Humanskin: Pack Mentality

Dear Readers: I am in the process of world-building, creating a common setting for a group of stories and longer works. An earlier piece posted on this blog, “A Different Kind of Werewolf Story” introduces a set of characters that I revisit in this piece. Enjoy it, and please let me know what you think! Also, look forward to the next chapter of Afterglow: Godfall–and if you haven’t, take a moment to read the first installment. As always, thank you for your interest and support!  – Alexander C. Chirila

1.

Old Mother had tried to save the little girl, but it was too late. She was supposed to have been the newest member of the pack, one of the youngest awakened to the Totem’s gift. They had watched her for nearly a season. The snows covered the sleeping earth and the vibrant scent-trails of autumn faded into the muted palette of winter. Colorful pockets of warmth were hidden among the blacks, whites, and browns of midseason frost; bear-dens and foxholes, bird’s nests and underground warrens.

The smell of human cookfires drifted in billowing clouds, torn by the wind into bands of thick scent. Burning fat, crisping hides, firewood, death, sweat, blood, and the overpowering fog of humanity hung over the western foothills. How noisy they were! Iron and Snow found it difficult to imagine how the others could have spent so much time surrounded by so much noise. Even at night, in the deep hours between moonset and sunrise, the pack could hear them rustling and breathing, crying aloud in their nightmares and shushing their children to bed.

The little girl would wait until her mother was asleep, wearied by a day of toil in the settlement. Then she would sneak away, silent as a born hunter, and stalk small prey among the dogwoods. She did not hunt as the humans hunted, with traps and tools. She pursued her prey, running it down and biting through fur and flesh with teeth that were made for rending and tearing. There was no question that the Totem was with her.

The pack kept near her, day and night. Her scent-trail became familiar to them.

Rust and Coal adored her. He had even risked contact, though the Alpha had warned them against it. One night the girl had chased down a rabbit; she crouched over it, preparing to tear into its soft abdomen. When the wind changed she caught the pack’s scent and froze. But she wasn’t afraid. She eagerly scanned the trees as if anticipating the appearance of a long-awaited friend.

Rust and Coal slinked cautiously forward, ignoring the warning growls of the Alpha. The girl sighted him. She didn’t move. When he came closer, no more than a breath away from her, she lowered herself down and nudged the fresh kill towards him. He bowed his head and obligingly nipped at the carcass, leaving her the greater portion. When it was done he brushed past her, allowing her to touch him, and loped into the night-shadows of the surrounding forest. The Alpha punished his disobedience, but a little bit of bloodshed wasn’t enough to cause Rust and Coal to regret the risk he had taken.

Soon, the Fever would overtake her. Young as she was, she wouldn’t be able to hide it; the symptoms would manifest and the wolf would wax strong inside of her. Old Mother prepared the ritual tools she would need to free the girl from her original humanskin when the time was right.

They had all been born with an original humanskin. Each of them had been weaned on human milk and nurtured by human mothers. They came to the Totem only later. Overtaken by the Fever, they had chosen exile over quarantine and death. Driven to the staggering precipice of madness by the visions, they had each of them ranged far into the wild. Old Mother had found them all, bringing them flailing and frenzied to her dwelling-place.

She had torn through their tightening shrouds of frail skin. Their screams became howls, echoing among the rounded, forested mountains of Appalachia. Only Iron and Snow had seen the ritual firsthand. Her practiced hand, guided by a bloodline as old as the world, had never failed to release the wolf from the dying chrysalis of human flesh.

At last the Fever came. Her human mother hid her away. A Fever-stricken would not be allowed to live, child or otherwise. It had happened before; an entire settlement wiped out, left rotting under the baking sun and reeking of death.

It had been known by different names in the beginning, when the healers in the World That Ended still believed they could defend their species against it. Before the packs of humankind fell by the droves, rotting alive in their dens while the healthy among them vied like rabid dogs over the corpse of their civilization. By the time the Fever had run its course, the cities were dead, the tribes of humankind scattered into small settlements huddled against the vengeful wilderness. Traces of the Fever still remained, but things were different: the Lineages had awakened, for so long dormant and hidden in the blood of the Old Mothers. Those who belonged to the Lineages were called by the Fever. Some wise-men may have known what it was, having seen it before even in the World That Ended…but most men believed it was the plague returned to finish off the few survivors that had escaped.

They all knew how it was done; all of them except Iron and Snow. The victim would be weak and sluggish for several days. Then, on the fifth day, the delirium would begin. There were fleeting glimpses at first, and strange sounds; a sense of disembodiment. It would progress until it seemed a great crack had appeared in the reality of things, a crack though which poured endless rivers of indescribable vision and sensation. At this point, unless the individual was a solitary wanderer—as Bone and Sand, the ghost-wolf, had been—the settlers would quarantine the Fever-stricken. If the symptoms persisted, as they often did, the victim would be killed and his or her body and belongings burned. His or her family would be quarantined until they were deemed clear of the Fever. This, at least, was the merciful approach.

Mercy was often a luxury of the rational mind.

The little girl’s mother couldn’t keep her condition hidden away. Humans asked too many questions. The pack knew this was coming. The people began to secrete fear. It smoked through the air, a pungent tang that played and tugged at the pack’s instincts.

The day came when an overeager neighbor ran to one of the elders and announced that one of the settlers had been taken by the Fever. That was all it took. Word spread, like maggots through rotting meat, and not an hour passed before the settlers swarmed around the little girl’s dwelling-place. Agitated and gibbering they clustered and gestured. At last the settlers’ leaders came forward and held council.

The men of the encampment chose their brand of mercy. They dragged the poor girl kicking and screaming from her sweat-soaked cot and over to the tanner’s field. They made certain that her flesh did not touch theirs. They threw her down with as much compassion as their terror would allow. One of them drew a pistol. He made ready to shoot her.

Her mother had run after them through a gauntlet of restraining arms and blows, yelling for her daughter. ‘It’s not the Fever,’ she shouted, ‘It’s not the Fever!’ The men did not listen. She threw herself over her daughter and the bullet meant for the little girl found her instead. The crack of the shot echoed against the mountains.

The sky was a thick red color over the empty vastness of the west. Above the mountains the first stars gleamed from the cobalt heights.

The girl managed to squirm out from under her mother’s dying body. Covered in blood, her breath pluming in the winter’s bitter cold, she staggered into the field. She stood there, bewildered. Her eyes scanned the shadows of the woods. She was looking for him. She was looking for Rust and Coal. She could scent him, waiting for her just beyond the field.

She took one step forward, then another. The man with the gun pointed it at her, his hand trembling. The mob surged behind him, urging him to shoot. He swallowed and straightened his arm, trying to call up the strength for it. He failed. He lowered the pistol.

Then the little girl howled.

Rust and Coal went feral, breaking away from the pack and the concealing shadows of the forest. The mob was fixated on the little girl; they didn’t even see him coming. A young male had strayed close to the edge of the woods. He heard the rustle of tall grass and the low growl, turning too late. Rust and Coal hamstrung him; his warning cry turned into a gasping wail.

The crowd looked towards the sound.

The young male’s shrieking warped into a bloody gurgle. Rust and Coal looked up, his muzzle slick with blood, the ribbed cartilage of the boy’s windpipe dangling from his teeth. The man with the pistol trained it on him, but his target was too far and there were too many people in his way. He started to run forward, momentarily forgetting about the little girl. She did not waste the opportunity. She broke into a run, her bound hands stretched out before her.

Rust and Coal darted around the other side, trying to distract the man with the pistol. The mob rippled and shifted like a school of fish surrounded by circling sharks. The girl had almost made it—a few steps further and the welcome dark of the forest would have enfolded her. The pack would have protected her.

But the man with the pistol was not the only man who had brought his weapon. A second, older male brought up his long-barreled rifle and leveled it at the small, fleeing figure. There was just enough light to see her, and that was all he needed. He fired. This was a weapon born of the precise machines that still worked in the World That Ended. The girl’s body was hurled sideways by the impact of the bullet.

Iron and Snow was the closest to her. She was a deer’s long stride away from him. He knew the wound was fatal the moment she hit the ground.

The man with the pistol fired on Rust and Coal and missed. The wolf ran towards the downed girl, pausing long enough to seize her by the fabric of her clothes and drag her into the forest. The two men met in the field and ran forward; after a few paces the one with the long-barreled rifle stopped and gripped the other man’s shoulder.

‘No,’ he said, ‘why bother? That wolf wasn’t the only one; the rest of the pack has to be nearby. They must have smelled the Fever on the girl. Let them have her. They’ll finish her off if my bullet didn’t. We can post a guard to make sure the settlement’s safe.’

‘But she could wander back…the Fever…’

‘Didn’t you see what just happened? Look,’ the older man said, ‘this all went down wrong. Her mother’s dead and the girl will bleed out long before the wolves make a meal out of her. Look at the blood!’ he pointed to the darkened grass, nearly indiscernible now in the gloom.

The younger man relented. ‘Her mother was probably infected anyway,’ he said.

The mob dispersed as the last of the daylight drained behind the world. The wolves waited, protecting the girl in the deeper dark of the forest. They waited for Old Mother to come and take the girl to the Totem’s Pool by the hidden paths of the mountains. Old Mother would surely save her. She was an unparalleled healer. She would save the little girl. The pack would be complete, then. Old Mother would save the little girl.

But the tiny wolf trapped inside that weak, broken shell wasn’t strong enough to hold on. The spirit fled, leaving only the rigid cold behind. By the time Old Mother came, it was too late. The girl was dead. Old Mother gathered the body into her arms and started back, the pack sullenly keeping pace with her steady, trackless step.

 

* * * *

 

This was a Wolves’ Moot; a pack gathering. Old Mother sat on the broken trunk of an old oak felled by lightning a few seasons past. She was silent, listening to the growls, howls, ululations, and subtle variations of the pack’s language. The wolf-speak had come easily to the human-born members of the pack, who even in their former lives could understand the melancholy symphony that haunted the moonlit night.

Rust and Coal was calling for revenge.

Night and Stone, the Alpha and eldest member of the pack, snarled at the younger wolf. Vengeance was not the way of the wolf. If the pack had gotten to the girl earlier, they could have safeguarded her. It was a failure; no more, no less. What would vengeance accomplish? It would draw attention to the pack and to the Totem. The wolves knew what humans did to the sacred. They destroyed it. It was best to move on.

Smoke and Copper moved closer to her mate, her eyes fixed dangerously on Night and Stone. She was careful to moderate her body language, but there was no mistaking the intent in her eyes. Iron and Snow knew she was instigating Rust and Coal to challenge the Alpha; but for all his stubbornness and ferocity, Rust and Coal was not ready to make a bid for leadership. Smoke and Copper was the younger of the two females in the pack. She was also almost feral; more vicious than Rust and Coal, very nearly uncontrollable. Old Mother was the only one she really listened to. She heeled to the Alpha, but only because he dominated her—as he dominated all of them. Old Mother had chosen him first, and he had earned his position many times over. Still, Smoke and Copper did not respond well to his leadership.

Sooner or later, she would goad her mate into challenging Night and Stone. The old wolf would not go easily.

Bone and Sand, the ghost wolf, did not give expression to his thoughts. He never did. He only listened. Iron and Snow suspected that Old Mother knew his mind, as she knew all of their minds. She kept his secrets.

Ice and Soot snapped at Smoke and Copper. It was a warning; she would not abide the younger female’s challenge in front of Old Mother. The pack waited to see whether Smoke and Copper would snap back. Iron and Snow was almost certain she would, but not this time. The younger wolf lowered her head and back-stepped slowly away from the confrontation. Ice and Soot’s curled lips and furrowed snout smoothed, her amber-gold eyes glittering in the moonlight streaming through the trees and setting the small clearing aglow.

‘The humans have done what they always do,’ Old Mother told them. ‘If we attack them, we will have no choice but to protect the Totem at all costs; until all of them are dead or fled. Had we a larger pack, I would drive them from this place. They are too close to the Totem as it is. I fear that it is only a matter of time before the winter drives them deeper into the mountains. Then, we will have a choice to make. But now…’ she sighed, ‘we are not in a position of strength.’

Night and Stone looked at each of them in turn, dominating them, pushing them into submission with an unseen force of presence and strength that did not abide resistance. He would not fall until his ability to dominate the pack visibly weakened. Iron and Snow suspected that Rust and Coal was waiting for that moment. Until then, the unwritten laws that governed their little society would remain the axis around which their actions revolved.

Still, in the World After, things were different. These wolves had been human beings once, and they were able to clothe themselves in human flesh again. Some trace of that humanness lingered, sewn into the mind of the wolf. Was Rust and Coal ambitious enough, reckless enough, to challenge the Alpha before his weakness showed itself?

Iron and Snow loped after Old Mother, leaving the rest of the pack to prepare for the Night Hunt. This was something the young pup loved: to walk beside the Guardian of the Totem, Heiress of the Lineage. If she was so inclined, she would speak her mind to him. He didn’t always understand her thoughts, but it was enough that she trusted him.

She followed an uphill trail that crested one of the smaller peaks in the range. You could see the mighty Atlantic from the promontory, crashing against the eastern hills of the Appalachians. In the distance, over the black sheet of the ocean, lightning flashed behind smoky layers of gray cloud. Thunderheads marched towards the moon, slowly erasing the reflected band of sparkling light that carpeted the waves below.

‘I am disappointed,’ Old Mother said suddenly.

She didn’t turn to Iron and Snow, but spoke out over the steep drop. The wind whisked her voice away, down through the slopes below and the frothing surf beyond. ‘The Lineage must be stronger if we are to hold our own against the settlers. If we cannot grow our numbers, it will be as before, in the World That Ended. They will hunt us down, powerful as we are, and drive the Totem into a silence so final that no upheaval will awaken her again.’

Iron and Snow waited for her to continue, laying his head on his forearms. She said nothing for awhile. The thunderheads overtook the moon; the lightning broke through the cloud bank, streaking through the space between sea and sky.

‘I had counted us fortunate to find a sister so close at hand,’ she said. Now she turned to look down at Iron and Snow. ‘There is nothing quite like the taste of hope turned to bitterness in your mouth. Still, there is one more door open to us.’ Iron and Snow raised his head. Old Mother frowned. ‘When the pack returns from the Night Hunt, I will tell them.’

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First Chapter from AFTERGLOW: GODFALL

Greetings, everyone. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted in any of my categories here. Meditating at the Crossroads is back, however, and I plan to keep it up and running with frequent updates. What follows below is the first chapter of what *may* turn into a larger novel…IF the first chapter seems to resonate with YOU, my dear readers. If you enjoy it, please do not hesitate to indicate your feelings either in poll box or comment section provided below. At any rate, let me know what you think of it, and enjoy! Thank you for your support and your time.

