There was a wolf pack. There was a Mother, a Father, a litter of three half-grown pups, a pup that was fully grown and his mate.
They were migrating south through unfamiliar territory so they kept between marking spoors and signs of human habitation.
In the middle of their path, they found a dead elk.
Father scented the air. There was the smell of an unfamiliar animal, human mixed in with a sharp lupine spoor, and a sickness beneath that. Whatever it was, it had downed a fully grown male elk and tore it nearly in half from stem to stern. Blood flicked the trees far above their heads. Whatever had done it had done it for more than mere hunger.
A female pup whined and nosed her Mother’s foreleg. Father snuffled, and they unanimously went the opposite direction of the scent trail. This took them near farmland, so they slunk low and quiet, ear out for human sounds.
Then the scent trail crossed in front of their path again and they stopped.
Father sniffed back and forth, trying to determine direction. It was cutting through the woods to the farmland. They veered around and traveled closer to the local wolf spoors. This path took them through a thicket eerily empty of game.
The smell hit them long before they saw it. Another mound of fur–this time breathing–lay in their path. It smelled sick, definitely, but that was only one note in the rancid bouquet of scent.
The monster sat up.
It was far too large for a wolf. It was the size of a pony and its jaws split widely along its head with too many teeth. Father growled low in his chest. With a lurch, the thing got to its feet and faced them down.
It yowled at them, broken phrases that did not make sense to their ears. Hunger-anger-pain, it cried out, hunger-anger-pain. Then simply hunger.
The pack scattered. Even though it moved slowly for a beast its size, it managed to get the head of one of the pups in its jaws. It shook and shook until the pup was limp and then dropped it.
Mother growled and advanced on it as the other two pups dashed away. The two met in midair, the mass of the beast bearing her under. Mother yelped in surprise and pain but did not give up searching for the thing’s throat. It seized her skull between its jaws.
Father snarled, tearing at its hindlegs and tenders, but the thing shook until Mother was limp too. Then it kicked with mule-like force and Father tumbled into a rock.
The thing stood triumphant over Mother’s body and raised its head to the sky. It didn’t howl. It screamed.
The older son and his mate led the two pups away, running single-file and sometimes leaping to confuse their scent trails. Father soon joined them, and they ran until the woods ceased to be woods and they were in the open field of a farm.
The wolves frothed. Father sprawled limply on his side. His hindquarters and scruff were open in great gashes, but they were not fatal. The oldest pup deferentially licked the side of his mouth. Father licked his ear, smoothing fur that immediately sprang back glossy with saliva.
They rested in the lee of a haystack. None were asleep long, or very deeply. They were gone long before the men came to start the baler.
They crossed like shadows over a dirt road and were back in the woods. The remaining pups fell into step behind Father. The older male and female flanked. They came across the signs of other wolves, but never the animals themselves. Together they felled an old, sick doe. Father glutted first, then regurgitated meat for the pups. By nightfall they were at a river. They each lapped at its edge and then followed it downstream.
Tracks began appearing, gouged deep in the loamy mud. They didn’t even have to smell them to know what had made them.
There was a bridge. And on it was the first human they had seen here, missing an arm and bled out, a boat hook clutched uselessly in its remaining hand. Crouching above it and licking at its throat, the beast gave a snarl-whine on seeing the wolves. It danced, pounding the ground with its feet like a puppy.
Father’s hackles rose. So did his older son’s. They growled low in their chests.
The thing started barking. It was a mishmash of nonsense, phrases that by themselves made sense but together were just a mad babble. Father’s ear’s went back. He danced uncertain.
The older son dove. His mate dove with him. The beast took the blow without flinching. It snagged the female and flung her, yelping, into the water. The son snarled and tore at its throat. The beast opened its mouth wide–wide enough to fit an entire wolf head within–and bore down.
Father dove beneath it and snapped at its tenders. The thing yelped and writhed. The son locked jaw onto its front right knee and twisted his head back and forth. Father kept up at its abdomen, trying to force it on its back. Instead, the beast lunged forward, moving easily even with a fully grown wolf around its leg, going after the pups. They scattered, yelping. Brother slammed against a bridge post and fell off, taking a good amount of skin with him. The beast reached the other female pup and grabbed her, hindquarters fitted squarely in his mouth. It bit down. Her yelp was cut in half.
The sole male pup was still running. The older son was trying to rise; the post had knocked his spine crooked. The beast took off after the male pup. Father took off after the beast.
The beast ran oddly but its stride was long and it soon left Father behind. When Father caught up to it, it was already worrying his last offspring like a bone. Father launched himself at its side and overshot, tumbling down the beasts’ other side. The thing screamed–and ran into a tree.
Father drew back, watching. The thing’s eyes did not gleam in the little light still available. It lacked the night vision that even rabbits had.
Father made a calculated dash. The thing’s jaws snapped on air, and suddenly the chase was on.
Father could hear the thing blunder behind him. It was fast enough on open ground, but here in the forest it dashed headfirst into every obstacle. Father skipped light over logs and through branches. He dashed over a game path—
and with a crack, he was laid out.
