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The Wolf of the Woods
It was the birds that gave them the first sign that something was wrong.
The clearing where they played was dappled with shade from tall, looming trees, one of which their mother had settled under to doze. Dominic had just caught Red, about to declare her the chaser, when he realized all the birds had fallen silent. Red didn’t notice — she darted forward and smacked him square in the chest. “TAG!” She shrieked. “YOU’RE IT!”
Red didn’t run away immediately though. She paused, and squinted. “Hey,” she said. She ran to the edge of the clearing, and Dominic turned to follow her.
A pair of blood-red eyes peered from the forest, and an arc of ice curved down Dominic’s spine.
“Hello?” Red said.
“Red!” He shouted. “Get back!”
Red screamed as the eyes shot forward, a body of thick, black fur and rippling muscle following a bone-chilling howl. Dominic barely had time to throw Red behind him before shouts broke the sky and pain exploded in his left shoulder as teeth chomped down.
Here’s what happened when you were attacked by a werewolf:
You got eaten or you survived. But you weren’t out of the woods if you lived. Like all shadow creatures, werewolves were poisonous — their teeth spread disease. Once you were bit, shadows slipped into your body and they didn’t leave until they turned you into one of them.
Dominic spent the week after the attack sweating on a bed in the healer’s hut, moans shuddering through his body as it worked to accommodate the infection. He began screaming before long as his body began burning, and he thrashed, and he wouldn’t stop. After he overturned a tray of potions and started to growl, the healers had to tie him down with restraints.
His fever broke amidst hushed voices on the far side of the hut. Dominic blinked blearily up at the ceiling for the first time in days, and whimpered when the sounds reached him. His body wasn’t yet used to the wolf-like heights its senses had reached, so his ears had become loaded cannons that even the slightest of sounds could set off.
“—he’s dangerous like this,” someone was saying. “The treatments do work. He’d be able to live a normal life—”
“I told you no,” his mother said in a steely tone. “Dominic can control the wolf on his own. He’s human enough to stop it.”
Dominic tried to stay awake, but his head hurt and his eyes were getting heavy. He drifted back into the black, ears ringing with his harsh breathing.
He woke up for good the next day. This time, his mother was by his bedside when he came to. Her face shone with quiet relief when she saw him.
“Dominic,” she said. Her voice alerted the other healers, and they gathered behind her at a farther distance. Their blue tunics, inlaid with a threaded conch, shone in the low light. “You’re awake. How — how are you feeling?”
“Water,” Dominic croaked.
“Of course.” She gestured at the closest healer, and they ran off, returning with a bowl. Dominic’s mother raised it to his lips and the cool taste almost brought him to tears.
She smiled at him. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
“Red,” Dominic said slowly. He vaguely remembered what had happened in the clearing. Everything after the bite was a blur. “Is she—”
“She’s okay,” his mother said, “thanks to you, my brave, brave boy. And the wolf is dead.”
Dominic’s restraints had been removed since he last woke up. Bracelets of raw, burning skin circled his wrists and ankles from where they had rubbed against him while he’d thrashed. It hurt to move them, even across the soft sheets of the bed, so he kept his lower body still as he turned his head to see his shoulder.
The bite mark was an ugly wound — a chunk of flesh ripped out of him, leaving behind skin that looked burned because of how shadows had seeped into it and turned the whole area a hard, inky black. When he looked close enough, he could see the deep teeth marks hooked into his skin.
Dominic felt sick just looking at it.
“You’re going to be okay,” his mother said firmly. “You will be.” It sounded like she was convincing herself.
The sun was dipping close to the horizon, so Dominic’s mother left soon after, wanting to walk the path home before it got too dark to see. Not that it mattered — everyone in the village had fires roaring in their hearths to keep the shadow creatures away. It had been so long since the last attack that everyone had thought they were safe. Now that they weren’t, the cloud of fear had descended again.
Dominic peered out the window to see the row of houses next to the hut lit. A young girl wandered outside but her mother hauled her back in, shooting a fearful glance towards — him, it looked like. Dominic recoiled before realizing she couldn’t see him. Still, he closed the curtains.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Dominic asked the healer quietly after his mother left. He knew what had happened to the others — but he wasn’t even of age yet, they wouldn’t do that to him, right?
The healer’s face tightened. She was the new one, Dominic remembered, transferred from one of the cities close to the capital. Carres, or some place like that. “I don’t know,” she said. With a jolt, he realized this was the person his mother had been arguing with. “It shouldn’t be an issue though. We have treatments for it—”
“Treatments?” Dominic interrupted.
