Five days sifted over the treetops and through the underbrush as they waited for Hana to come back to the land of the living. When the camp settled and sleep overtook the group, the wolves emerged, and Sven refused to give up his spot to Nat. The white beast curled around the bird-woman and refused to leave for more than a couple of minutes at a time. The rest avoided drawing too close to the creature. Worry ran rampant, questions about why Nat allowed it free reign tainted the group’s opinion.
Pattering back into the ring after a run, the group confronted the wolf. Zola and Sun Hee had taken his spot around Hana, their eyes sharp along his spine.
Wanna tell me something, mutt?
My body. You aren’t getting it from me.
Fuck you, snow bunny. You’re leaching. Give it back.
Show me those shadows again, and I’ll think about it.
Yeah. I haven’t seen that in a long time, and I’ve been around a while.
Tell me how and at this point, I’ll tear down the mountains to have my body back.
Get lost, mutt, ain’t happening here or ever. I don’t have time for your perturbing peculiarities. Give my body back before the rest of these guys mutiny.
Your altruistic nature is crumbling here.
They’re liable to shove me in a cage at this rate, monster.
Oh, they won’t. The glendwellers won’t let them.
Nat swallowed in the shattering cold of the clearing, the wolf slinking back from the precipes. He grabbed up his clothes, dusting snow off the top and pulled them on, shivering under their chill. Sven slunk away to sit quietly in his dark recesses.
The men studied his jerky movements as the fire snapped in the dusk. “What?” Nat bit out, tugging on his coat and boots. Deck and Yeller shared a worried glance before tossing the play into Benj’s ball court.
He snorted at their handoff. “Sit.”
Nat frowned, slipping onto the bench next to him.
“We’ve been talking, Nat.” Yeller rubbed at his shoulder nervously.
“Yeah. Sorry for disappearing on you guys for the last couple days. Creature didn’t want to let go.” He pulled his hood up over his ears and blew into his fingertips.
“The wolf getting to you?” Deck poked at the fire, avoiding meeting his eyes.
“Yeah.” Nat tossed a stick in to watch it catch.
“Hopefully, you can keep it under control now that you’re back.” Benj folded his hands in his lap. Nat nodded in reply.
“Her eyes have been shifting. You saw that, right? Zola said she noticed some of her feathers coming loose. I think she’s changing. Dosage might be bad. That has to be why she hasn’t woken up.” Deck heaved a sigh.
“All right, I got that earlier. What’s new?” Nat asked before the wolf could take over for him.
“We can all introduce more of this contagion. She’s touched your blood. It took a while to trigger, but this thing, it can’t just be airborne at this point,” Benj said.
“Or, she’s just sick,” Nat hesitated, flicking a glance toward the tent where Zola and Sun Hee were watching over the sleeping woman.
“In this fucked up world, is it impossible to suspect that a blood-borne plague from a waste bomb could be detrimental to a bird person with a compromised immune system? Let that whole thing that just fell out of my mouth swirl around in that brain of yours, linguist.” Benj hissed.
“Telling me if I touch her again, she’d get worse?” The creature stole Nat’s voice.
“That’s my suspicion, and until we know for certain, it’s safer for you to keep your distance,” Deck commanded.
“That an order?” The wolf raised his lips.
“Consider it one.” Deck stood up, towering over Nat. The wolf slunk away, leaving the man looking up at his best friend, unsure of what had just happened.
Talk to me if you’re gonna cut me off from a conversation! The hell is going on? Nat yelled.
She won’t die so readily from this.
You! The hell would you know about this?
‘cause I can’t have her dying. Not now.
Like you can make the snow fall.
You don’t see her as I do.
Could have told you that. You’re the only reason why I see her as you do.
I’ve wondered about you. Sven disappeared.
When Zola and Sun Hee returned to join the men at the fire, Nat stole himself into the woods once more, unable to sit still after that confrontation.
What are you up to, dječak?
You’re stewing, and it’s giving me heartburn.
Thought you didn’t want me taking over.
Something’s up with that second wolf I saw in the mirror, isn’t there?
The wolf stilled. Nat pulled his clothes off, tossing them on a bush. Tell me before I force you out, Sven.
Sylvi. My mate. I can’t travel her lines, so I can’t talk to her. You have both of us.
Why can’t I talk to her?
She’s not all here.
What do you mean by that? What have you done?
You were easy to take over. Hana, not so much. I’m running.
You’re exhausting. Have at it, he offered the wolf. He knew, when the wolf took over, he could crawl into the back of his mind and rest, free from this dismal world.