“Fuckin’ hell, it’s a goddamn monster.”
Father snarled and started to rise. The man with the rifle plugged him again. Father went down, legs spasming.
“You think this one et all those cows?”
“Ayup. Looks big enough.”
“Look at those teeth!”
The men gathered around the dying wolf. Father lay panting, trying to raise his head. They had dogs with them, bloodhounds who looked skittishly not at the body on the ground, but out into the woods.
“Holy hell, this is too cruel. Plug ‘im in the head, would you?”
The female drew herself onto shore, heaving. She had swum against current that banged her into rocks and dragged her under. Steam rose from her fur as she panted out her exhaustion. She tried to rise and one leg crumpled beneath her. She dragged herself on her belly to dry brush and licked her fur dry. Then she tucked her nose to her tail and slept.
Day woke her. Her back twinged when she turned her head and her leg would not allow fast travel, but she was alive. And she could move. And so she did.
She tried to trace the territory of the beast. This was next to impossible, because the beast did not claim territory in a sensible manner. It meandered wherever it pleased, crossing freely into human and wolf domain alike. It didn’t even mark right, piss splashed every which way in a powerful, revolting spoor.
Once she traced its scent-trail to a silent farmhouse. Its tracks changed, no longer pawprints, as it came to the front door. The house was wretched with stench, so she withdrew.
There were no living animals anywhere on the farm. There was only the nose-ghosts of two dogs who, she found, lay dead and dried in the barn with other livestock. The cow and two goats had been picked clean, the dogs merely killed.
Once the scent-trail led up to an ornamented gate and suddenly started back, as if shocked. She licked it and found it ordinary metal. It was not even the thin wires that guarded horse pastures and bit the mouth and nose.
She followed the scent around through human territory. At dusk, rather than risk the woods, she skirted some of the more isolated farmsteads. In a small white house she found lines of sleeping, fat birds. She crunched the head off of one and dragged it away.
Two men were sitting at a fire.
“So we didn’t kill it?”
“Hell, if it was that wolf, musta been some kind of magician to kill Sadie Thompson’s sheep three hour after it’s been shot to death.”
“But it was all bloody!”
“Like I say before, s’more than one of the bastards. Prob’ly got edged out and started killin’ livestock to live.”
“Sadie’s sheep didn’t look et.”
“Never said they was smart.”
The tumble of a displaced rock made them both start.
“Jay-zus, Colin. You picked a fine time to visit.”
The other man was pale in the firelight, which made hollows dance beneath his eyes. He had a bandage around his elbow.
“Sorry ’bout tha’,” he said.
One of the men grinned nervously.
“How long’s it been, Colin? Two, three months? You got the consumption or summat?”
“Now, don’t you go layin’ into him,” his companion said, tossing another branch on the fire, “he’s just a little under the weather. He’ll get better, won’t you Col?”
Colin was looking down into the fire.
“Oh, I s’pect,” he said, “by and by.”
The screams made the female perk up. They were human, not animal. She crept to the hillocks that flanked this side of the farms.
One had a fire burning down. In the little light it still gave, she could see two men. Before she even drew close, the smell hit her in the nose. No gunshot greeted her.
It had torn them open and left their necks smiling red and wide. Just downhill she caught it struggling with something around its muzzle. A thin silver chain winked in the light. It was far too thin to restrain a monster that size, why didn’t it just break?
The monster rolled the chain down its muzzle, paw wincing as if coming into contact with something hot.
The beast looked up with its night-blind eyes and screamed.
She darted off.
The thing followed close behind her, barreling through fences that she ducked under. There was a fence of biting metal. She leapt over the low thing. The beast crashed through, yelping as the wires stung its face.
There was a whicker from the far end of the paddock.
The horses here were not in a closed barn, but a three-sided shed. She galloped towards them. The beast followed behind.
The first of the horses reared and shrieked–she dashed beneath it. The beast flung itself bodily into the horse.
No wolf would have attempted to take that much animal head-on, no matter their size. Even as the first horse wallowed, beast at its throat, the others lit into the sprawling form with their hooves. The mare on the ground writhed away and kicked with her hind legs. With a hollow thud, the beast was flung back into the pasture.
The female wolf went for its neck now. It was guarded by thick fur that did not give her jaws easy purchase, but the beast was already wheezing and weak from the assault. She fixed her jaws and closed them like a springloaded trap. There was a crunch of larynx and suddenly it stopped struggling. As the horses dashed through the gap in the fence, the beast writhed on the ground and died slowly, foaming, tongue out.
She watched as the fur retracted, as limbs unbent and paws turned back into pale flesh.
The thing looked like a man now, but it still smelled wrong. Ears back, she fled.
Howls sounded from the trees. She answered. A party met her at the edge of the woods. The local pack.
She made herself look humble and small and let herself be sniffed. She told them the story in barks and whines, they verified it through smell. The leader let out a long, low howl and suddenly every wolf moved as one back through the trees.
She followed. This was no place for wolves.