It starts in an unfamiliar city, a maze of empty streets and gaping alleys and the sick yellow of dying streetlights. As he walks he can sense the presence pacing him, never close enough to glimpse in the darkness yet never far enough to lose track. He does not quicken his pace, only casually slips hands into pockets to grip the switchblade’s cool metal. He knows better than to run from a predator of any species – and has no intention of becoming anything’s prey. As he walks, trees begin to appear along the road and alleys, the leafless skeletons of deep winter. Snow begins to collect along the pavement and black branches; soon it covers the ground and drifts lazily from the sky. His feet crunch as they break through the top layer of ice. Still he walks, and still the presence keeps pace, its own footsteps silent. With a slow and subtle motion he removes his hands from his pockets, the knife hidden inside the cradle of his fingers.
Eventually the buildings are left behind and the forest becomes the landscape, bare trees and snow covered earth stretching into darkness in all directions. In the way of dreams, the streetlights continue in an unbroken line, their weak light offering only enough illumination to pass through the treacherous landscape safely. He follows the path of the lights as if in search of their destination, but all of his senses are focused on the creature moving out in the darkness. He can hear faint breathing now, coming first from his left, then his right, then behind and ahead. Whatever follows him moves through the thick snow with practiced ease. It is fast, he thinks. Is he faster?
A low growl rumbles in a throat too close for his comfort and he comes to a stop beneath one of the anachronistic streetlights. The cone of light flattens the surrounding shadows into a two-dimensional wall, but sight isn’t the sense he relies on now; instead, he closes his eyes and strains for any sound beyond the soft hush of falling snow and the last notes of the growl. There is only silence… silence… silence… and then the nearly inaudible sound of a foot depressing the snowpack. Eyes snapping open as quickly as the blade in his hand, he whirls toward the sound and brings the knife up just as a hulking black wolf leaps from the darkness. For a moment they are almost one, man and wolf, white teeth descending and silver blade rising…
…and then the moment passes and they are falling past each other to collapse on opposite ends of the circle of light. Bleeding from long scratches to his face, neck, and shoulder, he stumbles to his feet and turns, blooded blade raised to ward off the next attack. But the next attack does not come, and will not. Across the circle, disturbed snow turns black-red around the unmoving body of the wolf and the beast’s thick fur masks the gash with which the sharp little blade felled its foe. Seeing the hunter turned slain prey, he sinks in exhaustion to his knees once more in the snow. Overhead, the streetlights wink out one by one.
– – – –
Daren woke with the sharp awareness of someone used to assuming danger’s nearness. He lay still for a few seconds, letting his senses process and report the all clear. His hands felt strange and he flexed them, noting his right gripped the knife kept always beside the bed. When he touched the fingertips of his left together he felt the tacky wetness of drying blood. Only now did he turn his head to the warm weight curled beneath the blankets at his side. Tanim lay motionless as if in a deep sleep.
[ And so another solstice passes. ]