The wolf licked his muzzle, still slick with the blood of his prey. The crimson hue of viscera indiscernible against it’s black as midnight coat. It savored the taste with what could almost be mistaken as a smirk and then, intoxicated with satisfaction, the great beast collapsed at the edge of a bluff that overlooked a near endless horizon of giant trees and imposing mountains. A plume of dust and flower blossoms burst forth from the long grass and took to the air, cascading gingerly in a waltz that he watched with one eye open dance atop the forest that unfurled down the vast valley below him in a sea of red and gold until they vanished into the brilliance of the setting sun.
The wolf lifted it’s head and sniffed, then stretched with a dramatic yawn before curling into himself. The chill of the Fall was fast approaching. It’s culling breath bringing the slow death of winter that would claim the weak and the sick from his land to let life thrive anew. And this was his land, the trees told him. Speaking in a language older than time that he could not comprehend, but one that he understood. Any hunters foolish enough to enter these woods were never seen again, until words of these cursed lands spread among the common folk. When a band of exiled orcs tried to make their home in the forests he met their rage and steel with fang and claw and drove out the ones he did not consume.
This forest belonged to him, and he belonged to the forest.
The Trees spoke to him, in creaks and groans and with wordless spells weaved from skeletal boughs that shivered from cold. A tuneless hymn that comforted his restless spirit with a constant hum. A sonnet that sung praises of his name and revered him as a God. A great protector. This was his land, and he would partake in the hunt here until the forest that bore him life took him again in death. There was no past, there was no future. Only the hunt.
And that was enough.
And yet, somewhere deep within him, between his swollen belly and pride, something gnawed at him. An itch he could not scratch, like a tick that had burrowed itself into the back of his mind. For as long as the wolf could remember, he had felt chased.
But what could ever catch him?
He was lightning made flesh. He brought with him a storm of claws and teeth. And still, he felt prey to something he could not sense. Stalked by a memory he could not recall that lay waiting for him. He had forgotten something, a task so much more greater than his station as the warden god of this land. No matter how long the trees sang for him, his body was restless and his dreams were haunted. When he dared to close his eyes again, he dreamed of her.
A woman with skin like snow and hair tangled in a fire that somehow did not burn him. He feared and worshiped her, but he knew nothing of her tongue to sing her praise. She called to him, and he could not understand. He touched her with hands that were not his, a man’s hands. He felt her on his bare skin that had no fur but was never cold. There was a ravenous hunger that seemed insatiable, he desired her body but his teeth never broke her skin. In his sleep, the wolf bared his fangs with a longing to feel her smooth neck snap like a twig in his jaws and taste her blood, but as a man he had no claws or teeth. Just a soft mouth that took hers into his…over and over and over–
The wolf woke in the night crying with fear and fury. In the wake of his dream lay a monstrous sadness and anger residing in his heart all at once; clashing like two storm fronts colliding in the heavens. He howled, and lightning burst forth from his mighty jaws that tore a bright rift into the once black sky. Creatures of the night flew away from him with shrieks of fear and confusion. He could feel the familiar pulse of the earth below him seek to placate his torment, but nothing could soothe the sickness he felt in his heart. A heart that this beast somehow knew was not only his.
Something was trying to surface within him and he would suffocate this other thing that dared to speak until it ran out of breath and surfaced no more. Nothing would overcome him. He was the wind, and all bows to the gale; even the mountains in time. But something else just as immense and dreadful as he had been looming behind him for far too long. Days passed into nights that brought through it’s black curtain a nightmare theater. Each night becoming more vivid than the last, clawing at his eyes until they were red. The thing that hunted him was drawing closer. He felt it with his bones, with every shudder of his instincts. The only voice he had ever listened to in life. And now, those instincts told him to run. And so he ran.
How long he ran, he did not know. Days blended into night and he dared not dream again. Leaves fell until there were leaves no more and the forest shuddered under a blanket of snow, naked, still, and lifeless. The wolf’s breath frosted and singed with raw energy from the storm that surged within him. His waking life was surrounded by ghosts he could not outrun. He had fled his dreams and now they had followed him here.
Faces he somehow knew but could not name chased him out of his forest and out of his mind. In his flight he begin to see specters. Images of a tiny man with a giant heart flying on the back of a great bird laughing maniacally, an elf with destiny in her eyes and fangs like his that ran along the trees and shot at him with crossbows, a holy man with devil’s wings that brought salvation on his terms, a doctor of death that was trying to save life; phantoms from a past that brought pain that stabbed his heart like so many knives just from the sight of them. They hunted him, this great forest god, like a dog. And no matter how fast his flight, his past was always there ahead of him–waiting.
His great paws bled. His bones ached. His silver eyes bloodshot from the sleep he eluded. He had not known exhaustion, not truly, until his pace slowed to a trot, then to a crawl, until his great and terrible frame collapsed into the snow. It blanketed him, the cold a welcome respite to the blood that had been boiling within him for so long. He saw the faces of his pursuers surrounding him now, these phantasms portraits of grief and pity. He snorted into the snow with what could almost pass as laughter.
