Dominic Ashen

Secrets & Spires

Art by jabberox

Secrets & Spires

Chapter 1

“NO!” I cry out as the sword plunges into David’s chest.

He looks down in shock as the blade is removed, blood already pouring from the wound. He stumbles backward into the altar, struggling to hold himself upright, red pooling in the corners of his mouth as he tries to breathe. He collapses atop it, arm reaching out for me blindly, and I fight against my captor as the light fades from his eyes.

I cease my struggling, the fight draining out of me like the blood from David’s body. Tonight, I have been shot with arrows, poisoned, and beaten, but none of that compares to the emptiness I feel at his loss. It is as though part of me died with him. As I stare numbly at his corpse, I can hear Redwish and Murbank arguing off to the side, drawing my attention.

“What do you think you are doing?!” Murbank shouts at the other man in robes. “Now the weapon and the altar are tainted! This could ruin everything!”

“So clean it up.” Redwish turns his gaze to me, the crimson-stained weapon clattering to the ground when he drops it. He stalks over to me, a look of evil determination in his eyes as he sneers down, grabbing me by the hair roughly to look at him. “You are lucky you have not outlived your usefulness just yet. Otherwise, you would be joining your pet there on the altar.”

I do not have a retort; I wish he had killed me. Just as I resign myself to whatever fate awaits me, the sounds of thunder crashing outside the cavern grow louder and more frequent. Then the room, no, the entire mountain begins to shake, before an arc of lightning shoots down through the ceiling and strikes David’s body. It convulses on the altar before the surge of electricity is gone as suddenly as it appeared, the entire room going silent.

And then David moves.

“Impossible,” Redwish mutters on my left.

I am unsure of what he means by that, but by the time I turn to look at him, he has already fled. Turning back to David, I watch as he pushes himself off of the altar. He looks around the room briefly before silently bending over to pick up the discarded sword. His face, passive until now, twists into something filled with rage, like a wild animal. He locks eyes with one of the cult members and leaps forward. Then the screaming starts.

I wake in our tent with a start, cursing to myself quietly as I sit up. Spirits be damned. That is now the third time I have had that dream, which is every night since leaving the city. I only have myself to blame as I continue to replay the events over in my mind every night before bed. I cannot help it. I am trying to find answers. That is the entire reason I am out here.

Well, not the entire reason. Turning to my right, I look over at the real reason I am out here: David. He is on his side, facing away from me, no longer playing the little spoon now that I am sitting up. He is still asleep, and I watch his chest rise and fall, unable to prevent myself from checking that he is still breathing. I just need to be sure.

Not quite ready to return to dreamland, I watch over my avakesh as he rests, smiling to myself as I tuck a shaggy lock of black hair behind his ear. I will have to see about getting him a haircut when we reach Pákannon. Some people might find it hard to believe that I gave up my entire life to follow the human currently drooling into his pillow.

I never expected to fall in love with him or that he would love me back. After everything I did to him, I am shocked he was even able to forgive me. I understand that we were both tricked, manipulated by Redwish into accepting a fight with terms and consequences that neither of us truly understood, but to think that I would be capable of forcing myself on someone like that at all... Let us just say that I have my own reasons for wanting to hunt the man down.

David did forgive me, though, and I will not take that forgiveness for granted. Leaving everything behind to come with him was not a difficult decision at all. My best friend, Ragnar, and his boy, Nylan, were urging me to leave before I had even made up my own mind, and Brull laughed and asked if there was anything from his store I wanted to bring with me. Even my family did not seem surprised when I rushed in to announce my immediate departure. My sister Ayla was far more shocked that I was handing her the keys to my home. I really hope she is looking after it properly. Did I remember to tell her about the monthly butcher delivery?

I shake the unnecessary thoughts from my head. If there is anything important I need to tell her, I can write a letter, but there is little to be done about it now. Not only is it the middle of the night, but we are still two days away from Pákannon. We have much more important things to worry about than a delivery of meat, like namely what caused David to be resurrected in the first place. Not that we seek to undo it, of course, but learning how it happened may be the only way to discover if the spell changed anything else about him as well as ensure that he will not suffer any aftereffects.

