|Quoth the Raven
by Raven Blackmane
© Raven Blackmane -- all rights reserved
It was a bit earlier than usual when Wanderer stepped through the doors of The Blind Pig, and the sun was sinking slowly in the west, casting a crimson hue over the city. As he walked slowly in, without the cape that he had once worn without fail, he glanced around the building that felt more like home to him than anyplace else in the world.
Jack was at the piano, tinkling away idly at one of Clementi's sonatinas. Donnie was wiping out the inside of a glass with a white bar towel, but other than those slight movements he was standing still, slowly chewing his cud. If past experience was any indication, he'd probably been wiping that same glass for at least the last five minutes. Donnie seemed to get trapped in repeating the same action, over and over, if something important was on his mind. Up near the front of the room, Donnie's daughter Ellen was bussing tables. A few customers sat here and there at tables and booths, but most of the bar's clientele didn't arrive this early. Not even the other Lupine Boys were here yet.
Just as well, thought Wanderer. I'm not in a joking mood right now.
It had been the proverbial rough day at the office. A local theatre production house had taken a chance on Wanderer and hired him on as the lead in Richard Wagner's Lost Opera-the composer's final, brilliant endeavor, kept utterly secret from even his closest friends and relatives, which portrayed a noble Prussian king driven mad by the illness of lycanthropy. The play had been discovered some fifteen years ago, hidden for decades in the Prussian castle of Neuschwanstein. Apparently, the opera had been a gift for King Ludwig II, the last king of Prussia-a man who, ironically, later succumbed to madness himself. Ludwig was apparently the only other person who knew about the opera until its recent discovery.
Now all of this was well and good, and Wanderer had been thrilled to receive the part. Unfortunately, the play's norm director had not really taken a liking to him. It was not, apparently, any problem he had with Scabs in general; but he had been pushing for the producers to find an actor with complete control of his transformations, who could thus go from fully wolf to fully human at will. But the producers had fallen in love with Wanderer's voice, and they had decided that the human-to-middle range of the Prussian king's transformation would be handled with prosthetics and makeup. So Wanderer was trapped between two producers who loved him and a director with whom he held ... creative differences. It had not been a pleasant first day on the job.
He plopped down in his usual seat, rested his arms on the table and his head on his arms, and let out a long sigh-the kind that dogs tend to use when they feel ignored, or otherwise weighed down with the cares of the world.
It wasn't long before Donnie walked over to the table, still polishing the glass. A few more minutes of this and he would probably wear a hole through the bottom. He stopped just long enough to hold out a writing tablet in front of Wanderer's muzzle.
THE USUAL? it asked.
"Yeah, Donnie," Wanderer said, not looking at him and not bothering with his faux English accent. "If it's not too much trouble."
Donnie took the tablet back with him behind the bar, finally set down the glass, and returned in a moment with the tablet and a cola in hand. Wanderer took the frosty mug gratefully, drank a sip, and then saw Donnie holding out the tablet again.
NEVER TOO MUCH TROUBLE FOR A FRIEND, it said.
Wanderer smiled a little. "You're too kind, my bovine compatriot," he said.
Donnie nodded slowly and signed something. Wanderer always had trouble with the strange language of hand gestures; he could never seem to really get his mind around it, though he had learned to recognize a few words-including the two the bartender had just used.
"You might say that," Wanderer said. "My director just spent the last eight hours gnawing on my backside. It's a wonder my tail isn't a bald little stub by now."
Donnie smiled consolingly and gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder before returning to his work behind the bar.
In time, other folks wandered into the bar, taking their customary seats. There was Jon "Buck" Sleeper, with Maxine and the adorable fawn-child Grace in tow. Brian Coe soon followed, carrying his practitioner's case and walking with a light bounce in his step.
Looks like he's had a good day, Wanderer thought.
After that a group of Donnie's deaf and/or mute friends from signing class showed up. One of the women in the group signed something very rapidly at Donnie, a broad smile on her face. Donnie then replied with another flurry of hand motions, and the woman laughed, almost soundlessly. Wanderer had no idea what had just passed between them, but it had made both of them happy. That was all he really needed to know.
