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Two years ago Rex Gardner's sister Clarissa disappeared while studying a cult called "Followers of the Gray" for a college assignment. Now agents of the cult kidnap Rex himself. Clifford Warren, their charismatic leader, claims that Rex is the "Ultimate Alpha," a messiah of nature predicted by a pre-Atlantean civilization, the Cronati (who still exist, and with whom Warren has joined forces).
The Ultimate Alpha is to draw Humanity and Nature together, heal the forests and seas and bring harmony to the world. A laudable ambition, but before he can take the Alpha's mantle he must live as both man and beast. He must fight with tooth and nail and learn the Law of the Jungle. So Rex is thrown into an underground battle arena, where he faces warriors, wolves, traps, piranha-ponds, and even a saber-tooth tiger.
A stand of bayonet-leaves shook. One of the statues came to life.
No; it was a living creature with blue-gray fur. Its rippling muscles, however, were probably as hard as the granite facsimiles. Four stocky legs carried a huge rectangle of a body forward, like a freight car with paws. Shoulders and thighs slid under thick pelt. A great round head hung low to the earth as if too heavy for the neck, bull-thick though that was. A golden eye focused, saucer-ears folded back, and the broad muzzle of a leonine beast swept around to face me.
A pink slobbering tongue, hefty as a boxing glove, draped down between two stalactite-fangs. The tongue slapped up over wrinkled feline chops. Furry cables of eyebrows bunched, and the monster's pace dropped to a creeping tenseness. Nothing stood between the cat and myself but a hundred feet of air.
Also - having lived a man, Rex must also live a beast. Thus he is transformed via a long and bloody ritual into a huge gray-white timber wolf.
I shook my head and focused on the fan of mirrors all around me.
Creatures, still human in body but clothed from crown to sole in satiny, gray-white fur, looked back. Their heads were completely lupine, with triangular, upstanding ears, long muzzles and black-button noses, cute as teddy bears'. Their eyes, round and diluted with fear, were jade green. Human eyes. My eyes.
My mouth dropped open, revealing nasty teeth and a razor-strop of a tongue. I panted as a wolf would pant. My chest swelled more with each puff of breath, growing barrel-deep.
I scanned a row of hairy backs and rumps, and more panting faces, and more backs, like that barber shop illusion of infinity. Muzzled profiles, caught by odd mirror angles, stared sadly at each other.
I/they/we all jerked as I spotted movement, unwholesome wriggles like wet moths squirming from cocoons.
Did you ever cut yourself bad? So bad blood gushed freely? I severed an artery in a car accident once, and for three long, stupefied minutes, I felt my blood spurting out. My unwanted tail returned, pink and ratlike, with that same draining sensation.
"Tail. . . tail?! Not again!"
I reached back, guided by my reflections, and grabbed it. A shadow of pain from my first amputation attempt shot through me.
The appendage swelled and lengthened, old vertebrae fragmenting and ossifying like hyperfast pearls into new. Hair speckled its naked expanse, white tips sweating into long threads.
My brain rebelled against yanking it off. I tried to push it back in, like shoving a plumber's snake down a pipe. I even backed up to a glass panel and writhed against it, trying to scrape it in.
Finally I just watched it develop in kaleidoscopic splendor, fluffing with fur, longer and thicker, a pennant trailing behind me.
In spite of all odds, however, in spite of guards, cages, prophecy and magic - Rex escapes the stronghold of the cult.
I lay down close to the door with the first steel key in my teeth. I rolled onto my back and pressed my forepaws together on either side of the key. I raised it carefully from my mouth; its many sisters jingled together at the bottom of the ring.
The lock waited above me, its hole like an eye of judgment. I slipped my forelegs between the bars, paws still joined as if in prayer. At least my former arms were long enough to reach it!
I touched the key to the lock's surface and slid it around blindly. It seemed to take hours, agonizing hours, before the tip of the key caught the tiny opening, but it could not have been more than a couple of minutes.
I pushed the key cautiously in, thankful that it didn't catch on any projections within the lock. That always happened when I was in a hurry and jammed one in the car door or ignition!
I hooked one paw over the key's flanged end, and the other I pushed against the bottom as well as I could with the ring in the way. I tried turning it.
It would not turn. It was the wrong key.
I snarled. I had to start all over! I worked the serrated bit of steel out of the lock and drew it back in the cage.
I rose, separated another bitter-tasting key with my teeth and tongue, and repeated the arduous exercise. Again the damned flanged metal refused to turn.
A third time I tried, choosing another key, lifting it in my paws, scraping it around, working it in, clawing at it to turn it. Prepared for failure, I let out a yip when the lock gave a harsh clack.
I struggled to my feet and nosed open the door. Loose! Loose! I could hardly believe it!
Even so, how can a man transformed into an inarticulate animal fight a secret civilization that has ruled the earth since the last ice age? Find out in Followers of the Gray: The Ultimate Alpha Trilogy Volume Two!
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