed a firing line, George joining them as he let off another shot that struck the lead native in the chest. His comrades shoved him out of the way as he fell, charging with their weapons raised, their eyes wild with a kind of fury that George would never have attributed to a person. They were frenzied, relentless, showing no restraint or mercy.

Three more of them fell, but enough remained standing that they were able to close in, scattering the group as they fought hand to hand. George was no soldier, and he retreated as one of the natives swung a hatchet at him, stumbling over a root. The brave watched him with wild eyes, passing his hatchet between his hands, pushing George back to separate him from the group. The others were too busy fighting for their own lives, rifle butts and bayonets against knives and spears, another shot ringing out.

George was forced up the embankment and into the cover of the trees, his pursuer driving him on, loosing an almost gleeful battle cry as he gave chase. George heard Sam calling his name, but it was too late, he was separated from the others. Having already fired his rifle and being unable to reload, he parried the swipes from the stone axe with his weapon as best he could, but he was on the defensive. He turned, fleeing through the woods, winding between the dark trunks. He had no idea where he was going, panic and adrenaline overtaking him, the sound of his pursuer’s footsteps all that he could focus on.

The brave was toying with him, perhaps sensing that he was no warrior, taking pleasure in the thrill of the chase. George found himself on the other side of a large tree trunk, circling around it as the cackling native matched his movements, lunging at him with the stone weapon. George watched as he reached for his whistle, giving it a blow, the blood-curdling wail sure to attract reinforcements to his location.

George’s fear ebbed, a sudden steely resolve overcoming him. He would either kill this man or be killed by him. It was do or die.

Using his bayoneted rifle like a spear, he jabbed at the native, but the man danced out of his reach. As though encouraging him, he skipped back a few paces, George leaving the cover of the tree to follow. With the next jab, the native caught the barrel in one hand, tugging George off-balance as he raised his axe in the other.

A sudden whistling sound interrupted their fight, followed by a dull thud. George looked up to see the tail end of an arrow jutting from the top of the native’s head. His jaw slackened as he released his hold on the barrel of the gun, his eyes losing their focus, George retreating as he watched his adversary slump to the ground at his feet.

Something heavy dropped down from the branches into the undergrowth behind him, George wheeling around, but too late. His feet were kicked out from under him, and he landed hard on his ass, an arm wrapping around his neck to trap him in a chokehold. He was dragged backwards across the forest floor, reaching up to claw at the arm, struggling to escape its grasp. Leaves rustled as he was pulled into a nearby bush, George seizing up as he felt a knife against his throat, a gloved hand covering his mouth to muffle his voice. He stayed as still as a statue, too afraid to even breathe.

Don’t make a sound,” a hushed voice whispered in his ear.

He heard more heavy footsteps in the undergrowth, peering through the obscuring leaves to see three more natives come jogging into view. They noticed their fallen comrade immediately, but they didn’t rush to his aid. Instead, they checked the area, their crude weapons in hand as they searched for signs of their quarry. One of them came so close to the bush that George was certain he was about to be discovered, but he did as his captor demanded, holding his breath so as not to give himself away.

After a few minutes, they left, dragging their dead compatriot through the ferns behind them. George’s captor waited a few minutes longer, then slowly withdrew their hand from his mouth, keeping the blade at his neck.

“If I release you, do you promise to be silent?” they asked. Now that he wasn’t frozen with terror, George noted that it was a woman’s voice, soft and breathy. “Do as I say, or you risk drawing them back.”

He let himself relax, gently nodding his head, the blade leaving his throat. Was this person his savior, or had he fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire? Slowly, he turned to look over his shoulder, seeing a cloaked figure staring back at him through the dense foliage. She was wearing a long hood that cast her face into shadow, obscuring her features. It had two holes in the fabric through which a pair of horns protruded. They were swept-back, following the curve of her head, a few subtle branches reminding him of the antlers of a small deer. It must be a headdress, not dissimilar from those worn by the natives. Try as he might, he couldn’t make anything out beneath the dark shadow of her cowl.

She stood, sheathing her knife somewhere beneath her cloak, extending a hand.

“Come,” she insisted. “We must leave this place. They will not stop until they find you.”

Her accent was so odd, and George couldn’t place it. English was certainly her second language, but what her first might be, he had no idea. Was she a colonist who had somehow beaten them across the plains? Someone from Ruthenia who had landed on the Western shore of the continent and traveled inland?

He took her hand, and she helped him to his feet, the two of them stepping out from the cover of the bush. Now that he could get a better look at her, he could see that she was around five feet tall, maybe a foot shorter than he was. She was wrapped in a green cloak that covered most of her body, made from what looked like some kind of hemp or sackcloth. It was tied at the front with wooden toggles to keep it closed, the hem reaching down to her knees. His eyes widened as he saw her legs.

They were slender, far moreso than those of a person, jointed at the heel like those of a deer that was standing on its hind legs. In place of feet, she had a pair of dainty, cloven hooves, balancing on them like a person might stand on their toes. They were covered over with a thin, velvety coat of reddish fur, patterned with white spots.

George took a step away from her, not sure what to make of the stranger, his hold on the barrel of his rifle tightening. His new companion noticed, her hand slowly moving beneath her clothes, perhaps going for her knife.

George willed himself to relax a little. If she was going to hurt him, she would have done so by now, and she had allowed him to keep his weapon. As well as her knife, she had a bow carved from what might be willow slung over her shoulder, along with a quiver of arrows tipped with dark feathers.

“You’ve not seen my like before?” she asked, George shaking his head. “No matter. Follow if you want to survive this forest.”

“What of my friends?” he asked. “I can’t just leave them.”

“There will be a hundred warriors between you and them by now. Even if you could reach them, they are beyond your help.”

Another mournful scream from one of the whistles carried through the trees, George snapping his head around to look in that direction.

“See?” the woman asked. “They call more of their kind, like wayas howling at the moon.”

It didn’t look like George had much of a choice, so he nodded, starting to follow behind her as she strode off into the woods. She was remarkably light on her feet, almost like a ballerina standing on her toes, leaping deftly over fallen branches. She made George feel positively clumsy in comparison as he trudged through the ferns, his boots splatting in the mud. No wonder she could go unnoticed by the natives. She was practically silent, scarcely leaving a footprint behind her.

“Where are we going?” George huffed. She was fast, and he was exhausted from his scuffle, having trouble keeping pace with her.

“This place is corrupted,” she replied, not even pausing to look back at him as she sprang over a felled log. “I am leading you away.”

“Do you know what’s happening here?” he asked, pausing to climb over that same log. “Why the animals and trees are sick?”

“Do you not feel it in the air?” she asked, finally turning to look back at him. He still couldn’t make out her face, but her eyes caught the light for a moment, giving him a flash of emerald green. After the horrors he had witnessed in this forest, perhaps it was best that her face remain covered.

“What do you mean?” he replied, his brow furrowing.

She didn’t elaborate, continuing on, George following behind her.

***

 

They ran for what must have been hours, George’s lungs burning with the effort, his feet blistering. Even so, the cloaked stranger kept up her pace, flowing through the forest like a stream. He had no idea how she knew where she was going. Everything looked the same to him. Still, the blackened, blighted trees slowly began to give way to healthier woodland. The pervasive mist started to clear, sunlight bleeding in through the leafy canopy, the air somehow less oppressive. There were still patches of wilted trees here and there, but it was far less frequent.

“I haven’t heard one of those whistles for a while,” he panted, pausing to lean against a tree as he caught his breath. “Shouldn’t we stop for a moment?”

The woman looked around, then nodded her hooded head.

“We can stop for a time. They will not be able to track us this far.”

“I have to get something to eat,” George sighed, shrugging off his heavy pack. “I’ve been running all day. I feel like I’m about to collapse.”

The stranger watched curiously as he set down his gear, finding a clear area of the forest floor where he began to arrange rocks in a circle. She offered no help as he collected fallen sticks to use as firewood, simply observing from a short distance. He pulled his fire starter from his pocket, tapping the flint and steel together to create a spark on a piece of dry foliage, cupping his hands around it as he blew on it to get it going. Before long, he had a modest fire going, and he set about constructing a tripod for his cooking pot. He filled the vessel from his canteen, setting the water to boil.

Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for his companions, being the designated cook for the group had meant that he was carrying most of their food on his person. As he hung his iron pot from the tripod and began to slice up pieces of dried meat on his cutting board, the cloaked figure drew closer, watching from beneath the shadow of her cowl.

“What is that?” she asked.

“You’ve never seen salted meat before?” George said. “It’s just flesh that was dried in the sun, then salted to preserve it.”

“You eat flesh?” she added, making no attempt to hide the disgust in her voice.

“Don’t you?” he replied, sliding the morsels of meat into the bubbling pot. He added some handfuls of flour and some dried beans, along with some brown mushrooms that he had collected some days earlier, starting to stir the bubbling pot.

The stranger inched closer, perhaps drawn by the scent, crouching on the other side of the campfire. She didn’t say anything more as he finished cooking, George pouring some of the soup into his tin cup, pausing before bringing it to his mouth.

“Do you want some?” he asked. “I can fish out the meat for you if you don’t want to eat it. It’s just mushrooms, beans, and flour.”

“Flour?”

“Just mashed-up grains,” he explained. “It’s made from plants, it’s fine.”

She seemed skeptical, but he picked out the floating pieces of meat, then passed her the tin cup. As she reached out to take it, he noticed that her gloved hands had five fingers, just like his. She brought it beneath the shadow of her hood, taking a tentative sniff, then raised it to what he assumed must be her lips. He heard her take a sip, then a second, seeming to enjoy it.

As she ate, he reached into one of his pockets, pulling out his compass. He flipped open the ornate, brass case, watching the needle dart around erratically. His silent companion set down the cup on the forest floor, then shuffled over to his side of the campfire, peering down at the shining object.

“What is it?” she asked. From this angle, the sunlight that filtered through the branches above shone on her cheek, revealing a sliver of lily-white skin. She wasn’t completely covered in fur, then…

“It’s a compass,” he explained. “It’s a magnetic device that always points to the North, letting me know which direction I’m heading in. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do. See this little needle?” He passed it to her, and she turned it over in her hands as she examined it, more interested in the floral patterns that were engraved into the brass than the face. “It shouldn’t be spinning like that, it should be pointing in one direction,” he continued. “Something about those…pyres that the natives have set up is interfering with the mechanism…”

“Natives?” she asked, glancing up at him. “They are not native.”

“No?” he wondered, cocking an eyebrow at her. “What do you know about them?”

“They came from elsewhere, from outside this place,” she replied cryptically. “When they arrived, the blight followed after them. I thought that you and yours were their kinsmen, but…you are not. Where have you come from?”

He considered explaining how he had journeyed across the ocean from another continent but thought better of it, surmising that she wouldn’t understand such grand concepts.

“My name is George,” he said, enunciating the name very carefully as he patted his chest for emphasis. “My people and I came from the East, from across the plains. From outside this forest.”

“You look like them,” she said, looking him up and down. “But your dress is different, and you fight with those,” she added as she pointed to the rifle that was leaning up against the tree nearby. “What manner of magic is that?”

“It’s not magic,” he chuckled. “This is a firearm. It uses black powder to propel a lead ball that…never mind,” he said as she cocked her head at him. “It kills with fire.”

“I have been watching you,” the stranger added, George trying not to look as disturbed as her admission made him feel. “There are few of you, yet you slew many of their number. Are you warriors?”

“No, no,” he replied hastily. “We’re explorers, we traveled here to see what lay West of us. We didn’t come to pick a fight.”

“I saw two of them slain by your own hand,” she said, turning her eyes back to the compass. “You killed them with smoke and fire.”

“Can I ask you something?” he began, quickly changing the subject. “How is it that you can talk as I do? You know my language, have you met people like me before? Are we not the first ones to arrive here?”

“I don’t know your language,” she chuckled, returning the compass to him. “You know mine.”

“Uh…what?”

She didn’t elaborate, returning to the other side of the fire, picking up the tin cup again.

“Listen,” he continued, the stranger resuming her meal. “I need to get back to my people. I’m the only one with a map, the only one that can guide them. Understand? They’re in danger, and I have to help them. Can you take me back?”

She paused, smacking her lips.

“Not through that,” she replied, nodding in the direction they had come. “Their blight saps my magic, makes me weak.”

“Magic, right,” George sighed. Whatever this little creature was, she was a primitive, superstitious. If he wanted to get anywhere, he would probably have to play along.

Now finished with her soup, she made for his pack, starting to rummage around inside it.

“H-hey,” he protested, shuffling closer. “Careful with that!”

She began to pull out random items, examining them one by one. She opened the leather pouch that contained his fountain pens and ink, pulling one of the pens from its leather loop, holding it by both ends as she brought it up to her face for closer inspection.

“It’s a pen,” he explained. “You know, for writing.”

Her next target was one of his ink bottles, the hooded stranger fumbling with the cork. George moved to swipe it from her hands, but she scurried out of his reach, now certain that it was something worth investigating.

“Watch out, don’t spill it,” he warned. “If you get that on your clothes, it won’t come off.”

She popped the cork, then gave it a sniff, turning her head away in disgust.

“It’s not food,” George explained. “Come on, you’re going to break something…”

Next, she found his journal, turning it over in her hands curiously. She discovered that it could be opened, starting to leaf through the pages, the way that her hooded head was moving back and forth letting him know where her attention was focused.

“That’s very important,” he said, knowing better than to try and take it from her now. “Please don’t tear it.”

“What are these?” she asked, turning the little leather-bound book so that it was page-up to him. She pointed to the looping cursive, perhaps not recognizing it as writing. Few native tribes that they had encountered on the continent had a writing system.

“It’s a record of my travels,” he explained. “We…we make markings on paper that tell a kind of story, one that others can then read for themselves.”

“Oh, runes,” she mumbled as she turned her eyes back to the book.

“You have writing?” he asked. She didn’t reply, turning the pages, fascinated by what she was seeing. When she turned the journal to face him again, it was open on the map that he had drawn, spread across two of the yellowed pages. There was the mountain peak, the plains, the Eastern forests that they had trekked through for weeks prior. On the next few pages were the more detailed maps of the woods, where George had done his best to plot out the patches of blighted trees.

“What is this?”

“That’s a map,” he explained. “It’s a drawing of everywhere I’ve been on my journey.”

She examined it again, cocking her head, her gloved fingers tracing some of the lines.

“You made this?”
“It’s my job,” he replied. “I’m a cartographer, I’m responsible for keeping track of where we’ve been.”

“That is why you need to return to your people?”

“Yes, exactly,” he said with some measure of relief. He was finally getting through to the obtuse creature. “They need me to find their way. Will you lead me back to them?”

“As I said, I cannot,” she replied as she snapped the journal closed.

“The magic, I remember,” he grumbled. “What if I told you that I have an item that can ward off their magic?” he added, spying an opportunity to play into her superstitions. She looked up at him, watching as he reached into a pocket on his pack. He withdrew one of the silver trinkets that the company had brought along in the hopes of using them as gifts to placate any natives they encountered. It was a pendant shaped like a flower, glinting as it reflected the firelight, turning slowly on its thin chain. “This is enchanted,” he continued, addressing her as he would a child. “It will ward off the blight if you wear it around your neck.”

The stranger reached out, and he placed it gently in the palm of her hand, the chain slowly coiling into a tiny pile. She withdrew it, examining the clasp for a moment before sliding it beneath her cloak to secure it around her neck. George waited with bated breath, wondering if his ploy had worked.

“You patronize me, but it is you who knows nothing,” she chuckled.

George rolled his eyes, the stranger retreating to her side of the fire to admire the pendant some more as he started to return his belongings to his pack. It seemed as though she had turned his lie around on him. He had a feeling he wasn’t getting that pendant back…

“So, what are you going to do with me?” he asked as he slotted his pen back into the loop in its leather case. “I can’t go anywhere on my own with my compass broken, and if you won’t take me back to my people, where are you leading me?”

“To mine,” she replied.

“To your people? Why?”

“You are different,” she explained, stowing the pendant beneath her cloak as she peered at him through the licking flames. “You know nothing of magic, and you have fought the Blighters, killed them with your fire.”

“Blighters?” he wondered, rolling the word over his tongue. “Is that what you call those things that attacked us in the forest?”

“You fought them and survived.”

“Only thanks to you,” he said. “Thank you, by the way. For saving my life.”

“We have never fought them head-on and won,” the stranger continued. “They are larger than we are, stronger, and those that fall return from the grave to fight anew.”

“The sickness,” George said, nodding his head. “One of our company was infected with the disease. It made him insensible, almost feral.”

“Not a disease,” she said as she shook her horned head. “It is a blight, a dark magic of inversion, one that strips the life from the living and gives them new purpose as a husk of what they once were. It is the will of a dark God, its insults carved into the very forest itself through decay and suffering.”

“The dead can’t rise again,” George replied, unwilling to humor that kind of foolishness. “The blight that you speak of is a disease, some kind of infection. It causes decay, yes, probably through some kind of gangrene.”

“If you know so much, then why do you need me to answer your questions?” she chuckled. “You have something that can help us. The elders will decide what to do with you when we get back.”

“What if I say no?” he asked, crossing his arms defiantly.

“Then, you can spend the rest of the journey being dragged along the ground after I bind you,” she replied as she tossed him the empty cup. He caught it, frowning at her as he dipped it into the still-bubbling cooking pot.

“Looks like I don’t have much of a choice in the matter,” he muttered as he took a sip. “You’re not going to nail me to a tree when we get there, are you?”

She peered at him from across the fire, George raising an eyebrow.

“You realize that I can’t see your face under that hood, right? I don’t know what expression you’re making.”

“I won’t nail you to a tree,” she sighed.

“Good to know,” he replied, taking another drink from his cup. “How far away is your…village? I suppose you must live in a village, right?”

“A few days’ travel,” she replied. “If you keep pace.”

“A few days?” he repeated, frowning at her. “My people might not even be there by the time I get back. What if they need my help?”

“There is more at stake here than you realize,” she replied, another cryptic comment that gave him no real information.

Tired of getting non-answers, George resumed eating his soup.

***

 

After resting for a little while, they resumed their trek, George following behind the strange creature as she danced through the forest. He was still in awe of her agility, the way that she scarcely seemed to touch the ground when she moved, his own footsteps thunderous in comparison. Now that he could actually see the mountain peak in the distance as it rose up over the treetops, he could tell that they were heading far to the North, much further than the initial scouting party had traveled. That meant that the basecamp must be somewhere to the South-West of where he was right now. Even if he managed to escape his captor, which seemed very unlikely, he would lose his way again once he returned to the blighted, foggy areas.

Curious, he pulled his compass from his pocket, opening up the brass case.

“Hey, it’s working again,” he muttered as he watched the needle point North.

“What?” the cloaked woman asked, stopping to look back at him.

“My compass,” he explained, brandishing it. “It started pointing North again. We must have traveled out of range of those pyres.”

“The monuments,” she muttered, nodding beneath her hood. “Bad magic.”

“About what you said earlier,” he began, stowing his compass again. “You said that the dead could rise, right? Why do you think that? Have you seen it with your own eyes?”

“Is that doubt I hear?” she chuckled, leaping over a babbling brook. “I thought you were so certain that the dead would remain so?”

“Listen, I’ve studied the natural sciences,” he replied as he hopped over the same brook with far less grace. “I believe in the natural laws, in chemistry, biology. There’s no mechanism known to my people that can revive the dead.”

“Not revive,” she said, wagging a finger at him. “To revive is to return to life. What returns is not the person who once was, nor are they alive. They are but a husk, animated by the blackest of magics, now playing host to the will of the Blighters.”

“But…you’ve seen this for yourself? You watched a dead man come back and start walking around?”

“I have.”

“How could you determine that they were actually dead? Did you check their pulse?”

“Why do you ask me questions only to then question my answers?” she complained, pausing by a moss-covered tree trunk. “Let me ask a question now. How does that work?” she asked as she gestured to the rifle on his back. “You said it was not magic?”

“Why are you so interested in my gun?” he wondered, unslinging it. “It’s not like you can’t fight those savages yourself. I watched you kill one with an arrow.”

“Arrows can puncture, blades can cut, but these are not effective against the risen dead. That weapon…it destroys, it dismembers. I found the blighted waya that your people killed,” she explained, the memory seeming to give her pause for a moment. “It was taken to pieces. Even in its rotted state, I could see the damage that had been done. Not even the risen can survive such injuries.”

“Alright,” he began, reaching into a pouch on his hip to withdraw a paper charge. “This called a charge. Inside it is a measure of black powder and a lead ball sized to fit snugly inside the gun barrel. That’s this long, iron tube here. The black powder reacts when ignited by a spark, creating an explosion that sends the lead ball shooting down the barrel at high speed. This flying ball is what kills, like a rock thrown from a sling, but tossed far faster. Do you have slings?”

“Yes,” she replied, nodding her hooded head. “How does one obtain this black powder?”

“It’s just a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter,” he replied. “It’s chemistry, not magic.”

“Can you teach us to make it?” she asked.

“The black powder? Maybe, I know a little chemistry. Not the rifles, though. I’m no gunsmith, and something tells me that you don’t have metalworking.”

“Metal working?” she repeated, cocking her head curiously.

“The ability to forge metals, like iron or bronze, to shape them into tools. The knife that you put to my throat was stone, wasn’t it?”

“Obsidian,” she replied with a nod.

“Yeah, well, obsidian won’t stand the force of black powder. The barrel needs to be made from iron to contain the force of the blast, which is what propels the lead ball. If it was made from a weaker material like wood or stone, it would just split open like an overcooked sausage.”

“What’s a sausage?”

“Never mind…”

The sun was starting to set now, painting the sky in shades of pink and orange. George was glad to be able to see it again. He had spent far too long under a ceiling of oppressive fog.

“We should make camp soon,” he said. “It’s getting dark.”

“If you wish,” the cloaked woman replied. “But it will slow our progress.”

“Were you expecting to run all night?” he chuckled, but the way that she turned to glance back at him suggested that might have been her intention.

“Come,” she said, gesturing into the trees. “I hear a stream this way.”

“You hear it?” George repeated incredulously. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Then your ears are dull. Come.”

He followed her through the woods until they did, in fact, come across a small stream with a bed of smooth rocks that was winding its way through the forest floor. He stopped to refill his canteen, taking a long draw of the cool mountain water. It tasted so fresh, and he could feel it sliding all the way down into his stomach. He no longer feared that the blight might be present in groundwater or tree roots, as they hadn’t come across any signs of decomposing trees for hours. Wherever she was leading him, it was taking them far from the corruption that he had seen further West.

His hooded companion crouched beside him on her strange, slender legs, cupping her hands to drink from the stream directly. When her initial thirst was sated, she reached beneath her green cloak, producing a waterskin. She held it in the stream, letting the natural flow of the water fill it.

“You didn’t tell me your name yet,” George said, catching another glimpse of her face beneath her cowl as she turned to look at him. The golden rays of the sunset penetrated the canopy ahead, lighting up a pair of full lips that were human enough, along with a dark nose that was distinctly animal. It was situated where a person’s nose would be, but the bridge ended in something more akin to a deer or a cat, shiny and black. Her eyes were still in shadow, and she quickly moved her head again when she realized that he could see her. Why?

“We do not let outsiders know our names,” she replied. “Nor do we show them our faces.”

“Alright,” he replied with a shrug. “What should I call you, then?”

“Call me whatever you like,” she said dismissively.

“Alright, Legs.”

Legs?” she scoffed.

“That’s all I can see,” he added, gesturing to them. He took another drink his canteen, unable to see her expression but feeling safe in the assumption that she was scowling at him.

***

 

George set up his tent as Legs watched him curiously, making a simple lean-to that was strung up between two trees. When that was done, he made another campfire, huddling close to it as the temperature began to drop. The newly christened Legs seemed indifferent to the dropping temperature.

“Don’t you have a tent?” George asked, wondering how she was expecting to sleep out in the wilds. “You’re carrying almost nothing, at least that I can see.”

“My cloak suffices,” she replied.

“What, even if it’s blowing a gale and snowing?”

“It holds an enchantment that repels both water and cold.”

“And you’ve put that to the test?” he scoffed, reaching over to stoke the fire.

“Yes.”

“If you say so.”

“Why do you show such disdain for magic?” Legs asked. “You mock me whenever I mention it.”

“Because I don’t believe it’s real,” he replied as though it should be obvious. “Belief in magic is just a form of superstition, and superstition is born of ignorance.”

“If that is true, then how do you explain the risen dead?” she demanded.

“I’ve seen no indication that they’re risen dead. My belief is that some form of contagious disease afflicts them.”

“You believe only what your eyes see?” she asked, George nodding. “Imagine for a moment that you are guiding a blind man. You describe the world to him, tell him where to step, warn him of obstacles. Yet, this man does not believe you, no matter how well-intentioned your advice might be. He cannot see the world for himself and so rejects it.”

“An apt metaphor,” George admitted, nodding his head. “But I wasn’t blind last I checked.”

“You are blind in other ways,” she chuckled, apparently certain that she had outsmarted him. “I sense the currents of magic that flow through living things, I feel their warmth prickle my skin, yet you seem oblivious to it. You were so close to one of the Blighter altars that you could have touched it, yet you did not feel its darkness? Could you not sense the evil that emanated from it?”

George thought for a moment as he peered into the crackling flames.

“There was…a weight to the air, a kind of…disquiet. It’s nothing that couldn’t be explained by my own emotional state,” he added hurriedly. “The fog boxed us in, obscured our vision, which could have made me feel claustrophobic. Nobody feels at ease when they’re faced with a grisly scene of human sacrifice, either.”

“You accuse me of ignorance, but yours is willful,” she added. “Still, you have clever tools enough to compensate,” she said as she glanced at the rifle that was lying beside his pack.

“You know,” he continued, noting where she was looking. “I could get you guns if you wanted them – hundreds of them, thousands if need be. You only need take me back to my people. From there, we could take word back to the colonies, and we could return with an army strong enough to wipe out every last Blighter. If you thought my small company impressive, imagine a hundred cavalrymen armed in such a way. We trade guns with other native tribes in exchange for goods like furs often enough, we could outfit your village with weapons enough that every man and woman could be armed.”

“You know I cannot go back that way,” she replied, reaching beneath her cloak. Silver glinted as she brandished the pendant that she had stolen, her tone becoming more playful. “Not even with your enchantments.”

“Alright, alright,” he sighed. “You can’t blame me for trying.”

“Your foolishness is endearing,” she replied. “Even if you speak the truth, such matters are the domain of the village elders, not mine.”

“So, we’d have to go to your village anyway.”

She nodded, the firelight reflecting off her green eyes beneath the shadow of her hood for a moment.

“Will you cook more?” she asked, the sudden request making George chuckle.

“Oh, so you did like the soup I made earlier? I suppose I could whip something up. I should warn you, though,” he added as she peered across the campfire at him. “I’ll have to ration my food if I’m to be away from my camp for several days. I was carrying most of the supplies for my band of six, but we only expected to be away for a short while.”

“You shared your food with me,” she said as she rose to her feet, her cloven hooves rustling the ferns. “By rights, I owe you.”
“But…you’re not carrying anything,” he said as he watched her wheel around, her cloak flaring out. “Where are you…”

Legs bounded off into the dark forest, quickly disappearing from view, leaving George alone beside the fire. The impulse to run now that she was out of sight was there, but he suppressed it. If his captor felt confident leaving him alone, it was either because she trusted him to know that he wouldn’t be able to make his way back without her help, or she was confident that she could apprehend him again easily enough…

He waited for perhaps an hour, starting to wonder if she was coming back at all. Her sudden reappearance startled him – she could be so quiet when it suited her – his companion emerging from the trees at the edge of the wavering firelight. She was carrying a pair of rabbits in her hand, the unfortunate cottontails dangling limply from their long rear legs as she approached. She lowered them to the ground beside him, George glancing up at her.

“That was fast,” he marveled. “What, did you commune with the forest spirits or something?”

“No, I just know how to find rabbits,” she replied as she crouched beside them. He noticed that she never seemed to kneel. Perhaps it was uncomfortable for someone with legs like hers. As he unsheathed the knife from his belt, intending to skin them, she reached out to stay his hand.

“Won’t you thank them first?” she asked.

“Thank them?” he asked, cocking his head. “Why?”

“They give their flesh to you as sustenance,” she explained. “Their lives end to prolong yours.”

“They’re rabbits,” he replied, confused. “They’re also dead rabbits.”

“Have you no respect for other living things?” she complained, keeping hold of his wrist. Clearly, this was a sticking point for her.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “Er…thank you, rabbits, for feeding us. I hope there are lots of carrots in the bunny afterlife.”

She seemed to accept his rather mocking gratitude, letting him resume his work, George skinning the rabbits with practiced ease. He found two Y-shaped sticks, then drove them into the ground on either side of the campfire, suspending two more sticks between them to act as a spit. He gutted the carcasses, then began to roast them over the flames, turning them periodically to ensure that they cooked through.

“So, why thank your meal before you eat it?” he asked as he stoked the fire with a branch. “Is that something your people commonly do?”

“We are all connected,” she explained. “Tree, insect, animal. One must die for the rest to survive, and that sacrifice should be acknowledged, appreciated. We give thanks, and in doing so, the dead might rest.”

“And what of the Blighters?” he asked, turning the rabbits again as the flames licked at their pink meat. “What’s their place in that cycle?”

“They are an insult to life itself,” she replied, making no effort to mask the contempt in her voice. “They pervert both life and death to serve their own ends, making a parody of them as amusement for their contemptuous God.”

“Tell me more about them,” George pressed, leaning closer to the fire. “Where did they come from? You corrected me when I referred to them as natives, you told me that they didn’t belong here.”

“My ancestors have lived in these forests since time immemorial,” she explained, shifting her weight as though settling in for a long story. “We remain within their bounds, protecting them from outsiders, and they in turn grant us their protection. The magic of life has always been strong here.” George could see her eyes reflecting the firelight again from beneath the shadow of her hood as she stared into the flames. “The Blighters spread their corruption from the South, but what cursed land birthed them, none can say. You call it a disease, and though you are wrong, it does spread as such. The plants wilt, the trees become vessels of corruption, and the dead are raised as cruel parodies of their former selves. The Blighters eat their pain, feeding on cruelty, the offerings they make to their dark benefactor empowering them.”
“And, they’ve been spreading their influence through the forest?” George asked.

“Little by little, they push deeper into our lands, making the territory that they seize uninhabitable to us. We cannot tolerate the blight. It is antithetical to us, it poisons our spirits.”

George had to assume that she was using the word spirit in its most literal sense, referring to some kind of life force or soul.

“Didn’t you try to fight them off?” he asked, remembering how she had slain the Blighter who had been trying to kill him. “You’re not helpless, I’ve seen that for myself.”

“We tried, but we are not a warlike people, and fighting the Blighters is a game of attrition in which they will always triumph. They raise the dead to fight again, both fallen friend and foe, increasing their numbers even as we bring them down.”

“I can see how that would be an issue,” he mumbled. Even if he remained adamant that there was no way to revive dead tissue, a disease that turned friend to foe was difficult enough to contend with.

“They have gradually pushed us back to the villages at the foot of the mountain,” she continued, watching him rotate their dinner. “We feared the worst, but then, your kind arrived. You look like them, so I assumed that you would act like them, but you have no fealty to their God. You slew them with your black powder, returned the risen dead to their natural state, restored balance through destruction. We need that power if we are to outlast them.”

“I see,” he muttered, the scent of the roasting rabbits filling the air. “Then, my company and I have stumbled upon a war between two tribes. I’m concerned that you’re attributing more power to me than I actually have,” he continued, gently lifting the spit off the fire. He had his cutting board ready, and began to slice off pieces of meat with his knife. “Guns are effective, but I only have one, and I can’t teach you to make more. My company is near thirty strong, and perhaps we could make a difference if we all worked together, but I would need to explain the situation to them. I can’t guarantee that they’d agree to help.”

“My priority is bringing you to the elders,” she replied. “They will decide the next course of action. If it is their will that we treat with your company, then I shall find a way to make it so.”

“Well, that’s some positive news, at least,” he muttered as he finished cutting the meat into slices. “Would you fetch me the cooking pot, Legs?” he asked.

She did as he asked, walking over to his pack. He had come up with the nickname mostly to annoy her, and he was surprised that she hadn’t complained about it yet. She handed it to him, and he filled it from his canteen, hanging it from the same spit that he had used to cook the rabbits.

“You…would help us, then?” Legs asked hesitantly. “Even if your kin might not?”

“I’m not the sort to turn down a stranger in need,” he replied, setting the pile of cooked meat aside. “In truth, I’m starting to question why I came out here in the first place. I gave up a cushy life in Albion to run around the forest being chased by savages, all because of some juvenile thirst for adventure.”

Legs cocked her horned head at him, not really following what he was saying, but understanding his sentiment well enough.

“If you are truly kind, then the spirits will protect you,” she said confidently.

He stirred the pot, adding ingredients from his stash. There was more flour to thicken the stew, mushrooms, and beans. When it was close to done, he slid in the meat, not wanting to overcook it.

“I have something to share,” Legs said, reaching beneath her cloak. She produced a small parcel wrapped in some kind of large leaf, tied up with cordage. When she unwrapped it, he saw that it was some manner of flatbread, its pale beige color patterned with darker browns from the baking process. Legs tore it in two, handing half of it to George. It was softer and spongier than it had looked, and it seemed like it would soak up the soup quite well.

“Thanks,” he said, giving her an appreciative nod.

Once the soup smelled done, he poured some of it into a tin cup for himself, then handed a bowl to Legs. They were too occupied with eating to continue their conversation, as they had been walking all day, and they were both quite tired. The bread was soft and chewy, and it went down a treat, George wondering if the leaf that she had wrapped it in had somehow prevented it from going stale. She must have been in the forest for days, and he doubted that such a thing could be baked without an earthen oven. His own company had cooked bread by the fireside during their travels, and it didn’t hold a candle to this.

When they were done eating, George retired to his tent, the oilskin tarp angled to stave off the wind that blew through the trees. He wrapped himself tightly in a cocoon of blankets, wriggling to drive himself a little deeper into the bed of fallen leaves he had made. He was still skeptical about Legs’ ability to withstand the cold as she huddled between the raised roots of a nearby tree, wrapping her cloak around herself tightly, some distance from the glow of the fire.

“There’s room enough for two under here, you know,” he said as he gestured to the empty space beside him. “You don’t have to get too close.”

She looked up at him from beneath her hood, then shook her head, settling into her chosen spot.

“Alright, suit yourself.”

 

***

 

George awoke with a hand over his mouth, his bleary eyes snapping open to see Legs crouching over him. It was still night, the dying light of the fire illuminating the camp in a dull glow.

“Quiet!” she hissed, glancing out at the trees. “Something has found us…”
Something?

A cry rang out through the forest, a large animal in pain, the eerie sound curdling George’s blood. Slowly, Legs removed her hand from his mouth, creeping quietly towards the campfire. She threw handfuls of dirt on the glowing embers, snuffing them out. The camp was plunged into darkness, only the silver light of the moon providing enough illumination to see by.

George struggled out of his blankets, watching his breath mist as he exhaled. Had it been this cold when he had gone to sleep? He glanced out into the woods, his eyes adjusting to the gloom, seeing that a wispy fog was rolling in over the ferns.

“What is it?” he whispered, but Legs held up her hand.

“Hush. There is something…out there.”

Had the Blighters been tracking them all this time? Legs had told him that was unlikely when he had suggested they make camp. Perhaps they really should have kept walking through the night.

He crept over to his pack, retrieving his rifle, starting to load one of the charges. It was hard to see it clearly in the dark, but he was practiced, the loud click of the hammer cocking making Legs snap her head around in alarm.

“Quiet!” she hissed, reaching for her bow. She nocked an arrow, her slender fingers pulling the string taut as she peered into the growing fog. It was rolling in thicker and faster now, seeming to sap all of the heat from the air as it went. George felt that same sense of weight on his shoulders, as though the atmosphere was growing heavier, claustrophobia nagging at him. Legs had called this magic, superstitious as she was, but could it just be fear?

Another cry rang out, sorrowful, like an injured creature begging for relief. It was somehow so much more horrible than an angry growl or a roar, conveying only despair, agony.

“What the hell is that?” he demanded, shouldering his rifle as he fought the primal urge to flee.

“Come,” she whispered, gesturing for him to follow. “We must leave the camp.”

He followed behind her as she bounded through the trees, the two of them taking refuge perhaps a hundred feet from the tent. They hide behind a thick trunk, peering out, now knee-deep in the swirling mist. George realized that he was sweating despite the cold, frigid droplets of it seeping down his back beneath his clothes.

He was startled by another wail, a bellowing sound that shook his bones, followed by the audible thud of a heavy footfall. Legs had far better hearing than he did, and he followed her gaze as best he could, spying a dark shape moving between the trees some distance away. It was still obscured by the fog, almost as though it was intentionally using it as cover, little more than a dark mass to George’s eyes. When it brushed against the trees, it shook their branches, the sound of footsteps and creaking preceding it. It was impossible to tell exactly how large it was, as he had no frame of reference, but it seemed to grow as it approached.

It was headed for the camp, walking parallel to them, what must be its head lowered to the ground. He could hear the huffing sound it made as it sniffed, tracking them like a bloodhound. It soon located the ring of stones that had served as their campfire, stepping into the small clearing, its proximity to the tent giving George an idea of its true size. It was massive, maybe nine feet tall at the shoulders, its posture hunched such that he couldn’t quite tell if it was bipedal or quadrupedal. Its head snaked out on a long neck, bringing it low to the forest floor, swinging around in a wide arc as it searched. Its body was covered in dark, shaggy hair, its neck sporting a long mane like that of a horse. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out more detail than that, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to.

The creature’s head pushed into the lean-to, and he watched as it sniffed around, casually snapping one of the ropes that secured the shelter to a nearby tree as it moved. It had horns, he realized, like those of a hottah. They protruded from its head, broken in places, draped with what might be moss or pieces of cloth.

The fog cleared for a moment, a sliver of moonlight pouring through the gap, illuminating the creature. George had to resist the urge to look away, his stomach knotting as he watched the thing lift its head to sniff the air.

It was an amalgam of flesh and bone, as though half a dozen large animals had been somehow merged together into one seething mass, purposeless appendages dangling limply from its body like the afterthoughts of some mad surgeon. Its torso seemed to be made up of multiple separate carcasses, the pale bone of rib cages visible in places beneath the matted coat that covered it, making no anatomical sense. He could see them breathing independently, shifting, making the thing seem to writhe. The spine protruded as it ran down the beast’s hunched back, the enormous shoulder blades atop its long arms piercing through its flesh, as though its hide had been shrunken and withered by decay. It had two powerful legs that ended in hooves the size of dinner plates, made up of smaller growths of keratin that branched off from one another. Its arms were disproportionately long, and they had too many joints, the dark hair that covered them making them look more like giant spider legs. Its hands were somehow the worst part, its dozen fingers made up of hottah legs, their cloven hooves serving as its nails. It rested some of its enormous weight on them, its fingers splayed wide, crawling them along the ground as it moved.

It sniffed the fire, knocking over the spit, then lifted its head to the treetops on its flexible neck as it let out another miserable scream. There was no matted coat on its head, only the naked skull of a hottah, its wide antlers draped in strips of decaying flesh. Its eyes were milky, dead, ropes of black tar hanging from its jaws as it opened its mouth.

George could explain away the other risen that he had encountered, rationalizing that it was some form of gangrene, some infectious plague that merely gave the appearance of death through a coincidence of chemistry. Nothing could survive in this state, however. No living thing could persist with blackened lungs pressing up against its exposed ribs with each rasping breath that it drew in, with an anatomy so nonsensical, so visibly decaying that it shed matter even as it moved.

Its head turned in their direction, and it let out a cry that was more akin to a whimper, starting to lumber towards them. It couldn’t have seen them, but it had their scent.

Terror gripped George as he raised his rifle, bracing it against the tree, taking aim at the hulking creature’s skull as he willed his hands to stop shaking. Legs made no move to stop him, perhaps realizing as he had that their only way to escape this thing would be to slay it. It had taken half a dozen men to bring down the waya, but what choice did he have?

The creature began to run, alarmingly fast for its size, lifting its grotesque forelimbs off the forest floor in a gait that resembled a charging bear. Knowing that he wouldn’t get a follow-up shot, George waited until the last moment, then pulled the trigger. There was a puff of smoke and glowing sparks, the flash illuminating the nearby trees for a split second. The bullet whizzed through the air, striking the beast in its shoulder, tearing a gaping wound in its rancid flesh. Viscera and dark tar sprayed the tree trunks, but the beast didn’t falter, George reaching for another cartridge as he and Legs fled in opposite directions.

The creature couldn’t shed its momentum quickly enough – it was too clumsy – barreling into the tree that they had been hiding behind like a steam train made of flesh and bone. George heard a crunch, not knowing whether the sound had come from the tree, or if that was the beast’s own bones snapping under the force of the impact.

With a baleful howl, it turned to give chase, fixing George with its glassy stare. There was no way that he could reload in time. The creature was so close now that he could smell its rancid stench. All he could do now was leverage his smaller size, exploit his pursuer’s lack of agility.

He changed direction quickly, the thing smashing into another tree, this one small enough to be uprooted. The trunk shattered, impaling the creature with shards of broken wood, but it didn’t even seem to notice as it scrambled to right itself again.

There was a whistle, then a thud, the golem’s head snapping around on its serpentine neck to peer over its shoulder. Legs was firing her bow at it, a second projectile striking it in the flank. She was remarkably fast, able to loose off an arrow every few seconds, but they weren’t doing much beyond embedding themselves in its dead flesh.

Still, it was enough to draw the thing’s attention, the mass of matted fur turning to give chase. Legs was buying him time enough to reload, George frantically pouring a measure of powder into his pan, the shaking in his hands making it all the more difficult. Fortunately, Legs was lighter on her feet than he was, dancing out of range of her pursuer as it barreled through the undergrowth.

George slid the lead ball into the barrel, tapping the butt of the rifle on the ground, then pulled it tight against his shoulder. His target was moving between the trees, making it difficult to get a clear shot, Legs managing to stay ahead of it. When he saw his moment, he fired, the loud crack echoing through the forest. The beast shuddered as he blew a hole in its side the size of his fist, dark fluid splattering on the ferns beneath it, but it kept up its pursuit.

Legs wheeled around the base of a tree, her hooves skidding in the fallen leaves, leaping out of its reach as the beast swiped at her with a large hand. The hooves that served as its fingernails carved furrows in the bark, sending splinters flying.

She let another arrow fly, this one glancing off its skull, tumbling away into the darkness. He had to reload quickly, or he would soon be witnessing her grisly death at the hands of this creature. George tore open another paper charge with his teeth, filling the pan, then the barrel. Rather than fumble trying to get the ball into the narrow aperture this time, he sealed his lips around it, spitting the bullet inside. A brisk tap on the ground, and it was ready to fire again, George cocking the barrel as he sighted the creature.

It swung one of its grotesque forelimbs, uprooting a tree as though it were no more sturdy than a sapling, Legs leaping clear of it once again. This time, she was too slow, one of the falling branches catching her. It knocked her to the forest floor, trapping one of her legs beneath its weight, the hooded woman clawing at the dirt as she struggled to free herself. The beast slowly approached her from behind, almost seeming to savor the kill, black tar dripping from its maw like drool. She turned her horned head to look back over her shoulder, making another frantic attempt to pull herself free, but the creature placed a hand on the branch. Legs wailed as it crushed her beneath its weight, its pointed skull coming down on its snaking neck, its putrid breath washing over her as it prepared to bite.

George blew off the front of its head.

The creature reeled, throwing itself back, slamming into another tree with its shoulder. It turned to stare at him, its skull shattered to leave only the top of its head and its lower jaw intact, dark fluid seeping from the wound. It was still mobile, starting to stagger in his direction. It broke into a lumbering run, loosing another pained scream, this one joined by a sickening gurgling as it choked on its own gore. George had but a scant few seconds, walking backwards as he tore open another charge, willing his hands to stop their trembling. He was beyond fear now, so hyper-focused on his task that the forest seemed to melt away around him. There would be only a single chance.

