Spirit Rise

Melody Kazey

Puck kicked her spritely little legs over the gnarled branch of the evergreen tree. The rough bark scraped against her skin leaving little red marks, angry even against the smooth tan of her skin. It didn't suit her, nor did the tree itself. The evergreens were her Ancestor's favorites. He was bold, fearless, and a powerful presence in the forest. The mortals that lived in these lands sent the most beautiful tributes and offerings to him when they were in need. Powerful oxen shot through the neck and laid on a scratchy bed of dried up grass or ripe, plump red berries on a clay dish painted with care. Puck wondered if their Elder could feel the shift in power over their domain.

Puck certainly felt it.

A small fawn with a gleaming brown coat speckled in white spots crept past the tree on which Puck was nestled. It sniffed around the base where a few twigs hid a pile of berries. Puck's lips twitched as she leaned over her hiding spot to get a clear look at the little animal past the needles. She waited with baited breath, one frail hand clinging to the rough bark and another slowly rising to point at the fawn. The animal nudged at the twigs with its nose, revealing the sweet reward.

"Gotcha," Puck whispered. The tip of her finger grew bright with power that the deer never saw. Each of the plump berries burst, splattering the deer's snout. Its dark eyes went wide as it scampered away, still licking at its mouth for the remnants of berry juice. Puck giggled and held a hand to her mouth. The other wrapped around her petite body, barely covered by an ethereal silken dress that clung to the tree like lacy spiderwebs. She leaned back as her laughter intensified, slipping from the branch. She fell just a foot or two before the air caught and cradled her as the twinkling bells in her throat lessened.

"Having fun, I see," spoke a commanding rumble that made the red, gold, and blended leaves quiver in the wind. Puck opened her eyes and saw a tall figure on the branch she once occupied. His features were rough like the evergreens, deep set wrinkles and dark, moss green eyes. He was swathed in a robe of sewn earth and clay. A beard of swaying webs fell from around his thin lips. "This is a solemn time, you know."

"Yes, Elder," Puck mumbled.

The Elder tutted. It sounded like bark snapping in his jaws. "That won't do, Puck. You must speak and act clearly if you wish to be a strong leader of your new domain."

Puck threw her arm sharply towards her forehead in a mortal salute. "Yes Elder. I understand." She withheld another giggle as her Elder Spirit let out a scratchy sigh like leaves being trampled.

"I can tell you miss your Ancestor terribly, Puck. You are still like a child in that regard." Puck squeezed her hands behind her back. It was true. He was her guiding spirit. Everything he did, she was meant to learn from, and she never felt like she could learn enough from him. He was the only one who could scold her for pranks and still smile at a particularly clever trick. He could teach her and still let her feel like she was in command of her learning. He made her feel safe. Then it was his time to join the Other Realm for Spirits to take their long rest, and suddenly she was alone, filling his monumental footsteps just as the next still season was approaching, a time when the villages often made tributes for protection. She had to handle it alone. The Elder Spirit smiled. "You must remember that he is not so far gone and you are never alone."

"Alone enough," Puck said, lowering herself to the forest floor. She started gathering the twigs from her prank into her arms to find another place to lay them. The Elder's voice still rang clear from so high above.

"He is watching," the Elder Spirit said as he started to fade away. "He is guiding. Remember."

Puck shook her head and curled a finger through her knotted jade curls. She had been given so many directions when it came to eventually leading the people of this land. She had to be herself, but not too much. She had to be strong and forceful, yet pliable and kind. Could they be anymore contradictory? Whatever it was Puck needed to do, she had to figure it out quickly and make her Ancestor proud.

Voices rose up to meet her. They chanted in time with each other, different harmonies weaving around the melody of the language unknown to those from other regions of the world. Puck loved that about her claim on the world. They were an indigenous people who still believed in the power of nature and its Spirits. It gave the Spirits strength in their domains. Most parts of the world locked their doors to the Spirit realms and left those parts of her world dark and cold like an endless still season. She was frightened of them and those who had to watch out for their own natives so helplessly.

These voices held worship and belief in their notes. The people's hearts were open. It was beautiful, but now it left Puck terrified. They were offering prayer and tribute for help, but she had to be the one to answer now. Puck dropped her sticks and twirled in a circle until her body fizzled away from that section of the forest.

