THE OLD CABIN, WITH its wildly overgrown garden, was a silent, secretive little space. It seemed that nobody knew it existed deep within The Serphants Scope, home of the Xiěyè twins, and Crown Prince Kěith Cheonsa's current nightmare. Desperate to avoid any more encounters with Duchess Xiěyè, the crown prince snuck out of Fort Chambers and slipped away into the small cluster of trees north of the fort while his father, Emperor Vladimir Tepes, kept the Xiěyè twins busy with discussing the current affairs of the fort. For once, Kěith was grateful for his father and his bodyguard not paying attention to him. Ever since he became the crown prince, there was little time for relaxation, and nature always seemed to be calling out to him.
The cabin was surrounded by a forest full of cedar, pine, maple, and oak trees that its density blocked out all magickal crystals, leaving Kěith in the dark on whether his bodyguard was out searching for him yet. At the back of the cabin was an old water wheel with a pully that had long-since rusted over, leaving the wheel stuck in its place.
Kěith stood near the cabin with his black aviator jacket unzipped due to the mild temperatures of late summer. As usual, he dressed in all black attire while the summer heat pounded down on him. Underneath the shade of the trees, the temperature dropped by a degree or two, however, Kěith still felt himself sweating bullets. For a vampire, anything reaching above thirty-five degrees was too much for them, and Kěith knew he was punishing himself by heading into the forest alone. Summers in the Itude Empire sucked...royally.
He slipped his jacket off and tied the sleeves around his waist. Then, he rolled up the sleeves to his black cotton thread shirt and undid the first few buttons to alleviate some of the warmth from his body. As he did this, strands of his ink-black hair stuck to his face. Grumbling to himself, he headed over to the small stream, dipped his hands in the cool water, and ran the water through his hair to flatten it back from his face.
As he stood up, Kěith looked over the cabin one more time before turning and heading deeper into the forest, admiring the scenery as he went. During his walk, the melodic sounds of the forest relaxed him until loud yips and yelps mixed with snarls and growls started to break his concentration. He recognized the sound, leaving him frozen where he stood.
Dogs that lived in the forest were typically not dogs at all, but werewolves. And werewolves meant danger and death if a vampire was not careful. Although, the sound of the yips brought a twinge of pain to Kěith's heart. He took a moment to take a deep breath, steadying himself, and then he flitted off in the direction of the sound.
More often than not, Kěith found himself recalling the first wolf he ever saw in person, its oversized body with soulless eyes glaring down at him burned into his retinas. As much as he didn't want to worry about a wolf, he knew he couldn't let someone be abused. Yet, the nagging of his childhood tugged at mind like branches catching only clothing.
It took him only but a few minutes to reach his destination, leaving him standing at a tiny clearing.
In the center were six large wolves circling a smaller wolf that laid curled in the dirt. The large wolves had pelts of various hues—reds, browns, and blacks. Kěith could not take his eyes off the small wolf. Its pelt was such a vibrant gold that he knew it was a rare wolf, only born in the Winter Moon Pack. Even as the golden wolf laid there, it showed courage, not backing down as the larger wolves struck at it with their claws and teeth, tearing at its pelt and leaving streaks of blood matted in the fur.
He bit down on his bottom lip as he stared at the wolf. The image of blood soaking its fur triggered a memory Kěith had long since buried deep in his mind. He could picture the white-furred werewolf pup with a red collar dosed in a magick, preventing it from shifting back into its human form. The little pup was covered in dirty water, making patches of its white fur look muddy. Kěith could also remember holding the pup in his arms, a whistling sound streaking through the air, and then blood splattering across his face, the pup now limp in his arms. Kěith shook himself of the memory, wishing to stop the thoughts of how a young pup died because of Kěith's royal status and pup's race. In the end, he had gotten the pup killed, proving he was nothing but a monster.
Should I even be helping it? I mean, wolves are supposed to be the enemy. They murdered Mama and Mari. They are the reason my life has been horrible. But this one is injured, and it doesn't seem violent. In fact, it's nothing but a victim.
A bubbling white-hot rage surged under Kěith's skin when another yelp broke the silence and a thick puddle of blood began to form under the golden wolf's back legs. No longer did Kěith want to stand on the sidelines and do nothing to save the wolf. Glancing around the clearing for some way to distract the wolves, Kěith saw the clearing's outline was overgrown with shrubbery and a few boulders. His hands clenched as his mind thought over an assorted number of expletives. Every inch of him despised seeing such vulgar acts inflicted upon innocents.
Then, it clicked with him.
Kěith zipped off back into the forest, careful to not make any sudden sounds that would attract the attention of the werewolves. When he knew he was far enough away, Kěith spun around and brought his pinkies up to his lips, whistling as loud as he could to gain their attention. This was a stupid decision, but one that had to be made.
