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Artificer

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  1.  

    FENGÁRI

        Valarys spoke — perhaps out of necessity as opposed to willingness. Fen saw the hesitation that cracked under expression, but she assumed things ought to go their way. Logically speaking, the slave had no better options. They were his ticket out; information was the payment. He must have realized this by now. Choosing wisely, he recounted his trek thusfar, marking beginning, middle, and abrupt end. Stjärn was not likely to take notes, so Fengári kept open an open ear in his stead. Anything that seemed important was mentally marked. Most information was deemed irrelevant.

     

        For the majority of the retelling, Fen looked kindly, but remained apathetic. It was important to don a mask in these types of things. Those with temptestous, internal strife required careful, constructed sympathy. After all, most slaves had unresolved issues. To get what she wanted required social precision. There was an end outcome in sight which would be favorable to all parties — if her assumptions were valid.

     

        Despite this training, little could hide her visible dismay upon hearing details of Zihayr’s change. Fen had known about it, but personally, she had never witnessed it. The masters sent concubines like her to visit The Champion after brackets. They were the prize — a privilege — that the winner of The Pits was afforded; however, Zihayr never touched them, a quality she admired about the werewolf. They were supposed to be a luxury devised for the purpose of incentivizing the violence for lust, but how could they be effective when the fights were so one-sided? All they were were bored women sitting with a creature which ignored them. Fen was lucky out of the few that visited regularly — she was afforded on several occasions to see him whilst human. Other times, like the others, she saw him as a wolf. Witness to see that both sides were not much different. Zihayr, at the end of the day, was still Zihayr.

     

        There was a third side though — the side Valarys witnessed — that she knew of. A side which Ashe had seen — a side that most did not survive to tell. Hearing the details of the pure malevolence from a second source left Fen perturbed.

     

        Was it really the best that they sought the wolf out? She had been taught to question things recently, so now she questioned. Was he really necessary to free Ashe?

     

        Thoughts drew back to the woman’s stubbornness.

     

        No — they would need Zihayr if they were to proceed in the plan. It wasn’t like Stjärn would give up on the idea of saving her.

     

        Sigh. Zihayr’s shift had birthed undue complications. He was now the biggest unknown factor to their success — not Fen. While she could control the aspects which revolved around her to some extent, she needed more information about the werewolf’s condition before proceeding. Uncertainty merited disaster much like Ashe's recent failure, and Fen was a creature who required certainty.

     

        There was still hope, though. From Valarys’s description, the spell on Zihayr’s collar just showed signs of weakening. If they could just reestablish the core of the complex curse, they might have a chance at assuaging the beast from a distance. Her background mandated at least rudimentary knowledge of curses’ inner workings should she ever the need to escape lock and key herself. Would it be too hard to recreate it?

     

        Yes, this was a real possibility. A solution.

     

        “What’s that rock he has?”

     

        “That’s a twin to a tracking spell on Zihayr,” she answered immediately, regaining composure. There was a plan now. “All the slavers currently searching for him have one — we poached this one from a few slavers back in Mezthaluen.

     

        “It pays to say you’ve seen the person on their wanted poster.” Acquire their tools at no cost to you.

     

        “Anything can be procured with a little wit after all — you just need to know where to look. Any weapon, any item, any secret. That stone points directly to his collar — you must have seen it glowing, right?”

     

        Wait — she said something. Words which didn’t fit. Something wasn’t right.

     

        More pieces fell into place.

     

        No….

     

        Immediately, Fen rushed up grabbed the stone from Stjärn’s hand. With haste, she began searching among the dead bodies. Hands deftly went through their articles, shoving snow aside at those which were now buried beside pillar.

     

        Her plan was shy of coming undone.

     

    *   *   *

    STJÄRN

     

        With little to no idea why the stone had failed him once more, Stjärn grumbled as he hopped off the pillar. Now that Fen stole the stone, there was nothing left to do. The werewolf was gone, and there would be no fight that night. Unstrapping the polearm from his back, he set it on the side of the rock. Hmmm — he might as well polish his halberd now. While the poor weapon would not clash against sword and axe, there was still a chance that the wolf-man would return.

     

        If so, he had to ensure his weapon was in pristine, fighting condition.

     

        Eyes drew to the scattered goods. His bag was one of the rucksacks on the floor, right? He needed his whetstone and a cloth. There were things left above, but he was too lazy to check. Knowing he had just missed Zihayr killed all excess energy.

     

        “So you fought monster in complete darkness — and Zihayr had to save you?” the dragon said absentmindedly. “That was pretty stupid,” he blurted, rummaged through their belongings. “Why would you want to kill yourself?”

     

        Such thoughts didn’t make sense, after all. It was was waste without reason — loss without gain. To Stjärn, the boy was completely and utterly illogical. Did humans not think? Balance was the way of all creatures — no point in going against it. Throwing what one had away was ridiculous.

     

        Nostrils flared as scales shuddered. Food… medicine… clothes… by the gods, where was his bag?! Frustration mounted as voice grew with irritation. He really didn’t want to think about how much more walking needed to be done.

     

        The stone was so green… so bright….

     

        “GRAH!” he yelled. With a flip, he tossed a bag to the other side of the room, a week’s worth of garments scattering across the floor. Women's garments.

     

        “I can’t fight him if he won’t even remember it!” he yelled. “I want to fight him — not some… whatever he is now! Grah!”

     

        Stjärn retreated to Thál. The dragon needed to feel something soft. He threw himself into leopard’s side as he buried his sorrows in the creature’s fur. If he had the muscles to pout, he would have.

     

        “This sucks.”

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  2.  

    FENGÁRI

        Thálassa was nimble in cities, but she did not have the grace of her snow-born cousins. In her eagerness to join in, the big cat bounded up and on, squeezing halfway through the crevice whilst also knocking down the barricade of piled snow. A plume of white showered inward toward the once-roaring fire, snuffing the latter out and leaving the denizens with a sudden draft.

     

        Worse off, the leopard was stuck between pillar and ceiling.

     

        Fengári turned sharply, eyes squinting at the beast. In one fluid motion, she tapped the top of the cat’s nose with the flat of her palm. “Thál!” she scolded. Her companion turned towards Fen with tilted head, hand-contact unbroken. The two stared at each other down for quite some time before the cat withdrew and yawned.

     

        Fen scoffed. What a conversation.

     

        Despite the numerous bags fixed to her back, the lumbering creature would continue trying to fit through. With a sigh, Fen retreated her hand, instead opting to unlatch the straps on her partner. Unsurprisingly, there was a large clatter as the cat slowly but surely moved in. One by one, the bags fell — some onto the pillar, some on the floor —, and Thál, by the end of it, had managed to squeeze into the rather small space.

     

        Fen shook her head. At least Shaldano and Astrasa got what they needed.

     

        “Stjärn, could you get the fire started again?”

     

        She hopped down from the pillar, taking a look back just to see the dragon still above.

     

        “Stjärn?”

     

        He was waving around the stone, rapping it against the boulder a few times. Ugh — why do I even bother.

     

        Fen wandered around the cavern, letting Shal and Astra tend to the mysterious slave. She’d listen in to their exchange, but would let the boy talk first. A slip of words was where information would be found. Remnants of the massacre might yield more.

     

        As she circled, her fingers traced the deep grooves left in hard granite. Polished nails caught on the dried blood which cracked off in thin flakes. Old blood. Frosted and caked. Single layer. Large area. This was his work alright. Kill fast, kill surely, kill many. It was one of many sure signs that the wolf they sought — or a beast of equivalent, monstrous potential — had been there.

     

        Eyes didn't fail to catch an almost insignificant detail on the wall. Among the chaotic carvings was a region with smaller, precise scratches, much unlike the others. Cut by a blade surely and not claw. Tallies — seven of them to be exact. Attention drifted to the small knife at the base.

     

        So he’s been here for a week.

     

        The neatly stacked bodies at the entrance further strengthened her claim. Signs of degradation in the bodies were just settling, and with the slave's injuries, it would have taken time for him to move things around. She would need to examine the corpses later, assuming the boy hadn’t tampered with them already.

     

        Things didn’t line up though. The wounds of the slave were bite marks. Gashes from claws. If Zihayr attacked the boy so savagely, why leave him alive? Zihayr was not the type to pity his enemies. Also, why did the slave speak as if he knew the werewolf with familiarity? Speak as if he was genuinely concerned?

     

        “Valarys…,” Fen muttered to herself. Had she heard that name before?

     

        A commotion rang out — footsteps followed by a crash. Fen turned, only to see the boy on the ground with Astra locking him in place. Shaldrano looked a bit shocked, and from that, Fen could take a guess at what happened. Lips thinned to a line.

     

        Why is it that men always come to the wrong conclusions?

     

        “Astra! Be gentle — the kid’s injured,” she snapped.

     

        She knew of the woman’s worry, but Fen doubted that one man could take on the four of them. Fleeing into the blizzard would be suicide as well. The slave was stuck with them in either case.

     

        Fengári paced over to just in front of Valarys, each step a stacatto in the otherwise silent room. She put down the lantern she held onto the floor, letting the light illuminate both his face and hers.

     

        “Valarys, I think you are mistaken if you think we’re here to take you back to Dairut — that's where you're from right?”

     

        She turned her head profile, still keeping Val in the corner of her eye.

     

        “We're from there too,” she said, “Look.”

     

        With practiced grace, she lifted her flowing hair up, revealing a small brand on her nape. It was a ornate flower, along with letters in small print. Its inked symbol would be recognizable to anyone from Dairut — especially those who frequented the Jovial Flats.

     

        “Unlike those men you’ve placed over there, we’re not slavers,” she continued, leading her hair back down over her shoulder. “Each of us left Dairut — cut ties with it, if you want to know.

     

        “— And yes, for a lack of better words, I’m a friend of Zihayr, and we’re looking for him,” she sighed.

     

        “How do you know him?”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  3.  

    STJÄRN

     

       Westward did the winds whip. A crop of cold lashed against all those who were coast-bound. Those seeking asylum, those seeking new opportunities — new trade, new life —, would face it. Kin who differed greatly from the common ilk would go there to Port Caelum should the winds favor their journey. It was a haven for unnaturals such as such as Stjärn. It was a place of equality. A place to be free.

     

       Caelum, though, was a place where he had already arrived at and soon departed. His goal, unlike others, was not freedom. The small gem in his hand pointed to his true goal.

     

       Onward he trekked, the wind at his back. Cloak swayed as tail whisked from side to side. Phosphorescent eyes peeked out with hues of yellows, blues, and greens, surveying through ice and snow. Through the glimpse of form beneath the cloak, one could make out the large, nacreous scales of turquoise which shelled the outside of his hands and body. Its beauty provoked a fortune per piece, unlike the soft flakes of brown which covered the inside, and he knew the price of each personally. A few blues could be sold for five merlins to a jeweler, and when properly haggled, fifty. To think, his armor — a part of his body — could be sold.

     

       Disgusting.

     

       It was sickening that the hide of his kind was a commodity poached and purchased by humans. Claws, teeth — whatever they could get their greedy hands on; mankind was shameless. Two horns peeked out, unable to be hidden by hood. Maybe one day they would cut those off too.

     

       While his companions shivered, the ice and cold could not bother Stjärn. He, unlike Fengári and the lot, was warmed by the pulsing core within his chest. His willed resistance to winter was as natural as breathing.

     

       Still, he was jealous of them. Their ability to hide the circumstances of their birth was much easier. Be it pointed ears or strange markings — those could be hidden. Unlike them, he did not have the luxury of hiding anything. His bloodline was obvious to anyone who had eyes. Stjärn was a dragon after all.

     

       — At least partly. Unlike his brothers, although he had the same face, he was much smaller, and stood on two legs. A bastard born from dragon-father and unknown mother. Belonging to both worlds and neither at the same time.

     

       The glow of the stone within his hand grew brighter as they descended from the crags, and soon, the group had reached the wind-carved passages. Strange, these shattered mountains were — far different from the Summit from which he hailed.

     

       He felt an energy well within him as he looked at the stone’s green shimmer. They would soon find one of hundreds of so-called ‘Lodges’ they were told about, and within one of them, he knew his goal would be waiting.

     

       Fist clenched around the magic tool. His face didn’t move, but scales shuddered with excitement. He would find him, and he would have the fight he was so long denied.

     

    * * *

     

    FENGÁRI

     

       Fengári followed pace behind Stjärn down into the ravines, her feline companion and the two others trailing at her rear. No one wasted breath talking, save for the dragon-man on occasion. Those times he did speak seldom carried anything new, save for his usual ramblings:

     

       “Ah— I can’t wait to challenge Zihayr. That wolf has it in for him! I’ll have him cowering like a dog with his tail between his legs.

     

    “Fen, it’s getting brighter! He has to be closer now.

     

    “Good thing we got on airship, right? I can taste victory already. He won’t be getting out easy like last time. He’s cornered!

     

    “Ah, yes, the stone, look! —And….

     

    “… fight!…

     

    “…Zihayr…

     

    “Zihayr.”

     

       Hours and hours he would just pop out to break the noise with that same ecstatic glee. Even though Stjärn was admittably cute when he did, Fen was slightly annoyed at the situation. She and the two others were tough, yes, but their kind was used to, how you say, warmer climates. Stjärn, however, was completely oblivious to his companions’ incompatibility with the weather. Dragons were very much dense creatures.

     

       “Why are you so slow,” he’d ask. “Please walk faster,” he’d say. “We can go a few more miles! We’re close, I swear!”

     

       Sigh.

     

       She supposed this was a part of that purity which enticed her so — a part of that which made her decide to follow him. Some days she wondered how she could be so captivated by someone so one-dimensional. There had to be more to that dogged simple mind of his aside from strength and honor. His existence was an enigma that she had to pry open — perhaps surgically should things go that far.

     

       … No, she couldn’t do that.

     

       Stjärn was different. He was one of a kind. He challenged her beliefs in full — gave fresh life to her breath. He was a sole presence that brought color to her monotonous world of indifference. That uniqueness — that novelty — was something she had never experienced before. Manual disassembly through known methods was not an option. She would learn of him genuinely, and without tricks.

     

       Perhaps one day, she thought, he may become something more than an experiment.

