The Earth created Man as its crowning achievement, placing him as head over everything else it bore fruit to. It made him the chief overseer of all its affairs and tasked him with the directive to develop the planet sustainably until its maturity. And he was to use the Earth’s principles to direct his steps in doing so. After that time, a portion of mankind was to break off and spread earth-like conditions to other planets until the entire cosmos was filled with life. This was the Earth’s form of reproduction.
But Man, its main reproductive organ, became unruly. In his greed and selfishness, he fought against the head of the body and was on a steady course to destroy the planet. The great imbalances that he created produced ever more frequent and intense natural disasters as the Earth struggled to bring equilibrium.
But there were internal consequences as well. The lifestyles people had adopted led to countless ailments and plagues of the body and mind. Mankind’s morality sank to newfound lows, so that eventually, people had no love for one another.
These developments threatened to derail the very purpose of Man and bring complete chaos to the system. The Earth could not allow Man to spread his hateful poison throughout the universe.
In attempting to bring these mutinous body parts back in line, a new era arose. This era was one of guardians, appointed by the Earth to protect life, control Man’s disease, and hopefully someday cure him.
These guardians were once animals that, after being endowed with the Earth’s power, transcended their natural state of being and became gargantuan creatures, far outmatching the human species. They were organized into ten clans, and placed over these and all other guardians were three greater guardians known as gods: the owl god, the stag god, and the whale god. The gods interpreted the will of the Earth and set rules for the lesser guardians to obey. And it was they who were entrusted with casting judgment on guardians found guilty of breaking the Law or its principles.
After years of war between mankind and animals, with both sides sustaining heavy losses, there emerged several champions and heroes. Of these, a man called Malik was hailed as an elite hunter. By his hand, many guardians were slain.
On the other side, a three-headed wolf had become the prime predator, devouring and devoting men to destruction in scores. He was known to the humans as Cerberus, but the animals called him Ishmael.
It would not be long before these two great warriors crossed paths.
Master of the Hunt
The distinct clap of hooves pealed over the side of a steep, rocky mountain. At the summit, a group of soldiers passing around a dying butt and a half-empty thermos stiffened at the sound. The flask was returned to its pouch and the cigar crushed underfoot as they squinted down at the blanket of clouds covering the approach. With bayonets gripped between white knuckles, they huddled together to wait. Then the cloud cover burst apart around a jet black horse and its rider, the animal’s breath starkly visible as it hit the cold air.
Immediately, the soldiers shoved the youngest recruit toward the captain's tent to alert him.
He had finally arrived.
The horse — a black criollo with a face, white as a skull peering out of the dark — rode up at full pace and caused the group to stumble back. They watched as the beast cantered right into the center of camp and made an anxious circle in the snow, snorting as its lungs struggled to find sufficient oxygen at that altitude. Not waiting for it to come to a full stop, its rider jumped off.
All the while, the recruit was bumbling into the captain’s tent. He pulled the flap separating the outer and inner chambers and stumbled inside.
The captain sat on a low chair taking in the warmth from the flames of his fire pit. Even though he was holed up in the privacy of his quarters, he kept himself presentable at all times: back straight, uniform and medals pressed and shone respectively, brow furrowed with a leader's seriousness.
He glanced up witheringly.
"Sir! The Jäger, he's here!” the recruit half-yelled.
"Well? Send him in, send him in!” the captain said, waving him off.
The recruit bolted from the inner room only to be confronted by a giant. He had never seen a Jägermeister in the flesh and frankly, it sent his blood running cold. The man passed him by without any concern for protocol, not even sparing him a glance. The recruit bit his tongue as he stood aside, a heaviness in his gullet forcing him to swallow uncomfortably.
'So this is Malik…' he thought. 'The hunter who single-handedly took down Big Ape.'
The hunter, Malik, pushed past the flap. His shoulders caught the sides as he ducked in. He sat in the chair opposite the captain, and as he did, the wood cried out beneath him.
The captain eyed Malik cautiously. He had changed drastically from the young man he'd once known. For one, he wasn't a lanky teen anymore. Moreover, it seemed as though he no longer wore his bitterness on his sleeve. But most of his features were hidden under the shadowy brim of a black cowboy hat, and the rest of his face was covered in thick, wiry beard. Even if he’d wanted to, there was no way for the captain to read him. The only sign of his disposition was the shrewd way his hand rested on the holster clinging to coal-colored pants. As he made that observation, the captain's gaze froze on Malik's hands.
They were beefier than cattle now, but that wasn't the most striking detail. Something was there that wasn't the last time they'd met.
Even with his dark complexion, the scarring of tattoos was plain to see. Myriads of them, travelling past his wrists and disappearing up his sleeves. Each one was the name of a fallen enemy. These were his trophies, though the captain was sure they weren't the ones he took.
Malik leaned back into the seat with legs apart.
"Ya'll wanted to see me?"
The timbre was equally as intimidating as the man. Fixing himself squarely in his chair, the captain cleared his throat.
"That we did, that we did. I have something to ask of you.”
He pulled a fat cigar from his shirt pocket. “Care for a stogie?”
“Don’t mind if I do," Malik said, raising a hand to stop the captain before he could light it.
He reached for a leather cord around his neck, from which hung a steel rod and flint. With a sharp strike, it was lit, and he plucked up his prize.
“Tell me Cap’n, what in the world made you call me all the way out here? This is border country.”
“Straight to the point as always. The fact is, we have an opening to kill an elder guardian who’s been a huge thorn in our side. Huge thorn."
"Then you should git it done."
The captain smirked. "We both know only someone with your skill can take down an elder.”
“You ain't wrong," Malik sighed. "So, what’s this opening?”
“Before every battle, this guardian goes to a certain place to meditate… And always alone.”
