Wyatt dropped the last load of wood next to the forge then stretched and groaned. Pulling his arms across his chest one after the other his muscles tingled and burned. He dunked a ladle in the water bucket hanging from a thick support beam and gulped down it’s contents. The water was warm and stale, but it felt like a crystal spring after a long day of stoking the fire and pounding metal with his father. They had started the fires before sunrise and it was now dusk.
Horses needed shoes and four plows needed blades. With the planting season in full swing farmers all over the lake country were snapping tools on the stones and shale hidden in the dark lake country soil.
A sharp hunger pang answered the water as it hit his stomach and he noticed a plume of gray white smoke rising from the chimney of his family’s modest home. If his nose had not been so full of smoke and soot the smell of the stag stew his mother and sister were cooking would have reached him. His mouth watered regardless.
Walking through one last time he found a lone horse shoe resting on the second anvil, his anvil. There would be hell to pay if it was there in the morning when they started up again. Waylon, Wyatt’s father, had been the Smithy in Albion since before he was born. Waylon insisted that a sloppy forge led to sloppy work; rule number one was tidiness. Wyatt could not remember how he’d managed to leave it out like that. He and his father had been so busy the last month that there were a lot of things he’d missed, not to mention the call ups.
Early spring was the yearly call up. When every male of age was given the chance to serve in the regent’s forces. Wyatt was arguably the fastest, one of the strongest, and possibly best with a bow in all the lake country. A season never passed where there was not a new award adorning his bunk in the family’s small cabin. And never did a stag pass within reach of his bow without ending up on his mother’s table.
All winter the debate raged. His father served a tour, and was decorated. Why should he be any different? Waylon argued there was no time, the family needed him at home, at the forge. That was bunk, four years is the commitment, Wyatt argued. Four years is a life time his father would rule.
On the day of the call up his father had forbid it, and his mother had cried. At the door of the cabin he stood, duffel on one shoulder, bow and quiver on the other. The standoff was unlike any ever seen in the Smither home. It ended with Wyatt backing down, like he always did. There was no arguing with Waylon Smither, he was always so calm and cool that he just drove his opponent mad. Thinking of it still made Wyatt boil. Three of his closest friends had gone, Ried, Terr, and Glenn all accepted and were now off doing God knows what. They weren’t stoking a fire all day; That was damn sure.
He was undoing the knot of his heavy leather apron when a distant snap echoed from the wood behind the cabin. Every fiber in Wyatt Smither ignited at once and he froze, stretching his hearing. Slowly he gently draped the apron over it’s hook and stepped out the wide double doors of the forge. He could hear a heavy rustling and snapping. Something big, a stag. He gave it another second. A big stag. Quietly, he retrieved his bow and a quiver of arrows from the doorway. He slung the quiver over his shoulder and was knocking an arrow when he felt rather than saw three huge bodies shoot past the door heading into the village. He was barely out of the forge when he saw a giant brown beast crash through the door of his cabin. It happened so fast he was stunned. A monster just shattered the door to his family’s home. His mother and little sister were screaming. He didn’t realize he was moving until he noticed the fletching of an arrow at his cheek. He was in the doorway of the cabin and staring down the shaft of an arrow as his father roared and crashed into a wall under the massive battering of a thick fur covered limb. He fired. Another arrow was knocked, the first lodged deep between the beast’s shoulder blades. He and the beast met eye to eye as it turned its attention on him.
The second arrow entered its gaping jaws and punched through the back of its head. With a choking gurgle it collapsed in spasm on the splinters of the family dining table.
Wyatt’s mother and sister whimpered and held each other. His father was groaning and moving very slowly. There was blood staining the back and shoulder of his tunic. Wyatt’s ears were ringing. Wait, his mind scratched the thought through the shock of the past few moments. There was something else…
There were three of them!
Stumbling over the wreckage of the cabin door. He heard hysterics, and yelling throughout the village. He ran toward a cacophony of destruction that seemed to come from everywhere.
Halfway down the path he found Master Tambey laying on his back. The man was starring wide eyed at the darkening sky. His bowels were showing. As Wyatt reached the village center at the tavern three men flew from the window adjacent to the front door. A powerful roar pierced his ears. He heard wood splintering inside.
