Dolnaraq was only eight winters into existence, but knew the
smell of prey. Oh, and he loved prey. Loved the hunt. Loved the
kill. But this prey would be different. This prey would not warm
his belly. His teeth wouldn’t penetrate this flesh. The animal’s
blood would not dribble down his chin and onto his chest. No,
this one was reserved for quite a different purpose, something
nearly divine in scope and meaning. “Do you smell him?” whispered
Dolnaraq as he drew in a long, sweet breath.
Tresset nodded, though the young male wore a curious expression.
“Yes. To the east. Maybe over that next rise.”
“We must be quiet,” whispered Dolnaraq as he moved in the
direction of the scent.
“Dolnaraq,” whispered Tresset. “Are you sure?”
Only two winters Dolnaraq’s senior, Tresset liked to assume
superiority over his younger friend, over any who would let him,
really. He would organize hunting parties with the young of the
pack and direct their movements, deciding who should flank a
beast and who should charge, which of them should scout ahead
and which should ideally strike the killing blow. But this hunt
belonged to Dolnaraq. He’d contemplated it for many weeks, determining
which type of creature to seek, imagining what that
animal might add to him. He’d thought of how proud his father
would be when he first saw Dolnaraq anew. For Dolnaraq would
have done what even his father feared to do. Oh yes, father would
be proud. He also knew his mother would squeal like a baby pig.
But that was what mothers did. She would adjust. She would one
day approve. She would be forced to concede that Dolnaraq was
no longer a pup, but had entered a state of maturity, which deserved
respect and maybe even awe.
Dolnaraq paused, gazing at Tresset. “Am I sure?” he asked
in response to the question posed him.
“It is a major step. One best come to with the counsel of your
Dolnaraq scoffed. “You never get counsel.” He lifted his head
again, sniffing at the air. “The scent grows weak. We must hunt
before the creature finds its hole.” Dolnaraq moved slowly toward
the small snow-covered rise, and then glanced back at Tresset.
“Do you come or stay? Either way, I go.”
Tresset hesitated for only a moment, then nodded and went
to march past Dolnaraq as if to take the lead.
“No,” said Dolnaraq, holding out his arm to block Tresset’s
way. “This one is mine. I’ll lead.”
Tresset paused, narrowed his eyes, and looked to contemplate
the request. Like all reyaqc, the youth’s eyes were as mother’s
milk, devoid of all color except for the tiny black dot of a pupil
at the center. Even so, this one had a dark intensity in his gaze
that sometimes caused even adult members of the pack to pause.
It went beyond the physical appearance of the eyes to whatever
lay within. Unremarkable, yet anything but, Tresset Bremu was
a strange one. But for all that, in this instance he gave a slow deliberate
nod, allowing his younger companion to pass, taking the
lead in this most precarious hunt.
Dolnaraq sighed within. He was glad the older youth accompanied
him. For all his bluster, this was a frightening thing
he meant to do, and having a companion beside him would bolster
Both youth were accomplished hunters. Their pack was nomadic,
living beyond the confines of the civilized world—of the
human world. Like the prey they fed upon, they moved with the
seasons, for the most part staying well hidden within forested areas.
The land they inhabited was known by humans as Siberia, it
was late in the nineteenth century, though Dolnaraq knew none
of this, nor did he care. He often wondered though, why the pack
did not move further and further south until they’d left this bitter
cold land behind. But Dolnaraq’s father insisted the more
comfortable climes were fully inhabited by humans and that
should fear unnecessary contact with these similar
but very dangerous people. Humans are a superstitious breed,
and could never understand the needs and drives of the reyaqc.
Dolnaraq did not care for humans. There was a need for
them, yes. The reyaqc would always need to dwell within hunting
distance of their towns and villages. But, nothing more than
that. Just within hunting distance. Dolnaraq despised those reyaqc
who called themselves gypsies, wearing human clothing,
singing human songs, living in traveling caravans that skirted
the borders of human civilizations. Most humans thought these
gypsies strange, often believing them to have occult powers. But
they believed them to be human. The majority of gypsies were
human to be sure, but they often traveled in the same caravans
as their reyaqc cousins. Dolnaraq couldn’t understand why a reyaqc
would feign humanity, no matter how similar in appearance.
Dolnaraq was reyaqc, and he was about to become even more so.
They were over the rise now, gazing down into a small icy
field. Dolnaraq saw it—the fox. His prey. Oh, how that shiny red
coat gleamed. He could imagine that fur covering his own skin.