The captain passed Malik an opened envelope, the contents of which he took his time to examine. Inside were blurry pictures and maps with coordinates circled in brilliant red. Small notes were attached in a haphazard fashion. He glanced up and, putting the cigar to his mouth, gave it a long, hard pull. Three rings of smoke and then, “So, let me get this straight… Ya'll want me to sneak in and camp out behind enemy lines, and as if that weren't enough, ya'll expect me to take down a gotdamn elder guardian?"
The captain drew on a cigar of his own and sent a thick, ashen cloud billowing throughout the tent. Now the air between them was quiet with the crackle of the fire and brimming with the earthy scent of tobacco. It held the chill at bay. Despite this, the captain still donned a thick military parka — even had it zipped up to his neck. As he leaned forward, the material rustled against the chair’s backrest.
“What do you say? Will you do it?”
“What yer askin's damn near impossible. It’ll cost you.”
“Oh, no, no. We have no money. You’ll do this job as a favour to me, and of course, to help save the lives of many young men."
Malik laughed out loud. It came from deep in his gut.
He shook his head, and still chuckling, said, “C'mon now, Cap'n. We both know you don’t care about 'young men's lives'. All you've ever cared about is yer gotdamn self. So if yer done wasting my time…"
He started to rise. Then pausing, added, "Almost forgot. Preciate the fat one.”
Lifting his smoke in acknowledgement, he made for the exit when the captain threw a curveball.
“Wouldn’t you at least like to know who the target is?”
Malik didn't turn around.
“Now why would that make a difference?”
The captain lost his light-hearted tone.
After a curious look over his shoulder, Malik exhaled slowly. Smog poured from his parted lips like a dragon, and the butt of his cigar turned to ashes and fell, sizzling out on the floor.
"Say again?” he frowned.
“You heard me, Jägermeister. The target is the queen of the wolves. What do you have to say now?”
Malik’s eyes narrowed. “Where’d you get this intel?”
“You know I can’t disclose that. What I can tell you is that the window of opportunity is small, so if you want to kill her you’ll have to leave tonight. I took the liberty of gathering some of my best men to assist you.”
“Thanks, but no. It’s like Pa always used to say, ‘If you want something done proper, do it yerself’,” he said, then quickly added, “But I’ll help myself to some equipment.”
The captain nodded. "Just get it done, get it done.”
Malik pulled aside the flap to leave, but the captain stopped him again.
“Aren't you going to thank me? Lots of hunters out there would love this opportunity to prove themselves. But here I gave it to you because I know how much you have a thing for this wolf.”
With two fingers pursed around the cigar in his mouth, Malik turned and stared at him.
Stared long and quiet.
Wind beat impatiently at the exterior of the tent. Finally, he smirked and gave a derisive snort.
"Did I say something amusing?" the captain said.
"Think I don't know yer pocketing the money yer superiors assigned for this job? Yer lucky I got such a hard on for this kill that I’d do it for free — but let me warn you, Cap’n…”
He spat a wad of acrid residue onto the floor.
"Yer playing a mighty dangerous game with mighty dangerous people.”
Then he swept from the tent and was gone.
Outside, the chill bit and howled, whipping up his coat and stirring up snow eddies around his boots. A unit of soldiers milling around a wagon on the other side of camp waved him over. Malik approached, observing each one keenly past the brim of his hat. There were a pair of blonds — probably brothers — a stocky tank-type, and one particularly sordid-looking soldier leaning against a logpile. Malik broke into a half grin. He knew those gaunt cheekbones and that dodgy slouch.
Camelot he called himself. They had served together under the same captain back when Malik was in the militia.
“Been a while,” Camelot said, pressing his hand into Malik’s as he walked up.
“Can’t say I fancy seeing you,” he grunted.
“Can’t say I disagree,” Camelot grinned, inflamed gums and rot on full display. “They tell stories about you, you know.”
“Bad things I hope."
They stood for a moment chuckling to themselves before Camelot’s expression became grave and he broke off the handshake.
“You agree to do it?” he said quietly.
“And I take it we’ll only slow you down.”
He glanced around at the other men, all keeping their distance and gawking between him and Camelot. Malik gestured to the wagon and said in a voice loud enough for them to hear above the wind.
“Show me what ya’ll got.”
Immediately, the blond pair hurried to open the wagon doors. The inside smelled of gunpowder and must, and was loaded with baskets of dried meat and open wooden crates piled high with weapons. Locked cases of ammo were stacked to one corner in neat rows.
The tanker fellow grabbed a sleek breechloading rifle from the pileup and slapped it into Malik’s hands.
“This is the Moshe. She takes .55 calibre slugs so you know she packs a helluva punch.”
Malik shoved the gun back into the man’s arms, and he blinked in surprise. Pointing to the rifle strapped to his back, he said, “I’ve got that part handled.”
“Don’t you think you should carry a back up at least?” the man insisted, bushy eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “We have carts full of hunting rifles you could choose from. I wouldn’t advise relying on some no-name piece.”
But Malik only shook his head. “This here's a Jägermeister’s gun, partner.”
All the men except Camelot snorted in disbelief.
“No-name piece?” Camelot said, coming forward and pointing to the silver crest on its stock. “Every Jägermeister makes his own gun with the finest materials. Won’t find two of the same kind in this life or the next.”
The man eyed the hunting rifle with its rosewood finish and walked off with a shrug.
Turning away from the disgruntled soldier and back to the wagon, a lone closed crate strapped to the floor caught Malik’s eye. On all sides, a skull and bones had been painted on the planks.
He cocked a brow.
“What’s in there?”
“Hellfire, sir,” one of the blond-haired men said.
