His first words were: “I wonder about choices.” I’ll confess it made little sense to me at the time, but it’s how he began. I remember it vividly.
He said: “I wonder about choices.”
It was near the end of the campaign. The trees had fallen, victory was within our grasp, and for the first time, Mother had seen fit to allow me to accompany her expedition. I knew she expected the beasts to surrender–it was a reasonable expectation. We outnumbered them ten-to-one, and their groves and hidey-holes had been taken from them. But the old wolf didn’t want to discuss surrender. He wanted to discuss choices.
He turned to face our battalion.
“You are the one they call Kr’lash, yeah?” he asked. Mother nodded. He rolled his shoulders and smiled a manic, harrowed smile. “You’ve made choices. Do you think about them too?”
We had found the wolf in a strange place. Days earlier, we had raided the fort he’d taken as a headquarters, only to find it empty of beasts, of supplies, even of traps. The scouts found tracks in every direction, like the beasts had just scattered. Most led off into the desert, but one set had run deep into the fallen wood, to a cave at the base of the mountain. They found him there, alone, and, by his request, went to fetch Mother for a “talk.”
The term “cave,” however, failed to truly capture this place. Though the tunnel we’d taken to get there was dark and narrow and all the things you would expect of a cave, the chamber where the wolf awaited us was something else entirely. It was a cavern, vast, uncannily silent, lit in part by beams of sun slicing in through cracks in the ceiling, but truly strange was what the cavern contained.
Just behind the wolf were two great trees, branching like black lightning into the darkness, in bizarre defiance of the cavern’s lack of light, but where leaves might haver hung from their branches, instead tongues of flame crackled, strung from the boughs like tears of a willow. And though I could feel the heat from the blaze where I stood beside Mother, I saw that the branches did not smolder or crack.
In the dim behind the trees, nestled into the rear wall of the cavern, was a great stone building, its crumbled statues and pillars just barely visible through the shadows. I did not grasp it then, but when I think to that day, I now wonder whether I did not see a body, stained with blood, sprawled across the stairs of that structure.
“I do, Bleeding Wolf,” Mother said. “Though I cannot say I regret those I’ve made recently.” The wolf regarded her coldly, one hand clenched in a fist. The other, I noticed, was twirling a small knife between its fingers. I use these words deliberately: It was as if the gesture was occuring, serene, entirely outside the wolf’s sphere of attention.
“You cut down a forest,” he growled, bewildered, seething.
“You gave us no choice,” Mother replied, her voice every bit as cold. “My people would die in the desert, and they would die with you and your cannibals lurking between the trees.”
“Cannibals…” the wolf remarked to the air as she spoke.
“Yes. You are.”
“Of course.” There was a hint of a smile on his scarred face. “It’s just that you’ve judged us human enough to recognize our meals as our own. Unusual. Flattering.”
Mother seemed taken aback, but only slightly, and only for a moment. She reformed her composure but did not respond. The wolf took notice, shuddering as he chuckled.
“Still, do you see how it circles?” he asked. “I’ve been looking at the big picture. I’ve seen what you people do to places like this, what we’ve done to places like this for millennia, and I tried to stand in the way. I tried to make it so that one of us, at least, would live to see tomorrow. It was the only choice. You might say,” he looked over his shoulder at one of the blazing trees before turning back with an unsettling gleam in his eyes. “You might say I had no choice at all.”
“I’m left here wondering,” he continued,” whether anything we’ve done has ever mattered. Were we always going to die?”
“Perhaps you always were,” Mother said. “You and all those who traded life for power.”
“Wonderful try, K’rlash, but your history is dogshit. Everyone keeping score knows about the prophecy, but no one remembers what anyone tried to do about it.” He gestured at the surreal vista behind him. “Do you even know what this place is?” Mother smiled, rising to his taunt.
“I’d chance a guess this is their temple,” she replied. “The ‘long lost’ temple of the beastmen that called themselves the Lords of the Sky. I’m surprised you found it, but I don’t know that it matters.” The wolf stared at her, seeming almost offended.
“Incredible,” he muttered. “Did you learn all your history by interrogating prisoners of war?”
“Is this banter a condition of your surrender?” Mother asked, this time stonefaced. The wolf cackled.
“Absolutely not! But to understand the conditions of my surrender, you’re going to need some education. This, for one, is the temple of the god that started all of this. The one who looked our fate in the eye and said ‘I choose death.’ The Lords of the Sky have just been squatting.
“Moreover,” he continued, “only the outcasts of the Lords of the Sky took up the ways of my people, of beasts. The main contingent kept a very different culture. They dwelled here until recently, guarding their own sordid history.”
As he said this, his knife stopped twirling, fingers snapping tight around the handle. It took me more than a decade to understand this gesture, and this delay has become one of my greatest regrets.
“Both of these facts are known,” the wolf said, “if you ask the right people, look in the right places.” He paused, then added: “Take the right care. I don’t suppose your mages have noticed the power in this place?”
