Alice slashes at the grass green jelly again and again, careful not to damage the precious core within. Jellies have no organs to pierce, no real flesh to rend, or even bones to break. The simple semitransparent hemispherical creatures only have three parts to them. First is their outer layer. This is the layer exposed to the air and is transparent like the rest. About as tough as supple leather, it serves to hold the creatures together. A pointed stick could pierce it, but would have trouble dealing much damage to the creature itself. Fortunately, Alice wields a sword, left to her by her father, and with it, she cuts away at the green blob. The plain broadsword easily slices through the outer layer of the creature, sending thick green goo flying out in wild arcs. The jelly creature itself wobbles with each blow, steadily shrinking as bits of it are strewn about.

The jelly within, for which such creatures are named, is the most dangerous part about the wild monsters. Given enough time, jellies, while slow and thought only a minor nuisance can in fact be rather devastating to anything they touch. The jelly is a digestive goop. Whenever the creatures manage to find organic matter, they allow it to be absorbed through their outer layer and into their viscous insides where the matter is dissolved. The more matter a jelly dissolves the bigger it becomes. Then it can split, forming two identical smaller jellies. Alice had seen them do this. Like all things the jellies did, it was a slow process but helped explain their continuous presence in the area.

As Alice swings her sword, she scatters more and more of the mildly corrosive goo until the monster is brought down from its original three feet in diameter, to less than the size of her head. She then lowers her weapon and takes an accomplished breath as she reaches in for her prize, the core stone. This is the third and most valuable part of the jelly. Each one that Alice has ever encountered has had one of the spherical core stones. These were generally the same color, if a bit darker, than the jelly itself. Though not actually hewn from the earth, these hard little pearl like treasures were what made the jellies worth the effort to hunt, at least for a young girl with few other talents. Valued for their simple beauty and faint glow, the cores were often used to decorate jewelry and other goods.

Alice shakes off the rest of the slime from her eyeball sized treasure. She then wipes it off on her tan trousers for good measure before putting it in her faded blue shoulder bag with the others. Once done, she takes up her bag and walks a few steps to a fairly goo free zone to plop down onto her rump. She drains what's left in a water skin hanging at her hip and takes a few deep breaths, forcing air slowly into her lungs rather than panting as her body wants her too. Once her breathing reaches a natural rate, she lifts her bag into her lap and grins at the day's work. "And you make six," she announces proudly. Six of the small orbs light the inside of her cloth shoulder bag with their mysterious radiance. She gives them a little shake, taking pleasure in hearing the hard surfaces tapping together as they settle. "I should be able to get enough to go on a new expedition with this," she proclaims aloud to no one.

Alice Dippleblack is a young Tokala, or anthropomorphic fox. Her fine fur coat is a bright orange-red. The two triangular ears atop her head look as if their very tips where dipped in black ink, just as her feet, hands, nose, and tail, though the later must have been dipped in a different well, for it was white as freshly fallen snow. Alice also has a streak of white fur that starts from her nose and coats the lower half of her cheeks before drifting down her throat. She wears what once had been a white blouse but now is more gray and brown with dirt where it isn't covered with green jelly stains. Her tan trousers are functional, if worn, with good deep pockets and a slit in the back for her long full tail to poke free from. Her feet are bare, allowing her toes to feel the sun warm grass while her tail flops about happily behind her as she admires her haul of cores.

Alice's sharp ears angle as they pick up the subtle sound of movement. Sky blue eyes look to see another green jelly slowly drifting along only a few yards away. She glances at the setting sun, making its way to the horizon, and in a second gauges the time, her remaining stamina, and the energy it will take to get back to the village. She smirks at the creature, "I think we can get in one more," and picks up her sword.

It was rare to encounter jellies so near each other this close to the village and it was an opportunity Alice did not want to pass up. She hefts the double-edged broadsword in both hands, neither of her slender arms quite ready to handle its full weight alone, and charges the jelly. The monster's only reaction is to wobble a bit at her high pitched battle cry, though Alice didn't think they had ears.

Jellies have no features, no face nor arms, and all of them look like gelatin that was molded to a hemispherical bowl then dumped out. The only noise they ever made was when they slid on a dry leaf or twig and it crinkled or crackled under them. As such, Alice's intimidating shout and ya!-ing was unlikely to affect the creatures, but it made the somewhat smaller than average girl feel brave and strong.

