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 Post subject: Instinct [Story][Public]
PostPosted: Sat Feb 03, 2018 12:39 pm 
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Joined: Sep 22, 2013
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Instinct
by RavenoftheBlack
Status: Public :diamond:
Word Count: 11,847


Daneera watched.


In the shadow of the underbrush, she crouched silently, her eyes constantly flicking from the perimeter of the clearing to the singular creature at its center. Apart from that infinitesimal movement, and the controlled expanding and contracting of her chest, the forest mage did not move a muscle. She could feel the cool breeze pushing against her face; she had been sure to stay downwind from the clearing. The branches of the bush scraped her skin, but it was tough, and Daneera did not care. She could feel tiny insects crawling over her legs, but she knew them all by the feeling alone, and knew they posed no danger. Her concentration, therefore, was focused almost entirely on the clearing.


There, near the center, was a large wolf. She was lying on her side, breathing heavily. Daneera could see the wolf’s heartbeat as the dark gray fur rose and fell like the skin of an elven drum in the dim moonlight. There was a soft rustling in the brush opposite Daneera, and the huntress subtly but immediately tightened her grip on the knife, which was hanging from her belt. A few of Daneera’s heartbeats later, and several more of the wolf’s, and she relaxed slightly. It had only been the wind. Outwardly, the wolf seemed unconcerned with the bushes or with anything else around her, but Daneera knew different. She could sense the worry in the beast’s heart.


Suddenly, the wolf shuddered, and Daneera tensed again. It was almost time. As calmly as she could, Daneera began gathering mana from the Bladǎri Forest around her. She would need every advantage she could get in speed and strength if she were to succeed. She had been following the wolf for days, passing up small game as she tracked the creature. Its movements had been purposeful, but desperate, and ultimately, too slow. The forest mage’s fingers tightened around her knife’s handle as she prepared her auras for activation. The mana was gathered, the enchantments ready, and all she needed was a thought, and she would be moving.


Then the wolf cried out.


Time seemed to slow as Daneera watched the mother wolf birth her first cub. The huntress clenched her jaw. Ordinarily, the wolf would have settled into her den, with her entire pack pacing like sentinels out front. But that was no longer an option. Four days earlier, the wolf pack had been set upon by an aggressive pack of Marsh Panthers and been decimated. Daneera had stumbled on the scene a few hours later, and had been, and still was, deeply bothered by it. For one thing, panthers were solitary creatures by nature, and it was strange to see several of them coordinating an assault on the wolves. But for another, the wolf mother, who the forest mage called Shuru, had long been a friend of Daneera’s.


Shuru cried out again as the second pup came, and this time, the noise was answered from the brush to Daneera’s right. The huntress was moving even before she consciously heard the sound of the Marsh Panther breaking from the trees. The big cat was fast, and charging directly at Shuru, but Daneera’s spells made her faster. The cat was massive, far larger than an average panther on other planes, and was bearing down on the wolf and her newborn cubs, but Daneera, thanks to the strength of the forest, was stronger.


The panther leapt at Shuru before it even saw the planeswalker sprinting to intercept. Just as the cat realized a human was in the clearing, Daneera launched herself shoulder first into the panther’s side, knocking it to the ground and away from the wolves. The cat recovered from the blow quickly, rolling against the impact and springing back to its paws. It dropped into a predatory crouch, and Daneera could see a faint yellow glow in its eyes, but the huntress was already on it. She charged at the creature, rolling over its head and plunging her long knife into its flank. The panther roared in pain and fury, and spun around on Daneera, but she was too strong, and she held on, using the cat’s momentum to pull it down to the grass. The panther rolled over the knife, and as it struggled to reclaim its feet, Daneera twisted the blade, causing the cat to yelp and falter. Moving almost quicker than the eye could catch, Daneera pulled the knife from the beast’s side and inserted it, with all her enhanced strength, into its throat. The panther continued to struggle for a few moments, but it did not last long. Daneera was already cleaning off her blade as the panther slumped to the ground and died.


The forest mage breathed a sigh of relief as she allowed her auras to fade. The wolf pack had killed two of the great cats in the initial attack, and a third had died shortly thereafter of wounds inflicted. Daneera had managed to kill the fourth with a trap yesterday, and this massive beast, clearly the alpha, had been the last. The wolves were all dead, all save for Shuru and her newborn cubs, and now so were the cats. What bothered Daneera, though, was the reason. In all her years in forests, she had never seen panthers behave this way. They had eaten very little of the meat from the wolves they had killed, and seemed more intent on hunting down the survivor than eating or claiming territory.


Daneera shrugged, sheathed her knife, and slowly approached Shuru. The mother wolf looked up at the huntress, but made no move to stop her. Daneera had always had a certain rapport with beasts of the forest, and she was able to make friends with them with remarkable ease. Shuru had been a friend of Daneera’s since the wolf was a cub, as Shuru’s mother had been before her. Still, a wolf’s maternal instinct to protect her cubs from anything and everything was one that could circumvent even a life-long friendship. So, Daneera was careful to approach the wolf from the direction furthest from the already nursing cubs. In this instance, her caution was unnecessary, because as she reached out to scratch Shuru’s head, the mother wolf licked at her hand gratefully and invited her to sit.


For the next several hours, Daneera sat with Shuru’s head in her lap as the wolf gave birth to the rest of her litter. There were six in all born, and Shuru was understandably exhausted after the ordeal. As the planeswalker watched the wolf cubs in their first few moments of life, she found herself, inexplicably, thinking about Lem, the child-king of Lefkos. She had first met the boy when she had fallen, wounded and dying, onto his plane. His family, then just simple villagers, had cared for her and helped heal her, and Lem, with his youth and innocence, had left a lasting imprint on Daneera. Later, when she had fought to free Lefkos and the other planes of the Wheel from the Dual-Walkers, it was the primal need she felt to protect the child as much as anything else that had kept her going.


There had been a feeling Daneera got when Lem had hugged her, so earnestly, honestly, and innocently, that she had never been able to completely shake. Daneera preferred to think of herself as just another of the forest’s creatures. She was strong, cunning, and self-reliant. She knew what could be eaten and what couldn’t, where it was safe to sleep and safe to hunt. She could tell which areas of the forest should be avoided merely by the sounds of the birds, or the scents hanging in the air. Her skill as a tracker and a huntress, along with her magic, placed her high on the food chain in Dominia’s jungles, but Daneera just saw herself as another part of that system.