1.

 

Beryl Toren needed to wash the stink of the Stronghold out of his mouth, and in his experience, the best way to do that was with a tall shot of moonshine. Not the filthy swill poured out of the Council-sanctioned taps, but actual, honest-to-goodness homemade spirits. There was only one man in the Northeast Stronghold he knew had the stones to make it.

He started walking towards Barry’s bar, already looking forward to the indulgent perfection of the man’s homemade liquor. The prospect of returning to his studio filled him with disgust. The children next door would be wailing disconsolately for a mother who wasn’t there; that unnerving skittering and crunching sound carried on sporadically throughout the night; and every Moon Day’s evening a Council-sanctioned Tout would holler a litany of new ordinances passed throughout the Nation until midnight, when he would host a sequence of inane advertisements sponsored by Council-sanctioned merchants. The Council openly claimed that it did not interfere in merchant business, but the Sixth Council member was a merchant himself, as were his brothers, uncles, and distant cousins. Together they commanded a dynasty that dominated the market, peddling everything from liquor to soap. Nor did the Sixth Council member shy away from passing ordinances that made it difficult—if not impossible—for his competitors to do business; including an ordinance that penalized bootlegging with exile. Barry Windham was an exception to the rule, and there’s a story behind that.

Two years ago, one of the transport Millipedes had derailed, tearing off the tracks at breakneck speed and plunging into Slum Quarter 25 in the south of the Stronghold. It didn’t happen often, but every now and again one of the Great Beasts would remember that it had a mind of its own. Most of the citizens on the Millipede had died immediately, and a good many others were lying contorted in pools of their own blood or writhing underneath piles of debris. A few people managed to worm their way free of the wreck, and one of these was the fifth daughter of the Seventh Council Member. There are Eyes and Ears all over the Stronghold, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a corner, alley, hovel, or hole that wasn’t crawling with the Council’s spies—but the denizens of the Slums know their territory, and they know when and where those eyes and ears are turned in other directions.

When that poor girl came up out of the canal all bloodied and messed up, she found herself face to face with a few area boys who would have vented their frustration with Council policy on her in a few choice ways—starting with rape and likely ending with butchery. It would have taken the Medicals a good bit of time to get there (no rush: seems no one knew the Seventh Council Member’s fifth daughter would be on that Millipede); plenty of time for the mongrels to have their fun. Lucky for her, Barry Windham had business in Slum Quarter 25 that night.  He fought off the mongrels and saved the girl’s life. He did her one better, too: kept her hidden away until the ruckus surrounding the accident died down, so the girl could contact her mother privately and be taken home without too many prying eyes speculating as to why such a prominent citizen would have taken a public Millipede to begin with.

In exchange, the Seventh Council Member turned a blind eye—and all other eyes—away from Barry’s illicit business. Only a few people knew this story, and Beryl was one of them…primarily because he had helped bind the poor girl’s wounds. Trick he learned from his ex-wife. He was in Slum 25 on business also: tax collecting. A euphemism for wading through blood, tears, and hate on behalf of the Council; especially in the slums, where the citizens knew well that they were giving up their coin for nothing they would ever see in return. That’s where the blood came in: no coin, one less mouth to feed.

Beryl was no Skull player, but tax collectors were expected to be imposing. They were expected to frighten the submissive and intimidate the aggressive. More than a few bravos had tried their luck with him in physical combat. If they had stopped to think about it, they might have remembered that tax collectors receive intense martial training for years before their first assignment, and practice consistently thereafter. Unlike those who enforced the Council’s laws, tax collectors were trained to subdue rather than kill, bruise rather than break, immobilize rather than mutilate. You couldn’t pay your coin if you were dead, and you couldn’t make your coin if your legs were broken.

There were a few patrons in Barry’s dingy backwater joint this evening; two regulars, several strangers, and a honey-trap sitting at the end of the bar. Half the prostitutes (“sexual service providers”) in the Stronghold were Council-sanctioned, a little better than the Eyes and Ears skittering in and out of sight or droning blatantly on the message poles. A little bit of pillow talk could get you killed if you didn’t keep your mouth shut any better than you kept your pants up.

More than a few of the girls, though, were just down-and-outs looking to make a little coin.

Beryl knew this one. He didn’t exchange the common greeting with her (“Prosperity and Progress, citizen”), as in this part of town that would more than likely elicit a sneer and a curse as anything else. He was reviled enough as it was for his work. He was thankful at least for one rule that made sense: tax collectors never worked where they lived. They worked among strangers. They were constantly rotated throughout the Stronghold, and in a metropolis of over forty million people and one tax collector for every two thousand, it was easy for them to remain faceless and anonymous. Of course, it was still hazardous. Most of the tax collectors worked in at least one of the slum quarters, and a bit of common sense went a long way. Asking the desperate and angry to give up what little they had usually added another body to the murky canals that crisscrossed the city. Beryl had often written “pending” in his ledger, giving more than a few citizens the opportunity to defer payment until his route took him through their neighborhood again.

He was under no illusions that his leniency was any kind of help to them. If they couldn’t find work to pay their coin, they would make money some other way—and they would keep making it that way. Lizzie was a perfect example. Poor girl was no simpleton; her ambition had once painted her in colors far more vibrant than these. But another tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger one too many times.

“You missed the Tout,” she said.

Beryl grunted. “What’s the news of the day, then?”

Barry Windham came out of the stock room, his face brightening to see Beryl. One look at his friend’s haggard countenance and he disappeared again, no doubt to retrieve the good stuff.

“There’s to be a Godfall,” Lizzie said.

That took Beryl by surprise. There hadn’t been a Godfall since he was a kid. It was rare for any citizen to witness more than one in a lifetime. His own father had seen only one, and his grandfather had been a boy himself when he saw his own. “Huh,” Beryl said, taking a stool and breaking into a grin when Barry came out with a clear bottle of his specialty.

Barry nodded, uncorking the bottle and pouring him a shot. “They say it’s because the Stronghold is larger. More people. Takes more power to keep everything running. Makes sense to me,” he said, pushing the glass across the narrow bar. Beryl took the shot, slammed the glass down, and savored the aftertaste—watermelon. Real watermelon. Not the “tweaked” monstrosities peddled in the Council-sanctioned markets. He motioned for a refill.

“Savor it this time, you philistine,” Barry said. “I don’t sweat over this stuff so you can go through it like water.”

Beryl grinned. “First time’s to set the mood,” he said. “Which one of the Old Gods is it?”

“Who knows? Tout said something about them turning off the water and rationing supplies…”

“One of the Old River Gods then,” Beryl said. He took a sip of the moonshine, but the taste had lost a bit of its luster. The Stronghold would be in a riot over the Godfall. It would generate more excitement than any of the games, parades, or celebrity appearances that kept the citizens from focusing on anything important. Until it was over and they cast the spent husk of the Old God from the Pinnacle Tower, there would be talk of little else. Beryl had no stomach for it. As far as he was concerned, it was a hideous spectacle with an explicit motive: a testament to the unassailable supremacy of the Council over the world and the utter annihilation of everything that had once been magical, wondrous, and divine.

His granddaddy told him once that the Old Gods had been worshiped. That they had willingly given a portion of their immense power to those who knelt before them and to the priests who invoked their names. They had spread the Wild like a blanket over the created earth; they had gathered up the mountains from the bedrock of the world; they had dipped their hands into the mighty oceans and scattered the first rains with their palms across the dry country. They had given shape to the beasts and the Great Monsters that had once ranged beyond the fragile habitations of humankind.

Now they were chained in pens beneath the Strongholds, bound by the techno-sorcery of the Alchemists. Their power was used to fuel the Strongholds and the Council’s innumerable machines. The Siphons drained them day and night, funneling their divine energies into the immense network of pipes, conduits, and arteries stretched between the 9 Strongholds. There was even some speculation that the network itself had been one of them, hollowed out and used to funnel the energies of its brethren across the country.

“I wonder what they look like,” Lizzie said, “you know, before they’re all drained and everything…”

Barry looked at her oddly.

“What?” Lizzie leaned over the bar and whispered, “I don’t see any Eyes or Ears in here.” Beryl made a slight gesture with his head towards the strangers sitting around a table in the back. “Oh, them? They’re just some working boys out for a drink,” she winked.  Beryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. “What?” Lizzie challenged him playfully. “All you have to do is ask, Beryl, and I’m yours for the night.”

“Quit it Lizzie,” Barry said. “Lay off your talk or I’ll cut you off.”

Lizzie frowned. “Don’t tell me you never wondered, Barry. What they look like.”

“No. Never wondered. All I know is they keep the city running. You may come here for a shot or two of homemade, but at the end of the day, you get your food from the Dispensaries like everyone else. Ride the Millipedes to work like everyone else. Breathe the same filtered air. You want to try your luck with the exiles out in the barrens and Wilds, you just keep asking the wrong questions.”

“There’s a Godfall coming up, Barry. You think I’m the only one asking these questions?”

“Lizzie,” Beryl said, “you shouldn’t…”

“Shouldn’t what? Barry’s bar is safe, Beryl; been safe for two years now. Besides, I know better than the both of you how to protect myself. I’m no Council-sanctioned whore. And working boys like those,” she jerked her finger towards the three men in the back, “feel comfortable enough to talk to me about all kinds of things. An’ more than one of ‘em’s wondered about the Old Gods, locked away under this prison of a city. Wondered what it must’ve been like in the old days before the War, when there were still monsters to fight and heroes to fight them. Sure, most guys don’t give a damn one way or the other—they eat, they drink, they work, and their cares pretty much end at what’s between my legs and whether or not they’ll catch a show. But some of ‘em have more between their ears than they have hanging below their bellies—only they’re too damn scared to say anything within earshot of anyone other than me.”

“You think this place is safe, Lizzie?” Barry asked, shaking his head. “You’re a fool to think so—she watches me closer than anyone because of what happened two years ago. She wants to make sure I don’t tell anyone what happened. So why don’t you just calm down and lay off the subject…”

Lizzie growled and slammed her empty bottle down on the bar. The men in the back turned their heads sharply in alarm. Beryl nervously clenched his fist. “It’s good that there’s someplace I can go to feel safe,” Lizzie said. Barry shook his head, opening his mouth to interrupt, but the words that poured out of her mouth may as well have been boulders tumbling downhill.

“Safe from the damned Orders and their robed freaks!” One of the men in the back coughed up his drink. “Safe from all those damned abominations!” One of the two regulars all but ran out, bursting through the door in a blur of frantic desperation. Barry reached over the counter and tried to grab Lizzie’s arm. She pulled away, tipping over her stool. “Safe,” she hissed, looking around the room, “from all the ‘citizens’ who could care less about what the Old Gods looked like before they were chained up. Safe from the damned Council!”

“Lizzie…!”

“Alright, I’m done, I’m done!” She glanced around with a look of desperate disdain. “It’s dead in here anyway, and time for me to get to work…” She abruptly closed her mouth as the door opened.

A robed figure entered the bar, features obscured by a gray hood pulled low. Silence fell over the room, and in the quietude—punctuated only by the sputtering of the gas lamps in their dusty globes—everyone could hear a low whispering coming from the figure. Pale lips could be seen moving quickly beneath the shadows. Hands gestured in tandem with words spoken too softly to be heard. It could have been male or female, but everyone knew what the black robe and gray hood meant: it was a member of the Order of Whispering. The warning-givers (“Woe unto those to whom the Whisperers speak”).

The Whisperer approached Lizzie, who stood immobile and terrified. Beryl knew what she was thinking: how did they know? How did it happen so quickly? The strangers in the back rose and made themselves scarce. Lizzie started shaking her head and trembling. She was losing it. The regular boozer tottered to his feet and made for the door. He slammed against the dead music-box and crashed to the floor, dragging himself on his hands and knees towards the exit. The Whisperer was towering over Lizzie now, leaning in close to utter its fateful warning.

Then Beryl saw it. One of the Council’s Ears.

In the days before the War, there were all manner of lesser beasts. During the Period of Ascendance, before the Old Gods were enslaved, the Alchemists began to “harvest” them. Capturing them and twisting them to serve their purposes. Beryl didn’t know how they did it—no one but the Alchemists themselves knew—but the abominations they created were grotesque. People had gotten used to them, apparently, but Beryl couldn’t stand to look at them.

The Ears used to monitor the citizens of the Stronghold had been made from the feral cats that once wandered the streets. The Alchemists had emptied them of their innards, pulled their naked skin over unnaturally extended limbs, and replaced their red blood with some foul brew drained by the Siphons from one of the Old Gods. Their skulls had similarly been reshaped; wrought by vulgar hands into a bony jumble of canals and orifices designed to capture and isolate sound. They heard everything. The Alchemists had also found some way for the Ears to transmit what they heard directly to a receiver. Beryl knew this because, sometimes, a dumb fool who had let slip something he shouldn’t have had thought to capture and kill the Ear that had heard him—but it was never any use. Someone somewhere already knew.

There was a Godfall coming up, Beryl reminded himself; there would be Eyes and Ears everywhere.

But dammit all, she’d just asked a honest question…! Beryl watched the Ear slink into the overhead shadows, seriously contemplating throwing a bottle at it. He turned back to see the Whisperer move away from Lizzie. She looked even paler than before, turning a dismal gray color. She seemed on the verge of fainting. Beryl gave the Whisperer a wide berth, trying to catch a glimpse of its face under the gray hood—he could only see those ugly lips moving.

“What did he say to you, Lizzie?” Barry asked from behind the bar after the Whisperer had left.

Lizzie said nothing. Instead, she reached over to the bottle she had finished, and with a quick snap of her arm, broke it over the edge of the bar.

Barry and Beryl both shouted, but she was too fast: she struck the jagged edge of the broken bottle into her neck and drew it across her throat, flaying the skin open. She dropped to the hardwood floor, gouts of blood spurting from the ghastly wound. Too much blood to stop in time.

Beryl tried to stem the flow, but it gushed up between his fingers. Lizzie tried to speak some final words, freed by imminent death from the prison of her fear. Beryl leaned in close, wanting to comfort her, to tell her that was going to be alright…but he didn’t. He needed to hear what she was trying to say.

“I just wanted to know what they looked like. They must have been beautiful…”

Then she died. Barry was standing over Beryl and trying to pull him away. “You have to calm yourself down, man! You have to…” Beryl pushed his friend roughly aside. He knew her. He had known her. Now she was dead, so much meat for them to cart away and dump in the wastes beyond the walls.

