A Breath of Wind

Cold dew dusted Nargshir’s paws as he padded silently through the trees, intent on his surroundings. Next to a particularly thick tree, he stopped and sniffed the air, his red eyes darting from dark shadow to dark shadow. A peculiar scent drifted towards him which caused his nose to tingle and the hair on his back to stand up in a ridge. ‘Curious,’ he thought; he had never smelled anything like that before. He stood up on his hind legs, the better to tell from which direction the scent came, but as he did so, it disappeared. He twitched his whiskers, trying to recapture the smell, but all that met him were the scents of the humid jungle and stagnant swamp water around him. Shaking his head and growling slightly to himself, Nargshir dropped back to all fours and padded forward, his eyes and ears ever alert for the slightest hint of an enemy.

A week ago, Utgar had sent him on this scouting trip deep into the Ticalla to investigate a devastating attack on a large marro force. The marro had been scouting out a large piece of dense jungle, when they had suddenly been ambushed. The hive controlling them had received only images of fleeting shapes in the dark, accompanied by the flashing of massive blades, and then darkness as each and every one of the marro were wiped out.

It had first been Utgar’s intention to send a battalion of marro drones and his newly recruited gnids to wipe out the enemy, but curiosity had gotten the better of him. Driven by a desire to find out who, or what, had the power to kill his marro with such apparent ease, Utgar had decided to send Nargshir to scout them out before he attacked.

Nargshir was the perfect recruit for the job. He had spent his first years in the forests of Feylund, learning how to hunt and track elves, creatures which were most adept at stealth. Then, when he was nearly slain by an elf, Utgar had summoned him. Now he served as a valuable scout to the dark Valkyrie, sneaking behind enemy lines, gathering information, and reporting back to Utgar’s generals without their enemies being any the wiser. And any that got in the way of Nargshir usually ended up with a knife in their back or a broken neck.

Nargshir paused and sniffed the air. Once again, that strange tingling scent drifted over him, tantalizing him, urging him to find its source. He looked around. All he saw were the dark forms of trees and the hazy silhouettes of stars through the green leaves of the palm trees overhead. Black shadows covered the ground, hiding the pools of green water that Nargshir knew lay there.

He took a cautious step forward and sniffed. The scent was stronger here. He took another step forward. Stronger still. And then he paused, one paw raised between steps, his eyes fixed on a patch of dark foliage five feet ahead of him.

Staring out at him from deep within the foliage were two red eyes, glowing with reflected light from the moon overhead.

Very slowly, and without looking away, Nargshir put his foot back down and pricked his ears forward, straining to catch the slightest sound from the two red eyes before him. Silence met his ears; complete and total silence, broken only by the soft swishing of the branches overhead in an invisible wind.

Nargshir stiffened. There was no wind. The swishing sound was soft, almost inaudible, but it was regular, and it was coming from the two eyes before him. Then Nargshir recognized it: breathing.

A human would have been unable to hear the breathing, but to Nargshir’s wolf ears, it was just discernible. As he watched, the two eyes slowly slanted, as if their owner was tilting its head slightly. A low swish of air met his ears, and Nargshir looked down just in time to see the tip of a sword retract back into the leafy foliage.

With a snarl that broke the silence like a thunderclap, though it was quiet, Nargshir sprang backwards, all his senses directed towards the bush before him. He was none to soon, either, for just as he sprang, a wide blade went swishing through the air where he had been moments before. He caught a glimpse of a slender arm covered in short white fur, though muscles were evident below the skin, and then it had gone, blade and all, back into the brush.

Nargshir narrowed his eyes, searching through the darkness for his unseen attacker. The red eyes, which had remained visible throughout the attack, flashed, and a low snarl escaped their owner’s lips. Nargshir froze yet again. He recognized the snarl; only a wolf could make such a sound.

Cautiously, he edged forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the other wolf. The red eyes narrowed and retreated further into the brush, and Nargshir caught a glimpse of more white fur and something brown. He crept slowly forward again.  Once more, the eyes retreated, and this time Nargshir saw the hilt of a massive blade, compared to a wolf at least, flash in the moonlight. He stopped and sniffed. There was no doubt; the strange smell was coming from this wolf. No wolves on Feylund had white fur, not unless something had gone very wrong with them from birth, and Nargshir had never smelled one like this before anyway. Then he swiveled his head to the right. Another smell, quite similar to the first, but slightly different, had drifted towards his nose. He then caught another similar, yet different, scent, on his left. He had a sudden moment of panic, and then ducked just as two more of the massive blades swung out where his head had been. At the same time, he had to leap off of the ground to avoid the first blade, which had snaked out of the bushes in front of him and gone for his legs.

He landed rather awkwardly, and rolled to avoid another attack, coming up close to the bush where he had seen the red eyes.

A clawed foot snapped away from him and a blade came singing down towards his head, but Nargshir was too fast. He leapt upon the retreating foot, clawed his way up the leg so as to gain some leverage, and brought its owner crashing down to the ground. The wolf landed with a grunt which sounded somehow peculiar to Nargshir, but he was given no time to think about it as another of the blades swung down towards his head. He ducked the massive blade, and, lunging forward, yanked on its owner’s arm so that it, too, fell forward onto the ground with a faint grunt, which sounded equally strange. The third blade went angling upwards towards Nargshir’s chest, and he had to roll away to avoid it. Too late, he realized where the first wolf had fallen, and rolled right on top of his enemy.

