A Rangers Tale
Part Five
By: Jeff R. Young

"The gods seem angry tonight!" Draven claimed as one deafening crack of thunder echoed around the den. Even as he sat at the edge of the pool of water deep in the cave, he could still hear the eerie howling of the wind followed by the occasional crack of a tree limb breaking. The only element that could not reach the cavern's depth was the constant flashes of lightning, which mattered little to Draven as he was surrounded by the strange glowing mushrooms. The Ranger reached out to his right to affectionately scratch Arun behind the ear. The dire wolf accepted the touch with a loud calming sigh and laid his head between his paws.

"I hope I did the right thing," Draven said aloud. He, of course, knew Arun wouldn't answer, not with words anyway, but it made him feel less lonely to speak out loud. "If those hunters find a way to track us back here, they'll want to kill all of us. And I don't doubt there will be a lot more of them."

With his legs crossed, he leaned forward to gaze into the water and couldn't help but wonder if there was any sort of living creature under the surface. He could imagine fish swimming back and forth, or perhaps a species of crab. Or, he lamented, the water was too shallow to sustain a life of any significant size. Even with the soft glow of the fungi around him, the only thing he could see as he stared at the pool was the gentle ripples created by the droplets of water falling from the stone above.

"Hopefully," Draven said as another crack of thunder shook the ground, "this storm will help erase any tracks that might lead them here."

Tossing a sidelong glance to his companion, he sighed, "Which has me thinking, it might be better if I leave." Arun lifted his head and leveled a gaze at the Ranger, "Oh, don't look at me like that; my being here is more dangerous to you than it is to me."

Draven ran a hand through his hair, "I mean, look at me! I have no shirt, my pants are torn and almost useless, and thanks to your pups, these boots have holes and teeth marks all over them! I give it till the next full moon before I'm running around as naked as the day I was born!"

Draven fell silent, his attention fixed on the roar of thunder and the violent howls of wind outside the den. He couldn't help but wonder if this was what it was like to witness two wizards fighting to the death in some magic casting dual. Or perhaps the gods were above battling over one domain or another.

"There is also the issue of food, which for me is very problematic," He stated, breaking the moment of silence, "You all hunt down your prey and drag the carcass back here," He tossed a thumb at the pile of bones back behind him, "which is great for the pack. But even though I've been living among you for these few days, I've yet to reach the point where slurping up raw meat and gnawing on bones wouldn't turn my stomach in seven different directions."

"Yes, I am very capable of hunting my own meals," Draven chuckled when Arun glanced his way, "but I've given it a lot of thought, and especially after our encounter with the hunters, I've come to the conclusion that building a fire would not be a wise idea. Even a small fire creates smoke, and any good tracker could follow that smell for kilometers if they happen to be downwind."

Reaching out, Draven plucked one of the smaller glowing mushrooms near to him. Now that he pondered the topic of food, he realized he had not eaten anything for some time. With the storm raging outside, there was nothing he could do at the moment except hope it would end by morning. He knew, mostly by instinct, that the forest would come alive in a magnificent way, as if reborn by the torrent of rain unleashed by the passing storm.

The Ranger was beginning to understand that the empathy he shared with the forest heightened his inborn ability to survive in situations other couldn't. He realized the wisdom of refraining from building a fire and knew there were different ways to find the nourishing protein his body craved. It was a simple task; he would find a rotting fallen tree limb, pluck it off the ground, and scoop up a buffet of grubs, insects, and worms. The idea of stuffing his face with the little creatures was horrifying, but he knew the act of doing so was more than necessary.

Despite the nauseating thought of eating insects swirling in his thoughts, he couldn't help but admit he was hungry enough to do it. With his appetite in mind, Draven turned a curious gaze over the glowing mushroom in his hand. Once again, that sense of knowing he felt when he became in tune with the woodland realm brought up vague indications that mushrooms were not only edible but often cooked alongside various cuts of meat.

"You ever eat one of these?" He asked Arun before giving it a quick sniff. Surprisingly it had no scent or at least one that Draven could detect, so he offered it to his companion, "Here, I know you wolves can smell a beetle's fart from two kilometers downwind, does this smell good or bad?" Not even bothering to take a whiff, Arun simply laid his head back down between his paws.

"Thanks for the help," Draven muttered. He slowly turned the glowing fungus around as he examined it, noticing a few things that may, or may not, be significant. First, he realized that unlike other species of mushrooms that grew in the forest, this species didn't have a slime coat as most of the others did. And second, which he found even more interesting, the whole plant didn't glow with that bluish hue. He instead found as he looked closely that there were hundreds of tiny holes covering the cap, which seemed to be the source of the light.

