The clanging of steel echoed through the green forest, disturbing its pristine silence. The birds, those that hadn’t already fled, were silent, and any other creatures in the forest were keeping a safe distance. Every now and again, a grunt or shout of exertion or anger flew up through the treetops. Below, in a small clearing, two figures clashed and whirled around each other, jockeying for position before suddenly striking in tandem, sending another crash of metal on metal into the air.

 

The taller of the two was a wolf. His parents had named him Folc, and indeed, that’s what he and anyone who cared to know called him, though it was not uncommon for him to be called other names. Mongrel, scoundrel, and mange-ridden dog were a few of the more common, so common that he would occasionally look up if he heard them called. His whole body was a dark gray, with small flecks of white fur dotting his chin, suggesting a white underbelly hidden under his coat of dinged mail. His nose was black, his eyes a deep green, both similarly wet, though only one naturally. Again, he tried to blink out the sand his opponent had thrown out of his eyes, and for the first time was able to get a real look at his assailant.

 

The first thing he noticed was that the thing across from him was shorter, considerably so. He couldn’t get a good look at its face for the thing’s hooded cloak: a short, functional brown thing that, when used in its owner’s likely home environment of a city, would made him or her melt into passing crowds. The wolf let his eyes wander, seeing there was nothing useful to be gained from the head. A signet ring stamped with the symbol of a cracked tree sat on a clawlike finger that almost the exact shade of brown as the cloak. Connected to that finger was a hand, which clutched at a curved dagger engraved with the same symbol as the ring, and suddenly it hit the wolf. The Martinel family. An outfit, weapon, and seal like that? It had to be. Well, almost had to be anyway. To know for sure he’d have to remove the cloak, and he didn’t suppose the thing would look favorably upon taking it off at the moment.

 

The wolf’s moment of contemplation was cut short as the creature lunged again, swinging his dagger in a wide arc. Reacting quickly and with practiced precision, Folc parried with his own blade, a rather simple shortsword. Nothing particularly special, but it was quite reliable, and reliability was a quality a down-on-his-luck Mercenary tended to value. Another clang echoed through the air, both blades holding true, and Folc stepped forward and into his opponent, knocking him off balance. In a fluid motion he brought up his other leg, kneeing the thing in the stomach and earning a meaty thump along with the oomph of the air being knocked out of someone as that someone staggered back. Not one to concede an advantage, Folc swung his own sword up and across his body, aiming for the hilt of his opponent or, failing that, his hand. The blade struck true, with not so much as a clang but more of a thump as the business end of a sword embedded itself in leather and continued on its path, ripping the dagger from its owners grip and throwing it several feet.

 

Folc only had a few moments more before the thing had regained his footing, and though it looked over its shoulder and at the dagger, it apparently decided it wasn’t worth the risk and lunged right at the wolf.

 

Now that he had not been expecting. Before he could react, the thing grabbed Folc’s wrist and stepped under his arm, spinning around and twisting the wrist in his grip. The wolf had no choice but to move his hand like the thing wanted, suddenly finding his own sword pointed at his abdomen. He blinked, feeling another tug, and by the time his eyes opened there was a searing pain in his core. Looking down revealed the source: his own sword was embedded in him, all the way through to the other side of his body. He could feel the cold metal against his insides, the rush of every pump of his heart as blood began to ooze from the wound around the sword, and a coppery taste welled up in his mouth. He whirled - only slightly stumbling backwards - to find the one responsible calmly removing their hood to reveal a pointed, harsh face. A rat’s face. So it was the Martels.

 

Folc coughed, the coppery taste becoming more pronounced, stumbling forward and carefully placing both his hands on the sword’s hilt. The rat cast a glance at him with mild interest, probably wondering why he wasn’t dead yet, but Folc simply blinked and drew a deep breath before slowly beginning to pull.

 

The pain was excruciating, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut and grit his teeth to keep from blacking out. Sharp edges glided against his organs, widening existing cuts and creating new ones, every stray wiggle causing shoots of fire to run up his spine. Every beat of his heart sent a spurt of blood out the wound and a fresh throb to his head. Every breath shifted the organs around the intrusion, rubbing and chafing them against it, sometimes cutting them. A strangled cry escaped his black lips, now dripping red with his own blood, and it was out.

 

The sword glistened red, though there was little time to view it before Folc thrust the tip into the dirt, using it as a cane. His breath was raggedy and sounded like marbles in a washing machine, his legs shook beneath him, and blood now flowed freely, soaking his white tunic and his gray fur different shades of red. He didn’t have much time.

 

With speed that took the rat off guard, Folc lunged forward and ran his blade through the rat’s chest, the left side. He looked into the rat’s eyes, seeing them wide with terror, and twisted the blade before releasing his grip and letting it fall. It brought the rat’s body with it, embedding itself on the ground and the rat just above the ground. The body slid down the blade, a few centimeters at a time, and finally rested in the dirt as the blood began to pool.

 

Folc stood still for a second, simply watching the rat for any signs of life, before his own signs of life rapidly caught up with him. Violently, he coughed, sending a spatter of blood into the dirt in front of him. He frantically began to claw at his belt, almost fanatically searching for the–there! His fingers closed around the vial he had been saving, ripping it off its fastener, his thumb quickly de-corking it. He didn’t even look at the smooth amber liquid inside before pressing the vial to his lips, draining it with gravity alone.

