Kora: TakenLarge, sparkling blue eyes peeked from amongst the pine needles, staring at the little bird as it hopped closer and closer. The creature, its red feathers bright in the half-light of the small hollow, approaching a petite, outstretched hand. Kora tensed, barely daring to breathe as the bird approached her. Two more hops . One
"Kora!" A familiar female voice rang out between the pines above her, sending the bird off in a flurry of wings. "Where are you, little wild one?" The little girl huffed in annoyance as she watched the spot of scarlet flutter for the darkening treetops. Why did mother have to call for her now? She had gotten so close!
She petulantly shook her head, curling up tighter in into the bed of soft, dry pine needles. Well, if her mother had spoiled her game, she wouldn't come out. Perhaps mother would even give up this time.
Reporting to MakaylaCaptain Ovan swallowed as he paused outside the doorway. The thirty-five year old officer had faced many an enemy force without so much as a drop of fear, but now that terrible force was welling up inside him. Heart pounding, involuntary shivers running down his spine, and what seemed like a block of ice where his stomach should have been.
This wasn't what his career should have been. The intention had been to serve his decade, make a decent promotion, and enjoy the reasonable patch of land and sum of gold that came after it. But when the opportunity to join the Redcloaks was presented, he hadn't thought twice. And now, instead of good, honest steel, he was faced with. . .
"Magic." Ovan murmured the word in a combination of disgust and dread.
Ovan's ponderings were cut short by the groan of the iron-clad double doors as they were swung open by two stony-faced Citadel guards. The captain drew a shuddering breat
AVTR Adventures 01: Ri DraakenbergINITIATING FIRST TRANSMISSION
The rugged, tan landscape of the New Mexican desert shot by in a blurry streak as the sleek, silver maglev train raced down its track. The train, part of the Resources Development Administration's Transcon fleet, sped along at over 600 kilometers per hour, suspended above the rails with deceptive ease. Rinus Draakenberg sat back in the well-cushioned seat, watching the scenery flash past in his customary thoughtful silence. It was a habit of his to let his eyes wander the landscape, letting his thoughts roam free. It was a welcome change to see nature, even a hot, barren desert. In this magnificent year 2144, the only thing one tended to see were the enormous, toxic-aired, garishly lit, overpopulated megacities.
Ri's expression darkened. He pushed those thoughts back, forcing his mind to move on. Nobody liked to dwell too long on the tragic condition the once magnif
Seasons ShiftingBeneath a quilt of whitest snow
Our Mother slumbers deep
Of her Children, most do lie
Embraced in Winter's sleep
Plant is bare of leaf and bloom
Beast is in its bed
Every creature gathers strength
For the time that lies ahead
For Old Man Time does spin his wheel
And Day takes over Night
Sun's bright flame, and Wind's warm breath
Turn back the tide of white
Jack Frost the frozen painter
Has left to move ahead
Jane Blossom, and her colored brush
Do stand now in his stead
Buds of green upon each branch
The beasts they walk again
Our Mother comes to life once more
As Spring assumes her reign
Kaltxì, hoi, guten Tag, bonjour: In short, greetings, deviant. Welcome to the world of the Shadowmaster. Why the name? I'm rather partial to darkness, to the mysterious. Darkness is not evil, it is merely different.
Magic seems to have become my middle name. The world of enchantment, of fantasy, of the mysterious and magnificent, is one of my favorite places to be.
I am here to appreciate the wonderful world of art and to present my own creations to it. Here's hoping my own drawings and literature will be appreciated.
Want something written? My (digital) writer's quill is available...
I like creating characters based on real people. It's a habit of mine to ask my friends and family what kind of fantasy character they'd like to be. Got an interesting OC in mind? Perhaps we could create something...
The thrum of buzzing wings fills the air as a needle-like beak makes its way for the welcoming cup of a little red flower. The hummingbird is a piece of jewelry come to life; its body glittering emerald, its throat a vibrant ruby, its wings a silvery blur.
Lobott Notmorgan watches intently as the hummingbird approaches the lone blossom on his arm. The slightest twitch could startle the little bird away, and indeed a being of flesh and blood would have found it impossible to stay so very still.
