He stuck to back country roads as he made his way from Montana to Pennsylvania, often going off road much to the complaint of his under-maintained Range Rover. He couldn't go on highways or populated roads, the noise and the cars were bad enough but he also hadn’t obeyed traffic laws in over a decade. He didn’t feel like giving highway patrol a bad day.
He felt restless and irritable being cooped up in the car fro this long, but there was nothing for it. He couldn’t carry all his possessions at once and walking, fast as he was, wasn’t pragmatic.
Mac and Brian lay in the backseat, both claiming a window respectfully to stick their heads out and get some fresh air.
They were in the last stretch, crossing the bounding fields of Ohio, but the irritability and boredom was catching up. Connor needed to get out, to run, to hunt, to feed. He checked the paper maps he kept in the glove department, there was a pretty decent stretch of woods between where he was and the Ohio river.
He turned the car roughly in that direction and pumped the gas pedal. The engine complained but did its job and he sped in a very much illegal manner all the way.
He made good time, it was still early in the evening. Late enough that most people would have left should they had been on the trail. Connor stepped out of the car and breathed the free air, it wasn’t truly the wild, the smell of people and towns were still close by. Something he couldn’t properly escape in this side of the country. Mac and Brian were already anxious, yapping and whining until Connor opened the back door for them.
“Away!” they needed to encouragement they launched out and bound into the woods; they would find their own meals of rabbits and squirrels. Connor would need something more substantial. He reached into the backseat and retrieved his sword, pulling it slightly out to check the edge. It was the closest thing he had to a friend besides Mac and Brian. He couldn’t remember a time without it, or a time he had anything else in his life. No, just him, his dogs, and his sword; his weapon, his claw…
”Mo Bhrón” he mumbled to himself. ”My fury”
Connor strapped the sword to his back and bound into the woods, he felt his bones and flesh shift, his lungs expand, he bent down and all fours and ran through the wilderness. He found high ground, and breathed in deeply through his nose. Oak, buckeye, hickory… droppings, prey droppings, nearby, they smelt of the grass they ate. Connor stalked down the other side of the hill, his nose to the ground, following the scent.
For these moments he embraced the animal, that primal part of him. He had known, for a very long time, that resisting it was futile. He would only grow angry and irritable should he forgo his needs; dangerous even, it was never good when a large predator went hungry.
He found the droppings, a few of them, a small herd. Whitetails. Delicious. He sat back on his haunches, closed his eyes and listened. The land was alive, every part of it, breathing and singing in a great chorus of life. It was connected, singular in its presence, even Connor was a part of it. The great spirit, holy and mysterious, present in all things, conscious in His will.
Echoing across this boundless sea of life came to Connor’s ear the soft steps of hooves, the light whine of a buck making a call. He was close, and all else faded away now to a dull roar, as he focused solely on his quarry. Keeping low to the ground he followed the sound.
There it was, a buck, long beautiful antlers, gently grazing in a small clearing; illuminated in the last vestiges of sunset. Orange growing across its fur. Loud and aggressive, it wanted to pounce right there and then and tear the prey apart. But now is when he steadies himself. The savage was for those who deserved it, those who knew better, those men in the woods with the little girl; they deserved it. This buck, what was about to happen, this was just the law of the wild. So Connor carefully pulled his sword free, and remembered words of an old friend.
”You carry the spirit of a wild dog with you, Ituya-Sunka, wild, fierce, savage at times” Chaoa had said. ”This gives you great power, but you must have great restraint, you are not truly the dog, for you shall not tear and kill painfully and savagely. You shall fell your prey cleanly, with the honour that a man should carry himself with, and you shall use every part of it, and be thankful for its sacrifice”
Connor leveled his blade, its edge parallel with the ground, the tip pointed towards the buck's neck. It raised its head, looking towards where Connor crouched, some unknown sense of danger alerting it, but it was too late. Connor launched forward quickly and with precision, and buried his sword to the hilt right through the buck's neck. The nerves and vertebrae severed. and it shuttered, dead before it knew it; it fell over, Connor's sword buried in it still. He knelt by its side, both his hands still on the hilt of his sword, like a knight taking an oath, and he remembered the words of another.
"Be thankful for everything you are given, offer it to the Lord, your skill and your cleverness brought you far, but all is as God wills it."
Connor's hand brushed the wooden rosary that hung from his neck and he whispered to himself.
"By the grace of God may I always honor,
thank and adore the Lord God who created the animals
and saw that each species was good.
Let me love the God who made humans
in His own image and likeness
and set them over the whole world,
to have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the birds of the air,
and over the cattle, and over all the earth,
and over every creeping thing
that creeps upon the earth"
He took his time butchering the buck, taking as much meat as possible, he only really did this for convenience sake as well in case he had extra. But hungry and on edge from the long drive as he was Connor set upon consuming the flesh of the buck. His mouth unhinged and his canines tore the raw flesh from bones, they ripped sinew and fat, his jaw snapped through bones and he sucked the marrow. The blood stained his beard, hands, and face, he felt the power and strength that had once been in the buck seep into him, his muscles bulged, his strength returned, energy renewed. All that was left after he was done was the antlers, some offal, and the hide.
Using his Bowie knife Connor fashioned the hide into a makeshift bag so he could carry the leftovers easily. He carried them away to where he knew a small rover ran through these woods. It was getting dark now but Connor could see perfectly, he found the river and set all his things on the bank and began to strip. It wouldn't do to go into the city smelling of flesh, blood, and years alone in the woods. He submerged himself in the cold rover water and washed the tangles from his hair and beard, scrubbing the many layers of dirt and blood from himself. He could still smell it but the average human wouldn't. Though for good measure he foraged some ginseng and rosemary, mixing these with river water he pulverized them in his hand and rubbed it through his abundant body hair.
