HAUNT OF THE WILDS

Haunt of The Wilds eBook CoverHAUNT OF THE WILDS
The Wilds Duology: Book I
145k novel
gay romance/adventure fantasy

Published December 3rd, 2015
On Amazon for $4.99

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The wild will reign.

When Houndmaster De’vii and his pack take on a seemingly innocuous escort job, things quickly spiral out of control. Creatures straight from a death plane hide within the unfamiliar country and the people he’s supposed to rely on to help have their own darker motivations.

And then there’s De’vii’s alluring charge.

Caliebb Renaveri is harmless and quiet, yet also manages to stir the wild in every dog in De’vii’s pack. He can’t afford to allow the wildness to take over, nor can he abandon the job. But Caliebb is more than he appears and stronger than he seems and by the time De’vii realizes just how dangerous Caliebb truly is he stands to lose everything he holds dear: his mind, his life and his pack.

CHAPTER ONE

He’d been out of the scene for a few months—running hard down trails past the Braken getting his pack prepped and practiced with the two new pups—so when he arrived back in the biggest doghouse in Crafton looking for a job, he’d anticipated being met with excitement. Not annoyance. And certainly not from Mi’saa.

“De’vii, De’vii.” Her voice was deep for a woman, but it fit her well, accentuating the corded muscles that ran from her neck to her calves. She kept her hair cut short, a leftover lesson from when she’d caught it on one job and almost had her scalp ripped off. She was lounging on the low couch, one of her dogs stretched out beside her, another two curled up on the floor and three more circling the area in guard positions. “You little shit.”

“Good to see you too, love. May I introduce the two newest members of my pack.” De’vii flicked his fingers, although it wasn’t necessary for Wit and Ens came forward with just an encouraging thought.

Mi’saa barely spared them a glance, narrowing her eyes up at him. “You cut out on me.”

Damn her rudeness. De’vii stroked Wit’s neck, sending comforting thoughts the dog’s way, making sure he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. Ens was a different matter altogether. He sat glaring at Mi’saa and likely would have snarled had most of his bad behavior not been bitten out of him by Fel, Kat and Sou during the last months. He was still chafing, De’vii knew that, but he was better in public now. Especially at a doghouse where the fur flew and the scents of blood and fury permeated the air, promising a dogfight for good behavior. And any houndmaster or nocturn hound worth their weight didn’t just relish a fight, they lived for it.

“I told you I wasn’t trading Kat’s last litter.”

“And I told you I’d already accepted the job, De’vii.”

He shrugged. “I’ll make it up to you. We’ll do another one.”

“I lost Jep.”

The words cut into De’vii, harsh and grating, and his gaze immediately skipped to the remembrance choker around her neck that was almost hidden by her collar before he glanced over her pack. Only six. He’d assumed the seventh had been milling. Assumed wrong, it seemed.

An echoing of a long ago ache pulsed somewhere deep inside him. That pain wouldn’t be considered comparable though. Not to Mi’saa. Not to most houndmasters. At least not on this side of the Braken.

De’vii’s pack paused in their pacing, a few running back from wherever they’d wandered off, and gave a mourning growl, the noise starting low and slowly gaining in pitch until it reverberated off the walls, causing most of the second level of the doghouse to send empathetic glances toward Mi’saa.

The doghouse continued its lively tune around them, houndmasters and their packs milling and drinking. The bloody fighting—both masters and dogs—on the ground floor below them reached a fevered pitch of howls and yips before dying down as someone bit the sand hard.

De’vii let his head drop slightly as his pack cut off their sympathies. One of the dogs curled on the rug stood then and came forward to greet Fel. Nose to nose. A rubbing of necks. When the two backed off, De’vii’s pack was given free rein to mill with the six remaining dogs with Mi’saa.

De’vii found himself a seat across from her, feeling Fel take up a position by his feet and Sif come to lay her head upon his lap. “I can’t make that up to you,” he said quietly.

“I know,” said Mi’saa, her hands idly running through the dog’s coat in front of her. “But you can try now that you’re done playing with your pack.” In the wilds was left unsaid but hovered between them ominously. She tugged a folded piece of paper from her vest pocket and flicked it toward him.

Fel caught it out of the air and turned to pass it to De’vii, the dog’s sharp teeth carefully not puncturing the paper. De’vii rubbed him between the ears as he took it. The job offer had been folded into eighths, small and compact, the lines sitting heavy in the paper as he unfolded it.

He blanched when he read it. “Virdaemn?” He kept the snarl from his voice. Barely.

