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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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

What follows is the first half of a story entitled “Humanskin.” It presents a different take on traditional werewolf mythology, employing a setting and perspective that is unique and provocative. If you enjoy it, please “like” it.  Share this narrative with anyone you believe may appreciate it. I write first and foremost for my audience, so let me know if I have one! Thank you for your time, and I hope you enjoy it. Look for the second half of the story to appear soon.

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Humanskin

I am going to kill Old Wolf today.

The others are expecting this. They see me trying him. I know that, when I was a man, I would not have killed him. I would not have killed anyone. But it is good that I should kill Old Wolf today. It is good that I should take his place as alpha.

Tonight, we hunt with purpose.

The humans’ dwelling-places are encroaching. They do as they did before; they burn, they destroy, they spread and they consume. We will remind them that this is our territory. They will come for us, but we know their weapons. We know their movements. We know their scent.

We run between the dogwoods and falling leaves, quickly over the uneven earth and through the tall grass. Winter is in the bitter wind, in the early morning frost. We lope alongside a river. It is clean, good water. Dark, slippery pebbles shift as we pad upstream. The mountains are blue in the predawn. The distance between their round, forested peaks is measured in shades of blue.

I can smell a buck somewhere on an adjoining peak, separated by a narrow valley. I am hungry, but I can wait. Normally, White and Gray would break off from the pack and see to her own belly. Even she obeys tonight.

She knows that I want her, that I would take her as a mate. She belongs to Old Wolf, and he guards her jealously. He is old, and his eyes are weak. He is no longer fit to be the alpha. It is time for him to find a new place.

The wind shifts, west to east. The scent-trails of cookfires cut through the forest in visible ribbons. On the surface of the ground, there is a fine mesh of varied smells. The more intense seem to move and shift, while those weathered down by time and season are still and faint. There are trails within this network; the footprints of an animal, the burrowing of insects. Our own signatures mark our territory like signposts stapled to trees.

I glance to my right—Black and Rust is darting agilely through a tumble of boulders; young, strong, and just coming of age. Full of piss and vinegar. Damn fool made a play for Soot and Snow last night, but my brother checked him. Nearly took his eyes, and would have served him right. Old Wolf intervened, but Red and Coal nearly made the bid for alpha there and then. Better that he didn’t. My brother should know that my time has come.

* * * *

I don’t like wearing humanskin. I must have been comfortable in it once, when it was mine. I just want to claw it off now. It feels fragile, thin, vulnerable. When I wear it, I remember snatches of things, like pieces of dry tendon sticking to an old bone left out in the sun. I can’t put them together.

Human speech is getting more difficult. I don’t talk to the others—there’s no need. I can read their body language better than if they were whispering their innermost thoughts into my ear.

I’m shivering. It’s harder to feel things, sense things, smell things. I have to paw through all this debris in my mind—I want to see my family again—to find the simplest thing…

For all his weaknesses, Old Wolf remembers everything. He remembers when he wore his own humanskin. He remembers himself. He walks upright without difficulty. The first time I walked upright, I tottered and reeled, flailing my arms like a bird with broken wings. I’ve gotten better since then, but the pebbles are slippery with mist thrown off from the cascade pool. My brother laughs when I fall—he is not my brother—and I try to growl at him. My throat cannot make the same sounds.

Black and Rust changes so quickly. He dons the humanskin smoothly, effortlessly, and it is an irony that a born wolf should so easily wear the mask of a boy. It is a face I always think I recognize. He watches me clutch at the embankment for support, standing with his flat white teeth showing in his face. Impudent pup.

I see White and Gray rising from a stand of cattails, her smooth shoulders flexing as she stretches. I must have wanted other human females—I loved my wife—when I was a man. Then, their skin must not have seemed so thin, or delicate; their shape must not have seemed so awkward and ill-suited to the harshness of the unforgiving earth. She is different. Somehow the wolf is visible, like a new moon on a clear night.