The man everyone knew as "The Scribbler" showed up with Lisa "Norm" Underwood, the two of them bickering furiously about something. From this distance, unable to hear their conversation, the pair looked absolutely comical with their broad, exaggerated gestures and ridiculous facial expressions.
The street mimes could learn a few things from those two, Wanderer thought with a smile.
At last the Lupine Boys began to filter in, greeting Wanderer enthusiastically with various degrees of tail-wagging. Wanderer had thought he wouldn't be able to handle the LB "silly lechers" act tonight, but there was something about The Blind Pig that made it hard for somebody to stay worn down. The cheerful music, smiling friends and good cola had all conspired against him, forcing him back to his more natural upbeat self. He let all Shakespearean pretense go as he greeted his comrades-in-fangs.
"Hey, Jim, eat any good books lately? ... Ringwolf!" he cried, greeting their resident telemarketer. "How many people hung up on you today, old buddy?" And so it went, with each of the lascivious lycanthropes in turn taking his seat around the Lupine Boys' table, to the music of their constant amiable banter. Donnie brought drinks out all around, leaving Wanderer another cola before lumbering off to check on other customers.
Wanderer and the Boys had just started tearing into a pizza with everything-well, everything meat, anyway-when he noticed Donnie pick up the phone behind the bar. The Auroch-headed bartender frowned, typed something into the TTY keyboard beside the phone. Another frown. A bit more typing. At last, Donnie's eyes went wide, in shock or surprise, and he typed something else. He nodded, quickly set down the phone, and half-ran over to the Lupine Boys' table. He faced Wanderer and began signing very quickly.
"Um ... ah ... slow down, my good man, slow down!" Wanderer said at last. "Is there a translator in the house?" he called out.
'Norm' broke up her conversation with The Scribbler and came over to Donnie. They exchanged a series of rapid signings, then Lisa turned most of her attention to Wanderer.
"He says that Splendor just called with a message for you," Lisa told him.
Wanderer felt a look of surprise and confusion creep over his face. "Splendor? The Good Witch of the West?" The ex-prostitute's reputation as the guardian of West Street had become well-established in the Pig by this time. Though not all the details of her abilities were clear, two things were certain: Splendor was very powerful, and you did not want to make her angry. "What could she possibly want with me?" he wondered aloud.
Another flurry of signing by Donnie. "She won't give any details over the phone," Lisa explained. "But she specifically asked for you. She wants you to come down to the West Street Shelter right away."
"May I ask what this is about?" Wanderer asked.
"She just said something about a woman at the shelter who's badly wounded."
"But I'm not a doctor," he protested.
"She knows that. She already called Dr. Derksen, and he got her stabilized. But she said there's a compelling reason for you to be down there, too."
Wanderer looked up at Donnie, at Lisa, then at the other Lupine Boys.
"Well, my friends," he said at last, rising from his chair and slipping into his British accent, "it looks like I have a house call to make. You will save me a few slices, won't you?"
::No promises, Caped Crusader,:: Jim said through his 'vodor, his long tongue lolling out in a carnivorous grin.
"Be glad I'm not wearing my cape today," Wanderer said with a wry grin, "or I might have been tempted to use it ... to hang you from the chandelier by your scruffy little neck. See you around, boys."
Wanderer turned the corner onto West Street and frowned at the sorry state of the neighborhood. West Street was nothing more or less than five full blocks of urban decline -no, make that urban collapse. It was one of those places that politicians referenced every time they mentioned "urban renewal," the part of town where hotels rented by the hour and the inhabitants were usually higher than the buildings. The acrid odors of urine, vomit and rotting garbage mixed in the West Street atmosphere, sending a nightmarish cascade of signals through Wanderer's wolfish nose. Even to norms, the area looked bad and smelled worse; with his heightened senses, it was pure agony.
The one bright spot on this Avenue of the Damned-the one place whose doors were always open, the light always on-was the West Street Shelter. Started by Splendor under advice from Doctor Bob Stein, the shelter was open to all people, norm and Scab alike. It was a single, bright candle, burning in the midst of the darkness.
It was also the headquarters for Splendor's one-woman war on the oppressors who terrorized West Street's disenfranchised citizenry. Only the very careful and the very foolish dared violate the peace of West Street on Splendor's watch.
