Misha froze in shock when she witnessed the mutant deer creature heal so rapidly. It shook off the wound from Owain's arrow as if it were nothing, despite taking the shot directly to the chest. When it leaped forward in an enraged charge, however, Misha's senses kicked her back into the reality of the situation. She dived out of the way just as the huge monstrosity barreled past where she and one of the other guards had been standing just moments before, aiming to trample over anything in its path.

Misha whirled around back towards the creature once more, just in time to see a faint glow of light appear just below its hooves. The very ground beneath it shifted suddenly. Loose dirt and blades of grass moved and stretched up around its legs as if alive, coiling around the creature and holding it in place. It struggled, its plant tendrils thrashing about at the ground, held captive. Misha shifted her attention to the side to see Veldin. He stood with a hand raised towards the creature, his gaze fixed on it as he spoke intricate and foreign words Misha had no hope of understanding. The man could bring the very ground itself to life? Magic was even more impressive than Misha had originally thought.

"Foir, go get the captain!" Owain shouted, addressing the guard wounded by the creature. Foir nodded and dashed away, keeping a clear distance of the bound thing as he did while Owain grabbed another arrow from his quiver. Misha and the other guards, only equipped with no more than the daggers that remained on their belts after their patrols, could only stand on guard thanks to the thrashing and thorny tendrils. Getting too close would likely only result in being shredded.

The deer creature reacted before Owain could release the arrow this time. It let out another deafening screech from its petal maw. The sound hurt Misha's ears just as much as the last, and Veldin's focus on the creature broke as he staggered back a step, raising his hands to his ears. The animated dirt and grass holding the creature in place loosened, and it broke free from its earthen prison with another leap. Owain's arrow just narrowly missed it as he tried to make the shot.

Misha saw the creature headed towards Veldin - whether out of blind rage or an understanding of his spells Misha couldn't be sure - and before she realized what she was doing, she was sprinting towards it on all fours. She came to a stop in front of Veldin just in time to swing her dagger out at the creature but missed the strike as it reared up onto its back legs. One tendril lashed out, gripping Misha's arm and digging into her skin with the thorns, forcing a cry of pain out of her throat. She tried to pull her arm free, but in an instant more tendrils had wrapped around her and lifted her off the ground.

"Misha!" Owain shouted. One of the other guards had approached the creature as well and slashed at more of the plant tendrils, only to be forced back as the deer body began leaping about and bucking its hooves out. Misha struggled in the grip of the tendrils as the creature swung her around with its movement, trying to free herself or to cut at them. The tendrils only tightened their grip on her in answer, the thorns cutting through her fur and into her skin. She heard more unfamiliar words from Veldin as he tried to cast another spell and the sound of the other guards' voices. Then a new sound. Growling.

Suddenly, Misha saw a huge grey shape appear in the corner of her vision, sprinting at a high speed just before it slammed full-force into the deer creature. The tendrils released Misha, dropping her to the ground with just enough of her senses to roll as she landed, lessening the impact. When she stood back up to see what had just happened, she realized an enormous wolf had pinned the creature down and was struggling with it, trying to wrap its teeth around the thing's neck. The plant tendrils pulled at the animal, lashing at it, and struggling to get it off the main body.

The others seemed just as stunned by this development, one guard muttering "What in the..."

Owain shouted out, "Veldin! What's the best way to kill this thing?!"

Veldin viewed the scene, eyes traveling from the wolf to the monster pinned underneath it that thrashed its hooves about. "Opal’s magic has made it resilient, but there has to be an end to its regenerative capabilities. I'll try to hold it down so the wolf can finish it off, aim for a vital spot if you can."

Misha saw Veldin take a breath to steady himself and raise both his hands out towards the creature, performing a series of signs and motions with his hands as he spoke the words of another spell. The magic light originated from around his hands and wrists first rather than anything in the environment. Veldin’s focus was once more fixed on the creature as if he were shutting out the world around him.