The forest cleared for a few miles in each direction. Cabins made of thick logs were scattered across the plain of lightly trampled grass that led towards a field with tall stalks of wheat. Opposite that was a grazing yard for the roaming cattle and visiting deer. The sun warmed the animal's backs and the villagers' heads as some hammered into fences or drew water from a newly sprung well. Groups of men returned from within the tree line dragging woven tarps expertly designed to carry large animals for the impending cold season. They were still some months out, but many people relied on the preparedness of the village's hunters, gatherers, and crafters.

Puck swung her legs over the side of a softer tree, this one with leaves in her favorite reds and golds. She watched the villagers scurrying about, taking care of what they needed for the still season. At the tree line she saw a few totems made of carved wood set in a circle around a clay orb. It was painted with red clay that matched the skin of the villagers. Darkened marks from charred wood and stalks made eyes and brows. Some mixture of pigments created a pinkish tone for the lips painted into a smile. Wrapped around the top of the orb was a red stitched bow. It fluttered as a passing wind ruffled it.

Puck lowered herself to the offering. The power emanating from the totems made her heart race. They shouted the needs of the villagers. Puck could almost see the dampened eyes in the totems.

"Great spirit of the forest," the totems cried, "I know you come to us new and fresh. We seek your wisdom and protection." The ghosts of hundreds of men kneeled around the edge of the forest led by one elderly man with thick white hair and humble gray eyes. His hand clutched a transparent staff carved with the symbols for all of her Ancestors and even Puck herself. So they did know of her Ancestor's passing. "Outsiders from the mainlands seek our resources and have already trespassed on our sacred grounds. They come closer each day and soon they will be upon us. Please protect us from those who would harm us!"

Puck clenched her eyes shut at the force of their tribute and prayers. With a final rush as the song came to its climactic conclusion, a gust nearly knocked Puck off her feet and the air fell silent again. She looked out at the nearest cabins of the villages. Through the windows she could see young sons and daughters storing tanned hides and dried, salted meats while mothers prepared the evening meals of stew or flamed licked steaks.

Everyone looked prepared to bundle up with their kin for the still season, but there was the constant thrum of fear that blanketed the village as they worried about these outsiders. Puck knew the darkways between the Spirit Realm and the mortals overlooked both great and terrible events. The people of those lands had man-made powers used for good and evil. She couldn't allow the evil to tarnish the good that this village harbored. These were her wards.

Puck skipped away from the totems, letting her body fizzle away and reappear in the sky over her protected lands. The land looked washed in greens, reds, and golds. Puck looked closely towards where the green met the foaming blue of the ocean. That was when Puck saw it: an enormous stark white boat with gold lettering of its people. It looked fit to hold hundreds of passengers, all from foreign lands. Already Puck could see the large spots of brown where the earth peeked through clearings created by the outsiders.

They certainly looked foreign in their black and gray uniforms covering them from head to toe. Reflective shields covered their faces and thick padded gloves wrapped around their hands, and up their arms. The ones in the clearings were in makeshift tents, not of natural woven materials but of man-made cloth that looked strong enough to withstand most sharpened tools for a long time. Some were gathering large logs they had cut up with rapidly spinning metal blades. Others were pushing down on levers that clicked and created spouts of fire that immediately licked up the logs.

Puck tapped her finger to her pointed chin. Her eyes panned over the lush scenery and a thought occurred to her.

"If these outsiders are bringing a cold reception, it's only fair that they receive one."

Puck raised her hands to the sky. They trembled ever so slightly as the forces of nature heard her summons and heeded. The lazy strings of clouds that littered the sky stopped their normal path and bent against an unseen power. Curling, twisting, swirling, they bound to each other and formed a darkening mass of angry water droplets. Puck pursed her lips and blew a kiss to the sky. The chill coated her lips and followed the flow of air, wrapping around the storm that attracted more rumbling dark clouds from the horizon. With a snap of her fingers, Puck let loose the strangled storm onto the lands.

It started with a sudden flurry. Delicate flecks of snow drifted down onto the canopies and the hardening earth. They couldn't reach within feet of any flames in the camps or in the village. In minutes, the dusting of white became a thick downpour hammering the trees with an accompanying gale to drop the temperature even lower. Fires went out. Tents blew over. Fallen leaves swarmed and harried everyone below. The once green trees were now pale peaks with the occasional red and gold leave cracked and poking through. The foreigners scrambled for cover, tripping and sliding in what remained of the muddy dirt before the sudden chill could harden it further. Some lost their boots to the stuck earth. Others wrapped themselves in the tents they could save from being knotted around trees.

