Volug didn't play fetch. He didn't roll over, or bark, or chase his tail, and he certainly never stayed on anyone's account. He quirked his head when someone called his name, but he certainly wouldn't come running—and if it was anyone other than Micaiah calling him, the most he would do is snort and turn away as if bored. He didn't wag his tail or bury bones, and the first time someone tried petting him, he'd twitched away, glaring at the human who'd encroached on his space. After three days, everyone had stopped trying to treat him like a pet, and started regarding him more like a rather surly soldier, granting him the wide berth he preferred.
Well, everyone except Edward, that was.
Whenever the brigade had a half-moment's rest, Edward set himself upon Volug—petting him, or teaching him to shake, or just using him as an oversized pillow for a brief doze. It didn't matter to him that Volug had always growled when anyone touched him; it didn't matter that Edward had gotten a nasty case of fleas in his hair from spending so much time close to the dog. Edward would not be deterred. "He just needs to get warmed up to us, is all!" he'd proclaimed.
After a while Volug had given up snarling and growling his protests at Edward, and instead treated the swordsman like he might a particularly persistent fly—indifference, punctuated by brief bouts of annoyance and an occasional tail-swat. Which, of course, only encouraged Edward, making him spend even more time with Volug—like right now, Leonardo noted with a scowl.
"Edward," Leonardo called, "you know he doesn't like being petted."
"Maybe he just doesn't like it when you pet him," came the immediate reply. "He likes me just fine."
Leonardo resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Edward raked his fingers through the dog's fur again—through a particularly knotty clump, and Leonardo saw Volug flinch and flash his teeth. "See? You're bothering him right now!"
"What are you talking about? He's fine. Aren't you, boy?" Another harsh stroke through the knotted fur, and another flinch from Volug.
Leonardo made an irritated sound in the back of his throat. "I just don't think you should hang around him so much."
"Why not?" Edward demanded—petulant as ever, fixing Leonardo with a rather unfriendly glare.
Leonardo pursed his lips, eying Volug carefully. The dog was staring at him, with glittering eyes that seemed just a touch too strange, a touch too intelligent to belong to some ordinary dog. For a long moment, he considered sharing his suspicions with Edward: considered telling Edward that it wasn't just his general dislike of dogs that was making him wary. Considered telling Edward that normal dogs didn't act the way Volug did, that any dog that quirked his ears and listened so astutely whenever Micaiah or Sothe were muttering to each other just wasn't natural. Telling him that, even though they had never seen him shift, and even though Leonardo never heard of one of them not shifting for so long, something still felt wrong, and that was more than reason enough to stay away from the mutt.
But then Volug blinked, lowering his head to rest lightly on his forelegs and closing his eyes for a nap. Leonardo shook himself. Volug looked so peaceful, like that, so ordinary. Could his suspicions be wrong, after all?
Edward was still glaring at him. At last, Leonardo muttered lamely, "I just don't think he's entirely tame."
Leonardo's first kill had been a subhuman.
That had been his first year at the military academy in Bargar: a year before the Mad King's War, and his first year away from home. Just eleven years old, he quickly demonstrated a knack for archery that surpassed even some of the third-years, a fact that earned him lavish praise from his instructors and resentment from his peers. More than once, during his first few weeks, he had some unfortunate "accidents" with the upperclassmen: an upturned tray in the mess hall, a nest of spiders placed in his cot, a bout of "just horsing around" that ended with a broken nose.
None of this cowed Leonardo into dulling his skills for their sake—no matter what the others did, it couldn't be worse than what his father would do if he returned to Nevassa anything less than excellent—but it did compel him to become more aloof . When his instructors praised him, the most he would respond was with a shallow nod. He developed a purely pragmatic shooting style, free of any of the flourishes that the real braggarts abused. When the other students taunted him, or jeered at him, or simply talked to him, his response was always the same: silence. Before long, he'd turned into a shade: no longer interesting enough to pick on, and not even interesting enough to be noticed. Occasionally, one of the warmer boys would see him as a "pity case" and try to chat with him; but always, when Leonardo remained mute, they'd walk away, muttering something about him being "uptight prick." But, the way Leonardo saw it, at least they were leaving him alone.
There wasn't much time for their mutterings, anyway: the students had precious few hours to spare outside of training, and they had better things to do with those hours than harass some scrappy first-year. So, at each day's end, while the others were playing cards or schmoozing about or smuggling cigars in from town, Leonardo sat in the farthest corner of the barracks' common room, at a bench by himself, whittling and sculpting away. Bowmaking wasn't taught until second year, but Leonardo figured since he was already better at shooting than half the second-years, he may as well get started.
He was sanding away the last rough edges on one of those bows, late one November afternoon, while most of the rest of the room blustering and wheedling over some gambling game—when someone burst in unexpectedly. The door slammed open with a tremendous smack, jerking everyone's heads up (had one of the commanders had somehow caught wind of their not-quite-endorsed collective gambling habit? and how deep of shit were they in?). But the silhouette in the doorway was no commander; just a classmate, pale and panting, shouting, "Everyone, there's a subhuman in Bargar!"
Leonardo recognized the boy's face, but not the name— some pudgy third-year who always stank vaguely of sweat. He kept on babbling: "Someone spotted it just this morning, just west of here, in the forest by the—"
"You're full of it, man," someone cut in sharply, turning back to the cards in his hand.
Another boy, nodding, added: "Not even a subhuman would be stupid enough to try hiding out right next to a military academy."
"Yeah, stop making shit up."
"No," the pudgy boy continued, insistent, "I overheard Commander Adye talking about it. The town rustled up some hunters, and they already went after the thing, but they haven't come back yet—and it's been a whole day."