     

       — So every time he’d speak, she’d give a polite smile from beneath her scarf. It was a gesture visible to no one, but it was an involuntary habit. It may have owed origin to prior employment, but Fen liked to think she was different than those times. In her vocation, it was a tool for gaining trust. Now, she simply wanted to try acting as others did. Perhaps she would find if there was any truth to the little actions of little people.

     

       Routinely, she looked back to Shaldano and Astrasa — two other companions they had picked up upon leaving Dairut. Through the flurries of snow, she caught their expressions in the lanternlight, their haggard eyes and scrunched up faces. The dragonborn moved on, but the rest were slower than when they first began that morning.

     

       Now would be a good time to rest, she thought.

     

       In the distance, eyes caught firelight. Had they already arrived at a Wayfarer’s Lodge? Stjärn was practically jumping up and down about how the stone was “vibrating” with vigor in hand, but Fen was more cautious. There were people up ahead, no doubt.

     

       The question was whether or not they were friendly.

     

       “Fight me Zihayr!” Stjärn proclaimed loudly, “I know you’re in there!”

     

       She wanted to investigate, but soft fur brushed up against her gloved hands. A jolt arced through her skin. Fen’s green gaze met the sapphires of her companion’s. Thálassa’s fur was thick and strange and bristled — a dark gray with even darker rosettes. Her size was twice that of the average big cat, nearing that of a horse. A companion since birth, she was. The large leopard motioned towards the Lodge entrance, and Fen could feel her arms grow bumpy.

     

       Something was amiss.

     

       Fen approached first, and Stjärn, Shaldano and Astrasa, followed.

     

       In the front of the cave lied a fallen pillar of stone, one which covered half of the shelter’s mouth. From above, the dancing lights of fire emanated — but so too did a strange odor. Fen’s sense of smell was dulled, but the scent was as nauseating as it was familiar.

     

       She and Stjärn climbed on top, and peeked in. It was a shocking scene which would have fazed most; however, both’s expressions were unmoved. One's reaction from inability, and the other stemmed from years of desensitizing.

     

       In the room, there were emaciated corpses piled at the base of the entrance — some bearing familiar clothes — Dairutian clothes. The faces which remained were faces she knew — faces from The Pits. It was deeply unsettling to recognize them in that manner — their bodies rigid and bisected. The walls were painted with dried blood, and most of the cavern was a mess. There was even what seemed to be a dead body on the other side of the room. This had to be the work of Zihayr; however, had he always been this savage?

     

       “Zihayr — is that you?” Stjärn said, pointing at the corpse.

     

       Fen peered again. The dragon was on to something. That so-called corpse was breathing.

     

       Eyes narrowed.

     

       She did not recognize the person inside.

     

       The woman tugged on the dragonborn’s cloak. “That’s not Zihayr. Zihayr doesn’t look like that when he is human.”

     

       Fen was the only one in the group who had seen the werewolf unshifted.

     

       There was a loud groan, and while incapable of making expressions, Stjärn had clearly lost interest.

     

       Pity that they didn’t find Zihayr, but strange how the Slaver’s spell led them here. There were clear signs that the werewolf had been there in the cave; however, the man behind the carnage was not present.

     

       Eyes drew to the wounded boy and caught the scar around his neck. A slave, and too injured to be a threat.

     

       She removed her hood and scarf, letting her long, dark tresses of hair cascade. Tanned skin now facing the roaring fire, she would warm herself from a distance.

     

       “Shal, Astra — can you get the medical supplies? It's safe, but we have a kid in here and he's in pretty bad shape. Lots of dead at the entrance, so watch your step. Don’t want to trip.”

     

       Fen would need the boy alive.

     

     

     

       She couldn’t question a corpse after all.

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  4.  

       “You don’t need us?,” he scoffed, “Very well.”

     

       Fingers curled one by one into clenched fist. Eyes narrowed. He despised contrarians.

     

       “My gift is not a curse, child. You decide to remain a lamb for slaughter — I thought you were smarter. One should not anger their benefactors.

     

       “If I hadn’t made a deal with Zihayr, I would have no hesitations of adding your body to the count of corpses in my wake. You, as you are, are insignificant. I find myself lucky it is just your life traded for my freedom. Anymore, and I likely would not be able to restrain myself… I've been starved enough as is.

     

       “—But Zihayr is a lost cause. You think I would give him up so easily? He came to me knowing full well what it meant. He even accepted my gift with thanks — begged for it.

     

       “I will warn you once since I am so merciful.”

     

       Claws swiped at the boy by the rags, pulling in Valarys by the little that remained of his clothing. Lips curled into a snarl as the mask of civility cracked.

     

       “One does not tell a wolf what to do. One does not command he who stands above. One does not have the right to bargain with the likes of me.”

     

       Smoke began streaming from the gaps between his teeth. Words shook as composure waned.

     

       “Yet… you dare…”

     

       His nose and forehead butted against Valarys’s face as flecks of saliva flew from his shaking maw. Lungs heaved — cloth began to tear — pupils thinned to slits. Gone was the calm. Gone was the facade. His voice resonated with stone as demonic growl thundered out of throat.

     

       “YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM HES MINE!”

     

       He shoved Valarys down into a pile of guts. The Wolf was done being nice. All this boy had done was waste The Wolf’s time.

     

       “Know your place, human.”

     

       His face twitched incessantly. There was a subtle wince as that itch came back. Eyes drew to his shoulder, still pierced. Ah, that’s what it was. He let go of Valarys, and stood up, looking down at the boy with odium. With a yank, he dropped two bloody bolts onto the floor. Where there was a wound, there was flesh which began to knit itself. A boon this boy could not have.

     

       Tsk— too slow. He needed more kills if he was to heal faster — heal fully.

     

       From there, he stalked around the room searching — looking —, and while he perused, he continued speaking.

     

       “We’re a pair, but my partner has been allowed more time than allotted. Not of his own volition, of course… he would have let me out sooner or later — I would not accept if he made me wait any longer.

     

       “Infernal humans and their infernal magics," he muttered under his breath.

     

       Predatory eyes caught it first. Fingers brushed against the blood-soaked binding of not one, but two journals.

     

       “Twenty years since I’ve breathed free air for myself unfiltered. I’m not giving up this body, child. Zihayr has a debt to pay to me, and I will collect.”

     

       Paging through both, he smiled. That’s where the cities are.

     

       “You can see him — see us — after I finish what I must — if you survive.”

     

       He was at the mouth of the cave now, standing front of the fallen pillar. He thumbed through Valarys’s journal as well.

     

       “Pray next time we meet you make a wiser decision because I will not be so kind as I was this moon.

     

       “Remember that it was my claws — my teeth — that saved you, toy.

     

     

     

     

     

    “— And I will come back to collect when your debt is due.”

     

     

     

     

     

    With a toss, both books were thrown into the fire.

     

    Only those who were weak needed a record of their miseries.

     

    — And with that, the cruel wolf leaped, vanishing into the wastes outside.

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  5.  

       Fresh, metallic — new blood split as a boy broke his claws. Invigorating — scintillating — unreachable nectar. Lips thinned as a declaration made was one soon recanted. Valarys’s new oath was one which elicited both disappointment and intrigue. On one hand, there was regret for not snatching the chance at another meal; however, this did not mean Valarys could not be his. The boy was bold, playing with The Wolf’s expectations. For the first time, a smile rose from the creature — sharp teeth bared and all. His stride towards Valarys was one of leisure — one of anticipation.

     

       He knew the honey which would catch this fly.

     

       Roof of mouth was wet with tongue. Perhaps things wouldn’t be so boring after all.

     

       There, he sat in front of Valarys, leveling those defiant violet eyes with his own amber. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted him. His greed encompassed more than simple hunger.

     

       —But Valarys was a treat he couldn’t have just yet.

     

       Thin wisps of light smoke began rising from the dead hearth. Ice dissipated as the snow willed itself away; a strange warmth filled the room. The pads of the werewolf’s thumb and middle met as iris hue shifted from gold to that of brilliant blue.

     

       The boy’s rudeness was not forgotten. The wolf-man would need to educate Valarys.

     

       "Why would I go back so soon?"

     

       His fingers snapped, and the pit behind him revived — ruptured. Pillars of brimstone flame erupted, scorching the ceiling above black with soot. The fire streamed, moving, then bending, then twisting and coiling around the two like slithering serpents. A shroud of inferno circled thickly until nothing could be seen by those inside. All that was left within the harsh backdrop of azure was the Wolf and Valarys.

     

       The hunter and the prey.

     

       This fire, however, was different from normal magic.

     

       Burning became screaming as a face suddenly burst from the flames. Its jaw was unhinged — its face marred with a shifting scar. Fakhri — his most recent harvest. Then came another — one with no cheeks but eyes full of pain. Amsu. Two became three and three became five, and soon, the pair was no longer surrounded by silence. Around them came the wailing howls of dead slavers. Their souls? Now fuel set aflame.

     

       Jealous hands tried reaching out to grab Valarys, but dissipated upon touch. They wanted a body, didn't they? Want a chance at something they had lost privilege to? Did they not accept what they were now? They earned their fates, so by now, they should know: the dead were not allowed to touch the living.

     

       Their warden, however, was an exception.

     

       The werewolf held out his hand and reached into the maelstrom, plucking out an ember which writhed in grip. He guided it towards Valarys, cupping it in his palm. Its light was no larger than a candle, but it pulsated in his hand like a beating heart.

     

       “Pity you can’t join them, but rest assured, they won't get the mercy of being sent to Hell.

     

       “They’ll be my toys for as long as I like. It’s a punishment they deserve, wouldn’t you agree?

     

       “Ironic. Our captors are our playthings now,” he purred, bringing the flame to his open mouth before swallowing it whole. The blue glow traced down his throat before its light died altogether. “Delicious.” With a flourish of his hand, the torrent of soulfire vanished, leaving only the relit firepit in the center of the cave.

     

       The werewolf inched closer to the boy.

     

       “You did not choose death, so something must keep you tied to this world.”

     

       “I know you desire strength — obsess over it. You remind me of Zihayr, in many ways.

     

       “Both fucktoys of people who fooled you — abused you — defiled you — tossed you around like trash. The women in The Bazaar were treated with gentler hands than either of you.

     

       “I am generous, and I pity you like I do Zihayr. Lost children — lambs to this cruel world. Wouldn’t you like to be the wolf for once?

     

       “Wouldn’t you like closure? Revenge? I can give you strength to break your bonds. Strength to leave these mountains. I gave Zihayr power, and I could give the same to you. He killed his master. Wouldn’t you like to do the same? You don't have to break your little promise with my thrall.”

     

       He held his hand out.

     

       “Join us.”

     

       Be mine.

    @The Hummingbird

     


  6.  

    ÉTIENNE LENOIR

     

       It was impossible to hide — a smile, that is.

     

       Tension eased with the nude man’s fumble, and what started as a chuckle soon bloomed into laughter. He didn’t know why, but watching the man struggle with his own name bore an entirely new level of comicality. It was endearing to a fault, and gave the probably-monster some humanity.

     

       Maybe Étienne was too quick to distrust.

     

       Sure — Romulak was suspicious. Sure — Romulak’s eyes were changing color right before his eyes. Sure — Romulak moved with an unnatural, ungodly, unholy fluidity with a body so unbelievably sculpted that Étienne might as well have been drawing a model in his art class….

     

       — But, at least the man hadn’t tried to kill him.

     

       Yet.

     

       Of course, they had just met, and there was still time for things to go horribly wrong… and Étienne never was the best judge of character…. Things like this usually went wrong for him in the end. Especially with women — he just couldn't understand women.

     

       God, where was his sense of danger when he needed it?! No wonder his uncle didn’t let him roam the streets without him.

     

       Then again, he did things without his uncle's knowledge on numerous occasions, and he came out alive in the end.

     

       No, Étienne trusted his intuition. He still hadn’t deduced what flavor of monster Romulak was, but if he was laughing like a fool, surely something in the instincts bestowed upon him by natural selection let him know that this man wasn’t a threat. This was correct logic, was it not?

     

       — Was he being awkward again? Hopefully not. Maybe he should stop laughing.

     

       If he just made a good impression, would this man would leave him to his business and let him pick his flowers? That sounded like a plausible sequence of events — give the man his meat, wave goodbye, and both would be on their way. A real monster would have mauled him by then, or something along those lines….

     

       Oh well, Étienne was more of a doer than a thinker — an experimenter of things. His mind was a tool to satisfy his natural impulsivity and thirst for knowledge. What harm could a nude man who couldn’t even speak his name properly be to an experience mage, apprentice to a renowned wizard?

     

       Maybe he could even get the man’s help… he did need lots of flowers for what he wanted to do anyways. If he could convince Romulak to help him — Yes! That’s it! He would offer him clothes in return for his services. Fool must be cold. It was the perfect plan!

     

       He dropped his wards in an act of goodwill. If Romulak really was a monster, then the man could probably would get passed the defenses with ease. No point in wasting magic on that. Were that the case, though — you know, Romulak being a monoster —, Étienne had some quick tricks to get him out fast.

     

       — Not that he would need it. He would probably get by just fine. Luck was always on his side.

     

       “I must apologize as well for laughing… it’s just — you’re so awkward!” Étienne was beaming. Would this be an opportunity for him to make a new friend? Scenarios kept forming in his mind. God, it had been a while since someone had instigated a conversation with him on their own volition. Was it wrong to get excited to finally get the opportunity to talk to someone? Should he be getting excited? Why was he getting excited — shouldn’t he be scared?!

     

       “Here,” he said holding out the packaged steaks to Romulak. “It’s the least I can do… for laughing at you.” He didn’t care if the man grabbed it — the mage took the initiative. His other hand grasped Romulak's hand and shook it vigorously.

     

       “My name’s Étienne — Étienne Lenoir. Apprentice at André’s Artificery. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Romyelak.” It was a practiced introduction, but who cared? Romulak didn't know that.

     

       After that, he had no idea what to say.

     

       — So he just said the first things that came to mind:

     

     

     

       “Why are you naked?

     

       “Do you like walking out in the woods at night?

     

       “Are you fully human?

     

       “What did you mean by me ‘growing warm’?

