Once upon a time, there was a young summoner named Yuna. She packed a basket of fresh bread, pulled on her red cloak, and left her home village to visit her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the wood.
"Are you sure you want to go alone?" Wakka asked. Wakka was her friend and protector, and he could hit a fiend with a blitzball at fifty paces. "There might be wolves in the forest, ya?"
But Yuna shook her head and smiled. "My father sacrificed himself to kill the Great Wolf and drive the wolves away from the forest. No one has seen a wolf in the ten years since."
"Are you sure you want to go alone?" Lulu asked, even as she cast a warming spell on the cloth that covered the bread. Lulu was also her friend and protector, and she could light a bush on fire from half a mile away. "You are still just learning your magic."
Once again, Yuna shook her head. "I am a summoner now, with aeons at my call." She fingered the edge of her red summoner's cloak. "They will help keep me safe."
Yes, whispered Valefor, shaking out her beautiful wings.
Yes, Ifrit growled, his eyes bright as coals.
Yes, murmured Shiva, with a toss of her frosted locks.
Only Kimahri, her oldest friend and first protector, did not ask to come along. "If Yuna wants to go alone, Yuna should go alone," he said. "Kimahri trusts the aeons, and Kimahri trusts Yuna, too."
Yuna smiled and nodded and laughed and hugged everyone goodbye -- with an especially long hug for Kimahri, who understood. "I will be back soon," she said.
And so Yuna walked out of the village, alone but for her aeons, up and down the mountain, and across the wide plain to the wood.
At first, the wood was pleasant -- birds singing in the treetops, the ground dappled with sunlight, a gentle breeze on her face, the occasional pyrefly drifting idly by. But as Yuna went deeper and deeper into the wood, it became darker as the trees grew closer together. Fewer sunbeams reached the ground, and the path was sometimes overgrown by brush and brambles. Most worrisome were the pyreflies, which had grown thicker as well, floating out of the trees and welling up from small cracks in the ground. So concentrated was Yuna on them that she almost stumbled off the path and into a man seat by a small campfire, right at the edge of a rose thicket.
"Oh!" she said, stepping back from the embers, her hood falling off her head. "I didn't know anyone lived in these woods."
The woodcutter -- for he was a woodcutter, from the axe that he sharpened with a whetstone -- looked up at her. His long dark hair was pulled back from his face, and an old scar closed his right eye. "You are correct," he said. "No one lives here, except for the wolves."
Yuna frowned at him. "The wolves are gone. My father sacrificed himself to drive them away."
The man set aside the whetstone and stood up, shifting his coat to cover his arm. "Your father. Braska, the high summoner. Yes."
Yuna's mouth fell open, and she took a step backwards. "You knew my father?"
The woodcutter nodded. "Braska was a good man, with a good heart. He wanted to keep people safe from wolves, so he chose to fight the Great Wolf. When he won, they were both killed, but the wolves kept to the old agreement and left the woods. For a time. But that time is over, and the wolves have returned."
Yuna lowered her eyes. "I cannot believe that my father died for nothing."
"Believe or do not believe, it is none of my concern," the woodcutter replied with a shrug. "Still, Braska was a friend. I would consider it an honor to protect you on your journey through the forest."
Yuna paused. She had wanted to make this journey alone. And yet, the wood was darker and felt more dangerous than she had expected. But still, should she trust a man she had never met?
He was a friend of your father's, Valefor whispered.
He has traveled these paths many times, Ifrit growled.
He tells you the truth, Shiva murmured. And he is a good man. We have known him before.
"All right," Yuna said aloud, answering her aeons and the woodcutter both. "I would welcome your company."
The woodcutter put out the fire and hefted his axe to his shoulder. "Where are we bound?" he asked.
"My grandmother's house," Yuna said. "She lives on the other side of the wood."
"Hmm," the woodcutter said. After that, he said nothing for a long time.
In silence they walked, the wood growing deeper and darker, until the path forward was blocked by a large tree. "Strange," Yuna said, "that it was allowed to grow over the road."
"Few travelers pass this way," the woodcutter replied. "Do you wish me to chop it down?"
