Unleashing the Beast

by Hallan Mirayas

Heartbeat. Falling. Joy. Rage.

I know you were waiting for something.

Heartbeat. Falling. Glee. Sorrow.

Hoping for something.

Heartbeat. Falling. Obstruction. Shattering.

Find it.

Heartbeat. Falling. Pain. Fire.

And when you find it...

Heartbeat. Falling.

Kill it.

Impact.

May 19th, 708 CR

   The day closed unspectacularly in the city of Lik, the sunset obscured with a dull overcast and a clammy drizzle that set the ground squishing underfoot. The hard-won flickers of late spring's warmth washed into the gutters like the blood of killed prey. Aside from an occasional grumble, no-one remarked on its passing. This was the edge of the Giantdowns tundra, in the shadow of the Great Barrier Range, and spring was always late in arriving. This was normal, and there were more important things to do than wish it were otherwise. The vampires emerged from their crypts, attended by their retinue of skeletons and zombies. The werewolves shrugged out of their human forms, preferring their shaggy lupine coats. The moondogs prowled the forest edges, keeping watch for prying eyes. The drakes and gargoyles patrolled the skies for the same purpose. The lutins and men honed their weapons and burnished their armor. The army prepared for war.

   For that is what Lik had become since the collapse of Nasoj's empire: the home camp for a growing army of invasion. Lilith, daedra goddess of predation, had visions of succeeding where the prince of the daedra had failed: the destruction of Metamor Keep, and the army she'd gathered at Lik was her weapon. It was almost ready.

   In another world, it might have struck hard and well. In this one, it would not live to see the dawn.


   The same evening had ended in a clear, gentle twilight a few hours earlier in Marigund, and now starlight glittered around the crescent moon. Lamps glowed golden in the courtyard of the World Bell as a productively busy day neared its successful conclusion. Workers heaved on thick hempen lines attached to pulleys hanging from an iron frame, straining to settle a silvery statue of a toga-clad woman onto a tall ivory pedestal. "Blast, this thing's heavy!" grunted one of the workers over the creaking of the ropes. What's it made of, lead?"

   "Among other things," replied a man on the scaffolding that encircled the pedestal. "Down a little more... A little more..." The statue settled into place with a muffled boom, and artificers immediately set to opening panels and connecting linkages in its lower reaches. More began installing ten metal dragons into recessed alcoves in the ivory pedestal, generating a hive of activity now that the basic assembly was complete. Each dragon sat with its tail curled around its hind legs, and each clutched a pearl sphere in its front claws like a prized possession, held up before its slightly bowed snout as if contemplating its beauty. The dragons, and the pearls they held, grew in size as one circled clockwise around the pedestal. An eleventh dragon, a bewhiskered old drake cradling a pearl the size of a man's head, completely encircled the pedestal. His body and tail formed the base.

   Seeing work progressing neatly, the man climbed down from the scaffolding and clasped the hand of each member of the lifting crew in turn. "Gentlemen, the Mage Guild thanks you for your help."

   Most of the work crew dispersed, but a few of the more curious ones stayed, including the foreman. He asked, "Just what is that thing, Guildmaster Demarest?"

   "It's a temporary replacement for the World Bell. More accurately, it's the predecessor to the World Bell, made during the latter days of the Empire. Master Thadeus has studied the device in detail and can tell you more than I. Thadeus?"

   A yellow-clad man buried chest-deep in an opening in the pedestal replied. "The World Bell worked by sound, and by interpretation of the ripples caused by that sound in the pool below. This statue, on the other hand, is an automaton. No, not the 'living', self-actuating kind, like Madog or Salona, but a measuring machine. I'd give you an overview of the inner workings, but it's a bit cramped in here." The mage backed slowly out of the access port, making connections as he went, each move precise and carefully planned. "It's not as sensitive or accurate, but it will keep us informed of magical events while the Bell is being recast.

   Arms still deep in the pedestal's inner workings, Thadeus turned his attention to the workers making the last adjustments to the statue and the dragons. Already, the scaffolding and iron framework were starting to come down. "Are all connections made, checked, and double-checked?" the mage called to the last of the artificers still working within the statue. Receiving a chorus of agreement over the sound of closing panels and descending workers, he asked, "Acolyte Marcus, are you finished with that last pearl?"

   Melissa Marcus, a dark-furred cat-woman from distant Metamor Keep, finished closing the largest dragon's claws around its pearl, pausing in her reply only long enough to buff a spot of tarnish from the old drake's face. "Yes, Master Thadeus." Her whiskers arching into a faint, playful smirk, she brushed the drake's articulated whiskers into place with the backs of her fingers and then playfully kissed it on the cheek. "There, Grandfather. Now you look properly dignified."

   Thadeus chuckled. "Good. Everyone get clear. When I let go of these control rods, the activation switch will swing shut, and the statue may move quite abruptly if it detects something. I want everyone back behind the ten-stride line. Elizabeth, would you signal for the calibration pulses to begin, please?"

   "Calibration pulses?" echoed the foreman as a green flare streaked skyward from the magess Elizabeth's extended hand.

   Master Demarest took over the instruction, Thadeus' full attention now devoted to the statue as a red flare arced skyward from somewhere to the north, well outside the city limits. "Watch the dragons," said the Guildmaster as the statue rumbled round to face the flare, its arm rising to point directly at it. The smallest dragon looked up from contemplating its pearl, turning its head to look in the direction of the flare as well before returning to its original position as the light faded and the statue's arm came down. A second flare lofted to the east and the statue turned to point at it in turn. This time, two dragons looked up, the smallest and the second-smallest. The pattern continued for the third, and then the fourth, each successively brighter flare drawing the attention of the next largest dragon.

   "I think I understand," chimed in one of the other workers. "It's a measure of strength, isn't it? The more powerful the magic, the more dragons will react."

   "That is correct. It's a one-to-ten scale, each step ten times stronger than the last."

   Unseen beyond the courtyard wall, low on the distant northwestern horizon, a flickering light began to dance, so faint as to be almost invisible against the moonlight.

   "Ten steps, Guildmaster? But there are... eleven..." The workman trailed off as the statue's pointing hand swung round, ignoring the blue flare rising in the northeast to lock steadfast facing northwest. One by one, the dragons awoke. One, two, three, four... Eyes began to widen. Five, six, seven... Was it broken? Eight, nine... It had to be broken! A ninth-level event occurring the moment the statue activated? Ten... Tenth level? A breathless pause followed, and then the old drake roused himself and lifted his head, casting his gaze to the northeast along with the others. Alarmed gazes all across the courtyard turned as one to Guildmaster Demarest. "What does it mean?" asked the workman.

   The statue's arm stayed locked to the northwest, refusing to acknowledge the flares still being lofted skyward. Demarest and Thadeus shared a worried frown. "All eleven dragons activated means one of two things: either it has broken, which I doubt, or the readings have gone off the scale."

   "Where is it? How far away?"

   "That's the biggest problem with this in comparison to the World Bell... all it tells is direction and strength. I only hope the one we sent to Metamor is complete enough to triangulate." Guildmaster Demarest turned. "Elizabeth? Contact your brother. Thadeus, plot that line on the map. Even if Metamor isn't ready, we might at least get some information from a direction."