Puck held her belly and laughed, looping in circles in the air until another rumble not of her creation summoned her. She felt her body fizzle and disappear from its high up perch, reappearing in a secluded glade of snapped trees and a steadily growing blanket of snow. Translucent figures surrounded her with varying states of disapproval on their faces.

The Elder Spirit, covered in slowly melting frost, stepped forward. His leaf-wrapped feet left no traces in the snow. "Puck, you don't realize what you have done." It was a statement that, with a few moments of consideration, she couldn't deny.

"I was helping my wards," she said, but there was something the Elder Spirit knew that she didn't. There was always something left for her to learn on hindsight.

"See what help you think you wrought."

The Elder Spirit raised his arm and turned his wrist. The air wavered and hardened, reflecting Puck's face back at her before shimmering into a new vision. The site of the totems from the villagers was full again. The spirits of those who worshiped nature called out from their ghostly forms, hope's path to the Spirit Realm. They were still fearful, but now they were also in pain. Their hope and praying came with an air of mistrust or shame.

"Oh no," she whispered. "No no. You haven't done anything wrong." She spoke as if the villagers could hear her, but she knew that couldn't be. Their world's were connected, but still very separated. They couldn't communicate in such a way.

"Some know this," the Elder Spirit said. He waved to the mirror and it vanished. "Some are simply angry to be punished and still receive no help. They turn to the weakest in their lands and point fingers."

Puck lowered her head and let the wild curls fall over her face to cover the deep magenta blossoming over her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Elder Spirit. I only meant to help. Ancestor would understand."

"But he is not here now. And you are not fit for this position. We have concluded that you are to step down from your wards, young Puck. You have much to learn before you could ever be reconsidered as a Spirit to these lands."

Before Puck could argue, she watched in horror as the dominant spirits of the realm raised their arms in collective power. Puck's body thrummed with a strength not her own. It started as a warm tickle, but quickly became a searing pain across every inch of her skin. She cried out and hugged herself. The burning was shunted aside by a sudden piercing cold. Her feet sank through the snow with a crunch. The winds tugged on her veil of a dress and left her shuddering. Glassy eyes took in her executioners.

"Please let me back in!" she begged, dropping to her knees and clasping her hands together. "Elder Spirit, please!"

None of the spirits answered. At least not in a way she could understand. They were nothing but wisps, easily mistaken for a false image created by the whirling snows. With another blink, they were gone, and Puck was alone in an abandoned corner of the forest. A sad whinny caught her attention. She turned to see another wandering deer, small antlers dripping with icicles. A plume of hot breath escapes its snorting nostrils. The darling fawn was shaky on its feet until it finally collapsed into the snow. Puck ran to its side, feeling the cold snow and sharp rocks beneath her aching feet. She dropped beside the deer and threw her arms around it. It didn't move, only let its chest rise and fall in shallow bursts.

"You poor thing," she whispered. "Probably lost. I did this. And Elder only knows what I might've done to the villagers."

Puck clapped her hands together and rubbed them, drawing on what little natural power she retained. Her hands warmed and a small flame exploded in her palms. She held the fire in one hand, savoring the heat, and dug a little pit in the snow next to the fawn's head. She found a few buried twigs, used her heat to dry them out and made a fire that wouldn't last nearly long enough.

"Sit tight, little one," Puck said. She gave the deer a kiss on its frigid head and then scampered off to the edge of the forest.

Most people gauged their days based on necessity, and as the seasons changed, necessity changed. The village Elder watched his people scramble to and fro, huddling with others for warmth or seeking the few pelts that had been cleaned and prepared for wear. He didn't take one for himself, rather he offered it to the nearest woman and child he had seen as he assessed the sudden shift in weather silently.

When there was little else for the physically feeble man to do, he separated himself from his people and approached the prayer yard. The totems from previous weeks were buried under a few feet of snow that had been accumulating since the sudden storm. Small hoof prints wrapped dizzying circles around the totems. Something had at least heard their prayers, but the response was unexpected. Still, the foreigners remained at bay.

