It was the seventeenth day of Springrise, twenty-three years exactly since Gelland and Larric had ended their so-called Last War.
There were few dates Khan Eilon cared to remember, and he'd come to care for this one less than most. But, far as he was from any calendar, he had a knack for recalling it.
He cared less for dates than he did for hunger, or thirst, or trespassers—all of which had already crossed his path today. The thirst he dealt with easily enough; the creek never ran dry, nor were rains uncommon. The hunger? Well, deer were easy enough quarry, unless they were scared enough to hide, which was where the trespassers came in.
There were four of them. Their tracks were fat, round, and clearly not human—nor those of any beast he'd ever known. They were loud, judging from the lack of other tracks today, and careless as well; the trail of crushed bracken and trampled earth was clear as creekwater. One of them was straggling, its steps uneven, and Khan supposed that he would overtake it if he followed much farther.
His stomach decided against that. Rising from a crouch, his knees complaining as he did so, he shouldered his bow, spun on his boot and headed back toward the last deersign.
As he strode through the woods, his aching belly urging him on even as his just-as-aching knees bade him rest, a lock of his silver hair slipped and jangled. He'd need another haircut, he thought, and half-consciously tapped the long knife sheathed in a strap beneath his leather jacket. A shave as well; his chin was turning grayer than his eyes.
The huntsman blinked away from a shaft of sunlight. His eyes had yet to fail him, though at his age, they'd surely soon begin to. For now, they found his food, his hands caught and cooked it, and his belly kept him moving till he'd gathered enough. Men had lived as such since time began, though few still did in the age of city and sail. Most had their walls, their families, their lords. For all Khan knew, he was the only man in Gelland to have left all that behind.
To have left everything behind. What had remained of it.
Before he could properly brood, he came upon a line of hoofprints, leading up ahead to the creek. Crouching low again, he followed, keeping to the brush as the creek's flow reached his ears. At last he reached the height of a slope, below which an old buck lapped water from the broad, shallow stream.
No—it lapped at something in the water; a body, of all things. Khan peeked and squinted tightly. With the sun ahead of him, piercing the branches and spearing his eyes, he saw little of the buck's new playmate. Was it human? Where had it come from? Upstream?
His stomach gave him a jolt. Later. Food, now.
Khan grumbled a response, then reached for his quiver, raised his bow, and aimed a long, black-feathered arrow.
The forest had a way of falling silent just before he took a shot. Khan bent his bow, and felt himself bend with it, straight toward the target. His gloved fingers pressed against the bowstring, quivered in time with the animal's pulse. The arrow weaved before his eyes in search of the one perfect path. And then, when all fell into place¾
A great black terror thundered down from above, shattering stones as it landed on four huge paws. Khan recoiled and ducked, the arrow flipping from his grasp and disappearing into the brush. He scarcely saw the deer bolt for its life. The creature ahead gave a rumbling growl and swiveled its massive head toward the creek. Toward the body.
As it turned away, Khan gathered up a fraction of his nerve, rising up just enough to behold the beast in all its enormity. A wolf it was, but twice, thrice larger than any he'd ever seen, with a coat of purest black and…hands?
What had been its two front paws now contorted into palms and fingers, each still armed with a gleaming claw. As if its bones were water, the creature flowed into a human stance, looming nearly higher than Khan could have reached on tiptoe.
Khan had heard the tales from boyhood. Wolf-demons from far-off lands, they bore claws and fangs to rend steel, stone, and disobedient children. They prowled the streets of Genevieve nightly, stronger than windows, stronger than doors, stronger than all but good behavior. He'd courted their wrath in his day, but no amount of spilled ink in his father's den had ever brought them forth. Till now.
Not that he didn't deserve the punishment, but this one hadn't come for him. Even with his heart careening madly through his chest, he could see that much. With its back turned, the creature advanced on the body, growling and snarling in what could only be anticipation. At last, its shadow fell upon its prey, and down the creature knelt, claws stretching out to…gently stroke the body's cheek.
Khan saw a small white hand rise slowly from the water, then jerk in alarm. A girl's hand. And she was alive, for the moment.
"The woods are no place for a young lady," said the Wolf.
Its voice was soft, but resonant, with a hint of a rumble beneath. "There are dangers," it continued. "Hungers."
Khan shrank back, but kept watching. He saw the white hand become a fist, saw it shake, then fall impotent. The creature laughed as only demons could.
"Help me!" cried the fallen girl. "Somebody please help me!"