The leaders of Pákannon, as well as some of Nylan’s family, should be anticipating our arrival. The former should have information for us, while the latter is more of a social call. I have not met Nylan’s family aside from his mother and father, but I am sure they are as hospitable as he is. And since we have been making such good time on the road the past few days, I have been able to plan out a small surprise for David and his friends. It is just a small detour to—

A sound of distress pulls me from my thoughts, and I look down to see a frown growing on David’s face with more unhappy noises following. He starts to move as though he is struggling before he finally says something coherent.

“No... Stop...” he whines as he flips onto his back, still fighting against an invisible force.

“David.” I try to gently shake him awake. “David, wake up. David.

A final shake to his shoulder finally gets him to open his eyes, fear and confusion flashing across his face. He stares blindly around the tent, and I curse myself for not remembering that he is unable to see in the dark like myself. I place my hand gently on his chest before continuing.

“It is only me, pup,” I tell him softly. “You were having another nightmare.”

“Khazak? Sir?” he asks, sounding small and afraid.

“I am right here.” I lay back down and pull my distressed boy against my chest, running my hand down his back. “You are alright.”

“ much blood...” he mumbles against my skin.

I do not need to ask what the nightmare was about. David has been relieving the events of that night himself, much more viscerally, from what I can gather. Enough to wake himself with a scream two nights ago that left him unable to return to sleep at all. Given that my trauma over the events pales in comparison to his, I have neglected to tell him of my own nightmares. I do not want to give him something else to worry about.

Thankfully, David does not appear to have any issues falling asleep again tonight. About ten minutes after waking, I feel his heartbeat slow and his breathing even out as he drifts off again against my chest. I follow him not long after, holding him close in a silent plea to fend off any more bad dreams.

I wake the next morning to a finger gently tracing the tattoo on my chest, a jagged-edged sword that is the emblem of my family, Clan Ironstorm. I open my eyes, still heavy with leftover sleep, to meet David’s, green and full of energy. I must admit, it has taken some getting used to having a bedmate who is more often than not awake before I am. Before David, the only person I knew to do that was my father, Orlun. If not for the fact that he has been like this since I first met him, I would be concerned it was a side-effect of the nightmares, but I have not yet noticed David ever appearing tired in the mornings. Aside from one near-hangover.

“Good morning.” I smile, my voice rough from disuse.

“Morning.” He gives me a shy smile in return, far shyer than he has any right to be, but damn if he does not look adorable.

“Any more bad dreams?” I ask, running my hand through his hair.

“No, Sir.” He shakes his head. “Only been up a little while.”

I relish his use of my honorific, something that is sadly more relegated to the privacy of our tent these days. As much as I miss it (and could order him to use it, should I truly desire), I understand that David is still learning to be comfortable with our relationship in front of his friends. It takes him considerable effort to work up the nerve for public displays of affection of any kind, and I can see him trying, so I feel he has more earned my patience in the “Sir” department. Besides, there are many ways to ensure he does not forget who is in charge here.

“Glad to hear it, pup.” I bend down, kissing the top of his head. “Ready for breakfast?”

“Yessir. Gotta pee!” The human quickly wiggles out of my grasp, making me laugh as he reaches for his pants.

As silly as his antics are, I am warmed by the thought that he did not want to leave the tent—and me—until I woke up. Needing to exit for the same reasons, I reach for my own pants and sling my bag over my shoulder, following David out of the tent. A brief look around reveals no one else by the fire except for Elisabeth. She had the final watch shift last night, so she has likely been awake for the last hour.

“Good morning, Elisabeth.” I wave as I head toward the forest to relieve myself.

“Good morning, Khazak.” She waves back. “And I keep telling you, it’s just ‘Liss.’”

I nod my head with a chuckle. Between Elisabeth’s request and David’s own issues around his name, I cannot help but wonder if all humans are this finicky about their names. Or perhaps it is only the Lutherians. I like Elisabeth—sorry, Liss, so it is something I will endeavor to remember. She is strong, and from what I remember of our first meeting, more than able to handle herself in a fight. She appeared to have brown hair then, but during her time as a detainee, the original red began to show at the roots. Rather than dyeing it again, she had the remaining black cut off. Her hair is shorter than mine or David’s right now.

