I push Metis onward. The mass of wolves in quadrupedal form smells the air, then reluctantly parts before us. Their instincts, pushed by the curse, still see anything with four legs as prey.
Fortunately, Metis does not behave like prey. At all. Some of the more adventurous wolves are still healing from having an ear nipped off. What can I say? Metis is a gourmet.
It helps that we do not smell like their usual fare either.
Finally, we arrive in front of Augustus’ personal guard, an improvised squad resulting from remnants of packs brought together by revenge. They may not be the largest specimens, but they make up for it in aggression.
They refuse to give way.
Metis lets out a low-pitched neigh, the flesh-eating equine equivalent of “just try me.” Before someone gets hooved into the frozen ground, the man of the hour steps forth.
I have to admit that he looks better now than he did a few nights ago. His exhaustion left way to dark determination and his previously messy hair is now tied back, showing his square jaw and carved cheeks to his advantage. He wears only leather pants under a jacket left open to reveal the muscular chest underneath. With his grim air and the background of frozen wastes, he looks like some barbarian king in a raunchy novel.
The wind blowing at my back prevents the wolf stench from coalescing into a noxious cloud of nauseating horror, allowing me to appreciate the moment.
“What is it, Ariane?” he finally asks.
“We have hit a hurdle and will need to conduct some measure of diplomacy. Your presence would be appreciated,” I state.
Interestingly, Augustus will never take any orders, especially not in public. Even the most sensible instructions are answered by a silent glare. A well-formulated request will always come across, however. In this regard, he is abnormally rational. It makes communicating with him both easy and difficult.
This time again, he can read between the lines. A nod and a raised fist are all it takes for his personal guard to split before him and open us a path back. The horde stops in the valley behind us as we move up the slope to a line of pines tucked along a ridge. Frost, Melusine and Melitone are waiting for us at the edge.
Only Melusine and I are mounted right now, on our respective Nightmares. We all wear armor, even Melitone who will definitely not take part in the fight despite her insistence that she can take care of herself.
“Are we ready?” I ask.
“Yeah, let’s do this,” the Servant replies with hunger in her eyes. Being sidelined from the conflict is eroding her patience, which I understand only too well.
I take the center with Mel and Augustus to my right and Melusine and Frost to my left. The valley’s pale light disappears as the snow-covered branches progressively block off the sky. Frost picks a pair of glasses from his pocket and casually places them on his nose, looking like a distinguished entomologist on a hike, never mind the cold.
The stomping of hooves heralds their coming.
Five shapes emerge from the gloom, appearing seamlessly from behind trees as if they had been there all along.
Lamellar armors, gruesome weapons, and dark expressions to match.
More specifically, the usual squad plus Jimena. Sergei of the Kalinin is the only one mounted on a Nightmare covered in mail. He himself wears a helm and carries with him a long spear. A massive two-handed axe hangs from his back.
The rest of his team has not changed much. Alec is still stoic, Alaric still smiling playfully with his hands twirling daggers and Aisha gives no sign of recognizing me, eyes fixed forwards and face covered by her veil. No one knows yet that the Amaretta vampire and I are allied.
“I think you owe us some sort of explanation,” Sergei begins.
“I don’t owe you anything,” I immediately retort in English, then stop when Jimena discreetly coughs. Her light protest curbs my anger. She is right, this is no time to be arguing. We are on a schedule.
“However,” I continue, “for the sake of cooperation, I will gladly inform you that we are on the way to Fenris’ horde to kill him.”
Sergei’s glance stops on Augustus who studiously ignores him, then on the dense formation of transformed wolves down on the plain. They sit patiently on their haunches, looking towards where we disappeared with eerie focus, a sea of eyes twinkling in the moonlight.
“You are bringing an army of werewolves next to another army of werewolves and expect them to fight each other,” he observes, and I recognize his use of English as a courtesy.
“Is your confidence based on facts?”