Like with every encounter, Alice is careful to avoid hitting the core while knocking away as much of the goo as she can. She had tried before, and so she knew it was possible to cut a slit in the outer layer, then reach in through the thick jelly and grab the core. But as she had discovered, the viscous ooze irritates the skin and is difficult to clean from fur. And whacking at them was more fun besides. She slashes enthusiastically until its safe enough to reach for the stone, this one not as big as the last. As jellies dissolve matter their gelatinous forms grow, this is true for the cores as well and so one can generally expect larger cores from larger jellies. This one wasn't all that big but didn't take long to dispatch either. A perfect jelly to end the day on.

Alice cleans off her prize and tucks it into her bag with the others. She wipes her sword on the grass and then gives it a once over with a bit of her blouse, knowing jelly goo on metal leads to rust. Goo on clothes tends to ruin them also, but Alice only ever bought cheap clothes, knowing they wouldn't last her anyway. The young fox catches her breath, sheathing her precious sword on her back, and gazes at the setting sun. She would have to hurry if she wanted to make a supply run today. The Tokala tries to take a drink from her water skin, only to be reminded that it was already empty. With an annoyed grumble, the little fox girl dashes from the edge of the forest to her village.

While Alice did not live in the village, she had once and frequented it enough that she was known by many there. Most of them were aware of her talent for getting rid of the pesky jellies that often crept out of the nearby forest. As such, she had acquired the title 'monster hunter' of which she was very proud. As she blurs past toward the trading post, a few of the villagers smile and wave. She holds her bag tight as she runs, not wanting to lose any of her valuable cargo in the sprint to reach the store before closing. Her lungs burn as she forces more air into them, her throat dry enough to make her tongue stick in places, and her legs ache to the point of wobbling but she makes it. The simple wooden door is still standing open.

"Here she comes, Mom!" Ashleigh calls from the doorway, skipping out to greet the slowing monster hunter.

Ashleigh Graysen was one of very few Alice would call a friend. The Didel, is of an age and height with Alice, kind, and somewhat envious of the other girl's rather venturous lifestyle. The only daughter of the trading post's owner, the widowed Ms. Graysen, she was often expected to stay by the shop, learning the various tasks needed to keep it maintained. She had lost her father in the current war just as Alice had, though she at least still had her mother. Alice had lost both parents, her father to fighting and her mother to the grief after.

The young opossum girl wears a plan sky blue dress over her white patched light gray fur. She is slim but not terribly so, white faced with cute rounded black ears, large aqua marine eyes, and a small pink nose at the end of an angular muzzle. She has an abnormally long, hairless, dark gray tail that tends to drag behind her leaving a trail anywhere she leaves a footprint.

As Alice comes to a stop, panting hard with hands resting on her knees, Ashleigh asks excitedly, as she often did, "How many did you get today?"

Alice briefly holds up seven fingers and Ashleigh bubbles, "That's wonderful! You beat your record!" The Didel has a cup of water held in pink furless fingers and holds it out to the exhausted fox. After a few more breaths, Alice gratefully accepts it. Ashleigh waits patiently, smiling at Alice as she downs the water in one long drink.

Alice hands back the empty cup and wipes her mouth on a sleeve, "Thanks, Ash."

Ashleigh grins widely, taking the cup along with Alice's wrist, "Come on, come on, Mom's waiting." The Didel then hurriedly leads her into the store.

"Alice," Ms. Graysen greets warmly from behind the counter, goods of various sorts stacked neatly on shelves behind and around her. "How was hunting today? Get some nice cores for me?" Ms. Graysen looks like Ashleigh might in a decade or so, similar in color and shape though her eyes are brown as is her simple dress.

"I got seven," Alice announces with pride, placing her bag atop the counter before the kindly woman.

"Seven? Goodness, you are getting better at dealing with those monsters for us," Ms. Graysen says, impressed.

"It's a new record, Momma!" Ashleigh adds excitedly, peering into the bag. She always liked to see Alice's haul.

Ms. Graysen pulls out one of the orbs for inspection, "Mmm, some nice ones here too. What can I get you for the bunch?"

"Two loaves of that nut bread and a smoked trout if there's any left please," Alice orders hopefully. She almost always came in from hunts late in the evening after much of Ms. Graysen's choice stock was already gone.

"You're in luck. I made sure to save one just for you when Ashleigh saw you heading out this morning. Figured you'd work up a hunger," the opossum woman says, reaching somewhere under her counter to produce a whole fish wrapped in wide leaves, its tail sticking out of one end. She then grabs two long loaves of bread from a basket on a shelf behind her while Ashleigh collects the core stones.

"Thank you, ma'am," The young fox returns with a wide smile, putting her purchases in her shoulder bag, the bread half poking out under her slender arm.