Silently, he sent a prayer up to Darkness, the celestial being who watched over the vampires. If he gained her favor, then he might have an advantage over the dark-furred werewolves.
Almost instantly, Kěith heard a howl break through the trees, sending shivers down his spine. He sucked in a breath and waited for what felt like hours. Then, through the layers of trees, Kěith spotted red and black fur. In seconds, they were upon him, mouths gaping and saliva dripping from their teeth. The Crown Prince's face paled as he took a step forward, bravely staring them down. Upon watching them circle him, Kěith noticed the head of the group had tattered ears and a missing eye.
These were no ordinary werewolves; there were known as rogue wolves, the deadliest version of their race and Kěith was taking a risk being alone with them. All he had on him was a measly silver dagger. It wouldn't do much if all of them attacked at once.
"So, which one wants to go first?" Kěith attempted to joke.
The only response was a snarl to his right.
Kěith's body tensed. He slowly glanced toward the noise to see a red wolf shifting back to its humanoid form. As every muscle in Kěith's body screamed for him to run, he slowly reached to the dagger secured at his waist by a thick silver belt.
He had no idea why he wanted to save the golden wolf, but to see someone in danger only made him recall all the countless times he had seen helpless werewolves in the villages of the Moonlight Expanse pleading to be spared. At those times, he didn't do such a thing. He watched as each person cry out when they were slaughtered. They were the enemy. Their species killed slaughtered his mother when he was a baby only to have it backfire on him due to weakening her because of his birth. Werewolves shouldn't be spared, right?
The wolf crouched, ready to spring at the prince when an arrow zipped past. Kěith nearly jumped out of his skin when the wolf yelped and dropped to the ground, its breathing haggard. From his awkward angle, Kěith didn't move, afraid of what the others would react with. Though, he did notice the arrow sticking straight up out of the wolf's jugular.
"Step away from His Royal Highness!" called a voice the prince hated hearing.
Kěith grumbled to himself as the other wolves backed away. He lowered his hand as a platinum blond male stepped out from behind a set of trees, a collapsible bow in his hand, two more arrows nocked the bow. Piercing scarlet eyes glared at the wolves.
The remaining wolves growled at the two vampires before racing back in the direction they came from. With a hefty sigh, Kěith spun to look at the blond-haired vampire.
"Syus, why'd you follow me?" he asked while crossing his arms over his chest. "I know you're my bodyguard, but that doesn't mean you get the right to stalk me."
The bodyguard tilted his head and frowned as he lowered the bow to the height of his sword and scabbard. "I was worried about you after you snuck out. Your father's...requests can be a bit taxing for someone like you."
"I wouldn't call them requests. More like demands with a little extra flavor. And everyone knows that Duchess Xiěyè has a thing for me...or rather it's my father she's after." Kěith looked at the wolf lying on the ground, its breathing stopped. After a moment of silence, Kěith turned his attention back to Syus and he narrowed his eyes. "Now, I have a job for you."
"A job?" Syus asked while the eagerness in his voice did little to change his blank expression.
The prince nodded and slipped off his jacket, carrying it as he started to walk toward the location of the golden wolf. He didn't have to speak a word for Syus to follow him through the trees, in the direction of the wolves. While they walked, Kěith explained everything to him, letting Syus in on the plan and why it was that he came across such a large group of werewolves. This merely earned him a smack upside the back of the head.
Earning himself a death glare, Kěith responded with a scowl. He knew exactly what Syus was referring to with the smack. The glaring between the two of them turned to silence, which lasted until they reached the golden wolf, who was now crouched alone.
Motioning with two of his fingers, Kěith directed Syus to take a lap around the clearing to see if he could spot any of the rogue wolves. His bodyguard nearly rebuked his command until Kěith gave him a smirk, dropped his jacket, and started to inch his way out into the clearing. This type of response was the exact reason Kěith was prone to getting himself into danger.
He cautiously looked around, but no flashes of brown or red fur came into view. When he reached a few feet from the golden wolf, it growled at him, baring its canines, tail lashing as a warning to stay back. Kěith took a deep breath. This was normal in this day and age. Most vampires who came across a werewolf slaughtered them without thinking. It was the natural order of things during the war between the Itude Empire and Moonlight Expanse.
Yet, Kěith didn't falter. He swallowed his fear and lowered himself into a crouch.
"It's okay, little buddy," he whispered, showing his empty hands as a gesture of good faith.
The wolf growled again, pushing itself onto its legs. Now at a different angle, Kěith noticed the wolf wasn't putting any weight on its left back leg. It took a step back, the hind leg pressing down on a loose pebble and a loud yelp sounded through the air.
Kěith's flinched. He jumped to his feet and dashed back to the spot where he left his jacket. Snatching hold of it, he glanced around to see a few sticks. Sighing with relief, he grabbed them and flitted to the wolf's side. It let out another growl while Kěith crouched down, the jacket now spread out in front of him. He pulled out his dagger and slashed one of the sleeves of the jacket. As it ripped free, the wolf snarled, ears flattening to its skull.
