I’ve decided to continually add stories to this tale until it’s completed. Every short story will be it’s own contained plot, and there will be an overall narrative to the series as well.
And we also have the professional voice actor, George Kastrinos, back again to read the story! Don’t worry, the text will be here as well (for those who prefer to read) but otherwise, you can listen to his amazing talents.
I hope you enjoy!
THE OATH OF LOYALTY
By Shami Stovall
Never before has a shaheen and a common cat walked side-by-side. The thought lingers with me for a moment as I imagine what the owls think when they catch sight of us. Wolves and felines are predators, of course, but the similarities end there.
Lunette takes hesitant steps as we travel, slowing her gait. Her milky eyes and white nose provide no information, but her ears twitch with each new sound. The ivory of her coat glistens under the light of our Goddess’s moon, a star given life. A creature so precious has to be protected, and I have dedicated myself to the cause.
I keep our path to the thickets and shrubs, aware that Lunette’s beauty could be her undoing. Hunters tend to focus on what’s easiest to see, and my black pelt melts into the night like salt in water, leaving her the sole target.
“Metallo,” Lunette says, her whiskers twitching. “You’re quiet this evening.”
“These foreign lands bring me no comfort.”
“Speak to me while we travel.”
“It would be best if we remain silent.”
She hurries her step, almost tripping on the upturned roots of a mulberry bush, and rubs herself along the hock of my back leg. “My brothers and sisters would speak to me often.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.” I stop and gaze through the leaves of the shrubs, scanning our surroundings. “All beasts in the herds of man are noisy. But we cannot be so careless.”
“Without your voice, the world is dark,” Lunette whispers. She glances up at me, her vacant eyes staring without purpose. “I feel… alone… when you remain quiet. As though you’ve disappeared into the nothingness beyond my perceptions.”
How strange it must be for a creature that cannot rely on scent and sight. I hadn’t given the situation thought, and although it goes against my better judgment, I give in to her request. “What shall I speak about?”
We start our walk again, this time at a quicker pace.
“Tell me about the Oath of Shadows,” Lunette says, a smile in her voice.
Although I want to focus on the long journey ahead of us, I recall the moments of my youth. Taking the Oath of Shadows had been the night I fully joined the pack.
“Wolves who wish to become shaheen travel to the top of their pack’s mountain, where the earth is closest to the sky.” I close my eyes, remembering the chill winds at the mountain’s peak. “On a moonless night, shrouded in the darkness of midnight—that is the only time you can pledge yourself to the shadows.”
My brothers and I had trekked our mountain together. While the others had played games and practiced their stalking, I had lingered behind, fearful the shadows would reject me. My ears ring with an intensity that cripples me, and it has grown worse each new season since my birth. Despite that, the darkness accepted my pledge, and granted me magic.
That was when I became a shaheen.
Lunette tilts her head, both her ears facing me. “Do you know how to take the Oath of Light? I’m curious how it’ll feel once I have my own magic.”
“My sire told us tales,” I say, “of lands far to the east. You must make your pledge on a cloudless day, near a lake still enough to reflect a perfect circle of the sun.”
She stops walking and rolls to her side, a slight giggle on her breath. “You will have to tell me when the sun is reflected on the waters, Metallo.”
“What if you need to step into the lake? Shall I help you swim?”
Her fur puffs outward as she jumps to her feet. “You never said anything about getting wet.”
I chuckle and continue between a pair of thinning shrubs. “You cats have strange foibles.”
But then I detect a disturbing scent. The scat of wolves. I hold still and examine the ground, taking my time as I absorb every detail. The droppings are large—no doubt a message. The larger the pile, the larger the beast had to be to drop it. When I turn my nose to the trees, the acidic aroma of urine stings my nostrils. The area has been marked, and we stand on the edge of predator territory.
Lunette ambles to my side, a slight purr on her breath. “Metallo?”
“We’ve found another pack’s hunting grounds.”
Her ears stand erect, her eyes wide. “I see. Are they shaheen?”
It takes me a moment, but I eventually find the claw marks on a nearby tree. Normal wolves—those who haven’t take the Oath of Shadows—will gouge out chunks of trees to display how long their claws are. Shaheen, however, make cone markings to represent the mountain they made their pledge to.
The mountain-markings on the tree inform me this is a pack of shaheen, and judging by their thorough declaration of territory, they’ve been established in this region for some time.