Barry tried to tell him there was nothing he could do, but he was wrong. There was something he could do. In his heart the decision had already been made. Beryl rose to his feet, smiled at his old friend, and walked out of the bar. The Whisperer was gone, but that didn’t matter. The Council was everywhere. Watching. Listening. Not far from Barry’s bar there was a square, one of the innumerable hubs where the boulevards and avenues crisscrossing the city converged. When the Gods fell, nothing remained of them; but trophies of the slain Great Beasts were on display all over the Stronghold. Testaments to the supremacy of the Alchemists.

This one had been a creature of immense size; its skull stretched the length of five men. Beryl didn’t know what it had been called by the people before the War, nor even how it must have looked when alive. What mattered to Beryl now was that one of the Council Touts was drawing a crowd. Appropriately enough, he was announcing the upcoming Godfall.

Several years ago, Beryl had been working in Slum Quarter 37 in the northeast quad of the Stronghold. Tax collectors weren’t authorized to break down doors, but, if they didn’t write “pending” in their ledgers, they instead recorded the addresses of those who believed that a closed door would spare them. Sooner or later, someone who was authorized would come through and break down their door; they would take a pound of flesh as interest. On this occasion, Beryl had knocked on a door that looked the same as every other door in every other building in the quarter—except for a small symbol etched into the wood.

The door had opened of its own accord, swinging wide as if in response to some magic word. He would never have expected what he saw inside. It was a vigil. His mother had taught him the word; but it was a forbidden rite in the Stronghold. The dead were dead. Nothing but husks to be thrown unceremoniously away. Citizens were allowed to mourn—an emotional, human habit that couldn’t be stopped—but any observances or rituals devoted to the dead were punishable with exile.

An old man had been reading something over the body of a child. When Beryl entered he snapped around, surprised. He rose in a fury, his eyes wide and frantic. He started shouting at Beryl—What are you doing here? How did you get in? When Beryl told him that the door had simply opened, the man stopped abruptly and stared at him. He looked back at the body. He had been nervous, fearful that Beryl would report him. Instead he said, “The door wouldn’t have opened otherwise.” For awhile, he said nothing else. Beryl stood awkwardly in the foyer, ledger in hand.

When the old man spoke again he said, “I’m going to give you something. Words. But you must remember them. They aren’t just any words. You must never utter them unless you mean it. You must never allow anyone in this place to hear them—not until you are ready for the consequences. They are the words of a very powerful prayer. Do you know what that is? A prayer?”

“They were spoken to the Old Gods by their priests, before…”

“Yes,” the old man had said, interrupting him. “Before. I am going to give you the words of a prayer. Will you remember them?”

Yes, Beryl had said. And he did. The words came to him when Lizzie’s blood was gushing through his fingers. He knew why, and he knew what to do with them. Now, he was ready for the consequences.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw them. People used to call them “dogs.” Packs of them would wander the streets, scavenging for food. People even kept them as companions. They were commonplace before the ascendance of the Alchemists. After that, they were harvested. As with all the other lesser beasts, their desired ability had been distorted and exaggerated, wedded to the machinery of the Alchemists’ craft and subordinated to the will of the Council. In this case, it was empathy; some part of the dog’s brain that could tune into human emotions, developed over centuries of cooperation. The Alchemists had toyed with it, discovering that its function could be heightened when exposed to the effects of a certain chemical. They rounded up the street packs, and for decades it became increasingly rare to see a dog roaming free. In the meantime, the Stronghold commanded that a certain vine be grown throughout the Stronghold—a thorny, tangled, and oily thing that clung to every lattice and stairway, choked every narrow alley and wound about every ruin and crumbling façade. This vine secreted the very same chemical that the Alchemists used to warp the dogs’ natural ability.

Then, only about a decade ago, the dogs were released. They had been bred to feed on the vine, but its side effects were…unfortunate. The oil from the vine had physically warped them, and from one generation to the next they had adapted to survive these mutations and use their enhanced empathy with uncanny precision. Some of them had elongated limbs, stilted legs that supported a skeletal torso; others were sheathed in a tight skin that pulled their lips away from their fangs, stretched taught over every rippling muscle.

Different breeds were trained to respond in different ways to different emotions—excessive emotions. Fear, anger, guilt; all of them seeped from human pores with a specific scent. Gestures, movements, voice patterns; no amount of subtlety or restraint could prevent one of the dogs from catching on. The larger, more aggressive breeds responded to anger. Packs of leaner, quicker brutes responded to fear. Others responded to remorse, others to euphoria, others to caution. The Keepers of the Dogs tracked them and every citizen that they took an interest in. Sometimes, the dogs got overeager.

Beryl could not even begin to describe what he was feeling. Ecstasy? Rage? Fulfillment? Everything at once? Every damned pack and stray in the city would be coming for him.

He stopped within thirty yards of the Council Tout. The dogs were moving in closer. People at the edge of the crowd were starting to exclaim, murmur and scatter. Beryl had only a moment to say his piece before the dogs frightened his audience away, and he needed an audience for this. People had to hear it.

He moved forward, startling the Tout; the boy stammered in midsentence, his deformed throat quivering grotesquely. The Alchemists worked their craft on people, also. How else would a human voice be able to reach hundreds, even thousands, across the din of a crowded sector? He was using only a fraction of his volume now, and his voice could easily be heard on the far side of the square and across Processional Boulevard 6.

Beryl seized the flustered youth by his shoulders and learned forward. The boy cowered under his grip. “There is something I want you to say,” he growled. The Tout nodded. “You will say the words exactly as I say them, pronouncing them exactly as I pronounce them. If you do not do this, I will make sure you never speak above a whisper again. Do you understand?” Of course he did: the “children” of the Alchemists were task-specific citizens; if they couldn’t perform their tasks, they would be discarded like unwanted refuse. Beryl wasn’t entirely sure if he could do it. The boy was innocent, after all—no one asked to be “adopted” by the Alchemists. But after what happened to Lizzie, Beryl didn’t really know where his limits were anymore. Apparently, that showed clearly enough in his eyes. The Tout nodded frantically. Beryl loosed his grip, nodded and swallowed.

The words were still there, in his mind. Good.

He spoke them; slowly, carefully, mindfully. The Tout repeated them perfectly—they could mimic virtually any sound or voice imaginable. Choruses of Touts would put on Council-sanctioned performances in the squares at least once a week. Beryl never cared for them, but nearly every citizen in the Stronghold eagerly attended at least half of the biweekly performances. One needed to wander far indeed not to hear them echoing about the streets.

Beryl cocked his head to look at the crowd. The people were frozen. Their eyes were wide, their jaws slack, and they looked for all the world like a choreographed and synchronized mimicry of utter disbelief. Beryl wasn’t sure they would even remember what a prayer sounded like; it had been years since any prayers had been heard in the Nation. But they did remember. Even the young ones somehow knew what it was they were hearing. Beryl looked into the Tout’s eyes. Even he knew.

Beryl smiled. This was exactly what he’d wanted.

Then something happened that he did not expect. Near the prayer’s end, the dogs stopped in their approach and sat back on their haunches. They started howling. Howling!

Beryl understood, in a flash of insight, why the old man had given him the words of this prayer. They had somehow hidden his grief for his dead son. Otherwise the dogs would have been there, their claws skittering up the steps of that dingy building, their ravenous panting echoing up the stairwell. But they didn’t come. The old man had offered a prayer to one of the Old Gods, and whatever It was had heard him, shielded him, protected him.

The dogs turned tail and ran, darting about the motionless citizens and vanishing into the innumerable cracks and crevices of the Stronghold. They were no longer a problem…

…but the cloaked figures moving toward him with gliding, unhurried steps were.

 

2.

 

Backwater Brook came in through the Hedge behind Slum Quarter 46. It ran underneath the barricades that kept citizens from trying to cross through the Hedge (willing exile was forbidden, and the poisoned thorns of the seventy-foot tall bush made the attempt almost certain suicide). It passed through the trading stalls of the slum markets (you could find literally anything there), wound through the mazelike gutters of the quarter, and emptied out into Canal 108. It circled through the pipes and purification tunnels, finally emptying out of Murdock Fountain. While in Slum Quarter 46, it passed in front of a peculiar shop, nestled between two decaying brownstones on the west side of what the neighborhood called Parlor Street. A handwritten sign posted outside read “Appraisal Shop.” When people wanted to barter their goods, it sometimes paid for them to make damn sure they knew what their goods were worth on the market. Otherwise, an exaggerated price could easily anger the wrong potential customer. Many a stall had been trashed by an irate resident who thought he or she was being cheated.

This indispensible service was offered by Owl Tannerson. His daddy was a trader in tinctures, salves, balms, and unguents. On the side he traded in bones. Owl’s granddaddy had been a trapper Beyond the Hedge in the old days. But he didn’t trade with the Alchemists. Never once in his life. He traded bush meat in the slum markets. Back then, the Council Dispensaries were running, but an intrepid fellow with skills and a set of brass balls could make a living dealing in real, fresh, normal meat. No one did that anymore, but the Tannerson family remained well respected in 46. Owl was no lover of the Council, that was for sure. The tax collector had written “pending” in his ledger the last time he’d come around, though, and Owl did not relish the thought of running afoul of the authorities.

At this moment, Owl was entertaining a rather nervous client. On the table between them was a pile of assorted baubles and trinkets. Unfortunately for the nervous man, they were worth less than the ashtray next to them.

Fiction: Totem Cycle, part 1

‘They’re vintage,’ the trader held up a yellowed bundle of papers, ‘newspapers from the World That Ended. You won’t see anything like them. Not here. Maybe on the other side. But here…? I can see that you’re interested. Look at them. See that headline? It’s from 4 years before the War.’

‘I don’t know…’

The trader smiled knowingly. ‘This is knowledge, right here. I’ve already read it. But I don’t know anyone else who has. Come on; you only know the stories people tell you. This here,’ he tapped the newspaper, ‘is the truth. The absolute, unvarnished truth. In fact, it’s priceless…’ he frowned, ‘…but I can’t carry them anymore. See, my father entrusted them to me, but I’ve already lost so many of them. Half of them were stolen by Red Robert’s people…’

‘You survived an attack by Red Robert?’

‘I was traveling with a caravan. Me and one other survived, a blacksmith living down near Arizona Bay. He could tell you. I lost 3 more in the rain last season. You remember it? So I’ll give you the rest for a good deal. I’m telling you, this is a last-chance opportunity here.’

‘I don’t know that I have anything to trade…’

The trader scanned the old hunter quickly, assessing what he could see, guessing at what he could not. A hunting rifle, and not one of those made since the War. No, this was an antique even older than his newspapers, kept in impeccable condition. The old hunter wouldn’t want to part with it, or with any ammunition he carried for it. His clothes were soiled and torn in places, but the belts that held his knives and tools were fairly new.

‘I’ll take one of your knives. I’ve only got an old hunting one, but it’s in bad shape.’

The hunter frowned. ‘A knife for a few pieces of old paper?’ He shook his head. ‘The knife is more useful, whatever those papers say. What can I do with them? Stories are better than the truth. Who is ever going to ask me for the truth?’

‘Alright then, you tell me.’

‘Tell you what. You come back with me, break bread at my table, and we’ll talk. You can tell me the latest word, and we can trade over those newspapers.’

‘How do I know you won’t just kill me?’

The hunter snorted. ‘This would have been a better place for it. There’s no one living in these woods for miles.’

The trader considered the offer for a moment, but his stomach had already decided the matter for him: ‘Sure, sure. Why not? It is as you say. How far is your home?’

‘Not far. You’re lucky I was on my way back. These woods aren’t safe after dark.’

Their footsteps shuffled through wet brown leaves, thick on the trail and sodden with last night’s heavy rain. The late afternoon sun dipped behind the trees, shimmering between leaves the color of sunset. The air was cold and crisp, but not yet biting with winter’s harshness.

The two men did not speak again while they walked. The trail had been level beneath a ridge of small, rocky peaks; now it fell suddenly, cutting deeper into the forest below and winding through the western foothills of the Appalachians. The smoke of cookfires rose into the still air and deepening blue of the cloudless sky.

‘What do you call this settlement?’ the trader asked, breaking the silence.

‘Forthright,’ the hunter answered.

‘I’ve heard of it. It’s one of the largest settlements in these parts, isn’t it?’

‘Shouldn’t you know? Where were you going?’

‘To the District Barony,’ the trader answered after a moment.

The hunter glanced at him over his shoulder. ‘The Barony? Are you a fool, or a liar?’ he stopped and looked hard at the trader.  ‘You couldn’t get within fifteen miles of the Barony. The whole city’s surrounded by a ring of marauders, scavengers, and butchers that would kill you in a heartbeat and trade your wares between themselves…and make no mistake: your organs, whether they’re healthy or not, can still fetch a bargain.’

The trader met the hunter’s eyes steadily. ‘You’ve been there?’

‘When I was young and stupid.’

‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ the trader said. ‘I’ve haven’t anywhere else to go. Besides, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,’ he added enigmatically. ‘There are places even the marauders, scavengers, and butchers won’t go.’

The hunter chuckled derisively. ‘You mean the swamps? That’s been tried. There’s a reason no one goes there. There’s just no way to make it through the swamps alive. No way. No one’s been in or out of the District Barony in thirty years.’

The trader shrugged and lapsed into silence. The trail widened into a small, shadowed clearing. A sentry tower stood in the center, a scaffolding of wooden beams topped by a small shed. The guard standing watch leaned over the railing, an arrow notched and pointed at the trader. When he saw the hunter he nodded but did not lower the bow. ‘Devin!’ he called out. ‘How was the hunting today?’

Devin looked up and waved. ‘Some rabbits is all.’ He motioned to the trader. ‘Met a trader on the trail. Invited him to break bread with my family.’

The watchman lowered the bow but kept the arrow notched. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Says he was headed here, to Forthright,’ Devin lied. ‘He’s got some old newspapers to trade.’

‘Newspapers?’ the watchman thought about this for a moment. ‘From when?’

‘I have a series from 2100 to 2115,’ the trader called out, ‘in good condition.’

‘Let me take a look at them,’ the watchman said. ‘Come up.’

The trader smiled and ascended the tall ladder, followed by Devin. The watchman shook hands with them both. ‘Good to see you, Nick,’ Devin said warmly. ‘How’s Sam?’

‘She’s fine,’ Nick answered, ‘healer’s looking after her. How about Annie and Winn? They getting on?’

‘I would have taken them with me, but Annie’s been feeling out of sorts for the past couple of days.’

‘Want me to tell the healer to pay a visit?’

Devin shook his head. ‘No, it’s nothing serious. Really. You know those kids have always been sensitive. It’s just the winter coming on. They’ve always been able to feel it.’

