The wolf let out a low growl, and Jack grimaced, shifting his head away from animal just a fraction of an inch.
“Are you okay?” Amber asked, watching the wolf. Heading Jack’s plea, she stayed exactly where she was, not willing to risk anything that might make the wolf attack her – or bite down on Jack.
“I don’t know,” Jack said. His voice was level, almost calm, but a slight tremble gave away the fear he was really feeling. “I dropped the dowsing stone, Amber. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, that’s not important,” Amber said. Her mind was racing, trying to think of anything that might get them out of the situation that they were now in. How was a kid supposed to beat a wolf? And a giant wolf at that. “I’ll think of something,” Amber said. “Just stay still. I’ll think of something.”
Mentally, Amber reached out. She did so timidly, as gently as she could manage, hoping the wolf wouldn’t feel her influence as she touched him. His energies weren’t anything like Ash or Jack’s – this energy was wild and strong, and Amber felt like a leaf trying to wrestle a wind under control. Even so, for a moment she was able to twine her magic into his, and she managed to slow the storm somewhat as she pulled gentle at the weavings. The wolf still watched Amber, but the growling had stopped, and the tension had gone out of its limbs. Next she willed the wolf to let go of Jack, but just as the beast was about to comply there came as hissing sound, and the steal went back into the creature’s eyes. The wolf growled, tightening its grip on Jack, who whimpered in pain. A black cat stepped out from behind the wolf, continuing to hiss at Amber. Amber wasn’t sure why the cat had been able to break her hold on the wolf, but she turned her focus on the cat next, intending to sooth it as well. The moment she reached out for its aura, however, she was met with a stab of pain, which jabbed at her from all directions – from inside and out – in a way she couldn’t explain. Amber cried out and mentally recoiled, trying to shake off the freezing sensation that was digging into her soul. But then Dusk was there, letting out a caw as he dove for the cat, impacting the creature in a flurry of feathers and fur. When the two animals met the cold sensation fell away from Amber, and she began to edge away from the bird and cat as they fought, the blackness of the animals’ coats mixing indistinguishably.
The fight left Amber with faint phantom pains, each scratch and bite inflicted in Dusk scraping over Amber’s skin as well. Amber bit her cheek, trying to focus on that sensation instead of the one she was feeling through Dusk. Her familiar had succeeded in distracting the cat, so once again she tried to focus her magic on the wolf.
“Hold on, Jack,” she told him, reaching a hand out to help her concentrate. This time she threw herself back at the wolf’s aura in full force, taking hold of his will with everything she had. The magic was powerful and wild, but beneath the surface Amber could detect a strange calm, and when she willed the wild magic to settle, the calm subsurface almost seemed to join her efforts, working with her to grapple the wolf under control.
“Let go,” she said.
Slowly, the wolf opened its mouth, and Jack slumped to the ground. His relief was only temporary, however, as the will within the wolf suddenly reawakened, fighting Amber’s magic once more. The cat had slipped away from Dusk at that moment, batting at the bird one final time before it turned tail and darted off into the darkness. Amber lost her grip once more, and the beast took a step forward, growling as Jack crawled frantically away.
“There’s… there something else there,” Amber said, trying to articulate what she’d felt. She stepped away from the wolf as Jack hurried to her side, but her eyes never left the beast. “Some other magic or will.”
“Bast,” Jack said, rubbing the shoulder the wolf had been holding in its jaws. “He was an empathist, too, my mom said. Had a cat familiar.”
“I felt something when Dusk was attacking the cat,” Amber said. “Like my magic was stronger when it was distracted.”
“He must be using the cat to control the wolf,” Jack said. “If we run the cat off, he might not be able to control it any more. Are you ready?”
“Ready?” Amber asked, glancing at Jack. The wolf growled, taking another step closer. “For what?”