Wanderer stepped up to the doors of the Shelter, knocked twice for courtesy, and stepped inside. The main lobby was in far better condition than most buildings in the area, though a few cracks could be seen in the lower parts of the walls and Wanderer immediately recognized the smell of roach poison. He wondered what sort of message that had sent to good old Bryan Derksen, trapped as he was in cockroach form for at least two years now. On the other hand, the walls were lined with pictures of various fixtures of the Scab community, including Bryan, so that must have made him a bit more reassured that the insecticide was not intended for him.
Though the light was on, as always, Splendor was nowhere to be seen. "Excuse me!" Wanderer called out. "Donnie told me you were looking for me down here. Hello?!"
"Just a minute, already!" a woman's voice called irritably from the back room, following it with a few muffled curses. When Splendor walked in, she was holding a used hypodermic syringe in her left hand, while she affixed a piece of gauze and a bandage to her left arm with her free hand.
"Excuse me ... if you don't mind my asking," Wanderer said nervously, "but ... what's the shot for?"
Splendor's lip twisted. "I guess you'd call it a nutritional supplement," she said wryly. "Derksen came up with it back when we started up this place. This little wonder's one of the things that let me give up my night job."
Wanderer forced a nervous smile and nodded. He hadn't the faintest idea what the tough redhead was talking about, but then he wasn't about to ask, either.
"You said something about a woman being here, whom I was supposed to see?" Wanderer said.
Splendor nodded, as she tossed the used hypo into the wastebasket. "Follow me," she said, walking through the door she had just entered from.
Wanderer dutifully followed her through the halls and passageways of the shelter, arriving at last in a small room with a number of soft-looking beds. Each one held a Scab who was obviously a great deviation from the humanoid norm.
"This is our Sickbay," Splendor said. "The Scabs who show up without medical insurance and get refused extended stay in the hospitals end up here, once the ER doctors have done their thing. This is the only place it's guaranteed they won't be discriminated against."
Wanderer nodded. By law, no emergency room could deny medical treatment to a Scab, but the less humanoid ones often ended up getting kicked out of the hospital as soon as they were able to walk. If they didn't have a warm place to go-someplace like the shelter-that eviction could be the same thing as a death sentence, especially in the winter.
Splendor led him over to a bed on the far side, whose occupant was completely obscured by the bedsheets.
"This is our latest arrival, and the reason I sent for you," Splendor said. "Earlier tonight I caught a few punks dragging her down the north part of West Street. She was bleedin', sliced in a dozen different places. They had her stripped, bound in steel chains and a choker collar."
Wanderer blinked, the optimist in him shocked that someone could do such a thing-even as the pessimist told him to expect this sort of treatment toward Scabs. He pushed aside both voices and asked, "What do you think they were doing to her?"
"Probably were gonna sell her on the black market. There's a big demand for Scab slaves in South America these days ... though I don't know of a slaver ring operating here at the moment. If I ever do find them around here, though..." She didn't finish the thought-but then, she didn't need to, either.
"What happened to the men who had her?" Wanderer asked.
"They were dealt with," Splendor said, a harsh coldness in her icy blue eyes.
Wanderer didn't need to know any more about that; his imagination was quite vivid enough.
"So do you know who this woman is?" he asked.
Splendor shook her head. "No. There are no missing persons notices in the area, and she didn't have any sort of ID. The Doc and I talked to her once, and she said her name was Raven Blackmane."
"Well, that's a pseudonym if I've ever heard one," Wanderer said.
"Yep. There's no-one registered under that name in the U.S. No Scab who matches her description is on record, either, and no friends or family have been looking for her-at least, not at the police department."
Wanderer stroked his chin fur thoughtfully. "A mystery woman," he mused. "Very interesting. I'm afraid I still don't see what this has to do with me, though."
Without another word, Splendor walked over to the headboard of the bed and gently pulled back the covers.
The occupant, curled up around a pillow in peaceful slumber, was a gloriously beautiful young wolfen woman.
