The grandfather clock ticks ceaselessly; an endless metronome, flat and toneless, counting the passing seconds with a neutral, final tick of its hand. Brandi wishes he could let the time go as easily as the clock, but that was its job, and not his. Brandi's job is to be out there, with his wolves and not here, at home, obsessively counting seconds like it mattered somehow, like it could bring him answers.
It's been two weeks, three days, seven hours and twenty-three minutes since the Witch of The Forest disappeared, and in that time, three of his pack members have gone missing, and nobody knows why.
He, along with the rest of his pack have been searching since, and the bags under his eyes are dark like bruises, limbs sore and fatigued. His exhaustion weighs much less, however, than the lead-like guilt in his chest every time he comes back empty handed.
Brandi hates the weight, hates looking into the hopeful but weary faces of his pack, his family, hates having to tell them 'Not today. I haven't found them today. Maybe tomorrow.'
He hates that the sun rises and tomorrow comes and the answer remains exactly the same. Brandi hates that even with the new day, even as time moves with fault or pause, he can't do the same. He's still mortal, still a werewolf, and they tire the same as everyone else, need food and rest like all others, according to his brother Whiskey. Whiskey is the only reason he's not out tonight with his nose to the ground with the rest of the pack's trackers; the only one brave enough to look past his horrible attitude and angry (scared) eyes to tell Brandi to stay home and sleep because he looks seconds from death.
Brandi hates him for it a little too. But he doesn't think he can hate anybody as much as he despises the Witch. The one that welcomed them with open arms; offered her kind words and promises of protection to a weary pack on the run from harm-who only wanted a place to call home.
Brandi laughs, but it's harsh and bitter even to his own ears. She gave them protection alright; lulled them into a false sense of security right up to the day she and her magic wards vanished from the forest, leaving them at the mercy of their enemies.
And the monster plucking them up one by one.
The more Brandi thinks about it, the angrier he gets, the less in control he feels. Brandi fights the shift with gritted teeth, clenched fists, a growl in his throat-but Goddess he's so angry, at the Witch for abandoning them, at himself for trusting her and always at Spirit, the reason they're caught in this mess in the first place.
His claws pop, digging into the couch and tearing fluff from it in four long scratches. His gums ache and pulse, mouth metallic and filled with red. Brandi swallows the blood down and groans around a mouthful of sharp canines, head stuffed, tinny in white static, but his grip on his self control remains steadfast.
He can't let the change overwhelm him, he needs to be ready in case his pack finds something, in case that Witch decides to return. Nobody can calm him when he changes under the light of a half dead moon and the taste of bloodlust, another one of Spirit's many curses passed onto him.
But he's not Spirit. Brandi's proven that time and time again, fought for control with bloodied claws and teeth, gave his Goddess his songs and his tears for the silver tight cage he had on his wolf, on his heritage.
He can wait, he can be patient, because he's taught himself to be.
"Alpha!" The cry is followed by rapid, frantic knocks on his door. Brandi's up before he realises it, knocking the chair over in his haste and yanking open the door before the chair can even hit the ground.
Quiche, one of their runners, vibrates with tension in the hallway. He's still muddy and naked, so he must've come straight from the mud room without stopping. His eyes are shining bright in determination. His sister Tamago is one of the ones that are gone.
"Alpha," he repeats, "we scented the Witch."
Brandi's blood boils over.
The forest is quiet, and Clove is wary of it. On nights like these, when the new moon is less than twenty-four hours away, the fae pass the time tormenting humans and partying for three days and three nights straight. Usually, tonight would be the height of the celebrations.
Usually though, a storm would not have been allowed to pass through the protective spells around the forest either. Still, a little bad weather shouldn't be enough to scare the fae so much they cancel their revelry. The silence is telling and it unnerves her more than anything else in the unfamiliar forest.
Clove wills her heartbeat to steady, her white knuckled grip on her broom to loosen, and flies faster.
