He ran, and beneath him, the earth bled. Mud-slick ground churned under his paws, warm as if a river of thick, oozing blood. Above, trees strained towards the ruby-tinged night, their limbs strung with scarlet needles, bark desiccating like flayed flesh, dried to a brittle finish by the icy winds. Even the moon hanging low and swollen above the mountain peaks reflected the fury in its hue. When he ran like this—pounded until his heart hammered towards explosion, tore across ground until his spittle turned to sour foam, sprinted through sweat clogging his thick coat and stinging his eyes—the rage owned him, possessed him even, and in its terrible purity, gave relief.
He flashed through the undergrowth, branches and thorns snatching, nature pleading with him to stop. But the end only came when scalding breaths no longer held enough strength to fill his lungs, when screaming muscles seized into in-operability. Then he would crash to the unyielding ground and surrender to exhaustion.
At first, the end used to come within a couple of hours. Now, it took longer. The gruelling marathons stretched on, forcing him to pound for hours and hours before relief would settle. Not that he deserved relief; he didn’t deserve one good thing in his life after what he’d done.
A jagged memory pierced his mind: Eddie Stone, a strong and proud wolf—his friend, staggering backwards, eyes wide with fear. Blood-slick hands clutched wildly at the gash in his neck, his mouth working to ask why, but only able to produce a rush of bubbling blood.
It was he who had cut his pack-members throat; slit it at the exact point which would yield the most blood. He had held a chalice against the gaping wound, pinning Eddie in place to fill the cup as had been ordered. ‘You were possessed!’ a desperate voice reminded him, ‘you weren’t in control!’
He snarled the voice away, only to hear it being replaced by Leanne Stone, Eddie’s mate, screaming for mercy before he visited the same death upon her. ‘No! No, Michael!’
Hearing his name, he cowered from the echo.
Michael Vincent didn’t deserve to exist. As a vile, murderous piece of scum, he should have been ripped to shreds by his surviving pack members before having his limbs flung into the farthest corners of the earth.
Propelling himself forward, he welcomed the burning cramps. Panting breaths weakened as they strained to fill his lungs and feed his blood. Oblivion called. He greeted it with a long, mournful howl.
The earth swam in red. Michael Vincent surrendered and crashed into its embrace.
Michael scored a firm line through the date on his hand-written calendar. The single page, showing only two weeks’ worth of dates, sat on the table before him, an empty dinner plate shoved aside to make space for the scrap paper. Today was always going to have been the hardest, and while another three hours needed to pass before midnight arrived, the primordial urge to phase into his wolf-form raged weaker than the previous night. He put the pencil down to hold out his hands. A slight tremble remained evident, but nothing as intense as earlier. The ringing in his ears had passed sometime in the early afternoon too, and shortly after, his spine had quit twitching to morph.
Forming loose fists, he rested them on the table. His surroundings were cleaner and more habitable than yesterday, and now a small fire burned, warmer too. Staying in human form for the first self-imposed period of two weeks demanded he live like a human, even if it meant doing so in this thin-walled, two-room hunting shack. Once two weeks had passed he would allow himself to phase into his wolf for a few hours, but with the utmost care: He had to ensure self-control, and not wander—both mentally and physically.
No evidence remained of Michael’s rice, beans and tinned tuna meal. The simple fare was a far cry from his diet of late, but weaning himself off meat was a vital step for recovery. Ripping into fresh kill every mealtime had nudged him closer to surrendering to his animal side, the horrifying incident of stalking a human girl three days earlier being the wake-up call he’d needed.
Before the memory could replay in full, Michael swatted it aside by jerking up out of his chair and grabbing the empty plate. He now had hot water in the cabin and he scrubbed the plate clean, doing the same for the pot and cutlery, giving the task his full attention in order to stay out of his own head.
With the dishes dried and returned to the tiny cupboard above the fridge, he turned to face the room, knowing he needed to keep himself busy until tired enough to sleep. He grimaced at the efficiency before him. The few pieces of furniture had been dusted and cleaned; the threadbare armchair sitting in front of the stove, the veneer-topped kitchen table with its single wooden chair, and a tall gun cabinet, which although empty, had been repositioned in an attempt to make a partition between the rickety bed and the rest of the room. Even the wooden floor had been swept clean.
Only one job waited. The rust-riddled stove needed scrubbing clean. After finding a wire brush in the lean-to at the side of the cabin earlier, he was now ready to tackle the mess.
Happy to be close to the warmth, Michael dropped to his hunkers and scrubbed at the flaky surface. For the first while his mind held occupied with removing the orange film from the intricate pattern running in a wide band around the stove’s width. But as he progressed to the smooth sections, his thoughts wandered.
He had to admit he was quietly pleased with himself. He hadn’t really believed he would make it this far without phasing back into his wolf form. Yes, he’d only made it to day three, but considering he’d been wolfed out for the last four months, making it this far was a big deal.
Urban legends told tales of werewolves who had stayed in their wolf form for so long, all traces of humanity had vanished. Rumour had it that once this happened, the wolf would turn feral, and any living thing—human, fellow werewolves, even vampires—wouldn’t stand a chance if attacked.
All sorts of nightmarish tales had sprouted from these dark whisperings; the rabid white wolf of London, the russet-haired howler of Canada, and the vicious Hancock who lost his mate in a pack fight and swore revenge. Hancock had turned wolf to track the killer, vowing he would not return to human form until her death was avenged. The murderer was never found and legend continues to warn of how Hancock still roams, slaughtering entire packs in one night, no known man or beast able to stop him. As a kid, Michael often teased his friends with this tale, promising he could see a huge wolf prowling outside, the moon highlighting the streak of grey fur which ran from Hancock’s nose to tail.
Legends always hold a grain of truth he reminded himself, pausing to blow a fine film of dust off his hands. He may not have turned as wild as Hancock, but proof his humanity faded had been undeniable when he’d wanted to pounce on that girl. It was the jolt he’d needed. Her scream had wrenched him right back to Blackwater Ridge and the horrific acts he’d carried out there. Never again did he want to cause fear like that in any person.
Michael shuffled sideways to work on a new section, taking a moment to regard the difference already made. He wouldn’t dwell on the incident with the girl. He couldn’t. He had to look towards the future and strive to leave the past behind. Peace would never be made with what he’d done; the lives he’d taken would never be paid for, not even by taking his own, which he’d considered. Guilt owned him now. Its clammy presence resided in his bones and had the right to do so until Mother Nature called time on his life.
How he should live that life was the burning question. He needed to find a neutral state, a place where he was neither happy nor remorse-ridden. Happiness he didn’t deserve, and remorse, as he’d already learned, allowed him to be swallowed by his animal side, which in time would smother his humanity. If his humanity evaporated, he would feel no more guilt, and he had to feel guilt. So what would he do?
Michael scrubbed harder at the metal, rust powder spilling onto the floor by his knees. Today had felt right. His mood had been balanced, despite continuing to struggle with his caged wolf. What was it that had made him tolerable to himself? He’d done nothing but wake, eat and work.
The scouring slowed as realisation came. Waking, eating, working and sleeping; in those simple activities he had existed in a neutral state. There lay his answer. He would do nothing more, or less.
“Exist,” he murmured, and with an accepting nod, returned to his task.