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   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.




   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


Edited by Artificer

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Despite how much it hurt, for a moment the laughter refused to stop. When it did, it left his chest and lungs sore and aching, the cuts along both throbbing in misery. Even so, Valarys might have kept on laughing, mocking Death’s failure to take him, teasing the fate that delivered him into the slavers’ hands yet again. But Zihayr chose that brief pause to speak, and Valarys had little choice but to listen. So listen he did, until Zihayr turned further away, hiding his face, pleading that Valarys should not look at him.

Valarys turned his eyes to the sky, to the bright lights above. They waved, glittering and translucent, casting an eerie radiance down upon the land. Shadows grew and shrank before growing again in their own return dance, swaying along with the mystic lights in a mesmerizing duet. He closed his eyes, and for a while it seemed he had fallen asleep.

Then, eyes still closed, he spoke, very softly, in a whisper that only Zihayr’s wolf ears could hear. To the guard they would be indecipherable, not that they would mean anything to him anyway.

“When I was being taught my letters… I read a story. An old legend, a fairytale. Those were my favorites,” he confessed. He shifted, winced, and continued.

“When the gods still lived on the mortal plane… walking Valucre like any mortal… they created many things. Dragons, lions, wolves, and called them their children. Among the last, there was one that was greater than the rest. They called that one Fenrar.

“Fenrar was savage and ferocious. He was the greatest of all the hunters, all the predators. He had been made that way by the gods, to be lord over them all. It was his nature, and he could do no more to curb his own viciousness than a mouse could curb its meekness. But as he grew into his prime, hunted and ate, the gods began to fear him.

“With guile and trickery, they fastened a mighty chain around Fenrar’s neck. They said this chain was made out of dragons’ teeth, the tears of a widow, a cat’s hiss, the whispering of a canyon wind, and more. And this chain they lashed in knots around a great boulder that was the venerated head of a dead Ancient God that could not be moved or broken. Thus Fenrar was a prisoner, made no more than a bound and hobbled beast.

“But one day, the story said, Fenrar would break free of his chain, and seek vengeance against the gods, all those who did him wrong and begrudged him for his nature,” he finished.

There was more.

“The slavers believe that anyone who can remain free should be free. Anyone who can’t, should be chained and treated as the weakling they are. But they missed the end. They ignored the real moral of the story.

“I don’t hate you for your nature, Zihayr. You’re like Fenrar. If it means you have to kill and eat, why should that disgust me? Is it a sin to be and act on what the gods made you? You’re not asking me to not look at you. You’re asking yourself to not see me. You’re scared, and I can see why, but I’m not that shallow.”

Valarys opened his eyes and turned his head, managing to lift it slightly to look at Zihayr, to catch a glimpse of that bloodstained jaw and despairing eyes. “Anyway…

“I’ll look at what I want, Zihayr.”

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   “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.




   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


Edited by Artificer

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As Zihayr spoke, denying the allegory of the fairytale, Valarys turned his eyes away once more to stare at the sky. In its unfathomable depths he saw the stars, glistening like diamond dust. He remembered when he used to count them during sleepless nights, admiring them from afar like a forlorn lover. Here in the mountains, though, they seemed fewer. Dimmer. There were so many, and yet, hardly any at all.

Absently, he began to count them as he listened to Zihayr’s words. It was a cold, harsh speech, and the claims Valarys knew him not at all and even less were cruel and accurate at once. But for all the truths that the wolf spoke, all the things that rang sincere, he was wrong.

We’re all characters in a story. Stars of our own tale.

They were the protagonists, only the villain was winning. No, the villain had won. This was simply the tragic epilogue, the aftermath of a tortured tale. Valarys stopped counting the stars. Twenty-five. He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. Sweeping over him came a terrible shame and humiliation when Zihayr declared to having read his journal. He felt bared to the world, stripped of dignity. Then again, what else did he expect? What more did he deserve?

The weak should stay weak.

He waited until the wolf was done, the wolf that now demanded a promise. At the sound of that ridiculous demand, something inside Valarys clenched and twisted in a nearly physical pain. Despite his weakness, his fists clenched at his sides. His knuckles turned white as bleached bone, and it took even more effort to speak.

 “Poor you,” Valarys said, his voice low and bitter. “You say I can’t know you feel? How I can’t imagine? That I don’t understand? You assume a lot. All right, fine. I don’t. My parents sold me for gold when I was barely walking and since then I’ve been a toy. I was property before I could talk. I ‘ve never had a friend in my life, because slaves don’t have friends, especially in the Circuit. Which you’ve never been in, so don’t talk at me like I’ve suffered less than you. What you’ve read in my book isn’t even half of it.”

