It came to pass that a great and mysterious spirit of old, the Sarmisethustra, came to the Darkwood. None could look upon it, blinded as they were by its light and darkness and shapes which had no expression for human eyes nor interpretation in human minds.

But it spoke, after a fashion, and the Mayor of Brightspear ventured out to meet it after laying plans for his people’s evacuation and appointing a successor.

Where are the Vle-Ya who long stewarded this wold? asked the Sarmisethustra in a voice that was not a voice. Why do they not respond to my passage?

“They are gone from this world and the ken of mankind,” replied the mayor, “and we of Brightspear have inherited their covenant. None have been seen since my grandfather’s grandfather’s time.”

Then it is too late, and I am bereaved, said the Sarmisethustra. I will depart, then, and seek them elsewhere.

“Tarry a moment,” said the mayor. “The Vle-Ya once sought to teach us of the forest and impart their knowledge. The stories say they interceded on our behalf with nature itself. We would ask the same of you, and grant you boons in return.”

What boon could you offer me? The affairs of your kind are beyond my ken, and to interfere would be to ruin.

“We would honor you as we do the memory of the Vle-Ya,” said the mayor. “And surely one of your power need not cause ruin.”

Ask the anthill how power is felt when applied out of scale. Ask the ant to pay you meaningful homage. It knows what it knows and it is what it is, neither inferior nor superior. Yet laws which govern us and the scales at which we operate are simply too different for meaningful interaction.

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People are always making the mistake of either underestimating or over anthropomorphizing animals. The truth is that they understand much about us, much more than we would suspect, but do so in a profoundly different way.

The animals of Huntgren Wood had long known that man was a dangerous predator, one that used a strange and sometimes invisible throwing claw to kill from a great distance. But generations ago they had also noticed that some humans would stalk and go through the motions of hunting but not take a kill. They would raise a strange appendage to their face–like but unlike the one they used to throw claws–and yet nothing would burst forth, only a quiet click audible only to those extremely close.

Prey animals thought this another inscrutable behavior of a predator, much like the way bears would sometimes climb and claw at beehives despite their lack of any real meat. The predators, in turn, felt it was play-hunting of the sort they had engaged in as youngsters fresh from the den–the humans were no doubt practicing stalking a kill before actually taking it, largely because that’s what the predators themselves would have done.

It fell to the birds who lived on the edge of the wood and fed on the strange and miraculous self-replenishing trees near human caves to uncover the true secret. Their love songs incorporated what they had seen and heard, and the birds of Huntgren sang of humans stalking with the strange square hoofs and then retreating to their caves, only to produce strange miniature forests and animals with which they decorated their caves. A curious coyote confirmed the tale with a terrified squirrel, while a bobcat received a detailed and matching account from a housecat it was half-courting, half-stalking.

Each clade of the forest dwellers reacted to the news differently. The predators felt that the humans were stealing their essence, drawing some kind of nourishment from it, and vowed never to be thus captured. The prey, especially the deer, felt that the process was akin to being gathered into the next life, where their traditions held that they were forever safe from predation. They felt there was no harm in the process–perhaps even some good–though they continued to be skittish as it was often difficult to tell a human’s intent from a safe distance. For their part, the birds and squirrels made a game of it, delighting in moving out of the way before the human could bring its capture-box to bear.

And that’s all it was–yet another inscrutable activity by an inscrutable race–until the oldest and grandest stag in the forest began to feel the twin horns of disease and old age and decided that a human capture-box and eternal life on a cave wall would be the only fitting end to his reign.

Inspired by this image.

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The Vle-Ya were willing to palaver with humans, but found it difficult to do so. The slightest touch of sunshine or snow was unbearable for them, and the tongues of mankind were, to their ears, so slow and stilted that misunderstandings were common. For every human who listened to a Vle-Ya speak of what their long years had taught them–the lay of the land, how to grow and harvest, what the trees and animals wished to say had they the tongues for it–there was another who found them insulting, frightening.

They had been in decline for many years before mankind had arrived; tradition held that the number of Vle-Ya had been set at the dawning of the world, and they did not deign to reproduce–every encounter that ended in bloodshed and every accident in the dark and secret parts of the forest diminished them forever. In time, the leader of the Darkwood Vle-Ya, Ervolos, called for the mayor of Brightspear to parley at forest’s edge at midnight on midsummer.

The exact words between them were taken to Mayor Burrowe’s grave, but he reported that Ervolos had spoken of the dwindling of his people, and that there were no longer enough to discharge their traditional duties as keepers of the forest. He charged the humans with its stewardship and opened the lands to settlement. He and the remaining Vle-Ya departed the next day, never to be seen again. Some say they settled in a smaller forest near Harwickshire, others that they walked into the sea at Durnsmere.

But every family that settled in Darkwood kept their memory alive through the telling of tales, and many a farmer felling trees and clearing the land has worried what might happen should the Vle-Ya return.

“The story teller says that it’s in a place beyond seeking,” Solanine said. “A grove in the deepest forest where the leaves turn and fall year-round.”

“That should be warning enough,” replied Dalonyn. “An overt warning followed by an impossibility. Beyond seeking means it cannot be sought for to do so is folly, while year-round leaffall would bury a tree to its crown. Can’t you see that the storyteller is using this as a metaphor? He seeks to describe a foolhardy chasing of shadows in terms our ancestors understood.”

Solanine folder her arms. “If that were the case, why not simply say so? If it’s in the stories, it must be true.”

“You’ll find that many of the stories are metaphors, lessons for living a good life wrapped up in our ancestors’ tales,” Dalonyn sighed. “Do you honestly believe the tale of Kulynan spearing the moon or Linoni flooding a valley to drive out spirits? It is the same with the Everfall Glen and the miraculous panacea it contains.”

“The storyteller holds them to be true,” replied Solanine, defiantly. “He says nothing of metaphor. When I seek and find it, you’ll see how wrong you’ve been.

Trish’s train of through was broken as movement in the underbrush gave way to a frightened dash across the path. A doe emerged from the lightly wooded ravine, and glanced around. Upon seeing the threatening form of a biped approaching, the doe gingerly stepped back into the forest’s edge.

“How did you manage to get out here?” Trish whispered. The wooded area was a tiny oasis in an urban sprawl, cut off from the nearest state forest by a dozen ribbons of highway.

She waved at it, which seemed silly in retrospect–how is an animal supposed to interpret a gesture like that?–but made perfect sense at the time. The doe bobbed its head; Trish knew better than to interpret the gesture as a response, but couldn’t help herself.

The creature remained there, peering out of the brush, until abruptly melting into the forest once more, without leaving so much as a sign of its passing.