Saturday, March 25, 2023

Kingdom of Wolves (sneak preview)

Kingdom of Wolves

Chapter One

King Airell was in foreign territory. He had crossed an ocean and trekked a mountainside to find the icy land of Alzora. Beneath the bitter snow slept the fertile soil of springtime, but for now, all the land was quelled in darkness--a darkness that would last all winter. 

The towns that dotted its vast flat landscape had homes huddled together as if for warmth. The fields, in which the more inviting months grew wheat, were barren now. Wooly sheep which were hurriedly growing out their precious coats skimmed the dead fields for the bits of dry grass poking through the snow. In the springtime, relief would come to them by the shears and for some, death by the ax.

The sheep were animals of multiple uses, and thus far were valued by the underprivileged people of Alzora. That is why when the beast began to strike almost nightly, they had finally called upon the great hunter king of Ophelia, beseeching him to cut down the beast in return for full rights to its carcass for his prize, safe passage through Alzora any time, thirty thousand gold pieces from the treasury, and the promise of willing troops should the need for war arise.

The leaders of Alzora need not know, but the king’s lust for adventure and desire for one last hunt far exceeded any yearning for rewards. He would have hunted the beast for nothing but its hide had they offered less. King Airell Agard had traveled far in his lifetime, and vanquished every manner of beast, from the eagle-headed griffin of Lukka, to the giant kraken of the Northern Sea. His trophy room was garnished with the heads and hides of his conquests, his reserves swollen with the monies paid by those who had been plagued by such monstrosities. He gathered his wealth not by plunder or by war, but by the most primitive drive of man held by peasants and monarchs alike, the drive to draw blood, to win the fight, and to bring home the spoils.

But alas, the years had worn the king’s bones down to the marrow. His quivering hands no longer held the bow as taught, nor did his eye see as clearly through the rifle’s sight. He had reached the age where vigor and fortitude began to seep from the body like sand from the upper bulb of an hourglass. His pride was tarnished, but it had not yet been destroyed. He vowed that one last hunt would satiate his lust for good, and the riches he had accumulated would prove enough to provide for his one and only heir, a daughter named Nora. 

Death had claimed his young queen, Hannah with the weapon of drowned lung a year prior, and with no suitable woman of royal blood and birthing hips available, King Airell knew that he alone would need to train his young child to rule the throne until she was of age to find a suitor to be her king. He was a concerned father, wanting for her to be married to a proper man of royal blood who would keep her and the kingdom of Ophelia in protective care. As of yet, Nora was only four years old, and far from an appropriate marrying age. Should he die too soon, she would not yet be prepared to wield the power of the title of queen and would surely be overthrown in her frailty and youth.
King Airell was fully aware of this when he and his hunting party at last tracked the footprints of the beast to its very lair. The snow railed down at them from the hateful blue-black Alzorian sky. The night was starless. Only the oil lanterns they carried and the muted beams of the full ripe moon in the sky above would meagerly brighten their path. A bitter wind nipped furiously at the only exposed flesh on their faces, the rest of their bodies draped in layers of fleece and fur. The snow was so deep, even the horses had trouble trudging through it. Their nostrils blasted clouds of steam as they struggled through the blizzard with their riders and supplies in tow. The king’s horse, a black steed named Breakneck, ahead of the other horses as usual, was the first to catch the scent of the fiend ahead. He stopped short despite his rider’s commanding kick, backing up with an argumentative whinny, and finally rearing in protest. 

“Easy now!” Airell commanded, “Steady boy!”

Breakneck’s ears swiveled to and fro, his breath heaving. His dark eyes rolled like wet marbles in their sockets. It was clear no amount of whipping or kicking would get him to go further. This was a horse that had carried the king through all terrains, desert to forest, and met nearly all of the beasts that now filled his trophy room. It was alarming to see that the veteran steed had chosen tonight to become fearful.

“We dismount here!” the king barked over the moan of the wind. 

