There was a stag in the woods
Who roamed in the foulest of moods.
For pride kept his rack,
Till his antlers they cracked
And his drink killed him in floods.
– An old song of the water sprites
He was a magnificent creature; his fur shined a rustic bronze that looked as though it had been peeled straight from the sun and reshaped into skin and fur, his eyes the blazing focal points of the masterpiece. The Shifter didn’t think she had seen the creature’s equal.
And then there were the antlers…
Just above the eyes of the Stag, they sat about seven feet high, disproportionate even to his size. Upon further inspection, she could see the moss and spider webs decorating their boughs. They would have been a truly spectacular sight—if they hadn’t been killing him.
His neck, powerful and thick, was straining against the intense weight; rigid muscles stood sharply in steep contrast to the rest of his smooth flank and a network of valleys seemed to etch across his neck.
A Pride, she thought to herself. And a powerful one at that.
She had arrived almost too late, the Shifter realized. The Stag was stumbling toward the still lake as though it was the only thing in the world that held any meaning. She knew that if she allowed him to reach his destination, he would meet his death. The victim of a Pride so often met its end in this way; by drowning. Whether it was due to desperate thirst or Vanity’s influence forcing the victims to gaze upon their reflection was disputable. Then the death breeds another monster. He had to be stopped.
She pursed her lips. The creature was obviously badly infected. The Stags of these woods were highly intelligent, and many grew to possess great wisdom and dignity, but not this one... This one had the eyes of a beast.
She looked down at her arrows. She had dipped the tips in the cleansing waters at the Mountain Springs of Clarity. She could use them to shoot the Pride, whose semi-corporeal skin was vulnerable to cleansing weapons, but it was intelligent. It had positioned itself inside the creature’s vast, beating heart. The Stag would die too. To disregard this and kill the creature to prevent the creation of a new Pride was probably the intelligent decision to make – and certainly the easiest. Any wise hunter would take the shot and call the beast collateral damage... but she had to try. She had to give him a chance.
“Time to do it the hard way then,” she muttered, and began stripping out of her light gear. She left only the belt that held her knife at her thin waist.
An outsider would be surprised to note that the Shifter seemed completely comfortable with her nudity—not that she had anything to be ashamed of. She was beautiful in a wild sort of way; not skinny but slim and muscular, with long limbs, and chocolate skin... However, she was not aware of these desirable traits. She just felt clothing was impractical in these situations.
She tossed her dark, tangled hair out of her face and in the same time it takes for a startled chickadee to abandon the branch, the woman had become a doe.
She approached the imprisoned Stag cautiously and hoped enough of him was left to understand, or at least acknowledge, what she was about to say. “Nobel one,” she projected soothingly, “Can you understand what it is that’s happening to you?”
He snorted, but otherwise ignored her. Nervous, she felt her own human-like reflex to bite her lip. She had to establish familiar contact with him—the purpose of the form she had chosen—but there was a chance that the Pride would notice and lash out at her by using its host.
A voice in her head said something to the effect of “this is a very bad idea.”
It was right of course. She could kill them both and consider the Stag collateral damage. This would be a smart, sensible thing to do. Naturally, she ignored it and pressed her snout against the Stag’s neck and deeply breathed in the mixed scent of pine trees, dirt, and clean air from his fur.
He went rigid. She could see him in the past, looking over to where the Lost Desert was separated by a fast-running river, full of confidence and self- assurance; he let it show in a defiant scream as he took a bounding leap across the deadly water. His feet hit the ground on the other side and he tossed his head in a loud challenge... A perfect host for the Pride.
The Shifter used the physical link and gave the projection everything she could muster. “Can you hear me?”
There was a pregnant silence. “Yes,” he eventually replied. His essence way faint and fading away.
“What is your name?”
His breathing increased as he fought to remember. “Strider of the Woods.”
Ah. That wasn’t an arrogant name at all. To be fair though, she thought, it’s hard to make prepositional phrase into a name that didn’t make one seem a bit self- important. She grunted in annoyance and wished her brain wasn’t so easily sidetracked.
“So tell me then, Strider of the Woods,” she said as their eyes met, “what does that name mean?”
“I…” Images of bounding through dense foliage with disdainful ease came into his head and consequently into hers.
“Have you been doing a lot of that lately?” She asked him gently.
He suddenly became indignant. “I am the strongest and the greatest of my kind!”
“And yet what you perceive to be your greatest strength is killing you. You can’t run with them, so what good is your name now?”
He was only a couple of feet from the water now. His footprints were leaving deep, dragging prints in the moss. “Nothing,” he grunted in exertion, “can kill me.”
“You know that’s not true,” she said, steeling herself. “Perhaps it already has.” She took into her mind a perfect image of the Stag as she could see him now. “You’re so anxious to look in a mirror. Why wait?” She threw the image at him: a trapped, degraded beast with animalistic eyes and a heart beset by a foul writhing infection. He stumbled at the edge of the lake and almost fell in. She pushed against his neck to stop him, but his weight was about to take them both into the water.
“Let go!” she screamed at him, “Let go now!”
There was a high keening scream, like nails across a chalkboard, and the Shifter had to jump out of the way as antlers crashed into the water and Strider bucked and tossed his head in defiance.