Once dry he returned to his car where Mac and Brian were waiting for him, muzzles bloody, they didn't refuse the offal though and ate that up. Connor changed clothing, his least-worn pair of jeans, a red plaid shirt, a large hooded coat, and boots that went up to his knees. He wrapped his sword in old blankets to hide it for now and concealed his Bowie knife and revolver inside his coat.
It was very late, or perhaps early, when he drove into Pittsburgh proper. Late enough that the clubs were closed but the late bars still weren't for your nighttime alcoholics. He didn't really know the area, but according to the paper maps he had he was somewhere in the Elliot-Westside area. In truth, his only lead was this city, his only intention was to sniff around to see if there was anything to it. Anyone who thought they could traffic through his forest would be hunted until they were all gone, but it was entirely possible it was a one off thing.
Connor spotted a bar still open, Huntsman Scott's, he definitely saw the irony.
He pulled into the parking lot outside, for all his dislike of the city, he was in want of a whiskey or two. When he opened his door he was assaulted by the smells and sounds of civilization, noise, cars, distant yelling, a gunshot or two. He smells shriveled his nose, shit, piss, decay. It was a whirlwind of sensations, one that made Connor falter and grasp his head. It was too much, too much, too much.
He eventually got a hold of himself, taking deep calming breaths, he even retrieved the buck fur and used it as a filter of sorts to refill his nose with the smell of the wild. It would take some adjustment to this place, whiskey would help. He let Mac and Brian out, and let them wander about the local area, they would stay out of trouble. He locked his car and headed inside the bar.
Todd was a city animal. Not by breeding – not really, if his abilities were any indication. But he’d adapted to a city environment like a fox to back alley scavenging from the very beginning. A suburban childhood gave him the cultural experiences, and foster care in large families had given him the necessary social training to sit quietly and listen, smile and nod when asked.
And the concrete jungle was full of people who thought they were predators, and that made them cocky. Cocky prey was dead prey, if they attracted the attention of a real hunter. Swagger got in the way when you were forced to run.
The Jackals had quieted down, and Todd wanted to keep a low profile with their competition until he figured some things out. It’d been a rough few weeks, that was for sure. But he did need to keep active, and so he went down a different avenue entirely, shifting his attention from drug trade to trafficking. Todd was pretty sure Scott’s wasn’t a front so much as a hangout for one of those groups, one of the ones that used their hunting club as a front for something a lot less honorable than the chase.
Most of the sweaty, puffed-up men were annoying, but probably innocent. Assholes, but they were too busy telling the stories of their accomplishments at full volume to notice the thin man sipping a rum and coke at the bar, the seats either side of him open. They were too busy with their groups to notice how he wasn’t completely focused on the space ahead of him with his eyes – or they wrote that off as his drink. They wouldn’t notice the slight tilt of his head toward an overcrowded booth that was using the volume of the bar around them to hide their conversation from human ears. For hunters, they really didn’t account for something with above average hearing when they mentioned a time and an address. Those had been written down on a napkin, and tucked into the pocket of Todd’s vest.
With the information he’d come for acquired, Todd was planning to just finish his drink and go home to pick up the hunt tomorrow before the bar door opened, and the night air interrupted the cigarette smoke and beer and sweat with a breeze of something much more wild.
The scent caught something in Todd’s instincts enough that he turned his head halfway toward the door. It took him a few seconds to recognize the herbs, mixed with other plant life. Trees, dirt, general outdoors. Not unusual. Even the wet dog wasn’t that unusual for a bar like Scott’s, or the blood – animal blood, not human. He couldn’t tell what animal from here, not with his experience, but his best guess was deer. Most of the guys here were deer hunters. Nothing odd about it.
It wasn’t until his instincts urged him to look that he understood why they were abuzz.
The man wasn’t that tall, but he was heavy. Any implication Todd’s inner carnivore might draw from that was diverted by the way he carried that weight, carried his whole being. As he took in the set of his shoulders, the casual power he brought with him that made even the humans subconsciously step out of his way, Todd completely understood that he was looking at a predator.
Todd turned back to the bar, where there were a number of open seats away from him, and resumed sipping his rum. He shifted his body language to pull back, to relax and blend in. Social camouflage was Todd’s strong suit, and he wasn’t in the mood after the week he’d had to appear as a threat to the other animal.
The smells and sounds of this bar were still plentiful and distracting but less overwhelming. Sweat, stale beer, testosterone, there were others who smelt of animal blood and the woods like him. In some ways they were kin to Connor, but in so many other ways they were not; they were interlopers into his world, visitors, tourists.
He found his way to the bar and ordered a whiskey, he took a moment to centre himself. It would take a few days of adjusting to truly be able to hunt properly in this new environment, but getting use to a small space would be a good start. His whiskey arrived and Connor downed it and ordered another, it allowed him to focus. One by one he considered the sensations of this place and adjusted them to mere background noise, with time he was able to isolate each sensation apart and choose what he truly heard. It was as he was doing this that something caught his attention, he wasn't sure what it was at first, some primal feeling, old and cautious, it warned him of something else here.
He focused, he felt the heat, but in one spot... lack of heat, he inhaled slowly. Coffee, oil, mint... cinnamon? But there was something else beyond all that. Metallic, blood, not animal blood, no, it didn't layer his tongue like that did. No he knew this taste, though he found it foul, that stinging stench that somehow smelt sickly sweet... human, rotting human, flesh and sinew. Not a full rotting corpse, no, but a stomach of them.
His hackles tensed, his teeth threatened to show, he calmed himself with another whiskey. His instincts were sound, he'd felt this before when near a bear or a pack of wolves, there was something here that could hurt him very badly. There was no fear, not yet, only caution, fear got you killed, showing weakness got you killed. He considered what to do. He knew whatever it was had to be at the other side of the bar, that's where that smell and feeling was radiating from and... eyes, yes, it had looked at him, he felt the gaze.
