The wolf people glanced at each other in confusion, save the one that had spoken before. Her eyes stay firmly planted on Grace. "What?"
"What?" Grace had gotten lost in her head for a moment; dissociation was another word for the sensation. She had been caught at a disadvantage, but thankfully these people speak English. How long had these people been here? Why were they here now? Why were there so many of them? What are they, and did they mean harm? What in the ever-loving fuck had happened to her? Hands gently raised to offer a gesture of calm to those that had surrounded her. "I don't... uh, who are y'all, first?"
The brow of the wolf that appeared to be in charge of this party furrowed. Her muscular frame rose, stepped forward, and sat down upon the fallen log near the front of the campsite. A nod toward the others invited them to do the same, and they did. "I'm Scent of Pine, a ranger of the Ranier Rougarou, and you're within our land's boundaries. We don't take trespassers lightly, so, now it's your turn. Who are you?" Scent of Pine's tone had a measured air of diplomacy to it, though the slightest hint of impatience shone alongside.
Grace's mind ran a mile a second. These people certainly presented themselves as those that belonged here, and the ripped one offered her name before getting one in return. At the same time, Grace knew the patience of these people would grow thin very quickly. At least she was still near Ranier. What an awesome name, too - Scent of Pine? What's that about? "I'm, Grace. Hi," she managed with hesitation. Her hands were still held forward without overt insistence - things are tense, and returning the favor of patience would likely go a long way here. It's now that the low temperature of the morning sunk in. Either that, or all the blood rushing toward Grace's torso made her feel cold. Shouldn't she have been soaked from all the rain? "I didn't know I was in y'all's space. I'm sorry. Are you gonna keep me from leaving or something? I-I can just leave if you want."
Guarded yellow eyes watched Grace carefully. Now that Scent of Pine had left the shadow of the forest, she was easier to behold. Thin, black designs traced over most of her body in a manner similar to tattoos. Balanced exercise appeared to be very regular for this person, given her physique. A stoic, steady air surrounded her; this was someone with confidence in herself. Her eyes flick toward a massive brown Rougarou that had moved into the camp proper to investigate the collapsed tent. This one is easily a foot taller than the others, each of whom could already stand a head above many professional athletes. Contrary to the mood of the situation, one of the Rougarou, a slender woman with lustrous black fur, didn't seem to be paying any attention at all. No, she was picking at her claws as if trying to rid them of some unwelcome detritus. Scent of Pine surveyed the state of her companions, expression unreadable, quickly falling back on Grace. "We'll need to see if you're dangerous first," she countered. "We've had to be careful lately, so after you clean this up, we'll bring you to the village to talk to you." A gesture with an outstretched hand... paw... grabby thing, is made to signal the Rougarou's expectations.
This was a situation without an easy exit. All of these Rougarous are so huge, even the smaller ones looked like they could pull Grace's arms out of their sockets if they wanted to. On the other hand, if they wanted to do damage, they would have do so by now. Grace found the lack of hostility in Scent of Pine's voice to be odd, perhaps even foreboding. This could all be a ruse meant to lure her in so they could 'have her for dinner.' A chill ran down her spine at the thought. She realized still hadn't moved from her original position, so she slowly lowered her hands to her sides to show that she could be amenable to this idea. Suspicion was a fair response to coming across a weird stranger in the middle of a scorched clearing - it looked like a bomb had gone off. She could have been the bomb, for all anyone knew. "And... what if, uh, I don't?" There is no way that asking this question could be a mistake.
"And make yourself unwelcome to our people? That's not a good move," asserted the preoccupied black-furred Rougarou. Her eyes were now locked on Grace, intelligence burning behind them. "That's a reputation that would follow you."
Scent of Pine regarded this Rougarou with thought for a moment. The slightest hint of unease entered her expression as she looked back to Grace. "Was that a rhetorical question?" Having decided this wasn't worth the time to investigate, she shook her head. "Come on. The sooner we solve this, the sooner we can all eat breakfast, including you."