There is an impulse that tears through every single coherent thought, an electric need snagged on an exposed livewire. I just want to take all this energy and do something with it. I want to fight, I want to hunt, I want to range over the wide earth…

She soothes me.

My brother and his mate help one another rise. Red and Coal casts a vicious human eye at Black and Rust. It is the eye of jealousy. He is right to be anxious. When Black and Rust grows, he will become the strongest among us. He is a born wolf. When the time comes, he will make a play for Soot and Snow, and there is a chance he will emerge the stronger. I know that my own time as alpha will be short, when he grows. It is a thing as inevitable as the turning of the world in the dark.

Further up the ridge, away from the cascade pool and the Totem who guards it, there is a ramshackle little hovel assembled from bits and pieces of the world that came before. The world that ended. The old woman who assembled it is the last living heir of an ancient lineage dedicated to the service of the Totem. The Totem herself is a focal point, a living crossroads between worlds.

‘Very few people know about the Totems,’ my wife told me once. We used to walk together for hours to get away from the settlement. Our normal route would take us west, towards one of the many decayed roads that linked the dead cities together. On this day, we went into the mountains.

She would tell me stories of her life in the dead city; about the gangs, the fever breakouts, the starvation, paranoia, and violence. When I asked her why anyone would cling to those crumbling tombs of glass and steel she told that me that many people believe the wilderness is worse—reclaimed by ‘a Mother Nature pissed off at the world.’ Yes, I would tell her, the earth is pitiless and unfriendly…but at least it is alive.

She would also tell me stories about Her Great Journey South, a lonely exodus of refugees that trekked the abandoned roads in search of new homes and new lives. I always imagined that if you could fly above the country, as they say people once did, you would see campfires flickering here and there in the blackness between settlements. Wandering bands of refugees huddling over their light, surrounded by dangerous mystery.

Lizzie was huddled around one of these lights on the night she heard the story, in the company of a strange group of travelers—they were wolves wearing humanskin—who explained that ‘when the world ended, it left a wound. The wound had been there for a long time, but the people had sewn it up with their roads and machines, skyscrapers and subterranean tunnels. The wound bled inside, never clotting up. There was too much poison thinning the blood. But afterward the Fever, with no people to keep stitching the wound, the sutures broke open and the tainted blood poured out. But that’s how it’s done—the poison needs to come out so that the blood can run pure again.

‘When the earth took back what was hers, her children came with her. The Spirits of things. The Totems. They spring up in places where the pure blood flows again. There are people who can see them. They say that in the world of man, the medicine of the Spirits was quieted; but after the world ended, it was reignited. Old lineages that had dripped sleeping down the generations were awakened to power.

Old Wolf is already speaking to old mother by the time the rest of us drag our awkward bodies up the trail and into the clearing. Black and Rust is probably inside already, dining on the lavish meals she prepares for us. ‘I used to cook,’ she once told me, ‘but I have no children to cook for except for the six of you. And you’—she’d laughed in a way that reminded me of a little girl bounding through a field of wildflowers—‘can’t enjoy what I cook unless you wear the humanskin.’

It is she who advises Old Wolf, and we who listen. It is she who knows when the Totem will sheathe us in humanskin, that we may walk among our enemies.

‘What news?’ Old Wolf asks her.

She glances at me. Does she know that I will kill him tonight? Of course she knows. She will say nothing of my intentions to him. She never interferes in the business of the pack.

‘The humans are gathering tonight,’ she says, ‘to deliberate.’

Black and Rust appears in the doorway behind the old woman, his mouth stained with elderberry juice, his eyes glaring. Of all of us, he is the fiercest defender of the Totem. She is at the heart of our territory; she is the caretaker of the blood that binds us to one another and to our ancestors. To him, she is an undying surrogate to replace the mother that tried to sacrifice him in his infancy.