The Pride’s screams intensified and the Shifter could see it writhing around underneath Strider’s skin as they fought, but the Stag was still weak from months spent carrying his burden; he couldn’t fight it on his own.
Her deerskin rippled. The Shifter became a moth and fluttered onto his head, opening up her energy reserves and willing him to fight.
His efforts tripled the moment her energy met his. Shifter could feel the energy leaving her body at an alarming rate and knew the fight needed to end soon, or she would too. The Pride was finally weakening, slackening his grip on Strider. She began to grow more confident before it turned its attention to her. Crap.
The Pride’s remaining energy hurdled towards the Shifter, creating a physical and mental attack strong enough to knock her backwards. Suddenly, on the forest floor in human form, she watched dumbly as the liberated Stag ran blindly into the trees and the semi-corporeal Pride advanced towards her. She looked to her right. About five feet away her belt and dagger had fallen when she had shifted. She kept her eyes focused on the undulating cloud of Pride as she inched slowly towards the blade.
Then it did something that she had never seen before; its wispy essence began to congeal, consolidate and take shape. Slim brown shoulders began to form, followed by strong arms, a long torso and muscular legs. A face set itself atop the neck and shoulders, and framed itself with tangled black hair.
Whoa, cool! said the part of her brain that apparently had no concern for life and death struggles. She was staring at a perfect copy of her “default” form. It stared at Shift with shimmering silver eyes which seemed to reflect several colors at once. Impressive. Shift told herself to shut up, which she knew was a bad habit of hers. But she had to admit, it was impressive for a pride to mass enough power for such a display – especially in the heart of the forest.
“A little shifter,” crooned the Pride in a husky voice, “I’ve not met many brave or strong enough to pull me off of my intended prey.” The image licked her lips. “You must be so… proud.”
The Shifter’s heart was beating frantically. She had to keep it talking until she could reach her knife. “How did you take a form? Never seen a Pride do that outside of the Desert. That’s why you need a host.” She felt the cool handle of her knife, but forced herself to wait. Timing was everything, and luckily there was some left. Prides adore gloating.
“Oooohh,” breathed the Pride in obvious enjoyment, “You mean you don’t know?”
“No, I’m just asking to sound stupid.” The Shifter hoped the snark wouldn’t be completely lost on the monster. If she was going to die, then she at least wanted to be noted for her sarcasm.
“Oh, but so many words about me,” sighed the Pride. “What about you, little thing? I can’t seem to find your name.” Its hand touched her face. “Shall we find it together?”
In answer, the Shifter plunged the knife toward her mirror image, but was too slow. Her knife met air and her wrist was bound the Pride’s surprisingly strong grip. Then it grinned, introducing an expression that was alien to the stolen face.
“Ah, so there is a hint of pride in you yes?” It began to twist her captured wrist painfully. “But alas, it seems you may be marked by another hunter, a powerful one indeed. It would be so happy with me if I were to, ah—deliver you.”
The Shifter grimaced, and looked frantically for an escape route. Nothing... No way out.
Then Strider came, well, striding out of the dense foliage, bellowing as he charged toward her attacker. He couldn’t defeat it himself, but it gave the Shifter the distraction she needed. She threw off the Pride’s grip - slackened by surprise - and took her knife from the ground. The monster’s stolen face barely had time to register surprise before the knife sunk into its heart all the way up to the hilt.
Its mouth parted slightly, and the Shifter watched in morbid fascination as it crashed formless onto the earth.
Strider offered to take the Shifter to his people in return for her kindness. That was the way of many of the peoples and creatures here, for balance was important in the Other-Realm.
She shook her head. “You saved my life too. Consider us even.”
“But you’re tired,” rumbled the animal. “Come rest with my family before dark.”
She shook her head. “That would not be wise.” It was unsafe to spend too much time around her.
He sighed, but didn’t push the issue.
She looked at him and said, “Take your name back from me.”
“You would release your knowledge of it?”
“You cannot afford to let me keep it.”
He snorted. “Watch me. “
The Shifter growled in frustration, feeling the air crackle slightly around her in response. If this frightened Strider, or if he even noticed, he showed no sign. “Strider of the Woods,” she infused the name with power and willed him to comply, “it is dangerous to let me keep your name and I have no name to give you in return.”
The exchange of a name was an ultimate pledge of friendship. It was a beautiful bond which offered companionship in the loneliest hours, consolation in the most desperate, and peace at the time death staked his claim. To her, however, it would always remain an alien and unobtainable luxury.
She extended her palm. “I’m sorry.”
Some creatures would react with anger or fear to a nameless being; some would run. She wouldn’t have blamed him. The absence of her name could have meant that she gave herself to a despicable Desire, or that she had been marked by a name thief, something that would use a powerful name for an advantage. Some people lost their names because they had to run so fast that they gave up their own identity for the sake of escape. Whatever the cause, it was never good.
Perhaps Strider’s experience with the Pride gave him empathy, or perhaps an understanding about how it felt to fight for a name, because he did not run. Instead he said, “Then I will know you by your actions Shifter. Keep my name and never walk alone.” He leaned his head briefly into her palm, then turned and cantered away.
The Shifter wanted to just stand and stare after him for a while, but she knew that prey should never linger in one spot for too long. She gathered her things and ran towards the only home she knew, away from the impending darkness.