Before he could ask, the man was prising the top open to put its contents on full display. The corners of Malik’s mouth and the skin on his forehead lifted in unison. He nodded at the rows of airtight flasks.
“How many cases?” he said.
“Just this one case, sir.”
The clear liquid inside was an oily secretion harvested from hellbender salamander guardians. Many lives would have been lost to acquire the substance, but despite the human cost, something that potent would continue to draw those that craved power or money. And the more lives lost over it, the higher the market price.
Malik picked up a vial with two hands, pursing it delicately between his fingers.
“I’ll take this and a few det’nators.”
Obediently, the blond brothers assembled an arsenal befitting a Jägermeister. Malik slipped the flask into his pocket.
When his satchel was packed full, he mounted his steed and double-checked the seal on the flask. The one thing he didn’t want was to expose it to the open air.
At least not yet.
With a sharp whistle, he headed into the approaching night.
By dawn, the path had taken him far into the forest beyond the border.
Before crossing over, he’d made sure to camouflage himself and his weapons satchel. In this, he was trained in the most advanced tactics. From appearance, to movement, to scent, he allowed himself to blend into the scenery seamlessly. He ate all the meat he'd packed before heading in — not wanting to draw the attention of hungry critters — and besides his guns, only carried two switchblade knives on his belt.
His horse, Zircon, clopped along behind him as he moved on foot. All its tack had been removed and hidden at the border so as to appear as a wild stallion.
Hours into their trek, the moon rose and cast its harsh, pale gleam over the canopy. Beady spots of amber blinked between the darkened foliage. But by the rustling and soft coos, Malik could tell they weren't a threat — merely small animals going about their nocturnal business, unaware of his presence.
Having followed the topography on the scrap of map he had brought along, Malik took a detour toward a ravine that was just shy of his final destination. There, he left Zircon and double-checked the area. All appeared to be in order.
This place had once been a national park renowned for its lush and varied terrain. There had even been activities set up and run by park management for tourists; hiking trails, rope bridges, ziplines, and campgrounds dotted the landscape. Without maintenance, most of the infrastructure had been eaten up by the forest or had degraded over time.
Before he left, he whispered an order in his horse’s ear. It was all that was needed to ensure it would stay put. Zircon was a Jägermeister's horse.
Eventually, after many hushed hours in stealth, Malik came to a clearing hidden within the woodland. This oasis was his true objective. At the center was a crystalline pool, seemingly untouched by man or time. While most of the forest remained darkened by the thick canopy, here the moonlight pierced through in unbroken shafts, illuminating the area.
Malik inhaled the night. It was brisk and calm. Crickets chirruped, and frogs peeped in the stillness. A restful spirit cradled this place like a babe in a sheepskin blanket. Observing the pond's perimeter from the treeline, he counted the rocks dusted with lichen and bright moss clustered in and around it. A variety of flowering plants one usually saw in a meadow or garden had sprung up too. Evidently, this was a sunny spot during the day.
As he drank in the scenery, a memory flickered at the edge of his mind. His mother was there in that memory — warm and welcoming in the way that mothers are. The apron she wore was dusted with flour and fragrant oil, her arms outstretched as if calling him for an embrace. She was saying something. But though he struggled to hear her, the words remained muted. What was she saying?
For a moment, his chest swelled with a pang of regret for the devastation he was about to wreak on this secluded paradise. It would have given him pause had he been less jaded, but he knew the world was harsh and unforgiving, and so he had to be too.
Midnight was approaching. Not much time left.
According to the intel, his prey would be arriving shortly.
He returned to his directive and started setting his trap. Once that was done, he climbed into a tree with rifle in hand and trained the scope on Mayco's likeliest entry point.
Under his breath he recited the Jägermeister’s Creed to reaffirm his cause.
“Für Brot, Bier, und Bratwurst.”
Now all that was left was to wait.
Miles from where Malik lay in wait, the queen of the wolves was preparing to make her pre-war pilgrimage. She had adopted this practice just after her mate, a world-wary wolf named Ladon, passed away. All that he’d ever craved was warfare and bloodshed, and his desire never went unanswered.
Going to the oasis, she would sit in the waters of Sun Pool and meditate on the upcoming battle. This was the only place she could calm her mind and focus on crafting a winning strategy — one that ensured the preservation of as many of her pack’s lives. She couldn’t afford to lose anyone else.
But on this night, something made her hackles stand on end. Perhaps it was the silence of the forest, the way the leaves didn’t stir and the moon stared coldly down. Whatever it was, moved her to pad over to her son, Ishmael, lounging near the fresh kill pile. She licked the back of his ear and his three heads glanced up guardedly.
He could sense she wanted to make a request. But Mayco cut an imposing figure under all that white fur. She didn’t need to ask nicely. With her size and strength, she could simply make you do what she wanted.
“Ishmael,” she said in a rumbling voice, “escort me to Sun Pool tonight.”
But he only gave excuses in answer.
“Please, Mother, I was out all night spying on enemy camps. I only just got back and the battle is mere days from now. Don’t force me to go up a mountain just to watch you take a dip in the water. You’ve been doing it for so long without any company, so why start now?”
An ache swelled up in her chest. You’ve been doing it without any company…
If only her son knew how untrue that statement was. She watched him sympathetically for a bit and sighed.
“Sorry. I suppose I was being selfish. Go ahead and lie down; you deserve it for your hard work,” she said, and after a pause, added softly, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Ishmael nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right here when you get back.”
She turned to leave, but hovered midstep. That murky feeling churning her gut still nagged at her despite attempting to put it aside.
“Ishmael?” she said, unable to mask the sudden crack in her voice.
“Please… don’t forget what’s important. Your father might have given up everything for the fight, but you don’t have to.”
