This is one of the Paragon Path tales I wrote for my Dungeons and Dragons group. Enjoy!
Futch frowned as he walked away from the others. No-one seemed in a particularly celebratory mood; they had won the war, beaten the Lich, but at a high cost. Hundreds had died, thousands perhaps. Ostardva, Gieve, the others on the airship.
He gritted his teeth and clenched his fist, fighting the surge of frustration that threatened to boil over. To have been so far away, and not able to do anything, or even know about it... It wasn’t fair. He wandered through the streets, barely aware of the direction his feet were taking him, lost in thought.
Finally he stood in front of the southern gate, looking out over the plains. The gently sloping path that lead to Varikause and beyond lay in front of him and, with one backwards glance at Fjornik, he shifted.
Faster than the wind, faster than thought, he ran, and as he ran he allowed the sheer joy of it to carry away his anger and sadness. They can never know this, he thought to himself,never see the world through scent and hear the smallest sound, never run through the wilds on four paws like this.
He kept a wide berth of Varikause; a black cloud of smoke hung over it, still home to hundreds of refugees in a shanty town all around the small village. He saw children playing in the fields, mock swordfights, and watched for an hour or more as the citizens went about their day.
They live because we fought, he thought to himself.
Still, he pushed on, drawn by memory and thought on to the great Greenwood forest.
It was quieter there. A lone owl hooted off in the dimness between the trees, and the light had a muted quality. It smelled good here, natural. Futch only had to take a deep breath to tell that this place was healthy, natural. Except... there, on the breeze, right at the edge, was an intruding scent. It was darker, sweet in the way that rotten meat is.
Slower now, alert, Futch moved through the forest. He was off the path, and he realised that he was heading in the general direction of Maran’s village. It was attacked, he remembered. The memory flashed into his mind: the roiling deck of the Cloud Goddess under his feet as a whole swarm of black demonkind bombarded them, some clutching at Deathbell flowers, others with claws freshly bloodied. An acrid column of smoke had been rising from the camp.
He slowed to a walk, then stopped, as he came out of the trees and into a clearing. It was the camp, once, but now it was a ruin. Fires had burned the tents and some of the platforms. Elder Thal’s staff lay discarded to one side. Trees had been felled, so furious was the assault, and everywhere there was death. Elves, male, female, young, old. Glassy-eyed stares looked out onto the uncaring sky.
Futch stood in the centre, letting the horror wrap around him. The analytical part of his mind, the part of him that had seen so many battles in the last year, began to read the attack.
They came from the west, from the skies. There was a little warning, enough to get a defensive line in place. The archers took several down. Almost as many black bodies lay on the ground amidst the wreckage, most of them pierced through with green-fletched shafts.The demons were intelligent; they brought torches, or lit fires. The tents burned easily, caused confusion. The Elder made a stand with his sister, Lillia, but too many were dead by then. The trail lead on, to the small grove where the Deathbells grew. Two dead elves, the tenders, lay in the midst of blood-spattered purple flowers, themselves dying.
Futch lay down by the bodies of the elves and howled, low and mournful. Tears fell from his eyes, matting the fur on his face and paws, and he sank down, ears flat.
The moon came into view through the foliage above, round and full, and Futch realised that he was not alone, had not been alone for many minutes. Whatever sense had warned him, it wasn’t scent or hearing; the wind was still blowing the stink of the graveyard camp towards him, and the night was cold and dark. Tentatively, Futch stood up and trotted back into the main part of the camp.
There was someone following. Watching. This time, they betrayed themselves slightly. A snap as a branch broke. A rustling of leaves. Whoever they were, they were keeping downwind. Very clever.
Futch narrowed his eyes and turned, moving off into the forest again. He began to move erratically, ever ready to turn, shift, attack, whatever was necessary, but his pursuers kept their distance. He spotted a shadow, darker than the night, over there, and another there... five, all told.
A plan began to form in his head, and he turned his ducking and weaving into something more purposeful. Let’s see if they can keep up, he thought, and poured everything into a headlong flight.
They were still with him when he came to the small cabin in the woods where, so long ago, he had faced Noth with the others. Here, he thought, and turned. With his back to the cabin, knowing the lay of the land, he was ready. He ducked his head, eyes alert, tail up, ready to pounce if necessary.
Five shadows detached themselves from the midnight forest and stalked into the clearing. They were wolves, he realised, as big as him. They began to arrange themselves into a semicircle, watching him. Their eyes were yellow, their coats sleek and grey like his, except for the one that came to sit directly in front of him; her coat was marred by a white streak down the front, like a lightning strike.
Futch watched the wolves carefully, and after a moment the central one opened its mouth.
“You’re like us. But not like us.”
The voice was female, and Futch sat back, still wary but intrigued. Slowly, for maximum effect, he released his hold on the natural spirit that gave his wolf-form shape, letting fur become flesh and cloth, letting claws become the Morningstar that he carried. He held it loosely in one hand.
The lead wolf shook her head. “I can’t do that,” she said, her voice slightly impeded by the fangs in her mouth. “If I change back, if any of us change back, we would be naked. Defenceless.” She tilted her head to one side. “Why are you out here?”
“I’m mourning,” Futch said, surprised at the truest answer coming so readily to his lips. “I’ve lost so much in the last months. I fought a great evil, and many people died. My friends were hurt, and there was little I could do. One died. She was like me.” He sighed and hung the Morningstar on his belt. “I don’t know what I’m looking for out here. Strength, maybe. The strength to prevent needless loss of life. To be able to do my part to prevent the future from being a cold, dead graveyard.”
“You have strength. Primal strength.” The other wolves nodded at their leader’s words.. “Perhaps strength isn’t enough.” Futch gestured to his body. “I have human instincts even in beast form.”
They were silent a moment, a light snow beginning to fall around them. Then the lead wolf nodded once.
“Tonight, of all nights, with the moon riding high, we are strong.” She looked down and her next words held bitterness. “You have more strength than us, perhaps. When the undead came, we preyed on the helpless. We did not join the fight. We survived. It is our way.” She looked up into Futch’s eyes again. “I regret this,” she said. “We would atone for our cowardice.”
Futch shook his head and frowned. “If you truly want to atone, you need to help those you have wronged.”
Futch pointed north. “There are hundreds of people at Varikause. Do you know it?”
Two of the wolves snarled, but a single look from the leader was enough to silence them. She turned to look up at Futch. “We know it. We are not welcome there, in human form or beast form. We are outcast because of what we become.”
“You can still help them,” Futch said, trying to meet each wolf’s eyes. “You are hunters, first and foremost. There are many more humans at Varikause than can be supported. Hunt, feed, and leave the rest near the outskirts of the town for the guard to find in the morning.”
“They will not know who aids them,” the leader said. She paused for a moment, then nodded. “But it is better this way. Come, hunt with us, under the moon. Let us show you the strength inside you.”
Futch twisted the primal force inside him and around him, shrinking back down onto all fours, grey hair sprouting all over his body. One by one, the wolves turned and moved into the forest, silent hunters, and Futch went with them.