You, pity me? The Beast thought in the midst of his fever. I never needed you.
As if they could hear his thoughts, the visions vanished and he felt the pain in his heart only amplify at their departure. Carrion birds circled above him patiently while winter crept into his heart and he bid it freeze. He would run no more. Soon there would be nothing. No more dreams. No more ghosts. No more listening to the laughter of crows. The torment that gnawed at him would cease to bite and he would commit himself to the earth. How easy this was, to finally surrender…
The wolf closed his eyes for what he prayed would be the last time.
The woman with fire in her hair came for him again, as he knew she would. He whimpered softly and his eyes pleaded to her. She bent down and he felt the burst of warmth from her hand part the snow from his eyes. Was this still a dream? Her eyes met his with kindness, understanding, and…an insufferable sadness. A sadness he somehow knew he had help author.
“You have to wake up, Sol.” she spoke. Her voice somehow sweeter than the forest ever sounded.
“I…I…”, groaned the wolf with a tongue that was not his.
She leaned in and whispered in his ear, “I will wait for you…”
Then she was gone. And all was quiet and still. Time knew no measure until the wolf commanded his body to move and it slowly acquiesced to his demands. The snow falling off him as he desperately searched the woods for any trace of her. He began to move again, his body fueled only by sheer will now. The forest began to slowly recede, it’s hum now barely a whisper in his ears as the trees became sparser and sparser. Above him the pale sunlight began to creep in through the dense canopy until he could see the clouds above him, pregnant with rain. He felt the wind shift directions against his fur and caught the scent of the sea not too far from him. The wind stung his nostrils with a salted bite and–something else. Something so familiar that the wolf froze and he remembered a name.
“I–Ireena?”, the wolf spoke. His vocal chords deep and strained, rusted with time.
The wolf shot out of the snow like lightning from a thunder cloud. His body screamed but his roar was louder. A light rain began to fall as he ran towards the scent, his body a freight of desperate desire careening towards the one thing that ever felt like home. The beast broke through great trees, snapping trunks in twain as if they were nothing. The very floor beneath him seemed to quake in panic when suddenly, the forest itself moved against him. The earth shifted and heaved in mighty tremors as gnarled tendrils shot from the ground and roots grasped at his limbs.
He roared and snapped as he smashed through rock and root as they splashed and splintered against his mighty form. His energy waned as he plummeted against the wilds. His body beaten with sleeplessness and hunger. He slowed. No matter how many boughs he broke against his body they continued their assault. He frothed at the mouth, snapping and gnawing until the tendrils of forest ensnared him in shackles. The feeling of chains all to familiar.
Instantly the wolf was transported to a cage in his mind. He was now a just a small child, crying and afraid behind bars that his tiny limbs could not yield to bend. A prisoner put on display for the world’s entertainment for his difference. He was a Tiefling, a spawn of demons and man, cursed for a existence and form he never chose. Years spent in chains tattooing permanent scars on his wrists and ankles that would never heal in his body or his soul. Until one day the boy summoned his wrath into a wreath of flame, like the devil they all claimed him to be, and with his own burning shackles choked the life out of his captors and escaped.
Lightning and flame surged in the wolf’s eyes and his great body heaved with renewed fury. He would never be a prisoner again, not even in paradise. He was the god of this forest, the forest was not his god. And he would command it to bow. His heaving breath smoked in the winter air and crackled. The wolf howled, his eyes glowed from silver to a blinding white ignited with cosmic sparks. The clouds above him darkened and burst open. With a power he had forgotten he had paid a great price for, he brought the wrath of the heavens down.
The wolf emerged from what was left of the wilds, the forest all but ash and smoke behind him; his body burned, bloodied, and broken. The rain pelted his fur and blood ran in streams from his wounds.
In the clearing before him, he saw a cabin by the sea, built upon a cliff. A house he had built, in another life. The hearth smoked and a lone light illuminated a window. The beast moved toward the cabin with a will no longer it’s own, it resigned itself to the voice it had made mute for so long.
With each step he recalled a different memory, as if leaving the forest allowed him to finally remember. Flashes of another life surged across his mind. This was the home they made with each other, him and the woman with fire in her hair. Far away from anyone who’d do them harm. They’d both been hunted in their other lives. And from then on, far and away from anything that they had known, they could finally find some semblance of peace in their house above the sea.
His broken spirit began to lift as he stepped closer and closer. He’d be haunted by her memory no more. Now, he could finally join her and the beast could rest. He moved quietly in the rain, fear suddenly gripping him but not enough to stay his pace. He followed the scent and then he found her. Beneath a pile of wet dirt and a weathered stone that read,
Here Lies Ireena Holstead
Beloved Wife, Mother, and Healer
Rest in Peace
The wolf stared at the stone. Reading the words over and over as the rain spattered against it. Below him the waves crashed and he recalled a vision of her playing in the sea with no regard for anything but the waves. He longed to see her again. He began to whimper, and pawed at the wet dirt below him. This couldn’t be true. He had to see. He had to see her. His bloodied paws moved the earth and the mud with a desperate frenzy.
