Mal’s wood shop was only a few blocks down the hill from Willow’s cafe, so it didn’t take them long to make it back to bear-infested streets. Willow grew plants as they ran, twining grass and weeds up around the feet of any of the creatures that wandered too close. It was only a temporary deterrent, but bought them enough time to run by. The bears had indeed grown bigger in size – Ash stopped in shock when they nearly ran headlong into one that was bigger than a car.
“Come on,” Willow hurried them along. “There’s Chuck and the others up ahead-”
Chuck and the rest of the Black Moon Society were, indeed, up ahead. The Society members had apparently taken the time to throw their cloaks on over their night clothes (stockings and sandals poking out from beneath the cloak’s hem) and seemed quite pleased by the developing excitement.
“Ho, there, children!” Kevin called, waving a hand. Oliver and Ronald had one of the bears surrounded, holding it down with lashes of vines. “Exciting, isn’t it? Predicted this in the wee hours of the morning, though the other Members were too receptive of my 4 AM phone calls-”
“If you foresaw it, why didn’t you stop it?” Willow said, pausing to mutter something and make a pushing motion; at the gesture, the ground rumbled and then gave, turning to sand beneath the paws of one of the beasts. The kids stayed close, exclaiming excitedly every time they witnessed another magical act. Even Jack seemed to be impressed.
“Well, now, where would be the fun in that?” Kevin laughed. “Whoops!” The vines Oliver and Ronald had been holding snapped, and the beast they’d been trying to hold down started to lumber forward once again. The old men’s hands glowed green as they began to summon more plants, but their magic was not working fast enough to stop them all.
“Alright, girls, time to think of something,” Willow said, continuing her gestures and magic to keep the bear that had fallen into her sand trap from regaining its foot. The sand passed over the creature in a wave, then solidified into stone once more. “Go take a look at that one – see what you can do. I’m going to work on containing the animals – don’t want any to wander off.” With that, the barista sprinted away, stopping first to help the Black Moon mages with the bear they were struggling to keep tied down.
“We should get Nan,” Jack said, nonetheless following Amber and Ash towards the stuck bear. “She would know how to fix this.”
“Well go get her, then,” Amber said, hesitating as they approached the beast. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do, and she wasn’t keen on getting within reach of the bear’s claws.
“Her house is fifteen minutes away,” Jack said, still hesitating.
“Well then don’t get her,” Amber exclaimed, exasperating. “Any ideas, Ash?”
“Um,” Ash said, apparently just as unsure as her sister. “Maybe… maybe I could try to control them? Like a plant?”
“Might as well try,” Amber said, nudging around the backside of the animal. It growled as she did so, struggling to get up. The rock casing around it began to crack.
“Hurry!” Amber said. Summoning her own courage, she placed a hand on the bear’s side, trying to feel for the magic.
The wood seemed to buzz with magic, and Amber thought she could feel the rivulets of energy flowing beneath her fingers. Scrunching her face up, she concentrated, trying to understand – or undo – the magic she and her sister had put there.
Emboldened by her sister, Ash also stepped forward to place her hands next to Amber’s. The girls stood like that for a moment, focusing all their energy and attention on the magic. But only for a moment.
In another heave the cracks along the rock spread, and then came apart all together, cascading from the bear’s wooden fur in a landslide of pebbles. The girls cried out, stumbling backwards as the animal rounded on them.
Fire burst across the animal’s muzzle.
“Hey!” Jack shouted, summoning another fireball. “Over here!” He threw another shot, the fire splashing over the bear’s side. Amber and Ash backed away as the animal turned towards Jack.
“Run!” the boy cried, backing up himself. The bear took a step towards him, covering half the distance, and with a final fireball to the animal’s face Jack took his own advice and ran in the opposite direction. Not waiting for the bear to lose interest, the girls also took the opportunity to flee, weaving between the animals, the mages, and the makeshift traps Willow and the others were setting in an attempt to hold the creatures.
“Could you feel anything?” Ash panted as they ran. “In the bear?”
“Something,” Amber said, “But I don’t know what to do with that. How to undo it.”
“Maybe we gotta, like… pull out the magic,” Ash said. “And it’ll stop.”
“Maybe,” Amber said. But she didn’t think it would be that easy, and even if that worked she didn’t suspect the bears would let them get close enough to try.
They were crossing the bridge near the entrance of the town when one of the bears lumbered out of the nearby brush, blocking the end of the bridge and stopping the girls in their tracks. The animal wasn’t as large as some of the others – only coming up to Amber’s waist – but its claws and jaws were still big enough to frighten the girls. Amber slowly backed up, tugging Ash along with her, as the bear followed their movements.
“Just move slowly,” Amber said in a low voice. “Then once we’re back near a building we’ll run around the corner and try to lose it. Okay?”
Before Ash could respond, Dusk let out a frantic caw of warning, and flapped his wings at Amber’s head before taking to the air to circle back behind them. The girls stop, looking back. Another wooden bear had emerged to block the other end of the bridge. Both animals stood, sniffing and waiting.
