"I've found you."
Suddenly, the already frigid forest seemed to grow even colder. A breeze blew through the clearing, making the bearded man's coat flutter around his ankles like a shadowy cape. Slung over his back was the same curved sword that he'd tried to kill me with the last time we'd met. I took a step backwards, my blood freezing solid in my veins, and let out a pitiful whine. The next thing I knew, Stark was standing in front of me, arms held out like a protective fence.
"Stop right there," he snarled. "Not one step closer!"
The bearded man looked up at my alpha without a trace of fear in his eyes. "I take it you are the alpha of this one's pack?"
Stark gritted his teeth, anger and fear radiating off of him so hot it almost melted the snow. He was breathing heavily. Slowly, with a trembling hand, he pointed at him.
"You turn around," he said, "and leave."
The bearded man sighed and shook his head. "Regrettably, I cannot. The girl escaped from me last time. I've been ordered to track her down and finish her off."
"She's just a child!" Stark yelled.
"Be that as it may, she is also a monster. I have no choice. For the sake of the human race, she must die." The bearded man paused and narrowed his eyes. "As do you, alpha."
I stood behind Stark with my paws rooted to the frozen ground. His words and his expression were so different that it was like someone had dubbed over what he was really saying and replaced it with someone else's voice. His words were those of a monster, but his eyes were filled with sadness and his voice was heavy with reluctance. At the same time, when he drew his sword, the blade reflecting the moonlight in my eyes, there was no hesitation in his movements.
Stark clenched his fists and drew them in closer to his body in a boxing stance. "I'm warning you, old man," he said, his voice suddenly very low.
For just a moment, the Slayer paused. "Please don't think ill of me for this," he said. "I don't get any pleasure from it."
"Go to hell!"
The Slayer raised his sword. "Very well. Let's get this over with."
Without turning away, Stark said, "Amber, run!"
Then he threw himself at the Slayer. My breath caught in my throat as I watched my alpha attack an armed man with nothing but his fists— an armed man who I'd seen defy the laws of physics before. The Slayer immediately swung his sword and I flinched, convinced that Stark was going to get turned into sashimi, but then Stark twisted his body in a way that my eyes told me shouldn't have even been possible, the blade barely missing him by an inch, and thrust his fist towards the Slayer's face.
"I said run!" he yelled at me as the bearded man ducked out of the way and spun around, fluidly turning his dodge into another attack. His sword came whipping around from his right, slicing through the air with a hiss, and even though Stark was able to dodge it, the tip still left a long, thin slice along his cheek. Blood immediately began to run down his face, staining his shirt.
My body reacted to his command in two ways at once. Half of me, the submissive wolf part, tensed her muscles to turn and sprint to safety. It was what he'd told me to do after all, and a good wolf obeys its alpha. The other half, the human half, dug her claws into the ground stubbornly. Stark had taken care of me, my mom, and Kimberly, all without asking a single thing in return. I couldn't just leave him here to face the Slayer alone.
Stark dropped to the ground and swung his leg out, trying to knock the Slayer's feet out from under him, but the Slayer leaped over it, as nimble as a man half his age. While in the air, he put his foot against a tree behind him and shoved off of it, soaring over Stark's head. His sword flashed through the air again, trying to cleave Stark's skull open from above, but Stark leaned back on his heel and spun with all the grace of a ballerina, revolving around the blade without being touched by it.
Like a spring loaded trap, I thought. And somebody finally sprang him.
The Slayer landed on the ground, skidding a few feet in the snow, and then spun around to face Stark again— just in time to get a big, furry fist in his face.
"Amberrrr," Stark growled again through his midshifted mouth, "I said... rrrrrun!"
The Slayer staggered back a few steps, and then reached out and grabbed a nearby tree branch to steady himself. A thin trail of blood snaked out of his nose where Stark had punched him, but he didn't seem dazed at all as he raised his sword in both hands and took a defensive stance. Stark drew up to his full height, teeth reflecting the moonlight as he bared them in a rabid snarl. He charged at the Slayer like a bullet fired from a gun and swept his claw-tipped hands out in front of him. The Slayer leaned backwards out of the way, and Stark followed it up with a kick, his foot connecting with the bearded man's chest and sending him flying backwards.
