Arden’s heart pounded fiercely in his chest…
Arden’s heart pounded fiercely in his chest.
“August!” he yelled, yet the other guardian was nowhere in sight.
The forest was dark, completely dark. The forever night sky, without benefit of moon or stars, would have made navigating the West Woods of Atlantis difficult. The added winding web of tree roots and underbrush made it nearly impossible.
The air was still as if the forest were a living thing, holding its breath. Not even the insects dared to make a sound. Each shaky exhale seemed as loud as a dinner bell.
Arden took another backward step…and so did she.
“August!” Arden yelled again. His forehead wrinkled with worry and the extra push that he gave his voice.
“Don’t move,” came August’s voice more slight than a whisper.
“Right,” Arden breathed.
It wasn’t like there was anywhere he could go. That last step put his body against a cypress with a trunk as wide as three feet, maybe more. He pushed against it with his back. The bark dug through his thin shirt and scratched the skin beneath.
Arden held his hands out to his sides. Not that it would help. It certainly didn’t slow his heart which was beating so rapidly that it might just break through his ribs; nor did it ease the predator that anxiously sniffed the air before him.
The bark. Arden tensed, but the damage was already done. The warmth of the new scratches on his back told him what he already knew. He was bleeding. He was bleeding in the presence of a werewolf.
This was not Arden’s first hunting trip to the West Woods on the banished continent of Atlantis. In his family, every male was brought to this place at least once to hunt. It was a rite of passage of sorts. His father and brothers brought him to the woods when he was ten before the start of his formal guardian training in Elsted. Many creatures made their homes in the concealment of the woods; most of them predators. It was a place for adventurers. He remembered the excitement of that hunt.
Arden tried to latch on to that memory. Draw strength from it. Back then, they had kept to the perimeter where it was safer. Back then he was armed with a hunting rifle. Back then he was surrounded by family. Back then he wasn’t the bait.
The werewolf bent low to draw in a breath before pulling her snout up into a victorious howl. He knew this was no ordinary wolf, though it could be mistaken for one. Her light gray fur looked shiny and soft, not that he was crazy enough to reach out and touch it.
He also wasn’t crazy enough to consider changing form. The thought had occurred to him. It was tempting. Shifting into mouse form was a natural defense mechanism for his kind, the guardians. However, werewolves were known to be fast. They were certainly faster than ordinary wolves. He quickly calculated his odds and found little doubt that this particular wolf was fast enough and agile enough to catch a mouse. If he didn’t want to be a rodent appetizer, he would have to stand his ground on two legs.
He wanted to yell out at August again, but knew it wouldn’t help. August was waiting. Keira’s father wouldn’t appear until the time was right. Arden just had to hold on a little longer.
The werewolf stepped slowly toward Arden, daring him to move so that she could pounce. Her lips curled into an odd position for an animal, almost a smile.
“Don’t,” he heard August whisper.
Arden looked down and found his hand unconsciously wrapped around the dagger at his side. Instinct. He had pulled it to the ready without even realizing, a result of his training. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard before dropping it to the ground. Keeping it in his hands was too much of a risk. If he harmed this beast, even unintentionally, that would be the end of it. They had exhausted their other leads. This was their Hail Mary pass.
He looked up through the sandy blonde bangs that had fallen in his eyes, and was surprised to see that the wolf was no longer watching him. She must have heard August. Her ears pricked up in alert. Her eyes searched over the dark grounds. The wolf picked up and put down her paws anxiously as if pacing in place. She was ready to bolt.
Arden pulled two fingers across the wetness on the back of his shirt. He placed the blood-smeared hand in the air. “Here, girl.”
It was enough to shift the beast’s attention back to him. Yellow eyes flashed as she lunged.
Arden ducked to the side, but he wasn’t quick enough. The beast caught his leg. The two toppled onto the ground. Arden rolled. His hands held strong against the beast’s shoulders as her jaw snapped at him. Each snap came dangerously close.
“Now,” he yelled.
He could hear August rustling through the brush. At least, he hoped it was August.
Another snap of the beast’s jaws closed, this time just an inch or less from his nose. Arden choked on the wolf’s hot breath laced with the stench of rancid meat. His elbows locked on the werewolf’s shoulders. His arms shook. He wouldn’t be able to hold her off much longer.
“August,” he yelled again, but as he did he realized why his partner had not come. Arden was in the wrong place.
He mustered all his remaining strength to push the werewolf up, bringing his foot in for a hard kick to the beast’s abdomen. The wolf tumbled to the side with a whine.
