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Fateful Hunt

Copyright © Emmi Lawrence

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.

Short Story (Approx 14200)

Me’nor knew exactly when Nat lost the scent. The poor pup yipped in frustration and fret over the ground-up soil, ruining whatever hint might have clung to the soggy trail. The rest of the pack gathered quickly, the dogs he loved leaping excitedly over rotting wood and skidding through the muddied ditch that had formed years before when a burrow had collapsed. Another long ago hunt with only the black sky to bear witness to its failure.

“Aw, Nat.” Me’nor knelt, already too covered with smears and spatters of mud to heed the mess as he scrubbed the pup between the ears. “You’ve got to learn some patience, love.”

Nat snorted and shook himself, spraying his litter mate, Alo. She snapped at his flank in retaliation, sending them both sliding into the ditch, playfully fighting. Their dam, Kos, stood over them serenely, watching, but blatantly not interfering.

Ignoring the pups, Me’nor sniffed the heavy air. Something lingered. Not the moss hare the pups had been intent on eating. Something else. Something more dangerous. Win could smell it too. She was at his side immediately, her mind tugging on his, her nose to the ground, peeling away the overwhelming scent of moisture clinging to every branch, leaf and rock surrounding them.

“That’s different,” he muttered, more to himself than to Win. She responded anyway, with a light warning that spread though the collective consciousness of his pack. “And this close to the treaty line…”

He trailed off. Glanced behind them at the dripping canopy. Rainy season brought a mugginess and an extra darkness with it, blotting out the stars and filling his ears with gentle plip-plops that disrupted his hearing. Nothing stirred within the deep shadows of the forest. The trees swayed gently, top heavy as rivulets coursed around the rough bark and water pooled at their bases where the surface roots created elongated basins.

The wind changed direction, only for a moment, but long enough for the pack to get a good huge lungful of…whatever it was. Even the pups staggered away from their playing, suddenly on alert, attentive and carefully constraining their excitement over a new hunt. A better hunt.

Me’nor crouched and touched the wet soil. Smelled it. Whatever the creature might be, it hadn’t passed this way.

“South,” he said softly. “It’s south.”

Win growled low in her throat, her meaning coming across the collective easily: if the creature was south then it was likely it already knew of their presence, especially given the way Nat had been howling earlier when chasing the hare. The two pups, Nat and Alo, quickly fell into step behind their dam as Me’nor took off at a slow gait. Win took point, her ears perked up, her senses on high alert. The last member of his pack, Toim, Win’s litter mate and brother, sped away at an angle from them all.

The thickness of the forest lightened somewhat as they crossed into the stretch of land marking the treaty line. The Braken. That slender space where a war once waged, now separating the civilized from the wilds. The trees here were mostly newer. Thinner. Sparser. The underbrush generally trampled during the yearly games, leaving long, flowing meadows filled with wildflowers that thrived under the constantly dark sky.

This time of year, with the gaslights within the heavens dwindling to mere glimpses every few days, the meadows were filled with splotches of churned up mud. Some of the flowers had given way to grasses, while others blossomed fully under the rain. This time of year, the company was nonexistent. Dogs just didn’t bother coming south unless for good reason, preferring to avoid the possibility of encountering the wild packs who lived south of the Braken.

Alo whined, though she kept her voice low.

“I know, love,” murmured Me’nor.

The scent became more powerful. Thicker and all encompassing, as if the creature had lingered in the Braken. The pack spread out, checking and rechecking, finding a space where it must have laid, another where it had lapped up the surface water that had puddled in a shallow valley.

It was Nat who found the scattered remains of the creature’s last meal. He jumped and feinted at Alo, twitchy in his excitement. When he went to howl, Kos quickly reined him in so he wouldn’t shout his success to the world.

“It’s a messy eater,” said Me’nor grimly.

Win snorted. She picked her way through the bones, the bulk of them still bearing remnants of chewy tendons and slivers of fat. Teeth marks gouged them. Me’nor crouched again and gently turned one of the larger bones over to measure the marks, then glowered. The creature’s teeth had to be larger than Win’s. And it’s meal…

Toim nudged the skull with his head. The jaw fell away, but the canine shape was undeniable. A dog. The creature had eaten a dog. Likely a wild dog, but a dog nonetheless.

Me’nor felt his blood heat in rage while Nat ceased his harried racing, sat back on his haunches and growled. With a worried whimper, Alo cuddled next to her dam.

“We’ll track it,” he said, standing quickly. “It can’t have gone far.”

They would track it. Kill it. Make sure it couldn’t feast on another of their kind.

Win sent a flash, a thought that the deceased dog must have been solo. That no pack would have stood for one of their own to be discarded like this. Me’nor agreed, but silently, already moving, testing the trails that led away from the feeding site. They were numerous, as if the creature had come and gone multiple times before it had finished. Me’nor hesitated, then chose the most recent and started further into the Braken, his pack at his heels, their thoughts in his mind.

They trailed the scent through muddy fields, then down through a copse of young midnight oaks. Me’nor wiped his face as they slowed, sniffing the air, testing to see how close they’d come. He could practically feel the creature the scent was so thick. The drizzle that had started as they’d ran eased slightly as they stepped under the trees, though thicker drops landed hard enough on their shoulders that Alo’s ears flicked and Nat jerked, betraying his youthful nerves.

They moved quietly, their steps muffled by the softness in the soil, the excited pattering of the pups’ hearts lifting a protective quality in the rest of the pack.

There. Something shifted between the trees. Just a frail flash of movement, quickly ceased as if it’d never been.

Me’nor froze. Win took another few steps—slow calculated steps—before she stopped as well. The rest of the pack didn’t move, waiting for Win to send back a visual. She lifted her head, then lowered herself close to the ground for a better angle. The glimpse she sent back was nothing but a dark blur, hindered by the shaking branches of the trees and the smearing rain pattering down from the starless sky.

In a few quick orders, the pack was advancing seamlessly. The pups fell behind while Kos and Toim moved west and east, respectively, to flank the creature. Win took another few meaningful steps forward, testing the creature’s awareness. Then, with Me’nor only a few paces behind, she bolted through the dognettle brush, neither of them feeling the pinpricks of the nettles against their flesh as adrenaline flooded their veins.

The creature, foxlike and quick, darted out from between the trees. It was larger than Me’nor would have guessed, with a black and blue streaked coloring that wasn’t native to this part of the world. Viciously, it feinted at Win, then tore eastward. Win twisted, neatly dodging the creature’s massive jaw, then bounded after it. Me’nor caught the creature against its flank as it spun past, but the blow was glancing and didn’t slow the beast at all. In fact, it only served to make it faster, as if it’d rolled with the punch, letting the energy flow through it.

“Toim!” shouted Me’nor, echoing the call in his mind as he gave chase to the dog-eater.

In response, Toim intercepted the creature, his teeth bare and his attack true. Not true enough because the creature defied its size by springing sideways and darting between the trees, narrowly avoiding Toim’s teeth in a rush of unparalleled speed.

With a silent curse, Me’nor summoned up a burst of energy, his mind partially with Kos as she shifted direction, intent on cutting off the creature’s escape. The creature zigzagged its way through the copse, winding around the midnight oaks as if entertained by rather than afraid of the pack giving chase.

Me’nor felt a growl rising in his throat, felt it reverberate through his pack. Even the two pups, who were falling further behind with each passing second, picked up the fury boiling in his blood, their fear forgotten in the face of the blind need to tear this beast apart one bite at a time. When Kos leapt, she landed on the creature’s hindquarters, latching her claws in as she bent to dish out that first bite. But the creature immediately dropped its hind legs and spun, the force sending Kos flying, but driving it straight into Me’nor, Win and Toim.

With a snarl of determination, Win launched herself at its long snout. Me’nor ducked and twisted, reaching for its neck while Toim tore for its opposite shoulder. There was a loud shout and an echoing howl, neither of which belonged from anyone in Me’nor’s pack. The creature jerked, then let out a series of yips as it sprang over them, its tail grazing Win’s head as it passed.

As rainwater poured down on them from the disturbed branches, a single, startled thought from Kos gave Me’nor just enough warning to dive before he could slam directly into another sprinting form materializing from between the trees. He caught of glimpse of short black hair and ragged bangs before the woman rolled, her camouflaged clothes collecting dripping leaves before she sprung back to her feet. He maneuvered into an aggressive stance, knees bent and teeth bared in a snarl as he faced this new houndmaster.

His dogs howled. Toim twisted to chase after the creature, Kos hot on his heels as the beast headed straight for her pups. The pups themselves were too damn inexperienced and far too slow to leap out of the way before the creature barreled into them, sending Alo sprawling while Nat was trampled between its feet. Kos barked, her dreadful mix of terror and rage giving her enough speed to snap at the creature’s hind legs before she whirled around to stand over Nat while strange dogs, most of them dark furred and all of them wild, sped past.