Grace's blood ran cold at Scent of Pine's choice of words. Oh no, they're all going to eat h- no, no, they were going to include her, supposedly. It would be hard for one to eat themself, right? It's almost not worth thinking about. She entertained the idea of running, right now, knowing that she was close to the Canadian border. Would that keep these people from pursuing her? No, they'd catch her in a second, they're probably capable of moving at twice Grace's speed. There was no way out of this but to go along with it. She reluctantly began to inch toward the brown bear of a Rougarou that was currently sniffing in the direction of her tent. He seemed harmless enough, but Grace kept her movements slow and deliberate just in case. It didn't take long to gather her belongings. Her sleeping bag was rolled up and attached to her backpack, her backpack was shouldered, and the pillow was buckled to the top of the bag. The mangled cookware was placed into the center of the ruined tent, which was then drawn and tied around the cookware and grasped just below the knot to be carried toward the foreign destination ahead. "I don't think I can do anything about this," she said to whoever would listen with a nod toward the center of the scorched campsite. Her squared glasses slipped further down her nose.
"Time will do that," Scent of Pine responded. The Rougarou stood together and began to venture back into the woods from where they'd come. A few of them looked over their shoulder to make sure Grace was following them, and she was. Shadow slipped over the group, but the forest wasn't as dark as it looked in the contrast of the early light. She kept an eye on her surroundings all the while. Wait a second, where did the trail go? It should be here, reaching a T-junction heading left toward other campsites and right toward the parking lot, but all she could see was thick forest in all directions. She longed for the comparative safety she'd enjoyed as she woke up. Big, scary monsters weren't real then, unless you count enormous whales, sharks, and some birds. Eagles can get pretty big; the wingspan helps. Cougars, giraffes, moose, hippos, gators, elephants, those could all be considered monsters if one extrapolated the typical definition. Grace glanced over the Rougarou that she can see. What were they exactly, and why was their collective name French? Maybe it was the proximity to Ontario, and consequently Quebec. Were these furries or werewolves or what? The vain one's words had suggested a notable population.
A huge brown paw came into sight along her right side, upturned in apparent offering. It was the bearish wolf from before, the one that had investigated Grace's tent. As Grace's eyes rose to meet his, they fell upon a genuinely friendly expression. "Need help with that?"
Given that the tent and its contents were basically unusable, Grace very carefully transferred the makeshift sack into the aforementioned paw. "Thank you," she said with meekness saturating her voice. Carrying the tent that way had been cumbersome and heavier than it appeared, so its awkward weight wasn't missed. She watched as the Rougarou hefted the bag up to his shoulder to carry it with ease. That was genuinely helpful of him. Lightening Grace's load would make it easier for her to escape; the group clearly wasn't concerned about her running, either because they could easily catch her, or because they didn't consider the situation quite that serious. If this was all a ruse, they were putting more effort into it than required. It was these thoughts that Grace contested with while she traveled toward the village with these strange people loosely surrounding her. Nearly 20 minutes elapsed before the treeline began to thin and quickly give way to wide open grassland. Wind combed across the wild grasses to give it the appearance of a green ground-cloud. Grace couldn't help but find it oddly calming.
The Rougarou forded the grasslands without a care. All of them but Scent of Pine joined Grace in enjoying the scenery as they walked, with the self-professed ranger's focused eyes lingering on the buildings that drew ever closer. Before Grace knew it, the grasslands had ended, and the dirt paths of a rustic little village greeted her. The buildings were made of a combination of stonework and wood, with simple, pointed roofs to shed snow and trap heat. Once the group had entered the village, many other Rougarou came into sight. Their coats' colorations varied wildly between individuals, appearing to share a connection that wasn't one of genetics. They all looked normal, perhaps content as they moved through their various goings-on. Some talked, some were carrying things, and others were making their way toward the village's center. A long table lay near a large fire pit that was burning away, providing heat for the denizens of the cool morning's air. The air was calm here, pleasant, and oddly clear; the fire didn't appear to produce any smoke. Grace made a mental note of this and vowed to investigate it later.
"Welcome to Ranier," Scent of Pine announced a few yards ahead. "221 people live here, all Rougarou. You should feel right at home." The group appeared to disperse at this point, including the bear-Rougarou that was carrying Grace's tent. He parted with a little wave that fell flat against Grace's stunned countenance. Further words from Scent of Pine, now facing her, snapped her from her reverie. "You'll meet with Moonsight and Great Teeth in the office. They'll ask you some questions. All we want is honesty, and then you can have breakfast with us if you want. Okay?"
