Yeller opened the door to the townhouse as the first rays of the sun cast hot pink and orange streaks on the low clouds. The beginning smell of decomposition wafted into his sinuses. He looked down at the doorstep as Sven rubbed against his leg. They stalled. On the doorstep lay a dead fox, its stomach slit open, and its insides pulled out. Cashia tossed Yeller into the back and took over. Sven’s hackles rose as he bared his teeth. It smelled like bird.
Damn it, Nat hissed. Cashia and Sven made their way around the dead body and back to the group’s townhouse. They found a repeated scene on that step. A cold pit settled in Nat’s stomach. Keep Hana buried deep in Sylvi. We’ll pack Cashia’s clothes and have him shift. We all travel as a pack. Don’t shift to human except out of sight of windows and definitely not out in the open if at all possible. He knows which one of you I am and which one Yeller is, but the rest… Damn it. I had hoped… Nat pushed the command at Sven.
Sven paused in the doorway, rather surprised. Cashia turned back to him, his ears laying flat. What do you mean, brat? Sven barred his fangs at the conversation. Cashia circled back and leaned into his shoulder. Sven walked the rest of the way into the house. Cashia closed the door and shoved a chair under the knob.
“Why the hell have you been hiding for the last month?” Sven wasn’t aware he had spoken out loud. He was more than a measure of angry. Cashia spun back from his approach to the hallway and stomped back to Sven. “Sven?” he bristled, shifting.
“Brother’s got some brains up here,” Sven snipped his teeth.
“I thought I had chased him into a dark hole here, Sven.” Cashia matched Sven’s raised hackles hair for hair.
Dietrich ambled down the stairs to spot the two in what looked to be a potential knockout fight. He had watched Cashia pin Sven more than several times. “Hold!” Dietrich commanded. Sven and Cashia turned to him, both anxious and puffed to twice their usual size. Their tales had gone ridged. “You’re not trying to rip each other’s throats out this early in the morning, are you? You’ve been gone all night,” Dietrich pinned them as they approached. The closer he got, the more his sense of smell informed him of death on the other side of the door. “Your host going to emerge from his isolation, Sven?” he asked as he circled the white wolf.
“Apparently, it wasn’t just for the one reason I thought it was that he buried himself for a month.” Sven tried to calm his nerves.
Dietrich approached the door and shifted for a second to twist the knob and see what was causing the smell. He closed the door and shifted back to his four-legged form. “Why do we have a disembowelled fox on our stoop?” he asked, still trying to suss out the anxiety that was putting his second in command and heavy hitter up in arms.
“There was one on the stoop of the house we were in this morning,” Cashia provided another clue.
“Our vengeful angel,” Dietrich spat. He flicked a glance between Sven and Cashia. “Nat came out, didn’t he?” He sniffed at his heavy hitter and right hand commander. “Is he doing all right?” He sat down. The other two followed his lead.
“Better,” Cashia answered.
“So, will our hosts be able to talk to him soon?” he pressed.
“From what he’s saying, none of the hosts are going to be talking to each other for a bit,” Sven explained.
“Go on,” Dietrich demanded. Sven got up to pace the living room. He bit down on the curtains and yanked them to cover up the windows. Dietrich watched him with agitation, his fur standing on end. His second in command returned to the circle and sat down.
Out you go, Sven tossed Nat out, forcing the shift. Nat looked up in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting it. He was used to reaching for the shift between wolf and human. He had been forcefully shifted into a wolf, but this was the first time Sven had purposefully shoved him into his human form.
Dietrich looked at him, surprised. Deck shoved his way out, clawing and fighting over the top of Dietrich until he took the shift. Deck sat up in his human form. “Nat!” Deck had a hard time keeping his voice down. Feet pattered in the house.
Want out? Cashia asked Yeller. Yeller reached for the offered shift, his much smoother than Deck or Nat’s.
Deck took in his friend’s form after having not seen him in a month. He noted the healed skin, the lean cut muscles. The wounds to his shoulders were massive spots of scar tissue at this point. The bruises that had rattled his chest and back had dissipated.
