Allison took what she knew to be her last few ragged breaths, every muscle in her ten-year-old body bracing for the horrors to come. She pulled her cloak about her, staring disbelievingly at her ruined ankle. Bone protruded through flesh and blood seeped from the wound—surely stirring the beasts that lumbered toward her through the midst of the deep ravine where she lay helpless.
The bear was a mass of black fur that snuffled at the ground as its massive head moved from side to side—its short-sightedness merely delaying the inevitable—a mountainous beast whose every footfall vibrated through Allison’s spine.
Tears welled in the young girl’s eyes as the bear halted, suddenly realizing that a meal was imminent. The hulking creature was on her in an instant and her screams echoed through the forest, stirring birds from their perching places.
Allison ran through the ancient trees, trying not to slip on moss-covered stones, and slick fallen branches. Someone else ran too. A tall, lithe figure—hooded and cloaked—and sure-footed enough not to fear the terrain. The pair wound through the deep places of the wood, slowing briefly on inclines, and making up for it with bursts of renewed vigor over flat ground. The pursuer and the pursued covered miles and miles before the final obstacle loomed and the chase reached its impasse.
The tall hooded man—known to some as The Wolfhound—collided with Allison with all the force of blind purpose. He catapulted her into the ravine with a boot to the chest and she rolled like a shot faun, into the jaws of the wild.
The Wolfhound clutched the scroll tightly as he left the castle’s barbican; losing it meant consequences he wasn’t eager to face. It was the most sacred of contracts—quite literally signed in blood: his own. The document radiated power. Its ill-gotten discovery could destabilize an Empire, make a poor man rich, and make a very powerful one dead, all at one time. Witnesses to its acquisition could not be countenanced: The Sacred Order of the Divine Ascension had made that perfectly clear on retention of The Wolfhound’s services. ‘The world will be purified only by the spilling of blood,’ the High Stag had said before applying the seal to his Holy Sanction.
The Wolfhound placed the scroll in the leather scroll-hold at his belt. That’s when his eyes found Allison’s. She sprang forward like a startled jackrabbit, calling something out—something The Wolfhound did not wait to hear—and together they made for the trees.
The High Stag’s elkhorn head-dress scraped the stone doorframe as he stepped through it, flanked by armed guards and full of his own grandiosity. The hem of his crimson robes trailed behind him and even his graying beard was long enough to be tucked into his belt. Every part of him seemed overdone and composed purely for dramatic effect, yet his coin spent as well as anyone else's.
“You will do this thing, then?” said the Stag, his words lingering on their way out of his mouth as though he enjoyed their taste.
“It’s my profession. I’ll do my job, yes,” The Wolfhound answered.
“Then there’s a place in the New Order for you. So long as you can perform tasks of this sort. Just don’t fuck this one up.”
“I’ll say it again: it’s my area of expertise.”
“You’ve entered a different world... Wolfhound, was it?” The Wolfhound grunted in response. “They will send agents to stop you completing your task.”
“And I will neutralize them.”
“Not just human ones. Things that have unnatural abilities. I’ve heard there are some that can even change their shape.”
“So, I’ll be pursued by what? A mythical Griffin? Dragon? A troll perhaps?”
“Worse than that—may be something you would never suspect. Something that most would deem harmless.”
“Okay. I’ll keep an eye out for beggars and children,” The Wolfhound scoffed. “You have the specifics?”
“Written here,” the Stag presented a reem of parchment populated with outlandishly ornate script. There was a name at its heart, written in red ink and space for The Wolfhound’s mark at the bottom. His hand shook as he signed it.
Cateline kissed Aldred’s mouth before pinching his cheek then smacking it. She looked over his shoulder at the large, oppressive-looking castle in the distance and bristled.
“Glad it’s just you and not me. I’ve heard of the things they do to people in there. I’d be afraid of not coming out, Aldred.”
Aldred brushed a stray wisp of red hair from Cateline’s forehead. “Call me The Wolfhound.”
“The Wolfhound?” Cateline pushed out a hip and placed her hand on it.
“It’s my working title. What? You no like?”
“I like just fine. Just don’t get too carried away with this, Wolfy. We’re simply trying to make enough coin to buy a castle of our own.” Cateline patted her belly, “And to fill it with little wolfhounds too, maybe?”
Aldred kissed his wife again and grinned before turning to head off down the pathway to meet with The Sacred Order of the Divine Ascension. He looked back for a moment. “Many! We will have many little wolfhounds!”
Cateline whispered hoarsely to the man crouched in her barn, and he whispered back. The things he said were both disturbing and exciting: both she and Aldred would be rich in coin paid twice over. Once in the form of an advance from the Sacred Order, and again when they sold the intel on to the proposed target of the assassination.
“Take heed—there are ears everywhere. You’ll need a safeguard,” said the man.
“Meaning what, precisely?” enquired Cateline.
“Should the wrong people get wind of what your husband’s agreeing to, they may seek to snuff him out prematurely.”
“Should such a thing come to pass, tell me, and I’ll get word to Aldred.”
“I’m sorry to say that you would be their first target.”
“Oh, God. But Aldred!”
“Yes. Heaven forbid, should the worst happen, might I offer the service of my daughter.” The man whistled and a ten-year-old girl materialized from the shadows in the corner of the barn. “She can go unseen when need be and she’s fleet of foot. She’ll get word to Aldred.”
“Yes,” said Cateline. “Let’s keep this between us. No need to worry my husband; not when he needs his wits about him most of all.” She reached out to the child with a single outstretched hand. “What’s your name, my love?”
“Allison,” said the girl.
“Very nice to make your acquaintance, Allison. When this is all over with, I’m going to buy you the biggest stuffed bear I can find. Do you like bears?”
Allison smiled broadly before nodding.