At that, a few faint "oh"s were murmured, and a strange silence drifted through the room. Leonardo watched his classmates' faces—a disgusted scowl on one, a frightened pallor on another—and wondered what, or who, they were thinking of. Growing up in Nevassa, at Daein's heart, he'd never seen head or tail of a subhuman—but he'd heard stories of their incursions in the western mountains, heard of the dangers. Leonardo thought suddenly of Orem: a boy he'd known back in Nevassa, whose dad had been a hunter by profession. Though they never spoke of it openly, everyone knew Orem's father had been murdered by one of those mad half-beasts. It had happened when Leonardo had been very young—it was the first he'd ever heard of the subhumans, and he carried a grudge on behalf on Orem, on behalf of Daein, closely against his heart—as close back then as he did now. He cringed, thinking of one of those beasts so close, and bile nearly rose in his throat.
At last a lone voice, familiar to all of them, broke the quiet: "The hell are we waiting around here for?"
Ricardo's countryside drawl was unmistakable. Only poor pickpocket vagabonds from the southernmost edges of Daein spoke with that accent, and the only way they wriggled their way into the academy was raw skill—something the lanky, longhaired swordsman possessed in abundance. Everyone turned to him: he sat perched on a windowsill, idly running his fingers over the edge of the sword that he had slung lightly over his shoulder. His tone almost nonchalant, Ricardo continued: "I mean, hell, some of us are supposed to finish our stint here within the year—we're practically military already. Why can't we take care of this little problem ourselves? That's what I'm wondering."
The silence returned. Then the pudgy kid spoke up again: "But we can't go without Commander Adye's leave—"
"Then stay here," Ricardo said, sneering. "I'm sure the town'll understand that you just didn't have permission to help when there's a tiger rampaging through their streets." Ricardo rose, raising his hands over his head for a long stretch before he strolled toward the door. He paused with his right hand on the doorknob, casting the group a sardonic look over his shoulder. "Well, what about the rest of you? You're either coming or cowering."
That struck a nerve: three boys' hands flew toward their weapons, and others quickly followed, scrambling to the shelves lining the room, where lances, swords, and axes were piled high. Leonardo frowned, remaining where he sat—though, unlike the others who were staying put, he didn't look scared. Just thoughtful. He ran his fingers carefully over the bow he'd finished sanding just now—one of few bows he'd made entirely on his own, and the first one he'd finished to his own satisfaction. He glanced back at the shelf: three sturdier, older bows sat there as well.
On an impulse, he settled on the bow he'd made himself, snatching it from the table and moving quickly to wedge his way into the small crowd that had formed around Ricardo. "The hell do you think you're doing?" someone grunted, shoving Leonardo aside.
Leonardo returned a sharp glare. "I want to help." He couldn't help how small his voice sounded, but he tilted his chin defiantly upward as he spoke.
Ricardo, watching from the other side of the crowd, blinked hard, staring at Leonardo as if he'd just sprouted an extra head—but after a moment he flashed a slow, lazy smile. "Hey, sure, whatever," Ricardo drawled, exchanging a knowing glance with the boy next to him. "You'll go find a tree or whatever to shoot from, and we'll chase the subhuman your way. Kapeesh?"
A few boys snickered. Leonardo nodded resolutely. Either due to youth, or simply naiveté, he missed the sneering undercurrent to Ricardo's words, failed to detect the mockery hidden there. When he nodded his assent, it was all earnestness.
When they left the barracks, it was late afternoon and drizzling, but by the time they reached the forest, the sun was starting to droop at the far edge of the horizon, and the skies were gray, shaded by filmy, mosslike clouds. Inside the forest, even that small bit of light all but disappeared, smothered by the forest's fog and obscured by the leaves and pine needles that grew thick around them. As they went, the sound of their dozen pairs of boots scraping the earth sounded oddly muted, as though the trees were swallowing the sound. The forest, however, still heard them just the same—thrushes and sparrows flew chittering away from them as they approached. The sweaty third-year whispered that it was a tiger subhuman they were looking for, and Leonardo wondered how well tigers could hear. Did the subhuman already hear them walking here? Was the half-beast circling them even now? As they marched, he clutched his bow so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
When they were a half-mile into the forest, the rain became heavier and thicker, tumbling down in ragged sheets and filtering through the pines—but they were still able to discern a few faint, muddy pawprints ahead of them. "That's him," Ricardo muttered, "has to be him." He turned to survey the group and seemed surprised to find Leonardo still there. "You've been keeping up? Then find a tree around here, or whatever. We're probably close now." Leonardo nodded, and as he turned to clamber up a nearby trunk, the other boys followed the pawprints into the muddy wood.
By the time Leonardo crawled up the tree, found a suitable branch, and secured his spot, even the small slivers of sunlight from earlier had disappeared, and the rain felt like liquid ice—soaking his shirt, his pants, seeping under his clothes, into his skin. Within minutes, his teeth were chattering. He tried to stop, clenching his jaw, but it was a useless struggle. Then his fingers started going numb; he tried tucking his hands in his armpits to fight the cold, but it was no use; his gloves were soaked through. After a half hour passed, he couldn't feel his toes either, or his legs, and he almost welcomed the incessant chattering of his teeth, because he could at least feel that.
A distant yowl carried to his ears—reminding him why he was here, drawing his attention west. The sounds that followed were distant, barely audible through the roar of the rain, but Leonardo had ears keen enough to hear them. Some ragged shouts. A snarl, followed by an agonized yell. A disoriented clattering of metallic sounds, of stomping and charging, syncopated by more snarls. Then, silence.