The mother opossum picks up the smallest core stone, "Looks like you still have some left over. You wanna spend it now or put it to the debt?"

"I'll put anything left over to the debt, ma'am," Alice replies, adjusting her sword and bag straps.

After the news of Alice's father's death reached home, her mother gave in to a horrible grief. It took her slowly. At times, Alice would find her in the middle of a chore and just start to cry inconsolably, while other times she would have trouble getting out of bed. As it got worse, she couldn't work and wouldn't eat. Even the cries of her terrified kit couldn't rouse her to any action. Eventually, she withered away, leaving Alice alone. During this time she had worked up a debt which passed to the young Tokala. Without the money to pay it, her home was taken and she was left on the street. Even then there was still some left over, mostly owed to the Didel shopkeeper for having provided for them when they couldn't manage.

Alice had kept the sword left by her father, the only thing she had to remember him by. She had heard from her mother that he was a great swordsman and had finally felt Alice was old enough to learn when he and all the other men, even the able boys, were called to war. Very few had yet returned and they only because of grievous and often crippling wounds. With the men gone, the women, younger boys, and girls had to take on the additional work loads. The labor shortage meant limited supplies and increased prices, which tightened everyone's belts.

Some good did come of it though. The men generally cut back the unusually fast growing nearby forest every now and again, keeping plenty of space between the village and the monster filled woods. Now, with no one to do the work, the forest steadily grew closer as did the threat of monster attacks. It took time but Alice eventually got the courage to face the jellies, the least dangerous but most commonly encountered of the monsters. In doing so, she began to fill an important niche as the local monster hunter.

Ashleigh clasps her hands and begs her mother, "Can I go walk with Alice, please?"

Ms. Graysen purses her lips to the smaller opossum, "Alright, but be back before sundown, and don't leave the village."

Ashleigh gives a little cheer and Alice smiles, "Thanks, Ms. Graysen," she says as she prepares to depart.

"You got it, hon, keep safe out there!" the opossum woman calls as Alice heads out the door, Ashleigh following close behind.

The moment the girls step out, Ashleigh bubbles, "Seven in one day! You're so amazing Alice. I wish I could go on hunts too. Remember when you brought in your first one?" Alice smiles and nods, letting her friend get out all her pent up conversation. "You were so proud when you showed it to Mom, covered in jelly and mud from head to toe," she giggles. Alice remembers that time well. Being alone, it was terrifying. She survived with the help of some of the kinder people in the village, Ashleigh's mother included. But times were tough and no one could afford to give much.

Alice recalls that it was raining a lot then. The jellies tended to dry out if caught in too much sun, so they rarely left the forest. The rains, though, made the days dark and wet, perfect for the slow monsters to venture forth. Alice's first encounter with one had been by complete surprise. She had seen her father dispatching jellies with ease when he was alive and knew how it was to be done, but she quickly discovered that knowing and doing were two very different things.

It was particularly cloudy that day, even at noon. It had rained all night and finally stopped in the morning. Alice was allowed a bed at a villager's house that had lost a son in the war. The grieving mother couldn't afford to feed her so Alice was wandering about in the wide fields between the village and the forest, listening to her stomach growling. She had been eating edible plants she could find, wild spinach and dandelions mostly, but desperately needed something more filling. As she walked, eyes searching the ground, she came across a small green jelly.

Alice was frightened at first. She had her sword true, but had rarely swung it. Up to that point, it was mostly a heavy weight on her back that reminded her off all she had lost. As she watched the jelly, slowly making its way, seemingly oblivious of her, the young Tokala's fear steadily turned to curiosity. She watched it for a long while as it moved along, somewhat like a slug, a trail of discolored grass in its wake. She dropped a few bits of fresh grass atop it and watched as it absorbed them, the grass slowly losing its color and form as it drifted through the viscous ooze until it too was left, yellowed in its trail. Alice had tried shouting at it and tossing rocks, but it didn't seem interested in either. She finally decided to draw her sword, heavy and cumbersome in her untried hands.

Alice first tried an overhead swing but missed, the blow kicking up grass and mud. She tried several more times, and finally managed to hit the edge of her slow moving target. The jelly simply kept moving along, the ooze of its body shifting around the blade and reforming, leaving a goo filled slit, but even that disappeared moments later. Alice was not deterred by her waning strength or the jelly's apparent imperviousness. She continued to side step along with the creature, flailing away at it until its tiny core stone, no bigger than her finger tip, was left in a puddle of ooze. She bought her first meal that day.

