Only the heavy, pungent aroma rising from Watcher’s lodge followed Alex into the woods as the clearing faded from view. His tattered shoes whispered against the thin layer of leaves and fallen ash that coated the slightly damp ground. On top of the medicinal smoke, the air carried the bitter tang of soot and the cloying sweetness of whatever toxin the Shephards had used against the Child of Wolf. Alex grimaced; how could Dancer pick out the scent of a single deer through this miasma? He could barely catch a whiff of his own sweat in and among all the layered scents hanging in the air.
That thought, in turn, led to others. Just how was he going to find Briar, anyway? The Child of Rabbit was surely foraging for more roots and leaves to treat the wolf, or else she was scrounging for food. She’d be on full alert for predators, and that would almost certainly include an inquisitive Child of Man snooping about the forest. He could call out to her, and those ears would surely pick up his voice, but would that startle her towards or away from him? He shook his head, chuckling. Sometimes it was so hard to predict the minds of prey species.
At that, he laughed aloud, stopping for a moment to lean against the scratchy bark of a tree, his shirtless back pressed into the rough texture, feeling it along the length of his spine. Just what am I, anyway, Alex wondered, scratching at his unkempt beard with the nails of one hand. Running around in the woods like some crazed hermit, hanging out with talking animals and living out hypnosis- and drug-induced hallucinations to find my inner bear, which turned out not to be there. Now I’m trying to find a giant rabbit that hops with a limp. Could this get any more surreal?
Is it really that strange, though? he asked himself as he stretched, arching back against the pine tree, savoring every prick and rub of the bark through the remains of his work shirt. I mean, it’s not like I did any of this against my will. In fact, none of this really felt that crazy when it happened. It all felt… right. Right in ways that my old life never did. It felt like it would one day make some kind of sense, even if it didn’t at the moment. There’s an order to all of this, one that rings true with me, even if I only understand about half of everything I’m seeing and hearing. I passed out the first time I saw Watcher in the flesh, but meeting Shadowdance hardly fazed me, and Briar’s more a curiosity than anything else. Anyone else would’ve run gibbering by now, but… but I haven’t. I’m not scared, just envious.
He chuckled at the admission, lowering his head and closing his eyes. Besides, what else is there for me to do? My day job will have been long gone by now; without a phone call or a doctor’s note, they’ll have mailed a pink slip and my last paycheck to whatever is left of my apartment. Most of my possessions were destroyed in the blast, no doubt. Everything I had, everything I was, is gone. There really isn’t any going back, and I’m not sure I’d want to return, even if I could. Turning my back on all of this, just when I feel like I’m about to understand it all… even if I can’t be one of them, I want to help them, and that means staying until this threat of the Shepherds is gone, and Watcher is back.
A smile of pleasure settled onto Alex’s face, and he rolled his shoulders against the rough back of the tree, just as he had in that dream-trip not too long ago, that quest into what Watcher had dubbed his soulscape, looking for Bear. Ignoring the human-mind’s protests of cuts and splinters, he sunk into the now of the physical act, relishing the sensation. The warm scrape of the pine against his skin was a balm on his emotions, a chance to relax and let the bear-mind rise to the fore, his conscious thoughts suspended for a brief time as his body moved and responded to the heavy caress of the wood.
When the nerves all across his back were raw and singing, Alex stepped away from the pine tree, grinning wildly. I may not be a Child of Bear, he decided, words returning to him, but I’m certainly no Child of Man. I don’t suppose that it really matters what I am, as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. For now, that means finding Briar and getting her back to the camp. From there, making sure Dancer’s okay, and then going to find Watcher. He saved my life; it’s the least I can do.
That thought full in his mind, Alex dropped heavily to one knee in front of the tree, head bowed, limp strands of long-unwashed hair falling across his face, tickling his nose and ruffling the edges of his unkempt beard. One hand rested on the ground, helping him balance; the other went to the claw hanging from his neck. His lips moved, forming the words to a silent prayer. Great Mother, I am as Your cub. I ask for the strength to see these things through to their end, to find Briar, to heal Shadowdance, and to protect Watcher. His breath caught in his throat as he tried to think of more to say, but everything had already been said. He merely knelt, eyes closed, face turned towards the earth, holding those thoughts in his mind.
As the moment passed and he felt his attentions wandering to the world around him, that strangely familiar, spider-like sensation began to creep across his brain.
Alex’s head snapped up, his eyes scanning around for sign of the old wolf, but even as he looked around, something suggested to him that it wasn’t Watcher setting off whatever sense this was. This had a raw tang to it, prickly, more like pins or spines than a simple itch. The bear-mind pressed against his senses, heavy and dominant. The hand at his chest slipped to the ground, knuckles against the earth as he crouched. Unconsciously he sniffed at the air, shuffling forward, staying as low as he could. He was no wolf and could never be one, but that was no reason to charge blindly into the unknown.
Had someone asked him in that moment where he was going, or why, doubtless the words would’ve escaped him, and yet he moved with a deliberateness that belied his lack of knowledge. He knew what path to take, which steps to make, which mosses would mask his footfalls and which hid twigs that might snap and give away his approach towards… towards whatever it was that was setting off that sensation in his mind. The feelings intensified as he moved, shuffling down seemingly random pathways, the only obvious sign of progress between his ears, lurking within the bear-mind’s unease. He didn’t know for what or whom he was searching; he only knew that he’d know it when he found it.
Something snapped in the trees off to his left, out of his field of vision, and he spun his head, squinting into the forest. A moment later, he dropped again to one knee, mostly shielded behind a heavyset fir. He did his best to hold still, his breath stuck in his throat as he listened to the sound of boots crunching through the undergrowth. The steps were cautious, mosses crinkling and dried needles barely rustling as his target approached. Whoever it was, he knew how to be silent. If Alex had been on his own, he’d have come crashing through the trees, audibly setting himself up as a target; only the bear-mind gave him any edge at all.
The steps stopped, close enough that Alex could hear the other person’s breathing. The pins and needles on the inside of his skull jangled in agitation. The bear-mind rumbled irritably, and Alex had to press his hands against the tree to stop them from clutching his head. Another step. Then another, this time past his hiding place. Alex rose, turned and waited for the other to come into view.