Alex cupped one hand over his mouth, blinking away tears, but the wet and sickly-sweet stench assaulted his nose through his fingers, tickling the back of his throat. It’s only a vision, he told himself firmly, but the urge to gag remained. The grasses along the bank were brown and wilted, and the river itself glistened unhealthily. Overhead, the sky was clear, but the bear found himself wishing for rain, hoping that something would sluice out his fur and whatever stink in the air was making him feel sick.
Walker knelt nearby, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. His body shook as he sobbed softly, his arms extended. In front of him, a woman lay on a familiar leather sheet. Her sallow skin clung to her frame, her joints swollen. Dirt smudges and grass stains covered her chest and legs, while flecks of blood clung to her lips and chin. One arm lay extended out beside her, while the other Walker held in his own, his fingers entwined with hers. Her hair lay in a spill around her head, listless and dull. Her mucous eyes were vacant, staring at nothing.
Slowly, Alex approached, kneeling reverently on the other side of Lisa’s body. “I’m sorry, Walker,” he said quietly, keeping his hands on his knees.
The man lifted his head, his eyes red with tears and rage. “Sorry?” His voice was a harsh whisper. “I had to watch the woman I loved wither and die over the span of a year and you’re sorry? I had to put up with the sniveling, whining shaman who promised her health and delivered only pain and you’re sorry.” Walker spat the words through clenched teeth, fighting back more tears. “I had thrown everything into my job, until I met her. I turned my back on my dreams, devoted myself to my work. I gave up everything I ever wanted. Then I met Lisa.” He turned his eyes back to the woman in front of him, his bottom lip trembling. “She… she made it okay. She made all that sacrifice seem worthwhile. I spent every minute I could with her. When she got sick, that bastard wolf promised to take care of her. He promised to help her. And everything he did, everything he tried, only made it worse. I begged her to get help. I begged him to find a real doctor. She was so taken with him, and he was so sure of himself, and all I could do was watch as she died in front of me.”
Walker looked up once more, glaring across at Alex. “I can’t bring her back, but I can take from the wolf the thing he valued, the way I valued her. I can rob him of his dreams, destroy his precious vision, and then watch his heart shrivel up and blow away the way mine did.”
Alex put his hand back on his leg. “You’re killing people, Walker. You’re killing people who had nothing to do with Watcher, or Lisa.”
“No.” Walker’s insistence was final, his eyes cold. “I’m not killing anyone; I’m just culling the herd. If you all want to live like animals, then you can die like animals for all I care.”
Alex was silent for a moment as he stroked his beard in comptemplation. “What about Watcher?”
Walker grinned smugly. “Watcher’s gone. I caged him and sent him away.”
Alex rose carefully, keeping his hands at his side. “If he’s gone, he can’t see your revenge, can he? If you want him to suffer, doesn’t he need to be here to see it?”
“No!” The outburst was even stronger than the last. “If he’s here, you might let him go.”
“If he’s not here, how’s he going to see what you’re doing?” Alex spoke patiently, calmly. “How’s he going to know that you won?”
Walker’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t trust you. You’re on his side.”
Alex shrugged. “Why should I be? I’m not one of them. I failed his little test. You can ask Watcher yourself about that one.”
“You did?” At Alex’s nod, Walker stood and brushed the grime from his knees. “I wish I’d known that earlier. Sorry about your apartment.” He gestured behind Alex, then stepped over Lisa’s body to the cage under one of the trees. Inside it, a tan-furred wolf lay on his side, curled up like a pup, shaking. “So, the infallible Watcher fails again. How does that make you feel?” The wolf tried to look away, but Walker’s fist slammed into the cage, rattling the bars and making its occupant’s tail bristle. “Don’t turn your back on me, you hypocritical fraud. You thought you knew everything, but really, you’re just a dumb animal. Admit it!” Walker’s face distorted in a mask or rage. “Admit it!”
The wolf turned back, his ears flat against his skull. He hung his head, then nodded slowly, hunkering down on himself, his tail tucking itself between his legs.
Walker smirked, putting his hands on his hips. “So, the old wise wolf finally admits his folly. You’ve lost, Watcher.” He bent down, gloating into the cage. “There’s nothing you can do, this time. Your little friends might have gotten Parson, but they haven’t gotten me, and they won’t—”
A heavy, brown-furred paw slammed into the back of his head, knocking him into the trap; his forehead clanged off of the bars as he dropped to the ground. “He was never going to shut up,” Alex grumbled as he stepped forward. He peered through the bars at the wolf within. “I don’t suppose, with him out of the way, you can just whisk yourself out of there, can you?” Without waiting for an answer, he squatted, grabbing the bottom edge of the heavy iron cage and lifting. Once the gap was wide enough for the wolf, he grunted. “You better squeeze out while you can.”
Watcher needed no further encouragement and slunk under the cage, rising back onto his hind legs once free. “I am afraid I underestimated you, Mr. Demont,” he said softly once he was free. “Now, if you do me the courtesy of helping get Mr. Kinney here underneath—”
Alex dropped the cage, letting it slam into the ground. “No.”
Watcher’s ears flattened against his head. “But, Mr. Demont, you are quite aware that that man is one of the Shepherds. If he awakens—”
Alex turned around. “I’m quite aware of what he is, Watcher. And who he is.” He tapped the side of his head. “Every time you showed up around me, I could feel something… wrong. Like a spider crawling around inside my brain. I figured it was more of your spiritual association, but it wasn’t.” He looked down at his paws, then back up at the Child of Wolf. “It was mine.”
The wolf took a step backwards, away from the bear staring intently at him. “Mr. Demont, I… am afraid I am unsure what you mean.”
“Oh, I think you know exactly what I mean,” Alex replied, kneeling down and putting a paw on Walker’s shoulder, gently shaking him awake. “This ends, though. Now.”