This is it! The last chapter! I feel it was a bit rushed personally, but I'm still happy with it. Thanks so much to Nevermore23, anydayanywhere, spcecse7 for your reviews. You're all amazing. :D And without further ado, the conclusion to Protectors.

Chapter Six

The days passed, and slowly turned into weeks. My father didn't speak to me for the rest of the day, but the following morning he told me good morning and said that Hedd wanted me at the smithy, like he would any other day. He never really mentioned Adalric, but things went back to normal. The wolf was absent, but we expected that. We couldn't possibly expect him to stay with us all the time. He had duties as the forest's guardian. I also thought we both needed some time apart after what had transpired between us. Otherwise it would have been awkward and painful. Not that I didn't think it wouldn't be painful for me no matter how much time passed, but this was the way things were. I had to get used to that. I'd have to get used to seeing him, and always holding back.

Hedd was teaching me how to make swords and daggers after the incident with the Church officials, and I dare say I was pretty good at it. We began selling them in exchange for favors or food or supplies, as our little village didn't really use gold and silver coins for money like most places did. Soon everyone had some kind of weapon, even if they were just small dirks or hunting knives. Hedd and I also partnered up with Smitt and Judith, the brother-sister duo that came from England, to teach everyone basic weaponry. I didn't know much about it myself, but they were quite knowledgeable. They were well into their sixties, but still spry and quick-witted. Apparently in their youth they had run across a band of gypsies and had traveled with them for many years, learning everything they could be taught. Despite this, and all of their knowledge into weaponry, they were kind and gentle souls that laughed easily and were excellent teachers. I remembered when they had first come into the village. I was about thirteen. Most of the villagers had been afraid of the dangerous looking ruffians that had wandered into town wearing dirty cloaks and dirtier faces. They had a wild look about them then, probably gained from years on their own. It hadn't taken long, though, for the people of the village to warm to them and eventually claim them as their own.

It was at the end of the third week when Adalric came back. It was in a pouring rain and he was drenched, his fur sticking to his lean form. He looked so much smaller when he was wet, it was quite comical. When I told him he looked like a drowned cat he glared at me and shook himself, spraying me with what felt like buckets of wolf-smelling water. The thunder clapped viciously, and lightning struck not far away. We took shelter inside, and my mother wrapped us both in warm blankets. We sat by the fire in silence, sipping our hot tea. I had underestimated what I'd feel when I saw him again. I positively ached to touch that white hair again, that soft skin. I wanted those golden eyes to look at me with love again. Instead they only seemed to hold an apologetic hurt. After we had been warmed, and the rain had tapered off into a clear night, Adalric went back outside to curl up outside of the house and fall asleep there. My parents said nothing about what had happened between us or how we were now acting towards each other. I was a strange mixture of relieved and disappointed at that.

They came late that night. Adalric was still curled up outside of our house like the watchful guardian he'd always been. I was lying half awake in my bed in that half-asleep, half-awake stage, thinking vaguely about nothing in particular, when I heard it. The sound made me jolt upright in bed, the hair rising up on the back of my neck. The sound was a long, high howl that shook the door in its frame. In it was urgency layered with alarm. I shot out of bed like an arrow and woke both of my parents. We ran outside.

Adalric was howling outside the village, and on the horizon there could be seen hundreds of glowing lights. The villagers were all milling about outside. Samuel ran up to us, eyes wild. "An army approaches! It's the church, I know it!" he yelled. "They've come to kill us all! You must gather your weapons and defend yourselves! Lord Adalric will help us but he can't stop them all at once!"

It all happened so fast that looking back on it now I only see still-frame flashes. There was no time to think, to absorb, to accept. I just immediately ran back inside to get our weapons. We had swords-all of us. Many of them had been specially made to be lighter so it would be easier for the villagers to wield. Normally swords were so heavy it took years to acquire the strength needed to swing them accurately, but we didn't have any time at all anymore. I could hear the horses' hoof beats in my ears and feel it in the ground, a constant pounding like a stampede. "The recent rain will stop them from lighting our houses on fire," my mother was saying as we raced through the village side by side. "We at least have that on our side!" Her eyes were aglow with a ferocity I'd never seen before.

