THE FOREST opened up to a long, lush meadow. Thom Woodmen paused and glanced around. He took a deep, centering breath and concentrated on the trail of pain that led him on a chase through the forest.
“Slow down, Thom,” said Ben Steele, his sixteen-year-old boyfriend and bond mate. Ben leaned against a huge ponderosa pine, panting to catch his breath. “Some of us aren’t as fast in the woods as you are.”
Denny Stout, Thom’s dwarven best friend, sounded worse than Ben. “He doesn’t care.” Denny paused and gasped for breath. “You know how he is. I think he’s been worse since you guys came back from Texas. I think this Guardian thing is going to his head.”
Thom sighed and wished he could drop his human guise and assume his natural, nearly eight-foot-tall, form. As an Oh Mah, it would be easier to track whatever it was that was broadcasting the pain he picked up on from miles away.
“Sorry about this.” Thom shot an embarrassed look back at them.
Ben smiled warmly at him. “It’s okay. Just slow down a bit if you want us to keep up with you. I think you’re getting faster, even with your disguise in place.”
With a brief flash of green, their friend Sophia Papandreou appeared out of a nearby tree. “I think I’ve found something.” She’d been using her dryad gift—tree walking—to scan the forest undetected. She looked relaxed. Her human disguise flowed around her, replacing her natural green skin and hair, and when it was done, she ran a hand through her now black locks. “An elk just walked into the trees at the far side of the valley. It’s not moving right, sort of dragging its hindquarters.”
Thom frowned, but Ben spoke before he could. “I wonder if it got hit on the highway and just made its way here in hopes of a peaceful death.”
“Could be.” Thom stared in the direction Sophia indicated, but couldn’t see anything. “I don’t know for sure. I just know that there’s something in pain out here that’s calling to me.”
“I agree.” Freda Oakwood emerged from the forest. “These forests are taking some getting used to.” She glanced at Denny and Ben. “You guys move really well for not being Oh Mah. Almost makes me wish we were back in Texas where the land is flat and fast. But I guess learning different environments is good for my Guardian training, too.”
“Okay.” Thom huffed. “Let’s finish this up. That poor thing’s in so much pain, I can’t take it much longer.” He trotted across the meadow without waiting to see if the others followed him or not. The new spring grasses weren’t even up to his ankles yet, but already the land hummed with a reawakening that was new and different to him.
“I never imagined we’d feel animals in pain when we became Guardians.” Freda ran next to him. “But I guess if we’re supposed to help keep things in balance, this is part of it.”
Thom nodded. “Just like Sophia and her mom know when trees are dying. It’s part of their dryad thing to shepherd the forest. We do our part too.” As they got closer, the pain strengthened and became more focused. A sharp ache grew in Thom’s hips with occasional stabbing jolts. Looks like Sophia might be right, an elk with injured hindquarters. Just like the rabbit last week that I had to dispatch after it was hit by a car.
At the bottom of the hill, the trees closed in on them, and a trail of dark blood ran along a grooved path in last year’s leaves. Thom nodded, more to himself than his friends. “It went this way.”
“Yeah,” Denny snarked. “That’s kinda obvious. Even I could follow the trail now.”
Ahead of them, something heavy moved through the underbrush. A wave of fear washed over Thom. He stopped and gestured for the others to do so too. “It’s just over there.” He dropped his voice. “I almost wish we’d brought a rifle so we could end it quick and easy. It’s in so much pain already, and now we’re scaring it.”
“If you and I work together, we should be able to snap its neck quickly,” Freda suggested. “It’s an elk. They aren’t much bigger than most cows. If we’re fast, you can grab the head and I can grab the shoulders.”