Glancing over her shoulder, she caught his confused expression. All six of her son’s eyes were trained on her, the two in the centre like drops of silver, the others as brilliant gold as his father’s. Before he could decipher what she meant or come up with the words to reassure her, she bounded from the cave and disappeared between the trees.
Leaves brushed Malik’s face as he lay motionless on a high branch. The tree he had stationed himself in overlooked the clearing so that nothing obstructed his view. As the moon reached its zenith, a huge she-wolf emerged from the shadows like a ghost. Fur like wisps of white light blazed atop her shoulders as though made of some ethereal flame.
Malik’s breath caught.
The memory flickering at the edges of his mind suddenly became stark. His mother was still there with her gentle smile. She was still trying to tell him something. Only now, her soft face was clenched between giant, yellow teeth. Her stare went blank as streaks of red ran down her forehead and pooled in the corners of her eyes. Then her smile morphed into a gaping “O” as one socket caved in, and her skull shattered under the pressure. Past the glittering spray of droplets, Malik met the gaze of the creature that had done the deed.
A grinning white wolf.
It stared back, with empty animal eyes, and a rumbling voice oozed past its unmoving jaws.
“Count yourself blessed, child. Only the Laws preserve your puny life.”
Malik tore himself from his vision, his thirst for vengeance renewed. Bile stained the back of his throat. There she was on a silver platter. The blight that had started him down this path of hate.
If he were his younger self, he would not be able to control the blindness, the deafness, and the shaking that came with this brand of rage. All his life, he had waited for this chance. Even when things had seemed to get better, the world had reminded him why guardians needed to be exterminated. And the time to exterminate Mayco had finally come.
Malik reached tentatively into his back pocket. He pulled out a small cylinder with a push button on one end and tracked Mayco's movements closely.
‘Go on,’ he thought.
As if his goading had spurred her on, she waded into the pool, pausing briefly to look around. Then sniffing the air, she tested for any strange odours. But Malik was sure she would find none. He smelled only of mud, and bark, and leaves. Eventually, she resumed her stride. The water sloshed in the quiet as she went in up to her flank — deeper and deeper, until she was sitting at the center. Then she closed her eyes for a moment of peace.
In that instant, Malik pushed the button.
Mayco’s eyes shot open, catching the glint of a projectile shooting out of the pond bed in front of her.
It detonated and released hundreds of darts in every direction.
Malik slid behind the bough he clung to, protecting himself from their toxic sting. The explosion reverberated throughout the forest, sending a murder of crows crashing from the trees and into the night sky. The entire forest had awoken from its slumber. If he wasted too much time, the other wolves would descend upon this place before he could finish the job.
Mayco splashed from the pond, stunned but on full alert. Her hide glinted as she moved, the needle-like darts catching the moonlight.
Malik swung back atop the branch, fired his rifle once, and took out her right eye. She erupted into agonized roars — her howls swallowing up the crack of gunfire and conveying a sure sign of her distress. If her pack had heard the initial commotion and had any doubts, they were gone now.
As she emptied her lungs and thrashed about, Malik jumped down from his hiding spot and closed in. With his target moving wildly like this, he had to narrow the distance. A lesser hunter might have been intimidated by this colossus, or by the ripple of sinews beneath thick fur. A lesser hunter might have reconsidered, perhaps even pulled back, when she locked onto him with one blazing, pale eye.
In a thunderous growl, she let loose an intensely focused bark. The sound visibly distorted the air, bursting forward in a ring of white light and dimming the pale fire on her back, as if that were its source. It honed in on Malik in an instant, and he tucked and rolled as it raced past and bored a hole straight through a tree. But he couldn’t pause to worry about this narrow brush with death. Emerging from his roll, he raised his gun and fired in a single beat.
This time the shot drove deep into her chest and ruptured one of her hearts. Broken arteries gushed, filling her lungs until she was retching blood. Her muzzle gleamed wet with ichor as she struggled to catch her breath. Once she did, she let another howl rip through the night. Meanwhile, Malik released a lever on his rifle causing a foot-long blade to extend from its base. Before he could make use of it, she recovered herself and tried to take him down with another powerful bark. But the toxin, coupled with the loss of her right eye, skewed her aim.
Avoiding her attacks, he advanced again. Except that once he was within striking distance, Mayco lashed out, her massive paw catching his shoulder and barrelling him over. The assault left her side wide open — a fact that he didn’t miss. Digging in his heels to steady himself, he lunged before she could bring her leg down.
The blade sank between her ribcage and a popping sensation beneath it told Malik that he had punctured another of her hearts. Mayco bellowed as he tore out the blade, sending a torrent of blood spraying from the wound.
She stumbled. Her legs had started to go numb. Malik plunged his weapon into her side again and watched with growing satisfaction as she slipped and fell. Then retrieving the blade, he shot her point blank in the jugular. There was a low groan, like air escaping through a hole, and her head slumped to the side. With his prey down, he came to stand in front of her, painted crimson from head to toe.
They glared at each other for some time, her one good eye focused on the smirk playing behind his beard. Her nose twitched slightly and she joined in on the joke, the corners of her wide mouth pitching up. When it seemed like neither of them would speak, Mayco broke the stalemate. Past laboured breaths, her voice maintained its deep resonance.
“So, it’s you.”
Malik raised a brow. He hadn’t expected this. Certainly, too many years had passed — her death toll too great to number.
“What?” she said wryly. “Did you think I’d forgotten you, little street urchin? Under all that mud and dirt, you still carry the same scent. The stench of malice.”
She continued, looking down on Malik despite his physical advantage. “Is the mighty hunter finally satisfied? Has piercing my heart healed yours?”
The muscles in Malik’s jaw tightened until his teeth throbbed. The bane of his existence, talking to him like one would an old friend?
He spat. The wad landed squarely in Mayco’s face.
