The building stood isolated from others of its kind, set in the middle of a dense thicket of trees and scrub. Small and low, built out of wood and field stone, and topped by a chimney, it seemed the house of a survivalist or a hermit. A dirt and gravel path just wide enough for a single car ran in a circle in front of the house, then led off towards some forgotten stretch of country back road. An old, battered jeep, large patches of paint flaking away and the rest faded to a sun-worn greyish green, sat tiredly on the gravel track. All of the windows were heavily curtained, blocking out the outside world from within, or perhaps the other way around.
Watcher sagged wearily in the front seat of the beaten vehicle, his eyes closed, tongue lolling as he panted, trying to regain some of his strength before entering. His body hurt, from his pawpads to the end of his tail. Even his fur seemed to ache. Every day had been constant movement, rising before the sun and setting long after, the intervening hours spent running, trying to cover the distance between Shadowdance’s lands and his cabin as quickly as possible. The longer he remained gone, the greater the chance that more would target the grey wolf, or those helping him, in his absence, and there was precious little good he could do from afar.
All the more reason to learn what I can quickly and return, he thought, rolling to the side and stumbling out from behind the steering wheel, landing on the rough gravel with a soft whine. The sooner I know what our opponents’ next move will be, the sooner we can find some means of protecting ourselves. One paw slid beneath the dash of the jeep, fumbling behind the aging metal until his fingerpads brushed against something smooth and hard. Watcher stretched his fingers, then tugged, pulling the magnets on the plastic box’s base free of their housing. Within the thin rectangle of plastic lay a simple brass key, which the Child of Wolf quickly removed from its resting place.
The front door squeaked its protest at being opened, and Watcher’s ears flattened at the sound, as though the sudden noise might have disturbed someone’s rest, someone he wished would keep sleeping. Inside, the house was dark, the air still and musty, like a tomb. The wolf’s nose twitched irritably as he entered, dust motes dancing in the air and coating every free surface. How long have I let myself be gone, he wondered as he set the key down on a small stand near the entrance, nudging the door closed behind him with one hindpaw. Too long, it would seem.
Why come back, though, he asked himself half-seriously. What does this world hold for me? Above the stand, near the door, hung a small vanity mirror in a simple wooden frame. Even in the near-darkness, he could make out the shape of his muzzle, the reflection of his own eyes as he studied himself. He perked his ears, smiling at what he saw, then shook his head with a rueful chuckle. He came back because he had to come back. To abandon his duty would be to turn his back on half of his existence, to cut himself in half spiritually. That way lay madness. Besides, he chastened himself, Iâ€™m here on a mission. Best to do it and return quickly, to the world in which I’d rather live.
Leaving the mirror, the Child of Wolf stepped further into the entryway, making his way along the unlit hall, past the small den and back to his bedroom. Once inside, his fingers quickly found the light switch and snapped it upwards. A soft hum started as the fluorescent bulbs came to life, making him blink rapidly, his eyes adjusting from the sun outside to the darkness within and now to the unnatural lighting. Everything seemed to be as he left it, as far as he could remember, and yet something about the room bothered him. It felt as though someone else had been present, though everything showed the same general level of disarray. The bedclothes lay rumpled and knotted, half of them spilling onto the floor. A nightstand stood next to the bed, an old analog watch with a leather band and a pair of keys sitting on top of it next to a picture frame and a small reading lamp. His old bureau remained at the foot of the bed, next to the door to the walk-in closet. Aside from the thin layer of dust, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The tan-furred wolf gave the room a cursory search, but nothing triggered any alarm bells in his mind. He was as alone as he could be here. The only scents lingering in the musty air were his own and those of his books and papers. His concerns abated, he lifted the weary leather bandolier from his shoulder and let it slip to the floor beside him, then lowered his arms to his side, focusing to pull the wolf back within himself. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and waited for the transformation to reinstate his human guise, but after several seconds of waiting, still nothing happened. He swallowed, suddenly nervous, and drew in several deep breaths, trying to get himself to relax, but his wolfish nature refused to lie dormant, almost indignantly refusing to roll over and play dead.
