The rain kept up for another half hour. The townsfolk spent the entirety of that time trying to dissuade me from my course of action, shouting such things as "A young lady like you shouldn't be putting herself on the line!" and "Let the real adventurer's handle it!" Among them, however, was a surprising ally.
"If she says she can do it, she can do it," Lissera told the crowd. She hardly looked convinced herself, continuously throwing glances my way, but she nevertheless managed to deliver the line in a firm voice before turning to me. "But are you sure you don't want to wait until morning? They're more active at night..."
"I'm sure. I'm intending to camp out tonight, in any case, so taking care of them before bed would be ideal." That was another lie, of course. I intended to sleep in a comfortable bed, back in the tower. I couldn't tell the townsfolk that, though, and it was unlikely they'd let me simply slip out of town if they thought I was planning to camp among monsters.
"I told you that you could bed at my place tonight, though," Liserra pointed out. She had a pout on her lips, but I didn't think she was actually that upset about my refusal. Rather, she seemed worried over my plans.
"I'll be fine," I told her, my voice gentle but firm.
"Oh, just let her handle it," declared a blue-haired woman, slamming her leather jack on the table. If there'd been any alcohol left in the thing, it probably would have sloshed over the sides from the force she put into it. "We've spent half an hour trying to convince the fool woman. What do we care if she takes this on herself? It's not like there'll be a body left for us to worry about burying."
"Mother Reliz," one of the villagers protested, "you surely can't be suggesting we condone this madness!"
"I'm suggesting that we stay out of its way and mind our own damn business," Reliz declared. "And that someone gets me a damned refill..."
Tasha hurried forward to take the woman's leather mug, bringing it to the cask for a refill. I, for my part, did my best not to stare at this so-called "Mother Reliz." She was the one who'd helped me shoot down Jackson earlier that evening, which had somewhat endeared me to her up to this point. Hearing her called "Mother," however, told me that she was likely a priestess, an affiliate of the church that vilified my people. Just knowing that caused a surge of anger and disgust to well up within me, though I quickly shoved it down. The woman didn't seem to be too terrible a person, so far; perhaps a little salty, but that was all. Nevertheless, I thought I'd be better off avoiding her.
"The rain seems to have stopped," I declared, making a show of putting my hand to my ear. I'd actually been tracking the sound as it trailed off. "I'd best be going, now."
"At least let me get you a lantern," Liserra suggested, frantically. "She can borrow a lantern, right, Tasha?"
"I'll be fine without it," I told her before Tasha could respond. "It would just ruin my night vision anyway."
"But you can't even see the moon with those clouds! You need a lantern," Lissera insisted. "Come on, Tasha, please? I'll pay it off if she doesn't come back with it."
Tasha hesitated for a moment, looking conflicted. To her mind, giving in would probably mean saying goodbye to the lantern. Further, with the merchants avoiding the area, it was uncertain when she'd be able to replace it. Despite that, she slowly, somewhat reluctantly nodded.
"I've got an old spare I suppose I can let you borrow. It's just a candle lantern, mind, but it should give you a little light."
"It'll do fine," I promised, eager to get underway.
The innkeeper gave me a resolute nod and headed toward the stairs at the back of the room. I stood silently while I waited, ignoring the quiet murmurs of the worried townsfolk around me and the worry evident on Lissera's face. Even though she supported me, she was still clearly concerned about whether I could really back my claims.
"I do hope you know what you're doing," Monica muttered from her seat. "Lissera really doesn't have the money to be replacing a lantern..."
"Monica!" Lissera cried out, blushing bright red. "It'll be fine. I know you'll bring it back in one piece." So she said, but I could hear the faint tremor of uncertainty in her voice.
"It'll be fine," I insisted, giving her a confident smile. "I'm stronger than I look."
"Are you?" Monica asked, voicing the doubt everyone at the table seemed to feel. "I've seen plenty of people whose strength outstrips their physique - I've heard some of the strongest humans barely show any muscle at all, in fact. But getting there takes hard work, and I got a good look at your hands earlier - I don't think you even have a single callus."