When he raised his rifle, the creature was but twenty paces from him, George exhaling as he braced the weapon against his shoulder. There was a crack, smoke obscuring his vision for a moment, what remained of the creature’s broken skull exploding into a shower of viscera. The ragged stump of its now headless neck waved in the air like a dying snake, spraying black tar on the surrounding trees, George leaping out of its path as the hulking mass was carried along by momentum. It skidded in the dirt, coming to a stop in a patch of ferns, the amalgam of bones and organs that was its body sagging as its blackened lungs exhaled their last breath.

It was dead, or at least as dead as something that had never been alive to begin with could be, lying motionless on the ground. He had to cover his mouth with his sleeve to ward off the stench. It smelled like it had been rotting in a ditch for the better part of a week.

He spun around, rushing over to where Legs had fallen, stumbling over exposed roots as he went. She was still trapped beneath the branch, her green eyes flashing beneath her hood as she glanced up at him.

“Is it…”
“Dead,” he panted.

“Thank the spirits,” she sighed. “I thought it might have killed you.”

“Are you hurt?” he asked, appraising the fallen tree limb. It was maybe twenty feet long, big enough that a grown man would have trouble shifting it, let alone his diminutive companion.

“Not gravely,” she replied, turning her head in the other direction to get a look at the branch. “I think my leg might be injured. Help me get out from under this thing.”

George crouched, sliding his hands beneath the branch, but it was far too heavy to lift. He glanced around, looking for a suitably-sized rock, then pushed it under the branch. He took his rifle and jammed the stock between them, gripping the barrel in both hands, using it as a makeshift lever.

“If I raise the branch, can you pull yourself out from under it?” he asked.

“I think so,” she replied with a nod.

There was a creaking sound as he threw his weight into it, George hoping that wasn’t the sound of his stock breaking, the branch lifting a few inches. Legs crawled free, struggling to her feet, limping as she put weight on her injured limb. She leaned against a nearby trunk, looking down to gauge the extent of her wounds. There was a crash as George let the branch fall again, briefly checking the butt of his gun before making his way over to her.

“How bad is it?” he asked, noting that the heel joint of her slender limb looked twisted.

“Nothing I cannot heal,” she replied. “You are sure that…thing is slain?”

“It’s not moving anymore,” he said with a shrug, turning to glance back at the dark mass through the trees. “What the hell was that? Have you seen anything like it before?”

“We have seen its like,” she said, wincing as she tried to take a step. She nearly fell, George reaching out to catch her. He half-expected her to push him away, but she didn’t reject his support, leaning on him as he helped her over to where the creature had fallen. “The stronger the blight grows, the more of these abominations they can produce.”

Produce?” George asked, grimacing as he inspected the creature more closely.

“We do not know how they are made, but the Blighters have some method of merging their victims, knitting flesh and bone into profane parodies of life. Do you believe me now when I tell you that this is not some natural disease, but a magical one?”

George handed her his rifle, letting her lean on it as he crouched to examine the animal. He drew his knife from its holster on his hip, using the tip to lift away some of the matted fur. It was barely attached to the animal, the skin peeling back along with it, revealing blackened muscle and putrid flesh. There was no blood flow here, no circulation, no way for the body to receive nutrients. The muscles were anchored to the exposed bones at random, as though someone who didn’t have any real understanding of anatomy had attempted to build their own warped idea of what an animal should look like. How did this thing even move? How was it alive, if it could even be described that way?

“I…can’t make sense of this,” he admitted. “It violates every natural law I know of.”

“It is intended to be a violation,” she replied, her tone dour. “Still, you killed it with your fire. You doubted the power of your weapons, yet here lies a foe that would have taken a hundred spears and arrows to fell.”
“I destroyed its head,” he explained, giving its limp neck a kick with his boot. “Maybe that’s the trick? Maybe they need working organs to drive whatever’s left – heart, lungs, brain. I mean, look how many lungs this thing has. I can see most of them through its rib cage. Do you suppose it has just as many hearts?”

Legs gasped, almost falling again, George reaching out to steady her.

“We need to get you back to camp,” he said, taking his rifle from her and slinging it over his shoulder.

“I can make it on my own,” she insisted, but he wasn’t having any of it.

“Nonsense, you’ll do yourself more damage by being stubborn. I can carry you, it’s only a short walk.”

Before she could protest, he swept her off her feet, finding her surprisingly light. Her cloak was still tightly wrapped around her, and the way that she was pressed up against his chest as he cradled her in his arms prevented him from seeing under her hood. He had to move his head out of the way of her pronged horns as he started to walk back to the camp, wary of getting poked in the eye. Legs remained silent, probably too embarrassed to complain any further.

When they reached the circle of stones and the collapsed tent, he lay her gently on the ground, then set about securing the rope that had been holding up the lean-to. The creature had just snapped it with a casual movement of his head, but it was long enough that he could reattach it without much trouble. When that was done, he set about uncovering the fire, wincing as he burned himself on the still-warm embers that lay beneath the dirt that Legs had piled on it. After fetching some fresh kindling, it was soon crackling again. Perhaps it would be wiser to move to another location, but they couldn’t go far with Legs unable to walk.

“How are you doing?” he asked, watching as his injured companion shuffled a little closer to the flames. “Am I going to have to start calling you Leg?”

“It is swelling,” she grumbled. “I fear the bone may be cracked.”

“I have some basic medical supplies in my pack,” George volunteered, walking over to where it lay beside a nearby tree. “I could make you a splint from some bandages and a branch if I can find one that’s straight enough.”
She ignored him, reaching down towards her ankle. It was already the size of an orange, swelling rapidly. A strange glow distracted him as he rummaged inside his bag, and he turned his head to see that it was coming from her hands, as though she was cupping a firefly between them. It grew brighter, illuminating their little camp, overpowering even the flickering light of the fire. When she opened her fingers, they were joined by what looked like strands of bright spider silk, tiny points of light floating off into the air like motes of dust caught in a sunbeam. The web was neither solid nor liquid, nor did it behave like a gas, shifting and roiling between her hands in a way that obeyed no laws of physics that George could name. He couldn’t look away. It was as though silvery moonlight had somehow been distilled into a form that one could touch, shape, manipulate.

As her hands hovered over her injured ankle, the bright strands seemed to phase through her copper fur, Legs grimacing as though the process was hurting her. George watched, mesmerized as the glowing substance slowly drained away, its silver light fading.

“What…what was that?” he whispered.

Legs didn’t answer, her eyelids drooping as she started to sway. George could see that she was about to pass out, but he couldn’t reach her before her head hit the ground, Legs collapsing onto her side. He lifted her limp body, giving her a shake in an attempt to wake her, but she was out cold. If Daugherty were here, perhaps he could administer smelling salts, but George had no such tools at his disposal.

She was still breathing, at least, slow and deep. Whatever she had done, it had used up the last ounce of her strength. Not knowing what else to do, George carried her over to the newly-erected lean-to, laying her down on his blanket. He hesitated, then wrapped her up, ensuring that she was protected from the cold. At least the fog seemed to be receding now.

He considered lifting her hood to take a look at her face, his curiosity nearly getting the better of him, but he resisted the urge.

***

 

George tended to the cooking pot, stirring the mixture around as the flames crackled, the rays of the rising sun filtering through the canopy above. He shifted his weight uncomfortably as he sat on the ground beside the ring of stones, rolling his shoulder. After a night sleeping on the forest floor, he was a little sore, but at least the cold fog had receded once the beast was dead.

He had lain awake for a couple of hours despite his exhaustion, his mind racing before eventually succumbing to a troubled sleep fraught with vivid nightmares. The amalgam of carcasses that he had slain had disturbed him, for sure, but equally disturbing was the idea that everything he knew might be false. A day ago, he was convinced that magic wasn’t real, that it was based on ignorance and superstition. Before man had understood the nature of lightning and earthquakes, he had attributed such things to angry Gods, he had explained away his fortunes as the whims of whatever deities he worshiped. Man had developed, advanced, he had begun to explore the natural world that surrounded him. He had discovered meteorology, volcanism, medicine – abandoning his preconceived notions about men beyond the clouds tossing thunderbolts. At least, for the most part. Yet, just like the ignorant savage who fashions idols from rocks, George was now faced with the realization that his understanding of the world was flawed. He could not explain what he had seen last night, from the horrifying creature whose body defied everything that he had learned about anatomy during his years of study, to the strange phenomenon that Legs had produced between her hands before passing out.

There was little to do other than think right now, his addled mind spinning in circles like a dog chasing its tail.

He lifted a spoonful of soup to his mouth, smacking his lips as he gave it a taste. As he reached into his pack in search of his spices, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, looking over at the tent to see that Legs was waking up.

She rose to a sitting position, looking around as though she had forgotten where she was, starting to struggle out of the cocoon of blankets. George got up as he watched her climb to her feet unsteadily, expecting her to topple over again.

“Wait!” he insisted, rushing to her side. “Don’t put any weight on your leg yet. You’ll exacerbate your…” He trailed off as he saw that the swelling on her ankle was gone, Legs standing on her own, flexing her limb as she tested it. “What happened to your injury?”

Legs took a few steps, then skipped a few more, as agile as ever.

“I healed it,” she explained, her cloak flaring out like a gown as she spun around to face him.

How?” George asked in disbelief.

“This is the magic that you doubted. Now, do you believe me?”

“I…I don’t know,” he sighed, throwing up his arms in exasperation. “That thing we fought last night had me questioning myself, but your miraculous recovery is…” He took a moment to compose himself, Legs watching him curiously from beneath her hood. “I thought that my understanding of nature and its laws was all but complete,” he continued, starting to pace in front of the fire. “I trusted dusty old books and ageing professors who hadn’t left the college grounds in a lifetime to tell me that they knew everything there was to know, that there were no big surprises left. And now,” he added, gesturing to her. “You come along and turn all of that upside down.”

“Are you…angry?” she wondered. She wasn’t afraid of him, more amused by his outburst than anything.

“I guess?” he said, not sure what had compelled him to phrase his reply as a question. “I came out here to explore, to challenge myself. Now that I am truly being challenged, now that I have truly encountered the unknown, I…I find myself overwhelmed.”

“Your soup will burn,” Legs said, waving him over. “Come, sit by the fire.”

“I’m sure this is all very amusing to you,” he grumbled as he took a seat beside her, giving his bubbling pot another stir. “I treated you like you were stupid, and now I’m the one who has been proven a fool.”

“A little,” she chuckled. “I have never seen someone stir a pot angrily.”

“How does it work?” he demanded, his academic curiosity rising to the surface again. “How can such a wound be healed in a night? What was that silver light in your hands? How do you manipulate it?”

“Magic takes intuition,” she replied, crossing her long legs. “To call upon it, you have to listen to its whisper, gaze upon that which has no form.”

“Gaze upon something that has no form,” he repeated incredulously. “How exactly does one do that?”

“Hush,” she replied, taking his hand in hers. George blinked at her, surprised by her touch, feeling her grip him gently through her leather glove. She glanced up at the branches above as they waved in the breeze, the chirping of birdsong carrying through the forest, George following her gaze. “Do you hear it?”

“The…birds?” he asked.

“The whisper of the forest.”

“I don’t know what means,” he said, keeping his voice low as though the trees might overhear him and be offended.

“Quieten your mind,” Legs explained, exhaling slowly. “It deafens you. Feel the life that dwells within you, and share it. Let the wind carry it like a fallen leaf, let it flow with the stream, let it prance with the hottah.”
“What, like my blood?” George wondered. “You’re talking in riddles.”

“You think of things only in the material, George,” Legs explained. He did another double-take when he realized that she had just called him by his name for the first time. He had been starting to doubt that she even remembered it. “You believe only what your eyes see, what you can touch.”

“I saw that silver light yesterday,” he replied. “I touched that beast, I saw inside it, and it didn’t make sense.”

“You draw your bow, but you miss the target once again,” she grumbled. “What you see is only a small part of a whole, like smoke from a fire.”

The analogy got through to him, and he nodded his head, turning to gaze into the wavering flames of the campfire.

“Then, what I saw was merely the effect, and the cause is far more complex than I realize.”

“Only by admitting that we are wrong can we begin to learn,” Legs replied, releasing his hand. “Your soup is ready.”

“Oh, right,” he stammered as he hastily removed the pot from the tripod. Legs watched as he poured a cup for himself, then passed her a bowl. “Do you have any more of that bread?”

She nodded, reaching beneath her cloak, producing another parcel wrapped up in a leaf. After tearing the soft bread in half, she shared it with him, the two starting to ear. Legs was ravenous, wolfing down her meal. Whatever she had done to heal herself must have really taken a lot out of her.

“Thank you,” she said, George giving her a sideways glance.

“Don’t mention it,” he replied, pausing to swallow a mouthful of bread. “I sort of became the cook for my little party before we were separated. I’m used to catering for six.”

“I mean for saving my life,” she added, George stopping his chewing. It was hard to tell what she was feeling, her face still obscured beneath her hood.

“Oh. You’re welcome. I mean…I owed you anyway, since you saved me from the Blighters. I’d say that we’re even now.”

“Not even an entire war party could have brought down that creature, yet you slew it single-handed,” she marveled as she spared him a glance from beneath her cowl. “You insist that you are no warrior, and if that is true, I fear what a warrior from your homeland could be capable of.”
“They certainly have more discipline than I do,” he chuckled, taking another bite of the bread. “Still, I will admit to some small measure of pride for having broken my own record. What was that, three shots in two minutes?”

“If I teach you magic, will you teach me to use that?” Legs asked as she gestured to his gun.

“I suppose I could,” he replied with a nod, taking a sip of his soup. “I have a finite number of charges, however. That means no firing drills, as I fear that we may yet need every bullet, but I can still show you the workings of the gun.”

“Deal,” she said with a nod, bringing her bowl to her lips.

***

 

When they were done with breakfast, they packed up their gear, then continued on their way. Even though Legs thought it unlikely that the Blighters would have sent a second abomination after them, there was no reason to dawdle, as every hour counted. Legs wanted to bring George back to her village elders, and the sooner that was done with, the sooner he could begin his journey back to the company’s base camp.

At least, that was his hope. After the revelations about the existence of magic, or at least some supernatural force that Legs and the Blighters could somehow tap into, he now believed her when she told him that the blighted forest sapped her strength. What if she really couldn’t lead him back once their business at the village had concluded? Was he destined to be stranded here in these woods, fighting off unnatural horrors until they eventually claimed him? More and more, he was starting to feel as though his fate was tied to that of Legs and her people.

The sun was nearing its peak when Legs raised a hand to stop him, turning her head as though she had heard something in the forest. She reached for her bow, drawing an arrow from her quiver, running her fingers through the feathery vanes. George strained his ears, but he couldn’t make anything out. Her hearing was so much more sensitive than his own.

“What is it?” he hissed, preparing to unsling his rifle. “More trouble?”

“No,” she replied, her voice barely a whisper. “I heard the call of a hottah.”

“A…normal hottah?” George asked warily.

“Healthy game,” she said, setting off into the trees. “The spirits have presented us with an opportunity, and we should not pass it up.”

“Wait, what should I do?” George complained as she sprang over a moss-covered log.

“Your footsteps might alert it,” she said, pausing to look back for a moment. “Stay here, and I shall come fetch you.”

Stay here,” George grumbled under his breath once she was out of earshot. “It’s not like I’ve not hunted a hottah before. Should have seen the set of antlers on the one I bagged.”

After maybe half an hour, George was starting to get worried. Just as he was considering going to search for Legs, she reappeared, giving him a whistle.

“Did you get it?” he asked as she waved for him to follow. She bounded through the forest on her agile hooves, George struggling to keep pace, until they came across the carcass of a fallen hottah. It was refreshing to see a healthy one that hadn’t been corrupted by the blight, its hide the rusty color of autumn leaves, an impressive set of antlers branching out of from its head. It had an equally impressive pair of tusks protruding from its mouth, which it used to score the bark of trees. It was maybe twelve hundred pounds – not the largest he had ever seen, but certainly no slouch. The animal had an arrow squarely embedded in its neck, dark blood staining the fur around the wooden shaft – a clean kill.

“Nice job!” he exclaimed, appraising her catch. “That’s a quality pelt. If only I could bring that back with me, it would fetch a handsome price at a fur trader.”

“Fur trader?” Legs asked.

“That’s one of the main reasons we came out here,” he explained, watching as she placed a hoof on the animal’s neck. She gripped her arrow and gave it a tug, pulling it out, then shaking some of the blood off it. “The fur trade is huge back East. That’s how most of the men in my company made their living – hunting animals to sell the pelts and meat.”

“Don’t they need to use it?” Legs asked. “What do they eat?”

“Well, they sell the meat to people who then distribute it to other people who want to eat it.”

“Sell?” she said, cocking her head at him.

“Oh. I suppose you don’t have currency, do you? Just imagine bartering with extra steps. You exchange a pelt or meat for money, and then you can use that money to trade for other things that you need, like a rifle or a jacket.”

Legs crouched beside the hottah, closing the creature’s vacant eyes, then placing a hand on its shoulder respectfully.

“We thank you for feeding us,” she whispered, a few moments of silence following. George kneeled down beside her, resting his hand on its flank, feeling the texture of its smooth coat beneath his fingers.

“Thank you,” he said, knowing that Legs would appreciate it even if the animal couldn’t.

She drew the obsidian knife that she had held against his throat when they had first met, beginning to butcher the animal, starting at the rear end and moving her way up as she made incisions in the hide. George set down his pack and unsheathed his own knife, joining her as he began to cut open the sternum.

It took a good hour of work, but by the end of it, they had assembled a pile of meat and a few choice organs on a nearby rock. Leaving so much meat and so many valuable parts behind felt unnatural to George, but all they were after was the meat, and only as much as they could comfortably carry. They wrapped up the meat in the cloth bags that George carried for that very purpose, leaving the cleaned carcass behind as they resumed their trek. They walked until the sun was starting to get low again, only pausing to eat a quick lunch of bread and salted meat. It wasn’t until last light that they started searching for a suitable place to make camp.

Legs led them towards a river, George soon hearing the sound of flowing water as they drew closer. Crystal-clear water wound its way through the forest, the rocks in its bed smoothed over eons, George pausing to refill his canteen and to splash a little of it on his face. It wasn’t so wide or so deep that a man couldn’t wade through it, but it would probably have reached up to his waist. The pair followed the bank until they found a suitable location to stop, Legs spying a clearing a short walk from the river, just far enough away that the trees obscured it from view.

This time, Legs helped George set up the lean-to, having observed how he went about it a couple of times now. She took care of making the fire while he prepared the meat, and before long, they were waiting for their meal to cook. George had tied up a nice five-pound cut of hottah rump to roast over the open flames, using a piece of cordage to suspend it from a tripod. He made a mixture of salt and water, using a ladle to baste the meat occasionally, preventing it from drying out in the heat.

“You know, maybe this is an opportunity,” he said as he rotated the meat on its string.

“What was that?” Legs asked, glancing over at him. She was leaning back against a nearby tree, her arms crossed. He had half-expected her to have fallen asleep, as he couldn’t see what she was doing beneath that hood of hers.

“The magic thing,” he explained. “It’s an entirely new field of study that will turn the scientific community on its head, and the discovery is mine alone. They might resist it, the old guard won’t want the theories they think of as proven beyond a shadow of a doubt challenged by some upstart, but even dogma cannot withstand the force of overwhelming evidence.”

“You are quick to lay claim to it,” Legs said with a chuckle that George felt was at his expense. “Magic is as much a part of the world as a tree or a mountain. Could you claim those as your own?”

“You might know more about magic than I do, but you’ll have to trust that I’m more familiar with the peer-review process,” he replied as he prodded the meat with a fork. The juice that leaked out looked clear, which indicated that it was ready.

George untied the meat, then cut it into slices, plating it up before handing one of the bowls to Legs. It was juicy, still somewhat rare in the center, the saltwater basting helping to bring out its natural flavors. They were too occupied with eating to talk much, save for Legs complimenting him on his cooking. He doubted that roasting meat over an open flame was a foreign technique to her, but her people might not have the salt and seasonings that he had brought along with him.

“It’s nice to feel truly full again,” George sighed, setting down his fork once he was done. He gave his stomach a pat, lying back on the forest floor. He interlocked his fingers behind his head, gazing up at the twinkling stars that he could see between the breaks in the forest canopy. “I’ve been eating nothing but soup and dried pork for days.”

“It was good meat,” Legs replied. “Flavorful, and well-seasoned.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you and your bow,” he added.

“Now that we have a moment of quiet,” she began, rising to her hoofed feet. “Come. I will teach you.”

“Teach me?” he asked, sitting up. “Oh, you’re talking about magic?”

She sat down opposite to him, George shuffling around to face her, the flickering glow of the fire lighting them from the right. She crossed her legs, and George did the same, imitating her.

“If I am to instruct you, then you must listen to me without question,” she continued as she took up a meditative sitting position. Her hands came to rest on her knees, her spine straight as she sucked in a breath, then slowly exhaled it. “No more doubt.”

“I won’t doubt you,” he replied. After what he had seen the night before, he would believe just about anything she told him.

“All things have a spirit,” she began, George giving her the same attention that he would a college lecturer. “Every living thing that walks and swims and flies, the trees, even the worms beneath our feet have a power that can be given if you merely ask for it. It lives in the rocks, too, in the flames and the waters. It dances with the wind.”

“How do you ask a worm or a rock to grant you power?” George asked skeptically.

“You must hear their whisper, listen to their voice if you wish for them to hear yours,” she continued cryptically.

“That aside, how do you use this power to ward off the cold, or heal an injury? How did you make those silver strands that I saw?”

“I asked the fire if I might borrow his warmth,” she explained, wrapping her green cloak around herself more tightly. “He gave this garment his blessing. I called upon the trees and the mushrooms when I was injured, the moss and the ferns, and I reminded them of a time my leg was not hurt. They helped make it so again.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense,” George sighed. “I don’t understand.”

“Patience, George,” she replied in a calming tone. She began to remove her leather gloves, still stained in places from the hottah’s blood, the stitching that held them together somewhat cruder than what he was used to. George watched as she set them on the ground beside her, revealing her hands for the first time. They looked remarkably like his own, save for a thin coat of chestnut-colored fur that covered the back of them, running up her arms into the shadow of her cloak. It was so fine that it looked more like simple pigmentation until she took his hands in hers, his thumbs brushing the velvety hair.

“W-what’s this?” he asked.

“Close your eyes,” she said, George obeying her as he had promised.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” he grumbled.

“Stop speaking with your mouth, and stop listening with your ears,” she chuckled. “And remember, every one of us must crawl before we can walk.”

He shut up, taking in deep breaths as Legs had done, but all he could focus on was the smoothness of her skin against his own. They had spent days together now, yet he still hadn’t seen her face. He didn’t even know what manner of creature she was. Was it strange that he was beginning to think of this person whose name he did not know as a friend?
“Clear your mind,” she whispered, her breathy voice almost musical. “Think only of me, feel me as you lay your hands in mine.”

Was this effort an exclusively mental one, perhaps? A form of meditation not unlike that practiced by the religions of the Easternmost continents? He had always dismissed such things as quackery, but maybe they were onto something…

“I see…darkness,” he mumbled.

“That is because you are still trying to look with your eyes,” she said, giving one of his hands a slap. “Concentrate. Can you see the spirits of the rocks and trees with your eyes? No. So why would you be able to see mine? Here, do you feel this?”

A sudden tingling sensation surprised him, similar to the feeling that he got when he slept on his arm wrong, but without any of the numbness. His eyes snapped open, but he was disappointed when he didn’t see strands of glowing quicksilver coursing up his forearms.

“I…felt it,” he said, blinking in surprise. “Did you do that?”

“I shared a little of my power,” she replied.

“How do I do that? I feel like you’re asking me to flex a muscle that I don’t have yet.”

“It requires meditation, communion,” she explained. “You are the conduit, yes, but you must borrow that power from your brothers. The rocks, the trees, the animals – you must acknowledge them as your equals. You must hear them before they will hear you.”

“Sorry, but…how can a rock or a worm be my equal?”

“To think of yourself as being superior to others is hubris,” she explained. “I do not chastise you for it. Most people think of themselves as the center of their own universe, but letting go of your ego is the path to understanding.”

“I’ll try,” he sighed, but it was quite the request. If he were to ask an academic or a priest, both would tell him that humanity was the highest form of life on the planet, that he was as a God to an insect or a fish. It was a hard notion to abandon.

“Just breathe with me,” Legs said, George soon finding that her steady breathing had a hypnotic quality. He began to relax, listening to the sounds of the birds and the nearby river, the creaking of the branches above.

Even if he didn’t unlock any magical powers, spending time with Legs was certainly…pleasant.

***

 

George awoke the next morning feeling refreshed, stretching his arms above his head as he sat up in his lean-to. He had spent most of the evening meditating with Legs, and even though he hadn’t really achieved much, a little calm and relaxation had done him wonders. So much stress had built up inside him over the past few days, culminating in the attack the night prior, and he finally felt like some of that tension had left his body.

He glanced over at the tree roots where Legs had slept, but saw no sign of her. She wasn’t tending to the fire, either. It looked like it hadn’t been relit yet. It was possible that she had gone to hunt down some breakfast for them, but they still had plenty of meat left over from the hottah they had killed the day before. Where had she gone?
He climbed out of his blankets, then looked around the camp for a moment, but there was no sign of her. She was a far more capable woodsman than he was, so he wasn’t unduly worried. George made for his pack, picking up his canteen, then realizing that it was empty. This was the reason that making camp near a river or a stream was such a good idea, they had a source of fresh water within walking distance.

Stifling a yawn, he set off towards the river, following the sound of running water as he made his way between the trees. As he cleared the woodland and came upon the riverbank, he stopped in his tracks, standing as still as a statue.

Legs was waist-deep in the water, and her green cloak was hanging from a branch near the bank, along with a leather loincloth and some kind of sling that she must have been wearing beneath it. Her back was turned to him right now, George watching as she cupped the flowing water in her hands, pouring it over herself. She was bathing.

George was suddenly all too aware of the sound of his own breathing, the way that the ferns rustled beneath his boots, the fear of stepping on a twig keeping him frozen in place. Should he announce himself? Should he turn around and try to creep back towards the camp without alerting her?

To Legs, this was more than just peeking. Hiding her features from him had some cultural significance to her, and he might be breaking some kind of taboo just by seeing her without her cloak. Even so, his curiosity overcame him, and he slunk over to a nearby tree for cover. He hid behind the trunk, peeking out to get a look at her, wary of her superhuman senses. His face began to burn as his eyes were drawn to her strange body, George not knowing whether the racing of his heart and the lump in his throat were a product of his fear of being discovered, or something more.

The first thing that stood out to him were her horns. What he had initially assumed to be a decorative headdress not unlike those worn by the Blighters, he now realized was sprouting from her head. Her shaggy hair was a chestnut-red in color, not unlike her fur, cut short for convenience. It obscured the places where they joined to her scalp, but they were indeed attached. They resembled the branching antlers of a deer, but shorter, swept back to follow the curve of her skull. She had a pair of large, furry ears that stuck out to either side of her head, one of them flicking idly as he watched.

As his gaze roamed lower, he saw a pair of narrow shoulders that could easily have been mistaken for those of a human, was it not for their thin covering of velvety fur. It was a ruddy color to match her hair, patterned with white spots, the same texture as that which he had felt on the backs of her hands the evening prior. It was thin enough that he could see the muscles in her back flexing beneath it as she moved, its wet sheen catching the morning sunlight to make her shine. It ran down the curve of her spine until it reached the water, where her narrow waist widened into feminine hips. At this angle, he couldn’t see below the surface, and he silently admonished himself for wishing that he could.

Something created a small splash, and he glanced down to see a short, stubby tail waving back and forth in the river. It was situated just above her submerged rump, at the base of her spine. The underside was fluffy and white, just like that of a doe.

Her figure was so lithe, so athletic, her lightly-muscled frame sculpted to perfection by a physically demanding lifestyle. She was like nothing George had ever seen before. Where he came from, women were prissy, averse to anything more taxing than lawn bowling. Their interests were confined to those deemed proper for ladies, such as embroidery, or socializing. Even in the harshest summer heats, they were so buried beneath layers of petticoats and bustles that one could hardly imagine what they really looked like under all that clothing. Women in the colonies were a little more rugged and capable, he had seen them chopping firewood and butchering animals, but Legs was in a league all her own.

From behind the tree, he watched her begin to run her hands across her body, still facing the opposite bank as she washed herself. He wanted so badly to see her face, to see her from the front, but she might catch him if she happened to turn around.

His heart was racing, pumping so hard that he was starting to fear that she might hear it with those sensitive ears of hers. It wasn’t as if he had never seen a nude woman before, even if most of them had been diagrams in anatomy books, but Legs was different. There was something so graceful about the way that she moved, and he found himself captivated by the way that her wet fur gleamed, reflecting the light to pick out every contour of her body.

George had already pushed his luck far enough. It was time to leave before he was discovered.

Careful not to make a sound, and choosing his footing like he was walking on thin ice, he started to make his way back to the camp. He managed to arrive without alerting her, at least as far as he knew, setting about getting the campfire going again.

By the time Legs returned, he was already cooking their breakfast, the scent of roasting hottah meat filling the air.

“Oh, you’re back,” he said as he raised a hand in greeting. “I wondered where you’d gotten to.”

“I awoke early, so I went down to the river to bathe,” she replied as she joined him beside the crackling fire. She was wearing her cloak again now, her features hidden in its shadow, but he could see that the fur on her legs was still a little damp.

“I figured you might have gone hunting again,” he lied, spinning the piece of meat with a stick. “I’m cooking up some breakfast if you’re hungry.”

“I find myself looking forward to your cooking,” she replied, George breathing a quiet sigh of relief.

“I wanted to do something a little different this time,” he said, gesturing to the cooking pot that was bubbling beside the meat as it hung from the spit. “Tell me, have you ever had mushroom soup? It goes down a treat with a side of tatanka meat, and I’m willing to bet that the same is true for our friend the hottah.”

“Mushroom soup?” she asked, cocking her head.

“There are loads of them around here,” he explained, reaching over to sprinkle a dash more salt into the pot. “They’re the brown mushrooms that grow around the roots of the trees.”

“My kin do eat them,” she replied. “Though, I am sure your recipe will surprise me.”

When the meat was cooked through, he plated it up, dividing the soup between the two of them. It wasn’t much more than diced mushrooms, flour, and seasoning, but it went down wonderfully as a side dish. It was as lavish a meal as one could expect to eat so far from civilization, and he could see that Legs appreciated it, George finding some satisfaction in the way that she wolfed it down.

“Don’t you cook much when you’re out in the forest?” George asked, watching as she soaked up the last of her soup with a chunk of her bread.

“Not to the extent that you do,” she replied, popping the morsel into her mouth. “Your kind seem to have a great love of food. You carry so much heavy cooking equipment with you, enough to slow you down.”

“What would you usually eat?” he asked, pausing to take a bite of his meat.

“Bread,” she began. “We most often hunt for food as we need it, or we dry meat and store it for later.”

“As do we,” he said with a nod. “You’ve seen the rations that I eat when I don’t have the time to make camp and cook a proper meal, but warm food feeds the soul as much as the stomach. It raises the spirits, gives people the courage to press on.”

“Uncommon words of wisdom coming from one such as yourself,” she chuckled, setting down her bowl.

“I can make more if you’re still hungry,” George added, gesturing to the cooking pot. “It’s no trouble.”

“I thank you, but we should keep moving,” she replied as she climbed to her feet. “We are but two days away from our destination.”

“Guess I’ll start packing up.”

***

 

As they headed further North, George started to notice that the forest around them was slowly changing. The blight had corrupted everything where it had taken root in the forest behind them, poisoning the very trees themselves until they bled stinking tar, blackening the mosses and ferns. The mist that hung low over the ground had seemed to sap the warmth from the air, making the very atmosphere cold and hostile. Here, however, the opposite seemed to be true.

The trees here grew taller, stouter, their twisting branches covered in verdant leaves. George could tell at a glance that this was old growth, far more ancient than the areas of the forest that they had just left, the wood gnarled by time. Every trunk was covered in an abundance of flowering mosses, a coat of green fuzz from which small buds of white, purple, and red bloomed. Vines draped themselves from their branches, sporting yet more flowers, so varied and colorful that they would have been the envy of any botanical garden back in Albion. The ferns here were so thick that he could scarcely see the ground, flowering shrubs adding splashes of blue and yellow to the carpet of greenery, their varied shapes drawing his gaze. There were some that resembled tulips, others like orchids with vibrant patterns and protruding stamens, their bright colors attracting swarms of butterflies. The insects flitted about between them, each flap of their iridescent wings catching the golden sunlight that bled through the canopy, making them shine. It was like a scene from a dream.

“Does it awe you so?” Legs asked, noticing his wide-eyed expression.

“Why is it so different from the rest of the forest?” he asked, pausing to run his fingers through a carpet of moss that was clinging to the bark of a nearby tree. It was covered in tiny droplets of dew, flourishing in this humid environment.

“The whole forest was like this once,” Legs explained, pausing to watching a butterfly dance past her. “This is where the magic is strongest, where its power is most established.”

“The forest’s power?” George asked. “You talk of it as though it’s a single organism.”

“In a way, it is,” she replied. “All life here is connected, interdependent, acting as one entity. We, too, are a part of it.”

It wasn’t as hard a concept to understand as he had expected. The Blighters worshiped death, corrupting all life that they could get their hands on, spreading their infection like a disease. Legs’ people held life as sacred, they nurtured it, drawing their power from the plants and animals that surrounded them. The two factions were diametrically opposed, both in a spiritual and a very material sense.

“It is wonderful to taste this sweet air again,” Legs sighed, the presence of the flowers seeming to elevate her mood. “I have been away for too long.”

George could sense it too. The perfume of the flowers was pleasant, yes, but there was a palpable calmness in the air. It was a warm, bright, somehow welcoming environment. He had initially dismissed the feeling of oppression and claustrophobia that he had experienced in the blighted forest as just that – a feeling – but Legs had insisted that he was ignoring an underdeveloped sense that he’d never had to use before. Perhaps the same was true now, and it was the forest’s magic that he was feeling, maybe even its intent. More and more, he was starting to accept that what he could see and hear and touch in this place was only superficial.

Legs suddenly dropped to a crouch, George following suit, wondering what she had seen.

“Look,” she whispered, pointing to the trees ahead. Between the mossy trunks, he could see a shape moving, the familiar silhouette of a hottah emerging. It was a large specimen with a healthy coat that shone in the sun, its antlers so large that George found himself wondering how it could even navigate a forest like this. The animal was feeding, using its tusks to scrape moss and bark from the trees.

They watched quietly, just enjoying the sight, as they still had enough meat left over from their last kill that there was no reason to harm the creature. After a few minutes, they continued on, the hottah bolting when it heard rustling in the ferns. It pranced away through the trees, quickly disappearing from view.

 

***

 

They stopped by one of the many streams that wound through the area, replenishing their canteens and getting a bite to eat. Even the water here somehow tasted better. It was cooler, fresher, like drinking directly from a mountain spring.

“What are you doing?” Legs asked, making her way over to him. George was sitting beneath one of the trees, his journal open in his lap, his pen moving back and forth along the pages. She leaned over to get a look, taking a sip from her waterskin.

“I’m sketching the flowers,” he explained, showing her his work. “Part of my job is documenting what I see, and I’ve never come across any exactly like these before.”

“You made those?” she asked, admiring his work. George passed her the journal, and she began to leaf through it. He had drawn the trees, the different kinds of moss that he had encountered, the different varieties of flowers. He didn’t know how artistic her people were, whether they made engravings or paintings, but she seemed impressed by his work.

“My style is rather clinical,” he admitted as she handed it back to him. “I’m mostly concerned with documenting them as accurately as possible. I’m not much of a creative artist, but I learned to draw well enough during my studies. We would make diagrams of plants and animals as part of our work.”

“Then…you already had an interest in nature before you came here?”

“Oh, a great interest,” he replied enthusiastically. “I’ve always loved the natural world. I’ve always wanted to study it, to understand it. You should see the academy of natural sciences back in Douvrend,” he continued, resuming his sketching. “Imagine thousands upon thousands of books like this one, stacked on shelves as high as these trees, each one containing information on plants and animals from all corners of the world.”
She glanced up at the canopy as though imagining what that might look like, but she was unlikely to have any frame of reference.

 

***

 

The setting sun was staining the sky above the treetops in rich shades of pink and orange as they made camp once again, finding a suitable clearing. There was so much water here that they were never far from a stream or a river, and they settled in within walking distance of another brook, George setting up his tent. It hardly seemed necessary now, as the climate was somehow so much warmer and more temperate than it had been just a day prior, and there was no meteorological phenomenon he knew of that might explain the discrepancy. He wouldn’t even need to wrap himself up in his blanket anymore.

Legs was hovering nearby, probably anticipating their next meal, but he had something else in mind before he started cooking. Moving over to where he had set down his pack, he lifted his rifle off the ground, waving her over.

“What are you doing?” she asked, joining him beside the campfire.

“I said that I’d teach you to shoot, right?” He presented the rifle to her, holding it in both hands. “This long part is the barrel. It’s made of iron, a metal strong enough to contain the force of the black powder when it ignites. Think of it as a kind of…long kettle. Wherever you point it, that’s where the lead ball will fly.”

He passed off the weapon to her, Legs weighing it in her hands, perhaps finding it heavier than she had expected. She ran her fingers along the smooth wood, inspecting it more closely.

“This part at the back is the stock,” he explained. “When you aim it, you want to pull this part tightly against your shoulder to help control the recoil. It’s going to kick hard when you fire it, because all of the force that’s pushing the lead ball down the barrel is also pushing back against you.”
George took Legs’ hands in his, feeling the velvet texture of her chestnut-colored fur again, guiding them into the correct positions. They seemed so small for someone who could so easily overpower him, her fingers so slender. Even as he moved around behind her, bringing her close as he pulled the stock up against her shoulder, she made no move to pull away. Her back was pressed up against his chest, so close that he could feel her breathing through her cloak. Wary of her sharp horns, he leaned around her head, his cheek brushing the fabric of her hood.

“This part here is called the hammer,” he said, pointing to it. “Pull it back until you feel a click.”

She did as he asked, cocking the weapon.

“See this piece of flint? When the hammer releases, it will strike the metal frizzen here, which creates a spark. It’s just like striking two pieces of flint together to start a fire. That ignites the black powder in the pan, which then activates the rifle. Move your hand here,” he continued, guiding her to the trigger. “When the hammer is cocked, it’s like drawing the string of a bow, ready to fire. When you squeeze the trigger, you release that tension, and the arrow flies. Or, in this case, the bullet.”

Slowly, she gave the trigger a pull, testing its resistance. There was a sharp snapping sound, the hammer striking the frizzen, creating a bright spark. Legs almost dropped the weapon in alarm, but George held her close, keeping the gun steady.

“It’s loud,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “Heavier than I anticipated, too. I imagined it would be something akin to firing a bow, but…I was wrong.”

“I know I said that we shouldn’t waste charges,” he began, reaching down into one of the pouches on his hip. “But without knowing how to load a gun, you can’t very well fire it. Here, hold out your hand.”

He dropped a paper charge into her palm, watching her weigh it.

“Be careful when you open it, it’s full of black powder,” he warned. “These paper parcels are what we use to safely store a lead ball and a powder charge sufficient to fire the rifle once. Just tear open the top…that’s right…then pour a small measure into this space here. That’s called the pan.”

She did as he asked, then he showed her how to close it, ensuring that the powder couldn’t spill out. Next, he had her place the stock on the ground, then pour the rest of the charge down the barrel along with the lead ball.

“Common practice is to use the ramrod to ensure that the ball gets deep enough,” he said, “but I find it faster to tap the gun on the ground a couple of times. You don’t have to be gentle with it.”

Legs tapped it on the soil, then raised the rifle. George pulled it tightly against her shoulder, pressing her up against his chest in the process, guiding her hands.

“Once you cock the hammer, it’ll be ready to fire,” he warned. “And it’s going to be loud.”

“I know,” she replied, exhaling to steady her aim. “I have heard its thunder.”

There was a click as she pulled back the hammer, then she brought her finger to the trigger, George aiming the rifle at a nearby tree.

“Don’t worry, it won’t do any real damage,” he explained. “It’s designed to kill people and animals, it won’t do much more than dig a shallow hole in the trunk of a tree.”

“Still,” she said, angling the barrel downward until it was aiming at the ground maybe twenty paces away. “The soil will mind less.”
“I suppose we wouldn’t want to offend the trees,” he replied, only half-joking. “Fire when ready, and remember, it’s going to kick hard.”

After a few moments of hesitation, she fired, the sound of the gunshot sending nearby birds scattering towards the sky. A bright shower of sparks and a plume of white smoke erupted from the muzzle, George feeling the recoil push her back against him, bracing himself to keep her steady. Her hands trembled as she lowered the smoking barrel, peering at the fist-sized crater the projectile had dug into the earth.

“That was…exhilarating,” she stammered. “I did not imagine it would feel so…powerful.”

“Now you understand how they work, more or less. Like I said, it’s not magic, just chemistry and smithing. You activate the mechanism, and an explosion pushes a projectile down a long tube. That’s the gist of it.”

“Even though your people know nothing of magic, they have surpassed mine in many ways,” she said as she watched a wisp of smoke rise from the barrel.

George released her, taking a step back, and she turned to pass the rifle back to him.

“Thank you,” she said, George unable to discern her expression beneath her cowl. “That was…enlightening.”

“How about we get some dinner?” he asked, and she nodded her head.

***

 

George cleaned his gun as they ate, pushing a cloth into the barrel using the ramrod. It had been fired a few times since he had last had an opportunity to clean it, and the black powder residue would build up if he didn’t tend to it.

Legs was sitting beside him, reading his journal by firelight. Although she could inexplicably speak his language, she couldn’t read his writing. Still, she could look at the many pictures he had drawn during his travels. It documented his journey from all the way back in Albion, including many sketches of the people and places he had seen, along with the more academic maps and charts. Without any point of reference, he wondered how she might interpret his sketches of the Douvrend dockyards, the steamliner that he had crossed the ocean on, and the burgeoning cities on the Eastern shore of the continent. What did they look like to her? Could she imagine a village with a hundred thousand inhabitants?

As he glanced over to see what she was looking at, he was pleased to see that she was examining his diagrams of a type of flowering grass that he had come across during his trek across the plains. That was something she had a frame of reference for, something that she could more easily visualize. Having no colored ink, he hadn’t been able to reproduce the colors of the flower, but he had done his best to portray the way that its petals had faded from yellow to pink with his shading.

“Have you ever been beyond the forest?” he asked. “That’s where I encountered that flower, in the open plains to the East.”

“My people remain within the forest’s bounds,” she replied, turning the page with far more care than she had shown upon first discovering the book. “We have little reason to leave, as it provides us with everything that we need. We share a deep spiritual connection with it.”

“I wish I could say the same about my home,” he chuckled, giving the ramrod another good shove. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

“Why?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“Everything there is so…static,” he explained, resting his gun in his lap. “The weather, the people, the ideas. It’s just a bunch of stuffy old men who are terrified of change, and everything they do is aimed at maintaining the orthodoxy. A new discovery like magic would probably be dismissed offhand because it contradicts what they already hold to be true. There’s no flexibility. Everyone is so obsessed with their social status and their image to the point that none of their interactions are genuine anymore. Everything is a pantomime, so you can never trust anyone. You can never be sure if their smile isn’t just a mask designed to placate you until they can get away to gossip about you behind your back.”

“They are insincere?”

“I like the people here a lot better,” he continued, resuming his work. “They’re more honest, I suppose because you don’t have time to be a ladder-climbing socialite when you’re facing real hardships. Nobody cares about what such-and-such said about so-and-so at the solstice gala if your chief concern is hunting enough food to survive the winter. People will just tell you what they think frankly, and I find it refreshing. My friend Sam is like that,” he added with a fond chuckle. “I don’t think he even knows how to lie. I hope he’s alright…”

He wasn’t sure that Legs would understand the finer points of what he was saying, but even so, the drama of interpersonal relationships was common to all people.