Ashleigh talks on about how boring it is running a store and how fun and free it must be to go out hunting monsters, while Alice reminds her of the pros of having a safe life dealing with civilized people. It was a conversation they had often. Ashleigh had a much romanticized view of what her fox friend did; bravely saving the town, living without walls, and exploring the wild forest. While Alice did occasionally rid the village of a stray jelly or two, had no walls in which to live, and led expeditions into the forest when she could afford it, she also had to make an exhaustingly simple living, fighting almost every day just to have enough to eat.

The young hunter was improving all the time, but things were not all heroism and fun. Jellies, while not overly dangerous, could be troublesome if not treated carefully. Often while hunting, Alice would end up with globs of corrosive goop on her bare fur, and if she didn't have enough water to wash it off within a time, it could lead to a horribly itchy rash that might last hours or even days. This tended to happen mostly on her feet, hands, and sometimes ears. A major rash on the feet might keep her off them, which meant no cores and no food. Even now there were times when she had to choose between enduring the, sometimes intense, irritation or going hungry. Fighting monsters on an empty stomach was no easy task.

The two girls reach the village's well and Ashleigh turns the crank to bring up the water bucket. She often did, something the tired young fox was always grateful for, all while talking about going on a hunt with her, maybe, at some point, in the future. This was also something Ashleigh did often. She'd go on about various preparations she'd make, how long they could stay out, and how many jellies she'd like to find. But the Didel would always shoot her plans down, knowing her mother would never let her do something so dangerous. Alice found it fun talking to Ashleigh about hunts. It gave her someone to bounce ideas off of and it made her happy to share her knowledge of jellies.

The girls talk as Alice fills her two small water skins. In her experience, it never hurt to have extra water. She drinks most of one to refresh herself and fills it again. "Maybe if I had a weapon, Mom would let me come with you," Ashleigh considers allowed, "What do you think would work?" The small village had no blacksmiths and Alice's sword was a rarity.

"A good club might do it. Jellies aren't terribly tough, and if you hit hard enough, you could probably knock enough jelly away to get the core," the young fox suggests, putting the straps of her water skins over her neck and then adds, "I can try to find you a stout branch in the woods next time I'm out."

Ashleigh claps her hands, "Oh, would you? That would be wonderful! Then we could fight monster together!" The young opossum takes a few swings with a phantom club.

The sun is dropping over the horizon making everything cast long shadows and Alice parts from her friend with a hug. "Be careful, Alice!" Ashleigh waves before turning back toward her mother's shop while the monster hunter heads out into the fields.

Just as dusk settles in, she makes it to her own home, a small tent atop a grassy hill in the shadow of a large oak tree. Its summer now and there won't be any need to start a fire in the ring of stones she had set up just for such a purpose. The fox unloads her gear and sits with her back against the great tree's trunk with a water skin and her leaf wrapped trout.

This was a rare treat that Alice only allowed after an exceptional hunt. "Beating my record counts I think," she says aloud, unwrapping her feast. She takes in a deep inhale through the nostrils, letting the smoky aroma fill her lungs. As if on cue, her stomach burbles and she digs in. While Alice has her supper, she looks to the forest some ways off and sees no jellies. The Tokala had chosen this spot for her camp for several reasons, the main being that it gave her a nice view of all the land around her. Jellies tended to slip out from the forest at night when it was cooler and their silent pace meant an unwary hunter might wake up with one in her bed. She hadn't had that problem since she'd saved enough for the tent, but had had it enough to be habitually watchful of activity just before she went to sleep. It was clear tonight.

Once the young fox had her fish and a bit of bread, she picks her teeth for a while with one of the fish's slender bones. She thinks of many things, but tries to focus on one. With the extra bread she'd bought, she finally had enough to make another expedition into the forest, even if only a short one. Alice had always wondered where the jellies kept coming from. It seemed no matter how many she vanquished, more would always appear. As she had started collecting enough of the core stones to merit extra supplies, she had also begun mounting trips deeper into the forest.

Alice learned things on these trips and was eager to go on another. She had discovered how they multiply and, more importantly, she had discovered that there were different colored jellies. While green was the most common, she had seen various shades of brown, yellow, blue, and even red. The reds were very rare and thus their cores could be traded for more. She had slain one, the only she'd ever seen, which is how she managed to afford her tent. But the less common colors were also a prize worth fighting for.

The jellies of different colors did not seem different in any other way, still ponderously slow and indifferent to outside stimuli. Alice had considered the reasons for the different colors many a night and thought it might have something to do with what they ate. The green ones often seemed to have dissolved a lot of grass,the browns, perhaps some wood. Alice could only guess the others managed to slide through some flowers to get their hues. The red one though. Alice had never seen red flowers in the forest or otherwise.