"Whoa, look at that," he said to himself as he gave the mushroom a squeeze. With the pressure of his fingers pinching down, a glowing blue liquid oozed out of the tiny pores. The glow of the plant highlighted the smile that played across Draven's lips as he pondered all the things he could do with a pasty substance that naturally glowed blue.

He shot a mischievous grin towards Arun, "You know what we should do? We should take a bunch of them and paint one of the pups with glowing blue stripes and send him off into the night, running around the trees like some ghostly creature from the underworlds," Draven laughed, "If I had my pick, it would be that little bean sprout that keeps chewing on my boots!"

Whether or not Arun understood anything Draven was going on about, he made it clear he was not interested as he stood and wandered back into the larger chamber where the rest of the pack was resting. Draven turned and watched as the dire wolf found a comfortable spot next to his life-mate and settled in. The bond those two shared was a trait he admired immensely. They were the true leaders of their large and growing pack. Everything began with them, and every member of the pack followed their lead seemingly without question, and Draven felt a tiny spark of anger grow inside his gut at the thought of these animals being someone's trophy kill.

Turning his attention back to the glowing mushroom, he took a vague note of the thunderstorm still raging outside. One particular rumble vibrated through his body, and he all but laughed as he realized it wasn't the storm that caused the sensation; it was the grumble of an empty stomach.

With the glowing liquid glistening on the mushroom's cap, Draven again sniffed the item and was rewarded with a mixture of fragrances. He detected a sweet and yet earthy scent, along with a faint trace of what smelled like lake water. Despite the idea that he could differentiate the different odors, the combined aroma promised a sweet, delicate treat. So, without further thought, he popped the mushroom into his mouth. His reaction was instant as he spit the mushroom out with such force that it disappeared somewhere towards the back reaches of the cavern. He quickly leaned in and scooped up some water in his cupped hands and swished it around before spitting it back out. He repeated the action several times before finally relaxing.

"By the five!" he cursed, spitting once again in a desperate attempt to relieve his suffering taste-buds. For reasons he didn't understand, he felt a sense of betrayal. That pleasant alluring scent promised an experience he would remember fondly for a lifetime. But with a grunt of disgust, he knew he would never forget, just not so fondly.

"What in the name of all that is holy, was I thinking," He muttered to himself. "I'd rather lick the armpit of a sweaty dwarf than ever try that again!"

He took a few moments to wash out his mouth again before he sat back down comfortably. As much as he hated to do so, he accepted the fact that he would have to deal with the aftertaste. He could only pray it wouldn't last long.

With his legs once again crossed, he resumed his comfortable and relaxing meditation at the edge of the pool. He was starting to feel relaxed, and because of this, he let his thoughts drift from one topic to another, never giving consideration to any specific matter. Draven sat and reveled in the chaotic daydream until, to his dismay, the issue of his leaving the pack dominated his thoughts.

"It's a logical idea, isn't it?" He asked out loud. "My being here, among them, puts them at a greater risk." Draven looked back into the main chamber and felt a wave of sadness wash over him. "Leaving won't be easy, that's for sure," he turned back to the pool of water and leaned forward enough to catch his muted reflection in the blueish water and nearly jumped out of pants at what he saw. His hand shot up to his face, which he poked, pinched, and messaged.

"My face!" he cried, "why is my face all squishy!"

The panic he felt began to subside as the frantic prodding provided proof his skin felt normal, and his head wasn't shifting through the variety of shapes he saw in the reflection. But Draven's curious nature than the fear he felt, so he leaned forward for another look, and by the grace of the gods, he saw nothing more than the mirrored image of his usual self.

Leaning back away from the water, he smiled a little at the absurdity of the moment and figured he was getting overly tired. But as he turned to move into the pack's central area, something odd caught his attention. At first glance, he thought his eyes were not adjusting correctly in the glowing blue light of the mushrooms, but as he strained to focus, he knew then that what he first saw was actually real. The stone walls of the cave were moving, but Draven gasped when he came to the realization that they were not moving; they were breathing.

For a brief moment, the Ranger knew there was some logical explanation to the phenomenon occurring around him, but the answer became lost in a mass of chaotic thoughts and ideas.

"Why are the walls breathing?" he asked out loud, "walls are made of dirt and stone, and I think I'd know if rocks could breathe!" He spun around with a quick motion before his ice blue eyes darted back and forth as if searching for something. "Maybe we got swallowed up by a giant mud turtle." He pondered out loud.

"But that can't be, can it?" His features twisted in confusion, "Mud turtles live in the swamps, and we are not in the swamps," he hesitated for a moment as a crack of thunder echoed around the cave. "Wait…what if it rained so much that the forest became a swamp?"