How silky it must feel. Those eyes, so bright, so intelligent. And
the teeth. Dolnaraq wanted the teeth as his own.
The two young reyaqc were silent, communicating now only
through hand signals. Dolnaraq indicated that Tresset should circle
around to his left. He saw his companion’s expression tighten
at the instruction—Tresset liked giving the orders—but still he
Dolnaraq proceeded slowly, never allowing his quarry to
leave his direct line of sight. He was upwind of the fox. The sly
creature would not smell him. All he needed was to remain silent
and invisible. He wondered if the fox would hear his heart beating.
It seemed to be pounding so hard that surly every creature in
the forest would hear its thump. He needed to calm himself. He
knew that. But Dolnaraq had been dreaming of this moment for
so many weeks now. How could he possibly hope to remain calm?
Dolnaraq would never admit this to Tresset, but he was terrified.
Yes, he wanted this—more than anything—but if something
were to happen, if Tresset stepped on a brittle stick and scared
the thing away, well, Dolnaraq would be relieved. He would feel
cheated and relieved at the same time. He’d be angry at Tresset,
but thankful too. This was a huge step, and Dolnaraq wasn’t yet
all that huge.
Stop it, he thought. If he remained this distracted he’d scare
the fox away himself and then Tresset would accuse him of doing
it on purpose.
He was almost there now.
Just a little closer.
Just a little closer.
As Dolnaraq was about to lunge, the fox sensed him and
bolted to the left. But, Tresset was there. It scurried right, but
found Dolnaraq. It slipped under a fallen branch and then into
some low brush, but both of the young reyaqc appeared, cornering
it, driving it into their grasps. Dolnaraq lunged but lost his
footing on a small patch of ice. Still, he caught a fleeting grasp
of the tail, slowing the fox enough for Tresset to snatch it in mid
leap. The creature struggled and snapped, piercing Tresset’s right
earlobe and drawing a surprising amount of blood. It wriggled
and wormed, its sleek legs pumping frantically against Tresset’s
bare thighs, leaving scarlet ribbons across his legs. But still the
young reyaqc pressed the thing close to his chest, using his forearm
and elbow to trap it against his body, while squeezing its
jaws shut with both hands.
“Dolnaraq, hurry! I’ve got him!”
Dolnaraq moved forward, but slowly. Did he really want this?
There was still time. He hadn’t done anything yet.
“Dolnaraq! I can’t hold him forever!”
He had to do this. He had come too far. What would Tresset
say if he backed out now? He would be an outcast. The others
would never respect one who boasted of great things and fled the
very same when opportunity appeared. This was his hunt. His
time. There might be no other.
Dolnaraq moved on instinct alone. Almost mechanically, he
scooted forward on the cold uneven ground, extending his right
hand as if to pet the fox. The frightened creature enhanced its
struggles, bobbing forward and back, whimpering, pedaling its
feet as if running, though Tresset had adjusted so that the paws
now found only air.
“Slowly,” cautioned Tresset. “Not too much. Not too fast.
Once you begin, there’s no need to rush.”
The fox’s hair was slick to the touch, and cold, much colder
than Dolnaraq would have assumed. But his skin was cold too.
The Siberian climate was not a gentle one for any of its many inhabitants.
Dolnaraq’s palm now held the back of the creature’s
neck. The time was at hand yet still Dolnaraq hesitated. Maybe
this wasn’t right for him. Maybe he was too young. Maybe…
The fox broke free of Tresset’s grasp. Dolnaraq’s reaction
was immediate. The bed of tiny pin-like spines emerged from
his palm, penetrating the fox’s neck at the base of the skull. The
connection was made. The world stood still.
Dolnaraq did not feel himself tumbling over as he drew the
fox close to his breast. He didn’t feel the jagged branch slice him
just above his left elbow. He didn’t hear Tresset’s continued warnings
to be slow, to only take a small amount during this first connection.
No, all Dolnaraq knew was the essence of the fox as it
coursed through his shivering form. He felt fire in his veins and
knew that certainly his limbs must be about to burst open. He
heard the echoing chime in his head, bouncing from one side to
10 The Empty
the other behind his eyes, muddling his thoughts, obstructing all
else. He felt his muscles twitch and cramp and felt his stomach
wretch, emptying its sparse contents onto the whimpering and
terrified fox. He felt every fabric of his person stretch and separate
and then pull together, before stretching yet again and again.
He seemed to be twirling around, around, and yet he was certain
that he remained still. He felt Tresset’s pull as his friend sought
to disengage him from the beast, but he clung closer. The fox was
his. The fox was him. He felt the creature swoon, its heartbeat
slow. He felt its breath grow shallow. He knew what this meant.
