Predators & Prey

Predators & Prey

Bella was startled awake by muffled grunts nearby and the matted splat of something falling into deep mud. She froze, to pass without any trace of being seen or heard.  Her skin assumed the properties of the granite beneath her head, her long dreadlocks resembling tree roots and her body paint taking on the semblance of lichen. For the cover it provided, she had set up camp on a slight rise next to a fallen, weathered old tree that had sunk into the dirt. The ground atop the hill was dry, rough, and uncomfortable, not like the soft mossy peat of the Polder. So, before going to sleep, Bella summoned a drizzle to wet the ground about her camp, hoping the cool night air would allow it to soften the dirt and renew the area some. Tired from a long day of hiking, she had accidentally overcharged the spell and deluged her camp. The rainfall ran down the slope in tiny rivers. It soaked the dried grass, making the incline slippery and pooled at the bottom, turning the foot of the hill into a thick bog. 

Peaking through the branches of her fallen tree, she spotted two figures at the foot of the hill. One appeared to be stuck knee-deep in mud and struggling to get out, while the other lay on his back behind the first, cussing and struggling to get to his feet. She crept to her left, toward the rocks at the foot of the fallen tree, the mud beneath her feet made quiet sucking noises and, as she got a less obscured view down the hill, she spotted another, closer figure. He was barely twenty feet down the hill from her, one hand propped on a rock for support, listening for her. When he turned and shushed his stuck and cursing companions Bella dug her fingers into the mud and whispered under her breath, “Tangle.” 

The man whipped his head around and began clambering toward the sound of her voice, calling out her location to the others. The slippery mud was already tricky terrain and the weeds and vines that grew up through it twisted and wound around his wrists and ankles, slowing his progress as he fought to break free.

Beyond him the one stuck in the bog closest to her looked up and, for a moment their eyes locked. He clambered for his crossbow and aimed at her just as the figure behind him grabbed him by the shoulder to pull himself up. The archer reeled and the bolt went wide, soaring high over her head. “Dammit Carl!” He shouted. The shoulder supporting Carl’s weight shrugged him off and Carl fell backward into the bog with a gunt and another splat. 

From a component pouch on her belt that mother had made for her before her departure, from the hide of a small alligator that had gotten into their livestock and been trampled by one of their deer, Bella pulled a pinch of sand. She focused on the moisture in the mud, ground the sand between her palms and whispered “Evaporate”. A hiss sounded at the bottom of the rise, and Carl and his stuck companion began screaming as a cloud of fog formed around them, obscuring them from her view.

A man entangled

The man closest to her, as he tried to clamber up the incline towards her, became deeply entangled in the weeds and vines that were growing up about him, the harder he tried to escape the harder the vines worked to restrain him. He looked at her with panic in his eyes but when he tried to call out for help a flower on one of the weeds blossomed, filling his mouth with petals and muting him. Behind him, the fog about the two men at the base of the hill cleared, and Bella saw the one named Carl wrench himself from the dry, hardened ground, clumps of dried mud and dirt falling from his trousers. The bandit before him was slumped over and unmoving and something about him caused Carl to scream and bolt off into the woods. 

Bella directed her attention back to the vine-bound man fighting to pull himself free. She grasped a hand full of wet grass at her feet and drew her hand up the length of it, filling her palm with water. Then she held the fist to her lips and blew through it, cooling the moisture in her hand, until it formed into a small frozen dagger. She hurled the dagger at the entangled bandit but it sailed past him and tumbled across the ground and shattered. He looked at her, his eyes filled with panic as the vines around him wrapped tighter.

Bella heard the sound of a footstep sucking out of the mud and turned to see another bandit trying to sneak around behind her, though he had spotted her quite yet. She turned back toward the bottom of the hill and the tangled bandit closest to her lay face down and unmoving among the deepening weeds. There appeared to be something sticking out of his back, but the vines wrapping around it made the object hard to discern. Behind him, the slumped bandit knelt, desperately clutching at something in his chest, blood staining his leather armour and she watched as his hands fell away. With those two no longer a threat, and Carl running noisily off into the forest, she redirected her attention to the man creeping around behind her. 

She rose to her feet and sprinted toward him. In her thoughts, she reached out to Kamella, Goddess Of Animals, and launched herself into the air. 


“Take care how you present yourself in The Vale,” Mamma was nervous, preparing her daughter for her first planar walk, “Kamella is a Goddess and should be treated with the same reverence you would grant the Lord of HiPool,” She paused as if clearing a bad taste from her mouth, “But she is also a hunter, and you will need that same caution you would have around a hungry predator. Stand tall and confident, speak clearly and directly, ” Her voice betrayed her with a subtle shudder, “Most importantly, look her in the eyes and do not show fear.” 