“I often spend much time alone,” she replied, gazing into the flames. “My responsibilities take me far from my village, far from my kin, and I sometimes miss their company.”

“Is that why you were out here all alone?” George asked.

“I was tasked with keeping watch, with observing the Blighters unseen, then relaying their movements to the elders. In times of peace, I would be a huntress, but war compels me to act as the eyes and ears of my people.”

“I’m sorry,” George said, Legs glancing up at him.

“What for?” she wondered.

“Here I am going on about how I chose to leave my home, when yours is under threat. I’m not sure if it counts for much, but if your kin are anything like you, then I want to help them. I’ll do what I can.”

She lifted her head, and although George couldn’t see her face beneath the shadow of her hood, it was safe to infer that she was smiling at him.

“I am glad that we crossed paths,” she said. “You are strange, but I find myself enjoying the time that we spend together. At least one good thing came of all this.”

“As far as captors go, I could do far worse,” he replied, eliciting a chuckle from her. “I know, I know, you have your reasons.”
“The soup smells ready,” she said, turning her attention to the bubbling pot.

“The meat, too,” he added as he rose to his feet. He set his rifle down, then started to serve up the food, the two of them digging in. The mushrooms in this part of the forest were so abundant, and they grew to impressive sizes, thriving in the roots of the great trees. Somehow, they just tasted better, too.

“If only I had the time to make some mushroom ketchup,” he sighed, taking a juicy bite of his roasted meat. “The soup is great, but eating this meat with a good ketchup would amaze you.”

“Ketchup?” Legs asked, rolling the unfamiliar word around in her mouth.

“It’s a condiment, a sauce,” George explained. “Maybe when we reach your village – if there’s enough time – I’ll make some for you.”

“I would like that,” she replied.

***

 

When he was done eating, George set down his empty bowl and climbed to his feet, Legs glancing up at him as she mopped up the last of her mushroom soup with a piece of bread.

“Where are you going?” she asked, cocking her horned head at him.

“I’m going to go down to that river we passed earlier,” he explained, lifting his pack off the ground. “It’s only a five-minute walk. I promise not to run away, I just want to bathe and wash my clothes while there’s time.”

“Alright,” she replied, turning her attention back to her plate.

George raised an eyebrow, then shrugged to himself, continuing on his way. He had expected her to protest, or maybe to insist that he be accompanied. Perhaps he had earned her trust after their heart-to-heart earlier. He would have gone alone regardless, as he feared no danger in these woods, not even enough to bring his rifle as a precaution.

Guided by the sound of flowing water – along with his trusty compass – he made his way down to the river’s edge. He set down his pack, then started to fish out his change of clothes. Like most of his company, he had brought two sets of long johns, fresh socks, and an undershirt. Hunters on the trail generally only brought a change of underclothes along with them, which was sufficient for keeping their pants and jackets from becoming sullied by sweat and dirt.

He hung his leather jacket and his pants from a nearby branch, then started to peel off his underclothes, relieved to be rid of them. He tossed them on the bank, then turned back to his pack, pulling out a small parcel from one of the pockets. It was a bar of soap made from lye and animal fats, a common sight on the frontier, where people were often tasked with making their own.

George started to wade into the river, wincing at the cold water. It was flowing fast enough that he could feel it, but not enough that he risked being carried away, resulting in a rather pleasant current that washed away all the grime that he had accumulated over the last few days. Feeling the cool silt between his toes, he went a little deeper, the water rising to his neck. He held his breath, then dunked his head, running his fingers through his mop of blonde hair. It had been growing, just like his beard, and he was starting to hope that they had a barber at Legs’ village. He submerged the soap and began to spread the lather, giving himself a thorough cleaning.

After washing himself, he returned for his undergarments, submerging them in the water before giving them the same treatment. While laboring in the shallows, he heard a rustling noise from beyond the trees, pausing his work as he glanced into the woods beyond. The sun had all but set now, the green glow of fireflies visible as they flitted lazily between the trunks. Even if something was there, he wouldn’t be able to see it.

It might be an animal moving through the undergrowth, or it might be Legs. Maybe she was just as curious about him as he was about her? He considered for a moment, then continued washing his clothes, surmising that Legs would be quiet enough to go unheard if she wanted to peep at him. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, and he was starting to trust his intuition these days.

***

 

When George returned to the campsite, Legs was waiting for him beside the fire, her nose buried in his journal. When he announced himself, she looked up, closing the book. He dropped his pack down by his lean-to, and when he turned around to face the fire again, he saw that Legs had wandered over to him. She brought her shadowy face close to his scruffy beard, giving him a few audible sniffs.

“You smell…different,” she said.

“That’s because I washed, and I’m wearing clean clothes,” he chuckled. “Remind me to go back and fetch my other set of undergarments, by the way. I left them drying on a rock by the river. Hopefully, they’ll be dry by the time we leave.”

“Are you going to sleep?” she asked, watching as he ducked into his lean-to.

“Sure am. There’s room for two if you want to sleep with a roof over your head, but I suppose you don’t need any shelter with that cloak of yours.”

She nodded, returning to her place in the roots of a nearby tree, pulling her cowl over her eyes.

 

***

 

Before breakfast the next morning, Legs insisted on practicing magic with him again, perhaps having been encouraged by her experience with the rifle. She wanted him to understand magic the same way that she now understood the workings of his gun, but it seemed an almost insurmountable task to George. It was esoteric, spiritual, not at all his area of expertise.

Still, he sat down with her in the ferns as the rising sun created pools of dappled gold on the forest floor, joining hands while she talked him through another exercise.

“Humility is key,” she whispered, George feeling the breeze blow his hair as he kept his eyes tightly shut. “To acknowledge that you are not an island, but a single part of a larger whole. You are never alone, never isolated, because you are surrounded by your brothers and sisters. Acknowledge them, listen to their whispers, heed them when they speak to you.”

“Not with my ears, right?”

“Indeed,” she replied. “Open yourself up, clear your mind of all expectations, and just…listen.”

He could have just sat there in silence for a while, pretending to do as she asked, and she probably wouldn’t have known the difference. Still, he wanted to understand, if that was even a possibility.

George listened to the wind, to the buzzing of the insects, to the creaking of the tree branches. He tried to empty his mind as Legs had advised, but it was so hard to think about nothing. By trying to think about nothing, he was still thinking about something, after all. Throughout his life, his mind had never been quiet. It had always been spinning, churning, not a moment going by that he wasn’t thinking or planning.

Controlling his breathing helped. He took in deep breaths through his nose, then exhaled, syncing his breathing with that of his companion. She was like a metronome, and he found it somehow easier to calm his mind with her as his guide. He felt her hands in his, the velvet texture of her fur, their warmth. She hadn’t told him how long he was supposed to keep this up, but he tried to abandon the concepts of future and past, focusing only on the present…

A whisper came to him.

At first, he thought that it was just the wind whistling through the branches, but it was something beyond sound. Like staring at a smudge on the ceiling until it took on a familiar shape, he focused on it intently, the vague sound becoming more distinct. As Legs had said, it was not something that one hears with their ears, but rather something that required a deeper connection. It was as if he was sensing an emotion, the intent of another person conveyed without words, yet one that was somehow alien. He did not recognize it, he couldn’t pin it down as being angry, happy, or sad. It just was, and George got the feeling that he was being scrutinized in turn.

Alarmed, he opened his eyes, finding Legs staring at him intently from beneath her hood.

“You felt it,” she hissed, George nodding his head.

“I…I don’t know what that was,” he said breathlessly, the experience leaving him somewhat flustered. “Something spoke to me, like a voice barely heard from a great distance, but I couldn’t understand what it was saying. Something was watching me, I could feel it.”

He glanced around at the trees nervously, but Legs reached up to place a comforting hand on his shoulder, focusing his attention back on her. Her face was still hidden, but he saw a glint of her green eyes beneath her cowl.

“They mean you no harm,” she said, her soft tone reassuring him. “They do not see you as an outsider, and neither do I.”

The comment might not have held any special meaning was he speaking with anyone else, but Legs had told him that the reason she hid her face and refused to tell him her name was because he was an outsider. She had used that word specifically.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“This is a place of powerful magic,” she explained, gesturing to the wealth of natural beauty that surrounded them. “It amplifies their voices, makes them easier to hear. They would not speak to you if you were not worthy of their attention.”

“I don’t know if they really spoke to me, exactly,” he muttered.

“I felt their eyes turn on you for a moment, they acknowledged you,” Legs insisted. “When we first met, I feared that you would be just another form of Blighter. A member of an opposing tribe, perhaps, but not aligned with good. Instead, I have found you to be kind, I have found you to be mindful. You heard our plight, and you expressed a desire to help. Now, the spirits recognize you, they give you their blessing. You have treated me as a friend, you have shared the food from your plate, and it is time that I did the same.”

“You already shared some of your bread with me,” he replied. “There’s no need to-”

Her hands left his, and she raised them to her hood, George’s breath catching in his throat as she began to lift it. Her horns protruded through a pair of splits in the material, the way that they swept back to follow the curve of her skull meaning that they didn’t hinder her as she pulled it up.

The light of the morning sun illuminated her face from the chin up, revealing a pair of full lips, then the straight nose with a black tip that he had glimpsed once before. A pair of large, green eyes blinked back at him, framed by long lashes. As the hood was pulled all the way back, the large, deer-like ears that he had seen when he had happened upon her bathing flopped free to either side of her head. He was met with the face of a beautiful young woman, her short, auburn hair blowing in the breeze. Her lily-white skin was clear for the most part, save for a coat of the same chestnut fur that covered her forehead and ran down the bridge of her nose. She had freckles on her cheeks, he realized, like the speckling on an eggshell.

George tried not to look too surprised for fear of offending her. She was strange, yes, but at once familiar. It was her beauty that awed him more than her unusual features, those doe eyes peering back at him like a pair of emeralds, catching the sunlight. She was the equal of any young woman he had seen back home, even without the powder or the rouge that they used so liberally. It was not what he had been expecting.

Before he could utter a word, something new drew his gaze. On one of the prongs of her swept-back horns, a strand of green appeared, coiling around it. As he watched, more of them sprouted, what looked like the stalks of a twisting plant appearing as if from nowhere. As they grew thicker and denser, they spread further, draping her horns in a crown of vines with verdant leaves. From these tendrils appeared buds, blooming before his eyes, as though hours were passing in mere seconds. A vibrant bouquet soon adorned her head, as though she was wearing a midsummer wreath, flowers of every color and species that he had encountered in the forest on display. It was as though some deity of spring had placed a crown upon her head.

If he had questioned the existence of magic before, it was undeniable now.

“My name is Tia,” she said. George tried his best not to stare, but he couldn’t look away. She didn’t seem to mind, merely batting those long lashes as she peered back at him.

“Should I…address you like we’re meeting for the first time?” he asked, glancing up at her horns again. “My people don’t have a custom like this.”

“No,” she replied, chuckling behind her hand. “If I have revealed myself to you, it means that we were already friends.”

He wanted to ask her what she was, but it might come off as rude, and she would have no basis for comparison anyway. George might look as strange and as exotic to her as she did to him, furless, hornless creature that he was. Instead, he gestured to her flowery headdress.

“Did you conjure those with magic?”

“The forest is happy to see my face again,” she replied with a warm smile, her cryptic response only begging more questions.

“And, I assume that sporting a crown of flowers isn’t very useful when you’re trying to go unseen.”

“That also,” she said with a nod.

“I feel like this is the first time we’ve met, but we already know each other,” George said with a nervous laugh. “It’s a little weird.”

“You may keep calling me Legs if it pleases you,” she replied with a giggle that made his heart skip a beat.

“No, no,” he mumbled. “Your name is important to you, this whole ritual is important. I’ll call you Tia from now on.”

“Will you cook for me again?” she asked, gesturing to the fireplace. It had gone out during the night, but it wasn’t quite cold yet. He could feel the heat coming off the still-smoldering embers beneath the layer of ash.

“Sure,” he replied, happy to be given something to occupy himself with. Perhaps it was her strange appearance or her unexpected beauty, but he suddenly found himself flustered around her. Perhaps it would have been easier for her to keep the hood on.

“We shall arrive at the village tonight,” she said, George glancing back at her on his way to his bag. “It is better that they see me with my hood down. They will know that you come in friendship, not as a prisoner.”

“Is there anything that I should know about this village before we get there?” he asked as he knelt by his pack, retrieving the cooking pot. “You make it sound like they wouldn’t exactly have thrown out the welcome mat if I’d turned up without an escort.”

“Well, we are at war,” she replied with a shrug. “And you do look a lot like a Blighter.”

“Do you think they’ll react positively? It took you a few days to warm up to me.”
“Probably not,” she conceded. “The elders trust me, they’ll listen when I tell them of your deeds. How you fought the Blighters, how you slew the abomination and saved my life in the process.”

“You did the same for me,” he chuckled, not accustomed to having such praises heaped on him.

 

***

George and Tia trekked through the verdant forest, Tia bounding over felled longs, so graceful on her long legs. The closer they got to her village, the more energy she seemed to have, as though the forest itself was imbuing her with it. She reached out to brush the colorful flowers with her fingers as she passed, turning on the spot every now and then as she glanced up at the leaves above, so light on her cloven hooves that she almost seemed to float through the undergrowth.

George felt pretty good too. Whether he was feeling a little of that magic himself, or if he was just pleased to see Tia so happy, he couldn’t say. Either way, she was radiant, her smile infectious. It was hard to believe that this cheerful girl was the same person who had embedded an arrow in a Blighter’s skull, who had held a blade to his throat and taken him prisoner.

“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” he said, watching as she paused to smell a flower that was growing from a patch of furry moss on a tree trunk.

“I am glad to be home,” she replied, her freckled cheeks flushing pink. “I have been away for so long, surrounded only by blighted forest.”

“How far is your village?” he asked.

“We should be coming upon it soon,” she replied, her tone becoming more serious. “Do not expect to be welcomed with open arms. Just remain silent, and let me do the talking.”

He nodded, the pair continuing on.

Their progress was soon halted by a river that wound its way between the trees, this one too deep and too fast to cross. Tia guided them a little further East until they came upon a bridge. As they drew closer, George realized that it was like no bridge he had ever seen before. It was not made from wood and masonry, but rather a tangle of what looked like roots and branches, the structure forming a perfect arch from one bank of the river to the other. It must have been thirty feet wide, at least, and there were even creepers and vines that had been cultivated to form railings. The architects – or perhaps the botanists – had placed flat stones atop it to level out the walkway.

George suddenly heard a creak from the branches on the far bank, along with the unmistakable sound of a bowstring being pulled taut.

“Who goes there?” a disembodied male voice demanded. George dared to glance up at the canopy, but he couldn’t see a damned thing.

“I am Tiaska!” she called back to them. “I have completed the task that the elders entrusted me with, and I have returned home. I took this one as my prisoner,” she added, gesturing to George. “But now, he travels with me as my equal. We ask for safe passage that we might speak with the elders. There is much that I have discovered.”

There was a pause, then George saw someone drop down from one of the trees on the far side of the river, landing gracefully in the ferns. It was another creature like Tia, with the same lithe build, the same deer-like legs. Another dropped down, then another, all of them wearing the same green cloaks with the shadowy hoods pulled over their heads. Their horns were larger than Tia’s, more like the antlers of a stag.

One by one, they pulled back their hoods, revealing their faces. They were male, with somewhat bulkier features than his dainty companion, two of them sporting tufts of hair on their chins that reminded George of a billy goat. These were clearly the males of whatever race she belonged to.

Seeing their faces put George a little more at ease, as he now understood the significance of the gesture. If they were showing themselves to him, it meant that they didn’t see him as a threat. He understood what Tia had meant now when she had told him that he probably wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms. If he had turned up alone, he would have been turned into a pincushion before he even had a chance to announce himself.

Tia guided him over the bridge, and he was surprised by how sturdy it was, not even creaking under their weight. On the other side of the river, they met up with the three guards, George feeling their suspicious gaze on him.

“Is this…a Blighter?” one of them asked as he looked George up and down. “Did you tame it?”

“He is not of their kind,” Tia replied. “When I found him, he and his companions were fighting against the Blighters. I saw them slay a great number with my own eyes, and when I took him as my captive with the intent to bring him back to the elders for questioning, he saved me from an abomination that attacked our camp in the night.”

“No one man can slay an abomination,” one of the guards scoffed.

“This one can,” Tia replied confidently, the guards exchanging skeptical glances as she walked past them. They fell in behind her, Tia seeming to know exactly where she was going despite the lack of any paths or signposts. George began to notice more guards as they made their way long, these ones making no effort to hide themselves as the first three had, peering out from their perches to get a better look at him. They were posted in the trees at intervals, high off the ground, keeping a watchful vigil. The forest had looked so peaceful, so serene, but these people were at war. He had to keep the horrors of the Blighters fresh in his mind lest he let himself be carried away by the beauty of this place and lose perspective.

After walking for maybe another hour, George spied something between the twisted trunks of the ancient trees ahead. It looked like a sheer wall made from plant matter, as though a row of trees had somehow been cultivated to grow together, weaving their roots and branches into a solid obstacle. Their great trunks stood tall and stout, reminding him of the turrets of a castle. It was old growth, that much was obvious as a glance, and it had been colonized by all manner of mosses and vines that carpeted it in a layer of greenery. It was a barrier tall enough that climbing it would have been quite a feat, the tops of the tall trees reaching perhaps seventy feet or more.

“It’s incredible,” George muttered, pausing to admire it.

“This is the wall that safeguards our village,” Tia explained. “Our ancestors grew it from saplings, guided the trees, encouraged them to form this great barrier. The villages further South have been abandoned, some razed by the Blighters, others evacuated ahead of their advance. This is our only stronghold now, the only place that we stand any chance of defending. There are more villages that remain to the North, but if this place should fall, it would mean the end for my people.”

She led him around the subtly curving base of the wall, the abundance of tangled roots making the terrain uneven. They soon came upon a massive doorway that had been carved into the structure. No, not carved. The two trees to either side of the passage stood there like marble pillars, their branches forming a perfect arch where they joined together. These people could do incredible things with plants, and George wondered if it was simply a matter of asking them, of requesting that they grow a certain way. Between the two trees was a pair of large doors about half the height of the walls, these made from planks that had obviously been fashioned by hand.

Some of the branches of the two trees were shaped into round platforms where more guards were standing, peering over the railings, but the presence of George’s escort seemed to assuage their concerns.

“Open the doors!” one of them called, and the great gates began to move. They slowly swung inwards, their weight palpable, the old wood creaking loudly as the gap between them steadily grew wider.

Through the aperture, the village came into view. It was like nothing George had ever seen before. When he thought of native settlements, he imagined the temporary camps of nomads, clusters of conical tents that could be quickly packed up and moved to a new place as the need arose. Instead, he was faced with more of the cultivated trees, these ones growing in and around the dwellings. It was hard to tell where the trees gave way to artificial structures, and vice versa, the two blending together. The buildings varied in their size and style, some clearly built by the inhabitants, others created solely from the living growth. Tia’s people seemed to favor round buildings with sloping roofs covered over with a carpet of moss, their small, uneven windows visible between convenient gaps in the roots and branches that cradled them. Some were at ground level, while others were suspended in the trees, spiral staircases made from yet more cultivated plants winding their way up the trunks to give the inhabitants easy access. The dwellings were three or four to a tree, sometimes more, rope bridges made from vines linking the higher platforms together. It was easily the size of a colonial village back East, with perhaps a hundred individual dwellings built around what looked to be thirty or forty trees of impressive size.

The wall encircled everything, creating a clear delineation between the village and the forest beyond its bounds, the trees within just as old and as tall as those outside.

“I’m going to have to sketch this,” he muttered, the guards flanking him as he followed Tia under the arch.

There were others of her kind going about their business inside the walls, pausing to stare at him as he passed by. Unlike Tia and the guards, they were not wearing cloaks. Instead, they were dressed in variations of leather loincloths and long skirts made of coarse fabric, the women sporting cloth slings to cover up their chests. Some wore garments made of fabric or leather that hung around their necks and shoulders, almost like a very small poncho, with a triangular hem that came just low enough to cover their breasts. They were woven with colorful patterns, some sporting tassels decorated with beads.

He noticed that all of the women sported similar headdresses to Tia, their swept-back horns decorated with blooming flowers, as did many of the men. Most of the women wore their hair longer than Tia, either braided or adorned with colorful beads and ribbons.

For the first time, he was able to see one of her kind from the front, their sparse clothing leaving little to the imagination. The coat of velvet fur that he had seen on Tia’s back when he had come across her bathing that night did not extend all the way around their torsos. It stopped at their sides, leaving their bellies and chests smooth.

“Where are we going?” George whispered, leaning closer to Tia as he walked beside her.

“To see the elders,” she replied. “It is better that I take you directly to them.”

She led him through the trees, George glancing up at the dwellings as he passed by them. The ground here was much clearer than in the forest proper, and there were footpaths that had been carved out by what must be years of use, making a snaking trail that led between the gnarled roots and patches of ferns.

At the center of the village was an especially tall tree, probably the biggest that George had seen so far. It was large enough that it could have been hollowed out and used as a goddamned lighthouse. It was immeasurably old, its trunk weathered by time, its wood gnarled and twisted. Despite its advanced age, it was still very much alive, its wide branches laden with green leaves.

Nestled in those branches was a structure far larger than the rest, its wooden walls covered over by creepers and fuzzy moss, its slate roof sagging. It looked almost as old as the tree that it had been built in. The branches had grown around it in a cradle to support its weight, winding along its walls, passing through them in some places. The two had merged into one, and it was hard to tell where one ended, and the other began.

Tia led him to the base of the tree, where its tangled roots broke ground, gesturing to a narrow staircase that spiraled its way up the tall trunk. The three guards in tow, they began to climb the uneven steps, George keeping a tight grip on the vine railing as the ground got further and further away.

At the end of the stairs was a platform that ringed the main building, two more guards standing between them and the door. They seemed alarmed by the sight of George, but the presence of Tia and the others assuaged those concerns, and they stepped aside to let them pass. As they approached the wooden door, Tia turned to place a hand on George’s chest.

“Wait here a moment,” she advised. “The elders may already be in a meeting.”

She pushed the door open with a creak, closing it behind her before he could get a good look inside. He waited patiently, not exactly comfortable with being left alone with the guards. They hadn’t stopped staring at him since he had arrived…

A minute later, Tia reemerged to beckon to him.

“They will see us now,” she said, George glancing at the guards before following after her. He had expected them to confiscate his rifle before he would be allowed an audience with their leaders, but it occurred to him that they probably had no idea what it was. From their perspective, he was just carrying a long stick.

As George stepped over the threshold, he noted that there were no gas lamps or candles inside. Instead, beams of sunlight broke in through gaps and holes in the ceiling above, illuminating the space. He found himself standing in a large, circular room, the conical ceiling a good twenty feet above him. It was crisscrossed not by support beams but rather by branches that wound their way through the structure, bracing and reinforcing it. He was surprised to see that there was a great deal of plant matter inside the building as well as outside, patches of moss clinging to the walls, mushrooms growing in the shadowy recesses.

At the far end of the room, across a rather uneven floor, was a trio of thrones. They were raised off the floor, suspended by a tangled mass of branches that rose up from beneath the building, cradling them like a pair of skeletal hands cupped towards the sky. The twigs and tendrils had braided together to form three seats, living leaves protruding from them in places, the large backrests rising up towards the ceiling.

Sitting upon the facsimiles of chairs were three aged figures. There were two men and a woman, the same race as Tia, but their hunched postures and their silvery fur indicated that they were far older than she was. Their clothing was more ornate than that of the other villagers, each one sporting a long robe that covered up most of their body, the beige fabric decorated with colorful geometric patterns in shades of green and blue. Their horns were almost large enough to be unwieldy, especially those of the men, draped with sagging vines and plants.

One of the old men reached out with a crooked finger, gesturing to George.

“Bring him here,” he croaked.

Tia guided George to the foot of the structure, making him feel like he was standing before a judge’s bench. He didn’t know how to address these people. Should he treat them as royalty? As public servants? Either way, Tia had told him to keep his mouth shut and let her do the talking, so he followed her advice.

“He looks like a Blighter,” the woman said, leaning forward in her chair to get a better look at him. “And yet…he does not.”

“You are sure that he is not one of them?” the man sitting in the middle seat added, stroking the long beard that dangled from his chin pensively. George was amused to see that there was a small sparrow perched on one of the prongs of his antlers. “A deserter, perhaps? An exile?”

“His people knew nothing of the Blighters,” Tia explained. “They came from outside the forest, from across the plains to the East. I bore witness to their battle, and it was a bitter one. There was no kinship among them.”

“Tell us what you saw,” the woman said, steepling her fingers as Tia began to recount the tale.

***

Tia spoke for perhaps an hour, recounting everything that she had seen. The movements and activities of the Blighters prior to George’s arrival, the waya that he and his company had killed, the battle that she had witnessed between them. She told the three elders of how she had taken George captive, how she had slowly learned of his true nature, and how he had slain the abomination that had ambushed them that night in the camp. They listened, asking her questions every now and then, their skepticism slowly fading. Much like Tia, it was his weapon that was of special interest to them, this fabled power that could grant its wielder victory when even a whole hunting party of warriors would have been forced to turn tail.

George began to grow frustrated. They were ignoring him, as though he had no voice of his own, as though he was just some stray animal that Tia had brought back with her. Was he not an equal partner in this venture? Had he not played his role in getting Tia back to them safely? Was he not the bearer of the weapon that had them all so intrigued?

He waited for a lull in the conversation, then cleared his throat loudly, getting the attention of everyone in the room. Tia gave him a silent look as if to ask, what the hell do you think you’re doing?

“Excuse me,” he said, one of the elders cocking their head at him curiously. “My name is George Ardwin. I’m a member of an expeditionary team thirty men strong that was sent here to survey the land for resources. I was the cartographer of that expedition. My job was to make a record of everything that we saw, and to map our progress. At present, those men are trapped in the blighted forest to the South. They don’t know what’s going on, nor do they understand the true nature of the dangers that they face. I have already pledged to support your cause in any way that I can, but know that if those men perish, then your hopes will die along with them. It is of the utmost importance that a company of your warriors be dispatched to relieve them with haste if you wish to make use of their weapons. I fear that every day that passes, their numbers will dwindle, either because they have died or because they have deserted.”

“You have the authority to speak on their behalf?’ the female elder croaked, her tone implying that she didn’t much care for his outburst.

“I am not the leader of the company,” he replied. “That would be Mister Dawes. That said, I know the fellow, and he will be amenable to treating with you. We are all facing the same enemy here, we all share the same fate. They will welcome your aid, and they will repay it in kind. Of that, you can be certain.”

“This one speaks with confidence,” the woman muttered, turning back to her fellow elders. “Is Tiaska’s testimony enough to guarantee that his words are true?”

“The forest spoke to him,” Tia added, the three turning their gaze on her.

“You witnessed this?” one of the men demanded.

“I was meditating with him when it happened,” she explained. “It was only a whisper, but George was acknowledged, the spirits recognized him for but a moment.”

“Then, he may be who he says he is,” one of the men conceded. The sparrow on his antler flapped its little wings as he settled back into his chair, George unsure of whether it was the gnarled wood or his hunched body creaking. “The spirits would not accept a Blighter into their midst.”

“This requires more deliberation,” the other man said, his counterparts nodding their horned heads in agreement.

“Did you not hear me when I told you that time was of the essence?” George demanded. “My company has a defensible position, but they cannot hold out for long, if indeed they have not decided to flee already. Wait too long, and you may arrive to find an empty camp. Worse, you may find one populated by walking corpses instead of willing allies.”

“Your concerns are duly noted,” the female elder replied, her patience clearly tested by his insistence. “Still, committing such a force to mount an attack so deep into blighted territory is no small thing. It will be dangerous, and it will leave the village vulnerable. We must weigh the merits of this carefully.”

“That will be all,” another of the elders said. “Remain close, and we will send for you when we have come to a decision.”

George wanted to say more, but Tia took him by the arm, guiding him back over to the door. Once they were outside, she breathed a sigh of relief, then wheeled around to glare at him.

“Did I not tell you to let me do the talking?” she asked, planting her fists on her hips.

“They’re just rattling on about nothing while my friends might be dying,” he replied, unapologetic. “They needed a kick in the pants.”

“Well, at least they’re actually considering it now,” she added. She made her way over to the wooden railing, looking out over the village, the wall rising up in the distance. “They are not known for their expediency when it comes to such matters. I hope that they will not drag their hooves.”

“What are we supposed to do until then?” George asked.

“If they decide to grant you the support that you have requested, we will be facing another long trek into the blighted forest. The road ahead will be difficult, dangerous. We may not prevail. We should treat what time we have as a gift from the spirits, enjoy it to its fullest.”
“I suppose we could both use a break,” George sighed, leaning on the railing beside her. “There’s nothing that we can do to hurry them along?”

“We must wait,” she replied. “I know that it is difficult, but their authority must be respected.”

“So,” he added, turning to look out at the village. “Do you live here? When you’re not out in the forest, I mean.”

“My home is that way,” she said, pointing into the trees.

“Let’s go take a look.”

***

Tia led George through the village, and they arrived at another of the little wooden dwellings, this one nestled in the roots of a great tree. It wasn’t below ground, but the way that the roots had climbed over and around it certainly gave that impression, the slate roof covered over by a carpet of flowering moss.

Tia gripped the handle of the wooden door, trying to open it, then giving it a harder shove with her shoulder. After a second, it creaked open, Tia turning to give him a sheepish grin.

“I have not been back in a while,” she said, stepping inside. George followed her, having to duck under the door frame, as it was a little low for him.

The interior was small, the ceiling just high enough that he could stand upright with his six-foot frame, the distance between the walls perhaps twice the span of his outstretched arms. There was a wooden chest pushed up against one of the walls, along with a bed, the wooden frame built to follow the curve of the building. It was piled with fluffy animal pelts rather than blankets. Just like the room where he had met the elders, the roots of the tree pushed through the structure in places, bracing it like support beams. There were patches of moss on the walls, and there was a cluster of mushrooms growing through the uneven floorboards, but he didn’t know if that was a consequence of her long absence or not.

“This is my home,” she said proudly. George nodded approvingly, not wanting to burst her bubble. What he might call cramped and dank, she saw as cozy and homely.

“Doesn’t the rain get in through those cracks?” he asked, gesturing to the ceiling above. Wherever the roots had pushed through the planks and tiles, shafts of light shone through, providing the only illumination.

“Not if you ask it not to,” Tia replied, George cocking an eyebrow at her. Perhaps things like structural integrity and insulation were moot points when you could just ask the rain to stay away and petition the cold to respect your property line.

The first thing that Tia did was hang up her bow and her quiver of arrows on a simple rack that looked like it might have been fashioned from Hottah antlers, then she knelt in front of her chest, prying it open. When George stepped closer to peer over her shoulder, he saw that it was full of pieces of fabric that might be clothing, along with other items that were probably simple tools. This little chest might contain all of her belongings. Her people lived off the land, and an abundance of property would only slow them down.

He paused to examine his surroundings in more detail, noticing several trophies that were hanging from the walls, no doubt the pelts and horns of animals that she had hunted. There were more weapons, too. He could see a spear carved from a knotted branch, strips of leather wrapped around the haft, the pointed tip made from what looked like a shard of obsidian. There were shelves, too, laden with what looked like cooking utensils. Her people didn’t seem to have metalworking, so they were all made from polished wood.

“Would you step out for a moment?” Tia asked, rising to her feet with a bundle of colored cloth in her arms. “I have not changed my clothes in a while.”

George nodded, ducking back through the doorway, then closing it behind him. He twiddled his thumbs for a moment, giving a pair of passing villagers who were staring at him a hesitant wave. After a couple of minutes, the door creaked on its hinges, and he stepped aside to see Tia emerge.

Her green cloak was gone, and around her narrow shoulders, she wore one of the pieces of fabric that he had seen earlier. It was a collar made from a coarse material akin to hemp that hung down over her chest in a V-shape, just low enough to preserve her modesty. It was decorated with woven patterns in shades of blue and yellow, tassels adorned with glass beads hanging from the hem, perhaps as a way to help weigh it down. There was nothing attaching it below her modest bosom, leaving a tantalizing gap between its point and her torso where it hung free.

Like the other villagers, her body was mostly clear of fur from the front, the subtle contours of her abdominal muscles visible beneath her smooth skin. Tia’s body was lithe, lightly-muscled, honed by a life of athleticism. Her porcelain complexion gave way to the chestnut coat that covered her back and legs, velvety and shiny, patterned here and there with white spots.

Her slim waist flared into hourglass hips, now adorned with a slim belt of leather that was holding up a simple loincloth made from the same material as her collar, embroidered with more geometric patterns. The nature of the garment revealed her thighs, which were just as stout as he had come to expect, packed with the wiry muscle that let her leap through the trees with such ease and grace. They were covered with reddish fur, patterned with faded spots on the outside. Her velvet coat seemed to cover her from the waist down, but he wasn’t quite so bold as to look that closely. Legs had been more apt a name than he had realized at the time – they were so long and slender…

His glance had only lasted a moment, and when his eyes met hers again, he was greeted with a warm smile.

“This is how we usually dress,” she explained. “The cloaks are just tools, like a bow or a knife.”

“You look…good,” he stammered, watching her freckled cheeks warm at the compliment. “Hey, do you mind if I store my stuff in your house?” he added as he gestured over her shoulder. “I’ve been lugging this pack around for hours.”

“Oh, go ahead,” she replied as she stepped out of his way. “My home is your home for as long as you remain here.”

He pushed through the narrow doorway, then shrugged off his pack, setting it against one of the walls. After considering for a moment, he decided to keep his rifle slung over his shoulder. It wasn’t that he feared his new hosts, but it was his one bargaining chip, and the idea of leaving it unattended didn’t sit right with him. As he returned to Tia’s side, she noted that he still had the weapon, but her lack of comment suggested that she understood his reasoning.

“So, what do you do to relax around here?” George asked. “I’m assuming that you don’t spend all of your free time meditating?”

“Come,” she said, taking him by the hand. “First, I will introduce you to my friends. It feels like it has been an age since I last shared a cup with them, and I am sure they will be interested to hear of our exploits!”

She was so cheerful again, energetic, a spring in her step as she began to lead him into the village.

***

They arrived at a larger structure, this one situated between two tall trees, the roots of both reaching out to wrap their tangled tendrils around it. It was larger than the rest, with a more conical roof, smoke billowing from an opening at its apex.

As Tia led him through a pair of doors, he quickly saw that it was some kind of social space. In the center of the circular room was a roaring fire surrounded by a ring of large stones, recessed into the dirt floor. More flat stones had been arranged to form a primitive cooking area, heated by the flames beneath, and there were several spits suspended over it. The scent of cooking hit him like a wall, making his mouth start to water. There were several bubbling pots hanging over the flames, along with cuts of meat that were roasting on their spits. On the flat stones, the villagers were cooking batches of the bread that Tia had shared with him during their travels. The wall of the room was stacked with shelves and chests, along with wooden barrels and receptacles that looked like they might hold liquids. There were tanning racks where fresh leathers were being cured, and there were racks of meat and fish that were being dried for storage.

Occupying the room were a dozen villagers, men and women alike, dressed in the styles that he was becoming accustomed to. They were chatting, making merry, the building filled with their jovial conversations. They might be at war, but they clearly placed a lot of value in recreation.

When they noticed George, the conversation slowly died to a murmur. Their looks were curious, suspicious, but none of them seemed outright afraid of him.

“Tia? You have come back?” a female voice asked. One of the villagers rose to their feet, a woman dressed in a loincloth and a sling, her swept-back horns decorated with the same wreath of living flowers. She hurried over, Tia embracing her in a tight hug, George watching curiously.

“I thought that you had been sent by the elders to track the movements of the Blighters?” she asked. Finally seeming to notice George, she stopped, pausing to glance up at him.

“I returned to you early,” Tia replied, giving her friend an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “I discovered far more than Blighters, as you can see,” she added with a gesture to George.

More of the villagers were coming over now, the rest starting to talk again, nudging each other and pointing to the newcomers. Each of the people who approached Tia embraced her fondly, welcoming her back with all the warmth of a family reunion, fawning over her as she chatted to them. George was left to do little more than watch quietly, feeling even more out of place than he had before. This was a tight-knit community, and while it was impossible to tell if these were friends or relatives of Tia, they clearly had a very close relationship.

The topic of conversation soon turned to George, a circle of the horned creatures forming around him as they scrutinized him, some of them reaching out to paw at his strange clothes. Thanks to Tia’s reassurances, they were no longer afraid of him, and he could do little other than stand there as they made a spectacle of him.

After a few minutes, it seemed that the introductions were over, the villagers returning to their places around the fire. Tia beckoned to him, extending a hand in invitation.

“Come,” she insisted. “Join us.”

He followed her over to the fireside, crossing his legs as he sat down beside her on the dirt floor.

“Who are these people?” he whispered, leaning closer so as not to be overheard. “Are they your friends? Your family, maybe?”

“We make no such distinction,” she chuckled. “These people are my kin, people I have grown up with, people I have shared my life with. I have known many of them since I was a child.”

“They seem happy to see you.”

“I had been sent into the blighted forest by order of the elders,” she explained. “I was gone for many weeks, and there was no guarantee that I would return alive. It was a dangerous task, but a necessary one. They are relieved to see me safe.”

“Tell us what you saw, Tiaska!” one of the villagers demanded. A chorus of voices followed, all of them demanding the details of her story. George had asked her what her people did for recreation, and it seemed that telling stories was one of their more popular pastimes.

***

Tia spoke for hours, telling a long, detailed story of everything that had transpired since she had left the village. George hadn’t heard all of it, and it was interesting to hear the things that he had personally witnessed relayed with her characteristic enthusiasm, along with her unique perspective.

She spoke of her journey into the forest, one of several scouts who were skilled with a bow and light on their hooves who had been sent to spy on the Blighters. He listened with bated breath as she relayed how she had hidden from their patrols, lurking in trees and under the cover of bushes, close enough to smell their foul stench on the air. There had been so many close calls, times that she had escaped certain death by the breadth of a hair, but she had always managed to evade her enemies.

Next, she told the story of how she had come across the waya that George and his companions had slain in the woods. She told of how she had heard cracks like thunder in the forest and had tracked down their source, fearing that it was some manner of Blighter magic. Instead, she had come across the ruined body of the animal, torn apart by their guns.

Her captive audience listened intently, marveling when George raised his rifle at Tia’s request. She explained how it worked to them as best as she was able, amusing George with her descriptions of fire and thunder that could tear even a blighted creature asunder with its power.

She continued on, telling of how she had come across his party fighting off a horde of Blighters, how they had cut them down one after the other, and how some of their own number had been slain by the savages. This garnered many nods of respect from the villagers. It seemed that they were a people who respected martial prowess and personal sacrifice a great deal.

Tia told the story of how she had met George, how he had been wrestling with a Blighter when she had slain it with a well-placed arrow to the top of the head. She grew more animated as her story went on, eventually rising to her feet before the dancing flames, her every word punctuated with an exaggerated gesture as though she was performing a theater show. It was rather engaging, and her audience was eating it up.

The villagers began to pass around food as they watched, one of them handing George something that resembled a leg of mutton, the meat still on the bone. He wasn’t sure how it had been seasoned, but it tasted great, the succulent flesh practically melting in his mouth. The villagers ate a great deal of vegetables, too, usually roasted in much the same way as the meat. Nobody asked anything of him in return, sharing their meal freely.

There was also some kind of fermented drink that they served in shallow, wooden bowls, from which they took conservative sips. It looked to George like they were drinking from saucers. When one of them was passed his way, he took a tentative sniff of the red liquid, finding that it had a distinctly alcoholic scent. It seemed to be some kind of wine, probably made from fermented berries of some kind. After a couple of sips, he decided that he liked it.

They seemed impressed when Tia described how she had taken George prisoner, considering that he must weigh twice what she did, and he allowed her a little artistic license so as not to spoil the show.

Her face lit by the crackling fire, she told the tale of how they had been ambushed by the abomination, going into gory detail as she described its hideous appearance. Even George felt his heart race as she relayed the battle blow by blow, how she had kept it distracted while George had readied his rifle, how her own arrows had been but pinpricks to the beast. When she told of how his rifle had rung out like thunder and how his bullets had found their mark, the villagers looked at him in awe.

At Tia’s insistence, he rose to his feet alongside her, miming firing the gun as she sang his praises. She described how she had been trapped by a falling branch, how he had blown the front of the creature’s face clean off its skull in her defense, and how it had turned to charge him down. He couldn’t help but feel a small swell of pride as she told of how he had stood his ground, aiming the final blow that had felled the seemingly unstoppable monster.

The last part of her story concerned his tentative forays into meditation, and how the forest spirits had whispered to him. For some reason, his small success was just as impressive to them as his slaying of the blighted creature. Tia had told him that being acknowledged by the spirits, even in some minor way, was significant. Perhaps it had deeper cultural implications than he had realized.

When her story – or rather her performance – had come to its end, she sat back down and was promptly bombarded with questions. George got the same treatment, the villagers asking him about where he had come from, and whether he was going to rally his comrades back in the Blighted forest to help them. He gave them all of the assurances that he could, while also trying to temper their expectations. At this rate, he didn’t know if anyone would even be left alive by the time he returned to the camp, though he didn’t tell them that.

George was able to tell his own stories, too. Encouraged by Tia, he took her place by the fire, relaying how he and his company had first encountered the tatanka on the plains. Many of them had never left the forest and had thus never encountered the animal, hanging on his every word as he described it to them. Next, he told of how Baker had been separated from the rest of the men during the encounter with the blighted waya, and how he had returned to the camp as a ghoul.

As the night went on, more of the villagers rose in turn to relay the news to those who were out of the loop, Tia included. George quickly realized that this public forum served as their newspaper as much as their theater, listening intently as they told of recent battles with the Blighters. It seemed that another village to the South had been evacuated recently, and their warriors had put up a valiant defense to cover the retreat, losing several of their number in the process. The enemy was encroaching further North by the day, spreading their plague as they went, the death and destruction that they wrought strengthening their connection with their dark God.

“What do you know about this God the Blighters are said to worship?” George asked once the conversation had died down and most of the villagers were occupied with their meals. “My company and I came across their alters in the blighted forest, the ones that played merry hell with my compass. They had strung up bodies on trees, like totems.”

“Those are the source of their scourge,” Tia explained, taking a sip from her bowl. “Wherever they erect them, the blight starts to spread. As for their God, it is a spirit, not unlike those that grant my people their blessings and protections. It is a spirit of death, of war, of sickness. It is the antithesis of life, and it holds only disdain for the living, granting those that make sacrifices to it the power to make cruel mockeries of nature.”

Now that George was starting to accept the existence of magic and spirits, the threat that they faced seemed all the more terrifying. Fighting a plague was one thing, but fighting against an evil spirit? What could a mortal man do when faced with such an enemy?

“How does one kill a spirit?” he asked. “I don’t think my rifle is going to do the job.”

“That, I am not sure,” she conceded. “Perhaps if all of its followers are slain, it will no longer have a means to exert its influence on the physical world. Without people to do its bidding, to spread its sickness, it will recede back into the shadows from whence it came.”

“Do you know where it came from?” he continued, staring into the roaring flames.

“Death is a natural part of life,” she replied. “Decay, disease, these are elements of nature. They are not elements that we celebrate, but where there is light, there must also be shadow. For each bountiful spring, there must also be a harsh winter. Wherever this spirit originated, it is out of balance, running rampant. If someone does not correct that balance, I fear what might happen, how far it may spread. You already spoke of tatanka out on the plains being blighted. If it has already touched them, then who knows how far its influence may one day reach.”

It was as much of an answer as he could expect, and George turned his attention back to the merriment of the villagers, trying to enjoy this reprieve while he had the opportunity. There was food, drink, and good company. No point dwelling on things that he couldn’t change right now…

***

The sun had set by the time they left the building, leaving the sounds of conversation and the smells of fresh-cooked food behind them. The full moon was out, and the sky was cloudless, which meant that it wasn’t too dark. The villagers had no candles or oil lamps, but the wavering glow of their hearths poured out into the forest, picking out the uneven windows through the trees.