Out of all of David’s companions, she is the quietest, though that silence belies a level of attention that some of my former colleagues would envy. I do not yet know her very well, but I have seen her reacting to sounds and motions in the trees so subtle I was sure no one but myself would notice, and she regularly scans our camp’s perimeter when the group is gathered by the fire. Having spent almost a decade patrolling the forests of my hometown of V’rok’sh Tah’lj as a ranger, I understand how important it is to always be aware of your surroundings. Even when doing the most mundane of tasks, you must remain constantly vigilant—always listening for the unexpected, looking for any potential entrances or exits, ready to react at a moment's notice. It can be exhausting, which is all the more reason to be impressed with Liss. Had she been living in Tah’lj, she would have made an excellent ranger herself.

I find David behind a tree far enough from camp to garner some privacy, exhaling in relief as he empties his bladder. I find my own tree, and when we are finished tucking ourselves away, I grab him by the shoulder before he tries to head back to camp. With a grumble, he accepts one of the toothbrushes I pull from my bag, and when we are finished with those, we use my water flask to rinse. I am not sure what his dental hygiene was like before my arrival, but I am going to ensure that neither of us loses any teeth while on the road.

“Ready for breakfast?” I ask as we return to camp.

“Always, Sir.” He rubs his stomach dramatically. “What are we having?”

“I believe there are still fish from yesterday’s catch.” Though I am planning to do some hunting later today. “I thought I would grill some of those with a few potatoes.”

Since joining, I have done the bulk of the cooking for the group. I do not mind; between what my father Rurig taught me and having spent one week a month camping in the forest for nearly a decade, I am fairly talented when it comes to cooking outdoors. However, I always make sure someone else is assisting me, doing my best to pass along my skills to the rest of them. There are more important things for me to do on this journey than act as the group chef.

“Aww, you’re not gonna pull out any of the good stuff?” David frowns while looking at my bag.

The “good stuff” he is referring to are the contents of my spacious satchel. Thanks to its magical properties, it can not only hold much more than it appears, but it also places every item inside into a form of stasis, allowing for the storage of things like meat or fresh fruit, items that would normally spoil if left out. Before I left the city, I emptied the contents of my icebox and pantry into my bag. I had only just gotten a delivery from the butcher a few days prior to leaving: beef, venison, and the item that David is most likely referring to—bacon.

Having made my decision to leave rather hastily, I knew time was of the essence, so I grabbed the meat, vegetables, spices, and anything else edible that I could find. I even brought my enchanted kettle, a pleasant surprise for everyone on our first morning together. But with my exit being so sudden, I had to spend an evening hunched over my journal with a pen, making a list of everything I brought so as not to forget what I had placed in there. I was once missing a shirt for three years all because I forgot I had put it inside my satchel and never bothered trying to retrieve it.

“I told you, pup, as I no longer have a butcher or regular source of income, we will be rationing all of the ‘good stuff’ for the time being.” I made a sizable withdrawal from my savings in the Bank of V’rok’sh Tah’lj before my exit, but it is still a finite amount of money. “But if you can continue to behave the rest of the journey to Pákannon, there may be a bacon-flavored reward in your future.”

“I always behave, Sir,” he repeats his favorite lie, speaking low as we reenter camp.

The rest of the group has begun to wake, Adam stretching his limbs as he exits his tent. Nathaniel is sitting inside the tent he shares with Elis—Liss, watching as the woman in question tends to the fire. She appears to already be preparing it to be cooked over, concentrating all of the burning coals and embers into one location for my skillet. Corrine’s tent is still closed, though I suspect she is awake and merely saying her morning prayers, as I have overheard mornings past.

David and I return to our tent to finish dressing. He strips down once we are inside, waiting for the next part of our morning ritual. It may seem silly, insignificant, or even perverted to others, but it is one I have come to treasure: selecting his underwear for the day. I choose a green jockstrap, one I originally selected due to how well it pairs with his eyes. I also just love having him wear something so revealing under his clothing and armor. I own a few pairs myself, though my undergarments are usually more along the lines of a simple loincloth, subligar, or even the occasional brief. Watching David pulling the waistband up over the swell of his ass, I am reminded of the day we bought them.

It was only his second day with me, and we still had not quite made peace with each other yet. He was mortified as he modeled each pair for me and my friend, Brull, but his slight erection told me he did not entirely hate it. His subsequent panic attack and escape attempt notwithstanding, I would like to think we still had fun on that day, but I was not the one tricked into enslavement. This is something David looks forward to now—I can tell by the way he enjoys teasing me as he slips them on—but it is hard not to feel a twinge of guilt over the ritual’s origins.