He knew he had taken too much. He also knew he would never
stop. The fox was him. The fox was him.
Then Dolnaraq knew nothing at all. Only cold, dark nothing.
Dolnaraq awoke two days later, feeling strange—not himself.
His arms jerked when he tried to wipe his eyes, causing him to
strike the side of his own face. Every muscle seemed bound up
in balls. His legs did not want to extend, his stomach was tight
and gurgling. And his vision was strange—somehow the colors
had become less vibrant, the images less true.
“So, you’ve decided to become a molt.” It was his father’s
voice, from somewhere just behind him. The voice was as it always
had been, but the tone was unfamiliar. Dolnaraq couldn’t
tell if it was anger, sorrow, or maybe even disbelief.
A molt? His father had called him a molt. The term referred
to reyaqc who, in addition to drawing essence from humans, drew
from animals as well, shedding some of their more human-like
characteristics in favor of those of the animal. A molt. Yes. The
fox. Dolnaraq vaguely remembered the hunt, the chase, the experience.
Had he done it? Had he been successful? Had he truly
drawn from the fox? He lifted his quivering arm to before his eyes.
Where was the fur? Where was the sleek coat he’d envisioned?
He rolled his head in the direction of his father’s voice. “The
His father moved forward. His skin and hair were darker than
Dolnaraq was accustomed to seeing on him. A band of gypsies
had recently settled in the area and many of the pack had drawn
essence from these dark strangers, causing their own tones to
gradually darken as well. “Yes, the fox,” said his father. “It is dead.”
Dead! No. He’d taken too much. When first drawing from
a creature one must proceed slowly, taking small amounts of
essence over several days. If too much is taken and the animal
perishes, then another must be found—another of quite similar
essence. Otherwise the reyaqc may become ill, the two essences
not complementing one another, but rather battling for primacy.
Dolnaraq sought to find his voice. It came in a harsh whisper.
“Dead. But, have I…?”
“Changed? Yes, boy, you’ve changed.” Dolnaraq’s father closed
his eyes, drew a long breath. “Why?”
“To be strong, Father. To be a great hunter.” And then, after
a pause. “To make you proud.”
“Make me proud! How could you imagine this would make
Dolnaraq had no words, no response. His young mind could
not fathom the reasoning behind his father’s question. Of course
the elder reyaqc should be proud. Dolnaraq had shown courage.
He’d taken risk in order to better himself. Why would a father
not be proud?
Dolnaraq watched through unfamiliar eyes as his father drew
closer yet. “Boy, have you never wondered why I have not become
a molt, why so few of our pack have done so?”
Dolnaraq had assumed it was because his father and the others
were too afraid to take such a bold step, but not feeling comfortable
with this response, he remained silent.
“The reasons are many,” began his father when Dolnaraq
failed to respond. “There are risks in the way of the molt.”
“Then, you were afraid,” said Dolnaraq before he could stop
himself from doing so.
“No,” sighed his father. “Not afraid as you see it. The advantages
of animal essence can be either great or minimal. Yes, you
may acquire the hunting skills or the superior sense of hearing
or smell. But you also may degrade your intellect, or you may become
more rash and violent or more skittish and fearful. Your
appearance will change making it more difficult for you to blend
“Why would I want to blend with humans? They stink.”
Dolnaraq’s father offered a momentary grin. “Yes, their odor
can be off-putting. But we need their essence. We need to hunt
among them. Like it or not, we depend on the humans for our
“You’re a human lover!” screamed Dolnaraq. He had expected
his father to praise him, to tell him how brave he had been, to say
that he wished he had the same courage as his young son. But,
all he had done was to belittle Dolnaraq, making him feel foolish.
“You’re a human lover and a coward.” Dolnaraq attempted
to rise from the cave floor, but found he was unable to lift himself
from his bed of straw.
His father watched his pathetic struggle for a few moments,
and then said. “No boy, I am neither. The humans are not so despicable
as you might think. And I am neither enthralled by them
nor a coward, as you claim. But neither am I your father. Not any
longer. You may rest here until you’ve regained your strength,
and then you must find dwelling of your own.”
This was the last conversation the two would have, though the
young reyaqc did hear his father weeping in long, guttural sobs
from beyond the cave entrance and long into the night.
