The Werewolves' Story
The Pack: Chapter One
The smell of smoke was heavy in the air as the little pack crept
nervously into the ruins of the town.
"Do you think it was bandits?" Rythri whispered, keeping close to Zzandoren's side.
"Nothing looks missing," Zzandoren answered, nearly as quietly. "Just scattered everywhere. And where are all the people?"
"Maybe it was an out of control fire mage," Resham murmured.
"I don't smell any magic," Rythri protested.
"I don't smell anything but smoke," Zzandoren said, holding a sleeve to his nose. Shessyi, at his heels, looked rather like he wished he could do the same. "Thonynde?"
::Two people in the temple building, one person in what looks like some kind of traders' outpost or general store,:: the yautjadragon answered readily, shift-suited outside the town but still capable of sensing minds and answering questions. ::That's it. The two in the temple seem... strange.::
::I can't tell. I don't think so.::
The temple building looked closer-- plus, two seemed more promising than one, and if there was the possibility that there was something wrong with them, that's where they wanted to be first-- so Zzandoren cautiously led them through the smoky, deserted, debris-strewn streets towards it. It really was disturbing, seeing the destruction of the small town and not knowing the cause: windows were broken, doors torn from hinges, thatched roofs still smoldering, though the recent rain had put out the worst of the fire, clothes and belongings laying, mostly broken, in the muddy streets, suspicious stains on walls and doorways... and the dreadful silence of an almost completely empty town.
::It feels wrong,:: Thonynde sent uncomfortably, following their progress, and following them, from safely outside the town's edge. ::I don't know why, but I don't like it.::
"None of us do, either," Rythri assured her quietly, and she heard it through the bond, or through listening to their minds, or both, despite being out of range for quiet voices.
The temple was just as ruined as the rest of the town, the intricately carved front doors chopped through, probably by an axe, and the pews and alcoves for various deities inside were all battered and sooty. He couldn't see any people, but the small, wooden statues of the gods in their nooks had been defaced-- some simply knocked down and cracked, some attacked with probably the same axe that destroyed the doors, some shattered by boots or fists or each other. Zzandoren paused by the one that, by its alcove rather than the scratched and chipped statue itself, he recognized as Glace's and tenderly righted it, brushing bits of wood away from the ruined face. He caught Resham watching him with a little frown out of the corner of his eye, and gave her a shrug and an apologetic smile. She was his goddess; it just felt better to have her image upright. Resham looked away with a shrug of her own, dismissing the motion, perhaps, or just uncomfortable with shows of religious affection.
Rythri, on the other side of the room, was following his lead and doing the same. He had already replaced Tengan's statuette-- what was left of it, anyway: it had been soundly shattered, but he'd found a large piece of the masked deity's head to put in place-- and had picked up both pieces of Amerou's-- which had merely hacked in two-- but he stopped with one hand on the wolf-goddess's second piece, staring into the shadows by the altar. Automatically, Zzandoren followed his gaze.
There was someone there, all right, someone fairly short and round and, now that they were all quiet and listening, crooning very, very softly. Zzandoren whispered a couple words to call up a soft light, focusing it from the ceiling rather than over his head so that the whole room was illuminated. What it showed was a middle-aged woman half-hiding behind the altar, clothing ragged and dirty and something bundled up in her arms, wrapped in more torn cloth. She looked up sharply at the sudden light, squinting, and made a sound like an angry cat. She didn't look like she could see them, whether blinded or just... blind.
"Ma'am?" Rythri began tentatively.
She didn't answer, looking around like a wild animal briefly, before turning to the thing she held. "Shh, shh," she crooned, rocking it like a baby-- or, Zzandoren thought, disturbed, more like the way a small child would rock a doll, woodenly and with carefully crooked arms. "No one there, don't cry, my lamb." Of course, no one was crying, least of all whatever she carried. More disturbingly, then, she ducked her head, nudged aside ragged blankets with her face, and licked the "lamb" on the forehead, like a wolf might lick her pup. It was a baby, all right, but not one that moved or cried. Its flesh was pale-- too pale-- and when the poor woman went back to rocking it, its head lolled unnaturally.
"Ma'am," Zzandoren said gently, concerned, and approached her, putting his staff aside against a half-burned pew. Better to approach without an obvious weapon.
She looked up with a start, again-- the infant's head rolled aside again, its neck clearly broken; Zzandoren thought, feeling a little ill, it had to have been dead for at least a day-- and focused in his general direction. Her eyes didn't look blind.... "Who's there?" she demanded roughly, teeth bared like an animal.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Zzandoren soothed, holding up both hands and taking another step closer. Rythri backed out of his way, almost too readily, anxious to get away from probably the first instance of madness he'd ever seen.
