You find it first because the forest all around it is dead.
Of course, most of the forest is dead anyway right now—it’s fall and you’re the only one out, a flash of red and orange through the red and orange trees—but not like this. This is rot. Destruction, not natural death.
You pick your way through the mess of snapped branches and crushed plants, the rotted handprints on leaning tree trunks and heavy footprints like the cloven hooves of a goat but much, much bigger. The intruder didn’t take much care to cover their trail.
And it all leads to a crooked heap of rocks by the stream, smeared with something thick and wet and deep purple.
You slow down as you get closer. You’re very fast, almost as fast as the other spirits even with your useless wings, but there are things that are much much faster. Getting near this, whatever it is, is probably a terrible idea.
You duck your head, and crouch at the entrance to the cave.
There’s a dark shape huddled inside; you can see the dark, smooth curve of a back, skin a deep greyish color in the darkness. A pair of horns, a long, flattened ear and what looks like hundreds of criss-crossing bleeding wounds.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t move when you block the light from the entrance. It doesn’t breathe. Maybe it staggered here to die—maybe it’s already dead…
“Hello?” You try.
LEAVE ME ALONE
The voice almost knocks you flat on your back. It’s not something you hear—it’s a thought, shoved gracelessly into your mind at skull-shattering volume.
“You’re alive, then, huh?” You say, dazed.
I SAID LEAVE
“No.” You scoot a little close—your head hurts and your ears are ringing—just being near it is making the leaves that grow across your scalp and onto your cheeks and ears wilt a little. “What happened to you? Are you okay?”
There’s silence for a second, and then the being in the cave finally shifts and rolls itself painfully around to glare out at you.
It has a face almost like yours, but stretched and flattened, as goatlike as its bent, cloven feet. Its eyes are baleful gold-orange and bacchanalian violet, and there are three deep, bloody and inflamed gashes across its face like the clawmarks of some great, wild beast. One of its wrists and one of its legs are strange and crooked. There’s blood on its face and hands and back—you’re not surprised it’s miserable, or hiding from prying eyes.
That doesn’t mean that you want it killing off your part of the forest, though.
WHAT ARE YOU
Its voice is quieter, still painful but not nearly as bad as before. Its mouth is a mass of jagged fangs—it cocks its head to one side and looks at you with those big purple and gold eyes. Its pupils are sideways, flat like a goat’s.
“I’m a nature spirit,” you say, and flex your wings in demonstration—its eyes follow the tattered webs and then flick back to your face. “You’re rotting my forest.”
It blinks at you slowly.
“…usually you apologize when you do something like that,” you snap at it. It blinks again, sharper this time, and its ears flatten a little further.
“Yes, apologize! Say you’re sorry for, y’know, destroying a bunch of my trees and rotting the undergrowth!”
I DON’T KNOW
HOW TO DO THAT
Alright. Okay. Well, there’s no point yelling at it for something it doesn’t know how to do. You’re not going to scream at it. You are not going to scream at it.
“…you’re hurt, right?”
It looks away from you—curls up a little tighter around its swollen arm. You can feel that, like the sensation that’s given off by a snapped tree-branch; wrongness, disconnect. Your fingers itch to fix it.
“…is there anything I can get you to help?”
You whap it on the back of the head.
“I don’t know what you are,” you tell it, and it hisses between its teeth and stares at you like it can’t believe you just hit it. “—but we don’t eat souls here. That’s dark magic stuff and. If you want to do dark magic, do it outside of my forest.”
I CAN’T LEAVE
CAN’T DEPART THIS FORSAKEN PLACE
It huffs air through those sharp teeth, but this time it sounds less like a snarl and more like a sigh.
FOR A THING SO BITE-SIZED
BRING ME FLESH
AND FOOD OF MY CLOVEN BRETHREN
YOU KNOW WHAT A GOAT EATS, BROTHER
“Yeah, I do,” you say, because you’ve had goats loose in your part of the forest before. “Basically everything, that’s what goats eat.”
THE PLANT THE SACRIFICES CALL HONEYSUCKLE
NETTLES AND MUSTARD AND MULBERRIES
NIGHTSHADE, BROTHER, AND FLESH
BRING ME THESE
“Fine, fine.” You ruffle your leaves—they’re definitely crisper than they should be. You hate having that bright dying-harvest-season color on your head and your wings like a splash of blood, but you don’t want to lose all your leaves either. But before you go… “…here, give me your arm.”
It recoils and snarls at you. You roll your eyes at it.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” you snap at it. “It hurts every time you move it, right? I just want to set the bone. Haven’t you ever seen a bone-setting before?”
It blinks at you some more. It seem to be having trouble with the idea that you want to help it. Its eyes are already strangely wide, but you think they’re widening in confusion.
“Give it here,” you demand, and even though it has to be a lesser god of some sort and you have absolutely no right to be ordering it around, it pins its ears back and painfully lifts its arm to offer it to you. Moving it makes it whimper. You feel…okay, you feel kind of bad about that. “…good,” you tell it, feeling stupid, and are surprised when it relaxes a little at that, and shifts over so you can reach its arm more easily. “That’s…good. Now, this might hurt a little bit, but it’ll be better when it’s done, okay?”
You said it wasn’t going to hurt
Its voice is quieter than it’s ever been, almost…scared. You sigh a little bit and press your fingertips as gently as you can over the swelling on its arm, feeling out the break. It’s snapped in three places, and the bone is truly wrecked, what did it do to itself?
“I’m not going to hurt you any more than I absolutely have to,” you clarify. “…and I’m going to make it better.”
Even with the warning, it howls and starts to jerk away when you have to straighten its crooked forearm. There’s sickness in its bones; you chase that out at least, and then pick up a branch off the ground as it whines and press it as gently as you can against its broken arm. The dead twigs tremble and twist and then twine out like vines, wrapping its arm up to the fingers and back to the elbow with solid but flexible wood.
Its mouth isn’t made for words, but you can hear it howling in your head and it’s making horrible noises to your ears as well, this torn, hissing, spitting snarl like the worst noises of meat and plant eaters combined. You make sure the wooden brace around its arm isn’t too tight, and then let go—it pulls it back to its chest immediately and glares at you through those strange, wild eyes.
IF I HAD THE INCLINATION
I WOULD SLAUGHTER YOU FOR THAT TRICK
YOU WING-BROKEN FREAK
You flinch at that. “—yeah, but you can’t move,” you remind it, and as it tries to lunge for you strong roots snap out of the side of the cave and lash tight around its good wrist. “—you tell me your other arm doesn’t feel better now. Look me in the eyes and tell me!”
It slumps back, panting and snarling. Hesitates a second. It doesn’t meet your eyes.
“That’s what I thought,” you tell it, and god knows why you’re trying to figure out the best places to find mulberry and blackberry and hemlock, but you stand up and rub the back of your neck absently. The roots of your wings are a hard, familiar ridge under your fingers. “…You just stay there. Are you thirsty?”
A long, long pause. By green growth, this thing sulks like a new spirit. How old is it?
“Are you thirsty?”
You lean down and coax the roots to shift a little; even the ones that were so recently connected to a living tree still have enough life left in them to churn the ground, and the water from the stream forms a shallow loop around the cave, where it can easily reach out and take a handful of water if it needs to.
“Now you say ‘thank you’,” you remind it.
Another long, sulky pause.
Well, that’s going to have to do. You turn your face to the scent of meat and nettles and mustard and berries, and start walking.