Yuna stepped forward and rested her hand on the whorls of rough bark. She closed her eyes and felt the tree's spirit, singing softly to her. "No," she said, opening her eyes. "We can go around."
Together they rounded the tree, and then stopped short, Yuna clutching her basket tightly to her chest as she gasped. "A wolf!"
For there was, indeed, a wolf, standing in the middle of the path, blocking their way forward. The wolf was huge, as tall as the woodcutter at the shoulder. His fur was black as midnight, purple and blue shadows shimmering through the strands, and a golden wheel sat atop his back. He turned his eyes straight on Yuna as he spoke.
"Why do you pass through the woods?"
Yuna's hands shook, but she kept her voice strong. "I thought the wolves were gone from the forest."
"They were, but they have returned." The wolf lowered his nose to the ground, and Yuna thought she saw sadness in his eyes. "Ten years have passed, and so the Great Wolf has returned, reborn to stalk these woods once again. But you have not answered my question, Lady Yuna. Why do you pass through these woods?"
"How do you know my name?" Yuna asked, gripping her basket with one hand and the cloth of her cloak with the other.
"From your cloak, I see that you are a summoner. And I knew your father." The wolf turned his head. "Just as I know the man who walks with you. And the aeons you carry within you. They traveled with your father, Braska, ten years ago, as did I. Now please, answer my question."
Yuna allowed herself to relax, just a little. "I travel to visit my grandmother, who lives in a cabin on the other side of the wood."
Now she knew she was not imagining his expression of sorrow. "I know your grandmother as well," said the wolf. "Be careful, my lady. No one in this forest is quite what they seem. Not me, not the woodcutter, and especially not your grandmother."
The wolf speaks wisdom, Valefor whispered, with a shudder of her wings.
The woods are full of mysteries, Ifrit growled, his voice crackling with fiery embers.
And your grandmother is the greatest mystery of all, Shiva murmured, and Yuna shivered with more than the chill.
"Thank you for the advice," Yuna said.
"I will not be far behind," said the wolf. "Call me, and I will come." He melted into the shadow of the trees, leaving a trail of pyreflies behind.
The silence grew deeper as Yuna walked on, and the sun dimmed almost to dusk behind the canopy of trees. She was considering calling a light spell when she reached a fork in the road, and she stopped so suddenly that the woodsman almost bumped into her back.
"I did not expect this path to diverge," she said. "None of the other travelers said anything of it."
"The road splits here only when the Great Wolf returns to the forest," said the woodcutter. "The path to the left leads to the Great Wolf's den. The path to the right leads out of the forest."
Yuna peered down the leftward path. It wound down a dark hill, and the way was nearly choked with pyreflies. The rightward path lead upward, and she could see sunlight dappling the ground in the distance. "Clearly, then, I should go to the right."
"Perhaps," the woodcutter replied. "But perhaps you would like to better understand what happened to your father."
Yuna looked to the right, then the left, then the right again. "My grandmother is waiting," she said, shaking her head. "She will worry, if I dawdle much longer."
"Very well." The woodcutter hefted his axe to his shoulder. "I will wait here, in case you need me. Call me, and I will come."
"Thank you for the company," Yuna said, though privately she thought he had not been much company at all. "I will call for you if I need you." She bowed to him respectfully, and she turned right, up the bright path and into the light.
The woods grew warmer as she passed her way through them, and finally it grew warm enough that she could let her hood fall back from her face, feel the breeze on her cheek once again. Not long after that, she stepped out from the shade of the trees and into the late morning sun. "Oh my," she said, shading her eyes as she looked into the sky. "It's not even noon yet. It seems so much later."
Time passes more slowly in the woods, Valefor whispered.
Travelers who aren't careful loose track of time, Ifrit growled.
And then the Great Wolf finds them, Shiva murmured.