As she looked down at Shuru’s exhausted form, she thought about how alike they were. Shuru was strong, the strongest female of her pack, which of course was why she bore the litter. She was intelligent, too, and fiercely loyal, both to her pack and to Daneera. She survived things that other wolves had not, and had now seen her entire world torn away from her, much as Daneera herself had when her Spark ignited. And now, Shuru had a litter of cubs, little wolves who would grow strong in the forest, and who would forever be connected to her in a way Daneera had never truly thought about before this very moment. Daneera felt something on her cheek, and she found herself momentarily confused, as it did not feel like any insect she was familiar with. When she reached up to brush the bug away, she was surprised to discover that it was a teardrop rolling down her face.



~~~~~~


The Bladǎri Forest was massive, covering hundreds of miles and housing myriad settlements of any number of races. When Daneera visited the plane of Morvata, she rarely found any reason to go anywhere but the expansive forest. Of those who made a home in the Bladǎri, the Krash Elves were the ones Daneera was most likely to deal with. They lived in tightly packed villages built in wooden tiers out of the forest herself. The planeswalker respected them immensely for their strength, and skill in woodsmanship, and she had earned their respect by demonstrating the same. The Krash Elves were surprisingly social for elves, and would gladly treat and trade with anyone. However, despite this amiability, they only mated with other Krash.


The inner woods were controlled by the Fae Courts, wherein the nobility of the faerie folk fought an endless, subtle civil war of intrigue, deception, and betrayal while the rest of the Fae went about their lives and tried to have fun, usually at the expense of the rest of the forest. It was dangerous to trust a Fae, and Daneera mostly avoided them. Mercifully, the Fae only ever seemed interested in their own games, and the cutthroat intrigue of the Courts rarely spread beyond the wooden walls of their magical cities.


There were also numerous, autonomous human settlements throughout the Bladǎri, usually near the outskirts of the forest. The humans of Morvata were a superstitious lot, but mostly harmless unless provoked into action. When Daneera had first come to the plane, she had considered them weak, assuming that they refused to venture deeper into the forest out of fear of the predators there. However, she came to know that the outskirts of the woods were just as dangerous, as these human towns were frequently raided by forces from the plains to the east and from the mountains to the northwest. The humans of Morvata were strong, and unlike those of so many other planes, resisted the impulse to prove it.


And so, after Daneera had helped Shuru and her newborn cubs back to their den and helped secure it from future predatory threats, it was to the nearest human settlement that Daneera journeyed. The town of Zǎri was large by Morvatan standards, though most other planes would consider a town of only a few hundred to be quite small. For Daneera, almost any town was too large, but she was hunting now, and she had to go where the prey was. Zǎri was about five days from the wolf’s den, and Daneera made the trek slowly, giving herself plenty of time to think as she went. Eventually, though, the Bladǎri began to thin out, and Daneera found herself at the makeshift wooden walls of Zǎri.


When Daneera arrived there early in the morning, the large gate stood open and unguarded. Based on Daneera’s admittedly limited experience with the human towns of Morvata, this was pretty common, at least during the day. At night, the gate would be shut tight and volunteers would take turns patrolling the walls for any sign of danger. The Bladǎri Forest was no place for complacency. Predators stalked the trees, and while most of the beasts generally preferred the deeper woods, there were other, less mundane creatures that were known to terrorize the settlements. Packs of feral brushwaggs roamed the tree line, and could be dangerous when rabid. Vampirism and lycanthropy were both known to the Bladǎri, and even the occasional hydra was known to attack towns if hungry or provoked.


As Daneera strolled unchallenged down the main dirt road, she could feel the eyes of the townsfolk turn to her. She ignored them. She was a stranger in town, and while strangers were far from unknown, they were still uncommon. Still, any stranger coming into town must certainly have travelled a good distance to be there, and a stranger arriving alone usually meant that they had travelled alone, which was enough to raise a few eyebrows in Zǎri. For perhaps the first time in her life, though, Daneera was hoping to raise some eyebrows.


Daneera went to the trading post first. She rarely carried any money with her. It was an unnecessary burden, she felt, especially considering that each culture even on any given plane used different coinage, and trading them off-world was virtually impossible on many planes. They also tended to make noise, which did a huntress no favors in the deep woods. So, as a general rule, Daneera never kept coins on her. What she needed could be obtained from the forest, in most cases. Here, though, she would need some, and so she had brought with her animal pelts from her various hunts, which the human settlements were always eager to trade for.


The man running the trading post was fast approaching old age, and Daneera paid him little attention beyond the business of the trade. After a few minutes of haggling for price, Daneera reemerged onto the streets of Zǎri with a pouch full of the local currency, whose name Daneera had already forgotten. She strongly suspected that the old man had cheated her out of the true value of the pelts, but she didn’t care. She had enough for what she wanted, and anything more would be wasteful anyway.


The planeswalker’s second stop was a small establishment called the Sowrd and Stallion, the local inn. Daneera assumed it had been a misspelling on the sign, as she knew that many people in Morvata could not read or write, but the inn’s owner clearly pronounced it “sow rd” when she greeted Daneera. The huntress overlooked the matter, and rather went about the business of renting a room with a hot bath. It had been a long time since Daneera had had a hot bath, and she was eager to indulge in one of the few benefits of civilization that she actually missed.


The innkeeper began boiling her water immediately, and within the hour, Daneera was enjoying her bath. She washed herself thoroughly, scrubbing off the dirt and grime of the forest as best she could. She paid particular attention to her long, dark hair, which usually suffered for her lack of attention to it. When she was finished, she moved on to her clothes, which she typically only washed when the smell began to alert prey that she was hunting them. She scrubbed them in the lukewarm water until they were clean enough for her tastes, and then she scrubbed them for another few minutes, just to be sure. When she was done, the water was dark and littered with dirt and twigs from the forest floor.


After she had dried her clothes and herself as much as possible, she ventured out into Zǎri once again, this time with no real destination. She was scouting, watching the people as they went about their daily lives. She saw children playing with one another and with their mothers, which made her smile until she forced herself to stop. She analyzed everything with the eyes of a predator. Some were too old, others too young, and still others too weak. She allowed herself to trust her instincts, as she had done since first finding a forest. Eventually, she knew, it would lead her to her prey.


In time, Daneera found herself walking by the blacksmith’s shop. She had been hearing the rhythmic sound of the hammer striking iron for some time, and her body had decided it was time to investigate. The shop itself was a small building with a limited selection of metalwork run by a woman about Daneera’s age, or perhaps a few years older. At the side of the shop, however, was the forge, and there the huntress caught sight of something a bit more interesting. Standing at his anvil was a large man, well over six foot tall, pounding a woodcutter’s axe into shape. He worked with total concentration, allowing Daneera to study him for some time.


The man was shirtless as he worked in the heat-choked forge. He was heavily muscled, with thick, rough biceps flexing with each strike of his hammer. He was slim for his size, but not unhealthily so. His chest was large and his shoulders wide, nearly half again as wide as Daneera’s. His body moved with a fluid and practiced precision as he shaped the axe’s blade against the unmoving anvil. Daneera looked him up and down, watching every slight motion of his body with a carefully discerning eye. The edge of her mouth curled upward in appreciation. He was strong.


The forest mage took one step toward the blacksmith, but as she did, the side door of the shop opened and the woman stepped outside. Careful not to surprise the man, she walked up behind him and touched him on the shoulder to let him know she was there. He turned to her and smiled, setting aside his hammer and the axe blade before pulling the woman in for a kiss full on the lips. Daneera frowned. A moment later, the woman noticed Daneera standing there and pulled away, causing the blacksmith to look her direction, as well. The woman forced a smile. Daneera didn’t.


“I’m sorry,” the woman said, smoothing out her dress. “Is there something we can help you with?”


Daneera’s hand was on the handle of her knife before she knew what she was doing, her instinct moving her body for her. As the blacksmith and his wife watched in confusion, Daneera drew the blade and held it out. “Do you sharpen knives?”


The man and woman glanced at one another before the blacksmith nodded. “Of course. I can do that straight away for you.”


Daneera walked over to him slowly and purposefully, then handed him the blade.


The blacksmith nodded. “Won’t be a moment,” he said, then pulled his thumb back instantly from the knife’s blade. “Wait, this thing is sharp as anything!”


Daneera tried to make a show of looking surprised. “It is? I’d have thought it’d be dull by now.”


The blacksmith frowned and handed the knife back to her. He was just about to speak when another man’s voice called from around the corner. “You here, Steris?”


“Back here!” The blacksmith leaned away from Daneera as he called back to the speaker. A moment later, a man appeared. He was a bit shorter and less muscular than the blacksmith, and he was fully clothed, although his clothes were torn and dirty, as if he had been out in the woods for days. His dark hair was wild, and his eyes were deep gray, and watchful. A few days’ worth of stubble darkened his already tanned features. Although smaller than the blacksmith in every apparent way, Daneera sensed in him a primal strength that she rarely sensed outside of the forest.


The man looked Daneera’s way for a moment and hesitated, then forced himself to turn back to the blacksmith. “How’s my axe, Steris?”


“Good, Kerik, good. I just need to cool it. Wait for a minute?”


Kerik simply nodded, then turned to Daneera. “Are you waiting, too?”


Daneera shrugged. “Just browsing, hoping to find something I want.”


“Any luck?”


“I think so.”


The man smiled a tight-lipped smile. “I don’t come into town often. Are you newly arrived here?”


Daneera nodded. “Just this morning.”


Kerik smiled. “Come up from the plains, then?”


“No, I came from the southwest.”


“Through the Bladǎri?” He asked, cocking his eyebrows. “That’s a hard road. Caravan? Hunting party?”


Daneera just shook her head and gave a small smile. Kerik laughed.


“Impressive.”


“What about you? You said you don’t come into town often, so the Bladǎri must not be a stranger to you, either.”


“Not a stranger?” Kerik repeated, then laughed again. “You could say that. The Bladǎri and I know each other quite well. I’ve got a small cabin three days west of here.”


“Three days?” Daneera said. “That far?”


Kerik’s smile faded just slightly and a strange look passed his eyes, but he seemed to shake it off and look back at the forest mage. “Yeah. That far.”


Daneera nodded. “I’ve never been much for towns either.”


“Oh, I like Zǎri just fine. I just…”


“Blade’s ready, Kerik,” the blacksmith interrupted.


The man nodded and took a step toward Steris. Then he stopped, and glanced back at Daneera. “Well, it was nice to meet you, miss…”


“Daneera.”


“Daneera,” Kerik repeated. “I’m Kerik.” He glanced back at the blacksmith, who was waiting impatiently.


“You say your cabin is west of here?”


Kerik, surprised, stammered “yeah.”


“Due west?”


“More or less.”


Daneera nodded, smiled, and then walked away. She debated leaving Zǎri immediately, but she had already paid for her inn room, and she thought that she might as well get one night’s sleep in an actual bed before venturing back into the Bladǎri. She walked slowly back to the Sowrd and Stallion, already visualizing her mental map west out of Zǎri.



