After the whole big council debacle was out of the way, Kariya took me to meet a bunch of other dogs. One of them, a dark gray bitch, he introduced as his daughter Rin. She had definitely managed to inherit some of the haughty houndness from her father, but seemed a bit less intimidating than him. While this was not saying much, I was quite relieved to not be facing a teenage version of Kariya. It was bad enough to be scary; being unpredictably juvenile and scary at the same time would have been downright nasty.
The canines spent a moment exchanging friendly gestures and presumably gossiping about the cat that Dad dragged in. I had no idea what they were saying, and it was getting rather frustrating. I could almost smell them talking in their creepy telepathic way, but there was no lip reading or listening to intonations that I could apply to figure out what it was about. In a social sense I felt like I was a deaf foreigner, just waiting for someone to come translate to me when they felt like including me in the conversation.
A long, brooding moment later, a young female voice addressed me. I identified it as belonging to Rin, although I was still not quite certain how that happened. "Hey, Otter, was it?" She giggled, a melodious tinkling sound that made me immediately think her human form must be a regular heart-breaking beauty.
The mental image caused by her girlish talking voice was in stark contrast to the hound standing before me. The kind of aesthetic impressiveness I was prepared to attribute to these two creatures mostly revolved around their observable capacity to chew me up and spit me out. I was not certain if this was, in fact, some kind of stuffy cat-and-dog projection that my subconscious was making, or simply my animal brain drawing rational conclusions to improve my chances of survival in the wild. I was seriously tempted to act according to the latter assumption.
But to be fair, she had so far given me no reason to think of her as an enemy. I snapped out of my broody ruminations and nodded affirmatively. "Yeah. An understandable mix-up, eh?" I had been named by non-shapeshifting people, who of course had no idea about my panther form. But considering that, their intuition had managed to hit uncannily close to truth.
Rin wagged her tail and barked amusedly, to which Kariya reacted with an approving snort. Seeing my obvious bogglement at his commentary, she explained, "I'm studying to be a human handler, and a part of that involves making my body language expressions clear enough that they can understand them." A bit like talking slowly and clearly to the elderly, I completed the unvoiced thought in my head.
Then something else clicked in my head. "Studying... so, am I going to be a sort of project for you?" I was not sure whether to greet this possibility with apprehension or with gratitude for the possibility that I would end up finding a way to be useful in this society after all.
Rin struggled to control her mirth. "I guess you could say so. I can be your interpreter, and learn about the human society before it is actually time for me to go out there, so it benefits both of us, doesn't it?"
My whiskers twitched in resignation. "I suppose you're right. I'm just not used to being... handicapped. Just a couple of days ago I was leading a quite decent, independent life, now I suddenly can't even talk properly and need a babysitter to look after me." I sighed. There, it was out. I was officially a whiney deaf foreigner in need of babysitting.
Rin nuzzled my shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry. I'm sure the elders will figure out a cure for whatever it is that's causing this. You only just got here!"
Kariya chimed in with a gently reprimanding tone. "To be honest, girl, when we got here, I was almost certain you had already spent up all your chances. Since being labeled a harmless infant just saved your tail out there, it'd be best to suck it up and learn to live with it."
Trust the hell hound to sprinkle around optimism with a "things could be drastically worse". My wisdom growing quickly, I offered no comment, although my tail was swishing around irritably. I pondered for a moment how well talking telepathic dogs could read feline body language; maybe I was a mysterious mute to them, or maybe they were reading me like an open book.
Kariya fixed me with one more of his trademark creepy stares that seemed to see right through me. "All things considered, do you really wish you could go back to your isolation in that cabin?"
I had to admit that the possibility had not even occurred to me. My earlier content was mostly based on ignorance; there was no solace left now that I knew the world was full of others like me. Even if I was a deaf simpleton to them.