After some thought, the tired hunter yawns and decides it's time to get some sleep. Real dark was nearly upon her but keen vision and a full moon makes it a simple matter to gather her meager belongings and to pack them, along with herself, into her small beige tent. Pushing all her gear off to one side, the little fox stretches, yawns once more, and falls asleep on a pillow of relatively clean clothes. But it doesn't last.

A fast storm blows in during the night bringing with it several powerful crashes of thunder. Alice is jolted awake by the first and simply has to endure the rest. The cleverly made tent keeps the weather out for the most part, but as rain dampens the ground, the cloth floor of the tent cools and moistens too. It's very late when the last of the terrible cracking thunderclaps stops and Alice can finally get to sleep, and when she does, she dreams.

She sees her father, brandishing her sword at formless shadow creatures that encircle him. He swings the weapon into them only to have it pass through harmlessly. The shadows bring him down and begin dragging him away. He drops the sword and claws at the ground as Alice runs after him screaming soundlessly for her father. She takes a second to retrieve the weapon but it tugs at her arm as if too heavy to lift. She looks to see it's her mother, pulling at her wrist from the floor, weeping as she calls her name, "Alice! Alice!" Looking back, Alice's father is being taken further into the distance, fading from sight. Alice desperately reaches for him, unable to free herself from her mother's grasp, her name ringing in her ears, "Alice! ALICE!" She jolts awake again for what seems far too short a time, still hearing her mother screeching. But it isn't her mother. It's Ashleigh.

The Didel isn't screeching but calling urgently into her tent from outside, "Alice? Are you awake? We need your help."

It is entirely too early for the young fox and her body feels horribly sluggish and sore from the day before. She means to ask what is wrong, but only manages an unintelligible grumble.

"Alice? Jellies are near the village! Can I come in?" Ashleigh asks anxiously.

The little hunter turns herself clockwise without actually rising and reaches lazily to the pull string for the tent's door flap.

After a few tries she gives it a tug and Ashleigh pokes her gray furry head in, "Oh, Alice, you have to get up, they're getting closer!" The Didel girl reaches in to shake Alice's shoulder.

Alice's eye lids are heavy and dry but she forces them wider and sees her friend, blurry over her.

"Ok, ok," she groans in mild frustration as she places a hand on the Didel's fluffy cheek, weakly pushing her away. Alice sits up and Ashleigh drapes the shoulder bag over the fox, lifting an arm so it sits at her side.

The young opossum does the same with her sword, placing it on Alice's back and begins pushing her, "Go, go, it's hero time!"

Alice grudgingly gets to her feet and shambles out of her tent. The ground is still wet with the night's rain though the sky has cleared. The sun is just rising and already she spots a few jellies. The creatures wander aimlessly, some drifting in the general direction of the village but Alice knows it's more luck than design.

Ashleigh dashes from behind Alice, heading straight for the small settlement while shouting back and waving, "Come on, come on!"

The sleepy hunter rubs her eyes and starts after her, slowly picking up speed as her body awakens. Soon she's bounding after the opossum, feeling invigorated by the easy access to more jellies, and thus, more supplies. She begins to feel rather confident that once she clears any near the village she can sweep the fields and really cash in.

As the girls near the village, they can hear the irritated cries of a woman. Alice adjusts her course to the sound and finds her first opponent of the day. An angry Leeseran is whacking away at an oncoming dark green jelly with a broom. The jelly ignores it, wobbling with the impacts while slowly moving toward the squirrel woman's garden.

A tiny Leeseran girl looks on from a doorway and cheers at the sight of the young hunter, "Momma look, it's Alice!"

The squirrel woman cries, "Alice, please, before it gets my vegetables!"

Alice draws her sword from the sheath on her back and takes up a position beside the invading jelly, careful not to stand in its path. The woman backs away to watch the hunter make a hard vertical slash, cutting a generous portion from the rear of the jelly. Before it can reform around the blade she pulls the sword away from it horizontally, flinging the gooey slice away and into the dirt road. The slice is almost instantly rounded back out as the jelly shrinks, undeterred. Alice continues to take off pieces of the jelly until it's small enough to reach in and extract the core. Once she pulls it free, the rest of the jelly collapses in on itself, no longer animated.

As she cleans off her prize and sword, the squirrel woman thanks her and tells her to wait while she heads inside her house. The little squirrel girl hops out to Alice cheering, "That was amaz-oh." She stops, looking around at the bits of green goo. Pinching her nose, she blurts, "It stinks!"