Dietrich filled in a few lines he had almost missed. Red cross-hatching on his sides, rope burns though faint were fresh on his wrists. There were even lines across his thighs. A deeply bruising bite mark on his upper peck was turning an ugly shade of blue and green. Deck’s eyes snapped up to Nat’s throat and face. A tinge of blue circled his throat like a shadowed collar. “Michael got to you again,” he made it a cold statement as he reached for Nat’s neck, pity smothering his expression. Nat’s eyes went round at the misunderstanding, waved his hands at the statement, and shook his head, stopping Deck from touching him.
Deck turned to pin Yeller with a scowl. “This had better be fucking good.”
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Deck.” Nat dropped his gaze from his friend in embarrassment.
“I’m waiting ’til the count of five for a damn good explanation before I sick Dietrich on him for not keeping you fucking safe for one goddamn night.” Deck pointed at Yeller, seething. Trust Nat to go get himself caught the one moment he turns human. Maybe he’d have a conversation with Sven about never letting him out again if this kept happening.
“I asked him to help me with some of my demons,” Nat rolled the words around in his mouth.
“And you look like you did when I got you out of that fucked up hell hole, and it’s not Michael’s doing?” Deck growled. Nat nodded, his ears going beet red. His friend’s gaze swivelled back to Yeller, eyes burning feral.
“Cashia?” Dietrich’s voice pitched black in the room.
Bounding footsteps and slamming doors announced the emergence of the rest of the group. Hana emerged from the bottom room tentatively. Benj, Zola, and Sun Hee piled down the stairs, flinging themselves at Nat, hugging him fiercely.
Once he extracted himself from the dogpile, Nat sat down and straightened himself out. They took in their fill of seeing their friend once more before gears cleared in their heads. The same set of misunderstandings became embarrassingly pervasive, and Nat had to keep telling them such. Finally, they settled to the floor in a circle to listen.
Dietrich returned to his main question. “Explain in small concise words here: why do we have a dead fox on our porch and Nat says he hasn’t been caught by Michael, and this,” Dietrich pointed more explicitly to Nat’s neck, “looks like he got into a nasty battle of wills with a gorilla?”
“I’m sitting right here,” Nat quipped.
“Shut up, child,” Dietrich snapped.
Sven and Tereza both bristled at the command.
Yeller shrugged, “the fox is Michael’s doing. His scent is all over it. He left one here, and at the house I was in with Nat last night.” Cashia eased up next to Yeller. Dietrich’s expression shifted to that of confusion momentarily. Nat, amused, watched Yeller’s eyes change to their two-toned look. He knew that expression. Cashia and Yeller were both sharing the wheel.
“I’m not a gorilla, hvala. We didn’t want to disturb the household. You know what I enjoy doing and what I do well.” Cashia shrugged in a similar pattern to Yeller, a sly smile making his teeth shine menacingly.
“Ah,” Deck grunted, clearing his throat as his expression went cold. With undue clarity, Dietrich filled in all the intimate blanks for him. Varying looks between the group morphed as their wolves explained Cashia and Tereza’s version of the birds and the bees to them. A few eyes went fairly round, a few were less able to hide the open glance at the rope burns.
Nat swallowed and tried his best to remain where he was sitting. Yeller touched his fingers gently. Nat returned the touch, entwining their fingers as the conversation came back to the fox.
“Sven says the hosts won’t be able to speak to each other much. Why?” Deck drove the conversation forward.
“Michael knows what Cashia and Sven look like. When I was first caught, I sent Yeller running, so he’s seen Cashia’s form. He got all of you out before the birds found you. I was in my human form in the garage until you-” Nat’s heart beat hard. Cashia or Yeller drew a sharp line along the middle of his index finger, snapping Nat out of his sudden darkness.
He swallowed, bringing his mind back on point. “Sven took over when you got me loose. He might have seen you all when we shifted back in the compound, but I have my doubts he’d remember who is who, and Hana hadn’t taken Sylvi on entirely yet. That was back in January. It’s almost April. The women and I hid in the cave while you disposed of Hana’s wings, and you guys did that as humans as far as I’m aware. At that point, we hadn’t noticed them following us. They probably assumed I was dead in the garage.
“We left the cave and walked as humans. Hana couldn’t shift yet, and I was banned from doing so. We didn’t shift all the way ’til that little town in Utah.
