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Author Topic: What's in your future? (What-If)  (Read 6441 times)

Christina Raibert

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What's in your future? (What-If)
« on: August 13, 2014, 09:08:15 AM »

My first EQ themed fanfiction in years :) I've started it over at the Scroll and thought to post it here too. Hope you like it!

SPOILERS for "Final Quest Special" and (eventually) issues 1-5. Read at your own risk ;)

Chapter One - Old Foe

The Two Moons were high in the sky, bathing the harsh landscape in a magical silver glow. Instinctively, the two elfin shapes steered clear of the patches of light, where they would be easily spotted from miles afar. Instead they crept in the shadows, treading cautiously along the tricky mountain slopes.

The smallest of the two wasn't really keeping up; it lagged behind, and now and then shuddered as if in pain. The other, who was slightly taller and moved in a strange crouched stance - not unlike a prowling animal - threw a look at its companion from over its shoulder.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Tired?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]No. I can manage.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] The smaller figure slightly clenched its teeth, and its pointed canines gleamed in the dark. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I'm just struggling with an old foe that won't give me a break. Don't worry about me, dear packbrother.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Old foe?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] The other was instantly on alert.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Yes. But nothing that you have to worry for[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] its companion calmly assured. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It's the fear... the same fear that has pursued relentlessly ever since we left the Holt. I...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] It - she - hesitated. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I don't want to believe that it might have all been in vain. Hope has carried me thus far... but the night is so cold, and it's been so long.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]When you want us to return... you only have to say so.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I will[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] she replied firmly, [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]after we've found what we're looking for.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Alright, alright! Don't bristle.. it's not like you at all.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

Crestfallen, she trodded after him with her head hung low.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I'm sorry.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Sorry? For what - oh, that? It was nothing. I'm used to have our chief growling my ears off...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Hush![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Suddenly, the female came to an abrupt halt. Her entire body was stiff, and yet she quivered like a wolf pup who had sensed the return of the pack. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It was here... I can scent it.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

Her companion said nothing, but the laugh died on his lips like a will-of-the-wisp. He, too, had picked the strong salty scent. Blood, freshly spilled - so much blood, in fact,  that it made the wolf in him stir. But there was something else... something that he wasn't sure she had noticed, something faint and barely perceptible. The hair at the nape of his neck rose. Slowly, he pinned back his ears and growled.

The female looked at him in confusion.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Healer...?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]You won't be the only one fighting an old foe tonight, packsister[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] he hissed.

Riled by his words, she paced nervously back and forth.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Let's get going. It can't be very far from here.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It's useless. Don't you feel it in the air? Death...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]NO![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] The female doubled over, burying her face in her hands. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Please, no. You have trusted my instincts for so long... trust for a little longer.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]But - it' s too late.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It needn't be. And if anything else - we'll have tried! Oh, please![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

He should have told her no, he knew that. Everything in him was urging to turn back from this madness. It was the Way - and not just the Way of the Wolfriders, but the way of the vast world at large. But he couldn't simply meet her eyes and let her down.

She broke in a run, and he took off reluctantly in her tow, willing to let her take the lead now that they were so close. Not that she seemed to mind for the swap of roles - on the far contrary. Magically, her energies seemed to have redoubled overnight, together with the old fervor. And yet... for all her show of bravado, he couldn't shake off the feeling that it was the fear she wanted to outrun.

At length, they came upon a little niche in the rocks where the female halted, out of breath.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Look - we did it! High Ones be praised![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Already she was kneeling by the crumpled bundle of blood-spattered  clothes and long hair. In a flash, the male was at her side.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Give her to me... there... easy.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] He let his hands run over the cold skin, looked desperately for even the feeblest spark of hope. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]High Ones have mercy...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It's not too late, is it?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] The female's sending was garbled with concern. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]You can do it, I'm certain you can...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I-I dont' know. I've never... not with someone so far gone...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]But it's not too late. She still has some life left in her. We can't have made it thus far just for nothing![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]It'll be difficult... I don't think I can do it![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]You can! Look at her. You are all that she has got... and she needs you[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] the female urged him.

