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Haunt of The Wilds eBook CoverSo I switched W in for U on Tuesday, so here’s U, as promised. Seems silly that now the alphabet isn’t in order for this challenge. Only three more to go though. Getting close!

Urban Hunt is a short story about the first day De’vii goes to the city of Crafton. The day he meets Mi’saa. They are both probably around twenty years old in this story. Give or take a year or two for each of them.

URBAN HUNT

Stone architecture, most of it blackened with age and mildew, replaced the trees and grasses over time. The hills remained, with buildings squished into place on the sloping angles, closer and closer together the farther De’vii strode into the city. The sky above them never truly changed, sitting heavy with stars and the moon a crescent to the east, but as the lights of the city claimed the darkness as their own, the stars seemed to fade.

Crafton, they said, was the best place to get a job. Crafton, they said, was a hub of houndmaster activity. Crafton…a place devoid of everything De’vii considered familiar.

De’vii stopped in the middle of the active street, feeling jostled despite no one daring to touch him or his pack. Beside him, Sou growled in the back of his throat, feeling threatened and overwhelmed, his gaze drifting upward where the windows and rooftops seemed to stare down at them like watchful hunters waiting to strike.

Fel didn’t like the place either. None of the pack did. They all told De’vii so. Loudly and vividly, sending flashes of the vines of Ay’ril Woods and the lush forests of the wilds.

“Yeah, I know,” he said with a hint of exasperation. But he sure as hell planes wasn’t planning on turning tail and running home. And when he put it that way, neither were any of his pack.

Sudden resolve pumped through their collective consciousness, making De’vii smile as they started a jog through the crowded city streets. Ah, and they weren’t completely free from nature here. Half the houses were built from wood—dead wood didn’t count according to Sif, but the rest of the pack ignored her. Plus, quite a number of people had flourishing window boxes, many with the weeping limbs of tiny fruit plants drooping against the walls. Sure they were a little on the scrawny side, but De’vii would take it.

Now if only there was something to hunt under those puny bushes taking up residence along the outside wooden staircases. And just like that, the pack flipped back to wanting out. Out of the city, out of this whole stupid idea, because the lack of anything to sink their teeth into already boiled their blood in all the wrong ways.

“We’ll fix it,” muttered De’vii. “Everyone mentioned doghouses. We’ll find one.”

Finding one ended up being the easy part. Finding the right one…not so much.

The first doghouse De’vii entered was broken down and filled with young pups who must have thought of the place as a sort of sanctuary. Sure there was a fighting pit, but the sand was sparse and the pups too stupid for their own good. One even challenged De’vii. He accepted and promptly beat the pup in three seconds flat. Then he left to scour the streets for somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t in a state of disrepair and filled solely with pups.

The next doghouse seemed to be a place where houndmasters and their dogs went to die, filled with men and women so old, so covered in scars, they could barely hold themselves up, let alone fight, or the ancestral bitch forbid, actually go on a run. That was De’vii’s impression anyway when he first stepped over the threshold. Leam immediately turned his great auburn body right around, not even giving the place a thorough once over. Fel’s assessment came seconds later. And it wasn’t positive.

With exasperation now at a full high, De’vii growled under his breath as he left the doghouse and scowled at the passing people, scouring them for someone who might be able to do something about the sizzling frustration burning beneath his skin. Humans mostly, with the occasional renpter mucking up the androgynous sight. Sure there were houndmasters, but they all looked young and ran at break-neck paces through the streets, dog paws tapping against stone before becoming muffled in the dirt of the alleys.

De’vii shared a glance with Fel, then took off, needing to get his heart rate up. And not two steps past the doghouse threshold, he practically ran into a sprinting houndmaster. She leapt to the side fluidly, her dog dodging between De’vii and Fel. Her hair, dark brown and messy where it scattered across her shoulder, held the scent of fresh blood.

She snarled, slid her foot back and crouched, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Watch where you’re going,” she snapped.

With his pack growling angrily, De’vii lowered himself slightly to match her offensive stance. “City dogs,” he said mockingly.

With a snort, she tossed her head, the motion echoed by one of her dogs. “Is that supposed to be an insult?”

He shrugged. “I’d prefer if you took it that way.”

She narrowed her eyes for a brief moment and De’vii’s pack edged closer, anticipating a fight. Then she straightened, running a hand along the back of one of her dogs. Then she smiled, the expression full of knowing condescension. “You must be new to Crafton. You smell of the forest still.”

“Shouldn’t we all,” he countered, unmoved by her seeming lack of desire for a fight because he still wanted one.