She's been off the path for a while. Following the trail left by her own residual magic and Mint's unique signature has led her on somewhat of a wild goose chase, and no closer to finding her familiar. Mint's flight pattern is frantic and sporadic, like he was in a hurry. Like he was being chased.
Clove tamps down on her anger and the urge to call out to him. Instead she unlocks her magic container a crack and releases a wave of her magic, spreading it far into the unseeable distance, hoping for a response.
What she gets instead are whispers from the flora.
Fallen trees litter the ground beneath her; some completely uprooted and reduced to giant logs, others leaning on the lucky survivors, all moaning in agony. Flowers and shrubs have been crushed under their weights, snapped stems and torn twigs like entrails and bodies lain to waste on a battlefield. They call out to her sometimes as she passes, with a name that isn't hers, and it's only her urgency that stops her from snapping at them.
I'm not Thyme stupid plants!
It's not like the trees can understand her anyway.
The air hangs low, supersaturated and humid with both magic and water. Clove sweats buckets under her heavy red cloak, the fabric sticking to her skin and her loose curls clinging to her cheeks. Clove keeps the hood on though; she would rather have the protection in case she has to fight.
The tightly coiled trepidation in her gut warns her that she might have to.
Clove releases another pulse of magic, closes her eyes, and waits. Seconds pass in silence, each breath loud in her ears.
A wolf's howl comes ringing, a battlesong in the night, and all the hairs on her neck rise stiff.
Low and brittle, the howl begins a hunt, and when as many as four rattling responses shake the leaves loose, Clove knows that they won't stop until they've got their prey. But why her?
Maybe they know something about Mint? Maybe they've seen him, or recognize her magic from his, and at least can point her in his direction. It's unlikely, but unlikely isn't the same as zero chance, and Clove isn't willing to leave a single clue unfollowed.
Fuck the risk.
She doesn't flinch when the howls reach her a third time, bringing rage so palpable it darkens the air and sets her teeth on edge. She doesn't run at the scent of bloodlust, even when her back stiffens and her stomach churns in a mix of fear and anticipation. Not even when her own blood sings in response.
Clove ignores the warnings, her conscience that tells her that she should've stayed on the path, should have never strayed, she could've gotten another familiar, what's one bird when she can have whatever she wants?
It sounds a lot like Thyme, so Clove shuts it down without remorse. Thyme has never cared for anyone but herself, anyway.
The first wolf jumps from the shadows, teeth glinting and claws bared. Clove arches high, barely avoiding the snap of sharp teeth inches from her leg.
"Sweet Celestial!" Clove can't help but snap as it bounds back into the safety of the forest. "You could've bitten my fucking foot off!"
The sound of tittering, wolf-ish laughter sets her on edge. Her mind races through her quickest, least dangerous attack spells, but werewolves, she remembers suddenly, are annoyingly sensitive to magic, so she switches gears to defense. She just wants them to answer her questions, not kill them.
Then someone starts to speak.
"If you leave here with only a missing leg you'll count yourself lucky."
Clove's mind quiets down to a whisper as they step into view.
They're the only human shaped wolf but that's not by much. Coarse hair lines their arms and bare chest, long claws hang from each of their ten fingers and toes. Each of their breaths is punctuated by a heavy growl.
Her magic's unexpectedly low. She's wildly outnumbered, and by her senses, the motherfuking Alpha werewolf is right in front of her. These are not favourable odds in the slightest, and Clove, very distantly in her mind, has started to panic.
So, naturally, she says, "What the hell's your problem?"
"Where are my wolves?" The words are almost inarticulate, and Clove's prompted with an image of rows of thick, sharp teeth barely fitting into a too small, quite possibly half transformed mouth. She swallows, and it's loud in her own ears.
"How should I know?" She argues, distracted by shifting shadows out of the corner of her eye. She lifts a hand from her broomstick to her lap, inching her fingers to her basket. "Where the fuck is my familiar?"
The movement in her eye blurs and Clove reacts instinctively, yanking her handgun from her basket and firing without aim. A whimper and thud lets her know her shot hit home.