Wanderer was dumbfounded. His jaw worked up and down, silently, for several seconds, as words stubbornly refused to come out. Young Raven Blackmane was stunning, even in her currently scarred condition. Her fur was a medium gray tone, and her long tresses of head hair were a rich raven black. Large, soft ears poked out through her hair at a slight angle from vertical, the tips curling over forwards in an exceedingly charming fashion. Her muzzle was about as pronounced as Wanderer's own, maybe slightly less, which meant she could probably still speak with ease. Her other facial features were soft, gentle, and beautiful. Her body, though obscured somewhat by the loose pink nightgown she was wearing, still easily conveyed the impression of her slim, athletic form. Her long brush-tail protruded from an elastic-banded hole in the nightgown, its tip twitching now and again as she slept.
Splendor tucked in the covers around the young lady again. "You see why I called you?" she said quietly. "Raven's a mess-physically, psychologically and emotionally. Now, I've still only got my Associate's in psychology, but it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that she could use someone to relate to during her recovery." Splendor's eyes softened a bit. "I've been watching you for a while now, and one thing I've noticed is that you're a supreme gentleman. I want you to be her friend, her protector, while she works her way back into society. Be someone she can depend on, she can trust. With a little luck, maybe you can help her accomplish what I never did-turn her into a member of the bar's extended family. Bring some stability to her life."
Solemnly, Wanderer clasped one hand over the other in front of his chest. "You honor me by your kind words, milady," he said. "I will do everything in my power to meet your request."
"Good," Splendor said, walking towards the door. "You can start by being here for her when she wakes up."
Wanderer looked at the departing redhead, then at the young lady in the bed before him.
Dutifully, he pulled up a chair next to the bed, sat down, and waited.
After his stomach began growling profusely, Wanderer had called down to the Bar and had one of the other Lupine Boys bring a cola and a few slices of their second pizza over to the Shelter for him. Wanderer took the delivery at the door and sent his wolfish friend on his way, without telling him the reason for his extended stay. The last thing he wanted was a crowd of those lecherous lupines drooling on Miss Blackmane as she slept. Bringing his food back to the sickbay, he returned to his seat and began eating absent-mindedly-and rather slowly, for a fellow reputed to wolf his food. Something about being in the presence of a beautiful comatose woman had a way of making one slow down, take things at a more thoughtful pace.
Eventually, after another hour or so, he fell into a light sleep, slumped in his chair. He had no idea how long he'd been like that when a soft alto voice spoke into his ear.
"Mmph. Huh? What?" Wanderer said, starting awake. He looked up and saw a lovely set of pale, ice-blue eyes looking back at him. They still looked a little tired around the edges, but they also glittered with obvious curiosity and intelligence.
"Where am I?" Raven asked. She was lying on her back, hugging the pillow she'd earlier been curled around. She had a small smile on her face, but it was also a slightly puzzled expression.
Gathering his wits, Wanderer returned the smile. "My dear lady, you are currently in the Sickbay of the West Street Shelter. The Shelter's director found you in a rather bad condition and made sure you got medical help. They managed to stabilize you, and you fell into a deep sleep."
"I see," Raven said. "If you don't mind my asking ... why are you here?"
"I am but your humble servant, Miss Blackmane," he replied, rising from his chair and giving an artful bow. "We were unable to find any friends or relatives to see you through your recovery, so I agreed to be here for you if you need any assistance. I run a small lycanthrope support group out of the local eating establishment, so if there's anything you need, just let me know."
"That's very kind of you," Raven said, the corners of her lips turning up in a dry, amused expression. "Do you have a name, Mr. Shakespeare?"
Wanderer reached for his cape, realized he didn't have it, and executed another artful bow anyway. "They call me ... the Wanderer," he said, with a bit of his usual overly dramatic air.
Another dry smirk and a raised eyebrow from his audience of one. "You're an actor, aren't you?" she said at last.
Wanderer's bow wilted somewhat, and he looked up with a sheepish grin. When he spoke, it was without his English overtones. "Guilty. If it bothers you, I'll drop the accent."
"If you don't mind. Theatrics have their place, but you'll have to forgive me if I have little patience for them at the moment." She made an effort to sit up, only to collapse back onto her pillow, grunting in pain. "Augh. What ... what happened to me? How bad is it?"
