…raight up, out of the path of the blast. The spin from the blow threw Hermione off balance and she tumbled over a bush, earning scratches and tears but she didn’t stop moving. She scrambled on all fours through the brush. Her right arm was now completely numb.

The wolves yipped and leapt through the bushes, crashing and rustling towards her. She flew upright to her feet and immediately had her legs knocked out from underneath her by a golden blur. She screamed as she dropped to the ground. Landing clumsily but catching herself, she barely avoided impaling herself on the knife by accident. She turned so she could swing the knife, this time with her left hand, but wolf jaws caught her wrist and the knife flew from her grasp.

“NO!” She kicked the reddish-brown wolf in the chest and scrambled over the dirt on her belly to get to the blade. She had just enough time to grab it before two strong arms grabbed her and scooped her up.

The black-furred, red-eyed wolf had the same features in human form. She thought of Voldemort and shrieked, kicking her feet and attempting to stab him with the knife. He caught her wrist awkwardly, face set in a dangerous glare.

“Let me go!” She screamed it into his face and saw him wince.

“Put the knife away,” he growled, his voice a deep rumble.

They glared at each other, Hermione straining against the inhuman strength. With sudden insight, she adjusted her grip on the dagger so the tip pointed down towards his shoulder. She grinned darkly, power flaring up in the blade. The wolf’s eyes widened, and he wrenched her arm back just as the knife flared and a flash of power lanced out from the tip. A gash, half an inch deep opened in an explosion of blood in the wolf’s shoulder. He screamed a hoarse animalistic sound of rage and twisted her arm painfully behind her back. Hermione snarled and struggled, but she couldn’t budge him. She was now so drained she could barely hold her arms up.

“Put it away!” The wolf ordered furiously, giving her a shake.

Seeing no other option, she acquiesced with a sharp nod and a mulish frown. The wolves watched her slip the knife into the sheath as if it were an angry rattlesnake. The dark wolf gathered her up into his arms.

“Where are you taking me?” she screeched, kicking as he carried her through the trees. She snarled, teeth bared, face flushed an angry red.

This was not happening again. There was no way she’d let it. The last time they’d taken her, they’d stripped her down and humiliated her. She wasn’t going to give them the opportunity again. She’d fight them, just like she’d fought Malfoy.

The wolf-man said nothing, offering no reassurance or acknowledgement. Blood spilled down his arm but he didn’t seem to notice. The wound was already closing. The two smaller wolves trotted at his feet, looking up at her with wagging tails and joyful doggy laughs.

They hauled her back to camp where the black-haired wolf-man gently dropped her feet to the ground. She took in the scene before her and cried out, lunging forward only to be stopped by strong arms.

Malfoy was on the ground, straining back against a tree trunk and holding very still, his breath coming in hoarse, clotted gasps. The white wolf, Raziel, crouched in human form near their fire, examining their supplies. The brown and cream wolf, Alekos, stood over Malfoy, paws on either side of Malfoy’s lap, lips peeled back from fangs that were scant inches from Malfoy’s throat. A deep rumbling growl reverberated from his furry chest.

“Get away from him!” she shouted, struggling against the red-eyed man who pulled her against his chest as easily as if she were a small child.

What did they want now? She was doing the best she could! This wasn’t fair!

The red-haired wolf-king gave her a small smile and turned his gaze back to Malfoy who didn’t so much as twitch.

“You’re still here.”

It took her a moment to realize that he was talking to her.

“I had thought our agreement was that you would leave my territory. Should I assume you’ve changed your mind?”

“We’re leaving your land as soon as we can,” she reassured him as calmly as she could with a strange man cuddling her, his chin on top of her head.

“Really?” Raziel surveyed their site coolly. “It doesn’t look to me as though you intend to go anywhere.” He set down their silk bag and looked up at her. “Say the word, Hermione. We would be happy to have you.”

She tried to jerk free and huffed when she was slammed backwards. “Let me go,” she demanded, heart pounding. The red-eyed man snuffed her hair, ignoring her. It made her skin crawl. “Raziel . . . er, your highness? Tell him to let me go, please.”

“Ridya,” the wolf-king told her quietly.

“What?” Her brow furrowed.

“His name is Ridya. And the others are Moriel.” He nodded to the golden wolf, now a small blond boy with gold eyes who beamed at her with gleeful malice. “And Leliel.” The reddish-brown wolf was a dark-skinned woman with a shock of black hair and the lean body of a fighter. She scowled but seemed more curious than angry.

Hermione gave up struggling and asked raggedly, “What do you want?” Because really, what else could they give?

“I’ve given you plenty of time to vacate,” the wolf-king said. “You’re still here, so I assume you must be staying. I only came to collect.”

“No!” she cut in quickly, a bit desperately. “We’ll leave when Malfoy gets better.”

Raziel gave the feverish blond human a long look which Malfoy returned hatefully, then turned back to her with a knowing gaze.

“You know better, Hermione.” He said softly.

She glared back at him helplessly.

“He stinks of sickness,” Leliel said.

“He’s dying.” Moriel wrinkled his nose. Malfoy made a sound of shock, pale face going whiter. He looked at Hermione, but she refused to meet his eyes.

Moriel turned to Raziel and asked casually, “Will you save him?”

“There is only one way to save him now,” Raziel murmured, eyes on Hermione. “If he becomes like us.”

“No!” Malfoy ground out in a guttural cough. Alekos snapped his jaws at Malfoy’s throat and the blond boy went deadly still, eyeing the pearly fangs.

Hermione felt the color drain from her face. “You . . . you . . . .” she bit her tongue on a curse and shouted. “You knew this would happen! You planned it!” She thrashed against Ridya, but he only held her tighter, rumbling softly.

His expression was solemn, almost kind, but there was something underneath that wasn’t so nice. “I knew it was a possibility. Weak creatures often fail with just one bite from our jaws.”

“That wasn’t fair!” she cried in disbelief. “We made a deal! This is your fault! You hurt him, now help me heal him! There must be a way! Something to make him better.”

“Why should I?” Raziel asked, tilting his head so violent red hair spilled in his eyes. “I want you both and either way, I will get at least one of you.” He was enjoying himself. This was just another kind of hunt to him.