A thoroughly culture shocked Grace stared up at Scent of Pine with a vacant, wide-eyed expression for several seconds before she answered. "Uh, yeah, okay." If she knew she was going to talk to someone so official, she would have dressed for the occasion. She wouldn't have; that was more sarcasm. Grace was led to a building that was built different from the rest; brick construction and painted white, with a roof capped in sealed wooden shingles. It's quite a take on an office, but this isn't a gigantic city, so it likely served its purpose well. The handle on the door was pressed down by the tattooed Rougarou and opened for Grace. Inside the first room was a wooden conference table with an array of filing cabinets adorning the far wall. Maps, charts and other such wall adornments frequently hung between windows along the left wall, and the right wall featured a large dry-erase board and some other accoutrements. A doorway lay toward the far side of this wall, and a desk with a computer-like device can be seen within the unlit room. There are occupants within the main room other than Grace and Scent of Pine - two Rougarou who must have been Moonsight and Great Teeth. A larger man that could only be described as dadlike was poring over an absolute mess of documents at the end of the table. White, gray and agouti fur was on display in the typical appearance of a gray wolf. The petite, feminine figure looked similar, but her coloration was more sandy and featured more white around her eyes and muzzle. She wore a set of wore ornate robes of green, gold and brown in florally inspired designs. They both looked up upon Grace entering the room.
"The source of the explosion last night," Scent of Pine announced as she closed the door behind her. She moved to the left to post her back against the wall of the room, glancing between Grace and the two Rougarou at the end of the table. "This is Grace. Do you have time?"
"Yes," answered the man without hesitation. He gestured for Grace to sit down at the table, casually placing the various papers in front of him elsewhere to make room for his arms to rest. "Yes, absolutely. Thank you Scent of Pine, was she any trouble?"
"Mm, a little reluctant, but no trouble."
"Okay, I'm sure there's a good reason for that. Welcome to Ranier! I'm Great Teeth, and I keep things running on the administrative side of things. It's always nice to have a guest. Please, sit anywhere you like." Great Teeth positively brimmed with generous presentation, his boastful and slightly loud for an indoor environment. For all anyone could tell, he was being wholly genuine in his welcome. The other Rougarou was silent, a demure air drifting around her like mist from dry ice. She regarded Grace with a nod and a reserved smile as she sat down. Her reading glasses were lowered to rest against her robes, tethered by some ornamental string along the arms of the spectacles.
A substantial shift in tone from meeting Scent of Pine nearly caused Grace a case of emotional whiplash. The air had gone from tension to easy breezy in the blink of an eye; it was like visiting any old welcome center that could be found around the country. She glanced around the room to the Rougarou as if to check as if this were really okay, and seeing no objection from them, she sat down at the table with some stiffness to her movements. The backpack she carried was set on the floor next to her. She was at a wolf-person visitor center or something in some weird bizarre-o version of the Ranier she'd passed through last night. It was a modern little suburb town of the very modestly sized International Falls, far from a rustic village full of fluffy individuals with interesting names. Grace removed her glasses and quietly set them upon the table, rubbing her eyes with the back of her free hand to try to ground herself in the moment. It's time to focus. She felt small in this room of personalities, this unfamiliar place full of unfamiliar people that may or may not take exception with her presence. "Um, hello. S-, um, so, what do... y'all need from me?"
The demeanor of the older Rougarou woman changed entirely upon hearing Grace speak. Her eyes were now wide with disbelief as they beheld this stranger. Shock was the look that was plastered on her face for an uncomfortable length of time. Upon realizing herself, the woman's expression bloomed into a joyed smile before being brought back down to Earth as she averts her eyes in favor of the table. "I'm sorry. You look like someone," she explained as her eyes drew back to Grace, her demeanor assuming its prior state. Her voice was light and airy without being smoky. In contrast to Grace's voice, it wasn't the slightest bit rough, merely being profoundly gentle. "I'm Moonsight, the Great Mother of Ranier and regular mother of Scent of Pine," she contined with a playful smile directed toward her daughter in the corner. "We would like to ask you some questions. Is that okay with you?"
