“That’s the fifth one this month,” his mother says, her bloodied palms staining her long-sullied apron a clotted crimson that bleeds into the filthy fabric. Cloud stands beside her, fingers curled into tight fists as he stares down at the mess laid raw upon the ground; the savaged body of their old nanny goat, Edda, bleeds out into the snow, her face frozen in permanent glassy-eyed terror, throat torn and entrails spilling from her slit belly. It’s the work of winter’s cruelty wrought upon some poor beast, starved so by the unforgiving chill that blankets the north and shelters the prey of the forest that it has slunk from its den to cull from the herds of humans. Luck has not been with it – nor is it with them, three of his mother’s precious flock and one of their herding dogs already lost to the beast’s appetite; the goat is but another added to a quickly-lengthening list.
His mother grimaces at Edda’s corpse for a moment, inhales, then bends down to heft it from the snow. “Damned wolves’ve never killed this much during winter,” she growls, the native Nibel burr to her voice more apparent in her frustration. “Not like this. It’ll cost a pretty penny to replenish the herd come spring if they keep coming ‘round.”
She spits on the ground, as if to curse it. “What we need is that wolf good ‘n dead, but everyone in this town’s too chickenshit to kill ‘im. Scared of the big beast in the woods, they are.”
Cloud stares down at Edda’s bloody body, feels the weight of his sheathed sword hung at his belt, and thinks, but I’m not everyone in this town.
- - -
Cloud has long since grown used to the unforgiving chill of the north. Around him, the world is still – an odd serenity, like a breath momentarily held as he walks carefully through the forest. Fresh snow blankets the ground in white, pure and untrodden, crunching gently beneath his deerskin boots.
For hours, he creeps through the trees, tracking the beast into the belly of the forest. His sharp gaze, honed by a childhood spent under the firm tutelage of his hunt-skilled mother, is keened to the signs left behind: tufts of silver fur caught upon the brambles of bushes, wide-splayed pawprints pressed deep into the crisp snow, sticks broken on the forest floor, snapped by a hunter's heavy bound.
Day segues into dusk as clouds begin to gather above the sprawling branches, the evening sky that yawns above him crowding with the roiling gray heraldry of a night storm. Cloud is half-minded to abandon the entire endeavor and return home, ashamed and empty-handed, when the bleat of a wounded stag peals through the close-crowded trees like a death knell. White-knuckling the hilt of his sword, Cloud follows the sound through the snowbanks, creeps lightly over the frozen surface of the river that slices through the valley, a hunter in his own right tracking the final keens of his quarry – muffled, the closer he slinks, by the storm’s rising wind, the icy howling of the breeze whipping his hair and stinging his cheeks until they’re raw and red.
The thick tree trunks around him fissure open into a dark clearing, and Cloud stumbles through the gathering storm-snow upon a scene that seems as though time itself has preserved it; a hulking beast – something akin to a Nibel wolf, if not for its unusual coloring – looms over the body of a deer caught in its death throes, teeth glinting in its unforgiving maw as it closes its jaws around the throat of its quarry with a crunch that resounds throughout the glade, cutting off the poor animal's final pleas for mercy.
Then, the beast’s gaze is on him. Green eyes, slitted like a cat’s pupils, contrast with the silver fur that covers the wolf’s lean body; perhaps, had the season been kinder, it would have been a sated beast of beauty, but the thing that stands before Cloud is too thin, too feral, bearing a resemblance to the starved street dogs that skulk around the houses on the fringe of the village and bark at the children playing murder in the streets. But its eyes, its eyes – there is a strange sort of intelligence that glints within them, as if it seeks not to savage Cloud as it had the stag at its feet, but to know him. The beast watches not with wariness, but curiosity, tongue slowly licking the gore that drips from its blood-flecked muzzle, swiping over rows of fangs as sharp as the icicles that hang from the eaves of Cloud’s home after a winter storm.
Though the recognition within the wolf’s gaze unsettles Cloud, he is a Nibel child, born and bred upon the mountainside. Too well does he know the wilds to fear them; too well does he know that he must not show his unease, lest the wolf prey upon his weakness.
He brandishes his blade, fingers curled tight around the shagreen grip of its pommel, and levies it at the beast. Still, the wolf does not lunge, does not make to snap at Cloud’s throat, as wolves are wont to do; it simply stares at him, offers nothing more than a slow, unimpressed blink, eyes flitting from the worn iron being pointed at it up to Cloud’s impassive façade.
They remain at a standstill – Cloud with his sword in hand, the wolf standing mere feet from him, head cocked to one side – neither willing to make the first move. After several silent moments, nothing but the howling winds and gusting snow echoing around them, Cloud curses beneath his breath and sheathes his sword, hands clenched at his sides just as they had been when he had stood by his mother and taken in the sight of the beast’s last culling from his family’s livelihood. For all that this thing has taken from them, from him, Cloud finds that he can’t bring himself to take a chance on its life; the monster he had imagined and the curious, intelligent creature he stands face-to-face with are leagues apart. He isn’t sure he has it in him to extinguish the flame of a Gaia-wrought being of such nobility.