"You're going to take my baby!" the woman cried, backing away and hugging the bundle closer to her chest.
"I'm not going to take anything, ma'am," Zzandoren said gently.
"Liar!" she shrieked, a painfully high-pitched noise. "Liar liar liar liar liarliarliarliarliarliarLIAR GET AWAY FROM ME!"
Backing away again quickly, Zzandoren glanced at Resham, who stood just behind him. "Any ideas?" he asked quietly.
"Besides rush her and knock her over?" Resham frowned in distaste. "No."
Apparently the woman wasn't as blind as she'd seemed, for she focused suddenly and fiercely on Resham at the sound of her voice. "Witch-- you're not going to get my baby," she growled.
That was all the warning they got-- and it much of one, either-- before she promptly threw her "precious baby" into the air and lunged at Resham-- and, since they were both somewhat in the way, at Shessyi and Zzandoren. The wolf wound up tripping her up before she could get at his mistress, and Zzandoren wound up with her hands around his throat and very human teeth clenched on his raised forearm, when the woman staggered into him and transferred her feral viciousness to him, instead. For such a small, soft-looking thing, she had a strong grip, and a good idea of just where to squeeze to cause the most damage.
He was free a moment later when Resham ran the stranger through with one of her blades, sending her nervless fingers sliding off of his windpipe and her body landing in a heap on the floor. Zzandoren coughed painfully before rasping, "That wasn't necessary, Resham."
"Yes, it was," she answered flatly, staring down at the dead woman in disgust.
"I think the baby didn't make it," Rythri said quietly.
"The child was dead before we got here," Zzandoren corrected, and Rythri scrambled back from the tiny corpse as if it had burned him. "There's someone else in here. Thonynde said there was, didn't she?"
A moment of actual searching turned up the priest of the little temple-- Aaliyah's, from his tokens-- curled up in a corner and humming to himself, completely oblivious to them or anything else. He hadn't even noticed the brief but deadly fight in his own parish building. The most they got out of him was a flinch and a mumbled, "services aren't until next morning, young man," even when Resham, impatient and deeply shaken now, gave him a ringing slap across the face.
"What is wrong with this place?" she said, shuddering at the vacant expression on the priest's face as they finally gave up and left him to his humming.
"I don't know," Zzandoren admitted, troubled. "It smells almost like a sickness, but it's so faint, and so strange...." He shook his head. "Thonynde said there was one more in the-- general store?"
::This way,:: Thonynde put in, apparently still listening in, and directed their attention towards the building in question. ::This one doesn't feel as-- wrong. Just scared, I think.::
"Maybe he can tell us what's going on," Rythri said hopefully, casting a nervous look behind him, as if expecting the local priest to turn violent, like the woman had.
"One can only hope," Zzandoren agreed.
The building was barricaded, and barricaded well. They couldn't get the door open, because furniture and heavier goods had been piled against it from the inside. In the end, Thonynde entered the town briefly to simply punch the door in, when neither Resham's swords, Rythri's wolf-shaped battering, or Zzandoren's tentative attempts at calling inside got them anywhere. She fled again quickly, saying that the town made her flesh crawl and she didn't want to stay inside it for very long. ::The woods feel cleaner, somehow,:: she explained with a shudder. They didn't begrudge her, though Rythri looked after her in confusion for a long time while the others filed inside the store.
This building didn't seem quite as destroyed as the others-- things still seemed relatively in order, though a lot was missing from shelves and everything heavy had been propped against the door. There wasn't anyone in sight, but Zzandoren could smell nervousness and tension even over the scent of the stored foodstuffs and few spelled items for sale, and there was another room in the back. More telling, he did not smell smoke, sickness, or death.
"Hello?" he called.
"Zzandoren!" Resham hissed.
"I think this one's all right," he assured her. "Hello? We're not going to hurt you."
"Considering we just broke down his door, I doubt he'll believe us," Rythri muttered. He did have a point.
There was a crash from the back room, and all four of them-- Shessyi included-- hurried in. There was their quarry, all right: a young anari man, with scraggly blonde hair and a reedy build, sprawled out on the ground amidst a pile of things that had, obviously, been part of a barricade on the back door to the building. It looked like he'd been trying to rearrange it so he could get out again, but had wound up bringing half the barracade down on his own head. He didn't look hurt, though, just dazed.
Shessyi let out a single woof, ears perked and tail up. Zzandoren and Resham both looked at him in surprise, then Zzandoren shook his head, smiling, and went to go offer the young man a hand up.
"Hello," he told him. "We've been looking for you. We're werewolves, too."
The young man stared at him for a long, wide-eyed moment... but he did, at least, take his hand.