The Meeting of the Wilds
By: Veronica Foxx
Late, late, late! He was going to be late! The young squirrel shot down a branch, reaching the end and launching himself into the air, tail twirling, paws stretched forward and back. His forepaws scrabbled at bark as he reached the next tree, nails digging in and sliding before gaining a grip. The squirrel pulled himself up onto the branch and sat shivering for a moment, breathing heavily, heart beating a staccato beat in his chest, then raced along to the trunk and off down another branch, throwing himself through the air once more.
The meeting of the Wilds only happened once every year, and it was mostly luck that Ryan had been picked as the representative for the squirrelfolk. Racing up the trunk of another tree, he reached the crown and leaned back to cause it to bend. Back, then forward, back again, and forward once more, sway and bend and swing, then flinging himself off just before it peaked at the end of its arc, using the momentum to increase distance.
The rodent was flung through the air, passing three possible trees before grasping at a branch to slow his flight. Hand-like paws grasped at the thin sprig, the rest of his body swinging forward and up and around. He released at the height of his second twirl, flying upward, tucking into a ball to spin as he came down to land on a larger, thicker branch. Then he was off again, running, running, running.
He should have left his nest earlier, but he hadn’t expected to be chosen. It was only told to him last minute, leaving the squirrel to race as quickly as he could to the meeting. Luckily, he could see the flicker of flames and smell the scent of wood smoke ahead. Almost there. He raced up another pine, making his way to the fragile tip, and used it to fling himself further towards the meeting place.
Slowly creeping down the next tree towards the ground, Ryan took in the gathering. All the representatives were there in pairs: wolves, foxes, bears, rabbits, and more. At first, he thought he would be the only one there alone, but then he spotted another squirrel, a distant cousin that his aunt had been encouraging him to court. With a heavy sigh at the social manipulation, he made his way around the clearing to creep along the branch and sit beside his female counterpart.
Leslie’s tail twitched as the branch swayed with his weight and sniffed in his direction, then rubbed her cheek against his chest once he was near enough, mingling her scent with his own. Ryan sighed again and returned the gesture, mostly out of familial loyalty. Edging his way around the female, he crept out to the far end of the branch, causing it to dip half way towards the ground. Luckily, he hadn’t been the last arrival. As he watched, a pair of cougars arrived, stalking up to sit at the very edge of the firelight, their green eyes glowing as they let out soft yowls.
“As it has been, so shall it be,” the male wolf who sat nearest the fire intoned. “Yearly, we gather. Yearly, we hold council. Yearly, we decide how we shall interact with the human world. As we decide, so shall it be.”
“So shall it be,” the rest of the gathered creatures agreed.
“The humans continue to explore and expand,” the wolf orated. “The moon, sacred of our peoples, is now inhabited. Mars, red king of war, is next to be settled. We have few choices, very few, disastrously few. It is now that we must decide how we shall address this issue. As has been laid before this council twice already, there are only two options that can be chosen. We must either choose to claim this world as our own fully or we must join with the humans in seeking a new one, one which we will call our own and inhabit as the only beings aside from the dumb beasts that already dwell there. Twice, it has been decided to wait, to see what comes of the humans’ works, and it has waited too long, so say I! I call for a vote!”
Several “Hear, hear!” chants of agreement came from the audience, enough to show that it was a widespread sentiment, but not quite unanimous.
The Speaker paced around the bonfire a few times, letting the soft rumble of intimate speech die down before he continued. “We cannot wait on the humans any longer. We cannot wait on anything any longer. We must decide, here and now, how we will address this if we wish to continue, as both a people and a race. As has been, so I say, and allow the Peoples to speak through me. I call for a vote! Shall we sit idly by yet longer and allow the humans to rule and ruin the stars as they have ruined our world, or shall we take our fate into our own jaws?”
Hoots and howls and chitters and yowls followed his words, until the alpha of his pack stepped forward to nip at the Speaker’s neck. Chastised, head lowered and tail tucked, the Speaker trotted to the back of the gathering to sit amongst the rest of the wolves and the others who were not allowed to participate in the gathering but had come to watch.
“Let us be as we are, and speak plainly,” the wolfess intoned, suiting actions to words.
The first part of the change came at the shoulders, sharp pops sounding as her ribcage altered and widened, the depth narrowing towards the spine, forelimbs moving to a more radial position. Then came a sharp howl as her spine lengthened by several inches, legs growing longer, the digits on her paws lengthening. Where had once been toes, fingers formed, the dewclaw growing out into a thumb. Fangs became duller, though no less deadly, shortening into molars save for those at the very front of her muzzle. She stretched, one leg kicking out behind, toes curling at the air, then the other, fingers digging into the dirt, tail arched high over her back. She gave herself a very canine shake, head twitching side to side, followed by shoulders and back then hindquarters and tail, before standing fully.
The wolfess, or werewolfess properly, picked a burning brand from the bonfire and held it aloft. “I hold the Speaking Stick. My words will be heard. I say that we wait yet. We have invested much time and interest in this venture. We have the patience, and we have the will. We have Musk. The skunks have assured us that they will ensure we have our place amongst the stars. We still must share this world, for now, but we will soon have our own place to call home. Our home, and ours alone.”
A far shorter black-furred form with a white stripe along its spine stepped forward, accepting the burning branch that was handed to it. “As the Alpha says, it’s true. Elon hasn’t been idle. He’s integrated well with the humans and is well respected. His eccentricities are written off as just that, thankfully. He is leading research into further developments. If we act in haste, it will only lead to disaster. The Speaker was correct in that. We must continue to have patience.”
The wolfess took back the torch and held it high. “As it was called, a vote must be had. Will we wait, and claim a new world, or shall we show ourselves to be little more than the animals that humans think us? Will we seek the path of hasty indulgence, or will we bring ourselves more permanent gratification? Speak and be heard!”
Around the clearing, beasts of various sizes and shapes began to change. Ryan crept back along the branch he hung from, clinging to the underside to bypass his cousin, before beginning his own shift. The first part of the change was the most painful. His spine stretched for several feet, his body lengthening to several times its normal size, the vertebrae separating before growing to fit the new norm. Prehensile toes lengthened, going from barely able to stretch half way around the branch on which he clung to wrapping around it fully and more. Arms and hands sprang outwards, his jaws opening in a purposefully soft squeal, withholding the agony the change brought on as his tail quintupled in length.
At the last, he hung gasping against the trunk of the tree, arms wrapped around it, teeth itching to bite into its bark, humanoid but not human, part of the world but not part of its main culture.
“The squirrels vote with the wolves,” he gasped, first to speak, but not the last. “We trust that you will lead us wisely, as always.”
The Alpha gave him a nod, a slight smile curling the corner of her lips. She had counted on his vote, one coached by his own leaders, and hopefully a tide-turning decision. It had been narrow in the previous years, but none so narrow as the last one. Hopefully, it would not need to be so for too much longer.