The sky overhead was midnight black- apt, considering that it was actually midnight- as I made my way through the knee-high grass to the Clearing. Grass tickled my shins and scraped at my bare feet as I wended through the fronds, but they weren't important. All that was important was the change that I could feel thrumming in my veins right now; the need to turn wolf that had been burning in my blood all day and had intensified all night. I glanced up at the moon, and it was a perfect shade of snow white- pristine, and deadly, I suppose. It pretty much dictated our lives, especially now. I didn't know why, though Chase- the scientist- had several theories, but at the moment, I couldn't really bring myself to care.
The grass gave way to trees and spongy pine-needles that prickled uncomfortably, and at last I gave myself to running, zipping faster than the eye could follow through the trunks and leaves, relishing the freedom running like liquid silver through my veins. And at last- there it was. The Clearing, and my pack, waiting impatiently, turned silver in the moonlight.
Katie! Several voices touched minds with me- Alex, Lily, Lake, James. I smiled eagerly; my canines sharpened and I took my place next to my brother, who bumped shoulders affectionately with me. He smelled like the rest of the pack- pine needles and fir and something uniquely Alex- the smell of fresh grass and lemon soap. The smell of home.
Are you okay? He asked, concerned.
I'm fine- just Mum holding me up. Ali, our mum, was all human and didn't really understand the call of the pack, which often led to arguments and frustration, especially at the full moon.
Pack! A sharp voice cut through the air and everyone's heads turned instinctively at the sound of our Alpha and my older sister- Bryn. One wolf at the back whined- probably a cub on his first night out. The Cedar Ridge pack was huge now- in my eyes, anyway, 50 of us all gathered together. But almost everyone else was deadly quiet, eyes fixed on Bryn, and, indirectly, on Chase, her mate who stood so close he was like a second shadow. I shook my head. Love. Those two could be unbearably soppy.
Right now, though, Bryn wasn't soppy at all- she was as eager to get going as the rest of us. Brown eyes danced in the moonlight as she proclaimed the Run open using the traditional words. Her hand rested casually on her hip, where I knew that- underneath the shirt- the horrific scars most of the pack bore rested. I allowed myself to feel the tiniest glow of smugness that, although I was just the same as the rest of them, I didn't have the scars. Though I was very careful to hide that thought from the others.
But then I couldn't think anymore, because the words were over and the running was about to begin. I couldn't think anymore, I could only join in the pack's sensations- excitement. Fear. Moon. Run. Shift.
With an elegant ripping fur flew outwards as Bryn shifted. The signal for the rest of us.
There was a moment of bone-meltingly, muscle shifting agonising pain, then I was wolf- I was me- and the hunt was on.
We wove in and out of each other in a current of bodies, gliding and jumping and separating and joining. Alex's dark grey fur leapt out in front of me, and I sprang past him, coughing out a wolf laugh as the smell of Cedar Ridge and pine and fur and dew mingled as one in the air. We sped onwards, shadows apart from the noise we were making.
It was exhilarating.
It was perfect.
And then—a tearing sensation, a piercing pain so acute that I faltered, whimpering—
And I was human, lying gasping on the floor as the pack sped off into the distance, an excited panting that was getting further away from me. I was all alone.
For a few seconds, I was too stunned to think clearly.
What had happened?
Why was I human?
I didn't know why- all I knew was shock, and a sense of loss in some way.
I had always preferred my wolf form to my human one- it was a pack joke that if it wasn't for my mum's cooking, I'd probably go native. I had never taken it seriously before...but what if I couldn't change back?
I was too frightened for the results to try to change. The moon's appeal had been replaced by a roiling nausea and it was all I could do to drag myself through the freezing night back the mile or so we'd run so effortlessly before and into bed. As I stepped quietly through the house in order to avoid waking my mum and Mitch, I realised I was shivering, and not just from the cold.
There was a voice in my head.