     

       “Do you want to go pick some Wolfblossoms with me? I'll pay you with some clothes in return — we can visit my workshop!

     

       “— But really, why are you naked?!”

     

     

     

       Perhaps he wasn’t actually talking to Romulak at all — perhaps he was talking to some idealized version of the man in his head. In fact, who knew what went in the mind of the eccentric mage anyways?

     

    @L E V I A T H A N

     


  7.  

       “Oh, is that right?”

     

       Eyes meandered in the direction where the boy pointed, although there was no rush. He had all the time in the world. The scent of blood — the touch of it, sight of it, taste of it — enthralled him. Why hurry when he was still relishing the four? The Slaver could watch. The man was sent because he wanted him back for a show, didn’t he? If so, who was the Wolf not to oblige?

     

       A werewolf was always one to entertain.

     

       Slowly did he draw back, but not before giving Valarys a playful nip at the ear — not hard enough to pierce skin, but not so gentle either. He wanted to show the boy he too had mastery over sharp things. Playing with knives was a shared interest after all.

     

       “What a shame, Valarys,” he parted, “It seems a waste that I won’t even be able to get a taste… I’m sure you would have tasted better than that man over there.”

     

       The Wolf grabbed Valarys roughly by the chin and forced the boy’s face to turn towards Fakhri.

     

       “—But I was never one to restrain my impulses.”

     

       Tongue traced up the boy’s nape to temple — slowly, of course, as he savored the flavor —; however, the werewolf’s eyes never left the slaver on the other side of the room. You can’t have him. His gaze glinted with satisfaction. They were both his toys now. Did The Wolf smile? He could have sworn he saw Fakhri shiver.

     

       “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself,” he panted, “I needed to know so I can compare. You were the one who made the suggestion, weren’t you?” The Wolf wiped his lower lip with his thumb. “—That he tasted better than you.”

     

       When he was finished, he let go of Valarys and got up.

     

       “Now—

     

       “Shall we compare?”

     

       Every step towards the Slaver ushered a scramble on the side of the downed. The Wolf watched as Fakhri’s bare feet slipped in blood as the man kept trying to push himself away. How like prey he was, backing himself into a corner. How futile.

     

       The wrinkles on his prey’s face — the deer-eyes wide and mortified — the sound of struggle — how The Wolf’s instincts beckoned him to lunge at the man. 'Wouldn’t it be fun to tear him apart?' it asked. 'Wouldn’t it be fun to snuff the breath right then and there? In the moonlight? In her music? Her beauty? Her grace?'

     

       Dance and revel in savagery?

     

       — But the werewolf convinced his urges otherwise; this was a skill that Zihayr did not have. It was a pity. His partner had never learned to tame the monstrous heart which came with their bond for he never had allowed himself to enjoy the mind of a monster as well. Oh how amazing their partnership would be if the man just stopped resisting. What joys they could share together, as was meant to. The Wolf would have to teach Zihayr all he knew. He knew of many ways more satiating than an amateur’s unfocused bloodlust.

     

       These next days would be plenty lesson for the novice.

     

       Click.

     

       What was this? The Slaver managed to get a bolt on his crossbow?

     

       TWANG.

     

       Like magic — the arrow found itself bent in The Wolf’s hands.

     

       Tail swished languidly as he completed the approach. He crouched over his next meal with a tilted head. This man owed him something too.

     

       “I think you lost this,” he said before placing the bent bolt onto Fakhri’s lap. “You can try again if you want — oh but you’ll probably need two hands. Here, let me hold that for you.” One hand thrust forward, pressing down onto the bloody wound he tore open earlier. He could feel the pulse of a rebellious soul leaking out. “I’ll let you work with that toy of yours — you can put it back can’t you?”

     

       The Slaver grinned as a shot of pain spawned. Eyes blinked twice — a second bolt had somehow found itself lodged in the werewolf’s shoulder. Curious. How strange a bent arrow should find its mark. From what The Wolf knew of hunters, he could have sworn that only the straightest shafts were to be used.

     

       Fakhri gave a bloody smile, but the monster looked on without flinching.

     

       “Silver is such an outdated trope — now hold still.”

     

       SNAP, part of thigh disappeared — SNAP, a few fingers missing — SNAP, one ear removed.

     

       Blood bubbled from the throat in what seemed to be an attempt to scream. Limbs flailed about as more red painted the floor. It seemed like Fakhri’s eyes were rolling into the back of his head. When the sampling was finished, the werewolf found himself unimpressed. Bland.

     

       Maw forced itself over the Slaver’s mouth in what looked to be a long, drawn-out kiss. Fitting, The Beast thought, having always considered himself to be quite the romantic. There’s some who’d pay a good amount of coin to play with that mangy hide, and here was the seller himself, getting it for free. The man shuddered and struggled and spasmed, but The Wolf would give the man what he deserved. Monsters could be generous too. When The Wolf retreated, his once-jailer was missing lower jaw and tongue.

     

       He let go, and Fakhri's disfigured body slid to the floor with the rest.

     

       “You were wrong,” the werewolf stated, wiping his mouth with wrist, “He didn’t taste any better.”

     

       He turned back to Valarys expectantly.

     

       “My offer still stands.”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  8.  

    ZIHAYR

       Sleeping was not for the likes of him. He couldn’t, not after that. Not after what Valarys had said, and most certainly not after the events that happened that day. The boy’s impassioned words hung over him, haunting him. There he was, opening up, and what did the boy do? Go and hide in his shell — cradled by those careful, selfish walls he’d built. Zihayr’s fists clenched, and he could feel beads of blood forming where claws pierced palm.

     

       Did Zihayr really pity himself? Hadn’t he done the most he could do? What choice was there but to go back? Couldn’t Valarys see that?

     

       Words don’t reach him.

     

       The werewolf closed his eyes. He wanted to stop thinking about the boy — stop thinking about the things he said. Valarys was incorrect. Valarys knew not what he was talking about. Zihayr wasn’t be pitying himself, he wasn’t. The boy didn’t get it. Zihayr knew those horrors personally and was going forth with honesty. Every word he said he meant. Ungrateful bastard.

     

       He let his form slump. He wasn’t trying to say he had experienced more pain than Valarys. He wasn’t trying to invalidate that.

     

       He wanted to let Valarys know that he wasn’t alone.

     

       One didn’t have to be in The Circuit to experience the methods they practiced, after all. To be passed around by common hands and strange slavers was cruelty known to that system in specific, but it was no different than being passed among a circle of elites — a private order — a group of the powerful — a group of those you know. Monsters will do as monsters do, for that is their nature. Clothes, titles, environments don’t matter. They lie and cheat and abuse where ever they dwell. They teach you it is love, only for the fragile feeling to be twisted, tangled, and torn. Used like a tissue before being tossed away warped and discolored. To turn one’s heart to stone — that is what they do. Their chains are many, and the know how to break even the most stalwart of souls.

     

       They had broken a monster like Zihayr, after all.

     

    “Thinking of escaping, Val? Talk a little softer with your puppy so your betters can’t hear.”

     

       His blood ran cold. Were Zihayr and Valarys not whispering in the end? Did the winds not hide their words prior? Zihayr remembered the look on Valarys’s face — the emotion rising along with voice. Their conversation was a long one — no doubt a guard had listened in.

     

       He opened his eyes as head snapped towards the Lodge entrance. The guard wasn’t even looking at him… the man was staring into the mouth of cave. It was strange — he didn’t hold dice, cards, nor weapons, but his hands were hidden in his pocket as he leered towards an unknown scene. The fire inside was alight, blazing with a roaring radiance. Zihayr could see the shadows of men shifting and moving, clearly not asleep. Imagination shifted towards the worst outcomes. They’re awake. They know.

     

       Then Zihayr’s wolf ears caught the next sentences, although he wasn’t prepared for what came. What he heard made his cold blood freeze. The world for him stopped in place. He didn’t breath — he didn’t move. The clatter of steel buckles on stone came after — he knew that sound well. Respiration slowed and began to quicken — ragged, struggling breaths.

     

    “You’ve forgotten yourself, my boy”

     

       Everything seemed to spin.

     

    “It’s time I remind you who you are.”

     

       This couldn’t be right.

     

    “What you are.”

     

       Memories came clearly cut as crystal.

     

    “Time we did.”

     

       A servant in the doorway; a man on the stairwell.

     

    “—And by the time we’re done, you’ll wish your wolf had tried to escape.”

     

     

     

    ‘Give father a kiss, Z’ayr.’

     

     

     

       — The brace around the werewolf’s neck unlocked and fell into the snow, it’s dying rune-light finally snuffed out. The final bit of Key he had within him was used up. Zihayr had finally released the last locks he had left in place.

     

       There was no choice — there was never a choice for him. He would not allow what was about to transpire.

     

       The wolf-man would honor his word.

     

       Sensing the change, a foreign presence made itself known, and Zihayr grimaced. Intangible, invisible tendrils of shade between wrapping itself around him. A darker voice began laughing in his mind. It knew this day was coming; however, it did not realize how sweet it was to be free — truly free. Its low, viscous growl came with a gravel human throats were not capable of.

     

       This was the voice of a real monster.

     

    One for every moon, it reminded him. Then you can be human — until the next.

     

       Just keep your damn promise, Wolf.

     

    Of course — I can spare one, but no other. Think of this as a kindness for so generously removing the walls of my prison — foul magic that kept us from each other, My Partner.

     

    Unlike you, I repay my debts. Now, you will to repay yours in blood.

     

       ….

     

    I am patient and merciful, so I forgive you for taking so long to remove the spell after That Girl gave you The Key. Us being separated wasn’t your fault in the first place… but you must forgive me if I take more than specified in our contract. You did make me wait, after all, and it’s been sooo long since I have been free…

     

    — Animals do not sate my hunger, as you know, and I have been starving.

     

       His arms moved on their own; wrists wringing the bands of steel around his hands as they turned in contrary motion. Manacles made as temporary pair to the collar held no power without the conduit they were meant to be bound to — an oversight of the artificer who created them.

     

       Who would expect a Dairutian slave to have a Master’s Key? Intangible — untouchable — one that can only be given by oath and word.

     

       Haze began settling. Zihayr could feel himself drift further and further back into the recesses of his consciousness. Another being swelled within him — consuming him. He was no longer the driver; he was just a passenger now swaddled in darkness.

     

       I know.

     

       The metal around his hands silently groaned and twisted before they broke off with sharp, loud snap. The guard at the entrance looked at him suddenly. The chains around Zihayr’s torso shattered at the links. Those which weren’t were yanked as he lunged at the man prey, dragging whatever was behind him in tow.

     

       With a fading sense of self, Zihayr prayed he’d remember Valarys.

     

    Sleep now.

     

    It’s my turn to play.

     

       It was time for Zihayr to pay all that he owed.

     

    *   *   *

     

       With wives that didn’t love him, children who didn’t care for him, and an employer — not Fakhri — who didn’t like his cooking, Amsu needed this more than anything. It seemed wrong to him that the young man was so injured. A slave meant for this kind of work should be pristine and without flaw. Still, the stresses of life were often too great. To be sent out into a frosted hell to find some flea-ridden mongrel and cook for men who lacked any decorum — this was far from the dream he had for himself.

     

       To think, a cook for one of The Council could reduced to such a lowly position? His talents were wasted here.

     

       Leaning over the pinned man, he looked at Valarys with lust — ate his face with his eyes. Now was not the time to think of such stressors. Now was the time for pleasure. The wounds made Valarys look unappealing; however, he could not deny that that the eyes were as exotic as they were mesmerizing.

     

       He would be visiting this one once they returned to Dairut.

     

       While Valarys wasn’t a perfect meal then, Amsu was a chef, and as one, he couldn’t be too picky. Unripened fruit was still fruit after all. Sour could be just as savory as sweet. He would be the first to taste, thankfully — it was the least these ungrateful bastards who called themselves slavers could offer him anyways. He wasn’t a fan of leftovers.

     

       A real slaver takes what is theirs, and Amsu was soon to take what was his. He was a cut above these men — even Fakhri.

     

       “You said the man went through The Circuit, Fakhri?” he laughed, “You reared him like the rest? I’ve met your products, and they are so-so.

     

       “This one must be experienced then, right? Broken like the rest? Is he really as delectable as you claim?”

     

       Fakhri gave a smug nod.

     

       “Fantastic — I can’t wait then t—”

     

       CRASSH

     

       — Went the entrance, and out went the fire. The air was misted with snow thrown up in plumes. First came confusion, then came realization, and finally, came the screaming.

     

       “Get the weapons!” Fakhri’s voice echoed. The jailer was trying to gain control of his men, but to no avail. Words alone could not quell the common thought on everyone’s mind. What was to be a pleasant night was now reduced to pandemonium.

     

       There was a sharp pain in his stomach as something kicked him down, winding him.

     

       Everything was murky, but he swore he could hear that same tearing of flesh — that same snapping of bones. Everyone was yelling, things clattered on the floor — swords, bows, and people who fumbled in the dark. Nothing could be seen save for silhouettes cast by the glow of a dying aurora’s light.

     

       The Wolf, he thought immediately. The Wolf.

     

       Fear and panic gripped him like a vice. He crawled on the floor, looking for something — anything to shield him. He could hear the voices go out one by one, and Amsu knew that soon, if he did nothing, he would be next. His hand groped around for something — anything. Some tripped over his prone form, while others’ blood splattered onto him. In his terror, he felt what seemed to be damp gauze — bandages by the texture. As he drew closer, he realized who he had found:

     

       The leg he was holding belonged to the slave he was standing over earlier: Valarys.

     

       “Come here, you filthy curr,” he hissed, pulling the slave by the leg. Quickly, he backed up to the wall, dragging the man with him to use as a meat-shield. When his back hit the jagged, carved stone. His free hand felt around the corner of the cavern for anything he could use as a weapon.

     

       Fingers found the smooth-leather of a grip — a sword.

     

       “How do you have a Ke—!” went Fakhri, somewhere in the chaos. His voice went out as well.

     

       Valarys squirmed in his grasp, but the fat man held him by the shoulder. A faint glimmer of hope rose for Amsu — he had leverage. Maybe he could use the slave as a hostage. At least he might be able to make it out alive himself.

