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Snow crashed inward into the cave. Valarys jumped in surprised, staring at the abomination that emerged. Towing the three bloody bodies of wolves behind it, Valarys realized it was Zihayr. Zihayr, looking as he must have looked in the pits; wounded, stained in blood, savage, and bestial. What human features the wolf-boy had before was completely gone as he collapsed to the floor, streams of blood staining the ground pink.

Valarys considered the mutt. “Fuck,” he muttered. Shutting his book and tossing it on his rucksack, he rose to his feet and stood over the Zihayr. He drew a knife.

Bending down, he sawed off the torn and bloodied cloak. Seizing hold of the wolf-boy’s arm, he half-dragged, half-carried Zihayr over to lie beside the fire, now struggling due to the sudden draft. Stoking it to a blaze once more with fresh wood, Valarys fetched the container of water they had begrudgingly shared on their journey.

Using the clean areas of the cloak, Valarys washed and wiped clean the wounds Zihayr had sustained. Though none of them looked particularly fatal, infection was always a possibility; Valarys made sure to use a portion of the antiseptic he carried in his pack for emergencies, a stinging, harsh lotion he rubbing liberally into the seeping cuts.

After all was said and done, Valarys took off his fur cloak and tossed it over Zihayr, then went to gather the bodies of the wolves. Wolf meat wasn’t exactly a delicacy, nor did they have the supplies that would make it taste anywhere near good, but it was something. He began to skin and butcher the tough, muscled flesh, hanging what he could over the fire to smoke and salting the rest for preservation.

Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to eat all of it.

It was a long while before Valarys finished the chores: skinning the wolves, curing the meat, preparing some for a sorry dinner, burying the rest under a cache of rocks in the back of the cave, and melting snow for water.

When he was done, he relaxed again with his book, scribbling, looking up now and again at Zihayr.

“You’re nothing but trouble,” he grumbled as he wrote. “Going out into the blizzard to hunt fucking wolves? What in hell were you thinking? You could’ve at least brought something better to eat. You should’ve frozen to death out there, for all the use you are.” He shook his head irritably. “Damned mutt.”

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   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


Edited by Artificer

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At the groans of Zihayr, Valarys looked up from his book… only to return to writing as if nothing had occurred. His pen moved across the page in smooth, sometimes overlapping motions as he neglected to respond to Zihayr’s remark. Only when the dog asked for a mild favor did Valarys look up with an aggravated scowl. He slapped the book shut. So that was how the dog showed appreciation for all the work he did and being taken care of?

Briefly, Valarys considered telling the dog to get his pack himself. Something made him look at Zihayr and the sorry state the overgrown mutt was in. Grumbling to himself, Valarys got up and fetched the pack, tossing it to land by the dog-boy’s side. With angry movements, he grabbed the fallen fur cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders again, for despite the fire, he felt cold. He then checked and moved the cooking meat a touch before returning to the wall and his coveted book.

“What else am I going to do? Besides, after taking care of your sorry ass I deserve to relax a little and take my mind off the fact that we’re probably going to starve here. Or freeze to death. The wood’s going to run out sooner or later.” Valarys looked over at the pile of logs. There was still plenty… but his words rang true. Sooner or later, there would be none left.

It wasn’t paranoia. It was logic.

For the first time, Valarys looked worried. Standing, he began to pace back and forth before the fire, murmuring under his breath, making calculations, estimates, and forming unfortunate scenarios that brought to mind the very real possibility of dying there in the shelter. Contrary to what most might think, it appeared Valarys did have an imagination.

“The blizzard can’t last forever,” he finally concluded, voice dour. He glanced over at Zihayr. “Are you hungry? Cause tough luck, the meat’s not done yet.” His lip curled in distaste. “Come to think of it, aren’t you supposed to be a wolf? Wolves don’t eat wolves, last I checked. Or are you just that barbaric?”

Valarys slumped down against the wall again, picked up his book… and then threw it across the cave. It collided with an outcrop of rock and fell to the earth like a dead bird.

“FUCK!” Valarys yelled. “Stuck in here with an ungrateful cur. Great. What an accomplishment. You deserve to be back in Dairut for this amazing debacle.”