“What are you doing?” demanded the strange woman. Her scent, while not strong, told him the only thing about her he needed to know.

“You’re a wild dog,” he snarled. He leaned forward, a part of him wanting to attack, to pay her back for interfering in his hunt.

She tilted her head, her expression both bemused and resigned. Then she blinked and lowered her brows as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Before Me’nor could say anything else, she turned and raced away, following the creature’s trail.

“Wait!” shouted Me’nor. He took off after her. “That’s our kill!”

Your kill?” she called back with a laugh. “Half your pack are scared pups.”

Koss growled low in her throat at the insult even as she licked at Nat’s scratches and checked his skull for any permanent damage. The wild houndmaster skirted Koss and the pups and dodged around the oaks, a small black-coated pup at her side and another two trailing. They were slightly older than Nat and Alo, but obviously still in their first year because she wasn’t allowing them to head forward with the rest of her pack.

Me’nor ran around Kos, but on her opposite side, giving a firm, undisputable order for her and her pups to remain out of danger. Win agreed wholeheartedly as she tore ahead, already outdistancing Me’nor and the woman, trying to catch up to Toim and the rest of the wild houndmaster’s pack.

“Your own doesn’t seem much better,” said Me’nor as he slid down a section of wet slope only a few steps after her.

The wild houndmaster threw that same bemused expression over her shoulder. “We’ve been hunting this fox for days. Back off, or by the ancestral bitch, I’ll take you out first.”

“I promise if you try you won’t live to see the next skyclad.”

She laughed, the sound outrageously joyous. The hunt must have seared itself through her nerves, much as it was doing to Me’nor’s own. She spun, running backward for a few seconds as she said, “Oh, what a dogfight that would be. You and two dogs against my eight.” She twirled back around, but the moment of arrogance had given Me’nor the chance to catch up.

As he fell into step beside her, he said vehemently, “I’d only need two.”

Win and Toim let out howls of agreement, Toim completely unaffected by any worry as he raced side by side between two wild dogs, one dark-furred and male, the other female and boasting a corded gray coat. Neither of them looking remotely like the auburn shaded dogs that ran in Me’nor’s pack.

The woman slanted him a look. Then she reached out. Maybe she’d only been planning on giving him a light shove. A warning. Or a even just a feint. Me’nor wasn’t taking any chances though, not with a wild dog. His hand shot out as he started to turn. Grabbed her wrist, gave her a firm yank as he continued his spin, using the forward momentum of his pace to twist. Then, gripping her neck with his other hand, he slammed her hard into the ground and pressed his weight into her lower torso. They slid across the wet grass, dirt splattering against their cheeks.

Her three pups immediately went for him, but with a snarl, he dug his teeth into her throat and closed down threateningly. The pups fell away, dancing around in unrestrained worry. Seconds later, Kos came flying up, her pups at her heels, seemingly no worse for wear. She stood on one side, large and dangerous, single-handedly causing the three wild pups to stagger away, their tails tucked between their legs as they jerked and shivered with the desire to help their houndmaster, but unable to do so.

The woman let out a steady breath but didn’t do anything as idiotic as try to free herself. Me’nor inhaled in response, getting a lungful of wild dog. She smelled faintly of the mountain range, of cypress trees and lingering wild strawberries. Her neck tasted like clay and freshwater with a hint of tang that could have been pollen.

Far ahead, the rest of the dogs called off the chase. Win and Toim separated themselves, with much growling and snarling, from the five who belonged to the woman. None of them seemed happy about throwing away the hunt, so all of them, even the wild ones, were riling for a fight. A real fight, a mock fight, a fight than ended with Me’nor mounting something. Hells, they weren’t particular. At least Me’nor’s hounds weren’t.

“Now what?” asked the woman. “You kill me, end up torn to pieces by my pack and the fox gets away? Good plan.”

Carefully, Me’nor relaxed his jaw and removed his teeth. He didn’t release her neck though. He wasn’t that stupid. He lifted himself until he could look her in the eyes, but didn’t shift his weight from her body.

He smirked down at her. “I told you I only needed two.”

She blew at her bangs, but they were plastered wetly to her face, one lock curled into her eyelid in a way that was probably irritating. “Civilized dogs always think they’re smarter. But when it comes to absolute fierceness, you fail. On every level. Even the ancestral bitch knows that.” Then she smiled. “Why don’t we make a deal. I let you have first try at the fox and when you fail I’ll make sure to kill it so it doesn’t eat you.”

Me’nor shrugged, rolling some of the tension from his shoulders. “Need me to weaken it for you, do you? Can’t say I’m surprised. Taken you days and you still haven’t been able to catch it.”

She jerked up, trying to buck him off, the motion rubbing his groin against hers in a way that shouldn’t have been erotic, but somehow was. Partly in response to the sudden arousal tingling through his system, he tightened his grip on her throat until she settled. Immediately he relaxed enough so she could breathe. The lock of hair that had been caught on her eyelid had come free and now lay stuck against her temple instead.

Beautiful wasn’t the word he would have used to describe her. Cute. Yes, she had a cuteness about her. Those slightly pouty lips. Deep blue eyes, like the ocean when the gaslights were reigning the sky. Crinkles along one side of her forehead as she tried to blow at her bangs again. Sloppily cut bangs that only enhanced the wild cuteness she exuded.

Win gave a growl through the pack’s internal consciousness, jarring Me’nor back to reality. Right. The hunt. “What is that thing? You called it a fox, but I’ve never seen a fox so large.” Or so blue.

“Indigo fox,” she said. “They’re native to the western edge of the continent. The deep wilds occasionally get them encroaching, but we rarely see them up here. It must have come up from the other side of the range, through wurm territory, because it first killed within the mountain trails.”

Me’nor almost loosened his grip at the mention of the fox killing before now. “It’s been killing wild dogs?”

“Don’t sound so happy about it.”

“I’m not,” protested Me’nor.

Her eyes narrowed, but in suspicion rather than in a glare.

“I’m not,” he repeated. “We found the remnants of another dog, probably wild, farther north in the Braken.”

Her eyes widened for a brief moment. “Recent?”

“Recent enough.”

She growled, but the sound was obviously aimed at the fox rather than Me’nor, so he didn’t complain, though the rumble of it tickled his stomach and tugged at nerves located farther down.

“It’s my kill,” she said. “Go home. This isn’t your fight.”

“It’s heading north right now, toward my family.” He squeezed her neck slightly in emphasis. “I don’t trust you to kill it before it decides to find a taste for civilized dog.”

Heavy raindrops splattered on his ear before dripping onto her face. The water tracked dirt down her cheek, leaving a clean smear in its wake. Her eyelashes fluttered as she breathed out a sigh. A moment later, the rest of their packs joined them, Win and Toim quickly taking position on either side of Me’nor before her dogs could take advantage of his distraction. One of her black pups snarled and snapped her teeth, but didn’t leap forward to take on Win.

The woman glanced at the pup out of the corner of her eyes. “Relax, Mott.” Then she returned her attention to Me’nor. “So what do you suggest?” she asked, the corner of her mouth twitching.

Me’nor hesitated. He wanted that kill. Wanted to feel the fox’s blood spurt between his teeth. Wanted to watch as its eyes glazed. Wanted to hear its heart give that one last hiccup before quieting forever. But…

He didn’t want that kill so much he was willing to risk his pack against this wild houndmaster. She’d die, that much was already set if he took this one step further, but when the grief overcame her already wild pack, well, he didn’t like the odds that some of his pack would die. Especially not after Win and Toim gave their assessment of the wild pack’s effectiveness based on their limited interaction.

His hesitation gave way to a strange disquiet under the copse of those dark oaks and darker sky because he could only think of one way to give them both what they wanted without potentially starting something between the wild and civilized sides of the Braken once more.

Grudgingly, he offered, “We could…take it down together.” At the last second he turned the question into a statement.

Her eyes widened again, this time more in surprise. “What?”

Me’nor cleared his throat. “We could work together.”

Us? Wild and civilized?” She gave a strained laugh and her nose squinched up. “I could never trust you to have my back.”

With a low snarl, Me’nor leaned closer, ignoring the way her pack barked threateningly at him and his. “The feeling is entirely mutual. But this fox needs to be run into the ground before it kills again.”

Her smile fled and she stared up at him consideringly. “And after?”

“We’ll part ways.”