Connor popped his thumb in his mouth, trying to think. The law of the wild was pretty clear on this, if you met another predator you both went your separate ways, perhaps after posturing and making sure to each other you mean business. If they were well and truly in your territory, you had cause to tear them apart, though you may consider not if it was too much of a risk. Connor was in this thing's territory, no doubt about it, but he hadn't challenged or torn him apart. That told him that it either didn't want that fight, or didn't believe in such rules.
Either way, he couldn't let it go, it had looked at him. Looking, whether this thing believed so or not, was a challenge. If he looked, that would be a challenge. But not looking would be a sign of weakness, leaving even worse, Connor had to make it clear he had no intentions of going anywhere anytime soon, as well as make it clear this thing couldn't scare him away. Still, this wasn't the wild, there was a degree of civility and conduct to be expected. Connor recalled The Three Musketeers, they were always so civil and polite to their enemies, this ideal battled with the animal inside which roared to challenge this threat.
In the end he did turn to look, purposefully, he didn't try to hide he was looking. His eyes flashed in the dim light like an animal. He didn't know what he expected it to look like, but it looked like a tall, thin man. Very pale, all cheekbones, the visuals gave not much away, but the smell did; and the more he looked, the more off the face did. It struck something in his memory, Connor couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something deep inside of him told him that whatever this man was, it wasn't to be trifled with. There was something about the eyes, cold and blue, a look of desperate hunger.
So he ordered another whiskey, and then ordered the man a rum and coke and told the bar tender to say it was from him. From one hunter to another.
He continued to watch the other predator, but not with his eyes, not directly. He couldn’t help but be aware of the sheer force of presence there. He heard his order for whiskey. And he felt the tension from across the room, the tension that brushed up against his animal from the other predator, a tension that did not scream run but whispered, be ready.
Todd Fowler had no formal training when it came to his instincts. Like his fighting – at least until he met Sam – he let intuition guide him, and especially in situations like this one, intuition could save a life.
He felt the weight when the larger predator turned his eyes in Todd’s direction. He didn’t shrink from the gaze, kept his casual relaxation, didn’t change his behavior. This was less a matter of out of sight out of mind, and more a resistance of prey instinct. Intuitively he knew that he was less than this other predator, but if the other predator realized that, there would be consequences. So Todd remained, and did not look at him again. It wasn’t a challenge, but it wasn’t an acceptance of implied challenge, either. He wasn’t acknowledging dominance, he was taking a neutral stance.
He needed to do something, though, because his instincts were at war. Part of him knew that this wasn’t a fight he could win, if an actual hunt broke out, and that he needed to leave first and acquiesce dominance, let the other hunter have the day. There was another part of him that knew better, that knew that to run was to draw attention, that predators chased by instinct anything that ran. And there was still another part, the quietest but most dangerous, that said mine, the part that held onto this place and its people as only a predator can hold them, hungry violence that took and kept.
It wasn’t because of the other predator, but because of that part of himself, that Todd tipped back the rest of his drink. He was about to put his money on the counter and leave, when the bartender set another glass down in front of him. Todd arched his eyebrow at him, but the man just shrugged and gestured to the other predator.
“Compliments of the ginger. He says one hunter to another.”
Todd couldn’t help but smile, the polite, close-lipped smile he wore with long practice. Some of the tension under the surface eased. He thanked the bartender, then looked over at the other man, more deliberately. He didn’t meet his eyes, but he did catch his face, focusing on his chin. When he felt the weight of acknowledgement, he nodded to the other man and raised his glass, then looked away.
To leave after that was now out of the question. Todd could manage, for the span of another drink.
The smile was a good sign, as well as the raised glass. These were human things, but the posture spoke more stories, his diverted gaze not quite looking at him. He didn't want a fight, and neither did Connor, in the wild this would mean parting ways. But there was more going on here, they were, of course, civilized beasts. This was something men of old ages often talked about, the savagery hidden beneath a veneer of chivalry, you could shake a man's hand just as quickly as run him though. It would be impolite not to double down, so Connor finished his whiskey, and he stood up.
He made sure to approach the man calmly yet cautiously, like a dog does approach someone it's not yet sure to trust. The smell of him was a wafting stench now, it wasn't just the flesh, the blood, or that strange tinge of cinnamon; no, something else. A strange thing, a body made to consume itself, or at least things very close to itself. In a way, Connor realized, he was a meal just the same, though just because a bobcat can eat a timber wolf doesn't mean it's likely to try.
But this brought with it a new realization as he sat down next to him, this man was surrounded by prey, and they didn't even know. Deft and swift as he was, Connor had never sat amongst deer or sheep without them being bothered, nor had he the cause to. He considered, then, that this may be a hunting pattern, camouflage of course being a common tactic in nature. As with this one's prey being what it was, Connor figured scouting was indeed very important to the process. Yet that left a problem, if he was interrupting a hunt, truly in this hunter's territory, then it's still a big issue whether they resorted to tooth and claw now or later. This thought stirred inside him, his jaw clenched, was he fast enough to strike him down before he could react? Connor hadn't spotted his teeth, nor could he see claws, it's possible he carried weapons, of what sort? There was too many unknown, too risky to think about. Some manner of truce, even for just a moment, would need to be agreed upon.
Connor kept his face mostly forward, only turning slightly towards the man out of politeness, he did though brave to stare fully from his side eye at him. Not in the eyes, not yet, that would send thing over the edge for the both of them he was sure. There was a thin veneer between their act and the chaos within, it would only be good order between them that got them through it.