Yuna continued on her way, toward the thin stream of smoke that rose up from behind a small hill in the distance. "That must be Grandmother's house," she said. "I do hope I'm not too late." She laid a hand on the top of the basket; still warm, thanks to Lulu's magic. Around the base of the hill, she found a ramshackle cottage, nestled into the hillside and painted a cheery shade of silver and blue. But it was odd, too, because it was surrounded by pyreflies. Swarms of them gathered around the windows, around the doorframe, up and over the roof. Even the smoke from the chimney glittered with their otherworldly colors. Yuna paused, then continued ahead, pushing through the fog to knock at the door.
"Come in," said a female voice, low and melodious.
Yuna pushed the door open and blinked in the suddenly-dim light. The cottage was old, a weathered table and chairs sitting in the middle of a single room, and on the other side she could see a woman, and Yuna paused. "Grandmother?" Surely this woman was too young to be her grandmother.
"Yes," the woman replied, rising elegantly to her feet. She was beautiful, tall and slim, with pale hair that fell nearly to hear ankles. "Come closer, so that I may look into your eyes."
Yuna stepped forward, holding the basket in front of her chest as though it were a shield. "Are you really my grandmother?" she asked.
"In a matter of speaking," the woman replied. "I am the first summoner, the one who came before. I was the first to defeat the Great Wolf and drive the wolves from the forest. Like your father, like the others who came before him. Like you, if you have the courage to follow." She took the basket from Yuna's hand and set it aside on the table, then grasped Yuna's chin, pulling it upward to look into her face. "What big eyes you have."
"All the better to see you with," Yuna said, and she opened her eyes, and she saw: the woman's large yellow eyes, her hair twisting into long ribbons that writhed like snakes, her sharp pointed teeth. She saw the ancient cottage, larger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. She saw the other end of the downhill path in the wood, pyreflies pouring forth from its dark maw. "I see you, and I see that you are not my Grandmother at all. You are the Great Wolf, come to destroy us all."
The woman shook her head and sighed, a deep sound, full of sadness. "You do not understand, my little summoner. But you will." She dropped her hand from Yuna's face, and she stepped back, and she began to change -- to grow, to sprout dark fur from her skin and long snaking braids from her head and teeth long and jagged as daggers from her mouth.
Yuna pulled off her red cloak, and as it fluttered to the ground, she pulled her summoner's staff free. "To me, Valefor!" She lifted the staff and tilted it forward, summoning her friend and protector from the clear winds of the sky.
"To me, Ifrit!" She twirled the staff in a slow circle, summoning her friend and protector from the blazing depths of the earth.
"To me, Shiva!" She swept the staff past either side of her skirts, summoning her friend and protector from the pure crystalline snows of the mountains.
"To me, to me!" She whirled the staff over the top of her head, summoning the wolf and the woodsman from the forest.
Her army of protectors assembled behind her and the grandmother -- the first summoner -- the Great Wolf -- backed into the corner, eyes blazing, hissing through her large teeth. "You! Who are you to stop me?"
Yuna turned her staff one last time, banging it heavily against the floor. "I am Yuna," she said, "a summoner, like my father before me. And I tell you to begone!" Gathering her magic to her and into the staff, she slammed the metal point into the floor one more time, sending all her power, and the power of all her allies, rippling through the stones and into the Great Wolf, who shuddered with the force of it, then broke into a thousand pyreflies, vanishing with only the echo of a scream.
"She is gone," Valefor cried, throwing back her head and calling to the heavens.
"Banished, for another ten years," Ifrit roared, clenching his giant hands into clawed fists.
"But if you do not take care, she will return," Shiva cautioned, laying a cool palm on the back of Yuna's neck.
"Unless you leave us behind," the wolf said, stretching out his back. "We will guard the cave and ensure that she does not return."
Yuna looked at her three friends and protectors -- elegant Shiva, Ifrit burning bright, her beautiful beloved Valefor. She reached out and stroked Valefor's soft feathered beak. "I will miss you," she said.
"And they will miss you," the woodcutter said as Valefor leaned into Yuna's touch. "But it is the best way. The only way."
"If you are sure," Yuna said. She threw her arms around Valefor's neck and hugged her tight. "Thank you."
And before she could change her mind, she walked out the cottage, through the door, and back into the wood, returning to her home and the three protectors she had left waiting there, ready to tell them the news that the Great Wolf was finally gone for good.