Mi’saa shrugged. “It’s down south in the country of Nabia. Not as bright. You can bring your shades.”

“No.” De’vii folded the paper up and tossed it back, not caring that one of her dogs sprang to his feet to stall it from smacking into Mi’saa’s face.

“It’s just an escort job, De’vii.”

He leaned back and waved her on. “So go. Have fun in Virdaemn. Bring me back a present.”

“You’ve taken jobs in Virdaemn before.”

“Not on the Empire’s continent, not with two new pups who’ve never seen a sun before, not with a pregnant bitch and certainly not with you. When I go to Virdaemn it’s on my terms. There’s simply too much I dislike over there.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“Says the woman who was half-raised there.”

“They’re asking for houndmasters for a reason,” said Mi’saa. She lifted the paper between her pointer and middle fingers. “They’re going through a place they very unoriginally call the Haze. It’s dark and supposedly…hazy. You’ll like it. Your pups will like it. Plus, as I’ve said, it’s an escort. Your pregnant bitch will be fine. Besides, you owe me. You’ll come.”

De’vii stared at her for a long moment. “Who did you partner with on the job?” He carefully kept any pity from his voice.

Mi’saa’s eyes flashed and he saw, just for the briefest of moments, the pain from losing Jep. Then it was gone, hidden by that steely exterior. “Reloz,” she said flatly, her face going blank.

A half-breed. Dam from Virdaemn, sire from Nebrae. The man had begged his sire to train him until his sire had finally relented and gifted him with part of a litter. Reloz wasn’t bad, per se, but he certainly wasn’t good either. He didn’t have the history most houndmasters did. Didn’t have the implicit trust that was required and because of that he was slow, which meant his dogs were slow to respond.

“My apologies.”

Mi’saa shrugged, the blankness remaining. “He was the only person available. Better than nothing. A lot worse than you.”

“Thank you.”

“That was me trying to guilt you,” said Mi’saa with a sigh, “not complimenting you.”

“I know,” said De’vii, letting a smile tug at the corner of his mouth.

“I guess it didn’t work.”

“I hate Virdaemn.”

“Did you even look at what they’re offering?”

De’vii didn’t answer. Didn’t need to. She knew he rarely looked at the price tag to make a decision. He decided on a job first, then negotiated, dropping the job if the offer didn’t lift to a respectful amount. But respect was all he required, as he’d been known to take jobs that barely lifted past the floor he’d need to care for his pack.

Mi’saa sighed again, this time more dramatically, and tossed the paper back. Fel gave a repeat performance of his catch from earlier, then turned to snap his teeth at Wit after the pup had tried to intervene.

De’vii held the job for moment, opening up his conscious to his dogs—all eleven of them. Sou was perched on the thick platform that served as a railing, watching the fighting down below and aching to join. Kat was beside him, but sprawled and almost asleep. The fights must not be exciting enough tonight for her. The pregnant Mott was asleep behind the couch. Ens, Wit, Rid and Wress were all on moderate guard duty, circling and milling, their senses sharpened far more than a mutt from Virdaemn’s could ever be. Ast and Leam were playing with a few of Mi’saa’s pack. Sif and Fel were on De’vii duty. He told them it wasn’t required here in the doghouse, but they didn’t move, much too content with being near him, so he didn’t push it.

He breathed out roughly, his free hand scrubbing down Sif’s back. He had one of the largest packs this side of the Braken. And quite frankly, most people didn’t count the packs on the wrong side of the Braken. Too many masters for the same dogs. Too many dogs period. Too much wrongness in the hierarchies. Too much wildness.

De’vii agreed about the wildness, for the most part, even if that was where he hailed from.

The wilds beyond the Braken were good fun for a jaunt. Lovely all year round and welcoming for those who belonged. But it was like traveling between the planes of Virdaemn and Nebrae—one had to know and understand the culture differences and… Well, most people didn’t bother to learn the wilds because they assumed the culture didn’t exist simply because they didn’t understand it.

He unfolded the paper more slowly this time. “You know the zeros don’t matter, Mi’saa.”

“I know.”

He glanced at her, suddenly suspicious.

“Just read it.”

Skipping past the pleasantries, the description and the references provided that gave the request legitimacy, De’vii found the offer and lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. “A spring? They’re offering use of a mage spring?”

Mi’saa hummed in appreciative agreement. “Not just any spring, pup. An eternal one from the Founteinn Society.”