Alice smiles, "Yeah, tell your mom to throw some dirt on the pieces and be careful not to step on 'em." Alice had grown used to the smell but it tended to surprise most. The gooey part of the jellies smelled awful and the moment their thicker outer layer was pierced a stench like swamp water would fill the air.

The mother Leeseran returns, her broom replaced by three cookies. She smiles as she approaches Alice but is then visibly struck by the smell. "Oh, word," she exclaims, waving a hand in the air before handing Alice the treats. "Thank you, dear. We're so lucky to have a girl like you around to deal with these, things," she says flittering her fingers at the gooey remains of the jelly.

Alice nods her thanks as the little squirrel bounces up and down, "Momma, Momma. Alice said we had to put dirt on the jelly pieces and we're not supposed to step on them and can I have a cookie?"

"Did you just slay an evil monster?" the mother asks, raising an eyebrow to her daughter. The little squirrel frowns and stops her bouncing, but brightens back up as Alice hands her one of hers. Just as the girl tries to take a bite, her mother lifts a finger, "Ah, what do we say when someone gives us something?"

"Thank you, Alice!" the girl says dutifully and begins gobbling down her snack.

As Alice turns to look for more jellies, she sees Ashleigh grinning widely at her and gives her a cookie too. The opossum thanks her and takes a bite. Alice does as well finding the cookie to be crunchy with nuts and sweet with honey. But before she can finish it a young brown furred Murin boy calls for her, "Alice! Alice! We got a jelly, come quick!" The hunter gives Ashleigh a look and they both cram their cookies into their mouths picking up their pace to follow after the mouse boy.

He leads the two girls to the small communal orchard, a key source of food for the villagers. Several other children and concerned women look on as a rather large, lime green jelly absorbs apples from a basket lying on its side. As far as Alice was aware, jellies could not climb trees, so the apples among the branches were safe, but, if fallen apples kept a jelly around too long, it could damage the trunk and any surface roots it lingered over. As she nears the orchard, she shouts for everyone to get back, brandishing her sword in both hands. The jelly had already taken several apples and they float around near the bottom of it, just starting to decay. Alice kicks the basket away and steps to its side, as she had done before, but makes horizontal slashes to spare any of the nearby tree's precious roots. She had learned early on that horizontal slashes were only effective if she held the blade at an angle so as to cut and remove bits of goo. Any of the syrupy gunk left on or near the jelly would reform into it. The small gathering of people step further away as green slime begins to fly.

After an exhausting bit of work, Alice is left with a nice sized lime green core stone and a few haphazardly sliced bits of browning fruit. The kids cheer and the adults share their thanks along with a few freshly picked apples.

"Wow, that was great! You were like, 'Get back!' And then woosh woosh woosh!" Ashleigh exclaims, swinging an imaginary sword as the girls step out into the fields to share the fruit. Alice grins and flops on the ground trying to catch her breath while cleaning off her weapon.

"Well, well, Ms. Dippleblack, you've managed to save the village once more."

The girls look over to Ms. Graysen making her way to them.

"Mom! Did you see? Wasn't Alice amazing?" Ashleigh bubbles.

"She certainly was," the older opossum agrees and then hands a new white blouse to Alice, "Here child, we can't have our hero walkin' around in rags."

Alice looks over herself, her blouse torn in places and covered with stains, old and new, and then gratefully accepts the blouse with a smile, "Thanks, Ms. Graysen."

"Mm-hm," the mother opossum nods and then tells her daughter, "Ashleigh, I could use your help at the store."

"Oh, Mom, but I'm helping Alice with the jellies," Ashleigh whines.

"I'm sure she can manage, and you have your own job to do," counters Ms. Graysen.

"Ugh, fine," the young Didel groans and then waves as she follows her mother, "Bye Alice, I'll see you later, right?"

Alice waves back, "Yeah, I'll probably stop in this evening!"

As the young Tokala watches the pair leave, a sudden pang of loneliness grips her heart. Before the old foe could strengthen its hold, she shoves it away and gets to her feet, refocusing on her quest. Trails of yellowed grass make the remaining jellies easy to find in the fields. Two have progressed toward the village but were still a ways off. It was nearing noon now and the sun seemed to slow the monsters even more. Alice dispatches them easily despite her waning stamina. She follows a third trail for a time, bringing down its maker before deciding she is done for the day.

Bagging the five cores, the young hunter heads for the stream. It was a popular spot for fishing, cleaning, and bathing due to its proximity to the village. Alice, finding the coast to be clear, slips out of her dirty goo covered clothes and wades in. She gets just deep enough to be able to submerge herself in the cool, slow moving water while seated on the rocky bottom. She does what she can to wash the goo off her blouse, but knows it'll only be good as rags and bedding now. Her sturdier pants, however, will survive a few more battles.