A door burst open behind him and a woman holding a blunderbuss flintlock rifle stood at the door,
“STOP!”, she screamed as she pulled the trigger back. “I won’t ask a second time.”
The wolf turned with a growl and bared his fangs. He saw a red haired woman behind him who looked so much like the woman in his dreams that his eyes widened and his jaw closed. But she was not his Ireena. Her hair was a dark red, and she had eyes the color of the sea at midday and her belly was swollen with child. While the wolf could smell her fear, he could still sense her resolve. Instinct told him she would not flee. He looked back at the tombstone and the world seemed to freeze. Nothing moved but the rain. The women kept her eyes down the sights, while the wolf contemplated the grave. Suddenly, he broke the armistice and tilted his head back. The woman jolted as his haunting cry echoed off the cliffs. His howl suspended in time and air. He continued to mourn, as other wolf’s from far and away in the forest took up his lament.
The woman kept her rifle aimed true at the giant wolf’s heart but paused. She studied it’s body, broken and battered from a recent battle, but also a lifelong one. His body reminded her of a tree that had been struck by lightning. Parts of it’s skin still singed from the burn, and arcs of electricity still seemed to pulse bright and blue from his veins. But it was the horns that curled back from his head…those horns.
Her eyes behind her sights widened as slowly the howl turned into an inhuman cry, distorted and unnatural. She saw the fur from the wolf began to fall from his form. It’s bones began to snap. Cracking in and out of place as she watched in horrid fascination the monstrous, howling wolf turn into the form of sobbing man with skin like that of a corpse and grey eyes that burned bright against his tattooed face. The horns of a devil sprouting ominously from his long black hair. His naked and scarred body shook, whether it from the cold or his pain, she did not know.
But she did know him.
“Are you…Solitude?”, she asked from behind her rifle.
The Tiefling slowly stifled his sobs. He looked at the woman, with tears still flowing from his silver eyes lost amidst the falling rain. Without irises, his eyes seemed devoid of expression and yet still, they were the saddest eyes she had ever seen.
“I…am. I…was.”, he said looking away from her. Half of his face seemed paralyzed and sagged, and he spoke out of the side of his mouth, but his face still retained it’s youth somehow in all the years that had passed since anyone had last seen it. “Are you…Ireena’s daughter?”
“Reena was my Grandmother, my name is Rose.”, she said, finally putting down her rifle against the cabin. “She was waiting for you, you know?”
Solitude recalled the last thing Ireena had ever said to him. It was right before he had left to forage the forest before the Winter snowed them in. She said the same thing she had whispered in his ear in the forest,
“I will wait for you.”
He started suddenly when Rose placed a fur coat over him to shield his body from the cold of the rain. She knelt in front of him, and reached out to touch his horns before stopping herself.
“I thought you were a dream brought on by the fever that took her. But here you are. The man who was a devil that was a beast…She told me about you, right before she died. She told me everything. And I never believed her. She told me she waited for you. And when you didn’t come back from the forest she went looking for you. She said it felt like…like the wilds were keeping you from her. They say these woods are cursed. That this forest grants you wishes. She went in there over and over, wishing to see you again, going round in circles that always brought her back. Until one winter she fell ill and a hunter found her half dead in the snow. He took her back here and nursed her back and well, you know how it goes…Guess she finally got her wish though.”
She paused for a long while, “…why didn’t you come back?”
Solitude’s eyes rose from the grave to Rose’s eyes, searching and hoping for some manner of deception that was not there. How had it been so long?
“The forest did not let me leave and I…I forgot myself. It felt like a dream, or a curse I just kept drifting deeper into. A part of me always knew. Maybe I chose to forget…”
The Tiefling rose up with great effort, and with a slight raise of his hand the soil he’d dug up around the disturbed grave began to shift and coalesced into a proper burial mound once again. Rain pattered on the fresh soil as he outstretched his bleeding arm and let a few drops of blood drip over the soil. Tiny buds began to emerge from the earth that grew with unnatural speed into brilliant red roses that blossomed all around the grave of Ireena Holstead.
“I am so sorry,” said the Devil to the flowers. “Did she live a happy life?”
“She lived,” said Rose. “That’s more than most get.”
Solitude clutched the fur to his chest and turned to the direction of the sea and began to limp away.
“Wait,” cried Rose. “…why did you call yourself Solitude?”
The Tiefling stopped and turned to her, forcing a smile at her with the part of his face that could still move.
“Other than Ireena, it’s the only thing I ever wanted. I guess the Forest gave me my wish, too.”
Rose watched until he was out of sight and legend.
The Devil who helped stop a great curse that affected an entire people fell victim to one of his own making. No one knows what fate befell Solitude, but every Fall there after the Holstead family would find furs and food at their doorstep to get them through the harsh Winters. And as the cemetery on the cliff grew, each new grave would suddenly blossom with the the most brilliant red roses. Until the cliff the cabin was built on eventually fell into the sea. For all bows down to the gale in the end.
Even the mountains.