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It's a Neighborly Day in This Beautywood

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The Old One, The Sleeping Beast, Seeker of Blood and Devourer of Souls, Haunting Abomination of the Darkened Woods, woke to find his sacred grounds were no longer there.

He twisted in confusion for an immeasurable length of time, digging shadowed tendrils through his dominion to understand what had changed. The ancient oaks no longer stood. The bloodied sacrificial stones had been torn from their positions and scattered to the winds. The great red river had been diverted, and even the air no longer held the creeping stench of disease that once permeated it so thoroughly.

This couldn't be right. Without their places of worship, how did the creatures living here plan to pay tribute? How could they possibly make certain that there was emotion enough to go around, that their passions and torments would be great and enduring enough to please him? Or did they think he no longer watched, simply because he had allowed such trespass to go unchecked for this long?

The Old One curled his form around himself, gathering darkness and rot and twisted growth in preparation. If they have forgotten me, he snarled, the echo of his anger reverberating through space, then I shall have to remind them whose domain it is they live upon—

Wait. A flash of emotion caught his attention, bright-dark despair, thick and heady and rich with the immediacy and the impotent anger of it. Beautiful, fresh… It was not the horror and fear of a living sacrifice; it was something far more drawn-out and unique.

The Old One dispersed his form throughout his domain, touching each being living there with just the barest hint of his presence. Not enough to kill or even to maim, but just enough for him to understand.

Here lived a slow-building apathy, coexisting alongside despair and the fear of loss. Nearby, he found the sudden sparking rage of a creature who knew its own powerlessness and was frightened to acknowledge it. Not far away was a young creature so full of pride and anxiety and a desperate desire to impress that its fear of failure nearly had a mind of its own. The shape of the domiciles was unfamiliar to him, but the souls within them were just as beautiful and twisting and full of bright bursting emotion as any of the creatures that had once lived in this woods.

Perhaps he had misstepped in his original analysis. Clearly there was tribute here, even if it was in a form he was yet unused to.

Whether it was enough, whether it was proper… that, The Old One didn't know. But there was a way to find out.

The Old One set to work.

The process of gaining physical form was the first and easiest step. The Old One couldn't quite manage a perfect imitation of a human, but he could get fairly close: two arms, two legs, a head and a torso made of a chitinous structure (with a ribcage and everything!), between four and ten feet tall. The living wood and twisted metal that wrapped around him was perhaps a bit of a concern—he'd never really cared to practice growing skin before, and so his shape had defaulted to things he knew better—but hopefully that could be overlooked. Humans liked nature and shiny things, to his recollection. Perhaps they'd find it pleasing.

(After a moment's consideration, he replaced the human bone he'd been using with antlers. He'd always liked antlers; deer rarely had good ideas, but growing bone spurs on their heads was more than brilliant enough to make up for their less-considered choices.)

The Old One walked the streets a while. Getting used to this new form took some doing, and the darkness gave him opportunity to practice without being seen. It would hardly do for a god to be seen stumbling, after all.

The roads were no longer dirt and wooden markers. Instead, they'd been covered with a sort of shell made of rock that felt cool to the touch. At each of the domiciles, a piece of the road wound away to touch the entrance like a solidified distributary. He didn't understand the purpose of such offshoots, but other parts of this new land made more sense. He liked the totems that the humans placed to mark their territory; statues made in the shape of common animals, monstrous creatures, and even exotic birds dotted the landscape.

He found one such totem in the shape of a young deer as he walked and almost considered taking it. But no, it would hardly be appropriate for a god to use a mortal's marker as their own. He'd simply have to create one for himself.

The Old One hadn't realized he'd been looking for anything in particular. But, at the end of one smooth-stone road, he found it nonetheless. An overgrown patch of small weeds and disturbed earth, empty of any domicile, its only protective totem a sign stuck sideways into the dirt.

The Old One stepped closer, tilting his head in curiosity. There weren't even any protective runes carved into the signpost—whoever had claimed this space certainly didn't deserve to keep it.

Best of all, he could feel the energy radiating from this spot. One of the old sacrificial stones was buried somewhere deep in the soft ground here. It was stripped of its power without its siblings to focus it, but it still felt right. Its energy was a root of familiarity in this strange new world.

With a casual flick of his wrist, The Old One sent vines tearing through the earth to destroy the empty plot's totem.

This land would be his, now, just as all the land here was his. The idea seemed deeply appropriate; perhaps it would interfere with his rest to mingle here among the mortals, but it would be foolish not to keep a closer watch on them now that they were doing things so differently. The flooding currents of emotion were less intense than the focused sacrifices of old, and yet these wild feelings sprouted far more plentiful than ever. He would need to be quite attentive if he wanted to collect them all in a timely manner.