Urgh... I struggled against velvety blanket of sleep, finally flicking my eyes open to reveal Alex's face an inch from mine, grey eyes twinkling down at me.
"Alex!" I'm ashamed to say it came out more like a scream, and Alex jerked backwards, pupils dilating wolfishly. "No...it's okay."
I sat up slowly, dimly registering I was in bed- in pyjamas, thankfully- and stared at my brother.
"What was that for?"
He grinned, and I could tell through my pack-sense that he was completely unrepentant, though worry also filtered through before his mind closed to me.
"Hey, little sis."
"Hardly little." The annoyance of being born less than a minute late. I offered a half-smile up at him, and then remembered the events of the previous night. My face went blank.
"About last night..." Alex stared down at me. He wasn't grinning anymore, but I could sense the worry again. "What happened? One minute you were there...the next, I couldn't sense you until I came home this morning."
"I..." I flailed in my head for an excuse. Alex was waiting, one eyebrow raised. Damn him. He wasn't going to know. Nobody was.
"I... crocked my knee. I couldn't run with you guys- it hurt too much- and by the time it healed you were gone. So...I went home." The lie slipped out of my mouth with surprising fluidity- wolves couldn't lie very well, as a rule- but years of living with each other meant that Alex knew better.
I bared my teeth at him in warning, not least because of my old nickname.
"That's all that happened, Alex."
He hesitated- then nodded. "Okay. I'll keep schtum. But Katie- somebody will find out."
I knew that- I just wanted to put it off. Already I could feel other members of the pack pushing against my consciousness- most notably Bryn's and Ali's-but I shut myself off from them.
"Breakfast is in ten." Alex flashed a worried grin at me, and then disappeared.
I exhaled- I hadn't realised that I'd been holding my breath until then- then slumped backwards against the pillows. This was going to be tricky. The pack would want to know what happened- and then why it happened- but how could I tell them when I didn't even know myself?
Not wanting to think about the butterflies manifesting themselves in my stomach, I got ready quickly, slinging on clothes which were easy to take off in case I needed to go on patrol (If I could.), then beat it out of the house before mum could make an appearance.
Outside the sun straggled through the clouds in watery shafts, casting greyish light over the Cedar Ridge base. In the distance I could see the restaurant Mitch-Lake's father- owned, already packed with punters for the day. No doubt Lake would be hustling pool in there like the pro she was. And probably making a mint as well, knowing her.
My gaze flickered over the still, calm surface of the lake, reflecting the sky in shades of grey, and the rich vibrant forests. Looking at those- I was seized by a sudden urge-as I always was- to turn wolf, and run through the emerald leaves and overlapping shadows of the trees. I tensed- ready to try and shift, but-
I turned slowly to look at Bryn- my big sister. Not really of course, having been taken in by Ali as an orphan, but she might as well have been- we were that close. Mahogany hair waved messily in the sunlight as she strode towards me.
I smiled- the word alpha didn't really apply to Bryn as far as I was concerned. Especially at moments like these, when Bryn looked so human, it was hard to take her seriously, if you didn't know about her awesome skill with knives.
"How are you?" She fell easily into line with me, heading for the meeting house. Alex must've had a word with her beforehand, because she didn't say a thing about whatever had happened last night.
"Same old, same old." Bryn grinned. "You'd think that the pack never slept- I had to try and help rescue Maria from a tree. Pups."
"I like Maria!"
"Probably because she's so like you. I don't know how many romper suits you shredded, Katie..."
"Please. I'm sure Alex did too."
"I'm not joking- sometimes we had to wrap you up in blankets and stick a safety pin through it."
We fell easily into our normal relationship, bantering the whole way to the meeting house. Looking at her-looking at any of the older pack members- it was hard to believe that they were going on 35- though they didn't act like it. Weres aged much more slowly than normal people- and lived much longer too. Added to that, we were also much faster, stronger and hardier than mundanes.