“Satisfied?” he said, keeping his tone even. “Not ’til every last one of you monsters is dead. ThenI'll find my peace.”
“Filthy human!” she roared. “You believe yourself just? Sick, depraved thing that you are? We guardians saved you from yourselves, yet this is how you repay us? After the Earth cleans, feeds, and shelters you, you poison and rape her!”
Malik raised his weapon to her face, his response pitching as his expression grew erratic.
“My life’s too short to care ’bout any of that! All I care about is the night yer killed everyone I loved. It’s been a long time coming, but I finally gotchya!”
“You got nothing,” she chuckled. “I am but a footsoldier, like you.” Confusion put a crack in his triumphant demeanour.
“Footsoldier?” he muttered.
“Your parents were destined to die that night; no one could save them,” Mayco said. “If it were not me, it would have been someone else. But it’s just as well because there was nothing more satisfying than crushing their skulls between my jaws and savouring their blood on my tongue. I’ll always have that, puny hunter. Always…”
She descended into strained laughter, spraying bloody spittle that coated her snout. Even laying in a pool of her own clotted blood, fur matted and brown, Mayco never lost that air of superiority.
The throbbing in Malik’s jaw radiated down to his fist as he clenched the handle of the gun. It was too subtle a reaction for any human to notice. But Mayco was not human. Behind his reserved stillness, she saw the flicker of madness in his dark gaze and heard the faint rub of calloused hands squeezing wooden stock.
Two rows of giant canines gleamed in the moonlight then, and he knew she was mocking him. Mocking his humanness.
Usually he’d kill his victim and only afterward would he dissect a piece of them as a keepsake and proof of kill. This time he wanted his prey to suffer. Reaching for his belt, he took a switchblade to the wolf’s head and started gutting the remaining eyeball. It pulled from the socket with a moist slop.
Malik frowned. Mayco hadn’t offered even a single whimper. It was to be expected, he supposed. Such a formidable foe would never want to show weakness. He would have liked to take something else, maybe a tooth, but there was no more time to torment her.
Wrapping his prize in a square of cheesecloth, he started to walk off when laughter rose up behind him once more.
Sounding carefree, Mayco shouted after him.
“You may have taken my eyes, hunter, but I don’t need them anymore. I’ve seen all I need to. The way your parents pissed on themselves when the wolf clan descended, and today, the look on your face as you realized your years of seeking vengeance have brought no satisfaction.”
Her laughter turned to garbled hysterics as blood bubbled up in her throat and boiled over.
He kept his stride. And still she taunted him.
“I need not even curse you, pitiful hunter. You already walk the earth lonely and unfulfilled in your puny existence. Pain and rage will forever be your comforters.”
Malik resisted the urge to crush his gruesome souvenir. Though he never flinched or turned to look back at her, he knew his ragged breathing gave him away. It told the story of the seething hatred he kept concealed behind his emotionless mask. But despite not wanting to, something else made him stop.
He trained his ears carefully.
Past the she-wolf’s provocation, there was another sound in the distance. At first a faint disturbance on the breeze, and then all at once, crashing and snarling and snapping as a battalion of giant wolves burst from the forest.
Into the dark
A pack led by a three-headed wolf broke into the clearing. Malik only caught a glimpse of them as he made his escape, but he knew their leader was not to be trifled with. That was Cerberus, the three-headed abomination that ate men whole. Dealing with an elder guardian was enough fun for one night.
The wolf, on seeing his mother battered and bleeding at the edge of the pool, launched an attack.
The skin on his neck tore as the head to his left detached itself and fired off like a missile.
Malik didn’t have to turn to sense the oncoming danger. He ducked just as the head blew past with jowls snapping. It slammed into a tree trunk and burrowed deep into its core, toppling it in a raucous boom. Cerberus snarled, preparing to try again. He only had one more shot before he would be forced into a close-ranged fight.
Anticipating the second head, Malik rolled onto his back and discharged a round at Cerberus’ legs. It connected the instant the second head launched, and threw the wolf off balance. Once again, the head went barrelling off into the darkness without hitting its mark.
Cerberus gave a frustrated growl as Malik jumped to his feet unscathed and bolted off again.
Branches snapped loudly behind him and hot breath pounded his back as Cerberus gave chase. Although the other wolves followed, they had hesitated a beat too long, so that Malik and Cerberus were already ahead of them.
Cerberus bounded in long strides until he was running abreast of Malik. But the forest was quickly drawing in around them. Malik stuck close to the trees and, as the foliage became more cumbersome, giant redwoods and ancient oaks narrowing the space, it hindered Cerberus' pursuit.
Up ahead, a cutting wind kicked up, and a knowing grin stretched up Cerberus' face. He slowed to preserve his energy for regeneration, now confident in his victory.
Malik, still barely ahead of him, tore through the brush, only to be confronted by a wide chasm.
He stumbled to a stop, turned on his heels, and grabbed the flask on his belt. As the pack erupted from the forest, Malik splashed the hellfire on the ground in a haphazard crescent around himself.
As it hit the air, sparks flared and wild blue flames roared up, reaching for the sky.
The wolves reared away.
Snarling and snapping with lips peeled back against their teeth, they paced on the edge of the wall of fire. In the flickering light, Malik watched as one of Cerberus' heads regenerated — bubbling up in fleshy warts from the stump of his neck.
And Cerberus too trained his eyes on Malik, watching the easy slope of his shoulders as he caught his breath. Even as the blaze started petering out, he seemed unusually calm for the situation he was in.
“Is it that you’re prepared to die, hunter?” Cerberus growled. “Or are you so foolhardy that you cannot see the fall ahead of you?”
Malik raised a brow and offered just the hint of a smile.