He entered quickly and broke to the right, his bowstring taught, arrow ready for flight. A lamp had broken and started a fire on the other side of the room. He thought he noticed a torso sticking out from under wreckage on the floor. Somewhere he heard pleading,
Another beast had master Brauer cornered, it followed him, playfully swatting at him as it walked along the bar. He shot as soon as he saw it and chided himself for being hasty. A rushed shot is a wasted shot. His father’s voice echoed in his mind. The arrow protruded from the beast’s belly. It turned and ripped it from its side. With a berserk shake of its head the reddened arrow flew across the tavern and the beast sprang at him. Wyatt dove out of the way before being skewered by glistening black claws. He hit the floor of the tavern hard and rolled over something soft that grunted beneath him. He bounded to his feet and found Talmadge, a farmer from up north. The older man spewed frothy blood and reached for him pleading. A massive paw drove the man’s head to the floorboards with a wet crunch and Wyatt was face to face with the monster.
Monster was the only description Wyatt could use to describe this thing. Similar to a wolf but on all fours, it stood almost as tall as a man. It’s jaws were like pincers lined in glistening needle-like teeth. Covered in brown fur two tall pointed ears stood on top of its head. Its eyes were ebony orbs so black and cold they froze his blood.
The beast paused, it seemed the thing was savoring what it had done to Talmadge. Was it amused..? Wyatt’s bow was gone and his arrows were strewn about everywhere. His hands floundered blindly behind him for anything he may use as a weapon. Grasping something wooden almost the width of his arm, Wyatt hefted an oak table leg. A splintered peg protruded from it about two inches.
The beast growled and swiped at him. Leaping back, a banister caught him at his waist. There was nowhere to go. The beast took a playful step forward, pawing at him. He swung with a grunt catching it in the shoulder. The beast yowled and barked but the blow had little effect. Wyatt fought a desperate panic rising within him. The beast reared up on its hind legs, paws wide, jaws gaping and collapsed on him like a tsunami of fur and teeth.
Wyatt awoke to the tangy twinge of iron in his mouth, his lips sticky. He didn’t know what had happened but he felt clinging fur on his chest. Jumping and thrashing thinking the beast was still on him. He tried to free himself from the heavy musky blanket crushing him. There was some yelling in the distance he couldn’t understand. Terror drove him like a wild animal kicking and tearing at the heavy corpse until finally he was able to worm his way out from under it. Once free he scrambled backward until he banged into the heavy timber wall of the tavern. The impact must have shaken something loose for at that moment he realized it was dead. He stared at dull black eyes and a massive red tongue lolling out of its mouth. Wyatt’s head dropped between his knees and he vomited all over himself.
The world swirled like a dark storm as he sat there spinning. He couldn’t fight it when he suddenly felt himself heaved upward. His toes dragged along the floor as he was carried off.
Light off the fire flickered and hot tendrils of air licked his cheeks. Eyes cracked and blurry fire mites performed for him, dancing and leaping in the flames. Another pop, and he was awake. Wait…he rolled over, the bear-skin rug was warm beneath him…
Leaping from the rug he skipped and fumbled until collapsing on the floor. His heart pounded so hard it hurt his ribs. Shadows pranced along the walls as he tried to get his bearings. Muffled voices came from below. He noted a small, neatly made bed in the corner, wash basin and dresser and realized he must be in a room at the inn. Someone must have brought him up there after the attack from those things. It sounded like an argument was going on downstairs.
Rising from the floor Wyatt noted his body’s complaints with a grimace. His legs felt as if he’d just finished a back to back of the Spring event. The trials never punished him this badly. His forehead felt tight and his hand brushed against a flaky, cracked scab covering gash in his scalp. He found stitches under his blood caked brown hair. More exploration revealed another set across his ribs, almost fifty in all. His left hand was dressed as well, it was tender to the touched but it still worked.