I was not granted a whole lot of time for getting used to my new status. Before long, a messenger arrived, reporting of a panther sighting a day's journey from where we were. Now that the whole community was apparently aware of the council harbouring a member of the rogue clan, this random disturbance was suddenly considered noteworthy news.
"They don't wander to these parts a whole lot," Rin warned. "So it could be a false alarm." But we agreed that it was worth the shot of trying to contact the reclusive community of panthers to find out if they knew something about what was wrong with me. It was not just to help me find my roots out of sheer friendliness, either. For the community of normal people, the information could mean finding a way to make sure it would never happen to one of their own.
Rin offered to lead me to the outskirts of the small town, although she refused to go in with me. "My training is not yet completed," she explained. So she was encouraged not to enter the asylum for the mentally defective quite yet, presumably in case someone could recognize her after messing up royally or something. Luckily, this limitation did not extend to me, given that I was defective myself.
Or, if one would prefer to think positively, because I had already managed to spend years among this sort of people without messing up particularly badly.
We set out at dusk, after elaborately promising to "Daddy Dog" Kariya that we would keep each other safe and not talk to any strange people. Unless they were panthers or it was otherwise necessary for the completion of our mission, that is. I got the impression from the whole shebang that Rin did not wander off on her own a whole lot at this age yet.
I brought it up with her as we jogged through the woods. She giggled at me in that irresistible way of hers, then assured me she was actually quite grown up by now.
"It's just that Mom had an accident recently, so I figure he's going to be overprotective until he gets over it."
I realized I had never met Rin's mother, and stumbled for a bit in my confusion. "An accident? Is she alright?" Kariya had a daughter, and I had not even realized he would probably have a wife to go with the offspring.
Rin slowed down slightly to allow me to catch up. "Yeah, she'll be fine. Just needs to rest for a while."
I waited for a while, but she would not break the silence to volunteer additional information. I prodded. "So... What happened?"
She took a fortifying breath, but had clearly prepared for the inevitable question. "She was working with humans, and there was a run-in with a mother bear. She got between it and the humans and got battered up pretty badly."
Uh oh. I had to hand it to Kariya, he must have been taking it rather well to not downright forbid his daughter from ever stepping near a human again, let alone encouraging her on a quest that would lead her to follow in her mother's footsteps. "And he's still okay with your, you know, studies?"
She made an affirmative noise. "Yeah, it's run in the family for generations, after all. Also, he feels bad for dropping your case earlier because of it, so it wouldn't do to forbid me from helping you this time around, either."
I peered at her quizzically. "Dropping my case? What do you mean?"
Rin barked. "What, he didn't tell you? The reason he didn't drag you to the council by the scruff of your neck earlier was that he ran home to Mom the moment he heard about her. Wouldn't eat or sleep, or leave her bedside, before she was stable and certain to make it through. By then he was too late to catch you on time." She paused in contemplation, then flashed me a mischievous canine ear-to-ear grin, complete with a quick wag of her tail. "You're going to have to pretend I didn't tell you, though, in case he's actually too proud to admit it himself." Then she giggled again, and it was like pieces of gold were falling into a crystalline blue lake.
I shook my head to clear it. All this information would require a bit of digesting. But one more thing was bugging me. "You mentioned there was a bear. Why would it attack your mother?"
Rin slowed her step enough to turn her head to glance at me, as if she suspected I was pretending ignorance. Once convinced that I was serious, she reined in her amusement stoically to give me an answer. "Not all animals care for this sort of existence. They're considered enlightened, not that it stops us carnivores from eating them for food."
Now there was a thought that, luckily, had not occurred to me before. "So you mean... when I eat some animal, it's not a talking one?"
Rin bounced and flicked her back legs at me in a mock-leap at prey. "In your case, actually, I wouldn't be so sure!" She barked at this amusedly. "But yeah, while it's socially accepted to eat anyone belonging to the food species, there's a few who consider it more ethical to eat those who have already achieved the higher plane of existence. There are old stories told to children that even suggest that they've only remained here to provide nourishment for us, and are freed when that has been achieved."