When the Slayer went flying, he ended up passing less than a foot away from me. For one cold, heart stopping second, his eyes connected with mine. Then he was gone, the momentum of Stark's kick carrying him away from me until he collided with a tree. The impact shook the trunk, making snow spill out of the branches and pile on top of him. Stark and I stood still, waiting...
Then, like someone had set off a bomb in the ground, the snow exploded where the Slayer lay. Stark spun around and tackled me, and a minute later we were both struck by a gust of wind as powerful as a speeding truck. Standing between me and the Slayer, Stark took the brunt of the impact, but the force was still powerful enough to throw us backwards. We went rolling head over paws, the wind still battering us from every angle until...
The wind just stopped. I could hear it howling all around us, but it wasn't touching us anymore. We were back in the arena, I realized. The Slayer's blizzard was still raging, kicking the snow into a freezing white tornado around the edges of the ring, but not a single flake made it through Stark's magic barrier. It was like a snow globe in reverse. Stark rolled off of me with a groan, and I opened my eyes. He moved stiffly and clutching his ribs, and I could see his eyes struggling to stay open. The midshift was taking its toll on him.
"Told you..." he growled, panting with his tongue hanging out of his snout, "to... rrrrun!"
I couldn't, though. Stark wasn't just my alpha, he was the reason we were all alive. Me, Mom, Kimberly, we all would have died if he hadn't taken us in. Hell, I would have died while I was still in the Swag Pag if it wasn't for him! We were all in his debt, me most of all. And because of that, I couldn't leave him here alone. Not while I could still fight! I would have told him this, if I'd been able to speak. Instead, I just stepped forward and pressed myself against his side.
I'm with you till the end.
Stark's canine ears twitched, and he suddenly turned to look to our left. I followed his gaze, and saw a shadow in the blinding whiteness, slowly growing larger as it drew closer. A tunnel opened up in the blizzard, like the wind was suddenly blowing everywhere but there, and I caught a glimpse of the man with the red beard. He stood tall even after taking that kick from Stark, which should have been enough to break his ribs, and his sword was held in his right hand, the tip pointed at us.
"Out of all the monsters in the world," he said, his deep voice carrying over the howling winds, "werewolves are the only ones I pity."
He stepped over the boundary. "You aren't like the other monsters. You weren't born this way. You were corrupted."
Stark snarled at him and rose to his feet. His legs were shaking beneath him, ready to give out at any second. A chill ran down my spine as I watched the Slayer and my alpha face each other down.
A dead weight settled in my stomach. There was no way out of this.
We were both going to die.
With a half shout, half howl of rage, Stark threw himself at the Slayer, and I gasped as the scene played itself out in front of my eyes a split second before it actually happened. Exhaustion slowed his movements, dulled his thinking, and sure enough...
The Slayer swung his sword, and I heard the distinct sound of steel slicing through flesh. Blood spattered the earth at Stark's feet, and my alpha froze where he stood. I couldn't see the wound with his back turned to me, but I knew it must have been bad. Stark was tough. He wouldn't stop moving in the middle of a fight for anything less than a crippling blow... or a killing one.
He teetered, and then fell. My stomach turned over when I saw the gigantic, bloody gash running from the left side of his stomach to his right shoulder, and I forced myself to look up— which wasn't much help, since the only other thing to look at was the Slayer. He gave Stark a kick, not a hard one, just enough to scoot him over so that his hand left the ring. The raging winds immediately grabbed hold of him, sucking him out of the arena and into the blizzard, where I lost sight of him.
"And now," the Slayer said, bringing my attention back to him, "to finish what I began."
He turned to me and began to make his way across the ring toward me. I let out a whine, my tail going between my legs, and I backed away from him. I stopped at the edge of the arena when the icy wind clipped my tail. A blizzard that would tear me apart behind me, and a man I was increasingly becoming convinced was the grim reaper himself in front of me. I was trapped. Trapped like a common animal.