He stopped himself, barely, from jerking his hips, his body wanting to mount the woman he’d bested, no matter that she stank of the wild. However, he shifted subtly so that his growing erection pressed more firmly against her. No sense in denying that the heady feeling of triumph of having her at his mercy wasn’t affecting him. Any houndmaster would be affected, wild or civilized, man or woman. If it’d been her on top, he suspected she’d have already acted on her carnal needs since wild dogs were known for their lack of control.

“Part ways,” she repeated.

“You have my word that I’ll let you walk away. I won’t chase you into the wilds.”

Her nose squinched up again, this time in disgust. “What makes you think I wouldn’t chase you.”

He smirked, then bared his teeth and mock bit the side of her mouth. He could just about taste her. Could smell the pheromones on her breath as she exhaled roughly. “Because you know you deserve to be chased after being taken down quicker than a newborn pup.”

Embarrassment, rather than the need to escape, was likely the cause of her immediate struggles. She fought until she couldn’t breathe, but her pheromones didn’t lessen and her bucking mimicked a rough, wild fucking. Me’nor’s own breath sped up and he didn’t stop his hips from moving this time. Cock impossibly hard, he shook his head, trying to get himself back on track.

“We need—” He cleared his throat, reaching for Win mentally to remind him what they were all doing here. “The fox. We need to kill it.”

“So get off,” said the woman, though she didn’t seem as desperate as her wild struggles had made her look a moment ago.

Me’nor nodded once, then slowly released her throat. As soon as his hand left her flesh, he leapt backwards. She kicked up and rolled the opposite direction, getting to her feet smoothly. After a moment when neither of them moved, but for Me’nor to scratch over Nat’s skull to assure himself the pup was truly fine, the woman wiped at her ragged bangs. Then she straightened and tilted her head in the same way she’d done when she’d first come flying through the trees.

“Da’lil,” she said.

“Me’nor.”

“I’d say it was a pleasure…”

He cracked a grin. “But there’s a special scentless hunt the ancestral bitch keeps for those who lie.”

Da’lil shrugged, dislodging a couple of pitiful, sopping leaves from her clothes. “We’ve wasted enough time. It’d be a shame if we weren’t fast enough to catch it now before it eats one of yours,” she said in tone that didn’t seem all that sincere.

“Don’t feel ashamed. Lots of houndmasters fall to me.”

“I’m not ashamed,” she said quickly, dismissively. “You had your chance. You blew it.”

Then she flashed him a wicked grin and took off through the woods after the fox as if she hadn’t been at his mercy just moments ago. Her pack sped after her silently, though that same pup from before, Mott, had enough bravado to snap her jaws at Toim as she passed.

Me’nor growled, took a second to readjust himself and shake off the lingering desire to mount a wild houndmaster, then sprinted after her. They created a sort of truce once he caught up. The bulk of them stayed on the fox’s trail, checking and rechecking its path because it had zigged and zagged throughout the trees and across the muddy meadow beyond, crossing over its own trail multiple times. A couple of her dogs fanned out ahead of them, forming a wide position, though they never strayed too far.

Me’nor didn’t blame her for keeping them close considering Da’lil informed him the fox preferred to pick off the loners. “Cowardly and devious” were her actual words concerning the fox’s fighting habits. “Nothing like a dog.” She slanted him a glance before adding, “Wild or civilized.”

He snorted. “That’s about the only thing we have in common. Wild dogs don’t know when to stop. You’re out of control, your dogs barely obey you. You’d hunt your own families if given half the chance.”

Da’lil skidded to a stop, a heavy growl lifting from her gut. “We never kill our own.”

“Liar,” he snapped, spinning to face her. “You’d tear into each other with as little regard as you’d give your next meal. I’ve seen it happen at the games.”

She stepped closer, menacingly. “You’ve seen nothing. Civilized dogs obsess over control without realizing how stifling you are to your own ability. Too delusional to see straight, too caught up in your own seeming perfection to realize how tame you are. Tame little pups who wouldn’t be able to hold their own in a real battle. Too stubborn, too tentative, too civilized.”

“I bested you, didn’t I?” Me’nor snarled at her, closing that last inch of distance between them, putting their heads so close he could have bit her…or kissed her.

“You didn’t best anything. You were scared of what my pack would do to you and so you couldn’t go through with the death blow. I won that fight without ever having to bare my teeth.”

Me’nor let out a furious shout and lunged. She laughed, twirled away and dropped into a crouch, obviously waiting for him to attack again, her pack ready, their muscles tense and their teeth dripping. Me’nor swallowed his fury and took a step back.

“What are you trying to do here?” he asked.

Da’lil tilted her head deliberately. Instead of answering him, she said, “You were right about one thing. Some wild houndmasters hunt their own.”

Me’nor knew his disgust showed on his face.

Then she flashed another grin. “But not to kill.”

Lust shot through him when her meaning sunk in. Sometimes…sometimes lovers would hunt each other, fight each other, the winner throwing the loser to the ground to finish what they’d started. And right now, despite Da’lil making him crazy, he couldn’t help seeing visions of what it’d be like to hunt her, catch her, throw her to the ground as he’d done before, but this time without keeping himself in check.

He ground his teeth, unsure whether this desire stemmed from the want to best a wild houndmaster, prove her inferior, or whether he simply wanted to feel her bucking underneath him as roughly as she’d done before, but this time with their clothes torn off. She was cute enough, spunky enough, that had she been from his side of the Braken he’d have wanted to prove his worth in a good fight, show her his strength so she might respect him enough to want him in return.

When he didn’t respond, Da’lil added, “I wonder what you’d be like without this facade keeping you contained. Stronger?”

“I’m strong enough to take you on,” Me’nor gritted out. “I’ve hunted plenty of lovers and won.”

“Maybe,” she said, her eyelashes lowering as if she was thinking, then she swept them back up with an expression he could only describe as flirty. “But sometimes its not so clear who has won and who has lost.” She paused for effect before adding, “Especially when civilized houndmasters are involved because you are so…static.” Then she was off again, a sprinkling of her laughter wafting behind her.

“Static,” Me’nor repeated. He glared at one of her dogs. “We’re not static. We’ve changed more than any wild dog could imagine. And control isn’t something to mock.” To Win, he said, “Come on, love. No wild pack is going to show us up.” She agreed. Loudly.

After that, they only conversed when necessary. Mostly. Me’nor watched Da’lil carefully, but as they slowly closed the distance between them and the indigo fox, she became more focused and Me’nor lost much of his ire in his excitement over the impending fight at the end of the trail.

“It crossed again here,” she said, pointing to a bent swatch in the short grass.

The fox had darted north, then turned south before finally turning north again, always heading generally westward. The ground had gradually risen the closer they came to the range, but never turned too steep, the hills, when there were hills, were gentle and sloping. Most of the terrain upon the Braken was flat. The meadows were thick with grass and clogged with mud. The occasional trees turned into larger copses that weren’t as uniform as the one they’d met within.

The rain had come down hard for a short time, then slackened to a drizzle before finally tapering off to almost nothing, leaving only a slight heaviness in the air and a misting on their faces.

“And there,” added Me’nor, pointing in the opposite direction.

“It’s like it’s baiting us,” mumbled Da’lil as she paused and put her hand over the muddy soil. She didn’t actually touch though.

“Is it smart enough to set a trap?”

Da’lil shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Never hunted an indigo fox before.”

“But you’ve been hunting this one for days. Haven’t you seen how it operates?”

She stood again, concentrating on something in the distance. “It’d been two days ahead of me when I first set out so I’ve been trailing it. Only caught a glimpse once. Don’t know much about them otherwise.”

“Just wanted the hunt then?”

She turned to face him. “I promised my cousin I’d bring back its skin so he can make a vest out of it.”

“And a promise is forever,” said Me’nor softly.

Her expression turned bemused again. “Sure.” She drew out the word. “I was actually thinking about taking the skin for myself.”

“But—” Me’nor cut himself off before he could voice the protest. After all, this was a wild houndmaster surrounded by wild dogs. None of them probably even knew what a promise was, let alone how to keep one.

“This way,” said Da’lil.

They jogged at a steady pace so the pups could keep up easily. Wouldn’t matter, Me’nor figured, given the fox wasted a lot of energy creating useless trails that only served to take their packs a few more seconds to understand. Plus it was large, it would need food more often, would have to stop to hunt. Unless…

“How does it kill? Does it ambush prey?” he asked.

Da’lil blew at her bangs, this time sending frizzy ends away from her eyes. “The only time we found places where it sat for long periods of time seemed to be where it slept. They were defensible positions rather than good stalking areas and they were far from where it ate.”

“It’s fast so it could chase down its prey, but even fast animals like to take the easy way out. All this—” Me’nor waved to where the fox had spread another trail that broke off toward the north. “—makes me feel as if its setting us up because otherwise why expend the time and energy? It’s a waste.”

