It’s been a while, I know. If you need a refresher on what happened so far, here’s an easy link to Chapter Seven.
Bloated Man’s Grotto called to him from the distance, the blood red light of the moon yawning open above like a beacon that drew the beast inside him closer. Aggressive shouts echoed from within the grotto, followed by the chill-rending howl of a beast in all its glory. The combination of the two sounds stoked the coals within, still burning strong from his last transformation.
Hurrying his pace, he darted toward the gawping entry of the grotto and pushed through the pliant juniper leaves fanned across the opening. The leaves snapped back, branches scraping across his skin, but he ignored the gentle sting as tiny beads of blood sprouted across his arm and glistened deliciously red in the moonlight pouring in through the cave’s entryway.
His heart hammered, thumping against his ribs like a caged beast, and every breath he exhaled shimmered silver puffs across the darkness. Stones crunched beneath his careful feet, and he hunched lower to disguise the sound.
And then he heard it: a low, defeated moan that spurred his curious beast forward faster.
Just beyond the cave’s winding opening, a wounded Khajiit warrior rolled near the fire, clutching his side and groaning in agony. For a moment, the beast within was silent, and spurred on by the honorable man within, Vilkas rushed forward and knelt beside the cat.
“Has the blood moon called you, fellow hunter?”
“What happened here?”
“The prey is strong,” he grunted through clenched canines that glinted a soft, yellowed white against the fire’s light beside him. “Stronger than the hunters, but more will come.”
He coughed, and Vilkas was surprised by the feral grin that lifted the corners of the Khajiit’s mouth, specks of brilliant red now shining on his teeth. “Hurt,” the cat choked. “No, J’Kier hurts no more. J’Kier will soon be dead. Bring him down for the glories of Lord Hircine.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Vilkas gasped in horror at the remains of another hunter and another and another, each of them mangled, claw-torn and chewed, pools and sprays of blood painting the grotto walls and making his stomach clench tight in disgust.
But the beast was not disgusted; it was intrigued. Excited at the prospect of standing face to face with another like him and tearing that wolf to pieces, with painting walls red with blood.
“No,” he muttered aloud, his fingers twirling the tight band almost against his will. The subtle Daedric magic humming through his whole body like a warning pulse. The beast was close, and when it decided to rear its ugly head, Vilkas would not be able to stop it. “I won’t let it,” he ground his teeth tight together and involuntarily shook his head.
Turning back to the Khajiit to ask if there was anything he could do, the cat lay prone against the boulder at its back, head lolled against his shoulder, blood dripping from his whiskers and glazed golden eyes staring into the dying fire.
“Did you do it?” Sinding’s voice whispered through the grotto. “Did you take down the beast and commune with Hircine?”
Rising from where he’d hunched, Vilkas drew his heavy sword and lifted it in front of him as he began walking toward that voice. He didn’t need to survey the shadows, his beast would lead the way, but when a warm of bats fluttered out of the dark recesses, the man’s heart clenched tight in his chest, and for a moment he forgot to breathe.
“I never thought I’d see you again.” Sinding called.
Vilkas glanced upward, saw the other man’s shadow splayed across the craggy walls. “I’ve been told to kill you,” he said, expecting his voice to quiver as he spoke. It did not. He sounded confident, strong, already in the beast’s grasp and ready to succumb to its power.
“And I would deserve it, wouldn’t I?” Sinding’s voice was leaden with defeat when he continued, “I can’t stop you, if that’s what you want to do. Hircine’s too powerful. But if you spare me, I promise to be a powerful ally to you, and I would promise never to return to civilized life. I know that I can’t live among people.”
But I still can, Vilkas thought.
The beast within hungered for the other man’s blood, for the thrill of the chase, the reward of the hunt. It was a terrifying hunger, one Vilkas had been battling so long, he didn’t know if he could fight it anymore. How good it would feel to embrace the beast, to let it wrap its arms around his soul and guide him. The things that yielding could bring… liberation from the endless tension, the ceaseless heartache and woe that came from denial. He could be more like Farkas, perhaps so much so that at last Luthien would see him, know him, come running across the fields to meet him beneath the moon and let him lay claim to her as he’d longed so desperately to do for so, so long. Farkas would bow before him; tremor in the shadow of his awakening, and all that he desired would be his…
The heartlessness of that cold truth shuddered through him like a bitter wave, tingling through the very man who’d been fighting himself so long he could barely stand anymore. The things he would do if he gave in… the people he would deign to destroy… They were the very ones he claimed to love more than anything in the world, and yet giving into the beast would ruin them all.
No, he defied the beast. He would not give in. Not now, not ever again. Giving in would mean losing himself, and for the first time in months Vilkas knew exactly who he was. He was a Companion, sworn to protect and serve, and he had made a promise to Kodlak. One he was never going to willingly break until the day that curse was lifted from their souls.
“I…” he started, his voice aching and strangled in his throat. “I will spare your life.”
“You… you will?” There was surprise in the other man’s revelation.
Nodding with trembling certainty, Vilkas repeated, “I will.”
“Thank the gods.” Sinding’s body began awkwardly to twitch and roll with oncoming transformation. “Run with me, and let us hunt the hunters.”
“I will protect you,” Vilkas promised, “but I will not hunt with you as a beast.”
The whooping holler of a thrilled hunter that had discovered its prey sounded from the other side of the grotto, and glancing up, Vilkas saw the shimmer of armor. Sinding, fully transformed, leaped from boulder to boulder, driving further into the grotto and calling for Vilkas to follow. Seeing him as competition for their prize, the hunters came at him in droves, but he fought them off, battling up stairs, across the stone bridges and through the grotto, leaving trails of blood in his wake.
Not just for Sinding, but for himself. For his brother, for Luthien… for Kodlak.
He raged through battle after battle, leaving men bleeding, wounded, dying in his path. The clang of Skyforge steel rang in his ears, arrows sliced through the air, tickled through his hair and skittered across the stone at his back.
He felt… invincible.
Hunter after hunter, body after body, Vilkas and the werewolf finally stood alone, the silent night echoing back the ragged sound of their labored breath. A trickle of blood-tinged sweat dripped from Vilkas’s brow, along his nose, and down the blade in his hand, washing a tiny pattern through the thick blood that decorated his sword.
“Thank you,” Sinding said. “Thank you for your help.”
Vilkas nodded curtly, still trying to catch his breath, to slow the rampant beating of his heart. Beneath the surface, the beast within raged, battered against his self-control with vengeance unlike anything Vilkas had ever felt before. But he ignored it.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“I will make my home here,” Sinding gestured to the grotto around them. “Away from anyone I might hurt.”
“That is probably wise,” Vilkas nodded slowly. “I will return to Whiterun,” he went on, “but should you ever have need of the Companions, sent word, my friend.”
“Friend…” The other man’s mouth wrinkled with a strange smile. “After all I’ve done… After everything… You call me friend.”
“Because I know,” Vilkas explained. “I too have been fighting against the beast inside me, a beast I once embraced, but would give anything to live without.”
“If you ever find a way…”
“If I ever find a way,” he agreed, “I will come and find you.”