She laughed, the sound rough, but merry. “You are dying for a fight.”

Now he straightened out of annoyance. “I was told the doghouses here made up for the lack of space to run, but the ones I’ve been in have been dreadful. I’m beginning to think I’ve been lied to.”

“Probably,” she agreed. “Where you from?”

“Ay’ril Woods.”

“Definitely,” she corrected. “Everyone I’ve ever met from Ay’ril has a few choice things to say about Crafton. Luirton’s a little better cause they’ve got those wooded lanes. Maybe you should have gone there.”

He scowled at her while his pack began to curse the people who’d talked Crafton up. Still, tucking tail and running wasn’t an option. “Lovely,” he said. “Any chance you might point us in a better direction than this place?” He nodded toward the doghouse he’d just exited.

The houndmaster sidestepped and leaned back to read the sign, then laughed again. “You really are fresh from the woods. That place is little better than a cemetery.”

“I noticed,” he said on another angry growl.

“Mi’saa,” she said suddenly, something altering in her demeanor.

He hesitated, not liking the lingering amusement in her eyes, but relented after a moment. “De’vii.”

Her lips curved. “I’m needing a partner for a job.”

“That’s nice. About those directions?”

“It’s an easy job,” she continued, bouncing up on the balls of her feet. Her dogs nudged forward, intent to mingle with De’vii’s pack. “You look like you could hold your own in a fight.”

“You always trust random people you just meet?” he asked, suspecting there was something more to this than she was letting on.

Mi’saa flicked imaginary dirt from her arm and smirked. “Nah. I’m getting a good vibe from you. Plus, I’ll show you around after, take you to the best haunts, the more respected doghouses. Even show you where a couple of the better houndmaster medics have set up in case you ever need help with one of your dogs’ wounds.”

De’vii consulted with Fel silently, the pack’s collective humming with suspicion. They counted quickly, noting she had a total of four dogs. None of them young. Three females, but none of them pregnant either, so she was likely in perfect shape.

Still, Fel was confident, and Sou overconfident, of their pack’s ability to take her on and win.

“What’s the job?” he asked.

A smile started spreading on Mi’saa’s face, but she quickly quashed it. “Just a quick hunt. Looking for a mage, some woman who stole some jewelry.”

“From who?” asked De’vii.

She pulled a paper from a pocket partway down her pants and unfolded it partially. “A Kennish something.” As she tucked it back away, she added, “Doesn’t really matter as long as he pays.” Then she grinned, a devilish glint shining in her eyes. “And if he doesn’t, then we’ll keep the jewelry.”

De’vii found himself smiling, but at a thought from Kat, asked, “Half and half?”

Mi’saa nodded. “I should argue for more since I found the job, but sure.”

“Why do you need help?”

She blanched and muttered, “Can’t smell her. She’s got some weird mask along her trail making her hard to track. Was hoping more noses to the ground might find her faster.” She untied a small pouch from her belt and proffered it to De’vii. “That’s a shirt of hers that she left at the job requester’s place.”

De’vii took it, opened it and, after checking that there wasn’t anything dangerous in the bag, he leaned over to let Fel and Kat get good whiff of the scent. They transferred the smell of the woman through the collective, letting the rest of the pack get an idea of what they were looking for.

“Split up?” he asked, wary since he didn’t know the streets of Crafton.

Mi’saa shook her head. “Just a street or two. We can cross through the entire west side of the city since that’s where the job said she likely lives.”

De’vii had no clue what she meant, but followed her regardless, keeping his gaze focused on the streets, letting his dogs spread out in an attempt to piece together some semblance of a map in their collective consciousness. The buildings toward the west had more haphazard placement, as if they’d been constructed here and there with random ones squished in between a few already standing. The streets curved in strange patterns and the scents of far, far too many people in one spot had his entire pack on edge.

They’d get used it, since it wasn’t much different than having the layers of animals overtake their senses back home. Would just take some time piecing it all together. Learning new territory. New people and their ways.

The lanterns flickered from a warm breeze that rushed through the city streets unnaturally, as if some mage blew it into existence. While it made a general attempt at smelling fresh, De’vii could practically taste the filth of unwashed urchins and rotting homeless on the wind.

He wanted to yell at them, tell them to get the hells out of the city where mages didn’t have to breathe fresh air down the busy streets, where they could come alive once more rather than linger purposelessly . He didn’t, but he also didn’t hold Sou or Ast back from snarling at random people they passed.

“Some of them don’t know how to live beyond the city,” confided Mi’saa when she saw him staring under one of the stone bridges where the water flowed sluggishly and the people slept under ripped canvas.