Lobott, however, is a golem, hewn from clay and given life with an earth-spark drawn from the Chaos Sea. Living plants cover his head and torso and sprout from his limbs, but he himself needs neither food nor breath. Altogether handy when observing a tiny and skittish creature.
The bird takes a little sip and hovers in place, seeming satisfied, so Lobott lets his eyes wander back to his work. The clothesline, stretching between two thick tree trunks by the edge of the clearing, is nearly full. The afternoon sunlight shines merrily on the arrangement of clothing: an old grey tunic, green pants patched over time and again, and of course, Linus’s lucky socks. Here, deep in the woods of Athania, the summer sun has left the air thick and humid. The fabric will no doubt take all day to dry properly. That does not matter, though. Lobott is not one to hurry.
“Hurry, Lobott! Fetch the medicine bag!”
Startled, Lobott looks up, sending the hummingbird zipping away between the branches. His attention, however, is on the dwarf emerging from behind the briar patch.
Linus Notmorgan fits the phrase “As old as the hills,” like few do. The hill dwarf’s rough yet gentle features are tanned and wrinkled like well-worn leather. His grey beard – long, though thinning – and bushy eyebrows frame eyes the color of looming thunderheads, though Lobott has yet to meet the storm capable of merry twinkling. The druid leans heavily on his plain wooden staff as he makes his way to the clearing.
He is also bleeding from several fresh slashes across his arm and side.
Immediately, Lobott drops his nearly empty wicker basket and hastens off to the den. Nestled between the roots of the enormous willow that stands at one end of the clearing, the little deerhide shelter serves both as Linus’s sleeping place and as a spot for storing his supplies. It is the latter that Lobott is headed for; specifically, the drawstring bag containing cloth bandages, root of sage and mandrake and other healer’s items. Finding it tucked away beside Linus’s old axe, he hurries back to his master as fast as his thick clay limbs can carry him.
“Master, you are hurt,” he says in concern.
“Why, so I am,” Linus replies with a cheerfulness that stands at stark odds with his appearance. He gratefully accepts Lobott’s supporting arm, allowing the golem to guide him towards the smooth little boulder that serves as his customary seat. “Mph. Thank you, lad. That upstart Treorisurr was causing a stir again, so I had to teach her a lesson. Doesn’t she know deer are very shy and sensitive animals?”
“I fear her concerns are not for the local wildlife, Master,” answers Lobott.
“Well, that’s her loss,” Linus states in his customary matter-of-fact manner. He lets out a dry chuckle, but quickly sobers. “And everyone else’s, for that matter. Time’s doing her a greater kindness than it is me, that’s for sure. Won’t be long before she starts making some real trouble.” Personally, Lobott considers clawing up an old druid to be quite troublesome enough, but Linus is already going on, just as he always does.
“There’s just so much to learn from nature, from the world around us, and she, well…” – he puffs out his cheeks, letting out a slow breath – “she refuses to see any of it. I love nature, have I mentioned that?”
“You have, Master,” answers Lobott, just as he always does. He helps Linus ease himself into a sitting position, then takes out a tiny stone mortar and pestle from the bag and starts mashing up some mandrake root. Green dragons are venomous creatures, and it is better to be safe than sorry.
“Oh, but those deer- I’m glad I could calm them down,” says Linus, helpfully undoing his tunic with his good hand. “They were in all states, fearing for their lives because of that scaled child- Yow!” He winces when the golem applies some fresh mandrake paste to the worst of the cuts. “Och, I’ll need me a smoke when you’re done, sure as sunset.”
Lobott nods silently in agreement. When the paste runs out, he takes out the roll of bandages and sets to work binding the wounds. Treorisurr’s claw marks are long and none too shallow, and the dull white cloth quickly stains crimson. The cuts could be worse, but Lobott knows that they will form impressive additions to his master’s already considerable collection of scars. The lines criss-crossing his weathered skin are testament to the dwarf’s firm belief that magical healing – which would close the wounds and leave the skin as new – is something for emergencies only. “After all,” as he would always say, “what if I need to clear the local watering hole, or a pack of blights shows their faces? Can’t very well take them on properly if I’ve spent all my juice on curing the odd scratch, now can I?”