~~~~~~


Four days later found Daneera crouching in the bushes just outside of a crude log cabin situated at the southern edge of a small, man-made clearing. Finding Kerik’s cabin had not been particularly difficult for the forest mage. She had left Zǎri moments after dawn that next day. She would have left earlier, but the volunteer townsfolk had adamantly refused to open the gates before sunrise. Once they finally did, Daneera had taken off after Kerik, who she had learned had left the previous evening.


The man’s tracks had been easy to follow for the first day or so. The town of Zǎri was located at the edge of the forest, and the trees and underbrush of the Bladǎri were thin enough for the experienced tracker to follow Kerik’s path easily. As night fell on their first day, however, the tracks became less clear, and the forest thicker. At first, Daneera had tried to press onward, but between the darkness and the terrain, it became impossible, and she decided to rest for the night.


Daneera had started out the next day frustrated. Kerik’s tracks had seemed to completely disappear. At first, she assumed she had merely lost the trail in the darkness, but she was able to backtrack and find them again, only to lose them in the same place. It was as if the man had vanished into the brush completely. Daneera must have searched for over an hour before giving up on tracking the man, and simply started moving west on her own. Kerik’s tracks, owing to the nature of the forest landscape, had not had a consistent direction at all times, but they were pointing generally towards a spot that Daneera’s honed sense of direction assumed must be his cabin. She, therefore, just trusted her instinct to lead her there.


For the next day and a half, Daneera saw no sign of Kerik. There were no tracks, no snagged pieces of cloth, not even a suspiciously broken twig. The man seemed to move through the forest at least as well as Daneera herself did, something that merely made the tracker all the more determined to find him. If he had survived on his own in the Bladǎri Forest, he must have been strong, and if he was able to hide his tracks completely, even from a forest mage, he must have been clever. Daneera smiled as she made her way westward. Her instinct told her that he was a very worthy prey.


She had finally picked up his tracks again as evening began to fall on the third day. Just as suddenly as they had vanished, they appeared again. Daneera assumed that she must be getting closer to his cabin, and that he was no longer being cautious. A part of her questioned why he felt the need to cover his tracks in the first place, but the Bladǎri was a dangerous place, and if Kerik lived there, he likely knew it even better than she did. Darkness had fallen shortly after she regained the trail, and so she made camp one more time and set out early the next morning.


It had not even reached midday when Daneera found the clearing, and she crept up on it silently, watching for anything unusual. There was no sign of anyone outside, but Daneera was in no hurry to rush into an unfamiliar place without warning, and so she waited and watched, crouched in the bushes on the eastern end of the clearing. Shortly after noon, Kerik emerged from the cabin and stretched. He must have been sleeping late into the day. He was clean-shaven now and shirtless, his chest and abdomen hairy and compactly muscled. Daneera smiled.