“When we got to that trailer and Hana took on Sylvi was about the time we picked up on Michael again. He most likely found Hana’s wings and followed them back to the cave. It was cold and wet that week. We left footprints in the mud,” Nat shrugged, glancing away from Deck.
“We left from the trailer; Hana stayed as Sylvi except for late at night and only in short bursts. I paid attention to the hawks around us when I wasn’t asleep. Michael’s colouring is similar to those red tails that perch upon the powerlines. Those aren’t nocturnal. Birds can see in colour, so I know they can tell our colours apart, but if it’s at night, their eyesight gets worse. So, maybe when you all shifted, they couldn’t tell who shifted from who.
“You all shifted consistently, but again, short duration and not in daylight. I stayed hidden in Sven, and Yeller didn’t shift often.
“I had hoped maybe by hiding – well, I had a few reasons…but still, I had hoped by hiding in Sven and the group staying as wolves for as long as possible and us as humans not showing up, maybe Michael might lose track of who was who. I thought it would keep Sylvi and me safe if Michael didn’t know which wolf he was after,” Nat laid out his thoughts. Deck opened his mouth to speak and closed it, rather surprised.
“You hid in Sven for a month and didn’t come out once to help protect Sylvi?” Benj asked, surprised.
“Not only to protect her.” Nat bowed his head, unable to look at the group. He was still fighting, and not all of his demons were as tightly collared as he had hoped at that moment. “I ended up in a dark place for a while and needed some time.”
Dietrich pinned Cashia with a look that spoke levels of accusation, his eyebrow raising, his lips going flat. It was a look of condescending disgust. It was a look created after years, centuries, of disdainful judgement.
Nat caught that look. He growled, the hairs on the back of his neck rising, allowing the shift enough to warn Dietrich off. Sven and Tereza took notice of the sudden blossom of energy changing from burning embarrassment to inflamed anger. Tereza circled as Sven rubbed against him.
Nat had been depressed and bitter and falling deep since he met Michael and led the group into trouble. Since he learned of Hana’s sister. It got worse after being caught by Michael the second time. He fell off the edge back in Utah.
Sven had tasted quite a few of the man’s emotions since taking possession of him. Tereza had been exposed to less of them. Deep sadness, frustration, indecision, and self-loathing were his overlords for the last month. Contentedness and pleasure were short, infrequent bursts to break up drudgery and tiring terror.
The wolf had lashed out at Michael once in terrified anger, and that put holes in Nat’s shoulders. This though. This was an unadulterated seething rage from the human, not the wolf. It was different from the pure hatred and fear he had of Michael. Something smelled odd about the man, and Tereza was not lost on it. Sweet and enticing. In the recesses of his mind, Nat reached for the wolves. Tereza and Sven could taste the offering he was giving them, and it was intoxicating.
Dietrich’s glare shifted to Nat. “Challenging me, štene?” Dietrich answered the growl with his own.
Cold washed across Nat’s skin. He felt like he could go up against Benj in a ring and not get laid out flat after the first punch. The room pitched into a chill that caused the group’s breath to fog. Nat’s lips peeled back from sharp teeth in warning. “Odjebi, Dietrich. I have his mate, or did you forget?”
Dietrich couldn’t escape the maniacal promise sitting in front of him. His gut twisted at the reprimand as ancient memories trudged up from the depths of his younger years. The white-haired man put off a sweetly cloying scent, that of honey and beeswax with a deep undertone of brood and propolis. He recognised it and the chill in the room; suddenly he was on full alert and wary.
“‘Get it figured out,’ or do you not remember your exact command, Dietrich? ’cause I heard it word for fucking word. It swirled around in my brain like blades in a bottomless whirlpool every time I woke up the last few weeks.” Nat’s skin itched for a shift. He wasn’t going to take his personal failings and his own request as warranted punishment for Cashia’s methodologies. “Never look at him with that thinly veiled loathing of yours. Not Cashia’s fault that winged bastard broke me. I’m just now realising I don’t have to stay that way, and Cashia’s helping me put myself back together in my own time. So, quit looking at him like my cracks are his fault.” He whispered, voice like silk.
Cashia shifted a glance at Nat. One of the man’s eyes glowed green, the other an almost ruby brown. A cold chill ran down his spine. Those were Sven and Tereza’s eyes. Yet Nat was speaking for himself. Had he learned how to share the connection?
