They controlled their fear but their bodies betrayed them.
Perspiration tainted with the sour tang of adrenaline.
Sebum breaking down into lipids and triglycerides.
Enzymes living and dying by the millions.
A library of information in each breath.
He rose and charged, building momentum as he slid between the trees without losing their location. The momentum took both men by surprise as he leaped forwards, putting his entire body between them as he raked his forepaws across the face of the first man. His mass and angle pushed both of the men to the ground, with one of them holding a hand to his bleeding face as he tried to aim and fire his rifle in John’s direction.
The shot went wide as John nipped forwards and took the man’s head between his jaws and bit down hard. John felt the man’s skull break underneath the pressure and he felt a hot rush of blood and brain matter ooze onto his tongue. He spat the mess out and turned to the other man, who reached for a gun on his hip. His face was tight and pale as he stared at John without fear.
John leapt and landed on the man, pinned his right arm under his paw as he leaned forward and bit into the man’s throat, crunching the moist mess of tissue and cartilage between his teeth before he spat it out and dashed off into the woods.
He heard the whine of shots and raised voices. John breathed in the stink of fear and confusion as he dashed away, used it to fuel his desire to confront the men after Kelly. He did not want to kill them, but they had no qualms about hurting him or Kelly.
The distorted shouts of alarm echoed through the trees and John placed them by location. He did not possess echolocation, but his senses could discern and define a sound by its location and distance. With the additional olfactory information, he placed another three people ahead of him.
A thin whining sound drifted down and he looked up, saw the drone hovering in front of him and he barked with frustration before he turned and ran into the woods. He heard the drone take off and he dived into the depths of the forest, hoping he might evade further scrutiny..
Discretion was the better part of valour, and he ran towards Kelly with every fibre of his being.
He found his clothes where he left them. He lowered his muzzle to the ground and closed his eyes, recalling the trigger phrase which began his return to humanity.
John bit back his screams as the plates of his skull pulled apart and reformed with a nightmarish elasticity and his jaw compressed back into shape. He felt his bones breaking and knitting as his muscles stretched back whilst his skin grew dead and slack on his frame. He reached up and took a section, pulling it free of his flesh with a wet ripping sound as he tossed it to the ground. When his legs sang with pain, he collapsed onto his stomach and breathed through the process as he tugged at the dead skin of his old form, revealing signs of his original anatomy in the curve of a shoulder or the hair on his chest as he wrenched free of the dying cocoon around him.
He staggered to his feet as he pulled the last patches of furred skin off and sucked in deep, healing breaths as he wiped off the smears of blood and tissue which adhered to his skin. He reached for his clothes and dressed with care.
Kelly got to her feet as John walked through the trees but his mouth was a thin line as he stared at her.
‘We need to go.’ he said.
Kelly shuddered and asked him what had happened.
He closed his eyes and reached for his rucksack, heaving it onto his shoulders.
‘I got overconfident and I ran into a few of them.’ he said.
Kelly stepped into his space and clutched the sleeve of his coat.
‘Are you okay?’ she said.
He sighed and nodded.
‘I’ll explain on the way but we need to move, Kelly, they were making good time.’
Kelly’s mouth went dry as she picked up her rucksack, glancing at the logs she had arranged, now a sign of her passing as she nodded with haste.
The small hope of recognition felt small in the face of their situation but it had been something to pass the time until he came back to her.
‘Good job I held off on lighting a fire.’ she said.
He looked at the logs and smiled.
‘It would have been a good one, too. This is on me, Kelly, I should have stayed closer to you.’ he said.
She took his hand and squeezed it, hoping he felt the continuing depth of her trust in him.
‘Did you get hurt?’ she said.
He denied it, but the imploring expression in her eyes challenged his sense of himself and he told her about being shot which made her step backwards and gaze at him.
‘But you’re okay?’ she said.
He nodded and shrugged his shoulders.
‘It healed up okay, It was a big hole in my back for a little while.’ he said.
‘How did you heal up? I mean, you change but nothing transfers over, does it?’ she said.
He adjusted the straps on the rucksack and looked at the logs Kelly had gathered.
‘Not in theory, but I guess being a hotheaded asshole does. Let’s go.’ he said.
Kelly followed him as he led them deep into the forest. She shivered with the cold and walked closer to John, keen for the warmth he exuded with a need which surprised her. Their hopes of respite were gone for now, but they had gotten away. It felt like a small reprieve, but it was still a reprieve.
John lost himself in the simple act of motion whilst he thought through his actions, determined not to repeat such a mistake again. Each swallow had the faint taste of cracked cartilage and bone to it, reminding him of his actions as he led them into the darkness.
Olivia called Jasper. He accepted the news in silence and waited for her to trail off before he spoke.
‘You’re a clever girl, Olivia, but it doesn’t help me.’ he said.
She flinched at the harshness of his tone but kept it all inward for fear of showing weakness in front of the others.
‘No, sir, it doesn’t. I did warn the others -‘
‘WHICH MEANS FUCK ALL’ he said.
Olivia watched as Gregor and Grant stripped the men’s bodies, decanting ammunition and supplies into their own equipment. They shot looks of contempt at her when they thought she was not looking in their direction.
‘I know, but we’re not tracking down a kind ole boy here, Jasper. This guy’s trained an animal to kill on command. Gregor is saying he shot it, but it came back and killed two guys.’ she said.
It sounded like mitigation to her own ears, but Olivia was desperate for Jasper to understand, to step in and see how she was his eyes and ears down here.
He sighed and she heard the snap of his lighter as he lit a cigarette.
‘Pull back.’ he said.
Olivia wanted to ask if she had heard him but before she could speak, he exhaled and repeated the two words again.
‘Sir, we’ve got footage -‘ she said.
‘You didn’t drive here in the fucking Mystery Machine. Pull back and await further instructions. I hate fucking dogs and I not having trained people trudge through a forest like a pack of cunts, ok?’ he said.
Olivia choked out a yes and ended the call. She looked at her phone in disbelief before she put it back into her pocket, took a deep breath and pushed out her chest.
‘Jasper wants us to pull back. There’s no mileage in following them right now.’ she said.
Olivia sought to keep her voice non-committal, almost bored but Gregor looked up and stared at her with a scalding contempt.
‘This was a poor use of our time. Let’s go.’ he said.
Grant looked at the bodies of the two men. Yates and Gordon were solid operators, capable under fire and the idea of a dog taking them out did not sit well with him at all. He wanted to shoot the fucking thing in front of its owner than him and the girl to keep things neat. Olivia’s pinched face irritated him and he walked away before he did something he might regret.
Gregor shook his head.
‘I shot the fucking thing, I swear.’ he said.
Olivia had seen the blood on the ground and believed Gregor. Unless there was more than one dog bred and trained to the same level, it was the only possible explanation. She had no idea of Jasper’s tolerance for the strange but she decided to keep such things to herself as a precaution.
Olivia found a relief in being able to leave the forest under instruction. She insisted on taking the paperwork from the cabin with her as Grant drove and Gregor slept. The second car was left locked up and would be retrieved later, according to the instructions Grant was sent by Jasper.
She read through the paperwork, over and over. There was a legal firm mentioned in one of the contractual paragraphs and she resolved to make further enquiries in the morning.
Olivia closed her eyes and dreamed of dogs growling for her blood in the darkness.