“Can I show you something?” Tia asked, George nodding his head. “Come on,” she added, taking him by the hand. “It’s this way.”

She led him through the village, which was mostly deserted now, as its inhabitants were turning in for the night. Just when he was starting to ask her where she was going, she veered off one of the well-trodden paths, heading toward a clump of bushes at the base of the wall. She guided him through the tangled roots, the leaves rustling as she pushed through one of the shrubs, waving for him to follow.

“What’s this?” he wondered, following behind her.

“It’s a secret way in and out of the village,” she explained. “Well, it’s not really a secret, but it’s never guarded. Only the people who live here would know about it.”

“Are we not allowed outside?” George asked, wondering if he was about to become a criminal. The last thing he needed was to be taken captive by these people again.

“Well, it is not encouraged in our present situation,” she replied. “Though, there are no Blighters this far North. At least, not yet.”

So, they were sneaking out? George suddenly felt like a boy again. Tia led him through a low tunnel that the roots had formed, George having to crouch to avoid hitting his head. It smelled like damp soil, and he was glad that he had no lantern, fearing what crawling creatures might make this dark place their home.

When they emerged on the other side of the wall, the silver moonlight lit their way, the ancient forest ahead of them aglow with swarms of floating fireflies. Tia set off, bounding along with her usual grace, George trudging through the undergrowth behind her. He glanced back at the wall, worried that a guard might mistake him for a Blighter and fill him full of arrows, but Tia seemed confident that they wouldn’t be stopped.

She veered West, towards the mountain, seeming to know where she was going despite her lack of a map or compass. These trees were far older than her, probably older than the village itself, which meant that these same branches might have sheltered her when she was but a girl.

Tia hopped over a root, twirling as she disturbed a swarm of fireflies, her smiling face cast in their green luminescence. They floated around her like a cloud of tiny stars, then dissipated, scattering into the air above her. She really was in her element here, and for just a moment, George felt a swell of nostalgia for the old oak trees that had grown on the grounds of his college. They weren’t as ancient as these trees looked, but they were old enough by Albion standards.

They walked for what must have been a good couple of miles, the sound of running water eventually reaching George’s ears. They emerged from the treeline into a clearing where the light of the moon shone brighter in the absence of the forest canopy, George’s eyes widening. There was a small cliff face to his right, tiered like steps, the exposed stone weathered and smoothed by time. Greenery spilled over its edges, taking hold everywhere that it could find purchase, white water cascading down the exposed rocks. It was a waterfall, creating a mist in the air as it plunged into the pool below, the gentle sound of its flow rising above the buzzing of the chirping of the insects. The pool fed into a stream that wound its way further downhill, snaking between the trees.

“Is it not beautiful?” Tia asked, prancing down to the edge of the water. “This place is where I used to come when I wanted to be alone as a girl. I would sit here on the shore and contemplate, or I would swim in the pool, see how long I could hold my breath. It is far from a secret, but few villagers ever seemed to come here.”

“Yeah, it’s really something,” George said as he made his way down to join her. The bank was rocky, rather than sandy, a blend of large stones and smaller pebbles that had been polished almost flat by the water. They crunched under his boots, George stopping just short of the water, watching as Tia waded deeper. She wasn’t wearing any shoes or pants, so there was nothing for her to get wet. When she was knee-deep, she turned to glance at him, noticing that he was stooping to pick up one of the flat stones.

“What are you doing?” she asked, cocking her head as he weighed it in his hand. He stroked its surface with his thumb, ensuring that it was the right shape, then drew back his arm. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it skipping across the surface of the pool, Tia’s green eyes tacking it. It bounced five times, then sank below the surface, his companion’s laughter filling the clearing.

“How did you do that?” she demanded, giggling as she waded back over to him.

“It’s called skipping,” he explained. “You take a rock that’s the right shape, kind of round and flat, then you angle it so that it skips along the surface of the water. You have to give it a bit of a spin first.”

“Show me again,” she insisted, those emerald eyes glittering as she watched him search for another stone. After finding a suitable candidate, he repeated the action, going more slowly this time so that she could watch. The stone skipped five times, then sank.

“Oh, that was a good one,” he said as he watched the ripple that it created. The pool was remarkably calm a few feet from where the waterfall fed into it, reflecting the full moon like a mirror.

Tia chose a stone for herself, then gave it a throw, pouting as it sank out of view.

“Let me show you,” George chuckled, moving up behind her. He placed a pebble in her hand, then guided her arm, just as he had when he had taught her how to fire his rifle. Slowly, he showed her how to flick her wrist, having to lean his head a little to the right to avoid the prongs of her horns. His nose hovered only an inch above the crown of flowers that adorned her hair, their perfume filling his lungs, their scents as varied as the vibrant colors of their petals. They weren’t attached to anything – there was no soil to ground them – yet their magical sustenance made them thrive.

It was strange to contemplate that this girl and the cloaked woman he had met in the blighted forest were one and the same. He had slowly nurtured a begrudging relationship with his terse, hooded captor, one that had eventually blossomed into a friendship born of mutual trust. She had risked her life for him, as he had for her, and he had eventually come to see her as a comrade in arms not unlike Sam and the others he had left behind. When she had revealed her true self to him – her disarming beauty, her infectious joie de vivre – it had left him reeling. Now, with her lithe body pressed up against his and her flowery perfume invading his senses, he wasn’t sure what to feel.

She was so slight for someone so competent. He marveled at how much narrower her shoulders were compared to his, how her head barely reached his chin, how her hands were small enough that he could have enclosed her fist in his own. Tia leaned into him as she drew her arm back, thinking nothing of the way that her body pressed up against his, George able to feel her surprising warmth through his clothes. Her outfit was limited to that odd collar and her loincloth, leaving her all but naked by any civilized metric, her fluffy tail brushing against his belt.

Noticing that his mind was wandering, she turned to glance at him over her shoulder, careful not to catch him with her horns. Her proximity put her freckled face a hair’s breadth from his own, those green eyes catching the moonlight as she batted her long lashes at him. He realized that there was a flush in her cheeks, his own already warming.

Her lips parted – how had he never noticed how full and red they were before? – Tia leaning back into him. The stone fell from her hand, clattering to the rocks below, her slender fingers interlocking with his own. He felt her warm breath as she neared, those soft lips pressing against his, the taste of her kiss making his heart miss a beat. Her embrace was quick, tentative, like a person testing thin ice for fear of falling through.

When she drew away, she peered back at him with those doe eyes, her expression a blend of apprehension and excitement. She waited for him to reciprocate, perhaps fearing that his surprised expression was one of disapproval. Eager to prove her wrong, he let go of her hand, cupping her cheek. Her skin was as smooth as silk, burning hot, her lashes fluttering as he guided her in for a second kiss. This one was slower, the pair taking their time, her agile tongue brushing against his own. She grew more confident as it dragged on, each gentle stroke imbued with a palpable desire. He couldn’t breathe without taking in the scent of her flowers, couldn’t focus on anything but her taste, and the smoothness of her organ as it wrestled with his own.

She pulled back, pushing her face into his palm, nuzzling.

“I can feel your heart beating against my back,” she whispered, George’s spine going as straight as a board as she pushed her rump into him. “I was afraid that you would not see me as you would a woman of your own ilk, that I might be little more than a curiosity to you, just another forest animal for your journal.”

“N-no,” he stammered, daring to curl his other arm around her narrow waist. “Ever since you took off that cloak, I’ve…I’ve not known what to think. Where I come from, women don’t shoot bows, they don’t fight alongside the men. I wasn’t expecting someone so beautiful to be hiding under there.”

“Is flattery common where you come from?” she chuckled, the warmth in her cheeks suggesting that she was enjoying his compliments all the same.

“No more common than women like you,” he replied. Was it his imagination, or did the flowers that were coiled around her horns become all the more vibrant when she smiled? It was so hard to tell in the moonlight.

Tia pulled away from him, George releasing his hold on her waist, and she twirled around to face him. She took his hand, giving him a tug, guiding him down to the water’s edge.

“Come on,” she insisted, giggling at him as he stumbled over the rocks. She clearly wanted him to join her in the water, and despite not being particularly excited about getting wet, he couldn’t refuse her. Not after that kiss, not after the unspoken promise that more was to come.

Hopping on one foot, he shed a boot, then the other, Tia grinning at him as she reached the edge of the pool. Seeing her prance around like that, so light on her feet, made him feel like a lumbering tatanka in comparison.

“Hang on,” he complained, Tia grinning at him as he struggled out of his pants. He had dry underclothes waiting in his pack back at Tia’s cottage, but if he got his pants and jacket wet, he’d be wandering around the village only partially-dressed for a good day or more.

Once his clothes and his rifle were lying on the bank, he followed her into the pool, the water pleasantly cool against his bare feet. His long johns grew heavier as he waded up to his knees, Tia guiding him deeper, her smile infectious. When the water had risen to chest level, she drew him in for another kiss, his hands sliding against her damp fur as he wrapped his arms around her. Long had he admired her shining coat, but only now could he touch it, its texture reminiscent of the finest velvet. The water made it slick, George feeling the muscles in her back flex at his touch as he ran his fingers up the indent of her spine, passion guiding his hands. Even so, he kept them above her waist, not wanting to outpace her.

Tia teased him, alternating between light pecks and deeper, more covetous kisses that made his head spin. She was so unreserved now, throwing all semblance of modesty to the wind. He had never been kissed like this before – he had never felt free enough to kiss like this. Her tongue was like wet silk, her lips so pillowy and inviting, George unable to take a breath without filling his lungs with the perfume of her flowery headdress.

He felt her hands slide beneath his shirt, peeling the wet fabric away from his skin, her questing fingers tracing the contours of his body. George was as different from her as she was from him, and he realized that she would never have had an opportunity to explore someone like him before. He felt her press down gently, testing the firmness of his muscles, seeming to marvel at the broadness of his chest. George wasn’t the strongest or the stoutest man in his company, but he still dwarfed Tia’s light frame.

Wanting to sate her curiosity, he struggled out of his wet shirt, tossing it towards the shore where it landed on the stones with a damp slap. His torso now exposed, she ran her hands across his chest, drawing closer to him. He felt her lips on his neck, warmer than the night air, her black nose brushing his cheek.

“I have wanted to touch you like this ever since I watched you bathe in the river that night,” she whispered, pressing one of her floppy ears against his chest as she listened to the rapid beating of his heart. “I have never beheld a man with no fur before.”

“You saw that?” he muttered, hearing her chuckle to herself. “I, uh…saw you too. Only from the back. It was an accident,” he added hurriedly.

“Oh, that was you?” she replied sarcastically. “I thought that maybe a hottah had become drunk on fermented berries and was stumbling around the woods in a stupor.”

“I suppose I’m not as stealthy as I thought I was.”

She reached up to kiss him again, the warmth of her embrace intoxicating, Tia cupping his face in her hands as she guided him deeper. His feet left the rocky bottom, and he began to float, Tia releasing him from her grasp. She started to swim over to where the waterfall splashed down onto the rocks, George following after her, the gentle spray raining down on them like mist. She didn’t seem concerned that her flowers were getting wet, droplets of water clinging to their petals like morning dew.

“How do your people go about this?” George asked, Tia pressing up against him beneath the waterfall’s spray. “Courting, I mean. Is there some ritual I have to complete? Do I need your father’s permission?”

“The only permission that you need is my own,” she chuckled. “My kind are free to do as we please when it comes to matters of the heart.”

“And…what does your heart tell you?” he asked.

“That you are large, but gentle,” she replied as she spun around him in the water like a ballroom dancer. “That you are fierce, but also kind. You could have fled when the abomination had me trapped, you could have left it to feast on me while you made your escape, and you would have been free of the both of us. But you chose to stand your ground.”

“I couldn’t very well have left you alone,” he replied. “You needed my help.”

“And you gave it without question,” she added, giving him a peck on the cheek. “When you carried me back to the camp, I thought that my heart might leap out of my chest. I was glad that you could not see my face.”

“I had no idea what you might look like under that hood,” he said, remembering the goat-faced creatures that he had imagined while alone in his tent.

“Yet you still extended your hand in friendship,” she added, pressing him up against one of the smooth rocks. The way that her bosom squashed up against his chest through the damp fabric of her collar was maddening, George resting his hands on the curve of her hips, the belt that held up her loincloth brushing his fingers. “I want more than friendship,” she added, biting his lip and giving it a gentle tug.

George felt like steam was about to come pouring out of his ears. He had admired Tia from afar, and now, she was in his arms. He didn’t understand the whims of the women he had grown up around, never mind this strange, untamed girl. He had no frame of reference for what her culture considered acceptable conduct, how they might behave when it came to private matters, whether this audacious woman might want to have him here in the pool. He silently chastised himself for his own presumptuousness, but what else could he think with her taste still on his lips?

“Can I ask something of you?” she said, her emerald eyes reflecting the light of the moon in a way that made them seem to glow. She was so overwhelmingly beautiful. The freckles on her blushing cheeks, the flowers in her auburn hair – it was enough to make butterflies swarm in his stomach.

“Anything,” he replied, swallowing conspicuously.

“Will you make me mushroom ketchup, like you promised?”

All of the tension that had been building was suddenly released, exploding out of him as laughter. He leaned Tia back in the water, delving a hand into her silky hair and drawing her in for another affectionate kiss.

“I’ll make you the best mushroom ketchup anyone has ever made.”

“We should return to the village soon,” she said, reaching up to straighten her flowers. “I fear that you might catch a cold on the way back.”

“I guess I am a little wet,” he admitted, glancing down at his waterlogged long johns. “It’s fine. I have dry clothes in my pack.”

“Come,” she chuckled, starting to float back towards the shore. “We shall get you dry.”

***

They made their way back through the forest, George carrying his dry clothes in one arm and his wet shirt in the other. Fortunately, his boots were dry, so it wasn’t too uncomfortable. The water didn’t seem to bother Tia, but she was wearing so little, and she had no need for shoes.

Since their romantic encounter in the pool, he had allowed himself to see her in a more covetous light, the graceful features that he had so admired now setting his heart skipping. She was so lithe, so athletic, soft and springy in all the places that a man might desire.

When they arrived back at the base of the wall, they crouched through the low tunnel of roots again, emerging into the soft glow of the huts on the other side. George hadn’t yet mapped the layout of the village in his mind’s eye, so he followed Tia back along the snaking footpaths until they reached her little cottage. George felt so exposed walking around wearing only his boots and a pair of drenched long johns. He had to keep in mind that the dress standards here were much more lax than those that he was used to, so he doubted that anyone would be offended.

He ducked through the narrow doorway, stepping into Tia’s quaint little home, his companion turning to grin at him.

“What should I do with my wet clothes?” he asked as he set his jacket and pants down nearby. “Do you have somewhere that I could hang them up to dry?”

“Give them to me, and I will set them on the rack outside,” she replied. George hesitated, his wet clothes dripping on the uneven floorboards. “You can undress in front of me,” she said, her smile turning sly. “I have already seen you bathe, remember?”

There was a creak as she flopped down onto her bed, crossing her long legs, leaning back as she waited patiently for him to proceed. His face almost as red as it had been in the pool, George turned his back to her, dropping his wet shirt to the floor. After kicking off his boots, he peeled off his socks, then started to pull down his long johns. He could feel Tia’s eyes on him all the while.

When he turned around again, he was cupping his crotch in one hand to preserve his modesty, Tia smirking at him as she slid down off her bed. She collected his discarded garments, then exited through the front door, George moving over to his pack. He fished inside it for his dry clothes, and when he was dressed again, he turned around to see her standing in the open doorway. She was leaning against the frame with her arms crossed, looking him up and down pointedly.

“The sun is long set,” she said, closing the door behind her as she stepped inside. She made her way over to her bed, sitting on the pile of furs, watching him. George wasn’t sure what to do. She hadn’t invited him to join her, nor had she taken their encounter in the pool any further than a kiss. Was she waiting for him to make the next move?

“I have extra furs if your blankets will not suffice,” she added. That made her intentions clear, and he nodded, pulling his bedroll from his pack. Perhaps there was some cultural reason for them not to share a bed that he wasn’t aware of? Either way, he decided that the gentlemanly approach would be the appropriate course of action. Tia was aggressive, provocative, far moreso than any woman he had ever encountered. She clearly knew what she wanted.

Tia buried herself in her pile of furs, George wrapping himself up on the floor nearby. As he closed his eyes, shifting his weight to get comfortable, he heard a sultry whisper that set his heart pounding again.

“Goodnight, George…”

***

“Come on!” Tia insisted, giving him a gentle kick with one of her hooves. George sat up straight, his blankets sloughing off him, rubbing his eyes groggily as he peered up at his host.

“Whassat?” he grumbled.

“Come on, wake up. You will miss it!”

Having no idea what it was, he climbed out of his bedroll, hurriedly pulling on his boots as Tia hopped on the spot by the door. She was so full of energy, her slender legs like coiled springs. When she opened the door, he saw that it was still dark outside. It must be early morning.

“Come,” Tia said, taking him by the hand.

She led him along one of the winding paths, weaving between the trees until they came to an especially large specimen at the edge of the wall. There was a spiraling staircase that led up its gnarled trunk, Tia bounding up onto the first step, gripping the vine railing as she waved him onward.

Wondering what was so important that she had to wake him at the crack of dawn, George followed behind her, the old wood creaking worryingly under his weight. When they reached the wide branches, he saw that the staircase continued higher, following the natural contours of the tree as though the two had grown together. He dared not look down, as they must be seventy feet off the ground by now. The sun was just starting to rise, staining the sky pink, providing enough light that he wasn’t too worried about losing his footing.

They climbed into the highest branches, the staircase eventually leading to a circular platform at the very top. Tia took his hand, helping him up, the wind blowing his hair as he looked out over the forest. This was the tallest tree for miles, which meant that he had an unimpeded view, the horizon fading into atmospheric haze in the distance. The green canopy blew in the breeze like the surface of a verdant ocean, the wind making slow waves in their leaves, the morning mist hanging low over the forest. The snow-capped mountain cast its long shadow from the East, and the sun was rising behind it, shafts of golden light spilling over its craggy peaks.

Tia sat down and crossed her legs, George following suit, trying not to think about how high up they were. There was another wooden railing that ringed the platform, so he wasn’t too worried about falling over the edge. Branches sprouted up from the wooden floor here and there, as was customary for the buildings here, cradling the structure.

“I love to watch the sun rise over the mountain,” he whispered, shuffling a little closer to him. She lay her head on his shoulder, her proximity quickening his heart, the scent of her flowers rising to his nose again. “How I missed this sight, trapped beneath the blighted trees.”

George remembered how the oppressive fog that always accompanied the Blighters had obscured the sky, blocking the sun’s warmth and light. It seemed so far away now, like a half-remembered nightmare. He felt a knot in his stomach when he considered that he would have to go back there soon, that his friends might still be facing its dangers. Tia’s gentle touch calmed him, however, the beautiful sight before him raising his spirits.

As the ball of golden light rose, more of its rays bled over the towering mountain, the sky taking on mesmerizing hues of red and orange. The mist that blanketed the trees seemed to glow as the sunlight touched them, almost making it look like the entire forest was ablaze.

“Alright, this was worth being woken up for,” George conceded. As he glanced down at her, he could have sworn that he saw the flowers in her headdress spread their colorful petals wider, basking in the sun’s warmth.

“Do you still wish to learn more about magic?” Tia asked.

“Yeah,” he replied with a nod. “You seemed to think that I made some progress last time.”

That pleased her, and she lifted her head from his shoulder, smiling up at him.

“I am glad. It will help you to know me better.”

He wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but if she was happy, then so was he.

***

As they made their way back to Tia’s cottage, George saw that the village was starting to awaken now. Smoke was pouring from the conical roof of the large building where he had eaten the day before, indicating that someone was probably preparing breakfast, and a few curious villagers were pausing to glance at him as they began their day.

A trio of guards rounded a tree ahead of them, identified by their green cloaks and the bows that were slung over their shoulders, making a beeline for the pair. Tia stepped forward, the three men approaching her.

“The elders have requested your presence,” the lead guard announced. “You are to accompany us to the gate, where this one will give a demonstration of his power,” he added as he nodded to George. “They wish to verify the claims for themselves.”

It didn’t seem like they had much of a choice in the matter, Tia giving him a nod in confirmation.

“We must return to my hut to collect the weapon first,” she explained, the guards falling in behind them as they set off again.

George silently cursed himself, realizing that he had let the rifle out of his sight. He had to keep it close, lest the villagers see an opportunity to claim it for themselves. He might trust Tia, but he didn’t know these elders as she did, and the elders didn’t yet understand the nature of his gun. They might mistakenly think that it was something to be appropriated.

They arrived at the hut, and George grabbed his gun, donning his pants and jacket for good measure. After checking the powder charges in the bag on his belt, he and Tia followed the three guards to the base of the wall, where they arrived at the same towering doors that they had passed through upon first entering the village.

Waiting outside was a small party of villagers, the three elders joined by half a dozen guards. They were old and crooked, but clearly not yet drained of their vitality, able to get around without the aid of walking sticks. George noted that the sparrow was still perched on one of the elder’s antlers, the bird chirping at him as he neared.

“Good, you have arrived,” the old woman croaked.

“What is it that you require of us, elders?” Tia asked with a respectful bow of her horned head.

“We have carefully considered your account of the events that transpired in the blighted forest,” the old man with the sparrow replied, the little bird flapping its wings as he turned his head to George. “We wish to witness the power of this weapon for ourselves before we deliberate any further.”

Any further? It had already been the better part of a day, what more could they possibly have to talk about? Remembering how Tia had reacted when he had spoken up during their last meeting, he held his tongue. Better to give the old coots what they wanted if it would speed the process along.

“I should warn you,” George began, reaching for his gun. He unslung it from his back, holding it up so that they could see it, their eyes tracking it curiously. “I won’t fire it more than once or twice, as I have a finite number of charges, and I expect I’ll need every last one of them if we’re to make it back to my basecamp.”

The elders clearly weren’t accustomed to being given ultimatums, but they didn’t object. From the gate behind the group approached another villager, this one hauling what looked like a large bag made of sackcloth that was stuffed with straw. Looking more closely, George saw that it was a mannequin, a humanoid torso complete with arms and a head, perched atop a wooden stake that would presumably be driven into the ground. It looked like a training dummy for use with bows, perhaps.

The elders set off into the forest, the guards flanking them, George and Tia following behind. They were going away from the wall, probably for fear that the sound of the gunshots would disturb the village.

They soon arrived at a clearing, the solitary villager who wasn’t wearing a cloak rushing to set up the dummy maybe one hundred paces away. It wasn’t a difficult shot to make, but George had a feeling that the accuracy of the weapon wasn’t what they wanted to test. The elders drew closer, but not too close, perhaps afraid of the rifle’s imagined power. The only experience they had with the firearm was Tia’s somewhat embellished story about fire and thunder.

“Let us see what this weapon is truly capable of,” the female elder began, clasping her hands together. “If it can truly bring down an abomination, then I wish to witness it for myself.”

George wasn’t sure whether decimating a training dummy was the best show of force, but he began the routine of loading the weapon all the same. His audience watched curiously as he opened up a paper charge, filled the pan, then loaded the barrel. With a couple of firm taps, it was ready to fire, George bracing it against his shoulder as he cocked the hammer. With any luck, he wasn’t about to wipe out the village elders by giving them a heart attack.

“It’s going to be loud,” he warned. “You might want to cover your ears.”

Only one of them took his advice, George shrugging to himself as if to say so be it as he aimed the weapon. With a pull of the trigger, a plume of white smoke and bright sparks erupted from the muzzle, the projectile whizzing downrange. It was chased by a loud bang that shook the trees, sending flocks of birds scattering towards the sky, squawking their alarm. In the blink of an eye, the dummy was torn apart, wrenched from its stand in an explosion of straw and splintered wood.

The villagers watched what little remained of the dummy slump to the forest floor, their wide-eyed expressions suggesting that they had a better appreciation of the weapon now. George planted the butt in the ferns, turning to them, the barrel still smoking.

“Any questions?”

Tia had already explained how the gun worked in terms that they could understand during their first meeting, so there wasn’t much more to be said. They had wanted to see the weapon in action, and now they had.

As he watched, one of the elders began to walk over to the dummy. After examining it for a moment, she proceeded past it, heading to a tree maybe a dozen feet to its rear. George’s face began to warm as he saw that his bullet had continued on, punching a sizable crater in the trunk of one of the ancient trees. He gave Tia a sideways glance and mouthed an apology, feeling like he had just vandalized some ancient monument.

Fortunately, nobody seemed too upset. The elder reached into the hole, fumbling for a moment, then withdrew the bullet. The ball of lead had deformed, the impact squashing it into a thimble shape. She closed her eyes, placing a hand on the gnarled trunk. This time, it was George’s turn to stare wide-eyed as silvery strands of magic began to spread from her fingers. It was just like when Tia had healed her ankle in the blighted forest, that same eerie glow emanating from the gossamer threads. Like a seamstress sewing up a hole in a shirt, the damaged wood knitted back together, leaving it in the same condition that it had been found. The elder returned to his side, dropping the projectile into his outstretched hand.

“We have seen enough, thank you,” she said. “We can now continue our deliberations.”

The elders began to walk back to the village, the guards turning to follow them. The solitary villager hesitated for a moment, glancing first at George, then at his ruined dummy before hurrying after them. George found himself hoping that the man wouldn’t have to make a new one on his account.

“Did that go well?” George asked, Tia turning to glance at him. “I can’t tell.”

“They are a step closer to deciding, which is as much as we can hope for,” she sighed in reply.

“She did that thing you did,” he added. “Did you see that? She used magic to heal the tree that I damaged.”

“The elders are wise in the ways of magic,” she replied. “Notice how she did not exhaust herself as I did, despite her advanced age?”

“Yeah,” he replied, nodding his head. “You collapsed on the spot. It took everything out of you.”

“Since we are already outside the wall,” she began, her tone turning sly. “Shall I teach you some more of magic?”

“Of course,” he replied. He was eager to learn more about her people’s strange powers, even moreso after seeing the elder’s display of skill.

“This way,” she said, bounding off into the ferns. “I know the perfect place to practice.”

***

After walking through the forest for some time, they came upon another clearing. This one was different, however. George had learned to trust his instincts over the last few days, and he was no longer one to ignore gut feelings. As they made their way through the trees, something about this place felt different. The air was so sweet that he felt he could have taken a drink from it, the quality of the sunlight somehow warmer, the blooming flowers that sprouted from the vines that coiled around the trees more abundant. It felt like they were nearing a place of peace, of power. The hairs on his arms were starting to stand on end, every chirping bird and buzzing insect standing out to him against the rustling of the ferns underfoot.

When he followed Tia out from the shade of the canopy, he beheld an incredible sight. In the middle of the clearing was the largest mushroom he had ever seen, so large that it rivaled some of the surrounding trees in size. Its cap was bright red, shining in the sunlight, patterned with white spots. It was a colony, he realized. There were more such crimson caps spread out around its thick base, smaller, but no less impressive. Some were large enough that he could have comfortably used them as a stool.

All around the mushroom, flowers bloomed, seeming to concentrate around its bulbous stem. It was as though a botanical garden had sprouted up in the shade of its immense cap, some of them creeping up its off-white trunk, their vibrant petals swaying in the breeze. Everything that grew near it seemed healthier, larger, more fertile.

It wasn’t just the plants, either. Nestled beneath the mushroom’s gills were bee hives, drooping down towards the ground like stalactites in a cave. They swarmed with insects, moving over the yellow honeycomb in a writhing mass, their buzzing audible even from a distance. They seemed to be feeding on the nectar from the flowers below, the overabundance of honey dripping to the ferns like molten gold.

Noticing his hesitation at the sight of the bees, Tia took his hand, tugging him closer.

“Do not be afraid,” she said, guiding him to within arm’s reach of the mushroom. “They will not sting if you ask them not to.”

She reached out towards one of the hanging nests, catching a strand of honey on her finger, the insects paying no attention to her even as they landed on her arm. He expected her to bring the golden droplet to her mouth, but instead, she reached up towards him. He blinked at her, then parted his lips, letting her place it on his tongue. It was sweet, delicious, even. He hadn’t eaten honey since leaving Albion, but he didn’t remember it tasting this good.

“This is a place of great magic,” she explained. “Life coalesces here. You might think of these shrines as the counterpart to the grisly effigies that the Blighters raise.”

“Your people made this?” he asked, marveling at the mushroom’s size once again. He had to resist the powerful urge to swat at the bees. They were landing on his face, on his hands, but they hadn’t stung him so far.

“Grew,” she corrected, nodding her head. “We cultivate them carefully over many decades, feeding them magic, encouraging them. Not just mushrooms. There are many others. Trees, flowers, anything that grows.”

“It’s…radiant,” he added. “I can feel it.”

“The more you open yourself up to the spirits, the more they will attune themselves to you,” she replied with a smile. “Commune with them.”

He began to ask her what she meant, but then thought better of it, nodding his head. He sat down in the shade of the mushroom, doing as Tia had advised, clearing his mind of all thoughts. There was a rustle in the ferns as she sat down in front of him, and they joined hands, just as they had the last time. In this peaceful place, George found it easier than ever to quieten his mind, almost as if the spirits here wanted to commune with him. When the breeze ruffled his hair, he could almost imagine that there was an affection to it, the bees serenading him with their gentle buzzing. Everything had intent, everything was purposeful, even seemingly random occurrences. The whisper of the wind, the creak of a branch, the chirp of a bird – these were a language all their own. When raindrops fell or lightning struck, was it merely weather, or was there some unseen purpose behind their actions?

It was so difficult to think of a tree or a cloud as an entity with a will of its own, but the more he tried, the more the strange energies of this place seemed to creep into the periphery of his senses. He could feel them in his veins, in his very breath, like invisible tendrils were reaching past the barrier of his skin. Tia was there, too. She was sitting a foot away from him, yes, but he could feel her presence in a way that he hadn’t before. There was a warmth radiating from her, like the heat from a campfire, but so much gentler.

“Do you feel me?” she whispered, her breathy voice cutting through his concentration like a knife. His heart quickened, and she chuckled, almost as though she could feel it.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But…in a different way.”

She released his hands, standing up, George opening his eyes to see her smirking down at him.

“Put it to use,” she said, turning her back on him. She stretched her long legs, then hopped on the spot, springing a good foot into the air. When she landed again, the impact made her pert cheeks bounce, just visible beneath her loincloth. “If you can sense my spirit, you should be able to find me.”

“Find you?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

She set off, bounding across the clearing. When she reached the trees, she spun around on the spot, laughing as she turned to face him. She beckoned with a finger, then darted into the shadows, George slowly climbing to his feet.

Apparently, she wanted him to chase her…

He followed her into the trees, leaving the magnificent mushroom behind him. Even in its absence, he still felt energized, as though its influence lingered. It was as if a new sense had awakened in him. The more he opened himself to the forest, the more he became attuned to it, like his awareness was expanding beyond the bounds of sight and sound.

The birds in the trees, the worms beneath the soil – he felt their presence. It was as though an aura was emanating from them, a heat that he could feel with something other than his skin. The trees, too, were alive. The ferns, the vines, they all registered in his mind in a way that they hadn’t before.

From somewhere ahead, he heard a rustling, followed by excited giggling. His eyes and ears would only distract him from his new, spiritual landscape. He knew that now. Ignoring his material senses, he tried to focus on Tia, finding that he could feel the same warmth from her that he had felt beneath the mushroom. It was faint, further away, but he found himself drawn to it. The ferns rustled underfoot as he weaved between the trees, shafts of light piercing the canopy above.

As he neared, Tia evaded him, a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye catching his attention. As quick as a flash, she disappeared into the gloom again, his heart starting to race. This was a game, she was teasing him, but she was also teaching him to hone this new skill. She was a more cunning instructor than he had given her credit for.

He turned, pushing through a hanging curtain of flowering vines, hot on Tia’s trail. Again, he caught her scent. At least, that was the closest approximation he could think of. Through the dense woods, he sensed her aura, her glow growing brighter as he drew closer. He gave chase, his heavier footfalls letting her know that he was coming, Tia dancing through the undergrowth like a phantom. She was faster than him, but she couldn’t hide. Not now.

He caught sight of her as she darted behind a tree, her breathy chuckling goading him on. When he rounded the thick trunk, she was gone again, George peering up into the canopy to see her smiling back at him. She was sitting on a branch, her slender legs crossed, the wood obscuring what lay beneath her loincloth from where he was standing. Her hooves bobbed in the air as she laughed at him, clearly reveling in the chase.

With a creak of the branch, she dropped down onto the forest floor, the twenty-foot fall not even slowing her as she pranced away again. She was as quick as any hottah that he had hunted, his blood pumping in his ears as he resumed his pursuit.

Even when he lost sight of her, his new sense kept him on her tail. She flowed through the forest with such ease, the muscles in her long legs like coiled springs, the control that she exerted over her body the envy of any gymnast or dancer. She leapt over felled logs only to land as light as a feather, moving so quickly that she scarcely seemed to touch the ground. When she spun mid-jump to glance back at him, her freckled cheeks were flushed red, her green eyes glittering with excitement. This was her domain, and within its bounds, she was wild…free. George found himself longing for that same sense of freedom – longing for her. He wanted to be a part of this, wanted to share in Tia’s joy, her comely smile guiding him onward like a lighthouse calling a ship to the shore.

Finally, she began to tire, George closing the distance between them. She let out a delighted yelp as he caught up with her, grabbing her by the upper arm and spinning her around to face him. He pressed her up against a nearby tree trunk, trapping her between himself and the bark, their heaving bodies sandwiches together. Her warm breath washed over him as she panted, her chest rising and falling, drawing his eyes to the tantalizing outline of her breasts beneath her fabric collar. Now, it was the heat of her body that stood out to him, rather than her aura.

“Such stamina,” she cooed, having to lift her eyes to meet his gaze due to their difference in stature. She was a head shorter than him, the perfume of her flowers blending with the scent of her exertion to create a wonderful new aroma that awakened something primal in George. Her velvet fur was damp with sweat, the droplets glistening as they caught the sunlight that bled through the leaves above. The chase already had him out of breath, hot blood coursing through his veins, an unfamiliar desire welling up inside him that bordered on aggression.

She parted her red lips, moving as if to kiss him, then pulled away as George drew in. Again, she teased him, this time biting his lower lip between her teeth and giving it a gentle tug. He felt as though he was about to erupt like a volcano, her lithe, slender body pressing up against his as he leaned closer.

“Why do you tease me so?” he asked, still short of breath.

“You are so restrained,” she replied, batting her lashes at him. “I sense it in you, like a trapped animal, gnawing at the ropes that bind it.” He felt her soft hands slide beneath his shirt, gliding on his damp skin, her touch making his muscles tense. “I want to see if you can break those bonds.”

“Where I come from, men are expected to behave a certain way,” he replied.

“You are not where you came from,” she chuckled. “What is the purpose of a flower? Why does a hottah grow his horns so wide? Why does the waya howl at the full moon?”

He thought for a moment, feeling his face burn.

“Because…they want to mate?”

“Nature is virile,” she said, her breathy voice morphing into a sultry growl. “Have you never watched the hottah during their rutting season and envied them for their freedom? To love nature is also to love how it propagates, to revel in its carnality, in its primal lust.”

She leaned into him again, and this time, their lips interlocked. Her taste overwhelmed his senses, her hot, smooth tongue entwining with his own as they shared a sordid embrace. Every stroke was imbued with her desire, the gasping breaths that she took between kisses making his heart flutter, her hands cupping his cheeks as she stood on the tips of her hooves to reach him.

After their chase through the woods, their embrace was even more heated than the night before, George feeling like he had contracted some kind of fever. He understood now. This is what she had meant when she had told him that she wanted him to know her better. Her deep connection to nature went beyond simple spiritual beliefs, beyond parlor tricks. She embodied its freedom, its wild proclivities, and only now had he learned enough to partake fully in what she wanted to offer him.

The wild hottah did not restrain himself, so neither would George.

He pressed her tighter against the tree, Tia breaking away from their passionate kiss to let slip a cry of surprise, their lips still joined by a strand of their shared saliva. He brought his face down to the nape of her neck, burying his nose in her silky fur, taking in a lungful of her scent. That blend of floral perfume and sweat was making him crazy, tickling at the back of his brain. Unable – and unwilling – to restrain himself, he gave her a gentle bite on the shoulder that elicited a stifled grunt of anticipation.

George planted the flat of his hand against her torso, just beneath the collar that hung over her heaving breasts, sliding his palm down towards her belt. Her smooth, toned abdominal muscles rose up from beneath her flat belly, tensing reflexively. The skin there was as smooth as glass, lily-white in contrast with the chestnut fur that framed it. She was so receptive to his touch, her spine arching away from the trunk, George feeling her hot breath on his cheek as she sighed.

“Take me up against the tree,” she hissed, her voice wavering with excitement. “I cannot stand to be apart from you any longer.”

They shared another hurried, desperate kiss, interspersed with soft moans that made George’s head spin. He couldn’t recall ever being so engorged, his member straining against his clothing, his bulge pressing into her belly just below her navel as though it was reaching out to her.

Like a starving man faced with a banquet, he didn’t know where to start. He wanted to touch every inch of her, taste every inch of her body, that aggression bubbling up inside him again. He settled for mouthing at her throat as his hands roamed down the hourglass curve of her waist, her skin and fur still slick with sudor. Tia threw her head back in encouragement, twitching with each sucking kiss, one of his hands sliding around her back. He felt the indent of her spine, his fingertip slipping into one of the perfect dimples at its base, the feathery fur of her deer-like tail brushing his skin as it flicked back and forth.

“J-just tear it off me,” Tia gasped, feeling his fingers hook around the band of leather that held up her loincloth.

He did as she asked, catching the belt in the crook of his thumb, taking the opportunity to slide his hand down her thigh as he went. He had long admired her legs – they were so long and slender – the sculpted muscles beneath her silken coat hardening as he squeezed. They were at once soft and firm, like iron felt beneath a down pillow.

Tia draped her arms around his neck as he used both hands to tug down the garment, lifting one leg, the loincloth catching on her cloven hoof for a moment before she kicked it loose. Now that she was naked from the chest-down, he could see that her mound and inner thighs were covered with the same velvet coat as her legs. The covering of fur faded into flush skin just above where the pubic hair would have ended on a human.

From his high angle, he could just make out a sliver of pink nestled in the fur. Slowly, he brought a hand to her inner thigh, sliding it up from her knee. He could feel the heat of her loins before he even touched them, her downy coat sodden with her juices, making it damp and slick. As his fingertips transitioned from wet fur to burning flesh, Tia lurched, her breath coming in ragged bursts.

Was this going to work? There was so much about her people that was different, yet still more was familiar. He wasn’t sure if they were going to be compatible.

Tia shuddered as he dragged his finger between her lips, her flesh like hot silk, her fluids making his skin slippery. She was small of stature, and her loins seemed similarly delicate, but their difference in size wasn’t enough to be of concern. Slowly, he probed for her opening, finding it about where he expected it to be. Tia was breathing hard all the while, leaning back against the tree, gazing down at his hand as he buried it between her trembling legs.

With a gentle push, his fingertip slid inside her, aided by the slipperiness of her drooling womanhood. He heard a comely whine escape her, Tia tightening up, damp muscle clenching around his digit. His head swam as he considered how narrow she was, how he could barely get his finger deeper than the first joint. All around it, her satin insides flexed and rippled, drawing on him like an eager mouth. She was so strong, so excited, a strand of her juices linking his finger to her when he withdrew.

“You are hesitating again,” she whispered. “You need not be so considerate.”
He felt her slender fingers on his belt now, Tia fumbling with the unfamiliar clasp. He helped her unbuckle it, and she tore open his trousers, her eyes locking onto the conspicuous bulge beneath his long johns. She dragged them down, her emerald eyes widening in a blend of alarm and desire as his member bounced free, pulsing gently in time with the racing of his heart.

“Perhaps you should be…a little considerate,” she chuckled nervously.

The way that her eyes played over it – the way that she traced a bulging vein with her questing fingers – made George believe that he didn’t resemble the men of her tribe. Perhaps this was another area where her people and his own differed. She made no move to stop him, however. Instead, she turned her eyes upwards, her comely gaze all the invitation he required.

She was too short, the tip of his erection brushing against her stomach, so he elected to lift her. He slid his hands behind her, cupping her rump, not wasting the opportunity to test its firmness. Her cheeks were so full and round, their abundance filling his hands, her pillowy flesh spilling between his fingers through her velvet coat. The springy muscle that gave her rear its wonderful pertness tensed as he delved deeper, dimpling her cheeks. There was so much power packed into her butt and thighs. It was the source of her agility, allowing her to leap and run as she did.

Her cloven hooves left the forest floor, and he braced her against the tree, Tia parting her legs to let him press closer. George could see her loins more clearly now, her lips flushed with arousal, their pink hue contrasting with the auburn fur that surrounded them. Her rosy vulva glistened when it caught what little sunlight made it through the dense leaves above, the sight of it only inflaming his passion.

Tia was light enough that he could easily hold her aloft, George maneuvering her a little, getting her into a more comfortable position. Her hoofed feet bobbed in the air, his hands supporting her rear, her thighs resting on his forearms. Seeing that both of his hands were occupied, she reached down between her legs, gripping his throbbing shaft. She guided it closer, clumsy in her excitement, her rapid breathing making her chest heave beneath her collar. Had their jaunt through the forest gotten her so riled up?

He felt the feverish heat of her vulva as she pressed his glans against it, his flesh sliding against her delicate folds as she wet it with her lust. Wanting to let her set the pace, he fought the urge to thrust, watching as she brought his tip down to her opening. His girth was considerably greater than that of his finger, Tia seeming to struggle for a moment, her breath catching in her throat. George could feel that ring of muscle stretching over the head of his cock, pulling back his foreskin as it went, exposing the most sensitive part of his anatomy. Walls of clenching satin gripped him like a fist, seeming to fight against him as he spread her apart, the muscles beyond their bounds twitching and seizing. Like a second skin, they clung to him, every wrinkle and bump grazing his glans as he pushed deeper. It was a pleasure so sweet that he could scarcely hold himself back.

Tia suddenly shifted, hooking her long legs behind his rear, using the leverage to pull him into her. They grunted in unison as his length vanished inch by inch, his trembling partner pausing again when she reached about halfway, where his shaft was thickest. Seeming to grow frustrated with their sluggish pace, she threw caution to the wind, crossing her legs as she tugged him into her. Her horns scored the bark behind her as she threw her head back, George hilting her, feeling the cushiony lining of her passage spread open. He couldn’t help but flex inside her, Tia opening her mouth in a silent cry of surprise. She slowly melted into him, bringing her hands to his chest, resting her red face in the nape of his neck.

“Are you alright?” he huffed, one of her floppy ears tickling his nose.

“Mhmm,” she moaned, taking fistfuls of his shirt as her reply trailed off.

He gave her a few moments to grow accustomed to the sensation of having him inside her, then he began to move, slowly pulling back. Her hot flesh clung to him on his way out, the suction that she exerted making him grit his teeth, his every subtle motion provoking a squeeze or a twitch. As his shaft reemerged, he saw that it was glazed with her nectar, the sight robbing him of what little remained of his restraint. He thrust into her again, bottoming out, feeling her slender legs grip him tighter in response.

Realizing that she now had enough grip to support her own weight, he removed one of his hands from her ass, leaning it on the trunk above her head to steady himself. In this position, he had more control, finding a slow pace as he pinned her up against the tree.

She was constantly in motion, twisting and writhing, shifting her wide hips to change the angle of his penetration as though desperate to have him reach deeper. He admired the way that her squirming made the twin rows of smooth muscle in her flat stomach rise to the surface as they flexed, droplets of sweat leaving wet trails on her silky skin.

George kept his pace slow, both because he wanted to savor every moment of this, and because he feared that he wouldn’t last long if he went any faster. Tia tightened around his cock like a noose with each thrust, her innermost depths roiling around him, waves of slimy muscle sliding up his length.