Leonardo hadn't known it was possible to feel any colder than he already did—but that silence sent such a chill through him, it felt as though the very blood in his veins had frozen. His throat tightened; he was straining just to breathe. Quite suddenly, he wondered if he was high enough—did tigers climb trees? How fast could they climb? How high could they leap? As high as this branch? And how well could they see in the dark—the darkness that Leonardo was now straining to see through? If he hadn't been so numb, he might've moved then: either climbed higher, or fled back to the barracks, and he wasn't sure which.
Then the sound of a distant rustling caught his ears. It was hard to discern through the rain, but as best Leonardo could tell, it was loud, heavy, fast. Weightier than some passing deer or badger. Leonardo clutched the branch tightly with his knees, leaning forward, straining to see in the dark. Nothing, nothing. The sound had faded, too—had he imagined it? He was unwilling to take any chances; he grabbed an arrow from the quiver on his back and nocked it, pulling the string tight and aiming at—what? the darkness? He might've laughed at himself if his teeth weren't still chattering.
Just seconds after had he strung the bolt, there was a sudden paroxysm of motion at the edge of his vision. He turned and saw a rippling in the undergrowth, then a bright orange flash of fur. He heard himself yelp, felt a spasm in his fingers, and the arrow he'd strung so tightly flew from his grip almost by accident. He swore to himself as the arrow hissed through the air—but, somehow, even while startled, his aim had been true. One bolt, right between the eyes, and the tiger fell, quick as he had appeared.
The brigade had been hiking through the desert for three days before they came upon the ruins, but as soon as they arrived, Leonardo knew instantly that Micaiah's foresight had succeeded again: whatever was going on here was big, big enough to draw a whole company of Begnion regulars to this obscure patch of desert. (Maybe those rumors of the heir were true, after all.) He didn't need to be told what to do—an enemy, any enemy of Begnion was a friend of theirs, and of course they would help. Wordlessly, he scrambled atop a pile of rubble while Sothe and Nolan led a charge into the nearest cluster of Begnion soldiers.
The crumbled, rocky half-column that Leonardo settled on wasn't an ideal spot—too unsteady, and not quite high enough—but it at least gave him some elevation, and a decent vantage of the battle. He picked off two distant bowmen, who had been lurking on some ruined pillars of their own, before he turned his eyes toward the center of the melee. He had a practiced eye, landing shots exactly where they were needed: felling a lanceman right before he struck Micaiah from behind, and firing into a small group of charging swordsmen before they could reach the brigade.
Then, in the center of the melee, a black-furred blur dove through a group of Begnion soldiers—a blur that triggered something in Leonardo's mind, reminding him of freeing rain, of orange fur, the scent of pines. He didn't think; instinct made him string an arrow, steady his arm, and draw back the bowstring, breathing in deep as he poised himself to fire.
If he'd been eleven years old, jittery and freezing and holding his first handmade bow, that would've been the end of it—the bolt would've flown, would've struck true, would've struck Volug down. But Leonardo was better-practiced now: he took an extra second to carefully angle his arrow toward the melee, and that extra second made the difference. As Leonardo measured his shot, a keening wind picked up, blowing a light dusting of sand at his cheek. The sudden, improbable sensation jarred him—forcing him to think, forcing him to catch himself. You're not in Bargar. Gasping, he jerked the bow down, slamming it into the sand-and-stone rubble in front of him. The arrow he had strung clattered to the side. "Just a dog," he muttered hotly to himself, "just a dog, Leo."
When he finally looked up again, Volug was still there—just a hundred meters away, snarling at an already-wounded Begnion soldier, oblivious to the disaster that had just been averted.
Every moment in a battle was crucial. Leonardo should've already drawn his bow again, should've started shooting at soldiers again, should've been keeping an eye on the rest of the brigade, yet he found himself staring at Volug, transfixed.
A crowd of soldiers had just moved to surround the dog. Leonardo tried to count the number (eight? twelve?), but before he could finish, Volug was already tearing through them. His motions were almost too fast for Leo to follow: the dog dove low into the crowd, snapping his jaws at one leg, two, three, crippling several of the soldiers before he started going for their throats. He would leap up, fasten his jaws around a neck and then twist around, shoving off of the fresh corpse to dive after the next soldier. He weaved deftly around their sword-swings and lance-strikes. Once he even sidestepped a lance just to turn and snatch that lance in his jaws; his bite was so strong that the metal chipped and twisted under his teeth.
In the midst of this, an archer's bolt struck close to the dog—barely missing its mark, grazing Volug's haunches before slipping into the sand. Volug jerked his head around, casting an irritated glare at its source—a lone Begnion archer, standing crouched on a small promontory forty meters away. As soon as he spotted his assailant, Volug charged, and three swordsmen moved to block him. As he came close, though, rather than tearing through the swordsmen (like he had so many already), he simply leapt over them, each of their blades falling just short as they tried to meet him midair. Volug landed on the crag right next to the archer, and, flagging his tail, he tackled the man and clenched his jaws around his neck in one smooth motion. Digging his claws into the archer's corpse with a snarl, he whirled around to see where those swordsmen had been—but they were already fleeing.
In four breathless seconds, Volug had dispatched at least that many Begnion soldiers, and he didn't even look winded. Leonardo whistled lowly. No dog he'd ever seen moved like that.
After shooting his first tiger, Leonardo didn't come down from that tree until Ricardo and the others arrived—all of them panting, a few of them limping. Leonardo held his breath as he counted them, one, two, three... and exhaled when the last straggler came stumbling from the trees. They had the same number they'd left the barracks with. They'd gotten lucky.
Ricardo strode ten paces ahead of the rest, so quickly that he nearly tripped over the carcass before he saw it. Once he did, his hand flew to his sword, eying the tiger wairly—but when the tiger remained motionless, he edged closer, prodding the corpse with his sword. No response. Ricardo laughed, then: "Not a bad shot, kid!" he called into the trees. "Come down and check out your bounty, yeah?"
