Saturday, June 08, 2013

Unexpected Canines

A few days later, the desert had lowered into a slightly more fertile valley lined with rocky cliffs. It was probably too dry for agriculture - there was a sluggish trail of muddy water down the middle of the valley, no more - but the sand was sprinkled with grass and wiry little bushes. We even caught sight of the occasional goat, though they were always darting out of sight behind rocks by the time we noticed them. They were far warier than we were.

In hindsight, that probably should have told us something.

We walked downstream ("stream" being a generous term) for another day or two. Running water tends to lead to more running water, and enough running water will eventually have people living by it. This is true nearly anywhere in the world. The food - animal and vegetable - was far more plentiful in the valley, and there were occasional clear pools where we stopped to refill our water. Occasionally, there were even trees with enough shade to sit in. Rattlebirds and orange-furred marmlets stared at us from high in the rocks. They scuttled away when we looked at them.

On the third day, we found out why all the animals were so skittish. The valley had gotten deeper, winding in sharp zigzags beneath the sandstone cliffs. There were occasional spots where the water actually trickled instead of oozed. We were in much higher spirits than before. We were walking beside the stream, debating whether marmlets were edible or poisonous like their cousin the nightshade gopher, when we came around a rock and found a pack of saber-dingoes staring at us.

Everyone froze.

Saber-dingoes have gained something of a bad reputation in the Golden Desert; unfortunately, they have earned most of it quite honestly. The most common theory is that they are descended from only the nastiest bits of wild dogs, lions, and wolverines. In most parts of the world, the wild canines - wolves, jackals, thylacines* - will leave people alone, correctly judging that these bizarre upright creatures with their fire and metal are much more dangerous than any wild predator. Saber-dingoes are different. They will not attack large groups of animals - hence the use of caravans for desert travel - but they will not hesitate to attack anything, no matter how large or well-armed, as long as they outnumber it.

There were four of us. There were eight dingoes. The smallest of them probably weighed more than Garnet. We had a few knives between us, ranging from bread knives to potato peelers; the dingoes had claws and teeth. They also had the fangs for which they are named, two each, serrated blades as long as my forearm that hung down to either side of their chins. If anyone had been placing bets, they would not have been on us.

We had been downwind of the dingoes, and they had been busy dividing up a dead goat, so they were as surprised as we were - but considerably more pleased. In moments, they had left the goat behind and were slinking toward us with the casual, eager grace of a predator who has just spotted much larger and better-fed prey.

We raised such pathetic excuses for weapons as bread knives and backpacks and tried not to panic. The goat did not look as if it had had a chance to run very far.

That was when Garnet came out from behind us. We tried to stop her - pointlessly, as a few feet more or less of distance was clearly not going to make much difference to the dingoes - but she shrugged us away and kept going.

She stopped, facing the ranks of saber-toothed grins, and began to grow.

Thick, black fur sprouted along her arms and neck, and her loose clothes rustled and shifted as muscles and limbs expanded beneath them. We could hear her bones creaking. In what seemed like an eternity but was probably less than twenty seconds, there was a nine-foot-tall black werewolf with claws like a velociraptor standing where the small woman had been. She was still wearing the same delicate pink sari she'd had since leaving the caravan. It looked positively tiny on her now.

Wordless, she pulled back her lips and growled at the pack, giving them (and us) a clear view of fangs that would have put a crocodile to shame.

The pack held very still for a second. Then, without the slightest twitch as a warning, the largest saber-dingo - a male with a ragged mane - sprang for her throat.

She met him halfway. There was a brief scuffle, full of flying sand and snarls like ripping cloth. The two of them paused just long enough for us to see that she had somehow gotten her teeth around his throat - he probably would have lost it if not for his mane - and then she flexed the muscles of her neck and shoulders and threw him fifteen feet into a sand dune. She was on him again before he could get back on his paws.

The other dingoes tried to leap at Garnet as soon as her back was turned. After all, the point of a pack is not to attack things alone. The rest of us shouted warnings, and she backhanded them across the sand before they could get near her. They gave up after only a few tries.

The largest one was far more stubborn. I won't go into detail about the rest of the fight, except to say that he was bleeding from a dozen wounds - none of them fatal; she seemed uninterested in killing him - and was missing most of his left ear by the time he finally gave up, crawling away with what remained of his tail between his legs. The rest of the pack followed him without a sound.

Garnet stood there, panting, and watched them go until they were out of sight behind the next bend in the valley. She turned and gave us an apologetic grin with too much red in it.

"Sorry if I frightened you," she said, and collapsed.

It took all three of us to drag her over to the stream. We had cleaned her wounds, as well as we could, and were just starting to bandage them when she shifted back to human. Every cut promptly healed on its own. This is fairly normal for shapeshifters; they never stay wounded for long. When you're reshaping your entire body, there's no reason to leave holes in it.

Garnet remained unconscious until after sundown. When she woke up, she emptied the nearest pool of water, ate our entire supply of dried meat, and followed it with everything that remained of the dingoes' goat. If she hadn't been so exhausted, I suspect she would have gone out into the dark to catch another one.

When she had finished, she apologized again for frightening us and for not telling us sooner. We assured her that no apologies were necessary. After all, if she hadn't been there, we would have been not only frightened, but rather unpleasantly dead as well.

We had to admit, though, that we were rather curious.

Garnet had come from a part of the Desert where werewolves were rumored to live, she said, but none of her relatives could remember there being one in the family before. Apparently, it's a trait that can skip many generations before it shows up again, like blue eyes in a dark-eyed family, or carnivorism in a family of herbivores. She confused her parents to no end as a teenager. She was always hungry - she could out-eat everyone in her family - but she never seemed to actually grow any larger. No one was sure where she was putting it all.

They found out when she changed for the first time, at age fifteen. She had been growing - but not in her normal body. Instead, it had all been going into that mysterious little side pocket of existence where werewolves keep their extra mass. The first time she changed, she destroyed her dress and half of the room she was in, mostly due to panicking and exiting through the nearest wall.

She's been careful to wear loose clothing ever since, just in case.

She stays human nearly all the time because it's easier, she said; she weighs less, eats less, hits her head on fewer doorways, and is far less hot without all that black fur. Also, walking around as a nine-foot pillar of muscle and sharp ends tends to frighten people.

"Actually," she said with a rueful laugh, "it frightens me a little too. It's too big, too strong, too pointy. Most of the time, I just try to forget the wolf is there." She paused for a moment, then smiled. "I guess it was good to have it today, though."

We all quite emphatically agreed.

* Yes, I know that thylacines are not technically canines, but they take much the same role in the parts of the world where they live. The same is true for houndworms, cerulean monitor lizards, and the feral candroids in a few of the wrecked floating cities.

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