Yes, he had written in his book. But most of it, most of his life, he couldn’t remember. The pain and the agony, the years of waking nightmares, had more than once stripped him of memory. One time, on the brink of insanity, he couldn’t even remember his name and stared blankly at this master when he had said it to him.

Valarys was far from done. “You talk and talk and talk. About how much you’ve gone through and what you’re going to get. You’re so full of self-pity it makes me sick! If you care so little about yourself, how do you expect to save someone else? Give me a fucking break.”

His violet eyes snapped open, swiveled to Zihayr. The flat, icy stare met Zihayr’s, unflinching. “Now, you talk about saving me. Guess what? That’s all it is. Just talk. Stupid, empty talk. When I die or not isn’t your decision. Fakhri was my last Circuit trainer, you idiot. If he decides I’m done, there’s no saving me.  There wasn’t then, and there isn’t now. There’s no saving anyone, and…”

I’m not going to leave you.

“… and what you did hours ago was a fluke and a mistake.” He closed his eyes again, heaving a heavy, sigh. “Sorry, Zihayr. I’m not going to make a promise I can’t keep, and you shouldn’t make promises you can’t, either.”

The lookout, rattling his dice, got up and sauntered into the cave, likely switching his shift with the next chosen sentry.

“Go to sleep,” Valarys said. For the first time, he sounded sad.

There’s no saving me. Or anyone.




With a soundless scream, Valarys woke. Soundless, because his mouth was covered with a rough, foul hand, and his throat forced shut with a tight fist. Mouth open in a wide, feral grin that was half a scowl, Fakhri crouched over him.

“Thinking of escaping, Val? Talk a little softer with your puppy so your betters can’t hear.” Fakhri looked over his shoulder, at the last guard. “Good work. Go wait with the others.” The guard, the cook from earlier whose talents had warranted him a place in Fakhri’s crew, nodded and went to stand with the group at the back of the lodge. They were all awake. Why were they all awake?

“You’ve forgotten yourself, my boy,” Fakhri snarled as Valarys tried to struggle and failed. “It’s time I remind you who you are. What you are. Time we did. And by the time we’re done, you’ll wish your wolf had tried to escape.” His fingers tightened round Valary’s face, carving deep grooves over his cheeks. “It pays to have good men in your group, you know, and it pays to not be so careless, pet.”


The slavers smiled hungrily as Fakhir’s other grip tightened on Valayr’s throat and pulled him upright. Terrified, Valarys’s eyes shot over the group. There were at least ten of them. Maybe more. Much more. They turned to each other and began to argue who would go first. Belts were already loosing.

With a chortle, Fakhri threw him into the midst of them. The monsters reached up, seized hold, and dragged him down to the floor, laughing.


Edited by The Hummingbird

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   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—”




   — 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


Edited by Artificer

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One nightmare transformed into another. The hands pressing Valarys against the ground, the hands already pulling at his clothes, suddenly vanished as darkness swept through the cave. Heat from the fire was replaced by cold winds of the endless winter outside. The men, discussing their planned violation, fell silent. Lights from the aurora outside filtered into the cave, joined by the moon. There was a short lull of uneasy quiet, a deadly peace.

Then the cave exploded with curtains of snow and ice. Then came the screams.

Left on the floor, Valarys covered his ears, but try as he might he could not block out the sounds. Nor could he stop himself from watching, seeing through the snow the silhouettes of bodies striking the cave walls, crashing against the piles of wood, or careening through the air to land sliding against the floor. The air grew thick with the stench of blood. Valarys was spattered with drops of blood as more was spilt. Slowly, the cacophony of screams began to fade, breaking apart into agonized moans and wails of despair, finally giving way to the eternal silence of death.

He was dragged up by a hand, and soon felt the sharp blade of a knife against his throat. Beads of red gathered around the edge. For a moment, Valarys thought he was done. To his surprise, he was abruptly dropped, ad instinct forced his body to move, scrambling away, to anywhere, anywhere. He looked up as the snow settled, and saw hell.

Waves of carnage spiked up the walls, reaching the ceiling, dripping with red. Bodies, ripped and torn, shredded to pieces, lay all around. A rope of intestines, still steaming, was wrapped around a stone outcropping. There were dismembers arms, legs, and heads. Heads with mouths still open in a silenced scream, eyes frozen forever in terror.

