The wind that takes your last breath.
The blur you see before your eyes close for the last time.
The caretaker of Nature’s delicate balance, the whisperer in the ear of all great mortals who thought themselves divine, the death knell of all that ever lived:
The Keeper of the Grove.
Weiss had heard all of the stories, seen the art, the plays inspired by her--it was impossible not to, seeing as the twin peaks of the Viridian Valley always loomed over the horizon. Candela may have prided itself as the realm’s capital of Science, Technology, and Reason, but it would seem that even the most faithless and coldly logical people of Avalon could not resist the allure of a good yarn.
She had always thought the Keeper moronic, the stuff of fireside tales told to gullible children, fiction invented by hunters and adventurers returning to town with no game and wounded egos.
Now, with her cadre of elite bodyguards all lying on the ground unconscious, holding bleeding gashes, or nursing slashed wrists; their weapons sliced apart or rendered useless; and her back to a copse of trees perfectly shaped for cornering prey, Weiss realized that the Keeper was real.
All too real.
With nothing else to do except await her inevitable execution, Weiss decided to get a good look at her.
She was smaller than she expected.
The stories always depicted her as looming several times larger than that of a fully-grown man, the shadow she cast stretching far past the fools and fortune seekers who dared trespass her land, a wicked figure with long, gnarled limbs, perfect for bounding after prey and catching them just before they broke out of the trees and to safety.
But the figure in front of her? She looked more like a little girl, barely older than 10, if she went by human standards.
And she did not look nearly as terrifying. The artists and tapestry weavers always made sure to pay special, loving attention to the Keeper’s visage, a hideous creature, like the bastard child of a rat, a deer, and a wolf; she had jaws perpetually slavering, fangs dripping with fresh blood and the remains of her latest victim, and yet more viscera proudly hanging from her twisted horns if they were feeling particularly gruesome. And if there was one thing they always made sure to keep, however simplified and caricatured the image, it was her eyes:
Glowing red orbs that pierced into your own, into your soul.
Weiss could see nothing even remotely suggesting something as vicious, even if the hood pulled over her face and the angle of the moonlight hid her features.
The one thing that they did get right was her scythe: a massive, ancient branch, gnarled and twisted, yet also meticulously sanded and shaped, stretching far above the Keeper’s head, with a wicked curved blade that glinted in the moonlight, looking not unlike a serial killer about to enjoy killing you for a long, long time.
Weiss wasn’t looking forward to knowing how exactly it felt like to get killed by it--if the stories were anything to go by, it only hurt if you were hit by a glancing blow or the Keeper intentionally missed.
That it felt like “having a piece of your soul ripped apart, little by little” was not a comforting thought, however.
The Keeper raised her weapon up into the air, the blade catching the light of the moon, glowing so brightly Weiss had to shield her eyes.
In that moment, she prayed to whatever deities were listening, hoping that they would find some way to tell Winter how much she loved her, how thankful she was for everything she’s done, and also that their father was an asshole and she would never, ever love him, even in death.
Weiss waited for the whoosh through the air, the brief pain of cold steel on warm flesh, whatever waited for her in the Aether, if it really did exist.
“Hi!” she heard a young, chipper voice say. “I realize this is going to sound really weird and make you super suspicious, since I just creamed your guards and all, but: could you open your eyes? It feels really weird talking to you while you’ve got them squeezed shut like that.”
Weiss reluctantly obeyed. The scythe was no longer raised up in the air; instead, it was planted firmly on the ground, blunt-end first. The Keeper was still looming in front of her, but her hood was down. She looked as young as she sounded, and infinitely more harmless and friendly than even the most sympathetic depictions Weiss had seen.
“Thanks~” the Keeper said, the deer ears sprouting from her almost-completely human head twitching happily. “Look, I understand that you humans are always looking for more resources and power to grow even bigger, make more cool stuff, and feed your kids and keep the lights on in your cities on...”
“... But we Fae also REALLY like not being killed, not having our home set on fire or flattened, not having our entire culture and history erased just like that--you know, things you humans don’t like having done to you, too.
“So, if you could just promise you’ll leave, and tell whoever started this expedition to never come back, I won’t have to kill every single one of you.”
The Keeper smiled and held out her free hand.
Fleshy, soft, and with four fingers and a thumb.
Nothing even remotely close to the wicked, razor sharp claws of legend.
And really, just like Weiss’ own hand.
“Deal?” the Keeper asked, still smiling.
Weiss stared at her hand for a long, long time. Her eyes strayed to the guards--gathered around her crashed carriage, unarmed or crippled, looking helplessly at her and the Keeper.
“Some of the best of the best,” her father had told her as they walked in between their two lines, every soldier standing at attention in perfect, precise angles. “Few can stand against their might, and in the unlikely event that they face a foe they can not crush like a bug, know that they are more than ready to lay their lives down to ensure your safety.”
Her father saw them as tools, assets, numbers on a spending report, certainly a bother if they happened to be killed, but not an amount he couldn’t recoup in time, and for sure there was another elite guard waiting to replace them.
Weiss saw them for what they were: men and women who earned their living through bloodshed and violence, some with families, some with lovers, all of them with plenty more fight left in them, if they didn’t throw it away for some stupid cause--or someone else sealed their fate for them.
She was hesitant to shake her hand, partly because of the events that had just transpired, mostly because it was also covered in mud, sap, grass, and fresh blood.
But it was either needing to wash her hands for hours after she got back to civilization, or forfeiting all of their lives for her father’s escapades, and her own foolishness.
“Deal,” Weiss said as she took it.
The Keeper smiled as they shook. “Great!” She pulled her hand back, stuck her fingers into her mouth, and whistled. “Get them out of here, everyone!” she cried.
Weiss and her guards flinched as the nearby bushes and the branches all rustled and shook. Some of them screamed as more humanoid creatures like the Keeper swarmed around the carriage, pushed it back upright from sheer force of numbers before some of them went to work on the engine and the chassis, and the rest loomed intimidatingly over the guards, as if they were daring them to just try and make one final stand, see how well that works out for them.
Mere minutes later, Weiss was back in the carriage, now much less roomy and spacious that she was sharing it with the worst injured of the guards--thankfully still alive, even if their futures as mercenaries dubious if they didn’t get proper medical attention soon. The rest rode on the roof or walked alongside it, making notes to themselves to never accept a job in the Viridian Valley ever again, and to demand vastly increased hazard pay.
In the stories, anyone foolish enough to make a deal with the Keeper of the Grove was only delaying the inevitable and dragging more unfortunate souls down with them when their time came, making an already bad situation worse through their own greed and self-interest.
But then again, those same stories also assumed that the Keeper was fiction, a myth, and probably some vicious pack of wolves than an actual, living, breathing being.
Weiss dearly hoped that wasn’t the only thing they’d gotten wrong.