Dolnaraq found his feet. He was now able to hobble unsteadily
about the cave. His head still ached and his stomach would not yet
tolerate food, but at least he was able to move about. Though, why
he’d want to, he didn’t know. His father had an old, palm-sized
mirror he’d acquired from a human some years prior. Dolnaraq
had taken this and viewed his image. He had changed, yes. But
not as he had hoped. His nose was now dark, but still shaped
as before with no other fox-like characteristic. His left ear was
somewhat elongated and random shoots of red fur protruded
from it. His left eye—though still milky white—had widened in
comparison to his right. And, within his mouth, one long canine
tooth had grown—again, on the left—and protruded stupidly
from between his lips making it impossible for him to shut his
mouth completely. This also caused some difficulty in speech.
on his left hand were shortened and clumsy, and his
left leg felt twitchy and uncontrollable. He had no sleek beautiful
coat as he had imagined. His senses of smell and hearing had not
been enhanced. All in all, he’d become a useless freak. As such,
he’d determined never to exit this cave again. What possible use
could there be for one such as he?
His father had ordered him to leave, but his mother would
care for him, he was sure. And if not his own mother; if she fell
sway to the same repulsion as his father, then one of the other
females father kept, one of the childless ones would certainly
show pity on this freak.
Pity. That was all he was worth—someone’s pity.
Dolnaraq rolled over in the hay weeping. It was not supposed
to be like this. He was supposed to be stronger, more able. He was
supposed to be admired not pitied. Maybe he should die. Maybe
he should refuse all food, take no essence whether human or animal,
and allow himself to waste away. It would be painful, yes,
but not so long lasting. He was already weakened, in need of essence.
The process of becoming a molt had drained his system.
In many ways he was already depleted. Surly, it would be a simple
thing to die. Then his father would truly weep. He would realize
what his rejection had done and he would fall to his knees in anguish.
Perhaps he’d even take his own life. This thought heartened
Dolnaraq. He only wished he could be alive to witness it. Maybe
he could hold his breath, pretend to be dead, make his father realize
how wrong he’d been, then Dolnaraq could “awaken.” His
father would be so thankful Dolnaraq was alive that he would
hug him and care for him.
Or maybe he would curse him. Maybe he would rather that
Dolnaraq did perish. Then he wouldn’t have the embarrassment
of a freakish pup.
Nothing made sense. Nothing was right.
But then came the raid. And everything changed.
The pack from the north attacked on the night of the small
est moon. The minimal light granted them cover as they swept in
from three different points of attack. Reyaqc packs attack one another
for various reasons—food stores, supplies, better positioning
relative to humans and prey, sometimes to replenish their stock
of females and youth, or other times simply out of pure savagery.
The commotion began well after sundown. Shouts and footfalls
as reyaqc raced back and forth about the clearing, growls and
shrieks, the sounds of struggle, the gasps of the dying. Dolnaraq
knew the sound of a raid. There had been many in his short lifetime.
This was part of the reyaqc life. He also knew that even a
pup such as he was expected to defend the pack. If he was old
enough to hunt, he was old enough to fight.
Dolnaraq closed his eyes. It would be an easy thing to simply
lay here and allow one of the raiders to come by and kill him.
There would be no prolonged starvation, no pleas from his mother
to reconsider. What of the others? What of his mother? Already
he could see the females gathering armfuls of food and supplies
and carrying them further back into the depths of the cave. The
females were doing their part. Dolnaraq should do his. Perhaps he
would die in battle. Then his father would be forced to be proud.
Yes. Die in battle. Die a hero. Maybe even a freak could be a hero.
It was not an easy task to rise from his bed as his muscles
curled into tight balls of pain. But Dolnaraq used the cave wall
for support and gradually attained an upright position. The first
steps were particularly painful, but with each his muscles seemed
to loosen. He hobbled some, his left leg remaining numb and
twitchy, but he found he could move about in a slow uneven gait.
The scene beyond the cave was a mass of confusion. The
northern pack had seemingly swept in from all sides, catching
Dolnaraq’s clan off guard. Already, bodies littered the cold snowy
ground, many slashed open with entrails leaving streaks of red
upon the pristine white. To his left a young female was thrown
harshly against an ancient oak. Her head made a sharp cracking
sound with each of three successive strikes. When she finally fell
limp, the northern reyaqc bent to clutch her right ankle and then
dragged her into the darkness. Directly ahead, two northern reyaqc—
both molts—descended upon Mynig, the pack chieftain.
These reyaqc had the sharp claws of mountain cats. Mynig did
not cry out, nor attempt to flee. Rather, he bit and clawed until
finally succumbing in a heap on the bloodied snow.
