The were-eagles and our kind have been at war since the beginning of time. Well, it’s more like fifty years since we’d decided to move into town, but it feels like an eternity already. And they’re not were-eagles, just like we’re not werewolves. They’re more like crows, and we look more like dogs. Mutts, they call us.
Times are changing and we do what we can to adapt in order to fit in. When you’re like us, social acceptance really is a problem. But we still have claws and fangs, and they have beaks and talons that can rip their enemy to shreds in seconds. Maybe it’s in our genes. Whenever we meet, it’s a miracle it doesn’t end in a bloodbath. It’s a good thing we rarely die, or there would be dead mutts all over the streets. Dead crows too. We’re a good match.
They reign over the hills, while we rule downtown. This way, our territories are separated, and we don’t have to interact with each other much. Unless we want to… which, believe me, we don’t. So I was quite surprised when I heard the screeching noise coming from my window in the middle of the night. I mean, I lived on the seventh floor of what might be considered a skyscraper. There was no way to get to my window unless you had wings.
At first, I ignored the sound. But it was one of those new moon nights, and moonless nights are like PMS to us. They make us cranky, edgy and damn right obtuse. It’s like a part of us, deep inside, fears we’re never going to see the moon again. And without a moon, there’s no change. Rubbish, I know. But at some unconscious level we still fear it. We can’t help it.
We all have our own way of dealing with it. I was curled up in bed with the TV on, but the sound muted as I was trying to fall asleep. The key word here was „trying”, which became „failing” when the discreet knocking turned into a loud screeching noise similar to a set of fingernails running over a blackboard.
Growling, I fished the remote control from between the sheets and turned off the TV. That left me in semi-darkness, and with a well-calculated jump, I landed next to the wall encasing the window. The floor was cold underneath my bare feet. If I’d had a tail at the moment, I would have twitched it in annoyance. I pulled the curtains out of the way and opened the damn window. A cool breeze slipped into the room, bringing in scents of water, dead fish, and rusted wood from the nearby river. There was also a faint scent of pine and linden trees that were specific to the hills in the north-west part of the city.
The black bird perched on my windowsill tilted its head and looked at me. It was a big crow, about the size of a raven, but still a crow. I fought the impulse to bare my teeth at it. Its head bobbed up and down as if asking for permission to enter. At least it hadn’t just barged in. I rolled my eyes and took a couple of steps back. Would it be too much to hope for the visit to end before I got the urge to kill it? Too late already.
A moment later, a naked man stood leaning against my curtains. The streetlight cast a glow on his body, obscuring his features, but it was clear that he was tall and well built. I sized him up. Could he be stronger than me? That remained to be seen. For now, he was still panting, trying to recover after the change. It would have been the best time to attack, but I wasn’t going to do it, not yet. I was curious about the reason that had brought him there. It wasn’t like we had that much in common. I was pretty sure we hadn’t met before.
“What do you want?” I asked.
That was two already. “About?”
He inhaled deeply, unamused with my lack of cordiality. What did he expect, drinks and cake?
“It’s about the Mayor,” he said.
I arched an eyebrow. “The Mayor?”
What did I have to do with the Mayor? He was one of the supporters of the community’s Youth Center, but other than seeing him once at the opening festivity, I hadn’t met him. We hadn’t even shaken hands. The checks arrived monthly in the mail, though, so I didn’t miss him one bit. As long as he kept his nose out of my business, I was perfectly happy to keep mine out of his.
„We have it on good authority that he wants to put an end to The Chase.”
I wrinkled the said nose. Such information had not reached our quarters, and we had people infiltrating in his personal circle. We would have heard something.
„He claims we’re frightening the people living on the outskirts of the city,” my visitor added.
The Mayor wasn’t wrong. Stumbling into a pack of big, scary wolves running like mad in their woods was terrifying all right. Dogs running wild in the same woods didn’t look any better. We scared them more than the crows, to be honest. That’s why we only ran in the forest and avoided the fields and the small towns surrounding the city.
„So?” I shrugged my shoulders. Maybe it was time to end the stupid Chase. No one won anyway.
The doorbell ringing got us both quiet. He looked at me as if asking whether I was expecting company, and I shook my head. I wasn’t, not at this late hour.