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   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


Edited by Artificer

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On and on Zihayr prattled. Valarys said nothing as the mutt raged, but his eyes became darker and more furious with every word spoken. If he ever regretted choices made at Zihayr’s expense, he no longer regretted them now. No, the cur deserved everything he got. Everything that happened, everything that would happen, Zihayr had begged for. Hands clenched at his sides, Valarys stared at Zihayr as condemnation after condemnation fell on his ears.

Zihayr did state some hard-learned facts. Good ones. Valarys had no idea they were being stalked by the beasts that prowled these godforsaken mountains. If everything the dog-boy said was true, then they were alive only due to his efforts. Unfortunately, those efforts would probably end up being in vain. That was, however, beside the point.

It was a good time to feel shame, to feel utterly worthless, but it was also too late. What was done was done. That was then, this was now. And now called for more than just sitting, feeling sorry for oneself and getting all the blame.

When Zihayr was done talking, Valary stood up. If there was anything but hate and wrath he felt, it didn’t show in those violet, gold-flecked eyes. He stalked over to where Zihayr sat, wounded, hefting that axe, completely righteous. And Valarys dropped to one knee and glared at Zihayr, right in those predatory eyes.

“Did I ask you to save my fucking life?” he snarled. “All right, I admit it. I was clueless and worthless, so thank you for your efforts.” He thought for a moment, then forced it out. “I’m sorry.” One had to be honest and sincere in their feelings. “Unfortunately for you, your efforts weren’t wanted, dog,” Valarys snapped. “Now that I think about it, dying would be great. In fact, I’d love to.

“Oh, I see. This is about the Dairut comment, isn’t it? You idiot, I was talking about me. I deserve to be back in Dairut, the fucktoy of every man there. But I’m the reason we’re in this… this… situation. I should have known better. Made better choices. But I didn’t, so now we’re here. Yeah, you’re right, you’re right, are you happy? You’re the only one who deserves to be alive.”

Strength. Control. Perseverance. Apparently, none were practiced nor obtained. What did that make him?

He lurched to his feet, spinning away. He began stuffing things into his backpack – pieces of dried meat, the antiseptic bottle, and oddly, a few rocks. He walked over to the thrown book, looked at it for a moment, then tossed it back on the ground. He tossed the backpack on his shoulders and looked out the cave. The storm hadn’t abated, but it wasn’t as bad then. He shot a glare at the wolf-boy.

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

Out he went.

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   — 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


Edited by Artificer

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High above, the sky shone a stark white. Crying frozen tears of snow, it was a streak of unreachable oblivion down in the ravine. The wind continued to blow, a sighing, condemning gale that stirred up cold drafts, chilling skin and bone. It was an inhospitable, damning desert of ice and endless winter, and it seemed nothing could or would live there. Anything that dared awaited a miserable death.

But death was a part of life, and Valarys did not fear it. Trudging through the gathered snow, he left the shelter far away, until the light was long gone, lost in the storm. All he could hear for long, freezing minutes was the wind and its wordless, mourning wail.

Yet it was not too long before he heard it, so far away and faint as to be nearly a dream. A drawn-out, hollow howl, a cry of hunger and hate. It lasted a good few seconds, before being joined by other voices, reaching a great crescendo that sent shivers down the spine. They were growing closer, and soon Valarys could hear them clearly, and saw their dark shapes streaking towards him, bounding through the heaps of snow, leaping over frozen dunes. Their teeth, wet with saliva, shone even in the shadows of the canyon.

He pulled out the crossbow, pulling the bolt taut over the barrel. Strength.

He focused down the sight, choosing a target ahead, drawing closer and closer. Control.

He released the bolt, and it streaked and slammed into the chest of a wolf. Perseverance.

Heart shattered, the wolf screamed as it fell. Its comrades snarled as they came on. Valarys tossed the crossbow aside and drew his knives, the knives used not for skinning or cutting food, but for killing.

Sharpened, immaculate blades slid past fur and skin, shearing past flesh and muscle, grinding against bone. Claws and teeth struck back. Howls and cries of rage and vengeance, anger and fury, mingled together into a wrathful chorus.

Blood stained the snow, flowing outward, a sea of red.


The pages were indeed inscribed with words. Words that described the journey, terse but surprisingly descriptive, every letter depicted in beautiful, practiced calligraphy. But as Zihayr flipped through the pages, he would find more than just a recounting of the hard travels they had endured.