His hunting party of six followed the order, their own animals also catching the scent of a predator in the air. The grunts and whinnies of nervous horses accompanied the tinkling of reigns and gear as their riders dismounted and attempted to calm them. The head of the Royal Guard himself, Sir Augustus Redwood II, was the first to manage his horse into a relaxed but wary stance before he approached the king. Airell was already prepping his rifle, though he had his eye on the black maw of the cave in front of them. Instead of his crown, he wore a woolen hat which wrapped around his whole head and tied firmly beneath his chin. A few wayward tendrils of his long copper hair whipped around full flushed cheeks. His eyelashes and beard were caked in frost. His nose was encrusted with frozen snot, which he hastily wiped away with the sleeve of his coat.

“Your majesty, I insist that you allow me to survey the inside first,” Redwood said tentatively, as he always said before Airell prepared for a hunt. Even though he knew what the answer would be, it was his royal duty to protect the king to his last breath.

“Nonsense,” Airell huffed back, grinning fiercely against the wind. His hazel eyes squinted forth through the blizzard into the dark cave where the beast surely awaited him, seeking signs of movement, but seeing nothing.

“Stay with the men and the horses,” he ordered gruffly, “Be ready.”

“My king, if you please,” an underling soldier named Gregory Burnling uttered, marching forth to approach the king and forgetting his place until a daring stare from Redwood stopped him. The lantern in his grasp was noticeably shaking. He bowed apologetically, “Forgive me sire, but I do not think it wise to go in alone. This particular beast is said to be quite clever. It possesses the mind of a man, they say. It will have an edge over you if you are alone.”

King Airell stopped loading his rifle and looked away from the cave for a moment, a querying expression furrowing his brow as he turned to face the insolent soldier.

“Are you inferring that a mere beast is capable of outsmarting me, lad?”

The soldier reddened in the dull glow of the lantern, which he lowered as a shameful expression formed on his young face. “Oh sire! Of course not, I-“

“Then stay with the horses and wait.” The king said this to chastise, but his tone was that of mild amusement, the tone of a father listening to the wily stories of his child. 

The solider bowed down and resumed his position with the hunting party, proverbial tail between his legs. A higher ranking soldier, George Stock, squeezed his shoulder. This was Burnling’s first outing with the king. He was afraid, as they all were, although the rest of them had learned to hide their fear. They were all thankful that this would be the king’s last hunt.

This final beast-- this ultimate conquest, would be among the most elusive of the creatures Ophelia’s king would concur, for it went about in human form as it pleased, blended in with society, perverting the very idea of civility. It fed on the viscera of the innocent in the night under the gaze of the full moon each month. It was an insult to God, and a bane to man. It would be destroyed swiftly and without mercy if King Airell had luck on his side.

This particular beast had been terrorizing the meager town right at the edge of the forest. The local farmers had been losing livestock almost nightly for the past few weeks, when normally the beast only took a single animal each month, if it took any at all. It had been the same for nearly ten years. They did not know why the activity had suddenly increased, and had yet to determine who among their small town wielded the dark magic to hide amongst them. All the standard tests had been utilized, pricking each citizen’s finger with a silver needle, tying monkshood around the neck, sacrificing a lamb at the stake under the new moon, but still the curse remained unbroken, and the beast remained hidden. No one who had tried to find it had returned. King Airell would be their last hope at peace.

“Listen for the crack of my rifle,” Airell said steadily. “And be ready to fire should the creature emerge before me. Am I correct in assuming I have the only weapon with silver bullets?”

“Yes sire,” Redwood replied, “All the men have been supplied with standard ammo, as you requested. The beast will only die by your hand. Do you know for sure that this will work?” He corrected himself hurriedly “That is, has it been a proven remedy in the past?”

Airell did not answer right away. He passed the reigns of his horse to Stock. Breakneck’s manner immediately tensed again at the passage of power to one who was so full of nerves. He tossed his head and snorted in protest, and the soldier patted him still again. His gloved hand shook as he ran it over the animal’s smooth hide.