   When Elizabeth's image appeared, not in her brother's quarters where she expected, but in a strange room full of people, her eyes widened. They widened further when she recognized them. She dropped into a curtsey from quick reflex. "Duke Thomas. This is an unexpected honor."

   The dark stallion shook his head, his tousled mane still rumpled from a recent and hasty waking. "This is an emergency," he corrected. "Before you ask, your brother tells me that the detector your Guild sent is not yet operational. However..." He gestured, and a double door was opened in the side of the room. Beyond lay an open balcony from which Madog and the Duchess of Metamor watched a storm raging over the mountains to the north-east. "Something tells me we won't have a problem suggesting a direction." Cascading lightning exploded across the storm, turning night into day for more than a quarter of the sky.

   Guildmaster Demarest stepped into view just to the side of Elizabeth, appearing seemingly from thin air as he moved into range of the transmission spell. "That can't be right. Is it that close to you? Our direction-finding suggested the event was far to your east."

   "According to our weather mages, Guildmaster, that storm is over a hundred miles away. I shudder to think what it must be like beneath it."


   Hailstones like clenched fists pummeled the life from any Lik resident too slow or unlucky to quickly find shelter. Lightning bolts thick as tree trucks detonated much of that shelter into flaming wreckage. Blinding rain drowned those fires... along with many survivors pinned in the rubble. Worse was coming.

   Thunder shook the ground like a giant's tread, but it was as nothing to the roar that split the sky. The actinic strobe of unremitting lightning vanished in a searing blaze as a fireball the size of a house hurtled down on the temple of Lilith in the center of town. The shockwave of impact obliterated the temple, blasted every remaining structure in town into matchwood, and ripped a hole in the clouds. A glowing rift burned in the center of that hole for a fraction of a second longer, bright as a newborn sun, then collapsed with a flash and a roar that sundered the storm like a rotten melon.


   "Gods be!"

   The Metamor war council and the projected Marigund mages recoiled in shock as the distant storm flared into eye-searing brilliance. The silhouettes and shadows of the mountains slashed across the valley in knife-edged relief, first in the light of the storm, then as lingering afterimages in the darkness that followed.

   Whimpering, Madog jumped down from the balcony ledge and tugged on the Duchess' skirt with his teeth. "Inside! Inside, hurry!" Almost dragging her off the balcony, the metal fox then knocked the Duchess down and stood stiff-legged astride her as if to shield her with his own body. All of the doors and windows slammed shut, vanishing into solid stone as the Keep sealed the room. A growing rumble began to shake the building. "Protect the Duke!" Misha and George yelled at the same moment, and the lord of Metamor found himself tackled under many bodies and shoved beneath the heavy oak map table as the rumble outside became a roar.

   The room shook like a rat in a terrier's jaws, violent, but mercifully brief. Once the shaking faded, people began picking themselves up off the floor, the Duke and Duchess' bodyguards only letting their own charges up once the Keep reopened the doorways and windows, signaling that the threat had truly passed. Duchess Alberta swayed slightly as she rose, one hand on her midriff, an uncomfortable moue souring her face, but she waved off any concerned questions with assurance that she was fine. The Marigund mages were gone: the focusing figurine, to Misha's dismay, lay shattered on the floor next to the table. But the spectacle beyond the mountains ultimately drew all eyes back to it. The cataclysmic storm, nearly horizon-spanning mere moments earlier, had been torn to pieces. Flickering remnants fled in all directions, leaving a widening circle of open, starry sky behind. "What in the Nine Hells was that?" gasped the Duke, shocked into a momentary lapse of profanity.

   "Not in the Hells, your Grace," replied a dark-clad figure who, until now, had remained silent in a corner. The crescent moon medallion of a priest of Nocturna gleaming silver on a chain of gold around his neck, Malger Sutt picked himself up off the floor. "Not in," he repeated as he tugged his disheveled waistcoat back into place. "Out of. Doom has come, but for once not for Metamor." Dark musteline eyes narrowed and fixed on Misha. "Not unless you fail to get there first."

   "Get there first? Who else is coming?"

   "Only those too mad or too hungry for power to heed warnings from both aedra and daedra."

   "Warnings from daedra and aedra?" Lothanasa Raven challenged. "I have heard no such thing!"

   "You will."

   "What are we facing, Malger?" Misha's remaining ear had gone flat, eyes narrowing in turn. "You seem to have so many answers. What has happened, and why are you so specific about me?"

   "One answer will satisfy both questions, Misha, and it is this: the War Wolf of Revonos is un-leashed, and has been ejected from the Hells." Malger paused just long enough to let his very deliberate phrasing sink in, and then stabbed a finger into Misha's chest. "Prepare well. Know without question that you will not overmatch him in a direct contest of strength, so choose your companions wisely. And above all, do not be late."


   What remained of the army at Lik stirred only slowly in the sudden silence, deafened ears just beginning to register the moans of the injured and dying. The werewolves and the vampires, gifted by Lilith with supernatural strength and healing, were the first to push free of the wreckage and even they, hardened killers though they were, gaped in shock at the absolute devastation they beheld. The city of Lik was, quite simply, gone. Its buildings had been almost uniformly leveled into smoldering ruin. Of the temple at its center, only a smoking crater remained. Still, discipline under pressure and obedience to hierarchy remained fundamental to Lilith's ethos, bred into the very marrow of her servants and slaves, and a chain of command was soon salvaged and put into action. The werewolves, with their sharp noses and sharper claws, started searching for survivors. A pair of giants who had survived the bludgeoning hail, the searing lightning, and the rending shrapnel heaved themselves from the rubble and began digging where the werewolves indicated. The vampires, in imminent need of shelter from the coming dawn, investigated the smoking crater where the temple had been. Perhaps somewhere amidst that sulphurous haze, some remnant of the catacombs had survived.

   Some remnant had, but that was not all to be found there. Something stirred, hidden in the haze, battered by a long, pain-filled fall, but blazing with power from back-to-back victories over two hated foes. The pain was ignored. Ears pricked in anticipation. Devastation incarnate waited for his third battle with golden eyes alight.


   May 21st, 706 CR

   "Somebody killed her. Somebody killed my Alexis.  She went in and... and somebody killed her."

   The cold wind of dragonflight stabbed through Misha’s fur, and he tugged the parka he wore tighter around him to block it. If only he could protect himself from memories so easily.

   "Stay down, Drift!  You’re not getting past me!"

   "Whatever the price, whatever the cost, give me the strength to destroy my enemies!"

   "Don't follow me, Misha!  I won't spare you twice!"

   He closed his eyes against the wind, and immediately snow swirled around him. A red glow pierced the night.

   "Stop this madness!"

   "No!  This isn’t what I wanted!  She didn’t deserve to die!  She wasn’t supposed to-"

   {Misha.}

   "Misha, help me!  Help- aaaahh!"

   {Misha!}

   Saroth’s telepathic shout startled Misha out of his unwanted reverie. “What? What is it?” he shouted back, pushing his voice to reach through the wind to the dragon’s ears.