     

       “I will slit your throat if you move,” he whispered into Valarys’s ear, “Don’t move a muscle!” He held the silvered blade to the man’s throat.

     

       Amsu was going to make it out alive — he was going to make it out al—

     

       He felt the sword tug in his hand; and in his surprise, Valarys scrambled out from reach. A clawed hand gripped Amsu’s shoulder — a weight pinned him down at his waist.

     

       The snow began to settle, and Amsu met two, golden eyes. They shimmered and shined like coins — no hint of silver left. Pure, unadulterated, molten gold.

     

       The canine’s nose practically pressed into his cheek. The Beast really did live up to his moniker — a vicious monster, it was. He could smell the foul breath of the creature who’s maw was clearly ajar, teeth slicked with fresh crimson.

     

       “I always save the fattest pigs for last,” came a smooth, cooing growl — the kind made by predators who took time with their food. He tried moving, but the werewolf just pushed him down harder.

     

       Someone — anyone — save me please…

     

       Gaze darted around the cavern, but what he saw filled him with despair.

     

       Men-now-corpses were torn apart — their limbs strewn around in the snow. Guts were spilled like sausages dropped at a butchery, some sliced thin while others not at all. Organs lay like sweetmeats on a table — necks missing pieces — heads torn off.

     

       Amsu felt faint.

     

       Outside, the tall, thin, stone outcropping and wooden markers which once stood now laid fallen, blocking the half of the entrance. The guard who was supposed to be watching now rest in several pieces, eyes wide open.

     

       He could see Fakhri leaning against the debris, clutching his neck, blood gurgling from his mouth. At his side was an unloaded crossbow.

     

       He kept looking around, not wanting to confront the monster that was in front of him

     

       Then, something wet and rough touched his face. It was the beast’s foul tongue.

     

       “You taste as good as the things you cook?” it asked with cruel smile. “Surely sitting over a cauldron means you steam in the same spices you use.” Amsu tried to move his sword, but he saw the beast’s bloodied hand holding onto the blade like a toy.

     

       The wolf devoured his fear gladly.

     

       “Please don’t kill m—”

     

       The wolf’s face tilted, and he heard the loud clack of teeth. Pain exploded across his face as something tore. Seconds later, it drew back, and in the wolf’s mouth was a flap of flesh — Amsu’s cheek. The chef screamed and screamed as he watched in horror as the wolf chewed, chewed, and finally swallowed.

     

       “Pig’s cheek is a delicacy in Dairut. You must know that, Chef.”

     

       The werewolf lapped at the exposed muscle — its sandpaper-like tongue stinging the exposed flesh. He kicked and struggled, but couldn’t move. Then without warning, it took another bite — this time tearing off the other side of his face. Amsu’s throat gave out — voice having giving all it could have given. Claws raked across his chest and abdomen, tracing out more slices of flesh.

     

       Then, he watched in horror as the wolf’s hand impaled itself into his side.

     

       “I’m not usually so talkative, but he asked me to do this.”

     

       It was too much — far too much. Vision began ebbing away. A surplus of pain soon turned to a complete lack of sensation. His body felt as light as a feather.

     

       “Thank you for the meal, Chef.”

     

       — And those were the last words Amsu heard.

     

    *   *   *

     

       As the last life flickered — or rather, gurgled — out, the werewolf, unsatisfied with leaving food wasted, began his grisly work.

     

       He walked over to a corpse, dove both hands into the chest, and tore it open. With a pull, he plucked out one heart. As any connoisseur, he held it up in a beam of moonlight, inspecting it, before dangling it above his mouth with two fingers. Claws opened up, and one offering fell down his gullet with a single swallow.

     

       One more soul for me ~

     

       — Then came a stir, and his eyes drew back to the only other living thing in the room.

     

       Ah, yes — the purple-eyed one.

     

       The werewolf, covered in blood and viscera, turned, revealing a crossbow bolt stuck in his shoulder. Such trivialities could be dealt with later. He sauntered over to the prone, still-living, human with a gaze of nonchalance.

     

       He rested his elbows on his knees as he squatted, looming high above the one called Valarys.

     

       “Oh — I’m not Zihayr just so we get that out of the way first. He doesn’t have the spine to do as I do — embrace his nature — like that wolf in your story.

     

       “I’m more like Fenrar, if that makes you more comfortable, and I won’t lie —  it’s hard to hold back my nature with warm flesh such as yours…

     

       “He did ask me not to kill you, though, but I think I need a better reason. You, after all, are in charge of your own life.”

     

       He brought his face dangerously close to Valarys, eyes never leaving his prey. His pupils were narrow and shaped like that of a snake. The wolf’s head passed over the boy’s right shoulder while the claws of one hand rested on the left.

     

       “Tell me, do you really want to die?” he whispered into the boy's ear. “I can grant you that mercy — I know you want it. I can smell it on you, your desire for it. I can grant you that wish right here and now. Just say the word — I honor my pacts.

     

       “I’ll free you if that is what you wish.”

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  9.  

    ZIHAYR

       “I think you presume to know how I feel, but you don’t know,” Zihayr replied coldly, “You don’t know anything about me.” He turned slightly, only so far as to catch violet from the corner of his eyes. No more, no less. He wouldn’t look directly at him. The man to his side was treading on thin ice.

     

       “If you think my nature is that of a simplistic beast, then you are mistaken. Unlike Fenrar, my nature is not the same as those fictional creatures you may have idolized as a child. Those who could turn against their captors with strength and vengeance? Righteous winners who persevered over all trials? It isn’t that simple. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not a character in some story.

     

       “I wasn't made a slave because of what I am. I was born into it.

     

       “My curse isn’t strength, it is surrender. I kill and eat for forces I can not control — whether by magic or by whip. Yes, I believe some people truly do deserve death; however, I seldom have a choice in the matter,” he stated bitterly. “Don't try to absolve me by implying it's not a sin, because it is. You have no idea what it is like to wake up with someone’s pinky stuck between your teeth. You have no idea what it is like to worry about who or what they fed you when you were out.”

     

       Eyes turned up towards the foreign sky. At times, he didn't know whose blood it was in front of him until much later. Sometimes he didn't know who it was at all. Sometimes he didn't want to know. He wondered if they were there now, among the stars and heavenly lights. He wondered if they were free.

     

       “You called me lucky for going to The Pits, but I disagree. You don’t know what they made me do. The people I’ve had to kill — people I would have given my life for.

     

       “— But when Master tells you to fight, what choice is there? Refuse them? With what power? Do you have any leverage against the things they hold above your head? — And after you’re forced to fight, when your friend on the other side of The Pit is struggling just as hard as you are to live, do you disgrace them? Do you disgrace their honor by laying down your weapon and refusing them? You may think self-sacrifice might be a mercy to the one you care about, but it isn't. Not to the person on the other side of the ring. The Pits are gruesome, but we all had respect for each other regardless of outward appearance. We all had to live through the same thing — die for the same thing. Fight — for the same thing.

     

       “I won’t disgrace my friends.

     

       “Never.”

     

       Gaze drifted downwards to the bloody mess at his feet. Lips curled into a frown.

     

       “My first years, I was naive, made many companions. They’re dead now, by my hand or some other. After that, you try not to get close to people. It’s why the strongest are the most distant. They know what awaits them if they open up. Dare to be close to someone — anyone.

     

       “—But even if you don’t ask, there is always someone who can read you like a book — quench that hell you’ve been bearing alone and make you forget about your pain. Then you come back only for them to disappear soon after.”

     

       He paused.

     

       “Twenty years, the same thing, over and over,” he stated, brows raised as if in disbelief at the words he just said.

     

       His voice now was just a whisper.

     

       “—And you have no idea what I sacrificed to escape…”

     

       The wolf-man's head shook as he looked back up, nose pointing towards the moon. The source and solace of his madness.

     

       “Now?” he sighed, “Now I am going back. I am going to have to do everything again… do you know what that feels like? What it’s like to wait and know what’s to come? Can you honestly imagine how I'm feeling right now?

     

     

     

       “My life isn’t a fable you’d read in some book, Valarys. I'm real, and so are the people around me. People I might one day kill. Watch die.”

     

     

     

       The winds were starting to pick up outside, and the werewolf couldn’t help but shiver. The slavers weren’t generous enough to give him a blanket to keep warm.

     

       It took a while, but as he turned to Valarys, his expression softened, as if to say, There — now you have it. Pity me, if you have to. There’s nothing I can do about it now.

     

       Why had he shared his story with Valarys anyways? He guessed he had intended to tell him after being told about the boy’s master, but was it the right time?

     

       … Could he continue with the rest? The beginning?

     

       Recounting his miseries had made him all the more aware of the collar on his neck. It itched madly. He couldn’t bear to wear it, but couldn’t live without it. Either a slave or a monster — choose your poison. It was a shame really. With his hands behind his back, Zihayr could not even scratch at it.

     

       “I’m not sure if this is the last time we’ll be able to speak come morning. When Fahkri realizes you can move, he’s going to keep a closer eye on you. Might even assign a few guards to you. Because of this, I need to tell you some things, so just keep listening. It’s important.

     

       “I won’t fault you if you still don't understand. I’ve scarcely told you a thing about me. Still, for you to come to me with kindness after what you just witnessed? It means a lot to me. It means so much more than you can ever imagine, so thank you.

     

       “Now, you need to understand this. I’ve lived your life, Valarys… I know what that hell’s like. I saw your journal, saw it written in your own words. I know how that feels. I was like you before I went to The Pits; although, I was never freed by—”

     

       Zihayr stopped, words catching in his throat.

     

       “He’s dead now,” he finished, eyes drawing away as he struggled with the words. There was more to be said, but he couldn’t continue with it. It was too painful.

     

       “Know that I’m going back because I wanted you to live. For you to die so shortly after freedom was something I couldn’t watch.”

     

       He turned back to Valarys, expression resolute.

     

       “You are the first person I’ve ever had the power to save.

     

       “I promise you I will not let them kill you — I promise —, but once I’m back in a cage, there is likely little I can do. Once I’m fully restrained by their magic, I’ll lose my bargaining power. They might kill you just to spite me. Fakhri is a petty man and has no honor.

     

       “I saw the runes on these cuffs when they put them on me and recognize the handiwork. I may be able to put up a fight, but I don’t think I can escape. Fakhri is paranoid though, so he likely believes I can break free whenever I choose. He was the most careful of those who presided as warden over me. It is as much a strength for him as it is a weakness.

     

       “You’ll need to plan on running before that happens. I won’t be able to go with you, but I can distract them when the time comes.

     

       “I need you to be free Valarys — I need you to promise me that you’ll live.”

     

       The wolf’s eyes glimmered strangely as he focused intently on the boy. Zihayr's stare bore a lurid intensity.

     

       “Swear it. Swear it now.”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  10.  

    ZIHAYR

       His hands were weighted in chains, but his head hung lower. This cold cut different. Frost he could not shiver away. His leaden eyes could only see the sobering blood on the ground — eyes which could not fathom the horror he had inflicted. What he looked like in those moments — what he did then, before, and would do in the future — it was a shame that he carried with him. One he would carry with him until the end of time. It was different when others were present when he wasn’t himself. Alone, he could bear it — justify it perhaps. In front of others? Impossible.

     

       Most guards kept their distance, idly wasting time while ignoring the aberration they were forced to monitor. Sure, they may have regained their composure, but Zihayr could smell it — smell it in their sweat. The first time, years ago, his recognition of the scent was just a curious observation, but now, it was a tell he was an expert at identifying. Fear is what it was, and they reeked of it.

     

       Zihayr turned his head away from them, resting his head on the fissure’s slate walls. Occasionally, he would look up — curtains of flame dancing above-head. It was his first aurora as a matter of fact. Awe-inspiring to any other set of eyes. If events hadn’t transpired the way they had, he might have enjoyed it.

     

       Might have.

     

       Ears picked up faint whispers and gossip. They were talking about him, the ones switching off shifts. Speaking at what they thought to be out of earshot. Cowards. Who could blame them though? After people see him in that light, they can’t unsee it. The looks on their faces post-madness — terror, shock, disgust….

     

       Teeth grit.

     

       He hated it. He hated being looked at like a monster.

     

       Granted, he didn’t give a damn about what the guards thought. He hated them equally so. Served the slavers right for the hell they put people through. He’d be glad if he showed up in in their nightmares — maul them to death instead of a defenseless corpse.

     

       No — Zihayr just hated the look.

     

       Out of the entire crowd which now surrounded him, there was only one he worried about, though. One who’s opinion had some weight to him personally.

     

       “Zihayr…”

     

       Instinctively, the werewolf turned away further, head tucking into shoulder. His mouth was no doubt still stained. Before when he hunted the three wolves, he could have made an excuse — say that it was self-defense —, but there was no explaining this away. He saw it, didn’t he.

     

       Behind him was Valarys.

     

       Silence ensued, as per custom. Then — almost on cue —, the laugh. It was despicable really — the similarities Zihayr found in Valarys. It was the reason why he felt kinship — the reason why Valarys’s opinion about the werewolf’s curse mattered. He feared that someone so similar would not be able to understand.

     

       — And after giving up freedom for Valarys? Would Valarys look at him with those same eyes? Rejection would be the worst news. Despite Zihayr's compassion for him, would Valarys have that same capacity? He only knew the man through the words written. Talking now would be like meeting for the first time. Meet honestly, without lies.

     

       Zihayr was too scared of what Valarys thought. He couldn't turn. What if Valarys had the same face?

     

       The wind howled through the ravine — one which deafened laughter. When it stopped, Zihayr spoke, voice dead, hollow, and without mirth.

     

       “You must be feeling better now if you’re laughing like that. Hit your head too hard? You looked pretty fucked up back there, you know? God, you were pretty fucked up.


       “Going on to take on all of those wolves was a stupid idea, but I have to hand it to you though, you made quite a mess out of them. Got yourself some souvenirs from them too… heh, serves you right…

     

       “I almost didn't have a guide; it looked like you were going to die…”

     

       Zihayr's words died off as another gust howled, ending with a sigh of his own.

     

       “…I’m glad you’re okay, you know? I really am.”