Leonardo nodded his mute assent, shouldering his bow. Climbing down the tree took twice as long as it had taken to climb up—his fingers were so numb it was hard to move them, and he had to edge down slow to keep from slipping. He was surprised to find, as he staggered toward the corpse, that the others were crowding around him—patting him on the shoulder, or offering an impressed whistle or some small praise. "Great shot, Leo," murmured one of them. And, "I thought he was gonna get away. Good thing you were there."
It was the most anyone had spoken to him in a month. He didn't know how to answer, so he just nodded to each of them and kept walking forward. He paused only when he saw one of the boys who had been limping—he had a gash in his leg, deep and jagged, soaking his whole pant leg with a putrid, umber hue. The boy noticed Leonardo's stare, and managed a hoarse, good-natured laugh: "Hey, don't worry. Coulda been worse—and we still got him, right?"
When Leonardo arrived at the carcass, Ricardo was still there, standing with one foot on the tiger's flank and grinning broadly. Leonardo halted a half-meter from the tiger, suddenly unwilling to move closer—he stole a glance over his shoulder at one of the boy who'd been wounded. Without the brave face he'd been putting on earlier, he looked unnaturally pale and was shuddering with cold—and there wasn't a healer among this party, either. They needed to get back to the barracks, and soon.
"Hey, Leo, you wanna have his head stuffed?" It was the pudgy boy who spoke, the one who had warned them about the subhuman in the first place. He was hovering over the carcass, too, running a hand through the fur on the tiger's flank. "My uncle's a taxidermist. We can help you carry it back."
Leonardo considered the offer, scrutinizing the carcass before him. It'd be handsome once mounted—the tiger looked as though it was full-grown, and its fur was unusually bright and full. Then Leonardo looked closer, eying the tiger's teeth: coated by a thick film of still-fresh blood. The foreclaws were tinted red, too.
That was the blood of his companions, human blood. He forced back a gag, thinking of it. Suddenly, Leonardo knew he didn't want that head mounted somewhere—he wanted it gone. Gone, abandoned and decaying, left in the dirt right where it had fallen, where it belonged. "No," he announced, shaking his head. "Leave it."
The fire had long ago smoldered down to a pile of weakly-glowing embers, but no one had bothered rekindling it. Most of the group had already turned in for the night; only a handful of the brigade members (well... liberation army, now, Leonardo guessed) were still lingering by the fire. Just Micaiah, Sothe, Edward, himself... and Volug.
Leonardo glared groggily at the dog, squinting in the fire's simmering half-light. Volug was sitting upright, tilting his head every once in a while to sniff the air; leaning lightly against him was Edward, whose eyelids were drooping.
Leonardo had long since given up warning Edward away from Volug. But, by Ashera, if he couldn't keep Edward away from Volug, he could at least keep an eye on the ragged half-beast. As it stood, of course, Leonardo didn't have any evidence for his suspicions—but Volug had to shift, eventually, and Leonardo would be there watching when it happened. For a week now, he hadn't let the creature out of his sight: if Volug moved ahead to scout, Leonardo went too, and if Volug lagged behind the group, Leonardo was right beside him. Leonardo wouldn't sleep until Volug did, and he'd taken to waking before the dog as well.
Volug couldn't keep this up forever, Leonardo knew. Soon, soon, he had to shift. Would it be tonight? The next?
A light stirring across the fire pulled Leonardo's attention away momentarily—Sothe was rising, striding away from the circle, probably off to fiddle with some supplies, or ready himself for bed. Leonardo looked back to Volug, frowning. He was loathe to leave the dog unattended—but he was tired, and having another pair of eyes watching would be a huge boon. He couldn't talk to Edward or Micaiah: they trusted too easily, and would be aghast at the idea that Volug was anything but a giant, furry, cuddly protector. No, if anyone was going to help him, it would be Sothe—he was wary, cautious, world-wise. He would understand.
So Leonardo rose, tailing Sothe to his tent, calling out just before the thief slipped inside: "Sothe. There's something I've been meaning to ask you."
Sothe glanced backward at Leonardo over his shoulder, giving a slight, stiff nod to show that he was listening.
"It's, er... I was sort of wondering about Volug." Leonardo didn't want to come right out with it—better to guide Sothe to the right conclusion. "He's an awfully big dog. Where'd he come from?"
Sothe's face flickered at the question, just so slightly—a flicker of unease. "Bought him," he answered flatly after a second's hesitation.
With what money? Leonardo wanted to know. But that kind of question could wait; it was a mere distraction. Leo pressed further, forcing a casual tone: "Just—it's weird, you know? There really wasn't much to that town where you got him, so I can't imagine they trained it there. And you know, I saw some trained fighting dogs, back at the academy in Bargar, but I never saw one that fought quite like Volug. It's like he's—"
Sothe cut him off: "Why do you care so much?" There was something in Sothe's tone that startled Leonardo—a flintiness, a harshness that he had only ever heard before when Sothe was talking about Jarod, or some particularly contemptible Begnion senator.
That was Leonardo's chance to share his suspicions with Sothe—tell Sothe they'd made a terrible mistake, tell him that a creeping subhuman thing had been living among them—but he found himself quailing under Sothe's flinty gaze, and he let a lie slip out instead: "I don't care. Just wondering."
Sothe's hard gaze didn't waver. There was a long moment of silence, just the two of them staring at each other, before Sothe hmphed and lowered his eyes. Leonardo stepped back a few paces, turning to leave, but as he went, Sothe spoke his final words on the subject: "Leo, he's with us, and he's helping us. There isn't anything else to wonder about. So don't."
