“There’s no debate,” Gideon said. “We’ve got to attack the wolves.”
“What if there are kyrie scouts, though?” said Sharwin. “It’s nearly dawn. What if kyrie fly overhead and see us?”
“Then we’re done for,” Gideon said grimly. “We’ll have to try to make it back to Hyleran before we’re ambushed. But if Kaori’s scouts are right, then the wolves have caught our scent. We don’t have a choice. We can’t let them reach Valkrill. If we catch them, then we still have a chance to surprise Valkrill. If we let them go, then we might as well start heading for Hyleran now.”
Everyone was silent. It was the obvious thing to do. Shortly after Dan and Ana had returned, one of Kaori’s ninjas had arrived to say that they had spotted wolf scouts sniffing out the party’s trail. Shortly afterwards, another ninja had arrived, reporting that the pack, which had been moving southwards at an easy speed, had suddenly sped up, and was now running south. No one doubted that they had caught the scent of Gideon’s group, and were now rushing to tell Valkrill or Utgar. There was no choice but to break cover and pursue them, even though the sun was coming up.
Apparently, the mages had the ability to infuse the party with energy, because not only did they feel wide awake, but they set out after the wolves at a run, and didn’t slow despite having to run up and down several low hills. They emerged from the pine forest covering the hills onto a plain of tall grasses, the pack of wolves easily visible ten stone throws away.
Dan and the others could see the edge of another forest not far away. It was the forest which held Valkrill’s wellspring, according to Gideon. If the wolves made the trees before they did, all was lost. They were already halfway there.
The party chased after the wolves at full speed. The ninjas outstripped them all, Kaori and Otonashi at their head. The knights began to lag behind, weighted down by their heavy armor. Dan, also encased in armor – albeit lighter – was just ahead of them, as were Gideon and Laelia. The mages were back with the knights, as they stopped every few minutes. Every time they did, there was a corresponding explosion up ahead in the pack of wolves.
The wolves were fast, but somehow they weren’t fast enough. Maybe it was the magic of the mages, slowing them down and sapping their strength. Maybe it was the fact that Dan felt like he could run for hours (he was sure once the magic causing their sudden burst of energy wore off, they wouldn’t have enough energy to put one foot in front of the other). Whatever the cause, the ninjas crashed into the wolves a mere hundred yards from the edge of the forest. The wolves turned to deal with them, and a moment later, Gideon, Dan, Laelia, and then all of Francois’ knights arrived, hacking into the pack.
Dan hung back, having nothing but his pistol. He was able to pick off a few isolated wolves before the mages came up behind him and began dropping wolves with small precisely-placed explosions of energy.
Meanwhile, the ninjas were up front, keeping the wolves from escaping into the forest. The knights were hacking at the back of the pack, led on by Gideon and Laelia. Wolves were dropping faster than Dan could count. And then the pack seemed to organize itself, and things changed.
A trio of wolves broke from the confused mob of the pack and surrounded Gideon, lashing out with their claws, but always staying well away from his blade. They seemed to sense that he was the leader. More wolves joined them, and soon Gideon was completely cut off from the others. Judging by the way the ring of wolves kept leaping back, Gideon was still swinging, but Dan knew that couldn’t last very long. Laelia, seeing what was going on, rushed to Gideon’s defense. The wolves parted like water, and then surrounded her too, cutting her off from the battle as well.
With Gideon separated, Trela took charge. She started shouting orders to the knights to flank the wolves, and motioned for Kaori to press in, sowing confusion. It seemed to be working. The pack was surrounded, and the ninjas, darting in and out of the pack, were causing the wolves to become distracted, which allowed the knights to dispatch them.
However, a few wolves managed to break free of the knights, and charged straight for Trela, knowing that she was in command now. Dan managed to shoot two of them in the head, but then the wolves were upon them, three in all, snarling and slashing.
As before in Caius’ cave, a few knights had stayed behind to protect the mages, but they were outnumbered. The wolves were too close to the knights for Dan to shoot them, so, knowing that his metal gloves were better than no weapon at all, he tackled the first wolf which came close enough, hoping the mages would be able to turn the battle in their favor quickly.
The wolf was bigger than Dan by at least a foot. Now that he was on top of it, he could tell that it didn’t look wholly like a wolf. It was covered in brown fur, and it had pointed teeth in the muzzle of a dog, but its paws were elongated into something more resembling human hands, although they still possessed sharp claws. The wolf’s arms were as long as its legs, which gave it a range advantage on Dan, but they also seemed a lot thinner than a man’s, and not quite as strong. The wolf’s body, however, was nothing but pure muscle, and Dan quickly found himself struggling to keep the wolf down.
The wolf quickly wrapped its legs around Dan’s body, knocked his arms away, and then bucked upwards, rolling on top of Dan’s left leg. Dan was stuck. The wolf quickly completed the roll, and then sat up, on top of Dan. Dan quickly raised his metal gloves, blocking the swiping blows from the wolf as it tried to tear at his face. One blow got by, but merely bounced off of Dan’s chest-armor. He still felt the blow, however.