“It will be dangerous to cross this valley at night,” I say as I take a step back.
Lunette sits next to my front leg and tilts her head. “We must cross this valley if we’re to continue east. Shall we travel during the day?”
“After the breaking of the dawn, I won’t be able to call upon the shadows. And if we wait, we’ll grow weak with hunger. Hunting here would be a mistake.”
“Are you saying we must cross the valley now?”
I turn my attention to the eastern mountain and then the western. The valley rests between them, creating a natural nest for prey. To climb the mountains would be foolish. We’re on the edge of winter, and the slick terrain will slow our progress. Starvation awaits us on those rocky trails.
But to cross the valley, when a pack of shaheen have claimed it as their own, would invite conflict. I cannot fight multiple shaheen and expect to live.
“We must attempt to cross the valley,” I say, my tone heavy. “I see no other way.”
“Can we travel the edges?” Lunette asks. “Or perhaps we should wait for the snow.”
“I do not know when the snow will come.”
“Soon.” She turns her head and her ears. “The chill grows worse with each passing moment.”
I shake my fur, freeing it of clinging dew, unaware of the change in temperature. Lunette and her thin, white coat can feel every shift in the weather, no doubt.
“Snow will hinder predators. And it will cover our tracks, if the snowfall is heavy enough.”
She smiles. “So you like my plan? Cats are very clever, after all.”
“But how will you survive? I am not like man. I cannot keep you near fires or swaddle you in hides of warmer animals. You’ll freeze.”
“I’m not so fragile.” Lunette rolls onto my paws and giggles. “And you’re warm. I can steal your heat while we sleep.”
I’m tempted to groan, but her cuddling at night reminds me of newborn pups. She’s about that size, and she squirms just as much. I suppose it’s for the best. If she’s covered with the musk of an adult male shaheen, it’s less likely that she’ll be stalked and killed.
“Fine,” I say. “We will wait until snowfall.”
I lay down in the dirt, under the branches of a shrub, and Lunette kneads my side with her paws. The wind sweeps through, rustling the leaves. The scent of an unknown shaheen lingers on the breeze. Someone is close by. I remain stiff with anxiety as the moon hides itself behind a forest of clouds.
With my magic, I cover us in the darkness, hiding in shadows of the undergrowth. It won’t fool a shaheen, but all other manner of beasts will not see us, even if just a few feet away.
The Mother Goddess blesses us with the swift arrival of snow. White flecks of frozen water sprinkle to the ground, creating ice. She has been merciful to me ever since I left my pack and became a rogue. She has sent no storms or bears or men with fell magic.
When I stand, I turn my attention to the thickening darkness. “Please, Mother Goddess. Continue to protect us as we make our way across this foreign valley. I do not yet wish to die.”
Lunette twitches her ears each time a tiny speck of snow lands on the tip. It only takes a few minutes before everything is covered in a light dusting of white. Lunette practically blends with the surroundings, and I’m thankful for her illusion.
Now is the time to leave.
I urge Lunette to stand with a gentle push of my snout. When she’s up, I guide her through the thicket and head straight for the other side of the valley. It’s dangerous to walk in the open. Anyone could see us, and we’ll have no place to hide if something decides to give chase, but it’s the most direct route to our destination. If we hurry, perhaps we could make it halfway across.
We head out into the open field of the vast valley. To the east, we are surrounded by trees, and to the west there are shattered rocks and boulders. Perhaps in summer, the field would be covered in lush grass—the kind that attracts rabbits, mice, goats, and deer. Now, however, in the dying grasp of winter, it offers dry weeds and cold dirt.
Lunette struggles to keep my pace. She slows, to get her footing and twitches her ears often. “Metallo, please wait. Where are we going?”
I fall back to her side and keep my eyes on the shadows. “Shh. The field is large. Go.”
She says nothing and quickens her step, but it’s not enough. The longer it takes us to cross in the open, the more time our enemies have to spot us. The snow does its job, however, and falls into the grooves of our footprints, covering our trail with frost.
A howl pierces the tranquility of a quiet evening and Lunette’s fur stands on end, her hackles raised. I stop and stand over her, listening to the song of the strange pack. My ears—they ring and pain me—keep me from hearing all the information.
Something about… finding…
“What is that?” Lunette asks.
The howls continue.
I shake my head. “They’ve found something.”