When we all gathered together in front of the village, Adalric was standing there in front of us, his snow white fur bristling, tail sticking straight out. There was an unholy light in his golden eyes like that of a demon out of hell. His fangs were bared in a grimace, and a perpetual growling rolled out of his throat. I stood next to him and put a hand on his flank, giving him my silent support and faith.

The army got closer. I could see they were decked out in silver armor, and had a banner with a cross on it. They brandished swords and spears and flaming torches. They probably meant to burn the village down, but they'd have a hard time doing so with the wood soaked through and through. They were yelling, praying, with zeal in their eyes. That all changed once they got a good eyeful of our wolf. Some of them had bows and arrows, but not a single arrow flew in those few moments. The horses spooked and reared up in panic, throwing several soldiers. They began crossing themselves desperately. I could see it gave the villagers courage. These people that I had grown up with my entire life-simple, hardworking folk that would never hurt anyone-had become warriors in the blink of an eye. Their eyes were hardened, narrowed. Their hands were steady as they brandished their weapon. We were ready to defend our way of life with our lives, if that was what it took.

As the soldiers began questioning the wisdom of their holy mission, Adalric took the chance…and attacked.

Arrows flew harmlessly off his hide, and their swords couldn't even begin to get through his fur. He attacked a soldier on a horse with his mouth, and crunched the man like he was a carrot. I heard the screech of metal against his teeth, the pained shriek of the soldier, and then a splash of blood fell onto the ground like water pouring from a bucket. Adalric tossed him like he was a rag doll and moved on to the next one, an unstoppable force. He raised his paw and struck down another. The soldier hit the ground and didn't so much as twitch. It must have been like getting hit with a tree trunk.

My stomach turned but there was no time to think about it. I ran up to a soldier and as his spear came down, my sword came up. Sparks flew and his spear swung wide uselessly. I knew I couldn't hesistate. The soldiers' armor had one fatal flaw-there was nothing covering their necks except for a white sash with gold embroidery. I stabbed the sword into his neck, marveling at how it gave only a little resistance. Blood poured out from the wound and the man dropped like a stone.

Heart pounding, I ran on. I couldn't let myself think about what I'd just done. I couldn't feel remorse. It was them or us. I had to harden myself. That was the only way this could end. They hadn't come to barter or ask for surrender. They had come for death. The death of my friends, family, and the death of Adalric. I was only human. I was only Lukas. But I'd be damned if I'd let them hurt us. I had to protect my life. I had to protect the lives of my family, and the lives of the people in this village. Adalric had protected us for so long, now it was my turn to contribute.

I'd make sure with my final breath that I protected Adalric and this village.

They had planned on burning the town as we thought, but it quickly proved impossible. The rain had set into the wood and nothing caught on fire. The townspeople were hardy, strong, and determined to fight, but they were not trained soldiers. As I ran through the town, cutting down anyone in silver armor, I saw my fallen comrades everywhere. Tears stung my eyes. Adalric was racing through the town, his maw dripping with blood. There was also wet blood on his front paws. Everywhere there were horses running wild, soldier screaming, villagers falling.

Slowly, slowly the fighting stopped. Silence fell. Adalric let the horses run free into his forest to be protected. We rounded up the ten or thirteen remaining soldiers and put them in the pig pen with our swords trained on them. They glared at us hatefully, but said nothing. A few of them sat down to pray, not caring they were sitting in filth with the pigs. We didn't have anywhere else to put them, after all. It wasn't like our peaceful village had ever had any need for a jail. Samuel told us we'd put to a vote whether to kill them or to be the bearers of our message, after we had put the dead to rest. I walked through the village to gather the bodies and to try and identify them. Every time I saw a familiar face my heart twisted.

