• Published 27th Mar 2024
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Parks and Wilderness - stphven



A routine monster hunt goes wrong, stranding a lone guardsmare in the desert.

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Chapter 10 - Monsters

As with all branches of the Royal Guard, Parks and Wilderness initiates go through a period of training and study before becoming full fledged members. Due to the nature of the work, this tends to be a bit more hooves on than usual. Lots of trekking around the countryside, learning to repair traps and inspect nests and so forth.

But it’s not without a theoretical side. There are plenty of important tasks which are either too impractical or too dangerous to learn firsthoof. From surviving forest fires to surviving paperwork, I endured a solid month in a dinky little PWG training centre, memorising facts and procedures.

Nearly half that time was spent studying Equestria’s more dangerous flora and fauna. Aardsharks, bugbears, cragodiles, and more; I learned where they live, the problems they can cause, and how best to deal with them. Mostly this just covered the basics. I’d receive more region-specific mentoring after being assigned to a post.

But for some creatures, just the basics weren’t enough.

These were the creatures deemed so dangerous, so completely out of our league, that even though the odds of encountering them were slim to none, we still had to spend a full three days studying them. A full three days studying The List.

All sorts of rumours surrounded The List. As far as I'm aware, no living member of the PWG has ever encountered any creature on The List. So either the creatures are incredibly rare, or those who do encounter them quickly cease to be living.

Given that most of the entries seem to be taken straight from folklore and ghost stories, I’d always assumed this was just a case of “Better safe than sorry.” Sure, maybe some of these creatures did exist once upon a time. But their presence in modern Guard training material was just a reminder of the dangers that Equestria once faced. A fable to frighten cocky young guards, rather than providing actual relevant skills.

Then again, there was a rumour that some entries had been added at the direct request of the Princesses. I don’t see the Crowns intervening like that without good reason.

Whatever the case, all new recruits were made to memorise The List until they could recite it in their sleep.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and even all these years later, as I cower behind a boulder watching that thing stalk towards me, the list still comes to mind easily.

First, alphabetically, are the Alicorns.

Not the Princesses, obviously. While technically incredibly dangerous, they’re clearly not a threat to Equestria - they practically are Equestria.

No, the creatures on The List are the Wild Alicorns.

There’s a whole genre of folk stories about regular ponies who, by magic or alchemy or a deal with Tirek, obtain the power of the Alicorns, only to accidentally destroy their home towns and end up as haunting spectres in the wilderness. Sounds pretty far-fetched, to be honest. But it is true that Princess Twilight and Princess Cadance used to be regular ponies. If the two of them managed to ascend in the span of just a few years, who’s to say there can’t be others? I suppose it’s prudent to at least acknowledge the possibility.

Next on The List is the Angel Bunny. I’d never heard of it up north; it’s apparently a central Equestrian thing. Some sort of violent, capricious demon in the guise of a white rabbit. Ever since learning of it, I’ve been just a little bit leery around rabbits.

Next are the Deep Ones. Now these things scare me.

I know little about them. Just a vague physical description, the fact that they live in remote coastal caves, and that they’re very hostile.

The scary part is how some PWG veterans refuse to talk about them. Tough as nails instructors would clam up - or clam everypony else up - whenever the creatures were mentioned. Speculation was rife amongst my fellow students, but I stayed clear of it. Whatever the truth was, I was happy to leave well enough alone.

Fourth are Draconequus.

As far as anypony is aware, there’s only one Draconequus, and the Princess of Friendship reformed him years ago. But considering the amount of damage he’s said to have caused, it makes sense to be aware of the danger should I ever encounter a second one.

Or should Discord decide to duplicate himself. Apparently he does that sometimes.

What was next…? Oh, yes. Hollow Breezies.

I never really found a satisfactory answer as to how they differ from normal breezies. But after a bit of independent research, I did find a record blaming Hollow Breezies for some calamity a few hundred of years ago. Details were unclear on exactly what they did or how such tiny creatures could be a threat. But to this day, several empty villages can still be found in northwest Equestria, which the locals refuse to resettle.

I’ve heard a few horror stories about Hollow Breezies since then, but they’re all wildly inconsistent and unrealistic. Seriously, ribcages do not work that way.