Cloud gives it one last, resigned look, and shouts over the whipping wind, “Leave our flocks alone. You hear me?”
The wolf’s ears perk up at the sound of his voice; it seems to consider Cloud’s words and then, after a few seconds, dips its head in the way hounds do, a gesture of deference. A shudder crawls down Cloud’s spine at that, unnerved by the creature’s sense of acumen.
He then turns heel, intending to ford his way through the storm and return home before sunrise.
Much to his dismay, Cloud realizes that his choice to singlemindedly pursue his quarry despite the storm’s onset was an incredibly foolish decision.
The plummeting temperatures, the white-out snow that whorls around him and brings pinprick tears to his eyes and chaps his lips - nature prevails over man, this far from civilization, where Cloud is a mere uninvited guest within the wilds. Disoriented, Cloud veers off what he assumes is the path he took when venturing into the depths of these woods, finds a sprawling pine and digs a deep cave beneath the bank of snow that has gathered around its roots. His gloves are soaked through by the time the entire endeavor is over, and he can feel frostnip setting into the tips of his numbed fingers; shivering, chilled, and out of other options, Cloud crawls into the down-sloped cave he’s dug and curls into himself, conserving what precious little body heat he has while he stares out the mouth of his temporary home at the night sky and wills the storm to pass.
Slowly, he drifts into a fitful slumber, his last conscious thoughts of the green-eyed wolf that drew him to this place and cursed him with such a fate.
- - -
Soft fur tickles his nose, and Cloud blinks the sleep from his eyes to find that he’s curled up on a pile of lush pelts, clad only in his undershirt and pants and covered by an excessively large bearskin. His boots, coat, cloak, and the rest of his personal belongings are spread neatly before the fireplace that Cloud has been lain beside; the large, stone-lined hearth houses a roaring flame that cracks and spits sparks and warms the room like simmering fire in a dragon’s belly. The warmth of the room is a welcome respite after trudging through the frigid weather outside for hours on end, and Cloud basks in the pleasant heat for a few moments’ time, stretching out like a contented cat.
Then, the disorientation of awakening and the brief enjoyment he feels fade, bringing Cloud back to the reality of his situation. His eyes dart around the room, absorbing his surroundings and attempting to discern where in the hell he currently is. It’s fancy, that’s for sure, he thinks – plush armchairs made of fine, patterned fabric and filigreed wood have been pushed aside from what he assumes is their normal resting place before the fire to make room for his temporary bed; a detailed painting of the Nibel mountains in mid-spring, their peaks capped by sprawling greenery and blossoming fields of flowers, is set into a gilded frame and spans the length of one wall; every other wall is covered by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves wrought of dark wood, each shelf lined with books of all sizes and colors, most of their spines worn in the way that well-read books often are. It’s a library of sorts, he realizes.
Cloud tugs on his boots and the rest of his clothing, slings his rucksack over one shoulder and buckles his sword sheathe around his waist, eyes and ears keened to the doorway all the while, guarded. He’s heard the stories. The rumors. Listened to the folk songs sung by the old washer-women in the village while they work; mere wives’ tales, Cloud thought, until he’d been spirited away to this… place.
Be careful in the woods, child, lest the Erlking prey upon you as he does the souls that stray from the path and lose their way.
Be careful in the woods, child, lest the beast that lives within hunt you down and tear your throat from your body.
Be careful in the woods, child, lest the monster steal you away to his manor and ravage you, flesh and spirit.
As grateful he is to whoever brought him here and kept him from succumbing to the blizzard outside, Cloud isn’t in the business of lingering in strange manors that likely belong to even stranger people with ulterior motives. He creeps silently through the winding hallways, gawking at the ornate décor as he does so, and eventually finds himself at the front door of the house, staring through the slatted window at the snow-blanketed forest beyond, covered entirely in white by the fury of the blizzard still raging on. It’s a miserable sight to behold, but even more miserable is the thought of having to ford through it once more if he wants to leave this place behind.
“I would not advise venturing out into that, good hunter,” a voice from behind Cloud murmurs, deep and smooth like rich liqueur. “I suffered such trouble to rescue you from it, after all.”
Cloud’s hand darts to the hilt of his sheathed sword, fingers wrapping habitually around the hilt and pulling the blade a centimeter, startled, as he whips around to face the speaker. He’s met with two black-gloved palms held up in a gesture of deference, a look of curious passivity gracing the countenance of the man Cloud turns to face; whatever expectations he’d had of the estate’s owner, Cloud certainly had not expected.. this, he thinks.