Paralyzed, he looked at her first - and then, almost reluctantly, his eyes fell on the lifeless form in his lap.

From a youngest age, he had learned that everything perished, that it was simply in the nature of things - and in the nature of the Wolfriders - to lay down and die at the end of life.
Death, when it comes, is neither friend nor enemy, his elders used to say.

But there in his arms was a mere cub whose life was slipping away with each passing moment. A cub who should have long been dead, and yet refused to die young - a wild, restless cub who refused the Way and the teaching of the elves altogether, a cub who just wanted to be free.

The healer's lips set in a grim line. Within him, the wolf snarled and sprang into the darkness, lashing at it with his fangs and paws.

At the cost of every bit of strength and magic that he had in himself, he wouldn't let death claim this spirited cub who so desperately willed to live.

Christina Raibert

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Re: What's in your future? (What-If)
« Reply #1 on: August 13, 2014, 09:10:49 AM »

Chapter Two - Like the last time

Many turns of the Mother Moons later...


The Go-Back-turned-Wolfrider sat by herself on a low branch, kicking out her legs absent-mindedly. For once, she wasn't singing or whistling, and her eyes hadn't fled to the sky in that typical Skywise way that was so familiar to the other Wolfriders. But even though she sat with an air of casual ease, Tyleet could make out the tension in her shoulder, her head hung low, even from afar.

She had never seen her tribe-sister so upset, before. It was puzzling that Yun - Yun who had always been the strong one, and who took everything in stride - could look fragile and hurt like a lost little duckling.

"Yun...?" she repated, a little louder.

Hearing her name, Yun turned halfway. For a moment she struggled - and failed - to hide the disappointment that it was Tyleet, not Mender, who had come to seek her out. Then she smiled sadly. "Hey."

"I'm not bothering you, am I?"

"Not at all. Anything the matter?"

Tyleet gave a soft shrug of her shoulders. "Nothing particular. I just wanted to sit with you for a while. We can talk... or we can just wait together. But only if you don't mind", she added quickly - realizing, a moment too late, that her words could have rubbed Yun the wrong way.

But Skywise's daughter merely nodded, patting the branch next to her.

"Alright. Hop on."

Tyleet perched down at her side and smiled uncertainly. "Teir and Scouter took the cub out hunting. We can always use more food..."

"Hmmm. And Krim?"

"She's with Pike. Not sure what they're up to... and I feel I shouldn't even be asking."

Yun averted her stare, pretending to observe her lace-up boots with great interest. "I guess... she doesn't really think the world of me right now, does she?", she mumbled.

"We understand what you're going through, packsister", Tyleet assured her. She wanted to pull Yun in her arms and hold her in a fierce embrace, but she knew better. Yun was half Go-Back, even if right now, it was the she-wolf in her... no, the mother wolf in her - who pined, who paced restlessly outside the den and wasted away with worry. "There's not one among us that doesn't love Khorbasi. Pike understands... and so does Krim."

Yun turned and scrutinized her pensively, as if struck by a sudden thought.

"The howls about your human cub..." she said at length.


"Pike always puts so much emphasis on the love... the acceptance... the happy times."

At those words, Tyleet couldn't hold back a wistful smile. "That's how I still remember my Little Patch. A cub finding his way in the pack... but never too big not to cuddle under mother's wing, now and then." If she closed her eyes, she could almost hear her own mother Nightfall repeating those words to her.

"But what about - the rest?", Yun urged. "About the times that weren't happy, about..." She half-nodded, half-shrugged toward the hill that concealed the opening of her den. "For you, it must have been..."

"... dreadful?", Tyleet concluded for her. "In a way... I knew, since the day I took him in, that he would someday lay out his life like a wolf. That it was part of who he was... of what he was. But I had an hard time accepting it fully. It - never feels right - that a cub should die before his parents..."

