There is mist in my nose, and it fogs my lungs as I pause and listen for the umpteenth time, seeking a sign. But the forest around me is starkly, grimly silent, the press of moisture and shadow deadening what little sound plays out along pine boughs and the mulchy undercarriage of the trees.
I keep moving, a thin cloud rending silently from the end of my muzzle with each breath. Maintaining the balance has always been hard, and now when the silence spikes my fear it is harder, harder, harder to hold my mind and my body together. Like opposite ends of a fatally powerful magnet, I must hold thought and flesh as close as they can go. My will shakes from the effort, and I am already slipping.
It has been two weeks since the first one of us disappeared. Four have vanished since, and we have not smelled them again.
I am hunting the thing that has taken us, whatever it may be, but unlike my comrades, I am under no illusion that I will survive where others have left no trace. My body is a morass of writhing muscles, my flesh like twining snakes, and I feel buried beneath my own body heat and the itch that persists just beneath the base of my unnaturally sharp claws. And still, with each stalking stride I take, I feel I approach my own grave.
I have never been at peace with being what I am, this monstrous half-creature, but neither part of me wishes to die, and my own growing horror spawns defensive anger. My hackles rise, my shoulders hunch, and my lips curl away from my glistening fangs.
It is in this haze of frightened rage that I come upon her: a little girl, clothed in a tattered white summer dress, her back to me. The wood is empty but for us, and she is barefoot, and my animal fury is extinguished in an instant by another oceanic upheaval of fear: I cannot smell her.
She turns to me, though I have made no sound, and looks up at my hulking form. Like the beast I am, I snarl and spit and yelp and retreat, all in one heartbeat, as I see her mutilated face and rictus grin. Monster or not, a werewolf is half wolf, and wolves are not stupid creatures; the animal in me understands how to be properly afraid, even if the human in me wants to react to fear with aggression. But here, both halves are afraid.
I am afraid.
And I cannot move.
She fixes me with eyeless sockets and extends an empty, dirty hand to me. I shrink back against an invisible, irresistible pull, tendons and muscle fibers flexing spasmodically. I am already shifting, losing the balance, erring on the side of physical power to try to escape this horribly unnatural child. My bones rearrange, and the flesh between my marrow and my dew-damp pelt is a fluid mess of change.
She speaks in a voice just above a whisper, lipless jaw working around the words. “You shouldn’t hate yourself so…”
The words matter little to me; my thinking mind is slipping beneath the waves of simple, relentless animal instinct. It’s true that I have always hated what I was; so many of us embrace the animal and hate the human, but I… I alone among the pack would seek out traces of humans and revel in them. I howled the loss of my human family to the sky, and my song was inconsolable where others’ were jubilant.
I am almost gone, compressed into as feral a form as I can reach, and I bare my teeth as she glides forward, never lifting her small feet. Her hand is still outstretched, and it grazes my muzzle as I scrabble in the fallen pine needles, unable to move in any direction to escape her touch. What remains of my intellect is unsurprised when a bolt of bloody pain shoots through my jaws at the brief contact, and I whip my head side to side as though to throw off some invisible scorpion.
“Shouldn’t hate,” she whispers again, and places both hands on my head.
I scream, as much as a wolf can scream, and I am writhing on the ground before I can think to do anything but. The pain is blinding, incapacitating, and molten hot. I claw at my face wildly, and the blood I spill is cool in comparison to the fire that rages along my nerves.
I am peeling my own skin off, and some part of me comes back to consciousness and realizes it with a sudden, sharp horror. Even compelled by self-preservation, I cannot take control back from my gone-mad animal half quickly enough, and I turn the forest floor red with my convulsions.
The little girl’s white dress never absorbs a single drop.
The pain changes and deepens, descending from flayed skin into shredding muscle, then into dislocating joints… and dismembering bones. Like having a tooth torn out by the roots or a limb jolted out of socket, my body is coming undone, and there is nothing I can do but roll to quench the pain… and then, as my body ceases to respond, to lie still and wish for death.
I descend into shock and go numb, welcoming the awkward, buzzing emptiness of sensation. Some part of my mind is still working, still observing and calculating, and I thoroughly resent its busyness as I seem to float in a void of sensory input.
I realize I am still breathing, and I open my eyes. The shock of color startles me; I don’t see this many colors except when I am…
I sit up, too quickly, and I would retch if I had anything in my stomach. I am naked and coated in sticky, half-dried patches and strings of my own blood.
But I am human. Perfectly human, not the ugly bestial version that I have been all my life. I have real hands, and I stare at them in a breathless disbelief, wiggling the weak, clawless fingers.
Next to me, a wolf struggles to its paws, stained equally in my—our—blood. It glances at me, and I shiver as the cold breeze rakes wet lips across my suddenly-vulnerable skin.
The little girl appears between the wolf and me in a blink; both of us recoil, the wolf and I, mirror images. She looks between us and tsks. “Shouldn’t hate,” she says a third time.
I draw breath to speak, to ask, and in this first instant that I wonder if this is what became of my fellows—she turns, touches the wolf’s flank with an impossibly fast hand, and I let out another shriek as she draws the animal’s intestines from between its suddenly-parted ribs. She is supernaturally silent as she destroys the wolf, which cannot escape her scalpel-like precision, and I am witness to the last breath of its life as its jaws and body go slack.
I stagger to my feet, throat closed and stomach dry-heaving, and while the girl is occupied with her unstainable hands and the wolf’s corpse, I run in the direction I know the nearest human settlement to be, hoping that neither the werewolf eater nor my former pack catches me.