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Dead or Alive

"Oh, spells!" Faline cried as the undead wolf lunged at her.

It managed only to get a thick mouthful of her blue robes. Faline shook it off with all the force her thin muscles could muster. Then with a slight hand motion and a bit of focused thought, she sent a pulse of force radiating out from her body in a sphere of icy white light. The wolf crashed into a nearby tree with a resounding crack.

Faline wasted no time. She gathered the flowing ends of her novice robes in her hands and ran. She didn't bother trying to pull free the many thin strands of copper-blond hair that stuck to her fear-soaked face; she just ran. She ran down the wide dirt path that cut through the forest like a winding river. She ran under the thick and crooked trees that bent over the path like an arched lovers' tunnel. Over fallen logs and around rocks, she ran.

And from behind she could hear the steady drumming of predatory feet in pursuit. Her heart beat double time to her rapid steps. Her feet could not move as fast as her brain demanded.

This was not the first time one of her spells went awry, though it was perhaps the most perilous. Magic was the manifestation of a wizard's thoughts, whose will gave magic its form and task. Faline had simply willed the wounded beast to rise to its feet; she hadn't realized it was already dead.

She could hear the canine revenant getting closer. Passing a large, dead-looking tree which leaned over the path, Faline hurled a ball of magical force into it. She could hear the tree slam into the ground behind her, and she could hear the wolf get tangled in the trap. She was pleased with the result but a voice in her head suggested she was due for another slip-up.

Returning her eyes to the path ahead, Faline saw the way forward was blocked by debris. She would have to go through the thick wooded area on one of the sides. Left or right? She chose left, trying to maintain her momentum as she trampled over fallen branches and jutting roots. A twisted, hand-like root hooked her foot and sent her tumbling to the ground. Faline tucked herself into a roll, but failed to stop when she had expected. Instead she continued rolling, down the side of a hill, twigs and roots clawing at her robes—now torn in several places. Her fall ended unceremoniously when she slammed upside down into a massive rock.

Her whole body throbbed with a combination of sharp and dull pains. She pushed herself onto her knees, raising her head to see the growling face of a wolf inches away; her soul screamed and cursed at the fates. But this wolf was not the one she had raised from the dead. This one was covered in thick, light-gray fur; the revenant had been sickly and black. Faline could now see other wolves around her—smaller than the first but with expressions just as fierce. And she saw the small, dark opening to the cave. She had stumbled on a den.

The sound of shuffling and breaking twigs heralded the revenant's approach. But to Faline's grateful surprise, the living wolves turned their attention from her to the new intruder. The small pack growled at the dark canine, but it ignored them, marching towards Faline, its eyes empty of anything but hunger.

The wolves sprang; Faline closed her eyes. She heard the sounds of wild fighting—growls and yelps and bodies hitting the ground hard. The fight seemed to go on forever; fear and pain sealed her eyes shut. She had once watched a dog fight from start to finish, the gore of the battle forever staining her memory. She was too weak now to bear another such scene.

Eventually, silence returned to the forest and she forced herself to look. The black wolf lay almost unrecognizable in a pool of blood and loose fur. To another side, a gray wolf lay curled up, bloodied and breathing hard. The matriarch stared down on the younger animal with a look of grave concern.

"Let me help," Faline said, slowly raising her bruised body from the ground. She felt compelled to repay the debt to her defenders, even if they were just animals. She only hoped her magic worked right this time.

She crept forward, hands raised in a very human show of passivity. The younger wolves surrounded her, growling with suspicion. But the matriarch watched her without moving, seeming to judge her as she approached. The older wolf growled to her pups and they parted.

Faline looked down at the wounded animal. It was oozing blood from several lacerations, including a deep one along its neck. The poor animal did not have much time left. Faline knew this as clear as she knew her own name. She had grown up on a farm and had come across livestock in their death throes after wolf attacks—she never blamed the wolves for being what nature had made them.

Faline was not good with healing magic. Mending required more focus than destruction and focus had never been one of her strengths. At least this time she was certain the beast was still alive. She turned her thoughts inward, creating the symbols in her mind that, for her, contained the meaning of healing and life, the images that would allow the magic to manifest her will. She targeted her thoughts on the animal's wounds. Green tendrils shot from her fingers, weaving into them, sealing them. The power cracked and popped like pine branches in a fire. When it was finished, Faline let out a labored sigh, her shoulders drooping.

The animal stirred, to the joyous yelps of its mother. The rest of the wolves converged on the happy couple, rejoicing with a chorus of sniffing and licking. The matriarch looked at Faline, its golden, knowing eyes boring into her soul. It licked her softly on the face, then returned to its pup.

Faline stumbled back to the city. Every bit of her ached, but she decided against trying to heal herself with magic. She felt that, at fifty-fifty, her record with healing spells for the day was not very good. It wasn't worth risking something else going wrong. She planned to cure her pains the normal way, with a hot bath and several days in bed.

About the Author
J.M. Williams is an author, teacher, historian, and veteran. He writes fantasy and science-fiction stories centered on deep and complex characters. He has been writing since childhood, studying the short story form as an undergrad at college. He was most recently accepted for publication in Flash Fiction Magazine and Fantasia Divinity Magazine, and was the winner of the Fiction Vortex StoryVerse Contest for Winter 2017. He currently lives in Korea with his wife AND 10 cats—teaching, writing, and blogging at JMWWriting.wordpress.com.