Remembering what the wolf had done, Dan waited until the wolf drew one paw back to swipe him, and then grabbed the other. He pulled down on the arm, pulling the wolf with it, and then with his free arm, elbowed the wolf squarely in the face. The wolf let out a howl of pain and temporarily stopped swinging at Dan. That was all the opportunity he needed.
Pulling his gun from its holster, Dan pointed it upwards and fired three times. The bolts of energy smashed straight through the wolf’s body, each one ripping a new hole and singing the fur. The wolf gasped, tried desperately to reach Dan’s face (Dan did his best to block the blows), and then slumped off of Dan, choking on the blood rapidly rising in its throat. Dan got up and quickly fired one last shot into the wolf’s head, and then looked about him.
One knight had been slain. He was lying nearby, his throat slashed several times, his eyes wide and unseeing. The other knight had killed his wolf, and the two survivors were now on the ground, grappling at each other’s throats, the knight’s sword lying a short distance away.
Dan quickly raced to the wolf, delivered a low kick to its rib cage which knocked it off of the knight, and then fired a shot into its head before it could get up. The wolf twitched for a moment, and then was still, blood pouring from the wound.
Dan helped the knight to his feet.
“Merci,” the knight said. A long gash ran the length of his face, dripping blood onto his armor, but he was otherwise unscathed.
Dan glanced behind him. It seemed that another wolf had broken free of the knights, and, missing Trela, had tackled Jaseff to the ground. Jaseff clearly hadn’t put up much of a fight. His arms were gouged with bloody claw marks, and the side of his neck was a bloody mess of torn skin, where apparently the wolf had bitten him. He looked as white as the hair of the drow. Trela was kneeling over him, quickly healing his neck. Sharwin seemed to be the one who had pulled the wolf from Jaseff, as the beast now lay on the ground, quivering and twitching beneath her palm. Ana was the only one still focused on the fight.
Trela stopped Jaseff’s bleeding with magic, her hands trembling and her own face just as white as Jaseff’s. However, she stood without mending his injuries, and turned back to the battle. Dan understood. Now that the threat to Jaseff’s life was over, Trela needed to command the battle, to make sure they won.
It was at that point that a massive wolf, seven feet tall, burst from the pack and ran for Trela. This wolf was different. He wore armor, and carried a shield the size of his torso. He also held a blade in his other hand, a strange type of sword, which curved back and forwards, resembling a highly sharpened question mark.
With a savage cross between a howl and a yell, the wolf charged Trela. Dan raised his gun and fired, but the wolf raised his shield in time, and the energy from Dan’s gun dissipated on it. He fired again, with the same effect. And then the wolf was upon them.
Trela ducked the first blow, but the wolf shot out a leg and tripped her, causing her to fall to the ground. Jaseff struggled to get to his feet, but his arms gave out, and he fell back, unable to help. The wolf dropped to his knee on top of Trela, keeping her down. Trela let out a gasp of pain as the wolf landed on top of her, and Dan saw her crumple; her breath had been knocked out. The wolf raised his blade. Sharwin was too far away, although she was running to help. Likewise, Dan would be a second too late. None of them were close enough to stop the blow.
Or so Dan thought. Out of nowhere, a shimmering golden shield of magic erupted from somewhere on Trela’s right, encasing her completely. The wolf’s blade descended, struck the magic amidst a burst of energy, and then rebounded back. Trela had been saved.
Quickly looking for the source of the shield, Dan spotted Ana. She had her hands up, palms facing outwards, and a golden shield was emanating from her, encasing Trela, Dan, and several nearby knights. For a moment Dan thought they had been saved. And then blood began staining Ana’s clothing, as if sprouting from unseen wounds. She collapsed as blood soaked her, coming seemingly from nowhere. The shield evaporated.
While Dan had been watching Ana, Sharwin had taken advantage of the few extra seconds and raced to Trela’s side. She now struck the wolf with her palm. Normally the blow would have done virtually nothing, but Dan saw the wolf reel back as an arc of blue energy leapt from Sharwin’s hand.
The wolf, snarling, swung his blade at Sharwin. Sharwin, who had apparently not expected the wolf to be so resilient, simply sat there. A moment later, the blade struck her full in the face, and she was flung to the ground.
The wolf had struck with the back of the blade, which Dan quickly discerned was not sharp, though still doubtless quite painful. However, with Sharwin out of the way, and Trela still gasping for breath beneath him, the wolf turned back, and brought his blade back down, aiming straight for Trela’s head.
Dan launched himself at the wolf. He barely made it in time. He tackled the wolf off of Trela just as the blade descended. He didn’t give the wolf any time to recover, but stuck the barrel of his gun in the matted fur of the wolf’s chest, and fired twice. The wolf quickly fell backwards, and was still.
Dan glanced over at Trela. It seemed that as he tackled the wolf, the tip of the blade had caught Trela’s throat. A massive gash, far too deep, was now spewing blood all over Trela and the grass she lay upon.
Pulling himself to his hands and knees, Jaseff crawled to where Trela lay. “Hold on,” he said, placing shaking hands on her neck. “Hold on. I’ll save you.”