Next on The List was another name from horror stories. All sorts of sinister things are attributed to them, from eating pony flesh to causing earthquakes to stealing horseshoes. In old fables and breezy tales, they often featured as terrifying monsters or evil enchanters, whom the heroine would have to outwit or escape. I’d studied their description years ago, but never in my life imagined I’d actually see one.

Until tonight.

Standing atop the ridge, illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, I see one now all too clearly. Perfectly matching the memorised description.

Looming, bipedal form, held aloft on stilt-like legs.

Slender, elongated forelimbs, ending in worm-like digits entwined around a crude spear.

Muscle and bone and vein visibly shifting beneath hairless, exposed flesh.

A human.

I shrink back into the shadows of my hiding spot as this horror from a hundred foal’s tales descends towards me.

It moves quickly. Powerful, over-long legs easily traversing the rugged terrain.

It hasn’t noticed me yet, but it’s getting closer. In seconds it will pass my hiding place - or turn and spot me.

Instinct and training and panic scream conflicting instructions: Run! Hide! Draw your sword! Prepare a spell! Curl into a ball and pray it doesn’t find you!

Through the turmoil and indecision, a single memory overrules the rest: the last thing I learned about The List.

I remember the cramped lecture hall. The gruff, accented instructor. What was his name? Doesn’t matter. His words still ring clearly in my memory:

”Now listen up! This is the important part! There’s a reason you just spent half a week learning about creatures which allegedly don’t exist. Should any of you have the incredible misfortune of actually encountering one of these bastards, there is exactly one standing order for you to remember: If you see a creature on The List, you get the hell out of there.

”You do not engage.

”You do not observe.

”You evacuate any civilians you can, but your highest priority is to inform HQ of the situation ASAP. This is not your fight.”

This was drilled into us over and over. The only response to finding a creature on The List is to drop what we’re doing and run.

Over the years, I’ve heard speculation that this is the true purpose of the Parks and Wilderness Guard. That all the monster hunting and forest maintenance is just busywork. The real reason we’re deployed to remote corners of the kingdom is to act as Equestria’s early warning system. Sentries, with enough knowledge to identify a crisis before it hits, and enough training to survive to report it.

Whatever the truth, I'm not fool enough to pick a fight with a monster from literal horror stories. While it may just look like a twisted, emaciated minotaur, I’ve no idea what it’s really capable of. (Apart from, presumably, skewering me with that spear). For all I know, my own sword might not even be able to harm it. Like I told Sandy the other day, best to steer clear of unfamiliar creatures.

All this flashes through my head in the time it takes for the human to take a single step closer.

So what do I do? I need to make a decision, but there's so much I don't know! Has it seen me? Is it moving towards me specifically, or just heading to its camp behind me?

Crunch. It takes another step.

Should I run? There's still some distance between us - I'd have a head start. But I'd immediately draw attention to myself. Or I could wait, hiding in the shadows, hoping it doesn't notice me. But that would mean letting it get a lot closer.

Crunch.

Both options are risky. How fast can it run? It’s only got two legs to my four, but they’re a lot longer. And can it attack at range? It's got that spear, and who knows what magic or other abilities.

Crunch.

How acute are its senses? Its nose and eyes are so small they seem almost vestigial, but it’s striding through the darkness with complete confidence. Could it have some sort of echolocation?

Crunch.

Getting real close now. Is it too late to run? Every moment spent deliberating brings it that much closer.

Crunch.

I can't think. Can't move. Fear and indecision pinning me in place. And a tiny bit of morbid curiosity, too. I’ll be the first pony to see a human up close in who knows how long. Even if it kills me.

Crunch.

It’s right there.

The silhouette towers over me, blacking out the starry sky.

I could reach out and touch it.

It could reach out and touch me. Or skewer me in the blink of an eye.

Crunch.

And just like that, it passes me.

Doesn’t pause. Doesn’t turn my way.

It missed me!

Crunch.

Crunch.

The footsteps continue steadily downhill. The human fades from view, swallowed up by the shadows of the valley below. For a few moments I can still make out flickers of movement in the dark. Then it's gone completely. Soon even the footsteps die away.

Silence descends over the valley.

I let out a shaky breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. My heart is hammering painfully. A cold sweat soaks through my coat. That was too close.