That sounded a bit too convenient to my ears. "Really?"
"Yeah, well. They're stories to children. You eat what you eat, but I figure it might be easier to do if you can't hear them in case they beg for mercy or tell you about a family they'll leave behind or whatever. Unless you're the sort who likes that kind of thing." She threw a glance back at me. "No offense!"
I was just baffled. "Offense? How come?"
"Oh, panthers are just rumoured to be cold-hearted and cruel. I'm sure it's not in your blood though. I wouldn't worry about it," she added in friendly dismissal.
I bristled a bit, nevertheless. We were talking about a group I was remotely identifying myself with, after all. "Are you sure that's not just prejudice talking?"
Rin pondered this for a moment. "It could be! I don't really know why they don't just mix with the rest of us. There's got to be some reason for it." How she could be so cheerful about it, I did not understand.
I guessed I would have to settle on a lack of condemning evidence on this one. There seemed to be a bit of a judgmental streak to this non-panther community that I was not entirely comfortable with. But despite her sympathy for the invalid, Rin was also still reasonably young, so seeing the world a tad black and white was not entirely unexpected. She seemed to like me well enough, but since I was already exceptional, she was not ready to extend the judgment to my entire clan quite yet. I figured there was quite a bit of generational narrative to support the theory that panthers were a bunch of meanies that I would have to disprove, in any case.
And who was I to say that they were nice people? I did not know any besides myself, after all.
Beyond the educative conversations, the travel went uneventfully. It was evening again when we arrived near the town, and agreed where to meet up after I had checked out the surroundings. Rin promised to keep her ears open and to ask any locals in the nearby woods for details, and we would meet up out there in a day.
I walked in to the town, oddly comforted to be among people with a familiar set of abilities that I could replicate again. I did not actually know anyone in these parts, but had been supplied with some local currency to be able to buy myself lodgings and even a warm meal.
I signed in to a local feeding and lodgings establishment, and found myself a bit claustrophobic in my small room. It was strange how fast I got used to spending time in the outdoors.
Sleeping in a real bed was a nice change, though. I settled in and quickly fell asleep in the soft comforts that come with being a near-defenseless, soft and pink human. For other species, the period when you're soft, pink and hairless is usually a passing phase completed very soon after birth. I meditated for a moment that this was probably part of the reason why the normal clansfolk considered humans a sort of not very clever livestock that needs to be extensively taken care of.
The next morning, I woke up to a strange feeling of being watched, and groggily tried to pull my mental functions together. My gut feeling was amazingly accurate: there was a stranger sitting at the foot of my bed. When this registered all the way up in my head, my eyes flew open and I rose to a half-sitting position before I realized the stranger had probably been there for a while now.
And what a strange stranger he was! The strangest thing about him was not his looks, as he looked for the most part quite ordinary. It was not even the way he sat there, probably having watched me in my sleep, but his aura. It carried a creepy feeling that I, who was rather firmly on the top of the food chain, had stumbled upon someone who had little (were)panthers for breakfast.
It was like a huge bird of prey was perching right at the foot of my bed, casting a shadow upon the entire room. The atmosphere was rather ominous.
After observing the range of emotions crossing my face for a moment, the man, or potentially infernal creature, spoke. "Do you know who I am?"
I could not get a word out of my mouth. I had no idea who he was, I just knew that we were not from the same pack. Even though he showed no external signs of leaping at me to devour me in one gulp, the urge to submit and bare throat to this deceptively man-shaped monster was so overwhelming that resisting it brought tears to my eyes.
With my oral capacities mystifyingly depleted, however, I just shook my head tentatively, my eyes still the size of plates.
He smiled the smile of people about to shake your hand and introduce themselves. Yet for some reason it felt obvious that he would do neither. "You could call me Mister Black. Or just Black for short."