Shit. Clove thinks, just as another wolf lunges at her. She swings under his body and darts for the trees, the wolves hot on her heels below her, much too close to comfort. Summoning her magic to her fingers lights them golden, and she runs her fingers over the symbols carved into her broomstick, the light spilling into the grooves like paint.
Autopilot and speed. She thinks and the broom hums its answer, shrinking itself until the handle is half the original length, doubling its speed.
With one hand tucking her basket close, Clove turns and fires her gun twice into the dark. The flashes barely last a second apiece, but it's enough for her to distinguish two fast moving shapes weaving through the trees, large bodies breaking branches without flinching, gaining inches on her with every passing second. She fires again, but the shot goes wide as the broom dips to avoid a large branch, and Clove barely holds in a screech as teeth snap at her foot, scratching the sole of her shoe.
Clove fires another shot on instinct. Five more. Or is it four? Her heartbeat is erratic and her mind unfocused, panic growing like a tumor inside her. She can't even hear herself breathe over the growls and snarls of the werewolves on her tail, unable to come up with a decent plan other than don't get eaten.
She doesn't want to kill them, but they apparently have no problem with making mince meat out of her bones even though she hasn't done anything to warrant their anger.
Like a spark in oil, that one thought ignites her panic to fury. She hasn't done a single damn thing, and yet she's the one that has to run for her life. If anything, these wolves could be the ones holding Mint hostage, and are just trying to run her off so she can't get to him.
Clove grinds her teeth until her jaw aches. I'm the best witch there is in this fucking forest. I'm not gonna to let anybody run me around.
With a swipe of her hand she clears the gold light away. The broom slows down enough for Clove to hop off, firing off three shots mid air. Her boots land without a sound, hood swishing around her ankles before settling as she straightens up.
The werewolves immediately surround her, circling tightly. Their teeth gleam in the near lightless night, no mercy in their shadowed eyes.
Clove lets her magic build quickly but quietly. It hasn't recovered as much as she would've liked, but hopefully she won't have to use it.
"I'll say it once: I know nothing of your missing wolves. I've come looking for my familiar who hasn't come home. I don't want to fight you, and I don't want to have to hurt you. Let me be."
One of the wolves pause, head tilted to stare at her with curiosity and confusion in equal parts. The longer it stares though, the longer her eyes remain on the wolf, the stranger her body feels; her heartbeat thunders and her throat dries. She can't pull enough air. The world is slowing around her, and yet Clove can't seem to grasp hold of reality.
Clove spots the other wolf a second too late.
Her back hits the ground first then her arm, trapped under a wide paw. She's too shocked to yell as pain blooms in the centre of her spine and abruptly spikes as teeth pierce her forearm. Blood spurts from the wound into the werewolf's mouth and the frenzy in its eyes explodes into untameable wildness.
Instinct overrides her caution, her self control; her magic reaches a crest and she reaches for it with both hands, yanks it up her throat and into her mouth, cheeks bulging and tinted glowing orange.
Then, Clove roars.
The column of fire hits the wolf's muzzle, and the smell of burning fur and flesh reaches her nose, and Clove gags around the flames. The weight on her body is thrown off, and just as suddenly, her magic reserves splutter out along with the fire.
Clove tries to clear her throat, tries to catch her breath, but it's much more difficult than it should be. She's wading through sludge just to get one coherent thought, unable to use her limbs let alone to cough out thick smoke for once decent breath. Her arm has gone numb and her fingers tingle at the tips, twitching when they brush her hood. The fabric and the ground below her are both wet and sticky.
Celestials, why did she think this was a good idea?
Because I never thought my magic would've failed me. Clove coughs, dry and wheezing. Her vision blurs and dark spots claim the edges of her sight.
A body suddenly leans over hers, blocking out the scant light; their mouth moves, but the ringing in her ears is louder than their voice, then there are hands on her, lifting her into warmth.
Clove opens her mouth to tell them to fuck off, but slips into unconsciousness before she can get the first word out.