“Who knows what the fox is thinking. Maybe it thinks we won’t be able to track it if its scent is all over the place. Or maybe its hoping to split us up so it can pick us off one at a time. I’ve never seen evidence of it taking on a pack all at once. Like I said, a coward.”

Not taking on a fight with odds heavily in your opponent’s favor wasn’t exactly cowardly in Me’nor’s opinion, but he didn’t say that out loud. Instead, he said, “This fox is quick despite its size. We could hunt it until it tries to rest or catch it when it’s feeding, but ultimately we need a plan in order to keep it contained for a real fight, otherwise we’ll simply be chasing its tail until we chase it straight out of our territories.”

“I want it dead, not chased away.”

“Yes,” said Me’nor with overt emphasis. “That’s what I’m saying.”

They slowed to a walk to check another whirlwind of scent clinging to the grass. Da’lil cracked off the grainy top from one thick stalk and put it to her nose. “So, what? You want to set a trap for it? Figures a civilized dog wouldn’t want a real fight.”

Before he could think better of it, Me’nor leered at her. “I could show you a real fight.”

Da’lil spun with a snarl, the grass seeds slipping from her fingers and falling into the mud. She opened her mouth, then froze, cocking her head as her gaze slid off his face. “Yal found something.” She took off, the wildflowers smacking wetly against her body.

For the third time that day, Me’nor raced after her, this time studying her gait, her pack’s movements, filing away the information on the off chance she wanted that fight once this indigo fox lay dead, that her snarl had been one of challenge and not rejection. Toim snorted within their collective consciousness, his ready disgust rampant, permeating through the rest of the pack. Me’nor swallowed and removed his gaze from Da’lil’s backside at the blatant reminder of what she was.

The terrain sloped up, then crumbled away to form a short ridge, the top coated with sticky clay and clinging vines. Da’lil slowed and picked her way down a slightly less steep section, getting low to the ground, almost sitting on her ass, before twisting around and sliding to a point where she could jump. Me’nor followed more quickly, leaping past her as she tried to wipe the wet soil from her palms.

The dog he assumed was Yal was sniffing around the base of the ridge as the rest of their packs came leaping down, their energetic barks almost mimicking a camaraderie Me’nor would more likely have with his brothers than a wild houndmaster.

He berated his own hounds silently in his head, reminding Toim of his own disgust just a few moments before, but the backlash he received was irritated, his dogs again reminding him that they were hunting. That it was Me’nor who kept getting distracted. Abashed, he stepped away from Da’lil, though she paid him no mind.

Yal barked then began digging, another of Da’lil’s dogs joining him. The bones they pried out with their teeth were old. Old and small. Too small for a beast the size of the indigo fox to have made a real meal out of.

“Its smell isn’t on the bones. They must be a coincidence,” said Da’lil with a worried frown. Her two dogs growled in frustration and sniffed at the vines growing up against the lodged clay where the ground must have fallen away during a past rainy season. “But this place reeks of the fox.”

Me’nor took another sniff, noting the strength of the fox’s lingering scent. There was fresh urine as well, though no taint of blood. “Maybe he’s used this place befo—”

Right then, Nat and a couple of Da’lil’s black pups chose to chase a family of small rodents out of the underbrush. The tiny animals skirted the pups, diving into the bushes at the base of the ridge before popping back out on the other side. The pups gave chase, the larger hunt forgotten.

“Nat!” called Me’nor in exasperation.

Da’lil shook her head with a slight smile. “Pups.”

He sighed and matched her smile as Alo joined her brother. Kos chuffed, then trotted after them at a more sedate pace. As the pups busied themselves with chasing the rodents down through the brush to the southeast, Me’nor and Da’lil checked for signs of the fox’s most recent departure.

“This seems fresh,” said Me’nor of a couple of crushed flowers. “Maybe only a few hours old.”

“We weren’t that far behind, were we?” muttered Da’lil.

No, Me’nor hadn’t thought they’d been that far behind, not with the way the fox had been leaving its presence known across half the Braken. “Maybe some of what we smelled earlier had been older than we thought.” He glanced at Da’lil as she straightened up from the ground, her dog Yal at her side. He sought out Win and Toim unconsciously, feeling them sniffing out a trail that led to the north.

Da’lil stepped closer and crouched next to him. “The rain’s messing with the trails. And wet dog is filling my nose. Hard to tell which of these is the most recent.”

“You’re welcome to stay back and let me run this hunt on my own,” offered Me’nor with a raised eyebrow.

Da’lil snapped her teeth in mock ferociousness, but ignored him otherwise as she stood. “Normally I’d split my pack, but…”

“If they remain close enough we’ll be able to sense a problem. I’ll have Win and Toim check the ones heading north so you don’t have to get any closer to civilized territory than you have to.”

She blew at her bangs in a motion that was starting to become oddly familiar. As her hair settled, her dogs began to split off, two heading southwest parallel to where the pups and Kos had gone to play, another two heading in a direction more westerly. Yal remained at her side as Win and Toim disappeared through the brush to the north.

“What?” asked Me’nor when Da’lil continued to stare at him. He stood so he wouldn’t have to crane his neck any longer.

“You have insulted me, interjected your pack into my hunt and mocked and attacked me at every possible moment.” She didn’t sound angry though.

“So?” he asked stiffly. “It’s not like you haven’t done the same.”

She scoffed, shaking her head. “You civilized dogs.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I have no idea how we’re going to fight this thing together since we can’t even track it without wanting to kill each other.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” protested Me’nor. When Da’lil laughed, he added, “I want to fight you. And I want to win. But what would the purpose of winning be if you didn’t have to live with the shame of knowing a civilized dog took you down, not once, but twice, in a matter of hours?”

Da’lil laughed again, this time more real. “I don’t feel shame.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said with a growl, blood pumping into his cock when he caught sight of the unblemished column of her neck just begging to be bitten. He inhaled, intending on getting a good lungful of her scent, but something else tickled his nose.

Yal’s head jerked up. Me’nor caught the movement out of the corner of his eye right as he heard the sound of a heavy tread above them. His first thought was that one of Da’lil’s dogs had climbed the ridge to attack him from behind, that she’d kept him talking to keep him from noticing. He reacted, lunging for her, registering the shock on Da’lil’s face a moment too late.

They landed in a tangle of limbs, his instincts getting the better of him as he went for her throat. He caught himself at the last second, the smell of fox filled his senses and causing him to freeze long enough for Da’lil to punch the side of his neck before a massive weight crashed into them. Underneath him, Da’lil grunted as searing pain shot through his back and teeth sunk through his clothes into his shoulder blade, catching the protruding bone.

He howled even as he reached around and dug his fingers into the side of the fox’s neck. He wouldn’t be able to remove its jaw, but he could damn well make it uncomfortable for the beast to stay latched on. Me’nor ripped through tough skin, feeling blood well into his hand, though he already knew it wasn’t enough. He didn’t have the fox’s throat, couldn’t reach that far.

Da’lil wheezed in his ear as her own hands tore at the fox’s face. Part of him must have realized she couldn’t breathe because he tried to shift off of her, but the moment he moved his lower torso, her leg gave a spasm, causing her knee to jerk up and catch him in the balls. Me’nor squeezed his fist harder in reaction as pain slammed through his groin. Hot fox blood streamed down his aching arm.

Then the fox tore his teeth from Me’nor’s back, its weight increasing for another horrifying second before falling away in a pile of snarls as it focused on Yal instead. Da’lil sucked in a huge breath as Me’nor scrambled off of her. He started to stand, his eyes on the two animals mauling each other only a few feet away, but as he rose, Da’lil rolled, accidently smacking Me’nor’s legs and sending him off balance enough that he staggered and slammed back to his knees, hitting Da’lil in the process and eliciting a breathy curse from her. He grabbed his groin with his bloody hand and groaned.

“Ancestral bitch,” he cursed.

Da’lil staggered to her feet, still swallowing huge lungfuls of air as she leaned on him to catch her balance. The ancestral bitch must have been annoyed with his cursing because Da’lil leaned directly on the shoulder where the fox had just bit through to his bone, so he snarled and threw her off. She kept to her feet, but just barely, and spun to face the fox and the dog.

“Yal,” she gasped.

Then she attacked the fox, getting herself into the action before the dog could be torn to shreds by the larger animal. Her motions were sloppy though, as if her body continued to struggle with a lack of oxygen.

Me’nor could hear Win and Toim’s voices echoing in his mind, their anger spilling throughout the rest of the pack, warning Kos and the pups. He heard noise from behind him and tensed, but it was only two of Da’lil’s dogs. They whipped past him on either side and dove for the fox as Yal let out a whine and danced out of range of the fox’s teeth. Then the three dogs plus Da’lil were running circles around the beast, falling into what was obviously a well-practiced pattern that kept them in control of the situation while blocking off any escape route.