Nick looked as if to press the point of the healer, then relented. He nodded towards the trader and said, ‘Alright. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got there. 2100 you said? That when the War started?’

‘No, no,’ the trader replied, ‘the Third World War started in 2110. But, see, a great many things happened in the decade preceding the War. Scandals and court cases, skirmishes and embargos, revolutions and invasions. It’s the truth of what really happened!’

Nick smiled. ‘Does it make for a good story?’

The trader looked bewildered for a second. ‘Of course!’ he answered at last. ‘It’s the best story there is!’

Nick nodded to a woolen cloak hung from a nail in the corner. ‘I’m sold. I can’t read all that well, but my grandfather used to tell me stories about history. Said he used to read books. Imagine that! Well, since he died I miss those stories…if these newspapers of yours are anything like that, I’ll trade you that cloak there for a few of them. How about it? Winter’s coming on, and it comes down hard in these parts.’

The trader looked over the cloak, rubbed the material between his fingers, examined the seams. ‘Fine,’ he said at last. ‘It’s got a few years on it, but it’ll hold for another season. Go on—look them over and take a few that you like. October 14, 2103 is a good one. That’s a nail in the coffin for sure.’

Silence hung in the shed, broken only by the rustle of old paper and muttered exclamations of interest from Nick. Devin had taken the rifle from his back and laid it on the knotted wooden railing; his hunter’s eyes scanned the trees. The sun was going down behind the hills in the west. A few minutes and it would be gone.

The season was turning, and the leaves were changing in that bittersweet pageantry of color that marked the end of summer. The mountains stretched out on either side to the north and south, fading into shades of deepening blue. The birds had stopped chattering among the trees. A blanket of cold wind settled with a whistle of harsh breath over the sentry tower. Devin shivered…

…and heard a series of howls rising up from the forest.

They washed over the treetops like a wave of sound, lapping softly up against the wooden frame of the tower. Everyone looked sharply up. Devin readied his rifle. He glanced at the trader; the man did not appear in the least bit afraid. He was looking out over the forest as if he knew exactly where they were coming from. Devin leveled the rifle’s sight in that direction.

‘How many?’

‘It’s been at least 15 for the past three nights,’ Nick answered. ‘They came past Darwin’s post last night, and he killed one and clipped another. It was 17 that night. Joey swears that 20 of them came past his tower two nights before that, and that was the night we lost Tom’s kids and 5 heads of cattle. I’m telling you, if we don’t figure out a way to stop them, we’ll be left hungry for the winter…already they’re starting to talk, saying that our stores won’t make it into February.’

Devin grunted.

‘You won’t be able to stop them,’ the trader said softly.

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘Don’t say that,’ he growled. He glared at the trader contemplatively and said, ‘Where did you sleep last night? They would have eaten you alive anywhere in these woods…’

‘They’re big woods,’ the trader snapped, then pointed. ‘Pay attention; here they come.’

They broke out of the gloom, loping towards the tower. There were 16 of them. It was the largest pack Devin had ever seen. Their yellow eyes gleamed, lips curled in snarls of rapacious frenzy. Their rust and soot colored coats tangled behind their ears and gathered in thick manes behind their jaws. Others were the color of iron and midnight, and several were pitch black.

The elders said that the old wolves had been different; more like to avoid a man than attack him outright. Things changed. Hearing howls in the woods was a death-knell to any group of travelers few in number, armed only with knives and tools—even guns were no guarantee. The wolves had plenty of game to eat, to be sure; but they preferred the blood of men.

Devin waited and aimed with patient precision. Only when he was sure of the shot, he fired. The rifle thundered out across the canopy and the muzzle flash was bright in the twilight. There was a cry as one of the animals was thrown against its side. The echo of the shot struck the mountains. Devin was already reloading.

Nick released an arrow, but the shaft thudded into the soft ground. He notched and loosed another, just missing one of the wolves. They spoke in growled utterances and sharp yips, coordinating a predator’s strategy. Circling the tower, an overzealous wolf made an attempt to scale the scaffolding and tumbled down, glaring up at them in cold spite.

‘We can’t possibly get them all before they reach Forthright,’ Nick said through clenched teeth. ‘What are they going to take this time? Our children?’ He hissed in desperate frustration, notched another arrow, and let it fly. It struck through the wolf that had tried to scale the tower. Devin fired the rifle again, taking another wolf down.

The pack gathered and started off towards the town. Nick cursed and rang the sentry bell. The old iron clanged and Devin listened for the reply; another bell answered, in the east tower beside the city walls. Whoever was in the fields outside the walls would be running in; the stragglers and those too far away to make it in time would have to rely on luck and the aim of the guardsmen. Others, living in the houses and shacks outside the settlement, would bolt their frail doors and wait it out—but the wolves were known to break into homes, and God help anyone with a wailing infant among them.

‘I’m gone,’ Devin said, hastening down the ladder. When he reached the ground he broke into a sprint towards the settlement. If the guards were able to scatter them, he might have a shot at one of two of them.

He underestimated his vigor—he’d been trekking all day, and his legs were not the legs of a young athlete anymore. He had to stop within sight of the settlement; the wolves were barely visible as dark shapes moving quickly toward the gray face of the city wall. It would be a wasted shot, most likely, but it was the only shot he had. By the time he gathered his strength to run again the wolves would have scattered, each smaller pack looking for a kill. He propped the rifle against the crook of his elbow, got down on his belly, and followed one of the darting shapes. The sentry on the east tower fired, and a small cloud of dust shot up next to one of the wolves; it paused, momentarily distracted, and Devin fired. The bullet took it in the head.

The pack scattered. Every shot now was wasted; they stayed out of the spheres of light cast by the lanterns atop the wall, groups of two or three moving quickly through fields and outlying houses. Annie and Winn…! Devin rose and charged forward with renewed energy; he knew his grandchildren. They wouldn’t have gone in behind the wall without him. Winn was good with a shotgun, and he would keep it loaded and handy; but against three wolves…! He increased his pace, fueling his aching muscles with panic and desperation.

Devin finally saw the red brick of his small house, the green door, the herb garden; he listened for any sound of struggle or pain. It was quiet. The wolves were around here somewhere, he had seen those three heading in this direction…he readied his rifle and slowed his pace, approaching the house cautiously. He had rushed to defend his grandchildren, but he was a likelier kill than anyone behind closed doors.

The thought occurred to him just in time; one of them had been watching him from behind the house. It charged at him, moving faster than he could possibly hope to point and shoot. He dropped the rifle, drew one of his hunting knives, and braced himself. He anticipated that the wolf would lunge; he would bring up his forearm, let it try and bite through his coat, and stab it through the heart—but he anticipated wrong. The wolf came in under his arm, turned its head, and tried for his hamstring. He twisted his leg out of the way, but it cost him: he was on the ground, scrambling to get up. Too slow, too slow…

The wolf came over him, its jaws snapping over his face, its wild yellow eyes glowing against its charcoal fur. It was near 180 pounds of snarling wolf, but Devin managed to push up and throw it off him for the split of a second he would have before it came up again—just enough to grab the knife, and follow through with a hasty stab on his hands and knees.

He was lucky; the knife went into its throat and it bit down on the empty air, whining in sudden pain and drawing hastily away. It loped quickly off, shaking its head and losing blood. Devin panted tiredly and got up. Where were the other two?

‘Winn!’ he shouted, ‘Annie! The wolves are here…!’ Devin stumbled towards the house. Why haven’t they responded? He slammed himself against the door and threw it open.

They were sitting at the table, looking at him as if he were raving. Annie, Winn, and the trader. Annie was putting down a tray of fresh bread and Winn was looking over the newspapers; the trader was smiling at him as if passing a secret between them. Devin took a moment to process the scene, his heart thudding in his chest, his knife clutched in his hand, his torn pant leg trailing blood over the floor.

‘What happened?’ Winn cried, rising from the table and moving forward.

‘Wolves…’ Devin answered, slowly trying to come to his senses. He stared at the trader. ‘How did you get here so quickly? You were still at the tower…’ he focused on his grandson. ‘When did he get here? Didn’t you hear the bells? There are wolves in the camp!’

Winn stared at him, then glanced back at the trader. ‘Bells?’ he asked wonderingly. ‘I didn’t hear any…wolves? Are you sure?’ he looked again at his grandfather and moved quickly to take up the shotgun beside the door. ‘I know this man—he’s traded here before. He told us you were with Nick at the tower, and that you were on your way.’

‘Grandfather…?’ Annie set the tray down and moved towards the sound of their voices.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, moving forward, ‘step away from him.’ Annie backed away from the trader. Winn looked at him questioningly, but Devin didn’t have time for explanations; as far as he was concerned, this man was dangerous. He would have seen the man moving toward his home; how did he get here so quickly…?

He started with the basics. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘You’re no trader. You said you were for the District Barony…why? You knew where the wolves were coming from; you had no fear of them. What’s your business here? Answer me!’

The trader put up his hands. ‘I come with a warning,’ he said. ‘I should have gone about it differently…but if I had told you the truth from the beginning, you would have shot me in the woods and left me for dead.’

Devin smiled dangerously. ‘I’m like to shoot you right here. You’re a stranger. No one would question a man defending his family against an intruder. You’ve nothing to lose by telling me the truth now. I guarantee that it will go poorly with you unless your explanation satisfies me.’

‘Very well,’ the trader put down his hands. ‘They’re coming for your granddaughter.’

Winn and Annie both started talking at once; Devin stared at the old trader, trying to make sense of what he was saying. With another ear he listened for the wolves, prowling around the grounds outside.

‘Annie,’ Devin said, ‘open the door.’

Outside, there were two men standing naked in the cold and dark. There was no shame in their nakedness; only a quiet, subtle danger that shone in eyes the color of gold. Still, Devin was momentarily grateful that his granddaughter could not see. Winn leveled the shotgun on them, as did he; they were often of a common mind, he and his grandson. He hoped that was enough to get them through this alive.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, wondering why he didn’t just shoot them. Winn was waiting on his signal.

The men said nothing. They simply stood outside, waiting for a signal of their own. From the trader, no doubt. Devin turned, another question ready on his lips…

The old wolf stood on the wooden table, its hackles bristling in threat, lips curled over the feral horror of its exposed gums and vicious teeth.

The naked men bowed their heads in submission.

‘The Totem has chosen your granddaughter,’ one of them growled. ‘She will come with us.’

‘The hell you say,’ Devin replied. He turned and fired on the old wolf…

 

 

 

 

 

True Immortality: The Second Chapter

Dear Readers:

True Immortality is now available on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.com (which means it will be available on most e-book platforms). I have posted below the second chapter of the novel, hoping to whet your appetite for the whole manuscript. The first chapter is posted below. Enjoy!

 

Chapter Two:

From the Heart

 

 

Three Weeks Ago

 

They had made love that night, and even now she wanted to remember it as something other than what it was. She wanted to remember it as the consummate expression of a final goodbye she never got to say. Gentler and more passionate; more primal and rhythmic. But it was as it had been for months, an obligation that he fulfilled mechanically.

In the beginning, Paul Daniels was an aggressive lover. She mistook his aggression for ardor, responding in kind. Their sex had been an often violent affair, a struggle that resulted in mutual sweat and panting. They weren’t speaking the same language. Their physical exchange became a sequence of gestures repeated without intimacy. She chalked it up to his troubles and dealt with it; but his aggression was never replaced with sincere affection, not in all the nights they spent together.

Only months after she’d married him without knowing his family, Paul had been summoned home by his father. William had come back from Alaska, and there was something he wanted to share with his eldest son. Mary was finally going to meet the infamous William Daniels, the man obsessed with the legacy of his crazy great-grandfather.

After meeting William, Mary had started to wonder whether Paul had been running from his father when she found him; running into the arms of a woman to soothe him. She thought he was stronger than that, but every day spent at the Daniels estate confirmed his unshakeable loyalty to William. Paul would honor his father’s wishes whether he questioned them or not. How else could she explain this sudden trip to upstate New York? One minute, her husband was talking about going back to Boston and getting back to work as a freelance journalist, and in the next moment he was telling her they were going to New York. Why? Because William Daniels had said it was something important.

Meanwhile, Harper had flatly refused, challenging William at every turn. There was a truth he was trying to get at, a truth that Paul knew about but was probably hiding from his wife and brother. Harper had even tried to talk to Paul, but that conversation went the same way it always did, and ended the same way it always ended: black eyes and split lips.

Had Paul read the journal, even when she knew that William had expressly forbidden him to? Did he secretly cultivate a backbone and go behind his father’s interdiction? Did he know more than he was letting on to everyone, even William? His behavior on the trip, at the hotel, all of it pointed to something that he knew—something that his father wouldn’t have told him. William wouldn’t have told him anything that would have given him second thoughts about going to New York.

On that night before they left, he had turned his back on her after their intercourse. He heaved a deep sigh, which she had lately taken to interpret was his way of saying that he didn’t want to talk. But that wasn’t going to work. Not on that night.

“Why are we doing this?” she asked him.

He turned his head in the darkness to look at her. “My father’s trying to find some information on the journal he recovered in Alaska. Apparently Jonah’s research partner, this McEvelin Roberts, kept something from him and sent it away to a colleague of his for safekeeping. Jonah never knew about it.”

“What was it?”

“A piece of a stone tablet recovered by Jonah Daniels in South America. You remember my father going on about how Jonah disappeared after that? Until three years later, when he resurfaces in a few crazy stories across the U.S. before vanishing completely in 1901? Well, this Roberts guy sent a piece of whatever they were working on to Upstate New York. The missing piece was transcribed into a book and passed on from one generation to another, and now it’s somewhere in an antique bookstore owned by the grandson of Roberts’s hidden colleague: one Isaac Peerson.”

This was more than he’d ever told her about what he and William discussed. He was hoping she would take it and leave further questions aside—but that wasn’t her style. Mary tried pressing him for more information; why was this missing piece so important? Why were they treating this journal like some world-shattering relic, and how the hell did William Daniels even find out about it?

“William thinks this is really important,” Paul declared with finality, “and I have no reason to doubt that he’s right. Now Mary, it’s just going to be a short trip. Besides, you’ll get to see New York City.”

She’d listened carefully, and Paul hadn’t really told her anything. For the past year William had been obsessed with this journal. For months afterward he did nothing but lock himself in his study with a bottle of Black Label Walker and that wretched leather-bound book. Night after night, he hoarded over it, bitterly refusing to answer any questions about it.

“Listen, Mary, that’s all I’m going to tell you. Now if you don’t want to go that’s fine; you can just go back to Boston and wait for me there.”