Fel, Sif and even Sou from where he sat perched over on the railing all looked at Mi’saa with anger in their eyes and a snarl in their throats at the audacity of Mi’saa to call their master a pup. De’vii could feel his own annoyance curling into something stronger because of their reaction, his feelings merging with theirs, the same as his consciousness could—and did the majority of the time.

“Yes, I’d read who the offer was from. You can’t honestly believe they’d allow one of their own into Nebrae, especially on a dangerous job, which, I don’t know about you, that would be exactly where I’d want to have a spring in my pack.”

“Normally, no. However, they are seeming pretty desperate. They’ve been upping the offer every few days and I’m damn sure we could get that contract looking even sweeter between the two of us working them.”

De’vii set the paper down carefully onto the couch beside him. “You work with the Founteinn Society before?”

“Once,” she said. “With the dam. They’re sticklers and paranoid, but they pay well and on time without scruples or scenes. And they don’t renege. I know that much as dark’s honest truth because they helped one of my dam’s friends once to kill an old enemy from Feloc’s Canvas and lost one of their own in the process. Didn’t say a damn word, not condemning or angry. Just took their dead, marked the contract complete and went back to Virdaemn as peaceably as you like.” She paused, swung her leg off the couch and leaned forward. “They’ll be good to have on your side, De’vii. Just think about the bloodshed last time fighting nipped out of the wilds.”

“You don’t have to remind me what happened.”

She shrugged and leaned back again.

“Feloc’s Canvas, huh?” he asked in the silence. “They helped take on a drake?”

“Full-fledged from what my dam said.”

He nodded in appreciation. “That’s dedication for you.”

Mi’saa gave a tight smile.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“Do you?”

“Of course.” De’vii chuckled then. “It’s all over your face, love.”

“So?”

“So, you’re probably right. It’d be good to have them on my side if things take a turn for the worse in the Braken.”

“You and I both know that should be a when not an if.”

“I like to try to be optimistic.”

She snorted. “That why you bought basement rights to three different doghouses and have wooed the mutt’s son down in the hostel outside the Braken so he’d lie for you?”

De’vii gently nudged Sif with his mind and she obediently jumped down off the couch so he could stand. “My sire always said that if you prepared for the worst then it was that much more likely not to happen.” He paused for effect before adding, “Especially if you spent good money on the prep.”

Mi’saa laughed out loud. “Is that a yes, then?”

“Yes, it’s a yes. Even if Virdaemn is a hellish plane.”

“Better than Lucean.”

“You’d have to bite my eyes out before I would be willing to set foot on that evil triple-sunned shithole,” he said as he turned away, sending a thought out to his pack.

“I’ve heard it’s pleasant during the solstice that comes every few years,” she said.

He began to stride away, then stopped and turned back. “And Mi’saa…” He waited until she’d looked up at him before saying calmly, “I’ve had my own pack since I was seven. Have twice as large a pack as yours, have traded more litters than your mutts have birthed and have the fastest connection with my dogs no matter which side of the Braken you look on. Plus, I’m three years your senior. I’m nobody’s pup, love.”

His younger hounds gave a chorus of barks to accentuate his words, but Fel, Sou and Mott simply turned sedately and padded away with him, their silent proud forms more pleasing than a bitch dropping a perfect litter.

As a reward, he let Sou, Kat and a couple of the younger ones take a few rounds on the floor against some hustlers while he and Fel cheered them on. Then bet heavily against one of the doghouse’s reigning champions and making more than enough on Sou’s win to buy supplies for a trip into Virdaemn.

He had to deal with Sou’s unrepentant cockiness afterwards, despite a bloody wound he’d taken on his flank, but it was worth it—so worth it—to get the high his pack needed.

* * *

They entered Virdaemn a few hours before dawn. The passage smelled of dead moth and mortar after a heavy rain. The air thickened as they walked, turning near black at times. De’vii kept Wit and Ens in check during the passage, keeping them from panicking when even their sharp eyes couldn’t see two inches in front of their faces.

Then the miasma broke around his pack, letting him step out over a brick ledge that dropped about a foot into a cozy human-styled room with not a single perch or cushion laid out for dogs. His pack scattered, only Mott staying by his side as the rest sniffed and checked every inch of the place, smelling mostly mold and stale air. Fel took position in front of him, staring hard at the two men keeping watch over the passage though they paid him little mind.

He felt his pack’s assurances as a buzz in his head, more of a relaxing of tension than real words. “Clear,” he said for Mi’saa’s benefit.