"Yes!" Yun looked up, eyes glistening. "That's just it! Elders tread this world... and then they lay down to rest. The fawns - the pups - carry on after they're gone... that's how it should be. But our human cubs... their lives are so short. So poised! Khorbasi isn't even that old for their race, is he?"

Tyleet could only shake her head doubtfully. To the elves, even to the mortal Wolfriders, a human's lifespan always seemed exceedingly short, no matter how they looked at it.

Yun turned away stiffly, as if to lower an invisible curtain between them. "Excuse me. I should - act more like a Go-Back. High Ones know you don't want to hear my whines..."

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I'll always run to comfort a whining tribemate[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img], Tyleet corrected her. Her sending had the faintest echo of a surprised laugh to it. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I'm me, remember? You don't have to hide the pain you're in. Don't carry this burden alone - share it with me![img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

 [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]But you didn't have the choice with Patch... that I have with Khorbasi. I wouldn't fault you for walking off on me...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Don't even mention it.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Tyleet took her hand firmly in hers and grinned. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]That was then, and this is now. Think how many things have changed around us...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Some things never change[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Yun pointed out. She hesitated, then licked her lips nervously and asked; [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Then... you think it will work? Just like the last time?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] A part of her did not even dare hope.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]I trust Mender[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Tyleet simply replied.

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]He said...[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Even a hunt can go wrong[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img] Tyleet pointed out. [img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]And other times, it goes well. Right now, what Mender needs most - and Khorbasi too - is that you believe.[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Tyleet?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]Yes, Yun?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]If it works... do you think...?[img width= height=]http://s22.postimg.org/hlzihdyct/cy_diam.gif[/img]

Before Yun could formulate that thought, there was a rustling noise from the hill. The two elf maidens turned, to see Mender make his way out of the den. His golden hair was damp with perspiration, his skin ashen under the tan. But there was a look of wild, hard triumph in his steely gray eyes when he looked straight at Yun and grinned in spite of himself.

"It's done, lovemate! My magic will keep your human cub healthy and fit through many, many seasons..."

Yun didn't even say a word; she leaped down the branch and sprang in Mender's arms, pulling her to closer to him, crushing her lips against his own with all the desperate relief of a mother who had feared the worst. Then she untangled herself from the embrace and made her way past her lovemate, crawling into the dark entrance of the den.

Caught off guard by that flurry of actions, Mender shook his head slowly like an old wolf trying to get rid of a parasite. "Well... I had expected that she'd be happy, but not something like this... at this particular moment", he chuckled.

Tyleet grinned softly from atop the tree. "You have brought a tribemate back to us, dear healer. The tribe will have so much to celebrate tonight!" She tilted back her head and let out a triumphant howl, which was quickly echoed by Mender and the wolfpack.

Once again, the wolf had challenged the enemy - and came out the winner. The darkness had succumbed to light, and all was well again.

Christina Raibert

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Re: What's in your future? (What-If)
« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2014, 02:26:46 AM »

Chapter Three - A dark reflection

Later that night...

She leaned against a wall of the small cave and watched as her mother unwrapped the small bundle. "I've heard the howls, earlier on. What happened?"

"The human cub had fallen very ill."

"Cub? Oh, please! How long it has been since he was taken in? Certainly he's not a cub any longer, is he?"

Keeping track of time was effortless in the wild. She knew it, and her mother knew it also. But she still tried, whenever she got the chance. It was one of those little things that prevented her from going mad. Moreover, it still made her feel somewhat like herself. She clung at whatever little sign of time's passing she could find - yet she also felt the very notion of it slip from under her fingers in the same thought.

Disconcerting! Maddening! Let it go, don't try to wrap your mind around it. It doesn't matter, at any rate. She didn't like the way her thoughts tangled over certain things. It was much better to move past.

As if she had sensed her uneasiness, her mother looked up.

"What's biting at you?"