“Yes,” she said. “Potions. It would help you suppress your…baser instincts.” She glanced at Dominic uncomfortably, as if remembering his “baser instincts” was now eating people.
“Why can’t I have them?”
“Your mother,” the healer spat, “took issue with it because it doesn’t stop you from turning. It just—”
“Well, what good are they then?” He snapped.
The healer’s mouth pursed, and Dominic felt chastened. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Just — don’t they have something that can stop me from…from—”
“You need to understand, Dominic,” the healer said, oddly gentle, “that this isn’t temporary. It’s a life sentence. Nothing I do will change that. But you can manage it. The potions can help with that.”
Dominic thought about what he’d heard his mother say earlier, right after he woke up the first time. “If I have to use potions to stop the monster,” he said, “then does that make me a bad human?”
“That’s not—” The healer exploded, and Dominic flinched back. “Sorry. Sorry. Gods, you’re just a kid.” She rubbed her eyes. “I don’t understand why you people just don’t trust medicine. Listen, the potions won’t prevent you from turning. You’re a werewolf now, Dominic. But they will prevent you from going out of control. You’ll turn every couple months, but while you’re turned, you’ll be in charge, not the wolf. I can’t give them to you without your mother’s approval though, so you have to help me convince her.” She gave Dominic an imploring look. “Okay?”
Dominic swallowed and nodded.
“I know you’re just a kid, but you have to fight for yourself. Do you understand, Dominic?”
He nodded again.
But Dominic didn’t get any time to try to convince his mother. They let him leave early in the morning the next day, and his mother dragged him home, slinking along the shadows that lined the main road even though no one was awake yet. He wanted to ask why they were being covert, but he remembered the woman who had glared at him even when she couldn’t see him and he thought he understood.
When they reached home, the first thing Dominic saw was his grandma leaning against the wall and he felt faint surprise. He could count on one hand the number of times she’d visited since he’d been born, and he’d caught her saying “I hate children” or some variation of it twice that many. But then he saw Red’s tear-streaked cheeks. He turned to his mother, who had a contrite look on her face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s better than them killing you.”
Goodbyes were rushed — a bag full of clothes shoved at him, hugs that didn’t linger. “I’ll miss you,” Dominic said dully to Red and his mother. None of it felt real.
“I’ll come visit,” Red said. She gave him a watery smile that made his heart ache. “And you better come too.”
His grandma pulled him out the door before he could respond.
Living with his grandma was its own special type of hell. She kept a schedule so stringent you couldn’t poke needles through it, starting with Dominic getting up hours before dawn and ending with his legs trembling beneath him long after dark from the amount of chores she gave him, until she allowed him to go collapse in bed.
“It’s to build discipline,” she told him after they’d arrived at her cabin. She’d traipsed through the woods with confidence while Dominic followed, jumping at every shadow because he thought he saw eyes in it. The only monster that had dared bother them had been a shadow fox, and she had shot it with the ever-present crossbow around her hip before Dominic could blink, sending it to the ground in a bleeding heap. “The wolf will try to control you. You need to be strong enough to stop it.”
Like everything that had happened so far, he didn’t understand what was meant until much later.
He caught his first whiff of the smell when passing his grandma one day, so faint he thought he imagined it. It smelled a little bit like the blacksmith’s shop when metal was on the spit, with something sweet caught on the tail-end of it. With each passing day, the scent grew stronger and thicker, until his stomach began to growl from it. His grandma had given him strict instructions not to get distracted by his newfound senses, but one day, while helping her make lunch in the kitchen, the smell slammed into him and it was like a curtain dropped over his eyes.
Something deep inside him snarled.
When Dominic came back to his body, his grandma had her crossbow under his chin, the arrow mounted on its end so close it nearly touched him. Her eyes cut into him and her finger skidded carelessly over the release. His hands still hovered in the air, struck immobile from where he’d been lunging towards her face.
“Do that again,” she said, sneer curling her face. “Go ahead. I dare you.”
Her breath fanned across his face, hot and putrid, but Dominic forced himself not to react. Even now, the smell assaulted him, and he wanted to sink his teeth into her neck and-
Blood, Dominic realized, barely containing his flinch. He was craving blood.
He didn’t know how much time had passed before she slowly retracted her crossbow and holstered it back on her waist. “Get moving,” she said, “you still have chores to complete.”
Dominic’s hands fell from the air and, with a start, he realized his nails had curved into claws. They shrank back into dirty, cracked shingles as he watched, but his stomach refused to stop growling.