While Misha had expected another display of the ground moving or some other sort of effect around the deer creature, there was nothing of the sort. Instead, its movements slowed, its attempts to free itself growing weaker until, at last, it simply... lay on the ground, all movement ceased. Misha looked for any sign of breath, but even if she had the time to, she was uncertain if the thing breathed in the first place.

But there was no time - the moment its struggling stopped, the wolf tore its fangs mercilessly through the throat of the deer body, growling all the while. Owain had lined up another arrow to follow Veldin's instructions, but it became quickly apparent that it was far from needed. The wolf had not stopped its attack on the limp creature, now ripping the flower petals from where they sprouted at the neck. Misha could see the wounds attempting to regenerate just as before, but with each attempt, the wolf turned around with a snarl to rip at another part of the body. It was not a creature that was hunting, that much was obvious. This was a furious animal.

Misha took this chance to properly study the wolf for the first time now. The animal was large and strong, looking as if its shoulders would come up to Veldin's chest. Its grey fur bristled on end and its sides were covered in shredded wounds from the thorns that had slashed at it, fresh blood dripping from them. Near one of its hind legs, Misha noticed a darker patch of dried blood matting the fur, an older wound. A familiar wound.

Misha's ears perked up in surprise. "Is it the same one?" She wondered aloud. Next to her, Veldin abruptly dropped to one knee with a grunt of pain, clutching at his head.

"Veldin!" Misha took a step towards him but then stopped, glancing back at the wolf and the creature.

"I'm... I'm fine..." Veldin answered back through panting breaths. "It's dead, you needn't worry..."

"You're sure about that?" Owain asked cautiously, an arrow still lined up with his bow.

"Yes. Its mind is gone." Having caught his breath, Veldin slowly pushed himself back up from the ground.

"Its mind... What do you mean?" Misha asked.

Veldin looked as if he was about to say something but stopped, his attention drawn elsewhere. Misha followed his gaze and spotted her father - the captain - and two members of the night patrol running towards the scene.

"What's happened here?" Wrent asked the moment he was close enough, though he still kept some distance from the wolf. His voice held the confidence and authority it usually did, but Misha could hear just a hint of incredulity at what lay before him. The wolf still had the creature's corpse pinned, continuing to growl at it, but had stopped biting and tearing at it. It watched the thing with angered eyes and bared fangs but seemed to come to understand that it was dead.

"It was one of those monsters, Captain," Owain said, beginning a cautious walk to circle around the wolf and make his way to the captain's side to fill him in on the situation.

Two of the other guards present looked at each other and the wolf. "Captain, we'll remove the wolf from the village," one of them said, Wrent responding with a nod. Just then, however, the wolf finally stepped away from the corpse and began walking towards Misha and Veldin.

"Misha, be careful," Wrent called out, though Misha hardly needed a warning with the wolf's pace. Veldin, on the other hand, took a step back from the wolf, panic filling his gaze as he raised a hand defensively.

"Veldin, don't," Misha said, holding her stance. She locked eyes with the wolf. "I'm sorry I hurt you before. Please leave." She knew it wouldn't understand the words but said them in the hopes her firm tone and unwillingness to back down would get across.

The wolf paused its steps and shook its head to the side after Misha spoke.

"Back away from it while keeping eye contact," Misha instructed Veldin, then said to the wolf once more, "Leave."

Again, the wolf shook its head as Misha finished speaking. Odd movement for a wolf to make. Why was it doing that? Misha almost wondered if, somehow, it was deliberate. "Are you... answering me?"

The wolf responded with a huff of breath.

Misha spotted Owain and the two night patrol guards approaching slowly, circling the wolf's sides with Wrent not far behind. The wolf noticed as well, its fur bristling up and a low growl escaping its throat.

"Wait," Misha said to the others. They paused, no doubt noticing the angered shift in the wolf's attitude, but that was not why Misha had spoken up. "Veldin, can you communicate with animals?"

"Can I - what?" Veldin said. The tone of his voice was exasperated, as if that were somehow an unreasonable demand after what else he had done tonight. His voice was farther behind Misha than before, so he must have followed her instructions to back away. "No, Misha, I have no way of communicating with animals."