A twig snapped in the trees, drawing the Elder's attention. He expected to find another animal sniffing for food and refuge. Instead a stunning creature approached. She was covered in a rich brown coat with a few pale spots like those of a fawn, yet she walked on her hind legs like a human, the supple curvature of a grown woman agreed with her, and her powerful antlers towered above. Her own approach was delicate, shy. Glassy eyes took in the winter scene.

"I must speak to you, village Elder," the creature spoke.

"Then let us remove ourselves from the cold," he offered in a craggy voice, parched.

"There isn't time, and I dare not face those I've harmed."

The Elder nodded slowly in understanding. "Gracious one, I am well enough here if you are."

Puck lowered herself to her knees in the snow within the ring of buried totems. She hoped this form would be amenable to the mortals. They could be so sensitive when they were faced with great power, but her people who allowed for a bright entryway between the Spirit and mortal worlds, would certainly find heart to face her, especially in her lowly state.

"Elder, I am Puck," she began. "I am-I was the warden of these lands, and I heard your cry. I hoped to help send those invaders away with a taste of early winter, but it seems I've caused more harm than help. For that, I am sorry. I hope you will allow me to correct the mistakes I made. Let me thaw your fields and warm your children."

The Elder considered her for a moment and then let out a deep sigh that broke Puck's heart. "Surely if this were within your capabilities, you would have done so, great Spirit."

Puck frowned and looked at her hands. Flecks of snow clung to her fur even after she called upon the fires to warm the creatures she passed. How could he, the mortal, be wiser than she, the Spirit?

"I could have done more, but soon after I offered my gift, my powers over these lands were stripped away. I've reached out, but it seems I'm just one step above mortal now. My power is limited and I don't feel as though another spirit has taken my place or will undo what I have done. Perhaps this is my lesson, my punishment."

Still Puck pressed her hand to the earth. The snow sloshed away into a muddy pool. She sent the heat to where she knew the wheat fields to be. She felt a quarter acre of land begin to heat and thaw, but as she reached for the life underneath, she felt nothing. The life was long gone and no one would be nourished from it.

"Let me right this wrong," Puck said, although she didn't know how yet.

The Elder only smiled. They were interrupted by a gong echoing in the still air. The Elder's body stiffened in alert. He used his walking stick to help himself back to his feet. He nodded low and still despite the warning bell that clamored in Puck's ears. "Gracious spirit, you are wiser than any of us. If this is our punishment for wrongs, we will pray with more vigor and right the wrongs we have caused to the spirits."

Then he hurried back to the sea of cabins. Puck crossed her arms and followed behind him.

The air in the camp was stoic. While many were still hurrying about with thick tarps pegged to sticks to clear the snow, others were gathering around a cabin with an old symbol for health carved above the door frame. As the Elder and Puck arrived, everyone gasped and stepped aside to make room. Puck gently nodded at each person who gaped at the sight of her. Inside the cabin were two rows of rolled out blankets over feathers and straw, each of the dozen or so filled with harrowed villagers rolling and moaning in pain. Many were wrapped in cloth that was soaked through with thick red blood. Puck covered her mouth and wept at the sight. The Elder laid a hand on her shoulder.

"Gracious one, this was not your doing," he said in a soft voice. "It was the snows that held back the outliers for so long. While we may be weaker and move slower for want of food, so do they. However, they have become aggressive it seems."

"Elder!" A woman ran towards them from the back of the cabin. Her hands were wet and she was cleaning them on a towel steaming in the cold. "The foreigners have moved closer. They are in our territory past the Mirror Lake. We needed to go there to see if any of the winter berries had grown in, but they found our people. This is what they did, those savages."

The Elder shook his head sadly. "Their gods give them different resources for handling such weather. I fear we cannot stop their approach."

Puck stepped past the woman who only just now seemed to notice her and began to gape like the others. She bowed and moved out of the way. Puck rested a hand on one of the villagers' bandages and sought some power that remained in her. She felt the same strength that could sew a single seed and let it twirl around her fingertips, through the bandage, and pull the broken skin back together. The man on the bed cried in pain that brought more tears to her eyes. She could feel that the wound was at least empty. No foreign munition remained in the bleeding hole. Like a mother comforting her child, Puck whispered gently into the villagers ear.

"You will survive this. You are strong and will be strong for your family." Then the power cut off as the wound was sealed, but still inflamed. Puck stepped back and turned to the Elder. "Good Elder and proud people to whom I owe my life and strength, I will help you stave off these invaders. I will use what powers I hold to push them back to their ships. My methods may be unorthodox to the Spirits, but my Ancestor understood that I could learn and be great, and I will. But I will need your help. Will you help me to help you?"