I was not, at the time, accustomed to opening my body to magic–my mother and her advisors had taught me that doing so would hasten the death of the world we sought to prevent–but at the wolf’s words, I reached out and felt what he meant: This place was awash with magic and soaked in death, but words struggle to capture the feeling. I knew with a certainty and clarity I’d never before felt that blood had been spilled in this place, in dizzying quantity, over centuries long past but reeking of death as if the slaughter had stopped only yesterday. Mana oozed from the dirt, from the stone, even from the air, heavy with the collective last breath of tens of thousands.
“He brought us here because he’s stronger,” I whispered to Mother, jumping to my own conclusions. “He doesn’t intend to surrender.”
“Apparently,” she replied, raising a hand. At this, the archers trained their bows on the wolf. “Make sure that you and Cain are ready.” As I made eye contact with our pyromancer, the wolf seemed to take note of our conference.
“There is a number three, you know.” His voice goaded. “My own little secret. Would you like to hear it?” Mother decided she did not.
She signalled the archers, and in the same moment, the wolf sprinted to one of the burning trees. It was nearly fifty feet away, but he covered the ground in a second. By the time the first arrow left its string, he was plunging his knife into the tree’s bark. His priority seemed bizarre, but we realized its purpose quickly enough: As he stabbed the tree, its flames flared and then suddenly vanished, and then we were left in darkness with the most powerful mage in the forest.
The first thing that broke through the pitch was Cain’s torrent of flame, narrowly missing the wolf as he charged our front line, still in transition after the archer’s initial volley. The spearmen made it to the front, but they were unable to set their weapons before he crashed through their line, sending bodies flying, limbless and lacerated by the maws lining his hands and arms.
The wolf’s form had changed. Though it still resembled a human in shape and number of limbs, its features had twisted into nauseating mockeries of both human and beast. Its body was now covered in grey fur that bristled, raised, needlelike, against the bursts of fire and dim sunlight above, and everywhere, along its arms, legs, all sides of the appendage that was previously its head, were mouths, gasping, tearing, gnashing thousands of horrid fangs. The only part of it untouched by the amorphic nightmare of jaws and teeth was its torso, where the scars that had lined the creature’s skin as a man had begun to run with blood, and in so doing, had begun to glow red with magical power in the darkness.
I reached out, grasping at the mana it radiated, pulling the strength of the earth around me to collapse the dirt beneath it, but I pulled too much, and instead of dragging the creature into the mud, I shattered the ground beneath all of our feet. The wolf stumbled, to be sure, but the majority of our soldiers were sent sprawling, and the earthen shrapnel from my explosion proved far more ruinous for them than for the creature.
After only a moment, it stood, jagged rock protruding–and falling, woundless–from its flesh, seeming no more in pain than before the blast, and looked to Cain, who had been knocked unconscious by a stone to his temple. In that instant, Mother charged from the shadows, her black armor only barely visible in the darkness, and plunged her sword into the wolf’s chest. As the blade punched through, grinding audibly against bone, the beast’s glowing scars ignited. I realized, suddenly, that she had prepared for this–her sword was wreathed in mana, and, attuned as I was then to the flows of death around me, I recognized the pattern in its enchantment, and I realized then that Mother was not above imitation of those we had vilified.
For its part, Mother’s magic was devastatingly effective. Through the flare of the wolf’s scars, its own blood shot from its torso in a salvo of glistening, crimson spikes, wrapping about its arms and legs and solidifying, pressing, suddenly crystalline and sharp against its flesh. Even so, bloody and nearly crucified, the wolf was not done. With a sudden, tinny crack, it wrenched its right arm free of its gruesome restraints and grabbed Mother by the neck, fingers curling around the bottom of her helm. I willed my legs to move, desperately trying to close my distance to the beast as I saw its claws slowly elongate, puncturing the sides of her head. Within an instant, her body went limp.
Enraged, flailing, I sent a pulled a spike of rock from the ground, impaling the wolf through his abdomen. It lurched, and its claws receded. Mother tumbled to the ground. I rushed to her, but for some reason, I couldn’t pull my eyes from the wolf.
“You fool,” it mumbled to me. “You don’t see it. You think you’re out of time, it’s do or die, you have nothing to lose…” The lupine features of its face seemed to melt before my eyes, ragged fur receded, teeth pulled back as its jaw flattened, until it was no longer a wolf.
“There’s always time,” the man said, blood burbling from his open mouth. “And things can always…get…worse…” He trailed off, as the cavern began to shudder, and with no more warning, the floor beneath us collapsed.
About a third of us survived, able to climb to safety near the entrance of the cavern. Following the collapse, the fire never returned. The trees had disappeared, and the only thing that remained was a vast pit, descending into the darkness farther than any of us could see. I sent a party down to search the rubble at the bottom for Mother’s body, but only one soldier was able to climb back out alive. He never found the body. All he was able to deliver was a small knife.