   A strong gust of wind buffeted Saroth and the blue dragon Tychicus, forcing them to swerve out of formation to avoid being pushed into a cliff. {It is difficult enough cajoling the winds into our favor without the screams in your mind to distract me. No, I’m not intentionally reading, but please direct your thoughts to another topic.} The buffeting lessened and the dragons eased back into a streamlined offset, the larger Tychicus taking the point. {The sky is in pain, Misha, and the winds off the mountains are even wilder than usual. I wish Electra were here so I could focus on flying.}

   The snow-capped heights of the Great Barrier Range had always served as a nigh-impenetrable guard to Metamor's flanks. Torturously high passes, thin air, bitter cold, and sudden, savage storms made crossing in large numbers, whether by ground or by air, almost unthinkable. Only dragons flew this high, and not without effort. But it was the safest way to get quickly to the area where the storm had been, without the danger of running into an air patrol from Nasojassa or Lik. The 'nobody goes here' mystique of the Great Barrier Range worked both ways, and Misha's reconnaissance didn't need large numbers. It just needed a dedicated weather mage to cope with the maze of storms and shifting winds that barred their path.

   Unfortunately, they didn't have one. The storm shield that protected Metamor's southern reaches, still recovering from the Marzac Shockwave of the winter before, had had its freshly recast anchors damaged again by whatever had shaken the skies to the north. Xavier Marcus had abruptly left Metamor for parts unknown bare weeks after Drift's fall to the daedra, which left the Duke caught between two fires with only one storm mage apiece. Thus, Saroth had to pull double duty as flying transport and weather mage in difficult terrain, and the strain was beginning to show. Even threading their way through mountain valleys for much of the day, they had not been able to avoid crossing any fewer than five high passes, and each took a visible toll on the bronze-scaled dragon. An overnight rest in the forested valley just behind them had given both dragons a chance to recover before the final push, but even so Misha fingered the teleport disk in his pocket, glad that he would not have to ask for a repeat performance on the way home.

   Tychicus, who had scouted this route before, promised that this was the last high pass before the way out. It was also the highest and the most dangerous: the snowscape buffeted and swirled under the dragons’ wings only a rooftop's height below, but the air was too thin to climb any higher for safety. Too thin even for dragons. Misha looked up, up at the mountain peaks looming still higher above and felt something in him quail. Never in his life had he felt so small. There was great beauty here: the snow gleamed and glittered like a field of diamonds in the light of the rising sun. Dark cliffs and crags lanced through the white cover, carved by time and cold into razor-edged perfection. But it was a hostile and deadly majesty, and the mountains guarded it jealously. Outsiders trespassed at great peril. A mistake now would mean a slow, cold, torturous death.

   Arms tightened around his waist as the dragons slewed around another rocky outcropping. Behind him rode the rat Charles Matthias, his face burrowed into the back of Misha's parka for protection from the wind. The arrangement mirrored itself on Tychicus' back with Wolfram and Merai, the other companions Misha had chosen to bring with him. Wolfram had worried that pausing at Glen Avery to pick up Charles would delay them too long, but the rat had shown up at Metamor's gates that very dawn, uncalled-for. "I had a dream, Misha," he explained when asked. "Shattered manacles, dipped into a crystal pool.  They didn't come out as manacles, though. They came out as a brilliant sword, gleaming like the sun.  You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

   Misha did. No more questions were needed. They left on time.

   "The creature you will be facing," Malger had said just before their departure, "is called the Beast of Revonos, and he is aptly named. He was once a Keeper that each of you knew. What he has become now is a weapon, a living embodiment of chaos and destruction, deliberately and powerfully designed by Lord Revonos. We do not know how much of his mind remains, nor what state it is in. I'm sorry, Misha, but the odds are very good that he will not remember you. If you want to survive, you must help him to do so."

   Raven had weighed in next. "When you find him, remember this above all else: do not attempt to combat him by matching strength against strength. You will lose. Contests of power are what he knows, and where he excels. If you play by his rules, he will destroy you utterly. Remember from where he comes: the court of the Lord of Betrayal. The Sixth Hell does not countenance co-operation, so it is unfamiliar to him. Work together... or die separately." The wolven priestess turned a worried gaze on Merai. "The gods have forbidden me from going with you, and you will be both uniquely strong and uniquely vulnerable against him. You know of what I speak. Beware the shadows. Remember your training." She unbuckled the holy sword Elemacil from her waist and handed it over to the young priestess. "Bear this well, Priestess Merai. May the High Lord Kammoloth guide you and keep you safe."

   The final word had come from Duke Thomas. "If you take him alive- I'm sorry, Misha, but I will not risk your lives with anything more restrictive than that- if you take him alive, he is to go directly to the dungeons, to be kept under strict ward and guard. If he is found competent, he will stand trial for the deaths and damages he caused three months ago. If he is not competent, then... we'll see. Be very, very careful."

   Tychicus and Saroth heaved themselves over the top of the ridge, the downward slope opening up before them... stained red by the blood of a black dragon dragging itself upward in the other direction. It collapsed and died before they could reach it, its wings shredded, a foreleg broken, and its head partially caved in. Around its neck it bore the teardrop ankh of Lilith. It was not the only body they found on the mountain that day, nor in the foothills beyond. Flyers of all kinds littered the area: dragons, drakes, gargoyles, and more, all of them with their wings destroyed, and most looking as if they had fallen from a great height. It was not difficult to guess why. The sudden storm, and whatever had happened after, had wrought utter devastation on anything airborne.

   It had also started fires. Many of them. Smoke stung the nostrils and, as they emerged from the foothills, darkened nearly a quarter of the horizon. Misha heard Wolfram yell something, his tone sharp with alarm, but the wind snatched away the words. {Only the fringe, and only for a moment} came Tychicus' reply. Like Saroth, he spoke telepathically. The two dragons banked sharply away from the denser forest to their left, turning toward the fires on their right.

   From this height, Misha could see a distinct arc to the columns of smoke and, as the dragons wove a path through them, a concentric pattern of damage established itself on what portions of the forest had escaped burning. First, leaves had been stripped from trees, then branches, then entire limbs the farther east they went. The air turned strangely chill, a dull white gleam mottling the forest floor. "What is that white down there, Saroth?" Misha asked. "Can you see it?"

   {I can. It's hail, and it's getting thicker the closer we get to Lik.}

   "So is the damage," Charles added, peeking out from behind Misha. "It looks like the hail came first- see how the downed trees cover it?"

   "Good observation, Charles, and it makes sense given what we saw from Metamor. If it was centered near or over Lik-"

   Saroth's wingbeats faltered, a telepathic bow wave of shock radiating from him. Misha's head snapped up, wondering what had so startled the dragon, and his jaw dropped open as the veil of smoke parted. Absolute devastation unfolded before them, stretching from horizon to horizon. As far as the eye could see, trees had either been blown down or snapped outright, stripped of limbs and even bark. Fire had scorched them where they lay. Hot patches still smoldered, lingering embers from a great conflagration that had since passed on. In the middle of it all gleamed a strange, perfectly circular ring of barren, darkened ground. And inside that…

   "Lik."

   "Or what's left of it. Oh, Eli." Charles narrowed his eyes until they were lost in the gloom of his brow, and made the sign of the Yew.  When he opened them again, the surprise had gone from them, but the uneasy amazement remained. He had warned them all of the power of the Beast he'd encountered in Revonos' arena, but even he had not been prepared for this. A yawning crater like an empty eye socket marked the epicenter of destruction: not a single building remained standing. "Are those..."