I headed for the hallway, making sure to pull the door half-closed behind me so the identity of my guest wouldn’t be disclosed. I could do nothing about the smell.
„Tommy…” I said, seeing who the visitor was. This could only mean one thing.
„Jed got picked up again,” the young werewolf blurted out. Then he remembered his manners and removed his baseball cap and nodded. „Since Devon’s gone… someone has to go pick him up from the pound before he wakes up.”
I sighed. It wasn’t the first time that had happened. Until recently, they had Devon, a lawyer, to deal with such matters. In her absence, the younger ones had started to turn to me, as they knew me from the Youth Center. Lots of kids went there, trying to stay out of trouble and not always succeeding.
„And you couldn’t call?” I scolded him with a frown. Of course, I would go pick up Jed, and he’d get an even bigger scolding for this.
„I didn’t want to wake you…” Tommy mumbled an apology.
I stared at him because it made no sense. He would have woken me anyway.
He turned the cap in his hands and blushed, „…and I wanted to ask if you needed a ride.”
„A ride?” What for? The pound was closed until morning.
„You don’t know?” His face suddenly became alive. „They spotted it by the lake. We’re all going!”
Ah. That. What were the chances for two people to come and talk to me about the Chase on the same night? I wondered.
„She already has a ride.”
At the sight of the naked man standing behind me, Tommy’s eyes bulged in his head, giving the impression they might fall out. I groaned silently and cursed the crows and their entire species. I could just imagine the rumors that would be spreading like wild fire at the Center tomorrow.
Alone… with a crow. A naked crow. Gasp! I would never live this one down.
„Thank you, Tommy. I’m fine,” I said with a strained smile.
The boy nodded, gave us a helpless look and left shaking his head to himself.
The crow watched him leave, glints of amusement lighting up his dark eyes. „Young pups… they’re so easy to intimidate.” The low chuckle turned into a cough when I slammed my elbow into his stomach. Hard.
„Hey, what was that for?!”
„You know what,” I grumbled and went to close the door. „Now…” I turned around and tried not to stare. He looked more intimidating in full light. I had no idea that werecrows were so fit. Leaner than werewolves, but better built than a regular human. „What did you want?” I asked, not bothering to hide the annoyance from my voice.
„I wanted to invite you to the Chase.” He smiled and leaned against the bedroom doorframe, his arms folded across his chest.
„I don’t do Chases,” I muttered.
„I know. That’s why I want you to come while there’s still a chance to participate in one.”
„I don’t get what the big deal is…”
„And you still won’t, no matter what I or anyone else would say, not until you experience it yourself.”
„Look, buddy, it’s late, I’m in no mood for games and—“
„And it’s a new moon, I know.”
I glared at the interruption. „Then tell me what this is about and make it quick or I’ll kick your featherless ass out.”
He knew I could do it, or at least try, but he just laughed. „I’m David. I want to help your boys… and my people too,” he admitted with a nod.
„The Chase is beneficial for them. It’s in their nature to hunt… and it helps them burn all that energy that otherwise would be unleashed upon the city. We don’t want that, do we?” he said, looking at me with hooded eyes. „You see, we’re not so different. We like chasing things too.”
Only that we weren’t talking about „things”.
David rolled his eyes. „I told you you wouldn’t understand. So come with me… or…” He glanced back at the window. „Better meet me there, by the lake. What do you have to lose? You can’t sleep anyway.”
And with that he turned around and disappeared inside the bedroom. I heard a ruffle of feathers, and then I knew he was gone.
Left alone, I looked around the empty hallway and debated my options. I could stay there and wonder all night about the whole thing, or I could go and see for myself what the fuss was about. It wasn’t like there would be many occasions left, according to David. Or I could try to sleep and fail. Easy choice.
Decision made, I went to get dressed, picking up a pair of slacks and a hoody I didn’t mind ruining. With that done, I grabbed my car keys and rushed out into the chilly night air. I usually didn’t mind the cold much, except for the new moon nights when I was already on the edge. I hated David already for dragging me into this. This was so going to suck.
The city faded into the distance as I turned onto the small road heading to the lake. I contemplated my surroundings. On the upper side of the dam, there was a fancy restaurant and a motel that was always full of guests, but down here, during the dry season, the lake turned mostly into a mud bath where people from the nearby town came to catch the fish when they had the chance. Never at night, thank God!