“Maybe, maybe they’re actually friendly,” Ash said, though the shake in her voice betrayed her optimism. “Do you think they know we made them?”
Amber, however, was looking for a way out. They were near one side of the bridge, and she thought they could both jump over before either of the bears got to them. It was only about a ten foot drop to the water – but the water was also shallow, and she doubted it would break their fall. There was the potential for Ash to get seriously hurt, and Amber wasn’t going to allow that. Her mind racing, she tried to think back to the spell book. There had to be something – anything – that could help them.
A howl echoed across the bridge, blown in with the chill morning wind. Amber and Ash both shivered as they heard it, memories of the wolf in the glade jumping vividly back to their minds. It remained but a memory for only a few seconds more, however, for in the next moment the beast came bolting out of the clearing, running full tilt. The bear on the far side of the bridge had enough time to lift its snout in the wolf’s direction before the creature barreled into it, sending them both careening into the stream.
The girls froze as sounds of snarling, howling, and roaring came from beneath the bridge. The struggle was accompanied by slash and the sound of claws against wood and stone – but apart from these feral sounds the girls could make out nothing of what was transpiring. Then the sounds began to taper off, and it eventually grew quiet. Amber glanced towards the side of the bridge they were close to; bits of timber were beginning to float down the current.
The wolf emerged on the same bank it had fallen in, shaking water and sticks from its fur. As close to the girls as it was, they were only now able to grasp the fill size of the beast. It was like no wolf they had ever seen in pictures and videos; this one was the size of a grown man, easily as tall – or taller – than any of the wooden bears the girls had seen. It was no surprise the wolf had been able to tear its prey to kindling.
The beast turned its head towards the girls. Amber and Ash shrank back, though there was nowhere to run. The wolf’s lips pealed back to reveal frighteningly white fangs, and a low growled rolled out like approaching thunder. Then it sprang, and Amber threw herself at her sister, knocking them both to the ground.
A wind whipped over them, and fur brushed Amber’s skin. The pain of the wolf’s teeth, however, never came, and it wasn’t until they heard the snarls of the other bear that the girls realized they’d not been the wolf’s target after all. Amber rolled off of her sister, unable to spare a moment to check that she was alright. A fight was ensuing only feet away, and Amber was first more concerned with pulling them both a reasonable distance away.
The bear, meanwhile, was being eviscerated. The wolf was carving large swaths of wood from the animal’s belly with every swipe of its claws. Though the bear was trying to fight back, the wolf was three times its size, and was able to jerk its head away from any of the bear’s attacks with apparent easy.
With a final crack, one of the bear’s front limbs snapped off. The wolf took this opportunity to close its jaw around the wooden figure’s head and bite down. The action was accompanied with an explosion of splinters, causing the girls to shield their faces from the onslaught. When they looked again the wolf’s victim had stopped moving, and the wolf’s attention had returned to the girls.
Amber stood, placing herself between the wolf and her sister. Her hands and knees were burning from where she thrown herself to the ground – even so, the pain seemed dull with all her attention focused elsewhere. Ash climbed to her feet as well, clinging to her sister’s arm as she peaked out at the wolf.
“I… I think it saved us,” Amber said. Ash nodded.
“It didn’t attack us in the forest either,” she said. “Maybe it’s like a guardian?”
“I don’t know,” Amber admitted. The wolf was still staring at them intently.
“Um,” Amber started, summoning all her courage to take a step forward. “Thank you-”
But before she could complete her thought, the great wolf was growling once more, and Amber pulled up short. The wolf snarled, starting in the girls’ direction. Amber stumbled backwards, keeping Ash behind her.
“Ash, I want you to run for other others,” Amber said. “If it attacks-”
A black shadow dove down from the trees, and the wolf let out a yip of pain. Dusk cawed, flapping and scratching at the wolf’s face. The animal snapped at the bird, causing Dusk to quickly retreat out of the wolf’s range. The wolf looked back once more towards the girls, one eye half shut, then it turned away and dashed into the woods. Its sprinting pace – and the snapping of twigs and branches in its wake – soon passed from hearing.
Amber sighed, sagging back down to her knees as all her strength left her.
“You okay?” Ash said, still quaking herself.
“Just exhausted,” Amber said. Dusk spiraled down to land on Amber’s knee. “You are a wonderful, beautiful bird,” she told the crow, stroking his feathers.
“Thank you for scaring away the wolf,” Ash added, and Dusk chirped happily from all the praise.
“If it even was a wolf,” Amber said. “I’ve never seen anything that big before.”
“Maybe it’s a magic wolf,” Ash said.
“I think that’s likely,” Amber agreed. Then she sighed. “Come on, we need to go help the others.” Ash helped Amber to her feet, her older sister pausing to dust Ash off and check her scratches as she did so.
“But we still don’t know what to do!” Ash said, brushing her sister’s hand away.
“Actually,” Amber paused, catching sight of something nearby on the ground. She bent down to pick up the adder stone, which had fallen out of her pocket in all the excitement. “I think I have an idea. Come on.”