“They have done it before,” I reply, not particularly surprised by the knight’s distrust. I notice that while Anatole was immediately dismissive, Sergei is merely dubious. My instincts tell me that he could be convinced.
“You there,” the haughty knight says as he addresses the werewolf, “will you really fight your own kind?”
An awkward silence descends on the assembly as Augustus stares Sergei in the eyes. His bravery is commendable, if foolish. I have not tried to dominate Augustus and I have no doubt that his status as leader affords him some degree of protection, but against a Master? I would not bet on it.
I intervene before the pissing contest degenerates and we accidentally end up at odds with some of the deadliest fighters on the continent.
“My dear Augustus, would you kindly inform sir knight as to what you intend to do to Fenris once we reach his horde, please?”
“My packs will open the path, then I will face Fenris in single combat and slay him. With the horde under my control, we will return north.”
“No you won’t,” Sergei retorts.
“Yes, he will,” I pointedly insist.
“Are you betraying us, Devourer? These creatures killed several of us!”
“You are mistaken, Sergei. They killed several Rolands.”
“If I may, Ariane?” Melitone interrupts with a pleasant voice, “as Constantine’s representative in this matter, I believe I can bring this disagreement to a close.”
She turns to Sergei, whose expression has become more guarded. His caution is soon proven to be warranted.
“The Speaker mandated Ariane to protect Detroit and bring the werewolf invasion to a close. I judge that Ariane’s plan to dethrone Fenris and disband his army not only satisfies the Roland request, it does so in a way that significantly reduces the risks of further casualties on our forces. She acts under our orders and with our approval.”
“The werewolves united once; they can do so again! We should purge as many as we can now, or they will spread again like an infestation!” Sergei retorts.
“You can do so on your own free time. Our current objective is liberation, not extermination.”
“The objective changed when the knight squad—” the knight spits, before being interrupted by Melitone taking a step forward. Sergei frowns in disapproval before realizing who she speaks for.
“Constantine said you might react this way. He also said that under the Accords, which your organization agreed on respecting while you operate on our territories, Speaker-mandated missions take precedence over knight authority. He added, and I quote, ‘if Sergei has difficulties understanding the standing agreement, I will be compelled to travel north and explain it to him in person.’ I will add that not only will it be an extremely unpleasant experience, he is also currently working on guardian golems for your Carpathian fortress. Who knows what unforeseen delays the project would face if he were to be disturbed?”
Frost and Augustus look on with interest as the knight squad leader grits his teeth. The number of hostile factions I am supposed to assist just bumped to three. Watcher grant me patience, I just want to eat them all and be done.
I can tell that Sergei has reached a decision when he slowly relaxes the death grip on his spear.
“I suppose it will be up to us to deal with the consequences of your short-sightedness, as usual. In the meanwhile, please do share your strategy so that we may coordinate.”
Progress. Such as it is.
I explain the plan in English. The knights all stare in the distance as they attempt to visualize what we intend to do, except Jimena who looks positively ecstatic.
“I must admit that it sounds both simple and actionable,” Sergei says after a delay, “I do have a few reservations.”
“Do tell,” I reply, expecting more nonsense.
“First, how can you be sure that the horn won’t affect the other wolves? Would it not be counterproductive to make them stronger?”
“It won’t affect them the same way a firebolt does not explode in your face. Magic is about intent. Besides, it already worked once.”
Sergei nods and his gaze lingers on the artifact slung over my shoulders. I will have to be careful after the battle if I want to keep my word, which I do. If I can operate the horn, perhaps he can as well.
“Very well,” Sergei continues, “I was also wondering why you have to charge through the ranks. Can your champion not simply issue a challenge?”
“I will take that one,” Augustus interrupts. To my surprise, Sergei lets him.
“Fenris is a snake. He will delay us until he can have his skald blow the horn in turn. The only reliable way to force him to duel is through a violent challenge that he cannot ignore.”
“I see. One last question: how certain are you that you can defeat him?”