In smooth, varying lines, sketches of mountains, of trees, of the patterns of clouds in the sky, of wild animals and flying birds, filled the pages. There were buildings and people, too, and titles accompanying each sketch. Sunset in Aelindra. Hawk Flying. Deer in the Northern Woods. Storm in the Mountains.

There was a sketch of two people, dressed in fashionable clothing, from the waist up. Their faces were left blank, however, lacking mouth, nose, and eyes. The page opposite of the drawing held bits of writing.

What were they like? Did they really sell me for money? Was I that meaningless to them?

There were drawings of a man, with cruel eyes and stern lips, glaring out of the page, lifelike and somehow upsetting. On the opposite page Valarys described his master, in words that were at once puzzling and degrading.

Is it wrong to miss him? He was cruel, a bastard, but I dream of him all the time.

More of that, much more. Valarys described his time in the Circuit, brutalized, tortured, raped. Sometimes there were odd circular stains on the entries, blurring letters and words, smearing the graphite or ink, whatever was used. Sometimes there were full, journal-type entries. Sometimes, only a few words were written

God? I don’t believe in god.

What makes them hurt?

Strength is all that matters.

I’ll never be free.

Sometimes, I wish I died.

The last two pages were a drawing and title. The drawing was of a young man, lying on his back, wrapped in bandages, obviously wounded. Sleeping. But his head was like a wolf, and he had claws. Each strand of fur was drawn with care. The stone surrounding him was shaded with exact detail.

The title read clearly; Zihayr.

Underneath it,

Hope he’s all right.

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   “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:



@The Hummingbird


Edited by Artificer

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Relentless as the storm itself, the wolves kept coming. There seemed to be no end to them – a constant, persistent wave of slavering jaws and savage snarls. Not only that, these were not the mangy scouts Zihayr had slain earlier, but the soldiers and leaders of the pack that ruled the mountains. They were huge and sleek, these wolves, and sought only to kill. To maim. To feast.

Surrounded by the predators, Valarys fought. Riddled with wounds, stained in blood both his own and theirs, he still lived, taking down as many wolves as he could before he too fell. Growls and howls of vengeance battered his ears as his knives flashed, wounding and killing. But each strike came a little weaker, a little more desperate than the one before as his strength and energy began to falter and fade.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something – a beast different from the others. Without thinking, he slung the third of his four knives at it. He missed. It was a good thing too, for it seemed the shadowy newcomer was on his side and several wolves split formation to surround it. Then it howled, screamed words as the bodies of wolves fell around it, and Valarys realized who it was.


I told him I didn’t need his stupid ass! Valarys thought furiously as he cut down another wolf. Down to one knife, he lunged sideways as another predator leaped at him. He snatched up a knife that had found its mark in the body of another and, twisting, slammed it into the belly of the persistent attacker. Blood and entrails spilled over him as again and again he rammed the body full of holes. The wolf fell, twitching. Two, three, and four took its place. For a moment, Valarys completely vanished amid snapping teeth and raking claws.

Salivating fangs clamped and slashed open his body, and he killed them all. Jaws ripped open his clothes, finding purchase on skin and bone, and he killed them all. Claws ripped and tore open new wounds, and he killed them all.

Until finally a wolf leaped upon a large boulder and gave a long, high-pitched howl. With yelps, barks, and bestial growls and hisses, the wolves fled. Their lean, toned bodies flew up the sides of the ravine, leaping from outcrop to outcrop, stone to stone, to vanish into the white oblivion. Silence descended, oppressive and deadly calm.

Valarys turned, and amazingly, came charging at Zihayr, one last knife gleaming with shiny blood in his hand. Halfway there, the knife dropped and Valarys fell to his knees then sideways, skidding in the reddened ice and bloodstained snow. All the exhaustion and pain came crashing down on him as he collapsed.

Drenched in sweat and blood, chest heaving as his heart fought for his life, he glared at Zihayr.

“Fucking… mutt…” He coughed, shivered.

The falling snow slowed, faded, and stopped. At last, the blizzard rested.

It was cold.

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   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


Edited by Artificer

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Numb and conscious only by the barest of threads, Valarys stared up at Zihayr. That look of vicious savagery, that locked snarl, those heaving, hungry breaths… yes. If he ever doubted before, this was indeed the beast who conquered the Pits, the Hound of Tartarus. Beneath the wolfman’s torn clothing he saw the scars twisting and shifting over the flesh, almost pulsing, as if in silent yet proud proclamation of Zihayr’s beast.