De’vii glanced at her. “Houndmasters get that way too?”

She shrugged. “Sure. There are those without the will to keep their pack fierce. They’ll stick to the sidelines until they can barely hunt anymore.” At his disgusted expression, she chuckled and motioned him toward a string of interconnected streets that ran north before cutting east. “Jep thinks he caught a scent.”

She remained mostly quiet after that as they jogged through unfamiliar streets, trying to get a better lead on that frail smell her dog had found. They separated most times to check along parallel roads, though De’vii kept Leam with Mi’saa at all times. She must have noticed because she made a couple of amused grunts directed at Leam, but she didn’t assign one of her own to tail De’vii. At first he thought it was a confidence thing, but after a few more streets he realized she just didn’t care enough to be bothered.

When he questioned her at their next pass, she responded, “The worst you can do is try to drop me and finish the job without me. But you don’t know where to turn it in, so that’d be dumb as all hells.”

He scowled at her, but she merely waved before stopping in the middle of the street, her gaze cutting eastward. “Is that—”

“I smell it,” interrupted De’vii. His pack was off, down the street, up an alley, following the old scent as if they’d just found this strange city hunt worthwhile.

“Hey, wait!”

He ignored Mi’saa’s call as he raced after Kat. The scent, at least a day old, stopped and started so abruptly along the sides of the streets, De’vii guessed the mage’s masking was simply fading overtime. Sou moved out front, Fel right behind double-checking his tail to be sure the pack didn’t miss anything. The woman’s scent led through the streets, up an alley where it lingered heavier, before finally fading completely at a corner.

De’vii slowed to a stop and scowled at the menagerie signs on the opposite side of the street, the bright pink and smeared yellow glinting like an awful beacon. The scents wafting out the upper story sparked hunger in most of his pack.

He forcibly pushed the feeling away and had them spread out. Sif took the widened streets to the north with Rid and Wress. Fel and Ast spread into the east while Sou and Kat reluctantly turned west toward the edge of the city.

Behind them all Leam meandered in their wake, sending snippets of Mi’saa’s amused cursing, along with her specific announcement meant to make them all feel stupid that, “she’d already found that trail and it led to nowhere.”

De’vii wished she had left one of her dogs with him because he would have had something choice to say back to her, but instead he had to rely on Leam’s snort of derision to communicate the pack’s irritation. Then Leam paused to sniff at the trail De’vii and the pack had already run down. The dog started to send an agreement through the pack’s consciousness, that he believed the mage’s masking had begun to give way, but before the thought could complete, Leam snorted abruptly and ceased moving.

The pack waited, some of them patiently, some of them nagging at Leam to hurry up with whatever it was he’d found—Sou and Ast most notably. Leam ignored them in favor of sending a focused thought directly to De’vii and Fel, something about the fading masking trail still there, having its own distinct, albeit diluted, scent.

Fel doubled back while De’vii turned to where the mage’s scent had ended. He crouched, ignoring the muttered complaints of a local who had a few choice things to say about De’vii stopping in the middle of the street.

Yes, Leam seemed to be right. While the scent wasn’t strong, De’vii could just barely tell something weak was loosely linked to the mage’s. A weird smell, one he couldn’t quite identify, even after pooling it into the pack’s collective.

Maybe it just wasn’t identifiable. As if it existed more on some astral plane rather than in a physical one. Hells if he knew. This kind of stuff wasn’t his specialty.

De’vii released an annoyed sigh, then twisted around to follow Leam’s suggestion to see if they might not be able to recognize this weird scent somewhere else. Leam seemed confident enough in the idea, as if finding a scent that didn’t even seem to completely exist would be easy. Especially considering the constantly churning air sweeping around them and the bulk of people living in such close quarters.

He sniffed, then leaned closer to the ground and sniffed again as Fel ran up and joined him. Some nearby human made a disparaging comment about houndmasters acting like dogs, so De’vii rose up and bared his teeth before lunging at the idiot. The man jerked away, stumbled into a couple of younger women passing by, then took off down the street at a brisk walk.

Mi’saa strode up then, glancing over her shoulder at the escaping man. “You’ll give us all a bad name.”

De’vii ignored her and moved forward to check another section of the corner.

“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.

He lifted his head, eyes unfocused as he checked in with Kat. She was hovering over a spot a few streets westward, Sou right up the street from her. She’d thought she’d caught a hint of that weird scent. She paced closer to the edge of the street, catching a whiff of it again. Sou nosed in behind her, then leaped the steps lowered into the ground and skidded to a stop outside the wooden door at the bottom.