“Completely so. I have seen him fight before.”
I did not know. Augustus has remained tight-lipped about his past and I have not pried. I just hope that his confidence is warranted. Our whole plan hinges on it.
Well not entirely. If he loses the fight, I will assassinate his head skald then flee through Augustus’ horde before Fenris can turn it on me. This course of events will most likely eliminate me from the contest, and yet I am committed now, and the appearance of the knights only confirms that I made the right choice. With their assistance, Lazaro will succeed then claim that he eliminated the werewolf threat. It will matter little that he had their help.
No, I must gamble.
I hate this. I prefer to approach a problem patiently and then, when the circumstances are right, I can let go in full confidence. The human part of me plans and the vampire part pounces, as it should be. All this uncertainty is grating on my nerves.
“Well, I am convinced. Your rationality and flexibility impress me, Ariane.”
Oh, wow. What a surprise, I can be rational.
Who would have thought?
All the tension of the last few days. The backstabbing, including the one I caused. The constant insults. Accommodating all those giant egos and more than that, the constant stink of the horde. And now this?
“You are impressed?” I sweetly start, “Really? You are impressed? Because I came up with a viable plan? Blimey Sergei, the Devourer had a plan! It is almost as if I was not just a dumb brute! Almost as if, you know, I successfully escaped the Lancasters as a fledgling, then hid without worry for a DECADE! Protected my territory with a Dvergur fucking king and learned painting and engineering! It’s almost as if it took me repelling a FULL-SCALE INVASION, DESTROYING A CULT TO THE LAST MAN AND SLAYING THE HOLDER OF THE KEY OF BERIAH IN SINGLE COMBAT FOR YOUR CLOWNISH TWAT OF A PREDECESSOR TO FINALLY FIND ME!”
I am slightly raising my voice at this stage, but I do believe that my slight annoyance is warranted.
“I governed a town for twenty bloody years and destroyed a mercenary army with my own militia which I trained and equipped from scratch. I liberated a Gabrielite prison. I slew that absolute prick Lambert in a duel and drank his sorry hide dry. I have led raids and successful infiltrations, heists even! I am a demolition expert, a sharpshooter, a smith and a scholar of the magical arts. I am currently at the head of an alliance of people who would normally kill each other on sight, but no that didn’t count for shit you cockless fuckwit! The Devourer is an airhead! Oh look, she managed to tie her shoes! FUCK YOU! I AM FED UP OF NOT BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY. DO YOU TOSSPOTS NOT BELIEVE IN RESULTS? HUH? IF YOU PAID ATTENTION TO ANYTHING I EVER DID YOU WOULD KNOW I SUCCEED MORE OFTEN THAN NOT. NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP AND FOLLOW MY PLAN AND STOP BITCHING, OR I’LL SHOVE YOUR SCRAWNY COLLECTIVE ARSES IN A NAVY GUN AND SPLATTER THEM OVER THE ATLANTIC! FUCK!”
I only stop when I realize that Jimena is patiently patting my hand. She walked all the way to Metis without me realizing it.
All the other vampires are staring at me with horror while Augustus looks strangely pleased. Melitone is smiling proudly and Frost has walked a few steps away, trying not to choke on his laughter.
“This… appears to be a sensitive topic,” Sergei finally says with some hesitation.
“There, there…” Jimena continues with an amused grin.
I cannot fathom what happened. I am normally so calm, my mind turned cold by my own nature. This outburst was so very… human.
Perhaps I am suffering from some sort of fatigue.
I remember when fighting side by side with Loth against Ascendency and their borrowed British forces. The fighting had gone on for days and towards the end, I had turned primal. Not rogue since I was still in control. Primal. All of my instincts were so close to the surface that every problem appeared as if they could be solved with overwhelming violence.
I may be facing the opposite problem now. Working with the werewolves, assassinating Mornay and contending with the Cadiz indirectly are political games. I may just need a good slaughter. A battle where I do not have to run.