“That’s not fair! You said I could choose!”

“And that you shall.” He rose to his feet smoothly, and Alekos stepped away from Malfoy, sniffing the boy’s wounds. His voice turned cold. “The boy will be dead before the moon rises tomorrow night. You have until then to decide. When he is dead, you will be alone, and then you will have no choice but to accept our protection.”

“Choose wisely.” Ridya whispered in her ear before he released her.

“You can’t do this!” Hermione screamed at them. “Damn you! Help him! Do something!”

Raziel ignored her. “You will be safe as long as you remain on our lands. We will even protect the boy from predators while you are away. But do not stray too far. We will see you again soon.”

The wolves turned and vanished into the brush. The cream and brown wolf lingered a moment at Hermione’s feet. He whined softly and then was gone.

She stared after them, aware of the eyes boring into her from behind. Her throat closed and she choked on helplessness before she turned to face Malfoy. He was staring at her, his face red as he held in hysteria.

“Is it true? Am I dying?” he asked in a strange, numb voice.

She raised her hands helplessly. “I tried.”

“You knew,” he accused softly.

“It’s infection.” She told him quietly. “A magical one. There’s not much I can do.”

“You knew. You knew yesterday. The moment you saw, you knew.” There was a hint of panic beneath the words. His eyes were too wide.

She didn’t know what to say.

“So—what? That’s it?” He was breathing too hard. “You’re giving up? We come all this way and I’m wolf meat? And to think, all this time I thought it was you who was going to die.”

“What?” she asked coldly, her hand automatically gripping the hilt of the knife.

He threw his head back to laugh and almost instantly convulsed in pain, whining with the force of it. “I tried so hard to protect you,” he gasped, doubled over and shaking. “When it was myself who I should have been worrying about.” He giggled.

She looked away, horrified, and said briskly, “Raziel can save you.”

Malfoy’s head snapped up. “NO!” he screamed, face red and twisted with rage. “No way! I’m going home. I’m not going to become some filthy animal.”

Her eyes narrowed, some of her pity for him evaporating.

And there was the old prejudice. Pureblood pride. To him it would be like becoming a werewolf, and many purebloods would suffer death before they allowed themselves to be tainted. Filthy animal. Filthy blood. The sullying of his own body and a lifetime of poverty and disgrace if they managed to escape Raziel. Was it a fate worse than death to him? Is that why he’d tried the night before to make it her fate?

In the end, his fate would be her choice. The thought was bemusing. Save him or let him die. He would thank her for neither.

“You’re going to have to choose, Malfoy. Either you’re a wolf, or you’re dead.” She sounded so callous. Merlin, when had she become so cold?

“Don’t you fucking dare, girly.” He snarled, practically spitting the words at her. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

She turned away. “I’m going to search for supplies.”

There was still time. She had to try.

She left him cool water and something light to eat to keep up his strength and wandered the forest until dusk in stubborn determination. The woods were a cornucopia of magic, more so than any place she had ever been. So why couldn’t she find one thing to help Malfoy? Why was she wandering aimlessly and wasting time?

She found a patch of sweet smelling herbs and her heart leapt, thinking it was Enervein, a potent antiseptic and antitoxin. She fell to her knees and scrabbled at the herbs, checking their potency, nearly crying when she tasted one and the familiar numbing sting spread across her tongue. She gathered as much as she could, even going so far as to dig up the roots to peel them.

There was a lot here. She contemplated in excitement.

If she made a paste out of them to put on his wounds and brewed the rest for him to ingest then they might have a chance of fighting off the infection. Could Enervein be taken as a tea? She quickly listed as many of the properties as she could mentally and suddenly remembered that without fermentation and distillation, the weed was useless except for small burns.

She stood still for a heartbeat and then screamed in frustration before throwing the worthless herbs into the brush. When that didn’t help, she pulled a Boiboi bush up by its roots, kicked a large stone, nearly breaking her toe, which only made her angrier, and slammed her fists into a tree over and over until they were numb and bruised and bleeding. Tears stung her eyes.

She had no food because she’d spent all day looking for medicine. She had no medicine because she was too stupid to know any of the plants in the vicinity. She should have spent the day making Malfoy comfortable, but she couldn’t even feel guilty about the pain he was in.

Why didn’t she feel sorry for him? She felt nothing, only a vague, detached pity. If he died, she couldn’t even say she’d be sorry.

Merlin, was she even trying to save him? She wondered in horror.

Was she only pretending to search for medicine knowing it was fruitless, while she waited for him to die somewhere where she didn’t have to watch? Just like he’d accused her before? If she weren’t bound by oath to protect him, would she even be here, or would she have deserted him the moment he was too weak to follow?

What was she going to do when the time came to choose? It would be all too easy in the growing cold stillness of her heart to ‘respect’ Malfoy’s wishes and let him die instead of allowing Raziel to save him. To change him. Not save. He didn’t think of it as salvation.

Her legs gave out and she sat on her butt in the dirt and cried great gulping sobs of frustration and fatigue.

No matter what the situation, she had always been able to rely on her own sense of duty and justice. The moral sense that grounded her and guided every decision she made every day of her life. Only it wasn’t there now and there was a big gaping hole in her conscience. She couldn’t trust herself anymore.

Who was she now?

A sharp crackling rustle made her head fly up. She stifled her gasp, knees jerking as they instinctively tucked closer to her body.

The cream and brown wolf stepped slowly out of the bushes, head down, tail tucked between his legs. She held her breath, heart pounding. Alekos slinked on his belly, like a groveling dog, towards her and stopped ten feet away. The wolf dropped something from his jaws.

A rabbit. She realized. He’d been carrying a dead rabbit.

He gave a soft whine, nosed the carcass towards her. She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to ask when the wolf’s head snapped up, ears erect. He loped away into the woods. Hermione let out her breath when he was gone and turned to the rabbit.

It was food and the wolf had obviously been offering it to her. She stared at the carcass like she expected it to attack.

What would the wolf want in return for feeding her?

She left the rabbit where it lay.

When she got back to camp, she found that Malfoy had been trying to move around a bit. He was sweating hard from exertion but had collapsed before she arrived on the other side of the fire. He looked at her expectantly when she appeared.

