Sentinel Flame Book One
By Adam Freestone
Alaskan Writer of Imaginative Creativity
The midday sun shone brightly between the snow-caked trees from a hole in a layer of light gray clouds. Hyroc, Donovan, and Elsa followed tracks left by a deer’s hoofed foot piercing through the white powder blanketing the frozen ground. The three of them had been tracking the animal since noon. Each print was getting sharper, lacking much of the distortion that occurred over time from snow collapsing into them. Kit plodded through the snow beside Hyroc, his large paws preventing him from sinking far into the cold powder. This was unfamiliar territory to either of them. The river north of his cabinet had solidly frozen over recently, and the deer tracks had led across.
This morning Hyroc had been pleasantly surprised to find Elsa and Donavan waiting for him outside his cabin. They invited him on a hunt. Curious to see Elsa’s skills with her being the first girl he knew to hunt, he gladly accepted.
Kit stopped suddenly, raising his ears, then veered away suddenly to investigate the lower branch of a tree. Hyroc stopped, eying Kit inquiringly. Kit pawed at the snow below the branch. He tensed as a tiny gray shape shot out of the snow. He lunged forward and struck the shape with a quick strike of the paw.
“What did you get?” Hyroc said as he came over. Kit lowered his head and picked the shape up in his jaws. Hyroc saw a lifeless vole clasped between his teeth. He turned back toward Elsa and Donavan. “It’s just a vole,” he said in a hushed tone before returning his attention back to Kit. “Good boy.” A bright colored speck in the snow caught Hyroc’s attention. He crouched down and brushed the snow from the speck, exposing a frozen rosehip. He remembered Helen telling him he could usually find rosehips that were still good to eat beneath the snow during winter. He stuck the rosehip and three more he uncovered in his pocket. The sun’s light dimmed as it disappeared behind the clouds, then sporadic snowflakes began descending from the sky. Hyroc stood. “Come on, Kit. I think we’re gaining on the deer.”
Not long afterward, Hyroc felt thirsty. But not wanting to go through the trouble of removing his water skin from the inside of his coat – where his body heat kept it from freezing – he put a handful of snow in his mouth.
“You know, that’ll kill you,” Donovan said, keeping his voice low so as not to risk spooking their quarry. Hyroc shot him a startled look. Nobody had ever told him eating snow was deadly!
“No, it won’t,” Elsa said, taking notice of his expression. “What Donovan means is, snow is cold, and if you eat it when your cold, then it might kill you because you’ll freeze to death. So, no, a few handfuls won’t hurt you.” She swatted Donovan on the shoulder with her hand, eliciting a sly smile from her brother. Hyroc shook his head and, feeling a little embarrassed toward his reaction, turned away, continuing to follow the tracks.
“Wol’dger,” Hyroc heard a hushed voice say. He turned toward Elsa, who stood to his left. “Did you say something?” he said. She shook her head. With a shrug, he returned his attention to studying the deer tracks.
“I smell Wol’dger,” the voice said again a few minutes later. Hyroc stopped, looking left. Donovan and Elsa were studying the snow in front of them intently. Elsa gave him an attentive look, followed by Donovan. “Who keeps saying things?” Hyroc said.
Donovan and Elsa gave each other a confused glance. “We didn’t say anything,” Donovan said. “Did you hear something?”
Hyroc felt a flood of anxiety. Was he hearing things? The last thing he needed was to start hearing voices. Being thought mad wouldn’t help his situation with the villagers any. Maybe he had only thought he heard a voice? It could have been the wind; it did make some odd noises sometimes while blowing through the trees. The only problem was the wind wasn’t blowing. That was a little disconcerting. Still, in his present company, it might be best if he avoided acting like he heard voices, at least until he could talk to Ursa about it.
Hyroc shook his head and waved dismissively. “Never mind,” he said, keeping the concern from his voice. “I’m probably just hearing Kit. He makes some weird noises sometimes when he’s excited.”
Donovan and Elsa nodded. “Or you might’ve heard an elk off in the distance,” Elsa suggested. “They make some pretty unusual noises sometimes, and that can be unnerving.”
“Yeah, it’s nothing.”
