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Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, the rust-brown stag scrambled along the edge of the granite cliff. The red deer was an "imperial," its fourteen-point antlers spreading like the branches of an ancient oak. Wispy vapor rose from its panting mouth as it vaulted to the summit of a low hill, then paused in the frozen air to survey the snow-draped mountains.
The animal remained still under the slate winter sky, until the whistling winds shifted, and the stag caught scent of the beast that stalked it. Chin tucked, the deer bounded over a tangle of branches and charged into a shallow valley of twisted, wind-blasted trees.
A moment later, a grizzled timber wolf crested the hill. Larger by half than other members of its pack, the alpha male's body was etched with scars from a hundred battles for food, for territory, for a mate. The wolf sniffed out the deer's trail, its snout leaving wet prints on the frost-covered rock.
The breeze shifted again, and the wolf became aware of another predator on the hunt.
Wary now, the wolf paced back and forth. then crouched on its haunches and issued a frustrated whimper. Head low, the predator sniffed the ground once more. Its cold eyes scanned the surroundings; one ear, half torn in some long-forgotten fight, twitched apprehensively.
Finally, the aggression that had driven this male to push forward after his pack had broken off overrode any fear of threat. Lifting its blocky muzzle, the wolf chuffed once and loped into the valley in pursuit of the deer's trail.
The stag was moving quickly now, running full out along a narrow ravine until it crashed into the branches of a fallen tree. Like clutching claws, the brittle wood snared the animal's antlers. The stag bucked wildly but only became more entangled.
Hearing the commotion, the wolf slunk into the canyon, crouching low, its white underbelly brushing the barren ground. Sensing the predator's approach, the deer kicked frantically, its head wrenching back in a futile effort to break loose.
The wolf padded closer. Its slavering lips curled back into a toothy snarl. Then it leaped -- and fell. A howl ended in a wet gurgle as the animal was struck in midair by a hurtling ball of diamond-sharp blades and tight, raging muscle.
An explosion of black blood and hot entrails spilled onto the cold rocks. With only a few stubborn bits of cartilage, bone, and skin keeping the half-sundered body together, the wolf was dead before it struck the earth.
The hunter loomed over the twitching carcass, waiting for the gutted predator to do battle. But the wolf failed to rise. Frustrated by the beast's inactivity, the hunter lashed out with a heavily muscled arm. For a moment, the fading sunlight glinted off curved metal tapered to a point. The arm descended in a slashing cut, then another. A flurry of ripping blows followed, each accompanied by a savage grunt of animal satisfaction. Blood splattered the walls of the crevasse, and great gouts of flesh dangled from the clutching branches.
The red deer smelled the wolf's hot blood and kicked wildly, its broken hooves gouging the earth, its eyes black pools of horror. The helpless deer's explosive panic somehow shook the killer from his murderous trance. Beneath dirt and blood and unkempt hair, stony eyes glanced up from the carnage. With a grunt, the naked wild man rose to his full height and shook gore from his blood-soaked claws. Then one more slash --
Wood splintered, and a severed antler tumbled to the ground. Freed at last from the ensnarling branches, the imperial stag bounded along the ravine until it was no longer visible.
The hunter watched the deer's flight, his claws retracting with a dull hiss. As the sun began to set behind the mountains, the man squatted on his haunches and noisily began to feed.
Logan thrashed and cried out.
He opened his eyes, expecting chemical vats, intravenous tubes, piercing needles. But the sterile lab was gone. No green lab smocks. No bland faces. Instead, a full moon glared in the purple night.
Logan moaned and covered his eyes. The moon was a burning sun, the starlight lasers piercing his retinas. He closed his eyes, but it didn't help. Lancing agony was already slicing his brain. The throbbing expanded until Logan thought his head would explode.
Groaning, he rolled onto his side and realized he was lying at the bottom of a frigid ravine -- somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, by the look of the terrain. He heard the wind's howl, felt its biting sting, a pleasure compared with the intense spasms inside his skull.
Finally, Logan's headache receded, but he lay still, fearing one movement would bring back the torment.
How long was I blacked out this time? Hours? Days? Weeks?
When the bloodlust came, it overwhelmed him. More than some momentary wave, it flooded his entire being. Like a tsunami, the need drowned everything human within him, pushing it into a dark place, until the blood storm passed and the violence receded.
When did it happen?
Logan searched his memory, trying to remember his last sane, human moment.
Well, sane, anyway, he amended. I haven't felt human in a while.
