The wolf darted through the tall grass, looking left and right as he made his way over the hill. Kota’s heart sped up every time he heard the grass shift or the sounds of the town drifting across the field, the individual sounds indistinct even to his sharp hearing in this shape.
The Farmers’ place was farther from the inn than he expected, and much larger. A huge tract of land was dotted with various crops, all in neat little rows, and a series of fields surrounded by fences were set aside for the animals that sent up their own obvious aroma. A house sat in the middle of it all, the doors and windows thrown open as a small woman went in and out about some business. Kota also spotted more than a few farmhands working in the fields and around the barn.
A small whine escaped from the wolf and he froze for more than a few minutes before slowly making his way down the hill and around the outskirts of the Farmers’ land, where the wild grass grew tall enough to hide him from view. A wide circle brought him around to one of the pastures, where a murder of crows were already at work. After checking to make sure that the coast was clear of even the other farm animals, Kota slipped through the fence and as close to the crows as he dared.
One croaked at him and he growled in return, only to be greeted by a fierce shrieking from the other birds. Kota sighed and sniffed around, trying to ignore the insulting scavengers as well as the other, more pervasive smell that drilled through his senses.
A look around the field showed no sign of any tracks, aside from those of the farmer and all of the others who had come into the area to look upon the grisly sight. If there had been any markings, they would have been obliterated by the apparent mob, and as far out as he went from the center he could see nothing and his nose found no trace of anything other than the humans and livestock that made such a deep imprint on the field, in more ways than one.
After working up his nerve, Kota dashed straight into the middle of the crows, sending them flying up into the air with a flurry of greasy black feathers and enough squawking to set the chickens going off in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before someone came to see what scared the crows off, or to deal with what was left of the poor dairy cow.
Kota’s nose was overwhelmed by the smell. Even with the unmistakable scent of crow hanging around, the cow’s blood hammered on his sinuses. Whatever had done this had not been careful or choosy in its work, and had been hungry. Even keeping in mind the crows, over half of the cow was gone, including a few bones.
The wolf moved away from the cow, searching in an ever widening circle with his nose pressed against the ground until he found the smell of the cow after the fact breaking away and moving toward the barn.
A shout broke his concentration and Kota looked up to find a young man on the other side of the field, with more of the farmhands running up at his call.
Kota’s legs started moving without waiting for directions from his brain, propelling him in a straight line toward the forest in the distance. More shouts followed in his wake, and he thought he saw more than one man trying to block him off from the other fields, as if he would actually try to go after a chicken at a time like this. Or, he realized a little too late, steering him in a particular direction.
He turned his head and caught a flash of silver before hitting the ground with his paws over his head. A whistle between his shouders followed by a crack in the fence and a curse from the man holding the gun told him it was safe to start running again. Even the most advanced guns in the empire took nearly a minute to reload, and that was in the hands of an expert. This fool had wasted his one shot, and judging from the yells of the others he had not earned much favor for it.
Kota leapt over the last fence in his way, and the final stretch gave way before his madly racing limbs, which did not slow until he was well within the shelter of the trees and far beyond being followed by the farmhands, who had hesitated at the treeline. Even then he kept running, at an angle that took him so far into the deep woods that the thickly wooded areas blocked out the sun entirely, and then Kota stumbled along on two legs as he tried to readjust to his human shape.
He slowed, taking in deep breaths as he walked in the general direction of the inn. Something told him that could have gone better, but at least none of the men saw anything beyond a wolf hanging around. Of course, once word got back to Erin he would probably be out of a job and a place to live, at the very least.
Kota sighed to himself as he neared the edge of the forest and caught sight of the inn. There had to be some way to prove that another animal was doing this, or at least a different wolf.
The thought hung heavy on Kota’s mind and he never noticed the watcher in the deep woods, present from the moment he dashed away from the farm to when he broke from the cover of trees and fled to the Last Inn.