I screwed up again, freezing in place like that. Thank the Alicorns this time it didn’t cost me. Though honestly, I dare any PWG to meet a creature from The List and not freeze up. Especially when you’re alone, at night, in the middle of nowhere...

...Darnit, I’ve become one of those hapless horror story protagonists, haven’t I? I'm checking off every cliché. All I'm missing is for a stallion to show up for poorly explained reasons, we have have sex for even more poorly explained reasons, then the human inexplicably appears and kills him. Happens every time.

I shake my head. Focus, Glacier! I’ve got a mission to do. I need to get out of this desert. Not just for my sake, but for Equestria’s. The Princesses must be warned.

It’s a long way back to Tranquility Springs, but I’ll make it. Somehow. I’ve got to. And I’ve got to start immediately!

I begin climbing up the slope and away from the human. Extremely careful not to make any noise as I go. Weariness settles over me as I resign myself to yet more trudging through the desert. Haven’t had enough of that for one day, gosh no. At least I had that nap earlier, so I should be good for a few more hours. Plus, the air is finally starting to cool. With the sun set, the unbearable desert heat is quickly abating. In a few hours it will probably be too cold even for my liking, but for now it’s quite tolerable.

After a few minutes of stealthy clambering, I’ve reached the top of the slope. With one last leap I'm finally clear of the valley. Phew! I should be safe now. The wide plane of the badlands spreads out before me, bathed in pale moonlight. And immediately in front of me...

“What the-”

A blast of wind and sand slams into me, almost knocking me back down the hill. With a startled cry I slip back a step, rear hooves scrabbling on the rocky slope. I sputter and spit as I pull myself forward, trying to gain a firmer hoofhold.

Blinking the silvery sand from my eyes, I quickly look around. There’s nopony here.

What the heck? I just saw somepony! Didn't I? For a split second there was a pony-shaped silhoutte right in front of me. I think?

I look all around, frantic. But there’s nowhere for a pony - or any creature - to hide. Just flat, dry earth, and silvery sand.

Am I seeing things? Is the stress and exhaustion finally catching up with me?

Could it have been a trick of the light? A tumbleweed or bunch of leaves or something, caught up in the gust, momentarily forming a pony-ish shape? I know how easy it is to start seeing things at night; every rock and shrub starts looking like a predator out to get you. And after that run in with the human, my prey instincts are probably on overdrive...

Hmm. Could the human have something to do with it? There were all those stories about human enchanters and necromancers. Could this have been some kind of... shadowy… magical... sentry?

(Magic was never my strong suit.)

My ears flicker as I register a clattering noise behind me. Peering back down the hill, my heart sinks as I see the cascade of rocks tumbling loudly away. Damnit! I must have knocked a few loose in my panic. Ghost sentry or not, the human’s sure to come investigate now.

So much for escaping undetected. Well, in the words of that one instructor whose name I forget: time to get the hell out of here!

With Luna’s light shining bright overhead, I dash forward, galloping across the barren wasteland. No more figures appear in my path. Looking back over my shoulder, there’s no sign of the human yet. I keep running.

The harsh contrast between moonlight and shadow makes the world seem flat and unreal. There’s no depth, no detail. Just pools of black, and patches of colourless light. Distances are hard to judge. Are those dark bands looming cliffs and abyssal canyons? Or just small hills and shallow dips? Silhouettes on the horizon watch my progress. They're immobile and mundane when I glance directly at them - rocks or bushes, probably - but in the corners of my eyes they’re humans creeping stealthily towards me.

I keep going. Don’t know where I'm going to. East, roughly, but I never saw this side of the valley in the daylight. I’ll need to start heading north eventually. But for now I'm just trying to get away.

After a while - probably minutes, but feels much longer - I duck behind a convenient rock, panting for breath. I'm uncomfortably hot again, despite the cooler air. A mouthful of water helps, a little. I'd love to finish the whole bottle off but I have to ration it. I've got a long night ahead.

I catch my breath, and try to get my bearings. A quick check of my compass confirms I'm still headed in the right direction. Then I spend a few moments scanning the horizon. Trying to decipher the silhouettes and shadows. Best I can tell, there's open planes to the north. Low hills or cliffs to the east. Higher cliffs to the south. And to the west-

“Human!”