I parked the car under an old tree, at some distance from the other vehicles left there, and I got out to stretch my legs. I wasn’t changing yet. I wanted to have a word with the people gathered there first, or more exactly listen. There was still time; the Chase hadn’t started yet.
In the crowd, I saw many familiar faces. Several of them were kids who frequented the Youth Center, both girls and boys. They all looked rather excited and anxious to start running.
“Miss Laura, you came!” Tommy’s face showed up split in half by a big grin. He was pulling after him a girl with washed out, lanky hair, who looked at me with big, shy eyes. “This is Sarah,” he said as if no further explanation was needed.
“Hi, Sarah,” I said, and the girl nodded with a pale smile spread over her pretty features. It was the first time I had seen him keeping close company with a girl like that.
“She’s from out of town. It’s her first Chase.” Tommy volunteered the information just when I was wondering where he’d kept her hidden all this time.
“Mine too,” I said. “I guess we’ll have to follow his lead.” I nodded at Tommy, who grinned. The girl looked uncertain. I liked her already. Tommy wasn’t the biggest troublemaker in the area, but he had a fair share to his name. “Okay, guys, there’s some boring adult stuff I need to discuss…”
“See you later, Miss Laura!” Tommy dragged the girl away.
One admirer short and not regretting it much, I walked to the place where a group of people stood together. Some of my friends were among them.
“Look who’s here!” Nadin was the first to notice my presence. “I thought you didn’t do Chases.”
“Who cares? She’s here, it’s a miracle!” Fred exclaimed, opening his arms wide.
“There’s a first time for everything,” I said with a modest smile, not wanting to make a big deal out of it. “Where are the others?”
“Corrine couldn’t make it—“ Fred said.
“She didn’t want to ruin her hair.” Nadin rolled her eyes and ran a hand through her own short, spiky hair.
“—and Nick is away on a business trip.” Fred finished.
“Right.” I remembered I had asked him to bring some photos for the kids from his trip.
“But Wace is here,” Fred said, pointing at the tall man standing a few steps away.
“His brother’s still in the hospital—“ Nadin lowered her voice “—so be nice.”
I found that odd coming from her, because Nadin was hardly ever nice to anyone. I nodded at the silhouette partially hidden by the shadows, and he nodded back. Wace and I had been seeing each other on and off lately and, while we didn’t advertize our relationship, I didn’t mind the idea of running alongside him.
Nadin narrowed her eyes, watching our exchange, but Fred continued, “Roger should be somewhere around here, too.” He looked around and shrugged when he couldn’t find him.
“So what are we waiting for?” I asked, shifting my weight on the cold ground. I should have put on a thicker sweater, I thought mournfully, wanting to change on the spot so I would stop being cold.
“Word to know where it was last spotted,” Fred said. “They lost it twenty minutes ago and now we’re waiting for it to appear again. You know the damn thing can teleport.”
That I didn’t believe. My theory was that there was more than one, appearing in different places at will, just to mess with us. But what did I know? I had never seen a unicorn before.
A howl pierced the night, making my hair stand on its ends, and a voice yelled, “They found it! Two kilometers south-west from here!”
“Yuu-hoo, let’s go!” Fred said.
“Be careful, the locals put bear traps in the woods,” Nadin told me. “That’s how Wace’s brother got injured.”
Though painful, a broken leg would not keep a werewolf down for long. No, Wace’s brother was still in the hospital because he liked a nurse he’d met there.
Some people changed on the spot, others went for the privacy of the bushes, and I waited for the pack of big, shaggy dogs to spread and leave before doing it too. The moment I changed, I heard Wace’s voice inside my head:
She’s right about the bear traps. Please be careful.
I will, I promised. I didn’t intend to spend the rest of the week limping.
I mean it. Aiden is still suffering from it.
That’s because your brother is an idiot. I still don’t understand how you could break his leg inside the hospital. Twice.
The nurse he fancies doesn’t like werewolves. It was the only way he could be around her.
What is she, an idiot? Can’t she read his vitals and tell he’s one? A good doctor could tell from first glance who he was dealing with. A nurse would take a few minutes longer, but she would still know.
Of course she can, but apparently she was impressed by his sacrifice enough not to chuck him out all together. And it’s better than having him around and moping all day long because of her.