"Hush. I can easily make a splint for you, but you have to trust me," Kěith urged. He set the dagger on the ground and fumbled with the sleeve while looking the wolf over. Why should I help this wolf? It hasn't done anything for me.
The wolf puffed out a breath. There was a moment that Kěith would have flinched and backed away from the wolf, but seeing as it was in danger from the rogue wolves, and the Itudean Army if it managed to locate him, Kěith would have to do whatever it took to save the wolf. For all Kěith knew, Syus was off warning their people about the werewolves in the area.
It hasn't attacked me. That should be a good sign, right?
Staring at the wolf in front of him, Kěith could see just how beautiful the wolf was—a silky golden pelt with flecks of black and white throughout it. Kěith's fingers suddenly ached to brush along the fur. As the wolf struggled to take another step, Kěith noticed a thin trickle of blood run from its hip and down its leg.
It looks like the wolf isn't gonna take any sort of medical treatment from a vampire, Kěith thought.
"Okay, so it's more than a broken leg," he concluded. "Let's see if we can fix that."
Kěith looked around the clearing once again to see if the wolves had somehow returned, but it was quiet. He breathed out another sigh of relief and quickly went to cutting more strips off his jacket. While he finished up his task, he heard footsteps and the wolf growl. Out of the corner of his eye, the sight of blond hair helped Kěith to realize who was near him; Syus Nightingale had returned from his ordeal with the wolves. The bodyguard drew his sword and aimed it at the wolf, who began to snarl, its lips curling over its teeth.
"Your Royal Highness, please get away from the wolf," he demanded.
Kěith snorted and snatched two sticks off the ground, placing them against the wolf's leg, and began wrapping the jacket sleeve strip around the leg. "Put the weapon away."
"It's a threat to—"
"I don't give a fuck!" Kěith snapped. "This is a living being and we are going to help get it home! Father and his damn racist views can piss off for all I care."
"This is a wolf. You know exactly what your father would do if you-"
"Syus," Kěith warned.
The guard clamped his mouth shut as he looked at the prince with wide eyes. After a few moments of silence, he asked, "You're just gonna let this mutt go?"
Kěith glared. "We're gonna get it back to its pack. I do not want to hear any arguing from you, Syus."
"It's a wolf. Do you have any idea what could happen if your father found out?" the bodyguard argued with the same response.
Kěith barely acknowledged what Syus said, continuing to wrap the wolf's leg up with the other sticks and another strip of the jacket. Once done, he stood up and looked at his handiwork. The wolf slowly put pressure down on the leg and while it winced, it didn't yelp out. Kěith smiled weakly.
He turned to look at Syus and said, "Yes, I do. Which is why I am ordering you to not say a word to him. As for the wolf..." Kěith hesitated. The wolf, surprisingly, wasn't flinching back from him. "Can you walk?"
The wolf took a couple of steps and looked back at Kěith nervously, almost like it wanted to bolt but was unsure if the splint would hold up. Kěith broke into a grin and slipped his dagger back into its sheath.
"Now, let's get you back to your territory."
"Can't we just leave it to die?" Syus groaned, throwing his head back and looking up at the sky in exasperation.
Kěith shot him a death glare. "Watch it, Syus."
Noticing the wolf beginning to limp away, Kěith rushed to its side, touched its fur, and walked beside it as they exited the clearing. Syus rushed after them, muttering a few curse words under his breath. Kěith let a warm smile form on his lips. He had seen a wolf's hatred up close when he was 310-years-old, yet this wolf had something different about it. Deep in its golden eyes, Kěith saw confusion and a hint of gratitude for saving its life. That had been the only thing Kěith needed to keep going with his plan. This had to be the right path. Saving lives was better than getting innocents killed in needless bloodshed. Changing one wolf's mind might not have a lot of effect in the Winter Moon Pack, but Kěith was determined to save one wolf at a time. Each life was precious on Eskǎvaëís.
Kěith gently stroked the wolf's fur. "You know you're beautiful, right?" he asked and the wolf flicked its ears, barely giving notice that it heard.
As Syus trailed behind them, Kěith noticed Syus acted as though he held a harsher grudge against wolves than Kěith ever had. Both knew that wolves were the enemy. They didn't deserve to get away with slaughtering part of the royal family in cold blood, but at the same time, Kěith could not resort to letting an innocent wolf die by its kind. No one deserved to die. Figuring out a punishing that would befit any werewolf that dared to hurt a vampire was the only obvious choice Kěith had left.
If it took them all day, Kěith was going to make sure the wolf returned to its territory. Kěith was going to be a savior of all races, ending the war, even if it cost him his life. Syus would just have to put up with it until then...