A twig snaps underfoot.
But I'm standing still.
I draw my breath, the forest falling silent at the sound. The trees encircling me lean closer, listening intently, waiting to see what may happen. I hold my hands together, hoping to control the tremor in my fingers.
I don't bother to turn, to look or even call out. I don't need to. I have no way of telling what's behind me; nothing but a feeling in my gut. Under the starlight, my eyes are blind to the subtleties of the shadows. Everything around me is nothing but shades of darkness, with only the white pricks of stars above piercing the night's veil.
I'm not shivering because I'm cold. The tremors in my limbs are not because I'm afraid.
My limbs twitch because I can't stand still any longer, because I know who stands behind me. But my excitement is extinguished by despair.
Everything feels so familiar; reality mirroring the memory. Closing my eyes makes no difference; the scenes are so perfectly aligned; exactly the memory shared only by one other. Any joy I might of felt died with the hope I once held, such a long time ago. I don't care to count the years; it hurt too much to tally the numbers.
I know he understands my question. The silence tells so. What else would I say? I knew he heard my cries; both the deranged, the despair and desperate. The ears the gods blessed him are as sharp as any other hunters.
The silence, the waiting; it only deepens my despair.
Please, say something.
I feel so foolish to even hope so.
But he's not going to. He'll just transform back into the trees or merge into the mist. If I turn around, if I call out, he'll do that too. I can't follow at his speed, I can't track his prints and I can't even see. My petty excuse for sight is nothing but blindness to him.
I smile bitterly, looking up to the stars and remembering how he would call me barely better than a pup. Deaf, blind, and barely able to smell. I always thought he would of known how much I hated my weakness, and admires his own strengths.
I thought he would have wanted that.
The soft scuffle of leaves under foot lets me know he is still here.
Any sense of relief or misplaced forgiveness by his continued presence holds no meaning for me. It would have all that time ago, but I now know the reason. I've lived through those moments almost every night of my life, seeing my mistake played before me over and over.
I can't help but know any better. Every detail is burned into my memory, flashing before me underneath my eyes.
"You finally accept your blood."
The words fly on the wind as whispers only. At first I heard the words as clearly as if I had spoken them, but in the deathly silence I doubt them.
Were they real? Did I just hear what I wanted? I'm sure after this long, my mind will play tricks. It's done so before.
I just nod. It doesn't matter if the voice I heard is nothing but the air's callous joke. My answer doesn't change; real or imagined makes no difference.
You can't change what you are, no matter how much you might want. The world is cruel like that.
Cruel but beautiful. The first streaks of blue pain the sky above me, the birds in the trees stiring to the first light of day.
I sit down, trailing my fingers across the damp leaves, sprawling across the ground. I gloss over the tracks set in the dew, knowing I could track with my eyes only. The forest would not talk to me the way it did for him. I would have to search, while it would show him.
So much of him made me jealous. Even the mere memory of him stirs my emotions.
Seems I've never really gotten over it. I place my hands together, tapping my fingers against my knuckles. I bite my lip.
The spectre haunting my finally makes himself manifest; my ears alert to the soft crunch of leaves under his feet.
I lock my jaw.
At least I'm not the animal.
I throw my head up to the sky, laughing manically as I feel his hot breath on my back.
"I've waited so long for this moment, and I have nothing to say," I spit, venting my anger. Years of hurt bubbles away in my veins, my blood boiling.
His footsteps stop, waiting for me to turn and face him. After all this time, he still wants to call the shots.
"No." I snarl, "I didn't seek you out. You came to me; at least be decent enough to tell me what you want of me."
"It seems you still are not at peace."
"Yes, state the obvious!"
I rise to my feet, finding the will to walk away from him and towards the beckoning shadows beneath the trees.
"Why can't you just answer Telir?" I curse aloud, throwing my head up to the sky.
"Don't play games. I know you won't leave. Regardless of my reasons, you want me here too." Telir laughs. "Tell me, does it ain you to be unable to fulfil your desires?"