She nodded, stomping forward to flash a passcard and a permission slip to the men. One took out a glowlight and shone the tiny thing over the passcard to check for the identification strips as the other glanced at the slip before returning it to Mi’saa and slouching back over his book, a pencil already in hand before she’d stuffed the slip into her vest.

The two men were skilled, he was sure. One looked as if he had originally come from Elaeh for his body shimmered in the fake light as if he was finding it difficult to keep himself together. Some sort of elemental then. The other guard looked human…which made it difficult to determine his exact race or how he might be trained. Whatever he was, he was probably just as dangerous as the elemental, otherwise he wouldn’t be here.

Though, why so many of the countries in Virdaemn were so obsessed with watching the passages, De’vii would never know. The passages in Crafton were open and set in their own little houses that people in the city took turns caring after. De’vii had pitched in fixing the roof of one years before when the doghouse he frequented the most had taken over for a few months. If people wanted the business open through Virdaemn, they helped keep them clean, but damn, no one guarded the places. Probably because it would end up with more fights than it was worth in Nebrae. Bodies would likely litter the street in front of the passage houses far too often… And it would surely end up being whatever guards had been assigned.

He gave a toothy grin at the two men, sure he could take them no matter what dangers they might pose—or maybe that was Sou’s cockiness spilling over from two nights ago—and followed Mi’saa out of the stifling room.

They took the two flights of steps and pushed open the steel door at the top. It clicked behind them, leaving them in the back hall of a giant inn. The front half had been turned into a restaurant and the levels above were rooms, the entire building both fronting and protecting the passage into Nebrae. This early, barely any noise drifted down from the floors above their heads and the front of the inn was silent.

“My pack thinks it smells trashy here,” said Mi’saa in the quiet hall.

“That’s because it does. The sun crisps everything. And it’ll only get worse when it’s actually awake.”

“You astound me with your whining. How do you manage to have such a good reputation?”

“I keep it all just for you.”

“Lucky me,” said Mi’saa as she pulled free the directions. “We’ve got a trek on our hands to get to this Matna Manor. Probably take us a few hours. If we pace it right we could arrive before the sun comes up. Save your pretty little eyes.”

De’vii grunted and followed his pack out of the hall and into the street. No moon, but he could practically taste the coming dawn. He snapped his fingers to Fel, letting the dog set the pace. Only spared a brief moment to be sure Mott was fine before loping off with them through the streets of the sprawling town. Sou twisted direction and ran off with one of Mi’saa’s pack.

“A river,” said Mi’saa, just as Sou was letting De’vii know the same thing.

They turned without speaking and cut through a back alley before spilling onto another street, ignoring the startled stares they received from the few locals who were awake. Oh yes, seventeen dogs and two houndmasters running through the town might make for an odd sight in Virdaemn no matter how normal it might be in Nebrae. Another reason why he hated this place.

It only took a short jog to get out of the town and into the roads and forests beyond. No farmland, he noted with some surprise. Most of the places he’d been to on the opposite side of the plane had been stretches of farmland, beautiful in the middle of the night when the wind whipped through the fields. The one time he’d been to the Merandin Empire above the range to the north, he’d found the atrocity that the Emperor lived within to be a bit much. The black chisin it was made from was fine, but whatever they’d used to riddle the place had reflected the sun into De’vii’s eyes like miniature piercing blades.

That wasn’t the reason he preferred being far from the Empire’s continent—he wasn’t petty—but there’d been just too many wars lately to do with that government. One had stretched into the southern mountain range and another had brought in almost every country in the plane’s northwest continent. It was impossible to tell what kind of enemies you could make taking a job up there and the last thing he wanted was for the Empire to think he was against them or anyone else thinking he supported the Empire. Way to lose out on jobs, friends and, most importantly, his life or the lives of his dogs.

They followed the river Sou had found, crossing when they came to an old bridge. De’vii kept pace with Mott, checking her for pains every once in a while until she finally got fed up and growled that she was fine. Fel laughed at him, the sound merely quiet huffs that were picked up and echoed by most of his pack.

At least their spirits were up. Might change with the dawn. Hopefully by that time they would be all tucked securely within one of Founteinn’s buildings hashing out details in the contract.

* * *

If he hadn’t been already awake and slouched at his window, chin on his arms and mind wound up from nightmares that never-ended, Caliebb would have missed their arrival. As it was, he almost missed it anyway.

A shadow crossed over the brick on the building opposite. Large, but hazy in the dawn’s sharp light. It moved slowly, never truly gaining features, though part of that could have been the glare on the window and the sleep in his eyes.