He pushed deep again, gliding all the way to his base, feeling her tight little frame tense up. Rather than pull back this time, he rolled his hips, stirring his member around inside her. She pushed her deer-like nose into his neck as she loosed a bestial grunt, George feeling her soft lips brush his throat, the scent of her flowers filling his lungs. He had to draw his face back a little, wary of her pronged horns.

Tia gripped the collar of his jacket in her fist, reaching up to kiss him again, her tongue pushing into his mouth. She was ravenous, frantic, embracing him as though her life might be cut short at any moment. George returned her affection with equal vigor, reveling in the softness of her lips, sinking his fingers into the meat of her plump rear. He couldn’t stand to keep his hands off her for very long, the texture of her wet fur and her slick skin irresistible, the feeling of her undulating body pressed tightly against his own making him feel drunk.

When they broke off again, George resumed his thrusting, Tia pushing away from the tree to match pace with him now. Their hips slammed together, their bodies moving as one, their panting breath all that George could hear. Tia made sultry sighs and quiet gasps as he slid into her, her breathy voice laden with desire, its tone oddly musical. George had been with women before, but none had been so receptive, he had never shared such a strong connection with another person. It was as though her body was an extension of his own.

The bouncing of her chest beneath her colorful collar caught his eye, the glass beads on its tassels swinging with the motion of their rutting. He reached for its hem, finally able to pull the tantalizing garment away, lifting it to expose her breasts. They were pert, teardrop-shaped, the perfect size to fill his hand. Like her belly, they were devoid of fur, her pink nipples standing out against her porcelain skin. She had a dusting of freckles on her chest, too, just like her cheeks.

Wasting no time, he cupped one of them, feeling Tia’s loins grip him like a vise as a jolt of pleasure wracked her. They were as soft as wet clay, her supple flesh bulging between his fingers, the firm tissue beneath the doughy fat resisting him. As soon as he relented, it sprang back to its original shape, bouncing softly with each impact of his hips.

“I knew the collar would entice you,” she cooed, her chuckling interrupted by a grunt as he delivered an especially punishing thrust. “Ever since I shed my cloak, I have felt your gaze lingering on me. I relish it,” she added, her tone turning sly. “I want you driven half-mad with lust each time we make love.”

George pressed her tighter against the tree, wrapping an arm around her narrow waist, Tia letting slip another stifled yelp of surprise as he upped his pace. He was hammering into her now, no longer concerned that she might be too frail to endure it. She might be small, but she was so athletic, her lithe body so flexible. Even as he threw his weight behind his rutting, she took it in stride, pushing back with a hunger that matched his own.

“Spirits, you are so deep,” she growled in a husky tone that only excited him more.

He doubled over, bringing his face down to nuzzle her freckled cheek, crawling his lips down her neck. She wriggled and shifted with each lingering kiss, George giving her gentle bites, feeling her passage wring him in response. She was so sensitive. He was plucking at her nerves like the strings of a harp.

George lifted her a little higher, sliding her up the trunk, planting a boot on a protruding root to get a little extra height. Now, he could bring his face down closer to her chest. She leaned back a little to help him, raising her arms, clawing at the bark above her head. He cupped one of her breasts, his fingers delving into her velutinous fat as he raised it to his lips, pursing them around her erect nipple. She let out a gasp of pleasure, accompanied by an encouraging tightening of her loins. How he adored her chest, those breasts shaped like upturned teacups, just the right size that he could cover one with his hand. They were soft enough to melt in his grasp like butter, yet firm enough to provide a wonderful resistance, Tia sucking in a sharp breath as he squeezed.

He continued his lovemaking, lifting her with each thrust, circling the swollen bud of flesh with his tongue. He chewed it gently, trapping it between his lips and his teeth, drawing it deeper into his mouth. He massaged her boob all the while, kneading the firm, sensitive breast tissue that lurked just beneath the yielding flesh. George reveled in the way that his gentle bites and doting licks made her lithe frame buck and squirm, her spine arching with each lick. Her passage clenched around his pulsing shaft in tandem, as though her burning, drooling sex was trying to milk him as a farmhand would milk a cow.

Tia moaned as he switched to her other breast, wrangling it in his hand as he left its counterpart shining with his saliva, feeling her springy flesh spill from his grasp. He managed to bring it to his lips, sucking her nipple between them, painting it with slow strokes of his tongue. What she lacked in size, she made up for in firmness, George unable to keep his hands off her.

He roamed higher, keeping one of them in his hand as he watched the other bounce with his rutting, leaving a sucking kiss on her throat. Tia let out another lustful gasp as he let her slide down his shaft again, his twitching partner burying her face in his shirt. She took handfuls of the fabric as he bounced her on his length, pressing her tight against the trunk.

“I’m close,” he huffed, feeling her tense up at nothing more than the implication. “Does it matter if I-”

“I want it inside,” she growled, her steely thighs clenching around his waist as if to stop him from pulling away. “I want to feel it,” she added, her tone more pleading than demanding this time.

It was unlikely that their union could bear fruit, and he wasn’t about to argue against such a request.

George found a quick, heavy pace, lifting her with each thrust as he pinned her up against the tree. She wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him tightly, the sound of her labored breathing like music to his ears as he neared his apex. As his tempo quickened, he felt the contractions of her seething loins come faster, the damp muscles in her spasming depths coaxing him on with their desperate kneading.

Bliss overwhelmed him as his excitement mounted, George savoring the sensation of teetering on the edge, as brief as it was. With a snort like an angry bull, he erupted inside her, all of the tension that they had built up over their short chase and their frenzied coupling coming to a head. Sharp, harsh pleasure coursed through his lower body, shooting up his spine to dizzy him with each throb of his aching manhood. Tia had to cover her mouth with her hands to stifle a pained cry that might have brought the guards running, every toned muscle in her slight frame tensing up, her eyelashes fluttering as she felt the heat of his emission well up inside her. Thick, hot ropes of his seed painted her most intimate reaches, her slippery walls seeming to swallow around his shaft as they wrung him. Each flex of his member was chased by another stab of ecstasy, as though his head was filling with blinding light, the proximity of Tia’s warm, writhing body all that his mind could focus on. Another gelatinous wad of his fluid splashed against her seizing tunnel, Tia arching her spine to take him deeper, holding him close so as not to spill a solitary drop.

She was climaxing too. At least, that was his assumption. She had been twitching and squeezing the entire time, but this new pleasure seemed to overwhelm her, Tia clinging to him as though afraid that he might leave her before she was fully sated. Her athletic body bounced in his grasp, Tia wriggling as though trying to free herself, though he knew that such thoughts were furthest from her mind. The rolling of her hips and her incessant clenching only prolonged his pleasure, the two remaining joined, sharing in their lust until they were both spent.

Exhausted, Tia melted into his embrace, breathing hard as she recovered from her orgasm. She remained impaled on his still rigid shaft, neither of them willing to part as long as there were still fluttering aftershocks to enjoy. They shared another kiss, this one slower, more placating. Like a warm blanket, euphoria fell over them, George going so weak at the knees that he feared he might drop his panting counterpart.

He slowly lowered her to the forest floor, kneeling in the ferns, setting her down between the roots as he gently pried her legs apart. Once she deigned to release him from her iron grip, he drew back, the two of them shivering together as he slid out of her. Once again, her tightness surprised him, her loins gripping him as though the prospect of being empty again was unbearable. His shaft glistened with their shared juices, a thick, sagging web of pearly fluid linking them for a moment before draping itself over the fronds below.

“Your headdress,” George muttered, gesturing to her horns. The plants that had been growing around them had changed, a curtain of leafy vines now falling over her shoulders, longer than her hair. The flowers had bloomed even brighter than before, more numerous than ever. Most of their petals were flushed shades of desirous pink and red as though they were responding to her emotions. He could see the nectar leaking from them, a droplet of the amber liquid falling to her freckled chest, joining the beads of sweat that misted her soft skin.

“They flourish as I do,” she explained, giving him the warm and weary smile of an exhausted lover. “Come, lie with me a while.”

He settled into the roots beside her, the thick carpet of fuzzy moss at their backs making the bark much more comfortable, almost as though it had been placed there purposefully. Now that he was looking more carefully, the moss was blooming, too. Colorful flowers had sprouted up nearby, and he could have sworn that they hadn’t been there when he had arrived. It must be magic, he surmised, as though the forest itself was responding to their actions.

Tia leaned her head on his shoulder as he wrapped an arm around her, one of her hands resting on his belly. He leaned back a little, giving her more support, the forest floor far less uncomfortable than he had imagined.

“I am glad that I decided not to kill you,” she murmured, nuzzling his chest.

“So am I,” he chuckled.

***

“Hey,” George said, feeling Tia stir. She blinked her eyes, peering up at him, then opened her mouth in a yawn. He wasn’t quite sure how long they had slept, but the sun was still high, so it couldn’t have been for more than an hour or two. George noted that the flowers on her head had receded to their prior appearance, returning to their usual colors.

She smiled suddenly, her freckled cheeks warming, as though the memories of their encounter had all come flooding back to her.

“You did not wake me?” she asked.

“You looked so peaceful, I thought I’d let you sleep a while longer,” he replied.

Tia stretched her arms above her head, extending her long legs, her back arching off the ground. She was still in a state of partial undress, George admiring her figure without reservation now.

“Did you see where my loincloth landed?” she asked, pushing out her chest as she sat up in a way that seemed very deliberate to George. It was resting on a nearby root, and he passed it to her, Tia rising to her feet on legs that were still a tad unsteady.

“Are you…alright?” he asked as she slipped the garment back on.

“I am sore,” she replied. “But, in a good way,” she added with a smirk. “You are larger than what I am used to, and shaped…differently. I feel as though you are still inside me.”
He wasn’t sure how to respond, watching as she adjusted her collar so that it was covering up her breasts again.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“I could eat,” he replied with a nod, gripping one of the raised roots as he pulled himself to his feet. He grabbed his rifle off the ground and slung it over his shoulder, then tightened his loose belt, buckling it up. “Lead the way.”

Rather than taking his hand as she so often had, Tia pressed close to him, linking arms as they set off into the forest. Only now was the reality of what they had done really dawning on George. He remembered flashes of her red face as she took in gasping breaths, the sensation of her lithe body pressed up tight against his own, the feeling of her velvet insides wringing him with sordid intent.

Self-control was something that had been instilled in him from an early age. He had always been taught to restrain his emotions by strict tutors armed with canes, to always be in control of his wilder proclivities, as such things were not tolerated in polite society. Even sharing a kiss with a bachelorette on a park bench in the dead of night could be considered crass and lewd if seen by the wrong people. Any shame that he might have felt was burned away by the radiance of Tia’s smile, however. Nothing had ever felt more right to him than pinning her up against that tree. It was like she had opened a new door, unlocking some part of him that he had never allowed to rear its head before. It had felt good to let himself go.

As they passed by the base of another tree, he paused, Tia cocking her head at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked, releasing his arm as he stooped to brush the ferns aside. When he rose up again, he was clutching a large cluster of brown mushrooms in his hands, which he had broken off at their stem.

“Mushroom ketchup,” he replied, brandishing his prize.

***

They made their way back to the village, entering through the main gate, then headed for the hut so that George could retrieve his pack. When that was done, they headed for the communal building where they had eaten the day before. The smells of cooking food filled the air as they stepped inside, and they were greeted by several of the villagers who were already in the process of preparing lunch over the large fire pit in the center of the room. It looked like they were cleaning and roasting hottah meat from a recent hunt, the animal’s spotted pelt drying on a nearby rack, cuts of still-dripping meat laid out on one of the flat stones they used for cooking. They were ever hospitable, offering to share their catch willingly, but George had much to do before he dug in.

A group of curious villagers assembled to watch as he produced the small cutting board from his pack, setting down the mushroom atop it. It was quite the find, larger than any that he had seen before, as he had come to expect from the plants that grew in these woods. The recipe would usually call for two pounds of mushrooms, but this one seemed about that large on its own.

He drew his knife and began to chop it into slices, the blade glinting in the firelight. The villagers watched, transfixed by the sight of it. He had to keep in mind that these people had only stone tools, albeit stone tools of impressive quality. They didn’t smelt ore, they didn’t have iron or steel, so this was a novelty to them.

When the mushroom was suitably diced, he scraped the pieces off the wooden cutting board and into a large ceramic pot that Tia had brought for him. He fished in one of the pockets of his pack, withdrawing a glass vial of salt, uncorking it. He upended a decently-sized pile into his hand, lamenting that he was starting to run low, but deciding that this was worth such a large amount. After pouring it into the pot, he began to stir it in with a spoon, mashing the diced mushrooms into a paste.

Next, he produced a piece of cloth from his pack, tying it around the lip of the pot with a length of cordage.

“We’ll let that sit overnight,” he explained, setting the pot down on the dirt floor. “The mushrooms are going to reduce and start giving up their fluid.”

“You should cook something for them,” Tia suggested, gesturing to the villagers who were hovering around nearby. “I am sure they would enjoy the dish that you prepared for me during our travels.”

“I suppose it’s the least I can do in return for their hospitality,” he replied, rolling up his sleeves as he prepared to get to work. He selected a few choice cuts of meat from the flat stone and began to roast them, hanging them from one of the spits that were already set up over the roaring fire. Using cordage to tie them up, he could make sure that they were the perfect height from the flames, the dripping meat sizzling as he rotated it.

The villagers had a selection of vegetables available, some of which he recognized. It seemed that they cultivated sweet potatoes, and they had corn flour that they used to make their flatbread, which would do nicely as a thickener for the stew. After adding some dried onions from his pack to the mix, George suspended a large pot over the fire, waiting for it to boil. It was kind of nice to cook for such a large group again. It reminded him of his friends back at the camp, of sharing meals with the men under the stars.

George stirred the stew intermittently, seasoning for flavor, adding dashes of salt and spices from his pack as needed. The villagers entertained him with their stories all the while, relaying news to one another, one of them playing some kind of flute-like wind instrument carved from ivory. Its mournful song carried through the building, almost as though it had been constructed like an auditorium, the curved walls and conical ceiling built to focus the sound.

When the stew was ready, and the juices from the meat ran clear, George had the villagers line up with their bowls. They glanced over one another’s shoulders curiously as they waited for their turn, George giving each of them a generous ladleful, along with a hunk of meat. As Tia had suspected, it went down a treat, everyone digging in enthusiastically. To these people, something as simple as a meat and vegetable soup cooked over an open fire was a foreign delicacy, and they would never have had an opportunity to taste the spices that he used.

Tia shuffled a little closer to him, joining him beside the fire as she ate her share.

“They seem to be enjoying themselves,” he said, glancing around. Most of them were hunched over their bowls, their faces lit by the wavering firelight as they ate and chatted.

“I told you,” she replied, nudging him with her elbow. “It is said that if one wishes to woo a person, the stomach must be satisfied before the heart.”

“We have a similar saying,” he chuckled. “I suppose that means it must be true.” He fished a sweet potato out of his bowl, enjoying the flavor. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he added, setting down his fork for a moment. “Not long after we met, I asked how we were able to understand one another. We must speak different languages, surely, and there has been no contact between your people and mine. You told me that it was I who was speaking your language, which didn’t make much sense to me at the time. Tell me, is it magic?”

“It is,” she replied with a nod, pausing to swallow a mouthful of meat before continuing. “Many of our tribes do not share a common tongue, yet the wind speaks a language shared by all. We understand its whispers, its songs, even if we do not always realize it. We ask the wind to help our words be known.”

“I suppose that’s as reasonable as asking the concept of fire to make your cloak waterproof,” he replied, resuming his meal. “Is there a list somewhere of which spirits can provide what blessings?”

“It is difficult to quantify the whims of the spirits in such a clinical way,” she replied. “They are not tools to be used, nor allies to be petitioned, but beings that one must come to know in their own right. They grant favors to their friends, they help those who have earned their trust.”

“So, if I was to ask the fire to make my boots snow-proof right now, it…he…wouldn’t do it?”

“Are you friends with the fire?” she asked, giving him a smirk. “Do you know him well enough to ask a favor?”

“Probably not,” he replied with a shrug. “And, how exactly does one get to know fire?”

“Just speak to him,” she said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. She began to dab at the remaining soup in her ceramic bowl with a piece of flatbread, soaking it up. “You know how.”

George gazed into the flames, wondering if the flames were gazing back.

***

“Come on,” Tia giggled, pulling him up the rocky slope. “The view from up here will be spectacular.”

George followed behind her, his boots slipping on some of the loose stones. Tia was like a mountain goat, so agile on her cloven hooves, hopping from rock to rock. The sun was already setting, painting the sky above in its warm colors, the peak of the mountain rising over the treetops. She was leading him up into the foothills, where the terrain was a little harsher, the ancient trees giving way to hardier plants that could survive in the less nutritious soil. Below them, the canopy stretched from horizon to horizon, an ocean of green.

Tia sat down on one of the lichen-covered stones, patting it in invitation. George joined her, pausing to take a drink from his canteen, then passing it off to her. She took a swig, then returned it, settling in as the blood-red sun dipped out of view.

“The moon is full tonight,” she said excitedly, “and the sky is near cloudless. I wanted you to see it from a good vantage point.”

“I’m sure it will be beautiful,” he replied. “But, I’ve seen the full moon before. Was it really necessary to come all the way up here?”

“Trust me,” she chuckled, shuffling a little closer to him.

George draped an arm around her narrow shoulders, keeping her warm as the stars began to twinkle, the day’s light fading. The moon soon became visible in its place, growing brighter and brighter as it rose, soon so radiant that it lit up the whole forest in its silver glow. It was indeed impressive, the two enjoying it for maybe a half-hour before deciding to set off back to the village.

As George hopped off the rock, a strange glint caught his eye. It was coming from a rocky outcrop perhaps fifty paces away. He made his way over to it, Tia following behind him curiously. As he neared, he saw something that made his breath catch in his throat. It was a vein of gold, snaking its way through the exposed rock like a molten river, the light of the moon making it shimmer. It was just sitting there on the surface, out in the open, a veritable wealth lying unclaimed.

George hurried over to inspect it more closely, kneeling beside it.

“What did you find?” Tia asked, peering over his shoulder.

“I can’t believe it,” he gasped. “I thought it might be pyrite, but…this is gold! There must be a fortune in this vein alone!”

“That stuff is all over the mountain,” she replied, furrowing her brow. “It has no special properties, it is just a shiny rock. We sometimes use it to make jewelry when we find it in the rivers. It is soft and can be hammered into different shapes.”

Of course. Tia’s people didn’t have metallurgy, and they likely had no means of mining gold on any significant scale, using only what washed downstream to make trinkets.

“Tia, this is money,” he replied breathlessly. “Remember when I told you about money?”

“Barter items?” she asked, cocking her head.

“That’s right! This is what we use for barter.”

“How does it have any value if it can be found lying around on the ground?” she asked skeptically.

“Because it usually can’t be,” he explained. “This is incredibly rare. Finding something like this on a survey mission would set up the entire company for life.”

“You can have it if you wish,” she said with a shrug. “Though, I do not know how you would carry it home with you.”

“Something has been weighing on my mind ever since we had our audience with the elders,” he began. “My people came here – I came here – in search of resources. I am a surveyor as well as a cartographer. My job is to find things that are valuable. We seek timber for building, game for meat and furs, and ores just like this vein. If my company didn’t turn back when they encountered the blight, it is only because they cannot go home empty-handed. To return without finding anything of value would mean no pay. Some of them might lose their property, even starve as a result. They have wagered their very livelihoods on this venture. What’s more, asking them to fight in what is essentially a war between two tribes is a tall order, but the promise of more gold than they could carry would certainly motivate them.”

“You are saying that we should barter their loyalty for this yellow rock?” Tia asked.

“Pay them in gold, and I am sure that they will see the fight against the Blighters through to its end.”

***

They arrived back at Tia’s hut in the dead of night, the lights from most of the surrounding buildings snuffed out by now. Everyone else seemed to have turned in, and the village was at rest.

George’s heart began to quicken as Tia pushed the door open, the familiar, somewhat damp smell of its interior reaching him. It had been the better part of a day since their encounter in the forest, and it was still fresh in his mind, the feeling of excitement lingering like a smoldering ember. Would she invite him to share her bed this time? Should he press the issue – be as wild as a hottah in rut, as she had suggested?

As he followed her inside, setting down his rifle against the wall by his makeshift sleeping area, he turned to see her leaning over her bed. Her back was to him, her shapely rear raised into the air as she straightened the pelts that served as her sheets. His gaze lingering on her pert cheeks, just visible beneath the narrow strand of fabric that was her loincloth, the white fluff of her stumpy tail rising above the leather band that secured it about her hips. It twitched every now and then, seeming to wiggle back and forth. Her fur shone in what silver moonlight made it through the uneven windows, making the thin coat look wet. He remembered its texture, how her delicate flesh had yielded beneath his fingertips, how her springy muscle had resisted him.

His eyes wandered down her shapely thighs and her long legs, her digitigrade limbs giving her the gait of someone who was walking on the tips of their toes.

She arched her back as she reached for pillows stuffed with what might be down, the moonlight picking out the contours of her lightly-muscled back. George had never before beheld a woman whose body was at once so toned by the rigors of her primitive lifestyle, and so inviting in all of the places that might draw a man’s attention.

As he watched her lift one hoof, inadvertently wiggling her rump as she made the bed, that same fire that had raged inside him back in the forest was rekindled. His member strained against his clothes, hot blood coursing through his veins. Was this not the impulse that she had wanted him to obey?

He strode over to the bed, watching her floppy ears flick idly as she heard the sound of his determined footsteps on the uneven wood. She lurched as he wrapped one arm around her slender waist, straightening up, George tugging her back to press her butt up against the bulge in his trousers. Even through two layers of clothing, he could feel her soft fat yield, his erection nudging against one of her springy cheeks. His other hand snuck its way beneath her chin, a receptive sigh escaping her as he buried his nose in the velvet fur of her nape, filling his lungs with her scent. That blend of exertion and floral perfume made his head spin, his member flexing against her firm cheek as she rolled her hips in an effort to tease him.

“I am glad to see that my prior words did not go unheeded,” she whispered, grinding on his bulge again to punctuate her statement. “I can feel your heat, even through all of those thick clothes.”

Part of him wanted to push her down onto the bed and take her right there, but he also wanted to explore her strange body now that they weren’t in a frenzy. There was so much about her that he didn’t know, so much that he had only glimpsed or felt during their first coupling. He wanted to map out every inch of her svelte figure with his tongue.

He spun her around, subjecting her to another probing kiss before lowering her to the bed, the wooden frame creaking as she sat down on the edge of the mattress. He wasn’t sure what it was made of – perhaps cloth stuffed with straw or feathers.

She cocked her head as he knelt on the floor in front of her, her green eyes watching him curiously. An appreciative shiver ran down her spine as he reached out to place a hand on her flat stomach, feeling the rows of smooth muscle flex beneath his palm in response. Her milky skin was dry to the touch now, its texture rivaling that of any fine silk worn by the socialites back in Albion. Tia had no need to adorn herself so extravagantly, as her body was as much a work of art as any expensive gown.

Slowly, he slid his fingers higher, brushing the dangling beads on the tasseled hem of her collar. She arched her spine as he raised it, pushing her chest out in silent invitation, the fabric lifting away to reveal her bosom. He had admired her breasts back in the forest, but they were level with his eyes now, the mere sight of herfreckled mounds making his mouth water. Like her belly, they were clear of her velvety coat, the feeling of her soft skin beneath his fingertips intoxicating as he cupped one of them in his hand. As befitted her athletic figure, they were so modest in their size, but no classical sculptor could have conjured a more perfect shape.

“Are you making love to me or taking notes for your journal?” she chuckled as he gave her a gentle squeeze. Her flesh wobbled like gelatin when he released it, her breast springing back to its prior shape, her pink nipples standing erect.

“This is a discovery that I want to keep all to myself,” he replied, Tia’s chuckling making her boobs quiver. He gave one of her nipples a gentle lick, feeling its firmness on his tongue, his partner rubbing her thighs together as a spark of pleasure tickled her.

Unable to resist, he crawled his lips lower, sliding down her torso, leaving lingering kisses as he went. He could taste the salt on her skin, feel her warmth on his tongue, Tia leaning back as he slipped it into her navel.

When he reached her wide hips, her porcelain skin gave way to her coat of chestnut fur. He wasn’t sure how it would feel on his lips, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that it was very thin, clinging to the contours of her body. It was hard to pick out the individual hairs, more akin to the feeling of a velvet glove than an animal’s pelt.
The loincloth was impeding his progress now, and he paused to slide it off her. He gripped her ankles, which were slender enough that he could enclose them in a single hand, using the other to drag the garment down. After discarding it on the floor beside the bed, he picked up where he had left off. Tia shuddered in anticipation as he planted a kiss on her mound, George sliding his hands between her legs, which were still tightly closed. She allowed him to part them, George’s fingers sinking into the surface of her sensitive inner thighs, finding the steely muscle that he remembered beneath the cushion of fat. Her freckled cheeks flushed red as he exposed her loins, lowering himself down level with them.

From so close, the folds of her rosy vulva looked like the petals of a blooming flower, her lips puffy, swollen with arousal. She glistened in the moonlight, her excitement soaking into her fur, a thick rope of it drooling down towards the pelts that lined the bed beneath her.

Something primal overcame George, an impulse that was unwilling to fight, and he drew closer.

Tia lurched as she felt his cheeks slide against her thighs, George marveling at how soft they felt on his face. As his nose brushed her engorged clitoris, she delved her hands into his hair, gripping it tightly enough to sting his scalp. In return, he slid his arms beneath her legs, toppling her over onto her back. She yelped in surprise, releasing her hold on his hair, propping herself up on her elbows as she peered down at him. George lay the back of her knees on his shoulders, slipping his hands between her ass and the sheets, filling them with her pert cheeks.

Spirits,” she moaned through gritted teeth as his lips met hers, George covering her vulva with the flat of his tongue. She tasted just like a kiss, the realization making him even more eager, Tia throwing back her head as he began to trace her delicate folds. He licked and kissed, teasing her as she had him, his firm grip on her rump preventing her from squirming free. Her thighs tensed around his head with each doting lick, the developed muscles of her slender midriff catching the light as they flexed, her body dancing like a marionette on the end of its strings. She was fever-hot, her flesh as smooth as satin, made slippery by a sordid blend of her womanly juices and his own saliva.

At the apex of her vulva, protected by a hood of skin, her needy bud pulsed against his tongue. It was so incredibly sensitive, the smallest touch making Tia writhe, George refocusing his attention there. He pursed his lips around it, drawing it out from beneath its hood, lashing it with quick licks and flurries. Over her mound, he had an admirable view of her muscular stomach, along with the underside of her bosom as it bounced with her impassioned squirming. She was moving so much that he felt he might have to tie her down, but he feared that such a thing would only excite her more.

He slid his hands up the curve of her waist, taking hold of her hips for leverage, circling her throbbing clitoris with his questing organ. Suddenly, she placed a hand on his forehead, easing him away from her. The string of fluid that still linked his mouth to her loins broke as he rose up to peer at her, seeing her gazing back with a red face, the flowers in her hair leaking their own nectar just as she leaked hers.

“Too fast,” she mumbled, taking a moment to compose herself. “I wish to do some exploration of my own before you send me into another stupor with that agile tongue of yours.”

She lifted one of her legs from his shoulder, planting a cloven hoof on his chest, then giving him a more forceful push that encouraged him to draw back. Despite the confident air that she was putting on, he could see how unsteady she was on her feet now, her legs trembling as she slid towards the edge of the bed. Once she was standing again, she reached up to grip the collar of his shirt, guiding him around so that his back was to the bed. With another push, she made him sit down on the mattress, effectively switching places with him.

She reached up to tear off her collar, tossing it aside to join her loincloth on the floorboards. George shrugged off his jacket, then began to unbutton his shirt, but she slapped his hand away.

I want to undress you,” she insisted, starting to open up the garment. She exposed his chest little by little, drinking in his figure, running her fingers across his torso. He shivered as she leaned in to plant kisses on her way down, her soft lips lingering on his abdominal muscles, crawling slowly down towards his belt. “It is no wonder that you wear so many layers of clothing if you are so…naked,” she muttered.

Knowing how to unbuckle the clasp now, she succeeded in loosening it, unbuttoning his trousers to expose the conspicuous bulge beneath his long johns. When she tugged them down, his member bounced up, Tia having to pull back to avoid being hit in the nose. Her eyes wandered up and down its length as it throbbed in the cool air, Tia reaching out to brush her fingers up his shaft, tracing a pulsing vein. She was examining him in the same way that she had examined his compass when they had first met, as though his erection was a foreign object to her, the pink flush in her freckled cheeks deepening to a desirous crimson. When she gripped his girth in her hand, she couldn’t get her fingers all the way around it, such was their difference in size.

A droplet of nectar dripped from the petals of one of the pink flowers on her head, landing on her shoulder, and he had to assume that something similar was happening between her thighs.

George winced as she pulled back his foreskin, which seemed a novelty to her, exposing his glans. He felt her warm breath as she drew closer, pausing with her pursed lips a hair’s breadth from it.

“Is its length sensitive, or just the tip?” she asked as she glanced up at him. “Those of my people are not like yours.”

“All of it,” he gasped, feeling her press those soft lips against the tender underside of his head. “Though, the tip is the most sensitive part.”

She extended her tongue, what felt like velvet soaked in warm water caressing him. She drew his glans into her mouth, swirling the slippery organ around it, sneaking it beneath his foreskin to send dancing sparks of pleasure coursing up his spine. She was being so impossibly gentle to the point that it was frustrating, teasing him with the lightest of licks and the most tender of kisses. He couldn’t tell whether she was doing it purposefully to excite him, or if she was merely gauging how sensitive his foreign organ was.

Her emerald eyes met his as she nursed at the end of his cock, the suction making his head spin, punctuated by more quick flurries of her tongue. He could feel the ridges on the roof of her mouth sliding against him, the smooth texture of her inner cheeks closing around his glans, her tongue darting beneath it.

Unable to get her lips more than another inch or so down his shaft, she gripped it in her hands, starting to stroke it from its base to its tip. Her touch was just as gentle, as though she didn’t realize that the skin could move, brushing it with her feather-light fingertips.

“L-like this,” George mumbled, placing his hand over one of hers. He demonstrated how hard she should grip, guiding her into a slow pumping motion, which Tia continued once he released her. Now she was getting the idea, George leaning back, having to plant his hands on the pelts to either side of him to support himself as she found a rhythm. Her hands slid up and down his length, her lips locked around his head, her smooth tongue swirling around it as she kept those green eyes focused on him intently.

He noticed the way that her floppy, deer-like ears twitched as she doted on him, finding himself momentarily fascinated by them. Tia giggled as he reached down to take one of them in his hand, rubbing the thin membrane between his thumb and forefinger. It was so fluffy on the inside, with a layer of velvet fur just like that of her coat on the outside, Tia faltering as he stroked her. It seemed that she was sensitive, or perhaps ticklish, the vibrations of her chuckling only stimulating him further.With a wet smack, she let him slide out of her mouth, continuing to stroke him with one hand as she wiped her lips with the back of the other. His flesh glistened with her saliva, a droplet of its sliding down towards his base.

“I can feel your pulse on my tongue,” she chuckled, the statement making his heart flutter.

She leaned in again, focusing on his shaft this time, peppering it with sucking kisses. He shivered as he felt the flat of her warm tongue drag across his skin, her lips caressing him, Tia using one hand to hold his member close. She nuzzled, brushing it against her cheek, sighing contentedly as she appeared to take in his scent.

Realizing now that she didn’t have to be quite so gentle, she started to pump her fist in earnest, her hand gliding on a sheen of her own bubbling saliva. Those pillowy lips roamed back up towards his glans again, sealing around it, Tia shifting her position a little to get more comfortable. When she drew him into her mouth this time, she pressed him deeper, George uttering a muffled grunt as he felt the muscles of her throat seize around him. Like a snake attempting to swallow its prey whole, she slid her lips another inch down his shaft, walls of wet muscle not so different from her loins closing around him in a desperate bid to expel him. He could feel her struggling for a moment before she started to relax, the clenching of her throat easing up a little, the furrows in her brow disappearing.

She held him there for a moment, George having to resist the urge to thrust lest he choke her, her tongue sliding against his shaft as it fought for space in her mouth. When she pulled back, she dragged her lips back up his length, pausing to give his tip another maddening lap.

“Have you done this before?” he wondered, watching her pert breasts rise and fall as she caught her breath.

“Not with one quite as…unwieldy as you,” she admitted. “Still, I believe I can manage,” she added as she poised above his erection again. “Take me by the horns,” she insisted, pointing to them.

“W-what?” George replied, wondering if he had misheard her.

“Take my horns in your hands,” she repeated. “Do not mind the flowers.”

She shivered in anticipation as he did as she asked, reaching out to grip her swept-back horns like the handles of a bicycle. She brought her lips to his glans again, letting them brush against it, teasing him. It was clear that she wasn’t going to proceed until he gave her what she wanted, so George pulled her into his lap, guiding her down onto his shaft. Her smooth lips parted, the warmth of her mouth encompassing him again, her tongue curling around his length as she let him slide into her throat.

He paused, fearing that he might hurt her, but she reached down to cup his balls in encouragement. This time, he gave her a harder tug, feeling the damp flesh of her gullet welcome him with a spasm, like the squeeze of a fist. The tight muscles massaged him as she swallowed around his girth, gulping down a mouthful of her own saliva, the sensation making George grit his teeth. As his pleasure mounted, his restraint eroded, Tia’s lips curling into a smirk around his member as he thrust it into her welcoming mouth.

Her drool leaked down her chin as he pushed ever deeper, the muscles of her throat fighting against him, the tube of satin flesh undulating with each motion. His grip on her horns tightened, the lurid, wet sounds of her sucking and swallowing all that he could focus on. It was so hot and wet, irresistibly slippery, Tia’s doting licking keeping him eager the entire time. Errant petals floated towards the floor where his hands had damaged the flowers in her headdress, the leaking nectar making his fingers sticky.

She finally patted his thigh in a gesture to stop, and he relented, letting her rise up again. She took in gasping breaths, a drooping rope of her saliva connecting her lips to his slimy shaft for a moment before it broke, draping itself over her heaving chest. He was about to ask her if she was alright, but the lurid way that her eyelids were drooping let him know that she wasn’t in any distress. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Your hands,” she chuckled, gesturing to his nectar-covered fingers. There were a few rosy petals still stuck to them.

“Your headdress is…uh…leaking,” he explained.

“As am I,” she added with a sultry chuckle. “Come, let me help.”

She reached out to take one of his hands, guiding a finger towards her mouth, drawing on it softly. His member flexed as he felt her agile little tongue clean away the syrupy substance, Tia making a point of batting her long lashes at him all the while.

“If you finish now, can you go again before long?” she inquired once her mouth was empty.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” he replied. He was as hard as he had ever been, his swollen member beating like a heart, his mind swimming with arousal.

“Good,” she cooed, her tone turning sly. “Let us see what your kind taste like.”

She gripped his shaft in both hands, starting to bob her head in his lap, giving no quarter. George took hold of her horns again, more confident now that he had a better idea of her limits, his butt rising from the bed as he thrust into her waiting mouth. She would pause to catch her breath at intervals, keeping him on edge by sliding his glans into her inner cheeks, painting his shaft with all the skill and care of an artist’s brush.

George couldn’t endure more than a minute or two of such treatment, Tia watching eagerly as he began to lose his composure, sweat making the wild strands of his blonde mane stick to his forehead. Every affectionate lick of her swift tongue enraptured him, the tightness of her throat drawing out sighs and grunts with each wracking gulp, her black nose brushing his belly as she swallowed him almost to the hilt.

He could do little more than sit there as she brought him to climax, George enraptured by her every lick and suck, the pleasure mounting until he could tolerate it no longer. He gripped her horns as he pushed deep into her narrow throat, holding her there, Tia giving no indication that she wanted him to release her. His butt left the bed as he fucked a thick, hot rope of his seed into her mouth, the surge of pleasure chased by a second as he felt her swallow. The teasing of her warm, smooth muscles drew another wad of his ejaculate from him, his partner practically drinking from him as she kept her lips tightly sealed around his shaft. He arched his spine as each wave of his orgasm hit him, his mind numbed by euphoria, the sensation of her soft cheeks pressing around his member all that he could think about.

When he had finally given her the last drop of his emission, Tia gradually pulled back, sliding her smooth lips up his pulsing length. She paused at his tip, giving it a slow, placating lick that cut through his afterglow like a hot knife.

She gazed up at him as he caught his breath, wetting her lips, her expression one of smug satisfaction. He wasn’t pinning her up against a tree this time, he was on the back foot. As he collapsed back onto the furs, enjoying his post-coital bliss, she hooked her fingers around his belt and tugged off his pants to leave him naked below the waist. He was only wearing his open shirt now.

He felt the mattress sag as she climbed up onto it, crawling over to him on her hands and knees. Instead of lying down at his side as he had anticipated, she swung one of her long legs over him, splaying them wide as she straddled his belly. She lay her hands on his chest, enjoying the way that he lifted her as he flexed involuntarily in response. Those slender fingers explored his anatomy, roaming down towards his muscular core, where she pressed them into his belly as she admired his physique. George was no strongman, but the rigors of frontier life had left their mark on him.

“You are not totally furless,” she muttered, talking to herself as much as she was to him. “There is fine hair on your skin, more on your chest and between your legs.”

He reached up to stroke one of her thighs, admiring the texture of her fur, Tia pressing her breasts together with her upper arms as she perched atop him. His member had not receded, the sheen of her saliva still coating it, his smiling companion sliding a little further down his torso until one of her springy cheeks brushed against it. It flexed, bouncing against her butt, Tia’s smile morphing into a knowing grin.

“How long until you can go again?” she demanded, squeezing his waist between her legs.

“Give me a couple of minutes,” he chuckled, rising to a sitting position. She slid a little further down, sandwiching his erection between her soft cheeks, their difference in stature putting her nose level with his clavicle. Her delicate fat enveloped his shaft, the texture of her smooth coat caressing his skin, while the upwards curve of his member meant that it became buried in the fluffy fur of her deer-like tail.

He had intended to kiss her, but he faltered as he felt those delicate hairs glance his still sensitive anatomy, Tia quickly noticing. She smirked again, those emerald eyes flashing with mischief as she wiggled the appendage. It felt as though someone was enveloping the tip of his cock in the most luxuriant mink, or like someone was teasing him with a feather duster, the white fluff on the underside of her tail brushing against him.

“I think you need a little more encouragement,” she cooed, tensing her rear. The firm muscle that gave her rump its wonderful roundness squeezed around him, cushioned by her doughy fat, the sensation making him swell again. He could see the dimples that had formed in her cheeks, which quickly vanished again when she relaxed.

Slowly, she began to rock her hips back and forth, grinding against his rigid member. He could feel the heat of her loins near his base, her slippery flesh smearing her juices on his skin, her tail stroking his head with each thrust. It was such a novel sensation – the blend of fat, muscle, and fur quickly bewitching him. He couldn’t believe how soft and downy her tail was, the fur brushing against him as she leveraged her limited control over it to wag it from side to side.

“I take it that the women of your tribe are not capable of such a feat,” she chuckled as she leaned back to rest her hands on his thighs, steadying herself as she moved.

“They certainly lack your creativity,” he muttered, his reply making her grin.

George slid a hand down the curve of her waist, bringing it to rest on her hip, his fingers pressing into the meat of her butt. The way that she moved was mesmerizing, her torso seeming to hang in the air as her lower body gyrated. The twin rows of muscle beneath her burnished skin flexed and tensed with her motions, rising from her flat stomach just enough to cast shadows in the moonlight.

The smoothness of the fur on her buttocks made her glide against his skin, his member dampening the feathery fur of her tail as it began to leak beads of fluid in anticipation. Tia paused after a minute or two, enjoying the sensation of him throbbing between her cheeks.

“Tell me that you are ready again,” she said, a hint of frustration creeping into her voice. “I cannot endure the feeling of your manhood pressing up against me for much longer.”

He nodded, and she lifted herself off him eagerly, reaching down to grip his shaft in her hand. She maneuvered it between her legs, rubbing his glans between her flushed lips, wetting it with her juices. The fur between her thighs was matted with it, globs of glistening fluid clinging to her velvet coat.

Tia was the one setting the pace this time, pressing his tip against her opening, seeming to steel herself. Perhaps their last encounter was still fresh in her mind. Slowly, she began to lower herself down onto him, George’s brow furrowing as he felt that familiar tightness envelop him. If he was even a little more endowed, or Tia was a tad smaller, he got the feeling that they wouldn’t even have been able to fit together.

He was distracted from his thoughts as her burning loins engulfed him, wrapping around him so tightly that it made his breath catch in his throat. Her nethers sucked and squeezed, the taut muscles in her oozing depths shifting and roiling as they molded to his shape. He could feel himself splitting her apart, the wrinkles and imperfections of her wet, seizing insides grazing his sensitive tip. She let herself drop suddenly, the two of them grunting as she swallowed him all the way to the hilt in one smooth motion, her involuntary clenching making him claw at the pelts. She knew how much of him she could take by now, clearly…

He felt her hands come to rest on his belly as she doubled over, leaning her insubstantial weight on him. From the blooming flowers that were growing around her horns, droplets of amber fluid dripped to his skin, more the nectar leaking from the swollen petals. They looked just as pink and as needy as her loins. George anticipated some cutting remark from her, but all that she uttered was a wordless, bestial moan.

Even when the two of them remained completely still, there was incessant movement. His member flexed and throbbed, while her insides rippled and shifted around it as though her beleaguered body was still fighting to accommodate him.

Gradually, Tia began to move, making lazy circles with her hips. That same finesse that he had admired earlier was now on display again, her control over her toned core impeccable, putting any gymnast to shame. Her wiry, slender figure danced and gyrated atop him, stirring him around in her depths. It felt like her clinging walls were swirling around his length, George lying back on the bed again, resigning himself to simply enjoying her attentions.

“How are you moving like that?” he wondered aloud, covering his face with his forearm as Tia grinned back at him.

“I am a huntress,” she cooed, teasing him with a staccato thrust that made him lurch in surprise. “I must keep my body as sharp as my blade if I am to leap, climb, and run.”

She started to move faster, making agile figures of eight, rocking forward and back. She never rose and fell on his shaft, keeping it as deep as it could reach. At this point, the pleasure that he was experiencing almost seemed like an afterthought. Tia was losing herself in her ecstasy, her head lolling with each thrust, her green eyes staring into empty space beneath drooping lids. She was chewing on her lower lip, not even seeming to notice as a strand of nectar from one of the flowers on her head fell to her freckled cheek.

Tia sat up straight again, resting one hand on his belly and the other on his thigh to steady herself as she changed her pace. She rose on his shaft, George wincing as he felt his glans scrape against her insides on its way out, Tia pausing for a moment when she reached her apex. With only his tip still trapped in her firm grip, she slid down again, taking him all the way to the base. She found a steady tempo, her abundant excitement making his skin so wet and slippery that there was practically no friction, even in spite of her vise-like hold on him. The texture of her warm, damp flesh as it glided up and down his length was a taste of heaven, his spine arching off the bed involuntarily.

Having her riding him like a horse, setting her own pace, was a completely different feeling to pinning her against the tree and having his way with her. The mechanics of their lovemaking were the same, yet something about being subjected to this pleasure rather than being the one to mete it out made him feel like he was floating on a cloud. The women that he had been with previously had been little more than passive participants, lying there as they took whatever he gave them, but Tia was as wild as a waya.

Her pace grew more and more aggressive, more covetous, George able to feel her pleasure in the way that she moved. Her perky breasts bounced in time with her rhythm, her long ears flopping, her ass quivering each time it came down on his thighs. Even as he was overwhelmed by the whirlwind of sensations, he couldn’t help but gaze at her, admiring the way that her limber body moved.

Fresh beads of sweat were starting to well on her skin now, the effort making her transpire, the droplets catching the moonlight that fed in through the windows of her hut to make her sparkle. George reached out to slide his hand up her flexing torso, delighting in how slick it made her burning skin, Tia letting out a gasp of desire as he covered one of her breasts with his palm. He felt her firm nipple press into his skin, flesh as soft as melting candle wax deforming in his grasp, her insides clenching as he kneaded her sensitive tissue. When he brought a second hand to her chest, her steady pace faltered, his partner beginning to buck and squirm as he teased her.

