Tomiroc watched the cab driver pull away, leaving them standing, surrounded by dense forest on both sides of the road.  The air was thick with the scents of tree pollen and old forest decay.  His sensitive ears picked up small game movement just beyond his sight in the packed underbrush.  But he wasn’t interested in small game.  He looked at his two friends.  This little venture had been Kaniko’s idea.

They had left Gillian standing at her door, and passed down through the garden again till they stood on the curb in front of her estate.  The guard bot stood placidly by at its post, paying them no mind.

“Nonna?” Kaniko looked at her two companions as she addressed her cousin.

“Yes, Kan?”

“I think we’re going to call for a cab.”

“You want to split up? I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

Kaniko answered, “No, you and Robert go ahead and head back to fill Adrian in on all the details.  We need to take a break, and I think since we’re so close to the forest that we’re going to go hunting.”

Nonna gave her cousin a knowing smile. “Fine. But I want you back at the inn in two days. I think Robert and Gillian are right.”  She looked at Mathias and continued, “The Neos would most likely like their prized template back.”

Kaniko gave her cousin a quick hug and the three of them watched Nonna and Robert get in the back-ranger and drive away.  After short wait, a cab driven by a human pulled along the curb and rolled her window down.  She asked, “Did ya call for a cab?”

Kaniko nodded. “Yes.” She moved over towards the open window and asked, “Can you take us to the forest east of the city?”

The woman cab driver nodded. “Sure, climb in.”

Kaniko shaded her eyes with one paw and looked at the glare of the sun, high overhead.  She asked, “Maybe we should get something to eat in the city before we go? The game will be hiding from the heat now.”

Mathias offered up, “Eggs Benedict?”

Kaniko chuckled and smiled at her friend. “Maybe.” She climbed in and asked the cabi, “What’s good to eat around here?”

The driver’s green eyes shined. “I have just the place in mind. If you don’t mind a drive in the opposite direction?”

Tomiroc and Mathias climbed in on each side of her as she replied, “No, we don’t mind.”

“Wonderful. I’m Hazel, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Hazel. I’m Kaniko, this is Tomiroc and Mathias.”

Hazel smiled at them all in the mirror and started down the road.

Fifteen minutes later they stood outside a little shack eating pork sausages in buns, with chopped onions, cheese, and yellow mustard.  The cab driver apparently knew the owner and had decided to stay and eat with them.  There was a sign on top of the small building cut out and painted to look like a dark reddish brown dog in a bun.  It had short little legs, a thin whip-like tail, and a long sharp nose.

Mathias spent a lot of time just looking at the sign, and finally, he asked, “Is that what we are eating?”

The cabi, Hazel spat the bite of food she had in her mouth and laughed. “Oh, heavens.”

Kaniko touched Mathias’ arm to draw his attention. “No, babe it’s not dog meet.”

He looked back up to the sign. “Then why is there a dog in a bun?”

Hazel stopped laughing. “You mean you don’t know they’re called hot dogs?”

Tomiroc said, “He wouldn’t.”

Kaniko gave him a warning look and clarified for the cabi. “Mathias was not raised in the city, and this is his first time being exposed to processed food.”

Hazel smiled and said to Mathias, “It’s made from pork products, not dog.”

After everyone had had their fill of hot dogs, Hazel drove them to the forest.  Kaniko, like Tomiroc, listened to the small critters moving around in the underbrush.  Unconsciously she sighed and purred contentedly.  Tomiroc smiled at her and gave Mathias a look of amusement.  The wolf, himself, had his nose stretched up a little, catching every little scent in the air.  They all turned at the sound of an approaching vehicle.  Before it came into sight, they stepped off the road and into the cover of the dense underbrush of the wood.  Almost immediately, Kaniko found a game trail and followed it, deeper into the forest.

The trees that they hiked under were nowhere near the stature or diameter of the Great Sequoias of their home, but the smells and sounds around them were similar.  Kaniko’s mind briefly wished she had her bow, but she had sent it home with her parents, opting instead for a small rail pistol for protection.  Her father had pressed one into Mathias’ paws, and he had taken it.  She doubted he had the slightest clue about how to use it.  It was one of the reasons, she had decided on this side trip.  Her nose picked up the scent of water up ahead of them.  The trail made a slow arc to the left, and she picked up the quiet sounds of a small creek.  The narrow game trail opened up at the edge of the creek.  In the soft soil and the moss covered edge of the creek were footprints of many animals who used this spot to drink water.  Seeing the water, made her realize how warm she was in her city clothes and long leather coat.