After a few moments of standing in the sunlight that filtered down into the clearing, Kerik moved to the northern edge and began chopping wood. Daneera watched him closely as he worked, mentally comparing his technique of bringing the axe up and back down to that of the blacksmith with his hammer. She found herself nodded in approval. Kerik worked with no wasted motion, lifting the axe only far enough to get the swing he needed to cleave the wood he was chopping. He stooped to remove the chopped wood and replace it with a new piece in the same motion. Daneera found herself surprised by how much she enjoyed watching him.


Eventually, Kerik seemed satisfied with his work, and moved back toward his cabin. He was drenched with sweat, which glistened on his body in the sunlight. He brought his axe with him, running a thumb along its blade. Daneera recognized it as the same axe blade that she had seen Steris the blacksmith working on for him. Judging from the ease with which Kerik had split the wood, it was apparently a fine piece of craftsmanship. As Kerik was approaching the side of his cabin, he stopped suddenly and threw his head to one side, looking away from where Daneera crouched. He stood motionlessly for a long moment, and Daneera slowed her own breathing to try to hear whatever it was Kerik had heard. A moment later, though, the man just shook his head and disappeared behind the far corner of the cabin.


Daneera kept her breathing controlled as she looked around the clearing, trying to see or hear anything that might have been out of place. She wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. The forest had been strange lately. The Marsh Panthers attack on Shuru’s wolf pack had been the latest, but she had noticed other strange behaviors in the beasts of the Bladǎri. Something bizarre was happening in the forest, and Daneera had no idea what it was. But if it had come to Kerik’s cabin, Daneera was determined to give it a fight it would never forget.


Suddenly, Daneera’s instinct for self-preservation flared, and she ducked to her left just as a woodcutter’s axe flew through the air and imbedded itself into the trunk of the tree behind her. Without even thinking about it, the forest mage brought her primary auras to life, but even as the strength and speed rushed through her body, she realized that she had overreacted. The axe was higher than her head had been, and a bit off-center. It had not been meant to kill her, only to serve as a warning. Slowly, Daneera stood up and pulled the axe free, a feat that would have been nearly impossible without her enchantments.


Holding the axe in one hand, Daneera stepped out of her cover and forced a smile. Kerik, standing near his door, visibly relaxed even as a look of confusion crossed his face. Daneera began walking toward him, moving as slowly as she could.


“You just got this axe,” she said. “It would really be a waste to chip the blade already.”


“Daneera?”


“Kerik.”


Daneera stepped close to the shirtless man, and then offered the axe back to him. He reached out to take it with his right hand as he scratched the back of his head with the other. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t exactly expecting visitors.”


“I was in the neighborhood, and thought I should stop by.” She lowered her head slightly, looking upward at him. “I hope you don’t mind.”


“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But I don’t think I’d call this a ‘neighborhood.’ And I don’t see many people just happening by.”


“Well,” Daneera said, “I don’t know if I’d say I had just happened by. This place isn’t exactly along the beaten path.”


“Yeah,” Kerik agreed. “I’m impressed you were able to find it. I mean, all I said was ‘west.’”


“’Due west, more or less,’” Daneera corrected, then turned her back to him to face east toward Zǎri. “Actually, you’re a bit south of due west.”


As she turned around, Kerik chuckled. “I thought you were just making conversation. I didn’t realize you wanted me to draw you a map.”


“I didn’t,” she said. “Maps are for people who can’t find their own way. I’ve never needed them.”


“Me, neither,” Kerik said.


They stood there for a long time then, an awkward silence building between the two of them. Neither really seemed to know what to say, and neither was entirely comfortable, but neither one moved to leave. When conversation did come, it came in fits and spurts, but each time, it seemed to get easier for them. They spoke about the forest, about the hunting and the game, about nearby sources of water and traps Kerik used to catch rabbits. Kerik spoke only briefly about his childhood in Zǎri, and Daneera spoke vaguely about where she had come from, knowing Kerik could not know anything about it.


Eventually, they shared a simple meal of dried meat and berries. They sat on the grass in front of Kerik’s cabin and chatted while they ate. Occasionally, Daneera’s brown eyes would find Kerik’s gray eyes and both of them would pause before returning to the meal and then the conversation. Every so often, Daneera would catch herself smiling at Kerik, and she found herself enjoying catching him smiling back at her. The meal passed by like the conversation beforehand, and slowly, the hours slipped away.


Finally, during another long pause in their conversation, Kerik glanced up toward the sky. “It’ll be getting dark soon,” he said.


Daneera nodded. “Were you thinking of offering me shelter for the night?”


Kerik smiled, but that smile quickly faded. He furrowed his brow as if thinking about something, but finally shook his head. “I don’t think so, Daneera.”


“Oh?”


“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes downcast. “I wish I could offer you more hospitality, but…”


He trailed off, and did not try to finish his sentence. Daneera just nodded. “I understand. We just met after all, and…”


“It’s not that,” Kerik said suddenly, then turned away from her, again refusing to speak.


Daneera shrugged. “I should check on a friend of mine anyway.” She stood up and started making her way out of the clearing.


“Daneera!” Kerik called after her, also climbing to his feet. The forest mage waited as the man trotted over to her. “Will you…I mean, would you want to…I mean…” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Will you visit again?”


Daneera couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “I will. My friend lives perhaps three or three and a half days south of here. How would it be if I visited you again in a week or so?”


Kerik nodded and smiled. “I’d like that.”