Slowly, like an old decrepit man he inched his way down the two flights of stairs, the railing ended in a jagged mess six steps from the bottom. Negotiating the destruction with his battered body was and excruciating exercise. The light hurt his eyes and he put a dressed hand up to shield them. There were maybe twenty people crowding the remains of a wide oak bar. The arguing abruptly ceased. Hushed whispers snaked through the air. All eyes were on him.
From behind the bar stepped Mrs. Darrow. A large woman wrapped in a soot-blackened dress. She gently checked his wounds.
“Didn’t ‘xpect ta see you so soon Wyatt, ya alright?” she asked, her hand feeling his forehead.
“A bit sore mam,” he answered, “Where are my folks?”
The plump woman shot a nervous look back toward the bar. Out of the crowd came O’Hare, his father’s cousin. Wyatt had never seen him without a beaming wild grin shooting out from his thick red beard until this moment.
“Come with me son,” he said taking him by the shoulder.
There were at least a dozen pyres poised for remembrance on the hill at the end of the village. Many wept and prayed at the feet of the deceased. O’Hare said nothing as they walked through the village. Even when Wyatt faltered at the foot of the hill O’Hare remained silent; his firm grip on Wyatt’s shoulder gently pushed him on.
Wyatt stood silent, head bowed in front of three waist high pyres. Numb, Wyatt stared at the three shrouds. They were tightly wrapped so he could not see what had truly happened. His father and mother lay to either side of Nina, his little sister. Glistening white cloth streamers connected the three bodies. He stared at them, his mind distant, coldly replaying his last memory of them. His father had been hurt, but he was alive. His mother and Nina had stood amongst the rubble, not a scratch on them. How?
“You killed the creature that attacked your father though from what we can figure as you were fighting in the tavern, more entered your home. That’s where we found them.”
They were just preparing for supper…“Did you get the beast that did this?” Wyatt growled.
O’Hare sighed and kicked at a rock, “They escaped us,” he replied hoarsely.
“What were they?” Wyatt asked.
“Don’t know, never seen anything like it.” The older man’s voice faltered.
“How many did they kill?”
O’Hare coughed clearing his throat, “The twelve here, three more are still missing, Bennet, Fiino, and the Bruche girl.”
Wyatt nodded slowly, his burning eyes were locked on the three funeral pyres. Slowly, he limped to each one starting with Nina then his mother and finally to his father. He kissed each one softly on the forehead then stepped back. Wyatt’s eyes flowed like the twin rivers and he could barely breathe. After a long moment he took up an unlit torch and flint from the base of his father’s pyre.
At the center of the three pyres he knelt. He lit the torch and bowed his head. It wasn’t until the dressing on his left hand began smoldering did he finally stand and step to Nina’s pyre. Gently the flames caressed the kindling until it ignited. He lit his father’s last, laying the torch at his feet.
“Find your way safely home and be welcome back to the source from which we come.” Wyatt prayed for their souls. He stayed with them until the heat of the three engulfed pyres forced his retreat. O’Hare was standing stoically as he watched three gray-white plumes commingle and the disappeared into the night.
“I leave at dawn,” Wyatt said softly. He did not wait for the older man to object.
By the next morning Wyatt had scoured the forge and home, collecting his bow, all the arrows two quivers would hold and two small well-balanced hatchets he’d fashioned himself for throwing contests. He also put a new edge on his father’s old tarnished sword from his days as a guardsman. Wearing a heavy tunic and leather riding pants he saddled his horse, Terrin. The horse had broken free from the stable during the attack and was led back by Marin Freeman. There was no point in sleeping but he did take some food once his pack was together. He ate alone in a corner of the Inn’s common room. As he forced his food down he could feel eyes on him. Murmurs and mumbling circled him like a swarm of gnats. He finished stew and bread and felt his wounds. The swelling on his head felt smaller but his ribs and legs were still sore. There was no further bleeding, nor did his head still feel as if he were floating. Regardless, he was leaving at dawn. As he rose to leave O’Hare, a man named Fynn and his son Lemn stepped toward him.
The three of them wore brown and green woods gear similar to his own. Lemn and Fynn sported old guardsmen swords and O’Hare also had his lashed to his hip.
