Her breathing was labored and she was bent over with her back against a fellow woodlad, but Ariya had never felt better. The air tasted like honey and lavender, a spell cast by the rune on her boots that dispersed the deadly smog that billowed out of the Dë trees around her.

Throwing her fishtail braid over her shoulder, she let out a sharp whistle, digging her heels to the ground to draw Mîen into her core then sinking down to her knees to ground herself before she keeled over from the force.

Through her armor, she could feel the mess of dried leaves and mud that was the forest floor. The woody scents coaxed her awareness out of the flesh that bound her new soul.

The essence of life flowed through from the earth to taint the air above her, her body its conduit.

Only the purest fragments of nature crept along her marrow and heart channels to purify the Mîen she had gathered in her core.

It thinned out along her slender limbs to fortify her muscles and bone. Only the nape of her neck where her core rested was left bare and exposed to danger, a small sacrifice for an otherwise indestructible earth body.

Ariya wet her fingers with spittle while muttering a god-blessing then dug her fingers underneath the moss-covered log by her feet. Taking a deep breath, she hefted it’s decaying weight and raised it high.

With her augmented strength, she was able to toss it a metre away.

It hit the ground noiselessly and was almost immediately swallowed up by the sea of bog it had met headfirst.

The thanks of both the forest and the earth loud in her ears, Ariya grinned, glad that the younger her had been wise enough to hide her weapons well.

Her bow and half-empty quiver looked as mighty as she had left them two days ago when the hunt had still been fresh.

After wiping the mud that slicked her fingers against her face, she grabbed the moss that had fallen by her weapon and spread it across her leather armor.

The party chasing after her had better camouflage runes, but all she had was nature.

They were at a disadvantage, pushing her into a corner like this.

Ariya turned to the woodlad, able to hear their spirit’s voice even amidst the buzz of the insects around her.

 Child, they whispered, though she was older by at least a thousand. What is it you seek from us?

When she reached out to the Dë tree, a bloodsucker landed on her arm. She watched the fly with heightened curiosity, it didn’t have a soul—such winglad creatures rarely did—and before she could feel its pinch on her flesh, it had already fallen away and died.

 Pity, the woodlad said, but it didn’t sound the least bit sorry.

Ariya bared her teeth at their bark. “Respect life.”

 Respect us, they corrected. Your request, child?

“Death,” was Ariya’s response.

 Granted, the woodlad agreed and pulsed red.

The glow crawled up Ariya’s arms in the form of little ants, and even with their incessant biting, she stood still.

Their venom sunk into her skin, as searing as lava from the Eshedan hot springs, and when the glow receded they dissolved to form the pattern of a Death-feeder rune on her arm.

 Payment? the woodlad chimed.

Ariya pulled her hand away, ignoring their chuckle in her mind. “My Mîen is enough.”

She flexed her wrist, willing the burning sensation in her skin to vanish despite knowing that the pain would remain until she completed her hunt.

 Your prey for the pain, the woodlad suggested, not able to hide their greed.

Ariya didn’t blame them. She knew how hard it was to ascend, the fact that it had gained sentience so young was impressive. 

They could already channel their hollow through different hosts, so after a few more eons they might be able to take over a human and make them their host, or if they were talented enough, grow a core in their hollow like she had and be reborn as a god-blessed infant.

“No,” she shook her head, not willing to give away her hard work. “They. . . They are mine for the taking.”

She licked her sharpened canines, swung her quiver over her shoulder and sprinted deeper into the forest, her bow in hand.

The party chasing her had eight god-blessed, and their collective Mîen was strong enough to leave a scent through the forest.

A scent she followed now, siphoning the essence of the roots her boots smacked as she leaped over overgrowth to supply her own depleted core, but not enough to taint the aura of decay hanging over the Dë trees.

She spotted the first one, lagging behind the group and touching the hanging leaves of the trees as though they had given permission to be caressed.

Her lips curled in disgust, Ariya held up her bow and nocked an arrow.

She pulled the string and shut one eye, savoring the tension in her fingers and shoulders.

And then she didn’t.

The arrow soared faster than her one-sighted gaze could track it, and if not for the fact that her target’s Mîen had exploded into fine, corporeal dust above their head, she wouldn’t have known that her aim was true.

She walked to the spot the god-blessed had once stood. With their core damaged, the flesh had vaporized.

All that remained was bone and sinew, strengthened from years of cultivation and charred from the outburst of Mîen that had escaped their body.

Licking her lips, she pulled the arrow out of the broken core.

The blue crystal shattered and turned to glitter on the forest floor.

 Blue, for water, Ariya thought curiously, inhaling the refined Mîen and feeling her core purr with delight.

The Earth Mîen from a god-blessed would have gotten her past the bottleneck of her current refining technique but Water Mîen was the next best thing.

[1000 words]

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