Lunette straightens her ears. “Metallo. Something approaches. Fast. And large.”
The ringing in my ears troubles me as I glance around. Sometimes the noise can become so disorientating that I lose my balance. Are the shaheen close? They sound like they’re a breath away.
Then I see it. Movement in the shadows by the eastern trees.
“Two of them,” Lunette says, her voice raw with panic. “They’re coming!”
On instinct, I scoop Lunette up into my jaws and race toward my destination. The open field makes it easy—there are no obstructions. With my magic, I use the shadows to help guide me, flattening the way even more than before. The ice possess no obstacle when I can walk on the thin layer of darkness.
Our pursuers leave the safety of the trees and give chase out in the open.
Two shaheen, both younger than me. They run with their gold eyes wide and their tails fluffed and high. They’re excited. That, combined with the fact that everything is hungry during the winter, means they won’t abandon the chase so easily.
The shadows heed my wishes with a mere thought, but the two shaheen closing in on me have also taken the Oath of the Shadows. They will the darkness to slow my movement by disrupting my path and holding me back. The tendrils of their power weave around me, but I break through, much like running into a spider web. The magic even clings to me afterward.
Breathing with Lunette in my mouth only adds to problems.
She mews, her fear soaked into the notes of her feline cry.
If the shaheen catch us, they’ll tear us apart for trespassing across their hunting grounds. Hunters do not tolerate those who disrespect their boundaries.
I push myself forward, well aware that the shaheen are gaining on me. My rasps for air fill the night, and my ears send waves of pain straight into my head.
Then I smell something burning. I glance ahead and spot smoke. It rises as a single cluster, like a tree of ash, and I know this isn’t a wildfire—it’s the herd of man. Only their strange magic creates flames that stay in a single location. They alone have tamed the heat.
I rush toward the herd of man, and the two younger shaheen slow their pursuit. It’s foolish to get close to man and their odd pack of assorted beasts, but I decide to risk it. If I can sneak by, perhaps the herds of man can act as a cover.
Just as expected, when I arrive at the edge of man’s nests, the two shaheen scatter and flee back to the darkness of the trees. They won’t follow me—but I suspect they’ll linger nearby, hoping to catch us when man inevitably chases me away.
I duck behind a tall, square structure. Man’s magic can fell trees, and much like the innovative beaver, man arranges the trees to create things. Man’s nests are more intricate than any other beast’s, even the master weavers found among the spiders.
Lunette struggles in my maw, and I set her down. Panting, I take the moment to rest in the cold dirt. Once, many seasons ago, running didn’t cause me such trouble. I will need to strengthen myself if I’m to build a new pack with Lunette. Without an alpha, the responsibility falls to me, the oldest. Failure isn’t an option.
She goes straight to cleaning the slobber on her coat. Then she stops, her ears swiveling from one direction to the next. “You brought us to the herds of man?”
“Yes,” I say between gulps for air. “The shaheen of the valley have stopped their pursuit.”
“You have made a wonderful decision, Metallo!” Lunette smiles as she stands. “Bring me to their den and they will offer us food.”
“No,” I growl. “Man cannot be trusted.”
“They provide food to all creatures of their herd.”
“You are not one of their herd anymore.”
She tilts her head and swishes her tail. “I know the hearts of man. Trust me. They will not only give me food, but they will pet me and offer toys for play. They have affection for cats.”
I mull over her comments. Although I know little about man, I do know they keep certain predators in their herds, despite the heinous implications. Long ago, the first man and dog took an Oath of Loyalty—that they, and their descendants, would remain bound through fealty until the end of time—but no other beasts have made such a pact, not even the common cat. If the men of this herd wanted, they could kill Lunette and eat her without fear of repercussion from our Mother Goddess.
I don’t want to lose her.
Before I can offer my commentary, Lunette wanders out of our hiding place and heads toward the warmth of man’s nest. I want to dash out and stop her, but the scent of many animals gives me pause. Dogs roam the area, and while they are dumb beasts far inferior to a shaheen, they often bark to alert man of intruders. I don’t want to make my presence known.
Instead, I follow Lunette from the shadows, using my magic to remain undetected.
Without fear or caution, Lunette gets close to the large structures of man.
Then she mews. Louder and louder, her cry upsetting, like a pup calling for its mother. Why? She’s making a target of herself. Every predator across the valley will hear her whines and come running for an easy meal.