     

       He couldn’t find the energy to speak more. He meant to talk, but he just couldn't. Too tired, too distracted. He couldn't stop thinking about how Valarys must have been looking at him. Judging him.

     

       Melancholy washed over Zihayr as the gravity of his newfound position dawned on him. Was he really going back? Back to Dairut? It was inevitability, he reasoned. Karma for his sins. For all of his mistakes, he was going back to being some slave — some sideshow — going back to being some pervert’s literal lapdog.

     

       His muzzle buried itself deeper into the trough of his clavicle. Everything was hitting him at the same time.

     

       For once, he felt despair.

     

       “God, don’t look at me Valarys,” he pleaded quietly, “Don’t look at me….”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  11.  

    ZIHAYR

       The werewolf, far too large and injured to be put on the mule, was instead relegated to sitting upright on a makeshift sled. Beasts of burden — or rather, Fahkri’s men — took turns pulling Zihayr by cord. To the wolf, it was uncomfortable, splintery, and prone to hitting every bump under the ice. The wolf-man's only solace came from knowing that the boxes of supplies he displaced were now on the backs of other men. Judging by their pained expressions, the few unfortunate slavers must have found their cargo heavy. Serves them right.

     

       Hell, they even brought some of the wolf-corpses too — trophies for the fake accomplishments they would flaunt back to their wives back home no doubt. They had no shame, these men. The werewolf doubted Fakhri's group was capable of taking down a pack like he and Valarys. Perhaps they were taking on more than they could carry.

     

       The sled hit a rock, and Zihayr’s face twitched. Pain, obviously, but pain well-concealed. He wasn't going to show weakness.

     

       Their most recent encounter with the wolves had added to Zihayr’s collection of injuries. Where there were new wounds from the day before, there were now large, hideous scabs. His cuts had always sealed faster than most, but the bits of skin visible at the borders of flesh and fur were an angry, puffy red. Left untended, they would definitely scar.

     

       — And he would leave them untended for the duration of the trip.

     

       The slaver who tended to Valarys came hesitantly with salve, but Zihayr growled. With a jump, the man backed away immediately. Zihayr hurt all over, but he didn't care. Anything was better than being touched by the hands of a filthy slaver. The wolf-man had already removed the bolt from his leg and bandaged it himself prior to being restrained. Fahkri had granted him that most at least. His old-wounds — the ones from the scout-ambush — he trusted to Valarys’s earlier work.

     

       Irritation settled in. His hands were cuffed tightly. Zihayr was starting to remember what it was like being a slave.

     

       Then came an itch he could not scratch.

     

    *   *   *

     

       Time passed, and when the group made it to a Lodge, a few slavers had aired their concerns about Zihayr. He was different from how he was earlier. Fahkri brushed it off — convinced of his men’s cowardice from their earlier display —, and continued moving forward. Listening to them anymore would just embarrass him further. Still, a single look at the werewolf was all it took to tell that something was off.

     

       Every few seconds, the wolf’s throat undulated as the beast swallowed air, over and over, not stopping once. With it, his tail hit the sled regularly ‘a tempo’. A trickle of blood dripped from his lip as he bit the corner — cheeks and nose twitching. If one could liken it, it was if the wolf was on the fringe of madness. He kept blinking. Eyes open, eyes closed — pupils, dangerous dots. Soon, twitching gave way to spasms, and the muscles on his face soon rippled with the characteristic snarl of a feral beast. Despite this, the only noise to come from him were his low, hard breaths.

     

       When the group stopped moving, Fahkri's cocksure voice resounded:

     

       “All right, give the two prisoners some water. Give some of that gruel to Val, too, I suppose. I’m sure the dog isn’t hungry, though, are you, Zihayr?”  

     

       Fahkri turned and looked at the hound. Zihayr’s mouth was frothing. The jailer’s face paled. He must have remembered how Tartarus’s Hound got when it got into a mood. Green eyes looked towards the collar around the beast’s neck.

     

       The runes had not activated yet.

     

       “—Give him one of the corpses,” he blurted suddenly, his mask of bravado fading. He looked towards the slaver next to him. “NOW, give him one of the corpses,” he spoke, an urgency laced in his voice that was not present earlier.

     

       Fahkri knew well enough that their deal only stood while Zihayr could restrain himself. He knew what the beast was like uncollared — faced it first-hand —, and although he could not recall a single time where the binding had failed its job of repression, he knew that face the wolf made. Fahkri reached up to touch the faint, light scars on his face.

     

       Better to be save then sorry, was a saying to follow. Soon, one of the corpses was thrown at Zihayr.

     

       The jailer turned forward, hands shoved into his coat as he went into the cave. The sounds of sharp cracking and wet squelching noises could be heard loudly from behind. One of his men vomited.

     

       “The dog sleeps outside,” he said to the rest of his troupe, voice a bit calmer. “No less than five on watch in the night — on hourly rotations.”

     

       Pride and money were on the line. That, and his tarnished reputation as well.

     

       He wasn't going to let the werewolf get away again.

    @The Hummingbird

     


  12.  

    ZIHAYR

       His rest was one of peaceful oblivion. No dreams of trauma nor terror. There was no pain, no cold, no fear. It was an unfamiliar nothingness, the likes of which Zihayr had never experienced before. Still, there was an uncanny lucidity. He could hear his thoughts as clear as voice. He was both there, and not there, teetering on the edge of existence.

     

       So this is what it’s like to die.

     

       Throughout all of his years, never before had he come this close. The wolf-man had sent many to Death’s embrace; however, he had never pushed himself so far as to deliver himself right to the doors. For all his life, he had avoided Death, but now? After all the hardship and pain? Zihayr was so tired.

     

       There was a faint glimmer of light in the distance. Yes, the decision was finally before him. The question was, what choice was he going to make?

     

       Questions arose in his mind as he pondered: Why did he run out into the blizzard? Was he not concerned for himself? After everything Valarys had put him through, why save the man? In his heart, Zihayr had only met Valarys the day prior, so why risk everything? A thought came to mind:

     

       He was the only one who knew the way through the mountains. It would be troublesome if he died out here…

     

       — But that was just an excuse. Rationalization for feelings he would not face.

     

       Then, there was a tug at him. Zihayr looked back, only to see what looked to be a chain pulling him back — pulling him away from the light.

     

       Zihayr found the whole situation comical.

     

       Can’t even be granted the freedom of death.

     

       His solemnity was shattered as a blinding flash expanded. Reality exploded, blasting away all hopes of the end. Zihayr took too long to make his decision, or at least, that is what he told himself. Death apparently was not for the likes of him.

     

       He wanted to live.

     

    *   *   *

     

       It wasn’t Valarys that woke him up — no, he was long awake before the boy was conscious. Unlike Valarys, he would be awakened to another sound: soft crunches of freshly laid snow. Zihayr could hear their crisp footsteps — smell that faint odor of perfume and tobacco in the far distance. Without the storm, their movements were no longer hidden. Without the pack, there was no threat left to fear.

     

       The orange rune on his collar shined brightly like a burning torch. Their voices were faint, but he could hear everything clearly.

     

       “He’s somewhere over here!”

     

       “My god, The Mutt — he killed all these wolves?!”

     

       “Try pulling some of them out, one of the corpses may be him!”

     

       Zihayr closed his eyes. Through the chaos of their voices, one rang out truly — a familiar, despicable voice.

     

       “He’s still alive, otherwise the tracker would have gone dark. Quickly! He’s worth nothing to us dead — the Boss will flay us if we don’t get him back!

     

       “Find The Hound!”

     

       Ah — so he had finally arrived.

     

       Then came a stir. To Zihayr's surprise, Valarys woke right then and there, speaking no louder than a whisper. Wow — the boy had actually managed to hold back an insult.

     

       Still, now was not the time to comment on it.

     

       Zihayr didn’t respond — leaving Valarys in silence as he weighed his options. The reality was staring him right in the face. He was not going to be able to escape — not this time —, not when both he and Valarys were this injured. Escape from the mountain pass was impossible now. No… the option of running had been long since thrown away.

     

       Running now meant dying, and Zihayr had given up that opportunity just moments ago.

     

       Going with them though… blast it, he didn't want to. Didn't want to waste everyone's efforts. What was sacrificed so he could escape Dairut? What was lost so he could leave? Thoughts lingered back to his companions….

     

       Were their actions futile? Was this really the only option?

     

       He could hear the labored respiration of Valarys pinned below. The wolf-man sighed.

     

       If he could, he would have taken it all back. The victories, the escape. In his quest for emancipation, he found regrets stronger than any brace, vice, or bond. Only upon leaving Dairut did Zihayr realize that some things were more important than his own freedom. It was their freedom he should have earned. Their lives. That is what was important, and that is what he failed to deliver.

     

       — And inexplicably, they now included Valarys, and he would not fail another.

     

       “Keep drawing for me, will ya?” he said curtly with what barely could be called a grin. He didn't look at the boy. No, his eyes were fixed longingly on that last glimpse of free sky.

     

       With inhuman speed, the werewolf got off and up, grabbing Valarys by the hem of his cloak — wrapped skins sloughing off the boy’s form. Zihayr had not fully recuperated, but that was besides the point. There were more important things than his own injuries.

     

       Like a beast rudely woken from hibernation, Zihayr emerged violently from the dug-out, guide in tow.

     

       The wolf’s golden eyes settled on the scene. Outside, there were dozens of men all dressed in expensive looking gear. Silver swords — thick garbs — jewelry clearly from Dairut. A band brought together just for the sake of capturing Zihayr, and it looked like their benefactor had spent a fortune prepping them. Still, they didn't look like soldiers, not at that moment at least. The slavers’ shocked faces as Zihayr suddenly entered view were priceless. Both the werewolf and Valarys must have appeared as if they had just risen from the dead. Perhaps they would question how two creatures could even be alive after sustaining such injuries.

     

       “Congratulations, you found me,” Zihayr growled coldly as several men with crossbows locked their sights on him.

     

       Without sympathy, he threw Valarys like a sack of rocks, the boy’s body landing in a pile of snow in front of the men. He could see some of their knees quivering. Zihayr’s reputation was indeed far-reaching.

     

       “Better put down those bows — don’t want to hurt the merchandise, you know? Your boss wouldn’t be too happy with a dead mutt, now would he?”

     

       Two of the slavers rushed to Valarys’s side, inspecting his wounds — one with manacles, and another with a sword. The group was murmuring among themselves.

     

       “I’ll go peacefully, but know that that man over there — he’s free. Kid was a slave once you know, but a master freed him.”

     

       Zihayr eyed the leader of the band with a deadly glare. The slaver, unlike the others, wore several furs on his mantle like trophies. Wolf-pelts, to be precise. He had long black hair, sable skin, and eyes a harsh shade of green. Zihayr recognized the jewelry — the rings — the scar that ran across crooked nose and cheek, one which he gave the man years ago. It was an improvement, to say the least. In front of him was the ugly face of one of his jailers.

     

       Zihayr knew why this one would come so far just to bring him back.

     

       “Fakhri,” Zihayr spit, “You know the rules.

     

       “—And you also know what I’m capable of.

     

       “That man is free.”

     

       The jailer’s eyes narrowed into slits — the wrinkles of disgust which plagued his face were evident in the daylight. All eyes shifted focus back to Valarys, and the wolf-man regarded the boy with a look of pity. Valarys could not be taken back in chains. Not on a master’s honor. Still, how would this strike the boy’s ego?

     

       “Take care of his wounds.”

     

        There was a pause, and then the jailer spoke. “— And why would we do that,” Fakhri announced, voice loud and imposing. “He’s a free man — he can take care of himself out here. Failure like him should pick up his own pieces. He's a man, isn't he?” There was a look on the jailer’s face which eluded the wolf-man, as if he knew something Zihayr didn’t. Strange eyes regarded his guide. Why was Fakhri looking at Valarys like that? Anger boiled, but still, the man kept yapping.

     

        “I’m sure he’s more than capable of —”

     

        SLAM!

      

        Zihayr wasn't going to let him finish that sentence.

     

        Like a spectre, the werewolf disappeared with a gust of wind and flurry of snow, appearing before the slaver with deadly haste. He grabbed the man by the throat and slammed the man into the cliff, one hand holding him up by the neck. Zihayr had no patience — no tolerance — for this.

     

        A few slavers ran to the Fakhri’s aid, but the jailer waved them down. Regardless, an arrow came flying, finding itself a target. One silver shaft, lodged through and through in Zihayr's calf, but the werewolf didn't budge.

     

        “I think you misheard me — Take care of his wounds.

     

       “Honestly, a few months, and this is the respect I get? My threats aren’t empty, as you know firsthand, Fakhri,” the wolf-man snarled. “I may be wounded, but I am more than capable of slaughtering all of your men like lambs at the table.”

     

       “Respect? You lost your privileges when you left!” Fakhri spit. “Maybe if you were still on your Master’s good side, I would be inclined to listen, but you lost those rights, slave.”

     

        Bared teeth came dangerously close to the man's face. Zihayr's voice was no more than a whisper as he spoke deathly quiet into the jailer's ear. The man shivered and squirmed in the werewolf's grasp.

     

        “Your grand magicians aren’t here to bind me, the vestiges of your magics are tenuous at best, and you’ll need more than iron to hold me down.

     

        “Slight me and I’ll show you why The Pits so desperately want me back.

     

       “I'm the main event, remember? Don't make me make a show out of you.”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  13.  

    ÉTIENNE LENOIR

       Étienne was not one to concern himself with the dangers of the night. He was as well-practiced in self-defense as any risk-loving mage ought to be. A being of precaution, Étienne had installed several layers of wards radiating outward from him in concentric spheres. Should anyone or anything pass through them, he would be alerted. Seven layers would have been enough to deal with most, be it bandit, mountain lion, s—

     

       One layer — two layers — no three layers were crossed in an instant. He could sense it — something quick — something fast was approaching. There was a light crackle of pine needles and twigs. He didn’t even have the time to react — the figure was already in front of him.

     

       Darkness clung to its form like a shroud. Two piercing eyes focused in on him, as if appraising quarry. Clouds completed their pass overhead, the moon’s revealed light illuminating what seemed to be the form of a man. — But there wasn’t any evidence nor trace of magic. No possible method that could have assisted him in this feat of speed. This creature was just naturally quick. Étienne maintained his calmness, but was clearly on guard. The mage was curious, yes, but even he had a sense for danger.

