The rain pelted my hair, plastering loose strands of it to my forehead as I panted, eyes darting from tree to tree, terrified of each shifting branch, splash of water, and whistle of wind slipping through the nightscape around us. But…I was somewhat excited, too.
“Easy, girl. All will be well,” the big man creeping just ahead of me, murmured.
“You said we were going to get ice cream!” I hissed at him, failing to compose myself, but careful to keep my voice low and my eyes alert. “I’m not ready for this!” I had been trained to fight, with my hands, with weapons, and with my magic. But I had never taken an active role in a hunt before. I’d always been the getaway driver for my mentor.
The man grunted, grey eyes scanning the trees as he slipped through the tall grass. “And did we not get ice cream before coming here? Because I think I see some in your hair.”
“You know what I mean, Roland. You tricked me.” I checked the tips of my loose hair, saw nothing, and scowled at his back.
“The Lord does not give us a greater burden than we can shoulder.”
I muttered dark things under my breath, wiping the water from my eyes. Again. My new shirt was going to be ruined. Silk never fared well in the rain. My choice of shoes wasn’t much better. Boots, yes, but distressed, fashionable boots. Not work boots designed for the rain and mud. Definitely not monster hunting boots for our evening excursion through one of Kansas City’s wooded parks. I realized I was forcibly distracting myself, keeping my mind busy with mundane thoughts to avoid my very real anxiety. Because whenever I grew nervous, an imagined nightmare always—
A church looming before me. Rain pouring down. Night sky and a glowing moon overhead. I was all alone. Crying on the cold, stone steps, an infant in a cardboard box—
I forced the nightmare away, breathing heavily. “You know I hate it when you talk like that,” I whispered to him, trying to regain my composure. I wasn’t angry with him, but was growing increasingly uncomfortable with our situation after my brief flashback of fear.
“Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said,” he said kindly. “I think we’re close. Be alert. Remember your training. Banish your fears. I am here. And the Lord is here. He always is.”
So, he had noticed my sudden anxiety. “Maybe I should just go back to the car. I know I’ve trained, but I really don’t think—”
A shape of fur, fangs, and claws launched from the shadows towards me, cutting off my words as it snarled, thirsty for my blood.
And my nightmare slipped back into my thoughts like a veiled assassin, a wraith hoping to hold me still for the monster to eat. I froze, unable to move. Twin sticks of power abruptly erupted into being in my clenched fists, but my fear swamped me with that stupid nightmare, the sticks held at my side, useless to save me.
Right before the beast’s claws reached me, it grunted as something batted it from the air, sending it flying sideways. It struck a tree with another grunt and an angry whine of pain.
I fell to my knees right into a puddle, arms shaking, breathing fast.
My sticks crackled in the rain like live cattle prods, except their entire length was the electrical section—at least to anyone other than me. I could hold them without pain.
Magic was a part of me, coursing through my veins whether I wanted it or not, and Roland had spent many years teaching me how to master it. But I had never been able to fully master the nightmare inside me, and in moments of fear, it always won, overriding my training.
The fact that I had resorted to weapons—like the ones he had trained me with—rather than a burst of flame, was startling. It was good in the fact that my body’s reflexes knew enough to call up a defense even without my direct command, but bad in the fact that it was the worst form of defense for the situation presented. I could have very easily done as Roland did, and hurt it from a distance. But I hadn’t. Because of my stupid block.
Roland placed a calloused palm on my shoulder, and I flinched. “Easy, see? I am here.” But he did frown at my choice of weapons, the reprimand silent but loud in my mind. I let out a shaky breath, forcing my fear back down. It was all in my head, but still, it wasn’t easy. Fear could be like that.
I focused on Roland’s implied lesson. Close combat weapons—even magically-powered ones—were for last resorts. I averted my eyes in very real shame. I knew these things. He didn’t even need to tell me them. But when that damned nightmare caught hold of me, all my training went out the window. It haunted me like a shadow, waiting for moments just like this, as if trying to kill me. A form of psychological suicide? But it was why I constantly refused to join Roland on his hunts. He knew about it. And although he was trying to help me overcome that fear, he never pressed too hard.