Thinking caused the pain in his head to return, so Logan gave up. He knew from experience that the memories would come...or not. In the end, it didn't matter. So he focused on his physical condition and let the rest slide.
Licking his lips, he tasted metal, his mouth encrusted with bits of raw flesh and coppery blood. Blindly, he tried to wipe away the gore, but his fingers wouldn't obey the commands from his brain.
Once again, he opened his eyes. The light from the moon and stars no longer felt like nails hammering into his eyes, and Logan counted that as a plus. But as soon as he moved, his whole body began to shiver. His hands were black, the flesh puffy from frostbite, and he felt a dull, throbbing ache in every joint and muscle.
Finally, the reasoning part of his brain took hold, told him what had happened. As he'd lain naked and senseless on the frozen ground for who the hell knew how long, the relentless arctic cold had seeped into his body. Because of his phenomenal metabolism, he usually didn't require heat to survive -- not even in the subzero temperatures here in the mountains. His hypermetabolism always battled the temperature...but the shiny steel skeleton encased inside his flesh couldn't compensate this time. Logan's bones were now chilled to a temperature that approximated the refrigerated metal slab at the morgue.
Exhaling hard, Logan rejected the pain and sat up. Still woozy, he discovered a coating of sticky blood had soaked into the thick layer of filth that clung to his body. The blood was fresh, and Logan could smell the acrid stink of death even before he saw the shattered bones, the ripped cartilage, and the gnawed flesh scattered around the ravine.
Still shivering, Logan spied the bloody carcass and crawled on all fours to reach it. With hands stiff as frozen claws, he wrapped the wolf's ragged pelt around his broad shoulders, clothing himself in the spoils of his hunt. The wolf's wedge-shaped head dangled from Logan's bull neck like a grim talisman, its jaws slack, its tongue lolling.
Logan stumbled to his feet and promptly heaved up the contents of his stomach. The retching continued for many minutes, but he felt better after the purge.
Throat parched, he sniffed the air. Then he moved toward the valley below, where the smell of water was strong.
His shivering quickly abated. Now that he was awake and moving, Logan's extraordinary metabolism restored his internal body temperature. His fingers, which had been withered by frostbite, were warm and supple again. But his brain still felt as if it were battering itself against the walls of his skull.
If only I could stop these freakin' headaches, too.
Logan belched, tasted wolf's blood and, beneath it all, a medicinal tang, the taint of the lab that had tortured him. After all these months, unholy drugs still coursed through his veins, defying even the workings of his fierce metabolism.
Logan continued to negotiate the craggy trail, and soon his nausea and headache vanished. By the time he climbed down from the mountain, the last vestiges of cold had been dispelled from his adamantium bones.
At last, Logan reached an icy creek at the base of the hill. Under the crust, the water flowed freely. He shattered the ice with callused feet, jumped into knee-deep water, crouched low. The current washed away some of the filth that coated him. He guzzled for long minutes. The water tasted sweet and fresh; it cleansed his palate.
Minutes later, Logan climbed out of the creek on the opposite shore. He took a deep breath, tensing at the faintest scent of wood smoke. Either he'd ranged unusually far during his last bloodlust blackout -- far enough to reach the raw edges of civilization -- or some stupid Boy Scout had picked a bad place to go camping.
Logan followed the trail left by the wispy vapors. After paralleling the creek for more than a kilometer, he spied a rude log cabin perched on a low rise. Smoke drifted from its stone chimney, and a flickering lantern glowed on the other side of a frosted window. Beyond the cabin, Logan saw more crude structures, perhaps a dozen. They were nestled in a shallow valley, clustered around a stone well in the middle of a snow-packed clearing.
Since he'd fled that abattoir of a laboratory all those months ago, where a pack of depraved scientists had poured molten adamantium into his skeleton and scrambled the neurons in his brain, Logan hadn't encountered a single human being. Now he'd accidentally stumbled upon an entire village.
Lucky for them, everyone was asleep. Logan could slip away before anyone knew he was there, before he could do any damage.
Turning to leave, he was startled by a sound both familiar and unsettling -- a human voice crying out in the night. The shouted curse was followed by a crash and the tinkle of breaking glass. The acrid stink of alcohol entered Logan's hypersensitive nostrils.
Someone in this no-horse hick town was awake, drunk, and royally pissed off.
Common sense told Logan to run away. But curiosity, and maybe a sliver of loneliness, won out. Despite the danger, Logan cautiously moved toward the rough-hewn cabin.
Copyright © 2007 by Marvel Characters, Inc.