James grinned as he watched the white stag canter across the meadow and into the tree line. He dismissed the nagging thought that whispered he had been too slow to shoot it as it sprinted in the hazy summer sunshine and relished the idea of the slow hunt.
He hurried across the meadow with his hunting rifle slung on his shoulder, and entered the forest where he had seen the white stag. An experienced hunter and trapper, James had no trouble picking up the stag’s trace.
And the Great Hunt begins. He ventured into the forest, sleek and stealthy, and half-dreaming of the stag’s head pinned on his wall and of the praise his hunting buddy-rivals would shower upon him. He followed the spoor deeper into the forest, where towering trees aimed for the sky and their canopies blotted out the sun rays that fell in shreds on the mossy ground.
James caught up with the stag as it snacked before the dark entrance of a cave; twining leafless and thorny branches wound and slithered on the rocky surface around the cave mouth. He stood in a grove surrounded by bare trees that twisted away from the rock. Cavities in their trunks gaped in supplication, like eyes and mouths wailing in agony, and their branches reached out towards James with bony and crooked fingers pleading for mercy. But James noticed nothing; not the strange twisted trees and their slithering and knobby roots, nor the icy, ominous breeze blowing from the sepulchral cave; he only had eyes for the white stag standing in front of him.
With stealth and caution, James pointed the rifle at the stag, salivating the kill. The stag lifted his antlered head and pierced him with its placid and unperturbed gaze. Fury sparked in James’ chest and buzzed in his brain. How dare the stag not fear him? He was the hunter and it the prey. But the stag only contemplated James, challenging him to a silent and patient staring match.
James growled and pulled the trigger. The gun boomed and rattled the forest. The strange trees moaned in despair and screeched in pain. Blood-red sap poured down their rough trunks from small bullet-sized holes; unharmed, the stag stared into James’ furious eyes and gnashing teeth.
James gazed through the rifle sight again, blinking as red anger blurred his vision, when a shooting pain coursed through his toes and crawled up his legs like prickly, poisonous tentacles wrapping around his body. Snakebite; he glanced at his boots. But the boots were no longer there, nor were his feet. Course bark and spiky thorns had swallowed them, and were climbing up his legs and winding around his abdomen. Screaming, James writhed and flailed in pain and fear and agony, trying to rip the bark off him, but his body was the bark, and as the rifle fell with a dead thud to the ground, the thorny bark engulfed James and suffocated him.
His thrashing arms became twisted boughs, which grew ragged twigs. Tangled branches sprouted from his skull, reaching, begging the sky for mercy, while his bug-eyed sockets and gaping mouth froze into cavernous tree hollows.
The white stag watched the barbed and twisted roots of the James-tree slither on the ground and devour the precious hunting rifle.