With a wince, Me’nor pushed to his feet again, blinking as Da’lil caught the fox’s hind leg in a wicked punch. The fox flinched, its haunches drooping, then it whirled around and went to attack her, but Da’lil had already moved. One after the other her dogs bit at the fox’s flank, keeping it spinning, on the defensive. Yal moved a little slower than the others, but he wasn’t letting his wounds stop him.

They moved together. As if one mind resided in four bodies. When one dog jumped, the other ducked. When Da’lil feinted, another bit down. While they ran, they always gave way, knowing intrinsically where the others were. And that ever-present knowledge winding through Da’lil’s pack was emboldened with a vicious, single-mindedness Me’nor had never witnessed from any civilized dog.

Me’nor shuddered. This was what it meant to be wild. This was what it meant to be completely and utterly out of control, out of touch with their individual selves.

His first reaction, his gut one, was of disgust. He staggered away, putting distance between himself and the wild pack. His second reaction, as Win and Toim sprinted up, their spirits riled for a fight, was to tear forward, to refuse to allow some wild dog show him up.

Win leapt between two of Da’lil’s dogs, her jaw snapping down near the fox’s ear. Toim was right behind, his teeth catching the fox by the back of its neck as it tried to yank off another of Da’lil’s dogs who had latched onto its haunches.

The creature was whining now, letting loose yips of annoyance and yowls of pain. This fight would be over sooner rather than later.

Me’nor put thoughts of wildness behind him and threw himself into the fray, his heart soaring with unadulterated joy at the imminent takedown. He swung once. Missed. He laughed, though the sound was laced with pain. Then he dodged one of Da’lil’s dogs and swung again, this time sidestepping to avoid another round with the fox’s teeth. But he sidestepped directly into Da’lil, who snapped her hips into him, throwing him back into the fox’s path.

That was only the start of the chaos.

Win crashed into Yal, who immediately snarled and snapped at her. The two of them rolled away, tussling angrily and it was only a marginal comfort that Win had the upper hand because of Yal’s previous wounds. Then Toim ran in front of Da’lil right as she lunged forward, sending them both smashing into the fox’s hindquarters.

Me’nor swung at the fox’s head, catching it under the ear, but he didn’t have a chance to bring his arm back before dog teeth grazed his hand. He shouted and jerked away, his flesh tearing down the side of his fist, left in the mouth of one of Da’lil’s dogs who had bitten down seconds after Me’nor’s attack.

“Stop getting in the way!” shouted Da’lil. She slipped off the fox, landing heavily with Toim against her. Then she lifted her arms to protect her face when the fox stepped backward.

“You’re the one attacking us!” yelled Me’nor in response. “Pay the fuck attention.”

Too late. The fox ducked between Me’nor and the last of Da’lil’s dogs. Me’nor dove for it, trying to get his teeth into the fox’s shoulder, but his mouth skipped against furry flesh and he ended up with a banged chin and a bruised ego when he went sprawling front side into the mud. A couple of dogs gave chase, Toim among them, but the fox had found some secret reserve of adrenaline out of a desperate desire to survive. It ran like the ancestral bitch herself was chasing it.

Da’lil ran past Me’nor a moment later, but slowed and stopped only ten or so paces away. She ran fingers through her hair, gripped her scalp and then howled her frustration to the black sky. Her pups joined her, their voices lifting with hers. Kos brought Nat and Alo a few seconds later, her thoughts a jumble of worry over her pups mixed with mocking laughter for the rest of the pack that they couldn’t bring down one fox. Win snapped at her within the collective, furious and blaming Da’lil’s dogs for their lack of awareness of anything but themselves.

Me’nor glanced at Win as he pulled himself from the mud. He scraped off as much as he could before the adrenaline faded enough that his shoulder began to pulse too fiercely for him to want to move at all. She stood near Yal, her lips pulled back and her mood dark, obviously planning on holding a grudge against the wild dog over their inadvertent crash. With a sigh, Me’nor strode to where Da’lil stood.

“Well, that went well,” he said.

Da’lil rolled her eyes toward the sky. “Ancestral bitch give me the patience to deal with this dog or else give me the apathy to murder him.”

“There were two packs in that fight,” said Me’nor, his sarcasm morphing into anger. “Two packs, which means you have to give way.”

Da’lil dropped her arms. “I don’t give way. My pack had that fight. We were about to bring it down. Why do you insist on ruining my day? Is this some sort of civilized method of torture?” She paused, a strange expression crossing her face. “Or is this your feeble attempt at flirtation? Because I have to tell you, you’re not impressing me. At all.”

“I don’t want to impress you,” he snarled. Toim called him on his lie, but Me’nor ignored him. “I want to finish the hunt I started. I want wild dogs to go back where they belong and I want a houndmaster at my back who I trust, not one I think will rip my throat out the moment I let my guard down.”

“Oh, oh, is that why you attacked me instead of the fox?”

He glowered at her, his shoulder throbbing painfully in a forceful reminder of his mistake.

She laughed unpleasantly. “You have such a low estimation of me that you think I’d sneak up on you? I’m not the fox. If I was going to attack you, I’d do it so you knew I was coming.”

“Good to know,” he said tightly. When Alo nudged his calves, making him step forward, he flinched unconsciously at the sudden pulse in his upper back.

Da’lil sighed, then blew at her bangs again. “Oh, fine, let me look at that bite.”

“I didn’t ask you to,” said Me’nor.

“No, but I highly doubt your arms are flexible enough to clean it up.”

She glanced around, then found a relatively unmuddied spot, plopped down and beckoned him over. Me’nor gritted his teeth, but he went and settled himself carefully in front of her. He had his pack nearby, watching, waiting. She couldn’t do anything without him seeing. Her touch was perfunctory and ungentle as she picked cloth out of the wound and helped him lift his shirt over his head. Then she gave a soft whistle.

“You’re lucky.”

Me’nor snorted.

“It got you at the wrong angle to do anything serious. Does this hurt?”

“Dam’s tits! Yes, it fucking hurts. Stop pushing on it.”

He swore he heard amusement in her voice when she said, “Okay, just checking for infection.”

“It doesn’t set in that fast, you wild bitch.”

“Okay, okay.”

She fell silent as her touch turned softer. She cleaned him carefully, padding instead of wiping, being generous with her water. Her fingers were cool against his flesh and not exactly detached because she lingered when she didn’t have to, stroked before she went to move. Me’nor wasn’t sure whether he was imagining things though, concentrating on her touch, reading more into it because his other option was to focus on the agony burning where she pressed into his ripped skin.

As she worked, she asked, “So, out of curiosity, did you think I was going to attack you from behind because I’m wild or because you naturally assume everyone else is out to get you?”

Me’nor remained quiet for a moment, thankful for the distraction from both the throbbing in his back and the lightness of her touch. “Because I don’t trust you.”

Her hand paused against his good shoulder. Then tightened as she dabbed at the mauled section again. “Because I’m wild.” The words were definitely a statement, not a question.

Me’nor answered anyway. “That’s part of it.”

“And the other part?”

“You make me—” He hissed as she applied some sort of topical antiseptic.

“Make you?” she prompted as she continued to work.

He hesitated, embarrassment clogging his throat. Since when did he behave like a pup with his first crush? He knew how to handle attraction, though…maybe not when it was coupled with a distaste for the person.

“Mad? Jealous? Horny?” she guessed.

Try all three. No, scratch the jealousy. He wasn’t jealous of her, not even remotely. Mad with her? Yes. Horny for her? Hells yes. Furious that he was horny for her? There wasn’t enough curses to describe his mixed feeling on that subject.

His pack thought he was hilarious. Sure, they didn’t like the wild dogs, but none of them were having impure, irrational, sex-crazed thoughts about them. They thought he should do what he’d wanted to do from the moment he’d put her on her back. Without regrets and without worry. After all, according to them, it’d be nothing at all to have a semi-wild romp with a pretty houndmaster and then part ways amicably. Or at least mostly amicably.

And Me’nor was sorely tempted. He cleared his throat, turned his head so he could see Da’lil out of the corner of his eye and finally answered, “You make me want to chase you down. Catch you. Mount you.” Her breath hitched. “Until neither of us can remember which of us is civilized and which of us is wild.”

Da’lil’s hands disappeared, leaving Me’nor feeling bare and cold despite the warmth in the air. Then she asked, “And that has something to do with trusting me?”

“It has everything to do with it,” snapped Me’nor, though he didn’t turn around any further. “I shouldn’t want you. You’re wild. Out of control.”

