Eduard sat bolt upright, a gasp escaping him in place of the the terrified shout that clawed at his throat. As he fought to steady himself and regain his breath, he glanced at his precious Gaeladrial. Thankfully, she was still sleeping, her face serene, her breathing peaceful. Eduard brushed a stray lock of reddish-bronze from her slender face and that movement calmed him further.
Frustration lined his visage as Eduard fought to recall the nightmare that woke him.
He flinched as the image of the wolf-men running on all fours flickered in his mind’s eye. They were led by a great Alpha wolf, its maw large enough to swallow one of its wolf-man followers in one huge snap. The strange pack ran on and on beneath the silvery glow of the full moon, slavering and howling viciously. Occasionally, the pack would encounter a lone human, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes but a child, and always the figure was consumed like locusts consume a field. The pack barely slowed and once their victim disintegrated into blood and gore, the pack continued as if never having delayed.
With resignation, Eduard realized it to be the same dream that had been haunting him for weeks. It never changed – just the Alpha and his pack running towards… what? He shook his head in frustration.
Scratching unconsciously at his bandaged hand, Lord Eduard glanced at the full moon high in the night sky and laid back down beside his beautiful Gael, soon rejoining those who slumbered in the peaceful green haze of the Dream.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Alpha Prime crouched on all fours and looked upon the quiet Stormglen Village with ravenous eyes from the steep peak of the Gilnean-designed house beneath him. Sniffing the air acutely, Alpha Prime turned and greeted the lesser Worgen who approached in silence from behind him with a curt growl. The second Worgen immediately lowered his gaze and flattened his ears back along his skull.
“What news?” Alpha Prime rumbled.
“You were right, Alpha Prime, there are Night Elves in the Blackwald and they also seek the Scythe,” the other Worgen replied gruffly, not raising his eyes in an attempt to remain nonthreatening. He crouched tautly in the very spot where he had first taken the notice of Alpha Prime, the bright moon making his pack leader’s dark fur shimmer silvery. “They gather in a tree.”
“With them.” The smaller Worgen paused before adding, “Other Worgen have begun to collect there as well.”
A snarl rippling along his muzzle, Alpha Prime turned on the lesser Worgen and snapped, “What Worgen?”
“They seem to be some of those who fled Gilneas. The Night Elves seem to think they have found a way to cure the Worgen.”
Alpha Prime let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “A cure,” he spat. “We are the future! We are the purest embodiment of nature’s ferocity and cunning! If any cure is needed, it is for those awkward beings who seek our destruction!”
“Of course, Alpha Prime.” The Worgen gave a brief nod of agreement. “I only relate the news you sought.”
“Yes,” Alpha Prime snarled. “Well done.” He waved dismissively at the other and crouched almost to his belly, scanning the shadows.
On silent paws, his pack crept hidden by darkness through the shadows of the sleeping village. Their first attack on Stormglen had proven less successful than Alpha Prime had intended – not all of the villagers had been slain or bitten. Before the pack had completed its mission, Stormglen’s Lord Eduard had bolstered the militia and driven the Worgen out like craven dogs.
Alpha Prime growled at the recollection.
“But I got you, Lord Eduard. Soon, soon now, you shall succumb to the beast.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Milord, pray forgive the late hour of this intrusion, but the wolf-men have returned!” Rinald, shouted, waking both the Lord and Lady from their slumber. “Even now, they ravage the village!”
Lady Gaeladrial gasped and gazed frightfully at Rinald. The man had been butler to House Wolfsbane since the days of Eduard’s father. Getting on in years, he might be, but he was yet straight-backed and strong as any others in their service, and usually a far more comforting sight to Lady Gaeladrial then at that moment.
Eduard was already on his feet and pacing Rinald to the wardrobe, his silken robe-tails snapping angrily behind him.
“No! Eduard, you cannot!” Gael cried, tempering herself and her voice to keep it from breaking. She gathered her bedclothes around her and padded on bare feet desperately to the wardrobe. From the doorway, she met her Lord’s determined gazed. “Please…” she began, and faltered.
“My love, I cannot sit here whilst those animals kill those I have sworn to protect!” His voice was not harsh, but pleading. It was both question and resignation, as if he fought with himself to stay and protect his family from what might happen, or to go and protect his vassals from what did happen.
Gaeladrial took a deep breath and steadied herself. When she once more spoke, there was no quaver in her voice. “Yes, you must protect Stormglen, I understand. But what of the children and I? We are not far removed from the village.”
Lord Eduard was mostly dressed now, and Rinald was assisting him in clasping his brooch with the wolf’s head of his House to the shadow-black cloak resting on his shoulders. “Take yourself and the girls to Tempest Reach. I will have Rinald and the househands go with you for protection. Take everyone you can rouse.” Eduard retrieved his cane-sword from its place over the vanity. “I will have the militia and the House guards with me. You should be safe outside of the village.”