   {Yes. Bodies. Lots of them. And it looks like many of them weren't killed by the blast. Misha, I don't think you should use the teleport disk here. The magic…} He struggled for words. {It feels as if reality itself is scarred. The sky is in pain. I would advise against any use of magic at all, if it can be helped, at least until we are well away from here.}

   {Priestess Merai believes it to be some sort of burn from the portal}, Tychicus sent. {From the Sixth or the Ninth Hell- she's not certain which. The auras are mixed, but they're also the strongest she's encountered outside of direct presence. It seems to have opened almost directly above the temple.}

   "So that's the point of origin. Saroth, can you see anything alive down there? Anything moving?"

   {No, Misha. Nothing moves. I see bodies aplenty, but-} His head jerked sharply, eyes fixing on something below, to the side of the city in an area that had somehow escaped burning. {Wait.... there! Follow me!} Saroth heeled over, wings opening to sweep into a wide, descending spiral. Tychicus followed a moment later.

   After criss-crossing above the town to draw any hidden archer's fire, and receiving none, Saroth and Tychicus found a clear spot amid the rubble near the edge of town. In a whirling backwater of wings, each landed facing out from the other; teeth, claws, and flame poised to strike. Wolfram and Merai rolled off Tychicus to cover a third direction, while Misha and Charles readied themselves against a fourth. It was a potent defense executed perfectly to plan, ready for assault from any front... but none came. Only a faint, distant moan greeted them.

   With a gesture, Misha sent the two dragons back into the sky, circling overhead like aerial cavalry, while the four groundbound Keepers closed in on the source of the sound. The dead lay everywhere: under the wreckage, on top of it, whole, in pieces, and every possible variation in between, all under the unforgiving glare of the merciless sun. Those that had not burned outright were quickly beginning to putrefy. The stench of death was indescribable. The silence was almost worse. It pressed down with almost palpable weight, magnifying a whispered comment into a careless shout, a minute shift of rubble into an echoing avalanche, and transforming the recurring moan from afar into a beacon of unending suffering. Misha was reminded of the days after the tornado had struck Keeptowne- it had taken three days for the songbirds and insects to return, and the silence had been just as deafening.

   The rubble came to an abrupt end at the dark ring they had seen around the city from above. The buildings, the bodies, toppled trees, bushes, even the ground itself, all of it ended at the ring as if sliced off by a red-hot knife. Beyond the knife edge, three feet of ground had been melted down into to glassy, black rock. Wolfram poked it with a length of wood he'd pulled from the rubble and frowned. "It's like glass. What happened here?"

   "Hellfire," Merai answered, springing with feline grace over the stretch of glassed ground to examine a burned jumble of bones beyond. "This one probably tried to leap through, and was incinerated in midair." The lutin's blackened, fleshless skull stared up at them, its jaws gaping open as if still screaming even in death. Stooping and making the sign of the twin cross, Merai rested her fingers on the bones and whispered a short prayer for the dead. "Even lutins don't deserve to die like that."

   Not trusting the hell-touched strip of obsidian glass, Misha vaulted it using Whisper as a pole. Charles did likewise with his Sondeshike, and then tossed it back to help Wolfram across. The lutin was not the only creature that had tried to leap the flame wall: as they closed on the sound of the moaning, they found many other skeletons and half-skeletons. The worst was the giant that had fallen half across the blaze and then dragged its cauterized, half-incinerated body for another ten feet before dying. Misha prayed that the trail of blackened, roasted organs would not haunt his nightmares.

   Then they found the werewolf. Twenty feet up a splintered oak, impaled through his chest, gut, and thigh by scorched tree limbs as thick as a man's arm, only his lycanthropic regeneration had saved him from instant death. Even that was more of a torment than a blessing, as he could not free himself. Grizzled fur streaked with coagulated and dried blood, a pink froth bubbling at the corners of his mouth, the beast moaned in agony with each breath. His lips twitched as if he were trying to say something, but Misha couldn't make it out from the ground. Wolfram stepped up next to Misha, drawing in a breath through his teeth as he sized up the situation. "I'm assuming you want him alive?"

   "If possible. We need to find out what happened. But if we can't get him down safely..."

   "We can," the ram interrupted. "It will be tricky, but we can. Better get started." Scaling the tree with surprising efficiency, he revived the beast with a careful drink of water. The offer of help received a faint nod in reply, and the ram signaled for Saroth and Tychicus to land. It took both dragons at their largest size to ease the tree down without jostling its captive, and the beast bit on Charles' Sondeshike while Wolfram and Merai carefully extricated the tree limbs from his body. Misha kept Whisper close as the wounds healed, but even when physically restored, the werewolf proved to be in no shape to fight. He didn't much care that he'd been rescued by Metamorians, just so long as "that beast, that bloody Beast" was gone. His hands shook with fear, trembling so badly that he spilled as much water as he drank. He didn't seem to notice.

   "Eyes. G-golden eyes," he finally stammered through chattering teeth. "G-golden eyes and bloody fur. That's what I remember most. Burning fire. Burning ice. Madness. Slaughter. He slaughtered us. Some got away, I think, but the rest? Screaming. Burning. Freezing. Dying. It came out of the crater, I think. Froze the vampires solid. The sun burned them to ash where they stood. I remember that, too." He gulped down the last of the water, handed the canteen back, and then pulled his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth, shivering. "Golden eyes, bloody fur, black claws and teeth... fire, ice, walking death... burning, freezing... It looked like a wolf. A giant, terrible dire wolf. And when it howled..." He cringed, his massive, dark-clawed hands rising to clutch his ears. "Red! Red everywhere! Everything red! Everything rage! Death and death and death and death..."

   Charles' hand drifted to his neck, brushing his fingers across the fur as if half-expecting to find something there. His eyes narrowed and he carefully lowered his hand back down when he realized what he was doing. "So... it's not just hellhounds he can drive mad." After a moment's reflection, he appraised Misha with a worried glance. "No wonder Raven was warned not to come with us."

   "Stupid vampires!" the werewolf whimpered, resuming his rocking. "Stupid! Stupid!"

   A screech cut through the werewolf's anguished rant, and the two dragons landed in a thunder of wings. {We need to go. A swarm of giant spiders are coming.}

   At the same moment, Merai gasped in alarm and spun westward, raising Elemacil in a warding guard as shadows began to coalesce. "It's not just spiders. Get on the dragons and get airborne, now!"

   "'Let's catch it!' they said! 'We'll sacrifice it to the Queen!' they said! Stupid vampires! Stupid! Stu-"

   "Hold." The voice was neither loud nor harsh, but radiated such a potency of command that everyone froze in their tracks as if paralyzed. A woman stepped from the shadows, her hair the color of pitch and her eyes like a starless night; like a raven, bereft of pupil or white. Clad from neck to sole in intricately tooled black leather armor and flanked by a pair of glowering dire wolves, she radiated an aura of dark nights filled with watching, hungry eyes. The werewolf toppled forward and kowtowed instantly to the ground, his rant silenced. Behind her, the spiders could be seen arriving from the west, a black-and-gray swarm that made short work of the tree-strewn ground.