The breeze that had been coasting over the Braken all day ghosted across Me’nor’s skin, making his nipples harden and drying the fox blood streaked down his arm. The darkness surrounding them began to marginally lighten as the overcast sky began to blow apart. The stars weren’t enough to brighten up his world, but they were plenty for his eyes. The grasses past the ridge, where the fox had run off into the west, perked up, swaying happily as the mist lessened.

His breath sounded loud to his ears. The echo of his words even louder in his mind. If only his brother could hear him now, how he’d howl with laughter over Me’nor’s twisted desire. He closed his eyes in shame.

“The Fade Stars are starting to set,” said Da’lil quietly, her voice deliberately concealing her emotions.

Then she went back to cleaning him up, a welcome numbness spreading wherever she wiped. He could feel the pull of his skin but not the prick of the needle as she closed up the worst of the slices.

Me’nor cleared his throat. “The fox will have gone to ground to lick its wounds. It’ll be holed up somewhere.”

“You still hunting with me?”

He growled low in his throat at the implied insult. “Of course. This wound is nothing.”

“Then we should probably learn how to fight together without tripping over each other. Earlier was…”

“Embarrassing?” suggested Me’nor.

“Inefficient,” she corrected. “I certainly didn’t do anything to be embarrassed about.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “Of course you didn’t,” he murmured.

Her hands fell away, leaving his skin cold once more. This time she gathered her things and moved from behind him. The groundwater had soaked into Me’nor’s hide pants and the mud had begun to crust where the folds had squeezed much of it out.

“We should find somewhere to sleep for a few hours at least,” said Da’lil as she rubbed a hand over Yal’s broad, black head.

“That’ll just let the fox rest.”

She hummed in the back of her throat. “It’s not going far. Des took a huge chunk out of one of its hind legs. After that sprint it took to escape it’s going to be hurting. Might have even ruined its leg. And it’s likely losing a lot of blood so we can track it down and finish it off once its too tired to run anymore.”

“Not much of a hunt.”

Da’lil laughed lightly. “Given the way we work together, that’s probably a good thing.”

Me’nor agreed with a wordless noise as he stood. His groin twinged and his back still ached, but both were tolerable. He could fight right now if necessary, though he agreed with Toim when the dog echoed Da’lil’s suggestion and sent a flash of how the fox had looked as it’d pulled away.

“There’s a staging area northwest of here that’s used for the games. We could dry off somewhat at least.”

Da’lil’s nose crinkled. “One of the civilized pavilions?”

Me’nor shrugged his good shoulder. “Dog smells like dog. Stay outside if you want.”

Then he beckoned to his pups, pulling them away from where they’d been playing with Da’lil’s. One of hers, that same pitch black pup with an independent streak, trotted after Nat and Alo, her head held high with that shamelessness Da’lil professed.

The woven roof of the pavilion had blocked out most of the rain, though since the wind had been blowing in from the east, that side had dark smears of water staining the lifted wooden slats that made up the floor. Vines grew along the thick beams jutting up at uneven intervals. They’d be cut down come the games, but right now, they twisted through the overhanging strips of woven wood and fronds.

Me’nor dug into one of the old chests built into the back edge of the pavilion and pulled free a mildew-smelling canvas tarp that likely wasn’t as waterproof as it’d once been. It’d been folded haphazardly by whomever had used it last, but with Da’lil’s grudging help they attached it around the corner to give themselves someplace out of the wind that would stay mostly dry.

The pups couldn’t settle, too wound up from the fight they’d felt but not participated in, so they took to the slick section of mud on the downward slope off the pavilion’s side. Playing together as if wild and civilized didn’t mean much to them.

Me’nor found a beam to prop himself against, cautiously only pressing his uninjured side against the hard wood. The grain of the slats under him was swirled with light rings and stained with old blood splatter. Win and Toim settled themselves nearby, Toim propping his head against Me’nor’s leg heavily.

Da’lil laid down close to the opposite edge of the tarp, her head against one of her dogs, their bodies pressing close to hers in a happy pile of contented, tired pack. She didn’t fall asleep immediately though. Her eyes were slits as her fingers absently stroked whichever dog her hand had fallen upon. Her hair—as black as it’d seemed when sopping wet—had a frizziness about it now as it dried.

“Are all your dogs within the same bloodline?” asked Da’lil.

Win’s head came up attentively, then she settled once more though she kept her face toward the wild dogs. Me’nor ran a hand along her flank before he nodded.

“Yeah. They are.”

“They don’t inbreed, do they?”

Win snarled without lifting her head and Toim let out a disgusted snort. Me’nor’s fingers froze for a second, then he went back to sifting through Win’s fur.

“No,” he said shortly.

“So they choose their partners?”

“Every time.”

“Good,” she said as she closed her eyes. “Heard some rumors about civilized breeding habits.”

“Those rumors are true, just not for houndmasters. Some of the more docile dog breeds that are native to other planes have been misused.”

“Disgusting,” muttered Da’lil without opening her eyes.

“I agree.”

Her lips curved up, then slowly eased into a relaxed expression.

“This cousin of yours, the one you’re chasing the fox for, why isn’t she hunting the fox herself?”

“He. Because he’s only twelve and his sire forbade it.” She opened her eyes to stare at him, her expression challenging. “And because one of his dogs was one of the ones the fox took and it’s a bad idea to go hunting anything powerful when your pack is in mourning.”

Me’nor nodded slowly in acceptance. “So you promised to hunt it down for him.”

“No. I promised to skin it alive and tear it into pieces so small that the wind could carry news of its death all the way to their family. Why are you hunting the fox?”

“Because I want dog-eaters dead before they’ve a chance to do what they did to your cousin to my own family.”

Da’lil stared at him for another moment, then closed her eyes and twisted her head in a silent dismissal of the conversation. Me’nor waited until her breathing steadied and her hand ceased stroking her dog before he gave in and gazed at her. In sleep, she looked somewhat younger, but didn’t everyone? His cock twitched, but didn’t harden, interested far more in that fight they’d been skirting around all day.

Yet, Me’nor couldn’t deny that the attraction went far further than wanting to shame a wild dog. She might have a fearless, feral side, but that hadn’t stopped her from wanting to revenge family, maybe even protect them. At the very least, he couldn’t help but feel as if she’d been satisfied with his answer, that she agreed with his reasoning for hunting the indigo fox. Maybe she even admired him for it.

He fell asleep listening to the sounds of the pups still squabbling, Kos awake, alert and watchful over the pack. When the tarp snapped, he sat up with a start and reached mentally for his dogs. They were there, Toim complaining over being woken. The pups whined and shifted within the pile they’d made nearby with Kos. Muddy paw prints decorated the flooring. Both small and large, as if Da’lil’s hounds had tracked back outside the pavilion.

Me’nor quickly lifted his gaze, a stray worry that Da’lil had run off while he’d been sleeping entering his mind. This time he didn’t act on his instinctual mistrust, waiting until he stood to get a good look over the pups before he reacted.

She was gone. All her dogs with her, including the pups. Me’nor ground his teeth in frustration, sick with loathing, most of it aimed inwardly that he’d been dumb enough to think, for even a second, that Da’lil had been anything more than what she’d been born to be.

Win protested, though her thoughts were lethargic, as if she’d been half-asleep. With a growl, Toim at his heels, Me’nor followed Da’lil’s scent to the edge of the pavilion. The trampled grass had been left streaked with mud from her dogs’ passing. Their trail veered off to the right, westward toward the mountains.

Me’nor leapt down into the grass, the mud squelching under his boots. He’d not gone two steps before Win sent a tendril of thought through the pack’s consciousness. Not a warning. Just an announcement. Me’nor twisted around as the forerunners of Da’lil’s pack raced up and clambered onto the pavilion, one holding a dead moss hare in his mouth.

It took effort to restrain his anger, to rein in his mistrust as Da’lil appeared, her face lit up as she played with one of her pups, the stick between them well used and riddled with shallow teeth marks where the pup hadn’t controlled herself. The last vestiges of his ire slunk away in shame as Da’lil turned that smile toward him. She threw the stick, watched two of the pups chase after it for a few seconds, then strode over to Me’nor.

“We’ve brought back some for your pack. Figured you’d want to save your strength for the real hunt given the way that bite looked,” she said.

Me’nor shifted his gaze to a few of her dogs as they dropped a couple more hares by Win, respecting her alpha position in his pack. She picked through them, pulled out the largest and stepped away so Toim and Kos could take their own.

“Figured civilized dogs wouldn’t have a problem with being fed since they’re already halfway to tame,” added Da’lil as she propped herself against one of the pavilion’s beams.