Sergei interrupts my musings.
“Ahem, yes. In any case, the plan is sound and we will support it. I will now share more about what we had planned ourselves.
I perk up at this revelation as Jimena steps back and returns to her fellow knights without a word.
I really love her for that: the little things she does without a word, without need for recognition. It conveys more affection than hours of discourse.
“We have been helping the Cadiz for a night now. They are entrenched in a valley west of York, under siege by the army you mentioned since five days ago. Our plan was to have the vampires do a sortie, forcing a reaction from the man you called Fenris. Using that distraction, we would have flanked them and inflicted heavy losses before withdrawing. If possible, we would have killed their leaders too.”
“Sortie? Are they not heavily outnumbered?” Melusine asks.
“Quite so, but they have mobility and a fallback position. We also lack options: the Cadiz only numbered five and lost a member on the first night. They have been conservative since then, but time is not on their side.”
“How did they hold for a week?” I ask with eyes narrowed.
“The first thing a Cadiz does when investing a new territory is to build a fortress,” Sergei patiently answers. Jimena nods to confirm this piece of information before explaining a bit more.
“Fortresses start as a sort of oppidum. My clan uses logs and packed earth to create a perimeter then expands underground in a way that a handful of men can hold it for a long time. Vampires assist in the building, considerably shortening the time it would take to complete the work.”
I bet, considering that the average master can carry a trunk in one hand. If the Cadiz managed to create a proper tower, the werewolves will have lost the numbers advantage. I doubt that they carry any siege equipment either. We should still hurry.
“Why is time not on their side?” Frost asks in turn. Sergei clearly hesitates. Rank is paramount for us, and Frost’s position is still unclear to him.
“Vampires need blood, more so if they are constantly fighting,” I explain.
“The Cadiz lost half of their mortal followers on the first night. Some are getting dangerously close to… exhausting their patience,” Sergei continues.
The mortals may not understand the full implication of what such a loss incurs. Without an adequate supply of blood, the vampires may end up destroying the minds of their mortals and some could even turn rogue.
“Can they not escape?”
“The vampires may break through, if they sacrifice all of their followers.”
We all understand that it will not happen.
“Enough questions; we need to move now. I propose that you knights proceed as planned but from another angle. The Cadiz attack first, you flank them and once both diversions are in progress, Augustus and I will charge. Melusine and Frost will cover our approach, as planned. Is this agreeable?” I ask.
“It is,” Sergei replies, “Aisha will signal the Cadiz to attack with a spell. We will wait a minute before engaging ourselves. You will probably face the least resistance if you wait a bit.”
Both Augustus and I signal our agreement.
“We could be forced to disengage. Can you signal us when you attack so that we know we have held their attention for long enough?”
“Oh, trust me,” I reply, “you won’t miss it.”
For the first time since I met him, Sergei smiles. The little I can see of his mouth lifts upward and his entire demeanor changes.
“It will be a pleasure to see you at work, Ariane of the Nirari. After you are done here, you should consider joining us for a spell. We could use a Vanguard of your caliber,” he says.
Vanguards are the knights’ combat experts. Did he just try to recruit me? I turn to Jimena who nods emphatically.
Well, I could consider it in the far future. For a while. If my territory is secured. After all, they present some of the best opportunities to collect allies or blood samples.
I consider the knights as they leave. We successfully coordinated in a peaceful and mostly respectful manner despite my apprehensions. Perhaps Anatole was the exception and the rest of them are not so bad that I cannot work with them. Of course, I will never fully trust them either. They did not oppose him as he was skirting the rules, after all.
“Let us depart. We must still find our quarry,” I tell my allies.
Melusine and Frost assent and leave as Augustus and I return to the horde behind us. I can hardly believe it but with the knights on our side, our chances have significantly improved. I hope nothing comes to ruin our plan.
The trip back is anticlimactic. I return at the tip of the formation where Metis is currently munching on yet another ear while Augustus returns to its heart. We move forward at a slow pace to allow the others to sweep for sentinels.