Silence fell in the cabin. Even the groans lightened as the conscious injured turned their heads and bodies to her. The Elder raised his hands. The man healed by Puck's touch raised one arm high while the other remained wrapped in a sling. More hands followed until the air was brimming with their silent prayers. Puck smiled and grateful tears dropped into the fur of her cheeks.

"Then we have much planning to do and not much time. This will be the greatest of any trick I have ever played."

All along the fields stretching past the village, the natives set to their tasks. They took their strongest tools to break through pockets of hardened earth where the rapid freeze had taken hold. The work was arduous, and they feared that at any moment the foreigners would surprise them with a spray of deadly metal shrapnel as they had done to their unassuming families and friends. They simply had to trust in the spirits they had always worshiped, and they did put their trust in one spirit in particular.

Puck couldn't watch from as high up as she would like. Her powers were significantly dampened, but her mood was lightening and she still felt light as air. For once, Puck was absolutely certain that she could use her powers as she did best and the Elder Spirit would praise her. Her eyes fluttered towards the pale gray sky where she wished she could find her Ancestor.

From her spot among tall dead grass, Puck turned back to her duties after a few villagers wiped their brows and shouldered back into their furs while heading westward towards the village. A deep trench remained, sodden in some places and beginning to ice over in others. It was fifteen feet across, large enough to catch unsuspecting travelers. Puck kneeled over the pit, a little jumpy herself at the sounds of swaying grass and crackling leaves. She couldn't let any more harm befall these people. The Elder Spirit may not view them as her wards, but they would forever hold a special place in her heart.

The young spirit dug her fingers past the snow and scratched little wells into the ground, eyes closed and mind focused on her prickling skin. The thorny growth was resting in this sudden season change, but Puck sent all of the energy from her quickly beating heart out to the invisible webs that drew the realms together, the very essence that nature praised for bringing life. She let it sink into her heart-what little of it would listen to her in her lessened state. The crusty walls of the pit shivered and cracked as new buds poked through the dirt. The bright green sprouts lengthened and curled into thorny tendrils weaving across the pit like a net of knives, enough to tear through any man-made material. Puck ignored the taste of blood in her mouth and the cold sweat along her brow.

Next, Puck spat into both palms and rubbed them together, her thin tongue jutting out of the corner of her lips in concentration. The dampened spots in the pit along the rough walls and stagnant along the bottom hardened into ice crystals and glittered like a pond of diamonds. Puck laid her hands out over the trench and felt them tingle with a minty coolness. The ice shards trembled below and lifted out of their dirt casing. They hovered together like an unfinished puzzle right along the lip of the scar in the ground. Puck opened her mouth wide and huffed onto the shards. They melted down just enough to knit together into an icy plate with little veins of dirt and leaf bits.

With the task complete, Puck held her arms out to the rising snow around her and wiggled her fingers, gathering droplets of energy that grew bright around her nails. She wrapped her arms around her chest, and as they moved, so did the snow bank, drifting over the delicate covering to the pit. Puck waved her hands a few times to make the snow look natural and even with the rest of what had fallen and nodded at a job well done. She followed in the footsteps of the villagers and used her power to fade their tracks behind her.

Everyone who had completed their tasks gathered back in the village while Puck finished hiding the last of the pitfalls. Then she lifted herself along the breezes she could find and shimmered out of sight, spying from above. She steered the winds towards the first of the search parties. A group of seven men stepped through the snow heading west. Each crunch through the compact powder sounded like bones breaking. They muttered into small black devices that squawked back at them like angry birds. The intruders shared directions and updates. Puck cleared her throat and let out a belch that echoed across the field, but what the travelers heard was a terrible growl from a large beast. Puck had fun combining a lion's scratchy rumble and the shriek of a ravenous puma. The foreigners wouldn't know these animals weren't native to these lands.

The scouts jumped and turned towards the sound, aiming long silver barrels towards the line of trees some hundred yards away. More chittering into their devices commenced, and Puck waited with baited breath. She could barely withhold her shout of joy as the men quickly moved in the other direction, eyes constantly on their backs for whatever creature they had dreamed up that could make such an ungodly sound.