Old Wolf growls; he does not seem to suffer the strictures of his humanskin throat. ‘Their hunting parties kill our brothers and sisters. They push closer to the Totem with each season. Any further and they will find her resting-place. I know what humans do to the sacred.’

He knew. Old Wolf was among the first to be given the Spirit of the Wolf after the wilderness swarmed over the empty habitations of the world that ended.

‘You have harried them for too long,’ old mother says. ‘Now it is time to go for the jugular.’ She grins and draws a bony finger across her thin neck. ‘Go in among their dwelling-places; attend this gathering and be wary of their suspicions. Your attacks will have stirred them into a vengeful frenzy—but this is what we intended. They fight for their survival. We fight for our dominion.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Show them the boundaries of their territory.’

‘Let me be the one to lure them,’ Black and Rust says, ‘I am the fastest of the pack.’ Old Wolf looks at my brother. Red and Coal says nothing, but his silence is plain enough to understand. The alpha grunts, and the upstart pup bears his flat human teeth in a triumphant snarl.

With the matter settled, the others are ushered into the hovel by the old woman. I remain outside for a moment, staring at an old tin board with the drawing of a woman holding a glass Coca-Cola bottle. I remember that drawing. Old Matheson’s General Store. Trinkets and relics from the World Before. My father loved that store; for every derelict and ruin of bits he could tell the most wondrous stories.

‘You came from this place,’ Old Wolf was saying. ‘If you are not strong enough to find your way out of it again…’

I bear my flat human teeth in response to his not-so-subtle challenge. ‘There is no trap of theirs that can snare me.’

* * * *

‘I know what you’re planning,’ Black and Rust says, interrupting my reverie. I turn from the cascade pool to regard his approach.

To the others, Black and Rust is a trickster. A mischievous spirit, both man and wolf, comfortable in both skins. Old Wolf does not entirely trust him. My wolf-brother would just as soon finish him. Soot and Snow tolerates his impertinent advances. It is only with White and Gray that he behaves like a pup; they roughhouse with one another, and he always comes away with nicks and scratches. I’ve no doubt that she could overcome her mate, but that is a human thought. She will remain with Old Wolf until he is defeated.

‘Do you?’ I ask him mildly.

He smiles. Both as a wolf and wearing the humanskin, he bears his teeth often. ‘You should do it,’ he says. ‘The time has come for it.’

I turn pensively back to the cascade pool. ‘Yes. The time has come for it. He is reluctant to attack the settlement outright. I can smell his unease. He is too cautious. Still,’ I add uneasily, ‘he is an elder. I am a member of his pack. He was chosen by old mother before all of us. What right do I have to vie for his place?’

‘It is the way of things,’ Black and Rust says.

I shake my head. ‘I envy you. Old mother brought you into this pack as a pup. Have you any human memories in you at all?’

This is a sore subject with him. Old mother had found him lifeless in the cascade pool. The child’s mother had drowned him and left him for dead in the water. Her footprints had been plain to see; the stink of her fear and regret hung like snakeskin from invisible branches in the air. When the pack had arrived in response to old mother’s summons—a call inaudible to the humans in their settlement—we had found her cradling a wolf cub.

The pup had been born a wolf sheathed in humanskin, able to shed one and take up the other with no need of the elaborate ritual conducted by old mother. For the rest of us, she observed the movements of the stars and listened to the murmuring voice of the Totem. When all the auguries of her craft deemed the moment right, she summoned us. We came, and amidst incantations and terrible contortions she implored the Totem to sheathe us in humanskin—what a torment it always is! With Black and Rust it is different. The magic is inside of him. He was born of it.

‘Only a woman of my lineage could have birthed him,’ old mother had said. She herself was a woman too old to bear children. Why would the pup’s mother have tried to destroy him? This is a question that remains unanswered even now.