Alice carefully washes the jelly from her fur, checking and rechecking to be sure she got it all. Toes, ears, back and tail, all get a thorough cleaning. She's going through the later when she hears the sound of a blade chopping into wood. She lowers into the water, only letting her head show, and turns to the shore where she left her belongings. There, Arnold Duncan is trying to pull out her sword from the tree trunk he's managed to lodge it in.

"Hey, get away from my sword!" Alice shouts from the water. The young Urock gives her an annoyed look and then gives the blade's handle a few more tugs. Alice manages to slip on her soaked pants as she shouts again, "Get away from it, NOW!"

Arnold gives up on his efforts and turns to face Alice. If he were green, Arnold Duncan would look very much like a hairy pear. The bear boy's small head and rather bulbous body were instead covered in brown fur. He wears a yellow shirt that struggles valiantly but fails to cover his round stomach and equally straining gray pants. His beady black eyes glare at Alice as he lumbers to the shore line, but before his feet reach the water he growls, "Or what? You can't do nothin' without that sword."

Like most of the village's children, Arnold's father was taken by the war. The boy was too young at the time to be conscripted and without a father's discipline the years since had turned him into a bully. The Urock people were large by nature and Arnold was no exception. Perhaps two years younger than Alice, he still managed to outgrow her by a considerable sum in both height and weight. Alice, however, knew that much of the time he got by on his size alone and hadn't yet learned to wield his strength to any great effect. But Alice knew her strength. She was smaller but faster.

After some quick calculation, Alice makes her move. Covering her modest chest with one forearm, she makes a splashy sprint for the boy, who raises one clawed hand back to strike. On her approach, Alice hurls her soaked blouse into Arnold's snarling face. In the seconds it takes him to wipe the wet garment away, she hefts a fist size rock from the river bed and brings it down on the boy's hairy foot with as much force as both her slender arms can muster. The boy howls in pain and immediately tries to grasp the aching appendage over his girth but loses his balance and falls over.

The fox girl darts to her bag and slips into her new blouse, doing just a few buttons, as the large boy rolls around crying. She then pushes rather than pulls her sword free and brings the tip to Arnold's throat. She waits a moment to let the situation register through the density of the boy's skull and then speaks as evenly as she can manage, "If you ever touch my things again, I'm gonna to skin you alive and leave you naked in the woods for the monsters." She then makes a show of looking over him, adding, "I've always wanted a bear skin coat." Arnold quivers, his eyes glued to the sword's point as a moist spot appears and expands rapidly over his pants. Alice grins, "Don't go ruinin' my coat." With that she gathers her things and heads back to her camp, leaving the boy in his puddle.

At her tent, Alice hangs her damp trousers and blouse on a line of string to dry while pulling on another pair. These are blue and a bit bigger so she needs to tie a bit of rope at her waist to keep them over her slender hips. She then plops down to check her sword for any damage, sighing when she finds a chip in the edge. It's one of several but this one is definitely new. She gets her sharpening stone and tries to straighten out the area around it the best she can. Alice tires quickly, the lack of sleep, battles with jellies, and annoying bears sapping her limited reserves of stamina, but she is determined to finish her precious work.

Once Alice is satisfied, she replaces her prized possession in its sheath before falling to her back, arms spread at her sides. She wants nothing more than to take a nap, but the sun is already starting to set and if she wants to make any trades with her new cores, she would have to leave now. The tired Tokala grumbles as she places her sword over her head on one shoulder so it hangs diagonally down her back, gathers her bag of precious cores, and heads back to the village for the second time in one day.

She's made good time and is nearly to Ms. Graysen's store when a gruff female voice bellows, "Alice Dippleblack! How dare you threaten my cub!"

Alice jumps and turns to see a massive figure looming over her. Arnold's mother is nearly as wide as she is tall and Alice has to pan her gaze upward just to take her in. Very similar in appearance to her horrible child, though with a darker color to her fur, Ms. Duncan towers over the young fox girl. Glaring with her beady black eyes and baring a mouth full of sharp teeth, the large woman looks terribly fierce from Alice's low vantage point.

"You will apologize to him right now!" she roars pointing back to her plump son.

Arnold grins absurdly from behind his imposing mother despite not having yet changed his pants.

Alice, perhaps too tired to consider that with one swipe, Ms. Duncan could end her days as a hunter, or simply being at a stubborn age, begins in a voice she feels sounds very grown up, "Arnold stole and damaged my sword while I was bathing in the stream."