"Fairly bad, I'm afraid," he replied, helping her to slowly sit up and lean against the headboard. "You were being held captive by a group of slavers. Apparently they had cut you up quite a bit and were planning to sell you on the black market. You were lucky to be alive when Miss Splendor found you."
Raven nodded, the expression on her face far from happy. "I remember now," she said softly, flinching at the pain that must have once more sprung to memory.
"If you don't mind my asking," Wanderer said carefully, "how did you end up in the hands of those villains, anyway?"
"I'll tell you later," she said, placing a hand to her stomach as it growled audibly. "Do you have anything to eat around here?"
As Raven sat up in bed, with Wanderer still perched in the chair beside her, they alternated between talking and enjoying the Shelter's three-course breakfast-cold cereal, canned fruit in light syrup, and the generic orange drink found in massive quantities at any children's sports event. Raven seemed to have relaxed a bit now, and was even enjoying Wanderer's company.
"... so that's how I ended up at The Blind Pig," Wanderer said. "Now it's your turn. How did you end up in the hands of those slavers? And why couldn't we find any record of you or your relatives?"
"Well ..." Raven began, after taking a long draught of orange drink. "First off, the reason you couldn't find me or my relatives in the records is because the woman I used to be is probably officially dead."
"Why do I sense a familiar theme bubbling up here?" Wanderer mused, mostly to himself, as images of the Blind Pig's own Jon Sleeper came to mind.
"It's not really too surprising. It must have happened a lot in the early days of the Martian Flu," Raven continued. "At any rate ..."
... I was a wildlife biologist in training-wolf biologist, to be precise-working with one of the Idaho packs in the summer of 2025. I guess by now that's at least four years ago. I had completed my bachelor's degree and scored a grant from a large nonprofit group to study the wolf-prey relationships in that region in the aftermath of the Martian Flu. No matter what anyone else tells you, the Flu took its toll on the animal kingdom, too-it kept mutating, eventually attacking every complex form of life on Earth. I don't know if anything other than humans ever got SCABS, but pretty much the entire Idaho forest was carrying the virus by that time.
Now, I was one of those kids who was fortunate enough not to be exposed to the Flu when it first hit-I was born in 2003, so I was just a toddler when the epidemic started. We lived out in the backwater territory of Washington state, and our town didn't have a lot of exposure to people outside. We were lucky enough to have the virus pass us by completely, which is probably why I'm still alive today. My parents were careful to protect me from any future exposure to the Flu, and as it turned out I'd never caught it by the time I arrived in the Idaho wilderness.
While I was conducting my study, I ran across a sick Omega wolf who had been mauled by a large buck. The pack had left it to die, but I wasn't about to let that happen.
I took my first-aid kit to the place where the wolf was lying and examined its wounds. There were countless small wounds, and a few deep gashes that were bleeding profusely, but nothing vital seemed to be injured. I took out some antiseptic solution, gauze, and some long bandages to wrap the worst of the injuries.
I should have known better than to try to handle an injured predator. I really should have realized the need to anesthetize the wolf before I began working with it. But I was afraid that anesthetic-which I had, for tagging purposes-in any measurable strength would stop the poor creature's heart. Somehow I thought it would sense that I was trying to help it.
The wolf didn't do any permanent damage-a few nasty bites on the arm, but no arteries or veins ruptured-so I was surprised when I began to feel woozy after bandaging up my arm. I ignored it as a likely result of too much blood loss, and went back to the Omega. This time I'd brought some anesthetic, but I discovered that the wolf had already died. I took its body and buried it far away from the den.
It wasn't until the next day that I started to really feel the effects of the Flu. While I was watching the wolves at their den, hidden in a blind not far away, I started hacking and coughing. My head started to pound, and my nose was running like a faucet. As bad as I felt, though, I didn't give up my observation. The last thing on my mind was the Martian Flu; I just figured I'd gotten a nasty head cold.
It wasn't until the following morning that it finally happened. I was bathing in the river near the den site-I suppose I can be grateful I didn't have my clothes on-when a burning pain shot through my gut, like someone had set off a flare in my small intestine. The pain spread to my spine, then up the length of my back into my head.