Before Khan had even begun to tell himself no, he'd leapt from the brush with an arrow in his fist, feet rolling on the rocky slope. As the creature turned, Khan nocked the arrow on the move and fired, driving the shaft straight into the wolf-man's breast.
The beast reeled back, but held steady on its feet. Its bladed fist tore the shaft from its body and crushed the wood to splinters. With its blood-pocked fur bristling, it drew itself fully upright – easily two heads higher than Khan had imagined – and glared down with its sharp viridian eyes.
Khan had rules for dealing with wolves. Eyes to the ground. Don't challenge it. Don't show fear. Of course, now that he'd already shot it…
The creature charged.
Khan cast his bow aside and threw himself into a roll. Rocks of all shapes had their way with his back. The creature barreled past him, skidding on the stones as it wheeled about. Finding his feet, Khan yanked his long knife from its sheath, took a fighting stance, and stood his ground.
He began to call himself eight kinds of mad, but managed only three before the Wolf closed the distance. Again, Khan threw himself aside, but plunged the blade into the creature's shoulder as he flew, driving it in deep and gripping the hilt for his life. As the beast's charge continued, now with a roar of rage and pain, Khan rode the momentum, spinning till he tumbled aboard the Wolf's back and seized its fur. Now in the shallows of the creek, the creature reared upright. The huntsman found his grip and held on, driving in the blade again and again.
At last the creature bucked and threw him off, hurling him onto his back with a splash, the knife mercifully still in his hand. He scarcely found time to rise before the claws came for him, and the fangs soon after, slicing the air in tandem. Calf-deep in the water, Khan sliced at the air, weaving away as best he could, until his knife met the Wolf's left wrist and dug a blade-width in.
Sparing no time for what Khan hoped was pain, the creature simply lurched forward, bearing down upon him with all its unstoppable weight.
Khan plunged into the water, wet silence filling his ears as both enormous hands closed around his throat. The huntsman saw the rippling form of the creature's face, straight above his, grinning sharply as it gazed into his eyes. Some vaguely conscious part of him wondered why the beast hadn't simply ripped his head off by now. The creature's gaze made the answer clear; this was a kill for pleasure, and a slow one at that.
He couldn't be sure of what happened next.
The Wolf seemed to sprout wings of fire, wings which then folded over its chest and set its body ablaze. Even underwater, Khan heard its sudden shriek. The flames spread swiftly, swirling over its head—and, much to Khan's dismay, down both arms. The water did nothing to stop the blaze, and it rolled unimpeded toward his still-captive neck.
Wrenching his head as far as he could, Khan found his knife, still lodged in the creature's wrist, yanked it free, and painfully pried himself from the clawed fingers. The beast still roared, still burned, and as it toppled toward him, Khan rolled downstream, leaving it to fall face-down with a sizzling splash.
He sat halfway up in the water, heaving for breath, past caring about the stench of wet, burning Wolf. Coughing and gasping, he crawled to the rocky bank, then collapsed with the current still tugging his feet.
He lay with his cheek pressed against a mercifully flat rock, his heart hammering away at his ribs. A stride away, there lay his bow. He idly wondered if the creek had washed the arrows from his quiver, and decided that it probably had.
Past the bow was the girl.
She was sixteen, perhaps; the curtain of red-brown hair made it hard to tell. Her fine pink dress was torn and soaked, her feet bare and bruised. She sat only slightly more upright than he, leaning on one white arm as she brushed her hair back. Her face, though worn from the wild, was a fair one, with a slim nose and wide blue eyes. Khan thought he saw the glint of a jeweled earring.
Now that he had a moment to breathe, he wondered: How long had it been since he'd seen another human? Two years? Three? How many peace treaty anniversaries? He could always count that way…
She pointed and screamed.
Khan turned to see the Wolf rise back from the water with its arms spread wide, a black silhouette in a burning halo. Jaws parting, it roared to shake the trees.
Rolling on the rocks, Khan grabbed his bow, then jerked back toward his quiver. Two arrows left. Thank God. As the creature advanced, steam rising with each step, he fired straight into its chest.
The wolf paused, quivered, then reared back for a final pounce. Khan aimed his last shot, bending with his bow—and found the perfect path.
The black-feathered arrow sprang from the bowstring, curved just slightly, and drilled into the wolf-man's jaw. The roar became a croak. The eyes bulged wide. The flames spread to the arrow, scattered wisps of its feathers, then followed the shaft into the creature's brain.
It fell, and did not rise this time.