Valleys lead to forests, and to ridges in turn. The night is beautiful, but I have difficulties enjoying it because of the smell and the unreliable allies at my back. The horde is incredibly quiet, for its size, yet even subdued their auras are too powerful for me to ignore them. Their constant presence weighs on my mind step after step. Only the reminder of what is to come relieves my overtaxed patience.
We are going to attack. That means an all-out charge.
Finally, I am done running, scheming and planning.
I can let go.
Finally, I hear it. A clamor of flesh and roars erupt to our right. Frost signals us from a line of trees before running to the side with his mages. The path is clear.
I spot Melusine dragging a corpse away from a thicket as we enter it.
Another clamor sounds, further away. The knights have entered the fray.
And then we see it. The untapped wilderness falls before us in a large plain dotted with farms, all of them collapsed husks of charred wood. To our right, a mass of wolves in tight ranks face off against four flickering shades. The group tries to corner them, not committing too much while the vampires are forced to inflict superficial wounds before falling back. They are the largest group.
Far away in front of us, the knights have engaged a second group of wolves, close to a hundred. They are much more brutal and effective, and several corpses already litter the ground. From the gestures, It appears that Fenris has sent the ferals to cover his flank.
Finally, a bit to our left, a smaller group waits in a loose circle around a fortified encampment. Large tents and cages dot the ground and in its middle stand three men.
The first sits on a throne of bone and leather, clad in a garish white pelt like a raider king. His long black hair and black beard offer a sharp contrast with light eyes and pale skin. Next to him stands a bald man with a hawkish nose and a vicious smile carrying a horn much like my own. On the other side, a veritable mountain of muscle with the face of a caveman looms menacingly.
I turn to the line of wolves behind me. They are looking forward to the man on the throne with an intensity I never expected from such animalistic creatures. I feel a burning resentment, a deep-seated rage that dug into their heart and now fuels the coal of their anger. They lick their chops, hackles raised. Behind them, their leader waits.
Augustus gives a single nod. They are ready.
The world is waiting. The enemy skald has not used his horn in the few minutes that have passed, or he did it far enough away that it doesn’t matter.
I stare at the circle below us.
This is not how it should be. A leader of the pack should be among his fighters, in the thick of battle. Even I can tell that he is the wrong champion for his kind.
I bring the horn to my lips.
Augustus said I should be as instinctive as possible. I am no werewolf and some of the effects of the artifact will be lost. I must call to the lowest common denominator between us, and I have just the perfect memory to draw on.
I close my eyes and remember.
Black Harbor. Belinda is dead at my feet, her resistance shattered by a point-blank range canister shot. I drank what life still flowed in her veins and destroyed her batteries. Now, the Choctaw warriors, Dalton, Loth and I will lead the charge on the Ascendency flanks. The key of Beriah will not be theirs. The Herald dies tonight.
The red-clad infantry is to our front, slightly down. They think their flanks covered.
I dive more deeply into the memory, focusing on my emotions and sensations.
Taste of blood. ONE PREY FELLED. ONE MORE TO DEVOUR. Night. Wind on my face. Warriors by my side. Friends. The PREY does not know that we are coming. THEY ARE WEAK.
It starts slowly. We march. We trot. We go faster. We are as inevitable and relentless as the tide.
Back in the present, I pour my aura into the horn. I do not hold back. A veritable torrent of power fills the body and nestles into every bony crevice, ignites every crimson rune. It shines like fresh blood on the snow.
We are running now, but nobody makes a sound. Manic grins to the sides. They do not know we are coming, and this will be A PERFECT SLAUGHTER. We will scream our rage, our delight and our lust for their lives as they turn. As they realize they are doomed.
And just like that time, my mind is overwhelmed by another memory. Sand. A scorching sun made almost pleasant by the dry heat of the desert. Rocks crushed under the rolling wheels of war chariots as men in bronze armor with glaives and bow charge forward.