"Are you hunting right now?" was how he chose to phrase the question, it was innocuous enough to anyone else. Anyone else would assume he was asking a fellow game hunter if he was out on the trail, striking up conversation, asking if he's active in the hobby. Connor figured this guy was smart enough to understand the implication of what he was asking, surrounded by prey as they were.
The other man was going to approach him. Todd felt it in the air before he actually saw the man move to do it. He didn’t turn his head to watch, but there was the slightest shift of posture so he could tilt his ear to better listen, to know which side the other man would be coming from.
He wasn’t worried about a fight here. They’d expressed mutual nonagression, and the man seemed civil enough to recognize the value of time and place. The worst that was about to happen would be if the other predator asked him if he wanted to take it outside. There was a chance, after all, that he’d taken the response the wrong way, that Todd had transgressed somehow.
But he stayed relaxed, and the worst didn’t come to pass. The man sat beside him, an d asked Todd a question that was normal for their setting, an oddly phrased version of do you hunt?
That was concerning, though, because that wasn’t the question. The question was are you hunting. There was nothing to hunt here, except for the bodies moving around them, the warmth of each calling out to the predator that by long practice would ignore them. The other predator knew what he was, then. Could smell the blood and meat the same way he could. It made the prey-thing in him cringe, but the exterior remained calm as he laughed, softly.
“No, no. Just enjoying the atmosphere.” He looked sidelong at the other man, smile warm and hiding his teeth. The statement could mean that he didn’t hunt and just liked the noise and the sweat and the smoke, but the two of them would understand.
It would be rude not to ask a question in return, but it might also be a challenge to maintain the conversation. Todd’s instincts didn’t cover that angle, as far as he could tell, so he needed to make a decision. He caught the bartender’s attention with a hand gesture to his new companion – a drink in return for the drink he’d gotten would at least keep that leger neutral.
He needed something relevant, but not prying. He decided to keep up the facade of two ordinary men, even as his instincts tried to edge him toward the door while the new hunter’s scent started to fill their shared space.
So he wasn't hunting right at this moment, which was probably good. Though Connor did contemplate what he was doing out in the open like this than if not to hunt or at least scout his prey, keep up appearances? By his mind, it would be better to not be seed at all by any potential prey until it was the moment to strike. He doubted this man was truly here just for leisure as his reply suggested, so what was his game.
At the very least he was playing this game of civility, that was reassuring. Connor allowed himself the hope that they might actually be able to walk away from this; though he didn't allow himself to relax even slightly. If he let his guard down, that would invite a reaction to capitalize on a moment of weakness; he knew because he would so the same.
The man's question was as double loaded as the one he had been asked. He was asking if Connor came here often, flat out, if he frequented this hunter's territory without his knowledge. But there was also the implied question of "what are you doing here?"
"This is my first time here," Connor said, that was the truth he'd never been to Pittsburg. "Home is pretty far away for me." meaning his own territory was far, and they weren't in danger of a turf war. "I'm just down here to take care of a thing or two, shouldn't be long, I hope, but you never do know with these sorts of things." Connor wanted him to know he wasn't here to stake a claim, he was here for his quarry, the traffickers who'd violated his woods. Once they were eliminated, he'd go.
Todd nodded as the other predator explained himself. He could sense the truth in his words, his body language, his mixed clarity. He wouldn’t ask after his hunt – that would be rude, and judging by scent alone, the man wasn’t after human prey, not the way Todd was. He took it all in stride, calm and cool, and drank while he turned the words over in his head.
Just supposed to be passing through – that was a familiar feeling. He believed the hunter, but like the man said, you never knew. He hadn’t been planning to stay in Pittsburgh, but then there was Vik’s, and the Jackals, and Sam, and now Obsidian – Ethan. Life happened, and Todd was here.
If life happened to the stranger, Todd would normally leave. But he’d made a few promises that wouldn’t allow for that. Which meant some sort of agreement needed to be made.
“I’m familiar with the road,” he said, conversationally. “Being a stranger in a strange place isn’t ideal for anyone. Hard to put down roots that way, and good hospitality’s hard to come by.”
I’m a traveler myself. I hold nothing against you for passing through. It was the next part that was difficult – admitting that he had no issue with another predator in his territory was a display of weakness and incompetence. But to leave the issue hanging would be a problem, if life happened. So someone had to at least bridge that gap.
So he held out his hand to shake as the bartender came by with the whiskey for the new carnivore. He wasn’t conceding – in fact, this satisfied both the predator and man. The man by acting on good manners. The predator by taking the initiative on the matter. Never once did his smile waver.
“That reminds me, where are my manners? I don’t think I caught your name, friend. I’m Todd.”
So he wasn't really from Pittsburg, that was interesting. Whether or not it changed where they stood was hard to tell, on the one hand he may not care about this city at all, on the other hand being a newcomer he may be extra protective or extra cautious.
There was something else though, something in Connor's mind that alerted him to some other reason. He wasn't sure what it was, often times he'd feel things like that, things he couldn't quite place. There was some other reason this predator was here, other than just for food, or passing through, he had... connections? Maybe, friends? It seemed unlikely. Very few had ever befriended Connor, they treated him as he was, a wild, dangerous animal. He doubted many more would take their risks with a creature that was specifically meant to hunt them. Yet it was that... smell, yes, cinnamon. This man didn't smell of cinnamon, he smelt of something else, of someone else. Someone who wasn't prey or enemy or threat, this man had been in close contact with, many times, perhaps even for a long period of time.
The idea was foreign, ridiculous, but Connor knew to listen to his instincts when he needed to. Still, the last time someone has been close to him was... so very long ago, and it hadn't ended well. He wondered how long this hunter was close to this mystery cinnamon person, he wondered how long it would last, he also wondered how this man had found companionship where Connor could not. He dashed these thoughts, and focused on the matter at hand.