“The three of us ride with you boy, an there’ll be no discussin it.” O’Hare stated plainly.
Wyatt simply nodded. He’d not considered others joining him. Nor did it matter much,
“I will kill them,” Wyatt said flatly and left for the door. Before exiting he stopped and looked to Mrs. Darrow, who looked on him with an odd look.
“Thank you for all you’ve done mam.” he said quietly.
The tracks were not difficult to find. At least one, maybe two had retreated along the same path they’d come from. Into the woods between his father’s forge and the house. The three brown flashes he’d first seen returned to him. He’d thought they were deer. The gaping, slathering maw of the wolf reached for him again, its sharp, intelligent eyes amused by him. He growled quietly and concentrated on the tracks.
Deep and distinct, much like dog sign only bigger like the size of a bear paw, the track followed a straight path for the lake, and Welbourne. For most of the day the marks led them in more or less a straight line through rough country between Albion and the rest of the lake country. Ravines of dark, glistening shale, bloated creeks, and rolling green-brown hills were everywhere. New leaves of spring were just coming into their own. Toward midday the tracks turned east at the rocky bottom of a deep ravine and lead them to the rough pebble beach of Lake Sena. Lake Sena, a sprawling mile wide body of water stretched the length of the lake country. Longest of five major lakes, early mappers dubbed them the five fingers. Sena was the forefinger of the five. The tracks showed they’d stopped for water where a fat spring met the lake. The disturbances in the smooth stones followed the lake toward Welbourne.
“We should water the horses and grab a bite, eh,” O’Hare said as they came to the water.
It looks cold, Wyatt thought as he studied the water. Leading his horse to the shore, a soft rolling tide splashed at the round rocks of the beach. Around them several large rocks the size of a pig occasionally poked above the gentle swells. He looked north up the lake while the others grabbed bread and cheese from their saddlebags. He wasn’t very hungry, or patient. Each moment that passed those creatures got that much farther away. He blinked as Lemn nudged his arm and offered him some bread. He accepted with a nod.
“You think we’ll find’em?” Lemn asked through a mouthful of food.
“Don’t know,” admitted Wyatt. Lemn pursed his lips. He looked nervous. Not that he could blame him. He was in a constant battle to ignore his own fear. He wished they’d find these things. A den, a lair, something. Find them and kill them; just get it over with. But he found himself doubting that would happen, they’d have found anyplace like that by now; wouldn’t they?
Lemn looked lost in thought as they continued the meal in silence. O’Hare was stoic as always, his back to the tracks as though just another day on the hunt. Fynn sat beside him on a large piece of driftwood eying the tracks ahead. Brow furrowed he chewed vigorously as if in a hurry. His body was tense and forward leaning like he would spring from the log any second and tear off up the trail without them.
“Your father’s pretty serious,” Wyatt said.
“He won’t rest until he gets those things,” Lemn said, “he could barely be talked into waiting till morning to start the hunt. He’s not taking what happened to uncle Talmadge very well. I just hope he keeps his wits about him.”
Once they’d eaten, the four gathered their mounts and set off down the shore. The tracks faded a bit on the rocky coastline, but the disturbances of the three together were visible enough. The rest of the day they traveled along the water’s edge. The sun was dipping under the high bluffs on the far shore when O’Hare called for them to make camp. They set up beneath the wide canopy of a willow tree, up the bank away from the lake.
Wyatt and Lemn gathered wood and quickly had a small cook fire boiling a pot of beans to complement their bread and cheese. Throughout the night they took watch in shifts. Wyatt was second behind Lemn. Once relieved by Fynn Wyatt quickly found a spot next to the glowing coals of the fire and fell to sleep.
A hazy blur muddled the edges of his vision. He was in the forest, tall pines stood in endless rows and needles crunched under foot. A sharp scent filled and tickled his senses. There was movement around him but it did not cause alarm. Ahead someone waved him on. A man, all in black, he couldn’t make out the face but he knew it was a man by the long strides and width of his shoulders. He gestured for him to follow and began walking. Wyatt ran, or galloped, What? He was running on all fours, a wolf. Comfortable in the form and thrilled by the speed he ran among a pack. Other wolves in a tight group around him, they all chased the man in black. He led them through the forest. Wyatt dashed through brush and over fallen logs faster than he’d ever moved before. Faster and faster the pack ran, all the while the man simply walked ahead of them. Suddenly the man stopped. Wyatt crouched on his haunches at the man’s feet.