A shaft of moonlight streamed through the mostly drawn curtains and lit his handsome, determined face. Gael could not help but to embrace him. “Be safe,” she whispered.
“Aye, and you as well, love,” Eduard returned, stroking her hair.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lady Gaeladrial shook both Sifaol and Amaeris from their slumber as lightly as she dared. She hurried them and their chambermaids into riding clothes, and then sent the maids to rouse the other househands.
By the time the remnants of House Wolfsbane, all those who had not gone off with their Lord to drive back the wolf-men, were saddled and moving northward, the moon was low but still bright. All took merely the clothes on their back, taking no time to prepare carriages or foodstuffs.
Having said little more than was necessary to get her daughter’s moving, Gaeladrial was hardly surprised when the ever-questioning Sifaol asked, “Mother, what is all the bother when the threat is to the village? I do not recall being woke in the middle of the night during the first attack.”
Gaeladrial nodded, solemnly. “This being the second attack, my daughter, is the point. The losses were heavy in the first attack by these wolf-men, and many of those hurt have yet to recover fully. If those creatures are not completely slain this night, I would not be surprised if your father orders the villagers to follow behind us.” At this, Gael glanced at the tail of their procession – disappointed though not surprised when she saw no others in the distance.
The younger and more impetuous Amaeris listened but was strangely quiet, nibbling on some bread and cheese she had secreted out of the kitchen in the commotion. That girl, she was always ready and willing to be unexpectedly thrust into a situation that would require use of her ranging skills. Junkyard, her great behemoth of a mastiff, trotted along beside her, snapping his wide slobbering mouth at the pinches of cheese and bread crust that Amaeris casually tossed down to him. The dog’s back came even with the belly of his master’s horse.
Sifaol wrinkled her nose in disgust at the creature as she traded her torch from left to right hand, flexing the stiff fingers of the former. “Well, I think this is all silliness, and would much rather still be in bed.” She covered her mouth and the feigned yawn that followed her retort.
“Well, I dearly hope you are right, and that this silliness will be through with shortly,” Lady Gaeladrial murmured, glancing once more behind them. Already, she swore a plume of thick black smoke rose into the dark night sky.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Only the fires seem to be holding them at bay, milord,” House Wolfsbane’s Guard-Captain reported. “And no telling for how long. We are sorely outnumbered, and I swear they are twice the numbers they were in the last attack.”
Lord Eduard nodded grimly. His mind worked furiously in a vain attempt to find some answer to drive the feral creatures back for good. “Do we have any chance of a retreat? I do not want anymore lives lost.” The fires had mostly been of Lord Eduard’s doing, along with the village’s sole Mage, the stooped and elderly but capable Magus Menden. But both Eduard and Menden had already expended a great deal power, and Magus Menden had received a vicious blow during the creatures’ last charge. Much more and Eduard was afraid he would not be able to defend even himself in the next.
Guard-Captain Marik glanced around their desperate holding spot. The wolf-men crowded the rooftops and yet more stayed back in the shadows of the dark avenues adjacent to the main street of Stormglen. Lord Eduard’s men were pressed with their backs to the inn, the last building not yet burning, and currently filled with the remaining women and children of the village.
It seemed nigh hopeless, but Marik could not give such an report to his Lord.
“It appears the only way out is through, milord,” the Guard-Captain finally replied, steeling his expression and readying his sword and shield before him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Junkyard began to growl in the direction from which they had come, Lady Gaeladrial felt her heart leap into her throat.
“Mutt, quiet your mongrel,” Sifaol snapped pretentiously at her younger sibling, using the woman’s childhood nickname. It was a nickname both originally given to her and still commonly used by her elder sister.
Anger flashed in Amaeris’ crystal blue eyes. “He growls because we are being followed, sweet sister,” the younger retorted with a mocking tone.
“Silence, both of you,” Lady Gaeladrial commanded, her voice of a volume to carry to the two quarreling sisters easily but not beyond. She looked at neither of them, instead, her gaze steady on the road leading south, back the way they had come. Her gaze unwavering and her voice leaving no room for argument, Gael continued more softly, “Off the path, everyone. Use the trees and boulders for cover and climb that ridge to the west. Ready any weapons you might have. And by the Light, be silent about it.”
There was no response but compliance.
Except for Junkyard, who refused to move. He stood defiantly and protectively in the center of the path, growling a warning as the short fur along his back prickled up anxiously. Junkyard was the first to see the large pack of wolf-men come over the nearest hill and he was the first to engage them.
