It was close to afternoon when we finally returned. I had a deer slung over my shoulder, and the wolves each carried two rabbits in their mouths. We brought them to Bastian, who was sitting on a nearby rock that allowed him to overlook his pack.
"Very good!" he declared, leaping down from his perch to inspect our prey. He took my deer from me, "A good buck. It will feed the pack well."
He then took the rabbits as well, giving each of them a satisfied nod, and set them down in the center of the pack's ground. He then leaned his head back and gave a quick, short howl that brought the rest of his family to the food pile. They all gathered around the food, slobbering hungrily, but Bastian cut them off with a wave of his hand and a sharp bark. He then turned to me.
"Eve," he called, "you will eat first."
"Me?" I asked, a jolt of surprise going through me.
"You brought back the largest piece of prey," he explained, "so you get first pick at the food pile."
Nodding tentatively, I stepped up to the pile and examined the prey. Eating raw meat wasn't an issue for me. Sometimes I even preferred it that way. What had shaken me so much was that I was actually getting to eat first. A small blush rose to my cheeks, and I self-consciously reached out and pulled the smallest rabbit from the pile. Then, drawing my hunting knife, I cut into the rabbit and carved a small section of meat out of it for myself before stepping back.
"That's it?" Bastian asked in disbelief, looking at the tiny hunk of meat in my hand.
"I- I don't think I can eat any more than this," I lied.
"You're not in the human tribe anymore," the wolf-boy insisted. "You have first pick. Take as much as you want!"
"Thanks, but this is enough," I insisted.
Bastian's eyes narrowed and he grabbed the rabbit I had cut into and stubbornly thrust it into my hands.
"Eat it," he ordered.
"I am this pack's alpha," he asserted. "And if you are going to be with us from now on, you will obey what I command. Now, eat that whole rabbit, and if you're still hungry afterwards come back and get some more!"
My blush only darkened, and I bowed my head in submission before backing away with my rabbit. An entire rabbit to myself! Bastian gave another bark, and the rest of his family dug in, shredding the rest of the prey in their hunger. Turning away, I went to a nearby tree and sat against it before sinking my teeth into the rabbit. Its meat and blood filled my mouth, making me shudder in pleasure. Before I knew it, the entire rabbit was gone, and I was sucking on a bone, trying to get the rest of the meaty flavor out of it.
"I thought you weren't hungry," an amused voice broke into my thoughts.
With a gasp, I spun around to see Bastian sitting next to me, a bloody deer's leg sitting in his lap. Half of me was embarrassed that I'd let him sneak up on me, and the other half was impressed that he'd managed to do it.
"Sorry," I said in a quiet voice. "It just didn't feel right taking more than that."
"The thing about the forest," Bastian replied, swallowing a mouthful of venison. "is that there's always plenty of food. The young, sick, and elderly get first pick because they can't hunt for themselves. The hunters go next because they put forth the most work. If anyone else has too little, they are free to go out and hunt for more themselves."
"Hmm," I said, looking away from him. The sunbeams shone through the branches in small pillars of light, coloring rivers of dust gold as they bobbed and weaved under the trees. It was a sight I'd seen innumerable times in the past, but today it captivated me like few things ever had.
"So, what do you think of the forest?" Bastian asked, finally breaking the silence.
"It's nice," I said quickly. "I've been in it more times than I can count to bring home food for my tribe."
"But there's something different about it now, isn't there?" Bastian said, a small smile rising on his face.
I turned to look at him in surprise, and he laughed.
"No, I can't read your mind," he said with a carefree grin. "I just felt the exact same way when I came to join my family out here."
I opened my mouth, but then shut it and looked down at my feet. But my curiosity had been aroused, and I couldn't help myself.
"Bastian, what's your story?" I asked.
"It's nothing special," the wolf-boy replied. He leaned forward and stared at the ground in thought. "It started when my grandfather was bitten by a Feral. He changed, and then he bit my mother. When she changed, my father locked her away in a cage in his bedroom. She snarled and snapped at him every time every time he drew near, but he kept her there in the hopes that someday somebody would find a cure."
Bastian stood up and walked a few steps away before continuing, "He told me later that he knew from the beginning that there was no hope that she'd ever change back. The old world had long since collapsed. People just didn't have the resources to find a cure anymore. In the end, he decided that there was only one thing he could ever do. One day, he reached through the bars of her cage and let her bite him."
I gasped and put my hand to my mouth, "No way!"
Bastian turned to look at me, arching his eyebrows, "Is it really so hard to believe?"
I stopped and looked around at his pack. His family.
"No," I admitted.
"After he began to change," the wolf-boy continued, "he brought the whole family in. At first we were all horrified, just like you were, but then he explained his reasoning. The age of man is over, he told us. The Ferals were rising to power, and there was nothing we could do to stop them. We could resist them, but it wouldn't do a bit of good, because eventually we would all either die out or be changed by force. The only thing to do, he reasoned, was join them willingly."
Bastian barked a command that brought the wolf I recognized now to be his father to his side. The wolf was old and his rich brown fur had long since begun to turn gray, but he was still a powerful creature. Bastian knelt down and scratched his father behind the ears, and the old wolf leaned up and licked his son's face.