My heart skips a beat, seeing the familiar outline. A long, lean phantom, carried on stilt-like legs. Definitely not a trick of the light this time. It's hard to judge the distance - thirty metres? fifty? - but it's moving.

The distant shape seems to spasms suddenly. A flicker of shadow and a glint of light are all the warning I get before-

CRACK!

The spear glances off the rock next to me, sparks flying. Nearly taking my head off before tumbling away into the darkness. I don't see where it lands - I've already bolted.

Prey instinct has taken over. I run blindly through the night, primal panic pushing me to run harder and faster than ever in my life.

I’ve been chased by dangerous creatures before. Even had training to overrule my natural instincts to flee. But this is different. This is a genuine monster from The List.

I do not engage. I do not observe. I get the hell out of there.

And I absolutely do not slow down, no matter how much my lungs start to burn and my legs start to shake.

Time passes in a painful, terrified blur. The surreal lighting, monotonous landscape, and dizzying weariness makes it feel like I'm in one of those nightmares where I run, run, run, but never make any progress.

Until suddenly I stumble. Tripped over a loose stone in the gloom.

Miraculously I manage to catch myself. Just narrowly avoid breaking an ankle, thank Celestia. The near miss snaps me out of my trance. Blinking, I spare a quick look over my shoulder. The human is still in pursuit, but far in the distance, and receding further. It’s working? I'm outrunning it? Ha! Suck it, two-legs!

Looks like the human's bipedal form is ill suited to chasing down prey. Probably an ambush predator, using its spear or magic to strike from a distance. Given how much faster I am than it, hopefully it will decide I'm not worth the effort.

Still, I keep running. Legs seizing up, lungs full of needles, but I keep running. The human shrinks until it’s little more than a notch on the horizon. As I enter a patch of rough gullies it finally disappears from view.

I collapse, gasping. For a solid minute it's all I can do just to breathe. Trying to sate my overworked lungs. Rest my abused limbs. In the chilly evening air, I'm literally steaming with perspiration. Now that I've hopefully lost my pursuer, terror-fueled adrenaline has given way to utter exhaustion. It's been a long day.

Eventually I manage to levitate up my canteen. Hooves are too shaky to hold it. Two long draughts leave the bottle empty. I'm desperate for more. Feels like I'm melting in my own skin.

I float my helmet off. Let my mane breath a bit. I press the exposed parts of my coat to the cold earth, doing anything and everything to cool off.

By the stars, I just want to close my tired eyes and rest. But there's no risk of accidentally falling asleep this time. The fear that the human might still be following is enough to get me back on my hooves after just a few minutes. My legs are filled with lead, but I force myself towards the top of the nearest ridge. Need to be sure I'm safe before I let myself relax.

I'm barely halfway there before I see the tell-tale shape of the human.

Damnation! Does this creature never quit?!

At least it's still quite a ways away. But the distance between us is dwindling steadily. Worse, the creature shows no sign of slowing down. Just how much stamina does this thing have? It has to slow down eventually, right?

This really is starting to feel like a genuine horror story. The monster may not be as fast as me, but it's relentless. No matter how far I run, in just a few minutes it's caught up again, leaving me no chance to rest. I just have to try to outlast it. Hope it gives up before I do. But even if I had a full canteen, I don't know how much more running I could do. What chance do I have against a predator that never stops?

Or maybe... Maybe I've misunderstood its strategy. Maybe it’s not chasing me, but wearing me down. Forcing me to run while it conserves its own energy.

The pony instinct when faced with danger is to flee. But fleeing isn’t always the right response. Some predators rely on this instinct, driving their prey to flee until they’re too exhausted and weak to fight back, making them easy pickings. If the prey had just stood its ground in the first place, the predator may well have backed off.

Not that I really have the option of standing my ground. Not against a creature from The List. But fleeing in a blind panic is clearly not working.

I need to calm down. Come up with a plan. Play to my strengths, rather than letting the human dictate the engagement.

I duck back out of sight and begin heading down the hill. No need to make myself more visible than I already have.

Alright. Running’s not a long term solution. Fighting’s a last resort. Given that the human tried to skewer me the moment it saw me, I'm not optimistic about negotiation, either. That leaves hiding, or trying to scare it off.

