“There is a terrible beast stalking these woods, grandmother,” the spiritual guide cautioned in earnest to the unflappable old woman who stood, stooped, in the entrance of her small hovel hidden among the trees. ” Will you come with us back to the town? We wish to ensure your safety.”
“Safety,” the hermit spat, without any hint of propriety. “Can you say those fools in the village are any safer than I am out here? They’re all fat and happy in their soft homes. They don’t know how to protect themselves. I do. They’ve forgotten their place. I remember.”
“You have done very well for yourself,” a tall, yellow-clad swordsman added by way of compliment. “Perhaps you may share your wisdom with those who have been too long out of nature.”
“I think what they need is a reminder that there’s more to the world than their warm beds and tilled fields,” she snorted.
“Grandmother,” the guide said with open arms, expressing her sincerity, “men, women, and even children have been killed. There is a dangerous spirit here and we wish to see no others come to harm.”
“‘Dangerous’ you say,” the old woman cackled. “Nothing natural is ‘dangerous.’ There are predators and there are prey. This is the way of things. If something stops being a predator, it becomes prey. “
“There is an impressive midden of bones behind your house,” the swordswoman added, her voice curious. “Forgive me for saying so but you must be a powerful hunter to take down such game.” She tactfully said nothing about the woman’s gnarled hands and crooked back.
“It’s not power, little kitten, it’s my wits. Outthink the prey, stay the predator. Adapt and survive.”
“‘Adapt and survive,'” echoed a voice from behind the woman’s shack, that of a traveling monk who had joined the samurai on their adventure into the wilderness. He had been rooting around in the midden pile—something the spiritual guide and swordswoman wanted no part of—and his fingers were brown with dirt. They hoped it was dirt. “When normal prey becomes too difficult to catch, an enterprising predator may move to new food, perhaps something fat and slow.” His voice was accusing and the woman’s eyes narrowed in response, cold anger radiating from her icy expression..
“Leave this place,” she growled, “leave an old woman alone. Go back to your village, to your ‘safety.'” She turned back in to the shack, the heavy cloth door obscuring its contents from the investigators.
“Jun, what have you found? Why did you antagonize the woman?” the swordswoman asked of their strange companion, making her way around to the back of the clearing, to the back of the house.
He held up a large piece of fabric which may have once been part of a peasant’s tunic. Savages gashes were torn through it, and the once-wan material was stiff with caked blood. “She is no woman.”
“I said leave!” bellowed a new voice, deep and resonant, from within the makeshift home. “You have no place here.”
“Grandmother we are here to help,” the guide offered, placatingly. “We wish to help you as well as the village. Harmony is possible.” Her many travels had given her much insight into the varied natures of spirits, and she began to understand exactly what had transpired between the “panther spirit” they had been sent to investigate and the small village it was terrorizing.
“You are here to help me?” the voice snapped back in response, incredulous. “You know nothing of the world, little samurai. Go home. Go back to your cities and your civilization. Go back to your ‘life.'”
A dexterous paw, massive in size, pulled back the curtain door. Where minutes before a bent and haggard old woman stood, then appeared a powerful, bipedal tiger, its fur greying but with fight in her eyes. “No human will drive me from my home.”
The guide gave a deep bow of respect before the were-creature. “Venerable grandmother,” she began, speaking reverently with lowered eyes, “we seek a resolution that leaves everyone in harmony, in balance. We wish neither side injury.”
“Are you a spirit?” the swordswoman asked of the creature, dumbfounded, her reaction in stark contrast to that of the mystic.
“I am not human, animal, or spirit,” the were-tiger scoffed.
“Then you are not of the celestial order,” she said flatly, hand going to the katana at her side. “You are a demon.”
“How little you understand of the world, stupid human,” the tiger snarled, insulted and readying herself for a fight.
The spirit guide’s calls to stop the violence, that there were other solutions to the problem, that were-creatures were just as natural as any other being, all fell on deaf ears as claws and swords whipped through the once-placid forest breeze. She hoped the village could leave out tributes, or that the creature could find a new home, or that some other arrangement could be made—anything to avoid bloodshed on either side.
Powerful roars and determined grunts echoed through the trees as the two combatants fought for the culture they believed in, lost in the haze of battle.
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