At this point Eugene is a sight that would make your eyes sore. His clothes are sweat-stained, his hair is plastered to his forehead, and his steps are heavy upon the ground in spite of its relative softness. There is truly something wrong with this region. I’ll be glad to be done with it. Hopefully it will not be much longer, or shall without a doubt run into some new monstrosity, he thinks to himself as he tries to keep moving. However, his legs are sore and resist the commands of his brain, and he catches himself dragging his feet and stumbling even more than usual. I don’t think I’ve run so much in one day since I was ten years old, nor had so little sleep. He looks around and, seeing a patch of sparsely-leaved bushes, walks over to them and drops to a seat. I’ll just rest a moment, he thinks, but barely a minute has passed before exhaustion catches up to him and his eyes shut. In spite of of all the recent danger or perhaps because of it, the lure of sleep proves irresistible, and his eyes close even as he worries about what new or known oddities might assail him while he rests, the memory of the hooded man at the forefront of this lineup. Before consciousness leaves him, there is the sound of a howl in the distance, and he has time to think that surely it is too far away to worry about. The last thing he remembers is a faint smell, almost like wet dog, that seems to be emanating from the bushes that surround him.
It is still nighttime when he awakens. The moon does not appear to have moved; it sits in place in the sky as though suspended in twinkling black ice. Eugene sits up and stretches on all fours, his claws extending involuntarily from the motion. Looking down, there are two paws where his hands should be, and the feeling of his skin against the dirt, though it is not as tactile as that of human skin due to the rough padding upon the bottoms. He jumps around a bit, and turns his head to look back at himself, catching glimpses of a bushy grey tail and lean grey body. There is no sign of his clothes or his pack.
“What! What!… is there no end to the madness?”
If he had still been human at this point, his ears would’ve heard some growls and grunts, with a tinge of whimper. The world looks duller to his lupine eyes, lacking hue but for the dull green of the grass, though his vision for details is much sharper. Sounds and smells more than make up for this paucity of color. His nose in particular is akin to a third eye, the many scents of the forest painting a brighter picture than his human senses ever could. It is to the point that he stands stock-still for some time before he can process all of this new and dazzling information. His pointed ears pick up the skitter of insects moving across the dusty dirt, and the once barely-perceptible creaking of the trees in the wind is magnified to the point of sounding like a chorus of dry old voices, “soon, soon.” He can smell the dirt and wind and all the layers that compose them, and another scent a bit like the bushes but not as mildew-y, a smell of sweat and fur and wildness. And accompanying this smell comes the sound of soft feet padding through the grass toward him, alternating pairs of feet hitting the ground. Eugene feels his ears prick up, and then he sees the pack. There are six of them, two in front and four that trail behind, long faces glancing to either side as they approach, eyes eating up their surroundings in search of something to eat with their mouths. Lopes become steps which finally become a full stop, and the pack stares at wolf-Eugene, the smaller wolves in the back panting.
“Oh! A new member of the pack!” says the wolf at the head. “You may make us seven if there are no objections,” and his voice becomes a growl and he snarls a bit, lips wrinkling back to show sharp white teeth. The others mimic his actions.
“Not at all! I would be honored to join you. I’m… not from around here, and am a bit lost as well.” Eugene tries to make himself small, crouching lower to the ground. The other wolves seem to take this as a good sign, their postures relaxing and teeth disappearing behind whiskered jowls.
“And look at that! Again we find a new friend sleeping next to the wolf-berry bush. Strange coincidence, but hey.” The smaller wolf next to the first who spoke speaks next, and Eugene infers that it is a she, though if you asked him how he knew he would not be able to tell you how. “I hope you don’t disappear like the last one. He had strange fur like you as well.”
The larger wolf chimes in. “Yeah, your back is darker than the rest of you. Why’s that?And you sure speak proper. You one o’ them northern wolves?”
“Ah, yes, I have traveled from the north. I did not know my back was darker,” though perhaps this means my pack is still with me he thinks, “but thank you for telling me so. My name is Eugene, by the way.”
The wolves turn their heads to the side in unison.
“Name? What do you mean?”
“Eh, like how you tell each other apart?”
“Y’all northern wolves are strange for sure. I’ve never heard of anything like that. Who needs this ‘name’ thing when smell is good enough to tell who you are, and you don’t even need to see the other.”
“Oh, of course, it is a silly tradition that some wolves in the north have picked up, but I agree with your sentiment. Scent is surely enough.”
A cool breeze blows around them, and the pack perks up. “Speaking of scents, that wind smells of hare! Come on, let’s get ’em!” All of them turn and run, Eugene trailing behind them and trying discern the scent about which they spoke, nose twitching. It takes him a little longer than them, but soon he too can smell the creatures, a smell somewhat like hay. And he can hear the thump of small feet compared to the heavier padding of wolf paws. Something about the way Eugene runs does not seem to be as efficient as the natural wolves, and he lags behind. This is accentuated all the more when, when the wolves are on the heels of the hares, they spring forward. Five toothy muzzles bite through soft fur and into wiry muscle. A sixth and seventh hare jump off into the night, no doubt cringing at the crunching noises coming from behind. Eugene is panting as he finally catches up.
