The wolf ran, sprinting across the landscape on all fours, the cold earth beneath the pads of his feet barely felt as he loped left and cornered the great white stag. With the wall of stone at its back and a thick spread of tightly woven trees to its left, the creature had nowhere else to go and when the wolf backed up onto its hind legs and roared, the stag lifted its proud head and simply stared without fear.
Under normal circumstances, the only thing the wolf could ever feel was the fear of its prey. It fed his spirit, empowered his vigor and brought a great satisfaction to his soul. The soulkeeper that held the wolf at bay was trapped beneath his fur, as he had been beneath the skin for so long. The man would never be set free again if he could help it. He would rage across the land and gorge himself on blood until that man was little more than primitive memory, and eventually he would forget that he had ever been a man at all.
Swiping his sharp claws forward, the stags flesh tore beneath them and the creature bleated in terror. The moist spray of its exhaled breath fluttered through his fur, and for a moment it tried to back up even closer to the mountain at its back. It stumbled in the loose rocks, fumbling over its once proud feet and making it easier for the wolf to lunge.
His teeth sunk into the stag’s pulsing throat, a warm spray of blood gushing into his throat and painting his fur as he tore and shook the creature to the ground. It fought at first, strong legs kicking at the air, head thrashing to free itself from the death grip of the wolf’s teeth, but in the end the creature knew it had lost. It lay still, but trembling, and let the great beast devour it bite by bite until all that was left was a steaming pile of bones and fur where the once proud stag had been.
Under ordinary circumstances the wolf did not feel remorse, but the wolf had been a man for so long, had gone unfed and unsated, and the man’s conscience was wrapped more tightly to his own than he could have ever guessed. Staggering backward on all fours, his head reared back and tilted, studying the remains he’d left behind.
An iridescent white essence began to rise, mingling at first with the steam and then reforming the stag’s body in corporeal form before him. The wolf was losing his grip, could feel the man’s power over him growing, and quickly. The only way to keep his form was to kill again, but when he swiped his paw out at the stag in front of him, it went right through and he stumbled forward without grace. He rolled a little, over his shoulder and onto his back before landing on the other side of the essence and feeling the contraction of his bones, the diminishing of his coat.
He tried to fight the man, the soulkeeper that did not wish for him to be free, but it was no use. He was not strong enough, not yet. But he would be. A few more kills like that and he would hold the body that housed his soul and the man would fade again.
“Well met, Hunter,” a bemused voice greeted as Vilkas was returning to his senses.
“I…” he stammered, “I just killed you.”
“And skillfully too!” There was strange merriment in his tone, a sense of respect that Vilkas had never imagined an animal who had died tragically beneath the force of his hunger would ever dream of paying him as a hunter. “I have been watching you for ages, Vilkas. You have the makings of a fine hunter, indeed, and yet you hold yourself back when you should embrace the gifts that have been given you.”
“I am not an animal.” He rolled onto his side, the cold wind prickling through the hairs over his naked body and raising his awareness of the wet blood cooling upon his skin. “I am a man.”
“Animal or man, you are a great hunter, otherwise you would never have met with me in this way. You may even be my champion, if it so please me.”
“I have no wish to be your champion.” His voice was little more than a defeated whisper, the guilt of transformation gripping him so tight he could barely breathe.
“And yet you wear my ring,” the beast pointed out, then added, “Champion.”
“Hircine,” Vilkas swallowed hard against that realization, disgusted as he realized he could still taste blood in his mouth.
“I am the great spirit of the hunt, and you have been a child of mine far longer than you would like to admit.” Hircine lowered his head as if to bow to him, but Vilkas did not move.
“Lord Hircine, this ring…” he held up his bloodied hand to show the spirit of the stag, the metallic din shimmering in the sparse light of the fading moons. “Will you remove the curse from it? Please, I beg of you.”
He was surprised when the stag bellowed laughter, the rich echo of it dancing through the trees like a fierce wind. “I may consider it,” he finally said, “but first you must do something for me. A service for my glory, if you will.”
Vilkas couldn’t even begin to imagine what wretched service Hircine would ask him to perform, but so long as he bore the curse of that ring he was at Hircine’s command, at the will of the beast within. That was not something his soul could suffer long, or he would be lost.
“What would you ask of me, Lord Hircine?”
“The one who has stolen my ring has fled to what he thinks is his sanctuary. Just as a bear climbs a tree during the hunt to escape, he has only trapped himself. Seek out this rogue shifter, tear the skin from his body and make it an offering to me.”
“But he’s done me no wrong,” Vilkas stammered, the mere thought of what the stag was asking him to do sending the uneasiness he felt in his stomach over the edge. He turned his head and wretched, the salted bile and blood mixed with the flesh he’d just consumed spilling onto the ground in front of him.
“It matters not if he has wronged you,” Hircine ignored his protest. “He has done wrong to me, and so long as the spirit of my hunt lives within you, you are my son, Vilkas. Fly, my hunter! Embrace the beast within you before the others vie for my favor.”
“Others?” he smeared his wrist across his mouth. “What others?”
“A bit of competition,” Hircine laughed again. “The Hunt is just about to begin. Do not dally while the prey flees, young wolf. Run! Join them, and be my champion.”