Nearby, the fat cook, Amsu, screamed and begged in the clutches of a monster, a monster that was carefully and fastidiously eating him alive. Fresh blood streamed from Amsu’s face, chest, belly… legs and arms all coated in crimson streams…

Valarys shut his eyes. Please, please, let it end.

When he opened his eyes again, the wolf was before him. It was not Zihayr. Somewhere, in the vicious, bloodstained visage, yes, Valarys could see a vague resemblance, but this beast was savage beyond knowing, feral beyond comprehension.  There was nothing but brutality and bloodthirsty glee in the beast’s yellow eyes. When it spoke, the tongue flicked out, licking the blood and bits of flesh stuck between its teeth.

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

Valarys stared at the monster. Slowly, he understood. Death was here. It was finally here. At last, at last, he could be free. Free of this traitorous life, free of the pain, the betrayal, the endless suffering… free of his own filth that he knew he was, that he felt ever since the first time the men had taken him. He shook slightly, as he recalled the memory, of his clothes being taken, of his body violated. He could be free.

“I need you to promise me that you’ll live.”

It wasn’t as if anybody would miss him. Nobody would care. Valarys never had any friends, only false allies, torturers, betrayers. People who took and stole and hurt. People had taken everything from him, and he came away always with nothing to show. They kicked him when he was down, beat him when he was already bloody. It was all he was good for, after all. They told him so, and if anything, they spoke the truth. They looked into his eyes as they said it. He was a bad, weak, disgusting person, and deserved everything he got.

“Swear it.”

What was left of this life, anyway? It was hell; if hell existed, it was here. Filled with nothing but pain and suffering. He should die. He wanted to die. He deserved to die. Yes, yes, he would take it, he would! It was finally here, he could leave!

Strength. Control. Perseverance.

“Swear it now.”

Valarys lifted his arm and pointed.

Fakhri lay against the opposite wall. He was holding shut the gaping wound in his throat. His hand held a stray bolt, struggling to load a small crossbow braced against his leg. He was clinging to the last threads of life, held there only by hate and resent.

“You… missed one,” Valarys rasped. “I think… he’ll taste better… than me.”

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   “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.




   “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.




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




   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


Edited by Artificer

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Almost immediately Valarys regretted his decision. What did it matter now if he died by this werewolf’s claws or not? If he was spared, the elements would surely kill him, and he would be found frozen later by other travelers. If hypothermia didn’t kill him, then he would starve or die of thirst. When the Wolf forced Valarys’ eyes toward Fakhri, the slaver made a grimace that was almost a smile. Clearly, he meant to kill Valarys from the start, regardless of Ziharys’s threats.

Unfortunately, something far worse had taken Zihayr’s place. Something far crueler, far darker. Something that could only be born to murder and feast on the bloody remains. Something born of malevolence itself. It was hard to imagine that Zihayr, as savage as even that wolf-boy could become, had hidden this evil inside him.

Valarys shivered as the wolf’s tongue slid up his body, taking in the taste of the bloody, wounded flesh. Perversely gentle and hungry at once, it reminded him of the way the slavers would often touch him when they prepared him for another session of degradation. His wounds burned in pain as the tongue pressed against them, and though it was only an otherwise harmless lick, tremors wracked Valarys’s body when the wolf was done.

Then it was Fakhri’s turn. By then his smile was long since gone, and as the Wolf approached him he cringed against the rock he lay against, scrambling for more bolts, fighting to the last for his life, fighting to escape the judgment that had come. When it was too late, too much, too full of despair and fear, Fakhri prayed for a swift end.

The prayer went unanswered. Blood bubbled in Fakhri’s throat, dribbling down his lips, splattering over his chest, until even that pitiful mimic of a scream was taken. The wolf took his lower jaw and with it, the last of Fakhri’s fading life. Valarys shivered in fear and revulsion as the wolf turned towards him and stated he still had a choice.

Die now or die later? What did it matter? Did any of it ever matter? Even if he managed to leave the mountains alive, his fate would probably be back at Dairut. And while free, that didn’t necessarily mean he had the same privileges as the true citizens there. The citizens who carried whips, crafted collars, and tested tools of torture.

He was damned.



“Swear it.”


“Swear it now.”


“Filthy, lowly, weak. You’re like us, now, Valarys. Take my whip. It’s yours.”

Valarys’s nails scratched the floor until they cracked and broke. His fingers drew into fists as he forced himself to meet the Wolf’s eyes.

“No.” It came as a whisper, almost indecipherable. Then, louder,

No. Because-

Because I swear.