He breathed heavily into the oppressive silence of the bedroom. She fumed in rage for a moment, leafing through remotely appropriate answers to that. Wait for him? The hell she would. “Don’t take me for a fool, Paul Daniels,” she said. “Now you listen: I’m coming along because I need to know what’s going on, and what your father’s got you all wrapped up in. I have a right to know, whether you plan on telling me or not. I intend to get it out of you any way I can.”

Paul huffed angrily. She knew that he was either going to get frustrated, angry, and unpleasantly aggressive—or he was going to shut down like a threatened child and pout his way through the night. He was going with option number two.

“Alright,” Mary acceded bitterly. “Why isn’t Harper going?”

“Dad hasn’t told him anything about all this. As far as our father’s concerned, Harper doesn’t need to know anything—not after what he did in Richmond.”

Mary was glad Paul couldn’t see her rolling her eyes. “That wasn’t his fault, Paul.”

“How was it not his fault? He should be grateful it ended better than it could have. If those two men hadn’t gotten up and ran away, Harper would likely have killed them!”

“Didn’t you say they attacked your dad in the street?”

“They were common muggers, Mary—two sick, homeless people who probably wanted spare change. My father tends to exaggerate things. I have no doubt they gave him a good scare when they came out of that alley. William told me they were pale and diseased-looking. I’m sure it was terrifying.

“Now Harper’s with him, interprets their actions as violently hostile, and explodes into a frenzy. He beats them into the ground, pushes one of them into a street, and throws the other one down a stairwell. Somehow they get up and flee the scene, leaving my father badly shaken and Harper salivating for more blood. I mean hell, Mary, my father’s no weak-hearted man, but even he told me that Harper’s reaction was extreme. I don’t know what my brother’s problem is, but I’m sure William is doing the right thing by keeping him out of all this.”

Mary didn’t say anything.

“He’s a loose cannon, Mary. If he knew more about that journal, there’s no telling what he’d do. Trust me on this; it’s better that Harper knows as little as possible. If he wants to throw a fit, curse our father, and refuse his wishes, then that’s his business.”

“And what about me, Paul?” she challenged. “Am I a loose cannon, that you’re keeping all this from me? You say, ‘we’re going to New York,’ and I say, ‘ok.’ I don’t usually ask why, but I’m asking you this time. What’s going on?”

Paul hadn’t told her.

They had left the next day. They reached New York City in the late afternoon after driving for over seven hours. They checked into a hotel in Manhattan, driving through the car-clogged arteries of the city while the sky darkened threateningly overhead. A storm had followed them up from the south.

Paul had become increasingly paranoid during the trip, going from his usual irritability to a heavy unease that was palpably choking the atmosphere. They had driven with little talking, and this was unlike them. After checking in, Mary had suggested they go out, but he tried to insist that they stay at the hotel.

Mary had reached her breaking point with him; damned if she was going to stay trapped in a hotel room while he panicked and brooded in stubborn secrecy. Either he was going to offer her some well-deserved answers in exchange for her obedience, or he was going to have to stomach it and take her on a walk across the Big Apple.

She had never been to New York, but she had created a version of it in her mind, composed haphazardly from books and television shows, rumors and second-hand stories of rude pedestrians and lunatic taxis. The reality of it was immediate and abstract, a perpetually sudden chaos of lights and noises, towering buildings and unexpected architecture. Gothic churches and cathedrals towered menacingly over boutiques and souvenir shops selling gaudy trinkets. A swelling tide of people and cars, trucks and buses crashed against the cavernous and echoing chasms between skyscrapers.

She loved and hated it at the same time. It was powerful and uncaring, unpredictable and base. That night it started to rain by the time she dragged her husband into Times Square, one of the most recognized urban landscapes in the world. It was as a extravagant as she expected it to be, as unapologetically commercial, and she wanted desperately to enjoy it.

Then Paul muttered something peculiar. “We shouldn’t be out in the storm,” he said. She turned to him, narrowing her eyes and peering at him. She wanted to know whether he was just changing tactics on her, trying to pity her into relenting and going back to the hotel, but he had been sincere; his eyes told the story of it. He was genuinely afraid.

“What are you talking about?” she demanded, brushing a wet strand of red hair out of her eyes, the better to glare at him.

She had never seen him look so helpless. “This is going to sound crazy, I know, but I really think we should stay out of the storm. It was something my father said…” She knew he was lying.

“You won’t get me to listen by quoting your father,” she snapped, “so don’t lie to me about it. William just told you to run up to Albany and buy him a book—that’s all. And he told you not to read the journal. But you did, didn’t you? What was it? What has you both so riled-up, so frightened?”

That should have stung his pride. Mary had never known her husband to accept that he could be afraid. Her words didn’t even faze him. “I can’t tell you, Mary!” he yelled, startling a few passerbies and embarrassing her in the process. “You just have to trust me, and come back with me to the hotel…”

“Paul,” Mary said, shaking her head in angry astonishment, “you keep telling me about this mysterious journal. What do you think about all this, about what you’re doing? If you told me that someone was following us, or that we were racing against time to find this book before someone else did, I would be more prepared to understand that! But you’re telling me that we should stay out of the rain, for God’s sake!”

She would have continued arguing, but Paul had stopped paying attention to her. They had wandered into the Diamond District, a narrow street closed to traffic and lined with jewelry stores. The rain had intensified and was coming down in torrents and curtains. People were huddled in alcoves and doorways, clustered against one another. Others peered out of store windows, leaning over glass counters alight with the glow of gold and diamonds on display. The buildings towering darkly above the street made it seem narrower, tighter, shadows in the hidden spaces vying with the artificial glitter of flashing signs and backlit advertisements.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. The two of them were standing in the middle of the street. People were looking at them, their eyes twinkling in the shadows, but they were just figures painted into a gray background. She was focused on her husband, whose eyes were scanning their surroundings the way a man expecting an ambush would.

“Paul…?”

A shock of thunder and burst of lightning shook the street, so mighty that nearly everyone flinched and started back. Mary didn’t avert her eyes. She saw it clearly:

It came out of a curtain of rain in the instant of the lightning flash, darting towards Paul in the boom of thunder. She had time only to widen her eyes when its hand erupted out of her husband’s sternum, holding his bloody heart cupped in its hand. His face was a mask of horror, his eyes staring at the ruddy, red-veined hand holding his dying heart, a pulpy thing ticking in weak beats.

Mary had time only to open her mouth before the monster seized Paul with its other arm and tossed him over its cloaked shoulder. It darted away just as quickly as it had come, vanishing into an alley. She turned to follow, the people around her starting to recover from the suddenness of the blinding lightning and echoing thunder. She ran towards the narrow crevice between buildings, but she already knew that it was too late. The alley was empty.

The vampire had taken her husband away.

A few people had been looking curiously at her, but no one had noticed anything. The rain lessened and they began to venture out of the doorways and alcoves, flooding the street, moving uncaringly around her. She hadn’t even been able to cry out, or scream, or call for help. She could only stand there in numbed bewilderment, pacing the alley for desperate hours afterward as if Paul would pop out from behind a car, alive and well.

She had seen what she had seen. It wasn’t a hallucination; that much was confirmed by William and Harper when they arrived in New York less than a day later to join in the search. Harper was relentless, but she had hated William for doing close to nothing to find his son. He just gave up, reviling and pitying himself, slinking back to his estate with fatalistic despondency.

 

* * * *

 

Now

 

A portion of the woman’s shoulder erupted in a gory splash of blood and splintered bone. She screamed and fell backward against the mantelpiece. In falling her right arm passed through the grate and into the fire. She wailed piteously as her skin blackened sickeningly. She pulled her arm away while the other hung by a shred of skin and muscle from the pulped shoulder.

“What have I done?” Henry moaned, the hunting rifle tumbling from his hands.

Susan lay crumpled against the wall next to the mantelpiece, panting in semi-conscious agony. I finally reached Henry. I picked up the rifle, took a step away, and turned to aim the barrel point-blank between his eyes.

I didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t move.

His head was nearly cleaved in two by the blast. Henry collapsed backward, his head a ghastly mess above his jaw. His body writhed on the floor, his hands blindly trying to push the pieces of his face back together.

I watched in horrified fascination as he succeeded; the white skin began to mend itself.

Where was the vampire?

I turned to see it stooping over Susan. It fastened itself over the wound in her shoulder and began to heave inward, chugging the blood out of her thin body. I cried out in hateful protest, but it was already done. The vampire let her go and looked at me. I averted my eyes.

I heard a whimper and turned to see Henry start to convulse, his teeth gritted and his skin darkening to an ugly gray. He glared up at me as he withered, his body crusting over like a piece of wood burnt out from the inside. The husk spat and coughed in collapsing protest until it crumbled inward, sighing into a mound of dust. The dust swirled in place and snaked across the foyer and through the open door, scattering into the rain and night.

Both of them were dead. I was alone with the monster.

The vampire moved closer.

You will give me what I want, Harper Daniels. You will give me bits and pieces of yourself until there is nothing left but that which you are withholding from me. I will sift this out from among the ashes of your spirit and continue my journey, passing over the place of your death with no more concern than a cloud casting a moving shadow over the ruin of a fire-pit.

I was a fool to think I could handle this. The vampire did not speak aloud. I don’t know why I expected that it would. It bore only the semblance of human form, its language a strange mimicry of ours. Its words swirled like a vortex in the hollow of my chest, a chaotic pulling that made me gasp, trying to gulp mouthfuls of air as if they could relieve the intense pressure of its words. It was as if the vampire spoke directly into my heart.

The windows burst into the living room, shards of glass catching the firelight as they sprinkled through the air. The curtains tore away around the bulk of three black forms that leapt into the room.

Black dogs.

They crouched next to Susan’s body, sable hair bristling with hackled rage, fangs bared in slavering hunger. They made no sound as the fur around their nostrils rose in seething aggression. Their eyes were intelligent, keen, and calculating. They belonged completely to the vampire. They prowled around it, bowing their heads in deference to their master.

I backed away toward the foyer. I needed to reload the rifle, and the box of ammunition was still there.

The dogs started gnawing at Susan’s body, gnashing their teeth into her skin and digging with grotesque abandon into the broken cavity of her corpse. They locked their jaws on her and snapped their heads back and forth with a violence and speed that blurred the movement. One tore at her limbs, tugging and pulling until the ligaments and muscles, empty of blood, gave way and broke into tattered ribbons. Another busied itself with her organs, and the third pawed at her bones, its red tongue darting to get at the marrow.

I loaded the rifle, cocked it, aimed, and fired at one of the dogs. The bullet struck it in the shoulder, but the beast took it without pausing or expressing any sign of pain. I fired the second shot and got it through the eye. The frenzied orb ruptured in the socket, but the dog didn’t so much as flinch.

When I recovered from my shock and revulsion I realized that all this gruesome scene took place without a single noise except for the cracks of the two shots in the uncanny quiet. There was no sound otherwise, neither the crunching of bone nor the wet grating of torn muscle. It was as if the beasts were cloaked in an impenetrable vacuum of silence; not even the scratching of their claws over the carpet could be heard.

I watched in amazement and terror as they finished their grizzly work, devouring the body so quickly and so thoroughly that, in short time that I stood there, all evidence of the old woman’s slaughter was entirely obliterated. The dogs walked casually past me, casting me a glance of such inscrutable and impossible intelligence that I shuddered.

When this was done, the dogs turned in unison to their master. Something must have passed between them, for the dogs rushed through the broken windows in a flurry of black fur and disappeared into the night. I looked over to where the old woman had been, and I could detect no trace of what happened. Not a single drop of blood.

“Why are you doing this?” I demanded.

It must know that I didn’t have the journal. It must know that I would never tell it where the journal was. I didn’t care how much I suffered. I would hold onto that promise. I was no stranger to pain. I looked forward to the death that would seal my lips forever. It would spare Mary from having to face this horror.

The vampire looked at me.

Your family has caused me a good deal of trouble, Harper Daniels. Your ancestor gave his blood to quiet my appetite for a time, and I awoke from my silence to find his descendents troubling me still.

“I am the only one left,” I said, closing my eyes.

By design. I have bitten at the tree of your family’s life, waiting for you to ripen. I have fattened you with sorrow and righteous anger, preparing you for the slaughter. When you are ready, your blood will be like nectar to me. You will see that this world is ruled by desire, and desire is strongest in darkness and shadow. And there is no desire in the heart of man greater than the desire for immortality.

When you are ready, you will give me what I need.

Something in the air shifted, a palpable and charged heaviness that amplified every sound. The clouds overhead were latticed with branching lightning. The undulating shadows enveloping the vampire became agitated, writhing serpent-like.

“I’m never going to help you,” I said.

You already have.

“What are you talking about?”

You and the journal are bound to one another. It will find its way to you again, and all those who touch it will fall to me, as your father and brother have fallen. They will serve me, as your father and brother have served me.

My brother Paul always said I was thoughtless.

The rifle was useless against the vampire, but there was a butcher knife on the table. I grabbed it, lunging toward the vampire and plunging the blade into the center of the murky distortion that was its body. I don’t know what I expected to feel; the soft, pliant resistance of flesh, the wet yielding of torn muscle, the hard crunch of metal against bone.

I felt nothing of the kind. It was like stabbing a paper doll: a brief sensation of the knife’s tip passing through something, and then a hollowness, a cold absence that arced up my forearm like a magnified shiver. I dropped the knife and it clattered uselessly to the ground. I pulled my arm close to my chest, gasping in agony through clenched teeth.

I looked at my arm. It was shriveled and blue, the skin hanging in creased and mangled folds around the bone. I wanted to scream, but panic and shock had seized my throat. I gasped like a fish out of water, realizing in a distortedly logical way that I was going into shock.

The vampire turned, calmly, and reached out.

I was so startled by the sight of its arm, sliding lithely toward me, that I forgot my trauma and fastened my eyes on it. It had the same blurred quality as the vampire’s uncertain features, and seemed made of fired clay, a ruddy brown that reminded me of ancient pottery. Veins of crimson visibly palpitated with stolen blood, snaking over the ligaments of its hand.

I wanted to back away, but I stood transfixed, cradling my ruined arm against my chest. The vampire clamped its hand over my desiccated wrist. There was a sensation of unpleasant warmth, and I watched in repulsed fascination as my arm changed beneath its grasp.

When the vampire took its hand away, my strength and challenge went with it. My vision swam as I looked at my arm. It was horribly altered. Pallid and strange, it looked like the arm of an antique porcelain doll, white and cracked.

“My God, what have you done to me?” I whispered.

I can take life and I can give life. The life I give is immortal life.

“I don’t want your life!” I screamed. I dropped to the floor, clutching at the knife. I gripped it in my left hand, closed my eyes, and stabbed it into my right arm. The knife crunched into the flesh, passing sickeningly through the skin, glancing against the bone and chipping the tiled floor underneath. I opened my eyes to see the knife lodged there. There was no blood. There was no pain.

