Guardian

The Forest is dark, and full of terrors. And you are one of them.   You stand, back resting on one of the massive sequoia trees that make up the bulk of the flora. You can feel the crevices in the bark as they press into your spine. Underneath that bark you can feel the heat of the Salamander's smoke, struggling to keep the illusion in place against the efforts of a being of true reality. In the canopy above, pine cones the size of volleyballs weigh down the branches. Lichens that could pass as poorly maintained fishing nets sway from the boughs, filtering the wind for news. And the wind has news. It always has news.   An intruder has entered the Forest. Stumbling, lost and unable to see in the night time darkness, they are of the species your master hates most. Humans. They bring with them stories and change.   The moss creeps between your hooves, inching along. Beneath it the Dark Forest's keepers, the ants, replant and nurture the roots, ever busy. You know that they will eventually return to the Scrapyard, that place where all unnatural encroachments on the Dark Forest's laws are taken. Among their many duties, the ants keep the Dark Forest primordial, removing technological advancements. Your lips curl back, revealing prehensile fangs. As it should be.   Mushrooms sprout from the ground around the tree's roots, greeting the cool night air with a ghastly green glow. Your slitted pupils dilate, taking in the new information. Night is long in the Forest, and it will be a good hunt. It is always a good hunt. It will always be a good hunt. You snort, annoyed, blasting away several flies that had landed on your bovine nose. Maybe not always.   You watch through the needles as the moon hangs in the sky, shining its unwelcome light though the blessed darkness. It wasn't always like this. There was a time when the night was darker than the Rootways were now, and the Rootways were darker than the deepest oceans. During that time, the Dark Forest guardians reigned as the nightmares of the Forest. None could match them.   That was before you started to think. That was before you NEEDED to think. Before SHE started saving them. Your large moth-like wings shake in anger.   She brings light and peace to them. The humans. If you were to hurt them, she brings pain and suffering. You found her once, but as powerful as you are, she is stronger still. You hiss at the memory. Limping, speared through the shoulder by one of her bamboo shoots, you delved into one of the entrances to the Rootways. Into the blessed darkness. But you found something down there. Something old, and mad, and angry, and hurt. Something worse than her. And so you left.   Emerging from the blackness into the moonlight, you stand here now. Waiting for the hunt to begin.   You stamp your hooves and let out an acrid breath, full of the scent of rot and decay. Guardians are not meant to wait, and you grow impatient. They used to be constantly roaming. Not for food, no. You don't need food to stay alive. But they are bound by the laws of the Dark Forest to hunt constantly.   The moon begins to "set" as you continue to watch. Her power begins to wane, and the Dark Forest begins to wake again. You can hear your brothers, monsters from every fairy tale ever told, beginning to move. Even if you rarely see them, the other guardians are always there. Connected. A family in monstrosity. You begin to climb the tree. Your sharp claws dig into the huge crevices in the bark, finding easy footholds and handholds. The air is cool and fills your lungs with a rattling breath, energizing you for the coming expenditures.   There was a time when you were still one with your brothers and sisters, all in one body. You remember its name. "Zephnos". That name was dead now though. It had died when the moon had come back, when SHE had appeared. You didn't have a name now. No one had given you one.   A deep growl rose from your throat. That wasn't entirely true. "Monster", "Beast", "Abomination". Your prey had named you. None of them stuck though. Those names ended when the givers died in your jaws.   At last you reach the top of the tree and spread your huge wings. They were brown and covered in eyes. In normal moths, these eyes would have been decorative. Not for you. You gaze across the midnight treetops, looking for movement. Tasting the wind with your long tongue. You flex your powerful legs and take off.   The branches below are not always full of needles. Sometimes they have leaves and sometimes they have even stranger things. Once you saw a tree that was covered in eyes, just like your wings. But the Forest trees were always the same in one aspect, and that was size. It was one of the reasons you had lived for so long. Being able to hide above the treetops gave you a perfect way to watch without being watched yourself.   Not that a guardian had much to fear. Guardians didn't hunt other guardians, and they were the usually the biggest things in the Forest. Usually, but not always. Cinders were a problem, but they were rare, and usually easy to spot from miles away. Vinterdyret was the only one of late for you to fear. The Ashvine couldn't pose any real threat to you unless it caught you off guard. But its victims could certainly be dangerous. A scar on your left ankle ached where a beartrap had nearly bitten through it. Oh yes... they could be a problem.   And that brought your thoughts to the Vinebound. They were new in the Forest, and the guardians didn't know what to do with them. The smarter ones avoided them, but the colossi had all become one with them. It was a plague that was spreading in the Forest, and as you traveled you could see it in the coloration of the leaves. The trees that were effected by the Ashvine were smoldering, releasing great plumes of smoke into the air. It was best to avoid those areas. The humans that stumbled into them weren't prey anymore, and couldn't leave. You shake your horned head. Better not to dwell on them. There were just as bound to the Forest as you were now.   As you sale above the trees, you finally see your prey. A young girl. You lick your lips in anticipation. The hunt wasn't about food. At least, not physical food. But that didn't mean you couldn't have some fun. You angle your wings and begin to lose speed, descending into the canopy. Wrapping a powerful arm around a branch, you swing up onto it, allowing your rat-like tail to swing down and find its own purchase.   She was running. Scared, just the way they always are. You sniff the air and snort. She smelled of ash, but not like the Vinebound usually did. She stumbled through the dark, tripping over roots and banging her head on fallen branches. You laugh, announcing your presence. She looks around wildly, screaming. You know she can't see you in this darkness. You begin to move, climbing down the tree. This was an oak, so it was closer to the ground than the sequoia you had climbed earlier, and you made sure to snap a few branches to give away your position. The girl whimpered as they hit the ground with a thud, one after another. A low growl escapes your throat, unbidden. You could smell her fear as you slowly move down the trunk of the tree. She falls over, her foot caught under a rock as she was running. She starts to say something but you can't make out what the words are. She knows she's about to die.   Your claws rasp against the bark as you drop the last few feet, landing with a crash of leaves and moss and broken stone as your full bulk greets the Forest floor. You can hear the ants underneath complaining in your head and ignore them. Your eyes begin to glow as a spell begins in your mind.   She screams, terrified, and you smell the sweat and urine of an animal that is out of its mind with fear. You pull back your jaws, allowing the twin fangs to unfold, and release a hiss. She can see you now due to your glowing eyes. Mushrooms sprout as the satyr magic begins its work, illuminating your furry belly, the long claws, your wings, and finally your boar's head.   This is what the hunt was about for the guardians. It was about making the last memory the prey had into a piece of art. Or at least, that was what it was about for you. And now to top it off, you suck in your breath and ROAR.   The sound is a mix of an elk's scream and a pig's squeal. It was something that couldn't exist outside of the Dark Forest, and it was impossible for someone to forget. You knew that. Which is why you hated what would come next.   A clawed hand slashed out across the girls neck. Your hand. She was dead almost instantly.   As the high of the performance begins to wear off, you fold your wings and turn back towards the oak. They always had to die. That was the final law. Frustration builds in you as you drop to all fours and begin to stalk off into the Forest.   Why did they always have to die?

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