“So would I,” Daneera said before turning on her heels and disappearing back into the Bladǎri Forest, leaving Kerik scratching his head behind her.



~~~~~~


For the next two months, Daneera travelled constantly between Shuru’s den and Kerik’s cabin. The mother wolf and her cubs were always delighted to see the forest mage, and Daneera did what she could to see that they were safe in her absence. Shuru had regained her strength and was able to hunt again, but without a pack to help her or to protect her cubs, hunting was exceedingly dangerous for her. Daneera helped by setting traps around the area and showing them to the wolf, so Shuru knew to avoid them. She also hunted game and left what she could with Shuru, hoping it would be enough.


Daneera would usually spend a day or two with Shuru and her cubs before making her way back to Kerik. The distance between the two was about three days, as Daneera had guessed, but a deep ravine cut through the direct path about three quarters of a day out of Kerik’s cabin, which added about half a day’s travel to her time. Sometimes, Daneera would activate her speed enchantments to cut time off of the trip, usually when she found herself anxious to see Kerik. She found she was using the aura more and more often.


Kerik, she noticed, tried hard to be a gracious host whenever Daneera came by. The first day she visited, Kerik had been shirtless and sweaty. Each time after that, though, he had on a clean white shirt that was largely free of patches or stiches, likely his best shirt. His wild brown hair was usually wet and at least somewhat combed, and, unlike the day she had met him in town, he was always clean-shaven. He always had meat, berries, and nuts prepared for her visit, and had even constructed two crude chairs, which he set outside in the clearing. Daneera always tried to arrive before noon, because Kerik never seemed inclined to invite her to stay the night.


This reticence on Kerik’s part bothered Daneera a bit. She was growing very fond of the man, but she was concerned she was wasting her time. A month and a half had passed, and he had never even let her inside his cabin. She had asked him twice, but both times he had made some excuse as to why he would prefer to stay outside. Something seemed to bother him whenever she would bring up the issue, but he never said what, and Daneera thought it was best not to press the matter.


On her seventh visit to Kerik, however, that changed. The sky had been overcast all of the previous day, and as morning came, so did a rainstorm. Daneera was no stranger to travelling in the rain, but this was becoming a fierce downpour by the time she arrived. Kerik had already pulled his chairs inside, and he ushered her inside without a word. As soon as she stepped into the cabin, Kerik wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders and started gently rubbing, trying to help her get dry. Daneera, despite herself, leaned into him and let him work. It was the first time she could remember, apart from the hugs Lem had given her, that she had truly enjoyed the touch of another person.


As Kerik tried to dry her off, Daneera looked around his cabin. It was a simple structure, essentially a single room, although it was divided by wooden partitions to create a few different areas. In one of these areas was a small basin used for washing, and in another was a straw bed. In a third, there was a crude and empty bookshelf, which caught Daneera’s attention. A consummate tracker, Daneera immediately noticed that the bookshelf had been moved against the far wall recently.


Kerik turned her around to face him then and, as he was rubbing her arms through the thick blanket, he leaned in and kissed her. Caught off guard, Daneera did not react, and after a moment, Kerik pulled back.


“I’m sorry,” he said, stepping and looking away from her.


Daneera shrugged the blanket off and approached him. “I’m not,” she said, pulling his head downward to kiss him again.


The rain stopped two or three hours before sundown, and Daneera started back toward Shuru’s den. As she always did, she asked Kerik if he wanted her to stay, and like always, he agonized over the choice before telling her no. Still, Daneera left the cabin happy. She was making progress, and though her prey was elusive, she found herself surprised by how much she enjoyed the hunt.


When she arrived back at Kerik’s a week later, he was wearing a dark gray shirt and new trousers, both of which must have been purchased within the week. He smiled warmly as she approached and invited her inside immediately. The place looked virtually identical, except on his crude wooden table, he had a loaf of store-bought bread, a block of cheese, and a bottle of wine. Apparently, he had left the morning after she had and travelled back to Zǎri to trade the rest of his furs for these supplies.


They ate together, sharing the food, the wine, pleasant conversation, and frequent glances. After they had finished eating, there was a long silence between them before they went to each other. They shared a certain hesitancy, at first, and then a primal passion, and in the end, a long embrace. A few hours before sundown, Daneera prepared to start her trek back to Shuru’s den when Kerik turned to her. His expression seemed almost pained.


“I wish I could ask you to stay, Daneera.”


She cocked her head to one side. “Then why don’t you?”


Kerik closed his eyes tight. “I…I’m afraid to. I’m afraid of what it might mean.”


Daneera crossed the room again and sat with him on the edge of his bed. She took one of his hands in both of hers. “You’ve lived alone in the Bladǎri for a long time, Kerik. You’re strong. You’re clever. If you’re not afraid of what’s out there,” she said, indicating toward the door with a shake of her head, “you shouldn’t be afraid of what’s in here.”


“It’s not the same,” Kerik said, turning his gray eyes back toward her. “Out there makes sense. There’s reason to it. There’s predator and prey. I understand that. I’m not afraid to kill to survive. I’m not afraid of death.” He squeezed Daneera’s hand. “Not mine, anyway.”


“Then what are you afraid of, Kerik?”


The gray-eyed man looked at Daneera for a moment, then turned his head away, unable to answer. Daneera nodded, pulled away, and walked to the door. As she placed her hand on the doorknob, she turned back to him.


“Well, when you figure it out, you’ll let me know, right?”


Kerik laughed. “You’ll be the first.” Daneera opened the door and walked through, and Kerik called after her. “Will you visit again, next week?”


“You ask me that every week,” Daneera said, laughing. Then she nodded. “And every week I say what I’ll say now. I’ll be here.”



~~~~~~


Daneera thought about Kerik almost constantly over that next week. All the way back to Shuru’s den, every step she took within the Bladǎri, while hunting for game, her thoughts always turned back to him. She could picture his gray eyes, feel his warmth, even hear his voice on the wind. She even dreamt of him when she slept, and wondered if he dreamt of her, as well. She usually spent a day or two with Shuru and her cubs before heading back to the cabin, but her thoughts were turning to Kerik so frequently that she couldn’t wait. She had barely been with the wolves an hour before she bid them farewell and started back.


Owing to a combination of leaving early and liberal use of her celerity auras, Daneera arrived back at Kerik’s cabin nearly a full day early. It was just past noon, and the clearing was silent and bright. Daneera walked up to the door and knocked, something she rarely needed to do. Usually, Kerik was there waiting for her. Of course, he would have been expecting her the next day, so Daneera assumed he must have been sleeping in, as he had the first day she visited him. When there was no answer, however, she tried the door and found it open.


Kerik was not inside, but that was not the only difference Daneera noticed. The bookcase had been moved from the partitioned section across the room to stand next to the door. Daneera’s chest tightened when she saw what had been behind the bookcase. Affixed firmly to the wall was a thick plate of iron. From each side of the plate were heavy chains ending in sturdy iron manacles. From the marks on the floor and on the walls, it looked as though someone or something had been chained there recently, and put up an impressive but apparently unsuccessful struggle to escape.


Daneera’s face flushed as she tried to fathom the purpose of what she was seeing. Obviously, Kerik had gone to considerable lengths to hide it from her, likely having built the empty bookcase for the sole reason of concealing the manacles. She remembered back to her first visit, when Kerik had initially seemed to want her to stay, only to think better of the idea. Was it because of this that he had decided against it? She didn’t know, but she was suddenly determined to find out. Knowing Kerik could return at any time, she quickly closed the door and returned to the trees. Remembering how Kerik had detected her that first day, she took care to disguise herself with both woodcraft and magic, and hid up in a tree, waiting for him to return and hopefully shed some light on the matter.


