Is it a carryover of our lineage, harkening back to Adam our progenitor, that we mortal men carry within ourselves such an instinctive, primal fear of and loathing for the reptile? No other predator, no matter how large and fierce, chills us so in the marrow as does the serpent and its kindred. I do suspect the Cynocephalus in its true form elicits equal, no, far greater fear in men, constituting as it does the unnatural, the aberration, the abomination. But as I have never looked upon one like myself other than when I also bore the bestial form, and thus immune to any feelings of dread such a sight would engender in others, I do not know from personal experience. I have seen the terror in the eyes of men and women when they looked at Reprobus the Doghead—the look on their faces reflected back at me as they died. This is all I have to go on.
I, Christopher, the human being, experienced something akin to this primitive terror, much weakened though it doubtless was, when I saw the dark form exit the gate and swim into the arena.
Much of its bulk remained below the water, just a black shape, a shadow. I saw its eyes, yellow discs divided by black slits down the center, set as far apart as my two hands, laid flat together, thumb touching thumb, upon a tabletop. I saw its snout poking up out of the water. I saw a strip of its back, dark and gleaming, sprouting bony ridges. I saw its tail for a moment as it flailed, breaking the surface, propelling the creature’s bulk towards me. A crocodile, the largest I had ever seen.
“A dragon!” I had exclaimed upon the first time I’d seen such an animal, a few weeks after I had come to live amongst the Marmorca on the Berber coast. Dalmontenes, my friend, had laughed.
“A crocodile,” he’d explained, “though perhaps kindred to a dragon, and scarce less dangerous.”
The massive creature, lying in the mud along the bank of the river, immobile in the sun, mouth parted to display its wicked teeth in a grin, had seemed to stare right at me.
“They share an appetite that is not particular,” Dalmontenes had continued. “They will eat anything they can catch in their jaws, men included.”
True words, he spoke. In all my time living with the Marmorca, three from our village, two women and a male child, had fallen prey to one of these monstrous lizards. I had always insisted on accompanying Samaethea on her trips to the riverbank for this reason, or insisted she go there as part of a group. We had lost livestock to the brutes. I knew well what the teeth of a crocodile could do.
Following the first, a second, larger one swam through the gate and out into the arena. Looking back upon it now, I feel a sympathy for these brutes. Held captive, deprived of food until maddened by hunger, they carried no malice in them for the victims they claimed. They acted according to instinct, the instincts of the natural world; natural, I should say, since sin came into it and corrupted it. God did not sharpen the crocodile’s teeth so that it could better kill. But a man had introduced sin into the world. The animals bore no responsibility for it.
Neither did I bear any responsibility for what happened next.
The Cynocephalus had, by this point, grown smarter.
The pattern had become familiar: I would suffer injury. The beast would assert control in order to protect itself, triggering a transformation. But by now the beast had learned to anticipate injury, and to come charging to meet the threat at the hint of any provocation. This is why, when the first crocodile reached me, dipping under the surface of the water to seize my arm in its jaws, the werewolf responded little more than an instant later. I do remember it. You have felt, have you not, your heart racing in a dream when in the dream you face some danger or grapple with some psychical threat or challenge, even if you realize it is but a dream? That is how I remember it. This is as close as I can come to describing it. I have tried and failed before, I know.
With the beast’s arm, my left arm, held clasped in the crocodile’s jaws, jerked off my feet by the force of the attack, I threw my other arm around the crocodile’s neck, wrapped both my legs around its torso. I remember the feel of my claws piercing the crocodile’s thick, knotty hide. The rush of blood felt warm, ribbons of it streaming over me through the cold water. As it held my arm in its jaws, I latched my own jaws onto its skull. The crocodile did not release its hold, its flesh too thick for my claws to inflict more than a superficial damage, its skull too thick and hard to break beneath my bite.
The crocodile began to roll over in the water, again and again, with dizzying speed. I had seen crocodiles kill in this way back in Africa. Seizing prey by an extremity, they will roll and thrash until they’ve torn off a leg or ripped out a large chunk of flesh. The prey animal, bleeding out, dying, grows weaker and more helpless with each passing heartbeat. The crocodile then comes back to finish it off. This crocodile intended to tear my arm from its socket, or else to bite clean through it.
Did I, as the Doghead, experience fear? I cannot remember that sensation. I do remember that I became frantic. One of my feet, or rear claws, found the crocodile’s softer underbelly. I remember feeling myself digging into it; I remember it feeling soft on the inside, and the gush of heat washing over me as I spilled the animal’s blood and entrails, even as it held me, rolling me over and over in the water. Pain I remember, but distant, indistinct, as always. A terrible strain at my shoulder socket. My lungs on fire. The werewolf, demon-spawn though it may be, still must breathe, and I could not. As it died, the crocodile eased its hold and I jerked my arm free, tearing it on the crocodile’s jagged teeth. Disoriented by the rolling, I did not know up from down. Before I could find the surface and fill my lungs, the second crocodile seized me by the leg and began another macabre dance in the bloody water.
At what points in my existence has the Cynocephalus come closest to death? As I sit now reminiscing at this, the end of my life, recounting my days of brief joy and lingering sorrows, having faced my final challenge and met the cause of my coming demise, having done battle with the great destroyer, with Lycanon himself—but that challenge has yet to come in my narrative, and I do not wish to get ahead of myself. Looking back now at my life, other than in that last struggle, which I will recount soon enough, at what points has the Doghead almost perished? When seized by the giant stone hand in that ruined temple, my bones crushed by it. That would be the closest I have come to death without succumbing to it. When else? When I faced the vampire, perhaps?
I came very close to dying in the waters of the flooded Coliseum that day.
Turning to seize the crocodile’s head with my hands, forcing my claws into its mouth, I began to pry its jaws apart. I seized its upper jaw in my own. I put my other foot, or rear paw, onto its mouth and pushed. I broke its hold and yanked my leg free.
I stood, drawing in a sweet breath as I did so, only to be pulled back under the water. The crocodile had seized that same leg.
This time, as it rolled me over, I turned into it and plunged all the claws of my right and left forepaws into its throat and ripped it wide open. Even then, the crocodile refused to release me until it died.
I don’t remember them fishing me out of the flooded arena. I don’t remember them carrying me back to my cell beneath the Coliseum floor. I remember fragments of the next couple of days, as I slipped in and out of consciousness. I remember pain, and the bitter liquid they forced down my throat, which did seem to alleviate the pain somewhat.
I healed faster than otherwise; as the moon waxed in strength rather than waned, so too I waxed stronger. By the third day I had all but recovered in full.