He crouched down and studied the soft earth between his knees.  There was no sign of anything passing that way.  With a grunt he stood up quickly, studying the forest around him.  His grey eyes scanned the trees and shrubs, his keen vision looking for the slightest hint that there was prey nearby.  He had been hunting for most of the day, and his lean frame was stiff and sore while his temper was short.  The man was fully six foot two, and his thick, dark brown hair was cropped short.  With a growl he turned to leave the forest, realizing with disappointment that there would be no hunting today.  The arrows in his quiver slung across his back along with his bow thunked softly against one another as he turned to leave.  Suddenly, of to his left, there was the sharp snap of a breaking twig.  Immediately his head whipped around to see what had made the sound.

The forest was still; too still he realized seconds before he caught a glimmer of movement though the trees off to his left.  A bush rustled behind him, and as he turned to the sound, a pair of white, soulless eyes flicked out of his vision.  Realizing what these creatures were, the man turned and bolted through the forest, back to where safety lay just beyond a ridge.  He heard the snarls and yips of the creatures behind him, and realized numbly that their numbers had doubled within the last month.

He ran blindly through the forest, heedless of the branches that whipped his face and slapped against his chest, bare above his breeches and calf-high boots.  He weaved and ducked shapeless shadows and growling forms until he ran into a clearing and right up against a cliff face.  The creatures had herded him.

There was no way he could escape now, for the first of the creatures were emerging from the forest.  They were formed like greyhounds, lean whipcord bodies with long slender legs.  Their muzzles were stunted and short, and the lips were bared to reveal fangs that dripped venomous saliva.  The feet ended in huge, bear like claws and where their fur should be there were mottled scales the color of rotting flesh, and the tops of their heads reached the man’s waist.  But by far the most terrifying thing about these creatures were the eyes.  White eyes bereft of pupils; they made one think the creatures were blind, and yet you knew that they could see you no matter where you were.

He turned and looked up; the cliff face was at least fifteen feet high, too high to jump.  He ran his hands frantically over the surface of the rock, hoping he might be able to climb up before the creatures attacked.  While not being smooth, the rock face showed no signs of offering a hand or foot hold large enough to support his weight.  He turned back to the creatures and realized there had to be at least twenty ringing the outer edge of the clearing.  He backed up until the wood of his bow rasped against the rock.

Suddenly reminded of its presence, he unslung it, grabbed an arrow and sighted along it, aiming at the largest creature.  He fired and the arrow flew straight and true, only to glance harmlessly off the shoulder that the creature presented to the flying projectile.  The tongues of the creatures lolled out of their mouths, as if they were all laughing at him.  Slowly they crept forward, appearing to relish the thought of tearing into his flesh, when their prey clasped his hands together and muttered words in a strange tongue, his breath coming out faster as a light flared between his hands.  Suddenly he threw a fireball at the creatures.  It headed for the leader of the pack, who opened his mouth wide and swallowed the fireball whole.

The creature seemed to smile at the man again, and started to stalk towards him once more, the rest of the pack following.  The man backed against the cliff face and braced himself for the attack he knew was to come.  Suddenly a shadow passed overhead and a blood curdling snarl resonated along the cliff face as the largest she-wolf the man had ever seen leapt off the ledge and landed with a thud between the man and the creatures.  The wolf was as white as snow, and the top of its head reached the man’s shoulder, while from nose to tail it was fully ten feet long.  The she-wolf crouched and snarled at the creatures again, who were looking at each other, silently assessing this new situation.  The she-wolf gave them no time to plan; she sprang at the lead creature and ripped its throat out before it knew what was happening.  But before she could turn on the others, they sprang upon her.

There was a mass of confusion; snarls, growls, and yelps of pain were scattered through the air.  White fur mixed with patches of rot were combined into a furious snarl, but before long the she-wolf stood alone with the still or twitching corpses of half the pack scattered around her.  The wolf watched the survivors retreat into the forest, the odd one glaring over their shoulders and snarling at the wolf, a good many bleeding profusely.  The man pushed away from the wall and approached the she-wolf, whose white fur was now mottled with streaks of red and pink.

“You’re hurt Strong One,” he says to the wolf, coming to stand by her side.

A mere scratch, nothing more Kudo, replies the wolf, glancing at him as her words echoed inside his head.

“Will you be alright?” he asked.  “Their poison will not affect you?”

I have fared worse and survived, she replies looking back at the forest.  You of all people should know that.

“Aye m’lady.  That I do,” replied Kudo with a wry grin.

Come, says the wolf.  Let’s go home.  Kudo obediently grabs the scruff of her neck and nimbly jumped upon the broad back.

The she-wolf turns and settles into a ground eating trot.  Presently they broke past the cliff face and were surrounded by miles of waist high green meadow grass, and off in the distance a giant castle glimmered and shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.  They passed by farmlands and their farmers, who stood up from their backbreaking labors to smile and wave at the wolf and its rider.  Presently they came to the outer palace gates.

“Who goes there?” shouted a voice from above.

“The Queen and her Captain!” replied Kudo.

There was a flurry of shouting as the gates were opened enough to allow the wolf and rider through.  The outer courtyard was buzzing with activity: merchants shouting their wares, children shrieking with laughter, and the general hum of voices and life.  The air smelled of sweet cut hay, fragrances from the perfumes stand, and the overpowering smell of fish.  The two acknowledged the calls and waves, bantered gaily with the odd merchant, but never deterred from their destination: the palace.