Dietrich was the pack’s leader for a reason, though. He was not open to the challenge, even if he heard what Nat was saying. He was not going to take a challenge by a human, let alone one as young as Nat, lying down. He pulled his shift as he pushed Deck to the back and held him pinned. Dietrich’s fangs dripped, and his hackles rose.
Cashia shifted, pressing in front of Nat protectively. The rest of the group scrambled out of the way in a hurry. The wolves warned their hosts of the many battles they had seen of Sven and Dietrich having it out over little things and the times that Cashia had pulled them apart. Rarely did Sven go up against Dietrich to take on the mantle of leader. More often than not, it was to straighten out a persisting misunderstanding grating at one of them.
This was different, though. Sven and Tereza sat under Nat’s hands, ready and willing. They had seen him suffer enough, and he had finally found their wavelength. Sven had watched, as did Tereza, the night before, as Nat fought with his demons and the lengths he had been willing to go to leash his pain.
Nat eased around Cashia quietly, quickly. His finger tapped the dead centre of Cashia’s skull. Nat didn’t physically push, but he could feel the force of the contact radiate through his arm before he rebounded the connection, shoving it into Cashia in that split second. The others cringed in surprise as Yeller tumbled back as a human with the force. Cashia blinked up, startled. Neither he nor Yeller had pushed the shift.
Dietrich spread himself into his largest stance. His eyes darted over Nat, still a naked human, not having reached for a shift. The white-haired man stood in front of him, limber and relaxed. His arms stayed loose at his sides, and his feet were light on the carpet. Nat felt like a rubber band pulled tight. “Zbunjen? This isn’t between you and your second, alfa pas. If you want to keep this up, I’ll more than willingly hold you as accountable as Michael for my month off.” Nat smiled maniacally. Dietrich dropped his growl for a half-second before the rumble came back in full force.
“You don’t need to be doing this!” Sun Hee shouted.
“We don’t have time for you two to be having a cockfight,” frustrated, Benj reached for Heinrich, hoping Dietrich’s son could talk sense into his father.
Sylvi brushed against Yeller. He ran a hand down her back reassuringly. It had been a while since he had seen Nat and Deck have it out. Nat had always been physically weaker than the rest of the men in the group, but he had the stamina to run and fast. He was nimble enough to dodge most of the time, but Deck had laid him flat before for being a mouthy arse about something that was now trivial. Nat could land a couple of punches, but he didn’t have the force to make a decent connection. His best bet usually was tiring out his opponent and taking the punches when they came.
Until now, none of the humans had challenged the wolves outright, at least not someone else’s wolf. Cashia moved into his shift and put himself between Sylvi and the impending fight.
Sven communicated the positions of the pack as Tereza took over the body’s flexibility and energy. There was a tightness in the man’s body as his emotional state pushed itself from his pores and flooded the room with a pheromone.
Nat glared down at Dietrich. His teeth gleamed as he pulled back a hiss. “You wanna meet my demons, bastard? I’m more than ready to share a couple of them,” he challenged. The scent poured off his body, and the other wolves backed up in terror.
Dietrich launched himself as dark shadows flared in the corners of the house, and the temperature plummeted. Nat caught the top of the wolf’s head and twisted him around. The broken man’s hair, in that same instant, turned a ruddy strawberry blonde – his true colours.
Nat pushed with all his might at Dietrich through that same connection he had used to push Cashia into Yeller’s shift. Dietrich’s wolf shift vanished as his back hit the ground hard, forcing air from his human lungs. Nat sat on top of Deck who looked up at him in confused surprise. Nat fought the urge to clip his friend in the jaw for letting his wolf be such a jack-ass.
Sven borrowed Nat’s voice, “you said a long time ago, Dietrich, you smelled the blood of Shamans in this group. Guess what I found.” Nat’s eyes were still two-toned as they glared down at Deck.
Deck’s heart beat hard against his chest as his skin dripped a cold sweat. Dietrich skittered under the pressure, trying to escape the horror sitting so lightly on top of them. His bones had been clamped in ice-cold vices, and his tendons were lit on fire. His insides cramped and burned and flashed with sharp, numbing pain. His throat closed off, raw and swollen. His skin crawled. A sharp crack of pain snapped across his chest. A drowning blackness swamped his senses as hands and rope pulled his body into midnight.