Arden rolled to his stomach, to make a run for the tree. Before he could get to his feet, she was back. Her fangs slid into the skin of his right arm as easily as if it were a juicy peach. Saliva dripped from the corners of the beast’s mouth and ran down his arm mingling with the blood that freely flowed from the bite. A groan broke free from Arden’s lips as he was dragged forward toward the tree.
The wolf stopped suddenly. She shivered once. Took two more steps, then stopped again.
When she loosened her grip, Arden was ready. He pulled in his arm and scrambled out of the way just before the web of metal mesh landed on the werewolf.
August jumped down from the tree, landing adeptly between Arden and the wolf. He let loose a third dart from his tranquilizer gun.
Arden sat up with a groan. “Finally,” he grumbled as he surveyed the bite marks in his arm.
The wolf let out a whine.
“You,” August replied offering him a hand up. “You were in the wrong place. Under the tree. That was the plan. I could shoot twenty darts into her, and she would still come after you. We had to get her under the silver net.”
“I remember,” Arden said with a lift of his brow. “I just didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.”
“Amateur,” August smiled. “I wasn’t going to let her eat you.”
Arden tipped his head, looking down at his arm, then back up to August with a ‘really’ look plastered across his face.
“Well, I wouldn’t have let her devour you,” August clarified. “Walk it off, that’s just a love bite.”
He pulled Arden to his feet, and the two guardians stood over their prize. The wolf convulsed uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong? Did we…” Arden started to ask.
“She’s fine,” August answered. “At least, she will be. This is how they change. She’s coming back to human.”
Arden was surprised that he had not recognized it for what it was. After all, he knew the process of the werewolf’s change from wolf to human and vice versa. He had even been tested on it in class.
Then again, seeing it happen on the ground in front of him was quite different from reading about it. For one thing, the change was much more violent than the books described. He remembered one of his textbooks that defined it as a tremor that took control of the werewolf’s body. The reality was more. This wolf thrashed on the ground wildly. The change seemed painful, especially under a blanket of silver. Her eyes locked on Arden’s as if silently pleading for mercy.
“Are you sure she’s the one?” Arden asked. “Maybe,” he hesitated, “maybe we should remove the net. Give her a chance to breathe.”
“You listen to me. You remove that net, and you’ve as good as killed us both. This is the Whisperer’s companion.”
“How could you know?”
Arden’s question was cut off by the beautiful woman that now sat where the wolf had once been. She didn’t seem to take a breath as a steady stream of expletives, effortlessly alternating between English and Spanish, rolled off her tongue.
Arden took a step back, and August laughed to himself.
“Augoost!” she screamed. “How dare you? Free me now!”
“Calandra, you’ve already taken a pound of flesh from my boy here. I’m not in any hurry to let you go,” August replied.
She sucked in a deep breath between gritted teeth. Her skin was already starting to redden where the silver threads of the mesh touched it. Realizing that charm may be a better approach, her furious eyes softened. She rolled her shoulders back, puffed her lips out, and looked up to the youngest of her captors.
“Little one, you must understand that I am predator. Nature made me dis way. What monster could not resist a babe lost in dee woods?”
“That was the plan,” Arden said.
Calandra’s eyes narrowed on the two guardians.
August cleared his throat, “We need to speak with him.”
She laughed. It was a vivacious laugh; one more fitting in a dinner party than a standoff in the woods.
“Oh, Augoost, you of all should remember that he speaks with no one.”
“You know her?” Arden asked incredulously.
August lowered to a knee so that he was eye-level to the werewolf woman. He lifted the edge of the silver mesh and passed a simple cotton tunic with long sleeves beneath it.
“August?” Arden insisted.
But August ignored him. Instead he watched as the werewolf woman snatched the clothes greedily from his hands. The collar of the tunic pulled easily over her head and offered her protection from the irritation of the silver. She patted the cloth down her arms before returning August’s staring gaze.
“Augoost, why after all dees years? You will not find him.”
“We won’t have to,” August added, breaking his gaze and standing up with apparent impatience. “He’ll find us. That is why we have you.”
“You don’t have me,” she smiled a wicked smile. “You never had.”
He turned on her. “Callie, that’s enough, it’s my daughter… ”
The smile faded from her face. Her eyes held on August.
“The child of sun and moon? This is why I told you to stay away from dee humans. No good ever comes of it. Ever.” Her hands flew in the air and pushed at the net as she huffed. “Take dis off of me, and I will help you.”
“I don’t trust you,” Arden stepped in.
“You are but a child. Every child is afraid of dee big bad wolf,” she waved his comment away.
“And you?” she looked to August. Long, dark lashes lifted slowly as her eyes moved up his body. “Do you trust me after all dees years?”
Arden watched August’s face, but the older guardian just stared at the woman. His expression gave away no inclination to answer.