She pulled her trencher off and commented, “I wish I had my leathers.  These city clothes don’t feel right here.” She looked over at the two boys, who themselves were shedding their long coats.  After rolling his coat up and setting it on the ground, Mathias unbuttoned and pulled the light leather vest off as well.  She watched him sit and start to pull his custom boots off.  She became aware of Tomiroc’s eyes on her, and she looked at him.

His eyes regarded her solemnly as he waited to see if she was going to strip like Mathias.  She flicked her ears in his direction and gave him a somewhat sheepish smile before she unbuttoned and pulled off her blouse.  She watched Tomiroc’s eyes dilate as she revealed herself to him.  When she sat to pull her calf high boots off, he busily pulled his shirt off to catch up to her and Mathias.

Mathias stood up and dropped his belt and rail pistol to the growing pile of clothes.  Next followed his burgundy leather leggings and breach.  The wolf shook himself like he had just gotten out of the water, then stretched and arched his back till it popped.  He now stood waiting on her and Tomiroc.  He was exactly the way she had first met him in the wood.  He seemed more relaxed and natural this way, even exposed as he was.  She stood, and after dropping her own belt, rail pistol, and small hunting knife, she wiggled free of her form fitting doeskin pants.  She could feel Tomiroc’s eyes on her, but she refused to look at him, for she feared that she would lose her nerve to continue.  Free of her pants, she turned to look at Tomiroc to find him standing in only his fur like her.  His eyes openly moved across her, and after he had inspected her, his eyes came back to hers.  She wanted to look at him the way he had looked at her, but she couldn’t pull away from his fixed gaze on her.  The sound of her heart labored in her ears with each beat.  Her breath came in hot short and shallow breaths.  The scents of the forest, herself, and her companions were suddenly amplified.

Mathias’ baritone cut into her trance. “Where should we put our clothes?”

She blinked and looked at his pile of clothes then her own.  She looked around at the trees around them.  “I think maybe we should put them up high.”

Tomiroc put her suggestion into action and climbed to the lower branches of a large Western Pine.  After tucking his clothes into the crook of the trunk and branch, he reached down to receive Kaniko and Mathias’ clothes to do the same.  He then jumped down next to Kaniko and asked, “Well, which way do you guys want to go?”

Mathias sniffed the air and said, “The game continued deeper into the wood across the water.  Maybe we should follow them.”

They walked through the little creek and took the game trail that led deeper into the forest.  After a short distance, Kaniko started to relax and enjoy the smells and sounds of the wood around them.  Mathias who was in front of her seemed to be following a scent as he periodically would slow and sniff along the edge of the trail.  He turned to a smaller less traveled track and pushed through some encroaching underbrush.  She watched his tail gently sway back and forth as he moved forward, leading them toward whatever creature he was following.

She felt Tomiroc’s paw touch her shoulder and his wetwire touched hers. “Did you hear that?”

“No. What did you hear?”

“Listen. It’s up ahead of us not too far.”

She pointed her ears forward, past Mathias.  Somewhere out of sight up ahead, she could just make out the sounds of something making a snuffling and a periodic scraping noise.  Tomiroc still had his paw on her shoulder.  Through their link, she speculated, “Sounds like a wild pig.”

“Yep. I think that is the scent Mathias is following.”

Kaniko reached out and touched Mathias on the back.  The tall wolf stopped and turned a little so he could see her.  Still touching him, she said through her link to him, “Tomiroc thinks there is a wild pig up ahead.  It that what you smell?”  He nodded at her.  “Good.  It’s just ahead of us.  I think we should come at it from three sides.  What do you think?”

He glanced toward the way they were headed and then back to her.  Using his wetwire link, he said, “It doesn’t know we are here yet.  I smell onions with its own smell.”

Tomiroc was still touching Kaniko, so he heard Mathias.  He offered, “The pig is most likely rooting up the onions to eat.

Kaniko still using her wetwire suggested, “Mathias, Tomiroc and I will flank the pig, and you flush him straight up the middle.  Give me and Tomiroc a little bit of time to get into position.” She glanced back at Tomiroc.  He nodded his agreement.  They broke contact, and she, and the male Otokononeko took to the trees and quickly, silently vanished.

Mathias sniffed at the soft touch of air that hit him in the face and assured himself that he could scent his friends over the smell of the pig.  They were so familiar to him, their scents were part of him.  Internally, a deep desire to den with them surfaced.  It was a curious feeling, comforting, and natural.  A small snap of a twig from Tomiroc’s route popped, and the pig up in front of him stopped its rooting and grunted.  It grunted again and then went back to making the snuffing and hoof scraping noises.  Mathias crept forward scenting the air to try and place where his clan members were.

