[2]

Finris was a loner. The type of mage that would rather get lost in a book and research than be the center of attention. His elders, though, seemed to have other things in mind for him. Whether it was out of spite — for some unknown reason to Fin — or just them trying to push him out of his comfort zone, he wasn't sure. They seemed most determined to set him to tasks that might have been better performed by other, more enthusiastic, mages. As it was, that was how Finris had found himself as one of the caretakers of their newest shifter 'guest'.

The first time Fin had seen the man, he'd had a blade shoved into his hand and instructed on what slices to make. His hand had shaked and his work had been sloppy — most definitely not that of someone who'd had years of practice. The elders hadn't seemed to care much, though. The shifter was an experiment — expendable in every way possible.

The moment the skin gave under Fin's blade he'd felt sick and it was all he could do not to lose his breakfast all over the subject on the table. Something about what they were doing just seemed wrong but who was he to judge — to argue? Finris knew his place and he knew that nothing he would say would change things. Except maybe earn a punishment for insubordination. And so the elders had not relented on him. Several more times he was forced into the experiments, slicing into the man's flesh and each time he improved just a bit more. Until finally has cuts were steady, precise.

More tasks landed on Finris over the next few weeks — most low level, grunt work that the newer acolytes were given. He fell into a routine, quickly adapting to the tasks and staying quiet, despite the objections screaming in his head. It wasn't that he liked shifters, he just didn't particularly care to be hands on with this experiment.

Fin swallowed, letting out a slow breath as he leaned against the wall and remembered the way his heart had beat against his chest as the shifter had woken up when he last saw him. It was only the second time he'd seen those piercing, blue eyes — eyes that seemed as if they could see through to Fin's very soul. He ran a hand over his face and pushed away from the wall, determined to shake off the unsettling feeling that had been plaguing him since that day.

What if the shifter could see into his soul? What if he had seen every little bit of Finris' sins and insecurities? His doubts?

Fin shook his head, shoving that thought to the back of his mind, and moved through the halls. He would have to do some research later, something he should have done when he'd first been assigned these jobs. He'd just not had time as of yet. Fin made the familiar trek towards experimentation room. Again, he had been called on — having improved fairly well enough to be steady in his marks — to take a blade to the man's skin again. He arrived just as they were hoisting the shifter onto the table, unconscious. Finris eyed the man, opened his mouth to say something but closed it when one of his more favorable teachers — Myirc — turned to speak to him.

"Stay and watch him."

"But…I...he..." Fin's heart instantly leapt and lodged in his throat. The order was firm but he couldn't help but try and argue with it. He didn't want to be alone with this...thing. Even knocked out, Fin was still wary of him.

"Finris, that's an order."

Fin winced, head bowing in response. "Yes sir. Sorry."

"We'll be back soon. There will be a guard posted outside the door if you should need anything," Myric said as he slipped out of the room.

As his teacher left the room, Fin's attention flicked to the man lying prone on the table and he frowned. Laying there, he could almost imagine the man was harmless — innocent. Fin knew better, though. He had heard the whispers of those who had seen him when they'd first brought him in — blood caked fur. Some had even said he was still awake, foaming at the mouth and snapping at whoever dared get close to him. The elders had squelched those rumors, though. He had been in his wolf form but he had been unconscious thanks to a spell trap the beast had fallen into.

Fin shook his head and sighed as he managed to tear his gaze away from the shifter and set himself onto a task that left his eyes to linger anywhere but on him. He trailed his fingers over the parchment that laid out before him, eyes quickly taking in the print

'When a shifter sleeps with another of its kind, a bond forms, locking the pair together for the rest of their lives.'

Fin's brows knit together as he read over the words a second time. They mated...for life? His gaze flicked up and over the man laying out on the table. Did he have a mate? Was someone missing him? He tore his gaze away, focusing back on the parchments before him. Next to the scroll about mates laid another parchment, much newer and in a different script than the other. Someone's notes, perhaps? Finris' eyes followed the words, drinking them in as he read.

'We hope to explore this bond more and use it to our advantage. Does it weaken the shifter's abilities? Make them stronger? Only more research will tell us. Our current experiment does not seem to be mated with anyone and in fact has proved quite useless as of lately. We will most likely expose of him soo…'

Fin jumped as he felt an arm snake around him and tug. He didn't have much time to process this before he felt the press of cold metal against his throat. Panicked, Fin clawed at the man's arm, his only thought was on escaping. This only earned him a firmer press of the blade and caused Fin to freeze.

"Make a noise and you die."

Fin swallowed, opened his mouth then remembered his words and quickly shut it. He did not want to die that day, or any time soon. "You're going to help me out of here." Fin managed a small, not quite there, nod and stilled the moment he felt the blade scrape against his skin. When he began to shake the shifter let his grip loosen slightly and the blade moved from his neck, to his side. "There's a guard?"

Finris worried his bottom lip, eyes snapping shut as he nodded again. So the man had been awake when Myric had left the room. Without thinking about the consequences, Fin went to turn, to face the man that held him at knife point.

"Don't," the man grunted, the tip of the knife pressed into his side. "Go, open the door."

Fins' head jerked back around, body tensing at the push of the knife. 'Stupid. You're stupid Finris.' He took a deep, shaky breath before moving towards the door. 'He's going to kill you. He'll get out and you'll be dead.' Fin clenched his eyes shut as his fingers wrapped around the knob. He felt the knife move as the man switched sides and moved behind the door so that the guard would not see him.