After repeating the challenge at the inner gates, wolf and rider found themselves within the inner courtyard.  Here the sounds from without was muffled by the lush emerald green grass that covered the grounds.  Hundreds of large leafy trees were scattered throughout, while twice as many small, decorative coniferous trees were arranged in artful patterns.  Benches could be seen scattered around seemingly in a random pattern, and a few of these were occupied by female household servants, gossiping amongst themselves as they performed those tasks that could be completed outside.

The soft rush and gurgle of unseen fountains could be heard.  The calls of an untold number of birds could be heard from the trees, bright flashes of color announced the arrival and departure of these birds from their roosts; while the cobblestone path that lead to the palace steps glistened cloud-white in the sun.

Kudo dismounted at the bottom of the palace steps and together they walked up the stairs and into the main foyer where immediately they were assaulted by stewards and couriers.  But with a warning glance from Kudo and a snarl from the wolf, they quickly disappeared in a flurry of paper and ink.  Together the she-wolf and man walked up to the main room of the central tower, where in the middle there was a marble pedestal holding a crystal globe.  An alabaster woman and marble dragon stood beside the globe, both making contact in some way; the woman with her hand upon it, and the dragon touching it with the tip of its claw.

The wolf approached the crystal, and as Kudo stayed back, the wolf sat on her haunches across from the alabaster woman and placed a paw on the globe.  Immediately the globe pulsed with an inner light as the wolf turned to stone and the woman into flesh.  The woman was as tall as Kudo, her Captain of the Guard, her second in command, and her oldest friend.  She was wearing a dress with a stiff bodice, and linked circles of brass serving as straps.  The skirt of the dress was layered and full, and it was the color of a clear summer sky.  High, defined cheekbones supported bright almond-shaped eyes the color of purest jade, and a slim aristocratic nose rested above full red lips that curved slightly up at the corners; giving the impression that this woman was one who smiled easily.  Her hair, when not done up in the braid she was currently wearing, was long and lustrous.  The deep rich color of mahogany.  Her name was Arathine, and she was Queen of the Wolves.  Her name meant ‘strong one’ in the language of the Wolf, while Kudo meant ‘servant of the High Wolf’.

Arathine looked at the statue of the wolf, and grimaced as black slime oozed from the gashes in the wolf’s stone fur.

“Get someone in here to clean off that poison,” she ordered.  Kudo nodded and opened the door long enough to pass on the order to those waiting outside.  Soon a servant came in with a cloth and bowl to clean the statue as it bled out the creatures’ poisons.  As the servant tended the statue, Arathine and Kudo walked quickly and quietly down the tower stairs and into the main body of the palace.  Their feet echoed against the marble tiled floors and ceilings as they passed chattering servants, silent guards, and stony statues of wolves guarding every door.

Finally they reached a tall pair of carved oak doors.  Two guards standing sentry opened the doors as the duo entered a high ceilinged room filled with plush couches, chairs and stools; adorned with ancient hand carved tales and an enormous canopy bed.  It was the Queen’s bedchamber, the one place where she and Kudo could talk freely.  Kudo collapsed on a red upholstered chair while Arathine reclined on a couch.

“Thanks for saving me yet again,” he said with a grin.  Arathine smiled.

“Watch your tongue old friend,” she said.  “You never know when your words might be overheard.”

Kudo reached over to a small table set with fresh fruit and water.  He plucked a ripe rathine from the bowl and bit into it.  The sweet juices from the small green fruit ran down his hand.

“They know enough not to overhear,” he replied as he licked the juices from his hand.  Arathine ignored the comment and proceeded with business.

“By the Powers Kudo, what possessed you to go hunting when you knew the Wyrsea were about?”

“Wyrsea?” Kudo asked through another bite of his fruit.  “Since when have those creatures been declared the survivors of a long-dead species?”

“Since they proved to be so,” replied Arathine angrily.  She stood up from the couch in a flourish of skirts.

“The Wyrsea of old were creatures that ate meat and had brown eyes,” Kudo stated.

“Then this is a new breed,” Arathine replied stubbornly as she paced the floor.  “They have white eyes instead of brown, and they eat magic.  They still have poisonous saliva, and they look like the creatures of old.”

“The how have they survived?” asked Kudo.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” demanded Arathine, throwing up her hands in frustration.  “All I know is that these creatures must be stopped before they gain in numbers or harm any more of my people!”

“And we will accomplish this how?” he asked.  Arathine simply glared at him in the deepening gloom, and then suddenly snapped her fingers.  Torches set in brackets along the walls came to life, lending the light of fire to the room.

“That is what we are here for,” she replied slowly.  “Neither of us is leaving this room until we have decided what to do with those creatures.”

And with that they ordered dinners from the palace kitchen and settled down to eat and talk.  They discussed the situation well into the night, and the following day, but they were no closer to the answer than when they had started.

“Alright,” sighed Arathine as she massaged her temples with her fingertips.  “What do we know?”

Kudo reviewed the notes they had made over the last twenty four hours.  “They are immune to magic,” he reported.  “As well as man or magic made weapons.  Their saliva is poisonous, they eat meat as well as magic, and we have no idea how to kill them.”

Arathine groaned.  “Gods, what are we to do?” she asked.

Suddenly there was a crash as the bedroom doors were thrown open and a guard rushed into the room.

“How dare you!” bellowed the Queen as she leapt from her seat.  “Get out! You were not ordered in here!” she yelled as she stormed towards him.

“Forgive me my Queen, but we caught one!” the guard stammered.  “We caught one of the creatures!”

Arathine stopped dead in her tracks.  The wind temporarily knocked from her sails as she absorbed the news.

“Take me to it!” she ordered, snapping out of her daze, and she and Kudo followed swiftly within the guards wake.

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