You two are both nuts. I stopped to huff and sniff the air. Where are you anyway?
Way ahead of you, girly! came the muffled chuckle.
Pah! I rolled my eyes and sprinted forward. You know it’s useless, right? We’re never going to catch it.
Who said anything about catching it? Wace laughed. The beauty is in the chase!
We could argue all day, and we would never get anywhere. Especially since Wace didn’t argue, he just stood firm on his position, let you have your say and didn’t budge. It was why we broke up so often that no one really noticed we were together.
But he was also right. I would never understand the appeal if I didn’t run, just like David had said. So I did, although I was convinced we weren’t even going to see a unicorn, never mind catch one. Careful where I put my paws down to avoid any traps, I slalomed between the trees, following unknown paths through the wild vegetation.
The absence of the moon didn’t bother me. I could see my way perfectly clear. In fact, I was grateful for the tree tops that covered the empty sky above me. It made my inane fear less acute. I could hear Wace far ahead, and the air was filled with scents left by werewolves, a sign that others had been there too. It meant that I was on the right track, but it could also mean that I wasn’t going to find anything else there. The unicorn, if there was one, made sure to stay away from us. Few could brag about seeing one in these woods, and an even fewer number had touched it—if you believed what they were saying. I didn’t. Old, decrepit werewolves reminiscing about their glory days during the Chase weren’t something unheard of.
I listened to the voices inside my head, communication sent out on the general frequency, but other than laughter, teasing, and bickering I didn’t hear anything useful. They weren’t getting any closer to their goal. This wasn’t the way, so I steered to the right. I was getting thirsty and the lake wasn’t that far away.
The wind changed direction, and an unfamiliar scent hit my nose. Animal… mixed with something else… I couldn’t quite decide what. A few more dozens of meters and a glint caught my eye. It came from near some bushes full of thorns, the bears’ paradise in the summer when the wild berries were ripe. I ignored the first one, but at the second flash of light curiosity bested me and I stopped to investigate.
The thorns threatened to scratch my nose as I sniffed around the bush. The scent was stronger there, and it seemed to come from somewhere deeper within the forest. That’s when I saw the strange light again. First, there was one glowing spot, shaped as a golden raindrop, then another, and another… Every time I took a couple of steps there were more. As I got closer, the lights began to look like a rain of sequins. On closer inspection, they turned out to be splattered droplets of some unidentified liquid that seemed to attract all the light in the air. Intrigued, I followed the trail.
At the bottom of an old oak tree, I ran into a small pool that looked like liquid gold. I stopped, panting, fighting the impulse to lap at it and taste it. Something rattled in the tree above, and a dark shadow fell over me. I jumped back in time to see the large bird take a human form in plain flight. The man landed with a thud on the dried grass and rose easily up on his feet.
“It’s unicorn blood,” David said.
He was naked, again. If I ever met him fully clothed, there was a fair chance I wouldn’t recognize him. All crows smelled the same. I growled and took a step back. This wasn’t going to work. We couldn’t communicate like this. We belonged to two separate species and used different frequencies. And if he had bothered to change then it had to be important. Besides, he was not supposed to be there. This was our forest.
I threw my head back with a howl and, shaking my fur, I changed back to my human form. I stood there on my knees, gasping for air and trying to ignore the pain, and when I was able to speak I asked, “Have you been following me?”
“For quite some time now.” David nodded and leaned against the trunk of the oak.
This time, he didn’t fool me. His casual stance was nothing but a cover up for him recovering after the change. Nobody could get through it that easily, it bloody hurt!
“Impossible. I would have seen you.” I growled and managed to get to a standing position, while still shaking, only partially because of the cold.
“Up there?” He pointed at the sky we could barely see through the thick foliage. “You were too busy sniffing at the ground.”
His mocking tone irked me, and I narrowed my eyes at him. “What are you doing here? You’re not allowed to be here. You have the entire north-east part of the city and the hills. The plain is ours.”
“True. But that doesn’t stop you from coming over, does it?” he replied.
I rolled my eyes. True, some of us did go into the enemy territory, seeking wild thrills, but I was not one of them. This wasn’t helping. Soon we’d be throwing insults at each other and solve nothing. “What do you want?”
“I wasn’t following you exactly,” he said. “I was following the unicorn.”