   Ears flattened and hackles rose throughout the group as Merai put a name to the new arrival. "Lilith." The Keepers backed away from the daedress and closed ranks, spells and dragonflame ready to blast an escape route if necessary.

   The woman nodded slightly in mocking acknowledgement of the move, but waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.  "At your ease, Lightbringer.  For now, I have no quarrel with you, nor with your companions. We share a common cause: you want your wayward beast, and I want him gone from my lands as soon as possible. Do not invite more trouble than you already have."  As the spiders encircled the group, she pointed to the ground before her. "Come here, William."

   The werewolf crawled to her on all fours, whimpering and groveling. "I-I'm sorry, m-my Lady. I failed you," he stammered when he finally reached her, his tail tucked and his ears lowered, his trembling returning twofold. His head and eyes he kept averted, expecting punishment.  "I sh-should have-"

   Lilith stopped him with a single finger laid on his nose. Cupping her hand under his chin, she lifted it until he met her eyes and, to the astonishment of all, she smiled. A reserved smile, the smile of a queen to a lowly and meager servant, but still a smile.  "You were completely out of your depth, my boy.  I would sooner expect a mouse to kill a mountain lion than expect you to battle the Beast of Revonos. Even the fiercest of predators must run sometimes." She stroked his gray-furred cheek with an almost maternal touch.  "That you've survived at all suggests you're strong enough for greater things."  She stroked his fur for a bit longer, soothing him until his tailtip wagged, and then turned her attention to Misha.

   "You have done much to advance my ethos here in the northlands, Janaluk Shaltu. Entire races have grown stronger from fear of you. For that, I grant you this small boon: safe passage through my lands for the span of two days." A gesture of her left hand materialized a silver ankh in midair before them, dropping it into Misha's hands with a clink of metal on claws. "Show this to any who would stop you, and they will let you pass. Do not linger. Get the creature for which you've come..." Her eyes narrowed and teeth flashed as her condescending magnanimity vanished instantly into deadly threat, sudden and certain as an arrow to the heart. "And then get out."


   Lilith had allowed them only one direction of departure from the ring: southwest. It was in that direction, she advised, that they would find the Beast. "If you wish to survive, make certain that you see it before it sees you." With the party back in the air, it did not take long for them to find the damage trail- a straight line of smashed and shattered forest and rock carving through the blast-flattened trees. They tracked its undeviating course until the fallen trees gave way to still- standing ones, at which point they decided to land rather than risk losing the trail.

   "What did she call you back there? Janaluk Shaltu?" Charles asked as they descended.

   "It's lutin. It means Shadow of Death."

   Charles' brow furrowed for a moment. "Wait. Does that mean that, to the lutins, we live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death?" Misha snorted, his mouth quirking up at one corner.

   The release provided by the wry humor lasted until the two got down from Saroth's back and found themselves standing in a pair of pawprints… with room to spare for each of them. Wolfram and Merai climbed down from Tychicus, and the ram sized up the situation in a single sentence. "We're going to need a bigger dragon." Tychicus and Saroth exchanged a glance as they shrank down to join the ground crew, but said nothing. They pulled on a pair of robes for clothing, easily shed in case of an emergency shift.

   Misha stooped where he stood, frowning as he used his own hand to measure the size of the prints. Then, measuring the length between front paw prints and the height of the blood smears against nearby trees, he tried to extrapolate the size of the rest of the creature. His frown deepened as the numbers added up in his head. "Charles, how big was he when you met him?"

   Charles clicked his teeth together as he came to his own unpleasant conclusion. His ears and whiskers flicked back and forth between amazement and alarm, not quite certain where to settle. "Not this big, I assure you. If paws this size had landed on me, I would have been crushed."

   "Look at this," Wolfram said, drawing their attention to mixed canine paw prints in the brush to either side of the main damage trail. "Looks like our friend has an entourage."

   "Actually, Wolfram," said Merai, who had continued forward, "I think 'had an entourage' is the correct term." The sound of half-choked nausea in her voice brought the others running.

   Not much of a breeze blew under the iron sky, but with no flies to buzz over the corpses and a strange, pervading chill seeming to press the scent of death from the air, the charnel house into which they stumbled gave little warning. Bits and pieces of bodies lay everywhere, most of them human, none intact. Also, strangely enough, none clothed. {The werewolves of Lik,} Saroth opined.

   Wolfram stooped, investigating a scrap of coarse white fur that clung to a shattered piece of bone embedded in the trunk of a blood-splattered tree. Around the base of the tree lay the rest of the beast, in strangely sharp-edged pieces no larger than his fist. "And a moondog, too, I think. What's left of it, anyway- Ow!" He jerked back from trying to work the bone shard loose from the tree, shaking his hand and staring in wonderment. "It's frozen!"

   "This one is, too," Charles replied, his Sondeshike making a faint clink when he prodded the headless corpse of a werewolf. "When I fought him in Hell, he could exhale a wave of ice. It appears that he still can."

   "Well, it appears he's been improving," Wolfram snapped, shaking his hand again to try to get feeling back into it. Breathing hard across numbed fingers, he then stuffed them into his right armpit to warm them more quickly, just above the rim of his breastplate. "You said he froze your feet to the ground. You never mentioned anything about instant frostbite."

   Charles' brow whiskers arched upward, lifting his Sondeshike for a closer look as crackling frost traced a foot of the way up its length from a single touch. "Agreed. Are you going to be all right?"

   "I'll be okay, I think." Wolfram clicked the hooflet-capped fingertips of his unfrozen right hand together. "If I had bare flesh instead of hooves, I think I might have left behind a few layers of skin. Still... that's really cold. Don't touch them."

   Misha frowned. "That's why we have gloves, Wolfram. Wear them. Merai, can you- Merai?" To Misha's surprise, the priestess had knelt to the ground, her forehead pressed against the sinuous spine of the holy blade Elemacil. Her lips moved faintly, her eyes closed in concentration or prayer, or perhaps both. Was it his imagination, or was the sword starting to glow?

   Without opening her eyes, the young priestess explained. "I am trying to better attune myself to Elemacil, so I can better hear its warnings. I don't want a repeat of Lilith's surprise arrival."

   Detecting a note of budding self-reproach in Merai's explanation, Misha deliberately broke in on it before it could blossom. "Don't beat yourself up over that. I recognize a short-range teleport when I see one. If I wanted to surprise somebody who could sense me approaching from a distance, that's how I would do it: get to the very edge of their range and then 'jump' in." After a moment's reflection, he added, "Was that what Raven meant by 'beware the shadows'?"

   "No. A daedra, or someone they have altered as radically as they have your friend, can perform a temporary empowerment, an enhancement of aura, allowing him to cut through the defenses of an aedra or those of their servants. For example, me. If you see the shadows 'pull' toward him, wrap around him like wisps of flame, he's using it. It's unmistakable."

   "At least we'll know who his next target is," Wolfram replied, sheathing his sword long enough to pull on a glove.