They were on a hill overlooking a small village. New smells tingled his senses. Ahead the night gave way to lamps glowing yellow-orange above hard-packed brown streets. The stale smell of ale and the sharp smells of cheeses and meats assaulted his nostrils like invisible currents on the wind. Laughing and yelling carried from the village to his ears up on the hill. Then he caught scent of something sweet riding the air. He couldn’t name it. All other smells he could put a name to but this new odor; sweet and musty. The man looked down at him, though there was no face he felt the man was grinning. Wyatt’s stomach growled, an ache demanded he feed; that he find the source of that strange and tempting smell. His mouth frothed. He yearned for it. Again, the man pointed toward the village below.
There was screaming in the village now and the pack scattered. That smell was all around him, he could almost see the individual traces veering off in different directions. Powerful roars and sharp barks blended with terrorized screams making him dizzy. He zeroed in on the nearest scent trail and chased it down. He followed the vapors right through a large window. He saw a woman, eyes wide as he came down on her in a shower of jagged glass splinters. She had Long brown hair tied in a blue bow atop her head, she screamed. Pale skin, almost like bread dough, soft and smooth, she wore an apron over a low-cut dress which showed generous amounts of cleavage. Her screams ended abruptly as hot juices washed his tongue and throat in the succulent sweet taste he craved.
Wyatt’s eyes flashed opened and sun struck him like a hammer to the temple. Her screams echoed in his mind. Wyatt gasped for breath.
“No!” he rasped, his throat dry as the driftwood they’d put on the fire. Looking around he calmed when he saw the lake and got his bearings. Just a dream.
There was some mumbling near the lake; it sounded heated. Over his shoulder he saw O’Hare staring at him while Fynn jabbed afinger down toward the shore as if driving his point to the center of the earth.
Lemn was rolling his bedding. He seemed reluctant to look him in the eye. When he spoke he didn’t look at him either.
“You were dreaming,” he said quickly then moved off toward his horse, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.
The ride up the lake shore was quiet. Wyatt could swear the other three were watching him. He kept his eyes on the trail. The mood of the riding party seemed to have a chill.
About midday, sun high over the lake, they noticed a column of smoke to the north. The thick black smoke struck upward into the sky like a dark tower.
“Welbourne,” O’Hare muttered.
It was dusk when they reached Welbourne. Wyatt was sore and his horse held its head low. The path had led them into the woods to the west of the village. At the top of a hill where the tree-line offered a striking view to the heart of the village the trail veered sharply downhill.
The four men led their horses into a square. Wisps of smoke and the sharp stench of fire filled their nostrils and burned their eyes. In the center of the square was a fountain in the image of the water bearer. Its cherubic face blackened by soot a steady flow of water streamed from a flask it held in its pudgy hands to a pool. The water was dark and cloudy. On the other side of the square stood the charred framework of three buildings. The center looked to be an inn and the two to either side could have been the town hall or maybe a mercantile. Wyatt and the others walked their horses slowly toward the dozen or so villagers milling about. As they passed the fountain Wyatt saw a long row of bodies shrouded in white, men, women, and children. A soot covered figure walked among them. Wyatt flinched as the man used a hatchet to chop through the neck of what appeared to be a small child.
“What the hell?” he blurted out. The man with the hatchet looked at him through red and watering eyes, they were dull, empty.
“Leave it be Wyatt,” said O’Hare.
Several of them were looking at them, hands on swords.
O’Hare approached a large man in front of the burned-out inn, “What happened here?”
“Wargs,” he spat. “three monstrous beasts attacked us las’ night just after dark. Tore through our town meetin’ like the dark one incarnate.” the man’s voice quivered.
Wyatt felt Fynn staring at him. When he looked to the older man, there was an unveiled malevolence that made Wyatt’s spine tingle.