“God no,” I breathed. I didn’t want this. I drew out the knife, watching the skin fold back into place. I looked up at the vampire, rage in my eyes.

You will become my instrument, Harper Daniels.

It raised its arms and there was a sudden rush of wind through the open door. I stared in awe as the vampire seemed to dissolve, unraveling into tendrils of thick smoke. It coiled into the stormy night. The house shook with thunder; the vampire was gone.

I ran to the threshold of the doorway. I stood braced against the frame, my body shaking violently, my vision wavering in fevered disorientation. I wanted to believe that none of this had happened, but my arm was testament to the cruel reality of it. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I wanted to take the knife and try again, but I knew it was useless. The house was empty. Those damned dogs had even managed to lick the blood off the walls.

It only took a moment, replaying it in my mind. A moment, and I was irrevocably altered. I almost wished for pain, something to mark the transition from what I was before—I flexed my strange, inhuman fingers—to what I was now. Something tainted.

I tried to piece together the chain of events that had led to this, a chain stretching back for generations to one man: Jonah Daniels.

My mind flashed back to Mary, running for her life to a place where I hoped she would be safe. She might find a way to end this. I didn’t want to be responsible for undoing all that Jonah had martyred himself to accomplish.

I needed to get out of here.

The vampire had taken the storm with it; the night outside was clear. The predawn stars paled in the softening sky. I turned to walk towards the center of town, dragging my feet and keeping my corrupted hand deep in my pocket. I didn’t want to see it. It was wretchedly cold; my breath blew past my face in vapors. I was staggering drunkenly. God, I was so weak.

I didn’t get very far.

A figure stepped out of the shadows in front of me, coming to stand just beyond the ring of sickly yellow light thrown over the sidewalk by a streetlamp. I halted, wavering on my feet, peering at the silhouette.

I thought it might be a mugger, a petty mortal predator skulking after drunken passerby in the early hours of the morning. Then I saw, when he moved beneath the light, that his face was wrong. He had the same colorless and cracked appearance as Henry, as my arm.

He looked fragile, as if a strike with a hammer in the right place would shatter his face into countless pieces. I knew otherwise. There was a feral quality to the man, the restless pacing of an inhuman, bloodthirsty thing.

“Harper Daniels!” He shouted. How did he know my name?

I stumbled to the side, my shoulder crashing harshly against the brick façade of a storefront.

“You’re not going to make it very far,” the man said.

“What do you want?” I mumbled weakly, feeling myself sag brokenly.

“I want to help you,” he said, coming closer.

“Stay away from me. What are you?” I asked, trying to rally my strength. I succeeded in pushing away from the wall. Damned if I was going to let this thing get a hold of me.

“I am like you,” he said, moving closer. His eyes moved down to my arm. I tried to move away. Running was out of the question. The night had taken its toll, and the vampire had made certain I wouldn’t have the strength to do more than lurch a few paces before dropping into a gutter. It had sent its servant to pick me up, drag me wherever it wanted.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I hissed, digging deep for strength. Let him think I was stronger than I looked. That might be enough to deter him, out in the open. He wouldn’t risk an altercation where anyone passing by might take notice.

It didn’t work.

In a flash, he was on me.

 

Jonah Daniels’s Journal

 

 

10 August, 1900

 

I should have known better than to believe that I could ever see my wife and son again. Roberts tried to tell me, but I would not listen. How could I? The past two years have been one unbroken nightmare, unrelenting and unremitting since my discovery of those wretched tablets in South America. How I wish I had never found them! How I wish that I had never seen that place, hidden in the dark bowels of the earth; and how right my poor guide had been to consider those caverns an extension of hell, born up to the surface of the world the way a man might vomit a poison unsettling his belly.

I credit myself with only one moment of lucidity; for I had thought to bring those tablets home and translate them there, in the comfort of my study. Yet I knew, somehow, what ill-fortune my discovery would bring. At the time, I thought it a scholarly decision; Florence, Rome, and the great libraries of Europe boast resources unmatched even by the ivy-covered universities of New England. Surely I must have known, when I had a few moments of peace to regard those tablets and the language etched into their clay, that there were no resources anywhere in this world that could have availed me—none, truly, but one: McEvelin Roberts.

Despite all that happened in Florence, I was foolish enough to imagine that I could go home to my wife and son. All that I suffered, all that I learned and felt, was so far beyond the ken of normal men that it seemed as if I were adrift on a treacherous sea beneath alien stars, with no compass or sense of direction. I went so far as to book passage to Virginia, gathering my belongings with the blind fervor of an addict clinging to the illusion of choice. Roberts, in one of his rare moments of genuine understanding, did not interrupt my preparations; indeed, if he did, I would have shot him dead. I had to arrive at that conclusion myself, without his interference.

Before we parted ways, Roberts and I discussed whether I should destroy this journal. He was of the opinion that I should burn it. It will remain a lure to the vampire for as long as it survives, and neither I nor anyone who comes in contact with it is safe. Containing the only transcription and translation of the tablets’ contents, I have all but guaranteed that I alone possess what my immortal pursuer wants more than blood: the key to uncovering the location of its birthplace.

I know that my life is over. I will as faithfully as possible here narrate the content of a most remarkable encounter. If not for the man who intercepted me just prior to my quitting Italy, I would have sailed to my home shore and signed my own family’s death warrant. I have known war to follow men home from the battlefield, tormenting them unceasingly and distorting their perceptions more ably and terribly than any opiate—but this—this demon will never let me go.

Leaving Roberts was a breath of fresh air, and with this journal in my satchel I allowed myself to entertain the ludicrous notion that, with our work accomplished, I could put all that behind me. I was giddy with anticipation, and I fully expected that I would see my family in a fortnight. I took a room in a hotel some distance away from the port at Lido di Ostia, allowing myself to marvel at how much the world had changed in less than half a century. The marks of the industrial revolution that had seized England were rapidly encroaching even here, in the birthplace of the Renaissance. The great galleons and sailing vessels that had chartered the seas and braved the edge of the world were replaced by the titanic metal behemoths of a new era.

When evening came I found myself hungrier than I had been in months. I went down to the bar and took a stool near a cluster of foreigners speaking French. I know the language well, and delighted in eavesdropping on their conversation. I did not interrupt, but contented myself with listening to the common talk of people who did not know that monsters were real. I found myself smiling, remembering when my conversations were similarly innocent. So enrapt I was that I did not see the man who sat down beside me.

I noticed his hand first, white and scarred. I glanced surreptitiously at him, only to find him staring fixedly at me. Unnerved, I drew away. He smiled and leaned forward, his eyes glittering beneath a deeply furrowed brow, his pale face grizzled with an unshaven beard that would never grow longer nor succumb to the edge of a blade.

“I know who you are,” he said, “Johan Daniels. Your work has stirred up quite a bit of trouble. You’ve caught the monster’s attention, and it has set its sights on you.” His eyes drifted down to the satchel at my hip. “You’re a liability to everyone around you. If you’re not careful, you will leave a trail of bodies in your wake.”

I reached down, brought the journal into my lap, and tightened my grip on it. “Who are you?”

“Someone who knows about those tablets you recovered from South America. You can’t unearth something like that without anyone noticing, Mr. Daniels. Admittedly, we expected you to return to Virginia with your prize and go about making a show of it.”

Something in his tone made it plain that he—or whomever he represented—would have taken measures to prevent that from happening. “And when I didn’t…?”

The man smiled. “We lost track of you until you reached out to a colleague of yours. This circle is woven tighter than you can imagine. You see—we know McEvelin Roberts. We’ve known him for a long time.”

“You’re American,” I said.

“I am,” he said, “all the way from New York. Now I’ve a story to tell you and I advise you to listen carefully. I already know that you’ve taken passage on a vessel bound for Virginia. That is a mistake—” he raised his hand to interrupt what I had been about to say, “and if you consider the matter, you will see plainly enough that to return home is tantamount to murder. The vampire will slaughter you and everyone around you. It has done this before.”

“What would suggest I do, then? Destroy the journal and surrender myself?”

“Why don’t you?”

His question gave me pause. Why indeed? I was the one who discovered the tablets; I was the one who brought them to Italy and contacted McEvelin Roberts. I was the one who insisted we complete our work, knowing full well that the dark fable recounted by the ancient writer whose etchings we translated spoke not of an imaginary monster, but an evil as old as the world itself. Surely, I should hold myself accountable.

All the while I struggled with these thoughts, this man regarded me as if knowing every thought as it appeared and turned in my mind. He knew also that I would not do it. I would neither destroy the journal nor surrender myself. The only question remained whether he would try and seize the journal himself, and do what I could not.

“If I’ve guessed your thoughts correctly, Mr. Daniels,” he said, “you intend to stay alive. Very good! If you thought me here to convince you otherwise, you are mistaken. No—I am here at the behest of a woman very dear to me…someone whose sight was not limited to the past and present but encompassed the future also.”

“It is not enough that I should believe in monsters,” I said, “you would have me believe in oracles also? What sort of game are you playing? Speak sense, or leave me be—”

He frowned. “I can do neither, if you will not listen! She knew you would not surrender, Jonah Daniels. She knew you could not, and she also knew that you would have a good deal further to go from here—farther even than you can imagine now.”

“Who is this woman?”

“Her name was Helen. Years ago, after McEvelin Roberts abandoned his studies at the University, his path crossed hers. She knew even then that Roberts possessed an uncanny knowledge, more dangerous than he could have realized. She knew about the tablets, and she knew that he alone could translate them…”

“How could she have possibly known that? Those tablets had been buried for centuries! It was only by a bizarre turn of circumstance that those caverns were even opened at all! For heaven’s sake, an earthquake had unsettled a wall of solid rock that had sealed off an entire village buried underneath a mountain!”

The man smiled. “Nonetheless, she knew. Helen also knew what Roberts was hoping to find: there are clues scattered across the world, and it takes a keen eye and a willing mind to recognize the mystery they point to…”

“The vampire.”

“True immortality. That is what Roberts was looking for. All he needed was a push in the right direction. Helen promised to show him something that would point him in that direction—an artifact of incredible age and power. Roberts didn’t hesitate. He agreed to meet with her, and she made good on her promise.”

“He didn’t tell me any of this…”

“Of course not. Roberts is a secretive man. Does it surprise you that he would have this from you? Besides, telling you outright may have dissuaded you from finishing your work on the tablets.”

“What did she show him? What was this artifact?”

“I’m afraid any description of mine would do it little justice,” he said. “ Suffice it to say that it was enough to commit Roberts to his course. After their meeting, Helen ended her journey in New York. She died in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, among a unique collective of people who undertook the burden of her stewardship.”

“Stewardship? Of this artifact?” The man nodded. I made the connection instantly. “You were among this collective of people,” I said.

He nodded. “I am. If I could have foreseen the strange turnings of fortune that brought me there, only months before Helen’s arrival, I would have remained where I was. But these are idle daydreams. It is no easy burden that Helen left us with, but we didn’t have a choice and neither did she. Her flight had come to an end, and she was with child. She could go no further, and it was there beside the waters of our encampment in the forest that she died in childbirth, leaving us with the responsibility of rearing her daughter and safeguarding the artifact. That was some time ago—over ten years, I expect, though I had little sense of time beyond the passing of seasons.”

He smiled. “This is a story that will require more time than we have at present. Rest assured you will hear it; but for the moment I will tell you only that Helen entrusted me with an additional task. She misjudged Roberts, and in showing him the artifact she expected that his course would lead him to the vampire—a problem that would take care of itself. She didn’t expect that you would find the tablets and contact Roberts. No one can foresee the strange threads that bind us together over time and distance, nor what happens when we tug on a single one of these.”

“Things rarely happen the way we would wish them to,” I said.

“When I learned that Roberts had received your letter and was en route to Italy, I had no choice but to follow…not the simplest proposition, Mr. Daniels, when you have not a penny to your name and no name besides. I arrived in Italy too late, but I am hoping I can salvage some of what I set out to do.”

“What was it, dammit?” I hissed, my anger suddenly stirred by the damnable mystery of it all. “What did Mary show Roberts? What is this artifact, and why is it so important? Why are you here? If you mean to help me, then be plain about it, and do away with all your vagueness!”

The man raised his hands in a gesture of mocking placation. “Come now!” he said. “Not all mysteries are better revealed all at once. Besides, I have good reason for keeping you in the dark: you must agree to accompany me to New York, into the Adirondacks, and I must have your word that you will speak to no one until we arrive at our destination.”

“Are you mad?” I demanded angrily. “I have no intention of going anywhere with you…”

“Are you planning to return to your family, then?” he asked with a cruel scoff. “What do you imagine that you left behind in Florence? Do you suppose Roberts is well? Drinking his Italian wine and smoking his opium? What now—I suppose you reckon that everything can be explained away?” he continued relentlessly, his words turning a knife in my gut. “What else? Will you sit with your wife and son and relate all your brave adventures over supper?”

I glowered at him, refusing to avert my eyes. He did not shy away from my gaze. “Listen, Mr. Daniels, I am here for my own reasons, I’ll grant you that—you are no fool, to think my motives entirely courteous. But let me tell you that my reasons are your reasons. I want to be free of this nightmare.”

“What of Roberts?” I challenged. “What do you know?”

The man sighed. “What do you think? The monster took him, Mr. Daniels, only days after you left.”

Roberts was dead, then. The news should have shaken me, but instead carved a hollow into my soul. With every minute and hour that passed I imagined myself closer to my wife and son; but at that moment, following this man’s words, that hope fell into sudden darkness. I couldn’t see my wife and son. Their faces were smeared over, the canvas of my memory torn by the hand of a predator older than history.

The man must have known that his words had struck a violent chord, because he remained silent for awhile, waiting for me to digest the news of Roberts’s death.

“So,” he said when I looked at him again, “what is your answer? Will you accompany me to New York? Will you agree to see what Mary showed Roberts, all those years ago?”

“What then? If I should agree to your terms, what then?”

“Then, Mr. Daniels, I expect you will have to make a decision. I am offering you the opportunity to make a well-informed decision, at least. Now, you are fleeing blindly, and you haven’t a chance in the world to outrun the storm. Come with me, see what I have to show you, and you may yet find a way out of this…you may yet find some way to set us both free.”

What choice did I have, really?

 

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story, Part 2

This is the SECOND half of the story. Please see the previous post to start from the beginning. If you enjoy it, please “like” it and share it.