Could, he said. I just blurted out what was omitted: "But that's not your actual name." Then a momentary re-evaluation. "Uh, pardon my bluntness."
He chuckled. "For someone described as extremely unresponsive, you don't strike me as particularly autistic."
"Au-what?" And who had been describing me to this man? Was he a shapeshifter too? I figured he had to be, to know about my problem with fitting in to the talking animals club. But that was no reason to admit to anything before he revealed what exactly he knew already.
Black waved his hand. "Never mind. And I must apologize for giving you the creeps like this, I just took the opportunity while you were not conscious to take a look at what might be causing this problem of yours."
I was conflicted about playing along with the strange gibberish of this unknown predatory character. Maybe he was from a local mental institution and wanted to lock me away for talking in my sleep about shapeshifters, for all I knew. Right at that moment, I was actually just uncertain enough about myself that if pushed, I could have confessed that I had imagined everything that had been happening of late. Nervous breakdown of some sort, they could call it. I furiously looked for a way out, and just mouthed the first denial to come to my mind. "Uh, I'm not that freaked out, I'm, I'm just waking up slowly."
His pasted-on introductory smile shifted into a smirk. "Oh really."
What was this guy? He knew he was scary, seemed to consider it a source of amusement, and he had showed up from nowhere to pick my brain apart while I was asleep. I frowned suspiciously while collecting courage from staring intently away from him. "And who are you to come judge my mental state all of a sudden, anyway?" I mumbled under my breath, passive aggressiveness emerging to fill in the hole left by regular aggression that was too unnerving to apply.
"An excellent lip reader, among other things." His comment was cheery enough; he was obviously just smug for the opportunity to further rile me up.
I chose to simply sigh at that, maybe a bit dramatically.
"I'm here to try to help you communicate with other shapeshifters. Or, to be honest, to satisfy my intellectual curiosity, but I assume it will be beneficial for you as well." He leaned towards me, and I inched backwards to sit against the wall. "I'd really like to say I'm exactly like you, to build trust and all, but I'm afraid that you and I are both just a little bit too unique for that to be credible." He winked at me conspiratorially, then sat straight again. "Also, I hope you can forgive me for not organizing a demonstratory shifting. I wish not to cause a major event by doing that in here in broad daylight."
I felt my throat constrict at the prospect of getting found out, and swallowed. "It's, uh, alright. I believe you. What do you want to know?"
"My information is a little bit sketchy so far. How much can you communicate with people? What works, what doesn't?"
I rubbed my temples. He sent me right back at where all the crazy started. "I... back when Kariya, a big dog, came to fetch me, he said they had been reaching out for everyone for a long time. I got none of that. Also... uh, when I first saw him, he was a dog, and I wouldn't hear him before he, er, threatened to tear my throat." I rubbed at it subconsciously at the memory.
Black interrupted me, eyes alight with sudden interest. "He tried to talk to you and you wouldn't hear him? What form were you in?"
"I... I was human at first, when he was outside, and when he came in to where I was, I was in my cabin at the time, uh, I was a panther and, I, I attacked him when he came through the door, I guess. I mean," I hastily added, "I know I did. But it was all rather sudden. I thought he was some kind of feral beast I'd need to defend myself against."
Black waved this aside. "Don't worry about that, I'm not interested in your social issues. Just this," he tapped his temple meaningfully. "So, suddenly you started to hear him when you were in panther form?"
"A bit after that, when, uh," to my embarrassment, I felt a blush creeping on my face, "he pinned me down. He said later at the council meeting that when he had my full attention, then he could get through to me."
Black lifted an eyebrow. "At the council meeting, I presume you were all out of human form - and you could hear people talking there?"
"Not at first, I felt there was some buzzing tension in the air but heard nothing before... before I started talking because they were taking Kariya away. And, uh, he told me to sit, and then everybody started talking so that I could hear them."
"He told you to sit?" He seemed almost as baffled as I was.