"She lyin', Momma!" Arnold shouts in defense, pointing a fat accusing finger at Alice.

"He told me you attacked him with that weapon and said you'd skin him and wear him as a coat!" Ms. Duncan growls back.

Keeping as composed as she can manage, Alice continues, "Then I'm sorry that he's a liar, a bully…" she then cranes her neck around to glare at Arnold, "and a coward."

The bear woman roars her anger and advances on Alice, snarling ferociously, "I've always said you were too young to have such a dangerous weapon. Now you've threatened my cub, MY CUB! You will give it here right-"

"Ms. Duncan, that is enough!" Ms. Graysen shouts from her store doorway just behind Alice. The opossum woman steps out and puts a hand on Alice's shoulder while looking the large Urock in the eye, "It is a known fact that your cub has become quite the trouble maker of late. As such, I tend to believe Alice when she says your boy was the one who instigated whatever happened between them."

Ms. Graysen stands her ground even when Ms. Duncan growls, "How dare you say such things about my cub. He is a paragon!"

"Hardly," the Didel shoots back, "My Ashleigh says he's grown rather fond of pulling and stepping on her tail."

Other parents, attracted by the commotion, reveal similar grievances including hitting, pushing, and scratching, all perpetrated by Arnold.

Reinforced by the other villagers, Ms. Graysen threatens, "If you don't get your boy in check, you'll have to find somewhere else to buy your ham and fish."

The Urock mother huffs several times and looks ready to explode, but instead snorts angrily and turns, grabbing Arnold by the arm to drag him away. Once they've gone off, Ms. Graysen lets out a breath and seems to shrink a little, her long, bare gray tail dropping to the ground from where it had lifted behind her.

Alice finally lets herself shiver, fear, anger, and adrenaline taking their tolls as she looks up to the woman, "Thanks, Ms. Graysen."

The opossum woman gives her a small smile as Ashleigh comes up beside her, "Phew, that was tense."

"Hush child," her mother chides as she kneels and turns Alice toward her, both hands on the fox girl's shoulders, "Now Alice, you should know better than to antagonize that woman."

"But Arnold stole my sword and even chipped it," she whines, a tear threatening to emerge but Ms. Graysen interrupts.

"I have no doubts he did. That boy's been a problem for a while now. But I have to tell you, if Ms. Duncan lost anymore of her temper," she takes in a breath and looks after the lumbering Urocks, "I don't think the village together could have stopped her from tearing you apart."

Alice looks at the bear pair too and sniffs, "I'm sorry, Ms. Graysen."

The opossum woman gives the Tokala a hug, "It's alright, all's well now." Ashleigh joins in, squeezing her muzzle in between her friend and her mother, making them both smile.

"I have some more cores to trade if you're still open," Alice announces proudly.

In Ms. Graysen's store, Alice trades her five jelly core stones for more bread, she was awfully tempted to get another trout but decided to purchase a greater quantity of the cheaper food.

Just as Alice is accepting her goods from the matronly opossum, Ashleigh bursts, "Did you really say you were gonna skin Arnold and wear him like a coat?"

Alice grins, "Maybe."

The Didel girl laughs. "You're so brave, Alice. I wish I could tell 'im off like that. Oh, that boy is just terrible."

Alice agrees, placing the bread into her shoulder bag.

Ashleigh asks, "What'd you buy all that bread for? You know it'll probably go stale before you can eat it," then she sucks in a breath, "Are you going on another one of your expeditions?"

"Yup, I'm headin' out tomorrow morning. This should last me a couple o' days," Alice replies happily.

Ashleigh bobs on her feet, "Oh that sounds so exciting, I'd love to come with you-"

"But you have chores to do right here," her mother finishes for her from behind the counter.

Ashleigh frowns, settling down and then asks, "Mom, can I go with Alice to the well?"

"Not this time dear, I need your help closing," the Didel woman returns as she hurries about, placing displayed items back into containers for the night.

"Awww," the young opossum moans and leans in to whisper to Alice, "If you can, try to find me a good clubbin' stick."

"I'll try," Alice whispers back.

Ashleigh grins and says in her normal tone of voice, "Bye and take care. I want you to tell me all about it when you get back."

"Be careful, Alice. If things get too dangerous you come right back, you hear?" her mother adds.

The Tokala hikes up her shoulder bag and calls back to both, "I will!" and then heads out the door.

After filling her water skins at the well, Alice heads back to camp. She has the rest of her first loaf of bread for dinner, settles into her tent, and immediately falls asleep.