Even though he looked exactly like a member of their pack, the other wolves kept their distance from Subject 23, casting wary looks in his direction. His attempts to creep closer to them had been met with low snarls, so now he stayed well away, lurking amongst the underbrush and just watching the wolves as they milled around, waiting for their alpha to return.
Subject 23 decided that he didn’t want to be around when the alpha did come back. So he started to slink away through the bushes.
Animals were always harder to fool than people. It was the smell. He could look exactly like them, could try to copy their mannerisms, but he couldn’t smell like they did. Animals – the wolves, especially – were sensory beings, and no matter how good his shape-shifting was, he could never really pass for one of them. They could always sniff him out.
Humans, by contrast, were visual creatures – it was much easier to pass for human. He had once lived a whole year in a small village in Gavony, passing himself off as a deaf mute to try to avoid the language complication. The local priest had taken him in, given him food and clothing, and put him to work sweeping up the floors. He had talked to him about angels, tried to give him religion.
That had been okay, but the priest didn’t actually seem to care very much about him, just this thing which he called a soul, which Subject 23 didn’t know anything about when it came right down to it.
So, after a while, he had left, shed his human form, and slipped back into the woods.
What was a soul? Subject 23 wasn’t sure. But he suspected it was something you didn’t have if your first memory of life was of your eyes shooting open as lightning scorched through your every nerve, if you opened your mouth to scream only to choke on the vile fluid filling your giant glass vat.
He still remembered the taste of that fluid.
Most of his other memories of the laboratory were small, blurry scraps, pasted together into a collage of pain and confusion. He remembered the electricity; the probes; the leering, observing, calculating face, made bug-eyed by the refraction of the glass vat.
He remembered the terror of escape, of breaking free, of stumbling out into the night with no other thought or plan than to run until he couldn’t run any more.
He remembered the little slate next to his vat, with “Subject 23” chalked on it, the chalk and eraser sitting on a lab bench nearby.
Sometimes he wondered about what had happened to Subjects 1 through 22. Maybe some of them had escaped, too. Maybe he wasn’t totally alone in the world.
But he doubted it.
Once free, he had discovered that, with patience and great effort, he could will his body to assume the form of any other creature he encountered. So he started to try on other skins, looking for one that would fit, one that he would belong in. But he hadn’t found it yet, and he was starting to worry that it didn’t exist.
He could be anything and nothing at once, and it made him ache inside, even if he wasn’t quite sure why.
Now, as he crept along the forest floor in wolf form, he was distracted by a whimpering from off in the distance. He followed after the sound and found himself beneath a great oak tree, where he saw the wolfpack alpha, whimpering and howling. The alpha was bleeding from one leg, which was caught in the steel jaws of a trap, cleverly disguised below a layer of leaves.
Then, just as he was about to approach the wounded alpha, Subject 23 heard footsteps in the trees behind him, and a human voice called out: “Got two of them.”
He turned to see a man, fur-hatted and axe-wielding, coming towards them. There was a cruel look on the man’s face as he raised the axe up over his head. It was a look Subject 23 recognized.
But the look on the man’s face changed as Subject 23 shifted into the form of a massive silver bear. Cruelty was replaced by fear, and the trapper stumbled back, swinging the axe wildly as he did. Subject 23 didn’t have time to dodge, didn’t try to: the axe bit into his shoulder with a flash of pain as he leapt at the man, catching him full across the face with one swipe of a massive paw.
Subject 23 heard bones snap, and the dead trapper crumpled to the ground in a heap.
The pain in Subject 23’s shoulder was intense. He hurt too much to keep his focus, to hold on to the form of the bear, and so he shifted back into his natural form – or, at least, the form which took the least effort to maintain, whether natural or not: a kind of ashen-skinned, sunken-eyed, humanish form, with long, stringy limbs and indistinct features, like a pencil sketch that hadn’t been fully colored-in.
Trying to block out the pain, he crawled over to where the alpha still struggled against the jaws of the trap. The wolf fell still at his approach, and watched him with wide black-blue eyes as Subject 23 got his hands around the steel jaws and, with the last bit of energy he had, pried them apart.
Then the shape-shifter collapsed on the ground next to the wolf, both of them tired, hurt, and bleeding.
The last thing Subject 23 remembered before passing out was seeing the wolf crawl over to where he lay, feeling its moist breath as it licked the wound on his shoulder clean, feeling its fur as the wolf sat down next to him and he slipped off into a dream.
For the first time in a long time, it was a good dream.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
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