Wolf in the Wind
by Sharon Lee
Cael went up the tree lightly, first pulling the dusky air about him like a cloak. He found the branch from which he had liberated Pretty Boots that afternoon, noting the claw marks in the tender wood, then followed the trail higher into the canopy, until he found the nest.
In the Land of the Flowers, willie wisps nested on the ground, for the trees would not have them. This tree was not so nice, or perhaps it was only ignorant of the strange new bird.
The nest reeked of willie wisp and fouled jikinap, its shape a tangled oval of bright bits of trash.
Cael sat astride a nearby branch and looked about him. Despite the season, leaves were thick around the nest, though they were brown, rather than the autumn colors of red or orange. The branches directly below the nest showed welts where droppings had irritated sensitive bark. These things were expectable.
What was peculiar were the shreds of jikinap in and around the nest.
Willie wisps were not mortal creatures, like a hound or a cat or a wolf. They were creatures of energy, and they fed on energy. Particularly, they fed on energy by absorbing it. There should be no crumbs left over, to drip onto and scar the branch below it.
Unless somebody was feeding it. Seeding the nest with jikinap so that the willie was certain to return to this spot, adjacent to what ought to have been–save for Pretty Boots–easy prey.
What if, he thought, the willie wisp had not been here so long, after all? What if it had– been brought into the Changing Land since the Gate had closed?
Foolish wolf, he told himself. If the willie wisp has arrived since the closing of the Gate, the question to ask was, who had carried it? It was possible to cross from world to world without using a Gate or a Door, but it was dangerous, even for ozali. To bring anything extra, especially something as unpredictable, improbable, and useless as a willie wisp, courted disaster. What could possibly be worth such a risk?
The leaves above him rustled in a sudden breeze, which brought him the distinctive odor of willie wisp. Cael took a breath, stilling even his thoughts, waiting with a predator’s terrible patience.
The leaves rustled again, and here was his prey–large for a willie wisp, which lent credence to the theory that someone was feeding it.
The creature dropped into its nest, sparking bluely as it began to feed.
It was of some importance to choose the correct Word. Too potent, and it might fire the tree. Too meagre and annihilation might not be instantaneous. There was no need to cause unnecessary pain. Even to a willie wisp.
The willie continued to feed, oblivious to Cael’s presence. He took a deep silent breath, and felt the Word form in his mouth. It tasted of ice and lightning. It would do.
The Word left a glaze of frost on his lips. It enveloped the willie wisp in a brilliant ball of snow, contracting– nd melting away, leaving the willie yet in its nest, scarcely disturbed at its meal.
The willie wisp burped violet sparks.
Already, a second Word was forming, but before it was whole, the willie started, as if it had understood its danger, and bolted downward through the leaves.
Cael lunged after it, all the way down to the ground. It was dark enough now to hide him from anyone looking out their window. But wolves have excellent night sight, and he was able to see the willie wisp bounding across the street toward a house with one bright lit window open.
The willie hurtled toward that small opening, Cael a bare two steps behind. He was across the street, across the sidewalk, and the Word that had taken form was too large and too dire for the hunting of vermin.
The willie wisp put on a burst of speed, the window clearly its goal. The Word in Cael’s mouth bore his tongue down, scraped the inside of his mouth. He must Speak, or choke.
He Spoke. The Word left soot on his tongue.
Ahead of him, one bounce short of the window, the willie wisp exploded into thick ruby streamers–and was gone.
Cael stopped on the sparse lawn, shivering a little. He tested the air, which smelled of ozone, salt, leaf mold–but not of willie wisp.
Satisfied–relieved–he turned to go.
A circle of white-hot jikinap blazed up around him, arcing higher than his head, blocking out the stars.
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