“Killing a werewolf with silver is a time honored tradition,” the king said with a snifter of a laugh in his throat. He took the offered lantern from one of his other companions and hung it from the barrel of his rifle. “Watch me old man, and learn well in this last adventure.”

The king let himself be swallowed by the darkness of the cave.


The howls of the wind behind him, King Airell found himself in the echoing silence of the cave. He slid the lantern off of the barrel of his weapon and held it up and out, taking in the shape of the walls and ceiling. Stalactites bore from the roof like teeth, dripping frigid water down upon his face as he gazed upward. The cave floor was relatively smooth, with random puddles forming in the few grooves worn by years of decay. Baby stalagmites rose up from the ground in some places, catching the sediment from their roof bound sisters. Letting his eyes adjust, the king moved forward silently. The light of the lantern barely lit his path. He could see that there was only one path to follow, that the cave did not fork, and that meant that if the beast were inside, it could only come from one direction. Airell grinned with painful chapped lips. The odds had risen slightly in his favor.

He thought about the tracks they had followed here. They had ended at the mouth and though the snow was working hard to cover them, they were still mostly fresh when they’d happened upon them. From the time the bait lamb they had set out at the edge of town had been taken, they had followed the beast’s trail for roughly an hour, taking themselves a solid two miles from the town. They moved slowly due to the blizzard, but had it been a spring day they would have easily found the cave in less than twenty minutes. Why, thought the king, had the townsfolk not easily found the fiend’s hideout long ago?

From outside, the scream of a horse in distress stole him from his thoughts. After it came the shouts of discombobulated men and rampant gunfire.

Airell dropped his lantern, basking himself in total blackness as he sprinted back towards the cave opening. The red stained snow under the moon’s glow grabbed his eye. It splattered out across the white like a dropped jug of wine. A horse lay twitching on the ground before him. A red geyser of blood spurted from the severed veins in the animal’s neck, first strongly, but quick to diminish as the life drained from the horse’s eyes. It was Tails, Redwood’s horse, but Airell did not see Redwood, or even his other men at this point. The tracks of panic sparred out in all direction, and he could still hear shouting from the woodland around them. Guns fired sporadically, the sounds barely cutting through the roaring wind. 

“Redwood!” Airell called through cupped hands, “Stock!”

No one answered him. The shouts petered out in dizzying directions with the wind and snow impeding the king’s ability to determine where they were coming from. His men had scattered like mice into the woods. This was unlike them, even in the worst of circumstances.

The form of the beast rose against the black background. It had been perched there by the dead horse, blending into the snow right in front of the king’s failing eyes. As its form came into focus, the gold rimmed eyes of an animal stared straight through to his soul. Blinding white fur made its features almost indistinguishable in the blizzard, but those eyes blared as brightly as any sun. The splashes of red against its chest and muzzle worked to break up the pattern of its thick fur in the storm. A wolfen form, though far too large to be any such loathsome forest creature. Thick waves of fur grew in thickets from its ruff. Its ears were high and pointed upon its canine head. Claws as long as steak knives perched upon the sullen body of Tails the horse. As its lips curled back from its yellow fangs, the moon seemed to send its beams down upon its hateful creation, bringing its face into full view.


The voice was human, but somehow not human at all. It curled around the king’s brain, prickling through to the nerves and vessels like an invasive weed, filling his head with the sound that he was not quite sure he heard at all.

“How?” he asked, though it seemed as though another being had taken over his voice when he said it.

And then he felt the presence behind him, and realized that he had been led into a trap. The second werewolf appeared as if by magic at the mouth of the cave, of a coat colored like the conclusion of a brutal thunderstorm. Airell dared to take his eyes off the white beast to glance back at the other flanking him from behind. With its grayer color, he could more clearly see the details of the beast, the body and head of a giant wolf, shining gold eyes that belonged to an animal, but twinkled with the intelligence of a human. 

It was beautiful.

Be gone, or die in this place!