It was several hours before Kerik returned. He was shirtless once again, and he was carrying his axe in one hand and a shank of venison in the other. The meat was freshly killed. Kerik walked into the center of the clearing and looked upward at the sky. It was beginning to darken with the dusk. With his right arm, the one carrying the axe, he wiped off some sweat from his brow, then glanced at the shank in his left hand. He seemed to visibly sigh, then he disappeared into his cabin and shut the door behind him. Daneera watched until well after dark, but no fire was ever lit inside.


It must have been after midnight when Daneera began to hear terrible sounds from within Kerik’s cabin. She tensed instantly, preparing her auras without activating them, and watched the door. But nothing happened, just more of the strange noises. It sounded to her as though some ravenous beast was feeding, but the sound was muffled and strained. The forest mage was debating whether or not to investigate when she heard a ferocious howl, and she knew she had to move.


Daneera launched herself in a small arc toward the ground, activating her primary auras as she fell. With her speed, strength, and reflexes superhumanly enhanced, she barely noticed as she struck the ground, but rather instantly regained her feet and moved to the cabin’s door. Without waiting to announce herself, she threw the door open and took one step inside, quickly glancing around the dark interior, her sight aided by magic and moonlight.


Kerik was nowhere to be seen, but something else was. Against the far wall, manacled at the wrists, was a massive creature of muscle and fur, its lupine face buried deep in the shank of venison Kerik had been carrying earlier. At first, the creature was too distracted with its feast to notice Daneera, but after a moment, its nostrils contracted, catching the scent of even fresher prey. Slowly, it raised its head to stare at her, saliva dripping from the corners of its mouth.


“Werewolf,” Daneera breathed in disbelief. Then, it focused its eyes on her. They were deep, feral, and gray. “Kerik,” she whispered.


A flash of recognition seemed to pass over the werewolf’s face, but a moment later, it was gone, replaced with savage hunger. The venison forgotten, the creature stood to full height, perhaps seven or eight feet tall, and took a step toward the forest mage. A second step, however, brought it to the end of its chains, and that realization caused the beast to howl in inhuman rage. It flexed its massive muscles, straining to break free, but the chains held. It then switched its tactic and tried jerk them free one at a time, and while the wall behind it creaked and complained, the chains still held.


Daneera watched, motionless and speechless, as the werewolf that could only have been Kerik backed itself up with slow, purposeful steps. Still moving at a frighteningly glacial pace, the werewolf gathered up the chains in its gigantic hands. Then suddenly, it was moving, jumping up and placing both hind legs against the wall. It howled as it strained, and the strength of its legs proved greater than the strength in its arms, because this time, the iron chains snapped. Daneera’s eyes widened, and even with her speed enchantments, she was only barely able to duck out of the way as the werewolf barreled over her.


The huntress rolled to her feet just in time to dive back to the ground as the werewolf came at her. Her long knife was in her hand even before she realized it, but the blade did nothing to dissuade the werewolf’s onslaught. Nor did it have much effect on the werewolf’s thick, dark hide, as she found soon enough. As she slashed at it, the blade bounced off the lycanthrope’s arm as it would a suit of plate mail. The werewolf howled not in pain but in fury and came at her again. Daneera was fighting on pure instinct, allowing her body to guide her to relative safety that her mind would never be quick enough to see. But it was a losing battle. Without her auras, she would have been dead a dozen times by now, and even surrounded by the rich mana of the Bladǎri Forest, her enchantments couldn’t last forever.


Finally, after narrowly avoiding a wild pounce from the werewolf, Daneera was able to put a little distance between the two. As the werewolf turned around and began slowly stalking toward her, Daneera held out her arms in what she hoped it would recognize as a non-aggressive gesture.


“Kerik, it’s me. Daneera. I know it’s you in there. I know you can recognize me. Please, you have to try.”


The werewolf seemed to consider her as it slowed its approach, and Daneera thought she was getting through to Kerik. But then, in a flash, it sprang on her, slashing at her blade, which went flying into the trees. An instant later, it slashed back the other way, its claws ripping deeply into her left shoulder. The force of the impact sent Daneera spiraling downward, and her vision blurred even before she felt her back strike the ground. An instant later, she felt the werewolf’s weight on her, pinning her down. It howled loudly, then brought one muscled arm up, preparing to strike the killing blow.