“You can see it from up there?” I marveled and mentally kicked myself for not thinking about it sooner.
“Sometimes. Not all the time… which is odd but…” He shrugged his shoulders. “This is not something we normally share with others, but the unicorn appears in our forest at random times too. All our attempts to catch it have failed so far, just like yours.”
“So?” I gave him a suspicious look.
“I have this theory… we won’t succeed unless we work together.”
I laughed. “You’re mad!”
“Maybe… you’re welcome to prove me wrong, you know.”
I stared at him, and I could tell he was serious. He had to be insane. “Why me?” I whispered. Out of all the werewolves living in the city, why had he chosen me? It wasn’t like I was known for sympathizing with the crows.
“Last spring, while you were walking up the hill, you ran into a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest,” he said. “Instead of ignoring it, or worse, you picked it up and put it back in the nest.”
“How—how do you know that?” I stammered.
“I was there, I saw you. And that’s when I knew.” He gave me a long look. “We’re taught to hate and despise each other while growing up, and maybe in some weird, twisted way it makes sense. But we’re not all like that. You’re not like that.” It might have been taken as an accusation, but he didn’t sound judgmental at all. He was simply stating a fact.
“So what’s your angle?” I asked, once again curious.
“The unicorn is injured. If we join our forces and chase it on the ground as well as in the air, we might be able to catch it.”
“Who injured it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see it happening, but there’s a mile long blood trail glowing like the Milky Way. There’s something in these woods, something…” He didn’t seem able to find the right words and settled for “unnatural.”
I remembered Wace’s warning. “The locals put bear traps in the woods.” Could it be a bear that hurt the unicorn? It sounded so mundane. “They might know something,” I said, though it wasn’t like we could go ask.
“We have a clear opportunity here, but it won’t last long. It could disappear any moment.”
And the incentive kept on coming. This was the problem with unicorns, they could go puff in the thin air and never be seen again whenever they wanted. At least that was what I heard.
“Lead the way?” I said, since it became clear that I wasn’t going to get rid of him.
I was changing already when I heard his low laughter coming from far. “I’ve heard you werewolves are bossy…”
When I shook my head to clear it, he was soaring for the sky. For a moment, I thought he’d gone off on me, but then I heard the soft brush of the wings against the top of the trees. He was flying low, checking the area, and leading the way as requested. I followed him, while keeping my nose close to the ground, making sure he wasn’t losing the trail. The path he was leading me on wasn’t the easiest one to navigate, but I reckoned he couldn’t see quite clearly from up there, and he didn’t much care if my fur got full of thistles.
I ran in the direction he was heading, glad that I was getting the hang of this. For someone born and raised in the city, I didn’t get many occasions to explore in my true form. I wasn’t going out of my way to practice either; I liked comfort way too much for that. But it all came back to me, and the more I ran the more I found the thrill of the chase exhilarating. The scent of the blood, as weird as it was, was maddening too. I was losing myself, letting the beast take over. So when I heard the rhythmic sound of hoofs hitting the ground, it was the wolf who rushed over with a howl. Not too loud to attract other predators, there was enough of me left to know that. Normally I would be running with the pack, and I didn’t mind sharing, but now I had a different pack, even if small, with which I was working.
I wasn’t sure how the dynamic of that pack was supposed to work when I leaped into the clearing. And there it was. The unicorn had stopped at the shelter of a big tree, huffing and stomping its front right hoof on the ground. Light radiated from its white skin, making the air glow around it. Only the blood dripping from a deep wound on the side of its neck looked like gold. The sight of it so real and so close had me lose it completely.
It was like we had coordinated our attack. I jumped at the same moment that David launched himself from above. We had caught it! The unicorn turned around in panic, and my jaws clamped on its tail, long soft silver hairs brushing against my face, just when David’s talons gripped its mane. The unicorn froze, and it felt like the time had stopped all around us.
This isn’t right.
This isn’t right.
Two voices echoed simultaneously inside my head. One was mine, but the other one…
David? I let go of the tail with a startled gasp.
He released his prey, too, and flew around in circles with small cries, while I paced on the ground just as aggravated.
What the hell, what just happened? I asked.
I don’t know…
I can hear you!
There was a long pause before he spoke again. Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
What was supposed to happen? I stopped from pacing, not taking my eyes off the unicorn who kept standing still.
