Phoenix was unused to being the prey. The werewolf was usually the top predator of whatever environment it settled into. But that was back on Earth. Out here in space, other worlds had bred bigger and scarier things. Case in point: the monstrous, pulsing blue mass of hunger and rage that currently had a seven-foot brown werewolf scrambling for his life. It was all Phoenix could do to stay ahead of it in this desert terrain. Werewolves were kings of the night, but as the distant mountains began to illuminate, Phoenix wondered if this would be his final dawn.
Every sinew and muscle in his body strained from exertion. His entire being burned from adrenaline and fear. Even with this world’s lighter gravity allowing him to jump higher and move faster than ever before, he was pushing himself like he had never pushed himself before. His claws dug into craggy rocks as he scaled the sheer cliffside sixty feet high. This would be impossible back on Earth, but life and death drove him to desperation. The beast raged below, prompting him to ignore his body’s limits and haul himself higher and higher.
With his last energy, Phoenix threw a heavy arm over the edge of the cliff. His claws found anchor in the rock overhead. He screamed in agony as he hauled himself up and over and collapsed on horizontal purchase. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t go on any longer… he just lay there and allowed his chest and heart to make the demands of which he had credited them.
Phoenix had been in life and death situations before. He had run for his life on occasion as a child living amongst humans. But nothing had ever threatened his life so violently, so tenaciously. Staring into the blue creature was like staring at death incarnate. Werewolves were passion and fury, but this… this was hatred and hunger.
And just as Phoenix had developed a spark of hope, just as the thought that he had gotten away from it formed inside his weary mind, it exploded upward from the cliff with a gurgling roar! As it manifested above him, all Phoenix could do was raise his arm in a gesture of resistance. He did not want to die, but he could not muster up the strength to keep fighting to live.
“NO!” he screamed. Cliché as it was, that would be the last word on his imaginary tombstone. Not that there would be anything left of him…
The creature froze. With teeth mere inches from him and tongue lagging out and dripping pure energy, it had stopped. Phoenix didn’t ask why, he just pulled himself out from underneath its maw on his elbows. He was alive, if only for a few more seconds. He’d take it.
He studied the monster’s luminescent eyes. No longer could he feel its desire to eat him. That appetite had been replaced with confusion.
Phoenix was a telepath… when he had shouted with his mouth, he must have shouted with his mind as well, forcing his desire not to be eaten onto the thing’s will. Well, he couldn’t exactly regret that. He closed his eyes and reached inside it with his thoughts. Its mind… its mind was like fire, crackling and static and rage. But inside the maelstrom… a tiny voice, confused, unsorted, scrambled.
Phoenix called out to it. It gave him his full attention, and he could sense fear… confusion… self-loathing… and, most surprisingly of all, innocence. A child! Suddenly, Phoenix understood. There was a child inside the creature. Not eaten… it was the creature.
Pint. His name was Pint.
“I have some experience with this sort of thing,” he told it. Closing his mind, he merged his will to its will. Its mind was powerful, but chaotic and uncontrolled. He offered discipline, a sail in the stormy sea.
He willed himself to transform back into his human form. His body shrank, fur retreated, claws grew blunt. But as he collapsed into a less dangerous form, so to did the monster.
The brown werewolf changed into a teenager of eighteen years, worn by tribulation at too young an age. But his change was relatively smooth and clean compared to the beast’s, as the energy compressed and took shape. Excess mass died out and was discarded, transforming into black slime that cascaded down the form of a reborn, hairless, dark-skinned trembling child. He looked to be about nine or ten.
Fear was replaced by compassion. They were both naked and had nothing to cover themselves. Phoenix had dropped the backpack containing his worldly possessions at the base of the cliff and had no desire to climb back down for them until he had regained his strength. The sun was warming the world, but there was still a chill in the air. Ignoring the slime, Phoenix crawled on all fours over to the child and scooped him into his arms.
“It’s okay,” the older boy soothed. “It’s okay. You’re back t’normal.”
“How,” he sobbed. “How did you do that?”
“I can reach into minds with my own. An’ I know a thing or two about turnin’ into somethin’ that’s hungry. Showed you how I change and hoped it would do the same for you. It worked.”
“Th-thank you,” he said.
“Just rest,” he said. “You been through a lot.”
“You’ve been through more. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to… I just lose control.”
“Like I said, I understand.”
The boy looked up at him with huge gray eyes that seemed even bigger without eyebrows. “You can control yours. Can you teach me how?”
Phoenix’s heart broke. “I wish I could, but I was inside your mind. Yours is so much more powerful than mine. Mine’s just instinct. An echo of a real wolf. You’re… you didn’t start out human. Your humanity’s what’s the echo. No less real, but the creature’s stronger’n you.”
The boy’s eyes began to swell with tears. He leaned his head into Phoenix’s chest and began to heave his sorrows out.
“I have to leave this world in three days,” Phoenix said sadly. This was the first time he felt regret at moving on to another world. But he had to keep moving, keep looking for others of his kind who could help him. At least he had others out there. Pint was much more alone. “But I know some people who can help you. I’ll take you to ‘em. And in the meantime, I’ll do what I can to teach you some control methods. Might not help you control the beast, but it could stop you from changin’ if it’s not too bad.”
Pint said nothing, but the way he scooted close into Phoenix provided his answer. Phoenix clutched him tightly, his rough calloused hide offering comfort to Pint’s soft, fresh skin. As a loner himself, physical contact was strange, foreign. But the electricity and warmth could not be denied. As the sun rose, warming the landscape, the two boys sat alone in the middle of the wilderness together, finding warmth in something more spiritual. Their fires passed between each other and the two single boys, if for only a brief moment, were not alone. And sometimes, a brief moment could be a lifetime.