When the shadow lifted its head and made a bark that echoed off the buildings, Caliebb jerked, sitting straight up and pressing his forehead against the glass as he attempted to blink his vision clear and his mind clearer.

When he had, the shadow was gone. He unlatched the window and stuck his head out, shivering in the early morning autumn chill as a breeze brought the fresh scents of overturned dirt and late-blooming flowers into his room. To his right, the part of the courtyard he could see was quiet and empty. The buildings surrounding the courtyard had about as much action as a black widow had living lovers. The main garden entrance to his left and the little greenhouse beside it had only the glint of the sun to keep it company.

Caliebb sighed and pulled his head back in to shut the window against the chill. Before heading for the shower, he gave one last look. Then did a double-take as he watched a huge dog lope around the corner of the greenhouse and disappear. The creature had been larger than a wolf with features reminiscent of hellhounds. Big enough Caliebb hoped dearly the gardener hadn’t yet shown up to work.

He shook his head and went to get ready for the day now that it was late enough he could walk the grounds without anyone starting to question his sanity. By the time he’d showered, shaved, dressed and wandered down to the kitchen, and there’d been no screams originating from the garden, he decided to put the huge dog out of his mind, convinced he’d made it up.

Until he saw the huge creature that had taken up residence under the table. He sucked in a breath and slowly walked back out the way he’d come, content to let his stomach growl until he could find someone to explain away the creature that swung its great red head toward him, eyes alight with some sort of primal feeling, lips sucking back in a slow snarl.

Huge didn’t even begin to cover it. The creature had the darkness of Nebrae etched into every muscle, every sinew. Looked as if it could snap a man’s spine in half with that jaw.

“Pretty hard to miss, huh?” whispered a dry voice to his right. He turned slowly, still completely conscious he was within sight of the thing under the long table.

“A little bit,” he muttered to Epsie. “Ep, what is that thing?”

Epsie reached out one deeply tanned hand and pulled him away from the open doorway, patting him in reassurance. When they were both leaning against the wall, she pointed down toward the open parlor. “Nocturn hounds. Loren just took two houndmasters into the office.”

“You saw them?” he asked, with more than a little relief that the dog wasn’t a sign of the manor being invaded.

She nodded, dark curly hair rubbing at her temples. It was cut around her neck and only just reached her shoulders. She absently brushed it back. “Probably for our trip to Neit Valley.”

Caliebb felt his stomach clench. Animals. He didn’t like animals. Least of all dangerous ones that ran through his nightmares when he finally couldn’t remain awake any longer. “I thought we were getting black widows?”

Epsie shrugged, the motion making her vest scratch against the wall. “I highly doubt two black widows are going to be enough based on the way Loren and Stev have been high-strung lately. They want this job bad, Caliebb. You can practically taste their excitement.”

“Would be nice if they bothered to ask us once in a while,” he muttered. He felt rather than saw Epsie look sideways at him, but he refused to meet her gaze, knowing the admonishment he’d see there. He was about to say something more, something a little less petulant, when a giant red head appeared out of the kitchen doorway.

Shit.

He hadn’t even heard the creature get up, let alone move across the kitchen floor. He felt Epsie slide her fingers into his hand and squeeze tightly as the dog’s head swung toward them. So, she was more scared than she’d pretended. Wouldn’t do to call her on it though; she’d just deny it. The dog stared, teeth still bared, and Caliebb was pretty damn sure the thing was growling, but he couldn’t swear on it because his heart was beating too fast, the blood too loud in his ears.

“Wow, if that thing stretched, its head would come up to mine,” whispered Epsie. “Bigger than I thought.”

Caliebb made a noise that he hoped she’d take as “shut up,” gaze never leaving the dog’s. It leaned closer. Too close. Way too close for comfort. Caliebb could smell it, fresh dew and damp dirt not enough to overpower the distinct scent of death that clung to its breath. He felt a tremor shiver through his body and had to forcibly staunch it down, his free hand curling into a fist as if his defense training could stand up against a creature of this magnitude.

The dog saw it, its gaze flicking to Caliebb’s side with more than a scant trace of intelligence. Then it made a strange sound in the back of its throat, closed its jaw with an audible snap and padded silently down the hall in front of them. Caliebb relaxed as Epsie yanked free her hand and wiped it on her pants.

“It’s not wild, Cal. Calm yourself.” As if she hadn’t been the one sweating. He resisted sighing at her as she gave him another sideways glance. “You look awful. Still sleeping badly?”