If he did have friends, if he did have connections here, then Connor would have to tread carefully while he was here. He would remember that cinnamon smell.
The whiskey arrived, and the man introduced himself. Todd, really, Todd? The name didn't fit, at all. Then again, no one expected a vicious dog to be named Connor either. Strangely, the offer of a name wasn't that surprising, after all they had each other's scent and knew each other's nature, they already knew more about each other than most strangers ever would, a name wasn't out of the question.
"Connor," he said, and he took the hand that was offered with his own strangely large and hairy one, burying as much of his aggressive nature as he could in being in such close contact. Todd's flesh was cold to the touch, all bone and sinew, like a starved man. Did he not eat often? No, something about it struck... familiar, Connor wasn't sure why, he made a mental note to explore his books when he got the chance about it. "It's good to meet... a like-minded person."
He meant the last part, truly. Connor had never met another truly like him, other people who were different, sure with their own gifts or curses. But no one with his viciousness, his wild nature, his animalistic drive. There was a manner of kinship there, though Connor certainly realized how different their situations were. He figured a feral wild animal, and a man-eating one, could still find plenty of common ground.
They weren’t the same. Like-minded, maybe, a fellow hunter, but Todd felt in the strength of Connor’s grasp, the warmth of his skin, that he was a whole different animal from his own predator. He’d known that from the outset, of course. But there was no way to address it at the moment.
“Likewise,” he agreed, as he pulled his hand away. He continued to not quite meet Connor’s eyes as he went into his wallet and put cash on the counter for his drinks, then nodded to Connor again.
He looked like a Connor. Todd had been told pretty often he didn’t look like a Todd, which was fair enough, but Connor suited the hound playing at humanity. He committed Connor to his memory while repeating his polite smile. The monster was satisfied, and now it was without shame that he said, “Good hunting, then, Connor,” and stepped away from the bar.
As much as he didn’t like turning his back to the other predator, there had been enough civility between them that he could abide by human customs and walk out with confidence. He could feel Connor’s senses on him, but he wasn’t followed out the bar doors and into the night, where the air was free from dog or smoke.
He paused beside his Malibu, nose wrinkling a little. He glanced at the car beside his, a tattered old Range Rover that looked like it was one off-road expedition from falling apart at the bolts. There was no mistake about who the poor old SUV belonged to, and Todd sighed the dog smell and shook his head.
If the man wanted to go too much farther with that, he was going to need to get that looked at.
Todd had gone home, slept, worked for the day, gone home, and suited up. He had a date at 2AM, and he wasn’t going to be late for the delivery. He wore the Kevlar, wore the bagh nakh, wore the recently repaired mask. With the overcoat on, he felt like a different person entirely. It fit him better than most of his clothes, which he tended to layer to reduce the obvious emaciation in his form. Now it was just him, a black turtleneck, the vest, and the coat – and the prey.
He did bring his kit. He made sure Sam wasn’t home before he brought it down to the Malibu and put it in the trunk, just in case something went wrong. Recent events told him to be prepared for anything, and he wasn’t going to ignore lessons learned any more than he’d ignore his instincts. But he wasn’t going with the intention to kill – never did. Maim, sure. Break some bones, tear a few guys up with the claws, make sure they couldn’t run. But he’d have to make sure to control himself.
There was a reason he didn’t usually go for traffickers. It wasn’t that he thought they weren’t worth his time – quite the opposite, they were actually probably the only people he’d describe as deserving to die the way he could kill them. But traffickers, especially in the middle of a delivery, meant victims. Victims were frightened, defenseless prey, people who moved like prey, who acted like it. He needed to be careful of them.
Tonight he’d be going in prepared because of them. If he got damaged, there was the fallback of the tools in his Malibu to reassure his predator before they decided to take an easier target than an armed trafficker. It was what let him convince himself to get into the Malibu, and drive back down toward the Strip.
He still ditched the car a few blocks away and hoofed the rest. As he got closer to the location, he let his predator unfurl, softening his steps, increasing his pace, pulling tightness into his muscles. He was early, but not by much. It gave him time to slow down as he closed in on the location, time to spread his senses out and look, not just with his eyes, but with all his senses.
In the distance, there was the sound of an engine in desperate need of repair. On the wind, there was the scent of cigarettes and the soft muffled sounds of conversation not yet clear even to his ears, but growing steadily closer as he closed in. It was one of the few times he let himself have the hunt, the part that was stalking, the part that was violence.
The reason for the slow, long-distance approach was the patrols. Living cargo might mean one of them ran, and so a handful of armed men were going to be walking around waiting for runners. They were also extra guns down the line. Best to handle – or distract – them now, and deal with the rest later.
He heard the first one, boots on pavement. He paused around the block from him, gauging direction before moving to intercept him at the next intersection on his patrol route. Cryptid was faster, with the kind of long legs that let him cover more distance in a stride, and he waited with his back to a wall.
The man walked right past him. Under his mask, his mouth curled up, starting to show teeth that his target would never see. He took one step forward, then a second, before murmuring, “Boo.”
From a block and a half away, someone was going to hear him scream as the Cryptid hamstrung him, before hitting him hard enough in the back of the head to make him crumple. Finally, he darted off down the alley, back along the patrol route, to take the opening the downed man and his scream would create. Others would start running to this spot. Cryptid could already hear them coming, and went around the next corner, steps still silent, ears still peeled.
This was going to be a good hunt. He could feel it, all the way down in the cold of his bones.
Connor had been very cautious ever since that encounter with Todd in the bar.
He made sure to plan his scouts, make sure he couldn't be easily ambushed, and always made sure he knew exactly what he was getting into before getting into it. He didn't see nor smell Todd again, he figured maybe he wasn't all that active, or perhaps he too had bee avoiding a second encounter for both their sakes. In any case, he began to relax, just a little, in the hope that they wouldn't have to deal with each other ever again; one chance meeting had been stressful enough.