What do I do, what do I do, WHAT DO I DO?
Fight! my wolf side screamed at me. Are you prey or are you wolf? No just stand there, FIGHT HIM!
My body moved on its own accord, crouching down, baring its teeth, and then springing at the Slayer. It was right. I wasn't some rabbit, cornered and waiting for death. I was a wolf, queen of the forest, and I'd rather die fighting than—
The Slayer struck me across the face with his empty hand, and I went flying off course. I hit the ground, skidding to a stop at the edge of the arena at nearly a 90 degree angle from where I'd started. But... but how? I had been coming full speed at him! The amount of strength he'd have needed to throw me off course like that was... was...
"I know you don't care," he said, looking at me out of the corner of his eye, "and I don't blame you. But for what it's worth, I'm sorry that things have to be like this."
Freaking... monster... I thought, my mind moving sluggishly after such a heavy blow to the head. I struggled to put my paws underneath me and stand up, but the world turned sideways and I fell back down. It has to be this way? Killing innocent people? What the hell's wrong with you?
"You used to be human," he continued, turning towards me once again and raising his sword. "I would hope that you could understand why I'm doing this. For the sake of the human race." He paused. "But I can see in your eyes that you don't."
You're freaking right I don't, you piece of trash!
He sighed. "I suppose it can't be helped. Very well, then." He raised his sword. "I hope you can find peace, at least, in the next world."
Time seemed to slow down as the Slayer drew the curved sword back behind his head. It was over. I couldn't beat him, there was no way. He had already beaten Stark, and Stark had beaten me every single time we fought.
Every time except one.
Reacting without thinking about it, I shifted. It was the fastest I'd ever transformed, going from wolf to girl in less than a second. The sudden change in perspective threw me off guard, but my body kept moving, acting out the plan on its own without me having to guide it. In the split second before the Slayer could bring his sword down, I leaped to my feet and brought one of my legs up towards the Slayer's crotch as quickly as I could. Was it a dirty move? Yes, yes it was. But Stark had told to take any advantage that was offered to me, any advantage at all. That meant if my only hope to stay alive was to fight dirty, I'd fight dirty. I'd kick that Slayer so hard that he would...
The Slayer's hand shot down and caught my foot just before it connected with him. He looked up at me with cold, disapproving eyes, and I gasped. That... that wasn't fair. He couldn't do that to me. That move was the only thing I had. He couldn't block it. That wasn't fair!
"Dirty fighting reveals a dirty spirit," he said, giving my leg a twist. I went spinning in the air and landed on my back, staring up at him. "Perhaps I shouldn't feel so regretful about this after all."
He raised his sword again.
"Goodbye, young lady."
He swung the sword, and I cringed, raising my hand in a pointless attempt to stop him.
What happened after that, happened so quickly that I almost didn't see it. A bolt of red light shot into the arena, hitting the Slayer on the shoulder. He was thrown backwards with a cry of pain, his sword coming half an inch from my face. He landed on his back and immediately rolled over and got back to his feet, ignoring the sizzling wound on his shoulder, grasping his sword with both hands. I lay on the ground, still waiting to die, too stunned to realize what was happening.
"Who's there?" the Slayer demanded, looking frantically around at the swirling winds outside the ring. "Show yourself!"
A small red light blinked into existence in the midst of the blizzard, and we both turned to look as it gradually grew brighter and brighter, until...
"Hello, Granger," said Victor as he stepped into the arena with us. In his hand he held his golden scepter, its ruby glowing with power.
For once, absolute shock replaced the look of cool control on the Slayer's face. He gaped at Victor like he was looking at a ghost. The winds suddenly died all at once, leaving the forest as calm as before.
"It can't be," he whispered.
Victor stepped further into the ring. "I've been looking everywhere for you, old man."
The Slayer took a deep breath to steady himself. "Victor," he said. his voice was quavering.
"Surprised to see me?" Victor asked, his lip curling in derision. "Did you think I was dead?"
The Slayer slowly shook his head. "I- I didn't..."