"Nothing." She gave her a forced smile, well aware of how terribly empty and false it must have looked like. Well, sorry, but she couldn't really do anything better than that, right now. "How about biting something ourselves, instead? I'm starving."

"Of course." Her mother's hazel eyes turned back to the bundle. "I'm sorry that you had to wait."

"No, it's alright", she assured, waving off her concerns nonchalantly. "I've watched after the fire while I waited... and carved myself some new tools. The old ones were falling in pieces. But I wish... I could have come with you."

"Don't ever say such a thing", her mother warned her. She had spoken quietly, but her shoulders gave a slight shudder and the younger female realized that she was thinking about what would be of them, if they were ever caught trespassing. Instinctively, she reached out and pulled her delicate mother in a fierce embrace.

"Shhh...", she whispered in her hair. "I know. Oh, mother, I know! And I hate that you have to go through all this for me. Would that I could pull my own weight!"

"In your own way, you are already doing so", her mother assured. It was a good-natured lie, but a lie nonetheless.

"How? I'm just a pathetic lump... a burden."

"No, dear one. You're a survivor, a fighter, a seeker. Never... a burden."

"Not even for you?"

"Especially not for me." Smiling, her mother brushed a rebellious tawny lock off her face. "Someday you'll find your place in your world."

"I don't... I have given up thinking about that", she quickly corrected herself. It wasn't a subject that she wanted to discuss, much less with her mother. She bent over to tale a small bowl and took a handful of strips of jerky meat from the bundle her mother had sprawled on the ground. "Care for some hot brew, mother? I can make you some."

"I already ate", her mother said diplomatically. "But thank you, anyway."

"Hmmm, I see you still haven't forgiven me for nearly burning that stew", she said, raising an eyebrow in mock offense. "That was an accident! How much longer will you hold it against me? I haven't burned anything else since then, have I?" At that, even her mother couldn't keep up a serious face and burst out laughing.

"Don't be silly. I had forgot that old thing until you brought it up."

"Yes, you have", she grinned teasingly. "I've seen the way you look at me when I get anywhere near the fire."

"Mothers will be mothers."

"And clumsy daughters will stay clumsy... So, uhm, you said that straw has fallen ill? How ill?"  She tried to make it sound like a casual question of no real importance.

"He contracted a very strong fever. It nearly killed him."

"Nearly?" she repeated, narrowing her eyes. "That's why they howled, then? Of course, I should have known... what else could get them so worked up?" She smiled, but her voice was dripping with sarcasm. Something, in the bitter curve of her mouth, sprang up an unpleasant memory in her mother's mind... a dark reflection, a shadow seeping over her features, corrosive like poison, like magic gone foul...

Without thinking, the older female jerked back. Her daughter looked up at her quizzically.

"Mother, what-?"

"Please..." In a flash her mother had taken her hands in hers and was holding them tightly. "I know you're still over it. I know you're confused and angry. But please, let it all steam off!"

"I wasn't..."

"Look at what you have. Is that not enough?"

She flinched, lowering her stare. How could she expect her sweet mother to understand, when she herself could barely make a head or tail of it? How could she explain that what she had wasn't enough, not by a long shot - and maybe it would never be - without coming off as petulant, demanding brat?

"What startled you so much? What did I say wrong?"

"It wasn't something you said", her mother whispered. "It was more like... the look in your eyes."

She offered her a sad, apologetic smile. "Sorry. I try to keep it light, I really do... and most of the times, I succeed. Just... not always. Not today."

Suddenly, she felt a great weariness heave on her. She just wished that the day - the night, she inwardly corrected herself - could wrap up already. Maybe everything would look different... better... once the dust settled.

"Let's not talk about this anymore, shall we? I don't want to upset you more than I already have", she said, trying to push all thoughts out of her mind for the time being. "You know what I'd really like?"


"Remember when I was still frail and sickly, and you taught me a new howl every night? I miss that." I miss you, she wanted to say - but caught the word before it left her lips.