So Connor had focused on his hunt. It was slow, methodical work, but eventually he learned their patterns and habits. And closer and closer he managed to find one of their primary strongholds, a particular warehouse amongst many in westside. In the many streets surrounding it, the traffickers had placed what they thought to be inconspicuous patrols and guards walking around. They were fairly obvious to anyone who knew how to read prey patterns.
Connor couched on top of a roof, a vantage point, so he could see almost the entirety of the space between him and the warehouse and pinpoint the patrols. The bright full moon giving him plenty of visibility. Mac and Brian he could see were exploring around to see if there was anything Connor had not spotted. They were to alert him to any danger.
He took a deep breath, and felt the adrenaline begin to seep, his heart quicken, his mouth ran slick with saliva. The animal anticipated the hunt, despite there being no meal at the end of it, the hunt itself was exciting enough. And so he climbed down from the roof and set off, running on all fours in between buildings and sticking to the shadows as he entered the outer perimeter of guards. Swiftness would be his stealth as he came across a pair of men on patrol, he ran up to them before they had a chance to scream. His sword opened up the first man's stomach, and then moved quickly upwards to stab into the second man's throat. In a moment they were both dead and Connor continued his assault.
Something did make him hesitate slightly, a distant scream, from the other side of the perimeter. His ears perked, he heard the other guards responding to the noise; clearing much of the path for him. The scream had been one of fear and pain, something twinged in Connor's gut, and he took a moment, crouching in the shadows. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and waited to see if he could hear more, there wasn't much, it was too far away. He contemplated retreat, but that was out of the question now the hunt had already begun, he continued on and decided to take this moment for all it was worth and beelined towards the warehouse.
Mac had also heard the noise and ran to investigate, he found the man Todd had strung up, he sniffed at him for s few moments before he followed the smell trail that led away. Turning a corner, he did sight Todd, hiding amongst the shadows. He titled his head, confused, and sniffed, Mac felt no threat to himself or to his friend Connor from him but was very curious about that he was looking at. Eventually he would give a soft yap and move on to continue keeping an eye out for anything, making no sounds of alert to Connor or his brother at all.
The only thing Cryptid could really think when he saw the wolfhound was man, that’s a big dog. It didn’t have the muscles of a mastiff or pitbull, much more common strays around here, but like Todd it had a wiry frame that was almost completely leg. He kept contact with its eyes as he matched its head tilt, and took in its scent by proximity; there was something familiar, not about the dog, but about one of the smells it carried. He didn’t need to place that right now, though. It was probably nothing.
The dog only watched him for a few moments before turning away, apparently coming to the same decision all animals came to: this wasn’t a threat. Cryptid didn’t prey on animals, after all.
And there was a lot of game here. He could hear the guards over some kind of comms system, maybe even just radios, and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to work with. That was fine by him. He didn’t have all night, either, and now that they were aware of him, they’d be focused on finding him. Keeping to ground level wasn’t an option here. So, he went up, taking a route he’d passed by already to get from a dumpster to a window ledge to a rooftop. From there, it was a straight line to the central warehouse, where he could hear an engine pull in and then die out.
He came to the edge of the more even rooftops, and came to a crouch overlooking the loading area. There were men with guns all around the transport, a smaller delivery truck. A lot of bodies could fit into a truck that size, although it was hard to pick out any scents that wafted up to him over the throughline of fear. It made his predator want to stir, made his monster yearn to make this a real hunt.
It was a good thing his self-control was intact, because that would be disastrous for the innocents involved. Instead he slid silently down the side of the building, silently to human ears, anyway, and used the information he’d gathered as a human hunter, not a monster. Six to ten men on the outside, unknown number of victims, probably more of both on the inside. The attack was going to require stealth, speed, and care, or else he was going to get mobbed, and that wouldn’t do anybody any good.
He gathered up all his tension, all the hunt-song that managed to slip through his control, all the fear, all the anger he felt about the situation. He grounded himself in scent and sound, in the night air. His fingers curled, showing off his recently repaired bagh nakh to nobody, yet.
Patience was his predator’s virtue. Wait, listen, watch. And patience was necessary here. With that much fear and the victims in the middle of the conflict, he couldn’t trust his animal to behave itself, and he wouldn’t put those women through witnessing him at his worst, not after everything they’d already been through.
So he had to wait until they were inside, out of reach. He kept his ears peeled behind him, trained on the other men watching him, but his eyes glared into the night at the truck, at the thin, stumbling figures pulled from it that registered to his senses as prey. From the oldest woman, who was probably younger than her apparent 40s; to the youngest girl, who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. He had to bite his tongue so he didn’t growl when he saw her. Instead he let the cold anger burn, spread out, and waited.
Connor made for the central warehouse like a bullet. Taking full advantage of the fear and confusion that was spreading throughout the area. He climbed right through an open window and perched on one of the support beams, looking down into the warehouse. There was a group of them on the other side of the structure, by the loading bay, amongst several trucks. Connor could smell them, as well as the fear of the women inside the trucks. He watched as the men entered the warehouse, only a few remaining outside to guard the truck.
Connor felt his blood pumping as he watched them file in, easy prey, but something stilled him for a moment. A faint smell, one that stood out, as well as some of the chatter on their radio's he could overhear. His heart stirred, he felt something else was at play here, other than him, it made him pause. He remembered the scream he hear earlier, was there another threat? Yet despite this unknown Connor couldn't ignore what his body wanted right now, it needed to pounce, it needed to kill, the hunt had already begun.
So with a hop he fell from the support beam right on top of one of the men, his weight crushing him into the ground and smashing his skull on the hard floor. Connor's sword became free and as the others panicked and screamed in surprise and terror he went to work, a whirlwind of steel both savage and precise he sliced through two more before they could so much as aim their weapons. Connor felt himself grow, morph more into the animal, he snarled, saliva dripping from his mouth and he let out a roar before he set upon the rest of them.
