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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Dan circled around the periphery of the group that had sprung up about Sandy. They were discussing her outfit for the evening–specifically the large, blue stone danging from a silver chain encircling her neck.

“It’s just so unique!” An onlooker said, ogling the jewel. “Is it a blue diamond?”

“It’s not just about uniqueness, but also value and perception,” Sandy said airily. “The price of diamonds has been kept artificially high for almost a century by the great southern African cartels. That, combined with a PR campaign worthy of any great commodity, has served to make them the Wal-Mart of gemstones: commercialized, callous, overpriced, even ruinous to some.”

The questioner, who sparked with several diamonds of her own, faded into the crowd. Dan tried to line himself up for a good, casual snapshot as Sandy moved under a good light source.

“This is benitoite, one of the rarest gemstones in the world,” Sandy said. “It’s only found in one place, and most of it is used for research. Only a tiny amount is gemstone quality; few are cut, and fewer still sold.”

She was lined up perfectly; what’s more, the stone glowed with an almost unholy light. Its blue overpowered the red tones in Sandy’s skin, giving her an elegant, icy quality through the viewfinder.

“This may just be the only gem-quality benitoite being worn anywhere right now,” Sandy said. “That’s what attracted me.” Dan’s camera snapped as she spoke, fixing the moment in amber. He should have been thinking about his editor, or the freelancer contacts he still had from the old days, and how much the snap could sell for.

Instead, he was entranced by the stone and its wearer, such that he all but joined the crowd of hollow worshippers thronging around her.