There were many. Sixty villagers had died. Among them was my best friend Sarah. I stood there numbly over her body when I found it as the rest of the world faded away. She was leaning up against the outer wall of Samuel's home, a gaping wound in her throat. Her eyes were glassy and blank and unseeing. I didn't realize I was screaming until my father pulled me away from her and into his arms. I cried into his jacket, which smelled heavily of blood. The smell of blood was everywhere. All around me I heard the wails of people who had found their loved ones lying in the street like I had.

When I opened my eyes again, having regained my composure, her body was gone. Apparently my father had thought it best that I not see it. On legs I couldn't feel I was led over to where the main battle had taken place. My father was saying something to me, but I wasn't tracking his words.

"What?" I asked wearily.

"He needs you. Go to him."

His words dawned on me. I looked up, and saw a large, white-furred form lying terrifyingly still several yards away, surrounded by villagers. At first I had the horrible thought that Adalric had been hurt, that he was dying and that I was about to lose him forever. But that wasn't it. There was a sound coming from him, a sound I had never heard before and never, ever wanted to hear again.

Adalric, surrounded by people trying to comfort him-people who were stroking his fur and wrapping their arms around him as best they could-was sobbing. It wasn't a human sob-rather, it was a sort of chuffing sound intermixed with high-pitched canine whines, but his face was twisted in anguish, his body wracked with the force of his cries. He had curled into a ball and his eyes were tight shut.

I ran to him as fast as my legs would carry me and I immediately wrapped my arms around his head, stroking his ears and kissing his snow white fur. "It's alright, it's alright, it's alright," I kept repeating, even though I knew it wasn't. I sniffled, and started to cry again. I repeated my words like a mantra, like if I said them enough times it would become true.

After a while his sobs died away and his eyes opened slowly. The golden color was dark and subdued. I…bring life to the forest… he said after a while. I also bring death to it. Death is a natural and good part of life. But this? This wasn't death. This was slaughter. This was murder. He looked at me. Even you, Lukas. Even your eyes have become the eyes of a killer. I released him and leaned back slowly. That was true. I…had killed. I had ended the life of other human beings with my sword. I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I think I was feeling too much at that point to pick out any one emotion.

Samuel approached from behind me and lay a gentle hand on Adalric's large bloodied paw. "My lord…" he said gently. "Please don't think of it that way. You saved lives today. They came here with evil in their hearts. You are a protector, are you not? Sometimes, evil comes, and you have to choose. Look at us, my lord. We are safe thanks to you. And I may be speaking prematurely, but I don't think the Church will ever bother us again. We, a village of farmers and hunters, defeated a small army of trained soldiers thanks to you. If you hadn't been here today we would all be dead. You sacrificed much for us. Thank you."

"He's right, Adalric. Don't burden yourself with this," I whispered, and kissed the tip of his ear. The flecks of blood in his fur shone in the moonlight. Adalric had always been the one to protect us. Again I thought that this time, it was his turn to be protected. "Let's get you cleaned up, okay?"

I stood up and turned around. What happened next happened in slow motion. I saw a soldier dart out from inside a house he'd clearly been hiding in, an arrow notched. The arrow was pointed directly at little Josan standing a few feet away. Josan was only seven years old. He was staring at me with innocent blue eyes, and had no idea that the soldier was about to fire. I shouted, and grabbed Josan just as the arrow flew. I spun us around so that Josan was in front of me, facing away from the soldier. I felt a thud land on the back of my right shoulder like I had been punched and it knocked the breath out of me. A hot, angry pain spread outward from it. The soldier notched another arrow and let it fly just as the villagers raced towards him. I heard Adalric's roar of rage just as another thud hit me hard, this time between my ribs next to my spine. I dropped Josan and fell hard, choking on blood that wouldn't stop pouring up out of my throat. I couldn't breathe. I heard people shrieking, Adalric's roaring, and his telepathic scream. LUKAS!

And then…nothing but black.