 

He squeezed his eyes shut as the liquid passed down his throat, simultaneously burning and intensely sweet. It was an odd combination, but as his other hand felt along his abs, he breathed a sigh of relief as he realized the price had been well worth it. The wound was knitting itself closed.

 

The relief didn’t last long. The wolf forced himself to open his eyes, surveying the small clearing. His eyes passed over trees, brush, the dust of the clearing, the dead rat impaled on his sword, the lone dagger, and a lake, the last of which he gave his full attention. It was more of a large puddle, really, but it was fresh, fed by a little stream, hence why he had planned to make camp by it for the night. And, by extension, why he had been caught unawares by his would-be killer. He walked over to the lake, kneeling by it and cupping the cool water into his hand before bringing it to his lips and drinking slowly. Ahhhhh, he thought. Refreshing.

 

There was, however, another reason he had walked over. Well, several, but this particular one was the most pressing. His pack was at the bottom of the lake, thrown there by his assailant at the beginning of the melee. It wasn’t that deep, but it was still very, very wet. Sniffing, Folc took off his shirt, revealing his well-defined and athletic build, and steeled himself for the water.

 

A short wade later, he had managed to gain wet legs, soaked trousers, and one waterlogged pack. It would dry, with time.The same could not be said, however, for all of the supplies within. Oh, he had it all right, but some of the most important was completely ruined. Wet maps, destroyed books and ledgers, and spoilt food never did anyone any good. It wasn’t a total loss; the coin was still coin, wet or not, his tools would all be fine, and his clothes would dry in time. Still, he was a few days from his destination, off the main roads, and without maps. There was nothing to do but follow the path he was already on, and with him exerting the energy of walking all day he may well starve to death before he got there.

 

His eyes wandered over to the dead rodent. Unless…

 

A few more minutes and he had un-impaled the rat and stripped it down, picking off anything remotely valuable. In total he had some coin, a compass, a few more hidden daggers, a ring, and a letter, which Folc set aside to read later. What he didn’t have was food, and though the rodent surely had a cache of food and supplies somewhere nearby, the wolf had no idea where it was, and the rat was in no shape to tell him.

 

Folc looked at the rat again, scratching his still-bare stomach as it growled hungrily. Well, he supposed, this rat could still hold the answer to my food problem…

 

The wolf was no stranger to making meals of others; it was fairly common after all, and though without provocation it was murder, among the rough mercenary lot it was a fact of life. Folc was no different. Though his prey was typically far squirmier, these were desperate times, and the rat wouldn’t mind now besides. He found himself licking his lips.

 

Folc sat in front of the rat’s head and cupped his hands behind it, weighing it. Light. Astonishingly light, really. The wolf shook his head, blinked, and then pulled the body closer, up onto his lap. There was no reason to drag this out too long. He opened his jaws wide and pulled.

 

Mediocre at best, he decided. Something just felt odd about the fading warmth and lifeless form in his jaws, though the actual flavor was surely fine. It certainly didn’t help that the rat seemed to have not bathed in weeks, if not months. Instead of dwelling on it, Folc squeezed his eyes shut once more and gulped.

 

The rat dragged through the dirt, its shoulders just inside Folc’s maw. He kept his tongue to himself, carefully breathing out onto the rodent and adjusting his grip before swallowing again. Even at this, the rodent’s widest point, Folc found it ridiculously easy to consume it. The wolf bit down slightly, not piercing the skin, but succeeding in teasing out a bit more flavor before he swallowed again.

 

He licked across the rat’s back, venturing so far as to wrap his tongue around its side. His stomach was beginning to bulge slightly, and he moved one hand to push in on it, feeling the outline of the rat gradually sliding in. He gulped again, the form surging further into his stomach, causing his middle to noticeably swell now. His tongue danced across the rat’s lower back and rear, no different from the rest of the rat despite it normally being the wolf’s favorite part of a living (or in this case dead) meal. Disappointing. He swallowed again.

 

The rodent was mostly inside the wolf by now, only legs remaining exposed to the open air. Folc cupped his tongue around…something he’d rather not thing about, pulling towards the back of throat and feeling the rat slipping down, a wet schlrk echoing from his throat from the gradual descent. The experience had been at the same time extraordinarily short and excruciatingly long, but at last, there was only a pair of cold, inert feet, which easily disappeared into Folc as he closed his mouth with a final click.

 

A shiver ran through the wolf as he felt the rodent settle in his stomach. Without a doubt, that was the most unpleasant experience he had eating someone, and he hoped nothing would ever top it. He looked down at his bulging gut, pushing it down and eliciting a small burp. If he didn’t think about it, it was the same as having something alive in there, or just a big meal. He couldn’t describe it, but there was just something off about eating a corpse.

 

Folc got up, his engorged middle making it a little more difficult to maneuver, though he was lucky enough to have plenty of practice. He stumbled over towards a soft enough looking rock and settled down once again, adjusting himself against the big gray mass, ready to settle in for the night. Minutes passed, and gradually the gurgles and groans of a working stomach began to reach Folc’s sensitive ears. He sighed in relief, finally allowing himself to relax, placing a hand on either side of his belly. It was going to be one hell of a road ahead, and potentially a rough night, but for now, he needed sleep. His eyes closed.