“I’m sleeping fine. I just don’t like animals,” he said, wiping a hand at the dampness gathered at the back of his neck. He stared at his palm for a moment, at the droplets that turned him clammy, before shaking himself and wiping it off.

Epsie snorted, curls bobbing about her head as she rolled her eyes and twisted to enter the kitchen. “Sure you are. You think that dog chased off the cook for good?”

He stood inside the doorway and watched as she started rooting through the pantry. “I’ll go look for her,” he said quietly. “Don’t bite that”—sigh—“the rind is bad for you. Peel it.” He didn’t wait to see if Epsie listened, knowing she’d probably eat through the fruit anyway—and complain about it later—then purposely turned in the opposite direction the dog had gone even though it took him round back.

The cook wasn’t in any of the back rooms and he decided against calling her name, not exactly wanting to attract the dog’s attention again. Not that Caliebb thought that Loren would let something in the grounds, let alone in the house, if she thought it could touch him, Epsie or the other two mage springs stationed here, but he certainly didn’t want to take the chance with a creature that seemed entirely too vicious for its own good.

Besides, he wasn’t hungry anymore. Not really.

He pushed open the back door and slouched upon the top step, pulling his sleeves down so his fingers could grasp the edges. The air was still crisp and the sun hadn’t yet warmed the steps, but there was precious little wind and his clothes were thick. He watched the sky instead of the ground, unconsciously deciding that if there were more dogs roaming the grounds, he didn’t want to be the one to see them.

After a quiet moment, he pulled free his bone flute and put it to his lips. There he paused, not breathing over the mouthpiece as his fingers stiffly worked through the chill, dropping over the holes in well-practiced motions. No sound though, just the familiar feel of bone under his fingertips. He’d been warned off the sound back in Nampta, almost had the flute confiscated by one of the managers and he’d had to make a deal in order to keep it. He didn’t think they’d renege, but he didn’t like testing them. Uncontentious wallflower, as Epsie called him. So no sound, just the memory of it as he worked his fingers through a cheerful song in an attempt to get his spirits up.

He didn’t realize he’d been blowing almost imperceptibly over the mouthpiece until a puff of air flexed in front of his eyes before eddying into nothingness. He let the faint sound die and buried his head into his hands, exhaustion threatening to drag him under.

He didn’t cry, not as he’d done when he’d been too young to know better. Those tears had dried up years ago. About the time his mind had begun to flex and bend, mixing memories and thoughts with reality. He was just tired. Tired of the daily motions that barely got him moving every day.

Something pressed against his back—a warm arm, comforting as it dragged back and forth against his shoulder blades. He sighed into his arms and let himself sink in on himself, waiting for Epsie to say something as she always did. Waiting for her to tug him roughly out of his melancholy because she hated it so much.

When she didn’t and instead pressed her warm body against his side, he finally blinked in confusion and looked up, almost biting his tongue when he saw it was another huge dog, its nose coming off his back as Caliebb lifted his head. This one was black. Pitch black. Not the night without a moon. Not even a moonless night with a cloud cover over the stars. Deeper. Darker. Like something formed fully out of the stories of Moir instead of reality. Even its eyes were black.

It didn’t snarl at him like the larger red one had. Didn’t do anything but lean into him slightly. No weight, just a presence. Caliebb pulled out one cold finger and stroked the dog’s fur. Its skin was black underneath all that fur. He stroked again gently, running his finger up and down the tiny spot he’d chosen, letting the silky smoothness of the fur ease the chill that had seeped into his bones all night.

He was full. Ripe and ready to be harvested, as Stev would say. And it hurt. This thing inside him added pressure that didn’t belong. Epsie didn’t get it. Oh, she stood by him when they managed to be together and she certainly listened well enough, even if she didn’t understand, but she would never get it. She was much too thankful and, whether she said it out loud or not, he could always tell she thought him ungrateful.

He didn’t realize he’d laid his head against the dog’s shoulder until he felt something vibrate under his cheek. The dog didn’t move though. Simply gave another of those low unthreatening growls. Caliebb swallowed and jerked up, stumbling away from it, down the steps. At the bottom he spun around.

Stupid, really. He shouldn’t have stopped. Should have kept going, facing away from the danger so he didn’t have another clear vision to embody his nightly demons.

But the dog only stood and ambled toward the gardens as if all was normal. For some reason, probably an ignorant one, Caliebb followed her, tucking his tiny flute into his pocket, too tired to even ask himself how he knew she was a her.

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