Nat’s darkest fears and emotions flowed through him as he pushed hard into Deck’s head. He forced Deck to see ever-burning memory, every grasping hand that pulled his best friend into a dark abyss. Nat hadn’t even done more than touch his head and sit on him.
Nat pulled away from Deck’s forehead, leaving behind a white patch of hair off the centre of their leader’s widow’s peak. He felt like he had shrugged a few hundred pounds of useless weight off of his shoulders. “I’m not about to usurp your position as lead here, Deck. I don’t have that kind of energy or dedication to keeping every one of us safe. You’ve done that job fine, and I appreciate that. Control your damn beast, though, ’cause I don’t think you want me to do it for you again,” spat Nat as he got off him and returned to sitting where he had been, his vision spinning.
The baffled group glanced at each other mutely. Dietrich looked out from inside Deck, not entirely sure what had happened. His host’s body hurt like hell. Mottled green and yellow bruises crawled across his skin from his throat to his hips before disappearing. Yeller and Cashia saw them for what they were – exact mimics of Nat’s prior bruisings, though much further healed. They’d still be tender for a moment.
Nat’s skin shifted shades, but not in the way it did when he was about to take on Sven’s form. He warmed in tone from pale to a softer peach, and freckling scattered across his shoulders and the bridge of his nose. His vision finally stopped rotating like a Ferris wheel, and he was able to get control of nausea chewing up his gut.
The others in the group crowded close to look over Deck who was still dragging in deep breaths at his body’s soreness and the strangeness of Nat’s colouration. It was Cashia who reached for his cheek to touch the spots, though. “You look like Tereza,” he breathed reverently, almost nostalgically. Nat looked down at himself to see the freckles spreading across the tops of his hands and arms in galaxies. He raised an eyebrow at the change.
A crawling suspicion caused him to twitch an eye. Sven and Tereza stood guard as Nat sifted through questions skimming across his nerve endings. He could taste it. He had to test it, to try. Werewolf? Something curious lay at the edge of his senses.
Nat reached for Yeller’s fingers still skimming the line of his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Cashia,” he apologised for having forced his shift from Yeller’s body, and for what he was about to do. An impression was all he had. He closed his eyes and reached through the connection and kept reaching further into darkness. His mind told him he had reached into Yeller’s skin, but his body had only touched the man’s skin. He grabbed hold of a roughly calloused hand and pulled with all his might, dragging the body to the surface.
Yeller cringed, his skull cracking under the pressure as his bones and muscles shifted under his skin. He was not thrown back into his own consciousness. He became aware, though, that he no longer was the owner of the consciousness. The rest of the group looked at Yeller, startled.
“So, this is you, Cashia,” gently, Nat smiled up at the man in front of him. Tereza circled happily. The man was a bit broader than Yeller. His skin was marked with far more and deeper scars than Nat would have initially suspected from the wolf’s demeanour. His face was older, in his late thirties or early forties. He could be considered ruggedly handsome with a squared jaw and ten-day scruff. His hair was a touch longer than Yeller’s and more of a wheat colour. A broad intricate knotwork of brown tattoos wrapped up both forearms and across the tops of his shoulders.
He looked down at himself and back up at Nat in surprise. Cashia smiled back at him, ever aware the hold was tenuous. “Drago mi je,” Cashia’s voice was low and rough, a river against boulders, more so with his own vocal cords.
Nat sagged with holding Cashia’s shift. He let go of the man’s hand and watched as his shape changed back until Yeller sat in front of the group once more.
“So, you aren’t a wolf, are you?” Deck whispered. The pieces to the puzzle floated into place.
Cashia regarded Nat suspiciously, unnerved at having been dragged into the real world so fully. He swallowed. So, this was the power of this Shaman. It had been so many years. He had forgotten the nuances of their various powers and energy reserves. This had to be why Nat was able to more readily keep Tereza and Sven and even managed to carry Sylvi whereas his host had been slowly imploding under the force of carrying himself and Tereza.