I’ve got a few tricks for the latter - my enchanted fire ruby springs to mind - but this isn’t some dumb animal I'm dealing with. I shouldn't count on a bit of fire being enough to intimidate it. So hiding sounds like my best option.

The human did miss me in the dark back in the ravine, even when it was just hooves away. Its senses don’t seem that keen. It has since managed to track me through the desert, but I’ve been pretty much running in a straight line. It could have spotted me initially and just kept travelling in the same direction. Or maybe it’s following my tracks in the dusty earth.

I look over at my helmet lying at the base of the hill. The moonlight gleams off it like a beacon.

...Yeah, polished armour probably isn’t helping with the whole “stealth” thing, either. I quickly ditch the rest of my golden armour, tucking it out of sight behind a rock. I feel naked without it, but my best bet is still to avoid confrontation.

Next step: Reduce my scent as much as possible. Finding a suitable patch of dirt, I drop down and start rolling in it, dignity be damned. It sticks to my sweaty coat easily. Soon I'm coated in a thick layer of powdery dust. It's itchy and gross, but should mask my scent a little. Plus I'll blend in better with the surrounding environment.

I take a cautious peek at the human. Getting closer, but still a few minutes away. Enough time for one more trick.

I climb part way down the rocky wall of the nearest trench. There's a whole maze of these things, winding and criss-crossing. Most are about three or four pony-lengths deep, and twice as wide. From there, I keep moving parallel to the ground, leaping from crag to crag like a filly playing "The floor is lava." By sticking to the hard, sloped surfaces and avoiding the soft sand along the tops and bottoms of the channels, I'm able to move without leaving any hoofprints.

For any other pony, climbing jagged cliffs in the dark while fleeing a predator would probably be a terrible idea. But I was raised on jagged cliffs. I make reasonably good time, though I'm careful not to move too quickly. I can’t risk falling and injuring myself. Or knocking a stone loose and drawing the human’s attention. Every step is cautiously judged.

After maybe ten minutes I’ve travelled scarcely two hundred metres. My legs feel like jelly, but at least I'm not galloping. And it's kind of fun, in a nostalgic way. I've even managed to cross a few channels and make a few turns. Hopefully it’s enough to throw the human off. It'll have to do - if I stay out in the open much longer the human may spot me anyway. Time to find someplace to hide.

I’ve already passed a few small caves and crevices among the cliffs. After another minute of searching I find something suitable: A tall, narrow opening between a jumble of rocks, completely hidden in shadow. I only noticed it when I stuck a hoof in and found it dangling in empty air. I only hesitate a moment before climbing in. There can hardly be much worse hiding in there than what’s already chasing me out here.

The inside is pitch black. I daren’t risk lighting my horn, so I have to explore by hoof. It feels like little more than a cleft in the hillside, narrowing as it recedes.

After crawling forward a few paces, I turn back to look out through the opening. A sliver of pale earth and starry sky are my only light in the void around me.

Nothing moves.

Quietly, I draw my sword with my mouth. Just in case.

I don’t hear anything, save for my muffled breathing and pounding heart.

Time drags on. No sign of the human yet.

Maybe he's missed me? He could still be searching, but the rocky waste outside has innumerable hiding holes. He could search all night and might never find me.

I begin to relax. Leaning against the cave wall, I wonder if it’s finally safe for me to rest.

The wall moves.

There’s a clattering, chittering sound behind me. I scramble to my hooves, frantically trying to leap away. But I'm not quick enough.

Something pierces my hind leg. Like a knife’s been rammed straight through, just above the ankle.

A scream tears its way out of my throat. Shattering the night's silence. It's accompanied by the ringing of metal as my sword clatters to the ground.

The thing tugs at my wound, producing fresh waves of agony. Shock and panic override the pain enough for me to buck wildly. My good leg hits something hard and heavy. More pain, as whatever was lodged in my leg is violently torn out. I fall to the floor, gasping. My ears twitch at the sound of skittering all around me. It's close, so very close.

My horn bursts to life, blindingly bright. All thoughts of stealth forgotten. The narrow crevice lights up. Suspended along the walls and ceiling, mere hooves away, is a great, black sandipede. Easily twice my size. Its head hovers near my flank, two needle-tipped mandibles the size of my forelegs grasping towards me.