They nodded again. Hyroc breathed a silent sigh of relief. Then they resumed their march through the snow.
“Yes, our prey is near,” the voice said. “We must move faster.”
Resisting the urge to stop and risk alerting Elsa and Donavan to his behavior, Hyroc stole a glance through his surroundings. Nothing moved, but a feeling of unease slowly descended upon him, and he felt as if they were being watched. He very much wanted to tell the other hunters, but if the voice was only in his head, he might start looking crazed, so he said nothing. Besides, if there was something following them, he was certain the four of them could handle it.
As they came to a stand of trees, Kit suddenly stopped mid step, holding one paw in the air and ears pricked forward at the same time as Donovan suddenly threw his hand up. Donovan dropped into a crouch – Elsa and Hyroc doing the same – and he pointed toward the trees. Focusing on the indicated spot, Hyroc saw something knock a cascaded of snow from the branches of a tree ahead of them. All three of them readied an arrow and slowly crept toward the disturbance. Through the trees, the back end of a small doe came into view. Mindful of every step, Hyroc moved around the snow-crusted skirt of a tree. His heart beating noticeably faster, he took a deep breath of icy air that made his nostrils tingle. Just as he lined up his shot, the deer raised its head sharply skyward and bolted. Drawing his bowstring slack when the deer disappeared from sight, he blew out an exasperated breath. They almost had it. Turning toward Donovan and Elsa, he saw they wore similarly displeased expressions.
“What happened?” Donovan said, throwing his hand up angrily.
“No idea,” Elsa said. “Maybe Kit spooked her?”
“Don’t think so,” Hyroc said. He pointed back toward Kit, who was only a few steps away from where they had stopped, moving toward him. “He looks like he stayed back where we spotted the deer.”
“Yeah, I don’t think it was him either,” Donovan said. “She kind of acted like –” he trailed off when they spotted something moving between the trees in front of them. The something resolved into the shape of a wolf.
“Is that a wolf?” Elsa whispered. “I think that probably explains it.” An eager look came into her eyes as she gazed upon the animal. “Anton would pay a good amount for a wolf pelt. He’s been trying to get his hands on one ever since it snowed.”
Donavan and Hyroc nodded their agreement. “Yeah, getting a wolf would be proper compensation for it scaring off our deer,” Donovan agreed. “Just need to make sure we kill it as cleanly as possible.”
Elsa glanced from Hyroc to Donovan with a proud look in her eyes. “Well, boys, that would mean me then. I can get it in the head.”
Hyroc couldn’t help feeling a little deflated at her words, and he even saw Donovan sigh. Debating their shooting abilities would take too much time, and their voices might scare the wolf off, so neither wanted to disagree, or at least for the moment. They nodded reluctantly, garnering a taunting smile from Elsa.
She readied an arrow, waiting for a clear shot of the wolf. The wolf moved toward them. Before she could shoot, four more wolves came into view behind it. This wasn’t just one wolf. It was an entire pack! This was something dangerous even for the three of them. Seeing this, Elsa slowly let off on her bowstring, taking a few steps back toward Donovan and Hyroc.
“I didn’t even hear them howl,” Donovan said. “How did we stumble across a wolf pack?”
“Don’t know,” Elsa said. “Getting a pelt isn’t worth risking someone getting mauled, and who knows how they’ll react toward Kit.”
“Yeah, let’s just scare them off,” Hyroc suggested, remembering how he had once frightened off a pack of feral dogs. “As soon as they see we’re not an easy target, they’ll leave us be.”
Donovan and Elsa nodded their agreement. The three of them yelled as threateningly as they could. Strangely, this had no effect on the wolves. They continued forward, seemingly oblivious to the cacophony of voices. But even more strangely, Hyroc noticed they had purple eyes. He had never seen or heard of eyes that color on an animal. Something about the color put him on edge. Then the wolves began arraying themselves in a neat line. The neatness of their formation seemed unnatural. As far as he knew, animals were never neat. They should be behaving more chaotically, and he expected there should be a lot more noise. They were quiet? Why were they so quiet? There was something frighteningly familiar about the silence. Something was wrong?