"No, we are definitely in no turtle," He claimed defiantly. Draven quick-stepped into the main chamber and began pacing around. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the direction of his wanderings, but somehow, he managed to avoid stepping on any paws.

His mind, however, wasn't fairing so gracefully. All his thoughts were twisting together in a chaotic mess as if each idea was a strand of a spider's web, separate yet connected to another. But that didn't stop Draven's musings as he randomly marched around.

"Do forests have swamps? Yes. Deep swamps? No," he changed directions as he continued, "Well, how presumptuous of me to think that the swamps in the forest aren't deep. That's right, I couldn't know, I'm not a fish."

With a pause in his step, he tilted his head in consideration.

"But, the forest has streams, and even lakes, which are filled with water, and that is what makes the fish happy." He beamed with self-pride for a moment before a deep frown wrinkled his forehead, "But, the rain makes puddles, and puddles are filled with water. What does that mean to the fish? Well, that's an easy answer…puddles are just islands for fish!"

Draven continued his random walk in silence for several minutes until an earsplitting snap of thunder startled him.

"Ah, the thunder, the unmatched earthshaking roar of an angry god. But there is always lightning when the thunder booms. So," He paused for a moment in consideration, "If thunder is the war cry of a god, lightning must then be the result of magical attacks."

"But lightning is bad, right? Lightning starts fires, and fires love wood. Trees are made of wood, and the forest is made of trees. Forest, trees, wood, lightning, fire…put it all together, and we might have an awful day!"

Draven began to move around faster, feeling as if a ball of energy was building up inside him. Even in his absent state of random thoughts, he easily stepped over or around the host of dire wolves around him. Though most of them seemed to be soundly asleep, several, including Arun, watched the Ranger move about, often tilting their heads as if listening curiously.

"But fire can be good. Fire cooks the meat when the meat is pink. Pink is bad, not good. Pink means raw and must be cooked." He took a deep breath, but before he continued his thoughts, he came to a sudden halt.

"STOP!" he bellowed as he stood frozen in place. His head slowly turned towards the cave wall to his left and pointed a finger at an exposed rock. "That rock just winked at me! It thought I wouldn't see it, but I did."

As he swept the cavern with a critical eye, his mouth opened as if he was about to speak. But when his eyes locked on the sword he confiscated from the hunter earlier, his mouth snapped shut. He walked over with quick steps, grabbed the handle, and raised it up with the blade poking up into the air. The typical shine of the blade seemed dull in the low light of the den, but the random flashes of lightning made the metal gleam for brief moments.

"Now this," Draven said in awe, "is proof of the fantastic magic of fire. When they get the fire hot enough, big burly dwarves with weird hammers pound the crap out chunks of metal and somehow make all kinds of fancy shiny things."

With sword in hand, he walked back to the room of glowing mushrooms and stood at the edge of the pool. His racing, chaotic thoughts seemed to be slowing, which allowed him to connect some of the fractured musings together. He fought hard to regain control of his scrambled thoughts and was rewarded with two interesting insights. One was the realization that sudden loss of sanity was more than likely caused by the glowing mushroom he attempted to eat, and the other was the realization that his absurd rambling about fire might actually be leading him somewhere.

He fought with all his mental might, but it was not enough, and his mind once again became a whirlwind of thoughts.

"Fire," he said reverently, "is the magic ingredient they use to make pretty and shiny things like swords, shields, and armor. But they can also create little things, like rings for fingers, bracelets for wrists, and," he paused in sincere confusion, "wolves?"

"Wait!" he cried out with excitement, "they make wolves that hide behind leaves…no wait, not leaves, ferns. Yes, that's it, the wolf hides behind the ferns." His eyes suddenly widened as his random musings coalesced into one unified thought. "The wolf doesn't hide behind the ferns; it howls between them. It's not some simple necklace; it's the sacred holy symbol of Nyrarea, the goddess of nature herself!"

His mind snapped back to reality as he understood that he used to wear that symbol proudly as proof of the love and dedication he held for the goddess. He couldn't remember wearing it, but his heart told him he had.

Spurred by the overwhelming exhilaration he felt and the logical idea that he might find the amulet where he first awoke, he spun and darted into the large chamber.

"Arun, get up, I know where to…" Draven's announcement ended the instant his head collided with a rock the hung low from the den's ceiling. The collision was so brutal, the Ranger was out cold before his body hit the ground.

Arun let out a heavy sigh as he watched Draven lay there, then simply rested his head between his paws and drifted off to sleep.

-

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