Alexander Chirila

Humanskin, Part 2

We enter the town hall to see the settlers in an uproar, shouting incoherently. The stench is almost overwhelming. Wearing the humanskin dampens our senses, but this sweaty, unwashed, agitated mass of humanity produces a miasma thicker than water. It is profoundly uncomfortable. I have two choices: I can either smell, listen, and feel all of it at once, or I can focus on a single thread of sound and scent.

A noise uncoils itself across the room, like a wave unspooling over the surf. They are saying something, shouting…I know what this is. To call it a ‘trial’ would be a mockery of whatever that word might have meant in the world that ended. There is an accused, there are witnesses, and there is a moderator. Then there is a churn that turns a crowd into a mob. The reality of the thing is simple: either you’re forgiven by the mob or you’re not. If you’re not, there is exile and there is death.

My father had taken me to one of these when I was still a boy. ‘You need to see what a mob is capable of,’ he had said. And I did. They were pronouncing judgment on a thief. Everyone agreed that there was ample testimony: the one witness who claimed that he had seen the accused running away from his house with his daughter’s virginity.

The man begged and pleaded for a mercy that would never come. ‘Never expect mercy from a mob,’ my father had said, ‘anymore than you would expect respect from the vultures who are going to pick out his eyes while he hangs from the old oak tree down the road.’

‘What now?’ Red and Coal mutters.

‘Let’s find out,’ Soot and Snow says, pushing her way into the crowd. Old Wolf grunts and follows, as do we. We are barely noticed; every eye is bent towards the far end of the room, where a dais is separated from the crowd by a polished wooden banister.

Then I see her. I remember her. My wife—Elizabeth. Lizzie.

My will is overtaken; something from deep inside my mind comes tunneling forward. I am conscious of my pack-mates moving towards me. White and Gray is looking at me with concern. Red and Coal is shaking his head. Soot and Snow realizes what is happening almost instantly. But it is Old Wolf I fear, who is looking at me steadily with those yellow eyes of his. I am helpless to acknowledge him. All I can do is listen as one of the elders—Nick’s father!—raises his hand to quiet the surging crowd.

‘This woman,’ Mr. Robbins motions towards my wife, ‘stands accused of a most uncommon crime.’ He pauses for a moment, trying to find the words to express his thoughts. ‘In the world that ended, many of us believed in impossible things. Many of us believed in salvation. That the world would begin anew. Well here we are, in the same world. You have told me some tall tales, I believe.

‘Now I know that you’re all scared. These attacks have taken an incalculable toll on all of us. Many of us have lost loved ones,’ he nods to a grim-faced man, ‘but we cannot allow our fear to drive us into suspicion and superstition,’ he spits out the dirty word. ‘We have buried these beliefs alongside the bodies of our fathers and grandfathers. We have left them in empty churches, where they belong, among the ruins of a world that we can never go back to. This town hall was built sixteen years ago. It was the first building that we labored to build out of this wilderness. This is what we believe in. We can’t afford to resurrect the ghosts of our past; they led us astray once before. We have a chance to preserve whatever good we can. Witch hunts, inquisitions—let’s just leave those things behind.

‘Please, I implore you…tell me the truth.’

The crowd roars at him, a barely restrained animal baring its teeth at a trainer standing too close. ‘You’ll get the truth!’ a woman cries out. ‘The truth!’ an elderly man warbles incoherently. Mr. Robbins raises his hands and nods.

‘Let’s hear it then, from our witness. Mrs. Miller, please come forward and have a seat right here…’ he taps on one of the several chairs arranged opposite Lizzie. Where is our son? I start looking around. My pack-mates regard me warily. White and Gray nods at me, trying to remind me of what we’re here for. None of this matters to the pack. If anything, this is an inconvenience: a mob is harder to scatter, single-minded as it is. Soon, Black and Rust will set up his distraction to lure the settlers out into the open and towards the outskirts of the encampment…

I remember Mrs. Miller. She was our neighbor, an old widowed woman whose husband had died of the fever. She was a comfort to me after my father died, when I lived alone in the years before I married my wife. What could she have to say against Lizzie? She was midwife at our son’s birthing!

After a bit of prompting, my former neighbor begins. ‘I want you to know that I understand what you said before, Mr. Robbins, about superstition. In the world that ended, my mother was a good Christian woman. She went to Church near every day and prayed for salvation. She used to tell me that the world would end, but that she and I had nothing to worry about. She’s been dead near thirty years now, and I haven’t set foot in a church since. This isn’t about that. What I seen, I seen with my own eyes. What I tell you is the truth, and you can all decide for yourselves.’

‘Well go on then, Mrs. Miller, and say what you have to say.’

‘Just a little over a year ago,’ she begins, ‘I saw something. Something old. Something evil. Lizzie was struggling with her newborn. Her husband had been taken by the fever,’ she whispers the last word. ‘After he left, she had a hard time of it. I tried to help as much as I could, but she just kept getting worse. I remember talking to her but once before it happened. She told me that she thought maybe her child had the fever, too. I know the signs of the fever, and that baby was healthy! She kept on about how sick he was, so I decided to keep an eye on her. If she decided to take the baby into the forest, like they used to do when the fever was bad—I would follow her and try to stop her.’

What is she talking about? Lizzie would never…!

‘Why now, Mrs. Miller?’ the schoolteacher asks. ‘Why did you keep this to yourself for so long?’

She looks at him as if his question had been asked in another language. ‘No one would’ve believed me!’ she shouts. ‘With all these wolf attacks, I had to come forward. You don’t understand. I saw it with my own eyes. Meeting in secret with an old crone in the wilderness…!’

My head snaps towards my pack-mates, immobilized in their places. ‘…some kind of witch-woman. Lizzie brought her child with her. I followed her, you see? The night she took her child away, I followed her deep into the mountains. I kept thinking she would dash the boy’s head against a stone or just leave him crying somewhere. She just kept walking as if she knew right where she was going in all that darkness! We come across a river and she tracks it upstream to a cascade, well into this narrow valley on the other side of Clingmans Dome.’

Red and Coal slinks away from the crowd. His hands are shaking. Soon, he will break free of his humanskin. I understand the implications of what Mrs. Miller has just said. If we fail tonight, they will come into the heart of our territory and destroy the Totem. I can feel my hackles threatening to shear through this paper-thin skin. The crowd waits. I can almost feel it about to start. I am hoping that it will—these memories, these feelings—I want them torn asunder in the ripping freedom of release. This humanskin is choking me, strangling my mind.

‘They made some kind of pact that night,’ Mrs. Miller says. ‘She and the crone. I know it. Lizzie left the witch’s hovel alone. Don’t you see? She sacrificed her own babe to that monstrous woman…! I couldn’t just leave. I needed to see what the crone intended to do with the child. I creep up to the window unseen…’

Something isn’t right with this. Old mother may be old, but her senses are as keen as any of ours. Mrs. Miller wouldn’t have been able to creep at all without tripping over her own feet, much less unseen, and much less after a grueling hike through the mountains. Unless I never really knew her at all.

‘…and I see the old witch holding a knife to the child, preparing to cut him open on an altar! Surrounded by the talismans and charms of her foul religion! She howled as I ran from that place, howled like a wolf!’

Our son? What did she do to our son? I stumble backward in confusion. I remember the day he was born. My baby boy.

There’s an expression I never understood before I met Elizabeth. ‘Love at first sight.’ Before her, it was just another one of those sayings that have no context in this world.She was alone in a world where women who walk alone rarely meet with a kind fate. Most of the women who abandon the dead cities without a partner or companion do not survive long unless they join themselves to a larger group. Lizzie walked alone and unafraid. No one had ever seen anything like it. She was beautiful and raw, unapologetically merciless with anyone who crossed her.

I eventually learned that she had been tracking her mother. The woman had left her years ago, but Lizzie had come across someone who insisted that she was still alive. Lizzie told me that her mother had ‘gone crazy’ just before she fled from the dead city; that she had fallen terribly ill. It wasn’t the fever, and it wasn’t any kind of sickness that she’d seen before.

‘I felt like she was in two worlds at the same time,’ Lizzie told me, ‘this one, and another one that no one could see but her. Sometimes I think I see it too.’

We were married two years later. She told me that she knew she would marry me when she realized that she had given up on finding her mother. Our boy was born shortly afterward.

The crowd, setting free its own true face, rumbles and shakes, churning itself into a mob. The wooden floorboards thunder with their stamping feet. Lizzie didn’t stir in the slightest during the whole proceeding; now she rises and looks out over the thrashing mass of people.

Mr. Robbins is yelling for the crowd to just calm down, but there is no calming down. ‘This is insanity!’ he shouts, ‘Madness! How can you believe this testimony? Come now, listen to some reason…’ at last the crowd seethes back, momentarily rebuked. ‘Good, good,’ the schoolteacher breathes heavily. ‘Now Mrs. Miller, what exactly is it that you expect us to believe? That an old witch in the woods sacrificed this woman’s child in some occult ritual? Why, that sounds like a fairy tale!’

I am hardly listening now—my head is spinning—why would old mother have lied to us? Why would she have lied to me? Why would she have told us that she had found the infant drowned in the cascade pool? Old mother had made it seem a predestined thing, that a woman of her lineage should have tried to drown her firstborn in waters sacred to the Totem she unknowingly served. ‘She must have thought that she was destroying something monstrous,’ old mother had said, ‘but the spirit inside her knew otherwise. She was simply giving her baby to the only power capable of ensuring his safety.’

When I saw Black and Rust for the first time, he was a sodden little thing peering at us with large, frightened eyes. A wolf pup cradled against old mother’s bosom. It wasn’t until he took on the humanskin for the first time that we understood what he was: a wolf-born, the first of his kind.

‘I don’t expect you to believe me,’ Mrs. Miller says, rising from her chair. ‘I expect you to believe what you see, just like I did.’ She digs her hand into the pocket of her homespun dress and holds out a familiar object—a ceremonial knife.

It is the same knife used by old mother to shear through my humanskins on the night of my rebirth. ‘It is time,’ she said, hovering over me. My last human memory is of old mother, invoking the Totem and holding that dagger with both hands above her head, thrown back in the ecstasy of her magic. A brazier from the world that ended burned with hot coals to my right. Gusts of cold, rain-sprinkled wind blew into the dim room, tossing the ragged old tapestries that hung over the windows. I tried to rise and push her away from me, but I was too weak.

Mrs. Miller stabs the knife into the table and says, ‘This is what the witch used to cut the child! This is the murder weapon!’

Old mother thrust the dagger into my chest, just underneath my floating ribs. I expected her to push through but she leaned forward, concentrating, parting the skin horizontally across my abdomen. When the flesh was opened she extended her right arm towards the wound. I stared—way beyond pain or shock—as she pushed her wrinkled old hand through the divided skin and into my body. She reached in, the blood pooling and soaking around her thin forearm. Her hand clawed through me until her fingers closed around my beating heart. With a triumphant grin she withdrew, gingerly holding the organ in her hand, pumping in her palm.

She arched her back and howled. She screamed and wailed her incantations, holding the my heart like some offering to a deity stepping through a wound in the skin of reality. When she was done she bent forward again and pushed the heart through the cut, stretching forward with her arm until it seemed as if she wanted to crawl entirely inside my body.

‘Blessed are you by the Spirit of the Wolf,’ she cried, lifting me into her arms as if I were no more than a stick figure. She carried me outside her hovel and to the cascade pool, laying me down into the cold waters.

I was somewhere between life and death.

Lizzie suddenly stands up, her fists clenched and her thin frame shuddering with anger. She starts to move towards Mrs. Miller, but then she stops and scans the room, her nostrils flaring. She’s looking for something…or someone. Then she sees me.

Lizzie starts walking towards me. The crowd is pushing and pulling, beginning to turn, congeal, and sharpen itself into a mob. My pack-mates have already scattered to the far corners of the room. I need to talk to Lizzie.

I push my way towards her, locking eyes with her as I move forward. When I get close enough, I seize her my her arms and bring her close to me. ‘How do you know old mother? What did she do to our son?’ I growl into her face. She is trembling and shaking her head, her eyes wide and staring at me. I ask her again, shaking her roughly. Somewhere in the background, I hear an impossible gargle distorting into a howl that only a wolf could produce. People in the crowd are screaming.

Lizzie turns to me and brings her lips close to my ear. ‘She’s lying,’ Lizzie whispers to me, ‘I sent him to you. I knew you were still out there…’ How could she have known?

She turns away to look. It is impossible not to. Old Wolf is tearing free of his humanskin.

The Totem wraps us in humanskin, but it is an illusion. It feels real, to both ourselves and to anyone who doesn’t pay too much attention—but it’s a veil. We are wolves, a new species of monster born together with a new world. We really are something new. When we shed the humanskin, there is no bone-breaking, agonized transformation. It is subtle, almost impossible for the human eye to register. I see it—and so does Lizzie.

Old Wolf’s humanskin sighs into a curtain of vapor, like moisture revealing a seam in the wall of reality. The beast comes out, parting the curtain and taking shape like a shadow imbued with sudden form and substance. To the human eye, this all happens in less than a second.

When it happens, the humans’ reaction is something to see. In the world that ended, it would have been worse; how cowardly they were by the end! When it all came crashing down around their heads, many of the survivors envied the fever-stricken. Five to seven days of agony compared to watching the husk of civilization break apart.

‘They almost stopped believing in monsters,’ Mr. Robbins once said to me. ‘They managed to convince themselves that they weren’t real. Real monsters existed only in stories and nightmares, fictions and hallucinations. There were only monstrous people. The beast was in the mind.

In this new world, the real monsters have returned.

If they were ever truly in our minds, they must have crawled out of the broken skulls of the billions that died when the world ended.

Nowadays, humans don’t scare so easy. Most of the people flee the town hall in a panicked frenzy, but the stalwart remain; those who carved this settlement out of the wilderness with their bare hands. About twelve settlers stay. I recognize all of them from my old life, but they wouldn’t recognize me. My humanskin is not the same.

When I lived here, there were only seven shotguns, eleven pistols, two rifles, and enough ammunition to keep the settlement safe under normal circumstances. Two of the shotguns are here, and I know who’s holding them—Mickey Donahue and Alan Griselli, refugees from what used to be New York City. Otherwise, unless things changed, the first town rule is that no one carry firearms to a public meeting. Tensions were always high, and one of the first incidents that provided a precedent for that ordnance cost ten lives over a petty dispute.

Old Wolf charges, his jaws open, the skin of his snout pulled back and his teeth—still sharp for all his years—snapping with an audible crack that I can hear above the yelling of the settlers. I step in front of Lizzie and push her behind me. Old Wolf leaps forward, a blur of yellow eyes and gnashing fangs. How quickly he moves! I brace my arms, knowing even as I do that his massive jaws can close over both my wrists and snap them like dry branches. I am ready to sacrifice my arms to protect my throat, but Old Wolf lowers his head and slams into me. I am thrown backward several feet, and he is already over me before I have a chance to raise my head. He snarls at me, defenseless beneath him. I know what he is asking me to do.