It felt like my brain was on fire. I stumbled up the riverbank and collapsed on the ground, as the unseen flames coursed through my body. Seconds later the pain burned its way through to the surface. I felt my ears shift position on my head, like plates getting dragged around on a dinner table when the tablecloth beneath them was pulled on. Then I felt them pushing outwards, upwards, then flopping over part-way from their own weight.
The pain migrated to my face, and I must have screamed in agony as my jaws and nose pushed outward, melding into this little muzzle. My tongue pushed out from its base to fill the extra space in the mouth, then my molars were pushed out by rapidly-forming quasi-lupine ones, designed more for shredding and tearing than chewing and grinding.
An intense shaft of pain ran through my tailbone. I was vaguely aware of the vertebrae of my spine quickly replicating themselves, pushing outward accompanied by new muscle and blood vessels and nerves. Looking back, I got just the slightest glimpse of my long, fleshy tail. Then the fire hit my skin, all at once. The pain was too much for me then, and I blacked out.
When I woke up, I was still in the humanoid form you see now. The wolves had all gathered around me, and were watching me in curiosity. They must have noticed I carried their scent on me now. I still didn't know what was happening-I was still in a fog. I walked slowly back to the riverbank to pick up my clothes. That's when I saw my new reflection for the first time.
For a long time I just stared at the image of my new face, too shocked to react. I slowly sank to my knees and put a hand on my altered face. At last realization came like a flood: The Omega wolf had been sick with the Martian Flu. When it bit me the virus was transmitted from its saliva to my blood. Now I don't know how the virus works, but I suspect that I got turned into a wolf-Scab because I had just been in contact with a wolf.
Raven took another sip of her drink. "It was about that time that I realized there was another presence inside my head," she said. "Like another mind was sharing the same living space. It was repressed, pushed into the corners, but it was still there ... ancient. Primitive. Powerful." The woman's pale blue eyes were haunted.
"Were you ever able to take full 'morph shape?" Wanderer asked.
Raven nodded. "Yes. But it came at a price," she said quietly. "I discovered that I could become more wolf-like if I allowed that other mind inside me ... the wolf mind ... more control over my body. The more control I gave it, the more wolf-like my body became. But giving the wolf control meant surrendering to the drives and instincts of the wolf mind." She looked up at Wanderer, and fear was shining in her eyes. "I can completely become a wolf," she said. "But if I do, my human side loses all control over my body. Then I'm just along for the ride until the wolf mind allows me to have my body back. The first time I went full 'morph I spent the next twelve hours watching myself join that wolf pack. We went on the hunt and brought back an old buck the Alpha had killed. It wasn't until the wolf mind in me fell asleep-inside the den-that I was able to get control again. Fortunately, the pack still accepted me in my partial 'morph form."
Wanderer felt sorry for this young woman. She'd been dealt a better hand than Jon-at least she was capable of regaining control, and she still had her memories. But still, to be living with a predator inside of you ...
"That must have been difficult for you," he said.
Raven set down her glass. "You have no idea the terror I go through," she whispered. "I go to sleep every night scared to death that my wolf-half will take over my body and do something that I'll have to live with for the rest of my life. I thank God that I wasn't given a higher status in the pack-I might have awakened one day to find out my wolf side had mated with the Alpha male. Fortunately lower-stationed females aren't allowed to mate, or else things would have gotten a lot more complicated. But still, now that I'm back in civilization ... what happens to me if I wake up one morning and find out I've killed someone? There are plenty of fullmorph Scabs these days. What if the deer my wolf side has for a midnight snack turns out to be a human being?"
Wanderer was silent. He couldn't think of anything to say. Somewhere in the back of his mind an old song sprang to life: "Be kind to your fine feathered friends, for a duck could be somebody's mother ..." He shivered. The tune took on a whole new meaning in the world of SCABS.
Raven must have seen how uncomfortable he was, because she changed the subject. "As much as I feared my wolf-form, I also found it to be very useful," she said. "Each day I studied the pack through the wolf's eyes, and each night I went back to my tent and wrote down my findings. I gathered the best information in the history of wolf observation!" she said proudly, getting into her story the more she told it. "You know, I found out wolves are far more intelligent than we ever gave them credit for." She paused, a slight frown creasing her features. "Well, these wolves were, anyway. They were carrying the Flu, so it's possible that they were somehow changed by it, the same way humans have been. But what I saw there was extraordinary."