Black and Rust joined our pack no more than a year ago, only a few months after I received the Spirit of the Wolf. I have known him for all of this life. I realize now, just looking at him in his humanskin, how quickly he has grown. As a wolf, it seemed only natural. In another several years, he will be full grown. Looking at him now, I realize how strange it is that he should so rapidly advance in age. To a human, he would appear to have grown a full ten years in the space of one. In another year, he will wear the face of a young man. Would the mother who birthed him even recognize him now?

Black and Rust looks at me. ‘I know that your time has come. I know that I would rather follow you than Old Wolf. All I have ever known is the pack. It doesn’t matter to me where I come from, in that world,’ he gestures towards the settlement, ‘any more than it matters to any of you. We all died to that world when we received the Spirit of the Wolf.’

‘It’s just that you’ve never had a chance to live in it,’ I say.

This startles him. He considers it for a moment, eyeing me strangely. ‘Maybe,’ he says, and I marvel at how easily human speech comes to him. Maybe. What a human word that is.

* * * *

There is a barren place in the foothills, like a burn-blister gutted out of the flesh with a clamshell. I used to call this place home. I remember settling down here with my father when I was a little boy. It used to be nothing but a gathering of tents in a clearing. We were a family of hunters and trappers; we weren’t  refugees from the dead cities. We knew the woods.

It is more than a gathering of tents now. The humans had smoothed out a crossroads and town square. Around it they had built up a town hall, general store, schoolhouse—like something malignant beaten back again and again only to crawl forward in the same, repetitive, inevitable way. There were only a few other children there, the sons and daughters of something new. They were always telling us how we were ‘something new.’ This is a new world, they kept saying, and we must learn from our mistakes. My best friend Nick was the son of the schoolteacher, Mr. Robbins. He was a haunted man, as all our fathers were, fled from the horrors of the world that ended. His father, Nick’s grandfather, had survived the Third World War, the Fever, and the struggle for survival that followed. They burrowed like maggots through the corpses of the cities until Mr. Robbins and his son fled into the open country.

He was a learned man, and he knew more about history than anyone in the settlement. ‘This isn’t something new,’ he said to me once, in confidence, ‘this is something old come back again. An age of monsters.’

‘Hey,’ Red and Coal growls, ‘pay attention.’

We are approaching the settlement from the northeast. In our true forms, we could have run from old mother’s den to the settlement in little over an hour. Wearing humanskin, we’ve been trekking since dusk; it is now well into the evening. While dulled, our senses are not entirely impoverished. We can see well enough in the dark.

We pause on a ridge overlooking the settlement. The torches around the town square are lit, as are many windows in the wooden houses that line the dirt road. Several night watchmen patrol the crossroads, meeting in the square to exchange a few words of an ongoing conversation before continuing their circuit.

After the world that ended, the humans began to creep out of their hiding-places. They were not like the ones that came before. They were neither soft, nor dull, nor cocooned in their chrysalises of metal and artificial light. They came as scavengers first, picking at the carcass of the generation that birthed them out of a dying womb. Now they come as settlers, trying to reclaim territory that we have since taken as our own. The men are dangerous and rough, tempered on the forge of a world no longer under the dominion of their grandfathers. To them a wolf is a wild dog, and it is no complicated thing to put a bullet into one, or into a dozen, even. They know better than to come alone; they learned that quickly enough. We taught them that lesson.

Now it is time for them to learn another.

We come down from the ridge. I am getting easily caught up in the clothing given me by the old woman; the fabric against my skin is distracting and disconcerting. I concentrate on my surroundings. A wave of wind rolls through the canopy of trees, shaking loose the leaves ready to fall and causing the bare branches to clack together. It feels like winter. It smells damp, like rain on dark loam. Ahead, my pack picks its way silently among the rocks and broken branches and dry leaves.

‘We finish them,’ Old Wolf says.

