The trees flashed by quickly. Several rabbits were startled as shadows streaked by them.
“What on earth is Migal thinking? I thought the frail were supposed to be a little smarter than the brawny, but his brain seems to be just as shrivelled up as his body!”
“Shut up and move faster. We have to catch up to him!”
The group sped through the forest as fast as they could. They didn’t bother to pay attention to how much noise they were making, nor trying to keep that noise low. They simply pushed their bodies to move as fast as possible. If they weren’t fast enough, surely their comrade would be dead.
However, as they came closer to the source of the naked devils’ smell, Dawn slowed them down. Something wasn’t right. They should be hearing sounds of combat by now. Sure, Migal was much weaker than any of the other howlers of his or the previous generation, but the difference in strength between howlers and naked devils wasn’t small enough that his comparative weakness should allow him to be so quickly and easily dispatched.
A few steps later, however, Dawn winced. He grew even more unsettled. This time it was not due to the absence of sound, but the presence of two strong scents, and the contradictory picture they portrayed.
The first of the two smells was that of blood, not howler blood, but naked devil blood. In essence this wasn’t surprising. Even if Migal had been defeated, he should have put up a decent fight, his hatred alone would have allowed him to inflict severe wounds on his opponents – even had he been a naked devil – and given that he was a howler, his strength should have been enough to even mortally wound or kill one or two of them. What truly unsettled Dawn, though, was the second smell.
A stench of urine stained his nose. It seeped into his nostrils and carved its way into his olfactory nerve. It made him want to sneeze. The smell would have been enough to overpower even the horrible sense of smell of naked devils. Howles’sense of smell was several times more sensitive and acute than that of naked devils, so it was even worse for them. Several of the other members of the group couldn’t supress their reflex and bellowed out sneezes that echoed into the forest.
Dawn gave them an angry glare, but couldn’t reprimand them. They had no experience when it came to hunting, or combat, and couldn’t really be relied on much. Besides, he was more concerned by what the smell signified.
Urine was released naturally when an animal died. After the initial muscle convulsions that followed shortly after death as the muscles fought for air, they would all relax. This included the sphincter muscles that kept the bladder closed. This was true for all animals with bladders. However, the amount wasn’t typically all that much. Since the animal would typically be laying down, there wasn’t too much pressure to force the urine out of the bladder. Whilst there would be a smell from the little that leaked out, it shouldn’t be anywhere near this strong. This strong smell could only come from a complete bladder discharge. Which meant that the dead had relieved themselves before their death.
As for the nature of the smell itself, that also told him two important facts about the situation that lay beyond the next couple of trees. First off, each species had a different smell to their urine, and he could clearly tell this was naked devil urine, not howler urine. This told him that Migal wasn’t dead. But if he wasn’t dead, then where was he? And why was the fight over already?
The second thing about the urine, was that amidst the normal stench of urine, there was mixed in the distinct flavour of fear. It was the smell of a particularly intense kind of fear, a terror that shook the very core of the reliever. The naked devils didn’t just die in fear, they died in abject terror.
This kind of terror, however, wasn’t something howlers could cause. For all the evils of the naked devils, Dawn had to give it to them, they were smart. They had come to understand the nature of the howlers, and the limits of their capabilities, so when faced with a howler, even a particularly desperately fighting one, much less a frail one such as Migal, they shouldn’t be releasing urine at all, not to speak of urine that wreaked of sanity destroying terror.
‘What exactly happened down there?’ Dawn thought.
If not for the absolute trust he had in his own sense of smell, he might have thought that some other, as yet unsmelt, creature was involved. He drummed up his courage and determination with a cold ‘humph’ at his own hesitation, and stepped forward.
“Come on, let’s move!”
The others hesitated for a moment before following him. They closed the remaining distance slowly and quietly. Nowhere along their approach could they hear any sounds; the forest was completely silent. The silence was to the extent that they could hear their own hearts beating, and their compatriots’ breathing. Despite the attention they paid to being silent, they could hear their footsteps. No leaf rustled. No nocturnal birds chirped. No animal moved, even in the distance. It felt like they were in the graveyard of a vampire’s castle town.