     

       Whatever was in front of him was not human — not fully at least.

     

       Words came out from the man’s mouth, rough and forced. It was clear it wasn’t used to speaking. While the being fumbled with language, Étienne’s mind raced, trying to recall information from the bestiaries he read of the area. When no description matched, he recollected The Curses of Man.

     

       Too tangible to be a geist, he thought, Too human to be a werewolf — perhaps a bloodsucker? Demihuman? Demon?

     

       Before he could ponder more, the man finished his question. There was a silence which hung on the air as the predator regarded him. Any other night and this crossing might not have fared well…. Neither moved their spots. Étienne would have to respond.

     

       “I study magic, and I like dogs,” he managed. Gods, was that the best he could do? He was nervous, as any in the right mind would be. His awkwardness was coming out in its full. He could barely talk to his local florist — what more some preternatural creature of the night?

     

       Perhaps actions would speak better for him than words.

     

       “Uh— one moment!”

     

       Hand fumbled around in his satchel for a bit — he dared not look up. He moved aside the jars, phials, and other tools of trade. There was a crinkling of paper to which the mage’s expression lightened. Out from his bag came the same parchment he had taken out earlier, except this time, notably smaller. Two of the dogs that should have been on watch that night had not come, leaving two small steaks in his possession. They were probably on break from some injury, most likely. Protecting the city was no easy task.

     

       “I like to feed the animals out here — mage’s habit I guess. Best be on the side of nature when you work with her, you know? Ha, ha, ha…”

     

       The man’s expression was unreadable. Laughter died shortly. The pause was heavy and prolonged.

     

       “Uh— did you want these?” he said, holding out the wrapped meats hesitantly. Hell, he didn’t know what this man wanted. The creature smelled the meat, did he? Smelled the magic — smelled the dogs he pet earlier? Étienne dared not prepare any more spells. If this creature was attuned, it might provoke it.

     

       “Not that I'm calling you an animal! No, no, far from that!” He stepped back, extended arm retracting. He was fearful that he may have crossed a line. Face flushed red. By the gods was the man nude?!

     

       The boy swallowed nervously.

     

       Who was this person?

     

    @L E V I A T H A N

     


  14.  

    ZIHAYR

       His tracks through the snow were deep. The weight of every step crushed that which was beneath him. Gradually, the monsters began to scatter, and soon, the only ones left were the ones dead at his feet. The wolves were gone now, having chosen to run with their dignity intact.

     

       — But they would be back. This much was certain.

     

       Blood ran down his arms as drops of crimson fell. The path he left as he went towards the prone figure was now dotted with beads of his own scarlet. Strange, how he added his own reds to the mix. He too was a wolf. His blood was the same as theirs.

     

       As he approached Valarys, he could feel his own mind starting to go blank. Zihayr’s expression had not lessened from what it was when he was fighting the wolves. No, his face was still locked in a permanent snarl — throat reverberating with a deep, menacing growl. Valarys was at his feet now — wounded, weakened — vulnerable.

     

       There was this itch — this urge welling up in his chest. There was a wave heat which spread throughout his body as his heart pounded with the beat of a wild drummer. One moment, he was standing over the man, and the next, he was pinning him down. His grip tightened like a vices around Valarys’s shoulders. His jaw cracked open, clouds of steam smoking out in slow, heavy breaths. He could feel as his claws dug into the man’s coat, penetrating layers upon layers before finally piercing skin. Closer… closer… his maw drew ever so closer. A fleck of drool dripped down. The man’s face was a blur now — everything was a blur. All Zihayr could see was red.

     

       Electricity jolted through his spine — several runes on his collar flashed green.

     

       Pupils relaxed — manic smile snuffed out. Two blinks, and his countenance shifted to that of horror. He released Valarys and stumbled backwards in the snow. Zihayr looked towards his hands. They were shaking violently, claws tipped with fresh blood.

     

       His body was still innervated with unholy bloodlust; however, he regained his lucidity and conscious choice. He pulled down at the scruff of his own neck. Now was not the time for this.

     

       Zihayr refocused all attention towards Valarys. The man looked just as injured as he himself looked earlier. Bite marks — claw slashes — Valarys’s body was riddled with gashes of all shapes and sizes. Worse off, the man was pale and shivering, chest heaving. If he didn’t die of his wounds first, he would die of the cold.

     

       Quickly, the werewolf untied the wolf skins from around his neck and knelt by Valarys. He rolled the man onto the fleshy-side of the hides, and wrapped all three tightly around him — caring not for being gentle. One arm went under the man’s knees, and another under the man’s back. He would carry him back to the cave.

     

       As he stood up with Valarys in tow, he stumbled down to one knee. Teeth grit as waves of pain and exhaustion began washing over Zihayr. He wasn’t going to be able to do it — not when he himself was just as injured as the man he carried.

     

       Eyes darted around the drifts for a solution. He didn’t know where the next shelter was, nor did he remember where he was.

     

       A wave of nausea came over him, forcing him to drop Valarys as he keeled over and vomited the contents of his stomach in the other direction. Chunks of half-digested flesh and blackened blood spilled out first — waves upon waves of it — before the final remnants of bile cued that nothing else remained.

     

       God, he didn’t know if he would be able to walk further than around the bend. His energy was near depleted.

     

       Raising his head up, eyes settled on the corpses once more. On the opposite side was a ravine wall which slanted over them. A sickening idea came into mind — one which might save them from the cold at least.

     

       Practically crawling now, he dragged Valarys to the other side. Using the flat of his axe as a shovel, Zihayr began to dig snow out from the foot of the wall. He dug down and diagonally such that the stone would act like the roof like of a lean-to. He kept digging and digging until his body began to shiver as muscles cramped up. The hole was just large enough to fit a handful of people laying on their sides. Its size made their previous abode look like a luxury Dairutian resort.

     

       Leaving Valarys, he went back into the snow and dragged a few of the wolves’ massive bodies towards the dugout. He touched each slit neck and smiled. Still warm. Their flesh would provide insulation. One had a steel dagger embedded deep in its eye-socket to which Zihayr was grateful. The wolf-man grabbed its blood-slicked hilt, and pulled it out with a crack. The blade had been embedded skull-deep.

     

       Vision began to tease spots of black. Any moment now, he was going to pass out.

     

       Deftly, he moved each corpse into the mini-trench, slitting each belly so that their warmth would leak out towards the men when they rested. Next, he threw in their bags and belongings. When he was finished with the task, he tried to lift Valarys, but didn’t have the strength. Everything was numb even though his blood raced with feral vitality. Still, he had to do what he could. With both feet, he kicked forward, shoving the boy in, making him roll down into the mound of corpses at the bottom with a splat.

     

       The glimpse of radiance which came after the blizzard vanished. Dusk was gone, and night was upon them.

     

       With the remaining power he had left, he built up the sides of the snow so that the entrance would be smaller.

     

       Then, as he was about to slide down, everything went black.

     

       Zihayr tumbled down into that dark, steaming pit on top of Valarys, the glowing orange rune on his collar serving as but a pittance of light in the umbra. His nostrils were filled with the scent of blood.

     

       Hopefully, come morning, they would not be corpses as well.

    @The Hummingbird

     


  15.  

    ZIHAYR

       “Idiot… God-Damned Idiot!” Zihayr was yelling — no, roaring even. The final details were finally coming into place. The wolf-man’s mind raced as he pieced together the man behind those violet eyes. A howl resounded in the distance, and Zihayr remembered Valarys’s last words to him:

     

       “I need to take a piss. And for the record? I don’t need you, mutt.”

     

       — But this was not the case. Neither statement was true, especially the latter. Valarys lied. None of the man’s belongings were left in that cave save for the part of himself he threw away. That book was precious — probably as important to the man as life itself. Zihayr’s expression darkened as the fire began to dwindle. Valarys was not planning on coming back. The man probably wasn’t even planning on leaving those mountains.

     

       That man was sentencing himself to death.

     

       The werewolf didn’t even hesitate — didn’t even question. What other decision was there to make? His movements were quicker now, no evidence of the willpower it took to muster them. If there was pain evident on his face, it was only that of echos long past. Regret — disappointment — fear — fear most of all. Zihayr wasn’t going to lose another one. No way he was going to let Valarys slip through his fingers.

     

       He could remember the look on their faces when they died. Every single one of them. Valarys was not going to be on that list. Zihayr would not be responsible for another. Zihayr refused it. He didn’t care if he had to drag Valarys back kicking and screaming. That man would come back alive, and that was a promise.

     

       He put on what vestiges of clothes he had left — no trace of his cloak save for the makeshift-bandages wrapped around his body. Going out now meant going out practically naked; his Velhatian garbs would provide him no barrier against the storm’s harsh teeth. Eyes darted around the cave, and to his luck, he saw the flayed skins of the wolves he had brought in earlier. Looks like Valarys really did skin them. The hides were bloody, and the insides were still covered in fat and cartilage, but their thick coats would suffice. There was no way he could usefully wear them outside, but perhaps when — or if — everything was over, it would provide some shield or blanket as as they rested. He tied the three around his neck like a layered cape.

     

       Whether or not the duo would make it back to their current shelter or break for the next lodge afterwards was uncertain. Seeking refuge directly in the ravines was a likely scenario, but Zihayr considered just getting to Valarys would be a success in itself. He didn’t care if he had to sleep in the cold.

     

       The wolf-man shoved the man’s book into his bag before throwing it on. There was a keen sting beneath the bandages on his back, but none of that mattered. The belt of his sword's sheathe was tightened fast around his waist as he slung his axe around and behind.

     

       He left the fire burning as he thrust himself forth into the dark blizzard, but he  had a feeling there would be no returning to it.

     

    *   *   *

     

       How many minutes had he been running?

     

       Bounding across the snow on all fours, Zihayr couldn’t tell where he was going, so he raised his nose up to the air once more. Valarys’s scent was still present, although faint and jumbled around. It hinted one direction, so the wolf-man followed it.

     

       The pads on his hands and feet were beginning to lose sensation. Everything burned with the same bitter intensity. Still, the icy numb which came with the storm’s battering was very much welcome — he didn’t have time to process different sensations — different types of pain. One kind was enough.

     

       His source of energy was that same fever high he felt earlier. That feral sense of survival and starvation began rising, but the werewolf kept his nerve. The curse was his own curse, so it should be Zihayr himself who decided how he’d wield it. Whether he’d keep control was a game he’d have to play. He couldn’t rely on the collar anymore, so he stuck to pure, driving emotions. Too complex, and he would be lost and taken over. Simplicity in thought. Yes — this was how he needed to think. Simplify. Forget. Do.

     

       It was difficult to see anything at all, even with his above-average vision. Despite this, the sound of growls and barks became clearer, and soon enough, so too did the traces of Valarys. He had almost tripped on them — the corpses upon corpses of wolves littered the ground like sand in a desert. The werewolf wasn’t shocked when he found himself in the company of the pack that he had been trying to deceive. He expected it.

     

       Whoosh  Shing — a flash of silver. He barely had time to react and dodge — there was something which cut through the air. It passed right by his face with a familiar whistle of steel.

     

       There, far in the distance, barely visible in the center of it all, was Valarys completely wasting Zihayr’s efforts.

     

       Soon enough, the wolves noticed Zihayr, and several surrounded him. They weren't stealthy like the three he encountered before — no, they were in disarray. He could hear them. Seven or so began zig-zagging towards him, but Zihayr made them out clearly. His senses were sharper than than the edge of his blade. They would attack, but they were definitely not going to make it out in once piece. They were just dogs after all — dogs that needed to be put down.

     

       Sword and axe withdrew as he began hacking through the hounds that threw themselves at him. Gods, he had no mercy as he split several in two. His anger was unbounded, his voice intermingling with the snarls of the pack — hell, he sounded more like a monster than the monsters themselves. He thundered over the cacophony of it all; four words were all he had to say:

     

    “VALARRRRYSYOU FUCKING IDIOT!”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  16.  

    ZIHAYR

       — And just like that, Zihayr’s only company was the blaze left burning in the cavern’s center. If it wasn’t clear then, it was clear to him now: that boy was dense. Self-deprecating, cavalier, and unbearably dense. Every time that man spoke, he spoke as if he were a child lashing out. It aggravated Zihayr greatly. Looking at Valarys was like looking at a reflection — one which paralleled how Zihayr was when he was younger. It was uncanny really. His outbursts of rage followed by a mask of indifference — his irritability and lack of sympathy — all of it was the same. The Slavers and The Circuit were to blame for all of it.

     

       If Valarys was truly cut from the same stone, then Zihayr knew exactly what was going through that man’s mind.

     

       Bitter, sour, dreadful-tasting emotions that one could easily choke on.

     

       Whatever chains held Valarys were still holding him fast. Guilt was the most likely of bonds. The werewolf was also once trapped by that bondage which was so carefully planted by his captors. Hell, he was still removing them. A self-sustaining system for keeping slaves from ever being free. It was a sense of distorted worth based on lies and false presumptions, and he sensed this from Valarys. In the way the man walked, talked, acted — held himself. The Slavers had a knack for ruining one’s perspective on the world. It took years for Zihayr to learn this truth.

     

       The more he thought about it, the more his blood boiled. He remembered that vow he made to himself — the vow that he would kill all of those damned Slavers where they stood.

     

       If Zihayr was sure of one thing, it was that Valarys hated himself. Valarys blamed himself. Zihayr had faith that he and Valarys were indeed the same. Whether it was blame for a friend he condemned or blame for his own traumas — hell, or both —, Valarys exuded self-loathing. It oozed from every pore.

     

       Maybe it was just the wolf-man projecting his own emotions on the closest living being, but Valarys had to be feeling the same way. Had to. They both were fucking toys after all.

     

       Memories forced their way back up to the surface — breaching into his consciousness without permission. Zihayr remembered his life as a servant back in the Etiquette Bazaar as clear as gin. Personal slave to a relative of one of The Council of Seven, yet shared around like a whore in a brothel. A relationship based on guilt — based on submission. That Zihayr would never amount to anything. All of those mixed feelings he felt then amounted to nothing. He felt like trash — no, he was trash, worse than trash. He remembered the duality of it all: agony and ecstasy felt as he stabbed that man over and over.