To his left came the quiet call of a whippoorwill, “Whoop-ta-ta-whoop! Whoop-ta-ta-whoop!”  Then another moment later to his right came the response, “Chirp-whira-whira-chirp.”  The pig continued unaware of its impending end.  Mathias, taking his queue, moved forward the short distance towards the prey.  He quickened his pace, lightly stepping along the game trail.  He knew any moment, and the pig would hear him. But Mathias also knew that his friends would hear him and would be ready to pounce on the pig the moment it was distracted by him.  He was surprised to make it to the edge of a small clearing before the pig bolted to the left, right into Kaniko.

She reached out for it, with her claws fully extended.  But the pig with surprising adroitness turned on one hoofed foot and headed in the opposite direction with equal speed.  Tomiroc dropped down on top of the pig, but again it suddenly changed direction and headed at an angle that would put it on an intercept with Mathias.  The pig saw the large wolf humanoid clear the edge of the clearing and turned to run between the two Otokononeko.  Tomiroc and Kaniko advanced on it, closing off its exit.

The pig stopped suddenly in the middle of the three of them.  It grunted and eyed the two cats warily. The scent of the creature was strong, but not with fear as they all expected.  This creature had no predators over it in this wood.  It was large and tough enough that no predators apparently challenged it.  It squealed a challenge and continued to stand its ground.  Kaniko made eye contact with Mathias, but what she was going to say never came.

The pig ran at her with its head down, and its two long tusks pointed straight at her.  It was terrible fast and agile on its short, sturdy legs, plowing the forest floor up behind it, as it charged her.  Her instinct told her that she was in danger of being severely mauled by it.  She started to dodge left, but it turned with her.  In her peripheral on her right, she thought she saw movement, but she had already decided the only way to avoid a collision with the pig was to jump over it.  She focused on its head, and when it was almost upon her, she sprang into the air and somersaulted over the top of it.  She saw beneath her a flash of black and gray fur as Tomiroc plowed into the beast from the side, bowling it over and rolling with it.  She hit the ground with her front paws and did a forward tumble to absorb her impact on the ground.  She came back up, falling into Mathias’ waiting arms.

The pig squealed loudly, as Tomiroc grabbed the pig’s rear leg.  It turned abruptly on him and slashed at Tomiroc with its tusk.  Tomiroc let loose of the hind leg to avoid being mauled and the pig beat a hurried retreat into the underbrush and disappeared.

Kaniko recovered enough to turn and see Tomiroc barely escape the pig’s tusk and roll away.  She felt Mathias tighten in preparation to make chase.  But she held onto him and said, “Let it go for now. We’ll be hungry tomorrow.”

Tomiroc sat up and turned to look in the direction the pig went.  “Yeah, tomorrow. But that was fun.”  He turned back to them and gave an open-mouthed grin.  His breathing was still excited from the encounter, and his tongue moved in and out a little over his lower front teeth.  She noticed that his eyes were dilated with the lust of the hunt.  But he was looking at her and Mathias, and she wondered if he was thinking of a different kind of hunt.  The mear thought thrilled her, especially with Mathias touching her.

To break the silence, she suggested, “We should try and find a deep part of the creek to bathe. I can smell you both.” Tomiroc grunted his agreement.  She reached down and offered him her paw.  He took it, and she helped him up.  “That pig nearly got you.”

He chuffed, “He nearly got you as well.”  They turned and started back for the creek.  Tomiroc gave a low chuckle.  “He was fast for his size.”

They listened to the forest around them as they approached the creek.  The cool water felt good on their feet as they stood in the center.  Kaniko looked upstream and then down.  She gestured upstream.  “Let’s try this way first.”

They walked upstream in the water.  It was easier than walking along the crowded bank or fighting through the underbrush.  The water slewed around their feet, and the level crept up to their waist as the distance between banks abruptly widened around a bend of the creek.  They stopped and surveyed the wider, slow moving water.  A lot of trees overhung to water shadowing its surface.  The bottom of the creek had turned from pebbles and rounded rocks to a silty mud and rock mix.

Mathias started to dip down when Kaniko stopped him.  He looked at her with a quizzical expression.  “You’ll only get dirtier at this end where the mud has settled.”  She pointed further upstream to where the waters shorelines came together again.  “There is our bathing spot.  The water will be clean and fresh.”

He looked at the thick trees on each side of the midstream pond.  “How do we get there?”