I turn to face him, taking a sharp breath of cold air. I hold back the rising urge to choke, watching him stand there before me, exactly the same as that day. His sharp yellow eyes glint with delight in the moonlight, watching me like prey. He smiles cruelly, exposing his long white fangs hiding behind his black lips and a red tongue; muzzle part open. I stare back at his lupine face, my eyes drinking in every detail, watching for the slightest flick of an ear, or the faintest crack in his grin. Something, anything that might give him away.
"I gave up that path long ago, after you forced me from it," I spit, my anger starting to boil over.
He flicks his ears casually in response, rolling his flat tongue over the tips of his fangs, taunting me while his wolven eyes remain fixed on me. The faint swish of his tail is the only sound in the deserted glade. All the other creatures fled as soon as they caught his scent.
"Oh, but the desire grows once again. Has the memory faded that much?" he lopes closer, crossing the gap between us in a heartbeat. He presses his towering body against me forcing my cheek against the coarse fur on his chest as he towers above me. I try to pull away from his embrace, coughing at the intensity of his scent, but I'm unable to escape his grip. I hear him crooning softly in my ear as he lowers his head towards me, parting his jaws. The stink of his fetid breath causes bile to rise in my throat as he moves, gently trailing the tips of his fangs over the pale flesh of my neck.
All it would take is one bite.
Telir presses his fangs down against my skin poised to bite, both of us deathly still.
I close my eyes.
Laughter echoes through my ears; a deep rumbling growl that makes my bones vibrate.
"You're no different now then you were twenty years ago. Still begging to become a wolf," Telir leers, bending down so that his lupine face is level with mine. I feel the full intensity of his eyes, glinting with delight as he toys with me.
"We're both liars," I counter, my anger heightened by his contempt of me. Surrendering myself, my fist flies through the air, smacking him hard on the tip of his muzzle. He staggers back, clutching his sensitive nose; the blood running from it glistening even in the moonlight. He snarls angrily, leaping towards me, eyes ablaze that a mortal could draw his blood.
His body collides with mine, bones smacking painfully together. We hit the ground in a flurry of dust, the weight of him upon me crushing the breath out of my lungs.
"You whelp!" Telir snarls, his blood dripping onto my face. "How dare you?" he growls, wrapping a single paw around my neck, slowly squeezing the life out of me.
My body screams in pain, every nerve afire with it. I smile, determined to deny him any satisfaction. Mustering what remaining breath I can, I spit right into his face, smiling bitterly.
"I have changed," I croak.
Something collides with my killer, sending my battered body tumbling across the dirt. Gulping in air and drunk on oxygen, I despair as another beast enters the scene. The wolf slams down my attacker with his paws, beating Telir into submission until he gets what he wants; a series of frenzied yelps. With that taken care of, I lie exhausted on the ground as my 'savour' stalks towards me.
I groan in disdain at his familiar markings and how every strand of fur glows silver in the light of the moon.
"You could at least be grateful," he barks, looking down at me with a grin.
"Does it look like I'm happy to see either of you?" I retort, averting my gaze.
"I'm a marginal improvement," Lehelki laughs. "It's been such a long time. You look terrible."
"No thanks to him over there," I spit, nodding my head towards the pair of amber eyes skulking in the shadows.
"It truly has been too long," he shakes his head, sighing.
"Not long enough it seems, I'm not dead."
He tilts his head to the side.
"You haven't moved on one bit."
"How do you think I could? After what you did, why on earth do you think I'd come to forgive you?"
"I appreciated your eagerness then, but I could never be the one to fulfil your wish." His voice is oddly respectful.
"Lies. You could have. You all could have. But I didn't matter then, did I?"
"Stop being melodramatic. Every creature overvalues their worth in the world. Why should anyone waste their time and energy just so you can pursue your ideal aesthetics?" Lehelki asks.
"You know, I'd find your speech eloquent if it wasn't coming from a wolf's muzzle. Since when did you try to spare anyone's feelings? You threw Sol out when she couldn't give you pups."
I knew that would rile him. Lehelki was always wrapped up in proving his lineage and continuing his line. Instead, he remains calm, doing his best to form a smile over his clenched jaw.