Ignoring the negative parts of the memory, we finish dressing and exit the tent, ready to begin cooking. I place a cast-iron pan onto the fire to begin heating while I remove the remaining fish from my bag. With a pair of small knives at the ready, Elisabeth and I set to work cleaning them. Just as I start adding items to the skillet, Corrine emerges from her tent, and after greeting us with a cheerful “good morning!” she excuses herself to take care of her own needs. When she returns to the group a few minutes later, she sits down on a fallen log arranged not far from the fire.

“Alright David, time for your check-up!” She pats the spot next to her.

“Do we really have to keep doing this?” he complains, though when he looks to me for support and finds only a cocked eyebrow, he moves to the requested seat. “I feel fine, and besides, I was brought back to life with magic.”

“We still don't actually know how you were resurrected. You were also unconscious for four days, which isn’t good in any situation,” she reasons with him. “Come on. We all just want to make sure you’re okay. Once we get to Pákannon, we can have the healer there look you over, and once they give you a clean bill of health, no more morning check-ups! Promise.”

“Fine,” David says with a sigh, but it is the small smile he wears that gives away the contentment he feels at being looked after like this. My pup is softer than he would have people believe.

Corrine quickly runs through a few basic tests—pulse, eyesight, and hearing—before moving on to a quick scan of his body for any lingering magical effects. David’s body glows as her spell passes through him, and when it is finished, she smiles. “All clear!”

I appreciate her taking her duty as team healer so seriously as David requires a firm hand. Though I have yet to see how the blonde handles herself in combat, Corrine has proven to be quite capable at healing, both with and without magic. She is the second quietest member of the group after Elisabeth, though it seems to be more out of politeness than any stoicism. She is also the most religious of the group, though other than the necklace she keeps tucked into her robe, overheard prayers, and the blessing she says to herself before meals, I have not noticed many outward expressions of her beliefs at all.

It is a pleasant surprise. My past experiences with Lutherian colonists, especially the religious ones, have not been all that positive. Truth be told, those experiences combined with the fact that our first meeting was an all-out brawl made me very nervous to set out with not one but five Lutherians. So far though, everything has gone smoothly.

After David is released from his medical exam, it is only a few more minutes before breakfast is done. Corrine cheerfully assists me and Elisabeth in passing out breakfast using the bowls and outdoor cutlery I packed, an amenity the group had not previously considered. Honestly, I have no idea how these humans managed to survive this long on their own.

After we have finished breakfast, it is time to pack up camp and begin our journey for the day. Corrine volunteers herself and Nathaniel to clean our dishes and utensils in the nearby river while the rest of us work to break down the tents. The one I share with David is the largest, brought from my own home. Thanks to my satchel, it is also technically the lightest, though it does not leave me with room to carry much else. It is not as nice or spacious as the tent I used when I was captain of the rangers, but it suits our needs just fine.

The three other tents are practically identical, only differing in the amount of wear their occupants have inflicted on them. Corrine has a tent to herself, her personal items already packed and laid to the side. Elisabeth shares her tent with Nathaniel, though she appears to take most of the responsibility in its construction and transportation. Adam occupies the final tent on his own, though prior to my arrival, he had been sharing with David. I doubt he minds having the extra space to himself, and I do not think David minds his new bedmate either. I certainly do not.

Adam is the team’s leader. Tall, muscular, blonde—I would be lying if I said the man was not attractive. He is also confident, charismatic, and mature—that last bit is especially important, seeing as he is eight years my junior. The entire group is. I was not ecstatic about agreeing to follow the leadership of someone so much younger than myself, but thus far he has proven to be more than competent.

There is also the matter of him being David's best friend, so though I would not admit it out loud, part of me also just wants the man to like me. Shortly after I joined, David shared with me that some of Adam’s interests may align more closely with ours than I thought, something I am curious to learn more about for myself as we travel together. I am always on the lookout for new ways I can tease and torment my puppy.

The campfire extinguished and the tents broken down quickly, everyone is collecting their personal items and preparing for the day's journey when Corrine and Nathaniel return. Corrine moves to gather her things while Nathaniel brings the stack of bowls and forks to me.

Nathaniel is an interesting fellow, and the last member of our group. With his shaggy and unkempt brown hair, unevenly stubbled face, and a general lack of concern about his appearance, I can assure you I do not share the same feelings of attraction I have for Adam. Although I do understand how difficult it is to maintain a beard while on the road.