Right now, however, Linus is musing on about Treorisurr again. “She did quite a number on me, you know? Growing up, like I said, and she’s doing it fast. I swear by the Sacred Grove, last time she stepped out of line, her claws didn’t sting nearly as much. Oof!” Lobott pulls tight another bandage. “Where’s the hurry, I ask you? The girl’s got centuries left on her! Mm, maybe I am just growing old. But!” – he holds up one finger – “It’ll take more than that to bring down this old bear, just you see.”
Lobott does see, but the incident has set his thoughts down an uncomfortable path nonetheless. He remains silent for a while, working efficiently at patching up the remaining cuts. For all the steadiness of the golem’s clay-hewn features, though, Linus knows him too well, and Lobott can feel that his master has noticed something is troubling him. Still, he lets Lobott gather his thoughts in peace, just as they always do. Some things cannot be rushed.
“Master,” Lobott finally speaks up. “What happens if you die?”
“Simple, my boy,” answers the dwarf without missing a beat. “When you die, your soul goes for a ride on old Maulos.” He accompanies his lecture with a bobbing hand, miming a journey on horseback. “He takes you his Hall, high in the frozen north somewhere and judges you. You know, if you’ve told the truth and kept your oaths… been a good person. That sort of thing. And if he approves, he gives you a ride to the Beyond.” Linus casts a critical eye to the sky. “Could swear I’ve told you that at least once. Either way, I think it’s going to rain tomorrow. I love rain, did I ever mention that?”
“You have, Master,” the golem replies with complete sincerity. “But that is not what I mean. What happens if you die, specifically?”
“What, me?” Linus’s bushy gray eyebrows shoot up like twin startled squirrels. “Treori hasn’t done that bad a number on me, lad! Besides, I’ve got you caring for me, and I’d like to think I taught you well.” He claps his creation reassuringly on his loamy shoulder. “No, no, I’ll be fine in the morning, just you wait!” He winces, the movement appearing to have tugged at one of his injuries. “Though I will be a little sore, I’ll grant.”
“That is also not what I mean, Master.” A final knot in the final bandage, and Lobott is finished. He draws the medicine bag shut. “What happens when you die? Not now, but when you do?”
Linus takes the time to blink a few times. “What do you mean, my boy?” His jolliness has faded away a little, like a flower starting to wilt.
“What happens to the forest without you? To the animals, and Treorisurr?” Lobott hesitates. “What happens to me?”
“Oh,” Linus says simply. “That.”
For a moment, the camp is silent. The only sound is the rustle of leaves and the distant chirping of birds. The light filtering through the treetops is taking on a golden hue. Evening will be coming soon, Lobott realizes absently. He should be getting the fire ready soon. The laundry isn’t quite finished, either.
Finally, Linus breaks the silence. “Lobott,” he says. “I think I’ll be having that smoke now. Could you be so kind as to fetch me that bag of pipe-weed Adon gave me? The dark stuff.”
When Linus has stuffed his old clay pipe, lit it with a murmured word and taken his first puffs of ghost-grey smoke, he sits back and sighs. “What will happen to you, you say…” He sits up, fixing Lobott with a look from his bright old eyes. “Well, I’d say it depends on you, of course.” Linus speaks with a far calmer tone than before, and he seems older, wiser. It is his thoughtful voice, the one he uses only seldom. “What will you do, Lobott? Will you continue watching over this place?”
“Of course, Master,” Lobott answers without a second thought. “I will do as you have taught me.” How could he do any different? He was shaped here, taught here. And besides, who will watch over the woods if he does not?
“Well, then, nothing much will change. It would be you tending to the forest, taking care of the animals… Knocking sense into the odd dragon,” he adds with a wry grin, then takes another pull from his pipe. “I have faith you can take my place, lad. But, perhaps…”
“But what?” Lobott asks in uncertain anticipation. “Is there another solution?”
Linus seems to mull it over. He looks almost mournful, Lobott realizes, and he feels a twinge of guilt at saddening his old master so.