The gaze that meets Cloud’s is the same as the wolf’s - piercing, slitted green, half-hidden beneath silver bangs that frame the man’s face, unbound from the long ponytail that’s draped over his shoulder and tied neatly with a black bow. The ruff of fur that lines the collar of his rich cloak is uncannily wolf-like in quality, as well. A coincidence, perhaps, but too unique of one for it to be such. He certainly looks the part of Eccentric Manor Lord-slash-Possible Fey King, Cloud thinks with a tinge of amusement; he supposes that if he’s going to have his heart consumed by a mysterious, storied creature that dwells deep within the Nibel woods, at least it’s an attractive one.
“I don’t intend to hurt you,” the man says, eyes flitting from Cloud’s face to his hand that’s still gripping the hilt of his sword.
Cloud snorts. “And I’m supposed to believe you?”
“Why would I rescue you from death, only to condemn you to it once more?”
“To savor the kill?” Cloud replies, brows furrowed. “I don’t know. Beasts’ minds work differently.”
The man’s lips quirk upwards, a slight smile dancing upon them. “Lucky for you, I am no beast, here. You have my word, no harm will befall you while you walk these grounds.”
No beast here? What the hell does that even mean? Cloud thinks, the furrow between his brows deepening. “And what’s your word worth?”
“Whatever you consider the word of the man who saved you to be.”
Shoulders slackening, Cloud lets a portion of his guard down, still keeping a wary eye on his captor-slash-savior’s movements. The man cocks his head to the side in the way dogs do, considering Cloud with a gentle and inquisitive gaze. “Why did you save me? I had every intention of killing you, you know.”
“But you didn’t,” the man replies, canting his head toward Cloud with grace. “And that gesture means more to me than your initial intentions. You spared my life, and I saved yours; the exchange is equivalent.”
“The man within these woods that I’ve heard tales of hardly seems the type to save a hunter from Gaia’s storms.”
“Perhaps.” The man’s lips purse in a thin line, folding his arms over his chest in a mimicry of Cloud’s own posture. “But that same man has never known the mercy of a hunter. Only their wrath. You possess a benevolence that others before have not, and I sought to return that grace, as any good man would.”
“A good man?” Cloud echoes, unable to help the tinge of disbelief to his voice. “Does a good man take what isn’t his?”
The man winces a bit, at that, just a twinge at the edge of his eyes that Cloud notices as he stares him down. “I.. apologize for that,” he murmurs, bangs further obscuring his gaze when he dips his head forward in apology. “I’m sure you understand what winter is like at its worst upon these mountains. Prey has been scarce. My options were limited, and your flocks happened to be the most accessible. If you are amenable, I can offer repayment in the form of gold; I have plenty to spare.”
“If you have gold to spare, why not just buy food?” Cloud huffs, the audacity of it all irritating him.
“I..” the man trails off, his eyes trailing past Cloud to stare beyond him, out the frost-paned window. He draws in a quiet breath, holds it for a few moments, then exhales heavily, a resigned look coloring his features. A single black-gloved hand beckons Cloud, palm facing up and gesturing down one of the winding hallways Cloud had not passed through on his venture to the front. “Come. I owe you an explanation, but I’m afraid it’s one that I’d rather not have while standing in the foyer.”
“Wait,” Cloud replies, brows drawn. “Will you let me leave? Once the storm is over?”
The man returns his drawn-browed look, perplexed. “Of course. Why would I not?”
“Okay, okay. Just, um. Making sure.” Cloud rubs the back of his neck with a sheepish hand, a bit embarrassed at his insinuation, but he figures it’s better to ensure his safe return than be sorry for not asking, later. “What should I call you, anyway?”
“My mother had interesting tastes. It’s a pleasure to meet you..” Sephiroth trails off, a questioning lilt to the end of his words, expecting Cloud to give his name, in turn.
“Cloud. Strife. Cloud Strife.”
“Interesting name,” Sephiroth quips back, offering Cloud a blithe smile.
“Ditto, with the mom thing.”
“I suppose we’re two of a pair, there.”
“Guess we are.”
- - -
Cloud is led to a room that does appear to have been lived in to some degree, though it still appears as well-kept as the others he’d seen. A teakettle simmers over guttering coals in the hearth, and chairs and a chaise lounge are positioned around a long lacquered wooden table that’s already set with mugs and plates piled with incredibly conspicuous servings of meat that Cloud is certain he knows the origin of, braised and basted with spices and well-roasted winter roots, as though Sephiroth had been expecting Cloud to dine with him.
It’s.. a bit endearing, Cloud catches himself thinking, before shaking the thought from his head and reminding himself that he’s dining with a wolf; he’s just as liable to be the meal, should he make a misstep or anger his host.