"You know how hard it is to kill me. Did Mortoph really think burning my house down would be enough?"
The Slayer hesitated, but then said, "I knew you were alive. I... lied to the Master to keep him from hunting you down again."
"Is that supposed to make things all right, Granger?" Victor demanded. "Am I supposed to forgive you after what you did to me?"
The Slayer, Granger I guess his name was, finally seemed to regain some measure of composure. His eyebrows drew down low over his eyes. "You're a traitor, Victor. You pledged your allegiance to the Slayers, and then you broke that oath. You got what you deserved!"
Victor's hand tightened around his scepter, and the gem began to glow even brighter. "How dare you?" he asked, his voice hoarse with outrage. "What did they have to do with any of this? What did they do to deserve what Mortoph did to them?"
They? I wondered. Who were they?
Granger gritted his teeth, but didn't answer.
"You're the real traitor, Granger," Victor went on. "After all we'd been through together, you still turned me over to Mortoph without a second thought!"
"I had to!" Granger yelled back. "You don't understand. That was the most difficult thing I've ever done, but I had to do it. My loyalty—"
"Your loyalty means nothing! Your loyalty belonged to us before we ever joined the Slayers." Victor paused, breathing heavily. "I betrayed the Slayers, but that was so I could go back where I belonged. You... Granger, you betrayed me!"
All three of us turned to look as someone else came running up to us out of the darkness.
"Victor," Ed yelled, skidding to a stop at the edge of the ring. He gave the Slayer a wary glance. "Mr. Wrogan said—"
Victor turned his scepter on Ed and shot a blast of energy that passed less than an inch above the boy's head and struck the tree behind him, making the entire thing explode in a cloud of ash.
"Edgar," he growled, his human face somehow looking even more animalistic than Stark had in his midshift, "leave... me... alone."
Ed paled when he saw the look in Victor's eyes, and reluctantly backed away into the forest, where the darkness swallowed him up again.
"Four years," Victor said, turning to point his wand at Granger again. "Four years I've been looking for you. There hasn't been a single night when I haven't imagined all the ways I want to torture you to make you pay for what you did."
His eyes were wide and wild, but the hand that held his scepter was steady, aimed right at Granger's heart.
"I don't want to fight you, Victor," Granger said, but he raised his sword anyway. "For the sake of the friendship we used to have, leave now. I won't tell Master Mortoph I saw you tonight."
A smile slowly stretched across Victor's face. "You don't want to fight me? Of course you don't. You couldn't kill me if you tried, old man." He took a deep breath. "Do you know what I want?"
Granger lowered himself into a battle stance. "I think I can guess."
"I want my family back!"
With that, Victor swung his scepter like a sword, the gem leaving a scarlet afterimage in its wake. Granger countered the attack with his curved sword, and as soon as the two weapons touched a blinding red light erupted from Victor's scepter, and I had to close my eyes or be blinded. While I had my eyes closed, I felt a strong hand wrap around my shoulder and drag me out of the arena.
"Let me go!" I screamed, lashing out before I had a chance to think. My fist bounced harmlessly off the thick muscled hand that was holding me, but it let go and dropped me down into the snow anyway. Gasping for breath, I rolled over and looked up at the massive shadow towering over me. "Mr. Wrogan?"
"Quiet," the giant whispered in a low rumble. "Follow me, hurry!"
I put my hand on a tree and struggled to get back to my feet. "I can't, not without Stark."
"I've already found him," Wrogan promised me. "Now, come on before he notices you've disappeared!"
Another red flash came from the ring behind me, followed by a quick series of pings as Victor and the Slayer exchanged blows. I fought the urge to look back, and fixed my eyes on Mr. Wrogan as he led me away from the fighting. A minute later, we found Stark lying on his back in the snow, unmoving. He had gone back to his human form when he'd lost consciousness. Blood stained his chest, what was left of his shirt, and the snow all around him. For a second I thought he was dead, but then...
"A- Amber?" he grunted, turning his head to look at me though heavy eyelids.