Grace's internal radar was thrown for a loop by the intense look she was just given by Moonsight. God help the person that she reminded this person of, that was a lot. Simultaneously, she felt calmed and reassured by Moonsight's presence and vocal tone. It's odd how the most unassuming people can make the most impactful impressions. It took her several seconds to recover from whatever it was that she'd just seen. After shifting her weight and checking to see if Great Teeth saw that exchange, she quietly clears her throat to speak. "Yeah, go ahead."
A grateful smile crosses Moonsight's face. "Thank you for being willing to talk to us. Can you tell us what happened?"
All of the color draining from Grace's face was something she could feel in her skin. Her arms suddenly felt cold - she hadn't prepared for this question, the most obvious question that could be asked. This was a deeply uncomfortable situation now, but she tried not to show any hesitation. Under no circumstances could she tell the full truth, but she may get away with part of it. "There was a lightning storm last night after I set up camp. I, I think I might have been struck but I'm not sure. I went to the lowest spot because I didn't think I'd get struck there, but... yeah. I passed out."
Silence fell over the room while the others considered Grace's answer. "Where were you headed?" A question from Great Teeth, and a fair one at that.
Don't panic, don't panic, please don't panic. Grace then realized it was too late; she tried to keep her voice steady. "I have a friend in International Falls. We'd arranged a visit but, mm, she didn't answer the door, and hotels are expensive so I camped out. I was gonna go back tomor - today and see if she was there." Grace attempted to keep her hands from trembling under the table while they fidgeted with each other, but the effort failed.
"Are you okay?" Moonsight's question seemed very much in line with her atmosphere.
"I'm just freaked out," Grace blurted out. Her anxiety only deepened. The only cohesive thought she had in her head was that this was a truth she could provide, and it may also help her find some information about wherever she'd landed. "I don't know what's going on here and nobody's ever stopped me and asked me stuff like this before and it's a lot. I think I'm not, like, injured, though."
"I understand. Would you like some tea? I promise you're not in danger with us."
Tea? Really? Right now? Perhaps that could help ground Grace; a panic attack would be very telling. "Sure...? Um, what kind?"
Moonsight regarded Grace, looking her over with flaring nostrils. Grace smells like fear; her stomach was likely in knots. "Scent of Pine, could you bring a bag of my lemon ginger, please?"
"Sure mom," the younger Rougarou answered. She disappeared from the room, and all was quiet again.
Eventually, even this silence would be broken. "How'd you know I like lemon ginger?" Whatever Moonsight was trying to do, she was successful; the request had surprised Grace out of her anxiety spiral. That was very kind of the Rougarou, something Grace isn't likely to forget.
Moonsight's serenity remained ever calm. "I didn't, it will keep your stomach settled. I can smell that you're very anxious right now, so I knew your stomach was going to hurt later. Lemon ginger will help with any nausea."
Further surprise pressed the metaphorical reset button on Grace's spiral. Having been jostled toward its default state, her brain found curiosity too tempting to resist. "You can smell that?"
"Yes, can't you?"
"No. Nope." The question, however, brought Grace's attention to her sense of smell. She took a quiet breath and nearly recoiled from the mass of information that wracked her brain. This room smelled like so much, it was indescribable; her brain felt like static electricity had skated between her brain and the top of her scalp. She blinked her eyes and exhaled through her nose as if trying to clear it.
Huh. Maybe Grace had allergies. Great Teeth's booming voice interrupted the mistifying experience. "Well, we're glad you're okay, then. Do you need a minute to refocus yourself Grace?"
"No, uh, thanks," she responded, eager to move on from whatever had just happened.
The answer was accepted by both parties present. Moonsight, however, appeared to be investigating Grace as closely as she could from across the table. She was clearly intrigued by something. "With the way the weather has been lately, camping unannounced on Rougarou land seems... irresponsible. Did you know you were on our land? Did you check the weather beforehand?"
Grace shifted her weight under the table and continued to fidget with her hands. "I didn't know. Please, I'm sorry, I didn't meant to violate y'all's space. The weather, it said it'd be clear and then it just rolled through in the middle of the night after I went to bed."
Moonsight gave her head a gentle shake. "We believe you. Please understand, I needed to ask."
"The weather's been getting stranger since Tilda's day," Great Teeth remarked to Moonsight.
"I remember; she never stopped talking about it."