George began to rise from the bed, pushing up into her, lifting her light frame with each thrust. Tia lay her hands on his belly again to steady herself, gripping him tightly with her thighs for fear of being bucked off. In an instant, he had wrested the reins from her, much to the annoyance of his red-faced companion. She pouted at him, shuddering as he buried his twitching cock to the hilt, her long lashes fluttering at the sensation. She balled her fists, hanging her head, letting her tongue loll from her mouth as he delivered another punishing thrust. He slowed his pace as she gave him a slap on the chest, feigning anger even as her diminutive frame trembled with ecstasy.

I am on top this time,” she grumbled. “Lie back, and let me have my fill of you. Or would you have me overpower you again, as I did when we first crossed paths?”

George raised his hands in mock surrender, lying back, letting Tia set the pace again.

She started to bounce on his member, doubling over, resting her hands on his torso to steady herself. She kept her upper body remarkably still as her hips pounded into him, dropping down like she was trying to hammer a tent peg into the ground. Her short-cropped hair fell over her eyes, droplets of oozing nectar and glittering sweat raining down onto his skin, exertion making her drip in the relatively humid environment of her hut. He glimpsed flashes of his shaft between her furry thighs as she moved with all the skill and poise that she employed when she danced through the forest, his skin soaked in her desire, Tia abandoning any pretense of restraint. She was letting her bestial lust rule her, obeying her most carnal proclivities, embodying the virility that she had spoken of during their encounter by the tree. Like the wild hottah, she was untamed, fierce in spite of her small stature.

Her tempo grew even faster, bordering on desperate, Tia pausing to circle her hips as though trying to sate some terrible itch deep inside her. The sensation of her silken flesh swirling around his length was almost more than George could take, the taut muscles in her depths spasming as they stroked him, responding to his every throb by tightening up even more. Her smooth skin shone with sudor, the sweat soaking her fur, making it slick to the touch as he brought his hands to her hips.

He could sense that she was close to her limit, her movements growing erratic, George gripping her waist tightly to hold her close as her climax reared its head. With a pained groan, she stopped her frantic thrusting, starting to shake as a wave of ecstasy crashed over her. Her trembling thighs tightened their hold around his hips, her nails leaving red indents in his skin as she clawed at his belly, but he didn’t flinch away. Her loins wrung him with each throb of pleasure, milking him relentlessly as though her very body was begging for his seed. The ruthless squeezing of her passage was more than he could stand, and he lifted her off the bed as he erupted inside her, pumping a thick wad of his emission into her quivering depths. Tia threw her head back, arching her spine as she felt its heat well up inside her, her mouth open in a silent wail. Again and again his member swelled inside her, flexing as it shot another gelatinous rope of his ejaculate into her tender reaches, her undulating walls seeming to draw it from him with their greedy swallowing.

The two remained locked together, their heaving bodies joined, each jolt of pleasure that was felt by one reflected in the other. Their bodies slid against one another on a sheen of their shared sweat, a sordid blend of their fluids leaking from Tia’s splayed opening, oozing down George’s pulsing shaft. Eager hands took purchase where they pleased, stroking and squeezing, questing lips leaving lingering kisses wherever they could reach. As the seething pleasure gradually gave way to the sweet euphoria of afterglow, George felt Tia collapse on top of him, lying her burning face on his chest as she draped her arms over his sides. She filled his lungs with the scent of her flowers, strands of nectar dripping from their swollen petals, her soft breasts squashing against his torso.

He shivered as he felt her extend her tongue, dragging it through the sweat that coated his skin, another shiver of pleasure making them both wince as her loins gave him one last fleeting squeeze.

“How I have come to long for this feeling of soreness,” she breathed, tapering off into a sigh as her lurid admission made his member throb inside her. “It is…a sweet ache, a delicious satisfaction.”

George couldn’t come up with an articulate reply, so he took her warm cheeks in his hands, leaning in for a kiss. He tried to communicate all of the things that he hadn’t the words to tell her with each stroke of his tongue, imbuing the long, deep embrace with his romantic intent. She responded in kind, drawing closer to him, her own agile flurries letting him know that she understood on some level.

Tia slowly lifted herself off him on trembling legs, the pearly fluid that his girth had been plugging seeping down her inner thigh as he slid out of her, matting her velvet fur. She gazed at his glistening shaft for a moment, as though marveling that she had been able to fit it inside her, then flopped down beside him on the pelts. She shuffled higher so that their faces were level, then draped an arm over his chest. George reached up to wipe away a droplet of amber nectar that was clinging to her freckled cheek, Tia pushing her face into his hand as she nuzzled.

“Are your flowers going to be okay?” he asked, eyeing the drooping plants. “They look…spent.”

“They respond to my emotions,” she replied, drawing a little closer to him. “They will return to normal as I do.”

He rolled over onto his side, wrapping an arm around her narrow waist, pulling her tight against him. She was already woozy, and he could tell that she wanted to let her bliss carry her off to sleep, so he didn’t disturb her as she buried her face in the nape of his neck. If the beard that he had been cultivating during his trip bothered her, she didn’t show it, Tia exhaling a satisfied sigh as she closed her eyes.

***

“Is it ready?” Tia asked, hovering over George’s shoulder as he knelt to pick up the ceramic cooking pot. He removed the lid, taking in a quick whiff of the contents, then gave her a nod.

“I hope you actually like this stuff because I’ve been building it up for days,” he chuckled as he passed it to her. “Remember, it’s a condiment, so it’s not supposed to be eaten on its own. You use it as a sauce. Just dip a finger in there and tell me what you think.”

Tia took the pot from his hands, then inserted a finger into the mixture, bringing it to her mouth. Her green eyes lit up, and she glanced back at him, George grinning at her surprised expression.

“It is good!”

“Mushroom ketchup always goes down a treat,” he replied with renewed confidence as she handed the container back to him. “Just wait until you try it with some seared hottah meat. You’ll never want to eat it plain again.”

It was early morning, and there were only a few villagers milling about in the communal building. The fires had been stoked, and they were once again roaring, their heat driving off the morning chill that hung over the village.

“You must be hungry after the way you exerted yourself last night,” she whispered, George’s face reddening. “We should eat. I will cook some of the leftover meat from yesterday evening.”

“Leftovers always taste better,” he added, watching as she made her way over to the stone slab where a few cuts of meat were still sitting.

The smell of cooking food attracted a few of the villagers who were milling around nearby, and as was customary for these people, George was happy to share. Half of a dozen of them helped tend to the meat, then lined up with their plates for a helping of ketchup, George pouring a spoonful of sauce onto each cut of meat. It seemed to go down even better than the soup, George watching with satisfaction as they dug into their meals with enthusiasm.

“This is not what I was expecting,” Tia said as she took another large bite, pausing to chew for a moment. “It is tangy and savory, a wonderful flavor.”

“I’m glad I didn’t oversell it,” he chuckled, starting on his own meal.

A few of the villagers came back for seconds, George giving out more spoonfuls of sauce. The pot was actually starting to empty, despite the amount of ketchup that he had made, but what was its purpose if not to be enjoyed? He could teach these people the secret of the sauce, and they would have mushroom ketchup coming out of their ears before long.

As he wiped up the last of the sauce on his plate with a morsel of meat, the door to the building swung open, and a trio of guards funneled inside. They noticed George and Tia, making their way over to them, Tia rising to greet them.

“The Elders request your presence,” one of them announced, Tia nodding to George.

The guards led them through the village and up the winding staircase that led to the council chamber where George had first met the Elders. He found himself standing before their three twisted thrones forged from the very tree itself once more, the wizened leaders peering down at the newcomers from their high perches.

“We have finished our deliberations,” the female Elder began, George holding his breath as he waited for their decree. If they had decided not to go to the company’s rescue, he had no idea what he was going to do next.

“After much thought and careful consideration,” the Elder with the little bird still perched on his antler added, “we have decided that it is in our best interests to mount an expedition into the blighted forest. We will attempt to relieve the comrades of which you spoke, and in return, ask for their help in fighting back the Blighters.”

George let out a sigh of relief, Tia bowing her head in a show of gratitude.

“Your decisions are wise as always, Elders,” she said.

“A party of our best warriors will escort you back to the location of your camp,” the third Elder added, stroking his silvery beard. “We will rely upon you, George Ardwin, to treat on our behalf. You must make your kin understand our plight, and they must pledge their rifles to our cause.”

“About that,” he began. Tia gave him a wary glance, perhaps expecting rudeness from him, but her expression soon softened as he continued. “When I was up in the foothills the other night, I came across a great vein of gold. Tiaska informs me that your people do not place any great value in this mineral, but mine do. To us, this metal is life and death. If you want to be sure that the men of my company will serve you faithfully and see the war through to its end, I recommend offering them gold in exchange.”

Gold?” the female Elder asked, pausing to glance at her counterparts in confusion. “It is a worthless substance, valued only for making trinkets and baubles. It is too soft for tools or weapons. Blades and arrowheads made from it buckle more readily than stone. This is valued by your people?”

“Greatly,” he replied with a nod. “Offer them enough gold, and they will follow you to the ends of the Earth.”

“How much is enough?” another Elder asked.

“Tiaska tells me that you use it as jewelry,” he replied. “Bring enough to fill a good-sized sack, and if you don’t have enough for that, bring as much as you can. It will serve as proof of what you say, and you can then offer them as much as they can mine from the mountain as a reward.”

“They would not believe that we had gold to barter otherwise?” the female Elder asked, cocking a bushy eyebrow.

“It is exceedingly rare where I come from.”

“Very well,” she continued. “We will do as you suggest.” She turned her eyes to one of the guards who were waiting by the door, the man standing to attention as she addressed him. “You there. Go from hut to hut and ask the people to turn over what gold they can. Fill a sack with as much as you are able, then bring it back here.”

He nodded, then jogged out of the door, heading off down the spiral staircase.

“Assemble twenty of our best warriors and outfit them for a long journey,” she added as she gestured to another of the guards. “They will be traveling deep into the heart of the blighted forest.”

“When will they be leaving, Elder?” the guard asked.

“Before dusk,” she replied. “We pray that the blessings of the spirits will be with you, George Ardwin,” she added as she turned her attention back to him. “May they watch over you, and grant you their favor in your time of greatest need.”

***

“Finally,” George said, Tia walking behind him as he descended the wooden steps. “I was starting to think that they’d never make up their minds.”

“The Elders have pledged their support,” Tia replied, sounding a little less relieved than he was. “We have crossed the first hurdle, but the greatest challenge still lies ahead of us.”

“Now we actually have to make it back to the basecamp alive,” he added with a nod.

“And after that, we must deal with the Blighters once and for all.”

“How exactly will we go about that?” he asked. “Do you know if the Elders have a plan?”

“No,” she admitted, hopping down off the last step. “What I do know is that the dark God worshiped by the Blighters cannot act without using its minions as a medium. We have observed that its evil influence takes root by way of the effigies, which suggests that it could not spread the blight in their absence. If there are no Blighters to construct the effigies…”

She trailed off, giving him a shrug.

“So, kill them all?” he chuckled.

“Maybe not all of them, but enough that they no longer pose a threat. They came from outside the forest to the South, and we never found any permanent dwellings built by their hands, only temporary encampments. They are an army on the march, not homemakers.”

“That means they could be routed,” George said. “The question is, how large is this army? There were just shy of thirty men at the camp before I left, and that’s assuming none have been killed in the interim. Combined with your warriors, that makes a little less than fifty people. Is that enough?”

“We will not know until battle is joined,” she replied ominously. “Come, we must prepare for the journey ahead.”

***

By the time evening came, George and Tia had packed up their gear and were ready to move out. A guard was sent for them, who led them to the main gate, where the group of warriors had assembled. Like Tia, they were all wearing their green cloaks, their backs loaded with bows and quivers full of obsidian-tipped arrows. They had spears, too, the wooden handles bound tightly with strips of leather. One of them stepped forward, George noting that he was male on account of his larger antlers. Even their stoutest warriors were still considerably shorter than George, this man’s head barely reaching his chin.

“My name is Kuruk,” he began, planting the haft of his spear in the ground. “The Elders have appointed me to lead this war party.”

Tia gave the man a respectful bow, and George followed soon after, indicating that he would respect the warrior’s authority. Kuruk then gestured for one of his companions to step forward, this one carrying a cloth sack in his hands that was making distinctly metallic noises as the contents clattered around. When he opened the drawstring for George to see, he realized that it was full of gold. As Tia had described, it was mostly small trinkets – rings and pendants that the people of the village had worn as simple adornments. There were a lot of them, almost enough to fill the sack, and George found himself hoping that none of these were treasured heirlooms. It was an unlikely prospect, judging by how little value these people seemed to place on the metal.

“Will this be sufficient?” Kuruk asked.

“I believe so,” George replied. “When we reach the camp – if it’s still there – I suggest that you allow me to make contact before you reveal yourselves. My people have never seen your like before, and they might assume you to be hostile.”

“Reasonable,” Kuruk replied, nodding his horned head. “Are you both prepared for the journey? We mean to set off immediately. Come sunset, we will make camp, then continue on in the morning.”

“We have everything that we need,” George said, Tia nodding. “Lead on.”

***

George was hard-pressed to keep up with the warriors. They were so quick, leaping and dancing through the forest just as Tia had, their relatively low stamina the only thing that allowed him to catch up with them when they paused to rest. It was starting to make him feel like a burden, but that soon changed when they made camp later that night. Just like Tia during the trip to the village, the war party had no need of tents, simply using their cloaks for shelter. It was reasonable to assume that these garments had received the same blessing that Tia’s had. They watched with interest as George set up his lean-to, suspending it between two trees on lengths of rope.

When it came time for dinner, he saw an opportunity to flex his cooking skills. They had brought enough fresh meat from the village to feed the men for what little time it would keep, and they had dried rations not unlike those that he was accustomed to eating for the rest of the journey. That wasn’t to say that they couldn’t replenish those supplies through hunting game, but the likelihood of finding any sources of food that weren’t tainted by the blight as they traveled deeper into enemy territory was low. George had brought along a supply of the ketchup that he had made, the foreign delicacy raising everyone’s spirits when he applied it to the fire-roasted meat. As he chatted with the warriors around the campfire, he began to feel as though he was becoming a valued member of their party. As different as these people were in many respects, everyone appreciated a good meal.

He was surprised to find out that word of his rifle had spread, and the party actually viewed him as a fellow warrior. They asked to see his rifle, passing it around the campfire as Tia relayed the story of their fight with the abomination once more, giving it her usual flair.

As different as their culture was, these people reminded him of his own company when they had just set out on their journey. He hadn’t known any of them, either. They were just a random selection of people who had signed up for the job and had suddenly been thrust together. Over time, they had developed a camaraderie, and George hoped that the same would be true of his new companions.

When it was time to sleep, they huddled up under their cloaks in the nooks between tree roots, some of them electing to leap up into the branches where a secure perch could be found. Tia joined George beneath his lean-to, though she did not share his blankets, merely staying close as she bundled herself up in her cloak.

***

“Look at this,” George said, holding up his compass. Tia hopped over to his side, leaning in to examine the needle as it bounced around erratically. “My compass is going crazy again. That must mean we’re already near some of those Blighter effigies.”

“The forest grows darker, and we are but two day’s travel from the village,” she muttered as she glanced out at the woods. “Do you feel it?”

“I do,” George replied. “Now more than ever.”

The giant trees and flourishing plants that had characterized the ancient forest in the vicinity of the village had already begun to give way to darker, sicklier vegetation, and the previously clear sky had become overcast with ominously black clouds. It could just be the weather, maybe a storm was rolling in, but George no longer explained such things away as coincidences. He could feel it in the air – an oppressive, heavy aura that seemed to weigh down on him like a lead blanket. The more he became attuned to the forest spirits, the more their absence nagged at him, as though all of the life was being drained from his surroundings.

“The Blight had spread further since last we came this way,” she muttered.

Kuruk broke from the rest of the group and moved over to join them, examining the compass. George passed it to him, and he turned it over in his hands curiously.

“What is this?” he asked.

“It tells me what direction I’m heading in,” George explained, Kuruk returning it to him. “By accident, I discovered that it starts to malfunction around the effigies raised by the Blighters. It means that there must be some close by.”

“The air here is poison,” Kuruk hissed, his nostrils flaring with disgust. “I will alert the war party to be ready. How far was your people’s camp?”

“Another day’s walk to the South-East, at least,” he replied. “I hope you can find your way, because once the mountain is shrouded in mist, we’re not going to have any landmarks to use as a reference. My compass sure as hell isn’t going to be any help.”

“We can find our way,” he replied. “Come, we must press on.”

***

After a few more hours of walking, the forest was taking on the appearance that George regretfully remembered so well. The carpet of ferns on the forest floor were wilted and blackened, the trees stripped of their leaves, their cracked trunks leaking foul tar that poisoned the soil in their vicinity. While the thriving moss that grew on their bark had sported vibrant flowers closer to the village, it was dry and dead here, the mushrooms that sprouted among the jutting roots reeking of carrion. An obscuring mist seemed to hang over everything, limiting their visibility and blotting out the sun. There were no more bird calls, no signs of life, only the stench of death.

“Keep your eyes open,” Kuruk said as he stalked through the undergrowth, his bow at the ready. His war party was following suit, so quiet on their dainty hooves when they wanted to be, spread out in a rough line formation to cover more ground.

George had unslung his rifle, and he was keeping it loaded. Hopefully, if he was forced to fire it, his friends back at the basecamp might hear it. The sound traveled far and would alert them that he was still alive. In the same vein, he would be glad to hear the sounds of a gunfight in the distance, even if it might have dire implications. At least he would know that someone was still alive out here. He had been gone for the better part of a week now, and he wasn’t certain that they would even still be there.

“Let the warriors fire first,” Tia whispered, almost as if she could guess what he was thinking. “Your rifle is more powerful, but it will bring every enemy in earshot running. We can handle the Blighters with our bows, as long as they are not too great in number.”

He nodded in reply, following after her as she weaved between the dead trees.

“Look,” one of the warriors muttered, gesturing towards the canopy. George followed his gaze to see that the naked branches had been adorned with the same hanging charms that he and his company had encountered previously. They had been fashioned from twigs that had been tied together to form strange runes, each one hanging from a piece of hairy rope. They were painted with what looked like a blend of blood and feathers, the dried gore taking on a dark crimson color. There were dozens of them, turning gently in the breeze as the branches creaked, George feeling a knot form in his stomach as he looked over the morbid sight. This was a clear indication that there were Blighters active in the area.

“They were here recently,” another of the warriors whispered from beneath his shadowy hood. “The blood smells little more than a day or two old.”

The party pressed on, and as they emerged into a small clearing, they came upon another of the effigies. A mass of bent sticks and branches had been meticulously assembled around the base of a shattered tree trunk to form a kind of spiraling cone. They had been carved with more Blighter runes and painted with a blend of blood and hair that had hardened into a foul, sticky coating. What remained of the tree at its center had been blackened by the blight, its bark oozing with dark tar that flowed from the breaks in its surface like molasses.

Pinned to the tree was a body, stakes driven through its wrists to keep it aloft, its hands joined above its head in a cruel mockery of prayer. It had been bisected at the waist, the remnants of a spinal column hanging from the jagged wound, along with a few drooping ropes of entrails. Even though he had been anticipating this, George couldn’t shake off the wave of disgust at the sight of the desecrated corpse. Something was different this time, however. The body was fresher, and as he willed his eyes not to turn away, he noticed that it was not human.

The ashen skin gave way to rusty fur in places, and atop the skull were a pair of stubby growths that had probably been antlers at one point before being sawed off. The flesh hadn’t yet had time to rot away, and the features were still intact enough for George to recognize them. This was one of Tia’s people, and judging by the runes that had been carved into his chest, he had not died peacefully.

He glanced over at her, but she was wearing her hood again, and her expression was impossible to discern beneath its shadow.

“One of our scouts,” Kuruk explained as he stepped past George, stowing his bow. “Come, we must cut him down and give him a proper burial.”

George nodded, following after him, a few of the others following suit. The rest fanned out, forming a perimeter to keep watch, seeming to vanish into the trees. Tia was among them, perhaps not wanting a closer look at the grisly monument.

He covered his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his jacket as he approached the base of the structure, marveling once again at how much care had been taken to assemble this pyre, contrasting with its morbid purpose. Senseless violence was something that he could understand, but such meticulous cruelty was entirely foreign to him.

“Can you reach him, George Ardwin?” Kuruk asked as he glanced up at the body. “You are taller than we.”

George nodded, stepping forward. He struggled to find some sure footing in the mass of branches for a few moments, climbing up towards the blighted tree trunk, careful to avoid getting any of that black fluid on his hands. He steeled himself, trying to think of the unfortunate scout rather than the bile that was rising in his throat, holding his breath so as not to breathe in the miasma as he reached for the wooden stakes that secured his wrists. They had been driven between the bones, George fumbling with them for a moment before reaching for his knife, using it to pry them from the soft bark beneath.

He caught the body as it fell, finding it relatively light, then passed the remains to the warriors who were waiting below. George wiped the blade of his knife on his trouser leg, then stowed it back in its leather holster, hopping down onto the forest floor.

“Thank you,” Kuruk said, giving him a respectful nod. “We must collect kindling and build a funeral pyre now.”

“You burn your dead?” George asked.

“These days we do,” Kuruk muttered before turning to follow after his companions.

***

George stood before the pyre that they had assembled in the clearing, the remains of the fallen scout now engulfed in its flames, reduced to little more than a charred husk. The war party had formed a rough crescent around it, a couple of them still keeping watch lest any Blighters be drawn by the smoke. Tia was standing by his side, watching in silence as the crackling fire licked at the air.

“What do your people believe happens when someone dies?” he asked quietly, not wanting to disturb the silence. “Do you believe in an afterlife of some kind?”

“Our bodies are only temporary vessels,” she replied, her tone solemn. “Just as a flower blooms, then wilts, so too do we fade when our time is spent. Spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter. Our spirits join those that surround us, dancing with the wind, flowing with the rivers. They become part of nature just as the body that they leave behind becomes part of the soil.”

“Mine believe in an afterlife,” he explained. “They say that when you die, your spirit ascends to another world, where it’s judged for its actions in this one. Those who have lived a good and just existence ascend to a paradise, but if they’re found wanting, they’re punished by being forced to return to this world to live out another life.”
“That does not sound so bad,” she muttered.

“No?”

“I like it here,” she said, George chuckling.

“You okay?” he added, his tone more serious.

“No,” she replied with a shake of her hooded head, George’s heart sinking. “But, I will be.”

He reached down to take her hand beneath her cloak, Tia giving it a grateful squeeze.

***

As they advanced through the trees, Kuruk raised a hand in a gesture for the party to stop, George taking a knee beside Tia. Her bow was at the ready, her eyes scanning the darkness beneath her shadowy hood. Dusk was upon them, and the pervasive mist meant that little of the moon’s light shone through.

She had better hearing than George did, her floppy ears twitching. He tried to stay quiet, but he could never come close to being as stealthy as her, clumsy human that he was.

“Something approaches,” Kuruk hissed, his voice almost inaudible to George. “To your positions!”

Some of the warriors took cover behind the trees, while others leapt up into the canopy above, only a few errant creaks from the branches betraying their presence. George followed Tia, keeping his rifle ready as they took refuge behind the stout trunk of one of the decaying trees. After a few moments, he heard footsteps ahead of them, what sounded like a group of people walking through the woods. They were louder and heavier than Tia’s kind, most likely humans.

George peeked out from behind the tree to see a column of maybe ten Blighters heading their way. Their ashen skin was painted with some kind of cracked, white paste to give them an even more ghostly appearance, their heads adorned with crowns of antlers and feathers. They were carrying hatchets and clubs, and they wore little more than loincloths. They didn’t seem to be paying much attention to their surroundings, perhaps not expecting to meet any enemies so deep into the territory that had been claimed by their plague.

The warriors communicated silently using hand signals, George staying put, watching as they began to creep into more advantageous positions. In mere moments, they had surrounded the approaching Blighters, who had no idea that they were even there. As they drew within maybe twenty feet of George’s position, Kuruk let out a high-pitched whistle, and the arrows began to fly. The party of twenty warriors felled all of their enemies in a single salvo, their projectiles whizzing through the air, the surprised Blighters letting out yelps of pain that were quickly cut off as they dropped to the forest floor. A few more arrows found their marks with dull thuds, silencing the last of the survivors, the warriors slowly emerging from the trees.

“And you said you needed our help?” George muttered as he glanced at the heap of dead Blighters.

“When we have the element of surprise, we rarely lose,” she explained. “But, in a frontal assault, we do not fare so well.”

A few of the warriors made their way over to their slain enemies, tapping them with their hooves to make sure that they were indeed dead. One of them unsheathed a knife and crouched to finish off a survivor, the Blighter loosing a pained gurgle as his throat was cut. It was more of a mercy than the Blighters had afforded the poor scout that they had captured.

“Keep moving,” Kuruk ordered, setting off again. “Where there is one patrol, there will be more.”

As they advanced, they came across more of the Blighter charms. They were hanging from trees, jutting from the ground on stakes, the evidence of their presence all over the forest. According to George’s compass, there were more effigies in the vicinity, but they hadn’t the time to give every poor soul they came across a burial service. Perhaps when this was all over…

They marched for maybe an hour more, then came upon another strange sight. In a small clearing beside a stream was a cluster of tents, along with an old campfire, its embers still smoldering. They were vaguely conical in their design, assembled from branches, then draped with coarse fabric. Rather than woven patterns, they were stained in places with streaks of red that might be dried blood. Along with the runic symbols that surrounded the area, it was a safe guess that this was a Blighter camp.

This might be where the patrol that they had just slain had come from. There was a spit over the fire, and the charred flesh of some unfortunate animal was still attached to it. At second glance, it looked suspiciously like a human limb, but George didn’t care to confirm it with a third.

The party moved into the camp, the warriors approached each tent with their spears drawn, but it soon became apparent that the place was deserted. George ducked inside one of the tents, noting that there was no blanket and no pack, no personal belongings to speak of. The Blighters must travel light. What he did find were bones and weapons, axes and knives chiseled from stone, some of them still sporting dried blood. It seemed that hygiene wasn’t of chief concern to these people.

“Look at this,” Tia called, George making his way to her side. A tree had been felled nearby, exposing the blackened interior. The usual healthy sapwood that one would expect to see from a newly-cut tree had been tainted by the blight, rotting from the inside-out. Black, oily tar had seeped out of it like blood from a wound, soaking into the soil nearby.

The shattered stump that had been left behind had been encircled with piles of branches, some of which had been planted into the earth, bent upwards. With a start, he realized that this was a premature effigy. The Blighters had made camp here because they were building a new one.

“This must be how they make them,” he muttered, sharing a concerned glance with Tia. “They fell a tree, they build up the area around it with branches, then they presumably decorate it with blood and symbols. Who was to be their sacrifice, I wonder? One of their own, perhaps?”

“Most of the ones we have come across looked like you,” she replied. “They must be killing their own when they cannot catch one of us to offer in their place. Barbaric…”

“They do worship death,” George added with a shrug.

“If there were Blighters here, they are gone now,” Kuruk said as he appeared at George’s side. “We must be swift. I do not want to make camp in a place such as this.”

***

Night had fallen, and the fog had grown thicker, making it even harder to see anything in the already low light. The moon was still bright, just struggling to penetrate the thick mist, providing just enough illumination for George to see where he was walking. The forest was eerily quiet, George’s newly-attuned senses telling him that it was devoid of life. Even the air itself seemed bitter, tainted, like every gulp might poison him.

“We cannot be far from where you said your camp was,” Kuruk said, raising a hand to stop the party. “Show me your map again.”

George reached into one of the pockets on his pack, pulling out his journal and leafing to the appropriate page. Kuruk leaned over to get a look, George pointing out the landmarks.

“We have to be close now,” he muttered. “If we headed South-East and we didn’t deviate too much, the basecamp should be right around this area,” he continued as he circled part of the map with his finger.

The sudden sound of a gunshot almost stopped George’s heart in his chest, the warriors reacting before his brain had even processed what was happening, scurrying into the cover of the trees. It was followed by more, a whole volley of shots ringing out through the forest. Rising above the chorus came the sound of a Blighter whistle, what sounded like a far-off scream of agony making his blood curdle.

“It came from that direction!” George exclaimed, pointing into the trees.

“We must move quickly, but quietly,” Kuruk ordered as he set off in the direction of the sounds. “If battle has been joined, our enemies will be distracted. We may be able to flank them and assist your kinfolk.”

The warriors quickly outpaced George on their long legs, leaping through the forest, their bows at the ready. As he jogged through the undergrowth, he could hear more gunshots echoing through the trees. There was a gunfight going on, what sounded like a dozen riflemen firing at will. That meant that at least some of his company were still in the forest, still surviving. They hadn’t fled, and they hadn’t been killed by the Blighters yet.

Tia appeared at his side, matching pace with him as she brandished her bow, an arrow already nocked.

“I see that your friends are still alive,” she said, regaining some of her prior joviality now. She was in her element here, dancing through the undergrowth with all the grace of a butterfly flitting about on the breeze.

“I aim to keep it that way,” he replied, gripping his rifle tightly.

As the war party raced through the forest, they skidded to an abrupt halt, a group of Blighters rounding a tree to their left. The tribals seemed just as surprised to see them, hesitating for a moment, their eyes wide. The warriors reacted more quickly, and as the Blighters began to raise their hatchets and spears, those at the front of the pack were turned into pincushions by a volley of arrows. They slumped to the ground, red blood staining their white body paint, their comrades clambering over them as they rushed into combat. George saw that one of them was hanging back, raising one of their whistles to his mouth, about to let out a baleful scream that would call any allies in earshot to them.

George was already aiming at him, shouldering his rifle, his finger squeezing the trigger. The recoil rocked the weapon back as it fired, a cloud of smoke erupting from the barrel. The projectile caught the blighter square in the chest, spattering a nearby tree trunk with dark blood as the man was lifted off his feet, dead before he had hit the ground.

George began to reload hastily as the remaining Blighters neared, biting open a fresh paper charge. He hadn’t counted the number of enemies, but he could see now that they had been but a dozen, half of them already felled by the bows of his comrades.

The warriors loosed off more arrows, sending a couple of the Blighters stumbling to the forest floor, but the rest were soon upon them. Kuruk engaged them with his spear, impaling one through the stomach, but a second tackled him to the ground. The larger man quickly overpowered him, then raised a crude cudgel into the air, intending to bring it down on his adversary’s head.

George rushed in from the side, slamming the butt of his rifle into the savage’s skull, sending him collapsing onto his side in a daze. Kuruk crawled out from beneath him, then drew an obsidian blade, finishing him off with a quick jab to the neck. Crimson blood poured from the wound, coating the ferns like jets of red paint.

“Thank you,” Kuruk gasped, George pulling him to his feet. He could see what Tia had meant now. The Blighters were considerably larger and stronger than their kind, and they stood little chance of besting them in close quarters.

George barely had time to turn around before another of the braves leapt over one of his fallen brethren, bellowing a challenge as he brandished a wicked hatchet. The blade was chiseled from flint, the haft wrapped in leather, decorated with black feathers.

George raised his rifle, using it to block a downward strike, the blade of the axe biting into the wood. His opponent was strong, and he buckled under the blow, the Blighter drawing back for a second attack. Kuruk darted in under George’s raised arms, throwing his weight into a vicious jab with his stone blade. He drove it up to the hilt in the Blighter’s exposed ribs, who let out a cry of surprise and pain, taking a faltering step back. It was the opening that George needed, and he swung the butt of his rifle into the man’s face like a bat, sending him reeling as his nose caved in.

Kuruk stooped to pick up his spear as he rushed forward, barely breaking stride, driving the pointed tip into the Blighter’s throat. Clutching at his neck in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, the man toppled over backwards, his hatchet falling from his hand as he crashed to the ferns.

George could see another of the Blighters being cut down to his right, but where was the third?

Something whizzed past his head, close enough to blow his hair, George turning on the spot to see a Blighter standing behind him. He was in arm’s reach, a knife in his hand, but he was frozen in place. From his forehead protruded the shaft of an arrow, his eyes slowly rolling up into his head as he slumped to the ground.

George looked over his shoulder, seeing Tia peeking out from behind a tree. She gave him a nod, reaching for another arrow from her quiver.

“We must press on,” Kuruk said breathlessly, waving them forward with his spear in hand. “The noise will attract more.”

The sound of more gunshots rang out from somewhere ahead, George setting off at a jog, the war party racing between the trees. They began to descend a slope, which sparked George’s memory. The trees all looked the same, but he knew that the slope was close to the camp. This was the right direction.

As he skidded down the incline, he saw that Kuruk and the rest of the party had stopped at the edge of another clearing. He threw his shoulder against a nearby tree trunk, leaning out to see the basecamp before him. It was perhaps two hundred feet away from the treeline. There was a cluster of oilskin tents, and the campfire was burning brightly, illuminating the surrounding area in its flickering glow.

It was not as he had left it. Around the camp had been constructed a chest-high defensive wall made from mounds of soil. Sharpened stakes had been planted in it, projecting outwards like those used to impale charging horses in medieval battles. There were dead Blighters lying on the open ground between the earthen barrier and the forest, their wounds indicative of gunshots. So, this was how his companions had held out for so long. They had fortified the camp.

“Stay hidden until I give the word,” George said, Kuruk nodding his head. “I’ll go out and talk to them. With any luck, they won’t shoot me on sight.”

He shared a glance with Tia, then stepped out into the open, raising his rifle above his head.

“Don’t shoot!” he shouted, slowly making his way towards the camp. He had to step over and around the fallen Blighters, noting that whatever battle he had missed had been a large one. There must be two or three dozen of them lying in the mud.

The barrel of a rifle appeared over the wall, pointing right at him, George stopping in his tracks. He heard the sound of muffled voices and what sounded like a scuffle, the barrel abruptly rising towards the sky as someone lifted it.

“What the…who the hell is that!?” a familiar voice demanded.

“Marshall!?” Goerge shouted back. “Marshall, is that you? It’s me, George!”

“Ardwin?” he demanded, his head peeking out over the top of the wall. “We thought you were dead!”

A second man rose up beside him, raising a hand in greeting. George quickly recognized him as Smith.

“Hey, George is still alive!”

“Can I come closer, or are you gentlemen going to gun me down?” George asked.

“Dawes!” Marshall yelled, turning to glance behind him. “Dawes, get over here!”

There was soon a crowd by the near side of the wall, Dawes rising above them, getting a better look. He waved George over, then took him by the arm, helping him climb up the incline. When he dropped down on the other side, he was surrounded by his old companions, the men giving him vigorous pats on the back in greeting. Sam pushed through them, trapping George in a one-armed hug, holding his rifle in the other. George returned it with equal enthusiasm, relieved to see that his friend was still alive.

“What the hell happened to you?” Sam demanded. “We lost track of you when we were ambushed in the riverbed. I thought the savages had got you. How did you survive on your own out there?”

“It’s a long story,” he replied, giving Sam an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “Believe me, you’re all going to want to hear it.”

“Sorry I aimed my rifle at you, George,” Smith said sheepishly as he clutched his wide-brimmed hat in his hand. “I thought you was one of them walkin’ dead come back from the grave.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he chuckled.

Dawes soon pushed through the crowd, stopping in front of George to look him up and down.

“I think you’ve got some explaining to do,” he said.

“Gladly,” George said. “But first, tell me what you’re all still doing here. This was the only place I could think to come looking for you, but I worried that you might have been long gone by the time I got here. Instead, I find you dug in like you’re defending a fort.”

“A couple of days after you went missin’, we decided to get outta here,” Sam replied. “We abandoned most of our gear and made for the plains. Ain’t no amount of debt worth gettin’ pinned up on one of them altars for. There was still twenty-five of us left back then.”

George glanced over the group, seeing that their number had indeed dwindled. If all of the survivors had come to greet him, then there couldn’t be more than twenty. What had happened to the rest of them?

“We never made it to the plains,” Dawes explained, planting the butt of his rifle in the soil. George was only now noticing how tired he looked – the dark bags under his eyes, his unkempt beard. He had the appearance of a man who had been awake for days. They all did. “The savages intercepted us on the way there, killed four men, and forced us to retreat back to the camp. They’ve boxed us in. Every time we try to escape, they mount another attack to push us back. They don’t want us leaving this forest.”

“How many of you are left?” George asked, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.

“We lost two more defending the camp,” Dawes replied. “Now that you’re back, that makes twenty-one.”

“So, what’s the plan?” George added.

“We can’t stay here forever,” Dawes continued. “We’re running low on supplies, and we can’t hunt with those bastards roaming around out there. There’s no game anyway, not after the plague infected all the trees. We’re going to have to break out of here one way or another. Now,” he added, his tone stern. “Are you going to tell us what the hell you’ve been doing all this time?”

“I can show you,” he replied. “The Blighters…the savages, they’re not the only people in this forest. When I was separated from the others at the riverbed, I was rescued by a stranger. We can help each other, it may be our only hope to make it out of here alive. I’m going to call them out, but you have to promise me that nobody will fire on them. They might look strange,” he added, noting Dawes’ raised eyebrow. “But you have to trust me.”

“Very well,” Dawes said, raising a hand. “Nobody fires unless I give the order!”

George turned, clambering up the wall. He put two fingers in his mouth, letting out a loud whistle that echoed through the trees. The war party slowly emerged from the edge of the clearing, making their way out into the open, their cloaks blowing in the breeze. They looked like an invading army, George glancing down at his companions to make sure that they weren’t treating them as such. The men were watching in silence, their expressions a blend of concern and curiosity.

Kuruk raised a hand, telling his people to stop, then made his way over to the wall. He leapt up the incline, landing beside George, planting his spear in the wet soil. The company took in his strange appearance, their eyes wandering from the antlers that protruded from his hood to his hoofed feet.

“This is Kuruk,” George explained. “He’s the commander of their war party. Kuruk, this is Dawes. He leads our company.”

Kuruk nodded, Dawes cocking his head.

“What…is he?” Dawes asked.

“They’re…deer people, I think,” George mumbled. “Anyway, that’s not important right now. Kuruk has a proposal for you.”

Kuruk waved his hand, another of his warriors leaving the group, carrying a large sack in his arms. He climbed up the wall, then slowly stepped down into the camp, extending the sack to Dawes. Dawes glanced at George, who gave him a nod of encouragement, then took it. As he opened the drawstring, his eyes widened, the other men crowding around to get a look at its contents.

“Is that…” Sam muttered.

“Gold!” Marshall added.

Dawes dipped a hand into the sack, then raised it, letting the gold rings and trinkets pour from his palm like sand. They caught the firelight as they fell, glinting like stars.

“We offer you this gold as a gesture of goodwill,” Kuruk began, the men lifting their eyes to him. “We can offer you much more, but we will require something of you in return. A trade.”

“What would you have us do?” Dawes asked. He was skeptical, but as George had hoped, the sack of gold had gotten his attention.

“We wish to hire you as mercenaries,” Kuruk explained. “We face the same threat in the Blighters. They raze our villages, they slaughter our people, they corrupt the very forest itself with their dark magic. We mean to launch a counterattack with the goal of stopping them once and for all. George Ardwin has demonstrated the power of your weapons to us, and we believe that we can triumph with your company at our side.”

Dawes considered for a moment, glancing back down at the sack again.

“We have the same goal,” he finally replied. “We both want to see an end to those savages, the ones you call Blighters, but what difference can twenty men make? We can fight them, sure. You had to step over a mountain of their dead to reach us here, but more always come.”

“They came from the South, from outside this forest,” Kuruk explained. “The Blighter forces that we have encountered so far have been raiding parties and scouts. They make small, temporary camps as they move through our territory. But, we believe that there must be a base camp somewhere, a much larger and more permanent settlement from which they are coordinating their attacks. If enough of them can be killed, they will be forced to retreat, and they will no longer be able to spread their poison.”

“In ideal conditions, we could maybe kill a couple of hundred,” Dawes replied. “Will that be enough?”

“We will not know until our scouts can find their camp,” Kuruk replied. “We mean to remain here while they search, as you have a defensible position, then we shall march on the Blighter base camp once it has been uncovered. Logic would dictate that it will be further South.”

“So, it’s a rout,” Dawes replied with a nod. “You want to send them packing?”

“That is the idea,” Kuruk replied.

“Give us some time to deliberate,” Dawes said, Kuruk nodding. “You can bring your people inside the camp for now. We don’t want you out in the open if those bastards decide to launch another attack.”

Kuruk gestured for his men to follow, and the procession of twenty warriors clambered over the wall. Dawes instructed one of the men to see that their guests were as comfortable as they could be made in such conditions, who then led them over to the fireside. Now out of earshot, Dawes and the rest of the company turned to George.

“We’re going to need that explanation you mentioned,” he said.

***

It took some time for George to relay his story to the company. He told them of his escape from the Blighters and his encounter with Tia, their journey through the woods, and their fight against the abomination. He described their village, told of his audiences with the Elders, and how their people could commune with the spirits of the forest. There was some skepticism as he revealed everything that he knew about the Blighters and their magic, but he had expected as much. He had been in the same boat not a week prior, rejecting the very concept of spirits and spells, his brain going around in circles as he tried in vain to rationalize how the dead could get back up and keep walking. After everything that they had been through in his absence, most of the men were at least receptive of the idea, Dawes included. The strange appearance of his new companions seemed to sway at least a few of them. It was easier to believe in the undead and dark Gods when you were faced with such an unusual sight.

Dawes was a practical, straightforward man, and his chief concern was what they were to do about their situation. He brought the men back over to the campfire, where the two groups began to mingle more readily, sharing food and engaging each other in conversation. Dawes, George, and Kuruk got to talking about what was to come.

“I’m no expert when it comes to dark rituals and unspeakable horrors from beyond the grave,” Dawes began, taking a sip of his canteen as the firelight illuminated his grizzled face. “So, I’m only going to focus on what I do know. We have twenty-one men left, and none of them are professional soldiers. Most of them are hunters by trade, but they’ve all had their share of run-ins with the savages by now. Our guns give us a major advantage, but I won’t expect these men to show the discipline of trained fighters. Fair pay isn’t an incentive to march into the jaws of death.”

“What choice is there now?” George argued, shrugging his shoulders. “You said it yourself, you can’t escape the forest, the Blighters won’t let you. At this point, it’s kill or be killed. We either cripple their ability to make war, or they kill all of us. We can’t fight the Blighters alone, and neither can Kuruk’s people, but together we might just stand a chance. I’ve seen them fight, Dawes. They’re like ghosts in the trees.”
“We need your help,” Kuruk added with a solemn nod of his horned head. “Your rifles will give us the edge that we need to save our forest. Without you, my kind will surely perish.”

“There’s gold enough up on that mountain to make us all richer than our wildest dreams,” George added. “Enough for every man to pay off his debts tenfold. When it’s all over, you can go back East and never have to work another day in your lives.”

“The Company sent us out here to find resources,” Dawes continued. “When they get wind that we found a mountain of gold out here, they’ll be coming for it. That’s going to be a report that will make them very happy, but what will it do for your new friends?”

“Even if our expedition never returned, they wouldn’t just leave it alone,” George replied. “They would send more expeditions, and they’d eventually find Kuruk’s tribe. At least this way, we can give them some leverage, some ability to treat fairly with whoever arrives after us. We’re on good terms with lots of native tribes back East. I don’t see why this one would be any different.”

“The most pressing issue is defeating the Blighters,” Kuruk interjected. “That done, we can worry about what comes next.”
“My men fight best when they have a defensive position,” Dawes continued, turning his attention back to Kuruk. “Like the wall that we built around the camp. If we go wandering through the forest, we’re not going to be winning many engagements. We have to keep those savages at arms’ length, or they’ll overrun us. I’ve been thinking about our strategy,” he added, picking up a nearby stick. He began to draw in the dirt, George and Kuruk leaning closer to get a better look. “These savages are bloodthirsty, so I think the best plan of attack would be to draw them out. Say this is their camp, here,” he said as he drew a crude circle. “We would set up a firing line somewhere nearby, an elevated position like a hill, somewhere that would give us a clear line of sight. Then,” he added as he drew a line between the two points. “We would bait the savages into attacking us. They have no idea what rifles are, they’ll expect to be able to run right up to us.”