"Stark!" I exclaimed, ducking around Wrogan to kneel by his side. "Oh my God, are you... no, you're not all right. I- I—"
"Here," Wrogan tapped something on my shoulder, and I turned to see him holding a vial of green potion. "Make him swallow it. It's concentrated ramidreju potion. It'll heal him."
I snatched the vial out his hand before he'd even finished talking. It took me a couple tries to pull the cork out with my numb, trembling fingers, but I did and then held it close to Stark's lips.
"You have to drink this," I told him. Oh, God, his breathing was so shallow! He wasn't going to last much longer. "Stark, please! Open your mouth!"
"Amber?" he asked again. He was looking right at me, but I could tell he wasn't really seeing me. "A- Are you..."
"I'm fine," I told him. "Now open your mouth!"
"Are... are you all..." He started to cough, and a few drops of blood spattered on my face.
"Hurry," Mr. Wrogan urged me. "He doesn't have long."
Before Stark could ask again, I reached my hand into his mouth, grabbed his lower jaw, and wrenched his mouth open. With my other hand, I upended the potion into his mouth, pouring it down his throat. Stark began to cough again, and his jaw instinctively clenched— with my hand still in it.
I screamed as pain lanced through my fingers, and I jerked them backwards out of his mouth. Stark collapsed again, fading from consciousness. Blood was pouring from my hand too now, steaming in the cold winter air as it cascaded down my arm, and...
Stark was a Silverblood. There was silver in his veins, and apparently in his saliva too. I may have been a Silverblood as well, but I was a failure. Silver might not burn me like acid the way it does normal werewolves, but I was far from immune to it. I stared at my arm as all feeling gradually faded away from it, and it flopped limply to my side.
"Are you all right?" Mr. Wrogan asked, crouching down next to me.
"I can't move my arm," I admitted. Strangely, my arm wasn't the only thing that was feeling numb. All my emotions were fading away now, too. I knew I was still in danger. I knew I should be terrified, shaking with fear, and crying from my new injury, but I didn't. No, I couldn't. I'd been through too much tonight. I was all out of emotions. I was tired, and I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep right here.
"You'll be all right," Wrogan said, and then he looked at Stark. "The potion's already beginning to work as well. Can you walk?"
I wanted to tell him no. I wanted to tell him to go screw himself and leave me alone, let me sleep. Instead I nodded and got back to my feet. Mr. Wrogan gingerly picked Stark up in both arms, like he was cradling a baby, and we set off toward the cabin.
"We have to go as fast as we can," he said over his shoulder. "The longer we wait, the greater the chance that—
Before he could finish, another red flash came from behind us. This one was much, much brighter than the others, and it was accompanied by a BOOM that shook the ground underneath my feet. Wrogan and I both spun around just as a wave of heat washed over us. The snow under our feet melted in an instant, leaving us standing on mud, and I raised my good hand to shield my eyes. When I lowered it again, it took almost a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness again. I blinked a few times, and then looked around. Victor and Granger were nowhere to be seen.
And neither was a huge chunk of the forest around where they'd been fighting.
A massive circle of gray ash stretched out in front of us, the edge a mere thirty feet away from where we stood. At the very center, like the bullseye on a target, I could see a much smaller circle of dry, brown dirt.
I knew I should be freaking out, crying, or at least feel a little bit of surprise, but I simply couldn't muster up the energy I needed to feel those emotions. Instead, I just turned around and headed back for the cabin. After a minute, Mr. Wrogan turned and followed me, his boots making loud squishing sounds as they sank into the mud.
"Amber!" I heard my Mom's frantic cries coming from further up the hill. "Amber, where are you? Can you hear me?"
I emerged from the woods, and she gasped and ran to me. I managed to make it halfway up the yard before my strength finally gave out, and I collapsed into her arms.
"Amber, are you okay? Oh my God, your arm! What happened out there? What..."
Her voice faded away as I let myself go, sliding into unconsciousness.
NEXT TIME: Well, that wraps that up— but it also raises a hundred other questions. Will Amber ever find out what just went on down in the arena? Does she even want to?