Her high pitched giggling blended well with our surroundings. The sun shone on her dark hair, tangled behind her as she ran, feet kicking up little wood chips that her brand new sneakers scattered, chasing the other kids ducking in and around the warm metal of the various play bars. Other parents were smiling indulgently on at their charges as well, and more were arriving. It was beautiful outside, the first day of kindergarten had just ended, and our family wasn't the only one enjoying ourselves at the park across the street.
When another car door slammed behind us, I took no more notice of it than the others. Maybe if I had, my daughter wouldn't have died that day.
There was no warning, instead one man's lingering confusing gaze had me trying to turn and find out why, only to see four men edging towards us, their sights scanning and landing right on my wife. There was nothing more spectacular about them than any of us, dressed casually in worn jeans and loose jackets. It was the way they carried themselves, with hardened expressions and eyes that knew too much, the sidearms not quite hidden from sight. They could have been Veterans, but they fought a different war than most any other person knew.
The scream for everyone to start running burst out of me even as I grabbed her tight to my side and made for our only child. The once peaceful families began scattering almost at the same time, like they had some instinct of their own for movement now that I was. My wife began murmuring in my ear how sorry she was even as I got her moving along past her own shock of what was happening, but I'd known this moment was coming. After her incident last week, this was inevitable, I was just lucky of the timing. Now the only thing on my mind in that moment was clasping my wife's hand in one of mine, already turning on the spot to scoop my child up so we could get away from this for as long as we had to.
My eyes locked on the one who called for me even as I gave my wife an extra hard pull and nearly tumbling her into the ground in my haste to be by our child's side, while I saw she was already making her way towards us.
Like any child, her automatic instinct was to run to her parents with the flurry of activity around. Eyes mirror imaged into her face so familiar to me from my wife, I could see confusion and apprehension like she thought she had done something wrong for this to be happening. That was the last thing I ever saw, when the crack of a gun went off, and I was left looking at what remained of her body.
At my side was a noise that was neither human nor animal, only a primal sound no creature should ever have to make. I could feel the same thing ripping up my throat that was vibrating between two worlds before the feral animal won out. There was no true pause, in the second it took for my body to change, to take the shape I needed at that moment.
It was a testament to the situation that I hadn't sensed him around, but he must have sensed us. A Bear came charging into the scene, bellowing with rage, and I only got a flash of his dark black fur and white face as he took out three of the Hunters with one massive swipe of his paws. I lunged into the fray, my own jaws snapping at any exposed flesh.
They were prepared for a fight, and having foreknowledge of the animal my wife could take, they were geared up for at least her. Their silver bullets were still flying, but if they landed I could not tell, red was all I knew, and they would it would be the last thing they saw as well if one struck my heart first.
A challenge that might have been made easier if my wife wasn't cradled over our child, sobbing brokenly and still making that noise no words could describe. As it was, the Bear was my biggest ally, since the Hunters hadn't been any more prepared for him then we had. His assistance having taken the first three down before any real fight could break out was surely what saved our lives that day, the warm blood flowing now pouring through my muzzle as the last one ended as well only gave the briefest sense of relief, but the true pain wouldn't stop. I did not know which had done it, I never would.
By this time, the park had cleared out, there were no children left. I padded over to my distraught wife, who was as covered in blood as I was, though for a completely different reason. It should have disturbed me more how empty I felt inside as I looked down at our only child's remains, but even with the fresh revenge still dripping from my maw, there was a coldness growing inside of me. The red had faded, I could see now, but I clung to what was keeping me this way now, knowing if I didn't I wouldn't maintain this form much longer.
I nudged her once, the blood from the fur on my face smearing onto her shirt not exactly sticking out. She took no notice, so I did it again, harder, and still she refused to react. She would hate me for it later, would probably hate me for my actions today, but right now my main concern was getting her out of here, keeping my one love left alive.
To my surprise, what I now recognized as a Spectacled Bear hadn't left, but the man yet again saved our sorry tails that day.
Lumbering behind her, he bent down and used his own teeth, still riddled with a bit of human flesh, and latched gently onto my wife's shirt and lifted her up and away.
