Maynard Swift woke up in a dumpster, with a splitting pain in his head and no idea as to how he'd gotten there. The blood pounding in his ears blocked out all other sound. He tried to think, only to find that all complex neural operations were beyond him. He couldn't even get his eyes to open. Instead, he laid between fast food wrappers and a pile of something sticky and tried to focus on breathing. His neck was killing him.
What, he finally managed. What happened last night?
It was a thought, and a fairly good one at that. Encouraged, he tried for two.
Am I hungover?
That was definitely a possibility. Almost probable, in fact. He cracked open an eye, expecting light to scald his retinas the way it normally did after one of his benders. Instead, he found himself looking through faint, perfectly bearable moonlight filtering into the dumpster he was lying in.
Groaning, aching, and feeling generally like someone had thrown him in the wash, Maynard attempted to stand. It took him a few tries before his legs got the idea.
He was in an alley strewn with garbage and liquids of questionable origin. The air was filled with the smell of filth and swarms of mosquitoes. He toppled out of the dumpster, landing on something disconcertingly squishy.
He was presumably downtown -nowhere else in the city had buildings as tall as the ones surrounding him now. He was possibly hung over -it didn't feel like a hangover, but that really didn't mean much- and he was wearing half of an army uniform. The top half, to be exact, and a pair of mismatched combat boots. The name sewn onto the cameo jacket was 'Ronnie'. The part over his shoulder was caked in dried blood.
Ohh. . . kay, he thought. That's off.
A sliver of panic cut through the haze. There was something he was supposed to have done, but no matter how he racked his brain, he just couldn't remember what it was.
Sarge is gonna kill me, he thought with a wince. He could almost hear the sergeant laying into him for getting drunk when there was work to be done.
But what work, exactly. . .
Slowly, and aching every step of the way, Maynard made it to the street. The place was thrashed. Tourist shop windows had been shattered, debris was scattered across the road, even the few parked cars around had been broken into and dented. The one or two streetlights still working flickered with weak yellow light.
He stared dumbly at the wreckage and wondered what had happened.
Tornado? he thought. Then he chided himself.
He wasn't the only one out. All around, other people were milling about. Some were halfheartedly trying to clean up the mess. Some were just starting to wake up, prying themselves off the pavement and blinking blearily into the moonlight. And still, others picked themselves up only to settle back down again and stare off into space. All of them looked just as lost and confused as Maynard felt, and the majority of them were only partially dressed. The rest were, of course, nude.
His stomach sank. Looking out at the chaos, he couldn't shake the sneaking suspicion that this was partly his fault.
What the hell is going on? he thought.
"Hey,” he said, calling out to a woman nearby who was pulling on a sweater. "Do you know what’s going on?" He made very sure not to look anywhere that might be deemed inappropriate. There'd obviously been a disaster of some sort and this was no time for something as silly as sex. Even if she was attractive.
She glanced up at him with red rimmed eyes and Maynard found himself trying very hard not to be embarrassed. "Are you okay?"
"I think so," she said slowly. "My head just feels kind of swimmy."
"Do you know what’s been going on?"
She peered at him through blood matted hair. "You're new here, aren't you? You don't smell right."
Before she could answer, the air was filled with a high pitched keening.
It hurt. Oh God, it hurt. He fell to the ground, clutching his ears. His skin burned, every inch of him screamed with pain, and still the sirens shrieked on. He closed his eyes and tried to make it all go away.
Things were different when he woke up, but he couldn't tell how.
He sat up on his haunches and yawned, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth as it always did.
The girl was on the road, struggling to get out of the pink sweater. He wondered vaguely why she'd crawled into it in the first place, and put it down as a female thing.
He lifted his hind leg and scratched the back of his ear, then tried to suss out what was different.
Was there something off with his eyes? The world from that route seemed fuzzy and unreliable. It was all very plain. Something about it was missing, though he couldn't push through the fog in his head to figure out what.
But the eyes didn't matter, not really. The smells were what mattered. He gave a good sniff. The world opened up to him. He could smell all the people and things who'd walked over the very spot he was sitting, and, more urgently, he could smell the waves and waves of confusion and fear coming from everyone around him. There was also a half-eaten hamburger in the dumpster back there. In fact. . . There was a lot of good stuff back in that dumpster!