“Go to hell, Wolf.”

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   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


Edited by Artificer

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Half of Valarys wanted nothing more than to cower before the Wolf. Indeed, with its claws and fangs stained with blood and smelling of death, built of muscle and madness, the beast was an imposing figure. Had it wanted to, it could easily tear Valarys apart, rending him limb from limb as so many of the salvers had been. He knew it, and there was no doubt the Wolf knew it too… and even as the latter reveled in the knowledge, the former quailed in it.

But there was the other half of Valarys, a half that refused to tremble, the half that shut away fear and terror and panic in favor of pure, willful defiance. The Wolf smiled with evil grimace and drew too close, but even then Valarys refused to look away, glaring instead into those eyes as they shifted from molten gold to a burning blue. He only looked away when the dead hearth nearby burst again into life, the savage light and heat capturing his attention as did the feel of it – the unnatural wrongness of it tearing at Valarys’s mind and soul.

Suffering faces and disfigured bodies appeared in the twisting blaze. Shrieks of agony and tormented screams for mercy filled the cavern. Valarys stared as hands reached toward him and fell to impotent ash as they brushed against his skin. He stared the Wolf reached into the conflagration, withdrawing a tiny ember that soon went down the Wolf’s throat. With a sick feeling, Valarys felt he knew all too well what the ember was.

A very sick feeling, but somehow, as the fire guttered out, there was a trace of satisfaction. Valarys’ eyes slowly shifted back to the Wolf, who now sang an enchanting tune.

Everything it said was true, and amounted to the one fact that ruled Valary’s life; he was prey. A rabbit raised among wolves that hunted for pleasure and killed for fun. A toy for monsters to play with, to hurt, to use for their desires, regardless of what or how perverted those desires were. An object to punish for any infraction, or no infraction at all. A victim, for his entire life.

“Join us.”

Valarys stared at the offered hand. What would it be like, to never be prey again? To be the hunter, then and forever? What was offered, if not strength incarnate?

He reached for it. His fingers brushed against the bloody claws, when his muscles suddenly contracted, cringing. He smacked his hand down, bruising his palm against the blood-slick ground, enraged at himself and at the thing who offered him a such a twisted version of freedom. He looked down at the ground, breath hissing past his teeth as, not for the first time, he hated himself. He looked up again, at those cruel, yellow eyes.

“I don’t need you to kill,” he snapped. “I remember. Zihayr called you a curse. Us? I don’t think there’s any us. There’s just you, and I don’t want to be you. I don’t want to be a prisoner in my own body. What I want, is for you to free Zihayr. I may die after all, but you have to let him go! Kill me if you want – I’m already damned – but let him go!”

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   “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.




   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


Edited by Artificer

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For five solid seconds Valarys thought he’d made a dire mistake. Smoke issued from the wolf’s monstrous maw. Its eyes of molten gold became a hideous, burning yellow, twin flames cut in half by the black of slit pupils. Its voice, no longer calm or composed, thundered in Valarys’ ears. He cringed, sure the Wolf was going to kill him for his transgression. He resigned himself to his fate when the Wolf simply released him, albeit into a mound of gore.

Valarys chose the wise decision not to give the Wolf the dignity of a response to any of its following words, but even as fear shook him he glared at the beast, fierce hate welling up in him. That hate was quelled by dismay as the monster flung his book into the fire.

“No-” Too late. The dying fire leaped greedily, and the pages were already burning. The leather covers would only char, but those were the only things that would be left. He stared at his single, treasured possession as the beast vanished into the mountain pass, out of sight but never out of mind. His breath hissed from his lungs as he watched the book burn, its pages curling as the flames crawled over them, eating the words and dozens of drawings collected over the years.

He rolled over on his back, one arm over his eyes as he tried to calm his breathing and collect his thoughts. Now what? He was still alive, but he was trapped here, lacking the strength needed to escape these accursed mountains. And in three days’ time, as one of Fakhri’s men had mentioned, there would be another blizzard. If none came before then, he would be imprisoned here; there would be no chance of other travelers coming as long as that blizzard raged.

But I promised. I swore.

He moved his arm down, violet eyes staring up at the bloody ceiling. “I swear,” he whispered.

Thus began the trial.

Hours, then days, passed. Valarys managed to gathered the bodies near the entrance, letting them freeze and mitigating the noxious smell a rotting corpse would emit. Among the campsite he found food still stored in bags and traveling packs, along with skins of water, enough to feed at least fifteen men for several days. Even so, Valarys rationed the supplies, down to the meager servings he got as a slave. Enough to keep him alive. Hungry, but alive. Hopefully it would be enough to see him through alone until he healed enough to make the journey out.