There was an explosion of green and brown spores, and Bella stepped gracefully into a mystical Vale. The air was warm and humid, like summer in the Polder, but the moss between her toes was cool and soft. Glowbugs illuminated the light fog that hung low and wistful over the ground and around the broad tropical-leafed trees, and above her hung a single full moon in a bed of stars not native to home that bathed The Vale in ethereal blue light. Boulders the size of elk, or owlbears were stacked some eight feet high before her. They were eroded by millennia of rain, revealing rich deposits of sapphire, and were heavily laden with lush grass and tropical flowers. A tapestry of vines interwoven with belladonna blossoms hung about this magnificent natural throne and at its center a Black Panther, barely visible in the moonlight, languished lazily. On Bella’s entrance, the panther yawned and stretched before jumping quietly down from her bed to circle the young woman. “My Goddess, I am being hunted and need your assistance!”

The panther circled her with predatory eyes, licking her lips. She moved slowly, stalking the young woman, and Bella heard a playfully feline voice in her head, “Oh child, surely you know all who enter the wild places fall prey to something.”

“Of course, My Goddess, death to balance life,” she declared, quoting the ancient scriptures, “But these are not hunters of food, they are hunters of gold.” Bella impressed, turning about to keep the Panther in her sights, as Mamma had taught her. “They do not hunt to fill their bellies but to fill their pockets!”

“Poachers!” The panther hissed. The statement wasn’t entirely accurate but it also wasn’t wrong, so Bella did not correct her. “If I grant you my power, do you pledge to protect my children?” The great black cat roared her demands. 

“As always, my Goddess!” Bella replied, “Life, death, balance.”

Bella emerged from the cloud of spores as a lithe black panther. The pre-dawn light was more vivid and her nose immediately filled with the stench of blood and sweat. She locked in on her prey and continued her charge, pouncing over the rocks the bandit used as partial cover and raking her claws across his face. He fell back screaming, Panther-Bella pinned him to the ground and bit into his neck with her strong jaws. The man screamed, flailing wildly for his sword, the effort pumping blood into Bella's mouth. Her animal brain locked in on the metallic taste that quickly filled her mouth, and her desire for it became primal. Though her prey was able to draw his weapon, he couldn’t maneuver to land a decent blow, instead slapping the wild cat with the side of the blade and she took a bigger, deeper bite out of his neck again.

When it came to hunting, Kamella’s Panther was a quick and efficient predator, and Bella found that managing or leading the beast was a simple task of pointing out targets. Outside of the hunt, it was more akin to leading the carriage from the tailgate. The exchange with Kamella permitted Bella temporary loan and control of the Goddess form, but Kamella still retained ownership, and the longer the Genasi girl remained in animal form, the more control the beast gained. “You must lead her,” Mamma had instructed her, as Bella prepared to meet Kamella for the first time, “If you allow her to lead you, if you allow the Beast to take control …” She trailed off, but Bella understood. She had been raised on stories of the Boy Rabbit, Miramaris Haren. 

The Rabbit Boy

Miramis had been born with a deformity in his legs that affected his ability to run. He was capable of walking and caring for himself but was unable to keep up with the other children running and playing in the forest. The boy became lonely and despondent at home and openly aggressive with the other children of the village. Feeling for her son, his mother took him to meet the Goddess Kamella, who granted him the form of a hare. For the first time, he was able to run fast and free through the forest. He raced through the long grass and underbrush, jumped over rocks and fallen trees, and even outpaced the other children when they tried to catch him. Miramaris loved his new freedom but it was fleeting, and all too soon Kamella returned him to his former self. The Goddess granted Miramis her form a couple of times a day and for a short time he was grateful but soon that was not enough for him. Too often did he beg the Goddess for her speed, and too often did he overstay, that she soon became annoyed with him.  As was her right, The Goddess began denying his pleas. Angered by this, the boy set snares all about the woods and slaughtered every hare he caught. Miramis told the Goddess he would not stop killing them until she changed him into a hare forever. This so enraged the Goddess that she cursed him with his wish. She changed him into a boy-sized hare and the first of the Harengon species, He retained all of the traits of the hare that he loved so much, but also his human disfigurement, and the inability to enjoy them fully. 

When panther- Bella had enough to eat she paced about the area investigating the other bodies. “Allow the predator to feed,” her mother has also taught, “If you ask the Goddess for a hunter and then deny her just reward, she will not be pleased with you.” She had also learned, the hard way, that if she changed back to her human self too soon after feeding as a beast, she would quickly become nauseated. She needed to allow as much time as possible for the beast form to begin digesting, especially if she’d eaten meat, which was not a part of her regular diet.