David landed next to me. I’m not sure. We’ve been chasing the damn thing for so long, I don’t think any of us still remembers why we did it in the first place.
Maybe… for this? I turned to look at him.
He didn’t answer. If I was right, it meant that catching the unicorn wasn’t meant to give supremacy to one particular species of shifters. It was meant to bring us together. That was one disturbing thought. I didn’t know if I was ready for that.
I looked back at the unicorn, trapped there and waiting for our sentence. Such a beautiful creature. I ran my tongue over my fangs. There should be universal laws against allowing harm to come to them.
I’m not killing it, I declared. My tone implied that I wasn’t going to let David do it either.
All right. So I guess… we’re letting it go? He sounded conflicted and we exchanged a long, mournful look.
I guess so. I sighed.
Our former prey bowed its head in agreement.
Do you think it can hear us? I wondered.
I’m pretty sure it can understand us, too, David said.
I shuddered. That was even more disturbing than having a crow hear your thoughts. At least the crows were humans. Hey, since when I was thinking of crows in terms of humans?
We retreated a few steps, and the unicorn trotted away. It gave us one last look over its shoulder before disappearing behind the trees.
Too bad we didn’t have a camera to immortalize the moment, David said. No one will believe us.
Then maybe it’s better to keep this between us. For now. I didn’t see myself volunteering the information that I had worked with a crow at catching a unicorn and actually succeeded. Aside from that, David’s presence in our woods broke only God knew how many laws and threatened to endanger our peace treaty.
Unless he wasn’t able to speak about it, I pondered while licking my lips.
The crow ruffled its feathers. Why are you looking at me like that?
No reason. I shook my head. I’m just hungry. Not a lie, but I wasn’t sure werecrows were edible either.
I don’t taste good, I’m told. Not in this form anyway. He chuckled and flapped his wings, lifting himself from the ground to plane across the clearing.
I rolled my eyes and snapped my teeth in his direction with no intention of catching him. Do you think this will stick? I asked, referring to our joined ability to hear each others’ thoughts.
It might. He passed over my head. Boyfriend won’t like it?
You bet he won’t, I muttered. Unless I didn’t tell Wace, which was also an option.
A distant howl interrupted the silence, and we both tensed. David might not be familiar with our language, but he recognized it as a cry of pain regardless.
I have to go. I was on the run again before even finishing the thought. I knew that voice. It came from somewhere behind us, in the opposite direction where the unicorn had left, and the anguished cry was still echoing in my ears. Tommy was hurt. And he was too far from the rest of the pack to get help fast. What was he doing there anyway?
Images with humans armed with forks and rifles taken from some bad TV movie passed in front of my eyes, and I growled to myself. That fear was ingrained in us since childhood by every bedtime story possible. As silly as it might sound, it was the main reason why I didn’t like running wild in the woods.
David, are you still there? I didn’t hear him anymore, and I didn’t have time to look up, too busy watching where I was going, but I could still feel his presence in the vicinity.
Still here, just higher up, came the answer.
Can you see what’s going on? I was too far to communicate with Tommy directly, and David didn’t owe me anything, but it didn’t hurt to ask.
Not yet. But there’s something big ahead of you, not quite sure what. You might want to take a detour to the right to avoid crossing paths.
I did. I ran at top speed between the trees and bushes in my way, not caring for a road or path, and hoped I wasn’t too late. Somewhere far behind, I could hear the rest of the pack turning this way too.
Several minutes passed before David spoke again. Okay, I can see him now. It’s the pup from your door. He seems to be trapped somehow. There’s a lot of blood, I can smell it from here.
By now, I could smell it too. And I could also hear him.
Son of a bitch, it hurts! Go get someone to help… I can’t open it alone, and I can’t move.
But Tommy… That had to be Sarah.
I’m coming, I told them.
Miss Laura, is that you?
That thing I told you about? David cut in. It’s heading your way.
—but it’s just me. Send Sarah to bring the others.
You heard her, Tommy said. Go!
The girl mumbled something, but she seemed to listen to him. I could hear her light footsteps heading my way.
I’ll be there in a minute, I told them. What happened, Tommy? Is it a bear trap?