   Merai nodded. "Misha, there's something you should know. What he's done, the continuous power he's displayed since his arrival... as far as everything I've ever learned tells me, what he's doing is impossible. I would expect this level of destruction if we were chasing down a young daedra noble, a scion of the daedra lords, but a mortal? Even one who has been the personal project of a daedra lord, as Charles' tale seems to imply? This does not make sense. He should not be capable of maintaining this level of power separated from the Lord of Rage. Something is very-" Her eyes snapped open, her ears backing in shock. Now Misha was certain the sword was glowing, because for a moment so were her eyes. "Very wrong."

   "What is it?" the fox asked.

   "I found him."

   "And?"

   "Do you want the good news first, or the bad?"

   Misha scowled, his one ear lying flat. “Just spit it out!”

   "Misha, Elemacil doesn't recognize him. It is saying that, somehow, what we're following is both mortal and daedra at the same time. The sense wavers back and forth, refusing to settle as one or the other. That's-"

   "Impossible?"

   "Yes. Fallen possess, not daedra. This doesn't make sense."

   "That definitely sounds like Drift," Wolfram commented. "Corner him, and he goes off in some unexpected direction. And who's more cornered that someone chained up in Hell?" He tugged at his glove again to make sure it was properly settled, scowling as he muttered, "I hate wearing these things... as if my sense of touch weren't bad enough already. So, back to the chase, Misha?"

   "No. If Merai can keep his location pinpointed," Misha said, waiting for Merai to confirm with a nod, "then it's time to get ahead of him and start stacking the deck." Pulling a small paint pot and brush from his pack, Misha gestured everyone close.


   A short dragon flight later (including an apology to the mighty dragon Keepers for using them as running horses) found them a good position: an uneven, rocky clearing strewn with boulders that provided cover for them and hindrance for the Beast's speed and mobility. It was nearer the Murk, Lilith's dark forest, than Misha would have preferred, but it was the best defensive ground available for miles. Merai located two nymphs nearby, both aligned with Lilith, but both so eager to avoid the fate of their sisters to the east that Misha privately wondered if they would have helped even without the presence of Lilith's ankh of safe passage as an incentive. They gladly agreed to clear any other servants of Lilith from the area, then hunker down in their trees and leave the Beast of Revonos to the Metamorians. They even provided dead wood for the fire that was the centerpiece of Misha's plan.

   Their defense was tiered, one layer upon another. Wolfram carved Long Scout symbols into the trees on the edges of the clearing, pressing his hand on the bark next to each to leave a familiar scent should Drift have forgotten the meaning of the symbols. Misha assembled the pieces of Drift's battlestaff, Whirlwind, and wedged it into a cleft in one of the rocks. After the fight in the storm the staff had been too damaged to repair but Misha had brought it anyway. Charles hung a Metamor banner on it and Saroth asked a gentle breeze to keep the rampant stallion insignia visible. Merai and Tychicus prepared more forceful surprises in case the memory jog went badly. In the middle of it all, a pan sizzled…

   Finally, they needed to draw the Beast's attention, to bring him to them on their timetable rather than his own. Once they had finished their preparations, Wolfram had the answer to that: a curving ram's horn plated with brass on the inside. Misha's brow furrowed as he looked from it to its mirrored twin on Wolfram's head. "Is that, by any chance, your own horn?" he asked.

   "The one Drift broke off, yes. Pascal repaired it for me."

   "And you didn't get it 'repaired' back onto your head?"

   Wolfram shrugged. "Waste not, want not. It'll grow back, and I get a story and a battle horn out of the bargain."

   "I'm beginning to believe the stories George has told me about your grandfather, Wolfram."

   "Thank you, sir," Wolfram replied with a smirk, then lifted the horn to his lips and blew. A brazen note lofted across the woods and hills.

   Merai gasped in instant response. "He heard that! Artela's grace, he's fast!"

   Faint crashes in the deep forest heralded the approach of the Beast, growing louder with alarming rapidity. Charles flicked out his Sondeshike and moved closer to Merai. His ears lowered and his whiskers backed. "I hope this plan works, Misha. I only survived my last fight against him because I had... help. If he does not remember, this will not end well." Turning his back to the clearing and the fire, Charles watched their backs should the approaching beast circle around to come at their flanks.

   Treetops started vanishing on a straight-line approach from the northeast, clouds of leaves and limbs erupting into the air as their trunks were shattered or smashed down. Misha tightened his grip on Whisper and bit back the 'me, too' in his mind from becoming anything more than a heartfelt prayer. "Here we go, people. Stay focused and work together.” Everyone turned, save the rat, toward the path of destruction rapidly approaching. Misha saw even Charles glance back over his shoulder briefly. The fox took a breath and tightened his hands upon the haft of his axe. “Saroth? Now."

 

   With a gesture from the weather dragon a breeze uncoiled itself from around the fire and raced out to meet the onrushing beast. It carried a message, a very simple message, yet one that stopped the Beast in his tracks; the smell of cooking trail-biscuit. Silence settled on the forest like an uneasy fog. Ten of the longest seconds of Misha's life followed before Merai broke in. "He's moving again, slowly this time. I think he's circling." Elemacil lowered, its point tracking on the Beast, and a moment later Merai amended an affirmative, pivoting in place to maintain her facing.

   {Should I have the wind follow him, Misha?} Saroth asked.

   "Not just yet. Wolfram? Your turn."

   The ram banged a pan against his shield. "Hey, Drift!" he yelled. "Yes, you, out in the forest! Stop sneaking around and get in here! Dinner's-"

   A cavernous growl interrupted him. In the shadows of the forest, a pair of golden lights appeared. A red mouth opened into a snarl beneath them, lined with darkly gleaming teeth and a tongue stained black with lutin blood. The head of a monstrous wolf resolved itself from the darkness, its glowing golden eyes showing neither pupil nor white. A crimson paw the size of a draft horse's hoof emerged into the light, followed by its fellow. With the arrogant hauteur of a conquering king and the narrow-eyed suspicion of a combat veteran, the War Wolf of Revonos strode into the clearing. This was a creature that expected an attack at any moment, expected to utterly destroy those who tried, and dripped with the blood of his enemies to prove his capability.

   Exchanging a glance between them, Saroth and Tychicus began to applaud. This had been Charles' addition to the plan. If Drift felt like he was still in the arena it would be the spectators who applauded, not the combatants. There was no contest of might to be had from spectators. It worked; the wolf froze in confusion with one paw lifted mid-stride. The two dragons were the only ones with hands free to clap but, unasked for, Wolfram let out a whoop worthy of the Summer Festival.

   The beast's head snapped around, locking on Wolfram like a lodestone to iron. Golden eyes bored into the ram for a long moment, then opened suddenly wide. Ears rose, pulling its head upward out of an aggressive snarl. Its jaw sagged open and its lifted forepaw dropped back to the ground, bracing as if the earth had suddenly begun to shift like a swaying ship deck underneath it. Silence descended on the clearing as the applause faltered.

   "Drift?" Misha spoke quietly. He hadn't meant to, but the name slipped past his lips before he could stop it.