“It wouldn’t be doing right by you, keeping you here,” the dwarf says finally.
“I do not understand, Master. It is very right for me to be here.”
A ghost of the old twinkle appears in Linus’s eye. “Oh, sure as Mother Dastreuse herself, we’re doing these woods right. But,” – he raises his pipe, rather than his finger – “they weren’t doing too badly before I got here, either. The forest is old as the Realms themselves, and she’ll do as she’ll do. The plants and the plant-eaters and the eaters of plant-eaters…
“But you,” he interrupts himself, and sighs a haze of smoke. “You’ve barely gotten started.”
Lobott has existed for several decades now, and he makes to tell his master, but Linus is already mumbling again, fishing around in one of his belt pouches. Triumphantly, he withdraws a sprig of blue-black elderberries.
“Now, take the trees with their fruits. Don’t worry, I’m getting somewhere with this, don’t worry.” Laying aside his pipe, he plucks a single berry from its stem, rolling it between his fingertips. “In the span of things, you haven’t lived long yet, and you’ve spent all that time with your maker. All considered, you’re just a seedling.” He pops it into his mouth, then retrieves his pipe. “Now, trees, they don’t grow right next to the trees that seeded them; it would be a mess, and muck with their growth besides. So, pine cones fling their seeds, and berries like this get eaten, then…” he trails off, making a vague gesture.
“Do you mean that I should be flung or get eaten, Master?” Lobott asks, cocking his head. If that is indeed what he means, this could be difficult.
Linus splutters and nearly spits out his pipe. “What?” he brings out along with a cloud of smoke. “No, no, that was a metaphor!”
Lobott nods. He had expected as much, but it is always best to make sure.
Linus, on the other hand, shakes his head. “Mph. My fault; should have seen that coming. A bit too colorful a metaphor.” He pauses in thought, then his eyes take on that familiar twinkle again. “Hah, that would be a sight, though. Can you imagine?” he says, pointing the stem of his pipe at Lobott. “You, traveling the world in the belly of a beast? Hohoho, but we’d have to find one big enough!” With each of his chuckles, another tiny puff of smoke drifts into the night.
Lobott does not find the thought of being devoured particularly funny, but Master Linus seems to be enjoying himself, so he does not say anything.
Linus seems to shake himself awake. “Ahum, but we’re losing the trail here. The point is, it could be that you find yourself happy as can be, tending to this glade or one just like it. You know, tending to the herds, scolding the odd fool who’s setting fire to the bushes, all that.
“But it could be that there is something out there that calls to you just as surely as the woods here did for me. It might be a place, it might be a person, it might be, hoho,” – he draws himself up, assuming an exaggeratedly grandiose expression – “some great and noble cause. But you won’t know that unless you take the time to find it. And time, well… That’s something you have on your clay hands more than most anyone around here.”
Lobott abruptly feels as if he is standing on some great precipice, with nothing but the swirling wind to keep him steady. He says nothing, but Linus seems to take note of his apprentice’s discomfort.
“Freedom’s nothing to be taken lightly, is it? It’s huge, terrifying…”
“This is not reassuring, Master,” Lobott protests, and Linus lets out a gentle chuckle.
“I know, I know, but I have faith in you, Lobott. You’re strong and sturdy and if I may say so myself, I’ve taught you well.” He wags a finger. “The teachings of the druids have plenty of uses out there. Taking the middle road, give all sides a chance…” he trails off, then puffs a sharp little smoke ring. “And if things get out of hand, not being afraid to get your hands a little dirty.
“Besides, I’m not done for quite yet! No need to make your decision anytime soon. And, when the time does come, you can always come back here if the land of lords and roads and sharp-toothed things isn’t to your liking.
Lobott ponders this, absently stroking his leafy beard just like Linus does his hairy one. The cliff is still there, in his mind, but perhaps – perhaps – there is a path down to the green woods beyond.
“You could be right, Master,” he finally decides. “It is frightening, but I admit I am curious as to what I may find. Above all, though, I will strive to make you proud.”
“Oh, Lobott…” Linus Notmorgan sighs. His grey eyes are misty now, and as full of warmth as a father looking at his infant son. “You truly are something special. Did I ever mention that?”