But Jack didn’t respond. Instead two balls of fire blossomed in his hands, casting a great heat and bright, orange light over the clearing. The wolf squinted and turned its head away, and in that moment of brightness the black cat was caught out in the open, cowering away from the sudden, blinding light. The moment he saw the cat Jack threw a ball of fire at it and the animal bolted to the side, the flames slashing onto the ground just a hair behind it. The cat took off running and Jack went after it, conjuring more flames as he ran. The wolf snarled and turned after him, and surely would have downed the boy in an instant had Amber not come to her senses and cast her magic across the wolf once more. The wolf faltered, and then came to a halt, growling softly, but not moving.
“Easy,” Amber said, steadying herself as much as the beast. “Easy there. I want to help you.” As the light oh Jack’s flame began to dim behind the forest’s trees and the wolf and the girl were left alone, Amber found it once again easier to sooth the beast. Jack had been right about chasing off the cat – she just hoped he would be okay.
Amber climbed stiffly to her feet, and forced herself to take a shaky step closer, the proximity to the wolf strengthening her magic. She reached one hand out to the animal, and as slowly and gently as she could, brushed a hand through its fur. The wolf shivered and growled again, turning its head slightly towards the girl. Amber could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears, and she froze for a moment, but the wolf didn’t make any further moves towards her. Holding her breath, Amber reached up to move her hand across the wolf’s back.
“There is magic there,” Amber said. “I can feel it. It’s… it’s hard to grasp, though. Maybe…” Amber trailed off as another idea came to her, and she slowly slipped her free hand into her pocket. Drawing out the adder stone, Amber carefully lifted it to her eye.
She should have done so earlier, for the moment she did the world around her suddenly filled with color and light, the darkness of the forest no longer an issue. The will–o’–the–wisps jumped several degrees brighter, appearing now as bonfires floating softly about the clearing. The trees, as always, emitted dull, gentle light, and the animals scattered about the woods seemed to hold their own candles, pulsing nervously amid their hiding places in the trees and brush. Dusk, too, was different, and Amber marveled at him for a moment, in his perch on a nearby limb where he was nursing his wounds. She could have sworn his colors had changed slightly from when she’d first found him. Perhaps she saw a little bit of her own light in him now – and she didn’t doubt that the same might be said about her.
But the wolf – he was a different beast entirely. Bright, burning lines of violet wrapped around his limbs, pulling tight across his muzzle and burning especially bright about his eyes. The bindings traced strange runes – a few of which Amber could almost recognize from her studies with Nan – and pinched deep into his fur. In a way, it reminded Amber of the spell she and Ash had accidentally cast over the town’s collection of wooden bears, for she could see a weaving beneath the bindings and runes that was draped over the beast, a fine net that covered every inch of his body.
“Poor thing,” Amber said, trying again to sooth him. “This all must hurt so much. I want to help you… but I don’t think this is going to feel good, coming off. Please don’t bite me.” Keeping the adder stone to her eye, Amber took a fistful of the spell, squeezing it tightly in her hand. She could feel the magic burning between her fingers, trying to twist away from her grasp, but she kept her grip.
The wolf yelp, then snarled as Amber pulled the magic away, the weavings resisting as if glue to the wolf’s skin. The beast turned its head back at Amber, showing its teeth, and Amber cowered back, but didn’t let go. “I’m sorry!” she said, refusing to let go even as the wolf’s lips peeled back to show its teeth. “I’m sorry, but it’s for the best. You won’t let me find my sister unless I undo this curse. And I can undo it, I know I can!”
The wolf growled once more, then turned its head away. Amber let out a breath, stealing herself, then began to pull again. The wolf howled and jerked away, almost making Amber lose her grip. Stumbling after the wolf, Amber dropped the adder stone and buried her other hand in the wolf’s fur as well. It was harder to do without being able to see what she was holding, but even as Amber pulled at the magic, gritting her teeth in fear and exertion, lines of light seemed to trace faintly over her vision. Amber focused and pulled harder, and the wolf also yanked away, trying to free itself. The lights became brighter – this time Amber was sure she wasn’t imagining it – as the magic became more visible the more it came away from the wolf’s skin. As Amber pulled it away she also wedge her own magic beneath the weavings, trying to pry the magic up from the beast’s fur. It stuck fastest at the points where the runes were etched over the wolf, so she focused on breaking these first. Slowly, painfully, the magic came undone.