We reach the leveled ground of the settlement. I remember the last time I stood upright on this road, wearing humanskin. The fever left its victims with little choice. They were quarantined or euthanized outright, and then burned to nothing; medieval medicine at its best. There was a doctor among us, an elderly man with a proper degree from the world that ended. Cut-off from the machinery of modern medicine, he was just another healer in the wilderness, forced to learn his craft from scratch. He did what he could, bless his heart, but the fever had nearly slain an entire world. Its vector had cut a swath across the most populated places on the planet, reducing the entire human equation to an endgame of strategy and survival.

In the world that followed, despite the constant fear of sickness, despite the bitter mercilessness of a landscape that culled the weak with an overeager hand—there was still joy. Fragile, fleeting, and terrible in its contrast to the world beyond the small, flickering light it cast on the tired faces of those who tasted it. My family. My wife and son. The last time I stood on this road, it was to say goodbye.

‘Your memories of this place are better than mine,’ Soot and Snow said. This is true. The pack had taken her three years after I had torn free of my humanskin. We had found her buried underneath a heap of deer carcasses. She had been raped by the settlement boys, the darlings of our little community. Red and Coal had been about finishing her off there and then, but White and Gray had stayed his jaws and loped off to summon old mother. When she came she had bid us drag the broken human on a makeshift pallet all the way to the cascade pool. There she had performed her rituals and invoked the Totem, as she had done with all of us.

Soot and Snow remembered everything. Unlike the rest of us, her transition did not throw up a barred gate between her human life and her life with us. To her, it was all one continuity. Old Mother said this was remarkable; that normally, without this barred gate, the mind breaks against the strain. The wolf goes feral. When she first arose from the pool, we thought she was feral—the only choice would have been to finish her. It was Red and Coal who stopped us then. He recognized her anger for what it was. He knew what she wanted, above all else. She wanted it with one mind. Revenge.

The entire pack was ready, of course, but Red and Coal insisted that it be only the two of them. He had already chosen her as his mate. How the settlers had defended those three boys! I knew them. Knew them and hated them. Those little mongrels. They were treated so well, forgiven every sin. They were handled like princes, pathetic as they were, and their families let them have their run of the place, to piss on every damned bush.

I often wondered what the others must have thought, when they found the bodies horribly mutilated among the deer carcasses. Whatever they kept telling me about this ‘new world,’ it didn’t seem right that pain, suffering, violence and fear were the signs of a better dispensation. We were all survivors. As far as I was concerned, my father had rightly taught me the only rule worth following: you fight so that you and your family can survive; but unless your own survival depends on it, you must never endanger the survival of another. ‘We are too few in this world,’ he had said, ‘and we need one another.’

With their guns, hidden behind their walls and windows, the humans can pick us off. We can do a lot of damage, and we have. We can destroy stores of food, massacre their livestock and trample their crops—but we cannot so easily kill them. If they should come against us in force, we are outnumbered. Wearing the humanskin, we are vulnerable. In exchange, we can walk amongst them, allay their suspicions. One moment they will believe their numbers swollen with unexpected aid from a group of strangers. In the next, they will know that this is not the world of their fathers and grandfathers. This is our world now.

Old Wolf’s plan is too simple. I dislike it; he relies too heavily on the strategies of another world, another time. He takes advantage of Black and Rust’s eagerness to prove his worth. He intends that the pup should distract them with a ruckus. When they pour out of the town hall to investigate, we will be among them. If they expect a trap, they will be reassured when they find nothing but a rogue wolf causing trouble.

It is then that he expects us to shed our humanskins and attack them. He assumes too much; he assumes that the humans will accept our disguises—for they are disguises, regardless of whether we were human once. He assumes that they will take the bait and readily abandon the safety of the settlement. He assumes that Black and Rust is faster and more cunning than their hunters and trackers. He is placing the pack in danger.

Part of me thinks that I should have challenged him already. Still, I will not assume that the rest of the pack will accept my right to challenge him. If White and Gray defends him, my bid is lost and I will be disgraced. She must see how foolish he has become. I only hope that we can survive it—and that when it is done, his failure will stand in plain sight for the pack to see.