The Dawn Brigade did not get ambushed. They were not supposed to get ambushed. Between Micaiah's foresight and Volug's sharp nose, it had been months since they'd had any unexpected encounters. And they couldn't get ambushed, couldn't afford it—their numbers were small, small enough to be crippled by just half of one of Begnion's platoons, and crushed by a full one. That's why, even with Micaiah and Volug's talents, they made their camps in obscure ruins and abandoned, out-of-the-way fortresses, why they took care to cover their tracks and travel lightly, and why they always scouted ahead and behind.
But tonight, despite all that, they'd been ambushed.
Leonardo woke to the sound of Sothe shouting—something about being surrounded, get your weapons, get up, go. He rolled groggily towards his equipment, not quite sure if he was dreaming or awake—but when an arrow whistled right next to his ear, he snapped alert in a hurry. Bow, quiver, gloves—he was up and armed in just seconds, but even that was too slow. As he rose, he was already hemmed in by a trio of Begnion regulars. He sidestepped a sword slash, backpedaling frantically—if he could just get a few more inches of space, he could get a decent shot in, but they were too close, too many of them. Yet, just as Leonardo felt his back press against the wall behind him, as if from nowhere, Edward appeared: slashing into the mob with a tremendous yell, striking two soldiers from behind, then turning and gutting the third with one frightful jab.
Edward's timely intervention gave Leonardo the space he needed to move. With a grateful nod to his friend, he turned and clambered up the wall behind him—a ruined half-wall, rather. Tonight's lodging had been a ruined forest temple, whose ceiling had long ago caved in, but with enough stony walls still standing straight to provide some form of shelter. Tonight, if he could keep his balance, the apex of any of those walls could serve as a perfect vantage point.
He was just a few feet from the top when a Begnion archer appeared above him, perching on the very spot Leonardo had been aiming to take. Leonardo saw the archer, but the archer hadn't noticed Leonardo yet. So, gripping the wall tightly with his left hand, wedging his boots into a crack in the wall, Leonardo steadied himself—and then lunged with his right hand, gripping the enemy archer tightly by the ankle and jerking back. The archer slipped, and he fell screaming backwards, slamming into the stony floor forty meters below with a sickening crack.
Leonardo clambered quickly to steal the fallen archer's now-vacant spot, and scanned quickly around him, wary of any others competing for a space. Once he seemed secure, Leonardo scanned further, to the battle around him. There were probably three, four Begnion soldiers for each one of them—poor odds, and those odds weren't helped by the fact that Leonardo couldn't see well enough to line up a clear shot, thanks to the damn clouds covering the moon. From what little he could discern, though, at least Sothe and Nolan were faring well, cutting through a cluster of axemen with relative ease. And Edward—
Leonardo's breath caught in his throat. Edward was bleeding, clutching his side as he staggered over the corpses of two slain soldiers. Behind him, a Begnion fighter was charging, raising his axe in a wild arc, right over Edward's head—Leonardo loosed the arrow he'd been holding, landing a bolt right in the figher's gut. The fighter stumbled. Leonardo shot another bolt, then another, all in rapid succession until the fighter fell at last. Edward turned in time to watch the slain fighter fall, but he still looked woozy.
Leonardo nearly jumped from his makeshift parapet right then, nearly abandoned all sense to run up beside him—because Edward, Edward, Edward couldn't die, not right here, not in front of him, not now.
But Laura's voice held him back: "Edward! Over here!" He watched as she hurried toward him, and Leonardo felt himself able to breathe again. On unsteady feet, Edward moved toward her, and a moment later Laura was sidling up to him, staff in hand. (Leonardo watched with hawk's eyes from above, prepared to feather anything that dared move near the pair.) Edward leaned into Laura, and the two made their way to the temple's interior. There was something resembling a room there, Leonardo knew, where Laura could safely work her staves. He watched them until they disappeared through a stone archway, out of sight.
Then, forcing himself to focus (don't think of Edward, he'll be fine, don't think, focus, protect), he resumed scanning the field. The clouds had drifted, and half of the moon was now visible, shedding precious light over the scene. The usual chaos raged below—he saw Nolan crashing through some ragged lancemen like a battering ram, saw the distinctive silvery blur of Zihark's swordstrokes—but something seemed missing, off, wrong. He started stringing arrows, but that nagging feeling persisted. It wasn't until halfway through the battle until he realized what was nagging him: Volug, for some uncanny reason, was nowhere to be seen.
After that first hunt, it astounded Leonardo how quickly he went from unnoticed shade to silent savior: how the others flocked around him as they returned to the barracks that night, how the next day they were calling his name in the mess hall, and how, in the barracks that evening, the other archers in his class sidled up to him while he was bowmaking, peppering him with questions about his craftsmanship—the very same craftsmanship they'd been ignoring for months. At first he was suspicious of the sudden attention, and thought they must be making fun of him—but it persisted in earnest, until Leonardo knew it was sincere, but he still found it uncomfortable and had trouble speaking. It was largely Ricardo's special brand of persistence that finally set Leonardo somewhat at ease: "What, did that tiger get your tongue, kid?" Ricardo joked more than once. So Leonardo started talking more, forming a tentative rapport with his peers for the first time.
Ricardo led another hunt two weeks later: "This time, I'll be the one beating you lot to the kill." The hunts became a recurring venture: rather than just waiting around for scraps of news to make their way to the academy, Ricardo started sneaking out to muck around in the town's taverns, gathering rumors of sightings and bantering with traveling hunters when he could. Leonardo, while he didn't quite relish the hunts the way Ricardo did, joined each of them. Bargar was a small town, with the academy as its only notable feature. They hadn't any regular police force or high walls to guard them, like Nevassa had back home. Leonardo had wandered Bargar's streets often, during the weekends; he knew by face the miller, the baker, the butcher, more. If he knew there was a subhuman hiding in the town's foothills, if he knew something was threatening those faces, then how could he simply stand aside and do nothing? How could anyone?