She shook her head. “I have nothing for you.”

His face twisted, and he quickly turned away.

She let him alone and set about making a stew from all the things she had left. It would be something gentle on his stomach but nutritious enough to give him some strength. She found a few more shellfish and tossed them in. The end result was watery but surprisingly tasty. Unfortunately, she’d forgotten that they had no bowls or spoons. Odd that she’d forgotten that. They improvised as best they could, neither protesting when the other tilted the cooling cauldron to their lips to drink.

Hermione cleaned the camp up for the night and sat across the fire from Malfoy as the stars appeared in the sky and some night creature bellowed in the distance. She tensed, but only momentarily. It was strange to know they were perfectly safe. The wolves had promised it. She watched Malfoy as he settle back down to sleep after his painful journey into the bushes to relieve himself. From the look on his face, she knew something had happened.

“What’s wrong?” she asked quietly.

He glanced at her and mumbled, “There was blood.”

She let the feeling of inevitability settle over her, like another brick cemented into the wall between them. “Is there anything you want to say?” she asked him. “Anything you want me to . . . tell anyone?”

He shook his head slowly, staring at her in disbelief. “You’re such a bitch, you know that? I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to make it out of here either.”

“I know,” she answered softly. “But I was going to try and leave a message somewhere tomorrow.”

He shut his eyes and seemed to fight with himself, a muscle in his cheek twitched. “Look, I. . . .” he trailed off, staring at her helplessly. “I . . . Help me.”

She caught her breath sharply, eyes flying wide.

“Please. Help me.”

She turned away, hating him, and tried not to cry.


Draco watched the girl doze and tried futilely to keep his thoughts neat and rational. Hermione lay in a heap of matted hair and dirt-streaked skin. She looked exhausted. He took a slow drink from the cauldron. It did nothing to soothe his parched throat.

It was getting harder and harder to think straight, to keep his mind from wandering off on strange, almost hallucinatory tangents. Twice he’d caught himself trying to get up thinking he had to go somewhere, only to realize there was nowhere to be.

His life had already flashed before his eyes. Their lives, really. His brain had taken it upon itself in sort of an obligatory fashion to play out what he imagined her life to be. It involved a lot of books. He would have snorted at the thought, but it wasn’t funny at all.

Every instinct screamed for him to get up off his ass and try to save himself. It wasn’t his nature to simply lay there while the clock ticked down. Slytherin self-preservation and all that. Unfortunately, he could barely move without every limb burning in agony. He was helpless. He could feel his body dying. The tips of his fingers, his lips and his nose were already numb, as if death was a mist slowly coating his body and creeping through him until it touched every part.

If he died, he was going to die furious with her, blaming her every step of the way.

He knew Hermione wouldn’t let him die. No matter how much she hated him. No matter how pissed he was at her that she hadn’t produced a miracle cure for him. She wouldn’t let him die if she could help it. She would let the wolf turn him. He just wasn’t sure that was what Raziel planned. It was Hermione they really wanted. Their desire for him was secondary, a plan easily discarded.

They didn’t seem to realize or care that if he died she would probably snap. Really snap once and for all.

Merlin. Maybe it was egotistical to blame her current state solely on himself, but he did. He had really messed her up. She was falling apart before his eyes, holding herself together with her failing will alone. Too much had happened in such a short period of time for them to come to terms with it all. And now she was second-guessing herself, afraid of herself and her own mind.

It was his fault, he told himself. Adversity brought out a person’s true character, and he had shown his to be that of a weak-willed bastard. He wasn’t the villain he’d tried so hard to be, but perhaps this was worse. He was the mindless, frightened dip-shit who caused the problem for everyone else in the first place.

He was the vicious lackey, the greedy bastard, the sniveling traitor, and never the hero.

It was why he’d turned on Hermione so angrily the night she was taken by the wolves. He’d accused her of hypocrisy and cold-blooded, Slytherin manipulation in her actions towards him during the water monster incident. That was bullshit. She’d had every right to get rid of him in any way she saw fit.

He’d thought she understood that. But that night, she had taken all his words to heart, let them wound her so badly when she had every right to fight for her survival, every right to hate him, and even the right to kill him if she needed to. She had believed every word he’d spewed at her and when he realized she was eating them up and crushing herself with the guilt, he’d kept spewing them, terrified that she’d realize the truth.

He wasn’t angry at her.

He was horribly embarrassed and ashamed of himself. Of his inadequacy.

He wasn’t the hero. He wasn’t Harry fucking Potter.

Yeah, so he’d been right that if the situation were different, she would have screamed at Harry Potter to run and save himself. The difference between him and Potter was that Potter wouldn’t have listened to her. Potter wouldn’t have abandoned her. He wouldn’t have hidden to save himself. He would have done something completely rash and stupid and outrageous, fearlessly risking his own life, and somehow saved her while coming out unscathed, no matter that the odds were forty-to-one.

Harry Potter would have pulled a dragon out of his ass, and a flaming sword out of the dragon’s ass and rode in to rescue her.

Draco had left her with the wolves because he believed it was the only thing that would keep her safe. The wolves would take care of her when he couldn’t. If they were strong enough to keep the wyvern at bay, then they definitely wouldn’t let anything happen to her.

He hadn’t, even for a moment, dwelt on why it was suddenly easier to admit that he was doing this for her safety then the fact that this was also his chance to get rid of her. This was his chance to expunge her from his life painlessly, without hurting or killing her, without any guilt whatsoever on his conscious because she was safe and well here and better taken care of then he could manage himself. She’d be gone for good, she’d no longer be around to screw with his life or his world view, and he was relieved.

And when he saw how frightened she was, he tried to tell himself that it was for her own good, but he was still so ashamed. And he couldn’t help thinking of Potter.

He wondered helplessly what everyone back home was doing. He tried to spare a thought and a well-wish for each of them. For Pansy and Blaise and Crabbe and Goyle and even that fat cow Millicent, but it was getting harder to concentrate and his mind wandered as the world around him grew darker.