“What’s the deal, new one? You run as though you only have two legs.”
His mate speaks up. “I knew a wolf with two crippled legs who was faster than you, new one.”
“My apologies, I think I,” he pants, “may have eaten something weird.”
“Well if you’ve already eaten, you won’t mind our not sharing then.”
“Not at all.” They did not wait for his response, digging in with enthusiasm. Eugene’s ears go back a little and he wanders about a bit, tail down. After they are finished with their meal, they approach him again, muzzles stained maroon from the raw meat.
“What brings you to these parts, anyhow?”
“Well, where I come from, my father is the mayor– I mean, he’s the leader of our pack. Being his first born, I had a very easy life, but apparently he thought it was too easy. Too much dreaming and not enough action, or so he said. So he sent me out on my own to… uh, hunt and experience some hardship, I guess. Mostly it’s just been a bother. I don’t see why I couldn’t just appreciate my good fortune to be born into his family. Seems reasonable to me.”
“Huh. You northerners are just as strange as the humans. I would never send one of my young off to lone. Maybe if they were somehow threatening the rest of the pack.”
“I certainly wasn’t doing anything like that! And I never would,” he says, looking at each of the wolves in turn.
“Oh well. Come along, then. Food is somewhat scarce in these parts, and sometimes there are…” he looks up at the sky, “… sometimes there are other things to deal with as well. As your father said, you could certainly use some more experience.”
He watches them and attempts their same easy pace; it is sort of like he were hopping like a frog across the ground if he were still in human form, front legs intersecting back legs with each bound, but it is much more suited to his current shape. Surprisingly, it is possible, even easy, to talk while running like this.
“By chance, do you all know Marista, the wolf-witch?” [See Part 1!]
“Aye, that pretender. Nice enough when she’s puttin’ on to be a wolf but boy does she swat when she’s one o’ them hairless things.”
One of the other wolves chimes in. “She got a toothy stick, a scratchy stick, and a flat-end stick, and I’ve never seen her without at least one o’ them.”
“How about the hooded man?”
They look at him blankly, and a couple of the younger wolves’ heads rotate slightly.
“Interesting. None of you… people seem to know of him, even though the appearance of each other causes no great alarm. I wonder why that… ”
The alpha cuts him off. ”Enough talk. Let’s go! I’m still hungry, and the little beasties aren’t going to catch themselves.”
And with that, meal settling in their stomachs, the pack moves on, a few scraps of the more unpalatable organs and drops of blood upon the dirt the only signs that anything took place at the spot. Eugene mimics the easy (but not so easily replicated) movement of his contemporaries, and marvels at the difference it makes. Not only does it feel better, but the reduced exertion allows him to appreciate his other senses more. Areas of shadow that would provide mystery to a human are almost completely visible now, and the sounds and scents that were at first overwhelming are gradually becoming akin to a sixth sense; it is as though he has a full 360° of vision that extends around him. The smell of warm flesh and fur enters this circle of perception, and the pack veers off to the right. The deer that they picked up on are running now as well, lean creatures and paler of pelt than normal, their eyes somewhat bulbous, though the natural wolves do not seem to notice this difference and neither does Eugene. Between them they manage to bring down two, nipping at their haunches and flanks until the unfortunate ruminants come crash-tumbling to the ground as the rest of the herd gallops off into the night. This time there is no debate as to whether or not Eugene is privy to a share, and they feast with the vigor reserved for the successful hunter, the new-made wolf surprised at how little he cares that the meat is raw and unprepared in any way. They run onward, and crest a small hill, the moon looming above them, and Eugene feels a howl rising in his throat, unstoppable in its insistence. Together, they sing to the night, and together they look down as the small sounds of bending grass and compressed dirt alerts them to their singular audience.
The hooded man is staring up at them, pilfered hatchet in hand. Eugene’s eyes widen and his ears lay flat as he backs away, step by step.
“That’s him! That’s the one!” He cries.
And indeed the hooded man has caught up to Eugene, and his hooded gaze seems to fixate on the odd wolf out in spite of his new, hairier shape. The presence of the others does not seem to intimidate him whatsoever and he approaches, making a chopping motion with the hatchet. His threat is greeted with a display of fangs and raised hackles, growls, and stiff legs splayed. Eugene backs away, putting the others in between him and the man.
“Please! We need to get away from him.”
“No. We need to eliminate this thing. There’s something wrong with this man… the smell is all wrong, a smell of unthinking madness and senseless malice.” The alpha does not look back as he says this.”There are times when one must do the difficult thing because it is the right thing. If you do not stand with us now, do not expect to be welcome here any longer.
Eugene glances at the safe darkness of the forest and then back at the impending face-off between wolves and maniac. His eyes meet the blank spots of the hood, and then as if magnified lock with the bloodshot pupils lurking within, and he feels terror tremble through his brain. One quick turn later and he is loping off through the trees, the sound of snarls and then cries of pain sounding from behind his turned tail.
( ©2017 Sean Dorsey )