Tomiroc suggested, “We swim across.”  Kaniko nodded her agreement.  Tomiroc leaped forward into the deeper water and swam out into the open water.  Kaniko looked to Mathias and waited.  He shrugged his wide shoulders at her and followed Tomiroc.  His swimming technique wasn’t quite as graceful as the male cat’s, but she figured that he just hadn’t had the opportunities to practice.  She dove after them and followed.

They played in the water and let the rest of the day flow by.  When the sun began its descent into the western horizon, they got out of the water and moved deeper into the forest.  They found a circle of larger redwoods surrounded by ferns at their feet.  The early evening air was cool on their damp fur but not overly cold.  Kaniko settled on the ground under the long arching frond of a large fern.

Tomiroc turned slowly around and surveyed the area.  He stopped at her. “You don’t want to go back and get our clothes or weapons?”

She patted the ground next to her.  “We don’t need any of that.  Come sit and relax.”  She looked up at the darkening sky visible through the tops of the circle of trees.  “Besides, when was the last time you watched the stars come out?”

Mathias dropped down next to her and stretched out onto his back.  He stretched himself, extending his toes out straight and his paws up and over his head in the opposite direction.  She reached over and scratched at his exposed belly.  She smiled at his response to her touch and quickly withdrew her hand from temptation to continue.  She felt Tomiroc sank next to her.  She leaned a little into him and patted his leg.  His presence next to her was, like the wolf, so natural to her.  She gave a sigh and laid back and looked up.  When Tomiroc continued to sit next to her, she glanced at him in the fading light.  His eyes were on her again.  He unabashedly looked her over.  She could see that he wanted to touch her and she wanted him to touch her.

Mathias squirmed next to her till he was touching her.  She turned to look at him.  His desire was overly apparent, both in his eyes and physically.  She knew this moment was coming, and she wanted this, but now the moment had arrived, she faltered.  The realization hit her that once she took this step with them, things would no longer be the same between them.  They would be truly bound, not by their common experiences, but deeply intimate.  It had been one thing to run in the wood with them in only her fur, it had been the same when they bathed and hunted together.  But lying here with each on one side of her was completely something else.  She squirmed a little with her indecision.

Both of them stiffened a little and Tomiroc asked first, “Is this not what you want?”

Her breath caught in her throat, and she couldn’t seem to speak.  She took a calming breath in and reached out to both.  She made her decision.  “It is.”  They closed in on her, and she relished the lavish attentions they both gave her.

The sun pushed its light through the tree, and the forest began to wake up with bird calls and the occasional distant sleepy hoot from an owl.  Kaniko was bracketed by her two lovers and warm.  She lay there between them, basking in their body heat.  Their attentions for her last night were what she had wanted and needed to complete herself.  Mathias’ stomach growled, and she stifled a laugh.  With the escape of the wild pig, their last meal had been the hot dog stand with the cabby.

Tomiroc mumbled in her ear, “He’s not the only one who worked up an appetite last night.”

She nuzzled him. “You both were great. I couldn’t ask for more.”

He grunted good-naturedly, “That’s not the message I was getting late last or early this morning.  You’re insatiable.”

She turned to Mathias and asked, “Is he complaining?”

He yawned and stretched and regarded her with sleepy eyes.  She felt his paw touch her.  She was a little sore, but his touch made her heart rate suddenly increase.  Then he pulled back and affirmed, “Tomiroc is right. You are insatiable.”

She looked from him to Tomiroc. “Well, hmph.” She sat up suddenly with her paws on her side and added, “Well that’s a fine thing for both of you to say the morning after.”

They both sat up and reached for her. She turned and smiled at them both.  She noticed that Mathias smiled the moment he realized she was playing with them.  But Tomiroc was less confident and still eyed her trying to decide.  So she clarified, “You were both wonderful and satisfying.”  Mathias’ stomach growled again, and they laughed.

Mathias had picked up the wild pig’s scent, and Tomiroc had found a set of fresh tracks.  They had left the small circle of redwoods and ferns and were working their way back towards their clothes when Mathias smelled the pig.  They turned this way and that for a few hundred decameters till the wolf had the scent.  They had been quietly trailing the pig for nearly a kilometer deeper into the wood when Mathias stopped.

Kaniko and Tomiroc stepped up on either side of him and touched his shoulders.  The female cat asked using her wetwire, “What’s up?”

In the same manner, he replied, “He’s just ahead of us.”

Tomiroc posed, “We should use the same tactic we did the other day.  We just need to be more aware of how fast he is.”

Kaniko added, “Maybe make ourselves look bigger?”

He looked at her for a long moment, enjoying watching her become self-aware of his examination of her body.  Finally, Tomiroc said, “Unless we retrieve our coats, I don’t see that being possible and still keep our paws free.”