The next year Ricardo left for the army, and Leonardo became the new master of the hunts. Rumor had it that Begnion's black-market slave trade had been heating up as of late—which meant it was a prime year for hunting, as refugees came stumbling into the foothills of Bargar. The resulting hunts were short and violent affairs: so short that, more often than not, Leonardo's parties managed to kill the refugees while they were still in animal form.
But sometimes, things weren't so clean and simple—Leonardo remembered one hunt in particular, a strangely persistent memory, sticking out in his mind like an oversized tome on an otherwise-orderly bookshelf. He had set out with a young group, mostly first- and second-years, largely untried. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in spirit: when they sighted a bright blue flash of cat-fur at the forest's edge, they sprinted ahead without a second's hesitation. Leonardo yelled for them to pace themselves, but they kept running, heedless—and surprisingly tireless. Leonardo jogged behind as they chased the cat into the wood and up a river-worn gully. From a hundred meters away, Leonardo saw them skidding to a stop at the edge of a small clearing; when he neared, he saw they had the subhuman surrounded. The subhuman was too tired to run, too tired to even hold his cat-shape, and so he stood human-shaped among them: scrawny, pale, weaponless and armorless.
But no one moved to strike the finishing blow.
Nerves. Inexperience. Leonardo understood why the young hunters might balk—when these subhumans shifted out of their beast form, and stared at them with those desperate eyes, one could almost ignore the ghastly ears, the tail, the fur. One could almost think of them as human.
But it was a trick, Leonardo reminded himself, scowling. He recalled the blood-flecked teeth of that first tiger he killed—that tiger, and so many others like it, ready to kill and scrape and maim and destroy any Daein man, woman, or child they could lay their claws on. That was their true face; this human skin was just some sick illusion.
And Leonardo, with his keen archer's eyes, would not be deceived. He loosed one bolt, watched the cat-man crumple—then another one, just to be certain.
By some miracle they warded off the Begnion forces. It had taken hours—long, dark hours that smeared the ruined temple's walls with layer after layer of blood, hours in which the corpses below steadily piled, until one couldn't help treading on cold bodies while maneuvering through the melee. The stench of all the blood and sweat, concentrated to this tiny temple, was so strong that it rose even to Leonardo's remote perch; he tried his best to ignore it, but every now and then the breeze would shift, and the smell would strike him anew, gagging him.
By the time Begnion finally turned to retreat, the sky had grown pale enough in the east that Leonardo could watch their retreating silhouettes. The retreating brigade consisted of no more than a dozen men, and most of them were wounded—Leonardo would be surprised if they lasted long enough to see Sienne again.
"Alright," Sothe called out, as soon as the last Begnion soldier disappeared from sight, "let's scout the area—the last thing we want is more surprises." When Sothe turned back to survey his companions, though, a nearly-imperceptible shudder flickered over his face—no one had stirred to his call, all of them either too exhausted or too badly injured to move. Micaiah was already flitting among her comardes, offering what little healing she could in her weary state. As she moved, she sent Sothe a brief, withering glare.
"Only a few of us need to go," Sothe conceded. "Nolan, Jill?" He tipped his head toward the pair, the least ragged-looking of the bunch (not that that was saying much), and they nodded their tired assent.
Leonardo was probably in good enough shape to scout, too—but he avoided Sothe's gaze, clambering quickly down the far side of the wall he'd been stationed on. There was a twist in his gut, one that had been gnawing at him since the battle's beginning. Scouting could wait; first, he had to find Edward.
He passed through the same stone archway that Laura and Edward had disappeared through hours ago, and found the pair right around the corner, in a sort of ruined half-room. Edward, face wan and sweating, but still (thank Ashera) alive, was sitting hunched on the floor. Laura hovered next to him, stave glowing in hand, and...
Edward was leaning back against the black dog, who was resting, eyes closed, head nuzzled against Edward's side.
Volug, who had been nowhere during the whole battle—now, now the damn mutt decided to show up?
Leonardo knew, then, that he been quiet too long. He'd been sitting, waiting, wondering—waiting for someone else to point out how eerie Volug seemed, and wondering whether or not he was just being paranoid. And then, tonight, when they had needed him, the damn dog disappeared, leaving them to be ambushed, leaving them to die—because, really and truly, Edward could have died (Leonardo tried not to think of it; he couldn't help but think of it).
Sure, maybe Leonardo had just somehow missed seeing Volug. Maybe the dog had been out scrounging for food, or something, when Begnion attacked, and only arrived on the scene later. Maybe Volug's failure to sense the enemy forces ahead of time was an honest mistake; maybe tonight they'd just been unlucky.
But maybe Volug was a spy, maybe Volug had been feeding information to Begnion all along, and maybe he was a stinking subhuman sneaking among them. And Leonardo, no longer content with maybes, knew that now was the time to turn those into certainties.
"Get away from him," Leonardo spat, crossing the room in two long strides and grabbing Volug by the scruff of his neck. Volug gave a yelp as he was hauled into a corner, too startled to resist. Edward fell back as his support was snatched away. "Hey!" he shouted. "What do you think you're—"
"Edward, he's one of them," Leonardo hissed. Volug had recovered from his initial shock; he jerked away from Leonardo's grip and was now facing him on all fours, growling. Leonardo responded with a deranged sneer: "I'm right, aren't I, Volug? And I'll bet you can shift, too, can't you? C'mon, show me what you really look like—"
"Leo, what are you talking about?" Edward shouted, moving as if to intervene—but he fell short, clutching the still-open wound in his chest. Laura gently pushed him back.