He winced as Zihayr’s claws pierced his skin, feeling a warm drop of saliva hitting his forehead. Ah, Zihayr was going to kill him. To be honest, Valarys wasn’t surprised, and even a little relieved that he’d be released from this miserable life. So he was mildly disappointed when Zihayr released him and backed off. That was when the darkness enveloped Valarys, and the pain dragged him down into a deep torpor filled with nightmares. Nothing could wake him, not even when Zihayr rolled him down into the trench and collapsed on top of him.

What does a tortured man dream? What does a haunted wolf dream? Whatever they were, they came and passed slowly by. The clouds of the sky parted, allowing the light of stars to peak through before fading at the onset of dawn. Death disregarded both as its intended victims were kept warm by hot bodies and drying blood. Bodies that would cool overnight. It would be the frost of the next day, collecting on their eyelashes and edges of their wounds, that would wake them.

The blizzard had completely ceased, but the weather was still mercilessly cold.

Valarys woke in agony, every weak movement reopening wounds that had attempted and failed to mend. Worse, he was hot, unbearably hot. He was burning. Perhaps he would die after all. The thought passed with alarming calm through his mind, and it was a moment before he realized that Zihayr was on top of him.

He saved me. Tried, anyway, Valarys thought dimly.

With great effort he tried to push Zihayr off, managing only to barely budge the wolf. Valarys gave up and stared up at the rocky, earthen ceiling, then at the entrails of wolves to one side. The smell of rotting flesh would have been revolting if not for the cold already working to preserve the bodies. There was another smell, of course. That of a sweaty dog.

“Zihayr,” Valarys whispered. “You fucking… get off me… please.”

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   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 —”




    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


Edited by Artificer

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Beyond the miasma of pain, fever, and confusion that tormented his body and mind, Valarys was dimly aware that something was happening. Some important, and dire as well. Despite his condition, his instincts had not fully faded, and the hairs on his neck were standing up, and the familiar trickle of despair and fear raced down his spine. He barely heard what Zihayr said – though later it would hold a place firmly in his memory – but by then he already knew who had come. What had come. He scrabbled at something, anything, and ended up holding the only thing that was familiar in this godforsaken land; his book.

He gasped in agony as Zihayr threw him and he landed roughly in the snow. Blood that was now at a premium for him seeped out onto the icy ground, and deeper wounds wept even more profusely, with worrying discharges of infection. Spasming and shivering from the pain, Valarys rolled his head up, and caught sight of the monsters that had ruled his life since he could remember.

Fakhri, he mumbled, or tried to. Nothing came out other than a labored moan, but the shadows examining him saw the movement of his lips and read them clearly. They pulled down the ripped and damaged scarf that Valarys wore, and saw the parallel lines, scars left by a too-tight collar. They looked up at the lead jailer, who smiled thinly – instances before Zihayr seized him by the throat. Growls and angry curses were uttered by the slavers; swords were drawn and arrows were notched, with one silver bolt finding a mark that proved futile at stopping the wolf.

Fakhri was in a dangerous position, and it showed even as he glared back at the wolf. Slowly, cautiously, he raised a hand, making a gesture to the men and pointing at Valarys. Two more men came forward, opening their packs and pulling out salves and bandages. Fakhri raised an eyebrow at the wolf. Positions and situations were about to be reversed.

“Let me go, mutt, or Val gets no help.”

Once released, Fakhri dusted himself off with great dignity and smiled arrogantly. “Here’s the deal, dog. You and the boy come with us back to Dairut. Oh, don’t worry, Val will be taken care of and he’ll be free. But you… you’re still a slave, and you always will be. Its back to Tartarus with you… perhaps after a round in the Circuit, hmmm? There’s some who’d pay a good amount of coin to play with that mangy hide. I must say, I could use the gold.”

He turned to one of his men and jerked his head sharply at Zihayr. The slaver jumped at Fakhri’s unspoken command, snatching the manacles from the one tending to Valarys. He quivered slightly from just the sight of the wolf, but fortunately was made of sterner stuff than others. With a few quick motions, Zihayr’s hands were bound behind his back.