He could feel the wolf moving its right arm, trying to bring its blade up to ward off Nargshir, and he made a grab for the arm, pinioning it to its owner’s side. The other arm crashed into Nargshir’s head with so much force that he momentarily lost his grip on the right arm, but regained it a moment later. He then planted his knee in the stomach of the wolf, noting that he felt leather beneath his leg, and twisted the arms around so as to flip the wolf around, so that it faced the ground. He released the pressure from his knee just long enough to turn the wolf over, and then replaced it, this time in the wolf’s back. Then, moving quickly and skillfully, he whirled around to face his other two attackers, holding his hostage before him, his teeth to its throat.

Nargshir felt his body suddenly tense from surprise. Standing before him were two female wolves, both covered in white fur and leather garments. In either hand they carried a massive sword, its blade wide and thick, and on their heads were masks of leather. A strange, curling blue design flowed across each of their right shoulders to end in a curl below their necks.

Nargshir did not release his hold on his hostage, which he now recognized as another of the female wolves, but removed his mouth from her neck and looked apprehensively at the two wolves before him.

None of the wolves moved. Nargshir eyed the two before him, as they did him, and his hostage, though he could feel her trying to subtly work her way out of his grip, did not move either. Seeing that he could break their companion’s neck with a twist of his arm, the other two wolves lowered their weapons and glared at him with their red eyes.

Finally, one of them took a step forward and said in an oiled voice that purred through Nargshir’s mind, “What do you here, Utgarian?”

“I should think you would find that obvious,” said Nargshir, keeping any emotion out of his voice. “And you need not refer to me as an Utgarian. My name is Nargshir.” After a slight pause, he added, as an afterthought, “What do you do here?”

The female wolf gave a short laugh that rippled with the hints of a growl. “We patrol our lady’s land, keeping it clean of Utgar’s filth.”

Nargshir’s temper bristled at being addressed as filth, but he calmed himself. “And I come here on Utgar’s orders alone. I would far rather be in the woods on Feylund than in this infected jungle.”

The female wolf’s smile and persuasive tone vanished instantly. “Then let Shrinir go and we can save you the trouble of having to leave,” she snapped.

Nargshir glanced sideways at his hostage. “No,” he said, turning back to the wolf in front of him, “I prefer to keep my skin intact. Let me go with… Shrinir, and I’ll leave this jungle to you and your kin, and let her return when I am well away from this place.”

The wolf before him opened her mouth to reply, but Nargshir continued before she could speak.

“You are really in no position to bargain, so I suggest that you let me leave in peace.”

The wolf tilted her head, contemplating Nargshir through eyes full of hate placed there by another. “How do I know Shrinir will not be harmed, or come back at all?” she asked.

“You don’t,” said Nargshir calmly. “But you can’t stop me from leaving, so you will just have to be content with my word that I do not intend to harm her, as long as she does not try to stick a knife in my back.” He waited for her to reply, and when she said nothing, said, “I will release Shrinir when I reach the edge of the jungle. If I am attacked while she is with me, she dies. If not, I will let her live.”

Before the wolf could reply, Nargshir slipped backwards into the brush and then to his left, behind a cluster of trees, the shadows of which hid him from the two wolves. Keeping a firm grip on his captive, he then ducked low and ran through the underbrush, away from the two wolves. As he ran, he noted that Shrinir did not struggle or try to hinder him, and for this he was thankful; he was doubtful if he could have won a struggle against her, since she appeared to be as strong as he.

For nearly an hour they ran, darting from tree to tree, from bush to bush, until they reached a small clearing in which the ground was covered in thick vines and the moon shown brightly down overhead. Here Nargshir stopped, and knelt down upon the leaves, pulling Shrinir down next to him.

“Can I trust you to go back where you came from and not try to kill me once I set you free?”

Shrinir looked at him with confused eyes from behind her leather mask. They were still miles from the edge of the jungle, and the closest border was nearer Aquilla than Utgar. “Why would you set me free?” she asked, her tone guarded.

“Because,” Nargshir said, “I have found what I was sent to find out, and a captive will only slow me down on my way to Utgar. I am also not obligated to bring you back with me as a prisoner, so I prefer to let you go free.”

Shrinir simply looked confused, so Nargshir continued. “Utgar may have a lot of power, and he may have many soldiers, but not all of his recruits are undyingly loyal to him.”

Shrinir’s eyes widened as she understood what he was suggesting.

“As long as you promise to not try to capture or kill me,” Nargshir continued, “I will let you go.”

Shrinir sat still for a moment or two, and then silently stood with a grace that befitted her beauty. “Wolves do not make promises,” she said, “for they are too easily broken. We state facts, and I will not capture or kill you, and I will command my wolves to let you pass by them on your way to Utgar.”

“Good,” Nargshir said. “Then I bid you farewell.” He looked up at the full moon above, and then suddenly looked back at Shrinir. “Your wolves?” he repeated. But she was gone. All that was left was the imprint of her paws on the soft vines that crept along the ground. As Nargshir stared at the indentations, he heard, as if whispered by a breath of wind, “Farewell, Nargshir.”

But there was no wind.

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