He was ancient, yes, but that didn't mean he was frozen. Like an oak shedding its leaves for the winter, he could adapt.

The first thing he did was make himself a domicile. It was a simple bit of construction—he just turned his gaze to the building next door and copied it in its entirety. For a moment he worried the humans might notice something was strange, but on closer inspection all of their living spaces seemed to be nearly identical anyway. Perhaps it was a feature of the buildings in this time.

(Killing the duplicated humans was both an unpleasant task and a necessary one. The originals might not notice another version of their house, but they would certainly notice copies of themselves walking around come morning. He slaughtered them gently and buried their bodies in the weeds out back. They would sleep there forever, next to his sacrificial stone. It was the least he could do.)

With the occupants out of the way, his next task was to make the place his own. The pictures of the smiling humans came down, as did the mirrors—who knew what might be invited through those—and the soaps that smelled of what was apparently spring breeze and reminded him of the stench of fish left rotting in the sun.

He noted as he went along that he might need to procure himself a wife and child soon—apparently traveling in packs was more expected than ever. Perhaps he'd ask the stumps of some of the oaks to come join him here; any remnant of the old forest would be more than overjoyed to serve him once more. It would be nice to be among the familiar spirits again.

Each room he passed, he filled with his own touches. Spires of jutting metal sprouted from the appliances. Fresh growths of oak and ivy and thick, peaty moss curled over the floor and walls. Stubs of antler-bone ringed the spots where his own antlers brushed the entirely-too-short ceiling. It was no ancient shrine, but there was something charming about it nonetheless.

He supposed he had the sacrificial stone to thank for that. The lingering will of a thousand dead would give any place a homey touch.

The last thing to decide upon was the totem he would put up. A deer or a gnarled tree would be the obvious choice for a creature such as himself, but… he really did like the exotic birds. With a wave of his metal-spired hand, a row of pink-bodied birds burst their way from the ground. They cut a fierce-looking line across the plentiful weeds; any ill-wisher or upstart spirit would think twice about crossing the threshold of a domicile they guarded.

Satisfied, The Old One retired to the highest point of the building, weaving a curtain of vines around himself for comfort and protection. Humans were not nocturnal creatures. Little else would happen until they began to wake.

For now, he could rest.

The Old One woke to the prickling intrusion of someone stepping over his pink birds. The totems sent up a warning as the unknown assailant passed—beware! Danger!—and he curled his clawed hands into fists.

Already someone was coming to challenge him? Very well. This upstart would learn quickly just how The Old One had taken domain of this land for so long.

The vines around him withered as he stepped free of their confinement. Walking would take time, so he didn't bother with it; he scattered and reformed at the door of his domicile with an idle thought. Carefully, so as not to alert his opponent, he flared his aura and tasted the intruder's being.

Two souls approached. Both human—interesting, he thought, they must be exceptionally powerful or extraordinarily foolish or both—and both radiating emotion like they weren't even attempting to hide it.

One was rich with nerves and anticipation and an odd sort of pride that The Old One couldn't quite recognize. The other was fear, fear, fear all the way through, dark and heavy and delicious, thick and dragging enough to swim in.

Perhaps they'd been forced here, then, sent by another's will. It didn't much matter.

The Old One waited for them to knock down his walls and attack.

Instead, a moment later, a chiming noise like a bell echoed through the room. The Old One looked around in confusion for the source of the sound before realizing it was coming from the door itself. Neither intruder had made any attempt to push through the easily-splintered wood.

They were—waiting. On him. Bemused, The Old One opened the door.

“Hello!” one of the humans said, thrusting an object into his hands. Sweat was beading on her temples as she looked up (and up and up—he really had overdone his height a touch) at him, but the only concession she made to her mounting fear was to take a step backwards. “I—that is, my husband and I—we saw you'd moved to the neighborhood.”

“Overnight,” the apparent husband added darkly. His voice was tight and choked.

“Right. And I know it's a bit early in the morning for lasagna, but I thought we'd bring some over and come say hello. Never too soon to meet your neighbors, right?”

The Old One poked at the package she'd offered him. It was covered in a silver sheet of metal—right, humans and their shiny things, that made sense—but when he peeled back the thin coating there was something warm and smelling of spices underneath.

He could make out a hint of tomatoes, wheat, basil and salt, all mixed together. And, most importantly, he could feel the essence of life still clinging to it. Beast, not human, but the taste of suffering was there within it all the same.