"And three, two, one." She swung her fingers like a conductor of a musical prayer and then smiled as shouts of surprise filled the air. The glassy surface shattered under foot and the group toppled over into the pit, yelling and groaning as their clothing and skin tore. The ones who wagged their arms for balance met the unseen bottom of Puck's foot to their chests, and they joined their brethren with a resounding splash.

Puck giggled and flitted away, wishing she could have watched as the now torn up uniforms let the icy water seep against their skin and make them scramble home.

Each incident was the same. Puck corralled the invaders in the direction of the traps with a terrifying noise or a rumble of the ground and some cracking sounds for flare and then let them run back to their camps as quickly as possible for warmth and shelter. Satisfied with her work, she returned to the village.

The moment she fizzled back to existence at the first line of cabins, she froze. Cabins were scorched, manic scuff prints littered the snow, and yet everything was so silent. Puck peeked into one of the cabins. It was empty, but blotches of red stained the dirt floor where snow drifted in. A terrible ache wrenched Puck's stomach. Her people were ones to never leave their dead to be desecrated. She looked around for a trail of blood and found more than she cared to ever see. They lead from all of the nearest cabins, a trail of memories and mourning.

Puck sprinted through the village, finding far too many of these trails and far too few people who could have left them. She arrived at the center of the village and could now see the distant shadows of villagers traipsing towards the dead wheat fields. A string of rapid blasts made Puck jump and the screams that followed tore at her heart. Nearer commotion streamed out of the Elder's hut, the only building so far without scorch marks. Puck crept closer and listened by the door.

A man spoke in a foreign tongue, barking commands at whomever was inside. Puck understood the tongues of all men through her connection to nature and mankind.

"Where is your food?" barked the soldier from across the sea. He wore medallions along his breastplate and the helmet visor was raised to reveal his steely eyes. He stood with the authority of the unit's commander. "Food! You understand?"

Puck closed her eyes and felt warmth in her mouth. The words of the soldier drifted away into gibberish in her ears, but she hoped that meant the Elder could heed him now. If only she hadn't had her gifts taken. There were so many things she wished she could change.

"You have taken the food we were able to prepare," the Elder said. Puck breathed a sigh of relief. The soldier eyed the village Elder warily. "The resting season came upon us swiftly."

The soldier spat and then shouted more gibberish. The Elder calmly responded.

"If we could not hunt, we would not have lasted so long." A small chuckle escaped him. "If you kill off our people, you kill off our hunters and you surely will be left with nothing. We are protected by a powerful spirit who haunts the forests. She, too, will not let these heinous acts go unpunished. Already you forfeit these lands. They will not feed or shelter you."

Whatever the commander said, it spoke of his extreme displeasure. Puck dared to poke her head into the entry way and saw the Elder on his knees in front of the commander who aimed his projectile weapon at the Elder's chest. The Elder only smiled at his captor. In a quick motion, the commander slid a part of the weapon back. The metal clicked, and in her heart, Puck knew he wouldn't stop. The seething in his face, the misery of dealing with the unexpected and plans gone awry. She charged into the hut, and felt a tingle in her mouth as she could no longer maintain the transfer of power.

The words that left the soldier's mouth were clear. "Long live the king."

With antlers poised, Puck drilled the tips into the belly of the soldier. A crack burst in the air and she felt a burning pain in her chest. Still she didn't stop. She had a contingency if any wandering soldiers made it back to the village, not if an entire regiment of them arrived. What she learned about mortals, however, was that they were fiercely attached to their command. The force of the charge sent Puck and the commander through the wall of the cabin, splintering the wood. He dropped to the ground and Puck called upon the warmth in her chest that was quickly oozing from her. The ground around them warmed, heated, became a ring of summer. Puck let herself drift just a few inches over the ground while the soldier sank into the muddy pit. She released him and the power and watched as the mud hardened into cold, hard earth again.

"What the hell!" he half screamed and half gasped. "What is this?"

Puck stood as tall as her aching body would allow. The embers of engulfed kindling filled her eyes. "You don't belong here," she addressed the foreigner in a low, steady voice. "These people are protected by me. Call your men and return to your ship, or you will suffer the forces of nature the likes of which you have never seen."

In the distance were more shouts of surprise and fear. The commander craned his neck towards his soldiers. Puck lifted a delicate finger, and the earth regurgitated the black squawking box right beside his mouth. The button by the speaker clicked.