We approach the first of the houses on the main road. The night watchman spots us. White and Gray steps forward. The moment he sees her, his body language and posture change. The air is suddenly suffused with the unmistakable pheromones of his lust. She knows this, playing her disguise to perfection; nor is she awkward in her mimicry of human speech. She explains that we have come by road from a settlement just over the mountains. There was a settlement there, destroyed by a rival pack claiming the eastern Appalachians as their own.

The night watchman, regaining enough of his wits to look us over, notices that we have no weapons to speak of, nothing that could be perceived as a threat. Old Wolf looks like an elder. My brother and I are playing the part of weary and haggard. Soot and Snow clings to her man, just another refugee looking for safety in numbers. We have absolute command of our bodies. We have meticulously orchestrated every twitch, sigh, and gesture. We betray nothing that we do not wish to.

The night watchman agrees to take us to the town hall meeting; someone will provide us with a fair supper. He offers no guarantee as to our accommodations, but then none is expected. Strangers are not often welcome, and rarely anticipated. That we should be received at all is a gamble that we thought might not succeed. Old Wolf did not tell us whether he had an alternate plan.

The wilderness had received me, another one of countless exiles driven away by the fever. I had been so concerned for my newborn son and young wife that I had failed to see the symptoms in myself. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Still, it was not until the fever took me that I realized what happened. There was time enough to gather some few belongings and say my goodbyes from a safe distance.

For nights the pack must have watched me suffer alone in the forest. I had taken shelter under a natural lean-to of moss-carpeted boulders and the fallen trunks of old growth trees. It rained every day and every night, trickling in glittering fever-enhanced streams from the canopy above. When it did not rain the insects droned on in the night and the wolves whispered in a language of breaking twigs and rustling leaves.

Old mother came to me on the fifth night. The way the fever works, you languish for days in agony. Your skin feels like the skin of some dead bird stapled into the raw muscle. My brain felt like a jigsaw puzzle assembled and scattered over and over again by a lunatic child. On the fifth night, the fever breaks. Just like that. The pain and brokenness is abruptly replaced by clarity. Perfect, uncompromising, enlightened clarity.

She came to me, and I saw her as she was.

‘Strange night for you to be coming through,’ the night watchman says as we approach the town hall. ‘You folks are going to have to explain some things,’ he says, ‘like how you managed to pass over the mountains unharmed.’

‘We never said we were unharmed,’ Old Wolf answers quickly. What a sharp mind he has! ‘If you’re talking about the wolves, we already know about them. We fought them off more than once—but not without loss.’ He nods toward White and Gray, who joins his play as if they had laid it all out beforehand. She bows her head, exuding sorrow and mourning. Old Wolf nods and turns back to the watchman. ‘In the first attack, they took her baby…’

‘Oh!’ The night watchman’s mouth opens in shamed horror. ‘I’m sorry—my apologies—yes, yes, then you already know…’ he recovers himself. ‘Yes, well, there wolves have been harassing us for years. I think they’re trying to run us off…like we’re in their territory and they want us out.’ He nods sagely, proud of his conclusion. He couldn’t possibly know how accurate he was. ‘Anyway, in the past few months, they’ve managed to destroy our stores and slaughter our livestock. We’ve had to trade with the western settlements. They’ve killed our men and women.

‘Everyone figured this was just the way of things; that the wolves were here before us, and they’re just trying to hold onto what’s theirs. But now, they’re saying that maybe something else is going on. It may sound crazy to you folks,’ he looks at us apologetically, ‘but they’re saying that maybe the wolves are being sent after us, deliberately, like someone sicced them on us…’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I think I’ll let you hear all about it for yourselves. Just don’t get involved; the people are pretty riled up tonight. Just hang back and I’ll ask Maggie to look after you.’