And then it broke free. Amber stumbled backwards as the tattered weaving came free in her hands, dissolving into the air even as she looked down at the thick coat of magic she held in her hands. Threads of magic scattered out in all directions, floating away like cobwebs in a wind. The wolf was hunched over, the shredded lines of magic fading from his form as he sunk to the ground. Yet even as he slumped to his side he continued to shrink, and the edge of his form faded with the magic as well, revealing his true body – a man – to be beneath it.
Amber stared for a moment, her heart lurching into her throat. Then she stepped quickly over and reached out a hesitant hand, shaking the man’s shoulder.
Peter sat up, rubbing his eyes and forehead. “Amber?” he said, dazed. “Amber, I…” he stopped, not sure what to say.
“Are you okay, dad?” Amber asked. Peter took her hand, giving it a squeeze.
“I… I think I am now. This… this wasn’t a dream, was it?”
“No,” Amber said, and then she threw herself around him, pulling Peter into a bear hug. He looked down at his daughter, startled, then hugged her back tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, not letting her go. “I didn’t want to… I couldn’t – I’m not even sure what happened.”
“It’s okay,” Amber said, reluctantly loosening her grip so she could look at him. “It’s not your fault. Bast was controlling you.”
“None of it felt real,” Peter said, still dazed. “I thought I was losing my mind. I kept seeing you and Ash, but I couldn’t speak… couldn’t control what I…” Peter’s face twisted in shame and distress. “I could have hurt you.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Amber said with certainty. “Bast needs us.”
“Bast?” Peter repeated, the name causing him to shiver.
“We have to find him, dad,” Amber said, standing up. She tugged on Peter’s hand, ushering him unsteadily to his feet. “He took Ash. We have to get her.”
“Ash?” Peter asked, his fatigue turning suddenly to alarm. “Someone took her? Who? Where is she?”
“Bast,” Amber patiently repeated. She began to scan the ground, straining her eyes against the night in search of the adder stone she’d dropped nearby. “He’s trapped right now, but trying to get out. In a tree, I think – or he is the tree. We have to go there.”
“A tree,” Peter repeated, a shiver once again crawling down his spine as the word prickled at his memory. “A gnarled tree… I think I’ve seen it.” He looked down at his daughter as she bent to pick up the adder stone. “We’ll get Ashley back.”
“We will,” Amber agreed, straightening up as she lifted the stone to her face and looked around. It took her a moment to find the dowsing stone, half buried beneath a pile of disturbed leaves, but through the adder stone it glowed with a distinguishing light.
“We can use this to find her,” Amber said, showing it to her dad. “But I need water to make it work. And… and I don’t know where we are.” Her confidence faltered as her thoughts suddenly turned to Jack, who had disappeared into the woods without a dowsing stone himself. How would either of them make it back on their own?
“I think… I can lead us out,” Peter said. “I can’t explain it, but… I know how to get back to the tree. I can feel it. No,” he said suddenly, shaking his head as he made up his mind. “I’m going to get Ash. You stay here. Don’t leave this spot, understand?”
“What?” Amber said, looking up at her dad. “No way! I’m going to help get Ash back, too! She’s my sister!”
“And you’re both my daughters,” Peter said. “I can’t… I can’t lose both of you. Amber, I helped him. I can’t let anything happen to you, too. I have to fix this – you have to stay here. Please.”
“No,” Amber put her foot down. “I can help. And if I don’t come he might take you back, and then he’ll have both of you, and I’ll be alone again. Dad, I can help,” Amber insisted. “You have to trust me!”
Peter looked down at her, his fatherly instincts set against the idea of letting her come. It was with some difficulty that he was able to set them aside, causing him to slump in defeat. “When did you get so grown up?” he asked quietly. Amber didn’t answer, as she wasn’t sure the question was really meant for her to answer. Peter sighed, and smiled sadly. “I can’t make you stay, can I?”
“No,” Amber said, squeezing his hand. “Now come on. We need to go find Ash.”
“Alright,” Peter said, turning his attention back to the forest. He looked around for a moment, then settled on a direction, feeling its subtle pull. “Let’s go bring her home.”