He got up and trotted over, back into the alley. Maybe that's what was wrong: he was hungry. He investigated the dumpster and cataloged what it told him in chronological order.
Two days ago some dog had come by and marked it as his own. Some human had rummaged around in it for food. Some other dog had come by and marked it as his- this one had worms and a tummy ache. Some cat came by-
His hackles rose.
-But had left shortly after when the first dog returned. Today, the only thing to happen was that something had rolled around in it, dug up some stuff, and left.
Hmm. The last one was an odd smell- familiar and foreign. He thought it was human at first, but no. Parts of it were much more furry.
He walked over and put his mark all over the others, just to show them whose bin it really was, then leaped inside, prepared for some eats.
The girl back out in the road let off a howl. Somebody else howled in answer. And another, and another. Soon the air was filled with the mingled calls.
Without thinking, Maynard dropped the hamburger and threw back his head.
The howl brought them together. Hundreds of them- thousands of them, all over the city.
We're here, it said. We're all here.
Something else cut through the howl. It was dark and strong and noiselessly flitted through their minds- through all of their minds. In words that weren't really words and backed by sheer force of will, it said,
His ears twitched forward, back towards the road. He looked up.
Boots. Boots sneaking over concrete and grass and the shuffling of cloth on cloth and cloth on hairless skin-
His ears twitched the other direction.
Running paws, claws clicking each time they made contact with the street. Panting, growling, snarling.
Again, the not-voice slicked though the back of his head.
Go, it said. Attack.
He whimpered. His ears drooped, and his tail curled between his legs.
He broke. The dog Maynard ran into the streets to join the pack.
The men came through the streets with guns and uniforms and smells that the human Maynard knew were familiar, even if he'd never really noticed them before. If he took the time, he could probably pick out one or two of the faces. He screamed inside his head not to do it, to ignore the voice and to get out, to get help.
But all the dog Maynard saw were intruders. They were a threat to the master, and they had to be stopped.
He ran to them.
The fight was chaos. He bit and he clawed and he only narrowly avoided being shot. Others weren't as lucky: for every soldier they brought down, five of their own went down with him. None of them fled: none of them could. The urging in the back of their heads wouldn't let them. Even if they'd been hurt, even if they'd been riddled with holes and were only standing by sheer force of will, they had to keep fighting until they dropped.
The air was full of growls and snarls and shouts and shots and his mouth was full of coppery tasting blood that revolted Human Maynard but was just a type of food to the dog Maynard. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a little nagging feeling told him this had happened to him before.
He didn't know how long the fight lasted. The dog wasn't good at keeping time. He only knew that after every man he brought down, there was another to take its place until, finally, they retreated. They backed away quickly, still taking the occasional shot but for the most staying quiet.
The voice didn't urge the remaining dogs to follow, so they stayed and watched, hackles raised and teeth bared, as the men left the city.
The streets were full of the dead and dying and splattered with blood both human and dog alike.
Again came the voice.
It pulled them. It dragged at them and forced them to go. They ran, leaving the dead and wounded in the streets. All of them- they had to. Their master was calling.
The call lead them through the streets and through the city. Past buildings and parks and cars. Past dumped over food carts that the dog Maynard wanted soooo badly, past interesting squirrels and cats to chase. Past anything that could have helped him forget the pain in his neck and the blood blood in his teeth.
They followed the call to an arena. The smells of stale popcorn and floor polish and thousands of adrenaline-steeped people were swamped by the smell of a thousand dogs piling into the building. Without being told, they all sat in rows.
A man stood in the center of the arena, waiting for them, his arms crossed, his foot tapping.
He watched them all enter and sit. He seemed to be waiting for something. After a few minutes of almost silence, he went to the nearest door and looked outside.
"What?" he saids, his voice echoing around the room. "That's it?" He came in and looked over them all, disgusted. "This is all of you that's left? Pathetic." He walked along the rows, inspecting. "I'll have to get those golems up and running, then. I can't have all of you going out there and dying."
He passed by Maynard.
The human in Maynard reeled. He knew that man. He'd seen pictures. He'd seen him in the news. He'd-
It all came rushing back.