“One of us is dying, for sure, but it ain’t gonna be me, partner!” he cackled — before jumping from the cliff.
As he disappeared over the side, the wolves braved the dying flames and rushed to the edge.
Peering over, they expected to see his body splattered across the rocks below. Instead, he was already halfway across the gulf, clinging to the handlebar of a zipline. Cerberus aimed his reformed head at the line just as the hunter snatched another push button device from his belt and pressed it. In the split second the explosive charges detonated beneath their feet, Cerberus realised too late that it had been a trap all along.
The entire cliff side cascaded into the ravine, sucking the wolves into its black maw and to their final resting places.
As thunder echoed in the gorge, Malik plummeted to the other side, slapping against the rocky cliff-face. He clawed his way up, inch by cautious inch until he was standing safely on the other side. At the top, he looked down and smiled. It always paid to have a backup plan, and this time, it paid double.
Even with all his training, he’d never dreamed of such good fortune – killing not only Mayco, but her son and a sizable squad of wolves as well. Mayco’s death alone may not have been as satisfying as he’d expected, but killing Cerberus almost made up for it.
Turning to leave, he whistled softly and waited for the telltale snort of a horse. It came, and he retraced his steps in the darkness.
Back at the oasis, a wolf's head stuck in a tree started to writhe. From its neck stump, a body materialized. It poured out the back of the disembodied head and onto the ground.
Ishmael was whole again.
The hunter had been too preoccupied with crossing the chasm to notice Ishmael’s body implode, as at the last instant, he teleported back to one of his misfired heads.
He had sustained injuries from the explosions, but nothing a beast like him couldn’t handle. Merely singed fur and patches of burnt flesh. Finding his footing, he went over to his mother. The air stank of iron, and the dirt around her squelched underfoot as he approached.
She was still breathing.
“Ishmael, is that you? I can hardly smell anything with all this blood in the air.”
“Yes, Mother. I'm here.”
“Thank the gods. And the hunter?”
Ishmael gritted his teeth. “He had an exit route already planned.”
Mayco’s breathing was strained and there was a pause before she responded.
“He clearly had knowledge of the area... and of me.”
“What are you saying, Mother? You’re not implying that someone...” he narrowed his eyes and the hairs on his scruff flew up. “Why would any animal help the humans? No wolf would ever do such a thing!”
“Maybe not a wolf, but many clans have access to our meeting. Regardless, the hunter will only incite others. He must be dealt with swiftly.”
Mayco gagged suddenly and coughed up more blood. The ground beneath her was soaked through and was slowly draining off into Sun Pool.
Its glassy surface had turned dark.
“I'll get the healer,” Ishmael said, already turning away.
“Please, who are you trying to fool, me or yourself?” Mayco scoffed. “Three of my hearts are ruptured, I have severe wounds to my head, and my blood is filled with poison — what remains of it at least. I am already dead.”
“But you’re still breathing.”
Mayco tried to lift her head, pulling sticky strings of blood behind it, before slumping back onto her paws with a thud.
Though her tone was firm, there was a tremor behind it.
"Don’t leave me to die alone in the dark. Please, Ishmael... Listen to your mother for once.”
A breeze brushed through the leaves and rippled across Sun Pool. Ishmael hesitated, staring quietly at her as he hovered between going or staying. Tears streamed down his face, and internally, he thanked the gods that no one else was there to see. Truthfully, he didn't want to stay. If he did, it would be admitting the situation was hopeless.
“I’m sorry," he muttered, his ears flat and jaw hard. “I should have come with you. I should have —”
“Stop it!" Mayco barked, the last of her ferocity. “You are a soldier. You cannot go around carrying your fallen comrades. There is no way of knowing whether your being here would have prevented this. Besides, everyone pays for their sins eventually...”
“But we need you.”
He took a step closer. Paused. There was so much blood.
“You don’t need me anymore,” Mayco said.
“But — ”
“Ladon lives within and I guide without. Have faith, son.”
He nodded solemnly.
“Good. Now come lie with me; I don’t have long.”
Ishmael lay down beside his mother and she managed to curl her massive body around his in the way she used to when he was a suckling pup. As she licked the top of his head, her entire body shook from blood loss. For a short while, it seemed as though they were the only two living things left in the world.
He shut his eyes to the rasp of her breathing growing shallower and shallower, to the feel of her heat leaving her.
And then the licking stopped.
He stayed there for a while, keeping her body warm with his. Eventually, he stood and took a final, long look at his mother. She was frozen in time, the fur around her empty sockets wet with tears. He swore she'd whispered something to him at the end. A loving instruction, almost too faint to hear.
To live. To keep living.
Even at the end of her life, she thought only of him. Why had he allowed himself to be so flippant toward her? Grief crushed his throat, but choking past it, he howled the alpha's cry. The strangled sound travelled far abroad, and anyone hearing it knew its meaning. The queen of the wolves was dead.
Back at the den, the pack took up the call, baying sorrowfully for their fallen leader.
When the mournful howls rolled down the mountainside to the human settlements, they began to rejoice. The celebrations spread from village to village as news of Malik’s victory grew wings. Nights bled into days and still the festivities continued, until a week later when Malik finally returned to his hometown.
The evening appeared to be quiet as he rode through the gates on Zircon’s back. But the moment he crossed the threshold, a bugle sounded from a nearby outpost. A flurry of excited cries went up as crowds poured from side streets and houses and rushed over to surround him. Women threw floral wreaths as the procession led the way to the tavern.
When he dismounted, several young’uns scrapped over who would have the honour of returning Zircon to the stables. Eventually it was settled by a boy whose physique suggested aspirations of becoming a hunter.
“You know what to do, boy?” Malik shouted after him.
“Yessir! I’ll water n’ feed ’im n’ wash ’im too!” the boy replied, leading the horse away.