The man is an arcane mage, a wizard in his own words, though I do not have an exact read on his skill level yet. He was sufficiently powerful enough to have sent several of the rangers serving under me to the healers, but we have not yet fought a battle on the same side. He is polite enough, and I cannot say I fully understand the level of disdain David seems to hold for the man.

“Here you go.” The mage hands the stack of bowls to me.

“Thank you, Nathaniel.” I return the bowls to my bag.

“David, what the hell kind of underwear are you wearing?” I look up abruptly at the sound of Nathaniel’s mocking tone.

His eyes are on David, who is bent over packing up one of the tents. His shirt is riding up, and the green strap of his jock is visible just above the top of his pants. His form freezes at the man’s comment, rising to his feet a second later and turning around. If he felt embarrassed, it is gone now, looking more annoyed than anything.

“I don’t know, Nate. Why are you staring my ass?” he asks while wearing an annoyed smirk.

“I’m not—! I wasn’t—!” the mage sputters. Alright, perhaps I understand David’s feelings a little.

“Nate, stop staring at David’s ass and finish packing so we can leave,” Liss orders her beau without missing a beat, the man moving to help her with a grumble.

Once we have everything together, bags are loaded onto backs, and we begin the day’s journey. We are walking a well-traveled road, so there is little chance of actual danger, but we still travel two by two in a defensive formation. Adam and Elisabeth are in front, followed by the two spellcasters, with David and me bringing up the rear. I am quite happy with our positioning, as with Liss in front and myself in the back, our scouting needs are covered. I am also happy because since we are behind everyone else, I get to walk with David with a small amount of privacy.

“David, I wanted to talk to you about your nightmares,” I speak low, knowing he will not want the rest of the group to hear.

“What about them?” he answers tersely, his posture stiffening as he walks.

“You have been having them every night since you left the city.” We both have. “We have not spoken about them, or even what happened that night, since you woke up.”

“What’s there to talk about?” He is looking straight ahead as he speaks, hands clenching.

I do not know: the fear, the trauma, the way you cannot so much as look at the sword you carry on your back without flinching? Of course, I do not actually say any of that. “I just think that talking about it might help. It is—”

“I told you, I’m fine, Khazak,” he snaps, loud enough for Corrine to turn her head around toward us in question.

I give her an apologetic look, mentally sighing at David’s refusal to discuss what is bothering him. I also add ten to his spanking demerits for the day, something I will tell him about later when he is feeling a little less raw. It has been difficult getting him to talk about what happened: being kidnapped, tortured, and having some of your friends and colleagues die while barely saving another. Then being killed himself, and the bloodbath that came after he was resurrected. He is not the only one who needs to talk about things. I may need to consider a different tactic.

I understand his feelings, quite well in fact. When I was younger, my parents made the very ill-advised decision to leave me home alone with my siblings during a very dangerous time. They thought I was mature enough to handle the responsibility, but it took quite a bit of counseling before I was able to really process my feelings about what happened. David is much older than I was then, but I believe dealing with feelings like those he is experiencing is uncharted territory for him.

Not that it excuses him for snapping at me. Nightmares or not, I am still his kavan, his owner, and he knows I expect at least a modicum of respect when being spoken to. He is lucky he is only getting is ten; any worse and that promised reward of bacon would be off the table as well. It is not even ten-o-clock yet. Getting started early today.

I have a few hours to contemplate the best time to dish out said punishment before we stop for lunch. We do not bother with a full camp, only a small fire to cook the last of our fish. While they grill over the fire, we pass the time with a little sparring. The group has not seen any combat yet, and that will hopefully continue, but you can never be too prepared. Some members of the group need it more than others; I have a distinct memory of a certain blonde-haired priestess doing more running than fighting the last time I saw her in battle.

Adam and Elisabeth have paired up, both trained sword fighters. Adam fights with a one-handed broadsword and shield in a style not unlike my own: defensive, studying his opponent for any weaknesses before striking. We fought once before in the Temple of Zeus ruins, which led to his team's arrest. Considering how outnumbered they were, he did a very good job holding his own. Elisabeth wields a two-handed longsword, which is the same weapon I favor, though her fighting style is much more aggressive. The two are an even match for each other, though they have also clearly fought together for years.