“Cause trouble and we’ll kill your friend,” Fakhri warned him. “He might to not be valid for the Circuit again, but everyone’s valid for... accidental misfortune.”

The slavers worked quickly, and a mule, well-covered in hides and blankets, was brought forth. Valarys, bandaged and breathing a little easier, was draped over the mount’s back, and the Fakhri led the way back through the ravine, back the way Valarys and Zihayr worked so hard to traverse. Every once in a while, he looked back at Valarys and smiled again.

“I didn’t expect to see him so soon,” he said eventually. “Not like this, anyway. Guess he learned nothing after all.”

They reached a Wayfarer’s Lodge when the sun began to sink, and though it was only early evening Fakhri called a stop. He discussed with his men for a few minutes, drawing out a journal that had numbers and days printed.

“Should be out of here before the next blizzard hits,” one of the slavers said, looking at the book. “Otherwise we’d be stuck here for another few days.”

“Good.” Fakhri shut the logbook and tucked it back into a rucksack… Valarys’ rucksack, salvaged from the scene of carnage. “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?” he said sweetly.

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   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


Edited by Artificer

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Bones and entrails were scattered as Zihayr delved into the corpse, tearing apart skin and muscle. Growls and hungry snarls, mixed with the wet sounds of gulps and noisy eating, turned the stomachs of nearly all the men. The cook of the group – a rugged young man of rare skills – prepared a fresh stew, but its luscious smell wasn’t enough. Most of it went uneaten. The only appetite unaffected was that of Valarys, whose famished body devoured it desperately.

Smaller than that of the one Zihayr and Valarys had stayed at earlier, the Wayfarer’s Lodge was made for at most five men, and not too comfortably at that. Dice drawn from the pockets of one were rolled and bets made until the men were divided into who would sleep outside and who would sleep inside. As the sun made its slow descent, the corpses of the remaining wolves were skinned and cured, with the hides and other furs given to the unfortunate group who would sleep away from the fire. Their only mercy would be that and the fact that the storm had not come again. Yet.

Zihayr’s lot was to be fastened to a chain that, wrapped in knots around a stone outcropping and several heavy hobbles of wood. It likely wasn’t enough to stop the werewolf from moving altogether, but if he tried escaping, he would at least be heard. With a smile, Fakhri reminded the wolf that Valarys was to be killed if he tried, and went to sleep… well beyond reach of the wolf’s teeth.

The first and second watch went smoothly, the only sounds that of rolling, clicking dice as each sentry played a game with himself. It was late into the third when Valarys finally stirred. Bandaged, fed, and the fever kept under control, he woke with a painful groan, shifting under the thick furs that covered him against the cold draft the white outdoors. The sentry looked up but, not caring, went back to his repetitive dice game.

Used to pain and torture, Valarys lay still for a moment, his eyes closed as he mentally examined the condition of his body. He could move his fingers and, with effort, his toes, but not much else. Fortunately, the cuts and gashes covering his body didn’t hurt nearly as much, though they did sting and were terribly sore. But Fakhri’s healers knew their craft well, and while he would bear the scars of that dreadful night for the rest of his life, he would heal.

When he opened his eyes at last, the first thing he saw was the night sky. An astonishingly bright, turquoise light danced across the heavens, like brilliant flame lit by the gods themselves. The aurora borealis, shifting overhead, was mesmerizing and a beautiful sight, and even the guard paused in his game, watching it with a longing sigh of awe.

Turning his head to the side, the next thing Valarys saw was a carpet of red. Surrounded by the mess of his meal was Zihayr, his maw and chest stained with blood. There were jagged bits of cracked bone and grey bits of brain matter, mingled with ropes of half-devoured intestine and bowels strewn across the earth. In contrast to the lights overhead it was a nightmarish sight, awful and surreal. With his hands bound behind his back, Zihayr’s feast was done entirely with his powerful jaws and nothing else.

It took a moment of trying, but Valarys found his voice. “Zihayr…” Relief. Albeit battered and bruised, the wolf was alive.

Then, with a flash, he remembered. Fakhri. Despair washed over him. The irony, the misfortune, everything that led up to this point, suddenly seemed incredibly absurd. What had he done to deserve any of this?

He laughed.

“Keep it down,” the guard muttered.

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