Three men exit their den—their flames keeping the inside warm—and spot Lunette without much difficulty. I tense, ready to leap from the darkness and maul any creature foolish enough to harm her, but the men don’t attack.
To my curiosity, they flounder and coo, one going so far as to crouch low and extend a hand. It wouldn’t be difficult to lung for his neck, not when the man got so low to the ground, but I rein in my instinct to pounce.
Lunette nears them, her mews becoming longer, and then rubs her face against the hand. The men increase their cooing, like obnoxious birds, and one points to Lunette’s milky eyes. They stare for a long moment before one man disappears into his den.
Just as Lunette predicted, they stroke her with gentle touches, never in haste or hunger. Do they think her a dog? Do they mistake her for one of their own? No. How could they? She reeks of my scent and the scent of a feline.
Men are strange beasts. I can neither fathom their reasoning nor their motives.
So I watch, fearful, anxious.
The one man returns with scraps of meat. Together, as a pack, the men throw food to Lunette, their ridiculous cooing filling the night. It sounds like they delight in Lunette eating, but for what reason? No proper hunter gives away their spoils.
More stroking. More odd noises. They offer her meat equal to her weight—intestines, tongue, liver, and an assortment of other organ meats. The softer the body part, the richer in blood and nutrients. Yet the men offer them to Lunette without hesitation.
I salivate with jealousy.
She grabs a piece of the intestines and drags it away. The men do nothing to stop her. With a few awkward steps, she enters the darkness, and I use my magic to slither to her side. She drops the flesh and purrs, her slight smile a proud statement of triumph.
When Lunette remains in the shadows, the men head back into their den, leaving the meat on the ground. Such odors will attract carrion birds and weasels, but I suspect the men believe their dogs will find it first.
After I scarf down the meat Lunette brought, I urge her to return and bring me more. I don’t want to step out of the safety of my darkness, and it’s clear the men won’t use their strength or magic to harm her.
Lunette runs back and picks up another piece—a large slab of liver—but she locks up and her ears stand on end.
A dog emerges from the night, his black and brown coat blending with the darkness. It’s a coonhound, the hunting dog of man. The short fur reveals the curve of muscle. A young canine in his prime, almost as tall as I am at the shoulder. I would be worried, if I were still a wolf, but my Oath of Shadows has granted me powers to deal with such beasts.
Lunette drops her food and lifts her tail, a sign of curiosity.
“Hello,” she says, her voice gentle and singsong. “Who are you?”
The coonhound lowers his head and raises his hackles. When he emits a guttural growl, it’s a warning rather than a preface to attack—a tactic to scare frightened beasts. If he had meant it, he would’ve laid back his floppy ears to protect them in a fight. Instead, he flashes his fangs and glares.
Men glance out from their den, surveying the situation. They bang their hands and shout. I flinch, started by their burst of aggression, but nothing more happens. The hound pays special attention and stops his growling. When man and dog made their Oath of Loyalty those many years ago, dogs forever gained the understanding of man’s speech. Such a unique magic. Most creatures only ever understood the speech of their kin and nothing more.
Lunette, huddling on the ground, her whole body shaking, doesn’t get up. Did the men startle her? Or was it the hound? Everything happened so fast, I’m not sure which.
The dog strides toward her, no longer growling, but fast enough that I’m ready to lunge. He stops a few feet from her, his size a harsh contrast compared to her tiny frame. He holds his head high and stares down his long muzzle. “Take your scraps and go.” His terse voice has an edge of aggression that agitates me.
Shaheen never take orders from a dog.
But he wasn’t speaking to me.
Lunette nibbles a bit of the liver while she pulls it close. “Pretend you never saw me, kind hound. I mean you and your herd no harm. I’m not capable of it.”
“My men are too generous,” the dog says. “They have given you meat they should’ve kept for their young. If you stay, they will give you more for simply being feline. It’s my duty to protect them from your leech-like ways.”
He lowers his head, his jaws close to Lunette’s frail body. One hard bite and she would die. The knowledge claws at my thoughts, but if I reveal myself, the men may come for me, and I can’t outrun both them and the enemy shaheen. Still… I will do whatever it takes to protect her.
Lunette faces the hound with wide, unblinking eyes. “I need to feed my family.”
The word sticks with me for a long moment.