The trees suddenly thinned, and they were confronted with a scene they had never seen before. Out of the group of fifteen wolves, only Dawn had seen something in the same hemisphere as this. The group grabbed either their stomachs or mouths in unison. Some turned around and emptied their stomachs, whilst others couldn’t turn around fast enough and their lunches spewed forth in arcs.
The word in front of them was crimson.
The red covered the leaves like early winter snowfall. It clung to the bark of the trees like honey. Chunks of firmness hung on low hanging branches. A few arms could be distinguished, and a hand clung to the hilt of a spear as if still ready to pierce through anything that approached it. A head lay next to what seemed to be the leftovers of a cuirass, probably belonging to the leader of the former group.
“What, what’s going on here?” Kor asked.
“Wh-What happened?” Dick followed.
“This, this looks like the gateway to hell…”
“No, this, this… I don’t know what this is.”
Everyone stared in disbelief, some vomited a second or even a third time. Dawn took a step forward, and as if moving purely based on his body’s own momentum, he walked. It couldn’t really be called walking, it was more like his body was drifting forward, and he was just keeping his legs beneath it.
“Migal,” he called out.
There was no answer.
The sound of incongruent whimpering entered his ear. It appeared to be coming from behind a tree at the other end of the crimson world. A pair of legs lay before the tree, and a blood trail led around it. His body moved to the tree, and as he peered around it, he found the upper half of the body there.
The naked devil’s intestines were trailing in a small arc back the way the blood trail came. It was holding a small pendant in its hand, whimpering what Dawn could only assume was meant to be a religious recitation, or perhaps what the naked devils called a ‘prayer’.
Its face slowly lifted to look at him. Its entire face shook as it did so. It seemed as though it was freezing from the cold, even though winter was still far away, and it was laying square in the fading afternoon sunshine. In its eyes Dawn saw terror, and elation?
“P-Please…” the devil whimpered.
Dawn knelt and placed his ear closer to hear the last words of the devil. It might be a naked devil, but the dying could be extended at least the small courtesy of having their last words heard.
“P-Please…” the whimpering came again, “k-kill me… Before, it c-comes back…”
The voice faded, and all life left the devil’s eyes. The terror, however, remained, destined to remain in those glassy, lifeless eyes until they rotted away.
‘What, what demon did this?’ Dawn asked himself, ‘What being could move so swiftly. What creature could kill these notoriously tenacious naked devils so quickly, and instil in them a fear that made them ask the creatures traditionally their enemies, for the mercy of death? And more importantly, what did it do with Migal?’
It was at this moment that the rest of the group had finally managed to cross the clearing, and came around the tree. When they saw the upper half of the devil, several convulsed as if to vomit, but their already empty stomachs refused to give them the satisfaction of expelling something from their bowels. In the end, they could only convulse stupidly, like a fish struggling to breath out of water.
“What do we do now, boss?” one of the group asked.
“We spread out and search for him,” Dawn answered after collecting himself, “Since there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Migal is among those here, whatever did this must either have him, or be chasing him currently.”
Kor raised a paw, as though they were still sitting under the old tree of wisdom back near the cave.
“What is it, Kor?” Dawn asked.
“If the thing was powerful enough to do this so quickly, wouldn’t we only be making ourselves more vulnerable than we already are by splitting up?”
“Damnit!” Dawn slammed his fist into the tree, causing several pieces of bark to splinter off and fall around the corpse, “You’re right. Alright, we’ll have to search for him together.”
“Can’t we just leave him and return to the cave? If there really is a monster that can do this, we need to warn the rest of the pack, and Migal was the one who rushed off without a concern for his own safety in the first place!” another voiced their protest.
None of the others said as much, but they nodded in agreement.
‘Ah, they really haven’t had a chance to learn anything yet,’ Dawn thought, ‘If we howlers were so quick to abandon our own kind, we would have gone extinct long ago.’
“No. We need to find Migal. It would be a complete disgrace if we were to return to the pack without him,” Dawn added underneath his breath, “or at least a piece of his corpse.”
He shook his head once again and looked at everyone with the stern face he knew they all needed to see from the alpha-male in the group right now.
“Spread out and search around the edge of the clearing. Find me some trail of blood that could indicate in which direction Migal and whatever did this went! With this much blood around, there’s no way they didn’t get some of it on their feet.”
The others nodded and immediately spread out.