"Uh. He meant to be quiet, I think."
Now Black started to look dangerously smug again, as if he knew something I did not. "But you said he told you to sit. Did you?"
"Er, yes. But I mean, he can be really convincing when he-"
"Literally. Sat. Without thinking?"
"Yes, I don't quite understand what this has to do with-"
"I want to try something." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Then, suddenly, he got up and briskly stepped right up to me and brought his face right in front of mine in one smooth move. And before I could even begin to boggle at this strange behaviour, he roared at me. "BOO."
I like to not think of myself as particularly cowardly or easy to frighten, and I suspect I had been notably influenced by the strange atmosphere in the room. To my great a posteriori embarrassment, I yelped and fell off the bed from the other side, as far away as possible from... a strange man who had said "boo" to my face. Honestly, now?
When my breathing had stabilized, I managed a withering glare at the man, now all but giggling at my state.
I was just about to get up again, when it happened again. "DUCK." And I was back on the floor, flat on my belly.
After I got a hold of my senses again, I got up growling. "Stop that. Stop that right now or I swear, freaky or not, I'll punch your face in."
Black was shaking from held-back laughter, with tears of mirth in his eyes. "Alright, alright, I hear you. I just had to confirm, you know, in case, in case it was a coincidence the first time."
"Go ahead and laugh," I commented dryly. "I know you want to."
He dutifully did as told. I waited for the chortling to die down, then tapped my foot for an explanation.
"Okay, I have some good news for you. You're capable of communicating, but there's something in the way of regular contact. However, there's a more primitive, almost reflexive way of passing information, and it's working fine. Better than fine, in fact. You are unusually responsive." Again he had to pause due to overwhelming amusement. I waited and glowered.
"Something's in the way? What do you mean?"
"Well, if you've been living by yourself until now, some of it is probably lack of use and, I must say, it sounds like there's some disbelief in there too. You don't think animals can talk, so you don't hear them until one talks to you on a level so low even your mind can't get in its way. After that, you're willing to believe that he can pass sounds to you through the human form, but still can't initiate or receive shared thoughts."
"Whoa, wait, what?" I hated it when everyone assumed I was familiar with everything from before. "Our human forms talk? How? And shared thoughts? Telepathy is a fairy tale, right?"
Black stared at me meaningfully. "There's a situation where pla-, well, it'd take a while to explain properly, but imagine that... gah, I was never good with dumbing things down. They just talk, alright? There's a mechanism for it. Trust me, it's not just in your head."
I figured that was as much as I would get from him. "What about this telepathy thing then?"
"It's not exactly paranormal, it's perfectly natural chemical communication and it seems that your receptors are getting some kind of interference from something. Could be some kind of external inhibitors, although I'm suspecting it has to come from inside you. Overactive reuptake, maybe?" He took a glance at my face and deduced I was not picking up half of what he was saying. "Okay, to put it simply, you've got a mutation that makes you half-deaf, and you don't believe the little sounds you can hear mean anything. Is that simple enough for you?"
I am not entirely certain why, but it sounded horribly depressing and relieving at the same time. "Can it be fixed?"
"I can give it a try, but it takes a bit of time. So I suggest you go back and try to get used to the idea that these people go around talking on a whole level that you have not yet really seen. Beyond the reflexive commands, anyway."
"Wait, why do those work then? You just said-"
"Different mechanism, different mechanism. It can't be inhibited, that wouldn't be evolutionarily beneficial." His shoulders were shaking again and he covered his mouth with a hand to hide the grin. "Except maybe in your case."
We parted ways as strangely as we met, he said he would "be in touch" and I figured he meant it. I spent a relatively speaking extremely uneventful morning getting breakfast and getting ready to meet up with Rin, and checked out of my room to take a look around the village. We had not found the panthers and to be honest, they were not so high on the top of my mind at the moment. I was walking around in a daze, trying to digest all this new information.