Her mother smiled softly. "And which howl would you like to hear tonight?"

"I don't know. One that you haven't taught me yet. Something fun, something that will make me laugh and forget about everything else", she said, moving closer to the small fire. The shadow had lifted from her dark brown eyes; they sparkled with curiosity and affection. If there was any lingering trail of wistfulness to her gaze, she was trying hard to conceal it.

"Then I will tell you about that time when a little curious cubling wanted to know if she'd grow face-fur like Treestump when she was old..."

Christina Raibert

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Re: What's in your future? (What-If)
« Reply #3 on: April 15, 2015, 07:28:33 AM »

At long last, a brand new chapter! Hope you like this :)

Chapter Four - Changes

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Khorbasi knew that it had been only a few days since Mender had cured his fever. But for some strange reason the thought didn't strike him as very important - as very real. All he remembered was the slightly disconcerting dizziness he had felt, waking up to find the healer grinning at his side and his mother Yun's tear-streaked smile, beaming at him from across the dark.

Strange. Mender had already healed him once, when Yun had found him battered and unconscious in the woods - back when he was a cub. But in his memories of that first healing there was no dizziness. Not like the last time. Had it been an effect of the fever? He should have asked the healer about it, someday or other...

"So, Khorbasi." Chieftess Ember looked her tallest hunter over with a wry grin. "Ready to take back your place in the hunting party?"

"Hah - as if there's any doubt about that!" Krim laughed. "He's half Go-Back - and it takes far worse to keep a Go-Back from a good hunt." She playfully elbowed Khorbasi in the ribs. "Isn't that right?"

"I won't disappoint you, Chieftess", Khorbasi assured. But even as he spoke, his eyes were fixed in his mother Yun's own. She grinned too, nodded her approval. Her gray eyes were brighter than the blades at every Wolfrider - or Go-Back's - side as the hunting party began to advance in the thick brambles of the underwood. Scouter and Pool, the keenest eyes of the tribe, opened the pathway, and Teir and Ember rode behind them. Pike and Krim were in the middle - the Go-Back sitting behind her lifemate's mount, but clearly itching to dismount as soon as there'd be the chance to take down the largest game they could find. Next came Yun. And Dewshine, humming an old Wolfrider hunt howl. Khorbasi followed them on foot - with Sust riding at his left.

Tyleet had called herself out of that night's hunt. She still had some tanning work to finish - the White Cold was proving to be a particularly harsh and nippy one.

"Then tonight we'll howl louder so that you might hear us from the holt, lifemate" Dewshine had said, pressing her forehead against Tyleet's own. A quick exchange of glances - which had extended to include Scouter's dark eyes, and Pool's amber ones - had said everything that words could not express.

Be safe.

"We'll bring you fresh new hides for all, tanner", Khorbasi promised.

Tyleet had smiled back at him, but in her eyes he had perceived something - a flash of uncertainty. No, it was something else.


He had meant to ask her about it - but just then Ember had howled to summon the hunters, and the subject had been dropped.

But Khorbasi was still thinking about that look in her eyes.

It had been quick - too much so for a human to notice. Yet, he had noticed. It was as though he had become more attentive to details in his tribemates after the fever - as though his eyes were suddenly sharper, his sight clearer.

"So-ooo..." Sust grinned crookedly at him from astride his wolf-friend. "Now that Mender's put you back on your feet, you think you'll actually manage to take down a blackneck all on your own?"

"Why?" Khorbasi retorted. "Do you to learn how to take one down yourself?"

Goading, he knew, was the Go-Back's way to rile each other up in good humor. And just as could be expected, Sust immediately rose to the bait.

"Paugh! Your spear has no chance against mine, longshanks. I chipped a new tip while you were out. Great balance - almost as good as mother's finest!"

"Ah, but a spear's only as good as the arm holding it", Khorbasi remarked, with a wolfish sneer. "And how strong is your arm, Sust?"