“Elsa, Donovan, something’s not right,” Hyroc said.
“Yeah, I’m starting to get that feeling too,” Donovan said, a hint of apprehension entering his voice.
“They’re not even reacting to us,” Elsa noted. “And I’ve never seen ones with purple eyes. We should get out of here. Everybody back away slowly, and don’t put your back to them.”
“Yes, the Wol’dger is here,” Hyroc heard the voice say. Just then, a bird’s shadow passed over them. He glanced up to see Shimmer circling them. The sight of the raven sent a prickle of fear down his back. Shimmer seemed to frequently visit him when something bad was about to happen.
“Kill them!” the voice said, its words full of ice.
All five wolves immediately broke into a run. Hyroc cursed, leveling an arrow at the nearest wolf. The arrow struck the wolf in the head, and it collapsed. An arrow from Donovan and Elsa killed two more in the center of the formation. The last wolf on the left darted toward Elsa and the other moved toward Hyroc.
Elsa dropped her bow, reaching for a knife on her belt. The wolf lunged into her before she could draw it, knocking her off her feet. Just as it tried to sink its teeth into her neck, Kit rent the air with a roar, tackling the wolf. The two of them tumbled into the snow, sending up a poof of snow when they landed. The wolf shook off the big cat, bounding sideways toward Elsa, its face covered in bleeding gashes. Elsa rushed over with her knife drawn and brought it up under the back of the wolf’s chin, covering her hand with its blood. And an arrow from Donovan to its rib cage finished off the wolf.
Hyroc hastily knocked an arrow and shot the remaining wolf. It shuddered and collapsed. Three more wolves burst through the trees, two heading for Elsa, Donovan, and Kit, and the third peeling off to attack Hyroc. The wolf going after Hyroc came in from the side and jumped at him. Hyroc dodged out of the way, barely avoiding his attacker slamming into him. He backpedaled, readying another arrow. There was a loud crack, and the ground gave out beneath him. He was weightless for an instant before he came down on the side of a hill. Tumbling backward, he came to a stop at the bottom.
Having lost his bow on his way down, he drew his sword. The wolf appeared over the lip of the hill and tore down the incline at a suicidal speed. It jumped at him again. Hyroc raised his blade and caught the wolf on the shoulder with a quick swing. The wolf lost its balance when it landed, going face-first into the snow. Then to Hyroc’s surprise, it clambered to its feet and started limping haggardly toward him, streaks of its blood staining the snow. Hyroc moved backward, half baffled by the wolf’s determination to kill him. Even at a subdued pace, he could prevent the injured animal from catching up to him. Then he became aware of frantic yelling from the top of the hill and loud growling noises. Feeling a surge of fear toward his companions and a pang of sympathy for how much pain his wounded adversary must be feeling, Hyroc moved over and finished it off with a hard-downward stroke. When nothing else moved to attack him, breathing heavily, he quickly moved back to the hill.
“Wol’dger!” the voice angrily said as Hyroc started trudging back up the incline.
The ferocity of the voice startled him, but what was even more startling; it sounded like the voice was coming from somewhere close. Tightening his grip on his sword, he glanced in the direction the sound was coming from. He found another wolf standing nearby. Only it wasn’t a wolf. Its body was shaped like a wolf’s, but it was bigger, with sharply defined muscles on its limbs, and there seemed to be a slight shimmering around it. A ridge of sharp grey spikes ran from the base of its head down to its tail. The tail had a thin coating of fur, with three bony protrusions at the end. Razor-sharp triangles of black teeth lined its open mouth. There was a purple glow emanating from the back of its mouth and its eye sockets contained burning embers of purple light.
Was this the thing that had been speaking to him? It didn’t seem like it should be capable of speech. Instinctively he reached for an arrow but instantly remembered he didn’t have his bow. The creature started moving toward him in an accentuated arc. Hyroc turned with the creature to keep his front facing it.
“The covenant has not been completed,” the voice said. The thing’s mouth did not move, but somehow Hyroc knew it was speaking. “My task must be finished. The Wol’dger will not stop me.”
“What task?” Hyroc said, surprising himself he had the nerve to even attempt speaking to this thing.