She looked back in the direction that would lead them to their stashed clothes.  She conceded, “Too far to go to get them.”  She looked at her wolf lover and smiled.  “Mathias is big enough to scare my brother, I bet the pig will feel the same way.”

“Okay, so we send Mathias up the middle, and we ambush it when it tries to run.”  Tomiroc thought simple would be best and waited for their agreement.

Mathias and Kaniko nodded.  Tomiroc and kaniko split like last time and took to the trees.  This time she couldn’t hear his passage through the trees like yesterday.  She circled the pig and saw it investigating a large raspberry bush on one side of a wider area of the game trail.  The bush had already been picked over pretty hard, and the pig soon gave up looking for missed fruit.  She positioned herself a little in front of the pig and quietly called behind her into the forest, “Whoop-ta-ta-whoop! Whoop-ta-ta-whoop!”

From across the trail, she and Mathias heard, “Chirp-whira-whira-chirp.”

Mathias moved forward rapidly, and as he caught sight of the pig, he growled and presented his whole body to the creature for maximum effect.  The pig turned to run and found itself facing two Otokononeko that had just landed right in front of it.  It assessed Kaniko as the less threatening and charged her.  Like before she found herself having to make a choice of standing her ground against the hog or jumping over him.  Her decision made, she put her paws out to defend her position and waited for the pig’s imminent collision.

Tomiroc saw the bore turn towards Kaniko, and he advanced to intercept.  He hit the wild pig in the hindquarter, spinning him away from his mate.  He reached for the creature’s head and raked his claws deep into the bores tough hide under its throat.  The pig planted his front hoof closest to him and turned sharply on the cat.  Tomiroc knew he had only moments to make a successful kill before the pig would retaliate and injure him with its hooves or tusk.  When he first struck the pig in the hind quarter, he was sure he felt the pig’s hip crack under the impact, but the creature ignored the injury and was preparing to launch a counter attack on him.  Tomiroc’s first attempt at a clawed swipe at the creature’s neck failed to find an artery.  The male Otokononeko grabbed at it, and the pig began to kick wildly under him.  Tomiroc shifted himself, so he was straddling the lower half of the creature.  He jammed his claws into the pig’s nostrils and pulled back as hard as he could.  With its neck fully exposed, he raked his claws across again.

Kaniko danced away from the spinning pig and Tomiroc riding him.  She watched as he pulled the pig’s head back and made the killing strike.  It squealed one last time as its air flow to its vocal box was cut off, and its life’s blood flowed to the ground.  She watched it kick a few more times in its death throes, till finally it sighed and relaxed in death.  Tomiroc with his paw on its chest leaned down near the bore’s ear and whispered to it, “Anascutie neahea adondo, gana yageengaisona, winedoyuegda heyo, soi oleynidouh.”

She turned to find Mathias standing close behind her.  She slumped back into him and looked up at his face, There she saw a question.  She turned a little in his arms and gestured to Tomiroc and the bore.  “Anascutie neahea adondo, gana yageengaisona, winedoyuegda heyo, soi oleynidouh, means ‘May your spirit travel safely towards the next life’.”

“So he is wishing the beast a safe journey, why?”

She turned to him and placed her paw to his jaw. “He is releasing the pig’s spirit. It is an honor he pays it for giving its life for us.”

Mathias’ eyes grew a little larger, and he said, “Oh. But you did not do the same thing with the rabbits.”

She looked over her shoulder at Tomiroc.  He was testing the weight of the pig to drag or carry back to the tree where they had left their things.  She said, “This was a ritual kill. It’s personal. We took on the life’s spirit of the animal on its terms.”  She turned to look into his yellow gold eyes. “It’s not that the rabbits are anything less, we usually only offer a silent prayer of thanks.  Their spirits were never aware of what was to come, so they simply float off to the next world.”

“I see.” Though he spoke the words, she wasn’t sure that he did see.  He seemed to be still working through her words.  Then she saw it, it was like a memory across his vision like a cloud.

She asked, “What is it.”

He looked around and then back at her.  “I know this place.”  She looked around them, examining the trees.  He continued, “The scents, I felt were familiar, but I did not know why.”

She looked at the pig.  “If you came from here, your diet must not have consisted of pig.”

“Maybe not, but I feel like this is home in some strange way.”

Tomiroc stood up.  “Well, home or not. It is going to take two of us to carry this pig.”

Kaniko stroked the wolf on the jaw. “Let’s eat and then we can explore your memories. Maybe they will lead us somewhere.”

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