"That's because I've always healed myself with magic," I fibbed, meeting her eyes and refusing to break contact. I knew the phenomenon she was referring to concerning muscles. It was common among demons. Our strength was primarily supernatural, and the stronger you got, the harder it became to give your body an actual workout. It was interesting to know humans worked the same way in this world. "Believe me or don't. All I can do is promise to return."
Monica's brown eyes searched mine. I'm not sure what she found, but after a moment, she shrugged her shoulders and looked away. A moment later, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps walking down the stairs, and Tasha arrived with a lantern. It was already lit.
"Thank you," I said, smiling as I reached out for the lantern.
For a moment, Tasha's hand remained firmly on the lantern. "Be careful out there," she told me, voice pitched low. "Getting this taken care of soon might be what's best for the town, but the last thing we need is your corpse on our conscience." Then she took her hand off and looked away.
"I really will be all right," I promised, trying to reassure everyone once again. Nobody responded, this time, so I shrugged my shoulders and turned toward the door. I had already opened it when I heard Monica whispering behind me.
"You're going to be paying off that lantern for months, you know."
"Shut up," was Lissera's whispered reply. "She's gorgeous, and I don't want her to die."
My cheeks flushed bright red, and I hastily opened the door and stepped through. The air outside was all but frigid, especially compared to the inn's warmth, but, as when flying, I didn't mind it in the slightest.
The night was pitch black beneath the clouded sky. That usually wouldn't bother me, with my unnaturally good eyes, but the lantern light really was interfering with my night vision. Everything seemed to fade away to nothing less than twenty feet away. On top of that, poor Lissera would apparently have to spend months paying it off if it broke. It was plainly evident to me that I couldn't bring it into the fight. I kept it with me while walking through town and then opened the lantern's cloudy glass door and blew out the light. I placed it next to the outer wall, which surrounded the fields, for safekeeping and started to walk down the path and toward the forest proper.
Of course, I also released the spell that made my hair look brown. While I'd made a big deal about my strength to the villagers, I really had no reason to restrict myself to physical fighting. There were twenty opponents, after all, and I was under no obligation to fight fair.
As far as finding the wolves went, I decided to simply stomp through the forest and make noise until they found me. The villagers had painted them as fairly aggressive, and I was hoping they would rush to defend their territory. If it didn't work, I always had the option of searching for them with magic, but I was hoping to avoid that. Just as I had felt Lissera's magic power, when she'd poured it over me, I was sure the wolves would know it if I used magic to scan for them. I wasn't sure how well they'd be able to gauge my strength or how they'd react to it.
In the end, I didn't need to worry, anyway. I was less than a quarter-mile from town when I heard the low growl of a predator, and a moment later, a single wolf emerged from the underbrush to my right. It looked more or less like a traditional wolf to me, sleek in form but well-muscled. Its coat was gray, glossy, and obviously well cared for. The horn it was named for, which sat in the center of its forehead, was a sinister red, far too resemblant of blood for my tastes.
The wolf walked casually around me, keeping its eye trained on my form. When it reached the center of the road, in front of me, it let loose another loud growl.
More wolves emerged from the bushes in response to this call. The village had listed twenty, but the count seemed closer to thirty to my eyes. Like the leader, they were largely sleek and well-muscled. There was one on the smaller side, however, perhaps two thirds the size of the others. It seemed much thinner, and its fur was matted and dirty. I was curious about its circumstances, but once it took its place in the circle with the rest, I had to treat it as an enemy. Even emaciated as it was, it could still be a threat to me.
The lead wolf was the first to move. It lowered its head and charged at me, intending to skewer me with its horn. Its attack was well telegraphed, though, and I simply stepped aside. It didn't stop, to my surprise, even after passing me, instead ramming its red horn directly into a tree.