He stared into the flames, watched the shadow of them dance over Hermione’s face. His shadow self had promised she would die, perhaps he had averted that. He’d been so afraid when he saw the white wolf, thinking maybe it was his shadow self. His evil half come to kill them both.

Come to kill him for betraying his father’s ideals.

The fire flickered and roared up, heating his skin, beating against it like the sun. Like the sun on a vast golden plain.

Orange flames and dry grass. Wolves bounding around in a feral war dance.

Draco gasped and reached for the cauldron, needing water because it was so hot and dry. His lips were chapped, and the inside of his mouth felt like sunburn. The cauldron was gone. He’d left it in the shade of the trees.

He felt his eyes rasp over the backs of his eyelids like sandpaper. Fireants marched over his skin.

The moon blazed down on the vast plains, making the world a bluish hell. But the rabbits were in hiding because the wolves were on the prowl. Hot breath. Hot teeth. Hot, ripping, tearing pain.

The field was on fire. It was burning. The flames were everywhere, smoke choking in his lungs. He couldn’t get away. He tried to run but couldn’t move. The fire caught on his robes, streaked up his legs and down his arms like liquid agony and engulfed him, melting, bubbling, charring his flesh.

He shrieked as he started to burn.


Hermione jerked awake from a light doze when the first agonized howl from Malfoy ripped the silence apart. She lost at least ten seconds to complete disorientation before the world righted itself, and she saw Malfoy on his back, arching up, face twisted in anguish as he screamed.

She flung herself clumsily across the distance between them and grabbed his shoulder, screaming his name. He didn’t seem to hear her, only twisted and convulsed, clawing at himself. She shook him, slapped him, and then gasped at what she felt.

He was wet, absolutely dripping with sweat, and his skin was lobster-red, so hot it almost burned. Panicking, she grabbed the nearby cauldron and dumped the water over his body. His screams only increased, growing to wails of torture and suffering.

Still screaming his name, and now completely hysterical, Hermione tried the only thing she could think of. She stripped off his wet clothes, moaning in horror at the sight of the angry red streaked lines radiating from his wounds, and rushed to fill the cauldron with more water. Even if it hurt him, she had to cool him down. She poured more water over him, scooped a tiny bit into his mouth, but he only choked and flailed.

“DRACO! DRACO!” she screamed, nails digging into his arms. “WAKE UP! I don’t know what to do! Merlin. Oh please. Please! I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!” She lunged to her feet, “HELP ME! SOMEBODY HELP!”

Draco answered her screams with terrified shrieks and she fell to her knees, propping him up against her body and dolloped water over him.

“I’m sorry. So sorry,” she sobbed, trying to hold him still so he didn’t hurt himself. He slapped at her, howling, his voice breaking and becoming hoarse. The back of his hand smashed into her eye, and she yelped, dropping him.

He began screaming for his father. Crying hysterically, Hermione reached for the cauldron to dump the contents on him again.

Hands grabbed hers roughly and shoved the cauldron away. “NO!”

She fought the hands, screaming in rage, only to have the hands shove her. She fell back in astonishment, the cauldron dumping to the ground. Green eyes met hers briefly and then Alekos was dragging Draco closer to the fire.

“Stop!” she started weakly, too confused to do more than reach out an arm uselessly.

“Help me!” the man interrupted angrily and pulled a soft cloth from a heavy deer-skin bag at his side. “Dry him off quickly! The water burns!”

Shell-shocked, Hermione scrambled over to help. The two of them quickly patted and rubbed Draco dry, the wolf easily holding the squirming boy down. Draco’s screams were dying to hoarse, thin cries, his damaged throat no longer able to sustain full screams. Alekos began wrenching the leaf coverings off Draco’s wounds.

“Get them off!” he ordered harshly when she hesitated.

Hermione tore at her makeshift bandages as if they were flesh-eating leeches and the wolf-man extracted a smooth bowl made of polished stone from his bag. It was full of sea-grean paste. Dipping his hands in, he scooped up a handful of the soft, minty-smelling concoction. Hermione sat panting, watching the wolf-turned-man rub the waxy lotion vigorously into Draco’s weeping wounds, and, after a stunned moment, she grabbed a handful and helped.

Together they greased Draco’s wounds with the ointment and slowly Draco began to calm. His body cooled under their touch, the tears of pain drying up. And the twisted agony of his face smoothing out as his heaving chest slowed to gentle, even breathing. Finally Draco was still and silent in exhausted sleep. They laid him gently on top of his wet robes.

Trembling with exhaustion and adrenalin, Hermione sank back on her heels.

Blessed silence.

She looked slowly up at the green-eyed wolf-man, expression guarded, wiping sweat from her brow with slippery hands. “Thank you.” It came out a croak.

Alekos nodded, seemingly examining her just as intently as she examined him. His muscles twitched at every little noise. Hermione realized he was trembling with anxiety, not fatigue. He was afraid.

When he spoke, it was a whisper. “This is temporary. It isn’t a cure. It is a balm that will soothe the burning and slow the infection--” He cut off quickly, head flying up as he listened attentively to something she couldn’t hear. He ducked his head again and leaned in close to her. “Listen carefully, Hermione, Raziel lied. About a lot of things. There is a way to cure Draco. There is a way out of here.”

“But, Raziel said . . . he gave his word. . . .” she stuttered out stupidly.

Alekos shook his head in frustration. “What does a wolf care for human oaths? He will do what his instincts tell him is best for his pack and will be bound by no word or sense of honor or duty should he need to change his decision. That is how an animal’s mind works.”

“Then what should I do? How do I help Malfoy?”

Why should I trust you? She wanted to ask. He’d just told her—the wolf had told her to her face!—not to trust the word of a wolf. But she was so desperate, ready to cling to any thread of hope that was dangled before her.

It wasn’t like he could make this situation any worse.

“You must move quickly. The infection is too advanced to treat by normal means, but there is a way. Go to the borderlands in the North-West. There is a cavern there, a Nefiliod nest. They’re expecting you.”

Hermione’s head was whirling. “What’s a Nefiliod?”

“Dark Creature. Mud-demon. A perversion of an Earth sprite.”

“I think everything I’ve seen here is a Dark Creature,” she muttered in exasperation. “Are they dangerous?”