The coonhound also seems to ponder this statement for some time. Then he relaxes and settles himself into a sitting position, but he keeps his close proximity, his hot breath close enough to Lunette that it washes over her. “You’re blind, cat. A burden.”
Lunette arches her back and puffs her tail. “I’ve chosen to live. I won’t give up now.”
“What about your family? Do they suffer the same weakness?”
“Then bring them here,” the dog says. “Let them eat the mice and kill the rats. Earn your place in man’s herd, and I will let you have all the meat the men provide.”
The offer is a compassionate one. Only the herds of man would accept a rogue into the fold with such ease. They only take certain creatures—many of whom they eat when the time comes—and wolves are not among the privileged. If Lunette had kittens with functioning eyes, the hound would take them, but he isn’t aware of the full story.
“I can’t,” Lunette whispers. She stares with her unseeing eyes, the expression woebegone. “I’m heading east, to a lake where I can take the Oath of Light. My family and I have no time to waste.”
The dog stands, his head tilted. “You intend to leave the valley and trek to the far reaches of the sun’s territory?”
He wags his tail. “Brave, for a broken creature.” Then he stops the wagging. “While I admire your courage, you’ll never make it. The perils of the wildness will surely end you. Shaheen roam this valley, bobcats claim the rocks, and shrie patrol the skies.”
Bobcats don’t worry me, but shrie are another matter—they’re hawks who have taken the Oath of Darkness. Invisible predators at night, they swoop up all manner of rodents and fish. I’ve even heard of them clawing at creatures who walk along rocks. The shrie pull and claw until their victims lose their balance and fall to their deaths.
“It matters not the obstacle,” Lunette replies. “We have the blessing of the goddess. So, please, kind hound. Allow me this meal so that I may leave this valley with all my strength. You will never see me or my leech-like ways again.”
I’m not familiar with the ways of dogs, so when the coonhound turns his back to Lunette, his actions fill me with surprise. He would let her have the meat and leave? He trusts her to never return? Do all beasts in the herds of man act in such a manner?
“If I see you after the breaking of day, I will kill you,” the dog says. “I must protect my family as well.”
Lunette replies with a soft mew.
“I do wish you swift travels, however. May the Mother Goddess keep you safe.”
So cordial. Had the dog attacked Lunette, I would’ve had no choice but to end his life. Yet he lets her go.
A wise decision that saved him from my shadows and fangs.
Lunette waits with her ears forward. Once the dog has disappeared from her range of hearing, she grabs up the meat and brings me more. Piece by piece, she gathers the bloody flesh, feasting as she carries it. Together, we eat our fill of man’s scraps. Near the end of the meal, I realize it came from a goat—one too old to produce milk.
With blood on her muzzle, Lunette glances up to me. “We should go.”
“I agree.” I turn my attention to the sky. Dawn will be upon us soon, and then the light will steal my magic. “We need to find a place to sleep.”
“Somewhere on the edge of man’s domain. It’ll keep the shaheen at bay.”
During the daytime hours, Lunette and I hide in a ditch dug by man. Men have a distinct scent that obscures all others. I doubt other creatures will sniff us out, but paranoia keeps me from sleeping soundly.
All my life, I had lived with the protection of my pack. Our mountain sustained us, and no matter the troubles, I knew I had a place to return to. Now, every creature I stumble upon, I’m afraid. Not for my life—which I considered returning to the goddess when my ears never recovered—but for Lunette’s.
It had been my idea for us to create a pack and travel through the dangers of a foreign land. I’ve already taken my oath, whereas Lunette hasn’t. I must carry the burdens of our travel. I must get us to our destination, no matter the cost to myself.
Lunette tosses in her sleep. I tense and watch her curl into a perfect circle, her body a vision of a full moon. I gently lick her head, clearing away the last of the stray blood that had crusted on the tip of her ear.
Never in my life have I been so afraid of failure.
I cuddle close to Lunette, painfully aware of how small and delicate she is. I refuse to let anything harm her, even the chill breeze.
Once night comes, we creep from our hiding place and continue east. As per Lunette’s request, I speak to her as we travel man’s outermost territory.
“The men I knew before gave me fish,” she says. “I was hoping to have it again.”
“Have you had fish before, Metallo?”
Her hyperbole gets me chuckling. “Shaheen hunt in groups. We chase down an animal, separate it from all others, back it against the rock face, and then pick away at it until the numerous bites drain it of blood. Such a tactic does not work with fish.”