The sharp instrument pierced through the wood like a needle through cloth, showing off both the horn's sharpness and the brute strength of the lupine monster. More concerning than that was the way the bark around that horn was darkening and crumbling away. When the wolf pulled away from the tree, a large chunk of the trunk dislodged with it, crumbling to ash and falling to the ground as the creature shook its head. Then it turned back to me and let out a low pitched bark.
The other wolves reacted as one to the sound, with each letting out a growl as they lowered their heads toward me. Then they started to close in, some wolves dropping back to make a second row as the circle narrowed bit by bit. I wasn't sure if they could actually penetrate my skin with their horns like this, but I got the feeling that even getting poked by it would result in an unpleasant experience.
It was a good pack tactic. The wolves had me surrounded on all sides, meaning that I couldn't simply run through them. They weren't running forward, so there was no chance of them hitting one another. And if I devoted my attention to one of them, I'd leave myself full of openings for the rest. I had assumed that the horned wolves were only base animals, but it seemed they were intelligent enough to make plans.
Not that it would save them.
"I'll give you one chance," I told the wolves, on the off chance that they could understand Solla's common tongue. "If you bow your head to me and allow me to lead you somewhere less populated, I'll let you live." I considered letting loose a burst of magic energy with my words but chose not to. If the wolves scattered, I'd never be able to clear them all out. And if they decided to attack someone they saw as defenseless, that would tell me all I needed to know about them.
The wolf I'd pegged as the leader made an odd sound. It was like a growl, but with pauses built into it. I wasn't sure, but I thought it might be laughing at me. All the while, the wolves continued to walk toward me, their horns growing closer and closer.
A sigh slipped from my lips, as a familiar tickling sensation slid across my back, and my black wings spread wide behind me. A single flap took me up and into the air before wolves could even react. They stared up at me in surprise, then glanced to their leader, who let out a small bark in response. It looked like he was about to personally lead an attempt to drag me down from the air. I was grateful that they hadn't decided to flee, as it would save me some trouble, but not thankful enough to give them a second chance.
Holding a hand out toward the leader, I allowed energy to build up in my hand. For its form, I imagined crackling electricity, which tingled against my palm. After I'd built up a considerable amount of energy, I shot it out toward the leader, striking him in the chest. Instantly, his fur stood on end, and he stiffened in place, unable to move as lightning ran through him.
Of course, I didn't stop it there. Instead of coursing down the pack leader's feet and into the ground, the electricity jumped to the nearest wolf, burning its way through them even as I continued to pour electricity into the leader. From there, it went to the next wolf and the next, moving faster than they had a chance to react to it until every wolf there was frozen in place. When I cut off the stream of power, each of them slumped down to the forest floor.
All in all, it took less than a minute to end the wolf pack. The ease of it made me feel a little guilty; they were never a real threat to me, to begin with. But they had been a real threat to the villagers, the merchants, and anyone else they'd come across. Their aggressive territorialism meant that relocating them by force wasn't an option, either. I'd done what I had to do. I knew that.
It didn't change the fact that I'd just killed nearly thirty living creatures, though.
Grimacing to myself, I landed on the ground and made my way to the lead wolf. As the first one I'd struck, it had been exposed to more of the current than the rest of the pack, and it was in pretty bad shape. I could smell charred meat and burnt fur. The horn on its head still gleamed red, though, same as ever, so I reached out and carefully snapped the thing at its base. I'd bring that back to the village, as proof. As for the formerly horned wolf itself - it wouldn't really do to leave so many cooked wolves lying around, would it? I decided to put them all in my bag.
It was a little strange feeding them into it. The bag itself was no bigger than a fist, but the wolves still fit. It was like they were being shrunken down as they went in, their bodies narrowing to slide into the too-small hole and then disappearing into depths that shouldn't have existed. I wasn't entirely sure how it worked, though I assumed it was powered by some sort of holy magic. It had come from heaven, after all.
Regardless, the process went smoothly, and I soon arrived at the final wolf. It was the one I'd singled out as emaciated at the start. Up close, it really was skin and bones. Weak and small, with matted and dirty fur. I couldn't help but think that the other wolves must have been mistreating it, though I couldn't say why. Perhaps because it was on the smaller side?
