This story is an old one, and for that I apologize. I know I'm supposed to be doing new and exciting stuff here, but I stumbled on this and I just couldn't help but share. I wrote this in university, when I was (what else) playing in a Dungeons & Dragons game with some friends. A pal of mine, Brandy and I were both involved in this fantastic game and we had created some rather intricate backstories for our characters, so we kind of took off running and made some fun shorts just because. This one I am particularly proud of. So, thatnks Brandy for being an awesome player, and Jason for being an awesome DM and thank you for reading!
The clearing was empty, save for the student and her master. As it should be, thought the old master. He passed his totem to his free hand and reached out peripherally, feeling for Tree Father’s wisdom and the strength to teach.
The girl stood quietly behind and to the side of the wise old man. She was fit to explode with questions, queries and conundrums, fidgeting back and forth with excitement, but she knew better than to speak. He would reveal all, in time. Or so he told her.
Unbeknownst to the girl, the elder’s lips curled up into a smile. He would never in a hundred seasons admit it, but she was the most promising pupil he had ever taught. Curious, adaptive, and quick but tempered by burgeoning wisdom, and patience beyond her seasons. She was possessed of a strong soul, bolstered by her connection to The Five. A gift she would need, should she follow the Shaman’s path.
He closed his eyes, and opened himself up to the spirit world. The girl felt a brush of wind pass by and, curiously, through her. He reopened them, and they shone with the light of history. He could see and sense everything around him in the old light, the old way. It was a feeling he never tired of, and hoped he never would.
There in the middle of the clearing was Little Mouse, watching curiously. Above soared Great Hunter, and aspect of the Primal Beast seeking, searching across the world for prey. He could even feel Grandfather Spirit watching the wise man with disdain, groaning through the trees.
She could no longer hold it in, she’d been standing silently for a full five minutes now listening to the trees creak and groan in the wind, toying with the bear pendant she always wore. She opened her mouth to speak.
“You have been taught to comfort,” The old shaman interjected before she could make a sound. “You have been told of the world beyond the Physical. You have found inside of you nature’s call. You will serve the Great Spirits, little one.”
She looked at him with surprise. She had been anticipating another lecture on the useful properties of various herbs and fungi, not a statement of destiny.
“I...” she stammered, confused.
“To serve the Great Spirits, you must be able to ask the lesser serve you.” He continued, seemingly disinterested in her input on the matter. He passed his hand over her eyes and she stumbled backwards, away from the man fitting her for a fate.
She gasped. His hand removed revealed the spirits around her. She continued to stumble backwards, collapsing to the ground as her head spun around, seeing the shimmering forms of the spirits all around her for the first time. There were so many. Little Mouse stared at her confusedly from the centre of the clearing. She looked to the trees, and saw Bark Eater gaze lazily at her plight. Her hands on the ground felt the World Serpent constrict for the first time, the tremors of a power more ancient than imaginable.
He turned, and looked down upon the little girl. The terrified child shuffled back along the ground, overwhelmed by knowledge and sense and wild understanding threatening to drive her mad.
For a moment, the man pitied the little girl. She had to her name less seasons than good wine. But the feeling passed. She will endure much worse before her agency with the Spirits comes to an end, he knew.
She struggled with her mind, trying to close the images and sensations out, trying to return to normal, to balance. She pressed her hands against her head, fighting to keep herself inside.
He watched her fight for focus, huddled against the trunk of a massive tree.
“Get up!” He spoke firmly, his voice rising.
She is lost in a raging sea of sensation. She feels like Always Falling, can’t find her footing in a world beyond perception. She whimpers ash she spins impossibly past the forests and through the mountains.
The teacher bends over his pupil, displeasure marked across his face. Be it from her noncompliance or his self-loathing at having to push her so hard is indiscernable. He brushes hair gently from her face. The action could almost be mistaken for loving, until her body spasms, wracked with mental agony. His face hardens, and he closes his hand around the tiny bear figure on her necklace.
He tears it from her neck as she screams, a sound filled with the impossibility of eternity trapped in a young girl. The spirits of the forest surround these two pilgrims now, watching with great interest. The master looks at them disdainfully, and resumes his work.