Some in my pack had caught fish on occasion—I remember them telling tales—but I never did it.
Lunette prances alongside me, her tail straight up. “Fish have a unique taste. It’s a delicacy, I would say. Their fat melts in your mouth, and their flesh flakes apart with each bite.”
“We would hunt cloven beasts,” I say. “They have more flesh, especially in their bellies. Our pack was large, so we had to make sure we had enough for the pups and mothers.”
“Pups and their mothers…”
We walk through a grove of trees, and Lunette stays close by my side. She doesn’t speak, however. Her glazed-over eyes stare forward, but I can tell by her slight frown that something troubles her.
When we entered a thicket, I ask, “What troubles you?”
“Will we have pups and mothers in our pack?”
Her question catches me off-guard, and I remain quiet as I think it over. Felines and canines cannot sire a litter together. The herds of man overcome this problem by filling their territory with many of each creature, and a normal pack would attract fresh blood by offering stray rogues protection. Lunette and I have nothing to offer wayward wolves and cats.
“We will think about this later,” I mutter. “First, we must make it east.”
“Wouldn’t it be lovely if you and I could have puppies and kittens? Can you imagine the black and white coloring?”
“Don’t be foolish. I said we will think about this later.”
My statement settles over us, casting the conversation into silence.
We walk for hours—over fallen logs, patches of winter mushrooms, and dried-up brooks. Lunette doesn’t speak, and I don’t want to force her. Perhaps she’s uncertain about our future, and I can see why. What if we found a tomcat to join our pack and Lunette’s kittens shared her blindness? What if we found a she-wolf but she didn’t want to share a land or companionship with felines?
My thoughts keep me distracted, and I only notice our stalkers once they’re mere feet away.
So close. How did I let this happen?
My veins fill with a fighting lust, and my angry scent betrays the fact I know we’re being pursued.
The shadows shift, and I have a second to grab Lunette and run. I clamp my maw down a little hard on Lunette’s feline body. She mews as I sprint away from the thicket and head straight for the edge of the valley.
But we’re too far away. I can’t possibly run the entire way there.
Shaheen emerge from the darkness, and their feet glide across the shadows, keeping them silent. Two get behind me, and two rush to my right. I veer left, away from our attackers, and the two behind snap at my hocks.
With my magic, I move as fast as they do, but the size of their hunting party means they likely set out specifically to run me down.
Their shadow magic creates the web-like tangles that cling to my body. When there were two of them, I could run through it without problem. Now, with four, I feel the ever-increasing drag of their sorcery.
Their magic slows me.
One snaps his jaw on my hind leg, and I yowl, almost dropping Lunette. I keep her held and push forward, always running away from the two on my right.
Then I see it—the rock face they’re chasing me toward. The blood on my leg tells of their intent. They’ve come to kill me for the crime of trespass.
With Lunette in my mouth, I can’t bite back, and there’s no way I can claw them without risking her life. As I rush toward their desired location, I know I have only a few seconds to decide what I should do.
How could I have been so foolish? I should’ve paid more attention!
With the instincts of a hunter, I drop Lunette and pivot, my fangs ready. The two behind me aren’t prepared. I lunge for the neck of the closest, but he slides through the shadows and avoids me. Instead of giving chase, I leap back and stand over Lunette, fearful they’ll rush for her first.
One attacks—jumping close, biting, and then scurrying away. If I leave Lunette’s side, even for a moment, she’ll be snatched up. So I wait for my opportunity. I know how shaheen hunt. They use their shadow magic to try to confuse me, but I know where they’ll attack. I block their advances with my sharp claws.
Then they circle and growl.
The noise rings in my ears.
They don’t know about my weakness, so I hide it as best I can. When one barks—in an attempt to startle me—it pierces straight through my skull, filling my mind with a painful hum.
I stagger on my feet.
That’s when I know I’ve lost.
Two leap at the same time, one for my front leg, and the other for a back leg. No matter my magic, with four shaheen, I cannot win. Once they rip at my fur and flesh, they dance away and allow the other two to rush in while I’m still reeling.
They snap and bark, keeping me confused.
I throw myself over Lunette and lie down in submission. I whine—begging them to stop—but the two smallest of their group continue their onslaught. One bites and shreds my right ear. The other slashes my flank and yanks on the tail. They’re trying to get me to run, but I refuse. I remain on the ground, my pleading all I have.
