Dark Slayer



Swirling mist veiled the mountains and crept into the deep forest, stringing layers of white through the snow-laden trees. Pockets of deep snow hid life beneath the cap of ice crystals and along the banks of the stream. Shrubs and fields of grass rose like statues, frozen in time. The snow gave the world a bluish cast. The forest, where icicles hung, and the stream, with its water frozen in bizarre shapes, seemed an eerie, alien world.

Clear, crisp and cold, the night sky shone bright with stars, and a full, glowing moon spilled a silvery light over the frozen ground. Silent shadows slipped through the trees and ice-coated bushes, moving with absolute stealth. Large paws made tracks in the snow, a good six inches in diameter, single file, the trail winding in and out through the trees and thick shrubbery.

Although they looked in good health, strong with steel muscles rippling beneath thick fur, the wolves were hungry and needed food to keep the pack alive through the long, brutal winter. The alpha suddenly stopped, going very still, sniffing the trail around him, lifting his nose to scent the wind. The others halted, wraiths only, silent shadows that immediately fanned out. The alpha moved forward, staying downwind while the others sank low, waiting.

A yard away, a large piece of raw meat lay on the trail, fresh, the scent wafting temptingly back toward the wolf. Wary, he circled, using his nose to detect potential danger. Scenting nothing but the meat, with his saliva running and his belly empty, he approached again, going downwind, angling toward the large piece of lifesaving food. He went in three times and backed away, but no hint of danger presented itself. He nosed in a fourth time and something slipped over his neck.

The alpha leapt back and the wire tightened. The more he struggled, the more the wire cut into him, strangling the air from his lungs and sawing through flesh. The pack circled, pacing, his female rushing to aid him. She began to struggle as another wire snared her neck, nearly knocking her off her feet.

For a moment there was a hush, broken only by the gasping breaths of the two trapped wolves. A twig snapped. The pack whirled and dissolved in a rush of fleeing shadows, back into the thicker cover of the trees. The bushes parted and a woman stepped into the open. She was dressed in black winter boots, black pants that rode low on her hips and a sleeveless vest of black that left her midriff bare and had three sets of steel buckles running down the middle of it. The six buckles were shiny, almost ornamental, with tiny crosses running up and around, embedded in the squared silver pieces.

A wealth of blue-black hair spilled beyond her waist, pulled back in a thick woven braid. The long hooded coat she wore, made of what appeared to be a single silver-tipped wolf pelt, fell all the way to her ankles. She carried a crossbow in one hand, a sword at one hip and a knife at the other. Arrows were slung in a quiver on her shoulder and all down the inside of the long wolf skin were small loops containing various sharp-bladed weapons. A low-slung holster adorned with rows of very small, flat, razor-sharp arrowheads housed a pistol on her hip.

She paused for a moment, surveying the scene. "Be still," she hissed, both annoyance and authority in her soft voice.

At her command, both wolves ceased struggling instantly, waiting, bodies trembling, sides heaving and heads held low to ease the terrible pressure closing around their throats. The woman moved with fluid grace, flowing over the surface rather than sinking into the ice-crusted snow. She studied the snares, a multitude of them, disgust in her dark eyes.

"They have done this before," she scolded. "I showed them to you, but you were too greedy, looking for an easy meal. I should let you die here in agony." Even as she rebuked the wolves, she withdrew a pair of utility cutters from inside the wolf pelt and snipped the wires, freeing the wolves. She pushed her fingers into their fur and over the cuts deep in their throats, then clamped her palm over the slashes, chanting softly. White light burst under her hand, glowing around and through the wolves' fur.

"That should make you feel better," she said, affection creeping into her tone as she scratched the ears of both wolves.

The alpha growled a warning and