De’vii stood. “Found her.”

“What?” said Mi’saa, her expression one of complete disbelief. “There’s no way. I’ve been searching for her since yesterday.”

Without comment, De’vii turned and headed toward Kat and Sou, reminding them to remain in the street so they wouldn’t spook the mage while the rest of the pack caught up.

“De’vii? You can’t be serious.” Mi’saa snapped her teeth together in obvious frustration, yet trailed him reluctantly.

They ran fast, Fel far in front and Rid and Wress closing in from the north, Sif on their heels. Ast was pissed beyond belief when she discovered she was the furthest away and might miss out on the kill. She gnashed her teeth at every person she passed and sniped at Sou for finding their quarry, infuriated enough that she completely ignored De’vii when he told her there would be no kill.

One street over, the corner in sight and Mi’saa at his side, De’vii felt Sou snap under Ast’s constant barrage. Dodging Kat nimbly, Sou shot for the door, his only thought, resounding through the collective, focused on beating Ast to the takedown. He slammed into the door, shaking it on its hinges. The wood splintered where Sou’s shoulder hit, the flimsy lock buckling under the pressure.

He sprinted back up the stairs, adroitly ducked Kat’s attempt to nab his neck, then twisted and bounded down to slam into the door again. The door bent under the pressure and the lock popped, the wooden latch on the inside swinging off with a creak. A huge waft of the mage’s scent came billowing through the cracks of the door, siphoning through the pack’s consciousness and spurring them all onto the hunt.

De’vii picked up the pace. “Sou’s breaking in.”

“Make him wait!” demanded Mi’saa. “She’s still a mage. I don’t know what she might do. You could lose your dog.”

De’vii slowed just long enough to glare at her for her lack of confidence, then sprinted past her as Sou scrambled over the broken pieces of the door, Kat right behind. They barreled through the scattering people, Kat taking care to weave around the two shaking children tucked into the corner by the hearth.

The woman—that mage—she made an awful racket as she scrambled upstairs, hollering down at the men below who attempted to slow Sou without much success. Sou merely bit the bravest one in the knee, leaped over the man when he dropped and landed skillfully where the first few steps made a ninety degree angle.

As Sou clambered at the mage’s heels, Kat got caught up with the men below. She growled and weaved between them, the fastest of De’vii’s pack, so graceful as she ran circles around the men, getting a good bite in here and there. Fel joined her moments later, Rid and Wress howling in the street beyond.

The mage slammed a bedroom door shut on Sou in the upper level, the latches slamming closed more an annoyance to him rather than a deterrence. He didn’t slow—the ancestral bitch knew he never would. He hit the door hard, but at an angle because of the narrowness of the hallway, so while the wood shook, it didn’t immediately splinter. He barked viciously and scrambled to get a good running start again, all the while howling in the pack’s collective that they were losing time, losing ground.

Down below Rid and Wress had joined the fray, helping to push past the men to join Kat and Fel upon the stairs where they clattered in the haste to join Sou. Outside, De’vii slowed to a stop outside the building and looked up where the mage had clambered out of her window and onto the wooden balcony that wrapped across multiple buildings, knocking over a couple of wimpy-looking potted plants in her rush.

He growled low in his throat as he sent the image of her escaping throughout the pack. But when he went to grab the lower level, hoping to climb it, the mage took one look at him, lifted a hand and squeezed her fingers into a fist and…disappeared. De’vii felt his mouth fall open in shock as he stepped away, casting about for where she’d gone.

“Tricks,” said Mi’saa wryly as she caught up. “Nothing more. If she was any better she’d have gone for your throat.”

“She’s invisible?” asked De’vii.

He sniffed, but other than the scent of her lingering above him, he couldn’t find her. He tried to tell if she was masking her trail again, but with the rush of adrenaline and fury pulsing through his pack right now he couldn’t smell anything that frail. Sou appeared out the same window the mage had come through and started sniffing the wooden slates. Fel joined him a few seconds later, but the rest—Kat, Rid and Wress—all appeared from the broken door below ground level to come join De’vii. With Leam and Sif at his side and Ast closing the distance quickly, they were almost at full strength.

Mi’saa made a disagreeing noise. “We get a lot of jumpers here. They never can go far though and—”

“There!”

De’vii took off without bothering to point. Above them Sou and Fel sprinted loudly across the leaning wooden balcony and leaped the bent railing toward the next. The woman herself disappeared into the alley below them. Ast shifted direction, her exhilaration intoxicating to the pack as she caught up to the woman on the other side of the alley. The panicked woman took one look at Ast and disappeared again, this time not even leaving her scent behind.