Leonardo winced, hearing Edward's pained moan, but he didn't move his eyes from Volug. He couldn't afford to give him that opening. "Ed, stay back. He's from Begnion."
Everyone jerked their heads at that accusation—Edward, Volug, even Laura, who'd been focused intently on mending Edward's still-bleeding side.
Leonardo went on: "That's how they knew where to find us today. That's why we didn't have any warning, and that's why you got hurt, Ed. It's the only explanation that makes any sense." He narrowed his eyes, speaking to Volug now: "I know they keep you subhumans as slaves there." Leonardo held onto the word slave, stretching it out, savoring it; Volug's eyes widened and his growl deepened. "Serving as a spy for your master. So who holds your chains, slave? Who owns you?"
Volug snapped. With a snarl, the dog dove forward; Leonardo jumped back and just missed getting snatched by his jaws. He saw a blur of red at the edge of his vision; he ignored it, stringing his bow as Volug flagged his tail and crouched low, ready to lunge again—
That red blur had been Edward—he'd tackled Volug, and was now clinging tightly to the thick fur of the dog's nape and chest, as if holding him back—though, the way Edward was coughing meant he really didn't have that kind of strength. But Volug remained rooted—still growling lowly, still glaring at Leonardo, but making no further motions toward the archer.
Leonardo scowled. His bow was still strung, and he had an arrow pointed right at Volug's skull. He knew he could make the shot; he wasn't more than four feet from Volug—but with Edward so close, he found himself balking.
Edward was staring straight at Leonardo, his expression plaintive, pleading. "Leo, what you're saying doesn't make any sense—"
"Ed, he's been deceiving you—"
Volug, shaking his head, gave a snort so loud it startled the room into silence. Craning his neck, he exchanged a meaningful glance with Ed. They exchanged some wordless understanding: Ed, with a shallow nod, loosened his arms from Volug. The wolf shook himself, shifted his weight (Leo was still holding the bowstring tight)—and then, he transformed.
Laura gave a tiny shriek, and Edward's jaw fell open in mute surprise, but Leonardo didn't flinch. Within seconds, it wasn't Volug standing before them, but a man—one shirtless, olive-skinned, rugged, strange man, taller than anyone else in the brigade, with his teeth clenched as if snarling, though no sound came out.
"Okay," Leo said, letting out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Now don't shift back or I swear I'll shoot—"
Volug cut Leonardo off. "I am not slave." The syllables were coarse and low, spoken with a curious accent that Leonardo couldn't place. "I am not chained. I will take—I take dying before I serve Begni, Bengi—" Volug stumbled over the name, and snorted with frustration before he continued: "Before I serve beorc of Jarod."
"Don't hurt us!" Laura squeaked: she'd fallen back against a wall and was visibly shaking, holding her staff in front of her like a cudgel. Edward worked his jaw a few times, as if to speak, but no sound came out.
Then: footsteps. Someone else was approaching. He called ahead: "Laura, how's Ed doing—"
Sothe appeared before them. His eyes widened, flickering over the scene—Laura cowering on one side of the room, human-form Volug standing tall, and Leonardo poised and ready to fire. After only a quarter second, he commanded in a strangely thin, high voice, "Leonardo, drop your bow."
"What?" Was Sothe dense? Did he not see what was happening here? "Sothe, it's Volug. He's a subhuman and he's been hiding among us this whole time." Leonardo, still facing Volug, dared a quick glance at Sothe—and the thief's expression looked just as hard and unflinching as when they'd talked by the fireside the night before.
Why do you care so much, Leo?
Leonardo felt suddenly nauseous: "You knew," he whispered, the realization dawning as he spoke. Then, louder, angrier: "You lied."
"Leo, drop the bow." Sothe was poised like a viper, probably two seconds away from tackling him.
Leonardo glowered at the thief, but Sothe's stance remained changeless. "Fine," Leonardo spat at last. He heard, rather than saw, his bow clatter to the ground—he was already halfway out the room by the time it hit the floor.
It was hours before anyone came for Leonardo. When he'd stormed away from Sothe, the sun had only just been lightening the horizon; now, it was a quarter of the way through the sky, blending brightly into the pale blue.
When he had left, Leonardo wasn't even sure what he was doing—it wasn't rational, by any sense of the word, by neither was Sothe letting a subhuman live among them. So he walked as fast as he could toward anywhere, anywhere else. He fought a nauseous feeling in his gut the whole way—the strangest nausea, a nausea that seemed to twist whenever he let himself think of how long Volug had been among them, sharing their food, gleaning their secrets, being treated as a companion... Leonardo paused a few times, gagging, thinking surely he'd be sick. In the end, he never vomited, but that was almost worse. Rather than expunging whatever it was that was writhing in his gut, it simply lingered, gnawing at his innards, making him woozy as he walked and weakening his knees.
Once he'd gone as far as he could in his drowsy, queasy state, he found a tree and sat by it—and that's where he rested all morning, sitting with his knees drawn close to his face, idly eying the steadily-climbing sun, occasionally picking at the grass with his fingers. At length, the nausea faded, but Leonardo, not wanting to take any risks, remained still and strove to simply think of nothing, nothing at all.
When someone came, it was Edward—of course. Leonardo smiled despite himself when he recognized the swordman's silhouette—but then he spotted what was next to Edward, and his stomach twisted all over again. Trotting ten paces behind his friend was that mangy subhuman, his dark fur a stark contrast against the sunlit grass around him.
"Hey," Edward called.
Leonardo didn't answer, his eyes still trained on Volug.