“Normally they would tear you apart. But Raziel has made a mistake. He ordered every creatures on our lands to restrain themselves from harming you this night. The Nefiliod will not be happy. They will try to harm you indirectly, but they will not be able to kill you.” Alekos searched through his bag. “Take this.” He handed her a small cloth bag.

Inside was an empty leather canteen, a shallow stone dish, a small, crudely-made dagger with a wooden handle and a fist-sized rock that glowed so brightly when she uncovered it that she had to look away blinking spots from her eyes.

“Sun stone,” Alekos explained. “Take it with you but do not use it unless you have to. Nefiliod don’t like the light. Make them an offering. They will give you what you need.”

Demons? Offerings?

He was one of Raziel’s men, it was stupid to trust him, but it wasn’t like she had much of a choice, or much else to lose.

Hermione stared at the fur bag incredulously, feeling about ready to collapse in a nervous fit. “I appreciate what you’re doing and you’re obviously trying to help but why can’t you deal with these demons yourself?”

Alekos shook his head. “I’m sorry, Hermione, truly I am. It is too close to the borderlands. I cannot go there. The God waits for me.” The last was a mere whisper and Hermione looked at him sharply but he continued. “I cannot fight the Nefiliod. I could kill them, but they would never bargain with me, it would directly violate Raziel’s orders.” He rose slowly and looked off into the dark forest. “And, most importantly, it is only a matter of time before Raziel discovers what I have done. When he finds out, he will come straight here to kill the boy. I will fight him for as long as I can but you must return quickly.”

Hermione stood, tucking the items into her silk bag. “How will I get there?”

The black-haired wolf gave her a tiny smile. “I told you, Raziel made a mistake.” He raised a hand to the woods, and she turned to look, gasping when something gigantic moved through the trees. The huge shadow stepped into the firelight and Hermione’s hands flew to her mouth.

“It won’t . . . but it. . . .”

“Just for tonight,” Alekos told her softly, reaching up to pet the giant muzzle of the Warg. “Hati will not harm you.”

The giant wolf was bigger than a horse, taller than Hermione at the shoulder. Almost without realizing what she was doing, Hermione reached for the thick, gray fur. It was beautiful. Intelligent yellow eyes swung on her, and the animal regarded her with annoyance and growled lowly. Alekos swatted the animal’s muzzle hard as Hermione jerked back with startled squeak. The Warg grumbled.

“Do not be afraid.” Alekos moved up behind her, and before she realized it, grasped her around the waist. She grabbed the Warg with a surprised yelp, instinctively swinging her leg onto its fluffy back when Alekos lifted her. The fur was thick, wiry, and warm. She could feel the animal’s sides billow out as it breathed.

Alekos faced the animal, holding its muzzle in his hands and making it look at him. “Take her to the cavern, and bring her back safely. Kill anything that tries to harm her.” He looked up. “Hermione, at the edge of the borderlands you may . . . see things. Do not run, do not look, don’t be afraid. You’ll still be on our land.”

The Warg snuffled indignantly and then whined, butting Alekos with its large head. Alekos patted it.

“Go quickly.”

And like a changing current of wind they were off. Hermione squealed and lowered herself flat onto the huge body as it lunged into the night. Darkness swallowed them up and she could not even see the thick fur she clung to. The animal beneath her was shifting muscles, panting breath, and furnace-like heat. She snatched at the fur, shifting her legs.

It was difficult to stay on!

Night air bit into her unprotected back. She breathed as hard as the wolf, face buried in the animal’s back. She wasn’t sure how long she rode, sweaty hands grasping and body perched precariously, when the animal slowed and came to a gentle stop.

Slowly, she raised her head and took in her surroundings. Hati stood patiently, tongue lolling as he panted. They were at the edge of the woods. It was pitch black under the canopy where they stood. She could not even see Hati’s gleaming fur. But ahead of them the woods broke up and the moonlight filtered down onto silvery trees not too far in the distance.

Or not silver. White. Thin, brittle white trees with no leaves. Many of them slanted slightly as if the roots had withered and the tree was in danger of tipping over.

She squinted her eyes, clumsily hiking her leg over and sliding off the giant wolf’s back. Hati looked at her with neutral eyes as she stared at the white forest. She couldn’t decide if it was pretty or not. She took a few steps towards it and the Warg suddenly whirled and placed his large body in front of her so she bumped into it.


The wolf growled menacingly, and she stumbled back.

The borderlands, Alekos had said. But the border to what?

She didn’t have time for that now.

“Hati, where’s the cave?”

She felt, rather than saw, the wolf’s pointed snout poke her belly and push her backwards and to the side and then. . . .

She shrieked as she took a step to catch her balance and the ground vanished. She tumbled down completely unable to see, wind milling her arms about blindly. It wasn’t a far drop, only a few feet, but it was painful. She caught her hand on the side of the cavern wall and scraped it but was able to catch herself slightly and before she came to a jarring halt on the rock floor.

Gasping, dizzy but unhurt, she sat for a moment in a daze and then glanced around until she saw the glowing yellow eyes of Hati a little above and behind her. She couldn’t tell if the wolf was gloating or not.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she whispered pleadingly.

The words were met by a deep, grumbled ‘wuff’ that could have been a yes or a no or even a sneeze.

Facing forward again, she assumed she was looking into the mouth of the cavern.

“Hello!” she called and waited.


Biting her lip, she crawled forward. It was too dark to walk, and she had no idea how big the cave was. Hati stayed at the entrance, yellow eyes a comforting light that slowly got further away. She felt the moment she was fully inside the cavern. The air turned icy cold and the rock beneath her hand was like jagged ice. Her breathing was loud in her ear, hands numb. Distantly she could hear the steady drip of water.

“Hello!” she called again and this time her voice echoed loudly. She flinched. “I’m looking for the Nefiliod. One of my . . . er, fellow humans is injured.” She padded slowly forward. “I came to barter.”

Round, muddy-orange orbs blazed to life not ten inches from her face.

