Arnol passed the outskirts of the forest, the tall gloomy trees casting giant shadows on the ground. He was already exhausted, but he kept running doggedly, the uncertainty of the fate of his people driving him on. He had been moving as quickly as he felt he could, eating and drinking little and resting only when he couldn’t keep his legs going. Yet he still had a long way to go, and he began to wonder if the whole attempt was futile. A growing dread rose within him that it may already be too late. This spurred him on, and he forced himself to keep running even when he felt completely worn out. He found that he was able to draw out some inner reserve of strength. Maybe he could do this, he thought. If he tried to ignore the heaviness in his limbs and the splitting pain in his side, forcing breath in and out systematically, he could go beyond what he thought he was capable of. As he focused all his being on covering more ground, his mind began to grow hazy. He was barely aware of it as he stumbled and lay sprawled on the ground, the strain he had put his body under too much for it to handle. His lungs automatically made him suck in air as he drifted into unconsciousness.
It was night when Arnol came awake. He was lying next to a campfire with a blanket laid over him. He tried to remember how he had gotten here as he sat up and looked around.
At first he wasn’t sure if he could believe his own eyes. The creature that stood before him looked like nothing he had ever seen. He stared at it uneasily, his heart pumping, unsure of what to make of it. It looked as if it were two different creatures, but they seemed to be connected. The top half resembled Arnol’s own race, though it was naked, tall and muscular. But below the waist was the body of a large animal, with long legs and hooves.
The creature noticed Arnol staring. It turned and trotted over, looking down at him with a stern but majestic face. “I see you are awake,” he said in a deep voice. “We found you on the ground in a deep slumber. Since you were alone we could tell all was not right, so we made our camp here for the night.”
Looking around, Arnol now saw tents set up in the darkness, and others of similar shape. Some had two legs, some had four, but all of them seemed half human and half animal. He turned back to the one before him and managed to find his tongue. “Thank you for your help,” he said. “Uh…please don’t think me rude, but may I ask, what are you?”
The creature responded immediately, as if he had expected the question. “I am called a centaur. In our camp there are many different kinds of us: fauns, harpies, and others besides us centaurs. No doubt we seem strange to your eyes, since your people all have the same shape.”
Arnol looked at him quizzically. “How do you know that?”
“We have seen you as you passed through our land. Nothing goes on in this forest that we do not know of. You seemed to pose no threat so we allowed you to pass through. We are the watchers and protectors of the wild. But tell me, why have you come back to this land alone? Where are your people?”
Arnol told him of what had befallen the mortals since they had emerged from the forest. The centaur listened gravely. “That is indeed a dire situation,” he said when Arnol had finished. “All creatures must take the life of others to survive. That is the way of the wild. But these beasts seem driven by revenge to destroy your entire race, and that is an evil course of action. Therefore we will help you on your quest to bring a stop to it, and prevent the extinction of your race.”