Jaseff closed his eyes, and a moment later there was a corresponding glow beneath his palms. However, the light was faint. Trela gasped and her body shuddered, but the blood kept coming, welling up from beneath Jaseff’s hands.
Dan looked around. Trela needed someone else; Jaseff was too injured to heal her. However, there was no one else. Sharwin was nearby, but she had her hands pressed to her head where the wolf had struck her, and was curled up in pain. Ana was definitely in no condition to heal: blood was still soaking her clothes, and she was lying motionless where she had fallen. Dan didn’t know the first thing about keeping someone alive – aside from the basics he had learned during his training – so he remained where he was, sitting next to the dead wolf, willing Jaseff to heal Trela.
Apparently, the armored wolf was the leader of the pack. Upon his death, many of the wolves broke and tried to run. The ninjas and knights cut them down mercilessly, not letting a single one escape. With their numbers thinned, the remaining wolves were quickly surrounded and dispatched. Out of the corner of his eye, Dan saw several knights hack through the wolves surrounding Gideon and Laelia, revealing them both to still be alive, although sporting a grisly collection of bloody gashes.
Not knowing what else to do, Dan got shakily to his feet and made his way over to Ana. As he drew close, he saw that she was alive. He could see her breathing. Other than that though, she was still, the grass below her stained red with blood.
“Ana?” Dan whispered, dropping to his knees beside her. “Ana?” It seemed foolish to ask if she was alright, since she obviously wasn’t, so Dan said nothing else.
Ana let out a rattling breath, and then breathed in sharply in pain. “I was hoping to avoid doing that,” she managed to whisper.
“What did you do?” Dan asked.
“The shield,” Ana whispered. “It absorbs blows, but…”
“You take them instead,” Dan said, realizing what must have happened. Ana’s shield would protect anyone completely, but it came at a price: Ana would be injured instead. She must have taken the blow aimed for Trela, as well as whatever had been aimed at the few knights she had been protecting at the same time.
“I’ll live,” Ana coughed, seeing Dan’s face. “These wounds aren’t deep. See what you can do for Trela.”
“Why did you do that?” Dan asked.
“What, save Trela?” Ana whispered. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Me?” Ana echoed. “Some things are more important than me. Some are even more important than you, Dan.”
The false words stung Dan, but Ana gave a weak smile, and he knew she hadn’t meant them to.
“Go, Dan,” Ana said. “I’ll be fine. See what you can do for Trela.”
Dan was reluctant to leave her, partially because of the things he had said to her less than an hour ago, but she told him to leave again, so he got up and made his way to Trela.
Jaseff was still trying to heal her, but it was clear it wasn’t working. Not enough, anyway. Trela’s wound had grown smaller under Jaseff’s care, but blood still spurted from it, now soaking the both of them. Kaori, Gideon, and several knights had gathered about them by this time.
Jaseff was obviously running himself ragged trying to heal Trela. His whole body was shaking, his face was drained of color, and he kept sagging sideways, his body not even able to keep him upright. Eventually he could do no more, and fell sideways, landing next to Trela.
Dan glanced over at Sharwin. She was in the same position he had seen her last, though two ninjas were now bent over her, talking to her softly. She wasn’t moving. She couldn’t help them. Now that he thought of it, Dan wasn’t even sure if she could heal. Ana had said there were three healers, not four.
Jaseff struggled up, and placed his hands again on Trela’s neck. This time, however, Trela reached up, took Jaseff’s hands in her own, and gently moved them away. “It’s okay,” she said, smiling weakly up at Jaseff.
Okay? How could it be okay? Dan’s confusion was mirrored in Jaseff’s face.
Trela smiled at him. “I’ve healed more than a life’s worth of people, Jaseff. It’s okay.”
“No,” Jaseff whispered, his voice hoarse. “It’s not okay.”
“It is,” Trela said. She coughed, the sudden motion shaking her whole body. She winced in pain. “It’s your turn now, Jaseff.”
“But I need you,” Jaseff said, struggling ineffectually against Trela’s hands. In his weakened state, he couldn’t put up much of a fight.
“I’ve lived my life,” Trela said, her smile returning. “I spent it healing others. That meant something. You—” Another cough shook her body. “It’s your turn,” she whispered, looking into Jaseff’s eyes. “Live your life.”
Tears were staining Jaseff’s face. “You are my life,” he said, as fiercely as he could.
Trela shook her head slowly. “No,” she whispered. “Help others, Jaseff. That’s your life. Heal others. Give them a second chance.”
“But… I need you,” Jaseff said, choking the words out. “I need you.”
Trela smiled at him. Then she raised one hand and put it behind his head. Dan saw a shiver race across her body. Her smile faltered, but she kept it determinedly in place.
“Others,” she whispered, almost too softly for Dan to hear. Jaseff, unable to keep himself upright, bent forwards, until his forehead touched hers. Trela smiled, and let out a breath. Dan saw the tension of pain leave her face.
Her body gave a very slight shake, she took one last breath, closed her eyes, and then was still. Jaseff collapsed on top of her, tears falling from his eyes.