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Hakrel stared into space as he lifted the mug to his mouth. Azim gazed attentively at the old man, black and blue ink staining his lined face in exotic patterns. The old hunter didn't pay her any attention as he finished his drink, placing it on the wooden table in view of the barkeep. The apprentice waited patiently as he internally debated.
Illuminated in the orange glow of several dozen torches, a crowd of men clad in long coats and wide hats marched from a wood-shrouded village. Vengeful purpose drove their boots through the puddles dotting the dirt road, their gloved hands dutifully fastened around brass rifles and powder charges. The women watched them go in dangerous silence, their own faces either shining with apprehension or dimmed by grim approval.
As planned, the party divided into smaller groups that proceeded into the dark forest along different routes. So terrible was their presence that the nocturnal creatures of the woods made themselves scarce. A long simmering wrath had finally been aroused, now stalking the night with the promise of bloodshed.
Throwing out a hand, one of the men pointed to a round shape made of lashed twigs suspended upon the trunk of an ancient tree whose limbs twisted with an unnatural chaos. It incited no fear in the eyes of his companions, instead stoking their steeled resolve and compelling them deeper into the heart of the forest.
Their careful advance took them down a path whose edges were overgrown by thick brush so intertangled as to appear to be woven with sheer madness. At the sound of a faint but persistent rustling they froze in place, until the partial silence was broken by their rearmost member's sudden shout. They turned to find him gruesomely suspended by the surrounding foliage as the same swarm of wooden tendrils drew in from all sides.
Daggers flashed in the torchlight as they chopped at the advancing branches, but one by one they became entangled as well. One man with a feathered hat drew from his satchel a vial of white powder, which he scattered across the ground at the base of the aggressive plants. After a few moments the branches ceased their attack and began to shrivel, releasing the men and opening the flanks of their path. Composing themselves, they ventured forth with one less.
Gnarled trunks soon gave way to a large, barren clearing into which the party cautiously tread. With a great rush of wind something massive swept down from the black canopy and snatched up one of their number. Ducking, they watched in shock as he struck a tree that cut his scream short. Metal gleamed in the flickering light as they aimed their rifles at the large creature perched above them.
As their shots lit up the clearing, the bird-like thing with a beak of wooden strips cried a bloodcurdling shriek and made to dive upon them once more. Its target dove aside, losing his feathered hat to its root-like talons as it billowed past. He rose to his feet to find blood streaming down his forehead from a cut across his temple.
Forsaking his dropped rifle, he pulled a small bladder from his satchel and braced like a cat about to pounce. The bird-thing screamed once more and shot towards him, its wings of leaves unhindered by a second round of gunfire. As the creature shot over him, he once again evaded its grasp but turned in mid-jump to throw the bladder at it.
Suddenly it fell to the ground, unable to glide back up to another perch. The bird-thing flapped fruitlessly against a mass of tar sticking to one of its wings. Their nemesis now crippled, the men converged upon it. The one who'd struck the decisive blow grabbed a torch and threw it upon the unnatural construct, which burst into flames with a haunting wail. Solemnly, he recovered his hat.
Undaunted, the group pressed on, short another member. Above and around them the nature became increasingly twisted by corruption. At a signal from the man with a feathered hat, they extinguished their torches. Eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness, a faint flicker could be seen against the mutilated bark surrounding them.
After what seemed like an eternity of painstakingly creeping through the blackness they drew closer and closer to the faint light's source. With the greatest care they approached the edge of a small gap in the grotesque trees to see a large bonfire of sickly green flames whose light did little to illuminate the strange figure standing beside it.
Between the fire and the outline of a primitive dwelling made from contorted saplings stood a woman. At first glance her attire seemed conventional, but a careful inspection revealed it consisted of leaves, sticks, vines, and spots of ragged fur. But most striking was the beak-like mask she wore not unlike the visage of the abomination they'd previously encountered, but with a pair of curled antlers.