He is asking me to submit.

Behind him, a man grabs Lizzie and holds her arms behind her back. Several others cluster around him; one of them slaps her across the cheek. Her hair whips around her face with the force of the impact. I can hear her snarling. She struggles against her captor, her eyes locked on mine. Across from her, White and Gray paws at the wooden floor and mutters a nearly inaudible growl that I understand well enough: now isn’t the time.

I said I would kill Old Wolf tonight.

The doors to the town hall burst open. One of the night watchmen staggers in, his clothing in tatters and his intestines snaking out from between his clutching fingers. Is this the distraction Black and Rust had in mind? I expect him to burst through the doorway with blood around his mouth and gore hanging from his fangs. Instead, two more settlement men come shuffling in, holding a bulk of matted fur and caked blood between them. If not for all the competing scents in the town hall, I would have known sooner that it was Black and Rust.

In the middle of a transformation, we really do think with two minds. The wolf was nearly feral, a confused mess of anger and survival instinct. As for my human mind…She said that she had send him to me. Our son. Why didn’t old mother tell me? Why didn’t she tell me that Black and Rust was my son? My son! What have they done to my son? Old mother once told that me that the most dangerous part of the transformation is when both minds vie for dominance over the Spirit. ‘The human spirit is more cunning,’ she told me, ‘but the wolf spirit is older.’

The two settlement men throw their burden down across the floor of the town hall. It is a calculated move. The others had been trying to stay hidden, letting Old Wolf distract the mob; they had slunk into the shadows and side chambers, waiting for the signal to attack. Now they spring forward, unable to hold back from assessing our pack-mate’s condition and protecting him from further assault. I am no different. I lunge forward across the floor. The settlers back away, but more slowly. The men are starting to realize that they have the upper hand here. The element of surprise we were depending on is lost.

The pup is alive, but seriously wounded. They shouldn’t have been able to capture him. Black and Rust moves faster than any human. He is stealthier than all of us; stronger, deadlier. My son! How did they know he was coming? How did they find him? The rest of the pack circles Black and Rust, their hackles raised, an unbroken harmony of vengeful growling undercutting the fatal quiet of the hall. We are in defensive mode, uncertain of what to do next. Normally, we would all look to Old Wolf for guidance—but he has betrayed us. Why did he attack Lizzie? What is wrong with him?

‘You see with your own eyes!’ Mrs. Miller yells, holding old mother’s ceremonial knife.

Mickey Donahue steps forward and levels the shotgun at Red and Coal. Soot and Snow yips and darts in front of her mate. Mickey fires, the buckshot taking her full on the side. She tumbles away, skidding to a bloody stop against the far wall. Another man, holding a knife, brings his arm back in readiness to stab it through her. Red and Coal is in motion already. He leaps towards the second man and bites through his forearm, pulverizing the bone and turning the muscle to useless pulp.

White and Gray launches herself at Mickey Donahue; he brings up his hands to defend himself, but she doesn’t hold back the way Old Wolf had done with me. The stock of the gun strikes her face, turning her away just enough so that her jaws close around the man’s elbow. She bites down and nearly severs the arm at the joint. She is about to crunch through his face when Old Wolf advances and locks his jaws around her neck. Her pulls her away from the struggling settler and throws her roughly against the floor. She thrashes and snaps but he forces her down, biting until she stops fighting.

He is trying to force her to submit. She is resisting him with every ounce of her strength, her muscles rippling underneath her fur. If she doesn’t yield, he will keep biting until his fangs break through her skin. I want to ask him what he thinks he’s doing. I want to ask him why he betrays us. But I don’t have the words anymore. I have only action. I spring forward, crashing my right shoulder into his flank. He rolls away from White and Gray and my vision narrows to nothing but him: I am ready for this confrontation. I am ready to take my rightful place as alpha.

White and Gray steps between us, tilting her head to look at me. If you were to translate every nuance and gesture of body language expressed by every creature, you may appreciate the immense vocabulary at our command. Add to that the unique scent attached to every emotion on the spectrum, and you may understand that the wolf can discern more in a single moment than what can be spoken in many. Now is not the time, she tells me.

The men to my right are still holding Lizzie. Red and Coal has driven the settlers away from his wounded mate; those who didn’t choose flight chose death. My son’s wolf blood has already sealed his wounds.  The other settlers are likely regrouping for another assault. Those that return will return with weapons. If we stay here, they will finish us. Much as I hate having to back down, White and Gray is right. There is no disgrace in shifting my attention to the more immediate threat.

The schoolteacher looks directly at me for the first time. ‘I know you,’ he says. I stare at him. There is something off about him. I didn’t notice it before, but it seems obvious to me now. My eyes focus on Mrs. Miller. I see the same strange effect. Their eyes don’t match their expressions. They don’t even match their faces.

They are wearing humanskins.

They are not wolves underneath. I would have known. Lizzie would have known. ‘What are you?’ I shout at Mrs. Miller. ‘You’re no wolf!’ Those blessed by the Spirit of the Wolf know one another, regardless of the humanskins they wear.

‘Territory is power,’ she says. ‘That old hag of yours has been snatching up more than she deserves. And this pup,’ she motions disdainfully toward Black and Rust, ‘is a player best removed from the game early. As is your wife…’ She brandishes the ceremonial knife and moves toward Lizzie.

The men holding my wife stiffen when Mrs. Miller moves forward, uncertain of what to do. In that, they give themselves away: this whole affair has been coordinated. Some of them knew what to expect when Old Wolf shed his humanskin before their eyes. Clearly, some of them knew where to find my son. Why would Mrs. Miller have chosen this night, of all nights, to publically denounce Lizzie? She must have known we were going to attack. Old Wolf called the attack. My wife had led a rival to her own mother’s den. I have learned all I can from this vantage, wearing the humanskin. The wolf will be able to tell so much more.

When the decision is made to shed the humanskin, there is no cunning, no intelligence, no anchor of self-identity that can prevent the wolf from coming through. It is a release, not an agony, like relaxing a muscle cramping with tension.

I unloose the wolf-mind, shedding the illusion as if it was an awkward facial expression held for too long. I pass through the tear in the wound between worlds. On the other side is strength, speed, vitality, and clarity. Perfect clarity. On the other side is my true form.

The last question in my mind while wearing the humanskin—what are they?—is still my first priority. I need to identify the threat. I sift through the mélange of scents clouding the town hall: human, dog, rat, ant, fly, blood, feces, urine, bile, phlegm, tobacco, wood, stone, earth, plant, cooked meat, sickness…wolf…and something else…something that doesn’t fit…

Serpent.

I focus my senses on each of them, trying to learn as much as I can before springing into action. The woman—Mrs. Miller—smells like old mother, but different. With old mother it is human and wolf and…magic. The man—Mr. Robbins—smells like serpent tinged with the familiar, subtle odor of humanskin. Old Wolf smells like…disease. Sickness. Like an animal bitten by a venomous snake. And Lizzie…I know that scent. Human and wolf and magic.

Three targets, three choices. Red and Coal moves forward and catches my eye. He is ready. I look down at Black and Rust, training my senses on him; he is conscious, playing possum. White and Gray is dutifully lowering her head to Old Wolf, but things have changed. The men holding Lizzie are coming around to realize that they aren’t in control of anything. They are surrounded by monsters.

They look to the schoolteacher for direction, but Mr. Robbins only stares at me and says: ‘You are not the only monsters born into this new world. The Great Totems have all returned, choosing their blessed ones from among the survivors of the world that ended.’ He suddenly drops to his belly. ‘You may play at wearing humanskins, but to you they will always be cumbersome. They are like gloves to us. You knew me when you were children. I insinuated myself into this community long before the big bad wolf came huffing and puffing. I was there in the grass, waiting for the best time to strike.’

The magic of transformation is the same, but the movement is different. The humanskin becomes dry and brittle, crumbling away from the serpent beneath. The beast itself is massive. He unravels himself from between worlds one great length after another, until it seems the whole hall is filled with his coils. I briefly hope that his bulk limits his speed, but he demonstrates his impossible swiftness only a moment later—darting towards Alan Griselli. Alan fires a round, but his arms are shaking and his senses are static with terror. The shot clips the serpent’s scales, shattering a few into translucent shards. The monster that was Mr. Robbins swirls around Alan, crushing every bone in his body with an audible series of wet pops and crunches. When he is a boneless ruptured mess the serpent gapes open its muscled mouth and leers over him; it funnels down, swallowing the poor man whole. It gulps and undulates, forcing him into its body while the pack watches.

I should have anticipated that those blessed by the Spirit of the Serpent would move with unimaginable speed. The men holding Lizzie let her go and flee from the town hall. Mrs. Miller laughs and plunges the ceremonial knife into my wife’s belly. Lizzie cries out, clutching at the old woman’s arms as if they were two boxers embracing after a fierce exchange of blows.

Black and Rust ends his charade. With a rumbling growl that passes into the dreadful silence of an unrestrained attack, he lunges at Mrs. Miller. The serpent lashes out at him, knocking him aside with a whip of coiled muscle. My son yips in frustration and rebounds, charging at the monster. The snake tries to wind itself around him; he is too quick and too agile. He evades every turn and winding strike, but he is on the defensive. I look towards Red and Coal, who acknowledges my signal. In that moment, all rivalries are forgiven and set aside. A pack member is in danger. My brother sprints into the battle. Soot and Snow, unwilling to let her mate face the threat alone, forces herself up. The ghastly wound on her side is closed, but she’s lost a good deal of blood. She shouldn’t be standing, much less fighting, but that doesn’t matter. My pack-mates charge the serpent.

‘There is an old story that the Great Beasts came first,’ Mr. Robbins once said. ‘In the world that ended, people uncovered their bones buried in a history book of stone. But bones are physical remains. What happened to the spirits of the great beasts? We can argue that they didn’t have any…but what if,’ his voice lowered as the class listened enrapt, ‘they just went into hiding? What if they were just waiting while the humans scurried arrogantly about and proclaimed them gone forever? We once celebrated our power over them by wearing their faces as masks. What if they are doing the same, celebrating their return?’

Lizzie’s broken away from the snake-mother, trying to stem the flow of blood from her abdomen. The witch turns too late to evade my attack. I come in from below, angling my head so that I can open my mouth over her belly and rip through the flesh. She screams and staggers away; I taste blood and muscle in my mouth. I press the assault, nipping at her hamstring as she stumbles in agony towards the exit. She goes down, hissing and dragging herself across the floor. Stepping over her, I give her a muttered growl that I hope conveys everything I feel for her. Then I close my teeth over her face and grind through her skull as if it were a walnut. I relish my kill—what a delicacy!—but I have to restrain myself. Lizzie is bleeding out and the settlers are returning, no doubt armed with every firearm in the settlement.

To my left, Old Wolf is holding his own against White and Gray, but she’s younger, faster, and stronger. She’s playing it safe, knowing that he will exhaust himself long before she does. Behind me, Mr. Robbins thrashes in his death throes as my son, my brother, and Soot and Snow finish him off, crunching through the bones of his spine.

I catch her scent a second before I see her. How did she get inside so quickly? Old mother is here, kneeling over my human wife and administering a pungent tincture that smells like healing. I turn to the battle between our former alpha and his mate. Old Wolf seems to have caught a second wind; he hooks White and Gray’s leg with a bite, severing the tendon. She stumbles, yelps when she puts her weight down, and slips.

I don’t waste any time. Old Wolf sees me coming and turns, but I am counting on that. I have one shot at this. I lower myself when I get close, feigning a posture of submission. He makes to get a hold of my throat. I lunge upward and bite as deep into his neck as my fangs can find purchase. He tries to pull away, but I clench my jaws and pull against him. The serrated backs of my canines cleave through the muscle and tissue of his throat. When he succeeds in jerking his head away, most of his windpipe catches between my teeth.

I can taste the sickness in him. The serpent-mother corrupted him somehow. She must have taken him when he wore the humanskin; otherwise he would have sensed what she was. ‘Have you met Mrs. Miller’s new squeeze?’ Lizzie was always fond of using expressions from the world that ended. ‘He’s an older gentleman from one of the dead cities further south. Atlanta, they used to call it. He’s been on his own for quite awhile, hunting and trapping in the marshes near the bay. He’s a bit strange, and there’s something about him I find unnervingly familiar. I keep thinking I’ve seen him before.’

‘Strange? Everyone around here’s strange, Lizzie.’

She’d laughed. ‘Fine. How about this, then: I saw him around back one evening, just outside the light of the torch behind our house. I could swear that his eyes glowed in the darkness. He walked off towards the mountains, and I kept watching him. I’m telling you, when he got out past the road he disappeared. A second later I saw a wolf run off into the forest…’

‘Wait…this was at night? You can’t see anything past the road, even when there’s a full moon! Lizzie, if you’re going to tell me stories…’

Old mother is already administering to Soot and Snow. Lizzie is standing, a poultice binding her wound closed. We have to go, she says to me, tell your pack that it’s time.

My pack.

I mutter a soft growl of command. The others snap to attention. Old mother returns to Lizzie’s side and nods at me; she and her daughter will take care of themselves. I run towards the window on the far side of the hall. I tuck my head down and propel myself through the glass, landing at a run and taking off through the back ways of the settlement. Through the communal herb garden, past Mr. Frederick’s house, down the dirt road leading past the tannery, and into the relief of the dark woods. I know my pack is behind me; I can hear and distinguish their individual gaits and scents. Soot and Snow is keeping up. She will need to rest, but not before we are well into the forest and over the ridge nearest the encampment.

White and Gray paces beside me. My eyes catch hers. You are the alpha now, she says. But that’s not all she says. My human wife is a living heir to the lineage of our Totem. My human mind, with all its memories and sentiments, is still mated to Lizzie—now more than ever. But the wolf has already chosen White and Gray. Black and Rust, loping ahead to my right, is invigorated by our victory. He is Elizabeth’s son; he is our son.

I can’t help but wonder how many lineages exist in this new world, whether we will vie with other monsters for territory. How many of them wear humanskin? How many of them will consider themselves our enemy?

I remember sitting with Lizzie on the ridge overlooking the settlement. ‘Do you think we’ll make it this time?’ Lizzie asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered. ‘They say everything is different. Mr. Robbins once told me that time is cyclical. The age of humanity has ended, he said. Things are going back to beginning; back to an age of gods and monsters.’

‘Maybe we were the monsters,’ Lizzie said.