After a moment, he snaps his fingers and murmurs a word. A tiny gray cloud appears over the palm of his hand, pouring illusory rain. “Now then. Best get those clothes inside by tonight. I love me a rainstorm, but wet socks are another thing entirely.”
It is three years later when Lobott Notmorgan finally sets out from the nameless grove. His pack is light, for he needs neither food nor shelter, but Linus’s old axe hangs from a loop on its side. (“Just in case,” as his master would say.) He holds his elm-wood staff, well-worn from years of use, firmly in his hand. Linus’s lucky socks sway a little in the breeze as he makes his way down the old game trail.
Behind him, to one side of the clearing, the single sprout that will become an elderberry tree stands proud atop a mound of fresh-turned earth.
A hummingbird flits over Lobott’s head as he sets off into the great expanse that is the Realm of Athania. It is time to spread and grow.
All the world is swirling white
The icy wind whips flurries of snow back and forth, up and around, endless and indifferent. It whirls beneath a half-lit sky of steel-grey clouds. It howls over the snow-cloaked crests and ridges of the land, sucking spirals of fresh-fallen powder in its wake. It chills all it touches, and here upon the Aerghan wastes, it touches everything.
Soft as it is, the powdery, snow hardly even whispers when cloven hooves plough through it. The minotaurs, in turn, are barely slowed by the drifts around their legs as they march steadily onward, as enduring as the land itself.
Nostha walks in front. Scars large and small, straight and crooked show beneath the black of his wind-blown fur, speaking of fights without number, fights entered and won. Clan rings of carved bone and beaten bronze decorate his mighty horns, and a necklace of teeth and claws rattles softly against his muscled chest. He does not flinch as the blizzard sinks its icy fangs into him anew, for he has seen its like before, and he shall endure this one too.
Dothran follows in the veteran’s wake. His rings are fewer and his scars are sparser, but his horns and spear are sharp and sturdy. The Great Mother’s blood flows hot through his veins, and unlike stony Nostha he grins in silent challenge at the storm, daring it to do worse. All the same, he is on the alert, looking back and forth for signs of prey.
In the rear walks Orion. He is full-grown but young, and his rings are few, but he too endures. He too is a warrior, a hunter, a minotaur of the Whitewind clan. He will not fail.
Their journey is dangerous, unforgiving, miserable, but it is necessary. Eight days now has this storm covered the land. It blew in from the black-fanged mountains of the north, almost half a season early. The clan knows how to deal with the harshness of winter, but this is too much, too soon. The stocks of roots and mosses and meat have shrunken, dangerously so. The clan must have more food, and quickly, and so the Elders have sent hunters and gatherers out into the white and the cold.
Nostha, who has seen a hundred hunts and more, leads his hunters toward the red-earth hills, the edge of Whitewind lands, where prey-herds will no doubt be sheltering. He follows the buried trail without hesitation, without doubt, without slowing. Even as the sun vanishes unseen behind the horizon, they move on, their dark-sight lighting the path in their eyes with shades of ghostly gray. However, the need for shelter and rest is something not even a veteran minotaur can ignore.
Orion does not spot their destination until they are nearly upon it. Through the gloom and the snowfall, he can make out the jumble of great gray rocks sticking from the white-coated earth. They are huge, smooth, and their lichen-splotched sides are free of all but the most stubborn of snowflakes. More importantly, where two of them support a flat, slab-like rock, they form a hollow. It is almost a cave.
It will do.
The hunters are silent as they set up their camp in the hollow. They are not soft, hornless bare-skins, babbling all day and night. They know what they must do, and they will do it. They stretch a bear-fur before the mouth of their shelter, keeping back the howling wind, and build a small fire of dried dung and tinder-twigs. It is more for warmth than anything else; the dried meat they chew needs no cooking.
When they are finished, Orion and Dothran spread out their furs to catch their rest. Nostha, who has the first watch, gazes impassively at the rippling bear skin, one finger tracing the outline of his mighty war-axe’s blade. Orion looks at the embers of the low-burning fire, hoping he will sleep soundly this time.