Cryptid’s vigil was rewarded with another scream. The hackles he didn’t have went right up; the part of his brain that acknowledged higher predators warned him, and his body almost lost the tension of the hunt to the tension of fear. And that was before the roar.
The roar was almost human. Like there was something underneath it, the way Todd’s growl felt in his throat when it came loose. It wasn’t familiar at all, not a voice that even his inner records could catch through the animal rage and his fear. But he wasn’t the only one who felt the pull of fear when the roar came, when it echoed in the warehouse and around it. Suddenly the fear doubled in the air from upwind, and the men started to shout. The victims all covered their ears and dropped, and two of the men slung up their guns to start dragging them back to their feet. The fear, their fear, was enough to let Cryptid’s other instincts stir back to life, and he closed his eyes for a second to hold onto them.
This was his territory, these were his prey. This was his hunt. He was not prey.
The mantra didn’t repeat in his head as words, but a wider sense, in scent and hearing and the beat of his heart and the rush of his own blood, in the instict that said mine and the hunger that sat cold in his bones and bled out into the rest. He focused on the hunt song as the men ran inside, leaving four behind with what was left of the cargo. Cryptid wasn’t going to be the one to turn down an easy chance, even if it meant ignoring his other instincts.
So, letting himself go into the hunt-song, he struck. To say he ran would not express the speed or grace; to say he pounced would not be human enough for the fluid motions. He was silent when he ran, landing so the placement of each step created the least noise possible under the shouting and renewed crying and the rise of gunfire from inside the building.
The nearest one had his hand on the arm of one of the younger women, dragging her to her feet, growling almost incoherent swears and insults to hide the shake in his voice. But he couldn’t hide the stink of his sweat, and with his hands full, there was no way for him to catch his balance when Cryptid dropped behind him to sweep his legs aside. Despite how well the silent slasher thing would’ve worked out, he couldn’t help himself.
“Watch your language. There’s a kid here.”
He hit the ground hard, and Todd punched the bagh nakh into his hip joint before continuing his momentum in a circle toward the next target, who was busy trying to drop one of the other girls and scrambling with his gun. Gunfire might not be a problem this time, at this range, in this position at the edge of the herd, because that might damage the huddle of victims who now pulled together in a tight knot and dropped back down to their knees with their ears covered.
Connor had faded away, and the Wolfhound was awake.
His blood pumped and rushed in his ears, his whole body tens and his veins popped as his muscles seemed to grow. The pent up aggression from not having hunted in so long, his barely contained instincts from his encounter with Todd. He needed this, he wanted this, as his throat unleashed growls and grunts, his large sharp teeth dripped saliva. Every cut and blow was faster, harder, angrier. The Bloodfury had been unleashed.
There was six men left inside the warehouse, trapped inside with the beast. Their pleads and cries fell upon deaf ears, the Wolfhound had forgotten all language or mercy. He sheered through the first man with his sword, cleaving his torso in two and spilling his guts about the floor. The next two men managed to fire wildly at the beast who strafed as he closed the distance, a few of the bullets superficially grazing him. He buried his sword through one man's heart and left it to rest there and pounced on the other, his teeth singing into his jugular and tearing the flesh apart with a quick jerk of his head.
The remaining three men had tried to make a run for it back through the loading bay, but something had stopped them from going out there. They stopped frozen with fear, stuck between two terrors. The Wolfhound bounded up to one, his bowie knife in hand and he viciously stabbed the man rapidly all over his body until he crumbled to the ground. The second man seemed to accept his fate as the beast grasped his head in his hands, smashing his skull into the concrete floor gain and again and again until it was nothing but a smear.
The last man did have enough control to shoot the Wolfhound, catching him in the meaty part of his shoulder, this only seemed to piss him off and he bellowed another roar and the man screamed in abject terror and tried to run. The beast caught up quickly and sunk his teeth into the man's though, tearing the muscle out, and he cried as he fell. He clawed at the ground as the Wolfhound dragged him over to where his sword stood, stuck in one of the dead men. He pulled the sword free and delivered a clean decapitation to the remaining man.
Connor caught his breath, the buried rage having somewhat lessened. But the beast was very much still alive, and he threw his head back and let out a long and loud howl, crying out the victory of his hunt. It was only then that he took notice of a smell very nearby, and his hackles began to raise, his body tensed again, as he sensed he was not yet alone; he turned with a snarl towards the open loading bay.
Cryptid stood in the doorway, his edges faintly lit by moonlight. His hands were in his pockets, although the bloodstains on his coat meant they must be slick with it. Behind him were the badly wounded, all four men on the ground with debilitating but not lethal injuries.
There was no cry of victory when he’d finished. Only gentle urges to the women to take what cover they could behind the truck before things got hairy, before the patrols whose radios he could hear converged on the spot. The noise had attracted them. Not Todd’s noise; Cryptid was a silent killer, when he wasn’t making wisecracks. And the temptation to take prey wasn’t too strong for him, not when the real prey hadn’t struck a blow on him, the idiots.
With all that taken care of, Crytpid had turned back to the warehouse.
The warehouse smelled of blood, meat, dog, and rage. It should’ve been stressful, should’ve bothered him more, but Todd never ate anything he didn’t kill. It was actually just humbling, watching a real animal at work. He felt the warmth in his blood from the hunt still – the fight wasn’t over – but it wouldn’t be enough to cover the respect from witnessing the action inside the warehouse. Not fear. Never fear. The hunt was still on, and he was not prey.
And even in the face of another predator, one he was fairly certain could snap him in half if he wanted to, Cryptid responded to rage with coolness. The borrowed black eyes under the mask glittered, and the borrowed gruff voice carried a note of humor.