It was too soon. It was…too soon. I held Lukas's body in my human arms. He was already growing cold. His lungs had filled with blood. His face was stark white, and the blood on his chin and cheeks was a stark contrast. His eyes were closed. I could bring someone back from the brink, but not from death. Once a soul had passed on, I was powerless. It wasn't something I was used to feeling. I hadn't even gotten to say goodbye.

The coppery taste of human blood was in my mouth, on my lips, face and hands. It was down my throat and in my stomach. The soldier who had murdered Lukas was in pieces. I didn't even remember killing him. It was just something that had happened. Little Josan was sobbing in his mother's arms. I was staring quietly at Lukas's still form, wishing with all my might that this wasn't real. It was too soon. Why were human lives so short? Why were they so fragile? It wasn't fair!

His mother and father were sitting beside me. His mother was staring at the body of her son, silent and still as a stone, just like I was. His father had his face buried in his hands. I turned my face to the sky and opened my mouth. A long howl ripped out of my throat, reverberating throughout my forest, the plains surrounding, and even the mountains surrounding them. I poured all of my anguish and grief into that howl. Maria broke down sobbing. The howl faded away into an echo as the sun began to rise.

I nestled my face into his. Then I pulled back with a shocked gasp. His body was becoming heavy, so heavy I couldn't hold it up. I put him down gently, while his father asked me what was the matter. No answer was needed. I watched, mouth agape, as a single sapling grew from the blood in his open mouth. His mother let out a soft scream. I wasn't breathing. I don't even think my heart was beating. Did I dare hope?

The sapling grew as we all watched, absorbing his body into it as it sprouted branches and leaves. The birch became tall and strong, setting root deep into the ground. I started laughing, then the laugh turned into hysterical shrieking. I stood up and danced around the tree like a madman. A kind of joy I had never felt before had infected my soul. I think the villagers were under the assumption that I had completely lost my mind.

Everything became clear, though, when a large wolf materialized and leapt down from one of the branches of the tree. This wolf, the opposite of myself and slightly smaller though heavier of build, had fur of jet black. There were two stark white spots on his back. And the eyes, oh, those eyes I knew all too well. They were a brilliant, cobalt blue.

As we all looked on, the wolf transformed into a young man with short black hair and blue eyes. It was Lukas. Different, and yet the same. His parents yelled with a mixture of joy and incredulity and a cheer rose up among all of the people of the village. He embraced his parents warmly. "Lukas? Son, is that you?" Rolland whispered, touching his son's face with a trembling hand. "Can this be?"

He nodded with a grin. I could tell in his eyes that he had seen the truth. He had seen it, and yet somehow had remained Lukas. I had never witnessed the birth of a god…up until now. Was I human once, too? Were we all? Was there another, higher power controlling everything after all? I didn't think we'd ever know. Lukas spoke loud enough for all to hear. "It is me, and it isn't. After I died, I found myself standing in a circle of trees made of light. The air was made of the blackness of the night sky and there were spirits all around me. I was told that it wasn't my time to become a spirit. I was told…that I am a protector, and there is always a need for protectors in this world." Josan ran into his arms and he picked up the boy, hugging him tightly. Then he set him down and the boy ran back to his mother.

"You…you've become a wolf," Maria said reverently. "Are you like Lord Adalric?"

He nodded. "Death can no longer touch me. I will stay here with Adalric and protect the forest and this village. My human life is over, but a new one has begun." He looked at me, and I didn't miss the significant look he gave me. He walked over to me. All I could do was smile. "You don't have to sacrifice now, Adalric. Now you don't have to watch me die. So I want to hear it. Say it."

I took his face into my hands. Now, after all these years, I wasn't alone. Now, after all these years, I could say the words I'd longed to say for so long. "I love you, Lukas."

"I love you, too, Adalric."

"Wolves mate for life, you know," I whispered. "I probably won't ever let you go. Are you…alright with that?"

Lukas nuzzled my face with his nose like I'd done to him so many times before. "I wouldn't have it any other way."