If they decide to kill me, I have no defense. I can only hope they’ll forget about Lunette trapped under my body. Have I failed her? That thought hurts more than their biting.
The largest one in the hunting group snaps at the others. “Enough.”
They halt their attack and stand around me in a circle, their panting filled with bloodlust and excitement.
“Trespasser,” the largest says as he stares down at me. “First you violate our territory with your presence, then you insult us by taking our game, and now you beg for your life. Have you no shame or honor?”
“He’s a rogue,” another of the shaheen growls. “A disgrace thrown from his pack. Of course he would break the laws of the hunter.”
The smallest one chuckles. “Let’s kill him.”
I almost can’t hear them through the ringing, but the details make it through. “Forgive me. I meant only to pass through the valley. I’ve not taken your game.”
“Liar,” one of them says with a bark.
It hurts, and I grimace.
The largest holds his head high. “I saw the feline.”
I press myself closer to the ground, and Lunette mews in protest, her muffled cry quiet. “She isn’t my prey. We have traveled together.”
No wolf in their right mind would believe me. I knew the moment I uttered the words, which is why their laughter isn’t a surprise.
“I had her with me yesterday,” I say. “Your scouts saw when they gave chase, didn’t they? If she were my prey, I would’ve eaten her then.”
It’s the only logic I can offer. No wolf would keep an animal alive for days on end. It would run away or fight back. But Lunette is still alive—that has to count for something. They must see that I brought her with me.
They exchange quick glances, but the aggression in their scent doesn’t wane. I’m still a trespasser, even if I’m a bizarre one.
“Give us the feline, and we’ll let you leave,” the largest shaheen says.
I dig my claws into the dirt. “Never.”
My answer obviously upsets the smallest of the shaheen. He barks and raises his hackles. When I don’t move, he snaps at me—almost catching my other ear—but still, I refuse to react.
A howl interrupts our conflict. It’s not the song of the shaheen, however. It’s an alert sung by a hound. I’ve heard this type of howl before. It calls to men, letting them know that beasts are nearby.
The shaheen turn their attention toward the hound’s music. My ears hurt, so I can’t tell the distance, but the shaheen run as fast as they can into the darkness of the nearby trees. The men and their hounds must be close.
I stand, my legs shaky. Lunette doesn’t move. She trembles underneath me, her face scrunched in confusion. I pick her up, my lip bleeding, and then limp away. My magic, hindered by my weakened state, doesn’t help me as much as I’d like. I push forward, panic fueling my steps.
Men have fell magic. Sticks with thunder that can kill at a distance. Sharp objects they can throw. And then they have the undying loyalty of their hounds. Not only that, but all the world knows that men hate wolves and their ilk. I cannot beg for my life like I did with my fellow shaheen.
Any capable hunter—especially a hound—will follow my trail with ease.
I slow my run, my heart beating faster than it ever has before. When I turn my gaze upward, I can’t see the moon. Clouds cover the sky.
Has our Mother Goddess forsaken us? Did I displease her? I thought she wanted Lunette and me to live, but perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps she wants us to suffer for our naivety. A cat and a shaheen—both broken—can never survive together. A single valley proved too much.
This foolish plan was my idea, and it’s clear to me that I’ve failed.
I stop running and release Lunette from my maw.
“Run. Even if you can’t see. They’ll stop once they’ve found me.”
She turns her blank gaze to me, her ears back. She says nothing.
The hounds howl. They’re closer. Much closer. We don’t have time for explanations. I push her with my paw, but Lunette doesn’t leave. I shove her with my snout.
When I step forward, a terrible pain shoots up from my front leg. I jump away, thinking something has attacked, but that only makes it worse. A cord tightens around my limb, and it takes me a moment to realize I’ve been caught in a snare—another of man’s fell magic. Panicked, I pull harder, hoping to free myself. The pain mounts. I bite at the cord, but it won’t release me.
Lunette mews. “Metallo, what’s wrong?”
“Run,” I command. “I’m already dead.” The snare holds me in place when I yank.
Lunette stands, and her ears jerk forward.