"Don't be difficult now of all times," Misha muttered, and the wolf huffed once more in agreement. Or she was deciding to call it agreement, at any rate. "Fine. Wolf. Paw the ground twice if you're answering me."

The wolf did just as Misha requested, scrapping its front paw across the ground twice, and her heart nearly stopped in amazement.

"It's - it's communicating with me!" Misha announced, raising her voice more than she likely should have in this situation. Fortunately, the wolf paid the volume increase no mind and the other mousefolk exchanged confused glances.

"Communicating with... What do you mean it's communicating?" Wrent asked warily.

"Exactly that! Just - just back away a bit, please. I think you're frightening it."

"Captain?" Owain asked.

"Do as she says," was Wrent's reply. The guards slowly stepped back, regrouping with the remaining few who were present but maintaining a wary eye on the scene all the while. Several mousefolk had begun peering out of their windows, and Wrent gave an order to another guard to attend to them. No doubt everyone in the village heard that monstrosity's sounds and would need an explanation as to what was going on.

"Right," Misha said to the wolf. "We can talk, just you and me. Or would it be alright if Veldin joins us? He knows more than I do about what that creature was."

The wolf turned its gaze on Veldin who said, "Misha, do not drag me into this. Do you not remember that a wolf already attacked me once before?"

"Same wolf, Veldin."

"What -" Veldin choked back a startled sound. The wolf made some silent decision and began walking towards the outskirts of the village where it must have come from in the first place.

"Oh, wait," Misha said. She paused and looked back to Veldin. "Are you feeling well enough to help?"

Veldin narrowed his eyes at Misha. "Why are you talking to an animal?"

"Because the animal has something to say, Veldin."

Veldin sighed, one hand idly rubbing the side of his head. "Fine..."

"Good. Do a favor for me and make sure it doesn't wander off. I'm going to fetch some supplies first."

The wolf, as it turned out, was remarkably calm with the previous threat passed. Once Misha returned with her supply pouch in hand, it even allowed her to treat its wounds with elthorne leaves and bandages, though it sniffed at them and tried to chew at them.

“Leave them be,” Misha said. Her own wounds would be next, but she thought the wolf deserved this much at least. Veldin spent the whole time standing some paces away, he and the wolf locking eyes.

"I think it's glaring at me," Veldin said.

"Why would it be glaring at you?" Misha asked.

"Why would it be talking to you?"

"Hm, fair point..." The wolf was focused on Veldin, true, but it did not seem to have any anger in its demeanor. Maybe something more akin to focus? Misha was unsure. "Are intelligent animals commonplace where you come from?"

"In terms of mundane animals, no. Perhaps it's someone's overzealous choice of familiar..."

The wolf made no response to the comment.

"You seem intent on staying here," Misha mused. "Did you understand what that... that creature was?"

The wolf gave a low growl in its throat, not one that was directed at her but seemingly a way of voicing its displeasure over the creature. Misha followed up with another question, "Do you know where it came from?"

The wolf finally pulled its stare away from Veldin and turned its head out into the forest, growling and this time baring its teeth to the land beyond as it did.

"Mm-hm..." Misha hummed in thought. She wasn't completely certain she understood what had caused this wolf’s rage at the creature or why it had communicated with her in particular, but if it had any answers, then... "Veldin. I think it may be able to lead us to the shard."

Veldin was quiet for several seconds as he stared at the wolf with a serious expression. Then he finally asked, "Can you?"

The wolf huffed and stood up from the ground, walking a few steps into the forest and then stopping. It looked back at the pair expectantly.

"Not just yet," Misha added. "We need to prepare first - can you wait here until morning?"

The wolf exhaled almost like a sigh and laid back down once more, licking some of its bandaged wounds. Misha nodded, said once more, "Don't chew the bandages," and turned back to Veldin. "It seems we have a lead."

"It seems so," Veldin said. "Unorthodox as it may be…”

"We'd better head back, then. And you should rest once we do."

"I'm fine. That last spell I used allowed me to grasp that creature's mind and immobilize it. Honestly, I was surprised to find it had any semblance of one at all, though it was likely simply basic survival instincts. At any rate, a spell of that nature requires immense focus and mental effort, and there was something of a backlash when it died and its mind disappeared. I was dazed, but it was nothing harmful in the long term, I assure you."