"Oh, but I'm important now aren't I? Keeping me sweet are you? Well, this meeting is not going well to my taste. I've been savaged by your pet dog, and you won't even apologise for not keeping him on his leash?"
The wolf laughs, gently pulling me to my feet. He dusts the dirt of me, ruffling my hair affectionately, still chuckling at my joke. In an instant his mood flips, snarling fiercely as he holds me by the throat, snapping his jaws an inch away from me.
"I won't play your games," he snarls, attempting to force my submission like the other wolf. I just remain impassive, tired of his predictable response. "You will -"
"I won't," I interrupt. His eyes blaze at my insubordination, but I continue to ignore him. "I won't play your games either. I'm not one of you, if I remember you said correctly," I retort.
Of course he would remember what he said all those years ago. He swallows, dropping his fierce mask.
"I did say that," he nods, flicking his eye back to mine. "It's hard to entreat with other creatures besides your kin."
I brush off his belated apology with a gruff look. I'm obviously not one of his kind.
"Just out with it. What do you want?" I snap, wishing this ordeal to be over.
I laugh out loud, holding my sides. The sound of my amusement is the only noise rising from the otherwise silent clearing.
"You want my help?" I ask again, my words dripping with sarcasm. "What possibly could the mighty wolf need my help for?" I shake my head, still grinning. This couldn't be any more amusing. "No, I'm not sorry. You don't understand how ironic this is."
Even as I utter those words, I feel a twinge in my heart, cutting my laughter short. I recoil at the feeling, surprised that some part of me felt some sympathy for the heartless beast standing before me. Nevermind the rest of his kin, they may all burn. But Lehelki?
The memories had not completely deserted me, even in my long exile.
"You still remember," he says softly, keeping his voice low enough that only I might hear. "I thought for a second your better qualities might have vanished."
I turn on him swiftly.
"You said they were weak. You said I could never be one of you because of them."
He regards me thoughtfully, crouching down so that we meet at equal standing.
"It took me many years to recognise their value. Believe me; it is not without some sense of poetic justice that I understand my past mistakes."
I shake my head; knowing from the towering form of Lehelki that there's nothing wrong with him.
"I wish you were right," he says quietly, picking up on my thoughts. "But you know our legends. You know how I pushed everyone to strengthen the blood of the wolf in us. The justice? It was at the expense of our human blood."
I don't need him to say anymore. I am well aware of the implications of his speech; he taught me his kind's legends. The blood is what makes the beast; a mix of human and wolf in perfect balance.
"Why did you ever think tipping the balance would be good for you?" I ask, unable to fully believe his conscious folly.
"You're aware of the circumstances." His breath is slow and shallow; lupine eyes glossed over. "I chose to give into fear, I reacted against my humanity, I rejected it because of it. I should have not let my emotions lead my actions."
I regard his newfound humility with caution, still unwilling to lend the beast my sympathy. I know his intention is to apologise, but I'd find more solace in knowing my rejection was right, and not a mistake. I got through it knowing so.
"And what do you ask of me now?" I ask, my old envy of the creature rising once again.
I would have felt joy. I should have felt joy. Only a crushing burden of responsibility and disappointment.
"I ask to bind your blood to my kind."
It comes as a dagger to hear him finally say those words. It is undeniable what the future holds.
"Because of my folly many of us succumb to our primal urges, becoming nothing more than mindless beasts. I feel the bloodlust clawing at the edges of my conscious, and it takes all my will to hold it out." He says with a glint of desperation in his eyes, his voice rasping.
For all his bravado, he is closer to the end than he would ever let on.
It is with no sense of eagerness that I dip my head in assent. No excitement, no joy. Not even fear of what is to come.
Just numbness, knowing that soon, the ancient blood pact will claim Lehelki for its own. The price of violating that eldritch treaty… it is the counterweight to all the benefit is brings.
I don't feel any pain. Only the trails of blood dripping down his white fangs tell me the deed is done.
"Listen to me," he pants, focusing his last few moments. "You are my hope. Don't make the same mistakes as I did.
I watch as my old friend fades away on the wind, leaving me alone in the silent clearing once more.