"What is it, grunt?" A rough, deep voice sounded, causing Finris' eyes to jerk open.

"I...need. What I mean is...the shifter. He's…" Finris tripped over his words, his knees shaking and his head spinning. What did one say in this kind of situation? 'Nothing, I just wanted to hear your lovely voice'? Fin didn't think that would go over very well. He opened his mouth, intent on making better use of his words, but didn't get anything out before the guard was shoving past him.

"What the hell's going on?"

Finris felt the push to his side and stumbled, falling up against the wall and hitting his head. He groaned, head ringing as he turned to lean back against the wall. When he went to push away, intent on escaping, the room spun and he snapped his eyes shut against the onslaught of dizziness. He heard the confrontation before he saw it.

What Fin had first assumed were just the noises his pounding head were making, became immediately clear as the growling increased and it was followed by some choice words from the guard.

"What the fuck do you expect to do with that tiny knife?" Fin's eyes flicked open just in time to see the guard pulled out a wicked looking blade. Surely the shifter had no chance. He watched, eyes widening as the stupid beast lunged forward. This move earned a snort and laugh from the guard as he easily sidestepped, avoiding the other man easily, and brought the pommel of his sword down against the back of his head. The shifter stumbled forward, the momentum from his charge sending him crashing into the table he'd been laying on not moments earlier.

Almost certain things were over, Fin pushed himself away from the wall completely. Forcing himself to ignore the pain radiating between his eyes and back into the rest of his head. He would surely have a bruise the next day. As he took a step forward he froze in place, eyes narrowing on the shifter as his fingers twitched and he moved to push himself up from the table. "How in the world…" Finris' eyes narrowed at the direction one of the man's hands went and watched him grip a much larger blade this time around.

"Oh? Want more, do ya?" The guard chuckled and cracked his neck. "C'mon, then. I've been aching for a proper fight for a while now." Before Finris even had a chance to open his mouth, the shifter was lunging again. The man ducked a swipe of the guard's sword and Fin watched as he came up, blade up and ready.

For a brief moment everything stopped and Fin thought that maybe the shifter had missed his target. The guard coughed, brows knitting together as the other man pushed in with his arm and jerked up. Fin tore his eyes away from the scene, snapping his lashes shut, as the guard coughed again, blood now coming out of his mouth.

Fin heard a grunt and wanted to look but forced his eyes to remain shut as he curled up tighter into himself. His mind kept screaming at his body to move, move, move but he just couldn't seem to force his limbs to do so. When he felt the tip of the guards blade poke against his leg, Fin froze in place but couldn't hold back a small shudder.

"P-please…"

"Up," The shifters voice was rough, almost weaker sounding than it had been before and Fin wondered how much the fight with the guard had taken out of him. Fun uncurled from himself and hesitated before glancing fully up at the shifter. Blood covered the man — both the guard's and his own. It seemed the guard had gotten in one good swipe to the man's right arm before the shifter had shoved the blade deep into his chest. Fin's attention flicked to the felled man, brows knitting together at the lifeless stare. "I said up." The growl that accompanied the word up made Fin jerk and shrink back a bit. He was quickly obeying, however, when the shifter narrowed his eyes and gripped the hilt of the blade tighter.

"You're going to help me find a way out. There are secret ways, yes?"

Fin swallowed as he shook his head. "I...I don't know. I've n...nnh…" Fin's words cut off as a blade was pressed against his neck for the second time in less than an hour. He tilted his head back, pressing against the wall and trying to get as far away from the blade as he possibly could.

"Don't lie to me." Another growl accompanied the words and Fin wondered if it was something that always happened when the man was upset. The blade pressed harder and Fin felt the warm trickle of blood on his skin.

"Please...ok. I've heard rumors but I'm not sure…" Fin swallowed, words trailing off as his eyes flicked down to eye the blade. When the pressure eased up, he continued. "I've heard other mages talk and I've even seen some texts that make mention of hidden passages. But I...I've never see them. So I'm not sure if they actually exist."

"Show me."

Finris nodded and with the nudge of the pilfered blade, he was moving out of the room. He wondered, momentarily, where his teachers were but soon had the answer as voices echoed ahead. "Another way. Hurry!" The words were hissed out and, with the blade in the shifter's hands, Finris knew he was unable to resist. And so he was turning, eyes frantically scanning their surroundings as he mentally filled in where they were, in the fortress, and where each passageway lead.

"This way," Finris said as he turned on his heel and moved past the shifter. He wasn't sure if he was helping the man because he feared for his own life, those of his teachers, or both. All he knew was that he had to put as much distance between that blade and those who'd taught him everything he knew. He heard the footsteps, of the man, close behind him as they wound through the various passageways. When Fin paused, abruptly, he felt the shifter knock into him and he flushed, jerking away quickly and scanning the wall in front of them.

By now, the older mages would have already discovered the dead guard and empty table. It just happened, by luck, that the secret passage was in a spot that not many frequented during the day. Brows knitting together, Fin ran his fingers over the cold stones, searching for the right block that would open up the hidden door. He glanced to the man out of the corner of his eyes, noting how pale he looked — more so than usual — and how soaked with blood his skin now was. Sighing, he turned his attention back to the wall and pressed. With a swoosh of sound a doorway opened. "This way," Fin said as he stepped into the darkness.