“There was nothin we could do. They’re all claw and fang, they tore our people apart.”
“Were they stopped?” O’Hare asked.
The big man could only shake his head.
“Which way did they flee?”
He looked up at O’Hare, “Who cares.” he looked over the four of them, “They’re monsters straight out a hell.”
“Yes,” O’Hare said, “but in what direction did they flee?”
The big man kicked the debris at his feet and flicked a thumb up the main street, north, “Straight outta town near as we can tell. If yer chasin them yer outta yer mind.”
O’Hare ignored the man. His face was sad as he thanked him, “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said quietly.
Turning his horse North, the others followed. The villagers quickly formed to question the big man as they left.
Looking for any sign of tracks in the well beaten street Wyatt’s eyes drifted to the row of bodies covered in white. His stomach dropped as he passed the body of a brown haired girl. Her face was pale and peaceful in death. A crimson stain covered the white cloth at her neck. He knew her throat had been ripped out. He didn’t realize he’d stopped until the man with the hatchet croaked,
“Ya alright, boy.”
Wyatt was shaking, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t tear his eyes away from that still, peaceful face. The face from his dream. Though in his memory her beautiful features were contorted in a in a primal terror.
“No,” Wyatt whispered. Looking at the man Wyatt immediately keyed in on a dark figure over the man’s shoulder. The darkness seemed a hole, a void. He couldn’t see his face but he knew the dark man was leering at him.
“Wyatt!” O’Hare shouted his iron hands wrapping around his bicep. Snapping too Wyatt noticed the man with the hatchet watching him.
“It’s for her own good, lad.” he said, nodding to the red-brown stained hatchet. “Otherwise she would return as one of the cursed.” His voice was a barely controlled rasp.
Wyatt was startled, he nodded, “Of course,” Looking over the man’s shoulder again there was nothing but a sapling growing in a small yard between two buildings. “I’m sorry,” he told the man and turned away. The others followed, Fynn mumbled something to O’Hare.
An hour before the sun set they stopped for camp. They were near a bloated creek at the base of a cliff leading to high bluffs above the lake. Once camp was set Wyatt and Lemn went scrounging for firewood. Lemn had long finished and was helping his father with rations when O’Hare noticed Wyatt missing.
Following the narrow path along the stream he broke through the wood line to see the younger man perched on a boulder staring out across the lake. The horizon a mix of orange, red, and violet. Wyatt didn’t move as he approached. O’Hare noted the teens vacant stare across the water.
“What you saw in the village today bothers you doesn’t?”
Wyatt sniffed hard and nodded.
“They said wargs did it. That we are chasing wargs, shape-shifters. If they attacked our village is that what happened to my family. We’re their…” Wyatt choked back something deep within, “Did they…?”
O’Hare kicked a loose stone, orange and gray and black into the small tide lapping at the shore. After a long moment he said, “I was the one ta do it. Theirs, my own, Annie, and others. That task fell to me.”
Oh God, “I…” Wyatt tried to say but O’Hare waved him off.
A long silence hung between the two men until Wyatt said in a low voice, “I saw them,”
O’Hare didn’t understand, “Saw who?”
“I saw them, the Wargs.” he said quietly. “They were in my dream. They were at the village. I saw…I ran with them in the woods and there was a man. He wore black, and hid his face, but I knew it was a man. He led us, the pack. Led us through the woods to the edge of the village then…” Wyatt’s voice was a quivering whisper. The rest wouldn’t come out. He could see her face, hear her scream cut off as he tore her throat out. He felt sick. “I saw them, the girl at the village. I saw her die.” Taking his eyes from the boulder, he stopped tracing the crack and looked up. “I think I killed her. I think I’m one of the cursed.” Wyatt wiped at his eyes.