He pushes the tiny figure into her hand, closing it tightly around the wood.
“Feel.” He says it firmly. Holding her hand closed, “Feel, and focus little swimmer. Let Always Falling bring you home.”
She can’t breathe. There’s water, but it’s air, and she’s falling, to the right, passing by Great Watcher who refuses to help though she screams and begs in the darkness.
Every way is down and it hurts and she wants to die and she screams but no-one hears they just watch and wait and she can feel the ancientness before gods and primordials, and death was life and they will not help her she is just another scared little girl and the Spirits can’t help.
The water rushes past her ears a tide everflowing back and forth like blood back and forth and back again and she still can’t breathe but she screams and closes her eyes but they still watch they won’t go away but they won’t help.
Get up but she can’t but get up but still she’s falling and she can hear him but can’t respond and she fights the changing current but it hurts oh Spirits it hurts and it’s up now.
She starts to drown, the water is in her nose and in her soul and it burns. Consciousness slips away like a cold that digs into your bones in winter and she’s happy, finally, the cold, she’s happy.
Claws and fur and sinew envelop her hand with warmth and power and it stings like a hundred needles it’s pain the pain of life it’s trying to bring back her back to life and it hurts it’s the Bear the great bear and it pulls her inside in its warm embrace there is heat and safety and stability and pain.
A painful future.
The great bear roars and all the spirits cower and they fear it and should have helped the girl but they didn’t they are cowed by his bravery and she is alive and afloat and Always Falling brings her home and she is safe.
The old man holds her limp body in his arms and rocks back and forth. The light of the world has left her eyes.
The Spirits had been too eager, and too greedy. They had asked too much of one so young. He had asked too much.
Bark Eater moves down the tree towards the girl’s body, but the man jerks her frail little form away from the spirit’s touch. He scowls at the lesser spirit as he whispers, “Your price is too high.”
His voice rises, its power filling the forest with an echoing boom.
“Your price is too high!” he screams at all of nature, his rage echoing through the trees so strongly even Grandfather Spirit remains quiet, and unreproachful. Only Little Mouse continues to stare, cocking his head curiously in the centre of the clearing as the other spirits look away, ashamed.
The man looks down at the husk of a girl in his arms, sadness welling in his eyes, blurring his vision so much that he was not even sure it happened, at first.
The little thing trembled. He didn’t dare to breathe, his hope was so fragile a tender breeze could shatter it. Then, the little thing coughed. It was quiet, and it was weak. He stared in disbelief.
An eternity passed. He waited.
She coughed again, violently. And again, and again her body was wracked with wretching spasms, her lungs emptying of water, spewing everywhere. The tiny little girl rolled from his arms and groaned with half consciousness.
A smile creeps across the incredulous old man’s face. She is alive, impossibly. He puts his hand on her tiny shoulder, engulfing it.
“I... I’m so...” He begins to say, but the air is beaten from him as he is hurled violently into the air by a humungous spectral arm.
From the arm, grows a torso, and legs, and an opposing arm, and finally a head shimmers into existence. A great bear shines, and stands over the broken body of the barely conscious girl. It bellows with the rage of a mother protecting her cubs, a rage that echoes back and forth through time, lending strength to the spirit now, and forever.
The teacher hits the ground with a sickening crunch. His old, incredibly old bones snap and crunch on impact. He shrieks with agony, which only elicits another roar from the ancient protector.
He turns himself over on the ground, gingerly. His arm lies twisted impossibly beneath his body, his ribs hanging inside him as he opens his one working eye. His vision, blurred now by pain as well as fear, reveals to him the most terrifying sight of his long life.
A great bear spirit defending the body of his little pupil, has decided he is a threat. He could not, in all honesty, disagree with the creature. This offered him little solace as he passed out, the giant spectral beast moving towards him with its jaws opening and closing methodically.
The spirit Little Mouse stood next to the body of the teacher, and watched curiously.
She was back in the world and conscious and alive but everything was wrong. She lay at the base of the tree she’d crawled to in her vision but she can’t move she’s tired so tired. She can’t speak she she can only groan so she does. So exhausted. Too exhausted sleep just sleep must sleep.