He sat back into Yeller’s consciousness and tried to recoup. It had not only been a strain on Nat to pull him all the way out, but it was a drain on his energy as well. He no longer possessed the massive energy reserve it would have taken for him to regain his natural form.
“In the beginning, when we first found we had been contaminated, we thought we were the wolves. We moved on to realise we were humans sharing space with wolves. In desperation, you all showed yourselves to be self-aware, and yet left us still thinking you werewolves only. You aren’t, are you?” Nat pinned Dietrich with the question. This was one that Cashia could answer, but he wanted the pack’s leader to answer it.
Dietrich was still staring at Cashia in surprise. He couldn’t specify how many years it had been since last he saw Cashia in human form. When he was able to pick his chin off the floor, he turned to Nat’s question. “We are Glendwellers, originating along the edge of the language barrier of the Jakuten and the Tataren. We were kept by the Bai. Those are my earliest memories at least. Everything seems to fade with age.
“When the Red Hare Shamans and White Horse Healers of the Bai died off, leaving us to our freedom, we left the edge of what is now The People’s Republic and the U.S.S.R – forgive me, Russ,” Dietrich took the prod from Deck, “and made our way east. We are probably what contributed to the stories passed along Eastern Europe and the stories that made their way here. We have been called Verefarkas, Pereverten, Wilkolak Vukodlak, Werewolf, though I feel that disregards much of who we are, Shaman,” Dietrich spoke modestly. He was not keen on upsetting a descendant of the Bai, now that he had been identified. Nat didn’t quite have all the power of a pure Red Hare. Dietrich wasn’t about to diss on the power he could throw around, though.
The group went incredibly still at this admission. Nat could taste the shape of the questions his friends asked their wolves as they tried to see them for who they were. Zola’s eyes glowed two-tone momentarily. The others left their conversations perplexed. They still only saw the wolves within them. Deck had an inkling of Dietrich’s form within him, but they had never learned how to see each other as equals in their relationship. Deck knew it was there, but all he continued seeing was the wolf.
Nat pulled himself off the floor and walked over to the kitchen. He ransacked the cupboards while the group tried to figure out who exactly they were sharing space with. He found a couple of cans of green beans and new potatoes. He strained the can of green beans and dug a fork out of the utensil drawer. It was the first time he had tasted food in a month. Sven’s palate was rather repulsive, and he did better sleeping while the Glendweller ate.
Green beans eaten, Nat passed food out to the rest of the group. Having settled a couple of sore points, the friends considered their options now that Michael was making moves at them. They decided to switch tactics.
They stayed in the townhouse the rest of the day, keeping well away from windows and pushing large furniture against the egress doors. They slept off the daylight and put themselves on the street heading down toward Houston as dusk passed into the first hours of true darkness. The moon sat low in the sky, a sliver on the tree line.
Cashia watched Nat closely, as did the rest of the group, when he relented, trusting his body to the shift. He grabbed hold of Sven and Tereza and let their energy flow through him, coat him rather than fight against the invasion. The top half of his muzzle and head flowing across his back and down his shoulders and tail shaded a soft reddish-gold while his underbelly was pure white. He was a bit smaller than Sven’s shift. He looked up to Cashia and cocked his head. Cashia chuckled at the questioning attitude. “That’s not Tereza. She has more black and brown guard hair.” He sniffed at Nat, interested at the sweet smell he put off now.
“Your eyes are still green and red, though, so this must be some bizarre harmonization between Sven and Tereza.” Heinrich circled Nat as Zola opened the door for them to leave. She let Anastasia take over. The pack padded down the road and out the culvert.
“It feels different, too,” Nat replied quietly, his paw fall silent compared to the others. Heinrich bounced back a step before approaching Nat, sniffing at him. “How did you do that?” Heinrich asked. The other humans hadn’t yet learned how to push themselves to the front of the wolfs’ shift. Nat shook himself, not sure how to respond to the question. He had more of a tangible feel for the body, though, than he had before with Sven’s shift. He trusted Sven and Tereza with every cell of his being, and they helped him lead his new body forward.
The group quieted as they crept through the streets of Dallas and out to the desert once again. Ranchland stretched under their trotting paws. Whisking grasses, crickets, and the sharp cry of mice caught by owls disrupted the monotonous walk that put them farther and farther from the city.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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