Me’nor glanced at her sharply, but she seemed to be waiting for him to respond, as if she’d been teasing in an attempt to rile him up rather than to purposefully insult him. So he blew out a sigh, releasing some of the tension in his muscles.

“They certainly don’t mind when wild dogs want to serve them,” he said in a low voice.

Da’lil chuckled. “Just don’t get used to it.”

Without returning her mirth, Me’nor stepped closer to the pavilion, closer to Da’lil. His wound throbbed painfully from his jerky motions when he’d first woken and the side of his neck ached where it’d been stretched while he’d been asleep. Some of the pain must have shown on his face because Da’lil cast him a glance that was halfway between amused and concerned.

“Your back good?”

“A little stiff,” he said automatically.

“You can probably work it out on the run.”

“Yeah.”

“You still waking up? One of those grumpy types before you get something bleeding between your teeth?” She said the words teasingly as she chewed on something tough and bloody.

Me’nor bent his head as he worked out the soreness in his neck, but looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Not normally, no.”

“Must be the rain.” She squinted up at the sky, but the rain had effectively blown away, leaving the land clogged and malleable.

He cleared his throat, though that didn’t unstick the churning emotions in his gut. As Da’lil laughed at their carelessly playing pups, he watched her surreptitiously.

The warmth spreading in his heart scared him more than he wanted to admit. And the lust…he felt blindsided by the realization that the lust he felt for Da’lil wasn’t standing on its own merit anymore. That he could just as easily start to believe in her, that she could fight alongside him without him needing to feel on edge, feel as if she were more enemy than friend.

“Do you—” He broke off, unsure and doubtful despite the growing respect he had for this wild houndmaster, a respect he’d have sworn could never exist. It’d only been a day, he reminded himself. No one could truly know a person in that short of time. And respect took time. As did trust.

“Do I what?” asked Da’lil.

“Do you want to get going?”

From the way that bemused expression crossed her face, he suspected she knew that hadn’t been what he’d originally planned on asking, but she didn’t call him on it. Simply shrugged, gave him an affirmative and motioned with her chin toward a direction more west than south.

“Found the trail, though it wasn’t too hard to discover. The fox wasn’t trying to fool us, just escape us.” She gave a wicked grin, her eyes lighting up with excitement. “This will be more of a hunt even if it doesn’t put up much of a fight at the end.”

Me’nor remained silent as they and their dogs jogged to the place where Da’lil had indicated. The scent of her pack hung thick to the ground and the nearby bushes. Stronger than the fox’s light trail from its speeding race away from them. Her trail coincided with the fox’s, overlapping in an explicit fashion before her scent ceased and dog paws turned back the way they’d come.

“You’d meant to leave.” He spoke without thinking as they picked up the pace. “Why’d you come back?”

Da’lil waved a hand as thick grass stalks smacked their thighs, her manner completely shameless over the admission she’d begun to leave him behind. “It was quiet without you. Less fun.”

“Fun,” he echoed.

“Plus, this hunt isn’t going to end satisfactorily so we’ll need something actually worth fighting when it’s over.”

“When it’s…” Me’nor laughed once then pulled ahead, finding fresh energy surging through his pack at the suggestion of something worthwhile waiting for them at the end of the trail.

Once past the wildflowers and a gently sloping hill, the fox’s trail led through a small stream. Trees grew up along the bank along the eastern edge and top-heavy overgrowth leaned over the opposite side. Despite the bloody smears all across one tree trunk, they lost the trail for a few moments, but only for a few moments. Their packs were splashing through the water and testing the soil up and down the west bank within seconds. Win and Yal found the trail downstream and took off racing up the slope, attempting to outdistance each other in purposeful competition.

They didn’t stop to make a plan. Didn’t so much as mention the idea. Instead, Me’nor paced Da’lil and the two of them allowed their packs free rein. A giddy excitement sparked through the pack, making Nat and Alo crazy with pup antics. Me’nor could barely draw breath as he chased his dogs, but from a rising hunger rather than the run itself. Even the throbbing in his back couldn’t dim his fervor.

And all through their relentless race across the Braken, Me’nor caught Da’lil shooting him glances filled with unmistakable desire.

As they passed under a thin line of trees, she lifted a hand and jarred a branch above her head, sending water sprinkling down upon him as he passed a half-step behind her. He caught up and shoved her into a muddy puddle so that it splashed across her shins. So she scooped up a handful of soggy leaves and threw them at his head in response. And though he ducked, one smacked him right in the mouth as he inhaled. He spat it out and chased after her, promising dire things if he were to catch her. She laughed breathlessly but didn’t slow, not even when he took a shortcut, sprinting over a squat hillock in order to get ahead so he could shower her with a handful of grass heads that stuck to the mud splattered all over her clothes.

Kos told him, quite firmly, that he was acting more like a pup than Nat or Alo were. He laughed her off and focused his gaze on Da’lil’s slender form. The rest of his pack remained ambivalent to his desires, too caught up in the hunt, the fox’s scent in their noses.

Me’nor had to rely on them for direction because all he could smell was Da’lil. Her pheromones, her sweat, her wet, wild dog scent with a hint of cypress and strawberry. He didn’t care that they were playing like pups, teasing like virgins. That underlying sense of wrongness, that worry they might be caught at something they shouldn’t be doing only served to spike his want. And she mirrored that desire with every flirty grin.

They acknowledged the fear of reprisal instead of ignoring it, mocking one another for their differences—Me’nor calling her out for her wildness, her lack of control; Da’lil scoffing at his tameness, his inability to truly be free.

“If you think your civilized rules will save you, you’ve got a lot to learn,” she called. “My pack will sit on you until you’re screaming for your dam.”

“They’re too feral to cater to your base needs.”

“The wild has taught us how to share our needs. Too bad your control doesn’t let you truly feel one with your pack.”

“Too bad your lack of individualism means you probably want to fuck Toim as badly as you want to fuck me.”

“A dog’s a dog,” she responded with a deep, throaty laugh. “Who am I to be picky?”

“Your standards must have fallen as low as mine have then.” He snapped his teeth at her, moving close enough their hips grazed, the touch sending another pulse of want through his body despite the muddy clothes separating them.

“Likely,” she said, but the word cut off, choked away as her scent became heavy and her gaze flicked to his groin.

He shoved her with his hip just to watch annoyance flare on her face and thoughts of revenge twinkle in her eyes, then he said, “I guess I could spare you a few pity moments after that pathetic display the first time we fought.”

“That wasn’t a fight. That was a rutting pup with a over-exuberance problem. It must be ages since the last time you managed to prove you’re worth a romp.”

He growled at her. “I’ll have you wishing to the ancestral bitch that I was an inexperienced pup when I have you whining and whimpering and begging this civilized dog to tame you in ways you’ve never imagined.”

Da’lil barked out a laugh. “Do you promise?” she asked with a disbelieving gasp.

Me’nor swung around and skidded to a stop in front of her so that she practically ran into him  “I promise,” he snarled. “And unlike wild dogs, I keep my promises.”

Then a sudden howl and a series of eager barks from up ahead accompanied with the excitement lancing through his pack’s consciousness told him the quarry had been found. Win, Toim and Kos, along with most of Da’lil’s pack, fell upon the fox’s hiding spot, digging and snapping into the holes of the burrow it had attempted to close up behind itself. Me’nor turned around and headed to join them, feeling the dirt disappearing under Toim’s paws and smelling the empowering scent of fear as Win shoved her jaw into the expanding entrance.

The hole collapsed, opening the burrow. Me’nor watched Yal lunge at the fox through Win’s eyes and saw the fox dart out of the badly ruined burrow. It strived to throw itself past the gauntlet of dogs, its attempt valiant, but ultimately pointless. The hounds from both packs leapt upon the fox, bearing it to the ground in a tangle of blue fur and sharp teeth.

“I hope you didn’t really want that skin, Da’lil,” called Me’nor over his shoulder. “Because they are—omph.”

He landed hard, barely managing to get his arm up to protect himself from face planting into the ground. Da’lil’s weight pressed into his back, her hand pointedly putting pressure on his wound, though not attempting to rip it open. Her voice came hot and heavy in his ear.

“Oh, I’d love some skin, tame dog.” Then she shoved a hand up his shirt, her fingers chilly against his flesh.

A shudder took hold of Me’nor as pain and pleasure mixed in an intoxicating fashion. Then, when Da’lil’s head came down as if readying for a bite, he grabbed her and wrenched her sideways. Her thighs clamped around his middle, but they were too low to put any pressure on his lungs so all she did was twist her own body so that her head practically touched the ground while her lower half remained attached to Me’nor’s.