Natural 20 - Perception Check

Bella recognized the stench of the Arborwick Reservoir, on the bandits. It was the first Great Lake of HiPool, thick with rot and refuse. She felt a twinge of panic deep in her belly, but she maintained her panther form hoping it would disguise her exit. Even more terrifying than men from HiPool who may have been sent by Lord DayRage, were the arrows she found in two of the bandits. One was pierced through the heart from behind, and the other shot down through the collarbone and out the left rib cage. She found a sixth man, not previously seen, face-down behind some trees at the foot of the rise, an arrow through his throat. By the scent of dried blood, she could tell he was the first one killed. There was also something else, a scent the panther recognized as Elven, but to Bella, it seemed more familiar, like a memory she had forgotten. It was then that she heard the lone, faint cry. It was some distance off, in the direction Carl had fled. She grabbed her pack in her strong jaws and ran north as fast as she could.

Bella Donna had always been comfortable in the wilds, close to the ground. She had been raised in the wild marshy swamplands and the feel of the moss beneath her feet and the wind in her face was as natural to her as breathing. As a child she had run, naked and giggling through the leafless spring saplings as fast as her legs could carry her, Mamma’s ticklish fingers close behind. As a teen, she and her friend ran obstacle courses through the trees and swam in the cool waters of the Polder. 

This was a very different run. Thrump! Sprinting as fast as she could move, Bella raced through the forest. Thrump! Her breathing was rhythmic, tied to her pace. Thrump! Inhaling as her paws left the ground, exhaling through the thrust. Thrump! The sound of her paws digging deep into the dirt for purchase created a four-beat rhythm that propelled her forward. Thrump! She leapt over rocks and ducked under branches. Thrump! She ran from the scent of those men and whoever the Elven archer was. Thrump! Away from home. Thrump! Away from him! Thrump! As fast as she coins run! Thrump! With powerful legs, she kept high onto a fallen tree.  The claws of her front paws dug deep into the bark to secure her landing, the claws of her back paws launching her high into the air. 

In an explosion of dirt and fungal spores, Bella tumbled across the ground, rolling quickly to her feet. Having sprinted for nearly an hour, Bella Donna took a moment to catch her breath and thank the Goddess, Kamella, for her gifts. Then tossed her pa k over her shoulders before continuing North at a brisk pace. She hoped that the panther’s speed would give her a head start and that its tracks and the change in direction, from West to North, would be harder to follow. 

Back in her own body, the memories of the panther began to coalesce with her own. Bella recognized the leather armour on three of the bandits from the Lord’s Militia. The Militia was a band of thugs the Lord of HiPool would use whenever he sought Social Justice, or more accurately, death without trial. Though Lord Dayrage denied any direct association with the Militia, he often praised them for their “loyalty to the Throne,” particularly after a convenient lynching or house burning. Mamma had warned her that Lord DayRage would send people for her. “The Lord of HiPool takes what he wants,” Valeri rolled a quilted and a fur blanket tightly together and strapped them to her daughter’s pack, “He will send men to the very bounds of Barasea to claim you too!” Bella  Donna understood. She had seen the destruction of the Lord’s temper firsthand, She had been escorted through the still-burning villages and heard the screams of young girls as laughing soldiers filled in and out of thatch cottages and shanty shacks. She had shared in the lamentation of the dead and helped rebuild homes and families. 

What haunted her this day, however, were the three arrows. All three men appeared to have been taken by surprise and were killed in a single blow. Her thoughts raced with questions for which she had no answers. If the Militia was hunting Bella, who was hunting the Militia? She was not so foolish as to believe that she had an ally, “Two predators only make the prey more valuable.” her mother had taught her, after all.

Then there was that familiar scent she couldn’t place. The panther’s senses told her it was an Elf but she had met few Elves, secluded in her little village. Which left only one possible solution, “Bounty Hunter? Did he send a fucking Bounty Hunter?!” 

The Night sky was nearly cloudless and from her perch on a high treetop, she had a clear view of the stars and moons. Brothellad was as full and bright as ever hovering over the western horizon, and little brother, Sandum was running off to hide as the shadow of the night sky overtook him once again. Below her, was a small grass-covered stone rise with an inclined northeastern approach and outer edges that dropped off sharply. In its center, curled up beneath a fur blanket, next to a fallen tree slept the young Genasi woman. Even from this high perch, the Hunter understood the commotion surrounding this young Lady. She was beautiful beyond measure, which was in direct contrast to her mother’s description of the Genasi as “mud monsters.”  Though, admittedly, she had only ever met the one in all her twenty years. Even having been employed as a bounty hunter and assassin for several years, with all of the villages and cities visited, even with all of the bodies she had stacked up for her King,  and the countless others she’d delivered to the capital for execution, she had never knowingly come across another Genasi. In all that time, however, she had never been tasked with a job like this one. 