Instinctively I levitate up my sword, floating it between me and the threat. But the huge weapon is clumsy in the confined space. I don’t have the time or space to turn it the right way. Instead I just barely manage to bludgeon the creature with pommel, swatting its mandibles aside.

The sandipede backs away from the sudden intrusion. But it quickly moves to find another approach, scuttling up and along the narrow ceiling. Winding its way towards me.

I take a step back. Almost collapse as pain shoots up my leg. Gritting my teeth and blinking through tears, I spend a precious moment reorienting my sword. Then I slam upward with all of my telekinetic might!

Unfortunately, I'm fighting against gravity. With little room to aim or build momentum, the blade merely glances off the creature's thick, shiny carapace. Completely failing to cause any harm, but at least it's a distraction. The sandipede skitters away from the impact, snapping blindly at the weapon. I continue stabbing upwards wildly, while dragging myself out of the cave. Most of the blows miss or bounce off the armour. I do eventually manage to crush a single leg against the ceiling. Thick, black goo dribbles down my blade and onto the floor.

The monster doesn’t like that. Quickly squirming away, it begins approaching more cautiously, antennae flicking towards me. I've bought myself a little space, but I don't know if I can keep this up. Each strike is weaker than the last. I feel sick, and dizzy with pain. My wounded leg throbs, sending pins and needles up my flank.

Venom, I realise shakily. I'd told Fruit Punch that the juvenile sandipede she found wasn’t dangerous. But this is a full sized adult. Enough venom in its stingers to kill me a dozen times over.

I need to end this fight quickly. There’s antivenom in my pack, but it’ll be no use if I can’t get away. My pack…

I make one last jab at the sandipede's head, hoping to distract it while I shrug my saddlebags to the floor. Tearing through the contents, I grab my gem pouch. The enchanted fire ruby glows softly as it floats to my hoof. It’s supposed to be used for starting campfires when it’s too cold or wet, or when fuel is sparse. But a sudden bonfire out of nowhere also happens to be one of the best ways of scaring off wildlife.

I turn to face the sandipede, just in time to see it make another lunge at me. I scamper away, favouring my uninjured leg, only to be yanked backwards! My naturally bushy tail, matted with sweat and dirt until it’s just one big tangled mess, has gotten hooked on one of its mandibles. The beast doesn’t seem to comprehend this, simply snapping at me instead of trying to reel me in closer. I buck and kick and flail desperately, narrowly avoiding being skewered.

No time to aim. I send a spark of magic into the heart of the fire ruby, then throw it blindly towards the sandipede. It misses, sailing past it and crashing into the far wall. There’s a crack, followed by a wave of light and heat. A ball of fire the size of my head drops to the floor, searing the nearby coils of sandipede.

The worm screeches, darting out of the cave in panic. Dragging me along with it.

I spot my sword lying by the entrance. I snatch it up as I slide past.

Once outside, the sandipede pauses. Antennas twitching, as if trying to orient itself. I take the opportunity to kick myself off the ground with my good leg. My greatsword arcing overhead.

It barely scratched that carapace before. But then, my greatsword was never meant to be wielded by magic alone. Too long, too heavy.

Most ponies would never guess it’s a weapon specifically intended for unicorns. Its true power comes from using magic to augment my physical abilities, not replace them. When held with both forehooves, using magic to balance and to empower my blows, I'm able to put my entire body into each swing. My whole weight and strength and magic, concentrated into a single cutting edge.

Not a practical weapon against, say, a pony. But against a large, lumbering creature with a very thick hide…

My sword slices down, punching through the hard carapace. The mandible ensnaring my tail is sheared clean off!

I roll to my hooves as the sandipede shrieks, skittering away from the source of pain. I bring the sword up, balanced in the crook of my foreleg and resting against my shoulder, ready to strike again.

If I can strike again.

That last blow took nearly all of my energy. I can barely stand. Barely focus on the threat in front of me.

Crunch.

The sandipede watches me warily, blood dribbling from its severed appendage. I blink heavily, wanting this just to be over.

Crunch.

It rears up, towering over me as it prepares to strike. I ready my counter-attack.

Crunch.

Its neck explodes outwards, spraying me with black gore. I see the tip of a spear withdraw, leaving a gaping hole.

The sandipede flops to the earth, writhing and spasming feebly.

Standing behind it, bathed red in the light of the fire, is the human.