Trees flashed by as the ground ran away into game trails. Birds scattered, leaving the woods in deafening silence. The wolf scented on something familiar. Pacing off the track, scampering toward a series of juts in the landscape, he followed the oddness.
His hackles rose when he heard what had quieted the animals. Heavy bipedal footsteps approached him. He growled, revealing razor-sharp teeth at the intrusion. The creature smelled like Hana wrapped in testosterone.
A man ducked out from behind a large tree. Harsh lines and auburn hair greased away from his prominent forehead to blend with a worn checkered shirt and muck-covered jeans. Feral orange eyes regarded the wolf with barely concealed hatred. “I know who you are. I know what you are, so stop growling at me, half-breed. My clan and I’ve watched your pack for three days now. Know that one a’ yours’ is hurt and needs help,” the man sneered.
Sven handed off the shift to Nat, his bones cracking in the woods. “She’s sick.” Nat waited for the man to speak. He watched as a single snowflake drifted down from the treetops and cursed himself as he looked up at the sky. It had gone a deep blackish-grey as clouds hovered over the ground. “Make it quick before it snows again. You want us here or to beat it?” Nat snapped.
The man chuckled to himself. A smile crossed thin lips under his long nose as he looked at what he perceived to be a young man in front of him. “My name is Michael. My flock has medicine that can help the girl,” Michael offered, his snide veneer dropping into pleasant hospitality.
“You called me half-breed,” Nat growled at the act.
“You are. Half wolf. Half man. Werewolf. It’s what you are. What’s wrong with the girl? You all would have moved on, and your encroaching will depopulate our deer at this rate.” Michael leaned up against the tree to study Nat.
Nat pulled a partial shift, coating himself in fur to keep the frost at bay. His grip on his human body was tenuous at best, a scattering of nerves begging for one form or the other. “Do you want us gone, or do you want to help? ’cause it sounds like you might just hate us.”
“I meant no offence. The Flock would be more than thrilled to help the girl.” Michael motioned them back down the game path Sven had taken Nat up. Nat shook at a shiver running down his spine. He didn’t trust the man, but Hana needed help. He turned on his heel and led the way back towards camp.
“Nat, what’s the meaning of this?” hissed Benj, his eyes burning with sunken rage when they returned to the camp.
Nat shrugged his shoulders, tapping his nose as an indicator and sat down on the log next to Yeller, who scooted away. Michael leaned into the tent to study Hana. Sven riled under his skin when the man put his fingers to her throat, checking her heartbeat.
“She’s not feverish, but her heartbeat is uneven,” Michael murmured.
“Who are you?” Deck demanded.
“What are you doing in my Flock’s territory?” Michael turned the question around. “You’ve got courage. I’m here to ask you and your group, along with your unconscious friend, if you’d care to join my people for several days, at least ’til your friend gets better, that is,” the man offered, his demeanour slipping between authoritative and charming.
“Said his name was Michael,” Nat nipped.
Benj looked at Deck, who turned to Yeller. They all turned to the beast watching Hana. “Yeah. Sounds good. We could use the help.” Deck motioned for Zola and Sun Hee to help with the tent. They needed food; they had run out of the deer meat that morning. It’d be nice to see other people again. It’d be an excellent stop to find out where they were and to regroup a plan for finding an antidote or some way to pull the wolves out of them.
The group broke camp, pulling apart the structures and squandering the flames. With an hour of work, they made the site look like no one had ever been there. Nat swung Hana into his arms, but before he could say a word, Michael lifted her from his grasp. She lay like a broken doll against his chest. Sven watched the man steadily, but Michael didn’t return his gaze.
“You think he’ll be able to help her? You’ve been awful protective,” Yeller whispered in Nat’s ear as they traipsed through the undergrowth. Sven slunk into the back of Nat’s mind, giving him the reigns.
“She’s transforming. I doubt they can help, but some protection would be good. Your wolf still not talking?” Nat kept his voice below a whisper.
“He’s big. He’s hairy. Feels like there’s another in here crawling around. Hasn’t said anything. Everything goes black when he takes over.” Yeller pushed aside a large cascade of branches for him.
“Know how I said mine talks?” Nat pulled his hood closer around his ears. Yeller raised an eyebrow, motioning for him to proceed. “Told me she’s got part of the other wolf swirling around in me. Waiting to transfer the rest of her, it seems. This creature is terrifying. I barely got him to let me have my body back when you all went intervention on my ass.”
“That why you don’t sound like you half the time? The new accent is…interesting.” Yeller coughed, his cheeks going pink.
“Yeah.” Nat burrowed his hands in his coat pockets.
“Is it the wolf or you that’s more fixated on her? Your accent goes thick around her, but you sound like you right now.” Yeller took up a stride to match Nat’s pace.
