Himarvata 5156 and her handler return to the strange forest to learn more of the mysterious "Elk-Man..."
Fall never rolled in so much as it tumbled in, bringing with it bursts of snow and sudden drafts of brisk breezes that sent the autumn leaves to rustling in their branches. Dhurza hated the cold; it reminded her too much of her time in that damnable land of the Nords. Still, there had been something nagging at her ever since that day she had stumbled upon the carvings in the woods. The Elk-Man’s graven image danced in the back of her mind, haunting her dreams as he reached toward her with the sun hanging betwixt his massive antlers. She’d had her fair share of dealings with demigods and Daedra; this Elk-Man seemed something similar, and yet altogether different.
She brushed a bit of slushy snow off her saddle as she moved to sling it onto her tokota’s back. Himarvata shifted under the worn leather, letting out a grumbling whine as she flexed her long claws into the earth. Dhurza couldn’t decide whether the creature seemed irritated or excited--Hima had that way about her. It was always hard to tell exactly what the toko was thinking, even at the best of times. Still, the tokota held relatively still as the orc woman adjusted the straps in silence. Once the chore was done, Dhurza lifted herself into the saddle and turned her toko’s head toward the woods. All at once, Hima’s tail began to wag, all eagerness and cheer.
Hours passed as they wandered through forest trails, Dhurza’s brow knitting together by the moment as she tried--and failed--time and again to find the path that had led her to the strange standing stone with the Elk-Man’s image carved upon it. No matter which way she turned, however, she could not seem to find the way back to the strange place that had led her on this wild goose chase in the first place. The birds called from tree to tree, their cheery tones mocking her progress from above, and the orc let out a disgruntled snort as she hunkered lower over her tokota’s maned neck.
“Damn it,” she finally grumbled, digging her hastily-scribbled map out of her saddlebag and examining it with a scowl. She had drawn it up after the fact, naturally; in fact, she had not planned on mapping the place at all until the Elk-Man had shown up in her dreams, refusing to leave her alone. A few of the landmarks were familiar, but she could tell the scale of her drawings was terribly off. With an irritated sigh, she stuffed the map back into the bag and sat taller on her tokota’s back to get a better look around.
“Well, Hima,” she began at length, voice a slow drawl as it poured out from between her thick lips and around her curving tusks. “I guess we’d better just pack it up, huh? Whaddya say, girl? Maybe tomorrow.” She patted the tokota’s white-splashed neck, tugged on the reins--and let out a grunt when the tokota’s head remained firmly in place.
“Hima? Himarvata, let’s go! Come on, you damned beast,” she growled, pulling harder at the leather straps. The tokota let out a low growl, and Dhurza narrowed her eyes. For a moment, she thought of reprimanding her headstrong companion; a flash of movement in the shadow of the trees caught her eye, however, and she quickly abandoned that notion. Hima was focused on it, ice-blue eyes gleaming in the fading sun that filtered through the thick forest canopy.
“Go on, girl,” Dhurza murmured, giving the toko her head once more and hunkering low as the creature slowly began to stalk toward the movement. “Easy... easy, now. Low and slow.”
Another flicker of movement between the trees caused the toko to suddenly burst into a run, barking and snarling as she sprinted after whatever was keeping just out of sight. Dhurza clenched her jaw, holding tight to the reins as her knees tightened around the tokota’s back. She tried to rein the beast in, but to no avail; Hima was set on her course, and would not be swayed even by the orc woman’s considerable strength. Soon, they burst into a clearing, and the reason for her toko’s sudden burst of speed became clear: a stray elk sow was running before them, eyes rolling in terror as she whined and squealed in her attempt to escape the terrible onslaught of the tokota’s claws.
The herd was not far away, and the distance was closing quickly. The elk, Dhurza assumed, was a scrawny adolescent, having ranged off from the herd and run into more than she had bargained for. Despite the wild barking of the tokota, however, the herd stood solid and did not flinch at their approach. At the fore, a massive bull elk raised his head and stared them down. The sow stumbled, and Hima let out a vicious snarl as she went to close on her prey--only to yelp and reel backwards when the enormous buck charged forward.
It was the biggest elk Dhurza had ever laid eyes on; his antlers seemed to stretch to embrace the entire span of the sky as he ran toward them, bellowing a roar of challenge. The orc tugged at the reins, pulling Himarvata back further from the raging bull elk. The thunder of his monstrous hooves echoed in her ears, and she stared wide-eyed at the creature as he drew closer and--and stood up.
His forelimbs twisted into arms, ending in hoof-tipped fingers. He rose, mountainlike, until she thought those antlers might pierce the very sky itself; he had to have been ten feet tall. Himarvata whined, backing up as far as she could go, until she tumbled over and trapped her rider beneath her. The orc let out a yelp, squirming helplessly beneath her tokota’s weight while the Elk-Man loomed over them. She looked up, her eyes meeting his--piercing white and practically glowing--before traveling further upward, following the curve of his antlers as they stretched on for eternity. As she watched, the blood-red circle of the setting sun settled itself between those wicked points--and a flash of light blinded her, sent her mind reeling in utter terror and confusion, before everything went black.
She woke up to the extremes of hot and cold. Her face felt nearly frozen, covered with a soft dusting of snow, while her body was covered by something large and warm and--and breathing? With a groan, she opened her eyes to get a better look at her situation. Himarvata still lay atop her, but not so uncomfortably as she remembered before; in fact, the tokota was watching her, chin on her chest, eyes filled with concern and confusion. Upon seeing her handler was awake, Hima promptly let out a series of tiny, excited whines as she flicked her tongue out to lick the orc’s square chin.
“Ugh--gross, Hima,” Dhurza grumbled, though a smile tugged at the corner of her heavy lips. Slowly, she shifted to sit up; the light was different, and she squinted up at the sky of the clearing to try and get a better idea of what, exactly, had just happened to them. She blinked when she realized it was near dawn.
“Wh--how long were we out? Damn.” The orc shifted her legs out from under the toko, letting out a noise of frustration when the creature promptly stood up and shook herself off--and thus shaking snow all over her handler, as well. “Every time! All right... what the hell just happened, anyway?” She asked, looking at her tokota as she ran her fingers through the beast’s thick cheek fur.
Hima whined softly, tail tucking between her legs as she glanced toward the far end of the clearing. Her ears pressed back, and she shifted closer to lean against her handler. Dhurza only sighed, wrapping her arms around her tokota’s thick mane and frowning toward the woods. Clearly, there were more answers to be found the deeper they went into that hideous labyrinth of wood and wonder... but that was a journey for a different day. For now, she needed to get home, get warm, and get fed.
“C’mon, girl,” she murmured, shifting to swing back up into the saddle--though she grimaced at the movement, her bones aching from the long evening spent on the cold, hard ground with a toko lying atop her. “Let’s go home.”
As the words left her mouth, however, she promptly dug out another sheet of vellum and began to map out her course. Next time, she wouldn’t waste so much time. Next time, she was going to get to the bottom of this--once and for all!