     

       What was left afterwards? Nothing.

     

       Hollow, empty — nothing.

     

       So strong a hatred was it that it had quite literally consumed everything within him.

     

       If anything, The Pits saved him in a way. Taught him how to get back up. Taught him his worth. Taught him hardship, but gave him times he would cherish forever. Times that, unfortunately, he was forced to kill one by one with his own two hands. Another reason why he hated The Slavers.

     

       That, however, was a story for another time.

     

       His next actions would most likely prove meaningless, but hopefully they would prove him right. He wanted so desperately to give Valarys’s actions meaning — to be right.

     

       To know that he was not alone in his pain.

     

       Getting up from sitting, Zihayr limped towards the colder side of the room. On the floor was the sprawled out corpse of a book that was so fervently written in. He sat on his heels with a grimace, both at his own wounds and the situation in general. It was then he realized that his injuries were, in fact, bandaged. Pain arose in his temples. Were his fever dreams not merely dreams after all?

     

       His clawed fingers gently picked up the book by the binding before Zihayr flipped it over.

     

       He saw the contents of it — Valarys’s journal — diary — logs — whatever. A book penned by Valarys, for Valarys. Zihayr would see if he was right.

     

       — And with that, he read.

    @The Hummingbird

     


  17.  

    ÉTIENNE LENOIR

       There were rumors of a ghost roaming in the Eastern District of Mezthaluen. They said that one need not but listen closely an hour past midnight on a clear, autumn’s night. If one payed close attention, they would hear something after the clock’s last strike. Soft and longing, a song — a boy’s song, eerie and pure —, would echo throughout the streets. A wordless tune that both captivated and haunted. If one saw the figure’s crimson cloak, it would be best to turn back.

     

       The spectre was said to be merciless. One look, and the soul would be taken.

     

       Étienne couldn’t help but chuckle. Ah, if only such rumors were true, Étienne thought. It would make Mezthaluen far more interesting than it truly was.

     

       Walking through the streets in the moonlight, clad in his dull red jacket, artichoke slacks, and huge, circular glasses, was none other than Étienne Lenoir — apprentice to his uncle André Lenoir, a famed mage and medicine-man. The boy had a slim face, with eyes of blue, and wavy ebony hair. Like his uncle, Étienne had a warm, ruddy complexion — far distant from the ghastly, hollow, pale faced geist he was described to be.

     

       He never intended to become a local legend; however, there was something about the night which captivated him. Made him want to sing as he made his way to the city’s periphery for his routine nightly exploration. He hummed, whistled, and crooned, oblivious to the sleeping world around him. His large leather satchel swung at his side as he strode towards the city gates.

     

       To be honest, he disliked the noise of onlookers in the day. The silence that came with darkness was welcome. Étienne could hear his own thoughts and voice much better when no one was around. People couldn't get past his dreamy, half-aware aloofness. Perhaps it was this dislike of normal people that made him into such a night owl, shifting his schedule to that of some nocturnal creature.

     

       When he neared the gate, he unlatched the cover to his satchel and took out an object wrapped in packing paper. There was a guard at the checkpoint, but no one who Étienne had not met before. He nodded to the armored woman before proceeding out of the city confines. They knew he had his papers, and trusted him well-enough to skip the formalities of searching him.

     

       There was the sound of barking in the distance, to which Étienne smiled warmly. It was the guard dogs employed by the city — first watch and signal against those who would try to infiltrate its armored walls. A few mastiffs, and a large, wild-looking hound. They were more friends to him than any person.

     

       Étienne crouched down and gave the beasts their nightly pets. They licked his hand and face with vigor. Friendly creatures, they were, given you were on the right side of the law. A lantern light peeked in the distance. Their owner was nearing.

     

       Quickly, Étienne stood up and unwrapped his mysterious package from the parchment. In it, there were several slabs of meat. The dogs must have known because as soon as he began unpacking, all of them began to jump —  each trying to snag more than their allotted allowance. With a calm hand, he distributed the treats out them fairly before hurrying his way towards the mountains. He didn’t want to be lectured by the houndmaster again. He had more important manners to attend to.

     

       Tonight was the night of a full moon, and more importantly, it was the only time when he could pick a peculiar flower which bloomed briefly in its silver light. It was a curious ingredient he wished to study more, having not been mentioned much in herbology or potion theory. Only the florists and hikers would mention them in passing. They were fabled to be pure white in color with a delicate fragrance from their cluster. It was a species native only to the humid pines near Mezthaluen.

     

       Wolfblossoms, as they were so aptly named.

     

       The etymology was poor at best, given the stark lack of wolves here in the central plains. Was it just named that for its flowering cycle and the tenuous link between the moon and wolves? Perhaps when Étienne made the plant more well-known, he would give it a more appropriate title.

     

       Nightbloom? Silverweed? Noxwood?

     

       Gah, he had to find the flowers first before any of that… he was getting ahead of himself. He scarcely knew what the damned things even looked like.

     

       With confident step, the young mage-apprentice crossed the forest’s border, the light from the sky being the only thing to guide him. Glassware jangled dully through the leather. Soon, he would have a specimen to begin his experiments.

     

    @L E V I A T H A N

     


  18.  

    ZIHAYR

       Deserve to be back in Dairut? Zihayr was going to offer Valarys a drink, but it seemed like that wouldn’t be the case anymore. For a moment, he thought he could allow himself to be vulnerable. Open up — have a laugh, share a few stories. He was warming up to this man, not because he felt indebted, but because of their commonalities.

     

       Still, there was only so much hypocrisy he could take. Zihayr was understanding, yes, but he was not a monolith. Prod too much, and you would earn his ire.

     

       Within moments, the werewolf sat up, ignoring his body’s protests. He wouldn’t complain about the pain — not to Valarys. The man wouldn’t bat an eye for him, so why waste the energy?

     

       “Ungrateful?” the wolf-man spat, “That’s rich, coming from you.

     

       “Your remarks have always been particularly scathing, but lashing out for not receiving a compliment? That is something I would have never expected. I’m not one to be shallow, but enough is enough. Let me remind you, boy, that you aren’t the only one doing work.

     

       “Tell me, who was the one who alerted the other of those monsters closing in on our camp on the first night? Was that you who smelled their stinking hides?

     

       “I’ve killed as many monsters as you have during the day — a fact you so graciously seem to ignore. Would you rather waste your bolts on them fighting alone?”

     

       “You constantly berate me for slowing you down; however, would you like to know why I am so slow? You may not have realized this, but do you remember that pack I just mentioned — the one that had us surrounded on the first night? The one that we so narrowly evaded? They’ve been following us. For the past several nights since our first encounter, they’ve been on our trail.

     

       “Figured it wasn’t worth it to deprive my only guide through these godforsaken mountains of his precious sleep — wouldn’t want him getting lost or disoriented. I led them off our trail — killed the stragglers — didn’t rest until I saw there were no more around us. Did this every night in fact, until that blizzard rolled in. Did I go looking for your thanks? No.”

     

       Zihayr picked up his axe from his side as he held it up to the air.

     

       “You think those dogs only came during the day — that our only night encounter was the first; however, I’ve been dealing with them for you. You may have shot a few in the day with that pretty little bow of yours, but perhaps I thought you would notice why my weapons were always covered in blood come morning. I make a habit of cleaning them before bed, you know — not that I get any sleep after. You're observant, aren't you?


       “As for the three wolves I killed tonight? More scouts from the fucking pack. I only ended up like this because I couldn’t see any of them in the damned storm. Brought their corpses back because we were running out of things to eat.” There was another reason too, but he no longer felt inclined to talk about it.


       “I’m cold, I’m exhausted, and now? I’ve got more wounds on me than hair on your pretty head,” he snarled. “— So you can add getting eaten by wolves on the top of your list of ways we die here. Pray the snow buries us deep before they find us because you have no idea how many of them are following us.”

     

       The wolf-man could only hope that the winds would throw off the duo's scent. Perhaps the blizzard would hide their tracks once and for all.

     

      It was wishful thinking.

     

       “— So do I complain about the weather? Yes.

     

       “Do I joke about our situation? Yes.

     

       “Do I complain about your treatment of me despite these things I do for you? No.

     

       “I do these things so we both have a chance at surviving, so please, watch that god damned tongue of yours because the one time I slip, I get slammed into a wall, and you’ve been slipping this entire journey.”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  19.  

    ZIHAYR

       He was swimming through a haze, a dull pain permeating throughout his entire being. His body — or mind — was floating through some limbo that wasn’t quite a dream, but wasn’t quite reality. Brief moments would tug on him like an anchor at chain’s end — a sting, a jolt — pain, to put generally —, but for the most part, he drifted. Words came through muddied and blurred, as if he were listening underwater. Some things came clearly while others didn’t, but he had a vague sense that most owed their origin in imagination. Valarys wasn't so kind as to tend to a wolf's wounds; the only truthful constant in his stupor was the pain.

     

       When he finally came to, the first thing he noted was that it was warm. Uncomfortably warm. Eyes opened, but he could only see grays and blacks with a shifting orange tinge. The patterns were that of burlap, but the holes were blocked by some kind of skin. His nose twitched; there was something on his face. Moreover, it reeked of Valarys.

     

       He turned his snout side to side, slowly but surely shaking off the cloak. The man must have thought Zihayr was dead, draping a cloth over him like that. Valarys would be disappointed to find out that there would be no burial. When the shroud properly fell, the wolf-man took in a breath of fresh air, finally free of its malodorous confines. It was clear that Valarys hadn't bathed in over a week. Soon, though, all offenses were put on hold as it was replaced by new, more luxurious scent.

     

       Something was cooking.

     

       A crackling fire popped and snapped at his side. He was so close to it, he could have sworn the other slave was trying to bake him. When he looked up, he found the source of his salivation. Above, there was a large portion of meat hanging from the hook — ribs, back, a few limbs — stacked like ristras in layers by the sinew — each slab dripping their juices as they bathed in the smoke of the fire. Just looking at them beckoned the pangs of hunger once more. His mouth watered like a faucet. He had his fill of flesh further back in the ravines, but true hunger was something that simply could not be sated.

     

       At least, not for a werewolf.

     

       Zihayr couldn’t help but reach up to grab a piece, but he drew back when arm and back stung as if covered in nettle.

     

       “Grrrah...” he groaned. “Shit... GAH...”

     

       Every adjustment — every movement invoked pain. It was impossible to obtain even a semblance of comfort. He might as well have been laying on nails.

     

       Try as he might to move, his body refused him. The wounds, once numbed by the ice and snow, were now as fresh as when they were first inflicted. His skin wasn’t wet with blood like it was earlier, so he figured the bleeding stopped at the very least. The itch, surprisingly, was gone too. Guess he was already in the process of healing, albeit its arrival was much sooner than he expect.

     

       “Fuck...” he said, barely forcing his head off the ground long enough to get a look at Valarys.

     

       The boy was still writing in that damned book of his.

     

       Zihayr’s head slumped back down to the stone floor, eyes forced to stare up at the ceiling.

     

       “Still jotting things down?” Zihayr asked, not expecting a response. “You’re always writing in that book lately.” It was a curious token the man had seemingly produced from nowhere. Never once had it been taken out prior to the two's arrival in the cave. Was it some secret diary? His last will perhaps?

     

       The wolf grumbled as he considered his present state. He needed something to take the edge off.

     

       “— Mind getting me my bag?” Zihayr managed, before sputtering out a cough. He nearly choked on his own saliva. “Can’t move that well — sore as hell.”

    @The Hummingbird

     


  20.  

    ZIHAYR

       An hour had past, and the blizzard went on unabated. In fact, one could say that the storm was merely in its embryonic phases, its ferocity slowly growing with time. One couldn’t even see the sun, its light completely obscured by darkness born of purest white. Each flake of snow was a beast among thousands, starved to devour whatever warmth and radiance there was before it touched the ground — leaving nothing for the creatures beneath it.

     

       Step by wary step, Zihayr trod through the ever-deepening snow, his body still warmed with both liquid vitality and an unearthly vigor. His condition was both a boon and curse — strength for sanity, and a trade he could not call willingly.

     

       He dragged the snow covered corpses, their trail obscured as soon as it was made. He did not know how far he had traveled from the cavern when his vision went nigh, but he knew he was getting closer. The wind liked to play its tricks, dragging and pulling on the scent so that Zihayr would circle, turn, and possibly drift farther away, but he trusted his instincts. With a tangled thread in the maze, he traced his way back.

     

       Turning around a corner, he caught the faintest crack of light.

     

       —

     

       The entrance to the cavern was nearly buried, save for a small hole peeking out into the cold oblivion. Valarys must have been still writing in his book, unconcerned with that outside which he could not change. He must have been surprised when, without warning, a clawed foot came crashing through, kicking aside the rims, knocking down chunks of snow onto the firelit floor.

     

       Two feet preceded a figure as it slid down faster then any sled on a hill, a plume of white dust nearly putting out the fire. Its silhouette was shrouded, although it quite obviously came down without grace. Moreover, it was not alone.

     

       One could see a hand gripped around the ankles of what seemed to be two white wolves, the other holding the leg of a third; all three dragged with little care, all were riddled with wounds. The one dragged alone was clearly missing half of its neck. As the snow settled, it was apparent that these hounds were dead, save for the one who brought them here. Getting up to his feet, three trophies in tow was, of course, Zihayr.

     

       The wolf-man looked almost feral, fur blown to the side in one direction and spiked with red frost. His cloak had countless tears and his sleeves were nearly torn off. There were numerous bite marks that were visible on his arms, as well as a large crimson stain soaking his cape. His pupils were pinpoints as his face held a wild expression. His mouth was agape, corners of his lips twisted in what seemed to be a smile — breath steamed out, blood smeared across one side of his face, chin painted sanguine.

     

       Crazed eyes settled on Valarys, peering into icy violet. The man was still clutching onto his book.

     

       With a swing, he lobbed one of the corpses towards the wall opposite of himself; the body collided with an squelching thud, its head now hanging on by a few tendons as it fell at Valarys's right.

     

       “I caught that one,” he panted, “You skin it.”