But Malik had already succumbed to the throngs urging him toward the tavern. He didn’t have to guess that a celebration had already been underway. Drunks littered the dirt like discarded tissues, and merriment and laughter filled the air.
At the entrance, a pair of weathered oak doors swung open with a creak and many eager hands pulled him inside, leading him to the seat of honour at the head of a long table. Beneath the wooden beams, the entire village squeezed in to catch a glimpse of the hero. Someone shoved a cup in his hand, and for a moment the room went silent.
He raised it.
“The mutt...” he said, letting his gaze fall on each partygoer, “is dead!”
And they all erupted in triumphant cheers.
In all four corners of the room, women danced their dances to the beat of men playing their drums and panpipes. Malik gorged himself on braised meats and bread rolls dipped in honey, washing it all back with unhealthy amounts of absinthe. Everyone wanted to hear his tale. How the queen of the wolves took her final breath. He held nothing back, regaling them proudly about his feat.
As the evening advanced, almost all the young women of the village threw themselves at him, making their intentions clear. Gaggles of them congregated around the room, eventually going from flirtatious glances to staring daggers at him.
Each wondered which of them he would bed. Would it be one of the dancers or perhaps one of the song maidens?
But all of their hopes crumbled like dry mortar when he stood and grabbed the waist of a serving woman named Irene. A collective frustrated groan went up, and those men near enough to know the cause laughed behind their mugs.
Irene was a widow, twice Malik’s age. The corners of her eyes crinkled to match the lines stretching across her forehead and framing her lips as she turned to him with a shy smile. Despite years of hardships, she still remembered her girlishness. She had to.
The village men no longer considered her for marriage — a fact she deemed her lot to bear — but they were willing to provide her and her children financial assistance and a place to stay under the condition that she provided for their needs as well.
The arrangement was perfect for Malik. Whistle-stops like this didn’t have prostitutes like the big cities did; and he was in no mood for the serious ties that came with deflowering one of the young virgins.
But all of that was merely a bonus. The real reason Malik had chosen Irene was no secret.
She was buxom.
Wide hips curved into a grand backside that shook under her dress as she walked. Coupled with her experience, she was all a man could want and then some.
As soon as Malik clung to her waist in a drunken stupor, she knew exactly what he needed. They slipped away from the revelling and into the twisting alleyways. In his eagerness, Malik occasionally stopped to strip off pieces of her clothes as they made their way back to his house. First he tore off her apron. Then popped the buckles on her boots. Slipped off her stockings. The belt next. And finally the clasps on the corset that held her bust aloft.
This was a ritual she was used to. A mating dance of pushing and pulling and heavy breathing as they kissed in the streets.
Still entangled with each other, they passed Malik’s workshop — a shed which adjoined the main building — and he pushed her up against the front door.
Her skirts fell in a heap. Then he was lifting her up, her legs wrapping around him tightly, and heading inside.
As the night wore on, he exhausted his manly strength and she showed him what a woman of her knowledge and practice could do.
Justice & Judgment
Outside the walls of an unsuspecting village, a cluster of glinting yellow eyes watched the proceedings from a safe distance. The settlement was all lit up with lamps and bonfires, making it an easy target; and as cheering and chanteys rose into the night, the bushes on the hillside rustled with faint movements.
Another set of eyes gleamed from the bushes — six in all. Ishmael parted the shadows like a pool of thick tar. He strode up behind the wolves huddled together.
“Is this it?” he said.
He was greeted with tucked tails and lowered heads and ears. The largest of the group, a brindle coat, spoke up.
“Yes, Lord Ishmael. His scent was easy to track. He’s inside the cabin with a connected steel workshop.”
“Ahhh,” Ishmael grinned. “Fine work as always, Tabor. You truly are the wolf clan’s greatest tracker.”
Tabor’s tail swung reflexively at the praise. “Thank you, Lord Ishmael! But if I may ask, what exactly are you planning?”
“Nothing that concerns any of you…”
Ishmael pushed past his soldiers and peered down at the settlement. It was bright as a firefly and just as fragile. His smile widened.
“I have business with this particular human.”
The squad of wolves glanced at each other nervously. But only Tabor voiced what they were thinking.
“My lord, if I may be so bold! The entire wolf clan is yearning for vengeance at the loss of our beloved queen, Lady Mayco,” Tabor said, not waiting for permission to speak.
Ishmael glared at him.
“However, we will find our revenge on the battlefield with you as our leader! You know the gods forbid us from attacking the humans in their homes and towns, so please consider your actions carefully.”
“And what makes you think I fear the gods’ punishment?” Ishmael growled.
“You wish to die, my lord?”
The group fell silent as the question hung like an unbroken storm cloud. Another round of cheers rose from below and into the quiet air to some distant, unknown place. The sound made Ishmael’s blood boil.
“If you were to leave us… the entire clan might lose its way. We need your knowledge and insight to — ”
“Silence, Tabor!” Ishmael snarled. “Do not try to weaken my resolve!”
He turned on the entire squad and watched them shrink back. Even Tabor averted his gaze under the alpha’s fury.
Despite his ire, Ishmael didn’t allow his voice to rise over the sounds of merriment from the village.
“What I do tonight is for all wolves and for all guardians. I know the wages of sin and I’ll gladly pay it. The wolf clan will survive without me. Now go!”
He snapped at their heels.
“Go back and tell the rest of the clan I have passed on.”
The group bounded past him toward the woodlands. But Tabor lingered, pausing to look back.
Ishmael didn’t need to turn to know his old friend was still there.
“Go now, Tabor.”
There was a deep sigh before the response came.
“As you wish, Lord Ishmael. May the Great Stag guide your blow and keep you from the demon’s path.”