Wanderer's ears perked forward. "How so?" he asked.
"They have a sort of subconscious link-a racial memory, if you will-that ties together all the wolves in the pack," Raven explained. "They can sense each other's emotions, practically hear each other's thoughts. Now, they're not rocket scientists by human standards, but those wolves know things that I can't even put into human terms. They understand things like self-sacrifice, loyalty, sadness ... they even grasp the concept of fun. Once I saw two full-grown wolves spend an entire afternoon playing tag with a stick."
Raven smiled at these fond memories. "I spent four years living with the wolves, and I don't regret a day of it," she said. "Of course, I was only supposed to be in the forest with that pack for three months. The Fish and Wildlife Service sent out a search team-flew a helicopter over a hundred square miles of territory looking for me."
The smile faded from view, and a bit of the fear he had seen earlier shone in her eyes. "I didn't want to be found," she said quietly. "Partly, that was the wolf in me-but part of it was also a fear of the wolf. I didn't want to risk exposing others to that thing, especially not my family and friends. I turned off all the electronics in my tent, so they couldn't find me that way. The tent itself was camouflaged, impossible to spot from the air unless you knew exactly where to look for it. Eventually they gave up and went home, and I stayed with the wolves. I knew I'd be declared dead, and my friends and family would mourn and go on with their lives." She lowered her eyes. "It was hard, but it seemed like the best thing to do."
Wanderer wasn't sure he agreed, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
"It was when the helicopters stopped looking for me that I decided to change my identity," Raven said. "I still hoped to regain control of my body from the wolf someday, so that it would really be safe for me to come back-but even if I did return, I knew it wouldn't be as the woman I once was. I destroyed all the old ID I had on me and took the name 'Raven Blackmane.' I haven't looked back since."
"But don't you think your family would be happy to know you're alive?" Wanderer asked.
Raven was silent a moment. "My mom and dad were scared to death of SCABS," she said at last. "The disease, I mean, not the people. Everything they did as I was growing up was focused on keeping me from getting it. They never talked about it much, but we heard a lot of horror stories about what SCABS did to people, and I don't think they ever wanted to take the chance that I would face that. That I would risk losing my humanity." She shook her head. "I don't want to place the burden on them of knowing that their only daughter has become the thing they feared the most-especially since, in my case, taking the form of the wolf really does mean losing my humanity. Surrendering to the control of the beast."
Wanderer reached out and took Raven's hand. "There must be a way to control it," he said. "Some associates of mine-Doctor Bob Stein, and Doctor Bryan Derksen-have dedicated their lives to helping Scabs. Maybe with their guidance, you could learn to suppress the beast within."
"... maybe," Raven said, after a moment. "But I'm not sure if I'm ready to be a lab rat."
"It's your decision, of course," Wanderer assured her.
Raven nodded. "It wasn't until last week that someone discovered I wasn't dead," she said. "When my wolf side was out hunting, I was caught in an animal trap. The pain forced me back into this form, and my yelp became a scream. Before I blacked out, I saw three big men coming toward me from behind a blind. They'd been downwind of me, and hidden well enough that I hadn't noticed them.
"I woke up in chains, muzzled, in the back of an old pickup truck. I found out that the men were poachers, hunting wolves for their pelts, which they sold on the black market. One of them had connections to a man in the Scab-slave trade, so they sold me to him." Her voice began to grow shaky, uneven. "The slavers ... whipped me ... beat me ... cut me with knives ... tried to ... break my spirit. The last thing I remember hearing ... was them talking about West Street, and the word ... 'redistribution.' After that ... everything gets hazy. The next thing I remember was waking up here."
Wanderer took her hand again, consolingly, as she spoke about what the slavers had done to her. "Splendor said that you spoke to them while you were being treated here-that was when you told her your name-but I gathered that you were in shock, and weren't thinking clearly at that time," he told her. "It's not surprising you don't remember it."
Raven just nodded, and set her now-finished breakfast tray on the nightstand beside her. "I'm not sure where I go from here," she said. "I have no family anymore, not really. My friends all must think I'm dead. My money's tied up in accounts on the other side of the country, and my research notes are sitting in a tent in the middle of the Idaho wilderness. My bachelor's degree was awarded to someone who's dead now, and I don't know how many places would hire a Scab wolf biologist anyway." She shook her head. "I just feel lost," she said.