We are the elite of queen Semiramis. Those who stand before us will fall. This is how it has been, how it will always be. At our front, the prince rides and laughs and shoots his hunter bow. A serrated arrow skewers a man through the chest at an impossible range. Once more, he claims the first kill. The chariots smash into packed infantry. They SHATTER AND FALL.
All three visions meld into one. The present, with the horde of eager wolves behind me, the past with the Choctaw warband and the stolen moment of a distant history. All merge into one emotion, one overwhelming imperative. The need to conquer, to make them pay, and the absolute confidence in my own power.
As unbridled energy disappears into the thrumming instrument, I realize a truth I had never contemplated.
The werewolves are not the apex predators. They had to bow to Fenris and they had to face us. A part of them must know this. A few nights of freedom do not erase years of servitude.
They are not the deadliest creature tonight.
But they wish they were.
They have come here to reclaim their freedom, and I can make it happen.
I will share with them those instincts of mine, the thirst, the fury and the unshakeable belief that I cannot be stopped. I do not need to be too close to them after all. Even a sliver of how I feel now will send them howling down in the valley below. I let the three images superimpose and keep powering up. The horn now shines like a beacon in the night. It begs to be released as hairline fractures appear along its body.
THEY ARE PREY. THE TRAP IS CLOSED. THE GAME IS OVER. NOW, I CAN LET GO.
COME AND PARTAKE.
I blow the horn.
The sound takes me by surprise. It starts low and deep, incredibly deep. A horn should not be able to produce this sound even if it were four times the size. The vibration spreads all across the land, smothering every other noise. Then, it grows sharper and reaches a stable pitch at a frequency that shakes me to my very core. Just one note, pure and smooth.
The note becomes richer as harmonics develop up and down until it feels like I am not blowing one horn but a thousand, echoing across faraway places, across ages, all calling for the exact same thing.
I have no need to push Metis. We gallop down the slope carried by a tidal wave of snarls and howls. The horn breaks in my hands but the call, the call does not stop. It still carries us forward with the ineluctability of the avalanche.
Fenris’ guard gathers in a tight block. Amusing. FUTILE.
We are so fast now that the wind pushes my hair back. We are no longer charging. We are falling forward as if, for an instant, gravity pulled us straight instead of down.
The enemy werewolves in bipedal form are right in front of us. They already waver. Deep inside they must know that their efforts are pointless.
The grin on my face widens. I cannot help it.
I roar. I push forward into the saddle and catch one under the jaw. I lift it off its feet to crash against the next, I stab another. Metis smashes into dense muscle, barely slowing. Behind us, our own horde reaches the enemy lines.
Now I understand why Augustus kept them in their four-legged form. Like that, they are packed tight while only offering powerful backs covered with protective hair to their foes. The first ranks do not jump. They stay close to the ground and catch legs, pulling their prey under to be smothered and flayed. I always thought the bipedal version was more dangerous but I am proven wrong. The four-legged version is more stable, and Augustus’ troops take full advantage of it.
Then the moment passes, and I stop thinking. There are only jabs and sweeps, Metis’ hooves falling on a skull or sent flying backwards into ribs. I laugh as they try to reach me and fail, just before they are caught.
And soon the last creature falls and I am on open ground.
The three PREY are before me.
I smile because I am happy. Once more, I got to experience something precious and unique.
“Now,” screams the false king. His horn-toting servant raises an-old fashioned wand and screams something, I care not what. Red chains emerge from it and snake around, trying to encircle me. I raise a hand and let the spell slither over my armored body. I allow the immaterial links to ensnare my form as the giant mountain of muscle turns into its bipedal form and charges me. I permit it, and I laugh. I laugh and laugh at their bumbling efforts and pathetic ambush. They are so slow and blind to their own failings. They do not understand.
I raise my eyes to the sky and its quirky denizen. I grin with all the joy I feel and invite it to play.