Some animal had died in the making of this dish, and these humans had come to bring it to him.

The Old One could almost have combusted from the warmth creeping into his bones and metal. Only one day here, and already these precious mortals had seen his totems and felt his presence and come to bring him a tribute.

They hadn't forgotten the old ways at all.

I accept this gift, The Old One said, letting the traditional words echo through the air. It was a strange tribute, to be sure, but the thought was undoubtedly there. He would guard these mortals and their kin with all his power in return. I will not forget.

“Oh, good,” the woman said. Her smile was a little stronger now, and the aura of fear had faded slightly. “I was worried you might be—vegetarian or gluten-free or something.” She laughed a little too long. “Half the neighborhood is these days, I swear, I had to bring three different kinds of desserts for my son's class party last week.”

Ah. None of those words made sense to The Old One, but he didn't want to intrude on her story. The cadence of her voice was interesting to listen to.

“Oh, of course!” The woman paused and looked back at her husband. “Where are my manners? I'm Sharon, and this is my husband, Steve.”

I am—The Old One paused. Giving his true name was simple enough, but it was also quite likely to destroy the flesh and flay to pieces the soul of any mortal being who heard it. He hadn't considered the need for an alias. I am… Antlers.

“Antlers,” Husband Steve said flatly.

Yes.

Sharon looked between them both, her mouth curling into a frown. “So… are you, ah, here with anyone, then? Or—perhaps a bachelor?”

“A bachelor—” Steve started, eyes wide.

I have a wife and child, The Old One said quickly. At this point, it seemed as though it would be considered unseemly not to have at least one of each. Strange customs all around, but amusing in their own way. He could play along. They have not arrived yet, however.

Tomorrow night he could go out to the remains of the forest and pick out two agreeable stump-spirits. It would make for a pleasant evening's walk in this new form of his.

“Ah,” she said, “I know how that can be. Moving's always tough on the family.”

The Old One made to voice his agreement. At exactly that moment, however, Husband Steve shot a ball of metal deep into the bark just below The Old One's ribcage by means of some sort of handheld locomotion device.

A loud bang shattered the quiet of the morning as the device fired. Sharon shrieked, “Steve!”, her soul darkening with horror, and threw her hands up.

Steve just watched him, his eyes fixed on the blank gaping holes carved into The Old One's skull-bone. (The Old One's actual senses came from a spot just below, nearer to his ribcage, so their gazes didn't quite match up. He appreciated the effort Steve was putting into matching their line of sight, though.)

For a moment, all was silent. The Old One waited just long enough to ensure nothing further was forthcoming before pushing the ball out from the wood of his torso and letting it drop into his hand. The bark there closed up around itself as soon as the metal was gone from it.

The orb was small and slightly misshapen and not even particularly shiny. It also reeked of Steve's terror and all-encompassing desire to live—the aura of it was as strong as any sacrifice The Old One could remember. It was beautiful, delicious, the best offering he'd seen since waking up in this new time.

The Old One pressed the sphere to the cavern of his skull and sucked the fear from it the way a mortal might drink water. The energy shivered through his bones, sunk into his antlers and his rusted metal and his living wood. It was exquisite.

Thank you for your offerings, he said to Steve and Sharon both. If they were indeed paired the way they seemed to be, it would be quite rude to ignore either one. Your thoughtfulness does you credit.

The Old One looked down at the object that Sharon had given him. Already, the suffering was leaking from it; animal-emotions rarely seemed to last long. If you'll excuse me, he said, I must go partake in this lasagna.

“O-of course,” Sharon said. Both their souls still radiated fear, though he couldn't quite understand why; it should be clear to them both by now that they had pleased him. Perhaps his form was simply going to take some getting used to. “…See you around the neighborhood, then?”

Yes, The Old One decided, I will. I think we will make excellent neighbors, Steve and Sharon.

As he closed his door behind him—making sure the totems recorded their leaving, just to make sure no trickery could be afoot—he couldn't help but spread a shower of quick-growing blossoms across the entryway.

Such generosity. Such respect for the land-spirits. Engaging with these humans might have been his best idea yet.

He wasn't going to hibernate again for a very long time, The Old One realized suddenly. This new world was simply too fascinating to sleep through.

Perhaps he would create a gift for Steve and Sharon, to show his favor. A totem wouldn't be needed, as they already had one… a runic mat for their entryway, then? Or a bonded spirit to guide their steps on dangerous paths? Though a living ivy would likely do them more good than any spirit and be far less troublesome besides. So many things to think about, so many tasks to perform.

Humming tunelessly to himself, The Old One set to work once more.