Despite the fur and fire, the cold has sunken into his flesh when Nostha wakes him. It clings unpleasantly to his body, and Orion snorts in displeasure, rubbing his forearms roughly to return a little warmth to him. The fire is little more than glowing coals now, and he decides to feed it a little more fuel. There is enough for that; they will surely kill their prey tomorrow.
Nostha settles down and falls asleep with remarkable swiftness. Soon, Orion is left alone with the rumbling snores of his clansfolk and the whoosh of the never-ending storm. Without moon or stars to judge by, and with the fire so much smaller than normal, it is difficult to tell how quickly the night passes. The world has shrunken to the borders of their little cavern. Orion occupies himself with thoughts of the hunt. He will take down an elk himself, he decides. He will show that he belongs with the clan.
As the time comes for Dothran to take his watch, Orion realizes there has been a change. The wind has died down; not entirely, but enough to bring an eerie sort of calm. And in this half-quiet, he hears something else. The soft, panting whine of a beast.
They are not alone.
Instantly, Orion is jolted alert. He scrambles to his hooves, snatching up his war-axe from where it had been lying beside him, and turns to the back of the cave, where the faint sound is coming from. Slowly, he steps forth, ducking his head to keep from scraping his horns against the stone above. Beasts can be dangerous, whether they are prey or rivals. An animal here could mean extra food, but it could also mean a fight. Orion is not worried. He can fight.
Perhaps, even, killing this beast could earn him some respect in the eyes of the clan.
The hollow is bigger here than it looked from the entrance. A bulge of rock blends with the rear wall, hiding a smooth-edged opening just barely large enough to fit through. Axe at the ready, Orion turns the corner and looks inside.
He stops short.
There, standing alone in the tiny cave, is a wolf.
The creature holds its head low, ears lying flat along its neck, and it growls at the intruding minotaur with bared fangs. Dark-sight is colorless, but Orion can see a faint, deep-blue glow in its eyes. Its coat is a mottled white and grey, almost the exact color of the heap of snow behind it.
No, not snow. Another wolf. A wolf that, when it was alive, would have stood almost shoulder to shoulder with Nostha. Now, though, it lies motionless on the rough stone, the dark wounds in its side frozen and bloodless.
Orion stands very still. He has heard the Elders tell of beasts like this. Winter-wolves, monstrous creatures that emerge from the snows like ghosts, slaying their prey with teeth and claws and freezing breath. For all their fury, they are also cunning; cunning enough, it is said, to speak.
A winter-wolf is a rival-beast like no other, who will kill clansfolk and prey alike. By the clan laws, they must be fought and slain. A danger like them, a challenger like them, cannot be allowed to live.
And yet Orion does not raise his axe, does not move in for the kill. The cub he sees before him, half-grown and clearly weakened, does not look like a legendary rival-beast. It looks hurt. It looks lonely. It looks…
Orion feels strange. There is an odd twisting in his chest, around his heart. Suddenly, his axe seems very heavy. The wolf-cub still has its teeth bared and hackles raised, but has stopped growling. It looks at Orion with those blue eyes, and the minotaur can just barely hear a piteous little whine. Through the wolf’s thick coat, he can see the curve of its ribs, pushing in and out with every slow breath. Food. It needs food. Orion has food.
Before he realizes what he is doing, he has turned around. In his pack beside the fire, he still has some jerky left. It is not much, but if they catch their prey tomorrow, it will be enough.
“What was that?”
Orion freezes in his tracks. By the last flickering remains of the fire, Dothran sits awake. Orion feels a strange jolt of… fear? Not for himself, though clansfolk like Dothran have made him feel that before. No, it is for the wolf. Dothran will slay a rival-beast without hesitation.
But it is the clan’s laws. Why shouldn’t he.
He shouldn’t. He can’t.
It is almost as if someone else is speaking in Orion’s place. “I thought I heard something. It is nothing.”
Dothran snorts dismissively, and his lips curl into a sneer. “I heard growling,” he answers. “That is not nothing. You lie, weakling.” Orion’s heart plummets as the hunter rises and takes up his spear. His head is filled with the swirling white of the snowstorm.