Hunger for blood rocked his belly like a ship in unruly waters, leaving Dominic stumbling around the house in a haze. Chores went half-finished in favor of cradling his head, dinners taken away in retribution. The third night in a row that he’d forgotten to warm water for grandma’s bath, she’d taken him to the kitchen and rapped his hands with a stick until they bled.
Dominic watched the blood trickle down his hands to his wrists, and couldn’t hear a word of his grandma’s lecture above the whine in his ears. Later, in his room, he lifted his hand to his mouth and sucked greedily at the dark, sweet red until the only remaining blood coated his lips. The hunger roared for more and he stared desperately at his hand, wondering if he should chew it.
It was the first night he’d realized he might eat parts of himself, and he’d never been more afraid. He snuck into the kitchen, hoping to down the cloying taste in his mouth with the pail of water that sat near the spit, when he saw his grandmother’s sleeping potion on the dinner table.
He was so afraid of the hunger that he did the only thing he could — he took the whole bottle and emptied it into his mouth, drowning it down with a drink of water.
Dominic awoke with a fierce pounding in his head, like a drum had taken residence within it. He groaned, raising his fingers to his forehead, though they did nothing to cool his burning skin.
He had passed out in his bedroom, on top of the sheets. He closed his eyes and let himself fall back into a dream-like state, where he wasn’t a delayed disaster, an inevitable monster.
It took him a couple minutes to realize the pounding wasn’t just coming from his head, but from the door. “Get up!” His grandma shouted. “You’re late!”
Dominic slipped out of his bed and opened the door as his grandma began to knock. The door hit her fist and she cursed, bringing her wrinkled hand to her mouth to suck on it. “What is wrong with you?” She snapped. “Damn old skin.”
The hit hadn’t been that hard, but her skin was so fragile that it broke open like a bruised fruit. A line of blood dripped down her hand, and Dominic felt the drum in his head beat louder.
He tore his eyes away from her before she noticed him staring. He wondered if he should tell her about the sleeping potion. Maybe ask for more. Or for that potion the healer talked about, that might work too—
She sighed and stomped to the kitchen, and his words died in his throat. It wasn’t like she’d listen.
Dominic followed her and found her dabbing her hand with a towel, a smear of perfect red appearing across it. She looked up and frowned. “Well?”
Dominic blinked. He felt slow and unwieldy this morning, worse than the other mornings. “Sorry?”
She jerked her head at the plate of food laid out before him. He’d never seen anything more unappetizing in his life.
“Hurry up, boy.” She threw the towel in one of the many baskets lining her shelves, muttering that she’d wash it later under her breath. “You’re helping me chop wood today. You better not have forgotten.”
Dominic moved to pick up the plate, and nearly vomited. He looked up to see his grandma had already left the room.
He threw the food into the waste bin and dragged himself after her.
His grandma tired around noon, even though she had done nothing but watch him chop wood. The afternoon sun beat down on him mercilessly as he worked. He felt so hot and so dizzy he thought he might have been heat-touched. The axe fell from his hands and he clutched his head again.
Help, he thought. He needed…help. The healer…the potions. They could help him.
So he set off into the woods, trying to remember the path his grandma had taken from the village. He thought he was going the right way, but he wasn’t sure…he felt so hot—
His head jerked up at the sweet, metallic smell.
Red stood in front of him, dressed in her favorite red tunic. A big grin lit her face. “We had the same idea! I knew you’d come!”
“No…” Dominic said. “No — get away, get…”
“I brought a picnic so we could celebrate,” she said happily. “I knew you wouldn’t forget my birthday!”
“Red…” Dominic tried again, and she finally seemed to notice something was wrong.
“Dominic?” She said, hesitant. “Are you sick?”
“Red, run…” He stumbled and it was already too late.
The curtain fell like a finale and the dam inside him broke. He could feel his body burst at the seams and morph, even as he tried to pull himself together, and he sank into a sea of black.
The wolf left Dominic in a puddle of red: blood and ripped pieces of Red’s tunic surrounded him. When he realized what had happened and that his sister’s blood still coated his lips, he threw up, but even then, he couldn’t get rid of the feeling of fullness. He whimpered, pulling a tattered piece of cloth towards him, and tears hacked out of him.
He didn’t notice her at first. S
he snuck up behind him, years of hunting keeping her footsteps soft and her breathing controlled. But the click of her weapon penetrated his stupor. He looked up to find his grandma’s crossbow aimed right at his temple, her eyes hard as flint as she fired.