Before he could, Daneera vanished in the aether and left Morvata, and Kerik, behind.



~~~~~~


Daneera found herself in an unknown forest on a plane she had never seen before, but it didn’t matter. She only stayed long enough to draw some local mana, heal her wounds, and planeswalk back to the Bladǎri. She had hoped to be able to ‘walk directly into Kerik’s clearing, but eight visits had apparently not acquainted her enough with the place to planeswalk with that kind of precision. She instead stepped out of the Blind Eternities near the mouth of the ravine that ran south of the cabin. As she made her way northward once again, she thought that it was probably for the best, as Kerik was undoubtedly still in his werewolf form, and she was in no hurry to battle it again.


She arrived back at the clearing in the early hours of the morning, where she saw Kerik, shirtless but human, kneeling over a spot on the grass, a spot stained with blood. She did nothing to disguise her approach, and Kerik turned to look as she broke through the tree line. His eyes widened as he saw her, his mouth dropped open, and he scrambled to his feet, even slipping in the morning dew as he did. In his hand, he had Daneera’s long knife, which he dropped as he ran over to her.


“Daneera!” he yelled. When he reached her, he brought his right hand up to cradle her head and slid his left arm around her waist. There were tears in his eyes. “You’re alive!” He was breathing heavily as he started to stroke her dark hair. “I thought I had…lost you.”


“Nearly,” Daneera said, bringing her hands to his and pulling them away. “You’re a werewolf, Kerik.”


Kerik’s head slumped to his chest. “I know.” He turned away from her. “I’ve always known.”


“I was afraid of that,” Daneera said with a frown.


“So was I.”


“So, do you want to tell me what happened?”


Kerik looked back at her. “You mean last night?”


Daneera nodded.


Kerik sighed and slumped down to sit in the grass. Daneera joined him. “I have no control over it, Daneera, I swear to you. My body just acts.”


“But you could see me, couldn’t you. You knew it was me.”


Kerik buried his head in his hands. “I knew,” he managed. “It’s like a dream. A nightmare, anyway. I see flashes of what’s happening. Sometimes I can smell what It smells, feel what It feels, but I never have any control. It must be how the beasts of the forest live. When It smells prey, it just goes, and it doesn’t stop.”


“That’s not what beasts do, Kerik,” Daneera said sternly. “Even they have more control than that.”


Kerik ran one hand through his hair. “You’re right.”


There was a long silence between them. Finally, Daneera continued to press. “Why didn’t you tell me, Kerik? Why just send me away every night without telling me why?”


“How could I, Daneera? The best thing that could have come from that is that you would have stopped coming. The best thing. At worst, all of Zǎri would be paying a call with pitchforks and torches.”


“I know now, and I came back.”


Kerik sighed. “I’ve done everything I can, short of killing myself, to protect you, and the people of Zǎri, too.”


“That’s why you live three days out.”


Kerik nodded. “Even as that monster, it would be impossible to make it back to town in a single night.”


“Does it happen every day?”


“No,” Kerik said with a slight shake of his head. “Sometimes I can go a week or more without transforming. Other times, it can be several nights in a row. I never know. And I have no control over it.”


“So that’s why you never wanted me to stay.”


Kerik looked Daneera in the eyes. “I always wanted you to stay, Daneera. Even that first night, I wanted you to stay. But I knew I couldn’t risk it. If I transformed when you were here, you wouldn’t be safe. This morning, when I woke up and saw your knife, and saw the blood, I…”


His voice broke, and Daneera nodded. “It was a narrow escape. You don’t remember?”


He shook his head. “I never see everything. Just flashes. I remember seeing you in the doorway. I remember you ducking underneath m…It. I remember…” he trailed off, looking at his hands.


Daneera shook her head. “So every night, you chain yourself up?”


Kerik nodded again. “Every night. I thought the chains would be enough to hold It, but I was always afraid that if It got too hungry, it might break free, so I always make sure…” his face contorted into a distasteful expression. “…that I leave some…fresh meat…for It.”


“The venison.”


Kerik nodded.


“What about when you go to Zǎri?” Daneera asked. “You said yourself that you can’t make it in a day.”


“I hope for the best,” he said simply. “Sometimes, if I can make myself calm enough before nightfall, and stay that way throughout, I can stop It from coming.”


Daneera’s head snapped up at this. “You can?”


“Sometimes,” Kerik repeated.


Daneera grinned. “That’s it, then, Kerik! That’s control!”


“What?”


Daneera climbed up to her knees and moved over to him, laying one hand on his arm and the other on his chest. “Listen, Kerik, do you trust me?”


He reached up and wrapped both of his hands around hers on his chest. “I do, Daneera. But why? What are you thinking?”


“I want to show you something,” Daneera said with a slight smile. “But stay calm, alright? We’re in no danger.”


Kerik nodded, and Daneera closed her eyes. Tapping into the primal magic of the forest, she called out to some of her friends across the multiverse, finally settling on one that might prove her point without causing too much of a stir. A sudden fog seemed to lift out of nowhere in the clearing, and then a roar cut through the morning air. Kerik shuddered, but with Daneera’s hand still pressed against him, he did not move. As the fog cleared, he saw the large, brown form of a bear staring his direction. The creature roared again, then seemed to look around, and then simply settled down in the grass, cradling its head in its strangely decorated arms.


“What is that?” Kerik asked, barely speaking above a whisper.


Daneera laughed as she stood up. “It’s a bear.”


Kerik rolled his eyes as Daneera pulled him to his feet. “I know, but, I mean, its arms…”


“Hmm?” Daneera said as she started walking confidently toward the creature. “Oh, that. It’s a Runeclaw Bear. I know there aren’t really any around here, but believe me, they’re quite common.”


The bear lifted its head slightly as Daneera reached it, but the huntress only reached down to scratch it behind the neck. Kerik approached more cautiously, but the bear made no move against him.


“Incredible,” Kerik said.


“Now,” Daneera began, “If we had just stumbled on this bear, or he on us, he would likely be attacking us right now. They tend to be very aggressive. But as you can see, this one is quite friendly.”


“Why?”


“Simple,” Daneera said as her smile widened. “Because he’s my friend.”


“Makes sense,” Kerik said flatly.


“Ever since I first stepped foot in a forest, I’ve been able to make friends with the beasts that live there. Not all of them, of course. They have personalities too, and we don’t always get along, but usually, I can.”


“Amazing.”


“Every animal has the ability to control itself if it wants to, Kerik, and every beast can be controlled.”


“So, you’re controlling it right now?”


Daneera shook her head. “I suppose some summoners think that way, but I don’t. I’m not controlling him. I’m not forcing him to do or not do anything. He’s my friend. He doesn’t want to attack me. He’s not attacking you because he knows I wouldn’t want that. It’s the same reason you’re not attacking him, and I’m not controlling you, am I?”


“Not that I know of.”


“You’d know,” Daneera said. She closed her eyes again, sent a mental thank you to the bear, and released him back into the aether, back to his home. When she opened her eyes, the bear was gone. Daneera turned to face Kerik. “This thing in you, Kerik? It’s not a thing. It’s you. You may not want to admit it, and you may not be controlling it, but it is you. And if it’s you, then you can control it.”


“Daneera,” he whispered. “You don’t understand. It’s done…horrible things.”


“You’ve done horrible things.”


Kerik shook his head. “No. I couldn’t. I didn’t. I…”


“Kerik, look at me.” After a long time, he did. “You have to say it, Kerik. You have to admit it. Just because you didn’t want to doesn’t mean you didn’t. Just because you had no choice doesn’t mean it was somebody else. If you keep thinking of this as some other thing in your body, you will never be able to control it. Say it.”


“I…”


“Say it, Kerik.”


He hung his head, but, in a barely audible voice, he murmured, “I’ve done horrible things.”


“Say it again. Louder.”


He looked up at her, his eyes flooding. With a quivering voice, he said, “I’ve done horrible things.”


Daneera nodded. “Tell me that you tried to kill me.”


“What?” Kerik shook his head. “I can’t do that.”


“You need to, Kerik. It was you. You didn’t want to, and you didn’t make the decision, but it was you.”


“Daneera, I…” he faltered, looked away, and then looked back. “Daneera, I love you! Don’t make me say that. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to hurt someone you love!”


Daneera looked away, and then looked around them. “This isn’t Zǎri, Kerik. This isn’t civilization. This isn’t about what’s right or what’s wrong. This is the Bladǎri. This is about strength. This is about survival. This is about instinct.”


Kerik turned away from her, but she continued. “You told me once that this was easy, that you understand the forest. So tell me. Tell me that last night you were the predator, and I was your prey, and you would have killed me if you had the chance.”


“I can’t!”


“If you can’t control this beast, Kerik, then I have to try to. I have to try to make friends with it like I did with that bear, and last night, it didn’t seem too inclined to make friends with me.”


Kerik looked back at her. “You would actually try that? It would kill you, Daneera!”


“You would.”


He looked away again. In a softer voice, he repeated, “you would try?”


“I’m going to try, Kerik, with or without you.” He looked back at her, shocked. “You’re my prey, you know. And I’m not letting you go just because some other predator comes sniffing around. The next time you transform, I am going to try to make a new friend. The question is, Kerik, are you just going to watch as I try to make friends with 'It,' or are 'you' going to be making friends with me?”


Kerik looked back at her and set his jaw. He wiped his gray eyes clear of tears, and then nodded his head once. “Last night, Daneera, I tried to kill you.”


Daneera moved into his arms and kissed him on the lips, hard and passionately. At first he was surprised, but then he joined in eagerly as his body responded to hers. Finally, she pulled away, and glanced up at the sky. It was still not quite noon. Daneera looked back at Kerik and smiled. “We have all day for you to make it up to me.”