This voice came from the second beast, more clearly now. The king’s body suddenly felt disconnected from his mind. He felt as though his soul was being dragged from his mortal form, down into the pits of Hell, with that cursed voice following him. A deep rage began to rise from his gullet as reality sank in. All his men had vanished, along with the horses. He was alone now. His last hunt would not end with him cowering beneath the slavering fangs of these hellhounds.

Airell fired. The rifle bucked in his arm. The white wolf roared, a sound unlike any he had ever heard, as the bullet pierced its neck. It leapt forward and the king dove beneath the beast into the snow on his belly, rolling over immediately, his rifle still in hand as he aimed it forth to take one more shot before the second beast would surely take his life. 

What he saw, was a man. A naked man, wavering in blood soaked snow clear up to his groin. He was clutching at his neck, from which a jet of red-black arterial blood spurted in heavy bursts. As he sunk into the snow face first and began to die, the gray wolf bounded from the cave into the light of the full moon. Airell raised his rifle, shaking with fear for the first time in a long time, but the creature did not come at him. Instead it went to the fallen man, circling around him worriedly like a dog around its fallen master. A whimper eked from his jowls as it sniffed around his wounds. Finding that he was dead, it lifted its head sullenly towards the moon and howled.

The mournful sound was almost too much for the king, but somehow, he willed himself to stagger to his feet, frozen to the bone from the cold snow. His fingers numb inside his wet gloves, he still managed to aim his weapon true and fire one more time.

The howl of the second wolf tapered off with a yelp. Before it fell to the ground, the king watched in awe as its body quickly shifted into the naked form of a woman. A hole where her heart should have been oozed blood over her pale breasts as she fell on top of the man. Her body jerked, and then was still. 

And just like that, King Airell had defeated the werewolves of Alzora, though he realized there would be no trophy to bring home to his kingdom. After a moment to collect himself, he waded through the snow to stand over his kills. He nudged each one with the mouth of his rifle, and then bent down to examine them.

There were no further signs of life and no indication they had been anything but human. Both appeared to be well muscled and healthy, though it was obvious they had been living in the wild for quite some time and likely had not been members of the town. The man had a scruffy brown beard and long unkempt hair. The woman had blonde hair, tangled and littered with bits of sap and sticks. Their bodies were almost black from dirt, their hands and feet hard with calluses. No honor would come from lugging their bodies back to Ophelia. He would be a murderer in the eyes of anyone who had not lived in this land and known the dark magic behind the beasts’ abilities. It would be hard to convince anyone outside of these lands that they had been anything more than humorless beggars.

Groaning as he stood, Airell cupped his hands around his mouth once more and hollered for his men one by one “Redwood! Stock! Dellard!” His pulse had started pounding again, not from fear, but from anger. His men had deserted him, left him to die. This was a treachery punishable by immediate beheading. Airell did not expect any of them to return, but alas, from the darkness of the forest, a hunched over form rambled forward, leading a horse. Not his own horse, but Breakneck. The creature was visibly terrified, but he did not protest being lead. As he caught sight of his rider, he became calmer. Airell went to his horse first to stroke his nose, and then turned a hot glare towards the deserter.


The young soldier flinched, already on edge, even more so with the wrath of his king. 

“S-Sire!” he sputtered, “Forgive me, oh please forgive me!” He sunk to his knees, the snow burying him to his waist.

Airell reached down and snatched the man up by the hood of his cloak, taking a handful of his hair with it. “Get up you wretch! Face me like a man!” 

Burnling had begun to snivel, but he did as his king commanded and rose to his feet. His shoulders sagged and his head hung like an old dying willow. The shame radiated off of him like a fever.

“It was so sudden,” he muttered through his tears, “The monster came out of nowhere and…”  he looked to the haggard remains of Tails the horse, which was already becoming buried with snow. “Redwood started firing, but then some of the other men just went running in all directions. I-I followed Stock into the woods and then I just lost him.”

“Did you see any of them killed?”

“No sire.”

“Then surely there are men still alive in these woods!” Airell boomed, turning his head in all directions to project his voice. “Men who cowardly betrayed their king and then refused to show themselves! Is this mere boy the only man amongst you?”

