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She belonged in the forest, away from people. People were dangerous, alone, in large numbers, the sample size didn’t really matter. Intentionally or not, they could cause mad problems down the line, and she already made enough trouble for one, if not two. The forest understood. It filled the silence for her, and she appreciated the company.

But it didn’t understand everything. Or maybe it couldn’t understand her; she’d been gone too long.

Leaves whispered in her ear, small voices trembling as they gossiped. Grass pulled at her boots and wiggled between her fingers. A cold gust made them shiver. They didn’t want her to go, not now. She would though, against her better judgement.

The rustle of bushes demanded her attention as a spiral-horn deer leapt into the small clearing. The deep woods still clung to its back in houndstooth shadows, gently pulling it towards the underbrush. It was a risk, showing itself like that. The spiralhorn tossed its head.

A storm was coming.

“I know,” she answered.

They looked at one another, leaves above them giggling in delight as another breath of wind rushed through the forest. She blinked and the spiralhorn snorted. It trotted away, shrubs swallowing the beast with satisfied murmurs. A current of air chased after it.

She would have followed, a chase over rocks and streams, her antlers cutting through the gloom. But that was before. A different hunt called her now.

The grass still desperately holding on snapped as she stood up. She stared into the maze of trees, listening. Another gust rolled by, licking at the edge of her mask and tickling her skin. It didn’t carry the sound she was expecting, but knew what she was waiting to hear. It gave her cloak a playful tug before slipping away.

Then the wind died.

The leaves fell silent and the grass stopped quivering. A quiet fear ran through the forest, leaping from shadow to shadow. She held her breath. Nothing moved.

She leaned forward, ears straining against the silence, heart jumping into her throat. A blush settled on her cheeks - she probably looked ridiculous standing there with her ears to the wind, anxious as the first time she left home to hunt moonbeams. She smiled against it, feeling the warmth as it blossomed. A rumble pulled her attention back to the trees.

It hadn’t come from the clouds.

The first wave slammed into her ears hard enough to shatter stone; the forest was screaming its excitement, boughs twisting to share words with one another. She was already running when the second wave hit.

Everything smeared together as she followed the ripples to their source. Branches whipped past in a blur, barely scraping the tips of her antlers. A river flashed beneath her feet, its gurgling voice melting into the whistling wind. Cold, grey sunlight winked behind the interwoven canopy. A tangle of vines caught her, their question cracking like a whip as she broke free.

Where are you going?

She thought she knew, but what had been explanations became excuses. The truth waited just beyond her reach, and she was happy it stayed there. Out of sight, out of mind. But time twisted onward. She couldn’t deny its presence forever. Bit by bit, it crept into her thoughts, curling in her head and taking root, little hopes unfurling. There was no tearing it out now. The path was clear, and it frightened her, a little, but she chose to follow this trail.

Where was she going? Away. Away from the dappled glades and misty mornings. Up crooked trunks, through gnarled branches wrapped in grey-green moss. She’d made up her mind to climb even through thorns, however sharp their sting, because she knew at the end was something bright and new.

She lifted her head above the trees and swayed with them as cool winds rolled by. Some would break under the storm. She could gather their limbs when it passed.

Her eyes narrowed. The trail was lost in chaotic swirls of shivering leaves. She dipped back into the canopy with eyes shut and listened. Word of the storm was predominant from root to leaf. The rain would be nice, if a little chilly, but it wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Memories of lightning reached out with jagged fingers. She brushed them aside. She had almost turned away from the forest’s screaming when a confused twitter caught her ear.

Someone alone, someone strange, walking through the woods.

“Where!?” she shouted over the din.

A flitterflash landed on her shoulder, silver patterns gleaming across its round body even in the shade. Tiny wings buzzing, it hopped onto an antler and twisted its small head down to meet her eyes.

Past the cherry thicket and beside a grove of pines.

“Thank you.”

A flick of its tail and the bird was off. Smart move. There wasn’t much meat on it, but she could do with a snack. Maybe it knew. Still, she’d learned of a new path that set her squarely back on track. She could even pick up some cherries on the way; two birds, one stone. The beginnings of a smile tugged at her mouth.

The thicket wasn’t far, no more than a leap and a bound, though a taut vine carried her most of the way. Cherries, still verdant as their stems, waited for the first touch of rain. She ran a hand along a branch as her fingers tapped out a subtle charm, coaxing the fruit into showing their true colors. Green gave way to a red, a brilliant luster forming on their skin as they ripened. She plucked enough for herself and then some more, tucking them into a small pouch until its walls were fit to burst.

Balancing a cherry between her teeth, she eased herself around slender trunks and into the open. A long and narrow glade stretched in opposite directions creating a meandering path through the woods carpeted by delicate grass. Grass that should still bear signs of a recent visitor. Her mouth snapped shut on the fruit, dividing it neatly. One half landed in an open palm, the other slipped across her tongue. She chewed thoughtfully as sweet juice blanketed her irritation.

Tearing its stem off, she popped what was left of the cherry into her mouth, spitting out the pit before bending down to press her palms against the ground. Soft shoots and pale roots eagerly curled towards her fingers.

“Someone came through here. Where did they go?” she asked.

Another wave rolled through the glade. Whispers followed in its wake as it fled deeper into the forest.

This way.

She jumped to her feet and sprinted after the shimmer of swaying grass.