A slavering muzzle filled with jagged teeth grabbed hold of the big dog by the back of his neck, ripping a shriek from the animal. Junkyard fought to free himself ferociously, biting the wolf-man back and grabbing a deep hold in the creature’s upper arm, shaking his head as violently as he could manage while partly pinned.
The first wolf-man gave a canine-like yipe and released his jaws enough for Junkyard to wiggle free, but more of the wolf-men were already surrounding him, moving in the perfect concert of a pack. The mastiff growled and snapped at each creature that moved in towards him, blood drenching his tensed shoulders. But with each feint, the pack moved in closer, tighter, around Junkyard.
Sensing his impending defeat, but still loyally standing his ground in the hopes of protecting his master, Junkyard leaped at the closest wolf-man’s throat. A second’s hesitation at the incredulous attack cost the wolf-man its life as the mastiff crushed its windpipe with his steel-trap jaw. Shaking the creature lifeless in his mouth, Junkyard drove its pack members back a few steps. He released the limp corpse into the chests of two more wolf-men and leaped at a third with abandon, knocking the breath from it as it hit the ground with a grunt.
Junkyard then viciously snapped at a figure approaching from behind him, taking a few fingers off in the bite and receiving a howl of pain in reply. Another pair of clawed hands grabbed him, and Junkyard turned, still atop the winded wolf-man, the sound of rib bones crackling beneath his massive frame. The mastiff sprang and ripped out the wolf-man’s throat so that it was dead before its body hit the ground.
The momentary chaos was past, though, and as Junkyard leaped clear of another dead wolf-man, the remainder of the pack, only half a dozen of them now, closed in the dog, faithful and fighting to his last breath.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Amaeris stumbled to her knees at the sound of the mournful death howl that rose behind them. Junkyard had stalled them, but she knew there had been too many. Still that sound broke her heart and she cried out despite herself as her vision once more grew blurry with tears.
The girl had fought the grasp of her mother, her sister, Rinald and all the nearby househands at the mastiff’s first pained shriek, but eventually she gave up, went limp as a ragdoll and just cried. Rinald carried her at first, whispering reassurance and that Junkyard’s sacrifice should not be squandered. Then, Amaeris recollected herself and walked on her own again.
Until the death she had thought already past hit her again. This time, unmistakably so.
Junkyard’s howl was soon echoed by the wolf-men, but their response was short-lived as they seemed to suddenly recall their original targets.
Lady Gaeladrial and Rinald both helped Amaeris to her feet, and supported her on either side as the group continued on.
They could not ride up the steep, jagged incline, and had to carefully guide the horses among stunted trees, slick rockface, loose gravel, and precariously perched boulders. It was slow going, and Gael berated herself for veering off the worn path. They could have encouraged the horses to a faster pace. But no, she shook away her second-guessing and recalled that even with the help of the sturdy horses, not all had been riding. She could not leave anyone behind… especially not to these ungodly monsters.
The moon had long dipped below the horizon, making their star-lit path ever more perilous.
It was not much longer before Gaeladrial was sure she heard the scrabbling of claws on loose rock. The wolf-men were closing, and fast, despite the terrain. Her pulse quickened as she sought some place where they might defend themselves.
“To that next outcrop of rocks,” Lady Gaeladrial said, pointing ahead. Several of the fractured boulders looked to require little coaxing in tumbling down the rocky face.
The horses were hurriedly tied to the sturdiest looking nearby trees, and the panicked househands took up the feeble arms available to them at the reassuring words of their Lady and her daughters.
Amaeris steadied her shotgun against the top of a boulder and squinted through the sight. Sifaol began to pray fervently. Gaeladrial took a few deep breaths and reached her consciousness deep within the rock, looking for the smallest of living things upon which to call. Rinald loaded a crossbow, and grimly tapped the crumbles of great, shattered stones before him with his boot. The other househands readied various implements of defense – slingshots, riding crops, handfuls of stones, one kitchenhand even bore a pair of sharpened cleavers.
The lead wolf-man crested the nearest rise and as soon as its face was full in her sight, Amaeris shot a gaping hole in the thing’s head and immediately began to reload, but not without the taunt of “That’s for Junkyard, you bastards!”
A couple of smaller boulders were sent careening down the rock face, jostling the fallen beast and ensuring it was indeed dead.
The next creature came into view and within seconds several smaller rocks pelted it, one taking an eye, and Rinald’s first bolt sunk deep into the wolf-man’s shoulder. Then roots, tiny at first, but soon larger and growing in numbers, wove around the half-blind wolf-man’s legs and the snarling beast tripped and crashed to the ground. A great golden scythe of magical Light cut a swath across the creature and leaving him in two twitching halves.
No boulders were wasted, there was no more worries from that wretched thing.