Shrieking, she reared up only to have something heavy and long slam across her ribs with the force of a small elephant. Hermione was bowled sideways, the small fur bag knocked from her hands as she skid across the jagged rock. There was a dizzy instant of complete disorientation, and then she lurched to her knees, mindlessly trying to scramble away from whatever had attacked her. Six sets of orangish eyes stared at her vacantly, closing in around her. She scuttled backwards away from the eyes, feeling the crumbly quality of the rock beneath her far too late.

The ledge gave way and she screamed as her legs slipped over the edge into cool nothingness. She flattened herself to the ground, clinging for dear life, terror thundering in her ears. Cold, hard claws sank into her shoulder, another set jammed into her hair and wrenched at it. She cried out in pain and found herself tugged painfully back up onto the rock floor. The claws in her shoulder gave a vicious squeeze. The ones in her hair tightened and gave a hard tug.

Her chin was grasped, and something cold and smooth touched her cheek as her face was tilted down. She just sat there shaking and crying, too terrorized to move. Nothing happened for several long moments and slowly, her numb mind figured out what was going on.

They were collecting her tears. Probably in the bowl she’d brought.

The realization calmed her slightly but another vicious tug on her hair had her forcing more tears from her eyes. The bowl was finally withdrawn with a whisper of movement. She thought they might let her up but the claws in her hair only wrapped themselves tighter and pulled upwards.


Something was set against the stretched strands and began to saw. In horror, Hermione felt the chunks of her hair give way as the knife, the one Alekos had given her, hacked through. An instant later and she was on her knees, feeling wisps curl around her face. With trembling hands she reached up and ran her fingers through short messy curls.

They’d cut her hair off.

“You had no right!” she grit out hoarsely in a voice like a quiet scream.

“It is only your fur,” a gravely voice answered coldly, raising the hair on her arms. “It will grow back.”

“We made no such bargain! You didn’t ask!” It was ridiculous. She was being ridiculous. She should have been happy that the price was something so simple and easily given. Yet suddenly the cutting of her hair seemed the worst violation yet. She couldn’t even care that this was some unknown creature that Alekos said could tear her apart.

“We could have asked for something impossible. And really,” the voice turned oily with venomous humor, “If we had merely asked, we wouldn’t have gotten so many tears.”

She gave a shuddery breath, wanting nothing more than to draw her knife and silence that nasty voice. Instead, she held back her scream of outrage and demanded, “Where’s the medicine?”

“It is here,” the one who spoke to her drawled. “Wrapped up with your rock. Find it yourself.”

The orange eyes winked out as the creatures turned away and began moving deeper into the cave.

“Wait!” she called after them.

One set of orange eyes had not left, but watched her, half-lidded and unconcerned.

“Hurry, little human. The borders are shifting again. The dead forest is spreading and the Servants of the God are hunting for you even now. You shouldn’t have come here.”

Feeling with her hands, Hermione blindly crawled about the cave. She was completely turned around, not sure which way was back and which was forward. She had to find the medicine.

“Look about when you get the chance. Look about with your shiny stone and see the remnants of my people. The ones touched by the God.”

Her fingers were freezing as she patted them around, searching for the small fur bag. The orange eyes crept around her, keeping her from being able to tell one direction from another.

“I should kill you,” the creature said thoughtfully. “Had it not been for the wolf demon I’d already be sucking the marrow from your bones. It is your fault the God has grown restless. It is your fault Its Servants are awake. You shouldn’t have come.”

Hermione continued to ignore the beast and tried not to panic, half her mind on searching for the medicine, the other half on watching the creature carefully. It circled her like a shark, still keeping a safe distance away. She could draw her blade, but she still wouldn’t be able to see to aim. It would be a race to see who could strike first before the blade wore her out.

“If I kill you, the other human will die and perhaps the God will cease Its movements. Perhaps It will go back to sleep.”

She swept her arm across the floor in a wide arc, surreptitiously speeding up, heart pounding in her throat. Her fingers slapped into a wall and she jerked them back with a small sound of pain. The cold making the sting bite. She almost turned away from the wall but an idea flittered through her panic, and she stood slowly, hands groping along the rock.

“Yes,” the creature mused to itself. “The Wolf King will be angry but he will forgive me if the God returns to Its slumber.” The orange orbs focused on her, narrowed. “Yes. . . . Yes.” A strange reptilian growl rose up in the creature’s throat.

Breathless now, Hermione flung herself forward, trying to feel with her hands and kick around the ground with her legs.

“Stupid human. It’s your fault the others are dead!” And it lunged.

Her hands closed on something soft and furry sitting on a ledge four feet above the floor. Hermione ripped the bag open, catching the now-full waterskin before it fell and the other contents scattered. The sunstone burst out and clattered to the floor, light exploding about the cave.

The Mud-demon shrieked, clawed hands flying up to cover its face.

From only three feet away, Hermione stared at it. It didn’t look like mud. It looked like rock. It was not so much human-shaped as gargoyle-like with thick, reddish-brown skin like clumps of clay, as if it were carved from lumpy rock. Its arms and legs ended in claws, a thick serpent-like tail swacked at the air. Its head was wedge-shaped, flatter and wider then a human head with a short snout and heavy rock-like horns.

Its skin steamed and burned in the light. The beast roared at her and leapt back, bounding away to the safety of darkness.

Slowly, Hermione sank to her knees until the rapid cadence of her heart slowed. She gently stuffed the sloshing water-skin in the fur bag and used the bag to scoop the sunstone up so that only one end was visible. The result was something like a flashlight.

She was in a small area about the size of a medium sized room. In one corner there was a hole in the ground. The cave wall swooped down but then turned inward to open up into another cavern beyond. Around her were what looked like several bodies. The bodies of Mud-demons.

Most of them were stuck to the wall or floor and coated in a translucent, yellow rock. Like insects fossilized in amber. In the dark she had stumbled over them but thought they were lumps in the cavern floor. They were all shaped slightly different; slighter or heavier in frame, different shaped heads, some with tails and some without. Their skin, too, was varied. A few had the red-brown of the one that confronted her, others had dark bluish skin or cavern green or gray.

The bodies were decaying inside those yellow shells. Crumbling to white powder and bone.

Gathering her wits, she got up on shaky knees and headed the opposite direction as the Mud-demon and was relieved when Hati’s eyes came into view a few moments later. The huge Warg squinted in the new light and cocked its head at her.

