He stuck his nose in the air, catching the sickly-sweet scent as it wafted down the harborside.
Moving quickly and silently past the shipping yard, he picked up the scent trail.
The toll of bells signaling a ship’s arrival resounded loudly through the air, while lights flickered like fireflies in the sky. The scent-trail mingled with the distinct taste of salt and cod.
The harbor was a place where he often came to gather his thoughts. There were few people and many dark corners to dip into with practiced ease. He turned away to follow the sweet stench.
The scent took him through a crisscross of back alleyways that were cloaked in shadow and smelt of rot. His paws fell silently against the concrete pavement, taking care not to cause disruption and wake one of the unfortunate souls curled up in their makeshift shelters. The last thing they needed to see tonight was a big black wolf-dog marching around their territory.
The putrid aroma grew stronger now, leading him down a side alley of Fitch and Seventh street, pooling at the back-service door of a pizza parlour. His stomach dropped when he recognized the building.
The blood-curdling wail of a woman erupted from inside, causing his fur to stand on end. He scratched at the door anxiously.
Footsteps shuffled on the other side. With a creak, the door swung open revealing the face of a gruff-looking man. His mouth was set in a firm line around an unkempt beard and dark circles framed worried eyes. Despite the obvious lack of sleep, he lit up slightly when his gaze fell on the figure before him.
“Vincent. Thank the goddess you’ve come! Your phone–I... I couldn’t reach you.”
He moved his massive frame away from the door, bowing slightly as the beast stepped in, his height almost reaching up to the man’s chest.
The beast shifted, body contorting and stretching as human limbs replaced the paws on the linoleum floor. He rose on a pair of long, muscular legs. Smoothing out his short, black hair, he surveyed the restaurant.
Tables had been overturned and claw marks ran through the wallpaper, trailing all the way back into the kitchen. Vincent stood among the carnage of broken pots and dishes that had been forgotten in the chaos.
A thick robe was brought to him by a small boy, whose eyes darted down to his feet, his thin body struggling under the weight of the garment and dragging the black fabric on the floor. No doubt another stray Roger had picked off the streets. Vincent could hardly remember them all; this place acting more like a halfway house than the restaurant it was intended to be.
Giving a nod of thanks, he shrugged on the robe.
The boy darted out of sight and was back again, this time depositing a pair of slippers at his feet. Vincent graciously slipped them on before tactfully making his way through the landmine of shattered dishware, and towards the stairs tucked away on the other side of the kitchen.
Roger stood at the bottom of the steps, nervously twisting a broom in his hand. Giving his old friend’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze, Vincent made his way up to the living quarters.
Though heightened, his nose was not as keen in this form—thank goodness, as the scent was getting noticeably stronger with each step. The invasive smell threatened to up-heave his dinner.
A single light shone out of a room on the far right of the hall, pained moans echoing off the walls, the sounds getting louder as he neared the source.
Stepping over the threshold, his eyes were not prepared for the scene before him.
An older woman lay strapped to the bed. Bound by her ankles and wrists, she thrashed and moaned against the restraints. His heart sank. Gloria... no.
A young woman sat by her side with a water basin, pressing a wet cloth on Gloria’s naked body, all the while cooing words of comfort. The older woman was covered in oozing red blisters and bloodied brown fur. She was a twisted mess of human and beast, limbs bent all wrong and bones sticking out hideously beneath the deluge of skin and fur. Drool leaked uncontrollably out of a mouth that was neither human nor wolf, the jaws not quite fitting together. One eye was completely covered in a massive sore, oozing red sludge and marring the side of her tanned face. The other eye was perfectly clear; the blue orb stared at him, unblinking, silently begging for salvation. Tears ran out of that eye while she suffered.
The disease always seemed to flair with the rising of the moon. Symptoms hastening when a wolf’s power was at its peak. She was one of the worst cases of Moon Sickness yet.
And she would be dead before dawn.
His expression must have given that away, as the young caretaker suddenly hung her head and started sobbing into the water basin.
The sight and the stench, of honey and rotting flesh, consumed him—he couldn’t bear it any longer. Vincent had seen enough. He turned and quickly made his way back downstairs, breathing in the slightly less toxic air. Roger paused his sweeping when he saw Vincent, his eyes hopeful for an answer Vincent couldn’t give.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Roger.”
The man dropped his broom, burying his face in his hands. Vincent didn’t need to look to know the man was crying; the air was tinged with the scent of salt.
“I will get to the bottom of this, Roger,” Vincent said, fiercely. “Mark my words, she will be the last.” As he spoke to the would-be widower, his blood boiled. What had they done to incur the wrath of their goddess to plague their kind with such a wretched death? He had to figure it out before there were none left.
“Gather everyone next Friday, at Caesar’s,” Vincent said, desperation and frustration sharpening his tone.
Roger nodded stiffly in response, head still hanging with the news of his wife.
Vincent headed to the back door. The least he could do was give them some privacy now. Pausing, he turned one last time towards his old friend.
“Roger.” He spoke softly this time, adopting a gentle tone. The man wearily lifted up his head, eyes grief-stricken. “Don’t let her suffer any longer. You should call Nymeria.”
Roger only nodded in understanding, turning to tread upstairs and spend these final hours with his beloved.
Vincent turned to the door, dropping his robe as he shifted to all fours. Shaking out his fur, he pushed open the door and disappeared into the night. He broke into a run, breezing by city streets and dimly-lit sidewalks as dark blur.
He pushed his legs to carry him farther. Further away from the stench of death. Further away from the burden that he carried. Forcing his mind into silence, he focused on his senses; the feel of his blood pumping, the sirens echoing down from a distant street, the smell... that smell.
Passing by the back alley of an old factory, he again caught the scent of honey, but this time it was mixed with something else—a smell he had almost forgotten. It was bright and crackled with energy like the sky before a storm.
Vincent slowed down to a stop, heart thudding heavily in his chest as wheels started to churn in his head. His head turned upward to the building, where the scent pooled. Perhaps this was no mere sickness after all.