"Retreat! All able-bodied men retreat. Grab your troops and head back to camp-back to the ship." he corrected as Puck's eyes flared up again.

Puck nodded and lifted her hands. The commander cringed as the still squeezing earth bubbled and spat out his broken body. Blocks of encased mud remained hardened around his boots and left a scraping trail where the commander hobbled out of the village clutching his ribs. Heavy footsteps of fleeing soldiers passed them by. No one stopped to regard any villagers let alone cast a stray apology for their lost. Puck didn't care. So long as they were gone, she was satisfied.

The commotion eased. Puck lowered herself to the ground and then collapsed in a pained heap. Nearby villagers surrounded her and helped sit her up, and the Elder kneeled in front of her.

"Let us care for you," he said.

Puck shook her head with a breathless laugh. "I've wronged you, but I hope what little I could do could make things right. I can't give you more food to survive the winter, but you should return to your peaceful lives."

"Who will watch out for us, Gracious One?"

"Hmmm..." Puck looked up at the gray sky. The sun peered past a small break in the sheet of clouds and blinded her for a moment. In the after image she could see a smiling face, brown as the mighty oak with rounded, pebbly teeth. She looked back down at her hands and the droplets of melted snow. Still a few flakes remained, the same ones that had never left her. The resting season clung to her like eyes, ever vigilant. She smiled back at her Ancestor, always watching. "All of us will," she finally said to the Elder. "I will, my Ancestor, his Ancestor before him and so on. But someone new has already been prepared to watch your lands. You-you will always be cared for as you have cared for us. I promise."

With that, her eyes fluttered shut. Warmth embraced her and the darkness behind her eyelids brightened into the enchanting Realm of light where the true nature of that smiling earthen face awaited her once more. She was at peace.

A village was a terribly important undertaking, and Pan knew this. Part of her had to wonder if she was being dealt a cursed land based on the fate of her Ancestor. Gone within weeks of her new burden. Still, she could have dwelt in much worse conditions. The lithe spirit raced through the treetops, watching the natural progressions of nature as predators hunted prey, blossoms burst and flecked away, and man found new ways of living without speech to communicate to the forest at large. She admired man's intuitive ways, and she was thrilled to feel the surge of joy in their tributes just beyond the ring of her forest.

At least that was before the tributes were chanted directly to her. Pan had been a simple spirit preparing for a huge undertaking-someday-but as nature would have it, she was given her wards much sooner than anticipated. She just wished she could have a few more centuries to learn from the ways of her Ancestor. The stories were ones of whimsical heroism, unexpectedly bold. It seemed more like fun and games, but perhaps she was simply that confident in her abilities.

Pan reached the edge of the forest and found a ring of totems carved into logs. Immediately she felt the familiar song for a good harvest. The ghostly visions of her worshipers sang out for tall stalks of wheat, fattened cattle, and warm fires. Pan nodded to herself, more a display of confidence than an actual feeling of such. Nature had ways to balance and provide. She simply helped it along for good people like those of her village.

Pan shakily fluttered up to a high branch and looked out over the cabins where her people awaited her answer. Her clammy palms pressed together, but still she hesitated to invoke the powers. Her first task simply had to go off without a hitch.

Below her perch, twigs snapped and the ground trembled as a family of deer raced past. They, too, would have prayers of survival in their minds that had to balance with the needs of all that surrounded them. It was enough to overwhelm an unwitting spirit. Then Pan saw something left behind from the pack and jumped down, walking the air like a ramp. A fawn lay in the dirt motionless, a fresh gash along its side and a trail of blood following from whence it came.

Pan lay a gentle hand over its brow. It wasn't long gone. The blood was fresh and the body was still warm. A tear prickled her eye as remnants of its fear washed over her. How could she balance this with those that might need its flesh to survive? Did she truly know how to create that balance even after all of her guidance.

"Oh Ancestor, I wish you were here to help me," Pan whispered. She pet the dead deer and then yanked her hand back with a surprised squeak as the deer lifted its head, dead eyes staring at her. For just a moment the eyes glowed with golden embers. It winked and then the head dropped back to the forest floor.

Pan sat frozen for a moment until a smile crept onto her face. It was a clever little prank, and she admitted she was fooled for an instant. Her dear ancestor Puck, the little trickster, was watching. She wasn't alone.