She snarled, digging her fingers into his wrist. He rolled himself in the opposite direction, getting one of her legs under his hip while he refused to release her head. Her hair tugged under his grip and the residual dampness and mud that clung to them both made their flesh stick and grate as they tussled. Da’lil kicked him with her heel over and over again as Me’nor fumbled with her head, eventually losing the battle and being forced to get a different hold on her neck.

They fought, Da’lil exhibiting her wildness with a fierceness Me’nor had never seen in a partner before. She clawed and bit and used every advantage she had, no matter how underhanded, which was why Me’nor had her fingers digging into his wound and scrabbling for his eye sockets often enough he caught her wrists and refused to let go no matter how they rolled and tumbled through the mud.

“They’ve taken it,” he gasped. “They’ve taken it down.”

Da’lil threw her head back and howled a victory cry for her pack. Me’nor echoed the sound in his mind for his own dogs to hear, then took advantage of Da’lil’s momentary distraction to flip her over onto her back and jerk her arms high above her head. Before she’d done more than buck once to test his weight, Me’nor sunk his teeth lightly over her throat.

She froze, not even breathing for a good long moment.

He growled softly, letting the sound reverberate through her skin. Then he deliberately pressed his tongue against her throat, feeling the quickening beat of her heart. When she tried to buck again, he clamped down harder until she settled. Her breathing came fast and hot above his ear. When she’d ceased, he gently let go of her throat and moved to the side of her neck. He nipped her lightly, teasing her flesh between his teeth as he worked his way up to her jaw.

“Me’nor.” She said his name like both a curse and a plea. Then she twisted her head so that her lips grazed his.

He took them eagerly in an bruising kiss. Da’lil kissed back with equal fervor, her teeth scraping his lips, biting down in constant reminder of what they were, who they were. With muscles shaking from forced restraint, Me’nor balanced above her, searching for that measured place that existed between passion and bloodthirst, that fiery unrestrained wantonness.

He released one of her hands in order to yank up her shirt, getting his palm on flesh, smooth and warm. The touch was worth it, regardless that she immediately dug her fingernails into the base of his neck. The tiny pinpricks of pain spurred him on, making him move roughly against her. She scrambled to scrunch up his muddy shirt as he swirled his tongue deep within her mouth. He tugged on her pants as she nipped at his lips, the pressure of her teeth sending perfect shudders of desire down his spine.

“Ha!” laughed Da’lil. “They’ve destroyed the fox. Nothing left.” Her words turned into a growl of satisfaction, a sound he was eager to hear again, but with more desire. And aimed at him.

Me’nor slid down her length, dragging her pants with him. Dark hair tickled his thumbs as he exposed her groin to his mouth and her ass to the damp ground. With a giddy feeling of triumph, he pressed his face against her vagina and licked between her folds. Da’lil arched, her growl cutting out and her hands scrambling for his bunched up shirt.

He paused long enough to say, “There’ll be nothing left of you either when I’m done.”

Da’lil snorted. “What? Don’t be—ahh!

After that, her gasps and whines filled his ears, a subtle music underneath the far louder boisterous barking of their dogs. She alternated between struggling to remove his shirt and collapsing against the ground, her hair picking up stray leaves and her body trembling beneath his hands. He licked and flicked and gently sucked. He spread her open, curled his tongue and fucked her shallowly, tasting her excitement, his cock straining in desperation in response.

“Tame dog,” murmured Da’lil. “You’re still so…ah, controlled.”

He pulled away from her reluctantly and bit her stomach. “I’m not falling for that. I told you I’d have you whimpering and that’s exactly what I intend on doing.”

With another sharp bite to her taut midsection, Me’nor straightened and ripped off his shirt. The dried mud scratched at his arms and crumbled to Da’lil’s hip. He smirked at her and flicked it off. And when she lurched up, they wrestled with gleeful fierceness, their mouths finding skin to bite, their clothes tangling on their limbs and their bodies pressing close enough that Me’nor’s cock slid between her warm thighs in sweet, sweet bliss.

When his pants caught on his heels, he grunted in frustration, kicked at them until one finally yanked off and then coerced Da’lil onto her back, succinctly pinning her with his weight. He liked her squirming under him. Her bare breasts, small, but well-formed, rolled and jumped as she strained against him. Her wet opening smeared along his cock every time she snapped her jaw.

“Taming you was easier than I thought,” he said, just to rile her up.

Da’lil’s eyes flashed and she must have had a hidden reserve of energy because she twisted them to their sides, causing Me’nor’s back to crash on the ground, pain echoing through his wound. He recovered quickly though, using her move against her as he continued the roll until Da’lil was once more on her back, her hardened nipples beckoning him to provide attention. So he did, swirling his tongue around one until Da’lil moaned before moving to the next.

She didn’t say anything, but her body arched into him, her legs wrapping around him and her vagina humping against his cock in obvious need. Me’nor smiled around her nipple. She wasn’t speaking, no, but she was begging in all other ways.

When he reached down to guide himself between her folds, he felt her shudder. And as her walls clenched down around him, he echoed the sentiment, letting his head fall to her shoulder. In the back of his mind, his pack cheered him on, their high from the fight goading him to fuck long and hard, until exhaustion claimed them and Da’lil lay marked and sated beneath him. With a growl, he gripped her hip, twisted his fingers into her hair and started pumping in and out of her.

Her growls became punctuated with grunts and gasps as he shoved the air from her lungs every time he bottomed out. Every thrust claimed another piece of his control, every flex of her muscles tore a groan from his throat.

He bit that lovely expanse of flesh between her shoulder and neck, harder now, leaving teeth marks behind and in one case, blood. She returned the favor, her tongue licking over every spot she took between her teeth, her own wild lust tearing through his skin far more often than he did to her. He could smell the blood, the coppery scent faint compared to the heavy, exhilarating taste of their sex permeating the air around them. And he didn’t care, the frail taste of blood lingering in her mouth inconsequential. She could have torn through his jugular while they fucked and he probably would have let her.

By the time she began the whimpering he’d promised her, he was near blind, the blood thundering in his veins, his cock rutting inside of her slickly, roughly. Da’lil came loudly, her howl turning into a snarl before morphing into a whine that extended for long, wonderful seconds. Me’nor shouted in pure triumph, his pack repeating the sound, making it echo across the Braken.

Only then did he allow himself to come. His hands tightened bruisingly, his body tensed and his eyes squeezed closed as pleasure finally escaped his control, pulsing in a drawn-out, painfully perfect moment. His orgasm wasn’t a release; it was an explosion. An out of body experience that suffused his mind so that he hung suspended, forgetting his very self. Had he not been firmly entrenched within Da’lil, he wasn’t sure whether he would have ever slammed back into his body. But his cock continued to feel the aftereffects of her pulsing around him and his muscles gave spasms that tingled and sparked along his nerves.

They gasped for breath, listening to the nearby growling of their tussling, fucking hounds as they rutted within the bloody carnage they’d rent on the fox. Matted blue fur lay scattered around them, glimpses of it shown to Me’nor through his pack’s eyes. He smiled against Da’lil’s cheek and canted his hips to keep his cock from slipping free from her warmth just yet.

She didn’t trail her fingers along his back as past lovers had. She didn’t kiss his jaw or nose his hair from his temple or even whisper pleasant ego-stoking words about his prowess.

Instead, she gripped his hips, her thumb digging in harshly and said in a challenging manner, “I guess we could go two out of three, let you have another chance to prove your worth.”

Me’nor blinked as he processed what she said, then slowly lifted his face so he could see her clearly. “I won,” he whispered.

That bemused smile spread across her face. “Did you? Are you certain? Because from down here it looks an awful lot like I beat you.”

He raised an eyebrow, then slowly matched her grin. “Well now, that’s one fight I won’t mind losing again.” The shock of those anticipatory words spilling from his mouth almost had him missing what she said next.

“Taming you was easier than I thought.” Her voice mimicked his earlier tone as she repeated what he’d said word for word.

He jerked his hips so that his partially hard cock slammed deeper within her, then growled low in warning. “Careful, wild dog, I might not make you whine so much next time.”

When she frowned in disappointment, he laughed and nipped at her lips, putting aside, at least for now, all the reasons why next time was as bad an idea as this time. Because really, what harm was there in having a secret tryst that had little future, but plenty of present reward that made his blood sing and his pack howl in perfect harmony.

The End

Fateful Hunt is actually a teaser for a M/M adventure fantasy duology I’m in the process of editing. This story is a prequel to that duology, using characters who don’t actually make an appearance within those novels. Instead, Me’nor and Da’lil are the parents of one of the leads in the duology. Fateful Hunt documents the day they met.

I know it’s a bit long. Last year I would have broken it up as a serial, but since I’m only publishing once a month now that would have put far too much time between the beginning and end.

I’ll have an excerpt from the first book in the duology up next month :)

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