I didn't see why they weren't lining up, begging to be turned.
At the meeting house the mood was a little more subdued, though not by much- Chase lounged against the back wall; back for once from one of his outskirt-patrol trips. Lake was there, bragging about how she'd conned a group of Weres out of what sounded like hundreds, and Devon was making fun of her behind her back.
"Ah, the conquerors return." Devon spun round in a blur to focus on us, and put his hands together as if in prayer. "Didst thou slay any dragons, fair maidens? For that is my job."
"Only one- we saved you your dignity." I returned cheerfully, flinging myself into a seat, and then spotting a white envelope on the table. "Hey, look! Mail."
The sense of family-pack- was strong in the hut and there was no problem in relaxing, the only problem was what had happened yesterday. I shoved it to the back of my mind and avoided looking at Devon, concentrating on opening the envelope.
"Bryn's¸ fair maiden." Devon- faster than the eye could see- snatched it out of my hand and flicked it at Bryn.
"Devon!" I protested, teeth grinding together. Why was everything Bryn's? Yes she was alpha wolf but come on!
"Katie!" Lake took a break from her glory-fest to flash a mischievous grin at me.
"Come, ladies. Let's not fight over me!" Behind Devon, Chase snorted loudly.
"Fat chance, Dev." Bryn called absently from over the table as she drew the letter out of the envelope- then gasped, her expression slackening with shock. Alarm distinctly filtered through the pack-bond to all of us, and the effect it had was immediate.
Chase was at Bryn's side immediately, hands sliding onto her shoulders. Lake- and the children she'd been talking to- leapt to their feet; Devon did the same. Some people snarled; I think I was one of them, my canines sharpening in my mouth and grazing my lower lip. Tension knifed the air-something was threatening the alpha, and that threat had to be disposed of as quickly as possible.
"Bryn? Bryn, what is it?"
From my vantage point on the other side of the table, I saw Bryn take a deep breath, then sink back into her seat. "Guys...its okay. Really, it is."
I snorted loudly, displaying my scepticism, but then it got stuck in my throat and turned into a cough. Cheeks reddening I looked down, twisting my hair over and over until my blush subsided, but it seemed to relax the atmosphere, as Bryn chuckled. It sounded like a broken engine puttering to a halt- but it was a laugh, and it was followed soon after by Lake's- perfect- snort.
"Katie, you might need to work on your snorting before attempting to copy the master." Just to rub it in, Lake snorted again, then chuckled out a laugh.
"Yes- epic failure, Katie. If people copied that, they'd be putting Baby in the corner for a long time to come."
"Thanks, Devon." My sarcasm-something which I was pretty good at, incidentally- didn't seem to have any effect on him beyond making him flash a grin.
Though the atmosphere had eased slightly, the anxiety was still there in the tense lines ofbacks, shoulders and arms, so it wasn't really a surprise when the next question posed by Emilia- one of the pack member's daughters- was "What's the matter, then, Bryn?"
My older sister smiled and ruffled Emmy's tousled brown curls still further. "It's okay. Go on, scat."
She and her brother, Tom, lingered a little longer- perhaps in the hopes of finding out what was going on- then bounded out of the door. My wolf-hearing picked up the sound of 2 sets of shredding clothes as they left, and I wished I could follow them.
Once they were gone, Lake's expression turned fully serious, and she leaned forwards to meet our eyes.
"Go on, then. Bryn, what's wrong? Anything that Matilda can't handle?"
Chase rolled his eyes at the mention of Lake's favourite gun.
It's just a letter... Our alpha said faintly, as if to herself. But why now...so many years after it happened?
Bryn didn't look 20 then. She could've been 200, and it frightened me, and I hated that.
I leaned over and flicked the letter out of her grasp, landing it face down on the table. Everyone's eyes swivelled to follow it and read the printed text.
I know what you did to Lucas.
You're a heartless killer, and your reward is coming.
Justice will be done.