Swallowing, Thom nodded. He’d hunted with his family and killed his share of animals before, but this was different. This wasn’t a proud, healthy animal. This elk was scared and hurt. He didn’t want to do anything to prolong that pain. He closed his eyes to get a better feeling for the situation. From the magic that flowed out of Freda toward the critter, he knew she did the same. Its pelvic bone was broken in two places and the right leg in three. How did it make it this far from the highway? It must’ve been determined to die on its own terms. If we dispatch it, at least it won’t have the fear of coyotes taking it down slowly. “Okay. Everyone else”—he caught Ben’s eyes with his gaze—“stay out of the way. I don’t want anyone hurt if this goes wrong.”
Ben, Sophia, and Denny all nodded.
“You be careful too.” Ben gave him a hard look. His concern transmitted through the mental link they had shared since they bonded. “Just because you’re a big, bad Oh Mah Guardian doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt.”
Thom returned the mental feelings. “I will. Actually, this will be easier in our Oh Mah form. If we’re quick, we won’t have to be worried about being spotted by anyone.”
“I didn’t see anyone in the forest while I was looking for the elk,” Sophia announced. “You should be safe.”
Freda nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.” Her human disguise dropped away, and she shot up two feet, gaining bulk and a thick covering of red hair across her body.
There was always a rush of air when Thom dropped his human guise, and since he’d grown after bonding to Ben, it had gotten more intense. In his natural, eight-foot form, Thom moved much faster. With Freda traveling in his shadow, he covered the nearly quarter of a mile to the elk in seconds, before the wounded animal had a chance to rise from the bushes it had collapsed in. He did his best to project a calming air without looking into the animal’s eyes as he grabbed hold of the massive bull elk’s head. Freda held its neck, and Thom snapped the head hard to the right.
A loud crack echoed through the quiet forest. The elk quivered. Its life energies dissipated as it surrendered to the forest floor. Kneeling, Thom laid the elk’s head on a thin layer of leaves. His throat tightened as he stood and turned away from the body.
“I wonder if this will ever get easier.” Before he’d become a Guardian and had his magical senses awakened, hunting had been easier. It was a natural part of life, but somehow helping sick and injured animals die was harder—more personal—than killing prey. Thom shuddered as he put his disguise back in place.
“I’m not sure I want it to.” At his side, Freda now looked like a powerful, red-haired teenage girl. “If we stop feeling each death, will we be able to do our jobs as Guardians? That’ll be a good question the next time we see Samuel.”
Thom nodded as he went to hug Ben. Samuel Farrel, as the new head Guardian, had a lot on his plate and was doing his best to train his two newest members, Thom and Freda, but it was proving a daunting task. To make things easier for him, Freda was staying with the Woodmens in Cripple Creek, Colorado.
Ben hugged Thom tightly. Less than a year earlier, Thom had been unaware how wonderful the hug of anyone, let alone a human, could be. Now he couldn’t imagine his life without Ben at his side.
He kissed Ben lightly. “I love you.”
Chuckling through their link, Ben replied, “I love you too. You big softy.”
Denny sighed heavily near them. “So are we hauling this big guy back, or are we leaving him here for the scavengers?”
Thom stepped out of Ben’s embrace. He glanced at Freda and shrugged. “I don’t think my folks need the food. Even with the extra mouths to feed, we’re okay.”
Sophia shook her head. “Mom and I are good.”
Freda nodded. “I say we leave it for the forest. I think it was a fairly hard winter. The animals might welcome the easy food.”
“Hard winter?” Denny burst out laughing. “You’re really a flatlander, Freda. This was one of the easiest winters I can remember. Yeah, we had a couple of rounds of deep snow, but overall, not nearly as much as we need. If you’re still around next year, we’ll see what we can drum up in the way of a real winter.”
“Compared to what I’m used to, it was rough.” She smiled and punched him hard in the shoulder. Denny tottered for a moment, then regained his balance. “We’ll have to take you down to Texas in July and August and see how well you handle the heat. I’ve only ever heard of dwarves in the mountains.”
As they started back toward the meadow, Thom forced himself to take a parting look at the elk lying on the forest floor. The pain he’d felt was fading quickly. Rest in Peace.
A strange voice stopped Thom cold. “If you’re not going to take that big ol’ elk, can I have it?”