The cat was out of the bag now, and Connor didn't fully relax as he noticed Todd standing there. His body held itself tense, the bloodfury still simmered, only Connor managed to keep the reigns on it for this moment. He'd prepared for this inevitability, and he's suspected rightly that Todd would not take their second meeting as a challenge he had to meet. They were both still avoiding the fight neither of them wanted, yet still, the beast inside stirred and Connor couldn't help the low warning growl that entered his throat and voice.
"A full moon rises above our second meeting, an omen of what remains to be seen; our nature insists we be foes, yet here we meet as equals, two hunters and one prey." Connor deftly flipped his sword around in his and flicked it with a swift movement of his wrist, throwing the blood off of the blade and splattering it on the floor. A small display of his skill. His ears perked, the sound of approaching footsteps and yelling were growing louder.
"More of them come now, so eager does the sheep wander into the lion's maw..." Connor paused, he doubted he could fight Todd and the approaching men. He doubted he could even survive fighting Todd at all, but the Bloodfury demanded he act, that he tear flesh and take lives, it could not be held back, it could only be focused. "There is little value to the word of an animal, but it would be unwise of us to act against one another as our natures insist... there is more eager flesh that awaits our tooth and claw."
Cryptid tilted his head as the other predator started to recite poetry. The contrast between the more feral body and the clearer mind confused him, and worried him. Something that big that could construct complicated sentences and descriptions was… well, as an intelligent predator himself, it concerned him. The swinging blade didn’t help, but he needed to keep calm. He didn’t have any fancy posturing except he could do except appear unfazed, which was a flex on its own.
He sifted through Connor’s voice and the smell of animal rage he carried. He heard the prey, too; but he could see through the haze of the hunt, too, as it tried to agree with Connor. He shouldered it aside with the thoughts and memories he always used to ground himself, alongside the excuses that worked. All that wouldn’t mean anything.
“One thing.” He pushed authority into the tone, and made himself meet the eye of the larger carnivore. “This prey is not for killing. I’m not hungry, and if you’re not gonna eat it, I won’t have good meat wasted on my turf.”
They’d been so respectful, when they met under the guises of civility. Now there were only the animals, a bobcat showing its teeth to a hound. Cryptid knew the value of threat displays and nonviolent territorialism. He also knew about the value of human lives, however. To his predator, the coming tide was a herd running into an ambush. But to the man, they were people being stupid about their lives.
If monsters were people, then so was scum, however horrible their crimes.
And Connor was like him, as much man as beast. He’d understand the human body language, the implication that the threat was not empty without actually showing teeth or claws. Just growling.
“Maim them however you want. But the prey lives, or you won’t.”
That might be taking it too far, but he said it with cold, deadly seriousness, sporting a confidence he didn’t feel. He knew that despite their instincts, Connor still didn’t want to fight, or he would have attacked Cryptid already. The demand was very simple, if given as a challenge. There wasn’t a lot of time for Connor to decide if he wanted Todd to be his enemy, but that decision would change the course of the fight.
Was that... a command? Was he insisting? Anger stirred in the Wolfhound's chest. This was an ultimatum, the closest they'd ever gotten to a direct challenge, Todd was indirectly stating to play by his rules or else. For such a quiet stalker, it was a brazen move, it was audacious, it was arguably stupid, it was a deadly demand to make. Had Connor wished it, it would have been the spark that lit the blaze of a battle most terrible.
Yet it wasn't fear of that fight that stopped him this time, nor was it the approaching prey that he could direct his fury onto. No, it was that this quiet lithe hunter was finally bearing his teeth, and Connor, despite himself, felt laughter bubbling in his gut. He laughed, a snarling uncanny sound that warbled between a dog's bark and a man's laugh. He flipped his sword around again and sheathed it.
"By your leave, shadow-walker, it takes a stout heart to make a demand of me, let us hunt together now," Connor said, and he meant it. No one had stood up to him in a very long time, it was refreshing, it made him feel... human.
Cryptid was ready for the tension that followed his statement, and didn’t respond to it beyond planting his feet just a little differently beneath him, a sway that could be mistaken for boredom with the shadows cast by his duster hiding the exact position of his feet. The scent of Connor’s anger didn’t subside any more than the smell of dog, but the fact that he wasn’t immediately met with a roar of challenge gave him a little hope.
The laugh cured him of any remaining fears. Laughter wasn’t an animal sound, as feral as this one was. Laughter was a sign that he had gotten through to the man under the beast, and the words that followed seemed to affirm that. He didn’t feel very stout-hearted – he felt his pulse in his ears from both the hunt and the prospect of combatting the predator in front of him – but he’d take what he could get. Under the jagged teeth of the mask, a flash of a real smile might be seen, not challenger but predator. As Connor sheathed his blade, the Cryptid pulled his hands from his pockets and flexed his fingers around his own claws.
Then he gave Connor a little salute, and disappeared behind the wall to the outside and behind a nearby crate. They weren’t the same kind of hunter, and wouldn’t know each other’s strategies, so it was best to keep out of each other’s way for the time being. Maybe he could find a way to add shadow-walker to the list of names scum remembered him by, up with Scarecrow and Slasher.
They thought they were being quiet, really they did, but half a dozen grown men armed with semi-automatics and wearing combat boots were hardly stealthy. Likewise, Connor probably wasn’t going to go for stealth. Letting the other animal take the head-on assault route would give Cryptid openings to pounce from his adjusted position, and let Todd effectively watch both their backs. He wondered if Connor would instinctively feel the pattern, or if he’d just make his attack – or possibly assume Crytpid had just left him after the dominance display. He just hoped the big dog of a man didn’t point out his hiding spot before everything lined up.