~~~~~~


The next two days passed tensely for Daneera and Kerik, but no transformations occurred. They spent half of each day together, because both knew that whatever happened might be the end for at least one of them. For the other half, Daneera slept in Kerik’s bed while Kerik meditated in the forest. He was not trying to keep himself calm as he had before, however. Instead, he was trying to face the truths that Daneera had forced on him. He had spent so long trying to distance himself from the werewolf and its actions that it was difficult for him to think of the werewolf as himself. He spent his time trying to do just that.


Meanwhile, Daneera slept, because she knew that she couldn’t at night. Her instincts were honed to a razor’s edge, and when she slept out in a forest, she always trusted herself to wake up at the first indication of danger. But if Kerik’s transformation happened while he was lying next to her in bed, she doubted she would have time to react. She had never witnessed anyone transform from human to werewolf before, let alone Kerik specifically, so she had no idea what she needed to prepare for. Therefore, she slept half the day, and stayed up all night, watching Kerik sleep.


Although Kerik had wanted to, they did not attempt to rebuild the restraints in the wall. Kerik maintained that it would be safer for Daneera to attempt to befriend him in his werewolf form if he were manacled, but Daneera disagreed. She told him that when he was a werewolf, he was more beast than man, and if there was one thing that beasts hated more than anything, it was being held captive. So, while Kerik did sleep in his bed, Daneera kept the door to the cabin open, hoping to demonstrate to the werewolf that he was free to leave.


On the third night, however, everything changed. Kerik had been asleep for about two hours, and, as with the two nights previous, Daneera had merely watched him sleep from across the room. This time, though, she noticed a change. His breathing started to become more rapid, and his muscles twitched, as if straining to escape. Then he started to grow, his entire body bulging and altering its shape. Daneera forced herself to suppress her awe at the strange scene and instead stepped toward the open door. There she waited as Kerik’s skin sprouted dark fur and his face changed shape from human to wolf. Finally, the transformation was complete, and the beast opened his gray eyes, which locked instantly on Daneera.


“Hello, Kerik,” she said simply, with no trace of fear in her voice. “Join me, won’t you?”


She stepped slowly and confidently through the open door, trying to make it apparent that she was not running away. Doing so might trigger his predatory instinct, which could jeopardize everything. She took several steps out into the clearing, which was eerily lit by the pale moonlight. She waited for several long moments, keeping her breathing steady and controlled. After an excruciating wait, the werewolf began to emerge, peeling himself away from the shadows of the doorway and into the clearing. Daneera smiled.


“I know it’s you, Kerik,” she said, but the werewolf gave no reaction. “Do you recognize me?”


The werewolf growled and took a few steps toward her, moving on all four limbs. Daneera stood motionless as the beast approached her, and then began to circle. Daneera did not even bother to turn and follow the werewolf’s path even as it moved behind her. The forest mage simply focused on her breathing as she did what she always did when she tried to befriend beasts of great power. She reached out with her mind, her instinct, while demonstrating that she was not afraid. Predators do not befriend prey, but they do respect strength.


After a moment that felt very long to the huntress, the werewolf crept into her vision again as it completed a circle around her. It was closer to her now, easily close enough to make a move, but still Daneera gave no reaction. The werewolf was testing her resolve, and she was determined to not see it falter. The beast took another few steps toward her, and then moved to stand on his hind legs. Daneera could hear the deep rumbling within its throat, a primal warning, and one that Daneera had heard before. It was never a good sign.


In the soft moonlight, the werewolf reared his head back and howled as loudly as it could. Daneera shook from the force of the bellow, but not from fear. She did not allow herself the lethal luxury of fear. As the howl died down, the werewolf lowered his head back towards Daneera, as if to gauge her response. When he could sense none, the creature seemed visibly confused for a moment, but then came on even closer, bringing his lupine face so close that the forest mage could feel the warmth of his breath.


“End this, Kerik,” Daneera whispered, her face stoic and unreadable.


The werewolf’s eyes flashed, perhaps in recognition, but only for an instant. Then the gray eyes reflected only predatory dominance, and the werewolf began to growl loudly. Daneera noticed, without risking a glance, that the werewolf’s right arm was twitching, as if preparing to strike. But he did not. He merely stood there in the cool evening breeze, staring down at Daneera as she stared up at him. His animal instinct did not know what to make of her, while inside, the huntress hoped, Kerik was learning to control the beast. To control himself.


Then the werewolf moved to strike at Daneera, but the forest mage, auras already active, was faster. As the werewolf brought one massive arm up in preparation for a final slash, Daneera brought her right hand up, to rest gently against the werewolf’s chest. She felt his entire body flinch, and his arm froze in place above him. The werewolf tilted his head, as if surprised he had stopped. A part of Daneera was, too, but she refused to let it show. Instead, she put just a bit of pressure into her hand, so that she was sure the werewolf felt it, and then said one word.


“Kerik.”


Once again, something flashed in his gray eyes, but this time, it did not vanish. Slowly, the werewolf lowered his arm, bringing his massive paw to completely cover Daneera’s hand at his chest. Daneera looked up at him and smiled.


“Kerik,” she repeated, softer this time.


The werewolf lowered himself to a crouch, and brought his head in toward Daneera, nuzzling her neck and chin like a wolf would. Daneera wrapped one arm around his neck and scratched, and they stayed like that for the rest of the night, until Daneera fell asleep.


When she woke up, Kerik’s head was in her lap. The sun was just coming up. Daneera sat silently for several minutes before Kerik, human again, began to stir. When he opened his eyes, he looked up at Daneera and smiled. The huntress smiled back.


“I missed you,” she said.


“I never left.”


“I know.”


They both moved to sit up. Kerik stretched, and Daneera slid an arm around his waist. He looked at her again, his face serious. “So, what do we do now?”


Daneera looked back at Kerik’s cabin. “You could ask me to stay.”


Kerik nodded. “Will you stay?”


“Sure,” Daneera said, “if you’re going to be so insistent about it.”


Kerik laughed, but only momentarily. “Do you think it will work? You know, I mean, us?”


Daneera shrugged. “No way to know,” she said simply as two small birds broke from the tree cover, chased one another through the sky, and flew away just as quickly. Daneera smiled. “But my instinct says yes.”



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