“Wolf. Perverse creature.” Nat grimaced
“So, we see if this guy’s family can help bring her out of her feint and then what?”
“Find a freakin’ cure for this curse. I want my body back to normal.” He stepped in with Yeller’s stride, leeching some warmth.
The Flock’s resting place was a startling sight. Massive timber frame houses climbed the face of a cliff. Giant sandstone steps led up to a vast building that lay in the middle of the mess of dwellings. Precarious walkways dangled between structures and rail-less decks. People scurried across the paths like ants at work. Women and men came out from the building to greet the newcomers. Children were sent off to play. Cheek kissing as a greeting was prevalent in the community. The closeness raised the wolves’ hackles at the fear of contamination.
They watched in horror and fascination as one man took to a high deck and flung himself from it. Massive grey wings spread in the wind, pulling him up in a thermal to glide to the top of the cliff. Deck and Benj turned to Michael for an explanation. He was already ducking into the central building, ignoring their questioning glances. The group followed him to a massive room filled with cots and chairs. He laid Hana down on one of the beds gently and then walked back towards the group.
“You’re like her,” the wolf accused.
“You could say that.” Michael stripped out of his overcoat to let his wings out. His span, for his size, was proportionally smaller than Hana’s. The striping was reminiscent of a red-tailed hawk. “Didn’t think it mattered if I said it or not. You could smell it.”
“I had wondered why you smelled like Hana.” Nat tamped down Sven’s energy from ripping Michael’s throat out. Shadows flicked in corners of the room, dropping the temperature a few degrees.
“She’s from the Flock. We thought Haniel was lost to us. We were originally from Neo York, but when it was bombed, we found solace in our promised land. One morning, we woke, and she was gone. Thought someone had taken her.” Michael motioned to the view of the agriculture outside the window. “As it is, I must oversee my congregation. They worry when anyone leaves out to the woods now. Afraid they won’t come back. Thank you for bringing our little fledgling home.” He turned and strode out of the room, the ends of his primary feathers dragging on the ground.
The small group took a seat around Hana’s bed until several women in nurse’s uniforms ushered them out of the room. Nat followed the group to a giant fire pit where the clan people had several animals spitted and roasting. The wolf beneath his skin had gone quiet in confusion. He was watching, biding his time as he tried to understand from what Nat could tell.
Members of the flock welcomed them to the fire pit, offering to share a meal with them. A couple took out instruments and set up an impromptu song. The group relaxed to the sound of people again after a few weeks of no exposure.
Night settled heavily on the camp. Polaris’s cracked surface hovered at the tree line, its scattered pieces constellations in the making. Hollowly, the wind brushed at tree limbs, whistling in the pine.
Michael came around late into the evening festivities to sit with the bird people. A woman timidly approached him with a plate of food. He took the plate quietly from her, but she cowered back at his proximity, turning back to the cooking fire quickly. He was slowly gnawing at a small, seared animal when one of the women caring for Hana came up and whispered in his ear. Questioning her, he rose, handing his half-eaten plate to one of the women at the cookfire. The nurse nodded her head. He followed her back to the building, anxiety ruffling his wings.
Once Michael’s back was turned to him, Nat disengaged himself from the group. “Where ya headed?” Deck asked, following Nat’s interest in the leader of the Flock’s disappearance.
The wolf whispered back, “don’t worry, I’ll join you all later.”
Inside the compound, Nat followed the hallway to where Hana was resting. Stalling, he peered around the doorframe quietly. The giant bird man sat on the cot next to the woman. He held her small hand in his massive one and mumbled quietly to her. One of her eyes cracked open slowly. A soft smile of recognition flitted at the corner of her lips before melting into a confused frown. Michael caressed her hair, his eyebrows knotting. He whispered to her. She shook her head from left to right once. He leaned over and kissed her forehead. The wolf slunk back into the shadows of a doorway as the big man passed. When he knew Michael was gone, he turned to settle his gaze on the sleeping woman.
The creature’s worry sated; Nat returned to the campfire. Zola looked up when she heard his approach. Quiet and brooding, he couldn’t be drawn out to join in the conversation his group found themselves in with a pair of the birdwomen. He was exhausted with the wolf and his emotions. They had washed like waves over him. He knew he needed to gain better control of himself and put a leash on the beast.
Chill, dječak u sjeni1. Let me take a walk through your brain for a little bit and see what I can find. Maybe we can turn your sensitivity down. Sven told his host as Nat’s eyelids closed for the evening.
It’s your damn fault I’m like this, wolf. You take the chill pill. Nat faded from reality into the dark background of the wolf prowling through his brain.
 Shadow boy
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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