The creature stopped as if caught off guard and glared at him with its fiery eyes. “The sacrifice was committed, and the command was given. The Wol’dger must die.”
“Sacrifice? What sacrifice?”
“The sacrifice of flesh. It was committed by he, and I must obey.”
“Who is he? Who sent you?”
“The one that demands your death. The command was given.”
“Why does he want to kill me?”
“Only death matters, death, death, I must obey. The covenant must be fulfilled. His command is my will. No escape. No escape for the Wol’dger. Only death!”
Before Hyroc could raise another question, the creature broke into a run. He dodged out of the way of its charge, whipping his head back when it tried to slash his face with its tail. The creature wheeled around and leaped at him. Unable to raise his sword in time, Hyroc threw his arm in front of him to take the brunt of the creature’s attack. A hot sensation shot up his arm. The air shimmered blue in front of him, and the creature flew off to his right as if it had glanced off something solid. The hot sensation faded from his limbs and the shimmer vanished.
The creature shook its head as it regained its footing. The instant it was standing, it hurled itself into his chest, flinging him to the cold, snowy ground. Hyroc grabbed the creature by the side of the neck, away from its spikes, and punched it in the head. Another surge of heat shot up his arm and into his hand. When his knuckles contacted the creature’s skin, a small blue flame blossomed across its snout, snaking its way across its flesh in several directions. One tendril of fire ran up into the creature’s eye, extinguishing the purple ember within. The creature wailed out in pain, its cries sounding like a horrible mix of twisted metal and fire eagerly devouring wood as it lurched away.
“Wol’dger should not have their power!” the creature bellowed. “Wol’dger should be a weak, weak like beasts. Sacrifice was committed, but the covenant has not been fulfilled. Cannot fail!”
Movement on the hill and a deep guttural growl caught Hyroc’s attention. Sparing a quick glance toward it, he saw Kit at the bottom of the hill with his hackles raised and eyes fixed firmly on the creature.
The creature snapped its attention to the mountain lion. “Covenant will be fulfilled. Beast will assure death,” the creature said, a disturbing amount of eagerness in its tone.
Kit loosed a long shrieking yelp of pain. Hyroc turned toward his companion. A bolt of cold shot through him when he saw Kit with his eyes closed tightly, thrashing his head from side to side and stumbling through the snow.
“Kit, what’s wrong? What’s it doing to you?” Hyroc yelled. He turned back toward the creature. “What are you doing to him!”
“Beast will assure death,” the creature said. “Covenant will be fulfilled.”
Kit yelped even louder. “Fight it, Kit, fight it!” Hyroc turned toward the creature and gave it a hard glare. “Stop it!” He gripped his sword tighter. “I said STOP.” Hyroc raised his sword high above the creature. Two arrows whistled through the air, striking the creature in the midsection.
The creature growled out in pain. “Covenant must be –” its words were cut short when Hyroc lopped its head off. Instead of a torrent of blood rushing out of its neck, a purple smoke issued from where its head had been attached. The body fell over limply. The creature’s head settled into the snow, and its remaining eye fizzled out. Then the head and body condensed into a pile of ash with a purplish hue.
Glancing toward the top of the hill, Hyroc saw Elsa and Donavan running haphazardly down its slope. Moving his gaze down, he saw Kit lying in the snow on his side. Fighting down a wave of dread, he rushed to the big cat. Kit was breathing rapidly, and his eyes were closed. Hyroc kneeled down beside him and carefully pulled one eye open. Kit’s eyes were their normal yellowish brown.
“You’re okay, buddy, you’re okay,” Hyroc said, wiping a tear from his eyes. “It’s dead. You’re safe now.”
Elsa and Donavan reached the bottom of the hill. Their eyes darted from Kit to the two piles of ash where the creature had been with confounded expressions on their faces. Elsa opened her mouth to speak but closed it, settling into a crouch beside Kit.
When Hyroc lifted his eyes from his companion, off in the trees, he saw Ursa watching them, but the look in her eyes wasn’t a happy one. She seemed thoroughly concerned about something, something beyond the danger of what he had just experienced, and he felt a flash of apprehension as he wondered what that other something could be.