Yes. And I can’t open it. It’s like nothing I‘ve ever seen. Fuuuck…
Custom made, I reckoned. Especially designed for werewolves? I wouldn’t know until I saw it.
The last dozen meters flew by me, and I finally arrived by Tommy’s side. I didn’t even see Sarah running in the opposite direction. I sniffed carefully at the device that bit deeply into his leg, but I needed hands to open it. Changing back and forward – the last howl had been from Tommy changing back into human – had not helped loosen the grip, and now he was lying on a side, shaking and shivering.
I changed back and kneeled by his side to check the trapping device. The eyes rolled in the boy’s head as he struggled not to lose consciousness. “Tommy!” I shook him by the shoulder in an attempt to keep him awake.
“I can’t open it.” He panted. “No one can.”
“Nonsense. Of course we’ll open it,” I said, but as I took a closer look, I realized that sheer force was not going to do it. He’d tried that already. The contraption went around his leg, and there was no part of it you could pull to force it open. I had no tools and no special knowledge to unlock it. And it was too dark for that. Maybe a chainsaw would have helped to cut the heavy chain that kept it tied to a thick tree. I was in way over my head, and the ringing in my ears didn’t help.
“Is that a crow?” Tommy mumbled.
I looked up and saw the crow launching at me with high pitch noises meant to catch my attention. What did he want now? I was busy here. I batted him away with my arm and, when I looked past him, I froze. The big, dark shadow moving between the trees in the distance and heading our way couldn’t be anything but bad news. I was changing before I knew it.
What the hell is that?!
It looks like a bear, David said. But all of my senses tell me it’s not.
An ancient bear. They possessed the strength of a shifter, but hardly ever changed into humans. I wasn’t aware there were any more of them left. Oh, shit.
I moved away from Tommy, hoping to get the beast’s attention off the boy.
You’re not going to… David began, then seeing my determined stance with ears and lips pulled back to show my teeth, he swore. Okay, but I don’t think this is a good idea. It’s too big.
The others should be here soon, I said for his reassurance as well as Tommy’s who was watching us with big, round eyes wide open.
The ancient bear was coming straight at us. It roared and lifted a huge paw. I jumped to the side, but its sharp claws still managed to graze my shoulder.
Those claw marks we saw on the unicorn’s neck, David said, attacking it from the other side, could have been made by this.
More reason for payback, I thought and sank my teeth in a meaty side, then leaped away with a nice chunk of flesh. The ancient bear tried to grab me, but David was clawing at its head, attempting to scratch its eyes out. Growling, the bear cut the air with a large fore paw, nearly sending me tumbling over.
I shook my head, trying to clear my vision, and launched myself back at the creature. A few more minutes, that was all I needed. Only that I didn’t think I had that long. The bear was too strong.
Laura? What’s going on? I heard Wace calling for me and felt his presence getting closer.
We’re under attack! Hurry!
Attack. Retreat. Attack. Retreat. Let the ancient bear follow you. I did all I could to keep it busy and away from Tommy. David helped. But we were losing ground. All the blows received were taking their toll on us, and our bodies’ attempt to heal was using up our strength. We couldn’t go on like this.
Then two dark shadows jumped out from the bushes and came to join us. One I recognized as being Wace, while the other was yelling with Sarah’s voice, Tommy, are you all right?
We regrouped and attacked with even more ferocity. Three werewolves didn’t scare it, but when four more joined the melee the ancient bear decided he’d had enough and turned to leave. The pack followed it.
Only I, Wace and Sarah stayed behind. And, of course, David.
You saved one of ours once, now I helped save one of yours. We’re even, he said, and flew away on a slightly off curve because one of his wings was damaged. We both knew it wasn’t over yet.
I felt Wace’s warm frame lean against my side, and he ran his tongue over my face, then sneezed. You smell funny. Are you okay?
Yes, I’m fine, I said and rested against him, waiting for the skin to mend in various places where it had been torn apart and stop the bleeding. The rest of the injuries would heal in time too.
Under the tree, Sarah was fussing around Tommy, trying to keep him warm with her fur. Someone would have to go into the nearby town and ask the locals to release the boy. He was not the bear those traps had been built for.
Was that a crow that I saw earlier? Wace asked, and I chuckled.
Yes, I’ll tell you all about it later… just let me catch my breath first. What a Chase!
Extracted from the short-story collection