The two Rougarou shared a sentimental sort of smile together. Great Teeth spoke again once his gaze was focused on Grace once more. "Did you smell the rain coming?"
"I don't, I was too asleep for that, I think."
"Still, yes, the smell of rain didn't wake me. I-" Grace took a moment to blink, bringing her hands from under the table to make the same gesture of ease she'd made toward Scent of Pine. "I don't know about y'all, but humans can't usually smell things that much."
Great Teeth's brow furrowed, and Moonsight's did the opposite. They exchanged glances with each other once more, with the glances being very different than the smile only moments ago. This time they were concerned. "Grace," Moonsight began. "I have what may sound like a strange question to ask you, but it's important. May I?"
Grace hoped this would finally lead her to some kind of answer for her situation. "Yeah...?"
"What color are your eyes?"
What the fuck? "Brown."
Moonsight leaned toward Great Teeth with her paw rising to cover her mouth. This time they exchanged looks of much more concern. Neither of them spoke for several seconds.
"What? Why are y'all being weird?"
The Rougarou almost seemed pained as they both began to speak at the same time, both stopping a word in and waiting for the other to go. Eventually, Great Teeth managed, "your eyes are yellow, Grace."
Great Teeth's brow furrowed further. He began to stare down at the table, his mind racing with ideas of how to handle the situation. In the meantime, Moonsight had silently stood from her seat and begun to make her way around the table. The airy serenity of this Rougarou seemed to follow her as she walked. With a sigh, the chair next to Grace was carefully pulled out and assumed. Up close, Moonsight's whiskers caught the light in a way that seemed to accentuate the white on her muzzle. "I feel it's obvious that you aren't here to cause trouble, and we believe you. I need you to know that we're here to help; we weren't aware of how new you were to this."
A stupefied look is all that greeted Moonsight in response. Great Teeth hung his head and drew a paw over it as if brushing nonexistent bangs out of his eyes.
"In the past week, have you had sexual contact with someone with yellow eyes, or been bitten by someone with yellow eyes?" Moonsight knew that sometimes the best way to broach this subject was to be direct. She got the sense that Grace appreciated people speaking to her in a direct manner.
Grace's face cycled through several different incarnations of confusion. Was this some weird fantasy land nonsense, or had she made some kind of horrendous mistake? The closest thing she could think of was the acid trip she'd had recently. Oh no, has this all been a result of frying her brain on LSD? "No," she says very sternly. "Please stop being weird and just tell me what you're asking about."
Moonsight needed a moment to steel herself with a breath. "'Rougarou.' An alteration of the original French term 'Loup-garou.' We are a particular type of lycanthropic shifter, Grace. Do you know what that means?"
That explained a few things. Everything seemed to freeze in this moment. Moonsight's breathing, the clock on the wall, all sound in the room and all feeling in Grace's body. Grace opened her mouth to respond, but her breath caught in her throat. She had to fight herself so the word could make sound. "Werewolves," she whispered.
Ordinarily Moonsight would ask for one's permission first, but right now, expediency and focus on the gravity of this situation are most important for Grace's sake. Paws gently took the closest hand resting on the table, Grace's left hand, and held it in an effort to provide reassurance to the newly turned werewolf. "I don't know how yet, but you recently became Rougarou. You have our scent." A moment of pause was given to Grace so the information could sink in. "If you need food, we'll feed you. If you need shelter, we'll house you. If you'd rather leave, you can, but Ranier exists to help people in your position."
Grace hadn't seen it yet, but Great Teeth had raised his head once more and was watching her with his own brand of concern. "You're gonna be okay. It's not a bad thing; just that it helps to have someone guide you through it. You're far from the first one."
Yellow eyes stared forward without seeing anything at all. Grace was entirely stunned, a blank look on her face. Nothing felt real in this moment. Numbness was all could understand.
A voice, one growing more familiar over the course of the morning, came from behind. "What's... happening," Scent of Pine asked the others. She'd walked into an event that was not at all transpiring the way she thought it would. Of course, she'd expected understanding and reconciliation, but this looked entirely different. Would the tea still be welcome?
Moonsight looked past Grace, eyes filled with resolute regret. "She didn't know she's Rougarou."
The sound of light porcelain could be heard rubbing together and then impacting the floor of the office. There was no saving the cup, but the plate had survived. "Shit."