It wants to kill him Quill wants to kill him to protect her its name is Quill but it can’t kill him Don’t kill him! She shouts but it’s only a quiet desperate groan. So tired.
She is forced to watch as Quill the bear spirit moves toward her mentor with predatory malice.
He should not have been there. No-one is to observe the ceremonies of the Shamen. The ancient rites and lessons were for the chosen, and no other. Especially not curious, nosy young boys.
So, of course, there he was.
He hid in the bushes by the edge of the clearing, peeking through a gap in the blueberries. He was very good at hiding, this little boy, but when the old man’s eyes had shone with the light of the Spirits he was sure he would be found. He got up to run, the little boy did, but something whispered in him to wait, and he did. The old man looked around for a long time, and the boy was sure he would be discovered, but somehow he was not. He had breathed a sigh of relief when the old Shaman finally turned away.
The sigh soon turned to a gasp as he watched the little girl stumble and heard her scream as she fought against forces he could not see. He rose immediately to help her, to save her somehow, but again a whisper in his mind told him to wait.
And he did. His body ached to move to her and help but still he sat. Waiting, watching.
He watched as she died.
A scream of disbelief and anger escaped his lips but it was no louder than the brush of leaves. He rose slowly, angry and incredulous at the Shaman for leading the little girl to this horrid fate (he had no inkling to the fate she would one day have), and he was pushing his way through the thick brambles when the beast attacked.
The boy froze. He was a simple young boy, no different from any of so few seasons. Curious, compassionate, reckless, just a little bit stupid, and at this very moment, watching the impossible creature (He had never seen a spirit, this boy) knock the old man to the centre of the clearing, he was a very very scared little boy.
He wanted to run. Everything in him begged him to run, run far away home, and never tell anyone where he’d gone or what he’d seen. He was, after all, not supposed to be here anyway. No-one would have suspected him.
“Go to him.” The whisper was in his head. “Stand strong this once, little boy.” It rustled through his bones like a wind through the trees.
He was scared and small and the beast was huge and powerful, but the whisper was compelling. It had not let him down yet.
The little boy closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see the monster. Instead, he could hear it all the clearer. But the whisper ran back and forth through his head like blood in his ears, emboldening him.
He stepped out of the thicket, cutting his legs on the sharp branches, and strode, eyes closed, to stand betwixt beast and body.
With each step he could hear the growing growl and the fierce snarl and the sickening snap of jaws, but the whisper persisted.
“Be brave be brave be brave be brave” his mind echoed until he found himself repeating it, a mantra to protect himself from the bear, somehow.
Finally, he could take it no more. Standing in the centre of the clearing he opened his eyes.
Great jaws opened before him, sharp teeth glistening with spectral saliva rocked before his face as a great roar forced the birds from the trees. His hair blew back on his head, and his ears rang with the volume of the beast’s howl, and a part of him wondered what it was.
For the rest of his life, the boy would wonder was it bravery, or fear that rooted him to his spot. Was it power or pity that caused the ancient beast to regard him for what felt like a hundred long seasons before turning away with a frustrated growl to lumber past the little girl into the forest.
Somehow, the boy knew it had not gone far.
He stood in the clearing, watching, waiting. When he finally did move, it was to the small girl’s side. He knelt next to her, scared for her life.
She looked up at him with half closed eyes, struggling through exhaustion to speak. He hefted her as best he could, dragging her little body really, and brought her to the old man’s side. She sat there and silently, exhaustedly. She did as she was taught. The boy rose.
“Don’t go far. There isn’t another teacher to help you...” He smiled weakly at her, a wry thing to accompany the jab he should not know. “Little swimmer.”
She smiled back, barely, as he ran through the woods to summon help.
“Nor... a cage to hold you...” She looked from the disappearing back of the boy, to the place he had stood in the clearing facing down destiny with naught but a whisper and a prayer. “Little mouse.”
The small spirit still stood in the centre of the clearing, where it had stood by the boy, where it now watched the girl curiously. She smiled at it, and it cocked its head at her, before running off through the trees after the boy.