“Just as the hunter leaves out meat to bait the waya,” Kuruk said with an approving nod, stroking his billy-goat beard pensively. “They would have to be made to think that they were attacking a far weaker enemy, one that could be easily and soundly defeated. They will want to partake in the slaughter. Perhaps a small group of my warriors could serve as that bait, lead them back towards you.”

“We could exploit their bloodlust,” George added. “Have you ever seen them use bows, Kuruk?”

“Never,” he replied. “They seem to delight in killing their victims with their own hands. I have even witnessed them lay down their spears in order to draw knives for the simple pleasure of a more intimate kill.”

George remembered the smile on the face of the Blighter who had cornered him before his meeting with Tia, shuddering.

“You said that you can move through the forest silently?” Doyle asked, Kuruk nodding.

“My warriors can go unseen when they wish it.”

“This whole plan hinges on locating their camp, if one exists, then finding a way to travel there unseen. If even one patrol spots us and they blow one of those damned scream whistles, that will be the end of it. Without the element of surprise, we fail.”

“My scouts will find the camp,” Kuruk said confidently. “Most of my war party will remain here to reinforce your company while the rest go out and search. I will explain your needs to them, have them choose the best possible spot to stage your ambush. Once that is done, they will guide you there.”
“And the patrols?” George asked.

“You have seen how efficiently we can dispatch a small band of Blighters,” Kuruk replied. “They will either kill them or lead you around them. We shall fight a war of whispers.”

“Your bowmen would have to support us during the fight,” Dawes continued, making marks to either side of the long line that he had drawn. “They’ll be focused on us, which means that you could fire down on them from the trees. We’d need you to keep watch lest they flank our position, too.”

“Does all of this mean that you’ll accept the offer?” George asked.

“I don’t see that we have a choice,” Dawes grumbled, setting down the stick. “We’re at the end of our rope here. We can’t leave the camp, and the men are betting on whether the food or the ammunition is going to run out first. To be frank, I’m growing rather tired of being a leader who has no meaningful decisions to make.”

“We can do this,” George insisted, glancing between the two men. “I know you both, and I know that we’re going to get through this.”

“I’ll talk to the men, get their opinions before I commit,” Dawes replied as he rose to his feet. “Until then, feel free to help yourselves to whatever food we have left. It’s not much, but I figure we probably won’t be needing to ration it for much longer. The men are tired, and if you have anything to share, they would welcome it.”

George got up too, heading off to find Tia. She was listening in on a conversation near the opposite side of the fire, giving George a smile as he approached.

“Making friends?” he asked, Tia hopping to her feet.

“They seem exhausted,” she replied, following him a short distance from the crackling flames. “They say that they have been fighting for the better part of a week, that the Blighters come each night, but are repelled by their rifles.”

“That’s the same story I heard from Dawes.”

“How did the negotiations go?” she asked. “Has he pledged his support?”

“Not in so many words, but I expect he will,” George said as he glanced over at Dawes. He was talking to a small group of his men, out of earshot. “He’s talked with Kuruk, and they’re already coming up with a plan. It sounds like they’ll be sending out scouts to locate the Blighter camp.”

“I’m a scout,” she grumbled, crossing her arms. “I was hoping we might get at least a day or two of rest before we move again.”

“Better make the most of the time we have,” George replied. “I have ketchup,” he added, Tia giving him a smile.

“I think everyone will benefit from a little of your cooking. We still have some fresh hottah left from the last kill, enough to feed most everyone, I would wager.”

***

George enlisted the help of a few of the men to prepare a meal for everyone. Both the company and the war party were exhausted from the day’s fighting, and a belly full of warm food would be sure to raise their spirits, as well as give them the energy they needed for what was to come.

Kuruk’s men produced the meat that they were still carrying from the hottah they had shot a couple of days prior. It wasn’t quite enough to feed all forty people, but when the company introduced some dried vegetables and rations to the mix, they had food enough that no man would be going without his fill.

They cut the meat and suspended it over the spit that had been raised over the campfire, letting it slowly roast, George glad to have access to more utensils again. A large cooking pot was hung from the same spit on an iron hook, George conscripting some of the better cooks to help him chop the vegetables and slice up the rations that would make up the soup. They filled it with water, then added their diced potatoes, onions, and what flour they still had in reserve to act as a thickener.

The scent of cooking meat soon drew a hungry crowd, who formed a rough circle around the campfire, sharing stories as they waited. George was happy to see that everyone seemed to be getting along well enough. As different as Tia’s kind were from George’s, everyone was happy to have new allies, and they had a shared goal in the elimination of the Blighter threat. There was nothing like a little adversity to build camaraderie.

George seasoned the soup to taste, adding salt and spices from his dwindling stock. When it was ready, he called for the men to line up, everyone producing their own bowl or plate as they formed an orderly queue. There was enough that everyone got a helping of soup, along with a morsel of meat seasoned with what remained of the mushroom ketchup. The war party shared their rations of flatbread, which went down well, the men using it to soak up the flavorful soup as they ate.

Tia and George found a felled log to use as a bench, situated a short distance from the fire. When George saw Sam milling about on the other side of the camp, he called to him, his friend coming over to join them. He sat down on the log beside George, already digging into his share of hottah meat.

“I’m real glad you’re back, George,” he said over a mouthful of bread. “Both ‘cos I thought you were dead, and ‘cos we were missin’ our best cook.”

“You are Sam?” Tia asked, leaning forward to get a better look at him. “George has spoken of you.”

“Oh, has he?” he asked as he tore off a chunk of flatbread with his teeth. “Good things, I hope?”

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see that you’re all still here,” George said as he looked out over the camp, the oilskin tents illuminated by the fire’s warm glow. “If we’d arrived here to find the camp deserted, that would probably have spelled the end for us.”

“Was everythin’ you said earlier true?” Sam asked, pausing to glance over at him. “Those things we’ve been fightin’, they really are the livin’ dead, like what Baker used to say before…y’know?”

“I’ve seen things,” George replied, memories of the abomination’s mangled body flashing before his eyes. “Things that I can’t use science or medicine to explain. The magic in these woods is as real as the bread in your hand. I have no doubt about that now. How it actually works, what its properties are, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is what I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

“You give yourself too little credit,” Tia added. “The forest spirits acknowledged you, you have even channeled their magic.”

“You some kinda sorcerer now, Goerge?” Sam said as he cocked an eyebrow at him.

“That would take a lot of explaining,” he sighed. “Tell me what you’ve been going through while I was gone. How did you and the others escape the Blighters at the riverbed after we were separated?”

“We wanted to come back for you,” Sam insisted, rolling a piece of meat on the end of his two-pronged fork to coat it in ketchup. “The savages kept pushin’ us, they didn’t let up. We’d kill a couple, and more would just come crawlin’ outta the woodwork like termites. All we could really do was keep movin’ and keep trying to stay ahead of ‘em. By the time we were able to take a breather, we were most of the way back to camp. We’d just lost Meyer, and we were sure you were a goner too,” he added solemnly.

George reached over to give him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

“You don’t have to make excuses. The last thing I saw before we were separated was you trying to fight through the Blighters to reach me. You’re a good man, Sam. Too good for this shit,” he added as he gestured to the dark forest that surrounded them.

They were interrupted as Daugherty, the company’s resident physician, made a beeline for their log. George could see the determined expression on his face. The man was on a mission.

“Mister Ardwin,” he began, pausing to give a polite nod to both Sam and Tia. “I was wondering if you might clarify some things for me, if I’m not interrupting?”

“Of course,” George replied. “I’m glad to see that you’re still alive, by the way.”

“A lot of the men wouldn’t be if he wasn’t around,” Sam added with an appreciative nod.

“Likewise,” Daugherty continued. “This is one instance where I’m not opposed to having a member of our company return from the dead. Now, might I speak with you, Mister Ardwin? In private, preferably?”

George shared a glance with his companions, then nodded, setting down his plate before rising to his feet. He followed Daugherty over to the nearby tents at the edge of the fire’s glow, the man seeming to want to avoid being overheard.

“I wanted to ask you more about what you told us earlier,” the doctor began. “I have to admit, I was rather surprised to hear someone of your academic background make such…fanciful claims. I didn’t think it appropriate to say such things in front of the other men, I didn’t want to embarrass you unduly, but you cannot expect us to accept these stories at face value. As a fellow man of science – an educated man – you must have some proof to back up your claims.”

“I understand your skepticism,” George replied. “Really, I do. I was of the same mind as you. I denied it until I couldn’t any longer, until the inconvenient truth was staring me in the face. You and I, we sought a natural explanation that fit our preconceived ideas of what should and should not be, but there isn’t one. This is a new field of science entirely. I chose to see it as an opportunity.”

“You expect me to accept that everything I have ever learned is wrong?” Daugherty scoffed.

“Not wrong,” George replied with a shake of his head. “Incomplete. I’ve seen…flowers sprout from nothing, wounds healed with glowing filaments conjured from thin air, I’ve spoken with spirits.”

“You spent a lot of time with those tribals,” the doctor added, turning to glance pointedly at Tia. She was still sitting on the log some distance away, chatting with Sam. “What assurances can you give me that you’re not simply adopting their superstitions? I’ve seen it before, you know. Men who have spent too much time among the natives, women who were stolen away from homesteads. They start to adopt their culture, their beliefs, they start to think like them.”

“If you have a better explanation for what we’ve seen, then I’m all ears,” George replied. “Tell me how a man with no pulse and no blood flow can get up and walk around. Tell me of a surgical technique that lets a man combine animals like a chef combines ingredients in a pot to create an abomination. I saw inside one. Its organs, its muscles…nothing made a lick of sense.”
“You know that hearsay cannot be submitted as evidence,” Daugherty complained.

“In fact,” George began, scratching his chin pensively. “Come with me, I’ll show you,” he added as he made his way back over to the log. Tia turned to him as he approached her, putting his back to the fire. Sam and Daugherty watched curiously as he drew his knife from the leather holster on his hip, holding the blade against his index finger.

“What are you doing?” Daugherty asked, George ignoring him.

“Tia,” he began. “Could I ask you a favor? Would you spare me a little magic so that I can prove a point?”

“The spirits have left this place,” she replied solemnly. “The trees are dead, the animals have fled. I have but what I carry with me, but it should be enough to heal a small wound, if that is your intention.”

He nodded, then sliced deep into his digit. Daugherty and Sam grimaced as red blood began to drip to the ground, the doctor shaking his head in annoyance.

“Ardwin, you absolute fool. Put some pressure on it, and I’ll fetch my satchel.”

“Watch,” George insisted, the doctor pausing.

Tia raised her hands as George leaned closer, bringing his bleeding finger down towards her. A new glow suddenly joined that of the fire, pale and eerie, reflected in Daugherty’s wide eyes as he watched in speechless silence. As though they were extruding from her fingertips, glittering strands of moonlight snaked forth, waving in the air like spider silk in the wind. They were joined by tiny, floating points of light, flitting through the air like motes of sparkling dust. The hair-like filaments reached out towards George, connecting to his skin, concentrating around the bleeding cut. Like a tear in a quilt being sewn up, his flesh began to knit back together before their eyes, fresh skin growing to cover the already fading scar.

In mere moments, he was as good as new, Tia loosing a strained sigh as she sank back into her seat. George reached out to steady her for a moment as she recovered, blinking her eyes rapidly, controlling her breathing. Using magic, even so little, truly took a toll on her.

George presented his finger to Daugherty, who adjusted his spectacles as he examined it more closely. There was nothing there now save for the faint outline of a healed scar.

“Without an alternate explanation, I find myself in a position where I must apologize,” the physician grumbled. “It seems that you have indeed discovered a phenomenon that can’t be adequately explained at a cursory glance, along with…species new to science,” he added as he looked back at Tia. “Perhaps you might share your notes when this is all over?”

“I’d look forward to getting a second opinion,” George replied, Daugherty giving him a nod before leaving the way he had come.

George sat down between Sam and Tia, watching the doctor enter a tent on the other side of the camp.

“Sorry, Tia,” he said. “Daugherty is as shrewd as ever. I was worried he’d talk to Dawes if I didn’t show him something more concrete. Are you alright?”

“I am fine,” she replied, seeming more alert now. “It took but a little of my vitality.”

“Lemme see that,” Sam said, taking George’s hand as he examined the healed cut. “Well I’ll be. If we’d had your new friends around a week ago, maybe more of our guys would have made it through.”

“What can be healed is limited,” Tia explained. “Especially in these blighted lands. The spirits of the forest no longer answer, so one must draw from their own vital energy, risking death if they drink too deeply.”

“So, it’s like…overexertion?” Sam asked.

“In a way,” she replied with a nod. “More of a spiritual exhaustion than a physical one, but the physical ramifications are very real.”

“I’m just gonna go ahead and add that the long list of things I don’t understand,” Sam chuckled, returning to his meal. “Now, you two wanna tell me more about what you saw at that village? You were pretty brief when you were tellin’ Dawes about it.”

***

One of the warriors entertained her audience with the same animated performance style that George had seen in their village, putting on a show as she told a story about some prior battle with the Blighters. The company was transfixed as she gestured and pranced in front of the roaring campfire, it was the closest thing to merriment that they’d had in weeks, but George wasn’t paying much attention. He was more interested in Tia, who had steadily crept closer to him as the night had dragged on, her lithe body pressing close to his at the edge of the fire’s reach.

He could feel her need in the way that she clung to his arm. It was likely that some of the warriors would be sent out into the forest to locate the Blighter camp tomorrow. As one of her people’s most trusted scouts, according to how the Elders had addressed her, she would probably be among them. There was a tension in her, one that he was starting to share as the grains of sand in the hourglass slowly drained.

“We can go to my tent,” he whispered, Tia glancing up at him from beneath the shadow of her cowl. “If we’re quiet, and we keep the flap closed, nobody will hear us.”

“We may be separated tomorrow,” she replied, lowering her voice. “For so many days, I have slept in arm’s reach of you without being able to touch you, always in view of my kin. I want you tonight.”

“Come on,” he said excitedly, helping her to her feet. He guided her into the gloom at the edge of the camp, heading for the tent that he had set up not long after arriving. It was no longer a simple lean-to suspended between trees, he’d had the time and space to erect it fully, and it was just large enough for an adult man to sit inside without brushing his head against the oilskin. He gave one of the sentries that was on watch near the defensive wall a brief wave, then opened the flap, leading Tia inside by the hand.

“This is how you usually sleep?” she asked as she lowered herself to all-fours, crawling on the blankets that served as his sheets. “It is rather…confining.” She reached up to lower her hood, then ran her fingers through her hair, careful to avoid snagging her horns on the tent. He noticed that she had no flowers tangled around her horns now. She saw that George was looking at her, her freckled cheeks warming as she returned his smile. “What is it?”

“I just haven’t seen your face clearly since we left the village on account of your hood. I was starting to forget how beautiful you are.”

“Flatterer,” she replied, twirling a lock of her hair around her finger. “Will you not miss the scent of flowers? The blight has robbed me of them.”

“I think I’ll manage,” he joked, closing the tent flap behind him as he crawled his way over to her. She sat down on the blankets, stretching out her long legs, George reaching down to grip her ankle. She giggled as he ran his hand up her shin, enjoying the velvet texture of her fur and the firmness of the muscles in her calf, Tia shivering contentedly as he reached her thigh. He pressed his fingers into the soft flesh, sliding his palm beneath her loincloth, making her arch her spine as his fingertips brushed something wet.

He wasted no time, lying her down on her back, simply sliding the piece of fabric aside to expose her. Her rosy vulva glistened with anticipation, contrasting with the chestnut hue of the surrounding fur, her lips swollen with arousal. After planting a few teasing kisses on her inner thighs, he drew closer, tracing what felt like pleated silk beneath his tongue. Her hands delved into his hair as he painted her burning loins with his deft strokes, her back rising off the blankets, her silky thighs brushing against his cheeks as she cradled his face between them.

As he crawled his lips up to her engorged clitoris, drawing on it gently, he brought two fingers to her twitching opening. He felt her muscular thighs tighten around his head as he wet his digits with her juices, sliding them between her lips, then slowly pushed them inside her. They glided in her slick fluids, the toned muscles beyond her pillowy walls offering a wonderful kind of resistance as he pressed deeper, her strength squeezing his fingers together. She was feverishly hot, her fleshy insides rippling around his digits, massaging them.

Delighting in the way that his attentions made her buck and squirm, he slowly roamed higher, tasting the salt on her burnished skin as he left lingering kisses on her belly. She flexed with each dart of his tongue, those sculpted rows of muscle rising from her stomach. When he reached her chest, he encountered her sling, a piece of fabric that wrapped around her torso to cover her breasts. Unlike her collar, it provided more support when she was racing around in the woods.

He began to untie it like a bandage, the layers peeling away one by one, her bosom pushing against the material as though fighting to free itself. When the last layer was removed, her breasts bounced free, as firm and as perky as ever. He admired the freckles that dusted them for a moment, then cradled Tia in his arm, pulling her tight against him.

He was kneeling beside her now, one of his hands buried between her thighs, the other supporting her upper body. She lay her head against his shoulder, nuzzling his neck with her black nose, her body slowly undulating in time with his stroking. George lifted her a little higher, her breasts quivering with the motion, bringing his lips down towards her chest. He caught one of her pert nipples, drawing it into his mouth, circling it with his tongue.

Her loins tightened even further, applying so much pressure on his fingers that it was almost uncomfortable, her breathy moans filling his ears. He paused his sucking for a moment to kiss her, feeling her taut muscles relax as he locked her in a passionate embrace, as though all of the tension was melting from her body. When he broke away, starting to move his fingers inside her, he felt her lithe body tighten again. He mouthed and licked at her chest, trapping a nipple between his teeth and his lip as he curled his digits against the roof of her tunnel. She gyrated her hips in response as though trying in vain to fuck his hand, her breath coming in short, ragged bursts.

He drew back, leaving the freckled skin of her bosom shining with his saliva, starting to move his hand more ardently. He thrust his two fingers in and out of her, stroking her sensitive walls, feeling her hot flesh yield even as it struggled to enclose him. Her cloven hooves clawed at the blankets, her thighs tensing around his forearm, the muscles in her stomach rippling beautifully as she writhed. Cradled in his arm, she could do little more than push her face into his neck, seeming to take in the scent of his beard as the pleasure made her woozy.

As he curled his fingers inside her, he used the heel of his hand to knead her vulva, feeling the firm bead of her clitoris pressing into his skin. He was soon slick with her juices, able to slide across her intimate anatomy, Tia pushing back as she thrust against his palm.

She quickly covered her mouth to muffle an involuntary moan as he upped his pace, her juices leaking around his digits, dripping to the blankets below in ropes. He felt her flinch whenever his fingers grazed a certain spot, so he focused his attention there, feeling her muscles tremble beyond the barrier of her flesh. A few more strokes was all it took, George pulling Tia tight against his chest as she climaxed, the speed and suddenness of it seeming to surprise her. She buried her face in his shirt, gripping his collar tightly with one hand, her hips fucking the air reflexively as he eased out the pangs of her pleasure. He watched her writhe in his arms, every sharp tremor making her breasts quiver, her sopping passage drawing on his digits like a thirsty mouth.

She sagged into his arms as she enjoyed her afterglow, her breathing growing deeper, more regular. Her long lashes fluttered as he slid out of her, his fingers joined to her lips by a drooping strand of her fluid. She lifted her head to kiss him again, her tongue wrestling with his own, her satisfaction palpable.

It was hot in the tent, and with the body heat of two people making love, there was already sweat welling on their skin. It made Tia shine, like she had just come in from the rain.

He held her for a few minutes longer as she recovered, then he felt the touch of her fingers on his bulge, Tia brushing his erection through his trousers as it strained against them. She cupped it, giving it a squeeze that lit a fire in his belly.

“On your back now,” she whispered, sliding out of his one-armed hug. They both shed their clothes hurriedly, the sound of their shuffling filling the tent, Tia sitting on the blankets as she watched him struggle out of his more elaborate outfit. He stripped off his shirt, then pulled down his longjohns, Tia’s eyes locking onto his member as it pulsed in the air.

She crawled closer, placing a hand on his chest to ease him back down onto the ground. When he was prone, she slid her slender fingers across his chest, roaming down to his belly. The sheen of sweat on his skin made him slick, Tia biting her lip as her digits glided over his muscular core. She wrapped her hand around his swollen shaft, too girthy for her fingers to meet, starting to stroke slowly as she knelt between his parted thighs.

George propped himself up on his elbows so that he could watch, Tia bringing both hands to his manhood, the way that her upper arms pressed her pert breasts together drawing his gaze. She twisted them in different directions as they slid from his base to his tip, rubbing his glans with her thumb. Anticipation made him throb in her grasp as she brought her lips down towards him, pursing them to give him a teasing kiss.

Slowly, she slid him deeper into her mouth, George feeling her inner cheeks press around him like a pair of velvet pillows. When she drew on him, they clung to him like a second skin, the underside of his shaft resting on her tongue.

Tia knew him better now, she had learned where he was most sensitive from their last encounter in her hut. He felt her agile organ paint his glans, lapping at a bead of his excitement that was welling at his tip, one of her hands coming down to cradle his balls as the other massaged his length. She was as agile and as precise with her tongue as he was with a pen, his back arching off the blankets as she drew shapes on his tender flesh like she was signing her name.

As her lips inched down his pulsing cock, he felt the familiar pressure of her throat welcome him, the muscles beyond its fleshy lining stroking him as she swallowed. As she gradually drew back, pausing to take a breath, she brought her hand up to slide it through the sheen of bubbling saliva that she had left on his skin. It made her touch slick, and she began to pump faster, smirking at the way that he flexed in her grip.

When she returned her puffy lips to his member, she pushed his head into her cheek, George sighing as he felt its slippery lining stretch over his sensitive anatomy. She reached up to tap gently on the bulge that it created, George feeling it through the barrier of her flesh.

She let globs of her drool slide down his length as she toyed with him, joining the warm sheen that was already coating his shaft, her slender fingers gliding through it. Her heat was wonderful, seeming to penetrate through his very skin, his nerves set alight by the gentle flurries of her tongue.

He wondered if she wanted him to take her by the horns this time, but she seemed content to bob her head in his lap, taking him a little deeper with each thrust. The damp reaches of her gullet welcomed him with their squeezing and kneading, tight enough to make him wince, strands of glistening drool dangling from Tia’s chin as she increased her pace. He could hear the lurid, wet sounds that she made each time he plunged into her throat, the distinct gulp when she swallowed the saliva that was pooling in her mouth. He found himself praying that the nearby sentry wouldn’t come to investigate, as it sounded distinctly like someone was being choked.

She sensed that he was getting close, pulling back, breathing hard as her pumping fist reached a frantic pace. It felt like she was trying to wring his emission out of him through force alone.

George found himself thrusting into the air with each doting stroke, his hips rising from the ground involuntarily. Tia pressed closer, planting a few sucking kisses on his leaking glans as she began to milk him in earnest with her deft hand, the other sneaking lower to cup his balls. Being assailed from both directions, he couldn’t have staved off his mounting orgasm if he had wanted to. With a few more pumps and one final lap of her tongue, he shot out a thick rope of his seed. It draped itself over Tia’s hand, seeping into her fur, but she paid it no mind. She kept up her lurid attentions, wringing every last drop from him, wads of his emission landing on his belly.

After the initial intensity of his climax began to fade, he glanced down to see her peering back at him, a wide smile on her face. She brought her lips to his still erect member, her tongue sliding in his pearly fluid as she took his glans into her mouth. Still sensitive, George winced as he felt her clean away the residue, crawling her lips down his length. When his shaft was as dry as a bone, she moved up to his stomach, seeming to delight in the way that his muscles tensed reflexively when she lapped up the remaining drops.

“You cannot bathe in here,” she explained. “We cannot have you walking around the camp covered in your own seed.”

The way that her breasts rose and fell with her rapid breathing and the way that her eyes lingered covetously on his cock made him think that she had other, more self-indulgent motives.

“Must you wait again?” she grumbled, returning her lips to his glans. Her tongue darted beneath his foreskin, flesh like wet satin swirling around his tip, Tia remembering well the spots that got the strongest reaction from him. She was relentless, her gentle teasing keeping him hard, even in spite of his recent climax. “I ache for you. I want you now…”

“I think I can go again,” he panted, Tia smiling around his shaft. She released him with a wet pop, then rose to her feet, moving to crouch over him. Instead, George took the initiative, Tia stifling a yelp of surprise as he took her by her narrow waist, pulling her off-balance so that she fell on top of him. She giggled as he rolled over, pinning her beneath him, her playful struggling only making him more eager. That familiar fire was welling up inside him again, and he meant to indulge it.

“Let us rut as the wayas do,” Tia said, rolling onto her belly. She knelt, lifting her springy butt into the air, sandwiching his member between her velvet cheeks. The fluffy underside of her tail brushed his glans as she shook her hips to entice him, keeping her torso flat against the ground, turning her head to glance back at him over her shoulder.

He repositioned himself, kneeling behind her, admiring the coloration of her rump. There were white spots on the outside of her thighs, trialing up her hips, contrasting with the chestnut hue of her shiny coat. The fluffy underside of her tail, too, was snow-white. He couldn’t help but reach down to grab it, finding it just as soft as it had looked, Tia squirming as he brushed his thumb through the downy fur.

“H-hey,” she mumbled. “That tickles…”

He roamed lower, taking a generous handful of one of her springy cheeks, feeling the layer of butter-soft fat yield before his fingers. Just beneath was the firm muscle that gave her that perfect, peach-like shape, dimpling as she tensed up. Her coat was wet with her exertion, giving it a different texture to her skin, one that he found himself enjoying.

The fur between her thighs was already soaked with her excitement, a thick rope of it drooping from her swollen lips. They were flushed a rosy pink with arousal, their hue reminding him of a blooming rose, a shiver of anticipation passing through her as he tugged her closer.

Gripping her narrow waist in his hands, he pulled her onto his shaft, more confident now that he knew she could handle his size. Even so, the sudden sensation of fullness made her lurch in surprise, an exquisite throb of pleasure dizzying him as the muscles in her velvet reaches clenched in response. Every inch of his member was encompassed in hot, seizing flesh, molding around his every contour like molten metal. He could feel every subtle movement of her body, and Tia could feel his every flex and twitch, her walls seeming to ripple and undulate in turn.

After giving her a few moments to get accustomed to him, he began to move slowly, admiring the way that her pink flesh clung to his shaft on his way out of her. She was as tight as a leather glove, leaving a sheen of her juices on his skin. With each thrust, it grew a little easier, as though her body was adapting itself to him.

As his pace increased, the impact of his hips against her pert cheeks made them bounce with each thrust, Tia leaning into him as she remained in her face-down position. She bundled up the nearby sheets into a kind of makeshift pillow with her arms, laying her head on it, rocking gently as George moved.

His desire only mounted as their coupling dragged on, Tia starting to push back more ardently, encouraging him to go deeper and faster. Despite her slender frame and her small stature, she was remarkably durable, taking all of the weight that he was leaning on her in stride. George could feel himself bottoming out inside her, his member sliding into her up to its hilt, cleaving open her reaches as they fought to close around him. Every new thrust was just as tight and as pleasurable as the first, the subtle imperfections in her narrow passage raking over his tender glans, every bump and wrinkle standing out starkly in his mind. She seemed to draw on him eagerly, her muscles stroking his length, almost as though her body was trying to swallow him deeper.

Tia buried her face in the blankets as he delivered an especially powerful thrust, her spine arching, her moan of desire mercifully muffled by the fabric. George could stand it no longer. He needed to be closer to her, to feel her lithe little body heaving against his own.

He reached down with one hand, gripping her horn and raising her off the ground. He was gentle, Tia moving with him as he guided her, her loins rewarding his display of passion with a delighted squeeze. This was what she had asked of him – to be wild, to let his bestial impulses guide his hand.

When she was close enough, he wrapped his other arm around her narrow waist, pulling her tight against his torso, their shared sweat gluing the sodden fur on her back to his skin. He felt the warmth of her body radiate into him, her toned muscles shifting in a mock attempt to escape that made him swell inside her. He let go of her horn and moved his hand to her neck, holding her close as his continued rutting made her springy bosom bounce. His grip wasn’t tight enough to cause her any discomfort, but it was tight enough that she could feel it, the way that she began to grind her hips against his manhood letting him know that she was more than pleased with the change of pace.

As much as he had enjoyed the sweet perfume of her flowery headdress, its absence only made her natural scent all the stronger, the two of them filling the tent with the lurid aroma of their lovemaking. He buried his nose in the nape of her neck, giving her shoulder a gentle bite that made her tense up. He felt the texture of her wet fur on his tongue, tasted the salt on her skin, filled his lungs with the scent of her exertion.

“Do not think me fragile,” she purred, giving him a teasing shake of her hips. “You need not restrain yourself.”

George brought a hand to her chest, filling it with one of her shapely breasts, his rough squeezing making her breath catch in her throat. Her springy flesh yielded to him as he kneaded, her impassioned twisting making her slide against his torso. Her supple fat was irresistible, the firmer tissue that gave her breasts their enticing shape resisting him as he pressed his fingers deeper, her hard nipple pushing into his palm. She struggled to stifle another moan of pleasure as he pinched it gently, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger.

When he’d had his fill, his hand roamed down to her flush belly, the naked skin there as smooth as varnished wood. Beads of her sweat clung to her like morning dew, making his touch slippery. Her muscles tensed reflexively wherever he touched her, her abs rising up to greet him, their sculpted contours more apparent than ever in her feigned struggling.

George found a more punishing pace as he held her close, her fluffy tail brushing against his belly as she rose and fell in his lap, her ample rump cushioning her as she let all of her weight drop on him. He could get so deep in this position, spreading her burning loins apart, Tia letting slip quiet whines and gasps as she impaled herself on his erection. She kept making little shimmies and shivers, shifting her hips to change the angle of his penetration, circling them to tease him.

He couldn’t tell if her people had a higher body temperature than his own, if it was a result of her exertion or just the heat that they were cultivating inside the tent, but there was an irresistible warmth to her that encouraged him to keep a tight hold.

His grip on her throat loosened, and he brought his hand higher, slipping a finger into her warm mouth. Tia accepted it eagerly, sliding her smooth lips over it, swirling her tongue around his digit with all the same vigor that she had shown his manhood. Her ardent sucking and licking only made him more excited, Tia slowing her rutting for a moment so that she could better appreciate the sensation of him flexing inside her.

When he withdrew his finger, he reached down to grip her by the upper arms, letting her lean forward as he supported her insubstantial weight. Her fringe of chestnut hair fell over her eyes, her breasts swaying beneath her as he began to thrust into her, wresting back control of their tempo.

“Give me all that you have,” she pleaded with a low growl of desire. “I want to be sore again. I want to feel you inside me long after you have left…”

It was a sordid request that George could not turn down, the sound of her firm cheeks clapping against his hips filling the tent as he began to fuck her in earnest. Slowly, he lowered her back to the blankets, where she lay with her face in the sheets and her rump obediently raised into the air. She took handfuls of the coarse fabric, her breath coming in short, labored bursts as she did her best to match his pace. She was pushing back with equal enthusiasm, her clenching tunnel wringing him desperately, only seeming to grow narrower as her pleasure mounted.

He soon found himself leaning over her, one hand resting between her furry shoulders, pressing her deeper into the blankets as he moved atop her. His hand wandered up to her cropped hair, taking a cruel handful, giving it a tug that made her giggle with excitement. Her head was raised almost to the same level as her ass now, her back a perfect curve, her flexibility never ceasing to impress him. She lifted her hoofed feet, too, balancing on her knees as her downy tail wagged.

George had given in to his primal urges completely by now, throwing off any semblance of civility as one might cast off an unwanted coat. This was passion at its most raw, its most intense. There were no love letters here, no longing glances or delicate exchanges of carefully considered words, only the unbridled carnality of lust.

“I am close,” Tia groaned, biting down on a fold in the blankets as another of his ardent thrusts made her reel. “Do not relent!”

He might have warned her to lower her voice, but he was beyond such concerns now, redoubling his efforts as he pounded her into the ground. He could feel his own climax boiling up inside of him, his hammering taking on a more frantic pace, the way that Tia pushed back against him only stimulating him more.

Like a failing dam, the pressure that was welling inside him burst forth, Tia’s tight little body tensing as she felt the heat of his seed flood her. She opened her mouth in a silent wail, gripping the blankets tightly as the sensation pushed her over the edge, George holding onto her hip for leverage as she bucked. Her trembling loins drew another rope of his emission from him as her ecstasy rocked her, her muscle contractions stroking his shaft like a clenched fist, each shiver accompanied by a wracking wave of pleasure that left him light-headed. With each swell of pleasure came a moment of clarity that was quickly chased away by the next throb of desire, the two remaining joined for what felt like minutes, but couldn’t have been more than a scant few seconds.

When he pulled out of her, the tight grip that she had on him making it challenging, he watched as a thick glob of cloudy fluid seeped from her flushed loins. It dripped to the blankets below, Tia’s round ass still raised in the air, her fluffy tail twitching. She finally let herself sag to the ground, her burning face still buried in the sheets, her breathing growing less labored.

George shuffled over to her, hugging her tight against his torso, throwing the sullied blankets over them. They were both drenched in sweat and fluids, but neither of them cared, enjoying their lingering bliss as they clung to one another. He traced the dimple of her spine with his fingers, enjoying the way that her sudor made her fur slippery, Tia pushing her face into his chest.

“I am almost glad that we waited so long,” she chuckled weakly. “You were so wild.”

“You said you wanted me mad with desire whenever we made love, right?”

“And I have not changed my mind,” she cooed, relaxing into his arms.

***

“Those who are not scouting will remain here to reinforce the camp,” Kuruk said as he addressed his war party from atop the wall. “Your goal will be to locate the Blighter camp, and once that is done, you will find a nearby area where the plan that we outlined can be enacted. You must go unseen, as your very presence could alert the enemy of our intentions and put them on alert. Go now, and be swift. Reconvene here in two sunsets, regardless of what you find.”

Tia leaned closer to give George a quick peck on the cheek, sharing a lingering glance with him for a moment. As one of her people’s best scouts, she had been ordered out into the wilderness. They had protected one another up until now. Neither one of them would have survived without the other, so being separated felt wrong to George. It was Kuruk’s decree, however. Nothing could be done about it.

“I will return to you safely,” she insisted in an attempt to reassure him. “I am considered among the best trackers in my village.”

“What if something happens, and I’m not there to help?” George asked as he watched several of the cloaked figures scale the wall. They raced off towards the forest, leaping over the decaying bodies of the Blighters that still lay there from the previous night’s battle.

“I worry more for you,” she replied. “The Blighters know of this place, and their attacks are frequent. Stay close to your friend Sam. He seems reliable.”

George nodded, releasing her hand. She gave him a determined nod, then threw up her hood, heading for the wall with her springy gait. She cleared the mound of earth with ease, then made for the trees beyond the clearing, disappearing into the darkness.

“Alright, men,” Dawes bellowed as he climbed the wall beside Kuruk. “You know the drill by now. I want guards with eyes on the treeline while the rest of you help move the bodies for burning. We don’t need them getting up and walking around again. There aren’t enough bullets left to kill everyone twice.”

George joined the group of men as they climbed over the wall with far less grace than their long-legged counterparts, marching through the mud. He could smell the stink of the bodies already, but experience had taught him not to trust that scent. In this forest, just because someone was long-dead didn’t mean that they weren’t going to suddenly climb to their feet and start fighting again.

“Try not to get any of that black shit on you,” Dawes shouted, but it seemed like an unrealistic prospect. As far as George knew, there was no sickness, and one had to die before the blight would claim them. It was probably safe enough to handle the bodies. At least, no more dangerous than handling normal bodies.

Sam found him, aiding him in his efforts to shift a Blighter who had a fist-sized cavity in his chest. George gave him an appreciative nod as he took the body by its legs, George grabbing the arms, the two of them shuffling over to a pyre that was being assembled from dead branches nearby.

“Do you have to do this after every battle?” George grunted, the two men swinging the body onto the heap. George dusted off his hands, Sam following him to the next corpse.

“Pretty much,” he replied. “We learned the hard way what happens if you leave ‘em out here too long.”

They stooped beside the next body, this one mostly headless, heaving it off the mud. There was a reason people used the term dead weight. Bodies were unexpectedly heavy.

“So, what’s goin’ on between you and that deer girl?” Sam muttered as they carried the corpse. “You two seem pretty close. Closer’n friends, I mean.”

George wasn’t sure how to respond, his cheeks warming. He hadn’t put a great deal of thought into what the other men would think of his relationship. He had already impressed upon Tia that public displays of affection weren’t the norm for his people, so she had remained rather subdued during her time at the camp. That said, there was no precedent for lying with other species, regardless of how alluring they were.

“We…got pretty close during our time together,” George replied. “You know what it’s like, sharing a tent, depending on each other to survive…”

“I dunno if you’ve noticed, George,” Sam grunted as they tossed the next body onto the heap. “But you ain’t in Albion anymore, and I ain’t no goddamned…courtier, or whatever the hell you people call each other. Most of these men pay for women like they pay for shoelaces and liquor, so I ain’t gonna judge you for goin’ after a native. Even one that has…deer legs.”

“She’s actually really great,” George explained as they proceeded to the next body. “I’ve never met a woman like her before, someone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty, who’s willing to fight alongside the men. She’s also graceful, pretty…”

“Better lookin’ that a lot of the women back East,” Sam chuckled as he helped drag the deceased Blighter. “So…how much of her is deer, and how much of her is woman? What kinda ratio are we talkin’ here?”

“I don’t think she’d appreciate me talking to you about that,” George chuckled.

When all of the bodies had been moved, the fire was lit, and the men retreated to the camp to escape the smell of burning flesh. The blaze wouldn’t get hot enough to destroy the bodies completely, but it would hopefully damage them enough that there wasn’t much left to resurrect. Even if the undead were animated by dark magic, they still needed muscles to move around.

The guards on watch were a blend of human and forest folk now, their eyes scanning the treeline beyond, bows and rifles at the ready.

“How often did you say the Blighters attacked the camp?” George asked warily as they passed the sharpened stakes that had been driven into the earthen barrier.

“They’ve come every night for the last three days,” Sam replied, taking his hand to help him over the wall. “They surprised us on the first night, but they haven’t gotten too far since then. Bastards are bloodthirsty. They don’t even seem to care that they’re chargin’ straight into gunfire.”

“Think of it from their perspective,” George mused. “If you worship the concept of death, and you’ve seen your slain friends raised to fight again, the idea of being killed probably isn’t that great of a deterrent.”

“Dawes says they’re testin’ us,” Sam continued, George following him past the nearby tents. “He reckons they’re probin’ our defenses, gettin’ ready for somethin’ big.”

“They’re in the same situation that we are,” George replied with a nod. “They want to assault our camp, clear us out.”

“I dunno why they wouldn’t just let us leave,” Sam sighed. “Why stop an enemy from retreatin’?”

“Because each person they kill is raised again as an undead soldier, or used as an offering to their dark god. We’re a resource to them, just like timber or coal.”

“To think I used to call the natives back East barbaric for fightin’ settlers over land claims,” Sam muttered with a shake of his head. “I’d give anythin’ to be arguin’ over a patch of dirt right now. There ain’t even anythin’ we can give the Blighters, no way to appease ‘em.”

“So much for all those silver trinkets we bought for bartering, right?” George chuckled

“Better enjoy the daylight while you can,” Sam added ominously. “As soon as the sun goes down and that fog rolls in, I have a feelin’ they’ll be back.”

***

It was nightfall, and George could feel the tension in the camp, so thick that one could have cut it with a knife. He was reminded of the memoirs of a soldier that he had read once, a man who had fought for the empire on some continental battlefield a world away. The author had described the most harrowing aspect of warfare not as the cries of wounded men or the cacophony of gunfire, nor as the prospect of imminent death. It was the waiting that had driven men mad, the uncertainty of not knowing when battle would be joined, when the enemy might come marching over the hill in tight formation with their muskets drawn.

George was feeling a little of that now, a distracting restlessness that told him it might be preferable to go striding into the woods in search of death if it meant taking action. He knew better than to entertain such thoughts, but they weighed on him all the same. He was already missing Tia, and the idea of her being out there all alone in the dark would drive him to distraction if he didn’t focus on the here and now.

“Try to eat,” Sam said, passing him a bowl of soup. “You need your strength.”
George took the bowl from him and fished out a piece of meat with his spoon, watching the flames of the campfire lick at the air. Most of the men were sitting around making idle conversation, others cleaning guns or sharpening bayonets, the rest peering over the perimeter wall. The ever-present fog had rolled in once again, lingering at the limits of the fire’s warmth, almost as if it was afraid of its heat. It clouded the trees and blotted out the stars, making the night far darker than it would have been otherwise.

“Maybe they won’t attack tonight,” George added with a shrug.

“I almost hope they do,” Sam replied. “The more of those bastards are attackin’ us here, the less of ‘em are out there for the scouts to deal with.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

George glanced over as someone sat down beside him, his own bowl clutched in his hands. It was Marshall, the man giving him a friendly nudge with his elbow.

“Glad to have you back, Mister Ardwin,” he began. “We thought we’d lost you in the riverbed.”

“I’m glad to see that you all made it back safely,” George replied.

“So, it seems you’ve been living our your fantasies of making new discoveries in virgin lands,” he said with a sardonic smile. “Has it been everything that you hoped?”

“Oh, I’ve been having a ball,” George grumbled. “I suppose it’s true what they say, that you should be careful what you wish for.”

“Could have been worse,” Marshall replied, eating a spoonful of his watery soup.

“Oh yeah?” Sam asked. “How?”

“At least we’re getting paid if we make it through this. That was true what you said, right, Ardwin? Those deer-people have a mountain of gold?”

“On my honor,” George replied. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Entire veins of gold just sitting out in the open, completely untouched. It’s less valuable to them than the stone they use to make their blades. When I suggested they use it to pay the company, they couldn’t understand why you’d want it.”

“Well, I’m happy to help take it off their hands,” Marshall chuckled as he ate another mouthful of soup. “If we make it through this, that is.”

“What are you gonna do with your share?” Sam asked, making conversation.

“Pay off all my debts, then buy a little patch of land somewhere that I can call my own. Get a wife, raise a couple of kids. Nothing too exciting.”

“Gonna build a log cabin?” Sam asked.

“Fuck no,” Marshall chuckled. “With the kind of money we’ll be walking away with, I can pay somebody else to do that for me.”

A sudden shout rang out, one of the men on the far side of the wall raising the alarm.

“Movement in the trees!”

Dawes was quick to react, his own voice rising above the muffled conversations.

“Hold your fire! It might be our scouts coming back!”

George, Sam, and Marshall leapt to their feet. Their rifles were on hand, and they raised them, running to the foot of the wall where a crowd was forming. Kuruk jumped up onto the mound of earth beside Dawes, his bow drawn as he peered into the shadowy trees beyond. With the oppressive darkness that the mist created, the only real illumination came from the campfire behind them, which barely even made it past the tents.

“The scouts would have declared themselves by now,” Kuruk muttered, nocking an arrow.

George spotted movement between the dark trunks, something pale catching the dim light.

“To arms!” Dawes shouted, twenty rifle barrels coming to rest on the wall as they formed an orderly firing line. There were a series of mechanical clicks as they loaded and cocked their weapons, the men squinting as they took aim. “Wait until they come within about a hundred feet,” he added. “Don’t waste your charges, we have to conserve as much ammunition as we can.”

George positioned himself between Sam and Marshall, the men standing shoulder to shoulder as they peered out into the forest.

“Are they really just going to run straight at us?” he whispered.

“I hope so,” Marshall replied. “I don’t want any surprises.”
Slowly, the familiar ashen skin of the Blighters came into view, their bodies painted with white paste. It might have made them stand out against the gloom like ghosts under different circumstances, but it camouflaged them in the fog, the obscuring mist swirling around them. There were dozens that George could see, and likely more behind them, waiting at the edge of the clearing with spears and clubs drawn.

