A Walk in the Jungle

The three bandits laughed coarsely as they went through the sack of goods they had stolen a few minutes earlier. They had surprised a young girl walking the jungle path between villages. When they grabbed her she had wriggled free and darted down the path, leaving behind the canvas sack she carried. The bandits, lazy by nature, let her go after it was plain she ran quickly. Now they went through the contents of the sack, making crude jokes to each other about what they would have done to the girl if she hadn’t gotten away.

One of the first items pulled from the sack was a jug of apple brandy. Passing it around the three quickly drained about half of it. Their voices and laughter grew rougher as a result. The rest of the sack contained the kind of items a farmer might trade to another, and disappointed the bandits. Yarn spun from wool, some butter, fresh vegetables and apples were valuable to some, but the bandits were greedy and wanted coin or other salable valuables. Their thoughts returned to the girl and they wondered aloud to each other whether they could still chase her down.

None of the bandits saw the still figure of an old man watching them from between several trees. The man was dressed in colors that blended into the jungle and his knee-length scruffy beard concealed his face. Slipping silently behind the trees, the old man kept one blue eye on the bandits and planted his gnarled wooden staff firmly in the rich earth. Under his breath the man, a druid, called upon the powers of the Feywild.

A burst of rainbow-hued light enveloped the three bandits. Flickering fireflies swarmed around each, distracting them and slowing their movements. Behind the trees, the man smiled in a feral manner and melted. When his form solidified again, the druid had become a large black panther.

The first bandit didn’t see the panther as it pounced upon him from behind. His dying screams alerted the others to their most immediate danger. They drew their rusty weapons and stumbled toward the cat/druid. Snarling, the druid raked one with his claws, causing him to stagger away from his partner. Quickly circling behind injured bandit, the panther savaged him with great black claws, ripping away leather armor and flesh alike until the body collapsed in a heap of gore.

The remaining bandit gathered himself and braced his sword against a charge from the great cat. The panther just stared at him with intense blue eyes. Then, in a sun-bright flash, the flickering fireflies surrounding the bandit flared up, searing him with deadly light. He collapsed limply, steam curling up from his burnt eyes.

The druid sniffed disdainfully at the fallen brandy jug. Shifting back to the form of an old man he gathered up the remaining items and replaced them in the sack. His eyes gazed through the jungle undergrowth for a moment and then he set off.

“You dropped this,” the druid said to the girl a few minutes later.

The girl covered her face with a hand in a silent scream as she spun around from the tree she’d been leaning against. When the old man didn’t move, just stayed there holding out her canvas sack, she caught her breath and reached out to take it.

“Thank you,” she said in a soft and shaky voice. “Where are…” she swallowed thickly. “Are they following?”

The druid shook his head and gestured her onward down the path. She shouldered the sack and started walking toward the village. When she turned to ask another question a few steps later, the old man was gone.

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