Edward followed Leonardo's gaze, then scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "I can send him away, if you want. I didn't think I'd bring him, but he kept following me. And I sort of thought maybe he had a good reason."
"I was right," Leonardo croaked, his throat dry from exhaustion. "And you're still hanging around him?"
Edward fidgeted uncomfortably, but said nothing.
Leonardo sighed. "Let me talk to him."
Volug strode a few steps ahead of Edward. He pricked his ears, as if to show he was listening, and met Leonardo's eyes with a calm gaze. That gaze of Volug's had always been too keen, too intelligent—looking at him now, how could he not have known all along?
Leonardo's own eyes narrowed into angry slits. "I killed your kind," he said. "You know that? I hunted cats and tigers outside Bargar for two years. Everyone did it. Because beorc and laguz are enemies, and that's just how it is. End of story."
Volug's expression didn't so much as flicker. When Leonardo said nothing further, Volug quirked his head, as if he'd been expecting more. Then, shaking himself briefly, he took one step closer and shifted. The glow, even though Leonardo was familiar with it, still raised the hairs on the back of his spine as he watched. But the moment passed, and there was human-Volug once more, sitting cross-legged, everything changed except those calm eyes. "Sothe does not believe as you say," Volug said, his voice so quiet Leonardo had to strain to hear it. "Micaiah does not believe as you say."
Leonardo snorted impatiently. "They're two people. All of Daein's not going to listen to them."
"You listen to them."
Leonardo opened his mouth to answer—then closed it, faltering, frowning. He didn't have an answer for that.
Volug continued, slowly and deliberately: "You, and you, and them listen to Micaiah. And Micaiah needing help, so I help. Daein needing help. I help. Then maybe Daein listening to Micaiah."
A pause. When Volug said nothing more, Leonardo spat, "That's stupid." He was surprised by the fierceness in his tone, by how loud he was, but the words kept spilling out: "Didn't you hear me just now? I hunt your kind. We're enemies. You should hate me, or fear me, come at me, fight me, because I did all those things, and you should too—because I never even talked to your lot before—" Leonardo's voice was suddenly so high and thin, and he didn't know why, but he couldn't help it, couldn't stop it. "—I never even talked, I just fought and shot, because I thought I knew it was the right thing, and it doesn't, it just..."
He trailed off, sputtering hopelessly. Then, clearing his throat, he asked, softly as he could (afraid his voice would crack if he spoke any louder): "How can I trust you?"
But the real question, what he wanted to ask, was how can you trust me?
It didn't make sense, it didn't, couldn't, wouldn't...
"Because I trust him," Edward said sharply. Leonardo's gaze flitted upward, to his friend, and Edward met that gaze, his expression all earnestness. "I—I don't really know about subhu-er, laguz—I don't really know about all of them. I never met one before Volug, so I can't really say much about the others. But I know Volug's helping us. If you think he isn't then, well, you're wrong." There was a faint blustering in Edward's tone that made Leonardo wonder how much Edward believed what he was saying, how much Edward was trying to convince himself—but maybe that was part of trust, too, that blustering.
Silence fell between the three of them again. Volug, evidently regarding his piece finished, shifted back—and then the dog was standing before him again. As he stared at Leonardo, his tail was arched slightly behind him, like the shape of a question.
Leonardo looked at Edward—the swordman's face pinched, hopeful—then to Volug, calm as ever. He swallowed. Then, tentatively, he reached out one hand for the dog, lightly pressing his fingers against the thick fur behind Volug's right ear. Volug remained absolutely still—not flinching, or growling, or any of his usual reactions to being touched. Sinking his fingers in deeper, Leonardo pulled his hand back through the fur. Volug's eyes followed the arc that Leonardo's fingers traced as they moved.
When Leonardo reached the back of Volug's shoulder, he lifted his hand, moving it behind the dog's ear once more. "How's Laura?" he asked suddenly, still running his hand through Volug's fur.
Edward's expression, suddenly pained, spoke volumes. "She was kinda spooked," he said "but Sothe talked to her. I think she'll be okay. I mean, like... I mean, she's not very happy, but she was more freaked than anything, so I think she'll be okay. He told her not to tell anyone else about Volug, though, because..."
"Because they might act like me," Leonardo finished flatly. "Right. I get it."
"It's fine," he muttered, shaking his head. A pause. Then he added, "We should get back, I guess," as he stroked his hand slowly over Volug's head and down the back of the dog's neck. He pulled his hand away, rising to his feet at last. "I'm sure Sothe'll have some choice words waiting for me."
Edward gave a small laugh, shrugging. "Probably. He'll get 'em out of his system quick, though."
Leonardo smiled, but it faded too fast. He found himself staring down at Volug again. "You're sure," the archer said. It was a question, though it wasn't stated like one.
Edward turned to look at Leonardo over his shoulder. Leonardo met his gaze—and something about the way the sun caught the red hidden in Edward's hair, the way that the light set a gleam in his eye, made the swordsman seem sharper, more vivid. "Are you?"
Leonardo wasn't sure—that was the honest truth. About Volug, about himself. But while he was standing here, the sun was climbing the eastern half in the sky, and Edward was looking at him with gleaming eyes and a sneaking half-grin—and Volug, too. Volug was closing and eyes and tilting his head back contentedly as a stray breeze played through his fur. Somehow, even Volug was a comfortable sight. Leonardo tried not to think too much, just letting those sights, this breeze, the sun, pour over him: because when he focused only on those, he was able to believe that maybe things change, and they change for the better. Like him—maybe, if he wanted.
"Let's go," he said. Volug snorted loudly, as if to say, finally, and bounded ahead of the pair. Leonardo let him lead the way back