David is also a warrior, having attended the same “knight academy” as Adam and Elisabeth. I am still not entirely sure I understand what being a “knight” entails, but I can say they do not lack in combat training. David tells me he used to fight with a sword and shield like Adam but now prefers to wield a sword in each hand. The style suits him since he possesses both the speed and reflexes to deflect blows as quickly as he can strike with his own. He has actually been carrying three swords on his back for the last few days, but he only uses two of them to fight. The third is the same sword that ended his life and is linked to his subsequent resurrection, a fact which I suspect is the reason he has yet to wield it. Something else he will not talk about.

The remaining members of our group, Corrine and Nathaniel, have little-to-no practical combat experience. They both wield large walking staffs, which they could do considerable damage with when used correctly, so I have taken it upon myself to impart some basic lessons in fighting and self-defense. David is assisting, having paired off with Corrine while I teach Nathaniel.

“No, you need to grip it lower; otherwise, there will not be enough force behind your blows.” It is going...alright.

“Like this?” The mage comes at me again.

“Better,” I tell him. “Once more. Do not be afraid to hit me. I am more than capable of defending myself.”

To my left, David is faring much better with Corrine. She is in the middle of using her staff to deflect David’s strikes when a loud snap followed by an animal's cry has the entire group freezing.

“What was that?” Adam asks.

“A wolf from the sound of it.” I pause, hearing faint whimpers of pain coming from the forest. “Injured, though I am not sure by what.”

“I think I hear it, too.” David squints into the forest. That is curious. The only reason I can hear it is my orc biology granting me larger ears and enhanced hearing.

“Should we check it out?” Elisabeth asks, already reaching for her weapon.

“Just to be safe.” Adam does the same as he turns to me. “Khazak, will you lead the way?”

I nod and arm myself, the group entering the forest in reverse order with David and me in front. We make it around twenty meters before the animal’s cries are loud enough for the rest of the group to hear, and another thirty before we find the source among the trees: a young, black-furred wolf with its front paw caught in the jaws of a large metal trap. Sensing our approach, it turns to face us as best it can, whimpers of pain morphing into growls. The group pauses, fanning out and stowing our weapons but still leaving distance between us and the wolf.

“That’s not one of the wolves from before, is it?” David asks immediately upon seeing the color of its fur, thinking back to the three wolves that attacked the two of us over a month ago when we were patrolling the forest. Due to an ill-timed tumble into a patch full of paralytic flowers, we nearly did not survive, but thanks to David’s stubbornness, he managed to protect us both.

“No, this one is much younger.” Only one of those wolves survived to get away.

“Is that a bear trap?” Adam asks, looking at its caught paw.

“It would appear so.” The trap is made of two half circles, the inner edges jagged like two rows of sharp teeth, a bloody grin clamped on the poor animal’s leg.

“Where did it come from?” David asks next.

“Well, seeing as these did not exist on our shores prior to the Lutherian settlements being built...” I turn to give David and the other humans an unimpressed look.

“...Oh.” David scratches his head sheepishly. “Sorry.”

“What do we do?” Adam moves past the awkwardness. “Do we...let nature take its course?”

“I don’t think a bear trap counts as nature,” Nathaniel snarks.

“So what, we put it out of its misery?” Elisabeth asks with some measure of hesitation.

“I do not think it needs to come to that.” That was rather fast to reach the ‘put out of its misery’ stage of things, but at least they mean well. “I would normally agree with you Adam, but Nathaniel is correct. This hardly counts as natural.” I turn to our healer. “Corrine, do you think you could try putting it to sleep?”

“Hmm. It might be too scared or in too much pain, but I can try.” She looks at the wolf, nodding.

“I may be able to help with that.” I step toward the wolf, motioning for Corrine to follow while the rest of the group stays back to watch. The wolf’s growls grow louder as we approach, wide amber eyes nervously flicking back and forth between me and the cleric.

“I am going to try to calm it,” I tell Corrine as I drop to one knee once we are close enough. “Then, if you are able to put it to sleep, we should be able to free it.”

Corrine nods, and I take a moment to clear my mind before locking eyes with the wolf. Tentatively, I push out with my magic, reaching for the animal’s aura with mine. There’s a moment of recognition when they finally touch, the creature's fight or flight instinct flashing from its mind to mine. The longer we stay connected, the longer I can feel its emotions: its anger and pain, its hunger, its loneliness. Eyes still locked, I try to match my breathing to the wolf’s, projecting feelings of peace. It takes a few minutes, but eventually the wolf begins to calm, its back legs dropping to lay flat.