     

       His teeth shined red as he gave a toothy grin.

     

       “Hope you eat dog….”


       Zihayr collapsed onto the ground.

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  21.  

    ZIHAYR

       Zihayr’s expression crumpled into a scowl when he heard the word “toy”. Everyone in the Alcove knew what The Circuit was and what it meant when you earned a spot in it. Anger rose and gripped him by the throat as he thought about it; the perverted sadists who ran that system were subhuman scum. Lucky was a way to put it. To the werewolf, The Circuit was one of the worst hells he knew — only tied with the likes of Pit Tartarus itself.

     

       He smirked — a gold fang shining in the amber glow; a blade-scar cut across his lips. Palm met forehead as he shook his head vigorously. It was similar. Far too similar. Zihayr had to laugh, not at Valarys, but at what he himself went through. He had to laugh, otherwise, he would break. The wolf-man’s punishment was on a different level than the others who just visited the pits. This man in front of him had visited a similar hell, no doubt. He was kin through shared hardship.

     

       Zihayr lowered his hands and rested them on his knees. His expression subdued. There was a long pause.

     

       “We’re not free,” he sighed, teeth grit, as if stating an obvious fact. “Not yet at least.”

     

       Mind wandered back to the night before — to the words Valarys said. No, this man was not free either. He still wore his collar.

     

       “You know as well as I that our kind is bound by more than iron.”

     

       Their kind carried burdens beyond the yoke of their former masters.

     

       It was then, at that last word, Zihayr felt his insides tie up in a knot — pain wracking his guts. Its sudden onset was enough to make the wolf-man flinch. He looked away from Valarys for a moment as eyes darted towards the entrance of the cave. He smelled something.

     

       Damn — already?

     

       He didn’t give Valarys a chance to respond as he got up from the fire and began hurriedly putting all of his clothes back on. He had been ignoring it for the most part, but the wringing in his stomach could no longer be overlooked. He was used to feeling this way when his feelings were high, but this was notably more potent. That inhuman urge to kill and maim — a bloodlust that couldn’t be tamed —

     

       A reminder that he was less than human.

     

       Was the spell around his neck weakening?

     

       He shook his head. Regardless, he needed meat, and he needed it now.

     

       Quickly, he rewrapped his hands in those dirty bandages before slinging on his sword, axe, and cloak, leaving his bag behind. The blizzard gales carried that strange odor into the cave — a musk of sorts —, and it was now swirling through his nostrils. If he was correct, its source was not too far from their encampment. If he was wrong, this would be a long day.

     

       Zihayr stepped towards the slope of snow and began climbing out through the hole. Flakes of ice and knife-like winds assaulted him as he poked his head out into the blackness. He took a second to look back towards Valarys.

     

       “I’m going to step outside for a bit,” he said, tone shifting. “Don’t follow me — I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

     

       He was going to get some food.

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  22.  

    ZIHAYR

       “You’d be surprised…,” he whispered softly in a dark, sardonic tone. There was a reason he didn’t like being touched. A very good reason.

     

       When the hole was large enough for one of them to fit through, Zihayr stopped his work, and retreated back to his side of the cavern. The loose cloth which composed his trousers was now thoroughly soaked from kneeling in the snow, and if there was one thing he hated, it was wet fur. He should have worn his long cloak whilst doing the job — at least that was a waterproof article of clothing.

     

       A good investment for a trip such as this.

     

       Zihayr removed the offending outerwear from his legs, leaving only his undergarments which looked suspiciously like normal shorts — save for a section modified at the back which made room for his swishing tail. It was hand-sewn, and shoddy work at best. While the wolf-man was many things, he was by no means a tailor. Afterwards, he wrung as much of the moisture he could before hanging the foreign fabric from the lantern-hook next to the firepit to dry.

     

       Next came his coat, and then, surprisingly, his cowl. The man in front of him already knew, so no need to hide it any longer. He laid those two beside him, leaving him with nothing but his plain shorts, a flowy undershirt, and of course, his irremovable, iron collar.

     

       The wolf-man sat down next to the now-roaring blaze and tried to get more comfortable, but to no avail. Slowly, he began to unwind the bandages which covered his hands and feet, and when they were removed, he held out his toes and frost-numbed fingers to the flame.

     

       His arms — now full revealed — were thin of hair and laden with scars and tattoos. The ink seemed to undulate and move, as if possessed, under the flame; each image shifting as if they were alive. Titles in different languages were bold in color, displaying his numerous accomplishments. Tallies and numbers without meaning appeared and disappeared. One said “Champion” — another said “Tartarus’s Hound” — one below said “Hawk-Eyes”; the other tattoos were inscrutable. Nearly hidden by his sleeve was a price mark followed by numbers which were scratched out vigorously.

     

       “I was a pit fighter in The Alcove,” he said hollowly, eyes empty as he stared into the fire, thinking back to what he was before that. “I killed someone, and was thrown in with the lot of them.” He killed a lot more people after that too.

     

       “Think I was nine at the time when I first found myself in the ring — think I’m around thirty now.”

     

       “You had your beat-them-to-a-pulps, break-a-limb matches, but mostly — where I was — there were mainly fight-to-the-deaths. Popular sport,” he said, bitter emphasis on the last word. Those games were tournaments of the most unsavory nature. He would slaughter all of the masters if he could.

     

       “Still here I guess,” Zihayr shrugged. He was a damn good fighter when he wanted to be.

     

       “Gotta get this thing off of me,” he said, tapping on one of the runes of his iron collar. One of the letters faintly glowed orange — an active tracking spell. “Itches like crazy, as you can imagine. Keeps me under control though, so I am going to need some kind of replacement when we get to Caelum.”

     

       “What about you, Valarys,” he said, coin-like eyes turning back to a matching, violet pair. The wolf-man’s face was grave and sober. “What’d they take from you? A brother, father, sister, mother? Don’t think I don’t know — you spoke like you knew them.”

     

       “You a slave too?”

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  23.  

    ZIHAYR

       It was difficult to get any sleep that night. Yes, the weather was no longer an issue as their current hideout became warmer and warmer as time went on; however, his mind wouldn’t stop going. Even in semi-slumber, he was at the mercy of his memories and thoughts. Drifting, then shoved, then tossed into a spiral. Flashes of a past that haunted him appeared in no particular order.

     

       When he awoke, Zihayr sucked in a breath sharply. He could feel sweat soaking his own fur. Strangely, there was that taste of roasted meat lingering on his tongue, and no sooner did his stomach growl expectantly. Damned be the gods. This may have been the first time in weeks where his hunger might become an issue. Half a hare and two sandwiches were not enough to sustain him.

     

       Vision soon refocused as the blur of colors became clearer. He wiped the crust from his eyes with his wrist before turning his attention towards Valarys. He was scribbling in some book. As to what he was writing, Zihayr didn't really care. In the same second Zihayr's eyes focused in on the pen, Valarys must have sensed the wolf-man's awakening as the man spoke with the same, everpresent nonchalance without ever looking up.

     

       When he was done, Zihayr had decided. This man was irritating.

     

       His demeanor was grating — vexing even. Something about his attitude had irked Zihayr greatly since the first day they had begun traveling together. It was a brand of pessimism he was well-acquainted with although barely acknowledged. Familiar, but also annoying.

     

       The situation wasn’t looking good at all, and to that, Zihayr let out a quarter of a laugh and shook his head. He could have won a fortune with his luck.

     

       “I don’t think I’ll be dying here. Wouldn’t want the last thing I see to be your ugly face. I’ll claw my way out before I let that happen. Rather die out there in the storm.” He hated closed spaces.

     

       He made his way towards the slope of packed snow that now barricaded the mouth of the cave and began to shovel bit by bit away with his cupped hands. Had to make sure that, at the very minimum, the entrance hadn’t been buried too deep. They would have to tunnel their way out eventually — even if the blizzard stopped, the snow wouldn’t just disappear.

     

       Then, without thinking, he began to talk.

     

       “You’re a cold asshole, you know?” Zihayr said, throwing out another handful of snow. “You are, in fact, a lot of things. Arrogant? Absolutely. A dick? Definitely.”

     

       He paused for a moment, considering his next words carefully. Zihayr wasn’t the type to keep things on his chest.

     

       “I’ll admit though, I am no better than you. Back where I am from, I would have had my throat slit for saying what I did yesterday, so thank you for not slitting mine….” There was a long sigh before he resumed digging out the snow.

     

       “I apologize for saying what I said,” he said lowly, tail now nestled between his knelt knees. “You are no slaver.”

     

       No sooner than his apology did he look over his shoulder with a piercing glare.

     

       “Call me a bitch, whoreson, or bastard — you so much as touch me again —, I will gut you,” he snarled. “Refer to me by anything else, you may. Mutt, dog — whatever. I don't care.”

     

       “I’m used to it.”

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  24.  

    ZIHAYR

       Winded — winded and pinned. His mind didn’t process what happened until he found every instinct within him screaming bloody murder. His hair stood on end as he felt the blood pumping wildy throughout his veins. Breathing quickened as eyes widened, brow and muzzle scrunching so far that the creases had folds which had creases in themselves. There was a bottomless hatred that was uncorked at that moment — one not directed at anyone or anything. Unlike before, there was no facade of calmness. He was no longer an emotionless wall.

     

       He had told Valarys never to touch him.

     

       Inches — his claws were mere inches from impaling themselves into Valarys’s stomach. Ripping out his guts. Letting them fall to the floor. Inches from the delight which came of watching that man die screaming again, bloodied body soiling those precious alabaster tiles… staining that abhorrent rug. Splayed out with that detestable expression he had… him begging for his life as he tried desperately to keep his insides inside. No — Zihayr did not see Valarys as Valarys anymore, but as someone else entirely.

     

       Faces shifted in his bloodshot eyes as Zihayr’s own vision deluded him. His memories blurred with reality. The string of insults — the slamming of his back into the wall — he needed to satisfy his murderous impulses.

     

       Bitch — Bastard — Whoreson. Words he had been called before — names he no longer went by; names he would let no one call him. This man just said all three. They were insults anchored in harsh truths, each one striking a different chord. Too jumbled to make any sense of, but each one hammering that stake further and further. Zihayr didn’t want to remember the details.

     

       He felt his claws barely touching the thick fabrics of the man in front of him. Daggers, curled and prepped for the final thrust by the palm. He was really going to kill him.

     

       But without warning, all of those feelings were suddenly overtaken.

     

       “— Say it again and I will kill you where you stand. I. am. Nothing! Like! THEM!”

     

       Confusion settled in. Absolute incredulity. The words rang and rang in his ears as he found himself slumping to the floor with brow softened to a furrow. Two sandwiches fell into his lap, but he didn’t notice. His chest was still pounding, but he was completely and utterly dumbfounded.

     

       What did Valarys just say? He looked back, but the man was back to cutting sandwiches.

     

       “— Keep your mouth shut or we’re going to have an altercation,” he muttered, and Zihayr did well to follow.

     

       No person — no one would speak with such passion unless they knew. Zihayr didn’t know if it was a father, mother, sibling, child — distant relative or close friend. The man hadn’t spoken a word about his past, but then again, the two didn’t speak much at all. Was Valarys also a runaway slave?

     

       He found his hand unconsciously readjusting his own cowl before scratching that which was underneath.

     

       Questions he wanted to ask right then and there, but in the end, were left unspoken. The air was already as heavy as lead. The foul mood within the cavern held taut in palpable tension.

     

       Valarys gave his death-stare as Zihayr stared back.

     

       The wolf-man was angry — oh, he was still furious —, but now, it would seem that Valarys, in the end, was justified. Zihayr took a bite of his sandwich, daring not to break eye-contact with the other man.

     

       So they sat there staring at each other, eating what little rations they had while sitting on the cold, uncomfortable, cave floor.

     

    @The Hummingbird

     


  25.  

    ZIHAYR

     

       Zihayr’s face did not change nor contort when the corpse came flying. He didn’t even wince. Didn’t take a breath. He wasn’t going to give Valarys that satisfaction. Instead, his eyes didn’t move from that man across the room. His gaze, almost murderous. No words; completely silent. Zihayr was a predator in the distance.

     

       Alright, the wolf-man thought, Alright.

     

       He was used to this by now, though. Humans no longer surprised him. If this is where their quips and retorts led, then so be it. From sarcasm to this? It wouldn’t bother him. Zihayr had been in company to men more hostile — more willing to keep pushing — than this.

     

       All that was left was disgust. The cold couldn't bother him now.

     

       Valarys must have forgotten who heard— no, smelled the wolves first for that very first ambush. Fast asleep, that man was. Not even a word of thanks after. Maybe Zihayr should have just let them have their way with Valarys. Zihayr knew the way back.

     

       Slowly, he bent his knees and picked up the hare’s corpse from the ground with one hand. With his other, he took out his knife. He brandished the dagger curiously and looked into its mirror-like finish, seeing his own eyes which burned of gold in the firelight. They shimmered and danced in the warm, fluctuating glow despite being devoid of emotion. He resheathed his blade.

     

       A job like this didn’t need steel.

     

       With his free hand, he punctured a small hole or two into the hide of the animal, cutting two circles around the ankles with just the tip of a claw. Next, he joined them with a line from thigh to thigh, circling around the tail end before slicing down the actual tail. The pelt was parted, and now came its removal. He held the hares feet with one hand as his other hand slid its fingers underneath. Then, like removing the casing of a sausage, he pulled it off with ease. In one hand, a flayed rabbit, and in the other, its inverted skin.

     

       He stood, approached slowly, blood dripping from his nails, and tossed the tube of flesh on top of the Valarys’s rucksack. Then, he tossed the hare as well, its eyes now wide and lidless. Clean meat — clean hide — Zihayr did his job. Wouldn’t want it to get dirtied by the floor.

     

       Keep slicing that cheese cutting your bread, he thought, as he walked away, head turned, eyes not leaving Valarys. That man’s words echoed in Zihayr's mind:

     

       But if you like freezing alive, be my guest. I won’t miss you.

     

       Funny, he would mention that. That wasn’t the only way you can die in these mountains.

     

       When he was back in his own corner of the cave, Zihayr muttered something to himself:

     

       “No better than a slaver….”

    @The Hummingbird

     

     

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