O’Hare stared grimly at the shoreline. To hear a boy, he’d known since birth say so rationally, that he was one of the cursed? Strangely, O’Hare couldn’t bring himself to be surprised. He was the one to pull the monster off him. The monster’s blood that had run over him like a fountain. It was a miracle he survived at all, much less to rise from the bed unscathed. O’Hare hated himself the minute he saw him on the stairs at the inn. He’d hoped for his own sake the boy would die. He’d known then what needed to be done yet he stopped Fynn and the others. The boy was touched by the beast. Shared blood with the beast. He closed his eyes and could see their faces, the whole crowd. He was squeezing the pommel of his sword.
“What am I to do?”
The simple question snapped him back. In the growing darkness the two men stared at each other. Finally, O’Hare opened his mouth to speak…
A piercing yowl broke the silent lapping of the lake shore and the night turned electric. The cry had come from the forest further back toward Welbourne. Slowly, other cries and howls joined the first until multiple voices broke the stillness of the lakeshore. Wyatt and O’Hare sprinted for camp but before they’d even made it to the tree-line curses and crashing echoed from within.
“They’re on us Wyatt!” O’Hare yelled, dashing into the wood.
Wyatt ran on the heels of the older man. The icy, cool numbness came over him as it did two nights ago. Like an invisible suit of armor, the sudden dispassion signaled he was ready.
They were running toward the sounds of fighting when Wyatt’s legs suddenly gave out and he crashed into a small stand of ferns. His shoulder dug a furrow out of the soft loam of the forest floor and Wyatt cursed. He tried to rise but a sharp jolt of sting like a pick ax driven through his gut dropped him back to the dirt. Curling into a ball he tried to scream but no sound came. His insides twisted and churned as if his belly were full of snakes. Flipping onto his stomach he vomited violently and lay curled in on himself unable to move. His head was pounding as strange sounds of buzzing, shouts from O’Hare, Fynn, and Lemn, pounded in his head.
Slowly, a soft deep voice reached through the cacophony of pain, “It hurts?” the voice asked.
The voice held a foreign accent and yet he knew it. Through blurry eyes he saw the black phantom studying him from a faceless cowl.
“There is always pain at first. Your body has yet to accept itself. Your mind has yet to grasp its new gifts.” the figure seemed to kneel before him, “it will get easier with time.”
“No,” Wyatt moaned, “No,”
“No? There’s nothing to dispute. You are what you are. Your one of us now. You belong to the pack.”
The pain was still there and his senses sizzled. New and sharp smells assaulted his nose but he now had a degree of control. Wyatt felt…different, new.
“It’s getting easier now.” the black figure commented through his faceless hood. “But there is still pain, hunger.”
Wyatt could swear the man was smiling in that blackness.
“Tonight, you feed with us.”
A sharp curse cracked through the forest. A vicious roar responded. Wyatt looked toward camp, and the bluffs beyond.
“Though they fight mightily, we both know they are no match for us.”
Wyatt issued a deep rumbling growl, his strength growing. The faces of his father, mother, little sister, appeared to him in the dark stranger’s hood. They pleaded with him, cried out for him.
“I seemed to be able to handle you just fine,” his voice terrified him. His voice was a grinding, harsh mush of garbled utterings.
He sprang for the man and the dark figure dissipated like a mist. A rotten decaying smell swirled around him. Sounds of thrashing, grunts, yelps, and an angry snarl called to him. The greens and browns of the forest blurred as he dashed toward the battle.
As O’Hare reached camp he realized Wyatt was not with him. The realization cooled him and his mind sprang with dark possibilities. The horses were gone, and the provisions lay strewn around the small clearing as if the camp had been hit by a tornado. Fynn and Lemn were gone, a quick curse in the distance pointed him toward the bluffs.
A trail of broken brush, and torn forest floor lay before him. He ran, heart pumping, chest heaving. The trail angled upward toward a large slab of granite jutting out of the brown wall of trees and dirt. A glistening crimson patch smeared the gray stone.
Sounds of the fighting had softened. O’Hare realized there were no sounds of the forest to speak of as he cautiously angled himself around the boulder. Lemn stared at him, the boy’s eyes were locked in horrid amazement. His head rested on his chest at a grotesque angle, held to his shoulders only by a thin strip of flesh. O’Hare paused a moment and noted the blood dripping from the boys old notched sword. He’d made a showing of himself. O’Hare darted up the steep incline, his moccasin clad feet slipping in places on the soft earth. Toward the top of the rise a lanky, brown beast with a head the size of an ox was draped across a perilously leaning trunk of an ash tree. It’s snout red, thick coarse fur covering its chest was matted and slick from where Lemn had struck it through the heart.