   The effect was instant. Ears flashing straight backwards, the Beast flinched as if from a blow, then froze as every muscle in his body went iron-taut. For a moment, nothing moved in the clearing except the faint wafts of frost that passed for the Beast's breath. Then slowly, as slowly as an iron statue being dragged over barren rock, the wolf's head turned from Wolfram. Tychicus and Saroth passed under its scrutiny with barely a flicker. Merai warranted a tightening of the eyes, a strangled, agonized whimper. Charles evoked a snarl and a shiver of pelt as muscle fought muscle. And then…

   Kill him.

   To the end of his days, Misha could never say how he dodged that first strike. All he knew for certain was that one moment he had been staring into the wolf's eyes from across the clearing, and in the next heartbeat Whisper rang in his hands as its flat smashed across the leading edge of a red blur. The axe rang in his head, too, a cacophony of warning tones that he had no time to process. He had sidestepped, but not enough: even with those deadly jaws diverted, the huge war-wolf's shoulder sent Misha spinning to the ground, just barely missed by a disemboweling sweep of a massive paw already coated in the gore of countless creatures. The fox tumbled a few feet onto his back, the world swimming briefly out of focus before a huge, black-toothed maw loomed over him, teeth bared for the kill.

   The sound of shifting armor and scrambling paws joined the angry snarl of the wolf as everyone began moving at once; all too slowly. "Eyes!" Merai cried warning. Misha had already brought up an arm to ward his face from those huge jaws, merely shifting it slightly higher as he clamped his eyes closed. A blinding flash drove the Beast back, pawing at its face, its fur smoking. A moment later a thrown rock the size of Misha's head, ripped from the earth by dragon talons, caromed off the wolf's skull just above its left eye with a meaty crunch. The Beast bounded away with an enraged snarl, but not before Misha caught a glimpse of its crumpled brow already restoring itself to wholeness.

   Gloved hands jerked Misha to his feet. "On- on your feet, sir." Shock stumbled Wolfram's words, but Misha paid him no attention. Drift had slalomed through the holy wards and weakened patches of ground that Merai and Tychicus had made as if he could see them. How- ?

   The wolf wheeled around, paws splaying, and Misha's eyes widened. He'd seen dragons take that stance before. "Cover!" he yelled, and tackled Wolfram to the ground as the Beast's maw opened. As the rest of the party scattered, Tychicus mirrored the beast's stance, robe dropping away as he grew. His chest ballooned with indrawn breath until the moment the war wolf's stomach tensed, and then dragon's fire and hell-born ice crashed together between them like the fists of giants. With a thunderous, ground-shaking roar, each nullified the other. Fog exploded from the collision of extremes, the roiling cloud instantly whiting out visibility to a bare handful of strides. The evenly matched contest lasted only a second before Tychicus' fire blasted suddenly unopposed, coring a hole through the cloud and lighting distant trees on fire. The wolf had vanished.

   From the thick mist to the dragon's right came three loud chuffs, like a blowgun firing in rapid succession. Three massive, rough chunks of ice slammed into Tychicus' side before he could react: one at the wing base, the second into his shoulder, and the third finding its mark on the dragon's brow as he turned to face the attack. Tychicus' head snapped back from the impact, his jaw falling open, before he crumpled senseless to the ground.

   Tychicus' plight was not immediately apparent, however, for the fog closed around them thick and impenetrable, instantly isolating them from each other. "Saroth!" Misha yelled into the blinding white, pushing Wolfram one way and rolling to his feet in another. "Get rid of this fog! We're sitting-" A chain rattled, and the head of the Long Scouts ducked to one knee just ahead of flashing claws and lunging teeth. As he dropped, he slammed the butt of Whisper's haft into the ground, the axe end coming up like a pike to catch his attacker in the chest. The impact nearly ripped Whisper out of his hands as the Beast, moving far faster than should have been possible, catapulted up and over Misha's head, a startled whuff of air displaced from its lungs. Black, dully gleaming claws and teeth sliced the air just short of Misha's ear and the Beast landed tumbling, head over tail, before vanishing back into the fog. "Saroth, now!"

   Kill him!

   The weather dragon took the fastest route he knew, launching into the air and bidding the newborn cloud follow him. The fog lifted, chasing the dragon, and revealing the Beast circling for another strike. With a snarl of frustration, the war wolf gouged the claws of one forepaw into the rocky soil, a dragging anchor to slew it around into a head-on charge. Recognizing that the party needed time to regather itself, Misha deliberately took a deep stance and wound up for a big strike. He wanted Drift's focus kept on-

   Misha's ear flipped back as the oncoming Beast shimmered and split into seven perfect copies, fanning out to swarm him. Charles had warned him about this, and his ear flipped forward again as he focused all of his scout-tuned perceptions on deciphering which wolf was-

   The stub of chain hanging from the Beast's collar flared white-hot, then detonated in a shower of sparks. The real wolf reeled smoking out of the closing half-circle of images, choking and gasping as if he'd run unawares into an airless vacuum. The other wolves dissolved into wisps of snow a moment later, and their departure gave the monster its breath back. Limbs shaking and chest heaving, sucking in air like a man nearly drowned, golden eyes wide and wild, the beast staggered to a halt.

   "Drift? Are you-"

   Kill him!

   The Beast roared an earth-shaking challenge, daring any to close with him in his moment of vulnerability: a sanity-raking blend of howl and roar and scream. Misha's ears backed and his fingers clutched around the haft of his axe, but its greatest effect washed unfelt around him, Charles, and Wolfram. Tychicus was unconscious and Saroth out of range, but Merai buckled as nameless terror and dread hacked at her mind. Gasping a prayer to Velena, goddess of peace, she fought to regain her equilibrium. Misha moved to guard her while she recovered, but the Beast pinned him with a furious golden glare the moment he started. Before Misha could register that its next swift breath was more than just another panting gasp, another blizzard engulfed him. In an instant, Misha's world went white.

   A wedge of Longfugos force slashed through the air a fraction of a second too late to intercept the blast, but it drew the Beast's attention. "Merai! Wolfram!" Charles yelled as he ran into the assault path. "Get Misha out of that ice before he suffocates!" Spinning up his Sondeshike as a shield, he turned his full focus on the beast before him. Filling his lungs as full as he could make them, he shouted, "Drift Edward Snow! You know me! You know who I am! We met in the Arena of Blood, where you saved my life! Now help me save yours!"

   The Beast snarled. Was this tiny creature a fool? He faced Carcarak! The Beast of Revonos! The foremost servant and chosen champion of the Lord of the Sundered Shield! Not even the lowest, most witless of imps would dare to bring a shield into his presence, and this... this...

   Rat...

   The Beast hesitated, attention flickering from Charles to the developing cluster around Misha and back again. He swayed slightly as if pulled in multiple directions at once, unable or unwilling to move, ears flicking into uncertainty. Emotions flashed wild and chaotic through him like waves in a storm-tossed sea. Two diametrically opposed torrents of rage built and converged.

   "You don't need to fight anymore- we are both free! Our chains are broken! Come back to us as family! Come home!"

   With a deafening roar, the Beast erupted into sudden, brutal violence. Thrashing about like a hooked fish, he slammed his head against nearby boulders hard enough to crack stone, bit his own limbs until bone gleamed, and churned a bloody circle into the earth around him. Tattered flesh and shattered bone healed as quickly as Charles remembered, only to be torn and broken anew in a mad paroxysm of self-destructive fury, and Charles backed away in shock in spite of himself. His shielding spin faltered.