"Surprisingly, he faced very little opposition to his decision," he went on. "Most of our family agreed with him. And, even more surprisingly, all but three of us agreed to be changed that very day. My father bit each and every one of them as gently as he could, beginning the process of transforming them all into wolves, just like himself and my mother."
"All but three," I repeated. "Who were they?"
"They were my aunt and uncle," Bastian answered, "and... well, have you ever wondered why everyone in my pack is already completely transformed except for me?"
"You refused?" I asked, standing up as well.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Bastian admitted. "The way I saw it, they were all giving up the fight and joining the enemy. I held onto my hope that someday we'd eventually find a cure, or at least a way to eliminate the threat." He lowered his head in shame. "That was all three years ago now. I abandoned my family, and went to live with a human tribe, just like you did. But every day that passed, the only thing I could ever think about was my family. What were they doing? How were they fairing? Were they happy?"
"And so you decided to go join them," I finished for him.
"That was just two weeks ago," Bastian confirmed. "Although it seems like a lifetime ago. I can barely remember anything about myself from before my father bit me. The only reason I remember any of this is because I promised myself I'd never forget. I wrote it all down in a journal, and I read that journal three times a day to make sure that I'll always remember what happened."
"I can't remember anything either," I said, coming to stand next to him.
"How long has it been since you began to change?" he asked.
"Almost six years," I answered. "I would have turned a lot faster, but Mercy slowed down my changes."
"Mercy?" the Hybrid echoed in confusion, but then he cocked his head back in remembrance, "Oh, right, the medicine. I remember now. I'd completely forgotten about it."
Bastian sighed and turned to look at his pack again, "Why did you take it?" he asked.
"The medicine?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "What was the point?"
I bowed my head, and my ears and tail drooped, "Because I never wanted to become an animal," I answered.
Bastian made a curious noise in his throat, and then said, "Tell me more."
"I know I can't remember much of anything about before I was bitten," I continued, "but I never wanted to be infected. All those stories of Ferals being monsters that only live to kill people... I didn't want to become that."
Bastian looked at me, and I caught a flash of anger in his eyes. He turned and pointed at his pack, "Look at them, Eve. Stop what you're doing and just look at them. I'm not completely a wolf yet, but they've already accepted me back into the family. They're not attacking you at all, and you're neither a part of the family or a wolf. They helped you hunt, and they let you travel with them, and you still think that they're monsters?"
"I'm sorry," I said quickly, taking a step backwards. "I didn't mean to make you angry."
With an annoyed groan, Bastian went and slumped against the tree once again, "You need to stop believing what every bitter old man tells you. Ferals will treat humans with more hostility than normal animals, but that's because they're defending their territory. Ferals are very territorial, and they'll attack or drive away any human that comes onto their land."
"But why just humans?" I asked.
"Because humans are the ones we need to worry about. They're the ones that think we're monsters. They're the ones that declared war on us. They're the ones that hunt us for sport. The other animals did nothing of the sort." Bastian turned to face me, "Humans are the Ferals' enemies, not the other way around."
I found that I had no argument for this. Everything he said was true. Folding my arms self-consciously, I came over and joined him by the tree.
"I don't know if you're right or not," I said, "but I still don't want to become a panther."
"Why not?" Bastian asked. I clenched my eyes shut and stood up yet again to stand in front of him.
"Look at me!" I shouted, spreading my arms even thought all he needed to see were my ears and tail. "I'm a freak!"
"Hey, now!" Bastian protested, standing up as well. "Don't you dare say that!"
"It's true!" I yelled at him. "I'm not human, and I'm not an animal. I'm some sort of monster that's stuck in between the two!"
"But you don't have to be!" Bastian insisted. "You'll change, and you'll become something new!"
"But I don't want to become something new," I shot back, tears leaking out of my eyes. "I lost everything because of this. I can't remember who I was, and everybody's afraid of me. I just want to go back to being human!"
Bastian sighed and shook his head before looking back up at me, "Well, I don't think you're a freak."
This caught me off guard, and I looked up at him in confusion.
"For what it's worth," he said, taking a step closer to me, "I think you look beautiful."
I bit my lip and closed my eyes, sending a fresh wave of tears cascading down my face.
"That's because you're just like me!" I cried, taking another step back from him.
Bastian's eyes widened in indignation, but he did nothing to continue the argument. Turning his back on me, he began to walk back towards his pack.
"I suppose it really doesn't matter one way or the other out here," he said, pausing. "You'll change soon enough out here, whether you want to or not."
Icy cold fear ran down my spine, and I turned to face him, "What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean," he said without turning around, "that we have no Mercy out here for you to take."
Bastian's words hit me like a punch to the gut. I began to shiver uncontrollably. All this time, I'd resisted the changes, always terrified of what they would turn me into. But now the choice had been taken out of my hands. How much longer did I have as a human being? A week? A day?
With an anguished sob, I turned and ran into the forest, away from Bastian and his family, and I didn't look back.