Most of the northern reyaqc were molts. But not molts such as
Dolnaraq had become. These were fierce creatures, many with full
long canines and razor-sharp claws. How had they done this? Why
had they become amazing while Dolnaraq had become foolish?
He knew the answer to this.
In these more savage packs, those who did not achieve some
level of strength or usefulness were simply slain and then consumed
by the pack. In this way, at least, they contributed something
to the well-being of the many. If Dolnaraq were found by
these, he would be murdered. He’d be devoured. Dolnaraq now
realized he didn’t want to die, that whatever he had become, he
still had reason to go on. But could he? Could he go on? The pack
was under siege and Dolnaraq was still weak and uncoordinated
from his ordeal.
Two reyaqc fell before Dolnaraq, scraping and clawing, causing
the young pup to scurry to his right. All about him were
scenes of carnage—limbs severed, throats bitten and ripped.
Dolnaraq’s pack was not large, only comprising some forty members.
Dolnaraq knew each corpse by name. He had spent hours
with each dying soul. An older reyaqc, Narmon, called out from
where he lay on the icy ground. There was a gash in his side,
and he was trying to force his innards back to within his body.
“Dolnaraq!” he cried in a raspy croak. “Help me to put myself
back together! Help me put these in!”
Dolnaraq stood horrified. What was he to do? Narmon was
obviously beyond repair. How could he possibly expect young
Dolnaraq to fix him?
“Dolnaraq, please!” croaked Narmon one last time. But
Dolnaraq fled with a quick hobble. Still, he seemed unable to outdistance
the carnage. Everywhere, he saw those he’d known for
the entirety of his existence falling to this superior force. There
was nothing he could do, no direction he could turn.
The voice came from behind Dolnaraq. He spun around.
Tresset stood before two males who were breathing their final
“Amazing,” repeated Tresset, a broad grin on his pale round
face, a look of shear awe in his milky eyes. “Can you see the strategy,
Dolnaraq? Can you see how they swept in from the east,
forcing our pack to retreat west? Then waves two and three, from
the west and north, encircled us, cornered us against the caves.
We were pathetic, with no plan, no countermeasures. But, these!
These were magnificent. Our entire pack will have fallen within
thirty minutes. It’s amazing.”
The youth was enthralled, hypnotized by the battle. But
he was also correct in his assessment. Dolnaraq could see that
now. His own pack was doomed. Even now, they were down to
less than half the number of the invaders. The only hope was retreat.
It was not brave to die for dying’s sake, for this would only
bring a greater victory to one’s opponent. No. It was time to flee.
Dolnaraq didn’t know if this was logic speaking, or shear cowardice.
But he knew it was right, that it was necessary.
“Tresset,” he called. “Tresset, come. We must flee. Our pack
has fallen. Come. Now.”
“Do you see the discipline?” asked his friend. “Do you see it?
Even those few who have fallen do so with grace, with superiority.”
“Tresset, please. We need to go.”
It was then that a large bear-like reyaqc fell upon Tresset.
The youth went down with a panicked yelp, but no serious injury
had yet been inflicted. Dolnaraq had no time to think, which was
well, because had he had that opportunity he surely wouldn’t have
leapt upon the brute, sinking his one long canine into the thing’s
neck, clamping it there, pressing it deeper, deeper. Dolnaraq felt
the things talons as it dug into his side. He released his hold, but
the brute of a molt did no such thing. Now Dolnaraq was on the
ground. Those claws raking at him. His own blood splayed across
his foe’s gnarled face.
Another joined the fray. At first Dolnaraq thought it might be
Tresset, but the other youth was still on the ground, having scooted
to the side after Dolnaraq had fallen upon the molt. Whoever
it was, he’d somehow pressed himself between Dolnaraq and the
other, and was now grappling with the larger reyaqc. Despite the
molt’s injury to the neck, it was still a lopsided battle, and the
outcome predetermined. The molt would be the victor.
Dolnaraq moved to renew his attack but the other shouted
at him. “Dolnaraq! No! Flee into the forest! Flee!”
It was his father’s voice. And it was soon forever silenced.
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Thom Reese is the author of CHASING KELVIN, DEAD MAN’S FIRE, THE DEMON BAQASH, 13 BODIES: SEVEN TALES OF MURDER AND MADNESS, and THE EMPTY. Thom was the sole writer and co-producer of the weekly audio drama radio program, 21ST CENTURY AUDIO THEATRE. Fourteen of these dramas have since been published for download by Speaking Volumes. A native of the Chicago area, Thom currently makes his home in Las Vegas.
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