Nature truly could be cruel. Unfortunately, I, too, needed to harden my heart. No matter how weak and pitiful it looked, it was still a monster. And like all monsters, it could breed with the base species it had diverged from, in this case wolves. And since every pup it brought into the world would be a monster, just like it, it wasn't something I could ignore or let go. I knew that.
Which left me wondering why in the world I'd left it alive. I'd made a point of striking it with the electricity last, with a lower charge and for the smallest duration. I'd intended to knock it out while I decided what to do with it, but, apparently, I'd gone a little too easy on it, as its eyes were open and trained on my form.
"...Your pack attacked me first, you know," I pointed out. "I know I was here to get rid of you all, but if you hadn't decided to attack me, then nothing would have happened."
The wolf stared silently at me. When I stepped closer, it tried to stand, but its legs wouldn't support it, and it quickly fell back down. That didn't stop it from snarling, though, its lips pulling back to reveal sharp teeth. It was supposed to be intimidating, I think, but it really seemed more like a desperate last stand to me. I could see nothing but fear in its gaze.
I hesitated for a moment, then stepped closer to it. It growled again but didn't even try to move away. I walked right up next to it, then knelt beside it and moved my hand slowly toward its side.
The horned wolf moved faster than I thought it was capable of, snapping at my hand. I didn't pull away fast enough, and the teeth grabbed hold of my wrist. I could feel the teeth pressing against my flesh - but there was no pain, no blood. No wounds. It wasn't even strong enough to break my skin.
"If you're quite done?" I inquired of it, lifting an eyebrow. It continued trying to dig its teeth into my wrist for a moment. There seemed to be desperation in its eyes. I didn't think it was going to stop. So I decided to test something I'd been wondering about and let some of my raw magic power spill out from my hand and across the creature's body.
Its reaction was instant and dramatic. It let go of my hand and began to whimper, lowering itself to the ground and trying to make itself as small as possible. Perhaps because it was a monster, it seemed sensitive enough to my power level to know that it had no chance.
"Good. Now that we have that settled..." I reached out toward it, again, ignoring the fearful whimper it let out when my hand touched its side. I could feel its rib cage beneath my fingers, each bone standing out sharply beneath the skin, and I again felt a twinge of pity for the state of this poor thing.
"...I can't believe I'm doing this," I muttered, more to myself than the wolf. Slowly, heat began to gather in my hand, flowing into the creature. I'd never tried a spell like this before, and I wasn't entirely sure how it would work, but I decided to focus on the idea of cells multiplying and repairing themselves. I provided the energy since the creature was far too weak to support this sort of spell, and as my magic pumped through the body, a mental image of the beast appeared in my head.
It didn't seem that my spell had dealt much damage to it - or rather her, as I now realized. It was merely that the wolf hadn't had much health, to begin with. She was weak from malnutrition to the point that I wasn't sure how long she had left. Her calcium deficiency seemed especially bad, and her bones were starting to show it.
I focused first on undoing the damage my spell had caused, which didn't take long at all. I provided nutrition by reaching into my empty bag and literally pulling the nutrients out of one of her packmates. A little macabre, perhaps, but it seemed the least it could do after letting this poor thing fall into such a state to begin with.
Once I had taken care of her immediate health problems, I focused on the wolf herself. The first thing I did was pull water from the air. The second thing I did was to absolutely soak the wolf, whose eyes widened in shock at the sudden dousing. I ignored that, however, using magic to pull the water out of the wolf's fur and then wetting her again, and again, until the dirt in her coat had loosened its grip on her. I then used another spell to gently tease the filth from her body, forming a giant clod of dirt, twigs, and even a few leaves, next to her. Finally, I ran my fingers through the fur, undoing any knots I found.
The wolf was silent throughout all of this, not making a sound even during its repeated waterings. It looked confused to me, but it seemed to be slowly coming to the conclusion that I didn't intend to hurt it again. I didn't speak, either, content to simply work on its coat.