“Please, sit. Enjoy yourself,” Sephiroth says, gesturing to the food on the table and taking one of the armchairs once Cloud has seated himself. “My apologies for the limited selection of food. I have rather… finite resources.”
“Doesn’t seem that way to me,” Cloud comments, raising a brow and casting a glance around the room at the finery adorning nearly every shelf and wall.
“While I am comfortable in the way of finances, money means little to humans when handed to them by a beast.”
“What? You can’t go to the village and buy things like a normal person, or something?”
“Or something,” Sephiroth echoes, his voice a restrained murmur; his shoulders stiffen and he looks away, gaze becoming distant as he stares into the smoldering hearthflame. Cloud gets the sense that whatever Sephiroth wants to discuss, it’s a sore subject for the man. Sephiroth rises from his chair and busies himself with removing the teakettle from where it has been warming over the fire and filling both of their mugs with a dark, spice-scented brew.
A moment of silence falls over them; then, “I wish t--” “You know-”
There’s another pause as each stares at the other across the table, mouths agape, mid-sentence.
“You go first,” Cloud offers.
Sephiroth shakes his head, extends a deferent hand in Cloud’s direction. “No, you. I insist.”
“You don’t..” Cloud mumbles, trailing off and drumming his fingers against the warm clay of the mug cupped in his hands. “You’re not what I..”
“..Expected?” Sephiroth finishes for him, as though he knew what Cloud was going to say before he spoke the words. A soft smile graces the man’s lips. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t be. What you saw in the forest, that was..” It’s Sephiroth’s turn to trail off, now, lips pursed as he tries to find words that won’t come to him. “A different side of me.”
“Definitely some kind of different.” Cloud sips from his mug, the tea warm and pleasantly flavorful. “There are stories, y’know. About the beast in the woods. The sorts of things parents tell their kids to scare them away from the forest. I’d never quite believed them, until I saw what I did last night.”
“And you believe that drivel now?” Sephiroth replies, gaze piercing Cloud’s as he stares the younger man down.
“That there’s some sort of beast who lives alone in a manor? Yeah. That he eats souls and tears maidens’ throats from their bodies? Not so sure.”
Sephiroth snorts. “I’ve never quite understood where the soul-eating bit came from. The rest, well.. I suppose some of it is understandable.”
“Understandable how?” Cloud replies curiously.
“Would you, too, not tell such stories if you came across a beast like myself in the forest and lived to speak of it? Folktales are born of inexplicable realities; they are merely embellished by those that create them.”
“Not now that I’ve met you, no.” Cloud shakes his head. “If I hadn’t, then.. maybe, I guess.”
Sipping from his own mug, Sephiroth’s tongue darts out to swipe a stray droplet of tea from the corner of his mouth; Cloud sees, behind his bow-curved lips, the slightest hint of a predator’s sharp canines. Not quite beast, in entirety, but not human, either. “Mm. So, you see why these tales are told.”
“So you are some sort of fey monster, then? You don’t look like one, now.”
“In part, I suppose.” There’s a pregnant pause as Sephiroth sets his mug down on the table, gives Cloud a long look of consideration, then drops his gaze, head keened forward like a reluctant hound. “A monster to some, but not to myself. I am merely.. cursed. Tethered to this place.”
“Beyond the bounds of this estate, my form is as you saw in the forest. I have passed many winters here, in this prison of solitude, unable to speak to others as humans do; you are the first guest I have entertained in nearly a decade.”
Cloud’s brow furrows, at that. He supposes the story aligns with what he’s heard of the beast in the woods, the hunter who dwells alone in his forest-bound home. He can’t imagine what it must be like, living such a pitiful life.
Unable to muster the right words to say to Sephiroth, he settles on a simple, “I’m sorry.”
“I’ve learned to stop pitying myself. I am cursed, it is true; but it would seem the rest of humanity is, as well, in its own way,” Sephiroth replies, a soft, sad smile upon his lips.
“What cursed you? A witch?”
“Of some sort. It is a story for another time, though.” One of Sephiroth’s hands raises, gesturing towards the window. Beyond it, Cloud can see that the blizzard has calmed into a gentle snowfall, the winds no longer wailing through the woods. “If you ever return to this place, that is. I told you I would not keep you after the storm had ended, and I am a man of my word; you are free to leave, as you will.”
It’s an abrupt end to an even more abruptly-begun conversation that has left Cloud with more questions than answers. As much as he longs to stay and press Sephiroth, to learn more about the man, he knows that his mother and the other villagers are undoubtedly worrying over his disappearance, and that he should return to them, now that he is able to. He gives Sephiroth a curt nod, drains the rest of his cup and wraps some of the meat in his satchel to take with him.
“I’ll.. try to come back. If I can.”
Sephiroth smiles, at that. “I look forward to it.”
- - -