She let out a guttural noise, halfway between a sob and a scream as she continued clutching the remains to her, but when I came forward and placed my paw on the empty chest, the carcass fell limp from her suddenly lifeless arms. She locked eyes with me only for a moment, but it was enough. They used to remind me of sapphires, I'd never once seen them before without that gleam backlighting them. Now they were unrecognizable, the color of a storm brewing. Even if it got her through this day, I knew they would never go back.
Whether it was the slowly dripping blood from her arm where the scent of silver was coming from, or her own grief, it took her several attempts to assume form. I wasn't clear on exactly how much of the metal it took to stop us transforming, but it was clear something was giving her issues.
He dragged her a few more feet away, just to be safe I guess, but then she got to her own two shaking feet, just to collapse on all fours a second later. Her round, normally kind, heart shaped face wasn't recognizable, blotchy and screwed tight with misery no words could describe. Her light hair shot backwards into her head, slowly turning silver along with the rest of the fur stretching out of her skin. My wife was replaced with the beast that I'd first laid eyes on all those years ago. The three of us matched strides for a time, and though his form was much larger than ours, we could have outran him, instead he took the lead as we left town.
We kept running, long into the night until she collapsed. Not from exhaustion, we had been able to run up to thirty miles before, and I knew we hadn't been able to get that far, so this wasn't much to us. No, I knew exactly what had her silvery fur retracting, her thick black padding extending back into skin and far more dexterous fingers, and before the two of us had gone another dozen feet, she lost control of the acceptance that had allowed this form for so long. The emotions took hold of her once more, and her Wolf could no longer contain the range of human emotions.
Her short white blonde hair did nothing to hide her exposed shoulders as she lay beneath the sun, gasping and clutching at the ground. I stumbled, pivoting on the spot, and I finally let the emotions wash into me as well. I was running on two feet again by the time I had gone back, then collapsing on the ground next to her, took her into my arms, and we took whatever small comfort we could in each other's presence.
I lost track of our new companion, for hours it seemed, because the next time I sensed another Theri nearby, it was him approaching to the shadows of night; this time in his own human form, though I could still sense the very same animal that had saved us within.
He was about my age, with black ruffled hair and gentle dark blue eyes, a thin build and something about the angled face gave some kind of inquisitive expression even before he spoke to us. Carrying two backpacks in his hands, keeping eyes averted, he only walked forward enough that it was clear we knew he was there, and then placed the items on the ground in front of him, then he turned to walk away again. Maybe to give us our privacy in our grievances, maybe for good that time. I wasn't going to find out. "Wait-" then my voice cracked off, my own choking sobs having more of an effect than I thought.
His form did pause though, the shadows brightening around him. I glanced up for a moment, taking note of the rising moon in the distance, we had been still far too long. We needed to keep moving, but first I had to pay my dues.
"Thank you," I began again, in much clearer tones, though I barely recognied my own voice. "For helping us. I'd like to somehow, to repay you."
Still with his back to me, for our decency I knew and not an actual sign of rudeness, he spoke, "It's Ben, and no thanks needed. I only did what anyone in my place would have. I'd offer you home as well, but we both know you can't go back there."
He hesitated then, for so long that I feared new bad news was to come. Then he finished, and I realized he was just dreading what he had to tell us. Still bad news, but not new. "I don't know what you guys know about these things, but you should know the Hunter's took her, ah, body. There's nothing left for you two back there, I'm sure I don't need to tell you how foolish it would be to go back home, so I'd keep moving while you still can."
I swallowed hard, before repeating, "Thank you." Gently disentangling myself from my wife, I got to my own feet again, surprised at how stiff I was, and even more surprised that the coldness was returning. I took that as a blessing for what it was, I was going to need that distance from my human emotions soon. For now, I picked up one backpack, and ignoring the fact they were slightly too small for me I put on a set of clothes I found in there. I'd go through the rest of it later.
Once I was decent again, I finished my approach to our savior, and looked him straight in the face as I offered him my hand. I found I was a few inches taller than him, but it could never feel like I was looking down on him, just the opposite as I said, "Thank you, Ben. I wish there was more I could say than that."
"Your names would be nice," he said grinning slightly at a joke I only got at the end, "I'd rather not find out on the news later."
"Al Federico," I responded at once, only hesitating for a moment before continuing, "and that's my wife Shara."