“Hi, Hati,” she said, her voice high and strained. “I have the medicine.”

Several muffled thumps around her made her jump and back into the big wolf. Hati curled his lip, showing teeth, but didn’t growl.

“Oh good, you’re alive.”

“What happened to your fur?”

The human girl blinked and let out a stilted breath. Three wolves in human form stood before her, scrutinizing her with critical eyes. It took her a second to remember their names.

Ridya, Moriel and Leliel. Raziel’s favorites.

She was instantly on guard.

“What do you want?” she breathed, one hand going to her blade. Ridya’s eyes followed the movement warily.

“Alekos was a fool to let you come to the Dead Forest alone. The borders are no longer safe,” Leliel said, hands on her hips.

“The dead forest. . . .” Hermione murmured, glancing sideways at the trees in the distance, standing like white pillars.

“Oh well, it doesn’t matter now,” Moriel drawled with an air of satisfaction, stretching nonchalantly. “Alekos will be lucky if Raziel doesn’t kill him along with the stupid human male.”

Hermione’s attention snapped to the small blond teenager in panic. “Raziel! Has he found them yet?”

The blond frowned thoughtfully. “He was on his way when we left. No matter. We’re to take you back to our den. Our king says you shouldn’t witness the killing.” His eyes twinkled with mirth.

Hermione stared at him in disgust. The little bastard knew exactly how upsetting the things he was saying were. He was being purposefully cruel.

“Shut up!” Ridya barked, head cocked, “Listen!”

In the distance a high-pitched screaming whinny echoed through the thick forest of dead white trees. The hair on Hermione’s neck rose as something deep in her skull ached in painful memory.

The unicorn.

“The Servants know she’s here,” Moriel said tightly, eyes trained on the forest.

“We have to go.” Leliel took a step towards Hermione, reaching for her, but the girl gave a cry and grabbed onto Hati. The Warg lowered its belly to the ground at the same instant and she managed to scramble onto his back.

“No, wait!” Ridya cried but Hati was already shooting off into the forest at full speed.

“Good boy, Hati!” Hermione panted, glancing back into the darkness over her shoulder. She didn’t kid herself though, they wouldn’t be far behind.

The Warg grumbled, and she felt the vibrations more than heard it as the icy wind whipped past them.

Excitement tightened her lungs when she first glimpsed the campfire light.

“Alekos, I got it!” she yelled without thinking.

The black-haired wolf looked up in shock. He was standing over the unconscious Malfoy, slightly bent over and breathing hard. Blood dripped down from his scalp and trickled down his cheek. Hermione slapped a hand over her mouth in horror, realizing that though she did not see him, Raziel was already here.

The moment of distraction was enough. The instant Alekos looked at her, a blur of red hair and sharp teeth exploded out of the darkness and barreled into the black-haired man. The two wolves rolled to the ground, kicking, punching and snarling.

Hermione slid off Hati in a half tumble, nearly landing in a sprawl. The Warg backed out of the clearing hastily, watching the fighting wolves uncertainly. He wasn’t going to interfere.

Hermione stood still, thinking fast, she knew she couldn’t help Alekos by trying to break up the brawl, but she could distract Raziel. She sprinted towards Malfoy, pulling out the heavy bag of medicine. The wolf-king instantly leapt off Alekos to dart in front of her and cut her off. Alekos was on his feet a split second later, crouching protectively over Malfoy. He was bloodier than before, with teeth bared.

Hermione eyed the wolf-king warily. He was breathing hard but not in exertion. He was livid with rage.

“You disobeyed me,” The white-wolf growled, deep and frothy. His eyes never left Hermione, but he was speaking to Alekos. “How dare you disobey me? I’m your King!” It was a cry of confused betrayal.

Alekos met the red-haired wolf head on in the next rush, unable to back away for fear of giving his king a swipe at the prone Malfoy boy. The two tore into each other.

“You are my King!” Alekos screamed the words back, hands locked with Raziels. The two straining against each other, not giving an inch. “You should have known I would not, could not, stand idly by!”

Raziel punched Alekos in the face and sent him flying through the air. “We’re your pack!”

Alekos picked himself up off the ground and spat blood. “And what is he?”

“Inconsequential!” Raziel screamed. “A liability! Meat!”

Hermione circled them from a distance, trying to creep over towards Malfoy, but Raziel managed to cut her off each time.

“Mark my words, if you kill him, Hermione and I will tear the pack apart! You can’t take us against our will!” Alekos threatened determinedly.

The mark must have hit home because Raziel reeled back as if struck. Shock on his face. “I saved you! I protected you! We’re brothers! How could you choose him over us!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Alekos’ howled in frustration, flying at his friend. “You don’t understand!” He ducked a slash of claws and kicked Raziel in the ribs. It didn’t do much, Raziel was much too strong.

“I don’t understand?” Raziel asked angrily, catching Alekos by the throat and shaking him. “You’re the fool who sent the girl to the borderlands! The God hunts her just as assuredly as he hunts you! It is too late! The boy must die!”

With a scream, Alekos slashed at Raziel’s face, freeing himself when his king leapt backwards. “If you kill him the God grows stronger! If you kill him, It will gain power enough to hunt Hermione and I down, borders or no!”

Raziel took a step towards Malfoy. “If I kill him, this ends!”

“You’re wrong! Why can’t you see what’s happening?” Alekos lunged again but three figures burst from the trees and Ridya, Moriel and Leliel bore him to the ground, snapping and struggling.

Raziel slowly walked over to stand over the fallen wolf and said firmly. “If I kill him, the power of his death is lost to the Curse.”

Alekos turned his head painfully, until his cheek rested on the earth. “You’re wrong!” he groaned weakly. ”Didn’t you hear the boy? He said it during their blood ceremony. He’s the last. . . .”

Raziel shut his eyes briefly and when they opened again, they blazed with determination and anger. “Then it ends with him. And there will be no more humans to stir you up against me,” he decided harshly.

“NO!” Alekos struggled wildly against the three wolves holding him down.

“You’ll come around,” Raziel continued to himself, his gaze steady on the struggling figures in the dirt. “You both will.”