A hound bursts through the undergrowth and rushes toward us, a growl on his voice. With what little strength I have, I turn to face him. My magic thickens the shadows and obscures his vision, but he darts straight for me. Once close, I lash out with a bite, clipping his shoulder. The hound rushes for my hind leg, aware of my predicament with the snare. He crunches with his fangs, and I yip.
All the fighting has taken its toll. I’m too slow to stop the hound, and I’m too tired to escape now that he has me. Still, I am a wolf, and instincts will me forward. Without really seeing or hearing, I thrash and attack, determined to make this dog fight for my death.
The hound retreats a few feet, and I collapse to the ground. When the dog comes in to finish this, Lunette hisses and leaps between us.
With her fur on end, her tail puffed, and her back arched, she appears twice as large as before—but still small. Despite that, she flashes her fangs and extends her claws. With milky, vacant eyes, she looks more like an apparition than an animal.
The hound waits, his muscles tense.
I see it then—it’s the coonhound from the man’s den. The one who spoke with Lunette. Does he hesitate because he recognizes her? I don’t know. All I can determine is that the coonhound doesn’t know what to make of the situation. His keen eyes shift from me to Lunette.
I don’t blame him for his confusion. No logical cat would act as Lunette does.
“Leave,” I say again, my voice weak and breathless.
“No!” She keeps herself coiled for an attack, no doubt waiting to hear the hound approach. “I won’t!”
Sure enough, when the dog steps forward with his fangs bared, Lunette swipes three times, striking wildly to compensate for her lack of sight. Her claw catches a part of his floppy muzzle, and he leaps away.
More howling in the distance. There are other hounds running through the woods. Will they come here? Are they chasing the shaheen?
Lunette backs up until her hind legs run into my body. Then she stands her ground. “I won’t,” she says again. “Metallo—I won’t fail you.”
Her exact choice of words startles me. I didn’t know she felt an obligation to me, but it made sense. We were a pack, and if she had been shaheen, I wouldn’t have thought twice about her loyalty and duty.
“This is your family?” the coonhound asks, a hint of disgust in his words.
Lunette hisses, but keeps her legs in contact with me, as if afraid she’ll lose my location if she gets too far.
“You’re a fool, cat. That is a beast of darkness! He can’t help you take the Oath of Light.”
“I won’t let you near him,” she says with a low growl.
“Stand aside. Once this monster is dead, you can come back with me to the barn. My men will take you. This family of yours is a farce. Nature did not intend for it.”
Lunette, never relaxing, offers another hiss. “Men and dogs were enemies before the Oath of Loyalty. Nature did not intend for that, either! Some unions…” She presses her back legs against me, her body shaking. “… Some partnerships… They rewrite nature.”
The coonhound lifts his head, his aggression gone. Despite our predicament, and the sounds of conflict echoing in the forest, the words strike a chord with me as well. Such conviction, especially from something as small as the common cat, rocks me.
And perhaps the dog feels the same. He steps away, his attention drawn to the shouts of a man.
“Cat,” he says, his voice softer. “Take your shaheen and leave. I will lead my men away from here.”
Lunette calms herself and lifts her head. “You’ll let us go?”
“Leave. Before I change my mind.”
The coonhound runs into the thicket and heads straight for the cries of his men. That’s when Lunette turns around and stares at me with her blank expression. However, even if the hound has left, I’m still weak.
“There’s a snare,” I say as I push my leg forward.
Lunette, without a word, paws at my limb. She finds the cord and sets herself to loosening the grip it has on my body. Her tiny teeth can fit around the snare, and she manages to create a gap.
I use the last of my strength to use the darkness to my advantage. With the shadows, I slip my leg from the snare and step away. Without my magic, I doubt I would’ve escaped as quickly as I had.
Fear and determination course through me. I pick up Lunette and head to the east, to the edge of the valley. She doesn’t protest, and I force myself into a slow run, despite my injuries. Her many words swirl in my thoughts.
It takes us longer than I want, but soon the sounds of pursuit fade into the distance. The sun breaks the night, casting the valley in a yellow glow. My magic disappears, leaving me frail. I continue regardless. Each step and then the next. I don’t stop until I reach my destination.
The dead trail, devoid of grass, reminds me of winter’s last grasp. However, once I reach the edge of the valley, I catch sight of a forest path filled with lush greens. I set Lunette down, and she licks at the wounds on my legs.
Together we made it across the valley.
Tomorrow, we will navigate a forest.
In the future, we will create our pack that rewrites nature.