"I understand some of what you're feeling," Wanderer said. "Not all, I'll admit that, but some. My life wasn't exactly on the fast track when I was changed, so I didn't have as much to lose. But I know what it feels like to be directionless-to feel like you're wandering through the world without a purpose in life."
Raven's lip twisted a little. "I suppose that explains your name," she said.
"Indeed." He leaned a bit closer to her. "Not too long ago I didn't have any place to call home, either. I didn't have anyone to call friend or family. But I found a place that became my sanctuary, and people I could learn to depend on for friendship and support in the tough times. If you'd like, I'll take you there once you've recovered enough from your injuries." He showed a small, non-carnivorous smile. "I'd like to think you already have one friend here, Raven. If you'd like the chance to have more, I would be deeply honored to introduce you to them."
Raven searched his face for several long moments. At last a smile broke through, and her face lit up with the warm radiance of Heaven.
"I think I'd like that," she said.
"This is it," Wanderer announced, as they walked up to the doors of The Blind Pig Gin Mill. This was a special occasion, so he had worn his dark suit and cape-the same clothes he wore on his first visit to the bar. "Are you ready?" he asked.
"I guess," Raven said, a little hesitant. "Do I look okay?"
Wanderer took her furry hand in his own, lowered his lips to the back of her hand in a courtly kiss. "My dear, you look positively radiant!" he exclaimed in his English tones, and he meant every word.
In the two weeks since her arrival at the Shelter, Doctor Bob and Bryan had been able to arrange for the recovery of Raven's things from the Idaho woodlands. Many of them were badly worn from four years in the wilderness, but her notes and field data, at least, were all intact. With some help from the pro-Scab foundation EPONA, they'd even started the process of straightening out her official records: securing new ID for her new identity, getting her name legally changed, recovering her finances, and clearing up that troublesome death certificate. Once her papers were all in order, there was a good chance that the university would change her bachelor's degree over to her new name.
All in all, things could have been a lot worse; and Wanderer had succeeded in borrowing a beautiful black dress for her use tonight from the theatre production company's costume department. The dress was sleeveless, with a neckline cut low-but-not-too-low, and a hem line that fell just above her knees. The gold earrings and necklace and the black high heels completed the striking image. Raven had tried putting her hair a number of different ways, before finally deciding to let it fall loose and natural over her shoulders. She stood there beside Wanderer, part wolf and all woman, and he knew that Rydia had some striking new competition for the attention of the bar's male customers. It would be up to him to ensure that attention did not go too far.
"Well ... okay. Let's do it," Raven said at last.
"Very well," Wanderer said, swirling his cloak once as he went to the door. "Wait here a moment, while I prepare the masses for your arrival."
Wanderer stepped inside, and spread his cloak wide as he held up his hands for silence. His artful entrance was enough to make most of the bar's denizens sit up and be quiet.
"Ladies, gentlemen ... and assorted others," he called out in a loud voice. "It is my supreme pleasure to introduce you all to a friend of mine. She is new to the city, and I expect every one of you-" he looked directly at the Lupine Boys "-and especially you ... to treat her with the utmost honor and respect. Anyone who does otherwise ... but no, I won't make threats. You are all my friends, and I know I can expect the best from you."
He placed his hand on the door handle. As he pulled the door wide with one hand, he drew his cape across the entranceway, like a curtain being pulled back from the stage.
"Ladies and gentlemen ... Miss Raven Blackmane!" he announced.
Raven stepped through the doorway.
And for once, nobody had a wisecrack to make. Even Jack was holding his lower jaw in his lap. The Lupine Boys couldn't even muster a wolf whistle. In the back, Brian popped nearly into full raccoon 'morph in surprise ... or perhaps awe.
All eyes were on Raven as Wanderer took her arm in his and escorted her inside. He looked over and saw a broad, surprised smile on her face.
"I've never gotten an entrance like that before," she whispered.
"Welcome to my true home, Miss Blackmane," Wanderer said, grinning. "Welcome ... to The Blind Pig."
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