Stranger still was her familiarity with the woman. She’d recognized the name from her childhood as the beautiful Genasi girl who lived in the swamp next to her family manor. So, before heading out on the hunt, she had stopped by her old house to visit her aging and widowed mother.  The Lady Morphine was a wicked and hate-filled woman, a trait that had only been exacerbated by her worsening dementia. When she’d tired of her mother’s racist ramblings Phiralei spent some time in the forests behind the old mansion, where she used to play as a child. She ran the old obstacle course she’d created in the forest behind the manor, so she could practice being a great adventurer like her father. She hurtled over the fence in the backyard and ran the worn path through the trees. She was at a full sprint when she reached the stepping stones, a group of eight rocks sticking out of the ground in two rows. A and she would hop across them, left-right, left-right, left-right, left; skipping every other stone. But she was taller now, and she cleared the obstacle in a single jump. She missed the fresh forest air in her lungs as the branches whipped past. Another thirty feet down the trail she reached the little creek with the fallen tree bridging the banks. She remembered slipping or tripping into the cool waters perhaps a thousand times as she‘d practiced her balance. The tree had long since cracked and the tree now dropped in the middle. 

Natural 20 Acrobatics check

 Without breaking stride, she cartwheeled over the break in the tree, raising one hand, index finger extended, high over her head to mark the spot where the log once lay flat. She continued running, ducking under branches and leaping over rocks and stumps, childish joy filling her lungs with each breath. She dropped to her hip, sliding under a low-lying log and once on the other side, the ground dropped out from under her. She rotated in the air as she plummeted from the twenty-foot cliff, and grabbed a worn tree branch as she fell. With her legs extended, she swung around the branch, like a gymnast on a high bar. Completing the rotation, the elven woman tucked in her knees, released the branch and flipped backwards through the air, landing in the soft moss at the base of the cliff. 

Two girls playing in the forest

She stopped there to catch her breath, listening to the breeze rustling through the leaves. The air at the base of the cliff was humid and pungent, and it brought back memories of her first visit to the Moore. Her mother had warned her against venturing into the swaps, telling stories of the mud monsters living there. She hadn’t known about the drop back then and had fallen twenty feet, twisting her ankle. She sat in the cool moss, cradling her foot and fighting to stifle her whimpering. The cliff face towering over her was daunting and she worried that her mother would never find her down here where she was not supposed to go. The snapping of a branch alerted her to the approach of something, and she assumed it was one of the mud beasts coming to devour her.

“Hello?” A quiet voice came from behind a cluster of bushes, “Are you okay?” A girl a year or two younger than herself stepped through the underbrush, backlit by a ray of noonday sun that broke through the thick tropical canopy. Her brown skin was wet and shimmering and her long raven hair was gathered in tiny braids decorated with purple wildflowers. Her eyes were big and blue and glimmered like sapphires, her cheeks freckled and rosy, and her full lips were cocked into a concerned smile. She wore nearly a dozen beaded necklaces, a few similar bracelets and nothing else. Phiralei stared back in awe. She had only ever met humans and other elves and thought someone of such unimaginable beauty must surely be a Celestial being. “Hi, I’m Bella.”

The snap of a twig brought her back to the present. Below her, the same Genasi girl, now a Lady, lay innocent and peacefully sleeping. Some sixty feet away she saw a group of six or seven moonlit no men quietly approaching through the forest. She nocked an arrow into her longbow and waited.

Hours passed with her hurriedly following barely visible grazing and migration trails through the underbrush. She did not stop for lunch but slowed, occasionally, to gather and snack on chanterelles growing in the shade or edible flowers as she came upon them. This early in the spring, the new growth was still blossoming and there were very few fruits or legumes to be found but Bella was resourceful and well-versed in foraging. She was careful, however, not to linger too long and the snap of a twig or a rustling breeze was enough to send her hurriedly on her way. 