Misha was certain she followed at least half of that and nodded. "If you're sure..."

The two began walking back to regroup with the guards, though after a few steps, Veldin spoke up again. "Misha... You threw yourself in front of that mutant for my sake."

Misha glanced down at her wounds now. Several lines had been sliced through her fur, and they stung and bled, but none seemed to be particularly deep at least. She didn't want to consider what may have happened if the tendrils of that monster hadn't been forced to drop her so quickly, though. "You were in danger. And aside from that, you're the only one who knows... what exactly to do with the shards."

"Fair point. Still, you've saved me twice now, so... thank you."

Misha looked up at Veldin, but he did not make eye contact. "Did I just hear gratitude from you?”

“And you won’t hear much more with comments like that.”

Misha laughed softly, not pushing the subject any futher.

"That creature is what these shards are capable of, then?" Wrent asked, seated at his desk after things had mostly settled down for the night. A few guards had been tasked with moving the body of the mutant creature away from the eyes of the villagers, though Veldin had requested he be allowed to examine it before it was disposed of entirely. Before then, however, he opted to accompany Misha and Owain back to meet with the captain and several other guards to discuss how to proceed.

"As far as I've been able to observe, this is about what should be expected," Veldin answered. "Though I cannot say to what extent the shard can corrupt creatures."

"Sir," Misha spoke up, "I believe the wolf that aided us is intelligent, it may be able to lead us to the source of the shard."

"Intelligent..." Wrent mulled over the thought. "Its behavior was odd, I'll admit. Even just that it appeared to attack that thing at all is unusual. Perhaps it sensed something unnatural was here... You're suggesting we follow it, then?"

Misha nodded. "Yes, sir."

"And there's been no other leads aside from this?" This question was directed at Veldin.

Veldin sighed and said, "Correct. As many questions as I have about this wolf's origins or its intentions, this seems to be the only opportunity to find answers. With all due respect, once I have made my last preparations here, I intend to depart after the wolf regardless of how you choose to proceed. As ridiculous as that plan sounds..."

Wrent ran a hand over the whiskers on one side of his face. "I understand your concern... I will not be forcing you to do so on your own, however. We have stakes in this as well, I don't intend to ignore that. Owain."

"Yes, Sir," Owain stood at attention.

"We do not know where it is this wolf intends to lead us. Can I rely on you to escort our guest as far as you reasonably can?”

Owain nodded. "Of course, you can."

“Good,” Wrent said, turning his gaze to the rest of the guards. No doubt he was considering sending another person along on this task.

Misha took the chance to speak up. "Sir, if I may. I’d like to be assigned to this as well.”

Wrent's eyes met Misha's. "I understand your concern, Misha, but we are going to need experienced members of our guard on this task."

Misha said nothing, a part of her disappointed to hear that. Wrent was right, of course. But the thought of staying behind unable to help with what was happening to her own home didn’t sit right with her.

"While I respect that decision," Veldin said, much to Misha's surprise, "I feel I should point out that the wolf actively approached her out of all of us present."

"You would like her to accompany you, then?" Wrent asked.

Veldin shrugged, his demeanor calm. "That is your decision, of course. As I said, it makes no change to my plans, but it seemed worth reminding you."

Wrent thought, tapping the fingers of one hand on his desk. "Misha. Owain is your senior, you'll follow his orders."

Misha's ears raised atop her head. "Yes, sir, of course!"

"I'll keep the pipsqueak out of trouble, not to worry, Captain," Owain said with a good-natured chuckle.

Wrent looked to the others present. "I will need the rest of you here both to guard our village from any further threats as well as to help prepare for the harvest season. Are there any objections?" When no one said anything further, he continued, "Very good. Owain, you and your team are dismissed. Make any preparations you need to. We'll maintain a watch on the wolf. So long as it doesn't seem inclined to leave without you, I'd like you all to depart at dawn."


About the author

Mai Starberries

Bio: I write things and stuff.

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