Dothran walks up and seizes the paralyzed Orion by one horn, pulling him roughly out of the way. “If you will not kill it, I will.”
Orion hears the wolf-cub’s growling start again, sees Dothran raise his sharp-pointed spear and-
Orion slams his body against Dothran’s. Caught off-guard, the elder minotaur staggers and crashes into the rear wall. It is Dothran’s sheer surprise that lets Orion take hold of his waist and heave him out of the way.
“Run!” he shouts at the wolf-cub. “Go, now!” For an agonizingly long moment, the wolf just stands there, glowing eyes boring into Orion’s own. Then, with almost startling speed, it dashes past them and slips beneath the bear-skin, vanishing into the night. A surge of stupid relief washes over Orion. It is followed a moment later by an explosion of pain.
Dothran’s fist strikes his jaw like a hammer blow. Orion staggers back, trying to brace himself, but his opponent is too fast. Roaring in incoherent rage, Dothran seizes Orion by the waist and drives him back into the unforgiving stone. He jerks back his head, and Orion can just barely twist to one side to avoid being impaled on the furious minotaur’s horns. He swings with a punch of his own, but Dothran catches his fist before it’s gone halfway, then slams a knee into Orion’s unprotected stomach.
Orion collapses in a haze of pain, the breath blasted from his lungs. He manages to heave in a gasp of air, only to lose it immediately when a sharp-hooved kick takes him full in the ribs. He looks up through tear-blurred eyes to see Dothran seizing his fallen spear, the promise of death written in the snarl on his face.
“Enough!” Nostha’s roar is like a clap of thunder. Dothran stops short. He is still breathing heavily, but his respect for the veteran hunter is greater than even his rage. Somehow, Orion has the presence of his mind to take the opportunity and get up.
“Tell me,” says Nostha, eyes as cold and unkind as the snowstorm outside, “why do you fight?”
Nostha snarls, “It is Orion. He found a wolf in here and was too weak to kill it. He would not let me kill it!” Spittle flies from the hunter’s lips. “He is vhauragh!”
Orion is almost surprised at how little the dreadful word means to him suddenly. He does not care about Whitewind’s laws. He does not care about Whitewind. He barely cares how Nostha’s gaze directs itself at him like a pair of spears. He is alone now. Perhaps he should always have been alone.
“Yes,” he declares before Nostha can say anything. “Yes, I saved the wolf. It was… it was right.”
Dothran’s growl rattles through his chest. He adjusts his grip on his spear, exclaiming, “Then we should kill him now!”
“No,” snarls Nostha. Dothran, surprised, backs down. Nostha goes on, fixing Orion with a look of disdain. “It is the law. We do not fight on hunts, even against vharaugh.”
“But he must-”
“He will be punished,” Nostha interrupts. “It is the law.” He turns to face Orion completely, axe in one hand, the carved bear fang of his necklace in the other. “You, Orion, are a weakling. You have shown this. And now, you have betrayed us. You are vharaugh and have no place with Whitewind.” The words come thudding down like axe blows upon ironwood. Nostha points at the cave entrance. “Go, Clanless Orion. Go, drop your rings and leave these lands. Go and die.”
Still curiously numb, Orion reaches up and loosens the carved ring from his horn. It makes a hollow clatter as it falls to the ground. Small. Meaningless. He backs away, pausing just long enough to take up his pack and axe. He takes up his sleeping-fur, too, but does not pack it; his clansfolk would not have the patience for that.
No, not his clansfolk.
The biting cold washes over him as he steps out of the little cave. He barely notices. His jaw and back ache from Dothran’s fearsome blows. That, too, he barely notices. He pays no mind to where he is going; only to the paw prints still fresh in the snow.
After what might have been half a night and might have been only a meal-time, he arrives at a small copse of trees. The branches of the pines swish and sway in the wind, but their trunks grant some small protection from the storm. The wolf-cub’s trail has almost vanished. He cannot follow it anymore, not tonight.
He does, however, lay aside some strips of jerky as he nestles himself against the icy, rough tree trunk. From one lone wolf to another.