DANIL HUNKERED DOWN beside the meltwater stream as it cut a new path over burnt soil. Cold bit into his skin as he submerged his pan of rocks and dirt into the water and shook. He tilted the pan towards the afternoon sun, hoping for the telltale iridescent flash to indicate he’d found a vein of magic-laden crystal.
Danil’s shoulders sank as he upended the gritty dirt. If his luck didn’t turn soon, he’d have nothing to placate the mage back home at Farin. The skin on his back tightened at the thought.
Wiping a damp sleeve across his forehead, Danil shoveled another load of charred soil. The meltwater stream disappeared down into an abandoned mineshaft only a few feet away, making a low rushing sound as it filled the tunnels. Danil kept a trained ear out for the warning crack and rumble of the earth giving way. The deadland mines had taken many careless folk over the centuries, and the last weeks of winter always proved the most perilous.
But mineshafts were among the lesser threats of the deadlands. A befouled magic shaped the great expanse of rock separating the kingdoms of Roldaer and Amas. Danil grew up on tales of a formerly lush and verdant forest turned to blackened waste by a tremendous explosion that ended the Great War three centuries ago. Nothing grew save for groves of poisonous fungi, and no animal dared make its home in the nooks and crevices. Only a handful of Roldaerians like Danil made the gamble of wandering the deadlands in search of old battlefield relics, smoky quartz and the very rare mage-crystals.
The greatest danger, however, was the Amasian shapeshifters.
By habit, Danil cast a wary glance across the barren expanse to the green line of forest and mountains a half day’s walk to the west. The shapeshifters of Amas no doubt observed him from the shadowed trees. Even the mackerel-striped clouds scudding overhead likely hid a hawk shifter or two. Tall and powerful creatures, the Amasians allowed scavenging in the deadlands, so long as no one strayed too close to their border or attempted to walk away with mage-crystals.
One shifter in particular took pleasure in ambushing Danil to examine his daily findings.
A problem at a time, Danil reminded himself, sloshing icy water about the pan. Magus Ronan would use his firewhip if Danil didn’t miraculously find a mage-crystal to appease him.
Danil had perhaps an hour before there was no choice but to make the dangerous trek back to Farin empty-handed. Tipping out the sludge, he headed for a new dig site beside a boulder that sat partially submerged in the meltwater. Water eddied in a lazy circle at its base. Danil shoveled out a small load and vigorously shook the pan.
A flash of orange amidst the blackened mud caught his eye. Danil fished out a pebble no larger than his thumbnail. A thin, iridescent vein glittered up at him, turning purple then emerald before changing to a deep blue. Pleasant warmth spread across Danil’s palm.
Glancing carefully across to the forested border of Amas, Danil tucked the pebble into the pouch at his hip and emptied out the remains of his pan. If he was lucky, he’d be halfway across the deadlands before the Amasian shapeshifters sensed what he’d found. He quickly strapped the pan to the outside of his pack before storing away his shovel.
A shower of rocks clattered down the nearby embankment. Danil froze, studying the mound of shale. He knew better than to hope that an animal had dislodged the rocks. Cursing softly under his breath, he slowly rose to his feet and turned.
A massive red wolf stood in his path.
Danil cursed a little louder.
The powerful creature stood as tall as Danil’s chest—far too tall to be anything but an Amasian shapeshifter. Its coat was handsome red with a pale ruff and white socks. Bright green eyes twinkled merrily as the wolf stepped up onto a small outcrop. It posed in the sun, coat gleaming and broad tail waving in the air like a streamer.
The air about the wolf shimmered, and from one heartbeat to the next the wolf transformed into a man—a very naked and unabashed man with a handsomely freckled face and red hair that brushed over broad shoulders.
The man extended his arms above his head, spine popping loudly. “That got it,” he said, twisting with relish. “Damned deadlands is murder on my Trueform.” He made a show of stretching out the various kinks in his body.
Danil eyed him suspiciously, taking slow steps toward the meltwater stream.
“Where are you off to?” Hafryn said as he eventually lowered his arms. “Anyone would think you’re not glad to see me.”
That wasn’t much of a stretch. Out of all of the shifters he’d come across, Hafryn was the most tenacious, and had an unerring ability to show up exactly when Danil didn’t want him to.
Danil noticed the wolf running an assessing gaze over the pack held in his fist. “You’re here to steal from me again,” he said with a sigh.
Hafryn hopped down from the rock with easy grace. “Well, you always find the prettiest things, Danil.”
Danil couldn’t help but gape. “Last week you stole my cloak.”
Hafryn’s mouth tilted upwards. “That wasn’t my finest moment,” he admitted. “But every other human is so boring. Have you met the folk from Scara?” He shuddered.
Scara was the only other village that rode the edge of the deadlands. Danil hadn’t spoken to anyone there in many summers but knew they were a terse lot.
“Well, I’ve got nothing of interest today, either,” Danil said, resisting the urge to fold his arms. “Just more of those arrowheads up by the scree fields.”
Hafryn scrunched his nose. “Hardly worth the risk, wouldn’t you say?”
Danil shrugged. “I figure I can sell them to a soldier.” There was always folk among the magi’s personal guard with a liking for old battlefield relics.
“I suppose. Doesn’t explain why you’re out here so late, though,” Hafryn said, taking a quick glance at the snow-capped mountains already turning pink by the setting sun. “Normally you know better. Does it have anything to do with the mage who arrived last week?”
Danil squinted. The shifters truly missed nothing.
The wolf grinned. “Lord Runtface, am I right?”