   At the same moment, Wolfram yelled and dropped his sword, backing away as it froze to the ground. He had used the pommel to try to break through the ice encasing Misha, forgetting for a moment the frosty results Charles had gained earlier with his Sondeshike, and hastily shucked off his gloves before they could freeze to his hands. Merai, arm raised in midcast, adjusted her aim slightly. "Nai nuva yaja!" she incanted, and a cone of glowing warmth washed over Misha and Wolfram. The ice around Misha began to steam, and the frost threatening Wolfram's hands evaporated instantly. Without waiting for instruction, Wolfram bashed the edge of his shield against the ice, opening a wide crack through which Misha gasped for air.

   Kill him!!

   Had Charles' reactions been any slower, he would not have caught the sudden shift from thrashing to strike. The flurry of force punches he hurled into the Beast's path split the wolf into three directions as it dodged, but the ones that sprinted left and right shattered into snow spray almost immediately. Only the one who had leaped skyward landed whole, staggering and panting. Many of the hits had landed, but it only seemed to make the beast, if possible, even angrier. Gathering his feet back under him in a bound, the war wolf hurled himself, jaws agape, at Charles.... and at the same time held back, inhaling for another blizzard.

   With only a fraction of a second to deduce which threat was real, and the tattletale chain obliterated in the earlier explosion, Charles set himself for a Longfugos air slash to counter the blizzard. The farther wolf looked solid and real, while the leaping one flickered and shimmered as if not able to fully solidify. He guessed correctly: the pouncing beast passed right through him with barely a chill. But then the far one, mid-breath, flickered and faded and Charles had just enough time to hear movement behind him before two massive hindpaws slammed into his shoulders. Adamantite-coated claws knifed into his back, lifting him from the ground and hurling him across the clearing.

   Saroth, returning to the fray, swerved out of a swooping side attack to pluck Charles from midair, unconscious and bleeding. He winged away, getting the rat to safety, but the Beast's open maw tracked on them, preparing to blast the bronze weather dragon from the sky.

   Then a glowing shield of light smashed into the wolf's muzzle, slamming it aside. "Get Misha out of that ice, Wolfram!" Merai directed. "I'll keep the Beast busy."

   That got Carcarak's attention. His complete, undivided attention. Shadows all over the clearing pulled toward him, rippling up his legs and over his body like phantom flames. His teeth bared.

   His tail wagged. Once.

   Merai lifted a hand in a warding gesture, a glowing barrier sphere rising up around her, but the shadow-wreathed servant of the Lord of the Sundered Shield cleaved through it with contemptuous ease. Arriving in a blur of speed, darkly gleaming claws carved apart the light like swords, shadow and light tangling and dissipating in smoky swirls and eddies. Frosted teeth bared to bite, but Merai and Elemacil were waiting. The holy sword flashed, forcing the hellbeast to flinch away, and Merai swung with all her strength, guided by the sword's spirit toward a decapitating strike.

   At the last moment, Carcarak twisted aside and Elemacil rebounded with a numbing clang, stopped short by the spiked collar of hell-forged iron around the monstrous wolf's neck. Though blocked, it still left a deep gouge in the collar, gleaming red with internal heat: another strike might break through. Carcarak, however, was not about to allow another. His head snapped back around with the speed of a striking snake, a blast of ice coating the blade and the hand wielding it and dragging both earthward with the weight. Buckling to her knees and gasping from the pain, Merai raised her un-iced hand, intending to blast the beast with holy fire, but found to her horror that she was only putting her arm into already closing jaws.

   Wolfram charged into their midst, bulling shield-first into the Beast's shoulder. Teeth snapped shut on air instead of priestess, and white fire furrowed the wolf's cheek and ear rather than spearing through his brain. Carcarak rolled with the tackle, snarling over his stolen kill, and launched Wolfram into the air with all four paws. As the swordless fighter landed in a clanking sprawl, the Beast turned away with a dismissive snort.

   It was a mistake he would regret only seconds later. As Carcarak inhaled to freeze Merai and Misha in one blow, Wolfram's hooved foot slammed upward between the Beast's hind legs. The building icy blast choked off in an anguished spray of frozen shards. In instant response, one hind foot lashed out, catching the frantically backpedaling ram across the shield like a thunderstroke. With that much power behind it, even a glancing blow smashed Wolfram off his feet, nearly wrenching his shoulder out of socket. The Beast followed a moment later, whirling and pouncing with a murderous roar. Metal-clad teeth cleaved into the ram's upraised shield, crumpling it around his arm like cheap tin foil. His blazing eyes promised to cleave that arm apart and then rip out the stump, then do the same to the other arm, then each of the legs, and then... He didn't get the time. Wolfram gritted his teeth against the pain, seized Carcarak's ear with his left hand, and slammed his horned head against the beast's brow. It didn't do any damage, but the forgotten familiarity of the move bought the ram a moment's pause. He put it to best use. "Payback for when you kicked me there, Drift," Wolfram growled, his face dripping with blood from the Beast's gory fur. "Back in training when we first met. Remember?"

   Something shifted in the creature's face, and the massive wolf loosened its bite. Backing away, it pawed first at its head, then at its collar, metal claws raking fruitlessly against metal spikes in an ever-increasing frenzy. Another self-destructive explosion seemed imminent.

   Then Misha broke free of his fast-disintegrating ice prison. He hefted Whisper into a crossing block. "Drift-"

   KILL HI-

   Drift whirled, death in his eyes, and slammed his jaws shut on the black axe's shaft. The runic weapon struck back instantly, ripping life energy from the beast like a wolverine eviscerating a rabbit. Carcarak, desperate to stay alive, pulled every last drop of daedra energy from the broken linking spell embedded in the collar around his neck, devouring every spell and enchantment ever woven into it or through it. The collar, overstrained far beyond anything for which it had ever been designed, flared white-hot for a tenth of a second before detonating, hurling Misha, Whisper, and the War Wolf in three separate directions.

   Silence fell, broken only by the TCHOKK of Whisper burying itself two feet into a boulder as it landed.

   Cradling his right arm carefully across his stomach to avoid all of the sheared and crumpled edges of the destroyed shield wrapped around it, Wolfram struggled to his feet, muttering something he'd probably have to confess to Father Hough later. His body ached and his shoulder screamed at him with every nudge or shift, but it still compared favorably to getting thrown through a wall. Merai dropped the energy shield she had re-raised around her, her arm nearly finished thawing, and Misha levered himself upright, both looking about as bruised as Wolfram felt. "I'm getting too old for this," the fox grumbled as he pulled Whisper cleanly from the rock. Saroth landed in a whirl of wings, still carrying Charles. The rat wobbled drunkenly when the dragon set him down, but gestured that he would be okay. His mail would need to be replaced, as would the padded undershirt, but together they had taken the brunt of the claw strike: the rat Sondeckis had been too light for the wolf's double back-kick. Only Tychicus remained insensate, and even his eyelids were beginning to flutter.

   And in the middle of them all, his blood-soaked fur charred and blackened where the collar had been, the mighty Beast of Revonos lay sprawled in limp-limbed oblivion.

"Unleashing the Beast", copyright Hallan Mirayas