Watcher opened his eyes again and again inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to pick out any strange scents in the bedroom, or anywhere in the house, but all that met his senses were dust and stale air, irritating the linings of his nostrils. His head snapped to one side, then the other, scanning for other signs of life, but none greeted him. He stormed to the closet, throwing open the door as if expecting some phantom to be lurking within, but only racks of clothes and uncomfortable shoes met his frustrated gaze. He was, as far as he could tell, alone.
His tail curled tightly against his back as he paced irritably, his paws clutched together behind his back. Why could he not shift? He was as much a part of the World of Man as the World of Nature, was he not? He walked on two legs as easily as on four, and he knew his mind was as sharp as any Child of Man’s, albeit blessed with the instincts of a wolf as well. He knew that to return to his human form, he had but to concentrate, and yet the focus eluded him. And why this watched sensation? The only door into the house had been locked, the key still within its hidden receptacle. He could smell nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing appeared to have been moved from their resting places before he had locked the door previously. Everything seemed to be as he had left it, so why were his hackles refusing to relax? Why this sense that a second pair of eyes followed him from the moment he walked into the bedroom?
He began twisting over his time spent in Shadowdance’s Protectorate, and all that he’d eaten, drank or touched along the way. Could this be a side effect of the poisons infecting the other wolf’s lands? Was this some other toxin he’d handled by accident? Was it lack of sleep? Lack of food? Stress? In tighter and tighter loops he turned, muttering to himself beneath his breath as he tried to work through the cause of his predicament. “No, it couldn’t be that… no, not that either. I ate two days ago, a rabbit… and a squirrel… a bit thin, but filling….”
Something in the environment had to be distracting him, certainly. The lights, perhaps? He flicked the light switch with a claw, cutting off the fluorescents, but then snapped them on again less than a minute later when his fur had failed to vanish in the sudden darkness. He tore through the sheets and blankets hanging from the edge of the bed, then began tossing clothes out of the closet into a rapidly-mounting pile on top of the scattered covers, his tail curling between his legs near-painfully. A low whine escaped his throat as he searched, hunting for the source of his frustrations, but everything still seemed hauntingly normal.
The contents of the bureau followed quickly behind the occupants of the closet, then the books in the nightstand. The keys joined them, but then Watcher’s paws froze on the picture frame, lifting it to his eyes. Within it sat an intricate illustration of a young woman with tanned skin and coppery hair pulled back into a ponytail, gazing out of the picture with deep golden-green eyes, the corners of her mouth lifted lightly into a smile at some private joke. She wore a light button-down shirt and an open-fronted vest with a pair of cargo pants, looking comfortable and yet somehow out-of-place, as though more at home in some other mode of dress.
Watcher’s paws shook, his eyes locked in a death-match with the woman’s in the drawing. There was something about her… something he knew he should know. His head snapped up, sniffing frantically. Someone had been here. Someone was here, even now, waiting for him, waiting for him to return. He was sure of that. Who… who was she, in the picture? And who could have come into his home, planting this image and leaving everything else untouched? He spun towards the entrance to his room, bellowing out, “Show yourself!” His voice was hoarse, strained from emotion. He panted, hyperventilating.
Calm down, he tried to tell himself, but his pulse refused to listen, his heart racing. “Stop panicking,” he told himself, but despite the order, he could do nothing, his breath coming in short gasps. He spun back to the bed and, still clutching the frame in one paw, began sweeping through the hasty piles of clutter, throwing everything from the bed to the floor. His vision faded to grey around the edges, his ears hot. He felt lightheaded. “Shock, trouble breathing… got to—to relax… to calm—”
He never finished his statement. He collapsed onto the bed, his eyes rolled back in their sockets, his muzzle open, one paw locked onto the edge of the picture frame in a death grip. The last thing he saw as he fell unconscious was the image of the woman’s eyes in his mind, staring back into his soul.