“Magus Ronan,” Danil corrected. He cast an uneasy glance toward the village. Most magi despised their stint in Farin, and were quick to assuage their wrath on the villagers. Magus Ronan was no exception, as the old scars on Danil’s back attested.
Only the Great War treaty made Farin worthy of a mage’s visit. After the drubbing Roldaer received at the hands of Amas three centuries ago, the treaty ensured both kingdoms stayed firmly on their respective side of the deadlands. The task of guaranteeing no Roldaerian broke the treaty and entered Amas was left to the magi—who resoundingly found the duty beneath them.
“Lord Runtface been using that whip of his yet?” Hafryn asked.
“Not yet,” Danil managed, skin turning cold at the thought of the spell-infused weapon.
“Then he needn’t find out about that crystal in your pouch,” Hafryn said easily.
Danil stilled but knew his face betrayed him.
“I can sense it from here, Danil,” the wolf said. He motioned with his hand. “Give it over.”
Taking a step back, Danil glanced nervously at the meltwater. It flowed too fast for safe passage, but the wolf was already drawing closer. “Hafryn—”
“You know the deal. For all that you found the crystal here, it tumbled down from the mountains of Amas,” Hafryn said. He stepped over a large piece of slate. “It belongs to Amas, not the magi.”
But without the mage-crystal, Magus Ronan’s firewhip was going to burn Danil’s flesh that very night.
He took another step back, feeling water lap at the edge of his boots. “It’s not yours to take, Hafryn.”
“It really is.”
Without thinking, Danil wrenched loose the shovel from his pack and swung it blindly. “Stay back. I mean it!”
The wolf shifter stopped in astonishment. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
Danil swung the shovel back and forth in warning. “Back!”
Hafryn stayed just beyond reach, hands splayed wide. “You’re really going to fight me on this?”
Baring his teeth, Danil said, “You give me no choice.” He swung the shovel again, missing the wolf by more than a foot. “Get back!”
A new, hungry light filled Hafryn’s eyes. “Oh, Danil,” he murmured. “Say the word and I’ll keep you forever.”
Danil scowled. “I’m not kidding, Hafryn.”
“I know. That’s what makes you so precious.”
Lightning-quick, Hafryn ducked under the shovel and smacked it away with startling force. It skittered across the pebbles to the stream’s edge. Before Danil could flinch, the wolf yanked the pouch on his hip. It broke loose with a snap.
“Ha!” Hafryn said, bounding away like a pup with a stick.
“Hey!” Danil lunged after him, growling as Hafryn danced across the stones, the pouch held high. “Give it back!” He leapt, too short to reach.
Hafryn grinned, putting his free hand on Danil’s chest to hold him off. “Now, now, don’t get mad.”
Danil glared furiously, feeling his cheeks flush as he jumped again for the pouch. “Gods damn it, Hafryn!”
The wolf shifter grinned down at him. “I’ve never seen you this angry. It’s rather fetching—Oof!”
Danil punched him squarely in the gut. Hafryn doubled over, wheezing. Snatching the pouch from slackened fingers, Danil bolted up the alluvial bank. A small wave of stones cascaded down behind him. He clambered over a scorched boulder and dashed for the scree field.
A heavy weight slammed into his back. Danil crashed hard into jagged rocks, grazing his chin and elbows. Large hands attempted to prize the pouch from his grip, but Danil desperately curled around it.
Hafryn easily rolled Danil onto his back before sitting down on his thighs. Danil wriggled frantically, but the shifter grabbed his wrist and squeezed until the pain made Danil lose his grip on the pouch.
“Stop, Hafryn, that hurts!”
The wolf scooped up the pouch and shook out the small pebble. Held up to the afternoon light, the magic-laden vein flashed pink then yellow.
“Lovely,” the shifter murmured. He glanced down at Danil. “Not as lovely as you, of course. I’m sorry I hurt your face.”
Danil whacked him in the chest. “Get off me.”
Hafryn merely sat back, looking comfortable. “I’ve wondered what it would take to get you under me, Danil.”
Danil set his jaw mutinously. “Not this. Get off.”
The wolf gave an amused huff. “Alright, fine, you prude.” He rose to his feet. “You should get over that shyness, you know. You’re too delightful to be uptight.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” he muttered sourly.
Refusing to look at the shifter’s nether regions just inches from his face, Danil eased himself up into sitting position, his back one long bruise. Frustration formed a lump in his throat—he’d have to stay in the deadlands for the night to avoid Magus Ronan’s fury.
Then something cold and circular landed in his lap. Danil glanced down to see an ancient battlefield coin, its Roldaerian phoenix crest worn down in parts to bare gold. He stared at it in confusion. It was enough to feed everyone in Farin for a month.
“Give it to Lord Runtface.”
Danil blinked up at Hafryn.
“It’ll appease him, won’t it?” the wolf pressed.
It wasn’t a mage-crystal, but it just might suit the mage’s greed. Still, Danil glowered at Hafryn’s nakedness. “I don’t even want to know where you pulled it from,” he said dourly.
“I can show you, if you like,” Hafryn said, then laughingly raised his hands when Danil’s expression darkened. “Another time.”
Danil tucked the coin into his pocket, feeling strangely uncomfortable. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Even if you did just rob me.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
Danil’s eyes narrowed.
With a laugh, the wolf scruffed Danil’s hair. “I do treasure our time together, Danil. Truly.”
He popped the crystal in his mouth and winked. A moment later, Hafryn transformed into his red timber wolf Trueform. He towered over Danil sitting amid the rocks, yet Danil didn’t flinch. Green eyes approving, the wolf bolted across the rocks, tail waving like a banner.
Moments later, Hafryn was gone.