Hermione gripped the handle of the vibrating Base, felt the eager hunger licking at her fingertips. With a deep breath she drew the blade and lurched at the familiar, but suddenly staggeringly amplified feeling of incorporeal ice hooks sinking into her soul, sucking at her strength.

It wasn’t unbearable. Not yet. But whatever she was going to do; she would have to do it fast.

She stepped once more deliberately between the wolf-lord and his prey.

“Hermione,” Alekos begged, fighting to keep his head up while Moriel kept trying to shove his face in the dirt. The blond looked positively vicious, his clawed fingers drawing blood where they gripped the fallen wolf’s scalp. “Draco mustn’t die!

“She won’t save him.” Raziel focused intently on the human girl, weighing his next move. “She’ll fight because of the oath she swore, but she is secure and even content in the knowledge that she cannot win against me. It will be a great relief to her when he is dead.”

“I want to know what’s going on.” Hermione demanded.

“Please! Hermione!” Alekos cried. “I’ll explain, I swear I will. But if he dies, we all die! You saw the Dead Forest! You saw. . . .”

Raziel interrupted furiously. “Yes, Hermione, and do you have any idea how close you came to dying because this fool sent you there? If my wolves hadn’t arrived, the Servants would have found you and torn you apart!”

Alekos flushed and looked absolutely devastated with guilt. “She’s not a Malfoy! The God has no reason to hunt her!”

“You fool! You still won’t acknowledge how greatly her presence has already affected the state of our lands?”

“It can’t be her doing,” Alekos gasped out defiantly, struggling again against Moriel’s painful grip. “Her blood kin are non-magical. She’s Muggle-born. She has nothing to do with Drakhan’s Curse.”

“You know nothing!” Raziel spat and turned his attention back to Hermione.

She wet her lips, her whirling brain trying to process and piece together everything that was being said and everything that was only being hinted at. They kept speaking of a God and Curse and this was the second time they’d mentioned something called, “Drakhan.”

“Alekos is right.” Her voice cracked but she cleared her throat and met Raziel’s curious gaze steadily. “If you turn me against my will, I’ll do everything in my power to kill you. That puts us at something of a stalemate . . . so I’ll make you a deal. I don’t want Malfoy to suffer anymore. You have one hour. If you can kill him, I’ll join you willingly.”

Alekos made a sound of horror but this time Ridya helped Moriel shove his face in the dirt.

“What’s the catch?” Raziel asked with something between suspicion and amusement. It only made her angrier.

She held up the Base. It was glowing faintly. Sweat beaded her upper lip. “You have to kill him with this blade.”

The wolf-king’s silvery blue eyes narrowed. “That blade is highly unusual. I can’t be sure of all its properties. I know I cannot take it from your hand by force. That’s not much of a problem. But should I gain access to it, how do I know it will even kill the boy? It’s his knife.”

Hermione felt a crooked smile curl her mouth unpleasantly. “Oh, it will kill him. It wants to kill him. It’s like a starving animal. It wants the energy of our lives. On more than one occasion, it’s taken all of my willpower to keep it from killing Malfoy.”

Raziel considered her slyly. “Let Alekos hold it. I want to see if anyone besides the two of you can wield it.”

Hermione hesitated, thinking quickly, aware of all the wolves watching her expression carefully. She gave a short, sharp nod and marched determinedly over to the pile of wolves. Ridya carefully moved some of his weight so Alekos could stretch out a hand, his panicked eyes trying to convey a message Hermione wasn’t willing to listen to. Moriel growled low and dangerous as her hand moved past him, like a puppy about to snap at fingers. She refused to flinch.

Their fingers touched and halted for half an instant, and then Alekos accepted the blade. His entire arm shuddered, the muscles underneath going taut, but he held onto it. Hermione could see the strain on his face.

“Give it a swing,” Raziel ordered softly.

Alekos flexed his hand and waved the knife in a steady arc. Hermione could see him consider using it on his fellows.

“I’m satisfied,” The wolf-king murmured, licking his lips, and Alekos reluctantly handed the knife back to her, fingers catching hers gently.

“Don’t fail,” Alekos whispered. “He mustn’t die!”

Hermione didn’t acknowledge the words. “We’re agreed then? One hour. You versus me. And Draco is safe unless you kill him with this blade.” And it would be up to Alekos to keep the other wolves from killing Malfoy while they fought.

Raziel nodded, a small smile on his lips. She could see the tips of his fangs. “Agreed.” And with that one word tension rose up to smother them all.

She felt her weight unconsciously shift to the balls of her feet. “We start now,” she whispered, heart pounding in her throat.

“Then let’s not waste time.”

His muscles bunched, eyes catching fire with moonlight. She never actually saw him leap. It was more as if she sensed the displacement of air, the flicker of light and color that was there and then wasn’t, the rush of body heat and gleaming fangs.

She didn’t have time to even comprehend what had happened.

“HATI!” Alekos screamed, straining up off the ground, fighting the three that held him.

The Warg was there with a bellowing roar and Raziel checked himself in mid spring as the furry body appeared between him and his prey. Hermione’s throat cinched tight. She wheezed on her next breath and fell into the huge wolf rather then climbed onto him. Then she could only cling as Hati dove into the night once again, Raziel’s echoing cry of rage barley heard over the rushing in her ears.

Hati’s breath fogged around them. Hermione took a moment to allow herself to calm down enough to think. She tucked the blade into the sheath at her waist, not wanting to hold it any longer than necessary, and patted the medicine bag inside her robes. Everything was still there. She glanced over her shoulder as best she could.

“He can’t be far behind us,” she said aloud.

Hati answered with a breathless, “Buff.” And a whine.

A flash of blue light in the woods behind them momentarily blinded her and a tree to their left shattered in a small explosion. Hermione screamed and Hati dodged the flying rubble.

“What was that?” she cried, shielding her face.

Hati had no answers. His ears were laid back flat and he picked up his pace, tongue lolling out. He tore at the ground, trying to put some distance between them and what could only be Raziel.

A low rumble sounded faintly through the trees, rolled through the air in an invisible wave. The ground quivered. The wind suddenly whipped up from behind them, sending leaves and dust into the air to pelt her back.

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