Then he was gone, the pounding of his paws dissolving in the distant dark.
Now Ishmael could focus solely on his task.
Letting the hours drag on, he paced the grass. From his vantage point, he could make out the shifting silhouettes of revelers trickling from the tavern and back to their homes. Pairs with arms slung over shoulders in mutual support, and larger groups still braying their inebriated songs. One party even had the audacity to crow about his mother’s murder.
“The moon was high with a lingerin’ eye,
And Mayco’s end was nigh!
He took a crack, and that was that, under the silver sky!
And then he said, the wolf is dead, the wolf laid down to die!
Goodnight, goodbye! The wolf has died!
Goodnight, goodbye! The wolf has died!
She made her bed — bullet to the head — and now the wolf is dead!”
Ishmael buried a snarl.
He waited until the last light went out and all was silent before making his move. Creeping out into the open field, he slinked toward the town walls. These walls were nothing like city fortifications; they were merely two stories of strung-together logs. He could easily tear right through them.
But though tonight the villagers would sleep like the dead, with bellies full of alcohol, if even one person sounded the alarm, it could sabotage everything. And then his sacrifice would be in vain. He had to go unnoticed if he wanted to get to his target without issue.
But holding back was difficult.
His chest ached with anticipation of the hunt.
A few breaths to slow his frantic hearts, and then he lined up his shot. He fired his second head high above the village, and as it passed over, it surveyed the layout and determined the best place to land.
His body materialised beneath the disembodied head, and as he poured out the back in a blur of fur, he plummeted straight out of the sky. Silent as a cat, he landed in the square and ran through the narrow streets. As he made his way between houses, he mocked the humans inside — mocked them for the foolish hubris that drove them to drink until they passed out, vulnerable as newborns.
If not for the Law...
He recouped his straying thoughts as he approached the hunter’s cabin and workshop. Strutting around it, he lowered his head to peer into the windows. He passed the kitchen. Then the bathroom.
And stopped when he got to the bedroom.
Half-hidden under blankets, dark skin etched with tattoos, was the man he had come for.
Ishmael pressed his nose against the window to open it. He scented the air to confirm his prey with one long sniff. As he drew in the hunter’s debauched odour, globs of drool slid down his jowls and his hearts pounded faster.
He lifted a giant paw.
And smashed through the wall with a swift blow, tearing the bed in two. Malik flew up in a half-drunken daze and was immediately confronted with chaos and gore. Broken planks were all that remained of the other side of the bed and beside him was a woman’s severed hand. A dust cloud made the room hazy, but he could make out a faintly backlit silhouette moving about.
He squinted, trying to make it out.
But the shadow shifted and disappeared, allowing a soft moonbeam to spread across the floor.
In the pale light, he saw a trail of blood leading to a massive hole where the wind whistled in and bits of fabric snagged on splintered wood now whipped to life.
As Malik was getting his bearings, Ishmael had crouched down to examine the contents of his claws. The body was broken beyond saving, but he didn’t celebrate yet. There was a problem with his catch. It smelled female. He shook the remains off and returned to his hunt, lifting his head to look inside. He and Malik locked eyes.
For several heartbeats, both remained frozen in deadlock.
And then they kicked into action.
Malik grabbed the gun he always kept at his bedside and rolled out of the way just as Ishmael made another swing, damaging a portion of the rafters.
He leapt to his feet, but Ishmael’s second head was already bearing down on him. It caught him between its teeth and burst through the wall adjoining the kitchen. Instinctively, Malik flipped his gun upright to wedge its jaws open, pulling himself out mere moments before the gun snapped under the pressure.
With his attacker disoriented, he raced down the stairs to his workshop.
Ishmael roared, a sound that shook the ground and could wake even the most intoxicated sleeper. He tore through the house, the structure bursting apart around him as he moved deeper inside; slowed only by the sturdy beam work. He could smell Malik close by.
In the workshop, Malik had dragged a huge silver case from beneath a workbench. Inside was his Jägermeister’s rifle. The same one he’d used to kill Mayco.
He whipped it out just as Ishmael came crashing in.
A snarky smile lifted one corner of his mouth, and he fired. As the round spun through the air, Ishmael’s fur hardened like steel, and the bullet bounced off him with a spark. His fur bristled, each thick strand as stiff as a porcupine’s quill.
And then he shook.
Fur quills shot in every direction like water drops off a dog’s back. Malik couldn’t react fast enough. One punctured his right calf. Another blew a hole through his left thigh.
The third one slugged him in the chest.
The force flung him to the ground and he coughed up a bright red spray. Ishmael’s shadow fell over him, and he pressed him into the floor with one lead-heavy foot.
Malik spat blood again.
“Do your worst, varmint.”
Ishmael rumbled with pleasure, deep in his belly. His mouth curled into a vicious grin as he watched Malik pinned down and helpless as a crippled hare.
“Nowhere left to run, human. No more holes to hide in, no more tricks to pull from your sleeves. You’re going to die knowing that I had the satisfaction of bursting your head between my jaws,” he said with a low chuckle.
He opened his mouth to devour his prey when a blinding, celestial light exploded around them. Ishmael saw white before everything from the ceiling to the floor was awash with kaleidoscopic illumination, and a vast presence filled the room.
Pausing to look up, he immediately saw the cause.
The Stag God stood in all its glory before him. No larger than a horse, it stood poised and glowing like the sun. Its antlers were like trumpets, rising and curling up from its wide forehead in gleaming gold.
Malik too had looked over, squinting against the glare and the raw power radiating off the creature. Realising he was about to be judged, Ishmael lunged at Malik. In that instant, the horns on the Stag God’s head pealed out a loud blast of resonating sound, and its light radiated ever brighter, surging forward until it swallowed the entire village.