Intimidating as her appearance was, their commitment was affirmed by the sight of two young maidens sitting near the abode, their torsos and legs wrapped in rope-like vines that glistened with tears fallen from their terrified faces. The man who'd dispatched the bird-thing pointed out to his companions the fetishes carefully crafted from twigs and placed deliberately around the fire, but as he did so the terrible woman's head turned suddenly towards them.
With an angry curse he led the charge into the clearing. Following a wave of her arm, a large tree branch swung low to knock two of them over. She brought a hand up and several roots sprung from the ground to snare another man, tripping him up. As one reached the nearest fetish she threw her palm towards him, sending a cloud of foul spores through the air that reduced him to a writhing, coughing mess.
A shot rang out as a man fired his rifle in her direction, but she raised an arm across her chest that summoned a shield of bark that blocked the bullet. The man in a feathered hat kicked over the fetish and slammed a syringe into the coughing man's chest. As the men furiously battled the manipulated flora around the fire, the woman thrust a clawed hand to the canopy above.
From the trees came a swarm of leaves that swirled around the small clearing, their edges slicing away at the men's exposed skin. Igniting a small charge, the feathered-hat man tossed it into a cluster of roots blocking his path to the woman. It burst with a yellow light that reduced the nearby plants to ash. He dove and rolled forward as she brought a fist down through the air. A log fell with crushing weight upon another man running just behind him.
Now nearly an arm's length away, he was suddenly pulled knee-deep into the mud. Without hesitation he produced a vial of shiny water that caused the slime holding him to boil, allowing him to escape. Immediately she threw both hands up towards his face, fingers spread, and he was knocked back with a suffocating moss suddenly sprouting from his flesh.
But as he pressed the flat side of a copper-like blade against the growth, singeing it off, his gamble to distract the woman was paying off. The others had capitalized upon the momentary reprieve to destroy more of the abominable symbols, causing the fire to expand in an increasingly erratic manner. Its light rippled in the terrified eyes of the two maidens.
Gradually, the growing inferno reached outward towards the woman as she summoned more of the forest to her aid. For the first time in the battle, the she was clearly distressed as the flames began to lap about her person. Hastily she pulled herself away from the blaze and fled, using branches to carry her quickly through the woods.
At once the plants accosting the remaining men stopped as the fire suddenly roared into a long jet that flew through the forest after the woman. Heeding his command, the others quickly freed the two maidens as the man with the feathered hat took off after the flame and its quarry. Though they were both faster than he on foot, the man proceeded with confidence.
Flanking his course were members of the other groups they'd parted with at the start of their expedition. Armed with symbols, compounds, and concoctions they had used in advance, they ran down the remaining path of corrupted nature after the woman and the mysterious phenomenon, absolving it as they went.
Their numbers swelled as others gave chase once she had passed them until they neared the end of their trap. Finding herself suddenly robbed of any forest life she could manipulate, the woman tumbled to the edge of a pond. Kneeling in the sand, she looked helplessly up at the green flame soaring towards her.
From nearby, two more men standing beside a pile of ornate glass bottles cast a heavy net over her. With a shout a small team on the other side of the pond pulled on a rope with all their might. The woman was suddenly launched backwards into the water and dragged to the bottom by a pulley. Just above her the green flame crashed into the surface.
A cataclysmic blast emanated from the pond, sending the men flying and toppling several trees. The man with the feathered hat was the first to approach the pond to find it completely evaporated by the explosion. At the bottom sat the woman, defeated, still trapped in the net. They bound her in chains and regrouped.
Dividing once again, one group took the wounded, the maidens, and their prisoner back to the village while the others cleansed the remaining corruption from the forest. The hunter with the feathered hat refused the villagers' offer of payment, instead requesting only that he personally take the witch to be dealt with elsewhere.
Azim left the tavern wondering what had become of the woman, but was quite sure Hakrel would someday tell her that story if she kept pestering him as he drank.
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August 23, 2017
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