"Surely stronger than yours, poking round-ears!"

"We'll see about that!"

"Anytime!" Sust concluded cheerfully. "Wanna bet? Two blacknecks down before the hunt is over - or before Ember balks out ears off."

"Fine. I'll even let you have a go at them first - happy? Think you can hit at least one, this way?"

"Stag chip!" the young Go-Back laughed, before hurrying his wolf-friend along. Khorbasi watched him like an affectionate old playfellow, his own deep human chuckle echoing Sust's own.

It felt so right, to be out there on a hunt with the rest of the tribe. Quickly, Khorbasi forgot all about the questions that he had meant to ask Mender or the apprehensive look in Tyleet's eyes. All those things were there - but less and less real compared to the thrill, the expectation, the cool night's breeze, the many scents and sounds that surrounded him. Overwhelming - for one who had not been brought up in the Wolfrider's tribe. But Khorbasi felt only confident. His swagger had something of the wolf's single-mindedness; cautious - ever alert - but also driven and self assured and yes, even a little cocky.

Was this the "Now of Wolf-Thought" his elders spoke about? Many times he had tried to wrap his human mind around it, not always succeeding. Yet it now seemed to be as much part of him as any other aspect of his Wolfrider upbringing.

And somewhere in the back of his head, he noticed, and wondered...

But then even that thought was swept away, when Scouter sent out to the hunters;

Blacknecks! A whole herd of them,  at the foot of this hill!

"Yes!" Sust's pointed canines gleamed in the dark, just as Khorbasi looked up sharply. "A herd of blacknecks right ahead of us - this will be a breeze! Ready, longshanks?" Then, noticing the young man's disconcert, he raised an eyebrow. "Hey? Everything alright?"

Khorbasi nodded quietly. But his stare still wandered. For a moment,  he had perceived... something brushing past him. Like a call that couldn't get through - a gesture dropped halfway through. He looked in confusion at the hunters, who were scattering under Ember's silent orders. He could have sworn he could very nearly sense the thoughts bouncing between the fire-haired chieftess and her tribesfolk; and with his knowledge of the tribe's hunting techniques, it was almost as if their thoughts had words.

... surround the herd on all sides, but leave a opening for...

Wolf Father, your pack will set the herd leader...

... up the trees, while Pool...


His mother Yun's voice, hoarse but gentle, came from his side. She had approached him silently, and now both she and Sust were watching him with identical concern. Khorbasi realized that he had tensed like a hare about to spring. His brow was covered with beady sweat.

"I'm fine", he said, relaxing the tension he still felt in his arms and shoulders.

"Are you sure?" Yun placed a hand on his forearm. "If you want to sit out this hunt until..."

"No, it will be alright", he assured, and flashed her a smile. "I'm good as new, mother. Come on, Sust" he said, urging the Go-Back toward Ember, who had also motioned closer and was observing them with her arms crossed on her chest.

They crept down the hill until the blacknecks herd was no more than a few leaps from their hiding places. Downwind, crouching low in the ferns, they inched closer, studying the her'd structure.

"The male on the left", Khorbasi said suddenly, pointing one of the blacknecks to Ember and Sust. "The big grizzled one. He's ill."

"We're not near enough to know for certain. He could just be aged", the Wolfrider chieftess wrinkled her nose. "And you know they still have strengths in their kicks, even when the fur begins to gray."

"No. He's aged, yes, but he's also ill... unfit."

Sust turned to look at him askance.

"How do you know?"

"His scent... it's faint, but also sickly sweet", Khorbasi tried to explain. "It smells of decay and death."

"Psht - as if a round-ears could--"

They were interrupted by Scouter, who leapt out of a towering branch like a squirrel on speed - landing right alongside them.

"Ember, I crept closer to the herd and studied their scents. The big gray one on the left is ill. Something's wrong within him. This would be his last White Cold anyway. He's ready... and tired."

"Told you so", Khorbasi grinned at Sust.