Rain continued to sizzle as it struck my batons. I didn’t let them go, using them as a totem to build my confidence back up. I slowly lifted my eyes to nod at him as I climbed back to my feet.
That’s when I saw the second set of eyes in the shadows, right before they flew out of the darkness towards Roland’s back. I threw one of my batons and missed, but that pretty much let Roland know that an unfriendly was behind him. Either that or I had just failed to murder my mentor at point-blank range. He whirled to confront the monster, expecting another aerial assault as he unleashed a ball of fire that splashed over the tree at chest height, washing the trunk in blue flames. But this monster was tricky. It hadn’t planned on tackling Roland, but had merely jumped out of the darkness to get closer, no doubt learning from its fallen comrade, who still lay unmoving against the tree behind me.
His coat shone like midnight clouds with hints of lightning flashing in the depths of thick, wiry fur. The coat of dew dotting his fur reflected the moonlight, giving him a faint sheen as if covered in fresh oil. He was tall, easily hip height at the shoulder, and barrel chested, his rump much leaner than the rest of his body. He—I assumed male from the long, thick mane around his neck—had a very long snout, much longer and wider than any werewolf I had ever seen. Amazingly, and beyond my control, I realized he was beautiful.
But most of the natural world’s lethal hunters were beautiful.
He landed in a wet puddle a pace in front of Roland, juked to the right, and then to the left, racing past the big man, biting into his hamstrings on his way by.
A wash of anger rolled over me at seeing my mentor injured, dousing my fear, and I swung my baton down as hard as I could. It struck the beast in the rump as it tried to dart back to cover—a typical wolf tactic. My blow singed his hair and shattered bone. The creature collapsed into a puddle of mud with a yelp, instinctively snapping his jaws over his shoulder to bite whatever had hit him.
I let him. But mostly out of dumb luck as I heard Roland hiss in pain, falling to the ground.
The monster’s jaws clamped around my baton, and there was an immediate explosion of teeth and blood that sent him flying several feet away into the tall brush, yipping, screaming, and staggering. Before he slipped out of sight, I noticed that his lower jaw was simply gone, from the contact of his saliva on my electrified magical batons. Then he managed to limp into the woods with more pitiful yowls, but I had no mind to chase him. Roland—that titan of a man, my mentor—was hurt. I could smell copper in the air, and knew we had to get out of here. Fast. Because we had anticipated only one of the monsters. But there had been two of them, and they hadn’t been the run-of-the-mill werewolves we had been warned about. If there were two, perhaps there were more. And they were evidently the prehistoric cousin of any werewolf I had ever seen or read about.
Roland hissed again as he stared down at his leg, growling with both pain and anger. My eyes darted back to the first monster, wary of another attack. It almost looked like a werewolf, but bigger. Much bigger. He didn’t move, but I saw he was breathing. He had a notch in his right ear and a jagged scar on his long snout. Part of me wanted to go over to him and torture him. Slowly. Use his pain to finally drown my nightmare, my fear. The fear that had caused Roland’s injury. My lack of inner-strength had not only put me in danger, but had hurt my mentor, my friend.
I shivered, forcing the thought away. That was cold. Not me. Sure, I was no stranger to fighting, but that had always been in a ring. Practicing. Sparring. Never life or death.
But I suddenly realized something very dark about myself in the chill, rainy night. Although I was terrified, I felt a deep ocean of anger manifest inside me, wanting only to dispense justice as I saw fit. To use that rage to battle my own demons. As if feeding one would starve the other, reminding me of the Cherokee Indian Legend Roland had once told me.
An old Cherokee man was teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he told the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” After a few moments to make sure he had the boy’s undivided attention, he continued.
“The other wolf is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, boy, and inside of every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about this for a few minutes before replying. “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee man simply said, “The one you feed, boy. The one you feed…”
And I felt like feeding one of my wolves today, by killing this one.
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