O’Hare left the animal where it lay and found himself on a rocky outcropping. Small boulders rose from high brown grass like the humps of giant tortoises. A barking growl and yip alerted him to a large boulder toward the edge. Sword raised, he crept around the rock. Fynn reached for him, his words trapped in a red froth gushing from his chin. A Warg had its snout buried in his gut.
O’Hare charged and was on the monster before it could move. It turned, shreds of flesh hanging from its chin, lips curled in a grotesque snarl as O’Hare sliced through the beast’s broad neck. Blood erupted from the monster and it spasmed. Powerful, kicking legs knocked O’Hare from his feet. His sword was sent twisting and flailing over the bluff toward the rocks below.
The Warg quivered at his feet, O’Hare gasped for breath. He watched it until he was sure it was dead then went to his longtime friend. Fynn was propped against the boulder. O’Hare surveyed what remained.
Shaking his head slowly O’Hare dropped to the grass next to his friend. Exhausted, his whole body trembled, but Wyatt was still out there. Gathering his strength, he rolled to his left just as the brush in front of his face exploded. Black fur, bright green eyes, and white fangs shot toward him. O’Hare fell to his back and the massive beast over shot him. Almost the size of a bear with the sharp ears, long snout, and build of a wolf. The beast was black as onyx; it’s fur shimmered as it turned toward him. His sword was gone, he reached for the dagger he kept at his waist; also gone. Scrambling backward he hit the same broad boulder Fynn had died on. The beast closed slowly. Too slowly, as if it wanted to savor the kill. O’Hare let out a roar of his own,
“Come on ya bastard!” he swung at its jaw.
The beast roared back, hot noxious breath blew over him like the winds from hell. Part of him wanted to cower, to cover up and bury his head, so he wouldn’t see what was coming. But a fury deep inside the man refused. His Anne demanded he fight to the end. He leaned forward and spit what he could scrounge from a barren mouth right across the beasts snout and shouted,
Wyatt sailed across the forest floor following the scent of battle. It lay out in front of him, so thick he could almost see it; a sickly, iron tang of blood mixed with earth, sweat and fear.
He shot past the camp like a lightning bolt and was up the hill flying over the slick ground and rocks. At a bulbous gray boulder he caught Lemn’s scent, he was dead. Just as quickly he leaped over the limp form of the Warg that had taken him. Its musk trailed him like smoke when he broke through the trees onto the outcropping.
There he caught sight of O’Hare, on his back close to the drop off. A black monster the size of an ox loomed over him. Its massive paw raised to slash him to pieces.
O’Hare was staring into those great green eyes when they suddenly bulged outward. The warg’s long body buckled as a brown cannonball took it broadside.
The monster shrieked and tried to lash out at the massive, shaggy missile but its slashing claws met only open air as it drifted over the cliff. Flailing like a cat falling from a roof the black form spun slowly four legs spasming until crunching against the rock fall below. O’Hare stared at the still mass of fur and blood for a long moment. Then a low, Wuff! Drew his attention to a huge Warg resting on its haunches before him.
Afraid to move and too exhausted to care, he slowly shifted until the two of them were eye to eye. It snuffed toward the cliff then looked back at him. A glistening black ear dropped from its mouth. A self-satisfied rumbled echoed from the monster’s chest.
O’Hare’s jaw dropped.
The Warg shook its head, jowls flapping, waves of thick fur coursed down it’s long, lean body. Beast and man shared a long examination of each other, a mix of fear, sadness, elation, and relief passing between them. O’Hare was transfixed by those wide dark eyes. He could swear the intelligence and spirit of the boy he knew burned within the depths. An instant later the beast was gone, leaving only swirling tall grass in its wake.
O’Hare leaned against the boulder and let the sun warm his face, no way, he told himself, couldn’t be…