“I want to show them. Let me.”
In my mind fortress, the statue of the transformed Herald twists and melts into a new form made of a mass of tendrils in an alien harmony. Its blue aura shifts to the familiar purple.
In the realm of reality, my claws flash the same color and I tear the chain apart. The skald falls back, eyes bleeding. The mountain of muscles is already committed.
Time for the appetizer!
Ducking under its arms, I grab the open muzzle with one clawed hand before dragging forward and down. I use my other on his massive biceps and bite mercilessly into the jugular. The creature is so large that I cannot get in properly. It turns into a game. The big creature tries to escape, and I try to keep it more or less standing by shifting my posture. Its free hand rakes ineffectually against Loth’s unyielding armor.
Delicious. I am surrounded by a sea of wolves and they do not intervene because I do not smell like an intruder. I belong here, feeding on one of their strongest warriors in all impunity. A monster among monsters. And I LIKE IT.
It is still weakly struggling as I take my time and glare at Fenris. I could have killed him fifty times already, but I did not. I gave my word. All is as it should be.
Augustus passes me by with solemn steps. When he stops in front of Fenris, something peculiar happens.
In the valley, the din of battle seizes as the collective aura of the packs merge once more, but this time, it also includes our own horde. The merged power is wilder, more organic than what the horn can achieve, yet at the same time, it also feels more stable. A little bit of my call remains in the surrounding mood and the lust for violence runs high. Even the Cadiz and Sergei’s group stop in a strange truce.
The night holds its breath as Augustus steps forward and stops before the throne. Fenris stands, pale eyes shining with resentment.
“You dare ally with one of them? Traitor!” the false king snarls.
“Enough games, ‘Fenris’. I have seen how honorable you were when you killed my brother.”
Fenris frowns, then his eyes widen in surprise.
“You… you were there,” he says.
“Yes, I was. The call of your horn paralyzed me, but I had all the time in the world watching you slay the greatest of us, you mongrel. You did not even have the courage to face him in battle three against one.”
“A king must value results above all else! I united the packs! Not that naïve fool you grieve!”
“A king must value his people above all else. You do not have a united people, just a patchwork of repressed packs you need a magic trick to control. You would know how little it means if you understood the curse, but your vision is as shallow as your knowledge. You are a fake king with a fake name, and if you had a sliver of intellect, you would know that Fenris was a poor title to claim. You see, the Fenris-wolf was never the king. Odin is king. Fenris is his killer.”
Augustus lets his heavy coat drop on the floor, soon joined by his leather trousers.
“And tonight, I will strip you of this name, as well as everything else. Come.”
My ally changes to his gigantic two-legged form. To his credit, the false king does the same with no hint of fear. Grey on my side, black on the other. Both creatures are at least twice the height of an adult human.
They lunge and lock arms, each trying to force the other into submission. Then, just as quickly, they separate and fight by swiping claws. They do not turn around each other to test their defenses as human fighters would. The combat is immediately intense and without mercy.
I admit to being pleasantly surprised. I never had the chance to properly duel a wolf since I am much faster and aim to kill. In truth, both Augustus and his foe are skilled fighters. They move with grace and confidence and stay light on their feet. They feint, dodge and counter with an expertise that can only stem from practice and perfect control over the curse, a human mind and bestial instincts working together in harmony.
Augustus feels cleaner and more poised. He has the reach advantage and makes use of it by keeping his distance. Fenris, on the other hand, is wilder but he has a large collection of techniques he draws on to overwhelm his opponent. His style is vicious and reckless.
They appear to be evenly matched. Soon, both sport deep furrow on the arms and chest but none of the wounds hamper their skill, or indeed, their spirit.
Eventually, I start discerning patterns in their technique and so, apparently, does Fenris. Augustus jabs twice and tries to follow up with a hook-like sweep. His opponent anticipates the third movement and gets in his guard, clawing the biceps and sending Augustus tumbling.