“What are they waiting for?” Marshall whispered. “Why aren’t they attacking?”

A mournful cry rang out through the forest, but it was no Blighter whistle. It sounded like the cry of a hottah in distress, an odd flanging accompanying it that made it sound as though more than one of the beasts was wailing in chorus. It was a sound that George had heard before, the hairs on his arms standing on end as a wave of fear washed over him.

Before he could call out a warning, something large came lumbering out of the mist. He beheld a hulking mass of discolored flesh, rippling muscles crisscrossed by surging veins, strips of decaying meat visible between the breaks in its mottled skin. There were patches of matted fur in places, sparse, discolored by the black sludge that characterized the blight. He could see its mismatched body parts shifting as it staggered out from between the trees, the beast an amalgam of dead creatures that had been merged together, a product of dark magic and unspeakable desecration. The pale bones of rib cages were visible where no ribs should have been, the limbs of forest animals dangling from its body like vestigial growths, antlers jutting from its sloughing hide at random. None of it made any anatomical sense to George’s educated eye, yet still it lived, a stark rebuke of natural law.

Its forelimbs were impossibly long, jointed in too many places, like the legs of some terrible insect. Instead of toes, it had fingers made from the hoofed legs of hottah, which crawled along the ground with the same repellent gait of a spider shooting out from beneath a bookcase. Its massive shoulder blades rose into the air to tower above it, piercing through its flesh, its vertebra breaking the skin to create jutting spines that ran down its back.

Its head was that of an especially large hottah, the skull almost laid bare as its meat rotted away, ropes of black tar drooping from its lipless jaws like slaver. Its eyes were milky, glassy, more akin to those of a corpse that had been dredged from a lake than anything alive. Branching out from its head were a set of impressive antlers, more seeming to sprout from its skull in unnatural places. Some of them were growing from the empty sockets of what appeared to be a human visage that had blended with its brow like two clay sculptures being mashed together, its expression contorted in agony. Had they used the body parts of their own kin in the creation of this horror?

Upon its horns were lengths of hanging rope and strips of what might be entrails, along with more of the Blighter charms. Runic symbols made from bent twigs dangled from the prongs, swinging as it walked, as though the savages had anointed the thing as part of some unholy ceremony.

Its jaws creaked open, displaying a mouthful of fangs that did not belong on a herbivore, uttering another guttural shriek that stabbed at his heart like an icy blade.

What the fuck,” was all that Marshall could muster, his hands shaking as he gripped his rifle tightly.

“Is that what you saw in the forest?” Sam whispered, his voice wavering. “That’s what attacked your camp?”

“Something like that, yeah,” George replied as he pulled his stock tight against his shoulder. “Aim for the head!” he continued, raising his voice so that the rest of the men could hear him. “The one that we killed only went down when it had practically been decapitated!”

“Hold your fire until they’re closer!” Dawes called, sensing the fear that was sweeping through the ranks. The abomination was not only a formidable weapon, but a psychological one, too. If the line broke and the men fled, this battle would be lost before a single shot had been fired.

“Warriors, aim for the Blighters!” Kuruk added as he addressed his war party from atop the wall. There were around a dozen of them still defending the camp, the rest of them having been sent off on the scouting mission. “Let the rifle-wielders deal with the abomination. Your arrows will do little to harm it.”

The familiar scream of a Blighter whistle echoed across the clearing, and upon hearing its signal, the savages began to charge. They poured out of the forest and into the clearing, yelling battle cries as they raised their crude weapons above their heads, their bare feet pounding in the mud. There must have been fifty or sixty of them, and they were maybe two hundred feet away now, but they were nearing fast. The abomination seemed indifferent to the tiny humans that were swarming around it, which suggested to George that it was not merely a feral beast, but was driven by some manner of intelligence. Whether that came from the creature itself, or if it was being directed by darker powers, it was impossible to guess.

Kuruk’s warriors were the first to fire, waiting for his command, then loosing a volley of arrows high into the air. After a brief delay, they rained down on the Blighters, the indirect fire sending a handful of them stumbling to the ground. Most of the projectiles missed, embedding themselves in the wet soil, but those that found their mark were driven deep into Blighter flesh. Some were merely wounded, continuing on with the wooden shafts jutting from their backs and shoulders, crimson blood standing out starkly against their ashen body paint. They barely faltered, the pain only seeming to drive them on like the crack of a whip.

“Again!” Kuruk bellowed, the warriors drawing back their strings. The second volley was loosed, George hearing the whiz of the arrows as they sailed over his head. A few more of the charging Blighters were felled, crumpling to the ground as they clutched their wounds, their companions showing no sympathy as they bounded over them. There were no doctors among their ranks, no comrades who might drag the injured to safety, only bloodlust driving them.

“Ready!” Dawes yelled, the men taking aim. “Fire!”

Smoke filled the air as a series of gunshots rang out, bright sparks illuminating the contorted faces of their charging adversaries. Those at the front of the pack crumpled as the airborne balls of lead tore through them, the soft metal tumbling and deforming to tear open vicious wounds in their flesh, blood and viscera spraying those who were unfortunate enough to be standing behind them. Some screamed in pain and alarm as they crashed to the ground, while others were dead before they had even realized they’d been shot.

“Next volley!”

The first row of shooters retreated from the wall, already reloading their weapons, the second stepping forward.

“Ready! Fire!”

Another salvo sent another half dozen Blighters skidding to the mud, but those that fell were quickly replaced, their furious comrades leaping over them as they lay dying. No matter how many were felled, there always seemed to be more ready to fill their boots.

“Fire at will!” Dawes yelled, his rifle rocking back into his shoulder as he loosed another round. “Focus on the big ugly fucker!”

George was already cocking his hammer, rushing back up to the wall. Intermittent smoke clouded his view as the men at his sides fired into the crowd, the arrows from the warriors’ bows singing as they picked out individual Blighters, fire pouring into the enemy from the earthen defenses. The battlefield was already littered with bodies, but even with maybe twenty Blighters dead, two-thirds of their number still remained.

The abomination towered over them, opening its jaws to let out another baleful screech. George turned his sights on it, taking careful aim, then pulling the trigger. He saw a splash of gore as the projectile hit it in the shoulder, but the beast didn’t even flinch. More of the men followed his lead, a series of gunshots tearing at its mottled flesh. It looked like it had been hit by grapeshot, George watching as the wounds bled dark tar, but it could probably have absorbed ten times that number of bullets without going down. It had organs to spare – if the abomination that he had encountered with Tia was anything to go by – redundancy upon redundancy.

“Go for the head!” he reminded them, reaching for another paper charge.

Sam raised his weapon and got off a particularly good shot, which blew off a chunk of its lower jaw, but it wasn’t enough to slow it. In the heat of battle, and with the thing’s lumbering gait, it was no easy target.

The Blighters were at the wall now, some of the hooded warriors tossing their bows aside to draw their long spears. Their enemies were slowed by the sharpened points of the branches that jutted out from the sloping obstacle, having to navigate around them more carefully to avoid being impaled, the incline killing their momentum. The warriors took the opportunity to jab at them viciously with their weapons, the sharpened flint of their tips piercing pallid flesh. They looked like they were spearfishing, standing atop the wall as they thrust down into the growing mass of furious Blighters.

One of the savages tossed a spear like a javelin, the weapon finding its mark as it hit one of the defenders square in the chest. It carried enough force to lift the man off his hoofed feet, sending him flying from the wall. He landed hard, the spear still jutting from his torso, his hands gripping its haft as he wailed in pain.

Daugherty came running, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, kneeling in the mud beside the injured warrior.

George hadn’t the time to watch, one of the Blighters climbing up the wall in front of him, using one of the sharpened branches for leverage. He raised a stone hatchet above his head, shouting a war cry, so close that George could have reached out and touched him.

Marshall lunged in from George’s right, driving a bayonet into the Blighter’s belly, the tribal clutching the wound as he toppled backwards, dropping out of sight.

The warriors were losing ground now, having to leap back down from the wall as the remaining Blighters scrambled up it from the other side. The men began to retreat, a few more shots sending some of the hatchet-wielding assailants toppling over. The abomination was nearing, but the more immediate threat of the Blighters meant that it had gone mostly ignored.

Close-quarters combat was breaking out now, the warriors leaping out of range, trying to get clear of the larger and more powerful Blighters. George watched one of them get a lucky shot in, driving her spear into a Blighter’s neck, blood spewing from a severed artery as he swung at her blindly with a club. She danced out of his reach, the obsidian tip of her spear stained crimson.

The riflemen pushed forward, meeting the Blighters with their bayonets, more shots ringing out to send their targets slumping against the sloping wall. One of the tribals was caught in the head, fragments of bone and clumps of brain sent spraying as it popped like a cherry.

George skipped back as one of them made a beeline for him, spear at the ready. His white body paint was already stained with flecks of red, his lips pulled back in a grimace, his eyes wild. Sparks flew as George fired, lifting the man off his feet, sending him crashing into the Blighter behind him. Rather than stop to help, his companion shoved him out of the way, raising a club as he launched into a run. George had to abandon his attempt to reload, his heart racing as he braced for a brawl.

An arrow found its mark in the charging savage’s chest, making him stumble, giving George the opportunity to step in for a jab with the butt of his rifle. He felt the man’s nose break under the impact, the force of the blow knocking him to the ground, where he lay wheezing. The haft of the arrow rose and fell with his ragged breath, embedded in a lung. George turned his head to see one of the hooded warriors off to his right, giving him an appreciative nod as he reached for another arrow from his quiver.

“Fall back to the tents!” Dawes shouted.

Intermittent gunfire barked, the air thick with acrid smoke, George retreating back between two of the oilskin tents. These would serve as an obstacle that they could put between themselves and the Blighters, but it wasn’t much.

The abomination was at the wall now, the creature drawing back its long arm, swinging it in a wide arc. It shattered the sharpened branches like matchsticks, sweeping them aside with almost casual ease. Shards of wood embedded themselves in its decayed flesh, but it paid them no mind, lumbering forward. The mound of soil collapsed under its weight, the beast merely wading through their defenses.

There was a gut-wrenching cry of pain from George’s left, and he spun his head around to see one of the riflemen get dragged to the ground by three Blighters, the grinning savages hacking the flailing man to pieces with their hatchets. The sharpened flint cut through flesh just as easily as iron, blood spraying as they butchered him.

Sam was closer than George, shouldering his rifle and firing into them. He caught one, the lead projectile hitting the Blighter with such force that he was sent careening into a nearby tent, its structure collapsing atop him as he knocked one of the supports loose.

“To our rear!” someone shouted, George turning to see that there was a second group of Blighters scaling the wall at the other side of the camp. His blood ran cold as he watched them start to race between the tents, their pale faces lit by the campfire. There were another twenty of them at least.

“Some of the bastards must have snuck around the back!” Marshall huffed, spitting a lead ball into the barrel of his gun. He slammed the butt on the ground, then cocked the hammer, heading for the new attackers. “Come on, Ardwin!”

George nodded, following behind him. A couple more men joined them, Sam included, forming a new firing line. Those at the front took a knee while those at the rear raised their rifles over their heads, another chorus of shots echoing through the camp as they fired in quick succession. Someone missed, tearing a hole in one of the tents, but the rest of the shots found their mark. One of the Blighters was dismembered where they stood, three or four bullets tearing through him, one of his companions plunging head-first into the dirt as most of his face was turned into a bloody crater.

There was chaos now, with no clear battle line, Blighters flooding into the camp from all sides. From behind him, George heard the cry of the abomination, the creature uprooting tents like weeds as it made its way towards a group of warriors. They peppered it with arrows, one brave soul driving his spear into its throat, dark ooze spilling forth to stand the ground beneath it. Like a man swatting a fly, the beast raised one of its spindly forelimbs, crushing the warrior beneath its hand. The rest scattered, fast enough to get clear of it as it let out another screeching call, the sound of it seeming to invigorate the Blighters. This was an avatar of death and decay, like a demigod to them.

The monster turned its milky eyes towards a man who was dueling with a Blighter nearby. He parried a strike from a spear with the barrel of his rifle, throwing his opponent off-balance, then drove his bayonet into his chest.

“Watch out!” George bellowed, but his voice barely carried over the clamor of battle.

Distracted by the now-dead Blighter, the man didn’t see the approaching abomination until it was too late. He looked up to see its open jaws descending towards him, connected only by thin strands of rotting flesh and sinew, its rows of mismatched fangs glinting in the firelight. It bit into his shoulder, lifting him off the ground, shaking him like a dog with an old rope. His arm was torn from the socket, his chest lacerated by the beast’s fangs, the height that he fell from as it tossed him aside enough to shatter bone. He lay there motionless, the creature crushing a tent as it set upon another group of defenders.

“We have to deal with that fuckin’ thing,” Sam grunted, tearing open another paper charge with his teeth.

“How?” Marshall demanded, bringing down a howling Blighter with a well-placed shot to the chest. “It’s the size of a goddamned house!”

It was hard to guess who was winning with everyone scattered around the camp, the Blighters rushing between the tents, Kuruk and his warriors trying to keep their distance as they burned through their supply of arrows.

George tried to get a bead on the thing, but it was rampaging through the tents, its head waving this way and that on its long neck as it chased down its prey. For such a large creature, it was almost impossible to get a clear shot at its head. It didn’t help that the wind was blowing in from behind the beast, carrying the fog with it, almost as though the obscuring mist was an active participant in the attack. It was bleeding between the tents now, making it even harder to see.

“We have to destroy the head!” George said. “Draw it out into the open, towards the fire. If we can get its attention, we’ll have a straight shot at it!”

He glanced around, but the men were scattered all over the camp, locked in hand to hand combat with the Blighters. Kuruk had managed to keep a small group of his warriors together, George whistling to them, waving them over. He saw Kuruk gesture to his cloaked companions, loosing off one last arrow to fell a charging enemy before racing over to him on his long legs.

“We have to take that thing down!” George said, gesturing to the beast as it flattened another tent in pursuit of a fleeing rifleman. “We need your help!”

“You know that our arrows will do nothing against that monster, George Ardwin,” Kuruk replied hurriedly.

“I know!” he replied, raising his voice as Sam fired off another shot into the tents behind them. “I don’t need you to kill it, just make it angry! We need it to charge us so that we can get a clear shot at its head!”

“Charge us!?” Marshall exclaimed. “Are you crazy, Ardwin?”

“It’ll work!” he insisted. “Don’t take your shot until it’s close. We’ll only get one!”

“Fuck,” Marshall hissed, nodding his head reluctantly. “Alright.”

“Kuruk, try to get its attention,” George continued. “We’ll move back towards the fire. It’ll give us a little extra breathing room.”

Kuruk called to his men, and they began to draw their bows, sending a hail of whistling projectiles flying towards it. It was such a large target that there was little chance of them missing, the arrows embedding themselves deep into its decaying flesh. It shook itself like a dog, the drooping skin that hung beneath its long neck flapping in the process, not paying the wounds much mind.

With another order from Kuruk, the warriors switched to their spears, darting closer. They cleared the distance quickly – there was only about a hundred feet between the campfire and the tents – bounding along on their slender legs. They tossed the spears like javelins, embedding them deep in its flanks, their stone tips piercing through rancid flesh and exposed bone. Having half a dozen spears driven into it seemed to get a reaction, the creature abandoning its pursuit of a fleeing warrior, turning its head to stare at its assailants with those dead eyes.

The abomination’s jaws opened in a blood-curdling cry, and the hulking creature turned about, digging up clods of earth as it began to lumber towards them. The warriors let out yells and shouts, waving their arms, provoking it as it cleared the circle of tents. It powered through them without even seeming to notice, snapping their wooden supports like twigs under its feet.

The group of warriors turned tail, racing back towards George, Sam, and Marshall. The men had formed a firing line, their guns at the ready, trained on the rampaging beast. Its odd gait made its head bob up and down, almost like a bear, the light of the fire illuminating it as it drew closer. Kuruk skidded to a stop beside them, turning to watch, the abomination drawing close enough that George could smell its rank stench on the wind.

When it was perhaps sixty feet away, he fired, his companions following after him. His own shot hit its mark, blasting off part of the creature’s snout, fragments of bone spraying. Another shot embedded itself in the thing’s furry shoulder, the third blowing open its sinewy neck. Dark fluid spilled from its torn throat, blood enough that any normal animal would have collapsed, but this was no normal animal.

Realizing that it wasn’t enough, the three men began to reload frantically, but the abomination was too close for a second attempt. They had to leap out of the way as it came barreling towards them, Kuruk and his warriors scattering. It raised one of its obscenely long arms, swinging at Marshall, who was already in the process of diving to the ground. It missed him, its hoofed fingers scouring the campfire to his right, scattering a torrent of burning embers across the ground in the process.

It let out a pained screech, rearing up as the crackling flames lit its horrible visage in their orange glow, retreating a few steps backwards.

George glanced to Kuruk, the warrior returning his questioning look. They had stabbed it with spears, shot it with rifles, but this was the first time that it had reacted as though it was in pain.

The scent of burning fur joined the stench of decay as the abomination turned its attention back to them, its milky stare fixing on one of the warriors. Like a cat chasing a mouse, it set off after her, the cloaked woman narrowly avoiding a downward strike that kicked up a torrent of dirt.

“Ready your weapons!” Kuruk shouted, the wind whipping at his cloak. “I will buy you more time!”

George didn’t stop to ask how he intended to do that, reaching into his pouch for a fresh cartridge, his hands shaking as he struggled to load his weapon. Sam and Marshall did the same, but they were soon interrupted as another Blighter came racing out of the darkness. His hatchet was raised, Sam recoiling in alarm, fumbling with his rifle. The pan was full, but he hadn’t loaded the bullet yet, and he didn’t have enough time to bring the bayonet to bear.

A nearby warrior intercepted the charging savage, knocking his feet out from under his with the haft of her spear. As the Blighter scrambled back to his feet, she twirled the weapon in her hands to bring the obsidian tip to bear, then plunged it into her opponent’s back.

Kuruk was just standing beside the fire, backlit by the roaring flames from where George was standing. He planted the haft of his spear into the soil, lowering his head, George seeing his lips move beneath the shadow of his hood as though he was whispering to someone. Even as the abomination rampaged not twenty feet away from him, he didn’t look up.

The first thing that George noticed was that the wind had changed. He watched as it began to tug Kuruk’s cloak in the direction of the abomination, the rising embers from the flames behind him dancing along on the current, the encroaching fog starting to recede. The branches of the distant trees began to sway, their loud creaking audible even from so far away, like a storm had suddenly blown in. As Kuruk lifted his spear arm, raising the weapon into the air, a gust of wind strong enough to knock George off-balance swept through the camp. One of the tents to their rear was blown over, the howling filling George’s ears, whipping at his hair.

A sudden gale tore at the campfire, the flames erupting in a bright blaze, their roar rising over the sounds of battle. It was as though a giant bellows had been put to it, the current of air feeding it, making it swell. As George reflexively shielded his face from the rising heat, another flurry of wind tore at his clothes, carrying the raging fire with it. Like a stubborn candle that refused to be blown out, the campfire lashed out sideways, the wind picking up burning fragments of wood and sending bright sparks swirling through the air. The abomination was directly in its path, the creature finding itself momentarily engulfed by the inferno, the glowing embers showering it. It let out a bellow of agony as it recoiled from the heat, patches of its fur already starting to smoke, the red-hot debris sticking to its mottled flesh.

As the squealing abomination retreated, trying in vain to shake off the clinging embers, George took the opportunity to finish loading his rifle. The fire had only engulfed it for a moment, but the distraction was all that he needed.

The abomination turned its fury on Kuruk, who had slumped to his knees, breathing as though he had just run a marathon as he leaned his weight on his spear. It would be upon him in moments, but George and his companions were ready. As the beast turned side-on to them, extending its long neck towards the exhausted warrior, George seized the opportunity. He knelt, taking careful aim, then pulled the trigger.

A trio of shots rang out in quick succession, one of them blowing off the thing’s lower jaw, another carving a crater into the side of its head. The last bullet impacted its spine, shattering the vertebra, fragments of bone shredding flesh and sinew like paper. It was almost enough to decapitate it, its head hanging limp, dark blood with the consistency of sludge pouring out onto the ground. It gave one last, sputtering gasp as black tar leaked from its ruined jaws, then collapsed onto its side with a thud that shook the ground.

George lowered his rifle, hurrying to Kuruk’s side, a couple of his warriors already lifting him to his feet. He was barely conscious, his companions having to drape his arms over their shoulders to support him. Whatever magic he had conjured to command the wind and the fire, it had taken everything out of him.

As he was about to tell them to get Kuruk to cover, George noticed that the sounds of battle were ebbing. He glanced around the camp to see that most of the fighting was over, the last remaining Blighters being put out of their misery with bayonets and spears as they writhed on the ground between the tents. None of them had fled, even when the tide had turned and their champion had been felled. Instead, they had fought to the death against impossible odds, driven by fanaticism rather than courage or principle.

“Don’t just stand there gawking!” Daugherty shouted as he ran past them. “There are wounded men who need help!”

That spurred George into action, Sam and Marshall following him over to the far wall, where the Blighters had first breached the camp. After so many had been killed in the clearing, no more than forty could have made it over the wall, including those who had circled around to the rear.

There were dead savages slumped over the earthen barrier, some of them lying at its base, where they had been slain on their way down the incline. George spotted the warrior who had taken a spear to the chest lying nearby, the weapon still jutting from his motionless body.

He was starting to make sense of the chaos now, seeing the wounded being helped off the ground, some being tended to where they lay. A nearby Blighter was still alive, the movement of his head almost making George jump out of his skin. The man’s white body paint was stained with splotches of crimson, a bullet wound in his abdomen still leaking a steady stream of dark blood. The projectile had gone straight through him, scrambling his insides, and George could tell at a glance that he had only a few agonizing hours left to live. In spite of that, he was grinning, his teeth stained with his own blood.

Sam raised his rifle, intending to finish him off with the bayonet, but George reached out to put a hand on the barrel.

“Wait,” he said.

“Why?” Sam asked. “He ain’t gettin’ any better, George. That there is gonna take more than a bowl of chicken soup to fix.”

“This is the first time I’ve gotten a look at one who wasn’t running at me with an axe.”

It was hard to guess where the Blighter had come from, what his ethnicity might be. He didn’t have the straight nose of a continental, nor did he have the defined cheekbones of a native. His eyes were black, as though the pupils were fully dilated, and his skin was ashen beneath the cracked paste. The hair beneath the headdress of feathers and antlers that he wore was dark and straight. It was impossible to tell how the blight might have changed him or if his pale complexion was simply a natural trait of his people.

The Blighter looked back at him with that same grin, his dark eyes wild, but aware. There was an intelligence there, a person, however warped and twisted he might have become.

“Do you speak?” George asked, hoping to hear a snippet of his native tongue. If they could talk, perhaps some line of communication could be established with the help of a little magic. The Blighter just stared back at him, grinning.

“He ain’t afraid to die,” Sam muttered.

“He probably yearns for it,” Marshall added with a hint of distaste. “If they love death so much, let’s just give it to him.”

George moved his hand away from Sam’s rifle, his companion raising it, plunging the blade into the wounded Blighter’s chest. It pierced his heart, the savage’s eyes widening, then slowly glazing over as he exhaled a tapering sigh.

“I guess we won’t be negotiating,” George said.

They began to sift through the battlefield, searching for survivors. They finished off the remaining Blighters that were still clinging to life and carried off their injured allies to a temporary hospital that Daugherty had set up near a few of the remaining tents. He was sporting a surgical apron that was already stained with spatters of blood, lying out the injured men in rows on blankets. His open medical kit was nearby, its contents strewn about. He had enlisted a couple of the men to help him, and they were currently holding down a squirming patient as the doctor secured a tight tourniquet around his leg, which had been sliced open by a Blighter blade.

There weren’t many injured, at least not when compared to the number of dead Blighters. That said, there had been no head-count yet, so George had no idea how many of their number had been killed. He saw only two injured members of the war party, one of whom was lying motionless on one of the blankets, blood seeping through a wound on his arm that had been hastily bandaged. The second was Kuruk, who looked unharmed, save for the fact that he was unconscious. He was being tended by a couple of his own people, George hurrying over to kneel by his side.

“Will he be alright?” he demanded, glancing at the nearest warrior.

“Exhaustion has overcome him,” she replied, resting a hand on Kuruk’s shoulder. He was breathing, but it was shallow, labored. “He called upon all of the strength that he could muster to summon the spirit of the wind.”

George remembered what Tia had said, how she had to draw from her own vital essence to perform magic in this place where all life had been driven away.

“He’ll recover, won’t he?” he asked.

“In time, but he will need our care,” the warrior replied. “He must rest now. Calling upon such a great spirit has left him very weak.”

It sounded like Kuruk would be out of the running for the attack on the Blighter camp, which was the last thing they needed right now.

“Mister Ardwin!” Daugherty said, raising his voice to get his attention. George looked over to see that he was in the process of examining a wounded man, the doctor waving him over. “A moment of your time, if you would?”

George gave Sam a pat on the shoulder, then made his way over, looking down at the patient. He recognized the man. It was Simmons. They had shared a few sparse conversations here and there during their journey. He had been hit in the chest, and Daugherty was struggling to apply pressure to the wound, the shallow breathing and gurgling suggesting that one of his lungs had been pierced. George wasn’t sure what kind of help Daugherty expected from him.

“Ardwin,” he began, giving him a concerned look. “Walk with me a moment. You there,” he added, waving to Marshall. “Come put pressure on this man’s wound!”

Marshall walked over, looking confused, Daugherty waving him closer.

“What do you need me to do?” he asked warily.

“Put your hands here,” the doctor replied, demonstrating. “Keep pressure on it until I return.”

Marshall glanced to George, giving him a silent plea for help, but few would dare defy Daugherty when he was on the warpath. Like all medical practitioners, he seemed to think that his station gave him a certain level of authority over others, and nobody had proven him wrong so far.

With Marshall tending to the patient, Daugherty took George aside, walking him out of earshot of the others.

“Simmons is done for,” he stated bluntly. “That is, unless you can convince those friends of yours to perform a little of their magic on him.”

“I can ask them,” George began, Daugherty quickly picking up on his hesitation. “But, I don’t know how much they can do for him. They have to draw from their own vitality to heal in the absence of healthy plants and animals. If they overexert themselves, they’ll end up like Kuruk.”

“A blade pierced that man’s lung,” Daugherty continued, George bracing himself for a dressing down. “Every moment that passes, his chest cavity fills with more fluid, and he starts to drown in his own blood. There’s nothing I can do for him, and even if we were in an operating theater with all of the tools and assistants I’d need, the odds would not be in his favor. It’s his only chance to see the sunrise.”

“Alright,” George conceded. “I’ll talk to them, but I can’t promise anything.”

That seemed to satisfy Daugherty, and he let him leave, George making his way back over to the warriors who were crouched around Kuruk. He explained the situation to them, and after a brief discussion amongst themselves, they agreed to do what they could. George wanted nothing more than for Simmons to survive, of course, but they needed all of the help they could get if they were to follow through with their plan to launch a counterattack on the Blighter basecamp. If another warrior exhausted themselves to the point that they couldn’t fight, they might be down two hands instead of one.

George watched as eight of the remaining warriors formed a rough circle around the injured man, reaching out their hands towards him. They went silent, their eyes closed, meditating just as Tia had instructed him. It seemed that they could work together, maybe share the load so that no single one of them would face the prospect of exhaustion.

“We will need your help,” one of the warriors whispered to Simmons, who seemed barely conscious at this point. Even so, he turned his head to glance at her. “Remember yourself as you were, and remind the spirits so that they might make it so once again.”

It was a strange request, one that barely made sense to George, even with what knowledge he had gleaned during his time with their people. Simmons couldn’t do much more than nod weakly, lying his head back down on the blankets.

A few curious bystanders crowded around to watch as they removed the man’s bandage, Daugherty included, a faint glow starting to surround their fingers. The wound bled with each shallow movement of his chest, as though the very motion of breathing was slowly killing him. Those familiar strands appeared, like tiny threads of silver moonlight, reaching out from their fingertips towards the neat cut in his chest. They coalesced around it, his torn flesh slowly starting to knit together as though invisible stitches were pulling it closed.

Those silvery filaments reached deeper inside him, past the barrier of his skin, so thin that they made a human hair look large in comparison. Motes of light floated around the warriors, flitting to and fro, dancing on a breeze that only seemed to exist for them. It was an eerily beautiful sight, their audience mesmerized, Daugherty muttering to himself under his breath as though the display offended his sensibilities.

A cut was one thing, but a punctured lung must require more work. What was going to happen to the fluid that had accumulated in the chest cavity, inside the lung itself? George had no idea. It was magic, yes, but surely there were physical principles that could not be violated?

The warriors were becoming visibly tired by the ordeal, some of their outstretched hands beginning to waver, one of them gradually slumping forward as their strength left them. This was taking far longer than when Tia had healed George’s finger, even when Tia had healed her own broken ankle.

Finally, the ghostly glow dissipated, the circle of warriors reeling as though a great weight had been lifted off them. One of them slumped onto her side, then rolled over onto her back, breathing hard. Their reactions were those of someone who had just completed a marathon, weary, but congratulatory. They patted each other on the back, seeming pleased by their work despite the toll that it had clearly taken on them.

Simmons suddenly sat up straight, his eyes snapping open. Before he could utter a word, he leaned over to one side, retching and coughing as his body ejected a torrent of fluid. It was frothy, tinted pink, the nearby warriors scrambling clear as it splattered on the ground. That explained where all the fluid had ended up, at least…

He reached up to prod at his chest hesitantly, seeming surprised when he discovered only a knitted scar.

“Incredible,” Daugherty muttered. “Can you do the same for the others?”

“Smaller wounds are easier to heal,” one of the warriors replied wearily. “We will need time to recuperate before we try again.”

“I’ll see to their injuries until then,” he sighed, seeming at once relieved and annoyed that his role as the company’s doctor had been supplanted by sorcerers.

George was glad to see Dawes making his way back over from the far side of the camp, flanked by two riflemen. He looked tired, the dark bags beneath his eyes more prominent than ever. There were bloodstains on his jacket, suggesting that he hadn’t come out of the battle unscathed.

“How are the injured doing?” he asked, Daugherty glancing up at him as he dressed another wound.

“All alive so far, thanks in no small part to our new cervine friends.”

“That’s good,” he replied, appraising the makeshift hospital. “We’ve finished searching for survivors. Our count is four dead, along with two of the, uh…” he gestured to the warriors. “We’ve moved the bodies,” he added, addressing the cloaked figures. “I don’t know what kind of funerary rites your people perform, but let us know if you need anything.”

“They burn their dead,” George said, Dawes turning his weary eyes to him. “We should too.”
Dawes gave him a solemn nod.

“Six dead is six more than I would have liked,” he continued, looking out at the piles of Blighter bodies that littered the camp. A group of men and a couple of Kuruk’s warriors were standing around the hulking mass of the dead abomination, examining the strange creature. “Still, I can’t imagine we could have fared much better. That was the largest attack yet, and the first time they’ve used tactics like that. They’re learning how we fight, and they’re starting to make more complex plans. We need to mount an offensive as soon as possible. We might not survive another attack like that. For now, I need every idle man to get to work moving the bodies.”

“We’re on it,” George replied, waving to Sam and Marshall.

***

Despite their victory, the mood was somber as the remaining men cleared the Blighter bodies from the camp. It took them long into the night, but leaving the work until the following morning wasn’t an option due to the threat of the dead rising to continue their fight once more.

There were more bodies than could be piled atop a single pyre, so they were forced to make several, putting near eighty corpses to the torch. It was a scene that George had never expected to see when he had set out on this expedition, smoke from burning bodies rising into the sky in great plumes over a blighted forest. He dreaded to think what might have happened had they been in a less advantageous position, if this number of Blighters might have ambushed them in the forest rather than charging directly into their gunfire across open ground. If what Dawes had said was true, then they were learning, and the next battle might not go so favorably.

A hasty funeral was held for the four dead men and the two warriors who had fallen, their pyres built far away from those of the Blighters. The survivors attended the rites in quiet respect, all save for those who were still recovering from their injuries. Thanks to Daugherty’s quick thinking and the continued efforts of the warriors, it seemed as though no more men would succumb to their wounds, which was a small miracle after such a vicious fight. Under normal circumstances, injury and infection might have claimed many more lives, even weeks after the fact. There were less than thirty people left alive now, not including the scouts who were still out there scouring the wilderness, George counting them as their solemn faces were lit by the bright glow of the fires.

Dawes said a few words – nothing too elaborate, as he was just as tired as everyone else. Once their respects had been paid, the group returned to the camp, and the problem of what to do with the abomination became the chief topic of discussion. It was enormous, far larger than even ten men could hope to move. Perhaps they could have hitched it to their horses and dragged it through the breach that it had created in the wall, but the beasts had fled many days prior. The idea of chopping it up into more manageable parts was brought up, but nobody really fancied the job of doing the butchery, as the danger of being exposed to its pestilence was a real one.

Since it was already close to the campfire, they eventually decided to try dragging it into the flames. They built up the fire beforehand, making it large enough that it should be able to engulf the beast in its entirety, then they began planning how they should move it. Tying ropes around its limbs would probably just result in them being torn off, spilling its putrid contents all over the camp in the process. Sam suggested that they use one of the oilskin tents, securing lengths of rope through the tie-out loops and having it serve as a kind of net. With nine or ten men on each of the ropes, they were able to slowly drag it into the fire, where it soon began to burn. Whatever the dark tar that saturated the risen creatures was, it seemed to ignite rather readily. Perhaps they could use that fact to their advantage somehow.

With the lion’s share of the work done, all that remained was to repair the damaged wall and rebuild the defenses. With that finished, they were finally able to turn in, but not before reassembling some of the tents that had been knocked down during the battle. George had expected to be haunted by the sights he had seen that day, to be kept awake by vivid dreams of death and carnage, but exhaustion quickly carried him off into a deep sleep.

***

“Movement in the trees!”

George lunged for his rifle, dropping the strip of salted meat that he had been eating. Soup was off the menu today, as they couldn’t cook around the fire. It was now occupied by the charred corpse of the abomination.

He rushed to the wall along with the rest of the company as they came streaming in from the tents, the bow-wielding warriors leaping up onto the mound of earth as they peered out across the clearing. The pyres from the night before were still smoldering, but there was no mist this morning, and the sun was out. It would be impossible for anyone to approach the camp unseen.

The mounting tension soon evaporated as one of the scouts came striding out of the shadow of the forest, waving to the defenders. A wave of relief passed through the ranks, the men lowering their weapons, a few of them waving back in greeting. More of the scouts emerged behind the first, George’s heart sinking when he didn’t see Tia among them. He couldn’t see any of their faces beneath their hoods, but he had spent enough time with her that he’d recognize her figure and her agile gait anywhere.

It was his turn to breathe a quiet sigh of relief when he saw her emerge last, skipping across the muddy clearing on her long legs. It seemed that all six of the scouts had made it back unscathed.

They quickly crossed the distance, scaling the wall with their usual ease, the defenders waiting to welcome them back on the other side. The warriors greeted their companions warmly, embracing one another, George watching Tia’s horned head turn as she searched for him in the crowd. When she spotted him, she leapt into his arms, indifferent to the amused glances of his human companions.

George no longer cared if people knew they were lovers, lifting her off the ground as he hugged her tightly, feeling his anxiety melt away. Even being apart for such a short period of time had felt like an eternity, especially with her out of his reach, alone in that cursed forest. He hadn’t even allowed himself to consider what might have happened if she hadn’t returned.

“Are you alright?” she asked breathlessly as he set her back down. “We could see the plumes of smoke on the horizon. We guessed that there had been a battle.”

“I’m fine,” he replied, giving her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “The Blighters came in force last night, and were repelled.”

“Where is Kuruk?” Tia asked, glancing around warily. “I do not see Taima or Sike, either.”

“Kuruk is alive,” he replied hesitantly, Tia cocking her head at him. The implication was obvious enough. Taima and Sike were not. “He overexerted himself during the battle, and saved the camp in the process. He’s been unconscious for maybe twelve hours, but the rest of the war party assures us that he’ll be fine, he just needs time to rest.”

“If he called upon the spirits in this dark place, it must have taken a great toll on him,” she sighed. “One must raise his voice loudly to be heard when such evil muffles it. Without his leadership…”

“We have Dawes,” George said confidently. “I trust the man implicitly, and he discussed the plan at length with Kuruk. He’ll know what to do. Did you locate the Blighter camp?”

“We did,” she replied. “I am sure that your Dawes will want to hear of it.”

***

“A day’s march to the South lies the Blighter camp,” Tia said, standing atop the wall as she addressed the crowd below. Dawes was front and center, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed as he listened intently. “It is situated inside a circular perimeter of felled trees, the land cleared through fire and stone. Their camp is made up of loose clusters of conical tents, maybe two hundred in number, and there are many separate campfires that are kept burning throughout the day and night where the inhabitants cook their food. Blighter war parties come and go frequently, and their magic is strong there. The camp is surrounded by effigies, which are kept…fresh, the Blighters sacrificing their own to enhance the power of the rest. It is a great font of dark magic. The blight sinks its roots deep there.”

“How many do they number?” Dawes asked. “Did you get a good look at their forces?”

“There were at least a hundred who remained there for the time we watched them,” Tia replied. “But, with so many smaller bands coming and going, it would be hard to give a confident estimate.”

“Then we should expect to face about as many as attacked the camp last night, if not more,” Dawes grumbled as he stroked his beard pensively.

“There is something more,” Tia added. “More than once, we witnessed the presence of a man, or perhaps a creature. He commanded the rest. They bowed to him in groveling respect, and they appeared to do his as he bade them. We watched him perform sacrificial rites, toy with dead flesh, and deliver what seemed to be sermons to the mob. He was not dressed like a warrior. He wore a long robe, and he seemed older, more frail than the younger Blighters.”

“Some kind of leader?” Dawes mused. “Spiritual or military, perhaps.”

“It would be unwise to underestimate them,” she added. “They may be a sorcerer or a shaman of some kind.”

“But, if we can kill them, we may be cutting the head off the snake,” Dawes replied.

Tia thought for a moment, the idiom foreign to her, but its meaning was obvious enough in context.

“We found a suitable location to mount our attack, as requested,” she continued. “A short distance from the Blighter camp is a hilly area strewn with large boulders. A dry riverbed runs down into the forest towards the camp, creating a clear path of approach where the trees do not grow. If the Blighters can be goaded into attacking from that direction, they will be caught out in the open, and they will have to climb the hill to reach us.”

“Excellent work,” Dawes said, nodding to the other scouts. “There’s no time to waste. We’ll set off first thing tomorrow and try to get to a defensible position by nightfall. We should be safer moving during the day, they seem more active at night.”

That didn’t give them much time to prepare, but George understood why they had to move quickly. Waiting might give the Blighters time to send another force to assault the camp.

“There is another matter to attend to while we’re all here,” Dawes continued. “With Kuruk unable to carry out his duties, which of you will take his place? We need someone to lead the war party.”

Tia and her people exchanged glances. Everything had happened so quickly that they hadn’t had much time at all to discuss it, and they might not have had the inclination. Kuruk was well-liked, and he was only temporarily incapacitated, not dead. Even so, someone had to direct the war party in battle, as Dawes would be leading the defenders from the hill. They couldn’t wait around for Kuruk to recover his strength.

“It should be Tiaska,” one of them said, the others nodding their hooded heads as they murmured agreements.

Tia looked flustered, but George wasn’t too surprised. The Elders had described her as one of their most trusted scouts. It seemed that the decision was unanimous, Tia turning back to Dawes.

“I will accept this responsibility, at least until Kuruk wakes.”
“Let’s get moving,” Dawes said, raising his voice so that the men could hear him better. “Make sure the scouts are well-fed and let them get a little rest. I want everyone else preparing to move. We need to pool our charges and count how many bullets we have left, then share them all out evenly. We’ll need food for the journey there and back, so someone make a list of the rations. We have four extra rifles,” he added, turning to the cloaked warriors. “Do any of you know how to shoot?”

“I do,” Tia replied.

“You’re welcome to them if you can teach the rest. I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to use them or not. I don’t know your tactics as well as you do. We’d have more if we’d been able to recover the guns from the men who fell when we tried to make it out of the forest, but we were in a hurry.”

The crowd began to disperse now that they had tasks to complete, Tia hopping down off the wall and making her way over to George’s side.

“It looks like you’ve been given a field promotion,” he said, Tia cocking her head at him. “It’s what we call it when someone is given a higher rank and more responsibility during a battle.”

“It seems that way,” she sighed. “I am a poor replacement for Kuruk, but I will do what I can.”

“Your people seem to trust you,” George replied as they made their way over to his tent. “They didn’t even hesitate to nominate you when Dawes asked who should lead.”

“Right now, I just want to rest,” she grumbled. “We have not had an opportunity to sleep since we left.”

He opened the tent flap for her, and she flopped down onto the blankets without even removing her cloak. She gave him a weary smile, which was all he really required to know that she was glad to be back, then she closed her eyes. George closed the flap. As much as he would have liked to join her, there was much work to be done.

***

“We have around eight left per man,” Marshall said as he dropped a fistful of paper charges into George’s outstretched hand. George opened the pouch on his belt and stowed them inside, Marshall moving down the line to distribute more bullets. Four of the warriors had taken up rifles, Tia included, each of them sporting a small pouch that had been tied to the leather bands that held up their loincloths.

“Make them count,” Dawes said, his rifle slung over his shoulder as he stood nearby.

The men had packed up all of the gear that they were going to need for the journey, the bullets and meat had been rationed, and they were ready to head out. Five men and five of Tia’s people had been chosen to remain behind to defend what remained of the camp, most of its tents now packed away. They couldn’t very well drag Kuruk with them, and he was still too weak to walk on his own. Hopefully, it would be enough people to deter another Blighter attack, but there was no ideal solution to their predicament. Manpower was not something they had in abundance right now.

That left eleven men and ten warriors for the assault on the Blighter camp. All of the wounded had been healed thanks to a blend of Daugherty’s expertise and a little magic. It wasn’t as much as they had hoped, but they would have to make do.

“Lead the way, Miss Tiaska,” Dawes said as he gestured to the forest beyond.

Tia set off with her warriors in tow, still looking out of her element as their new leader. They bounded along on their long legs, fanning out as they started to cross the clearing, just as they had during George’s journey through the forest with them. Even when they were out of sight of one another, their senses let them know where their comrades were, giving them a great deal of coordination.

The company followed behind, trudging through the mud as they made their way towards the shadowy woods beyond the camp, the smoke from the pyres still rising towards the sky.

***

At midday, the party stopped to eat by a river, a few of the scouts keeping watch from the bare branches of the trees while the rest ate and rested. Despite the proximity of the water, they dared not refill their canteens. There was a film of dark oil over the top of it, and it smelled just like the decaying foliage that surrounded them. It was probably contaminated with the black tar that seemed to be oozing from every tree in sight, bleeding from cracks in their bark like pus from an infected wound, saturating the soil.

The further South they headed, the worse things seemed to get. Not only were the plants here dying, they seemed to be warping in strange ways. More than once, George could have sworn that he had seen a face staring back at him from the trunk of a tree, only to realize upon closer inspection that it was merely a coincidental arrangement of knots. He might have told himself that the perpetual gloom created by the mist and the oppressive atmosphere were playing tricks on his eyes, but he knew better than to question his intuition now. Something beyond mere decay was happening here. Only now did he have a chance to ask Tia about it, as she had been at the head of the pack all day, scouting ahead out of sight of the company.

“Faces in the forest?” she asked, tearing off a strip of salted meat as they sat together in the roots of one of the blighted trees. It wasn’t an ideal place to rest, but they didn’t exactly have a wide choice of seating arrangements.

“Every time I looked more closely, it was proven to be an illusion,” he explained. He paused to take a draw from his canteen before he continued, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Have you ever stared at a stain on the ceiling or a shape in a rock until it started to form a face, as though you were willing one into existence?”

“I think I know what you mean,” she replied with a nod.