With my part done, it is now Corrine’s turn. Copying me and dropping to her knee, she reaches into the collar of her robes to free the necklace around her neck. It is her spell focus, a symbol of her god that she uses to channel her magic, in this instance a golden dove. Holding the chain out in front of her, she allows the focus to dangle between her fingers and begins to sway it back and forth. As the wolf turns its eyes to this new movement, Corrine hums what I can only assume is a lullaby. Both the focus and the wolf’s eyes start to glow an almost unearthly white. The wolf’s eyes begin to drop, and it sinks to the ground as it succumbs to the spell and falls asleep.

“Wonderful work, Corrine.” I stand, dusting off my knee and helping Corrine to do the same.

“Thank you, Khazak, you as well.” She offers me a small curtsy.

With the wolf unconscious, it is safe to move in close, where I can see she is a young female. Very thin too. I think back to the wolves I last saw with David. They were also hungry and far from their normal hunting grounds. Could they be from the same pack? Black wolves are not the most common sight, so to come across four in such a short period of time leads me to believe something is wrong.

“Alright, I am going to hold open the trap.” I kneel down again, finding the best way to get a hold of the trap’s jaws. “While I do that, can you free its paw?”

“Got it.” Corrine nods, moving into position and putting one hand on the wolf’s upper leg.

Making sure my fingers are free of any jagged points, I pry apart the metal mandibles. It is not impossible, but it does take some strength, and from this angle, I am not able to open it all the way. As soon as the space is wide enough, Corrine pulls the wolf free. With the trap still in my hand, I stand, taking a few steps away before quickly and carefully releasing the trap in front of me, watching it slam shut as it falls to the ground.

“I cannot stand things like this,” I say aloud to no one in particular, kicking the closed trap with my foot. “Aside from the fact that anyone could have stumbled on it and gotten hurt, it is also an incredibly cowardly way to hunt. If you refuse to give your kill a fighting chance, at least have the courage to look it in the eye.”

“At least it was the wolf and not us,” David adds, sounding like he may be resentful of the entire species.

“I don’t think anything’s broken; I should be able to heal him just fine.” I turn to see Corrine is still kneeling by the unconscious wolf, inspecting her injured leg.

“Her, actually.” I look down and the poor injured pup. “She is young, too young to be on her own. She should not be in this area either; she belongs farther north. Something must have happened to her pack to drive her down here.”

“You said the same thing about the other wolves,” David remembers as well. “Think it’s related?”

“Perhaps.” I kneel down to look over the wolf as Corrine works her magic, hands glowing as they are placed over the injured leg. When she pulls away, the only indication of an injury is the small amount of dried blood stuck to the wolf’s fur.

“Good as new!” She stands cheerily.

“Great job, both of you.” Adam steps forward, not able to do anything but watch with the rest of the team. “Should we do anything else? Leave her some food or something?”

“Food might attract other predators while she sleeps.” I stand and look around us for a good spot with cover, hiding the wolf’s sleeping form under the brush. “She should be safe there until she wakes up.”

“What do we do with the trap?” Nathaniel points his staff at the damned thing.

“Sell it to the blacksmith in Pákannon for scrap.” I pick up the trap and squeeze it through the mouth of my satchel. “At the very least they can destroy it. I am not going to leave it out here.”

“I agree with you there.” Adam nods before turning to lead the group out of the forest. “Alright, let’s eat and then get back on the road.”

“I guess that was pretty cool, rescuing the wolf,” David begrudgingly admits to me after lunch, when we are once more on the road. “Kinda hot watching you step up and take charge like that, too. Even if the last time we saw one of those things, it and its two friends tried to eat us.”

I laugh at his comment. Still resentful of the wolves, then. “I was only doing what was right, David. Just like those wolves were only doing what their instincts told them.”

“I get that, but maybe their instincts could include trying to bite fewer chunks outta my ass,” he grumbles.

“Can you blame them? It is a lovely ass.” I smack the rump in question, making David squawk indignantly. The combined noises cause Corrine and Nathaniel to turn and look, and I cannot help but laugh as I watch David fight the urge to rub away the sting. I reach over and pull him closer, offering a silent apology, already looking forward to the rest of our day.

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