He tried to keep the fire going, a hard task as the blizzard came, raging outside, blowing into the cave. It became easier as snow built rapidly in the entrance, blocking wind and providing an insulator. For air, he kept a hole open with a stick. With one of his knives, recovered from the wreckage of the lodge, he marked the walls with thin, short lines, making one every time the light streaming in through the hole died. Counting the days.


Valarys tested his legs, managing three steps before he collapsed with pain and weakness. He caught himself, left arm bracing against the ground, but that too folded. Wolf teeth had driven deep, and he would never be able to use that arm as he once had.

He lay on the ground, breathing harshly. I’ll never make it, he thought hopelessly. He shook his head angrily, banishing the thought. “I swear,” he repeated, as he did every day, hour after hour.

It was starting to become hard to remember what he swore, and to who.

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   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.




   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 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!…






   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!”




   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


Edited by Artificer

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Despite being frozen, the corpses still emitted a noxious smell; Shaldano and Astra took care to move well clear of the bodies. Their eyes took in the disheveled state of the Wayfarer’s Lodge, the blood on the ground, spiking along the walls an even splattered on the ceiling. There were piles of entrails on the floor, too, and Shaldano covered his mouth as nausea hit him, and even Astrasa averted her eyes. Hurriedly, the two rushed to the great leopard, relieving the massive cat of two packs filled with emergency supplies.

 Although the cave was a mess, nearer to the fire there did seem to be a sort of desperate order. Bloodstained rucksacks, waterbags, and crushed food were arranged in rows, as if they were being counted and rationed. The fireplace, though dead, was still warm and smoking. Astra eyed the limited food, the fire, and even the dried blood. Whatever had happened here, and happened a long time ago.

Opening one of the medical packs, she crouched down beside the boy. He had a beard, scraggly, unkempt, messily chopped as if shaving with a knife. Swathed in dirty bandages, he was thin, malnourished and showed signs of dehydration too. How long had he been here?

“How is he?” Shaldano stammered as he knelt beside Astrasa as she turned the boy over on his back.

“Not good, but with care I think he’ll be alright,” Astra muttered as she examined the boy’s wounds. “If he’s survived a few days already with these injuries, he should be fine-” Her words cut off as the boy stirred and began thrashing.

“Please… no, no, don’t touch me, please-!” the boy yelled. His eyes snapped open, and Astra blinked at the sight of gold-flecked violet.

“Easy,” Astra said calmly. “We’re here to help you.”

The boy stopped struggling. He stared at her, then at Shaldano , Fen, Stjärn, and lastly Thálassa. The last yawned, showcasing large fangs, and he cringed. “I… I don’t…”

“You do,” Astrasa said firmly. “I’m Astrasa, this is Shaldano, she’s Fengári, there’s Stjärn, and that’s Thálassa. We’re here to help you,” she repeated. Beside her, Shaldano held up a roll of bandages and a bottle of salve, nodding encouragingly as the boy hesitantly laid back down, relaxing.

“Gods,” Shaldano whispered as he began unwrapping the old bandages. “You’re a tough one, kid.”

“My name’s Valarys,” the boy winced as Astra poured water over the crusty wounds and Shaldano patted them clean with a fresh cloth. He paused over the boy’s left arm, shook his head, and kept cleaning. He whispered something to Astra, and she nodded as she popped open the balm. She began rubbing the burning ointment over the numerous wounds covering Valarys’s body. Fetching some water, Shaldano gave him a drink.

“Man,” Shaldano said with a nervous grin. “I guess Zihayr really fucked you up, huh?”

Valarys jerked, nearly causing the water to spill and Astra to lose the bottle. “You know Zihayr? Where is he? Is he all right?”

Shaldano and Astrasa looked at each another, alarmed. Astra breathed out quietly. “Fen? Stjärn? I think… I think he might know something.”

Valarys stared at the two, his heart thumping hard in his chest as he slowly recalled all that had happened. He looked over the group again, until his eyes fell on Shaldano.

Sandy-colored layer clothes. Long robes and sleeves, tight around the forearms, with stitched slacks that ran loose about the thighs and tight at the calves. Gold trimming, long collar. Casual, but fine, Dairutian attire.

Valarys’ blood ran cold. He suddenly bolted upright and tried to run, getting only five steps in before Astra tackled his legs, knocking him down.

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    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.




    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


Edited by Artificer

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