The man's name was Valmont. Alderic Valmont. A sorcerer who'd been on the run and had taken the entire city hostage. Necromancy, Malignant Oneiromancy, human experimentation- his record was a mile long.
Maynard growled. He'd taken the city. He'd cut off all communications, put up barriers so no other wizards could get in, and he'd. . . he'd done something to the people. . . something that. . .
Maynard sneezed. What little flash of clarity he'd had was gone. He was just another dog, waiting in a room full of dogs.
Alderic heard the growl. "What?" he said, turning. "Who was that?" He caught sight of Maynard and tilted his head. "You. Come here."
The dog Maynard whined. The man sounded angry with him. He didn't want the man to be angry with him! He was a good boy.
"I said get over here! Come!"
Slowly, Maynard dragged himself forward, whining all the while, his tail tucked piteously between his legs.
"You're not one of mine," the man said. He lifted Maynard's muzzle and checked his eyes.
"Hmm. Interesting." He knelt down and checked the bite mark on Maynard's neck. "Mutation." He checked Maynard's teeth. "It shouldn't be transferable," he murmured. "You shouldn't be here."
Get him! The human Maynard screamed. Get him now!
But he was the master. He loved the master.
The dog whimpered again.
"-be useful," Valmont went on. "Different forms of contagion. Yes, this could be interesting. I can use this. Good boy." He patted Maynard's head.
Maynard hadn't know his tail could beat so fast. He loved loved loved-
The human Maynard pushed through the fog and dragged the Dog out of the way.
Valmont drew back. "What-"
The human Maynard leapt for the throat. There was a moment of terror and anger the feeling of teeth on pathetically thin skin. There was the feel of tearing and then the smell and taste of hot blood and the sound of every other dog in the room squealing in pain.
Something inside them had broken. Valmont was dead, the spell was off. The thousand dogs who'd come into the building passed out, completely human again.
Maynard didn't pass out. He wouldn't let himself. Unlike the others, he had slipped painlessly into humanity, with only the halfhearted guilt of the dog left over. Somebody had to be awake to tell the others what had happened, even if he didn't know what, exactly, had happened.
Sick with blood and half heartbroken, he went over to the far end of the arena, where he curled into a little ball of misery and waited for someone to find them.
* * * * *
The following weeks passed quickly.
They gave him a medal. They thanked him for his bravery. He thanked them for the medal. Then he went back to his room. Nobody seemed to mind.
The ceremony was a farce.
Almost an entire city had been emptied by the people sent in to save them. The only survivors were survivors because they were better at killing and not at being killed.
"We didn't know," someone told him later. "We didn't know what they were. We thought they were conjurations or phantoms or something else."
Maynard nodded. He understood completely. It still didn't help. They sent him to therapy. They sent everyone to therapy.
He wasn't sure if that helped, either.
They'd had several medics and several military sorcerers come check him out. They told him he was fine. That he'd contracted the spell from being bitten, but now that Valmont was dead, there was nothing to worry about.
"But mine wasn't the same as everyone else's. He said it was mutated-"
The spell he cast on everyone had died when he died, they said.
"But he didn't cast it on me-"
Was Maynard feeling okay?
He was fine. Now go out there and make us all proud, soldier.
* * * * *
He woke up a month later with the urge to run.
He crept noiselessly out of the room they'd given him, padding down the hall and leaving through the front door. The knob had taken some work, but he'd managed in the end. He stepped outside.
The night was cool and quiet. The moon was round and full and hung alone in the starless sky.
Maynard resisted the urge to sing to it.
Not here, he thought. Not here.
He ran. Through the streets and dim alleys, through the parks and past the suburbs until he'd left the city behind. It was astoundingly easy to run. There was no shortness of breath or ache in his legs: he could've run on forever, if he'd wanted.
But you can't, the human in him said. You'll have to go back. There are responsibilities. Family, friends-
The part of Maynard running through the field would have laughed aloud if he'd had the throat for it. It wasn't some alien presence in his head: it was himself. A small, primal part of himself that had never seen the light of day, had never been let out of the dark place in his mind until now.
Those are all dog worries, it said. The dog died the instant you bit your master.
Then what am-?
The human Maynard stopped and laughed inside. He knew exactly what he was.
So the human Maynard sat back and gratefully let the wolf Maynard take over. It would only be temporary, but for now, they were free.