Silence followed the demise of the second, and Lady Gaeladrial looked around incredulously. She had no way of knowing whether only the two had survived to pursue them, but it seemed unlikely. “There are more. I am sure of it,” she whispered, as much to herself as anyone.
Suddenly, a chorus of sharp pains pierced her shoulder. Gael grasped feebly behind her and met fur just as the wolf-man that had bitten her grabbed both arms and them tugged hard out to the sides. Lady Wolfsbane thought for certain the beast would tear them both off, but Sifaol rose a hand and with an incoherent shout of syllables, shot three swirling, brilliant orbs of Light at the wolf-man’s face, violently driving it back with each orb’s collision, causing the creature to howl its anguish and release her mother. As Gael struggled to steady herself, Sifaol grabbed her firmly by the elbows and Amaeris shot a hole in the stunned creature’s chest.
“They are behind us!” Rinald shouted to those less watchful and fired off another crossbow bolt.
As Amaeris hurried to reload her shotgun, another wolf-man sprang from behind a rock at the young woman. She exhaled sharply as the creature landed on her chest. The youngest Wolfsbane tried to raise her gun as a shield between her and the beast but with a wild yet intelligent look in its eyes, the wolf-man tore it from her hands and it went spinning away across the scree and into the darkness. Trying to fend it off with her arms, to keep the creature as far from her face and throat as possible, Amaeris felt it sink its teeth deep into her forearm and she could not stop the scream that erupted from her.
A dizzying, nauseous sensation washed over her, and Amaeris felt her arms losing strength. The wolf-man snapped its maw viciously at her face with an anxious bark, saliva running from its lips like one who has eaten an overly juicy breakfast fruit.
With a yipe, the wolf-man sprung up from Amaeris, once more taking her breath away. Panting, she looked up to see the kitchenhand one cleaver short, the missing one protruding from the roaring creature’s back as it spun on him. The injured wolf-man slashed its claws with abandon, swiping gashes across the kitchenhand’s face and forearms and chest until he was a ragged mess of blood seeping from torn skin and tattered cloth. Finally, the kitchenhand found himself trapped with his back against a boulder and his front still besieged by sharp claws and teeth.
Amaeris scrambled for her shotgun, but it was nowhere in sight. All there was near her was the scree scattered across the ridge’s face. She scooped a handful of the detritus and feebly began to pelt the injured wolf-man with it. It snapped its head around to face her and growled, giving the tattered kitchenhand the time to bury the remaining cleaver in the thing’s head.
Pulling bandages from her waist pouch, Amaeris hurried over to the wounded man, and gaped at him in horror. He was drenched with blood from dozens of deep slashes inflicted by the now-dead beast. She was startled from her awe when he grasped her forearm, and weakly shook his head. “Go help… your… Lady mother…” he gasped, his breaths coming quick and shallow from the shock. Then, his grasp went slack and his chest stopped moving.
Biting back more tears, Amaeris turned to Sifaol and their mother. Sifaol’s arm hung limply to her side, but she was cursing through a quick prayer to mend the bone and skin enough to continue. Lady Gaeladrial was haphazardly tossing small handfuls of glowing seeds at the two remaining wolf-men. One was crouched upon Rinald’s chest, and snarled its displeasure at Lady Wolfsbane when one group of seeds struck its back and burst in a myriad of tiny, green-colored explosions. The second and last visible wolf-man slashed capriciously at a figure beneath it wearing a comely violet dress that made Amaeris immediately think it was Sifaol’s chambermaid, Dahna.
Amaeris continued her desperate search for her shotgun, it could not be far. But her eyes kept being drawn to the terror playing out beside her.
Neither creature seemed to take much notice of the strangely colored and sized fungi sprouting around them. Lady Gaeladrial met eyes with Sifaol, who cast glorious golden bubbles of Light around both Rinald and Dahna. Then, their mother made a furious gesture that immediately erupted the fungi into a rain of painful and toxic spores. They clung to and seared the flesh of the wolf-men and ripped them apart from the inside when the creatures inhaled them. One stumbled off, already coughing blood, and swooning on all fours. The second, spun around and blinked its feral red eyes, angrily clawing at the pain searing into its sockets until its face was a bloody mess.
Then, it howled its outrage and sprang at Lady Gaeladrial.
A large crossbow bolt drove into the wolf-man’s side and knocked it aside from its path with a thump. Rinald quickly fumbled with a second bolt as the creature turned with a snarl and padded toward the older man.
The echo of a shotgun blast rang off the ridge face, and Amaeris cocked the gun and let the empty shell drop. It hit the ground the same time the last wolf-man did.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Awaiting the Muse by Jamie Roman AKA Effraeti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.