The rest of the pack congregated at the spot before spreading out to find her again.

“Lovely,” De’vii muttered. “She’s masking again.”

He expected Mi’saa to respond, but when he turned, she wasn’t there. Nor were any of her dogs. Fuck her then. He’d be damned if he needed some city dog’s help to hunt down anything.

And that was when Rid let out a howl to alert the pack he’d found the mage again, this time heading southeast, her hair whipping in another of those strange winds that ghosted through the streets opposite the way the trees shook.

They hunted in those unfamiliar city streets. Cobbled walks so different than the grass and dirt of the forests. The annoying lines of buildings like cloying mountains with far too many tunnels, linking everything in ways the pack didn’t yet understand, not like the simplicity of the broad-trunked trees or the river and its offshoots that they knew backward and forward.

De’vii pumped his legs as he took a hill behind Wress and Sif, then skirted right through an alley, only to scowl at the dead-end and spin back around. They kept close to the mage. Close enough to occasionally scent her when her masking dropped. Almost close enough to bite her on three separate occasions. She looked terrified, but determined, sweat making the hair cling to her neck as she bumped and shouldered her way through the crowd outside some entertainment building where musicians played their stringed instruments loud enough it could be heard streets away.

She was weakening, her pathetic jumps not covering as much distance, her masking failing more often than not. She attempted to help her escape by tossing some ilarm powder at the pack’s front runners, but they recognized the move and fell back to let it scatter harmlessly across a storefront before skirting the area and closing in on her. She stumbled but didn’t fall, her breath coming ragged enough that it sang sweeter to De’vii’s pack than any music. Then she turned a corner, the scent of her fear overwhelming in her wake.

They had her. They’d run her down, exhausted her, same as they’d done countless times in the forests back home. Maybe urban hunts weren’t all that different than—

De’vii staggered to a shocked stop around the corner. An awful sense of resentment reared throughout the pack. Resentment and hot ire mixing with the distinct lack of satisfaction normally gained at the end of a good hunt.

Mi’saa stood there, two of her dogs at her side, the other two restraining the mage at her feet. She looked up at De’vii with smirk, proud of her stolen victory. He growled and crouched slightly, intending to launch himself at her as his pack gathered close, all of them furious, Sou most of all.

She shook her head. “You need to learn the streets when hunting here. Know where people will probably run to. That way you don’t have to rely on your endurance every time, especially if hunting down someone more skilled.”

He only growled louder.

“I told you I’d take you to a doghouse,” she said, completely unperturbed by his challenge. “I will. Your pack obviously needs the fight and you can find someone there.”

“No,” he snapped. “I want to fight you.”

Mi’saa hesitated then, some of her bravado, while not exactly slipping away, became more wary. “You might not want to.”

“Why’s that?” demanded De’vii.

She cleared her throat and scratched at her scalp as if self-conscious. “My dam wasn’t a houndmaster.” She rushed the words as if airing a dirty secret. “I’m still proving myself despite having practically grown up here in Crafton. Most people don’t think much of winning a fight against me. Would have told you, but then I figured you wouldn’t help me out.”

De’vii let the growl fade and his pack hesitated. “Where’s your dam from?” he asked.

“Some islands in Virdaemn. The skin,” she said with a gesture at her face.

He had no interest in females, so hadn’t looked closely before, but now he actually examined her more thoroughly and saw she did indeed have a slightly darker complexion than the average houndmaster. The coloring wasn’t strong enough for him to presume anything though. A subtle reminder to her though, most likely, telling her she didn’t completely belong.

He slowly stood, feeling an instant kinship. Maybe it was inappropriate. Too early to tell who Mi’saa might be, but he certainly felt like giving her more of a chance based on the things he’d been through.

“My dam…” he said quietly before trailing off.

Mi’saa waited, her expression wry and skeptical.

“Maybe I can tell you about her after I beat your ass on the sands of that doghouse you promised to show me.” That way, if she ended up being a hypocrite about her half and half breeding, his pack would at least get a good fight out of her.

Something flashed in her eyes. Nothing to do with anger. Something more akin to hope, making De’vii hope in return he might find some understanding within her.

She snorted. “You just ran yourself ragged. If anything I’m going to have to try to keep you from embarrassing yourself your first night in Crafton.” Then she reached down and gripped the mage under the arm and hefted the woman to her feet. “But first, let’s collect so you’ll have enough to buy me a few shots of Sand Tears after you cry some real ones.”

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