It was just past noon when she found herself at the bank of a wide rushing river. The air was humid and clouds were sparse and few. A thin stream of sweat trickled down the hollow of her spine and the cool water looked refreshing, but the river moved swift and treacherous around the jagged rocks. She followed the river's edge for nearly a mile looking for a way across but the river only got deeper and faster. Bella considered continuing west along the bank but worried it might lead her back into the path of her pursuers. She decided instead it was best to cross where she could. While there was a risk of being washed downstream, Bella was a strong swimmer and she hoped swiftly moving water would wash away her scent and make her harder to track. She found an area where the water seemed shallow and a small island marked a point just over halfway across. There was a strange stone cocked awkwardly upon it that caught her attention with a green glint, distracting her from seeing the end of the large rocks she waded out onto and she dropped deep into the rushing river. 


The water was shockingly cold, and Bella cussed openly as she resurfaced. Though caught off guard, the Genasi woman was comfortable in the water and quickly recovered. She swam across the quickly moving water, fighting against the current to reach the western tip of the island. She pulled herself up out of the water onto a large moss-covered rock and wiped the water from her skin as she caught her breath. Though the water was cold, the noonday sun warmed her dark skin quickly as she  investigated the tilted obelisk. From the southern bank, the structure had been obscured by saplings and underbrush but up close she saw the vitreous luster of its large hexagonal crystal. “Is that a fucking Emerald?!?” Bella could scarcely believe the size of it, even growing out at an angle, the crystal stood a full foot taller than her. She ran her fingers across its gritty surface, feeling the rough edges catch on the ridges of her fingerprints as she marveled at its beauty in the early afternoon sunlight. She drew the handaxe strapped to the side of her pack and brought the blunt end down as hard as she could. There was a loud crack that echoed across the water and out into the forest. Worried that she’d drawn attention to herself, Bella quickly grabbed up four small pieces that had broken off, stuffed them into her pack and jumped into the water again.


The river was deeper on the north side, and a fast undercurrent swept her feet out from under her. She tumbled through the water, the crossing currents twisting her about until she couldn’t feel which direction was up. She curled into a ball around her staff, protecting her head with her arms and prepared to call out to the WildMother once more when she felt the waters calm and herself bob to the surface. She emerged from the water with a gasp, startling a faun & doe into the forest, and swam to the river's edge. Crawling up the bank she lay on the pebbled shore catching her breath. 

“Well, that was dramatic!” A voice behind her declared. Bella jumped to her feet, staff in hand.



The hunter stalked the panicked man scrambling noisily through the forest. This was her favorite part of the hunt. She enjoyed playing with her targets, taunting them with near misses to spike their fear and drive them to make mistakes. With her prey some ten feet to her right, She dashed ahead of him, a shadowy figure appearing as flashes between the trees. “Carl!” She called out, just loud enough for the man to hear. He cried out and turned sharply to the right, away from the voice. She put an arrow in a tree beyond him, to redirect the running man back toward her and he obliged with another, louder scream. The hunter ducked behind an elm as Carl ran past, crushing a pinecone under her foot. Carl looked back at the noise and ran headlong into a branch that knocked him to his ass. “I’m coming for you, Carl.” 

Natural 20: Dart Attack - lethal

The man squawked and scrambled to his feet. Tears hampered his vision as he ran panicked and aimlessly through the forest. She chased him far enough from Bella that it was safe to capture and interrogate him, jumping up to a tree branch with the dexterity of a cat for a clear shot at her prey. She drew a dart from the hoster on her bicep and hurled it at his legs, to wound the man but the roar of a forest cat in the distance startled them both. Carl screamed, stumbling over a rock or tree root, and lurched forward, struggling to remain on his feet. The dart, intended to hobble him, dove deep into the back of his neck. He crumpled under his weight and was dead before he hit the ground.

She hunts with a bow

“FUCK!” Phiralei muttered under her breath. The second roar of a wildcat caused the bounty hunter to sprint back toward the hill where she had left her charge. When she arrived several minutes later, the hunter found the five dead men around an abandoned camp. She found Bella’s fur blankets and a man badly mauled by a forest cat, but Bella Donna was gone. She retrieved her arrows from three of them and searched the bodies, recovering a compass, nearly thirty gold in coins, and a wanted poster with a crudely drawn image of Bella Donna at its center. The poster offered thirty thousand in gold for the safe return of Bella Donna Essence to the Lord of HiPool. She pulled the small rolled note from her breast pocket and read it again. 

        Find and protect Bella Donna Essence. 

        Do not return her to HiPool until further notice. 

        Do not let any harm come to her. 

        If she dies, you will take her place. 

           - E

“Do not let any harm come to her. If she dies, you will take her place.” Her heart raced with panic as the last line of her assignment scrolled through her thoughts. She found tracks in the wet ground descending the approach to the camp left by a large wildcat, and intermittent drag marks, as though it carried something off. “Fuck - fuck - FUCK!” she thought to herself, “Did I just lose the future Queen of HiPool?!?”


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