There were no voices save for that of the moaning wind. The blizzard had begun to produce heavier snowfall. The chill in the air would surely kill anyone left out here in the open before the morning.

“Not today,” Airell muttered to himself. He grabbed up the reigns of his horse and smacked the shoulder of his only remaining man, who jumped like a rabbit at his heavy touch. 

“Into the cave,” the king ordered, “Now boy, unless you want to freeze!”


It was becoming more obvious that the two werewolves had been living in this cave for many years as the king and his man progressed through its one and only passage. On either side of the walls, parts of the stone had been carved out to create ledges for candles made of animal fat, most of which were melted down significantly but still burning dully. They passed a small chamber where it was obvious the woman had been keeping a pantry of sorts. The skinned carcasses of rabbits hung from animal bone hooks suspended from a wooden wrack. Among them was the fresh lamb they had used to bait the creatures earlier, still dripping. The eyes of the thing were wide open in its last expression of terror. Burnling looked away quickly, while Airell gathered up a few of the pre-dressed dead rabbits and handed them to him without a word.

The proceeded further into the cavern, and noted that the light was becoming stronger as they ventured deeper. The sound of whimpering caught their ears as they stopped just shy of the last open chamber of the cave. Airell silently placed his rifle over his shoulder and stepped soundlessly forward, motioning with one hand for Burnling to stay put, not that he would have to work hard to convince him. 

As the king rounded the corner, his eyes panged as they tried to adjust to the sudden increase in light. At least a dozen more carved out areas with candles lined a crescent shaped room which housed a small splintered bookshelf leaned against the far right wall, next to it a writing desk and quill. In the middle of the room, the floor was lined pelts of wool and straw. Upon these pelts, two naked children clung to each other and gazed up at the king with the dark fearful eyes of cornered animals. They were boys of no more than two years old, slim for children of that age, and caked in dirt. One of them had curly flaxen hair matted to his head; the other had only wisps of dark strands floating off of his. At the approach of the strangers, the dark haired child bared his tiny peg teeth and offered a runty growl. The lighter haired one squeaked as the king continued to move forward and waved the end of his rifle at them.

The king stopped a rifle’s length from the nest and stomped his foot hard on the stone floor. The darker haired boy growled louder and posed protectively in front of his brother.

“Transform, beasts,” Airell barked, stomping at them again. “Defend yourselves!”

The child’s bravery began to waver as the stranger came closer, more so when Burnling came inside as well. The fair-haired child began to sob woefully. His braver brother crouched down beside him and fell silent. With a sigh, Airell lowered his weapon and turned to Burnling, whose face had become flushed with understanding.

“Well, I’ll be! This would explain why the kills have increased,” he mused out loud, “Weanlings. Probably just starting to eat meat.”

Airell responded with a grunt, and then nudged his underling with his elbow. “Tell me lad,” he asked with a note of curious amusement, “What do you propose we do with these whelps?”

Burnling was taken aback by the question. The king had never asked advice of him before, and he hadn’t expected him to any time soon.

“What do I propose, sire?”

“Yes,” the king replied, “Shall I cull these two atrocities, or bring them back to Ophelia as living prizes?”

“Well uh,” Burnling said gulping nervously. He looked down at the two dirty boys and his heart broke for them, but he knew their innocent appearance was a ruse. Still, it seemed cowardly to kill children, even nonhuman ones.

“I think we should gather them up and bring them home,” Airell said rather excitedly, relieving Burnling of his need to answer. “I wager they can be trained if we start them off young. What a legend Ophelia will be if it houses tame werewolves! A fine end to a last hunt, wouldn’t you say?”

“Who is going to train them, your majesty?”

Airell laughed for the first time since they had set out on this journey, a sound that both caused relief and concern in Burnling.

“Why, you young man!” he said.

“Me?” Burnling’s stomach dropped. “Why me, sire?”

“Because,” the king said darkly, “You came back.”

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