Fenris wastes no time capitalizing on his success. He throws himself at his opponent’s turned back.
In a surprise move that leaves me appreciative, Augustus throws his leg back in a strange kicking movement I had never seen before. His clawed paw catches the black werewolf under the chin and he, in turn, falls to the ground. What follows is a series of short exchanges relying once more on wrestling before they disengage.
I get it now. Werewolves win in a single strike. All those wounds they inflict on each other only serve to prepare that one opening that will give them victory. In this regard, we are strangely similar, though while we focus on the heart, they appear to focus on the neck.
Augustus is slowing down. The bleeding cuts on his left arm limit his range of motion and I see pain in his eyes every time he moves it. Fenris is not looking too fresh either, but he has yet to suffer any debilitating injury.
Augustus does it again. Jab jab, then hook, and just as last time, Fenris gets into his guard.
I smile because I see how this will end.
Augustus is a cunning warrior indeed. As the black werewolf goes to strike the biceps again, the grey one’s jaw clamps on his right clavicle.
Fenris yelps in pain. Rather than savaging the wound, Augustus twists his head weirdly.
There is a loud snap.
I force myself not to wince at that sound. There goes the clavicle.
Augustus falls back to avoid the return swipe and attacks with renewed fury.
I watch him circle his now losing foe and understand why he would make such a good king.
When he was wearing his human skin, he used his troops’ four-legged form to its best advantage, showing an understanding of the curse and the wolf. When he was in cursed form, he showed human adaptation in his combat style with deceit and a few unexpected movements. His merging of mind and instincts is truly impressive. It may even rival my own.
As the fight drags on and Augustus calmly harries his foe, I keep staring with rapt attention. I am no longer so immersed in the magic as to ignore the fear of failure, but this time, there is no twist of fate. No last-minute cheat to steal my victory. The battle finishes without surprise as my champion methodically picks apart Fenris until the fallen king rolls to expose his throat.
When he submits, the collective aura of the wolves ... settles, somehow. Up until now it had been, for lack of a better word, suspended. Like a held breath. Now, the power sighs and attaches itself on the shoulders of the victor.
The man standing and the one on his knees slowly shift back to human form. Fenris’ face is a mask of fury as he cradles his mangled arm.
“Take it then, take my life’s work and ruin it with your pithy dreams, but let me go.”
I realize that Augustus can indeed choose to exile the deposed sovereign. It is his choice.
But we had an agreement, and he turns to me, a question in his cold eyes.
I smile and give him the barest of nods.
The new king returns his focus to the killer of his twin. He shows nothing, no joy, no relief, not even a trace of satisfaction.
“You may leave and take your horn-toting underling with you,” he states in a calm voice.
I turn and realize that the skald is still next to me with the blood of the feedback now dried on his lower face. The improvised mage drops the artifact he still holds and runs to his leader. He helps the man to his feet and, together, they limp away. They leave the circle of werewolves under the glare of many. Not a single cursed one steps up to follow them.
Once they have left the group, the two transform again and start running.
To their left and right, I see vampires keeping their distance.
There is no need for words. I do not call for Metis. She steps up next to me, her heavy hooves pounding on the snow the only loud noise.
When we go past Augustus, our eyes meet, and I see the first true hint of feelings in his features tonight. For a single instant, his control slips to reveal a mix of dark emotions that belies his calm aura. The first is a deep hatred, buried and fiery like the heart of a volcano.
The second is immeasurable sorrow, not at the fleeing figure but at the one who should be there instead. I see it now. Augustus has always been an outsider. It was not he who was meant to carry the mantle of authority. It was his twin brother. He only stepped up because there was no one else.
Victory must taste like ash to him.
And then the moment is gone, and we ride forth. The sea of creatures seamlessly parts before us.
Fenris is banished. That means the other wolves will not touch the pariah. I, however, am not a wolf. Three out of three. Tonight will be such a feast.
“Yes, yes, you can have their ears.”
She gallops faster, the glutton.