The Navajo called them black dogs; dark shadows that would hurriedly pass along the treeline, swift enough to make the scouts wonder if they had really seen them at all. When they did see them, they would always describe them the same way: black, smokey creatures, roughly the size of a small wolf, with big triangular heads, sharp ears, and bushy tails. If one was lucky, they would catch a glimpse of their faces; faces with a singular, defining characteristic: glowing, red eyes.
These sightings were often shrugged off by the majority, as they were believed to be the result of sleep deprivation. Scouts would often report seeing the black dogs when they had been in the field for several days, and they were purely exhausted. The medicine men attributed a spiritual factor to the sightings, believing them to be the incarnations of death walking among the forest. A scout who had seen a black dog was usually quarantined for a while, as the superstitious ones believed they were going to die soon after seeing one.
The truth was significantly more simple. The black dogs were men with a special ability, as it were. They were spellbinders and dreamweavers who had trained in the art of transfiguration. They could transform themselves into dogs made of smoke and mist, allowing them to pass through more inhospitable areas with ease, or to travel among the wildlife more or less undetected.
Mordecai thought about this and smiled to himself as he kicked snow into the remaining embers of his fire from the night before. The smoke and steam began to billow as the small flames were extinguished, rising up into the cold, clear sky. He looked around him, preparing himself for the day’s journey. He had set up camp late last night, making himself a small fire thirty feet from the edge of the evergreen forest. He had intended to stop much earlier, but he had been spotted by a pair of scouts as he had descended out of the mountains, and had to slip far enough away from them in order to make the shift back into his true form before making his bed for the night.
He knelt down and folded up his blanket and stuffed his few belongings back into his sack. He had always wondered what happened to his possessions when he made the shift; it’s not like he was a dog wearing a backpack. He assumed that whatever he carried with him was simply carried by the smoke, and returned to him when he regained his human form. Perhaps he would ask one of the others about this when he got back to Kansas.
He stood again and looked out over the snow-dusted plain ahead of him. He had a long way to go before he was back home. Alistair had sent him into the mountains to scout out the location of a small coven of spellbinders. They had gone missing several weeks prior, and it was unlike them to stay out of contact for this long, especially during this time of year. It was suspected that a band of necromancers had crossed to this side of the Rockies and had taken them, though for what reason, no one really knew.
Mordecai had caught their trail, and it had led into a place he would rather not travel through alone; there was an old Indian burial ground just past the foothills, and legend had it that some pretty dark stuff had happened there when the Americans had first come through. Supposedly, there had been quite a battle; to hear some tell it, it had been more of a siege. In either case, when the Indians realized they were fighting a losing battle, they had cursed the land and any who dared cross it, and had holed away in the cave systems, never to be seen again.
Now, Mordecai wasn’t one to put much stock in legends, but when it came to dark magic like that, it was better to be safe than sorry. He would rather have a Gatekeeper there to back him up in case things went south. He didn’t know too much about the Gatekeepers, but he did know two things: first, they were exceptionally strong when it came to the mystical arts; second, they were an honest bunch, and could be trusted.
Their leader, Alistair, had pulled him out of a few tough scrapes several years back, so he had offered his particular set of skills as a way of returning the favor. He had performed dozens of these types of missions, obtaining information on situations that the Gatekeepers would otherwise be unable to get their eyes on. Mordecai was able to sneak his way into places Alistair and his men would never reach, and had been able to help them in a number of different ways.
Mordecai sniffed and wiped his nose; the morning was cold enough that he could even feel his eyebrows bristle and begin to freeze in place. It was days like this that he was thankful for the heavy coat of fur that he had while he was in his black dog form. It made travelling in inclement weather much more comfortable; most of the time, he couldn’t even feel the coldest of winds.
He threw his backpack over his shoulder and uttered the incantation, his words seeming to hang in the air like the fog from his breath.
“De fumum ac fauillam, venit lupus.”
Out of smoke and ash, comes the wolf.
As the last syllable left his tongue, he was enveloped in a cloud of smoke, and he felt himself begin to spin. The wind around him picked up briefly, and when it died down seconds later, where once stood a burly man, was a black wolf with glowing red eyes, smoke wisping and winding off every inch of fur.
He remembered when he had first learned to shift, the spinning had made him violently ill. It was something that took quite a bit of getting used to; now that he had been doing it for so many years, it was rather commonplace for him, but it still made his stomach turn a little bit from time to time.
He shook, as it had begun to snow again as the sun came up over the horizon. With any luck, he would be able to reach Salina by nightfall, and the next day, he would finish the trip. It would be an exhausting run, but he needed to get back to Lawrence, where the Gatekeepers were awaiting the news he brought with him.
He set off at a brisk trot for several paces, and then broke into a run. Another advantage to being a black dog was the ability to travel at dizzying speeds. Like a bolt of black lightning, he sped across the open plains, leaving the mountains behind him. He would not stop again until the sun had set again.