Dorian awoke to the familiar whistles and clicks of a male starling singing to attract a mate. The rascals mimicked the call of other birds as they flew from tree to tree, competing desperately for the attentions of the more reserved females. He grinned at the thought of his first clumsy attempt to court the fairer sex so many years ago. He had been so innocent then, so naïve. It had been bliss.
He felt uncommonly well rested after the night spent in Sage's musty, yet comfortable mahogany four-poster bed. The springs were well worn but sagged in all the right places and the mattress seemed to envelop his body with an inviting embrace. The feather pillows were thin and threadbare, but the down feathers inside were still soft and smooth. In a bed like that it was easy to pretend that the events of the past week were simply some nightmare. With the dawning of the morning, the memory seemed to evaporate to one small corner of his mind. He had enjoyed the quiet solemnity found in the small country house.
His days there had been an escape from his former life. Instead of fighting his way through the crowded city, he had spent his mornings marveling at the pure beauty of the countryside. A bubbling creek crisscrossed the property giving life to large oak trees, pale beech trees, and bone-white ash trees. Each sported a colorful array of leaves that slowly tumbled to the grounds as the breeze shook them loose. They each began a different adventure. Some thin yellow leaves traveled in the air for a time before landing in a new resting place. Other thick red leaves found their way to water of the creek and were sent out to sea by the current. The tranquility of this place had given him a restful peace that he had not experienced in far too long.
His afternoons were spent chopping firewood with the old steel maul he had found sunken into an oak stump. Once he had sharpened the edges, the ash logs split beneath his swing like butter. The repetition was cathartic and he continued for several hours, shirtless muscles barely straining and adorned with a cool sheen of sweat. In the evenings he brewed a pot of black tea in the antique Hester Bateman teapot he found hanging above the stove. It was tarnished and dented but made the finest pot of tea Dorian had ever tasted.
Dorian wished he could stay in this simple life forever. He closed his eyes with a sigh of contentment. There was the snarling face and hideous form of the monster. Its bloodshot eyes knew where he was hiding and the long claws extended towards him, dripping with blood. Dorian's eyes shot open. He had lingered here for too long. He needed to formulate a plan and escape before that beast found him again. He would wait until nightfall. Then he would gather some resources and leave London immediately before anyone discovered he was still alive. He would sneak into his own mansion and snatch up any small valuables that had not already been spirited away by the servants upon hearing of his death. But the most important thing was the painting. That wretched painting that had been the source of all his pain and misery. Yet still it held his secret. To leave it behind unprotected would be unthinkable.
How that painting had linked his soul to the wolf was still beyond his understanding—despite dear, departed Sage's attempts to explain it to him. She had started it all by dabbling in Romani magic and the spells of making to increase the realism of her painting. She told Dorian she had foolishly mixed his and the wolf's blood with her brushes and applied them to the painting. According to her, the biggest mistake had been combining these two actions with the third Romani art of naming. Sage had also named the wolf little Dorian Grey and put all of herself into bringing the canvas to life. She had succeeded and it had cost Sage her life. That very wolf had begun to change. It grew more gruesome and violent as if the living embodiment of Dorian's many sins. He had gained eternal youth and the strange ability to heal in return. But he had felt empty inside and had squandered his life in the pursuit of endless pleasure and twisted deeds.
Perhaps his soul had been taken from him. How else could he have committed all those terrible acts? That was all behind him now. Before he had awakened in the forest, he had been the real beast. Whether it was a fevered dream or some trick of the imagination, Dorian could vividly remember the wolf devouring him alive. He should be dead but he wasn't. It was as if he had been reborn with a second chance. He could feel the weight of his conscious and the fullness of his soul within his body again. He was a demon no longer.
There was still a very real demon out there in the night. The sun had finally faded in the sky, leaving reddish light that played off the clouds and the dust of the fields. He slid back his chair and picked up the threadbare coat that he had found forgotten among Sage's other possessions. He walked through to the art studio where he and Sage had spent so many days in innocence and laughter. He remembered with a smile the image of Sage at her easel as he played with the small wolf cub. The two had been best friends once and could have been more had Dorian not been so selfish and in love with himself. Sage had loved Dorian completely, maybe even more than her art. His eyes felt moist and blurry as he looked at the empty easel still there in the corner. She would never paint again.
"I'm sorry Sage. Please forgive me."
Dorian turned and strode from the room. He locked and closed the door tightly behind him. He knew he could never return here again. Taking one more look around in the fading light, Dorian walked slowly to the wood pile and lifted the heavy handle of the steel maul once more. His thoughts went to the werewolf that prowled the night and his hands tucked the weapon into his coat.