"Just how in the World of Two Moons did you know?!" the Go-Back blurted, his eyes so wide they might as well have popped out of his skull. Scouter looked lost, Ember said nothing - but her unreadable gaze made Khorbasi flinch.

"Are there other good targets for us, other than the grizzled male?", she asked Scouter, at length.

"A younger female with a bad leg - and..."

"... two yearlings", Khorbasi concluded at his place.

The three elves all turned to stare up at him in astonishment.

"Yes, two yearlings", Scouter nodded. "You spotted them from this distance?" He sounded impressed, and even a little reverent.

"I..." Khorbasi hesitated. He wasn't sure how to explain... it had just struck him at first glance from the herd's structure that there had to be young ones, eagerly waiting the chance to try out their horns and hooves. A few of the females were straying from the others, and their scent, however faint, told him that even though they hadn't started to swell, they were with fawns. But he didn't know only through his sight or his nose - there was also a deeper, instinctive consciousness that he had never before approached. Like the ancestral fear of all wild animals toward fire.

Sust ran a hand through his unruly locks. "Alright, if I had known a fever could heighten's one's skills like this - I would have spent more time around Khorbasi when he was sick!"

"Hush", Ember silenced him with a growl, shifting her attention from Khorbasi onto the herd.

And before the young elf-adopted Longrider knew it, the hunt was on, all around him. Wolves and riders darted from the bushes, while the blacknecks scattered in all directions.

In the flurry of blades, fangs and bodies, Pool's arrow hit the big grizzled male. Krim and Pike closed in with spears, to finish the kill. Teir's wolves were chasing off the fittest of the herd - so they could live on, and thrive, and replenish the Wolfriders with new meat.

Khorbasi's spear found one of the yearling's side. Sust, a wicked grin spread over his features, went right for the other. But he was on the wrong side, and as the wind shifted, the blackneck whipped his head around in his assailant's direction. He knew that his small horns would be little use in a fight. His hooves, on the other hand...

In a flash, the blackneck rose on his hinds legs and kicked out. One of the kicks hit Sust's shoulder, and the young elf recoiled with a pained growl, his grip on the spear faltering. Stumbling, he tried to get out of the rampaging herbivore's way...

"Sust!" Khorbasi cried. He gave his spear a sharp yank, ripping it free from the fallen yearling's body, and threw it at the blackneck who had charged Sust. Without aiming. Without thinking. He only wanted to divert the blackneck long enough for Sust to regain his footing.

But the spear hit home, the deadly flint point piercing deep into the beast's flesh. The blackneck screeched and made an attempt to bolt - only for Sust's wolf-friends to clamp his a-kickin' legs in a vise-like grip. But already the spasms of death were quenching, and in a couple more seconds, the blackneck lay still and lifeless on the blood-stained grass below.

It was as though the hunt had frozen. One by one, the Wolfriders turned to stare at Khorbasi as if only seeing him for the first time. And in every unblinking pair of eyes he could read the same question; How could he strike so quickly and hit so true?

Astonished, Khorbasi took a step back, on shaky legs. Sust had scrambled back to his feet, and now looked at him with wonder.

"I'd say...! You've been working on that aim, longshanks!", he cheered.

Krim had come up the hill too, and looked at Khorbasi with a new respect. "Hah! Not bad at all - almost as good as any Go-Back's!"

"I didn't-" Khorbasi stammered. "I just wanted to get that blackneck off Sust."

"And you saved my berries, this much's for sure!" the young elf grinned, patting him proudly on the back. "Now there's something to howl about tonight! Eh, Father?"

Khorbasi didn't even hear Pike's reply. He was watching Ember... and Mender. Cutter's flame haired daughter had turned toward the golden healer, and in the way they stared at each other, Khorbasi once more had the feeling - vague, indistinct, but unmistakable - that they were sending out their thoughts to one another.

For a moment... just a brief moment... he even thought he caught a single word pass between chieftess and healer.

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